He was in the middle of a discussion with Thomas and Benjamin when he heard his name, followed by quick footsteps and harsh breathing. He turned around to see someone covered in a black cloak from head to toe, stopping near him and bending over to catch their breath, and it took him a moment to recognize Charlotte. He lifted an eyebrow at her, wondering just what in the world was that dress up when she lifted her head back up again and looked at him straight in the eye. She looked awfully worried.
-Can you come with me? It’s important.
-What’s the matter?
-I can’t talk here.
Something about the urgency and distress in his voice was unsettling and worried him. She had never worn the cape she had on before, and he had never seen something quite like it before. It looked like it was made of silk, completely black, with a red ribbon neatly bordering it; it looked like it would be worth quite a lot. Somehow he knew she hadn’t gotten this in the market place. He couldn’t see her face well because of the hood, and it was hiding most of her body too; but he didn’t fail to notice she was bare foot.
His followers both gave him an astonished glance, but he didn’t respond. They must have caught on that something serious was happening, because they exchanged uncertain glances and even Thomas didn’t dare make a sarcastic comment.
-But what about that brat, boss?
-Yeah, I thought we were going to show ‘em today!
-I’ll deal with it later.
-Aw, man. Ever since you got involved with that girl, you…
They looked just about ready to complain more, but one glare from him and they both shut their trap, swallowing hard. Benjamin pushed the short guy back, before he could say anything out of place again.
-We’ll keep them busy until you come back.
He nodded to them and turned back to Charlotte only to realize the girl had already started walking back towards the bakery. He yelled out her name, yet she didn’t stop to wait for him and he grumbled a bit before running after her. She was acting weird. Way too weird for him to be comfortable. She was already by the bakery when he caught on. She stopped and waited by the door, as if finally waiting for him, and when she glanced his way he couldn’t help but notice a black stain on her face a little over her nose, right next to her eye.
-Hey, seriously, what’s with the urgency and not saying a word, huh?
-Just open the door.
Again with the orders! He raised a finger with the intention of complaining, but as he was about to speak out he paused, looked at her some more, then decided to just drop it with a sigh and did as she said. No point arguing over it if it didn’t save time, especially considering how worried he was.
Without another word she stormed inside and went straight upstairs, to her room he guessed, without even so much as a glance to Martha who was waiting by the counter. He looked inside, overwhelmed and bewildered, still holding the door open. Okay, now what. He hadn’t seen her in a while, not since that last time she had told him so many things. He had needed some time to digest all of it, some time on his own and now she just showed up in the streets to look for him while he was taking care of his business, acting all weird? He glanced at the shop keeper.
-What’s wrong with her?!
-Beats me, boy. She hasn’t talked to me in a month.
He looked at the woman a little longer and didn’t fail to notice how old she looked. The spark of life that she always had seemed to be gone and replaced by some exhaustion and he unexpectedly felt sorry for her. She glared at him after a moment, as if proving him wrong and showing him that she still had energy left.
-Close the door already, it’s cold outside!
-You say that, yet you let her leave without any shoes on!
She let out a long sigh and rubbed her eyes, and for the first time in ever, he didn’t feel like being a jerk any longer and decided to leave her alone. He quickly made his way upstairs, before Martha decided that he wasn’t welcome anymore and he should leave, no matter the state he was in.
The door to Charlotte’s room was half open, with the entrance just wide enough for her to make her way in. The light was on even though it was so bright from the morning light. She was inside, her back to him and she let her hood fall off, before turning to him.
-Get in and close the door behind you.
She briskly walked to the windows and pulled on the curtains while he did as she said, and once he had executed, she motioned for him to sit on the bed. He grumbled a little in annoyance, but after a sigh did as she wished, crossed his legs and looked at her.
She walked to stand in front of him, a strange expression on her face, something close to determination, but not quite; with a hint of fear in it. She started struggling with the cape and took it off as he looked away quickly and blushing when he realized she was wearing nothing but her underwear. What the hell?!
-Look at me!
He was still uncertain about all of this and he still didn’t dare to look, but as she was obviously waiting for this he swallowed hard and started to turn back slowly, his eyes still shut tight. What did she plan to do with him? It was the only thing that was going on in his mind, looping over and over again and he wondered if it had been a wise decision to follow her after all.
