23. THE ALLURE OF THE WICKED
As Hollow came out of the vortex, stumbling like a wounded animal, he leaned against the wall and pressed his mutilated hands the chest in an attempt to keep the wound along his torso closed. A thick black substance oozed from it and spread through the slit as a mechanism to join his own body, but didn’t seem to work.
“That doesn’t look good.”
Hollow lifted his gaze, like burning coals in darkness, and saw the glint of a pair of silver eyes glowing in the shadows.
“What do you want, Ende?”
“That’s how you thank me for saving your life?” the other demon asked, moving a few steps towards him until he fully revealed himself.
He shared the same physical features as other demons like Umber and Hollow. His morphology was human to some extent, although the tone of his skin was greenish like rotting flesh, with several small gaunt veins streaking the periphery of his face, and the material that formed his clothing looked like it was made from the same substance oozing from Hollow’s wounds, molded in a way to remain fixed to his body.
“But that voice . . . ”
“Well, I basically offered some of my own power to get you out of the mess you got yourself into. But it was him you actually heard.” The wounded demon’s eyes narrowed, understanding who he meant. “He still needs you alive.”
Hollow didn’t answer and just refocused on the incision extended in his chest. Since it didn’t seem to close, he settled for the dark substance to cover it superficially, after which he concentrated on his hands. The same glop began to take the place of his amputated fingers, like spider webs intertwining to form new appendices. At least they would function as prosthetics.
“By the way, there are new orders,” the demon with the silver eyes spoke again, drawing his attention. “We must not kill the Angel Warriors for any reason. Someone else has to do it.”
Hollow seemed to twitch at the command, but tried to maintain a stoic pose while the other demon showed a hint of a smile where his lips were supposed to be.
“And I’ve been assigned as your temporary partner.”
Hollow’s eyes lit up again at the news. He didn’t need anyone’s help. He had been about to die, yes, he had underestimated those kids, but he had learned from his mistake and wouldn’t repeat it. That was a low blow to his pride.
“I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry, I won’t take over your mission. We still need to find the gifts as soon as possible,” Ende continued while his silver irises shone amidst his blackened eyes. “After all, I’m not at my hundred percent yet . . . not while my master is still missing. And even though you’ve committed to do everything without help, not even a single shadow at your disposal, you can consider me an ally. Two heads are better than one, don’t you think?”
The red-eyed demon tightened his jaw. He was aware that he couldn’t oppose a direct order from the top and he had to accept it. But in his mind, he was already planning various ways he could kill off those kids without having to lift a finger, at least what he had left of them.
“Where is the gift?” the other demon interrupted his musings, and Hollow recalled the moment he had lost the vessel during his battle against those kids. He had to return right away to get it back.
Marianne awoke at the first trumpet of the reveille. She stirred between her sheets to stretch and glanced towards the other bunk to see if the girls had awakened. Lucianne seemed to be the only one up, brushing her long hair as a daily ritual.
“Good morning,” she said as she turned in her bed.
Marianne made a motion with her head, eyes still narrowed and rubbing them, wishing to keep sleeping, but she eventually sat up to follow her example, though she only had to brush her hair once and that was enough for the rest of the day.
“Did you go out last night?” Lucianne suddenly asked while unraveling a long strand down her forehead.
“Huh?” She didn’t know how to answer that. She thought the rest were sleeping when she got out, but she didn’t want to keep hiding things from them after Samael. “I wanted to see the lights for a moment . . . even if it was from afar.”
“You could’ve done it with the others. It would have been less dangerous.”
“Yeah, well, now that you mention it, probably makes more sense than yesterday,” she responded with a sigh and started to pull out some clothes from her bag.
Angie was coming down from the top bunk and Marianne noticed her subdued face, just like she had the night before.
“Are you still upset with me about Samuel?” she finally dared to ask, and the four girls stopped what they were doing to look at her.
“You think we should?” Lilith asked and she just shrugged, prompting a snort from the blonde. “Of course not, you dummy! It only took us by surprise that you kept it a secret, but it’s not like you’ve committed a crime nor done something wrong.”
“Relax, it doesn’t change our perception of you,” Lucianne added.
“Really?” she repeated to make sure, glancing at Angie, but she looked away and continued flattening her sheets.
“Who’s upset?” Belgina asked, peering from the other top bunk, oblivious of the talk. Marianne sighed and returned to her suitcase, even if they didn’t seem to take it the wrong way, apparently something happened the night before that had changed Angie’s mind.
As they left the cabin, ready for breakfast, they found Mitchell and Samael on their way, waiting for them.
“Have you seen Demian?” Marianne asked, stopping in front of them.
“No. Why do you want to see him all of a sudden?” Mitchell said, wiggling his eyebrows with a devilish smile, and she grimaced.
“I’m just asking, what’s wrong with you?” she retorted, while the girls exchanged intrigued glances.
Suddenly they stared behind her, so she turned around curiously and saw Kristania several feet away, just out of her cabin along with her two friends.
She looked at her for a few seconds with an expression she couldn’t define, and then started to walk in their direction with steady steps. The rest feared that perhaps any previous restriction had gone overboard after losing her gift, and now she wouldn’t even stop at the risk of making a bad impression in the eyes of others. They even thought of blocking her way in case she was trying to finish what she had started the previous day.
