Marianne’s sleep was riddled with nightmares that night. Several silhouettes that were supposed to be the owners of the gifts fell one by one in her presence like dominoes. Before she was able to reach any of the orbs, they merged into one, and a dark figure appeared, forcing her to retreat in fear. No matter how much she ran, it followed her very closely, devouring everything in its path and turning the surroundings into a barren and desolate landscape, gray as ashes, graves coming up from the ground in every step she took, making her stumble and fall to the ground, until she was forced to crawl. The dark shape began to hover over her and just as it was about to enshroud her entirely, she snapped awake, her fingers sinking into the mattress to make sure she was still in bed. Faint rays of sunlight were just starting to slip through the window.

“Did you have a nightmare?”

“You should know it better than anyone,” she replied, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.

“I actually only know what you’re up to when you’re awake, any process of your subconscious I ignore completely.”

“Oh, well, at least there are things I can still keep secret from you . . . even though I don’t know them at all myself.”

She stretched her arms and legs, yawning widely, and set a foot off the bed. She thought to take advantage of her early awakening and make some pancakes, but once she got into the kitchen, her mom was already there.

“What are you doing up so early? It’s still two hours left to school.”

“I could ask the same,” Marianne retorted, a little puzzled.

“Oh, well, I realized maybe I’ve neglected you this week, so I thought to compensate you by making pancakes. Would you like some?”

“What’s the catch?” the girl asked, squinting in distrust.

“Can’t a mother do something nice for her children?” she said indignantly.

Marianne looked warily at her. Her mother was a busy woman with iron health, but also used to do things with ulterior motives. Whatever it was now, she decided to cast it away and just eat. Sooner or later she would end up revealing her agenda.

 “Your father is coming over the weekend,” the woman blurted out when she was already eating. Marianne paused for a moment to process it and then continued.

“Okay, thanks for the news,” she answered with a robotic tone and her mother shook her head, knowing she would maintain that attitude for a while.

She arrived at school way ahead of time, hoping to have a chance to reflect on her plans, but as soon as she opened the door to her classroom, she saw someone already in one of the seats, face against the desk, resting over her arms. Marianne didn’t know the girl, but given that she was in Kristania’s chair, she assumed it had to be one of her friends.

She decided to let it go and went to her seat, but as she was passing by, she heard a snore. It started as a purr that soon evolved into a loud noise, as if something really heavy was being dragged on the floor, with bouts of choking noises coming from the girl’s throat.

Marianne was torn between continuing or shaking her awake, fearing she might actually be suffocating, but the next snore woke the girl up with a start and she lifted her face, which was marked by her sleeve’s buttons.

“Has the class started yet?” the girl slurred with narrowed eyes.

Marianne took a good look at her. She had rosy skin and a few scattered freckles on her cheeks, blond lion-like mane and aquamarine eyes with saffron edges that looked like sunflowers around her pupils. She didn’t remember seeing her before, maybe she had mistaken the classroom.

“No, there’s still one hour left.”

“Perfect,” the girl said, her head dropping on the desk again.

What to do now? Wake her up again to let her know about her mistake or let her realize it by herself? The girl suddenly lifted her head up once again and squinted at her intently, making her think she was about to say something important, until she raised her hand and pointed at her.

“Ha! Nutella!” She let out a tinkling laugh and her head fell down again, exhausted.

Marianne stood next to the seat, unsure of what had just happened and how she was supposed to react.

She finally chose to go to her seat and let the girl deal with Kristania, but after a few minutes she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the girl at her mercy, so she went back and tried to wake her up. The girl seemed a heavy sleeper though, and she had to pull her out of the seat.

It wasn’t an easy task given how the girl seemed anchored to the chair, but after several attempts, she finally managed to get her out, grabbing her by the arms and dragging her backwards. It took her about 20 minutes, but eventually she got her in a vacant seat at the bottom and placed her in the same position she was in before.

She then went back to her own desk to rest for the remaining time, but not even two minutes had passed and the blond girl jumped up again and sleepwalked back to the same seat before Marianne’s astonished gaze. The thought of repeating the entire process made her sweat, but her classmates were already starting to arrive, so she had no choice but to let it go.

