"So, it's in this kind of place you spend most of your time."
That voice paralyzed me instantly and my arms forgot the things they were supposed to be holding. From afar, I heard my books falling, and the ground escaped from under my feet. My heart was beating desperately, leaving me deaf, my breath uneven. My legs shook and I was certain they would end up giving in.
Slowly, I turned my head towards the voice even though I kept assuring myself I couldn't have heard it, and froze completely, suddenly empty of all arguments that might help me deny it.
There he was, calmly sitting on one of the lowest tree branches, right beside me. He leaned slightly towards me, his long hair spilling silently over his shoulders, his gaze fixed on me. A soft smile of amusement touched his thin lips and I couldn't help thinking that a bit more and his immaculately perfect, porcelain-like skin would end up cracking.
"Mari! What are you doing here? You'll be late!" I heard Steph's voice and, although I wished I could run away, or at least tell her to do so, I couldn't move a single strand of hair. I felt a warm hand holding my arm and the sharp fear I felt made me dizzy when he turned his gaze towards Steph. "You OK? Feeling sick?" she asked me, sounding worried, and I couldn't help stop breathing when she raised her head trying to see what I was looking at. He laughed and the sound of his laughter was deep, almost warm, even though his eyes had become even sharper, colder and crueler.
"No need to worry," he said. "You'll end up giving yourself a stroke, which would be a waste, after I decided to spare your life. Wouldn't you agree?" I had no voice to respond. In truth, his voice simply ran through my central nervous system and I wasn't even aware of what his words meant at first. "She can't see me. And I believe it would be best to answer her before she calls on someone to help you." That sarcasm again.
"Mari!" I forced myself to look away from the tree, swearing I would never look at it again, and faced Steph, who was trying to shake me out from my stupor.
"I'm OK, Steph," I replied, but my voice sounded as unreal as a robot's voice from some cheap science fiction movie.
"Like hell you're OK! You're as white as a piece of paper! And you're shaking! Did anything happen?" she asked, looking at the tree once again, and I shook my head wishing she would stop doing that.
"I'm just tired. I didn't sleep all that well. And I probably caught a bug or something," I lied and bent down to grab my books. Steph helped me gather my things and took a deep breath, glad that I'd returned to my usual self.
"You were just standing here, looking at that tree."
"I thought I saw a cat. But it was nothing," I replied without thinking and his chuckle froze me again, my body too tense.
"You sure you're OK? If you're not feeling right, maybe you should go home. Or at least go to the infirmary and get some rest," she suggested, genuinely worried, but I refused her advice once again.
"It's nothing. Let's go. We're already late." I tried as hard as I could to change the subject, and sighed in relief when I succeeded.
We ran inside, as I forced myself to only look forward and not turn back to see if he was still there or if I'd been delusional. We climbed the stairs as fast as we could and entered the classroom with a river of apologies for our tardiness.
I sat at my desk and opened the notebook so it would look like I was paying attention, but my mind stared blankly at the empty lines. My wrist burned and I closed my hands in two tight fists demanding some measure of control over my own mind.
There was no escaping, I thought. Either I was going crazy or that creature really existed ... in the same world as Rachel, Steph, Michael and everyone else.
I refused the torrent of questions that flooded my brain, filling my head with hows and whys, and took a deep breath just to make sure I still maintained control over myself.
If I was going crazy, well, there wasn't much I could do about it. But on the other hand, if he was real, what should I do? The question echoed inside me without a proper answer and panic began taking over again.
I told myself I had to be able to think straight and made myself recall everything that had happened the day before. The strange store, the old woman, the book. Nothing special about any of that. Sure the old book had a strange title, but still, it was only a book.
I'd picked it up thinking about putting it away and, instead, had opened it.
I bit my lower lip.
Why in hell had I opened that thing when I'd practically swore to never read it?
But the real problem was in what I'd idiotically decided to do next. I'd allowed myself to believe in this childish idea that all my problems could be solved with a simple Magical Spell. I'd allowed my pain, brought upon by Michael's indifference, to speak louder than my better judgment.
