– The Path of Gimel - The Hegemone between the Pillars.
Preliminary: The Vision of the Unguided Universe.1 –
“My world was at peace, but it was cold and empty.
Now everyday there’s something new to fill that emptiness.
Without realizing it, I find myself buried and, although there’s enough air to breathe, I’m choking.
The emptiness from before was cold and lonely, but I miss its silence.
With effort, I try to regain my balance, certain that my mind
is like a trapezist, crossing an endless precipice over an invisible wire.”
When the bell rang, announcing the end of another school day, Steph almost jumped from her seat, happily trotting towards Gabriel’s desk. When I left the room they were still together, talking in low voices, in that kind of way that instinctively tells other people that they’re not allowed to butt in.
Unconsciously I grunted bitterly all the way home, rushing as fast as I could. I might as well take the advantage of having left school before him, I thought, since I still had to prepare myself for what was yet to follow.
I noticed the strange silence as soon as I opened the front door. Usually Lea would be running to greet me even before I could turn the key. And so I entered, thinking of looking for him. I didn’t have to go that far.
My footsteps froze by the living room door and I tightened the hold around my books so I wouldn’t drop them on the floor. He was already there! Calmly sitting on the armchair. If it weren’t for his terrible presence, I’d stupidly ask him how he'd gotten home ahead of me.
Lea, in his cat form, rested on his lap, but as soon as he saw me, he immediately jumped to the ground, his bell tinkling loudly while he silently crossed the room to greet me. He rubbed his small black head against my legs and I looked down at him, faking a smile when he looked up with his bright, silver eyes. And then the small cat silently walked by me, strolling out the door and towards the kitchen. I leaned backwards to watch him go and then everything was silent, as he’d simply disappeared.
I found myself unwilling to return to my initial position, which would mean having to face him, and took a deep breath, slowly turning around. I was the one who’d wanted that agreement and was sure he wouldn’t think twice before undoing it should I try to make up with any excuses.
Gabriel remained in the exact same position, sitting on the armchair, his head resting on one of his hands, watching me in silence.
“Is ... everything all right?” I managed to ask, kind of proud of that accomplishment even though my voice sounded too frail for my taste. I had the feeling I was becoming better at controlling the devastating effects his presence had on me.
“Lea, in that shape.”
“Only because like that it’s easier for him to go unnoticed in your world. There aren’t all that many Humans with silver eyes going around,” he explained, making sure he remained completely motionless.
“Can’t he change his eye color, like you do?” I asked and his perfect lips stretched to a slight smile.
“No. In Lea’s case the silver of his eyes is, let’s say, his conscience and reason. If it ever happens that you see his eye color changing, I’d advise you to run away, as fast and as far away as possible.”
I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but chose not to ask any more questions. I knew he didn’t like it when I did it, and feared he might get angry and simply leave. In any other occasion, I wouldn’t have minded it at all. Quite the contrary. But now leaving meant him going to look for Stephanie, and that I couldn’t allow!
He seemed to notice my strategy and smiled again, looking amused. With crazily slow movements, he raised his head, straightening his back, and intertwined his hands in front of his chest, which made him look even more intimidating.
“Stephanie asked me to spend the afternoon with her,” he announced and I decided not to let his words bother me. “I refused, as we agreed.”
“That makes two of us then,” I responded, squeezing the books against my chest. “I should be with Michael right about now,” I added and he smiled coldly.
“Really? And are you sure this is worth the sacrifice?” he asked, sarcasm seeping out of his words.
“You tell me. After all, by being here I may very well be delaying the fulfillment of our Contract.”
He laughed, his deep voice filling the room, and I stood pinned to the ground, not knowing if that was a good or bad sign in my situation.
“When you actually manage to say what you’re thinking you’re quite interesting,” he said, appreciatively. “So? What do you propose we do to occupy my time?”
I was speechless. Hadn’t thought about that, focusing all my energies on getting ready to face and withstand his menacing presence. In fact, I’d never been all that successful when it came to planning funny or entertaining activities for normal people, let alone what to do about demons. Those kinds of things were right down Steph’s alley.
My brain sped frantically in search of something to suggest and my gaze stopped over the book I carried in my arms, on top of my schoolbooks and notebooks.
“I’ll ... read for you,” I told him, unsure if that was such a good idea after all, and waited. Waited for him to laugh in my face or to get mad at the insignificance of my proposal. Maybe he’d think I was mocking him. But the truth was that I couldn’t think of anything else.
“Very well. I’m all ears,” he said to my surprise, even shock.
Gabriel leaned back, as if making himself more comfortable, and I stood there, not knowing what to think, much less what to do. He’d accepted it?
