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Chapter 16

 

OXO


– Vision of the rose of 49 petals, and of the Holy 12-fold Table.
Examination of the Candidate for Master of the Temple.1

 

“There is a voice inside me that persistently tells me that I cannot win.
The reality around me goes way beyond my comprehension and,
as the insignificant and mortal Human Being that I am,
there is nothing I can do to be able to grasp it, much less change anything.
And suddenly the word ‘end’ sounds terribly tempting, certain that, in that moment,
I’ll recover the silence and peace now lost to me.”


When my alarm clock sounded I had yet to close my eyes. A pale, gray light poured from the window since I’d forgotten to close the blinds.

I stood up, my body sluggish and too sleepy to move any faster, and dragged myself towards the bathroom. I pointedly ignored the stairs as I passed them and washed my face with cold water, ending up almost sticking my head under the tap. Back to my room, I pulled a dress over my head, the first one I could reach, something I’d never done before on a school day since they were all too short for my taste. That morning, however, I didn’t want to have think about anything, much less matching colors and patterns, and so a dress came out as the easiest piece of clothing to wear.

Sorting out last night’s event seemed such a hard, confusing task that I didn’t even make an attempt. In any case, what for? I felt very much like a marionette that, even though she could never run away, still stubbornly persisted in struggling against the strings that bound her. Things like the problem of his relationship with Steph now seemed suddenly ridiculous, and I couldn’t comprehend how I’d spent so much energy on something so insignificant. In truth, there was a war, somewhere, a war in which I’d ended up being involved. I should also have a Guardian that had apparently abandoned me of his own free will. And, to wrap things up, Gabriel held my life in his hands, and all the freedom I thought I had was, in reality, the freedom he had chosen to give me while curiously studying me as if I were some strange, exotic animal in a zoo.

I grabbed my books and went downstairs. Faced with all that, what was there left of me? What was I supposed to do?

I went to the kitchen and, as soon as I appeared at the door, the voices I’d been hearing from the corridor were immediately silenced. My eyes scanned that small space and the people present, but he wasn’t there.

Lea jumped from his chair, running towards me, and held the hem of my dress to call my attention.

“Mari! How are you feeling?”

I lowered my head to look at him and forced a smile. He was back to looking like a small boy, the small boy I’d gotten too used to having around, and that made me feel more at ease.

“I’m okay,” I replied. Actually, I couldn’t really tell. I couldn’t feel much of anything.

He seemed worried, as if my smile hadn’t been convincing enough, and I looked over at the two strangers. The boy with the honey-colored hair sat at the table, as motionless as I recalled seeing him last night. The black angel stood protectively behind his chair, except he didn’t look like an angel anymore, now that his black wings had completely disappeared.

“Good morning!” he greeted me cheerfully, running a hand across the dark-red bangs that slid over his right cheek, and Lea pulled himself closer to me, in a reassuring gesture.

“It’s okay, Mari. You can trust him ... for now,” he added in a threatening tone, and the black angel made a face in a surprisingly childish response.

“You can call me Alexander,” he told me and I tried to remember the name Gabriel had called him, but couldn’t.

“My name is Mari.”

“I know,” he went on, interrupting me. “Lea has been gently going over all the important things I should know about you, while threatening my life should I cause you any measure of pain or discomfort.” He smiled, seeming completely at ease. I gave Lea a sideways glance and saw he insisted on keeping his threatening demeanor, his eyes locked on Alexander’s every move. “This is Jonathan,” Alexander went on, referring to the boy sitting in front of him. “Unlike us, Jonathan is Human, like you. So, even if you hate our entire race, please be nice to him.”

“Human?” I questioned suspiciously, watching him more closely. True, there was nothing that indicated otherwise. But that could also be said of Lea or Alexander, as long as they kept their present appearances.

“Yes. Jonathan is my Medium.” Medium. I’d heard that word last night, but wasn’t sure of what it meant. According to what I’d learned after reading a bit more about magic and the occult, a medium was someone with the ability to become a bridge between the living world and the spirits or lost souls that supposedly existed in some parallel dimension. However, I wasn’t quite sure that definition applied.

