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Where Foundlings Hide

 

Where Foundlings Hide

 

 

K.L Mitchelson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Foundlings Hide Copyright © 2016 by K.L Mitchelson

 

This novel is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people either living or deceased is purely coincidental.

 

The author holds all rights to this work. It is illegal to reproduce this novel without written consent from the author.

 

All rights reserved.

Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

 

Blood is the connection, but it is love that binds us.

Prologue

 

I look down at my hands. They are covered with something dark and sticky, almost black in the half light, and my knees are skinned where they made contact with the ground. I touch the lump on the side of my head with trembling fingers, following the streak of blood that trickles down my temple.

The ground is cold and grainy, like sand and I can hear the sound of waves crashing against rocks below. The moon appears from behind a cloud and I see her balancing on the edge of the cliff.

My eyesight is still blurred from the blow to my head, but I try to crawl towards her, I try to use my last ounce of strength to save her, because that is my purpose. I am inches away from her when her arms flail out. Everything around me seems to freeze as she slips, the wind whipping her hair around her face, white in the light of the pale moon. Her hand stretches out towards me and she yells something, but the wind carries her words away like petals from a dying flower.

The ground below me trembles and I scream her name until my throat is raw, hot tears streaming down my face as my fingers claw at the ragged cliff edge. Her white dress billows around her like the sails of a ship, but it doesn’t slow her fall. The darkness below rears up and swallows her whole. Then she is gone.

Chapter 1

 

I wake with her name on my lips and an ache in my chest. My body is covered with a cold sweat and my hands grip the bedcovers, the sheet bunched up in my clammy fists as the bedroom shakes around me, the door of the narrow, chestnut wardrobe rattling against the wall. The tremor is over within seconds and I breathe a sigh of relief.

The earthquakes started about a month back, the worst that have ever been recorded in England. They don’t last long, maybe ten seconds each time, but they’ve brought down a couple of old, abandoned buildings and they’ve wreaked havoc with the transportation systems. It’s not just here, they’re happening all over the world, along with floods, volcanic eruptions, and freak weather that is so bad, it flattens people’s homes – it’s like nature’s had enough, an angry driver slamming on the brakes and sending us lurching from our seats.

They think it has something to do with ice, deep underground – those who study the earthquakes – but they can’t be certain. At least that’s what I heard. I don’t watch the news anymore, it’s too depressing. The earthquakes could be a sign of an impending apocalypse and I would be the last to know.

Today, I’m thankful for the quake. Usually, I struggle to stir myself from sleep, to shake off that heavy, sickly feeling, but the sudden spike of fear sent adrenaline coursing through my veins. I am wide awake.

My therapist, Dr Parker, says I have a ‘disturbed sleeping pattern’, my dreams plagued by images of my sister, falling, flickering behind my eyes, torturous and disturbing. When the dawn eventually comes, sleep clings to me, pinning my limbs to the bed, making my head so heavy that I can’t lift it from the pillow. But the quakes make me want to run, to find a safe place where I can wait until the tremors subside. That’s what we’re supposed to do when there’s an earthquake, it says so in the information leaflet I was handed when I returned to school. It says that in the event of a quake, we have to find somewhere to shelter from falling ceiling tiles, plaster, or worse, depending on where we are when it strikes.

The tremors make me feel kind of fearfully excited, like going really fast on a rollercoaster. Maybe that’s just me, I don’t get out much, not since my twin sister, Lana, disappeared. The search for her took over my life, and when her body was finally found, after a long investigation, it was torn apart and left in pieces.

I don’t have much interest in anything anymore, not the music Lana and I listened to, or the reality TV shows we watched together. The fashion magazines we used to read cover to cover seem shallow now, the stories of vampires and werewolves that we would read again and again are just meaningless words on a page, and the fencing classes, that I was getting pretty good at, have no appeal without my sister, the junior sabre champion.

My previous life seems a distant memory now, dark at the edges, hazy. Lana and I were one person, a single unit and she was the heart. A body can survive without the heart for a short time, but not for long.

I only returned here, to the Malvern Academy Boarding School, to escape the memories that linger in every corner of our childhood home, every nook harbouring some forgotten event, some whispered word between me and my sister. I needed to fill my days with classes and organised activities, with a routine that lets me to go through the motions without having to think. Besides, I had to let my Aunt Ivy, who has cared for me since I was young, return to work. She’s an Art Historian and travels all over the world to examine ancient relics, forgotten treasures that have been buried for thousands of years and suddenly demand an expensive price tag.

At first, Ivy didn’t care about anything except finding my sister, but once the police found Lana’s body, I could tell that Ivy was itching to get back to work. She would never admit it, but now and again I would see her eyes flicker towards the front door, see them fill with longing as she stared out of the kitchen window at the sea beyond our overgrown garden.

Ivy became mine and Lana’s legal guardian when we were just two years old, after our parents were killed in a plane crash. Our father was Ivy’s brother, he and our mother were Geologists. They were called to an emergency assignment after a volcano erupted in Hawaii. Normally, one of them would stay behind to take care of us, but the situation was so serious that the organisation they worked for called for all of their Geologists to fly out to assist. They didn’t even make it to the island. Their plane was brought down by a thunderstorm somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean and Lana and I became orphans, left in the care of an Aunt who was barely old enough to take care of us.

I don’t remember our parents. Lana said she could, but she didn’t like to talk about them. Sometimes, Ivy would start to tell us stories about our parents, but then she would stop mid-sentence, sadness flashing across her eyes.

Ivy worked at a local museum when Lana and I were young, but she enrolled us at the Malvern Academy when we were eleven and accepted the job that takes her all over the world. Ivy said she hated leaving us, but the job paid well and the school offered an advanced programme. Lana and I didn’t mind, we had each other and Ivy came home for most of the school holidays.

The plan was for us to stay at Malvern until we turned eighteen and I never imagined that Lana wouldn’t see that milestone birthday. I took it for granted that we would be together until our final year, when we would have to decide on our next steps. Foolishly, I used to worry about what would happen if we couldn’t decide on a university, I worried that Lana, who was always so headstrong, so much more independent, would choose her university without checking with me first and that I’d be forced to choose the same or live miles away from her. Deep down I knew she would never do that, she was too caring, kind-hearted.

It’s still dark, the only light emanating from the luminous, green digits of my alarm clock, the only sound the whistle of the wind around the old, wooden window frames of the Malvern Academy. The clock reads six am. There would normally be some movement in the corridor by now – the early risers who like to take advantage of the empty bathroom – but it’s the Easter holidays, almost the end, and there’s only a handful of us here, supervised by a few remaining teachers who have no better way of spending their break.

I slowly shift out of bed, my body shaking with that heavy, sleepy feeling as my feet find the floor. I pad over to the window and I throw the curtains open. The moon is still bright in the inky sky, it looks just like it does in my nightmares, when the celestial light illuminates Lana’s pale face as she falls, capturing the look of horror in her eyes, like a photograph with the flash too bright. I shudder involuntarily. The surrounding fields are covered in a shimmering frost and I watch as a fox streaks across the grounds, leaving tiny footprints in the carpet of white before disappearing into the trees that surround Malvern. It’s April, but this far North winter tends to hang around.

The Academy is located in the county of Northumberland, close to the Scottish border where there is nothing but fir trees and craggy moorland dotted with sheep. The nearest village is a forty-minute drive. It has a garage, a pub and a single shop – the kind with an assortment of aged household essentials displayed in a dusty window. Around here, there’s not much for a girl of seventeen to do, but it’s become a second home.

I turn away from the window to brush my long, blonde hair back into a ponytail. I pull off my t-shirt, still damp with sweat, and the cold air kisses my clammy skin, making me shiver as I shrug into my fluffy dressing gown. I hazard a glance at my reflection, the light from the moon casting my face in shadows. My features appear faded, as though I am blurring into the background of my own existence. I look away and turn my attention instead to the laptop sitting on my desk.

I press the power button and drum my fingers impatiently as the screen flickers to life. Sometimes, after a particularly bad night, I like to read one of the many news articles written about my sister. I know it seems strange, but it’s become a habit, and I pore over the articles hoping that I might find some detail that I missed before, something that might help me to understand, to remember. Dr Parker says this is “unhealthy”, that we can’t always trust what is written in the media and that I shouldn’t, therefore, use the articles as a basis for piecing together the missing parts of that night. My memory of it is a black hole. Sometimes something will flit to the surface, a fleeting image, only to be sucked away into the darkness again.

Dr Parker says that we don’t have to have all of the answers, but my ritual isn’t about finding answers. I have the answers about what happened to my sister, she fell, the Police said so after they eventually found her. But I know there’s more locked away, blasted to some far corner of my mind by an injury I sustained to my head that night, leaving only the dream of her falling from that cliff, fluttering around in my mind like a page torn from a book.

I think the dream is a memory, but Dr Parker isn’t convinced. She thinks it could just be a manifestation of my need to know the truth, my mind piecing together a sequence of events to explain how Lana fell to the rocks below, how she could have lain there, undiscovered, for seven months.

I randomly click on one of the files and skim over the words of the article, while the accompanying photograph of Lana smiles back at me, her teeth dazzling-white in a porcelain face. The article is an old one, printed exactly one month after she disappeared, one week before our seventeenth birthday.

 

Today, an inquest into the disappearance of a young girl during a school trip concluded that safety measures taken by staff at the prestigious Malvern Academy were inadequate.

[_ Sixteen-year-old Lana George vanished last month from a popular camping site at Redcliff Forest in Northumberland. While Police believe she may have fallen from the cliffs, her body has not been found._]

Robert Gregory, Head Teacher at Malvern Academy, acknowledged that staff did not conduct a thorough reconnaissance of the area prior to the trip being arranged, but stated that it is traditional for year elevens to visit the cliffs every July to celebrate the end of their final exams. Mr Gregory added that risk assessments were completed prior to the visit to ensure that the students were safe and that the required numbers of staff were present. Mr Gregory reported that additional safety measures will be in place for future trips, pending approval from the appropriate governing bodies.

Although no further action is to be taken against the Malvern Academy, sources say that the school was under threat of closure following the incident and some parents have already removed their children from the once-popular educational establishment.

Until recently, the seventy-year-old, Northumberland-based private school had maintained a reputation for academic excellence and it topped the board of exam results again last year with all students receiving C grade and above at GCSE level.

Police Superintendent Alex Mitchell was also forced to defend the actions of the North East Police Force, after they were criticised for their handling of the initial investigation surrounding the disappearance of the youngster.

Police Officers who interviewed Miss George’s fellow students were branded as ‘heavy handed’ by some parents who complained that their children were subjected to ‘intense discussions’ and ‘interrogation’ without appropriate representation.

Spt Mitchell responded to the concerns by apologising for any distress caused, but insisted that his officers maintained professionalism throughout the investigation.

The force was also slammed for initially missing one of the vital pieces of evidence from the investigation, a leather jacket belonging to Miss George. The jacket was spotted on rocks below the cliffs by a member of the search and rescue team, hours after Police arrived at the scene.

Spt Mitchell admitted that Police thought Miss George may have lost her way in the surrounding woods and conducted their initial searches there. The force received much criticism for focusing on the woodland area when Miss George’s twin sister, Casey George, had already given officers a statement indicating that Lana may have fallen from the cliffs. Miss George’s sister was also injured, sustaining an unexplained head injury that affected her short term memory. She couldn’t offer any information in relation to Lana’s disappearance and was considered an unreliable witness.

When asked if Casey George’s head injury was a sign that the girls were attacked, Spt Mitchell stated that there was no further evidence to suggest that either of the girls was a victim of violence. He went on to say that Casey George was found at the bottom of the path leading up to the cliff and her injury may be completely unconnected to Lana’s disappearance.

The investigation into the disappearance of Miss George continues and anyone with any information is urged to contact Police.

 

I sink into the chair, brooding over the article. The reporter said that the other students, Lana’s friends, my friends, were subject to “interrogation”. The Police interviewed everyone who was there that night, including me, and while they were eager to find out what happened, they were sympathetic and patient, even when I was too upset to speak. The only reason the Police would come down heavily on someone was if…. they suspected they had something to do with Lana’s disappearance. I mull this over, like I do every time I have this thought, then I dismiss it. Fifty-eight students attended that camping trip, accompanied by seven teachers, people who I know, who I have lived with for the majority of the last five and a half years. I don’t believe any of them would have hurt Lana.

Frustrated, I slam the lid of the laptop shut and pick up the slip of paper beside it, it’s a list of things I wrote about myself.

In our last session, Dr Parker asked me to write a few things down, since I have such a hard time verbalising who I am. Dr Parker thinks it’s time for me to ‘move ahead’, she doesn’t believe in ‘moving on’, she says it has an air of finality that makes people afraid to do exactly that. So, in the interest of ‘moving ahead’, she wants me to reconnect with my identity. I’ve had some difficulties with this task, and so far, my list looks like this:

 

1: My name is Casey Anne George

2: I am certifiably insane

3: I have a tendency to exaggerate

4: Number 2 is not true

 

I review the list and hastily scribble out number 4, it’s unnecessary; Dr Parker knows that number 2 is not true, she’s read my records.

The truth is, I don’t know who I am anymore. I used to be a sister, a twin, a friend, but that was before Lana disappeared, before they found her body, before I cut off everyone left in my life.

There is something, however, something about myself that I could write on the list, but never would. Something that would convince Dr Parker that number two is, in fact, true. It’s something that no one else knows, not even Ivy, although sometimes I think she suspects, sometimes she looks at me with a kind of unease, like there’s something odd about me. She would be absolutely correct, because since that night, I have been able to feel the emotions of others. It may be something to do with the blow to my head, or the trauma of losing my sister, I don’t know, but I only have to lightly touch a person, a brush of the arm or a shake of the hand.

It starts with a tingle at the base of my skull, it travels into my jaw and up into my temples, then I feel everything they are feeling.

In the wake of Lana’s disappearance, everyone was so sad, I couldn’t bear to feel their sorrow on top of my own. It was overwhelming, crippling even, so I hid myself away, stayed in my room until I managed to suppress every emotion, all of mine, and all of those that lingered on my skin after contact with other people. At first I thought I was crazy, I’m still not sure what to make of it, and the only person I want to talk to about it, who I would trust not to laugh in my face, isn’t here anymore.

I look at the list, then I write one more thing.

Alone.

Chapter 2

 

Most of the staff at Malvern have dimly-lit offices filled with old, antique furniture and shelves of dusty, leather bound books, but not Dr Parker. Purple taffeta curtains hang at the small, snow-flecked windows of her office, a matching, woven rug covers much of the floor and colourful Moroccan lamps are placed here and there, bathing the room in a warm glow. Dr Parker’s mahogany desk is set against the wall to make room for two comfy, rounded armchairs, separated by a small, spindly table.

Dr Parker herself looks less like a therapist and more like an Arabian princess I once read about in a fairy tale, tall and slim with thick, dark hair and honeyed skin. She dresses just like the other therapists I was forced to meet with, but her sharp suits seem more like disguises and her thick-rimmed glasses don’t hide the shimmering eye shadow or the flick of her eyeliner.

“Number two is not true.”

“I know, but it’s a good example of number three.”

Dr Parker shakes her head. “Maybe you should’ve added ‘quick witted’ to the list,” her full lips are set in a tight line, but she winks at me over her glasses.

Her sessions are different to the others I was forced to sit through after that night. The other therapists would wait quietly for me to speak, but Dr Parker likes to fill the silence between us, like she can’t bear it, and she will often tell me things that are in no way connected to grief or bereavement.

At our first session, she told me that she was so good at reading people she was almost psychic. I knew she was just saying it to get my attention, but it worked, especially when she guessed correctly that my favourite colour is blue, that I love to run and that my favourite snack is bananas. She said she got all of that from what I was wearing, the way I move and the lingering smell from the banana I had eaten with breakfast.

“Why do you feel you have a tendency to exaggerate?”

“I don’t,” I look at her squarely. “But I know that’s what it says in my records. I know it’s what my last therapist said.” I nod towards the folder in Dr Parker’s lap.

She shifts a little, crossing her feet at the ankles. “Number four is interesting. Is this how you feel, or is this also an example of number three?”

I shrug my shoulders as I pull at a loose thread on the hem of my sweatshirt.

“Maybe you’re ready for your friends to come back from their Easter holidays,” Dr Parker says. “You must be pretty lonely here without them.”

I look past her at the olive-green wall of her office, chewing at the ragged skin on the inside of my mouth. “It hasn’t been that long.”

“Oh? When was the last time you spoke to your friends?”

I cock my head to one side, like I’m trying to remember. “I don’t know, maybe last week sometime.”

Dr Parker doesn’t need to be psychic to know that I am lying, I’m terrible at it, and my cheeks burn as she narrows her dark eyes at me. “I thought we agreed to be truthful.”

When I first met Dr Parker she said that she had one rule. I didn’t have to tell her everything, but anything I did tell her had to be the truth. She promised to do the same. I have a little difficulty sticking to that rule sometimes, usually when I don’t want to admit something about myself, like my struggle to reconnect with my friends, or when I almost say something that would give away my curious little gift.

Keeping something like that from Dr Parker is not lying, not really. Therapy means talking about how I feel, whereas my gift focuses on how others feel, so by not talking about my gift, I am really just refusing to talk about other peoples’ feelings, which aren’t mine to share.

“Fine,” I huff. “It was…about a month ago, on…on the day of the funeral.”

She raises her eyebrows. “A month? Have they tried to contact you since then?”

“I don’t know. I lost my phone.”

My phone is in fact hidden at the bottom of my chest of drawers at home, forgotten, like a childhood toy I had grown tired of. My cheeks warm a little, because I have just told another blatant lie.

Dr Parker sighs. “OK. Tell me about the last time you spoke to your friends.”

I look up sharply. “I told you, it was…at the funeral.”

She nods, gesturing for me to continue. My insides start to writhe with anxiety and it is suddenly difficult to breathe.

At our first session, Dr Parker made me another promise. She said that I wouldn’t have to talk about…that, and I don’t know what to tell her, because there are no words to describe how I felt that day.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Dr Parker always seems to know what I’m thinking. “But it’s time to start exploring some of the things that have happened since they found Lana. Please.”

I take a deep, shaky breath, then I tell her how blue the sky was that day and how bright the sun was, how I’d hidden my eyes behind sunglasses.

It was the first day that promised spring after a long winter of snow and ice, which was ironic, because spring is about new life, not death.

I don’t tell her that my whole body had trembled like jelly when the funeral cars arrived, or that tears had threatened to pour, stinging the backs of my eyes, because I never let them fall. I don’t tell her that I swallowed the pebble-sized lump rising in my throat, as I slid into the back of a sleek, black car with cold, leather seats.

I didn’t cry that day, not once. I should have forced the tears out, let everyone see the tracks on my cheeks. That’s what is expected when we lose someone, but I was beyond tears.

I tell Dr Parker that the crowd of people at the crematorium were all dressed in black, their heads lowered in respect. I recognised some of our neighbours from the village, my friends and teachers from school and some of Ivy’s work colleagues.

We have no other family; it’s just Ivy and me now, and I had clung to her hand – which was thankfully encased in a black glove – as we made our way into the chapel. I let her do the talking, she spoke to each person in turn and thanked them for coming, for the flowers, for their kind words.

I spotted my best friend, Bria, her curly, copper hair like a beacon in a sea of black. She waved at me, her face puffy and her eyes red from crying. I had smiled tightly at her before moving on to greet the others.

My friends Jas and Orla were there too, standing with a group of other students from Malvern. I had scanned the crowd looking for Molly, Lana’s best friend, and finally found her standing a little apart from the rest of the congregation, her face pale and gaunt. She caught my eye, but looked immediately away.

The chapel was dimly lit and freezing cold. Lana’s coffin was wreathed in flowers, the scent mingling with burning incense, making me feel sick and heady. Someone squeezed my shoulder comfortingly.

I can’t remember what the vicar said, or what hymns we sang. I can’t even remember what personal piece of music was playing as the coffin disappeared behind the curtain, but I can remember how I felt as my sister’s body was taken away. I was filled with regret. I regretted not making the most of the little time we had together, I regretted all of the times we had fought, all of the times that I had borrowed something from her wardrobe without asking, even though I knew she would never deny me anything that was hers. Most of all, I regretted not saying anything, not telling everyone gathered in the chapel how much my sister had meant to me.

After the crematorium, Ivy invited everyone back to our house. Her friends helped her take the plastic wrap off the platters of sandwiches and cakes, then they served tea and coffee in Ivy’s best china. Our living room was crammed with so many people that I stayed by the door, my back pressed against the wall so I wouldn’t accidentally brush against someone and be crippled by their grief.

Orla caught my eye and motioned like she was going to come over, but I wasn’t ready to talk to her, or anyone else, so I ducked out of the living room and raced upstairs to my room. I closed the door behind me and listened to the low hum of voices and the distant tinkle of crockery. When I heard the thump of footsteps on the stairs, I looked around for somewhere to hide before settling on the narrow space under my bed. It felt like a childish act, but I couldn’t face anyone. The bedroom door opened and I held my breath as someone strode in and paused at the foot of the bed.

A round face suddenly appeared beneath a curtain of copper hair. “Good spot,” Bria said. “I would’ve gone for the airing cupboard.”

Bria crawled under the opposite bed – Lana’s – and laid flat on her front. A silent tear rolled down her cheek as she reached across the gap between the beds, resting her hand in the space between us. “I miss her too.”

I had cautiously rested my hand on hers, bracing myself for the onslaught of emotion. Bria was sad and confused, just like me.

“Do you think I should’ve said something at the funeral?”

Bria sniffed and wiped her eyes. “It wouldn’t bring her back.”

Then she smiled and squeezed my hand reassuringly, the pressure forcing her sorrow through me like a blunt knife.

I heard more footsteps on the stairs and quickly retracted my hand, silently willing Bria not to give away our hiding place. Someone padded lightly into the room, manoeuvring carefully around the bed to the dresser on the far side. I heard them pull out the top drawer and rummage around inside, before leaving hastily.

“Did they take something?” Dr Parker stares at me with intense curiosity, her eyes like huge, dark orbs.

I had left out the part about sensing Bria’s sadness, but I can tell that my story still has her enthralled.

I shake my head. “I don’t know. The dresser was Lana’s, the top drawer was filled with all kinds of stuff – scrapbooks, half bottles of perfume, costume jewellery. I couldn’t tell if anything was missing.”

“How did you leave things with Bria?” She asks.

“We stayed in my room for a while, until most people had left, then she made me promise that I would return to school.”

“She’ll get a nice surprise when she comes back from her holiday.” Dr Parker says with a smile. “You said that you regretted not saying anything at the funeral.”

“Did I?” I was definitely thinking about my regret as I told Dr Parker about that day, but I hadn’t realised I had spoken those words.

“Yes, you did. Tell me, what would you have said?”

My cheeks flush a little. “I don’t know.”

Dr Parker cocks her head to one side. “You must have some thoughts about what you would have said, if you regret not saying anything at all.”

I take a shaky breath, almost choking on the tears gathering in my throat. “Well there is something I might’ve said.”

Dr Parker nods encouragingly.

“Once, when we were about five or six, Lana and I were playing hide and seek at home. Lana told me to close my eyes and count to ten, so I sat, cross-legged on my bed with my eyes covered and I started to count. When I reached ten, I opened my eyes and I ran out of the room to look for her,” I swallow down more tears as I force the memory to the forefront of my mind.

I picture the lemon yellow walls of the stairwell in our house, the black, iron-wrought bannister, the sun filtering in through the windows making everything golden, warm, serene. “I searched the whole house from top to bottom,” I continue. “When I couldn’t find her, I got scared and I started to cry. After a while, I went to tell Ivy that Lana was lost and that it was my fault. Ivy called out to Lana and she appeared, less than a minute later, with dust in her hair. She was hiding under the bed the whole time, the bed that I was sitting on as I counted to ten, the only place I hadn’t thought to look. Lana looked like she might laugh, but when she saw how upset I was, she put her arm around me and she promised that she would never hide from me again, she promised that we would always be together and we would always take care of each other.”

Dr Parker smiles sadly.

“That’s it,” I say, clearing my throat. “That’s what I would’ve said at the funeral. I would’ve told that story.”

She considers me for a moment. “Casey, do you believe that Lana’s disappearance was your fault?”

I chew the inside of my lip. I do blame myself, I should have taken better care of her, I should know what happened, but saying this out loud would be too painful.

“It wasn’t your fault, Casey. You had nothing to do with Lana’s death, it was an accident. A tragic accident.”

I lower my head, uncomfortable with the sudden direction the session has taken. As if she senses this, Dr Parker hastily changes the subject.

“What about Ivy, have you heard from her?”

I squirm in my seat. “She’s in Paris, working. I don’t want to bother her.”

Dr Parker frowns. “She hasn’t contacted you?”

“Once or twice, I haven’t had time to call her back yet.” The truth is Ivy has called the main office every day since I returned to school. The secretary threatened to report me to Ms Gould, our Head of Year, if I didn’t call Ivy back.

“Ok, I want you to call her before our next session.”

“Our next session is on Monday.”

“Then you have almost forty-eight hours,” Dr Parker smiles widely showing a line of perfect, white teeth. “Plenty of time.”

I cross my arms sulkily. “She might not want to talk to me.”

Dr Parker rolls her eyes. “Don’t be silly, we both know that’s not true,” she opens the folder on her lap and turns to a page at the back. “You said you didn’t want to keep a diary of the dreams you’ve been having, but you said I could keep a record, so tell me, did you dream again last night?”

I nod.

“The same dream?”

“It’s not a dream, it’s a nightmare and it’s always the same. Lana falls from the cliff and I can’t save her.”

“You still think that’s what happened?”

“I know that’s what happened, the Police said so.”

“But do you still believe you were there? At the exact moment Lana fell?”

“I don’t know.”

She looks surprised. “I’ve seen you almost every day for the last fortnight and you’ve always insisted that your dream was a memory of Lana’s last moments. What’s changed?”

“I’m not sure; the Police say it’s impossible that I was there, I was found at the bottom of the trail and, I don’t know, something about the way she fell maybe.”

Dr Parker leans forward and clasps her hands together. “What do you mean?”

I hesitate, trying to find the right words. “The way she just lost her balance like that, she was a junior fencing champion, light on her feet, and why was she even standing on the edge? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Dr Parker makes a note in the folder and pushes her glasses further up her nose. “I think this is real progress, Casey. You’re starting to analyse the holes in your own theory.”

I frown at her. “I thought you wanted me to move ahead? To stop dwelling on what happened.”

“No, I wanted you to stop fixating on one point. By considering that your dream may not be a memory after all, you are moving ahead.”

Dr Parker slides her pen into the knot of dark brown hair twisted high on top of her head and clasps her hands together. “Now, how about a little guided meditation?”

I leave her office some time later feeling lightheaded and sleepy, the heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach that little bit smaller. I grab a wrapped sandwich and a carton of apple juice from the dining hall before heading back to my room.

As I reach the empty corridor of the sixth form dormitory, something starts to gnaw at my insides like a feral animal, spoiling all of Dr Parker’s efforts to calm me. Today is Saturday, and tomorrow the rest of the school will return ready for the start of the new term on Monday morning. My breathing is suddenly ragged and my head aches under the harsh, neon strip lights that contrast starkly with the old school.

I sit down on one of the narrow window seats that line the corridor until panic releases its grip on me. The seat is decorated with a baroque pattern – gold swirls on a black background. I trace my fingers over it until I am calm.

Snow drifts lazily past the tall, lancet window and I press my forehead against the cold pane, closing my eyes and savouring the relief. When I feel like I could probably reach my room without fainting, I push myself up from the seat.

The corridor is carpeted in red, I know every floorboard that creaks and I step on each one purposefully, the sound familiar and comforting.

The school is a listed building, it was once the home of a Spanish Count and Countess who had the property gifted to them by the King of England in the eighteenth century. Many of the original features, such as the window seats, the tall, pointed clock tower outside and a huge stone fountain that sits stoically in the middle of the drive, are still here.

The majority of the students are accommodated in newer buildings, or ‘form-houses’, around the grounds, but the first years live on the first floor and the sixth formers are on the third floor. The teachers that board are on the floor in between, their keen ears listening out for footsteps above and voices below.

I let my hand trail along the thick, wooden frame of an old oil painting as I make my way along the corridor, and I am inches away from my door when a flurry of wild, red hair collides with me.

“There you are; I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“Bria.”

She is hugging me so tightly that I can barely breathe, her skinny arms digging into my ribs and her cheek cold against mine. The base of my skull tingles, as her delight rushes through me.

“Oh I’m so glad you’re back, school has been rubbish without you,” Bria babbles. “I didn’t know if you were coming back after the holidays, so I rang Ivy, and she said you were already here, so I came back early.”

Bria takes a step back and looks at me with big, emerald eyes that shine with excitement. Her small, upturned-nose and apple cheeks are pink with cold and there are tiny beads of dew in her copper curls, as if she carried in the snowflakes from outside and they melted in the flames of her hair.

“You’re not mad at me?”

Bria shakes her head dramatically, releasing a shower of water, like a dog shaking out its wet fur. “Why would I be mad?”

“Because,” I stare sheepishly at the ground. “I haven’t returned any of your calls.”

Bria shrugs her shoulders. “Dr Parker said you needed time.”

“Dr Parker? You’ve seen her too?”

“Of course, most of our year group have seen her. She’s really helped us to you know, move ahead.” Bria makes quotation marks in the air with her fingers and I smile a little.

“So, what do you feel like doing?” Bria asks.

“I was actually just on my way back to my room to…”

“I don’t think so.” Bria links her arm through mine and proceeds to drag me up the corridor. “My guess is that you’ve spent these last two weeks wallowing in your room,” Bria continues. “I bet you haven’t even seen the new lounge.”

“Excuse me, I do not wallow,” I want to dig my heels into the carpet, drop the anchor so that Bria can’t steer me along the corridor. “We have a new lounge?”

She rolls her eyes and exhales dramatically. “Yes, exclusively for sixth formers. They even installed a coffee machine.”

The thought of coffee makes me quicken my pace. I never used to like it much, but over these last few months I have developed a taste for it. Maybe because it’s the only thing that can wrench me into existence after a bad night’s sleep.

We reach a small staircase, it’s new, I can tell by the fresh shade of the carpet and the sharp edges of the wooden structure underneath. The carpet is red, like the rest of the corridor, but more of a bright scarlet red, not the aged, worn-out red that covers the rest of the floor.

The staircase leads up to the tower of the west wing, the location of our new lounge, and above the door there is a shiny, golden plaque that reads: “In Loving Memory of Lana George”.

Bria climbs the staircase, but I am frozen to spot, my eyes fixed on those words. I remember that there was some mention, after Lana’s body was found, of something being done in her memory. It’s a strange place for a memorial, maybe a garden would have been more appropriate, since Lana loved the outdoors.

Bria follows my gaze. “Oh, I’d forgotten about that. It’s kind of nice though, isn’t it? So everyone remembers her.”

Like anyone could ever forget Lana. She was the most popular girl in school, everyone adored her. She wasn’t just beautiful and clever, she was kind, she was the first to comfort those who were upset and she was good at it, she was like a sun that everyone gravitated towards, because they felt better in her light.

“There’s something else,” Bria says. “Ms Gould started an exhibition in Lana’s memory.” She pushes the door open with a creak and I step over the threshold with a feeling of trepidation.

The lounge is warm, inviting and silent except for the whistle of the wind and the faint whir of the coffee machine in the corner that permeates the air, with a sweet, nutty scent.

My heart sinks into my stomach when I see her. Lana. My dead sister, immortalised in canvas and paint.

Chapter 3

 

She is everywhere, peering out at me from canvases and frames, navy blue eyes and pale-blonde hair. I clutch the carton of juice so tightly to my chest that it threatens to burst and I press a deep thumbprint into the sandwich still clutched in my other hand.

I remember Ivy explaining when we were very young that Lana and I were not identical. While Lana and I may have had the same hair, my eyes are a little lighter, my nose a little longer. Lana was always beautiful and vibrant, while I am kind of awkward, happy to live in her shadow where no one pays too much attention.

“This one’s mine.” Bria points proudly at a painting of Lana sitting on the lawn of a white house with a grey, slate roof. Green foliage frames the windows and there are neat flowerbeds in the front garden.

I step forward to examine the painting more closely. “You painted Evergreen.”

My home, Evergreen, is on the east coast, on the outskirts of an old fishing village called Cormorant’s Bay, just a two-hour drive from school. Unlike the quiet grounds of Malvern, Cormorant’s Bay is a noisy, vibrant place. Colourful boats dip and sway in the harbour and the shrill sound of seagulls is heard all year.

Evergreen used to be my favourite place in the world, warm in the summer, freezing cold in the winter, always smelling of candle wax and furniture polish. No matter where I went, I always looked forward to going home, but that was before. Now it’s just four walls and a roof that houses nothing but sadness.

Bria smiles. “When I think of Lana, I try to imagine her happy, sitting in the garden of Evergreen with the sun on her face.”

Lana loved the sun, she liked to sit with it shining directly on her face, while Ivy lectured her on applying sun lotion and wearing a hat.

I step to the side to look at the next painting. This one shows Lana on the beach wearing a white dress, her back to the observer, her head tilted as though she’s watching the moody, grey clouds painted above the sea.

Evergreen is right by the beach. When the tide is in, you can throw a stone from our back garden and it will land in the surf. When we were little, Lana would stand at the shoreline, her toes buried in the sand. She would squeal with delight when the icy water swept over her bare feet, leaving her toes nipped red with cold.

“You like them then?” Bria chews nervously on the sleeve of the pale-pink jumper she is wearing.

I glance at the other surrounding paintings. “Yeah, they’re….”

Bria exhales dramatically. “You hate them.”

“No, no I don’t hate them. They’re great, it’s all just so…” I struggle to find a word that won’t upset her. “Overwhelming.”

Truthfully, the exhibition is a couple of candles away from being a shrine and the whole thing makes me feel kind of queasy, but I don’t want to offend Bria on our first day together in a month, so I force a couple of tears to the corners of my eyes. It seems to work. Bria suddenly beams with a mixture of sadness and pride, as though the exhibition evoked the kind of emotion she was hoping for.

The rest of the lounge is pretty ordinary, the walls are painted a neutral magnolia and there is a small, flat-screen television on the wall by the window. The new coffee machine sits on the sideboard, along with a caddy that holds a stack of paper cups, stirrers and small sachets of milk and sugar.

Bria makes a selection at the coffee machine and carries two cups over to a short table sitting between two squishy armchairs, then she motions for me to join her. She places a cup of coffee in front of me, the hot liquid sloshing down the side to make a ring on the table, and she points to the uneaten sandwich still clutched in my hand. “Are you eating that?”

“Why don’t we share it?” I unwrap the sandwich and hand her half.

She smiles gratefully and takes a bite.

We eat in silence for a while, it is not uncomfortable, but the weight of all of our unsaid words from the last month hangs between us.

Bria pulls her phone from her pocket and waves it in front of me. “You know there’s Wi-Fi in here? You should hook your phone up.”

“I…left my phone at home.”

Bria looks surprised, but doesn’t say anything. My phone used to be an extension of my arm, I never went anywhere without it, but when the condolence messages started flooding in, I buried it in the bottom of a drawer at home.

“I think it might be broken,” I add hastily. “I should probably speak to Ivy about getting another one.”

Bria continues to look at me as she raises her coffee cup to her lips.

“So, what have I missed?” I ask, desperate to shift her attention.

“You would know if your phone wasn’t broken.” She smirks.

My cheeks flush, but Bria just laughs. “Well, let’s see…I was voted in as head of the events committee and yes, before you ask, that is a thing now; Orla made captain of the hockey team…Jas’s little sister Sabrina joined school back in September…and…um…well, there’s one other, tiny, bit of gossip…”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, I’m sort of seeing someone…” Bria’s face is tinged with pink.

“Really? Who is it?”

“It’s…Nick, Nick Archer.”

“Oh.”

Nick is Lana’s ex-boyfriend. They broke up long before she disappeared, but I always thought that Nick still had feelings for her.

Ivy gets on well with Nick’s mother and they often speak. Ivy said that Lana’s disappearance hit Nick really hard, but I guess he’s trying to move on. All of my friends are.

Bria reaches across the table for my hand and I instinctively retract it. It’s become a habit. I have to brace myself to feel what others feel, prepare for the onslaught of emotion. If I see it coming, sometimes I move away without thinking.

She looks a little hurt. “You hate me, don’t you?”

“Don’t be silly, I could never hate you,” I force a smile on to my face. “I’m happy for you, really.”

“It’s early days, but I really like him.” She says, looking relieved.

“That’s great.” I don’t have a problem with Bria dating Nick, I want her to be happy. I guess I just need to practice showing enthusiasm.

“You know, Nick’s got a hot, new friend.” Bria raises an eyebrow suggestively. “He’s called Caleb Vedmak, he transferred from some school down south after the Christmas holidays.”

I scrunch up my nose. “What kind of a name is Vedmak?”

Bria shakes her head. “I think his family originates from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Everyone likes him. Molly’s already trying to stake her claim, but he asked Nick about you. I think he likes you.”

I raise my eyebrows in disbelief. “We’ve never even met.”

Bria rolls her eyes. “He saw you in some of my photographs online and thought you were cute.”

I pull a face. “Cute?”

“Yes, that’s what he said.” Bria laughs. “And I know you’ll like him. He’s got that mysterious, handsome stranger vibe going on and he’s got this accent…Anyway, you’ll have a chance to talk to him next Friday.”

“Why, what’s happening on Friday?”

“Just a little gathering on the patio.”

My eyes flit to the window. “Outside, in this?” The snow is now falling fast and thick, the wind driving it at the windows so that it slaps against the panes like wet sand.

Bria huffs as she follows my gaze. “Well how was I to know it would snow in April?” Her shoulders slump as she observes the bleak conditions. “It’s crazy, all this strange weather, the earthquakes…maybe I should just cancel.”

I try to think of something to say to cheer her up. After all, Friday night might prove a welcome distraction, once I get over the anxiety of having to be around lots of people at once. “No, don’t do that, it can be a themed party…Eskimos or something.”

Bria brightens then. “That’s actually not a bad idea. I’ll just tell everyone to wrap up, get a couple of patio heaters so we don’t catch hypothermia…I’ve already got a gazebo on standby in case it rains…Anyway, it’s really just a small, welcome back thing. The real party is on St George’s Day; we’re having a medieval themed banquet.”

“Wow, the school must have a big events budget this year.”

“They do now,” Bria grins mischievously. “My father made quite a large donation when they made me head of the events committee, I guess it kind of swung the vote.” Bria’s father is the CEO of a major finance company. They live in a huge house in Kensington, but he chose to send Bria to a school in the northern countryside where she wouldn’t be distracted by the bright lights of the city – at least that’s how Bria put it.

I look at her incredulously. “So they gave you the job because they knew your father would make a donation?”

Bria looks at me sheepishly. “Well, I may have told one or two people that if I won the vote, my dad would donate enough funds to pay for a party or two each term.”

She looks suddenly guilty, her eyes wide and her mouth making a little ‘o’, as though it has only just dawned on her that she may have given herself an unfair advantage.

I laugh then, the sound reverberating around the empty lounge, an unfamiliar ringing that I haven’t heard in months. Guiltily, I snap my mouth shut.

Bria cocks her head. “It’s OK to laugh you know. Lana wouldn’t want you to be unhappy.”

“I know,” I say. “It just feels wrong, disrespectful or something.”

Bria shakes her head. “It’s not disrespectful and besides, there’s only you and me here.”

We spend the rest of the day in the lounge, watching the snow pile up in the corners of the windows, but our solitude doesn’t last long. When Sunday arrives, the corridors are filled with suitcases and excited voices.

I plan on spending the afternoon hiding in my room, away from the stares and the whispers, but Bria forces me to return to the lounge, reasoning that it’s best to start with the sixth formers before I have to face the rest of the school.

I reluctantly agree to go, but as we reach the small staircase, the nerves get the better of me and it takes all of my strength and much pleading from Bria, to get me to step over the threshold.

The sound of voices rises when Bria opens the door. Most of the seats are occupied and the people sitting closest turn when they realise I’m standing there.

A hush falls over the room, a few people wave politely, some look away hurriedly, unable to meet my eye, the rest turn to whisper to their neighbours, they aren’t even discreet about it. The television is on and there are scenes of rioting on the screen which seem a million miles away from the still lounge, shouts and cries spilling from the speakers.

“Come on.” Bria crosses the lounge to an empty bistro table at the back of the room. From here, I can see everyone, but they would have to turn their heads in an obvious, uncomfortable manner if they want to continue gaping at me.

I spot Molly, Jas and Orla sitting on large, brightly-coloured cushions in the corner. Molly has her back to me, but Jas sees me. She smiles widely. Orla follows her gaze and raises her hand in a half wave, like she isn’t sure if I will return the gesture. I take a breath and smile back in a way that I hope is welcoming and not off-putting.

Molly looks over her shoulder, her long dark hair shielding much of her face. It fails to hide the curl of her lip, or the way her eyes narrow.

She looks away and the three of them put their heads together.

“What was that about?”

Bria is at the coffee machine again. “What?”

“Molly, what’s up with her? Are you two still friends?”

Bria glances past me, as she hands me a cup of sweet, yet peppery liquid, the steam rising in thick coils. “I guess. I don’t spend much time with her anymore. She was pretty upset about Nick and me.” She frowns and a tiny line appears between her eyebrows.

“Really?” I find it strange that Molly would care so much about Bria and Nick’s new relationship. He may have been Lana’s ex-boyfriend, but I always got the impression that Molly didn’t like him very much.

“What about Orla and Jas?”

“We’re still friends, I saw them over the holidays,” Bria takes a seat beside me. “They feel bad for Molly so they’re still spending time with her. Apparently she’s not coping very well.”

That makes two of us. I remember how Molly had looked at the funeral – miserable, just like everyone else, mourning the loss of her best friend.

I wonder if it feels different, losing your sister to losing your best friend. Does it hurt any less? Would I feel different now, if I was sitting here with Lana instead of Bria?

I shake the thought away. “So, why does Molly care so much about you and Nick?”

“She said I was betraying Lana.”

“That’s just silly, Lana and Nick were just friends, they broke up months before…” And just like that, the heavy feeling of sorrow claims me again, memories of pain, sleepless nights spent curled into a ball, hoping that she would come back, seep into my mind. I take a deep breath. “I’m sure if Lana was still here, she would give you her blessing.”

Tears gather at the corners of Bria’s eyes. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re back, Casey.”

I’m worried that she’s going to start crying right here in the middle of the lounge and I have no more words of comfort, so I hurriedly take a sip of my drink. The liquid is bitter, and still too hot to drink. I spit it back into the polystyrene cup. “Urgh, what is this?”

Bria snorts and wipes her eyes with the heel of her hand. “Chamomile, it’s supposed to help you relax, it’s supposed to help you sleep too. I thought you might need it.”

I sniff at the drink and wrinkle my nose. “Does it keep nightmares away?” The words are out of my mouth before I realise what I am saying. I don’t talk about my nightmares to anyone except for Dr Parker.

Bria’s eyes are wide. “You have nightmares?”

“The same one, over and over again.”

“What happens…in your nightmare?”

I pull at the sleeves of my jumper, pulling the cuffs over my hands to hide the spontaneous tremble in my fingers. “I see her fall from the cliff.”

Bria’s hands fly to her cheeks, “Casey, that’s awful,” More tears gather at the corners of her eyes. “I have nightmares too, about that night.”

“You do?”

She nods slowly, her eyes wide, fearful. The look of horror etched on her face stirs a sudden, morbid interest within me. “What happens in your nightmares?”

Bria inhales deeply. “Well, I see Lana standing by our campfire,” she screws her eyes shut, as though she’s trying to mentally grab hold of the dream. “The smoke from the fire is almost black and it must be irritating her eyes, because there are tears streaming down her face. She looks up and I think she sees me, but then I realise that she’s looking past me, like there is something, or someone, behind me. She takes off up the path that leads to the cliffs. I try to call after her, but no sound comes out when I open my mouth,” Bria’s voice has a sudden dreamy quality. “I follow her, but she’s too fast and when I reach the cliffs it’s too late.”

“You see her fall?”

Bria shakes her head mournfully and takes a shaky breath. “No. In my dream, she doesn’t fall.”

“So what happens?”

“He takes her, the man with no face takes her.”

Chapter 4

 

I gaze up at the ceiling of my bedroom; white wispy clouds drift serenely against a painted blue sky. The clouds start to quicken, carried by the breeze. I look across the room and I see Evergreen. My bed is cold and when I shift into a sitting position, I find myself on the lawn in front of my house. Someone stands on the doorstep, her long blonde hair lashing across her face in the wind. I hear the creak of the front gate and a crack as a sudden gust drives it against the frame. The sky begins to darken and raindrops splatter the ground. I scramble to my feet as a rumble of thunder sounds overhead and the ground beneath me begins to shake. Lana looks terrified as the house quivers around her. The door behind her opens and a figure emerges, tall, swathed in black, his face a flat, blank nothingness. A soundless scream escapes my lips. Lana reaches out to me, but the man wraps his arms around her. She struggles against his grip, but he’s too strong.

RUN!” She screams.

But I don’t run away, I can’t, I won’t leave my sister. I sprint towards the house, but it’s too late. As I reach the front gate, there is a flash of lightning and Evergreen crumbles, dissolving into dust.

My alarm clock wakes me from the nightmare; startled, I knock it to the floor where it continues to beep piercingly, threateningly, like a siren. A cold sweat covers my entire body and I try to take deep breaths until I am calm, silently cursing Bria for her talk of the faceless man and her painting of Evergreen that came to life so vividly in my dreams.

I climb shakily out of bed, scooping up the alarm clock.

When I finally manage to silence it, I start to mull over the dream. I’ve had the same one every night since Lana fell from that cliff, each time I watch her fall, but last night was different.

Just like mine, Bria’s nightmare was dismissed by the Police, they said there was no evidence to suggest that anyone had been involved in Lana’s death.

Bria was also what the Police referred to as an “unreliable witness”, on account that she was intoxicated that night, drunk on the vodka she had smuggled along to the camping trip.

The snow has turned to hail outside; I can hear it thudding against the window like tiny pebbles on a drum skin. I switch on the bedside lamp and blink in the light. My stomach sinks when my eyes fall on my uniform – a tartan skirt, white shirt and navy blazer – which is unfortunately still mandatory for sixth formers. I lift it down with a groan and toss it on to the unmade bed.

After I’ve showered, dressed and arranged my hair into a high, meticulous ponytail, I make my way downstairs, my heart battering my ribs.

My stomach churns as I rest my hand on the bronze door handle of the dining hall, listening to the sound of weary voices inside.

As I open the door, I take a deep breath, like a diver preparing to submerge. A few people turn to stare, but most of the sixth form students wave or smile in my direction. The first years, who I can easily pick out of the crowd because of their tiny statures and too-big uniforms, won’t even know who I am, at least not by face, and they barely glance at me.

I scan the tables for Bria and find her sitting with her back to me at the far end of the hall, her copper hair cascading down the back of her navy blazer. I keep my head held high as I join the queue for breakfast, clutching the strap of my shoulder bag so tightly that my knuckles are white. I grab a plate and I take a little scrambled egg and bacon from the counter, along with a mug of coffee. I turn too quickly, plate and mug in hand, and I collide with a tall, solid figure. Scalding hot liquid spills down my front and I inhale sharply as my plate smashes on the floor, the porcelain shattering into a million pieces. The room falls silent and everyone turns to stare.

