FROM: PAUL RAMUND Need to talk. Meet me at Hollow Tree in an hour.
Hollow Tree was named for the giant knothole it bore, and was the first tree at Feminam Collegii Custos’ side of the forest. It was also a regular gathering place among the Guardians.
The sky was dark and Tania hurried across Feminam’s lawns, Paul’s message drowning out all other thoughts. Behind her, the college’s stone building was wide and tall. Despite her contempt for the man in charge, she found the grey mansion stunning in the flickering moonlight.
As she approached Hollow Tree, the waiting figure beside it became distinguishable as Paul Ramund. The sight of him sent Tania’s heart beating in an absurd rhythm.
A black leather jacket accentuated his broad shoulders and extraordinary tall build attractively. The tips of his ash blonde hair rested on his shoulders; his features were set in a neutral expression and his black eyes were cold.
When she finally reached him, he didn’t return her smile. A knot started to form in her stomach, but she ignored it. “Hey, babe.”
Paul pursed his lips together, and then said, “Hi.” He didn’t greet her with a kiss the way he usually did.
Her uneasiness increased and she scowled. “Why did you want to talk?”
Clearing his throat, he began, “Tania, I’ve been thinking about us…”
Here we go.
“What about us?”
It was so difficult to look at that beautiful face when, deep down, she knew what was about to happen.
“It’s just that I don’t think our relationship has the potential of developing any further… Look, it’s not you, it’s-’’
“Who is she?” She had to swallow the sadness in her voice.
Please don’t let it be true.
She sighed, already accepting the inevitable. “You’re obviously cheating on me. Who’s the girl?”
He faked confusion. “I didn’t-’’
“Spare me the innocent act, Paul. I know guys. You’re pretending to break up with me in an honourable way, but you’re actually just leaving me for someone else. So, who is she?”
He stared at the ground for a few seconds before replying, “Stella Jones.”
Tania saw red. Stella Jones! You decide to cheat on me with a girl I can’t even stand to look at?
She wanted to bawl and scream and beat his handsome little face into a pulp. But she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her emotion.
So she composed herself and asked, “Did you sleep together?” He nodded without looking at her and her breath hitched. “How many times?”
“How many times?!”
She let out a sob, despite herself. But once again sniffed and pulled herself together. “Well, then the only thing left to say is: good luck with the STD test.”
With that, she spun away from him and marched back to Feminam, finally allowing tears to soak her face.
It was nine o’ clock at night and Kiara had nothing to do. Her homework was finished and she’d been reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for about the millionth time. When her vision had started to blur, she decided to head to the corridors for a stroll.
She took turns at random, trusting that she would find her way back to her room when she needed to.
After about fifteen minutes of wandering through deserted hallways, a male voice suddenly sounded behind her. “Are you lost or just wandering?”
She yelped and spun around to see Xavier in a white t-shirt, which emphasised the broadness of his chest gorgeously, and dark blue jeans. His portal-eyes lit up playfully. She put a dramatic hand to her heart. “Xavier… You gave me a fright. How do you move soundlessly like that?”
He shrugged and she couldn’t help but notice the golden muscles in his arms ripple with the movement. “Years of training.”
“Well, it paid off.”
He leaned against the corridor’s right wall and crossed his arms over his chest, a smile playing on his lips. “My very soul demands you…?” She giggled and looked down at the black linoleum floor. “I have to say, that has been circling my thoughts since last week. Quite a line.”
Kiara knew she was blushing and covered her face with a hand. “I’m sorry.”
He took her other hand in his. She looked up at him with a surprised look on her face. He beamed at her. “Would you care to join me for a cup of coffee?”
She frowned, loving the sensation of his warm skin against hers. “Where?”
He turned to walk the opposite way, gently tugging her in the right direction. “The cafeteria.”
She halted for a moment. “Isn’t that off limits after seven at night?”
Xavier grinned suggestively. “It is, but only for students.”
“Oh yeah, I keep forgetting that you’re a teacher.”
He mocked a hurt expression. “I do not know whether I should take that as a compliment or an insult.”
Kiara chortled. “If you knew the teachers at my old school, you’d definitely be thanking me by now.”
As they entered one of the elegant elevators, he said, “I like it when you talk…”
The elevator doors closed and she was suddenly very aware of the fact that they were alone in a confounded space. She cleared her throat and looked away from him.
He sighed. “I’m sorry; I did not mean to sound disturbing. I have just always had the habit of articulating everything that comes to mind.”
