10. ASHES TO DUST
The first ray of sunlight lit up Marianne’s face, her eyes were open and stared out the window. She had been up all night.
“You should’ve gotten some sleep,” Samael said as she barely blinked.
“They could attack at any time. I must be alert.”
“Do you think I wouldn’t warn you? My main duty is to protect you. The others should know.”
“I sent them a message last night . . . but I’m afraid they could be watching closely and by meeting the girls they could also target them.”
“They won’t, don’t worry about it. Unless they witness when you transform, all humans are the same to them.”
“ . . . Except for me, now that Ashelow knows who I am.”
She sighed and stood up, starting to circle around the room. It was Saturday, so there was no need to prepare for school. She didn’t know what to do to kill time or stop torturing herself with the idea that she’d be attacked, so the only thing she could think of was to unpack the boxes and finally clear her room. As she was emptying the second box, she heard a noise downstairs. Probably her mother, waking up early to make breakfast. She put everything aside and decided to go down and keep her company.
Her room was at the back of the second story, right next to a narrow-enclosed walkway that went up to the attic. The next room after the aisle to the attic belonged to her brother, followed by an unoccupied room that was practically used as a cellar where they kept the rest of the unclassified boxes from their moving.
Just in front of the main stairs was her mother’s room, and the door was open, but when Marianne passed by the doorway and took a look inside, she saw her mother lying in bed, face down and disheveled sheets, wearing the same clothes as the day before.
Had Loui woken up so early then? She thought it unlikely. He usually slept until noon when there was no school. Regardless, she wanted to make sure, so she returned to Loui’s room and opened it as quietly as possible. The walls were covered with posters and the floor full of boxes. And just as sloppy as their mother, the kid was lying on the bed with his airplanes pajamas on, one foot in the air and the other one folded.
Another sound from downstairs alerted her. There was someone else in the house and her warning signs went off at the thought that it could be Ashelow.
She took a quick look around the room and laid eyes on a baseball bat by the dresser. Loui had never showed any kind of interest in sports and their mother thought she might encourage him by buying material from different disciplines, which meant that the corresponding glove would be in one of the boxes, as well as all kinds of balls, tennis rackets and even a set of hockey gear, but they had all gone to the bottom of the closet since the only things that seemed to matter to him were movies, comics and videogames.
She entered, trying to make as little noise as possible, took the bat and went back out. But despite the many hours Loui used to sleep, he was also a very light sleeper, so he saw her taking his bat through the slits of his eyes.
Cautiously, Marianne walked down the stairs, clutching the handle of the bat. She wasn’t sure who it was, if there really was someone, so she couldn’t risk transforming fortuitously. At the bottom of the stairs she heard the noise coming from the kitchen again. She wondered if it could be rats —that, of course, if rats were at least three feet tall and were able to open the fridge.
She turned left and slowly crossed the dining room with quiet steps, first setting the toes and next the heels. Then she heard the sound made by the dishes being handled. Could it be some burglar? A really clean burglar, if anything.
She finally leaned on the kitchen door, which was half-open, and waited for a sign to get in. Footsteps could be heard inside and she slowly pushed the door. The fridge was open, so, after taking a deep breath, she gripped the bat and lifted it threateningly while kicking the fridge door shut.
“Who is it?” she shouted, raising her arms and wielding the bat as a sword, but stopped midair as soon as she saw a pair of emerald eyes facing her.
“Uh, oh, stop! Do you welcome your father like that?”
The man in front of her, dressed in casual clothes, looked as young as her mother. His hair was pitch black without a hint of gray, which contrasted with his immaculate light skin. Even if Marianne had her mother’s features, it was impossible to deny their kinship, especially sharing the same eyes.
“Dad!” Loui yelled, appearing at the door, and running to hug him.
Marianne stepped back and leaned against the wall. She left the bat hanging until she dropped it to the floor.
“What’s up, champ? I brought you something. I figured you’d like it,” her father said, pulling a pack of videogames from a bag.
“These are the latest ‘Zombie Crisis’ and ‘Pandemonium’! I was dying to have them! You always know what I want!” Loui said enthusiastically.
“I’m glad you like it,” he replied, looking now to Marianne and smiling while taking something else from the bag. “I also brought you something. I hope you like it.”
She took the package while trying not to look at him. She opened the box and saw it was a laptop, something she had wanted for a long time since their home pc wasn’t enough for all of them anymore, but had never openly expressed it.
“Thanks,” she managed to say while letting her eyes wander around the kitchen’s furniture.
“What’s going on? What’s with the noise?” Her mother appeared, rubbing her eyes, and stopping at the door. “Oh, it’s you, Noah.”
“Hello, Nide, how you been?” he greeted her with a warm smile.
