“Let me get this straight.” Lucianne was standing in the middle of her living room, pressing her temples to concentrate. It was almost impossible with the image before her.

The room was filled with the six teenagers in appalling conditions, dirty and torn clothes, faces and spirits down. They had a few scratches and bruises left here and there, but Samael had managed to heal the most serious injuries, including Marianne’s broken wrist. They had escaped imminent danger, though defeat seemed to affect them the most. If not for Samael, they would all be dead. He had covered them with his energy cloak in time and transported them to Lucianne’s house, barely came out alive.

“Hollow attacked Belgina, who turned out to have one of those gifts they’re looking for. You fought against him, but couldn’t defeat him and instead almost got killed by him. At that moment Samuel decided to transport you all here, assuming it would work as a war hospital, but what I still don’t understand is . . . what is he doing here?” Lucianne pointed at Mitchell, who was using a metal cup from the coffee table to look at his own reflection and comb his hair.

“He also turned out to be . . . one of us,” Marianne replied, sighing briefly before finishing her sentence.

 “So this is what your meetings were all about. Now I understand. I feel like I got some VIP tickets to a very exclusive club.” Mitchell said with a smile.

“Don’t be so excited. We were about to die, in case you forget.”

“But we didn’t,” he replied dismissively, focusing on what seemed to be more important to him. “So tell me then, is there a ceremonial rite to formalize my team membership? Something like, I dunno, running naked at midnight during the full moon or exchanging saliva.”

“Don’t be an idiot and take this more seriously!” Marianne yelled at him.

“I was kidding. Actually this all seems unreal to me, but I’ll get used to it, I guess…Although, I wouldn’t mind the part of exchanging saliva,” he said with a wink. Marianne rolled her eyes and wagged her head.

 “Are you okay, Belgina?” Lucianne asked, noticing that she remained distracted, looking through the window.

“Yes, it’s just . . . I feel like floating, like I’m not even here. It’s weird,” she replied with an air of another world. The rest of them looked at her remorsefully. They had been unable to retrieve her gift, and now she had to handle herself without it, though Marianne knew it wouldn’t be for long.

“We urgently need to undergo training,” Samael intervened. “And I don’t mean these practices behind closed doors. I mean out, far enough from civilization, where no one else can see us, so we don’t have to restrain ourselves.”

“Well . . . our spring break starts next week. We’ll have two weeks…it’s not that much, but I guess it will do,” Lilith suggested.

“In our current situation, any spare time is welcome.”

“Are you suggesting going to some distant place where no one interrupts us?” Marianne interjected, and the others considered it.

“I can’t leave my father alone for so long,” Lucianne said.

“We have time to solve all these difficulties. I think we should rest now. I don’t know about you, but I feel like an army of mammoths walked all over me,” Lilith finished, rubbing her face before getting up and stretching her legs. The others followed suit.

“Come on, babe, I’ll walk you home,” Mitchell said, offering his arm to Belgina.

“Hey, you, careful!” Marianne warned, pointing distrustfully at him. He just raised his hands as a gesture that he wouldn’t try anything weird.

The rest began to walk in procession to the door, an inexperienced war battalion. Dirty, tired and defeated.

“Here,” Marianne said, throwing a pack of cookies to Samael once she was back in her room, drying her hair after taking a bath.

He was sitting on the floor with his back against the mattress and a pensive semblance. He seemed the most affected by the defeat.

“Don’t make that face. You’re not the only one who failed.”

“Well, I feel like it,” he replied with a sigh. “I’m the one who has been advising and guiding you, and today’s defeat has to be a reflection that I haven’t done my job properly. So I’m the one who failed you all. I’m sorry.”

“Stop that! It’s about teamwork. You’ve done everything you could to teach us, so if we’re still too inexperienced, it’s not your fault. You said it yourself, we need more time, more training, especially Mitchell, who was just thrown to the battle basically knowing nothing.”

“Sorry about that. I should’ve said something once I noticed.”

“Stop apologizing!” They suddenly heard a knock on the door. She turned in alarm right when it was already opening.

“Are you okay? When you came home late I thought something had happened,” her father said, leaning on the door. Marianne’s face turned back and noticed Samael was already gone. “Were you talking to someone?”

She tried to come up with something quickly, until her eyes fell on her cell phone.