But nothing had them prepared for what happened next. As soon as she was a few feet from them, she stopped short and Marianne raised her arms instinctively in a protective manner. When nothing happened, she peeked through her arms and found Kristania bent over submissively, something she thought she would never get to see.
She quickly glanced at the rest to see if her eyes weren’t deceiving her, but just like her, they all looked so astonished that they merely stood with their mouths opened in awe.
“Please, forgive me,” Kristania finally said, bewildering not only them but her own friends. “I did a despicable thing. I admit it was a nonsense fit of anger and I have no justification. But hopefully someday you may forgive me . . . what can I do to get your forgiveness?”
Marianne just let out a small sound coming from her throat, but didn’t get to formulate any coherent sentence. Kristania looked up without dropping her subdued pose and contrary to her usual fierce and haughty gaze, she now had a pair of fully regretful eyes, displaying a rare humility in her.
“Kristania, are you serious?” Tanis asked with a stunned expression.
“Are you feeling okay? Do you want us to take you to the infirmary or something?” Mitchell intervened too, not believing his eyes or his ears for that matter.
“I’m fine. In fact, I’ve never felt better in my life,” she said, straightening up again, a huge smile taking shape on her face. A smile that didn’t seem to suit her. “I’m even sure we could become friends if you let me.”
Had they been drinking something at that moment, they would have spit it out in sync. Marianne just opened her eyes wider, feeling that no words could come out of her mouth. Kristania then looked away, and following the direction of her gaze, they saw Demian getting out of the main cabin. When he noticed Kristania walking towards him, he slowed down and wondered if he should stay there or turn around and flee.
But just like she had done with Marianne, she stopped in front of him and leaned forward, making a bow.
“I’m really sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused you. I acted like a selfish, obsessive stalker and involved too many people who didn’t deserve it. I admit I’ve been infatuated with you for so many years that it has led me to do things I’m ashamed of now. I really hope you can forgive me, and I promise I won’t bother you again.”
Demian kept quiet, wondering whether it was a joke or maybe he hadn’t woken up yet. He glanced towards the others, expecting some explanation, and found the same baffled expressions he surely had as well at that moment.
“Please forgive me or I won’t be able to bear the guilt,” she insisted, raising her face and showing a rueful expression that didn’t fit her persona, the complete opposite to what she used to be.
“If it’s about yesterday, it’s not me you should apologize to,” Demian finally said, trying to put aside his perplexity.
“Oh, but I’ve apologized to Marianne already,” Kristania said, passing one arm over Marianne’s shoulder while she remained stiff as a statue. “I think we can be friends from now on, right?”
Marianne almost choked with her own saliva, looking shocked and bewildered, and likewise, Demian twisted his eyebrows, unable to believe his eyes.
“Kristania, seriously . . . what the hell are you doing?” Sela questioned her, worried that she had might hit her head or even worse.
“I’m doing the right thing, of course!” she said as if everything made sense now. She then moved on to Lucianne to keep on her trail of atonement. “My apologies to you too. I admit I was jealous of you going out with Demian, and when I saw you hanging out with my cousin, I suddenly felt like I had the chance to make you look bad in front of him.”
Lucianne was surprised at this revelation and turned quizzically to Demian.
“But it’s all in the past now! And I hope that just as I’ve spent so much time making your lives miserable, now you could allow me to do everything in my power to make amends for my horrible behavior. Especially you, Demian, I promise that I won’t be stalking you anymore or try to force myself onto you. If you like someone else, I’ll understand.”
“That . . . seems appropriate,” he said, trying to keep his mettle at the unusual circumstances.
“Great! I’ll go to the diner now. I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday.”
And once she said this, she walked away with the same determination as she approached them in the first place. Her minions followed her with some reluctance, unsure of what to think of her, while the rest were too shocked to speak. They finally chose to follow their example and go to the barn. Marianne, however, pulled her cousin aside.
“What was that about you hanging out with Mitchell’s cousin? Weren’t he bothering you?” she asked quietly.
“We just spoke. He handed me what we were looking for at the rally. I admit I was a little bit leery of his intentions, but . . . turns out he just wanted to know me because he thought he knew me.”
“And you believed him?” Marianne lifted an eyebrow. “Seriously, Lucianne, you should be more distrustful. We don’t know what to expect from him. Besides . . . you should know it could eventually lead to problems with Demian.”
Lucianne looked up uneasy and noticed Demian was ahead down the road and was also glancing at them, but turned to the front right away.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she muttered more to herself.
“I really don’t understand any of you,” she said, resuming her walk with a shake of her head.
Once in the barn, they took their bowls of cereal and sat at the same table, but the sound of another chair beside them caught their attention. Kristania was already sitting next to them.
“Hi, I came to join you. There’s no problem, right?”
The girls exchanged stunned glances and realized they had become the focus of the rest of the dining room.
“Kristania, this isn’t funny anymore!” Sela chided. The two girls remained idly several feet from the table as if it were radioactive.
“That’s okay because it’s not supposed to be!” she replied, ensconcing into the seat without a hint of shame, though no kind of malicious attitude could be perceived from her either. “Don’t be shy. Keep up whatever you were doing.”
