The late January snowfall transformed the East, Hudson and Harlem Rivers that bounded Manhattan Island, into grey mirrors that reflected the busy streets of New York City.
It also turned Kiara’s fingers into clumsy icicles and she fumbled with the keys to her apartment on the eleventh floor of the Camargue building in the Upper East Side.
When she finally managed to unlock the front door, she staggered inside and dropped her pastel-coloured shopping bags on the dark laminated floor,
She’d used the money her father had transferred into her savings account to buy herself more than a few birthday presents.
The living room that spread out in front of her was impeccably decorated. Tan-coloured couches bore cream pillows around a hairy rug with a glass coffee table in its centre. An extravagant white-orchid centrepiece and golden curtains tied the room together.
I’m starting to sound like my mother.
The room smelled of fresh cinnamon and lemon-scented room spray. It brought back memories of all Kiara’s years in the apartment.
Moving into the modern kitchen, she deposited her keys and handbag onto the stainless steel counter and reached for a glass.
The dark wood cabinet was high above her head and when she finally managed to grab hold of a tumbler, it slipped. Kiara yelped and threw her arms up to shield her face from the hundreds of shards that would rain down on her. The glass broke over her forearms with a crash.
When the danger had passed, she swore and looked down at her hands. Dozens of glass fragments were embedded in the flesh.
Then she frowned.
There were so many cuts… But she wasn’t bleeding at all. And she didn’t feel any pain.
She gingerly removed a shard from her left hand and was shocked to see that the skin was smooth. No wound.
After extracting the remaining glass pieces and sweeping the floor, she risked another venture into the cupboard and finally managed to pour herself a glass of orange juice.
Still scowling at her hands, she made her way into the living room. As she flopped down on one of the couches, the apartment door flew open.
It was Virginia Kent, soft orange curls piled into a hastily-tied ponytail and portfolio in hand.
Virginia didn’t, as most mothers would have, comment on the fact that the door was unlocked or that there were parcels spread out on the floor next to the entrance.
Instead, she took a seat next to her daughter, set her things down on the coffee table and kicked off her ankle boots.
Everyone was always telling Kiara what a stunning mother she had. It was true, really. Like her fiery hair, Virginia’s rich brown eyes demanded attention. She was also one of those people who loved exercise – much to her only child’s dismay – and it showed.
“Hey, Mom. Did you get another job?”
Her mother nodded triumphantly. “They want to redecorate the entire home and I nailed the presentation. What about you? How was your lunch at Café d’ Alsace?”
Kiara unpinned her dark brown curls and ran her fingers through them. “It was great. The girls arranged for a birthday cake and I got a ton of presents. And then I went shopping and blew all Dad’s money.”
Virginia chuckled and patted her daughter’s leg. “That’s my girl. Speaking of birthdays, I have a little sweet sixteen gift for you too.”
She shrugged. “That is only to be expected.”
Her mother rolled her eyes and disappeared into the closet across from the kitchen. She emerged a few minutes later, bearing a silver gift bag.
Kiara snatched it away and jammed her hand inside, extracting a journal. It was A5 and one of those really flexible ones with the soft leather covers. Stamped on the front, in flowing letters, was her name: Kiara Westwin. She flipped the journal around in her hand and clutched it to her chest.
“Thank you, Mom. I’ve always wanted one of these notebooks.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
They embraced and her mother refused to let go, patting her daughter’s hair delicately. Kiara felt Virginia’s body spasm in a sob and pulled away. The other woman’s eyes were wet with tears.
“Mom, what’s wrong?”
Her mother avoided the question. “Did anything strange happen today?”
Kiara’s thought flashed to the shards of glass stuck in her hands. She looked down at them now; they were still unscarred.
She shook her head nonetheless. “Not any stranger than usual.”
Virginia nodded and sniffed once. “I’m going to take a bath. There’s lasagne in the fridge. Don’t go to bed too late… Tomorrow is a very big day.”
Kiara frowned. “What’s happening tomorrow?”
She never got an answer; her mother shut the bathroom door with a bang!
Kiara’s ears were impervious to the noises of the bustling city life outside her window. Growing up in the most densely populated of New York’s five boroughs had forced her to become a heavy sleeper.
So, what woke her up the next morning wasn’t honking cars or shouting pedestrians, but the sound of a woman’s pained shrieks coming from their living room.
She sat up with a jolt and, even through the blurry vision of just waking up, noticed that something in her room was out of place.
