A brilliant sapphire streaks across the dark sky, pulled by the sun and escaping the sleeping Earth’s icy grasp. My visions say this is the time of day when the Earth only just begins to gain warmth, when barely anything braves the subzero temperatures, no matter the circumstance.
If I am to go by their general (stupid) ideas, they have decided that I am critically insane, and need to be put in a mental hospital, because I am determined to catch my death of cold, which, all in all, is not a spectacular first impression of the human race, if they think that. They may be weak enough to fall to their knees at this temperature, but personally, I find it no more than a cool relief, my escape from the Mantle's scorching, bright flames of darkness.
In the distance, a dog barks, its raspy throat’s residue breaking the untarnished haze of silence. “Shut up,” I snarl at the creature, ignoring the voice in my head that tells me to get away from the filthy black beast, and the dog whimpers at the sound of my voice, shrinking into the shadows.
After a few moments of blissful silence, the dog barks again, though quieter, eyes glowing red, and it paws at the ground, making its way towards someone.
Hurriedly, I scurry away, heart pounding, tears welling up in my usually dry eyes. “Get away from me, you filthy beast!” I shriek, rolling over and crawling on my hands and my knees in an abnormal state of mind. The dog - no not a dog, a saladia, a beast from the Core - continues its journey, eyes glinting with a kind of manic demeanour, scintillating teeth reaching for me, for me, for me.
"No," I whisper to myself, shaking. "No, no, not that. Not a stupid mongrel. No. GET AWAY!" Neither my weak protestations nor my fury filled shrieks can do anything to stop the saladia, which bounds to me, leaping up to the sky, and falling down to earth with every passing second.
"Yes," a voice whispers in my mind as I begin to scream. "Yes, yes, my dear Kear. Yes." I can't tell who this voice belongs to, or why it is here, but all I know is that it doesn't like me. At all.
"Leave me alone!" I shriek, scrambling to my feet and grabbing a stick, at which the dog's eyes light up spectacularly like the Northern Lights, and it runs at me. My arm goes numb, matching my heart, and I throw the stick away, racing from the dog like a crazed drunken driver. "You stupid, stupid dog!" To my surprise, when I look, back, the dog is chasing the stick, not me, and trots off down a path with a human, who holds a rope around its neck. Oh, how I would love to be able to do that.
"You alright?" a man bellows from behind me, and I jump, startled, as my hand reaches instinctively for my hair.
"Wha - oh, yeah," I say, shuffling away awkwardly. "Um, just got a fright, that's all. Dog, big Rottweiler, came out of nowhere, tried to bite me. But I'm - I'm fine now."
A look of disbelief washes over his face, but then he chuckles and turns away, muttering, "Kids," under his revolting breath. I don't think he brushed his teeth this morning, although I'm not entirely sure if humans know what that particular activity even is. They only practice for two minutes, though all beings with teeth know it is necessary to take up at least five in order to get the shine to hide blood of enemies.
In the distance, a clock tower chimes, sending shivers up my fragile spine. Eight o'clock. Quickening my pace, I make my way down the path, dancing on the light air and smiling daintily, keeping up my façade of a beautiful girl, popular and loved by everyone, including myself, with what is, in my opinion, considerable grace, given the circumstances.
I round a bend in the pavement, finding my way to the dense main road. A car - a metallic, churning, creaking contraption which emits heavy, thick smoke designed specifically to choke everyone above me - whizzes past me without a care in the world, as though it has no idea who or what it just drenched in dirty rain water. "You absolute - " I catch myself from letting a babbling stream of curses dance from my mouth just in time - oh, how could I ever bring myself even to think of speaking as humans - as a bewildered mother and her daughter round the corner.
"Kids today," she mutters angrily, lips forming an irritated pout. Second time I've heard those words, more than a little bit annoying. "So rude. I hope you don't end up like that, Cindy," she murmurs to the baby, who looks at her quizzically for a moment, before smiling and continuing her childish game of trying to touch the ground from nearly six feet high in the air.
I roll my eyes in disgust, and flex my hand slightly, twisting it in her direction. "Fear," I whisper in a voice too low to even comprehend, and her eyes become rabid, inflamed with the inferno of aversion, and she taps her foot on the ground, shaking her fingers and nearly forcing the child out of her quavering arms.
