5. CLUB HUNTING
The TV news wouldn’t stop playing the videos any time soon, they just kept rolling them again and again. It was the talk on every channel.
Somehow, they’d managed to get the hospital tapes, but fortunately for Marianne they only showed the parts where she was seen fighting in the waiting room. After that, they showed the balcony scene with variations. Some channels left Belgina’s full speech and other ones went directly to the acrobatic act she had performed splendidly.
From the camera’s perspective, the difference between the two armors wasn’t noticeable, so everyone assumed it was the same. Luckily, they didn’t broadcast the images of her being lead by Commissioner Fillian either, so she took it as a sign that she was cleared of all suspicion. They’d even given themselves to the task of interviewing the man at the hospital after the quick identification of his room number in the video.
Marianne was zapping from channel to channel and it was all the same. She was getting tired of it.
“It’s her!” Loui pointed at the screen while coming down the stairs. “I wasn’t imagining it, see?”
“Okay, I believe you,” Marianne said with a yawn.
“Look, mom! Come and see! That’s the heroine who saved me!”
Marianne kept on flipping through the channels, hoping to find one where she or Belgina weren’t on screen, until she stopped on the news about the mysterious deaths of some men at a sports training center on the outskirts of town. There was no sign of struggle or visible marks on their bodies so the causes of their deaths remained unknown. They had been found on the floor, eyes wide opened. She felt unsettled.
“Give me the remote!” Loui snatched it from her hands and flipped back to any news channel as their mother entered the room. “You see, mom? I wasn’t making it up!”
Marianne decided she’d better get away from there, sick of watching herself crashing into a wall over and over again. She locked herself in her room and dropped on the bed.
“You should spend your time developing your skills,” Samael advised, but she remained motionless.
“Not now, I’m still dying of exhaustion. The last days have been hectic for me.”
“Keep in mind the enemy won’t stop to let you rest. You should start now that you can and not later when it could be too late.”
She gave a snort and put a pillow over her face, but the phone rang before she started to fancy the idea of suffocation. She put the pillow down and reached into the desk to answer.
“Hello, are you busy? Can you come to my house?”
The voice on the other side was Belgina’s.
“Sure, just give me your address and I’ll see you in an hour,” Marianne replied a little surprised to hear her, though immediately getting up.
As soon as she arrived at her house, they settled in the living room with some snacks and treats across the table and the guise of doing homework, even though Marianne was waiting for what she thought was the main purpose of her call.
“Have you been an Angel Warrior for long?”
“Not even a week.”
“Really? I thought it would be longer, considering how much you seem to know.”
“Believe me, I know pretty much the same as you. It all started after the accident.”
“Oh, and then you just knew what you were, that’s odd,” Belgina said without taking her eyes from her book and Marianne felt that she was slowly heading to the matter, so she tried to encourage her to keep talking.
“Is your mother home?”
“No, she barely rested for a day. That’s the longest she’s lasted without doing a thing.”
“Oh, sorry. I guess you would’ve preferred her to stay here.”
“Never mind, we learned that we must take advantage of the little time we have available,” she said with a smile that soon faded, her mind juggling.
“Go ahead, say it already,” Marianne prompted her while taking a handful of popcorn into her mouth.
“Well, I don’t know how you’re going to take this. My mother told me they have issued an arrest warrant against you. It will be official anytime soon.”
“I see,” Marianne replied with a thoughtful look, but didn’t seem surprised at all, even Belgina looked more concerned than her, so to lighten things up, she just sighed and took a fistful of gummy bears into her mouth. “Well, I better eat all I can now, that’ll be difficult in jail.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Don’t worry! Everything will be fine. Thanks to your superb acting yesterday, no one suspect me anymore,” she assured while gobbling everything in front of her.
“But still . . . I think we should be very careful next time. We can’t know whether there’s going to be a camera recording us.”
“You’re right. Do you think you can get a complete list of all the places in town with closed circuit?”
“Maybe I can. My mom has tons of contacts.”
“Perfect! I’ll drink to that!” She lifted her glass to hit Belgina’s but they ended up pouring their refreshments upon themselves, and they laughed out loud.
On Monday, they both even went to school together, talking cheerfully, which didn’t escape their classmates’ attention and whispers began to flow.
