“Where the hell have you been?”
Those were the first words Alex managed to get past her frozen lips when she was able to string a thought together. Not, ‘How are you in this part of the Library?’ or, ‘Do you really have a gift that can do everything Athora said?’ or even, ‘Sorry I compared you to Darth Vader’. No, what popped out was a question about where he’d been for the last two weeks, as she hadn’t seen him at all since that first night back at the academy.
Before he could respond, a memory whispered across her mind that, until this moment, she’d never thought twice about, nor had she experienced any déjà vu when she’d first learned her cloaked instructor’s name. But now her recall was practically slapping her in the face.
‘You’re Master Athora’s talented protégé…’
Aven had spoken those words to Kaiden months ago at Sir Oswald’s manor. They hadn’t meant anything to Alex then, but now… a lot of things were beginning to make sense.
“Did he tell you about me?” Alex said, jerking a finger towards Athora, only to discover that he’d disappeared, granting her and Kaiden some privacy. “He seems to know everything about me—is he how you know I went back to the past? Is he how you’d heard about Aven taking over Meya before I’d told anyone?”
Kaiden’s posture was relaxed as he stood bathed in the firelight, but his eyes were alert as he focused on Alex, almost as if he were watching a wild animal and wasn’t sure how it would react to any sudden moves.
“He only confirmed what I already knew,” Kaiden said.
Alex’s eyes narrowed. “How could you possibly have known anything in order to have him confirm it?”
Kaiden moved a step closer, but when she backed away from him, he halted and raised his hands in a ‘take it easy’ gesture.
“Athora wasn’t exaggerating the scope of what I can do, Alex,” he said. “I only have to make contact with a gifted person for a second in order to take on their ability as my own.”
As Alex processed that, Kaiden continued, “Before Athora stepped in to help me learn how to control it, I had no choice about the gifts that transferred over to me. But thanks to him, I can now decide if I want to swipe someone’s gift or not, just as I can compartmentalise those I’ve taken on and no longer want to use.”
While fascinated, Alex said, “I presume you’re telling me this for a reason?”
“My sister, Jeera, she’s gifted with unfailing intuition,” Kaiden shared. Alex only had a moment to appreciate how handy that would be for the Warden before he continued, “Marcus Sparker is a strong mind reader—almost as strong as Signa Zu, who we’ve also had the displeasure of crossing paths with.”
Alex cringed at the memories.
“Headmaster Marselle has unparalleled wisdom with special insight into a person’s character and whether they are gifted—which is how he knows which students to recruit,” Kaiden said. “And Declan can tell when someone is being deceitful, whether it’s spoken lies or things left unsaid.”
Alex hadn’t known either Darrius’s or Declan’s gifts, but she couldn’t dwell on how interesting they were because Kaiden wasn’t finished.
“Declan was onto you from the moment you turned up to Combat that first day. And since his gift is one that I’ve adopted, both he and I have known you’ve been hiding something for well over a year now.”
Alex shuffled her feet, feeling strangely guilty.
“The others I mentioned, they’re only a few of the gifts that I’ve taken on and learned to control, but I’m sure you can see how intuition, mind-reading, wisdom, character insight and deceit detection are enough to help me form a reasonably clear picture about all that is Alexandra Jennings.”
Shuffling again, Alex said, “But, um, those things—or at least some of them—they wouldn’t work on me. Not with my gift.”
“And that has been beyond frustrating, let me tell you.” Kaiden offered a self-deprecating yet intrigued shake of his head. “You’re officially the only person whose gift I’ve never been able to acquire.”
Alex wasn’t sure if she was supposed to apologise or not. She decided against it, given the circumstances.
“When you first arrived from Freya—”
Alex jerked violently.
Kaiden changed his tone to one that was deliberately calming. “There’s no need to look so worried. I’ve known that much since the first time I saw you.”
“Back then your gift hadn’t fully activated,” he said. “I was able to pick up some surface thoughts in those early days—nothing too deep, but enough to give away a couple of your secrets, like your otherworldly origins. And a few… other things.”
His eyes sparkled and Alex frantically tried to recall what kinds of thoughts she might have had. But it was impossible—she could have thought about anything.
… Including Kaiden.
Heat flooding her cheeks, Alex cleared her throat and tried to act unfazed. “If you read my mind and learned I was from Freya, why didn’t you say anything?”
