Southbrook Academy Book 1: Valen

By KJ Southworth All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Romance

Retreat

When they finally arrived at their hotel, Sedge’s group of friends was waiting for him. The last four hours had passed in silence, and it was clear he was eager for conversation.

Without saying goodbye, he greeted them all with happy embraces. Valen sulked as they basked in their easy camaraderie with animated expressions and artless grins. They were so excited to be with each other. She had never witnessed Sedge’s cheerful side, and her insides twisted with regret.

Considering how rude she’d been to him, she was surprised he’d escorted her to the hotel. She knew how unpleasant she was being, but had been unable to contain her disapproving glares and dissatisfied grunts. Although she hated to admit it, it was because she felt so vulnerable around him. Being a frigid bitch was her only way of building a wall between him and her rebellious emotions.

To make matters worse, he had been a complete gentlemen the entire trip. He had offered to share his snacks, helped her with her bag, made sure she was comfortable, and given her a window seat. Groaning inwardly, Valen looked back on her behavior and likened herself to a pouting child. She was mortified; how could she have acted that way after what he had done?

The noisy bunch pulled him into the building. None of them bothered with Valen, which was just as well; they were a wild crowd. The only one she ever spoke to was Ophelia Nguyen, who once asked for a piece of gum at a pep rally. She was the president of both the math and the physics clubs. Valen was a member of both, though she doubted Ophelia noticed.

Grabbing her bag, she entered the hotel through the revolving door.

It was everything she and Ivan had dreamed.

The large foyer was decorated in a traditional style, with gleaming dark hardwood and antique furniture that looked expensive and impossibly comfortable. A sweeping staircase beckoned from her right; to her left, a wood fire burned in an oversized and ornately decorated fireplace. Behind the concierge desk, a sizeable window offered a pristine view of Emerald Parklands.

The hotel was tucked away in a sprawling nature reserve. The management had agreed to let hundreds of high school students meet here because the leadership retreat was a prestigious event.

Before she could stop herself, her mind wandered back to Ivan in the hospital. He would have whooped with excitement when he saw the inside of the hotel. Valen, however, could barely muster any delight. She’d been looking forward to the trip since tenth grade; it was supposed to be a grand adventure, an opportunity like no other.

But without Ivan to share it with, the experience felt empty.

Mrs. Talbot and Mr. Lee were conversing at the concierge desk. Doing her best to mask her melancholy, Valen walked over and apologized for being late. Neither of them seemed worried about her tardiness, though Mrs. Talbot was disappointed she’d missed the orientation.

“The other kids already chose their schedules.” She gave her student an apologetic look. “You’ll have to take whatever is left.”

Valen nodded and took the offered booklet from Mr. Lee. She perused the contents and nearly cried when she saw that the rumours had been true: a NASA engineer would be appearing as guest speaker.

Mrs. Talbot had drawn red lines through the presentations and activities that were full. There wasn’t much left. In the end, Valen chose a full-day hike through the wilderness for her first activity, a trust-building workshop for her second, and two random presentations that were still open. During the times when she didn’t have something scheduled, she was expected to report to her assigned group, a match-up of students from other schools. According to the timetable in her agenda, they had already met an hour ago. The rest of the afternoon was free until dinner. Every evening, students could choose to relax or join the coordinators for a night tour of the hotel grounds.

Valen already knew she would be hiding in her room at that time. There was no need to read the description of the historic haunted trails the students could explore.

Mumbling her thanks to the teachers, she accepted her room key and made her way to the elevators. She had a feeling the retreat was going to be a far cry from what she originally anticipated.


For the next three days, Valen kept to herself as much as possible. Her roommates were two lively girls—Victoria and Anabelle—from a celebrated prep school in the south, and, oddly enough, Ophelia Nguyen. The room had two queen beds, so Ophelia and Valen shared one.

Valen couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to participate in gossip, so she was quickly labeled an introvert. The others left her alone. All three of them participated in almost every bonus activity and snuck out at night. Although it was not their intention, their boundless energy and riotous conversations made Valen feel like an outcast.

