Waves crash down over my sand-covered feet, biting at a wound on my right foot. My thoughts drift away from my grasp, worry consuming my mind, stomach turning as I remember Daesia's words.
"You have to kill her," her voice orders. "Kill Ashley, kill Cordelia, and kill Jadyn, and I will let you go back to Laorei." Those words scare me, as I shake slightly with fear. I don't want to kill her - whether she calls herself Carlotta or Ashley - I don't want to kill anyone, not if they don't deserve it.
"Come on, Kear!" Aareia huffs, taking my hand as though I am a simple-minded, innocent wide-eyed Human toddler who knows nothing of her world. "Seriously, you need to pay attention!"
I completely agree with Aareia's point of view, but there is just one problem; this is not somewhere I wish to be. It is slightly familiar though, for reasons I don't know, and that at least gives me a small comfort. I hear the babbling of two beings - I can't quite decide what Level they are - rippling through the air, and tense slightly, a dog ready for attack. I recognise the voices, and suddenly everything which surrounds me feels different, more dangerous; One might even go so far as to call it hostile. I don’t quite know why I feel so fearful, but I know it must be for a good reason. The voices grow louder and louder as Aareia forces me to the golden grains of sand, and I resist the urge to run, instead feebly trying to hold my ground.
I hear their footsteps approaching, and I hear Aareia hiss, "Cave." I turn in the direction of her words, but she is gone, and a tears begins to slide down my face, the grains of sand clawing at my eyes. No matter how hard I try, I can't get the words out.
“Well, well, well, Kear,” I hear one of the voices say, and I can hear the venom in her voice, the poison in her acidic tone. “Long time, no see.” I gulp as the footsteps grow ever closer. I know I should not be frightened by them, owing to the fact that my brain power and physical strength are far better than theirs, if they are what I think they are. But still, an odd feeling of worry sweeps over me, and I can feel my face flush with colour.
Hoisted in the air, I fall back down on my feet, and come face to face with two of my worst enemies.
“You too, Angela,” I say politely, shaking inside, surprised the volcano hasn't exploded yet and I haven't been sick, for that is what my stomach feels like it will do. “And Gabriella here, of course.” The two girls plaster on wicked smirks, menacing eyes narrowing..
“Kear, can I just ask why you are here?” Gabriella asked, circling me menacingly, and a chill runs up my spine.
They are weak, pathetic, I know they are, but yet I know they are not. My head spins, and I nod shakily. “I am here because I need to be. I know that this is the territory of Ashley, but I just thought that, maybe, I would be okay to come here. It was never a problem while I was a Mantle, or a Crust." In a sudden surge of tenacity, I add in a rush, "Besides, I very much doubt that you shall have any power whatsoever while driving me away.”
With one look at Gabriella's face, I know that my pride has outdone me.
“Really?” Gabriella laughs, rolling the word around on her tongue like it is a Skip - a type of Human food Carlotta likes to eat. “Well, Kear, I doubt your doubts.” Angela snickers and I shrink away under their judgemental gazes.
I take a deep breath in , about to reply with a hopefully witty remark, when I am taken by surprise.
Gabriella grabs me by one shoulder, nails digging into my subtly scaly skin and Angela takes the other. Together, they pin me back to the ground. I struggle, but my power is no match for theirs, and they are unnaturally strong in that area, so strong that my mind control is of no use to me. The bonds with which they have bound me are enchanted, infused with an aroma I can't quite recognise, and I am immediately intoxicated.
A small spiral of air - a tornado- is conjured in the palm of Gabriella's hand, and I fear the worst, having heard many a tale of the destruction such things cause. As she is about to hurl it at me, her face, alongside Angela's, goes slack, as though the life has been drained out of them. Gabriella’s eyes roll back in her head and Gabriella stares at me in horror. “I-I shall undo the spell,” she shakes. “I will untie the rope and leave this Core be. I shall not disrupt the peace of my kind.” Then, just as Angela before her, Gabriella’s eyes roll back in her head, and she loses consciousness like the pathetic being she is, but not before breaking the ropes’ hold on me.