The place kept silent, and a slight cough was barely heard in the barn while Kristania seemed to ignore the discomfort she was causing.
“Well, as you like!” Tanis finally snapped, turning around in sync with each other and immediately getting away.
“Don’t even worry about it, things like these were to be expected,” Kristania stated nonchalantly, stirring her spoon into the cereal with total disregard.
“Is it necessary for you to sit right here?” Marianne finally asked, unable to feel comfortable in her presence.
“It’s the least I can do after saying that all of you conspired to take my boyfriend away and break my leg in passing.”
They all were flabbergasted at her cynicism, however sincere she may be at the time. It suddenly made sense that their camp-mates always avoided standing near them. Lilith squeezed the spoon in her hand to the point of bending it, and Angie grabbed her shoulder to keep her at bay.
Marianne just grunted and rubbed her face in a desperate gesture. She just hoped that having breakfast with them after apologizing in every possible way would be enough atonement for her and would return to her exclusive circles where she was adored and treated like the queen bee.
Lucianne took the chance to check out the rest of the room. Demian was sitting in the corner of his table while Samael was at the other end, contemplating his cereal as if trying to find a shape to it, and Mitchell was between the two boys. After setting her eyes on the table Franktick used to sit on, she found out he hadn’t come to breakfast.
“For today’s activity, we’ve planned something special as a farewell. This time you won’t be competing with the boys, they’ll all be having their own activity. However, you will be competing against each other,” Luna said once she congregated all the girls. “The competition will be divided into six trials, therefore you must form teams with the same number of members. The winning team will get a fancy supper while the rest will have to settle with a bowl of cereal. Any questions?”
The girls seemed to have the intention to say something, but she didn’t give them time to do so as she continued talking.
“Well then, form your teams now.”
“Do we have to get someone else to join us?” Lilith asked and at that moment, Kristania appeared beside them.
“No need to look further, I’ll be in your team,” she said confidently, sticking to them as a gum to a sole.
“You gotta be kidding,” Lilith muttered under her breath.
“You don’t have to keep following us around to forgive you, we already did, okay? You don’t need to do anything else,” Marianne said, trying to keep things clear and get rid of her.
“But I don’t mind! I really want to be here. I feel like we can get along in spite of everything,” she said without a hint of irony or sarcasm.
They were speechless, and before they could even react or do something to keep her away from their team, Luna announced that all teams were already formed and there was no girl available.
“All right, teams! Now, if you follow me, we’ll get to the playground where the activity begins. Each member of the team will be responsible for one of the trials in their respective ‘station’, and just like relay races, once finished you’ll deliver the baton to the next member. And we’ll take as baton . . . this egg. This must remain intact throughout each trial, if it breaks you should immediately start over from scratch with another egg. It isn’t a race against time, but each team’s time will be measure, and those who complete all the tasks in the shortest amount of time will be the winners. Is that clear?”
They were virtually a few steps from the playground and nobody said a thing, so she decided to continue with her speech that seemed memorized.
“Well, follow me and I’ll explain what you’ll do specifically at each station! As you can see, the playground has been refurbished for a race. The start is here, one of the team members must run to the other side . . . taking this egg on a spoon, holding it with the mouth. Once getting to this point, which we’ll consider the second station, she should hand the egg to the second member, who will be responsible to fly a kite with the egg to the next station past this small wooded area —taking caution that the kite doesn’t get stuck in any branch— and then up to the campfire area where the third team member will receive the egg and then must build a fire from scratch with nothing but twigs and branches, after which she must boil the egg in the pot until it’s hard-boiled.”
She showed them a small pot while Lilith was already distributing everyone as they kept going.
“Oh, I forgot to mention, to light the fire you’ll have a hand tied up, other than that, you can use whatever you want, even your feet.”
The whispers and silent protests ensued, but she didn’t seem to care.
“Very well, then. As soon as the egg is hard-boiled, it’s time for the fourth member of the team to carry it from the entrance to the woods all the way down to the lake . . . keeping the egg over the head.” A new wave of discontent was heard though she ignored them completely. “Once she’s down the lake, it is the next girl’s turn to grab the egg and take it throughout the dock, rolling it with her feet . . . and also blindfolded.”
As they stood in front of the lake, listening to Luna’s instructions, Marianne looked nervously at the water. In broad daylight, it looked completely normal, and she could only hear the water softly waving.
“Finally, when she gets to the edge of the dock, she’ll be handing the egg to the last member of the team who will use the canoe we’ve left strategically in that place to transport the egg to the other shore where Benny will be waiting to make sure the egg is actually boiled. Oh, and only one paddle can be used. Is everything clear?” The faces of the girls showed nothing short of overwhelm, trying to process what they had just heard. “Well, you now have to decide who will take care of each station. You have ten minutes!”
“All right, listen, I have a strategy. It might work,” Lilith said, gathering the girls around her, except for Kristania. “Angie could start the race, after all she’s in the athletic team. Then Belgina with the kite, I don’t doubt she can make it ‘fly’.”
“You mean . . . using her special skill?” Marianne asked with suspicion and the blonde giggled.
