Chapter 6


The smoke shadow smiled with a crooked line curving up in his faceless head, two holes above it forming feline eyes. Loui recoiled in terror and his legs went numb and heavy, refusing to respond. The creature turned its attention to the glowing sphere between its translucent hands and let out a long deflating sound.

“…Not the master,” the smoke demon hissed and then its cat’s eyes rested on the boy and smiled with a reptilian blink. “…Are you the master?”

Loui shuddered and finally managed to move his legs as the shadow began to lengthen one of his vaporous hands towards him, but the kid wasn´t quick enough and his feet entangled, making him stumble and fall.

The hand of smoke stretched out slowly, taking delight in the anticipation, when suddenly a lightning beam went through it and the smoke appendix floated and dissipated in the air, only to immediately grow another hand while the shadow spinned his head completely around. Loui took that moment to stand up and bolt, but once out of the court, he suddenly stopped and decided to hide under the bleachers to watch. Two figures in armor were trying to hunt the smoke demon even when it kept dissipating and taking form again. Loui’s dread soon turned into fascination and just stood there, watching everything with amazement.

Demian closed the car after taking a couple of coats at Vicky’s request. Arguing about her excessive demands for the next day’s reunion was tiresome, but even more so the prospect of having his house filled with some unenthused presences.

He settled both coats on his arms and was about to return to the main building when a horrible feeling of vertigo took over him, the very same gut reaction he had before the smoke demon appeared. He could sense it very close; surely, he could find his exact location. Was he thinking of stopping it? That was supposed to be the Angel Warriors’ job, but he also felt responsible; after all, he was the reason they were doing it all over again: looking for the gifts, harvesting them. And, of course, he needed to prove he was not involved this time. He left the coats on the hood of the car and tried to locate the creature; his appearance changed to his demon form and disappeared in a cloud of black smoke. When he reappeared on the side of the tennis court, he saw two of the Angel Warriors trying to capture the demon, which kept slipping away thanks to its unique constitution. He felt relieved in a way.

Frank’s motionless body was on the floor, and the demon was juggling a glowing sphere in his hands, as if mocking them for their inability to catch him. Demian took advantage of the demon’s distraction to appear beside him and snatch the gift, but as soon as he touched it, he felt ill. The demon turned to him with those feline eyes, and suddenly the line of its mouth stretched to its full extend, cutting his face in half.

“Master! Come with me?” the demon said in a voice that sounded like cicadas’ chirps and he watched him in disgust, wondering if he lacked long-term memory as he clearly had refused the first time.

“You’ll have to take me dead,” he retorted, trying to ignore his own malaise, and quickly extended his free hand to the demon floating in front of him, with that straight line cutting through its smoky face. His hand shot a bast of energy like a vacuum cleaner in reverse, sweeping the demon away, which dissipated in the air and lost its form; at least it would give him some time while it took form again as a thundercloud. He stepped back, holding the gift behind his back, when suddenly an electric shock on his hand forced him to drop the orb. He didn’t even have time to wonder what was going on, when he realized the two Angel Warriors were already on opposite sides, attacking him. “What are you doing?”

He stopped one of them, and after a quick glance, he realized that the armor in front of him didn’t match the others. They weren’t the Angel Warriors he knew. The hand he was grabbing suddenly gave him electric shocks and he had to release it and step back. The second figure was already approaching from behind and started hitting him on the back; whenever it touched his armor, it underwent through changes, transmuting, making it hard for him to defend himself. Each time his armor went nuts, he had to use his own power to bring it back to normal, and still had to dodge further attacks. To top it all, the smoke demon had recovered its form and was plunging down again. Demian couldn’t handle everything at the same time, so he hurled both armored figures away with a sudden increase of his aura, and tried to stop the demon, but as he turned to the gift, it was already in the demon’s hands again. The line that formed its smile suddenly opened in a huge hole for a mouth —its whole head split in half—, and then swallowed the sphere, making spirals in the air and vanishing like an apparition.

Demian stood there, panting in frustration. If only he hadn’t been distracted… Then he heard footsteps and assumed the two figures were back, so he turned around, ready for another onslaught, but instead saw the others stopping in front of him, looking baffled at Frank’s unconscious body on the floor. And then they directed him those glances he already knew. Glances of doubt.

“…What’s going on? What happened to Frank?” Lucianne asked, kneeling and trying to make him react.

“…It was the smoke demon, he took his gift,” he replied, trying to stay poised and hoping this time they would believe him.

“The smoke demon that also attacked Lester?” repeated Lilith in a tone that didn’t seem entirely convinced and Marianne went ahead before they started questioning him again.

“I’ll make him react and he will tell us what happened,” Marianne said, placing her hands over his chest and creating a substitute gift while Demian stood apart, trying to modulate his breathing.

“…You don’t understand. It wasn’t only the somke demon, there were two other figures fighting him. I thought they were you.”

“But we just got here,” Angie replied.

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I thought it was you at first, I didn’t pay attention to them, I focused on the demon, but then they started to attack me…” Demian continued, his breathing still agitated, stumbling over the words. “They I saw them more up close; their armors looked like yours, but they weren’t the same.”

“Armors like ours?” Samael intervened with a wary expression.

Frank’s body twitched with a spasm at that moment, catching air through the mouth in a single gasp. He took his hands to his chest to look for injures, and then looked around alert; his eyes so wide they seemed about to pop out of his head. Everyone was asking questions, but he stopped at Demian. His eyes immediately lit up with a fierce gesture and leaped like a panther.

“…You! You did this!” he said, going after him while Lucianne kept him from advancing. “…You attacked me from the back like a coward!”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Demian muttered, after his credibility was questioned once more.

“He says the smoke shadow had your gift when he arrived,” Marianne said, trying to stand between them to prevent a fight.

“Think, Frank. Try to remember. Did you get to see the smoke demon or anything remotely similar?” Lucianne asked in a warm tone to reassure him.

“Smoke demon? I didn’t see any smoke demon! I’m telling you he attacked me from behind! I couldn’t see a thing!”

