The first thing they saw when they entered the gymnasium was Demian crouched next to Lester’s body, with his hand grasped as a claw onto his chest. His shoulders went up and down violently to the beat of his breathing and he had a wild look in his eyes. The look of a demon.

Marianne took a few steps forward and stopped short, retracting her helmet and exposing her contorted face. Demian’s expression flinched once he realized the way they were looking at him, starting to understand the reason. In their eyes he was a demon in rehab who had just relapsed in the worst way possible. Just like a junkie clung to his substance, he was still beside his victim.

He wanted to say something, to clear things out, that it wasn’t what they were thinking, but he couldn’t. After all, whatever he said it wouldn’t change the fact that they would always see him as a demon that could give in to his impulses at any given time.

“I knew it. I knew that sooner or later something like this would happen, but you didn’t listen!” Frank said in a condemning way. “And there you have it! Just like I warned you despite all the times you defended him! The confirmation that the fruit never falls far from the tree!”

“Shut up, Frank!” Marianne snapped angrily and suddenly headed towards Demian to everyone’s surprise.

“…Hey, hey! You’re going to allow that, wings?!” Frank said, pointing at her while she got underway.

Samael followed her closely, without taking his eyes from Demian and the motionless body to his side. He could not rule out any possibility.

Marianne knelt in front of Demian and looked into his eyes with an iron expression. He stared back, trying to find some glitter of disappointment in her eyes, but they were inscrutable.

“What happened? Who did this?”

A slight contraction in Demian’s face showed his surprise. She seemed not to blame him, or at least she didn’t discard any possible explanation. Innocent until proven guilty. But he was no innocent…

“…Did you do it?” Mitchell asked without moving from his spot.

Demian turned to him. He had said it. He had finally expressed what they all must be thinking at that moment. The confirmation was even more difficult than he imagined. He suddenly felt helpless, alone in a world where he didn’t belong and would never entirely accept him.

“Shut up, Mitchell, of course he didn’t!” Marianne blurted again, looking now at him with restless eyes, eager to trust him, but with an unavoidable hint of doubt. Demian’s features softened, but still felt a compression in his chest after discovering that note of doubt in her eyes. He finally shook his head in a gesture of denial.

“…They’re looking for me,” he replied while loosening the hand that held onto the boy. “…Again. They won’t rest until having me back.” His face flinched again, feeling the weight of the world over his shoulders. “I didn’t attack Lester, but I might as well have done it. I had it in front of me and couldn’t do a thing to prevent it.”

“Who did it?” Marianne asked again, feeling more relaxed after hearing he didn’t do it.

“It was a shadow,” he explained while the others came closer. “I couldn’t stop it; it didn’t keep a solid consistency and constantly faded in the air like a ghost.”

“And it took Lester’s gift,” Marianne said, and he nodded, feeling his head heavy.

“At first, he just seemed to collapse on the floor… and then I saw this shadow emerging from his body, like smoke. It was holding his gift in his hand… and it just swallowed it,” Demian explained, regaining control over himself. “He said that I would be back with them.”

“So… are they taking the gifts again?” Lilith asked, clutching her chest in a protective gesture.

“Why would they want to put them back together if Demian already knows who he is and still decided on his own not to be on their side?” added Lucianne.

“Because somehow the gifts kept me connected to the Legion of Darkness,” Demian replied, feeling mentally drained. “They were able to know where I was, maybe even what I did. And I could perceive them too, knew exactly how to get there. By expelling the gifts from my body, I cut the connection with them. They can’t reach me or summon me again.”

“Are they trying to establish the connection again, then?” Mitchell asked.

“It doesn’t make any sense, he would reject them again, isn’t it right?” Lucianne inquired, but Demian didn’t answer; he did not even understand yet how he had managed to expel the gifts in the first place, it just happened out of nowhere, and he wasn’t sure he could repeat it if it were the case.

“They’ll be back,” Samael finally intervened, and all eyes focused on him. “Whatever they’re planning, the only certain thing is that they’ll return.”

“And they’ll come for me,” Demian added, getting tense just to think about it. “They won’t stop; they will keep coming back and no one will ever be safe… You should have killed me back then when you had the chance. All of this would have been avoided.”

“Stop. Don’t ever say that again,” Marianne snapped with a scowl.

“Why not? It would be for the best. Maybe you should do it while there’s still a chance.”

“Don’t say that anymore! Stop feeling sorry for yourself!”

“It’s not self-pity, it’s reality,” Demian said with a huff. “Don’t you get it? If they gather all the gifts again, I’m not sure I could resist their power once more. It’s not only to restore the connection with the Legion of Darkness, but it also means to feel again that urgent need to destroy, to get rid of you.”

The others fell silent to hear that and Marianne gritted her teeth.

“He’s right. If no one dares to get their hands dirty, I offer myself. It would be for the greater good,” Frank said lightly, stepping forward while snapping his fingers.

“No one’s going to kill anyone here, okay?!” Marianne shouted, looking reproachfully at him, and then turning back at Demian. “And you, you can’t be serious! We don’t even know if that’s what they’re planning to do, and you want to sacrifice yourself already? You can’t give up that easily! We’ll fight! The next time that shadow appears, we’ll be waiting. Besides, you already resisted once, you can do it again. You’re entitled to be as human as you want, remember it’s your decision!”

Demian watched her amazed by her conviction. Despite the potential danger he represented, she was willing to give him her vote of confidence. Maybe that was all he needed, at least one person who wouldn’t give up on him. Just one. He took a slight boost to pull away from Lester’s body and sighed. His whole body seemed to relax, and he regained his human form.

“…What a fraud,” Frank muttered, folding his arms, grimacing in disappointment.

Marianne leaned on Lester’s body and watched him for a moment before placing her hands over his chest.

“Maybe everyone should get out of the gym. Once he’s got the surrogate gift, the last thing we want is that he sees us gathered here around him.”

As the rest walked to the door, Samael stood beside her.

Marianne looked back at the boy, opening her hands over his chest when suddenly Demian grabbed her wrist.