“Woah!” A dark haired boy stands in front of me, his arms outstretched as he looks at the mess on the floor between us. I wipe at my wet uniform, my chest feels like it is on fire and I am amazed that my skin hasn’t erupted into huge blisters. The boy’s eyes are wide as he takes in my coffee-stained shirt. He snorts suddenly and I feel my cheeks blaze. “Do you think this is funny?”

He arranges his face into a look of mock sincerity. “Not at all.” He edges around me and grabs a wad of napkins off the counter. He holds them out to me and I snatch them out of his hand, as his eyes flicker to my chest again. “I’d offer to take you to the nurse, but it doesn’t look like there’s any lasting damage.” He has a slight accent that I can’t place.

Before I can respond, one of the kitchen staff scuttles over with a dustpan and brush, she shoos us away and proceeds to sweep up the shards of porcelain and the remnants of my breakfast.

I step back, still dabbing at my drenched shirt. “Well you could at least apologise.” I say to the boy, who still stands close by, watching me carefully.

“I am truly sorry,” he says, dramatically. “I am sorry that you weren’t looking where you were going and I regret that Marcia here is having to clean up your mess.” He waves his hand towards the lady now extracting a damp cloth from the pocket of her apron. I hear those nearest to us laugh and my face flushes with embarrassment. It’s suddenly difficult to breathe, I have to get out of here. I turn on my heel and rush out of the hall, the laughter dampened by the sound of blood rushing in my ears.

I race to the bathroom and shut myself in one of the cubicles. I drop the lid of the toilet and I sit down, resting my head in my hands until I am calm. The image of the boy from the dining hall fills my mind. He’s handsome, I can’t deny it, but so arrogant, his tone condescending, and the way his eyes flickered to my chest…

I want to cry, but that seems foolish. I realise that I can’t stay here forever, so I straighten up, take a deep breath, then I leave the cubicle.

I clean the coffee from my chest at the sinks, using wet paper towels to scrub my skin, then I hurry upstairs to change my shirt.

My blazer is a little stained on the left lapel, but it will do for today. On the way back downstairs, my stomach rumbles and the smell of coffee still lingers on me.

I have a meeting with Ms Gould this morning. She wasn’t around when I returned to school, but she left a message for me at reception, asking me to report to her office at nine a.m. today.

I am a little early, but I can’t face the dining hall again, so I head straight to her office, ignoring the complaints from my stomach. When I knock, she calls for me to enter and looks up from her paperwork when I step into her office.

Ms Gould is about thirty, with a round face and a penchant for red lipstick. Today her eyes are ringed with purple and her sandy-blonde hair sticks out at all angles, like she woke up late and didn’t have time to brush it through.

Despite her obvious fatigue, she smiles as she gestures to the seat in front of her.

I slide into it, dropping my bag at my feet.

Ms Gould’s office is small and windowless and I immediately start to feel claustrophobic.

“It’s good to see you, Casey,” she starts. “How was your Easter holiday? I understand you spent it here at school.”

“It was…fine.”

She stops shuffling her papers and locks her fingers together. “You must’ve been lonely; I understand you were the only sixth former here.”

“I saw Dr Parker,” I shrug. “Almost every day in fact, and anyway, Ivy had to go back to Paris for work, so…”

Ms Gould narrows her eyes at me. “According to your Aunt, it was your idea to return to school.”

My cheeks burn. “I had to, otherwise Ivy would never have gone back to work.”

“Hmm.” Ms Gould considers me for a moment. “Well, you’re back now and we’re pleased to have you. I just hope you’re ready. Year twelve is tough.”

I nod firmly. “I’m ready.”

“That’s the spirit,” she beams. “Well your tutors are all satisfied with the work you submitted from home. You might have a bit of reading to catch up on, but I’m sure you won’t have a problem with that. I don’t suppose you’ve had any time to work on your art portfolio?”

“Oh, yeah.” I delve into my bag and pull out a folder of drawings. They are mostly sketches of inanimate objects from around the house – bowls of fruit, candlesticks, anything that wouldn’t stir up emotion. Catching up on all of the coursework I’ve missed was a condition of my return to Malvern.

Despite the dull subjects of the drawings, Ms Gould looks genuinely satisfied as she rifles through them. “That’s a great start,” she says. “I have some exercises planned for class that might help you choose more of a… direction, a theme, if you like.”

I have a feeling that I know what Ms Gould wants that theme to be.

“Have you seen the memorial display?” I was hoping that you might like to contribute something yourself.”

“Maybe.” I shrug, my suspicions confirmed.

Ms Gould sighs. “The memorial display is about celebrating Lana’s life; it’s brought comfort to many of her friends.”

“It’s just not really my thing.” I say, squirming uncomfortably in my seat.

“Casey, through the display, Lana’s memory can live on.”

It takes all of my will-power to not roll my eyes. “I know; I saw the plaque above the door of the new lounge.”

Ms Gould raises her eyebrows and I quickly clear my throat, realising that I’m bordering on rudeness. “The display is great, really…thoughtful. I just don’t think my work is up to the standard of the other paintings.”

Ms Gould looks mollified, but she waves my comments away. “Nonsense, I’m sure with a little help you could paint something really lovely in memory of your sister.”

I can’t think of anything polite to say, so I just smile.

“I have your planner here,” Ms Gould pushes a small, spiral-bound book towards me. “Your timetable is inside, and here’s a note for your first lesson, explaining why you’re late.”

She squeezes my hand as I reach for the planner and the note. It’s a kind gesture, but it sends a jolt through my skull like a hammer.

She doesn’t seem to notice my discomfort. “I want you to tell me immediately if you start having any more of your…difficulties. My door is always open.”

I mutter a quick thanks before snatching my hand away, lurching towards the door with my heart pounding, my breath ragged. In the hallway, I lean against the wall and close my eyes.

Even though Ms Gould’s touch was brief, the feeling emanating from her was so strong that it surged through me like electricity. Now, in the silence of the hall, I know what that feeling is. It’s the same thing I felt yesterday when I saw Bria, after weeks of ignoring her, of shutting her out. It was guilt. Ms Gould feels guilty about something. I can’t think about it now; my head feels too fuzzy.

Pushing the thought to the back of my mind, I check my planner; my first lesson is Physics with Dr Campbell. I like Dr Campbell, his lessons are fun, but I still take my time walking along to the east wing to the science labs, revelling in the near-silence.

Feeling other people’s emotions takes its toll. Even the briefest touch can hit me like a thousand volts, leaving me weak and shaky.

The door to the physics lab is open, and I linger outside for a bit, listening to Dr Campbell’s deep, calm voice. He sees me standing there and stops mid-sentence. He smiles, revealing the gap in his front teeth. “Hello, Miss George.” He ushers me inside and I hand him the note from Ms Gould, which he exchanges for a brand-new text book. “It’s good to have you back.”

Despite all of the faces trained on me, I can’t help but smile. Dr Campbell is one of my favourite Teacher’s here. His silver hair is set in a modern style but he wears retro, tortoiseshell glasses and slogan t-shirts underneath his business shirts. Today’s t-shirt reads ‘Schrödinger’, above a picture of a cat.

He leans over the register on his desk and scans the list of names. I know he won’t mark me as being late, even without reading the note from Ms Gould. He’s pretty easy going as long as work gets handed in on time and people don’t neglect to wear their safety goggles.

Dr Campbell is also my fencing instructor; he was the inter-school champion three years in a row when he too was a student at Malvern, so he knows his stuff.

I feel a tap on my shoulder and I turn to find the boy from the dining hall grinning devilishly at me. “I hope I didn’t make you late.” His teeth are perfectly white and he raises one eyebrow when he talks, giving him an air of cockiness.

Molly is beside him, her arms folded across her chest, her brown eyes narrowed in dislike.

“I had to tend to my third degree burns.” I scowl.

Molly pulls a face, as though she’s personally offended by my sarcasm.

“Well, you must heal pretty fast.” The boy’s eyes flit from my face to my chest, then back again, making my cheeks blaze. He smiles, satisfied.

Dr Campbell begins to speak again and I turn to face the front, while fumbling in my bag for a notebook and pen.

I hear Molly whispering to the boy beside her and he laughs under his breath.

The subject of time is one that has prompted many theories, there are some who believe that time does not in fact exist…”

As I listen to Dr Campbell’s lecture on time, my eyes flit to the empty seat beside me and my heart aches. Lana and I were in all of the same classes, both equally intelligent. I can still hear the soft chime of her voice as she answered questions in class. Right now, the silence of her empty chair is deafening.

I roll my eyes as the boy behind me laughs under his breath again.

I wonder who he is, someone new, obviously, but he must have joined at the beginning of September. He seems far too comfortable, too familiar with those around him to have just started this term.

Dr Campbell raps on the board, drawing our attention to a selection of complicated equations as he discusses how time is relative to a single point of reference. I study the equations, then I copy them all into my notebook.

I keep my pen poised over the paper, but my mind wanders again. I think about insignificant things – what I might wear for the party on Friday, if I could face returning to fencing class, and that I should probably telephone Ivy, before she takes a flight back from Paris to come check on me. But each time my thoughts flit back to Lana, no matter how hard I try not to think about her.

When the bell goes, Dr Campbell makes a beeline for my desk. “Ms George, will we see you back at practice soon?”

“I’m not sure, it’s been a while.” I had a feeling that Dr Campbell would try to get me back to fencing practice as quickly as possible; Lana and I were the two strongest competitors on the school team.

Lana was somewhat better than me, more advanced, a natural. For a fleeting moment, I imagine that if Dr Campbell had a choice, he would much rather have Lana, his protégée, than me.

“That’s OK,” he says. “I’m sure we can get you back to full fitness, we have some new recruits who might make interesting opponents.”

As Dr Campbell looks at me expectantly, the boy from the dining hall walks past and flashes me another disarming smile, closely followed by Molly who is still scowling.

I feel the heat rise in my face as I promise Dr Campbell that I’ll think about returning to practice, then I rush out into the corridor before he can say anything else about it.

Across the crowd of students making their way to their next lesson, I spot Bria.

“Hey,” she links her arm around mine. “What happened to you at breakfast?”

“Some idiot poured coffee on me and I had to get a clean shirt.”

“What? Someone poured coffee on you?”

“Not on purpose.” I tell Bria all about the boy, how I had bumped into him in the dining hall, how he had laughed at me.

Bria looks thoughtful. “What does he look like?”

“Tall, dark hair.”

“Good looking? Has a bit of an accent?”

I shrug, as though he is nothing special, but as I think of his undeniable beauty, my stomach flips. “Yeah, he’s got an accent.”

“That sounds like Caleb,” Bria smiles. “I just can’t imagine him being so…. ungentlemanly.”

I snort and Bria nudges me in the ribs. “I’m serious, anyway, there are quite a few new faces this year. It could be someone else. We’ll call him Coffee Boy until we find out who he is.”

I roll my eyes. “I don’t care who he is.” Even as I say the words, I know they aren’t entirely true.

Chapter 5

 

The girl standing before me is beautiful. She has a creamy, flawless complexion and her blonde hair is like silk. She wears a beautiful gown of midnight blue and a silver crown rests upon her head, glinting in the light of the moon. Her mouth moves and I lean closer to hear her words, but my hands find the invisible barrier between us. The girl raises her palms so that they are level with mine. She reaches through the glass; it seems to melt, turning to water that shimmers in the light emanating from her. Her hands close around my wrists, painfully tight, and then she pulls me towards her.

I wake with a start. A rare, morning sun streams in through the bedroom window, bright and brilliant. It invades my eyes, making them water. Squinting, I stagger across the room and pull the curtains across the window, the image of the dream still lingering in my mind.

It’s Friday and that means a free morning for sixth formers. We’re supposed to spend it studying, or on our extra-curricular activities, but I long to go out to the running track and burn off the nervous energy that’s been building since I returned to school.

I dress hurriedly and shove a pair of sunglasses on, thinking how ridiculous I’ll look running around in a pair of Aviators. My eyes are still stinging from the onslaught of the sudden burst of sunshine. It happens sometimes, this aversion to light, the doctors think it has something to do with my head injury.

Even with the sunglasses on, I find myself blinking in the harsh sunlight, and I keep my head down as I jog towards the track field.

There is still a chill in the air and the ground is hard with frost, but looking around at the green grounds under a crisp blue sky, it’s hard to believe that it was snowing just a few days ago.

I’m not much of a distance runner; I usually just run around the four hundred metre track, getting faster and faster until my legs feel shaky. It keeps me fit for fencing, fast and strong, but it has been ages since I’ve exercised properly and the muscles in my legs protest.

I pick up the pace, relishing the feel of the wind on my face, the hard ground beneath my feet, the fog of my breath in the air.

When I reach the field, I’m surprised to find Bria sitting on the ground with Orla and Jas. Bria has one leg extended out in front of her.

“Hey Sleeping Beauty,” she says. “What’s with the shades? It’s bit too late to start keeping a low profile.”

“My eyes are sore,” I say pulling a face at her. “What are you doing out here anyway?”

“Thought we’d get some training in,” Bria says, her voice strained. “You know, before we have to squeeze into those dresses for the Banquet.”

Jas and Orla nod, trying to look sincere. They both sit cross-legged, leaning back on their hands, as though exercise is the furthest thing from their minds.

Sport isn’t mandatory for Sixth Formers. Orla is on the hockey team and attributes her strong, curvy figure to all of the extra gym sessions her coach puts the team through. Jas is slim, but her limbs are soft, because she hates exercise. At the end of year eleven, she threw her gym bag into the river. It was returned by one of the farmers nearby, who found the bag and its contents scattered in the water. Each item of clothing had ‘Jasmine Kharral’ stitched into the labels, so the bag was soon returned to her, filthy and sodden.

“Bria, you never worry about squeezing into anything, what are you really here for?” I ask, my eyes narrowed in mock suspicion.

She grins up at me “Thought I’d give you a sneak peek.” She points towards the fields and I tilt my sunglasses to follow the line of her finger. The sunlight instantly invades my eyes and I quickly push the shades back up my nose, but I can still make out the group of boys jogging along the top embankment; I see Nick, his tanned complexion and blonde hair shining in the sunlight. The boy jogging beside him is tall with dark hair, and even from this distance I can see the muscles moving in his arms and legs. I recognise him immediately and my stomach flips.

“That’s Caleb.” Bria squints up at me, gauging my reaction.

I frown back at her. “Yep, that’s Coffee Boy alright.”

Bria jumps to her feet. “Ha! I knew it.”

Jas stands and shields her eyes with her hand. “Who are you talking about?”

“Caleb,” Bria laughs, pointing again at the group of boys, “Casey’s date for the banquet.”

“I can’t go to the banquet with him. I don’t even know if I want to go.”

Bria rolls her eyes and sighs dramatically. “Of course you’re going.” She cups her hands around her mouth and shouts “Looking good, Nicky” The boys turn in our direction and Nick waves. He starts to jog sideways, making funny faces, much to the amusement of his friends.

Orla laughs behind me. “Why did you call him Coffee Boy?”

“He spilled coffee on her in dining hall.” Bria says, her eyes still on Nick as he continues to horse around on the top field.

“Oh, I heard about that.” Orla says, pulling her lip down and revealing her bottom teeth.

The boys continue to glance in our direction and I am suddenly aware of my faded sweatshirt and pale face, no doubt still puffy from sleep.

I watch Caleb running gracefully beside Nick. This is the first time I’ve seen him since Physics on Monday. Not that I was looking for him or anything.

He stops and leans forward, his hands resting on his hips, as though catching his breath. His head turns in our direction, and even from this distance, I can tell that his eyes are fixed on me. My cheeks flush beneath my oversize shades.

“He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?” Orla stands and dusts the grass off the back of her shorts. “He’s a bad boy too. I heard he got kicked out of his last school and his Dad had to pull strings to get him into Malvern.”

Jas looks at her in surprise. “How do you know that?”

Orla ties her short brown hair into a stubby ponytail at the back of her head. “My brother is the captain of the rugby team, Caleb just made the squad.”

“Why did they kick him out?” I ask

Orla smiles and leans forward conspiringly. “No one knows, but the rugby boys think he had a relationship with one of his teachers.”

I scrunch my nose up. “He sounds great.”

“Oh, get over it,” Bria laughs. “You’re only going to the banquet with him, you don’t have to marry him.”

“I’m not going anywhere with him.” I say.

“If you don’t, I will.” Jas laughs.

“Let’s go say hi.” Bria takes off in the direction of the boys, her hair bouncing around her shoulders. Jas groans and sets off at a slow jog behind her, dragging her feet as she moves sluggishly across the field.

Orla busies herself with retying her shoelaces. “Are you coming?”

“Um, I think I’ll just stay here.”

Orla straightens up. “You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m just going to do a few laps.” I jerk my thumb in the direction of the track.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you later then.” Orla hesitates for moment, like she’s about to say something, but then her mouth snaps into a smile and she takes off after Bria and Jas. I watch them race towards the bank, half wanting to go after them and half glad to be alone again. With a heavy heart, I head towards the track.

An hour or so later I return to the main house, my legs like jelly and my whole body damp with sweat.

Ms Gould is in the foyer, directing a group of year elevens carrying tables and chairs. “Looks like the weather’s improved just in time for the party.” She calls to me.

I offer a small wave in response, almost colliding with a young, male teacher carrying sound equipment. I mutter my apologies and hastily take my sunglasses off.

Just then, the ground begins to shudder beneath my feet and without thinking, I grab on to the young teacher. The walls around us shake and the furniture in the arms of the year elevens clatters to the ground.

The quake is over as quickly as it started and I shakily mutter my apologies as I release the teacher’s arm. He barely seems to notice as he looks around, ashen faced.

Ms Gould is already composing herself, shaking her head, as though the quake was nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

When I feel like it is safe to do so, I put one foot in front of the other and make my way to the dining hall. I rush some breakfast down, before heading upstairs to shower.

Once I am in the sixth form corridor, I feel in the hidden pocket of my running tights for my key. It’s not there. I try the handle of the door to my room and find it unlocked.

I spot the key on my bedside table, as I pick up my towel and wash bag, and I scold myself for my lack of security. I am just about to leave again, when I notice a red, square box tied with a black ribbon sitting on the edge of my bedside table. I pick it up. There is a card peeking out from under the ribbon, with fancy writing that reads ‘wear tonight’.

I pull the ends of the ribbon, it falls away like water and I take the lid off the box.

A beautiful, antique-silver necklace is nestled against the velvet lining inside. I carefully tug the delicate chain from its bindings and I hold it up to the light. The gem – a red, heart-shaped amulet – catches the light and powders the wall opposite with tiny, shimmering beads. It is mesmerising, hypnotic.

I fasten the chain around my neck and examine the effect in the mirror. I am surprised by the warmth of the gem; it feels like whoever left it here had clutched it tightly in their hand before placing it in the box.

The sunlight streaming in through the window bounces off the surface of the mirror causing a glare. I try to ignore it, my eyes no longer irritated by the sunlight. I concentrate instead on the gleam of the red gem and its calming effect.

The necklace looks good against my pale-blonde hair. I am not beautiful like Lana was. Even though we look similar, she was always somehow more striking, but I like my features, and in the light from the window reflecting off the mirror, my face looks luminous. I pull the band out of my hair and let it fall around my shoulders. It shines like silver. And that’s when I see her. Standing behind me. Lana.

Chapter 6

 

I whirl around but the room empty, and when I turn back to the mirror, I see nothing except my reflection, the colour drained from my face, my hands visibly shaking.

She was here, I saw her. I wipe my sweating palms on my legs as darkness clouds my vision, the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. I lay down on the bed and curl into a ball until my heart rate begins to slow and disappointment sets in.

Later, when I call for Bria, I’m still shaken. In an effort to calm myself, I try to look forward to the party. I am dressed in my favourite, black skinny jeans, a berry coloured top and a leather jacket that once belonged to Lana. It’s the one she was wearing the night she fell; the police say she cast it aside before she went up to the cliffs. I think a part of me hopes that the jacket will convey some kind of clue about what happened that night.

It happens sometimes, with my gift, I can touch an object and feel what the owner was feeling the last time they touched it, like they left a fingerprint on it. But there’s nothing on Lana’s jacket except the faint scent of her perfume.

My hair hangs loose around my shoulders, framing the necklace that rests against my chest. I had thought about handing it straight to Ms Gould and reporting that someone had been in my room, but then I realised the only way to find out who left it for me was to wear it tonight, as instructed on the card.

Bria looks fantastic in a burgundy dress with a shaggy fur coat and tights. She links her arm through mine and chats energetically as we head to the stairs.

“Did you ditch lessons this afternoon?” She asks, wobbling a little on her clunky, high-heeled boots. “I haven’t seen you all day.”

“I wasn’t feeling too good earlier.”

Bria glance sideways at me and I see her frown a little. “Did you feel that earthquake earlier?”

“Yeah, everyone was pretty freaked out.”

“I’m kind of used to them now,” Bria shrugs. “You know, I read online that they might not be earthquakes after all, it could be a weapons testing programme that’s causing the tremors.”

I roll my eyes at her. “I’m pretty sure that’s not true, Bria.”

“You never know.” She starts carefully down the stairs, one hand on the bannister and the other gripping my arm.

“So, I found this in my room earlier.” I hold the necklace away from my chest so that Bria can see it better.

“That’s pretty,” she says admiringly, “What do you mean you found it?”

“It was on my bedside table; I have no idea who it’s from. There was a card, but all it said was wear tonight.”

“Maybe Ivy?”

“I don’t think so,” I say, shaking my head. “Ivy would’ve sent a letter or something.”

“Maybe a secret admirer, like Caleb! Maybe it’s his way of apologising for spilling coffee on you.”

“I doubt that,” I say, sceptically. “And I don’t like that someone was in my room.”

At the bottom of the stairs, Bria releases me. “I didn’t think of it like that.”

“That’s it, I’m taking it off.” Seeing the concern etched on her face, I reach around to unfasten the chain.

“No, leave it on,” she says. “If someone wants you to wear it tonight, they’ll probably be at the party. We might find out who gave it to you.”

“Fine, but if I don’t find out tonight, I’m handing it in to Ms Gould.” Even as I say the words, I know that I don’t really want to part with the strange, but beautiful necklace.

Outside, the night air is cold and the smell of charcoal drifts towards us as we follow the sound of music and voices. Patio heaters and fairy lights line the terrace and the blaze of the barbecue gives off a wave of heat as we pass. The patio is a perfect square, sectioned off from the rest of the school by high walls and tall conifers.

Nick pushes through the throng and wraps his bear-like arms around us both, pulling us into a double hug. I wrinkle my nose at the smell of alcohol that lingers on his breath. He releases me, but keeps hold of Bria and plants a kiss on her lips.

“Nick!” She shrieks, her cheeks flushed with delight.

“Can I get you girls a drink?” Nick grins impishly. “We’ve got a couple of bottles of vodka buried in the flower beds.”

I roll my eyes. “I think I’ll stick to soft drinks.”

“Here you go ladies.” Caleb is at my side, holding out two bottles of cola.

“Thank you.” I take the bottles and hand one to Bria, not taking my eyes off him.

His face is beautiful, captivating, and this time I let myself look. He wears a dark green coat that matches his eyes and his dark hair falls over his forehead in a casual, yet striking way. I stare at him for too long and he notices.

“I don’t think I introduced myself before, I’m Casey.”

He holds out a hand. “I know who you are. I’m Caleb by the way.”

I stare hesitantly at his outstretched fingers, then I shake his hand, bracing myself for the impact of his touch. But the tingle that travels up my arm is warm, pleasant even. It glows like a soft light. He likes me, I feel it, and a small, giddy laugh escapes my lips.

“Let’s get some food.” Bria looks at me curiously before manoeuvring through the crowd with Nick by her side, his arm snaked around her hip. I follow them with Caleb so close behind me that I can smell his clean scent.

“I thought this was just a gathering.” I call to Bria.

She grins over her shoulder and continues to squeeze through the crowd.

Jas and Orla meet us in the middle of the patio, they throw their arms around my neck, making me stumble as their jubilation courses through me. Caleb places a hand at the small of my back, steadying me, and when the girls release me, he keeps it there, his fingers reaching underneath my jacket, the heat from his skin burning through the thin fabric of my top. He smiles before shifting towards Bria and Nick, and I feel suddenly exposed, like his warm touch cast a protective bubble around me.

Jas nudges me playfully in the side. “I thought you didn’t like him.”

“I never said that.” I say, my cheeks warm.

Orla throws her arms around me again. “Oh, it’s so good to have you back, I’m really glad you came tonight.” I smell alcohol on her too and I gently push her away.

“She only came for the food.” Bria says, appearing beside me with a hotdog in each hand. She hands one to me and takes a huge bite of her own.

“We were just talking about Caleb.” Orla says, raising an eyebrow suggestively.

I look past her to where Caleb stands with Nick, watching me intently.

“Well he obviously likes you,” Jas says, flicking her straight black hair over her shoulders. “I think Molly was going to ask him to the ball.” She looks around as though Molly might appear at any moment.

“Well he likes Casey.” Bria says, with a mouth full of food.

“Say it, don’t spray it.” Orla laughs.

“Where is Molly, anyway?” I scan the patio, but there’s no sign of her.

Jas shrugs indifferently. “She’s around somewhere.”

“Molly is a pain, she’s so up herself lately.” Orla scowls and folds her arms across her chest.

“Why? What’s going on with her?”

Before Orla can answer, someone barges past me, digging their bony elbow into my side.

“Hey!” Orla glares furiously at the back of Molly’s head as she stomps through the crowd.

“Just leave it, she’s not w-”

Before I can stop her, Orla takes off after Molly, with Jas and Bria close behind. I am about to follow when Caleb appears at my shoulder. He laces his fingers through mine and I feel that warm, tingling sensation again. “Come with me.”

I look for Bria, but she’s already disappearing into the crowd, so I let Caleb lead me into the grounds. When we’re a little away from the patio, he sits down and pats the ground beside him. “Finally, I get you all to myself.” His voice is like velvet, his accent making his tongue curl delicately around every word.

The ground is hard and I feel the coldness seep immediately through my jeans when I sit down beside him.

“I want to apologise,” he says. “For how I acted the other day. I shouldn’t have embarrassed you like that.”

I raise my eyebrows at him and he holds up his hands. “In my defence, I did check that you weren’t hurt before I laughed.”

“Oh yeah, I saw you having a good look.”

He tries to look bashful, but doesn’t quite pull it off. “Well, anyway, I’m sorry.”

“It’s…fine, it was an accident.”

He smiles and leans towards me. “You were really mad.”

I feel my cheeks flush. He shuffles closer to me until we’re just inches apart and I feel a sudden urge to touch his arm, to feel what he is feeling, but I keep my hands clasped firmly in my lap.

“So, Casey, tell me about yourself.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard so much about me already.”

He fixes me with an even stare. “Maybe, but I like to find things out for myself. What lessons are you taking? I know you’re taking Physics, but I haven’t seen you in any of my other classes.”

“I’m studying Art, Media, English and History too.”

Caleb whistles. “Five subjects, you must be really smart.”

I shake my head. “I don’t know; I try to be.”

“What’s your favourite subject?”

I think about this. Right now I don’t care much for any of them, but I don’t want to tell him that, so I pick one at random. “Art”

“Why?”

“Just because.” I smile.

Caleb’s gaze lingers on my mouth.

“Let me ask you something.” I say, desperate to deflect the attention away from me.

“OK.” He smiles at me expectantly.

“Why did you leave your last school?”

“A few reasons.” He says, looking down at the ground.

“Was having an affair with a teacher one of them?” I am so shocked by what I have just said that I clap a hand over my mouth before more words escape.

Caleb laughs. “You heard that rumour then?”

I nod, mortified. He leans in so that his mouth is close to my ear, I smell a mixture of soap and musky aftershave interlaced with the smoke from the barbecue. “I started that rumour.”

I gape at him. “Why?”

He smiles, cockily. “I like to be talked about.”

I pull a face and he laughs even harder.

“So it’s not true?”

“I never said that.” Caleb raises an eyebrow suggestively and my stomach flips.

“So, would you mind if I-” Caleb is suddenly interrupted by shouts and screams.

I stand up, dusting the grass from the backs of my legs. The music has stopped and the grounds are now crowded with people, I have to crane my neck to see what’s going on.

The trees are ablaze, violent flames flickering against the night sky and thick smoke clouds the air. I move around the crowd to get a better look.

“C’mon,” Caleb says, tugging on my hand. “We have to go.”

I look back at the blazing forest one more time before I am ushered away, but something catches my eye. At first, I think that it’s just the way the flames are casting light and shade, but then I see her, standing in the middle of the fire, her skin lit by the flames. I lurch forward, almost tripping over as she turns and steps further into the forest.

“Lana!” Her name tumbles from my mouth, half strangled by the sob rising in my throat. I take off in the direction of the trees, sprinting across the grass as fast as my legs will carry me. I hear pounding footsteps behind me, but I am so close now that I can feel the heat of the blaze.

The thick, dark smoke invades my lungs and irritates my eyes, my chest is tight, but I urge myself forward.

Something collides with me from behind and I am tackled to the ground, gasping for air. I clamber to my feet, but strong arms grab me around the waist.

“Casey! Casey, calm down!” Caleb pulls me towards him and I turn in his arms, pounding on his chest with my fists. “Let me go! I have to help her, let – me – GO!”

He doesn’t even flinch. “No, you’re going to get yourself killed! Are you crazy?”

I struggle against his grip. “I have to help her.”

“Help who?”

“L-” I look back at the forest, but there’s nothing but fire and smoke. Because she’s not there, she can’t be. I stop struggling and lean heavily against Caleb. He wraps his arms around me and I hear the rapid beat of his heart, I feel the panic, the adrenaline emanating from him. “Casey, what’s going on?”

I shake my head, unable to form words. He keeps an arm around my shoulder as he guides me back to the main building, his grip tight, as though he’s worried that I’ll try to run.

Bria rushes towards us, her hair as wild as the flames. “You idiot,” she scolds. “What were you thinking? Were you going to put the fire out by yourself?” Her voice is high, frightened, but all I can do is shrug lamely under her anxious stare.

Her concern rolls off her in waves and she continues to reprimand me all the way to the front door, her frantic whispering competing with the whine of sirens.

Ms Gould appears on the main steps wearing a coat over her pyjamas, her face set in horror. “Casey, why were you running towards the fire like that?”

“She thought she saw some younger students down there.” Bria says quickly.

I look sideways at her, surprised by how quickly she lied for me.

“Is that true, Casey? Did you see someone down there?” Ms Gould looks over my head towards the burning trees.

“I’m not sure. Might have just been…shadows.”

“Well, we’re making sure everyone is accounted for,” Ms Gould says, smoothing her blonde hair with her hands. “We’ll talk about this in the morning; right now I need to wait for the Fire Brigade.” Ms Gould nods towards the blue lights growing brighter as the fire engines peal up the county lane.

Inside, Caleb leaves us at the top of the stairs. His gaze lingers on me for a few moments, his brow furrowed, before he disappears through the doors to the boys’ dormitory.

The fire rages on a little longer and Bria and I watch from my bedroom window as the Fire Brigade tries to battle the blaze. When all that’s left is the smouldering remains of the trees, I feel my shoulders relax a little.

Bria links her arm through mine and rests her head on my shoulder. “I heard you shout her name.”

I feel my whole body tense up. Tears gather hot and heavy in my throat, threatening to choke me. Bria pulls me into a hug and I grit my teeth as her pity surges through me.

“I thought I saw her, but I know that’s not possible. I’m not crazy.”

“I know you’re not crazy,” Bria says. “It’s just the shock of the fire, that’s all.”

I nod and wipe my eyes.

“Come on,” Bria says. “Let’s get some sleep.”

She insists on staying in my room; making a bed of blankets and cushions on the floor, refusing to take the bed. I’m glad she’s there when I turn off the light. I try to slow the rapid thrum of my heart, but when I close my eyes, all I see is Lana walking towards a forest of fire.

Chapter 7

 

Monday morning arrives under a sky of grey and murk. As I weave my way hurriedly through the crowd of people wandering towards their lessons, I catch snippets of conversation about Friday night – who or what might’ve been responsible for the fire and how it’s the most dramatic thing to happen since…Lana disappeared.

Bria bounces along at my side, chatting excitedly about her dress for the St George’s Day Banquet that arrived earlier this morning. Her hair is cast in a film of damp; it weighs down her curls, making them cling to her neck and shoulders. She’s keeping our conversations light, to stop me from thinking of the fire, just like she’s done all weekend.

Some of the sixth formers went home for the weekend, including Caleb, so the place was pretty quiet. Bria and I spent most of Saturday and Sunday sipping coffee and watching DVD’s.

We have Art this morning. Our lessons are held in the ‘Annexe’, a converted barn that still has some of the original beams in place. The entrance is decorated with colourful spirals and mobiles that hang from the rafters and the grey cement floor is splattered here and there with paint.

After we hang our damp coats on the hooks outside of the classroom, Bria tips her hair forward and rakes her fingers through the tangles, then she tosses back her head and admires the effect in the reflection of a glass cabinet filled with clay sculptures. I roll my eyes at her and she bumps my hip before flouncing into the classroom.

The room is buzzing with hushed chatter, the students waiting at their easels for the lesson to begin. I spot Molly sitting closest to the door, staring coldly at me as I walk towards two vacant stools on the other side of the classroom.

“Just ignore her.” Bria whispers.

I have no choice, because just then Ms Gould emerges from the walk-in cupboard behind her desk and claps her hands for silence. “Today, I want to try something different,” she starts, “I want us to forget our coursework and create some abstract paintings based on our mood.”

I look sideways at Bria and she smirks at me.

Ms Gould gestures at the supplies cupboard and then, with a scrape of stools, everyone hurries over to fill their pallets with paint. When we return to our seats, Ms Gould tells us to close our eyes and empty our minds. She turns on the small CD player sitting on her desk and the sound of a sitar drifts across the room.

Bria snorts behind her hand, but quickly composes her face when Ms Gould’s eyes fall on her.

“I want you to paint the first thing that pops into your mind,” Ms Gould says. “You may begin.”

The classroom is quiet except for the whisper of paintbrushes against paper. Bria mixes the colours on her palette furiously then spots her easel with paint. I look at my own blank canvas despairingly. Lana was the creative one, not me.

When we were ten, Lana decorated the wall of our loft with a scene of green lands and snow-capped mountains. The sky was yellow and the tops of the trees were golden. It was a masterpiece, but Ivy freaked when she saw it. She waited for the wall to dry out before painting over it, returning it to its original pastel-pink. Lana was so upset. She said she had imagined a world where the sky was made up of yellow and orange, instead of blue, where it was always warm and the forests were filled with magic. She always did have a good imagination.

I gaze out of the window, wishing I had her creativity, my eyelids growing heavy as I listen to the sound of the sitar.

Casey.” The voice tickles my ear and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I whirl around, but none of the other students show any sign that they heard someone say my name. My breath starts to quicken as I wait for the voice to speak again. Did I imagine it?

“Time’s up.” Ms Gould gets up from her desk and starts to wander between the easels, examining the class’s work.

I look at her in confusion, my heart pounding in my chest. It’s been just minutes since the class began, hasn’t it?

Ms Gould stops behind Bria and peers at her abstract masterpiece, a swirl of vibrant pinks, oranges and reds.

“I think I painted the fire,” Bria says. “I cleared my mind, but when I closed my eyes I saw the flames.”

Bria and Ms Gould both tilt their heads, examining the vivid colours.

“Beautiful.” Ms Gould says with a smile.

Bria turns to me expectantly as Ms Gould shifts sideways to my easel, but her smile soon falters. I follow her stare and inhale sharply. Black and grey streaks cover my canvas, crisscrossing violently towards the centre where a girl lies face down. One of her legs is turned out at a strange angle away from her body and there’s a trail of red in her blonde hair.

I turn to Ms Gould, unable to speak. I have to tell her that I didn’t do this, but the words won’t come. I look down at my hands, they are smudged with black paint, and the palette resting on the side of my easel is a mess of colour.

Ms Gould is suddenly pale. “See me after class, Casey.”

 

Once everyone has left, Ms Gould faces me with a grim expression. “Casey, I asked you to come to me if you were having problems.”

“I’m fine,” I say. “I just…. I don’t remember painting that.”

My canvas is now leaning against the legs of the easel, the disturbing image turned towards the window.

“Clearly you’re not fine, that picture is troubling and now you’re telling me that you don’t remember painting it?” Ms Gould puffs out her cheeks. “I mean, it’s no wonder that it’s the first thing you thought of, but to paint it in class…”

I look up sharply. “No, it wasn’t like that. I wasn’t thinking about…that, I was looking around the room and then…the painting was there.”

“I’m worried, Casey, if you’re still experiencing some trauma after what happened to Lana, you need to tell me so I can make sure you have the right help.”

“I’m fine.” I repeat, my stomach twisting uncomfortably.

Ms Gould perches on the end of her desk. “Casey, I have the rest of the class to think about too, and images like that could cause distress. There are other people here who miss Lana.”

“I know.” My voice is suddenly thick with tears.

“I’m going to speak to Dr Parker about today’s incident so she can pick it up with you in your next session.”

I look down at my shoes, my face burning with a sudden rage. My sessions with Dr Parker are private, our discussions based on an understanding between me and her. Ms Gould does not get to choose what we talk about.

She dismisses me with a weary flick of the hand and I storm from the classroom filled with anger. I’m angry at her, angry at myself, and angry at Lana for falling off that stupid cliff.

I look at my hands still smudged with paint and shake my head disbelievingly.

In the entrance, I find Bria and Molly arguing heatedly. Bria has my coat slung over her arm, her face contorted in frustration. They both turn as I approach and Molly’s face twists into a sneer.

“Get what you wanted?” She spits, angry and venomous. “More attention because of your freaky painting?”

“Shut up, Molly!” Bria says through gritted teeth.

I advance on Molly, stopping inches away from her. “What’s your problem?”

“You are my problem. I was her best friend and you couldn’t even be bothered to pick up the phone to tell me when they found her.” Tears start to fall over Molly’s flushed cheeks.

“Molly, I’m-”

“No!” She shoves me roughly in the shoulder. “This is all your fault. Lana would still be here if it wasn’t for you!”

Her words are a slap in the face and I stare at her, stunned.

“Why don’t you tell us what really happened that night?” She continues, “You turn up the next morning covered in blood and no one says anything about it. The Police don’t care; everyone thinks you’re so innocent.”

“What is that supposed to mean? That blood was mine and I can’t remember anything, you know that!”

“Yeah, that’s what you told us.” She gives me a look of disdain before stomping out of the building.

I feel like she’s just punched me in the stomach. I realise, with a sinking feeling, that she thinks I had something to do with what happened to Lana.

I throw my bag to the floor and run after her, I have to make her see that I didn’t do anything.

“Hey.” I shove her hard in the back of the shoulder.

She stumbles forward, but quickly recovers herself. She whirls around and lunges towards me, grabbing the hair at the nape of my neck. I act instinctively, grasping the front of her shirt. I feel suddenly powerful, my body reacting to the emotions burning inside of me. I punch upwards and my fist connects with her jaw.

She releases her grip on my hair and swings her fist towards my face, skimming my nose. She grabs my wrists suddenly, her nails pressing through the exposed skin peeking out from beneath the cuffs of my blazer, and she squeezes tightly. Her hurt, her anger and her suspicion jolt through me like electricity, paralysing me. She hits me then, the side of her fist colliding with my temple, right where my head was injured that night. I stumble backwards and lights pop in front of my eyes. I hear footsteps approaching.

“That’s enough!” Ms Gould yells, stepping between us. “Both of you follow me, now!”

The rain is falling in sheets, and Molly’s hair hangs wet around her face and shoulders. The front of her shirt is stained with smudges of black paint where I grabbed her and her chest rises and falls with every breath, her lower lip trembling. She snatches up her bag and follows Ms Gould up the path towards the main building.

Bria hands me my coat and bag without saying a word, her hands shaking.

Inside, Ms Gould holds the door of her office open, ushering Molly and me inside with a jerk of the head. Bria sits down in one of the chairs in the corridor and scuffs the toe of her shoe along the floor.

“Bria, don’t you have a class to go to?” Ms Gould asks.

She shakes her head. “Free period.”

Ms Gould eyes her suspiciously, then closes the door and takes a seat behind her desk.

I glance sideways at Molly but she glares furiously ahead, her arms crossed over her chest. My head aches where she hit me and the knuckles of my right hand are red. I’ve never hit anyone before. The bubble of rage that inflated so unexpectedly has now burst and all I feel is shame.

“I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that fighting is not tolerated at Malvern,” Ms Gould starts. “You should be setting an example to the younger students, not brawling like teenage reprobates.”

She slams her hands down on the desk making me jump. “Well? Do either of you have anything to say?”

I shift a little in my chair as Ms Gould’s eyes flick between Molly and me. “What happened to you two? You used to be good friends.”

Silence again.

“Well I’m very disappointed, I’ve just had to separate two of my best students, because you were fighting,” she says. “Under normal circumstances, I would’ve suspended you for a fortnight, but this has been a tough year for you both, so I’m going to give you another chance.”

I exhale with relief.

“As punishment, I want you to help me clean out the Annexe tonight,” Ms Gould says. “But mark my words, anymore of this nonsense and you will both be out of here so fast your feet won’t touch the ground.”

I nod quickly, not quite believing that we managed to get off so lightly.

“I’ll be sending a letter to both your parents,” Ms Gould looks at me and her cheeks flush. “Well, to those who take care of you. Molly, you may leave, I’ll see you six pm sharp at the Annexe.”

Molly nods and then stalks out of the room without looking at me. When the door closes behind her, Ms Gould fixes me with a hard stare. “Casey, I cannot have you starting fights with other students.”

I open my mouth to protest but Ms Gould holds up her hand for silence. “I followed you out of the classroom and I saw you push Molly. I just don’t know what to do with you, if you’re having problems-”

“I’m not having problems.” My voice raises much louder than I intended.

“I don’t believe that,” Ms Gould sighs “The night of the fire, some of the other students heard you shout Lana’s name.”

My mouth opens and closes, I had hoped that no one besides Bria and Caleb had heard that.

“If you’re involved in anything else, we’ll have to seriously consider your future at Malvern.” Ms Gould’s mouth sets in a thin line. “You may go.”

“No!”

Ms Gould looks up, startled. The rage that had gathered so suddenly before starts to creep in again, snaking up from my stomach and into my chest. “Did you happen to hear what Molly said to me before I pushed her?”

Ms Gould looks surprised. “No, I-”

“She blamed me for Lana’s death. She said it was my fault.” My voice is thick with tears.

Ms Gould’s face softens. “Casey, no one thinks it was you fault.”

“Molly does, and if she thinks it, then other people will too…”

“Casey-”

“Nobody knows what happened. All they know is that she fell off that cliff and I woke up covered in my own blood.”

“Casey, calm down.”

I jump up toppling my chair. “Don’t tell me to calm down.” I pick my bag up and I storm from the office, almost colliding with Bria who stands expectantly on the other side of the door. I head in the direction of the staircase and I hear her hurried footsteps behind me. I can’t believe I just did that. I shouted at Ms Gould. If I wasn’t suspended before, I’m sure I will be now. In the foyer, I stop and turn to Bria. “I’m sorry for starting the fight, I just snapped.”

She shakes her head, “Molly was asking for it, she shouldn’t have said what she did.”

“I shouldn’t have hit her.”

“Maybe not, but there’s no point dwelling on it,” Bria shrugs. “What did Ms Gould say? Are you suspended? I couldn’t hear much through the door.”

“No, she said she’s giving us both another chance.”

Bria breathes a sigh of relief.

“But then I yelled at her, so now I don’t know.”

Silence falls between us, the foyer is quiet except for the sound of the wind and rain battering the windows. Bria’s eyes are wide, fearful, but she just continues to look at me like she doesn’t know what to say.

I shrug my bag off my shoulder and drop down heavily onto the bottom step. “Bria, why does Molly think I’m to blame for what happened to ‘Lana?”

Her brow furrows. “I don’t think she does, not really; she’s just lashing out because she’s upset.”

I consider this. Sometimes I blame myself for what happened to Lana, in the sense that I should’ve done more to look out for her, but Molly’s accusations suggested something far more sinister. “No, it’s more than that.”

Bria’s cheeks flush.

“Bria?”

“Well…don’t get angry, OK?” She shrugs her bag off her shoulder and sits down beside me.

“That night, it was like Lana disappeared into thin air and you appeared with this head injury, covered in blood…”

“So people think I had something to do with it?”

“No, no one’s said anything like that…except for Molly, I guess. It’s horrible what happened and to think that it happened while everyone was asleep, it’s awful. We all thought that maybe someone attacked you both.” She takes a deep breath. “But then the Police said that wasn’t possible, so I guess Molly thinks… you know.”

I realise how it must have looked, me with a head wound, Lana gone, no sign of anyone else being there. Lana and I used to argue sometimes, like all siblings, but we never fought physically. “She thinks I killed my own sister.” I say, feeling sick to my stomach.

“Lana was Molly’s best friend; she’s just looking for someone to blame.” Bria says quietly.

I chew my lip, mulling over Bria’s words, then I get up and start up the stairs.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she calls after me, her voice thick with tears. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”

“I just need to be by myself for a bit; I’ll see you at lunch.” I head up to my room, leaving Bria sitting alone.

Chapter 8

 

When six pm draws near, I head down to the Annexe with a feeling or trepidation. It’s not completely dark yet, but the sky is a steel grey, the grounds dimly lit by the interior lights spilling from the windows of the school.

I glance in the direction of the woods, part of it now reduced to a cluster of scorched, skeletal remains. It sends a shiver down my spine. What was it that made me see Lana in the fire? Why did I see her reflection standing behind me in my room?

I thought I was getting better; I had even started to feel a little like my old self. But the old me wouldn’t have started a fight, or yelled at a teacher.

I waited in my room all afternoon expecting Ms Gould to come for me, to tell me that I was suspended, but she didn’t.

I caught her off guard before, I saw the shock in her eyes before I left her office, but she’s had time to think now, to work out exactly what words she’ll use when she tells me I’m suspended.

Maybe I’ll get to the Annexe and she’ll turn me away at the door, announcing there and then that I’m going home, that Ivy is on her way from Paris to collect me.

Just in case she does in fact make me clean out the dusty Annexe, I have dressed in an old pair of leggings and a red hooded top, my new necklace tucked safely inside. Despite its mystery, I’ve become strangely attached to it, comforted by its peculiar warmth.

As I head along the path, a figure walks around the side of the building and with a jolt, I realise it’s Caleb. When he sees me, he smiles impishly and my stomach flips.

“That was quite a show earlier,” he laughs. “Two girls fighting in the rain.”

I tut at him disgustedly and continue down the path, my face hot with embarrassment.

He falls into step beside me. “Come on, it’s funny.”

“Maybe to you.”

“And the rest of my Psychology class…”

I look at him questioningly, his eyes are still a vivid green despite the half-light.

“We can see the Annexe from our window,” he explains, pointing up at the main building. “We put bets on who would win.” He shifts in front of me causing me to stop abruptly, then he leans in and brushes the hair off my face. “I bet on you.”

