The heart in my chest aches and trembles, it stutters and lurches behind my ribs. It’s always been too big, leaving bruises on my lungs. I press my hand to the bulge on the left of my sternum. Feel the scar tissue crack against my palm, a seam splitting as ventricles quake and falter.
Two hundred years. It was never meant to last this long.
The bucium sounds and the mountain echoes the call, note for solemn note, until the very stone beneath my feet starts screaming. I move, drawn by the bugling, down the winding stairs of our school. My slippers whisper across uneven flagstones, the bottom of my robes catching on the gnarled fingers of reaching creepers, leaves burnished by autumn.
Above me, the sky is a wound. The sun has gashed open the clouds, bleeding ribbons of red through twilight blue and dousing the flanks of the mountains in violet.
Fellow Solomonari join me in the descent. Most are clad in similar mossy green. Some wear the white of Elders; few wear the patched, brown robes of acolytes. Tonight, those who have proven studious, pious, obedient, and courageous will cut open their chests to lose their human hearts.
The scales across my cheeks flare despite my efforts to remain impassive. When I was an acolyte, the courage required to transcend was real and necessary. We trained as warriors, learning the way of the sword long before we learned the art of spell-weaving.
On the night I transcended, five acolytes began the ritual. Only I survived. And only barely. Tonight, I suspect all seven hopefuls will find their transformation far too easy.
“Come now, Zia. You don’t have to scowl all the time.” Ilie sneaks his arm around my waist, red eyes flashing as he brushes his lips across my cheek. I inhale his scent: the honey of his hair, the tarragon on his breath, the rancid copper-salt leaking through his skin from the strigoi heart slow-pulsing between his ribs.
“This is wrong,” I say softly, as we continue down the stairs, hemmed in by swishing robes.
“It’s progressive and far more efficient.”
“Doesn’t make it right.”
“You’re just old and bitter,” he says, prodding me in the ribs with his elbow, a smile twisting his lips.
Our school lies in rising tiers of pale stone up the slope of Mount Zalmoxis, the pinnacle of our tiny nation—a shrinking autonomy. And, at the foot of this glacier-topped mountain lies the menagerie.
We reach our destination.
Inside the earth-scooped hollow, the cries and groans, growls and shrieks are deafening. It stinks, the air fetid and simmering with the rage of those confined in iron or silver cages.
The bucium sounds once more, an ominous bellow. The Solomonari quieten, hands folded in gaping sleeves, all standing at attention. Except for Ilie who still has his arm around my waist, the pressure of his grip painful on my kindle-crackling wings concealed beneath my heavy robes.
The Elders begin the ritual and I chant my part as required, my gaze darting from acolyte to cage, wondering which of the poor wretches will find themselves rendered heartless tonight.
Two hundred years, ago I went hunting for the monster from which I would steal a heart with nothing but my courage and a dagger. Two hundred years ago, a fresh heart and the magic within it was a reward for tenacity, an honor earned through blood by those few truly worthy of the title Solomonar. My right shoulder throbs with the memory of my battle on the mountain, the pain spreading to the dozen other scars from fangs and claws etched across my skin.
I am old. I am bitter.
These days, graduating acolytes can pick from the array of cloned creatures imprisoned in the menagerie, or place a custom order for green-robed geneticists to splice and concoct as required. Instead of braving dark forests or swamps, dank caves or wind-whipped mountain peaks in search of monsters, acolytes simply shop through bars, safe from harm.
“They don’t earn their hearts,” I say. “Not like we did.”
“You want them to suffer? You want most of them to die?” Ilie asks. “Besides, there’s nothing left to hunt. Magic is gone from the wilds.”
“Your modernity saw to that,” I bite back. As humans fought over changing lines drawn on their little maps, our creatures paid the price. What was once impervious to pitchforks proved more susceptible to bullets and chemical gas. Our monsters were slow to evolve and so were quick to die, especially when armies exchanged gold for spellwork at our doorstep.
Unfortunate collateral damage, some Elders said while counting their coin.
Survival, others called it, the only way to remain the sovereign of our diminishing kingdom.
I clench my teeth, molars grinding, jaw aching as I watch.
