“Looks like no one’s home.”

The girls had arrived in front of Lilith’s house and looked at the façade trying to find an open window or a sign of any living form inside.

Marianne took out her cell phone and called Lilith, but she never answered. She put the phone back in her pocket, and looked at the door. There was only one way to find out what had happened to her and they hadn’t walked that long to stop at the entrance and do nothing. She gestured at the girls to follow her and they came in troop to the door, knocking several times until finally someone opened.

A skinny girl with ash-colored hair and huge brown eyes peeked out the door and looked askance at them. Lilith’s little sister.

“Hi. I don’t know if you remember us. We’re Lilith’s friends . . . Is she home?” Marianne asked, trying to be as friendly as possible to not scare the child. She glanced over her shoulder and then back at them, unsure if she should speak or not.

“Mom is working. I’m not supposed to let anyone in when she’s not here.”

“It’s okay, we just want to know—”

“But if I do . . . promise not to tell?” the girl said, moving as if she were stepping on something with the tips of her shoes.

The four girls exchanged odd looks, but they weren’t given the chance to say anything. The girl immediately opened the door and stepped aside to let them in.

“Our room is down the hall,” she said, pointing to a narrow corridor. “Just don’t make her sad, please.”

They said nothing, only nodded and marched to the room at the bottom. It was dark inside despite being daytime, the curtains were closed and the lights were off. They barely managed to see the silhouette of a motionless lump on the left bed.


The lump shifted underneath the sheets and stayed still again.

“What are you doing here?” Lilith asked with hardly a hint of a voice. “Why did you come? I don’t want you to see me like this.”

“What’s wrong with you? We haven’t heard from you and you didn’t even show up at school today!” Marianne went to open the curtains.

Lilith writhed under the sheets at the flash of light and covered herself.

“…I haven’t been in the mood.”

Lucianne didn’t wait at the door, she walked steadily towards the bed and with a quick motion, pulled the sheets off despite her protests.

“You can’t stay here and do nothing just because ‘you’re not in the mood’, what kind of reason is that? Don’t you see we’re worried about you?”

“You are?” the blonde asked, slightly lifting her face like a little girl, her tawny mane completely untidy and gray circles under her eyes.

“By god, what have you done to yourself? Have you slept at all?”

«They lie. »

«You know it. »

«They don’t care about you. »

“Shut up!” Lilith yelled, covering her ears, aware that it was pointless, for the voices wouldn’t cease. But her friends were the ones who went silent.

Lilith seemed tormented once realizing she’d said it aloud and couldn’t bring herself to look at them.

“Sorry, it wasn’t for . . . ” she stopped. She was going to say ‘you’, but it would sound ridiculous considering they were the only ones in her room. They would think her crazy and that was the last thing she wanted from them.

Marianne turned away from the curtain and walked towards her, resting a leg on the mattress.

“You don’t look okay. You haven’t slept at all, have you?” she asked, staring at her.

Lilith just shook her head and tried to avoid her gaze. If she slept she would be at the mercy of the voices. They would show her unpleasant imagery, events that never happened. They would confuse her even more or worse, forced her to do things against her will.

“Sometimes I get like this, it has nothing to do with you. Sorry if I worried you,” she apologized, taking her blanket again and pulling it over her head, sulking in her bed, but instead of waiting for her to say anything else, Marianne pulled it back.

“Is that why you skipped classes for a long time last year? Did you just decide to isolate yourself from the world?”

“I wish it was that simple,” Lilith whispered, clutching her pillow now that they had taken away her bed sheet.

“Are you in treatment?” Angie asked with that insensitive touch she had lately, earning her a few glances of recrimination. Lilith didn’t answer, but the slight tension on her face made it obvious that it was hard for her to speak about it.

“How can we help?”

Lilith just shrugged and stayed in a fetal crouch, searching in her mind for some happy thought she could hold onto, to take her out of that state . . .  at least for now, so they wouldn’t keep looking at her like that.

“What do I do with this then?” Belgina said, pulling out some copies of the contest.

“What’s that?” Lilith looked sideways at them, unable to discern the content given the contrast of light and shadow in the room.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t even check your messages.”

“I told you, I wasn’t in the mood.” Her head fell back on her pillow.

“Then why don’t you take a look at this picture?” Marianne took the page closer to her so she could see it and Lilith slightly lifted her face.

“Is . . . Is that . . . Lissen Rox?” Her tone was hesitant, unsure of why they were showing that to her.

“He’s sponsoring a singing contest this weekend. We plan to volunteer for the organization, and if you had read your messages you would know—”

“Singing contest?!” Her volume raised several decibels while her back immediately straightened up, as she snatched the papers to read more carefully, her eyes popping out of their sockets.

“Yes, apparently the winner gets to sing a duet with him, and . . . ”

“A DUET WITH LISSEN ROX?” Lilith interrupted again, with a tone so loud it made them grind their teeth and cover their ears. She didn’t seem to notice it, though, she was busy uttering a string of several ‘Oh, my god!’ on the trot as she jumped up from the bed and started walking in circles, holding the copies so stiff in her hands that they seemed to be glued to the pages.

“But don’t get too excited, he’s not going to be there,” Angie said with arms folded, and Lucianne quickly nudged her to hush.

“But he’s going to be there through satellite! He might even see me if I’m in the front row! No, better yet . . . I could be the one dueting with him if I win the contest! Or in the worst case, I don’t win, but at least I can get his attention by taking part in it! And then he’ll come to the city with the excuse of a concert, and while singing he’ll ask me to marry him and he’ll take me to the stage and I’ll say yes while bawling my eyes out!”

The girls just stared at her, flabbergasted by her sudden burst of excitement. She seemed entirely different from the shadow that she’d been just a few minutes ago. Lilith stopped spinning around with the pages in front of her face and approached them with a desperate longing in her eyes.

“You’ll support me if I enter the contest, right? I need to know that at least I’ll have someone supporting me!”

“Of course we will,” Marianne replied. They would be attending as volunteers anyway, according to their plan, so it wouldn’t make so much difference. Besides, she looked so lively compared to how they found her that she preferred to keep that little detail for herself.

“You’re gonna be volunteers and I’ll be a contestant. We’ll have to prepare ourselves very hard for that day!” Lilith expressed, puffing her chest with renewed spirits, looking more like her usual self despite the tangled hair and the bags under her eyes.

Marianne shrugged, noticing the girls were already looking at her, wondering what they’d do now. She thought it wouldn’t interfere with the original plan anyway, because it was rather an addition, as if they were having a mole within the competition itself, even if Lilith wasn’t aware of it.

Mitchell toyed with the few potato chips left in his plate, terribly bored while waiting. Sometimes he felt excluded for being the ‘minority’ within the team, although that didn’t stop Samael from being involved in other isolated events that concerned the rest. As if he was more ‘special’. Although, he’d been told that he was originally the one who had been gathering them, so he couldn’t compete against that.

Annoyed, he sighed and leaned back, placing his feet on the front chair. Demian passed near his table and pushed his feet down.

“You’re going to ruin the furniture. If you do, you pay.”

