Plague swarmed through the Level, poisoning the waters as its victims shrieked in pain and anguish. "Save us!" they would cry, every day and every night, but to no avail. Above them, Gabriella Heaven paced her High Cloud anxiously, biting her lip as she wondered what to do. Ashley Hughmar, her best friend, had been wounded accidentally by their other friend, Cordelia Earthen, and so disease had swept through her Level, resulting in many deaths.
Gabriella knew it was her responsibility to heal when Ashley could not, but yet she could not fathom an idea in her mind. For her, it was impossible, and she hated it.
"Gab!" one of her friends, Laorei said, rushing into the cloud. "Gab, we've got an idea!" Daesia Core and Jadyn Crust hurried in behind her, beaming with pride. "We've got it! We've got the cure to this plague! The Humans are saved!"
Sinking into her throne, Gabriella heaved a momentary sigh of small relief, before sitting up straighter. "How?"
As they spilled out their plan of action, Gabriella smiled in delight, already thinking of how she could twist this story to make her out as the hero. "Perfect," she said as they finished their speeches. "Okay, can you go down, just below the Human Level, it'll make sure you guys are safe if it rises up. After all, we wouldn't want you to be hurt."
Though Laorei, at least, knew this was a lie, and the disease would sink to their Level, they accepted anyway, not wishing for a fight, spare from Daesia, who merely wished to keep her three- people 'army' intact.
Then, in the dead of night, Gabriella saved the Humans, plotting to claim all the glory for herself. When Laorei, Jadyn, and Daesia were certain they would be safe, they attempted to leave their dwelling, yet failed.
And so were formed the six Levels: Heaveners, Earthens, Humans, Crusts, Mantles, and Cores.
I remember the day I was first told our history as clearly as if it was yesterday, though it was many millennia ago now. Faerin, Laorei's first born, had read it to us out of a book when we were but five decades old, and we had listened to it with the same rapt attention as I now listen to Carlotta's tale.
"My name isn't actually Carlotta," she admits to begin with. I never would have guessed. "It's Ashley. Ashley Hughmar." Again, it really does not come as so much of a surprise as one would expect.
"And?" I prompt after a few moments of silence in the humid room. "What exactly is going on?" When she still doesn't reply, I add, "I know you're up to something, Ashley. Don't deny it."
"Don't call me that." For a reason I cannot quite decide upon, she is ashamed of something, possibly her name. "I hate that name."
"You chose it."
Carlotta - or should I say Ashley? - scoffs, as though I am more naïve even than those belonging to her own Level. "Oh, please. That was Gabriella's idea. Only she, Laorei and Daesia chose their own names. We were forced to have these stupid, hideous ones. Ashley? It makes me want to be sick."
"Okay, so Gabriella chose your names, big del, everyone cares about that so much. What else?" I demand, growing tired of her rambling.
"Well, remember that story about the friends I told the bitch squad the other day, the one when they were being super annoying? That's the truth of what happened."
I suspected she'd say as much, the lying, cheating, little bitchy, stupid Human. "Are you sure about that?" I ask in a fake sweet voice like sarcastic honey rolling off my tongue. " 'Cause I'm pretty sure that's not what happened."
"What on earth do you mean?" Her voice shakes with her evident guilt at lying to me. "Of course - of course that's the truth."
Quizzically, I raise my bushy eyebrows. "Totally. That's not what I heard."
"Yeah, well, I was there! Okay, maybe I did bend the truth l slightly, but really, it's just about right. Obviously, I couldn't tell the truth - they'd think I was a raving lunatic!" She glares at me like I am incredibly stupid, and I shuffle awkwardly from side to side, knowing that she far outranks me.
"Aisla and Aareia knew," I say simply, as she nods.
"Who's Aisla?" she asks, and I frown. "I mean, obviously I know who Aareia is, but I've never heard of Aisla? She a Mantle like you?"
Not entirely certain of how to answer this, I say, "Sort of. It's ... Complicated. She was a few centuries ago, and we were great friends, but then ... She left. I don't know why, she just did, and I haven't seen her since, apart from this once, at a party, and off the bus."
The memory of my first encounter with Carlotta - Ashley - rings in my mind, and I tilt my head, feeling my long hair swish to one side. "You saw me before, didn't you?" I say firmly, daring her to disagree. "At the party, with that girl - Rachel or something - and when you were flirting with that boy."
"I flirted with a lot of boys before I got Carlos," she tells me, flipping her hair. "You'll have to remind me which."
"Toby." The name comes to me immediately, almost too quickly for it to be normal, even for those whose heads I reached inside. "The one you went mad at because you support Manchester City, and he supported Manchester United."
"Oh, yeah, I remember him. I don't support City though; I just wanted an acceptable excuse to nearly kill him that wasn't the fact that he was the. Only. Boy. Ever. To. Turn. Me. Down." Ah, I understand now. My earlier suspicions of Carlotta being exempt from the usual Human narcissism are declined, and I roll my clear eyes.
"You need to get a reality check," I tell her, and the two of us both begin to laugh slightly. "So ... Who were you talking to just there?" Even as I ask the question, I know the answer.
Carlotta bites her lip, lowering her gaze sadly. "Her," she tells me simply. "Gabriella. She just - she won't leave me alone, Layla!"
"Kear," I correct her, earning myself a burning glare. "That's my real name."
