Lies. Venomous, agonising lies. They twist my insides, sickening me, my head swimming with their evil chorus of shattered harmonies turned to cacophonies. I scream out my sorrows, screech out my soul, and it rises past the Heavens, past the Shells, so it dissipates and dies, fading to nothing more than a withered, wrinkled hand of death. Well, not death exactly. Worse.
The Shells have nothing, and they are nothing, nothing but empty, mindless space. There is no way out for them, none at all; they can neither descend nor ascend, and they certainly cannot converse with those outside of their Level. Nobody really knows how they came about – they just exist, a miniscule stain on the world’s checkerboard dishcloth, a minute fracture in its silken fabric.
It is only very rarely that they are spoken of. There is not one tongue I have heard utter the word ‘Shell’ in that sense more than once, not one ever in all my millennia. The Humans around me – they seem like Shells. Just a bit more alive looking.
Ashen faces, broken hearts, the numbness of their minds, grieving, though they do not know what for. A girl called Jade – apparently Carlotta’s best friend before I came along – stands beside me, eyes swimming with hatred for me. Tears stream down her face like her eyes are broken taps. It is a hideous sight, her once pretty face warped to match her aching heart
I can see it in her mind – though my skills have faded since the stupid ban I got placed on me – that she has ran all the way here from her home, in tears, her spirit broken by shattered lives of her friends. It appears she fell to the ground at one point, a great tremor shuddering through her skeletal body as she visualises a time gone by, a time when she and Carlotta would pretend to be pop stars in their bedrooms.
She had curled up in a ball and turning her head to the sky, cursing the Heavens for the most recent bout of misfortune. Her knees were going to scab over soon. Though she did not notice it, there was another symbol in the clouds, the same as there had been many times before, the symbol she had subconsciously been associating with death for the past two years.
The world goes black as she sways slowly, spiraling down to the ground with an ear-splitting scream. The scene shifts, and she is with Carlotta again, this time at what looks like a beauty salon.
A strand of hair fell to the ground in a graceful golden arc and she winced, screwing up her eyes, as though she was the one cut by the scissors. All she wanted to do was cry, but she knew she had to stay strong, paint on her mask of mascara and lipstick and make sure it didn’t fall, not even once. Especially not when Carlotta was around.
Pulled back to the presents with a rope tied in a noose, I follow the procession of people inside the chapel, sure to keep my face sad, careful not to make anyone suspicious of what exactly I was doing on the twenty-ninth of November.
“We are here today to honour the death of Carlotta Smith. She was loved by many, and her own heart was large enough for the entire world.” The vicar speaks in a monotone, as though he really doesn’t care at all whether Carlotta is dead or alive. It is also clearly that he did not know Carlotta when she was alive. Not like she would have ever went to church, anyway. “We shall now have a eulogy, spoken for us by Carlotta’s friend, Layla Brown.”
That’s me. I have to go up their right now, speak about Carlotta, with these nuisance tears in my eyes, which I cannot be rid of. This emotion is wrong, it is hideous, it warps and twists my face like I am nothing more than a petty, pathetic Human.
It is despicable, even just the idea of being remotely like a Human. The very thought repulses me. It is a hatred I do not quite know myself, but a hatred nonetheless.
Even as I speak, I can barely hear a sound, just a faint, nauseating buzzing in my ear as I let my words run away off my tongue, to do as they please in the land of dead young. My legs carry themselves down the steps after my speech, and my eyes water with feelings I eould rather not bestow upon any other beings. Grief. Pain. Misery. This is wrong, this is all so very, very wrong. Cores should not feel this way; Mantles should not feel this way; Crusts and Earthens and Heaveners should not feel this way.
A wretched sob escapes me as I sink into the wooden bench, and nothing can pull me out of my deadly, haunting trance.
I stand, dressed all in black, at the door to Carlotta’s house. Peering behind me with narrow eyes, I take note of the lilies sprinkled around their water fountain, lilies to mark Carlotta’s death. It’s almost cruel that I never gave her a proper goodbye. She deserves more than this, more than an untimely death, even if she will be born again. She won’t be the same.
“You alright?” one of Carlotta’s old friends asks with a small smile and a concerned frown, standing with Jade.
