A scream. A whisper. A hiss like a snake steeling itself for an attack.
“Get away from her, you Human scum!” Aareia shrieks, running towards me, her once beauyiful face contorted into a mask of loathing and revulsion. Or at least, I think it is a mask, for I have never seen a Crust truly angry with a Human. It is quite unheard of.
“Whoa, calm, right!” The boy holds his hands up, palms facing Aareia. “We were just chatting. Jeez.”
“Don’t ‘jeez’ me, ignorant cretin,” Aareia sneers, dragging me away, though her action is incredibly unnecessary. “Nobody cares what you have to say, because Humans like you are all ignorant ignoramuses. Or is it ignorami?” Is she really so incredibly foolish? It does not matter what the word is, just as long as the Human understands he is incredibly inferior to us. “Nah, it isn’t, is it? Ignorami. That’s, like, paper folding.” Aareia must be joking; even I know more about Humans than her.
“Can we go now?” I whine, pulling a face. “This boy’s foul stench is really making my head hurt.”
“Sure.” Aareia narrows her eyes at him. “I don’t think we should be anywhere near this thing again, right?”
I won’t really have to keep a promise, will I? “Yeah, that’s right. Bye.” And so why walk away in a perfect unison, me hoping the boy will never talk to me again because Aareia will make it incredibly awkward when he is really being nice, and Aareia hoping he’ll die after a very lengthy period of torture, and that his guts and organs will be spilled out everywhere so everyone will be repulsed and never bother to bury him, so his spirit will wander aimlessly for all eternity, but he will be useless, his body scattered around the world, and his suffering will never end. At least, that’s the vibe I’m getting.
“So, what was your problem with that Human?” I ask conversationally as I follow her along a narrow street.
“I didn’t like him.”
“Well, obviously.” I think Aareia is underestimating my intellectual ability. “But why?”
After a moment of what seems like thinking of a reasonable excuse, Aareia says, “He’s friends with Gabriella. Well, he might be, I don’t know. He’s not very nice anyway, and I don’t think you should go near him. It’ll be dangerous.”
“You have no idea how stupid you sound, Aareia,” I scold her, turning away with a roll of my eyes.
The houses lining the road are odd, especially for this town. Where other houses were made of brick and standing alone, independently, in varying shades of grey and black and beige, these houses look more like cottages: wooden with thatched roofs, and painted an assortment of pastel pinks and baby blues. “Where exactly are we going, Aareia?” I ask the silence.
No answer. “Aareia, are you ignoring me because I offended you, or has your tongue been cut out so you can never talk again and annoy me with your stupidity? I’m perfectly happy with either of those options, just so you know.” Still no answer.
I turn around, becoming slightly concerned about Aareia, though I brush the thought away. I’m beginning to act like a Human, and that is never a good thing. “Kear, shut up.”
“There’s something there. Look.” Aareia points to a bush, figner trembling slightly, presumably an action forged out of deadly fear. “It’s – Kear, I don’t know what it is, do you know what it is?” She’s scared. Aareia, the Crust who thinks herself so superior, so strong, so solid on her feet, so still and unstoppable. Scared.
“No, I don’t,” I say in a hollow voice, confused by Aareia’s change in personality. “Listen, Aareia, I think we should go. Like, transport or something, because this clearly isn’t a very good place for you to be, and”
“Kear!” she shouts, whipping towards me. “Will you just shut up for a single moment? I need to concentrate, you absolute idiot!”
“Sorry,” I mutter darkly, turning away from her to peer at a blue house with a pale pink curtain fluttering in the front window. “I mean, it’s not like I care or anything.” Points for sarcasm.
“There! That’s it!” If Aareia is going to reprimand me for being loud, she would do well not to be such a hypocrite and shriek about the tiniest of matters herself.
She has got to be kidding. “Aareia, just tell me what’s going on, or I swear I will make your life a complete and utter misery!”
Aareia shakes her head, hair spilling out around her shoulders like rain onto the ground, creating a puddle of gold. “Follow me,” she hisses, walking towards the bush, almost in a kind of trance. Her feet trail behind her like the train of a Human ‘wedding’ dress, and I come incredibly close to standing on her red raw heels.