“Thank you… again,” he said with a serious face, immediately letting go afterwards.

She felt a twinge in her chest and could even felt her pulse throbbing in her wrist, but she managed to show a brief smile until he pulled away to let her do her job.

It had been a couple of months since she last used her power, so she hoped it hadn’t got rusty. She flexed her hands, forming a concavity, and right at the center there was a point of light that slowly grew into a sphere just like the gifts, only not so shiny. She pressed it into the boy’s chest until it left no more than a faint glow spreading across his torso. Lester’s body arched forward and gave a strong gasp. Samael quickly took Marianne’s shoulder, both vanishing under Demian’s gaze.

“Did you see it?” Lester asked while he helped him up, running his terrified look around. “I thought it had come back for me… That it had stolen my skills again… But I only fainted, right? It was just that.”

Demian’s face tightened as he remembered the first time Lester’s gift was taken. His desperate attempts to regain his skills, and how he did nothing but fail again and again. He didn’t know if he could stand it now that he was aware of what was going on, especially feeling he was partly to blame.

“You better get some rest. Maybe that’s what you need right now,” Demian suggested, trying to sound calmed. Lester nodded, pale and distracted, and headed to the locker room with faltering steps.

Demian stood in the middle of the track, watching him walk like he was going through a hangover, and every time he saw him stumble, his sense of unease increased. He had no idea what to do now, but he was determined to eliminate that demon the next time. They could not force him back to the Legion of Darkness, not even with all the gifts in the world. He would reject that part of him as many times as necessary, yet a small inner voice kept reminding him that while he was still alive, they would keep coming back for him. They would never stop.

“What do you think?” Marianne asked at the intersection.

The angel had been too quiet since they saw Demian under his demon form. Anyone would think he was distracted, but he seemed alert, and his eyes reflected an intense mental process. He then gave her a look that confirmed all his fears carried out from the period of peace.

“It’s just as I thought. The Legion of Darkness will never give up on their heir.”

“…But that’s not the only thing you’re thinking, right? Do you agree with Frank? That the best option for everyone would be if Demian…?” Samael kept silent and she frowned. “You can’t just brush off his effort. He’s really trying. He’s been proving to us that he can live a normal life.”

“I’m not saying he’s not trying. But I’m worried that all of you could lose your gifts if they’re really collecting them again,” Samael replied. “And just as he said… he won’t be able to control himself if they join him back.”

“He’ll do it, I’m sure. We just have to trust and let him know that he’s not alone.” Samael nodded without erasing his expression between introspective and worried. “…That’s not it, right? There’s more.”

“It’s just… since we’re here I’m having this strange feeling. As if I’ve entered in a bubble and something’s been calling me from outside, but I don’t know what or where that calling comes from.”

“Perhaps… the Superior realm is trying to send a message?”

“I don’t know,” he shook his head unable to change his concerned face. “You better be more careful from now on. Try not to be alone. We can’t afford to lose your gift again.”

“Don’t worry. I think we all feel the same.”

“I’ll walk you to your classroom, maybe that shadow is still wandering around here.”

Marianne rolled her eyes. She should have seen it coming, he was now in guardian mode. They both headed to her hallway. It was time for a new class and, apparently, she was already late.

“Maybe then we can later talk about what happened today,” she said after reaching the door.

Samael stopped, slightly frowning. He had started to detect a disturbance in the atmosphere, some sort of magnetic force, and a buzz, undetectable to the human ear. He would have probably missed it had it not been for the growing anxiety on his chest. Was it coming from inside that room?

“…Did you hear me? Well, anyway, see you then,” Marianne finished, knocking on the door, and as it opened, he got a brief glimpse of the entire class.

His gaze focused on the back, settling on the girl with the various shades of blue hair. For a split second their eyes met, and he thought to see a gleam in her eyes just before she turned to the front with icy stone face.

Samael’s brow furrowed in confusion as the door finally closed, blocking the view. He didn’t know what that meant and who that girl was, but there was something about her. Was it related to the alteration he perceived in the ambience or had it been a coincidence? He had this feeling before, he was sure of it, but he couldn’t remember when or where. Aware that he couldn’t just stand there, he decided to turn around and go back, with the intention to find out whatever he could about that girl.

“Hey, have you been to town? We could show you some fun places.”

Several boys approached Addalynn after classes.

“I’m not interested,” she replied without even looking up, just focused on keeping her own belongings, like a ritual.

“Come on! How do you know if you haven’t tried it before? We’re having a party tonight. We would like you to come,” the boys insisted, eager to establish contact with her, but the girl didn’t even answer. “…Well, if you change your mind, here’s the address.”

One of the boys held out a card and placed it on the desk. She winced and backed away to avoid any contact while methodically tidying up her things, closing her bag and turning immediately to Vicky.

“Givicha, can we go now?”

“Um… er… sure. Let’s go find my brother and we’re off,” she answered, looking around to see the other’s reactions. Several girls in the front of the class were already whispering while several eyebrows were raised. She tried to show a resigned smile while they both left the room. “…I guess we’ll see you tomorrow.”

Just a few seconds later, the guy with the glasses also stood up and walked out of the classroom without looking at anyone.

“You must admit that not even I behaved like that,” Kristania said while heading to the door and letting out a chuckle that sounded more like her old self even though she tried to sound funny and self-deprecating.

Well, at least that girl wasn’t trying to make anyone’s life miserable, Marianne thought to herself.

“See you tomorrow,” Kristania said with an odd, twisted smile, and a glint in her eyes that didn’t inspire Marianne’s trust.

“What’s your problem, Lilith?” Angie asked once there were no witnesses left.

“What? What are you talking about?”

“You didn’t speak or even glanced at Vicky once. It’s so unlike you,” Marianne added to the recriminations.

“…I have no idea what you mean. I’m trying to be a model student this year. If I want to get into a good college someday, I need to improve my grades, isn’t that what you always tell me?” Lilith rebutted, pretending to be unaware while the girls just exchanged glances, acknowledging she was making it up, but decided to avoid the drama for the day.

