The gates are open to Heaven, the vapour aching under the weight of a million warriors. The view is of blood spectrum, from all Levels, merging together in the sky as it rains down on the Humans. A nerve based smile appears on my lips.
I start running.
The light before me is blinding, but the kind of blinding that lets me see what I would never had before. Figures crawl through the light and bring to me their darkness, screaming out my name like a battle cry, even if they are not meant to be here. No, I didn’t see that. I heard that.
I whip my head around, spots and spectral beams of light dancing in the air around me. “Where is she?” I mutter to myself. I know she’s here. She must be here. I heard her.
In amongst the screams and shouts and cries of sorrow, there is a girl, eyes wide as she takes in the scene of utter carnage before her.
“Run, you idiot!” I shriek at her, but she remains as still as a statue, staring straight ahead as though nothing is happening. Strange how Humans react, when their brains can’t process what they are seeing.
“Eliza, move!” I push through the battling crowd, though it is not seen as out of place – everyone is pushing each other here.
“I’m fine,” she says distantly. “Just leave me here. I’ll be fine.”
“no, you won’t, Eliza. Cokme on.”
“I will be fine. Don’t worry yourself.” There is glint in her eyes, steely and malicious.
“Eliza, listen to me. You’ve got to come, or you’ll die.”
My voice shakes, a tremor of a haunting, breaking down into nothing. She’s going to die, even if she doesn’t realise it, she is, and I am powerless to srtop it.
“Oh, please,” she scoffs, as my stomach begins to churn. “I am not goiung to die.” There are footsteps behind us, crushing the ground like the weight of the situation is crushing my soul. “You are.”
Only one thing in this world makes sense now, and that is that all I know is I need to run. Now.
My feet slap onto the wispy whiteness, aslipping through the clouds a every opportunity. Fire and air combat in a force capable of worse than death, cries from Human rising to us, begging the battle to end.
It shouldn’t be possible, but a fear of death clamps around me like a Human’s woodworking vice. Something twists itself around my ankles and I stumble, screaming like every other being in this horrible place.
“Let me go!” I protest as Eliza takes me by the arm, leading me away with a strength she is not supposed to possess.
Darkness is closing in on me. I can’t breathe. The air is stiff was poison. It’s going to kill me. Not everything is impossible. At least I appear to have been returned home. If you could even call it home anymore.
Mantle is colder than usual, the fires not burning quite so brightly as normal, the shadows not quite so dark. Whispers encircle me, snippets of rumours that are incomplete, my old friends debating over the meaning of my presence.
“Kear?” a Mantle – if I recall correctly her name is Aara – asks finally, her eyes wide and consumed in fire. “Why are you here?”
“Is it not obvious?” I say snarkily, scrambling to ym feet. “I was sent here. From the Hevaens. There is – there is a battle up there.”
“So we heard. It’s caused quite a drama, as you can see. Even Laorei has been taken.” She looks at me with a look of disgust. “I really hope you are not replacing her.”
“Believe me, I have no intention of doing such a thing.”
“Good.” She appears to have run out of things to say, and instead stares me up and down, analysing me. “What happened to you? You are a complete wreck.”
“Oh, well I’m sorry, but I didn’t intend to be hurled out of the sky and propelled all the way back here, did I?”
She glares. “Come with me and talk, or you will have to leave, painfully. Come.”
I follow her grudgingly, not because I want to, but because I don’t really want to experience this pain she speaks of. I am lead through the corridors of what used to be Laorei’s palace, Mantle guardsmen nodding at Ara. It is clear that she has taken over without Laorei her, which explains the orange gem hanging around her neck, a perfect match to Laorei’s.
“What do you want to talk to me about?” I ask, trying to sound perky and cheerful – it tends to annoy others so much they give in to letting me do whatever I want.
“Not here,” she says in a monotone, as if she has said the words a thousand times, and has grown tired of them.
We turn a corner and come to ornate gates topped with torches of coal. “Has nobody lit the fires?” she demands, turning to the guards near her.
They shuffle their feet awkwardly, and only one has the nerve to whisper, “No.”
“Then get it done,” she instructs, lips together in a tight line. “Quickly.”
The fires are always lit – everyone knows that – so why not now? It must be the battle, surely. For a moment I feel guilty, but then it is gone. It’s all part of my plan after all; I can stop this soon.
The double doors are opened and Aara glides through them gracefully, striding up to the throne with confident, elegant strides. I follow her tentatively, and stand before her, waiting for Aara to speak.
“Why are you really here?” she asks, eyeing me with scrutiny.
“I was sent down her from the Heavens, in the battle, like I said.”
“I’m not.” Our glares meet, like two plates of blazing hot iron. My eyes narrow as do hers, and I don’t let myself blink – not for on second will I give up on sending her the message of my anger.
“Really? Are you sure?”
Ara sighs. Fire licks the arms of her throne as my gaze dances around the room. It is mostly the same, but the fire are not as bright as normal, if they are even lit at all. The walls themselves are also different – there are more cracks, and the pattern is uneven, unruly, even. “I believe you,” she says at last. “I can see it in your eyes, Kear – you are not a liar. But what I want to know, is where you have ben recently.” She stands up and descends the steps to stand directly before me. “We know of your transfer to Core, obviously, but it is common knowledge you have not been there in rather a while.” She tilts her head to one side and smiles faintly, but fakely. “What have you been doing?”
“I was in Human,” I reply shakily, tilting my chin up wards. “My duty was to protect a girl, Carlotta, and so I had to honour her.”
“Honour her, you say?” A wicked smile forms on Ara’s lips as a glint comes into her eyes. “How?”