“Don’t turn around, but seems like they’re talking about us,” Marianne whispered to Belgina while taking her seat and she couldn’t help but take a look at the others. “You still have time to go back to your seat and wait after school so we can talk.”
“No, let them say whatever they want. You’re my friend and if they don’t like it . . . their loss,” Belgina said with a steady voice so the others could hear, and to make a statement she decided to take a seat beside her and Marianne smiled gratefully.
Kristania made a frown before turning her head upfront with a scornful gesture, while Angie just watched them from her seat with a longing expression.
When the teacher arrived, they were informed that the club hunting week was ahead of them and they would explore them later that same day.
“What’s the club hunting week?” Marianne asked.
“Each semester we have a week in which we visit different clubs. It’s considered like extra credits, but it’s still taken into account at the end, so you’ll just have to join one before graduation,” Belgina explained, trying to keep her voice low enough.
“Are you in one already?”
“Not yet. I’m still on the fence since last semester.”
While they turned in their homework, there was a knock on the door. From Marianne’s angle, she could see the teacher arguing with someone and arms flapping in front of her.
“You’re an hour late, so you can’t come in, period,” the teacher concluded, getting back to the classroom and closing the door while everybody could hear someone stomping and grunting outside.
The students exchanged curious glances, no one was missing from class as far as they were aware, but the teacher didn’t say a word and they didn’t ask.
Right at ten o’clock they were headed to the auditorium to start the club tour and witness a practice from the basketball club. Marianne was excited to finally see more of the facility besides the same hallway to her classroom. They exited the building on the side door and went through a long passage with columns in the middle of the garden towards the auditorium. Several groups of students were already inside, sitting in the stands while the boys from the team practiced shots and warmed up.
Kristania watched the boys as if looking desperately for something, and abruptly started jumping up with excitement. Marianne followed the direction of her gaze and quickly found the cause, which in turn made her snort in disbelief.
“No way! What’s he doing here?”
“Who are you talking about?” Belgina asked, looking into the crowd.
“Number twelve,” she answered discreetly, pointing at Demian, who was practicing his shots at the basket. “It’s the guy from the accident.”
“You mean Demian?”
“You also know him? This is my own private hell.”
“It’s not that I’ve met him personally, but almost everyone in school knows who he is. He’s in tenth grade and has lots of fans in here. Including . . . ”
“I think it’s pretty clear,” she said after Kristania’s overreaction. “We better find a seat before the place gets packed.”
They both sat on the bottom stands, as most of them were already occupied, and hoped the practice would soon begin. Kristania stayed glued to the security fence along with her sidekicks, holding her breath without taking her eyes off Demian.
“Could anyone tell her to sit? She’s starting to get into my nerves.”
“It won’t work. She does the exact same thing every time we go club hunting. She tries to keep it cool, but in the middle of the practice she just erupts in screams. No one’s able to control her. She used to be more discreet, but things got worse after they went out.”
“A drop of blood is enough to stir the piranhas,” Marianne added and both of them laughed. As the practice began and it became clear that Demian was leading the team with his plays, Kristania couldn’t hold it anymore and started screaming, making the hubbub of the crowd seem faint whispers compared to her, making him miss a shot. He turned around, upset, but she just took the chance to catch his eye by bouncing and waving her arms unabashedly.
Realizing who she was, Demian shuddered and tried to ignore his teammates’ banters, but suddenly noticed a familiar face behind Kristania’s little one-girl show. Marianne was resting her face on her hands with annoyance. He gave her a confused look, raising his eyebrow in a questioning way, but the green-eyed girl only wrinkled her nose after realizing he had recognized her.
“Miss Krunick, come with me. Now,” the teacher commanded, taking Kristania out to prevent her from disrupting the game again.
“And that also happens every time,” Belgina said.
When the practice ended, the boys from the club scattered across the place to refresh themselves while most of the students were already leaving the auditorium, some of them approaching the registration table to join the club.
Demian double checked the stands before getting close to the benches, where he took a bottle of water out of his sports bag while the girls stood up.
“So, you’re from the stalker group. Maybe I wasn’t so wrong after all,” Demian said after a sip of water.
“Stalker group?” Marianne asked.
