Drag You Down

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Still not dealing. And you really should know better by now.
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“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.”

I nodded.

“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.

CRASH!

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.”

“Would anyone?”

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.

“But-”

“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.”

“Shit…don’t look.”

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…”

“Exactly.”

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.
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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.”

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Guilt

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The day before my birthday went like this. Still not dealing.
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Daniel frowns at me. “Cat?”

“Yes Daniel?”

He hesitates. “…what are you doing?”

“Yoga.”

“Oh good.” He pauses. “Why?”

“Because I’m unfit and depressed and this will hopefully make me fit and undepressed.”

“Is that even a word?”

“…I really don’t know. I nearly thought I said ‘undressed’ for a moment. No idea why.” I lift my legs into the air and place my feet behind my head, as Daniel watches on with wide eyes. “So what’s up?”

“…would it be inappropriate to say ‘dat ass’?”

“Yes. And please don’t say phrases like that, it really doesn’t suit you.”

“Thank Christ. Anyway, we’ve got a job to do.”

“Oh?”

“Do you remember Thommand going on about the Lake of Ghosts a few months back?”

It takes me a moment to respond, as the image of Kaya falling through the ice flashes across my eyes. “Go on.”

“There’s been more activity. It could just be someone wandering for kicks, but Thommand’s thinking humans. He wants us to check it out.”

“Us? I thought I was in the time out corner.”

“You’ve been allowed out for nearly a month now. It’s just, well, I’ve been keeping certain people off your back so that you could have time to heal a little bit. You needed it.”

This makes me smile. “Really? You did that for me?”

“Moving on…before you get mushy,” Daniel says dryly, though I know he’s secretly happy to see my reaction.

“Why, I’d never.” I slowly roll my back down so each vertebrae lies flat on the mat. I had made the mistake of going too fast the day before, and I was determined not to repeat it, for my back’s sake.

Daniel continues. “Do you want to bring Papa Willis along? Thommand will allow it, and Noah’s willing to let him come along.”

“Yeah, Papa Willis will love it. A day with an emotionally whacked semi-human and the worst babysitter ever in a supposedly haunted forest which has been frozen over.” I’m still lying on the ground as I speak. “Interesting why he didn’t recommend Noah like last time though.”

“Hmm?”

“I thought that Noah would’ve been recommended, not Willis, considering his condition,” I muse thoughtfully. “I’m wondering why he’d put him forward.”

Daniel sighs. “You know what the Lake of Ghosts means to them,” he reminds me. “They claim not to feel guilt, but…well, those rumours about it wouldn’t be there if that was true. And since Kaya’s death, it would be even more dangerous for them to go near.”

“So they’re sending us three instead. But why me?” I sit up and cross my legs. “Considering my amount of self hatred, is it really wise to send me to a ground that kills the guilty?”

“If you were normal,” Daniel says.

That’s when I remember. “Oh yeah…” It’s been so long since I’ve died in Delirium that I completely forgot. “Respawning. Right.” Something occurs to me. “Wait, so Thommand is perfectly fine to send you and Papa Willis out there as well?”

“Humans,” Daniel says simply. “And we’re not in danger of guilt. Or at least Willis isn’t. But I made it back across when Kaya died, so I’ll be able to manage. At the very least, Willis will be able to help me when we’re on there.”

“If you say so.” I make a face as the program playing on my iPad comes to a finish. “I don’t enjoy drowning though. It’s a horrible way to die. It’s cold…and the last thing you feel is desperation.”

“You’re still coming though.”

“Oh yes.”
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It was dawn when us three shivering humans reached it. I pointed it out to Papa Willis, who was sporting two of Daniel’s woollen coats. “Where the ice begins to form on the ground,” I told him. “You can see the bodies from here.”

“There’s bodies?” Papa Willis croaked.

“Yeah…under the ice…” It’s as if I’m looking into a window, into a frozen world. A horrible, grim picture. It’s almost too clear; maybe there isn’t any ice that will separate me from the freezing water.

“I…don’t see anything,” Papa Willis says uncertainly. “Sorry Cat, I’m trying.”

“It’s okay,” I told him. “It just means you’re luckier than me.” Something suddenly covered my eyes. “Hey!”

“Not taking any chances,” Daniel informed me. “It’s only for when we’re walking on the ice. When we’ve reached the ground, Willis will take it off.”

“Fine…” I grumbled. “Wait, why Willis?” The only response I received was the sound of Daniel treading onto the ice. “Daniel!”

“Willis, if there’s any danger, then take of the blindfold. Otherwise, keep guiding her towards that stretch of land there. Be careful of weak spots in the ice. When you’re done, meet at the ground there,” Daniel called, his voice becoming more distant.

“If Cat’s dead?”

“So confident in my abilities,” I murmured.

“Noah gave you a tool. Use that to keep them off you. If Cat’s still alive, she can teach you how to use it.” I could barely make out his last sentence, his words were faint, quieter than a whisper.

“Willis?”

“Yeah?”

“Tell me the truth. Does Daniel have a flask in his hand?”

Silence.

“Goddammit Daniel,” I sighed.

“He usually drinks on the job?” Willis asked.

“Yeah…and at feasts. I don’t know what to make of it.”

“It’s his choice, I guess,” he sighed. “But you haven’t said anything to him about it?”

I grimaced through my blindfold. “Well…I tried once. But he just said that he needed it. It’s his way of keeping sane, I suppose. Like mine is…” I went silent.

“What?”

“I don’t actually have one,” I admitted. “I’m too scared to use anything, in case I become dependant on it. I’ve got too many vices as it is.” I decided that was enough on the subject. “Can we move onto the ice now?”

“…okay. Do you want me to hold your arm?”

“Yes please.”

