– The Vision of the City of the Pyramids.
The Reception of the Master of the Temple.1 –
“If Knowledge weighs this much, carving daggers of eternal ice deep inside,
wouldn’t it be better to just remain ignorant?
And so we would live in immortal darkness, not wishing for anything that weren’t right there, within our reach;
and we would truly smile, happy with what little we would have.
Then why do we stubbornly look for answers that will only bring us pain;
answers that indisputably reaffirm just how insignificant and feeble our existence really is?”
"Welcome back,” he addressed me with a light bow of his head, and I frowned, reminding myself that I was still angry at his earlier behavior.
“What the hell was that this morning?” I demanded and my question immediately erased his smile.
“Shall we go?” He didn’t even wait for an answer before walking away and I had to run to catch up with him. “On my way here, I saw a small dinner not far from here. We’ll probably be able to get something to eat there.”
“Don’t change the subject!” I insisted.
“If you really must know, I simply didn’t like him.”
“Simply didn’t like him? Are you insane? You can’t just go around hitting people without a reason, just because you don’t like them! Besides, you don’t even know him!”
“Fine. I won’t do it again,” he replied nonchalantly, making my nerves stand on end. “Does Izrail know this Michael?”
I frowned defensively at his question. What did that have to do with anything? “Sure! Why?”
“Oh, that’s okay then. Maybe he’ll give me permission to erase him once and for all.”
I felt my heart jump in panic at the idea.
“You can’t!” I almost shouted, holding him back by his arm. “You just can’t! Besides, he’ll never allow it!” I declared as my sudden panic gave way to rational thought. “He’ll never allow you to hurt Michael!”
“Oh yeah? And why’s that? If I didn’t like him, I can only imagine what Izrail thinks of him,” he replied sarcastically, and I kept my fear at bay, holding on to my recent decision to implicitly trust Gabriel’s word.
“Gabriel knows Michael very well! We’ve spent a lot of time together,” I stated as convincingly as possible and he seemed surprised.
“The three of you?”
“Yes! Plus a few of Michael’s friends. Besides, even if you were right and he were to agree with you, he wouldn’t allow you to hurt him!”
“Because of the Contract?” he asked and his dark eyes glowed coldly. “I’m not bound by any Contract. I can do as I please.”
“But you want him to get what he wants, right? And what he wants depends on this Contract. And if you hurt Michael, then this Contract will never be fulfilled. It will end up being void, or something. I don’t think he would really appreciate that,” I argued to the best of my abilities and his elongated eyes opened wide.
“This Michael ... is he the Contract? Is he your wish?” I felt my cheeks burn and looked away. “Jesus!” he muttered with a sharp gasp and fell silent for a moment. “But now everything makes sense,” he concluded and I looked up at him inquisitively. What did? To me nothing ever made any sense at all! “Are you in love with this Michael, Mari?” I walked a bit faster, trying to avoid his prying eyes. “I see ...”
“And what’s wrong with that?” I demanded defensively.
“Nothing wrong, certainly not from your point of view,” he responded, easily keeping up with my pace. “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything against your Michael. To tell you the truth, I’m not in the habit of meddling in other people’s business. I have enough problems of my own as it is. It’s just that ... he really annoys me! And I rarely feel annoyed. Don’t judge.” He gave me a crooked smile as reply to my critical expression. “Things are not always what they seem, as you may very well find out one of these days.” His words sounded more like a threat than a promise. “Ah, look. It’s right there,” he said, enthusiastically, pointing to a small door on a yellow painted wall, and urged me towards it. I added a mental note to the already long list of questions I’d compiled during morning class. If he was offering questions, I wasn’t about to let that subject slide just like that.
We sat at a table for two in a small, almost empty establishment in spite of the hour, and a middle-aged man brought us the menu. I didn’t dwindle much over its contents, too focused on what was to come, and chose a baked fish dish garnished with some healthy greens. Incredibly, the apparently young man sitting across me ordered three full sets, all different from one another, just for him! The waiter seemed to share my thoughts as he took our order, asking us if we were expecting anyone else. Which clearly wasn’t the case, seeing that Alexander had made a point to ask for a table for two. As soon as we were alone, he reached for a piece of bread and started an intricate fight with a small pack of butter. I sighed before his bewildered expression as he stared at the small thing, and took it from his hands before it could become mush, opening it easily.
“Oh, one is always learning,” he noted pleasantly, making sure all the other packs had the same small corner unstuck to make it easier to open, and spread a generous layer of butter over his bread. “So, where were we this morning?” he asked, almost eagerly, and I wondered how come he was so willing to talk about things that Gabriel had always avoided and Lea hadn’t been allowed to discuss.
I pulled a notebook from under my pile of schoolbooks and opened it to the page where, during class, I’d compiled the many subjects I wanted to go through. He peered curiously at the white sheet, an eyebrow shooting up, and laughed.
“What? You said you’d give me answers!” I argued in my defense. “Well, I have a lot of questions!” He smiled, amused.