The seven acolytes kneel and wait their turn. The first rises, slips naked from her robe, bowing as she receives the ceremonial dagger from the Elder. Her face is hidden in the shadow of her cowl except for her exposed wolf-snout. She’s on her third heart now, the blood in her veins more vârcolac than human.
My scales riffle and Ilie tightens his grip, his fingers digging sharp as knives into my hip. I remain rigid as the acolyte strides to the chosen cage. Her quarry is some sort of hybrid, one of the custom orders whose attributes she’ll absorb as soon as she has its heart. The beast is a griffin variant, with a tail of bright feathers. It bares small fangs, its saliva foaming and hissing—perhaps venomous—as it growls in warning.
As is common practice now, the creatures have been forced into a state of lethargy. Either by the administration of modern tinctures, or by an Elder’s spell. Regardless, the creature can barely lift its head, let alone swipe with a paw, already declawed lest the acolyte get hurt.
The acolyte raises the dagger. At least the death blow is true and the monster doesn’t suffer. The acolyte hacks open its chest, standing ankle deep in gore before raising the blade, the point trembling above her sternum. This is the only true test of valor remaining. I watch, hoping she will fail.
She drags the blade through skin and muscle. The Elders catch her as she falls and the green-robed Solomonari take up the requisite chant.
I remain silent. Ilie nudges me, but the words are trapped between my teeth.
The Elder with iridescent feathers sprouting from their knuckles reaches their hand into the acolyte’s chest and removes the girl’s still-beating heart. Gently, they place it in an amphora for safe-keeping, a generic clay creation bearing a bar-code. Mine I molded for days before the ritual. We all did. Each amphora unique to the acolyte who made it.
Another Elder tears the throbbing organ from the cavity in the beast’s torso, the monster’s heart small and engineered to fit beneath human ribs. My own heart lurches and Ilie places his hand over mine.
The Elder slips the monster’s heart into the acolyte’s chest and seals the wound with thread and spellwork. Her scar will fade, dwindling to a faint tracery of silver through her pale skin. Unlike mine, puckered and still smarting centuries later.
The Elders, white robes splattered red and black, drape a green cloak around the girl’s shoulders as she sways on her feet, smiling. Behind her the carcass of the beast steams, its blood congealing in a mottled mosaic on the concrete floor.
My stomach roils, gorge rising, as the second acolyte steps toward another cage.
“They could make you a new one,” Ilie says, his breath against my ear as his hands slide beneath my robes. His fingers trace the scar down my chest and I shrug him away, hunching my shoulders, rustling my wings. Before, I might’ve taken to flight to avoid Ilie but my wings are too thin, too weak to carry me anymore.
The wind taunts with the sound of revelry. Laughter and the blasting bass of electronic music reverberate through the stone, throttling my bones. I retreat into the shadows of the balcony, away from the glare of the electric lighting.
It’s cold and harsh and smells of nothing. Too bright, the artificial light smears a pall across the sky, obscuring the stars. I miss the oil lamps and wood-burning braziers, their warmth and flickering glow. I miss seeing the constellations. The dragon-cluster should be perched close to the eastern horizon this time of year, so at dawn the sun seems to rise from the serpent’s mouth. I haven’t seen a dragon-fire dawn in decades.
“You’re acting like a child,” Ilie says.
“You were the last to hunt for your heart,” I say without looking at him. He was among the last group of acolytes sent into the wilds to prove themselves worthy. I remember waiting and praying, burning black candles and opening my veins in supplication, begging Zalmoxis to protect the beautiful boy I’d so recklessly started to love.
Two acolytes survived that night and for almost four decades, Ilie has been by my side, eyes once deepest brown consumed by brightest red as his body leeches power from the stolen heart.
He licks his lips, tongue flicking over the sharpened points of his canines.
“I was, so I understand why the new system might seem unfair,” he says.
“Unfair?” Fire spits from my lips, my scales bristling. He doesn’t understand. None of them do. They see only what we’ve gained; I see all we’ve lost.
Ilie is speaking but I ignore him, as a thought flutters free from its roost.
“Zia, wait.” Ilie hurries after me as I find myself once more wending down the mountainside. My feet take me on nearly forgotten paths, leading me inwards, toward the old tunnels illuminated only by flame. I hold the heat between my fingers, my heart pounding as I draw on the remaining traces of magic oozing through my veins.