I try to think of something cutting to say in response, but my mouth is suddenly dry. He grins and takes off at a jog towards the main building.

I smile in spite of myself, my skin tingling just above my left eyebrow where he touched me.

I feel a little lighter as I reach the Annexe, but it doesn’t last long. I find Molly inside, looking less like her usual polished self in a green sweatshirt, her dark hair piled on top of her head. She scowls at me and turns away, giving me a good look at the bruise on her jaw. My stomach sinks.

Ms Gould emerges from the supplies cupboard with a roll of bin bags in her hand, her clothes smudged with dust, her blonde hair tied up in a ragged bandana.

I hold my breath, waiting for her to reprimand me for my behaviour earlier, but she smiles when she sees me. “Hello Casey, I was just telling Molly I want to start with this cupboard,” she says, jerking her head in the direction of the doorway she has just emerged from. “I want you to throw out all of the dried-up paints and old paintbrushes, then there’s a load of paintings we need to sort through,” Ms Gould beams at me as though I have volunteered to help, instead of being summoned here against my will. “We could pick a few to display, but we’ll have to dispose of the rest, they’re really piling up.”

Molly and I work in silence, tossing crusted paint bottles and old brushes into black sacks.

A couple of hours later, Ms Gould instructs Molly to take the rubbish up to the large waste container behind the kitchen. I don’t look up as she leaves, busying myself instead with restocking the cupboard with a box of new supplies, while Ms Gould records her inventory on a clipboard.

“I thought making you come here tonight would give you and Molly a chance to talk,” Ms Gould says, watching the Annexe door swing shut. “But neither of you said a word.”

“I don’t think we have anything left to say to each other.” I sigh, putting the last bottle of paint in the cupboard.

“You could start by apologising to one another. Have you thought about being the bigger person?”

“I don’t think Molly wants an apology, she’s happier just hating me.”

“I don’t think that’s true.” She says, softly.

“Speaking of apologies,” I twist my fingers together awkwardly. “I’m sorry for how I behaved earlier in your office.”

“Thank you, Casey,” she says, hugging her clipboard to her chest. “I know you’re having a hard time, but you must believe me when I tell you that I only want to help.”

A telephone rings from inside Ms Gould’s classroom and she hands me the clipboard before bustling inside to answer it.

I scan the inventory to make sure everything is accounted for, then I follow her into the classroom, hoping to be dismissed. As I linger in the doorway, something catches my eye at the back of the room – Bria’s pink and orange painting of the fire.

The other paintings from class are there too, lined up against the wall. Most of them are abstract paintings, swirls of colour, like Bria’s. Mine is noticeably absent.

I look at each one in turn and my stomach lurches when my eyes fall on a painting of a girl with blonde hair framing a pale face. She has full red lips, her eyes are closed and her head is tilted slightly, so that her hair falls over her cheek. I crouch down for a closer look.

It’s Lana, but there’s something about this painting, something more than those in the exhibition.

“It’s Molly’s painting.” Ms Gould says behind me, making me jump.

“Why isn’t with the others in the lounge?”

“This work is a little more personal,” she says, retrieving a large leather folder from a nearby rack that she opens out on the floor in front of me. “This is Molly’s portfolio.” Some of the drawings just show part of Lana’s face – her lips, her nose, her eyes. It’s like Molly has my sister memorised.

“I shouldn’t really be showing you Molly’s work and I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell her, but can you understand why I wanted you to see it?”

Her intentions are clear. “You wanted me to see how much Molly cared about Lana.”

“She still does.” Ms Gould dabs at her eyes with the tips her fingers.

I’m about to close the folder when I notice something else, something that makes my throat tight. Where an artist would usually sign their name, Molly has written the word ‘missing.’ I trace it lightly with my fingers. “Have you seen this?”

Ms Gould nods. “Molly signs all of her work like that.”

I look at the painting Molly created today and find the word in the bottom right-hand corner. “But Lana’s not missing anymore, they found her.”

“I think Molly’s use of the word is much more symbolic than literal,” Ms Gould sighs. “She misses Lana, terribly. You both have that in common.”

Ms Gould is right, so why is it that I can’t bring myself to paint something like this? Why is it that Molly can pour all of her feelings into a painting to show how much she loved Lana, but I can’t?

It hits me then, why Molly’s paintings are different to the others in the exhibition. The other students painted memories of Lana, but Molly depicted her like an artist would portray their muse. Maybe Molly loved Lana in a different way to how I loved her, or how Bria, or Ivy loved her.

Molly was always following Lana around, copying her style, making catty comments about the boys Lana liked. But Molly likes boys too. Didn’t Bria say that Molly likes Caleb? Confused, I close the portfolio.

“Will you try to talk Molly?” Ms Gould looks at me pleadingly. “I’m not saying you have to be best friends, just clear the air.”

“I’ll try.”

Seemingly satisfied, Ms Gould dismisses me and I hurry from the Annexe under a black, starless sky. I head to the lounge in the hope of finding Bria, eager for some mindless chitchat to distract me from Molly’s portfolio. I find her sitting with Orla and Jas, curled up in one of the armchairs, her legs tucked underneath her.

Sabrina, Jas’s little sister is there too, her face buried in her big sister’s shoulder.

“How’s the hand? Orla snorts. “I heard you gave Molly a mean right hook.”

“That’s not funny,” Jas scolds. “They shouldn’t be fighting.”

“Molly should learn to keep her thoughts to herself.” Bria scowls.

“No Jas’s right,” I say, perching on the arm of Bria’s chair. “I shouldn’t have hit Molly.”

Jas shakes her head. “I’m not taking her side, Casey. What Molly said to you was awful. I don’t know what’s got into her lately.”

“We all know Molly can be a bitch,” Orla says. “She’s so secretive lately, and she keeps disappearing, she skips classes almost every day now.”

“What do you mean she keeps disappearing?” I ask. “Where does she go?”

“I don’t know,” Orla shrugs. “She’s probably sneaking off with a boy.”

I think of Caleb and my stomach twists.

“How was detention?” Bria asks. “Did Ms Gould give you a hard time?”

“No, she had us clear out some old supplies, then-” I think about telling them about Molly’s portfolio. Ms Gould only said that I shouldn’t tell Molly that I’d seen the portfolio, but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t want me blabbering about it to anyone else either. “Then she just let us leave.”

“Well, you both got off lightly,” Jas says, stroking Sabrina’s hair.

The little girl takes in a shaky breath and I notice that her eyes are ringed with red.

“What’s up?” I mouth to Jas, gesturing at Sabrina.

“She’s had a difficult time settling in,” Jas explains. “I thought she was getting better, but some second years locked her in the girl’s toilets in the East Wing. They were trying to scare her.”

“By locking her in the toilets?”

Sabrina raises her head, her tear-streaked face red and puffy. “They said they were f-feeding me to the m-monster.”

“Monster?” I raise an eyebrow at Jas and she nods earnestly, as though being eaten was a serious risk at Malvern.

“Some first years started a rumour about a monster lurking in the toilets of the East Wing,” Orla explains, rolling her eyes. “They said they saw bony hands sticking out of one of the air vents, like a skeleton trying to crawl out.”

Even though it’s a silly story, something about it makes me shudder. “That’s really creepy.”

“It’s not a rumour, Sabrina protests, her voice thick with tears. “Eleanor Morris said she saw a dark shadow in there one day and when I was in there, there was this horrible noise.”

“What kind of noise?”

“Like someone was behind the wall,” Sabrina says, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “Banging on the pipes.”

“That’s probably just the plumbing,” Bria says kindly. “This is a really old building you know.”

Sabrina shakes her head. “It was a monster.”

“C’mon Sab, there’s no such thing as monsters.” Jas smooths her sister’s dark hair in such a maternal way that it causes an unexpected lump to rise in my throat.

“Look, why don’t we all go down together and take a look?” I suggest.

Orla looks at me like I’ve just grown an extra head and Sabrina’s big, brown eyes are wide with terror.

“You’ll see that there’s nothing to be afraid of.” I say.

“That’s a great idea,” Bria says. “And if we do find a monster, we’ll tell it to leave and let everyone pee in peace!”

Sabrina giggles then, and with a little coaxing from Jas, she agrees to come with us.

The east wing corridor is dark and our footsteps echo in the silence. Orla pulls her phone from her pocket and presses a couple of buttons on the screen so that a bright light illuminates the way.

When we reach the bathroom, I push the door open and the lights automatically splutter to life, making me squint in the sudden glare.

“How did they lock you in?” I ask Sabrina, gesturing at the empty keyhole in the ancient door.

Sabrina peers nervously around me into the bathroom. “I don’t know.”

“They managed to get a key somehow,” Jas says. “They dared her to go in and then locked the door behind her. One of the teachers heard her banging on the door and called for the caretaker. She was in a right state when they finally got her out.”

A sudden tapping noise echoes around the bathroom and I hold my breath. Orla steps around me, her eyes fixed on the air vent in the ceiling, which is scarily large enough for someone to fit through, the space above it dark and vast.

She puts her hands on her hips. “Is this where the monster comes from?”

Sabrina nods, her dark eyes huge.

Orla holds her phone up to the vent, tilting the screen back and forth so that the dark space is bathed in light. “There’s nothing up there, see?” She starts along the row of toilet cubicles, pushing the doors open and peering inside. “Nothing scary in here, except someone forgot to flush.” She scrunches up her nose and pulls the chain.

“Sorry girls, no monsters.” Orla says, washing her hands at the basin.

The sound of running water is followed by a loud clanging noise that makes us all jump. The thin, cubicle walls shake and the lights blink and splutter.

“I told you,” Sabrina says, backing away into the dark corridor. “It’s the monster.”

The noise stops abruptly, leaving silence in its wake, but seconds later a groaning sound reverberates around the room, followed by a huge crash that sends us lurching towards the exit. Water rushes out of the toilet that Orla flushed just moments earlier and she hastily closes the door to the bathroom before ushering us up the corridor.

We break into a run and we don’t stop until we are at the foot of the stairs, struggling to catch our breath. Jas laughs so hard that her shoulders shake.

“I told you there was something in there.” Sabrina frowns.

“It was just the plumbing,” Jas says, ruffling Sabrina’s hair. “We’ll get the Caretaker to take a look tomorrow. Come on, I’ll take you back to your dorm.”

We leave Sabrina and Jas on the first floor and then head back to the lounge.

Nick is there, along with – my heart almost skipping a beat – Caleb, his dark hair wet like he has just showered. He smiles when he sees me, showing off a line of perfect white teeth.

Bria flops down into Nick’s lap and he wraps his arms around her.

I feel suddenly shabby as I sink down into the armchair opposite, my hooded top spotted with dried paint, my hair scraped back into a messy bun, but there is a suggestive smile around Caleb’s lips as he surveys me.

There is something captivating about him, elusive, but he scares me a little too, the looks he gives me loaded with expectation.

Orla perches on the arm of my chair, nudging me in the shoulder, and I reluctantly tear my eyes away from Caleb.

“Are you seeing this?” She says.

“Seeing what?”

Orla nods towards the television. The ten o’clock news is on, reporting scenes of what I first assume are fireworks, but then I see a building on fire, an explosion that sends a cloud of ash billowing into the air, people running away from flames tinged with thick, black smoke.

Caleb stands suddenly and shifts around the furniture. He turns up the volume on the television and folds his arms across his chest, his whole body tensing as he surveys the images on screen.

I hear the reporter say words like ‘catastrophic’ and ‘firestorm’, but the satellite signal, wherever they are in the world, is poor, and their report is a little disjointed.

The screen freezes and the feed returns to the studio, the newsreader announcing that the signal has been lost.

“What was that?” I ask.

“I have no idea,” Orla shrugs. “It looked bad though.”

Caleb returns to the sofa then, his expression dark as he drops back into his seat beside Nick and Bria, who are too caught up in each other to notice that the atmosphere in the room has changed. Caleb’s whole demeanour is markedly different, his foot tapping the floor, his eyes flitting to his watch every few seconds. He sees me looking and his mouth sets in a thin line. He watches me for a moment, then he storms from the room without saying a word to anyone.

Orla looks at me in confusion. “Is it just me, or was that a little strange?”

It was definitely strange.

 

Later that night, I crawl into bed with my hair still wet from the shower.

When I turn off the light, I think about my fight with Molly, wondering if things would’ve been better between us if I had handled things differently.

Molly said that I should’ve told her when Lana’s body was found and part of me agrees with her. Wouldn’t I expect the same of Jas and Orla, if something happened to Bria and they found out before I did? I didn’t mean to shut Molly out; I was in so much pain I couldn’t think straight.

I remember the day they found Lana. Ivy was called to the police station to identify her, but she wouldn’t let me go. I had pleaded and cried, but it didn’t make any difference, Ivy left without me and returned, hours later, pale and shaken. It had been seven months since Lana disappeared, but that didn’t make the pain of finding her any more bearable.

I remember Ivy’s mouth moving, but I can’t remember the words she used as she handed over Lana’s leather jacket, wrapped in a Police evidence bag. They had kept it all that time, hoping that it held some vital clue about what had happened to my sister.

The next thing I remember is running down to the beach behind our house, the gravel on the winding path cutting into my bare feet, the water surging around my ankles as I buried my toes in the sand, just like Lana used to do.

Pain stabbed me all over my body, cutting my heart to ribbons that were carried away on the wind until there was nothing left of me. I was vaguely aware of Ivy appearing behind me, but I held up a hand, warning her to stay back.

She ignored me, throwing her arms around me and holding me tight. I gritted my teeth as her agony surged through me, wondering how it was possible to feel so much pain but not die.

The Police said that Lana had fallen from the cliffs onto the rocks below. They couldn’t tell us why her body, which had slipped between the huge, jagged boulders, was not found earlier during their searches. They made some excuse about the tide preventing them from searching between the rocks, but it made no difference, my sister was dead and there was nothing they could do to bring her back.

I try to imagine how Molly must have felt during those seven months, waiting, holding out for snippets of information, for any news on the fate of her best friend. I didn’t stay in touch; Ivy didn’t have any contact with her parents; I’ve never even met them.

I think of Molly standing alone at the funeral, and guilt starts to rise in my chest. What would Lana make of my treatment of her best friend?

As I drift off, I decide to make amends with Molly. For Lana.

Chapter 9

 

The moon is full and bright, the grass dewy under my bare feet.

The red amulet glows at my chest, its warmth spreading through me, protecting me from the chill of the night air.

The girl ahead of me dances towards the forest, her white-blonde hair rippling down her back. I follow, mesmerised by the glow around her. It circles her head like a halo and streams from the tips of her fingers, leaving a trail of light.

She stops near the edge of the scorched woodland and fixes me with a strange stare. I inhale sharply. Her eyes are solid black, like they absorbed the night sky, and the side of her face is etched with dark veins, spreading across her temple like a spider’s web. She takes off in the direction of the river and stops at the edge of the water, the hem of her white dress ruffling around her calves in the breeze.

Before I can stop her, she jumps into the river, the water sloshing on to the grass as she disappears below the surface. I know she’ll be OK, she has to be, so I sit on the riverbank and watch the light rippling with the sway of the river where the girl disappeared.

Something breaks the surface downstream and I am momentarily distracted by it, but then the light glows brighter, recapturing my attention. Another splash and then a blackened, skeletal hand shoots from the water. It grabs my ankle, its fingers sharp and pincer-like. I let out a scream as I am pulled below the surface, struggling against the grip of a strange, dark creature.

It’s bony, yet strong. It wraps its legs around my waist and its fingers dig painfully into my skin. I am sinking and my lungs burn with the urge to breathe. The light is gone now; all I see is darkness. I feel one last surge of panic and then water floods my nose and mouth, my body goes limp and my eyes close.

 

“CASEY! CASEY!” Strong hands roughly shake my shoulders.

I cough and splutter, spitting water down my front. My chest aches with every breath and a bright, oppressive light makes my eyes sting.

“Caleb.” My voice is hoarse.

His hands are still on my shoulders; I can feel them trembling, sending his fear reverberating through me. “I think you have a death wish.” He gasps, the torch at his feet bathing us both in a white light.

I draw in a rattling breath. “I don’t know what happened, I-” The image of Lana skipping through the grounds flashes behind my eyes and the familiar feeling of fear creeps over me. I clutch at my chest, wringing the water out of my sopping t-shirt. I try to breathe evenly, but every movement sends a fresh wave of pain through my ribcage. I look around in horror at the dark, empty grounds and the river, now bubbling innocently beside us. “I-I must’ve fallen in.”

Caleb shakes his head again. “I watched you jump in. I followed you out here, I was calling your name.”

“No, I-”

“That pain you’re feeling in your chest, is from the pressure I had to apply to pump the water out of your lungs.” His voice is harsh and I cringe away from it.

“I thought the river was shallow. How-?”

Caleb releases his grip on me and rocks back on his heels. “What, so you thought you’d take a late night dip? The river is deeper because of all of the snow and rain we’ve had lately.” He is shirtless and water drips from his hair. He jumped in after me.

“I saw Lana,” I blurt it out, because I can’t bear the way he is looking me. I need him to understand. “She jumped into the river and I sat down on the bank, but something pulled me in, some creature. It tried to drown me.”

Caleb looks at me like I’m crazy, and now I’ve said it out loud, it sounds so stupid.

“Do you have any idea how cracked that sounds?” He says incredulously. “You’ve just said you were dreaming. It was just a dream, there was no creature. I thought you were supposed to be smart?” He stands up and dusts the grass from his knees.

“Why are you so angry, I told you-”

“If I hadn’t pulled you out, you would have died. Do you get that? I thought I was too late and you’re telling me that it’s because you can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not?”

I take deep breaths and clench my fists to stop my hands from shaking. “I didn’t jump in, OK?”

Caleb mouth sets into a tight line, his green eyes blazing in the torchlight.

“I didn’t ask you to save me,” I say. “What are you even doing here? Why did you follow me?”

Caleb’s snatches his hooded top up from the ground and disentangles his t-shirt from inside. “I was looking out of my window and I saw you walking towards the forest,” he looks anywhere but at me, “I wanted to make sure you were OK.” He rakes his wet hair back off his forehead and shoves his t-shirt on.

“Did you…. see anyone else?” I try to keep my voice even, but it’s shaky and my throat is raw.

“Like who, your dead sister?”

His words hit me hard, but I see regret flash immediately across his eyes. He extends his hand to me, but I bat it away and scramble awkwardly to my feet. I set off in the direction of the school, shivering in my wet flannel shorts and an old fencing club t-shirt that now clings to me. My lips tremble violently with every shallow breath.

Caleb falls into step beside me. “I’m sorry, for what I said about your sister.”

“You’re right, she’s dead. I’m just having a hard time dealing with it.”

Silence falls between us, but Caleb’s cold hand finds mine and our fingers interlock. Behind his anger, I feel his relief, I feel it travel up my arm into my chest and I instantly feel a little warmer. “Thank you for helping me.”

He gives a small nod of acknowledgement, but continues to look ahead.

I glance down at our entwined hands, mine looks tiny encased in his. His fingers are long, elegant, his nails neat. He is the epitome of male perfection – tall, dark and handsome, ridiculously charming, at least when he wants to be, and he has just saved my life.

“Lana’s been gone for nine months,” I say. “But it’s like suddenly she’s everywhere. I’ve seen her before tonight, in my room, in the fire in the woods. I know it’s not possible, but-” I swallow the tears gathering in my throat.

Caleb glances sideways at me, his expression unreadable. “She was your sister, you spent all of your time together. You miss her, that’s all.”

I look at him, wondering how much he knows about Lana and me.

“Caleb, do you think we could keep what happened tonight between us? Ms Gould is already breathing down my neck after the fire and the fight with Molly.”

He stops suddenly and whirls me around to face him. He hooks a finger under my chin, tilting my face towards his. For a second, I think he might kiss me and I hold my breath.

“You think I’m a gossip?” His voice is low, soft, and there’s a smile playing around his lips. He lets go of my hand and drapes his hooded top around my shoulders. He wraps the sleeves around his knuckles and uses them to pull me towards him, planting a soft kiss on my forehead. He throws a casual arm around my waist and we continue up the path to the main building, our feet leaving a trail of wet footprints behind us.

The front door opens as we reach the stone steps and Ms Gould appears in the doorway, her form dark against the lights inside.

“Where have you been? You know the rules about being outside after curfew.” She gapes at my soaking wet attire and I cross my arms self-consciously across my chest. “What happened?” She asks, her voice high and shrill. “Why are you all wet?”

I open my mouth to speak, but Caleb jumps in. “She slipped. We were walking near the river and she fell in.”

Ms Gould sighs irritably. “For heaven’s sake, Casey, you must be freezing cold. Both of you inside, now.”

We step around Ms Gould and the warmth of the foyer envelopes me.

“Straight upstairs,” Ms Gould says. “Change out of those wet clothes.” She looks down at the polished floor where Caleb’s sodden trainers leave muddy footprints, each squeaky step echoing around the foyer.

“We got off pretty easy.” I whisper.

Caleb smirks. “People are always sneaking out. She probably thinks it’s the most normal thing you’ve done since you got here.”

I elbow him playfully in the ribs and he laughs. At the top of the stairs I take Caleb’s hooded top from around my shoulders and I hold it out to him.

“Why don’t you keep it for a while?” He wraps it back around me, tying the sleeves in a loose knot over my chest. He tucks a stray strand of wet hair behind my ear, before sauntering off towards the boy’s corridor, leaving wet footprints on the red carpet.

My stomach writhing with butterflies, I head to the bathrooms to shower off the dirty river water, standing under the flow until my body is warm again, then I return to my room.

The digital face of the clock on my bedside table says that it’s just after midnight. I crawl wearily into bed, hoping to get some sleep before the alarm goes off, but every time I close my eyes I see the darkness of the river and I feel the wasted body of the creature on my back, it’s bony limbs wrapped around me, drawing me down into nothingness.

 

“So, let me check that I’ve got this right,” Dr Parker take off her glasses and pinches the bridge of her nose. “You wandered out into the grounds in your sleep, dreaming that you were following Lana, she jumped into the river and you sat down on the riverbank, something grabbed your ankle and then pulled you in, you almost drowned, but then Caleb appeared and he fished you out.”

I shrug my shoulders. “I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as Caleb said it was.”

Dr Parkers looks at me incredulously. “You said he gave you CPR. You should have told someone last night; you should’ve been taken to hospital. I’m sorry, Casey, but I have to tell Ms Gould about this,” I start to protest, but Dr Parker holds up a hand. “I know I promised that I would keep what we discuss confidential, but you’ve disclosed something that indicates risk. I want you to get checked over, at least by the school nurse. Your ribs could be bruised, or worse.” She pulls out the pen that she keeps bound in the knot of her hair, and writes a note for the nurse. She hands it to me with a tight smile.

“This isn’t necessary,” I say, looking briefly at her swirly handwriting. “I’m fine, look,” I take in a deep breath and exhale noisily. “My chest doesn’t even hurt anymore.”

She narrows her eyes. “That’s impossible, the pressure that needs to be applied to pump water out of someone’s lungs can be enough to break the ribs, especially in someone as slight as you. Your bones might be fractured.”

“But they aren’t.” I slump back grumpily in my chair.

“Please just see the nurse,” she sighs. “For me.”

“Fine.”

“Is there anything else you want to talk about today, Casey?”

I almost tell her about my visions of Lana, but I stop myself. What if she tells Ms Gould about that too? “No, there’s nothing else.”

Dr Parker fixes me with an even stare. “Then you can go see the nurse now.”

I snatch up my bag and trudge out of the room, but instead of heading along the corridor to the nurse’s office, I haul myself back up the stairs, figuring I may as well catch up on some sleep if I’m excused from lessons.

As I reach the landing, I hear a murmur of excited voices. Curiosity draws me along the corridor and when I reach the small staircase, I find it blocked by students trying to peer over each other’s heads into the lounge.

Ms Gould is trying to control the crowd, but when she spots me over the sea of heads her eyes narrow. “Casey, a word please. The rest of you, off to class.”

She ushers the crowd away irritably, her hands flapping erratically, as though she is swatting at an invisible fly. When the stairs are clear, she gestures for me to follow her into the lounge with a jerk of her head.

“Ms Gould, what’s going-” The words catch in my throat when I see.

The paintings of Lana have been vandalised, her memorial display desecrated. The culprit has painted X’s across the eyes and mouth of every portrait, the paint running down her face like tears. Bile rises in my throat when I see that the vandal has also painted a noose around her neck, on a painting that is unmistakably Molly’s.

Ms Gould’s expression is both hurt and indignant. She thinks I did this, I can feel the suspicion radiating from her, filling the space between us.

“I didn’t do this.” I choke. Darkness taints the edge of my vision and I lower myself into the nearest chair. “I didn’t.”

“I want to believe that, Casey,” Ms Gould says. “I really do, but this happened last night, probably around the time I caught you out of bed.”

I take deep breaths to try and slow my rapid heartbeat. “How can you think that this was me?”

“You’ve made it quite clear that you have no interest in the memorial display,” her eyes are wide now, like she’s unsure of my guilt. “And then there’s the painting you did in class. Your behaviour is just so unpredictable lately.”

“I was with Caleb last night and I went straight to bed after you saw us.”

Ms Gould sits down in the chair opposite, perching precariously on the edge. “I’ll speak to Caleb, if he confirms your story then… there’ll be an investigation, we’ll find out who did this.”

I stand and my head spins a little. My eyes flit towards the vandalised paintings and anger starts to build inside of me. “I can’t believe you would bring me here to show me this, it’s sick.”

Ms Gould wrings her hands “You’re right, I shouldn’t have shown you. I just thought….”

“You thought that I would destroy paintings of my sister, that I would paint a noose around her neck?”

Ms Gould looks abashed. “We’ll try to find out who’s responsible, I’ll-”

I don’t wait for her to finish. I hazard one last glance at the paintings, then I stomp out of the lounge, my hands shaking at my sides. My steps falter when I see the figure standing in the corridor. Molly. “We need to talk.” I say, storming towards her.

“I have nothing to say to you.” She starts off in the direction of the stairs and I storm after her.

“Well I do. I don’t know what I did to make you hate me so much, but you need to know, it wasn’t me who ruined those paintings.”

She stops at the top of the stairs and turns, her face contorted with rage. “Oh really?” Her voice is thick with angry tears, “Then who did?”

“I don’t know, but I’m sick of you blaming me for everything. You had no right to say that Lana died because of me.”

“What’s the matter? Does the truth hurt?” Her lip curls into a sneer. “Maybe you wrecked the paintings because you couldn’t stand the fact that Lana still gets more attention than you.”

Something snaps and I launch myself at Molly. Then we’re falling.

Chapter 10

 

I stifle a yawn with the back of my hand, shifting uncomfortably in the hard, wooden chair outside of Ms Gould’s office. I hear the clack of heels and I turn to see my Aunt striding purposefully along the corridor.

Slim and pretty with pale blonde hair that she wears twisted into a sophisticated knot, Ivy is an older version of Lana. She pulls me into a hug and I inhale her familiar, floral scent.

She stands back to look at me. “You look pale. Are you eating properly? Sleeping OK?”

“I’m fine, Ivy. I’m just sorry Ms Gould made you come all this way.”

“It’s only a short journey,” she smiles. “To be honest, I was glad of an excuse to come see you, I was starting to think I had upset you somehow, you haven’t returned any of my calls.”

I look away from her, guilt clawing at my insides. “I know, I just-”

She takes my face in her hands and smiles sadly. “I miss her too, you know.”

I step back from her touch, her sudden surge of emotion making me lightheaded. “How long are you staying for?”

“Not long, I have to fly straight back this afternoon, I’m meeting an investor who’s interested in the collection.”

“I’m so sorry, Ivy. You should have told Ms Gould that you couldn’t leave work, it’s not fair to make you fly all the way from Paris.”

She waves me away. “It’s fine, Casey,” She sheds her cream mac, revealing a navy pencil-dress that hugs her slender frame. “You’re my niece, my responsibility, and I want to hear what Ms Gould has to say.” Her mouth sets in a thin, determined line. I recognise this expression, it’s the one she wears when she’s steeling herself, preparing for a fight.

Ms Gould’s door opens and she steps out into the corridor, casting her eyes over Ivy and tugging self-consciously at her worn, black blazer. She extends a hand. “I’m sorry for calling you away from work, Ms George.”

“Please, call me Ivy.” She says, shaking Ms Gould’s hand and smiling tightly, dangerously.

Inside the small, stuffy office, Ivy drapes her coat across the back of a chair and sits down with her hands folded in her lap.

Ms Gould’s desk is cluttered with papers and she sweeps them hastily into the top drawer before taking out a notebook. “I thought we should meet to discuss some of the issues Casey has had since she returned to school. Has Casey told you about the incidents that have happened over the last couple of weeks?”

Ivy’s eyes flicker to me, then back to Ms Gould. “Despite numerous telephone calls, I haven’t had a conversation with Casey since she returned to school.”

Ms Gould looks at me with surprise. “Well, not long after Casey returned, a fire broke out in the grounds. I went outside to bring the students in and saw Casey running in the direction of the fire, some students reported that they heard her shouting Lana’s name.”

I hazard a glance at Ivy, but her face is impassive.

“The following week,” Ms Gould continues. “Casey got into a fight with a fellow student, Molly Adams. Casey hit Molly, causing bruising to her jaw, then later that night, I found her outside in the grounds with a boy, her clothes soaking wet after apparently falling into the river,” Ms Gould raises her eyebrows at me and then turns back to Ivy. “The latest incident happened a few days ago. A memorial display dedicated to Lana was vandalised, I made the mistake of showing Casey the damage, and I’m sorry to say that she got very upset. She stormed off and I followed her, only to find her throwing Molly down the stairs.

“That’s not true,” I say. “We both fell.”

Ms Gould sighs irritably. “You fell because you were fighting again,” she turns to Ivy. “I’ve spoken to the Head Teacher and he is in agreement that Casey isn’t in the right frame of mind to continue her studies right now.”

I feel winded. The thought of returning to Evergreen alone fills me with dread.

“May I ask, Ms Gould, are either you or the Head appropriately qualified to make that kind of assessment?” Ivy’s tone is light, courteous, but Ms Gould looks like she has just been slapped in the face.

“We are teachers, senior members of staff.”

“But not psychologists.”

Ms Gould blushes a deep shade of scarlet. “Well no, but, we have a psychologist on site.”

“Ah yes, Dr Parker,” Ivy says, as though she and Dr Parker are old friends. “And what does she think about Casey’s current state of mind?”

Ms Gould shifts uncomfortably in her chair. “Dr Parker believes that Casey is still in mourning, I agree, but we have a difference of opinion when it comes to her education.”

Ivy sits back in her chair, a satisfied smile on her face, and I feel a sudden rush of gratitude towards Dr Parker.

“But her grief doesn’t excuse her fighting with other students.” Ms Gould says.

“I agree,” Ivy says, nodding in acknowledgement, “But you said that Casey fought with Molly, suggesting that the altercation wasn’t completely one sided.”

“Well, yes, but-”

“And I assume, therefore, that you have also spoken to Molly’s parents regarding her behaviour?”

Ms Gould presses her hands on the desk, her fingers evenly spaced. “Molly was not seen running towards a fire in the grounds, or returning into school soaking wet after falling into the river in the middle of the night. Casey doesn’t seem to be taking her personal safety seriously.”

“You seem to believe these incidents were of great concern,” Ivy says. “That Casey was intentionally putting herself at risk, yet you have waited until now to discuss them with me. Is there anything else I should know about?”

Ms Gould’s mouth opens and closes like a fish out of water.

Ivy smiles politely. “I didn’t think so. Now you listen to me,” she fixes Ms Gould with an even stare and lowers her voice. “You are in no position to lecture me on the safety of students after what happened to Lana,”

My head whips around to Ivy, my mouth open. I hazard a glance at Ms Gould. Her face is oddly blank, her mouth slack, and her eyes are wide, unblinking.

“You are not qualified to comment on Casey’s frame of mind,” Ivy continues. “And you will tell the Head that you’ve had a change of heart, that you would like Casey to stay. Do you understand?”

“I understand,” Ms Gould says, nodding slowly. “I would like Casey to stay.”

“I think being the head of sixth form is becoming too much for you, dear,” Ivy says. “All those sleepless nights, all those feelings of remorse and guilt….”

Ms Gould’s wide eyes brim with tears, but her expression remains blank. I look between her and Ivy, confused by this odd exchange.

“Ivy, stop.” I don’t know what I want her to stop, because I’m not sure what she’s doing. She appears to have Ms Gould under a spell.

Ivy stands suddenly. “I thank you for your time, Ms Gould. I am pleased to hear that Casey is doing so well.” She shrugs into her coat, preparing to leave.

Ms Gould shakes her head like she’s trying to clear water from her ears. “Yes, of course.”

Ivy looks at me then. “Are you ready, sweetie?”

I nod, still confused by what has just occurred.

Ms Gould scrambles around the desk, stumbling a little, and opens the door. She pats me kindly on the shoulder as I leave and I feel a surge of pity towards the teacher that I once got on so well with. She appears to have completely forgotten why she called Ivy here.

I follow Ivy out of the front door and into the grounds, there is a chill in the air and I pull my blazer more tightly around me. She heads around the side of the building in the direction of the patio and she doesn’t speak until we’re inside the walls, shielded from the rest of the school. She sits down at one of the benches and gestures for me to join her.

“So, are you going to tell me what really happened?” She asks.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

Ivy gives a puzzled smile. “I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”

“You did something to Ms Gould,” I say. “You made her agree with you, like you cast a spell on her.”

Ivy laughs, a high, melodious sound. “Don’t be silly, Casey. I just made her see reason, that’s all.”

I don’t believe her, but I can’t find the words to explain what I saw. “It just doesn’t make any sense, Ms Gould wanted me to leave, and now, I don’t know.”

“You’re not going anywhere, dear. Ms Gould doesn’t have a good enough reason to ask you to leave. She knows that now.”

I nod, but I still feel uneasy.

“So, it sounds like you’ve had a busy couple of weeks. Are you going to tell me what really happened?”

“It’s just like Ms Gould said,” I shrug. “Only… there’s more. I keep seeing Lana.” I say the words quickly, before I have time to change my mind about saying them at all.

Ivy’s brow furrows slightly, almost imperceptibly. “What do you mean you keep seeing Lana?”

“It’s dreams mostly,” I say. “But I saw her in the reflection of my mirror, and again the night of the fire. Am I crazy?”

“Of course not.” Ivy says, not quite meeting my eyes. “Sometimes, when we really want to see something, we imagine that it’s there. It’s the same with people. You miss Lana terribly; you wish she was still here, so you see her.” She reaches into her bag, extracts a pair of sunglasses and shoves them hurriedly on to her face.

“I’m sorry, Ivy,” I say. “About everything, about not returning your calls and-.”

“Oh, I’m glad you reminded me.” She delves into her bag again and retrieves a shiny, chrome mobile phone. “Now you have no excuse.”

I smile as I take the phone from her, rubbing my thumb over the smooth exterior. “Thank you, but you didn’t need to do this.”

Ivy waves me away. “I haven’t bought you anything in ages. My number is already programmed in, along with my email address, so no excuses. I want to hear from you at least once a week, OK?”

“OK, I promise.”

“Good,” she smiles, “Now tell me about this boy you were out in the grounds with.”

My stomach dips a little. “His name is Caleb, he just transferred.”

“And…? What’s he like? Tall, handsome?”

I scrunch my nose up. “Yes, and yes, but he can be kind of arrogant too.”

Ivy sighs. “The good-looking ones usually are.”

I nod in agreement, pulling at a loose thread hanging from the cuff of my blazer. Something is niggling at the back of my mind, something that Ivy said earlier. “Ivy, what you said to Ms Gould about what happened to Lana, what did you mean by that?”

Ivy sighs. “Ms Gould was there that night; she was in charge.”

“No, it was more than that. You seemed to be suggesting something.”

Ivy puffs out her cheeks. “Ms Gould told the police that she was awake the whole night, patrolling the campsite regularly, making sure everyone was tucked up safely in their tents, but she lied. Ms Gould was on some very strong medication at the time, it made her drowsy. She was fast asleep for the majority of the night.”

“How do you know that?”

Ivy shrugs. “One of the other teachers reported it to the police.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense. She would’ve lost her job, or she could’ve been arrested. If she had been awake, maybe she-”

Ivy groans. “Let’s not talk about it now, Casey. The police probably just dismissed it as hearsay, I can’t keep going over old ground again. Lana’s gone.”

Angry sadness starts to build in my chest and I blink back tears.

She squeezes my hand lightly and I feel a jolt of tension. “I need you to stay out of trouble, do you hear me?” Her voice is not unkind. “I managed to convince Ms Gould to let you stay this time, she might not be so… agreeable next time.”

I nod silently.

“And no more fighting, I didn’t teach you to solve problems with your fists,” she peers over her sunglasses at me with an almost amused expression. “Where did you even learn to throw a punch?”

“I don’t know.” I shrug.

She pushes her sunglasses back up her nose. “Anyway, just keep your head down, see this year out and you can decide what you want to do next year.”

“What do you mean,” I ask, pulling a face. “Where else would I go?”

She doesn’t answer; instead she reaches across and picks up the necklace resting against my shirt. “That’s pretty.”

“I found it in my room,” I say. “I think it was a gift, but I don’t know who it’s from.”

“How mysterious.” Ivy lifts her sunglasses to look more closely at the gem, turning it over in her hand.

“Do you think it’s weird that I wear it, even though I don’t know who it’s from?”

“Oh no, dear,” Ivy says. “It’s beautiful, you keep it on.”

 

When the bell rings for lunch, Ivy calls a taxi and I walk her to the gates. We say a quick goodbye and I promise to call her at the weekend.

As I head back up the drive, edging around the stone fountain where the water sprays the tarmac, I see Caleb walking towards me and my heart quickens; I haven’t spoken to him since the night he pulled me from the river. I am about to wave, when I see Molly fall into step beside him. Caleb glances my way, but doesn’t speak, he doesn’t even smile.

Just then, Bria bounds towards me with Nick on her heels. “So, how did it go?”

“How did what go?” I ask, distracted by Caleb and Molly.

“The meeting, with Ms Gould…”

“Oh, it was fine.” I reach the stone steps of the main building and I lean heavily against the handrail, the metal already warm from the sun filtering through a break in the clouds.

Bria raises her eyebrows at me. “Ms Gould made Ivy fly all the way from Paris to meet with her, and you’re telling me it was just fine?”

“Ivy… straightened things out and Ms Gould said I could stay.”

“Well that’s good, isn’t it?” Bria smiles.

“Forget that,” Nick says. “I want to know what happened with you and Caleb the other night.” Bria nudges him in the side. “Nick, I already told you nothing happened.” She sits down heavily on the steps and pulls Nick down beside her.

“That’s not what I heard.” He says suggestively.

“Why, what did he tell you?” I ask.

“Nothing, really,” he laughs. “I’m just winding you up. Caleb said you and him went for a walk outside and you both got caught by Ms Gould.”

“That’s pretty much it,” I shrug. “Anyway, looks like he’s pretty occupied at the moment.” I nod in the direction of Caleb and Molly, now sitting side by side on the grass.

“Don’t worry about that,” Nick frowns. “I don’t think he’s into Molly.”

I watch as Molly places her hand on Caleb’s shoulder and leans in to whisper in his ear. My stomach twists. “Makes no difference to me. Let’s go for lunch, I’m starving.”

Later that day, when I return to my room, I find my door unlocked again. I step inside and drop my bag to the floor, realising almost immediately that something is wrong.

The sheets on the bed have been pulled tight, the edges tucked under the mattress, the quilt smoothed over. I rarely make the bed. Sometimes, if I remember, I straighten the covers up a little, but this looks neat – military neat. Someone has been in my room again.

I pull back the duvet and pillows, then I crouch on the floor to look under the bed. There’s nothing there, but I have a bad feeling, anxiety clawing at my insides.

I lift the mattress and peer underneath. There, wedged between the wooden slats, is a clear plastic bag. I pull it towards me, the contents rattling around inside. It’s a can of spray paint, black spray paint.

Chapter 11

 

There’s a box of matches inside the bag too, the long, safety kind, and the spray paint is branded with the same logo as the art supplies in the annexe – a black X – like the X’s daubed on the paintings of Lana.

I think about taking the bag straight to Ms Gould, but I’m not convinced that she’ll believe that I simply found it stuffed under my mattress.

My heart starts to hammer in my chest. Someone is trying to frame me for vandalising the paintings…and for starting the fire. I’m just assuming that’s where the matches come in, because no one knows yet how the fire started. The last I heard, the Fire Brigade and the Police where still looking at possible causes.

There’s nothing else for it, I have to get rid of the bag. I shove it inside my blazer, under my arm where its bulk is less noticeable, and I hurry from the room. I race along the corridor and down the stairs, ignoring the gazes of those milling around in the foyer. I don’t stop until I reach the big waste container by the back door of the kitchen. I hazard a glance around the yard, then I lift the heavy, rubber lid, holding my breath as the stench of rotten food hits me. Trying not to retch, I lift a soggy piece of cardboard coated with potato peelings, and I bury the bag deep amongst the garbage.

I let the lid fall shut, then I hurry back inside with my stomach in knots.

I head straight to the bathroom to scrub the garbage juice from my hands, wondering who could’ve planted the bag in my room. I realise that it’s probably the same person who vandalised the memorial display and started the fire. My first thought is Molly, but she was too upset about the display, she wouldn’t have ruined her paintings of Lana. Also, I’m not convinced that she’s capable of this level of strategy. Unless she had help. Caleb’s face flashes through my mind.

My thoughts are interrupted by my phone buzzing in my pocket – a text message from Bria telling me to meet her in the lounge. It’s typed all in capitals, as though she’s shouting, her words followed by lots of exclamation marks.

I find the lounge packed, but unnaturally quiet, the atmosphere tense. There are two police officers standing in the corner, one male one female, looking oddly out of place in their uniforms of black and white. They survey the room with furrowed brows as muffled, raspy voices burst at intervals from the radios at their sides. The sight of them makes me want to turn and run, but the officers barely glance my way as I weave around the chairs and tables towards Bria. She is sitting with Nick, Orla and Jas. I scan the room for Caleb and find him sitting with Molly, she has her back to me, but her head moves as though she is talking animatedly.

Caleb watches her with an even expression, his lips set in a small, polite smile. He doesn’t turn my way, but I think I see him glance at me out of the corner of his eye.

“What’s going on?” I ask, perching on the arm of Jas’s chair.

Bria nods towards the police officers. “They said the fire in the woods was started on purpose. The teachers are searching everyone’s rooms.”

I feel the blood leave my face.

The door to the lounge swings open then, and a group of students file into the room, flanked by a flustered-looking Ms Gould and two more police officers.

“May I have your attention?” Ms Gould holds up her hands for silence. “We’ve almost finished our search of the school; I just need you to be patient a little while longer while we check the sixth form dormitory.”

“Do you think she really believes that one of us could have started the fire?” Jas asks, watching the door swing shut behind Ms Gould.

Orla shakes her head. “The police are probably just ruling us out before they look elsewhere.”

“Where else is there to look?” Bria asks. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Nick squeezes her shoulder. “They’ll speak to the farmers and the people who live in the village.”

“How do they know it wasn’t just an accident?” Jas asks. “The news is always reporting spontaneous fires these days.”

“Yeah, in hot countries,” Orla says, patiently. “Not in the middle of Northumberland, Jas.”

“They must have found evidence,” Bria says, chewing nervously on the cuff of her jumper. “They wouldn’t just search our rooms on a whim.”

With a jolt, I think of the bag with the spray can and matches inside, now buried deep inside the waste container. What if the culprit put something else in my room that I didn’t find? Would the police believe me if I told them that someone is trying to frame me?

It occurs to me then that I have an alibi, at least for the night of the fire. I was with Caleb. My eyes flit to where he sits with Molly, she turns at the same time and our eyes meet. She smirks at me, drawing her knees up and resting them against Caleb’s thigh.

Ms Gould returns to the lounge some time later, her expression unreadable. She scans the room and I hold my breath, waiting for her eyes to find mine, but they don’t. “Thank you everyone, our search is over.”

The noise levels rise in the lounge as everyone starts to file out into the corridor. Nick kisses Bria swiftly on the cheek before clambering over the back of the sofa, he catches up with Caleb and the two of them disappear with the rest of the crowd, much to Molly’s dismay. She looks around the almost-empty lounge, and her eyes settle on our group. For a second, I think she’s going to come over, but then she flicks her hair over her shoulder and stalks out of the room.

“I’ve had enough of this.” Orla says, starting towards the door.

“Wait,” I call after her. “Just leave it, we need to talk.”

She looks at me questioningly, but I gesture at the crowd now filing out the door and I raise a finger to my lips, communicating that we need to wait until they’ve gone. When there’s just our group left, Bria, Orla and Jas all stare at me expectantly. I don’t know what I’m going to tell them, all I know is a problem shared is a problem halved, or quartered in this case. I have to tell someone about what happened, but first, I need to be sure that they had nothing to do with any of this.

I know it’s wrong to suspect my friends, but finding the bag in my room has set me on edge, it’s filled me with an unease that I can’t shake.

“Before I tell you anything, I need you to do something for me,” I say. “Bria, give me your hand.”

She looks at me blankly. “Casey, what’s this-”

I hold out a hand. “Please, Bria, just do it.”

She frowns, but obediently places her hand in mine. I close my fingers around it as the familiar tingle starts in the base of my skull. She is calm, but her curiosity builds with every beat of her pulse. I let go, satisfied that she had nothing to do with the bag in my room.

“OK, Orla?”

Orla touches her palm to mine, a bemused expression on her face, then Jas does the same. Neither of them give off anything that suggests they’re involved with any of this, not a glimmer of anxiety or a pinch of guilt.

“Casey, what’s going on?” Orla asks. “And what’s with the hand thing?” She waggles her fingers in front of me.

“Someone planted a box of matches and a can of spray paint in my room,” I say. “I found them under my mattress. I was holding your hands to see if you knew anything about it. You know, a raised pulse, a sweaty palm?” I swallow reflexively, hoping they’ll accept this explanation.

Orla and Jas exchange shocked glances.

“I don’t understand,” Bria says. “Why would someone put those things in your room?”

“Why do you think?” Orla says, rolling her eyes.

“I found them before I knew there was going to be a search. I put them in the waste container by the kitchen.”

“And you thought we had something to do with this?” Two pink spots appear on Orla’s cheeks. “And when did you turn into a human lie detector?”

“I just freaked out, everything’s so messed up lately. I’m sorry.”

Bria puffs out her cheeks. “Someone’s trying to get you kicked out of school.”

“Kicked out?” Orla says incredulously. “She could’ve been arrested.” She stares around the room thoughtfully. “You don’t think…Molly?”

“She’s the only person with a grudge against me,” I say. “But this doesn’t seem like her style, it’s too well thought-out.”

“Molly is upset,” Jas says. “But she wouldn’t do this.”

“Wouldn’t she?” Orla raises an eyebrow. “She’s not the same person, Jas. We don’t know what she’s capable of anymore.”

“I just wish things could go back to the way they were,” Bria says, wistfully. “When we were all friends, when… when Lana was here.”

A blanket of silence falls over us and Orla scuffs her toe awkwardly against her chair.

