Crumbling Earth

While we all go about living our lives, a small group hold, possibly, the most important information in the world. The Earth is crumbling.

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8. Chapter 8

At some point, Bernis had left her side - perhaps he sensed that the sound of his claws would awaken Grey.

He doesn't seem to do things without a reason, Kailen supplied. The truth was, while she'd been brewing her verdict on the humans in Namardea, she'd never really paid the wolf much attention. Light footsteps resonated through her mind and she looked up from the landing, expecting a grey figure to join her as she opened the door. Instead, a hunched Naid wandered towards her. Each footstep was amplified; her heart sped up. If he sees me, he'll tell Trecia and she'll ask questions and...

 

Then the sleepy boy stumbled - she took the chance, easing the door shut and pressing her body against the wall. He stopped, turned and the dreadful sound of footsteps grew mightier. Was he close? So close he could hear the calamity inside her body?

 

And, in a dash, she was thrown forward. The muscles in her back cried out and she was about to croak out a 'no'. A violent rattling aptly quieted her; the door shook on its hinges, bulging out. She held her breath.

"Please, please, please, please," she panted out. All the while, the sounds faded to ragged gasps. Another insistent push heightened her nerves. Then she heard it, light and airy. Unbelievably innocent and eerie at once.

"We're off to see the wizard... The wonderful...Wizard...Of...Oz..." Naid was singing. The voice was that of a lost little boy. "If ever a whiz there was. The Wizard Of Oz is one because..."

He tapered off into snoring, shrinking back down to child he was when they first met. Not the monster who threatened to tear the door from its frame. The adrenaline faded, as did Naid's footsteps, so she made down the corridor once more. She reached her room before long and shuffled her body beneath the sheets.

I have to be more careful. That was a close call, she chastised herself. She buried her head in the pillow, just as Grey shifted in his sleep. Soon enough, she joined him too.

 

When the light so rudely yanked them from their dreams, she almost believed that she'd gotten away with it.

Flawlessly, as well. Her ego deserved stroking, didn't it? However, her ego didn't seem so significant; Grey turned to her, hardened his gaze and formed a tight line with his lips.

"Where have you been?" he probed. Kailen held back a hiss. Her position became defensive and outraged, but he didn't seem to be wavered by it. As she opened her mouth, he spoke again, "And don't even try convincing me you were here the whole time."

"How do you know I wasn't? You were asleep the whole time!" she retorted. The features on her face creased up; ever since they'd become close, she'd always made it clear when she wasn't happy.

"You're still wearing what you were yesterday, you usually change for bed. Come on, I know you." He gave her a pointed look. "Besides, how would you know that I was asleep if you were supposed to be?"

She scowled. Despite her classmates' immature teasing about them being 'bound by fate', quarrels peppered their relationship. With a jolt, she recalled each time they'd exchanged gentle banter. It seemed almost unbelievable, considering the situation she'd woken up into.

 

"So, where were you?" Grey pressed further and her attention snapped back to him. Dark hair cast a dull shadow over his face - he wore an expression she'd never thought she'd see directed at her. It had made appearances when he defended her, when people insulted their home...

This never crossed my mind, she thought. That rigid jaw demanded an answer, the memories of her old friend disarmed her and the words spilled from her tongue. "The Sea of Lives."

"Sea of what? Look, I don't know what that even is but it sounds shady. You should-"

"Stay away from it? Yeah, Mister Do-Nothing-And-Get-Yourself-Killed, you've got it all right." Kailen rolled her eyes. "Oh wait, I forgot, you're her lap dog. They wouldn't dare get rid of you. You know, I really thought you were my friend."

 

He opened his mouth to speak again and she held her hand up, followed by a disdainful look. Before either of them could go back, the door was flung open and closed again. Kailen paced down the corridor without question as to where she was going (it was a route that was all too familiar). Before she could reach her destination - as far away from their room as possible - a length of soft fur threaded itself beneath her tense fingers. Neither needed to look to know who was beside them. The girl spread her hands out across Bernis' fur, stuffing her body onto the nearest window ledge. As the wolf curled up in her lap, some of the numbness that'd been cultivating in the depths of her stomach dissipated.

