“I can’t believe it. I’m sorry, Alex, but it just sounds so… impossible.”
Alex nodded in acceptance, knowing the story she’d just finished telling her three closest friends sounded fantastical even by Medoran standards.
“Trust me, Dix,” Alex said, swiping her third chocolate bar from the stash on Bear’s bed, “I know it sounds mental. But I’m telling you, I’ve spent the last three-and-a-half weeks in the past.”
Breaking off a square and popping it in her mouth, she noted the incredulous expressions on her friends’ faces. She couldn’t blame them. They’d already had enough emotional upheaval that night to last them a lifetime, beginning with the return of Jordan—something neither Bear nor D.C. had dared believe possible. And yet, after Alex had managed to Release him from Aven Dalmarta’s Claim earlier that evening, she’d delivered him safely to the academy, arriving in the food court partway through the welcome-back dinner. With the other students chattering excitedly and sharing their adventures from the Kaldoras break—not to mention, none of them having known Jordan was even under Aven’s control—their return hadn’t warranted a single batted eyelash. D.C. and Bear, however…
In hindsight, Alex realised she and Jordan should have planned their arrival differently, since the moment D.C. had clapped eyes on Jordan, she’d launched herself into his arms with enough force that he’d stumbled backwards. Wrapped around him, she’d burst into tears, with sobs so violent that he’d had to carry her to the Med Ward for Fletcher to give her a sedative.
Bear, on the other hand, had been struck silent. But when he and Alex had followed Jordan and D.C. outside, he’d reached for Alex’s hand and gripped her so hard that it was a wonder her bones hadn’t shattered. She’d taken in his haggard, disbelieving face and known he was only silent because his other option was to succumb to his own emotional breakdown. Seeing the pain warring with hope in his eyes, Alex had untangled their fingers and wrapped her arm around his waist, pulling him close as they’d hurried towards the Med Ward.
Darrius, Hunter and Caspar Lennox had burst into Fletcher’s domain after having witnessed the scene in the food court, but other than assuring them Jordan was no longer Claimed, Alex had disclosed no further details. Instead, she’d requested that she and her friends have a few hours alone together, partly to avoid an on-the-spot debriefing, but mostly so she could consider what could be shared, and what should be kept secret.
“Let me see if I have this straight.” Bear pilfered the half-eaten bar from Alex’s hand and threw it to Jordan, who was lying with D.C. on his own bed. Catching Alex’s frown, Bear added, “Don’t look at me like that. You’re going to be sick if you eat any more.”
Her stomach was already beginning to churn uncomfortably, so she conceded. “Go back to what you were about to say.”
“Right,” Bear said, resting his arms across the top of the chair he was straddling beside where Alex sat on his bed. “So you travelled back in time thanks to a draekon you bonded with, then you hung out in Meya for twenty-five days where you befriended Aven before he went all super psycho bad, and during your time there, you found some old book that explained how to save Jordan.”
“And when you returned here, it was in the middle of a war breaking out between the Meyarins, with Aven’s best friend having escaped prison to murder the king, and one of his gifted humans placing Roka under some kind of sleeping spell,” Jordan jumped in. “Yet somehow in the midst of Aven taking over Meya and Claiming everyone left in the city, you managed to be my hero and safely bring me home.”
Alex winced inwardly at Jordan’s misled belief that Niyx was responsible for killing King Astophe. In truth, Jordan was the one who had murdered the king, under Aven’s mental command. But Niyx had made Alex promise to repress Jordan’s memory and conceal the truth so that he could remain by Aven’s side, acting as a double agent.
“That about sums it up,” Alex said, having left out a few details, such as her having Claimed Niyx to save his life thousands of years ago, and that they were still bonded, at least to a degree.
“And you actually got to train with Roka back then? As a Meyarin?” D.C. asked, sounding as if the very idea was enthralling.
“Sure did,” Alex answered truthfully, even if it was more Niyx than Roka who had taught her how to access the Meyarin blood in her veins and fight like one of the immortal race.