Every time someone came in and glanced at the unknown girl snoring, they ended up laughing. Marianne was cringing, but didn’t know what else to do considering that the girl seemed comatose.

“Who’s the girl in Kristania’s seat?” Belgina asked at her arrival, as curious as anybody else.

“No idea. I tried to wake her up, but nothing worked. I don’t want to imagine what she will do when she sees her.”

“You won’t have to,” Belgina stated, pointing at the entrance.

Kristania was barely taking a few steps in when she stopped at the view of the stranger in her seat.

“Who is that girl at my desk?” No one could give her an answer, so she walked to the seat and began to hit the desk. “Hey, you! Wake up!”

The girl remained unfazed and asleep until an alarm brought her back to consciousness. She folded her sleeve to disable her watch, then gave a long yawn and stretched out her arms, regardless of the prying eyes around her or Kristania’s growing anger.

“Just in time!” she said, immersed in her own little world until she realized everyone was looking at her. “Hello?”

“You’re sitting at my desk!

The girl looked at the desk and then back to her.

“Na-ah! This is my seat, it even has my initials,” she said, showing the wood surface with some initials carved in it, turning the situation into something even stranger.

“I’ve been sitting in this desk since we started ninth grade!”

“Me too!” she replied, imitating the inflection of her voice, lighting the fuse that would make Kristania blow up, but before she could talk back, the teacher arrived and everyone sat down, except for Kristania, who stood beside her desk.

“Miss, tell her she’s in my seat!” Kristania demanded in an extremely shrill tone while the blonde mimicked her.

“I got here early,” the girl said triumphantly and the teacher sighed at the sight of her.

“Yes, I see. Now change seats, please. That may have been your desk last year, but not anymore.”

The girl grimaced in outrage, but had no other option than to get up and go to an empty seat at the back. She plopped down but didn’t stop pouting, which only reddened her face. The teacher started assigning several topics to search by groups for their next class, and everybody began to organize. Marianne glanced at Angie, but Kristania pulled her into her own team.

Soon, the rest of the class had already teamed up in sets of three or four, and the new girl looked longingly at everyone. Marianne noticed it and beckoned Belgina. After exchanging glances, they called her.

“Hey, wanna join us?”

The biggest smile they had seen in their lives appeared on the girl’s face. She dragged her chair towards them, making a screeching noise that attracted everyone else’s attention, though she didn’t seem to care much. Everything about her seemed to be raucous.

“Thank you! It’s not easy to come back and find out I’m the only one left from my old class . . . Oh, I’m sorry! I have such bad manners! I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Lilith, I’m sixteen, a Libra and a proud Lissener, nice to meet you.”

The two girls seemed a little overwhelmed by her introduction, but eventually did the same and tried to keep the course of the conversation on their research, though Lilith constantly rambled on every time, suddenly starting to talk about her obsession with some singer named Lissen Rox and showing her notepads covered with pictures of him.

The two girls had no idea how to respond to her blathering and constant digressing, but luckily for them soon it was time to start visiting the clubs once again.

“Do you mind if I go with you?” the girl asked, hopeful. Unable to refuse those puppy eyes, they agreed and the blonde placed herself between them, clinging to their arms with joy.

They seemed taken aback at her excessive familiarity, but decided to overlook it and ignore all the jeers from their classmates taking her as a joke, even though she didn’t seem to mind.

When they realized they were heading to the gym again, Marianne and Belgina exchanged concerned glances. They didn’t notice Angie looking suspiciously at them. The teacher announced they were about to see the Tae kwon do club. It didn’t take long for Kristania to jump to the front of the group.

“I think I know now who’s in there,” Marianne said, rolling her eyes, and Belgina responded with a slight smile.

The gym didn’t look damaged at all, though there were still some marks on the floorboards. Demian was wearing a dobok and warming up, but as soon as he saw the girls coming in, he left what he was doing and waited until they were closer.

“Hey, are you okay? I can’t remember what happened, I just blacked out and suddenly you were gone,” Demian asked Belgina, genuinely worried while Kristania languished beside them, getting ignored.

“ . . . I’m fine. I stayed hidden until it was all over,” said the bespectacled girl, caught unaware by his concern.