I struggle free and stand up, wondering what to do with their bodies. Hurriedly, I scan the vicinity, pondering the idea of throwing in the sparkling water. I make to take them by the arm, but a voice stops me, freezing me in an iceberg of paralysing, dizzying fear. “Run,” it whispers in a haunting voice. “Leave them. They shall awaken momentarily. You would do well to escape. I do not think you would like to suffer their harsh words, unless I am very much mistaken.”
I don’t know the voice, but for some reason I trust it. I flee towards the opening in a nearby cave, and as I crouch behind the greying stone, I spy a puff of death's breath, and shudder. A bird- like figure raised a hand, and I make to return the friendly, comforting gesture, but when I blink, the figure is gone.
My hands are clenched into tight fists as I rise, alone in the shadows. "Aareia?" My voice is weak, shuddering, and I wrap my arms around my chest, wishing I had never agreed to come here in the first place; it was a mistake to trust a Crust, especially with my current position. "Aareia?" The name is louder now; it lifts up out of my chest of its own accord, ripping the salty air as my fist collides with the cave wall. "Aareia, get your ass over here right now, or I swear-" I stop pummelling the stone. Behind me, there comes a cough, a cough which seems to ask if its creator is interrupting anything, and I turn around, face swamped with guilt.
"Oh, don't stop mindlessly attacking the wall for me." Aareia's voice is sickly sweet, too sweet, the intoxicating kind of sweetness which immediately tells me something is wrong. "I just thought - and I know this is a stupid idea - that you would be above this kind of Human vulgarity." She wrinkles her button-like nose. "Clearly, I am mistaken."
"Wow, you can look at stuff. Big well done!" I thrust my two thumbs in her face as she rolls her eyes pre-eminently, scoffing and dragging me by the arm, to which I heartily object. "Get off!" I gruff, elbowing her nose as I wriggle away from her grasp. "What are you doing?"
"It is not her who is at fault," a voice murmurs from afar, grabbing my attention, turning my mind to water. "It is mine. I merely ... Adopted her talents for a while. And yours, of course."
"What do you mean?" I ask, suddenly frightened, aware of every sound, every movement, every beat of a faint, fragile heart. "How did you adopt talents?"
"We're leaving," Aareia says, her voice sharper and clearer than I have ever heard it to be. "We're leaving now." Turning to run, I press my hand against the cave wall, struggling to transport myself. I couldn't. "Come on, Kear!" The urgency in her voice commands me to move, commands me to race to the sea, dive into the refreshing, cool water, hide from all danger, cry tears of ecstasy. But I can't obey.
"Help!" I shriek, pain racing over me, a red hot poker unrelentingly breaking my spirit down, to crumble it into nothing more than mere ashes. "Aareia, help!"
"No!" the voice commands. "Leave her be!"
"No, don't!" I can do nothing. Aareia is gone, gone just as she always is, selfish, pretentious scum who belongs on the sole of a Human's shoe.
"It is just us now." The voice is nothing more than a ghost, drifting in an upwards spiral to the full moon, reaching with its icy tentacles, twisting the light and blocking out all of its power. My chest tightens as I try to scream, the darkness closing in on me.
“Yeah, right,” I try to say nervously, backing away from her slowly, as though she is a lion, and I am a zebra. It is almost true.
“Don’t try that with me!” the voice shrieks, and suddenly a face comes into view. Pasty face, lots of freckles, mousy hair, small nose, around average height gor a Human, ever so slightly fat, with scarlet eyes which burn into my soul, crumbling it into ashes. It is recgonisable, and a name soars into my mind.
“Isabella?” I gape in awe, shocked by her transformation. “Isabella Munro?”