The others gave a sigh of frustration after getting nowhere while Demian remained tense, aware that he was still the prime suspect, even if they wouldn’t express it aloud.

“…I did see it.”

Everyone turned towards the little voice outside the group, and they all saw Loui a few feet from them, looking at them with a mixture of awe and fear.

“What are you doing here?! Where have you been?!” Marianne chimed him, forgetting their circumstances for a moment; he watched her for a few seconds too shocked to respond until he suddenly pointed at her.

“…Ha! I knew it was you!” the child said, and she realized she had betrayed herself. She grunted, knowing that it was useless to keep him away from it anymore, and then she just let her armor retract.

“Don’t worry. He already knows; he can keep the secret,” she said reluctantly while the kid stood proudly after her recognition. The others finally decided to get rid of their armors, while Loui tried not to lose any detail, like he was behind the scenes of the filming of one of his favorite comic movies.

“…Awesome!” he said delighted, and Marianne took his arm to make him focus; the child twitched in pain.

“All right, speak now, what exactly did you see?”

“At first it seemed like a swarm from afar, until it took form and passed through him,” Loui said, pointing at Frank. “It was a smoke silhouette; it knocked him out right away. There was a sphere in its hands and that was when the other two figures in armor appeared.”

“Tell us about those two figures, what do you remember about them?” interrupted Samael with interest.

“Well… they had armors! They were very similar to yours. They went after the smoke guy but couldn’t catch him. Then he showed up,” he pointed now at Demian, who remained standing aside with an unfathomable expression, “and they immediately attacked him out of nowhere, until they all disappeared, and you guys came.”

They all kept silent for a few moments, processing the kid’s words and looking askance at each other, as if waiting for someone to speak up their mind.

“…I didn’t see any of that. I can’t confirm it,” Frank said, unwilling to accept that Demian was telling the truth from the beginning. The kid shrugged and pulled out his phone.

“I recorded a few seconds if you want to see it.”

Those were like magic words; the others immediately gathered around him to look at the small screen while playing the ten-second-long video. In the last moments two figures were seen lunging against Demian while he kept them away and tried to stop the smoke demon before it escaped. They all watched it intently, repeating the video over and over again to try to catch more details.

Demian didn’t move from his place. He didn’t need to see the video; he had experienced it up close. And as much as both the video and Loui’s confirmation took the blame off him, there was still the fact that they had doubted him. Because no one could rely entirely on a demon.

“…Send us the video, will you? We’re going to need it if we want to find answers,” Marianne requested while the rest remained thoughtful.

“…Isn’t Mitchell here?” Angie asked, glancing around to confirm if everyone was there. Belgina looked down guiltily at the mention.

“Monkey isn’t here either, but we can send them the video later,” Lilith resolved.

“Frank, aren’t you going to apologize?” Lucianne looked at him like a mother scolding her child to recognize his mistake. Instead, he seemed offended.

“…Why should I apologize? In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve lost my gift again! I’m in a countdown; I’m the most affected here!”

“But you blamed Demian when he was just trying to help,” she replied and Demian opted to turn around and walk away.

“Hey! Where are you going?” Marianne asked, stepping away from the group.

“I must go back to my sister or she’ll be worried,” he replied curtly, and after taking several steps, he stopped and turned with a straight face. “…If you happen to find out something about those two figures, let me know. I’ll see what I can do about the smoke demon… I’ll leave you now, so you can continue with your little meeting.”

And without uttering another word he just left. Marianne wondered if this would mean a few steps back in the reintegration process after doing fine over the last month.

“So, he was the demon that had been attacking the town?” Loui intervened still in a state of wonder after being able to witness all the things he only knew in theory. “…Wow! And you let him hang around with you, you’re so rad!”

“There are a lot of things you don’t know so shut up and just send the video already,” Marianne demanded, right when they saw Mitchell approaching in the distance with erratic steps. As he arrived, they all noticed how pale and distracted he seemed.

“…I’m sorry, did I miss something?”

“Where have you been? Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Yeah, I just… had a setback, I think,” he answered, touching his face and the scratch on his cheek. Belgina just looked at him remorsefully, as if trying to say something, but instead of that, she walked away in silence.

“You’re gonna have to fix it if we want to work as a team,” Marianne said, as she focused on the video she had already received on her cellphone.

“If it was up to me there wouldn’t even be anything to fix,” Mitchell said, rubbing his face and pinching it.

“Oh, of course; we girls are the ones who complicate it all, right? Is that what you mean?”

“It wasn’t me who said it,” Mitchell responded, brushing off the comment.

“Oh, yeah? Well, listen to this, because I’ll say it once. Had you done as we told you and hadn’t been carried away by your stupid hormones, Belgina wouldn’t be acting like that right now,” Marianne spat with a note of complaint and pointing accusingly at him.

“…Huh?” Mitchell’s expression was completely oblivious, as if she were speaking tongues.

“You’re seriously…!” Marianne said, clutching her hands as to not choke him.

“She feels like you betrayed her trust while she was giftless! There, I said it!” Lilith intervened, just to finally settle the matter.

“What? How did I betray her trust? I didn’t… It wasn’t my intention… Are you sure she said that?”

“We told you several times, didn’t we? Now find a way to fix your mess! All this tension hurts our team,” Marianne decreed, keeping her phone after making sure the video was well received.

“Can I be an honorary member of your team now?” Loui asked, pulling her sweater. She huffed, feeling he was testing her patience.

“We should go back, don’t you think?” Angie suggested, watching the road to the auditorium and the school. “…Before the meeting is over or someone starts to suspect our absence.”

“Let’s go then. I suggest everyone to analyze the video so we can discuss it later,” Marianne concluded.

Frank stood in the same place; one hand in his pocket, the other holding a cigarette and staring at his feet while stomping on the tennis court as if trying to dig into it. Lucianne also stayed behind after noticing he wasn’t moving.

“Are you going to tell me what you and my father talked about?” He didn’t answer, just kept rubbing his shoes on the court and puffing. “…Frank, say something.”