“I think Molly liked Lana as more than a friend.” I don’t know why I tell them, but the words fall out of my mouth before I can stop them and now they’re all looking at me with wide eyes. “The night we cleaned out the Annexe, Ms Gould showed me Molly’s Art folder. Every picture was of Lana. They were really intense, like she was in love with her or something.”

Orla and Bria look unconvinced, but Jas shifts uneasily in her chair. “I think you might be right.”

Orla’s eyebrows almost disappear into her hair line. “What do you mean?”

“Molly told me,” Jas says, twisting a lock of hair around her fingers. “Kind of. The night Lana…. the night at the cliffs, Molly was drunk, she said she wanted to be with Lana. She said she wanted to be with her forever.”

We all stare at Jas in stunned silence. “And you’re only telling us this now?” Orla asks.

“She was drunk,” Jas says. “I didn’t know what she was talking about.”

Orla looks at her in disbelief, “I think it’s pretty obvious what she was talking about, Jas.”

“No, we all used to say it, remember?” Jas says, shaking her head. “We said we’d be friends forever,”

“I don’t think that’s what she meant.” Orla says, rolling her eyes.

“Molly hates me because she thinks I hurt Lana,” I say. “The girl she was in love with, it all makes sense now,”

“She doesn’t believe that, not really,” Orla says. “She’s just jealous. Lana was your sister and Molly was just her friend. There was no special connection, no reason for anyone to acknowledge her pain, and she was mad that you didn’t tell her when… you know, when they found Lana.”

“But that wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t thinking, I-”

“Hey, I’m on your side,” Orla says, holding up her hands. “I’m just trying to explain why she’s behaving the way she is, why it might be her who planted those things in your room.”

“And you honestly think she’s capable of starting that fire?” I ask.

Silence falls over us again as we consider this and my stomach twists uncomfortably. “You don’t think Lana and her were like…. a thing?”

Bria shakes her head, her red curls bouncing around her shoulders. “No, Lana definitely liked boys.” Her brow furrows a little, and I know she’s thinking of Nick.

“Molly was so sad after Lana died,” Jas says. “We all were, but Molly was like, really sad, end-of-the-world sad. She had to see a doctor because she was so depressed. Then after the funeral, she just lost it.”

“I bet it was Molly in your bedroom after the funeral,” Bria says, her eyes wide. “Sneaking around, going through your stuff… and now the same thing’s happening again.”

I shake my head. “That was different, if it was her in my room that day, she was looking for something.”

“Was she?” Bria asks. “Because you said nothing was taken.”

Orla throws her hands up. “Now what are you talking about?”

“After the funeral I went up to my room to hide out for a while,” I say. “Bria followed me up and then a little later someone else came in. We were hiding under the beds and we heard them rummaging around, like they were trying to find something.”

Jas’s dark eyes are like saucers. “But nothing was missing?”

“I don’t know; I don’t think so.”

Orla sighs heavily and presses her fingers to her temples. “Well, whatever’s going on, someone’s trying to get you into trouble, and you’re going to have to tread carefully. This isn’t just about school anymore; the police are involved.”

“Orla’s right,” Bria says. “You need to be a golden girl again.”

I pull a face at Bria and she returns it. “I’m serious; all of the teachers here love you, you just need to help them remember. You have to do everything you did last year, get involved, be top of the class. You can start by going back to fencing practice.”

“I was never top of the class,” I say. “That was Lana’s place.”

Bria sighs. “Well you were right behind her, and you know what I mean.”

Orla nods in agreement. “We’ve got your back, but you need to stay as far away from trouble as possible. Don’t give Ms Gould any opportunity to get on your case.”

“I don’t go looking for trouble, you know.”

They all look at me doubtfully.

“Fine,” I huff, getting up from my seat. “I’ll dig out my fencing gear.”

“Good,” Bria calls after me. “And stop leaving your door unlocked.”

 

Later that evening, I peer through the shatterproof glass of the doors to the sports hall, trying to work up the courage to go in. The fencing class hasn’t started yet, but the group inside are already pulling on their masks, faceless warriors in white.

“Good evening, Miss George. You’re late.”

I jump at the sound of Dr Campbell’s voice. He’s wearing his black coaching uniform, his fencing sabre jammed under his arm.

“I could say the same to you.”

He laughs a little as he pulls on his gloves. “Coach’s prerogative.” He opens the door and steps back to allow me to pass.

I chew my lip as I peer inside. “I thought I might just watch for a bit.”

“I don’t think so,” Dr Campbell smiles and jerks his head in the direction of the hall. “I need one more for equal numbers.”

I take a breath as I cross the hall, feeling uncomfortable in the uniform that I haven’t worn for almost a year; the breeches are a little too small around my waist and the breastplate digs sharply into my ribcage. The faceless group watch me as I dump my bag at the side of the hall.

Dr Campbell takes us through some drills. I remember most of the stances, and even though my limbs feel a little tight, my feet step exactly where they should, my sabre held at just the right angle.

Dr Campbell sends four of the group over to the side of the hall, where they slash at the mannequins haphazardly. I remember when that was me, he makes us all start with training foils before upgrading to sabres, practicing at the mannequins before we’re allowed to spar. I practiced at the mannequins for two months, learning steps, touches. Lana was sparring within a fortnight.

Dr Campbell sorts the rest of us into pairs. I am coupled with a tall figure who I assume is male by the broadness of his shoulders. He nods curtly at me as we take our positions.

I bounce immediately forward on my toes, my opponent dodging my onslaught with a sharp sidestep. Then he attacks. I feint to the side and strike him under the arm, but he whirls around and catches me in the chest, his sabre thwacking off my breastplate.

I try to land as many touches on him as possible, but my sabre is met by his every time. Sweat pours down my face and I start to get frustrated, my right arm aching with every strike. My opponent is unrelenting in his attacks, lunging towards me again and again. He lands a touch on my shoulder, then in the side, but it’s the sudden hit across my mask that sends me reeling until I am pressed against the wall.

Dr Campbell calls time. “That’s not a hit, we only strike the torso.”

My opponent takes off his mask and sweeps his dark hair off his forehead, fixing me with a piercing, green-eyed stare. Caleb.

 

After practice, I head straight to the girls changing rooms to shower, shaking with exertion, embarrassed that I was beaten, but mostly annoyed at Caleb for almost taking my head off.

I scrub furiously at my scalp, squinting as shampoo runs into my eyes. I rinse it off my face and hair, and then I turn off the water, feeling around for my towel with my eyes squeezed shut.

I freeze when I hear it, a rustling sound.

“Is somebody there?” I find my towel and I wrap it around me before using the corner to scrub at my eyes. I peer around the half-open shower curtain and find the bathroom filled with steam. “Hello?”

I step carefully across the wet floor. The other cubicles are empty, but the hot water is running in all of them, the steam billowing in clouds. I make my way along the row, turning off each shower while trying to avoid the scalding hot spray. Before I reach the last one, I hear the tap turning with a squeak and the water stops abruptly.

“Who’s there?”

The shower curtain snaps shut and I inhale sharply, my heart beating furiously in my chest. There is a shadow standing behind the screen, too tall to be any of the girls here, and thin, skeletal. I back away as the curtain starts to slide slowly along the rail, a hand covered in rotting flesh reaches around the plastic screen, it has just three fingers, long, unhuman, knotted at the joints.

A scream catches in my throat. I turn and run, my feet sliding on the slick tiles. I throw the door open and find Molly standing on the other side, her eyes black, like they have been hollowed out, her face expressionless.

“Molly-”

Her lip twitches. She pushes me and I stumble backwards, but I dare not look over my shoulder. Molly pushes me again and I slip, falling heavily on the tiled floor. The air leaves my lungs.

She leans over me and before I can stop her, she reaches down and grabs a fistful of my hair. She yanks my head upwards and then slams it into the ground with a sickening crack.

Pain bursts inside of my skull and I feel a warm, rush of blood pool around my head as darkness taints the edge of my vision. The last thing I see before my eyes close is a blurred face framed with white-blonde hair.

“Lana.”

I will myself to stay awake, but my eyes roll back in my head, then there is nothing but darkness.

Chapter 12

 

I blink in the glare of the light above me, tentatively moving my head from side to side. I try to cling on to the images flickering through my mind, trying to piece together what happened.

I saw Lana again, she was here, she hit me with a rock. I followed her and she told me to go back, but I wouldn’t, so she hit me. The memory filters into my mind, slowly, like grains of sand in an hourglass. She checked to make sure I was OK, I remember her leaning over me, then she walked to the cliff edge and she….

No, that’s not right. My head spins with confusion. I’m in the girls’ bathroom near the sports hall, I came here to shower after fencing practice, there was someone in here, messing around, and then Molly… Molly attacked me. She smashed my head into the floor and then she just left, like she didn’t care if I lived or died.

“Casey?”

I flinch at the sound of his voice. “Caleb? What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been looking for you, practice finished ages ago,” he says, his face pale. “I was worried.”

I sit up and raise a hand to the back of my head, but all I find is a tangled mess of sticky hair. I look over my shoulder and recoil in horror. The floor is covered in blood.

“Caleb, what-”

The front of his T-shirt is stained with red.

“Stay away from me!”

“Casey, please, you’re hurt.”

I swallow a sob. “Every time something happens, you’re there. Are you helping Molly? It’s not enough to get me kicked out of school; she wants me dead now too?”

Caleb’s brow furrows. He looks like he wants to say something, but instead he holds out a hand.

I look at him in surprise, then I put my hand in his, gritting my teeth as the base of my skull tingles and his concern snaps against my skin.

“How did you know.” I say, releasing him.

He shakes his head; his dark hair still wet from the shower. “There’s no time, you need to tell me what happened.”

I search his green eyes. He knows about my gift; he held his hand out to me, because he knew that if I touched him I would know that he was telling the truth. But how is that possible?

“Casey, tell me what happened.” His voice is firm, his tone insistent.

“Molly was here. She pushed me and then she cracked my head against the floor.”

He looks over his shoulder towards the door. “I didn’t see her on my way down here.”

“She was here, she did this and…there was…someone else, in the shower.”

I point at the cubicle where the shadowy figure had stood moments ago behind the plastic curtain. Caleb straightens up and strides towards it. He whips the plastic screen back, but the cubicle is empty.

“There was someone in there, I saw them.” I try to get to my feet, but my head swims.

“Hey, hey, it’s OK,” he crouches beside me, pulling me into him. “I believe you, you’re safe now.”

“Caleb, what’s happening to me?”

He cradles my head against his chest. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

“You don’t understand. Before you found me, I thought I was back on the cliffs, I thought I saw Lana again. I have this awful feeling that this is all somehow connected to that night, to her.”

Caleb sighs and his breath tickles my ear. “You hit your head pretty hard.”

I look down at the blood-stained floor. “Is my head still bleeding?”

“No, I don’t think so, but we need to get you checked over.”

I feel the back of my head again, tracing my fingers over my skull. “I can’t find a wound.”

Caleb lightly touches the back of my head and I lean forward so he can look, his fingers gently raking the sticky clumps of my hair. “You’re right, there’s nothing there.”

He looks from me to the floor, wiping his hands on the front of his t-shirt. “Are you sure this blood is yours?”

“Who else’s would it be? When my head hit the floor, I heard my skull crack. I felt the blood pouring out.”

Caleb’s face is suddenly pale. “Whatever injury you sustained, it’s gone.”

“That’s not possible.” I touch the sticky locks again and screw up my nose. “I need to wash my hair.” I scramble to my feet, gripping my towel more securely around me. Thankfully, it kept me covered when I fell.

Caleb grips my elbow for support. “You need to take it easy.”

I grit my teeth as his confusion surges through me. “I’m fine.” My legs are still a little unsteady, but I manage to pad over to the showers.

“Caleb, would you mind waiting for me? In here?” I’m embarrassed to ask, but I don’t want to be alone right now.

“I’m not letting you out of my sight,” He nods in the direction of the cubicle. “Once you’ve showered.” He smiles and the ease of it makes me a little calmer.

I step into the cubicle, only shedding my towel when the plastic curtain is shut firmly behind me.

My shampoo is still where I left it and I gently massage it into my hair. There is no pain now, just fear. It prickles all over my body, making me tremble from head to toe.

The water runs red and then pink as it rinses the blood away. My thoughts are muddled; a confused mess. I remember Molly’s dark eyes and I shudder. None of this makes sense.

When I step out of the shower, I find the floor of the bathroom clean. Caleb stands against the basins, a basket filled with red-stained paper towels at his feet. He is shirtless, showing off the ripple of muscles across his abdomen.

His eyes skim over my wet skin, travelling the length of my arm, then down to my bare legs. I pull the towel more tightly around me. I grab my clothes from my bag and I pull on a pair of soft tracksuit bottoms under my towel. I turn away from Caleb as I drop the towel to the floor and pull a t-shirt on over my head.

When I turn back, he’s standing right behind me.

“Let me see.”

Panic shoots through me. “See what?”

“Your head, let me see your head.” There’s a hint of a smile around his lips as I obediently turn away from him. “Looks fine, but you should let the nurse take a look.”

“There’s no need, you said I’m fine,” I try to smile, but it feels more like a grimace. “I think it’s best if we don’t mention this to anyone. I’m supposes to be staying out of trouble.”

He clenches his jaw as he considers this. I expect him to argue, but he doesn’t. “OK, but on one condition,”

I look at him expectantly.

“You have someone with you at all times. At least until I can speak to Molly, find out what’s going on.”

“Fine. I’ll find Bria, she’ll stay with me tonight.”

“Bria’s with Nick. I’ll stay with you,” he holds up his hands when he sees the look of horror on my face. “I’ll sleep on the floor and I’ll sneak out in the morning before everyone wakes up.”

The thought of a boy staying in my room makes me more nervous than seeing the shadow behind the shower curtain.

Caleb takes the liner from the waste basket and retrieves my blood-stained towel from the floor. He stuffs it into the bag and then ties the handles together.

“I don’t get it, there was so much blood, my head was cracked open like an egg, but…”

Caleb shrugs, dropping the bag to the floor. “Sometimes when I get hurt in rugby, it can look a lot worse than it is. C’mon. You need some rest.” He holds the door open for me.

I stare pointedly at his bare chest. “You can’t walk through school like that.”

“Why not?” He laughs, retrieving his gym bag from the corridor and pulling out a sweatshirt. He pulls it over his head and holds out his arms. “Better?”

“Much.” I say, tying my wet hair into a high ponytail.

We pass a couple of people on the way to the stairs, Caleb greets them briefly, but I continue with my head down, worried about what might happen if I see Molly.

When we reach the sixth form dormitory, we wait until the coast is clear before hurrying along to my room.

Caleb dumps his bag on the floor and scans the space with an air of suspicion. He opens the wardrobe and sifts through my clothes, then he ducks to look under the bed.

“What are you looking for?”

“Just…. checking.” He smiles. He pulls the blanket and a pillow from my bed and lays them out on the floor.

I shove my bag in the wardrobe and then I crawl into bed fully clothed, pulling the covers up to my chin, shivering with cold and unease.

“Here.” Caleb’s hand disappears under the bed, and then he passes me his hooded top that I had kept since the night he pulled me from the river. My cheeks flush. I’d slept in it a couple of times, finding his scent comforting when I woke in the night. I hastily pull it on.

Caleb settles back on his makeshift bed, smirking up at the ceiling. I turn off the lamp and when the lights in front of my eyes fade, I can just make out his form in the darkness.

“Caleb, how did you know what I can do?”

“What do you mean?”

I listen to his steady breathing, not quite able to form the words. Maybe I had misunderstood when he held his hand out to me. “Never mind. What are you going to say to Molly?”

He’s quiet for a moment. “I’m not sure, she’s clearly got something against you, but…”

“But what?”

“I just can’t believe she would intentionally hurt you like that.”

“Well she did, she left me there to bleed out.”

“Did she say anything to you?”

I try to remember, but all I can see is her black eyes. “No, I don’t think so.”

“I’ll speak to her; she likes me so she’ll tell me what I need to know.”

I grimace at him in the darkness and even though there is no way he can see me, I’m pretty sure I hear him laughing under his breath as I close my eyes.

 

The next morning, I wake to find Caleb gone, the blanket folded up neatly on the floor, the pillow beside it. So much for not letting me out of your sight.

I reach reflexively for the back of my head, running my fingers through my hair, but there is no trace of the wound that caused the horrific amount of blood in the bathroom.

Today is Saturday, so there’s no reason for me to get up, but I feel like I’m burning with energy, so I pull on my running gear and head towards the door.

As I rest my fingers on the handle, it turns. The door swings open and a scream escapes my lips when I see the dark-haired figure on the other side.

“Jeez, Casey,” Orla’s hand flies to her chest. “Jumpy much?”

Bria and Jas appear behind her, their eyes wide with alarm.

“What are you all doing here?” I take deep breaths, trying to calm my racing heart.

“Caleb told us what happened.” Bria steps around Orla and pulls me into a hug, her concern surging through me.

“Let’s talk inside.” I say, gently shrugging out of her embrace.

“Here.” Jas sits down on floor and empties the contents of her bag, a variety of breakfast snacks spilling out on to the floor. “I thought you might be hungry.”

“Thanks.” I sink down beside her and take a banana from the pile.

Bria picks up a scrunched up napkin and unfolds it to reveal a stack of streaky bacon. “Caleb said Molly attacked you.”

I peel the banana and take a bite, nodding as I swallow it down.

“What happened?” Orla asks.

“She pushed me and I slipped, then she grabbed my hair and slammed my head against the floor,”

“She could’ve really hurt you,” Jas says, pressing her fingers to her cheeks.

“She did; I was knocked out cold. It could’ve been a lot worse if Caleb hadn’t found me,”

“I don’t get it,” Bria says. “Did you two fight again?”

“No,” I say, a little more impatiently than I intended. “I went for a shower after fencing practice, and someone was in the changing room, they were messing around with the water, trying to scare me or something. I was about to leave and she was standing in the doorway, then she pushed me.”

Orla looks confused. “So, if Molly was in the corridor, who was in the changing room with you?”

I take another bite of banana as I remember the tall, dark shadow behind the shower curtain, the hand that didn’t look human reaching out towards me. “I didn’t see who it was,” I lie. “And they were both gone when I woke up.”

“This is so unlike Molly,” Jas says. “She can be a bitch sometimes, but she wouldn’t do this, she wouldn’t do something so horrid, so violent. Something’s not right.”

“You should report this to Ms Gould,” Orla says.

“And tell her what? I don’t even have a bump on my head,” I turn my head so they can see.

“And it could look bad for Casey,” Bria adds. “Ms Gould will just think she and Molly have been fighting again,”

“Bria’s right,” I say. “And I’m not sure it was Molly, at least, she wasn’t herself. Before she pushed me, her eyes were black, completely black,”

Orla pulls a face. “What, like her pupils were dilated?”

“Yeah, I guess, but I couldn’t even see the whites of her eyes,”

Orla and Jas exchange a look.

“Could she have taken something?” Bria asks.

“She mentioned taking something to cope,” Jas says. “But that was prescribed,”

“Yeah,2 Orla nods. “She said it made her kind of spaced out.”

I chew the inside of my mouth. I know that’s not it, but I don’t know how else to explain the strange darkness in Molly’s eyes.”

“Anyway,” Bria says. “Caleb said we should stay with you until he has a chance to speak to Molly, find out what’s going on,”

I raise an eyebrow at her. “I don’t need babysitting, Bria.” Actually, the thought of having my friends around me makes me feel a whole lot calmer, but there is no way that I’ll admit that I’m afraid.

“It’s not babysitting,” she says exasperatedly. “We’ll all be together tonight anyway,”

She rolls her eyes when she sees my blank face. “The St George’s Day Banquet. It’s tonight!”

“I really don’t feel like going to a party,” I groan. “I don’t even have anything to wear,”

Bria smiles mischievously. “Leave that to me, just say you’ll come to the ball. Please,” she clasps her hands together. “I’ve put a lot of work into this one.”

“Fine,” I stand up and head towards the door.

“Where are you going?” Bria calls after me, “We’re supposed to stay with you,”

“Well…right now I need to pee. You want to come?”

Bria pulls a face.

“C’mon,” Orla climbs to her feet and nudges me playfully in the side. “We’ll wait outside so Molly doesn’t get the jump on you again.”

Chapter 13

 

When Bria said she would take care of my outfit for the banquet, I was expecting one of the many dresses from her wardrobe, something floor length that would fit with the medieval theme. I was hoping for something simple, subdued, but when she arrives at my room to get ready and hands me a dress of midnight-blue lace, I know it was wishful thinking.

“You need to try it on.” Bria urges.

I hang the dress from my wardrobe door and shed my old sweatshirt and running tights.

The gown is cut across the shoulders, the sleeves full, and the hem pools around my ankles when I shrug into it. “It’s a little long.”

Bria rolls her eyes. “Here, put these on.” She thrusts a pair of silver, strappy high-heels at me.

I silently obey, wobbling as I slip my feet into the shoes. “These aren’t very medieval.”

Bria tuts and stands back to look at me, her eyes widening a little. “Wow. You need to look at yourself.”

“One more thing.” She drags the elastic band from my hair as I step towards the mirror.

“Ow.”

She ignores my complaints and fluffs my tangled locks out around my shoulders.

“Oh.” Aside from the dark smudges under my eyes and the sickly-pale colour of my skin, I look…. elegant. The neckline of the dress is cut just low enough so that my necklace is on show, the shade of the dress and the gem contrasting sharply. The waist is fitted and the long, narrow skirt makes me look much taller than my tiny, five-foot-three stature.

“Well, what do you think?” Bria asks.

I swish the dress so that it sweeps the floor around me. “It’s beautiful, is it one of yours?”

Bria looks guilty. “Actually…it’s yours.”

“What do you mean?”

Bria extracts a folded envelope from her pocket and hands it to me.

I recognise the stationery and the neat handwriting on the front, but when I turn it over, I find an unfamiliar, red seal stamped with the letter ‘D’. I trace my finger over it, before ripping the envelope open, wondering what Ivy would need to write in a letter that she couldn’t send in an email or a text.

 

Dearest Casey,

It’s time.

Ivy.

 

I turn it over, but there’s nothing else written on the tiny piece of paper.

“What does it say?” Bria asks.

I hand her the note as I chew over Ivy’s short message.

Bria’s eyes skim over the words, and then she turns it over. “That’s it?” She looks thoughtful. “I thought there would be more.”

“Why, what did she say?” I ask. “When did she give this to you?”

“When she came to see Ms Gould,” Bria says, her eyes still on the note. “She said I shouldn’t give the dress to you until today, it seemed so important to her.”

“I don’t understand, why didn’t she just give me the dress and the note herself, and what does ‘it’s time’ mean? Time for what?”

“I have no idea.” Bria shrugs.

“We both stare silently at the note, then Bria folds it up and places it on the bedside table. “Let’s not think about it now,” she says. “We have to get ready.”

“In a second.” I want to call Ivy, I need to ask her about the note. I start rummaging around for my phone, shifting papers and books from the desk. When I finally locate it, I find her number and I press the call button. It rings and rings until her voicemail kicks in. Sighing irritably, I end the call and text her instead.

Thank you for the dress, but what did your note mean? Time for what?

I clutch the phone in my hands, waiting for a response, but Bria stands by the door huffing impatiently, so I throw the phone on the bed and concentrate instead on getting ready.

Bria’s own outfit is a gown of ivory satin with bell sleeves and a low neckline. She finishes her look with a golden hairclip and an emerald necklace that matches her eyes.

She grabs my phone from the dresser and takes a couple of photographs as I pose awkwardly. She looks at the images on the small screen and smiles sadly. “You should send one to Ivy.”

I take the phone from her warily – I never look good in photographs – but when I see the picture on the screen, my breath catches in my throat.

The flash from the camera has illuminated my skin, my blonde hair is set in big waves and my lips are painted red. I look so much like Lana it makes my heart ache.

I decide not to send a photograph to Ivy, but I do check to see if she has responded to my text. My inbox is empty. Disappointed, I slip the phone into the beaded clutch bag Bria picked out for me earlier.

When we head out of the room, I wobble a little on the high-heels, but it’s difficult not to feel good in the gown, the lining gliding silkily against my legs with every step.

Bria sashays ahead of me, dramatically swinging her hips from side to side. She stops at the top of the stairs and strikes a pose.

“What are you doing?” I laugh.

“Just having my moment. Once you arrive in that dress, no one’s going to look at me.”

I know she’s only saying it to make me feel good, but I laugh anyway. “Yeah right! Anyway, I’m sure Nick will be looking at you.”

She blushes a little and threads her arm through mine.

I take a deep breath when I spot the throng of people waiting in the foyer downstairs and my legs turn to jelly. Bria appears unaffected, chattering excitedly as we descend the stairs, telling me all about how she planned the banquet, but I barely hear her as the crowd of faces turns in our direction.

I see Caleb nudging his way through the mass of students, Nick on his heels, wearing a golden crown. Caleb is dressed as a knight, his torso covered in a grey tunic, his shoulders encased in metal. His dark hair is brushed back off his forehead and he looks breathtakingly handsome. His eyes widen a little as he takes in my appearance and I feel myself blush.

As I reach the bottom stair, my heel catches on the carpet and I stumble a little. Caleb catches me around the waist and pulls me into a hug. “You look beautiful.” He whispers.

A sudden spike of fear jolts through me like an electric shock and I push Caleb away, because the feeling came from him. I search his face for any sign of the panic that I just felt from him, but his expression is even.

“What’s wrong?”

I quickly plaster a smile on my face, trying to ignore the tingle at the base of my skull. “Nothing…sorry. It’s just really hot in here.”

His eyes burn into mine, like he’s trying to communicate some unspoken message, but then Orla and Jas appear beside us.

“You came.” Jas says. She is wearing a beautiful gown of pink satin, her long, dark hair braided around her head like a halo.

“Like I had a choice with the Queen of the Events Committee on my case.” I gesture at Bria who has her arms wrapped around Nick’s neck, completely oblivious to our conversation, or anything else for that matter.

Caleb laughs, then he lightly kisses my temple. “I’ll be right back.” He flashes a charming smile before disappearing into the crowd.

“Are you two a couple now?” Jas says, grinning widely.

“I barely know him.” I say, shaking my head.

It’s true, I don’t know anything about Caleb, not really. Yes, he’s handsome, and he has come to my rescue on three occasions now, but that’s also kind of terrifying, like he’s keeping a close eye on me.

Then there’s that look of expectation that flashes across his eyes when we’re alone, like he knows that something is about to happen between us. That’s even more terrifying.

“Well he obviously likes you,” Jas says, watching Caleb as he disappears into the hallway. “Are there are any more like that on the rugby team, Orla?”

“Huh?” Orla looks distracted as she scans the sea of heads. “No, not like that. Not even close.” She stands on her tiptoes and gesticulates wildly at someone in the crowd.

“Who are you waving at?” I ask, trying to follow her gaze.

“The girls from the hockey team,” Orla nods towards a group of girls, all wearing dresses in the same canary yellow – their team colour – as her own medieval-style gown. “I told them what Molly did to you, they’re keeping a look out,”

“Orla, there’s really no need. I can handle Molly,”

Orla puts her hands on her hips. “Oh really? And how’s that working out for you?” She raises an eyebrow, a hint of a smile around her lips.

“C’mon,” Bria unlatches herself from Nick and ushers me forward. “They’re starting to go in.”

The crowd starts to dissipate and we follow the throng through the tall, double doors into the main hall.

Back in the eighteenth century, the hall used to be a ballroom; the ceiling is high and hung with glittering chandeliers and heavy brocade curtains cover the windows.

Tonight the tables have been set in the style of a medieval banquet, end to end, creating long benches that are covered with red tablecloths, and topped with glowing candlesticks.

The fireplaces at either end of the room are aflame, bathing the polished floor in half-circles of warm, orange light.

“Bria, this is amazing.” I say, picking up a fancy goblet from the table.

“It was nothing.” She shrugs her shoulders nonchalantly, but she looks pleased.

As we take our seats, I look around for Caleb, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Instead, I am surrounded by yellow, the hockey team at my left and in front of me, their eyes darting around the room uneasily.

Nick catches my eye as he fumbles for something in his pocket. He pulls out a silver hipflask and offers it to Bria.

“Don’t you dare ruin this party.” She hisses at him, her face screwed up in disapproval.

Nick takes a covert sip and slips the flask back into his pocket. He catches me looking and winks roguishly.

Caleb still doesn’t show when dinner is served – soup, followed by a roast and then cheesecake. The portions are small and quaint, but the plates are big, decorated with sauces cast across the porcelain and finished with sprigs of leaves and berries.

I barely taste the food as I swallow it down, too disturbed by Caleb’s sudden disappearance and the hockey team, who shift in their seats as they scan the room for Molly.

After our dessert dishes are cleared away, a band starts up on stage, playing a heavy, rock sound that contrasts oddly with the medieval décor. Nick drags Bria on to the dancefloor and Jas, Orla and the rest of the hockey girls leave the table to dance raucously with the rugby team. I wave them away as they try to get me up too, promising that I’ll join them soon.

If Lana was here, she would’ve insisted that I had fun, joined in, and I would’ve obeyed so as not to disappoint her. My chest aches at the thought of my sister, sadness squeezing my heart, because she would have loved all of this.

Ivy’s note flashes through my mind. She says it’s time, but she’s wrong, it’s not time. It’s too soon. Lana’s death left a hole in my heart and it’ll take more than a party and a fancy dress to fix that.

I think, suddenly, that I was wrong to come back to school, to think that it would be better than staying at home. So far, it has been one disaster after another.

With a heavy feeling, I get up from my seat, thinking about calling Ivy again, when Caleb appears before me. Despite my objections, he twirls me firmly towards the dancefloor, pulling me close so that I can feel the thrum of his heart.

His hands are at my back and I feel a flicker of anxiety underneath the heat of his touch. I am about to confront him about the change in his usual self-assured demeanour, when Bria and Nick come careering into us.

Nick collides with Caleb’s shoulder, he barely flinches, but Nick falls backwards on to the polished floor, laughing hysterically at his own idiocy.

“I’m so sorry,” Bria tries to pull Nick to his feet, but he just spins around like a tortoise on its shell. “He’s drunk.”

“No kidding.” Caleb clasps Nick’s hand to hoist him into an upright position. He sways a little, his crown tilting haphazardly so that it covers one eye.

“Put him to bed before anyone sees him in this state.” Caleb says, draping Nick’s arm around Bria’s shoulder. She guides him carefully across the dancefloor towards the doors, stooping a little under his weight.

“Shouldn’t you help them?” I ask, frowning at Bria’s back as Nick leans heavily against her.

“They’ll be fine.” Caleb watches them disappear into the foyer, then he takes me in his arms again.

“Casey,” Jas taps me on the shoulder, there are stray strands of damp hair clinging to her flushed face. “Sabrina’s not feeling well; I’m just going to check on her,”

“OK, do you need me to come with you?”

“No,” Jas waves me away. “You just stay here with Caleb. Orla and the hockey team are still around in case Molly shows up.”

Caleb watches Jas leave before checking his watch.

“Am I keeping you from something, Mr Vedmak?”

He smiles almost lazily. “Not at all.”

The music slows then. Caleb slips his arms around my waist and presses his lips to my temple. For just a moment, I let myself relax. It’s as though Caleb is purposefully radiating a sense of calm, his earlier panic gone.

I would’ve melted right there in his arms if it wasn’t for the hairs on the back of my neck suddenly standing on end. I get the distinct feeling that I am being watched and my stomach pitches when I turn to find Molly staring at me from across the room, her expression one of loathing.

When the spotlights above the dancefloor shift, bathing Molly in a beam of light, I see that sinister blackness in her eyes.

“Caleb.” I gesture towards Molly and he follows my gaze.

He says nothing for a moment and then, “her eyes.”

The floor shudders beneath us suddenly, and Caleb wraps one arm around me, while throwing out the other to keep his balance. The tremor builds, making the whole room shake. There are screams and shouts as people hold on to the furniture, to the walls, to each other as the ceiling quivers, showering the room with plaster and dust. The lights flicker and then blink out. Those closest to the banquet tables have the good sense to snatch up the candles before they topple over, they hastily extinguish them, plunging the room into near-darkness.

Caleb leads me over to one of the fireplaces – now the only source of light – and urges me to hold on to the mantelpiece. I see the light from the flames dancing on his face as he scans the room. “It’s starting.” He says.

I follow his gaze and find Molly staring right at us. With a stab of panic, I realise that Orla is standing just a few steps in front of her, holding on to her teammates.

The tremor seems to increase in ferocity and a huge fracture appears in the wall by the doors, snaking its way from floor to ceiling. There are screams, shouts, some people are crying, but Molly stands stoically, as though unaffected by the shifting floor beneath her.

“It’s OK, everyone,” Ms Gould yells. “Just hold on tight until it passes.”

But the quake continues, relentless in its pursuit to knock us all to the ground.

When a huge chunk of ceiling falls on to a nearby table, everyone starts towards the doors. With a creaking sound, more plaster crumbles away, followed by a stream of water.

I hesitantly let go of the mantelpiece and turn to grab Caleb for support, but instead, I find Molly.

She cocks her head to the side, as though considering her next move, then she takes off across the wet floor, stepping effortlessly, unwavering, as though immune to the trembling of the ground.

She pauses at the main doors and her eyes find me again, she smiles widely, menacingly, and then disappears into the hallway.

Her intentions are clear; she wants me to follow her.

So I do.

Chapter 14

 

As I zigzag unsteadily across the room, the ground stills and the lights come on. I pick up the hem of my dress now heavy with water and I rush towards the doors, kicking off my shoes as I go.

In the hallway, I run into a group of first years being shepherded down the staircase and out of the building. Jas is with them, her arm around her little sister.

Molly’s shadow disappears along the corridor to the east wing and I pick up my pace, pushing through the crowd to follow her.

The corridor is dark, but I see light up ahead and I race towards it, knowing exactly where Molly is now.

I find her paused in the doorway of the girls’ bathroom, her dark hair brushed back off her face revealing a black mark like a spider’s web across her temple. She fixes me with an unblinking stare before disappearing inside, the door swinging shut behind her.

I hesitate for a moment, wishing that I wasn’t alone, wishing that I could’ve told someone where I was going. I remember the blood on the floor after Molly attacked me and I almost turn back, but then I think of that strange blackness in her eyes, the mark on her temple, and curiosity gets the better of me. I have to know what’s going on.

“Molly?” Inside, I nudge the first cubicle door open with my toe, but it’s empty. “Molly, I know you’re in here.”

A sudden clatter behind me makes me whirl around. The cover of the air vent is hanging from its hinges, swaying back and forth as though recently disturbed. A scraping noise echoes inside the vent and I start to back away from the gaping hole.

“Molly? Is that -” But it’s not her, it’s something else, something not human. I freeze in horror as the top of a scorched head appears, followed by two beetle-black eyes. I’ve never seen anything like it before. The creature smiles and a forked tongue flickers out between two rows of decayed teeth. It launches itself out of the vent, somersaulting in mid-air before landing on webbed feet with a slap. A strangled scream escapes my lip.

Rags hang from an emaciated body that appears to be both burnt and decomposing. This isn’t real, it can’t be. The creature regards me with an intense curiosity, its bulbous head cocked. It extends a rotten hand made up of just three, long, bony fingers that end in sharp talons.

I will myself to move, but my body refuses to obey. My limbs are frozen, my feet glued to the floor, as though the creature has some kind of invisible hold on me.

A sudden hammering on the bathroom door stops the creature in its tracks.

“Casey!”

“Caleb, help me! There’s something in here!”

The door flies open and ricochets off the tiled wall with a crack. The creature is blasted back into the wall opposite as if by an invisible force, and it slumps to the floor unmoving.

Caleb takes my face in his hands and I grit my teeth as his panic sears through my skull. “The door was locked. Are you hurt?”

I stare at him blankly, unable to comprehend what just happened. I try to look over my shoulder at the creature on the floor behind me, but Caleb’s grip on my face is firm. “Casey, can you move?”

How does he know? Does Caleb know what this creature is? I try to lift my arms but they are like stone, frozen in place. I lift first one heavy foot and then the other, stamping a little until I can move them freely. “Yes. Yes, I can move.”

“Good, come on. It won’t stay down for long.”

The creature looks a lot less sinister now, it’s enlarged head lolling against its chest, it’s long, skeletal legs splayed out. I can smell its rotten skin, the putrid smell of decay.

“You know what that thing is, don’t you?”

Caleb ignores my question, as he leads me back into the corridor.

I hear a scream from somewhere inside the building and I think of Bria. She went upstairs with Nick, what if she didn’t get out? I try to take off in the direction of the staircase, but Caleb grabs me around the waist. “Casey, we have to go.” He starts to drag me in the opposite direction.

“What are you doing?” I struggle in his arms as he half-carries me into one the of the science labs. “We have to help them. There could be more of those creatures.”

“There’s nothing we can do; I have to get you out.”

He pulls me urgently across the room and pushes the fire exit open, setting off a shrill alarm that pierces the silence outside. I take deep breaths, gulping in the cold, damp air.

“This way.” Caleb takes off across the lawn in the direction of the driveway and I have to jog to keep up. I see the fountain, illuminated by tiny spotlights, and beyond that, the main gates that lead out onto the dark country lane. The wind picks up suddenly and I hear a distant rumble of thunder.

“Where are we going?” With a sudden surge of panic, I try to plant my feet into the wet grass, but I stub my toe, and I try not to cry out as Caleb continues to tug on my hand, seemingly oblivious.

I look back and see the rest of the school converged on the patio, huddled together under the ember glow of the heaters, but they are too far away for me to see if my friends are amongst them.

“I need to find my friends.” I try to peel Caleb’s fingers away from my hand.

“We haven’t got time for this, Casey.” He says, tightening his grip.

“Where are you taking me?”

Caleb turns and fixes me with an irritated stare. Before I can stop him, he lifts me off my feet and hauls me over his shoulder like a ragdoll. “I didn’t want it to be like this,” he says. “But you’re making it difficult.”

“What are you talking about?” I hammer my fists against his back, but he continues across the grounds, unflinching.

I peer around his waist, as shadows streak across the lawn towards us. They come to a halt in front of us, stopping Caleb in his tracks.

“There’s one in girls’ bathroom, in the east wing,” Caleb says. “They’re using the air vents to infiltrate the school.”

“We rounded up a couple more,” says an unfamiliar voice. “Don’t think they’ve hurt anyone.”

“They only want her,” Caleb says. “Make sure they’re all dealt with.”

There are hurried footsteps as whoever Caleb was talking to takes off again.

“Caleb, what’s going on? Put me down now or I swear I’ll scream.” I start to squirm in his arms.

“I would rather you didn’t,” he says quietly, locking his arm securely around me. “I’ve had a very bad day.”

He sets me down on some kind of ledge, and I turn around to find myself standing on the wide, stone rim of the fountain. No water flows from the jug in the arms of the statuette standing in the centre of the basin, and yet the fountain is filled with dark water that appears to be churning slightly, rippling under a beam of light cast by the tiny spotlights that decorate the edge. It’s starting to rain and tiny droplets pelt the surface.

Caleb kicks off his shoes and climbs up on to the ledge beside me; he shrugs out of the metal casing of his knight’s costume and whips the grey tunic off over his head, before throwing both to the ground.

“Can you swim?” He places a hand at the base of my back and ushers me towards the water.

“Yes, of course, but-”

He grabs my hand and takes another step towards the water.

This doesn’t make any sense. The fountain is shallow; it would barely reach our knees. At least that’s what I thought, but the sky is suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning and I see that the fountain is deep, dark, bottomless.

“No,” I jump down from the ledge. “What is happening?”

Caleb’s expression darkens. “Casey, I need you to get up on this ledge. Now.”

Panic tears through me as I look at the sinister dark water. “No.”

Before he can stop me, I turn and set off at a run, thunder sounding overhead. I run as fast as I can, my heart thumping in my chest, my dress scooped up around my thighs as I race across the lawn. But Caleb catches me easily. I hear his footsteps behind me, his rapid breath, and then he tackles me to the ground.

He turns me over roughly. “There isn’t time for this.” The rain is heavier now and beads of water drip from his hair.

I draw in a huge breath to scream, but Caleb clamps a hand over my mouth. “Casey, please be quiet.”

I try to squirm out of his grip.

“Casey, look at me.”

I reluctantly look into Caleb’s eyes, still a vivid green despite the darkness, both earnest and dangerous at the same time. I grab his wrist, but he’s feeling too much, there is too much adrenaline coursing through his veins for me to get a clear reading on whether or not I can trust him.

His eyes flicker to my hand. “I know what you’re doing. I know that you’re trying to feel my emotions, I know that it’s a power you’ve had since the night Lana fell from the cliffs and right now, it’s shutting down because you’re afraid.”

He gently lifts his hand from my mouth as I stare at him resolutely. “I’m not afraid of you.”

“Good, you have no need to fear me,” he puts his lips to my ear and whispers two words, two words that stop me from struggling, that keep me from screaming. “It’s time.”

“What did you say?”

“I said it’s time, Casey.”

“Time for what?”

He pulls me into a sitting position and takes my face in his hands. “Time for you to learn the truth.”

“The truth about what? Caleb, what is this all about?”

He shakes his head. “Not here, I need you to come with me.”

“Where? Into the fountain?” I say, pulling a face.

“Yes.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

Caleb says nothing as he starts back in the direction of the drive.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I say. “What you just said, ‘it’s time’, I read those words in a message today. Did you know about that?”

He nods. “Ivy left a note for you.”

I narrow my eyes at him. “Did Bria tell you?”

“No.”

“Then how-”

Lightning flashes overhead again, followed by a rumble of thunder.

“Casey, we’re wasting time. If you want answers, you have to come with me and you have to do what I say, regardless of whether or not it makes sense to you.”

I look back at the patio. I am closer now, I could scream and I’m certain that someone would hear me, but then I look into those green eyes, wide with sincerity, and I find myself nodding. “OK.”

Caleb helps me to my feet and guides me back to the fountain. The rain is heavier now and my hair is stuck to my neck, my dress weighed down. As I climb up on to the ledge, the water starts to thrash violently, pitching and turning like a rough sea. “I don’t understand what the fountain has to do with all of this.”

He links his fingers with mine. “It’s a portal.”

“What?”

He smirks a little, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “A portal, it’ll take us where we need to go.”

I want to laugh, because as terrifying and confusing as this night has become, this is the most ludicrous thing I’ve heard so far. “OK, let’s say I believe you,” my hand is clammy wrapped in his long fingers. “Where will it take us?”

Caleb tightens his grip. “Remember what I said, if you want answers, you have to do what I say.”

I look at the chasm before us, utterly bewildered. “OK.”

“OK,” he says. “Now jump.”

Chapter 15

 

The water is freezing cold, a million tiny shards of ice piercing me all over my body.

The water feels like it’s inside of my head, coursing through my veins, pounding in my ears, pulling me down.

A pressure starts to build behind my eyes and quickly develops into a blinding pain. The water starts to churn, tossing us around inside the fountain, turning faster and faster, and a bolt of lightning ripples through the darkness around me. My lungs burn as I exhale a stream of bubbles that dance in the sudden shock of light.

It’s like we’re in the centre of a typhoon and Caleb holds on to me as we turn, the force drawing us down into nothingness. It pitches us around and I start to feel disorientated.

When I’m no longer sure which way is up or down, the spinning stops, and we drift lazily around the chasm.

Something grabs me around the middle and pulls me away from Caleb towards a shaft of light. My feet find the bottom of the fountain and I step sluggishly against the weight of the water, my whole body shaking. The floor slopes upwards and when my head breaks the surface, I gasp greedily for air. A bright light forces me to squint as I find the ledge and heave myself over it, falling to the ground on the other side with a slap. I lift my face to the heat emanating from the light above. Where am I?

“Is she OK?”

I squint towards the sound of the unfamiliar voice, but my vision is blurred, everything in front of me pitching from the motion of the water. I can just make out a figure standing in the middle of a bright, spacious room.

“She’s alive, if that’s what you mean,” Caleb crouches in front of me and takes my face in his hands. “I can’t tell what impact the portal had yet. She should’ve had a compression suit; we both should have.”

“There wasn’t time. She’s wearing the necklace, it protected her.” The voice is female, gravelly and slightly accented.

For a moment, no one speaks, and I hear the tinkle of the fountain behind us.

“The team is on its way.”

“Parker?” Caleb says.

“She’s briefing the team. I thought a familiar face might help until my sister gets here.”

Parker?

“I thought we had longer. I thought we would’ve had time to explain things before we extracted her,” Caleb says. “It wasn’t easy.”

“I thought we had time too, but the Dryad’s saw them coming and we had to get her out. She’s the only one who can help us.”

Hurried footsteps approach. “Is she OK?” I try to focus on the owner of the familiar voice, on the group of figures wearing white and blue swarming towards me, but my vision is still blurred. Her face swims before me, dark hair piled up on her head. “D-” I feel a sharp pinch in my arm, then everything goes black.

 

Light filters in through an open window, a delicate breeze tickling my face. The pillow beneath my head is soft and the crisp sheet draped across my body smells of lavender. When I move I feel a tug on the back of my hand. I remember Caleb and the fountain, the force of the water pulling me down. A groan escapes my lips.

“It’s OK, Casey.”

My eyelids flutter open at the sound of her voice and I scan the face leaning over me. Big brown eyes, a pen slipped in the knot on top of her head. “Dr Parker?” I try to push myself up from the bed, but something tugs at my temples. “Where am I?” My head is fuzzy, but my vision is now much sharper.

She smiles. “Here, it’s just Parker.”

“You’re not a doctor?”

She gently pulls a sticky pad from each of my temples; they look like small, medical electrodes. “I am a doctor,” she laughs. “But Parker is my first name, not my surname.”

I carefully shuffle into a sitting position. I am in a small, clinical room with white walls and the cannula in my hand is attached to a bag of clear fluid by the bed. A machine whirs nearby, the screen showing lines of waves and spikes. Panic starts to creep over me.

“I can take that out too,” Parker says, gesturing at the cannula needle. “It’s just something to help with the motion sickness.”

I instinctively retract my hand.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Casey. I’m here to help you.” She gently slides the needle out of my hand, and then dabs at the tiny wound with a small, sterile wipe.

“Was it a dream?” I ask.

“Which part?” Parker smirks.

“All of it? Any of it?”

She shakes her head.

“Then what happened? I was at school and…” I try to grasp at the images flitting through my mind, the earthquake, the creature in the bathroom, Caleb telling me to jump into the fountain. “Where is Caleb?”

Parker presses two fingers to the inside of my wrist and consults her watch. The base of my skull tingles, but all I feel from her is tranquillity. “He’s changing.”

“And my friends? There was an earthquake back at school,” I try to shift my legs out of bed, but Parker rests a hand on my shoulder. “Your friends are fine; you need to rest a moment. There is nothing you can do from here.” She hands me a glass of cold water and I gulp it down greedily.

I look out of the small, narrow window to my left, but there is nothing to see except the yellow and orange leaves of the trees outside. “Where am I?”

Parker takes the empty glass from me. “Displacia.”

“Dis-placia?”

She pushes her glasses further up her nose. “There’s a lot you don’t know, Casey.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to realise that.”