Satisfied with her reaction, I turn away, mouth curling in a shop window. How I enjoy to torture these crude beings, how I love to feel their pain. A warning rings in my mind, a warning I can't quite decipher, for it is spoken in a togue unwelcoming to my ear, and I shake my head, clearing it of the obnoxious tone. "Shut it," I growl at the narcissistic voice.
An elderly passer-by looks at me oddly, and even more strangely, not releasing his gaze when I growl the same warning. Instead, he just grins his toothy grin and wanders off again, waving his stick from side to side like a yacht on a stormy blue sea, rocking obediently with the current, which is rather pathetic, really.
The clock's hand strikes at the two, and I hasten to reach the rising grey metallic building on time, gnawing at my lip as I nearly fall over myself. My hand is grazed my the walls it leaps at, and I fly along the pavement at rocket speed, my bag nearly becoming airborne as it slips further and further down my shoulder.
Panting, I reach the glass doors, bolting through them and averting my eyes away from a damaged window. This is the café I broke through, next to the school, and all of a sudden I feel a pang of guilt as my gaze meets a worker, on her hands and knees cleaning up my mess. "Sorry," I apologise inaudibly, and go on my way.
Instantly, the stench of grease and humans wafts its way up my nostrils, and I gag, accidentally elbowing the nearest mortal soul to me. Disgusting. "What was that for?" the girl with a fraying skirt and ruffled blouse demands, pursing her ruby red lips. Idiotic.
I scoff at her simple sense of humanity, and stalk away, disgust striking the mirror at my side. Water runs in a basin, and a rectangular contraption roars at a pair of Human hands. Jumping, I run to the Human, eager to discover what she did to provoke this attack.
"What did you do?" I ask, as she turns her confused gaze on me.
"None of your beeswax," she tells me quickly, words rolling together in one jumbled sound. "Who are you anyway? Something the cat dragged in off the street?" Her gaze travels to my black mini-dress and crisp white blouse, then to my exposed legs and boots. "You look like an absolute bloody chav."
"Um, no, my name is Kear," I tell her, forgetting myself for a moment. Revealing my real name is a big mistake - even the deepest Core knows that. "And what does that even mean, what you said? What's a chav?" My fist clenches with the urge of drawing blood, and I lift my foot slightly, preparing to move it jerkily.
"Well, that you look like a Carlotta Smith wannabe. And I chav is basically a bitch from Glasgow, Liverpool or anywhere else in the county that isn't here. Most likely where Carlotta lives." Both of our lips curl in disgust at the exact same moment, and she begins to giggle.
"I can assure you, that is not where I'm from. Carlotta infuriates me greatly, from what little I know of her, and it is against my incredibly strong will that I must associate with a being so despicable as her. It is only because our parents are acquaintances that our paths must cross, in my mother's hope that I will make friends on my first day. And apparently, if I want to do that, I have to look awful." Gales of laughter escape the girl's mouth at my rather well-thought-out lie, as she clamps a pink hand over it, nails like small rectangles.
"In that case, my name's Kasey. If you want, you can sit with me and my friends at lunch. I mean, if you start to talk like a normal person."
Dread fills my stomach, and I cringe inwardly, something I never expected to do, not in the presence of a human, which just proves how bad an idea my coming here was, and that I should leave right now. "Sorry. I have to sit with the bane."
A smile plays at Kasey's lips, and her eyes sparkle mischievously. "Have fun then," she chuckles as she leaves, laugh still echoing around me.
My gaze meets that of the girl herself, Carlotta Smith, and I cross to her, my strides confident. "Oh, what is she wearing?" I laugh spitefully at the girl Carlotta is currently glaring at disdainfully, and she grins at me wickedly.
"It's hideous, right?" she agrees, making sick motions. "I wouldn't be caught dead like that."
The girl scurries past the pair of us like a frightened mouse, lowering her gaze nervously. Carlotta flops down onto a plastic chair dramatically, pressing a hand to her foundation-covered forehead, as though she has been through a great labour, and wafts a hand like a fan in front of her.
My feet shuffle slowly away of their own accord, probably, judging by the throng of people at the foot of the stairs, overdoing the speed limit. "Well, sit down then." Carlotta's eyes glint with malice, more deadly than the best polished steel knife, as though their sole purpose is to kill those who get in her way.
