Fighting for Life

Rebecya has taken an oath; never to love again, and to find her true home. But as her life is put at risk, and her courage is tested to the extremes, she finds herself testing her oath too. Where will she find her true home before it is too late? Read it to find out! :) And please comment what you think, cheers!

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2. Home Sweet Home?

When I finally get home, I hurt all over. But I will not complain. I don’t want any ones’ sympathy. I don’t want a mothers’ gentle touch. I don’t want kind words from my family.

I don’t love my family. I feed them, yes, but anyone would feed their family. But I don’t love them. And they don’t love me. At least, my mother doesn’t, she just stands there, not saying anything when I come home, bloody and bruised, every day. She never makes any move to clean the cuts, never says thanks for bringing food. The others just don’t like me very much.

Long ago, I loved somebody. In fact, I loved lots of people. My mother, father, siblings. Detlan. And every person I loved hurt me. Especially Detlan.

We’d grown up together, Detlan and I. But as we got older, I started liking him in a different way. He became more than a big brother to me, and I tried to tell him one day when we were about twelve. But he was the type of person to whom popularity matters more than anything else, and at that time, I was nothing, pretty much. He’d sneered at me, telling me to get lost, that he’d never like a little thing like me. We didn’t speak much after that.

In the next two years, I started getting a reputation. Boys started paying attention to me. And, eventually, Detlan. He followed me around for ages, trying to impress me. After a while, I got sick of it and basically told him to bog off. I said that if he liked me, he should have said yes when I liked him too. He said that hadn't seen what I could have become, that now I was worth it. That had pushed me over the edge; that he only liked me because I would make him look good. I had started yelling and screaming at him, saying I’d never go near a jerk like him. He left, dejected.

 

But not a week later, he was back again, saying how much he liked me, that he couldn’t live without me. I told, him “Go away, if you like me all that much, you wouldn’t have said now I was worth it. And besides, I could live fine without him, so he must just be a weak little boy who wanted a popular girlfriend.” He’d freaked out on me then, throwing punches, screaming, pulling a knife from a pocket, brandishing it in my face. I fought back for as long as I could, but he was bigger and heavier, and eventually over powered me. I can’t remember much from that point on; I fainted and got a concussion, so it’s not really surprising. When I woke, I had managed to crawl to my house, where I collapsed. Mother found me and patched me up, looked after me.

I was in a deep coma for a week, all that time my mother watched over me and Detlan never showed his miserable little face.

 

When I’d woken, mother was overjoyed, saying how worried she’d been, how much she loved me. At those words, I’d exploded. They were the last words Detlan had said to me before he freaked out. I’d jumped up, screaming at my mother. And my father, when he came to see what all the shouting was about. I can’t remember, but I think I said that they didn’t love me, they hadn't warned me about him, and that they had never loved me, they were lying, they didn’t deserve my love, they didn’t deserve anything. Then I’d had yelled as loud as I could that I would never love anybody ever again. Especially worthless things like them.

 

It drove them over the edge. My father ran off; my mother became a shrunken-faced, depressed old woman. And my siblings started to blame me; for fathers’ disappearance, mothers problem. And they were right. But it was Detlan who caused it. Which is why, one night, I promised myself I would never love again. Never.

 

After Detlan and I had our argument, I started bunking school; starting fights; made a gang of all the girls who were tough enough to be in a gang, but were scared of the boys’ gangs. We were pretty formidable. They called themselves the Uncut Diamonds. I was untouchable. No one could try get me, the girls stopped them. But after a while, their interests changed; they didn’t want to be in a separate gang from the boys, they wanted to be with the boys. So we disbanded, all going our separate ways. By that time, I had a pretty good (or bad, depending which way you looked at it) reputation. If I wanted to trash the school, at least twenty or so people would volunteer to help me, and not just ex-Uncut Diamonds. Everyone knew about me. How I look after my crew; how I have never lost a fight; how I have never been caught. But they didn’t want to stay with me. Because they knew the other stories. How I had picked a fight with Detlan; how I had assaulted a law-enforcer, several times. How, if you went against me, I would slowly destroy everything you had. Not like the Diamond Thief’s, stealing the things you hold precious. I would destroy everything. And I let the rumours circulate. They didn’t do me any harm. And if people stayed away from me, it was even better.

 But now, I just let the rumours carry on. Most of them are about what I used to do, and how I could do it again. Some are made up by people who don’t like me, thinking that by saying that, it will make people avoid me. But mostly, people just leave me alone, giving me space, respecting the rumours.

 

Now, almost two years after the argument, I live in a detached life, interacting with no one. I haven’t been to school properly for a year or so, and the teachers have stopped asking me when I will turn up again.

I don’t care about anyone. I feed my family, but only because I should. I steal, I lie, and I have murdered. But I don’t care. What's the point in feeling guilty about what's in the past? It’s done, dusted. And if you don’t feel guilty after, what's stopping you from doing things? And if you don’t love anyone, you don’t feel guilty when they tell you off.

So I do anything I want; because no one tells me off.

 

I reach our house, which is slightly out of the main group of houses, and look at it. The roof sags in the middle, the walls bulge with damp and the whole thing looks derelict. I spot my mother’s face through the grimy windows. Lines criss-cross her forehead, and her eyes are sunken; deep pools of hurt and anger. She's weak, I realise. Unable to cope with the loss of me. I cope with the loss of her, my father, my siblings, everyone; why shouldn’t she cope with the loss of just me?

 

I march into the house. The smell of damp, rat and old stew hits me. It’s unpleasant, and I wrinkle my nose. My mother spots me doing it, and sighs, as if she worked hard to try and clean up. If she did, you can’t tell the difference.

I drop the food on the table, and she sighs again, this time the sound filled with exasperation.

