They have a name for me in the towns and in the villages – the same one from the palace to the meanest hovel. They call me the devourer of hearts. I have been used by five generations of fear-mongering parents as the monster to keep their children in line. Don’t stray into the forest or you’ll meet the devourer. She’ll steal your heart from your breast and leave you dry and withered like chaff on the harvest breeze. They’re not wrong.  Except it’s not the children who wander off the path who meet with me in the forest’s depths, it’s the heroes who go looking for a beast to kill but never find one.

The old stories aren’t stupid. They warn you that you’ll never know me when you find me. They get the details wrong though. They speak of a devourer of blinding beauty whose exterior will trick you into letting down your guard. That’s why they never recognise me. They’re looking for a trap. They don’t realise that this beastly visage is its own form of camouflage. The curse turned me into something feral, sharp-toothed and repellent but it left my soul the way it found it. That’s the trap. They find a beast and fear it but do not know it for their enemy because, they think, it is too ugly to deceive them.  They watch it live its life, isolated and weary. Eventually they pity it. And from pity, they go on to learn how to recognise the person within the beastly shell. Their inner beauty. They fall in love. And then… then I kill them.

The curse kills them if we’re being technical about it. But I am its wielder and so each death is on my hands, I fear. Rivers of blood stream through my veins, and the dust of a hundred deaths thickens the air around me. I’ve heard the other stories, the pretty ones, of another beast, another cursee – a selfish princeling locked in his enchanted castle and set free by the love of someone who could see past that horrible exterior. My curse is different. No beggar woman was turned away. The curse was the result not of a vindictive vengeance against received wrongs, but of jealousy.

It kills all those who learn to love me. Every heart that comes to beat for me devours itself and its possessor, draining life from the frame that holds it, leaving this forest littered with husks, victims of their own desire.

I was never pretty. I was just a person like any other. Like any of the thousands that are born each year with nondescript eyes, and average smiles, the usual proportion of spots and blemishes and hair that knots in the wind. I was loved though. I was easy to love. She thought that it was magic, a mix of tricks, devices, plans and sorcerous intent. There was some magic in it. There is magic in kindness, in a catching laugh, in generous smiles, in quiet encouragement, in passionate loyalty, in care and casual thoughtfulness. Whatever it was, it made loving me easy. It makes loving me easy. And I don’t say that to boast. There was nothing special about me. There are a thousand people on any given day who inspire love in just the same way. But the curse has turned that subtle everyday magic into something more forceful. Even though I wear the face and body of a beast, they all love me in the end. You all love me in the end.

I shouldn’t be writing this. I left the world behind a long time ago. I kept my hope that a normal isolation would be enough for a while. Love followed me though and with it, death. So, I went further and further away, denying myself any contact at all with anyone or anything. The curse seems to grow stronger with time and isolation, reaching out its tendrils to consume as many as it can. Even a smile now can be enough to start a chain I cannot stop. So, I have made myself monstrous to avoid becoming a monster. Any hero or martyr that seeks me out to kill me or try saving me with their love… I greet them all the same. I growl and curse and hurt and maim to save them from themselves. But even then, sometimes it isn’t enough. These silent words upon a page, the outflow of my perfect isolation if found may be too much.  The curse may cling to them. I don’t know. In writing them, in spilling them upon the page so that they never leave me mouth, will I yet become the beast I flee from being? Perhaps you shouldn’t read on.

I wonder if she’d laugh in all the glory of malevolence to see me now or if she’d pity me. I wonder if she’d set me free. Don’t think I haven’t tried to free myself but immortality is one other facet of the curse. I can neither die nor really live till it is broken and it cannot be broken.  It all seems rather excessive especially when you realise it was all over a boy. Love can make us monstrous.

We were friends growing up. It was in a village that disappeared long ago, flooded out by the rising rivers one unlucky year and with inhabitants too poor to replant or rebuild. There weren’t many children and we were friends. All our lives we were friends. Then he came.

He was the new government official, sent to keep an eye on law and order and, more importantly, on taxes. He was fresh from the training schools, bright-eyed and sparkling with ideas and intelligence. He wasn’t an average person. He was tall and chiselled and dreamy. That’s what they told me. He lodged with her and her mother; they had struggled for money after her father’s death, need making their faces sharp and their words often sharper. That’s what hunger does to you. Hunger and pride. They wouldn’t accept help. Few would have in that village. She became friends with him but her heart was bruised, starved of affection and as hungry as her flesh. He was her friend but she loved him.

