My hands tremble with shock and surprise as I stare into the face of a being I know all too well. Aisla.
"Carlotta," she sneers, eyeing her with distaste. "And ..." Aisla look me up and down, as though I am non-recognizable, and I shiver slightly at how easily she assumes this charade " ... a tramp? Beggar? Oh, sorry, is she a friend? Or do you just still not have any of those?"
"Oh, shut up. I have way more friends than you, not that it matters. I'm betete rthan you anyway. Just check my instagram."
"There's no need for that," Kasey cackles like a witch at a stake, and my lips curls in disgust, my eyes narrowing into slits as I imagine the horror on her face were I to use my 'games', if I were to turn them on her with my admirable accuracy, and place it straight in the middle of her humming, beating, infuriating heart. "She was just telling the truth. We shouldn't let our eyes be harmed by looking at your posts."
Carlotta snarls again, sounding more like a dog by the minute, and says with a malice to freeze the sun, "Well, little girlie, I'll teach you a lesson in truth." I already know this will end badly. "Once upon a time there was six girls, all best friends." A shudder runs through me, my arms tensing as a great sense of foreboding descends upon me, suffocating me in its iron fist of fear. "One day, one of their friends said something mean to them that wasn't true, so then they were never friends again. Then, another two followed, on the pretence that they would hurt her, though they actually formed an army with them to hurt the remaining three friends. The youngest of these three then said it was cruel of them to say such wicked things against the other three, and so she left, taking one of the girls with her. And then, the last was all alone. Would you like that? Because, you know, it's not really all that difficult."
Aisla's mouth curls into the fierce snarl I know even better than my own, and she cackles with her wicked, croaking voice. "Oh, dear, you are so stupid."
A shudder runs through me, chilling my bones like a crawling glacier, and I clench my fist, urging my mind to reach someone else's. Carlos Hans', to be precise.
"Yeah, well, at least I'm smarter than you!" Carlotta shoots back as Aareia and Kasey step forward.
Please, please, please.
My heart races as the three girls glare at us, preparing for what can only be described as a petty human fight - but an entertaining one, even if that is incredibly hard to believe. I suppose this is what Aisla has turned to; a pathetic Human, and an even more pathetic Crust. She disgusts me.
"Are you being serious?" Kasey's voice drops lower than the Core, and I know now that there is something more than boy problems and general Human narcissism. This is much, much worse. "Are you being serious? You steal my boyfriend every year, and yet you still act so innocent, and you're so crap at everything you're in all the bottom sets, and you say I'm the idiot? You disgust me."
I think I might just be sick now. This is all too much; these Humans taunting one another, it doesn't make sense. We were always told that Humans were weak, that they can't do anything for themselves. And now this. I just can't handle it, and I know that sounds incredibly foolish, but in all honesty, it is true. I can't.
"Ugh, you are such a bitch, Kasey!" Carlotta shrieks, drawing much attention to us from pensionrs getting off the next bus, many of whom are disgusted by their profanities. "You're such a worthless, bitchy pile of shit!"
Now, that was harsh. I wonder what on Earth has happened to my mind games, as the distractions still hasn't come through. This has never happened before, and my stomach plummets as trepidation builds in the air around me. "At least my parents actually care about me!"
Oh, now she's done it.
Carlotta's eyes glint maliciously, and she advances on Kasey, as Aareia and Aisla watch on with worried eyes. I know that even through their naivity, they understand something is deeply wrong.
"You dare to mention that?" Carlotta's voice is dangerous now, and I feel myself needing her boyfriend right here, right now. We all need him. "It was all your bloody fault in the first place, and you're bringing it up again?"
"Um, yeah, I am, my darling, darling Carlotta," Kasey says in her mocking voice, a voice filled with laughter and cruelty. "After all, the truth is, they hate you."
"I'll make your life Hell." As if she knows what that feels like. "Don't say another word."
"Blaise toi." Kasey's French is really rather rude, and I find myself shuddering in discomfort.
"Come on, Carlotta," I say, wrinkling my nose up. "Let's leave these bitches. They're not worth our time." Even as I utter the words, I am disgusted by myself.
"Fine," Carlotta huffs, mouthing to them, "You'll be sorry next time," as I pull her away.
"I was just about to pulverise them, Layla!" she whines as we begin up her long, sweeping driveway. "I could've done it, too, you know."
"Yeah, right." There's more chance of me residing in the Heavens.
"I could've. Ask Jenna Brown."
"Isn't she the girl who was killed?"
"But by a boy. Luke Wyse. He's in prison, isn't that what you told me earlier?"
"And why do you think he even did it in the first place? After all, a kiss from the most popular girl in school is hardly something you would turn down, especially if she convinced you that you would not have to go to jail."
For a moment I am speechless at Carlotta's gall, and then I start to laugh, and it is a mirthless laugh which soars up to the Heavens and poisons their holy waters. Though I would never admit it, I adore Human fights - the funny kind mostly, when someone ends up dead.
"You're so clandestine, Carlotta," I say, then watch her frown in confusion as I laugh again. "That's a good thing. Trust me."
I have no idea why, but she does.
"Why did you go?" Laorei screams at me, striking a blow with her sharp hand. "Why did you go back up there to the Human? I specifically told you, don't spend any extra time, and what do you do? Spend extra time! May I ask what exactly it was that you were doing?" She waits for an answer, but my lips are clamped shut. "Never mind. That is not important - what's important is that you are on probation, and if you don't clean up your act, you're going to the Core!"