“That’s how your group is known. Group A, freshmen.”
Marianne looked questioningly at Belgina, but she just shrugged.
“Well, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but it’s wrong to generalize an entire group for a few people’s actions.”
“If you say so,” he granted, raising his bottle of water and drinking it.
She suddenly remembered the tape from the hospital, in which he was recorded watching her running away, and considered asking him about it, but ultimately chose not to.
Out of the auditorium, she noticed a man in a black suit wandering around the entrance. Every now and then he lifted a hand to an earplug and moved his mouth as if talking to himself while looking inside the building. It was weird, but she kept walking anyway and followed her classmates to the next point of their tour: the laboratories.
At that point, Kristania had already joined the group again and seemed calmer, though she didn’t look too interested.
“Is there any way for us to get away from here and return to the auditorium?” she whispered to her friends and Marianne rolled her eyes.
“No getaways, ladies. There are still a couple of clubs to visit,” said the teacher, appearing behind them, closer than they thought, so they had no choice but to continue reluctantly. By the end, they were led to the last club of the day at the school gym, right next to the auditorium.
Marianne noticed again the man in the suit wandering around the entrance, looking inside and then rounding the place without straying far from the periphery.
“Before we continue, we’re about to enter the Fencing club and we’re a little behind schedule so they must’ve already started their practice. It’s very important to remain quiet, understand? This warning is for everybody,” the teacher demanded, clearly alluding Kristania who just yawned as a sign of boredom.
“Marianne, I have a feeling . . . ” Samael said suddenly, causing her a slight jolt. “All I ask of you is not to leave this place while I still try to figure it out.”
“I don’t promise anything,” she replied and Belgina turned to her. Realizing she had spoken aloud, Marianne just smiled.
Inside, there was a match going on between two club members covered from head to toe with the statutory outfit, all white. The group joined the rest of the students and stayed in complete silence, paying attention to the practice, although some unmannerly yawns from Kristania could be heard occasionally.
Throughout the assault, one of the fencers was clearly superior, scoring point after point against his opponent with agile movements, keeping the line and anticipating every one of his displacements, while the other one spent the time making counter-attacks and parries intending to also score some points, but not enough to block the rapier thrusts directed at him. The assault ended with the opponent on the ground and the winner staying at his spot, holding the foil under his arm to take off his mask, showing an impassive expression, like it was all effortless to him.
“Who’s that?” Marianne asked.
“His name is Lester, he’s been the winner of every fencing tournament he’s been on and has an undefeated record.”
“You know quite a lot. I’m impressed.”
“I just like to keep myself informed.”
“Get up already. Don’t make a scene,” said the boy, approaching his opponent, who rejected his help and preferred to stand up by himself, removing his mask and revealing Demian’s flustered face.
Marianne snorted dejectedly once she recognized the suit as the same she had seen him with during the interrogations.
“I didn’t know he was also in this club!” Kristania said, amazed despite his defeat.
“Smile and wave, we’re on an exhibition,” Lester advised while waving to the crowd with a stoic smile, but Demian gave him a displeased look and just walked off, taking firm steps across the gym and into the locker room, ignoring Kristania’s cries for attention.
“At least we know now that he isn’t foolproof,” Marianne said and the sharp-faced girl gave her a death glare.
“Never talk about him in her presence,” Belgina muttered and Marianne chose to look at the ceiling, pretending she hadn’t said anything while the teachers were already dismissing their students.
“Remember you can’t go yet. I still have this strange feeling that something is going to happen,” said Samael as she took a few steps towards the exit.
“Uhm . . . Belgina, we can’t leave yet. I sense something.”
“Do you mean…?” she asked, adjusting her glasses, and Marianne nodded with discretion. “Well, then . . . we could pretend we’re interested in joining the club and buy some time.”
“Okay, sounds good,” she agreed and approached the registration desk while Kristania looked at them warily from her post at the locker room’s entrance, waiting for Demian to come out until she received a phone call, forcing her to leave after a brief discussion, stomping on her way out.
“What made you interested in fencing?” Lester asked, strolling up to the registration table with a bottle of water.
“It seems an interesting sport that requires a lot of physical and mental skills, and we’d like to know more to make a decision at the end of the week,” Belgina replied, trying to sound invested.