Instead of feeling lonely, she was relieved whenever they left the room.

She felt much the same in her assigned group. Her low spirits made her taciturn. A few of the other members attempted to coax her out of her shell, but Valen’s peculiar lack of confidence only allowed for short, awkward conversations. Whenever she was able to leave, she found herself exploring the opulent hallways of the hotel or wandering the well-worn hiking trails. Too many times she indulged fantasies of having made this journey with Ivan.

She’d thought she wanted to attend the retreat to bolster her college applications; the truth was, she had wanted to make a lasting memory with her best friend. Never in a million years would Valen have thought herself capable of such sentimentality; it wasn’t an unwelcome insight, but it certainly didn’t help her attain her goals.

Everywhere she went, she saw people walking in groups. They were all leaning on each other, laughing or whispering, trading secrets and sharing their stories. Valen had wanted to be here with Ivan so her high school years would feel a little more real.

Instead, she looked back on them as an impossible blur of assignments, extracurricular activities she didn’t particularly enjoy, tests, and charcoal uniforms. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was missing something that went beyond escaping an insignificant life. Even the activities and workshops at the retreat felt insubstantial.

At the very least, she seemed to have escaped the mysterious tremors. There had only been the two occurrences in the café, and she was relieved they hadn’t followed her. With any luck, she would forget they had ever happened.

Every so often, while she roamed, she would spy Sedge enjoying the retreat. He was always surrounded with friends, new and old. She wanted to apologize for being so rude, but finding an opportunity proved impossible. On the final night, however, Ophelia surprised her with an invitation to the night tour of the hotel grounds.

“Mrs. Talbot is worried about you,” she admitted. Ophelia gave the shoelaces of her hiking boots a final tug before tying them. “Since getting here, you’ve done the bare minimum, which isn’t like you. You’re usually so bold and outspoken.”

“I’ve been sick,” Valen murmured, wincing at how petulant she sounded.

“Since when has that ever stopped you?” Ophelia tossed her long, black, shiny hair over one shoulder and braided it. “Even when you were on death’s door you made it to every Physics and Math Club meeting--except for the social events, of course.”

Valen ignored Ophelia’s acerbic tone. She was far more intrigued by Mrs. Talbot’s concern and Ophelia’s observance to club attendance. Burying her head under a pillow, she relished the expensive, silky material against her face.

“Why does everyone suddenly care so much?”

I don’t care if you come on the tour,” Ophelia said. Pulling on a warm vest and colourful toque, she checked her ensemble in the full-body mirror. She looked both gorgeous and capable, which was exactly what she was. “You’re responsible for yourself. But you’re also the best academic competition I have at school, and I don’t want to lose that moving forward. My grades will suffer if you give up now. When Ivan got sick, you lost your best source of support. It wasn’t until now that I realized his illness might affect me as well. So, if I have to step in to make sure you don’t give up, I’ll do it.”

A little shocked at Ophelia’s self-serving--and oddly stirring--speech, Valen felt her courage ignite. Sitting up on the bed, she gave her roommate an appraising look. Ophelia crossed her arms over her chest; she seemed to be daring Valen to reject her proposal to become frenemies.

“It’s not much of a challenge--having better grades than you, I mean.” Although she was nervous taking this tactic, Valen managed to sound both impertinent and mischievous. It was a test to see if Ophelia was serious. “You play too much.”

“You’re not the only one with ambition, local yokel. I’m seventh overall and rising.” A smile of admiration for her new friend spread over Ophelia’s face. She sat down across from Valen and put her elbows on her knees. “I have my personal rivalry with you to thank for that.”

Invigorated, Valen smiled back. “I guess I’m coming on the tour.”


Even before the tour began, Valen knew she had made the right choice. The bracing night air heightened her senses. Millions of stars twinkled in the clear sky, creating a dazzling display she would remember long after the retreat.

