Still not dealing. And you really should know better by now.
“You see?” I whispered, raising my hands in the air. “These are the kind of situations where I make awkward conversation in order to calm myself down.”
“Can’t you just throw fireballs at them?” Papa Willis hissed back, shuffling close to me.
“All in good time.”
“Preferably before they slit our throats?”
“Wait,” I ordered him.
“Why?” he asked, exasperated.
“Willis, why haven’t they attacked us yet?”
“I…” He shook his head. “Is that a rhetorical question?”
“Think about it,” I advised. “Espers would’ve attacked immediately, probably while we were still on the ice. And would ordinary ones come here?”
“So…who are they?”
A slow smile came to my face. “Let’s see.”
Willis frowned at my overly happy face, but kept quiet.
My suspicions were confirmed when they were within ten metres of us. There were three of them, both humans. “Oh wow!” I said cheerfully. “This is awesome.”
They hesitated for a moment. The woman, who had called out before, spoke first. “State your name and breed,” she ordered.
“Breed?” Willis asked, confused.
“Humans,” I called back to the woman. “I’m Cat. This is Willis.”
There was murmuring. “Not possible,” one of them growled. “The both of you came from the mainland. Monsters live there.”
“It’s the truth,” I replied.
More murmuring. Then the same man stepped towards us. He had tangled blonde hair and dark, flickering eyes. “Hold out your hand,” he told us.
I hesitated, but Willis sighed and held out his good arm. The man took out a knife and raised it. I flared up. “Don’t you dare-”
The man swiped the blade across Willis’s finger, and dark red blood spilled out immediately. “He’s fine,” he called back. They relaxed slightly.
I didn’t. They were looking for human blood, scarlet and salty. When they open my hand, and after that, my throat, all they’ll find is this poisoned, steaming concoction which screams out monster. I held my breath in as the man looked toward me.
If he had taken my right hand, it would’ve gone that way. Instead, the man chose the left, and before he could cut it, the five letters glowed, and he froze. “Altered human,” I breathed out. “They changed me long ago. I’m probably not human anymore, but I’m not one of them either.”
“Freak…” he said softly, reading the carvings. His face hardened. “You’ve encountered them.”
“And yet you’re here to tell the story.” His voice took on a growl. “Explain that.”
“Deal with the devil,” I said simply.
“Oh really?” he snarled. “What, are you going to rat us out? Is that why you’re out here? Both of you?” He glared at Willis, whose face had gone white as snow.
I shook my head. “In exchange for my freedom, all they wanted was my mortality,” I said quietly. “The transfusion, I’ve been told, acts as a life support; it keeps my organs functioning as my body repairs itself from fatal injuries.”
“And who told you that?”
I hesitated. Noah had, after analysing my healing process from when we rescued Papa Willis from the Espers. He was fascinated by Esper technology; I suspected if he was lower born, then he would’ve become one himself. “They did,” I told them, knowing already that there was no way they were going to let themselves trust me now. Not when I shared the blood of monsters.
My suspicions were confirmed. “Out on the ice,” the man snarled at me. He held the knife to my throat, and snatched my arm. “You won’t be needing this, but we will.” His hand went to my jacket and started unclasping it. He rolled it off and tossed it to one of his companions. The icy air whistled through my head; my layer under the jacket was just as warm as another layer of skin. “Now walk,” he ordered, and I stepped tentatively backward, until I could feel the world moving beneath my feet.
“I can vouch for her!” Willis insisted, as the other two held him back. “She wouldn’t hurt a fly, I swear, she’s done nothing wrong!”
“She’s a monster,” the third stranger spoke up. “Even if she doesn’t mean us harm, there’s no telling what she’ll do. There’s only one place for her; frozen down there, where she can’t hurt us.”
“No!” I watched Willis struggle in their grasp. I could hear the ice cracking beneath me slightly, as I continued treading backwards. The man with the knife didn’t let up, forcing me further out onto the fragile lake.
“You don’t need to be afraid of her!” The woman probably thought she was being comforting. “You can come with us, you don’t need to be with her. We’ll keep you safe, we promise.”
I glimpsed over my shoulder, trying to see how far out he would make me go, and my stomach flipped. Jhaq’s frozen face, eyes widened in fear, stared at me from beneath the ice, and the snapping sound increased. My head snapped back toward the man wielding the knife. “No,” I gasped.
The knife brushed against my neck as I grabbed his hand. The last thing I saw before I fell backward into the waters of hell was Willis tearing himself away from the other two, who stood there gobsmacked as their companion was pulled into the water with me.
The screaming water forced its way down my throat as I clawed at the newly formed ice above me. I felt it soften slightly where my left hand touched it, but the ice, despite how thin it was when I walked on it, had suddenly gained a foot in width. I could vaguely make out through the dark stormy water the writhing form of the man beside me, as the water choked him from within, until his flailing slowed and eventually came to a stop. The shadows started moving for their next pray, and as they came closer and closer, I braced myself for death.
