The knock came early enough that night still hung like a shroud over the city. Thurie checked the chain was on, cracked open the door, and then eyed the chain again before peering outside. It never hurt to take precautions.
“I need to see him,” rapped the city guard, staring down his nose at Thurie. He boldly returned the man’s gaze, taking stock of every detail. He was a younger guard; his worn leather armor looked older than he was, the metal studs dull and scratched. His shirt and breeches were the proper dark red of the city guard, and the sword hilt poking out from his scabbard also appeared genuine.
“Let him in,” came Dunna’s gravelly voice from behind Thurie. He only reached to undo the chain after one final moment of scrutiny.
Thurie fell back as the guard clomped into the room, a wave of predawn air wafting in with him. It was welcome in the dim main room of their apartment. They kept the place clean, but their home had a perpetual air of shabbiness to it that no amount of mopping or dusting ever managed to dispel.
The guard was already opening his mouth to speak before he fully registered Dunna’s appearance. Thurie’s father was shirtless from the unexpected interruption to his slumber; his state of undress would not have been overly shocking were it not for the stumps at both wrists. The guard shut his mouth with a click and threw a nervous look around the cramped room, all cast in shades of grays and browns. Except… the guard jerked back as he registered the bunches of red and purple flowers on the corner table, surrounding a shrine portrait.
“My late wife,” Dunna said as Thurie moved in front of the painting, blocking the guard’s view. Thurie could feel her presence behind him, could perfectly picture her smooth, golden skin, dark, heavy-lidded eyes, and lips curving ever so slightly upward in a smile.
The young guard’s bravado melted away as he stood before Thurie’s father. “I’m s-so sorry. I’ve heard them talk about that once or twice, back at the station. You should know there’s nothing but praise for you amongst the city guard—”
“Business first,” Thurie’s father interrupted. “How can I help you?”
The guard shuffled his feet and coughed. “R-right. There’s been another attack, just a few hours ago. A girl in an alleyway beside a dance hall—slashed up like the others.”
And so his father’s suspicions had proven correct. It would take more than a few posters to scare the Firefly Hollow Killer away from his business.
“Do we know who she is yet?” Dunna growled.
The guard nodded. “Some people at the dance hall said she was with a group of students from the Royal Dance Theater. We’ve confirmed her identity as a student there—a girl by the name of Annalise Rauwis, just sixteen years old. Captain Gery was hoping you could come and talk with the students who were with her last night.”
“Of course,” Dunna said, “of course. Anything for the captain.”
Thurie launched into the usual preparations—fastening the straps of the gloved, wooden hands, helping his father shrug on a shirt and vest. He darted into the other room to ready the oilcloth pouch of art supplies, keeping an ear focused on the two men’s continuing conversation.
“It’s an honor to speak with you, sir.” The guard’s voice carried in from the main room. “You’re a bit of a legend.” Thurie shoved an extra pencil into the pouch, wrinkling his nose. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard a member of the city guard say such things. Their words were always tinged with horror, whether they realized it or not. He knew what was really on their minds: here was a former city guard who’d put away scores of Haplyr’s cruelest criminals, now reduced to relying on his young son for help with the most basic of everyday tasks. They’d plainly rather die than be reduced to such a state. But Dunna Jore endured.
“Never mind whatever image you have of me in your mind,” came his father’s reply. “I was once a young guard too, just like yourself, who fancied himself an artist. Work hard, dedicate yourself, and you’ll be surprised how far you can go. Why, my boy will do far more for this city than I ever did, just wait and see. Give it a few years and Haplyr’s lowlife won’t dare venture out onto the streets.” A blush rose to Thurie’s cheeks; it was a rarity for his father to be so liberal with praise. Was that what he truly thought?
“You should have seen the way he looked me up and down,” the guard said, a hint of amusement coloring his words.
His father’s reply was low; Thurie crept closer, hoping the floorboards wouldn’t squeak. “Can you say he’s wrong to do so, when there’s a man slaying women in Firefly Hollow? Besides, we all have our peculiarities. Who can blame him, when so much has befallen our family?”