“You’re still gonna stay at my house tonight?”

“Yeah… about that…” Marianne said while crossing the door. “…I’m under the impression that Samuel would want us to stay close for a while, you know, at least until we solve this issue with the ‘gift-eater’ shadow.”

“Do you mean he wants to be there too?” Angie asked with a face that, needless to say, showed how happy it made her.

“Bu-But… boys in my house? Overnight?” Belgina, by contrast, seemed to panic at the thought.

“Relax; he didn’t say exactly that, just that we shouldn’t be alone at any time for now, you know, to prevent any ambush.”

“Does he expect us to be glued to each other all the time? It’s gonna be difficult with all the different things we need to do in our daily routine,” Lilith said acting normal once Vicky was out of sight. “For example, I need to work at the cafeteria, are you all gonna wait until I finish my shift?”

“I’m sorry, but now that my annoying brother is also here at school, I have to make sure he makes it home safely.”

“Or just let him hang out with us. There’s not much to keep secret from him anyway, right?” Lilith said nonchalantly and Marianne snorted at the thought of him as a pesky fly hovering around them.

“…I’d rather let him know it in theory than a direct witness.”

“Shouldn’t he already know all about the birds and the bees?” Frank appeared behind them as they walked down the hall. Lucianne walked beside him, trying to fasten her pace to keep up with them.

“…You don’t even know what I’m talking about and you shouldn’t be here, so you can’t talk.”

“Oops, sorry! I didn’t know I had to ask for your permission to enroll in this school. I thought it was the St. Pearl not the St. Grumpy’s School for Curmudgeons,” Frank snapped with his usual snarky tone.

“Don’t you think we should all be talking about what happened today?” Lucianne intervened to avoid an argument, but before anyone could respond they reached the intersection and saw several students in groups, whispering to each other as they looked askance at the couple of girls that stood at one side of the door.

In one of those little groups, they could see Kristania watching them intently, as if analyzing them or perhaps comparing hairstyles and deciding in her mind that she wore it better.

Demian then walked down the stairs, followed closely by Mitchell and Samael a little behind. He looked more composed and once he reached the bottom of the stairs, his eyes rested upon them, fresh out of the hallway. He slowly curled up a smile to convey that everything was fine, at least for now, and Marianne tried to respond with a smile too, only to be interrupted by Vicky.

“We’re here!” Vicky waved her arms to get his attention, drawing the already captive audience’s prying eyes in passing.

Demian gave them one last glance before approaching his sister and Addalynn who stood like a statue, ignoring the many eyes practically on top of her. After an exchange, the three of them walked out under the general scrutiny of the rest of the students, including Kristania, who suddenly seemed interested.

“…Who was that girl?” Samael asked with his eyes fixed on the door.

“I don’t know which one you’re talking about, but the one by Demian’s side was his sister Vicky, and the other in front of them was a friend of hers from London, Addalynn.”

“…Addalynn,” Samael repeated with a mysterious tone and Marianne looked at him, puzzled by his sudden interest.

“Demian’s so lucky to live under the same roof as those two girls!” Mitchell said after approaching them.

“One of them is his sister,” Marianne replied.

“Weeeeeeeeell… not technically. Don’t forget he’s adopted,” he said shaking his head. “It reminds me of a movie I saw a while ago in the academy…”

“Your depravity knows no bounds,” Marianne rebuked with a disgusted face and then looked at her watch. “…Well, is it okay if we’re at your house at seven, Belgina?”

“You’re throwing a party in your house, babe? We’re invited, right? If so, I won’t be going to Aldric’s party tonight! I prefer more intimacy.”

“I’ll bring booze and cigarettes,” Franktick said, slapping him on the back. Belgina instantly shrank in silence, trying to hide behind the girls.

“Don’t even think about it! It won’t be a party,” Marianne set things straight. “We will spend the night at Belgina’s to keep her company, and we thought we should all meet at seven to discuss… what happened today. But right after ten, boys will have to leave, okay?”

“Worst is nothing,” Frank shrugged.

Loui went out of the middle school hall, crestfallen and shuffling.

“…Time to go. See you at seven,” Marianne finished, beckoning Samael to follow her. He went after her and reunited with Loui. “…I know that face; your first day sucked, huh?” The kid just let out a growl and she resisted the urge to mock him. “…Welcome to St. Pearl.”

Once at home, Samael made a gesture to become invisible, but Marianne stopped him, laying a hand on his shoulder, shaking her head.

“You don’t need to anymore; remember you’re part of the family now.”

Samael tried to relax and gave a deep breath. He still wasn’t used to the idea of not having to hide any longer.

“…Are you okay? You seem distracted. You also have the first-day-of-school syndrome?”

Loui snorted and Samael just shook his head and tried to smile.

“…It’s nothing,” he assured, stepping forward, and she didn’t insist.

When they opened the door, they found a couple of suitcases on one side of the stairs.

Marianne blinked in confusion and then saw her father in the living room, sitting as if waiting for them.

“…I’m glad you came. I need to talk to you,” he said with his usual ‘everything’s fine’ smile, but something in his tone indicated that it wasn’t.

“…I’ll leave you alone,” Samael said, quickly climbing the stairs while Marianne and Loui headed to the living room hesitantly, taking a seat on the middle couch.

“Where’s mom?” Marianne asked, having a bad feeling.

“She went shopping; she’ll be back home soon. I need to tell you something before she returns.”

“What about those suitcases under the stairs?” Loui seemed almost afraid to ask. Noah did his best to show his warmest smile, but that only turned on their alarms. “…Are you leaving? Again?”

Marianne remained completely silent and expressionless. She was no longer there but far, far away.

“More like moving out,” he clarified, still smiling, though it seemed a little harder to keep. “You know… things hadn’t been quite right between your mother and me lately, and since I’m staying, I can tell how much it bothers her, so I’ll go look for a place to stay.”