“Yeah, sword fighting has always struck me. Kind of ‘The three musketeers’, ‘All for one and one for all’,” Marianne seconded her and the boy looked at her as if she had said a really stupid thing.
“If you think fencing is just a game, don’t waste your time. Fencing is an art that requires perseverance and dedication. We don’t need people who are unwilling to commit to the sport. Take my opponent for example, he does so many things at the same time that he’s not fully committed to a single one, and even gets offended if I emphasized on his lack of dedication. It’s not in my hands to forbid anyone to join, but I can advise you that if you don’t take this seriously, you’d better not bother,” the fencer boy said with a disparaging tone.
Marianne glared at him with growing indignation, a sign that she was about to explode, but Demian came out of the locker room at that moment, carrying his sports bag. Almost everyone had gone.
“Good timing, I was just commenting on your lack of commitment. I was wondering when you will accept this is not the way to become professional.”
Demian said nothing, only sat on a bench to finish up placing his stuff in the bag.
“Leave it to me, we can’t risk you making a scene right now,” Belgina whispered after seeing Marianne’s face twisted in a grimace.
“Go ahead, I’m about to kick him where it hurts the most or something worse” Marianne said, leaving Belgina to smooth things out with Lester and distract him while she went to the stands. But once she sneaked a look at Demian and noted he seemed really upset, she unknowingly began to walk towards him.
“Come to mock me?” he asked once he noticed her, his face still lit with frustration.
“Of course not! Believe it or not . . . that guy seems even more obnoxious and arrogant than you, so you’re no longer at the top of my list of the worst,” she replied, sitting down beside him with folded arms.
“Well, thanks for the compliment, I think.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, even knowing it was sarcasm. “And don’t think you’ve had a bad day, there are those who’ve had it even worse.”
“Well, me, of course! Not only did I have the misfortune to find out we’re in the same school, but I’ve also met you in two different clubs in the same day. I must be carrying some bad karma.”
Demian let out a laugh at her words.
“In that case you might prefer to stay away from clubs tomorrow.”
“Please, don’t tell me you’re in more!”
“I need to stay busy, I just signed up for this one last semester,” he justified himself while closing his sports bag.
Marianne wanted to make another remark when she noticed the man in the suit leaning on the door and closing again after spotting his target inside.
“He can’t take his eyes off of me.”
“The man in the suit. He’s watching me,” Demian explained, looking unsurprised.
“But why? Who is he?”
“From the investigation department. I’m considered a suspect of concealment,” he continued with incredible calm, as if it was no big deal. “They think I’m an accomplice of this alleged heroine who’s been in the news lately.”
“Accomplice? How would you . . . ?” She suddenly remembered the tape once again, of Demian seeing her running down the corridor and keeping silence.
“You saw the video, right? Then you know why,” he said, taking his bag and ready to get out of there. “You were lucky that girl appeared last night proving it wasn’t you, otherwise you’d have an agent right now following your steps.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” she asked and he pondered on it.
“I don’t know, maybe I didn’t think it had actually anything to do with the commotion downstairs. And so far, I still have no idea. People regard her as a hero and the police are looking for her, so I don’t know what to think anymore.”
Marianne remained quiet, considering what he just said, but didn’t have the time to meditate about it because Demian suddenly jumped up, and before she could even react, he pulled her from the bench, dragged her to the gym exit and pushed her out of there, closing the door shut.
She caught a glimpse of Belgina lying on the ground and Umber holding Lester just before the door finally closed. The man in the suit promptly lunged at it, attempting to force the door, but it seemed tightly bolted from the inside, and as hard as he was trying to bring it down he couldn’t, so he ended up calling for reinforcements through his earplug.
Meanwhile, Marianne stepped back, trying to think what to do. She couldn’t transform with that man as a witness, at the risk of being targeted by the police again. So she fled out of there, deciding to go around the building and get to the back, looking for some access, but there were only a couple of windows several feet above the ground.
She tried to look up for something to use and her attention was drawn to a branch somewhat near both windows. She guessed that applying some weight could bend it enough to reach them. She tried to climb it with her armor on, but it was too upright and had little to no bumps on its bark to lever herself. Frustration was starting to overwhelm her until she realized her boots began to mold into a sharp relief on its tips.