“I see. You know, Mari, I guess you’re kind of interesting, after all.” My hands froze over the scribbled paper. Interesting. That was the adjective he always used.
“Yes, I guess. To tell you the truth, I thought you would react much worse to our sudden appearance,” he said, referring to himself and Jonathan, and I glued my eyes on my list of questions. I had reacted badly enough, as I recalled, really bad. He himself had just saved me from the edge of yet another precipice just that morning. Hadn’t he noticed it?
“Reacting bad. By now I’m not even sure of what that means,” I finally remarked. “Besides, I’ve been living in the same house as Gabriel for more than one month. I guess I’m at the point where I no longer know how I should react anymore.”
He laughed lightly, capturing my attention. His laughter was warm and friendly, so unlike Gabriel’s cold and sneering smiles.
“Yeah, I can imagine it hasn’t been easy,” he confided. “Izrail can be difficult at times.” He sounded almost like a father talking about his misbehaved child, and I took that chance to bombard him with one of my questions.
“You said he has seven names. What are the others?” I asked and he smiled, reaching for another piece of bread. My face flushed, aware I hadn’t been subtle at all in the way I’d changed subjects, but he didn’t mention it.
“I don’t know all of them. No one does. Actually, you’re the first person I know who knows his true name, and, frustrating enough, it’s the same as if you didn’t.” He sounded as if he'd hoped I could share it with him and took a bite of his butter-coated bread. “Izrail is the name everyone uses to call him within the clan. But I also heard others calling him Erebos, Enky and Skylar. I suppose it all depends on who’s calling and what that individual sees when he looks at him. I should probably also call him Skylar, as it is.”
“All our names have meanings. And Skylar means protector.”
“Protector?” It was hard to connect such a frightening creature like him with that word.
“That’s right. I believe that’s where we more or less were before I dropped you at school this morning. The reason why I owe him such a big debt, to the point of not being able to deny him my own life, should he ask for it.” I nodded in agreement and Alexander took a deep breath, squeezing a piece of bread into a small ball between his fingers. “I gather, by our previous talk, that the cat told you about our castes?” he wondered, referring to Lea. “Well then, just shortly after I fell, becoming what you see now, I was hunted by a Se’irim.”
“The ones that were once Humans,” I wanted to confirm and he nodded.
“Yes. Se’irim can be very vicious, you see, and one of their main hobbies is hunting down recently fallen Mazzikin. Because those are very hard, very confusing moments, and also when we are at our weakest.”
I tried as hard as possible to accept all he was telling me without my usual attempts at escaping reality.
My gaze fell to his hands, still playing with that piece of bread, so close to mine that I couldn’t help watching it in wonder. He sat so close to me and yet I felt fine. If I thought about it, I could feel a slight tingling at the tips of my fingers and at the base of my neck, but nothing else. What was it with standing close to Gabriel that plunged me into such mad darkness? Although a Deiwos, like Gabriel and Lea, the air surrounding Alexander was light, even pleasant, leaving me completely at ease, maybe too at ease, since I didn’t really know him and he was, after all, still a demon.
“But why?” I asked as he seemed hesitant to go on. “Why hunt you down?” His answer was postponed by our waiter’s return. The man placed four fuming and deliciously smelling plates on the table and, once more, threw a dubious sideways glance towards Alexander, probably convinced that he’d never be able to finish all of it and that half the food would end up in the garbage.
Alexander seemed to hardly notice it, rubbing his hands together as he gladly contemplated his small feast. He looked undecided for a moment, trying to choose from where to start, and pulled one of the plates closer, grinning almost like a kid. The man, still by our table, snorted in disbelief and walked away. I, too, was having a hard time believing that someone with his appearance would be able to eat all that. On the other hand, I mentally added with a bitter grin, by now I should know better than to doubt anything, where they were concerned.
I absently picked on my fish, driving some of it into my mouth, while waiting for him to go on.
“This is without a doubt one of the best things of your world,” he commented almost dreamily, a smile stretching from side to side on his face, and I looked down at his plate.
“Tasty food with no secondary effects,” he answered and laughed at my grimace as I tried to picture what kind of secondary effects their food could possibly have. “Well, where were we? Ah, yes, you asked why they hunt us. I guess because it’s an easy and fast way to please the Shedim. They are at the top of our hierarchy. They are what you Humans would call nobility.”
“Nobility,” I repeated under my breath, unable to stop myself from feeling kind of impressed.
“They usually offer us to the Shedim as a way to guarantee future favors.”
“And what do they do with you? Slaves?” I tried to guess, already picturing some dark-age society, chains and whips included, and Alexander smiled gently.
“They eat us,” he plainly told me between two mouthfuls, and I felt the blood drain from my face, making me queasy. My ever-ready-for-some-more-escaping mind told me I probably hadn’t heard correctly. “I see that the cat didn’t tell you about this,” he calmly observed with pity in his eyes.