“Ah, at last! Someone to talk to!” Mitchell exclaimed, pointing at the sky in a gesture of relief, following him up to the counter. “I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to show up. I tried to make conversation with the illegal, but he just doesn’t stay still.”

Demian threw him a glare since he wasn’t supposed to mention that word, but he seemed to completely shrug it off.

“Where have you been?”

“Something came up,” Demian said curtly. “And why are you alone? Did they get tired of you so soon?”

“Girl things, apparently,” Mitchell answered with a snort, sitting now on a stool in front of the counter and idly rotating his body sideways. “I’m waiting for Samuel.”

Demian made a slight scowl that he immediately erased, though Mitchell noticed it.

“Ohhh, what was that? Do I notice a slight discomfort just by saying his name?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Demian replied, frowning again.

“There it is again! Are you still jealous of him?”

Demian’s hands tightly rested on the counter.

“I’m not. . . !”

“Because you have nothing to worry about. I swear I’m not cheating on you with him. You’re the only one for me, baby,” he said, moving his eyebrows with a teasing smile and resting his chin on his knuckles.

Demian leaned over the counter with a moody look as Mitchell did nothing but laugh.

“You’re an idiot. You can never be serious.”

“Don’t think I don’t try, but you don’t give me that much to work with. You never talk about yourself and you’re always very private, so I have no choice but to make guesses.”

“I have nothing to say about me,” he said, placing his sports bag under the counter.

“Because you don’t want to or maybe you don’t even know what’s in there?”

“We’re not doing this, okay? So, stop right there,” Demian warned him.

“As you wish,” Mitchell agreed with a shrug. “I’m just saying you should be more consistent. One day you like Lucianne, the next day you’re just friends and still you’re upset that my cousin’s after her . . . ”

“Are you the one talking about consistency?” Demian interrupted him, raising an eyebrow to point out how ridiculous it sounded coming from him.

“I like all girls, I’m consistent in that sense,” he justified like it was normal. “The fact that one of them is my focus now, that’s a different story. Anyway, the point is that you should stop the excuses and finally admit that there’s someone you like.”

“And who is that supposed to be? You? Samuel?” he said, trying to make a joke.

“I wasn’t thinking of him, but if you go that way, go ahead, I support you. That would explain a lot of things, actually,” Mitchell retorted without losing the teasing tone. Demian just squinted, and chose to clean the glasses.

“I like Lucianne and I care about her, but I just see her as a friend. Happy?” he finally said, deciding to at least grant him that.

“Point confirmed at last! Now you just have to admit you like Marianne . . . ”

One of the glasses slipped from Demian’s hands, but he stopped it before it fell. Once he gently settled it on the counter, he turned to Mitchell as if he had thrown him a stink bomb.

“Are you insisting on that? I don’t know where you get that idea, but you better take it off your head and don’t mention it again, okay?” he threatened him. “Someone else might hear it and start a rumor.”

“Oh, is that your concern? Others finding out about it?”

“And the fact that it’s not true.”

“Come on, you can trust me! If I really want to, I can be a tomb or otherwise I’ll keep bugging and bugging until pissing you off.”

“I’m not going to admit something that’s not true!” Demian said, losing his patience. Realizing the customers were looking at them, he cleared his throat and tried to lower his voice again. “And that’s it. I won’t talk about it anymore.”

“Oh, I see,” Mitchell said, slowly shaking his head. “It’s not that you don’t want to tell me. It’s that you haven’t even reached to that conclusion yet.”

Demian leaned back on the counter, breathing deeply to maintain control.

“Mitchell, I told you . . . ”

“Maybe you should take a moment to ponder on it . . . Or maybe you’ve done it already, but just haven’t stopped to do it more thoroughly. And I’m talking as seriously as I can right now.”

Demian kept quiet for a few seconds. Mitchell being serious wasn’t an everyday thing. It gave him the feeling that the world was upside down and at any moment he would be the one sassing at him and Mitchell himself would censor it.

He pressed his hands, trying to think of the words he would say. If the world was upside down, it wouldn’t be such a mad thing to try and open up a little. He began drumming his fingers on the counter and opened his mouth.

“I . . . ”

The door bell stopped him. Samael entered with that halo that drew all eyes to him.

Demian just pushed himself away from the counter.

“I’ll go to the kitchen. See you later.”

Mitchell tried to stop him, eager to know what he was about to say, but it was useless.

“How badly-timed of you!” he said as Samael approached him. “He was about to speak! Would it have hurt you to wait a few more seconds?”

Samael looked at him with those confused big blue eyes, wondering if he should go back and wait at the door, but Mitchell seemed to forget about it almost instantly, taking his shoulder and leading him to the table.

“The girls went to Lilith’s. ‘Girl’s stuff’ or something like that.”

“I know, they sent me a message.”

“Awww, and you still came here to keep me company? How sweet of you!” Mitchell said, clasping his hands and imitating the gesture of someone watching a puppy.

“Marianne said to wait here.”

“Oh, right. And if Marianne says jump from a bridge, you’d do it too.”

“I don’t think she would ask me something like that,” Samael replied, thinking it was insane.

Mitchell looked at him, wondering if he was for real or just pretending to be clueless. And then remembered they were alone, so he could use this opportunity to ask a few questions.

“Well, tell me, Samuel. What’s your deal then? Boys or girls?”

Samael slightly tilted his head.


“Yeah, you know, do you like men or do you prefer women?” he repeated like asking something as trivial as what his favorite food was.

Samael blinked, trying to figure out what he meant.

“Well, I like everyone, even kids,” he finally said naively and Mitchell burst out, unable to control his laughter.

“Okay, you win! I believe you’re for real! Not everyone would say something like that so nonchalantly!”

Samael didn’t get what was so funny to him, but chose not to ask.

In the next minutes, the girls came back to the coffee shop, bringing Lilith with them. She was dolled up and energized, and the first thing she did was standing behind Mankee and tapping his shoulder.

“Hi, Monkey. Look, I followed your advice,” she said as he turned, pointing to her face framed by a smile. Mankee jumped up and backed away as if the devil itself were in front of him.

“I—I’ll go . . . get your orders . . . Excuse me!” Mankee stammered, almost running away to Lilith’s bewilderment.

“What was that? He looked frightened. Did you say something?”

Lilith shook her head while following him with her eyes, wondering what went wrong, if there was indeed something inside her that would end up alienating everyone from her, as the voices said.

“Let’s sit,” Marianne interrupted, and Lilith returned to reality with a jolt.

She smiled again, trying to act normal. She took her place on the table, convinced that she had to keep her mind busy with the singing event that had boosted her spirits. She needed to hold on to it, for her own state of mind.

One of the tasks they had to do as volunteers was to promote the event, so they handed out flyers around the school and any place they came across.

 “Come to support me this Saturday at the Music Center, please. Come to support me, thanks.”

Lilith was stationed right at the intersection to distribute flyers with her picture as if she were a famous singer. There was no denying she was trying hard.

“When are you planning on telling her that all of this is just to set a trap for Hollow?” Angie asked, leaning back on the wall.

“I don’t think it would hurt her to have something to cheer her up for the moment, we can control the perimeter while she’s having fun,” Marianne said while sticking a pamphlet on the bulletin board.

“Well, I think she’s taking it way too seriously.”