I looked around me as if I was seeing the room for the first time, worrying about keeping my distance, and ended up giving a single step forward so that I could sit on the floor, leaning against the wall, right beside the doorway.
“What? You’re sitting there?” he asked, peering at me curiously, and I put my stuff on the floor, holding the book with shaky hands.
“You want me to read it out loud, right? Any closer and I won’t even be able to do that,” I added dryly.
Since he didn’t seem to have any other ironic remarks to make, I opened the book to the first page and took a deep breath. The sweet scent that emanated from its new, white pages calmed me down immediately and I started reading.
It didn’t take me long to understand I’d chosen the perfect activity. Being a book-lover from birth, after the first three or four pages, I almost completely forgot his presence, diving headlong into the story. My hands stopped shaking, my heart returned to its normal rhythm and even my voice became clearer and firmer. Of course, deep down, something kept nagging at the back of my head, insisting on keeping me alert, telling me that sitting there was far from being a safe thing to do. But those were things I could easily ignore by focusing my attention on the images my mind created as I kept reading.
I’d just started on the seventh chapter when Lea’s bell cut me off, breaking the spell and dropping me back into bitter reality.
The kitten entered the room running and jumped on his lap. I saw them exchange a long look in what appeared to be some kind of communication, and he groaned when Lea jumped back to the floor.
“I’m sorry. I have to go,” he announced and I blinked, confused, unable to sort my thoughts.
“Go?” I repeated and frowned, displeased with the idea.
Now that I thought about it, who could ever guarantee me that he wouldn’t run back to Steph whenever I wasn’t looking? Even at night he could do it, I thought. After all, that was only an agreement, not a Contract. And there was no Law that could stop him from breaking it.
He smiled lightly, his almost sad expression making me feel guilty for my own thoughts, as if he could’ve read them and, somehow, felt aggrieved by their doubtful nature. I immediately scolded myself, making sure I was firmly reminded of what he was and that I had all the reasons in the world to doubt his word.
“Something came up that I have to take care of. It won’t take long,” he informed and I couldn’t help feel suspicious. “Should I be back in time for dinner?” I stared back at his calm expression that simply waited an answer, as if the question were of no consequence to him. I rapidly calculated all the possibilities. The uncertainty ate at my lately too tender stomach. His indifferent demeanor wasn’t giving me any leads about what would be a correct answer.
No, I thought. That was my answer. I could already see where that agreement of ours would lead me. There wouldn’t be a single moment left in my day when I wouldn’t have to be tormented by his presence.
“Yes,” I answered and, surprisingly enough, my reply seemed to be to his liking.
“Until then,” he simply told me and disappeared within that magical rain of small dark glitter that left the armchair sparkling for a few moments, until it all disappeared.
I took a deep breath and Lea climbed on my legs, licking my face. I laughed lightly, caressing his black fur, and my hands were immediately gray and dirty.
“Lea!” I scolded. “Where have you been again?”
The kitten bent his pointy ears back, escaping my disapproving gaze as he tried to run from my hands, but I quickly grabbed hold of him. “Bath, young man!” He meowed loudly, surprising me since I’d never heard him meow before, but not enough to make me release him. “Yes, bath! And change shapes! It’s much better when I can actually understand what you’re saying.”
His body began to glow and stretch and, just a few moments later, a small, naked boy was sitting on my lap.
“Do I have to?” he asked me pleadingly and I frowned at the grayish smudges all over his skin.
“But where have you been? I’m even doubting that one bath will be enough. You’ll probably need at least three!” I argued and he pouted, but still I wouldn’t be swayed.
Just as before I had to practically drag him to the bathtub, where I scrubbed him as good and thoroughly as it was humanly possible.
After helping him get into his pajamas and brushing his soft hair, it was my turn to take over the bathroom. When I went back to my room Lea was sprawled on my bed, flipping the pages of one of the illustrated books from my childhood.
I smiled at his satisfied expression and went to sit by him.
“This book is very interesting,” he told me, eyes alight with enthusiasm, and I had to try hard to keep my smile at the sound of that word, the same he used so often, ‘interesting.’
“If you like it that much, I’ll give it to you,” I answered and he looked up at me in disbelief.
“Sure. It’s yours,” I confirmed and Lea sat up, closing the book, and holding it tight against his chest.
“I know I shouldn’t take it, but it’s my first book!” he noted, looking conflicted, and I smiled at his child-like expression of someone who wanted something really bad, but, at the same time, wanted to be a good boy.
“It’s fine,” I assured him. “You can keep it. Stay here while I start on our dinner,” I added, standing up, and he immediately jumped to the ground, landing with silent ease, too much ease for a child his size.