“I’m sure you have many questions, and I will try to answer some of them for you, but your mind is not going to allow you to accept what I tell you, so in the interest of saving time, I need you to remember the promise we made to each other. Do you remember what that was?”

I fold my arms across my chest, fixing her with a hard, accusatory stare. “We promised not to lie to each other.”

Parker gives a small smile. “I know what you’re thinking, you think I broke my promise because I kept all of this from you, but holding back the truth is not the same as lying.”

I raise my eyebrows at her. “It’s exactly the same.”

“We’ll agree to disagree,” she says, “After all, I think you may have kept some truths from me too.”

I flush a little under her gaze, but I stare resolutely back.

Parker smiles kindly. “How about we start fresh?”

I nod in agreement, because I want to know more, but her betrayal still simmers under the surface, gathering in my chest, warm and uncomfortable.

She perches on the end of the bed. “Displacia is another world, a different planet. It’s also my home.” She hands me a blue bundle made from soft cotton.

I look around, confused, because this small, white room could be part of any medical facility back home. “I’m on a different planet?”

Parker nods. “Displacia is not even in the same universe as yours. You couldn’t get here in spaceship that’s for sure.”

I squeeze my eyes shut. “So you’re talking about a different planet, in a completely different universe?”

I open one eye as Parker nods sagely.

I think back to one of my physics lessons with Dr Campbell when he discussed the theory of an infinite number of universes, he delivered a whole lecture on it. I’m pretty sure none it involved travelling between worlds through a fountain. “It’s not possible.”

Parker offers me her hand. “Here.”

I take her hand in mine and feel a ripple of honesty. “You know what I can do?”

She smiles. “Yes. It’s the reason I was assigned to you.”

“Assigned to me? Why?”

She purses her lips. “I’m not the right person to explain that to you, Casey.”

I press my hands to the sides of my face. “How do I even begin to understand all of this?”

“I promise it will make sense to you soon,” Parker says. “Maybe not straight away, but I’ll try to help,” she says. “Now, you need to get dressed. They’re waiting for you.”

“Who? Who’s waiting for me?”

Parker shifts off the bed and starts towards the door. “You’ll see.” She turns the handle and steps out into a dark hallway.

Underneath the sheet, I have been stripped to my underwear. I look around for my dress, but it’s gone. I unravel the bundle in my hands and find that it’s some sort of tunic, soft and light. I hastily pull it on over my head, and it falls to my knees when I step on to the tiled floor.

There’s also a pair of beaded slippers at the foot of the bed and I slip my feet into them. They’re a perfect fit, like they were made for me.

Parker waits outside in a narrow corridor. She smiles and then takes off at a march along a carpet of deep blue, beckoning me to follow her.

The walls are also blue, and lined with sconces that cast soft, glowing circles of light, illuminating the intricate, gold-leaf print of the wallpaper. “I was expecting something more…other worldly.” I say, taking in the décor.

Parker laughs. “Our physical world is not that different to yours.”

“Then how do I know this isn’t some kind of a joke, or a hallucination?”

Parker turns and shakes her head. “You’ve just travelled through a portal; you know this is real.”

“I don’t know for certain,” I say, touching my fingers to the blue wall. “This could be anywhere on Earth; this could be a corridor at Malvern.”

“But it’s not.” Parker says in a singsong voice.

“OK,” I say, folding my arms across my chest. “If this is another planet, then why do you speak English, my language?”

“Who says it’s your language?” Parker says with a smile. She starts off up the corridor again.

“And why can’t you tell me why you were assigned to me?” I say, hurrying to catch up with her.

Parker sighs. “I didn’t say I couldn’t, I just said that I wasn’t the right person.”

I chew the inside of my lip anxiously, nervous about who, or what, waits for me at the end of the corridor.

She glances sideways at me. “Fine, if it’ll help you to stop worrying. I was assigned to you to find out how you came to acquire your power.”

“My power?”

“Your ability to feel other people’s emotions.”

I’d never thought of it like that. Knowing what other people are feeling doesn’t make me feel powerful, it makes me feel weak, overwhelmed. “So, what did you find out?”

She thrusts her hands in the pockets of her lab coat and shrugs. “Not much. I wanted to do some blood work, but your Aunt wouldn’t allow it.”

“Ivy?”

“Yes.”

My stomach sinks. “Does Ivy know about this place?”

“Yes. Displacia is her home too. Ivy is Displacian, just like me.”

That warm, uncomfortable feeling in my chest starts to burn like acid. “Ivy is from another world?”

“Yes.”

The fact that Parker, and Caleb, who I’ve known for a matter of weeks, kept this from me is bad enough, but Ivy… “Is she here?”

“She’s on her way.”

“And I take it Caleb is Displacian too?”

“Yes,” she says. “He stayed with you while you were asleep, until I chased him away. He cares about you a lot.”

I feel the blood rush to my cheeks. “He made me jump into the fountain and we ended up here. How is that possible?”

“It’s very complicated.” She sniffs.

“Then give me the simple version.”

She stops walking and peers up and down the corridor. “The fountain at Malvern is connected with the fountain that you climbed out of earlier. Both are made with molten iron from the earth’s core and the water inside is charged with both positive and negative ions. They create an electrical current in the water that induces the magnetic field between the two fountains, carrying you from one to the other.”

I gape at Parker, open-mouthed. “That’s the simple version?”

She rolls her eyes, but smiles. “I told you, it’s a portal.”

“Then why don’t people on Earth know about this? Dr Campbell would freak if he knew portals exist.”

“They are a closely guarded secret, portals are dangerous.” Parker says. “They are filled with dark matter, like a void between our worlds, that’s where your amulet comes in,” Parker points at the necklace still resting on my chest. “It’s made from a rare gem found only in Displacia, it protected you.”

I lift the gem from my chest to examine it closely. “I found this in my room at Malvern.”

She nods. “I put it there.”

I raise an eyebrow at her. “I was really worried about this, about who had been in my room. You could have said something.”

“Sorry, but it was necessary,” she says. “You wouldn’t have survived the portal without the necklace and I couldn’t say anything. I was under orders.”

We turn a corner and Parker stops abruptly outside of a set of tall, wooden doors. A sign above reads ‘library’.

“After you.” Parker holds the door open for me, but I pause as my eyes are invaded by a brilliant light. I urge myself to step over the line between the soft carpet of the hall and the hard, wooden floor inside the library, but it takes a gentle nudge from Parker for me to step over the threshold.

When my eyes adjust, I find that the library is a cavernous, vast space lined with shelf upon shelf of leather-bound books, and it has a ceiling that is higher than the roof of Evergreen. The wall directly opposite is glass from floor to ceiling, flooding the room with natural light, and I find myself staring at the orange sky outside, blazing like a sunset. I am so enthralled by it that I am almost oblivious to the crowd seated around the mahogany table in the centre of the room.

“You’re awake.”

At the sound of the gravelly voice, I tear my eyes away from the window.

Sitting at the head of the table is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her black hair frames a creamy complexion and she regards me with big, sapphire eyes. She pushes her chair out and steps smoothly around the table towards me.

She is tall, her body swathed in a pale-blue dress that clings to her slim frame. She looks like a modern day Cleopatra, elegant and regal. She holds out her hand. “Welcome to Displacia, I am Roma, leader of the Vedmak Household.”

I take her hand in mine and feel a ripple of curiosity. “I’m…I’m Casey.”

“Yes, we know,” Roma gives a small laugh and sweeps a hand towards the table. “This is my research team; they have studied you for some time.”

I find Caleb amongst the gathering of men and women, and he grins sheepishly.

“You know Caleb of course, and Parker. And these are my bodyguards,” she nods towards two tall men and a woman with dark braided hair. They are all dressed in sharp suits of navy blue with high collars. “Esther, Cain and Hamish.” Each of them nods in answer to their name. “They’ll help keep you safe while you’re here.” Roma beckons for me to sit. “You’re probably wondering why we’ve brought you here. Why we’ve been studying you.”

The group all stare at me as I take a seat, some of them have notebooks, their pens poised like they’re waiting for me to say something.

“You’re very special, Casey.”

I wrap my arms around myself self-consciously. “I don’t understand.”

“I know and I’ll try to help you,” Roma says kindly. “But very few people on Earth know that Displacia exists, and you have to promise not to tell anyone back home.” She stares at me, her full lips set into a firm line.

“I promise.”

“Good.” Roma smiles as her eyes drift to the window. “It all starts with your world, Casey. Have you ever wondered how Earth survived these last few hundred years, with the development of technology and weapons that could destroy your planet ten times over?”

I shake my head, a little perplexed. “I’ve never given it much thought.”

“Of course you haven’t, why would you?” Roma says. “Your planet has teetered on the brink of devastation for some time. It’s over-populated, wars rage, natural disasters happen all of the time, and yet the human race prevails, almost as if someone was looking out for it, protecting it.”

My eyes find Caleb, because that’s what he’s been doing since we met – looking out for me, protecting me. “Are you talking about guardian angels?”

Roma laughs, as do the others around the table. “We’re not angels, Casey, we are beings, just like you.”

“Then… what is this place?”

“Displacia is our world, it’s much like Earth, a planet connected to yours by a passage through space and time. We have protected your world from all kinds of threats, sometimes sacrificing our own lives in the process.”

I cast my eyes over Parker, Caleb and Roma. Roma’s skin is bathed in the golden light filtering in through the large window, making her look ethereal, a supernatural being. And then there’s Caleb, impossibly beautiful, appearing as if by magic whenever I need him.

“We found Earth two hundred years ago,” Roma continues. “A group of Displacian’s known as the Morgana’s discovered the first portal in a cave here on our planet. They were swept into the cave while swimming and emerged on a freezing cold island in the middle of Antarctica. They explored Earth for some time and returned to Displacia with reports of a world tormented by war, plague and famine. We sent troops there to investigate the Morgana’s claims, and for a while, we did nothing more than observe to make sure that this new world did not pose a threat to Displacia. We saw men claiming lands as their own and we knew that we couldn’t make ourselves known to the people of Earth,” Roma folds her arms and stares out of the window, as though considering her next words. “But we also saw potential, we realised that we could utilise the Earth’s resources, and in return, we could help ease the suffering of its inhabitants.”

“If Earth was so terrible, what could you have possibly needed from it?” I say peevishly.

“Power,” Roma says. “Energy. You see, Displacia doesn’t have a sun,” Roma waves a hand towards the window. “The sky that you see out there is artificial. Before Earth, Displacian’s lived in eternal darkness. When we found your planet, we were dazzled by this big, burning disc of fire in the sky, so we studied it, and then we looked for a way to harness it. It took us a while, but we eventually found a way.”

I look outside at the amber sky. “So that sunlight is from Earth?”

Roma nods. “We learnt lots of things from the portal, it advanced our technologies. We learned how to create more portals, including tiny little wormholes that we still use today to extract solar energy from Earth. We created an artificial sky, so that Displacian’s could walk in the sunlight.”

I stare out at the strange sky. There is no hint of blueness like the sky back home, just solid, golden yellow.

“We realise that Earth is…fragile,” Roma says quietly. “So in return for extracting energy, we try to sustain it, we help humans to survive.”

I try desperately to absorb what Roma is telling me. “Why? I mean, if Earth is so terrible, why would you help?”

Roma smiles pityingly. “Aside from the suffering, which we can’t ignore, our worlds are connected like a ship to an anchor, if your world dies, it might take ours with it.”

“But we’re not surviving, people die every day, and things are getting worse.” I think of the earthquakes; of the images I have seen on the news lately.

“We do our best. We have different abilities that we utilise when there is a disaster on Earth, but unfortunately, we can’t save everyone. Displacia is much smaller than Earth, our numbers much fewer.”

“You said you have abilities?”

“Displacia is mainly made up of six races of people,” Roma says. “Five of them belong to what we call Households. The Morgana’s, the Dryad’s, the Halers, the Smiths and us, the Vedmak’s. We all possess special gifts; the Vedmak’s for example, can perform telekinesis, telepathy and mind control. The Smiths are strong and fast, so they’re good in battle. The Halers have the ability to heal, and the Dryad’s are impervious to fire. We have spoken a little about the Morgana’s, they can control water.”

My mind reels, controlling water, telekinesis, I must be dreaming.

I count the Households in my head. “What about the sixth race?”

“They call themselves Wanderers, because they refuse to be part of a Household. They have the power of teleportation.”

My eyes almost pop out of my head.

“There are other…creatures here too.” Roma’s mouth twists in distaste when she says the word ‘creatures’. “One of those creatures is the Khuulsu, the demon that attacked you at school, it feeds on blood.”

My stomach twists. “Blood?”

“Attacks on humans are very rare,” Roma continues. “The Khuulsu mostly feed on animals. We’re trying to get to the bottom of why they targeted you.”

Just then the door creaks open. I follow the gazes of everyone in the room and my breath catches in my throat when I see Ivy standing there.

She edges towards me cautiously and I don’t know whether to cry or scream at her, but I find myself scrambling out of my chair and falling into her arms. She strokes my hair as tears threaten to spill over my cheeks.

“Sister,” Roma says. “I was just telling Casey about our world.”

I glance between Roma and Ivy. “Sister?”

“Yes, Roma is my sister,” Ivy guides me back to my seat and slips into the chair beside me. “I’m so sorry I kept all of this from you, Casey.”

“I’m still not sure what all of this is.”

“Maybe it would be best if you explain things from here, Ivy.” Roma says.

Ivy pats my hand, sending a jolt of trepidation through me. “Well, you’ll know by now that Displacia is my home. You’ll also know that our worlds are connected, but our story, mine and yours, starts with a man who wanted to conquer both our worlds. This man raised an army of Displacian’s, using mind-control to turn them against their own kind. His name was Ezra; he was my brother.”

I glance at Roma. Her eyes are fixed on her sister, her jaw tight.

“For his soldiers, Ezra chose a special race of Displacian’s, a race that possesses the powers of all of our Households. We call them Foundlings. They were very powerful and under my brother’s influence, they were terrifying. Ezra intended to conquer Displacia and bring it under his control before taking Earth for himself, we had no choice but to retaliate. Ezra was eventually captured, but not before almost a third of Displacians were dead,” Ivy stops and closes her eyes, her brow furrowing. “My brother was executed. His followers disappeared, but they resurfaced a couple of years later, calling themselves the Shadows and threatening to continue Ezra’s work.”

I look at the Displacian’s gathered around the table, all of them wearing stony expressions, their eyes downcast.

“Almost all of the Foundlings were killed during the war,” Ivy continues. “All except thirteen Foundling children. We were worried that they would be targeted by the Shadows, so we decided to hide them. We gave them new identities, new homes, a chance of survival. We hid them on Earth.”

“I still don’t understand-”

Ivy squeezes her eyes shut. “Ezra was my brother, Casey.”

“I know, but-” My stomach pitches, bile rises in my throat. “No.”

Ivy’s eyes find mine and they are filled with sadness. “Casey-”

“He was my father?”

She slowly shakes her head. “No, he wasn’t your father, Casey. He was Lana’s father.”

Chapter 16

Nervous laughter catches in the back of my throat, and when it escapes, it makes a choking sound. “But Lana and I are twins. We have the same parents.”

Ivy looks at me despairingly. “No, I’m sorry. It was all a lie. Lana is from Displacia, she’s not your twin.”

The room begins to dip and sway around me. “What? No, what are you saying, that’s-”

“You were each born to a different set of parents.”

I push away from the table and climb to my feet, a wave of nausea rolling over me. “It’s not true, it can’t be.” My legs are like jelly and I find myself sinking back down into my chair.

“It is. Lana was a Foundling child, I took her to Earth when she was a baby,” Ivy says. “I was instructed to hide her. She and I took on new identities, we moved to Evergreen.” Ivy places a hand on my shoulder, but I shake it off before I can feel any of her emotion. “This means…you’re not my Aunt, are you?”

Even though I know the answer, I need to hear her say it. “Maybe not biologically, but I am still your Aunt, Casey. I raised you, I-”

“So who am I?” I raise my voice much louder than I intended and those around the table with notebooks start scribbling fervently.

Ivy opens her mouth to speak, but no words come out. She glances at her sister.

“Who am I? You said Lana and I had different parents, who are my parents? Where did I come from?”

Ivy and Roma exchange a silent word and then Ivy nods, as though Roma has granted her permission to speak. “After we took the Foundling children to Earth, they were safe for a while, but then -”

“No!” I slam my hand down on the table. “No more Foundlings, no more Displacia, my whole life is a lie. I want to know who I am, where I came from.”

“Please, Casey,” Ivy pleads. “Please listen to me, I’m trying to explain.”

I lean back heavily in my chair, my heart thumping so furiously against my ribs that I think it must be black and blue.

“Lana was just a baby when we left Displacia,” Ivy continues. “But some of the other Foundling children were much older, they’ll be adults now. Shortly after we hid them, we received an encrypted message through our communication systems from the Shadows, threatening the future of Earth and Displacia, unless we handed the Foundlings over, so we changed all of their identities again, instructed their guardians to relocate and to cut off all communication. Then we added an extra layer to their cover.”

Ivy pauses and glances around the room. I follow her gaze, but everyone avoids my eye, even Caleb.

“We obtained decoys,” Ivy says. “The Foundlings’ guardians adopted human children of similar ages, with similar looks. I was Lana’s guardian, I acquired a child that looked just like Lana, so much like her that she could’ve been her biological sibling.” Ivy’s navy blue eyes are brimming with tears.

“You acquired me. I’m a decoy.” I say the words firmly, afraid that I might cry at any moment.

“Yes.”

I sit on my hands to stop them from shaking. I have no sister, no family. I was a decoy obtained for the sole purpose of protecting Lana, a girl who I believed was my twin sister, a girl who I shared a room with growing up. The connection that I felt with her, the sisterly bond, it was manufactured. I am nothing more than a human shield.

Something starts to bubble inside of me. When I speak again, my voice is thick with angry tears. “You hid them behind children. You hid Lana behind me. You didn’t give a damn about what happened to me as long as Lana was safe.”

“That’s not true. You are loved, Casey,” Ivy says. “I love you like my own child and Lana loved you like her own sister.” Ivy looks down at her hands. “I know what you must think of us, but we would protect the decoys – the human children – with our lives. It was simply a way of confusing anyone who was looking for the Foundlings. They were looking for single children, not twins. Multiple births do not exist in Displacia.”

Lana is not my twin, not even my sister. I wonder how many times I’ll have to say it to myself before I believe it. “What happened to her? What happened to Lana?”

“She died. She fell from the cliff and she died.” Tears roll over Ivy’s cheeks.

“Was it an accident, or did it have something to do with all of this?”

“We don’t know,” Ivy shakes her head. “The Shadows didn’t claim responsibility for Lana’s death, but Foundling’s don’t die easily.”

In my mind I see the dream version of Lana falling from the cliff and I shudder involuntarily. “How can you not know?” I look to Roma. “You said you have powers, you said you protect people. Why couldn’t you save her?”

“We thought she was safe,” Ivy says. “Lana wouldn’t have taken any unnecessary risks; she knew what was at stake.”

I look up sharply. “Did Lana know about Displacia? About all of this?”

“Yes,” Ivy nods. “But I made her promise not to say anything.”

I take the blow like a fist to the stomach. It leaves me winded. Lana knew, all of this time, she knew and she never said anything. She was still that little girl hiding under the bed, concealing herself from me the whole time, hiding in plain sight.

“Lana only learnt the truth last year, shortly before she died,” Ivy says. “We tried to suppress the Foundling’s powers using mind control, to help them blend in with humans, but Lana’s gifts started to resurface and I needed to give her an explanation so that she wouldn’t blow her cover. She hated the idea of using you as a decoy and she was devastated to learn that you weren’t biologically related, she-”

I can’t bear to hear the details of the secret conversations between Lana and Ivy. I jump up from my seat causing the others around the table to look up in alarm. “I’ve heard enough. I want to go home.”

“We can’t allow that.” This time it’s Roma who speaks, her gravelly tone is firm.

“I didn’t ask your permission.” I say.

Pink spots appear on the apples of Roma’s cheeks and I can tell that she isn’t used to people disobeying her. “Those Khuulsu specifically targeted you. You’re in danger.”

“Why? Lana’s gone now, I’m not her decoy anymore. What would they want with me?”

“It’s not just the Khuulsu who want you,” Ivy says. “You’re demonstrating abilities beyond those of a human and we don’t know why.”

“What abilities? The only thing I can do is…” I swallow the words, unsure if I should share my secret.

“It’s OK, Casey,” Parker says. “Everyone here knows that you can feel other people’s emotions.” I look between Ivy and Roma who both nod in unison.

“But that’s nothing,” I say. “It’s just… an instinct. It doesn’t make me special or powerful. If anything it’s exhausting.”

“It’s not your only ability,” Roma says, much to my surprise. “Caleb reported something very interesting to us.”

“You can self-heal,” he says. “That night in the bathroom when Molly attacked you, you lost so much blood, you should’ve died, but you didn’t. You just got up and walked away.”

My hand shoots instinctively to the back of my head. When Molly cracked my head against the tiled bathroom floor, my skull had split open, but I was left with barely a scratch.

“Do you see? You are special,” Roma says. “Self-healing is a Haler power, but we’ve never encountered a human with any of our abilities.”

“Your ability to feel others emotions is unique, though,” Parker says. “Which makes you even more intriguing.”

“So what am I?” I ask.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to figure out,” Parker says. “On the surface you are human and you only acquired your powers after Lana’s death. During our sessions I looked into your mind, aside from your gift, there was nothing that suggested that you weren’t anything but human.”

“This is crazy, all of this.” I say, shaking my head.

“I know,” Roma says. “And I’m sorry that we’re throwing this information at you all at once, but I need you to be strong, Casey, because we need your help.”

“What can I do that would be of any help here?” I ask.

Roma looks around the room, exchanging a silent communication with the group. “We need you to become Lana.”

“Excuse me?”

Roma looks out on the artificial sky of Displacia. “We are on the brink of an uprising. Some Displacian’s no longer wish to protect Earth. They want to bring the Foundlings home and end our intervention, focus our energies on rebuilding Displacia and finding a new light source. But without our help, humans could be extinct within a decade and we don’t know what impact that will have on Displacia. We would be tethered to a dead world, a place left to wither and rot.”

I hazard a glance at Ivy and she nods, confirming Roma’s words.

“Closing the doors doesn’t mean that the passage will disappear,” Roma continues. “If we could bring even one of the Foundlings back home, it might placate those within our government that wish to end our link with Earth. We need the Foundlings to fight for our cause, the people of Displacia will listen to them.”

“Then just bring them back.”

Those around the table shift uncomfortably in their seats.

“It’s not as simple as that,” Roma says. “We don’t know where they are.”

“What do you mean you don’t know where they are?” I say. “You said Lana was one of them.”

“Lana was one of them,” Roma says. “She was also the Gatekeeper of the Foundlings, even if she didn’t know it.”

“Gatekeeper? What does that mean?”

“The Foundlings share a special connection,” Roma says. “A psychic connection. They were all well-hidden, but we kept Lana close because she is royalty. In the event that we needed to find the Foundlings, Lana would be able to locate them for us.”

“So now she’s gone-”

“We can’t find the Foundlings,” Roma finishes. “No one outside of this room knows about the decoys. When the Shadows returned, someone tipped them off about the Foundlings being sent to Earth and we didn’t know who to trust.”

“We’re trying desperately to find them,” Ivy says. “Roma has people looking for them.”

“The people of Displacia know something is wrong,” Roma says. “We have to convince them that the Foundlings are safe and the best way we can do that is by giving them Lana, or as she is known in Displacia, Acacia Vedmak.”

“Acacia Vedmak?” I frown at the unfamiliar name.

“Lana George was a cover story,” Ivy says gently, “Acacia Vedmak is a descendant of the throne of Displacia, she’s a princess.”

“And she will be the perfect spokesperson for our cause,” Roma adds. “She will reassure the people of Displacia that the Foundlings are safe, but well hidden. It’ll buy us more time.”

“Are you saying that you want me to pretend to be this Acacia Vedmak, the girl who I thought was my sister?”

“She’s still your sister.” Ivy says gently.

“She’s dead,” I say, my voice echoing around the cavernous room. “Lana, Acacia, whatever you want to call her, she’s dead. Don’t people here know what happened to her?”

“Her death was never reported in Displacia,” Ivy says quietly. “Only the people in this room know what happened.”

“Then why not just tell people the truth?”

Roma gives a sigh of indignation. “Before Ezra raised his army, the Foundlings were deeply respected and loved by all. They were like celebrities. As tell the people of Displacia that the last of the Foundlings are lost, I may as well close the portals myself.”

“Then do that.” I step back from the table.

“You need to stay, Casey,” Caleb says. “Look at what happened to Molly. She was being controlled, probably by the Shadows. They could do that to anyone around you, anyone you care about. We have to keep you out of their hands.”

I imagine Bria with black eyes, her face contorted with rage. I imagine her in Molly’s place, attacking me, trying to kill me. My resolve begins to wane. “Molly was being controlled?”

Caleb nods. “Yes, that’s why she acted like she did. I mean, some of it was her, she did blame you for Lana’s death, but that just made her easy to influence. The black eyes are a sign of mind control, dark mind control.” Caleb’s expression is earnest, just like it was before he pulled me into the fountain…right before he carried me into this nightmare. “Vedmak’s can control the minds of others, but we don’t make people do bad things. The Shadows force dark thoughts into people’s minds to make them do their bidding. It’s a trick Ezra invented.”

“Please,” Roma says. “Help us.”

“No. I won’t do it.” I storm towards the doors, desperate to get away from this place.

Roma strides towards me and her bodyguards draw in. “Do this for us and we’ll help you too.”

I freeze with my hand on the doorknob. “I don’t need anything from you,” My eyes fall on Ivy. “Any of you.”

Roma’s face is intent. “We’ll help you find your parents.”

Chapter 17

 

My thoughts about my parents had become lost, somewhere between finding out that Lana wasn’t my sister and Roma’s request for me to take Lana’s – or Acacia’s – place. Now they’re jostling for space inside my head.

After I had calmed down a little, Ivy explained that she had taken me from an orphanage. She had used mind control – another revelation I was trying to come to terms with – to speed up the adoption process.

It turns out I was left at the door of the orphanage and the authorities hadn’t been able to trace my birth mother, so they had very little information on me, and that made me a perfect candidate for the decoy operation.

All I could think of was the elaborate lie that Ivy told me – the one where my parents had died in a plane crash – and I had looked determinedly away from her when I told the room that I needed time to think.

I was desperate to get away from Ivy and Roma, to have some time to myself, to let everything they had told me sink in.

When Roma said she had prepared some quarters for me in the Household and would arrange for someone to show me to them, I asked for Caleb. While I was still mad at him, his betrayal didn’t run as deeply as Ivy’s and he hadn’t tried to counsel me on my grief like Parker had, knowing all this time that Lana wasn’t my sister. Most of all, I think I was just looking for someone to take my frustration out on.

“You could’ve warned me about all of this.” I mutter, as Caleb leads me back through the labyrinth that I had learnt was called the Atrium – the main building of the Vedmak Household.

He shakes his head. “I wanted to, but there wasn’t time. I had my instructions and I obeyed.”

“Like a good Displacian.” I frown at how familiar the word already sounds.

“I’m sorry if you think I deceived you,” Caleb says, as he leads me up a winding, marble staircase. The upper quarters of the Household are made mostly from glass, the light filtering in warm and bright. “It wasn’t my place to tell you your family secrets.”

“They’re not my family secrets,” I say. “I was just a hostage, remember?”

“You were a decoy.” He corrects.

“Is that different?”

Caleb smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

We emerge in a corridor with another wall of glass, and I press my hands against the pane to look out onto the golden world of Displacia. It looks like the start of autumn, the trees are a mixture of green, orange and yellow, like the leaves are about to fall to the ground. I can feel the warmth on my skin as I gaze at the dazzling light reflecting off the tall, glass buildings in the distance.

There are people outside sitting on a perfectly manicured lawn, enjoying the warm rays. From what I can see from here, there are no congested roads or industrial skylines beyond the grounds of the Vedmak Household, just expanses of yellow meadows and clusters of woodland.

“It’s beautiful.” I whisper.

“Yes, it is,” Caleb says. “We learnt our lessons from Earth’s mistakes, we tried to preserve our world as much as possible.”

I feel myself bristle at his reproachful undertone and I reluctantly tear my eyes away from the view. “Is that why you want to keep the connection with Earth, so that you can feel superior?”

He looks surprised. “We don’t feel superior. Displacia has had its share of problems, as you’ve heard, but our environment isn’t one of them. We’re lucky to live in a world free from pollution, but that’s only because we saw the impact of modern industry on Earth. We only manufacture what is absolutely essential.”

I turn my back on the image of what our world could have been, folding my arms peevishly. “But you take our sunlight, you wouldn’t have any of this if it wasn’t for Earth.”

Caleb smirks. “And we’re grateful for that.”

“What was it like before?” I ask, turning back to the window. “When it was dark; was it cold?”

Caleb leans back against the pane. “No, the core of our planet is very hot and the heat rises to the surface. Displacia is encased in a thick atmosphere of hydrogen that keeps the heat from escaping. If you were looking at it from space, you would just see a ball of gas. It creates the perfect backdrop for our artificial sky.”

“It’s just impossible, how is it that you don’t have a sun?”

Caleb’s brow furrows. “It’s what people on Earth call a rogue planet. Before we found Earth, we were on our own.” Caleb leans in a little closer. “I’d like to show you more of Displacia, if you decide to stay.” The blazing sky dilutes his eyes, turning them a pale green. I look at his chiselled features, the hint of maturity around his square jaw and I wonder if he is really the age he claims to be.

“I’m eighteen.” He says, catching me off guard.

My face warms. “Have you been reading my mind this whole time?”

“I couldn’t always listen in, I had to be aware of everyone else’s thoughts in case someone was planning on hurting you.”

I shiver a little, despite the warmth from the window. “Like Molly?”

“Molly wasn’t herself, I don’t believe she would’ve tried to hurt you if she wasn’t being controlled.”

“Well she didn’t have black eyes when she started that fight with me.” I frown.

“Which one?” Caleb purses his lips like he’s trying to suppress a smile.

I pull a face at him and he laughs. “We had to be sure that no one else was involved. The Shadows have been underground for some time now, we don’t know where they are, or how big their numbers are. They could be hiding out in Displacia, or on Earth, or both. That was no ordinary earthquake back at Malvern, that was them. They could’ve planted someone at the school and they’ll know that it’s the site of one of the portals.”

“The earthquake? That was the Shadows?”

“I think so,” Caleb nods. “And so does Roma. Only problem is, the Shadows usually claim responsibility when they’ve done something, and so far, they’ve kept quiet about this one.”

“So what will happen if I choose to go home? Will you go back to Malvern too?”

“That’s not my choice, Casey. Besides, we’re all hoping that you’ll stay.”

I stifle a yawn with the back of my hand, feeling suddenly exhausted.

“You’re tired,” Caleb observes. “It’s a side effect of the portal, you need to rest. Would you like me to carry you?”

“No, thank you. I can walk.” I take a step forward but my legs almost buckle beneath me. Caleb scoops me into his arms as though I am weightless and continues along the corridor before I can protest. My eyelids feel heavy as my head lolls against his shoulder, and I can barely feel the anticipation radiating from him.

“The portal can drain the energy out of you if you’re not wearing a compression suit, it’s like extreme jet lag.” He explains.

I hear the creak of a door and Caleb carefully carries me over the threshold into an airy room. He navigates through a sitting area, past a cream and red sofa with clawed feet, and into a bedroom. He sets me down gently on a huge, four-poster bed and I shuffle under the soft, clean sheets.

“The bathroom is on the other side of the sitting room,” he says. “And if you need anything, there’ll be someone right outside your door.”

I yawn widely. “Am I a prisoner now?”

Caleb smirks. “It’s just a precaution. Roma doesn’t want you wandering around the grounds until you’ve decided on whether or not to stay.”

“Fine.”

“I hope you make the right decision.”

I make a non-committal noise. As my eyelids flutter shut, I feel the mattress dip a little, then Caleb’s lips brush against my forehead. He whispers something indecipherable as I sink into a dreamless sleep.

 

I don’t know how long I sleep for, but when I wake the room is in semi-darkness.

I had hoped that it was all a dream, or some delirium brought on by the earthquake back home, but as my eyes take in the snowy white canopy above and the vast bedroom, my stomach sinks.

I hug my knees to my chest. Before Roma dangled the prospect of finding my family in front of me, my choice was simple – return to Malvern and forget that any of this ever happened, or stay here and pretend to be Lana, or Princess Acacia as she’s known in Displacia.

But now it’s the decision between finding my parents or continuing without them, without knowing who I am.

I could hide, like the Foundlings, or I could try to find my family myself, but I wouldn’t know where to start, at least without Ivy’s help, and if I did find them, how would I explain Ivy’s unorthodox methods for a quick adoption? And what if they don’t want me? After all, my mother left me on the doorstep of an orphanage.

Then there’s Caleb’s ominous warning about the people around me being manipulated and controlled. If I go home now, I could put everyone at risk.

With a feeling of defeat, I switch on the lamp at the side of the bed. It casts a soft glow that shows off the scale of the bedroom. It’s twice the size of my loft at home and four times the size of my room at Malvern.

Aside from the bed and the small cabinet on which the lamp stands, there is a single chair with a red cushion and a free-standing mirror in the corner. There’s a narrow door at the far side of the room, which I suspect is a closet and a set of glass doors to my right.

I swing my legs out of bed, it’s so high that my feet hover inches above the cream carpet until I shuffle right off the mattress, then I step carefully across the thick pile, my legs still shaky from sleep. I turn the handles on the glass doors and step out onto a tiled balcony. The air is still warm, but the artificial sky is black with just a thin line of burnt orange, smouldering on the horizon like a burning ember.

I hear the chatter of voices and I lean over the railings to look at the courtyard below. It’s lit by tall, burning torches and a crowd of people are making their way inside dressed in smart suits and glamorous gowns. I look down at the crumpled tunic that Parker gave me and run a hand through my tangled hair.

“How did you sleep?”

I jump at the sound of Ivy’s voice. She is seated at a small table at the far end of the balcony, cast in the shadows.

“Good. Great actually, all things considered.”

Ivy’s rises from her chair. She wears a dress of pale blue that crosses over her chest and wraps around her waist before graduating into a full skirt. Her hair is twisted in a loose knot at the nape of her neck, her lips coated with a soft pink gloss.

“Is there a party?”

“Yes, my sister loves parties,” she smiles. “She hopes tonight will be Acacia’s homecoming celebration.”

I fold my arms across my chest. “And what if I say no?”

“Then it will be just another party,” Ivy sighs. “Roma is known for throwing impromptu gatherings, so it won’t seem strange to anyone.”

We consider each other for a moment, then Ivy looks down at her interlocked fingers. “Roma sent me to ask you for your answer.”

I let out a sigh. “I don’t know. Don’t you feel bad, deceiving everyone like this?”

“While I don’t agree with lying, I think it’s the only way. Displacia needs something to believe in, a reason to continue the Conservation Programme and keep Earth out of the hands of the Shadows.”

“Conservation Programme?”

“It’s what we call our work on Earth.”

I frown at her. “What, like we’re animals? Too stupid to take care of ourselves?”

Ivy looks pained. “We don’t see it like that. We call it the Conservation Programme because we’re preserving life.”

Silence falls between us and I stare out at the shadows of the tall trees, solid black against the darkening sky.

“What happens if I return home?”

“We’ll continue to fund your education at Malvern and we’ll protect you until we find the Shadows, but it won’t be easy.”

“What about you? Will you still be my adoptive Aunt, or whatever?”

Ivy smiles sadly. “Of course.”

“Then nothing needs to change, things can continue as they are.” As I say the words, I know it’s not possible.

“Those creatures who attacked you, the Khuulsu, they must be in alliance with the Shadows,” Ivy says. “You could be attacked again, everyone around you will be in danger.”

“I just don’t understand what they want with me.” I say.

“We think they may have wrongly identified you as a Foundling.”

My stomach flips. “How is that possible?”

“I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense to me either,” Ivy says, leaning against the railings. “We thought the Shadows were responsible for Lana’s death, but they could’ve used her to lead them to the other Foundlings. Maybe they found her and there was a struggle, we just don’t know.”

I think of dark figures lurking in the halls at school, hiding in the corners of my bedroom. It sends a shiver down my spine. “If I stay, what will people back home think? What about school?”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“What about Bria? I bet she’s already trying to contact me.”

Ivy frowns. “Yes, you’re right. I’m sure I can speak to our communications department about getting a phone for you. We have a number of devices that can contact mobile phones on Earth.”

“Would you do it? Would you text her for me?” I ask.

Ivy nods and I feel a little lighter.

“How long would I need to stay here for?”

“Roma is going to speak to the council about strengthening our efforts in finding the Shadows. We need to assess the situation at your school, strengthen our security there so that you can return safely. It could take a few weeks; or it could be months.”

“Months?”

Ivy nods and I feel my heart drop into my stomach.

“Roma wants you to attend the council meeting with her tomorrow, she wants you to tell the Household Leaders that the Foundlings are fine and they have to stay where they are.”

“I can’t do that,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m a terrible liar, you know that.”

Ivy holds up her hands. “You’re just going to have to do your best. Before the war, if the Household Leaders couldn’t reach an agreement on a certain matter, it was referred to the Foundling Council who would make the final decision. It’s called the Foundling Rule; Roma hopes to invoke it.”

“But I’m not a Foundling.” My words come out breathless.

“You won’t have to say much,” Ivy says. “Roma will do most of the talking. You’ll just have to nod when she asks for your agreement.”

“They’ll know that I’m lying, everyone knows when I’m lying.”

“Don’t think of it as lying,” Ivy says. “Just pretending.”

“It’s the same thing.” I say, throwing up my hands.

“No, it’s not,” Ivy says firmly. “I don’t like putting you in this position, but you’re pretending to be Princess Acacia, not Lana. Lana was the girl that I raised, the girl that I cared for. She didn’t grow up to be Princess Acacia, she was just Lana, our Lana. You’re not taking her place; you’re pretending to be the person that she was supposed to be.”

I take in a deep shuddering breath and exhale slowly. “And if I do this, you’ll help me find my family?”

Ivy looks wounded, a tiny line appearing between her eyebrows. “I will personally help you find your family.”

My stomach twists with anxiety, but I know what I have to do. “Fine. I’ll go along with what Roma wants, I’ll be Princess Acacia.”

Ivy straightens up, her face set in delighted surprise.

“But I do have one condition.” I say.

“OK, let’s hear it.”

“If, this doesn’t work out, if I can’t do what you need me to do, you let me go home.”

Ivy deliberates for a moment. “I’m sure we can agree to that.”

“At any time, I say the words and you let me leave.”

“I’ll speak to Roma,” Ivy says. “But you have to promise not to try to leave by yourself. The portals can be dangerous; a human can’t travel from one world to the other unassisted,” her expression is unwavering. “Promise me, Casey.”

“I promise.”

She seems to relax a little. “Good. Roma will be pleased.”

I pull at the hem of the crumpled tunic. “So, do I have to wear this to the party?”

Ivy laughs, a soft, musical sound that stirs up old memories of Evergreen. It makes me think of Lana and my heart sinks. I push her away to the back of my mind, shrouding her in darkness.

“I’m sure we can find you something more suitable to wear, Roma stocked the closet in your room in anticipation of your arrival.” Ivy steps carefully towards me. She looks like she is about to hug me, but she seems to think better of it, and instead takes both of my hands in hers. The base of my skull tingles and I feel her remorse, her sadness, but I’m not ready to forgive her, not just yet.

I see the moment that she reads this in my mind and I watch as her smile falters. This mindreading thing is going to take some getting used to.

She brushes a hand over my hair. “Why don’t you have a nice, hot bath and I’ll let Roma know that you’ve decided to stay.”

She heads inside, pausing in the doorway. “I am truly sorry, Casey, for lying to you and… well, let’s just say if it was my choice, I would have called you my daughter, you would have called me Mother. I had to keep up the pretence of being your aunt, because Lana was my niece. Eventually I would’ve had to tell her the truth about her family.” Her lower lip starts to quiver.

“I know.” I believe her, because she cared for me as a mother would, always protecting me, always defending me. Tears prick the backs of my eyes, but I blink them away.

She gives a small smile before disappearing inside and I hear her fading footsteps as she crosses the lounge.

I look up at the darkening sky, cupping my hands around my face so that all I can see is the emerging stars. The Displacian night sky is the same velvety-black as the one that I see every night at home, and for just a moment, I pretend that I’m back on Earth. I imagine that I can hear the crash of the waves against the shore of Cormorant’s Bay, and the whistle of the wind around the old Malvern Academy. I take a deep breath, imagining that I am inhaling the sweet, earthy scent of the dewy grass in the garden of Evergreen and I feel instantly calmer.

Chapter 18

 

The bathroom is tiled from floor to ceiling in sandstone, with a huge, grand bathtub in the centre. The tap unit has a number of dials, but I eventually find the one that controls the hot water, and another that shoots out a stream of rainbow-coloured liquid that froths and foams, creating a mass of glittering bubbles that dance across the surface.

Creamy towels hang from a golden rail, and a shelf above the sink holds all manner of toiletries, housed in glass jars with pretty labels. I choose a selection and line them up along the edge of the tub.

When I slip into the hot water, I let my body sink so that even my face is submerged. I stay like that for a while, cocooned in heat, watching the tiled ceiling above sway with the motion of the water.

When I finally surface, I rub a thick shampoo that smells like strawberries into my hair, and I scrub my skin with a rough, sand-like soap until it is smooth.

I leave the bathroom reluctantly, swathed in a soft towel, and I jump when I see the group gathered in the living room.

Roma and Ivy are joined by a young man and woman with the same platinum-blonde hair and matching white tunics.

“Finally, we thought you were going to stay in there all evening, Acacia,” Roma smiles as she emphasises my new name. She wears another pale-blue dress, but this one has full sleeves and a split at the front that shows off her long, tanned legs. “This is Alistair and Aimee; they are here to help you get ready for your homecoming party.”

Alistair and Aimee are brimming with excitement, it’s so strong that I can feel it without even touching them. It emanates in waves, filling every corner of the room and making the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

“Alistair and Aimee are Halers,” Roma explains. “They heal people on Earth and in Displacia, but they also perform miracles when it comes to hair and makeup. They are under strict instructions not to speak to anyone about your homecoming until we address the council tomorrow morning,” Roma eyes the pair, and they both nod eagerly. “My niece has not been to Displacia since she was a baby,” Roma continues, “She’s not familiar with our Households, or our abilities. Maybe you could tell her a little about the Halers while you work?”

“Of course.” Alistair fetches a chair from the corner of the room while Aimee starts rummaging through a large trunk that is big enough to fit them both inside. They produce a fold out table and an assortment of hairbrushes, makeup, and bottles and jars of unidentified liquid and gloop.

Ivy rises from her seat and drapes a robe around my shoulders. Her fingers brush my neck ever so slightly, just enough for me to feel a tremor of caution. I look into her eyes. What is it? Her eyes flick to Aimee and Alistair, she briefly touches a finger to her lips, a covert warning to be careful what I say in front of them, and I nod ever so slightly to show that I understand.

Aimee and Alistair are like twins, both the exact same height with the same shade of light-blonde hair cut into short, trendy styles, and the same sharp cheekbones. But they can’t be twins, because Ivy said that multiple births are impossible in Displacia, but they must be at least siblings, their resemblance to each other is so strong.

I sit down and Alistair starts to rake his fingers through my hair. “We’ll need to take some of the length off, a good few inches,”

“Maybe something more sophisticated,” Roma suggests.

“Hmm, a few layers should give it a bit of shape,”

“Her skin is dry too,” Aimee says, pressing a finger against my cheek. “But I can help with that.”

While Alistair combs my hair, Aimee coats my face in a thick cream that smells strongly of menthol and makes my skin tingle. I rest my head against the back of the chair and I close my eyes, ignoring the tingling at the base of my skull.

It feels strange to have their hands on my face, to have them press their fingertips against my skin without hesitation. I’ve spent so long trying to avoid the touch of others that it sets me on edge, and, maybe it’s just my imagination, but I think I can feel heat radiating from their fingertips as they work.

“So, are you excited about your homecoming party?” Aimee asks, sweeping a soft make-up brush across the curve of my cheek.

I open one eye, considering the most appropriate response “Yes, I’m…looking forward to meeting the rest of the Household.”

“It must be wonderful to be reunited with your family after all these years.” She says.

I smile tightly, because I can’t think of a safe response.

“I can’t imagine being separated from my family,” Aimee says, nodding towards Alistair. “We take trips to Earth of course, but we’re only gone for a few days at a time, and usually we go together.”

“Roma said you heal people.”

She nods. “We aren’t strong, like the Smith’s and we don’t have powers of the mind, like the Vedmak’s, so we’re not good in battle, but we can help heal the wounded after a war, or a natural disaster. We help restore the balance.”

“The balance?”

Aimee’s face is furrowed in concentration as she combs a mascara wand through my eyelashes. “After a catastrophe, we need to put things right straight away, otherwise there would be chaos.”

“People can do terrible things when they are afraid,” Alistair adds dramatically. He starts to comb through my hair with some kind of tool that gives off a gentle heat, instantly drying the strands. “So we repair their homes, give them back their loved ones,” Alistair continues. “We restore order so that they can go on with their lives.”

I think of the images I have seen on the news – war, floods, earthquakes – what comes afterwards always seems worse somehow – famine, looting, rioting, heinous crimes. “But things happen all of the time, awful things.”

“We can’t always prevent things from happening and we can’t save everyone,” Aimee says. “There are some fights that we cannot win, some diseases that not even the Halers can cure, but we do what we can.” She looks saddened by this, and I instantly warm to her.

When my hair and makeup are done, Aimee leads me back into the bedroom and helps me into a gown of midnight blue. It fastens behind my neck and around my waist, leaving my back exposed. It’s a little too long and I have to scoop up the hem to stop myself from tripping over it.

Alistair appears in the doorway holding a pair of black heels. He helps me into them, fastening the delicate buckles at my ankles, then he fluffs out the dress so that it falls gracefully to the floor. “Are you ready?” He asks, beaming as he takes in my appearance.

I take a deep breath. “I think so.”

Alistair and Aimee each take a hand and lead me into the lounge as though I am a child taking its first steps, both radiating a sense of accomplishment.

Roma gasps when she sees me. “You look so beautiful.” She looks so surprised that I wonder how hideous I looked when I crawled out of the fountain earlier. “Just one last finishing touch.” She holds out a thin band of silver that glints in the light – a crown – and rests it carefully on my head. “Perfect.”

“Here.” Alistair, disappears back into the bedroom and returns with the full-length mirror under his arms. He props it up in the corner of the room and waves me over. Without the two siblings holding on to me, I wobble a little in the heels as I step across the thick-pile rug.

When I see my reflection, my mouth falls open.

The girl peering out from behind the glass is radiant, her skin flawless, with a pearlescent sheen and a hint of pink at her cheeks. Her pale-blonde hair is curled glamorously about her shoulders, her full lips are crimson and her eyelashes are long and thick.

I touch the glass and inhale sharply as an image flashes through my mind. The girl that I saw in my dream, the one in the mirror, the one who wrapped her hand around my wrist and pulled me through the glass – it was me. I didn’t see the resemblance before, because I looked so unlike myself, unrecognisable after Aimee and Alistair worked their magic, after they erased the dark circles under my eyes and brightened my sallow skin.

