The first thing Marianne did when she woke up was to look at her phone’s screen, but she hadn’t received any message yet.

When she came home last night, she had texted her friends to arrange another meeting. She needed to explain to them what happened to her mother and the gifts. They also had to know what happened to Angie, if she hadn’t already told them.

Now that she knew about Samael, it made her feel uneasy. She rubbed her face and messed her hair in a desperate gesture. Those were times to be more united than ever and she couldn’t help but think that in less than one day things had gone from bad to worse.

Unable to go back to sleep, she got up and went downstairs for breakfast, noticing her father was apparently about to go out.

“Good morning, do you feel better? You didn’t look too well yesterday.”

“It was just a headache. Are you going to the hospital with Loui?”

“Well, I think he needs some rest, so I’ll come back for him later. Actually, I got a call from Lucianne. Apparently, her father is sick and can’t take care of her school transfer. She asked me to do it, so I’m picking her up,” he said, taking his car keys.

“Oh, so she decided to ask you,” she said a little disappointed. She had to be really upset as to not even wait for her.

“Is there a problem?” Noah asked, noticing her expression, but she only shook her head.

“Go. I’ll take care of Loui when he wakes up.”

Marianne went into the kitchen with that feeling of regret squeezing her chest. She took milk and cereal for breakfast and sat at the table, but spent the next minutes just stirring the spoon and staring at it.

She wondered how the lack of the gift would affect Angie. Would that mean she wouldn’t care for the others anymore? What about her as an Angel Warrior? Could her skill and powers be affected? Samael had explained to her that losing the gift didn’t mean losing their identity . . . However, Belgina was no longer the same since then, she spent more time in the clouds, lost in her own mind.

Suddenly she heard a noise upstairs, like a thud. She put the spoon aside and rose to her feet, rushing up to the stairs and heading straight to the attic, alarmed. The red-eyed demon, she thought. Maybe he had somehow guessed their identities and had attacked Samael by surprise.

However, she didn’t imagine once she opened the attic door that she’d find Samael on the floor with Loui on top of him, grabbing him tightly, unwilling to let him escape.

 “I opened the door and he jumped over me. He caught me off guard,” Samael said, unable to hide his perplexity.

Marianne took a deep breath and tried to stay calm.

“Loui, release him.”

“No! If I do it he will surely disappear and you’ll try to convince me I imagined it!”

“Normally I would, but you’ve proved to be smarter than that, so you deserve the truth,” she admitted in a firm voice. “Now, let him go.”

Loui’s eyes narrowed with suspicion and he started to slowly release him, until Samael pulled away and got up from the floor.

“I want answers, and I want them now,” the kid demanded.

Marianne put her hands on her hips to get ready for what she would say, while Samael watched them expectantly.

“Well, the truth is this,” she began, “his name is Samuel and he’s a traveling magician. An illusionist. That’s why you’ve seen him suddenly appear from nowhere and disappear, it’s one of his best tricks. His stage name is ‘Samsa, the extraordinary’. He has no place to go and was staying illegally in this house before we moved in, so when we got here he had to move to the attic. I discovered him by accident one day when I came up here to leave some boxes. He has no family, no one. I thought it would be inhumane to get him out of the house in full winter season, so I allowed him to stay since, keeping it a secret from all of you. Until now.”

“Liar!” Loui yelled, refusing to believe her after all the lies she had told.

“Think about it, is it more credible saying he’s a ghost, a figment of your imagination or what not, an angel or something? Would you believe it if I told you that?” she continued, feeling she had regained control while Loui seemed undecided.

It was the most logical and plausible explanation from all the things she had said, however he refused to accept anything that would come out from her as truth.

“What would dad say when he finds out you’ve been hiding a boy in the house this whole time?”

“Dad must not know,” she warned him, squinting in a threatening way, a sign the kid seemed to take as a challenge.

“What will you do to prevent it?”

The two of them looked at each other like a duel in the Wild West, guns about to be fired at any given time. Samael stood aside in silence, knowing it was best not to intervene, and by the look of it, that wasn’t going to end very well. Both siblings remained motionless, locked in a battle of wills, until with an imperceptible eye movement, Marianne caught her brother’s intention, but he proved to be faster: in a split second he had run to the door.

“Get him!” she ordered, but Samael didn’t move and Loui shut the door to block their way. “I told you to get him! Come on! We still have time!”

“I . . . I think I shouldn’t interfere.”

“What are you talking about? This concerns you! If my father finds out, you can no longer live here! Where else are you going? You said it yourself, you can’t go back.”

Samael sighed and went behind her, following the kid’s trail.

They went down and carefully checked every room in the house, every corner where he could be hiding, and still didn’t find him.

“How can he be so elusive?” Marianne huffed, stomping on the floor and turning to Samael as a last resort. “Can you detect his presence?”

The angel closed his eyes and tried to locate the kid’s energy, seeing the house in his mind like a heat map, in which the red dots in the middle of the room represented them, and by expanding his vision he got to see another spot somewhere upstairs, a place they had supposedly checked already.

“Upstairs, right side.”

“Good! I’m gonna catch him this time!” she exclaimed with a handfist, but as she was about to go upstairs, they heard a knock on the front door. “Oh, no. Who could it be now?”

“Should I hide?”

“Go find Loui. We don’t know what he’s capable of at this moment.”

Samael nodded and ran upstairs while Marianne tried to keep calm and combed her hair before opening the door. Mitchell, Angie and Belgina were outside, all of them looking upwards.

“What . . . what are you doing here? I sent you a message to meet in the coffee shop.”

“We got it, but we agreed it was best to come see you . . . though I guess we came at a bad time,” Mitchell replied without taking his eyes from above so she stepped out and looked up curiously. Loui was perched on the windowsill, running towards the roof while Samael was leaning out the window.

“Loui! What do you think you’re doing?! Get down right now!”

“Or what? You’ll send your ‘ghost’ to pull my feet at night?”

“You’re taking things too far!” she shouted, losing her temper.

“Do you think he’d jump? Because I could go for a chair to sit and wait, I’m in no rush,” Mitchell said, amused by the scene up in the roof.

“It’s not funny!” Marianne replied, returning her attention to her brother. “If you don’t come down right now, I’ll tell Dad . . . !

“Ohhh, there are so many things we could tell dad! Want to take the risk?” he spat out confidently, aware that he had the upper hand.