“I’ve never felt better,” she said, trying to sound indifferent, but immediately combing her hair and settling her clothes. When she was not wearing any makeup, it took several years off her. “When you said you were coming, I thought it was another of your promises that you’d end up breaking at the last minute for something more important.”
“My family’s the most important thing to me,” he said, ruffling Loui’s hair, who was already enthralled with his new video games.
“If you say so,” she commented, raising an eyebrow and walking past him to take one of her juices from the fridge. “At least the key I left you was of use.”
“I didn’t want to wake any of you, but apparently that’s what I ended up doing.”
Marianne couldn’t wait to get out of there as she constantly glanced out the door, wondering if she could reach it before someone would stop her.
“How long are you planning to stay here?” her mother asked, leaning on the table, trying to look casual while drinking her juice.
“I was thinking of spending this weekend with the kids, if you don’t mind. I’d like to take them on a picnic or something.”
“Great! I’ll get dressed right away!” Loui burst cheerfully.
“Oh. Good. I’ll have the house all for myself then,” she said in a detached but passive-aggressive tone.
“I . . . have homework, so I can’t go either,” Marianne lied, looking for ways to withdraw from the commitment, and her father looked at her, a little disappointed, but still managed to smile.
“Well, then I guess it will be an ‘only boys’ day.”
She made a slight gesture, intending to leave upon her father’s disgruntled look, but couldn’t help feeling a twinge of guilt. That was exactly what she feared the most, facing him, because with just one glance or a smile he could make her feel guilty about bearing a grudge against him for his constant absence.
From her window, she watched them get into the car and leave. Loui was beyond excited. She remembered once when she was five, they were camping outside the city, searching for the Tokenblue Lake, with bottom stones made of an iridescent material that glistened in the moonlight, making it seem like the water was filled with aquatic lights. Loui was barely over a year old and spent the whole trip crying, but her father never lost his patience and smiled all the way. She couldn’t clearly remember the lake itself, that part was somewhat fuzzy, and she felt a shiver at the thought of it, but she did remember that after that trip they didn’t make any other one again and her father started to leave more often for long periods of time, blaming it on his job.
She shook her head, trying to banish those thoughts from her mind. There were more important things to worry about right now.
Her mother surely would spend her time cleaning the house or anything to keep her busy, and she had to meet her friends in a few hours.
She leaned back to rest a bit, but after a few minutes she found herself thinking again about the several ways she could be taken by surprise and being attacked. Disturbed by her train of thought, she got up again and, no matter what the time was, decided to get out.
Passing through the living room, she saw all the furniture against the walls while her mother went from side to side, pushing them everywhere. That was her way of venting the frustration she felt each time she saw Noah, always self-controlled and balanced, like nothing affected him or made him lose confidence.
“Where are you going? Didn’t you have homework to do?”
“Yes, it’s teamwork. I’m meeting my friends to do it.”
“Okay. Go then. I can handle it here, all by myself,” she replied reproachfully, and Marianne just rolled her eyes and headed to the front door. “Oh! Now that you’re going out, you could get me some acrylics! I’m thinking of decorating the walls a bit so they don’t look so dull and empty.” Marianne extended a hand, palm-up towards her to indicate she needed money for that purpose. “Don’t be like that! I’ll give you back the money.”
She closed her hand, returned it to her side and fled. She decided to save some time by going first to the commercial district to fulfill her mother’s request.
Enid used to paint a lot in the past, and had even sold her paintings and displayed her work in galleries, but had been uninspired for some years now, and the day she decided to leave Noah, she got rid of all the pictures she had painted. Some of her work was thrown in the garbage, other ones were given away and the ones that suffered the worst fate were the portraits she had made of him: those ended up fueling a bonfire.
Marianne’s search for the material didn’t last long. At the first art supply shop she found the kit her mother needed, and when she was headed to the coffee shop, she suddenly stopped outside the optical store she had entered once with Belgina. She still had some unfinished business left if she wanted to stop owing ‘something’ to someone.
When she finally arrived at the coffee shop, it was empty and Demian was lying in the first booth with a towel covering his face. She didn’t know if he was asleep or just resting, but he was on her favorite booth so she stopped at the table and cleared her throat. He immediately sat up, removing the towel from his face, but after seeing her, he just sat down again and rested his back against the wall, looking exhausted.
“Don’t scare me like that, I thought it was someone important,” he said, throwing his head back, and Marianne felt offended.
“Excuse me? I’m a client!”
Demian gave a slight laugh as he pointed at the front seat with his hand.
“I’m not in the mood to argue. Why don’t you sit and pretend we’re friends for a while?”