"You're not being serious." Arching my eyebrows in a mix of confusion and spite, I take a step closer. "Tell me you're not being serious. You won't really, you know, send me to the Core? I'll never be the same, you know that!" Panic washes over me in a wave like death, and I shudder. No. No, she can't do that.
"I will." Her voice is a ghost caught in an inferno, and it races through me like the strongest adrenaline, my heart soaring snd plummeting in a pendulum-like sequence.
"No, you won't." I make to stalk out of the room, but my legs get entangled as I turn, and I stumble, biting back curses. "You won't," I mutter again as I clamber to my feet, striding past the guards with a vanilla-scented (I think that's the fragrance Carlotta smothered me in earlier, but I can't quite remember) air of haughtiness. "Seriously, you won't."
I glance backwards at Laorei's wicked grin, and my I stop in my tracks, shaking with the force of her burning glare. "You know me too well. I won't." She hops down off her gilded throne daintily, and strides up to me. "But please, don't make Gabriella come down and hurl you down their - that's the last thing we need."
Snmiling inrelief, I leave merrily, plucking my phone out of my pocket. "Yeah, Carlotta?" I say as soon as I am outwith Laorei's earshot. "I'll see you tomorrow. I've got plans."
"What kind of plans?" she asks, sounding enthralled.
To be honest, I don't know 'what kind of plans' my plans are, but I know that Carlotta is going to like them; they're right up her alley. "I'll tell you tomorrow. Mum's forcing me to ... " I search the area for a plausible Human-sounding excuse "... She's forcing me to look at bathtubs."
"Bathtubs?" Even just by her voice, I can tell Carlotta's laughing.
"Yep. But it's not too bad, because it's for my second en-suite, so it'll be really good quality. The crap stuff doesn't come in until about the sixth or seventh one."
"You are so lucky, Layla," Carlotta says, though her voice has no signs of envy. "Well, I'll see you tomorrow, doll. Btw, we've got Mr Higgs for Science. He's, like, super strict about pencils and all that rubbish, so don't forget it. Or you can just skive with me and Carlos."
For the millionth time today, I wonder why Carlotta immediately took a liking to me, but for the atmosphere's sake I don't question her just now. "You sure I won't be a third wheel? I don't want to halt any ... Developments."
Carlotta giggles. "It's fine. Besides, I don't even know if I'll be skiving with him anyway; he likes his teacher. Miss Florine or something."
I try to think of more intelligent conversation, but am saved the trouble by someone - I think it's Carlotta's sister - shouting, "Time for tea, Carly!"
"Got to go," she groans, and hangs up the phone.
Traipsing back to my room, I run over 'plans' in my head, counting down the minutes until my meeting with Aareia. Twenty.
The next time I check my phone - which has a strangely good signal - it is twelve minutes. Then eight. Five.
I pick myself up and close my eyes, whispering, "Crust."
Aareia's arms are folded as she blurs into view, and her lips are pressed into a thin, pale line. "Took you long enough," she mutters, scuffing the tarmac with her boot. "Still, what can you expect from a Mantle?"
"Aw, look, little baby Human comments. Isn't that so sweet of little Aareia?"
"Shut your mouth," she growls, reminding me of the dog, and turns on her heel, stomping away. "And come on, idiot!"
I stay rooted to the spot, a knife trapped in its protective casing. "No."
Her fury is so intense I can feel it, as it radiates off of her, glowing with a white hot anger which scorches my soul, as it flares up violently. "Come on."
"Oh, just come on, you imbecile!" she shouts, catching me by the arm and dragging me away in one swift movement. "I don't even know why you're not a bloody Core already!"
"How kind you are," I deadpan, reluctantly letting Aareia lead me. It'll all be worth it once I speak to Carlotta tomorrow.
"Just shut up and come on." For once, I don't see the point in arguing.
She leads me to a small cave a few miles away, a place where sand becomes trapped in my shoes and waves crash against my skin. Frowning at her od choice of location, I duck inside, and stop at the sound of hushed voices.
Aareia's nails - which are really razors in disguise - bore into my skin, piercing it with a pain unnatural to me, and I have to bite my lip to refrain from yelping and hitting her.
"I told you," a low voice says. "The Mantle is precisely where we need her. She's with the Leader - it'll all be fine."
Furrowing my brow, I inch closer. "I'm still worried, Aaron," a female voice says, agony in her voice. "What if it doesn't work? What if we are Thrown?"
"We're doing all we can, Angela," Aaron reassures her, and I hear a kiss planted somewhere, presumable on her cheek. "Biut I promise, we will stay strong."
Footsteps shuffle inside the cave, and Aareia whisks me away faster than a Heaven who's overdosed on Human sweets.
"What was that?" I explode as we reach a relatively deserted place on a grassy hillock.
"I'm sorry, Kear." It is silly to think, but Aareia almost sounds sincere. "I didn't mean for you to hear that."
"What did they mean?" I enquire, tilting my head.
"I can't tell you."
I huff in anger and stamp my foot like a Human - something to make me hate myself for all eternity. "So, you accidentally take me to a conversation between two people, make a big deal about what they said, and then don't even tell me what it means? You're a bitch."
A slight smile licks her lips. "I know."
In a flurry of movement, she is gone, replaced by only the faint wind and an empty void of nothingness. I can't wait to torture her.