She clasped her hands and teeth until they squeaked. She couldn’t say anything about it with her friends there, given how they only knew half the truth. So she took a deep breath, as if counting to ten, and then glanced toward Samael.

“Get him down. Now.”

Samael had no choice and did as she asked. He started to climb the window while Loui tried to step away, resting his feet carefully on the roof.

“There he goes, there he goes, there he goes . . . ” Mitchell repeated as if hoping to see someone falling at any time, and like a spell, Loui stepped on a loose tile and slipped. Samael took an impulse to reach out and grabbed him before he fell, but couldn’t get a hold himself. The downfall was imminent, so he turned his back, holding the kid’s body against his chest to prevent him from any damage.

Marianne felt her breath stopping, but before they would hit the ground, Belgina managed to stop their fall with a gust of wind. Samael only had to place his feet on the floor and straighten up, holding Loui.

“Thanks, Belgina.” Marianne released an exhalation of relief.

“I know it’s none of our business, but the least we expected coming to your house was to see a kamikaze boy jumping from the roof.”

“Neither did I,” Marianne growled, getting back to being angry at her brother’s recklessness.

Samael approached them carrying the kid in his arms. He seemed to have lost consciousness.

“What do I do with him?”

“Take him to his room. I’ll go in a minute.”

The angel did as she asked, while Marianne invited her friends in.

“Sorry you had to witness that.”

“It was entertaining, at least,” Mitchell said lightly, earning him a reproachful look from her.

“Only the three of you decided to come?”

“Lucianne said she would catch up with us later, once she’s done with her transfer.”

“And Lilith hasn’t replied to any message. We assume she will show up eventually.”

“Oh. Okay,” Marianne said, suddenly feeling helpless in front of them.

She still wasn’t sure why they had decided to come straight to her house. The three sat in the living room while Marianne stood on her feet, waiting for them to say anything.

“He’s still unconscious,” Samael said, coming down the stairs.

“So what? You’re not offering us breakfast or at least something to drink?” Mitchell commented, settling into the couch and making himself home.

“You’re rude,” Angie censured him without any muffler.

“Oops! Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed!”

Marianne looked befuddled at them, realizing by Mitchell’s reaction that Angie hadn’t told them what had happened to her, and for the look she gave her, seemed that she was expected to deliver the news.

“Well . . . I guess you’re waiting for an explanation about yesterday.”

“Take your time, we’re very comfortable here.”

“Lucianne says she’s on her way,” Belgina announced after checking her cell, making Marianne nervous to think her father would also come with her, and if Loui woke and said a word about Samael, all would be lost.

“Wait a minute here, I’ll see if my brother has woken up . . . Come with me?” With a glance, she indicated Samael to go with her so he followed her upstairs. “Is there any way to erase Loui’s memory?”

“You want him to forget absolutely everything?”

“Not everything, obviously. Just what happened today. My father is coming and if he tells him anything . . . ”

Samael remained pensive as they reached the kid’s door.

“I’ve never done it, but . . . I guess I could try.”

She made a grateful gesture as she opened the door and entered the room.

“What exactly do you want him to forget?”

“Today. Let him think he’s just woken up.”

“I’ll try. But don’t forget it’s the first time I do it, so it might not work.”

She nodded, stepping aside to give him some space as he closed his eyes to concentrate, placing his fingers on the kid’s temples. After a while, Samael let go of him and became invisible without warning. She turned sideways just as Loui began to open his eyes.

“What are you doing here?”

“You don’t . . . remember anything?”

Loui thought about it and then looked at her with a questioning face.

“What am I supposed to remember exactly? I just woke up.”

She breathed in relief and started to stepback towards the door.

“I just wanted to tell you that dad’s coming, in case you want to get ready and go to the hospital with him,” she said as she left the door ajar for Samael to get out, feeling a weight off her shoulders once she closed it. “It seemed to work.”

“Do you need anything else?”

“My father will be here at any minute, so you’d better wait for a while in the attic and once they are both gone, I’ll let you know to come down.”

Samael nodded and did as she suggested. While she went downstairs, Noah arrived with Lucianne, who looked disappointed.

“Sorry, apparently I wasn’t very helpful,” Noah said, and Lucianne tried to explain.

“They said the semester is well under way, so if I want to request a transfer it would have to be up until the next one, and I’ll have to repeat eleventh grade.”

“We’re very sorry.”

“No, it’s all right. I was prepared for something like that anyway,” she replied with a sigh. They heard the loud noise of footsteps on the stairs, undoubtedly from Loui.

“Are you going to the hospital?”

“Yes. Are you ready or . . . ?”

“I’m ready! Let’s go.” Loui rushed down the stairs and pulled him towards the door without even bothering to greet anyone, eager to leave.

“Well, goodbye everyone. Feel at home,” Noah said, letting the kid lead him away.

As they were leaving, Marianne seemed to glimpse a suspicious gleam in Loui’s eyes, but they had already gone when she tried to confirm it.

“So . . . does anyone have anything to say?” Mitchell asked when no one else dared to speak. Knowing what was coming next, Marianne decided to go back to the kitchen.

“I’ll go get drinks for everyone. Wait here, okay?”

Without waiting for any reply, she went straight to the kitchen and then up the back stairs to alert Samael.

“I think Loui’s memory wasn’t completely erased,” she said while preparing some glasses of juice.

“Why do you think so?”

“I don’t know exactly. I’m assuming. Anyway, we can’t be sure until they’re back, so you better be ready by then because it’s possible you may need to disappear for a while.”

Samael said nothing, but gave a resigned sigh, knowing how exhausted he got under those circumstances. Then they returned to the living room, carrying three glasses each for the others. Several minutes passed in silence, waiting for someone to talk.

“Ok, I’ll start,” Lucianne said after a long exhale. “Why didn’t you tell us about your mom?”

Marianne gave them a laconic look, slightly biting her lip.

“I didn’t want you to worry about her nor me. That’s the last thing we need at this time.”

“But it’s your mother! We would obviously want to support you in every way possible, to be helpful,” Lucianne protested.

“The only way you could be helpful is by defeating Hollow and retrieving the gifts,” she replied firmly. “Please, understand. There’s nothing else to do but keep focusing on our common goal.”

Her friends fell silent, knowing that her argument was valid.

“Is that the reason why you asked us to meet? Do you have a plan in mind?” Lucianne asked. Marianne ran her eyes over them, wondering how to say it.