He took my arm and started to lead. I felt the slight tremor of the ice as I stepped onto it, and I gripped Willis’ arm reflexively. “Easy now,” he said.

“Sorry…” We kept walking, at the pace of a snail, as to leave the ice undisturbed. I wondered if Willis was feeling the same vibrations beneath our feet, or if he was starting to see the lifeless bodies frozen below us. How much did he carry with him?

“Cat?”

“Hmm?”

“Why is everyone scared of this place?”

I hesitated. “How much do you know?”

“That if a guilty person walks on the lake then the ice will break. That’s it really.”

I sighed. “Before I say anything, I need to know. Do you have anything you’re particularly guilty about?”

“Not really, no,” Willis said.

“…really?”

“Why don’t you believe me?”

“Don’t take it personally, I don’t believe anyone,” I said cheerfully. “But it’s not that I think you’re lying.”

“Right…”

“What if I phrase it differently? Is there anything you wish that you could undo?”

“…”

“Ring a bell? Ding ding?”

“It’s not going to drown me.”

“Yeah, well, which of us would know better?”

“It’s stupid.”

“Can I decide that?”

He sighed. “I was with two of my friends when we ended up…” His voice trailed off.

I realised. “Here? In Delirium?”

Papa Willis nodded. “We had been here for three days before the things started chasing us. If we had known that we’d be hunted upon being seen, we would’ve stayed hidden in the woods, but…yeah.”

“Go on.”

“After a day on the run, we ran into someone who offered to hide us. We stayed in the basement, and she brought us food every now and then. I’ve got a feeling she was a hooker…but she was nice.”

“She helped us run when her pimp found us. We just got out when the…” He fell silent.

“I know the ones you’re talking about,” I told him.

“Okay…” Willis inhaled. “She was left behind, to face them. And later…Slenderman tried to hold them back by cutting one of them down, and then…”

“You don’t need to finish it,” I told him. I already knew how the story ended, and I didn’t need to know the identity of his other companion, the one who managed to escape.

Papa Willis sighed. “Yeah…I guess that qualifies as guilt, huh.”

I thought for a moment. “Survivors guilt, yeah. I’m not sure if that’s enough to fall through the ice though.”

“Tell me the story anyway, Cat,” Willis insisted. “Daniel isn’t afraid, and he knows what’s going on. I’ll be fine. C’mon.”

I groaned at that. Men… “Fine!” I snapped, feeling him flinch next to me. “But only when we’re close to land. Got it?”

“Okay. It’s not too far now,” he said. “Never took you for a snappy person.”

“Oh, I’m not usually. If I’m snarky around you, it means I’m comfortable enough to speak my mind,” I advised him. “That’s a good thing.”

“Is it?”

“It means that I don’t need to awkwardly make conversation to calm myself down,” I explained. “Those conversations usually head toward philosophy or Creepy pasta.”

“Nice.”

A while later, I breathed a sigh of relief as the ground beneath me stopped surging and there was calm inside my mind. “We’re on ground?”

“Yup. Now tell me what happened.”

“Okee! It’s story time, Papa Willis,” I said cheerfully, taking off the blindfold.

“…I’m beginning to regret this.”

“You wanted me to tell.”

“Fine.”

“Well…first of all, I’d better explain. There used to be humans, see. But then something else happened and, well, people like Noah and Jhaq came to be. And humans hated them.”

“Really? Why?”

“I dunno. Humans are stupid, Willis. Anyway, it was then that humans decided to get rid of them all.”

“Seriously?” Willis looked appalled. “We started this?”

“Not too sure about that,” I admitted. “What’s the first rule of history?”

Willis thought for a moment. “It’s written by the victors?”

“Mmmhm.”

Willis smiled, if only for a moment. “That’s means that the humans lost, didn’t they?”

I smiled sadly. “How many humans have you seen here?” I reminded him. “And this is only a recent occurrence. Before Daniel, humans were nonexistent.”

“…how did they die?” Willis’ voice is quiet.

“…you really want me to finish?”

“…yeah. I do.”

I gestured towards the Lake. “Helevians. And Etheral. Helevians caused the world to flood, drown out the humans. After that, Etherals froze it all. Because apparently, drowning them wasn’t cruel enough.” My voice had become bitter and sardonic.

Willis’s face was frozen. “Right.” When I didn’t say anymore, he tried to smile. “It’s…okay. Go on.”

I sighed. I didn’t like this story, and my version had been dumbed down from an account full of glorified descriptions of their victory, as well as stories of ugly, monstrous humans who, and I quote “slit our children’s throats and cooked them”. Between the impossible self-righteousness of these people in Delirium and, as Papa Willis pointed out before, the fact that history is written in favour of the winners, it would be impossible to know exactly what happened. But I continued. “Anyway, after that, people started to see the bodies of humans who had been frozen underneath the ice. Some more clear than others. The rumour goes on to say that a guilty mind will be able to see the corpses more clearly, as if there’s nothing separating them, not even the ice. An even guiltier mind will look at the corpses and see the faces of people they’ve betrayed. And if they walk on the ice, the guiltiest minds get weighed down until the ice breaks beneath them and they fall through.”

Willis shakes his head. “Well, there goes any sense of assurance I may have had. We’re going to die.”

“Nah.” I gestured towards myself. “Video game immortality, remember? And I’ll never let you die.”

“Promise?”

“Mmhm.” I grinned at him cheerfully. “Cross my heart and hope to die, hope to stick a pin in my-” Something in the distance caught my attention at that moment. “Oh dear.”

“…is ‘oh dear’ a euphemism for something?”

“Nope…”

The blurry figures started to approach the both of us. One of them called out. “Drop everything, you two. We have you surrounded, and don’t think we aren’t afraid to kill.”