“Eat, but ...” I stammered and my body convulsed into a shudder as I imagined Gabriel’s figure, all white, tall and lean, devouring something so similar to a Human Being.
“Yes. But only because that’s the faster and most effective way to rapidly gain power. I guess you can see it as a way of transferring power, or stealing it would be the accurate word.” He was apparently unfazed by the gruesome implications of his words and I stared blankly at my plate. He kept eating, eagerly. I’d just lost my appetite. “I understand this may be shocking to you. But it’s really quite normal for us, even amongst the Merifri, your angels.” My shock was even greater and I stared at him gapping.
He smiled and went on. “Merifri, like Deiwos, are also divided into castes and have their own hierarchy. Of course, for ethical reasons, they do not eat each other as openly and frequently as Deiwos do. You see, Merifri live by a stronger, unchallengeable set of rules. Which, of course, also includes the when and who they are allowed to eat. Traditionally, their inferior caste, the Micaloz, that could be compared with the Ruhim since they’re also immaterial, aren’t even regarded as living beings and their only mission is to grant more power to the Merifri that, by merit, are deemed worthy of it.”
I flattened a hand across my lips, feeling sick. Ruhim was Lea’s caste. How could they do such a barbaric thing? I clearly remembered his child-like voice when he’d told me about how unhappy and limited his existence had been, before Gabriel had granted him a body. But, even then, he had been alive! He had felt things, had thoughts, had seen the world! And he had felt fear; cold, terrifying, constant fear. Now I understood why.
“Mari, you must understand that, contrary to what you Humans think, your concept of good and evil applies strictly to you,” he added. “For us, that doesn’t even make sense. Not for Merifri and certainly not for Deiwos.”
“So, they took you to him ... for him...” I courageously struggled for the right words and Alexander nodded with a smile.
“Yes. Because Izrail is very powerful, even among his caste. As it seems his mother was a Shedim of incredible power. As for his father, as customary, no one knows exactly who he is. But most believe that he is the son of the clan leader himself. Which, I might add, is probably true. No one can really believe that he’d allow any other male to plant his seed in such a high quality female. Whatever the case, Izrail has always been regarded with very high expectations. They were all hoping he’d be immensely strong, even before his birth. And, as a child, he was raised to be just that.”
“Lea told me that the Mazzikin take care of the children,” I offered fearfully, starting to understand that things weren’t at all that linear, and Alexander snorted sardonically.
“Take care. That cat can really put things pleasantly.”
My heart beat anxiously. What kind of world was that? Truly hell, I thought, my fingers tightly wrapped around my fork and knife as if to give me courage to just keep listening. And yet, if that was the truth, then it was the truth that I had searched for so long, in books and on the internet. I couldn’t run away, now that she’d found her way to me.
“Did you know that, in the beginning, Shedim were born of trees?” Alexander continued. “Much like all the fruits you know.” He had a nostalgic smile on his face, and I tried to imagine a tree, heavy with fruits that were actually beings. “Those were the ones we still call originals. The same happens with the Iaida, the Merifri’s highest caste. But the trees of the Shedim withered away, because they started reproducing between themselves. Some say it was a divine curse, since, to both Deiwos and Merifri, intercourse is forbidden.”
“Yes,” Alexander confirmed with a smile. “However, after the trees of the Shedim withered away, there was really only one way left to create a new Shedim, much the same way all the living beings of your world do it. But, as it still is forbidden, the female carrying the child never survives the birth. I believe you can easily see how this can change the way a society is structured. A female’s only purpose became conceiving a child. They are exchanged, sold and bought according to their power. A clan is considered as strong as the sum of the power of its members. And, since females inevitably die, power is measured only through males. Larger, more powerful clans can buy more powerful females to produce a new generation even more powerful, if possible. And so on.”
“And he ... was one of these children,” I muttered.
“As were all of his caste. However, and because the clan leader had high expectations about Izrail, his training was especially severe. Shedim will only develop new powers if they are stimulated in that direction. And that’s what the Mazzikin are for. As soon as they start to walk, all Shedim male children are placed in huge houses, far away in some remote place. Then Mazzikin are sent to them with only one mission at hand — to kill them.” I held my breath and stared at him, stunned. What did he mean? “Of course they start up with the weakest Mazzikin,” he clarified, as if that would make any difference. “And they all have a time line to keep, which is considered the necessary time for a child to achieve enough power to survive.”
“And if they can’t?”
“Then they die,” he calmly replied and I shuddered. “Either the child dies, or the Mazzikin dies. That’s how things work, until the surviving children are strong enough the leave the houses by their own power. In the end, to do so, they have to pass a last test, and kill the Shedim guarding their door. Only the strongest are allowed to survive. And, those that do, are then taken before the clan leader, and the Law is explained to them, and complete obedience is demanded. Since all the clans are ruled by the law of the strongest, there are many who try to take over the clan leader’s position and, the only way to do so, is by gaining yet more power. The clan leader himself has a personal army of Se’irim and Mazzikin to hunt for him. And punishments for disobedience are often being eaten by someone else.
