– Malkuth - The Pure Virgin. The reward of the Magister Templi.1 –
– Malkuth My selfishness is like an incandescent, sharp storm that, ruthlessly, won’t be stopped by anyone.
Once awake, this burning monster opens paths never seen before,
demanding a world of his own, a world I know that doesn’t belong to me.
Even so, the impulse that drives it forth is pure and, like such, irresistible ...
This is the true voice of my heart.”
I stretched my back, straightening the old, blue cotton tracksuit I'd put on, and followed Lea down to the kitchen. Halfway down the stairs I could already feel the delicious smell of roasted meat, which unconsciously made me speed my pace. The hunger that up till then I'd been successfully ignoring, suddenly roared in my stomach like a wild beast, leaving me mouth-watering.
With some reluctance I stopped at the door and my eyes immediately found the steamy meatloaf already on the table. It was with difficulty that I looked away from my delicious-looking late lunch to watch him as he turned off the stove, placing another pot on the table.
Lea didn't wait, happily skipping towards his usual place and, after climbing on his chair, he sat down, his back very straight, anxiously following the cook's movements.
I too, anxiously waited for him to end his culinary tasks and take his own place. Sure I felt proud of myself for overcoming my deep intolerance to his presence, but I still couldn't control the shaking every time he got a little too close. Besides that, all I had to do was take a peek at him and my heart would immediately go into a raving beat.
He pretended not to notice any of that, or how carefully I chose the farther route from him to get to my seat.
"Did you manage to get some rest?" I stared at him, surprised by the sheer fact that he had spoken, and nodded. "I just went ahead and used what I could find," he added, referring to his cooking masterpiece.
"It smells really good!" Lea offered appreciatively, staring at the meatloaf with starving eyes, and I stretched out a hand, asking for his plate like always.
"Yes, there's nothing your Master doesn't know how to do," I teased and Lea clapped when I returned him his plate now decorated with three slices of meat and a few spoons of carrot rice.
I then repeated the gesture, asking for Gabriel's plate, and couldn't help smile as his eyes widened in surprise. With some hesitation, and in his usual slow movements, he gave me his plate and anxiously waited. I served him a similar dose of what I'd given Lea and returned it to him, his plate shaking in my hand until he finally took it from me. I could almost swear I could see a brief smile on his face and being aware of that made me feel foolishly happy with myself.
For some time all that one could hear was the sound of cutlery against cutlery. The meatloaf was simply divine, the meat almost melting on my tongue, and I couldn't recall having ever eaten anything quite as delicious. We were practically finished when my mind was finally able to consider other things besides how much every forkful was utterly amazing.
"And Alexander?" I asked, feeling kind of guilty for only now noticing his absence.
"He's on watch," Lea answered half chewing, his mouth full, which only made it harder to understand what he was saying. "After lunch I'll go and change with him."
"I can go," Gabriel said and I was immediately captured by his vexed expression. The changes in his face were always faint to say the least, almost as if his skin was too smooth to allow any broad expressions. However, as time went by, I noticed I was becoming much more sensitive to those small changes. "I'm fully recovered."
"One more day, Master. It's what we agreed," Lea reminded him with a condescending tone, and he looked away almost pouting, like some thwarted, rebellious teenager.
I choked my laughter, disguising it under the pretense of drinking some water, and Lea smiled victoriously since he didn't insist any furhter.
"Hmm, can I ask a question?" I asked, remembering something that had been tumbling around my head for quite some time now, and they both looked at me at the same time, making me feel slightly awkward. "What exactly is a Medium? When Jonathan and Alexander arrived, Alexander thought I was your Medium," I recalled, and Gabriel stared down at his plate, playing with some grains of rice.
"I do not use Mediums," he stated with an unmistakable superior tone, almost as if using them was something unworthy, clearly beneath him, and I tried to look for some kind of explanation in Lea, but he didn't seem willing to participate in our conversation.
"But you said that Jonathan is Alexander's Medium," I insisted and he nodded.
"In their case it's inevitable."
"Why? What's a Medium?"
"I guess the easiest way for you to understand would be saying that he's a shield," he said, raising his head as he decided to give me an explanation. "Some Deiwos use Mediums, a part that only a Human Being can fulfill. Which means that, during combat, all the damage that a Deiwos receives will be directly transferred to his Medium. The Medium, on the other hand, should possess the ability to dissipate the damage as fast as possible, or he'll end up dead.
"When one uses a Medium, all physical injuries are automatically canceled. All the rest, like the pain from those injuries, are passed on. For example, if you were really my Medium, I wouldn't have been hurt at all. In compensation, you would have received my pain, and felt all I was supposed to feel, as well as any other psychological damage implied; everything except the actual physical damage. Normally, we are only able to actually injure a Deiwos once his Medium has been destroyed, which normally ends up happening sooner or later."
I tried to integrate the information he provided as fast as possible and nodded. I decided I wouldn't allow myself to cast any other kind of judgment and would only try and accept things how they really were. It was the least I could do, after insisting so much for him to stay, which inevitably meant my involvement in all that mess.