“But… will you be out of town? Are you leaving us again?” Loui questioned him, pinning his fingers to the sofa as if to avoid being ripped from there. Noah let out a slight laugh that Marianne couldn’t fathom.

“…I couldn’t leave you. I’ll stay in a hotel for now. I booked a room a couple of hours ago, I’ll leave you the address, so you can reach me anytime you want,” he said, extending a card to them and Loui ended up taking it since Marianne didn’t even move. “I’ll be there until I find a place.”

“Why can’t you stay here? Mom would understand, it’s been like that for the last month,” Loui insisted, looking for an excuse to retain him.

“Things don’t work that way, champ. But this doesn’t mean you won’t see me again. I’ll be coming for you. We’ll eat together, whatever you want to do.”

Loui kept quiet, deeming his effort useless, and they stood silent until Marianne finally seemed to react.

“What will happen to Samuel?”

Noah looked at her, puzzled by her question, and Loui decided to support her just to have something more to say.

“Yeah, what about cousin Samsa?”

Marianne nudged him to stop calling him that, but the child didn’t budge.

“He can stay here if he wants, this situation has nothing to do with him. He seems well adapted in the days he’s been here, so it wouldn’t be fair to drag him out with me.”

Marianne nodded without adding anything else. She remained undaunted in front of him, as if only waiting for a signal to leave. Loui seemed resentful that she wouldn’t support his mission to keep their father from leaving.

“…That’s all I had to say. I’ll take the luggage to the car,” Noah finished with a sigh, outlining another of his trademark smiles and going out of the living room.

“…It’s official, this is the worst day ever,” Loui muttered, leaping up from the couch.

Marianne remained there in that rigid position and unchanging expression.

She didn’t even wait for him to leave; she just walked up the stairs and went straight to her room. Samael was already there, sitting at her desk.

“I heard everything.”

“…Of course you did,” she snapped with a snort, setting her school bag on the bed and dropping heavily on the mattress.

“Do you need anything?”

“Right now, I just want to be alone.” Samael didn’t move from his seat, so she sighed and sat up. “…You won’t do it, right?”

“I’m not leaving you alone while we’re not sure of this new demon’s intentions,” Samael said decisively. “At least, in case they get the other gifts, you may temporarily replace them, but if they get yours again… we could do nothing about other attacks… or get you back in any case.”

She didn’t respond, just looked straight at him for a moment until huffing again and dropping back on the bed.

“…Then you’ll have to excuse me for the next minutes, because I’m not talking, and I don’t want to hear a word. I’ll go into a catatonic state and I don’t want to be interrupted until it’s time to go to Belgina’s, okay?”

Samael just nodded; after all, he also needed a quiet moment to think. They remained in silence for a while, each one immersed in their own bubble of meditation. It wasn’t even uncomfortable; it was like going back to an earlier stage when he was still inside her mind, before being able to hear him. Finally, she was the one who broke the silence.

“…Is it difficult?” Marianne suddenly blurted, taking him out of his reverie. “To be like you, I mean. No parents, no family, no roots or any past at all.”

Samael thought about it for a few seconds and at the end he just shrugged.

“I know no other way of life, so I can’t tell. I guess I’m already used to.”

“Sometimes I wish I’d have no family or attachments. I wouldn’t have to worry then,” she let out, immediately feeling guilty for saying it out loud, and she suddenly got up as if it was enough of her time out, sitting on the edge of the bed. “… Well, tell me then, what is it about this girl?” Samael looked confused at her. “Come on, you asked me about her for a reason. Addalynn. Tell me what’s up with her.”

He pondered on it for a few seconds, looking for a reason, but the truth was that he didn’t even know why he was suddenly interested in her.

“I don’t know. She just caught my attention for whatever reason.”

“Really?” Marianne raised her eyebrows in disbelief but decided to accept his answer and leave it that way. “If you say so. Well, time to go. Off to Belgina’s.”

The meeting went according to the plan, though Belgina looked uncomfortable with the presence of the boys, and even worse when Frank showed up with several boxes of pizza and a carton of beer, earning him a round of disapproving glares.

“…What? We have to eat something, don’t we?”

“I’m sure the beer was unnecessary,” Lucianne objected.

“A little treat here and there doesn’t hurt,” Frank replied with one of those smiles he used every time he wanted to get away with something and then he took a beer.

“There’s no way you got them legally,” Marianne rebuked, squinting accusingly.

“I don’t know what you mean, my ID here says otherwise,” he shot back, pulling out an ID from his pocket while sipping from the can.

“Yeah, sure. It also says you’re a war veteran.”

“And aren’t we all to some extent?” Frank added with a sly smile and Marianne responded with a huff. Mitchell decided to follow his lead by taking another beer and started to distribute them to whomever wanted.

“…I’ve never tried the ones from this country, but let’s see how they taste,” Mankee said, hesitant to accept it. The girls chose to stay away from it but were surprised to see Lilith taking one.

“Are you serious?” Marianne gave her a reproachful look and her smile widened as if she had been caught in a mischief.

“Hey, he’s right! A treat a year doesn’t hurt.”

“Here, wings. You can’t miss the pleasure of a good human beer,” Frank said, offering one to him, but before Samael could take it, Marianne stood in their way.

“Not a chance. I won’t let you corrupt him; stay your worldly vices away from him,” Marianne warned him, and both Mitchell and Frank laughed out loud.

“Whatever you say, grumpy! We should eat the pizza before it gets cold,” he suggested, getting comfortable while Mitchell helped with the boxes. Minutes later they were all arranged around the japanese table, with boxes of pizza on top of it, and them sitting on the floor.

Belgina had tried to sit as far as possible from Mitchell, and whenever he tried to speak to her, she merely hid behind Marianne and Lilith.

“Okay. Time to get serious,” Frank said, leaving his beer aside and shaking his hands after finishing the last slice of pizza. “Who here thinks that the little dark prince may eventually become a danger to everyone… again?” Everyone kept silent and exchanged glances. “…Oh, come on! I can’t be the only one! He’s not here, you’re not going to ‘hurt his feelings with your doubts’, you can be honest! Come on, wings! I’m sure you agree with me!”

