Kiara smiled at her reflection. Taking three hours to get ready had definitely paid off.
Her dark brown curls were pinned up in a messy ponytail and her make-up was done to perfection, silver-green eyes complemented by smoky eye-shadow and lips covered in light pink gloss. Her crimson suede stilettoes matched her handbag and dainty earrings flawlessly. Her tanned body was accentuated by a skin-tight black dress that ended just above her knees and had lace detailing at the back.
Tania stepped into the image and grinned. “Wow, you look great. I could just as well stay home.”
“Are you kidding? Tania, with that outfit, all the guys in that place will be looking at you all night.”
Her roommate did look amazing.
Tania’s blonde hair was braided into a long fishtail, pulled back to expose her gorgeous face. Her grey-blue eyes were subtly outlined with eyeliner and her lips were painted red. She was wearing a striking scarlet mini dress that hugged her chest, but flared out at her waist. Her black heels made her legs look great.
Tania winked playfully. “That’s what I was going for.” Seeing Kiara’s cocked eyebrow, she explained, “Tonight is the night I get over Paul. No more sulking around. I’m beautiful and I’m funny and any guy would be lucky to have me. So I’m going to party until I pass out and I’m going to meet the boy of my dreams.”
Every second Friday, the male and female Guardians gathered at Congregata, holding a giant party. And tonight was that Friday night.
Kiara nodded. “Well, I wouldn’t mind finding my perfect guy either.”
“What about Xavier?”
Kiara turned away from the mirror, heels click-clacking on the wooden floor. “Xavier’s great and I really like him, but any chance of us being together was ruined that night in the training hall. I mean, he’s been avoiding me for an entire week. I keep hoping… And I probably won’t pursue another relationship, but it would be nice to meet someone who can take my mind off Xavier Carlisle.”
Tania hooked an arm around one of Kiara’s. “Well, ladies, you better hold onto your men tonight!”
They giggled as they pranced out of the room.
Congregata was spectacular.
The walls were made of clay, the ceiling of glass, and the room was about the size of a stadium. Dozens of UV and disco lights cast the room into brilliant fluorescence, creating a surreal atmosphere of fantasy. Tables bearing refreshments were spread out beside the dance floor.
Dance music with booming bass elements blared through the speakers that occupied every corner and hundreds of young bodies moved to the beat, showing no signs of tiring.
After a busy night of dancing and socializing, Tania needed a break. So she grabbed a plastic cup filled with ice tea off a nearby table and headed to one of the red chairs that lined the walls.
She sat down and sipped her drink, studying her peers with interest. She enjoyed watching them, seeing who was talking to or making out with whom.
Suddenly, someone plopped down on the seat next to her. It was a boy.
What am I saying?
It was a man.
He was tall and very powerfully built, wearing a pair of dark jeans and a navy blue t-shirt. She couldn’t help but notice his olive-skinned arms and the way the muscles in them rippled with every movement. He had a wide-bridged nose, high cheekbones, a dominant lower lip and low-set eyebrows. His hair was such a dark shade of brown that it could easily be mistaken for black. It grazed the collar of his t-shirt and a side-fringe half-obscured his left eye.
Those eyes were unlike anything Tania had ever seen. To anyone else, they probably wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but to her his eyes were extraordinary.
Irresistibly long lashes framed them and the irises were the same colour as his hair, so uniquely dark that they almost blended with the pupils. But in those eyes, Tania could read an entire story – a story filled with suffering and hidden fear. Yes, the person sitting next to her was not just a boy.
It was Aaron Rose.
She smiled at him. “Hi, Aaron.”
He nodded. “Tania.”
Holy cow, he has a British accent! She felt her knees buckle at the thought, but managed to pull herself together.
They had never formally met, but this mere exchange of names seemed to be enough of an introduction for them.
“So, are you enjoying the evening?” she inquired politely.
He sat back in his chair and she was forced to admit that he had an amazing body. “It’s not really my scene, but you, on the other hand, seem to have been born for mingling.”