But as he set eyes on her as she had demanded, he understood. There was a huge stain on her chest and hands, the edges of it dotted and slightly paler. A few random places on her arms, neck and legs looked similar, places she would scratch at often, from the looks of her reddened skin. It took him a moment to realize she was wearing a necklace, because of how dark it was. She looked like she was covered in charcoal and, upon seeing it, fear gripped at his throat and he wondered if he wasn’t going to throw up. His legs were shaking too, and what was up with this rotting smell? She looked at her own hands for a moment.
-All of the things I brought from my world look the same.
-What does that mean?…
She looked up again, before walking to the corner of the room where a pile of things were placed. She came back with a few things in hand; a leather book, things to write and some clothes, including the cape she had on earlier. She dropped all of them on the floor, save from the diary, which she opened up and showed him. All of the pages were more of less blackened, and most words were hard to make out. The objects on the floor all gave off the feeling that they were rotting away.
-I wrote down everything I knew in this. Everything I ever learned, everything about the world I came from. But now that thing that ate it up somehow followed me, and it’s growing faster and faster…
Her hands started shaking as she went on, tears falling on her cheeks. He started at her with wide eyes, still too shocked to be able to respond properly.
-If I touch anything, it leaves a stain. But it washes off easily if it’s something that comes from this world. At least, if you take care of it right away…
She grabbed her head and slowly fell to her knees.
-I’m so scared… I don’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to search for help. I don’t want to die.
-W-wait, what are you saying?! Nobody said anything about dying, right?
He felt his heart ache with every heartbeat and his throat tighten. She was just talking nonsense to him. He didn’t understand, he didn’t get any of this. So what if her skin had some black on it? She didn’t seem to have any symptom, right? She didn’t seem to be suffering, she only had stains on her! If anything, he could probably wash them off with soap, just like paint, as if all of this was nothing but a bad joke! He swallowed hard, his head spinning. He had to get a grip on himself.
-Are you… feeling ill?
She took a moment before answering, as if she was trying to think about it, but the wait was incredibly painful, feeding off his anxiety.
-I don’t think so. My heart sometimes acts up, and I get dizzy, but that’s it.
-Do you remember when these stains started showing up?
Once again she took a moment to respond and he did the best he could to try and stay rational about this, whatever it meant considering he was dealing with something straight out of a fairy tale, pushing down all of his feelings of dread. She looked up at him, her eyes thoughtful.
-I opened up my diary, and one of the stones had a stain. That stone is gone now, though; it was the first thing to be eaten up completely…
-And the ones on you?
-I only noticed them afterwards, after I closed down my book. They weren’t there the day before for sure, as I recall taking a bath.
He put a hand on his chin for a moment, thinking deeply. He wasn’t exactly looking at anything in particular, as he was lost in thought, but his eyes were set on her necklace as the girl in front of him had sat down properly now. He wasn’t even sure what he was looking for, and while he wasn’t one to believe in ghosts and superstition, a shudder ran down his spine and something inside of him told him that this thing was evil. He shook his head off to try and clear his mind.
-Did you do anything weird that day?
-What do you mean?
-That thing comes from your world right?… I don’t know what I’m saying, but maybe you did something weird. Something that reminded that… plague… that you were tasty. I remember you telling me it fed off from magic or whatever.
Fuck, he felt like he was making so much shit up right now. This wasn’t a game, so why was his brain telling him it was just like a puzzle?… He put a hand on his forehead and welcomed the unexpected coolness of it.
-I was rather upset that day… I think… I vaguely remember wishing I was back into my own world.
She had this feeling of shame written all over her as she admitted it. Then something seemed to click into her mind.
-Oh, right. The stain wasn’t on my fingers at first. The necklace I’m wearing was blackened a bit, and after touching it, it came off on my hands.
Alright, that was it. That thing was fucking evil. Without giving it a second thought, he reached out for it and gave it a harsh thug, breaking it off. Charlotte gave him shocked, wide eyes as he did so. He was about to tell her that he wasn’t going to let her touch any of that thing ever again when he felt a burning feeling in his palm. What the hell was that?!
He looked at it only to have the overwhelming feeling of danger come from it. It felt as if a hungry beast was locking its sight on him, to see whether or not he would taste good. He threw the thing to the ground and realized he was shaking again, tears burning away at his eyes.