Marianne looked at Lilith again, she was promoting herself nonstop. Maybe she was way too excited. She hadn’t stopped to think how losing the contest would affect her emotionally, even though she claimed to be doing it just to get her idol’s attention.

“Let her feel our support, at least. Hopefully it will keep her in high spirits.”

Saying this, she stuck the last pin to the sign she was putting and headed to her classroom. They could’t afford to start having doubts about the plan they had traced.

She hurried up and opened the door. Kristania had already arrived and looked at her like a wounded fawn. Marianne even thought to hear her whimper with silent chirps.

She closed her eyes and sighed. That could potentially become even more annoying than bearing her desperate attempts to be her friend, so she decided to sort things out for now and not put up with that hopeless attitude anymore. She walked over to her seat and minion friends appeared on both sides to scare her off.

“Do you mind? I want to talk to her alone.” Marianne tried to look undaunted.

“It’s okay. Thanks for worrying about me.” Kristania gestured them to leave them alone, adopting a martyr pose.

“Wipe that face, will you? I won’t do anything to you. I’m not the villain here.”

“I don’t think you are or that you’ll hurt me. I know you won’t,” Kristania replied with such sincerity and conviction that it gave Marianne migraine.

“Ugh! It was easier when you were just spiteful and malicious! I don’t even know how to treat you anymore!”

Kristania remained in the same position, but her face soon began to shrink, wrinkling as a raisin. Her eyes became two watery bubbles about to burst, and Marianne immediately turned around, hoping nobody would notice.

“Oh, no. No, don’t cry. I’m sorry about yesterday, okay? I admit I was a little off! I lost my temper. I shouldn’t get even with you, alright?”

“You . . . you say it . . . straight from your heart?” she whimpered, gasping at every word.

Marianne gritted her teeth, trying to suppress any impulse to talk back.

“Yes,” she muttered as if it were difficult to admit. “You’re not to blame for your current situation and you haven’t done anything wrong . . . for a while. I’m the one with the problem and I should work on it. Feel confident regarding that . . . for now.”

Kristania sobbed and moved her eyes up to dry them up. Her face relaxed and looked serene again, finally stopping the hiccups.

“Thank you. It would be impossible not to forgive you after all I did. I understand if you don’t want to be my friend for that reason. I can’t force you, and even now I feel ashamed. But could we at least be cordial classmates?”

Marianne thought about it for a moment. She had no choice but to do her best to call it quits, so she closed her eyes and began to nod slowly.

“I don’t see why not.”

The gray-eyed girl smiled as if she had received the best news in the world.

“Thank you, thank you! I promise you won’t regret it! I’ll be the best classmate you could ask for!”

It sounded more like she couldn’t see the difference between the concept of friend and acquaintance, but Marianne just shrug it off and turned around to her seat.

Lilith came in practically on the teacher’s heels, carefully keeping her flyers to not get them confiscated, although Miss Anouk already had in her hands one of them.

“Could anyone tell me about this?” the teacher said, showing the leaflet to the class. No one spoke or even threw any accusatory look.

The teacher looked around and shook the paper again in front of them.

“Seriously . . . who can give me information about this? How much will it be? Where do I get tickets? Is Lissen Rox coming? Will there be at least autographed copies of his latest album? I need answers!”

“I get the feeling! I’m with you, Miss!” Lilith said, springing to her feet and raising her hand with a closed fist as a sign of support. “I can get you an invitation! You just have to come and support me.”

With a quick motion, she pulled out one of her flyers and handed it to her, now that she had the chance, and then moved from seat to seat, leaving a pamphlet on every desk.

“You too, everybody, come support me, thanks. If you bring signs, I would appreciate it, but if you prepare some cheers for me, it would be better.”

Marianne merely snorted when Lilith passed by her seat and gave her another flyer as if she wouldn’t have several already. She was taking it too seriously and that could only end badly for her. Even coming out of school she didn’t stopped distributing the leaflets.

 “Are you going to enter the contest?” a little voice behind Lilith forced her to turn around and face a girl in a burgundy uniform. That meant she had to be from middle school.

“That’s right! You may also come to support me if you like. Take a flyer.”

“I don’t want your flyer,” the girl said, rejecting the pamphlet and folding her arms with a surprisingly thuggish attitude. “Don’t expect everyone to support you, because I’ll be competing too. And I will win.”

Lilith held her copies under her arms and put her hands on her hips.

“Oh? You think so?”

“Vina. Remember that name because you’ll hear it when they announce the winner.”

After tilting her head in a haughty gesture, she left the hall and Lilith squeezed the flyers.

“Snotty little girl!” she growled.

“This is fantastic.”

Lilith turned around and saw Kristania watching one of her flyers.

“Even if you don’t win, Lissen Rox will be watching everything live, that would be enough incentive for any fan.”

“You don’t even like Lissen Rox,” Lilith replied with a squint, thinking she was only mocking her.

“Actually, yes. I’m a fan.”

“But in the bus you said . . . ”

“I just said it to contradict you. It was something I kept secret, but actually I have my official credential to prove I’m a lissener. I’m number 497, they sent me an autographed poster for being one of the first 500 to register.”

Lilith looked at her as if she’d just slapped her with an iron glove.

“I spent all night trying to register with a terrible connection and when I finally did . . . I was the number 501 . . . ”

The girls just looked at her as if about to jump over Kristania, but never expected what the latter said next.

“I also registered my brother without his knowledge and I have another autographed poster, do you want it?”

Lilith was a volcano of emotions, so when she went from tense to uncontrollable euphoria in a split second, it was like the place was being bombed. She took Kristania’s hands and jumped up, squealing with excitement and scaring everyone who had the misfortune to pass by.

“Oh, my god! Would you really give it to me? I don’t know what to say!”

The other sounds that came out of her mouth were barely able to form sentences or even articulate intelligible words, they sounded more like an untranslatable ‘asdsafagag’.

“I have an idea! Help us with the decorations for the event. We’re going to Lucianne’s house tonight. Will you do it?” Lilith proposed without consulting her friends.

“Gladly! I never thought you would ask me!” Kristania accepted immediately, looking excited while Marianne glared at Lilith, who didn’t seem to notice, as ecstatic as she was.

“Jealous that your BFF Kristania has already replaced you?” Angie whispered in her ear, accentuating the feeling that it wasn’t going to end well.

Lucianne was staring at the floor with her hands on her lap in a tense posture while Officer Perry looked at her, waiting for a reaction.

“You followed him.”

“I had to. I told you I had a bad feeling, and apparently, my sense wasn’t entirely wrong. I saw him going in that same place several times before, and the last time I saw him talking to someone suspicious. He handed him a wad of cash. I’m telling you he’s up to no good.”

“You didn’t have to follow him! You had no right!” she said, really upset.

“But . . . I don’t trust—”

“If you don’t trust him that doesn’t mean he’s suspicious of something. Or is he? What exactly did he do? Tell me what you’re accusing him of.”

He didn’t say a word. He had seen her upset before, but not to the extent of questioning him like that. And that the reason was precisely that boy hurt him the most.

“He’s not on par with you,” was the only thing he said. He knew he had lost a battle.