“I figured you had your reasons for keeping it secret,” Kaiden answered. “And besides, we weren’t close, not back then.” A grin tugged at his mouth. “That, and it was hilarious watching you bumble your way through acting like you were from this world.”
“I did not bumble,” she stated with a frown.
Kaiden laughed. “You did. I have no idea how no one else noticed, especially on our SAS overnight trip.” He shook his head again. “I’ll never forget when you thought we had to hike our way across the Durungan Ranges before Jordan ‘reminded’ you that there were other options.” He laughed at another memory and added, “And remember when I used the Quick-Dry dust on you after the river rapids? There’s not a human in Medora who hasn’t experienced that powder before. You had no idea what you’d given away by saying it was your first time.”
Alex gritted her teeth and said, “Can we please get back to what you were saying earlier?”
If anything, Kaiden seemed more amused, but he did as she requested.
“What I was saying,” he said, “was that from the moment you first arrived here, you were a mystery. That mystery only deepened as time went by and strange things began to happen—strange things that revolved around you.”
That was the story of Alex’s life.
“While it soon reached the stage where I couldn’t use any kind of gift on you, I could still use them on those you were close to,” he said. “It took time, but with enough access to the right people, including, or perhaps, especially, during our encounter with Aven and his followers at Sir Oswald’s, I was eventually able to put enough pieces together to come to my own conclusions about you—and everything happening around you.”
Alex didn’t want to ask, but she forced the words through her lips. “And those conclusions were?”
Kaiden shrugged, but despite the gesture, his body was lined with tension, like he was worried about her reaction. “Let’s just say I know more than you’d likely be comfortable with me knowing.”
That, Alex knew, was true. And yet…
You feel safe with me.
Those five words from imaginary-Kaiden whispered across her mind and she couldn’t hold up against the weight of them. Needing to escape his knowing eyes, she turned her back on him and looked down into the fire, allowing the hypnotising flames to sooth her spiralling thoughts.
You feel safe with me.
Imaginary-Kaiden was right—she did feel safe with him.
… And that absolutely terrified her.
“There’s something else you need to know,” Kaiden said quietly, and Alex inhaled a fortifying breath at his careful tone. “And it may freak you out.”
A disbelieving laugh left her lips as she turned back around, finding him much closer than before—only a few steps away now.
“I doubt there’s anything you could say that would freak me out any more than I already am,” she said honestly.
When he remained hesitant to share, she mustered up the will to encourage, “Go on, sock it to me.”
“The reason I know you were in the past,” he said, “is because over the holidays, I had a dream about you.”
That certainly wasn’t what Alex had expected to hear. “You… dreamed about me?”
“D.C.’s gift,” was all Kaiden had to say.
“Oh,” she murmured. “You mean you had a true dream.”
Alex knew that Lena Morrow was still neutralising D.C.’s ability to access her own gift—something that frustrated the princess to no end—but apparently the same didn’t hold true for Kaiden.
“I only saw snippets of your time there, but it was enough to get an idea of what went down while you were ‘gone’, including flashes of the future you witnessed—cities burning, blurred faces of screaming people, so much death and chaos,” Kaiden said, his eyes unfocused as he recalled the memory.
Alex desperately wanted to know if he’d seen himself in that vision—the avatar of him guiding her through it, or the part showing his own death at Aven’s hands—but she couldn’t bring herself to ask.
He shook off his stupor and finished, “I also dreamed enough to see what you discovered upon your return to the present.”
“So that’s how you knew about Aven taking over Meya,” Alex said.
“That’s how I knew,” Kaiden confirmed.
Everything he’d told her was utterly mad. But Alex couldn’t deny that it made a startling amount of sense, regardless of how vulnerable she now felt with him knowing so much about her.
“Why did you disappear afterwards—no explanation, nothing?” Alex asked.
Kaiden made an apologetic face. “The timing of that was terrible, I’ll admit. And I swear it wasn’t deliberate. But my aunt needed me to do something and, well, I hear you’ve met her, so hopefully you’ll believe me when I say that when she wants something done, she won’t accept any excuses, not even school.” He caught her eyes and finished, “I promise I wasn’t avoiding you.”
Alex rubbed the inside of her elbow, unable to keep from fidgeting. “It looked suspiciously like you were.”