A few of Ophelia’s friends from Southbrook Academy, including Sedge, were waiting for them. Hesitantly, Valen greeted Fabiola Cruz, the Southbrook Informer’s news editor. She was a small, curvaceous girl with long, curly hair always piled on top of her head in a haphazard bun. Her deep brown eyes sparkled with curiosity as she studied Valen’s bashful expression.

Although Fabiola was obviously surprised to see Valen, David Tavana, president of the geology club, greeted her with a warm smile as he offered his hand in friendship. Valen felt all her usual apprehensions melt away as the lanky youth smiled at her wholeheartedly. By all accounts a brilliant pianist, he’d already performed in two concerts this year. She hadn’t made time to attend. Ivan had gone to both and berated her for missing them.

“Always happy to meet a future high-powered lawyer,” David said. “I may be in need of your services soon, so hurry up and graduate from law school.”

Valen giggled. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to study after high school.”

“What?” He offered her a mock gasp of dismay. “It has to be law! I need to make a friend who can get me out of all the trouble I want to get into. Pheelee is no help, she has her heart set on medical school; and Fab is moving to Iceland after graduation. Don’t even bother looking at Sedge; he’s an underachiever.”

At the mention of Sedge, Valen’s gaze dropped. She was so embarrassed with her previous behavior that she didn’t know how to look him in the eyes. Unfortunately, she was afraid her inability to greet him made it look like she disliked him.

“I’ll figure myself out eventually,” Sedge offered, saving the group from awkward silence. “You need motivation to work hard.”

“And you can always join your mom’s company,” David joked, giving Sedge a good-natured shove. “If only we all had that kind of economic safety net.”

The four friends laughed at what was obviously a long-standing joke. Fabiola flashed David an impish grin. “Hmm…if only we all had exceptional musical talent to pave our way to success.”

“If only we all had a family that owns three airlines so we can fly anywhere in the world.” Sedge bestowed the same teasing look on Fabiola that he’d given Valen back at the café. “Where was that place you’ve never been again? Oh right: Norilsk.”

Fabiola stuck out her tongue at Sedge. “Well, if only we all had the freedom to attend any school in the world no matter how little we enjoy learning.”

“If only we all had a grandmother who plays tennis with European royalty,” David shot at Ophelia.

But Ophelia didn’t immediately join the familiar game. Instead, she studied Valen, who was watching the playful banter with open curiosity. After a moment, she interlocked her arm with Valen’s.

“If only we all had an indomitable spirit so we could achieve anything our hearts desire.”

Stunned, Valen held Ophelia’s earnest stare. It was the most amazing compliment she had ever received. She had always seen herself as unexciting, a dull workaholic with little to offer other people. To hear otherwise made her feel so exceptional.

Even with the chilly night air, her face turned bright red.

“Great job, Pheelee, you’ve ruined the game. No one is ever going to top that,” David laughed, pulling on a pair of fleece-lined leather gloves. “It’s colder tonight, isn’t it? Feels too cold to be spring.”

The others agreed, putting on their own gloves and turning up their collars. Shaking off her embarrassment, Valen pulled on the toque her late grandmother had knit. It was falling apart, but she was never going to throw it away.

Thirty-two other students had also chosen to attend the tour. A chilly wind nipped at exposed skin, making some of them grumble and shiver.

The guides, realizing the weather might turn, hastily split the students into three groups of eleven. The paths they would be taking through the forest were well-lit, but the atmosphere was far spookier with fewer people. With an old abandoned mansion set as their destination, each guide would take a group on a different trail.

A slim young woman carrying a flashlight beckoned to Valen’s tour group. They followed her down a winding dirt path.

“Our trail is the longest. We should try to move quickly,” she said.

Immediately, she launched into a tale of a young boy who went missing the same day the hotel opened its doors to customers. “Though everyone searched high and low for him, he was never found. Some people walking down this particular trail claimed they saw a child in olden-day clothing. He would always be crying and, when approached, he would turn and run into the trees. Those who followed found themselves at a dried up well.”

Valen felt a chill run up her spine as she listened to the story. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but the lights cast a pale, eerie glow on the trail. Every so often, she would hear something creaking in the forest.