“No! How can you think so? I’m just saying because at this point she’s the most familiarized with . . . wind blowing . . . and stuff. Anyway, carry on! Belgina deals with the kite and I can handle the bonfire . . . ”
“You’re talking about cheating!” Marianne stopped her again with a scowl.
“Oh, come on! We’ll just be relying on our skills, what we do well, not an external medium! So technically it’s not cheating!”
Marianne snorted and crossed her arms.
“Do whatever you want then,” she muttered.
“Perfect!” Lilith replied only to stay quiet again.
“ . . . And then?”
“That’s it, I have nothing else. I ran out of ideas.”
“I can take the egg over the head all the way to the lake,” Lucianne suggested, raising her hand. “I got used to walk straight as a child. My mother forced me to walk with books on my head to correct my posture.”
“And I guess that leaves me the lake, huh?” Marianne grumbled, certain that she would end back in the water with her luck lately.
“I can go in the canoe,” Kristania intervened and they all looked at her like they had forgotten she was there.
“Why would you want to?”
“I’m also part of the team, someone has to do it. And I want to show you that I’m truly sorry. I won’t let you set a foot on the lake. I swear.”
Marianne stared at her suspiciously, but didn’t object. It was finally decided who would take care of each station, so they only had to wait until the activity began.
Since no one else dared to start, they opted to be the first team, like guinea pigs.
Angie started the race, set the spoon between her teeth and put the egg in it, but as she took off, it flew out and crashed to the ground, forcing her to start over with another egg.
For the second attempt, she slowed down, trying to keep her body rigid from the waist up. It took a little longer than she first planned, but finally made it to the second station without dropping the egg.
It was Belgina’s turn next. She placed the egg in the small compartment underneath the kite, took the rope and sent gusts of wind to make it fly, easily leading it to the campfire, where Lilith waited anxiously for her. The kite came down in total control and balance towards the blonde, who took the egg from the compartment in perfect condition and quickly placed it in the small pot while she lit the fire. She just had to act a little and then it would be enough to light a spark with his fingers.
With her free hand and one foot, she pretended to stop a branch while rubbing another one and just after a minute she lit a spark with her fingers, bringing forth the fire. She let the pot until the boiling point —increasing the intensity of the flame for a faster cooking—, and took the egg to the edge of the woods where Lucianne was waiting.
“Hot, hot, hot! It’s burning! I hope your head is insensitive to the heat!” Lilith said as she handed her the egg. Lucianne had to put it on the fence after feeling the heat.
“Can I wrap it in something?” she asked Luna, who was following their every move.
“As long as you take it over your head . . . ”
She quickly searched her pockets and found the handkerchief she had taken from the notebook Franktick had given her. She decided to wrap the egg with it and once she managed to balance it on her head, went through the road all the way down, keeping an upright posture and followed closely by Luna to check that everything was going according to the rules. As she reached the slope, she began to go down with utmost care and suddenly caught a glance of Franktick sitting near the shore. For a moment, she lost her balance and everyone else thought she would fall, but immediately regained it again, always keeping her head straight. She went down on tip toes and kept her pace until reaching Marianne, who stood with her back to the lake to avoid looking at it, her attention fixed on her cousin’s movements, noticing her brief disturbance.
“Are you okay?” she asked as she stopped in front of her and leaned slightly so she could take the egg.
“I am. I’m more concerned about you doing this,” Lucianne added, pointing towards the dock and Marianne just sighed as Luna blindfolded her.
“I guess I can, I just have to walk straight and try not to step on the egg.”
“Good luck!” Lucianne encouraged her while Marianne set her bare feet on the boards of the dock and tried to locate the egg with the right foot.
Then she began to gently roll it forward, hoping not to crush it at each step and unsettled by the thought of Kristania waiting at the end.
The more she advanced, the more convinced she was that once reaching the edge she would stop acting so repentant and would show the claws again, pushing her to the lake to finish what she started. Despite knowing how ridiculous it seemed —especially with too many witnesses— she couldn’t help the feeling, which increased as she advanced.
“A few more steps and you’ll arrive,” Kristania said, and she jolted after learning she was that close to her. And once she felt her hands on her shoulders, she jumped and pulled away so quickly that she ended up stomping on the egg, breaking it. Luna immediately blew a whistle announcing that they should start again.
“Nooooo! We were doing so fine!” Lilith howled at the base of the slope, taking her hands to her forehead in desperation.
The young counselor made them return to their spots to repeat the whole process while Marianne had taken off the blindfold and panted, trying to regain her composure. Kristania looked at her, hurt by her mistrust.
“Are you still thinking I’ll push you at any given chance?” Marianne said nothing, just wheezed, distraught by her own reaction. “How can I prove to you that I’m honestly sorry?” After a few seconds of silence, she suddenly seemed to come up with an idea and stepped to the edge of the dock. “If it’s necessary, this may convince you then. A taste of my own syrup.”
After saying this, she jumped into the water before Marianne’s astonished gaze. She immediately approached the edge, holding the railing. The water was settling back again, making her think the mysterious force inside the lake had taken her. She turned sideways in search for others to help, but they all had come back to the start of the competition. There was no one who could help her.
