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(that is, the raven-haired girl)

The first time the girl with the raven hair remembered seeing music was deep into her fifth summer. Back before her hair had turned a darker shade, she possessed waves of golden blonde locks that dangled below her shoulders and bounced as she ran.

It was an otherwise unremarkable day with her father out back of the ramshackle house at the edge of Firequell Lake (so named for being a break against the occasional forest fires that consumed the fallen brush in the woods at the tail end of hot, dry summers). The sun was setting and the chipped stone cup was almost emptied of the fruit wine her father poured for himself as he watched his little girl bound about with the inexhaustible energy of youth.

“Fa-ba, come play!” she shouted at him. He sighed and tried to muster his reserves, but the heaviness of the fermented drink won out.

“Come here, Ilis” he said, motioning to her. She doddled over to him and gripped his knee in her chubby fingers. “Fa-ba is tired.”

“Ohh, please!” she jumped up and down insistently.

“Now now, hold yourself, my baby girl. I want to share something with you.”

“But I want to play!” She wasn’t having any of it. The only thing that mattered was him getting out of his chair to run about with her.

He didn’t have the strength to argue, so he began to sing. While his speaking voice was rough and worn like shifting sand, he sang with a lilting, beautiful soprano.

My gentle one

Be still right here

Hold your heart

And find me near

And without realizing, she was seeing the melody spill from his mouth in waves of color. As his voice moved up and down, rivulets of prismatic light floated through the air, light as spider silk caught on the wind.

Like silver hair

And sunlit eye

I’ll find you where

You went to hide

She was entranced. Never had she witnessed such a delicate joy, nor would she ever forget it. The moment was carved into the stone of her memories, every color of every word held in her heart eternal. It wasn’t until some time later that she learned no one else she’d ever met saw music as she did, and then quickly learned to keep that to herself.

It was also the last time she could recall being truly happy without worry or care. She was still young, still free from the concerns of the world, and unaware of the torments to be visited upon her in the years to come.

For a few moments, neither he nor Kessa were certain what had transpired. Time was fungible and inconsistent. It felt like hours had worn away in the span of half a minute.

The raven-haired girl — Ilis — concerned herself with their wellbeing for a breath, scanning them with her eyes to see if they were injured, before turning to secret her bow back in her supply bag. He hadn’t noticed she even had one before.

Arteo was pulled from his shock and rushed to her.

“Wait!” he nearly shouted.

“Quiet yourself, fool!” she spat back in a quiet hiss. “Your voice could yet get us all killed. Save your prattle for when I’m away from you.”

“I just — I just wanted to thank you,” he said plaintively. She frowned as she did at most gratitude, but felt a distant, youthful call to not be rude.

“Be grateful for your luck, not for me.” She turned again to pick up her bag when he interrupted her again.

“Could… Could we come with you?” he asked as she strung the bag’s strap across her body.

“You have nothing to offer me,” she responded coldly before beginning to walk. Arteo jogged in front of her.

“Please,” he said. She stopped when the word, so plaintive and genuine, rose from his lips in a pink cloud that dissipated with a soft hush. It was one of the only times she could recall seeing anything but music turn to color. She could ignore it, but a nagging feeling told her she shouldn’t.

Even still, she might have done just that if Arteo was alone, but the sight of his frightened younger sister, standing exposed and trying to calm the trembling aftermath of the attack, softened her resolve.

She grumbled before saying, “I can’t stop you from walking with me. The Trail is for all.”

Arteo’s face warmed, a smile spreading across it. She quickly dissuaded him from that.

“But,” she spoke sharply, “you are not my kin. I will not stop or break for you. If you wish to follow me, you need to keep up.”

“Yes, of course,” he said, “we won’t be a burden to you.”

“You already are,” she said as she started moving again. Arteo scrambled to grab his own bag and collect Kessa.

She was still shaking and he regretted ever leaving her side. He gently gripped her shoulders and looked into her eyes.

“Are you okay, Kess?” She could only nod a little, but his touch helped tremendously — she could already feel the intensity subsiding. He reached into his bag and pulled out the water bladder, offering her some. She gratefully accepted, not realizing until then how parched she was.

“I’m well, truly. We can continue,” she said after a few heavy gulps.

“Are you certain?” She nodded, handing the water back to him. He downed some himself before starting to walk again. She kept pace with him and tightly wound her arms around his, holding herself close to him to feel safe.

Arteo was taken aback. She hadn’t held to him like this since their brothers died, her only buoy in turbulent waters. Though he felt gratified that he could be there for her, his regret at her being there at all quickly smothered his any happinesses.

Some distance away a pair of eyes stalked them. Hungry without need for food, the man sitting under a pile of brambles had found his desires, as he called them. To him, they were made of such delicate parts that each fed his needs, and would sustain him in turn — at least until he next felt the urge rising again.

Before the diverse groups at the meadow decided on their respective paths, he sat in shadow against a tree with a lonely contentment, idly watching what he thought of as toys to play with.