It was enough to make the tamest imagination run wild.

A freckled girl dared to ask the question they were all thinking. “Did they... ever check the well for his body?”

The guide laughed ominously. “No matter how much people search, they can’t find it again. Only the boy’s ghost can take you there.”

Valen’s sensible nature kicked in—finally.

Immediately, she thought of how many different ways you could find a well in this part of the park. It was the most traveled area, with benches every mile. With the right tools and a basic knowledge of surveying, the right group could find it easily. Her fear melted away, and she smiled in relief.

As they continued on their journey, they came to a wooden bridge spanning a small creek. The guide stopped them in the middle of the arch before starting another frightening tale.

“About ten years after the hotel opened, there was a flood in the park. A mother with three young children got trapped on the other side of the creek. The ground suddenly gave way and she fell, screaming, to her death.” The guide gestured to the calm water trickling below. “Miraculously, her children were rescued. When the children were grown, however, a local medium told them their mother was waiting for them in the water. It was said that the two youngest drowned under mysterious circumstances, while the eldest refused to go near any liquid more than an inch deep. At this creek, if anyone watches the water too long, they will see her cold eyes staring back at them. Although he died decades ago, the mother’s spirit will not rest until she’s claimed her eldest child as well.”

Terrified but curious, a few of the students dared to peer over the bridge into the creek. Fabiola joined them, her eyes growing wider the longer she stared. David couldn’t help himself. He snuck up behind her and grabbed her around the wrists.

“She’s... got you!”

There was a collective scream.

All the students peering over the side of the bridge jumped. Even Valen, who had already crossed to the other side with Ophelia, felt a small jolt.

“I’m going to kill you, David!” Fabiola’s hand was pressed against her chest. She rolled her eyes skyward as her friend howled with laughter. “I thought I could see her!”

Everyone in the group laughed, and a few people took deep breaths to calm down. Sedge offered Fabiola a comforting hug, and she buried her head in his chest. Despite the chiding look he gave David, he was chuckling. With his arms wrapped around her shoulders, he escorted Fabiola to the other side of the bridge. David trotted along behind, muttering half-assed apologies with a smirk.

Ophelia playfully punched him in the arm. “You’re a sadist.”

“With masochistic friends,” he replied.

Trying to steady her own racing heart, Valen watched gloomily as Sedge offered Fabiola the support she needed. He truly was a gentleman.

In that moment, Valen decided to redouble her efforts to apologize. He was a warm person, someone easy to like and to trust. It was no wonder she had felt comfortable enough to confide in him. With a self-reproaching sigh, Valen knew she had to do it tonight. She didn’t want to risk losing her nerve and never being able to look him in the eye again.

If she wanted to be his friend, she couldn’t let that happen.

As they continued on the tour, Fabiola eventually forgave David. As the guide told other eerie stories, she clung to him instead of Sedge, whispering that she would break his valuable fingers if he tried to scare her again. By the time they reached the abandoned mansion, Fabiola looked ready to faint.

“Why did I let you talk me into this,” she asked him.

“Fear is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” he said with a teasing wink. “Why else?”

Their guide looked toward the other trails that led to the mansion with a puzzled expression. After announcing they would wait a few minutes for the others, she encouraged everyone to move around to stay warm. The air had grown even colder. Thick, ominous clouds swallowed the night sky.

Looking up at what was left of the stars, Valen felt a strange foreboding grip her heart. She was not prone to flights of fancy, yet something wasn’t right. With an exasperated shake of her head, she tried to will the feeling away. She was not going to fall victim to irrational fears; not now, not ever.

It was then she noticed Sedge near the entrance of the house.

He was a few meters away from her and Ophelia, gazing at the turn-of-the-century mansion’s elaborately carved door with a wistful expression. The hotel staff had kept the house in good repair. It was illuminated with floodlights, which displayed three stories of Victorian charm and craftsmanship. It was a beautiful house. And yet, for some reason, Valen had a feeling that the interior had been slowly stripped away.