“Where are we going?” Ilie asks.
“There’s only one other heart for me.”
“You’re choosing death?” He grabs my arm, blackened nails digging into flesh. His eyes catch the glint of my flame, twin pools of blood.
“I’ll die anyway.”
“But you’d choose to die—human?” His voice is ragged, breathless with disbelief and something akin to horror.
“I’d die myself.”
“Do you hate what you’ve become so much?” There is hurt and indignation in his voice, a frown cutting across his exquisite face.
“This is not the institution I pledged my life to. This is not who I want to be. I hate…” I hesitate.
“Say it,” he says.
“I hate what we’ve all become.”
“You just want them to suffer as you did.”
“They have to earn it. But they don’t. Not anymore. They are not worthy!”
“And we are?”
“Yes! We fought for our hearts, with honor.”
Ilie’s expression darkens, the frown deepening across his forehead, lips pressed tight and thin.
“Come then,” he says, turning away from me, the shadows drawing closer to him, sputtering the flame in my hand. The darkness is his to command, his heart younger and stronger.
I follow as he leads us through the tunnels we haven’t ventured down since the day after we transcended, when each new Solomonar was expected to place their amphora in the catacombs and forget they were once ever human.
The catacombs should’ve been locked, with a dedicated Solomonar standing guard. There is no guard and the lock on the gate has long since rusted and crumbled. Tonight’s amphorae have yet to be interred, but there are others, dozens set on warped shelves illuminated only by the guttering fire between my fingers.
The frigid air smells musty and rank. Old blood and moldering rot.
Ilie strides through the stacks, away from the more recent additions in their uniform arrays to shelves wreathed in cobwebs and blanketed in dust. Rats skitter across our feet, their voices shrill in the quiet.
Here the amphorae are lopsided and twisted, made by inept hands. Some are painted or glazed, many are not. I remember carving scales into mine, meticulously shaping the pattern over the squat belly of the jar that would forever house my human heart.
Forever has come to an end.
“Somewhere here,” Ilie says from the impenetrable black gathered beneath the shelves. He doesn’t need the light of my fire to see. “But…” His voice falters as something crunches beneath my slipper, a jagged edge digging between my toes.
Clay shards litter the floor. I lift my gaze to the shelves, to the untidy jumble of broken amphorae. Some have toppled over, cracking their shoulders against their neighbor’s. Some have fallen, shattered. Did no one notice? Did no one care? The answer lies at my feet, in the forgotten contents reduced to a fading stain… to dust.
I search the shelves, my heart stuttering, my breath coming in shallow sips, my head buzzing as if filled with carrion flies. Words tumble from my lips, prayers and desperation.
“Zia, over here,” Ilie says from a pool of darkness and I follow his voice. I crouch beside him and he lifts a shard of clay bearing the careful carvings of serpent scales.
“How did you know?” I ask.
“It’s faint, but I can smell it. I can smell you.” He lifts the shard to his face and inhales. “I’m so sorry,” he says.
I drag my fingers through the shadows pooled at our feet, nails snagging on other broken pieces. The dust sticks to my slippers and clings to the hem of my robe.
“What about yours?” I ask.
My hand balls into a fist, extinguishing the flames. Together we sit in the darkness, his shoulder pressed to mine, his breath against my skin as he kisses the tears from my face. His cheeks are damp with his own. Salt and blood.
Ilie’s strigoi heart has made him near invincible. Even the gash in his chest has healed, the skin smooth as if it never saw a blade. But some wounds run deeper, coiling through sinew and muscle, wrapping around bone and threading through veins. They burn and fester.
When my tears have dried and the heart in my chest aches a little less, I rise, letting Ilie lead me from the crypt. I don’t bother with the fire this time; I haven’t the strength. Instead, I extend my hand, my fingers tracing the edges of shelves and their neglected contents.
I leave a wake of shattered amphorae, a symphony of destruction as I push and shove my way through the catacombs, blindly knocking over shelves and sweeping their contents to the floor. Dust burns my eyes and makes me cough. Hearts squelch beneath my feet, the stone slick with blood. The air becomes choked with released spellwork, the hearts no longer preserved in sacred clay.
