Chapter 21

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Chapter 21

 

Chapter 21

 

ZAX

– The Abyss. Choronzon, his Nature.1

 

“The net of threads that surrounds me and tortures my skin has long ago become my home, my only shelter.
I smile at the pain it brings me and, the same way others need light and water, I can’t live without it.
There were times when I bitterly cried because of this prison.
Now, after all this time, I no longer know how to survive without its torturous embrace ...”

 

 

 

 

I woke up startled by a scream that left me sitting up again on my bed.

I felt immediately lost and realized I was back in my room. The light poured in from the half-opened blinds, telling me that it was daytime outside.

The scream echoed again and I slid out of bed, forgetting for a moment that fast and rash movements would only bring me pain. I winced as my ribs ached, pressing my right side, and left the room trying to walk as fast as I could without running.

As I passed by the stairs I noticed I really didn’t have the slightest idea of how I’d gotten to my room. The last thing I recalled was sitting there, desperately trying to hold on to Gabriel’s slipping body; the soft weight of his head resting on my lap. Obviously, I also remembered how his presence had disturbed me, as always, but I was proud of myself for finally having been able to get close enough to touch him.

However, I didn’t have time to ponder about that much longer, and I rushed as fast as I could to my mother’s bedroom.

“Jonathan!” I called out, knowing it had been his voice I’d heard, and I ran to hold him when I saw him sitting on the bed, wide-eyed in a pure state of panic. “It’s fine! Everything’s fine! You’re safe!” I assured him, wrapping my arms around his shaking body, and he pushed me away, screaming at me, forcing me to make use of all my strength just to hold on to him. “You’re okay. You’re okay now! It’s over! It was all a nightmare!” I insisted, trying to make myself heard above his screams and, suddenly, his whole body went limp, his shouting ending as if he’d spent all his energy and couldn’t even speak. “You’re okay,” I reassured him, caressing his hair, and he wrapped his arms around me, pulling me against his marred bare chest.

Although younger than me, Jonathan was taller and his thin arms immobilized me without effort, making me uncomfortable. I felt too small, too frail in his arms, as if I were no more than a doll that he’d decided to hold onto to keep his fears at bay.

“Everything’s fine now,” I repeated, showing intentions to pull back, but his strength didn’t diminish, keeping me prisoner. “Jona ...”

“You have to help me!” His harsh, urgent murmur right next to my ear interrupted my scolding, leaving me apprehensive.

“Help?”

“To get out of here! Please, I need to get out of here!” he repeated and the despair in his voice left me silent for a moment. From the few times I’d seen him, he always seemed empty of any desires or emotions, almost as if he’d been perpetually hypnotized. And yet, the intensity of his voice was far from belonging to the inanimate person he'd been, and I couldn’t help wonder what had happened to leave him in that state.

“Leave here? Where to?”

“I don’t care! Far, far away from him!”

“Him? Alexander?” I guessed after a few moments of hesitation and his arms squeezed me even harder, hurting my already hurt ribs.

“Please, you have to help me!” he begged once again. Sure enough I had no idea of what was going on, but I could easily identify myself with the deep fear vibrating from his every word.

I wanted to know what had brought on that wave of terror but, agitated as he was, I was sure I wouldn't be able to make him talk about it. And so I decided the first thing to do was to try and calm him down, and that implied taking him out of that house.

“I’ll help!” I told him and his arms relaxed enough to allow me to look at him. “I’ll help you, Jonathan.” His expression came alight with hope and I couldn’t help smile at the purity of his eyes. “But first we have to get you something to wear.” I jumped to my feet, my practical side taking the lead.

It wasn't long before we managed to leave the house, his giant hurried stride forcing me run from time to time to keep up with him.

“Where are you going?” I inquired and he shrugged. “Just stop for a minute and think about it! You probably won’t be able to cross the barrier without them noticing,” I reminded him.

“I have no other choice. I have to try,” he replied without even turning to look at me, his expression grave and intent as he marched down the street, my mom’s old tracksuit he now wore too short for him.

“What happened after you were gone? Where did you go?” I had so many questions. Above all I needed to know why he’d left without a word. Jonathan’s expression became even tenser and his voice cut the air in a murmur.

“We followed two Deiwos that had crossed the barrier unnoticed.”

“And did you catch them?”

“Only one. They were too strong. Mari, you should take the chance and run away too!” he suddenly told me, facing me with a serious expression.

“I can’t. The Contract binds us together. If I break it, really bad things will happen.”

“Bad things,” he repeated sarcastically. “You don’t even know what you’re talking about. At least Izrail is a Deiwos, a Shedim. I’m sure you see his indifference towards all Human Beings as proof that he is dangerous. And you’re right. But believe me when I tell you, there are much worse things out there. I heard that your Guardian is asleep? Then just take this chance and run far, far away. Don’t wait around for him to wake up.” I grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him back, making him stop for a moment so I could recover my lost breath.

“You and I ... we’re the same, right?” I asked and Jonathan turned away as if that simple question had been enough to hurt him deeply.

“Yes, or at least we were ... Gaalgha, as the Merifri call us, the Spirits of the Creator. But I’ve stopped being one a long time ago, the moment my life stopped following the normal cycle that all Human Beings follow.” He resumed his march down the road, although his pace had lost part of its initial urgency, making it easier for me to keep up.

“But Alexander told me you are Human, like me,” I argued, hesitating before saying his name, and Jonathan took a deep breath as if that could help dilute the bitterness marking his face.

“Human ... maybe. I don’t know. You tell me. Do you know of any other Human who has lived for one hundred years looking like a fourteen-year-old kid?”

I stared at him wordlessly. Of all the things Alexander had told me I’d never taken the factor time into account. But it was logical, right? If all he’d told me had taken place before that war. But if that was how it was, how was it possible that Jonathan was still alive?

“Then how ...?” I began to ask.

“He was my Guardian, and I trusted him unconditionally. Which Human Being wouldn’t trust an angel sent from Heaven to protect him? He explained to me what I was and why he was sent to stay by my side. We were always together, even though others couldn’t see him.” His voice was almost soft as he recalled his past, but then his expression became hard and angry. “In the end they’re all the same, Deiwos and Merifri, all alike, all selfish, prepotent bastards! With the difference that at least you know what to expect from a Deiwos. Merifri are false. With their pure and angelic looks, white wings and all, they gain our trust just to betray us later on!”

“What do you mean? What happened?”

Jonathan hesitated for a moment and, when he spoke again his voice was no more than a cold, hollow whisper, the kind of voice I expected to hear from the empty indifferent boy he had appeared to be.

“Love is forbidden to all Merifri,” he explained. “And yet they all know that there is no Guardian who doesn’t end up loving the Gaalgha he is sent to protect. Alexander told me all about this and, at the time, I even felt sorry for his pain. Loving, knowing that it’s a condemned love, that there’s nothing anyone can do, because Gaalgha are Human Beings that will soon leave this plane of existence towards another more evolved one. Believing all that I never even dreamed he’d do what he did. You saw the red marks on my body, didn’t you?” I nodded and he took a hand to his chest as if he could feel the intricate crimson pattern under his clothes. “These are the marks of my curse. In his selfishness he wouldn’t allow me to follow my path. This curse not only keeps me a prisoner of this life, it also binds me to him.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“What about ... the scars?” I asked, dreading his answer, and his bitter smile made me shiver.

“The red lines are constantly growing and expanding. If they’re not cut from time to time, they’ll end up tearing my body to shreds.”

“Is that why he fell? That he became a Deiwos?” I wondered and Jonathan nodded.

“My life is suspended. And since this war began and I became his Medium … I just can’t take it anymore! I’d rather die! But even that, he won’t allow it.” His arms wrapped around his own chest as he bent forward. Pain distorted his face and he staggered, almost falling.

“Jonathan!” I immediately placed his arm over my shoulders, trying to keep him from falling, and he gasped for air. “What’s wrong! Talk to me!”

“Don’t ... let him ... take me.”

As soon as the words left his lips, a soft shower of black feathers surrounded us. I raised my head, still trying to support his weight and, as expected, Alexander was right there in front of me. His dark-red eyes were immediately on Jonathan and his expression was one of pity, and helplessness, and pain, and, above all, the expression of a guilty person.