“Yes, over the phone!” she said, grabbing it from the dresser. “I was talking to . . . Lilith. She inadvertently pushed me while we were playing. That’s why my clothes were so dirty. I fell in the mud. She’s been calling me over to apologize.”

“Oh. Well, I hope it gets solved. I brought burgers, are you hungry?”

“I’ll go later,” she finished without changing her position and her father nodded, closing the door again. Marianne relaxed and turned around to see Samael already back in the same place, staring at her.

“My offer to read his mind is still up,” he remarked, making her falter for a moment, but ultimately shook her head.

“Forget it, there are things I’d rather not know, and whatever father does on his work trips is one of those.”

“All right, just let me know when you change your mind,” he replied, opening the pack of cookies and biting onto the first one. Marianne looked at him thoughtfully, with a question that had been haunting her mind all night.

“Belgina. What will happen to her now?”

Samael looked up again with half a cookie sticking from his mouth, and after a while he put it back with the rest of the cookies to answer.

“You know what happens to those who lose their gifts.”

“Yes, but . . . up until now they were normal people, you could say, however . . . Belgina is different,” she continued. “Will the lack of the intellectual gift also affect her ability as an Angel Warrior?”

“Unlikely. Her special skill is independent of the type of gift she possessed. As I said the gift is a feature, that makes it vital, but that doesn’t mean its whole essence is encompassed in it. Consider it as an important piece of the person. Yes, its absence can cause major changes in her character or physical abilities according to its type, but its essence remains unchanged.”

“Character and abilities,” Marianne repeated, thinking about commissioner Fillian’s sudden change or her mother’s deteriorating health, adding Lester’s loss of coordination and skills. “Belgina will no longer be the brilliant girl she’s been so far.”

Samael nodded in response and she sighed, not sure if it was a relief that she would still maintain her status as an Angel Warrior, or sorrow for her losing one of her most prominent features.

“Well, that’s all I wanted to know. I’ll . . . go bring some burgers. I’ll be back,” she finished, leaving the room.

Samael remained a little longer in the same place, fiddling with the rest of the cookie. Then he put the pack aside and reached toward the bed, taking one of Marianne’s notebooks scattered down.

He looked for a pen, then placed the notebook on his knees, and started to draw several adjacent circles to form a big one between them with another circle at the center. There were twelve totally.

He then started writing something inside each circle, eventually returning to what he had written and crossed out with an ‘x’ four of the circles he had drawn. They represented the gifts the Legion of Darkness had in its possession: Athletic, Moral, Health and Intellectual. He looked intently at the others forming the bigger circle and stared at the one in the center. He had written “Death” in it. He underlined this one especially, and kept his gaze fixed on it for longer.

“Who do you belong to? Why do you even exist?” he asked, squinting apprehensively, until he finally tore off the page and put it in his jacket.

The next day, a crowd of students had gathered behind the auditorium, watching in amazement the scorched area on the ground as if an explosion had occurred in it. It was now cordoned off by yellow tape.

Some intrepid ones had crossed the tapes and walked into the field on a dare, only to be called out to return to their classrooms immediately.

In turn, a group of specialists —sheathed in nuclear protection suits—, were preparing to analyze the area along with a scientific team in an improvised tent that had been installed to the side. Rumors began to run amongst students about being one of those popular crop circles that appeared in fields and that possibly some remains of radioactive waste had been left. This, of course, did nothing but increase the students’ curiosity, and most of them looked for excuses to go back and take pictures or selfies in funny poses with the circle in the background.

“It’s preposterous. Aliens. Please!” Kristania huffed. She didn’t seem interested in the hot topic of the moment and remained in her seat as if she felt well above others. “Some prankster must have thought it would be fun to dig the place overnight just for attention. They’re just wasting time.”

“I wonder what you thought then about the attack on the hospital. Would you say they were just a couple of guys playing around with wires?” Lilith asked from her seat, and Kristania gave her a scornful look at the audacity of addressing her.

“Now that you mention it, I think they were terrorists with some brand-new weaponry,” she finally replied. “And just as we don’t know every animal species that dwells on earth, I doubt they have registered all weapons created so far, not to mention the technological advances. It was obviously just a gimmick and not an alien nor a demon thing as some ignorant people have been saying.”