“Feel better now?” Ilie asks when we reach the exit, his voice carries neither reproach nor disgust. Perhaps something closer to relief, though still tinged with pain.
“How quickly can they make me a heart?”
“Depends on what you order.”
“You know what I want.”
“A month, maybe two,” he says. “Do you have that much time?” He presses his body against mine and my lips find his. I promise him with kisses, with tongue and teeth and wandering hands that I’ll force my stolen heart to keep beating for as long as it takes.
It took the geneticists six weeks to make my monster. I wanted my zmeu bigger, as big as the one I defeated once before, but there were safety concerns and new rules governing the ferocity of the creatures kept in the menagerie.
Tonight is clear. In the new moon sky, the stars would’ve been quicksilver conflagrations were the lights illuminating the menagerie not deemed necessary. The bucium sounds and the Solomonari gather.
Ilie helps me down the stairs, my heart sluggish and the blood curdling in my shrinking veins.
The zmeu waits for me, coiled cat-like in a sinuous ball. It lifts its horned head, gazing at me with yellow eyes sliced vertically by a narrow pupil. They have drugged or spelled it—probably both—despite my demands, my requests, my pleas.
I stare transfixed, transported over the centuries to the night I fought my way up the mountain in search of the zmeu’s lair.
I found it, a cave carved high in the side of the peak. That night my monster reflected full moon light, scales a shimmering cascade of silver, wings snapping, mouth curved into a rictus-grin, its face equal parts human and dragon. Fire spit from its serpent lips as it laughed. Its tail thrashed, tearing scraggly trees from the mountain side. I dodged and rolled, but I was too slow. The zmeu’s tail severed my right arm at the shoulder.
Still, I fought. In a previous life I’d been a soldier, my hide already scarred before I donned the patched robes of an acolyte. And so I wrestled with my monster on that mountain top, our spilled blood steaming, my lungs burning in the altitude.
It pinned me with the hooks of its wings, roaring fire at my face. I twisted beneath its body, almost losing my remaining arm to drive my dagger between its ribs.
Its blood boiled over my hands, over my face, and I swallowed mouthful after torrid mouthful. The battle was not yet won, but the monster’s magic filled my veins and sealed the wounds in my flesh. One handed, I hacked the heart from its chest, the organ four times the size of my fist. Afraid I’d die before my Elder reached me to complete the ritual, I drank more of the zmeu’s blood, ignoring the pain of blistered lips and scalded throat.
I cut open my chest and dug for throbbing gristle. The Elder found me trying to fit the zmeu’s heart beneath my ribs, ribs I’d been determined to break if that’s what it took to keep what I’d stolen. My tongue tangled over the words of the requisite spell.
With three hands and the Elder’s power, we managed to seal the heart within my chest. My wounds healed to scars, my skin grew scales and my shoulders sprouted sinewy wings, but not even the magic contained within a zmeu could replace a lost arm.
Will this lab-created zmeu renew my life?
This pathetic monster caged and weakened, stares at me unblinking, as if it understands the dishonor and denigration.
I shuck my robe and shake away Ilie’s concerned grasp, taking shaky steps toward the cage. An Elder unlocks the silver bars and I sway, drawing what little power I have left into a single spell. I wait for the words to taste just right, for the spell to take shape between my teeth, before spitting the incantation from my lips.
My zmeu rises, waking to full power. It stands no taller than me, tail whipping and stunted wings fanning behind its broad back. I clutch the dagger, ready, resigned. I will die a warrior. I will die worthy of the heart I’d stolen.
The zmeu launches its attack, claws aimed for my chest. I try to block the blow, my forearm splintered by the creature’s strength. I fall, the dagger tumbling from numb and useless fingers. The zmeu looms above me, laughing fire. Solomonari scream as my monster roars to a chorus of shrieks and howls.
At least I will die with honor.
The zmeu dives toward me, but Ilie streaks between us. I can only watch as he is impaled by the beast’s talons. His ribs snap like twigs as the creature wrenches its fist from his chest, taking chunks of heart and lung with it.
