I stopped visiting Brigitte. I couldn’t be around her anymore. She was keeping secrets from me, and I was certain that she had started talking to the Shadows. Her little black pearl, that she had unfaithfully taken for herself, would bring the Shadows into our world and then they would destroy us all.
I was soon jumping at every sound. Every time I moved my head, I was certain I saw a shadow move, appear where there should not be one, slip away from where there should have been one. The shadows were coming alive and she was controlling them. She would send them after me, and in the dark, a blackened flicker would grab me and swallow me whole. They were after my heart, because I had taken my heart from her.
When we gave each other our hearts, we were bound together. Any pain unto mine would be a sore unto hers, and were hers to harden, mine would as well. If she allowed the shadows to eat up my heart, then she would be destroyed too. Despite everything I now believed about her, I couldn’t let this happen; I wanted to hold on to the image of my sweet Brigitte forever, and I was going to get her back.
In my mad state of fear, I confessed it all to Topsy. I told her what Brigitte could see, the Shadows, what she could surely summon. Topsy listened, wide eyed, and said I must never go to Brigitte again, that we must lock her up, in the dark, where no shadow could ever survive. She began to spread the word, but again people pushed her aside, this Ungifted, worthless girl.
I tried to avoid Brigitte but I could hear her calling out to me, her voice echoing through my mind. She was in pain, and she was scared. The Shadows were trying to consume her. If they succeeded, then they could break into our world through her. She pleaded this wasn’t what she wanted, she had only wanted to help the world, but every time she helped it brought the Shadows a little closer, and who was I not to believe her, my sweet, sweet beautiful Brigitte? She was the girl who brought happiness, and I had given her nothing but pain to suckle at.
I went to Brigitte and now it was my turn to cry. But my tears did not heal her. She was dying. Her heart was turning black, rotting from the inside out, and she was quickly losing control of it. She wept along with me, but now instead of pearls, it was her soul which seeped out of her, burning down her cheeks, melting away the skin, an acidic shadow come to tear us apart.
I could not leave my Brigitte to die. There was still time. The Shadows hadn’t broken through yet. I could save her still; I could save her still while people still believed her pure.
Don’t, she whispered as I left. Don’t.
But of course I did not listen, because I believed I was right; I wanted her to stay with me. Forever.
Topsy said she knew a way, but that it would be risky. She had stolen the Book of Sorcery and read through it to see if it gave a way to contain Brigitte. She couldn’t understand everything, the words not all being visible to her, but she was certain she had seen a way to help Brigitte. It was clear that Brigitte’s heart was suffering, she said, and it wasn’t enough that our hearts were bound; she needed a heart completely. Topsy had found a spell to cut out my heart and grant me immortality. I could then use my heart to save Brigitte, whoever being granted another’s heart being cured of any ailment. And so we set to work. Topsy gathered the supplies: a knife of gold to do the cutting, herbs to sprinkle into the wound, and a net to hold the heart in.
The spell worked exactly as it should, but exactly as it should was not within our realm of current knowledge. The words that Topsy could not see were those that contained the truth of the spell.
When Topsy held my heart in her hand, she hesitated. I advanced towards her, holding the net out wide. I needed this for Brigitte, but she clutched my heart to her chest, her eyes flashing. All she ever wanted was for me to love her, and not Brigitte, never Brigitte. I could see what she was thinking. Brigitte did not deserve my heart. Brigitte had everything, and Topsy was going to take it from her.
She plunged my heart within herself, and it was as though a knife of fire had ripped into my chest. I knew this wasn’t my pain, but Brigitte’s, at losing my heart forever. My last image of her, flickering in and out, left her crumpled on the ground and weeping fury. The Shadows had at last been released.
But it was not Brigitte who released them. It was us.
As I ran towards Topsy, enraged and going for my heart, I broke apart. Whatever was good in me was ripped away and all that was left was shadow. I had become – created – what had only been a flicker within Brigitte’s mind. I was an empty soul, bound to this world, dead but not resting, alive but not living. I was a Shadow. And with no heart of my own left to give to Brigitte, I had no choice but to do to others what had been done to me until I found a heart good enough for my Brigitte.