"Oh, yeah, sure." My words tumble over each other slightly as I sink down, resting my cusped elbows on the table, and leaning on them tiredly. "Hi."
Her scrutinising gaze traces my body, and a faint smile emerges, finding its place on her painted lips. "I'm Carlotta." Her eyes reveal everything she is asking: What's your name, why are you here, what age are you, do I know you, where do you live, what on earth happened to your hair, because it is absolutely beautiful?
"I'm Layla Greene. I was born on 3rd September 1999, I moved here with my family after my dad got a new job in the town, and I live quite far away, but we thought this was a good school for me to do my exams in, it's better than my old school or the other ones around us."
"Cool." I can't quite read her face.
More girls begin to flock to our table, bounding up to Carlotta and asking stupid, stereotypically human questions which make my ears bleed. "This is Layla Greene, everyone," Carlotta says, plastering on an entrancing smile. "She's new."
They grin as though to say, "Fresh meat for us to eat," and I smile back sickeningly, with the specific intention of infuriating the crowd.
Immediately after my display of perfectly proportioned pearly teeth, I am bombarded with questions, and am eternally grateful when the conversation is cut off by the sound of a screechy bell, at which I jump and begin to ask myself where the fire is.
"Whoa, calm it, Layla," a girl with black hair laughs, "it's just the warning bell."
"Oh, right," I say, blushing. "Sorry, my last school didn't have nearly as loud a bell as that. I thought it was a nuclear war siren." They are unimpressed by my joke, and a few drift away, until only six of us are left.
"Do you know how expensive the new Lipsy fragrance is from Harrods?" Carlotta shrieks to them obnoxiously, revelling in the awe presented by the other girls. "Seven hundred pounds. But my dad got me it anyway, says he'd do anything for his darling little angel." It sickens me.
"You know what's really funny?" I can feel the spark of a flame leap in my eye, even though I am new to their world, as they all turn to me, ready to hear the new girl's second joke. "The fact your nickname is 'Angel'. I mean, you're hardly Holy." This time, there is actually some laughter.
Carlotta revolves her tongue around her mouth, smiling sheepishly, arching her eyebrows, occasionally letting it slip out like a writhing serpent, sharper than a new pencil. "Well, not where Carlos Hans is involved."
There is an instant chorus of 'oohs' and 'aahs' and 'ooh la las', as Carlotta flashes her pearly white smile at Carlos, who makes his way over, messing with his hair in the way every human does, so idiotically.
He's about to say something when the second warning bell rings, much to Carlotta's distaste, and a girl hurries up to him.
"You coming to class, babe?" she asks, pecking him on the cheek. I recognise her as Kasey, and gasp slightly, although thankfully it goes unnoticed.
Out the corner of my eye, I can see the something in Kasey’s bag, something I didn’t notice earlier, which means she must have been given it by someone, presumably Carlos. A feather. A beautiful emerald green feather, which surely could only be from one of those massive peacocks - you know, the ones from block buster movies with a thousand human clichés, when they fall in love on an island - whose melodramatic demeanour can rival pretty much no one. I wonder where she got it.
Carlotta follows my gaze, and see a spiteful look form in her face, accompanying her eyes, which glint like the scissors she holds.
The scissors. Where in the name of Laorei did she get those from?
The rest of the group, along with Carlos, have scarpered, so it is just the three of us. Carlotta advances on Kasey, who shrinks back unexpectedly in fright, gnawing nervously at her lip. "Please, I’m sorry," she whimpers. “If you want, Carlotta, I’ll break up with him.”
“Lose the act of fear,” Carlotta scoffs. “We all know you’ve got a criminal record.”
Kasey snarls, and hits Carlotta, knocking the wind out of her as she flies to the ground, caught by a shocked me. Carlotta scrambles disgustedly out of my rigid arms, and roars at her, fist colliding with Kasey’s nose as she plummets to the ground, with no one waiting for her.
For good measure, Carlotta kicks her and plucks the feather out of her tight hand. “I’ll be taking this,” she says haughtily and saunters off. “Come on, Layla.”
I shoot an incredibly confused Kasey a sympathetic look, and follow Carlotta, slightly less disgusted by the Humans after that show of strength.