“Not that there’s no chance of that happening,” Samael said, and Marianne scowled at him, thinking that he would agree with Frank, “…but I think his intentions make the difference. If he wanted to kill us, I think we would have the right to defend ourselves… but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Perhaps the only thing we can do by now is rely on his willpower.”

Frankt clicked his tongue and crossed his arms, sulking in his place.

“Don’t say later I didn’t warn you,” he snapped crankyly, grabbing back his beer and giving a drink.

“Let it go, Frank. You can’t keep having a grudge against him,” Lucianne added, trying to reason with him, but it seemed to upset him even more.

“…And the meeting ends here for me. See you later,” Frank finished, getting up and marching to the door.

“Frank, stop. Don’t do this, please,” Lucianne said, trying to get him back.

“Too late, I’m gone,” were his last words before slamming the door on his way out. Lucianne let out a long exhale, leaning discouragedly on her knees.

“…Seems like some things never change,” Marianne said after a few seconds.

“Well, his loss, at least he left the beer. Do we play the bottle?” Mitchell intervened, dragging the carton with the remaining bottles and before anyone could even answer, Marianne made a gesture with her hand and the carton flew out through the open window. “…That was rude.”

“If you want them so much, go get them. Right now, we shall discuss our plan in case that shadow appears once again. So, you decide if you stay, or you’ll keep Frank company.”

“…Relax! Geez! You should control that temper!” Marianne made another gesture with her hand and Mitchell received a slap on the head from his own can. “…Ouch! Okay, okay, I’ll shut up!”

Planning was not as fruitful as expected, however. Without having seen the smoke demon before, as Demian had described it, they had no way of really knowing how to proceed. Although, the idea didn’t please them, they needed to see it in action.

And so, another meeting ended without getting anywhere. The only point they had in common was to trust in Demian’s self control. Even Mitchell suggested to include him in their meetings, which Marianne supported immediately, but Samael was unconvinced, deciding to leave the topic for another time.

When the clock hit ten, it was time for the boys to leave.

“So soon? I even came ready to guard you all. Seriously, I could stay in the living room, I won’t care.”

Belgina immediately dug her fingers into the nearest arms she could find, being Marianne and Angie the unfortunate recipients.

“Not a chance. No boys after ten. Time to go,” Marianne insisted, pointing at the door.

“Are you really going to accept this, Samuel?” Mitchell asked as he walked reluctantly towards the exit.

“While they stick together, I have no problem.”

“Shouldn’t we then like… stay together in one place too?” suggested Mankee, suddenly feeling insecure.

“We don’t have any original gift, I don’t think we should worry,” Samael said, as if they weren’t important enough.

“…That hurt, you know?”

“Stop complaining. See you tomorrow at school. Don’t be awake for too long,” Marianne finished before closing the door. Only then Belgina finally relaxed.

“If my mother knew, she would be very angry.”

“Don’t exaggerate; it’s not the first time we’ve all gathered here, in case you forget.”

“Yeah, that was… a rather strange time for me,” Belgina said, as if ashamed of it, and the others gave her questioning glances.

“…Is there something you’re not telling us, Belgina?”

“Nothing! We should get ready to sleep. Did you bring everything?” Belgina said with an urgent tone, as if trying to avoid the topic, but the girls seemed more than aware of it, so they began to concoct a plan to get it out from her.

“Well, then… what’s the deal with Frank?” Lilith asked once they were already settled in Belgina’s bedroom, the floor full of pillows and blankets, each one taking up a space of their own.

“…What do you mean by that?” Lucianne seemed taken off guard; they were supposed to interrogate Belgina, not her.

“You know, are you going out or not? Is he your boyfriend? Friend with benefits…?”

“Lilith!” Lucianne exclaimed, abashed.

“Come on! You can tell us. We’re among gal pals, it won’t come out from here,” Lilith insisted while braiding her hair. “Have you even kissed?”

Lucianne flushed and immediately shook her head.

“…We’re friends. Friend’s don’t kiss.”

“Really?” Lilith replied, raising an eyebrow as if to remind her of a certain event in the past when she was stripped off her gift. She got even redder and looked around the floor, following the pattern of the blankets surrounding them.

“…What I did while lacking the gift doesn’t count.”

“Maybe that’s what is bothering Frank,” Angie guessed, lying on her back and her head turned upwards. “That despite everything, he hasn’t been able to get rid of the ‘friend’ label while Demian…”

Marianne jumped up and went straight to her backpack without saying a word, abruptly interrupting the conversation. The others watched her intently as she rummaged inside to get her cell and check her messages. Realizing how they all looked at her, she stopped and stared back.


“Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” Angie apologized and Marianne frowned in confusion.

“…What? What are you talking about?”

“The thing about Demian, of course!” Lilith immediately saw an opportunity to focus on her now. “Confess! What’s up with you two? There’s obviously something going on because you’ve been texting each other all the time and always exchange glances as if you can talk telepathically… Or are you actually doing that? Have you already developed that ability?”

“Of course not! That’s some wild nonsense! We’re just friends and that’s it! Don’t try to read too much between the lines.”

“We thought it bothered talking about him and Lucianne…” Angie started, and Marianne interrupted her before she could end her sentence.

“I just wanted to check my messages! Stop making assumptions and let’s talk clearly! Okay, Belgina, tell us what’s up with you and Mitchell and why you’ve been avoiding him!”

All eyes turned immediately to Belgina, who froze at her direct question and began to babble, with fingers twisting around her own blanket.

“You can tell us; we won’t judge you. We’re among friends, after all,” Lucianne said, trying to be supportive.

“And if he did something, you can be sure we’ll make him pay slowly and painfully,” Lilith added, making a gesture of crushing something with her hands, causing a horrified expression from Belgina.

“Don’t frighten her, Lilith!”

“Tell us, Belgina. Why have you been behaving like that?” Marianne asked. “We thought you were hanging out pretty well before.”