“Do you mind? I just lost my gift for the second time. All I want is to be alone for a moment. You staying here won’t help.”

Lucianne looked at him taken aback by his tone. She could have talked back to him, but all she did was turn around and walk away.

Frank took one last drag of his cigarette and then threw it to the floor, turning it off with his shoe in such a way that at the last stomp, the court rumbled, forming some cracks in it. Frank crouched for a moment to calm down, mentally singing the Power-Pie girls’ tune. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but he still hummed a little. When he stood up again, he felt more controlled. He decided to stroll by the parking lot, but once out of the tennis court, a shadow stepped in front of him.

“…Can I talk to you for a moment?”

Frank looked incredulous at him, unable to fathom his presence in front of him.

“…You talking to me? Or are you trying to use an intimidation technique to stop me from making any false accusations against you again?”

Demian tried not to show any alteration at his words.

“…It will be just a few minutes.”

Franktick squinted suspiciously, but still followed him away from the courts and the swimming dome, so no one could see them at plain sight.

“You don’t trust me,” Demian started, and Frank chuckled.

“Ya think, Captain Obvious? Your deductive powers amaze me!”

“I’m trying to be serious here. I’m saying it because I don’t trust myself either,” he said, trying to remain unfazed and not be swayed by his impulses, “…nor whatever I’m capable of if the gifts are reassembled in any case. Even now I feel like I can lose control at any time, so I couldn’t guarantee anything under the influence of the gifts… Do you understand where I’m going with this?”

“I think have an idea, but I’ll let you say it just for the sheer pleasure of hearing it from you,” Frank said with a haughty smile and lifting his head.

Demian tightened his jaw and slightly twisted his mouth.

“…I need to make sure that if the gifts are being collected, someone will take action before they are complete and get rid of the source of power for those gifts, even against the others’ will, and with ‘source’ I mean me.”

Frank listened intently, nodding as if hearing the best news in all day.

“…I’m flattered that you thought of me for this important task,” Frank said with a smirk. “Although, I’m not the only one who can do it.”

“I know. I also plan to talk to him when I have a chance.”

Wings is a good choice. Although he will do whatever Marianne asks him to, he can’t help it. Right now, he’s tied up with the idea that you’re different and don’t follow the preconceptions from common demons,” Frank replied, taking the moment to light another cigarette as if his hand were already programmed to do so, while Demian patiently waited for him to puff and blow with so much joy that he almost was tempted to step back and leave him alone with his cigar. “I meant someone who wishes for your death almost as much as I do: yourself.”

Demian didn’t seem surprised at his suggestion, as if he had already considered it, so he didn’t need much thought to respond with a shake of his head.

“It won’t work. I’ve already tried,” he said nonchalantly, as if talking about the weather, and Franktick gave him a quizzical look, raising an eyebrow as if not expecting that answer. “…I spent enough time on my own during the last month.”

“Well, then just try with Samuel,” Frank said, now raising both eyebrows like he would rather not delve into the matter. “I suppose it would be easier to get him to agree once you convince him you’re a danger to Marianne and everyone of us.”

Demian frowned, hating the idea of having to convince him of that, but deep inside he knew it was potentially true, which alarmed him.

“Do we have a deal then?” Demian asked, eager to end the exchange.

“The last time I made a deal with a demon I almost lost my humanity,” Franktick said, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. “…Of course, the deal didn’t include a promise to kill him if things went wrong… Or him trying to transform me into his servant for that matter, but I guess that’s part of the deceitful nature of demons.”

Demian kept quiet, knowing that he was just trying to vilify his origin once again. Frank finally finished his cigarette and threw it to the floor, then turned it off with a stomp.

“I don’t need a deal for something I want to do anyway,” Frank added, looking up at him and holding his gaze fiercely. “…But if it helps you keep your promise, then I accept.” As he said this, he reached out and left his hand suspended in the air, waiting for the other to shake it. Demian seemed surprised. “Handshake or do we seal it with blood?”

“…I think the handshake will do,” Demian finally replied, shaking hands with him, thus sealing the deal.

“Good, because the idea of mixing our blood repulses me.”

Demian just gave him a glare and then released him as Frank laughed and wiped his hand on his pants.

“This doesn’t mean I won’t try to stop that shadow and retrieve the gifts it’s already taken. It’s just a contingency plan in case things get out of control; I’m not giving you green light to kill me as you please, I hope I’ve made that clear,” Demian explained, hoping he would take it seriously for once.

“Hey, I’m not the demon here; history proves that you’re the ones not to be trusted. You have my word as an Angel Warrior.”

“Let’s not talk about it anymore then,” Demian finished, turned around and walked away, leaving Frank alone again, lighting his third cigarette of the night and looking at the moon with a thoughtful expression.

Once Samael was in the attic, the first thing he did was to sit on the bed and have a look at the video as many times as necessary. There was now proof that the smoke demon was real, and it seemed so elusive that he had no idea how they would fight him back. However, his attention was fixed on the two figures in armor. He played the video again and again, keeping his eyes on the point where the first figure would appear after a few seconds, its armor silvery with a sparkling mild indigo tone. Very similar to theirs.

“Are you still awake?” Marianne knocked on the door and slightly opened to peek her head. He paused the video and put the phone aside to focus on her.

“What’s wrong?”

She came in carrying her laptop, sat beside him and placed the device in front of them so they could see the screen.

“I downloaded the video to watch it in a larger screen. It doesn’t have much definition because we have really cheap phones, but I think it looks a little better this way.”

Then she pressed a key, and the video began playing on the screen; it barely occupied half of it, but it was good enough to see some more details. They saw the shadow dissipating like smoke and as Demian turned around to take the gift, the first figure appeared and then the video paused right when it was shooting lightning at him.

“I thought that maybe it was some shock gun, but if you look closely, you’ll see the rays coming directly out of its hands. And the other figure,” she played the video again, showing the moment the figure with the lavender armor touched Demian’s coating and it began to mutate, “…just a touch of its hand can cause that reaction in the armor, as if suddenly its molecules would lose control.”

Samael just watched the video, immersed in his own thoughts, while Marianne looked at him as if expecting an explanation.