She frowned, but didn’t feel like fighting either, so she just took a seat and rested her chin on her hands.
“How is it that the place is empty? It’s a miracle.”
“We’ve just opened. It’s Saturday and people start coming later,” he replied with his eyes closed and massaging his temples.
“I thought you never got tired. You said you always had to be active.”
“I’m not tired,” he clarified, taking his hand away and opening his eyes again. “I have a headache, and maybe I’m getting the flu or something.”
“If so, keep it for Kristania and her annoying brother. Hopefully you’ll infect them and we won’t see their faces for several days. You’ll be doing a favor to mankind.”
“That’s a tempting idea,” he agreed, smiling at the suggestion, and she took the opportunity to get something out of her bag, placing it on the table and sliding it to him. “What’s that?”
“I no longer owe you anything,” she said and Demian grabbed the small package to take out the pair of glasses with new frames. “I don’t even know why you need them in the first place. I’ve never seen you wearing glasses.”
“They’re my father’s. He asked me to take them to be fixed,” he answered while checking their condition. “He dropped them when I told him about the incident.”
“‘Incident’,” Marianne repeated with emphasis, raising her eyebrows moodily to let him know how she felt about it.
“Admit it already. There was no such accident. I braked on time and you fainted. There was no dent on the car.”
“What about my neck?”
“That’s from you passing out, but the car didn’t hit you, not even a bit,” Demian insisted, and she looked ready to refute him, stiffened her hands on the table’s surface and took a breath, but deep down she knew it was true.
She was told in the hospital that her fall had made her lose consciousness in addition to the sprained neck. So, she bit her lip and opted to look out the window.
“I was surprised to learn that Lucianne is your cousin,” he added all of a sudden and she turned back to him, noticing a certain spark in his eyes that she didn’t know whether to chalk it up to nostalgia or something else.
“Well, if you’re lucky, you’re probably going to see her more often,” she said, studying his reaction.
“Is she coming today?” His eyes widened, and she smiled a bit.
“Yes, and she’s also thinking of transferring to our school,” she added with a hint of amusement.
“Really? I would love to catch up with her.” Marianne let out a brief giggle, but tried to contain herself at his confused expression. “What was that? What does that laugh mean?”
“Nothing,” she said, tightening her lips and repressing another smile.
He watched her for a few seconds until he started to understand what she meant by that, and his face turned red.
“Wait! I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’m telling you it’s not like that!”
“How can you say so if you don’t know what I’m thinking?” she retorted, placing her elbows on the table and resting her chin on her clasped hands.
Demian remained silent, aware that he had no way to counteract, so he just let out a slight growl, leaning his head back and placing the towel over his face again. Marianne took it as another small victory and turned back to the window. It was still a while for her friends to arrive, but at least the view distracted her.
And then she saw him. Across the avenue, next to the bus stop. Ashelow was dressed in a long trench coat with a hoodie over his head, staring at her. The cars passing in front of the bus stop created a gust of wind that blew his coat, though he remained unfazed. His eyes unblinking, as if he could pierce her with them.
Marianne sat up and opened her mouth, about to speak, but only managed to breathe a small voice. Right at that moment, a bus went past that point and he was gone.
“What’s going on?” Demian asked, peeking from under the towel.
“Nothing, I just . . . I thought I saw something,” she replied, trying to restore her calm and sitting down again.
Even though Ashelow hadn’t made a move, his apparition was enough to trigger her alarm signs again. It was probably a warning, or maybe he had done it just to disturb her, to show that he was watching her close and there was no escape for her.
“You look like you just saw a ghost.”
“Well, I might see the same reaction from you in 5, 4, 3 . . . ”
The door opened and Kristania came in like she owned the place, carrying several bags and scanning the area with her eyes until finding Demian attached to the first booth’s wall, trying to evade her hawk sight.
“Demian, I’m so glad to see you!” she said, while he jumped up and tried to slip away.
“I think they’re calling me from the kitchen, excuse me.”
“Where are you going? I want to show you what I brought to decorate the place. It will look a thousand times better.” She tried to show him the contents from the bags.
“What are you talking about? This place needs no decoration,” he said as she pulled centerpieces, scented candles and even Japanese lanterns from the bags before Demian’s growing exasperation. “None of that goes with the theme of the place.”
“Who cares? It will look great! By the way, I hope you’re ready because I texted everyone, and given that today is Rochelle’s birthday, I convinced everybody to celebrate here, isn’t that wonderful?”
He breathed deeply, as if mentally counting to ten to keep his temper, but Marianne knew that counting to infinity wouldn’t suffice with Kristania and her boundless pesky nature. She could even see a vein throbbing on Demian’s forehead.