He didn’t have a name for himself, though he did have a name. Several actually.

In the eastern lands of the Continent, he called himself a traveler from “away over the seas,” and affected an indecipherable accent that could have been from anywhere. He sold glass baubles from a cart and was seen as polite and affable by anyone who spoke with him. His trinkets each had a story of dubious provenance, which few locals considered true, but they were pretty and reasonably priced, so they were purchased more for the story than the item itself.

He considered himself a writer — a storyteller — more than anything. In a time when literacy was possessed by less than half the population to varying degrees of aptitude, his writing was elegant, bold, and terrifying. For while the kindly, seemingly harmless merchant peddled his wares, he quietly seethed at everyone he met. A lustful, slithering rage simmered just underneath his implacable public veneer.

His internal thoughts are known from the remnants he left in his wake: a series of forty-two journals, each numbered, filled with a few hundred pages of beautifully manicured handwriting containing the most vile insights of a disturbed mind.

Though it is presumed there are forty-two, as the highest number found was just that, only eight of the volumes have actually been located. Whether he truly wrote that many, or only numbered them as part of his storycrafting for whatever future audience he envisioned reading them, may never be known.

Aside from the numbering of the journals, there are no times marked. Written poetically but with an inscrutable timeline — the exact dates he appeared in various places, or even if the journals are written chronologically, is unclear. Despite the confusing temporality, a reader can’t help but be pulled along by his linguistic dexterity, as a dried leaf on swift currents.

Excerpt from Journal #4, page 5

What is it about little ones that delights the palate so? Children, not yet budded, have a liveliness that defies bottling or understanding. Inexhaustible energy fed by ignorance of life’s struggles, smooth skin unravaged by time’s rot, and innocence yet spoiled by the aphotic nightmares standing in shadow.

A bestial place is the world surrounding that virginal wisdom. If only we all could return to such a place, if briefly, to bathe in its warm waters and feel, however momentarily, like we are safe.

Such passages of sage melancholy are as common as more upsetting ones like this:

Excerpt from Journal #4, page 17

I was unlucky today. A hog-wife and her piglet children befell my otherwise cheerful mood with their presence, prodding me with unwanted questions about my glassware. The sticky-fingered children — if you could even call such bloated, walking pustules “children” — molested my cart with carelessness, leaving fingerprints on the glass that I’d spend the next ten minutes after they blubbered away polishing off.

The sow jiggled her pendulous jowls as she rumbled some nonsense words through a mouth compressed by her overstuffed cheeks. It took everything I had not to vomit all over her in heaving chunks of my midday meal. If I had, she probably would have eaten it, as I’d imagine few edible things pass by her without being consumed by the infinite void in her distended belly.

If it had only been this, if I only needed to tolerate her presence for a short time, it might have been enough to ignore. But she and her unfortunate kin left without buying anything, wasting my time with her gaseous clucking mouth making my stomach wretch in nauseating whirls.

As she trotted away, I stored my cart and followed her. The night had spread its tendrils as the sun departed, and left me with cover to pursue in my careful way.

She lived not far, in a house that seemed too small for someone so rotund. I watched her for hours until she put her meatsacks to bed and sat knitting by the fire. There was a second entrance in back, unsecured and entering into a darkened alcove.

The blade was sharp and she didn’t notice me behind her. The cut was enough that she couldn’t speak, only gurgle as the blood filled her windpipe. The cut was not so deep that she would die before knowing what happened. She fell from the chair in a roiling thump onto the ground, her folds fluttering like pond ripples under her blanket-sized dressing gown.

As she pressed her overstuffed hands against her neck in a sapless attempt to stop the blood, her eyes betrayed the fear, and I watched with great interest her final moments.

I said, so quietly, “It could have been anyone, but I, I was the one who was coming for you.”

The house burned with the chubby flails of the children inside. A tragedy, an accident of an irresponsible woman that was seen as slovenly. Had she been beautiful, I would have left her be, as people care what happens to beautiful women.

In all the recovered journals, he never once describes himself physically or gives his age. Those who have encountered him have generally said he was a tall, lanky man with wavy black hair just beginning its turn to gray, and possessed of unusually vibrant auburn eyes, like the color of leaves in the middle of fall. His face was angular and attractive, all the more to serve his ends.

Almost everyone who encountered him without knowing his true nature said that he was “charming.” He gave easy and superficial compliments that seemed giving without actually costing him anything, and his smile was wide and beaming enough to feel genuine, but he could never hide the emptiness behind his eyes. Most didn’t notice, as seemingly kind words from a fair face can obscure ill intentions.

As this charming, handsome, talented killer watched Arteo, Kessa, and the raven-haired Ilis walk beyond his vision, he began to plan his hunt.

Thank you to my patrons!


Jessica Blum

Maxwell Vivian

Mitch Iverson

Fire Amber Patrons

Zacharias Ayers

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Bryce Schultz

Eddison Holt

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Ebonie Sharma

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Tamika Rossi

Kain O'Donnell

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Levison Fitzpatrick

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