She intuitively believed it was a dismantled home; the rooms were empty and locked, with only the kitchen and the servants’ quarters used as living space. However, her thoughts were a complete contradiction to the guide’s knowledge; according to her, the mansion had been kept in pristine condition, including its furnishings. People often paid to stay in it for a few days.

Ignoring the odd sensation she had about this house, Valen turned her attention back to Sedge. He stood completely still. The emotions playing across his face were so clear to her, as though she could feel them herself. His face went from dreamy nostalgia to fierce remorse, and she felt he wanted to tear the building down with his own hands. Then his shoulders hunched, his mouth twisted in an intense frown.

An aching sorrow gripped Valen’s heart as she watched. Bewildered, she wrestled with the acute emotion, firmly locking it away.

“Come on.” Ophelia tugged at her elbow, guiding her toward another group of students who were telling their own ghost stories. “Sedge is best left alone when he starts staring at buildings like that. Let’s huddle with others for warmth.”

Valen hesitated. She had found her chance to apologize to Sedge. By some miracle, he was alone. Yes, he was staring angrily at a building--which, according to Ophelia, meant he desired privacy—but when would she be offered another opportunity?

Stomach churning, she chewed on her thumbnail. If there was ever a time to prove she was indomitable, this was it. Despite stressful exams, enervating classes and high-pressure extracurricular activities, apologizing to Sedge was the most nerve-wracking test she had ever faced. Taking a deep, fortifying breath, she stepped toward him.

In that same moment, Sedge also turned to her. Their gazes locked, and Valen felt that same pull, that same hypnotic familiarity, turning languid circles in her psyche. It was like slowly floating in a hot spring.

She tore her gaze from him. Losing her balance, she nearly crashed to the ground. Sedge reached out to help steady her, but she twisted away from his grasp.

“Don’t touch me,” she commanded, her voice descending into a growl.

The sound shocked them both.

Mortified, she dared not look at him. How could she have been so rude to him again? Everything turned into a disaster when she was alone with him. With a barely audible curse, she straightened her back and marched toward the huddled group, sliding in beside Ophelia. She did not dare look back at Sedge to see how he reacted to her odd behaviour. It was too hard to process this new misery; she had not only lost her chance to apologize, she had managed to drive a bigger wedge between them.

A blast of icy wind suddenly scathed the group. Everyone gasped, shrinking into their coats as they tried to keep warm. The trees swayed violently and the mansion’s bones creaked and moaned.

“Okay, I think we’re done waiting.” The guide covered her ears, bracing them from the cold. “Let’s get back to the hotel. Sorry, but we can’t complete the tour.”

The students applauded the decision; they gladly followed the guide down another path back to shelter. As they walked, heavy, wet snowflakes plunged to the ground, heralding an unpredicted spring storm. Blast upon blast of bitter gusts bombarded them from all sides.

“Hurry, if you would please!” The guide tried to mask her nerves with a calm demeanour. “I don’t think anyone is dressed for this.”

The lights on the path flickered. Fabiola yelped.

David wrapped a comforting arm around her. “Anyone else wish they could control the weather right now?”

“Something is really wrong.” Ophelia’s voice was filled with trepidation. The lights were going out for longer and longer intervals. “My phone powered down and won’t turn back on.”

“Same here,” Sedge said from behind them. David murmured that he had the same problem while Fabiola dug her phone from her pocket only to have it fail as well. Sedge’s soothing voice broke through his friend’s intensifying panic. “Let’s just keep moving. It isn’t a long walk back to the hotel.”

It was then Valen heard an eerie wail from the forest. Quaking at the unnerving sound, she grabbed Ophelia’s arm. Her new friend offered her a concerned smile before taking David by the elbow. Some of the other students whimpered as the mournful bay continued without pause.

“J-Just the wind,” the guide informed them. She continued to herd them along. “Every sound is spookier at night.”

The temperature descended further, seeping into their bones; toes and fingers felt like blocks of ice, and faces grew numb from the chill. To make matters worse, the falling snow made it difficult to see.

