Tania’s high-pitched voice came from behind Kiara, who was clenching her teeth together in vexation. She let out an exasperated sigh and spun around. The door to her first class was now on her right. Tania was once again munching on pink bubble-gum.
“You know, usually when you lead someone somewhere, you walk in front of them; you don’t just shout directions from behind at the last minute.”
Sparing herself from Tania’s expression of disinterest, she stomped into the classroom… Only to stop dead in her tracks.
The classroom was the most elegant of its kind Kiara had ever seen. Black arches lined the ceiling at regular intervals, keeping watch over the forty or so school desks that stood on wooden tiers, lowest at the front row and highest at the back. All the other students were already seated, lounging back in their chairs like all high school kids did. The walls were painted dark brown and hosted giant windows that let in brilliant sunlight.
At the front of the classroom, behind a dark wooden desk, stood what had made her halt her entry into the room: the most beautiful person she had ever seen.
He was of medium height and powerful build; dressed in beige chinos, a navy blue t-shirt and dark sneakers. Her eyes were uncontrollably drawn to the young man’s face.
Flawless tan skin covered a slim nose and distinct, rounded cheekbones. The short pitch-black hair that jutted from his scalp contrasted magnificently with his bright white teeth.
But the thing that nearly took Kiara’s breath away was his eyes. Suddenly, the word ‘eyes’ was inadequate in describing the gems that graced his sculpted features.
They were stunning, piercing portals into a radiant and intelligent soul. Their sapphire surface seemed to ripple like the waves of the ocean.
And they were looking right at her.
His full lips quirked up in an amiable grin and he dipped his head in a discreet greeting. And all she could do was stare at him with parted lips and wide eyes. She had lost her ability to move. Her heart hammered at her ribcage and her feet felt as if they were hollow.
She’d read about these encounters in books – a boy and a girl seeing each other for the first time and feeling like they had finally found someone who understood the deepest parts of their hearts.
And she was sure that this was what it felt like. It was like she’d known his face for all her life and was now coming home to it.
She was startled out of this moment by Tania bumping into her from behind. “What the… Why are you stopping in the middle of the- Oh.” She chuckled sort of cruelly and ducked past Kiara and into the classroom. “Sorry, darling; better girls than you have tried to tap that and failed. You don’t stand a chance.” She gave another chortle and waltzed over to her seat on the second tier.
Kiara shook her head as if to cast the man’s transfixing gaze out of her mind.
However, her heart was forced to contract and then gleefully leap again when he spoke as she walked past the desk, eyeing the desk behind Tania.
“Alright, girls, I have a literary quote with which to start the class. I think you ladies will find this one enjoyable.” Without looking at any notes, he recited, “No sensible man ever engages, unprepared, in a fencing match of words with a woman.”
There were giggles, applause and whispered sexist comments from the girls in the class.
Kiara finally sat down in a chair on the third tier, right behind Tania. Before she knew it, she said, “The Woman in White.”
The man’s striking portal-eyes lit up with surprise and he smiled. “Well done. I see that I have finally found a fellow reader, Miss…?”
For a moment, she was too stunned to speak, but recovered just before it became embarrassing. “Kiara Westwin.”
His teeth flashed yet again. “I am Mr Xavier Carlisle. Please allow me to welcome you to your Supernatural Sciences class, Kiara.”
As she nodded, she could feel her cheeks redden into a blush. Suddenly, someone touched her left arm.
It was the girl in the desk next to her. Her pale skin stood out startlingly against her hair, which was piled into a sooty beehive.
She held out a hand. “Stella Jones. I heard what Tania said to you down there. She really is a bitch, isn’t she?”
Kiara could see Tania’s jaw clench; she’d heard Stella’s words. And despite the girl’s earlier rudeness, Kiara felt obligated to defend her new roommate.
Kiara shrugged. “Maybe. But I’ve never heard her gossip, so she’s one step ahead of you in that department.”
Tania broke into a satisfied grin and Stella snorted in offence, turning away.
Xavier moved from his spot in front of the board to wave through the students as he spoke. “We are in the process of studying witches and how they utilise their powers in spells. Today, I would like to discuss how Sagae can use their abilities to kill other supernaturals. Their first choice would be a rinsing spell. This obliterates all the evil inside a being. Now, since these creatures are of demonic origin, when you demolish the evil part of them, there is nothing left that can sustain life.”