I dropped my head on my arms, feeling too tired, and sighed deeply. In flashes I recalled parts of that ritual — The Circle, The Guardians and those strange words.
My heart jumped. Those words! Now that I thought about it, I remembered that the spell hadn't even been finished. There had been a few more lines left to read. And, according to what was written on the chapter about Protection Circles, once a ritual was over the Circle had to be undone. I'd never even arrived to that part. The windstorm had interrupted me and destroyed everything. With a strange irony, I couldn't help thinking that the symbols I'd so carefully written with salt hadn't done much in terms of protecting me.
I remembered the nothingness that had become something, and then ... him!
Had he said something about me being able to break a Seal? Could he have been speaking about the Seal that had kept him away? And if so, did that mean I was the one who had set that ... thing free?
If I had set him free, maybe there was a way to send him back again, or lock him away, or whatever. All I had to do was rebuild that Seal. Maybe I could search for an answer in the library or on the internet. Maybe I'd find something that could help me, I told myself, too aware that I was simply trying to keep my wits about me and trying to avoid complete despair.
And then? He had decided to kill me. And I clearly remembered thinking I would certainly die. For a moment I recalled his expression of surprise as he held his hand protectively. Change of plans, he'd told me. I couldn't understand why, but decided to leave it at that, since I already had too much to think about. He'd also told me something about a Contract. He'd fulfill my wish and I ... I ...
I stood up with a jump and the chair fell backwards with a loud bang. I couldn't breathe and suddenly sensed a wave of anger I didn't know I could feel burn the depths of my stomach.
What the hell was that?! Who did he think he was to decide on something like that?
"Miss Mariane Mellis! Is there something wrong?"
I raised my head, remembering where I was, and the anger that had heated the blood in my veins went icy cold just as fast. My cheeks blushed, since I'd become the center of everyone's attention, and I tried as hard as I could to find something smart to say. To my relief the sound of the bell filled the air and everyone started dragging chairs while the teacher shouted his last instructions about a homework assignment.
With a sigh I gathered my things. Maybe if I could simply ignore him, I wondered, although I had little faith that this last plan would work. He didn't look like something that would eventually get tired and go away if I pretended not to see him. Quite the opposite. He looked more like he would probably do something terrible if I were to anger him.
I found Steph near Joanne and we went together to our next class.
I tried as hard as I could to listen to what was being taught. I didn't want to be questioned by the teacher and find myself unable to answer. Something like that would make my friends worry and, regardless of my problem having a solution or not, this was still my problem. I'd been the one to create it and I'd have to, somehow, deal with it.
When the bell rang again I'd started to feel like myself once again, with a certain measure of courage burning inside my chest, for which I felt particularly proud. What was the worst that could happen anyway? Well, he could probably decide he wanted my Soul after all.
We went down to the cafeteria, talking about our plans for the weekend. Steph had been invited to go to the movies by some guy from the arts department, but she still hadn't given him an answer. Joanne was trying to convince her to go. We were almost at the cafeteria's door when I made my decision. Steph also stopped, noticing I wasn't following them anymore, and turned back closing the distance between us.
"Mari? What's wrong?" she asked, again in that worried tone, watching me closely and I faced her greenish eyes which seemed to surprise her.
"There's something I have to do."
"Something? But ... right now?" she insisted and I nodded. She stood quiet for a moment, as if studying me or trying to guess what was making me act so strangely, and a smile lit her face as her eyes grew bigger. "Are you going to talk with him?" she asked in a soft murmur, even though it was obvious she was excited by the idea. I stared blankly at her for a moment, trying to make sense of what she'd meant. Right then my mind was so set on what I'd decided that it was hard to think of anything else.
"Oh," I whispered as I understood who the him was and a sharp pain drove into my chest. Yes, it had all been because of him, all because I'd been stupid and weak, and had tried to cheat. And yet, even now, all I had to do was call forth his image in my mind and a warm feeling washed over me, making me feel foolishly happy. "Yes," I answered, aware I was deceiving her but at least not lying.
"Oh, but that's great!" she exclaimed, jumping up and down excitedly. "But you should eat something first, you know?" she added, always trying to take care of me, which gave me a warm feeling.