She giggled and leaned towards him. “Can I tell you a secret?” Taking his shrug as a yes, she whispered, “I hate all of these people.”
He grinned without revealing teeth. “What about Chinese Arnold Schwarzenegger?”
He motioned towards an Asian teenager who’d clearly had one too many protein shakes.
Tania shook her head. “He’s actually a klepto.”
“Alright. And frat-boy over there?”
“Fairly predictable; he banged half my classmates.”
“Ginger Paris Hilton?”
“Can’t wield a weapon to save her life.”
Aaron chuckled and she loved the sound of it – loved that she could ease some of the pain in his eyes, even if it was only for a second. “Wow, you really do know everything about everyone, don’t you?”
She shrugged and downed the last of her ice tea. “I merely observe what people put on display. If you really know how to hide your secrets…” She paused to look directly into those eyes. “… I won’t discover them.”
He stared at her for a moment, and then swiftly turned his head away. “What bout Eva Longoria?”
Tania looked up to see to whom he was referring and almost laughed. “That’s Kiara. She’s actually my best friend.”
He turned to face her. “So you don’t hate everyone, then?”
“Of course I don’t hate everyone. I like you, don’t I?”
A smile played on his lips and an expression of happiness flitted across his dark eyes.
Kiara was alone and, frankly, bored to tears. Tania had introduced her to almost everyone in the room and forced her to make small talk. It had been agonising. And now Tania was at the other side of the room, talking to someone who could’ve been Taylor Lautner’s bulkier brother, all thoughts of her roommate forgotten.
So Kiara made her way to one of the tables to pour herself a cup of water. Then she noticed the girl next to her extract a tiny bottle of vodka from her pink leather handbag.
The redhead looked around to see if anyone was watching. Kiara quickly averted her gaze, but focused on the girl again a few moments later.
She’d screwed the lid off and was about to tip the bottle’s contents into her orange juice, when a firm hand closed over hers. A strong, yet benevolent male voice sounded from behind. “Hi, Savanna.”
The girl smiled in an overtly friendly way. “Riley… Hey, how’s it going?”
“Good thanks. I see you brought along an uninvited friend.”
Savanna giggled. “What’s a good party without some Smirnoff, right?”
He took the bottle out of her hand, screwed the lid back on and dumped it into the trash bin at the end of the table. “No alcohol allowed, Sav.”
She sighed, but didn’t look angry at all. “I know. Headboy on duty, eh?”
He mocked a salute. ‘Yes, ma’am.”
They laughed and Savanna sauntered off. Kiara finally took the chance to really look at this Riley.
And it nearly took her breath away. Here was her perfect picture of Dorian Gray impersonated. He was tall and built like an athlete, with the flawless beige skin of a Calvin Klein model. He had a slim nose, plump lips with a natural upward curve and honey-coloured eyes that held an expression so kind she felt a strange warmth coursing through her. His dark blonde hair was styled into the most perfect quiff she had ever seen, but still had that attractive out-of-bed quality.
But the feature that made her heart give a little leap was the beautiful dimples that graced his cheeks.
He was absolutely gorgeous.
What do they feed the guys on this island?
“Headboy? I didn’t even know they had that here.”
Riley grinned, revealing a smile so bright it could light up a room. “They don’t. I’m not really the head boy; it’s just a nickname. Can’t figure out whether I should take it as a compliment or an insult, though…” He chuckled and it was so genuinely gleeful that she had to join in.
“Why did you confiscate Savanna’s vodka, then?”
“Oh, I volunteered to keep an eye on the students.”
Her heart dropped. “You’re a teacher too?”
“No, I’m not a teacher. I’m seventeen and I volunteered because I want to be headmaster one day.” Kiara rolled her eyes without noticing it. “And that face?” He was frowning and it somehow looked wrong. Riley’s face was made for smiling.
“I just can’t imagine why anyone would like to be headmaster.”