A blonde in the front row raised her hand and Xavier nodded. “Asha?”
“Aren’t only Greater Witches able to extract evil from a soul?”
“That is correct. Well done, Asha.”
And so the class continued. Xavier explained something, occasionally writing something on the white board in the front, and then someone would ask a question.
When the bell rang for the end of the period – a very familiar sound amidst all the foreignness, Xavier turned to face the girls. “Remember, class: Nos sunt tutores de adominatio…”
“Nos sunt semper contro malum,” the students chorused.
Tania had stormed out of the class and Kiara scrambled to catch up. When she finally managed to reach her new roommate, they crammed into one of the elevators with some other students.
“So, what’s next?”
The other girl grinned sadistically. “Oh, you’re going to enjoy this…”
She punched down on the button with the number ‘1’ on it. Kiara scowled. “Level One? But that only has the cafeteria and the… Oh.”
Tania giggled with a bit too much excitement. “Yep.” Just as the lift doors slid open, she said, “Welcome to Fighting 101.”
A brief stride through the lobby found them in what was known as the training hall.
It was spectacular.
The room was enormous and the roof was almost high enough for it to have been double-storey. Broad pine floorboards complemented the intimidating black wooden pillars and dark-panelled walls boldly. The room was cold, despite the sunlight streaming in through the giant windows, whose upper panes brushed against the ceiling. Rows upon rows of fearsome-looking weapons lined the wall.
The menacing atmosphere that dominated the hall was not relieved by the presence of the lone figure, dressed in modern black armour, in the centre of the room.
Upon closer inspection, Kiara saw that it was a fierce, but young, woman. She was over six feet tall, with a lean yet muscular build, alert emerald eyes and long raven hair slicked back into a ponytail. She was beautiful and obviously deadly.
At noticing Kiara, she smiled. “I see we have a new recruit. Welcome to your Physical Training class, Miss Westwin. I am Mrs Beets.”
Kiara nodded, her nerves slowly easing. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Why don’t you step up first so I can get a look at what I have to work with? Get dressed and then come pick a weapon.”
Tania snickered beside her. “Try not to break something; the last girl fractured her femur.”
Seeing as Guardians could not get hurt, Kiara knew the other girl wasn’t serious. And yet…
She spared Tania an anxious glance before entering the small dressing room at the right side of the hall. Properly attired, she headed straight to the swords and chose a pair of twin blades. Sure, they were a bit bulkier than the ones she was used to, but they would do.
Beets pulled a short sword from the arsenal at her belt and grinned in anticipation. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Xavier strolled through Feminam’s front lobby as if it was something he did every day of his life. He beamed at Seraphine, who lounged behind her desk.
Must be bad being a receptionist at a place that doesn’t really get visitors.
“Good morning, Seraphine.”
She looked up and smiled half-heartedly. “Morning, Xavier. Anything I can do for you?”
“Oh no. I am just here to sneak a glance at the girls’ training. You know that Physical Training is one of my favourite subjects.”
The honey-eyed woman shook her head. “Just don’t let Cora catch you now.”
He chuckled and made his way to the training hall’s entrance. Luckily, none of the doors at the college ever creaked and he could open it without being detected by Cora Beets.
What he found in the room pleased him – it was what he had come here for, after all.
Kiara was facing Cora in a fencing match. He could discern that neither had made a move; they were still sizing each other up, lingering like stalking lionesses.
His eyes trailed Kiara instinctively. Her limbs moved gracefully, muscles rippling under her tight black gear. She was fairly tall and boasted a slim hourglass figure. Her mahogany-coloured curls weren’t tied back and caressed the golden skin of her face and neck freely.
She had a sharp nose, distinguished cheekbones, carefully trimmed eyebrows and exquisite green eyes laced with liquid silver.
Every person has that one striking feature, though. Hers was her lips. They were the focus of her sculpted face, pink and plump. Her upper lip had a natural downward curve, which was accentuated by the way she bit down on the lower one in concentration.
And then Cora made a strike, weapon slashing out towards her opponent’s shoulder. She moved like the expert she was. Xavier expected the sword to connect with skin.