Clinging to each other, the students listened to the guide’s reassuring voice as she continued to lead them through the storm. Although they were shivering and frightened, they knew their only option was to keep moving and to trust their guide. But it was easy to get lost in familiar territory during a blizzard.

Their guide was following the flickering lamps…what would happen if they went out?

Still holding onto Ophelia’s arm, Valen gradually realized that Sedge was walking right next to her. The snow was so thick she could barely see a foot in front of her. But she didn’t need to see him; she just knew he was there. For once, she decided not to question her intuition.

She reached into the suffocating white to find him.

At the touch of their hands, the lights stopped flickering.

Valen felt Sedge lean toward her. His whisper kindled a heat that chased the cold from her body. “Don’t let go.”

The lights surged with new brilliance. Everyone except Sedge gasped in wonderment. A moment later, the preternatural wail fell silent.

“Almost there,” Valen heard herself say, despite not having any idea where they were. But then the hotel lights peeked through the blizzard. They were beacons in the terrifying storm, a herald that their plight was almost at an end.

Yet Valen’s fear subsided the moment she reached for Sedge; she was no longer cold. Her face felt aglow with warmth, her fingers and toes blissfully snug. As they all stepped over the threshold into the hotel, she and Sedge were the only ones who seemed unaffected.

Worried teachers and hotel staff threw blankets over everyone. The group was hurried toward the fireplace where torrid, welcoming flames greedily devoured huge logs. Mugs of hot chocolate were handed around while medics checked everyone for signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Three of the students were taken away for treatment.

“Claire, what happened out there?” Sitting as far away from the blazing fire as she could, Valen couldn’t help but overhear the concierge as she interrogated their guide. “The others say they waited at the mansion for over half an hour.”

Still shivering from the cold, Claire shook her head in confusion. She took a long drink of her hot chocolate before replying. “That’s impossible. We made good time down my path. The reason we got stuck out there was because we were waiting for everyone el—just a second… they’re already back?”

“For over an hour.” The concierge, an elderly woman with clear eyes, fixed Claire with a disbelieving gaze. “We were going to send out a search party before this freak blizzard came charging in. If you got lost, you need to tell me.”

“Lost…?” Claire’s face went pale with indignation. “Ask any of the students, Ms. Virani, and they’ll tell you exactly where we went: past the meadow, into the woods, over the bridge, along the creek. I know that forest. There is no way we were half an hour late.”

“Plus, she got us back without getting confused, too.” Valen’s head shot up when she heard Sedge’s voice. He stood boldly before the concierge. “We’re all here because of her.”

“Thank you, young man.” Ms. Virani eyed him steadily. “She is one of our best guides. That’s why no one understands how you managed to lose an hour out there.”

“There’s no way!” Claire tried to stand, but she wobbled on her feet. Yelping in concern, the concierge took hold of her arms to steady her, while Sedge helped her to sit back down. “It’s barely a twenty minute walk down the path we took. We. Weren’t. Late.”

“All right, Claire, I believe you! Please; don’t upset yourself any further.” Ms. Virani put her arm around the guide’s shoulders and gave her a comforting squeeze. “We’ll figure it out.”

Claire nodded emphatically; it had been a long night, and everyone was exhausted.

“Hey! My phone is working again,” Ophelia announced. She was snuggling with Fabiola on an antique couch directly in front of the fire. Her phone’s screen cast an eerie light over her face, revealing a slow change from relief to confusion. “We... did lose an hour.”

Please shut up.” Fabiola’s voice was muffled from the blanket she had pulled over her head. “I don’t care.”

“Fair enough,” Ophelia replied. She tapped her friend on the head with her phone. “For an adventurous girl, you sure scare easy.”

“You would have been scared too if your heart wasn’t made of ice,” Fabiola countered. She popped her head out from the blanket. “We could have died out there, Pheelee. It was a very real possibility. This story will be on the front page of The Informer, and I will not let Mr. Kafadar change a single word of it!”

