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20

↤ THE SECOND NIGHT ↦

(that is, flecks of emerald and crimson)


As travelers venture deeper into the Valley, they will notice the stars turn green. Every night the sparkling heavens change shade over shade until each point of light becomes a glowing emerald, held in the gently spinning wheel of dark sky by forces unknown.


The transition was subtle, yet noticeable even on the second night, almost as if a layer of pale glass was stretched over the land. Most curiously, it doesn’t matter where one makes camp in the Valley each evening, the change happens for all who pass under the shadow limbs of the wooden god regardless.


Many theories have proffered why this is so. Erod himself suggested that even without the dire and dramatic poisoning from the Tree, the very air was saturated with its toxins. He speculated that it was diluted and rendered inert by the winds, transformed from almost certain death to a nearly imperceptible abbrevement of the senses. An alteration akin to the narcotic effects of the sikuma flower’s crimson secretions.


Most didn’t notice the change until the third or fourth night, when the shifting glimmer became too stark to ignore. Ilis was not so removed from things, as the sun had dipped into its final egress from the day, she saw them with expectation. She’d read of the change of stars, and was markedly underwhelmed by their appearance.


While she told herself that it was going to be uninspiring, secretly she hoped for the whole sky to seem lit by emeralds, as one text had put it. In comparison to the glittering twilight as described in the books she’d read, reality was underwhelming.


The wind picked up, roiling waves of air buffeting the landscape in irregular patterns over the trees, grasses, and shrubs. The surface of the water shimmered like wet mirrorglass, catching the slices of curved light from the overlapping moons, both waning to near complete darkness.


“That is not a safe place,” Ilis chided Arteo, seeing him roosting near the shoreline of the lake.


“From who? Besides that red-headed man and his group, who else would be stupid enough to come this way?” Arteo countered.


“Stupid indeed,” she replied tersely.


“I’m exhausted, my feet are in shambles, I need something soft like this spot,, this spot right here,” he said as he unrolled his stuffed blanket and hunkered down.


“I’ll stay with him, we’ll be okay,” Kessa added, lying down an arm’s reach away from her older brother.


Ilis grumbled and departed for her own corner of paradise, a circle of boulders encasing her sleeping area, concealing her from unwelcome eyes. As she rooted herself away from them, Arteo and Kessa nestled down for the night. They looked up at the sky and listened for the sweet titter of insects amidst the hush of the lake.


“Tey,” Kessa began.


“Mmm?” her brother answered.


“I’m sorry if me being here has troubled your plans,” she said solemnly. Arteo took a moment and considered his words.


“I don’t think you should have come, for no other reason than I have to worry for the both of us,” he spoke softly. “But now that you’re here, I’m very glad for your company.”


Kessa smiled at him, too exhausted for more depth than that.


“Until tomorrow, Tey,” she said, curling under the blanket.


“Until tomorrow, Kess,” he answered, his eyes already closed.


They turned their heads from the green glitter sky and saw each other. They exchanged plaintive smiles of recognition before settling themselves in for the night.


As he slept, Arteo dreamed of a whale, larger than a house, rising out of the ocean tide and ascending to the sky, fins moving in delicate intricacies as it waved its body up and over the clouds. It departed the daylight and left him feeling warm and delighted.


Yet in the darkness around him, the man who fancied himself a writer of regard, and a killer in the same way, crept with the quiet of a still wind, his eyes wide and alive with anticipation. He’d watched from afar as the siblings bedded down on the soft, supple ground. He could feel the tither in his heart, a quickening of breath, and the dry aridity of his mouth. It was now, the time had finally arrived to play his games.


He moved in slithering, sinewy motions until he was over Arteo. He planted his legs astride the unassuming boy, taking care to possess every feature of his young face. He slipped down the ride of his tufty eyebrows and followed the line of his chin to the edge of hair at the nape of his neck.


The knifeblade was just against Arteo’s skin. The Writer was as soft with its sharpened edge as a mother’s kiss. With some instinct, perhaps a feeling of the change in air, Arteo opened his eyes.


Before he could react, a hand was pressed over his mouth, and the man’s full weight was upon him. His arms were held in place by the figure’s tightened legs, and the heft of his chest made it difficult even to draw breath. His eyes, gray in the shadowlight, glistened with madness. His lips descended to Arteo’s ear.