“How long will it take Lilith to come?”

“I was trying to reach her all morning, but she didn’t answer. It’s like she just turned off her cell phone,” Lucianne said, opening her mobile and scrolling for any message.

“Well, I guess we can fill her in later.” Marianne took a long breath to say what she needed to say next. “Angie was attacked yesterday.”

Everyone’s eyes fell immediately on Angie, who remained idly in her seat, looking nonchalant, as if it wasn’t her they were talking about.

“So that was the strange feeling I suddenly had yesterday,” said Mitchell.

“Did she lose a gift?”

“The Sentimental gift.”

They all reacted surprised at first, but then their expressions seemed to transform into a silent realization, as if that would explain several things.

“That’s all you’re going to say?” Angie stared at her with the same blank face.

Marianne kept quiet again, knowing the question implied what would eventually happen in absence of the gifts, and above all, Samael’s true identity. She was giving her the chance to tell them herself. So, she looked at Samael, who stood silently beside her, leaving the decision to her.

She took a sip of her juice, trying to make some time, and after putting the nearly empty glass on the table, she finally let her mouth decide what to say.

“I have an idea that may not be the right thing to do, but it’s the only way I can think to attract Hollow.”

Her friends looked at her with interest as Angie snorted at her sudden change of subject.

“What is it?”

“Bait,” Marianne replied gravely. The others looked confused. Samael, on the other hand, shifted uneasily in his seat.

“You mean like getting worms and a fishing rod and see if we can catch him or something like that?” Mitchell asked, as if he hadn’t heard right.

“I’m talking about getting his attention to make him come to us.”

“But that’s easy. You said that if we transform, they’re capable of tracking us and thus we’d be easy targets for them, isn’t it right? Then we just have to do that and he’ll appear,” Lucianne suggested, but she shook her head.

“If we do that, he won’t appear. He’s no fool, he would know it’s a trap . . . Besides, after we almost killed him the last time, I doubt he’d want a confrontation with us.”

“We’re not his main target right now, he’ll do anything to avoid us,” Samael finally intervened. “His only goal is to get the rest of the gifts.”

“That means . . . ”

“We’ll give him what he wants,” Marianne said, puffing out her chest and letting out the words in one exhalation. “We’ll give him the chance to get the remaining gifts.”

Her friends looked bewildered, convinced that she had lost her mind.

“You can’t be serious,” Lucianne muttered, befuddled.

“We’ll give him the gifts on a silver platter? After how much we’ve struggled to recover the ones he already has?” Mitchell said, incredulous. “That would be like collaborating with the enemy!”

“I’m not saying we’ll give him the other gifts, we just need to create a situation to make him believe he would have the chance to find a new gift, that way we could lure him and ambush him,” she explained, trying to stay poised so they would get her idea.

“Like finding someone or offering one of us?” Lucianne asked. “Becoming the enemy’s target willingly?”

“Becoming bait,” Marianne repeated.

She knew how dangerous it was, but she couldn’t think how else to force a new encounter with Hollow. Angie’s attack had been so unexpected they had no time to gather the others to face him down properly. That was why she considered that measure necessary, for them to be prepared and catch him off guard.

When they were all leaving afterwards, Marianne stopped Angie.

“Are you going to tell them about Samuel?” she asked.

Angie looked from her to the angel, who stood behind with a sallow face, as if all the conversation regarding Marianne’s plan would make him sick.

“It’s not me who should. So, I won’t. But sooner or later the truth comes up and things don’t go as planned. You should take that into consideration.”

Once she said this with the impassive face that seemed to be permanent in her now and got out of the house, leaving both silent and aware that she was right.

“Loui is reading in his room right now,” she announced once she entered her bedroom, where Samael was waiting patiently for instructions. “I need to know what he’s up to, if he really remembers what happened today or not.”

“You want me to read his mind, then.”

“That’s the only way I can be at peace,” she said, clasping her hands in plea.

“What about your father?”

“Must be in the kitchen, making coffee or something.”

Samael nodded and took a breath, heading to the door with decision. As he crossed it, he became invisible and walked down the hall, coming to a halt in front of Loui’s room.

The door was ajar and he could see the boy lying in bed with a comic in his hands. Samael focused his gaze on him and began to skip layer after layer of random thoughts to get to his mind, hoping to find something that gave away what he had seen that morning, if he had any memory of it.

The image of two characters popped up in his mind, as if they were in the middle of a scene. A boy with tousled dark hair and pitch black eyes on one side, and another one with an overcoat engulfed by shadows on the opposite end.

After that, Samael turned away and decided to return to Marianne’s room.

“What happened? Did you find something?” Marianne asked.

He described what he had caught from him and she just clicked her tongue.

Cameron Devlin, the Shadow Detective. It’s his favorite comic,” she explained, taking her hands to her hips and sighing. “We’ll have to try again when he’s not enthralled with any of his comics.”

“Even if his mind is occupied by something else, I still would be able to perceive his other thoughts, anything that has some degree of importance.”

“Do you mean that if he remembers what happened in the morning he could have disregarded it in the course of the day as something inconsequential?”

“If he recalls something, it would be impossible to consider it unimportant. Unless that memory has been buried at a subconscious level. In that case, it could resurface by an external action. I told you something could go wrong, it was the first time I tried it.”

Marianne huffed in disappointment and closed her eyes in an attempt to think.

“Anyway, we have to be sure. You have to try to read his mind some other time, when he’s doing anything else or even nothing. If the memory is buried somewhere in his mind, I don’t want to risk it to emerge at the wrong time.”

Samael agreed while she pulled out her phone and pressed some keys, taking it to her ear.

“Lilith isn’t answering.”

“Perhaps she’s ill,” he speculated, but she wasn’t sure anymore.

“Would you transport me to her house?”

“I would, but I don’t know where she lives. Except for the place where someone’s being attacked, I can’t transport anywhere unless I’ve been there previously.”

“Of course, I understand. Forget it then, I’ll text her and hopefully she’ll answer soon,” she decided, quickly typing on the phone. “By the way, maybe it would help if you could tell me what the missing gifts are to have an idea of what kind of victims they could be looking for.”

Samael checked his pockets, pulled out a piece of crumpled paper and handed it to her. She opened it carefully, afraid that it would tear in her hands, and couldn’t help giving him a disapproving look for being so careless in that regard.