“If that’s what you think, who am I to get you out of your flat-footed world?” Lilith concluded, turning to her friends. Kristania merely snorted and turned her face haughtily.

“It’s better to let her think that instead of digging around for answers,” Marianne murmured.

“You know what’s kind of weird?” Lilith added, an idea just popping into her mind. “That demon. The times we’ve seen him . . . he’s always been alone.”

“That’s true,” Marianne seconded, reflecting on it. Umber had Ashelow as his servant, if one could call it that, but Hollow seemed to have none.

“Do you think he has some . . . assistant? Like Ashelow?” Angie asked.

“Perhaps he doesn’t need one,” Marianne said, fearing that if Hollow had a servant, it could also be human.

After school, most students went swarming towards the auditorium to watch more of the circus mounted around the mysterious circle on the grass.

Among the horde that was heading to the back of the auditorium, Mitchell tried to plow through toward the main entrance, but was practically dragged until he had to hold on to one of the columns to avoid getting crushed by the crowds. In the seconds he was anchored there, he caught a glimpse of a paper in front of his face. He waited for the place to be cleared to pull away from the column and take a better look.

It was a pamphlet announcing a camp for young people between the ages of 15 and 17. That meant being outdoors and away from civilization for a couple of weeks, so he immediately started making plans, tore the sign and took it with him.

“Good afternoon, you were missed yesterday, may I take your order?” Mankee greeted them, approaching to serve the table they used to take.

“Monkey!” Lilith waved her hand hectically.

“Mankee,” he corrected for what seemed like the hundredth time already.

“You’re wasting your time. It would be easier for you to change your name from now on,” Marianne intervened with her eyes on the menu.

“She’s right,” Lilith seconded with a carefree smile, so the boy just sighed in resignation.

“Isn’t Demian here?” Angie asked while glancing at the empty counter.

“No, I thought he wasn’t out of school yet.”

“Maybe he’s still there. Mitchell hasn’t come out, either,” Marianne assumed. Right then Mitchell entered more enthusiastic than usual, holding in his hand a piece of paper which he laid on the table with a slap.

“I am the messenger of good news, bringer of solutions, praise me, hallelujah!” he exclaimed, pointing triumphantly at the paper and waving his hands theatrically, but instead of seeing the pamphlet, they looked at him in annoyance.

“Sometimes I wonder if you were dropped at birth,” Marianne said, rolling her eyes.

“Demian didn’t come with you?” asked Lilith.

“No, he didn’t come to school today,” he replied with a shrug. “Weird, isn’t it?”

“I’ll tell the boss, then,” Mankee decided, heading back to the kitchen.

“What if something happened to him?”

“Can’t he just skip school for a day? It doesn’t have to be that something happened to him,” Marianne said again, thinking it wasn’t serious at all.

“You should worry for him a little more. I bet he would do that for you,” Mitchell said, raising an eyebrow with a look she couldn’t grasp.

“I don’t know what you’re up to, but I don’t like your expression or your tone for that matter,” she snapped, pointing grumpily at him, but before she could say anything else, her phone started ringing. Once she looked at the screen, her eyes widened in bafflement. It clearly said Demian’s name.

She blinked incredulous. It had to be a mistake since she hadn’t even registered his number, but as she looked at her friends —already engaged in other matters— and then back at the screen, the name remained unchanged.

The only feasible explanation was that someone had taken her cell phone behind her back. She glanced again at the guys, distrustful, wondering who could have done it, but as the phone kept ringing, she decided to put aside her perplexity and answer.


“Is this Marianne?”

The voice on the other end of the line didn’t belong to Demian, which triggered her alert even more. Several ideas began to round her mind, going from the possibility of an accident or maybe even a kidnap, but it still didn’t explain why in that case they would call her. How did he even have her number?

“Who is this?” she finally asked, drawing the others’ attention.

“I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself first. My name is Dante Donovan, I’m Demian’s father.”

Her eyebrows lifted even more.

“He’s not feeling very well…and I have a plane to catch in a couple of hours. Since he refuses to see a doctor and I can’t cancel my appointment, I thought maybe I could ask one of his friends to come by and watch him for a while at least. This number was on speed dial. You’re friends with him, right?”

“Uhm…I…” Marianne stammered, unsure of how to answer. She really had no idea at this point whether they could be considered as friends or simply acquaintances in unusual circumstances.