She knelt down nervously in front of the water and kept swinging her arm over without even touching the surface, fearing it could pull her back into its depths, and just as the panic started to invade her, a liquid mass arose from the surface, making her jump back terrified, thinking the lake was trying to catch her again, but the mass began to straighten on the dock, revealing it was just Kristania dripping water.
“Is this enough?” she said while squeezing her hair and clothes.
“Are you insane? You didn’t have to do that!”
Kristania leaned closer, still leaking.
“But I had to. Now I have gone through the same as you, we’re even. You don’t have to be wary of me anymore.”
Marianne just rolled her eyes. In no way did that put them in the same position.
But her action had proved that the lake didn’t seem to represent a hazard to anyone but her, though she still didn’t understand why.
A few minutes later, Lucianne was going down the slope again, with her head very straight to keep the egg on top. Marianne ran to the beginning of the dock and waited for her to hand over the egg while Luna blindfolded her again.
“Relax your feet so you don’t lean too hard when you push the egg!” Lilith shouted from the top of the slope, her face red with exhaustion.
She shook her head in dissent and as she felt the pressure of the knot, started forward, discarding her initial thoughts about Kristania.
By the time she felt her shoulder being grabbed, she simply remained static to avoid any impulsive reaction. Afterwards, she took off the blindfold and saw Kristania up the canoe, and after making a sign with her thumb up, she started to row towards the other shore with just one paddle.
“How were we? What was our time?” Lilith asked, appearing next to Luna, trying to look at the timer she had in her hand.
“We won’t know until she reaches the other end,” Luna replied, constantly moving her hand to prevent her to see the screen.
Marianne’s mind was still occupied by the mystery of the lake though, one day trying to swallow her and the other as harmless as drinking water.
The canoe finally reached the end of the lake where they barely caught a glimpse of a small figure going to a flagpole and hoisting a flag. Luna stopped the timer and looked at the screen.
“10 minutes, 16 seconds.”
“Ugh, if we hadn’t repeated everything since the start!” Lilith concluded, sighing as if lifting a weight off her, while Luna kept watchful to the other side. A silhouette slightly taller than Kristania was next to her, checking something in his hands and after a few seconds, turned back to the flagpole and raised a new flag. This time a black one.
“Done. You’re not eligible for the win,” Luna determined, taking notes on a small notebook.
“Wait, what? What does that even mean?”
“The black flag means the egg wasn’t hard, therefore it doesn’t matter how long it took you, you didn’t complete the activity properly so you can’t be chosen to win,” Luna explained nonchalantly.
“Noooooo! It’s not fair!” Lilith wailed, mussing her hair in despair when her chance of winning vanished.
“And to think it was because you couldn’t even boil a simple egg,” Marianne said, raising an eyebrow with irony while Lilith was still bemoaning her inexcusable error.
“On with the second team!” Luna announced, raising her hand for everyone to follow her back to the start.
The girls began to go up the slope while Lucianne stayed behind and stopped at the decline, looking back to the shore where Franktick was sitting, looking at a specific point of the lake.
Then something square blocked his view. He focused his sight and noticed it was a handkerchief with Lucianne attached to it.
“It’s yours, right? You left it in the notebook. I had to give it back.”
He looked unfazed at her until a smile was drawn in his face.
“Did you really just come for that or are you starting to like me?”
Lucianne looked taken aback, and after a moment of hesitation, she lowered her hand left the handkerchief hanging while she stepped away.
“I won’t play along. Excuse me.”
He gripped her wrist, stopping her from leave. His smile had disappeared and the only thing left was the intensity of his cinnamon eyes staring at her.
“Stay. You’re the only one who dares to speak to me.”
“That’s not true.”
“Mitchell doesn’t count, he’s my relative.”
“My cousin did it . . . even if it was only to scold you,” she retorted with challenging eyes, and though he remained silent for a moment, he laughed at the end.
“Yeah, well, she’s not the one I’m interested in, anyway,” he replied, slowly releasing her hand.
“You don’t have many friends, do you?”
He let out a chuckle with a hint of bitterness.
“Does it even matter?” he snapped, reprising his surly attitude. “Give me that handkerchief then, so you can leave and not talk to me anymore if you don’t want to.”
Lucianne seemed to have a change of heart, because instead of giving the handkerchief back, she put it in her pocket and sat next to him, who seemed confused by her action.
“What are you doing? Weren’t you supposed to not play along with me?”
“Do I look like I’m playing?”
“I don’t understand.”
She sighed and looked at the lake while trying to think of what to say.
“I’ve noticed how you isolate yourself from everyone. You act like you don’t care and yet you ask me to stay because ‘I’m the only one who talks to you’. You could later try to downplay it, but your choice of words was very clear: you feel lonely. You may have been through some type of neglect that has forced you to distance yourself this way.”
“What are you? Some kind of shrink?” he replied with a mocking grin.
“I know because I’ve met people who have gone through something like that, even myself for a while, perhaps not in the same way, but I can relate. In my case I lost my mother. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or do anything. Even when my father decided to transfer me to a boarding school, I thought it was for the best. I didn’t want to be near anything that reminded me of her. I ran away, that’s what I did. In your case, aggression and mockery are your defense mechanisms. Did you lose someone? Perhaps your mother?” He only shook his head, so she decided to make another attempt. “Your father?”