Eleven circles drawn in a circumference with another one at the center. Six crossed out.

“It’s amazing you have all this knowledge and yet don’t know how.”

“It’s preconceived. I’ve told you.”

“Got it, got it,” she accepted as she read the name of the uncrossed gifts.

‘Artistic’, ‘Kindness’, ‘Resurrection’, ‘Reincarnation’, ‘Supernatural’ and ‘Death’.  She could have an idea about what they might be looking for the first three, but had no clue how to identify the last three.

She thought of the strange stories from the magazines she used to read. Some had stories about people who swore to be reincarnated. Perhaps she could investigate more on that side.

“Are you still convinced about the . . . bait?” Samael asked, distracting her from the page. His eyes revealed anxiety. “Don’t you think it’s cruel?”

Marianne looked at him, surprised that he was still mortified by that, they had already discussed it the day before.

“Believe me, I’m not very comfortable with the idea either, putting someone in danger in order to attract the demon.  That’s why it must be done in a controlled environment with a methodical plan of action,” Marianne replied, trying to convince herself in passing. “It’s not like we’re going to send someone to the slaughterhouse. It may not be right, but it’s the most feasible thing to do. We can’t just sit and wait.”

Samael finally nodded with resignation. She kept looking at the paper. Her attention was now on the middle circle, which said ‘Death’.

She wondered how a gift of that nature could appear. They had already proved that, at least when it came to the resurrection gift, demons sought people who had returned from death. Would it be possible that in the case of this gift they would specifically search for lifeless bodies? It wasn’t difficult to imagine them exploring cemeteries, warehouses or wherever there were corpses, even for recent deaths, but it didn’t fit the sense of that gift. If just like Samael had explained to her, the gifts were an essential part of the soul, then it would naturally mean that after dying they would still be bound to the soul . . . wherever they were transported after death. In that case there would be nothing left in their lifeless bodies, not a single residue. Unless . . .

“Samael . . . where do souls go when someone dies?

He looked up, surprised at her question. She had already sat in front of the computer to start her research.

“To the Spiritual Realm, of course.”

“Who can access it? Could, let’s say, a demon . . . ?”

“It would be impossible!” he retorted, like it was madness to even think about it. “Each of the realms has a level of tolerance and interaction with each other. No one from the Superior Realm could access the Legion of Darkness, and vice versa, they’re mutually exclusive, however the Earthly Realm is neutral field for everyone. And then there’s the Spiritual Realm. It can’t be accessed by angels nor demons, and it’s only linked to the Earthly Realm because that’s where souls go when a human dies. The obits are the only ones who can access the spiritual realm, and yet don’t have access to the rest. They reside in their own Obitual realm.”


“They’re entities responsible for transporting souls to the Spiritual Realm.”

“So basically our world is like a transient hotel to others, and we’re stuck here until we’re ‘promoted’ to the Spiritual world.”

“If you want to see it that way . . . ”

“You said there was interaction between the realms. Is it just here in our world?”

“Also at the boundaries of each realm, intermediate places. Theoretically, humans could also reach those limits, but they would have to be led by someone from that realm.”

“So if you wanted, you could lead me to the Superior Realm’s anteroom.”

Samael kept silent, his eyes wide open as if he hadn’t thought of that before. Marianne looked at him, waiting for an answer.

“There’s . . . a problem,” he said a little flustered. “I don’t know where it is.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she snapped incredulously.

“Remember I told you all my knowledge is preconceived? Well, that’s not one of them. I was specifically created to guard you. So technically . . . I haven’t even stepped on the Superior Realm.”

Marianne just put her hands to her temples and began to massage them while Samael seemed embarrassed to admit it.

“Okay. I guess I can understand that . . . there are different types of angels and even between them they have levels,” she accepted with a sigh. “I actually wanted to know if there’s any way a demon could have some interaction with the Spiritual Realm.”

“It could, but obits avoid contact with them. Though they can’t be harmed, after all, they’re death carriers.”

Death carriers. Marianne’s mind was working a mile a minute, imagining different possibilities and theories.

“I know what you’re thinking. It’s impossible for them to possess any gift because they have no soul. The soul is exclusive to humans,” Samael clarified after looking at her thoughtful gesture, but still she was convinced that it had to be somehow related. She didn’t know exactly how at the time, but nothing could take away from her head that it had to do with the Death gift.

“I guess then if something happens, we’ll find out,” Marianne finished, deciding to stop thinking about it for a while.

The following few hours she devoted herself to doing some research, looking for situations to attract Hollow with the missing gifts until she bumped into a webpage announcing a singing contest that would take place in the city next week. It seemed most suitable at the moment. She checked the bases and found they were asking for volunteers for the organization and decoration. It was all too perfect.

She printed all the pages and sent the links to her friends. There was nothing else she could do for now.

Lucianne took a sip from her juice in the morning, looking at the link her cousin had sent them all. Officer Perry was coming down the stairs at that moment.

“He gave me some trouble this time, but I sedated him. He’s quiet now,” he said, unfolding his sleeves down the forearm. “They’re starting to ask questions at the office and spreading rumors.”

“What kind of rumors?” Lucianne asked, leaving her cell on the table and turning to him with interest.

“I don’t think you want to know. Most of them involve drugs and blackmail and a corruption network making him look like a dangerous gangster.”

“How can they say such things? They’ve known him for years.”

“You know the saying: when the cat’s away . . . ”

Lucianne shook her head in disappointment. The young officer sat beside her, with a pensive expression.

“Listen . . . I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but . . . that boy who’s been coming to see you . . . ”


“I don’t trust him.”

Lucianne stared at him, guessing the reason why he was so distrustful of him.

“I understand that you want to take my father’s role now that he’s . . . indisposed,” she said, and he felt a pang upon hearing that, “ . . . so you’re questioning the intentions of anyone who’s close to me, but I assure you that despite the first impression, he’s not what he seems.”

“Believe me, the last thing I want is to take you father’s place,” he said. “But I suspect that guy is up to something dishonest. I say this because I don’t want you to end up getting involved and getting hurt.”

“Perry, please . . . ” she said with a sigh, tired of everyone telling her the same, and then they heard a knock on the door.

Lucianne headed to the entrance knowing who it was, while Officer Perry adopted an unrelenting stance.

“Hi. I thought you weren’t coming back anymore.”