“Yeah.” They can both see that I’m lying, that I want more than anything to just collapse, roll into a ball. “Besides, she’d have wanted us to still be happy, yeah? All for the party, am I right?” No, didn’t think so.
“I’m so stupid,” I over hear Carlotta’s sister say to her current boyfriend. “If I hadn’t told her that she was horrible, that everyone hated her for being such an arrogant pig, she wouldn’t have run away ….” Charlotte starts to sob, a sight I never thought I would see, and her boyfriend holds her close, arms wrapped around her as though she needs protecting. “She … She wouldn’t be … Be dead!”
“It’s not your fault, Charlotte,” I tell her in my mind as I start to fall, trying to sound kind, forgiving, although I am in all honesty pinning all the blame on her, purely so I don’t have to feel guilty. It’s not really working, for some reason. “It’s my fault. If I hadn’t acted how I had, then you wouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”
“And I’m sorry that you’re sorry. Don’t blame yourselves. Carlotta wouldn’t want that.” It is odd, but I could have sworn someone real said that, not just my mind. Shaking my head, I listen again for the voice, but there is nothing. I must be hearing things. Of course, it was just my imagination, trying to deny what I have done, even though I know it is all my fault.
There I go again, blaming myself, doing something a Core must never do, even as I stand at the gateway to the throne, and I shiver despite the inferno. “Let us enter,” the guard says stiffly trying to relieve the tension. The night is cool at the Human Level, and I can still feel my hands turning slowly to ice.
“I’ll be a few moments longer. I need to collect my thoughts.” I’ve been out here so long my eyes are almost fully adjusted to the darkness, and I can’t quite face any brighter flames, not any light in such a dark time as this.
We only knew each other for a matter of weeks, but we were a part of each other, and that cannot be snatched away from us, not now, not ever. I will not permit it; I will remember her.
I turn as clouds roll over the horizon, obscuring the moon. Opening the door, all eyes are on me, the Level-transferring beauty queen with mascara on her clothes, eye shadow smeared across her hand. “What are you all looking at?” I sneer bitterly. All these Cores, with perfect, happy lives. Nothing will ever be the same again, now that Carlotta’s gone.
I know what is expected of me, just from looking at their faces, not even using my powers. I must take over.
“Ashley?” a girl’s voice says timidly, echoing in my mind with an edge of wild insanity. “Do you want a hug?”
I lose myself then, and I see it in my mind; I am the new Carlotta Smith, I am the new Ashley Hughmar. I am not a Human, I am a Core, but I will lead those people, the Humans. Anyone who does this, they must pay dearly for their crimes.
And I shall take the utmost pride in being the debt collector.
“Actually, I need to go,” I mumble, as I run from the throne room, breath shuddering with every weak movement. They can’t know what I’m about to do; I won’t let them know. Oh, but what if it slips out in a state of fear, what if it my dam to the river of secrets springs a leaking, and it all comes rushing out, and I myself am destroyed in the carnage? What then?
“Come back!” Daesia screeches at me, but I already have an advantage over her, my feet pounding on the ash, kicking it up in my pursuers’ faces. “Rosalinda!” She gasps, and I hear her stumble to the ground. “No, Kear, come back, right this instant!”
Passing a bookshelf, I grab a book out of instinct, and keep on running until I tumble into darkness, and fall down, down, down, until I hit solid metal.
My shattered legs shake as I clamber to my feet, lightheaded from the crash. “Where is she?” voices shriek from above. “She can’t have escaped!” Are they really so utterly narcissistic that they don’t think anyone can escape their holey net, their blunt claws? They’re almost as pathetic as Humans. And that is saying a lot.
“Imbeciles,” I mutter, glaring up at the scorched silhouettes. Realising that I still am clutching the leathery book, I open it with a slight creaking noise, blowing off a thick layer of dust which makes me sneezed madly.
“Yep, she’s down there!” a voice rings out, and I narrow my arms, thoughtfully picking up a rather large slab of rock and hurling it at the silhouette. “Ow!” the voice screams, sounding like a baby Human. The silhouettes scatter now, and I smirk to myself.
“Don’t mess with me,” I tell them in a low, barely audible voice, “or you will live to regret it.”