 

"You know, if I ever get out of this hellhole, I'll tell the world," she muttered. "I'll tell them that Namardea changes people. That it took my best friend and my family away from me. You might be all I have left. Weird, isn't it?"

Bernis mewled in response, nuzzling her knee. He seemed to agree.

"I know you don't talk, eat or live like we do. But it doesn't matter. You'll stay, won't you?" Her tone was almost pleading. Less than nimble fingers tangled themselves in fine silver strands then, time to time, came to settle on flesh that radiated warmth. "Then we have some planning to do, and it starts with finding our own room; can't have them seeing us when we sneak out. Where do you sleep?"

Deftly, he leapt from his perch with one paw tapping the ground to make sure she followed him.

 

 

A knock at the door startled him out of the position he'd been in, staring blankly at the various things Kailen had neglected to take when to she left: some clothes, the books she'd acquired and the various things that'd been in her pockets when they'd arrived. His hand was poised over the cheap, yet ever so familiar, material of her jacket.

"Come in," he called, while he extricated himself from the memories on the bed opposite him. Trecia manoeuvred into the room with an uneasy smile on her face - he sat straighter and ran a hand through his hair.

"Hey." Her voice was smooth as she seated herself beside him. Then, he noticed, her eyes flickered about the room. "Where's Kailen?"

"Somewhere. I don't know, actually, but it looks like she's reached her idea of healthy." And this was punctuated by a sigh. Grey carefully considered the jet-haired seventeen-year-old before he added, "I almost feel like one of those wounded soldier types from movies and books. They always have a lifelong trouble or torch to carry and they're the complete opposite of a 'player'. But brave or chivalrous, or half of what those guys are."

"Stop eating yourself up - coming from me, that's a lot. I haven't seen anything new since...in a while, so I can't really say." Trecia offered him a meek expression, leaning in closer so she could see his blue irises in greater detail while an arm stretched round his shoulders. "You might not be a good guy persevering through hell and getting the girl. But you're still a good guy and you still have hope for the last part."

 

Before his eyes, and raised eyebrows, she turned scarlet. Dread etched itself into her features.

"That was inappropriate, I-" she began, only to have him silence her with more words.

"It's fine. I really mean that, I'm not just saying; any other time, I'd jump at the chance to be with someone who understands I'm only doing what's needed to get along." At this, Trecia seemed taken aback. Grey couldn't managed to force laughter, he just sat there and watched her reaction. When his gaze picked out the discrepancies, he noticed her outfit a threadbare t-shirt - for some reason, he noted how low cut the soothing blue material was - and a pair of oddly-fitting jeans in chocolate brown. So enthralled, he barely noticed the arm slipping from his shoulders. He captured her hand in his as it passed, fingers entwining themselves with hers.

 

Neither spoke yet neither needed to. They exchanged glances. In Grey's mind, moments of Kailen and laughter played like a amateur film reel in his mind. Mental pain almost became physical but he reminded himself of the woman before him. He traced the peaceful contours of her face, until her hands moved out of his and the warmth fled. It was replaced as she wrapped her arms around him and drew in close.

 

At first, his arms hung to the side because he wasn't sure what lines he'd crossed if he returned the embrace. Eventually, he allowed himself to hold on too.

"You're warm," he mumbled, eliciting a chuckle from his companion. "What? You are... Thank you."

"For what?" Trecia looked confused, as she pulled away slowly. "Making the whole conversation awkward and completely forgetting what I was going to say, maybe, but I can't think of anything else you'd thank me for."

"For making me realise that it's not where live. It's who lives there with you." Tears pricked his eyes. "Sorry."

"Don't apologise. Maybe I could cheer you up?" she inquired and canted her head. Brushing away the moisture that stained his cheeks, Grey found his attention peaked. "Unless you forgot, it's your birthday. Me, Xander and Naid have a few treats saved up and we can celebrate a little. Just downstairs."