"I see. But Jonathan didn't die. And from what I gathered, this wasn't the first time."
"Sigweardiel says that Gaalgha ... Human Beings like Jonathan, make the best Mediums. Something to do with their ability to quickly dissipate the damage they receive. I don't really understand, but it would seem he's right. It was thanks to having Jonathan as his Medium that they were both able to survive in this war up till now. Sigweardiel may be a considerably strong Mazzikin, but he is not the strongest, not to mention how weak he is when compared with a Shedim. In any way he never showed any interest in increasing his power. So, I guess making Jonathan his Medium was their only chance. It was certainly the only Deiwos-like action I saw him take."
"Because it was the only way they could survive. Because if he dies, Jonathan will also disappear," I summed it up and he nodded in a confirmation. "I still think he should tell him the truth!" I added.
"That's something that only he can decide. It's none of my concern," he stated in what could well be described as a cold, indifferent tone, but the way he subtly lowered his gaze clearly told otherwise. In the end he wasn't at all that indifferent, at least not as much as he wanted to look.
When we finished our late lunch Lea presented me with one of those smiles that made me all warm inside and disappeared out the door, his bell jingling all the way as if he were simply about to go and play in the park.
I immediately started on the dishes before he could think of doing them himself, the idea of him wandering up and down in that small kitchen making me uneasy, and he remained seated in his place, watching me in silence.
I tried as hard as I could to just ignore the pressure of his gaze on my back and turned on the hot water.
"Are you going back to school?" I asked, trying to break through that awkward silence and, for a moment, thought he wouldn't answer.
"I think it's best if I don't. The justifications needed would be endless. Besides, my presence is no longer needed and I'd only be further interfering with your life. I do not wish to disturb your friends, and I'm certain that Stephanie wouldn't appreciate seeing me back."
My hands stopped under the scalding water at the mention of Steph's name. He'd been back for more than a day now, and I hadn't thought about her even once, not even when I'd asked him that question. I smiled ironically and rinsed the plate I was holding in my hands.
"My friends," I mused. "In the beginning they wouldn't stop asking about you to the point I didn't know what else to say. But then, now it's almost as if they all forgot that you even existed. As if the questions with which they'd bombarded me on a daily basis are no longer important."
"Yes. That's how it should be."
"Sometimes I wonder, if I were to simply disappear, just like that, if they'd also only ask for me during the first two weeks and then end up forgetting I'd ever been there."
"Is it now?" I put the plate on the dish drainer and he didn't answer. "Sometimes I get the feeling that they've already forgotten me, even though I'm right there, sitting beside them." We were silent for a moment while I washed the glasses. "But I guess you're right. Steph probably doesn't want to see you. Even though she's back with Mark, she's still not talking to me," I said and almost bit my tongue at how ironic my voice had sounded, wishing he wouldn't notice it.
"I'm sorry. That was never my intention."
"I know. It's fine either way," I responded, trying to sound nonchalant, even though my mind still blamed him; for what, exactly, I couldn't tell.
The sound of the phone ringing came at the right moment and I carefully made sure I was smiling when I turned to the door, relieved to have an excuse to leave that kitchen. I reached it in the corridor by the third ring and picked it up.
"Mari! Hey! How are you?"
Michael's worried tone immediately transformed my fake smile into a real one. His voice sounded suddenly much warmer than I could remember, and I wondered if it had been really him whom I've been listening to these last few days.
"Hi, Michael," I greeted him, genuinely happy that he'd called.
"How are you doing? Feeling any better? I heard that you were sick. Want me to go there? Need anything?"
He sounded really worried and I couldn't help feeling guilty knowing that my fake illness was the cause of it.
"I'm fine. It's just a cold. I'll be going back to school tomorrow."
"Are you sure? I should have gone there immediately after school!" he reprimanded himself, but I was inwardly grateful he hadn't. I didn't know how to explain Gabriel's return, or even the presence of the rest of them.
"I'm fine, really. My neighbor just brought me dinner and everything." I lied with ease. Feeling guilty or not, I could never allow him to even consider the idea of making me a late night visit. I heard him sigh on the other end of the line and smiled as he sounded less preoccupied.
"If you say so. But promise me you'll really be going to school tomorrow!"
"I promise. You know I don't like skipping classes," I assured him.
"I missed you." His voice echoed in the immediate silence that took over my mind. Again, his words almost sounded like a confession and my eyes were immediately on the ribbon around my wrist. I felt nothing — no burning, no pain, no strange sensations.
The air around me became heavier, harder to breath, and I turned back with a startle. Sure enough he was standing there, by the kitchen door, watching me. I was instinctively thankful for the fact that he could not read my thoughts and hoped that his hearing wouldn't be keen enough to hear what Michael was saying.
"I got so used to our talks that, without you around, I just don't know what to do during lunch breaks," Michael went on, laughing softly as if that was enough to dilute the weight of his words, and I chose to act as if his strategy had worked.
