"SHE TOOK MY HEART!"
I remember my skull exploding with pain, a thrilling moment of falling, and then ... wetness. Agony in my back, left arm, right leg.
But also—and just like my dreams—a brilliant green flash of lightning. It accompanied a shriek of spine-chilling rage.
It became very quiet.
A compelling sense of release filled me, like my soul was about to leave my body. And then I think it did.
I floated like a balloon just above myself. I could see myself lying in the stream below the bridge. I was a broken, twisted heap. My backpack, bedroll, and shirt were missing, my pants torn. I was covered in blood, the water around me swirling with it.
It was over for me, and I knew it. But I didn’t feel fear or loss; rather the sense that a new home waited for me somewhere ... beyond. I glanced up, because I was sure that was where it was, and besides, that’s where balloons go when released, right? Up?
The bridge I had the good sense to avoid when I left but not when I returned arched blackly under a settling pink-white sky bordered heavily on both sides by dark, skying fir. Smoke rose from it, as though someone had built a campfire on it.
I gazed back down at myself. I could smell the air and feel a slight chill on my skin, but not the frigid water as it rushed over my broken form. It was like the nerves of my tethered soul were feeling, not those in my body. It was the oddest sensation.
All I had to do was let go. Let go and float into the sky, and be free forever. I turned back to face the bridge. As I voiced my final mortal wish, there she was.
She was beautiful. Astonishingly so. Flaming red hair and angry sapphire eyes. She wore the clothes and cloak of an aristocratic huntress.
She too was injured. Her cloak was torn and burned, and the hand she brought over my face was covered in blood. She waved it, and I, the balloon, began to deflate.
That’s precisely how it felt—like a deflating balloon. As I did I descended back down into that broken, unwanted body. I cried for her to stop.
“No! No! Let me go! I don’t want to go back! I’ll suffer! Stop! Please!”
But I deflated more, and then dropped, limp, into myself. When I did I felt the frigid cold rushing over me, and my injuries, the unendurable pain of them. I gagged and coughed. The sound of gurgling water was immediate and deafening. I was blind, like my eyes were closed.
They were. I opened them. The huntress’ face was just over mine.
I tried to speak, but coughed up blood instead.
“Easy. Easy, now,” she said. Her voice, like the rest of her, was angelic. She cupped the back of my head and pulled it out of the water. “I can help you, but not here. You need to feel safe, and you don’t. I can feel it. So I need you to think very hard—stay with me now! Don’t close your eyes! Come on and stay with me and listen! I need you to think very hard about where you feel safe. Do it now, okay? Come on, do it!”
I did as she asked even as I coughed up more blood. I thought of home. My bed.
She waved her hand over my chest. “Yes,” she smiled. “There it is. Now this will hurt, but it will save your life. Here we go ...”
Her hand stopped waving and plunged into my chest.
It felt just like it should: an indescribable but blessedly brief moment of agony, one bad enough that my injuries couldn’t subsume it. I bellowed, but then she yanked and in her fist was a glowing ... heart. My heart!
But her fist wasn’t bloody (at least not with my blood), and neither was my heart! She stared at it almost dispassionately. “My, my. You’ve been a very good and true sort, haven’t you? This little beauty is almost perfect.”
She gazed mischievously down at me and winked. “Almost.”
I stared up in horror and fear, but couldn’t speak. Pain literally made me mute. A pleasurable tingling sensation remained in my chest, contradictory and compelling. It urged me to do anything my rescuer asked of me.
She returned her attention to my glowing heart. (Was that my heart? Or was it some very strange magical representation of my heart?)
“Yes,” she said, staring at it. “There’s your bedroom. I can take you there right now.”
She smiled compassionately. “Ready? Here we go ...”
She flourished her free hand and suddenly I was rising, rising, rising ... just like I wanted to as a balloon or whatever it was that I had been for that sadly brief moment.
I rocketed up past the bridge. I could see what was making all the smoke that rose from it.
Trolls were piled on each other at its center. Or, I should say, what was left of the trolls was at its center—a single big pile of broken limbs, random torsos, hanging fur, and gaping mouths. The pile smoked. I passed through it and twitched my nose with the acrid odor of burning hair.