“Sshh, little one,” he whispered, so gentle that he could barely hear. “If you’re a good pet, you won’t need to sing for me.”


There was once when Arteo and Kessa were with their father minding the hogs, some summers before. Normally a dull affair of simple coordination and repetition — open the inner fence, herd them in, close and bolt the gate.


It had been done hundreds of times, it seemed. With rote action comes carelessness though, and that afternoon, two of the hogs, each of them twice as heavy as a man and nearly half as tall, found something disagreeable with the other and began to fight right in the moment Arteo was straddling the fence to open the gate. The sudden explosion of growling, grunting force as they sparred sent a wave of energy through the huddle and knocked him off his perch.


He fell into the clamor and felt hot, wet mud on his neck while the hogs squealed and tumbled over themselves to escape the conflict. He felt so small and meager, a twig in an oncoming fire, and the fear paralyzed him. As the roiling tumult of hog flesh battered about, there was the sudden tug of his father pulling him up and tossing him over the fence to safety. Kessa was there in moments to ask after him, to see if he was alright. He had escaped the rabble with minor scratches and a bruised hip, but the fear when he was on the ground was the most punctuated and terrible he’d experienced.


Until right then. Amongst the undulating whorls of grass, a few steps from a diminutive lake of shimmery blue wonder, every piece of him was heavy with terror. His eyes bowed and shone with the wet of his tears, the glisten of panic rippling through his body in uncontrolled quivers. To the man, the Artist, this was ecstasy — true pleasure embodied in the stark and unmeetable horror possessed in the eyes of this boy he was to gush open with the quickness of his blade.


He pondered the sweet reaches of fear that tunneled into Arteo, wiping his mind of all but that singular sensation. It enlivened the pulse he felt beat through the hand quieting him, and it made his muscles clench and freeze in the utter hopelessness. A crazed smile spread on the Artist’s face, the derangement aflight in his features.


He pressed the knife down, the first minuet of blood seething from its edge, and Arteo found the guile to scream into his hand. The sound died in a thudded nothing, muffled too harshly by the strong press of warm flesh into his face.


Before he could press further, a body fell upon him, grabbing at his back and clawing, biting. It was Kessa, shrieking and batting at the intruder in a frenzy. The man managed to press his foot into the earth and push up, standing as this girl ripped at him.


He threw back his elbow and landed a sharp blow into her cheek, sending shocks of pain through her face, but she would not relent. Arteo scrambled to move, but the man kicked him square in the jaw, commanding blind white agony through his skull. His vision dimmed, lolling around in quaking movements while his mind desperately tried to steady itself.


The Killer twisted his upper body and sliced at Kessa, catching her arm in a fresh fire of blood and pain. She released her grip and fell to the ground, the air punched from her lungs by the impact. He flicked his blade downward and turned, knife ready to end her.


He was interrupted by a screeching from the darkness, where the earth nearby up and lunged at him. The creature decoupled from its camouflage and wrapped itself around the back of his head, tearing at his face with its talons. He was enraged, flailing to try and pull it off.


Arteo rolled onto his stomach and pushed up, attempting to right the swirl of clattering explosions in his head, and began howling, a wordless anger and fear turmoiled into a nexus of inexplicable shouts.


A pained and terrible yelp as the knife plunged into the animal’s side. It jerked back off the Artist’s head, shrieking as it toppled to the ground. Kessa pushed back and slipped on the wet earth, scrambling to stand yet failing as her feet couldn’t find purchase.


The Artist turned his attention back to her and raised the knife in a wildeyed rictus. He had his glee for only a moment, as the front of his face exploded out as an arrow burst through it. Kessa had only a vacant awareness of most of his face being gone before he fell over dead.


At last the dissony of thoughts subsided and Arteo was able to stand and stay standing. His first gaze was to Ilis, her crossbow still clutched against her shoulder. She quickly pulled another bolt from her belt and reloaded the bow — she had no mind to believe this was a singular enemy, and was prepared to fight further. Arteo noted her intensity and turned to his sister, a huddle on the wet soil. He ran over to her and embraced her on the ground.


“Oh dear sister,” he said breathlessly. “How badly has he hurt you?” He pulled her tighter, almost willing they should merge and be safe with each other forever.


Kessa opened her mouth to form words, but began to weep instead. She tangled her arms around her brother and cried in heaving gasps while a cool wind ran gentle waves over the surface of their perfect mountain lake.

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