Perhaps there is hope for this assignment after all.
A wild, rippling stream of utter nonsense escapes Carlotta’s pink lips as she revels in the attention she is paid, flipping her hair every so often, and acting as though she rules the universe, and all below her must obey her will.
Out the corner of my eye, I spot Kasey glowering at our table, and debate just leaving Carlotta and speaking to her, then decide against it. If I leave now, my assignment will be a fail, and I will be taken to the Core, made to be the lowest of the low, where I shall howl in despair, walking doomed for all of eternity in the land of fire and brimstone. Yay me.
“Layla,” Carlotta says. “Layla. Layla, for God’s sake, answer me!”
I snap out of my trance, jumping slightly at Carlotta’s sharpness, and say hurriedly, “Oh, yeah, sure, it’s cool.”
The girls raise their eyebrows quizzically in unison, as though asking me to justify exactly what I said, and why. “So, your parents don’t mind you coming to my party on tomorrow night? Even though you haven’t actually asked them yet?”
Honestly, I am beginning to grow sick of this human inquisitiveness. “Well, they’ll be cool with it. They both work night shift, anyway, so it’ll be one less thing for them to worry about if I’m not at home.” This isn’t technically a lie. I only have one parent – my mother – and she has to keep an eye on the Heaveners most of the time. The only problem is that Laorei has banned me from going to any Human community celebrations, for fear that I may resort to my mind games, which I have managed to quit for an oh-so-impressive thirty-seven minutes.
“Good.” Carlotta narrows her eyes, inspecting me, searching for the one thing she needs to detect; a lie. “So, what are you going to wear? I’m thinking for me a super short pink skirt, a matching tank top, a blue belt and my new pink heels.”
I roll my crystal-clear eyes, imagining her image in my mind, nearly gagging on how utterly Human it is of her, how young it makes her seem, even when her goal is to be mature. “Oh, my God, Carly,” a girl gushes, “you’ll look totes amazing.”
The girl isn’t recognisable: Pasty face, lots of freckles, mousy hair, small nose, watery blue eyes, and about average height, though a little on the plump side. Obviously, I do not know who she is, much less what she is doing at our table, and the same measure of disgust is on Carlotta’s face. “Well, I’ll look better than you, anyway,” she laughs. “Who even are you, one of the Ugly Sisters? No, sorry, you're both of them.”
Ugly Sister lowers her gaze, scraping back her chair nervously and shuffling away, looking close to tears. “That was a bit harsh, don’t you think?” I whisper to a smug Carlotta.
“No.” Her voice is high and haughty, nails scraping on a blackboard. “She’s hideous. Besides, she’s in league with the Bitch Queen.”
Carlotta points to Kasey, who is consoling Ugly Sister, and shooting me disgusted glances. Feeling like sticking my tongue out at her, kicking Carlotta and just walking out of the building, I grit my teeth. “Suppose you’ve got a point,” I manage. Humans, though correct, are grossly cruel and mocking of each other, not at all like we Mantles, who only mock those above us in Levels, those who are so incredibly naïve, yet undeniably narcissistic. “She is pretty mingin’.”
Hoots and gales of laughter come from the other girls, who slowly begin to descend into hysterics. “Oh, Layla, you’re hilarious,” on girl, who I recognise as Leah, giggles. “That was the funniest voice I’ve ever heard.”
“I do pride myself on my comedic skills.” I fiddle with my hair, grinning at my new ‘friends’, none of whom really seem very friendly.
“OMG!” Carlotta squeals, looking up from her phone in her excitement. “Guess what?” Her voice is higher than the Heavens, maddening, breaking my mind.
“What?” I ask, irritated, clutching my ears.
“He texted me!” I tilt my head to the side, raising my eyebrows, the perfect image of Human incompetence. “Carlos Hans texted me!”
“What did he say?” Leah asks with a deep intake of breath.
“He asked – he asked – he wants to go on a date with me!” The heads of a few tables, including Kasey’s, turn our way, and a malicious glint comes into Carlotta’s eyes. “Like, OMG, Carlos Hans has dumped that bitch of a Kasey, and he’s going out with me! Finally, he’s found his brains!”