Something hadn’t just battled the trolls and won. Something—someone—had wiped them out with the ease of a god and the rage of a demon.
I rose higher. The sweet nothingness of unconsciousness overtook me just as I wished to go straight to Heaven and leave this dirty, lonesome existence behind.
I woke ... in ... my bed! My bed!
I tried coming up to my elbows, but pain flashed in my ribs and lower back, and I fell back. It hurt so much that a shriek escaped my lips.
“Owwwwww,” I hissed between clenched teeth and crushed, streaming eyes.
The sound of movement—from downstairs.
Someone was in the house? Was it the same person who saved me?
For a moment I couldn’t recall who that was. It was all behind an increasingly impenetrable wall of shock and trauma that my body and mind were desperately trying to escape from.
But then I remembered. Amazing blue eyes. Red hair like the dying coals of a god’s campfire. Full lips. Wicked smile. And that voice ...
She peeked around my bedroom door. “I thought I heard something. You’re awake. Good!”
She strode in. She didn’t walk. She didn’t march. She strode. Like she owned the place. Like she owned me.
She sat at the edge of the bed and gave me one of those heart-melting smiles. “How are you feeling, Nathan?”
I gawked. I didn’t know what to say, so chose to be honest. “Pain,” I rasped. “Everywhere.”
“As well you should!” she scolded softly. “You were on death’s doorstep when I got to you!”
“How ... how ... do you know ... my name?”
She stroked my face with her fingers and laughed lightly. “Because you told me, silly! I asked, and you told me. Your name is Nathan Vach. You’ve been doing a lot of talking and gibbering. I’ve been listening.”
“Did I ... did I tell you where ... I live?”
“Off course you did! We’re here, aren’t we? How would I know otherwise? Though to be honest ...”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out ...
... a glowing heart?
I gaped. It came back to me.
My glowing heart! She had pulled it out of my chest as I lay broken in the gorge!
I stared at it.
She examined it with a devilish smile. “I’m glad I extracted this beauty when I did. If I hadn’t, you’d be rotting in that icy creek!”
The smile dissolved as she glanced at me. “There is a big problem, however, Nathan.”
“Wh-What?” I gasped. I knew that even if my ribs weren’t broken, they’d ache with the sight of her. She was that beautiful.
“If I put this back in your chest, you will die. I saved you at the Cruxx. Your soul was almost free of your body. When that happens a new heart like this one forms. It’s the one you take to the Beyond. It’s probably somewhere near that awful bridge. If I put this heart back in your chest, it will follow the wishes of the new heart—the Cruxx—which is still much stronger, and you will die. You need to be much healthier before I put this back. When you are better—and not just this fine body of yours—we need to find the Cruxx and merge it with this one. When that happens, the earthbound one will assert authority over it and you will stay alive. It is why I can’t heal you with a big dose of magic. I’ve given you just enough to keep you alive, but too much too quickly would only empower the Cruxx, and it will kill your physical body so that it can leave the earth. Do you follow?”
I didn’t. Not completely, anyway. Pain made comprehension difficult. Still, I nodded.
She brought her finger to my lips and pursed her own, then winked.
“Sleep, Nathan.” She held up my heart. “I’ll keep this in safekeeping while you get better.”
I wasn’t going to argue. I closed my eyes, the sensation of her finger on my lips lingering, and was out almost immediately.
Dead, smoking trolls. I kept dreaming of them. Powerful trolls ripped apart like they were so much furry kindling.
What possessed the kind of power necessary to do such a thing? A single adult troll was capable of taking on ten grown men! Their long, wiry arms and hairy bodies hid heinously powerful muscles. They could move like lightning too, at least for short distances.
But the ones that had attacked me met something that went through them like a hot knife through butter. They hadn’t been destroyed, no. They had been eviscerated. They had been blown apart, then contemptuously stacked like so much firewood and set aflame. Just like that. Like it was nothing.
Smoking trolls. Flaming hair. My heart in her hands. That impish smile. The touch of her finger on my lips. Rising up to Heaven.
I woke sometime later—hours? days? weeks?—with a strange compulsion to sit up.