"Don't worry. I'll eat afterwards, while you're in class. Right now I simply wouldn't be able to," I confessed and she placed a friendly hand on my shoulder.
"OK then. See you at four?" I nodded and she kissed me on the cheek. "Good luck," she whispered and turned to go back. "Afterwards you'll have to tell me everything!" she added over the noise coming from the cafeteria and went back to where Joanne kept her place in line.
I watched them for moment as they talked together, easily belonging to a world where I had to try so hard to fit in, and then turned away and ran in the opposite direction, avoiding the groups of students making their way towards the cafeteria. I'd made up my mind and postponing it any longer would only make things harder. I ran up the stairs and down the corridor, and stopped when I opened a door to an empty classroom. I was certain that thinking too much about it would shatter my frail conviction, and so I closed the door behind me and took a deep breath.
"Are you here?" I called out, but even so my voice sounded weak and frail, scratching my suddenly dry throat. "You're here, aren't you?" I insisted, as my courage quickly waned away, but nothing happened.
The tension I'd unconsciously accumulated started to dissipate. Somewhere in my mind the thought that I was being foolish made me smile. I certainly sounded like a crazy person, talking to the empty chairs in an empty classroom.
The deep sound of his chuckle froze my bones, sending my thoughts over a dark precipice. My stomach turned upside down and I knew I'd done the right thing by not eating. I clenched my teeth hard to stop them from clattering, since my whole body was trembling uncontrollably, and I knew that if I still wasn't crazy, I was definitely half way there. For an instant the idea even sounded good. Everyone said that crazy people didn't know they were crazy. And maybe I'd be able to face all these things fearlessly, free from the terror that threatened to swallow me whole.
"Hmm. This is rather interesting. In a second you're so terrified you can hardly speak. And next you're standing here, calling me," I heard his voice in that cold but amused tone and forced myself to take a deep breath.
Breathe ... stay calm ... think. The worst thing that can happen ... yes ... it's he killing me. And not even that can be that bad. Nothing can be worse than this.
Once more I managed to free myself from the panic that swallowed my thoughts and turned my head towards him, to face him as strongly as I could. His intense presence filled the air all around us in waves that promised to devour me, and I immediately fell back to my recently acquired technique of self-control — breathing slowly.
Between rhythmic inspirations I noticed he stood on the other side of the room, leaning against the wall between two windows. Like all Human Beings, he had two legs, two arms and one head. His hair was completely black, falling straight and silky below his waist and over his forehead in rebellious strands. He kept his arms folded over his chest as if he was waiting for something, and the skin I could see, like his face, was so white it almost looked bluish. He looked young and his features were simply perfect, as if he were a statue carved from pure white marble. His lips were thin but colorless. In fact the only color in his face came from the eyes that looked at me; violet eyes that appeared almost crystal liquid. I recalled seeing red reflections in his eyes before, but either I'd imagined that due to my frightened state or it had simply disappeared.
"So?" he asked with that same velvet voice, and I couldn't help staring in disbelief at the way his lips moved. Irrationally I had almost come to believe they would never part as if they really belonged to some statue.
Watching him speak had left me as perplexed as I would surely have been, had I seen Michelangelo's David smile at me. "You called for me. Here I am."
And yet he still hadn't moved, I noticed, and was internally thankful for that. I was sure I'd be unable to keep my thoughts rational if he were to approach me. My ribs still hurt, reminding me of the overwhelming strength he had used to push me against the wall, justifying my fear of his proximity.
"Are you really ... for real?" I asked, my voice no more than a whisper that I was certain he wouldn't be able to hear. That was the key question; the one that would definitely cut off all my possible escape routes. And I wished he really hadn't heard it allowing me to hold on to that last ray of hope.
His purple eyes kept staring at me during those brief moments of silence while he went back to being that perfect statue. And then his lips distended into a terrifying smile, making me step back against the door, my hand flying for the knob as I readied myself to run away as fast as my trembling legs would carry me.
"You think I'm some kind of hallucination?" he asked, slightly tilting his head. "Want me to prove just how real I am?"