In a fit of despair Jonathan tried to escape him, catching me off guard, his sudden movements making it impossible for me to keep holding him. I saw him fall, his body folded over itself as he writhed in pain, biting his lower lip so he wouldn’t scream as well. From the corner of my eye I saw Alexander take a step forward and I was instantly in his way, making sure he wouldn’t reach the boy behind me.

“Mari.”

“He doesn’t want to go back with you!” I declared vehemently. In my mind, that was the only thing I was a hundred-percent sure of and that I could clearly understand. How many times had I wished and hoped in vain that I’d be able to escape as well? And, if what Jonathan had told me was really true, I certainly wasn't about to allow him to keep torturing him like this any further.

“Mari! He needs help!” Alexander pointed out, his anxious gaze locked on Jonathan, but I stood my ground, unwavering.

“Tell me what to do then!”

“There’s no time for that! Let me through!” he commanded, trying to go around me, and I gave a step to the side, placing myself in his way once more.

“No!”

Before my astounded eyes his worried, almost frightened expression changed immediately to that icy cold mask that seemed unable to see me, sending a cold feeling throughout my entire body. I swallowed hard, aware that was the exact same expression he’d had on his face when he’d dragged me towards the kitchen, and fought my own instinct that kept insisting that I’d get out of his way. The air around us became heavier and colder, his hands curling into two tight fists.

“Let me through,” he ordered once again, his voice dropping to a murmur that sounded more like a threat, and I grounded my feet where I stood, facing him with equal intent.

I knew he wasn’t joking, that that Alexander was far from being the friendly, carefree creature who’d told me about Gabriel and their world. But, even so, I just couldn’t let him take Jonathan away. Not after he’d pleaded with me like that! I didn’t want to betray his trust. And yet, his muffled moans were starting to frighten me, even more than Alexander’s implicit threat.

“Jonathan does not want to go with you,” I spelled it out for him and cringed when he lunged towards me, his red eyes burning with anger.

“Sigweardiel.” That voice in its velvet murmured tone was all it took to freeze him in place, and to make me shiver from head to toe. I watched as he walked up to us, each step more gracious than the other, until he slowly placed a hand on Alexander’s shoulder, making him tense up immediately. “Do not forget who is standing in front of you,” he whispered almost in his hear and his purple gaze turned towards me. “Mariane.” My heart jumped into a mad race. His pale, obviously tired face looked even more unworldly under the light of the day. “If you won’t let him through, that boy will die soon.”

The cold, indifferent tone of his voice shocked me more than his words.

“He doesn’t want to go!” I insisted and, contrary to what I'd expected, he didn’t get angry at my stubbornness.

“I see. I guess you should know that not all that he told you is true. But, whether you believe me or not, the question is rather simple. Are you going to let him die?”

Indecision made my stomach hurt as I looked at Jonathan over my shoulder. His forehead was drenched in sweat, his face mortally pale. He kept hugging himself as if to keep his own body together, his knees pulled against his chest, his hands clenched so hard that his knuckles had turned white. A thin line of blood was dripping from his mouth, from the lip he kept biting into, and his body kept twitching, and writhing in pain.

I lowered my head in defeat. He was right. Even though he’d told me he’d rather die, I could never, knowingly, be all right with that. With that established there was nothing else I could do for him. Frustrated with myself I stepped aside. Alexander didn’t even hesitate, rushing by me to pick him up in a gentle embrace, before disappearing.

I stood there, staring blankly at the place where they’d just been, watching as the dark feathers slowly floated down.

“I’m really useless.”

“I could easily disagree.”

I raised my head to face him. I’d completely forgotten about his keen sense of hearing. And, although I was sure I should be mad at him for his sudden interference, the truth was that waves of pure happiness were flooding my brain. Because he was here! He hadn’t simply disappeared. And I hadn’t dreamed last night. However, I was still far from being willing to admit to any of that, and so I looked away and folded my arms frowning.

“Why did you interfere?” I asked.

“You don’t know Alexander when the matter is Jonathan. He wasn’t joking,” he replied turning to return home and I followed his steps, keeping a safe distance that would allow me to keep control over my own body.

“Even so! I could easily have dealt with it!”

“He would’ve killed you in heartbeat, before allowing that boy to die.”

I stood silent for a moment, swallowing hard. As much as I wanted to contradict him, I knew that was the honest truth. I’d seen it too, in that cold depersonalized expression.

“If Jonathan is so important to him, how can he make him suffer like that?” I demanded and he sighed, slowing down his pace.

“You probably won’t believe me even if I tell you,” he muttered, as if thinking out loud, but still kept going. “I suppose that boy told you that Alexander is to blame for the situation he’s in? It’s to be expected, since he doesn’t know any better. But the real story is very different from what he thinks is real.”

“What do you mean? I saw the marks on his body! And how much he fears Alexander. Just now, it was that curse that was making him suffer like that!”

“I never said Jonathan wasn’t cursed. The red lines all over his body are proof of that. However, the boy thinks that Alexander was the one who placed the curse on him.”

“And he wasn’t?” I saw him shake his head, his black hair, now short again, accompanying the movement ever so gracefully.

For an instant I couldn’t help stare at him, walking in front of me like he used to when we went to school. The elegant way he moved, his steps completely silent as if he were floating, not walking, his back straight and the way his hair caressed his neck at the back of his head. All those details … and how, unknowingly, I’d missed them all!

“Sigweardiel was Jonathan’s Guardian, an angel as you call them. However, Guardians can only protect Humans against Deiwos. They are not allowed to intervene or influence the lives of Humans in any way. Sigweardiel told me a lot about the Guardians’ missions and the Law that binds them. Jonathan thinks his falling was a result of the curse, but he is wrong. Sigweardiel fell because he went against the Law and interfered in the life of a Human Being, saving him instead of allowing him to be destroyed.”

“Jonathan?” I guessed, unsure.

“Yes. He suspended that boy’s life; how he did it I can’t really tell. It’s something no Deiwos can do. From what I gathered from his words, it’s as if he grabbed the Human life inside Jonathan and took it away, keeping it safe. However, in order to keep his body from dying, it’s required that another life should inhabit it. And so he shared his own life with the boy. And it’s over that life that the curse has its effect, destroying it piece by piece. And so, from time to time, when there’s little life left inside Jonathan, these crises appear and Sigweardiel has to pass a bit more of his own life into his body.”

“But if that’s so, doesn’t Alexander’s life ever end?” I asked, confused.

“It will, eventually. Although we all have considerable long lives, at the speed he’s burning through his, I’m sure he will end up depleting it. But Sigweardiel hopes to break the curse before that happens. His sole objective is to return Jonathan to his Human life so that he may follow his path as it should have happened.”

“I don’t understand.” I was confused, but sure he wouldn’t be compromising enough to give me any further explanations. “I thought dying was part of being Human. I understand it may be sad, parting ways, but doing all this just to stop him from dying? Making him go through all this pain? Only because Alexander doesn’t want to see him leave? It’s hardly fair!”

“You would be right if Jonathan’s curse would only destroy his life,” he replied, surprising me by continuing our conversation. “Had that been the case, Sigweardiel wouldn’t have done what he did. However, his curse also threatens his Soul. This curse was designed to break the body and through the body break his life, and through his life break his Soul. If that curse is allowed to have its full effect, his whole being will be destroyed.”

“And it’s expected that a Guardian would allow such a thing?” I wanted to know, perplexed at the notion, and his sarcastic laughter filled my ears.

“That’s exactly what I asked him when he told me all this. After learning a bit more about the Merifri and their laws, I concluded we’re not all that different. In fact, the only difference is that they’re cruel under the pretext of doing good. We are a bit more honest than that,” he added a little smugly. I thought it best not to mention Jonathan had told me the same thing just a few moments ago.

“So, if it wasn’t a Deiwos that cursed him, was it a Human Being?” He nodded, which further stunned me. “How? Why?”

Deiwos and Merifri aren’t the only ones hungry for power. And the Soul of a Human Being like Jonathan can be put to a good use in many different ways, even by Humans.”

I stood silent for a moment.

A Human Being like Jonathan ... like me. I felt that addition implicit in his voice. After all, what other reason could had led him to spare my life if not for the mysterious power they all believed I had?