But it never got the chance to touch her.
Kiara side-stepped the attack with ease, deflecting her teacher’s weapon with her own.
The astonishment was clear on Mrs Beets’ face and she was taken off guard for a moment. Kiara used that moment to feign towards Cora’s stomach. Cora, however, knew the move and didn’t fall for the manoeuvre. Instead, her sword connected with Kiara’s left arm. The younger girl didn’t flinch.
And so they danced, Kiara sliding around her adversary like a panther on the hunt, face set in glorious determination.
Until she brought her weapon up in a whir. Kiara’s one blade now rested on her Physical Training teacher’s collarbone, less than an inch from the skilled fighter’s throat.
Cora eased the thin blade away from her neck, smiling incredulously. “Wow, Miss Westwin, you’re quite a fighter.”
Kiara giggled modestly. “Oh, it’s just with a sword; I used to do fencing as a sport.”
Xavier didn’t stay to listen to the remainder of the conversation. With one last glance at the girl, he spun away from the training hall.
She really is something special.
When Virginia emerged from a long slumber, she noticed him immediately, sitting on the hospital’s blue-cushioned chair with his legs crossed.
Her heart soared with affection and she couldn’t keep the smile off her face. “Naru.” Her voice came out hoarse and she had to clear her throat.
His gaze shifted from the linoleum floor to her face and suddenly everything felt better. He’d always had the power to make things seem alright.
He was wearing a perfectly tailored black suit; his tall, lean body was tense. His jet black hair was messy as always and his melted-chocolate eyes looked at her with so much compassion that she automatically reached her hand out to him.
He still very much resembled the adolescent he’d been twenty years ago, only a few wrinkles at the corners of his eyes to show that he had aged.
Naru took her slender hand in both of his; they were warm, calloused and beautifully gentle. “How are you feeling?”
Virginia chortled softly, despite the stab of pain in her abdomen at the movement. “I should’ve known that the first thing you’d say to me after two decades are words of concern… You always were worrying about me.”
His irises lit up with memories. “That’s because you always seem to get yourself into lethal situations.”
She took a shaky breath. “I am so sorry, Naru.”
He cast his eyes down to their intertwined fingers, stroking the back of her hand with his thumb. His only response to her apology was: “I met Kiara…” Virginia tensed and Naru smiled thinly. “She’s safe at Insulam.”
She sighed with relief, only to remember the message she’d received the previous day. “Naru, she isn’t safe.”
Naru only grinned tenderly. “She’s a lot like you, you know? Barely trusted me even though I saved her life and then suddenly broke my heart with the fear in her eyes when I had to leave. I barely know your daughter and I’m already fond of her, because she’s a part of you-’’
“Naru, listen to me. He sent me a message. He’s going after her. He’s the one who sent the zom-’’
She stopped when he dropped her hand and shot out of the chair, turning his back on her in order to look out the window. “Don’t you think I know that, Ginia? Don’t you think all of us knew that something like this would happen?”
Virginia felt emotion rise up in her throat. “I said I’m sorry. I know it can never make things right, but-’’
Naru gripped the window pane until his knuckles were white. “I don’t want you to be sorry. I want to rip his throat out.”
She yearned to touch his shoulders and comfort him – to tell him that he didn’t need to worry about her anymore. But she was connected to tubes and machines and her pain at every movement was still intense. She slammed her palms down on the mattress in frustration. “Ugh! I wish I could get out of this damn bed.”
Naru let go of the pane and chuckled. He sat down next to her on the bed.
“Thank you for saving Kiara, Naru. And thanks for coming to check on me.”
She cleared her throat and looked down at the thin, blue duvet. “I know we haven’t seen each other in a while. And after everything that happened… But we used to be best friends and I hope you still-’’
He smirked and swept a strand of orange hair from her face. “If you’re asking me if I still care for you…” He shook his head incredulously. “Ginia, that’s like asking whether your eyes still remind me of strong coffee.”
Her features softened. “And? Do they?”
Naru laughed and she adored the sound of it. “Yes.”
She beamed up at him. “V ‘n N ‘til the end, right?”
Remembering their high school pact, Naru nodded. “Right.”
Books and silence.