My zmeu drops Ilie beside me, its attention drawn by the panicked Solomonari, irritated by their spells and slow transformations. How weak our order has grown, how complacent, how deserving of this bitter end. The zmeu tears through the open bars of its cage and I roll toward Ilie. He remains alive despite his ruptured chest. I watch the magic in his blood strain to heal the frayed edges of tissue, but he has lost too much. His strigoi heart is in tatters.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “You didn’t deserve this. I’m so sorry.”
“You should know…” Words and blood bubble from his lips. I kiss him, swallowing his copper-salt. He holds my face, cheeks cupped in blackened hands, his gaze boring into mine even as the red drains from his eyes.
The menagerie disappears as if washed away by a rock-slide. Ilie’s hands are still pressed against my cheeks but I can’t see him, nor the blood smeared concrete. Instead, I find myself in boggy forest. A torch trembles in my hands, breath burning fear in my lungs, human heart pounding as I pick my way through swamp and thicket.
This is Ilie’s hunt, the memory of his acolyte night.
I hear the battle before I see it, the shrieks and screams of the strigoi; the cries and shouts of my friend.
Through Ilie’s eyes I see my fellow acolyte battle the monster and as Ilie, I wait. The acolyte hears the branch snap beneath my boot, turning in my direction as the strigoi rakes a powerful claw across his middle. Guts tumble through shredded skin, and still the acolyte fights. I run forward, brandishing the torch, as the acolyte stabs the distracted strigoi in the legs, in the belly, in the chest.
The acolyte falls, and I—Ilie—ignore him. I ignore his cries and pleas, turning instead to the injured strigoi rendered easy prey.
The Elders find me with the strigoi’s heart already in my chest, the wound healing, fading, its power infusing my veins, sharpening my vision and my teeth. They never question the death of the other acolyte. Acolytes die during the hunt.
And so I win a heart and shed brown-robes for green.
The memory fades as Ilie’s hands grow cold against my cheeks and his blood turns putrid on my tongue.
All around me there are flames and screams, shrieks and growling. The night air sings with the voices of monsters unleashed, an anthem of retribution. And in my head, a threnody as I cradle the boy I thought I knew, the boy I used to love.
Beneath my ribs, my heart aches and cracks. Its poison seeps into the hollows of my body, an acid wash of agony.
Even stolen hearts can break.
Xan is a tattooed story-teller from South Africa, currently living in Finland. Xan identifies as non-binary and genderqueer, using she/they pronouns. You can find Xan on Instagram or Twitter @Suzanne_Writer.
Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash
Xan van Rooyan
Author of “The Order of Stolen Hearts”
What inspired you to write this story?
Initially, I had an idea about borrowed hearts, about mages simply borrowing power from magical creatures like leeching power from a familiar. But, perhaps given the current political climate of our real world, that idea quickly darkened into one about a selfish, self-obsessed order who simply stole their power with no thought to the creatures robbed of their lives. This story was also inspired by Romanian mythology. My husband is Romanian (Transylvanian, actually) and, after having spent some time in the Carpathians myself, this was something I’d long been wanting to explore in my writing.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
That change is inevitable. We cannot stop it, but we can choose how we react and adapt to it. This story also asks the question, do we ever truly know someone, even our closest loved ones? Do we truly want to, or are we happier believing in who we think they are?
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story/poem has been through?
Well, this story was truly an exception. This story took about 2 weeks to write and revise. When looking for markets to submit it to, I saw Apparition Lit’s ‘Transfiguration’ theme and thought, that’s exactly what my story is about! I only submitted to Apparition, and here we are. No other story has ever found a home so quickly. Usually my stories go through multiple revisions and take several months of submitting to various markets before they find a home. But I think this shows that it’s definitely worthwhile doing some research into the markets before subbing so as to better understand what the publisher is looking for.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
Oh gosh! So much! But right now, I’m fully immersed in the post-apocalyptic/cyberpunk FPS game Borderlands 3. It is as hilarious as it is bloody. Definitely not a game for under 18s, but the graphics, character dialogue, and gameplay make it such addictive fun. On a completely different note, if you’re looking for some new music, be sure to checkout the album Myrkr from Heldom. That’s what I listened to while writing this story.