I raised my head internally proud of myself for not feeling miserable at the recollection of my position in all that.

“If that’s how it is, why doesn’t he tell him the truth? Jonathan doesn’t know what really happened, and judges him wrongly. He feels betrayed because he trusted Alexander. And that only makes him suffer even more.”

“I don’t understand human’s feelings all that much,” he admitted,slightly lowering his head. “But, when I asked him that, Sigweardiel just told me that it was better if the boy were to hate him. That hatred would give him the strength to live. He seems to think the truth will only make the boy more depressed and that he’d end up feeling it’s not worth fighting to stay alive.”

“It was someone he knew,” I guessed, feeling sorry for him, and he stopped for a moment to stare at me over his shoulder with an intrigued expression.

“Does that matter?”

“A lot.” He seemed to ponder on that for a moment.

“It was his father.”

“Treason is always harder to accept when it comes from someone of our own blood,” I lamented. “Especially so when it’s someone who should have protected us.”

“I don’t understand,” he admitted and resumed walking, and I felt sorry for him as well. I recalled what Alexander had told me about his childhood. Of course he couldn’t understand. “Anyway, this war didn’t help either. Because of the situation we’re in, Sigweardiel had to suspend his search for a counter-curse and dedicate himself completely to keeping the both of them alive. Even so, from all the Merifri I know, he’s the only one who’s managed to keep so many of his original characteristics for so long. They tend to disappear, as they keep living as Mazzikin. It’s really annoying. In the end it’s almost as if he’s still an Iaidon, only his wings changed color.” I couldn’t help smile because he wasn’t being honest at all. The truth was he was glad Alexander kept most of his original self intact. “Most Mazzikin that survive the fall are utterly cruel and selfish.”

“I guess that’s mainly due to the fact that he was given to you, and not some other Deiwos. You helped him keep his objectives alive,” I said and he stopped, making me stop as well.

I realized what I’d just said, and how my words sounded as a compliment. That had hardly been my intention, I told myself, stubbornly.

“He told you that?” he asked in a low whisper and only then did I understand the real implications of what I’d just said. Talking about those kinds of things made me remember other more sordid details I’d rather forget.

“He told me a bit of how you met,” I answered carefully. With some satisfaction I noticed we were almost home, which would probably mean a graceful change of subject.

“I didn’t help him at all,” he said. “Helping implies giving something. And Deiwos don’t give. I just didn’t feel like destroying someone clearly weaker than me. You can say I spared his life on a whim. He was obviously different and I wanted to learn more about his nature and about the Merifri, whom we only normally meet in a battlefield.”

I smiled again. What was that about Deiwos being honest? Not honest at all! And yet, attitudes like that only made him look surprisingly Human, proof of an immature pride, of someone who tried too hard to look like someone he was not.

“That curiosity of yours, was that also why you spared Lea?” I asked, unable to resist, and he stopped again, making me muffle my laughter, which I immediately disguised when he turned to face me, looking slightly annoyed.

“It would seem Sigweardiel talks too much about things that are none of his concern!” he grumbled and I couldn’t help smile, which seemed to disturb him.

“Can I open the door?” I asked, pointing to the door he was blocking just by standing there, and Gabriel looked back, ending up stepping aside too quickly for the usual slow movements he always forced on himself in my presence.

I smiled again, amused with his clear confusion, and went to open the door. However, as soon as I stepped in, the heavy oppressing air inside made me take a sharp breath. I left my coat on the hanger by the door and went straight to the stairs.

“Mari! Where are you going?”

“Upstairs, to check on Jonathan,” I answered but had to slow down once I reached the stairs, my ribs aching with all those sudden movements.

“You really shouldn’t go.” I stopped midway and looked back. He’d remained at the base of the stairs, his violet eyes slightly glowing amongst the shadows that surrounded him. “It’s not something you’ll like to see. You probably won’t be able to understand.”

I pointedly ignored his warning and climbed up the rest of the steps. I stopped outside the door, hesitating to open it, and easily recognized Jonathan’s voice in the muffled moans that reached me. Slowly, like a child that knows she’s doing something wrong, I turned the handle and let it open only enough to see inside and, for a split second, I didn’t know what I was seeing, at least until all the pieces got put together in my brain. I covered my lips with one hand, hiding my shocked exclamation, and yet was unable to turn away.

Alexander was sitting on the bed, Jonathan on his lap, turning to him, almost as if they were a pair of lovers. I could easily see the naked skin of his back, marred by all those cruel red lines. The strength with which he held on to Alexander, his arms wrapped around his neck, made me blush. Alexander seemed to be kissing his bare chest, his dark-red hair completely disheveled, as if I really stood before some passionate scene. It took me some time to notice the small dagger stained with blood he held in one of his hands and I held my breath when I saw him raising it. Carefully, and with a deep expression of pain, I watched as he cut one of the red lines across Jonathan’s chest and, when he placed his lips over the recently opened wound, I thought I’d already intruded too much in that space that clearly only belonged to the two of them.

I went back downstairs, careful to be as silent as possible, and went to the living room, feeling slighted depressed. How often would they have to go through that to keep Jonathan alive?

I stopped by the door and, in just a split second, all my previous thoughts and cares evaporated. Gabriel had undressed his shirt and was unwrapping his bloodied bandages, the ones that I’d put in place just last night.

“What are you doing!?” I finally managed to ask, hoping I sounded angry enough, and he raised his head to face me.

“Lea told me you did this,” he calmly observed.

“And why does that matter? You shouldn’t even be walking around!” I remarked, half despairing before his puzzled expression. I’d been so worried about Jonathan’s problems that I’d completely forgotten about just how serious his injury was. Once again my life was like a war zone, constantly bombed by every side, as my mind struggled to deal with everything at the same time.

“It was nothing serious,” he replied, unconcerned, which irked me more than it should.

Nothing serious! How was he able to say something like that to my face! I still hadn’t been able to erase the image of all that blood from my mind, of his mortally pale face as he mumbled delirious words no one had been able to understand. For a moment, last night, I really believed he wouldn’t survive! And I was positive that any Human Being in his place had been dead somewhere before dawn.

Before I could argue, or scold him any further, the bandages were in a pile on the floor. I watched as he also got rid of the gauze, looking down at his own chest with a curious expression. He pressed his own red skin along the suture, making me cringe, and nodded appreciatively.

“Almost good.”

I just couldn’t stop staring at him. In truth, although his skin was still stained with blood, the black stitches standing out like a sore thumb, the huge gash seemed completely healed. The ease with which he pressured it and touched it was proof enough of that. And on his chest, over the place where his heart should beat, I couldn’t help notice the deformed red blotch, which the symbol of our Contract had become. I thought it had been gone forever and, knowing it was still there, even deformed as it was, strangely made me feel more at ease.

“These things are itchy,” he complained, ferociously scratching the stitches and I almost jumped.

“Stop that!” I blurted out and was even more surprised when he obeyed, looking at me inquisitively.

“Then what? Will I have to have these things on me forever?” He sounded annoyed again and I realized he hadn’t the slightest idea of what surgical stitches were.

“The things Lea got for me. Where are they?”

“I put them in there,” he replied, pointing to a cupboard and I entered the room, going around the table in order to keep the distance between us. I got hold of my magically acquired utensils, filled the aluminum basin with distilled water and grabbed the rest of the cotton pads, along with the scissors, tweezers and, just in case, the bottle of rubbing alcohol.

“Sit there.” I pointed the chair on the other side of the table and he stared back at me for a brief moment, before obeying once again, his steps ever so slow and carefully measured while he blatantly kept an eye on me, probably expecting some kind of panicky reaction.

Trying to stop my hands from shaking so much, and grabbing the things I’d gathered, I told myself there was no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do this! After all, I’d practically spent the whole night beside him. I had taken care of him and I had been close enough to touch him ... even to hug him. And so I stepped determinedly towards him. My heart immediately jumped to a frenzy, the trembling of my hands taking over the rest of my body. I stopped for a moment, making sure I kept breathing, and checked all the things I’d gathered, afraid I’d end up dropping something.

“Mariane.” His voice broke through my uneasiness, slightly calming me down, and I looked up at him. “You don’t need to do this.”