By the faint light that the embers above give off, I begin to read, eyes itching slightly. “Dear diary,” I begin, snorting at the words. It sounds Human. “My name is Daesia Core, and I have only very recently come into existence.” Sounds interesting. “I am rather confused as to what the previous sentence actually means, being that I am one of the first of my kind, and there are only six of us.” Oh, I know their names! See that skills?
“This place, when I first saw it, was a true scene of delirium, a twisted slice of being that shattered my heart. That may sound rather pretentious to you (even though you, diary, can most likely not know what I am even writing, and no one should ever read this because Gabriella, Ashley, Cordelia, Laorei and Jadyn are all so irritatingly dim-witted), but it is the truth. It was a rather odd experience, I can tell you that, but it felt so lovely to have a fire leap in my chest, to have my blood boil and my eyes scorch all I despised.
“I do not really like my company: that much is for certain. Cordelia is far too quiet for my liking; Gabriella incredibly pious; Ashley exceedingly narcissistic, and Jadyn is just plain frustrating. Laorei is the only one whose company I can really bear-“ that’ll be why I am naturally amazing, and why Deasia is not quite as evil as I first assumed “-and she is so wondrously beautiful, every inch of her, from her silky hair to her perfectly trimmed toenails.” Again, that is really just the quintessential description of most Mantles.
“Footsteps are plodding down the hallway, I believe they are Gabriella’s.” She must have really heavy feet. “I must hide this diary for now – dreadfully sorry about that – but fear not, for I shall return as soon as possible.
Goodbye, my darling Daesia. Oh, how idiotic she is; I almost feel bad for mocking what she wrote in that diary of hers. If she were a Human, she would most likely be thrown in a mental institution – for schizophrenia, I think it is called.
“Daesia Core, you are honestly the strangest Leveller I have ever had the misfortune to encounter,” I tell the deafening silence, the empty crowd.
Or maybe it isn’t so empty, after all. “Never…” a Core hisses venomously, “insult Daesia Core…” she raises herhands, presumably to rock me, push me over the edge of this sphere – wherever it is, “in front of me.”
“Oh, sorry,” I tell her sweetly, dodging a rough shove. “I’ll go do that somewhere else.”
I end up outside the door to a newsagents, the sign that declares ‘Daily Mail sold here!’ painted in bright blue lettering. Stumblign to me feet, I am nearly hit by an old woman’s walking stick, as she pokes it around like her abnormally large nose.
“Watch it!” I say, letting the words slip out of my mouth angrily. “She could’ve had my eyes out right there, dozy old cow.”
There is a sharp intake of breath, and it is let out again with an angry stench of cabbage. “Now, now, dear, there’s no need for that kind of thing,” the old woman tells me, wagging a finger. She leans closer, and consequentially smothers me in the reeking smell of cabbage. Nodding, as if to confirm a thought, she says, “Ah met yer granny doun the toun, we had a richt guid blether the gither.” Upon seeing my quizzical look, she carries on to say, “I met your granny the day, Penelope. Don’t think I won’t be talking to her about this encounter of ours, now.”
“Oh, I’m so afraid,” I mock with a black face.
Shaking her head, the batty old woman carries on ambling down the street, and I turn to face a particularly angry- looking girl, who seems familiar, though I can’t quite think where from. “You’re one of those stupid popular girls,” she sneers, though I am certain she does not mean her insult; her type never do. “Carlotta and Jade and that.”
I nod, wondering why she is addressing me in this way. “Yes, I am. Now, do you wish to speak to me, or can I hit you?”
Biting her nails and tilting her head, she admits, “You guys are cool. People like you.”
“Oh, really? Because I totally didn’t realise that way what the word popular meant.”
“Turn me into one of you. Please.” Fishing in her pocket for something, she pulls out a piece of crumpled paper that looks really rather ancient. “Carlotta and I were friends, once. I’m sorry I wasn’t at her funeral; I want to make it up to her, and this is the only way I can think of. None of the others would accept me, I know that.”
Sighing, and knowing I will later regret my words, I say, “Yes.”
“Do you promise?”
Now I feel really rather childish, debating whether or not to decline. Finally, instinct takes over - very stupid instinct, might I add - and I agree. “Fine. I promise.”