“I don’t want to look like a moocher, but if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t even have breakfast,” Frank said as Lucianne opened the door widely. He was wearing the black jacket with red stripes he loved so much.

“So you’re just coming for the food?” Officer Perry appeared behind Lucianne, looking suspiciously at him. “This is not a soup kitchen.”

“Perry!” Lucianne berated him, but Frank smiled, unaffected.

“And yet I’m not the only one who comes here to scrounge breakfast,” he replied with a defiant attitude. A surge of anger went through the young officer.

“Frank, you too!” she called him out with a glare, and trying to regain her composure. “I was just about to make waffles, would you like some?”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Frank said confidently. He passed the young officer, smirking, and turned to him. “Do you plan to join us this time, officer? Or do you have more important matters to attend to?”

“I’ll stay today, thanks for asking,” Perry replied, willing to follow them, but a voice from his radio requested his presence at one of the busiest streets in town.

“Seems like duty calls after all. How convenient,” Franktick said, raising an eyebrow as if enjoying it.

The young officer glared at him as he turned off the radio. There was no choice but to retrace his steps to the door.

“I have to go, but keep in mind what I told you,” he said to Lucianne, completely ignoring the boy.

As the door closed, Franktick took his hands to his pockets and turned around on his feet in a casual pose.

“I wonder what he told you. Did he warn you about me? It wouldn’t be a surprise. It’s the story of my life.”

“And only you can change that,” Lucianne replied, knowing it was pointless to deny it. Franktick showed a sly smile, and without waiting for her to say anything, went into the kitchen.

“I’m starving!”

Lucianne sighed at his nerve and followed him.

“Hey . . . is it true that you’re not used to have breakfast?” she asked a few minutes later, as she watched the boy gobble up his waffles in good spirits.

“Relax, I’m not needy or living in the streets, if that’s what you’re thinking. My mom just happens to spend the whole day at work, so she doesn’t even have time to cook anything, and I can’t even boil an egg without setting the kitchen on fire,” he clarified while digging into a huge piece of waffle. “So, the simplest solution for me is not to have breakfast and order something for lunch, if I remember to.”

“But Mitchell is your cousin. Can’t you . . . resort to them when you need something or . . . ?”

“His mother’s terrified of me,” he said offhandedly. “Although, in all fairness, she’s terrified of many things, she’s a nervous wreck. My uncle’s cool, he’s always making sure mom and I have everything we need, but he practically lives in the hospital, so I prefer not to go over his house when he’s not there, which is essentially all the time.”

“And what about Mitchell?”

“Contrary to what may seem, he’s a momma’s boy. If she has some hysterical fit, he’s always there to control her and if the reason is me, well . . . ” he shrugged, indicating he was used to it. “Besides, he only comes to me when he needs something.”

“And what about school?”

“I was on eleventh grade up until a few months ago, but I had a problem . . . ”

Lucianne shifted in her seat, fretted at his situation, and the boy slightly laughed with the fork in his mouth.

“And somehow I always end up telling you way more than I’ve ever said to anyone else. You’re good, you should seriously consider becoming a shrink.”

“I don’t do it on purpose.”

“And that’s precisely what makes you good at it,” he endorsed, finishing his plate, and settling his elbows on the table, looking stuffed. “Done. What do we do now?”

“I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I was thinking of cleaning the house.”

“Oh, cleaning! I suck at domestic activities, but I could join you. I like talking to you.”

Lucianne slightly blushed, but tried to focus on the cleaning kit she kept in a small store in the kitchen.

“Then you’ll have to do something useful and help a little. Here, fortunately we always keep two,” she said, throwing a broom to him. “It will be an interesting exercise.”

“So it seems,” he replied, holding the broom like a weapon.

The next few minutes they swept the floors downstairs while talking nonstop. That was how she learned that his mother and Mitchell’s father were siblings, and while he was a clinician, she was a cardiologist. Perhaps she even treated Angie and her father, she thought, but declined to comment. Maybe he already knew that after the ‘research’ he had done on them.

“You know, normally I don’t do this kind of stuff, so consider yourself lucky to witness something like this . . . But don’t dare mention it in front of anyone else, because I’ll deny it without hesitation.”

“No one would believe it, anyway,” she answered with a smile.

They had finished cleaning every room downstairs and he was already setting a foot on the stairs when she realized that, if they continued to the second floor, he might find out about her father, so she quickly blocked his way.

“What? You only clean downstairs? Or are you hiding something up there you don’t want me to see?” he asked jokingly and she twitched at the mention.

“I just . . . I didn’t get to order my room and . . . I would be embarrassed if someone would see such a mess.”

“Really? I don’t see you as a messy kind of person.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Well, if you saw my room you would think it looks like something out of an episode of Hoarders, so I won’t be impressed,” he said, trying to pass her, but she kept blocking him.

“But a girl’s room is not the same as a boy’s, we’re more . . . private in that sense.”

“Is it just that? Because you really look like you’re hiding something.”

There was a groan and a thud on the top and they both went silent.

“What was that?”

“It’s just my dad! He’s sick. He must have dropped something to the floor accidentally,” she replied nervously. “You better go. He doesn’t know you’re here, and it could upset him.”

Franktick said nothing, only allowed her to push him to the door.

“See you later, then. I must look after my father. Good bye,” she said hastily, almost slamming the door in his face as he remained there, listening to her nimble footsteps, going up the stairs.

He looked up at the second story, at the room on the left where the noise seemed to come from, and stood watching it for a few seconds until he finally put his hands in his pockets and left.

“Does anyone know anything about Lilith?” asked Marianne as soon as she got to school on Monday.

“Nothing, she won’t answer her phone, either,” Angie commented, expressionless. “I doubt she’s even seen the emails you’ve sent.”

“How are you so sure?”

“Just look at the prize of the competition.”

Marianne kept staring at her without understanding. She had read the rules and contact details for volunteers, but hadn’t read about the prizes. It had seemed irrelevant to their intentions. Angie rolled her eyes.

“Are you serious? Well, had you read it, you would know that there’s no way Lilith could have ignored it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Lissen Rox,” Belgina said with her chin resting on her arms, looking sleepy.

“See? Even Belgina is aware of it,” Angie replied without a hint of tact, even if the lack of gift justified her.

Marianne took a number of copies from her backpack and began to scan the page until she got to the part about the prize, which she had olympically ignored at first.