David laughed into his hot chocolate. He sat in an overstuffed chair he had pulled up to the fire. His lips were raw and chapped, but he was otherwise healthy. For the past few minutes, he had been making sure all of his fingers were still in working order. After Mrs. Talbot checked them to make sure they were coping well, he was the first to say he was going to get some well-deserved rest.

Rest?” Fabiola was truly shocked. “How can you relax after what just happened? We were nearly killed in a freak storm! We lost an hour! There is no way I can ever sleep again.”

“I thought you didn’t care that we lost an hour,” Ophelia pointed out.

“I was lying! Duh.” Fabiola threw the blanket over her head again and disappeared.

“Whereas I won’t care ’til tomorrow,” David said. Getting to his feet, he offered his friends a tired smile. “You can get Fab to her room, right Pheelee?”

Ophelia nodded, mouthing the words ’we’re fine.’ A moment later, Sedge ambled over and briskly pulled the blanket from Fabiola’s body.

“Hey!” Fabiola rose from the couch, ready for a fight. Realizing it was Sedge--not David--who had stolen her refuge, she immediately changed tactics. She fixed him with a lofty glare before putting her arms around his waist. “There are better ways to plead for help when you’re scared. You should just ask me to escort you to your room. ”

Sedge chuckled and accepted Fabiola’s condescending embrace. She clicked her tongue like an overprotective nanny while patting his back.

“The big, bad storm can’t hurt you, little Sedgie, I promise.”

“I’m far more scared of you,” he returned.

Fabiola yanked the blanket from his hands. Stepping back, she threw it around her shoulders and over her head before blinking innocently at her tall friend. “As you should be. I’m sure my roommates are deep into their snoring patterns by now. I shouldn’t let their resonant tones go to waste. Maybe I’ll see you on the bus in the morning.”

With a haughty flick of her hair, she retreated from the room. “See you tomorrow, Valen.”

Lost in thought, Valen did not respond. She had deliberately taken the seat furthest from the fire because it provided a physical barrier from the flames and that group of friends. It wasn’t until David and Ophelia walked over to her that she realized she was still included in their camaraderie.

“Howz ’bout you, future defense lawyer? Ready to call it a night?”

Valen smiled at David’s warm joke. “Maybe.”

“Take a few minutes,” Ophelia suggested. She gave Valen a conspiratorial wink. “Our roommates are probably still Skyping with their boyfriends. Might be a bit much for you after everything.”

Nodding at her new friend’s keen observation, Valen inwardly thanked Ophelia for noticing that she was unwilling to return to their room. She didn’t enjoy being around people, least of all when she felt vulnerable. Ivan had always been an exception to that rule of course, but he was a world away.

“I’ll be up soon,” she promised.

“See you in the morning,” David said.

Ophelia offered Valen a weary smile before following him up the massive staircase.

When they were gone, Valen found herself scanning the room for Sedge. Perhaps she could find a way to talk to him without hostility. She’d thought he was the only one who hadn’t left, but there was no sign of him.

Sighing in disappointment, she sank a little further into her chair. Was it a coincidence, the lights growing stronger when they joined hands? Of course it was. It was ridiculous to consider any other possibility. Her good sense whispered there was no correlation, and yet she was just so confused.

Why had she suddenly grown so warm? Why hadn’t they suffered any effects from the storm? There had to be some explanation for it all. She wasn’t built to believe in anything except logic; leaning heavily on that inflexibility, she refused to delve any further into the bizarre fluke. It would all make sense soon; there would be answers.

Glancing outside, she noticed the storm had come to a sudden halt. A thick blanket of fresh snow glowed in the moonlight, covering the meadows and forests. It brought back happy memories of time spent with Ivan; snowball fights on the way to school and night walks across glittering, frost-covered fields. He coaxed her into these activities with promises of helping her study, and he always kept his word.

“I miss you, Aiko,” she whispered.

To her dismay, she couldn’t help but feel she was saying goodbye to her best friend. Brushing tears from her eyes, Valen decided it was time to go to bed. Being alone and thinking morbid thoughts was pointless.

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