part I: chapter 8

Soundtrack: Loreen “In my head” (click here to listen)

“How was I able to undo that incantation?” This question had been on repeat in Damiano’s mind all day ever since he had woken up freezing on the altana from the unconscious slumber of the previous night. At first he had tried to convince himself that it had been just a fluke, a stroke of (extremely wild) luck, but there was no way he was believing that. Especially because he had been able to feel the incantation threads, had been able to see them and the whole scenery surrounding Gaia. Above all he had managed to destroy the monster guarding her and done so in a way no sane person ever would, in a way that made no sense at all, by ripping said beast apart as though it was made of paper. He had been enraged. He had acted on a fool’s impulse. However, he didn’t care about all the underlying issues such admittedly stupid misstep was sure to bring up later, at the most inconvenient time. The only question he really cared to get an answer to was – How? His actions had left him stunned. Oh, and he hadn’t met a frozen death on that goddamn roof terrace. It meant the precious white light that had burned his arms, the light he hadn’t seen manifest itself in years, had not been suppressed completely – a surprise that – and had, in fact, saved him. But how on earth had he gotten back all those abilities even for that sliver of time? None of the illegal methods he had used over the years would ever grant him that. There was simply no way of that happening. And yet his stolen abilities had surged through him like a firestorm last night, leaving him just a few steps, if that, away from death. Now even thinking hurt. He swore opening the faucet in the bathroom to wash his hands and face. The warm water felt soothing against his skin that was paler than snow. Looking in the mirror above the marble sink made him wince. “Why was that possible?” he asked his reflection.

&

Darkness fell quickly over the city in January. Gaia closed the door of the mask studio and was left face to face with what scared her the most. Her thoughts. The Ball of Mirror Shadows. It was now frighteningly close. It was… a week away. Gaia shivered at the notion. She was thankful for the darkness that saved her the effort of hiding her face and the grimace on it.

The costume she had created around an exquisite piece of jewellery she had found in a garden of an abandoned house she had wandered into on the island of Mazzorbo one late and foggy December afternoon was ready but for some unknown reason it made her feel as though her stomach was full of ants each time she as much as glanced at it. She couldn’t really explain why she had even ended up on Mazzorbo that day. Some strange compulsion had made her disembark the vaporetto heading to Burano, her real destination, and she had followed said compulsion around the island ending up in front of a pile of rubble that had been a building very long time ago. She had wandered aimlessly through the ruined structure and was about to leave when something had caught her eye. Something metallic had been peaking out beneath a heap of crushed stone. Gaia had walked over to take a closer look and found a slim beaten up metal case about six inches long and narrow with swirling ornaments adorning both sides. With a bit of effort Gaia had undone the clasp and opened the box. What she had found was a bracelet, a beautiful and very exquisite creation of what looked like white gold threads that shimmered slightly in the winter sun’s white light.

Looking at the piece of jewellery in her palm Gaia had felt astonished. How did such a thing even get here? She had glanced around the abandoned place as if to try and locate the possible source, but there had been nothing. It had almost felt the bracelet was from another world. Ridiculous. After a moment of consideration Gaia had deemed it inappropriate to leave it in the rubble, so she had put the trinket back into its box, slid it into the pocket of her jacket and left the old broken building.

And that’s how the idea about her costume had been born – she was to become a broken steampunk angel for the night. However, now Gaia wasn’t really sure she wanted to put on her costume, not to mention head out in the streets wearing it. She was even less certain about wanting to go to the ball. In fact, she had hoped Damiano, who she hadn’t seen for the last couple of days, would have forgotten about his invitation and about her all together, however, this morning he had sent her a reminder that he had not. There was something about him that made her wonder, even when he was next to her, if he was truly real, if she hadn’t somehow only imagined him. The dual emotions he caused in her were so confusing that Gaia was at a loss how to behave around him. For some reason she was intimidated by Damiano and at the same time he drew her in like a vortex in a river. How do you stay and run from someone all at the same time? 

&

Gaia. Now there was another mystery, a challenge even. A human girl with a web of incantations from another world woven around her. For what purpose? By whom? Could it truly be the real deal this time? Even one question with no answer was one too many as far as Damiano was concerned. Could he allow himself to believe that he had found what he had been so desperately searching for all these years? Could he allow this possibility to blossom? If he did, it could see him walk into a trap so exquisitely set and waiting for him, and he had stepped into this particular one way too many times already. It was tiresome, it was annoying, it was infuriating. The worst thing was, however, that he could not swear he wouldn’t do it again. As a matter of fact, he was certain that he would, because this trap was baited with the one thing that the setter knew would work every single time – hope. A desperate one at that.

