The Strength of the Heart

Two friends-turned-rivals hear the screams of those in need. How far will they go to help?

The sun’s hazy orange light illuminated Churchway Drive. Sandleton’s All Saints’ Church, in the cemetery the road bordered, rang its thousand-year-old bells six times. The road was all but empty, aside from two lone, homebound students from the Sandleton School of Excellence.

“Oh, Lizzie Lizbiz, Teachers-Pet-Of-The-Century! Mr Richard’s beloved snitch!” The tall, stocky boy mocked the short girl from behind. His deep voice struggled to compete with the tolling of the bells, but she heard him regardless. He stormed toward her, catching up to her casual stroll with ease.

“Lizbiz!”. Elizabeth flicked her ponytail over her shoulder with a scowl. She stared straight ahead with her best poker face, waiting with her teeth grinding together. She dragged her fingers brushed over the chipped, bumpy metal railings as she walked, feeling every inch.

“I have enough of dealing with you at school, Aaron. Leave me alone.” Elizabeth dismissed Aaron with a lazy shoo from her free hand, pressing harder into the fencing.

Aaron screeched a noise somewhere between a hiss and a scream. He booted a half-full bottle of energy drink resting on the curb hard enough to send it into the gardens across the wide road and stomped up to Elizabeth. He grabbed her shoulder and spun her to face him.

“Leave you alone?! Leave YOU alone?! Elizabeth, why couldn’t you have just left ME and MY business alone?”

Elizabeth slapped his hand off of her shoulder. She squared up to him with a wide set stance, staring daggers into his eyes with an accusatory finger pointed at his face.

“Your contraband sales are not a business, Webb, merely an excuse for you to profit from your poor morals. Someone had to step in on behalf of the students you may have influenced with your… destructive behaviours.”

“‘Destructive Behaviours?!’ Is that a line Mr Richards fed you?! I sold sweets, not fucking drugs, Biscuit, give me a break!” Elizabeth noted that the veins in Aaron’s temples were prominent. He grabbed her again, a hand on each upper arm and while it didn’t harm her, Elizabeth sensed his struggle to contain the shakes wracking through his frame.

At least he can hold himself back somewhat nowadays. Elizabeth thought to herself with bittersweet fondness. Until her brain caught up to what he’d said.

“You lost the right to call me Biscuit, Webb, after what you did to me.” Elizabeth’s barbed hiss shot from her lips.

Elizabeth observed in silence as Aaron withdrew into himself. His arms dropped from her shoulders like lead weights. His shoulders hunched in and his fingers curled, halting in their reach for her.

She felt his regretful, harrowed gaze trying to pierce her, beg her, to say the apologies couldn’t voice. Despite the pain she knew she’d caused, wanted to cause, she got no satisfaction. She only felt the usual heartache he brought her.

“Elizabe-” Aaron started. His voice cracked. As he cleared his throat, she continued on without him.

Elizabeth flounced down the path through the old, flaking black gates. A plaque, rusted and worn, rested on the laurels of the woven metal gate. Elizabeth had read it many times. ‘Thosæ hǒu livede a’d diede for th’ glorī ophe Sangultn’.

Elizabeth trotted down the sprawling path. Her shoulders shook in a tremor she fought to control as she chewed her lip. Without thinking, she shoved her hand deep into her overfilled, battered satchel to retrieve her treasure. Her fingers wrapped around her iPod with its stringy in-ear earbuds.

“Thank Goodness.” Elizabeth let out a sigh of relief and hummed a tune in victory. She punched the air with a cheerful jig, brandishing her prize.

Aaron whipped around the corner, dashing through the gates and straight up to her. Her smile slid from her face. His face was a ticking time-bomb, red, strained and focused straight at her. Elizabeth prepared herself for him to explode, but then-

“Is- is that Taylor’s old iPod?” Aaron asked. Elizabeth spotted his eyes widening as he caught himself after the question had left his lips. The rage drained from his face as he relaxed. His lips stretched into a hesitant smile. He shoved his hands in his pockets, looking anywhere but at her.