He shrugged his strong shoulders. “Well, you get to rule over the Guardians even though you’re not one anymore.”
“Yeah, but isn’t that kind of dangerous? I mean, they could turn on you and you’d be defenceless…”
He laughed and she felt an odd flutter in her stomach. “I like your view on politics.”
She grinned. “Most people do.” Then she held out a hand. “I’m Kiara, by the way.”
He shook her hand gently, his skin calloused against hers. “Riley Stern. Pleased to meet you. So, when did you get to Insulam, Kiara?”
“I came in from Manhattan two weeks ago.”
He beamed, his dimples casting his face into perfection. “It’s always nice to encounter a fellow American. I’m from Beverly Hills.”
She smirked. “You get associated with TV shows too?”
He pursed his lips together and nodded. “I get 90210 a lot.”
They chuckled and Kiara felt her heart warm up. Even though they’d just met, conversation with Riley was effortless.
“This is going to sound weird, but you’re the nicest person I’ve met all night.”
He grinned. “Thank you. I’d say the same thing, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t have the same effect, since you’re the only person I’ve met tonight.”
She shrugged. “I’m going to accept the compliment nonetheless.”
The music suddenly switched to a slow song and he held out a slender hand. “Might I have this dance?”
Kiara curtsied playfully. “You may.”
He led her to the dance floor like a proper gentleman, then placed one arm around her waist and used the other hand to take hers.
Their fingers were intertwined and Kiara felt like she was floating; everywhere they touched, her skin tingled with delight.
They swayed in perfect synchronisation without talking. The silence seemed to convey everything they wanted to say.
Riley didn’t know what time it was, what day it was, what year it was. All he knew was that his heart was beating a million miles a minute and that he was dancing with the most extraordinary girl in the world.
Kiara’s head was leaning against his chest, silver-green eyes closed and dark curls escaping from her ponytail, and her hand was warm and trusting in his.
He rested a cheek on the top of her head and grinned. He’d never felt so much affection toward someone he’d known for such a short period of time.
He wanted to dance with her forever, wanted to make her laugh and wanted to protect her from ever getting hurt.
All Riley knew was that he was in heaven.
And then the music stopped and Nathan Houghs’s voice called, “Party’s over, kids. Please get to your assigned exit. Girls to the portal at the east side. Boys to the west.”
Kiara looked up at Riley and the dazed expression on her stunning face assured him that she had been in heaven right along with him.
She turned her head to where the girls were already gathering. “I have to go.” The sadness in her voice was evident.
Before she could leave, he wrapped both arms around her waist in an embrace. Her hands came up around his neck. “I don’t want you to.”
She took a small step back and smiled. “I’m still on the Island. We can talk on the letter pad.” Then she pressed her lips against his cheek. “Goodbye, Riley.”
The skin where she’d kissed him was warm and he beamed at the feeling. Just before going through the portal, she turned to wave at him.
He waved back and then headed to the west side of the room.
Tania and Kiara were both spread out on their separate beds, reflecting on the night’s events. “So, who was that guy you were sitting with all night?” Kiara asked.
Tania beamed, her grey-blue eyes lighting up. “That was Aaron.”
“You seemed to like him.”
“Well, that’s the understatement of the century.” She clutched a pillow to her chest dramatically. “Oh, Kiara, he looks like he should be on the cover of Men’s Health. And he’s such a good guy too. We just talked and talked and never got bored. He’s interested in my opinion and has intelligent views of his own… But let’s talk about you. You and Riley were getting quite cosy.”
Kiara couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “When we were dancing, it was like we were the only two people in the world. The feelings I had tonight were so unexpected, yet so… meant to be. It’s difficult to explain.”
“It’s okay. I get it. It’s good that you’re not hung up on the whole Xavier-thing.”
Suddenly, Kiara’s eyes widened. “Xavier… Oh fudgecakes, I completely forgot about him.”