It was strange because I was certain it didn’t come from me at all, but like it had been placed there by an outside agency.
There it was again:
Sit up. Go on, do it!
I couldn’t resist it. I sat up.
It hurt like hell, and I clenched my teeth as my torso came vertical. It felt like hot needles had replaced my ribs and lower back, especially my right hip. Tears streaked down my cheeks.
“Son of a bitch!” I hissed as I fought for breath.
Try standing, came a new compulsion. Go on, give it a go!
I stood, feeling like I was under remote control. The movement hurt as badly as sitting up did. Tears streamed out of my crushed eyes, and cursewords snarled from my larynx through gritted teeth. Both my knees felt ready to give, and my left ankle shrieked in protest. I felt lightheaded and woozy.
Why am I doing this? I thought, gazing with outraged wonder down at my own person, which was only partially clothed. I was (somehow) wearing my pajama bottoms, but nothing else.
My chest was a grotesque black-and-blue lump of flesh, with gouges of bloody skin beneath bandages and gauze. Blood leaked from beneath the left bit of gauze located just next to my elbow. I felt it trickle down my torso.
Do you need to use the bathroom?
“No,” I answered. (To myself?)
I blinked, utterly dumbfounded and now close to fainting.
All right, then. Back into bed with you. Go on! I’ll change your dressings shortly.
I couldn’t resist it. It felt like it originated at the base of my skull, but quickly warmed its way through my brain to the front. I noticed that by the time it got there, I was already doing what it wanted. I tried sitting as delicately as I could. It did nothing for the pain. Neither did easing myself back onto my back. “Owww ... owwwww!” I hissed. “Damnit, damnit, damnit...!”
Rest easy, Nathan, came the compulsion. Rest and recover. Rest, and soon that exquisite body of yours will be ready for a new adventure ...
“Wh ... What?” I managed to get out just before the urge to sleep overcame me and I fell unconscious once again.
That’s how it went for ... well, I didn’t know how long, truth be told. I guessed it was at least a month. I’d wake, feel a compulsion to sit up, then stand, then to lie back down and go back to sleep. Over time an additional compulsion to walk overcame me, and I did, slowly, haltingly, crying out in pain with each tortured step.
I never had to go to the bathroom. I never got hungry or thirsty. Sleeping all day didn’t weaken me further. I couldn’t figure out why.
The aristocratic huntress eventually began showing up with food. She’d spoon-feed it to me as I sat up. She studied me at times with a look that was almost terrifying, like I was a piece of meat. She was no longer dressed like she was going out hunting, but in comfortable outfits, dresses mainly, that could probably feed a village for a month. All of them, like their owner, were gorgeous.
After many days of this, I, sitting up, swallowed a spoonful of stew she’d fed me, and stared into those frightening but mesmerizing eyes.
“I ... don’t even know your name.”
“Zelena,” she answered immediately.
I took another spoonful. It was delicious.
“Why ... why ... I mean, I’m grateful of course, Zelena ... but why...?”
“Why am I helping you when we’re total strangers?”
She smiled. “Don’t know, really. Something tells me that you could be ... useful to me. Besides,” she went on, “we’re not really strangers. I’ve learned a great deal about you ever since ... well, that unfortunate encounter with the trolls. You’ve done a lot of talking in your delirium. I’ve listened.”
It was only then that my visit with Dr. Dunk hit me with full force.
I was a Soul Giver, and she was the recipient of the “gift” or whatever I had inside my soul that was ready to be gifted to her, or transferred, or whatever needed to happen! She had to be!
Her blue eyes narrowed. “What? What is it?”
“I think I ...”
But how do you explain such a weird thing to a stranger? (At least to me she was!)
“You think what?”
“I think ... I have ... something ... for ... you.”
“Oh? For me? How can that be? I just told you my name!”
She presented another spoonful of stew, and I took it, chewed, and swallowed.
I’m certain I sounded like a gibbering fool, or still delirious, as I explained my visit to Dr. Dunk, his weird tests. I was, according to him, a “Vision Bearer.” Zelena stared at me more and more intently as I spoke. Apparently I hadn’t revealed any of it in my gibbering misery. It wasn’t until I detailed the visions I’d been having and then spoke that name ...
