This beating. Where was it coming from?
Soft palpitations vibrated against my fingertips as I ran my hand over my chest. Something was there. Something alive. I quickly jumped out of bed, kicking the tangle of sheets from around my legs.
Running to the mirror a few feet away, I carefully pulled down my shirt enough to find the source of the beating. A thin red line crossed through the white circle on my chest right above the thumping, obstructing the smooth contours of my skin.
“Don’t worry,” a gentle voice from behind said. “Time heals all wounds.”
Frightened, I whispered, “What did you do?”
A soft chuckle answered. “I did what you asked. I gave you a new heart.”
The dark trees arched above me just as they always had for the past seven years. I took my steps cautiously, knowing what was coming next. Every time I would try to out run it, I would always fail. Would the terror ever end?
Agonizing screams filled the forest around my, sending my feet sprinting across the dirt floor. Branch after branch swiped past me as I pumped my legs harder, running towards the screams. They grew louder, more desperate, as I traveled closer, ending at the mouth of a cave. The screams beckoned me in, pleading for my help. Gathering the last ounce of courage I had, I stepped in.
With each step, the ground hardened beneath my feet, the earth changing to something other than what it was. The light around me was quickly extinguished. As the cave darkened the screams ceased.
I paused, as I always did, and reached down. A hard, smooth object caressed my hand and I wrapped my fingers around it. A light in the cave appeared, igniting the space around me. The blood drained from my face as I looked down at the object in my hand.
A black heart.
The light grew brighter, revealing piles of black hearts surrounding me. As I dropped the heart and began my escape, the piles grew, trapping me within the cave. The more I struggled, the more they consumed me. I cried out, but knew no one could save me.
As my head was about to be buried, the hearts stopped, allowing my ears to hear the words that still haunted me: “Don’t worry little, Addie, your time is coming.”
I woke up screaming, streams of tears barreling down my face as two strong arms enveloped me, rocking my body until I fell back asleep.______________________________________
Isolated from the rest of the Twelve Lands of Decim at the edge of Wintertide Forest, Barracks had always been filled with cruel, bitter people that matched the cruel, bitter climate. It was a place one traveled to only if they had no place else to go or were desperate. Really desperate.
Why was everyone so cruel and bitter? Unlike some lands, who only bartered and traded ordinary objects, most of the people who lived in Barracks had already traded away their most valuable possession: their heart.
Hearts used to beat bright and bold in Barracks, or so the legends say. People would travel from across the Shalley Mountains just to see if the rumors were true: did the hearts of the people of Barracks truly beat more vibrantly than anywhere else in the realm? For a while they did. Because the people were joyful, the land was joyful and the fields were lush and full of delectable foods and flowers for trades. But that was all before The Schism.
Like most things in Barracks, fresh, beating hearts were hard to come by. By the time they made it to market for trading, they were usually broken, bruised and barely beating. Most of the time, they were already dead; used and abused by their previous owners. And what good was a dead heart?
Trading hearts was a game for the people of Barracks. Each person would wait until the yearly Heart Reign to decide what to trade their heart for. In years past, vendors, merchants, and lords would line up on the streets, peddling opportunities and objects to any person who had come of age. Some became rich and famous in exchange for their heart. Others married wealthy, leading leisurely lives until their days came to an end.
Every year before Heart Reign, the local station would play recordings of the Heart Reigns from years past, promoting their “Look where they are now” series. And every year, when Barracks shut down for Heart Reign preparations, every citizen would have to suffer through it. Interviews with lords, governors, and beauty queens, who had once traded their hearts for power and beauty, seemed to be on repeat throughout the weeks before Heart Reign.
"My original was so small and gray! Quite the ugly thing! I never thought I could trade it for something this wonderful!" The new wife to wealthy Lord Farmount claimed on the daily news. It had been almost a year since she traded her heart to the wealthy lord at her Heart Reign. What she didn’t explain was how it felt to be his fifth wife. But that was the problem. Once you traded your heart, you couldn’t get a new one.
After your Extraction, all the feelings you once had within your heart became detached from you, like they were never even there. While many people seemed joyful and happy after their Heart Reign, it wasn’t the same. The emotions they portrayed to the outside weren’t heartfelt or pure. They were all a façade, a ploy to get others to trade their hearts for the same emptiness they felt.
"I just don't get it," I said, listening to the bubbly woman's peppy voice crackle out of our beat up radio.
