"Kill her," a voice hisses at me, except it isn't really me, more like someone else whose body I am currently occupying. "I won't tell you again; you've been waiting long enough to do it."
"But, Jocelyn, I don't want to kill her," I say, voice shaking slightly. "She's nice."
"I don't care if she's nice or not," the voice spits, face turning like curdled milk. "You have a duty to the programme, and the programme has rules, which state quite clearly -"
"I need to do what my seniors say. I know, Jocelyn, you've said it enough times." I look down at the ground, keeping my eyes lifted slightly to glare at her. "But I can quit, and there's nothing in the programme's stupid rulebook to stop me."
"Maybe not. But you're forgetting what this programme's aim is."
Suddenly, her arm is around my neck, and I am hurled against a wall, faced by knives. I take out my own blade, and scramble to my feet, analysing Jocelyn's stance. She's strong, but her legs shake slightly, more specficially the one on my right; her left. Jocelyn runs at me, and I lunge out of the way, her dagger lightly grazing my ear. I'm quick to retaliate, and swing at her, creating a cut on her arm.
But it will take more than a cut to bring down Jocelyn.
She screams and people come running, but not before I take advantage of her mild distraction, and knee her in the back of the leg, causing her to crumple to the floor. They run at me, try to take me away, but the white floor is already being stained a deep shade of red, and her greying hair has the same scarlet tinge. "Get back!" one of them shouts, as I'm thrown across the floor. "Don't let her near anyone until she calms down!"
"Wouldn't we just be better throwing her out? She's only a Human."
How dare they? I am not a Human, not in the slightest. Why must I be trapped in this mind, and why now - it's ridiculous.
"But she has done a lot for us. She killed Ashley, after all. We need her, even if we all hate to admit it."
Their voices grumble away into the distance, and I crawl across the cell floor to where there is a jug of water. Intresting. Whoever is in charge here does at least know how to keep a Human alive, even if they are not Human. If it wasn't an absolute necessity, it would not be here, and if they knew it was me in this body, there would be nothing. But the water offers coolness to me, and I take it willingly. I turn onto my back, wrinkling my nose up at the hardness of the floor. Everything in this room is white, apart from me, apparently to fit in with the rest of this place.
"Natalie?" a soft voice says, opening the door, face warm. "They're giving you a verdict on the punishment." She pecks me on the cheek and I feel a sudden feeling of being home. Females would never feel affection for males in the Mantle; maybe things are similar here. Wherever here is. "Come on. Maybe you'll still get the job for killing Kear."
So. That's what Natalie likes to do in her free time, is it? Think of ways to kill me? Well then, I'll be ready for her when she comes, and I'll kill her first. But right now, I have other priorities, as I stand in a clearing of grass, ready to watch my plan unfold.
I gaze into the castle’s glowing red eyes. They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and as the phrase echoes sneeringly in my shamefully fearful mind, I find that even when a light pours through glass, the darkness remains unchallenged.
It towers over me, the shaded abyss I am fully certain can bring only pain. It will be interminable, I am sure, the inhospitable sensation of burning, searing hot adrenaline in the heart-wrenching river of pain. Pain.
The word has never really meant much to me, for mortal wounds do not harm an immortal like me, but as I step tentatively over the threshold of the ruins I have set so many traps in, I decide that perhaps there are some things worse than death. If my plan doesn't work, I might have to experience some of them. Turning to leave, I find that the great mahogany double doors are bolted shu t. From the outside.
Generally, I find locks a good thing, life-changing for Humans and other Levels alike, perhaps, maybe even life-saving in some circumstances. But tonight everything seems different, the air not quite as it should be, the atmosphere both too damp and too dry. Something, I feel, is definitely amiss. A cold, damp hand reaches for my prickling neck, and I shriek in terror, the sobs being pulled up mercilessly from the pit of my stomach. “Help!” I scream, but no one can hear me in the night’s stillness. It is like being in space.
"Be quiet, Kear," Aareia's voice hisses. "And tell us what in the name of infinity you think you are doing." The darkness gets even darker as something hits me hard on the head.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The next thing I can see is Aareia and Aisla, sitting behind a desk with a male I don't recognise, neither by face nor by name. "Why were you setting traps in an old ruin without our consent, and seemingly without a care for whether or not it succeeded?"
"I don't know, given that I was only setting traps in an old ruin without your consent, yet I did have a care for whether or not it succeeded. It would have too, if you hadn't interfered."
"As if. We have been monitoring you, Kear," Aareia says, practically draped across the slightly rotting wooden table. "We saw your conversation with that ... disgusting male ... thing. Why are you betraying us?"
"I don't know that either, Aareia. I'm not betraying you."
"Stop lying!" Aisla shouts, standing up in a flurry of fury. "Just ... Just tell us ... Tell us the truth."