“It’s the Evil Queen,” I said, shaking my head and shuddering ...
... that her face, for the first time, registered something else entirely. Whatever it was, it froze my blood.
But then it was gone, as though she had subsumed it under a tremendous act of will. I noticed a small bead of sweat at her hairline.
The smile she gave was forced. “The Evil Queen, you say?”
She’d completely forgotten about feeding me. I was still hungry. “Would you mind?” I asked, reaching for the bowl and spoon.
She glanced down at them as though shocked that they were there. “Oh. Right. Of course.”
I took the bowl and spoon and began feeding myself. She stared emptily past my shoulder.
I wanted to help her, as she had been helping me, so—
“You saved my life,” I offered after swallowing. “I would like to repay you. Perhaps with this knowledge I can be of service to you somehow. Maybe that’s how this is supposed to work—?”
She filled her vacant gaze by looking at me.
“How may I help you, Zelena?”
It was very strange, but at that moment I didn’t feel like the injured cripple. She did.
She studied me. “You are ... an odd sort, aren’t you?” She chuckled sadly. “You have no idea how little I have heard that in my life—that someone wants to help.”
“I’m yours, Zelena. Command me, and I shall do as you wish.”
It wasn’t a joke. Her beauty was entrancing. Even though I was in great pain, I still wanted to taste those lips ...
She laughed lightly, then stood and left. I heard her go downstairs and begin rummaging around.
I finished the stew and set the bowl on the nightstand behind me.
She appeared at the door with something red and glowing in her hand. My heart!
She sat once more by my side and held it up between us.
“This is the heart of your heart,” she informed me. “It’s magical. Everyone possesses one. If you’re particularly skilled in magic, you can extract them. If you crush them—”
She gave it a slight squeeze, and I could feel the actual, physical one in my chest seize. It hurt like hell, and I gasped and clutched myself, unable to breathe.
She grinned coldly. “—you can kill the person you took it from.”
She glanced my lips with her finger. “I won’t do that to you, my dear Nathan, have no fear.”
The heart in my chest pounded with it—with fear. But also barely manageable lust. I couldn’t tell which was stronger. I wanted to run and hide from her. I also wanted to throw her down on this bed and have my way with her. There was an odd emptiness surrounding both, however, one that I only became aware of that moment. It was like I couldn’t feel at all beyond that fear and lust, as if that was all life was.
“When ... can I have it back?” I asked, coming back to the present and feeling a new fear—for that emptiness.
For a moment I thought she might say “Never!” and was hoping that’s what I’d hear. Equally powerful was the hope that she’d give it back to me immediately.
“Not until we find the Cruxx, I’m afraid,” she said. “Not until you are much healthier, body and soul. And then,” she warned, “we must be very careful. There may be the need for me to merge this one with the Cruxx once we find it. But ...”
She shook her head.
“But what?” I demanded.
She studied me.
“I have studied this heart for days now. It is almost totally pure. But I sense in it a growing ... let’s call it ennui.”
“It’s not quite the word I’m looking for. But it’ll do. You are increasingly disinterested in life, Nathan. I think I know why.”
She stood and repocketed my heart and began slowly walking around my room, studying my possessions, running a finger over them or lifting them and examining them closely. She went to my closet and opened it, fingering my clothes and smiling loosely. “Nathan Vach. A young man in a big house all by his lonesome. Very handsome and pure of heart ...”
She turned and stared at me. “So lonesome. So very alone.”
She walked towards me, moving like silk in a dream. She sat once more at the edge of the bed. “So very alone ...”
She stroked my cheek. “Where are your parents, Nathan? Where are your brothers and sisters?”
She pulled my heart out and examined it like looking into a crystal ball. “There is great loss in here. Crippling loss. It is so strong that if you are indeed a Soul Bearer, the gift you’ve got to give me will never be released. You will not allow it to leave. You are tired of things leaving you. I will never be able to claim it. You’ll sabotage all efforts to part with it. Your heart will cling to it as it does everything left in your life—your possessions, this charming house, the love and affection you want to give to others but are so terribly afraid to ...”