“Hey, what about that burger I ordered? At least something to drink, what kind of service is this?” she interrupted, and the girl immediately turned her head at the sound of her voice, as though she were possessed.
Demian gave her a grateful gesture and hurried towards the kitchen before she could stop him.
“Look what you did! You scared him off!”
“Believe me, I wish I had that kind of power. It would be so useful,” she said, taking the box of painting supplies to distract herself from her squawking, but the source of the shrill voice sat in front of her.
“Why are you here?” she asked authoritatively.
“It’s a public place. I can come here whenever I want,” she replied without even bothering to look at her. “Now, please, clear the seat, my friends are coming.”
“Your ‘friends’,” Kristania repeated sarcastically with a smirk.
“Where should I put this?”
Now it was Mitchell who went through the door, carrying floral arrangements and more bags, but once he saw Marianne, he let go of everything and kicked his own sister out of the seat. His lime green shirt with leopard print and sunglasses with matching frames were a little too much to look at.
“What a pleasant surprise to see you here!”
“What do you think you’re doing?” his sister asked, feeling betrayed.
“Not now, I already brought what you asked for, so let me flirt at ease and don’t be a gooseberry,” he said, shooing her away without erasing that smile of his or taking his eyes off Marianne, who looked quite vexed.
Kristania made an outraged snort and walked away, carrying the bags towards the counter.
“I really don’t know who is more annoying, your sister or you,” Marianne spat with a sigh of resignation after realizing there was no way to get rid of him.
“We could discuss it at dinner . . . or at breakfast if all goes well,” he suggested, his eyebrows wiggling. Her face clenched in a grimace of disgust.
“ . . . You’re a pig.”
“I could make good bacon,” he retorted with that humorous expression that repelled her so much, but any new method of rejection would have to wait, because at that moment a crash was heard in the kitchen.
Mitchell jumped up and ran towards the source of the noise, while Marianne seemed hesitant, wondering if Ashelow had dared to attack just to force her to expose herself. She remained undecided for several seconds, looking to the swinging door, until Mitchell got out helping Demian to walk.
“Are you okay?” Kristania approached them, intending to touch him, but he pulled away and straightened as if nothing had happened.
“It’s okay. I just got dizzy.”
“You don’t look so well,” Marianne said. His face was pale and slightly sweaty. “You should go home.”
“I can’t. I’m the only one helping today,” he said, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand, and Mitchell raised his.
“I could replace you for the day, I have nothing else to do anyway,” he offered like it was no big deal.
“I don’t wanna cause trouble.”
“It’s okay! What are friends for?” Mitchell said, downplaying it, and Marianne found that gesture more genuine than his insufferable playboy stance so far. She even thought she might like him a little better if not for his sister or his stalking habits.
“I’ll go with you!” Kristania volunteered, believing she was doing Demian a favor, but he shuddered at the thought. He tried to think of some excuse so she wouldn’t follow him around when Lucianne came in with a somber expression, her mind full of her own worries. Marianne found the perfect solution when she saw the police car parked in front of the coffee shop.
“Hey, could you ask Officer Perry for a favor?”
In a matter of minutes Demian was already inside the car, despite how uncomfortable he looked.
“Get well soon,” Lucianne said, leaning on the window and smiling at him. Demian responded the same way while the young officer glanced warily. Kristania stayed behind, with guns for eyes and a grinder for teeth. Her face was reddened and Marianne tried to suppress a smile at the thought of her internal tantrum. She was quite enjoying it until the car got underway and Demian gestured at her.
“I owe you two now,” he said, holding up two fingers while the car drove away. She raised an eyebrow, not expecting he would take it that way.
“Has anyone else come?” Lucianne asked once they were alone.
“No, there’s still time,” she replied as they walked back to the coffee shop followed by Kristania’s rapacious gaze. Just as they sat at the table, Lucianne squeezed her own hands in a very similar gesture that Marianne adopted whenever she got nervous.
“Is something wrong?”
“It’s my dad. He’s behaving weird. He didn’t go to work and hasn’t left his room at all. I had to tell Perry he’s sick, but I can’t help thinking it’s got to do with what happened yesterday. It’s just . . . a temporary thing, right?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Marianne said. She considered revealing what little she knew about the gifts mechanism, but she thought to save her the distress of knowing the limited amount of time her father had without the moral gift. “Maybe it’s just a temporary phase.”
Lucianne seemed to relax a little, but didn’t stop rubbing her hands. Lilith and Angie appeared a while later, and the latter was introduced to Lucianne.
Since Belgina hadn’t arrived yet, Marianne took a few minutes to give Lucianne a short introduction to everything they knew so far, trying to be as discrete as possible with the pair of prying eyes over them. Mitchell appeared minutes later with his sleeves rolled up and holding a note pad and pen.