“Couldn’t you get more than that?” she asks, holding up my three wild onions and two bags of plums. “And what has happened to your clothes? It looks like you purposely shredded them.” Her voice rises in anger, two red spots appearing on her cheeks.

I stare at her with a blank expression. She flinches at the empty look I give her.

“If you have a problem with the food, go get some yourself,” I say in a pleasant tone, sarcasm and disgust thinly veiled under the civil words. She recoils as if I physically punched her. I pick the food up, and make to go out the door with it. She stares at me with shocked eyes, as if surprised I could say such a thing, though she should be used to it. Then she shouts at me, her dull eyes burning with rage.

“No, I cannot go get some food, because I have a bad leg and an ill husband to look after. Both of which are your fault.” I spin around, my own eyes, so similar to mine in colour, burning with their anger. But my anger has always been more powerful than hers. I remember the day I had pushed her and she had fallen and broken her leg.

“Heal it. And it’s his own fault, getting stuck in that wheelchair. He ran away and got himself drunk and run over by a wagon. Let him fend for himself. You make me do that, why not him?”

She starts shouting properly now, the words harsh and furious.

“I do not make you fend for yourself, and don’t you ever say that. You don’t have any idea of how hard I work. I feed you, I give you a roof to sleep under, I give you clothes.” I let out a snort.

“I'm pretty sure I work harder than you. It’s me who catches the food, me who mends the roof, and me who trades for the cloth and thread to make the clothes. And you don’t even make the effort to get up and clean my cuts when I've been attacked by Them.”

Her  eyes fill with tears, running down her tired face. My own eyes are watering, but because of my anger, not because of our words. I tell myself that, at least.

She starts sobbing, rocking back and forth in her seat, and her hands over her face. Her dirty, brown hair, grey at the roots, hangs limply in a braid over one shoulder, swinging as she rocks. I watch her with a cold distaste.

“My baby, my baby,” she starts whimpering. “I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. What has become of you? I'm so sorry.” Over and over again, the tears running down her face and hands.

As my anger starts to drain away, I say;

“It’s too late now, mother. I don’t love you, and you don’t want to love me.” I put the food gently on the table, and step out the house.

 

 

I walk out the back door, into our scabby little back garden. Sad looking carrot tops stick out the ground, with droopy potato plants and drab cabbages behind them. On the other side of the fence, our two goats and six chickens wander around in the mud, glumly pecking or pawing at the ground. I can’t see the pig.

 It never used to look like this. Before Detlan, the yard would have had healthy plants and happy animals. But now, it looks half deserted. If only Detlan hadn't come along…

I suddenly realise, it’s not too late to pretend Detlan didn’t happen with the yard. Too late for my family, yes, but not for the yard. I go into the shed that has more holes than roof, and grab a broom. On second thoughts, I drop it and pick a shovel instead. There would be no point in sweeping mud.

 

I walk out and dig the spade in to the ground. It sinks about half a foot down, and then hits the solid ground. Yuck. I have a sudden sensation of sinking… I glance at my feet and see only mud. Lovely I think. I fling the shovel full of mud over my shoulder, and hear it splatter across the ground. I realise there is no point in just throwing it everywhere, the mud is so liquid it will just flow back. I wade back to the shed and find our only wheelbarrow. I drag it out, and wheel it over to where I’d started. As I’d thought, the mud had all seeped back to its original position. I thrust the spade in again, and toss the load of mud into the barrow. After about twenty-five shovel loads of mud, the barrow is full. I go over to the fence, and open the gate into the animals. I quickly dig around in the mud, and find some stones. I go over to the old sand pit; which, for some reason or other, is in with the animals. I make the walls higher, then go back for the barrow. Wheeling it through the mud is slow, but I get there. I tip it into the enclosure. I decide to clear a path to the gate, so I can work faster.

Clearing the path definitely helped, now I can go at a normal speed while wheeling the barrow. Unfortunately, the mud does seep back. But I just scoop it into the barrow as I go along. Soon the mud pit thingy is full, and most of the area around the veg is clear. I pause for a moment, wipe my hands on my legs. The mud feels smooth between my toes, cool and slippery. I sigh, and get back to work.

 

The splint on my hand makes things awkward, I take it off, flex my fingers. They must have only been dislocated, because they're fine now. Handling the spade without the splint is a lot easier, and I start to work faster. Even so, the sun has set by the time I have finished the veg area, the mud that wouldn’t fit in the sand pit thrown over the wall. I’ll leave the animals till tomorrow. I carefully store the shovel and barrow in the shed. I use a scoop, and get a full portion of grain for the chickens. I throw the food into their enclosure, and they gobble it up like they’re starving. They probably are, I certainly never feed them, and I'm pretty sure my family don’t either. I peer into the house, and see no one. I slip in, and poke around until I find a pot of old vegetables that are half covered in a thin sauce. I doubt any human in their right mind would eat it, so I judge it to be okay to give to the livestock. I lug the heavy pot out the house, and pour it into the stone trough. The pig materialises from the mud and scoffs the lot, only leaving a few bits of cabbage that the goats quickly demolish. I rummage in the shed until I find a sack of old straw, crumbling and dry, but it will do. I take an arm load and drop it into the pen; the goats gobble it down like there's no tomorrow. I feel guilty about the year or so of neglect they had gone through; but, soon, they will be as good as new.

 

I stand outside for a bit, my breath smoking in the cold air. I stare at the stars, bright in the dark sky. I sigh, and walk over to the stone trough full of water. I swish my hands around in it, and then give up, because I am filthy all over. I rummage around in the shed, and find a plastic measuring jug. The numbers have all worn off, but it’s fine for my purpose.