“Why are you so upset? I thought this was what you wanted.”
“Because I’m still hoping that Xavier and I can be together. And now I led Riley on and I didn’t mean to.”
Tania giggled. “Oh, I think you did. You just admitted it was ‘meant to be’.”
Kiara sat up to look at Tania and raised her voice. “Since when are you so against Xavier?”
“I’m not against him. Riley is just much better for you. Trust me, you rarely find a guy with Abercrombie and Fitch looks and the disposition of a Golden Retriever.”
Kiara found herself grinning again. “He is nice, isn’t- No! I am not going to play them off against each other. This is not a love triangle. Riley and I are friends; I’m falling for Xavier. And that’s all there is to it.”
“Whatever gets you a good night’s rest, darling.”
“Yeah, the thought of Estries scared me at the beginning too. But once you face a supernatural in battle, you realise how capable we are of defending humanity against them. We wouldn’t have been charged with that responsibility if it were otherwise,” Tania explained, nude-coloured heels clicking on the linoleum floor.
She and Kiara were strolling through the College’s corridors, on their way from History to Physical Training.
“Well, the last time I ‘faced’ a supernatural, I hit it over the head with a vase,” Kiara retorted. Tania chuckled and she joined in almost straight away.
Suddenly, the intercom beeped and the headmaster’s voice filled the hallway, “Savanna Wilkens, Trish McCartney, Tania Houghs and Kiara Westwin, please report to my office immediately.”
Kiara scowled. “What’s that about?”
Tania beamed from ear to ear and grabbed her roommate by the wrist. “That, my friend, is how you get summoned for a mission.” And then she hauled Kiara to the nearest elevator.
When they reached Headmaster Houghs’s office, the other girls were already there.
Savanna was leaning against a bookcase, red hair untied and dark green eyes uninterested. Trish’s hazel eyes, on the other hand, were as alert as a soldier’s, her pitch-black hair braided.
Nathan Houghs was seated behind his mahogany desk, expression calm and fear-inspiring as always. His strong hands were folded in front of him and his cold eyes studied the girls intently.
“Good morning, girls.”
“Good morning, Headmaster Houghs,” the four of them chorused.
Nathan took a brown file out of one of the desk’s drawers and handed it to Trish, who flipped it open instantly. “Miss McCartney, you are in charge of this mission. We have located a witch who broke away from the coven. It’s considerably easier to take care of them when they are alone. She goes by the name Sophia Keltin; there is a photo included in the file. We have been able to trace her and her current location is somewhere in the V&A Waterfront shopping centre in Cape Town, South Africa. You will use the portal to go to one of the restrooms, where you will not be seen. You know the procedure from there. Miss Westwin, you are only a trainee on this mission and must therefore try to avoid direct combat. Tania, she is your responsibility. Get suited and leave as soon as possible.”
It was ten o’ clock on a Monday morning and the Waterfront was completely abandoned. All the lights were out and the exits locked. The shops were open, but there were no employees or customers present.
Tania halted in the hallway and shook her head. “Guys, this isn’t right. I’ve been here a hundred times and this place has never been empty. There’s something strange going on.”
“So, let’s find that witch and get out of here,” was Trish’s answer.
But Tania couldn’t manage to put her trepidations aside. This was a trap. She was sure of it.
And then she felt the hairs on her arms and neck stand up and her skin prickle. Her stomach was in a knot and her blood pounded in her ears.
Her fears were affirmed when Kiara said, “We might not be able to get out that easily.”
Then Tania saw them,
In the shadows of the stores surrounding them, dark figures were lurking. Their eyes were glowing and their fangs were out.
She gulped. “Kiara, why are all of them looking at you?”
“They must be working for whoever sent that letter,” Kiara replied in a whisper.
Savanna had already lowered into a crouch and was snarling. “There are four of us and five of them. I’ll take two.”
“Whoa there, soldier. We aren’t equipped to fight vampires. We didn’t bring any hawthorn stakes.” This came from Trish.