“Samael… are there more Angel Warriors?” He averted his gaze from the screen and looked at her with wide and bewildered eyes. He hadn’t even considered such a possibility. “I’m asking you because you didn’t even have a clear idea of how many we were in total. Suddenly, you detected someone was one of us and then we just threw them into the ring with not much explanation. So, tell me then… are there more Angel Warriors besides us?”

Samael looked at the screen again. The two armored figures remained paused in full attack against Demian. That was what Angel Warriors had to do, after all, fight demons. And yet, he was feeling very confused lately about the way he had been twisting the rules just to accept Demian wasn’t like other demons, or even with Marianne being chosen as an Angel Warrior when her father… No, he shouldn’t keep thinking about it, after all, he had no evidence, just the fact that he had no access to his mind. The issue right now was to discover those armored people’s origin. He tried to think of something to say, but his mind had gone blank. He had nothing.

“…Sorry. I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Don’t say it. It’s clear then what we have to do. We must find them and ask directly who they are and what they want,” she decided and then stood up. “You can keep the laptop tonight, so you can watch the video in more detail. I’ll go to sleep; we have a reunion tomorrow with Vicky.”

“Do I have to go too?”

“If you don’t go, she’ll be very disappointed. Good night.”

She closed the door softly as Samael remained on bed with the laptop in front of him and the freezed image of the figure in armor sprouting lightning from its hands.

More Angel Warriors, he hadn’t even raised the possibility before. But it made no sense; how did they know what they were without him to guide them? That was his job, after all. He played the video again and kept watching, attentive to every little detail he could have overlooked on the phone’s small screen. All he could see was that their helmets were slightly elongated with a streamlined design. He played the video several times until he fell asleep.

That night he had no dreams nor messages from the superior realm, his mind just got disconnected from the world and every other realm.

Demian had to wake very early just to make sure everything was ready when the guests arrived. He wasn’t excited at all about having external people at home, but he was willing to endure just to keep his sister happy.

Deep inside he knew that part of it was due to his guilt over their parents’ deaths, maybe not directly in his father’s case, but he was still haunted by the memories of his mother falling off the balcony, pused by him during one of those sleep trances in which his true nature came afloat. He hadn’t told anyone about it and wasn’t planning to; the way he saw it, he already had blood in his hands after killing off Marianne’s father, even though he had come back to life thanks to the Resurrection gift. They didn’t have to know he had another death on his back. He would have to keep living with it as he had done so far, as much as he wanted to return to the oblivion that gave him the peace of feeling human.

He needed to relax before people started arriving, so he decided to go swimming in the pool. He headed to the east wing, carrying a towel and wrapped in a bathrobe. As he opened the door and entered a room with a long pool that went from end to end, surrounded by windows and a glass dome with sunlight falling direct on it, he stopped short after finding out he wasn’t the only one who had the same idea. Addalynn was swimming at that moment with the grace of a mermaid, the water barely stirred with her smooth movements and the sunlight falling over her from the skylight, making her look like a fantasy sea creature.

Demian freeze there, unsure of how to react as she approached the edge of the pool. As she pulled her head out of the water, she laid her eyes on him.

“Were you spying on me?”

Demian blinked, realizing he was watching her, and immediately looked away.

“No, I… I’m sorry. I didn’t think anyone else would be in the pool.”

Addalynn took a few seconds to look at him from head to toe and suddenly shifted her gaze, unconcerned.

“It’s okay if it’s you, any other would have already lost its eyes.”

Demian looked intrigued at her, trying to discover if she was joking or serious. Even though their few interactions so far and limited knowledge of her showed that she wasn’t prone to jokes, there was a very slight smile on her face, enough to soften her cold stare. She then emerged from the water with a swift movement and stood before him while she squeezed her hair with extreme care. She was wearing a white swimsuit that outlined her body without revealing too much. Demian felt compelled to look away and focus on anything else other than her.

“I forgot my towel.” Demian looked back again and saw her even closer, so much she took the towel he was holding before he could even react. “I’ll borrow it if you don’t mind.”

She wrapped the towel around her and walked out of there without saying any other word while Demian tried to make sense of his odd behavior.

He looked back to the pool but didn’t feel like swimming anymore.

The coffee shop opened at ten o’clock as usual, and while Mankee and the other waiter arranged everything, Lilith was sitting at the counter, drinking a milkshake and swinging her legs without doing a thing.

“You look awful,” Lilith blurted as if saying good morning. Mankee leaned on the table he was setting and took a breath.

“…Anyone who works all day long and is still expected to attend certain meetings would look like this,” Mankee retorted.

“But you look worse than that,” Lilith insisted unabashedly. “You have bags under your eyes and a blank expression as if you had been emptied inside, leaving just a brainless zombie behind.”

“…Have anyone told you that you have a special talent to discourage people?”

“I have talent for oh, so many things,” Lilith replied without taking it on the bad side, and still not moving a single finger to help. Mankee sighed and tried to let it go.

“…I’ve had nightmares lately, it’s just that.”

“Well, what kind of nightmares would leave you completely drained for the day?”

“…My birthplace; things I thought I left behind and now have started chasing me again,” he said, lost in his own thoughts.

“Every time you mention your dark past you look kind of broodingly sexy.”

“…Don’t joke around!” Mankee blushed.

“I don’t. Maybe if you use the dark past excuse with clients more often you could compensate a little for the loss we had since Samuel doesn’t work here,” suggested Lilith like it was the most logical thing to do. “You just have to work on your foreign charm and shed little details to create this mysterious character for the clients, they’ll love it. I would also make an effort, but we don’t have much of a boy market here, it’s mainly girls.”

“I’m too busy in the kitchen,” he replied with a sigh, leaning on the jukebox. “…Let Remy do it, he deals with clients.”

The other waiter stopped from the other end and gave them a questioning look.

“…No offense, Remy, but you don’t have the exotic qualities and personality to stand out for the clients, you better learn to cook and trade places with Monkey,” she said relentlessly, and the guy just rolled his eyes as if internally cursing and continued his work.