“I couldn’t lose something I never had,” he immediately replied, leaning his back against the tree and shrugging in an attempt to look detached. To her that was enough to understand where the attitude came from.
“I get it.”
“I can see where this is going. I don’t want your pity. I don’t need anyone to feel sorry for me.”
“I’m sure you don’t need it,” she stated without saying another word, causing the boy to look wary at her sudden silence.
“Is that it? Or are you intending to use some sort of reverse psychology on me?”
“Seems like you know a lot of psychological techniques.”
“Just the ones they’ve tried on me before.”
So, his troubled behavior had already undergone some treatment before. He had all the signs.
“I already knew about your mother,” he suddenly added, taking her off guard.
“How is it—?”
“I’m a hacker,” he replied unabashedly. “I can gather everything that’s up on the net.”
The first thing that crossed Lucianne’s mind was that he had invaded his privacy. But her father was the town’s police chief, so everything about him ended up in the public domain anyway.
“Have you ever thought of searching for your father that way?”
Franktick said nothing, and suddenly time seemed to stop. She understood then.
He had done it. Of course, he had searched for him.
“Let’s not talk about it,” he said in a monotone. “What I actually wanted to say is that I don’t trust your friend.”
“Do you mean Demian?” Lucianne asked, lifting her walls and the boy let out a cackle.
“Mr. Stuck-up? I don’t mind him. I mean the blonde.”
“Samuel?” She raised her eyebrows, not expecting that.
“There are no records of him. It’s like he just appeared out of nowhere.”
“But . . . he could have just never been registered.”
“Let’s say that’s possible in places really far removed from civilization, or maybe parents hiding their children until they’re of certain age, I know of one case at least. But once they start to interact with an urban environment, records start being generated, information starts to flow. Everything ends in the web.”
“There must be a reason.”
“And I’d love to know it.”
Although Lucianne hadn’t thought about it up to then, suddenly her head was full of questions about him. And maybe the only one who could know the answers was her own cousin. As if she had mentally summoned her, she heard Marianne’s voice calling her name. She turned around and perceived her disapproval of her sitting next to that guy. She got up quickly and approached her while Franktick only watched.
“What is it?” she asked calmly.
“Why are you talking to him?” Marianne murmured, giving her a reproachful look.
“I don’t see what’s wrong with it.”
“You were intimidated by him just yesterday!”
“He’s not really what he seems,” Lucianne tried to explain.
“And what will you do if Demian sees you? You don’t want him to get in trouble with that guy again.”
“Listen, contrary to what you might think, there’s nothing going on between me and Demian, nor will it be. And it’s really clear to me now.”
“Huh?” Marianne replied, confused.
“Just . . . let me give him something and I’ll come back to you, okay?”
“I’ll wait here. Be careful.”
Lucianne didn’t answer. She knew Marianne considered her reckless at that moment, but she felt it was the right thing to do. She pulled the handkerchief from her pocket and handed it to him as soon as she got close enough.
“I must go back to my friends, so here’s your handkerchief.”
He kept his eyes fixed on her, even when the sunlight was hitting his face.
“Your cousin doesn’t like me.”
“No, it’s not that! She’s just . . . really wary of everyone.”
“It’s okay if she doesn’t like me. She’s right to mistrust me,” he said, smiling again in a squinty way.
“Is that what you think of yourself?”
He just shrugged and stretched out.
“I’m used to it.”
“To others you are what you project. But it doesn’t have to be like that. But it’s ultimately your choice.”
The boy remained silent and she held the handkerchief out again, waiting for him to take it.
“My cousin awaits. Take the handkerchief.”
Franktick only grinned and then got up, shaking dirt off his pants.
“Keep it,” he suggested, arching an eyebrow that followed the curve of his smile. Then he turned around and walked away, leaving Lucianne stunned, until he turned back to her and walked backwards. “It’s not even mine.”
Lucianne blinked four, five times in a row, processing his words, while the boy walked away, laughing. Then she looked at the handkerchief that suddenly turned into something unrecognizable that she’d been holding all day, and immediately dropped it in disgust, twisting her fingers in and out as if she had the need to spray them with bleach and rub them with sandpaper.
Franktick seemed amused, but once he got into the woods, his expression darkened. He walked nonstop towards the tree where he had taken refuge the day before, searched the place and relived those confusing moments he had witnessed.
A reproduction of the events was projected inside his head, locating the exact spot where everyone had been, like a panoramic shot. He had a good sense of the area and was able to see a three-dimensional image in his head, so he could select any plane he wanted and place himself in that same perspective with the right proportions.
In his mind, he was playing the battle for a while, until he saw the strange vessel flying off and falling right behind the tree. From there on, the projection in his head disappeared and he was back in the cavity, looking curiously at that container. On the other side, he could hear the fight still ongoing, but he wasn’t paying attention anymore, the object in front of him had completely caught his interest. In the distance, he heard someone talking about going to fetch the gift.
Despite not knowing what that meant, he was sure they were talking about the sphere in that receptacle. The one that glowed intermittently from inside. He didn’t know why he did it, but he simply felt the urge to take the vessel and run away, once the invisible barrier was broken.