“And you’re the one who decides that?”

The coup de grâce. There was nothing left to say after that. The timely knock on the door at that moment drew their attention.

Lucianne got up without saying anything else and went to open. She wasn’t surprised to see her friends there, but didn’t understand why Kristania was in front of her door with a bag over her shoulder.

“I’ll explain later,” Marianne mumbled.

Lucianne said nothing, just stepped aside and let them in.

“Excuse me, ladies,” the officer walked through them towards the door. As he passed next to Lucianne, she only squinted reproachfully and he responded with a single tilt of his head. “Miss Lucianne.”

And just like that, he walked out of the house. Lucianne followed him with her gaze, repentant for having to respond that way, but it didn’t seem right to her that he would be following Frank without any reason, like a criminal.

“Oh, my god! Have you seen this?” Lilith suddenly yelled, drawing their attention. “Collection of original photos, limited edition calendars, pins, key chains, postcards, CDs, DVDs, BluRays in every type and format, multicolor glow sticks . . . she has multicolor glow sticks!” She showed them every object she took out from Kristania’s bag, as if they were priceless treasures, and placed them on the table with special care. “You’re a true fan. Now I can see it clearly. I no longer doubt you.”

“And I also brought you this,” Kristania interrupted, pulling out a meticulously rolled paper wrapped in cellophane.

Lilith took it between her trembling hands and tried to softly unwrap one end of the cellophane, careful not to tear it, and once she looked inside the roll, she began to scream and jump, causing the girls to step away in fear.

“No way! You did it! You really brought the autographed poster! I can’t believe you did!” Such was her explosion of joy that she ended up holding her tight. “From now on you’re my lissen sister and let no one say otherwise!”

“Wow, really? It’s the first time I’m with another fan! So far I had been keeping it a secret, but maybe I finally found someone to share this with!”

“Yes! We’ll be lissen sisters from now on until death! Let’s do the Rox sign!”

Both girls took their left hands to their chests with just the pinky and index finger extended, then up to their foreheads with a final shake up while the girls looked at them as if they had entered another dimension.

“I think this is going to be a long night. We better start,” Marianne said, wishing not having witnessed that.

“That’s a waste of a good poster, all scratched now,” Belgina said, shaking her head at the sight of the signature in the poster.

The next two hours were devoted to making garlands and other decorations for the event with the material they had been provided. Each volunteer had been given the task of making a hundred paper bracelets for the attendees, and to top it all they also had to make posters in support of Lilith. It was quite heavy work, so they ordered pizza. While waiting for it, they decided to take a break in the kitchen to drink something. It was during this period they heard a knock on the door.

“It must be the pizza.”

“Oh, let me pay, okay? In appreciation for allowing me here with you.” Kristania jumped up, taking her wallet.

“You don’t have to.”

“But I want to! I know it wasn’t in your plans to have me here, so let me at least do this, please.”

The girls looked at each other, unconvinced, considering she wasn’t in her senses, but Lilith went ahead.

“Of course you can! You’re so kind. You’ll go to heaven with Lissen Rox merchandise included!”

Kristania smiled at her approval and left the kitchen with cheerful steps.

“This is definitely going to haunt her until her death when she goes back to normal,” Marianne said, taking a sip of her soda.

“If she turns back to her old self,” Angie added casually, earning her a glare of rebuke from Marianne. “What? It’s a possibility.”

“I want her to remain like that forever! What if we don’t give her the gift back when we retrieve them all? We’d be doing a good to her and everyone!” Lilith suggested, rocking in her seat. Angie glanced at Marianne, waiting for her answer, but she kept quiet and looked at her glass.

She knew she had to tell them the truth about the lack of gifts, but didn’t know how.

Meanwhile, Kristania reached the door, ready to open her wallet and found Franktick instead. He seemed puzzled to see her there, but she greeted him with a smile.

“Hello! We thought it was the pizza.”

He was pensive. Maybe he could take advantage of it to surprise Lucianne.

“In fact, I’m lucky that you opened the door. Perhaps you could help me . . . to give Lucianne a surprise, I mean. I brought something for her, but I think it would be better if she finds it in her room.”

“Really? Sounds romantic! You want me to leave it there for you?”

“Hmmm, I think it’d be better if I do it myself. You could distract them while I’m at it. I’ll go up and then get out without anyone even noticing.”

“Okay, then. I won’t say a word. Go ahead! Win her over!”

He narrowed his eyes and slightly tilted his head as if listening to her talking was the equivalent of scratching the surface of a chalkboard.

She let him in and returned to the kitchen, taking her finger to her lips to indicate she would keep quiet. Franktick just nodded and beckoned her to keep going.

He started up the stairs as quietly as possible and stopped at the first door. She always went in there before going out of the house, so he assumed it was her room. Inside, everything was spotlessly neat, contrary to the disaster she had told it to be. He didn’t understand what could be there that she didn’t want him to see, but maybe it wasn’t her room she was trying to protect. He shook his head, deciding not to think about it, since it was none of his business, so he took the rucksack he had on his back and pulled a pack out of it. He unwrapped it carefully and spread over the bed a beautiful golden flounce dress with embroidery.

He had noticed her tendency to wear dresses and rustic skirts that suited her very well, so that dress would look even better on her. He was thinking of leaving a note simply saying to wear it such day at such time in such place. He would omit his name because it was part of the surprise. That was more than he had ever done for anyone, but didn’t help the fact that he had bought it with the money Hollow had given to him, so he tried not to think so much about it.

He left the dress on the bed and quietly walked out of the room. He could just leave the house and wait until the day the note said, but suddenly stopped and took a glance at the bottom room. He was struck by the thickness of the door and the pulley mechanism to open it, as if it were a dungeon instead of a room. He recalled the voice from the day he helped Lucianne with the cleaning —which he would never mention again. She had said her father was sick right before pushing him out of there.

He knew her father was the town police’s chief and also the reports that he hadn’t shown up to work for a few weeks. The idea that he was sick was the most plausible, of course, but that door system had powerfully grabbed his attention. And he was curious by nature, that was what induced him to become a hacker in the first place —and secondly perhaps tracking his father, but he wasn’t going to admit that and didn’t even matter at the time.

Downstairs, the girls’ voices were loud enough to assume they wouldn’t hear him if he was stealthy. He walked resolutely to the door and with a gentle pull of the lever, the mechanism activated with a light squeak until a ‘click’ was heard. The door had opened.

He looked cautiously sideways before pushing the door. It was dark inside. He touched the wall in search for a switch and, in the meantime, he heard a strange noise, like a growl in the back of the room. Once he reached the button and the light was on, he saw a man tied up to a bed and gagged. He froze. That was Lucianne’s father, Commissioner Fillian. He immediately began to flail around and let out grunts to get his attention, indicating with his eyes to untie him.

Frank remained static for a moment. Why would Lucianne have her own father tied up like that? After a few seconds without reacting, he moved quickly to the bed and the first thing he did was uncover his mouth.

“Get me out of here! I’ve been locked up for weeks! Quick, untie me before they return!”

“Who? Did Lucianne do this to you?” the boy asked in disbelief.