I shook my head vehemently, my hand squeezing the doorknob so tightly that my fingers hurt. I made myself breathe to regain some of my rationality and reminded myself that, hallucination or not, it was no use running away. Besides, I was the one who had called him there.
"What are you?" I tried again and he laughed, startling me as usual.
"Stupid questions," he spat in spite and turned his head towards the blackboard, as if it were much more interesting than me. "You don't know? Or are you looking for a confirmation?"
I kept silent. I was actually amazed at myself for being able to just stand there, in his presence, and I wondered how much more I could take before completely falling apart. I'd already exceeded my own limits and, in flashes of madness, I had started to wish he would simply kill me and put an end to that terrifying feeling of being hunted by a deadly monster, spawn from some unknown abyss.
"Aren't you going to ... kill me?" I managed to ask, part of me wishing he would say yes, and he looked at me through the corner of his eye, as if to avoid unnecessary movements.
"Is that what you want?" he retorted. For an instant I dreaded to think he might have read my mind. I thought he might really do it and wanted to live! "If it is, I am really sorry. Sure, that was my initial idea. But, as I've told you, I changed plans."
I felt heat spreading through my body as the shadow of the anger I'd felt during class returned, and released the doorknob, clenching my fists to gain courage.
"This Contract, I won't accept it!" I stated, raising my voice, and he looked surprised. "I ..." My voice cracked as the small courage I'd been able to gather slipped away like water between my fingers, and I forced myself to go on. "A Contract is invalid unless accepted by both parties ... and I ..."
The red glow that took over his eyes silenced what was left of my voice. Against everything my crazed mind thought possible, a light frown marked his forehead.
"Won't accept!?" His voice, in that ice-cold whisper, was pure anger and I thought my heart would stop. However, in the next second, his expression went back to that of a renaissance statue and a brief smile touched his lips. "This is something you can't refuse," he stated as if that was the conclusion he had reached in those brief seconds. "Your Soul is rightfully mine, which goes way beyond your insignificant life. You may not comprehend exactly what I'm saying within your limited human understanding. But everything about you belongs to me. In fact, accepting this Contract is the only way you have to save yourself. It's the only way to limit my actions and make them bend to your will," he informed me and I tried as hard as I could to understand what he meant. "As you can see, I'm actually being nice," he added with a sarcasm that made me tremble. "Besides, wasn't it to see your pathetic wish fulfilled that you went through with the ritual?"
Yes, that was something quite clear to me. The origin of that huge mess had been none other than my egoistical wish.
"You mean that ... if I don't accept ..."
"If you refuse I'll claim my rights over what's mine right away," he confirmed calmly as a shiver ran down my spine. "Your eternity will belong to me. And you'll cease to exist in all times, all spaces and every dimension."
I felt myself falling and only woke up from my numbness when I hit the ground. Controlling my heavy breathing, I clenched my hands together to make sure I remained conscious.
"And ... if I accept?"
"If you accept I'll simply do my part. You'll get the love you so much desire in exchange for one night, your first night!" he clarified, lowering his voice. My stomach cramped once again.
"Then I'll disappear and you'll go on with your pathetic life."
"You'll disappear?" I asked, my mind half blocked by fear.
"Yes. As if I'd never existed. You'll even forget all about me. You'll never see me again. The choice is yours." I felt defeated, trying to fight a war that had already been lost. I couldn't breathe and wanted to scream, but knew my voice would never obey me. And, even if it did, what good would that do? He'd told me the choice was mine, but in truth there wasn't much to choose from.
"Oh, that's him, isn't it? Your Human." His voice brought me back from my desperate swirl of thoughts and I saw him look outside.
It was only then that I noticed his dark wings had disappeared, but told myself this wasn't the time or the place to worry about that. I jumped to my feet, forgetting all about my aching legs, and followed his gaze. From where I stood I could see Michael and his friends talking outside, like always. His eyes glistened slightly and the smile that tugged at his perfect lips left me with a terrifying certainty.
"Interesting," he hissed and, right before my disbelieving eyes, disappeared within a small rain of black glitter, as if his presence in that room had been no more than an illusion.