To her surprise, the armor had adapted to the situation, so without wasting any more time she went up until she could reach the branch she aimed for, but it didn’t take her long to realize she had another problem now: her weight wasn’t enough to bend it towards the windows. She tried to think a quick solution, but as the seconds went by, she agonized over what might be happening at the gym in her absence.
She closed her eyes and put her fingers on her temples, forcing herself to think harder, but nothing was going through her head. The foliage moving like it was being sucked up by an invisible vacuum was really distracting and she needed to focus. She paused for a moment, her mind making the connection. Of course, her special power. She tried to concentrate now on the branch, imagining an invisible hand pulling it from the opposite side until it began to bend, reaching the wall between the two windows.
She ensured the tips of her boots and went through the branch, looking at the window on the right, the one from the locker room. She caught sight of Demian and Belgina hiding at the back as Ashelow tore the lockers apart along his search. Belgina looked up and saw her through the window. She nodded, leading her to believe they would be fine, so she imitated the gesture and turned to the left window which led to the gym. Umber was there, pulling out a glowing sphere from Lester’s body.
She climbed the window, letting the branch get back to its original position and saw a pile of sports mats just behind the window. She kicked the window open and jumped inside, bouncing on the mat until she fell on her feet.
“Why there are no cameras taping this?”
“There you are. Where’s your new partner?” the demon remarked with the orb still glowing in his hands. It looked brighter than usual. “You also noticed it, right?”
A vessel appeared at his side and he placed the orb above it, shining with that unusual glow, but before it got sucked by the container, she threw her sword at him and cut off his hand with a single stroke. His howl alerted Ashelow from the locker room while Marianne sprinted towards the orb, stretching her hand to fly her sword back to her like a boomerang. She then dragged Lester’s body to the mat and leaned to give him back the gift while the other demon came out of the locker room.
“Stop her! Or I will punish you!” Umber bellowed, holding tight his arm to make it grow again.
Ashelow, shuddering at his words, stretched his arms and hit Marianne with such a power that she spun around and got stamped against the wall while the gift rolled away from the fencer’s body.
Umber took it with his brand-new hand and brought it back to the container, which had the word ‘Athletic’ engraved in it. This time there was no anticipation, he simply introduced it and there was a flash like a short circuit, but nothing else happened, the gift remained inside permanently, and the demon let out a victorious roar.
He took his severed hand and waved it as a farewell as he vanished in ashes with a triumphant smile. Ashelow followed his example and faded away with his impassive expression.
Marianne stood up in pain, crestfallen after being unable to retrieve the gift. She looked at Lester’s body lying on the ground, motionless, and dug her fingers into the wooden floor. What could she do now?
“Marianne!” Belgina was approaching her while a banging noise was heard outside. The door was about to give way at any minute. “Quick! Revive him! This will be soon filled by cops!”
“ . . . I can’t,” she replied weakly.
“What do you mean you can’t?”
“Umber took the gift. It turned out to be one of those he was looking for. Without it . . . I can’t do anything,” she continued, trying to control the trembling in her voice.
“There has to be a way. What will happen to him then if he stays like that? It’s like . . . he’s dead.”
Marianne turned her face, unable to look at her or the lifeless body.
“Not everything’s lost,” Samael said and she lifted her face expectantly. “After what you’ve done, giving back the gifts, I think there’s still a way to reanimate him without it, but it won’t be the same.”
“ . . . It doesn’t matter! I’ll do whatever it takes!” Marianne jumped with renewed spirits, forgetting Belgina was next to her listening.
“Come close to the body and place your hands over his chest, like you were holding the gift between them.”
Marianne followed his instructions while Belgina watched her silently, with the door rumbling in the back.
“Concentrate. Imagine a glowing sphere fed by the vital energy still residing in his body.”
She clenched her jaw, trying to channel her thoughts through his words until she suddenly felt a tingling in her fingertips. When the sphere began to form in her hands, she couldn’t help expression of awe and disbelief.
“ . . . I did it!” she celebrated as the sphere, with a dimmer glow than the original, got introduced into his chest and Lester slowly recovered his vital functions, but still looked disoriented. Marianne sighed with relief and then remembered there was still someone else to check on. “Where’s Demian?”
