"He's here!" Someone exclaimed, "The General's here!"

Like a tidal wave, the news spread and the entire city became a flurry of noise and movement, everyone either coming out to see or going in to get prepared. Amidst the chaos, one girl—a young woman with wild, black hair and striking golden eyes—froze. She'd been staring at a wide array of dresses absently for a while now, not really making any progress in choosing one, when the news reached her ears. Her eyes grew distant, her mind consumed by two words.

The General.

Now, there were many individuals in the Tsar's army with the title of "general" but only one person was known to everybody as "The General," and that man was Seraphina's father, Kozmotis Pitchiner. Her father had been gone for longer than she cared to remember. He'd left when she was but a child, never intending to return. But He was here now. Just behind her. Within the city. Within sight.

Her mind could not seem to grasp that thought.

In her dress's single pocket, there was a picture, and one could tell it was cherished by the way its ancient corners were worn from constant handling. The man depicted on it was dressed in a basic military uniform, his hat tucked under his arm as he stood stock straight and stared impassively right at the camera. Sera remembered complaining about that when she first saw the picture. He wasn't smiling, and she liked when he smiled.

He'd laughed then, a small, soft sound—strong yet humbled. He'd explained that it was a rule. He wasn't allowed to smile for that photo, but he was clever. He'd hidden a smile in that picture, and the photographers were too blind to see it there. Sera had puffed out her cheeks; she couldn't find the smile either. She'd see it when she was older, her father had concluded.

She was older now, and he was right.

After countless hours of staring at the likeness of her papa, she finally found the smile. It was hidden in his eyes, little more than a twinkle, easily mistaken for a reflection of a flash, but now that she saw it, it was always there. Behind his mask of impassivity, her father was laughing at some cosmic joke that only he understood, and even though she had every line—every shadow—of the picture memorized perfectly, she couldn't help but seeing her father laughing every time she summoned the photo to her mind's eye.

He was laughing now, too.

Not with his eyes though. Once amber jewels now sat cold and dead against an ashen face. Instead, black lips curled into a condemning sneer and, like the scythe he was swinging about, his teeth were jagged, sharp, and bloody. He was still in his uniform, but it'd been tainted, shadows clinging to it as if it were one of them. As before, an army was at his back, yet this one was twisted and horrific.

The city had broken into a cacophony of noise and terror, but Seraphina could only hear one voice.

A laugh.

A loud, harsh sound—strong and cocky.

As if he'd heard some cosmic joke that only he understood.

"The General's coming," Some stranger shouted, "Run before he kills us all!"