“That’s good. I don’t even know your name, just that you’re friends with the grouch over here,” he said, pointing at Marianne, who just scowled at him.

“I’m Belgina, thanks for asking.”

As they shook hands, Kristania gasped, interrupting them.

“Demian, what happened to you?” she exclaimed, pointing at his face.

A bruise was spread out across his left temple. Marianne immediately averted her gaze, knowing she was the cause of it.

“It’s nothing. It must have been when I fell unconscious,” he said, keeping his distance from Kristania. Marianne didn’t understand why he was lying. Belgina had heard that, on the record, he had been attacked by her. That was the reason there was no longer any agent watching him.

“Hi, I’m Lilith! You don’t know me, but I do know you. Well, who doesn’t know you at school, right?” Lilith introduced herself chipperly, shaking his hand, and pulling him to say something else to his ear. “By the way, if I were you, I’d avoid that crazy witch over there. If you’re not careful enough, she could suck your soul out, like a Dementor.”

Demian couldn’t help but laugh when he realized she was talking about Kristania, who made a disgruntled snort and stomped away. Marianne already liked Lilith, but she definitely earned a plus in her eyes with that one.

“You won’t even complain about me this time?” Demian asked, since she hadn’t said anything.

“I’ll be content when I no longer see you after this club.”

“Lucky for you, we can only join three, but as long as you still owe me those glasses, you won’t get rid of me so easily,” he replied with a wink, returning to the center with his fellow teammates to start off the exhibition while she gritted her teeth in annoyance.

Kristania couldn’t remain silent during the entire exhibition and burst out into screams again, causing another embarrassing moment for Demian.

“She has no sense of shame,” Marianne said, shaking her head.

“He looks so cute!” Lilith said, letting out another chuckle. “We have to do that more often, just for fun!”

“I don’t think he would like it,” Belgina said disapprovingly. “He’s already stressed enough with her following him around.”

“I don’t want to blame anyone, but he had it coming,” Marianne said.

“It’s not like he would have a way of knowing what would happen after going out with her,” Belgina justified him and Marianne gave her a quizzing look by her sudden defensive outburst.

“Wait a minute . . . the squeaking witch and Demian dated?” Lilith asked, pointing at Kristania who was once again silenced by the teacher. “Medusa went out with Perseus? Seriously?”

The girls burst out laughing at her words, lightening things up again.

The last club they paid a visit to was Arts, and some of their classmates were already part of it.

 “Who wants to model for our students?” the teacher asked and Lilith promptly raised her hand and waved frantically. She placed herself in position and dragged Belgina and Marianne along with her despite their protests.

Kristania suddenly decided she would do it too, pulling her twin minions to stand in front of the club members in a clear intention to compete with the other trio. Angie stood aside as a mere observer. She looked haggard and was constantly rubbing her shoulder, as if something were bothering her.

“Is it ready?” Lilith repeated to the boy drawing her.

“Almost, just hold on,” he said while the others already watched their own portraits.

“This is an interesting vision of me to say the least,” Marianne commented, looking at hers, represented in cubist style.

“Mine too,” Belgina seconded, turning hers around, trying to make sense of it.

Lilith was becoming increasingly impatient until the boy dropped his pencil and she quickly ran to his side to see it.

“Done. If I had a little more time and used some color it would have been better,” said the boy as she watched marveled at the drawing, portraying her in a Renaissance version with her hair flowing in the air and a serene expression on her face.

“This is incredible!” she exclaimed, moved by the drawing. “It’s the most beautiful thing someone has ever done of me! You’re so talented!”

“It’s really good, Renzo,” Belgina congratulated him, and he nodded gratefully.

“So, your name is Renzo, how come I didn’t notice you at class?” Lilith said, placing her elbows on the drawing table and resting her chin on her hands in obvious flirtation, bringing the boy out of balance.

“Well . . . it must be because I hardly talk in class and . . . ” the milky skinned boy stammered, his lashes as thick as brushes rapidly blinking.

Lilith stayed in that pose, smiling flirtatiously at the boy, who stepped back and accidentally stumbled over the drawing board, dropping all of his material on the floor.