“…You seriously need a filter,” Mankee replied. “By the way, weren’t you invited to Demian’s house? I heard it’s his sister’s party. Everyone else is going.”

“Er… yes, but… I have to work, you know, earn my paycheck with the sweat of my brow and stuff,” she said, and Mankee looked skeptical.

“…Yeah, I see how hard you work,” Mankee said, lifting an eyebrow, and Lilith just slumped over the counter, completely deflated, half her body scattered along the bar. “…Is there any reason why you don’t want to go? Apparently, everyone else was invited… not that I feel slighted or anything. I wouldn’t be able to attend anyway; I’m needed for real here.” Lilith didn’t move from her comfortable position and let out a snort that sounded like a trumpet. She felt all her spirits gone in that exhalation.

“…It’s nothing, just my issues.”

“So, is it true then that you don’t like Demian’s sister?”

“Where did you hear that?!” She lifted her head alarmed.

“Rumor has it,” he replied, trying not to mention anything else, but at Lilith’s intense gaze he gave up. “…Lucianne said it while helping me in the kitchen when I wasn’t feeling very well.”

“Ugh, just what I dreaded! Everyone making a gossip out of it!” Lilith bemoaned, leaning on the counter, and rubbing her face as if trying to hide it. “…No, it’s not that I don’t like her or anything personal, I just have my reasons to avoid her.”

“What kind of reasons? It doesn’t seem to make sense if it’s nothing personal.”

“I’m just trying to let her out of any danger, okay? I don’t wanna talk about it,” she finished, resting her chin on her arm.

“You say it as if you were dangerous to her,” Mankee added and Lilith just frowned and twisted her mouth. “…Wait a minute, that’s what you think, right? For some reason you think you can be a danger to her.” Lilith kept playing with her fingers. “…Is it because of those evil spirits? It makes no sense; they no longer have influence in you nor can harm anyone.”

“…They’re not the ones I’m worried that could harm her,” she muttered through clenched teeth and puffed cheeks.

“I already told you they can’t influence in you anymore…”

“But that doesn’t erase the things they made me see!” She raised her voice and sulked once more. Mankee kept staring at her, twisting his thick, dark eyebrows. He then sat beside her in a confidant attitude.

“The things they made you see in dreams… none of it is true. You must not believe them for any reason,” he said, lowering his voice. “…That’s what the Nonuma does: it keeps control over the body it chose as a vessel through fear, subjugation. And to do that, it uses cheap illusions to make you believe something will happen unless you follow their instructions, to make you stop fighting against their influence. But since you’re free from it, I bet that whatever they made you see before you haven’t seen it anymore, right?”

It was true, she hadn’t seen those horrible images anymore, but her memory was intact. Had she been rejecting her contact based on an unfounded fear? If so, she had been wasting the last few days using all her efforts to avoid her when she could have used them to develop a friendship with her… She was a Lissen Rox fan, for God’s sake! Lisseners should stay together. Lissen sisters, heart in hand, even with growing horns, that was her fandom’s motto. It may seem like it made no sense, but it did for them, meant to always lean on each other even in the darkest moments. Until then it had been hard for her to befriend other fans like her, Kristania was totally unexpected and unthinkable for quite a while, but Lissen Rox had managed to unite them somehow, maybe he could do the same with Vicky. There was still time.

“…Monkey, you’ll have to manage without me today! I have some things to solve!” she announced, standing up with her chest puffed like a superhero about to go save the world and bolted out of there, bound and determined.

“…Don’t worry, we’ll see how to handle it over here,” Mankee replied sarcastically while collecting the empty glass she left behind.

Vicky was in her element, chatting with guests at their arrival. She had only told the first people she met, but after the invitation she had to extend to Kristania, the news had spread and eventually even guys from other classrooms showed up, driven by the morbid idea of entering the house of the bloody balcony, which was how it was currently known following the deaths of its owners.

Lucianne, Belgina and Angie had arrived almost at the same time and were together in a corner, taking fruit flavored mocktails. They looked surprised at the number of people, wondering how it turned from a simple lunch to a huge party where several guys had already taken over the pool.

“I’m glad you could make it! Isn’t it wonderful? I never imagined so many people would come for my birthday! Glad I forced my brother to hire a catering service or else we wouldn’t have coped with them!”

“Maybe next time you’ll need a full stadium, who knows,” Lucianne said, raising her glass, to which she responded with a giggle.

Then she darted away to the front of the house and stopped to welcome Kristania, like any good hostess. Belgina instantly became tense as she discovered her presence, but Mitchell was nowhere to be seen. Then Marianne appeared in front of them out of nowhere.

“Hey! When did you arrive?” Lucianne asked with a brief jolt.

“A few minutes ago. Listen, Belgina, can we talk?” she said, staring at Belgina with a serious expression. She blinked at her request and turned to the girls, but they just shrugged, until she finally agreed to go with her.

“Hey, did Samuel come with you?!” Angie asked as they walked away.

“He must be around!” Marianne replied hastily. Angie and Lucianne exchanged glances again, weirded out by her urgency.

Meanwhile, Demian was trying to find some lonely corner where he could hide, but every time he entered the kitchen with some excuse, there was always the catering service, or if he walked out the garden, there were several guys he barely knew by sight. He wouldn’t go to his room, so no one could follow him —especially after seeing Kristania hovering around his sister—, and he had blocked the stairs so no one would go up there. He could only think of one place where he could seek refuge so he walked purposefully towards the living room, dodging anyone who might want to talk to him. When he was sneaking into the hall, he caught a glimpse of Belgina running out hastily with watery eyes. It seemed odd to him, but when he looked back, she was gone, and he was already closer to his father’s studio, so he chose to keep going until getting to a door with the sign of ‘No trespassing’. Immediate relief camer over him once he closed the door and stopped listening to the noise from outside. At least he would rest a few minutes from the crowd. Though he didn’t count on finding Addalynn sitting at the worktable when he turned around. She had an open book in front of her and looked at him for a few seconds before staring back at the pages in silence.