“In my case, however, they gave me to Izrail more as a challenge,” he went on as I swallowed hard. “As it seems, even though he is as strong as everyone expected, he never showed any intentions of further increasing his power. Once freed from his training, he left the main settlement and isolated himself in some remote place. The power he wields is immense, but everyone knows that it could be even greater, should he choose to cultivate it. For this reason, Izrail has always been envied by many, and feared as a rival by most. From assassins sent in the middle of the night to treacherous requests for alliances or even direct challenges, even far from the politics and plots surrounding the ruling class, I’ve never seen him have a minute’s rest. I was given to him by the clan leader himself, in hopes he might finally start doing what someone of his stand should do. But Izrail didn’t eat me. As it seems, it was the same with that cat.”
“Lea, too? Was given to him ... for that?” I struggled. Besides being too much information for my bewildered head, the shock kept muddling my ability to think.
“Yes. But that was before me.”
“Then he ... he never ...” I stammered again and Alexander shrugged, pulling another plate in front of him. The other one was already empty, I noticed absentmindedly.
“That I don’t know. All I know is that he didn’t eat me. Quite the opposite. He allowed me to stay in that dark, empty house of his, until I regained my strength. He patiently explained to me how things worked around there. I read a lot and his library helped me a great deal, in terms of making sense of the new world I’d been thrown into. Besides that, he showed interest when I told him about Jonathan, whom I had been forced to leave behind. And, when I asked him, he helped me return here so I could come and get him. After that, when I took him with me, he protected him when I couldn’t. As I’m sure you can imagine, a living Human Being is something rather rare around there.”
I took a deep breath and tried to unknot my wrapped stomach. Alexander, on the other hand, went on happily with his lunch, completely immune to the dark theme of our conversation. It was almost as if what he told me didn’t concern him, as if it were someone else’s magic tale.
“So, that’s why ... Skylar,” I clarified. The protector. Now, there was a hard concept to grasp.
“I don’t know who first called him that. But it would seem that, over time, he spared many Ruhim, and that’s how he’s known among them.”
“Yes. Although in Lea’s case, he went to the point of giving him a body. Now, that’s something that has always spiked my interest. I’m guessing you know that Ruhim are created by the unrestrained wishes of Humans, wishes that led to negative actions and emotions.” I nodded and he went on. “Did that cat tell you about his true nature? About what kind of wishes gave way to his existence?”
“No,” I replied and he smiled softly.
“Suileabhan was completely created by other children’s wishes, hence his child-like appearance. Even in his feline shape, he’s still just a kitten.”
“What kind of wishes?” I insisted and Alexander pulled his third plate closer as I blinked in astonishment. He’d gone over his second dish even faster than his first.
“Wishes of being loved, related to the pain of having been abandoned, connected with feelings of rage, anger and vengeance. He is like the inner voice of all the children who never knew neither love nor the feeling of protection they should have had from those who were supposed to be there for them. Although he may just look like some annoying kid, Suileabhan is truly unstable and dangerous. He’s only apparently contained thanks to Izrail, who, in accepting him, answered his most inner desire, the one at the foundation of his entire being. I don’t even want to think about what would happen should Izrail refuse him or simply disappear. Better yet, I really don’t want to be anywhere near when that happens.”
I couldn’t help think that he must be exaggerating. Lea could never hurt anyone!
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” I said. “I think that ... he loves Lea very much.” I searched for the right word. I wasn’t sure that Human feelings like love could apply to someone like him, or if they were enough to describe the emotions I saw in his face, every time he looked at that child.
“Yes. And Suileabhan is eternally grateful to him and obviously adores him. But still, I can’t help think that, somehow, Izrail identifies with him. That cat was the only living creature roaming around his house when I was taken there. All the others that came, over time, no matter how grateful they were that he’d spared them, always left as soon as possible.” I smiled briefly as I recalled what Lea had told me about the dark, empty house his Master inhabited, and the reason why he’d decided to wear his golden bell.
“But he was Sealed for some time, right?” I reminded Alexander, who nodded.
“For about eighty of your years.”
“What about Lea? If it’s as you say, what happened to him during this time?”
“Izrail put him to sleep.” He saw my shocked look and laughed, clearly making fun of me. I looked away, blushing, and Alexander took a deep breath. “You’re really funny, you know? I hadn’t had this much fun in a long time.” Well, at least I wasn’t just interesting anymore, I thought critically. “I really miss these kinds of things. Only a Human Being will react like that,” he declared which only contributed to my increasing frustration. “It was the last thing he did. I suppose he knew all too well what would happen if he left that cat alone. Besides, no one could tell with certainty how long he’d be locked up in that dimension.”
“Why didn’t you release him?” I demanded, slightly accusingly. If he’d done it, I wouldn’t be in that position right now. “If you knew what happened, why didn’t you break him free?”