Kaiden grinned and moved a step forward, then another, closing the distance between them. This time she didn’t back away—mostly because it would have meant walking into the fire.
Quietly, he said, “You should know by now, Alex. You’re not someone I want to avoid.” An upward quirk of his lips as he added, “Quite the opposite.”
“And on that note, I think we’re done here.”
Alex jumped at the interruption from Athora who had reappeared out of nowhere.
She frowned at him and demanded, “Were you eavesdropping that whole time?”
“I was,” he said, shameless. “And all that’s left is for you to hear the answer to why you will now be training with Kaiden.”
Alex, however, had already figured that much out. “I’m guessing it’s so he can aim his various gifts at you and I’ll be tasked with seeing if I can stretch my gift to keep you protected. Right?”
All Athora said in response was, “For you to learn what you must, it will take time.”
That didn’t surprise Alex. Especially if he continued to have her balance bananas on her head.
“For now, we are finished for the night,” Athora said. “I shall see you both on Monday.”
And just like that, he was gone. But so too were Alex and Kaiden, who found themselves standing in the foyer of the Library.
Hit by a dizzy spell from their unanticipated change of location, Alex wobbled on her feet, with Kaiden reaching out to steady her.
“I take it he doesn’t normally relocate you like that?” he asked, amused.
Alex looked around in bewilderment. “Usually I make my way back up here myself.”
Kaiden made a knowing sound. “It’s because of me—I don’t have access to the Library like you do. I can’t create my own doorways, so he has to collect me and return me every time we meet. We’ve done it like that for years.”
“No one’s ever noticed you disappearing into thin air? Or reappearing from nowhere?” Alex asked, brushing aside her surprise at his casual admission of her access to the Library. Yet another thing he knew about her.
“If anyone happens to be watching me,” Kaiden said, tipping his head towards the librarian sitting at his desk and speaking sternly to an abashed-looking Blink, “all they would see is a flicker between when I leave and when I return.”
Alex crinkled her forehead before understanding dawned. “Right. The time paradox.”
Kaiden nodded. “One second I’m here, then Athora swoops me off for training, then the same second I’m back here with no one any wiser.”
Alex marvelled at the wonder of it all and followed when he started moving towards the staircase leading up from the Library and out of the Tower building.
As they headed towards their dorms, Alex tried to sort out the enormity of what she’d learned. Of what Kaiden knew about her. Of what Kaiden himself could do.
“I have a question,” she said as they trudged their way through the snow.
Kaiden paused, so she stopped as well and turned to face him.
“Just one?” he said with a wry smile.
Alex returned his expression and admitted, “Well, no. But just one for now.”
“If you have the ability to use so many gifts,” she said, still struggling to comprehend the scope of his power, “then when we were at Sir Oswald’s and you realised Jordan and I had been taken captive, why didn’t you just storm in, all guns blazing?”
“All guns blazing?” Kaiden repeated with a chuckle. “I’m presuming that must be a Freyan expression.”
“Shhhh!” Alex hissed, jumping forward to cover his mouth and looking wildly around.
She felt his body shake under her hand, and when she turned back to him, his eyes were bright with humour. Hastily, she dropped her arm and stepped back again.
“It’s after nine at night and we’re standing outside in the middle of winter,” Kaiden said. “Only an idiot would be out here spying on us. And,” he added, “with your heightened senses, I’m pretty sure you’d know if they were.”
Alex cringed both internally and externally at him knowing yet another secret of hers. “You really have figured out a lot about me, huh?”
“I knew something had changed after watching you fight Aven at Sir Oswald’s,” he said, not bothering to deny her words. “I even told you I’d never seen a human move or fight like you, let alone hold their own against a Meyarin.”
“You didn’t demand answers,” Alex said, remembering how he’d let it go but made her promise to ask for help if she needed it. Softly, she added, “I was really grateful for that.”
Kaiden offered a one-shouldered shrug. “To answer your question about that night, and calm your earlier fears about my hypothetical megalomania,”—he still looked way too amused by that—“while my gift means I can potentially do a lot, I also have some strict limitations.”
Alex just looked at him, waiting for him to go on.