The bush parts in the middle as she glides effortlessly through it, the sharp thorns of the roses turning to soft flowers, like petals scattered to show one’s infatuation for another. For some reason, I still hurt. It’s like a power rising up inside of me; a great force, a wave of fear and guilt which drowns me in worry and negativity, making my heart beat faster than the speed of Daesia, and I stumble around in my twisted mind, each breath bringing me closer and closer to… To something. I don’t know what it is; I don’t think I can ever know. It is breaking me, and there isn’t any solution to put the pieces back together.
My footsteps echo on stone, the noise ringing in my ears like the church bells at a Human funeral. The pitter patter of our feet continues, growing faster with every tick of the cracked grandfather clock. “Stop,” Aareia hisses as I nearly fall onto her, and she growls lowly as I purse my lips. “We’re – we’re here.”
“Aareia?” a voice calls faintly from my right, and I close my eyes. No. “Kear? Are you guys here? It took you long enough.”
“Yes, it’s us,” Aareia replies, digging her nails into my arm. “Both of us.”
“Brilliant. Come in; I’ve got the stuff ready for you guys.” Well, this should be great fun. I can already imagine Aisla screaming at me, and hitting me, and possibly also kicking me in the shins like a Human toddler with a simply terrible temper.
“Okay, so, what is it?” I ask impatiently, tapping my foot on the floor in a manner I know irritates Aisla greatly.
“We should explain first, right?” Aisla looks to Aareia for guidance. That used to be me.
“Yeah, probably. Except, I don’t think we should in this case.”
“It wasn’t a question, Aisla, let’s just tell her and show her the stuff later.” Aisla huffs, slumping down in a chair which is grey and crumbly, either because it is made of stone, or because it used to belong to a Human and all the paint has flaked off and it is close to breaking. Most likely the latter.
“Okay, fine. So, Kear, you know the Mantle story, and the Crust and blah-blah-blah, and Ashley probably told you the human side of things, but the truth is you have no idea what is going on.” Well, that makes me feel so intelligent. “Heaveners also have a say in things, believe it or not, and Gabriella is actually completely honest, as our values state, so you need to believe what we’re going to tell you.”
“Wait,” I frown. “What about her? She’s not a Heavener; she’s a Crust.”
“Looks can be deceiving, Kear,” Aisla says, waving a hand in the air. “She’s with usd, and we want you to be, too.”
“Why?” Naturally, my question is completely ignored.
“Okay, where was I? Yeah, so, um, you killed Ashley, right?”
“NO!” I shout, quite forgetting that Aareia wanted me to be quiet. “I mean, no, I did not kill her, you swine, she died trying to save me and I tried to save her but couldn’t, and if you think for one moment I killed her then you can go back to where you belong, in the Heavens!”
Turning sharply on my heel, I stalk out of the room, heart blazing with anger, eyes blazing with hatred. How dare they accuse me of such a thing? How dare they?
“Kear, okay, just come back!” No. Never.
“Kear, come back right now, or I swear …”
Oh. That. I try to look away from her scrutinising gaze, but I can’t. My neck is stiff with aeons of pain, and my heart is stiff with centuries of guilt. Her. Aisla. This is what it means, to know her, now and forever. I knew it ages ago, but I suppose I didn’t want to realise the truth, even when it was staring me right in the face. It all comes back to one thing: evil.
“Com e on, Kear,” she purrs with a malicious grin, eyes glinting like the jewels of death. “Don’t be shy.” It is only those two who laugh, but it sounds like a million taunting voices, trying to break my soul. It is working spectacularly.
“Now, you need to do one thing for us. You need to get rid of all the other Levellers. Ashley’s already gone, obviously, and I think you’ve already got a halfway decent relationship with the others, so it should be fine. And if you get caught or whatever, well, it’s fine. We can always replace you.”
“I’ll do it,” I agree, sounding strangely like an annoyed Crust. They should be very grateful that I am not sounding any lower.
