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by Jennifer Guerra

From the personal correspondence of Arla Treeshield:

...Although the course went well, I am still glad for this break between terms; if it were not for this time off, I'm certain that the Grand Master and I would be at one another's throats! As it is, I have spent the past few days without so much as thinking about magic, or the School. Instead, I've been spending time in the cafés of the city, soaking up some local lore. Some of the tales are true, some not. And some are quite harrowing, and leave you none too sure...

Benito Emiliani was a Caurenzian-born wizard who settled in the Sablestonian frontier in the years before the Great War. Although Benito had not been born into a noble family, he was highly respected as an accomplished spellcaster, and sometime instructor at the Great School of Magic. It was at the Great School that he met Ainsleigh Stannard, a young instructor from Fenswick. The couple feel deeply in love and soon married; Ainsleigh left her position at the School to care for the couple's estate in the hills.

Benito's life was idyllic. At the end of every week, he returned to his beloved wife, who delighted in turning their land into a lush and bountiful garden, and their manor into a warm and welcoming home. The couple's first child, Lily, was born a year after their marriage. If Ainsleigh was the light in Benito's eye, Lily was the sun. He doted on the blue-eyed infant, never failing to bring a carriage full of presents when he returned from the capital.

When Lily was ten months old, Ainsleigh had to travel to Fenswick to care for her dying mother. Benito took a leave of absence from the Great School to care for his beloved daughter; he cared nothing for nurses for his little girl.

It was during Ainsleigh's absence that Lily took her first tottering steps, in the garden. Benito was overjoyed, and played all afternoon with his darling, as her confidence in his newfound mobility grew. Finally Benito sat in his garden chair, tired but happy. He thought of Ainsleigh, wishing how she could have been present for such an event...

A loud crash, followed by silence, jerked Benito back to reality. He jumped to his feet, a scream in his throat. As he had daydreamed, Lily had tried to pull herself up by a small garden pedestal. The heavy stone planter above it had tipped and fallen, crushing the baby's tiny body beneath it. Lily showed no signs of life.

Choked by tears, suffocated by rage, sorrow, and self-loathing, Benito cradled his little girl's broken body in his hands, absently brushing the dirt and plant roots from her pale, cold cheek. In his despair, Benito never considered seeking (illegal) clerical help; holding Lily's fragile body aloft, he roared in desperation, calling upon all the Powers, good and evil alike, to give him back his child.

Dark clouds raced across that sun, thrusting the garden into shadows. Lightning smashed into the flagstones, throwing Benito off the walkway, unconscious. When he awoke, Lily lay on the ground, bawling. Alive!

The little girl appeared none the worse for wear; even the small cuts from the broken pottery were gone, healed by seeming divine intervention. Lily was her lively, bubbly self once more. Deeply thankful, and full of remorse, Benito decided never to tell Ainsleigh of what had transpired. When his wife returned, she never suspected a thing.

Years passed peacefully, and although Benito never forgot that horrible day, he thought of it as the basis of his faith in the Immortals, and an affirmation of his love for his daughter. Ainsleigh was nearing the end of her second pregnancy. Lily, now an ethereally beautiful girl of six, was jealous of the new arrival, but Benito excused his favourite's behaviour as normal for an only child.

One day, as Benito worked in his laboratory, he heard a sudden, piercing scream from the garden - Ainsleigh. He ran outside, only to see his beloved wife lying on the very flagstones where Lily had died, and been reborn, years before. She lay in a rapidly spreading pool of blood, a sharp-edged garden trowel thrust through her lower abdomen, into her burgeoning womb. Overcome by horror, Benito cradled his dying wife in his arms, crying out in vain for help.

Ainsleigh gasped as the life drained from her body, "Lily...the shed..." And then she closed her eyes forever.

Benito's mind whirled; was Lily in danger from Ainsleigh's assailant? He staggered to his feet. Only then did he see his daughter standing there, halfway behind the rose bushes. Her smock was covered in blood, and she was smiling. He reached out to her, sobbing, but the girl raced away in a flurry of giggles.

In shock, Benito shuffled to the garden shed. The door was open, with nothing unusual within. He moved around the tiny outbuilding. There, behind the shed, stood a shovel. One of Ainsleigh's earrings lay on the ground, beside the small pit she had uncovered. What had she found?

Kneeling beside the hole, Benito soon had his answer. His mind broken, he staggered, weeping, to the house. There, locked in his study, he wrote a final entry in his journal: of Ainsleigh's murder, of the bones buried behind the shed. Birds, cats, small animals. And - oh, gods! - a small human skull.

Benito wrote throughout the night, pouring his heart out about that fateful day in the garden, when he had called upon the Powers, any Power, to restore life to his daughter's still body. He wrote as Lily stood in the hall outside singing of the foulest obscenities, and mocking him with her deeds, and of her deeds yet undone. "My time has come, Father," the demon child hissed in a voice made of grave dirt and gargled blood.

The last line scrawled in Benito's journal simply reads, "It must end here." He was never seen or heard from after that day.

But in the years since, there have been whispers in the capital city, of a beautiful little girl, seen walking home with good-hearted men and women who are later found dead, killed in the most obscene ways...