Darkness surrounds me in the pit, the cold, damp earth crawling on my ice-cold skin. It rings a bell, ‘ice-cold’. Where have I thought those words before? It seems important, like a memory of beauty and beginnings, but I can’t think why. I try to roll over, but I am stopped by a smooth wooden wall. I reach my hand out and feel around it, noting all the curves, all the shallow ridges which should allow blood to flow to me. Why do I need blood? It is an odd question: to live obviously. My eyes begin to droop closed and I fight desperately to keep them open. This too feels familiar, and a small fragment of a puzzle drifts into my head. Coffin. I am in a coffin. This is really not very good for my health.
I levitate my hands and feel the lid of the coffin. It does not move. Creasing my brow, I push harder, until finally I hear a slight creak, but nothing more. I sigh and let my eyelids droop, for they seem to need the rest, and I know there was no point in trying to stay awake. It breaks my heart to think of it, but it is true. There appears to be nothing for me now.
Voices whisper in the darkness, sending shivers up my aching spine, gooseflesh crawling over my arms. “I don’t know how this can have happened,” a voice says, choked with tears. “Sure, she was a bit hot-headed, but she never really did anything wrong," the voice sobs and another hushed her. They trail away slowly in a fit of grief, voices growing fainter by the second.
The voices had sounded familiar, and I struggle to think where from. It seems important, but I cannot possibly think why. I push the coffin lid up just that tiniest bit further than I did during my last attempt, but still I am covered in darkness. I want to give up, just lie down again and rest forever like a lonely spirit, never waking up. But I can’t. No matter how hard I try, it seems physically impossible to stay still. I groan and lift my lid as much as I can, until it hits what seemed like a roof. Excitement rushing through me, I scramble out of the coffin, and crouch down as the earth coats my head of sunlight and silver.
My long fingers clutch at the dirt, trying to make a hole in it, even a dent. It strikes me suddenly how odd it is that I can’t fully stand up; I seem to have a firm belief that graves are deeper than the height of a Human, and the top must surely be far too high for a coffin lid to scrape along it. I am showered in yet more earth through my efforts, but eventually a glimmer of moonlight slips in.
Relief washes over me and I sink back against the dirt, turning my eyes to the inky night sky , staring at it in wonder. The crescent moon shines on me, so thin it looks as though it is melting into the shadows, yet at the same time, so big it overshadows even the most extraordinary of lives. The lives like mine. I don't know quite why, but it seems my life is, perhaps, worth living. And now, I have set myself free.
The cold winter wind cuts into my face like a salient knife, carving into it what I imagine to be an oil painting of the utmost terror. Tears sting my eyes but I fight to keep them back. My feet are bare, and I shiver as they touch down on the glistening white snow. I look into the frosted glass window of the church across the whiteness and see it filled with beautiful, pure, innocent light. It seems like somewhere I can find help, some reassurance that all is not lost after my struggle. Feeling relieved, I cross the hidden grass to the small building, but as I lay a pale hand on the brass door handle, pain shoots through my arm and I stumble back, heart pounding. Gabriella. I try to cling onto it, the name that seems to be the answer to everything, but it evades my grasp at incredible speed, like a car driving at forty two miles per hour, if not more.
The fear rushes to my head and my heart seems to have stopped al together, alongside my breathing. I begin to shake, and faces appear in the gloom, leering at me like drunken men. I turn and ran, wind howling in my ears, adrenaline pumping through me. I still feel alive; my body temperature has not dropped nor risen, and if anything, I feel more life-like than I have in rather a while. I seem to be going far too fast than is normal, for my legs feel out of my control, and I become unbalanced and nearly fall over when I come to a stop. Panting, I look around me.
I do not know where I am; everything looks unfamiliar, scary. Gnarled and twisted tree trunks surround me, their faces grinning at me in the eerie stillness of the dark forest. Another puzzle piece drifts into my head then, two girls’ faces, one tanned and framed by long chestnut hair, the other pale, with red hair too strongly coloured to be natural. I know them. Kear. Aareia. They seem important to me, but all I can remember was their faces and their names. Why is this happening to me? Do I have amnesia? Dementia? What is wrong with me?
My heart begins to beat again, and the reassuring thumping noise encourages me to continue on running. The trees snatch at my hair, trying to take me once again from the welcoming hold of life. I fall down as a root catches me by surprise. My head hits the ground, and once again I see the world turn black. Dark.
When my eyelids finally flutter open, all that I see is Eliza's rather orange face. "Sleeping beauty is awake," her sister announces in a bored monotone. "How lovely."
"I thought you were dead!" Jade calls from a nearby room, and I roll my eyes. I can't die; I'm a ... Actually, I'm not really sure what I am anymore.
On the one hand, I could still be a Mantle: I look the part, act the part, and have become accustomed to the goings - abouts of Mantle society.
Then again, I could also be passed off as a Core, with my dark skin, my frightsome temper, and the fact that the Core was the last Level I thought myself to have belonged to.
Strange. I could be anything, I suppose, apart from perhaps a Shell. There's no denying it. I definitely have a soul, and it is a very indecisive one at that.
"The boundaries which divide death and life are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? - Edgar All-"
"Will you please just stop quoting this stupid Edgar guy? It's doing my head in, you geeky freak!"