“Officer Perry,” the commissioner replied as clear as possible and Franktick seemed more comfortable with that idea. Maybe Lucianne was under some kind of threat. “Now untie me and help me out of here!”

He thought about it for a few seconds, he wasn’t a hundred percent sure whether to do it or not, but the man’s insistence eventually convinced him and proceeded to untie him. He was like a magician with the hands, focused on undoing the knots, so much that he didn’t foresee the blow that followed. With a precise slap behind the neck, the commissioner knocked Franktick down and as soon as he was free and dropped him on the floor beside the bed. Despite his size, he silently left the room, turning off the lights and making sure to close the door, leaving the unconscious boy in the shadows.

Nobody heard him going out the front door and no one would notice his absence in the following hours until someone would enter the room and find Frank, trapped and perhaps still unconscious.

However, it wasn’t long for him to react, ten minutes at most. It took him another couple of minutes to realize he was still in the room, in the dark, and even worse, he was the one locked up now.

He knew he couldn’t make much noise at the risk of attracting unwanted attention, and if Lucianne found him there, she would know he had freed her father, after all, he could get an idea now why he was locked in the first place. Something like what happened to his cousin possibly. He held on to the door, with his hand gripping the knob, and pulled hard a couple of times, trying to muffle the noise, but it was impossible, it just didn’t open.

Then he tried the window, maybe he could jump over a bush or get down through any protrusion he could find on the wall, but luck didn’t seem to be on his side, the window was bolted and sealed.

The girls were still heard downstairs, enjoying their pizza and ignoring what was happening upstairs. The minutes passed and Frank’s desperation grew once he ran out of resources. He even started to think of hiding under the bed or cover his face with something to storm out once the door opened, but then another thought crossed his mind.

There was still something he hadn’t tried yet. Well, he had tried it before on a smaller scale when he didn’t need it, so he hoped it would work this time.

He returned to the door and grabbed the knob with one hand while placing the other on the lock. He took a few breaths to get ready, and when he felt it was time, his body strained, muscles, limbs, tendons, anything to direct his strength to his hands. His veins were beginning to mark on his skin and his face reddened as he held his breath, but he finally seemed to be achieving it.

His eyes began to light up as if he had a couple of hot coals inside, and his hands started to let out steam right where they made contact with both the knob and the lock. And then the door opened. Frank released the knob and pulled all the air his lungs allowed him in one single inhalation. His eyes turned off again.

As he regained his breathe, he looked at his hands that no longer emitted smoke nor seemed ignited. They had gone back to normal, and as much as he moved his fingers they were completely turned off.

Doing that had required of all his strength and had taken a little longer than supposed, but now he was out of fuel, as if he would’ve consumed all of his reserves. He tightly grasped his hands, feeling fooled, but aware that he couldn’t stay there any longer, he got out of the room, closed the door and when he was on his way to the stairs, he stopped in front of Lucianne’s bedroom. He couldn’t leave any loose end, so he went back there and saw the dress still extended on the bed with the note on top.

He gritted his teeth, aware that he had to leave it for another occasion. He quickly folded the dress back to the package and got out like a bullet. The only one that knew he was there was Kristania, but he doubted she would say anything.

The girls left at around 10 pm. They hadn’t finished, but still had a couple of days until the event.

Lucianne got up to her room extremely exhausted. All she wanted was to lie down and not move until the sun was up again, but before that, she had to check on her father. So she headed to the bottom room while stretching her arms and arching her back to recover her posture. It would be a routine inspection, as Perry would say. But when she tried to turn the lever, the door opened by itself.

The first thing she thought was that maybe she had forgotten to close the door. She didn’t want to get ahead of any conclusion or to panic. She took a breath and entered, turning on the light. No one. There was no one in the room. The bed was empty and the ropes that held her father were scattered all over the floor. She felt her stomach lurched. Now it was time to panic. She immediately took the phone and thought about calling Perry, but stopped when she stared at the knob and the lock. They were melted by the action of some corrosive material. There was only one person she should call.

Minutes later, Marianne was beside her, watching Samael examine the door and running his hands over the melted area.

“I sense a dark, negative energy, but it’s not very strong,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s like . . . one of those demons would have run out of power after doing this.”

“So you think it’s a work from the Legion of Darkness?”

“Definitely, the kind of energy gave it away, though . . . ”

“What?” both girls asked in unison, waiting eagerly for a response.

“I don’t know. There’s something weird. I got the feeling that . . . there was also something human behind it and . . . ” he stayed silent again, not quite sure of what he was trying to say, but it suddenly seemed crazy to him. The girls were waiting for him to finish talking, so he decided to discard any inadmissible idea. “That’s all.”

“Do you mean there’s a human out there with a stash of energy from the Legion of Darkness at his will?” Marianne asked. “Like Ashelow?”

Samael looked at her. He knew what she was thinking, but didn’t want her to be right.

“What does that mean?” Lucianne didn’t seem to understand.

“That perhaps the Legion of Darkness is creating more shadows from humans,” Marianne replied, frowning at the thought.

“We’re not sure, we can’t assume that,” Samael intervened. “As I said earlier, to create other shadows, demons must use part of their own energy which means losing strength. And right now, it’s not in Hollow’s best interests to weaken before he fights us.”

“Perhaps he has changed his mind and thinks he needs extra help.”

“But what I don’t get is what my dad has to do with this!” Lucianne exclaimed, feeling frustrated. “Why would they take him out of here? What more could they want from him if they already have his gift?”

Neither of them answered. Samael looked back at the melted knob and lock. He mulled not only over the trail of human energy but something even more subtle. He hoped it was not too late if his suspicion proved to be true.

The day of the event, they went to the Music Center early on as part of their volunteer activities. They had to decorate not only the scenery but also the theater two hours before the contestants arrived.

Lilith had decided to make a stop at the Retroganzza before. There she found Demian at the counter with a comic book in his hands. Rather than reading it, he seemed to be looking intently at a picture.

“You read comics?” she asked, taking him unaware.

“Oh . . . not really,” he answered, closing it and placing his hands over it with an attempt of a smile. “I took it from the dungeon, I was just flipping the pages.”

“Is it . . . for adults?” she said, wiggling her eyebrows with a sassy smile. He uncovered the comic and let her see it for herself. It was the ‘Shadow Detective’ comic number one, and its cover showed only a silhouette in black leather trench coat standing in front of a crime scene, surrounded by black crows.

“Ha. Boys’ stuff, I guess. But hey, that’s not why I’m here.” She pulled out from her bag a flyer that included one of her promotional pamphlets and handed them to him. “Come support me! It’s this afternoon! The others should already be there.”

“Thanks, but I don’t even know if I’ll be able to go, I have to work,” he said and Lilith immediately pouted. “ . . . But I’ll do my best, really!”

“Perfect! That’s how I like it!” Her face drew back a smile, there was no midpoint with her. “And Monkey? I also have one for him.”

He didn’t have to say a thing, because at that moment Mankee went out with both hands holding trays. Once he saw Lilith, though, he turned around and returned to the kitchen, leaving the two of them at a loss for words.

“Maybe he forgot something. Wait a minute. I’ll give it to him.” Demian took the pamphlet from Lilith’s hands and followed Mankee. He was on the side of the door with his back against it, clinging to the trays.