“Because I couldn’t. We’re never able to break Seals cast by other Deiwos. Only the one who did it could have undone it. Not even the strongest of the Shedim would have been able to set him free,” he said and the way he did it clearly pointed towards the obvious conclusion — that, somehow, I held more power than the strongest of his kind.
“But, I’m no one. I’m only Human!” I argued, by now too aware of how limited and frail Humans were when compared with them.
“Only! Contrary to what you may think, being Human is much more than being a Deiwos or a Merifri. We are mere symbols of the options you may, or may not, make. If we were to see your world as a school, we would be your teachers, offering you paths from which to choose from. You, Humans, are born into this world, live your lives and, eventually, go your own ways to other superior worlds. We belong here. We were created because you exist. And would probably cease to exist if you were completely gone. Of course, as time went by, we also ended up creating our own rules and our own ways of living, and other objectives came into light. But the fact that we’ll never leave here while you’re simply passing by, that will never change.”
“Except for those who become Se’irim,” I reminded and he brushed a hand over his dark-red bangs that had fallen over his nose.
“Yes. Se’irim and Gaal are the exception.” He smiled before my inquisitive expression and didn’t wait for my question to go on. “The same way Se’irim were once corrupted Humans, Gaal were Humans whose wishes and actions raised them to a point where their Souls are too pure to remain in the Human world. When that happens a choice is presented to them. Either become a Gaal and join the Merifri in helping and orienting other Human Beings, or reincarnate once more into the Human world for a life of service. Sometimes they are asked to live several lives of service before they can leave for other worlds.”
“Service? Like in helping others?” I asked and he nodded. “Are the Merifri the ones who decide the number of lives they have to live?”
“No. No one knows for sure how that’s decided. It just happens that, after another life of service, the Soul goes on to the next level of evolution, to somewhere where neither Merifri nor Deiwos can follow. However, before that happens, and while their Souls remain here, since they go on living as normal Human Beings, they are frequently targeted by inferior Deiwos in search of easy sources of power. Because of that, Merifri have decided to grant them their protection, so that they’re able to fulfill their missions. And so, for every Human Being that decides to remain and go through with a life of service, an Iaidon, one of the second most powerful castes of the Merifri, is chosen. And they act as that Human’s guardian,” he concluded and I couldn’t help notice the slight bitterness in his voice.
“Guardian, like in a guardian angel?” I asked, my voice falling to a whisper as I recalled what I had heard the night before. “Like the one I ... should have?” His expression was serious all of the sudden.
“I see you heard more than you should,” he grunted critically to which I raised my head, sitting as upright as I could.
“It is my house!” I pointed out. “A house you practically invaded! Not to mention the lamentable state in which you left my living room!” I answered defensively, in the same tone he’d used.
“Point taken, I guess. And, as for your living room, I’m sure Izrail will take care of that.”
“Of course he will,” I replied, but my angry facade was gone the next instant. “Am I one of these Humans? One of those that should have a Guardian?”
“You are,” he confirmed so pointedly that a shudder ran down my spine and I had to blink to make sure that I was still awake.
“But how’s that possible?” I demanded, falling back to my usual reaction, denial. “I’m no different from any other girl! I feel and think like everyone else! I have no special powers, quite the opposite. I’m usually so plain and uninteresting that no one even notices I exist. I’m too shy and have problems saying what I really think. Where can someone like this be so special? Worse,” I went on, nonstop, “how can you expect me to have some higher mission! I’m barely able to manage my own problems!”
“So, you’re saying we’re wrong,” he concluded and he was right. That made even less sense. But I still wasn’t quite ready to accept it.
“Surely, you must be!” I insisted vehemently. “I probably don’t have a Guardian because I was never supposed to have one to begin with. Maybe you just mistook me for someone else!” He smiled softly.
“We’re not mistaken, Mari. I would never be wrong about something like this. I was, after all, a Guardian for many decades.” I silenced a protest and just stared at him. And there it was again... that bitterness in his voice. “Being a Guardian implies being able to see the light of a Human Being’s Soul, and that’s a gift I still haven’t lost.” I recalled hearing him say something like that, last night, about how somehow I glowed? And my hopes of being able to deny all that madness became dimmer by the minute. “You shine so brightly that I can’t help wondering what stopped you from leaving this world. The way I see it, you shouldn’t be here anymore. Want me to prove it to you?”
Before I could answer our waiter returned. He looked with awe at Alexander’s three empty plates, and with disapproval at my almost untouched fish. He went on offering us the desert menu, from which Alexander quickly chose two types of cake, one chocolate mousse, and a piece of apple pie. The man efficiently took note of everything and went about his way, this time smiling, probably content with the money he was making at Alexander’s expense.
“Prove it,” I decided, after we were alone once more, and he smiled, almost as if he felt proud of my decision.
“You say you feel like everyone else. And maybe that’s true. You’re only Human, after all. But you can hardly express your feelings like the rest of them, or am I wrong?” I was kind of taken aback by that statement and unconsciously started chewing at the insides of my mouth. “Humans like you can only express what the Soul feels. I’m sure you’ve noticed it by now.”