Ouch. That must have hurt. Eliza shrinks back like the sea before a tsunami, and her eyes water slightly, lip trembling like an earthquake triggering a volcano.
"What?" Her voice is as frail as her naïve Human mind, and it takes all of my self-control not to scold her violently.
"What do you mean, 'what'? You heard me, b***h, you are a. Ugly. F*****g geeky, freaky pile of s**t!"
"How?" Though I am ashamed for saying it, I feel almost sorry for Eliza. Jade is being really rather mean. Only Humans. Terrible manners.
"You don't know? Well, there's a first!" Why do Humans' minds change so fast, why are they kind one minute, wickedly cruel the next? It makes no sense.
"Please, just tell me what I've done!" Eliza pleads. "I'm sorry, I really, really am!"
"You're a f*****g fraud!" Jade shouts. "Nobody even f*****g likes you! Why the h**l do you think Carlotta dumped you? Because you were too good for her? As if. You are such a mean, stupid, ugly b***h!"
"Well, you're hardly any better!" Eliza's sister shoots at Jade, practically shaking with rage. "Or do you not remember who you used to be? Oh, no, sorry; you're just jealous because you're a brain-dead, zombified donkey who has clearly undergone around fifty separate auto-lobotomies!"
"Oh, so you're getting involved in it now are you? I suppose you can't help it, though, since you've clearly not got anything else going for you apart from sympathy from idiots!"
"Oh, that's rich! You know what, I honestly don't care what you say, because at least I don't manipulate people into being my friends like you did!"
Eliza and I exchange anxious glances, though I, personally, feel I have the best reasons for being concerned. After all, I have absolutely no idea what any of them are going on about.
"You really do have a f****d up mind, don't you?" Jade's done it now. She's set herself up on a pedestal of pride and popularity, and now the stand is cracking, and so is her mask, and soon everything will come crumbling down. I know. I've seen it before.
It is odd, really, the way that my breathing becomes so suddenly laboured, the way that my feet slap on tarmac with a sound like a fish - at least, I think that is what that particular type of Earthen is called. My head spins with noises and colours and smells and tastes and feelings which figure skate across my body in an intricate lace pattern.
Drunken teenagers stumble around int he streets, and their disgusting thoughts flood my mind, as I scream in silence at the awful Human state. My stomach churns, and my head turns fuzzy as I kneel by a dirty brown puddle at the roadside, my eyes burrowing into hard rock. Hard rock. I tilt my head up to glare at the grey, soft clouds which smother the bright blue sky. It is light, airy, merciful. Below me is dense darkness, ready to destroy me at the first opportunity.
Like Natalie said, appearances can be deceiving.
"Layla!" I hear Eliza shout, but I can't bring myself to move. "Layla, what's wrong?"
"Stop," I hiss in a voice like the Core's spitting fires as they fade away to nothing in the back of my mind. "Eliza, please, just stop. Now. Right. Now." I didn't think she'd hear me.
"Lay, speak to me. You're my friend." Well, she is not mine. No one is.
"Shut up," I spit, and her forehead creases into a frown. "Shut up, or I'll rip your head off and leave you to feel the pain forever."
She shrugs. "I've heard it all before, Layla. It doesn't matter anymore."
"So, what I'm hearing is you're going to leave me alone, like, right now?" I ask hopefully.
"Yeah, right." Eliza flops down beside me on the pavement, though she is careful not to get water on herself. "I'm worried about you, Layla. I mean, come on, if you're gonna act like this around them just once, you're not gonna survive two days being my friend." It's unfortunate, but I know Eliza is speaking only the truth. The truth is sad.
"Eliza, I just don't care about petty, stupid, unnecessary drama." No, that will get her more interested; make her think I've got some kind of a 'troubled past' or something. "Especially when it involves you," I sneer after a brief silence, and already I can tell that I have hurt her feelings. Brilliant.
"Fine then," she says icily. "You know what, Layls? You really are as big of a b***h as Carlotta. It's quite funny, too, considering she called me the animal."
Her words are carefully processed in my mind. They are significant - I know they are - but I don't know why. Then the cogs stop whirring and my mind rests. Of course. Animals. Earthens. Humans are absolutely clueless about everything because they are all complete and utter imbecilic idiots.
"Eliza, wait!" I shout. "Carly's weird, you said it yourself! I mean, animals are..." Disgusting, flea-ridden and ugly? "Nature, wildlife! They're free from Human stereotypes, and they are beautiful because of it! Weirdos might take it that way, and Carly's definitely a weirdo if she decided to be friends with Jsde."
She stills leaves.
"You know, for a Near-Shell, that was a pretty good speech, a voice says, as I whirl around, frowning. There is a boy; the same boy from the cafe. Odd. Why is he here?
He smiles at me with a kind of twisted, ugly beauty, and I know now that I am looking at infinity. His eyes search my soul, interrogate my undeniable corruption, and the trauma I can't ever deny. I begin shaking my head, but the shaking doesn't help, and it only worsens the pain of dreading the inevitable, and I start to cry acidic tears and my shrieks wrench the silence of the still night like a spanner, and all of a sudden he's there. Right there. In front of me.
This is infinity. And we are the Damned.