“Where’s Gabriel?” I asked, indifferently changing the subject, and Lea took a step back, looking up at me with the strangest expression, as though I’d said something forbidden or blasphemous.

“Gabriel? Is that how he’s called around here?” Alexander asked, and Lea nodded, still staring wide-eyed at me.

“Yes, but not Mari,” he noted in a frightened low voice and I finally understood the reason behind his reaction. I rarely used his Human name. Saying it out loud always sounded too fake, like a bad lie. But, right then, I really couldn’t care less.

“Hmm, well, about that. He had to go somewhere and asked me to look after you,” Alexander informed me, still with that smile that always failed to reach his almond-shaped eyes.

So, he wasn’t at home. And I could feel it in the air that they were telling the truth. That was all I needed to know. I’d speak with him later then. After all, I’d already made up my mind. I was too tired to go on with that charade any further.

I opened the fridge and took out the yogurt box, placing it on the table along with a handful of spoons I grabbed from the drawer.

“Take whatever you want,” I told them coldly, choosing a yogurt for me, and left, carrying my books under an arm.

I heard Lea’s bell following me, but then he seemed to think it over and decided to leave me alone. In my mind I could easily picture his desolated expression, but I’d already decided not to go over myself any longer, not even for Lea’s sake. I was sure that if I didn’t take a stand something irreplaceable deep inside me would end up breaking and simply disappear.

I stopped by the living room door while shoving spoonfuls of yogurt down my throat. Utter chaos greeted me between pieces of broken wood, torn pillows and shattered glass. At least they hadn’t tried to make it look like nothing had happened.

I finished my yogurt while disinterestedly observing that post-war scenario, and left the empty cup on the first step of the stairs, ready to go to school.

I hadn’t taken more than two steps outside the house when the front door closed again right behind me. And then Alexander was walking beside me. I glanced at him sideways. At least he dressed according to the weather, I noticed, wearing a dark-brown heavy coat that reached knee length. Under it I could see the gray wool of a sweater and I thought I saw him shiver when the cold wind blew his red bangs, releasing his dark gaze from the shadows they cast. His face was young, and beautiful, but a beauty that could easily be considered possible for a Human, unlike Gabriel, who looked more like a statue carved by some master of the arts. If it weren’t for the peculiar color of his eyes, that once under the shadow of his bangs looked almost black, no one would ever guess he was far from being just like everyone else.

“Aren’t you going to ask?” he finally questioned me, wincing as the cold nipped at his skin.

“Ask what?”

“Questions, of course,” he replied in an almost insulting way that somehow irked me.

“Is that why you’re here?” My words were filled with irony as I glared up at him.

“No, not really, I guess,” he said with that smile again. “I just thought you might have questions, since Izrail has real problems where the use of words is concerned,” he added in that sarcastic tone that, by now, I’d concluded to be usual for him.

“Why? Is that another of your studies? See what kind of questions she’ll make if someone offers to answer?” He didn’t answer and anger filled all the empty places inside me, which was actually much better than the apathy I’d felt since last night. “Because in the end that’s all this is, right? Because I’m somehow different, he decided to make me into some lab rat. ‘Oh, let’s see how Mariane reacts if I destroy her room! Wait, no, let’s see how Mariane reacts if I threaten to kill her friends! Oh, and how about sending her mother all the way to Paris? Better yet! Let’s get rid of all her clothes and make her wear whatever pleases me! And while we’re at that, why not screw her best friend?’ Well, enough is enough! He can have whatever he wants, as long as he disappears from my life!” I unloaded all in one single breath, and gasped for air, my heart beating too fast, too painfully.

“Things aren’t that simple,” he said wearily, apparently impervious to my angry tantrum. “Besides, I really don’t think that that’s the case.”

“And what do you know? You just got here!” I pointed out and he raised his head to look up at the gray sky above us.