“Do you know his circle of friends? Would you come for a while? I worry about leaving him alone in his condition,” the man continued, putting her in a predicament.

She could hear the concern in his voice, but couldn’t imagine how Demian would take it if they suddenly appeared in his house unannounced. He had said before how his father tended to overreact regarding his health, so maybe it wasn’t as bad as he supposed. But she didn’t know what to expect from the man. She had only seen him once at the hospital and just his back.

With a sigh, she ended up accepting.

“Yeah, sure. We’ll be there.”

After hanging up, the rest of her friends stared at her expectantly, though she didn’t know where to begin.

“So? Who was it?”

“It was…Demian’s father,” she replied, and by the looks on everyone’s faces, she confirmed how weird it sounded.

“Why would Demian’s father call you?”

“I was wondering the same thing, in fact. Someone took my phone and added his number without my consent, so who did it?” she asked, looking at each and every one of them as though trying to discover the culprit in a lineup.

“Anyway, don’t lose sight of the important thing here!” Mitchell interrupted to change the subject. “If he called it’s because something happened, right?”

“Seems like Demian is sick and his father is on his way out to the airport. He asked if we can go and watch over him for a while.”

“And how will we get there? Does anyone know where he lives?”

“I do,” Angie said, raising her hand. “I used to go there as a child. I can take you.”

“Good! Let’s go, then. Meanwhile, think carefully about this. I believe it would be perfect for us. It suits our current needs,” Mitchell suggested, inciting them to get up while shaking the pamphlet in their faces.

“Don’t we have to wait for Samuel and Lucianne first?”

“We’ll text them, let’s go.”

Once they had it resolved, they walked to Demian’s house, led by Angie. It was just a few streets beyond Marianne’s own house, to her surprise.

“We’re here,” Angie announced, stopping at the gate, allowing the others to reach her and get a closer look through the railing.

In front of them there was a big Victorian house with a tiling façade and a closed balcony on the side. There was also a huge and well-kept garden surrounding the property with pruned hedges in conical shapes flanking the periphery.

 “How do we get inside then?”

“There is the doorbell. And the intercom,” Angie said, pointing at the column where the fence was fixed. The five remained in the same place, unmoving, until Marianne felt everyone’s eyes on her.

“What? Why are you all looking at me?”

“You’re the one who got the call, so it’s only fair that you announce our arrival.”

“But I…Ugh, this is ridiculous!” she groaned in protest, but finally decided to do it just to speed things up. After a few seconds of waiting, a solemn voice came over the intercom.

“Who is it?”

Marianne felt a knot in the stomach and turned to the others for support, but they only made signs for her to respond, so she got closer to the intercom and took a breath.

“Sorry, I got your call earlier today. My name is Marianne and…”

“Oh, of course! Come in, please!” the voice replied in a friendlier tone. A buzz from the gate forced them away as it automatically opened. The five of them exchanged glances for a few seconds until they all decided to get in.

They stood at the doorway after crossing the garden, until the double doors opened and a man received them. He had a tidily cut beard and a huge smile, dressed in a gray suit with no tie, granting him a slightly informal touch.

“Welcome! You must be Marianne,” the man said cheerfully, shaking her hand.

“How do you know I’m…?”

“There’s a camera on the intercom,” he responded with a lively look on his face, framed by wavy brown hair with some grays spread over. His eyes looked dark and the light revealed a hint of blue on them. He was nothing like she’d imagined Demian’s father to be, serious and extremely formal, on the contrary, he seemed warm and friendly. Must likely around his 50-s or 60-s.

“Ah, I think I know you,” he said, now looking at Angie, squinting and putting on his glasses for a better look. She was about to answer, but he went ahead and snapped his fingers. “Angie! You used to play with my daughter all the time when you were children.”

“That’s right, I’m glad you remember,” she replied. “Is she okay?”

“Of course! I’ll send your regards the next time I see her. I travel almost each week to visit her. Maybe someday she’ll come back here and you’ll meet again.”

“Hi, Mr. Demian’s father!” Mitchell interrupted appearing before him and greeting him just as cheerfully. “My name is Mitchell and I’m your son’s best friend. You already know these two, and the other two are Belgina and Lilith.”