I go back to the trough, and take my cardigan, shirt and over-trousers off. I'm then standing there in my vest top and leggings. I fill the jug with water and pour it over my head. The water is freezing, and runs off me in brown rivulets. It stings my cuts, but then numbs them. After ten or so jug fulls, I look around and quickly peel off my remaining clothes. I stand there, shivering, in my under clothes, trying to pull my dry clothes back on. Not wanting to be seen naked, I don’t bother changing my under clothes. They aren’t that wet, and I’ll soon be changing for bed anyway.

I put the jug away, and pick up my wet clothes. Mother’s right, they are wrecked, but they’ll do for hunting. I wrap my last bit of cloth around the deeper gash in my leg. The scrapes from the water-demons’ teeth are scabbing over, I notice with satisfaction. I take a deep breath and enter the house.

 

A sullen atmosphere fills the house. It’s usually depressing in here, but not normally as bad as this. Dinner is the only time our family is all together, mainly because the taste of the food gets worse as it cools. Some of them actually like being part of a family, but the others just want to be warm.

I drop my clothes in a heap by the door, and sit in my place at the table. We wait, and then one of my brothers and his girlfriend come in, apologising for being late. When we are all sitting, mother turns in her seat and ladles out portions of stew. Being only two down from her, I can just feel the heat of the fire, but only when I lean back (which is not a good thing to do on a bench) and even then, only on my left side. Bowls and spoons are passed down, but we don’t start until father has his portion. Mother gives him his, turns around, and then we dive in.

We spoon the stew down as fast as we can. It seems to be a duck stew, probably using the last of the few I shot last week. It stringy meat isn’t very tasty, but the plums from today make it better, the onion too.

I finish my portion, and push my bowl into the middle of the table, dropping my spoon into it. I lean forward, elbows on the table, and study the faces of my family. My mother, talking to father; who, in turn, is trying to ignore her and talk to Lyam, my eldest half-brother. They seem to be talking about hunting, and my mother gives up and starts talking to Nhata, Lyam’s girlfriend. Opposite me, beside Lyam, is Tommi, my other half-brother. He was my favourite sibling, but even he began to blame me for our family issues. Then there is Lucan, my twin brother. He’s really lazy and mean, and just now is teasing the two little kids beside him, Tanya and Zara. The other two smaller ones sit opposite them; Steffen and Mitran, while the two adopted kids Jema and Lucif sit at the foot of the table. They are my mother’s sister’s kids, but when her and her husband died in an explosion, mother took them in. They are really quiet, and have black hair, unlike our noisy side of the family with blonde or brown hair. Then, beside Steffen, there's me. I glance at mother, she's glaring at me, probably for staring at everyone.

I slouch forward farther, hiding my face with my hair. My hair is an oddity in our family. It’s brown, like Mother, Lucan and the younger ones, (Father, Tommi and Lyam have blonde hair). But it glints ginger. People say it looks the way my mother’s did when she was young, but father says that that’s not true. For the first six or so years of my life, he believed me to be his child. But when my hair took on this ginger tint, he began to doubt it. For three years after, he refused to accept I was his child, claiming mother had cheated on him. That was when mother and father began to argue, but it wasn’t until I argued with Detlan and shouted at my mother and him that he left.

 

I drop my head onto my arms, tired. My mother sighs, but doesn’t tell me to sit up. Instead she starts talking to Nhata again, saying how pleased she is that she and Lyam are moving in together. I lift my head enough to see Lyam blush and Nhata smile shyly. I let my head fall again, not interested in the preparations for their new house.

I breathe the sappy scent of the wooden table in, pretending I am I the woods alone. I tune every one out, waiting until mother gets the pudding. I almost succeed in imagining I am in the forest, when something wet and sticky hits the back of my neck. I swipe it off, lift my head and look at my hand. Brown saucy stuff. I sniff it, and realise it’s a lump of gravy. I glare around the table, looking for the culprit. Tanya and Zara are staring nonchalantly at Mitran and Steffen. Then Tanya giggles, glancing at me.

I smile. Tanya and Zara are the only people kinda I like, out of my entire family. They alone are the only ones who don’t blame me for father’s disappearance and accident. They and Steffen weren’t alive when he left, but Steffen was when he came back, crippled, when the accusations started. He and Mitran are slightly friendlier to me than their older siblings, but are still reserved. If our house was burning, and I could only save two people, it would be Tanya and Zara I would choose, without hesitation. Before father’s accident, it would have been Tommi, but now even he doesn’t like me very much.

 

I scoop a spoonful of gravy out of my bowl, and taste it. No wonder they aren’t eating it, its vile stuff on its own. I casually glance around, before launching my blob of gravy at them. It hits Tanya, and splatters over Zara, who’s sitting on her left. They give me pretend looks of outrage, and then break down into smiles.

A chunk of meat comes flying at me, and I catch it in my mouth. No point in wasting good food, even if it tastes like this. They burst out laughing, which attracts mother’s attention.

“What are you two doing now?” she asks, only half annoyed. They shake their heads mutely, hands clamped over their mouths. Mother shakes her head. “Maybe I should get the pudding, then they can go to bed.” She stands stiffly, gathering in the bowls that are being passed up. She walks over to the basin of water, and drops them all in it. She then picks up two dishes of something, and puts them on the table. One gets passed farther down to the younger ones. Mother also puts a loaf of bread in the middle of the table. I pull the dish over, and give it a sniff. My plums, mashed. I tear off a bit of bread and scoop out a lump of plum mush. I take a huge bite. It fills my mouth with sweetness, warming me through.