The girls did their best to collect everything and Marianne chased a piece of paper until she caught it by the door. She turned it over and realized it was a drawing of Kristania in a field of flowers. It was so beautiful it made her shiver just to think of her as the main character.

“Thank you!” Renzo popped up unexpectedly and quickly snatched the page into his jacket in a protective manner. His gaze was nervous and pleading, as though she would say something about it, but Marianne just forced a smile and nodded.

“You’re welcome,” she said, turning around and going back to the girls. “Can we go now?”

“What happened?” Belgina asked, noticing her haste.

“I think I found out something I wasn’t supposed to,” Marianne whispered, while Lilith was so infatuated with her portrait that she didn’t seem to notice anything else.

“Stop, I have a feeling,” Samael alerted her and Marianne stopped short, followed by the girls, who looked at her confusedly. “No, wait. Continue.”

“Make up your mind!” Marianne muttered under her breath, pretending to tie up her laces so Lilith and Belgina wouldn’t suspect.

“Go on, but you have to be alert.”

She took a deep breath to relax and kept going.

“We should start the investigation,” Belgina reminded them while Marianne looked carefully around as Samael requested. “What do you think about going to the library?”

“I’m starving! Could we discuss it over lunch? There’s a coffee shop across the street. We could eat there. I even know a shortcut,” Lilith suggested. Belgina wasn’t convinced, but Marianne agreed, so they would stay close after Samael’s warning.

Lilith walked up front, leading them towards the parking zone, while Marianne remained behind, wondering what kind of person would be susceptible to being attacked, and reviewing each and every place they had been since morning. On their way she took notice of Angie leaving the infirmary and was about to call her, but she looked so cautious, like hiding something, that she ultimately decided not to do it.

By the time Angie left, Marianne noticed something on the floor. She picked it up and saw it was a strip of pills unknown to her, which wasn’t saying much given she only knew of aspirins.

“What are you waiting for?” Lilith told them and Marianne put the strip in her pocket, running behind them.

They came out at the side of the school and saw across the avenue the coffee shop Lilith was talking about. The sign read ‘Retroganzza’ with huge red letters decorating the entrance. The façade popped out with some cool retro details that made it look like a sixties cafeteria and its interior accentuated the style with vintage furniture —including a jukebox which they didn’t know whether it worked or was just decoration, but it looked amazing anyway, as if they had entered a time machine.

They sat at a table by the large window facing the street. The menu was arranged in plastic cards hanging from a dispenser on the table, divided into four parts: one for drinks, one for specialties, the third for dishes of the day and finally desserts. They were so distracted watching the menu they didn’t realize someone stopped by their table.

“Would you like to order?”

Marianne lifted her gaze and almost leapt from her seat at the sight of Demian holding a pen and a notepad, waiting to take their orders.

“ . . . Are you kidding me? Why are YOU here? Why do you have to ruin my meal too?”

He just looked at her impassively and turned to Lilith and Belgina as if he hadn’t heard her.

“I recommend the grilled burgers, they’re the best you’ll find in town. And the milkshakes too.”

“Whatever you say sounds good to me. Double portion, please!” Lilith asked in a good mood, rocking in her chair with a big smile.

“It’s like I’m trapped in the twilight zone!” Marianne huffed.

“We also have salads if you prefer something lighter,” Demian added, ignoring her rant.

“Caesar salad for me, thanks. We didn’t know you were working here,” Belgina commented, also dismissing her friend’s protests.

“I just started today. After everything I was involved in last week, my father forced me to find a part-time job,” Demian explained while writing down their orders. “As if I didn’t have enough to do already.”

“I guess I’ll turn out to be somehow responsible for that too.”

“Well, your guess is right, because since the accident YOU caused, my father is cracking down on me. He’s taken away my car and has me under extreme vigilance until I prove to him that he can trust me again. Thank you very much for that.”

“Unbelievable!” Marianne folded her arms and dropped on her seat, upset.

“Relax and order something!” Lilith encouraged her, rocking her chair forward.

“I’m not hungry anymore, you eat!”

“I’ll bring your orders in a moment, then,” Demian finished, but before leaving, he seemed to hesitate. “By the way, please don’t tell . . . you know who that I’m working here.”