“It all sounds mad,” Bear said, scratching his cheek, “but I can’t ignore the physical evidence.” Seeing Alex’s puzzlement, he added, “Your skin. It’s different.”
Alex choked and glanced at her hands, worried the glow of her vaeliana bond with Xiraxus was now visible. But while her heightened senses could make out the golden shimmer of her skin, there was no way Bear should be able to see it.
“Uh, what do you mean?”
Hearing her strangled tone, he sent her a questioning look. “It’s winter here, but you said it was summer there. And you’re definitely more tanned than when Dix and I saw you in Woodhaven a few days ago.”
Alex released a slow, quiet breath. “I’m tanned. I have a tan.” She swallowed and nodded. “I did spend quite a bit of time in the sun.”
“He’s right,” D.C. said, scrutinising Alex. “No way should you have that much extra colour, not without being burnt. And you’re not pink at all.”
“So you believe me on the basis that my skin is darker?” Alex asked wryly. “Thanks for the trust.”
“Hey, I was there for part of it and I still don’t believe it,” Jordan said, finally peeling back the wrapper of Alex’s chocolate bar and finishing it off.
“Don’t get us wrong, Alex,” Bear said, reaching out to pat her knee. “We’re stoked that you figured out how to free Jordan. But even you have to realise it might take us a while to process everything you just shared.”
“Take all the time you need,” Alex said. She then amended, “But in saying that, try and limit it to overnight, yeah? Because now that Aven has control of Meya, we need to start preparing for what’s coming. And I could really use you guys by my side.”
“We’ll always be by your side, Alex,” D.C. said. She offered a teasing smile and finished, “Even if we do think you might have been knocked out in Combat one too many times.”
Alex rolled her eyes and took the gentle ribbing with grace while her friends chuckled, then she rose to her feet.
“Where are you going?” Jordan asked, sitting up and drawing D.C. with him, since his arm was wrapped tightly around her. There were shadows lurking in his eyes, shadows he was trying to mask, but Alex saw hints of them all the same. While he was acting just like his old, cheerful self, the scars from his time with Aven would likely be with him forever. Alex’s certainly would—both the physical and the mental ones.
Giving him a smile of reassurance, Alex answered, “There’s only so much time before Darrius comes barging in here demanding explanations.” She paused. “Or Hunter, more likely. I’m going to go fill them in while it’s all fresh. Relatively speaking.”
Bear snorted. “Good luck with that. Fletcher’s gonna drag you straight back to the Med Ward for a psych assessment.”
Alex knew that was a very real possibility—if she told them everything. “I don’t see any reason why they need to know about my journey through time. I can just as easily lead them to presume I found the book in the Meya of today. But they do need to hear about Aven’s hostile takeover and how the Meyarins who escaped are now hiding up in Draekora. We’re all in this mess together. They need to be warned.”
“Do you want company?” D.C. offered.
Taking in the way the princess was snuggled so closely to Jordan that Alex had trouble seeing where one of them began and the other ended, she couldn’t keep her lips from twitching. “Ah, no. You stay here and keep Jordan company. You’ve already heard what I’m going to tell them, anyway.”
“I can come, if you want?” Bear said, his lips also twitching as his eyes flicked towards the pair on Jordan’s bed.
“Really, I’ll be fine,” Alex promised. She couldn’t help herself and added, “I think these two need you to play chaperone more than I do.”
“Chaperone?” Jordan said with mock innocence. “What in the world are you implying, Alexandra Jennings?”
When D.C.’s skin flamed, Jordan couldn’t keep up his charade and instead chuckled, leaning in to kiss her blushing cheek. She groaned and moved to hide her face in his chest, mumbling something that sounded very much like, “Shut up, Jordan.”
Alex’s heart melted at the sight of her two friends. Not wanting to make either of them uncomfortable, she only said, “If I don’t get back until late, I’ll try not to wake you, Dix.” She turned to the boys. “I’ll see you both at breakfast. Hopefully I’ll have a better idea of what our next steps are after tonight’s meeting.”