“What’s the matter? Are you hiding from Lilith?”

“N-No, no! It’s not that! You wouldn’t understand. Could you take these orders and tell me when she’s gone? I’d appreciate it,” Mankee asked, handing the trays to him right when Lilith peeked out the door, leaving him dead cold.

“What’s wrong with you? Are you avoiding me?” she asked with a frown and Mankee stood in that same position with a veiled face after being caught. Demian held the trays and chose to flee the sinking ship.

“I’ll take these orders. Excuse me.”

He went out and Lilith stood in the doorway staring at Mankee, waiting for an answer, but he was stiff as a statue, unable to speak.

“Well? What’s the problem? Is it something I did or said?”

“No! Ju-Just don’t take it personal. It’s actually not you, it’s just . . . I prefer to stay out of it,” he replied, trying not to look her in the eye.

“Is it because of the other day? You helped me get better! Don’t you see? Your technique worked!” Lilith said, showing her best side while drawing the shape of her smile with her fingers. Mankee tightened his mouth and looked at her anxiously.

“At least for now . . . But it won’t stop.”

Lilith blinked, bewildered. Was he talking about the voices? There was no way he could know about them.

“I have to . . . go back to work. Be careful.”

With slumped shoulders, he turned away and went back to the front of the coffee shop, leaving Lilith standing at the door. Her clothes felt heavy, as though she were dressed in a coat of lead. But she still had things to do.

She arrived at the Music Center and after showing her credential as a contestant, she entered the hall where the event would take place.

It was huge, like a theater, and there was a platform right in front of the stage where she supposed the jury would sit. There were several teens placing seats and decorating the stage. After searching, she finally caught sight of her friends at a table, cutting cards.

“I’m glad I found you! Do you know if other contestants have arrived? Have they rehearsed? Did you hear any good ones?” Lilith asked nervously in a single sitting.

“Take it easy. All of the contestants have been going backstage, so we can’t hear whether or not they’re rehearsing.”

“And we also got to see your new nemesis arrive with an army of makeup artists and stylists behind her,” Angie said without taking her eyes off the scissors. “She’s on fire.”

Lilith pumped up her chest as if getting ready for a fight.

“Alright! In that case I shouldn’t waste any more time. You keep working. I’ll be preparing myself for the contest. I’m not asking you to wish me luck because I know you’ll support me. Later!”

The girls said their goodbyes and gazed at her until she was lost backstage. Marianne sighed.

“Has anyone at least heard her sing?

The girls just remained silent and exchanged glances, equally lost.

“I guess we’ll hear it soon. Do you all remember your positions?”

The girls nodded while Marianne glanced towards the top of the building. Mitchell and Samael were above the stage, walking through the beams by the curtains. The night before they had sneaked inside the building to recognize the area and identify the most likely points of attack, and the one they were standing on was the most feasible.

“So, are you okay with me creating a neutral barrier if the demon shows up?” Mitchell asked, placing one foot after another in the wooden rafter to keep his balance.

“I think it would be for the better in this case. It won’t affect the rest of the people and would give them time to escape without any harm,” Samael replied, going fearlessly from one rafter to another, doing mental calculations.

“And then we’ll catch him and force him to return the gifts! And we’ll beat the hell out of him!” Mitchell moved his arms as if he were punching something, but once he felt about to lose balance, he stood still for a few seconds and knelt to hold from the beam.

“Hopefully everything turns out as you say,” Samael said, walking past him without even stumbling a little.

“Hey! A little help here? Hello?” Mitchell remained motionless, clinging to the rafter, waiting for him to return.

Backstage, Lilith saw a lot of teens going from side to side, trying on clothes, hair, makeup, rehearsing at any corner they could find or at least sharing a space with someone else. Some of them even had choreography. She suddenly began to feel the pressure.

Until then it just seemed an exciting game with the chance of her favorite singer watching her perform live, even if it was via satellite, but it wasn’t a game for the others since they had been preparing for it beforehand. She started to feel her stomach churning.

«You won’t be able to do it. »

«You’ll be a joke. »

«Everyone will laugh at you. »

«Especially that singer of yours. »

Lilith pressed her hands against her ears, hard enough until the voices stopped. She tried to regain her composure and looked for a place to get ready. There were still a couple of hours until the event would start.

“Have you heard anything from your dad?” Marianne asked as she waited along Lucianne at the entrance. There were boxes with bracelets on their table for the public, and they also wore bracelets with their names and the word ‘volunteer’ in them.

“Not yet. Perry has been looking for him, but he hasn’t even heard news of a robbery or something he could be involved with.”

“He’ll show up, don’t worry. He must be hiding somewhere.”

Lucianne didn’t answer, but couldn’t hide her concern. She still didn’t get why someone would release her father, whoever it was.

“If it’s truth that they’re creating new shadows out of humans . . . is there any way to revert the process?”

Marianne was the one who kept quiet now. She hadn’t thought about it. The only way Ashelow had managed to get his freedom was by dying. But they couldn’t take that measure, after all it was still a human life they were talking about.

“I guess we’ll have to find one.”

And then the doors opened. People began to arrive in troops, coming one after another, while they put the bracelets along with other volunteers distributed in each of the four entrances to the Music Center. They saw Lilith’s mother and her sister coming, also several classmates, and even Kristania carrying one of the banners they had made for Lilith. There must have already entered around a thousand people, and more kept coming.

“Well, isn’t it a nice bracelet?”

Lucianne looked up once she recognized that voice.

“Frank!” she said, surprised to see him right in front of her. She hadn’t heard of him for a couple of days and now there he was, nonchalant. “Are you okay?”

“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?” His appearance said otherwise, he looked ill even though he tried to pretend he wasn’t. Lucianne said nothing, however. She didn’t want him to think she was calling him out, though he immediately excused himself. “Sorry for disappearing lately. I had things to do.”

“No problem. I’ve been busy too, as you can see,” she replied, showing the bracelets while Marianne threw them glances to indicate he was delaying the line in addition to her not very subtle way to show displeasure for him. “ . . . Maybe you should move on.”

“See you later, then,” he finished, allowing her to put the bracelet on his wrist and getting inside while walking backwards, waving his hand with the bracelet. She couldn’t help but smile, noticing Marianne was shaking her head.


“I haven’t said a thing,” Marianne replied with a shrug and turning her attention to the line, right when someone was already walking past her. “Hey, the bracelet!”

She reached out to put the bracelet on the wrist of the guy, but it tore apart. The person stopped and turned around. It was Demian.

She stayed in the same position with her arm outstretched, holding the broken bracelet, while he looked surprised at her and then at Lucianne, who waved at him with a smile and a discreet gesture.

“So, it was true. You really are volunteers.”

Marianne leaped up and stood stiff with her eyes fixed on the torn bracelet.

“Look at us! It’s like we don’t have anything else to do, right?” Lucianne joked.

“You broke the bracelet,” Marianne said reproachfully and he didn’t know what to say. She took another bracelet out of its box and threw it towards him. “You better not break that too.”

Demian caught the bracelet while she turned her attention back to the line.

“Now, go on, there are still people waiting.”