She smiled at him. “You know, we really ought to stop apologising to one another for things we say.”
His grip on her hand tightened. “Agreed.”
The lift doors opened with a ping-sound and they found themselves in the college’s lobby. It was abandoned. Instead of turning right towards the training hall, they went left and through giant white double doors.
Kiara gasped. This was not what cafeterias were supposed to look like.
It was smaller than she’d expected and rectangular in shape. The walls were panelled with Oregon pine and square mirrors graced them at regular intervals. Dark tables and chairs lined the right side of the room, illuminated by golden down lights. A wooden counter ran just left of the cafeteria’s centre, blue-cushioned stools on one side and a tiny kitchen area on the other. The kitchen hosted rows upon rows of small appliances, including a series of coffee machines. The pearl-coloured marble floor glittered in the yellow light. It was the picture of splendour.
Xavier moved in behind the counter and motioned for her to take a seat on one of the stools on the other side. He leaned his elbows on the wood, closing most of the space between them. “What can I get you?”
She put a finger to her lips, pretending to ponder the question. “I’ll take a skinny vanilla latté with cinnamon sprinkles, please.”
He winked, sending waves of warmth coursing through her. “Coming up”
She gaped incredulously. “You have that here?”
“Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. When are you going to learn that this is not a normal school?” he retorted as he turned around to get milk from the fridge.
She chuckled. “School? This place is more like a luxury resort.”
Shrugging, he moved over to a fancy black contraption and pressed a bunch of buttons. “It’s not every educational institute’s students who protect all of mankind. The least management can do, is provide you with comfortable lodgings.”
He took two red cups out of a translucent cupboard. She enjoyed watching him, seeing the muscles in his back move. “Not that I’ve done a whole lot of protecting since I got here.”
Then he finally placed a perfect latté in front of her, his upper lip already covered in white froth. He licked it clean and pulled a chair around so he could sit opposite her. “Well, you have only been here for seven days. You must give it time.”
Kiara giggled, feeling like a twelve-year-old, and took a sip of coffee. “I suppose you’re right. Doesn’t it feel odd not to have your powers anymore?”
He nodded. “It does take time to get accustomed to it. I still think that I am invincible sometimes, but I only lost my abilities June last year, so…”
“Why did you decide to become a teacher?”
“Because I am not prepared to give up the Guardian world yet. I cannot merely return to reality and pretend to be an ordinary human being… Which I guess I now am.”
“Well, I think you’re a very extraordinary human being.”
Their eyes met, sapphire boring into emerald, and they just sat there smiling at each other for a while. Then he said, “Are you going to recite me another quote that will consume my thoughts?”
Kiara rested her chin on a hand. “You go first.”
He nodded and bit down on his bottom lip in thought. It sent her knees buckling. “Okay… Women can resist a man’s love, a man’s frame, a man’s personal appearance, and a man’s money, but they cannot resist a man’s tongue when he knows how to talk to them. The Woman in White.”
She grinned cheekily. “Hmm… And you think you possess that talent?”
Xavier chuckled. “I think I am satisfactory.”
“My quote is from Wuthering Heights…” She leaned forward until her mouth was level with his ear. “I have to remind myself to breathe – almost remind my heart to beat!”
She sat back in her chair and beamed at the expression of admiration on his face.
“That is a good quote.”
“… Women can resist a man’s love, a man’s frame, a man’s personal appearance, and a man’s money, but they cannot resist a man’s tongue when he knows how to talk to them…”
Kiara sighed dreamily, cradling a black pillow against her stomach. She was lying on her orange-covered bed, beaming at the wooden ceiling.
“… 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.”
Xavier’s rich, husky voice swirled around in her mind; his cobalt blue eyes consumed her thoughts and emotions. He was absolutely wonderful.
And he was so attentive and nice to her.
But he’d called her a ‘good friend’ when saying goodbye… He only wanted to be friends.
But he kept quoting such beautiful things about love.
He was a teacher; he’d never be interested in one of his students.
Then why would he have asked her to accompany him to the cafeteria?
Ugh! This is so confusing.
Then the bedroom door flew open and Tania burst inside, ash-blonde hair escaping from her low ponytail and grey-blue eyes swollen.
Her face, neck and the top of her green top were drenched in tears.
She slammed the door shut with all the force she had in her and let out a scream of rage. Then she threw her back against the wall and slowly slid down into a sitting position, knees pulled up against her chest.