It would be too easy if it was true. But perhaps that was the point. Nobody had looked here. Nobody had even considered Venice as the possible hiding place exactly because it was too easy. It was the place where all kinds of incantations were not allowed. This was the safe zone. Supposedly. Smirk on Damiano’s face was darker than night. He had been away for too long to know what was and wasn’t true now. Everything could have been, and probably was, turned on its head.

There had been something very particular about Gaia’s incantation though. He had gotten a clear impression that the fortress and the maze around her were of her own doing. A prisoner making her own prison? No incantation worked like that. Or did it? Had Demetria altered it to make her victim sustain the curse, thus draining her power drop by drop until there was no way back?

&

Suddenly he wrapped his arms around her in a protective embrace and his lips touched her neck. “Have I truly found you?” his voice soothing in her head, his breath warm on her skin, scent of leather, snow, wind, burning fire and jasmine reaching her senses. She couldn’t stop her body’s instinct to lean into him, but as Gaia turned around a shriek of terror escaped her lips. The unexpected sensations continued the relentless invasion of her senses but what she found behind her was an empty street. What the hell? Her heart was racing and her legs were on the verge of collapsing beneath her. “What was that?” she asked aloud, slowly turning around to make sure she really was alone.

The street was empty.

Gaia took a step and leaned against the nearby wall trying to steady herself. Her heartbeat was a deafening thunder in her ears, her head was spinning and her mouth seemed full of sand. She was terrified. Her thoughts were a jumbled kaleidoscope of images and half spoken words spinning around in her head like in a rollercoaster-gone-mad.

What the hell? Stop! Stop! Stop!!!

She was used to the gravel voice of the sadistic self-hatred demon, but this was something new. Gaia could have sworn on her life she had heard Damiano’s voice loud and clear and felt his touch as solidly as she felt the building behind her and the pavement under her feet. “Is this how people go insane?”

As the sensation of Damiano’s arms around her dissipated, panic took its place at an alarming rate. These visions – of people walking into walls, of phantom ball on a campo and now this, whatever the hell this was – threatened to shatter her sanity. Especially because there was no one to talk to about the things that were happening or ask for help, if there even was any help to be had.  Now Gaia stood steadying herself against the building and bracing herself against a major possibility of collapsing if she dared to move. What if this sensation returned? How could she avoid it or prevent it from happening again? She couldn’t. She felt powerless and realized that was the true reason behind her fear. 

The nearest place – the only place, if she was completely honest with herself – she could look for sanity was Pietro’s house, but the artist was out of town. Typical. In fact, she had almost initiated this conversation with him on several occasions during their sittings, but had stopped herself every time before the words had been spoken aloud. Gaia hadn’t been able to as much as hint at these events jokingly, because that inner voice of reason had shut her up by yapping on about how she would make herself a laughingstock, although if she thought about it Pietro had to be the only person who would actually not mock her. Sure, she could call him, but somehow this didn’t feel like a conversation one could have via phone or even a video call.

She would never reveal having these visions to anyone else, though. She just wouldn’t. There was no need for her friends to think her insane. As for her cousin, Gaia knew Enzo, ever the realist sceptical of everything surreal, would have a field day teasing her if he got wind about any of these things going on. And there was no way she was telling Damiano about this although it was his voice she heard, his touch she felt. He will think I’ve lost the plot. So that left what? No usable solution as far as Gaia was concerned.

&

Damiano was in the middle of the strength training routine he performed every night when panic and fear hit him like a ton of bricks. He swore and looked down at his hands. They were shaking under the onslaught of terror.  And then realisation dawned. It was fear and panic felt by… Gaia. In the days long gone he would have seen that crystal clear but with the scraps of power he had been left with he could only feel her emotions because they were amplified like this. He felt like he was constantly walking in a strange, thick, and abrasive smoke that irritated his mind, scraped against it.

During his exercise he had attempted to reach out to Gaia. Absentmindedly. To distract himself. Without expecting any reaction whatsoever. He had been certain none would follow. His mental touch hadn’t worked on anyone for years. He had believed this attempt to be just as futile. The reaction that had overcome him had been utterly astounding. Had Gaia really felt something? Or was it just her reaction to some other, unrelated, event that had coincided with his reaching out to her? “Why did she feel it, if she indeed did?”

Damiano closed his eyes, took a deep steadying breath and spoke few words in a language long forgotten in this realm.

&

Just as suddenly as it had enveloped Gaia the shroud of panic disappeared and the mad merry-go-round vanished as though they had never existed. Absolute calm took their place making the tension she had felt a heartbeat ago leave her body making her wonder if any of the spooky sensations had even been there in the first place…

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