It consisted of recording a duet single with Lissen Rox for his new album, but he wouldn’t be at the event, at least not in person.

“Now you get it? She definitely would have a say in this.”

Marianne couldn’t deny it, but remained concerned about not having heard a word from her since they’d returned from camp. She even began to feel guilty for not going directly to her when she had the opportunity.

“Hello, good morning, how’s everyone?”

Kristania entered the classroom, greeting everyone like Miss Sympathy, and her classmates looked quizzically at her. But it was ultimately the sudden hug she gave to the three girls, starting with Marianne, which generated more confusion than ever. No one got to say anything, though, because the teacher came in, welcoming them after spring break and telling the girls from basketball that their practice would be an hour later than usual. Marianne looked at the door, hoping to see Lilith, but she didn’t show up.

“We should go see her after school, I don’t have a good feeling about this,” she suggested as she prepared to go to practice.

“Are you sure you’ll be able to get rid of Kristania by then?” Angie asked and she looked to the door where the gray-eyed girl seemed to be waiting for her and with a wave of her hand she confirmed it. Marianne sighed, imagining the torture that was awaiting her for the next hour.

“I’ll come up with something,” she finally said before leaving the classroom, with Kristania bouncing by her side like the living incarnation of a cartoon, with a wide smile, ignoring everyone’s perplexed looks.

The boys had already finished their practice and were leaving when they reached the auditorium, and as soon as Demian saw her, his face tightened. She just stared at him seriously, lifting her face to show dignity. He looked away and quickly tried to walk past her, ashamed of his behavior the last time.

“Oh, my god!” Kristania suddenly shrieked once the door closed, causing her a start. She turned to her and saw she had her hands over her mouth, wide eyed and shocked. “He likes you!”

“What?” She frowned as if she had misheard.

“He likes you!” Kristania repeated without measuring her voice.

Marianne looked puzzled first, but then seemed to regain her self-control and rolled her eyes.

“Oh, please! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” she replied, completely discarding the ridiculous idea and trying to get away from her.

“I’m at a crossroads. On one hand I feel jealous, but on the other I’m glad it’s you, despite how unbelievable it may seem, especially after the things I did and said.” Kristania followed Marianne, who was doing her best to ignore her. “But don’t worry. No matter how much my old self would retaliate against you, I could never do it now that I’ve seen the light. I would rather step aside if you also like him.”

“Enough!” Marianne shouted, losing her temper. “I don’t understand why of all people you’ve targeted me, but it’s not funny anymore and I’m already getting tired! So, I will say this just once! We were never friends before and will never be, no matter how much you say you’ve changed! I don’t want to be your friend!”

Kristania bemoaned, gasping for air, and clutched her chest in a gesture that reminded her of Mitchell being overly dramatic. Her eyes reddened and her lips began to quiver, tightening worse than sucking a lemon or something sour.

And finally, the tears came. She covered her face and ran away, whimpering as a long-suffering damsel from a cheap soap opera, being intercepted on the way by her two minions, who comforted her while throwing glares at Marianne. She wouldn’t have minded if not for the fact that she was starting to feel guilty.

She needed to remember that Kristania wasn’t being herself at the time and even if she doubted her intentions, they weren’t malicious because she lacked the gift for it. It was as if they had reversed their roles.

“What is this? You’re supposed to come here to train, not to discuss your personal affairs. Stop the drama now and move. We’re already missing a member and can’t waste any more time!” the coach ordered, clapping and blowing his whistle to get their attention.

The girls had no other choice but gather at the center of the court, with Kristania sniffling and sobbing every so often, the amazons almost murdering Marianne with their eyes and the latter wishing to get out of there as soon as possible. It was barely tolerable with Lilith present, but without her she just wanted to be far far away.

As the session ended, she hurried out while Kristania continued her drama sitting in the stands, comforted by her friends. She felt remorseful, but didn’t want to deal with that right now. Once outside, she heard a noise like a swordfight coming from the gym. She recalled that on Mondays there was also fencing, but thought the practice must be over by then.

Not knowing why, her feet began to walk towards the gym door, and she stood in front of it for a moment, listening to the sound of footsteps on wood and the clank of the foils colliding. There seemed to be only two people there. She pushed the door carefully and looked inside to see who they were.

Both had their outfits on, including the mask, but she could tell who they were just by hearing the voices.

“Step harder and pull stronger, don’t be afraid to hit me with the foil, remember the uniforms are protected.”

“I know! You don’t have to tell me that! Besides, I’m not afraid! It’s my damned arm that keeps shaking!”

The second boy looked like a rookie, even though the tone of his voice said otherwise. His feet were constantly tripping on each other and it seemed that at any moment the foil would fall from his hand. He completely lacked coordination.

“Throw your best rapier then. Go ahead. Do it.”

The boy seemed to fall under provocation and squeezed the hand holding the foil. He took an impulse, and with a strong thrust he reached out toward his opponent, but the foil slipped out from his hand and flew away. While the other boy managed to dodge, it continued its path straight to the door.

It was so quick and unexpected that Marianne didn’t get to move away, just raised her hands out reflex. The foil stopped right in front of her, like hitting an invisible wall, and remained floating for a couple of seconds before falling at her feet.

Demian quickly removed his mask and immediately came running to her.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah . . . It was just the shock,” she replied, panting and staring at the foil on his feet.

“Are you sure? Aren’t you hurt?”

He took her hands to check them out and she felt a stinging inside, as if someone stabbed her repeatedly in the chest and stomach. Maybe not that extreme, but she could get the idea. She felt her hands getting cold while he was checking if she had any wound and suddenly found herself wondering if the air conditioner might be too low.

“That’s weird. Did you really stop it with your hands?” Demian asked, noticing they were intact, with not a single mark on them after having stopped an object at that speed . . . and especially a spiky one.

“I guess. Although I couldn’t tell . . . how exactly. Everything was so fast.”

Demian looked up and she gave a slight wince as their eyes met. He stared at her for several seconds until realizing he was still holding her hands, so he quickly released her and stepped back.

“From afar, it looked like the foil stopped and stood floating in the air for a moment.”

“Nonsense! How could anyone believe that?” She tried to sound casual to avoid suspicion.

“If nothing happened to her, stop socializing, bring the foil and let’s continue with the practice!” Lester shouted from the other end, starting to come and go around his same spot, looking exasperated. Demian picked up the foil and threw it back to him.