Elizabeth watched as Aaron fidgeted, flicking his eyes between the floor to the iPod in a way he must have thought was discreet, scuffing the toe of his shoe into the path. Elizabeth sighed heavily and opened her hand, letting him glimpse its faded sheen.

“It is.” Elizabeth said. She held it up against her chest, covering it with both hands.

“… We used to sneak that old thing off Taylor all the time.” Aaron said. His voice was barely a whisper.

“You took it. I couldn’t ever take that which isn’t mine.” Elizabeth couldn’t stop herself from replying.

“… Truce, if you let me share.”

“I thought you said iPods are pathetic?”

Aaron spluttered. “Well, they are! But my phone’s dead and it’s a long walk home without music, and Taylor has good taste. Plus, you owe me. If I didn’t have detention because of you, I would’ve had a lift home.” Aaron shuffled on the spot with a hopeful glance at her hands.

A smile threatened to pull at Elizabeth’s face. “You got yourself detention, Aaron.”

But with a soft chuckle, she opened her grip. “You’re obsessed with Eminem.”

“That’s because he’s the rap GOD!” Aaron’s grin lit up his entire face. Elizabeth choked a snicker back and handed him the iPod, letting him sort himself as she slid an earbud into her ear.

They must have looked a pair, Elizabeth thought to herself. His hand was almost resting on her shoulder to accommodate her cheap, too-short-on-one-side earbuds. Elizabeth glanced at the iPod screen and watched as Aaron scanned through the songs almost quicker than they could read.

“How does he not have Rap God?!” Aaron scrolled through the vast playlist with a look of sheer dismay. Elizabeth forced herself to stop looking at it before it made her laugh.

“It HAS just come out, Curly. Besides, it’s mine now, fair and square.” Aaron stumbled in his step and Elizabeth cursed under her breath. Their eyes caught each other.

“You… called me Curly.” Aaron’s hand brushed against hers, testing the waters to hold it. He just opened his mouth to speak when it happened.

An unholy wailing pierced the air. It started at a low tone, a guttural, grating cry, but built up to a pitch so high it could be mistaken for a screeching tire. Mangled and tortured as it was, the noise was very distinct, and very human. It penetrated deep into Elizabeth’s ears. Her breath caught in her throat.

She spun on her heel, darting her eyes across all she could see to pinpoint where it was coming from, before she settled on the Church’s shadow, which fell on the forest of ancient dark-barked trees which walled off the back of the churchyard.

The flock of starlings that lived in the trees startled from their trees. They swarmed above them in unison, and swooped straight toward Elizabeth and Aaron, and straight over the gates from where they’d come.

“Eerie. Don’t like that. Don’t like that at all.” Elizabeth watched as Aaron’s face stayed fixed on the starlings. His hand gripped Elizabeth’s shoulder with only the smallest of shudders.

“We’re going.” Elizabeth said. She took the iPod from Aaron’s loose grip and began running toward the scream.

“Biscuit, what the hell?!” Aaron yelped and jogged after her. “We better go, y’know, the right way?!”

“It sounds like someone’s hurt, Aaron! We can’t just leave them there to suffer. We need to get them medical attention!”

So, how about no, let’s NOT be white people in a horror movie? We go back to the gate, leave the creepy noise where it is and get home safe and sound. Whatcha say?” Aaron suggested with false cheer.

“If you don’t want to help them, Curly, that’s up to you, but I’m going!” Elizabeth turned and ran.

“Hey!” Elizabeth blocked Aaron out and kept running. Her feet pounded the floor between the lines of graves. She felt her heartbeat thud in her ears, her breaths came in heavy gasps, but she knew that whoever was screaming like that needed help.

Her fists clenched as she ran, swinging her arms to launch her forward. She gripped her iPod so tightly she could feel the wires pressing into her skin. She almost missed it as she passed her father’s grave. A flicker of red caught her attention from his direction, but she couldn’t stop.

