"Stop, Kear, you idiot!" Aareia shouts for the umpteenth time, and I ignore her for the umpteenth time. Nothing odd there. One thing that is odd, however, is the fact that I am currently trying to avoid hurting any Humans, which is a very rare occurrence.
"I'm not an idiot!" I call over my shoulder, though my heart isn't in the voice. I have something I need to do. I can't stop now. "If anyone's an idiot here, you are!"
"How am I an idiot, exactly?"
"You are not entirely disgusted by the Human race, for one thing," I tell her, putting the utmost contempt into my voice. It scares her, I can see, and that is perhaps the best feeling in the world.
"I'm disgusted by you, though."
"Believe me, the feeling is mutual." I smile at her in a clearly fake fashion, and turn around, spinning on my heel. My head is held high as I pull out a ridiculously pink hair tie (Jade's choice, not mine), shaking out the waterfall of fiery curls.
"Oh, that makes me feel so incredibly sad. That was sarcasm, by the way, if you hadn't-"
"Shut up, idiot!" I shout to her, wheeling around. "I do know what sarcasm is! Oh, and how to greatly injure you, so be careful." I plaster an innocent smile onto my face as I move towards her, fists clenched, heart pounding as I prepare to pounce.
"I'm scared, too, you know. Very scared. After all, a being with no Level is really very frightening." She grins wickedly.
"It's your fault, Aareia," I spit, inching closer to her. "So just do me one last favour, and shut up."
"Oh, little Kear Bear's all -"
"Shut up!" I shout, turning her back to the wall. She's caught off guard, and I grab her wrist, twisting it as she screams the tortured screams brought by pain.
"Don't you dare, Kear!" Aareia shrieks, forcing me away with a hand of steel and a fist of iron. "You will regret it!"
" Really?" I scoff, amused. "Do you really think that?"
"Yes," Aareia replies, sounding rather annoyed.
"Sorry, but I really must disagree with you. What damage can a Crust possibly do to me? You. Are. Nothing."
Aareia has no time to react as I run towards her, feet practically lifting off the ground as I leap, sending both of us crashing into a wall. She grabs my hair and pulls it, causing me to scream in pain and reach for her eyes, clawing at them with a kind of rabid fire in mine.
"Why are you so stupid?" Aareia shrieks as she grabs my neck, attempting to garrotte me.
" I'm not stupid!" I protest, kicking her.
"Selfish, then!" Aareia howls as my nails break the surface of her skin, and I seize the chance to grab her wrist and throw her across the asphalt.
In a second, she is up, screaming. Her charred wings begin to appear, growing from her back like a deadly, yet silent, weapon. I suppose that is what they are, really.
"You will regret this, Kear!" she screeches. "I hope you know that I can literally destroy you! Aisla can do anything in the Heavens; she even arranged for me to help you so I can help her when you completely fail at everything you do, as always."
Wait, what? "What do you mean, Aareia?" I try to keep my voice steely and cool, but even I can't deny the nervous tremor creeping silently into my voice, like an earthquake's force travelling to a distant volcano, ready to erupt at any minute. "How can Aisla 'do anything in the Heavens'?"
Aareia's guilty face says everything. This was all a lie, all of it. She won't help me, and Aisla is far past the point of civilness. I'm a pawn, a small, insignificant piece in their game of black and white strategy, a piece no one cares and so can kill instantly, leaving me to turn grey with dust.
"I hate you," I spit, scuffing the gravel, my heart not in fighting anymore. It's pointless now; I won't win if she's not afraid to show her true colours.
"Believe me, Kear, the feeling is completely mutual."
I turn away, flipping my head , clicking my fingers as if to summon someone to my side to protect me. No one comes. It is their loss, I suppose.
"Yeah, just walk away!" Aareia shouts, sounding disgusted by me. "Like the stupid, insignificant, despicable ..." she pauses for a moment "... THING you are."
"You mean a free being? I may be stupid, insignificant and despicable, but at least I don't get other people to do what I want them to by lying to them." She opens her mouth to reply, but I cut her off. "You betrayed me, Aareia, and now you'll pay the price. And, unlike you, I always keep my promises."
"Oh. That is so scary, Kear. I am quaking in my ballet pumps." Make that incredibly ill fitting, not to mention vastly unpractical, ballet pumps.
"Believe me, Aareia. You will be."
"I shall take that as a compliment."
"Don't, honey. That's not how it was intended."
"Shut up or I'll come right back round and hit you again." She obeys. "Good."
Finally, she lets me leave her in peace, and my head spins slightly with the pungent air of the nearby 'sushi' restaurant facing onto the murky brown river.
It looks like a rather odd river, far away from childish fantasies of beautiful blues and glittering greens. It's just brown. Boring, boring brown, just like the Humans who think it should be blue but treasure it anyway, settling for whatever they can get their hands on, because they really cannot get their hands on very much.