“Keep practicing those lunges, I’ll be right back!” he said, turning back to Marianne. “What are you doing here?”

“I was just curious to hear noise when no one was supposed to be here at this time. I was already leaving, anyway,” she replied, feeling a sudden surge of rage. He held her arm to keep her from leaving, but released her almost immediately.

“Listen, I . . . I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that in the coffee shop. I had no idea . . . what you were going through.”

“Does that make any difference?”

“It does for me. Your situation is not easy and you’re trying to act like everything is normal, excluding others . . . I know and I get it . . . because I went through it.”

It was like lighting a fuse. Marianne looked at him with fiery eyes and clenched face.

“You ‘understand’ what I’m going through? What do you mean by that? My situation is not the same as yours. My mother’s not dead!”

She realized too late what she had just said. Demian looked pained, as if she had struck a sensitive chord, and thus a new remorse took over her, surpassing the previous one more than justifiably.

“I didn’t . . . ”

“Forget it.” Demian kept a stern face and his eyes became glacial. “I guess I deserved it.”

Marianne tried to say something, but they suddenly heard a whack. They turned around, looking for the source, and saw Lester on the floor, unconscious.

They ran towards him, and Demian knelt on the floor, trying to make him react, but in vain.

“Go find someone. Something’s not right, he doesn’t respond.”

Marianne stepped back, staring at Lester’s pale face until she turned around and went for help, as useless as she thought it was. It couldn’t be anything but what was already happening to her mother, what would eventually happen to the others. But it had been much earlier than she thought.

The ambulance came later and some teachers tried to fend the gathering students off. Paramedics began to settle Lester on a stretcher while Demian sat in the stands, watching the whole scene unfold, unable to do anything. Marianne approached him, staying at one side, searching for words to say.

“You should go.” It was Demian who spoke first, his eyes to the front. “I appreciate your help, but there’s nothing else to do now.”

“You can’t do anything, either. You know that, right? What happened to him is not your fault.”

Demian smiled bitterly, as if deep inside he wasn’t so sure anymore.

“I have to stay. They’ll want to question me. After all, I was with him when it happened. You were only passing by.”

Marianne looked around and noticed teachers talking to paramedics and curious students trying to have a closer look, but she especially noticed the kind of glances they were throwing at Demian and how they were talking to each other, speculating. Surely rumors would skyrocket just like the last time, she thought. But still she decided to make no comment. That was her mess and she had to clean it. It had been her negligence that had triggered all of it. She had never been so determined to risk everything with the plan they wanted to carry through.

Lucianne was at the coffee shop in their usual booth. Her third glass of tea was on the table and she was staring at her phone’s screen. She’d been exchanging messages with Franktick and as she read the last one, she couldn’t help but slip a grin. When he wasn’t being insolent to others, he could be really fun.

“What’s so funny?”

Lucianne instantly lifted her face and saw Frank in front of her. He smiled in his usual confident way.

“Did you read something that put you in a good mood?”

“What are you doing here?” she asked, keeping her cell phone before he got to see the screen. “Did you follow me?”

“Absolutely! Don’t you see I’m your declared stalker?” he replied, laughing as he sat across from her. “I use cutting-edge technology and Russian satellites to track your chip wherever you go. And also, the waiter mentioned you always meet here after school. You weren’t home, so I figured you’d be here.”

“Oh, of course. That makes sense.”

“What have you got there?” he asked, seeing she was holding some papers.

“It’s just . . . an open call, nothing important,” she said, moving her hands away and letting him take the pages.

“Do you sing?”

“No, not at all! It’s just that . . . apparently we’re going to volunteer during the event, so . . . that’s what we’re gonna discuss today.”

“Volunteers then,” he repeated, watching the page intently. “Can I join too? I wanna see the freak show with the so-called singers up close.”

“Well . . . if that’s what you want. There’s the phone number and e-mail.”

“Can I keep it?” he said as he folded the page and kept it in his jacket. Lucianne watched him, puzzled. She didn’t get his sudden interest in the competition.

“You’re not doing this for me, right?”

“Wow, you must be really self-confident for even thinking about it. It requires a good amount of ego, and I like that.”

“I just want to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and not just for me.”

“Define a right reason. To me it would be about the needs of the moment. For example, today I needed to see you.”

Lucianne again felt her cheeks burning, so she tried to lower her head so he wouldn’t notice.

“Once again around here?” Mitchell was already next to the table, looking at his cousin with distrust.

“Hello, Mitchellin, did you finally get a girl or the restraining orders are still on?”

“Ha-ha-ha, so funny. Says the guy who needs a computer to get some girl’s info to be able to approach her,” he replied with animosity.

“And still you were the one who ended up taking the most advantage of the same information.”

“Could you two stop? You’re cousins. You should be mutually supportive.”

“Anyone could tell you’ve only had one for quite a short time.”

After saying this, Mitchell pulled a chair and sat on the end of the table, glaring at Franktick in a way that he intended to be intimidating, but only made him laugh.

“Change of plans,” Marianne suddenly interrupted, resting one hand on the table as she showed up with Angie and Belgina. Noticing Franktick’s presence, she glared at him like he was an intruder and looked at Lucianne questioningly, but instead of making a comment, she just decided to continue with her initial idea. “We have to go to Lilith’s house.”

“She didn’t come to school?”

Marianne shook her head and tried to think what she could say with that guy in there without revealing anything suspicious.

“We have to see her . . . by ourselves.”

“What about me? Why can’t I go?” Mitchell asked, feeling excluded.

“It’s . . . a girls’ matter. You stay here and wait for Samuel, okay?”

He sank into his seat, noticeably displeased, while Franktick just smiled, realizing they were ignoring him.

“Okay. Let’s go, then,” Lucianne agreed, getting up and directing one last look at him as if about to say something, but he went ahead.

“Have fun. Send me a postcard.”

She just tightened her lips and followed the others.

“Are you leaving so soon?” Mankee asked, just getting out of the kitchen.

“We’ll go see Lilith and if we need to, we’ll drag her out,” Marianne said in passing and he reacted with a stumble, almost dropping the trays he was holding with both hands, which caught their attention. “Has she come lately?”

“N-No! Not at all!” he babbled, trying to regain the balance of the trays. “Just . . . if you see her . . . tell her to keep her mood up.”