How had he discerned the barrier? He didn’t know either, just chalked it up to his ability to watch things carefully. Neither did he know how the fight ended, but after an incident later that night, he supposed that not very well. He had run far enough to lose sight of them, and even took a backpack from the counselor’s cabin to keep the vessel inside, carefully wrapping some towels around it.
As he reached the edge of the lake, with only a purple halo on the horizon from the sunset, he opened the backpack to take the jumble of towels, making sure there was no one else around. He unwrapped the vessel and looked at it in detail. It was dirty after rolling over the ground, so he thought of cleaning it with the towels, but then noticed the lake.
Given the decreasing light from the dusk, no one would see him going to the shore. Besides, everyone must have finished the activity already and would be busy with supper. He didn’t even care who won, all he could think of was to find out more about the object. So, after taking off his shoes, he walked up to the lake carefully holding the container. As soon as he went deep into the lake with the vessel, he thought to see something lighting up in the bottom. Intrigued, he dipped the object a little more, and the rocks from the bottom seemed to activate, like glowing colored bubbles emerging and rising to the surface, but never coming out. It had to be some kind of optical illusion.
He completely sank the container, ignoring the lights still burbling from the depths, as if the lake were boiling. When he pulled it out again, he could perceive its details more clearly, along with the word he first thought it to be engraved to the front, however, it appeared and disappeared in different positions and with different prints as he moved and swayed the object. Another optical illusion, he thought.
“Ma . . . lice” he read from the vessel, after holding it in various postures, trying to discern the engraving. He was so distracted that he didn’t notice a shadow appearing at the shore.
“Do you like taking other people’s stuff?” said a voice, forcing him to turn around and search for its source.
He saw it a few feet from the lake, straight ahead from where he was. Hollow stared at him with eyes burning like embers.
His torso was crossed by a deep line that seemed to dissect him and a black substance stuffed him like a plaster that couldn’t put him together quite right. His hands seemed half covered with a dark material that looked like gloves, only wrapping two fingers from each hand. The demon suddenly smiled, showing his sharpened shark-like teeth.
“You’ve got some guts to dare stealing from me, so I’ll give you an advantage: you better start running, because once I got you, you’re dead.”
Franktick stood in the same place, unmoving, gazing at him as if thinking he wasn’t real or couldn’t even hurt him. Or maybe just didn’t care if he did.
Seeing his apparent refusal to move, Hollow let out a sniffed laugh and began to flex his body, preparing to carry out his threat.
“Well, I warned you.”
He got a running start, but as he stepped into the water, it sizzled and rejected him with a multicolor spark, sending a shocking wave throughout his body, forcing him back.
Frank seemed as confused as the demon itself, who watched with perplexity at the point where he had just been repelled. Convinced it was a coincidence, he launched for a second attempt, only to be rejected again once he crossed the line where the lake began, hurling him down to the ground.
The red-eyed demon sat bewildered. He didn’t understand what was happening. It was as if the entire lake was a vast field of positive energy.
Franktick, meanwhile, despite having no idea what was going on, had the feeling that it would be best for him to go deeper into the lake. And so, he did. The water was almost up to his shoulders and he had the vessel submerged, holding it strongly between his hands and ignoring the bubbling multicolored glow from within. Hollow was furious. The boy and the gift were so close and yet he couldn’t lay hands on them at the risk of turning into a fried toast, so he had to find a way to persuade the boy out.
“A human boy like you must have something you really want,” he started to say while getting on his feet. “I’ll tell you what, if you hand me that object, I’ll give you whatever you ask for. No limitations. A worldly whim would never represent a problem to me.”
The boy stared at him with those intense eyes that didn’t reveal his thoughts.
“Did you defeat them?” he asked to the demon’s surprise. He immediately masked his reaction with a smile.
“Of course. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
Frank fell silent, taking his time, and Hollow was starting to lose patience.
“What do you say, then?” the demon insisted. “Anything you want can be yours, if you just . . . give me back that vessel.”
The boy had something in mind, perhaps not what the demon expected, but he seemed convinced. He had to give it a try.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” Lucianne suddenly asked, settling her food tray on the lonely table where Franktick sat. He looked up, taken out of his reverie.
Everyone else reacted as if she was committing a blasphemy, given how girls and boys never mixed while in the dining room.
“Lucianne, what are you doing?” Marianne asked.
The girls were still holding their trays, thinking she was heading to their own table only to change directions and walk towards Frank, who stood with that lost and brooding expression he had shown lately.
“Come on, there’s enough room for us in the table,” Lucianne invited them casually. “You don’t mind, right?”
He finally reacted to her proposal, showing half a smile with a dimple on his cheek.
“Go ahead. Anything that would make the counselors yank their hairs in shock is good enough for me.”
“Me too! I’m also joining you!” Kristania also joined the group.
The girls began to take a seat, still unconvinced, realizing they were the center of attention. Even from their table, the three boys seemed bemused at their action.
Marianne turned back to Lucianne, speaking in the lowest voice she could.
“Seriously, Lucianne, what’s this? I thought it had been enough.”