Marianne kept handing bracelets as Lucianne gazed at Demian, raising her eyebrows and gesturing him to better not pick an argument with her. He just took the bracelet and kept going. It was probably not a good idea to be there after all. Now, Lucianne was the one who was shaking her head.

“What?” Marianne asked, realizing her expression.

“I said nothing,” she retorted, imitating her shrug and she gave her a withering look in response.

Once all the people were already inside, the volunteers scattered around to monitor the event. The hall was almost at full capacity when the host appeared to start the show, which would be broadcast on national television given Lissen Rox’s growing fame.

He gave a brief introduction in the form of a monologue and then proceeded to introduce the jury composed mainly of press personalities and from show business.

Most of the contestants were already peering curiously from backstage to see the jury and the audience. Right then, the host introduced the special guest via satellite. Lissen Rox appeared in a screen placed in front on the stage and a larger one facing the audience, settling a prompter in his ear and apparently listening to instructions from someone else behind the camera. Hysterical screams and cries from the public ensued.

Lilith tried to stifle her own screams, but couldn’t do it for long. A powerful shriek escaped her lungs and joined the audience’s outcry. She ignored the disapproving looks from the rest of the contestants, who covered their ears and moved away from her.

“Greetings, Arkelance!” the singer greeted. He had tousled hair, a black outline simulating a tear in the corner of his eye and a simple chiffon shirt showing his tattooed chest. The fervent cries intensified. “I’m very sorry for not being there. I’m getting ready for a concert here in London, but I hope soon to be with you as part of my world tour.” Screams and more screams. “As you know, the winner of this contest will have the honor to sing a duet with me and who knows, maybe even come to my tour.” Joyful shout outs from contestants. Lilith seemed ready to swoon. “So, good luck everyone. I’ll be watching you and I hope to see a lot of talent.”

Lilith began to hyperventilate. Even though she already knew after reading the contest flyers, hearing it from his own mouth made it even more exciting and real, and also made her absolutely more nervous than ever. But she had to control herself, it was a step to get closer to her idol.

And so, the contest began. Each participant was called on stage when it was their turn to sing. The judges only made comments between them and took notes while Lissen Rox celebrated them with several ‘Well done’, ‘Excellent’, ‘Good’, ‘Keep it up’, even to those out of tune throughout the whole song.

“The guy is phony,” Marianne commented, sick of hearing over and over again the same words and gestures with his hands for everyone.

“He has to be polite. He’s a public figure, he doesn’t want to lose fans,” Lucianne justified, standing beside her.

“How long is this going to be? I think the oatmeal I ate this morning is starting to germinate,” Mitchell said, practically resting with his back on the wall now that they had nothing else to do.

“We must be around the middle of the show. I guess the action will start once they announce the winner,” Angie replied, looking indifferent to the event and its participants.

Lilith watched everything from backstage, cheering every time a contestant got off stage and getting scared to death for her turn. She wore a red dress with a leather jacket and boots that reached above the knees. Her mane, more savage and wilder than usual, was lifted up with spray. She had begun to shake her limbs, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before it was her turn. Vina Ming was called on stage.

The girl, who looked not older than thirteen, walked past Lilith and glanced at her with a ‘Watch and learn’ expression on her face. Her attire seemed to be an homage to Lissen Rox’s latest video, the one that seemed inspired by the Angel Warriors, so it was clear that was the song she was going to sing, ‘Engel soul’. Behind her, a group of boys placed themselves between the wings, waiting. They were dressed in tattered black robes and painted faces like spectrums. Backup dancers. She had her own backup dancers! Wasn’t that against the rules or something?

The music started and the young girl began to move like a trained classical dancer. She was trying to emulate the full video, that much was certain. The guitars began to play and then came the dancers to perform their choreography. The girl began to sing. Her voice hadn’t finished maturing yet, it was too high-pitched but in tune, and despite the constant movement she didn’t lose control over her breathing.

When she finished, Lissen Rox not only gave her the same compliments as usual, but also added a ‘You rock!” and a ‘Wow!’. Enough to discourage everyone, thinking that the fate of the contest had been sealed.

The girl walked next to her while getting off the stage and gave her another look with a smile that now read ‘That’s how it’s done’. Lilith gulped, feeling tiny, and that was when they said her name. It was her turn.

She felt her muscles tightening and her intestines tied into a knot. She even started to consider running away when they put a microphone in her hand and pushed her to the center of the stage. Once in the spotlight, she froze, looking at the audience and especially seeing the huge screen where Lissen Rox seemed to be watching her directly.

She held the microphone under her face, like embedded in her hands. She tried to say something, but her vocal chords seemed paralyzed. Just what she feared the most, making a fool of herself in front of her idol. People stood in complete silence, as if it couldn’t be even more awkward.

“Oh, no. She froze,” Lucianne said, covering her mouth in a gesture of dismay.

Marianne looked at the audience and back to Lilith. She couldn’t let this happen. So, she took a deep breath and opened her mouth.

“Li-lith! Li-lith! Li-lith!” she began to chant in support, rhythmically.

For a few seconds, it was the only voice that was heard around the place until Lucianne joined her and the rest of her friends followed the lead. Soon, like a chain reaction, several people began to call her name too. Even Kristania pulled her banner in support of her and started to shake it. Watching all of this, Lilith started to relax, and a growing wave of renewed energy began to fill her body. It was just like she had imagined it many times before, on stage with the audience chanting her name. She could do it, she was sure now. So, she took the microphone with resolution, and finally let out the first notes of the song. The audience kept quiet while she continued a cappella.

“Did you hear that?” Lucianne said, agape.

“No way,” Marianne muttered with her hands suspended in front of her face, distraught. She wasn’t expecting that powerful and tuned voice coming out of Lilith.

“She could win!” Belgina clapped like it was a good thing.

But Marianne didn’t see it that way. She had let Lilith to take part of the contest believing she had no chance of winning and would be safe, but now it was all turned upside down for them. If something happened to her, it would be her fault.

“What have we done?”

Lilith had begun to sing the intro to her favorite Lissen Rox song, ‘Toten blumen’ from his debut single. Even though it wasn’t exactly his main single, it was still a powerful rock ballad that evoked a lot of feelings in her.

Once she finished with the intro a cappella, she made a gesture towards backstage snapping her fingers. The music began to play and she sang with that voice that didn’t seem to come out of her. The audience was mute. The singer was really attentive, listening in a reflective pose until someone from his staff pulled him out of his concentration and took out his prompter after saying something to his ear.

They made him get up and leave, as a group of people entered to retouch his makeup, hair and wardrobe. Lilith was so focused on her interpretation that she didn’t even notice it until the song was over and heard the burst of applause. She lifted her face, proud of what she had done, thinking she may now see Lissen Rox with a smile perhaps, and maybe even receive a round of ‘Wow’, but soon realized the screen was empty. Her face immediately darkened as the host approached the stage to explain to the audience that the singer had to leave for his concert. However, Lilith didn’t seem to pay attention. All she wanted was to be heard by him and for a moment thought she finally succeeded. But it wasn’t her time, luck had never smiled at her. If only she had hit the stage a little earlier . . .

“What will we do if Lilith wins?” Lucianne asked.