Carlotta cackles like a witch as Kasey stands up suddenly, chair scraping back with an ear-splitting sound, and she trembles with rage. “Is it true?” Her voice is quieter than that of silence, but I can distinguish her words, thanking my Mantle ears gratefully. “Carlos, is it true? Are you really dating her? Are you really breaking up with me?”
Kasey doesn’t wait for his answer, racing out of the room, pushing my shoulder on the way past, as though she wants me to follow, then looking back sadly as she sees that I don’t, and it is only her brain-dead friends who look ready to comfort her.
Carlotta beckons Carlos with one skeletal finger, and he scurries over, a faint smile on his lips. “I love you,” Carlotta murmurs, knocking one girl off her chair and bringing it over for him to sit on.
“Love you too,” Carlos says, but his mind is elsewhere. I can sense it.
When we leave our final class, Art, Carlotta takes my arm in hers and marches me out of the classroom, steering me away from someone I was trying to speak to. Aareia.
She sat next to me, face impassive as she set out her sketching pencils and small palette of watercolour paints. “Hi,” I’d whispered to her in the silence. “Good to see you again.”
I didn’t particularly want to socialise with such a pretentious snob but I had no other choice for conversation, unless I wanted to commit social suicide and speak to Laurent Alexander, a boy who sits on my other side, who has the unflattering habits of picking his nose and sucking his thumb.
“The feeling is not exactly mutual,” she shot back, and I smirked.
“Oh, touche,” I laughed, earning myself a kick in the shin.
“Go hide yourself,” she hisses, gaining nothing but more laughter.
“Oh, believe me when I say this, Core, I want to.”
Aareia’s hands clenched into white-knuckled fists, and I mentally praised her for the lid she has on her temper, for I would never be so calm in this situation. “Then why don’t you?”
To be brutally honest, I don’t know the answer to that question, even reflecting back on it. The humans irritate me so, I almost wish that I can’t be seen by them ever, that I do not have to partake in their vain discussions.
“Laorei’d send me down.”
I did not have time to embellish ont his tidbit of information, for just then our vultureof an Art teacher, Mr Meyer, swoops down on us. “No talking,” he spat, spittle flying everywhere, drenching us likea tsunami of saliva as our lips curl in identical painting on disgust. "This is a hard-working class.”
I nodded, making up my mind to talk to Aareia later, which I tried to, but naturally, Humans got in the way again, and I could not.
“Do you even know who that is?” Carlotta is fuming with anger, charging down the hallway like a raving bull, dragging me along with a scarily strong hold.
“Yes,” I answer cockily, not stopping to think of Aareia’s Human name, Alison. “That’s Aareia.”
Carlotta’s biting grip releases in her surprise, and she reels back, eyes wide. “Sorry, what did you just call her?”
Worms burrow their way into the pit of my stomach, and my brain tricks itself, all thoughts disappearing into a black hole, destroying time so it drags on endlessly, forever trapped in the same millisecond.
“Alison,” I blurt out,mouth losing itself, disconnecting from my mind. “Alison Carlisle.”
Relief washes over her face, and Carlotta grabs me again, remembering her anger at me. “Yeah, well, she’s one of Kasey’s Bitch Minions. If you talk to someone like her ever again, you are officially dead to me, ‘kay?”
I nod as we descend down the three flights of stairs, feet slapping on the linoleum flooring as we jump, desperate to find our freedom.
As we say our pathetically wistful 'goodbye's at the double doors, Carlotta hisses in my ear, “Not a bad day, M.”
I can’t tell precisely what she meant by her words, whether it be my mishearing (highly unlikely), her mispronounciation (highly likely, given the fact that she is a Human), or something different. And that something different also is not clear to me, but makes me quake with fear, my head feel light, lighter than air in the Heavens.
And for a moment, I am scared, but as she sashays away with an infuriating ‘click clack’ sound of her heels – highly impractical for a school, in my opinion, but these are Humans we are talking about – I remember my mission.
"Grin and bear it,” I recite in a monotone, closing my eyes. “Just grin and bear it.”
When I arrive back in the Mantle, the first place I go is my so- called ‘wardrobe’, home to all the clothes I own, which is an impressive grand total of zero. We Mantles do not require things as a change of clothes, for we always wear the same thing, never bothering to really change it, except from when it changes itself. Wardrobes, much like beds, bookshelves, and the majority of out possessions, are merely decorations.