“Nice to meet you,” the man said, slightly bowing and they responded with quick and nervous greetings. “I’m very grateful that you’ve come. Today is our employees’ day out, so there’s no one at home and I didn’t want to bother them. My flight takes off in an hour.”

“You don’t have to worry anymore, we’ll take care of him,” Lilith said. “My mother is a nurse, so I know exactly what to do.”

“In that case, follow me. I’ll take you to him.”

He led them to the stairs right in the middle of the main hall. It was carpeted and the handrails ended in lion heads. In the walls there were replicas of famous paintings —probably— and several art pieces placed at strategic points. They feared to break something by accident so they went up almost on tiptoes with their hands stuck at their sides.

Once they got to the second story, they were led through a vast corridor with a large window the length of the walls at the end, which provided the perfect lighting. At the end of the hallway they stopped at an antique cedar door. After knocking on it, the man opened the door without waiting for a response.

“¡Hey, son! You have visitors.”

Leaning on his bed, with his back against a couple of pillows and a book in his lap, Demian froze in astonishment to see them right there, coming in his room behind his father.

“What are you doing here?” he finally said after a split second thrown off balance. He was wearing a simple shirt with squared pajamas in several shades of blue.

“I called your friends to come and see you. It was very kind of them.”

“Dad, I told you I was feeling better! You didn’t have to call anyone to come and take care of me! I’m not a child!” he exclaimed, ashamed to be found like that.

“Oh, but they’re not here to take care of you. Just came to visit. Right, guys?”

“Awww, what does the little patient have? How’s he feeling?” Mitchell began to mock him, like talking to a baby. Demian grunted and immediately leaned on his side, giving them the back and covering with the sheets, while his father approached the window to open the curtains and let the light come in.

“Get comfortable, please. Feel at home.”

The girls found some chairs to sit in while Marianne chose to stay at the door, feeling like they were invading his private space. He clearly didn’t want them there and she didn’t want to disrupt that sort of karmic balance they had achieved, let alone if it was to his favor.

“Don’t be shy. Come in,” Mr. Donovan insisted, taking her by the shoulders and pushing her inside. “Look, son, it’s Marianne.”

He uncovered his head and turned with a confused expression at his particular tone. She didn’t look too comfortable either.

“Yes, Demian, look at her!” Mitchell joined the feast, leaning back on one side of the bed. “Could you believe you almost ran her over with your car?”

Demian gave him a murderous look while his father seemed surprised by this revelation.

“Is she the girl from the accident?”

“The car didn’t even graze her!” Demian yelled, sick of having to clarify it for the thousandth time.

Marianne just looked sheepishly at the door, thinking of a way to sneak out.

“What a coincidence! So that’s how you met,” he added, laughing all of a sudden. “Surely fate works in mysterious ways, don’t you think so?”

Demian gave him a disgruntled glare, not knowing where he was going with those comments, but didn’t intend to play along.

“Didn’t you have a plane to catch?”

“Oh, right! But first I need to do something.” He approached the bed, opened a drawer next to him and pulled out a digital thermometer before Demian’s awkward look.

“Dad, please,” he begged, wishing to stick his head under the pillow and be swallowed by the mattress, but his father ignored his pleas and introduced the thermometer into his mouth, standing beside him to wait for a minute to pass.

“So, you’re in the same school,” he asked, ignoring Demian’s embarrassment.

“Yes, I’m in his class, the girls are still freshmen,” Mitchell replied, sitting on the corner of the bed, overconfidently.

“Your house is beautiful, sir!” Lilith said, admiring the view of the yard along with Angie and Belgina.

Marianne had managed to escape and could only hope for the right time to flee.

“Thank you, consider it your house too, you can return whenever you want. My son’s friends are always welcome.”

“Aww, would you adopt me? I promise to be good!” Lilith said, clasping her hands in a wishful gesture, and he responded with a gentle laugh while checking the thermometer.

“Hmmm, you still have the fever. Are you sure you feel good?”

“Yes, I’m telling you, it will be over soon,” Demian insisted, about to lose his patience.

“Don’t worry, you can go, we’ll take care of him,” Lilith said, moving away from the window and approaching the bed.

“Well, I guess I’d better hurry up. I can’t miss the flight,” the man said, looking at his watch and leaving, but not before turning to Demian for the last instructions. “Remember that your pills are in the top drawer. Call me if something happens. And to all of you, again, make yourselves at home.”