“I’ll go with you.”
He followed me downstairs, still holding on to his newest acquisition, and climbed on one of the chairs, placing his treasure on the table.
I opened the fridge and realized a trip to the supermarket had to be scheduled for the nearest future. I took a box of chicken pies from the freezer and put them in the oven. Knowing he’d be back any time soon completely erased my will and ability to concentrate on cooking. Even so, I decided to make some rice to go with the pies and washed some greenies for a salad.
When I turned back I kind of expected to find Lea with his nose stuck in his new book, but he simply sat silently, watching me attentively, which made me feel as if I’d just been caught red handed.
“This new agreement, it’s not that I like it. But it also allows me to easily avoid the fulfillment of our Contract,” I clarified, taking my place at the table after setting the timer. “This doesn’t bother you?”
“Not anymore,” he calmly admitted.
“Because before there were things I still hadn’t understood, and that I now understand. Right now, for me, the most important thing is keeping Master out of trouble.” He sighed and I smiled at the idea of that child trying so hard to protect him.
“Trouble like ... that thing with Steph?” I asked and he averted his gaze, a light frown marking his smooth forehead. “I saw them together today. And I’m not going to pretend that I liked what I saw, but, well, you yourself told me that he doesn’t like being around Humans. But when I saw them together I couldn’t help wonder if, maybe, he has feelings for her.”
“He doesn’t!” he stated in a dry tone. “As far as Master is concerned, she is just one more, among all the others. I know she is your friend and all, but the only reason he’s dragging on this idiotic situation is you. Because she’s your friend. I’m sure he would completely ignore her if not for that.”
“Is he that cold? That unable to ... feel?”
“Of course not,” Lea replied, sounding almost offended. “It’s just that for us, being amongst you Humans is the same as you being amongst ... I don’t know ... a population of penguins! You know? They’re all different, but you just can’t tell where or how. And, although you know they’re all unique, they all just look the same, with a few exceptions,” he added and I stood up to take care of our salad. Was he referring to the reason why Gabriel had found me special? I didn’t want to ask. Better yet, I didn’t want to know the answer.
“Do you think that reading for him was a good idea?” I asked, changing the subject. “I couldn’t think of anything else. I still can’t. I don’t want him to get bored and use that as an excuse to go and meet her,” I confessed and Lea smiled gently.
“No, I think it turned out all right,” he said, although I was still unsure. “I’m serious. Your world is filled with things and costumes we don’t know about.”
“When you say it like that, it almost sounds like having someone read out loud for you is something amazing or something,” I commented starting to set the table.
“You just can’t imagine how,” he sighed with such a sad expression that I decided not to ask any further.
The timer rang and I turned the off oven, leaving the door half opened. The rice was also almost ready, and yet no sign of him. I sighed in relief, wishing he wouldn’t be on time to eat with us. Still, I set the table counting with him, just as agreed, even while I wished with all my strength that his place would remain empty. Sure enough, my wishes were in vain.
As soon as I turned off the stove he knocked on the door, making his presence noted. I jumped, startled, and burned myself on the pot, which made me stick my finger in my mouth while cursing under my breath. When I finally managed to gather enough courage to turn around, I noticed he remained exactly where I’d imagined him to be, standing against the door-frame, watching me in silence.
I took a deep breath, carefully taking the pot off the stove and placing it on the table. This was nothing new for me, I recalled with a self-reprimand. It wasn’t the first time I had dinner sitting at the same table as him.
“Master! Look what Mari gave me!” Lea announced, absolutely radiant as he raised his book, and his small, childish voice brought me some measure of comfort.
“Good for you, Lea,” he commended and I almost dropped the pies. I couldn’t resist taking a peak at him, knowing beforehand what I’d find. And, once more, I was completely lost in his warm, soft smile that perfectly matched his tone of voice. He only showed that expression to that child, and I felt angry at myself for allowing it to soothe the loathing and resentment I usually felt for him.
I placed the pies on the table, stealing his attention, and his smile disappeared immediately as his expression returned to that cold stone indifference.
I turned my back on him, to fetch the salad, and Gabriel took his usual place, slowly dragging his chair before sitting down. My hopes of a peaceful dinner were completely shattered and I mentally prepared myself to survive the next hour or so.
I took my place, trying to avoid unnecessary silent and awkward moments, and asked for Lea’s plate, since his arms were too small to reach the center of the table. Gabriel followed my lead and took two hot fuming pies. Lea stared at the food before him with bright eyes and, grabbing his fork and knife, ravenously dug in.
I smiled at his happiness, at his amazed, delighted expression as he took the first bite, and thanked for his presence from the bottom of my heart. Right then, that small boy with black hair and bright eyes was my real savior.