Tania’s eyes flicked around and an idea started to form in her mind. “Would regular wooden staked help?”
“It won’t kill them, but it’ll put them out of the fight long enough for us to escape,” Trish said.
Tania nodded. The vampires attacked.
A blonde-haired, red-eyed bloodsucker was on Tania in an instant. He grabbed hold of her wrist and tried to haul her body closer to his.
He’s fought Guardians before. He’s trying to get to my heart, because he knows it’s the only way to hurt me.
But he wasn’t going to succeed. Tania swung her left leg around to kick the vampire in the stomach. The force was enough to push him away.
Then she noticed sunlight pouring through a window in the shop behind her attacker. She snatched a dagger from the belt at her hips and hurled it at the bloodsucker’s chest.
He chuckled cruelly. “Steel won’t hurt my flesh.”
Tania grinned. “Wasn’t aiming for your flesh.”
His shirt was now slashed open, exposing his heart. She clenched her teeth together and shoved him into the shaft of light.
The vampire let out a painful scream, smoke rose from his skin and he turned to ash.
Tania rushed into the clothing store that spread out in front of her and started gathering wooden hangers. When she had a few, she put them on the shop’s counter and started sharpening both ends of each hanger with her dagger.
And then she heard something behind her. The faintest movement. She spun around, knife in hand, found nothing but an empty store.
So she turned back to the makeshift stakes and continued working, until something crashed and a clothing rack flew into her, pinning her to the counter. It was heavy and the wheels had been removed; she was trapped.
Her attacker finally made an appearance, ducking out from behind a mannequin. He was tall and bony, like a skeleton, and his skin was sallow. He grinned wickedly. “Time to suck you dry, little Guardian.”
Tania wriggled to get loose, but there was no escape. And the bloodsucker was coming closer. Until he was right next to her, caressing her cheek with a crooked finger. Disgust welled up in her.
Then, as his face disappeared into her neck, she reached back, fingers travelling across the marble counter behind her. His nose grazed her skin and she shivered. “Your blood is pumping so severely. Tell me; are you that happy to see me?”
She finally found what she was scrabbling for and grinned. “Oh, I’m elated.” Her hand closed around one of the sharpened hangers and she slammed it through the vampire’s back, severing his spine and tearing his heart apart.
He fell to the ground, the weight of his body shifting the clothing rack just enough for her to escape.
Tania took a steadying breath, grabbed the stakes and headed back to the fight.
Savanna had also used the sun to dispose of one of her attackers and was savagely ducking the other’s blows.
Trish was slicing out with her sword, hacking into a vampire at a speed faster than he could heal.
And then there was Kiara. She was struggling with great vigour, but a bloodsucker was dragging her to the nearest exit.
They’re trying to kidnap her.
In a sudden surge of adrenaline, Kiara kicked out and managed to dislodge the vampire’s hold on her arm. Then she yelled, “Tania, give me a stake.”
Tania obeyed and threw two sharpened hangers in Kiara’s direction. The attackers’ eyes widened when her brunette roommate caught both of them, grinned cruelly and drove one through his heart.
It didn’t kill him, but he lost consciousness and collapsed onto the tiled floor.
Kiara flung the other stake with absolute precision and it struck Trish’s vampire in the chest, putting him out of the fight.
It didn’t take Tania long to take care of the final assailant.
Kiara’s face was set in glorious determination and brutality. She looked like the warrior she was.
Tania approached her. “Well, aren’t you a little badass?”
The other girl was still panting. “Thanks for the stakes.”
She shrugged. “I’m responsible for you, aren’t I? What happened to avoiding combat?”
Kiara grinned. “He said that I should ‘try to avoid direct combat’. I tried. Didn’t quite work for me.”
The unconscious vampires’ shirts had been sliced open and the girls were dragging them into spots of sunlight, where they could join their comrades as ash.