"Kear, then." Carlotta sniffs, looking away haughtily. "Anyway, as I was saying, Gabriella - "
She is cut off mid-sentence by the door slowly creaking open, revealing a short, rounded figure clutching what looks like a large bottle of beer. "Oi, you two, move it!" he yells drunkenly. Wrinkling my nose, I follow Carlotta out of the cupboard, gagging on the boy's fouls stench.
"What riff raff have you been letting in, Carlotta?" I ask, disgusted. "You might as well just be letting in any old rabble from the streets."
"It's not my fault everybody knows who I am, Kear," she replies with a roll of her eyes. "It would be awfully rude of me to refuse them entry."
"Precisely why you should have refused them entry. Rudeness and firmness is precisely what they need to be precisely balanced between drunkenness and the precise art of being sober."
Carlotta frowns as I say this, her face turning slowly to one of gaily laughter. "You say precise a lot, don't you?"
"Precisely my point."
People begin to crowd around us as they see Carlotta, like a swarm of bees towards honey, or a pack of wolves towards their prey. "OMG, we heard about Carlos!" a girl wearing about ten tonnes of make up says, licking her lips and tasting the juicy gossip buzzing in the air around us.
"Why are you with the slut?" another asks, and I scoff, searching for the source of the voice.
"Sorry, but I'm afraid she isn't with you, whoever just said that," I reply coolly, standing my ground. I really hope I said that right; Human 'sass' is rather new to me, I must admit.
Murmurs ripple around the small room, amidst shouts of, "Burn!" and, "That's a sare yin!" the latter of which makes no sense to me. Laughing cruelly, Carlotta and I flouncetowards the kitchen, where she hands me a cup of blackcurrant juice.
"I still don't see what your problem is with alcohol, Kear," she says, rummaging for something - probably a small cocktail or something that her mum has. "I mean, my Level's the only one that drinks it, how weird is that? It's awesome, seriously, even if we do need bans on the consumption."
"Speaking of which," I say, "aren't you only seventeen?"
"Relax," she scoffs, laughing at my concern. "I created this stuff. I know what I'm doing."
Somehow, I doubt that. "Just don't get drunk," I tell her as we walk back into the living room, where three new guests have arrived, each of them glaring.
"So, what is happening here?" Laorei asks. Actually, I am not entirely sure if it is Laorei, for this woman appears far younger, but I recognise her voice, as does Carlotta. "Layla, why did you sneak out tonight? I told you, you are grounded."
Shocked beyond belief at the faces of the trio - consisting of Laorei, a woman I recognise as Jadyn, and Gabriella - Carlotta and I step back, surprised, hearts pounding. "But ..." I didn't know how to address her. Mum? No. "Who even are you? I think you've got the wrong girl."
There are snickers from the rest of the crowd, and I smirk as Laorei finally begins to comprehend what I mean. "Oh, yes, sorry, I must .. Must be confused, sorry ..."
She ambles away quietly, with Jadyn and Gabriella in tow, both of whom shoot Carlotta and I glares which clearly say, "This isn't over."
Gulping, Carlotta and I turn back to the crowd. "Weirdoes," she says, raising her perfectly plucked eyebrows. "So, yeah, Carlos is such a horrible boyfriend. He is totally getting dumped." Scanning the room for other boys, she winks at one and says, "So now I'm single."
"Brilliant!" a boy calls out to her. "Here, I'm single too, if you want to get together."
"No thanks," Carlotta tells him, as I nod to signify my approval. "You're not really ... My type." Then, her eye catches on someone else's, and a grin spreads across her perfect face. "But you are."
The boy her gaze has fallen on stares back at her in bewilderment, seemingly lost for words. "Um ... Sorry, but you're not really my type and I already have a girlfriend I'm sorry bye!" He scurries off as his words are met by a stunned silence. Another one who turned Carlotta down.
"What are you all looking at?" she snarls, turning away. "Party's over. Move it." As the crowd disperses, she turns to me, pleading in her eyes. "You too, Kear," she says. "But I need to talk to you in the morning."
A key turns in the front door's lock, and I grin as I meet Charlotte. "Hi!" I say in a much too perky voice. "How was your night?"
Charlotte narrows her eyes suspiciously. "Good." Turning to Carlotta, she asks, "What happened? Why are there drunken lunatics wandering around the garden?"
I slink away quietly as shouts begin to rise from their mouths, slipping silently into the night.
I know the truth now, the truth of what is happening, the truth about the lies fed to me on a plastic spoon. "Stupid Carlos." I kick the ground. "Stupid Laorei." The toe of my shoe is beginning to get scuffed. "Stupid, stupid, everyone."
Sighing, I sink to the ground under a tree, and whisper into the night, "Damn them."
I feel myself be pulled down from the Human Level, landing with a bump in Laorei's throne room.
"You complete and utter imbecile!" she shrieks at me upon my somewhat embarrassing arrival, as I clamp my hands tightly over my ears, deafened by the sound of her booming voice. "What were you thinking, going up there? I told you, you are not allowed to - "
"Oh, I am ever so sorry, Laorei," I huff, immediately regretting it.
"That's enough attitude from you, thank you very much!" Laorei shakes her head, standing up and walking slowly around the room, contemplating an idea I most certainly will not approve of.
Clearly, she expects me to speak, as though I am the kind of idiot who would dare to worsen the situation. Finally, after many minutes of silence, she tells me in a low voice, "Go. Go to the Core."
Then everything crumbles.