“Unlike you, I know him. In some ways, I know him better than he knows himself. Because normally he doesn’t really think about the reasons behind his actions. Besides, the way you’re talking, it almost sounds like you see yourself as a mere, innocent victim. I hope you know you’re not. Because if you do, then you’re a much more selfish Soul than I’d given you credit for.”

My feet froze and I glared at him, frowning.

“What do you mean?”

“What do I mean?” he repeated, turning to face me. “Well, weren’t you the one who released him? Even if it was something unexpected, it was still a consequence of your actions. Yours and no one else’s. And the price of an evocation like the one you preformed is the Soul of the summoner. Whatever his reasons are, he saved your eternity by accepting this Contract. And, to fulfill it, he’s been stuck here, even though he knows he’s being hunted. Or are you that petty that you can’t see beyond your own bellybutton? And all because we’re different. Were he Human, like you, I’m sure you’d try harder to understand.”

I stood there, in silence, shivering inside. I’d often wondered if our situation, which I tended to see from my point of view, wasn’t something hard for him to withstand as well. After all, if I was bound to him, he was bound to me as well. But now, hearing him say those things so directly made me unable to simply shrug and put those ideas aside, like I always did. And that scared me.

“I understand you may feel tired,” he continued in a more appeasing tone. “That you may be confused. That you may not feel like fighting any longer, or trying to find a way out of this colossal mess. But if you’re just going to give up on taking charge of your own life and just let yourself be dragged by the torrents around you, then he might as well never have taken the time to try and save your Soul. At least it would have saved us all a lot of time and trouble.”

I felt a knot tighten around my throat and I turned away. I knew if my tear ducts were anywhere near normal, I’d be crying by then. This was all so unfair.

“When you say it like that, it almost sounds like all this is for me,” I blurted out bitterly. “To save me or something. And that I should be thankful!”

“No, of course not. I won’t deny that the reason why Izrail accepted this Contract was far from innocent or pure. But that’s not the question. I’m talking about your attitude. From what I know about Human Beings, especially those like you, that passivism and defeat are way out of character. I understand it’s the easiest way, but it’s also the wrong one. And if fighting things head on doesn’t work, why not try finding a way around it?” I raised my face, allowing the cold wind to brush over my skin. I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to stand up, pick up all the broken pieces and try to find a new way to survive all that. Disappearing inside myself was, in fact, the easiest solution.

“Is ... Izrail even his true name?” I asked and, since he didn’t answer, I stared back at him. He looked uncertain. “Questions! You said you would answer, remember?”

“Ah, yes, yes!” he nodded, smiling and looking content. We resumed walking, talking amiably as if we’d known each other forever. “Izrail, right. If you’re asking if it’s his true name, then no, it’s not. But it is one of his names. As with all Shedim, he has seven names. But I’m sure you already know this. You, unlike me, must know his real name. After all, you’re the one who evoked him. And no evocation is possible unless one’s real name is used.”

“So, I’m supposed to know it?” I mused, recalling that strange sentence filled with foreign words. Maybe his name was hidden in one of those words, I wondered.

“You mean you don’t remember it?” he asked, intrigued, and I pulled the collar of my coat up to guard my neck from the cold, bitter wind.

“That’s not really it. I just don’t know exactly what I read. If his name was in there, I have no way to identify it.”

“Then, you didn’t know what you were doing when you evoked him?!” he asked and I stopped once more to look at him in outrage.

“Of course not! Who, in his perfect mind, would do such a thing?! All I wanted, all I wanted ...” I stammered. All I wanted was for Michael to look my way. Only once would had been enough. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter anymore. And what about you? Did you come to kill him like that other Mazzikin?” I asked, changing the subject and he accompanied me with much smaller steps.

Alexander laughed cheerfully. “Kill him? Me? Not even if I wished it with all my strength. I’d never have enough power to do it. Not that I’d ever do it, even if I could.”

“Why?” I asked, tilting my head to better see his face, and he smiled again, a real smile this time that made his face look even younger and more beautiful.