When the last one was disposed of, Kiara wiped a hand across her forehead. “Shouldn’t we have determined their identity somehow?”
Savanna shrugged, red hair framing her feline-like features, “Why? No one cares who they were.”
“They used to be people.
Then Kiara heard a soft whimpering sound coming from the shop behind her. She turned around and frowned. It was a grocery store and it appeared to be deserted.
Trish came up next to her, wicked grin on her angelic face. “I bet that’s our witch.”
All four of them pulled out their lighters simultaneously and made their way into the supermarket. The store had dozens of outward-facing windows that lit it up brilliantly.
They split up to search different aisles and Kiara ended up between shelves of dog food. At the end of the corridor, she was confronted by a glass display case with a mini bakery at the other side of it.
Everything was quiet, but Kiara was convinced that she heard a sound nearby. And then she realised what.
Breathing – the harsh exhalations of anxiety.
Someone must be hiding behind the display case.
“I found her,” Kiara shouted and the other girls were next to her in an instant, crouching and ready for action.
The person behind the case had shot up and was pressed against the far wall of the bakery, only a few steps from where the four Guardians were standing.
Kiara let her lighter drop the floor and exhaled sharply. She felt sick to her stomach.
It was a girl. Her white sneakers were tattered and stained, her jeans’ seams frayed. She had straight black hair with dyed blonde tips, caramel-coloured skin and light green eyes with slanted pupils.
And she could not have been older than thirteen.
Trish stepped forward and it induced extreme panic in the girl. She let out a sob and tears started to roll down her cheeks. “Are you Sophia Keltin?”
The girl nodded, her face transformed with fear. “Yes. Yes. Please don’t hurt me. I’ll do anything. Please.”
Savanna flipped open her lighter’s lid and a dancing flame appeared. “Time to go back where you came from, witch.”
Sophia cried out and shook her head fervently. “No. Please! Please, don’t.”
Savanna took a step forward, but Kiara grabbed hold of her arm. “Come on, Savanna; you can’t kill her.”
“And why is that?”
Kiara scowled incredulously. “Look at her. She’s just a girl. She isn’t hurting anyone.”
The redhead yanked her arm out of Kiara’s grip. “Why are you arguing with me on this? You just slaughtered a bunch of vampires.”
“They were attacking me.”
Savanna bared her teeth. “And if you let this one go, it will come back to attack you later. These creatures are demonic filth that needs to be exterminated.”
Before anything could be done to stop it, Savanna threw her flaming lighter at the terrified girl. Sophia’s blood-curdling screams filled the air as she was burned alive. Kiara gasped in horror and buried her face in her hands to sob.
When the screams finally died down, Kiara spun to face Savanna. “How could you do that?” Her voice came out in a hysterical yell.
“It’s what we do. If you don’t have the stomach for it, you should go back to Manhattan.”
Kiara was disgusted. Nothing but a pile of ash was left as proof of Sophia’s existence.
Tania bowed her head and whispered, “Nos sunt semper contra malum.”
Kiara sniffed a few times and then wiped away her tears.
“So, you’re just going to leave now?”
Naru was sitting at the other side of the red table. The café was small and unknown – the perfect place for a secret meeting. He was wearing a leather jacket and his black hair was standing in a million different directions.
Virginia shrugged, trying to supress her sorrow. “What else can I do?”
He looked down, the pain clear in his every movement. “You know what you can do.”
She slammed her fist down on the table. “I’m sick of people blaming me. My exile is entirely the Meeting’s fault, not mine.”
He slid a gentle hand over hers. “You know I’ll never be able to judge you, Ginia… I’m just really going to miss you.”
“We can still see each other every now and then.”
Naru pulled his hand back and sighed. “You know that’s impossible.”
“You’re the only friend I have left.”
“What about Nathan?”
She shook her head. “We both know Nathan turned his back on me a long time ago. I just hope that you never do the same.”
“Virginia, even though we are saying goodbye, I want you to know that you will always be my best friend.”