“Good morning, ladies. I’ll be at your service today, so if you want to tip me I’ll be accepting phone numbers, addresses, e-mails, garments and even kisses will be welcome. Would you like something to start?”
“I haven’t met you before, are you new?” Lilith asked.
“I’m Mitchell and I’m at your disposal, ladies,” he introduced himself with a bow and Lilith let out one of her rhythmic giggles that came out under her breath.
Marianne knew immediately what she was about to do, so she tried to stop her, but it was too late.
“My name is Lilith and these are Angie, Lucianne and Marianne.”
“Ha! Now I know your names!” he rejoiced as if he’d just learn a top secret. The three girls looked reproachfully at Lilith.
“What?” she asked, unaware of anything.
They discussed the attack from the day before again. Marianne wondered how to reveal that she had been discovered, but they focused on losing a second gift.
“They have to die,” Lilith said while taking a big bite of a double cheeseburger. She spoke so lightly about it that she could have been talking about the weather. “I still don’t get why you didn’t kill him when you had the chance.”
“That’s because . . . ” The three girls stared at Marianne, waiting for a compelling reason, but she wasn’t even sure why. She just managed to choke up some incomprehensible sounds coming from her throat.
“See? Deep inside, you know that it was a missed opportunity.”
“Are you still thinking about his reaction when I touched him?” Angie asked and she just shrugged, already downcasted. “Well . . . I’ve been thinking about it . . . and what I most remember is that I still felt very hurt after seeing Aldric with that girl. So . . . the only thing I had in mind was exactly that. I wanted him to suffer, to feel pain, not the type of physical pain, but something more . . . internal.”
Marianne recalled the moment Ashelow’s expression contorted in a tortured gesture and the thought that it could have been someone else’s emotions didn’t relieve her.
“There you go, it’s not that he suddenly developed some kind of emotion by himself. Angie wanted him to feel what she felt, end of discussion,” Lilith concluded, finishing the last bite of her burger and trying to talk with a full mouth. “We should make sure to be together the next time they attack. We are five, we should be able to corner them and kill them. It shouldn’t be difficult now.”
Marianne didn’t say anything. She didn’t feel so sure anymore. She just couldn’t put them and their families at risk if their identities were also discovered.
While their orders arrived, they decided to call Belgina to know why she was late, but all they got was an apology since she had joined her mother for lunch again. It was starting to sound more like an excuse.
Marianne looked at her watch and saw it was past three already. She’d better go home and stay alert. At least she had accomplished what she intended to do by reporting to them about the last hours.
She waved them goodbye and left under the worried look of the three girls who sensed there was something else she hadn’t said.
“You should’ve told them. You could face them more effectively together.”
“Yeah, well, it’s easy for you to say that when you’re the least endangered there in my mind . . . or wherever you are.”
“Trust me, it’s not by choice.”
She was carrying the painting kit bag and expected to find everything turned upside down at home, just like her mother used to do when she felt frustrated. She usually switched the furniture to clean and then rearranged everything in different positions, thinking the house wouldn’t fall into monotony that way. She did that every time her father left for long periods, and Marianne came to think that her mother took it as a form of retaliation against him, knowing that whenever he returned he would find a different house than the one he was used to. Either that or she had to somehow vent her lack of inspiration, believing perhaps that the rearrangement would act as some sort of feng-shui to help her paint again.
When she got into her house, the first thing she did was to announce it, but there was no response, a warning sign for her. She immediately looked around. The house was clean and tidy, but it was kept in the same order. Perhaps her mother had grown tired of always using the same method without any results, and finally decided to leave it that way. However, Marianne couldn’t see her, and that started to worry her. She could’ve been attacked or taken hostage and that would definitely be her fault for leaving her alone.
She headed to the kitchen and she saw a pair of legs sticking out behind the table at the dining room’s floor. She immediately dropped the bag with the painting kit and came running towards her.
“Mom!” she yelled, feeling her heart down to her heels. She approached the corner of the table expecting the worst and saw her mother peeking from the floor, removing an earphone.
“What is it? Why are you yelling?” she asked in confusion, pencil in hand. She had been drawing some floral motifs on the bottom of the wall.
Marianne felt an instant relief, but her guilt only increased. She should’ve thought from the beginning that her family could be attacked. It was at that moment that the possibility struck her. Her father and her brother could also be targeted, and she couldn’t know for sure if something had already happened to them during the day.
Without a word, she ran to her bedroom, leaving her mother on the floor, with a pencil in her hand.
“Did you get the kit?”
“Marianne, calm down. If they were hurt you’d know. No demon would keep that revenge for themselves. They like to show off.”