“We must stick to the plan. That way even if she wins, nothing should go wrong,” Samael answered and the rest of them agreed, however, Marianne knew from Lilith’s expression that no matter the outcome, she was already shattered.

The last contestants went up the stage and the jury began to deliberate. The guys knew that this was the moment to go to their positions, and they quietly started to disperse.

“I thought this wouldn’t end. I was starting to feel claustrophobic.”

Franktick appeared behind Lucianne, standing in her way to go to her spot.

“Frank . . . I thought you would have left already in the middle of the show.”

“I admit I was tempted. But then I thought ‘What the hell? If I lose my time for two hours, I better make it worth it until the end’, and here I am. I thought I wouldn’t find you among so many people.”

“You shouldn’t have bothered. You see, I’m a little busy . . . ” she said, watching the place she was supposed to be at that right moment.

“Busy doing what? You’re just a volunteer, why do you take this so seriously? The contest is over, they just need to pick a winner and that’s it.”

“I just . . . we wanna be here if Lilith wins.”

Frank shook his head slightly and squinted with a grimace.

“Let’s hope she doesn’t.”

She looked at him, not knowing why he would say such a thing, and right then the host went back to the stage.

He had the results in his hands and called everyone to the stage with him. Lilith was among the group, right next to the girl who performed before her, Vina.

They all held hands, waiting for the host to announce the winner, and Lilith looked at the girl, thinking she would refuse to take her hand, but as if she had developed a new sense of respect for her, she took her hand and waited with her head held high. This was an attitude Lilith gratefully acknowledged and it helped to lift her spirits.

Perhaps, after all, she had a real chance to win, and if that happened, she could be in front of her idol again, and best of all, sing a duet with him. A new wave of positivity went through her. It wasn’t over. She could win. She really could!

“And the winner is . . . !” the host began to say, pausing to heighten the suspense.

The guys looked expectantly at the stage from their respective spots. Mitchell and Samael were invisible above the stage, waiting patiently for the winner to be announced.

Marianne watched Lilith. She was excited again, aware that her chances to win had become real and she didn’t know what she preferred, whether she won or not. Finally, the host ended his long pause and gave them the answer they were all waiting for.

“Vina Ming!”

Applause and cheers from the audience. Lilith’s smile faded for a few seconds leading to a forced smile and a round of applause as the girl took several steps towards the host. It was another setback for her.

Marianne sighed with relief, though she couldn’t avoid a twinge of guilt for feeling that way. The others seemed relieved too and went back to focus on their plan. They should be alert to any unusual movement.

“Even if I wanted to stay here talking to you, I really need to do something, so we’ll talk later, okay?” Lucianne did everything she could to get to her spot, but Frank kept stopping her.

“The contest’s over, there’s nothing else to do, why don’t we just leave?” the boy insisted, as if looking for an excuse to get her out of there.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

“Just . . . trust me, okay? Let’s get out of here while we still have the chance.”

His cinnamon eyes shone with a red flash, accentuating his dark circles and overall haggard appearance. Lucianne gazed at him, bewildered.

“There!” Mitchell pointed out at the rafter across the stage where they got to glimpse a blink of a shadow. One second it was there, and then it wasn’t anymore. They moved up to that point and looked down.

“Do you see anything?” Samael asked, sweeping the stage with his eyes. Mitchell shook his head until they saw that shadow flickering at different points. “Okay, as soon as we go down, you know what to do.

“You don’t have to tell me twice! Let’s get that guy and recover the gifts!”

And then everything happened faster than they were prepared to. On stage, they were still celebrating with the winner when suddenly the girl’s body rose several inches from the floor and hunched backwards, a sphere popping off her chest. People kept silent in utter confusion and when they saw her falling to the floor and then Hollow appearing behind her, the screams began. He wasted no time and with a shake of his hands propelled everyone on the air. It didn’t take long for people to begin shoving and pushing each other in their desperation to get out of there.

The demon held the gift just a couple of seconds and then threw it to the floor, turning now to the rest of the contestants, still paralyzed with fear. Among them, Lilith stood motionless at a short distance from the girl’s body. Her brain didn’t seem to make the connection yet of what was going on, and then Hollow stretched out his arm and a string of energy shot out of his hand, going through the nearest boy and following a path that seemed to form a chain with everyone on stage. One by one they started to fall like dominoes, leaving only a glowing sphere above their bodies. When Lilith finally reacted and tried to flee, urging the closest guys to follow her, it was already too late. The energy chain reached the rest of them and she was the last to fall. The demon then moved closer to the brightest orb among all the gifts and smiled.

“Bingo,” he said as he held Lilith’s gift in his hands.

“Lilith!” Lucianne yelled, trying to approach the stage, but Franktick constantly stopped her, trying to lead her to the exit.

“We gotta get out of here or we’ll be crushed by a stampede!”

“I have to go!” Lucianne insisted, desperate to get to her spot, but in the middle of the commotion, she ended on the floor and Frank immediately acted as a shield, lying on top of her while dragging her away from the crowd.

Lucianne looked at him, perplexed. She knew he was doing it to protect her, but she had work to do, so when they moved apart from the stomping crowd, she took pushed him away and plunged through the crowd.

He followed her close, but ended up losing sight of her with all the people running away terrified. He then got to see someone that just like him struggled against the tide, heading to the stage. It was Demian.

He didn’t know what drove him to do it, but Franktick suddenly felt a fizz inside that forced him to go after him, dodging large bumps on the floor —or were they persons?— and the crowd swirling in front of him.

Demian was unaware of anything in the following minutes, he was just about to reach the judges platform when something hit him from behind, knocking him unconscious right at one side of the jury table. The place was complete chaos.

“Why hasn’t Lucianne done anything yet?”

“We’ll find out later, no time to waste! It’s now or never!” Samael announced, taking Mitchell by the shoulder and transporting both of them, in a split second, to the stage. There, Samael held Hollow tight. “Now! Do it now!”

Mitchell set his feet on the wood and raised his arms. An opaque layer formed above, enclosing them in a dome that filled the entire stage area. Hollow knew what that meant, but didn’t seem particularly worried, not even when he felt the edge of a sword dangerously suspended under his neck.

“Don’t even dare to make a move,” Marianne warned him, grasping her sword and holding Lilith’s gift with her free hand. Her gaze through the helmet was intense, and if she had the power to cast rays from her eyes, he would certainly drop dead at that moment. “We’ve caught you, there’s no way you’ll come out of this. So, give us the rest of the gifts. NOW.”

The demon smiled without saying a word, and suddenly Mitchell fell unconscious to the floor. The barrier around them vanished among their confusion.

They didn’t even have time to react. Once Hollow was again in possession of his powers, he released himself from Samael’s grip and with a flick, he snatched the sphere from Marianne’s hand, jumping backwards to keep his distance from them.

“If you thought you could ambush me because I was alone . . . you made a big mistake,” he said, playing with the orb, spinning it around on his index finger. Another shadow appeared beside him then, greenish skin with silver eyes. “Because I’m not.”

The guys exchanged nonplussed glances. That wasn’t in their plans and it was about to take a turn for the worse. In the background, they could still hear people screaming and trying to escape. It was a nightmare that was yet to start.