“It’s just Sab now.” She cackles like a demented witch, and my stomach flips over as I struggle against the sound of her voice.
“But – but, you were so … So innocent, you were the geek we hated, a friend of Kasey’s – the stupid, airheaded minions who were too ugly to be in existence. What happened?” My voice is filled with fear, I know, and I stutter uncontrollably, stumbling over my words. This shouldn’t be happening, I shouldn’t be scared.
Darkness consumes me, a never ending pit of interminable doom, a cage of arduous bars, closing in slowly, creeping towards me with their hisses of savagery. I try to scream, but in doing so I block my throat, and I cry out for help, though all to no avail. Shrieking, I flail my arms about my head, thrashing at the air in a fit of fury.
Just when I think it’s ove,r that I will be a Shell, many things happen, all at once. Great force is powered into something which charges at me, knocking me over as a war cry resonates in my mind. Screaming, I thrust myself upright, mind ravaged by fear which leaps over me, races through my veins, breaks my spirit, and were it not be for the fact that I somehow have managed to maintain some kind of grasp on reality, I would be one hundred percent certain that I am a Shell.
“What are you doing?” Sab screeches at a wild mane of hair, face convulsing into one of both fear and disgust. “You are mad, Ashley Hughmar!”
Really, Carlotta? Really?
Many a time I have wondered at the sheer srupidity of the Human race., It is a rather difficult concept to grasp, the idea of the ‘cleverest’ and ‘most innovative’ Level being of lesser intelligence than any other, but it is a simple fact of life. Human are imbeciles. All of them. Especially Carlotta.
She is hanging from the cave’s ceiling now, eyes bulging out of their sockets. Sab cackles demonically, as though she intended for this chain of events to occur. Before, I scarcely knew her name, a name buried right at the back of my mind, and I knew her only as the nerdy girl who sits in the corner and knew the answers to every question. Now, however, I see her true colours, her mad colours which dance through the air, crashing down on me like a brick wall of Human ashes.
“You’re the mad one,” I tell her, struggling against my bindings. “Completely … Mad! Absolutely … Off … Your … Head!”
“Oh, Kear, darling.” As she speaks, a fog of fear rolls over me, a suffocating blanket of pure paroxysm, taunting me with its fake promise of comfort. “Madness is my most redeeming quality.”
A pungent stench falls over me as I fall victim to her sadistic, wicked mind games. My sadistic, wicked mind games. “I’d hate to see your least redeeming quality, then,” I grumble, earning myself another lash of the whip.
“Shut up,” Sb snarls as she rotates a wooden spoon in a gleaming silver cauldron. “Now, eat.” Below me she places a bowl of a strange, soup-like mixture, one finger floating on the top of it. “Quickly, before it get scold.” Leaning closer, she adds, “It’ll only taste worse.”
“No way,” I decide firmly, pushing the bowl away from me forcefully. “No way, not at all.” Out the corner of my eye, I spy a shadow at the cave’s entrance, leaning against the greying stone as though he is enjoying a rather amusing play. “Never.”
“Hard way it is then,” Sab says, a smile curving on her lips, a smile with no hint of sanity whatsoever. She leaps towards me, baring fangs which pierce my skin, break it down slowly, painfully, and I scream with the burning agony.
“Stop! Stop!” I shriek, soul shattering into tiny fragments of stained glass. “Please, stop!”
“Never,” Sab says, apparently taking great pleasure in my pain, using my own words against me. “This is what you wanted, remember? Remember? Let’s turn you into a Shell.”
“Do not harm her!” a voice bellows, a shadow bounding into the cave, and I groan loudly as I am cast to the side, all of Sab’s attention focused on the boy.
Scrambling to my feet, I run, wishing I could take Carlotta with me, then relishing how the boy is surely going to die soon. It is horrible of me to say aloud, but I whisper into the night, “Chivalry will be the death of that Level. That and stereotypes.”
Yet another reason to follow Daesia in her plans.