“…Sorry. I thought there would be no one else here. I just wanted a few minutes away from the people.”

“Okay. You can stay if you want; it’s your house after all,” she replied without taking her eyes from the book. Demian stood with his back against the door, wondering what to do as his last hope of a lonely retreat dissipated. On the other hand, Addalynn was so reserved that he could imagine there was no one there and breathe a little peace and quiet for a few minutes.

“I won’t bother,” he finally said, heading to his father’s desk and turning the chair around to face the window and see the garden.

The view was relaxing for a while, until some guy walked by and broke the moment of zen he had achieved. Soon, more of them showed up, ruining the landscape, and Demian finally let out a frustrated huff and turned the chair back at the desk. Addalynn was now standing before him, making him startle.

“…You’re anxious,” she said, not as a question but as a statement, looking into his eyes and then through the surface of the desk. “And you startle easily. You don’t seem to have a very clear conscience.”

Demian laughed as if that was the last thing he needed, someone talking about his restless conscience.

“You think so? Well… at least it shows I have one,” he said, trying to suppress a smile. Addalynn looked at him up and down and then directly into his eyes in what seemed to be a record on eye contact for her.

“I wasn’t entirely sure… but I think you can be trusted,” she said with an air of mystery. Demian frowned slightly, waiting for her to elaborate, but she just turned around and walked to the door, leaving in the air what felt like an incomplete sentence.

“Wait… what? Is that all?” Demian asked and she paused with her hand on the doorknob.

“You’re just different than I imagined,” she said in that enigmatic tone that had already made him feel like she knew more than she seemed, and it was no exception now.

“…Wait,” he muttered, trying to force his legs to move, but she had already left the studio. “…Wait!”

When his legs finally responded, he rushed to the door and out the living room, almost colliding with Marianne, though managing to stop in time.

“Sorry, I just… I was looking for…”

“Careful. Seems like you’ve seen a ghost,” Marianne said, also trying to maintain her control after the initial shock. “You almost ran me over… for a second time.”

He laughed for a second, a laugh that went out as an exhalation; a bit of fresh air.

“You have no idea how much I needed some distraction right now,” he replied and Marianne assumed he meant that he was about to lose control over himself amidst so many people, so she turned to Samael, who stood near the entrance, and gestured at him.

“Go say hi to Vicky and the rest, I’ll be right behind you!” she said while pushing Demian back into the living room and the studio. “Are you having trouble… to keep control?”

Demian looked back at her with a confused expression until he understood what she meant. He felt a twinge, but he couldn’t blame her anyway; after all, he took it seriously every time he felt an imminent anxiety attack about to hit him.

“Don’t worry, I won’t go into a murderous rampage that will sweep away all of the guests out there if that’s what worries you, at least not for now,” he snapped with a sigh.

“No, of course not!” she said, trying to rectify her words. “I didn’t mean it that way. I know you wouldn’t get to that extreme. I’m just worried about how stress can affect you if it becomes more prevalent. But I’m sure you can control it.”

Demian just nodded with tired resignation. It was true that he had his ways of casting off anxiety from time to time in certain situations, like the one at home right now. But he didn’t think they would understand.

“…Is this all because of the small reunion turned into a party or because of what happened yesterday?”

Demian set his eyes on her again, more composed now.

“…A little bit of both, I guess,” he finally answered.

“You should feel more at ease in that case, now that everyone has seen evidence of the smoke shadow, there’s no doubt of its existence anymore.”

“…Maybe the problem is that there was doubt,” he said, not intending to sound bitter, just to release himself from that burden. Marianne’s face twitched and looked remorseful at first, searching for words to say while Demian regretted having said that. “…Look, forget it. I understand you have doubts. It’s perfectly normal to be wary of a demon.”

“No! You’re right! No one should have questioned your version. You’re our friend, after all, not just any dem…” her voice drowned as she was about to say the word. She couldn’t bring herself to mention it in his presence, so she pressed her mouth to keep it from saying anything else.

Demian noticed her dejected expression and felt guilty that she would do anything to self-censor in front of him. He only wanted her to be herself.

“…Hey, don’t worry. You can say the word. I don’t mind.” Marianne gave him a dubious look. “Seriously, after all it’s true, I’m a demon. The first step is acceptance. It doesn’t matter what I am but what I do with it. I think that’s what you said to me once.”

Marianne let out a sigh and then a long exhale to bring herself to speak again.

“…If it’s worth anything, I didn’t doubt for a moment that the smoke demon was real,” she said, finally daring to say the word in front of him and Demian outlined a smirk.

“…Thank you. That sure helps,” he replied gratefully and after a few seconds of silence, they suddenly became aware that they were locked alone in the studio, while dozens of schoolmates were out there, probably having some misconceptions about them if they stayed longer.

“…Well, I think that’s it,” Marianne said, quickly averting her eyes so he wouldn’t see her plight, opening the door to rush out of there, just to bump into Lilith right at the living room, while she was just coming in with a box in her hands. “…Lilith, you came!”

“…And where are you two coming from, huh?” Lilith asked with a wide smile as she saw Demian right behind her and Marianne immediately sulked to hide her reddened face.

Demian went past them and glanced at the box.

“If that’s strawberry cake, she’ll love it, it’s her favorite.”

“…It’s also my favorite!” Lilith said with her mouth open at the coincidence.

“Where are you going?” Marianne asked.

“I have something to do. Make yourself at home,” he said as he walked away until they lost sight of him. It seemed odd to Marianne, but as she looked at Lilith and noticed her smile, she immediately scowled in annoyance.

“Stop it, Lilith or I’ll overlook your progress by coming here with your peace offering.”

“It’s not a peace offering!” Lilith proclaimed and now Marianne was the one who crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. “…I just thought it would be polite to bring something we could all enjoy… although, it didn’t occur to me that there would be this many people.”

“…Well, whatever. It’s good you’ve decided to come. Now let’s go look for Vicky so you can give her your present. It will surely make her happy,” Marianne suggested, but her phone began to ring and she had to stop. “…It’s my mom, I have to answer. Go ahead. I’ll catch up with you later.”