I frowned, annoyed at his condescending tone, and took another step, and then another, in his direction. With a victorious feeling I finally sat down in front of him, although I couldn’t stop shaking, and smiled proudly at his expression of disbelief.

“Close enough?” I asked with a smug smile. “How did you think I managed to stitch you up?” I went on, my voice still shaky, no matter how much I tried to make it sound strong and decided. Awkwardly enough I couldn’t help noticing how his eyes looked even brighter, intimidating and intense from up close, and so I focused my attention on the task at hand. “Please stay still, now.”

I drenched a cotton pad in distilled water and leaned forward. I softly pressed my shaky hand against his skin, cleaning the dried blood, a prickling feeling coursing from the tips of my fingers up to my elbow, almost as if the air around him was charged with electricity. And yet, this was not an impossible task to accomplish, I mused with a strange feeling of happiness. He kept completely motionless all through the process, so much so that I was having difficulties noticing if he was still breathing at all.

As I cleaned his skin, the state of his injury became clearer. All that was left from the vicious gash that had cut him from side to side was the dark, irregular line formed by the stitches. No swelling, no redness, or even purple areas. His skin was as white and perfect as it had always been.

“The black lines must be first cut and then pulled carefully,” I told him, trying hard to resist the temptation of placing my hands flat on his chest. Seeing him so up close made me wonder if he was as hard and cold as he seemed. “But it’s best if I’m not the one to do it.” I pulled away under the pretext of closing the bottle of distilled water. My hands were suffering from the destructive effects of his proximity and my whole body was shaking, even though I was trying my best to keep it under control. Trying to perform such a delicate task that involved a pair of scissors and cutting so close to someone’s body was surly not the best of ideas.

“I don’t mind,” I heard him whisper and raised my head. He smiled, making me dizzy for a moment, and then closed his violet eyes, returning to that statue state of his. “I promised I won’t move an inch.”

I blinked, still dazed. I’d never been so close to him while keeping such a clear state of mind and, while that made me feel all proud and self-reassured, it also made me aware of an infinity of other small details that I’d never noticed before.

His dark eyelashes were incredibly long, casting soft bluish shadows on his perfect white skin. His thin lips could have been drawn, its contours absolutely perfect and, although he was serious now, their corners still crooked slightly upward, giving him an innate treacherous expression. The bangs of hair falling over his forehead concealed his thin, slightly arched eyebrows, and I had to concede that they were probably the point of his physiognomy that made him look so ... not Human.

“That’s not the point!” I countered, looking away from the terrible beauty of his face. He didn’t understand what I meant at all and I wished I didn’t have to explain it word by word. “I can’t stop shak ...”

“Didn’t you just say you were the one who stitched me up? So? I’m sure you’ll be able to take them off as well.” His tone was suddenly so intense that it made me unconsciously hold my breath. “I’m sorry. I promise I won’t say another word,” he added, again back to whispering, and it took me some time to pull myself back together.

When my heart went back to a fast, but constant, heartbeat, I grabbed the scissors I’d left on the table and tried my hardest to make at least that one hand stop shaking so much. As slowly as he usually moved around me, I got it closer to his skin, my hand still shaking more than it should, and held my breath as I cut the first stitch. He didn’t even flinch, keeping as still as he’d promised. I dared look up at his face, trying to see if I’d hurt him in any way, but Gabriel kept his eyes shut, his expression soft. I decided to try even harder, as if by doing so I could repay his effort and patience, and cut stitch after stitch, holding my breath every time I closed the scissors so close to his skin. He remained completely motionless the whole time, like the statue he seemed to be; even when, for more than once, my uncontrollable shaky hands made the scissors scratch him.

Once I was finished I put the scissors on the table and sat up, allowing myself to relax for a moment, although relaxing was, to begin with, pretty much impossible with him sitting like that right in front of me.

He opened his eyes, as if awaking from a brief sleep, and looked down at his white scar where dozens of small black threads stuck creepily out of his skin. With an intrigued expression, he pulled one of the sticking ends and thread slid easily.

“Pull it slowly! You’ll end up hurting yourself,” I scolded, although my voice now sounded too rough and frail to be taken seriously, and he looked at me, watching me curiously, making me blush.

“Is it that hard?” he asked, slightly disappointed, and I had to avert my gaze. Facing his violet eyes was even harder than when his eyes were black.

“Hard?”

“Bearing my presence.”

If my heart was already beating fast, it definitely jumped at that, my cheeks blushing from frustration. I really wished I could hide, or at least disguise, my stupid, unreasonable reactions from him. I was sure my obvious intolerance to his presence displeased him deeply, even though he always tried to look indifferent to it.

“The air that surrounds you is different,” I tried to describe, not wanting to give him a direct answer. “It feels heavier, almost electric.”

“Is that why it’s hard for you to breathe?”

I nodded, feeling even more awkward. As to be expected, with his keen eyesight and hearing, he could easily see through me. Right then I was even willing to bet he could hear the madness that was my heartbeat.

“My heart always beats too fast, sometimes to the point that my chest hurts,” I added, frowning. “And I can’t stop this stupid trembling all the time.” Of all the incoherent reactions I felt near him, the uncontrollable trembling and shaking were the ones I hated the most.

“Sigweardiel says you react like this because, contrary to the rest of them, even himself or Lea, you’re able to sense my true self, regardless if I’m Sealing it or not. As it seems, everyone else can only see what I choose to show them.”

“Does that mean you’re never yourself?” I asked, daring to take a peek at his face, and his expression became somewhat distant.

“The few times that happened there wasn’t much left around me afterwards. Certainly not anything living.”

“Don’t you ever get tired? Constantly limiting and locking yourself up like that?” He shrugged.

“I’ve been doing it since I can remember. To me it’s as natural as breathing.”

“I guess it’s kind of the same with me,” I said and he slightly tilted his head, looking intrigued. “That automatic reaction thing. True that, in the beginning, standing close to you was really hard and exhausting. But then, contrary to what it may look like, now it’s not that hard anymore. A bit tiring, yes. But that’s only because of my own reactions. This constant shaking can even make my muscles ache at times. If all this is a reaction to your true self, then ... I guess you must be truly terrifying. And yet, contrary to what it may look like, I’m not afraid at all. Sure I can look like I’m scared to death at times, and sometimes, when my brain stops working properly and I can’t think straight, that feeling really does take over me. But that’s only because I’m not myself when that happens, and all that’s left is this bundle of chaotic emotions that don’t even have a reason to be. But as soon as I’m able to think straight again, as soon as I’m me again, just like now, I’m not afraid at all.” The intensity with which his violet eyes stared at me made me blush. I didn’t really know why I’d gone to the trouble of explaining all that, but I was kind of glad that I did.

“Does that mean ... you’re not afraid of me?” The disbelief that marked his tone of voice left a smile on my lips. Sometimes it was really like I was speaking with Lea, not with the terrifying Gabriel sitting in front of me.

“I guess that if you don’t count our first meeting, you never really gave any reasons why I should fear you.”

“But you know what I’m capable of.”

I squeezed my hands together as they suddenly started shaking even more. “Yes.”

“And yet ...”

“Alexander says I’m not really normal. I guess that’s due to the fact that I’m apparently able to accept all too well the presence of beings like all of you. Although, in my opinion, I reacted badly enough as it is, until I was finally able to accept that there wasn’t much I could do to change the circumstances I got myself into.” I pointed at the tweezers on the table. “Use that to pull the pieces of thread.” He looked at the tweezers for a moment before grabbing them, his movements ever so slow. “Always outward. And do it slowly!” I added as he quickly pulled three pieces in a blink of an eye.

“It doesn’t hurt at all. Tomorrow there won’t be even a mark,” he proudly stated and I sighed, defeated by his unmovable certainty. “Even so, two days. Who would have thought that it would take me this long to heal a little scratch like this?” I had to blink twice, completely stunned by the notion he had about the injury that had almost cost him his life.

“All because someone was stupid enough to go into battle and leave half his powers Sealed inside some miserable Magic Circle!” Another voice critically pointed out and I turned towards the door to see Alexander standing there, a deep frown marking his forehead.