“I really wouldn’t know,” I answered, again defensively, unable to avoid the feeling of getting unexpectedly slapped across the face.
He was right, I thought, mentally reviewing my life up till then. I’d always been rather odd, as emotions were concerned. I wasn’t sure about that ‘Soul’s feelings’ thing he was talking about, though. Shouldn’t feelings from the Soul be grand and magnificent? I would expect them to fill me completely or to raise me high up, making me soar amongst the clouds. I’d never felt anything even remotely like that. I usually felt half numb, aimlessly wandering through a gray world, desperately trying to mimic the right reactions, since I had no emotions to go with them. In my heart nothing really mattered, or at least nothing had really mattered until I’d met Michael. But then, as soon as he was gone from my sight, I went back to being that gray mirror, poorly trying to reflect the world outside. And that was all well. I’d been used to it by now. Used to the daily theater. Used to the emptiness. Used to always be the introverted girl, who never quite knew what to say, or when to say it, or even when to laugh. Until he’d appear in my room, turning everything upside down, filling my dull, empty, gray world with terror and fear.
“I just know that whenever I want to cry, or feel like it, I just can’t,” I told him in defeat. And yet, I had no difficulty shedding tears every time he came too close to me, even when I didn’t want them to appear. Now that I thought about it, something must be really wrong with me.
“Your tears don’t belong to your heart,” he explained. “Like your smiles, and your laughter, or angry expressions. They don’t obey your Human feelings,” he went on condescendingly, as if afraid that this subject might bother me more than all the other, much darker things he’d told me before.
“Then the tears that I did cry ...”
“Belonged to your Soul.”
The waiter returned, balancing three small plates on one arm and holding another in his hand. He cheerfully placed them on the table, wishing us a good appetite. Alexander didn’t even hesitate, voraciously attacking the closest dish - a generous piece of strawberries and cream sponge cake. It was almost as he hadn’t eaten anything at all.
My mind, however, was too engaged in other matters to ponder about that for long. According to him my heart and my Soul both existed inside me, but each one had their own feelings, probably their own wills, almost like two distinct identities. I was far from being merely odd, I thought bitterly. Still, I’d have more than enough time to mull over that later on. Now there were still questions I wanted to ask, not knowing if I’d ever have the chance to talk to him alone again.
“Let’s assume I accept that being different thing. He said my Guardian is asleep. Is that true?”
“Yes. And, as much as it displeases me, I can’t help but agree with Izrail,” he said, his voice sounding colder than usual.
“That he fell asleep by his own free will? That he just ... abandoned me?” I asked and laughed ironically. “That’s just me! After all, why shouldn’t he. What could possibly have made him stay?”
“You really shouldn’t sell yourself short, like that,” he responded, putting down his fork.
“That’s hardly the case. I mean, even if you say I’m this wonderful, powerful being, I really can’t see it. All I see are limitations, flaws, things that could really use some improvement, and a growing propensity towards madness. Who, in his right mind, would want to watch over that for an entire life? I know I wouldn’t!” Alexander pushed a small plate over to me and I stared down at the piece of chocolate caramel nut cake looking back at me. “Is this supposed to comfort me?”
“From my experience, Human Beings tend to eat sweet things when they’re feeling down, especially young girls like you,” he answered, his tone so clinical that I couldn’t help laugh. It was almost as if he’d just recited a rule from some book on how to deal with Humans.
“You really know a lot about us, unlike Gabriel or Lea,” I observed, picking up the small fork and cutting a piece from my dark-brown cake. Sure enough, the sweetness that filled my mouth erased the bitterness that covered my throat like a cloak, lifting up my mood.
“Because, unlike them, I spent many years among you. Izrail rarely leaves his dark hole. Even now, he only came here because he had to.”
“The war?” I asked, cutting another small piece of cake, and Alexander smiled, looking happy that I was enjoying his gift.
“Yes. A hundred years of war for a thousand years of leadership. That’s how it’s decided who will rule our world in the next thousand years. Nine hundred years after a Supreme Ruler is chosen the command is given for the start of the One-hundred-years War. To participate in that, and thus have a shot at being the next Supreme Ruler, all the clans send to the Human world their best and most powerful Deiwos. Izrail’s clan, which through his interference became my clan as well, is currently also the Supreme Ruler’s clan. That means that our leader is the Supreme Ruler of all, and I can guarantee you that he does not wish to give up his position. And so, Izrail and I, and many others, were sent here to battle among ourselves, until there’s only one left.”
“So, does that mean that whoever wins the war is the next, hum, Supreme Ruler?” I asked, looking for the right words and he shook his head.
“Not necessarily. It means the leader of the wining clan will be the ruler. For example, if I were to win the war, the leader of our clan would get to keep his current position. In order for me to be the Supreme Ruler, I’d first have to challenge him personally and win, of course.”
“And you’re forced to fight in this war?” I asked and he laughed, scrapping the bottom of his, now empty, chocolate mousse bowl.