“Let me walk you to the door!” Mitchell jumped up like he had something else in mind, so Demian’s gaze followed him, trying to figure out what he was planning now.

“Don’t let him fall asleep without taking his pills,” Mr. Donovan whispered as he walked past Marianne. She just nodded, though it seemed a rather odd request from him.

“Well, let’s see how much fever you have,” Lilith said, checking the thermometer, taking her nurse role right away. “39 degrees. Not good.”

“It’s okay. I feel better actually. You don’t need to stay just because my father asked you to.” Lilith suddenly slapped his arm, taking him unaware. “ . . . Ouch.”

“What kind of friends do you think we are? We’re here because we care about you, so you better get used to having us around. Now sit back and don’t you dare to get up while you’re in treatment, okay?”

Her tone was so authoritative that it not only left Demian mute, but the girls also kept their distance, afraid to get in her way.

“Is there anything we can do?” Angie asked cautiously.

“I need a bowl of warm water, towels and I could use something from the kitchen to make tea.”

Both Angie and Belgina left the room to seek the materials she had mentioned.

“Seriously, none of this is necessary—”

“Shhh!” Lilith silenced him with a pronounced gesture. “Eucalyptus, that may help.”

“You’re taking your role way too seriously,” Marianne said, leaning on the door frame.

“Someone has to do it. Alcohol! I also need some alcohol,” she decreed, her mind seemed busy. “You go look for some alcohol and I’ll go get some eucalyptus in the kitchen. Where is it, by the way?”

“Downstairs, in the back,” he replied, already giving up once realizing it would be pointless to resist. Lilith ran out of the room while Marianne straightened up.

“Is there a bathroom nearby?”

“There’s one there,” he said, pointing at the door opposite to the bed.

She entered with caution and began to inspect the sink, finding a built-in shelf behind the mirror. There she saw a small unopened bottle of alcohol.

“When I said that catching a virus once in a while would get your father used to the idea that you’re not immortal, you didn’t have to take it so literally.”

“Trust me, I wish I had it all under control.”

“What was it now? A cold? Something you ate?”

“I guess something I didn’t eat. I was so busy all day as staff in the event that I starved myself. And then I woke up today with a fever.”

Marianne came closer to leave the bottle of alcohol on the nightstand and noticed his cell phone seating over there.

“Can I ask you a question?” she said with some reserve. “Why do you have my phone on speed dial?”

“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Your father called me from your cell phone. He said my number was on speed dial, but I don’t remember giving it to you.”

“It must be a mistake, I don’t have it,” he replied, taking his cell phone and checking the contacts, discovering to his surprise that Marianne’s number was there. “I don’t know how . . . Someone should have taken it. I don’t usually check it that much.”

“Who could have done it and why?” she asked, also intrigued by the way his number had appeared in her own phone.

Demian thought about it for a couple of seconds and remembered how annoying Mitchell had been lately. To him there was no doubt it might be his doing.

“Mitchell,” he pronounced, letting out an irritated snort.

Marianne seemed at a loss. Why would he do something like that? But Demian preferred not to talk about it and just looked back to his cell, her number in the screen.

“I can delete it if you want.”

She also looked at hers for a moment, closing it at the end with a slight shrug.

“If you want to keep it, I don’t have a problem. I already have yours anyway, so we’re even again.”

“What’s that obsession of yours with balance?” he said with a crooked smile.

“Helloooo, am I interrupting something?” Mitchell appeared at the door, resting on the frame with folded arms and a sly smile.

“You!” she yelled, pointing accusingly at him.

“What? What did I do?”

They both showed their phones with threatening faces, but he just widened his grin, and then fled the same way he had come.

“Watch out! You almost made me drop everything!” Lilith protested, crossing paths with him on her way back along with Angie and Belgina, who were carrying everything she had asked for. “Well, there was no eucalyptus, but I found some herbs in the kitchen that can be used as well.”

Lilith offered Demian a steaming cup with a greenish dark liquid bubbling inside like boiling mud. He watched the gluey content and then looked grimly at her.

“Do you seriously expect me to drink that?”

“It’ll be good for you. Come on, open your mouth. Wide open, Aaaaaa,” she ordered, opening her own mouth as if that automatically would make him do the same.