“Eh! You’re always exaggerating!” Gabriel grunted, apparently in such a good mood he didn’t even bother to get angry at what he’d just heard. Alexander stepped in closer and looked critically at his scar.

“I wish it would leave a deep, red mark so you would always remember just how stupid you really were!” he went on, still angry, and I couldn’t help smile. In truth his bad mood only went to show just how worried he’d been. I wondered if Gabriel had also noticed it. “Mari, before ... I’m sorry,” he added, his tone suddenly lower, filled with shame and guilt, even though I was the guilty one, since I’d so unfairly judged him.

“It’s fine. How’s he doing?”

“He’s sleeping. He probably won’t wake up till tomorrow.” I nodded and Alexander turned back to Gabriel, who kept pulling dark threads out of his chest. “I’m replacing the cat.” He didn’t even wait for an answer, disappearing in a shower of soft black feathers.

“Is Lea on watch?” I asked and Gabriel nodded, seeming too focused on what he was doing. “Because of the Deiwos that escaped you?”

“Yes. But you have nothing to worry about. We won’t be staying long, and he’s sure to follow us when we leave.”

Suddenly the world around me became incredibly silent. I was sure I hadn’t heard it right and my mind immediately explained that fact with how soft his voice had sounded.

If they left again I’d be all alone, just like before, and my life would go back to that succession of gray, meaningless days it had been. With a shiver I recalled my last few weeks, where nothing seemed right and where something was always missing. I’d forgotten all that the minute they’d returned, bringing with them that mysterious glow that had brought me back to life. And now he was telling me that they were leaving again, soon, and that I’d have to go back to my previous state of a living shadow, empty inside, showing to the outside world all that, in reality, I didn’t have.

I felt lost, and angry, and the only distinct thing that filled me was an inexplicable pain.

“You’re ... leaving?” I repeated, fearing his confirmation, and he nodded, reopening the dark whole inside my chest that I’d almost forgotten about.

“It was never my intention to return.”

“And you were going to disappear? Just like that?” I accused, my voice escalating almost to the point of hysteria, and his hand froze, the tweezers he held about to catch hold of another piece of thread. I watched as he slowly raised his head to look at me, and only then was aware of the burning anger eating at me, making my face red hot. I looked away, escaping his intent gaze, the way he looked almost surprised before my sudden explosion, and wished I could simply run away from that place.

“That was also not my intention ... not in the beginning at least,” he added and I made myself keep my mouth shut, knowing that if I didn’t I’d only end up spouting more unjustified accusations. Right then I felt childishly wronged and left behind, as if all the emotions I’d tried to subdue since they’d left had suddenly returned to claim their right to express themselves. “However, as time went by, I was able to think more clearly about everything. And, after our last talk, I concluded that the only way I can get what I really want is by keeping away from you.”

I looked at him in outrage and frowned deeply annoyed at his nonchalant expression.

“And what’s that exactly?” I asked, the sarcasm deep in my voice, and he had the audacity of smiling.

”Quite simple, really. First, that our Contract won’t be fulfilled so that, somehow, even from far away, I can be a part of your life. And second, that you may smile more often and that you won’t be constantly dragged to a world where you don’t belong, and where I do not wish you to belong.” I could hardly contain myself. I cringed and felt as my cheeks took on a much deeper red. And yet, the pain that ran amok in my chest almost felt like he’d just stabbed me.

“How can you be so selfish … and only think of what you want?” I muttered in between clenched teeth, the sadness leaving a bitter taste in my mouth, but, as usual, no tears to talk about.

He looked even more baffled and then a deep frown marked his white, perfect brow.

“But I did think! I thought of what you want! Didn’t you want to get rid of me? To go back to your normal life as it was before?” he asked, looking confused and angry. But his inability to understand me only went to enrage me even further.

“You really are ... an idiot! Life as it was before?” I repeated ironically. “Just look at me! You really think nothing has changed? That I’m still the same?!” I hid my face between my hands, elbows on my knees, and took a deep breath, trying to pull myself together, knowing that if I kept going down that path I’d end up losing myself somewhere on the way, and tried to calm down. “Why do I even bother,” I murmured, suddenly feeling all too tired. Trying to communicate with him was always a battle, and one that I always ended up losing.

We were both silent for a moment and, when he spoke again, his voice was so gentle and soft that it almost hurt.

“Tell me. What are you thinking?”

“That all my efforts are for nothing. That no matter how much I try, I’ll probably never be able to understand you. That in truth I’d very much like to cry.” I sighed and raised my head, accepting defeat and the emptiness that came with it. “It doesn’t matter. Do as you please. In the end, that’s how things have always been.”

I stood up, avoiding having to face him again, and forced my shaky legs to obey me and take me away from there, away from him. I would have run if I wasn’t so afraid to stumble and fall. I climbed the stairs up to my room, holding on to the handrail with too much strength as I tried to keep my ribs from hurting, and was finally back to my small sanctuary.

I sat on my bed and blinked my nonexistent tears away. The lump in my throat and the pain brought about by his words still lingered, making me sad and angry at myself at the same time. I’d fought so hard to keep what I was intact but had ended up allowing him to take too much space inside of me; space that, once he was gone, would remain empty and aching. And I couldn’t even scream that I’d been betrayed, although it certainly felt like it. After all, I’d always known he’d end up disappearing without a warning. He’d come to revolutionize my world and, now that my world had gotten used to his chaos, he was going to disappear, probably forever.

“Mariane.” The jump I gave made me wince in pain.

“I’ve told you not to call me like that!” I scolded him, anger still bright red inside my chest, and I looked up at him. He was standing by the door as if some invisible boundary prevented him from entering. I noticed he’d put on a shirt, although he hadn’t taken the time to button it, the black lines he still hadn’t gone around to pulling sticking out of his chest, heavily contrasting with his white skin. His perfect face, usually indifferent, looked worried and somewhat sad and, annoyingly, I noted that that realization was enough to placate my fury. I wasn’t used to be able to so easily read emotions on his face. The only moments when that had happened Lea had always been close by.

“Explain,” he finally told me, or commanded me, and, as I stared blankly at him, he averted his gaze. He seemed agitated, not at ease at all, his gaze running all around the room as if it were the first time he saw it, and the words got caught in his throat. “I also want to understand. But I’m sure I’ll only be able to ... if you explain it to me. And maybe there might be things you’d rather not talk about. But if you don’t, I’ll never be able to understand them because my mind works differently than yours, and right now I can’t really tell what you’re thinking. So, if you can explain ...” He left it hanging. I was beyond stunned. I was frighteningly aware that, in the last few weeks, something in me had changed. But realizing that something had changed in him as well was even scarier.

“Explain?” I muttered and he folded his arms, avoiding looking at me in a clearly defensive posture.

Explain what? How? Where to start? And how could I possibly explain things that I couldn’t even begin to understand? No matter how many times I turned things in my mind, I always ended up even more messed up than when I’d started. In that moment, the only clear, objective thing for me was how I felt, and yet most times my feelings were contradictory. The idea of exposing them before him, just like that, terrified me even more than his immeasurable presence. My mind still kept that old alert in place — he was not Human! And exposing my weaknesses just like that could be all too dangerous.

And yet, although I’d just told him to do as he pleased, the mere idea of him leaving again was enough to break me to pieces. I squeezed my hands together and the only coherent thought in my mind was what could I possibly do to make him stay?

Suddenly I recalled what Lea had told me, and my heart jumped back to life, holding tight to that small hope. And so I straightened my back, turning to face him, although he was still avoiding me, and took a deep breath.

“I do not wish you to leave again!” I stated as clearly as possible, my voice for once unwavering, and yet, saying it out loud, was even harder than I’d imagined it. Almost as if to say those few, brief words, I had to break little pieces of myself.

His body was immediately tense, as if I’d just punched him out of nowhere, and his incredulous gaze fell over me. Still I didn’t allow it to intimidate me, or scare me, like it normally did. “I wish you to stay in this house!”

“What are you saying?” he whispered under his breath, frowning angrily, and I dug my nails in the back of my hand to make sure I wouldn’t hesitate, not even for a second.

“I wish you to stay in this house!”

“Mariane!” I cringed at his angry tone, shuddering at the sound of my name in his voice, but immediately sat upright again, making sure I kept facing him. My heart was beating painfully fast now, my stomach tied into a huge knot, but I’d never been surer of anything else in my entire life.