“Being able to refuse means having the right to choose in the first place. And that is something we never possessed to begin with.”
“So, how long has this war been going on for?
“Ninety-six? You’ve been in our world for ninety-six years?” I asked in disbelief, eyes widening, and his silence was all the answer I needed. “Then, he was Sealed during this war,” I concluded after some mental calculations.
“Izrail’s Brothers Sealed him in order to lower the competition, since trying to kill him would be too dangerous. In any case, I guess that from his perspective you freed him too soon. I think he’d much rather stay where he was, surrounded by nothingness and darkness for a few more years, than have anything to do with this war. I, on the other hand, am eternally grateful to you for freeing him when you did. Without his help I’d have very little chances of ever surviving till the end. After all, no matter how strong a Mazzikin is, he’ll never be a Shedim.”
“Because he agreed to protect you,” I pointed out and Alexander pulled the plate with chocolate cake back to him, determined to finish what I’d started and seemed unwilling to finish.
“To tell you the truth, I knew he’d never refuse me. Izrail has a bad temper and, most of the times, I can hardly understand what he’s thinking. But in the end he’d never be able to refuse helping someone weaker than him. All that talk about agreements and exchanges was only a way to make him accept me sticking around, without having to argue with him any further, or ending up hurting his pride. Because even though he may not have any interest in this war, Izrail hates losing, and so he won’t hesitate for a second before destroying anyone who dares attack him. Besides, since he’s stuck on this piece of land, he’ll become an even easier target and he’ll need all the help he can get.”
“From what you say, he’s extremely powerful. Surely he won’t have any trouble defeating whoever comes at him,” I mused, trying to reassure myself regarding my decision to trust him with my safety, and Alexander practically stuck what was left of the cake in his mouth.
“I do not doubt his power. No one does. But believe it when I say it. We will all be much better off if we’re able to solve things without having to resort to it. That’s why his Brothers decided to Seal him. Izrail would never accept defeat and he’d end up taking the battle to its last consequences. After that, all that would probably be left around him would be a huge extension of desert land. For me, just to be able to sit here talking to you, I have to Seal most of my powers. If I didn’t my wings would appear and, even though everything else would apparently remain the same, the air around me would change, making Humans uncomfortable, feeling unsafe, even if they were somehow able to deal with the black wings part. For Izrail that’s also true, but in a way that’s almost frightening to the rest of us. He’s normally already Sealing his powers as I do, and his presence, and his energy. And, to keep up with that humanly acceptable appearance, he has to Seal himself all over again. They’re Seals, over Seals, over Seals. In a combat he has to be very careful to release only the parts of him that are strictly necessary. For that reason, directly threatening his life is far from being the smartest of options. He’d probably react according to his primal instincts of survival, the same that were drilled into him time and time again during his childhood. I fear that nothing would be left of his adversaries, but the same can be said of the nearest town or piece of land.”
I swallowed hard. I couldn’t wrap my mind around what it would really mean to wield such an immense power.
“And so you decided to stay to keep him in check,” I concluded and felt internally grateful for that. He laughed.
“He’d hate hearing you say something like that,” he joked, signaling the waiter to bring us the check.
“And even knowing how powerful he is, how dangerous he is, you still don’t fear him,” I observed with admiration. I, in contrast, almost crumbled to pieces every time he got closer than a dozen steps to where I stood.
“Oh, no. Everyone in his right mind fears him,” he denied with a smile, as if that was a worldwide accepted fact.
“But you’re still willing to stay by his side. Even last night. The way you faced him,” I countered and he averted his gaze looking disturbed.
“Yesterday was an entire different matter. I would have never challenged him like that if that stupid cat hadn’t pointed his claws at Jonathan,” he grumbled, sounding annoyed at the memory. “Since I know Suileabhan only obeys his voice, I had no other choice but to do that.”
His heavy expression opened up with a polite smile as soon as our waiter returned. To my amazement, Alexander handed him what undeniably looked like a credit card, and the man walked away happily.
“Jonathan. He’s really Human?” I asked and he smiled again.
“He is. And it’s my duty to protect him,” he declared without the shadow of a doubt.
“And you are his Guardian.”
“I was. Now I can no longer take that position.”
“But you still protect him,” I noted and couldn’t help feeling slightly depressed. While Alexander stood by Jonathan’s side, even when that wasn’t his duty any longer, my Guardian had chosen to run away to some dream world. And suddenly my mind made the connection. “So Jonathan is like me?” I asked, still not convinced.
Alexander accepted his card back, standing up to leave. Our waiter thanked him more than once for our patronage, insisting that we return soon, and I picked up my books, following him towards the door. “Is he?” I insisted when I caught up with him and he nodded, hiding his face from me as he pulled up the collar of his coat. However, I couldn’t stop smiling. Suddenly I was no longer alone. Not alone in being a freak. And not alone in being a Human who had to deal with demons and angels for breakfast. I ran a few steps to catch up again and peered up at him, excited with my new discovery. “You were his Guardian! What happened? How can you stay beside him when you’re not one anymore?” I went on,completely clueless, until his expression became surprisingly hard and cold.