I hazard a glance at Ivy. I’ve seen this before. Her brow furrows ever so slightly, and I know she heard me. She quickly arranges her face back into a composed state, but her eyes flit to her sister.

Roma clasps her hands together. “Thank you, Alistair, Aimee, you’ve done an amazing job. You may go.”

The pair look disappointed at their dismissal, their faces a little downcast as they pack up their things. They both hug me before they leave, wrapping their arms around me like they’ve known me forever. I find myself returning the gesture, oddly drawn to the siblings who heal the sick and the dying on Earth.

“We’ll see you again soon.” Aimee says as she heads out of the room.

After the door closes, Roma turns to me with a serious expression. “You said you’ve seen this before.”

I nod. “Back at school I had a dream about a girl in a mirror, she was wearing a dress just like this, and a crown.”

“It could just be a coincidence.” Ivy offers.

“Maybe, but it was me, I didn’t realise before, but… the girl looked just like I do now.”

Roma looks thoughtful. “What happened in your dream?”

“The girl, my reflection, she grabbed my wrist and she pulled me into the mirror. Almost like she was…”

“Pulling you into this world.” Ivy finishes. She exchanges a nervous look with Roma.

“We need to run some tests,” Roma says. “I’ve been putting it off, but… we need to know how it is that you have these abilities.”

“Roma, no,” Ivy looks suddenly angry, her flawless complexion now spotted with red. “We agreed. I don’t want her to be prodded and poked at, not like them. She’s not an experiment.”

“It won’t be like that,” Roma says, reassuringly. “I just want Parker to run some initial blood tests, she conducted a brain scan when Casey arrived, but it would make sense to run a series to compare the results.”

I try to stay calm, but the thought of blood tests and brain scans makes my palms sweat.

“No, Roma. She’s afraid.” Ivy says.

“I’m not afraid,” I swallow reflexively. “Ivy, you said like them. Like who?”

“The Foundlings. Ezra didn’t just brainwash them to fight, he experimented on them, subjected them to despicable tests to find out more about their abilities. I won’t do the same to you.”

Curiosity gnaws at my insides. When I realised I could feel other people’s emotions, I had barely let myself believe it was real, but now I’m self-healing and that dream of my reflection was a vision of the future, it had to be. “I’ll do the tests.”

“Casey, you don’t have to,” Ivy says. “We don’t need to know-”

“Yes we do.” Roma interrupts.

“It’s OK, Ivy. It’s just some blood tests and brain scans, right?”

Roma nods. “To begin with, but anything after that will be much less invasive.”

“Ivy, I want to take the tests, but only if you’re OK with it.”

She chews anxiously on her lip. “Fine.”

“Then that’s settled,” Roma claps her hands together. “Now, we have a party to go to.”

Panic spikes through me as something occurs to me. “You said that Vedmak’s can read minds, won’t they know who I am?”

“Not necessarily,” Roma considers me with a serious expression. “There is a way to cloak your thoughts, it’s a little tedious, but it should prevent the rest of my Household from hearing what you’re thinking.”

I can’t imagine how I could possibly stop the Household from hearing my thoughts, when the Vedmak’s that I’ve met so far are able to pluck them so easily from my head.

I look between the two Vedmak sisters, both so different. Ivy chews her lip anxiously, while Roma’s expression is so firm, it’s almost defiant. I take another deep breath. “OK, let me try.”

Roma smiles approvingly. “You just need to think of a colour, let it cloak everything around you, and everything in your mind.”

“I find that purple works best,” Ivy adds. “We Vedmak’s try to respect each other’s privacy, but sometimes we find ourselves listening in without realising. Visualising colours somehow shields our thoughts, we call it cloaking.”

“You want to give it a try?” Roma asks.

“OK.” I visualise purple; I pretend that everything around me is bathed in it. It covers the carpet, the sofa, the walls, the small chair that I sat in while Alistair and Aimee did my hair and makeup. “Is it working?”

Roma and Ivy stare at me, their faces impassive. After a few seconds they both blink rapidly. “Yes, well done,” Ivy beams. “I couldn’t hear anything.”

“But won’t the others know that I’m hiding something?”

“We can’t see images in the minds of others,” Roma explains. “We just hear thoughts. When you’re cloaking, all they’ll hear is silence. Even if they suspect, they’ll probably just assume that you’re hiding information about the Foundlings and they won’t dare ask about it.”

I wish that I could absorb some of Roma’s confidence. She smiles as she reads this in my thoughts and holds up her hand.

I place my palm against hers, her self-assurance radiates between us and aside from the tingling in my skull, it helps. “Thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Roma drops her hand to her side. “You’re going to need it, the Foundlings are known for exuding confidence, they are poised, elegant and gracious. Stand up straight, shoulders back and try not to fall over. Oh, and don’t mention that you can feel emotion from other people, it’s not a common Foundling trait.”

Like I go around bragging about it.

Ivy places both her hands on my shoulders, her anxiety snapping at my skin like electricity. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

I take a deep, shaky breath. “Yes.”

Chapter 19

 

My fingers tremble with nerves as I am swept into a brightly-lit banquet room. The ceiling is high, just like the one in the library, but this room is filled with hundreds of people seated at long, glass-top tables that appear to be lit from underneath.

Enormous, sparkling chandeliers hang from the ceiling, decadent and orb-like, and rows of tall, potted trees decorated with twinkling fairy lights, flank each side of the room.

The sea of faces turns in our direction as the Vedmak Household stands to greet us, their chairs scraping against the polished, wooden floor.

As I follow Roma up a set of steps onto a high dais, there are whispers of excitement from the curious crowd, the room filled with a growing tension, expanding, filling every corner of the room and seeping into my lungs. I feel like I’m going to throw up.

Roma holds up her hands and the Household falls silent. “Members of the Vedmak Household, as you all know, sixteen years ago we made the heart-breaking decision to send the remaining Foundling children to Earth. At the time, Displacia was ravaged by war, and the followers of Ezra Vedmak had made clear their intentions to regroup.” Roma swallows reflexively when she says her brother’s name, and I feel Ivy reacting silently beside me.

“Since then, we have rebuilt our world,” Roma continues. “Reformed our inter-Household alliances; we have made Displacia good again. While the Shadows are still at large, I cannot bring all of the Foundlings home, but tonight, I offer you a reminder of what we are fighting for. I give you my niece, Princess Acacia, the youngest of the Foundling children.”

She beckons me forward and I imagine the room cloaked in purple, shielding my thoughts from the eager Household.

At first, there are murmurs of disbelief, wide eyes, stunned faces, and then the room erupts.

There are cheers and applause, people are on their feet, whistling, catcalling and I feel my face blaze.

Roma lets the commotion continue for a few moments, before signalling again for silence. “There are many among us who feel that sending the Foundling children away was wrong, that they should have remained here, with their families, with their Households, but Acacia is living proof that we did the right thing. Without our intervention, she may not be standing here, alive and well, free from the influence of the Shadows.”

Guilt starts to creep over me. Acacia is dead. What would the Vedmak Household think if they knew the truth?

“When we can be sure that Displacia is safe,” Roma continues. “We will bring back all of the Foundling children, and they will lead us to greatness.”

There is another round of applause, and then someone calls out from the crowd. “To Princess Acacia.” It’s Caleb, standing close to the dais, his glass raised in the air.

“Princess Acacia.” The crowd repeats.

Caleb smirks as he raises his glass to his lips.

Looking at his smug face makes me want to rip off my crown and hurl it at him. He must hear my thoughts, because he laughs raucously as the Vedmak’s take their seats and I hastily visualise the purple cloak again.

Caleb sits down beside a beautiful, dark haired woman with the same piercing green eyes. She looks so much like him that it must be his Mother. He leans in to speak to her, but his eyes are still on me.

Ivy and Roma lead me to a table adjacent to the one where Caleb sits, and the occupants eye me eagerly as I take a seat. Butterflies dance in my stomach, but I am spared the Household’s attention by the arrival of dinner.

It starts with a rich, vegetable soup and platters of appetisers – mushroom tarts, cheese and olives – followed by a dish of chicken in a sweet sauce served with rice and vegetables. I devour every mouthful placed in front of me and I still find room for the fruit and chocolate pudding that is served for dessert.

Roma intercepts most of the questions from the curious Household members; I try to appear flattered by their interest, while maintaining my hold on the purple cloak in my mind. After a couple of hours, I feel my concentration slipping, especially after we are served a smoking, red concoction in stemless, crystal goblets.

Our server – a tall man wearing a bland, brown ensemble – tells me that it’s a Displacian liquor made from elderberry, lime and agarwood.

I raise the goblet to my nose and inhale the heady scent of citrus and alcohol. My eyes flit to Ivy and I wait for her to reprimand me, but she simply says. “Just a taste”, and raises her own goblet to her lips.

I take a sip. The liquid is both bitter and sweet, and it smoulders all the way down.

Roma rises from her seat at the head of the table and leans over my shoulder. “It’s time for us to circulate.”

Leaving my goblet on the table, I cast a frantic look at Ivy as Roma leads me to the back of the room and out on to a shadowy terrace.

Many of the Household members have converged out here; they sit around small, candlelit tables, their faces aglow with warm, flickering light. Some are cosied-up in colourful cabanas, partially concealed by voile drapes that ruffle in the breeze.

People press forward as I approach. I shake hands with almost everyone, cringing each time another person’s emotion surges through me – curiosity, enjoyment, trepidation, even envy.

By the time I’m introduced to a handsome man wearing a suit of dark green, a broadsword sheathed at his belt, my whole body is shaking from the impact of everyone’s excitement, and I am struggling to cloak my thoughts. “Roma, you are looking particularly beautiful this evening,” The handsome man pulls Roma into an embrace. “I’m sorry I missed dinner.” His skin is golden, as though he spends much of his time outdoors, and his eyes crinkle when he smiles.

“Nicholas,” Roma gently pushes him away, but her voice is filled with affection. “This is my niece, Princess Acacia.” Roma’s face is flushed, her composure slipping ever so slightly.

“I am pleased to meet you, Princess.” Nicholas tears his eyes away from Roma and extends his hand to me. I brace myself for whatever illicit emotion he’s feeling right now, with Roma, clearly the object of his affection, standing so close beside him.

But when I take his outstretched hand in mine, I am surprised to find that he is wearing a pair of black, leather gloves. I revel in the calmness of feeling nothing from him at all, before realising that it’s actually a little strange to be wearing leather gloves on such a warm evening.

“Ah,” Nicholas smiles apologetically. “I was involved in an accident on Earth, sustained burns to my hands while trying to dismantle an explosive device. The Halers are still working on the scarring.” Nicholas clasps his hands behind his back.

“Nicholas is the leader of the Smith Household,” Roma explains, patting Nicholas on the arm. “His soldiers are providing some extra security around our Household, so I granted him an invitation to your homecoming to show my gratitude.” Roma flashes Nicholas a smile, and he returns it warmly.

“How could I refuse such an invitation?”

They gaze into each other’s eyes like there’s just the two of them here. I hastily look around the terrace, hoping that someone will come and rescue me from being the third wheel.

“You must be very pleased to be home, Acacia,” Nicholas says, catching me off guard. “Will we see you in training any time soon?”

“Nicholas,” Roma laughs nervously. “Acacia has just returned to us; it will be some time before she is ready for combat.”

My stomach jolts. “Combat?”

“The Foundlings are great soldiers,” Nicholas explains. “I’m sure you’ll show my Household a thing or two.”

Roma looks suddenly perturbed. “Acacia has lived on Earth since she was a baby, her powers were suppressed. She has a lot to learn, Nicholas.”

Nicholas waves Roma’s concerns away. “She’ll be a natural, all Foundlings are.”

My hands start to tremble and I scan the crowd again, hoping that Ivy will appear to whisk me away.

“Roma, I was hoping to show Acacia the grounds.” I breathe a sigh of relief as Caleb’s hand slips into mine, his reassurance radiating into my palm.

Roma smiles gratefully, her shoulders relaxing a little. “That’s a lovely idea, you two go ahead. The grounds are really pretty under the stars, Acacia.”

Nicholas whispers something to Roma, and I hear her laughing as Caleb leads me away from the crowded terrace.

He heads towards a cluster of curved, stone benches, my hand still folded in his. I take a seat and I am pleasantly surprised to find that the stone is warm, like a clay sculpture fresh from the kiln. I look around the deserted grounds. Everything seems to be coated in a strange, celestial glow, bleaching the colour from the grass and the trees.

I look back at the Atrium. It’s huge, easily the length of two football pitches, and it’s made mostly of steel and glass. Small spotlights scattered around the grounds glance off its surface and cast shadows in the strange curves and angles that make up the structure of the building.

Caleb releases me and lies down on an adjacent bench, the curve of the stone fitting to his neck and back perfectly. “Look,” he points towards the sky. I follow the line of his finger and gasp. There are millions of stars strewn across the sky forming a glittering, curved canopy that meets the distant horizon. “Is that real?”

“No,” Caleb laughs. “The atmosphere around our planet is too strong to see the real stars. It’s a hologram.”

“Who needs the real thing?” I say, staring dreamily at the dazzling sky.

“We didn’t,” Caleb says. “Until we saw your world, with your sun during the day and your constellations at night. We saw green forests flourishing, unusual crops growing. We wanted a sky of our own.”

We lay there in silence for a few moments, both of us gazing up at the sky.

“This is amazing,” I say. “This whole place. If people back home knew that life exists on another planet…”

“But they can’t know.”

“I know that; I’m just saying…it’s a big deal.”

“Yes we are.” He laughs.

“You’re so annoying.” I say, pulling a face at him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, you do, and it’s not just your bad jokes. Whenever I need rescuing, you always turn up, like some kind of knight in shining armour to make everything good again. Only… I’m not sure you did make things good this time.”

“So you would prefer it if I didn’t rescue you? Because I can take you right back to Nicholas so you can show him your skills.” He laughs.

“I’m not talking about right now; I’m talking about bringing me here, saving me from those creatures back home.”

Caleb sits up and looks at me incredulously. “Are you saying I should have left you there, so you could face the Khuulsu alone? Don’t you know what they would have done to you? You’ve just said this place is amazing.”

“It is, but it’s also terrifying. I travelled through time and space to find out my whole life was a lie.”

He shakes his head. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong things.”

I chew the inside of my mouth, unable to find the words to explain to Caleb how I feel about him bringing me here. I know it’s not his fault, not really, he was just following orders. “You could have taken me home, to Evergreen,” I say, somewhat lamely. “You could’ve told me about everything before you brought me here.”

He rolls his eyes. “The Khuulsu are relentless, they would’ve followed us there and I couldn’t have fought them alone. They incapacitate their victims before they drain them, and Vedmak’s can only fight their power for a short while. Only Foundlings are completely able to throw off the Khuulsu’s hold.”

“Is it true what Nicholas said then, about the Foundlings being natural soldiers?” I imagine an army of beautiful children, wrapped in armour, swords in their hands.

Caleb shrugs. “I suppose, but it’s kind of a preconceived idea. People believe that the Foundlings are great soldiers, so they’re trained hard, moulded to fit our expectations. You could argue that we would all be just as good if we were trained in the same way, if we were given the same attention.”

“But they have the powers of all the Households don’t they? That must put them at an advantage.”

“Nicholas thinks that a Foundling without any training would be a natural soldier, able to pick up a weapon and fight, but I have to disagree. They have to develop their abilities and learn to use them appropriately. We’ve never given a Foundling the opportunity to see what they can do without training.”

I glance sideways at him; his face is dazzling in the starlight. “Are Roma and Nicholas a couple?”

Caleb snorts. “He wishes.”

“So they’re not together? Is it because she’s royalty?”

“No,” Caleb laughs. “Roma can be with whomever she chooses, but inter-Household relationships are complicated.”

“Complicated, how?”

Caleb’s brows knit together, like he’s looking for the right words. “We are happiest with our own Households. If we marry someone from another Household, we have to choose where to live. Inter-Household relationships are difficult, because most Displacian’s can’t bear to leave their people, but they do happen. There are communities of inter-Household families scattered across Displacia, they still visit their Households and they contribute to our efforts on Earth, but they live outside the bond of their people, it’s…difficult.”

“So, Roma and Nicholas aren’t together because one or both of them would have to leave their Household?”

Caleb nods. “And they’re both leaders, they wouldn’t just be leaving their Households, they would be giving up their positions.”

“And if they had children, would they develop the abilities of both parents?”

Caleb shakes his head. “Not unless their children are Foundlings; one set of powers always dominates the other.”

“And what about the Foundlings? How do they have so many powers?”

Caleb looks amused by my curiosity. “We used to conduct studies, but we never discovered what caused the Foundling gene. We know they don’t inherit it from their parents though, it’s completely random.”

“And aside from the Foundlings on Earth, the rest are gone now?

“Yeah, the ones we know of. The war wiped out all adult Foundlings, young and old; all of the remaining children were sent to Earth. If there are any remaining Foundlings, they won’t make themselves known.”

Lana flickers into my mind, but I won’t let myself think of her for too long, it’s too hard.

Caleb jumps up suddenly. “C’mon.” He takes my hand and I feel a prickle of excitement as he pulls me to my feet and leads me around the side of the glass building. Up close, I see that the glass is mirrored. I can’t see anything inside; instead, I see my own wide-eyed reflection, like a character from a fairy-tale, swathed in a beautiful dress, walking hand in hand with a handsome knight against a backdrop of glittering stars.

We head up a narrow path towards a cluster of trees, where starlight filters through the branches and dry leaves crunch underfoot. There is a path of stepping stones that weaves through the trees, but I have to lift the hem of my dress to stop it from snagging on the uneven ground. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” Caleb smiles.

We emerge on a street lined with tall Tudor-style houses. It is eerily quiet, and the sound of our footsteps echoes in the silence.

“This is where most members of the Household live,” Caleb explains. “It’s just Vedmak royalty, diplomats and their bodyguards that live in the Atrium. My house is up there.” He points to a winding, cobbled street just off the main road.

For one, terrifying moment, I wonder if that’s where we’re headed, but Caleb just grins and continues up the main street.

“Do you live alone?”

“No, I live with my parents and my older brother. He’s getting married soon, so he’ll be moving into his own place.”

“How is it that you’re working for Roma? Aren’t you too young?”

Caleb thrusts his hands into his pockets. “We start training at sixteen,” he explains. “For Vedmak’s that means training as Agents. Once we’re qualified, we work mostly undercover on Earth, gathering intelligence and keeping an eye out for anything strange.”

“So you’ve been training for two years now?”

He nods. “I shouldn’t be in the field yet, but Roma needed someone who could infiltrate the school, and a teenage student was the perfect pretext.”

My stomach lurches thinking of Malvern and my friends. “Have you heard anything more about the attack?”

His brow furrows. “Our Agents banished the Khuulsu from Malvern, no one was hurt.”

I let out a breath. “Good. What about the damage to the building?”

“Repairable. We’re trying to fix as much as we can without being seen, but it’s difficult.”

Caleb quickens his pace and I have to almost jog to keep up. His legs are so long that one of his steps is two of mine.

“Did you know that the school would be attacked?” I ask.

“We suspected,” Caleb says. “After you saw a Khuulsu in the river that night, we knew that it was only a matter of time before they stepped up their game.”

An image of the scorched hand in the river flashes through my mind. “The night I was sleepwalking. I knew it wasn’t just a dream, but you were so angry at me.”

Caleb frowns. “I couldn’t tell you about the Khuulsu then, we were trying to hold out until we could gather more information. My main objective was to keep you safe, and that night, I realised just how difficult it was. I hate to think what might’ve happened if…”

“If you weren’t there to save me?” I nudge him playfully in the side.

He frowns at me, but there is a hint of a smile around his lips. “Exactly. Roma would never give me another assignment if something happened to you.”

“Hey.” I shove him in the shoulder.

He laughs and the sound echoes through the empty street.

The road slopes upwards and at the summit, Caleb pauses and points in the direction of a cluster of white, hexagonal-shaped buildings, made from glass and steel like the main building, and all connected by tunnels.

“Our laboratories,” he explains. “We conduct our studies of Earth from here.”

As the path descends, our steps quicken and the wind picks up, whipping my dress around my calves.

There are two men stationed at the front doors. They wear the same high-neck, navy-blue suits as Roma’s bodyguards and they cast sideways glances as we pass.

“There are Agents stationed at the labs around the clock now.” Caleb says, holding his watch up to a pad by the entrance. The doors slide open with a hiss and we’re met with the strong smell of cleaning fluid.

We walk through white, clinical corridors, brightly lit and spotlessly clean. At the next set of doors, Caleb presses a sequence of buttons on a keypad and presses his thumb against the sensor beneath.

I follow him into another corridor, past windows that offer a glimpse into rooms filled with desks and computers, past laboratories filled with bottles of various liquids and strange, exotic plants that reach up to the ceiling and snake across the floor.

We approach a solid-looking metal door, with a crank in the centre. Caleb holds up his watch to another sensor, and then presses his palm against the metal. There is a shrill beeping sound, and then the crank starts to turn.

We pass over the threshold on to a metal balcony where we are greeted by a deafening roar. I peer over the side and see water below, churning, tossing against the walls, rushing towards a huge hole in the centre. It’s like a giant whirlpool, with a huge, dark hole in the middle.

“A portal,” Caleb yells over the noise. “The very first one. We extracted it from the cave and buried it here below the ground so we could study it.”

He motions towards a set of steps at the other end of the balcony and I follow him, our feet pounding on the metal structure. The stairs end halfway along the wall in front of another metal door. This one swings open easily and once inside, Caleb pulls the door shut behind us, blocking out the sound of the rushing water.

There are desks filled with buttons and controls under a big window that looks out over the portal. “What are all these for?”

“They control it,” he says, nodding towards the crater in the floor outside. “We can’t spend too long near it; people say they feel like jumping in when they work up here for too long.”

Caleb takes my hand and spins me around to face him, but it’s difficult not to look over my shoulder at the black hole in the floor. “But if someone jumped in, wouldn’t they just end up on Earth?”

Caleb looks grim. “Not necessarily. Everyone wears a special amulet to protect them from the dark matter in the portals. I have some inlaid in my watch,” Caleb hold up his wrist, the face of his watch is decorated with a circle of tiny, red gems. “But moving the portal made it unstable, if someone jumped in, even with an amulet, they could be lost in there forever.”

Something catches my eye over Caleb’s shoulder. Television screens – about fifty of them – from floor to ceiling on the wall opposite.

“That’s what I wanted to show you,” Caleb takes my hand and leads me over to the screens. “It’s our surveillance system.”

“Surveillance?”

“We usually have a team of people up here monitoring events on your planet, but at night, they keep watch on handheld devices. We also get alerts from our Agents on Earth.”

“So, you’re like…spying?”

“Monitoring,” Caleb corrects, “We can’t help the inhabitants of Earth if we don’t know what’s going on.”

There is a row of desks in front of the television screens, each holding a computer. Caleb presses a few buttons on a keyboard and all of the screens flicker to life. “We can see any country, any street on Earth,” his fingers skim over the keys. “This is Vedmak Agent 22145, show me the Malvern Academy, Northumberland, England.”

I recognise the school immediately – the winding driveway with the fountain in the centre, the babbling river, the Sixth Form lounge filled with students – each screen shows a different part of the building and surrounding grounds.

I scan the images until I see a flash of red hair. Bria. She is sitting in the lounge, curled up on the sofa beside Nick. Orla, Jas and Sabrina are there too.

“I wanted you to see that they are safe.” Caleb says.

“What about Molly?” I don’t know if it’s concern or fear that makes me ask about my former friend.

“Our Agents took care of her,” Caleb says. “Her parents are on their way to collect her; she’s going home for a while.”

I watch my friends onscreen, thankful that Molly won’t be able to hurt them.

“She only wanted to hurt you,” Caleb says, reading my mind. “She was being controlled and you were her target. She never showed any aggression towards any of your friends, or anyone else for that matter.”

I pull a face at him. “Do you have cameras everywhere?” I ask. “I never noticed any at school.”

“We have satellites; they are camouflaged so they can’t be detected. We can also turn any electronic device on Earth into a piece of surveillance equipment, that’s how we see inside the school.”

“Seriously? Is that even legal?”

Caleb smirks. “Does it matter? It keeps people safe.” Caleb shifts around the computer and opens a drawer on the far side of the room. He returns with something in his hand, extending his fingers so I can see.

It looks like a tiny silver insect, no bigger than a fly. It even has six legs, two bulging eyes and a pair of delicate wings protruding from its back.

“When we need to monitor a building, we release these and they attach to all electronic devices within the vicinity.” Caleb explains.

A crackle of static fills the room, then a voice sounds overhead. “Is someone there?”

“One moment.” Caleb rushes across the room and picks up a telephone receiver hanging from the wall. “Go ahead.” He says.

I watch as he converses silently, his eyes flickering to me now and again. I know that he is communicating telepathically, keeping his conversation hidden from me.

I look back to the screens and something occurs to me, something much more worrisome than the surveillance at school.

“Show me Evergreen, Cormorants Bay, England.”

Chapter 20

 

The screens don’t automatically change like they did when Caleb spoke, and I wonder if it’s because he gave a distinct code to identify himself, but then the screens flicker and something close to anger rises in my throat when I see the garden of Evergreen, my bedroom, our living room. I hazard a glance at Caleb, but he has his back to me now, unaware of what I have found.

Our house is empty of course, but I still hold my breath, waiting for something to happen on screen. Hot tears build behind my eyes. Evergreen was my haven, my sanctuary, and the Vedmak’s have desecrated it.

I angrily snatch up the keyboard ready to trash their surveillance system. Maybe tapping out a random sequence on the keys will do it, or deleting one of the many folders that have appeared on the computer screen.

I lean forward to peruse the options on the computer, then I highlight all of the folders. I am about to tap the ‘delete’ key when I see that all of the folders are labelled with the same word, ‘Decoy’, followed by the number ’1’ and then a sequence of 6 numbers which look like dates. I click on one at random.

Then I am on every screen, my life playing out before me like a poor television programme. With a jolt, I realise that Lana is also visible.

This is archived footage. I step towards the screens and I touch the image of my faux sister, my heart pounding in my chest. We must be about five or six in these recordings, both in matching outfits of pink, our hair styled in identical braids, the Foundling and her decoy. Bile rises in my throat and my hands start to shake.

“You weren’t supposed to see this.” Caleb returns the telephone to its hanger.

“You watched me all this time, even when I was young.”

Pink spots appear on Caleb’s cheeks. “Not me, I’ve only watched you for the last couple of years.”

“This isn’t OK.” My voice is shaky, uneven.

Caleb shrugs. “I was given orders and I followed them. Only a few of us have access to those recordings.”

“I thought the Foundlings were supposed to be hidden, I thought no one was supposed to know about the decoys. Why were you watching Lana and me?”

Caleb sighs. “Lana was royalty; she was also the Gatekeeper. She couldn’t disappear like the others, so they kept her under surveillance.”

I look at the screens and nausea rises in my throat. “They didn’t just keep Lana under surveillance.”

Caleb’s green eyes search mine. “I realise how this must look, but we were just making sure you were both safe.”

“By spying on us.”

“I’m not going to apologise for the measures we took,” Caleb reaches for my hand. “I’ll always keep you safe, no matter what the cost.”

As Caleb moves towards me, I realise a little too late what he’s going to do. His lips press against mine, warm and insistent. He slips his arms around my waist and pulls me closer, but I plant my hands on his chest as the uncomfortable tingling starts in the base of my skull. I don’t want my first kiss to be like this, this isn’t the right time. I’m not even sure it’s with the right person anymore.

Caleb releases me like I’ve delivered an electric shock. He groans in pain, pressing a hand to his forehead.

I step back, worried that I did something to hurt him. “What’s wrong?”

He straightens up slowly and takes a breath. “Roma. She doesn’t approve. She’s yelling pretty loud inside my head.”

My cheeks flush in embarrassment. “She was listening in?”

Caleb nods.

“Do I ever get a moment of privacy? I need to get out of here.”

I storm back towards the door and Caleb rushes to open it for me. I don’t even thank him.

Outside, the night has cooled and I breathe deeply, savouring the fresh air. Caleb tries to take my hand in his, but I shake it away and quicken my pace.

We walk past the houses and back through the cluster of trees with an awkward air hanging between us. Back in the courtyard, Caleb turns to me looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable. “I need to smooth things over with Roma. Will you come with me?”

I shake my head. “No. You’re on your own.”

Caleb gives me a look of regret before trudging into the Atrium.

A couple of weeks ago, I would have given anything for Caleb to kiss me, but not now, not since I saw the surveillance tapes of Evergreen.

I long to get away from the Vedmak’s, away from prying minds that invade even the most intimate of moments and away from the archived footage of Lana and me.

I wonder how far away I would need to go before the Vedmak’s were unable to read my thoughts, before I had one moment that was mine alone. I gaze at the perimeter of the grounds and an idea occurs to me. Imagining the purple cloak, I race towards the tall fence. It could be the fence of any English garden – iron-wrought with an intricate pattern of twists and swirls – only it’s twenty feet tall. I have no idea where I’m going, or what lies beyond the safety of the Household, I just want to run, to clear my head a little. I kick off the shoes and scoop up the hem of my dress.

The pattern in the fence is wide and smooth in places, so it provides good footholds.

At the top, I swing my leg over and easily find my footing on the other side, but when I try to climb down, the hem of my dress catches. I pull at it and the fabric tears, making me lose my balance. I start to fall and I brace myself for the impact with the ground, but it doesn’t come.

Strong arms catch me, moulding around my back, warm and strong. “I’ve got you.”

I find myself staring into a pair of dark, unfamiliar eyes that seem to sparkle in the light of the holographic stars above. I inhale sharply.

My rescuer sets me on my feet. He is young, maybe around Caleb’s age, and very handsome. He has a flock of thick dark hair that curls around his ears, a straight nose and a slightly downturned mouth. He regards me with a serious expression. “You know, the gate’s right there.”

I can’t speak, my mouth is too dry and I can’t stop staring at him.

He raises an eyebrow quizzically. “Are you OK?”

“I…yes, I’m… they wouldn’t have opened the gates for me.” I say quickly, unsure of whether or not this is actually true.

“Why not?”

“I’m not supposed to be out after dark.” I say, looking past him at the line of trees that fringe the grounds, even the silver sheen cast by the stars is unable to penetrate the thick canopy of branches.

The boy’s eyes flicker to the crown on my head. “You’re a member of the royal family.”

“I am…” Something stops me from telling the lie, from introducing myself as Princess Acacia, something about the way he is looking at me. “…in so much trouble if I don’t get back inside. Can you help me?”

The boy gestures back to the fence. “Do you want me to help you back over, or…”

My face flushes with embarrassment.

“…maybe use the gate this time?”

I nod, trying not to get lost in those dark eyes.

“Why is it that I’ve never seen you before?” He asks, starting in the direction of the gate. His voice is even, conversational, like he doesn’t really care. “The Vedmak’s are always parading up and down the royal road.”

“They keep me locked away.” I shrug.

He raises an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t surprise me with your lot.” He nods towards the Household as we edge around the perimeter, his combat boots echoing in the night, and I wonder whether or not he’s being purposefully offensive.

He stops suddenly and I almost collide with him. He stares at me and I see his brows twitch. “You’re different,” he remarks. “To other Vedmak’s I mean.”

“Why?” I try to hold his gaze, willing myself not to blush.

“Something…softer about you, less haughty…I don’t know,” he shakes his head, frowning a little. “Come on.”

As he starts towards the gates again, I see a glint of steel at his side. It reminds me of Nicholas. “You’re not a Vedmak.”

“Is that a joke?” He calls over his shoulder.

I falter, the blood rushing to my cheeks. “No…um, like I said, I don’t get out much.”

“No, I’m not a Vedmak. I’m a Smith.”

“Like Nicholas?”

The boy turns and looks at me incredulously. He is beautiful, despite the look of scorn etched on his face. “Yeah, like Nicholas. Just a little less in charge.” He waves in the direction of a tall tower.

As the gates screech open, he scans the line of trees behind us, his posture taut, like he’s waiting for something to spring from the darkness. I see the muscles in his jaw clench, the shadow of stubble on his chin, his eyes blinking almost lazily as they find mine.

I look hastily away, my cheeks blazing because he caught me staring.

He sweeps an arm in the direction of the now-open gates. “Your gilded cage awaits.” He says, straight-faced.

“Thanks for walking me home.” I know it sounds lame as I say it, and I feel the heat rising in my face again.

The boy nods curtly and disappears into the night without another word.

Chapter 21

 

Lana balances precariously on the edge of the cliff. When she turns, her face is streaked with tears, but she is smiling. “It’s OK, Casey. It was supposed to be like this.” She raises her arms, like a bird stretching its wings, then she steps off the edge.

I wake with a jolt, my head filled with images of Lana falling from the cliff.

I drag myself out of bed, through the lounge where the artificial sunlight streams in through the windows, warm and painfully bright, and into the bathroom. I try out the shower this time – a miniature waterfall hidden behind a partition – and I stay under the flow until I can no longer hear Lana’s voice ringing in my ears.

I emerge from the bathroom some time later, pink and fragrant, like a freshly cut rose, clouds of steam billowing behind me.

I find Aimee waiting patiently on the sofa, her legs crossed at the ankles, her hands arranged on her lap. “Morning. Your Aunt sent up some breakfast.” She gestures at a tray on the coffee table, laden with food.

My stomach growls at the sight. “Great, I’m starving.”

“You want tea?”

I nod and Aimee pours us both a cup from a strange, cuboid pot. She beams at me as I sit down beside her, and I imagine her as part of my small friendship group back home, curled up on one of the squashy sofas in the sixth form lounge. The thought makes me return her smile.

I pile watermelon and strawberries into a bowl, then I top it with a creamy yoghurt that smells like coconut and vanilla.

“Where’s Alistair?” I ask, in between mouthfuls. “I thought you two came as a pair?”

Aimee laughs and shakes her head, her short, platinum hair dancing around her ears. “He’s gone to Earth,” she nibbles delicately on a slice of apple. “Roma asked if I would help you get ready for the council meeting.”

My stomach lurches and I push my breakfast away. “I’d forgotten about that.”

Aimee starts rifling through a bag at her feet. “You’ll be fine. Plus, you’ll get to meet my father.”

“Your father?”

“Yeah, he’s the leader of the Haler Household.”
“He is?” I look at her in surprise. Roma has summoned Aimee here to do my hair and makeup, like some kind of hired help, but she’s the child of a Displacian leader.

Aimee doesn’t seem to mind, in fact, she appears to be enjoying herself, humming away as she empties the contents of her bag and arranges her makeup in an orderly line.

Aimee is small and unassuming, childlike in form, but she is superior to me in every way. As if in agreement with me, Aimee places her palm over an old scar on my elbow. I feel the heat radiating from her skin to mine, and when she lifts her hand the scar is gone, my skin smooth.

“We must have missed that last night.” She smiles.

Aimee styles my hair in a loose braid around my head and applies light makeup – just a coating of mascara and a lip stain in carnation-pink.

Next, she hands me a knee-length dress of lavender-blue from the well-stocked closet in my bedroom, along with flat sandals adorned with tiny diamantes that make them look more like jewellery than shoes. She raises an eyebrow when she finds my crown discarded on the floor, but she arranges it on my head without saying a word.

The Agents stationed in the corridor give a mumbled greeting of ‘good morning’ when we finally emerge from my quarters, and Aimee engages in some pleasantries with them before ushering me down the stairs.

Outside, the artificial sky is a shimmering amber, and the heat wraps around me like a warm blanket. I find Roma and Ivy at the gates, both looking regal in floor-length dresses of royal-blue that tie at the neck. Roma’s bodyguards hover nearby, scanning the surrounding trees.

Aimee pulls me into a swift hug and then bids us goodbye.

“You’re not coming with us?”

She screws up her nose. “Politics isn’t really my thing, besides, I’ve got a shift at the hospital.”

She laughs at my bemused expression. “Displacian’s get sick too you know. I’ll see you again soon.”

I watch as she departs, her arms swinging casually at her sides. I wish that I could go with her to see the hospital, to see more of this rogue planet.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get to see more of Displacia on our way to the council meeting.” Roma says.

My stomach lurches again at the thought of meeting the council members, but Roma smiles reassuringly. “You won’t be expected to say anything at the meeting, I will do the talking.”

The wind picks up suddenly, whipping the stray strands of hair over my face. A low thrumming sounds overhead. The tops of the trees start to sway as a small aircraft appears above us, six legs protruding from its sides like an insect. It looks like an overgrown version of the tiny electronic bug Caleb showed me in the labs. It lowers to the ground on the far side of the gates and a panel in the side slides open with a hiss.

The aircraft is made mostly of glass, so I see Caleb before he emerges from the belly. He jumps to the ground with that familiar, self-assured grin on his face and my cheeks flush as I remember our kiss last night.

“Your majesty.” Caleb smirks as he holds out a hand to me.

“My niece is more than capable of finding her own way on board,” Roma says as she strides past Caleb into the aircraft. “And lose the smile. You’re lucky to be coming with us at all.”

I raise an eyebrow at Caleb and he smiles sheepishly as he ushers me inside.

Once we are all seated on comfortably cool, leather seats, the panel closes and the aircraft starts to rise smoothly from the ground, making me clutch the armrests of my seat.

Caleb sits beside me, so close that I can hear his light breath. His arms are bare in a navy, sleeveless t-shirt and I feel the warmth radiating from his skin.

I peer through the glass as the Vedmak Household becomes smaller and smaller. From this height, it looks like a toy village – lots of tiny houses surrounded by trees and perfectly-green lawns, the Atrium rising up in the middle, dazzling in the sunlight.

When I start to feel dizzy from the height, I focus instead on the mechanics of the aircraft, much of which is visible through the glass casing. There are no wings, like those on an aeroplane, and the aircraft’s propellers are located underneath.

“It’s a hovercraft.” Caleb explains, “So it doesn’t need wings.”

“Stay out of my mind, Caleb.” I frown.

He looks over his shoulder and then shifts across to another seat by the cockpit without saying a word, folding his arms peevishly across his chest. I follow his gaze and find Roma watching him with narrowed eyes.

We pass over fields of green and yellow, the shadow of the hovercraft drifting like a black bumble-bee across the landscape. I see craggy hills and mountains scattered with trees, and in the distance, a clear sea as still as glass.

Ivy slides into the seat beside me. “You don’t miss home.” It’s a statement, not a question.

“I’ve only been away five minutes,” I chew my lip. “I mean I miss my friends, but home just doesn’t feel the same anymore.”

“Without Lana?”

“Without the lie.” I say it to hurt her, it’s the surveillance system I’m really thinking about, the ultimate invasion of my privacy.

Ivy looks upset, so I hastily change the subject. “Why is Roma so bothered about Caleb and me? It was just a kiss.”

Ivy glances over her shoulder at Roma, she’s looking intently out of the window, but I have no doubt that she’s listening in. “It wasn’t the kiss. It was what Caleb showed you.” Ivy says.

“The surveillance system?”

Ivy nods. “Caleb thought he was helping, but your time here on Displacia is temporary. When you return to Earth, how will you feel knowing that your every move is being monitored?”
I know exactly how I’ll feel, I’ll be angry enough to smash up every electronic device around me. “Can’t it stop? Lana’s gone now. There’s no need to watch me anymore.”

Ivy looks like she’s considering her next words, but then the aircraft dips unexpectedly, and I leave my stomach up in the air. I look out of the window as the hovercraft touches down by a busy marketplace, making the dirt from the ground billow up into the air.

Roma’s bodyguards exit first, scanning the crowd for any sign of danger. Roma steps out next, closely followed by Ivy and Caleb. I stay fixed in my seat, watching the crowd outside with both intrigue and fear. Most of them are dressed in scant outfits of burnt orange, but there are others dressed more modestly in outfits of white, blue or brown. Some pay no attention to the hovercraft, as though it’s a regular occurrence to have one land by the marketplace, others stop to watch the company of people disembarking.

Caleb turns in the doorway, half in the light. “Come on,” he says. “You’ll be fine.”

I take a breath and climb out of my seat, my wet palms sliding against the leather.

Roma strides ahead into the crowd, with Esther on point and Cain and Hamish following close behind.

The crowd parts to let them pass, calling out greetings and patting Roma’s arms, as though she is a talisman that will bring them good luck. She seems unperturbed by their attention, smiling graciously and placing her own hands on top of theirs.

They do the same with Ivy, but they merely nod in Caleb’s direction, and, as I pass, they just stare openly.

“Ivy and Roma are very well respected here,” Caleb explains. “And not just because they’re royalty. People here remember the sacrifice they made.”

“Sacrifice?”

“They gave up their brother to save Displacia.” He says, leaning in so those around us can’t hear.

I feel a sudden rush of affection towards my two adoptive aunts, trying to imagine what it must’ve been like for them, having a brother who was intent on destroying their world. With a pang, I remember that he was also Lana’s father, and I turn my attention instead to the sights and the sounds around me.

I try to take everything in, while simultaneously making myself as narrow as possible, drawing my shoulders in towards my chest to avoid accidentally touching anyone.

There are vendors selling a variety of foods, colourful spices, lush fruits, soft fabrics, jewellery inlaid with bright gems, ornaments made from brass and silver and flowers that give off a mixture of heady scents.

I see a lady selling fruit from a basket and I find myself staring at the pattern of vines and leaves painted on her skin in gold, a sheath of thin, orange fabric draped around her body.

The golden tattoos snake up her neck and swirl around the corners of her lips. Her thick, chestnut hair falls in waves to her waist, wild and ruffled.

She presses an apple into my hand, smiling widely at me. “Welcome, Princess.” She says, with a knowing smile.

Caleb takes my elbow and steers me urgently onwards, his alarm searing into my skin. “She’s a Dryad.” He says.

I crane my head to look back at the decorated woman. “And?”

“They see visions in fire, she might look for you in the flames.”

“Can she really do that?”

Caleb frowns. “They’ve told us things before, but their visions can be pretty abstract, and massively open to interpretation. Still, it’s best not take the risk.”

I look back at the woman, now deep in conversation with another figure swathed in orange. “Are they all Dryad’s, the ones wearing orange?”

Caleb nods. “We’re very proud of our heritage, our choice of outfits represent who we are and what we can do.”

“So the Dryad’s wear orange,” I say. “And the Vedmak’s…” I look down at my own outfit and Caleb’s navy t-shirt. “The Vedmak’s are blue,”

“The colour of royalty,” Caleb adds with a wink.

“The Smiths’ wear green, and the Haler’s white…” I continue, thinking of Alistair and Amy, Nicholas, and the Smith boy at the fence. “Who does that leave?”

“The Wanderers and the Morgana’s,” Caleb says. “Wanderers wear brown; you might see them around the Vedmak Household. They’re represented on the council, but they don’t contribute directly to the Conservation Programme, so they serve other Households in order to be entitled to the same privileges as the rest of us.”

“What kind of privileges?”

“Using the portals to travel to and from Earth, trading,” Caleb says. “The Wanderers run a kind of black market in Displacia. They import things from Earth that we don’t manufacture here, and they trade them to Displacian’s who are unable or unwilling to travel to Earth themselves.”

I see the people dressed in brown, lost amongst the crowd of orange. Some of them look much shabbier than the other Displacian’s gathered in the marketplace.

“And the Dryad’s sell fruit?”

“They produce most of the food in Displacia,” Caleb says. “They grow crops and harvest anything that can be grown from the ground, then they bring it here to trade.”

As we move along the stalls, the vendors give Roma jewellery and flowers, waving her away and wishing her well when she tries to press gold coins into their hands.

I see a man in brown handing her a Spanish fan edged in red lace. Roma takes it gratefully and wafts herself as she continues on through the marketplace.

“They love her.” I say.

“There are many who still don’t trust the Vedmak’s,” Caleb says. “Some called for the royal family to be overturned after the war, but they love Roma all the same.”

As we reach the last of the stalls, the road slopes up into a steep hill, the pavements lined with more people who call out greetings as we pass.

“The Royal Road.” Caleb says with a smirk.

The crowd shower the ground ahead of us with petals and my heart almost stops when I hear someone in the crowd call out “Princess Acacia.”

I keep my head down and walk closer to Ivy. “I thought no one knew Acacia was here.”
“Displacia is notorious for gossip,” Ivy shrugs. “So things have a habit of slipping out.”

Despite Ivy’s calm demeanour, her explanation sends a shiver down my spine, it snakes down my back like an ice-cold trickle of water. What would a crowd of this magnitude do if they learnt the truth about their Princess?

“Then what’s with all the cloak and dagger, that big reveal last night?”

Ivy smiles apologetically. “Roma has a fondness for grandeur, but the Vedmak’s were genuinely surprised to see you. They’ve probably shared the news of your arrival with the other Households since the party.”

I keep my gaze averted from the crowd as we continue up the hill, and when we finally reach the summit, I find myself looking up at a tall building that appears to be made entirely from gold. It has four tall towers at its corners, each topped with a spire. I lean forward, resting my hands on my knees. “Couldn’t the hovercraft have dropped us off up here?” I say, breathlessly.

“The walk to the palace is tradition.” Ivy laughs, nodding in the direction of the golden building.

“And you’re supposed to be a Foundling, strong and healthy,” Roma adds with a whisper. “So control your breathing.”

I raise my chin and try to breathe steadily, in through my nose and out through my mouth, like I do when I’m running. Eventually my breathing slows, but I feel a bead of sweat trickling down my back and the stray strands of hair that escaped Aimee’s deft hands are stuck to my neck.

The palace is surrounded by a tall, ornate fence, just like the one at the Vedmak Household. The gates open as we approach and the crowd presses forward as we make our way into a grand courtyard. The gates close behind us, separating us from the crowd, and we’re marched towards a shaded veranda by guards wearing sleeveless uniforms of cobalt blue.

A group stands between the shadowy columns, Nicholas amongst them, smiling widely and looking much younger in combats and a green t-shirt.

“Your majesties, I hope you are all well rested after last night’s festivities.” He clasps hands with Roma, Ivy and then me. He is still wearing the leather gloves, despite the heat. “May I introduce Lieutenant Haydn Smith, he and his men are providing the external security around your Household.”

The Lieutenant steps forward and my mouth falls open when I see the familiar dark eyes and wavy hair. “It’s you.”

Chapter 22

A flicker of surprise registers briefly on the lieutenant’s face.

“Do you two know each other?” Nicholas asks.

“We met last night, at the fence.” I say.

“We owe you our gratitude,” Roma says. “For your service at our Household.”

He nods in Roma’s direction, then his eyes fall back on me and my cheeks flush under his stare.

I’m forced to tear my eyes away from him, as Roma ushers me towards a tall woman with the same long, chestnut hair and golden tattoos as the woman from the market.

“Acacia, this is Meghan, leader of the Dryad’s.”

Meghan pulls me into a hug and I feel the heat of her body blazing through the thin, orange sheath she wears. “I have seen so much of you in the fire,” she says. “It’s like we are old friends.”

My stomach twists as I imagine what Megan might’ve seen, but then she laughs good-naturedly, as if it was a joke.

I look at Caleb for confirmation. He smirks, and I see him nod ever so slightly.