Suddenly, there was light. I didn’t hesitate; summoning my remaining strength, I surged towards the source. The shadows clung to my legs, dragging me down, but I couldn’t stop now that I could see the sky.
The air was bitter and cold when I thrust my arms out of the water. I clung desperately to the ice so that I could raise my head above the surface and cough out the evil water in my lungs. Already, I could feel the ice forming over me, as I tried to lift the rest of my freezing body out.
The woman ran at me and raised her foot to kick me back down, only to go flying past me, which made me realise what Noah must’ve given Papa Willis. The ice was now grazing under my arms, so I heaved myself up. I felt something sharp biting through my skin, through my remaining clothing, as I crawled out on top of the ice, but I didn’t care. I was already used to that kind of pain, and a few nicks in my thighs were a fair exchange for avoiding death once again.
I rolled over and faintly watched the ice grow even more, sealing under the water the drowned body of the man with the dark eyes. Something trickled down my throat, warm and thick. I didn’t need to touch it to know that it was my blood, my poisoned black blood. The same substance was flowing from my legs right now, and when I sat up, my muscles stung from the injuries the ice gave me.
Willis staggered over to me. “You’re okay,” he croaked.
I nodded softly. “Thanks for breaking it,” I whispered. “I didn’t want to die that way.”
I shook my head. I looked past Willis, to the two behind him. They were scowling at me, as if their eyes could push me under the water again, so I could drown with their friend. “What do we do?” I whispered to Willis.
He turned to them. “Get out of here,” he said to them. “Look, when we get back, we won’t mention the both of you. We’ll say that Cat got attacked by this man, and this man only.” He indicated their frozen companion. “You can get away. We don’t want anyone else to die. Please…”
The two looked at eachother, but I knew where their minds were at. “You came on behalf of them,” the woman spat. “You would’ve seen us in chains, or dead.”
“No! Look, hear us out-”
“Please,” I spoke up. “Please, just get out of here. Save yourselves. He…he would’ve wanted you two to live. That’s why…” I let my voice trail off.
The wind screamed around us, nearly concealing them from sight. There was no response, no response except for a loud crack, and when I flashed back at them, their forms had disappeared with a splash, and I realised. “No!” I screamed.
Willis held my shoulder. “Get back,” he told me.
“You can’t save them. We’re only a little bit from land, c’mon.”
“Open a hole! Let them swim out!”
“I will Cat, I promise. Just get back.”
Reluctantly, I crawled backward until the world beneath me stopped. “Stay there,” Willis ordered, and he walked back to where they were standing. His back to me, he knelt down to the ground, and I watched as the ice cracked and parted. He hurried back and sat beside me, waiting for something to happen.
There was no point. “They’re not coming up,” I said hollowly.
“They might,” he insisted.
“But they’re not.” The ice was closing again, their final gateway closing. Suddenly, something did appear out of the water, and I gasped. Was this a miracle?
But it just stayed there, like a buoy floating on top of the water. My sudden hope quickly deflated as I realised. “They didn’t sink,” I murmured. “It was too late.”
I rolled over. “I won’t,” I replied. I squeezed my eyes shut. “I’m not.” But it’s still firmly implanted in my mind, that body floating atop the lake. The sound of the ice growing over the body was as loud as thunder; when it stopped, I thought I had gone deaf. It was pure silence.
Until I heard Willis stand up beside me. I tiredly turned to look at him walk away, towards a dark mass on the ground a little bit away from us. He scooped it up and started coming back. “Your jacket,” he said, placing it on my shoulders.
“I should freeze,” I said bitterly.
“Well, you’re not,” he said stubbornly. “It wasn’t your fault. They attacked us.”
“Because of me. They were protecting themselves.”
“Were they? Isn’t that what the monsters were doing in that story?”
I curled up on the ground, pulling the coat over my head, taking me away from the brightness, at least for a little while. I wanted to fall asleep and never wake up. Sleep was warm…even in a place like this.
When I tried to remove the jacket even for a little bit, the wind smacks me in the face. “Ack!”
“Holy shit, you’re blue,” Daniel growled, pulling me toward him.
“Daniel…” I tried to sound annoyed, but I was too tired to pull it off.
“I take it your adventure was more eventful than mine then.” He looked at Papa Willis.
“Humans,” he replied. “Three of them.”
“Really?” His voice sounded interested. “What happened? Where are they?”
Before Willis could respond, I spoke up. “Under the ice,” I murmured. “I would’ve joined them if it weren’t for Willis.”
“I see…” Daniel’s voice was weary. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” he said. “She probably wishes she were there with them though.”
“Why?” Daniel wrapped a blanket around me. “Why you want that?”
“They died because of me.”
Daniel snorted. “Let me guess. They attacked her, and she sent them under,” he said to Willis.
I was silent. “It’s okay. Hey.” He cupped my cheek. “You look like hell.”
“I want to go back,” I said weakly.
“Right.” Daniel pulled out a strip of cloth and tied it over my eyes. “I’m just glad I didn’t have to dig you out of the ice.”
“I hate it here,” I growled to myself. “I really really hate it here.”