“Jonathan only has one Guardian. And that’s me!” he stated dryly. “Whether I’m a Deiwos or a Merifri.”
The excitement immediately drained out of me and, for the first time, I felt intimidated near him. Could he contradict himself any more obviously? The idea I’d built about him, of someone cheerful and carefree, was suddenly, and quite effectively, completely shattered. The hard expression that had remained on his face with just that one question, after so gladly having replied to so many others, baffled me. And, above all, it clearly told me that that wasn’t a topic he wanted to discuss, and so I thought it better and let it drop.
“Mari, do you fear me?” His sudden question made me raise my head to face him. He was still serious, but his expression had grown smoother, almost pained.
I pondered carefully for a moment. I wanted to be as honest as possible with my answer. It was the least I could do to repay him all the patience he had had with me and all the things he had taught me.
“No,” I finally replied and smiled lightly at his surprised expression. “I guess, right now, I’m not afraid of any of you, although I’m quite aware that the humanly proper thing to do would be to run around screaming in terror,” I added and he half smiled at my sarcasm. “I did fear Gabriel for a long time, though. Not for what he appeared to be, because, ever since that first night, he never did anything that could make me feel that way. I feared him based on what I irrationally feel when I’m near him. It’s a kind of pure physical terror that I can’t control, dragging my mind with it. Rationally speaking, I know all too well that I have nothing to fear, that he needs me alive in order to reach his goal. But when he’s near, my mind goes completely blank. As for Lea, I guess I was never really afraid of him, even after he tried to kill me.”
Alexander's eyes widened and I couldn’t help laugh at his expression of disbelief.
“It was nothing special,” I pointed out. “Now we are practically best friends. As for you, well, maybe if you’d shown up last month, I’d probably have been very much afraid. Now, I’ve seen and heard so many things that I guess I just got used to it all. Just last Saturday we were attacked by one of your kind. Sure there was a moment, in the middle of all this, that I really thought I’d end up losing my mind. Sometimes I still feel like that, but I learned to control the down spiraling thoughts that constantly cross my mind. Since you know us so well, I’m sure you understand. It’s as you said. It’s not easy being around Gabriel and he is seriously lacking in communication skills. And Lea, Lea obeys his every word. Gabriel only told me what he decided I needed to know, which is basically limited to the terms of our Contract. But who would ever be happy with just that? And so, after many struggles, mainly against myself, and after almost going insane once or twice a week, I finally developed a way of thinking that, somehow, allows me to move forward. I guess you could call it a kind of surviving instinct.”
“And what way of thinking is that?” he asked in a tone of genuine curiosity, gently bending his head to be closer to my height, and I took a deep breath, raising my head to look forward towards the path ahead.
“Nothing special, really,” I assured. “I just decided that I’ll trust him as far as I can. Because if he wanted to kill me, he could’ve already done it more than a dozen times. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I agree with the things he does, or that I’ll do whatever he wants. To tell you the truth, up till now, the way I’ve been looking at things is almost as a chess player looking over a game board. He is my opponent, and getting my life back is my prize if I win. And that’s why ... why knowing that this is all a mere curiosity for him ...” My voice faltered and I had to take a deep breath before going on. “I just can’t help wondering what was I so intent on fighting for. If the game was rigged from the beginning, and a winner has already been chosen, then what’s the point of keep playing. I do know that my chances of winning are slim to say the least, but, even so, I was willing to go on. But if I never had any chances to begin with, then why postpone the inevitable? It will only bring more pain.”
“Mari, you’re not seeing things how they really are,” he said. I stared up at him and his gaze asked me for patience.
“It’s what you say. The way you see it,” I pointed out and noticed we were almost home. “I trust you because he trusted you. This is where my trust in him stands. Because I found out I’m not able to live if I don’t have some kind of firm base to hold on to."
“And you chose him as your base?”
“What else could I do? I didn’t have enough information to build one of my own. I couldn’t go on stumbling through my life, always lost, always afraid, unable to think or even interact with the people around me.” I frowned. I knew all too well that was my biggest weakness and I wasn’t all that pleased to have to talk about it.
“But now that I’ve told you all this ...”
“Yes. I guess now things are a bit different,” I conceded. “And although I ended up hearing things I’d probably rather not hear, I’m kind of happy with myself right now, almost proud. Looking back, I do not regret any of the choices I made, from the few moments when I was actually allowed to choose. Unless this is all another charade,” I added and stopped by my front door, looking for the keys inside my huge handbag.
“I can swear it to you, by Jonathan’s Soul, that it is not a charade!” he said with such intensity in his voice, carefully articulating each word with absolute precision, that I couldn’t help look back at him. “Maybe later you’ll end up reaching this same conclusion all by yourself. There are still many other truths you don’t know about.”