I am almost finished my third portion when something sticky hits my head. My head flashes up, I’m glaring at Tanya and Zara are laughing so hard they can’t swallow their portions of plum. I narrow my eyes, pretend to be furious with them. Then I launch my own attack, a handful of plum. It splatters across their faces. They grin, evil little smirks. They bring their hands up from under the table, and produce the left over’s from their meal, carefully wrapped in hankies. Meat, gravy, onion, bread, plum.

They chuck handful after handful at me. At first, it’s only between us three, but then Tanya ducks behind Lucan. He glares at first me then Tanya, then grabs a handful of plum from the bowl and throws it at me. But his aim has never been brilliant, so it hits Nhata. Lyam then springs to her defence, and showers the general area of where I am sitting in food. He also somehow manages to hit Tommi with the back swing of his hand, who then engages in a brotherly war with Lyam, who Nhata helps. Mitran and Steffen work together too, but their alliance comes to an end when Steffen accidently punches Mitran in the face. Mother and father don’t join in; obviously, neither do the adopted kids.. Me, I just sit back and watch the havoc I created.

 

Mother just rolls her eyes and wheels father away. We quite often have fights, and she knows not to try and break them up. Mainly, she’d get splattered in food, but also because our family’s fights are more than just sibling squabbles. We are actually fighting, letting our anger out. It’s safer to have a food fight than to keep the anger in and then attack each other with a knife…

The fun ends when someone throws a cupful of cold water at me. Food, ok, fine. Freezing water, not so ok. I jump up, staring wildly for the culprit. Most people carry on with their personal war, but Lucan looks worriedly at me. I reach over the table, grab him by the neck of his top and haul him onto the table. He jumps to his feet. I clamber onto the table too. I give him a shove, and he punches me. Hard. I go flying backwards, landing on the table on my back, smashing a pot. He looms over me, looking even taller than normal. He reaches out to grab me, and then I send I kick into his midriff. He stumbles backwards, and falls into a pot of the plum jelly. I'm leap on to him, punching and kicking, like a wild thing. He tries to throw me off, but he can’t. After about a minute, every one unfreezes, and takes that as a signal to start fighting too.

 

We start shouting, letting all the anger out. Random things like “you stood on me while I was sleeping!” and “you ate my portion of food yesterday!” Mother comes back in, shouting, but I can’t hear her, and I'm not even shouting. I slide off of Lucan, and sit back on my bench. I calmly sit there, every now and then dodging a stray fist or foot.

Eventually, the fight breaks up, when a piercing scream fills the air. Someone had kicked Jema, and, because she somewhat lacks our side of the family’s brawn, she screams when she doesn’t like the way things are going. She screams loudly, too.

Everyone stops, while mother rushes over to comfort her. Lucif sits there looking at us, frightened. Mother looks up from Jema, and glares at us all. Her gaze rests on me. I stare at her. Her voice cuts across the room, like a bullet from a gun.

“Do I even need to ask who started this? No, I think not. And why, too? That I do need to ask. So, tell me, why did you stir things up. Again.” At this I flinch. Yeah, this time it was kinda my fault, but usually it isn’t, she just blames me without asking. Her words rub me the wrong way, and my anger boils.

“Why, do you not want us to have any fun? Just because you don’t have any fun in your life, doesn’t mean we can’t have any.” She pinches her lips together, furious. She starts to speak.

“Young lady, you shall not speak to me in that way…” she breaks off, her mouth gaping as I laugh at her pitiful “I'm such a tough person” act. She flushes a deep, angry red. “Get out. Now. I will not have you in my house. Get out and don’t come back. I have had enough of you. Get out, now.”

I half smile. She sees it, and opens her mouth to speak again, but I beat her to it.

“You want me to leave? Really? You sure about that? Because when the roof is full of holes, and you have no money to trade with, and you are starving, I bet you're gonna want me back.” She begins to shake her head. “You don’t think so? Well, Lyam is moving into his new house tomorrow, and it’s on the other side of the woods, isn’t it. Too far to come to help you. And Tommi, he’s too busy working. This is the first time he’s been at home for ages. And he can hunt, yes, but he doesn’t know any tips for getting money, where to sell which meats. And Lucan, do you really think he could be bothered to get of his backside and do something? He can’t shoot, he can’t sew; the most he could do would be badly nail a plank of wood over a hole in the roof. But with what, when Tommi doesn’t know where to trade for roofing stuff. There is no way you could survive for long without me. But, if you're certain, I’ll leave. Have fun starving to death.” And with that I swing my legs over the bench and walk out the front door.

 

Now that I’m apparently “kicked out”, I figure I might as well have some fun. I head to Faryne’s; the closest person who is loyal to the old Uncut Diamonds. The walk through the village takes me about twenty minutes, and by the time I get there I'm worried she’ll have already left. I go around the back of her house, and give the back door a gentle knock, then let myself in.

The room is lovely and warm, a smell of stew in the air, much better than our cold, damp smelling house.

Faryne’s mother looks up from the pot over the fire; her face shows a brief moment of surprise before the pleasure replaces it. She likes me; I get Faryne out the house. But recently I've been too busy with my family to come around.

Faryne’s mother, who I now remember is called Marina, nods to Faryne’s room.

“She’s about to leave, you got her just in time” she says. I smile in reply, and head through. Faryne's room is a mess of clothes, food and bits of… junk I guess is the best way to describe it. A shoe there, a necklace, a bit of coloured string. I pick my way across, stepping over the wrecked music player. Faryne sits with her head bowed over something in her lap. Probably some old bit of electrical equipment, from before the Fall. I lean over her, my hair falling into her face. She starts, and twists around. She grins up at me, and then carefully places the delicate looking metal box on the ground.

She’s all done up for the evening, I realise. Black top, hot pink leggings and belt. I notice her outfit is an easy to move in one; clearly, she hasn’t forgotten her Uncut Diamond days, when we always had to be prepared to fight.