“But how do I know? So far I hadn’t considered seriously that my family could be in danger! I was selfishly thinking of me,” she said while entering her room and suddenly froze.
Ashelow was already there, waiting for her. She tried to step back, but the door closed behind her just by the wave of his hand.
“Have you come to kill me?” she asked, her back to the door and trying to stay calm.
“If it were so, I already would’ve done it. I came to talk to you,” Ashelow replied, his eyes fixed on her. “Why didn’t you kill me when you had the chance?”
That question caught her off guard. It was like going back to the interrogation by her friends, but now by the aforementioned. She feared it was a trap, and depending on her answer was the reaction she would get, maybe death, or maybe one more chance to remain the subject of another psychological torture. Either way she was lost. She hadn’t even known what to say to her friends, so the chances of having a satisfying answer for him were minimal.
“Because you’re different from Umber,” she said the first thing that came to her mind, not only to his surprise but hers too.
“How would you know?”
She swallowed, her mouth was dry, and tried to talk, hoping her voice would come out.
“Your wounds,” she pointed from his ribs to his face where he still had the marks from her sword. “They don’t heal like his. You don’t regenerate, either.”
Ashelow put his hand on his cheek and felt the scar without taking his eyes off her. Marianne thought of ways to pick up the word again while handling the doorknob behind her back.
“Did you decide to swap roles? At what point will Umber appear to attack?”
“I haven’t revealed your identity . . . yet,” he said and she pulled her hand away from the knob. She wasn’t expecting that and didn’t know where everything would go now.
“What do you want?” she asked, and just as he opened his mouth, a scream was heard downstairs.
They both looked at each other, aware of what was coming next. Marianne turned the knob and hurried down, hoping to arrive in time. At the dining room, right where she had left her mother, Umber was now beside her with a glowing orb in his hands. Ashelow materialized from the ceiling.
“I was wondering why you’d come to this house without telling me. What would make these people so special, so I decided to test them, and look what I just found,” Umber said, watching spellbound the sphere he was holding, twirling it in his fingers. “This is definitely another gift.”
“Stay away from her!” Marianne shouted, feeling the adrenaline pumping through her body. She had felt it the night her brother was attacked, but she didn’t have a full understanding of what was at stake at the time. Now it was different, she knew the implications of that sphere turning out to be one of the gifts they were looking for. She couldn’t allow it. “Let go of her!”
Umber laughed at the threat and her muscles quivered. She was even willing to transform right there, no matter what.
“I think we’re not to waste any opportunity, so . . . let’s see what this girl has,” he continued, with a triumphant smile. His fingers began to twitch, ready to attack. But he didn’t count on Ashelow going ahead of him and take the girl, vanishing with her in the middle of a smoke curtain.
They didn’t go that far, anyway. Up in the attic, they appeared between dusty boxes and discarded furniture.
“You saved me,” Marianne said, puzzlement reflected on her face.
Ashelow looked disoriented, unable to grasp the extent of his action. He had followed an impulse and now feared the repercussions.
“I guess we’re even now,” he said, but Marianne wasn’t going to ignore the signs anymore. She stood in front of him, blocking his way, and looked straight in his eyes.
“You said everything you did was for your salvation. Tell me what it is and maybe I can help you,” she asked with determination, making him hesitate for a moment.
“I can’t. Umber would kill me.”
“And do you think he won’t do it after what you did? Let me help you. You just have to trust me!” she promised eagerly, and he looked at her genuinely surprised, his eyes reflecting an inner struggle. He finally made a decision, even if it could backfire. He took a deep breath and blurted out what had been eating him away.
“I was human once,” he confessed, as if it were a shameful secret.
This revelation took Marianne aback. She assumed there was something different about him, but wasn’t expecting that confession.
“Was Umber also . . . ?”
“No, he’s always been a demon. It was he who made me into one . . . He condemned me,” he revealed bitterly. His reaction to Angie’s touch took a whole new level now. It may have been his own human memories after all, traces he still kept inside.
“Why you? What made him choose you?”
“My human life wasn’t exactly . . . exemplary. I did things I’m not proud of,” he continued with a dwelling expression. “He chose me to join the Legion of Darkness . . . but I didn’t imagine what that would entail. I tried to quit, but it wasn’t possible anymore. He warned me, if I wanted to save my soul I would have to help him find the gifts. Only then would I be free.”
“The gifts! Why do they want them? Why are they looking for them?” she asked with special interest, but Ashelow kept quiet, thinking he had said enough, as if he felt committed to remain silent despite all. “Please, tell me!”
“Marianne, he’s coming!” Samael warned her, so she stood up defensively and let the armor cover her, clutching her sword tightly. As the demon materialized in front of them, Ashelow stepped back, knowing there was no escaping him.