Thurie felt his dreams slowly drift back down to the ground. We all have our peculiarities. And his father wasn’t even referencing Thurie’s one, true “peculiarity.” Sure, he could draw, but some good he’d do Haplyr if his voice continued to escape him. Thurie and his father made a good sketch team, but could they keep doing this five years from now? Ten years from now? He thrust a new jar of ink into the pouch and tied the whole thing shut, knotting the string a bit more tightly than necessary.
His face was a blank mask when he exited the bedroom and gave his father a nod.
Ready to go.
Tia was jerked out of her dreams by a pounding on the door. What time was it? Hadn’t Wynna said they had the day off? The pounding moved down the hallway, accompanied by the reedy voice of Mistress Oerfall. “Everyone out of bed! Get up! Quickly!”
Clad only in her nightgown, Tia peeked out the door. All the other girls looked just as sleepy as she felt, staring at the dance mistress with confused looks as she stalked down the hallway pounding on doors. “What time is it?” yawned one girl across the hallway. Tia shrugged. A few doors down, two girls who couldn’t be older than seven poked their heads out, blinking away sleep. One clutched a stuffed bear to her chest, the other a worn blue and yellow blanket.
“Eighth-, ninth-, and tenth-year girls, make yourselves decent!” the dance mistress boomed down the hallway. “We assemble in the dining hall in five minutes.” The older girls exchanged worried glances up and down the hallway, while there were a few quiet cheers from the other, younger girls, happy to return to their early morning slumbers.
A few minutes later they shuffled into the dining hall, most students still looking more asleep than awake. The boys were already seated at the tables, looking just as puzzled as the girls. The muted dawn light bathed the dining hall in wan gray and purple shadows. Any conversations were kept to whispers. Nobody seemed to know what the impromptu meeting was about, though the foreboding in the air was heavy enough to touch.
Mistress Oerfall and Master Maaj stood at the front of the dining hall side by side, solemnity etched upon both their faces. The dance mistress’s eyes were glassy, and the dance master stared above their heads looking at nothing in particular, as though he did not quite know what to say. After a few more seconds of silence, he sighed and opened his mouth to speak.
“Mistress Oerfall and myself are aware that the majority of you were out at a dance hall very late into the night.” Everyone around the room shifted uncomfortably, collectively wondering if they were about to get in trouble. “The dance mistress herself was roused by Selitta d’Wygst, who told her that Annalise Rauwis went missing sometime during the festivities and still had not made her way home by fourth hour.” Whispers filled the room. On Tia’s left, Wynna started bouncing her leg up and down, growing quicker by the second.
“Before we could start a search for Annalise, the city guard came to the academy inquiring as to whether any of our students had gone missing during the night. They had found a body—” There were cries all around the room, and Tia looked to Wynna in horror. Her leg was bouncing with frantic speed now, and her hands were clenched into fists, knuckles white.
“Please be strong,” Master Maaj called out, his voice bringing the room to a semblance of order again. “The city guard found a body—her body—in an alleyway not far from the dance hall. Annalise has been killed, in a manner similar to that of several other young women in Firefly Hollow within the past few months.” Tia’s head spun; this had to be what Mistress Oerfall had been referencing when she had hinted at dangers in Firefly Hollow.
Master Maaj was still speaking. Soft crying from here and there around the room formed a backdrop to his words. “I have been a dance master here for many years, but never in all my time at this school has a student of the academy been taken so violently from our number. I would allow you all this time to grieve in your own way, but first we must do our part to keep Haplyr safe. Members of the city guard are here to speak with you. If you have any information to provide them, please do not hesitate to do so.” Master Maaj looked to the back of the room, and the shocked students turned to see several city guards. A young boy holding the gloved hand of a tall man dressed in regular clothes stood amongst them. Headed by the odd pair, the guards trooped to the front of the room as Mistress Oerfall and Master Maaj stepped aside.