 

She lifts her hands up above her head, and I pull her to her feet. She brushes down her top, straightens her belt. I realise I must look a total mess. But Faryne doesn’t seem to mind. She pulls me into a tight hug. I hug her back, suddenly glad to have a friend. Suddenly, she steps back and wrinkles her nose.

“You stink” she says. I laugh, and turn to look in her huge mirror. She’s right, I probably do stink. Dried mud up to my knees from my walk to her house, food all over my clothes, and general muck on my face. And my clothes are wrecked too.

I shake my head in mock despair.

“Is that any way to greet a friend. “You stink”?” I laugh again, and it feels good, letting all my happiness out in a single sound. I face her again, hold out my arms and say “Well, you gonna fix me up or what?”

 

For the next half hour I relax on her tatty pink reclining chair (that’s stuck in a reclined position) while she cleans me up, sorts my hair and finds me some clothes, while filling me in with all the gossip I missed while I was with my family. I let her endless chatter sweep over me. As soon as I closed my eyes, the yellow hills had filled my mind. To be honest, I’d completely forgotten about them. I just lie there, holding them in my mind. But then one thing catches my attention. I bolt upright, sending hair clips everywhere.

“What? The Diamond Thief's think I'm dead?!” That’s news to me. As far as I know, I'm very much alive. True, not in great shape, but alive and kicking. Faryne scrambles for something to say. Her mouth opens and closes, like a fish. Eventually she comes up with something.

“Well, you’ll be able to prove them wrong tonight, won’t you? I mean, you are coming to the arena, aren’t you?” To Faryne, the arena is the place to go. Everybody who is anybody goes, but recently all I hear about it is that another fight broke out or something like that. I haven’t been for, well, since I took on the responsibility of looking after my family. Which was a long time ago.

But I don’t care about that. I'm still fuming over the fact that the Diamond Thief's think I'm dead. Trust me, if I died, it wouldn’t be quietly in some forest. I’d go out with style, everyone would know about it.

I sit there, mulling over some ideas. The only good one I can think of involves a big confrontation, and I’ll need a lot of people. More specifically, I need the whole of the ex-Uncut Diamonds. But, as I have been out of touch for so long, I have absolutely no idea where they are.

I turn to my source of all gossip. I realise she's talking to me, and I try to listen. “… and they just won’t believe it and-” I cut her off, holding my hand up.

“Where do the Uncut Diamonds go in the evening?” She swallows, thinks hard.

“Most go to the arena, but some go to the Hall. But tonight, everyone will be where the Diamond Thief's are, because apparently they are going to announce that you're dead-” I stand up suddenly.

 

“Announce… in front of everyone… that I'm… dead.” I didn’t mean it as a question, but it sounds like one. Faryne nods slowly.

“Y-yes. At the arena. Tonight.” Apparently, she thinks I wasn’t listening and only caught the last bit. I shake my head impatiently, scattering yet more hair thingy-s. I look in the mirror, and fling open her wardrobe. I rummage through it, searching for something more appropriate than a white lacy top and blue cotton three quarter lengths. I eventually find what I'm looking for; a black clingy t-shirt and red leggings. I pull on a pair of black ankle boots. I recognise them as the ones I altered for Faryne so if you kicked or something, they wouldn’t fall off. I tighten the hidden inside straps, securing them around my ankles.

I fluff my hair up; shake it out, so it looks more natural. I wash my face, wiping the make-up off; well, the little Faryne had had time to put on. I check in the mirror; perfect. I grab Faryne’s hand, who is frowning at my sudden interest in my appearance, and tow her out the house, waving a cheery good bye to Marina.

I swing her around to face me.

“Well,” I say, “What's the quickest way to the arena?”

 

Faryne says the announcement is going to be made at about ten, so we have an hour or so to wait. But I want to find all the Uncut Diamonds, so I send Faryne into the arena to find them. If anyone noticed me, it would ruin my plan.

I watch as she wades in to the crowds at the edge of the arena, until her blonde head is swallowed by the masses. A short while later, a tall girl comes out, and walks straight up to me. I tense, not sure of what she wants. She breaks into a smile when she sees my face. I suddenly recognise her as Fiota, an ex-Uncut Diamond. She's changed over the years, and now has several extra piercings through her ears, and one through her lip. She's shaved off her hair on one side of her face, and it reaches her ear on the other. The longer side has been badly died black, and some brown strands show. She used to be a plump, giggly girl. No wonder I didn’t recognise her.

 

But her personality hasn’t changed, and she gives me a hug, lifting me off the ground. She smells of old perfume, and of the arena. The arena has a certain smell, but I can’t identify it. It’s just something I automatically think when I smell it.

“What's is great plan o’ yours, then?” she asks, once she's put me down, chomping on some gum. I grin, but tell her to wait and see.

She nods and flops onto the ground. She pulls a pipe out of her pocket, lights it and takes a drag. I stare at the pipe. Its hot pink, but at the same times it’s see through. It bends and twists; and you can see the smoke inside moving along. When the smoke leaves the pipe, I see it’s thick and dark grey. It wafts up to my face, and I cough on it. She grins up at me.

“It’s the new thing to do,” she says, “Have a cool pipe, the better your pipe is, the better you are.” I stare at her. “It’s not that strange,” she adds defensively. “It’s a mark of your status.” I roll my eyes. People competing to have the fanciest pipe; what next?

I sit down on the ground, my feet sore from walking or running all day. Slowly, girls start to turn up, all chatting and laughing. They go quiet when they first see me, then pick up the conversation. It’s kinda embarrassing, but at least it means the Diamond Thief’s will be surprised to see me too.