"What's there to get?" Silas replied. "She found something worth her heart, so she traded it. Everyone does it, Addie."
"That doesn't mean it's right," I mumbled under my breath.
"Everyone has to choose something, Addie. You know that."
When I didn't respond, Silas sighed and turned the black cracked wheel for the volume up higher. This wasn't the first time we've had this conversation and I knew it wouldn't be the last.
Rolling my eyes, I continued to run my fingers through my dark hair. It was almost long enough to be cut for a valuable trade. I had been planning for years to get a new radio or pair of shoes or even some books. Books weren't too common in Barracks, but I hoped I could find some this year.
Out of my periphery I could see Silas watching me. Instead of turning towards him, I flipped my hair to the other side, blocking him from my view. A smile came to my face when he let out a snort, covering up the embarrassment of being caught staring.
My ears turned deaf towards a governor boasting about the wealth his heart trade had given him as I remembered when Silas first came into my life.
It had been almost seven years to the day since I had first met Silas. It was right after the Heart Reign for Lyle, my older brother.
I was furious, stomping through the ice covered field towards a dead birch tree standing outside the edge of Wintertide.
"How could he be so stupid," I muttered to myself.
At Heart Reign there were always countless amounts of trades to choose from. From wealth and beauty to social standing and the latest fashions, you could trade your heart for pretty much anything. Usually it was the same thing: Old man Chank with his beauty potions, Lady Truosh with her class caste system, and, as always, Lord Farmount, looking for a new wife.
But that year a new vendor came to Barracks. His name was Schism, Schism Breaker to be exact. Because no one had ever seen him before, the participants in Heart Reign and the citizens of Barracks eagerly flocked towards his enchanting display.
Dressed in dark black slacks and a crisp white shirt, Schism stood clearly in front of white trees of Wintertide Forest. A bright blood red door was on his right and a bright blood red door was on his left. A wide grin broke through his pale, smooth skin, revealing perfectly chiseled teeth as the crowd in front of him grew larger, gawking at his beautiful physique. Stretching his arms out, each pale fingertip caressed the blood red thresholds of the doors. He leaned forward, allowing his dark hair to roll over his shoulders and began his peddling.
"Are you brave enough?" he questioned in a deep breath, silencing the chittering crowd. His eyes, so dark there seemed to be no pupils at all, scanned over the crowd, as if reading the hearts of every person that stood before him.
"Are you brave enough," he repeated, "to choose without knowing your choice? To take a leap of faith and trust, whatever the consequence?”
Schism removed his hands from the doors and walked across the perimeter of the crowd, causing them to gape at his breathtaking beauty. He clasped his hands behind his back, shaking his long black locks out of his face as the wind swept them over his eyes. After a few moments of silence, he stopped in front of a particular individual in the crowd. It was that I cursed forever.
Only eleven at the time, I had begged Lyle to let me come with him to Heart Reign. I loved seeing all of the interesting trades and the even more interesting people. Since the forming of Barracks, the only individuals allowed to attend Heart Reign were those of age or those who had already traded their heart. Lyle and I both knew this, but since I was still young and he was my only guardian (besides Nana), he agreed to let me come.
The vendors definitely pulled out all their best tricks when they came to Heart Reign.
There were beautiful colors of fabric surrounding each display, enticing Traders to take a closer look. Some held mouth-watering foods that made the mind go numb to anything else but their rich and delicious flavor. Others glittered and sparkled like the stars in the night sky.I was awestruck by everything happening around me. The warm summer air tickled my bare arms as the beautiful colors of material above the vendors' displays waved in the breeze. Everything was perfect. But as I looked up at Lyle, thinking that I would see the same wonder in his eyes as her own, I frowned. He looked distant, disinterested in everything around him. While others were freely trading their hearts for the first thing they saw, Lyle gripped his heart tightly to his in his pocket.
"What's wrong?" I asked him with a concerned look.
Looking down at me with the same ice blue eyes we shared, he gave me a small smile. "Nothing, Addie, just thinking."
"Thinking about what?" I asked.
But I never got an answer because that was when Lyle laid his eyes on Schism's blood red doors. Another moment I cursed forever.
As if in a trance, Lyle was drawn towards the crowd, pushing and shoving until he made his way to the front. Luckily, I was small enough to weave around the bodies and catch up to him. At that exact moment, Schism stopped and looked at Lyle with a menacing grin I will never forget.