“I just want my new friend to feel welcome,” she replied in a whisper, thereupon turning to the other guys. “Come on, don’t stay there. There’s enough space.”
The three boys were skeptical, but while Mitchell and Samael ended up taking her invitation, Demian didn’t move from his seat. He just gave them a sharp look. Now he was the one left alone at the table.
A few minutes went by and just as Franktick had predicted, the counselors showed up, trying to force them back to their respective sides of the dining room, but they ended up defending the integration of the groups especially on the last day of camp, getting others to also mix in different tables.
Marianne shook her head in disapproval after seeing Demian still in his table.
“You don’t seem very happy,” Samael said while stirring his bowl of cereal, the same as them. Apparently, his team hadn’t won their activity either, whatever it had been.
“Doesn’t matter. At least we’ll go back to our normal lives tomorrow.”
“But it proved to be a productive trip, don’t you think? We got some positive things out of it,” he said with a smile, to which she responded only with a tilt of her head.
She couldn’t deny it, but still was concerned that they hadn’t been able to retrieve any of the gifts. She noticed Angie looking at them and then averting her gaze quickly. She didn’t understand what was wrong with her now, but she needed to know.
“Did something happen at the lake yesterday?” Marianne asked quietly. “I mean, when you went there with Angie. Did she say anything that caught your attention in any way? Or did you say something to her?”
“Hmm . . . Not that I remember,” he answered after thinking about it for a couple of seconds.
There was no way of knowing for sure then, unless it was through Angie herself, but it didn’t seem the place or the time to ask about it.
The dining room had begun to liven up, being the last night of camp. The space between both sides was now occupied by shared tables with boys and girls chatting confidently, taking the last chance they had to interact. However, not everyone seemed to enjoy the moment, just a few minutes went by and suddenly Demian left his table and headed to the exit.
Marianne immediately elbowed her cousin to get her attention and pointed towards him. Lucianne said nothing, just leaned on the table and weaved her fingers anxiously.
“You didn’t have to make everyone sit here to keep me company,” Franktick murmured. “If this is your attempt to get me some friends, I warn you that I’m not interested.”
“You’re so used to it that you don’t even give yourself a chance. But it’s never too late to try something new,” she said, trying to look more cheerful.
“Do you think so?” he replied, skeptically. “You don’t even know me that well. You were still afraid of me up until yesterday. What makes you think that’s what I want?”
“I guess talking to you changed my perspective,” she said, shrugging. “Despite the image you’re trying to show, I can see something good in you. All you need is to believe.”
The cinnamon-eyed boy kept quiet as she joined the chat with others on the table. His expression had changed completely and now he looked at her seriously. As if her words had touched a nerve.
She had no idea what she was talking about. There was no good in him.
“So?” Hollow insisted, waiting for the boy to answer, still submerged in water. “What’s it going to be?”
Franktick stared at him. His gesture was steadfast after much thought.
“Teach me how to do the same things as you.”
The demon seemed astonished at his request. He even thought he had misheard it.
“What did you say?”
“If you want this thing back, which apparently is very important to you, you’ll have to accept me as your apprentice and teach me to do the same as you.”
Hollow couldn’t believe his words. He was basically asking to be his disciple, which seemed not only unprecedented, but also kind of ironic.
Indeed he had refused in the past to create a servant of his own as Umber did, especially when dealing with humans, an idea he rejected the most. And now he would have to do it, blackmailed by an insolent power-seeking boy. At that moment he hated humans more than ever.
“Are you aware of what you’re asking? Don’t wish for something you’ll regret later.”
“I know, and I’m up for anything,” he replied unflinching, and the demon seemed to ponder on it.
“Out of there, then.”
Franktick completely plunged into the water and seconds later emerged again, approaching the shore where Hollow waited with a gloomy and unyielding expression. As soon as he got out of the lake and stepped on solid ground, the demon grabbed him by the neck, lifting him as if he weighed nothing, and shoving him against a tree.
“Stupid puny human! You’re so delusional if you really think I will take you as an apprentice! Give me back the gift right now!”
Despite having those demonic hands around his neck, the boy suddenly started to laugh.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have it. I buried it in the bottom of the lake before going out. I wouldn’t be so stupid as to bring it with me without first getting what I asked for.”
“In that case, you’ve signed your death sentence. If you don’t go back right now and bring it to me, I’ll kill you,” Hollow said with his eyes glistening fiercely.
“Go ahead. I don’t mind. No one else will have it then,” the boy concluded with a challenging smile, making him even madder.
The demon pressed his neck harder, hoping he would break at any moment and beg for his life, but the boy remained unbending despite running out of oxygen. He really didn’t care to die. Since his tactics didn’t seem to work, the demon began to loosen slowly and put the boy down the ground. He wouldn’t have a choice but to give in this time.
“Okay, you win,” he delivered with contained rage while Frank took his hands to his throat, trying to catch his breath. “If that’s what it takes to give me back the gift . . . then so be it. You’ll be my apprentice.”
“Really?” he asked, unable to believe he had gotten what he asked for, and the demon suddenly smiled.
“You have no idea what you’ve gotten into.”
He placed his hand on his forehead and everything faded away with a shock, bringing nothing but darkness around.