“…Before we got our gifts back, you mean?” Belgina said and the girls looked mystified, though Lucianne seemed to catch it.

“…Ohhhh.” The other three girls glanced confused at them, waiting for an explanation.

“What is this? Did I miss something?”

“Well, as I said, what we did without the gifts doesn’t count,” Lucianne repeated. “…Especially if our behavior changed.”

“Do you mean…?” Marianne added and the bespectacled girl sighed, playing with her fingers, and staring at them.

“…While I was giftless, it seemed to me like I was walking through a dream. It felt unreal. Of course, I remember it… but then again, it’s like in dreams: you just accept whatever happens and the role you’re supposed to play.”

“I can relate to that,” Angie agreed.

“…I guess we’re alone on this, Lilith,” Marianne said since they had not undergone any change of behavior. “But then, why…?”

“Mitchell has done nothing wrong, at least that he’s aware of,” Belgina continued once she was set on course. “Although I allowed him to be near me back then, I can’t help thinking… that he somehow took advantage of my condition. And I just can’t bear the thought.”

“Oh, I get it now,” Marianne nodded.

“So, you mean you’re never going to talk to him, ever again? That will be difficult since we spend every day together, and now even more with this gift-eater demon,” Lilith intervened.

“I… I don’t know,” Belgina admitted, feeling confused.

“You’ll have to talk to him eventually or he’ll never understand what he did wrong,” Lucianne advised.

“…I can’t think about it right now,” Belgina shook her head and closed her eyes. “…I can’t talk to him.”

The girls sighed at her refusal but decided not to keep pushing.

“…Well, at least there’s a reason for your behavior,” Lilith said, dropping her head on the pillow after finishing braiding her hair, even though it remained a tangle. “Goodnight.”

The rest of the girls didn’t seem keen on sleeping yet, but now that Lilith had settled, they decided to follow her lead. Marianne turned off the lights and went back to her nest of blankets and pillows, taking the cell with her. She tried to soften the light from the screen while reading her messages again and again, but it was still visible through the blanket.

“Are you serious? That’s how you’re going to spend the night, cell-addict?”

“I’m not a cell-addict! I’m just trying to set the alarm for tomorrow,” she excused herself while passing the screens.

“Either that or you’re waiting to receive some new text…” Angie teased her.

“I’m not waiting for any message! There! I turned it off, happy?”

The dim light through the blankets suddenly went off and silence followed for the next minutes until the sound of an incoming message was heard.

“Oh, it finally arrived,” Angie added, and a few giggles were heard around, mixed with Marianne grumblings.

“There are people trying to sleep here!” Lilith yelled, throwing a pillow.

“Hey!” Marianne protested, taking the pillow, and throwing it back to her, but it fell over Angie and she responded the same way, launching the pillow blindly, followed by a muffled blow and a groan that sounded like Lucianne.

It soon became a pillow fight in the dark. Pillows flew from one side to the other, soft/comfy blows amid laughter and screams until they all eventually ended up exhausted between the mess of feathers they had created.

A small light turned on and they all looked at the source. Marianne checked her mobile again.

“…Nearly two in the morning. We’ll be dying in the middle of the class.”

“And all because of one single text. I hope it was worth it.” Marianne just grunted in response and proceeded to switch off the device. “What did the message say anyway? Was it Demian?”

“Good night!” Marianne finished, refusing to play along, and pulling the blanket over her head. The girls just laughed, and Marianne eventually threw her pillow to shut them up, starting another pillow fight.

This, of course, did nothing but fulfilling her prediction the next morning when they were walking to school with sleepy faces and deep gray circles around their eyes. It did not even seem strange to them when they found their classroom almost empty.

When they began to come to their senses, they noticed that several of their classmates hadn’t arrived yet, not even Kristania who used to be always on time.

“Isn’t it weird? It’s still the second day and they’re already skipping classes.”

“Maybe we weren’t the only ones having little to no sleep last night,” Marianne conjecture.

“Wow, it seems that the party lasted all night,” Vicky said, walking in and seeing half the classroom empty.

The girls greeted her while Lilith immediately plunged into an absolute silence, her eyes fixed on her hands.

Vicky’s face clenched, but she took a breath and smiled again, heading towards the desk she had taken the day before. Addalynn was behind her with that unfazed expression that seemed carved in marble. Unlike her friend, she did not bother to greet anyone or even glance at them. There was some sort of robotic aura to her.

“Is it usual to skip classes here? We couldn’t even think about that in our old school! If we dared to be late, we received all kinds of punishments like cleaning the whole school for a week.”

“A party remains the most feasible theory,” Angie nodded, slightly twisting her head since Lilith was in the middle seat.

“You know what? I’m thinking of throwing a little meeting this weekend. For my birthday. Would you like to come?”

“Sure!” the girls answered immediately, except for Lilith.

“…What about you? Will you come?”

Lilith stiffened. Her eyes fixed on the desk, not daring to look away. She could feel everybody else’s staring at her, especially those expectant topaz eyes; eyes that were always fixed and dull in her nightmares. Dead as their owner. She swallowed and tried to banish that image from her mind.

“…I’ll think about it,” she dryly replied.

Vicky looked even more confused by her curt response and just nodded with a flickering motion before starting to scribble into a page. Lilith noticed her friends looking at her but pretended not to and just stared blankly at her notebook.

Suddenly the alarm of the four girls’ cellphones went off; they were receiving a text at the same time. The girls saw their screens and exchanged glances of recognition.

They rushed out and headed to the intersection, where no one else but Samael and Mitchell were standing in front of the stairs while Demian was sitting on the steps, with a distant expression. Lucianne and Frank also joined them, even though the latter seemed reluctant at the sight of Demian.

“…What? Now we’re also sharing our secrets with him? Will we name him honorary member of the team and offer a tea party in his honor?” Frank snapped, practically spitting out the words, and Demian just rolled his eyes.

“Frank, stop!” Lucianne berated him.

