26 // VAULTS

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Breathe. Breathe.

'Are you okay?'

Fuck. Just breathe. Stop staring. Do something.

'I - I...'

I couldn't get the words out. I could see them in my head. I remembered how to form words on my tongue, how each one sounded, but I just couldn't say them.

'Oh dear,' said the Erelim, frowning. 'Are you unwell? Can I get you something?'

'What?'

Of all the things I could have said, and the only word I could push out through my tightened throat was what. It didn't even sound much like what either. More like a mouse-like squeak that vaguely started with the letter W.

What's wrong with its eyes?

The Erelim's eyes looked, well, just like eyes. Normal human eyes, with crow's feet puckering the skin at the edges. Whatever the Hell Ethan had meant by not screaming when I saw the eyes, I had no idea, because I was looking right at them, into them, and I was seeing nothing terrible or freaky. They were just eyes, albeit eyes filled with a weighty concern.

'A glass of water? Tea? I might have some camomile somewhere.'

The Erelim turned as if to go, his feet shuffling against the floor, before stopping and scratching at his head. There were thumbholes in the cardigan sleeves and he had hooked his thumbs through them on both sides, the chunky knit of the wool covering part of his hands, like some kind of weird half-mitten. He looked back at me, anxiety crinkling his face.

'Do you like camomile tea? I don't want to give you something you don't like. I couldn't possibly forgive myself. Would you like a cup of camomile or something else entirely? Water. Did I say water?' He frowned again and blinked, as if it pained him to recall. Deep lines furrowed his brow, his eyes narrowing. 'Who are you?' he demanded. 'Why are you here?'

A chittering noise erupted from one of the aisles high above. It sounded like birds.

Birds.

I inhaled.

The macaw. The cockatoo. The rainbow-billed toucan. The scarlet ibis.

Exhaled.

'C-Casey,' I stammered. 'My name is Casey.'

The Erelim's face was blank, unreadable. Then, the smile appeared again in full-force, eyes misting over with glassy joy.

'Casey,' he repeated. 'Case-eeeeee.' His mouth stretched wide as he tried out the word, elongating the vowel with some glee. 'I like that. Yes, I do. It suits you. You look like a Casey.'

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