"Lead the way." He stood, swiped at his cheeks once more and gestured for her to take point. By hand, they made their way down to the dining area - Naid met them there with an enthusiastic smile then proceeded to hand him a plate with a 'happy birthday' flag positioned in the middle. His vision travelled over to where Xander leaned against a table with a drink in his hand.

"We have the good stuff. Raided a supermarket and ran across so many beauties. Most of the food was out but the alcohol lasted and so did the party supplies," the redhead explained. Given a closer look, the liquid looked a little like white wine. With a happy smile, Xander handed one to Grey.

"Thanks," he grunted, taking a long swig. With a glance back at Naid, he asked, "Is he joining us? Drink-wise, I mean."

Xander took a bite out of his food and shook his head. "Granted, there's no law enforcement. But he's still a kid and I'm not being responsible for getting her younger brother drunk."

"You know," Naid raised his voice from where he'd begun a conversation with Trecia, "this 'kid' would kind of appreciate it if you didn't talk about him like he wasn't here."

To that, Trecia shot him a scolding look - he held his hands up in surrender, despite the almost inaudible mutter of 'but it's true'. Amusement danced in Xander's eyes. Feeling a tug of sympathy, Grey patted him on the shoulder.

"Maybe next time."

 

So the drinks and the food kept coming.

 

As they sat together, Grey smiled - full-on, from ear to ear. Naid wolfed down a plate of food, jabbering on about Pi and the possibility that Grey could help with his 'homework'. Meanwhile, Xander plucked the glass from Trecia's hands.

"That's enough for tonight," he chided, receiving a look of mock contempt. The elder man took a sip and hummed contentedly. So, while Naid sniggered, she sent a pleading look to her last resort.

Why do I feel like the other parent here? he mused. Usually, he resolved not to let himself be dragged into arguments. But those eyes were rapidly destroyed that attitude.

"Careful, the middle-aged man in you is showing!" was his retort, raising his voice as Xander left the table and took another gulp. A chuckle peeled from his throat then he stuffed the empty container back on the side table. Beside them, Naid began to choke and Trecia shifted to pat his back.

"Hey!" This middle-aged man is a little worried at how long 'Madame' here took to get you. Do anything interesting?"

 

Grey paled, wondering whether to forgo commenting or refute it with vigour. Before he could decide, a napkin zipped past him. A bold red 'sixteen' crumpled when it hit its target.

"Someone's decided to play Daddy, eh?" Her voice was sing-song, it almost made him feel like they were family; if he laughed, they would've laughed with him. if he cried, they would've cried with him.

"Nice throw." He glanced sideways at her and heard the thanks slip from her lips. Tongue loose, he went on to say, "You know, guys, Kailen's not here because she's...off somewhere. Sea of lives, or something, I told her not to go but she's been reading diaries and books. She says we're in some alternate..." He came to a sudden halt when he saw them looking at him. Naid's eyes were wide, as though he'd been electrocuted, and Trecia turned her body towards his.

"Did he just say what I thought he said?" Xander was the first to shatter the silence. In reply, he received a nod from the youngest Aundara. "Well, we need to find her! Did she mention anything she found?"

 

Grey grasped at memories as everyone rose, plates clattering and chairs scraping out. Everything that he'd been so enraged about somehow fled from his mind. Even with that knowledge, he began to doubt he'd be able to give them the full picture. While he delved further, Naid was restrained by Trecia. Her lean firm crouched down and uttered a few words. The boy caught his eye.

"She has diary entries, snuck out last night-" he started, seeing realisation crash find on Xander's features.

"She was in your office, Trecia. The map - she has it," he rattled off. "And where's Bernis?"

"Oh. I should've...should've...done..." Grey trailed off. Xander raised an eyebrow, taking purposeful steps towards the younger man.

"Done what?" he inquired. "There's nothing you can do now, unless there's a time machine somewhere that we don't know about. We don't blame you."

Trecia put a hand on his shoulder. "How can you be so calm?"

 

It could be expected that, at this, he'd shrug. Or perhaps he'd shake his head and tell them all to get a move on. Instead, Xander's blue eyes met that of the two teenagers. Looks communicated what words would've failed to: someone had to. The situation trickled through Grey's mind, as Trecia grabbed her jacket and Xander instructed Naid on what to do while they were gone.