“It’s extremely challenging for me to use the gifts of others,” he admitted. “It requires a great deal of concentration if I want to have any kind of control.” He waved a hand around the campus. “Akarnae students study for years just to learn how to manage their own, single gift. Now multiply that by how many abilities I can choose between and you’ll have an idea of how much discipline it takes for me to control what I can do.”
“Sounds exhausting,” Alex guessed.
“It is,” he confirmed. “Depending on the particular ability I use, it can drain my energy very quickly. So I have to be careful what I do and for how long.”
Alex nodded, knowing from people like Jordan and Skyla how keeping some gifts activated took effort and became tiring after a while.
“I can also only use one gift at a time,” Kaiden said. “I can’t read someone’s mind while also using Jordan’s transcendence, for example. It’s one or the other.”
Alex nodded again, since that made sense.
“So, that night at Sir Oswald’s,” Kaiden continued, “once we figured out something had gone wrong, I decided that using Hunter’s perception and awareness gift was the best way to go, so that when Declan and I did burst in ‘all guns blazing’, I knew exactly where to shoot off a few Stabiliser rounds to drop people before that telekinetic woman caught us in her grip. But unfortunately,” he added, “I didn’t know about the nullifying woman who stopped me from then being able to do anything else after that.”
“Why didn’t you just steal Lena’s gift and turn it back around on her?” Alex asked, pulling her coat tighter around her body. “Nullify her nullification? Then the others could have been freed from her grip, too.”
Kaiden shook his head. “I can only take on someone’s gift by physically touching them, and that night was the first time I’d ever encountered her.” He let out a sound of frustration. “I wish I’d had a chance to steal her ability, though. Then I’d be able to stop what she’s doing now.”
Alex peered at him in curiosity and repeated, “What she’s doing… now?”
Kaiden cocked his head to the side. “You don’t know?”
Even more curious, she asked, “Know what?”
He looked astonished. “I thought you were close to the headmaster?”
Not sure what that had to do with anything, Alex said, “I am.”
Kaiden just continued looking at her in surprise. “Then he didn’t tell you how he and others both at the academy and out in the rest of the world are being targeted by Lena? How they’re unable to use their abilities because she’s neutralising them?”
Alex paled. “What are you talking about?”
“She has to know the person and the specific gift they have in order to stop them, but some people’s abilities, like Marselle’s, are common knowledge,” Kaiden informed. “He, as well as a stack of others, have been blocked for months now.”
Alex’s stomach plummeted as she thought again of Lena nullifying D.C.’s gift—and she wondered how she’d never considered the possibility that others were being targeted as well.
“I thought you knew,” Kaiden said. “Without Lena’s interference, Marselle and his supernatural wisdom would have been way ahead of Aven and his plans by now.”
That explained so much. It explained why Darrius was so full of doubt, so concerned for Alex, and so hesitant to speak up amongst the other teachers to force a plan of action. He was used to being guided by his gift, but now he couldn’t even access it.
“I didn’t know,” Alex said quietly. “Who else is Lena targeting?”
“I’m not sure,” Kaiden answered, “but I think a few of the teachers, as well as some of the higher ups in the military. Jeera’s mentioned some Warden friends who haven’t been able to use their abilities for a while now, too.”
“She’s fine,” Kaiden assured her. “Lena doesn’t know about Jeera’s gift.”
Alex toed the snow with her boot. “And you? Does Lena—does Aven—know what you can do?”
“Are you kidding?” Kaiden laughed. “At the risk of sounding arrogant, Aven would have tried to Claim me long before now if that were true.”
“But at Sir Oswald’s, Lena nullified you. And Aven—he recognised your name. He knew you were training with Athora.”
“Firstly, Lena was in close range then—her ability acted like a blanket over everyone in that room without her needing to know personal specifics,” Kaiden said. “And secondly, very few people in this world know who Athora is. Those who have heard of him tend to believe the rumours that he is highly proficient in the mind arts. That’s true, but Aven is one of a very small list who know there is much more to Athora—more than you or I will ever know.”
Mr. Mystery Man strikes again, Alex thought mildly, wondering if she’d ever learn any of Athora’s secrets.
“But Aven is also condescending enough that, even though he knows exactly the kinds of things Athora might teach a student, he would never imagine Athora would deign to share those things with what Aven considers to be a lowly human.”
“I’m not sure I’m following,” Alex admitted after a pause, sensing there was more.