“Good luck,” D.C. said as Alex left the room.
As soon as she was in the hallway with the door shut between them, Alex leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. She loved her friends. Adored them. But after spending weeks in the past, she felt as though she’d aged a thousand years while they’d been frozen in time. What she’d experienced—no words could help them understand everything she’d been through.
… Everything she’d done.
“You look like you need a holiday from your holiday.”
Alex snapped her eyes open to find Kaiden standing across from her, mirroring her position on the other side of the hallway. She had no idea how she’d missed him, especially with her Meyarin senses.
“Hey,” she said, acutely aware of how lame she sounded.
One side of his mouth curled up. “Hey, yourself.”
“Did you, uh, have a good break?” She gave herself a mental shake, wondering why-oh-why she was making small talk with him. Ignoring the warmth spreading through her body, she schooled her expression into what she hoped was nothing more than casual interest.
“Better than yours, I’d wager.”
Alex thought that was an odd response. “What makes you say that?”
Kaiden didn’t answer. Instead, he pushed off the wall. “Are you heading back to your room?”
“No, I—uh—” Alex stumbled for a reply and settled on the truth. “I have to go see the headmaster.”
Kaiden nodded. “I’ll walk you.”
His instant offer and lack of curiosity brought Alex up short. “What? No, really. Thanks, but I—”
“Call me paranoid,” he interrupted, “but it’s late. Nearly curfew. I don’t think you should be out wandering on your own.”
“Really, Kaiden, I—”
“Especially given everything that happened earlier today.”
Alex sucked in a breath. “Everything that… happened?”
Kaiden’s blue eyes captured her own, but again he didn’t answer. Instead, he turned and started down the hallway.
Alex scrambled after him. “What happened earlier today, Kaiden?”
“You’d know better than I would,” he said as they descended the stairs, with a warning glance indicating the students coming and going from the Rec Room and up to their dorms. Being the first night back after the holidays, more people were mingling in the public spaces than normal—too many listening ears.
As soon as they stepped outside into the blistery cold and were far enough away, Alex placed a hand on Kaiden’s arm and drew him to a halt.
He didn’t make her wait. “Is it true Aven Dalmarta now sits on the throne of Meya?”
Alex hugged her arms, chilled to the bone—and not just because she had changed from her wintery Meyarin outfit and was now being snowed on in clothes that weren’t insulated by Myrox. “Who told you that?”
“It’s true, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Alex whispered, unable to lie to him. “It’s true.”
Kaiden slowly closed his eyes before looking at her once more. “What are you going to do?”
Her voice still quiet, Alex asked, “What makes you think I’m going to do anything?”
“Because for whatever reason, you’re in the middle of all this,” he said without hesitation. “And even if you weren’t, I know you, Alex. When the people you care about are in trouble, you do whatever it takes to help them.”
Alex was unable to hold his gaze. “I think you’re giving me too much credit.”
Kaiden stepped closer until he was right in front of her, his fingers lightly tipping her chin up so she was looking at him again. He didn’t say anything, but she could hear his voice whisper across her mind; a memory from her time in the past when the Library had conjured up an image of him to be with her as she watched the devastating future that might occur if Aven remained in power. The imaginary Kaiden had explained his presence using only five words—five words that, try as she might, Alex couldn’t deny.
‘You feel safe with me.’
Swallowing, Alex struggled to look him in the eye, but he gently curled his fingers around her jaw, keeping her from turning away again.
“I disagree,” Kaiden finally whispered. “I think you’re worth all the credit I’m giving you—and much more.”
Heart pounding, Alex didn’t know how to react. She didn’t know what to say, she didn’t know what to do. Some kind of response was needed, but she could barely draw air into her lungs, let alone offer a coherent reply.
After what felt like an eternity of waiting, Kaiden dropped his arm, only to entwine his fingers with hers as he turned and began walking again.