“She died,” I reply simply. That shut her up, for a moment at least.
“Oh. And after that, what did you do?”
“I helped her Human friends.”
“And that’s it,” I lie cheerfully.
My cheek stings as she slaps me hard, face an oil painting of fury. “Don’t lie to me!” she shouts. “Tell me what you have been doing or I will make this even more painful for you, mark my words!”
“That’s all, Ara, I promise.”
“Stop lying!” She slaps me again, but this time harder, and I shriek as I stumble backwards.
I run at her, letting the fir escape me, a brighter flame than any around us. Ara screams in anger and hits me with her own power, but it is weaker than mine, like an infant battling its mother. “How dare you oppose me?” she screeches as I laugh.
“You are not the true leader of Mantle, Aara,” I say as calmly as I can. “Laorei is. And for as long as she is not here, we will not have a leader.”
“We?” she cackles. “You are not included here, Kear. Why would we want you to be?”
“Maybe because if you don’t, I’#ll dot his.”
Before she can react, I slap her, letting the fire rage across her face. She shrieks in anger but still does not truly fight back, either because she doesn’t want to or because she can’t. I’m going to assume it is the latter.
I grab her neck and push her towards the stone wall, where she stumbles, catching her ragged breath. “You dare –“
“Oh, be quiet, Ara, we all know you’re too weak o stand in for Laorei.” I didn’t say that.
I turn with shaky hands to the sour e of the voice. My heart pounds in my chest as I look at a light, just a small ball of whiteness, pure and bright. “What the –“ I shae my head. I must be going mad, but I cross the room towards it, entranced. Turning back to Ara, I bind her in chains of fire, smiling at the shock on her face.
I reach for the light, and grab it in my hand. Light explodes around me, a grand explosion. Swept off my feet, I let out a short – lived scream, but it dies away almost instantly, to be replaced with a gasp of awe.
I stand in front of a white marble palace, perfectly polished and pristine. Shouts come from afar but they barely register in my mind, all I can think of is the palace before me.
A wave of something like curiosity overcomes me as I push open the doors, crossing the threshold with a shard of ice in my chest. It feels wrong, but I don’t know why. No, I need to ignore this feeling. I need to be in this palace, I want to be here forever, and bask in its beauty.
I make my way up the grand staircase, tracing my fingertips over the intricate patterns etched into the banister. A smile spreads across my face like syrup.
My head hurts, though I do not know why. This is strange.
There is a statue nearby and I giggle at its stiff posture. Giggle? What is wrong wih me? A shiver runs up my spine like a rod of slowly melting ice. I can feel someone’s eyes on my back, but when I turn around there is nothing there, just slab upon slab of white marble and silver spirals.
I open a door cautiously, and gape at what is inside: a perfect white four poster bed with ivory posts an d translucent silvery drapes; an ivory desk inlaid with beautifully crafted silver flowers; white curains; an ivory chest of drawers and wardrobe, and orbs of natural light. I frown at the sight, confused as to whetehr I should feel glad I am here, or be concerned. I laugh, realising how silly it is of me; this can’t hurt me, can it? I’m safe.
I sink down onto the bed, closing me eyes as I welcome the embrace of comfort. Then, suddenly, it changes.
The walls are splattered with a silver liquid I recognise as the lood of a Heavener, and I let out a shocked scream, running to it. What – what happened? I press my hand go it and take it away, covered in silever.
It is fresh.
My heart begins to beat faster and faster as my head spins, mind screeching at me to run, heart urging me to stray, to close my eyes and let myself forget, lose myself in my own happiness and inner peace. Gold appears on the wall too, like the blood of a Crust, warm and sticky and deadly if I leave it here for too long.
I turn around but the door is gone. I run to where it should be, but it isn’t merely disguised or anything like that. It is just gone.
Something like acid begins to burn in my lungs, eating me up from the inside. This was a mistake, I see that now, my head clearing. I was foolish, allowed myself to be duped.
“Help!” I scream, panic seizing me. I hate to admit it, but I need help – I can’t survive with this acid in my chest.
A hand grabs me, pulling me into darkness. I scream kick and punch, but nothing changes; I am taken. Then the light hits me like a wall, knock me over the edge. I hold onto the edge of the Heaven, knuckles whitening. I pull myself up, almost screaming with the pain of it, as I witness the battle still happening. I’m surprised it isn’t over yet, to be honest – so many are suffering.
A comet of acid shoots past me and I duck, trying to avoid it, but it’s almost as though I can’t move, like I’m still in a trance from the marble palace. I scream again as my fire dies, and curse myself for the show of weakness. They will sniff out my fear, and they will snuff out the candle inside me, destroy my powers. I will not let that happen.
I must recover, and then I must fight.
I imagine myself in another place, but it doesn’t work – my powers are drained and I am defenceless against everyone – friend or foe. Great timing on my part, clearly.
Then, there is a beacon of hope, a wave rolling over the horizon, coming straight towards me, and I don’t even want to escape it. It’s is not bad – it is good.
Laorei, Daesia and Jadyn roar, running towards the battle, and there heading them as they charge towards me, is Carlotta.
“You didn’t really think I was dead, did you?”
Carlotta offers me her hand and I take it gratefully, grinning. "Maybe just a little," I admit with a laugh.
"Sorry to disappoint," she jokes. "Now let's go annoy some Heaveners."
I smile wickedly and give her the palm of my hand, which is glowing with new-found power. "Thanks," I say, and allow myself tlo not care about pain, not care about their suffering.
I allow myself to destroy. "We are the Damned," I say to myself, and turn to my target. "And we Damn you."
I unleash my powers and in an instant she is gone.