Her dresser drawers had been yanked open and emptied. And a giant luggage trunk stood ready next to her bedroom door. Its belly bulged and the zipper fiercely struggled to keep the contents contained.
She heard another scream and was out of bed in a flash. “Mom?” she called out, but there was no reply – only the sound of something breaking.
Her body seemed to move by itself and before she knew it, she was out in the living room. Her jaw dropped.
Their perfectly designed apartment had been turned into a crime scene:
The couches’ brown cushions were ripped apart, stuffing peeling out like intestines. In the far left corner of the room, a painting lay shattered, and all the furniture had been flipped over. Pools, smears and spats of scarlet stained the floor and walls.
Virginia stood in the centre of the space and Kiara wanted to scream, but her voice had vanished. Her mother was crouching and her lips were drawn back in a snarl. Her body was so torn and bloodied that it was hard to tell which sections were wounded and which weren’t.
Then Kiara laid eyes on the attacker and she suddenly regained the ability to cry out in disgust. It was built like a human, but its clothes were shredded and its body parts were undergoing various stages of decay. She had never seen a creature like this and she did not have the desire to do so ever again.
It paid no heed to her as it advanced on her mother. Kiara froze in place and was forced to watch as the thing closed its bony fingers around her mother’s throat, lifting her into the air. Virginia, who was usually a formidable figure, dangled from its grip like an abandoned rag doll. And then she was flung across the room, hitting the right wall with a crack.
She crumpled to the floor, motionless and unconscious.
The thing’s head shot up, rotting face turned to Kiara. The corners of its mouth curved upward in a sadistic grin.
Kiara backed up against the wall next to her bedroom door. She knew that escaping through it would be futile; the creature would only follow.
It shuffled towards her slowly, extending its disgusting arm to point a finger at her. The gesture sent an involuntary shiver down her spine.
She reached down to close her hands around the glass vase she’d been eyeing through the entire encounter. Relieved to finally have a weapon, she straightened and faced the creature with as much courage as she could muster.
Finally, when it came close enough for her to smell its decomposing flesh; she hurled the vase at the thing’s face. It broke over the creature’s head, glass fragments sticking into its cheeks.
It didn’t even flinch.
Her mother’s attacker was now only two feet away, but Kiara was too shocked to move…
And then it was on her, sinking its teeth into her right arm. She expected pain and blood to explode from the wound, but neither happened.
She was startled out of her reverie and kicked out with her left leg, connecting her bare heel with the monster’s abdomen. It was pushed back and ripped free of her arm, but it was clear that the creature felt no pain whatsoever.
But neither did she. The skin on her arm was smooth.
The thing advanced again and Kiara accepted the fact that there was no escape.
I’m going to die here.
She let out a sob and slid down the wall, sitting with her knees pressed up against her chest. She bit down on her bottom lip and scrunched her eyes shut, waiting for the thing to kill her.
Please just let it be painless.
But the monster’s suffocating stench had disappeared and so had the ominous sound of its shuffling.
Kiara opened her eyes cautiously, half expecting to be murdered violently at any moment. But the thing was gone – vanished.
In its place stood a tall Asian man dressed in all black. His raven hair was cropped short and there was a bloodied axe in his left hand.
She gasped and hauled herself closer to the wall. The man looked down at her with kind, slanted eyes, hooking the axe into the weapons belt at his narrow hips.
He knelt down and Kiara’s breath caught in fear. “Are you alright?”
She looked at her forearm and was unsurprised to find that there was no wound. “What was that?”
The man sighed. “A zombie.”
Her silver-green eyes widened. “A what?”
“Assuming that I’m not completely insane; what the hell was it doing here? Why did it attack us?”
He shook his head. “I’m not entirely sure, but it’s dead now. I’ll explain everything in a minute. I just have to check on Virginia.”
She’d forgotten all about her mother, who was passed out on the dark floor. She leapt up and bounded to the woman’s side, checking for a pulse.
Having found one, she sighed with relief. “She’s alive… We have to get her to a hospital.”
The man was suddenly behind her. “We don’t have time for that. I’ll phone an ambulance. You go get your luggage and get dressed.”
She rose, trying not to think about the fact that she was wearing pyjamas in front of a stranger. Her head was on the same level as his shoulders. “What? We have to make sure she’s okay.”
“Please just trust me on this.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “Trust you? I just met you.”