“You can raise your voice all you want. You can even make use of the power you have over my name,” I told him as calmly as possible, although absolute chaos reigned inside my head. “My wish will not change.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying!” he countered furiously, his eyes now gleaming. “You have no idea of how much I tortured myself over this! Of how much I thought this over and over! Until I was finally able to accept the idea of setting you free! And now you want me to stay?”

“Yes. That’s what I wish.”

He unfolded his arms and a cold, dangerous smile took over his face, distorting it into a cruel expression that sent shivers throughout my entire body. The air around me trembled, or was it the floor? The sound of a loud screech made me cover my ears with both hands and I closed my eyes trying to keep my emotions under control. The terror that washed over me left me breathless and all I wanted was to scream and run away. And so I bent over my own legs, making sure I’d stay put, no matter the cost.

A rough hand grabbed me by my hair, pulling my head up and backwards, and I gasped for air when I should be screaming in pain.

“Are you forgetting who I am?” His cold, icy tone reminded me of the first night I’d seen him, but, strangely enough, something deep inside me remained untouched, like a lake of calm, still waters in the center of a stormy, uncontrolled sea.

I opened my eyes to look at him, his face so close to mine that I could feel his warm breath on my skin, and I couldn’t help smile, although even my lips were trembling. Even though he wore this cruel, furious expression, his eyes were still violet, not a gleam of red in them.

“So silly,” I muttered, my voice almost inaudible due to the lack of air that made my chest burn. “Kill me then.”

As I expected those simple words were enough to defeat him. His hand lost its strength and ended up releasing me. I watched as he stepped back, and then some more, until he was against the wall on the other side of my bedroom, almost as if he wished to run away from me. I could clearly feel it as he controlled his own presence. It seemed like he was shutting it up bit by bit inside of him, until the air around us became breathable again and my tremors started to fade.

“Why?” His rough voice sounded as broken as mine, and I ran a still shaky hand over my face, feeling too tired but definitely unwilling to let him have his way.

Gaalgha ... Isn’t that what you call us?”

“The Merifri call you that,” he corrected.

“So, Alexander explained that we do not feel the same way other Humans do, but, at the time, I couldn’t really understand what he meant,” I confessed. “When things change slowly, a bit every day, we tend to lose sight of how things used to be in the beginning. I always thought I was the same as everyone else ... a bit different, maybe, but a difference on the same level as all other differences that distinguish people from one another. Sure, the world around me was kind of grayish, but that was the normal world as far as I was concerned, and so I knew perfectly well how to deal with it. But then you came along. Now that I look back, I guess what I really feared right from the start wasn’t really you, but the inevitable change your existence would imply. I fought as hard as I could against it, constantly trying to find ways to stop myself from changing, trying to find some measure of support on the outside world, something that would always remind me of who Mariane was. But you, your every single action seemed to be aimed directly against it. You made me change my clothes, my family, my friends, even my own personality, and no matter how many times I told myself that all these were temporary things, that it would all end one day, the truth is that I couldn’t stop myself from getting used to all these changes.

“I suppose that it’s in our nature, this ability to adapt,” I continued as he listened attentively. “And that wouldn’t even have been all that bad, right? I mean, if I could adapt to your presence, it seems only natural that I should be able to readapt once you were gone. What I didn’t know was just how much I’m really not like everyone else. Feeling things differently? That’s the understatement of the year! And either I’m really a freak or not even Alexander knows all that much about us. In truth I just can’t feel anything at all, like, nothing. All my emotions and normal, daily reactions are more learned than anything else. I smile because I’m supposed to. Laugh or look sad because that’s what others expect me to do. Alexander says my Soul works independently from my heart, that that’s why she feels things differently and why, unlike everyone else, she wins over my other Human emotions. But, in my case, I really think there’s nothing else inside me. My Human emotions don’t exist, except ...” I hesitated and looked away, frustrated with how awkward and embarrassing it all sounded, but went on. “Feelings like rage, anger, sadness, fear, curiosity ... happiness. The only moments I was able to truly feel these things were during the days you were a part of my life,” I confessed, annoyed at my own embarrassment as I was sure my face was getting redder again. “I never noticed any of this before because I’d never realized just how ... empty I really am. But, after you left, and although in beginning I did feel relieved, as time went by all I could really see was just how ... fake I am. It was as if I didn’t really exist, as if I were no more than a shadow.”

I squeezed my hands together, torturing my own fingers to keep the nervousness at bay. I was too aware that what I’d just told him could cause irreparable damage to my own being but, in the face of the idea that he might leave again, just like that, I was all but willing to take the risk.

“How can you say something like this?” he asked and his soft tone was like a balm for the wounds I’d just exposed. “What about Michael? You loved him way before I came into your life,” he reminded me, but the bitterness in his voice didn’t go unnoticed.

“Michael. Yes, he was always the exception,” I confirmed, “He was the light in my gray world. Just from looking at him, even from far away, my dull life gained new meaning every day. I know it sounds ... ridiculous, saying it like this. But that’s how I felt. And yet, even that seems to have changed. I also thought that, even if you were gone, even if I couldn’t feel anything else, Michael alone would always be my light. But as time went by, not even that was left. And knowing that I can only give him empty smiles, it’s terrible! Almost unbearable!”

“You don’t love him anymore?”

I raised my head and faced his intense gaze. I hesitated for a moment, between truth and lie, and even though I knew he would rather hear the lie, I decided to be as honest as possible.

“I do. I do love him, and now that you’re back I’m more certain of that than ever,” I replied and he frowned again. I could easily see the effort it took him to keep his emotions under control and a cold, sarcastic smile tore at his perfect lips.

“So, you’re telling me that my presence here increases the feelings you have for him?” he asked and, as I didn’t reply, his cold laughter filled the air, sending shivers down my spine. “Just perfect.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Is that a question?”

“No,” I answered and we were both silent for a while. “Are you angry?”

“Angry? I can’t allow myself to feel such things. I do not wish your life to be over just yet, and that alone requires my every single drop of self-control.”

“How so?” I asked, hoping to extend a bit more our conversation, trying to somehow ease, even if just a bit, the heavy atmosphere that had remained, and he sighed.

“The smallest loss of control can be very bad for something as frail as you,” he told me and, before my expression of disbelief, looked around as if searching for something.

I watched as he crossed the room with gracious movements and slow, calculated steps. He went to my desk and grabbed the metallic cup where I kept a numerous amount of pens and pencils, emptying it on the table. Then he turned back to me, the cup between his open hands, and easily joined them, as if there were no cup at all, the screeching sound of folding, creasing metal filling the room. It didn’t even take him a second and my cup was a thin metallic foil.

“Impressed?” he asked, sounding amused, and only then I noticed that I’d been gaping at him.

“Yes ... and no. It’s something that I could have easily imagined, but seeing it like this has a different impact,” I admitted and, noticing how my hands had started shaking again, he went back to his place, leaning against the wall opposite to where I sat.

“Last time, when we were attacked by that Mazzikin and I held you, I couldn’t think about anything else. If I was holding you too tightly, if I’d end up unwillingly breaking your bones. Feeling them under my hands and knowing how frail they are is ... disturbing.”

I raised a hand, watching it closely, and frown displeased with what his concept implied.

“I'm not that frail!” I countered and he smiled, lifting just the corner of his mouth with a mocking expression.

“That depends on the point of view.”

I thought it better to leave it at that. I’d never had such an easy, and yet so sincere, talk with him. If it weren’t for small details, like the distance we had to keep from each other, I could have easily marked these moments as common.

“Can I ask a question?” I asked and he folded his arms.

“And since when do you ask permission for that?” he replied ironically and I couldn’t help smile.

“I remembered that questions used to annoy you and leave you in an impossibly bad mood,” I mocked and he sighed.

“Just ask!”

“Before you left, and even just now, you said you wanted me to smile. Why?” He looked away and stood up straight.

“I better go and see what’s keeping Lea,” he said with an expression that told me our conversation was over, and I jumped to my feet when he took the first step towards the door.