The screams flared up again. Elizabeth noticed that she’d arrived at the Church, with its tall, imposing tower hoisting its clock on high. The bells tolled for half hour, as the remnants of the red sunset that washed the church began to fall behind the horizon. The polished metal doors looked downright sinister in red, Elizabeth noted.

On either side of the church, backing from its end, was the black metal fence, and behind that was the trees. Elizabeth hauled herself over the fence and into the unknown.

Elizabeth landed roughly against the earthy soil on the other side of the fence. She shook her head, grabbed the nearest branch and pulled herself up with a soft grunt. She straightened herself up, scanning the forest’s abyss with her sharp glare.

That soul-wrenching wail tore at her from the inside. It sounded too much like a voice she knew for comfort. From this short distance, it rooted Elizabeth in place. She shuddered.

There was nothing she had ever heard in her life comparable to the sheer horror in every note of pain expressed. That scream crawled up her spine from a distance, but from here; it struck a chord deep in her very soul and drew her to it. She needed to help.

The forest was old and wild. The ‘trees’, or what she had assumed were multiple trees, were in fact all visibly connected. Shared branches linked neighbouring trunks together, where one started and the other began were indistinguishable.

The slight amount of light that penetrated through the thick layer of thin needles above her didn’t illuminate a safe path, but Elizabeth didn’t care. What mattered was helping that poor person escape their torture and getting them to help. She scrambled over the first few branches, but on the third thick trunk, as she clambered over, she slipped. A loud snap reverberated through the trees.

“Ouch!” Elizabeth yelped. She looked at her thigh. Shakes wracked through her body, but with a deep breath, she looked to see that a branch had ripped through her trousers. She pulled the torn fabric away to see that the tip had pierced her leg. The wound was a glistening, angry red, pooling warm blood around the rough branch. She bit down hard on her tie to stifle a sob. Her hands grabbed the branch with a slight tremor and pulled. She tossed the broken branch to the floor with more force than necessary. Her fingers trembled as she tugged her tie from around her neck.

“It’s okay, it’s gonna be fine. When Curly gets the ambulance here, they’ll just pop a bandage on it for me! I’ll be fine.” She wrapped the tie delicately over her wound.

Pushing her pain aside, all she could think about was the screams. They were scraping the walls of her skull from the inside with their piercing pitch. Elizabeth whimpered. If she was in that much pain, how much pain was the person screaming in?

She reached up to the sturdy branches with renewed vigour. The reddish-brown bark dug into Elizabeth’s hands as she pulled herself up and over. She struggled to get through the gaps, and despite her body being awkwardly shaped for such small holes, she persevered.

A glimpse of whatever was behind the trees soon came. A glowing green smoke began penetrating through the trees and Elizabeth grew frantic.

“Hold on, I’m coming.” Elizabeth said under her breath. She wiggled over the last branch with a shimmy. Her feet hit the ground with a thud, and the rest of her hit the ground straight after. Elizabeth groaned in pain, wrapping her scratched and bloodied hands around the thick trunk behind her. She hauled herself up with a grunt.

Here, the screams were plentiful and harrowing. They filled the entire clearing Elizabeth found herself in.

“Hello?!” Elizabeth called. The screams stopped abruptly, dying off into echoes, before there was no noise at all.

In the silence the screams had behind, the clearing had an eerie sense of stillness. The green smoke lingered, hovering over the floor of the grounds, hiding the floor from view. Elizabeth took a deep breath and paused. The air had a sweet fragrance, sweet, like fermenting fruit with a hint of metal.

Her eyes scanned the clearing for any signs of life and only found stillness. The back of the clearing, walled by more of the same thorny forest she had fought her way through, were seven dilapidated mausoleums, each with a door of a dark wood and metal. Despite the only light being that of the moon and stars, Elizabeth could clearly see the state of disrepair they were in. The rest of the clearing was empty, and so she stepped forward to search.