“…Okay. And by the way… I’m sorry about your parents’ divorce.”

Marianne was taken aback, as if she hadn’t heard right.

“…Where did you hear that?”

“Your mother said it yesterday while they were all together at school. Don’t worry; it’s not the end of the world. I didn’t even meet my father,” Lilith said to sympathize with her as she headed in search for Vicky.

Marianne just stood there with a veiled expression. The phone kept ringing.

Samael wasted no time and went through the place, looking intently at the guests as if searching for someone specific. He had reached the pool and scanned the place with his eyes, but didn’t find what he was looking for, oblivious of the several girls trying to capture his attention. He was about to leave when something out the windows caught his eye. Out there in the garden, Addalynn was sitting on a bench reading a book, away from all the hustle of the house.

Samael immediately walked out with the intention of going around the house to get there, but he bumped into Lucianne and Angie.

“Hi, Samuel!” Angie greeted him first, with a smile that was trying to be casual but betrayed her excitement. He greeted back as politely as always, with a smile and a nod.

“Have you seen Belgina?” Lucianne asked. “She was talking to Marianne but didn’t come back.”

“I’m sorry; maybe you should ask her. I was about to go out…”

“Samuel! You came!” Vicky showed up, leaving Kristania aside who had been monopolizing her time. “I was starting to worry. Marianne’s also here, right?”

“Yes, she’s in the front,” he replied, unable to help his manners as much as he needed to go out. Angie watched them with a contrite expression, seeing how easily Vicky could just reach out and take his hands without seeming unnatural. That was just her, all inclusive and friendly, as obvious as her interest was. Angie longed to act that way in front of him without sabotaging herself.

“Wait right here while I make sure no one has done any damage to the pool and I’ll be back. It won’t take me long, okay?!” As Vicky ran off like a hummingbird flitting between flowers, Samael sighed and saw his chance to keep going.

“…I must do something, I’ll be right back,” Samael excused himself and resumed his way before anyone else would stop him.

“It’s like everyone is busy today,” Lucianne said, finishing her mocktail. Angie just watched Samael with the growing certainty that she never stood a chance.

Samael managed to leave the house without anyone else intercepting him, despite some girls watching him like they wanted to speak to him, but he never showed signs of slowing down. As he reached the back of the house, he stopped at the sight of Addalynn a few feet away, sitting on a bench under the trees’ shadow, her attention on the book in her lap.

There it was again, the feeling of being drawn like a magnet toward an impervious bubble. He looked around as if analyzing his chances. After all, what would he say? ‘Hey, we don’t know each other, but every time you’re around, there’s a disturbance in the atmosphere that keeps me unfocused, so I’d like to make some questions.’ That would only drive her away. He would have probably said that months ago, when he had just taken human form, but not now that he had been living here for a while and knew a little more about their customs.

She suddenly lifted her gaze from the book and looked straight at him despite the distance. Her eyes seemed to reflect the light, shining in the shadow like a cat. Samael shuddered and wondered if it was really directed at him. Like saying ‘Go ahead, you can come’. It lasted a few seconds before she returned her gaze to the book, like a seal of approval. He took a deep breath and finally started walking towards her, but as he stepped to the front, a hand perched on his shoulder.

“Can we talk?”

Samael turned around in surprise. Demian was standing behind him with an extremely serious face.

The angel did not answer right away, he looked back at Addalynn, but she was no longer sitting on the bench, as if she had suddenly vanished. Of course, once he expanded his view, he saw her walking away from a bunch of guys trying to approach her. He had lost his chance.

He gave a sigh and turned to Demian again, intrigued by his initiative to talk to him.

“What is it?”

“…Not here. Too many eyes and ears. Let’s go to a more private place,” he suggested after seeing more boys coming out from the pool’s window.

“No, the windows aren’t supposed to be opened! Close them back! My brother will be pissed!” Vicky yelled, her voice booming out from inside, and both Demian and Samael stepped back instinctively.

“Over here,” Demian said, retracing his steps while Samael followed him. He led the angel back to the studio and closed it as soon as they were inside. There was an immediate silence that seemed to suggest how weird the situation was, with the two of them face to face when they usually avoided each other.

“What do you want to talk about?” Samael broke the silence and Demian took a breath.

“…It’s actually a request,” he said, and Samael twisted his eyebrows. Demian understood his reaction, he felt weird himself saying that to the angel. “…I already talked to Frank about it, and he agreed.”

“Frank?” Samael repeated, even more intrigued. Demian lingered, trying to think how to say it.

“…It’s about the gifts being collected again. I think your fears are not unfounded; if the gifts are gathered and absorbed by me again, I doubt I’d be able to resist their influence. The first time was difficult; it’s still not clear to me how I got rid of them. So, if it happens a second time… I can’t promise I’ll be able to control myself.”

“…I understand,” Samael said, guessing where he was going. “…And you need a guarantee in case that happens.”

“I need a guarantee to prevent that from happening,” he corrected. “If we can agree on one thing is that, if I get to be under the control of the gifts again, you’re not likely to have a second chance. I could end with all of you. You know it.”

Samael nodded gravely. He knew exactly what he was capable of; he had experienced it firsthand when he had almost died at his hands. At that time, he couldn’t imagine that they would be talking civilly in his house.

“What do you propose then?”

“If that demon keeps collecting the gifts and we still haven’t managed to recover the missing ones… you must make sure that I die.”

Samael didn’t respond, just kept a straight face, attentive to his words.

“Frank agrees. I just need your confirmation,” Demian continued, waiting for a response.

“…Marianne wouldn’t allow it,” was all he said and Demian gave a snort.

“It’s not her who decides in this matter. It’s my life after all,” he snapped, fully determined. “…Listen, I know you’re her guardian or whatever, so you must consider what’s in her best interests. She believes I would be able to control myself if it happens, if the gifts come back to me… But what if I don’t? What if in her eagerness to be right she’s incapable of seeing how dangerous I can be and ends up dead? What if you all end up dead?” Samael felt the weight of his words and shuddered. “I know it’s because of her I’m still alive. She convinced everyone I was no longer a threat… yet, I couldn’t say the same if my connection with the Legion of Darkness is restored. So, I resort to the only two people I know can make sure it doesn’t happen again, who won’t hesitate to kill me if necessary. Can I count on that at least?”