Sighing, I flip open the contraption Laorei gave me – I believe it is called a phone – and scan it for the name ‘Carlotta’, where she inputted as string of numbers earlier today.
“Carlotta?” I ask the havoc in the background. “It’s Layla.”
“Oh, hey, Layla!” a shrill voice rings. “Carly was just telling us about you, doll. I’m her big sis, Charlotte. I’ll just get her for you.” Carlotta’s name is screeched from the other end of the line, and footsteps patter down the staircase.
“Why’ve you got my mobile?” Carlotta asks Charlotte in a sneering tone. “I told you and Lauren not to go near my stuff.”
“Sorry, doll.” Even from my small ‘room’ five undred miles below Human and Earthen, I can hear the sarcasm in Charlotte’s voice. “Just talk to your friend.”
“Sorry about my sister, Layla,” Carlotta says with a sigh, and I can imagine her rolling her eyes. “She’s annoying.”
“I could tell.”
A few seconds of awkward silence ensues, and Carlotta asks, “So, what’s up?”
Biting my lip, not certain of what to say, I tell her, “I don’t know what to wear on Saturday. Can you, like, come shopping with me or something?”
There is an excited gasp from Carlotta’s end, and I smile in spite of myself. “Sure! D’you want to go just now?”
This could be a slight problem. If I try and sneak out now, Laorei will go mad, especially if it means revealing that I’m going to a Human party. Then again, it is vital to my my assignment.
“I’ll just check with Mum before she leaves,” I say quickly, and scribble a note to Laorei.
Went shopping with Carlotta, I write hastily. She forced me into going to a party with her on Saturday, and I need something to wear to get close to her. Sorry.
There. That ought to do it. “It’s fine. Meet you in ten/fifteen minutes.”
“Sure thing. See you then!”
Smiling softly to myself, I close the phone, and close my eyes, whispering, “Carlotta’s house.”
“Hi, Layla!” she shrieks excitedly, beaming. “So, you ready to go shopping?”
“Yup.” I nod, heading towards the green painted bus stop, scanning the timetable for ‘Princes Street’.
The bus is silent and still as we board, and I feel the urge to hold my breath, not because it would kill me, which is what everybody else seems like they are, but because I feel awkward about making noise with it. I’m immortal, anyway, so it isn’t necessary, just comfortable.
Carlotta drags me off the bus when we reach our destination, and takes me into a simply massive shop, its name in bright, blinding lights. “Welcome to Lake,” she hollers over music. “It’s, like, my favourite shop ever.”
I spy a small rack of varied dresses, most short and skimpy, and I shudder at Human vanity, a thing which never fails to disgust me.
“OMG, Layla, this is perfect for you!” Carlotta squeals, hurrying to a short black dress covered in sequins. “I mean, just picture it.” She drags a hand across my vision, and I purse my lisps in annoyance. “You enter the house, eyes sparkling under disco lights, and every head in the room turns to stare at you, a shadow of beauty, glimmering under a dim glow. They’ll love you, Layla! I bet even Ryan Matthews will ask you out, and he’s the second hottest guy in the year, apart from Carlos, obviously. I’ve heard Kasey’s got her eye on him now, too, so you can rub that right in her ugly little face.”
Inwardly, I groan, but keep up my façade of cheerfulness. “I’ll go try it on,” I mutter, hurrying off to the sign labelled ‘changing rooms'.
It fits perfectly, and after Carlotta buys it for me, promising she will not forget how much I owe her – I forgot to take my emergency stack of Six, money which changes into any currency depending on whichever location its owner is in – we are headed home on the bus, staggering under the weight of my dress and the thousands of accessories Carlotta insisted on also buying for herself.
“Do you really need that much stuff?” I ask, glaring at the pile of bandles and bracelets in her bags.
“Um, yeah,” she says, as though I am a complete imbecile for not realising this. “You’ve got to make an impression.” After a moment of thought, she adds, “I’ll lend you a couple, if you want,”and hands over three bracelets, a necklace, and a flower decoration for my hair. “Perfect.”
I put them on reluctantly, amd grin as we leave the bus, feeling … Different. It’s odd to think of, but really it is true, however reluctant I am to accept the fact.
And then I stop in my tracks.