Lea was the only one who spoke during the entire dinner, sharing with enthusiasm the common, everyday things he’d seen. Like how our neighbor had walked his dog early in the morning. Or how the boy next door had fallen from his bike.
I just smiled, understanding that those little things made up his entire world. Lea rarely left the house and, when he did, he did it as a cat, not as a boy. And the world he saw through his feline eyes was the world of cats, not the Human world.
Gabriel listened attentively, sometimes asking for details between exclamations of surprise and disbelief, almost as if those insignificant things really interested him.
And so, thanks to Lea, dinner went by quicker than I’d dreaded. When we finished he stood up as slowly as he’d sat down and called Lea, taking him with him as he left. The slowness of his every move irked me once again. I hated the feeling of him granting me any favors!
I quickly tidied the kitchen and stood before the sink, trying to gather enough courage to face him yet one more time that evening. There was something I still needed to clarify, although I’d much rather run up to my room and call it a night.
Gabriel sat on the same armchair as that afternoon, holding Lea’s book with a surprisingly interested expression. I looked around the room but didn’t find the boy anywhere, which made my heart beat even more wildly; and which was plainly stupid, I frowned. It was almost as if in my mind Lea’s presence could, somehow, protect me from him. When I knew all too well that Lea would never oppose him, much less in my defense.
“Where’s Lea?” I still found myself asking, although my voice broke down half way. Now I knew I must have been insane, going there on my own, when I could have stayed safely in my room.
“He’ll be right back,” he told me, apparently too engrossed in his reading to raise his head.
In any case I might as well not waste the effort of having to stand there and get on with it, asking what I'd went there to ask, I thought.
“I have a question,” I announced, and wished he wasn’t in the mood to answer, which would give me the perfect excuse to leave earlier than expected. As always, my hopes were all in vain, and I almost forgot how to breathe when he put down the book, raising his head to face me.
“What you said yesterday, about the time limit,” I tried to sort through my chaotic, increasingly panicking thoughts. “You said it all depended on me.”
“Which means that ... if I can’t make it, this situation will be dragged on forever,” I concluded, making sure I breathed in and out at equal intervals, and he seemed to ponder for a moment.
“Until you’re able to do it? Sure.”
“But what if I could do it now! How would you fulfill your part?” I questioned and his dark eyes widened as he watched me in surprise. “It’s not like you could do it, right? At least not without having to break our Contract.”
He laughed lightly and I felt my anger start to boil. Now he was clearly making fun of me. Again! Which made me wonder if he was taking any of that seriously, or if it was all some kind of joke to him.
“What does it matter? I know you can’t do it,” he stated with such a smug grin and I couldn’t help frown.
“Why? It’s not like I’ve never done it before, right?” I asked in my defense. “That mark, on your chest!” He placed a hand over the exact place and smiled briefly.
“That’s right. Why don’t you do it again then. I give you my word, I won’t move an inch, just like before,” he challenged me, still mocking me, and I swallowed hard.
“Even if I do it, you still won’t be able to keep your part without hurting Steph!” I accused and he smiled coldly, his voice dropping to a deep, velvet murmur.
“Let me worry about that. Come ... come to me.”
I squeezed my hands into two tight balls and clenched my teeth, keeping my breathing under control. I told myself that there was no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do this! Besides the time I’d kissed his cold, soft skin, in the last few weeks I’d walked beside him more than once, close enough to fulfill his present demand.
However, just like that day near the tree where we’d sealed our Contract, my feet dragged unwilling through the wooden floor, my knees trembling. He smiled ironically as I took my first step and kept watching me, unmoving and silent. It took me a few minutes to manage to take another step forward and, by then, my heart drummed painfully against my ears, leaving me deaf and gasping for air, as if I carried a ton of leather inside my chest.
“Do you want to know the difference?” he asked, sounding disappointed, and I wanted to cry out in frustration when my foot terminally refused to take another step forward. “In all the other times, my will overpowered yours. Not completely, sure, but enough. You’ll never be able to overcome your fear of me without my help,” he stated without the shadow of a doubt and I focused all my strength and willpower on moving just one foot, but to no avail. “You must be the smartest Human Being I’ve ever known. You instinctively know what’s best for you. Unfortunately, that displeases me greatly,” he added, lowering his voice, and the air became heavier as his eyes gleamed menacingly. In a split second I quickly stepped back the two steps I’d so painstakingly managed to take, and then some more, as I made the mistake of forgetting to keep my breathing under control.
“Good night, Mariane,” I heard him wish in a tone that sounded more like a veiled threat, and all I could do was spin on my heels and run away from there as fast as I could.