“What is this? You’ve betrayed me!” Umber said, taking a few steps to approach him, but Marianne stood in the way. “Are you kidding? An Angel Warrior is going to defend a demon now?”
“Not according to what I know about you two now!” she said and he looked to Ashelow in a condemning way.
“You idiot! What did you tell her?”
“I’m willing to take my punishment.” Ashelow moved forward and knelt in front of the demon, while Marianne looked at him, befuddled.
“No! What are you doing? You don’t have to obey him, you don’t owe him anything!” she snapped, but Umber tossed her to the back of the attic. Several boxes fell over her as she raised her hands to avoid them.
“Stand back! Quick!” Samael warned her once again.
Umber made a circular gesture with his hand and threw a blast at her. It was so fast she had no time to react, just crossed her arms in front of her and closed her eyes. The blast collided with some sort of invisible barrier in front of her. Marianne opened her eyes, confused when nothing happened, while Umber decided to repeat the attack just to be blocked again by that incorporeal fence protecting her.
“How’s that . . . ?” she asked surprised and suddenly the wall vanished.
“Sorry, I can’t hold it any longer,” Samael apologized in an exhausted voice, letting her know he was responsible for it.
“I’ll do what I should have from the beginning!” the demon roared, extending his fingers in pointed and sharp claws that went through the distance towards Marianne at full speed. It seemed the end. But in a blink of an eye, Ashelow appeared in front of her, his chest pierced by the claws, and darkened blood splattered all over Marianne. The claws retracted right away, returning to its normal size. “Stupid! Now you’ll disappear into the void!”
“What did you do?” Marianne mumbled, awestruck by his action. He tried to stand up, holding his chest with eyes wide open.
“If that’s what you want, so be it. At least I got the third gift,” Umber sentenced, showing the container with the word ‘Health’ inscribed in it.
Marianne felt something overturning inside her when she understood that was her mother’s gift. The demon lengthened back his fingers into a claw.
“Die along with her.”
But he didn’t reach them. Before he could even take a boost, he saw himself engulfed by a whirlwind of fire that spread out over his back and forced him to fight it off. Marianne looked behind him and discovered Lilith by the attic door, her hands covered with fire and pointing now at Ashelow.
“Move over! We’re missing the other one!” Lilith announced throwing another flare.
“No!” she shouted, trying to stop it, but only managed to place her sword in front of him. Upon the contact with the blade, the flame seemed to merge into it, giving it a reddish hue like red hot.
She carefully watched the sword, but there was no time to find out. Umber had recovered very fast and was dangerously heading towards them. She managed to react in time and, with a quick motion, finally cut off his hand. The moment the blade touched the demon’s skin, a puff of smoke came out, as if the sword had instantly cauterized the wound. The shrieks of the demon were so intense they had to cover their ears, feeling their eardrums would explode.
Lucianne went ahead and started shooting laser beams right and left, hoping to hit a vital part of his body, but they only looked like flesh wounds, until the demon seemed to have enough and finally decided to vanish, his shrieking still ringing in their ears.
“How did you know what was happening?” Marianne asked, bewildered.
“We sensed you were hiding something, so we followed you,” Angie explained. “We came running as fast as we could.”
“You better let us know why you saved his life again!” Lilith interrupted, pointing to Ashelow who dropped to Marianne’s feet amid rattles of pain, spewing an opaque liquid through the mouth, his body convulsing. She leaned towards him and took his hands away from his chest. A huge hole pierced him from side to side. She felt a bitter taste in her mouth, remembering he couldn’t regenerate.
“Calm down.” That was the only thing she could say. What else she could add at the time?
Ashelow laid his eyes on her and tried to speak.
“Don’t let them . . . find it,” he said in spasms, while the girls approached cautiously.
“What are you talking about?”
“If they find it . . . He’ll be able to wake up . . . and it’ll be the end of everything,” he added.
“I don’t get it . . . ” Marianne said, befuddled. His arm clung to her, trying to lift his torso in vain. He was not only dripping dark blood now, but also slowly disintegrating in ashes from his coating.
“ . . . His seed,” he muttered, after which his body loosened and his pupils began to dilate, his gaze fixed into an empty space.
Marianne looked at her friends as if trying to find some explanation with them, but aware that she wouldn’t get one, she looked back at him.
“What can I do for you?”
“I don’t want to . . . vanish . . . into the void,” he enunciated in a whisper. Black tears ran down his face. “Don’t let me . . . dissolve into nothing.”
Marianne seemed to understand what he meant. The fibers that formed his clothing were becoming dust along with him and she sought for Angie.