He snapped back to reality and looked at her. Shock and worry soon led place to relief as he was calming down. He looked at his hand to see some sort of black ashes. He rubbed his fingers together and it spread slightly, just like charcoal would. He smelled them, but it only had a very faint odour of mold.
-You scared me… Don’t do that again. I don’t know what I’d do if I got you infected.
-Forget about that. And that thing. Don’t touch it. It’s scary as shit. I’m not letting wear it.
-What?! But that’s the only thing I have left from Mage! Besides, I’ve been wearing that necklace for nearly four years now, my neck is going to feel all naked now!
-I don’t care, you’re not wearing that! Here.
He reached for his own neck, grabbing the one he was wearing. It was nothing fancy, simply a bear tooth on a strip of leather that he had crafted himself, but it would have to do. He put it around her neck and she bristled slightly, scared that he might touch her. He didn’t really care if he got contaminated. He wasn’t going to give up on her, and if that meant catching whatever she had, so be it. He’d rather catch it now and be done with it, than wait on and fear it.
-But… I’ll dirty it!
-What, do you think that it’s not? I don’t recall being sparkling clean.
She was obviously out of words at his reply, and while he would have usually smirked at how priceless her face was, he did not. He was still too tensed up to allow himself to be laid back.
-I’ll hold on to that from now on. How do you suggest we get rid of it?
-I think… it would be best to burn off all of the things I brought with me.
She had a pained expression on her face, but while she seemed sad over the thought, it felt like she had made up her mind.
-I get the feeling that in a way, the things I brought along with me are some sort of paradox here. They shouldn’t exist. I need to make them disappear.
-Aren’t you going to miss them?
-Well, yes, obviously… But I should never have brought them here to begin with. It’s better this way.
-And what about you?
-I don’t… know how it’ll affect me. After all, I did grow ears and a tail, and so far none of that has a single stain. Maybe I’ll be fine. Maybe I won’t. But there are things I need to do.
She had a serious expression on her face. Whatever decision she had made, he could feel that she wasn’t going to give up on anytime soon. He sighed.
-You’re going to London, aren’t you?
-H-how did you figure that out?
-It wasn’t that hard. Heh.
He put a hand on his face, a bitter smile painting itself behind it.
-Is there nothing I can do to win…?
-What are you talking about…?
-Feels like Rosa is always one step ahead of me.
She gave him a strange look, one of pity maybe, one he didn’t want to see, so he turned his head away, ears low, feeling a little ashamed for speaking out. Yet a terrible sadness filled his entire being, something he had never felt before, and his heart ached with it. He grabbed his shirt tightly in that area, wishing for it to stop.
-Just… tell me one thing.
-What is it…?
-Rosa said something… It’s been haunting me ever since, I can’t get it out of my mind.
She gave him a confused look, but he could feel that she was feeling tense and nervous, probably worried about what had been said. He knew he should be looking at her in the eye, yet he couldn’t bring himself to.
-She said… that she raped you.
He could feel that Charlotte was suddenly flustered and confused about his statement. He put a hand to his forehead, feeling uneasy about asking that. Goddamn it, why did that idiot’s words, obviously said in a hurry, as an excuse, stayed so fresh in his mind? He wished he could have forgotten about it.
-I-I think rape is a pretty big word to explain it.
-What do you mean?
-Well, she… she touched my ears and kissed me. But then she apologized and ran off.
He glanced at her, her cheeks bright red as she stared intently at the floor. Then her expression completely vanished and for a moment he was worried that she was feeling unwell, until she sneezed. He stared at her in disbelief.
-You’re so dense. Aren’t you even a little bit ashamed?
-It’s the truth, I’m telling you! She really stormed out on me and,
-I’m not talking about that, stupid. You’ve been in your underwear this whole time, right in front of a man, and you know I have my eyes on you.
He sighed heavily, unsure what to think about all of this, but seeing as she was obviously getting cold, he stood up, put down his suspenders and started unbuttoning his shirt. She seemed to be having many strange thoughts as she looked at him and he didn’t dare try to guess any of them. He felt his face hot with embarrassment as he threw it on her face.
-Put this on, for God’s sake!
She hadn’t moved at all and for a moment he thought about how stupid she looked. He started wondering if he was going to have to put that stupid shirt on her himself. What was she mumbling about now…?
-That’s right, I haven’t prayed in a long time…