The day before my birthday went like this. Still not dealing.
Daniel frowns at me. “Cat?”
He hesitates. “…what are you doing?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“Tell me the truth. Does Daniel have a flask in his hand?”
“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.
“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?”
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?
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
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.”
“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?”
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.”