“Quiet, please, this is important, and I think we should all hear,” Samael intervened before Frank would snap back. “…Tell them, Mitchell.”

“Well, maybe you’ve noticed that a lot people missed classes today, including my sister,” Mitchell began to explain. “Yesterday, when I got home, I found out that she had gone with her friends to a ‘small gathering’ and mom was already concerned because she hadn’t returned, but if you recall, I told you about a party at Aldric’s, which I finally decided not to attend in order to be with you, just so you see how thoughtful I am and how much I care about you, because any other would rather party on and drink their asses off without anyone telling them…”

“Straight to the point, Mitchell,” Samael interrupted him to keep him focused.

“Oh, yeah! Well, as I said, I didn’t think that much about it, so I went to sleep, and like at two in the morning, mom woke me up hysterical, saying that my sister had been taken to the hospital with other kids. At that point I thought she had finally matched her queen bee status with an overdose or something, but when we got there, she was fine, she was just under observation for smoke inhalation just like the others; there had been a fire in the party, though no one was seriously injured.”

“And what does that have to do with us? I mean, it’s okay that she’s your sister and you have to worry about her, but…”

“Poor Kri!” Lilith interrupted, clasping her hands in a silent prayer.

“Keep going, Mitchell,” Samael beckoned him to continue.

“Oh, okay! Well… while mom was scolding her and telling her that she would be punished until her forties, I asked what had happened, and she reluctantly told me that, indeed, she had been at Aldric’s house; his parents were out of town, so he had it all to himself. A lot of people showed up since he’s popular and all, and the place quickly became crowded. His band even played some songs. Anyway, the thing is that, when the party was in its peak, some people noticed that someone was walking around with a mask on, which they didn’t seem to care that much, just dimissed it as someone who wanted to act mysterious. But then there was a commotion and found several guys half unconscious saying that they were attacked by a guy in a mask. So, they tried to locate him, and that’s when the fire started, right where the instruments were settled. It was apparently a short circuit where they had plugged them. By the time the firemen and paramedics arrived, so did the police and stipulated that no one should leave the hospital until they finished questioning them. Most were unharmed, just some smoke inhalation, but there were about five boys that claimed to be attacked by the masked guy.”

The others went silent, trying to make sense of his story.

“…What are you implying? That a demon attacked them?”

“There are a lot of similarities, but that doesn’t mean it was. After all, none of them was stripped of their gifts, isn’t it right? Besides, if some demon had attacked them, we would have felt it, that’s our thing,” Marianne said, despite feeling unsettled by the event.

“…Maybe it was a copycat,” Belgina intervened. “The news broadcasted images of those demons as much as our own for a long time. There were even masks released and then banned to prevent further disturbs. It wouldn’t be surprising that someone decided to use one of those to do it.”

“That makes more sense,” Marianne said.

“You forgot something else, Mitchell,” Samael urged him to continue.

“My sister told me that she got to see the guy with the mask, who seemed very elusive; one moment she saw him at the front and then saw him at the back. He looked mysterious, but what caught her attention were his eyes. ‘Wolf eyes’ she said.”

Demian immediately lifted his gaze and stood up with a disturbed expression.

“…Wolf eyes, you said?”

“Yes, does it sound familiar to you?”

Demian didn’t answer, he recalled the memory of the amber-eyed demon trying to kill him as a baby, and then seeing him again when he was called at his father’s presence. He had attacked him and yet left him alive. But it didn’t make any sense; if he had been sent for him, why would he be wandering around a party, attack a few guys and start a fire? He didn’t even have stripped them out of their gifts, it didn’t seem the modus operandi of the Legion of Darkness at all. Could it be just a coincidence?

“What are you thinking, Demian? Does the description match the shadow you saw yesterday?”

He turned his attention to them and realized they were looking at him expectantly.

“…Could be. Though his eyes were rather a mix between feline and reptilian.”

“With all the fuss it wouldn’t be surprising they could be confused about it; anyway, it’s not like those are usual eyes around here,” Mitchell added.

“There are also contact lenses,” Lucianne said.

“Yet we can’t ignore this fact,” Samael said, adopting a serious pose. “…If it really was that shadow, then we must consider a detail that should be more worrisome: none of us felt his presence nor the attack.”

The silence that followed seemed a confirmation. That was really something to worry about.

“How are we supposed to trace him then when he attacks? If he can truly mask his energy.”

“You won’t,” Demian said. “There’s no way to know if it was a fluke, if it will happen again or if it was just a coincidence; the only thing you can do right now is to wait. If there’s another attack we’ll find out one way or another, until then you can’t do anything.”

“…He’s right,” Samael agreed and the others looked surprised at him.

“Are you serious? You, out of everyone, will be the one to agree with the demon prince? Have you lost your mind?” Frank questioned him with his uncompromising attitude.

“Frank, please…” Lucianne pleaded with a sigh of weariness.

“You can call me whatever you want, it won’t change the fact that I could have killed you, but I chose not to. My nature doesn’t make me a better or worse person than you are,” Demian snapped, fed up with his constant belittling.

The rest immediately arched their eyebrows at his unexpected response, and Mitchell added a mocking howl, so Frank immediately clenched his jaw and grasped his hands.

“…Well, you would have to be a person for that, demon!” Frank replied, losing his temper, and Lucianne quickly held him by the wrist, begging him to stop with her gaze. Franktick seemed more enraged and headed towards the exit, even though school wasn’t over yet.

“Frank!” Lucianne called him, but he didn’t listen, just disappeared in the distance. She wheezed in frustration.

“Don’t worry, let him vent,” Lilith advised, patting her on the back. Several teachers went out of their office and began to head to their classes.

“Time to disband, see ya later,” Mitchell said as they began to disperse, but instead of going up the stairs, Demian went down a couple of steps.

“…Marianne.” She stopped before turning around the hall and looked at him with a bemused face, while the rest of the girls also watched curiously. “…Did you get my text?”

Marianne was speechless for a few seconds. She could almost feel her friends’ eyes piercing through her head and she didn’t know how to react.