Samael didn’t know what to answer. He understood his point and possibly he would have accepted before without hesitation, but now his perspective had changed. Or at least Marianne had.

“…Could we see how things develop and decide along the way?”

“There’s nothing else to decide. If you wait until the last minute, it may be too late. Why is it suddenly so difficult to you? I need a clear and simple answer: can I trust that you will do everything in your power to prevent the gifts from taking over me again, even if it means to kill me?” Demian insisted impatiently.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as you think,” Samael replied with a sigh. “…Demons have a very strong sense of preservation; sacrifice isn’t within their genetic code. So even if you’re more than willing to offer no resistance, most probably your automatic defense mechanism will activate at the first sign of danger. You can’t help it: you’ll just unconsciously fight for survival.”

Now it was Demian who kept silent, weighing this information. It was starting to make sense now his inability to finish the job himself. He had tried it so many times the following days after the fight, but everything had proven pointless. Once again, his demonic heritage ruined more than his life, but also the freedom to take it by his own hand. He sighed and tried not to seem affected by that.

“…Promise you’ll try at least,” he insisted, hoping he would finally accept.

“I promise I’ll do what I think necessary,” Samael resolved and Demian decided that was good enough. He seemed to relax and with a side glance, he suddenly reached out with an open hand.

Samael seemed genuinely surprised that he would want to seal that sort of pact with a shake of hands. He slowly stretched out, a little dubious at first, and when he took his hand, he could feel an electric current running through his palm, and by Demian’s expression, it was clear that he had felt it too.

“…I guess that seals it,” Demian said without even mentioning it. That seemed to end their exchange as he walked to the door and held it for Samael to get out.

The angel followed his lead, walking past him in complete silence until he was out, and the door closed.

Lilith plowed through groups of teens gathered in the halls, her hands gripping the box tightly against her chest to protect it, and a revolution in the pit of her stomach. She had no idea what to say once in front of Vicky, but she was hoping she would accept her without questions. Her eyes wandered around, looking for her singular hair tone when Kristania appeared in front of her, making her start.

“…Oh, Kri! You almost caused me a heart attack!”

“I didn’t think you would come. Well, at least Vicky didn’t,” she said with a smile and a psychotic gleam in her eyes, which Lilith didn’t seem to recognize.

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, well, you see… I was talking to her a while ago and I don’t know why, but she has this odd idea that you hate her,” Kristania continued. “And I said ‘What? Lilith? No way! She’s a lissener for god’s sake! Why would she eschew a fellow lissen sister?’”

Lilith felt the churn in her stomach going up to her chest. She grasped the box tighter and gulped, anguish reflected in her face. Kristania then smiled to reassure her, but to the trained eye there was something hiding behind that smile.

“Hey, relax. The important thing is that you’re here now and you can prove her wrong. That box is for her, right?”

“…Oh, yes. It’s just… a little something,” Lilith said, trying to release her grip from the box and opening the lid to show a cake.

“Oh, wonderful! She’ll surely love it and you can leave behind all these misunderstandings! Vicky’s by the pool; it would be great if you show up with the cake so she can see it from afar, and even better yet if you sing to her,” she advised with a sharp smile and a glint in her little gray eyes.

“Oh, yes, that can work! Thank you, Kri!”

She headed to the pool area with boosted confidence and the cake in full sight, dodging people around and finally stopping, surprised at the scale of the place and the huge pool covering from end to end. Vicky seemed to be giving instructions near the edge. Once again, she felt the effervescence in her stomach, and her arms started to shake with the fear of what she would say to her. Finally, she took a breath, kept the base of the cake steady, and started to walk firmly towards her, careful not to bump into anyone or lose her balance and most importantly, not letting go of the cake. She was already a few feet away and her mind was blank, pushing through wet bodies coming out of the pool or plunging into it. She was already behind her when she suddenly started singing ‘Happy birthday’ nervously, with a little tremor in her voice that soon attracted everyone’s attention.

Vicky turned around with a surprised look in her face, which made Lilith hesitate in her singing, but as soon as she saw a smile on her lips, she regained confidence, allowing herself to increase her volume while others started to join her singing. Lilith was ecstatic, watching Vicky happy with her gesture, certain that this would be a do over for her and imagining the kind of parties they would throw to celebrate their mutual love for Lissen Rox. It was like daydreaming for her when all of a sudden, she felt a shove in her back, propelling her forward and throwing the cake all over Vicky. And if that wasn’t enough, she stumbled and leaned on her to regain balance, thus making her slip and fall into the pool while Lilith could do nothing but watch in horror.

“…Oh, no.”

Vicky finally surfaced from the water and held the edge, traces of cake still all over her. Her confused reddened eyes met with Lilith, who was unable to contain her embarrassment. There was an explosion of laughter, and Vicky finally came out of the pool and ran away, leaving a trail of water in her path, pushing whoever got in her way while Lilith watched her helplessly, her hands clinging to the base of the cake that now only had frosting glued to it.

“What’s going on in there?” Marianne asked, approaching Lucianne and Angie who were also peeking at the door. Vicky suddenly bolted out, leaving pools of water and wet dough behind.

“…I think the party is officially over,” Angie said as they followed her with their gazes until she was gone upstairs.

“…Hey, where’s your blue hoodie?” Lucianne asked noticing Marianne was wearing a long-sleeved blouse with a plaid vest.

“That’s what I wore yesterday at the school meeting,” she said with a shrug. “…Listen, I just came to excuse myself. My mom called, and I must go back home. Can you tell Demian if you see him? And Vicky too… if she decides to come down again.”

Both girls exchanged quizzical glances as she left.

“…Was she wearing it yesterday?” Lucianne asked, but Angie just shrugged. It seemed inconsequential, but they still thought there was something odd going on.