The first heart I took was Topsy’s. She had consumed mine and now I would take away hers. But first she would suffer for what she had done to me, and to Brigitte. I clenched my fingers around her skull until her insides oozed from her nose, her ears, her eyes. She screamed and wriggled and just before she could earn the sweet release of a lasting death, I reached into her chest and tore her heart out whole. She did not deserve to be granted peace in death. I stole her heart and doomed her as a Shadow forever.
I placed her heart into the net and slung it over my shoulder. I slouched forward, legs dipping, yet taller than I’d ever been, a creature of shadowed sinews and muscle, a creature torn inside out. I cast no shadow because I was the shadow, and through the dark I could travel, where none would see me approach. I reaped their hearts, every last one, carved from their chests and flung into my net of growing proportions. I was the Collector, the first and only of its kind, and all the other Shadows I had created flew away screeching as I passed.
They blamed Brigitte for what I had done. They locked her away in a tower, and feared her as the controller of these wicked Shadows, tricksters and thieves, murderers and plunderers. They feared her when they should have been fearing me. I would not rest until I had stolen all of their hearts. Into my net they would go, the beating masses of their souls. I would not stop, I could not stop, until I had found a heart to save my Brigitte. But none so far were worthy; every one had used her, betrayed her, in a way, and it took everything in me not to crush their pathetic unworthy hearts into a pulp. I would find a heart for Brigitte, if it took every last bit of me.
I collected their hearts, plundered their souls, tore them from humanity for years. My net drooped low beneath me, dragging on the ground, leaving a trail of glistening red wherever I went. Brigitte could have any heart she wanted; I had them all. My net was full and it was time for her to choose. I dragged my net behind me, searching for her tower.
At last I found it. I ascended the spiral staircase, my net of hearts thumping on each stair. I approached her steadily, thump, thump, thump. I was gaining, I was yearning, thump, thump, thump. Soon, together we could be, forever, thump, thump…
I was standing at her door. A locked wooden door, erected between us once more. This time that would not be enough to stop me. I faded through the door, and stood before her at last.
Our first look at one another in years was a shock to us both. We both looked mighty changed. She was curled on the ground, shivering and clinging to herself. She was a near skinless being, withered and weakened by all that she had given of herself to others. Her bones poked through flesh, her hair left straggled and kinked, and her eyes had lost their colour completely, the blue and even the green faded down to grey. But to me, she was beautiful.
She looked at me and her face crumpled into sadness. I knelt before her and she raised a shaking hand to my cheek. I expected to feel nothing but a cold clammy touch; warmth had long since stopped affecting me, but to my pleasurable surprise, her touch contained heat that spread its way through me, lighting me momentarily from my Shadowed state, giving me the appearance of flesh and hope once more. As soon as she took her hand away though, the illusion disappeared and I was once more encased in rotting shadows.
What did you do to yourself? Her voice, no more than a whisper, leaked and trembled as a fresh tear from an eye, and she surveyed me in despair.
I tore my heart out for you, I replied. She turned her face from me.
I told her I had come to save her, and began sprinkling the hearts all around us, encircling us with my collection. She looked at every heart as I laid it to the ground and said nothing. When I had finished, her gaze returned to me, the greying eyes wide and hopeless. She then moved her hand to her own chest and in this gesture revealed her heart to me. It was shrivelled and sunken, encased in an oozing sickly black that clung and burned whatever it touched. But there was one spot, one spot, that remained untouched, and it beat strongly still and was everything that was good of her.
I kept it for you, she said. I’m dying, love, there’s nothing more for you to do. Her hands moved to mine. But I can’t leave you like this. You have always been more than just shadow.
And so Brigitte bestowed one last gift of kindness to the world, to me. She allowed herself to cry for others one last time, and with a pearl as big as a heart, she gifted me the last of her goodness. She placed the pearl into my empty chest and sealed it shut, kissed my forehead goodbye, then laid her head to rest upon my lap. In this moment, I knew that I would never leave this tower. I would sit and remain with Brigitte, curled up on top of me, witnessed by every heart in the world.
As I watched the last of life ebb its way from Brigitte, I began to cry. And through my tears, I saw Brigitte and I, perfect and beautiful, dancing and laughing away into forever.