She was sobbing.
That hostile and independent girl Kiara had gotten used to, was now weeping uncontrollably. Her heart broke at the amount of sadness in each of the girl’s sobs and she hurried to sit down at her roommate’s side.
“Tania, what’s wrong?”
The girl didn’t respond. Her head was buried in her hands and she trembled all over as she continued to bawl.
Kiara pried Tania’s right hand away from her face and forced the blonde to look at her. “Tania, what happened?”
And then Tania was suddenly in Kiara’s arms, clutching at her brunette roommate’s shirt for comfort. Kiara cautiously took the girl up in an embrace.
Then Tania exploded. “Oh, Kiara, I’m so sorry about everything. I’m sorry that I’ve been such a bitch to you since you got here. It’s just that you’re so damn pretty and you know a lot of stuff about books and Xavier – the Xavier Carlisle – likes you and… Oh, I sound so pathetic.”
Kiara chuckled kindly, still holding her roommate. “Not that I don’t enjoy this new apologetic you, but what the hell happened to you tonight?”
Tania let out another sob and wrapped an arm around Kiara’s waist, head resting against the brunette’s shoulder. “Paul broke up with me.”
Kiara gasped. “What?”
Tania sat up straight, detaching herself from Kiara’s embrace and leaning her head against the wall behind her. “I wish that was all, but turns out he cheated on me with Stella… Four times.”
Kiara made a disgusted noise at the back of her throat. “Well, I hope he knows he gave up Gucci for the ghetto… What a jackass.”
Tania giggled half-heartedly. “Yeah, he really is…” She sniffed and dabbed at her tears with the back of her right hand. Then she rolled her head to look at her roommate. “The agony is exquisite, is it not? A broken heart.”
Kiara’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. “You’ve read Great Expectations?”
The blonde chuckled at the other girl’s reaction. “Well, don’t be so surprised. It’s not just you and Xavier who can read.”
Tania scrunched her eyes shut, a lone tear rolling down her fair cheek.
Kiara wiped it away with a thumb. “You told me that you’re not a virgin anymore… That’s not true, is it?”
She smiled thinly and shook her head. “No… Paul pressured me on it, but I kept refusing… Maybe if I’d just agreed, he wouldn’t have-’’
“No!” Tania looked taken aback at Kiara’s response. “I won’t allow you to think that way. Dirtbags are going to cheat, regardless of your actions. Rather be glad that you didn’t give yourself to someone like that.”
Tania nodded and reached out to give Kiara a hug. “Thank you.”
Kiara shrugged. “Hey, what are roommates / hopefully friends for?”
The blonde girl chortled, pulling away from the brunette. “Definitely friends.”
Swimming. She was swimming through water the colour of a starless night, arms and legs in graceful synchronization. Above her, the peaceful picture suddenly changed. The water was restless, waves crashing against the surface and occasionally each other, giving birth to galloping white horses. But the water around her was still, enveloping her in a cold embrace. Then suddenly, bright yellow flashes appeared in front of her. The scorching light they emitted stung her eyes like daggers. The flashes grew in size and came closer, until the heat on her face became overwhelming.
Kiara was woken by the golden sunlight that streamed through the bedroom window and landed on her face.
She scrunched her eyes shut and turned onto her right side to escape dawn’s attack. She found Tania out of bed and already dressed in a red dress and flats.
Kiara blinked a few times, taking a while to get used to the bright colours of the room. She yawned and asked, “How are you feeling?”
Tania, whose back was turned to her roommate and who was dousing herself in peppermint perfume, simply said, “Don’t feel sorry for me because of last night.”
Her voice was harsh and unfriendly. Kiara almost groaned aloud. Back to square one.
As if reading her thoughts, Tania looked over her shoulder and grinned. “Don’t worry; I won’t turn into a brat again. I just don’t like being pitied.”
Kiara sighed with relief. “Okay… But seriously, are you alright?”
The other girl shrugged and turned towards her. Tania’s ash blonde hair was swept back into a high ponytail. “A broken heart doesn’t heal overnight, but I’ll survive. Stella may not be that lucky, though…” The two girls giggled and Tania put her hand on her hips. “Now you’ve got to get up or we’re going to be late.”
Kiara moaned and buried her head in the sheets. “I hate Mondays,” she mumbled. And got a pillow to the head in response.
“Wait; you have four siblings?”