That’s what Kiara was yearning for. She just needed an hour or so of reading – an hour or so away from Tania’s snide hostility. Despite having been defended by her, the other girl showed no intention of befriending her new roommate.
So, after lessons, Kiara headed to the one place that was always a safe haven: the library.
She remembered Tania explaining that it shared the fourth floor with the armoury. And since it was fairly easy to distinguish between weapons and writings, she found the library without much trouble.
As she entered the colossal chamber, she inhaled sharply.
She had been dropped into a classic novel. Surely, rooms with this many volumes were only possible in works of fiction. Yet there she was, in a library more enchanting than anything she’d ever read about.
The ceiling hosted a mural that depicted dancing children in white frocks, and was high enough that the room could be divided into a lower floor and an inward balcony. The balcony bannister bore ladders on wheels – the kind Kiara had fantasised about as a child.
The room stretched on into the distance, thousands of publications slumbering in mahogany bookcases; they were just waiting to be devoured. Ancient statues lined the walls, feeling to Kiara like old friends. Arches revealed turns, which, in turn, gave way to even more spaces with volumes.
Kiara ran her fingers over the backs of the books and it felt as if they came alive at her touch, energy pulsing through her skin.
Then she noticed that the categories were indicated by signs, and that they were arranged in alphabetical order. Her heart fluttered with excitement. She hurried along the walls, past Venetian Culture, through an arch, to a corner which cradled her favourite works of all time. Victorian Fiction.
But before bounding into the room, she halted in the doorway. She was not alone.
The space was small, six or so bookcases forming three walls. It also had a balcony, to which one of the rolling ladders was attached. A plain mahogany table occupied the centre of the room, four matching chairs around it.
And Xavier Carlisle was lounging on one of the ladder’s rungs, a leather-bound volume open in his lap. He was still wearing that morning’s clothes, but his hair was messier, as if he’d run his fingers through it repeatedly.
She was once again mesmerised by his eyes, which lit up when he grinned. “Kiara… I might have guessed that we would encounter each other here at some time. I take it The Woman in White is not the only manuscript from the Victorian era which you find to your liking.”
She smiled back at him, loving his sophisticated accent and diction. “I’ve always been drawn to older volumes. I feel like their plotlines are much more intricate and sincerely romantic… Sorry, I’m babbling.”
He chuckled, shut the book he was holding, put it on a shelf and made his way down the ladder. “What you consider ‘babbling’, I consider the most sense I have heard in months. I understand. In the past, emotions were genuine and unmasked, words were sincere. I have been waiting some time to locate someone who shares my literary preferences… Would you mind playing a game of quotes with me? It’s just that I have been depraved of intelligent company for quite a while.”
Kiara giggled. “I don’t think your other students would be too happy with that statement.”
He moved closer, now only two steps away. Up close, he was even more enticing. “Then I guess it will just have to be our little secret…”
She could feel her cheeks redden and cleared her throat in an attempt to clear her thoughts. “A quoting game? What is it you said this morning? ‘No sensible man ever engages, unprepared, in a fencing match of words with a woman.’.”
Xavier smirked and motioned at the writings that surrounded them. “I wouldn’t say that I am unprepared.”
Kiara crossed her arms and made her way to the other side of the room in an effort to appear confident. “Fine… Jane Eyre.”
She could hear the amusement in his tone as he said, “Oh, you make it too easy. Subject?”
Come on, Kiara. Be bold.
There was a single moment of silence before he replied, “Alright… Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own; in pain and sickness it would still be dear. Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still.”
Kiara was stunned, absolutely stunned. She’d read and reread that sentence so many times, imagining herself hearing them. And now she had. Of course, he had merely quoted it, but the effect was the same. Her heart seemed to hammer at its cage.
Realising that she was supposed to talk, she racked her brain for anything Jane Eyre.
Finally, she turned to face him, cocked a cheeky eyebrow and recited, “I have a strange feeling with regard to you, as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you. And if you were to leave, then I am afraid that cord of communion would snap. And I have a notion that I would take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, you would forget me. Edward Rochester.”
His angelic features spread into an appreciative grin. “Wow… Alright, you win.”
She mocked a bow. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Laughing, both of them took a seat at the table. “You really have got quite the memory, Kiara.”