“Hey, you fed the troll, she’s your problem now,” Marianne retorted.

“Don’t worry, we won’t say a thing,” Belgina intervened and he bowed his head with gratitude before leaving.

“Why are you so mean to him? He’s so cute and kind!” Lilith said, shaking her head in disapproval.

“Now I’m the mean one?”

“They’re both equally petty to each other, he only hides it a little better,” Belgina added while taking notes.

“I’m not petty!” Marianne replied, and all of a sudden Lilith jumped from her seat.

“Renzo is there!” she pointed to the opposite extreme. The boy was sitting there with his hand convulsively moving on a blank page and a look of total concentration. “He looks so passionate! Must be working on another one of his works of art.”

“If only we could devote that way to the research we must deliver,” Belgina pointed out, trying to return their attention to their assignment.

“I’ll go talk to him! Or should I? Will I be too obvious?”

“I don’t think you should . . . ” Marianne tried to stop her, but she was already up and adjusting her uniform.

“Oh, to hell with it! Girls can also take the initiative. Wish me luck!” She took the lead with her eyes fixed on the boy, leaving the two girls overfaced by her constant lack of focus.

“This isn’t going to end well,” Marianne predicted, shaking her head.

“You’re right, we’re running off the day and still haven’t done anything yet.”

“It’s not that. If Lilith doesn’t realize it soon, that guy will break her heart.”

“You said you found out something you shouldn’t, is that what you meant?”

Marianne nodded, looking at Lilith, who had begun to talk very keenly to the boy.

“I found out he likes Kristania,” she whispered so no one else would listen.

“Oh, that. It’s a well-known secret, everybody knows about it, even Kristania. And she uses it to her benefit,” Belgina said, unsurprised. “Can we focus now on the research?”

“Here you go,” Demian announced, bringing their orders. “Caesar salad for you, double burger and shakes over here and . . . ” He put another burger in front of Marianne who looked confused at the plate. “On the house.”

“I didn’t order anything . . . What did you put in it?” she asked warily.

“It’s a small peace offering, made especially for you,” Demian said with a hint of a smile that made her more suspicious.

“As far as I’m concerned, it could be poisoned.” Saying this, she put the plate away.

“How could you think I’ll poison you on my first day of work? I don’t promise anything later, but for now you’re safe while I’m being tested,” he said, all smiles, making Belgina laugh and Marianne gave her a reproachful look.

“Come on. You’re being overdramatic,” Belgina encouraged her, trying not to laugh. “I’ll avenge you if something happens.”

“Now you’re just making fun of me!”

“Go ahead. Give it a bite. I dare you,” he added with a defiant look, so she puckered up.

If he had put something into the burger in retaliation and was playing with her mind just to prove a point, then she would teach him a lesson. So she took the burger with her hands and gave it a big bite that barely allowed her to close her mouth.

“There! Happy?”

“Congratulations, you’ve taken a small step toward being less leery,” Demian said, leaving some pills beside her and walking away. “Here’s the antidote. The sooner you take it the better.”

“ . . . Antidote?” She covered her mouth, horrified.

“They’re mints. Relax,” Belgina showed the pills to her and she rested her elbows on the table, regretting falling for his ruse to get on her nerves.

Lilith came back with light steps, like she was inside a bubble that kept her floating in the space where her seat was.

“It’s like a dream,” the cheerful blonde sighed. “He asked me to be his model for his next painting.”

“What do you mean he asked you?”

“After lunch, he has to return to the workshop to start it. His art is incredible and you can see the passion in his eyes when he’s working on it. It’s just amazing! I’m excited to be part of something he puts so much effort into, and I won’t deny it, to spend some time with him, too,” Lilith told them euphorically and both Marianne and Belgina looked like they knew the outcome already.

“Maybe you shouldn’t be so enthusiastic about it,” Marianne tried to dissuade her, but she was in another one of her frenzied fits of excitement.

“I should eat this already or I’ll slow him down!” she said, determined to eat everything in front of her, devouring it completely in a matter of minutes, even eyeing Marianne’s burger with her mouth still full. “Are you going to eat that?”