“Thank you for your attention,” said the man, still holding the boy’s hand. His deep voice resounded around the room, amplified by the high ceiling. “Many of you are probably not aware of all the recent information we have discovered regarding the Firefly Hollow Killer. According to a description from a witness, he is a man of medium build and height, approximately twenty years of age. One side of his face may have scabbed scratches or scars. We have a sketch of his face with us, and we ask you to take a close look at it—any information you have regarding this man will be helpful. Your classmate is his sixth known victim; with your help, she could be the last.”
The dining hall erupted into noise as soon as the man finished speaking. Looking around, Tia saw Selitta, her face pale and drawn, stand up and move toward the exit. Well, it made sense. Selitta had stayed at the academy last night instead of going to the dance hall with everyone else; she wouldn’t have any need to look at the sketch.
A thought was niggling at the back of Tia’s mind, but she flicked it away. Now was not the time nor the place.
Movement on her left caught her eye. Wynna was shaking like a leaf, tears cascading down her cheeks. A pale girl with dark hair seated on Wynna’s other side draped an arm around her and used the sleeve of her nightgown to wipe Wynna’s tears, even as she herself started to cry.
After a few minutes, Wynna was a bit more composed. “Thanks,” she said to the other girl, drawing in a shaky breath, then noticed Tia on her right. “Oh, hello. Tia, this is my roommate, Alindy.”
Tia murmured a greeting and shifted uncomfortably, not sure what else to say as the obvious outsider. Maybe she should make her exit, like Selitta. “I’m sorry,” she said eventually. “You both knew Annalise well? What year was she in?”
Wynna’s reddened, glassy eyes grew wide with surprise. “Oh, of course, you wouldn’t know. She was—she was a tenth-year. The girl who partnered with Roge.” Tia started. The sleepy-eyed girl. Roge and Annalise had danced together with such perfect precision, and now she was gone, just like that.
“How long was she an academy student?”
“Since she was eleven, I think. She always was quiet.” Wynna’s face crumpled. “How could she just…? Who would…? I don’t understand it.” Alindy rubbed Wynna’s back as she began to cry again, and Tia looked away, helpless yet again to help. There was nothing to say that could make it right.
Wynna’s tears eventually slowed. “What about that man’s description of the killer? D-did either of you see anyone like that last night?”
Alindy shook her head. “It was so crowded…”
Tia turned the night over in her mind, trying to remember. The whole evening was a glittery blur, due in no small part to the drinks. “That description could fit anyone. We should go look at the sketch, I suppose.”
They maneuvered their way to the front of the room. A sizable crowd had formed; everyone wanted a look at the sketch, which one of the guards held aloft. Yet the crowd soon thinned as person after person came away from the sketch shaking their heads. “He could be anyone,” one boy said to another. “Gods, squint enough and he looks like you!” his friend retorted. Mistress Oerfall shot them both a glare, and they ducked their heads in apology. This was no time for banter, distract them though it did from the horrific truth of their slain classmate.
A few more students drifted away from the crowd, and the three girls were finally able to get a proper look at the sketch. The two boys may have been out of line, but even off-color jokes could hold some truth; the sketch really could be depicting half the young men in Haplyr. Tia stared at the sketch, trying to remember everyone she’d seen in the dance hall. How could a killer preying on innocent women look so normal? She’d been expecting the man to be glowering with an evil grin, his visage projecting an aura of wrongness, but save for the scratches running down the side of his face, this man… this man could be anyone. A chill ran through her, though the room was far from cold.
“Let’s go,” she said, wanting nothing more than to get away from the eerie ordinariness of the man’s face. The prospect of snuggling under her cozy blankets for a few more hours of sleep was very appealing, though she knew she’d be envying Wynna and Alindy their double room. Who wanted to be alone with a killer on the loose?
But Wynna’s arm clutched at her sleeve as she turned away. “Wait,” she said, voice quavering. “I think… I think I saw him.”