Come on, Grey. If anything, you're not an idiot, Grey assured himself and pulled his wits together. Funnily enough, Naid was just telling Xander that. Trecia, however, captured the 15-year-old's hand before anything else could come of it. The three headed towards the door, just as Naid called out, "He should know."

She still held his hand and she angled her head to lock gazes with her brother. His chin was set broad and the way held himself seemed to make him grow to their height. He spoke again, "He...he deserves to know. I'd want to, if it was me."

Trecia stood for a moment, scrambling for words. All three males scanned her face for minute signs when, at last, she let out a sigh and nodded.

"What do you know? Or what does she think she knows?" Xander put in.

"That this an alternate universe, there's some mysterious disease, you're the enemy and you killed her mother," Grey told them.

Oh, and did I mention she thinks I'm 'in love' with Trecia? The sarcastic undertone snaked into his brain like poison and settled itself there. It didn't leave, when Xander took a deep breath and looked straight at him.

 

"Don't hate us. We have a lot of history here and it's important to remember that. There's a lot you don't know, okay?" Grey nodded and Xander carried on, "Well, a few years back, a woman came to the city during a storm - it had been forced, much more dangerous. We took her in and started investigating, but it took weeks before we figured out she'd done it. The others - there were more of us then - took her and threw her into the Sea of Lives. But the...gamekeeper took them too. The woman's name was Marie Port."

"That's why we're the only ones left." Grey took in Trecia's demeanour. She was focused on the floor with her gaze cast up at him, her shoulders were hunched. He stared at her, at Xander, at Naid, at the room and his reflection in a grubby mirror on the wall. He stared.

That's why he didn't resist when Xander pulled him towards the door, Trecia in their wake.

 

 

The map crinkled in the wind yet her grip was firm. Kailen could was close; she could see a cut-off point where the city ended and the Sea of Lives began. Solitude swirled around her. She brought the notebook out of her pocket, hesitant to lift the cover - she'd found it wedged between two dictionaries on an unfruitful trip to the library.

Blank, huh? What's the chance of that? she'd thought, as she brushed her thumb across one of the pages.

Hair battered her face and her clothes felt like an inadequate defense. In spite, she reminded herself it was all in the name of discovery. So she turned another corner and passed a group of traffic lights and a crossing in perfect condition (if the electricity grid hasn't been down).

 

"Better than a school trip, doesn't cost a fortune..." she muttered. Soon enough, her feet came to a stop at a brick wall. It reached about shoulder height but she could still see into the depths below. One hand grazed the top of the wall: blood, scratches. Then she peered in - and drew in a sharp breath when a face with empty eye sockets twisted to the surface.

Yet it didn't deter the girl who'd seen entirely too many horror films. That girl hoped for a better view, until she realised one thing.

"No footholds. Damn."

 

"Kailen!" Her mind ground to a halt. The cry was distant to the ear, and only to the ear. Fear bolted through her heart and she wrapped her arms over the top of the wall, and threw her upper body strength with them. Her breathing drifted from scarce to rapid. Sweaty hands snatched at the cold surface. Her shoulders and the top of her chest curled their way over the wall, from where she strained to peer into the abyss.

 

Then something grabbed her and pulled her back, just as she made eye contact with a distorted face. In the blink of an eye, she found herself restrained by Xander and Grey (an arm each). The latter's glare was tougher than the wind.

"What do you think you're doing? Do you even know how dangerous that thing is?" Grey's voice was rising in volume. He drew in air to plough onwards but Xander gave him a warning look.

"I'm investigating." Kailen tugged her arms from Grey's hold and gave a cold grin when his companion relinquished his grip too. "Want to hear my findings?" Silence prevailed (even as Trecia caught up with them). "Well, do you?"

"I'm listening," Trecia voiced.

"You kill them, don't you? All your visitors go down there," she shot back, gesturing to the chasm. Before anyone else could jump to the task, Grey stepped forward. In that second, his features were relaxed. He reached out to her as though she was an animal he didn't want to spook.