Kiara’s voice was full of disbelief as she opened their bedroom door, motioning to Tania that she could enter first. It was six o’ clock and they’d just finished doing their homework in the library.
“Yep. One brother, two sisters and a step-sister,” Tania answered.
Kiara chuckled. “For someone who’s an only child, that sounds very hectic.”
Her roommate giggled, flopping down on her bed. “It can be, but at least there’s never a dull moment… I never thought I’d say this, but I can’t wait for my brother to come to Insulam. I really miss him.”
Kiara smiled and made her way to her own bed. “Sounds nice. It’s like God chose a friend for you and put him in your family.”
Then she halted, staring at the object that sat, unhindered, on her duvet.
“Tania, can we receive mail on the Island?”
“You mean on the letter pad?”
Kiara shook her head slowly, still not daring to move. “No. I mean actual paper letters.”
“That’s highly improbable.” Tania was filing her nails, not really concentrating on the conversation.
An ominous knot started to form in Kiara’s stomach. “Then why is there one on my bed?”
Tania’s eyes widened and she shot up to stand next to her brunette friend. Upon seeing the rectangular white envelope, she said, “Well, don’t just stand there gaping like a dying fish. Open it.” She gave a sudden excited gasp. “It could be from Xavier.” Tania grinned suggestively.
Somehow, Kiara found that unlikely.
She placed her books on her bedside table and sat down on her bed, picking up the envelope with care. She took a steadying breath, opened it and pulled out a sheet of paper. She started to read…
Only to find her breath was racing and her hands trembling. The contents of the letter were horrifying.
The zombie attack on you and Virginia was an intentional one. Don’t worry; your mother is safe now. I have big plans for you. You may be at Insulam, but I command armies of supernaturals… And I will get you.
Kiara let out a sob and flung the letter to the floor. She pulled her legs up against her chest and cried.
Maybe if she stayed right here, everything would go away. She scrunched her eyes shut to block out everything.
Maybe when she opened them, she would be back at home and it would be her sixteenth birthday.
Maybe the glass shards would leave bleeding wounds on her hands.
Maybe she’d wake up tomorrow morning in a peaceful home.
Maybe there was a world void of monsters and demons…
But when she opened her eyes, she was still in her room at Feminam. And anxiety was still gripping her chest.
Tania had scooped up the piece of paper and stood at the foot of Kiara’s bed, reading it. She managed to remain calm. “We have to take this to my father.”
“No. What if he kicks me off the Island because I’m threatening the Guardians’ safety? I don’t trust him. No offence.”
“None taken. But you have to show this to someone…”
Kiara’s head shot up. “Xavier.”
He was alone in the training hall, black hair an effortless quiff and his navy t-shirt clinging to the perspiration on his powerful torso. He shifted the long wooden staff from his left hand to his right and executed complicated combative manoeuvres against an imaginary opponent.
Xavier Carlisle in all his robust glory.
Kiara entered the room as silently as she could, letter clutched to her chest, but Xavier spun around the moment she closed the door behind her.
The light from the chandeliers danced on the surface of his portal-eyes and his golden face lit up in a striking smile.
That smile was almost enough to make her forget the horrible sheet of paper in her hands. Almost, but not quite.
He must’ve seen the terrified look on her face, because he approached immediately, staff abandoned on the pine floor. “Kiara, what’s wrong?”
Before he could embrace her, she shoved the letter against his chest and looked away. Out of the corner of her eye she saw his eyes widen as he took in the letter’s contents.
When he was finished, she turned her head to look at him again. His jaw was clenched and his eyes shot lightning. “Do you have any idea who might have sent this to you?”
She shook her head and heard her own voice tremble as she said, “They’re going to kill me, Xavier.” A shaky breath escaped from her throat and she covered her mouth with a hand. “They’re going to kill me.”
He threw the letter to the floor and placed his hands on her upper arms. “You are a Guardian; they could not harm you even if they tried to do so.”
She stared straight into his eyes and cried, “Unless they manage to rip my heart out! Oh God…” And she started bawling like a petrified child.
Xavier’s protective arms were around her in an instant. One arm was wrapped around her waist and the other hand cradled her head. She let him comfort her, resting her cheek against his chest.
“Ssh… Kiara, listen. The letter did not specify anything regarding murder. I suspect that they need you for another reason. The letter isn’t a promise of homicide, but rather one of capture.”
She shifted her body so she could look at him. “That doesn’t make me feel much better.”