“And this is Galen, Leader of the Haler Household.” Roma gestures towards a white-robed figure with kind, angular eyes and a shaven head. Galen takes my hand in his and I feel the same warmth that I felt from Aimee and Alistair tingling in his fingertips.

“Princess Acacia,” he clutches my hand against his chest and places his palm on my forehead. He closes his eyes, his brow creasing with concern. “I sense a great deal of anxiety in you.”

I hold my breath waiting for Galen to say more, the intrigue of the rest of the group saturating the air around us.

“Being with your people will do you some good,” Galen smiles. “Sadly, not even the Halers can mend a broken heart. It will take time.”

The Haler leader releases me and I take a deep breath, rattled by his assessment. He makes his way inside and the group follow, all except Haydn who stands fixed to the spot, his dark eyes burning into mine.

Something stirs inside of me, like butterflies, but then Caleb takes me by the arm and steers me into the building. I glance back at Haydn. He follows with a moody expression, his eyes on Caleb’s hand now resting on the small of my back.

Beyond the shaded veranda, a steep set of steps leads up into the grand palace. It is light and airy inside; the interior walls are smooth marble and there are more columns, ornately carved, standing stoically between the high vaulted ceiling and the black and white tiled floor. High, narrow windows filter in a delicate breeze and I bow my head to feel it on the back of my neck.

We pass through a room with a tall ceiling and a fountain set in the marble floor, tiny shoots of water dancing across the surface.

The next room is cast in shadows and lit only by tall braziers that stand in each corner.

Meghan shifts in behind me and I inhale sharply as she plunges a hand into the nearest fire. She turns, holding a tiny flame in the palm of her hand, then she raises it to her lips and blows. Instead of going out, the fire leaps out of her hand and streaks through the air, lighting the candelabras hanging from the ceiling.

I feel a rush of heat and I jump backwards, colliding with a solid figure behind me. Haydn. He looks down at me, his dark eyes shining in the candlelight, and I try to mumble an apology, but the words catch in my throat. He steps around me indifferently and takes a seat at the oval table in the middle of the room.

There is a service trolley by the door, laden with jugs of water and beakers. I rush over to it and pour a glass, before chugging it down greedily. I pour another and hold it to my forehead, savouring the coolness against my skin.

The trolley jolts suddenly, and I step back as it moves away from me. It drifts lazily towards the table and stops beside Caleb, who looks at me with an amused expression and then, with a wave of his hands, he makes a stack of glasses fly through the air and land softly on the surface in front of him. The jug follows and pours water for the group.

“You should save your skills for our next tourney.” A voice booms behind me.

I turn to find two men with long, black, straggly hair standing in the doorway; they have strange, neat gauges on their bare chests, pink and shiny. They too carry blades, curved ones shoved into the belts of their grey, ragged trousers and something else at their backs, held by a thin strap on their shoulders.

“Morox,” Roma strides towards the men and shakes hands with the eldest. “Thank you for coming. May I present Princess Acacia?”

“Ah, the worst kept secret in Displacia.” Morox shakes my hand. His face set with indifference, his fingers curiously cold and clammy.

“I am the leader of the Morgana Household and this is my son, Marius,” Morox continues, gesturing over his shoulder to the young man behind him. “I suppose your Aunt told you that the Foundlings belong to all Households, not just the one you were born into?”

I look between Morox and Roma, who is openly scowling at the Morgana leader.

“Maybe a union between the Foundling child and my son would help us strengthen our alliance.” Morox smirks.

“Acacia is far too young, Morox.” Roma says firmly.

I hazard a glance at Marius, his sea-green eyes survey me almost hungrily, and his gaze lingers as I take a seat beside Ivy.

I see Caleb’s jaw clench as he watches the two Morgana’s, his eyes flitting to Roma, who gives an almost indistinctive shake of her head. Another silent exchange.

Everyone turns as two Vedmak guards stride into the room, ahead of a tall man wearing a silver crown on his strawberry-blonde head. The group stands and the tall man looks around at them with a serious expression, when his gaze falls on me, however, his face splits into a wide smile and he laughs, extending his arms towards me. “Ah, my Great-Niece.”

“Acacia, may I introduce Cornelius Vedmak,” Roma says. “The Emperor of Displacia.”

Ivy nudges me in the side and I get up from my seat unsteadily. I stumble towards him, and he wraps me in a bear-like hug, radiating kindness.

“Welcome to Displacia, we owe you a great deal of gratitude,” he whispers, stepping back with a knowing smile. “I am told you will do great things.” He moves past me to greet Ivy, Roma and the rest of the Household leaders, before taking a seat at the head of the table.

I slip back in to my seat and lean closer to Ivy. Does he know who I am?

She nods in response to my silent question and I turn to find the Emperor beaming widely at me.

“If I may begin.” Roma says suddenly.

The Emperor nods.

“Thank you all for coming,” Roma continues. “This morning I have-”

“Sorry I’m late.” A man wearing a brown suit strides into the chamber, running his hands over his tousled, dark hair.

“So nice of you to drop by, Niall,” the Emperor says. “Roma was just welcoming Princess Acacia back to Displacia.”

Niall finds his seat at the table, his eyes wide as he finds me amongst the group. “The Princess Acacia, one of the last remaining Foundlings? Daughter of-” Niall hastily clears his throat. “Yes, um, welcome.”

Roma rolls her eyes. “Well at least someone here is surprised. It seems the drums started the moment she stepped out of the fountain.”

“You know Wanderers don’t listen to gossip, Roma.” Niall says with a wave of the hand.

“Yes, well, as you pointed out, Niall, the Princess is one of the Foundling children sent to Earth sixteen years ago and I present her to you today in the hope of settling our ongoing dispute.” Roma says.

Morox exhales audibly. “We have discussed this, Roma. I will not change my mind about bringing the Foundlings home.”

“It’s not your decision, Morox,” Roma says evenly. “It’s all of ours. The Shadows appear to have stepped up their game in their search for the Foundlings. Acacia was attacked at her school on Earth.”

“Attacked?” Niall says. “By the Shadows?”

“Actually, she was attacked by the Khuulsu,” Roma says. “But we can only assume they were acting in alliance with the Shadows.”

There are murmurs amongst the group, but then the Emperor holds up a hand for silence. “As you all know, in the interest of diplomacy, I am unable to offer my opinion on this matter. I rely upon the Household leaders to decide what is best for our planet, but I take the safety of my family seriously and mark my words, the Khuulsu will be held accountable for their involvement, as will anyone who threatens the safety of Acacia or any of the other Foundlings.”

“With respect your majesty, that sounds like a threat.” Morox says, a dangerous smile playing around his lips.

“Not a threat, Morox. That is my word, as the Emperor of Displacia.”

An uncomfortable silence falls over the group.

“The Dryad’s stand with the Vedmak’s,” Meghan says softly. “We have seen the battle that is to come, the Foundlings will join us when the time is right. I see no reason to bring them back any sooner.”

“The Smiths are also in agreement with the Vedmak’s,” Nicholas adds. “The Foundlings were our greatest soldiers; we went to great lengths to defeat them during the war, when their minds no longer belonged to them. They were a danger to our planet, but their deaths were our greatest tragedy. I won’t endanger the remaining Foundlings by bringing them back home before the Shadows are captured.”

“We agreed to hide the Foundlings on Earth because we were assured that they would be safest there,” Galen says. “But if Acacia was attacked, then I’m sorry, Roma, but we have no choice but to consider that this may no longer be best option.”

“The other Foundlings are hidden much better than Acacia was,” Roma says. “We kept her close because she is royalty; she is the highest ranking of the remaining Foundlings and she is their Gatekeeper. She’s the only person who knows the whereabouts of the others.”

“Then she can help us bring them home.” Morox says.

“Please,” Roma says. “Leave them where they are and instead, help us increase our efforts in finding the Shadows, once they have been captured, the Foundlings can come home.”

“Surely the Foundlings are our best chance of defeating the Shadows?” Niall says.

“The Foundlings were children when they were sent to Earth,” Roma sighs. “Their powers were suppressed, they are untrained, and many will have forgotten their true identities. We can’t bring them back to a battle that they don’t know they’re fighting.”

Niall presses the tips of his fingers together, considering Roma’s words. “I still have to agree with Morox, the Foundlings should come home. They’re safer with their people and we are stronger with them.”

“You know, there are rumours that the Foundling children are lost,” Morox says. “That they are hidden so deeply that not even you know where to find them.”

“You are correct, Morox. I don’t know where they are.”

Morox leans back in his chair with a satisfied smile.

“As I have already said, only Acacia knows the whereabouts of the remaining Foundlings and they are not lost. I brought Acacia here to prove to you that the Foundlings are very much alive and well.”

Morox gives a snort of derision.

“Maybe we should make a record of our discussions since you’re struggling to keep up.” Roma adds, with a sickly-sweet smile.

“Then bring back another Foundling,” Morox challenges, flushing a violent shade of red. “One that is not a Vedmak. We each have at least one Foundling child on Earth.”

The faces of the other Household members flick to Morox and then back to Roma, as though they’re at a tennis match and this is the final serve.

“Which is why I ask your permission to leave them where they are. I cannot risk bringing back the others, not even for a visit,” Roma says. “The Shadows’ hold stretches farther than we anticipated.”

“Then bring back the Morgana Foundling child,” Morox says peevishly. “The child belongs to my Household; I want him back here with his people.”

Roma sighs. “As you have already pointed out, Morox, the Foundling children belong to all Households. You cannot demand the return of one simply because his bloodline is Morgana. I implore you to consider the implications of bringing the Foundlings back to Displacia, it is not safe.”

“Roma’s right,” Meghan adds. “We see the Shadows in the flames, stretching across the land of Displacia, devouring everything in their paths. We have two Dryad-born Foundlings on Earth. We know that they are leading happy lives with their guardians, and as much we anticipate their return, we do not wish to remove them from their hiding places until the Shadows have been defeated.”

The group falls silent, pondering what Meghan said with a kind of reverence. Even Morox observes her with a calm, if somewhat fractious, curiosity.

“May I enquire as to why you think the Shadows are amongst us?” Galen asks, his tone politely inquisitive.

“Acacia was attacked on Earth by the Khuulsu,” Roma says. “We know the creatures are unable to survive outside of Displacia for so long, which means they arrived there shortly before the attack. They don’t have access to their own portal, which means that they must have gone to Earth through one of the Household’s fountains.”

“Are you suggesting that we would simply let those filthy demons through our gates?” Morox spits.

“That’s not what Roma is saying.” Nicholas says evenly.

“She is able to speak for herself.” Morox says through gritted teeth.

“Of course she is,” Nicholas says lightly. “But she’s too polite to tell you when you’re out of order. From what I understand, the Khuulsu infiltrated Acacia’s school undetected. They could easily do the same here.”

“And what proof do we have that the Khuulsu attacked the girl?” Morox asks, his eyes falling on me. “How was she able to recognise the creatures? I want to hear the story directly from her.”

“You have my word,” Roma says. “I can recount the story, as can Caleb, he intercepted the attack.”

Morox lip curls as he looks from Roma to Caleb. “I need proof; I want to see your surveillance tapes. The word of a Vedmak holds no value with me.”

The look of scorn is suddenly wiped from Morox’s face as he proceeds to choke, his face turning red and his eyes bulging, as though an invisible hand is wrapped around his throat.

Marius jumps to his feet, his face twisted in rage. He reaches over his shoulder and extracts a crossbow from his back, just as Nicholas and Haydn draw their swords and hold them at his throat.

With a sickening lurch, I watch as the gouges in Morox’s chest suddenly part like the gills of a fish. His ribcage rises and falls, the sickly-pale pallor returns to his face, but his neck still appears to be pinioned to the back of his chair.

Roma’s eyes are narrowed in concentration, her arm raised as she holds Morox by the throat using the power of her mind. Her face is startlingly red and contorted with rage – both beautiful and absolutely terrifying at the same time.

“Enough,” The Emperor’s voice resonates around the room. “You forget, Morox, the Vedmak’s hold the throne of Displacia, you will mind your tongue. Marius, you will stop pointing that crossbow at my niece, or I will have you thrown in the cells.”

Marius lowers his weapon.

The Emperor nods to Roma. She drops her hand to her side and the Morgana leader slumps forward, drawing in mouthfuls of air as the gouges on his chest seal shut.

“This is an insult,” Morox croaks, massaging his throat. “You need my Household; we support all of your interventions on Earth. My people won’t stand for an attack on their leader.”

“And I won’t stand for insults against my family’s name,” the Emperor booms. “We respect you, Morox, your support is of great importance to us, but you treat our interventions on Earth with indifference. You scorn and you sneer at our meetings when we discuss the Conservation Programme, and the only time you show any interest in Displacian matters is when they have a direct impact on the Morgana Household.”

“The Morgana’s are a proud Household,” Morox says. “We care about Displacia just as much as the rest of you.”

“And what of Earth?” The Emperor asks.

Morox’s mouth snaps shut.

“That’s what I thought.” The Emperor says, with an air of finality. “You will think on what was said today and you will decide if the Morgana’s will to continue to be represented on the council.” The Emperor dismisses Morox with a wave of his hand.

Morox’s mouth twists like he has just swallowed something sour. He gestures to Marius, who throws his crossbow back over his shoulder and the pair of them storm from the chambers, leaving a stunned silence in their wake.

“We will reconvene in three days,” the Emperor says. “Give Morox time to re-evaluate his position. And Galen, I expect a decision from your Household the next time we meet.”

Galen bows his head respectfully.

The Emperor rises from his seat and leaves the chamber followed by his bodyguards.

Caleb snorts suddenly, and everyone turn in his direction. “Well that went well.”

 

Just take a breath,” Parker says. “This will only take a second.” I feel a pinch as Parker slides the needle into the crook of my arm and extracts a vial of blood. “Just one more.” She extracts a second vial and then removes the needle before placing a pad of gauze over the tiny incision. She holds it there for a few seconds and when she takes the pad away, my skin is smooth, unblemished.

I see Parker’s brow furrow as she runs a finger over the spot where the needle pierced my skin. She wears thick, medical gloves, so I can’t feel what she’s feeling, but when she sees me looking, she offers a tight smile before turning away to arrange the vials in a small rack on the counter behind her.

When we returned to the Vedmak Household, Parker had brought me directly to a small, clinical room inside the laboratories to begin her tests. She said she wanted to conduct her tests in private – she even made Caleb stay away.

In the small, quiet room, I can hear the thrum of the first portal that Caleb showed me last night. Everything around me seems to vibrate – the walls, the floor, the metal legs of the gurney that I’m sitting on – it’s like the portal is speaking to me, that hypnotic pull that Caleb spoke of, calling me home.

Parker labels the small vials and then starts to extract other bottles of fluid from underneath the counter.

“What will you look for?” I ask.

Parker’s face is arranged in a neutral expression when she glances over her shoulder at me. “We suspect that you have these abilities because the structure of your DNA has been altered.”

My mouth falls open; I wasn’t expecting that. “Someone has altered my DNA?”

“Maybe,” Parker says. “The human body can experience changes to its DNA, mutations even, but what we are looking for is a little more extreme. The changes appear to have had a beneficial effect, so we’re not concerned about your health in the short term, but we need to work out how and why this occurred. I expect to have the results later today.” She leans back casually against the counter.

“What do you mean ‘in the short term’?”

“We’ve never encountered a human being with powers like yours,” Parker says. “We’ve conducted searches for humans displaying any kind of special ability, but we’ve never found anyone with the capabilities of a Displacian. If your DNA is altered, we don’t know what the long term effects will be.”

“So what happens if my DNA is altered? Is there anything you can do?”

Parker considers me for a moment. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Wait for the results of the blood tests and then we can decide on a course of action.”

“OK.” I nod, trying to maintain composure while my stomach twists uncomfortably. I don’t want to have another meltdown like yesterday in the library.

“You know; you’re handling this much better than you think you are.” Parker says, reading my mind.

I shrug. “I said I didn’t mind letting you take some blood, and there has to be some explanation for why I am the way that I am.”

Parker smiles a little. “That’s not what I was referring to. We brought you to a new world; we turned your life upside down. You could’ve refused to help us, but you didn’t. It’s very admirable.”

“I think I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that it’s not real.”

Parker raises an eyebrow. “That’s not going to happen.” She studies my face for a moment, like she’s trying to choose the right words. “Your thoughts about Lana, they’ve changed. I see her in the back of your mind, but it’s like you’ve pushed her into a dark corner.”

“You’re not my therapist anymore,” I say, suddenly irritated. “Why do you care about what’s going on inside my head?”

She smiles. “It’s just interesting…from a psychological perspective.”

“Are you even qualified?”

“Yes, actually,” Parker laughs. “I have an honours degree in human psychology. I’m not registered to practice on Earth, but I didn’t do any harm to you or your friends.”

“So is it wrong to not let myself think about Lana anymore?” I’m not sure if I even want to hear Parker’s response, but the question is out in the open before I can stop it.

Parker stares at me over her glasses. “You really want to know what I think?”

“Yes.”

She studies me for a few seconds before pushing her glasses back up her nose. “I think that before Lana died, you lived through her. She was your security blanket and without her you felt lost, exposed, and unable to face the world on your own. Then you learn that she wasn’t your sister at all, and you were in fact, her security blanket, her decoy to help hide her from the Shadows. That doesn’t just change your perception of her, but your perception of yourself, or at least your perception of who you were before she died.”

I feel my cheeks warm. I remember the task that Parker set me when she was just my therapist and I was just a girl mourning the loss of her sister. I am now even less sure of my identity.

“You never cried, not once.”

I look at Parker in surprise. “Crying wouldn’t bring her back,” I say, somewhat peevishly. “Just because I didn’t have tears constantly streaming down my face, doesn’t mean that I wasn’t upset.”

“I’m not saying you weren’t grieving,” Parker says kindly. “To me it was like you were living in hope that she would come back, like you hadn’t quite accepted she was gone.”

“Yeah well, it doesn’t matter anymore, because she was never my sister.”

“Lana may not be your flesh and blood, but she was still your family. You needed her as much as she needed you. If you had always known who she was, would you have cared for her any less?”

I blink away the tears that prick the backs of my eyes. “I guess I’ll never know.”

Chapter 23

 

I leave the laboratories alone, telling Parker that I need a walk to clear my head, but when I reach the street of tall, Tudor houses, a shadow falls across my path.

“Are you mind-stalking me now?” I ask.

Caleb grabs me by the hand and pulls me into a secluded side street. He leans in to me, pressing my back against the wall behind me. “Mind-stalking?” He laughs.

“Listening in on my thoughts,” I say irritably. “Or were you just hanging around in the hope that I would walk by?”

He raises an eyebrow. “I had no idea you were so vain.”

“What do you want, Caleb?”

“I just wanted to check how your appointment with Parker went.”

“Why don’t you check your surveillance system, or just pluck the memory out of my mind, save me having to speak.” I try to step around him, but he plants his hands on the wall at either side of my head, trapping me in the middle.

“What’s up with you?”

“I never get a moment alone,” I say. “There’s always someone around, or someone watching me.”

“Don’t be like that,” he says. “We want you to feel welcome, you’re not under surveillance while you’re here.”

“Great,” I say sarcastically. “But what about when I return home? How do you think I’ll feel knowing that your eyes are on me all of the time?”

“Will that be such a bad thing?” He grazes my jaw with his lips, but I plant my hands firmly against his chest and push him away. “Yes it will.”

He looks confused. “I thought…I mean; why would you want to go home?”

“Because my friends are there and I still need to finish school. Anyway, I have to go back at some point, I’m not Displacian, remember?”

“Keep your voice down,” Caleb glances over his shoulder, but the street is quiet except for the whisper of the wind. “You could stay, Roma won’t make you go back and Ivy would love it if you lived here permanently. You could visit your friends whenever you like, once it’s safe.”

I shake my head. “No, Displacia isn’t my home. There are too many secrets here.”

Caleb’s brow furrows. “We’ve told you everything we know.”

“Oh really,” I say disbelievingly. “What about the connection between Lana and me. Isn’t it a bit of a coincidence that I was taken from an orphanage to protect Lana, and I just happen to have these special abilities? And what about Lana’s parents, why doesn’t anyone talk about them?”

Caleb sighs. “Her father was evil, the worst kind of Displacian. No one likes talking about him, especially not Roma and Ivy.”

“And what about Lana? Surely someone with her powers wouldn’t just fall off a cliff like that.”

“But she did,” Caleb says. “When the Foundling children were taken to Earth, their powers were suppressed, Ivy said Lana’s only resurfaced just before she died. She wouldn’t know how to use them.”

“I just can’t help feeling like there’s more to it,” I say, shaking my head irritably. “Something that I’m missing.”

Caleb’s stares at me, his expression conflicted. He casts a furtive glance up and down the street and then leans closer. “Look, if I knew something that I thought would help you, I’d tell you. You can’t go asking about Lana’s father, or the war, but if you’re up for some light, bedtime reading, you could try the library.”

“The library?” I cast my mind back to the bright room where Roma first told me all about Displacia, where Ivy broke the news that Lana wasn’t my sister.

“Yes, that’s generally where books are found.” Caleb says, rolling his eyes.

I stick my tongue out at him before starting up the hill towards the main building.

“Oh and if you can’t find what you’re looking for,” Caleb calls after me. “Just remember, in the library, the ground is above, the sky below.”

I turn to look at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’ll see.” He laughs.

I continue towards the Atrium, half-irritated, half-curious.

“What, no kiss?” He calls after me.

“Depends on what I find in the library.”

 

Sunlight floods in through the glass wall of the library, dust motes drifting lazily on the rays.

There are hundreds of old, leather-bound books shelved from floor to ceiling, the titles relating to Science or studies of Earth. I pull a few from their places, but none of them appear to hold any information on Ezra or the Displacian war.

I work my way from end to end, even climbing the tall spindly ladder to look at the books that are out of my reach, but I find nothing.

Defeated, I lean back against the final shelf and stare down at my feet. That’s when I see it, the groove in the wooden floor. I follow the line and find that it makes a large circle. A trapdoor.

I run my fingers along the groove, but it’s too narrow for me to prise it open. I look around for a lever, or some kind of mechanism on the bookshelves, I even pull at the books, but nothing happens.

Then I remember Caleb’s words. I look up at the ceiling of the library and find it painted with yellow meadows and green fields, dotted with trees and mountains. I didn’t notice it before. It looks like an aerial image of Displacia, just as I had seen it from the hovercraft. I look down at the ground, but I see nothing except the wooden floorboards. I climb the spindly ladder again, climbing all the way to the top shelf of the nearest bookcase, then I look down again.

The round trapdoor is the centrepiece in a pattern of lines and circles carved into the wooden floor. When standing on the ground, the shapes are lost amongst the grain of the wood, but up here I can see them clearly. Aside from the trapdoor, there are nine other circles of various sizes, each connected to a line that loops around the trapdoor, each placed further and further away, until the ninth, and smallest of the circles is near the large oak table in the centre of the vast room. A poster in Dr Campbell’s classroom springs to mind, a poster of the solar system. It’s the solar system – the one that Earth belongs to – carved into the floor, the trapdoor in the centre representing the sun and the nine smaller circles the planets. I climb back down the ladder and, ignoring the two ‘planets’ closest to the trapdoor, I head straight to the third – Earth. I find the groove in the floor and press my fingers into it. The wooden circle lifts easily, and underneath there is a small lever. I turn it.

At first nothing happens, and then the floor shudders beneath my feet.

I step back just in time as the boards between the ‘sun’ and the ‘Earth’ fall away, creating a set of curved steps that descend down into darkness.

I look around the library, holding my breath to listen for any approaching footsteps and then I step cautiously onto the first step; it creaks under my weight, but it stands firm. The narrow shaft of light filtering down from the library barely illuminates the dark space, but as I descend the stairs the lights below flicker to life, blinking and spluttering as though they have not been activated in a long time.

There is a desk against the far wall, along with a high-back, cushioned chair; both thick with dust and cobwebs. The air is stale and musty, the stone floor gritty, as though no one has been down here in years.

The floor is littered with boxes. I kick the lid of the nearest one to find a collection of books stacked neatly inside: ‘A Complete History of Displacia’, ‘Displacia before the War’, ‘Displacia before the Discovery of Earth’, ‘The Displacian War’, ‘Ezra Vedmak: The Last Tyrant’.

I grab ‘Ezra Vedmak: The Last Tyrant’ and I settle down on the bottom step of the wooden stairs.

 

Ezra Vedmak (born in the second millennia, after Earth)

 

The first child of Arthur and Kathleen Vedmak and second in line to the throne, the bells of Displacia tolled for seven days in celebration of Ezra’s much-anticipated birth.

In his infancy, Ezra was a sickly child and spent much of his early years at the Haler Centre of Healing, where he was nursed to full health. His health set-backs were thought to be the reason why his abilities took so long to reveal themselves and it is believed that the time he spent with the Halers fuelled his interest in the anatomy of the Displacian body.

Despite his lack of Vedmak powers, Ezra was highly intelligent and studied at university for many years, graduating with honours in Biology, Chemistry and Earth Studies.

After graduation, Ezra set up his own laboratories in Displacia and on Earth, in a secret location believed to be somewhere in Antarctica.

The Displacian council were led to believe that he was conducting experiments on magnetic fields and had funded much of his research, but authorities later discovered that Ezra was in fact conducting experiments on humans and Displacian’s.

Ezra also found a way to increase his powers, mastering the art of mind-control to a dangerous level, a level that allowed him to control the minds of the Foundlings simultaneously and to call them to him from great distances. They became his fearsome Foundling Army.

Other Displacian’s joined him, mostly Wanderers and Morgana’s, but all of the Households were represented amongst his followers.

The most troubling of all was Ezra’s experiments on humans, a defenceless species who Displacian’s have spent almost two hundred years trying to protect.

In his quest for power, Ezra experimented with stem cell transplantation to see if humans could be infused with the abilities of Displacian’s, an action condemned by the Displacian Council as highly dangerous, due to the uncertainties around combining human and Displacian DNA.

Eventually, the Foundling army was defeated, the worst tragedy Displacia has ever experienced, and Ezra was captured after initially fleeing to Earth.

He was brought to trial, along with the followers who failed to evade capture, but many had already escaped. Ezra was found guilty and sentenced to death. The council unanimously agreed that Displacia and Earth would never be safe while Ezra was alive, and they ordered for him to be chained and thrown into the first portal without a transportation device. It is thought that the increased dark matter caused by the instability of the portal will have killed him quickly.

Ezra was succeeded by his daughter Acacia Vedmak, now second in line to the throne, and the youngest Foundling child sent to Earth.

 

I shiver involuntarily as I close the book, imagining being trapped inside the portal, spinning aimlessly around before eventually succumbing to death.

My mind flits to Lana. How much did she know about her father? I try to remember if there was any indication that the world she knew had come crashing down around her, but Lana was always so happy. Surely learning of her father’s crimes and his death would’ve been traumatic for her. And what of Lana’s mother? She isn’t mentioned at all.

I tuck the book under my arm and start up the wooden steps. Back in the library, I turn the lever again and slot ‘Earth’ back in place as the floor reforms.

I flick back through the book with a hundred questions racing through my mind, but each time I see a word relating to death, my stomach twists, acidic and uncomfortable.

I don’t know why I’m so fixated on Ezra Vedmak, maybe it’s because he was Lana’s father, or maybe it’s because he’s the reason she was sent to Earth and why I became her decoy.

I make my way outside in search of Caleb, figuring with the right amount of coaxing, he might tell me more.

The sky is starting to darken a deep, burnt orange.

There are people everywhere, out on the lawn enjoying the last of the artificial rays, laying on the stone beds in the stargazing area, sitting on the terrace half hidden in the cabana’s, but for once, Caleb is nowhere to be seen.

Great. When I want you, I can’t find you.

A familiar figure catches my eye and I watch as Haydn approaches the fence in the distance. He shakes hands with one of the other Smith soldiers and then takes his place.

Haydn turns his back to the Household, and I think of his expression at the council meeting when he learnt of my faux identity. It’s hard to believe that he hadn’t heard about Princess Acacia’s return, especially when everyone else seemed to know, but the look on his face told me it was true.

I feel a sudden urge to talk to him, to see those eyes again. I take a couple of steps in the direction of the fence and then I hesitate. What am I thinking?

So far, Haydn hasn’t exactly been friendly, but something still draws me towards the fence, an invisible rope tugging me in the direction of the young, handsome lieutenant.

I deliberate for a moment, then I take a breath and propel myself forward before I can change my mind.

I am still holding the book on Ezra Vedmak, and I clutch it tightly to my chest with the title facing inwards so that no one can see. I walk purposefully towards the gates to see if they will in fact open for me, and I’m more than a little surprised when they do. I wave my thanks in the general direction of the tower.

Haydn watches me approach, his dark eyebrows drawing together. I see a flicker of interest, or maybe it’s contempt, then he looks resolutely away from me.

He’s wearing a khaki, sleeveless top, showing off bronze, brawny arms. I try not to stare.

“You shouldn’t be out here alone. It’s not safe.” He says, gazing at the line of trees.

“I’m not alone,” I brush the hair away from my face. “I’m with you.”

His eyes meet mine; in the evening sun, they are golden brown.

“I wanted to talk to you,” I say. “I thought I should explain why I didn’t tell you who I was when we met.” It’s the first thing that pops into my mind.

“I know why you didn’t tell me,” he says. “Your arrival was supposed to be a secret until the council met.”

“Well it didn’t quite work out like that. Most people seemed to know already.”

“Not me.” Haydn shrugs, his mouth set in a tight line as he returns to watching the trees.

I follow his gaze, the forest cool and inviting, and then I look back at the Vedmak Household with its perfect lawns and all of its inhabitants. So many people, so many minds to avoid. Now that I’m on this side of the fence, I find that I don’t want to go back inside.

“Well, you’re obviously not in the mood for talking, so…” I start towards the forest.

“Where are you going?” He takes a hesitant step towards me.

“I don’t know, thought I’d just find somewhere to sit and read for a while.” I say, tapping the book still cradled in my arms.

“I told you, it’s not safe,” he says. “There are plenty of places for you to sit and read within the grounds.”

“Come with me if you’re so worried, you can show me around.” I bite the inside of my mouth, surprised at my own directness.

“I have a job to do.”

“Isn’t your job guarding the perimeter, because I’m inside?”

Haydn’s lips snap shut, but he continues to frown at me.

“Well, I’m not inside anymore.” Before he can stop me, I turn and run into the trees. I think I hear pounding footsteps, but when I glance over my shoulder, I am more than a little disappointed to find that Haydn is not following me.

I race across the mossy floor of the forest, feeling suddenly elated, because this is what it should be like when you discover a new world, you should have the freedom to explore it. I take off my crown and I toss it aside along with the book.

The fake sunlight darts in and out of the gaps in the thick canopy of branches above, flashing on my face like a spotlight. I dodge thickets and knotted roots as the breeze lifts my hair from my neck. I run until my lungs burn, deeper and deeper into the forest.

I see movement ahead, then a figure appears in front of me, so suddenly that I don’t have time to stop before I collide with him. I land heavily on the floor, the air knocked out of me.

Rough hands grab me and set me on my feet. “Well, well. What do we have here?”

Chapter 24

 

There are three of them, all male. One of them – clearly the eldest – is tall and broad, the other two small and thin. They look a lot less refined than the other Displacian’s I have met so far. They are dressed in ragged clothing of Wanderer-brown and their boots are scuffed.

“She’s pretty, got to be a Vedmak, or maybe even a Dryad,”
“Course she’s not a Dryad, she’s got no markings,”

“Well, what are you, girl?” It’s the tall man who speaks, the one I ran into. He has a black, scrubby, grey-flecked beard and a thick scar that traces the curve of his cheek.

“I’m a Vedmak,” I try to keep my voice steady, but it waivers like that of a small, frightened child.”

“I knew it,” One of the smaller men says, clapping his hands together.

“Vedmak’s don’t tend to travel alone,” the tall man says, “Why are you out here by yourself?”

“I…I just wanted to walk.”

“You think she’s someone?” One of the smaller men shifts behind me and with a jolt, I realise they’ve got me surrounded.

The tall man scratches his beard. “Hard to say, don’t recognise her so she can’t be a member of the royal family, and she’s not wearing a crown…”

“I’m no one, really,”

“See? They won’t fight to get her back if she’s no one, just take her,”

“But she must belong to someone.”

The smallest of the group, a ferrety-looking man with blonde hair, inhales sharply. “I know who she is,” he points a grubby finger at me. “She’s that Princess they brought back from Earth, the one they’ve been talking about, you know, Ezra’s kid.”

I feel the heat rising in my face.

The tall man sniffs. “Is it true? Are you her?”

I shake my head, but I can feel my face blazing.

He looks at me sharply. “If it’s true then she’s a Foundling. They’d fight for her alright.”

“Not if they don’t know she’s missing,” the ferrety man says. “Just snatch her. There’s plenty who’d pay our weight in gold for a Foundling.”

“The girl is with me.”

At the sound of Haydn’s voice, I feel the tightness in my chest ease. He strides towards us with his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“Haydn Smith,” The tall man says, eyeing him apprehensively. “What do you want with a Vedmak?”

“My men are providing security around the Vedmak Household,” Haydn jerks his head towards me, but doesn’t meet my gaze. “This one is not supposed to be outside on her own. She’s dangerous.”

The man with the scar laughs incredulously. “Dangerous? She’s so tiny.”

“Yeah, that’s what the last guy thought. “You know who her father was?”

The three men nod.

“Then if I were you, I’d disappear. You thought Ezra was bad, this one has the power to melt your brain and sieve it out through your eyes.”

The men look to Haydn and then me, their faces etched with doubt.

Haydn holds up his hands and starts towards me. “Believe me, the girl has no control over her powers, she’s afflicted with a madness that not even the Halers can treat.”

The men start to back away, then they disappear into thin air with a snap, leaving Haydn and me alone in the forest.

“Where did they go?”

They teleported.” Haydn’s whole body is still tense as he looks around the forest.

I follow his gaze, but there is nothing but trees. “They’re Wanderers, right?”

Haydn nods. “Most of them are good people, but some of them…well it’s the same with any Household, there’s the occasional bad apple.” His expression darkens.

“You mean like me.” He is so close I could touch him.

“You’re not a bad apple.” I think I see his expression soften a little and my stomach flips.

“You told them I could melt their brains.” I laugh.

He regards me with a thoughtful expression, staring at me for just a little too long, and the laughter catches in my throat.

“Had to tell them something before they grabbed you and disappeared.”

“What, you mean they could’ve taken me with them when they -?” I point at the space where the men had vanished.

He nods gravely.

“Then why didn’t they just take me when they found me?”

“They were trying to figure out who you were.” He says, hooking his thumbs into his belt loops.

“You were listening all that time? Why didn’t you stop them?”

“I wanted you to see that there are dangers here,” he says, his eyes flickering over my face. “Your family probably gave you a glorified view of our world, but you need to keep yourself safe.”

I don’t know if he’s saying it because he cares, or because he’s in charge of the security around the Household. “They haven’t given me a glorified view, they barely let me out” I say. “Now I know why.”

“Like I said, not all Wanderers are bad, but some resent the way things are here, it makes them do bad things.”

“The way things are?”

“The Wanderers don’t have their own portal like the other Households.”

“Can’t they just make a one?” I ask.

“It’s not as easy as that,” he says. “The Vedmak’s have to grant permission for a new portal to be created. They won’t let the Wanderers have one because they don’t have a permanent residence like the other Households.”

“Then why don’t they just build a Household?”

“The Wanderers are travellers at heart,” he says. “They prefer not to stay in one place for too long.”

“But if it means having their own portal-”

A Household is more than just bricks and glass,” Haydn snaps. “Wanderers are still a community. That’s something the Vedmak’s don’t understand, and many of the Wanderers despise them for it.”

“OK, sorry.” I say peevishly.

“The Wanderers use the Smith portal to travel to and from Earth,” he says. “I’ve gotten to know some of them.”

Silence falls between us; the only sound is the rustling of the leaves and the trill of birdsong. “You need to go back.” He says, jerking his head in the direction of the Vedmak Household.

“No, they opened the gates for me, I’m allowed to be out here.”

“Did you not hear what I said?” He starts towards me. “Go back.”

I narrow my eyes at him. “You can’t tell me what to do.”

He moves quickly and before I can stop him, he grabs me by the arms and hoists me over his shoulder. My skin tingles uncomfortably where he grabbed me, and when he clamps his bare arms across the backs of my knees to stop me from wriggling, the back of my skull starts to fizz uncontrollably.

My head spins, the pain from Haydn’s touch shooting up my arms and into my brain, a searing pain coursing through my body. His emotions are too strong and I grit my teeth so hard my jaw hurts. Haydn Smith is burning inside.

“Let me go.” I wriggle furiously in his grasp, but he continues to stomp in direction of the fence, his emotions rolling over me in waves – loneliness, anger and grief combined. I pound my fists against his muscular shoulders as the forest starts to spin around me.

There’s nothing else for it. I throw back my head and scream at the top of my lungs, sending a flock of birds scattering from a nearby tree.

He hastily sets me on the ground. “What’s the matter with you?” His voice is indignant, but he scans me up and down looking for any sign of injury.

I take a deep breath and swallow the sob that’s rising in my throat, wrapping my arms around myself to stop my body from shaking. “I don’t like being touched.”

It’s the first time I’ve said it to anyone. I usually just tolerate it, but I’ve never known anyone feel so much pain. Except me. “Is that how you treat women here? If they don’t do what you want, you just throw them over your shoulder and carry them back to the cave?”

He looks confused by the reference. “I just wanted to get you back inside.”

“Fine,” I say, taking another deep, shaky breath. “I’ll walk.” I set off at an uneven stomp, keeping two steps ahead of him as I make my way back to the gates of the Vedmak Household.

“Here.”

I turn to find Haydn holding out my crown and the book on Ezra.

“I think these are yours.” His eyes scan the book cover as he hands it over, but he makes no comment.

I take the items from him, careful that our fingers don’t meet. “Thank you.” There are tears in my eyes and I hastily wipe them away.

At the gates, I see Caleb sprinting towards us. When he reaches me, he too scans me for any sign of injury. “What’s going on? I heard you scream.” He searches my face and his eyes narrow as he reads my mind. He rounds on Haydn. “Keep your hands off her, Smith.”

“Then keep her under control. She went running off into the forest and refused to return. She was nearly taken by Wanderers.”

Caleb looks at me sharply and then he turns back to Haydn, his hands clenching into fists at his sides. “That doesn’t give you the right to touch her.”

“It’s fine, Caleb, it was just a misunderstanding. Haydn was just-”

But Haydn turns on his heel and stomps back towards the gate before I can say anything else in his defence. I feel suddenly heavy and my head aches.

Caleb waits until Haydn has returned to his post before turning to me. “What were you thinking? You can’t just leave like that.”

“They opened the gates for me.” I say, gesturing towards the tower.

“Of course they did,” Caleb says. “They think you’re royalty and no one told them not to let you out. If we knew you were going to bolt…”

“I wasn’t running away,” I say quickly. “I was just bored.”

Caleb gives a sigh of exasperation. “I can take you places, but we need bodyguards with us. Any trips beyond the fence need to be planned carefully so we can keep you safe. Wanderers can be dangerous people.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

His face softens. “If they had taken you, we would’ve started a war to get you back. Roma will have to speak to Niall about this, those men belonged to his Household.”

I stare down at my feet. “I just wanted to see what else was out there.”

“And you will. Roma is confident that we’ll find the Shadows; their attack on you brought us closer than ever to finding them.”

“It did? Why?”

“The Shadows have been avoiding our surveillance systems for some time now, but now we know they were watching you, we’re examining all of the footage of you from the last year. They have to slip up at some point.”

I consider this, imagining a figure cloaked in darkness lurking in the garden of Evergreen. “Do you think they were watching Lana before she died?”

Caleb nods gravely. “They could’ve planted someone close to you both.”

Goosebumps prick my skin, despite the warm air. “It has to be Molly. You said she was being controlled but-”

“Forget Molly.” Caleb says, irritably.

“No, you said she was being controlled. She tried to kill me.”

“Yes, she was being controlled, most probably by the Shadows, but she wasn’t one of them. She’s human. You’re jumping to Molly, because it’s easy, but she’s a victim too.”

I feel a stab of annoyance. “You always defend her.”

“And I always will,” he says. “I read her mind, I heard the darkness in there, the hate. It made me think of the stories I’ve heard about Ezra’s mind control. He could make people do whatever he wanted by planting the darkest thoughts in their minds.”

Before I can respond, Caleb grabs me roughly around the arm and yanks me towards him, his eyes wide.

“Hey, wh-”

Something whistles past my ear and I turn to find an arrow trembling on the ground, the tip buried deep into the neatly-cut lawn, in the exact spot where I was stood just moments before.

Caleb pushes me behind him. “Morgana’s.” He says, scanning the perimeter.

“What?”

The members of the Vedmak Household are no longer lazing around the grounds, they are on their feet, watching the fence with narrowed eyes.

My heart starts to beat furiously. “We need to get inside.” I say, scanning the sky for any sign of an impending attack.

Caleb is quiet for a moment and then he shakes his head. “No. Whatever they’ve got for us, we’re ready.”

I peer around him at the Smith soldiers gathering at the gates, their swords raised as they form a barrier in front of the Vedmak Household. Haydn is there too, leading the defence.

Then I hear it. A thousand arrows whistling through the air, casting tiny shadows on the ground as they approach. I am fixed to the spot as they breach the fence, sailing speedily towards us. But before they can reach their targets, the arrows pause in mid-air and then fall to the ground. They land at the feet of the Vedmak’s gathered on the lawn, as though they hit an invisible wall.

Everything is still for a moment, the Vedmak’s are like statues, their bodies rigid as though anticipating another attack, then there is a rush of activity. Some of the Vedmak’s run towards the fence while others head to the Atrium. Caleb shifts out of his protective stance. “It’s done,” he says. “The Morgana’s are retreating; this was just a warning.”

The doors to the main building burst open and Vedmak bodyguards dressed in navy suits file out, followed closely by Roma and Ivy.

The Vedmak’s press towards their leader, gesturing angrily at the fence, but I can’t make out what they’re saying.

“They want retribution.” Caleb says, in answer to my unspoken question.

“Like a fight?”

Caleb nods gravely.

I watch as Roma appeases her Household and then she motions towards Caleb and me.

“Come on.” He says.

Ivy pulls me into a hug, bristling with trepidation. “We need to talk inside,” she says. “Parker has some news for you.”

We find Parker in the fountain room, standing close to the spray.

The fountain looks like it’s crafted from the same rock as the one back at Malvern, but it is much bigger, and instead of a statuette, the centrepiece is a huge chalice inlaid with gems.

Caleb closes the door behind us. “The Morgana’s clearly aren’t willing to forget what happened at the council meeting.”

Roma shakes her head impatiently. “Morox is just puffing out his chest. The Emperor will deal with the Morgana’s, right now, we’ve got bigger concerns.” She waves Parker over and then turns to me. “Parker found something interesting in your blood.”

Ivy squeezes my shoulder and her anxiety spikes through me.

“That was fast.” Is all I manage to say. I can hear my heartbeat pounding as I wipe my sweating palms on my dress.

“The results showed me what I needed to know within minutes of you leaving the laboratories,” Parker explains. “I had to wait a little while to be sure, but the test was conclusive.”

I see Caleb’s brow furrow as he hears what’s on Parker’s mind.

“What is it? What’s wrong with me?” I ask.

Parker exchanges a glance with Roma before she speaks. “Casey, have you experienced any unusual symptoms since the night Lana died? Maybe something you thought was connected to your head injury, like white noise or ringing in your ears, maybe some sensitivity to light?”

I try to think back; the pain of Lana’s death was the worst symptom of that night. Besides that, there was the nightmares, insomnia, a total lack of interest in anything and… “Yes. The sun hurt my eyes back home, it didn’t happen very often, but most of the time the weather was dull.”

Ivy and Roma exchange a look. I see Roma give an almost indistinct shake of her head before she turns to me. “The test showed that you’re half-Displacian.”

Chapter 25

“What?” My head whips around to Caleb. “Did you know about this?”

He mirrors my shock with an astonished expression of his own “No, I never thought for a second…. are you sure?” Caleb regards Parker with a look of disbelief.

“The test was conclusive.” She repeats.

I touch my fingers to my temples in an effort to stop the room from spinning. “So…one of my parents was Displacian?”

“Yes,” Roma says. “And we can’t trust anyone else with this information, not even my bodyguards. A half human, half Displacian is considered a dangerous thing.”

“Roma, please,” Ivy steps forward, her face twisted in anguish. “She doesn’t need to-”

“She has to know, Ivy.” Roma says firmly. She turns to me and her expression softens. “We don’t believe that a human mind can cope with having our abilities, it’s too fragile, it could shatter like glass.”

“But I’m fine.” I start to back away from them.

“Human and Displacian DNA are not thought to be compatible,” Parker says quietly. “You shouldn’t even….”

“I shouldn’t even exist, right?” My hands start to tremble. “Then how is this possible?”

“It just is,” Parker says. “You’re biologically both human and Displacian. As far as we know, you are the first of your kind. Previous attempts to combine human and Displacian DNA-”

“Parker.” Roma holds up a warning hand.

I swallow reflexively, my mouth dry. “I know about Ezra’s experiments.”

How do you know?” Roma says sharply.

“I found a book in the library; it said that he was experimenting on humans, something about stem cells.”

“Those books are well hidden.” Roma looks sharply at Caleb. He stares resolutely back, and I know that he is cloaking his thoughts.

I realise now why Caleb’s clue was so cryptic, telling me directly where to find the books would’ve been difficult to hide from Roma.

“Well they weren’t hidden well,” I say. “I found them under the floorboards in some kind of underground room.” I thrust the book still clutched in my hands towards Roma. She takes it from me carefully, as though it might suddenly explode.

“That was Ezra’s private study,” Ivy says, her eyes suddenly teary. “All books that even so much as mention his name are banned in Displacia now. We keep everything locked away down there.”

“You won’t go down there again,” Roma says, her eyes on the book gripped tightly in her trembling hands. “Ezra was a dangerous man, but he was once just a boy, he was our brother.”

Parker clears her throat. “Ezra’s laboratories were shut down before you were born, Casey, and he was experimenting on adults, not children. Your birth was likely the result of a union between a human and a Displacian.”

“So what’s going to happen to me?”

“Your mind could eventually deteriorate.” Roma says quietly.

My breathing starts to come out ragged. “You mean…I could go mad?”

“We don’t know that for certain,” Parker says. “There may be ways to slow it down, even prevent it from happening at all, but it won’t be easy.”

“Parker may be able to develop a formula that would help your body to accept its part-Displacian origins,” Roma explains, her knuckles white from gripping the edge of the book. “Parker is going to Earth to find out more about your birth. It might help her develop the treatment.”

“I’m going too,” Ivy says. “I adopted you from an orphanage in London, so we’re going to start there. I need you to stay here with Roma, she’ll take care of you.”

“You’re going to find my parents?” I ask, my heartbeat quickening.

Ivy nods. “We’re going to try. The records held at the orphanage might lead us to your mother.”

“My mother?” An image of a woman who looks just like me flashes through my mind.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Roma says. “I need you to focus. Parker wants you to start training, prepare your body for the treatment.”

“What kind of training?”