The carpet of plant matter lining the clearing floor was lumpy under Elizabeth’s feet. Dead leaves crunched with each of her steps, ending with squelches as her feet pushed them further into the ground with her weight. She limped gingerly through, getting ever closer to the mausoleums.

Elizabeth cupped her hands around her mouth. “Shout, I’ll come find you! It’s gonna be okay!”

She staggered, falling with her shoulder against one of the outer mausoleums. With no custodian, they had fallen to ruin. Elizabeth saw the sections of stone behind the thick vines of ivy were yellowed and crumbling between the gaps of her splayed fingers. The stone was chalky, supported only by the vast root system that had worked their way through the stone to anchor it all in place.

However, compared to the ruin she rested against, the central mausoleum was almost untouched. It towered above the others. Elizabeth stared at the effigies of twisted angels that made up the walls of the mausoleum. There were no bricks and no visible flat lines. Instead, it was as if someone had made the entire building from angels and cast it with stone. In each corner, in place of regular pillars, lifesize figures of angels struggled to hold the weight of the roof with drooping wings, almost bowing to its size. As she got closer, Elizabeth’s eyes widened as she took in the decor. The walls of the mausoleum hosted faces in varying states of expression, from joy to peace and sorrow to agony. But just as her eyes settled on them, The screams started again.

The human edge to the scream had vanished. Gone were the cries of a human being calling for help. The screaming that rattled through Elizabeth’s ears was raw and entirely primal, but this time, they cut short with a snap. It echoed through the Mausoleum. Elizabeth crawled forward and poked her head slowly around the corner of the open mausoleum door, wrapping her shaking fingers over the corner of an angel’s leg.

Elizabeth recoiled. The smell was immense, like old blood and rot. Down the steps of the mausoleum, before the ornate tomb at the back of the chamber, was a tarred cauldron spewing that heavy blanket of smoke. It bubbled ferociously, with gushes of its contents painting the floor beneath it with a harsh sounding sizzle. A dark figure hunched over the cauldron, stirring with abandon, and muttering under their breath.

“Bodī sanguine, ownede bī th’ Villin, servæ thy dutī ēne moræ. Bodī sanguine, hosÞ ophe forsaken, show thy veire self ēne moræ!” The deep, commanding voice had a distinctly feminine edge, and with its last word, the bubbling stopped. The smoke thinned out almost immediately, and Elizabeth pulled herself backward just as the figure threw their head back in a cheer of triumph. Its thin, bony fingers threw the long white spoon from the cauldron to the side, and turned. Elizabeth couldn’t see their hands, but could see the long since dead stationary figure laid on a pedestal behind the figure.

Elizabeth heard the jingling of buckles as the figure undid the bindings of the still figure to the pedestal. With each release, the body groaned. One of its shaking arms rose into the air. Elizabeth’s breath came in fast pants. Her fingers shook as she edged herself away from the open door. Elizabeth shifted her weight behind her, stretching her bad leg to coil around the angel. She pushed herself up with her uninjured leg. She found a good grip with her full hand grasping the knee of the angel. If she could just-

A rough hand clapped onto her shoulder. “Hey, Did you find the screamer?” Aaron asked.

Elizabeth startled and fell, head-butting the rock beneath her.


“I told you to get help!” She spat at him. He slipped his fingers through his sandy-brown curls, with a half laugh on his lips.

“And I told you I couldn’t leave you to go on your own, but God knows you never listen to me!” Aaron said. Elizabeth sighed as he reached out his large hand and used it to pull herself up. She staggered. Aaron swooped under her outstretched arm and wrapped his free arm securely around her waist. Elizabeth relaxed as he pulled her up against his warm body.

“What's the matter, Biscuit, trip on a rock?” Elizabeth glared at him. She opened her mouth to retort when a gentle melodious laugh chimed from behind Elizabeth's ear.

Elizabeth’s head turned slowly back to the door of the mausoleum, where the figure stood, waiting with a thin, black blade pointing directly at Elizabeth’s eye.