He smiled so kindly it melted her heart. “You will always be protected. You are safer on Insulam than anywhere else. Even on missions, you will always be accompanied by fellow Guardians.” Seeing that she was still fearful, he added, “Trust me. I promise that you will be alright.”
Kiara grinned and sniffed meekly. “Thank you, Xavier… Ugh, I’m such a mess. A Guardian who can’t even handle one threatening letter.”
Xavier surprised her by wiping a tear off her cheek with his thumb. He was so perfect, staring down at her with all the affection in the world. “You should give yourself more credit.”
She rolled her eyes. “Credit for what?”
His stare abruptly turned passionate and he answered, “For being the most remarkable person I have ever met.”
And then he kissed her.
It was absolutely exhilarating. The emotion inside her was so sudden and intense that it was scorching – almost painfully so. She felt like she was floating in a sea of her own feelings and it drowned out everything else.
But before she could lose herself completely, he pulled away, taking a few steps back. His eyes were wide and innocent. So different than it had been a moment before.
“I- I…” He shook his head fervently. “I am sorry. I was not thinking. I did not intend to-’’
“You don’t have to apologise.”
He finally looked at her and the sadness in those sapphires made her heart drop. “Kiara, I am so sorry, but this cannot happen between us. I am your teacher. You must understand how inappropriate this is. I am a rule-abiding person and I simply cannot be involved in a relationship with one of my students… I am sorry.”
Then he left. He just walked out of the training hall without another word.
And Kiara felt like digging a hole in the earth and disappearing into it. She decided to go back to her room instead.
Kiara’s eyes shot open. It was the middle of the night and every inch of her body was covered in sweat.
Oh no. No. No. No!
She could hear her breathing quicken, crossing over into hyperventilation. And then her heart went racing, her chest experiencing severe pain – it always felt like having a heart-attack.
It was then that the hot flashes kicked in, running up and down her spine like devouring insects.
Calm down. You are not having a heart-attack. You are not dying. You are alright.
She tried to stabilise her breathing, but failed as her anxiety increased.
She stood up and stumbled to her cupboard, looking for the pouch her mother had packed.
Finally managing to grab it with her trembling hands, she dumped the contents on her bed. She ran her fingers over the pill boxes, searching for the medication that would make it stop.
But she couldn’t find it.
And her heart rate continued to increase rapidly. The symptoms were worsening.
She decided to switch on her bedside light. Tania groaned. “What the – Kiara, what’s wrong?”
She barely noticed as she scanned the dozens of bottles and boxes, still not finding what she was looking for.
“No. No. No. No! No!” She started flinging some of the packages onto the floor, turning frantic.
Tania staggered out of bed. “What’s going on?”
“I have to find my medicine. I need my medicine!” Her entire body was shaking and nausea gripped her.
She gave a sob and buried her face in her hands. “She packed headache tablets, but not my pills.” Her sobs turned into jagged gusts and sighs, making her dizzy.
She was startled out of her state by Tania’s hands on her shoulders. “What pills?”
Kiara took a shaky breath. “Benzodiazepines.”
“Okay… And what is it for?”
She finally looked at her roommate, her trembling slowly subsiding. “I have… I have panic disorder.”
Tania moved around the bed to take Kiara’s hand. “Come lie down…” Seeing the mess on Kiara’s mattress, she added, “…in my bed.”
She led Kiara there and let her lie down. Tania switched off the light, lied down and put an arm around Kiara. “Everything is alright. You can go back to sleep. Everything’s fine.”
Kiara felt her heartbeat return to normal and almost laughed with relief. “I get these panic attacks…”
Tania nodded. “It’s okay.”
Kiara’s breathing slowed and a sudden calm flooded over her. “I have a chemical imbalance…” She didn’t finish. Her eyes closed and she drifted back into sleep.
“Miss Kent, we’ve established that Kiara is suffering from panic disorder, which means that she experiences recurrent attacks. The disorder is very rare in children as young as Kiara. There are two causes: psychological disorder and chemical imbalance. In this case, it is the latter. We have been unable to determine why she has this imbalance, though. As treatment, I recommend cognitive behavioural therapy. If that does not bring relief, I can prescribe some benzodiazepines to be taken in case of an attack.”
The middle-aged, spectacled doctor’s hands were folded on his desk and he looked at Virginia with a fake expression of pity.
Virginia nodded, a single tear rolling down her cheek. She knew the reason for the chemical imbalance in Kiara’s brain…
It’s all my fault.