She feared to stand between the ravenous girl and the burger, so she moved the plate closer to her, making sure to pull her hand away before she took it for food too.

“Delicious! If I weren’t in such a hurry, I’d ask for dessert. We have to repeat this, don’t you think? I’m so happy to have met you guys! Well then, I have a modeling job to do. It could be the beginning of a career and someday . . . I could even be on a Lissen Rox video!”

She finished with a pose before rushing out of there, leaving both girls dizzy between the chatter and her compulsive movements.

“I guess research is out of the question,” Belgina concluded, closing her notebook with resignation.

“And we’ll have to pay for her food too!” Marianne said, watching the table and realizing she didn’t even leave a coin.

It wasn’t on purpose. Lilith was just too scatter-brained and any new emotion made her forget where she was standing. And she was also too fidgety, which made her a real challenge as a model. There she was, standing on a small stool, trying to keep her balance, with a large white cloth wrapping her like a robe and carrying a bouquet of flowers in one hand while the other pointed up.

Despite her discomfort and her tendency to bumble, she kept talking. It was like her center of balance was located in her throat and it depended on her continuous chatter.

 “How much longer?” Lilith asked, swaying dangerously on the stool.

“Almost done, just missing a few details, but you can come down already.”

She didn’t think twice and jumped, collecting the fabric from the floor and approaching to watch the painting. She was portrayed as a Greek goddess covered in flowers that flowed from her hand where she had the bouquet and the other one in the air with a bird perched on it, the only thing left was finishing the face and coloring the hair.

“It’s looking gorgeous!” she said, captivated and trying to hold back tears of joy. “Sorry, it’s just the fact that I was part of something like this . . . I have no words to explain how I feel.”

“No, on the contrary, thanks for helping me with this,” the boy said without taking his eyes off the painting, visualizing it already finished, while Lilith looked longingly at him.

“It’s a little mainstream to me, but like they say, art is subjective,” a voice interrupted, taking them aback. Lilith was suddenly hurled away, crashing against the stool and blank canvases at the back.

Marianne and Belgina were waiting outside when they heard the noise and, faster than their thoughts, their armors materialized and rushed through the door. Lilith was on the ground, tangled in a piece of cloth, while Umber held Renzo by the neck.

“Get her out of here! I’ll go get him!”

While Belgina tried to help Lilith, Marianne went straight to Umber, sword in hand. The demon remained unmoving, in quiet anticipation, and she stopped, thinking it could be a trap. Nevertheless, it was too late. Ashelow slipped behind her like a shadow and immobilized her.

A blast of wind lunged at Umber then, bringing him down, but he sent it back with his free hand, knocking Belgina against the wall.

“So she’s the new one. Well, doesn’t matter, she’s just as useless as the other.”

Umber lifted the boy and twisted his fingers just before piercing through his chest. No one could forestall what happened next, once he pulled the glowing sphere out and dropped his body. All of a sudden Lilith ran the distance between them and charged against the demon, knocking him to everyone’s surprise.

“Ignis,” Samael said while Marianne seemed too stunned to react. “Quick, you have to get her out of here!”

Her eyes opened wide, understanding what he meant, and seized that momentary stunt to release herself, taking Lilith and the gift in passing.

“Follow them,” Umber commanded.

“Can you distract them?” Marianne asked as she passed Belgina and she nodded, throwing everything she had at her disposal at the demons to block Ashelow’s view while they ran away.

Marianne pushed Lilith to a cellar and closed the door, panting, exhausted.

“I have to go back for Renzo!”

Lilith tried to get out despite Marianne’s effort to retain her, until she clutched her helmet and detached it from the armor like a removable piece, taking it off to show her face. The blond girl went shockingly mute.

“Don’t ask any questions, I’ll explain later. The important thing you should know is that . . . it seems that you’re like us, and if you want to help Renzo to recover this thing,” she showed the glowing orb she was holding, “ . . . you have to do what I tell you to.”

Lilith nodded frantically, as if her life was being threatened, until she finally managed to articulate a sentence.

“You’re the one that’s been on the news lately!” she said cautiously.