“My aunt is the commander over the entirety of Medora’s human intelligence and armed forces,” Kaiden said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “From the moment Jeera and I could form coherent thoughts, we were both trained to protect our minds from gift manipulation. To guard our secrets—and any secrets we might overhear deliberately or by accident.”
Alex recalled how Signa had been frustrated when he’d been unable to read Kaiden’s mind, something she’d wondered about at the time but later forgotten.
“The rumours circulating about Athora are, predominantly, that he is the most adept instructor for anyone wanting to learn how to fortify their mental defences,” Kaiden said. “So you’re right—Aven had heard of me. But since Signa couldn’t read me, Aven concluded that Athora was teaching me how to protect against mental manipulation. He was blinded by his contempt for humans and didn’t once consider that I might be training with Athora for other reasons, as well.”
“So…” Alex summed up what she really wanted to know. “He doesn’t know about you?”
Kaiden chuckled and confirmed, “He doesn’t know about me.”
She nodded once. “Good. Let’s try and keep it that way.”
Drawing his hand from his pocket, Kaiden reached out and curled his arm around Alex’s shoulders, pulling her close and leading her forward along the path once more. “I can promise you that’s my intention.”
“Good,” she somehow managed to utter, despite being wholly distracted by his new, unexpected proximity.
“Do you have any other questions before we freeze to death or reach eavesdropping ears?” Kaiden asked.
Alex struggled to think of anything while she was held so closely against him. Even through their layers of clothing, she felt the comfort of his heat enveloping her. And that smell—how could he possibly smell so good? She was certain she must reek of wood smoke after sitting in front of Athora’s fireplace for the last few hours. Never before had she wished so much for a change of clothes and a bottle of instant shampoo.
She glanced sideways at him. “Huh?”
Kaiden pressed his lips together in what she knew was an attempt to repress a smile. “Any other questions?” he repeated.
“Oh, uh… No,” she said, somewhat dazed. Then she came to her senses and cried, much louder than was necessary given the lack of distance between them, “Wait! There is something else.”
“You’ve got about thirty seconds before we hit the dorm building,” Kaiden said, and she took that as an invitation to continue.
“A’enara,” she said. “You told me you’d learned something.”
“I also said you probably already know most of it by now,” Kaiden reminded her. “It’s frustrating how little information I’ve managed to find.” He paused before correcting, “Or rather, how little verifiable information.”
“That weapon of yours is drowning in legend,” Kaiden said. “Many of the stories I’ve uncovered are so outrageous that it’s impossible to tell fact from fiction.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Alex mumbled, knowing how strange her magical blade was.
“I do know that it was created by the Tia Aurans back before they banished the Meyarins to Medora.” He paused to ask, “You know who they are, right?”
“Well, from what I’ve gathered, A’enara goes by several names. The Sword of the Stars, the Bringer of Light, the Blade of Glory—”
“And the Weapon of the Ages,” Alex cut in, already knowing this.
“And one final name,” Kaiden said when she didn’t add more. “The Balance of Power.”
That one, Alex hadn’t heard before. “What do you think that last one means?”
She felt him shrug, given that his arm was still wrapped around her. “Beats me. But amid all the mythological hyperbole, the name A’enara was synonymous with another name, both used together frequently in ancient texts.”
“Vay-eh-var-kuh.” Alex repeated his pronunciation, the word feeling unpleasant on her tongue. “What is it? This… Vae’varka? Is it a person? A Tia Auran? A Meyarin?”
Kaiden shifted his grip on her shoulder but didn’t remove his arm. If anything, he was now even closer than before. “I’m sorry, Alex, but I don’t know. There were even less documented notes about Vae’varka than A’enara.”
Alex sighed. “Another dead end.”
“Maybe not,” Kaiden said, giving her a squeeze. “I still have a few sources left to try. Something might turn up.”
Alex didn’t place much hope in his success. If Aven-of-the-past hadn’t been able to tell her much about it, she doubted Kaiden would be able to dredge up anything useful. And when it came down to it, as long as A’enara continued to save her life, she didn’t really need to know the weapon’s secrets. She was simply curious.
But despite all that, she still mumbled her thanks as they entered the dorm building and he escorted her to her room.
Long after they’d said goodnight, she still felt the phantom embrace of his arm wrapped tightly around her as she drifted off to sleep.