He sighed heavily. “My name is Naru Ishida and I work for the Guardians.” He held out a strong hand.
She didn’t shake it, but rather put pressure on the wound on her mother’s stomach. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about who you are or who you work for. Did you come with a car or do I have to phone the hospital?”
He grabbed her arm and said, “Please. I know your mother. We used to be friends. Trust me when I say that I will take care of it while you prepare to leave.”
She looked up at him and crossed her arms over her chest. “Who’re the Guardians?”
“Certain families’ children between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one are charged with the responsibility of protecting mankind and the world from supernaturals –’’
“Witches. Vampires. Warlocks. And many more. All of them are real. Your mother was a Guardian and, now, so are you.”
She rolled her eyes. “I am really going crazy.”
He smiled. “This is not a hallucination. It’s very real.”
“Okay, so where do you want to take me?”
“Insulam autem Custodes.” Oddly, she knew that that meant ‘Island of the Guardians’. “It’s an island just south of the Lesser Sunda Islands, northwest of Australia, where the Guardians live and are trained… Yesterday was your sixteenth birthday and I have come to take you to the Island now. So you have to go get ready and I have to call for an ambulance.”
She shook her head. “This is absurd…”
“I know it’s a lot to take in. But the longer we stand here and argue about it, the lower your mother’s chances of survival are.”
Kiara finally gave. “Promise she’ll be okay?”
She nodded, against her better judgement, and went to her room. Even though Naru’s explanation sounded crazy, Kiara believed every word. But how could she not, after what she’d just experienced. Her brain still had trouble processing it, though. Whose wouldn’t?
She dressed almost mechanically and dragged the trunk with her things into the living room. Her mother must have packed it while she was sleeping.
Naru was waiting, leaning against one of the kitchen counters. “Ready?”
She shrugged, becoming aware of the fact that she was mercilessly gnawing at her lower lip. “The ambulance?”
“They’ll be here in fifteen minutes. Now press your palm against a wall and think of a door.”
Kiara cocked an eyebrow. “Okay?”
She did as she was instructed and yelped when the wall started to ripple like the surface of a river in a storm. And, suddenly, a pale wooden door appeared out of nowhere.
She gasped and stared up at him. “What did I just do?”
He flashed her an amused smile. “You just created a portal. It’s one of the Guardians’ powers.”
“What are the others?”
“You’ll be able to understand Latin now. Guardians also can’t be hurt or killed, except if their hearts are ripped out.”
Kiara was horrified. “Their hearts ripped out?”
“You’re about to enter a dangerous world, Kiara. Today’s attack was only the beginning.” He leaned toward the portal and whispered, “Insulam autem Custodes.”
The door opened, revealing never-ending blackness. “Your mother will be alright… Now, after you.”
She took a steadying breath, closed her eyes and plunged into the darkness.
The red wall of her bedroom was illuminated by the blue moonlight filtering through the window behind the mahogany bed.
Virginia ripped open her closet doors and hurled her belongings into a weathered grey suitcase. She hated the way the room smelled like home – apple-scented shampoo and deodorant.
And she hated the fact that she was being forced to leave.
She wanted to rip the closet, the room, the entire college apart with her bare hands and she wanted the headmaster to beg for her forgiveness. But she’d never give it to him. He didn’t deserve to be forgiven.
Paulina was next to her, black hair braided and eyelids swollen from sleep. “Surely they didn’t intend for you to leave in the middle of the night?”
Virginia tried her best to hide the bitterness in her tone, but didn’t succeed. “Oh, they meant immediately. I can’t believe the Meeting would just throw me out like this. I am a Guardian, and a damn good one at that.”
Paulina shrugged with frail shoulders, a scowl contorting her sharp features. “Well, you are breaking almost every Guardian rule ever created.”
She stopped her packing to glare at her roommate. “It’s not that bad.”
“Not that bad? Virginia, you’re turning your back on everything we stand for, everything we believe in. What happened to ‘Nos sunt semper contro malum’?”
Virginia felt her bottom lip quiver, but refused to show any emotion other than anger. “What happened to undying friendship?” she spat.
She zipped up her case and made her way to the door. “It’s not like I’m joining the evil forces. I’m not turning my back on the Guardians; you’re turning your back on me… Goodbye, Paulina.”
Her former good friend’s voice was void of sadness as she said, “You’re going to regret this, Virginia. And don’t come running back to those who were only trying to protect you.”