“Izrail spared my life and helped me when I most needed it. My debt to him is so big that if he asked me to die for him, right now, I wouldn’t be able to deny him.” I waited silently for him to go on and he looked at me, smiling slyly, noticing I was eager to listen to what he had to say. “If you want to know more, have lunch with me.”

I frowned at what almost sounded like a poor pick-up line and he smiled again.

“We’re arriving at your school and this is a very long talk,” he pointed out. “And I do not dare talk about these things anywhere within Izrail’s hearing range.” He cringed at the idea, as though expecting someone to hit him.

“All right, then.”

“I’ll be close by the entire morning, just in case. And, if everything goes all right, I’ll be waiting for you by the gate.” I nodded and he walked me up to the entrance.

It was only when I saw Stephanie, waiting there, that I realized Gabriel was probably going to skip school, and that I’d be the one everyone would turn to in search of a justification. Steph seemed to think so as well and, as soon as she noticed that he wasn’t the one keeping me company, she strode like an arrow towards me, hands clenched in tight fists as if ready to hit me.

“Where’s Gabriel?” she demanded in a clearly accusatory tone. Having to face her cold eyes and angry expression was real hard to bear.

“Good morning,” I greeted her as always, but she ignored me, stepping even closer, almost threateningly.

“Where is he?”

“I really don’t know, Steph. But I’m guessing he’s not coming today,” I tried to explain, but her angry expression made it clear the matter was far from over.

“What do you mean you don’t know? Aren’t you the one sleeping with him?” she went on, her voice rising almost to a shriek, making everyone turn to look at us. I felt the blood drain from my face. I already hated being the center of attention as it was, and her accusations would certainly make me the subject of gossip all over school, again! Above all, was that what she really thought of me? Steph, who knew me so well.

“Stephanie! What are you saying?” another voice questioned, sounding almost angry, and I felt a weight being lifted from my chest. Michael walked up to us with his steady stride and placed himself protectively at my side. “You know you’re talking nonsense! And knowing Gabriel as you do, you really think he would go around justifying himself just because he decided to ditch class? Today is the last day of school. He probably just decided to start his holidays a bit sooner,” he practically scolded her and Steph frowned, clearly disgruntled about how her scene had turned out, and simply marched away.

I took a deep breath and turned to Michael, making myself smile.

“Thank you,” I sincerely told him, all too aware of the quantity of eyes still staring disapprovingly at us. Michael smiled, his usual warm smile, and placed a caring hand on my head.

“It’s fine. Good morning, Mari.” His light filled me up inside, making me feel more calm and reassured.

A swift movement I could hardly see made me blink and, in the next moment, Michael’s warm hand wasn’t touching me anymore, leaving that cold sensation in its place, as if a shadow had fallen over me. Half lost, I searched for that miraculous hand, wishing he would touch me again, and found it tightly locked in Alexander’s grip, his dark eyes staring threateningly, almost hatefully, at Michael’s bewildered face.

“Alexander! What are you doing?” I demanded, panicking, and pulled his arm as if that could make him release Michael’s wrist.

“You ... have no right to touch her!” Alexander growled in the most menacing tone I’d ever heard, and I looked around urgently, seeing in the faces of my schoolmates the beginnings of yet another rumor about my collection of lovers.

“Stop it! This instant!” I commanded as fiercely as I could without raising my voice, hitting him on the shoulder, his hard muscles probably feeling very little of that, and he finally released him. “Who do you think you are?”

My heart drummed in my throat, my face burning even in the cold morning; and then Michael placed a hand on my shoulder, and all my anger magically disappeared.

“It’s okay, Mari. I’m sure your friend is only worried about you,” Michael calmly remarked and stretched out a friendly hand towards Alexander. “My name is Michael. I’m one of Mari’s classmates.”

I couldn’t help feeling sad with his classification of our relationship. Not even friend, I thought sadly.

Alexander stared at his outstretched hand, hate pouring unmasked from his expression, and slapped it away, the sound echoing around us.