“Please, think of something happy,” she begged and Angie looked skeptical, but still followed her example and leaned beside her. She took Ashelow by the wrist while he laid motionless on the side. After a few seconds, he started to draw a smile on his face.
Marianne put her hands over his chest, still quite unsure of what to do, but soon began to replicate the movement she used to perform to create the provisional gifts. She tried to concentrate on what was left of his energy.
Sprinkles of light started to gather in a sphere between her hands, as if slowly absorbing his body’s residual energy, sweeping out his features while disappearing and leaving behind just the coating.
“Thank you,” he got to say before the last trace of him vanished, absorbed by the sphere of light she had formed, leaving only an empty shell, his lining finally dissolving into dust.
Marianne’s mouth tensed and looked at the orb she still held in her hands. It began to glow and hover over them, rising up through the ceiling and flying away.
“What happened to him?” Lucianne asked, her eyes on the roof.
“I guess . . . he’s free now,” Marianne replied, her voice slightly trembling. After a few seconds of silence, she jumped up and went running down to the dining room.
Her mother’s body was still there, unmoving, as if she were just asleep.
Then she felt the harsh impact of reality. Now her mother’s days were numbered if she didn’t get back her stolen gift. Just like Lester and Commissioner Fillian. She had let the demon take it. She waited about a minute to calm down and then reanimated her.
The three girls waited in the living room until she showed up with her mother leaning on her shoulder.
“I don’t get how I could have fainted. It had never happened to me,” the woman said with a hand on her forehead and faulty steps. In short, the girls took the chance to introduce themselves and she seemed to recognize Lucianne. “Oh, Lucianne, you’re all grown up. I would’ve liked to see you under better conditions.”
“It will be another time. You’d better get some rest,” Marianne advised, still holding her. She gave the girls a pointed look, indicating they would talk later, so the trio said their good byes after making sure the danger had passed.
Marianne stood beside her mother, trying to force her to rest, despite her claims that she was feeling better, and it was only after her father and brother came back that she assumed she would be fine with them. But it only took a few seconds for her to turn away and her mother to fall on the floor.
She didn’t understand what was happening, her mother was supposed to still have some reserve time before she would collapse, but the next thing she knew, an ambulance was taking her to the hospital.
Time in the waiting room felt nonexistent, as if she had been disconnected and looked everything through a screen, like she wasn’t there at all.
It wasn’t until her father called her to go back home that she reacted. Her mother would stay at the hospital for examination. She just nodded and followed him to the car.
During the ride back, she remained quiet, staring out the window. Loui was asleep in the back, exhausted after the day they’d had. Her father drove, looking at the road. They continued in silence until they got home.
“I’ll go back to the hospital and wait for information,” her father said as soon as they crossed the door, serene and under control like he always seemed to be. “I trust you can take care of your brother tonight.”
“Loui can take care of himself since long ago,” Marianne said, going upstairs without even turning to him. Once inside her room, she let her legs falter and leaned back against the door, sliding down to the floor.
“I’m sorry,” said Samael. “I didn’t imagine anything like this would happen.”
“Start by explaining what you mean by this,” she asked in a monotone. “What happened to my mother? I thought she would have some time before . . . ”
“That’s not the problem. It’s the gift she has lost,” Samael explained. “Even if you reanimated her, health is no longer part of her characteristics.”
“So she will stay in the hospital until the tiny spark of energy I gave her fades away,” she added, closing her eyes, feeling defeated.
“You can still recover the gifts,” he said, trying to cheer her up.
“Even if you say so, doesn’t mean it will happen! You’re always saying you should protect me, but what’s the point if I can’t help others? If we could use all of your abilities to help those in need, like your healing power, maybe Ashelow wouldn’t have to—”
“My limit is your own capacity. I can’t do more than what your own skill allows me to,” he replied, and Marianne fell silent for several seconds, unable to believe what she had just heard.
“Am I the one who hinders you then?”
“No, I didn’t mean that. It’s just that while you keep developing your skills, maybe my own power will also increase and perhaps I could—”
“That’s it. It’s me,” she interrupted again.
“Marianne, please . . . ”
“What’s the use of you having all these extraordinary set of skills if I’m the one restraining you to use them when we need them the most? It’s like . . . I’m your prison.”
“It wasn’t my intention to make you feel that way . . . ”
“Stop talking. I don’t wanna hear it anymore. Not for today,” she finished and Samael complied.
Marianne got up and went straight to bed. She wanted nothing more than closing her eyes and don’t think anymore, and after a few minutes, her wish was granted. She finally fell asleep.
During the night, calm and silence prevailed in such a way that it seemed like time had stood still, had it not been for a small light orbit that suddenly emerged from Marianne and began its slow journey throughout the quiet room.