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.”

Story time with Meow Meow

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Even though he was translucent, I could feel how freezing cold his hands were. I could’ve kicked myself for trusting this strange ghostly child, but it was too late now.

Argh….time to die again.

“What’s your name?” I asked him, trying to be friendly.

“Neekah,” he said cheerfully. “I’m five!” he added proudly.

A five year old…could a five year old kill me? “Hey Neekah. I’m Cat, Cat Madigan.”

He started giggling again. “Meow.”

I made myself smile. “Yeah, like that. Meow.”

“This way, Meow,” he pulled me around the corner.

“Where are we going?” I asked him, desperately hoping that Daniel would come around soon, and hopefully sober enough to get me away before Neekah went psycho and started to stab me.

“The nurs’ry,” he said. “I wan’ you to mee’ my friends, Meow!”

Oh…I’m going to be murdered by a GROUP of creepy ghost children. Yay! “Is my friend going to be there too?”

“She’s there summer-times,” he said. A look of unease came across his face. “Scary, she is, Meow. She scares me, Tooie too.”

“She scares me too,” I told him. “She’s nice though, she’s not a bad person.”

His face brightened up. “We’re heeeeeeeere!” he called cheerfully.

Bracing myself for my brutal death at the hands of evil demon ghost children, I watched him open the door, and I stepped through after him. “Hello,” I said uneasily.

“Hi!” The ghost children chorused. There was about twenty of them, girls and boys, with glowing white skin, and deep blue hair. “What’s your name?” One child yelled out.

“She’s Meow!” Neekah replied.

Before I could correct him, the children all sang out, “Meow Meow!” and giggled hysterically. A tiny little girl with a green eye and a blue eye took my hand. “Tell us a story!” she sang, and the children cried out in agreement.

“…okaaaaay, um, what story?” This was getting far too weird for words. The girl started pulling me over to a little reading nook with a window view of the outside. For a moment, I just stood there, and watched the silver spirits swimming outside, almost flying through the water surrounding the castle.

“A noo story!” Neekah exclaimed. The little girl gave a cry of delight and pushed me into the reading nook. The children then proceeded to crowd around me, Neekah and the little girl sitting next to me, and they looked up at me intently.

There was a moment where I considered whether death by demon children was preferable to whatever the hell was going on here. But I decided to go with it. “Okay,” I said, more to reassure myself. “This is the story…of a princess.”

“Boring!” The girl next to me practically yelled in my ear.

“I like princess stories!” Another girl whined.

“I don’t!” She crossed her arms and sulked. “And I’m the princess, and what I say goes!”

I knew that it was only a matter of seconds before the nursery broke out into outright war, so I called out “Okay, everyone shhhhhhh!”

Immediately, the children started going “Shhhhhhhhh” as loud as the could. “Alright,” I said, thankful for the distraction. “I’ll tell you about a cat instead.”

They quietened down. “Okay. There was once a little cat, who lived with her family. She was happy, and they were happy. Then one day, the little cat got lost.”

“Oh no…” The little princess’s face looked disheartened.

I continued. “She was lost in a forest. But rather than cry, she decided to look around for help. After a few hours, she came across a girl. She had white hair and purple eyes, and she looked very very scared.”

“Who was she?” Neekah asked.

“The little cat didn’t know,” I told him. “But she asked if she was alright. But the girl ran away without answering.

“So the little cat ran after her, trying to find her. But she managed to find herself even deeper in the forest, and she ended up getting caught. A tree got ahold of her with his long arm, and wouldn’t let her go.” The little girl gasped. “Now the little cat was scared. She wasn’t afraid before, she had been in forests before, but now she couldn’t move, and she was helpless.

“She cried out for help, for hours and hours, and but even though other people passed through the forest, passed the same tree that she was stuck in, they couldn’t see her. Eventually, she stopped calling out, and just cried.”

The expressions on their faces were all desolated, and the girl beside me was in tears. Neekah walked around me and took her hand. I could’ve slapped myself. Why do all my stories end up just….bad?

“Then a man was coming through the forest,” I continued. “A…a warrior, coming back from a fight. And the little cat was scared even more. He was carrying a large sword and had an angry expression on his face, and she just hoped he’d leave her alone.

“But he stopped in front of the tree, and looked at her. His face changed, and suddenly, with the swing of a sword, he cut off the branch which held her, and she fell to the ground. She landed on her toes, as all cats do, and the man knelt down beside her. ‘Are you alright?’ he asked.

“The little cat didn’t know what to say. She had been crying for hours and this man was the first one who had heard her. She didn’t know what to say to this man.

“He looked around. ‘Where is your family?’ he asked her. The little cat just shook her head. ‘Not here’, she said,” and as I said her words, I put on a high squeaky voice for the little cat, making the children giggle a bit.