“He’s . . . still in the locker room.”
Marianne immediately dashed towards there and peered inside, finding him unconscious at the back. She knelt to his side and started patting at him to make him react.
“Quick, Marianne,” Belgina murmured, the door about to collapse. It wouldn’t hold up for long, so she ran with the armor covering her up. When the door burst open, the cops got to see her getting into the locker room.
“Come on! Wake up!” Marianne shook Demian up and she suddenly saw Belgina running towards her and a stream of air threw open the window. She then jumped and pushed herself with that same gust of wind, slipping through the breach.
“You have to get out!” she warned her before jumping out the window.
Marianne couldn’t reply quickly enough when Demian opened his eyes.
“ . . . You” he uttered, trying to clear his sight. Right at that moment several police officers appeared at the locker entrance and pointed at them. Realizing she was giving them more reasons to suspect his involvement with her, she did the only thing she could think of at the time: she knocked him out again.
“Hold it!” The cops ordered, drawing their weapons as she looked at the window and a stack of shelves scattered around the floor, one on another forming a sort of staircase. She quickly got up and, with a nimbleness she wasn’t aware she had, began to jump over the lockers up to the window. Down there was Belgina waiting for her.
“Do it!” she encouraged her, raising her arms as a sign that she would catch her.
Marianne looked back, noticing the policemen were approaching Demian and pointing at her, so she decided to finally throw herself, landing over Belgina, and both of them sprawled on the grass, breathing hard.
“Come on, it won’t be long until they check on the back too, we have to be as far away as possible when that happens.”
Marianne nodded, too tired to answer, and they both changed back to normal and hurried away. Nearby, just outside the infirmary, Angie watched them with a curious look on her face.
The two girls decided to return to the gym to see how things were going. Both boys were receiving unwanted first aid. Lester didn’t seem hurt, although Demian was being treated for his contusion.
“What happened to Demian?”
“When I turned to him, he was already on the floor. Ashelow must have knocked him down,” Belgina replied while Marianne was still watching the two boys.
Lester’s face looked pale and lethargic, so much that one of the assistants was taking his blood pressure no matter how well he claimed to be. Marianne suddenly began to worry about the ‘it won’t be the same’ part of Samael’s words.
“We better go, you wouldn’t want to be questioned again,” the violet-eyed girl advised and she nodded. Moments later they left without noticing Angie’s eyes following them from a considerable distance, turning then to the gym, like she was connecting the dots.
When officers, paramedics and school employees finally left the building, Demian also decided it was time to go, after picking up his belongings. He saw Lester in the distance, foil in hand, practicing by himself. His movements were slow and clumsy, so unlike him.
He was intending to execute some displacement or any other position for that matter, but his feet kept tangling until he ended up falling headlong into the ground, where all he had left to do was to furiously hit the floor, clenching his fists in a fit of frustration. It was a truly pitiful scene. Demian decided keep his distance, knowing how humiliating it would be for him. He just took his things as quietly as possible and left.
What Lester needed right now was to be alone, and despite their differences, he respected him enough to pretend he hadn’t see it.
However, when he reached the door, his sight blurred and his head spun. He had to hold onto the door frame, waiting to regain his balance and for his vision to readjust. Then he resumed his way, downplaying it as just fatigue, after all, it had been a long intense day.
“What will happen to Lester now that he doesn’t have the Athletic gift?” Marianne asked once back at home and lying on her bed. “Why did you say he won’t be the same anymore?”
“The gifts are a feature, but they’re also of vital importance. What you did was to put a spark of energy inside him to temporarily replace the gift. That will keep him reanimated for a while, but once the lifespan of that spark is over . . . ”
“Is he going to . . . die?”
“His body will fall into crisis when the spark is extinguished, then his own energy supplies may keep him comatose until he completely runs out of it.”
She felt her throat went dry. Her carelessness would cost Lester’s life if she didn’t get his gift back.
“ . . . How long?”
“A few months at most. It depends on the gift and the owner.”
“Okay, I still have a chance then. I’ll get it back in time. I swear.”
Little did she know about the difficulties she would have to face.