 

Eventually about twenty odd girls are gathered around me. Some of them don’t even know I'm here, they can’t see through all the other people; they were just told by Faryne to go to the old oak.

When Faryne gets back, she weasels her way through the group to me, and whispers that we've got about fifteen minutes. I nod, and stand up. The chattering girls fall silent when they see me. Out of all the ones who didn’t know I was there, most of them look confused; some are openly gaping at me. I swallow, rub my hands together and say; “Well, as you can all see, I'm not dead.” That sentence alone brings about a round of shouting, some incredulous, some pleased. I yell over them, trying to make myself heard. “But the Diamond Thief’s don’t know that yet.” The girls fall silent. “And we’re gonna to change that. Tonight. I want you all to know that there is a possibility of a fight. If you don’t think you are up to that, please, still listen.” I add as some of them start to head away at the prospect of violence. “But for those of you that do wanna fight, I don’t want you killing everyone. I just want you to be ready in case things go badly.  Got it?” They all nod, some more enthusiastically than others. I smile, and say; “Well, that’s it. You can all go back to whatever it was you were doing before Frayne found you.” The group begins to dissipate, and soon everyone's gone. I sigh, and turn to Faryne. “Was that ok?” I ask. She nods. I grin, then say; “How long till they get here?”

“’Bout ten minutes. You wanna get a drink?”

“Nah, I want a clear head for this. But cheers anyway. You go get one if you want.” But she stays here with me. I settle myself back on the ground. Faryne lowers herself down beside me.

“So,” she says, “You really were gone, weren’t you?” she doesn’t say it like a question, but it sounds like one. I nod.

“Yeah. I was gone.”

“How… how did you do it? Just… change life. Become someone else. Not be… not be you?” I swallow, stare at the ground. Think of a way to say it.

“I never really left. I was always the same. I just… kept my distance.” That’s part of it, anyway.

 

A sudden blast of music attacks my eardrums. The bass vibrates through the ground, rattling my bones. I’d forgotten how loud it was at the arena. Strobe lights start up, illuminating the crowd below us. I vaguely recognise the song, an old one from before the Fall. No one’s really bothered recording anymore music since the Fall, they couldn’t really make the music better, and everyone liked the music we already had anyway. So we just keep making lots of remixes of the same old tunes, and that keeps us happy.

 

People start dancing, punching their arms in the air, jumping up and down. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, dancing with anyone. Then a new group of people enter the arena. Like oil and water, they don’t seem to mix; the other people are quick to move away and give them space. The new comers flood through the arena, and up to the front; to the right of us. People form a loose circle around them, still keeping their distance. Now they're in the open, I can see that the new comers are the Diamond Thief’s. Their usually grim faces are strangely happy looking; they must be looking forward to this. A few of them step forward and one pulls a cable out the back of a speaker. The arena goes eerily quiet. They step on to the stage, and turn around. I recognise the pack that got me earlier. Another guy is with them too, he looks slightly older them the others. He opens his mouth to speak.

“Thank you for giving us your attention. We have a little announcement to say. Detlan?” Detlan steps forward, a triumphant smirk on his face. Some rat from the Diamond Thief's spins a spotlight around, and Detlan is bathed in a bright light, casting strange shadows over his face. His skin glows bronze, and his hair looks like it’s made from gold. But nothing could hide the cold triumph in his eyes.

“I'm sure you’ve already heard, but this something that needs to be done publically, following the new rules.” What new rules? I mouth at Faryne. She shrugs, turns back to Detlan, who carries on talking. “Those new rules are, for those of you who don’t know, that the sole leaders of this place are us, the Diamond-, I mean, the Shadow Hunters. We aim to banish all the shadows from this place. Anyone who pledges loyalty to another group will be treated as a shadow, and hunted down. Anyone who breaks our rules, who goes against us, will be hunted down. And anyone in connection with these shadows will be hunted too. So beware, your actions may have disastrous consequences.” I swallow, knowing where this is heading. But then Detlan says something I wasn’t expecting. “As we area new group, we thought it was right to appoint a new leader. So, at the last meeting, I was appointed leader, of the Shadow Hunters, and therefore of you. Any objections?” he says the last sentence as a threat, daring anyone to voice their own opinion. Most people look too confused to say anything. Me, I'm just so furious, I can’t open my mouth, let alone talk.

 

Detlan starts speaking again. “As you may not have known, when I was appointed leader a month ago, I pledged to wipe out the biggest shadow this place has ever seen. This shadow, though big, was only made by one person. And was therefore, a shadow that was easy to destroy.” A shout builds in my mouth, my anger so strong that I'm able to move again. I start to stand, but Faryne pulls me down.

“Not yet!” she hisses. I crouch, ready to spring in to action. I take deep breathes, trying to calm down.

“This girl was very influential, and, if you had had any association with her, you could have been hunted. But now she has been removed, you are free of the shadow she cast over you.” His voice shakes, either from nerves or excitement. “This girl was…” he stops as he realises hardly anyone knows my real name. “Probably known to you as Firecat.”

 

Silence. A huge, loud silence. And then the shouting, yelling, screaming. Clearly, not many people did know I was meant to be dead. Detlan bites his lip, looking worried. I scan the arena floor, and spot the Uncut Diamonds, all staring expectantly at me. I nod, and they start to slip through the crowd, quietening them, telling them to wait. Soon, there is almost silence again. Declan smiles, looking pleased. Someone steps forwards, holding a braid of hair and a wet looking red cloth. Someone else comes to the front too, holding a bowl filled with dry tinder. The death rite.

 

I turn to Faryne, whisper, “You didn’t tell me they would do this!” She is pale, scared.