“Good. Now, we’ve got some stuff that might help you. This girl - ” Aisla hands me a book “ - is one of the most wanted Humans in their Level. You could pick up a few tips from her, but make sure no one realises what you’re doing.”
“Okay. Is that all?” I try to come across as casual, but I know that fear is creeping into my voice, though it is not the task at hand which concerns me. It is Aisla. Beautiful, beautiful Aisla, who has a tendency to try and kill immortals.
“Yeah. Read it before you go, so you don’t do anything stupid like you usually do and drop it in a drainage system.”
I sigh, glaring at her from underneath my thick eyelashes, and begin to read, sending her furtive glances at regular intervals.
“Are you even actually reading that, Kear?” Aareia asks, voice full of contempt.
“Yes,” I reply. “Obviously.”
“Say it out loud to us then.” Honestly, they are like Human school teachers, the way they need to check and double check everything they ask me to do.
“Fine. I will.” So I do. “Dear diary – do I really need to do this? It is incredibly dull.”
“Yes!” Aisla shouts, knocking my hand off the stone table where it rests.
“Urgh. This better be worth it, because I will not be happy about reading boring Human drivel and trying to do the impossible for no reward.”
“You’ll get a throne, okay, now read!”
Oh, a throne. This is promising. “Dear diary,” I begin again, smirking slightly. “This is my story. I don’t think it is a particularly happy story, so if you don’t need to read this, don’t. Also, can a diary read? It would be rather exciting if it could. Anyway, I am getting sidetracked, even though they say at school ‘never use anyway’. They’re stupid.
“But, here it is anyway. My story.
“The freezing tentacles of death grabbed at me, their icy cold touch separating me from all whom I have met, paying no heed to my protestations, my tears of sorrow and misery. I screamed in protest at their wicked actions, their wicked words, but the roar of anguish does nothing to take away my guilty pleasure.
“ “Lauren,” a voice hissed in my mind, voice like a viper, ready to pounce and destroy everything in its path, snatching away my destiny.
“ It’s cruel.
“ “Hayleigh,” another voice said, this time warm and friendly, planting even more guilt in my mind, a mind which is so dark and twisted it already is accumulating too much grief for a fourteen- year- old- girl.
“ “Stop it!” I screamed at them in the heavy silence, knowing all too well what it will accomplish. The answer is nothing.
“The blood pounded in my ears, a thrumming noise which tore at me from the inside out, attempting to escape the coils of decay and the torturous pain I inflict on all I meet. But it is was not my blood.
“ “Penelope,” a soft voice said, so perfect it makes me want to melt, or else make everything else around me melt away, melt away so there is nothing left for me to feel. Nothing left for me to steal.
“ “Save me,” I whispered back to him, voice breaking, but already I knew her spirit was gone, gone to a land where it will never experience my betrayals. “Save me, because you know I wanted to save you.”
“I don’t trust myself even to speak now, not once the words have slipped out at my mind has deteriorated, faded away into nothing. “Please.” My pleadings were in vain, and my dignity slipped away as easily as my emotions, slipping away into the hands of her, my last victim.
“She had one thing I did not, at first, and it was one thing I wanted him to treasure forever. My final name.
“I have had many names – too many to remember, really. There was Amber, my first, when I murdered Lucy Small, a timid girl with red hair, pale skin, and the most piercing green eyes anyone has ever seen. It has always been a wonder to me that she never saw through me.
“The second name was Fiona Davids, a most hideous of names which made me want to hit my boss, slap him hard across the face with one hand, and then twice as hard as the other. Bethany was the second one I killed.
“I count my losses today, the losses I gave myself with my sardonic grins, my snarky remarks.
“I need my losses, but I want my profits, the only one I ever had.
“Her, Sorcha, who really is my second-to-last murder.
“The last one is this girl, by the name of Natalie Barnes.
“My last name, the last name I shall use in this world, is the same. Natalie Barnes, my first name, and my last. I don’t know when I shall kill her, but I will. And I’ll kill everything else, too.”
I know what they did. Aisla must have stolen her mind’s memories, she must have broken her to the point of nothing. And for what? Somehow, I know. To take away my emotions, too.