Behind Lilith, Angie beckoned him with her head not to do it, increasing his already instinctive rejection towards the goo.

“No, thanks. I’m fine.”

Lilith stood holding that cup without moving an inch and suddenly she was all over him, seizing his face with an iron hand, forcing his mouth open and pouring that brew into it until he swallowed everything before their friends’ flabbergasted eyes.

“Done! You’ll thank me later!” she finished, shaking her hands, convinced she had done the right thing.

“Are you insane?” Marianne scolded her while Demian covered his mouth with both hands and his face took a greenish hue in a matter of seconds. He then jumped out of bed and went through the room like a bullet straight to the bathroom.

“That’s totally normal. He’s eliminating all the toxins from inside. Everything’s calculated,” Lilith justified, looking away and trying to keep an innocent look.

“You scare me sometimes,” Marianne said, shaking her head, and the sound from her phone caught her attention. She had received a new text. “It’s Lucianne. She says they’re coming. I’ll go get them.”

“I’ll go! Don’t worry about it!” Angie offered instantly, bolting out of there as if her life depended on it. Marianne and Lilith exchanged glances, waiting for the other to finally say what they were thinking, while Belgina tried to fill a heating pad with cold water, but it ended up leaking out on the bed.

“I hope you’re ready to run before he kicks us out of the house,” Marianne commented after seeing the bed all wet.

Demian left the bathroom then, holding the wall with a contorted face. As he tried to approach the bed, he stretched his arm towards Lilith to keep her at bay.

“No more home remedies for today, just let me rest,” he asked, intending to lie down again and despite their warnings, he ended up sitting on the wet and cold sheets, causing him to rise up as a spring and begining to wheeze. “Get. Out. Of. My. Room.”

The three girls rushed out of there without a word, the door closing behind them, and Belgina began to weep.

“I’m sorry. I don’t even know what I’m doing,” she sobbed and both the girls just resolved to pat her in comfort.

“Let’s find Mitchell and wait downstairs,” Lilith suggested with a sigh, encouraging them to start walking.

“What were you saying about me? Did I miss something?” Mitchell appeared, turning around the hallway with a strip of licorice in his mouth. “Why are you crying, babe? What did they do to you?”

“Nothing, let’s just go down,” Marianne insisted. When they reached the top of the stairs, a picture on the opposite hallway caught her attention. As the rest of them went downstairs, she separated from the group and approached the portrait for a closer look.

It was nearly half the height of the wall and the frame molding had a traditional finish with gold and silver trims. It was the portrait of a woman with long and light brown hair and beautiful topaz eyes that pierced through the canvas. She had an old air to her in the way she posed and a classic beauty that reminded her of Lucianne’s mother. She caught the eye and instilled a sense of melancholy just looking at her.

“That’s my mother.”

Marianne jolted and turned around. Demian was a few steps from her. He had changed his clothes and dressed more appropriately for visits now. He wasn’t as pale as they had seen him on arrival.

“What was her name?” she asked, staring back at the painting.

“Damaris. She died when I was ten.” He looked at the portrait, absorbed by it too, bringing to him immediate memories when he was a child and she was still alive. “She loved to pose for pictures and portraits. Most are now stored in her bedroom. This is the only portrait my father left in sight since her death. He didn’t want to turn the house into a museum, especially for us…Now the room is permanently closed.”

“Is that the balcony room?”

“Yes…The balcony,” he said with a stricken tone, staring into the eyes of the portrait that suddenly went from a picture to a three-dimensional image with wide eyes, dull and lifeless over green grass that was turning red. He shook his head to brush that image off his mind and looked away from the painting with a sigh. “Anyway, it’s over. It was hard then, but I think I’ve been able to cope with time.”

“I assume Lucianne must have been a great support,” Marianne commented, still admiring the portrait. Demian looked at her in surprise.

“How do you know…?”

“She told me,” she replied, studying the woman’s features intently, mentally comparing them to Demian. The only thing they had in common was their way of looking, even though their eyes weren’t the same shade of blue.

“What else…has she told you?” Demian asked, a little unsettled. She turned to analyze his reaction and showed a hint of a smile.

“If you’re concerned that she could have slipped some indiscretion, don’t worry, she’s not like that. She hasn’t said anything about the two of you.”