“I’d rather die than having to shake hands with someone like you!” he spat with pure hostility, leaving me no time to feel depressed. Gabriel had never been anything but polite and cordial with everyone around me, accepting all my classmates with equal patience and tolerance. Alexander, however, remained intransigent to Michael’s presence, the fierce glow in his eyes making it ever so clear its dark-red color. And then he simply turned around in disgust and walked away, to my relief.

My mind immediately raced again, in search of adequate excuses and explanations. I turned back to Michael, who still looked rather shocked at having been the target of such open animosity.

“I’m really sorry, Michael,” I said, smiling apologetically and held the hand that had been so violently slapped.

“Oh, it’s fine. I guess he didn’t like me all that much,” he mused and smiled, back to his composed self. “Still, that really took me by surprise. I don’t recall ever being treated like this.”

“Please don’t take it personally! He’s always like that.” I kept my smile firmly in place, even though I knew nothing about Alexander. “He’ll probably be all over you next time, treating you like you were his best friend. I guess he’s bipolar or something. And he has the bad habit of saying the first thing that comes into his head.”

Michael laughed, amused with my description, and we began walking towards the north building.

“The way you talk about him, it almost makes it sound like he’s really crazy.”

“Well, that’s because he is!” I confirmed. The one who was going crazy was me, I thought.

“Have you known him for long?”

“Ah, yes, since I was a child.” More lies. And the natural way they left my lips made me feel depressed. “To tell you the truth, he is more Gabriel’s friend. He came to visit him over the holidays. And, since Gabriel decided to ditch school, he offered to accompany me.” I hoped it would be a plausible explanation, and Michael nodded.

“So, he’s staying with you guys all through the holidays?” Not the kind of question Michael would normally ask, I thought, but he seemed to be aware of that as well. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”

“No! Not at all!” I hurriedly countered. “I really don’t know how long he’s staying.”

“Hmm. I see.” He mused silently for a moment. “You know, to tell you the truth, I also didn’t like him all that much.” He sounded almost guilty for feeling like that, and I couldn’t help stare at him. It was the first time I’d ever heard Michael say he didn’t like someone. Normally, from his point of view, people around him were either important to him or plainly indifferent. “And it has nothing to do with his stuck-up attitude,” he continued. “I guess it was kind of funny being so outright rejected by someone I don’t even know. I’m sure I’ve lived through that many times before, but since I can’t recall any of that, it was kind of a new experience for me. But he gives out an ... oppressive sensation.” His green eyes focused on something unseen as he searched for the right words to describe what he’d felt. “It’s hard to explain. But it’s like something is terribly wrong, something out of place, maybe something that shouldn’t even be.” He had lowered his voice, but then he was smiling again, his bright eyes looking straight at me. “Well, I guess I’m just being paranoid. Will I see you after school?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Ah, I’m sorry, I can’t today,” I excused myself which, by then, was no surprise to him, even though disappointment always took over his face.

“Then I won’t see you till after the holidays?” he asked, looking like an abandoned puppy, and I forced my brightest smile to take over my lips.

“But of course you will! You have my phone number, right? We’ll arrange something,” I suggested and his expression became immediately brighter.

“You won’t mind if I call?”

“Of course not!” I answered vehemently. Those were probably the truest words I’d said all morning.

“It’s a deal then. I’ll see you soon!” he stated full of confidence, and leaned towards me to place a warm kiss on my cheek.

I just stood there, my heart beating like crazy, my cheek tingling and warm, and watched as he walked away. I loved him so much, and yet my love only seemed to bring him pain.

The rest of morning went by as in recent days, with Steph wallowing in her own foul mood and Joanne ignoring the both of us. When the bell rang I made sure to go to the cafeteria just to say goodbye to my friends. I asked for their forgiveness for ditching our last meal together before the large separation that followed, and everyone forgave me immediately, between promises of meeting during the holidays, promises I knew I’d probably never fulfill.

When I reached the school gate, Alexander was already there, leaning his tall body against the fence, smiling as if nothing had happened, and attracting too much attention for my taste.

* If you want to know more about this book or simply access earlier updates, please visit the official site at https://carpersanti.net/gaea/

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Sophia Carpersanti
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