“Don’t you dare!” I commanded fiercely, and he looked back at me with an incredulous expression. “You’re running away because the subject doesn’t please you? I was completely honest with you because I recognized that, just like you said, this is the only way we can understand each other! I need to know.”

“There’s nothing to know!” he harshly cut me off and I knew my cheeks were blushing again.

“I’m not the only one who’s changed! You have also changed!”

“You’re wrong! It’s only the fact that you no longer fear me like you did in the beginning that makes you see it like that! Someone like me, who has lived all I have lived, doesn’t change anymore!”

“Is that what you want to believe?” I asked and he stared at me, angry again. “Or is that what you want me to believe? Izrail ...” I whispered the name for the first time, feeling just how heavy it sounded in my voice, and he took a hand to his face seeming suddenly too tired.

“Don’t call me that,” he muttered and I couldn’t help smile, happy that I’d found a weapon with the same kind of power that my name, in his voice, held over me.

“If you stop calling me my name,” I immediately negotiated, and he looked at me from between his long pale fingers.

“I don’t mind you using my other name. Just not that one,” he told me and it was my turn to fold my arms critically.

“And since when is Gabriel your name? Every time I have to say it out loud it gives me the creeps at how fake it sounds!” I stated and he seemed indignant.

“Ah, but you don’t seem to have any problems at all with Alexander!” he blurted out and I gaped at him again, ending up laughing, which seemed to confuse him. “What?”

“Nothing ... nothing, really. It’s just that, when you say what you really think you’re kind of funny.”

“Funny?” He looked like he was wrestling against the concept and I just nodded. “In any way, when I said my other name, I didn’t mean the Human name I’ve adopted,” he clarified and only then I understood he was referring to his real name, the name I supposedly had used to evoke him.

“I ... don’t know your name,” I confessed, kind of embarrassed, as if it were my duty to know it. “How could I possibly identify it in all those strange words?” I said in my own defense and he seemed amused with my pout.

“I know,” he admitted. “Actually, no one knows my real name. Besides me, the only one who knew it was the one who gave it to me, and she ceased to exist a few seconds after I was born.”

“Your mother,” I concluded with a solemn tone and he shrugged as if that could clear away the implicit weight of my tone.

“My breeder, yes,” he corrected. “Only that name has the power to evoke me and, in a certain way, to control my power. Or it should, if I weren’t so strong,” he added again with that unbearable smug expression, and I ignored his prepotent statement.

“If she died a little after you were born, and no one else knows it, how can you remember it?”

“No Shedim forgets his name after hearing it once.”

“And the other names?”

“They were given to me by others. Izrail, for example, was given to me by leader of our clan, the first time he laid eyes on me. It means Angel of Death and that’s why, somehow, I don’t like hearing it in your voice.”

I was really tempted to tease him again. But his embarrassed expression was just too endearing. That really sounded like something important to him.

“And then? What should I call you?” I asked, deciding to omit the fact that I already knew two more of his seven names, and thought that he’d probably answer Skylar, the name Alexander had told me the Ruhim had given him. When he finally faced me again, his expression was serious and intimidating, making my heart beat uncontrollably faster.

“Nyx.“ The word seemed to echo in my ears, his violet gaze piercing through me, leaving my mind completely blank. “Although I’d much rather if you didn’t use it in front of others,” he added, almost hesitantly. I couldn’t help notice the insecurity his whole being emanated. I was completely absorbed by his every discrete, almost imperceptible moves, the way his lips pressed nervously together, or the way his fingers lightly moved in an unconscious tic. Those were all expressions I’d never thought he’d be able to show, mirrors of feelings I’d never thought he’d be able to feel.

“Is that your real name?” I finally asked and he half-smiled.

“Part of it.”

“Nyx.” I tried saying it and he took in a deep breath, almost as if there was some kind of pleasant scent around him. “What does it mean?”

“Night.”

Yes, it fitted him perfectly, either being his long black hair or his usual coldness and indifference.

“So?” I insisted, going back to our previous subject that he had so adeptly averted. “You owe me an answer.” He looked away once more, but nodded, as if he’d reached a decision.

“Agreed, then. We’ll talk like this from now on.”

“Like this?”

“Honestly, without escapes.” I nodded, agreeing, half afraid of what it would mean when my turn came. “Your notion of me is completely wrong.”

“How so?”

“You see me as someone in absolute control of this situation. Someone above you. Someone that, somehow, commands the direction in which things and events around you progress, right?” I didn’t answer. A few days ago I’d agree in a heartbeat. But now, as his inexpressive face showed more expressions every day, I wasn’t all that sure anymore. “As it seems, things aren’t at all that simple. I also thought they would be, but in truth everything’s much more complicated than that.” I waited for an explanation until I understood that, if I didn’t ask for one, he’d leave it at that.

“I don’t understand,” I confessed and he nodded again, as if he needed to give himself permission to talk about it.

“Your doubts, your uncertainties, your frustrations, all that, I feel them as well. In all my years of existence I’d never sealed a Contract with a Human Being, and the idea I had about what that implied is completely different from what it really means. I don’t know if it’s because you’re different, or if it’s because I’m ... inexperienced in all this. The truth is that nothing goes as planned! There are too many things I don’t understand and, annoyingly enough, not only about you, but about myself as well. Although it’s true I’d never sealed a Contract with a Human, it’s not like I’ve never established contact with your kind. But your existence just won’t fit in anything I knew from before. When I think you’re about to break, you show up the next day with a smile on your face. When I think you’re about to despair, you scream and get angry at me. When I think I’ve defeated you, you go around and make the craziest demands. It’s been like this from the beginning. And I never know what to expect, what to do or say, or how to do it. Before I could realize it, I was already paying too much attention to everything you do, trying to understand what’s going through your mind, or trying to foresee what would happen next. I’m used to being able to hear the thoughts of those around me in such situations as this, but, like many of my other powers, it seems that gift has remained Sealed in your Magic Circle, which only goes to make everything much more frustrating!”

I recalled that, just a while ago, Alexander had also said something like that, regarding his powers, and decided to not let it go.

“Magic Circle? The one I created for that spell?”

He nodded and stared at the floor as if he could see it.

“Because you didn’t finish the ritual, nor did you undo the Circle. So it remains active, Sealing inside it some of my powers,” he explained and my brain was once again rushing at the speed of light to fit these new pieces.

“Is that why you can’t leave this house?” I asked and he shrugged.

“It’s not that I can’t. It’s just inconvenient.”

“Your healing ability?” He nodded a confirmation and I immediately understood Alexander’s anger. “Reading thoughts as well?” He nodded again and I shuddered. He already held so much power. To think that it still wasn’t his whole power was frightening. “What else?”

“Controlling the thoughts, actions and emotions of others, and some other minor gifts,” he answered and I recalled he’d already hinted at that, when we’d first sealed our Contract. At the time, he’d told me he wasn’t able to control Michael’s emotions. I would never have guessed that he really had that ability.

“So that means that part of ... your being is still Sealed?”

“I guess you can put it like that.”

I thought about it for a moment and the image of him, dead-like lying on that couch, covered in blood, made me feel sick.

“How do I release it?” I immediately asked, urgency suddenly hammering against my chest, and his eyes widened as he stared at me incredulously.

“You want to release the rest of my power?” he asked and his laughter filled the room. He took a a hand tohis forehead as if I’d just said something completely insane. “How is this even possible?”

“Why? What?” I frowned. His ironic tone had the ability to really irk me.

“Who, in his right mind or with a minimal amount of common sense, would want to make his enemy even stronger than he already is?” he retorted, his violet eyes glowing with a silent threat as if that could reinforce his words.

“Because you’re at war! And I don’t want you to get hurt like that again! They’ll end up killing you!” I blurted it out in my defense and he ran his hand across his hair in such a seductive movement that I had to look away. He could be worse than a serpent and I often felt like a defenseless small bird caught in his allure.

“I guess it didn’t occur to you that that’s exactly what you should be wishing for. If that really were to happen, you’d be free from this Contract and, of course, free from my unworldly presence as well.”

“And I guess it didn’t occur to you that I do not wish to get rid of you!” I replied in the same exact tone , and we were silent again ... until he sighed.