“I didn’t know. I'm sorry.” And I believe her. I tune out the sound of Detlan saying the death rite, and look to the control box opposite the stage the “Shadow Hunters” are standing on. I see a scuffle, and then a little red light flashes. The signal. I turn back to the stage, and see Detlan put the braid of hair, my hair, in the bowl, and a piece of dark wood, my symbol carved into it. I feel around on my head, searching for a thinner bit, where they must have cut it from me while I was unconscious. I find it; on the left side. Detlan gestures for another member of the group to come forward, and a boy, not from the pack that got me, with a lit torch stands beside him. He raises the torch into the air.

“And now, by the…”

I nod my head.

“Powers of the death rite…”

The spotlight goes from Detlan to me.

And by the powers of me, the taker of the oath…”

“Stop!”  I shout it as loud as I can. People turn stare. Then the lights go out.

 

In the darkness, I sprint down the side of the arena. The steep slope makes me stumble; the level bits designed for people to stand on give me a chance to recover my footing, but then I'm on a slope again. As my eyes adjust, I can see the light from the torch ahead.

I reach the floor of the arena, and push myself as hard as I can. I break through the last of the crowd, and come face to face with the group. I jump up on to the metal stage. Screech to a halt. The lights come back on.

 

I'm illuminated in a dim, yellowy light. I realise why instantly. That kind of light makes my hair positively glow ginger. No one say can I'm dead now.

“I now proclaim the girl, Firecat…” his voice trails off as he catches sight of me. The torch bearer freezes, the torch hovering above the bowl; Detlans hands in mid wring of the cloth, dripping my blood onto the tinder.

“Stop” I say it quieter, but my voice echoes around the arena; Detlan must be wearing a microphone.

The blood keeps dripping.

“Thought you’d killed me? Guess you’ll have to try harder next time. I'm not that easy to kill.”

Drip, drip.

Detlan swallows, thinking hard, I can almost see the gears turning in his head.

Drip.

“I can see that. Shame” his voice is even quieter, but I can hear it shaking.

The blood’s still dripping.

“Guess that means you’ve broken your oath then. Guess that means,” I start shouting. “Guess that means you can’t be trusted to keep your word. That you'll not be freeing every one of their “shadows”. Guess that means you can’t be trusted.” I can feel the people listening to me. “Found it too hard to kill me, did you? Detlan, the great leader, unable to kill a girl. What a great leader.” I look him in the eyes as I say it. So I'm the only one who sees it. I'm the only one who sees the hurt, deep down, in his eyes. And then the anger. But not like my anger, hot and fiery; his anger is cold and deadly. It freezes his eyes, the blue turning to ice.

 

“Not dead. Not physically dead… but as good as dead… spiritually…” he whispers is so quietly, the microphone doesn’t pick it up. But I hear it. His eyes blaze with triumph. As I stare into his eyes, I can’t look away. The overwhelming joy in his eyes is too beautiful, too powerful. I'm rooted to the spot, as I realise he’s going to continue the death rite. I don’t know what would happen to someone whose been given the death rite but is still alive, and I don’t want to be the one who it’s tested on.

“No” I whisper, the word floating out on a breath.

“And now, by the power of the death rite and by the power of me, the oath taker, I proclaim this girl, Rebecya, spiritually dead.” He says it so fast, I’d be surprised if people can understand him. But the microphone singles the words out, slows it down. “I kill you” He whispers the last sentence so quietly, the way he used to speak to me when we were friends.  And then he grabs the torch, and plunges it into the bowl.  The flames die for a second, dampened by the moisture. And then they flare up, flickering.

I'm still frozen, staring into his eyes, captured by their joy and happiness. In that second, I realise, I still like him, deep down. That bond from when we were younger hasn’t gone.  When he’s happy, I'm happy. And now he’s happy, so I'm happy, even when he’s killing me.

The flames rise again, engulfing the cloth, braid and piece of wood. Detlan looks away, unable to keep his eyes from the flames that are killing me.

And then I feel it. The pain. Tearing at me, stabbing into me. Pulling me apart. But the pains inside me, in my core, in me. I understand now. Not physically dead, but spiritually. He’s killing my soul. My sense of right and wrong, whatever’s left of it; my conscience. I now know the difference between an emotion and a feeling. Emotions are the same for everyone, but feelings are different, everyone has a different way of feeling things.

I'm bending over, clutching my stomach, as if I've been stabbed. I can hear my breath, gasping through my clenched teeth.

The pain is beyond belief. The agony of this mornings’ fight; that was nothing. The pain as Detlan attacked me when we were younger, nothing. The pain of my father running away, nothing. The only pain remotely similar I've experienced was nowhere near this sore. The agony as my lungs were crushed, my blood pounding as it tried to find oxygen, my lungs screaming for air, that was nothing. I feel stretched to breaking point; like all my muscles are being pulled, until they have to snap.

And something does snap. But then the pain is worse. It makes me scream, I can’t help it. But then there’s freedom. I don’t feel guilty about anything. I feel alive.

But the pain is still there. And I still can’t take my gaze from Detlans’ face. But then, something else snaps. And, all of a sudden, I can look away. My loving soul has died. My gaze is drawn to the flames. I watch the braid shrivel, the cloth dry, the wood blacken. The flames dance about, so beautiful.  Something else snaps, and the flames don’t look pretty anymore. I'm not captivated by them anymore. My admiring soul has died. Soon, there will be none left.

 

I feel tired, my eyes droop. I sway slightly, but then something else snaps, and I'm free of the… lack of energy. My tired soul has died. And now I can move. My hands twitch, my brain squeals to life, and I plunge my hands into the flames, and pull the braid, cloth and wood out. They are hot, but only for a second, then something else snaps, and I don’t notice the pain. Well, I can tell it’s there, but it doesn’t affect me. Like I'm one step removed from what's happening. Like this is all happening to me, but I'm asleep. I also don’t feel any hurt at my family’s hatred of me. My hurting soul has died.