"All right, all ready! No more whining! I promise I'll loyally fulfill my part as your talk partner from now on," I joked with a fake smile while keeping an eye on Gabriel's mood, and Michael laughed.
"I'll keep you to that!"
"Be my guest," I replied, wishing I could end that phone call as soon as possible.
"All right then. See you tomorrow."
"And if you need anything, just call. At any time!" he insisted, like he'd insisted dozens of times before and, although I really appreciated his willingness to put himself at my disposal like that, all I could think of was how much I'd like to put the phone down right that instant.
"Get well soon. See you."
"Bye," I answered and put down the handset before he could say anything else. I smiled, although I didn't really feel like it, searching for some kind of reaction on his face, but he remained impassive, watching me in silence.
"It was Michael," I ended up saying awkwardly, as if he didn't know it already. "He was worried that I missed classes today."
"Michael," he repeated. I blinked, half lost, trying to erase the oppressive feeling that came over me. I just couldn't understand how a name that had always given me a warm, secure feeling, could sound so cold just because it had been said in his velvet voice. "All this time. He didn't tell you anything?"
I looked away, my face burning from embarrassment, and only then considered that I could have just pretended I didn't know what he meant, in hopes of avoiding the subject all together. Anyway, I'd already decided, right? I'd decided I wouldn't hide anything from him, that I'd be completely transparent, so that I could have the right to demand the same thing from him. And so I sighed.
"He tried," I confessed. "But since Michael doesn't have any memories from his past, he feels confused about a lot of things. Since there's nothing in his memory that can help him understand his own feelings, he just doesn't know what to call them. In his head, the boundaries between friendship and love aren't defined at all. It was easy to take advantage of his confusion to simply avoid listening to any of that. I was extremely cruel and forbade him from ever talking to me about that again. Even though I don't really know what's needed to fulfill the conditions of our Contract," I added, facing his obvious fake smile.
"Oh, that's rather simple, really. All he has to do is admit before you that he loves you, be it by words or actions," he informed me and folded his arms with a critical expression. "But who would've guessed, about to have what you so much desired and trying so hard to make sure that it doesn't come true. The price of our Contract must really displease you!"
I frowned, annoyed at his words as much as at his tone. Suddenly it was as if we'd just gone back to the beginning.
"It does displease me!" I confirmed, facing his sarcasm with my head raised high. "But contrary to what you might think, it's not the idea so much that I dislike, but the situation in itself! If I am to sleep with you, then I'd rather do it right now, knowing that it is my choice, than having to do it because I'm being forced into it! I've already told you before! If that's all you want from me, then I'm yours this instant! I'll not fight battles I cannot win. That's the same as trying to fight death," I said completely sure of my own words, and waited.
"So, what you're saying is that you'd rather choose when to die, than just wait for death to come?"
"If I'm dying on someone else's childish whim, then yes! I do! So?" I asked, keeping the offer up, and he looked away, still obviously annoyed.
"Go and get some rest. Didn't you just promise to go to school tomorrow?" I smiled at his angry expression.
"Wanna know what just crossed my mind?" He didn't answer. "That, in the end, you're much more Human than you'd like to admit, and that we're not all that different, you and me. Up till now we've never given in to one another without it implying an exchange of sorts, right? This time around, however, I made a request and you made it come true, and didn't ask for anything in return. So, I'll give you my thoughts. And I'll prove to you what I just said, that we're not that different. I guess you would have already figured that out if you had all your powers, and maybe things could have been different. But since that's not the case, this is the only way I managed to come up with. You probably won't believe half of what I tell you, but that's fine too."
"That's ... what I told you before," he whispered, his voice almost inaudible. "That you probably wouldn't believe my word, but you still did."
"Because you're the only one I can trust," I replied. "It really doesn't matter if what you say are truths or lies. To me they are all the truth that you give me. If I didn't think like that, how could I ever have accepted all that happened and all I saw? If you tell me to trust Alexander, how can I doubt that? If you tell me that there's a war out there, how can I not believe it? What does it matter if there really is one or not? This is the reality you're giving me, and so it's the reality I have to live in and, in my insignificance, accept as my own. I spent too many sleepless nights trying to question your every word, your every action, your every intention, and I almost went insane. Like this all I have to do is follow the path you show me. I'd rather do that than be completely lost."
"Even if that path leads you to your own destruction."
"Even so. I cannot escape this labyrinth and I cannot find a way out on my own. So, I can only trust your words, and be thankful that you're willing to speak at all."
"And yet, if I were to disappear, the labyrinth would disappear with me."
"And there wouldn't be anything left!" I answered immediately, my heart hurting just from considering his words. "In the end Steph was right. I'm nothing but a small, selfish girl."
"We fit each other perfectly then," he said with a slightly mocking smile. "Get some rest, Mari. Tomorrow is another day."
"And you'll be here! Right?" I wanted to make sure and he looked straight at me, his violet eyes seeming to glow amongst the shadows surrounding him, almost as if they had a light of their own.
"Yes. After all, it was to fulfill your wishes that you called me here." I smiled, relieved by his confirmation, and went up to my room.