"You. Young man," he said, pointing to Lyle with a long pale finger. "Do you think you're brave enough to choose?"
Lyle was never easily fooled. Every decision he made, every step he took, was planned out. I was dumbfounded that he had decided to give this weird stranger the time of day.
Lyle narrowed his eyes at Schism. "Choose what?"
Schism laughed a deep sultry laugh. "A door, of course!"
He flicked one of his hands back, gesturing towards the two doors.
Lyle looked back and forth between both doors then to Schism. "What's behind them?"
Schism laughed wholeheartedly this time, throwing his head back for emphasis. My skin crawled every time his starving eyes took in the people as if they were his next meal.
"What fun would it be if I told you?" he replied with a toothy grin.
Lyle grunted then began to take a step forward.
To this day, I still don't know what came over me. Whether it was the cherry donut Lyle bought me or my own stupid determination, I lurched forward and grabbed Lyle's hand.
For the first time, Schism looked down at me. My little grey heart plummeted to my stomach. It was like he could see every horrible thing I had ever said, every nasty comment I had thought, in one glance. What was worse was that his grin grew wider, his eyes hungrier.
"Who is this?" Schism grinned.
"Addie, let go," Lyle said, forcefully ripping his hand from my own.
"Lyle, you can't go." Tears had begun streaming down my face.
I didn't know what I was doing or why I was doing it. I just knew that Schism Breaker was bad and Lyle couldn't believe what he said.
"Addie," Lyle said with a sigh, crouching down next to me. "I have to choose something. Everyone chooses something."
"That doesn't mean you have to," I said, fully sobbing, not caring about the murmurs of the crowd around us and the enjoyment Schism was having watching our debate. "Just because they do it, doesn't mean it's right!"
"I'm going," Lyle said forcefully, standing to his full height once more. "I love you, Addie, but I need to do something for myself."
That was the last thing Lyle ever said to me and it stung worse than a stab in the back.
I watched in horror as Lyle stepped up to the two doors.
"What a brave young man!" Schism exclaimed. "Let's give him a round of applause!"
The crowd clapped excitedly, encouraging Lyle. I didn't clap. Schism made eye contact with me. He gave me a smirk, knowing I had lost the fight for Lyle's heart.
"Now, young man, before you choose a door, you must make your trade." Schism held out his pale hand towards Lyle.
Nodding, Lyle reached into his pocket and placed his extracted grey heart into Schism's hand. As soon as the heart landed on those white fingertips, it vanished into a cloud of smoke. The crowd gasped.
"No need to worry my good people of Barracks! This young man has just made the best trade of his life! A round of applause, one more time!"
The crowd erupted in hoots and claps as if they knew exactly what Schism was talking about. But I knew better.
I watched Lyle's shoulders rise and fall one last time before he chose the door on the right, walking through the threshold, never to be seen again.
"No!" I cried, causing only Schism's eyes to lock on to me.
The crowd stood in awe, then jumped at the chance to trade their hearts for Schism's magical doors.
Amongst the chaos, a dark presence surrounded itself around me, causing everything to move in slow motion. As if only inches away from my ear, I heard Schism's voice whisper, "Don't worry little Addie, your time will come."
My eyes grew wide in horror as I backed away from the crowd, trying to get away from the hungry look in Schism's eyes. Then I did the only thing any eleven year old would do. I ran.
The streets were crowded, filled with people trading their hearts for meaningless items. As I ran, I saw the sky become darker, the air grow colder. Apparently, I ran too well because the next thing I knew I ran straight into Governor Willow.
"Adalaide," he puffed through his black pipe, furrowing his thick white eyebrows at me. "You're not supposed to be here."
Tears were still streaming down my face. My chest heaved for oxygen, only to be sliced by the cruel winter air that had begun its descent upon Barracks.
"I'm so sorry, Governor Willow," a voice from above me said. "I was supposed to watch her while Lyle found an appropriate trade."
Before I knew it, I was being lifted off the ground and dusted off by hands I didn't recognize.
"Ah, Silas," the governor puffed again with a smile. "Very good. Well, make sure you get her back to her nana. She's too young to be here."
"Right away, sir," the voice said again, wrapping an arm tightly around my shoulders.
As soon as Governor Willow was out of sight, I shoved the stranger's hand off my shoulder and ran again.
"Hey, wait!" I heard him call, but I didn't care.
I didn't need to be babysat. I didn't need someone to protect me from things I shouldn't see. It was too late. I had already seen too much.