Her name suddenly sounded exotic.
She shrugged. “Only when it comes to books.”
He leaned his chin on a strong hand and she had to resist the urge to touch that divine face. “So, who is your favourite author?”
She didn’t have to think long. “Charles Dickens.”
He waved a hand and shook his head. “That is awfully predictable.”
“Well, who’s yours then?”
She scowled. “North and South?”
“And also a brilliant novel called Wives and Daughters.”
“Seems like she’s a fan of juxtapositions.”
Xavier chuckled. “Indeed she is.”
Kiara smiled fondly, memories coming back. “I remember the first time I fell in love with reading. I was eleven and my mom came home with a second-hand copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I was absolutely engrossed.
“You read The Picture of Dorian Gray at the age of eleven?”
She grinned sheepishly. “Guess I discovered my passion rather early.”
“I have a more formidable adversary than I originally anticipated.”
“So, what was your first Victorian book?” she asked.
“You are going to laugh if I tell you.”
“No, I’m not… Come on, tell me.”
He sighed. “It was Dracula.” She did laugh, but he joined in almost immediately. “I suppose my parents were attempting to prepare me for this life.”
“My mom did exactly the opposite. I was never allowed to watch TV shows or read books about supernatural creatures.”
“So you have never read Dracula or Frankenstein?”
“I said I wasn’t allowed to. That doesn’t mean I didn’t do it anyway.”
Xavier chuckled. “Touché… You talk about your mother quite frequently, but you never mention your father?”
The patterns on the table suddenly became very interesting. “He and my mother got divorced when I was three. He sends a lot of money, but he’s never really been part of my life. I see him once, maybe twice, a year and even then he doesn’t seem very eager to have me around. So, it’s always been just me and my mom… And now she’s injured from a zombie attack and I don’t even know if she made it to a hospital.”
His hand was suddenly on top of hers, warm and soft. His touch was comforting, but sent an involuntary shiver down her spine at the same time. “I’m sorry. I’m sure she is alright.”
She smiled thinly. “Thank you.” Taking her hand away, she asked, “What about your parents?”
“Both deceased. But there is no need for pity; it happened a long time ago and I have made peace with it.”
“I am sorry nonetheless.”
He surprised her by saying, “I know I am your teacher, Kiara, but I am not that much older than my students and I hope we can become friends.”
She beamed. “Of course… Anyway, I should be getting back before Tania thinks I got lost. Not that I think she’d care.”
He nodded. “She has got quite a chip on her shoulder.”
Kiara got up from her chair and headed towards the exit. Just when she reached the door, a thought popped into her head.
She half turned to him. “Before I go, I have one more Jane Eyre quote for you: My very soul demands you…”
She saw the speechless expression on his face and smiled self-contentedly, striding out of the room.
By the time Kiara reached her room, the world outside Feminam was already bathed in twilight. Tania was splayed out on her own bed, smiling at the letter pad in her hands.
Barely looking up, she said, “Where were you?”
Kiara grinned and sat down on her bed. “I met Xavier in the library. He was quite forthcoming.”
Tania snorted and turned her back to Kiara. “I’m sure he was… He’s just a nice guy, Kiara. Don’t think it’s anything more than that. Come on. Why would a guy like that be interested in you?”
Kiara clenched her jaw and muttered, “You’d be surprised.” Then she noticed that her letter pad was flickering. She frowned and picked it up. The screen lit up at her touch. She’d received a message:
FROM: NARUTA ISHIDA Kiara, I am on the Island, but I went to visit your mother this morning. Virginia is recovering in a private hospital. She’s alright and sends her love.
She threw the letter pad down on her bed, sighing with relief. She stuck her arms into the air and laughed out loud.
Her roommate attempted to raise an eyebrow, but failed. “What’s wrong with you?”
Kiara beamed, a giant weight lifted off her shoulders. “My mom is okay. I just found out that my mom is alright.”
Tania mocked a gasp. “Wow. Let’s have a party and we can all freak out.” She rolled her eyes.
Kiara ignored her roommate. Not even Tania could spoil her good mood now.
FROM: KIARA WESTWIN Thank you for your message, Naru. And thanks for all the other stuff too – saving our lives and bringing me to Insulam. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you that first morning. I do now.