❅ Chapter 1 ❅

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The village would be waking soon. I had to move.

I lay on my back, the rotting wood of my cot biting into my spine, trying to muster the will to creep out from under the thin blanket I called my own. Maggie would be coming in soon, her thinning hair so white it looked like frost on twigs, and her broom in hand, shouting for the kids dreaming next to me to wake. She would lumber in with curses dancing on her lips, snapping nasty words at the children until some cried. She would tell them how the world would be better off without them, how her world would be better off without them, and then send them into the village to get today's breakfast - which was probably the only meal they would receive today.

Not if I could help it.

Emma, the seven-year-old lying above me shifted in her sleep, mumbling to herself and sending a small amount of straw from her mattress falling to the floor like golden snow. She grunted her mother's name, and my heart broke. Shattered. She didn't have a mother anymore. Or a father, for that matter. None of us did.

I watched as the straw flittered to the floor, illuminated by the rising sunlight pouring in from the broken window on the wall.

I sat up, stretching my spine and stiff muscles. Perhaps I would get enough food for at least four kids today, and if luck was on my side, maybe more. Wiggling my toes into my old pair of leather boots, I snuck across the shack's stone floor and squeezed through the only rotting door in the small building. The early October air was frigid, but I didn't mind. Cold really didn't bother me.

Perhaps that was why the boys in the orphanage called me Freezy Evey. I'm the only girl from twelve and up. I'm the only seventeen-year-old girl who had made it this far in this orphanage, and in a few weeks, I would be the first girl to reach eighteen. And once I turned eighteen, I'd enlist in the Order to fight in the war because if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be starving in the first place.

For some mysterious reason, Maggie's kids kept dying off one by one like fleas on a dog. But I mean, at least fleas got fed. The Order of the Seven didn't even bat an eyelash if one kid withered away to nothing. Or two, or three. I guess if you have magical powers and call yourself a witch, the kids who weren't lucky enough to be born into the Order aren't any of your concern.

I stuck to the shadows, clinging to them like a life line. The sad part about it was, they were. If I got caught out of bed before the Rising Bell signaled it was time to start the day, I could get a bullet between the eyes, or worse. I could be Stripped.

Being Stripped is the worst form of torment known to man, at least that's what they tell me. The Order pushes you through the gates and into the Core, where they literally strip you of your mind, feeding from your life essence until you're nothing but an empty sack of skin.

I shivered at the thought and hurried through the labyrinth of broken buildings and skeletons of houses that had become as familiar to me as the backs of my hands, until I came to a puny building that was made up of decaying wood and a rusting sheet of tin as its roof. But what lay inside was the prize. The pearl within the clam.

My heartbeat sounded in my ears as I closed in, eyes open and ears alert. My fingers curled around the gnarled knob. I gave my wrist a quick twist and slithered inside.

* * * * * * *

Blackness greeted me when the door squeaked shut. A single staircase of broken wood lay before me, illuminated by a single torch nailed into the wall. The familiar aroma of cigar smoke and vomit tickled my nostrils, making me crinkle my nose and my stomach roll. Hearty laughter of many anonymous individuals bounced off the steps, and I almost turned around and fled, pride be damned. But then I thought of the seven other kids tucked in their cots at home, bellies shrunken to mere nothing, and I gritted my teeth.

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