 

I throw the death rite charms away, hear them sizzle on the metal stage. The faint pain in me dies, random feelings start jumping about. Happiness, anger, sadness, love, joy, hurt, and then nothing. All my sense of right and wrong has disappeared, like I'm a machine, programmed to do something, and won’t stop until I've done it. I can feel emotions, right now, I'm wary and confused at what just happened, but they aren’t really affecting me. I feel… disconnected.

I look at my hands, they are burned, but I don’t really feel anything. Detlan stares at me, seemingly captivated by my face. Time freezes. Then he lunges at me, brandishing the torch like a knife. My muscles kick start into action. I twist sideways, dodging the flames, grabbing his arm. He twists the torch backwards, and the flames hit my arm. The smallest burning sensation flickers around my arm; but I can see the flesh burning, so I use my free arm and swing the torch sideways. It hits his back. His muscles jerk as the pain registers, he goes slack for a second. I wriggle out of his grasp, and face him warily.

 

Unfortunately, his top seems to be fireproof, as its not burning. But some of the heat must have gone through, because his face is twisted in agony. He picks up the torch, and swings it at me, I duck out the way, kick at his legs. He almost trips, but then rights his self and grabs me, the burning end of the torch pointed away from me. We struggle; me trying to get away from the flames; him trying to keep it away from him, but hit me with it.

It’s hard, but I try to keep on my feet, I know if I go down, he’ll bring the torch down on me. But it’s hard, with the heat from the flames searing into me. I suppose it would be almost impossible if my tired and hurting souls hadn't gone.

 

I am a good fighter, but Detlan taught me most of my non-instinct moves, so he’s better than me. Also, he’s taller and heavier, so when he eventually pushes me to my knees, I'm not that surprised.

He adjusts his grip, holding me still with his left hand around the base of my neck, his right grasping the torch. My neck throbs, the pain spreading out into the rest of me. He smiles through the pain from his back.

“Guess this means I do keep my word, Firecat. Guess this means I win. And then he swings the torch at my face.

 

It hits the left side of my face. I feel the flesh twisting, burning, but only on a little area. My hair is protecting the rest of my neck and head. The foul stuff Faryne rubbed into it must be fire proof, luckily for me.

 

Detlan frowns as I don’t show any signs of pain. He must have relaxed his grip when he hit me, because I easily slide the torch out his hand. I casually stand up, pat out the flames on my skin and in my hair, even though it does actually hurt quite a lot. I tilt my head to the side. He seems to be so confused by my seemingly lack of pain, he’s rooted to the spot.

“Guess this means we’re even now.” And then I thrust the torch at his face.

 

I turn away as he screams in agony. I suddenly notice that the whole thing hadn't taken more than five minutes, because people are pretty much where they were when I ran down to the stage. Except for the Diamond Thief’s and Uncut Diamonds, who are fighting. I watch as one Uncut pulls a knife from their belt, and stabs a Thief in the base of the neck. The Thief drops dead. A look of panic crosses the Uncuts’ face, as she realises she killed him. Then she tucks the knife away, and heads back into the brawl. More people are wounded, possibly fatally, but I don’t feel anything. No sympathy, no guilt that I caused this, just nothing.

The people who aren’t fighting start to leave, first one or two, then they're all going as fast as they can. They all seem to be going up the same side, but I don’t question it. Maybe they all live that side of the arena.

 

Me, I just head back up the slope I ran down. At the top, I turn and look down. I see shapes moving around on the stage, and someone lying on the ground. I see that it’s Detlan, and start to hope that I killed him. No such luck, he gets up and starts yelling things I don’t quite catch, pausing to scream in pain in between words.

 

 I start to head away, only to hear some foot steps behind me. I turn, and see Faryne walking up the slope. She gives a wry smile, and holds her hand out, her fingers clenched around whatever she’s holding. I stick my hands out, palms up, and she drops some things into them. My braid of hair, the wood and the cloth, all slightly scorched.

I purse my lips, and nod. Someone in the arena screams, a blood-curdling, agonising scream for help. A scream that’s abruptly cut off. Faryne jumps, but I just smile. Faryne looks at me, and shakes her head.

“We should help. People are dying,” she says. I shrug.

“Not my problem,” I say. She gives me another look, but doesn’t say anything, just reaches up and gentle touches the burn that goes from the hairline on the left of my face, to the edge of my and down towards my jaw. She follows it along the edge of my jaw, almost to my chin, then back along and on the small area under my ear. She smiles sadly, shakes her head again.

“You're pretty beat. Wanna head for home?” she asks. I shrug.

“Yeah. But not to mine,” I add, as she turns in the direction of my house, “I had… a misunderstanding with them. Can I come to yours?” She nods. And starts heading off. Another scream fills the air. I recognise the sound of the girl who had the pipe, Fiota. Faryne flinches, and turns, as if to go help. I stay still.

She stares at me.

“Aren’t you gonna help them! That was Fiota, screaming in agony, and you’re just standing there!” her voice raises in shock and anger. I shrug again.

“Not my problem. They should learn to fight better.” Faryne stares at me for a long moment, looking into my eyes. She seems to see something, and gives a slight nod, as if understanding and learning from it. She gives a half smile.

She turns, and walks towards her house. I stay a moment longer, making sure. When my brain gives no reaction to the next scream, I too smile. I wonder how many parts of my soul died, if there is any left. Maybe all my soul died, and I'm soulless. I give a short, half-breath, half-laugh sound. Maybe I am “spiritually dead”. Or maybe I'm just… me. I shrug, and head after Faryne, ignoring the screams of my friends.

 

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