I pick up a smooth stone at the top of the steps, running my hands over it, trying to detect any non existent flaws. Smiling to myself, I hurry down the steps, my hair fluttering in a breeze. The stone is tossed into the river and carried away as I take a seat, closing my eyes. I'm free from duties now, so why do I feel so trapped, like I'm in a prison with a life sentence no one has informed me about, and even if I leave I will still be in a cramped cell, crawling with rodents. Forever.
"Hi there," a voice whispers as I turn around sharply, jumping. Who in their right mind would talk to a random girl sitting by a river, when she should be in school? Of course. It's him.
"Hello yourself," I reply with a roll of my eyes. "Goodbye now."
Instead, he sits himself down next to me with a mischievous smile, and simply looks at me. "You're very interesting, Kear," he says.
"How do you know my name?" I ask, narrowing my eyes.
"How could I not? You're famous in Mantle, and Core and Crust, for that matter."
"Where are you from? And who even are you?"
"My name is Andre. I'm from Core, supposedly, but I despise most of them. No one else accepts me though, as you no doubt know, so I am stuck there."
I take a moment to process this information. "Okay," I say at last. "Why are you here? Has something happened?"
"What do you think, Kear? Of course something's happened, with Ashley being gone."
After a few seconds of an irritating silence, I ask, "What has happened?"
"Not here." Andre gives me a wary look, scrambling to his feet. "There are too many people."
To my eyes, the area is empty, spare for us and three or four unoccupied cars, but I nod with him anyway. It is a lot easier than asking him to explain it, I can tell; Cores really are very skilled at rambling. "Okay. Where are we going?"
"I'll show you." Before I can stop him, a hand is pressed to my forehead, and everything goes black. Physical contact. A Core's most secure method of communication. I hate it.
A girl stands in the shadows, head turned towards the darkness, yet still bathed in light. "Take them," she hisses to those who surround her. "Take the Humans, and give me their Level. Now."
"No!" shouts an echoing voice, as three beings leap to their feet. I recognise them all: Laorei, Daesia, and Jadyn.
So the girl must be Gabriella. I don't know much about Humans, other than that the female teenaged species mostly have no minds and are incredibly irritating for the most part, but I do know that they will not survive if Gabriella tries to hurt them. And those who do will have to kill themselves from the pain.
"What was that?" I ask Andre, leaping to my feet. "Why - why would Gabriella try to destroy Human? It - it doesn't make any sense. Isn't Ashley still alive? She must have been reborn by now, mustn't she?"
"But she hasn't," Andre whispers, stating the obvious. "So Gabriella will kill the Himsns. And do you know what she'll do next?"
"Yes." My voice cracks and deteriorates into next to nothing. "She'll come for every other Level."
"She's very stupid. Does she not realise she is far weaker? Some of her Heaveners will be unable to aid her after attacking Human, surely, and they are fewer than the ranks of other Levels. So how will she do it?"
"The other Levels declared war. They will suffer, and be defeated."
"So you want me to stop them?" I can see in his eyes that I am right. He is a terrible actor, to say the least, and it was rather clear he needs me for something, at least. Andre nods. "Fine. But if anybody is allowed to defeat Gabriella in secret, it will be me. Understood?"
"It will not come to that, Kear, but alright. It doesn't matter, anyway."
I am not entirely sure why he does not wish for Gabriella to be made into nothing, but I do not dare to question it. After all, I am a mere amateur in his eyes. I hope, for his sake and that of everyone involved, that what he must do does not require good vision.
"Are you going to say anything else, or just sit here?" I demand after a few minutes of an incredibly tedious silence.
"Which do you want me to do?" he asks, edging closer.
"Neither. I want you to leave and never get this close to me again."
"Aren't you one for warm welcomes," he says drily.
"Yes. Yes I am. Now go."
Andre smirks again, sending a shiver up my spine. I'm still not entirely sure if he can be trusted, but he's already gone, a laugh all that is left riding the soft breeze. And a voice. His voice, but a different tone.
"She's coming," it whispers.
It must - no. It can't be. Gabriella. I want to kill her but I can't because she's immortal, and I can't do anything and now I'm all alone and she's going to do what she's been trying to do to me for longer than Carlotta has been dead. She's going to turn me into a Shell.
My head pounds as I run up the mound of pebbles, wind whipping at my hair, biting at my cheeks. Voices shout at me, ask what is wrong, voices I don't know but should if I was a real Human who lived here. I try to shout back that I'm fine but the sound won't leave my mouth, whether because the wind takes it away or because the the lies are strangling me.
An engin roars past but I pay little attention to it, keeping myself focused on what lies ahead, or rather, behind. Perhaps if I run, I will have more time to prepare myself for a fight. If it comes. If she comes.
And if I don't get defeated by Gabriella the second she finds me.
I stumble down a hill, the grass scratching at my ankles, the sound of children playing ringing in my ears. Then, there is another sound.
"Stop." I know that voice.