“Correction: Belgina and I,” Marianne emphasized, putting the helmet back on. “You will be, too, you just have to follow my lead. Take all that courage you felt when you tackled that demon and focus.”

“That was cool, right?” she said with a nervous smile.

Belgina’s scream took them aback. Marianne bolted out and saw her at the opposite side, on the floor, her arm hanging motionless as Ashelow was preparing for another onslaught.

“Hey! Do you want this?” she said, lifting the sphere to get his attention. “Come and get it!”

She ran back to the workshop, but not without making an assertive nod to Lilith before. The blonde stood behind the door frame, wondering what to do next, and finally decided to go for Belgina, who still lingered in pain holding her arm.

“I think it’s dislocated,” she said while the blonde couldn’t find a way to check her condition with that armor on. She chose to help her up and carried her back to the cellar, where she locked her up without an explanation. “Wait! What are you doing?”

“Don’t worry, everything will be fine!”

 “Another waste of time,” said Umber with a sour face when the orb was expelled again from the container. Its carving said ‘Artistic’ this time around. He dropped the gift on the ground and kicked away the boy’s body, while Ashelow was holding Marianne. “Get rid of everything. You know what will happen if you fail.”

Ashelow shivered at the threat and only nodded, watching him disappear. He threw Marianne to the floor and the thousands of fibers that were part of his clothing came alive and tied her up. His arms were free to attack now and for a fleeting moment, she could see the marks on his torso, spreading all the way to his back, but she didn’t pay much attention, because she was too busy looking for ways to get loose.

He lengthened his fingers into blades, but right before charging at her, something hit him in the back, causing the fibers to loosen up while he was propelled away, crashing against the wall.

Marianne sat up bemused and noticed Ashelow’s back was ablaze, the living fibers curling up while consuming, exposing the whip marks and bruises all over his back.

“Wow, that was amazing!”

Marianne jumped at the voice and turned to spot a coated figure in a maroon armor.

“Li . . . ” she stopped before finishing the sentence and the girl smiled at her under the flame-shaped helmet.

“You were right, can you believe it?” she said, extending her arms and turning around to show her full attire.

“Another one.”

Both girls took immediately a defensive pose while Ashelow stood up, the renewing fibers of his suit covering his bare skin again.

“I’m just getting started, pal! Want some more of me?” Lilith called him down, cracking her knuckles.

“Why? Why did it have to be another one? WHY?” Ashelow bellowed with despair, vanishing amid a blast of ashes. Marianne reminded herself to pick up the gift again and return it to Renzo, while Lilith was spinning around her for a closer look.

“Is he going to be okay?”

“Don’t worry, just let him come around,” she replied, standing up again. “Where’s Belgina?”

Lilith giggled nervously and a few minutes later they opened the cellar door. Belgina was on the floor, holding her arm tightly. She was in so much pain, she didn’t even manage to properly react to Lilith wearing an armor.

“Relax, this should help, but I warn you it’s going to hurt,” Lilith alerted her, beckoning Marianne to hold her firmly. The flaming girl pulled her arm and something snapped, followed by a muffled scream from Belgina who was biting a piece of fabric. “We should take her to the hospital in case she has a fracture.”

“Where did you learn that?”

“My mom’s a nurse. Hey! We should go with her!”

The two of them helped Belgina up, their armors already withdrawing to Lilith’s amazement.

“Is this normal?” Both girls nodded, leaving the cellar. “Do you think I could . . . ?”

“Go ahead. Someone should tell him everything is fine,” Marianne consented and the blond girl ran back to the workshop with a big smile.

Renzo was still unconscious, so she lifted him and began picking up all of his stuff, gathering and sorting them so he would find everything just as he had left it. But once she took his portfolio, it opened and she saw a large number of drawings of Kristania. Her face immediately fell.

He began to regain consciousness, so she closed the portfolio and simply made him believe he had passed out and had imagined the rest. There was nothing else to say. She just let him finish his work and left, joining her new friends.

The girls didn’t need to ask about her sudden shift of mood. They knew it was a matter of time before she realized it.

The girl on fire had been put out at the same speed as her flames were lit, and she knew how dangerous it was to go back to that state, back to coal. She would have to find soon a way to rekindle the embers for her own good.