She continued studying my heart, then looked into my eyes.
“But let’s ignore for now what you can do for me. Let’s focus on you, on this life of yours. Until you let go of that loss, Nathan, all that grief, the Cruxx will remain sundered from your soul. That’s a real problem. If it dies out there, all by itself, lonely, so lonely, this heart, dear Nathan, this heart—” she placed her palm on my chest just over my heart—“this heart will blacken, and you will lose yourself forever in darkness.”
I could see it that instant in her own eyes—darkness.
“Hold your heart for a moment,” she said, handing it to me.
I took it and stared at it. It had the same heft I imagined a flesh heart would have, but it was hard like a rock or perhaps fine, dense crystal of some kind. Its inward flashing corresponded precisely with the beat of the heart in my chest. I was fascinated.
I looked up the moment she plunged her left hand into her own chest and pulled out her own heart of hearts.
“Whoa!” I exhaled, surprised.
She had cried in pain and hunched over slightly, but then recovered and showed me.
Her heart of hearts was ... dark. It was actually coal-black in large parts. The glowing, bright red so ubiquitous in mine was located deep inside hers, like a dying light in a wind-blown cavern.
“I have spent my life alone, just like you,” she reported quietly. “You lost your family; I never really had one. My mother abandoned me as an infant. I grew up in a hovel with a drunken lout for a father. I eventually ran away.”
She gazed with sadness and anger at her heart, then at mine.
“I filled my heart with resentment, bitterness, and revenge. For you see, Nathan, the Evil Queen is my half-sister who got a family. The same mother who abandoned me to die in the woods raised my half-sister and gave her everything in the world!”
At that moment something shocking occurred. A patch of green appeared on her neck and quickly grew like a skin rash of some kind. I stared at it as she glared into her heart of hearts. With my free hand I reached and touched her neck, startling her.
At that moment the patch, which threatened to overwhelm her entire face, halted its rapid progression. She brought her hand up and touched mine as mine continued touching her. Her skin was even softer than I had fantasized.
She gently grasped my hand and pulled it away.
“The Evil Queen,” I whispered, “is—your sister?”
“Indeed,” she answered coldly.
I honestly didn’t know what to say.
It was clear she didn’t want to talk about it.
“The trolls tried to mug me too,” she announced matter-of-factly, standing. “I very nearly joined you under that bridge. I was just behind you, maybe a hundred paces. I was looking for a special tree that grows in these parts whose wood makes a very powerful wand. They stole an extremely valuable pendant given to me by ...” she shrugged “... let’s call them somewhat stuffy acquaintances. I want it back. But the ones I dealt with on the bridge didn’t have it. They must have given it to the others that managed to escape.”
I could see unabashed cruelty flare in her eyes, and a biting thirst for vengeance, and the same high, queenly stare her evil half-sister had.
“I need your help, Nathan, just as you need mine.”
She shoved her heart of hearts back into her chest. When she recovered, she reached for mine and repocketed it.
I felt my own heart tingle again, like it wanted to do absolutely anything for her.
“Trolls are partially magical beasts. They can’t manipulate magic, but they are made, partially, of magic, and unconsciously use it to enhance their strength. If I go hunting for that pendant, the magic they possess will inform them that I’m coming long before I get to them. They probably didn’t think I had the powers I do when they attacked you, and then me. Fools.
“That pendant belongs to me, and so its magic wants to be with me. They’ll be able to feel that, and know if I try to get near them. It will enhance their native powers. They’ll be able to elude me forever, or worse: they’ll destroy it to throw me off the trail.
“I want that pendant back. Which means I need you. I need you to steal it back from them. In exchange I will help you deal with your fear of loss, and then we can go and collect your Cruxx and merge it with this one and save you from a life of darkness. But first ...”
Her mood morphed into something flirtatious and sweet. Immense danger lurked just beneath it.
“... you need to get better as quickly as possible!”
With that, she waved her hand. I felt instantly drowsy and fell back onto my pillow.
She bent and kissed my cheek.
“Sleep, Nathan, and get better ... get better ... get better ...”
Her whisper and the amazing feel of her lips against my face were the last things I remembered before descending, once again, into unconsciousness.