His hand came to rest on her shoulder. "They're really not like that. I'm fine, you're fine. If they wanted you dead, they'd have pushed you over the wall."

"Maybe they're waiting; if they did that, they might lose your trust. And, as for fine, I disagree." Her field of vision travelled, although the conversation followed her everywhere.

"Really, Kailen? What's gotten into you?" There was a crease in his forehead, something contained about the way he stood. Trecia came to stand behind him and one hand slithered onto his shoulder. Kailen widened the distance before anyone else could and drew a deeper analysis of them all. Xander, trying to bind people's mouths with placating words so that they wouldn't speak his sins. The boy, Naid, he was simple.

 

A baby willing to bend to their will, she mused. Curtains of black hid the elegant jaw and cunning eyes of her enemy. Claws settled on her friend's shoulder. Venom poured every time she spoke.

"You. All of you," she spat. There was a lull then she sprung into a rant. "You know, I should be asking what's gotten into you? You're disgusting! I woke up here and all I got were lies. The clothes smell like they were taken from a dead body, the furniture might as well have been taken out of a haunted house."

"Kailen-" Xander began, but she stared him down.

"No. You don't get to speak, coward." She awarded him a dirty once-over. "You don't have to tell me, I know you killed her. See the looks on your faces... Have you any idea what you've done?"

Grey was conjuring up a response, playing with the hem of his t-shirt. For the first time, he realised that he didn't know. There was a part of Kailen Port that he didn't know. Shame bubbled to the fore. He turned to glance at Trecia. Instead of returning it, she squeezed his shoulder.

 

However, Kailen had already plunged into her childhood. "After she went missing, Dad went insane. Drunk insane. He left things lying around that landed me in hospital. I didn't have a clue how to do anything. Every time I stole, or wore dirty piece of clothing, some kid would come and hunt me down."

"You never said," Grey ground out.

"You never asked. Anyway, you crushed my family. I don't care why. All I know is someone, somewhere, broke me!" she shrieked. Her tone was dangerous and her chest heaved. "Now I know that someone is you..."

She turned to storm away. Beneath her ribcage, her heart threatened to burst. Xander called after her but Grey stopped him. "Leave it, Xander. Didn't you hear her? She doesn't care."

"I thought better of y-" Trecia's sentence ended in a way so prompt, Kailen turned. Mist was rising from the abyss.

 

No, not mist. A person. A girlshe thought. Polluted white clouded round to form the little girl that perched on the wall. The group inched back.

"I heard there was a party. Your name's Kailen, right?" Her tone was playful, with a twist of haunting.

"Yeah. And you are?"

"Ryu. It's...nice...to meet you," Ryu said, smiling. Her legs swung in the air. Tendrils of white peeled away from her and shadows littered her body. Every word that she spoke echoed through the air.

"You too, I guess." Kailen took a step forward - Xander bristled.

"I came out to play. Will you play with me?" Ryu reached one hand out. Black blotches crept up her fingers, while her nails were the same colour. Drawn to the way the little girl radiated likeness, Kailen reached out. When the distance between their hands began to close, her head sped up. But she ignored it. Her heart didn't see what she saw.

"No!" Kailen stumbled backwards while Xander's hand tugged at her sleeve. He pushed her behind him, holding an arm out when she fought to move forwards again. "No."

Panick flooded his irises as Ryu's face twisted into rage. "Why won't you let me play?"

"I just want to keep her safe, Ryu, you're not safe..." he reasoned. Yet angry tears filled her eyes. Her limbs elongated and she began to scream, began to wail.

"Why won't you let me play?" she screeched, the sound piercing the air. Kailen barely heard it over the hurried pumping of her heart. "Let. Me. Play!"

Finally, she was towering over them. Trecia was pulling on Grey's arm but he was adamant. He insisted, "Wh-what is that?"

Kailen focused in on what was once a 'little one'. Missing eyes left deep crevices in her head, the floral pattern on her dress had twisted into a crude representation of a man hung... Her lips were thin and spread into a wide grin.

 

"You should've let me play. Now it's time to pay."