He sighed as if that would calm him down a little, but tried to downplay it.

“It’s not like there’s that much to tell anyway.”

“Well, she’s on her way. Dare to say that in her face,” she replied with an amused tone, crossing her arms defiantly.

He held his breath for a moment and took a slow sip. He hadn’t seen her since the night he decided to go to her house on an impulse.

They heard the sound of the main door and Marianne ran down the stairs. Demian followed her a few seconds behind and was able to see everyone gathered at the door.

They were talking lively, as if they knew each other for a lifetime, including Mitchell who up until then had been practically a pariah to them and now all of a sudden seemed to share a new bond, which was inexplicable for him…At what point had that happened?

He began to feel like a stranger in his own house, like he shouldn’t be there. Maybe it was better to turn around and go back to his room so he wouldn’t interrupt where he was not required. He took a step back in an attempt to return, but the rest of them noticed his presence.

“Ah, Demian!” Lucianne said, immediately getting into the house and heading up the stairs. “How do you feel? I heard you were sick.”

“I’m feeling better, thanks,” he said, trying to smile, but it vanished after realizing that the blond boy was at the door, looking inside as though not daring to enter.

His face must have unconsciously displayed rejection, because Samael seemed to sense it and decided to stay out of the house.

Before he could say anything, Lucianne had already climbed up, standing one step below him. She raised her hand to his forehead, catching him off-guard.

“Well, it seems the fever’s gone, that’s a good thing,” she said, smiling with relief.

“See? Thanks to the infusion I made! I told you it would work!” Lilith said with a victorious air.

“Well, to tell the truth I already feel better, so…if you don’t mind I would like to rest a little, so you can leave. I guess you have better things to do.”

They looked at each other, wondering if it would be okay to leave him by himself.

“It’s true, we have some pending issues,” Samael said, intending to leave just as Demian suggested. The others seemed torned, but with one significant glance they seemed to understand that by staying there, they wouldn’t be able to talk about their secret matters.

“Well, got to go for now, I guess, but I’ll leave you today’s notes. You gotta thank me for paying attention to class this time.”

Mitchell quickly went up to give him a notebook and then back to the door, where they had already begun to troop out of there, waving him off.

“Will you be okay?” Lucianne asked with concern, still quite undecided to follow the others. “Don’t you want me to stay?”

Several eyes fell immediately upon them with incredible timing, as if giving another kind of connotation to that offer.

“No, really! It’s not necessary! I’m feeling all right,” he responded quickly to avoid misunderstandings.

“Okay, then…See you later,” she said with a smile, joining the others.

He watched them leave, leaning on the railing, with an unfathomable expression in his face. Marianne glanced briefly at him, and the door closed behind them.

Demian remained standing there for a few seconds until finally letting go of the railing and returning upstairs with apparent calm. He didn’t notice the spot where he had rested his hands moments before was now chipped.

Back home, Marianne checked the school website again, looking for more pictures of her parents while Samael ate milk and cookies, sitting on the floor, as was becoming his habit. From time to time his cell phone beeped to announce a new text that he immediately answered.

“May I know why are you receiving so many messages?”

“Oh, they’re from Angie. She sends me texts every day to ask how I am. It’s very nice of her.”

She only raised an eyebrow, knowing that he was completely oblivious as to what those texts meant, or at least what they seemed to imply. She didn’t want to make any rushed conclusions though, without first talking to Angie.

“I think we should consider Mitchell’s recommendation,” he added while leaving his cell to his side and taking another bite out of one of the cookies.

“The camp thing? Forget it! It’s not the right moment with my mom in the hospital and Lucianne’s dad practically a prisoner in his own house.”

“It would be a good opportunity to improve our skills, think about it.”

Marianne continued in denial, refusing to listen to any reason.

“Come on, nothing will happen to you in open nature, I promise.”

She just grunted and looked back at her laptop screen to continue going through the pictures. She had already saved them all, but still kept checking the site, though she had no idea what exactly she was looking for.

That night, the balcony window had been opened. Leaning on the railing, lit only by the moonlight, Demian stood rigid against the balustrade. His eyes stared down at a point in the garden where there was nothing but grass, a point where he saw a pair of topaz dull eyes and a lifeless body, tinging the grass with red.