He quickly stepped away to deliver the orders he was carrying, and they exchanged odd looks until deciding to move on.

As soon as Franktick saw them leave, he straightened in his seat, checking his pocket and leaving money on the table.

“Order something, Mitchellin, it’s on me,” he said, patting his face before leaving.

“I hate it when you do that!” Mitchell complained, rubbing his face. Franktick got out of the coffee shop, cautiously looking sideways and then began to walk.

Nearby, Officer Perry turned on his car and began to follow him like the last time. He had been doing it since morning when he had stopped by Lucianne’s house and had seen him at the door, staring at the upper room where the commissioner was enclosed. That was a sign he couldn’t just ignore.

He saw him stopping at the same building from the last time and getting inside without further ado. But this time he wasn’t going to stay there waiting for him to come out. He would also go inside.

He made sure his gun was loaded just for precaution and headed to the building’s entrance. He looked up and then to the inside. Up close it looked even more desolated and about to fall down. He didn’t like the idea of being buried in the rubble in the case of a collapse, but he liked even less the idea of Lucianne being exposed to any kind of threat that boy could pose. So, he took a breath, gripped his gun, and entered.

Each one of the levels of the building was only accessible by a semi-collapsed stair that was already crumbling every time someone set a foot on its steps, which wasn’t often given its abandoned status, but lately Franktick’s footsteps had been leaving traces every time he went upstairs. There were times, though, when the elevator suddenly opened wherever he was and he knew for sure it was an invitation to get inside.

This time he hadn’t even set a foot on the stairs when he suddenly heard a chime from the elevator. It had opened and waited to be boarded. The first time it happened, he hesitated to get inside, mostly due to the poor conditions of the facilities in general. Between falling from a collapsed stair and getting stuck in an elevator that might fall down at any moment, the second choice was the less attractive one. However, after getting in it and going up to the last floor without any problem, he had learned to take every given chance. And that was one of them.

Although the building was in complete ruins, the elevator seemed to be in perfect condition, including the lights.

He got inside and without pressing any button, the door automatically closed and started up, quickly yet smoothly, as he didn’t even feel the movement. When it finally stopped, the doors opened, revealing an area as dark and neglected as the others, dusty floors and several items cornered between panels and desks, but he seemed to already know the place by heart, because once he set a foot out of the elevator, he went straight to the end of the room, where a figure standing with his back to him awaited.

“It was about time.”

“For you to be waiting, I guess that’s right.”

“Better get straight to the point,” Hollow said, turning to him, his red eyes ablaze. “I hope you’ve brought something for me.”

Franktick didn’t seem intimidated by his presence. As he took his hand to his jacket, he boldly held the demon’s gaze, giving him the page he had taken from Lucianne.

“What’s this?”

“A singing competition. It will be held this weekend.”

“I already checked this one,” he said, waving the page with Lissen Rox’s image. “He’s peculiar, but giftless. I was expecting something interesting.”

Saying this, he hurled the sheet back to him and turned around to leave.

“There will be a lot of people participating. People with some talent, I guess.”

The demon paused for a moment, reconsidering it.

“I must admit the clue you gave me to find the Sentimental gift was a wise move. Until then I didn’t know where to look.”

“It was just an idea.”

“And I’d say you have very good ideas . . . if not because apart from that one, the rest have been useless so far.”

“I do my best,” Frank said, restraining himself. “The deal was to only bring information. I’ve kept my part of the bargain, bringing this one today. I want my reward.”

Hollow showed his sharp teeth in a smile, and after turning to him once again, he snatched the page back.

“Very well, then. If that’s what you want.”

Without further words, he reached out to him, his palm almost touching the boy’s forehead, and a dark aura surrounded him with a shock that lasted a couple of seconds, after which he pulled away and began to shake his hands while Franktick distended himself with a strong gasp and opened his eyes, shining for a moment with a red flash that eventually diluted.

“When I said I wanted to learn to do the same as you, I didn’t expect you to give me these small portions of power. It’s distressing.”

“I never said I would show you everything. Besides, you must still return the gift you stole from me, and while you don’t do it, you’ll have to settle with whatever I give you.”

The boy snorted in disappointent and watched his hands, small chips of power arising from it, tickling his palms. It was an amazing feeling, but at the same time he wanted more, like an addiction.

“Now get out, let’s see first if this information it’s even worthy,” he ordered, gesturing for him to leave. “Oh, I forgot!”

He threw something and the boy grabbed it on the fly. A wad of cash.

“Indulge yourself. I know humans enjoy those pieces of paper.”

His ‘human reward’, that was how he called it. Frank hadn’t asked for it since the beginning, but wasn’t able to refuse it, either, so he put the money in the front pocket of his jacket and headed to the elevator, which once again opened before him. Officer Perry remained hidden on the stairs, watching with his gun unlocked and ready.

He had just arrived, so he didn’t get to witness everything, but if he was certain of anything, it was that the boy was involved in something dirty, and the delivery of that money confirmed it. Also, there was the presence of that strange man who reminded him so much of the two guys that the police were looking for several weeks ago, but hadn’t reappeared in town. That did nothing but confirm his suspicions. The boy wasn’t reliable. Convinced of this, he put the gun down when he saw the elevator closing and prepared to go back all the way down, carefully setting one foot after the other in those old stairs.

Hollow had already formed one of those holes to the Legion of Darkness, and was about to go through it when a shadow stepped out.

“Oh, the irony. You always proclaimed not to need any shadow at your service, and now you’re thinking of creating one from a human? I’m surprised.”

It was Ende, with his ghastly eyes staring through the darkness. Hollow snorted, dismissing his words, and shook his head, feeling offended by the idea.

“I would never have a human servant. I won’t fall into the same mistake as Umber,” he said, remaining poised and cracking a scheming smile. “I’m just using him. He wants something he thinks I can give him, and indeed I could, but I’m not here to fulfill anyone’s whims. I’m just sending him small bouts of energy to make him feel powerful for a while, but not for long. After all, I can’t fill him with negative energy when he still must return the gift he concealed in that lake. His body will end up assimilating it . . . and maybe slowly poisoning him.”

“I thought that was a weird move. Although, you have to admit that humans are quite often easy to manipulate.”

“Not this one. But it would be fun to break his will.”

He looked at the paper the boy gave him and smiled as he lifted his gaze again at the hole in front of him, crossing right away.