When we met, he found loving me easy.

I didn’t want his love. I didn’t seek it. I didn’t court it. I didn’t accept it. I want to make it as clear as I can that I didn’t betray her. That I would never have betrayed her. I would never have taken anything from her. The funny thing is, if you can speak of funny as your hands run with blood, I would have chosen her every time. He didn’t matter to me at all. I would have loved her if she’d let me.

You weren’t meant to love like that. You aren’t meant to love like that. That’s what they tell you. And so, I kept my secret wrapped in silence and I stole the man she loved unwittingly, unwillingly because I was easy to love for some godforsaken reason and I broke his heart by turning him away.

She was rage and jealousy and hard-edged hunger. That was all that was left of her after he was gone. I couldn’t reach her. I don’t know when she started experimenting with magic, whether it was before he came or after he left, whether desperation had already driven her to alternate solutions to her family’s plight before she ever fell in love. I only know she came to me, hollow-faced and laughing, on the turn of madness. Then she flung curses at me from cracked lips and there was something in her anger and her hate that called the attention of magic greater and stronger by far than her and that gave her malicious commands a strength and life of their own that she could never have created herself. I have always believed that. I have to believe that.

She transformed me into this beast, to remain so until the curse could be broken. The curse itself was that any who fell in love with me would die, their hearts devoured by my love as his had been and as hers had been by the loss of him. By my theft. This beastly form was meant to embitter the curse for me, to make living in peace an impossibility, leaving me hunted and reviled. It makes even basic functions difficult to perform with a semblance of humanity and drags me down to the level of beast whether I will or not. There was something of jealousy in it too. She wanted to punish me for stealing love from her and punish all those who loved the monster she believed me to be but she hoped, I think, that it would not be possible to love me with this form. The curse was stronger than her, and it only made it easier, its hunger never satisfied.

There is no way to break it. There are rules to magic, of course. You have to weave some way to break a curse into the warp and weft of the spell. Someone has to break my heart. To call my love from me and fail to love me in return. That would break it. It sounds easy but my curse reaches out and pulls love from their hearts by making them see me. Making them see this me who cannot die and cannot fully be consumed by the beast I feign becoming or the beast that I fear to become. Should I find someone who can resist, is it likely I should love them? Someone who is so obsessed with my physical form that even a centuries old curse, greedy and gorged with power from the lives it has stolen, cannot move them?

Let me give you the exact wording to see if you can find some answer to this riddle. ‘The curse shall break when you love one who cannot fall in love with you and your heart breaks within you.’ Can you find an answer? It seems too simple, too brief to contain some loophole to exploit. Besides, I fear the curse came too late. I do not know if hearts can break once they have already broken. I feel my heart shrivelled within me like the bodies of those whose love for me devoured them. It is a leaden weight within my chest, cracked and un-mended since the day she came to me and cursed me. Since the day the one I loved from childhood poured her hatred into magic so dark it defiled her flesh with poisonous, rending legions. Since my beloved stood screaming in pain and horror and rage and damned me to this ceaseless torment for the love of another.

If I had any heart left to break, the last pieces of it withered ten years later when she found me again. I had fled. Her rage had faded. She came with sorrow and apologies. I forgave her, of course I did, whether I should have or not. I still loved her. Perhaps I still love her. The girl she was. The girl who laughed with me over a hundred stupid jokes that no-one else would understand, who smiled as we worked the fields side by side, who sang a song to the leaves while they fell to sweeten the landing, and whispered stories in my ear as we watched the sun setting on the longest day. Of course, I forgave her.

We sat in the dying light of the evening’s fire, my beast’s hand held by hers, rent, twisted and scarred from casting the curse. I thought she was safe. I thought she couldn’t fall in love with me. The impossibility of it had tortured my youth. We sat in silence, in the warmth of memory and the quiet of acceptance. I turned to her and smiled in the last of the light. I held her hand as it crumbled into dust and settled in eddies on the floor.

I wonder if she’d laugh now, or pity me. After all, I killed her.

I don’t think I have any heart left to break. The curse is immortal. And it is hungry. Save yourself if you can.

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