“…Yeah, sure. A little late, but I received it.”

Demian could also detect the weight of those eyes over them, making him uncomfortable, so he went up a few steps again, with his hand firm on the railing.

“…We’ll talk later,” he finished and she nodded, but felt her neck so tense she could almost hear it crack at the slightest move.

They finally parted ways and everyone went to their respective classrooms. The girls looked at Marianne with big smiling faces as much as she tried to ignore them, while the boys went up the stairs. Samael suddenly stopped in the middle, glanced around, and since the two boys were the only ones nearby, he decided to disappear in a flash of light.

“…Hey! Where are you going?” Mitchell said, but he was already gone. “…What the hell is he thinking now?”

Demian said nothing, just glanced at the point where the angel had been and then continued on his way, while Mitchell remained with his feet on different steps of the stairs, undecided whether to follow him or wait for Samael.

The angel went to the only place where he thought he could find some answers: the hospital. There were police officers inside, and even more people in the waiting room. Parents. It may not be so easy to enter the traditional way, after all.

He tried to concentrate and open his mind to any flow of information that could guide him to the guys from the party. At least one, but as soon as he picked up the thought of a nurse in charge of the interns’ area, he knew right away where to go to. He didn’t want to be exposed to any surveillance camera, so he went to the bathroom and once checking there was no one inside, he became invisible. The next part was the easiest one, he simply followed the nurse he had tracked in his mind —Lilith’s mother—, who led him to a room. Five boys rested on their beds, eyes closed, with bandages and I.V. They had to be the attacked boys.

Once Lilith’s mother checked their condition, she left the room and Samael took the moment to become visible again. He would need all the energy he could muster for what he was planning to do.

He watched the unconscious boys in their beds and tried to decide which one he would start with. The one who looked more injured perhaps, the one with the bandaged head.

He approached and, after giving a brief overview to his condition, he grabbed his wrist. He wasn’t sure if it would work; he’d only tried once with Marianne and she was conscious, but at least he had to give it a try.

Haze, there was a thick layer of it. The echo of distant voices and sudden flashes of images mingled with the smoke. He had to focus, try to find the memory he needed to access. The distant voices became louder, but he didn’t understand anything; it was a racket joined with loud music. Incomprehensible noise. Suddenly, among the mist, he glimpsed a series of flashing lights intensifying. The fog began to lift and, from one moment to another, he went from being alone in the darkness to be surrounded by dozens of kids frantically jumping to the beat of the music, in the middle of a darkened space with several strobe lights, which made him look like in the middle of a frame-to-frame projection. He couldn’t even distinguish the faces around him between the noise, the strobe lights, and people moving around. He was feeling dizzy.

A static figure amid everybody’s rampant movements caught his attention. It was wearing a dark sweater with a hoody over his head, casting a shadow to his face. His hands thrust into his pockets. Each time the group of guys jumped, he could see it across the room, and from one second to another he wasn’t there anymore. He searched quickly with his eyes for some spot nearby he could have moved to, but he only saw bodies flailing with every jump, bathed in multicolor lights. And then he felt someone touching his shoulder. He barely turned around and felt a blow to the head, then everything faded to black.

He was back in the hospital room, holding the boy’s wrist. He had managed to see his memories of the incident, but still they hadn’t shown anything that could be helpful. He didn’t see the attacker.

The angel released the boy and gave a frustrated snort. He should try with someone else. He looked at the other stretchers and opted for the boy who seemed less injured, perhaps he had managed to defend himself and therefore had a better look of his attacker. He took his wrist and repeated the process until he was back at the party. He was now near the exit, close to the band playing, and therefore very close to the buffers. He had to cover his ears; the noise was unbearable. He glanced at the spot he had seen the hooded guy the first time and there he was. This time a little closer, so he could have a better look at the worn fabric of the hoodie and noticed that he seemed to be wearing a kind of mask below it, but the lights prevented him from seeing clearly. And suddenly he wasn’t there anymore; it had barely taken him a flicker to lose sight of him.

Samael tried to stand on tiptoe and look over people’s heads to find it, but only got a brief glimpse of the hoodie at the left end, and a few seconds later he saw it again on the right end. It almost seemed like there was more than one person with the same hood trying to elude him; but he knew what was coming next, he would surely attack the first guy, so he broke through the crowd to reach him.

In the heat of the party, his sight started to seem foggy; he didn’t know if it was because the memories were fading or because there really was smoke. Perhaps the fire had already started and no one had noticed yet.

When he finally reached the bottom, there was already a guy on the floor with blood on his head while people kept dancing a few steps away. With all the fuss they hadn’t even noticed the attack.

He looked around and finally saw it: the guy with the long coat and worn hoodie, right in front of his eyes. He took his hands out of his pockets and Samael noticed that, unlike demons, he had normal colored hands. He raised them to his hoodie and then took it off, revealing a harlequin mask in demon form. He was human. He had to be. But then he saw his eyes and shivered. A pair of bright amber eyes watched him under that mask… and seemed to be smiling.

Everything happened too fast; suddenly the masked guy shifted towards him and punched him in the stomach, leaving his fist for a couple of seconds longer than necessary. Despite being just a memory, Samael felt something burning inside and immediately broke the connection. He plunged back into his own body and let go of the boy’s wrist, taking his own hands to his stomach. The feeling was gone, but the memory was still there, inside that boy.

He had no explanation for it, but after that experience, he had a bad feeling. He watched the boy again and decided to take a look at his stomach, slightly lifting the robe he was wearing. His eyes widened, puzzled to see that right at the point where he had been hit, there was a black blotch, not like a bruise, but like a substance spreading beneath his skin. Then he decided to go back to the first guy and looked under his bandage. There was another black patch that seemed to take root in his own veins.

One by one he went to the rest of the boys and found that same type of bruising spreading in different parts of their bodies.

Samael paled.

The guy in harlequin mask was definitely not human, but neither seemed to follow the same pattern of the demons they had faced before. And even worse, he had gone completely undetected by them. What kind of being were they facing?