"I am, though." This is growing tedious, and I look down to examine my nails, which are roughly edged, and the red polish is beginning to flake off like bloodied skin on a Human's body as they lie dying.
"No, you are not, Kear, and we all know it. Do you want to be a Shell? Because we can certainly arrange for that to happen." Her gaze flickers to the door, where shadows merge into one and separate again, like inky raindrops on a windowpane.
"No, that won't be necessary, Aisla. Now, will you allow me to get back to what I was doing before you so rudely interrupted me? Who knows, I might have trapped one of them already; I had it arranged that Laorei would come by."
"Like you would have that kind of power."
"Like I wouldn't. Aisla, I think you are forgetting my position in the Mantle."
"Which was what exactly?"
"I was the first Mantle to be given an assignment in over five millennia. I was looked up to by many of the Mantles. It wasn't hard to get it set up for Laorei to go there. Some of those she trusted most are in on it."
Honestly, I am not lying at all, even if Aisla, Aareia and the strange male don't believe me. I wouldn't be surprised if Laorei is in the ruin now, screaming for help even though no one will be able to hear her, shrieking as the flames engulf her and the binding traps her magic, rendering her powerless. I wouldn't even be surprised if she is ready to beg when I offer to free her - though I won't, obviously.
"Then why don't we go and check?" the male suggests in a deep voice, the first time he's spoken during this interrogation of sorts.
"Yes, why don't we?" I agree with a smug smile. I can't wait to see the look of regret on Aareia's face when she sees how I have succeeded.
"Then let's go."
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- I was right.
Laorei lies on the ground, eyes closed, lips moving like she is speaking to someone who is not here, in a conversation which appears to be going rather well, judging by the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Told you I'd catch her," I whispered to Aareia, barely able to keep the gloating tone out of my voice.
"Oh, do be quiet, Kear," she hisses back. "We have to examine her first, to make sure it is Laorei."
"How could it not be?" I scoff, laughing at how desperate she is for me to be proved wrong. "It is quite obviously her, and if you can't see that then I really am concerned."
"She'll be here," Laorei whispers, voice breaking slightly. "Any moment now. Just wait. Just wait."
I roll my eyes, reaching to take Laorei's hand. "Come with us."
"No!" she shrieks, recoiling away from me like a positive charge away from its own kind - physics is actually very interesting, though the Humans have it all wrong about their world. Not that I care. "No! Don't touch me you - you iniquitous, avaricious, perfidious ... Swine!"
Swine? How dare she insult me like that? I would agree if she were describing Aareia and Aisla - possibly the male - but me? None of this is my fault. I am not a traitor as she said, nor am I disgusting or selfish. "Just take her, you three," I sigh, rather enjoying the idea of being in charge of them.
"Stop right there, or you will be incinerated."
"What in the name of infinity are you?" Aareia scoffs, taking in the sight before us.
There is a girl, her red clothes in tattered velvet and silk, orange flames leaping in and licking the remains of her dress, in the same way they scorch my eyes every time the girl moves, which, unforcunately, is rather a lot. "You don't know?" she cackles, the sound like a dagger twisting and turning as it imbeds itself in my skull. "How sweet."
Before we can react, the girl is at Laorei's side, eyes closed as she leans over her, eyes warm, though not with the fire that will burn down a forest, leaping like a ballerina from tree to tree. No, this sort of warm is different; it is the heat that comes from a hearth, illuminating its surroundings in dusky hues of blue and red.
"Who is she?" Aareia hisses, as if she honestly thinks one of us knows the answer.
The girls cackles again, and she turns slightly, though never taking her eyes off of Laorei, focusing so hard it is as though she must do this, as though she will receive a punishment beyond belief if she does not take Laorei away from us. Come to think of it, why are we just standing here, doing nothing? "This is ridiculous," I scoff, giving Aareia and Aisla looks of the utmost contempt. "You two are so weak."
"Still not as weak as you though," Aareia replies, with a smug look on her face, as though what she said was actually a good comeback for once. As if.
"You're all weaklings!" the girl shouts, taking Laorei by the hand and pulling her up to stand beside her. "I'd be mortified to have any of you in my company, though not Kear perhaps quite so much."
"Who are you?" Aisla snarls, watching the girl place her arm on Laorei's shoulders.
"Don't you know?" The girls laugh is cold, though there is within it a kind of icy fire, a blazing inferno as it snakes its way up my chilled spine. "How sweet."
I take my chance while Aareia acts like she doesn't know what the girl is talking about, and I run, towards the pair, hitting them with fire. They fall as Aisla tackles them to the ground, both screaming out for Aareia to stop her barrier. They are powerless now, and we take them as easily as we would take a Human soul, even if they both are, admittedly, superior.
Then again, the girl might not be so superior; after all, very few truly care for something like her. She denies it, but her face gives it away.
I know who she is.