“It’s freezing out here. Let’s get you to Marselle.”
Alex wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed as she followed him towards the Tower, so she focused on the feeling of his hand holding hers and ignored those five words repeating over and over in her mind.
After ascending the staircase and arriving in the antechamber outside Darrius’s office, Alex stared at the door and wondered, since Kaiden already knew about Aven’s takeover of Meya, if she should invite him to stay. But there was also so much he didn’t know. So much she couldn’t explain to him.
So much he wouldn’t believe.
Alex did the only thing she could. She untangled their hands and forced a smile onto her face.
“Thanks for escorting me here,” she said. “I’ll make sure someone walks me back once I’ve finished, um…”
“Sharing the news that the human race is in mortal peril?” Kaiden offered when she was unable to finish. “And the other races, too?”
Alex winced at his candour. “Something like that, yeah.”
Kaiden watched her intently before he sighed and said, “When you’re not holding urgent meetings about saving the world, come find me. I need to talk to you about that weapon of yours.”
At that, Alex stood up straighter. “You’ve learned something about A’enara?” she asked, remembering that before the Kaldoras break, he had offered to research her mysterious blade.
“Nothing that can’t wait.” Kaiden gave her a gentle nudge towards the doorway. “And I have a feeling most of it you already know by now, anyway.”
Alex shook her head. “I hardly know a thing about it.”
“And yet, I’m guessing after your time spent in the past, you know more than you did the last time we spoke.”
Alex swung to look at him so fast that she failed to note a crack in the stonework and tripped forward. But since Kaiden was close enough to be nudging her towards the door, he was also close enough to wrap his arms around her, catching her just inches before she hit the ground.
With his firm grip encircling her waist, Alex twisted around to look up at him as the blood drained from her face.
All she could manage was to wheeze out a choked-sounding, “What?”
But at that moment, the headmaster’s door opened, drawing Kaiden’s attention. Alex, however, remained speechless and gaping up at him.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Hunter said, sounding anything but sorry. In fact, he sounded downright amused, which prompted Alex to tear her eyes from Kaiden. In doing so, she realised she was still wrapped in his arms, their contact misleading given the circumstances—and easy enough for Hunter to mistake as an intimate embrace.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” Alex blurted, pushing Kaiden’s chest until he released her and took a step back. She chose to ignore the laughter in his eyes as she added, perhaps a little too desperately, “Really, Hunter. I fell.”
“Uh-huh.” Hunter’s tone made it clear he didn’t believe her. And also that he didn’t care. “We were about done waiting for you to come to us, so if you don’t mind…”
He left the sentence hanging and Alex knew that was her cue to skedaddle into the room where presumably Darrius, Fletcher and Caspar Lennox were all waiting.
Despite knowing she had a lot of explaining to do, Alex was torn about entering the room. And that was because of the bombshell Kaiden had just dropped on her. How could he possibly know about her travelling through time? No one knew, other than Niyx and Lady Mystique, and now Jordan, D.C. and Bear. Not even Kyia and Zain knew, since their memories of Alex—or ‘Aeylia’, as she had been known to them—had been altered by Lady Mystique to preserve the timeline. Heck, not even Aven remembered that Alex was the main reason he now hated mortals—and humans in particular.
So… how on Earth did Kaiden know?
“Anytime you’re ready, Alex,” Hunter drawled pointedly.
Kaiden caught her eye and said, “I’ll catch you later.”
“Later, Alex,” he repeated, a promise in his tone. He turned to Hunter and said, “Don’t let her walk back to the dorm alone.”
If Hunter had any objections to the command in Kaiden’s voice, he didn’t say anything. All he did was raise an eyebrow and nod, before gesturing for Alex to advance through the doorway.
Short of demanding answers from Kaiden—answers that would lead to questions she didn’t want Hunter and the other teachers to wonder about—there was nothing Alex could do. So she walked into Darrius’s office, bracing herself to share the tragic news regarding the fall of Meya.