“And that’s precisely what I was talking about,” he grumbled, but there was a soft smile on his face. “Your existence, in its unpredictability, is extremely attractive, to the point of making me want to stay just to enjoy your presence. Near you, my long, boring existence is much more interesting.”

I smiled with an almost childish happiness and took a deep breath.

“There’s no problem then.”

“Oh, but there is,” he countered immediately, and his expression became serious again, almost dark. “There’s no point in me staying if my presence will end up destroying you.”

“That won’t happen,” I declared with conviction and he smiled condescendingly.

“Yes it will. Because I cannot change. My being is ever expansive and it devours all that surrounds me. Destroying is part of my nature, even if I don’t want to. It’s like asking a leopard to restrain from hunting its prey with it standing right there beside him. I’ll end up smothering you, like before, driving you insane. Or do you think that things will be any different if I stay? l won’t resist the temptation of trying to manipulate you, trying to break your will, transform you into an obedient, predictable doll, just to show you I’m stronger than your unpredictable nature. And, when that happens, you won’t be Mariane anymore. And I’d just destroyed something that I really cared about, that somehow made me feel good. I don’t want to have to feel the pain of having broken something irreplaceable.”

I was at a loss for words, my heart hammering painfully against my chest. I made my mind pass over all the possible and implicit meanings of what he’d just said, and faced him with the same self-confidence he always showed.

“And so you would rather leave because if you do, I’ll remain the Mariane you know,” I concluded and his silence was confirmation enough. “Only because you’re not here to see it! The Mariane you know only exists because you’re here!”

“And so you’re telling me to stay when I already decided that I’d leave for your own good.”

“I already told you! I’m not that frail!” I insisted, deciding not to let him out that easily. “And tell me how to release the rest of your power! Enemy or not, there’s not really much I can do against you, there never was. So more or less power doesn’t really make any difference to me, but it’s obvious that it’s important to you.”

Gabriel watched me for a moment. “True that the ability to heal kind of makes a difference and I wouldn’t mind having it back. But I do not wish to recover my other gifts. So, since I can’t just free one of them, I’d rather leave them all where they are.”

“Why? They belong to you, right? They are a part of you, right?”

“Sure. But in the situation I’m in right now, I wouldn’t be able to resist and would eventually use them. I’d end up reading your mind, and controlling the will of people like Stephanie or Michael ... and you wouldn’t like it. I wouldn’t like it either, probably. In truth, these are powers I rarely use and that normally produce more negative results than otherwise. Listening to what others think can be truly ... devastating, a thousand times worse than a small scratch like this,” he added, referring to the white scar across his chest and I could almost swear I could see a shadow lingering in his eyes. I wondered what he’d heard in the minds he had invaded.

I had no way to counter that, although I really wished I could return his healing powers to him. He smiled, noticing my inner struggle, and I ended up sighing in defeat.

“Fine. But, in return, you have to fulfill my wish,” I quickly negotiated and the sound of a small bell echoed from the stairs. Lea had finally returned and his expectant face turned towards the door. That really frustrated me! Once more he wasn’t going to give me a straight answer. “Nyx!” I called him and his gaze was immediately on me, blinking almost as if he felt dizzy at the sound of his name. “It’s what I wish ... and my request.”

Lea shot through the door, happily jumping towards him and hugged his legs. And yet he didn’t look away, his eyes still locked on mine.

“What? What is it? What happened?” Lea asked, looking from him to me and back again, and Gabriel finally placed a gentle hand over his head.

“What would you say if we were to stay here for a few more days?” he asked and Lea’s face seemed to come alive, his silver eyes even brighter.

“Really!” he asked and turned to me with a huge smile. “Really, really?” I smiled at his clear happiness and nodded. He jumped again and ran to me, and I leaned forward wanting to pick him up, but immediately gave up the second I put my arms around him. Pain shot through my ribs and I tried as hard as possible to keep it at that and not let it show on my face. I’d completely forgotten about it and scolded myself for that. I placed a kiss on his soft hair, and slowly sat on the bed, pulling his small body to my lap. Lea’s fleeting serious expression told me he’d noticed something, but as I smiled his excitement won over him again. “Yay! This is great!” He went on hugging my neck almost too tight, and I returned his hug as if he really was the child he appeared to be. I’d missed him so much!

Now that Gabriel had given in to my request, I could stop lying to myself and, with a sigh of relief, honestly accept how hard it would have been to bear their absence again.

When I looked up to thank him I was irremediably lost in his smile. His expression was, as always, impressively beautiful, but also gentle and soft, even though there was a shadow of sadness in his eyes.

I had the feeling I’d finally been able to understand his point of view. And yet I couldn’t stop thinking I was doing exactly what Steph had accused me of. I felt guilty for using him so that I could feel a bit more like everyone else. And so I decided right there and then that I’d never allow him to break me, that I’d be strong and that I wouldn’t be the cause of that pain he seemed to fear so much. That was the least I could do, the only way to repay him for his allowance. I’d show him just how determined I could be, just how much I was able to bear! I’d resist him with all my strength and I wasn’t going to let him destroy the Mariane whose presence he apparently seemed to appreciate so much.

“What took you so long?” he finally asked and Lea perked up his head to look at him.

“Nothing much. I just walked around for a bit, trying to feel any presences, but nothing.”

Gabriel nodded and I quickly tried to catch up. I didn’t want to be left out.

“Presence? From the Deiwos that escaped?” I asked and they both looked at me at the same time, which was rather intimidating.

“Yes,” Gabriel confirmed with a resigned expression. “Since when we returned I was in no condition to open a passage through the barrier, Lea had to break it down for an instant. Unfortunately, that was enough, and we were followed. This is also why I decided we should leave again, as soon as possible. If we stay you’ll never be safe,” he added and my eyes dropped to the ribbon around my wrist.

Lea stirred in my lap, as if my silence was making him restless, and I smiled, running a hand through is ever-unruly hair.

“But, with you around, there’s no way I won’t be safe, right?” I asked and Lea nodded immediately, hugging me again, obviously relieved with my answer.

“Mariane!” Gabriel’s critical tone only made me even surer of my decision.

Suddenly, from the moment I’d been able to choose a determined line of action everything had become easier. Now, all I had to do was keep myself loyal to my own choice and follow it wherever it might lead me.

“No Deiwos alive can change my decision!” I told him firmly. “And I’m not about to allow you to use this as an excuse to go back on your word!”

My tone seemed to displease him and a new crease marked his forehead as he looked towards the door.

“Fine! The decision was yours! Just be sure to keep up with the consequences!”

“Fine! You don’t need to worry! That’s exactly what I’ll do!” I replied, just as dryly, He sighed.

“Get some rest, now,” he told me, again in that soft voice, and I smiled noticing he’d ended the subject and that I’d won. I could almost laugh in pure glee. That was a first, I noted proudly. And it felt really good! His upset expression, slightly embarrassed, was just perfect.

However, my more practical, much more Human side talked louder and immediately filled my head with numerous tasks that needed to be performed before I could obey his command.

“I have to make us something to eat. Jonathan will be waking up soon. And I have to call the school. I’m ditching classes since morning, and since they know my mom is away, if I don’t give them a plausible justification, they’ll probably end up showing up at my doorstep just to know what’s going on.”

“I already called the school,” he informed me in his usual velvet murmur.

“You did?”

“Early in the morning, while you were still sleeping. I told them I was a neighbor and family friend. And that you had a cold and I was taking care of you at your mother’s request. As for the rest ...” He didn’t look at me even once, and folded his arms, back to that defensive posture of his. I’d never noticed before how he often struggled with some words and concepts. I smiled, slightly amused, while he searched for the right words. “I’ll take care of it,” he finally added and I had to try hard to contain my laughter.

“You?”

“Why? It almost sounds as if I’ve never done it before!”

And it wasn’t as if I could argue with that, I told myself, remembering the baked fish he’d made to impress my mom.

“No ... I mean, I know you’re quite capable. In fact, what can’t you do?” I teased and he walked to the door in three surprising fast steps. To me, it almost looked like he’d run, although it clearly wasn’t the case.

“So, just do as I say!” he firmly restated in that tone that was practically impossible to disobey. “Lea?”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Lea replied and only then did I notice his mischievous, amused smile.

[DISPLAY_ULTIMATE_SOCIAL_ICONS]

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