“‘Would you like my help?’ the man asked. The little cat didn’t answer at first. She had just been trapped by a tree, and she was frightened of the strange things in the forest, and she was also afraid of this man, who had just come from battle. But she also wanted to get home, as fast as she could. ‘Yes please’, the little cat said. ‘Take me to the outside of the forest please, sir’.

“So the man picked up the little cat and put her on his shoulder, and he walked through the endless forests until the trees started disappearing, and she could see the light again. ‘Thankyou!’ the little cat squeaked, and the man lifted her off his shoulder.”

I looked at the faces of the children, now bright and intent. Slowly, I continued. “She looked up at the man, and asked him ‘Where is your home?’ in her squeaky voice.

“He just shook his head. ‘I live here,’ he told the little cat. ‘I don’t have a home’.

“The little cat thought for a moment. ‘If I…ever go into the forest again, can I go with you?’ she asked him.”

I’m tempted to give in to the immature streak inside me and say something along the lines of And the man said, ‘Fuck no!’ and ran away, but that’s not appropriate for little children. “And the man smiled at her, and he didn’t look scary at all. ‘If you want’, he said. ‘If you promise to be careful too’.

“And so from then on, the little cat would always go into the forest with the man, and even when she became a big cat, and didn’t need his help anymore, she’d always stay with him. Because even though he was a warrior, he needed help too, like she did. And the little cat knew that she always had a home in the forest with him.”

“Theeeeeeee Ennnnnnnnd,” the little girl sang, much more cheerful than at the beginning of my depressing story.

“Is not!” Neekah protested. “She diddin get to the bit where the little cat goes home to her family!”

“Of course she did,” the little girl rolled her eyes. “Don’t be stupid. She made it to the edge of the forest, and went home.”

Another child raised her hand. “Meow Meow, what happened to the girl the little cat met?” she asked.

“Did she ever get caught in the trees again? How do trees even do that?!”

“Weren’t her parents worried about her?”

“What was the man’s name?”

“Meow Meow, it’s time to go.”

I looked up, and Daniel was leaning against the wall, smiling. “Heya,” I said. At least you’re still sober.

“No!” The little girl flung her arms around me. “She’s ours! Ours, ours, ours!”

“Yeah!” All the children started crowding around me, as if to create a barricade to prevent Daniel from reaching me. It’s freezing cold, and I began to worry again at dying at their hands. One child even leaps on my shoulders and hugs my head, so I can’t see. Death by hugs wouldn’t be a bad way to go though. Well, actually…

“Come on guys, can I have my Meow back? She’s mine.” Daniel’s voice took on a petulant tone.

“No!” the twenty-something ghost children protested. “She’s ours!”

“Meow Meow has to go with her husband now, guys. She’ll come back another time, I promise!”

You had better not be talking about yourself, mister. But the children all sighed with disappointment, and released me from their icy cold grasps. As I walked over to Daniel, they all waved goodbye, and the little girl with the blue and green eyes came forward.

Daniel knelt to the ground and kissed her hand. He was the epitome of charming. Then she hugged me around my legs. “Goodbye Meow,” she said softly.

“We’ll come back again another time, ‘Reida,” Daniel told her, before leading me out of the room.

I was quiet as I followed him. “We’re not going back there, are we?” I whispered.

“No.” His voice was sad. “That’s just a memory of them. Neekah’s memory, actually. But they’re gone, those children.”

“Did they get…” Their faces flashed through my mind. “Not children surely…”

“No,” he reassured me. “That’s not them when they died, I promise.”

“You also promised them that we’d come back,” I retorted.

“We will come back,” he said. “Another time though. Another place. I don’t break my promises. Neekah will get to see you again, and you can meet him and his friends again.”

I was unsure how to feel about this. I wasn’t afraid or anything like that. But I was sad. The thought of Neekah wandering the castle, conjuring up memories of his little friends to keep him company, felt so…

“He’s trying to ignore it all,” I said aloud, more to myself than Daniel. “He’s trying to forget that he’s dead, and his friends are dead. It’s horrible.”

It wasn’t till Daniel touched my shoulder that I realised I had tears falling from my eyes. “I’m sorry,” he told me. “I shouldn’t have taken you here.”

Somewhere, within myself, I brought out a smile. “It’s okay though,” I said. “I’m glad I met them.”

When he was still frowning, I hugged him around the waist, like he’d do to me when I was saddened. “It’s only a memory, but they still exist,” I said. “These people are good, and they’re real to Neekah, so they are real.”

“I guess…”

I looked up at him, and kissed him on the cheek. “Thankyou Daniel,” I told him. “Thankyou for showing me the one place of pure good in this god forsaken world.”