 

The scream tore through the night. It tore through their eardrums. Most of all, it tore through the beating of Kailen's heart and silenced Xander's.

 

 

Her feet pounded the tarmac. She didn't stop for the ruckus at her heels. Through a door she blundered, stumbling past a table. Kailen's knees crashed to the floor, and her tears coloured the wooden surface. The storm in her ears drowned out all noise but her own choked sobs.

"No..." she uttered. At her sides, her hands were clenched as her head lolled back into the bookcase. But she didn't cry over that pain, even as her vision blurred. "No... No, no..."

 

Legs became lead weights; they were overtaxed but the adrenaline pulsing through her veins wouldn't allow them rest. Time, however, was another story. All sense of it was waved while she laid there - until the door swung open.

"I'm sorry! I'm s... So sorry," she called out to the visitor, but there was no reply. She didn't have the energy or the moral high ground to chastise them for it. Something pressed down on her leg, and her vision began to uncloud. "Bernis?"

He crawled into her lap and settled there. Intense irises zeroed in on her.

"It's not me is it?" And, in that heartbeat, she could've blinked and never known. Instead, she swore the wolf shook his head. "That girl. I mean, I'm bitter and I can hold a grudge as well as the next girl..."

 

There it was again, that movement. Then a paw reached up and pushed at something on her shoulder.

"I'm in a real mess. Aren't  I? I look like I've been dragged through a hedge backwards. And lost a friend along the way." One shaking hand came to rest amongst the fur. Bernis let out a tiny whine and she amended, "And gained one too. Hey, what hair products do you use? Can't be the same as mine, because your hair's smoother."

Someone was crying again, a muffled noise. It took a while for Kailen to realise it wasn't her.

"Who's that?" Kailen exchanged glances with Bernis then scrambled to her feet. Slipping her shoes off, like she had a habit of doing when spying on others, she pushed the door open a fraction and peeked outside. Bernis slipped around her leg to get his own view.

Outside, Trecia knelt on the ground with Grey and Naid stood close. The eldest of the pair left his position beside Naid and tugged at her shoulder.

 

"Let me carry him for a bit," he urged, but she yanked her body away from him (and, in the process, revealed Xander's body to the girl and the wolf). Kailen let out a soft gasp and pulled away from the image: his entire being had been greyed, something about every crevice was hollow. He was hollow. Somehow, both cheekbones had sallowed to the point wear the skin seemed like elastic bound to a skeleton. Her stomach did a flip when whatever was beneath his eyelids squelched.

Trecia shook her head at Grey. "She might have taken his soul, but she won't take away our friendship." At that, she rose and the group carried on.

 

Funeral, Kailen thought, allowing the air to chill her a little further before shutting the door.

Paws tapped the floor where they'd just been sitting. Both needed it, and she was sure there was a flash of guilt in his eyes. One look there and her tongue unravelled.

And so the time wound its way along, she retold the whole debacle.

"Then I ran," she said. "I ran like the wind, and that's when I got here."

A minuscule nod was Bernis' response, before he stopped and stretched. "Tire-" Kailen began, only to be cut off by her own yawn. Laughter peeled from her throat for the first time that day and they strolled into the open together.

"Thanks," she murmured to the creature at her side. Soft joy nestled itself inside her. Until two faces crushed it.

As she stared up at blue and hazel orbs, the pieces of her happiness scattered around her.

"Busy, huh?" Grey remarked, crossing his arms.

"I was-"

"Doesn't matter." Trecia bore an odd mix of openness and grief. "I'll make this quick, I'm sure you need sleep. You may not have been his biggest fan, but I'd have liked it if you were there. To pay your respects. He cared." Long fingers formed a fist at her chest. Tears sparked in Kailen's eyes. She wanted to say she'd been there. She'd been watching. But her tongue had tied itself in a knot again. Then the senior of the two reigned herself in and added, "Oh well. What's done is done. Goodnight."

 

A head of black hair retreated and Grey followed, arm wrapped around her shoulder. At the last moment, he threw a glare over his shoulder. Like a harpoon, it pierced her aching body. And, when they were out of earshot, she whispered, "They're right, Bernis. They're right."

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