“The same training we put the Foundlings through. You’re already demonstrating some abilities; you might have more locked away. If we can trick your body into thinking it’s Displacian, it could buy us some time.”

I look down at my hands. “I could have more abilities?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Parker says. “I couldn’t find a trace of Foundling DNA in your bloodwork, but it’s often difficult to locate, even in pure-born Displacian’s.”

“Your ability to feel the emotions of others is not a common Displacian trait,” Roma says. “But self-healing is. We can’t be certain that you have any more powers, but I think it’s a good idea to find out.”

“OK,” I nod, my heart still beating furiously at the thought of finding my parents. “When do I start?”

“As soon as possible,” Roma says. “I’ve sent a message to the other leaders asking them for help in developing your skills, excluding Morox of course.” She turns towards the window, frowning a little. “We don’t need you to grow gills just yet.”

“What will you tell them?”

They don’t need to know the truth; they can continue believing that you’re one of the Foundling children.”

I nod resolutely. “OK.”

“This isn’t what I wanted for you,” Ivy says. “You’re not an experiment, Casey. I won’t have them treating you like one.”

Roma sighs indignantly. “It won’t be-”

“It’s fine,” I say firmly. “I want to do this.”

Ivy nods, but she doesn’t meet my eyes. “Right then, we need to get ready.” She gestures towards Parker, who gives me a reassuring smile before following Ivy from the fountain room.

“Don’t worry about Ivy,” Roma says. “She’s very protective of you, but she knows this is for the best.”

I try to appear unconcerned by Ivy’s cool behaviour, but when she and Parker return dressed in royal-blue suits made from a kind of leathery fabric, I rush to her. “How long will you be gone for?”

She shrugs a small rucksack onto her back and sweeps her blonde hair up into a knot on the top of her head. “However long it takes.”

“And these are the compression suits?” I ask, pinching the tight cuff of Ivy’s sleeve.

“They stop us feeling the effects of the portal.” She doesn’t look at me as she pulls a stiff hood over her head.

“Ivy, please don’t leave like this.”

She meets my gaze then, and her expression softens. “Listen to Roma, she’ll do everything she can to help you.” She pulls me into a long hug.

“I’ll look after her, Ivy.” Roma places a hand on my shoulder, her touch radiating with honesty.

Ivy smiles at her sister and then she joins Parker on the ledge of the fountain. The water inside starts to churn. They give a brief wave before stepping purposefully into the water like deep-sea divers, sending a flume of water over the edge.

I keep my eyes on the fountain until the water stills.

 

“Just clear your mind,” Roma says. “Concentrate on the object, and then imagine a force reaching out from behind your eyes.”

I stare at the glass bottle in front of me, my face screwed up with concentration. I clench my fists, tensing my whole body as I will the bottle to fall down, but nothing happens.

Caleb snorts behind me and I turn to glare at him.

“That’s not helpful, Caleb.” Roma says, wearily.

We’ve been here ages, gathered at a table in the empty banquet room as one by one, the rest of the Household retired to their homes. Some stayed to watch for a while, believing that I was trying to uncover my Foundling powers, but they had grown tired and made their excuses, their faces etched with sympathy as they left.

It’s been two days since Ivy and Parker went to Earth, and we’ve heard nothing from them. Roma has tried to keep me busy with telekinesis, but so far, I haven’t been able to pick it up.

“I can’t do it.” I say, throwing my hands up.

“You need to keep trying,” Roma says. “It’s important that you learn this.”

I rub my eyes with the heel of my hand. “My head hurts, I need to sleep.”

Roma opens her mouth to protest, just as the sound of heavy footsteps approaches. Esther, Cain and Hamish hasten towards the doors to the banquet room, and, with Roma distracted, I sink into the nearest chair, exhausted.

Nicholas, Haydn and around fifteen other Smith’s march into the banquet room, Roma’s bodyguards stepping back to allow them entry. The Smith’s tip their heads respectfully towards Roma.

“I’ve stationed twenty of my soldiers around the perimeter and four at the gate,” Nicholas reports. “The rest are awaiting your command. If the Morgana’s come back, we’ll be ready for them.”

“Thank you, Nicholas,” Roma says. “But I don’t think Morox would dare order another attack. He’s just retaliating because of what I did to him at the council.”

“Nevertheless, I would feel better if you would permit two soldiers to guard the fountain room,” Nicholas says. “And another two to patrol the corridors of the main building.”

Roma nods. “Whatever you think is best.”

“What I think is best is bringing Morox in.”

Roma shakes her head. “I’ve already advised the Emperor against it, I won’t risk another inter-household war. The Emperor has delayed the next council meeting, that should give Morox time to cool off.”

“As you wish,” Nicholas says. “I’ll station the rest of my men around the grounds and Acacia will have a guard of her own outside of her room.”

My head whips from Nicholas to Roma. “I don’t think-”

“It’s just a precaution,” she says. “If Nicholas thinks you need a soldier to guard your door then so be it.”

“Haydn will take position outside of Casey’s room, he’s my best soldier.” Nicholas says.

Haydn’s eyes find mine, but he looks swiftly away and I see the muscles in his jaw clench. He addresses the soldiers behind him, ordering them to their posts. They turn wordlessly on their heels and march from the room.

“Would you like to join us for drinks,” Roma gestures for Nicholas and Haydn to sit. “We are just in the middle of testing Acacia’s abilities.”

Nicholas eyes widen with interest. “Yes, if we may we observe?”

“There isn’t much to see.” Caleb laughs.

Roma silences him with a stare. “Acacia?”

With a heavy sigh I stand and focus once again on the bottle, conscious of everyone looking at me, of Haydn looking at me. Nothing happens. “I told you, I can’t do it.” My face burns with embarrassment.

“Acacia is just having some problems with her abilities,” Roma says. “She’s spent so long on Earth.”

Nicholas gives me a look filled with pity and Haydn regards me with what I can only assume is contempt. I can’t bear it.

Without thinking, I snatch up a knife from the table and I drag it across my palm, gritting my teeth to stop myself from crying out as the deep welt blooms red.

Nicholas jumps up from his seat as the blood runs over my wrist and down my forearm. “Princess-” he starts around the table towards me, but I wipe my hand on my dress and hold up my palm to show him the wound, the skin already knitting neatly back together.

He looks stunned for a moment and then laughter bursts from his lips. “You can self-heal.”

“Of course I can, I’m a Foundling.” I say, looking pointedly at Caleb.

Nicholas claps his gloved hands together. “It looks like she may have some abilities after all.”

“Dramatic,” Caleb smirks. “And I thought you didn’t like all of the attention.”

I pull a face at him, suddenly incensed. “You think that because I’ve spent my life on Earth I must be weak,” I say. “Well I’m not. Maybe I can’t do all of the things that you can, but I do have some abilities.”

Roma narrows her eyes at me in warning. “No one thinks you’re weak, Acacia. Now, enough of the parlour tricks, you need rest.”

“Fine.” I turn on my heel and stomp out of the banquet room.

Footsteps follow me out into the corridor and I turn, expecting to find Caleb, but it’s Haydn. He falters when he sees me waiting, but he says nothing, so I continue up the stairs feeling irritated and exhausted.

Once I am in my quarters, I pluck the crown from my head and toss it across the room to its usual place on the floor in the corner. I head to the bathroom to run a hot bath, and as the tub fills up, I sit down on the edge to examine the smooth skin of my hand. The wound has completely disappeared, the only hint that it was ever there is a thin, pink line and the red stain of my blood. I feel foolish for making a show of myself, especially in front of Haydn, but I’ve had it with being treated like a delicate flower in need of protection. Parker said I’m half-Displacian, and that means I’m stronger than they thought.

I shed my clothes and slide into the tub while the water’s still running. When it’s finally deep enough, I sink right down to the bottom so that my face is submerged and all I can hear is the ripple of the water. I close my eyes savouring the quietness.

When the water starts to cool, I haul myself from the bathroom; I pull on a cotton nightshirt before climbing into bed with my hair still wet. It doesn’t take long for a deep, exhausted sleep to claim me.

 

Lana holds a long, sharp dagger that glints in the light of the moon. She drags it over her palm, holding out her hand to show me the wound that heals of its own accord. She laughs and I laugh with her, but then her smile fades and she raises the knife to her throat.

No.”

I reach out to her, but I am blasted back off my feet by an invisible force. Lana holds out a strand of her hair and cuts it off with the dagger. She continues to hack away, the blonde locks pooling around her feet. I start towards her, but I find my way blocked by a glass wall. I hammer my fists against it, screaming her name until my throat is raw.

 

I wake with a start, the sound of the dagger slicing through Lana’s hair still fresh in my mind. Only it’s not in mind, it’s not just a lingering dream; the sound is coming from the balcony, a scratching, scuffling sound that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

I swing my legs out of bed, my heart beating furiously. I tiptoe over to the glass doors and pause with my fingers on the handle, peering out at the shadowy balcony. I take a breath and I step outside. The scuffling sound stops abruptly.

I blink until my eyes adjust to the darkness, but I see nothing except the shadows of the nearby trees, the branches stretching towards me like gnarled fingers.

I take another deep breath, savouring the fresh air and the feeling of the breeze as it lifts the ends of my still-damp hair.

With a slight shiver, I turn to head back inside and that’s when I see it – a dark figure clambering over the side of the balcony. A scream catches in my throat as the scorched, skeletal form of the Khuulsu heaves itself over the railings and lands on the tiled floor with a thud.

Another pair of bony hands appears, followed by another, their gaunt faces trained on me, and this time the scream escapes my lips, piercing the quiet night air and echoing around the grounds.

They start in my direction, rags hanging from their emaciated, blackened bones. I try to run, but my legs give out beneath me and I fall to my knees. I hear voices and the splinter of wood coming from inside, but I can’t move, I can’t even call out.

Skeletal fingers close around my throat, and I claw at the rotted hands, choking under the Khuulsu’s grip.

There is more thumping from inside, followed by hurried footsteps, then someone slams into the creature. It releases me and I slump to the floor gasping for air. I try to push myself up in the midst of all of the commotion, but my body feels like lead, my limbs refusing to obey me when I tell them to move.

I watch helplessly as Smith’s and Vedmak’s rush the balcony, forming a protective barrier around me and forcing the creatures back.

The Khuulsu don’t even try to fight. Outnumbered, they retreat, leaping over the railings and disappearing into the night with Vedmak’s and Smith’s on their tails.

A shadow falls over me and gentle hands lift my face, my skin tingling under the pads of his fingers. Haydn. I expect him to say something cutting, but instead, he scoops me up effortlessly. “You’re OK.” He whispers.

My skin feels like it’s on fire where he is touching me, my skull about to burst, but I feel safe in his arms as he carries me inside.

Caleb appears in the doorway of my bedroom, his eyes narrowing as Haydn sets me down gently on the bed.

Roma pushes past Caleb, her face etched with worry. “Are you OK?”

I nod carefully, the motion sending a shooting pain through my neck.

Haydn carefully traces my skin where the Khuulsu grabbed me. “They tried to strangle her.”

He directs the statement to Roma and her face pales. “That’s not their way. They incapacitate their victims; they don’t strangle them.”

“I think they tried to incapacitate her,” Haydn says, his brow furrowed. “But she managed to fight it, to a degree. Strangling her would make her lose consciousness, make it easier to take her. I got to her just in time.”

I raise a hand to my throat, but the pain is already subsiding. “Thank you.” My voice is still hoarse, almost a whisper.

His eyes are like burning liquid, a dark oil framed with thick lashes. He watches me for what feels like an eternity, and then he turns to Roma. “I’ll station soldiers on the balcony.” He takes one last look at me, then he stalks out of the room.

“Are you sure you’re OK?” Roma strokes my hair, her face ashen. It takes me by surprise.

“I’ll be fine.” I try to smile reassuringly, but my heart is hammering furiously in my chest.

“I can stay with you tonight.” Caleb offers.

“I don’t think so, Caleb.” Roma says.

“I’ll sleep in the lounge,” he says hurriedly. “Someone should stay with her,” his eyes flick to the Smith soldiers patrolling the balcony. “Someone she knows.”

“Very well,” Roma sighs. “But only if Casey agrees.”

“I want him to stay.” I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid. I can still feel the Khuulsu’s pincer-like fingers around my throat and the thought of being alone makes my blood run cold.

When Roma leaves, Caleb takes a pillow from the bed and a blanket from the closet. I watch the soldiers outside, their forms casting long shadows through the balcony doors. My hands start to tremble. “Caleb, will you stay?”

He pauses in the doorway. “I said I would, I’ll be right next door.”

“No, I need you to stay in here.”

Caleb’s eyes widen and for a moment, I think he’ll say no, but then he nods. “OK.”

He kicks off his shoes and pulls off his shirt, giving me a good look at his toned torso.

“Don’t get any ideas,” I say, as he flops down beside me. “I just don’t want to be alone.” I reluctantly turn off the lamp, plunging the room into darkness.

“I’m here.” Caleb says, squeezing my hand and sending a brief feeling of hope shooting up my arm.

Guiltily, I close my eyes, trying not to think about Haydn.

Chapter 26

 

I rise wearily, my head heavy from dreams of dark figures that drag me away into the night.

Caleb is still asleep, his cheeks pink and his dark hair tousled. I try not to wake him, but the mattress dips when I shift up on to my elbows and Caleb stirs.

“Morning, Princess.” He says, peering up at me through one eye.

“Don’t call me that.” I say. I press my fingers to my throat and find that the skin is still a little painful. “Is it bad?”

“There’s not a mark on you.” He smiles uneasily and shifts out of bed, snatching up his shirt from the floor.

“That’s good isn’t it? I mean, it’s still a little sore, but I was expecting big red marks around my neck this morning. It was so painful last night; it didn’t seem to be healing.”

“The Khuulsu’s hold can drain you of your powers,” he explains. “So you probably didn’t heal as quickly as you normally would.” He leans over and kisses me lightly on the forehead. “I’ve got to go; I’ll meet you downstairs.”

I watch him leave with a heavy feeling. My feelings towards Caleb have shifted since I got here and now, making him stay the night feels like selfish act.

When I hear the door close behind him, I shift out of bed and dress in the first items I find in the closet – black trousers and a creamy cotton top, before pulling on a pair of lace-up boots.

I find breakfast laid out in the lounge, I force down a few spoons of oatmeal and a mouthful of orange juice before rushing out of the room, almost colliding with Haydn whose hand flies to the hilt of his sword.

“Um, sorry,” I say, smoothing my hair off my face. “I, um…”

“Everyone’s waiting for you downstairs.” He looks determinedly away from me, his mouth set in a tight line.

I realise that he must have seen Caleb leaving my room and my face flushes. I feel a sudden urge to tell him that nothing happened, to explain to him that Caleb was only here because I was afraid, but before I can say anything, he sets off along the corridor without another word.

I hurry to catch up and we continue in silence, our hands an inch apart. I hazard a glance at him; his face is a mask of calm and I long to touch him, to feel what he is feeling.

Downstairs, he leads me along an unfamiliar corridor, windowless and less grand than the rest of the building. He stops outside of a set of tall doors. He heads inside holding the door open for me, and I feel the warmth radiating from his body as I pass.

Roma and Caleb wait in the centre of a room the size of a basketball court, along with Nicholas, Galen and Meghan. They rush towards me, wanting to know all about the Khuulsu attack, and offering words of kindness.

Galen presses a hand to my forehead and announces to the room that I appear to be unaffected by the Khuulsu’s attack. This seems to appease them all.

“I hope you’ve had some rest, Acacia,” Nicholas says. “I know you’ve had a tough night, but we can’t wait any longer. Your training starts now.”

Roma confirms his words with a nod of her head.

“In here?” I ask, looking around the vast space.

One wall is all glass and another is made from jagged rock. There are large, wooden boxes strewn across the stone floor, one of which is filled with weapons.

“Yes, you’ll train in here every day,” Roma says. “Each of us has something we can share with you, so we’re all going to help. Niall is busy looking for the Wanderers you encountered in the woods yesterday, and we both agree that teleportation may be dangerous this early in your training.”

I nod, feeling relieved that I won’t have to practice disappearing into thin air. “So what is this place?”

“This is where young Vedmak’s harness their skills,” Caleb says. “It has everything you need.”

“Except for these.” Nicholas picks up two swords from a crate at his feet, along with some sort of fabric that he hands to me. “I brought this from my Household, it’s armour.”

It’s a tunic – light and cool; I turn it over in my hands, feeling the wire-wool texture. “It’s so delicate.”

Nicholas smiles. “It’s made from a rare, Displacian steel that is spun like silk; it’s stronger than it looks.”

I pull the tunic over my head and it falls to just below my hips.

“Perfect. Now for something a little heavier.” Nicholas hands me one of the swords. “I understand you already know how to use one of these.”

I turn the heavy sword over in my hand. “I practiced fencing back home, but my sabre is much lighter.”

“It’s just a training sword,” Nicholas says. “See how it’s rounded at the tip?” He runs a gloved finger over the blunt edge of the sword. “You’ll need an opponent of course.” He beckons Haydn forward and presses the other sword into his hand.

Haydn turns it over with a flick of his wrist and rests the blade at his shoulder.

I mirror his stance, my feet shoulder-width apart, my right foot a step ahead of my left. I look him directly in the eyes, trying to not let myself be distracted by their burning darkness. When I move forward, I’m much clumsier than normal, maybe from the weight of the sword. Haydn sidesteps me easily and strikes me between the shoulder blades, his face passive, bored even.

“At least give her a chance.” Caleb complains.

I scowl at Caleb as Haydn’s hurried footstep approach, and I duck just in time as his sword swipes at my head. I strike at his side, but he blocks my advance, our blades clashing together.

“Stop dancing around each other.” Nicholas laughs.

Haydn moves side to side so quickly it’s like there’s two of him. He runs at the wall and plants his feet against the rock, before pushing off in a perfect arch. He lands lightly behind me and swipes my feet out from underneath me. I hit the hard, stone floor with a thud and he holds his sword to my throat. I bat it away irritably.

I hear Roma groan and when I turn to look at her, I see that she has her hands over her eyes.

Nicholas, however, appears unconcerned about my lack of skills. “I can see your natural ability resurfacing, Acacia, but you still need a lot of training,” he steps around Haydn and pulls me effortlessly to my feet. “Haydn, I want you to train Acacia every day until she picks up the basics. You can hand your security duties over to one of your soldiers.”

“Can’t someone else train her?” He says, not looking at me.

“No Haydn, I want you to train her,” Nicholas says. “You should be honoured; you’re going to train one of the last remaining Foundlings.”

“That doesn’t matter to me.” Haydn says, pink spots appearing on his cheeks.

“This isn’t up for debate, Haydn. I’ve given you an order.” Nicholas says, evenly.

Haydn gives me a look of loathing, then he turns on his heel and stalks out of the room, his footsteps echoing in the silence.

“Don’t mind Haydn,” Nicholas says. “He’s one of my best soldiers, you’ll learn a lot from him.”

“He doesn’t want to train me.” I say, watching the door swing shut behind him.

“No, but he will. We all have to do things we don’t want to sometimes. Haydn needs to learn that. Now, I believe Meghan has something she wants to show you.”

I am distracted, then, by the Dryad leader, who extracts a small box from inside the folds of the thin fabric draped around her body. “We don’t make these in Displacia,” she says. “We have no need for them really, but they come in handy sometimes.”
I look closer at the item in her outstretched hand. “A matchbox?”

She smiles and flips her long, dark hair over her shoulder. “We import them from Earth.”

“But you’re a Dryad, don’t you make fire?”

“We are impervious to fire,” Meghan corrects, extracting a match from the box. “We look for visions in the flames, it’s called Fire Divination.” Meghan strikes the match and it fizzes to life. “In the Dryad forest,” she continues. “There is an ancient tree called the Fire Oak, and instead of leaves, flames grow from its branches. The Fire Oak never burns out, so whenever we want to consult the flames, we just lift a handful of fire from the low hanging branches and we hold it over our eyes. You will see the Fire Oak someday, but for now, this will do just as well.” Meghan passes her long fingers over the matchstick until they are ablaze, then she circles her wrist so that the flames wrap around her entire forearm like a snake.

“Hold out your hand.” She says.

I see the flicker of the matchstick reflecting in Meghan’s dark eyes and I am suddenly afraid.

“It’s OK,” she says. “It can’t hurt you, you’re a Foundling. You’re impervious to flames, just like me.”

I swallow convulsively. I wait for Roma to step in, to make up some excuse for why I shouldn’t take part in this particular test, but she just watches, her eyes wide, her whole body rigid.

I have no other choice. I hold out my hand, hoping that if I burn, I’ll at least heal quickly.

Meghan smiles eagerly. She clamps her hand around my forearm and a scream escapes my lips.

Chapter 27

 

The flames feel both hot and cold, but the pain is not completely unbearable. I hold my breath as the flicker of orange and yellow coils itself around my arm, searing against my skin. I bite down on my lip to stop myself from screaming again.

“See?” Meghan smiles. “You’re impervious to fire, just like the Dryad’s.”

“Is it supposed to hurt this much?”

Meghan’s brows knit together. “You’re in pain?”

“Yes.” I say, through gritted teeth. “Please, put it out.”

She releases me suddenly, and with a wave of her hand, the flames extinguish.

Galen steps around Meghan and gently takes my arm, examining every inch of the skin. It looks red and blotchy, and it tingles from his touch, but he smiles satisfied. “She’s fine. It’s already healing.”

Meghan lets out a long breath. “I’m sorry, Acacia. I thought fire-resistance was a natural Foundling trait, just like self-healing. I guess I was mistaken.” She looks enquiringly at Roma who gives a nervous shake of her head. “The Foundling children had their abilities suppressed using mind-control,” she says, “Acacia is resistant to fire, but it may take some time before she can tolerate it the way you can.”

Meghan purses her lips. “Then I guess that was a good start.” She perches on an upturned crate and leans forward in anticipation.

Roma and I exchange a quick look of relief.

“I would like to see where you are with your healing abilities.” Galen says, rolling up his sleeves. “I understand that you are quite the accomplished self-healer, but I would like to see if you are able to heal others.”

“Starting with me,” Nicholas says, pulling gently on the fingers of his leather gloves. “Galen saved my hands, but I have to warn you, Acacia, they still look…unpleasant.”

I brace myself as Nicholas removes his gloves, extending his fingers so I can see the extent of the damage. The skin is dappled pink, shiny and thin in places. The fingers of one hand are just skin and bone and the tip of the thumb is missing.

Healing Nicholas seems an impossible task, but I obey when Galen instructs me to take his hand between my own. Nicholas smiles apologetically, but the touch of his charred skin doesn’t bother me, it’s the feeling of intrigue radiating from him that makes me want to pull away.

Galen stands at my shoulder. “Just close your eyes and breathe”, he says. “Imagine a light in your chest, warm and bright. With every breath, the light grows.”

I try to follow Galen’s instruction, picturing a light pulsating in the centre of my ribcage.

“Feel it travelling through your bloodstream,” Galen continues, “Warming your limbs, making the tips of your fingers glow. Imagine it radiating tiny beams that warm the damaged tissue of Nicholas’s hands.”

I feel like I am doing just that, imagining, instead of doing anything useful to help Nicholas.

“You have to believe in yourself, Acacia,” Galen says. “Believe that you can do this.”

But I can’t believe in myself, because I’m not a Foundling, not a real one.

“Remember, you can self-heal”, Roma says suddenly. “If you can do that, then you can heal Nicholas. It’s the same ability; you just have to focus your energy on him.”

I try to concentrate, but it’s no good. I can’t do it. Self- healing comes naturally to me; I don’t have to think about it. Disappointment starts to writhe around in my stomach.

“Let me try something.” Galen says. He places a hand on my shoulder, sending a sudden flush of warmth radiating into my chest and down into my hands. I feel it gather in my palms and I give a little gasp.

Galen releases me. “That’ what you’re aiming for, you need to recreate that feeling.”

Nicholas holds up his hands. “I think I can see a difference; the skin looks a little smoother.” He smiles kindly, his eyes crinkling at the sides.

“I didn’t do anything; it was all Galen.”

“You’ll get there”, Galen says. “Right now you need to eat something, regain your strength.”

Nicholas pulls his gloves back on. “I’ll call Haydn back tomorrow; I would like you to spend the morning training with him.” He glances over at Roma and she nods in agreement.

My stomach flutters with nerves at the thought of being alone with Haydn, and when the morning comes, my nails are bitten down to the wicks.

When he finally strides into the room, he barely looks at me. He retrieves the two training swords from the chest and hands one to me without as much as a ‘hello’.

He steps back a few paces, his sword raised. “We need to work on your movements,” he says. “You’re too rigid. Smith’s movements are fluid.”

“I can’t move like you can.”

“Not yet,” he says, his eyes burning into mine. “But you’re a Foundling. Besides some Smith skills can be learnt.”

I flush under his stare. “OK. Let’s go.” I strike at him and he dodges me easily, exhaling loudly. “You strike first, always in the same place. It’s too predictable.”

“Fine,” I huff. “Let’s go again.” I may not have the traits of all the Households, but this is the skills in which I’ve had the most training, so with a steely determination, I rest the tip of the sword at my shoulder.

This time I wait for Haydn to attack, and when he eventually moves, I dodge to the side and block his advance with a clatter of steel.

“Better.” He says.

We continue to strike at each other, moving around the room so quickly that I feel like my lungs are about to burst.

When I can take no more, I hold up my hands. “I need a break.” The hair around my face is damp with sweat and my arms are aching.

“The Shadows won’t give you a break,” Haydn says, irritably. “Put your sword up.”

“No.”

“Put your sword up.”

The anger swells inside of me and I throw the sword at Haydn’s feet. “I said no.”

I slump down on to the stone floor, resting my back against the glass wall so that the coolness seeps through my clothes.

Haydn strides over to the chest. I wait for him to throw his sword in and announce that we’re done for the day, but instead he returns with a bottle of water. He hands it to me without a word.

“Thank you.”

He sinks down beside me and leans back against the glass wall with his eyes closed. I watch the rise and fall of his chest, resisting the urge to shuffle closer to him. I think it’s fair to say he hasn’t exactly warmed to me.

“You don’t like me.” I say, a statement, not a question.

His eyes open. “What makes you think that?” His voice is even, quiet.

“You always look like you want to be as far away from me as possible.”

He laughs then.

“What’s so funny?”

“You’re just a typical Vedmak.” He says, shaking his head.

I feel my face flush. “What is that supposed to mean? You don’t know anything about me.”

“I know enough. Like I said, typical Vedmak.”

“So it’s not just me? You hate all Vedmak’s.”

Haydn considers me for a moment, his eyes burning like coal. “I don’t hate the Vedmak’s. I wouldn’t be here if I did.”

“But you don’t like them.”

He climbs swiftly to his feet. “Breaks over, pick up your sword.”

“No, I-”

He swipes at my head with his blade, I roll over to avoid it, grabbing my own sword in the process. “Hey, you nearly took my head off.” I say, scrambling quickly to my feet.

“You’re fine, come on.” He strikes at my knees, but I jump over the blade.

I slash my sword towards him, but Haydn feints to the side. “You’re not quick enough.” His shoulder collides with my chest and I am knocked to the ground again, my head slamming against the floor. He looks at me indifferently as I rub the back of my skull.

“That’s it? You knock me over and then you just stand there?” I can feel angry tears pricking the backs of my eyes.

“What did you expect?” Haydn says. “That I would help you up, dust you off like your Vedmak boyfriend?”

“My boyfriend, what are you-?”

“You need to learn to stand on your own two feet.” He takes a step towards me, his expression unreadable, and for a second, I’m worried about what he might do. But then he stops abruptly, stumbling back a little as though an invisible wall has sprung up between us.

“If you’re going to use these training sessions to torture her, you can get the hell out,” Caleb strides across the room, his face red and contorted with rage. I’ve never seen him like this before. “What happened before has nothing to do with Casey.”

What happened before?

“I’m trying to teach her to defend herself,” Haydn spits. “So she doesn’t need to rely on anyone to keep her safe.”

“The Vedmak’s will always keep her safe,” Caleb retorts.

“Oh, so that’s what you’re doing when you climb into her bed at night, you’re keeping her safe?”

Caleb’s face flushes. He starts towards Haydn with his hands balled into fists at his sides, and the invisible wall must have fallen away, because now Haydn is storming past me towards Caleb.

“Stop, both of you.” Casting my sword aside, I shift in between them as they charge towards each other. “No.” As I raise my hands, I feel a rush of energy burst from my fingertips, and Caleb and Haydn are thrown through the air away from each other.

I watch in horror as Haydn slams into the stone wall with a sickening thud, while Caleb lands on top of one of the crates, shattering it to splinters. He looks dazed, but OK, as he pushes himself up from the wreckage.

I turn my attention to Haydn, approaching him cautiously. My face is burning with guilt, my fingers still tingling. I crouch down by his side and brush the dark hair off his forehead. His eyelids flutter open and he looks up at me, bleary eyed. “I wasn’t going to hurt you; I would never hurt you.”

His words take me by surprise, but before I have time to respond, Caleb is at my shoulder.

“What just happened?”

“You tell me.” I say, staring down at my hands.

He shakes his head. “I guess some kind of extreme telekinesis. Maybe you should stop for today, get some rest. I’ll speak to Nicholas about getting you another trainer.”

Haydn climbs unsteadily to his feet. “You don’t get to decide who trains her.”

“You didn’t want the job in the first place.” Caleb says, taking a step towards him.

“That’s enough, both of you,” I stand between them, interlocking my fingers so I don’t hurt them again. “Caleb, I don’t need you to fight my battles for me. I am not your girlfriend.” It feels important to say this, but my cheeks still blaze as the words leave my mouth.

“I know that,” Caleb says, looking like he swallowed something sour. “But the things he said to you-”

“Were in the heat of the moment.” I finish.

He gives Haydn a look of loathing before turning back to me. “You demonstrated another power, a Vedmak power. We need to tell Roma.”

“Then go tell her,” I say, gently. “I’m interested to hear what she has to say about it.”

No matter how I try to spin it, Caleb knows this is a dismissal and I see the hurt flash across his eyes before he turns on his heel and strides out of the room. I feel wretched, guilt-ridden, like I’ve been leading Caleb on, but how could I have anticipated that my feelings towards him would change so unexpectedly, that someone else would-

“Casey.” Haydn’s voice sends a shiver down my spine as he says my name, my real name.

“That’s what Caleb called you.” He says.

I whirl around. “It’s just a nickname, it’s short for Acacia.” The lie makes my lips tremble, and I take my time retrieving my sword so that my face doesn’t give me away.

“Casey,” he says again. “I like that better, it suits you.” He smiles a little and it softens his features, makes him look so heartbreakingly handsome that I feel my heart flutter.

He takes the sword from me, his thumb faintly brushing the side of my hand making my skull tingle. “I’m sorry for what I said about-”

“You don’t have to apologise,” I say, shaking my head. “But you should know, Caleb only stayed with me the night of the Khuulsu attack because I was afraid. He’s my friend.”

“It’s none of my business,” Haydn says, turning away from me and dropping the sword into the chest along with his own. “You feel up to training a little more?”

“Do you?” I ask, watching Haydn sway a little on the spot.

“I’ll be fine,” he smiles. “You’re not reacting quickly enough with the sword because you’re not strong enough to wield it.”

I open my mouth to argue, but he holds up his hands. “We just need to work on your strength, that’s all I’m saying.”

“What do you suggest?”

Haydn nods towards the tall, jagged wall. “I want you to climb it.”

“What?”

He folds his arms over his chest. “I want you to climb the wall. There are plenty of footholds so it shouldn’t be too difficult, but you’ll need to use your whole body.” The stony expression is back, but his tone is different now, kinder.

I stare up at the wall, it must be thirty feet high and the rocks stick out unevenly in places. “Shouldn’t I have a guide rope or something?”

“You’re a Foundling, what’s the worst that could happen? If you fall and hit the ground, your body will repair itself.”

I swallow reflexively, hoping that he’s right. So far, my self-healing ability has proven effective on single injuries, but I’m not sure what will happen if I fall and break all my bones. I approach the wall, wiping my sweating palms on my legs. I find a toehold at the bottom and I push myself up until my other foot finds traction, clinging on to the rocks above. It’s slow work, but I keep climbing, sweat pouring down my back and the muscles in my arms and legs protesting.

“You’re doing great.” Haydn calls up at me.

When I’m close to the top, I find that the rocks are smoother, the spaces between them smaller. I pause, looking frantically for a hole or a lump that I can grab on to. I try to shuffle to the side a little and my foot slips.

My hands grope at the wall as I try to find a hold, but it’s too late. I leave my stomach up in the air as gravity pulls me towards the ground.

Haydn catches me effortlessly, his arms curling around me, his knees bending to take the impact. Our noses are an inch apart and his breath tickles my cheek, but the pain inside of him burns through my clothing like fire.

“Good catch,” Roma calls from across the room. Haydn releases me and my feet find the floor. “Caleb tells me you’ve demonstrated another power,” I am surprised to find that Caleb is not with Roma. Instead, Nicholas is by her side, two Smith soldiers at their heels. “We’ve come to find out what all of the fuss is about.”

“I don’t know how I did it.” I look to Haydn for help, but he just shrugs. “It could’ve been a fluke.” I say.

“You won’t know unless you try again.” Roma folds her arms and regards me expectantly.

I look around for something small, something light, and my eyes fall on the water bottle that Haydn gave me earlier. I try to remember how I felt before, when I blasted Haydn and Caleb away from each other. I raise a hand, imagining a burning weight in my chest, a ball of energy that threatens to burst, like the adrenaline I felt earlier. I push it away from my heart, feel it race through my veins until it gathers in the palm of my hand. The energy bursts from my fingertips, the force pulling my bones taut. The bottle topples and rolls across the floor.

“Well done,” Nicholas laughs. “Although I heard that you moved something much bigger.” He smirks at Haydn.

Feeling empowered, I turn my attention to one of the crates. I feel the energy gather in my chest and I raise both hands this time, willing the crate to move, but the energy doesn’t travel through my arms like it did earlier. Instead, the warm feeling spreads throughout my chest and into my neck, it snakes up into my skull where it wraps around my brain and squeezes. My head starts to spin and I feel something hot and wet trickle from my nose.

“You’re bleeding.” Nicholas rushes forward and takes my face in his gloved hands. He pinches the bridge of my nose between his thumb and forefinger as Roma appears at his shoulder. “Is she OK? Should I call for the Halers?”

“I’m fine.” But as I say it, the training room starts to spin around me.

“You need to rest.” Roma says, guiding me towards the door.

Haydn starts forward.

“She’ll be OK,” Roma says. “I’ll take her upstairs.”

Back in my quarters, Roma helps me climb into bed. She dabs at my face with a damp cloth, gently wiping away the dried blood. “It seems you were overwhelmed by your abilities,” her voice is almost a whisper. “It’s not uncommon for young Displacian’s to have difficulties with their powers, but we need to remember that you’re half-human.” She looks around as though someone might be eavesdropping.

“Parker said training would be a good thing.” I say.

“Parker knows what she’s talking about. We just need to take it one day at a time,” Roma says. “Maybe continue practicing on water bottles, rather than crates…. or Smith’s for that matter,” she smiles. “You seem to be getting along well with Haydn.”

“He barely tolerates me.”

Roma gives a small laugh. “It didn’t look that way to me.”

“Did you read his mind?”

“I read everyone’s mind.” She says, raising her eyebrows suggestively.

“And?”

She laughs again. “Now that would be telling. C’mon, you need to get some rest.”

Roma strokes back the hair from my face and gets up from the bed. As she leaves, my eyes flutter shut, my head filled with Haydn.

Chapter 28

 

When I wake, the room is grey and the sky outside is almost dark, the last slither of golden light disappearing on the horizon.

When I see the figure at the end of the bed, a scream catches in my throat, and I reach for the bedroom lamp with my heart hammering in my chest.

“Acacia, it’s just me,” Aimee jumps up as the light snaps on. “Sorry. My father and I came to check on you while you were sleeping, I offered to stay with you until you woke.”

When my heart returns to a steady beat, I find myself able to form words again. “What did your father say?”

“He said you were showing signs of exhaustion and that you were probably still feeling the effects of the portal. Nothing to worry about.” Aimee smiles widely and I feel myself relax.

“I don’t think Displacia agrees with me.” I say.

Her smile falters.

“I’m joking.” I say hastily.

She laughs then. “We all feel exhausted the first few times we travel between the worlds, even when we wear our compression suits. Anyway, dad said you need to eat, build up your strength. Dinner is being served downstairs if you’re feeling up for it?”

My stomach suddenly growls at the mention of food. “Can you join me?”

“Sure, Vedmak food is much better than back home.” Aimee says.

I shift my legs out of bed. “It is? How come?”

Aimee tucks a short lock of platinum hair behind her ear. “At the Haler Household, all of our meals are carefully measured portions of foods that promote our health and wellbeing, in other words, totally boring.” She wrinkles her upturned nose.

“Sounds like the food back at my school.” I say.

Aimee shifts off the bed and starts rifling through the closet. “I heard about your school, it sounds amazing.”

“It used to be.”

Aimee pokes her head around the closet door. “It’s not anymore?”

“I lost someone. My…friend.” I don’t know what made me tell her, but I feel lighter once the words are out, even if it’s not the whole truth.

She pauses with a soft-pink dress clutched in her hands. “Oh, Acacia. I’m so sorry.”

I shake my head. “It’s fine, it’s just… things weren’t the same after that.”

Aimee hands me the dress along with a pair of sandals, placing her hand on top of mine and radiating warmth. “I wish I could take it away for you,” she says. “The sadness, I mean.”

I blink away tears as I head to the bathroom to freshen up and change.

When we head out of my quarters, I’m more than a little disappointed to find that Haydn has been replaced by an unfamiliar Smith soldier outside my door, and I look for him at every turn as we make our way downstairs.

Aimee leads me to a cafeteria filled with small wooden tables, each covered with a lace tablecloth and decorated with a single candle. It’s much less grand than the banquet room, but it’s cosy, like a quaint little restaurant back home.

It’s pretty quiet; just a few Smith soldiers are seated at a table in the far corner. They turn to watch us when we walk in, but they pay us no further attention as we make our way over to a counter laden with food.

“Where is everyone?”

Aimee starts to examine the selection of food. “What, you thought the Vedmak’s partied every night?”

“I guess not.”

“Most of the time, people eat at their own homes,” Aimee says. “They only come to the main building for special occasions, I hear your Aunt loves throwing parties.”

We fill our plates from silver trays laden with a variety of meats and tureens of colourful vegetables, and then we find a table at the opposite end of the room, away from the Smith soldiers.

Once we’re seated, Aimee leans towards me looking serious. “My father told me the Khuulsu attacked you last night.”

I nod and Aimee shudders. “I wasn’t supposed to say anything, but my dad was really worried.”

I push my food around my plate. “He was?”

She nods firmly. “You’re one of the last Foundling’s, you have no idea what you mean to people here.”

My stomach pitches uncomfortably and I hastily change the subject. “What do you know about the Khuulsu.”

Aimee looks thoughtful. “Me and my friends used to tell each other scary stories about the Khuulsu, about them sneaking into people’s bedrooms and draining them dry. I never thought they would really do it. They usually feed on animals, keep themselves to themselves.”

“Wish they still were,” I say, stabbing impatiently at a piece of potato. “I heard someone call them demons at the council meeting, why don’t the leaders deal with them?”
Aimee shrugs. “The Khuulsu aren’t bad, not really.”
“They incapacitate their victims and then they drain their blood.” I say, incredulously.
“Yeah, but they don’t usually attack people. Dad thinks it’s just a group of them that have joined the Shadows.”

“But why are they even allowed to exist? They’re dangerous.”

Aimee frowns at me. “You have dangerous creatures in your world, but you still protect them because they can’t help themselves.”

“This place is just so different from my world and just when I think I’m beginning to understand…” I shake my head. “I don’t know; I guess no two places are the same. At least you all speak English here.”

Aimee snorts and claps a hand over her mouth.

“What’s so funny?”

“It’s not English,” she laughs. “It’s Old-Displacian.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, we were surprised too,” she says. “We found your world and discovered nine percent of its inhabitants spoke our language.”

“But it’s English,” I say. “We have people on Earth who study its origins, and of all the languages on Earth…”

Aimee shrugs. “Didn’t your guardian tell you anything before you got here?”

“No, I only found out I was Displacian just before I was brought here. There wasn’t much time.” My cheeks flush, but she seems to accept this.

“Our legends say that Displacia was born from Earth, that’s why our worlds are linked,” she says. “We have two languages, Displacian and Old-Displacian.” You want to hear some Displacian?” Aimee rests her hands on the table and leans forward.

“Sure.”

“Well you already know one word. Khuulsu, that roughly translates as ‘dark demon’ in Old-Displacian, or English.” She says, looking at me pointedly.

I shudder involuntarily. “OK, say something else.”

Aimee glances over at the soldiers. “Sunhur Smith reduhum bersu erih.”

I watch her mouth forming the unfamiliar words. “What does that mean?”

Aimee leans over the table and lowers her voice. “Those Smith soldiers are hot.”

We both laugh, causing the Smith soldiers to look up disapprovingly. It just makes us laugh harder.

I think of Haydn, wondering what his mouth looks like when he speaks the exotic language.

“Aimee, what do you know about Haydn?”

She smirks a little. “Why do you ask?”

“He’s training me to fight, but I don’t know anything about him, he gives nothing away.”

“Yeah, he’s got that whole brooding thing down, hasn’t he?” She laughs.

“So what’s his story?”

Aimee considers me for a moment, her lips pursed. “One that is only his to tell.” She says with a smile.

“Come on,” I say. “I thought Displacia was supposed to be big on gossip. Half of this place knew I was here before I did.”

Aimee smiles. “That’s true, but sometimes we know when to keep our mouths shut.”

I raise an eyebrow at her.

“Fine,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Haydn lost someone, just like you. I can only imagine what that feels like, and talking about it behind his back would be insensitive, to say the least.”

Haydn lost someone too. The pain I felt from him, the sadness. Haydn’s grieving.

“Are you going to eat that?” Aimee says, pointing at my plate. “I have to report back to my dad what you ate.”

“Seriously?”

Aimee nods earnestly. “He won’t let you continue training if you’re not eating right.”

I hastily shovel down the rest of my food. “Satisfied?”

She pulls a face, but there’s a smile around her lips. “I guess so. Anyway, I have to get going. Mum and Dad are expecting me home.”

“You want me to walk you?” I say, looking out at the dark night, eager for an excuse to leave the confines of the Household.

Aimee shakes her head as she rises from her seat. “I’ll use the fountain. My dad said you should have an early night, wake up refreshed tomorrow.”

“I wasted the day sleeping, I could do with a little training.”

Aimee considers me for a moment. “OK, I can do something that might help, but you can’t tell anyone, especially not my father.”

“OK.” I say, warily.

“Not here.” Aimee hustles me out of the cafeteria. She scans the corridor and once she is satisfied that we’re alone, she presses her fingers to my temples and my skin starts to prickle. I feel heat radiating from her finger tips, sending a shower of warmth from my head to my toes. “There,” she says, releasing me. “It’s a trick we use when we need to wake someone who is unconscious, or move injured people away from danger. You should be able to get some more practice in, but just a couple of hours, and then rest.”

I blink a few times, my head feeling much clearer, as though I have just woken from a long, restful sleep. “Thank you.”

She smiles and pulls me into a swift hug. “Don’t tell anyone I did that.”

“I won’t.”

She waves and then takes off along the corridor. “I’ll see you later.”

As I watch her leave, I feel something rush through my body, a sudden burst of energy that makes me feel like I could do backflips, or scale the building. Exhilarated, I set off at a run towards the training room.

Once inside, I extract one of the blunt swords from the chest and I turn it over in my hand. I start to move around the room, ducking and swerving, slashing the sword through the air like I am fighting an invisible army. I feel strong, powerful, like I can do anything.

I look up at the jagged wall, dropping the sword with a clatter. I take a breath and then I run at the wall. I jump into the air and plant my feet against the rocks, then I start to climb, easily finding the grooves between each stone.

When I get closer to the top, where the grooves are narrower, I side shuffle until I find a better foothold, my muscles stronger, allowing me to cling safely to the rock, then I hoist myself up over the edge.

I did it. I give a hoot of delight that echoes around the room. I can do anything. Whatever Aimee did, it made me feel invincible. I take a deep breath and then I jump.

I realise that it’s a bad idea the moment I leave the platform. As the ground comes up to meet me, I bend my knees, ready to take the impact, and I hit the floor with a smack, rolling forward at the last minute and coming to a stop on my front.

I try to breathe, but I’m winded, pain searing through my body. I roll over and tentatively move each limb. Nothing seems to be broken, but the pain is almost unbearable, searing through my body like fire.

I hear footsteps and then Haydn’s face appears above me, his face set in confusion.

I think how strange I must look in a heap on the floor and a laugh bursts from my lips.

Haydn looks bewildered. “Are you OK?”

The pain in my chest starts to ease and I push myself up from the floor. “I’m fine… I made it to the top of the wall and then I thought I could jump, you know, like the Smith’s, but I fell and…” I dissolve into giggles again.

Haydn looks over his shoulder at something on the ground. I follow his gaze and the laughter catches in my throat. The sword that I cast aside earlier is hovering inches above the ground.

“Are you doing that?” Haydn asks.

“I-” But then I feel it, it’s connected to me, connected to the sudden burst of joy that still radiates in my chest.

“Try to move it.” Haydn whispers.

I close my eyes and take a breath, trying to hold on to the feeling, pushing it from my chest to the tips of my fingers. At first nothing happens, then the sword starts to glide slowly across the room, straight into my outstretched hand.

Haydn smiles as I hand him the blade and my stomach flips.

“Not bad,” he says. “How do you feel?”
“I feel great.”

“Good,” he says. “Now let’s see what else you can do.” He steps back, scraping the tip of the sword across the stone floor menacingly, his eyes burning into mine.

I still feel a tingle all over my body, my palms vibrating with energy. I launch myself towards him; he sidesteps and strikes at me with his sword. I duck under the blade and run towards the wall, planting my feet against the rock. I bend my legs and spring backwards, my body arching into a perfect somersault as I pull another sword from the crate and land gracefully in the centre of the room.

I am so surprised that I almost forget about my sparring partner who spirals towards me, his blade slashing at my chest. I lean backwards and the blade skims my cheek.

We whirl around, dodging each other’s blades. I move faster than I ever have before, energised by Aimee’s magical touch.

Haydn takes small steps backwards until he is almost touching the wall behind him. He dodges under my arm and then holds up a hand.

“I yield,” he says, panting for breath. “You did it, you fought like a Smith. Better than some of them.”

“I think that’s the first time you’ve ever paid me a compliment.” I smile.

“Maybe I underestimated you.” Haydn reaches for my sword, and his fingers brush mine as they close around the hilt. He pulls sharply, drawing me closer, then he leans in. He smells like soap and something masculine, musky. He kisses my cheek, which surprises me, and then his lips trace my jaw until they find mine. His kisses are soft and light, but his grip on my hand tightens and I feel his desire rippling through the loneliness and despair. It flares up between us like an electrical storm, and startled, I pull away.

His dark eyes burn into mine. “I’m sorry.”

“No, I-”

But he’s already returning the swords to the chest. He stalks out of the room and I watch him leave with an ache in my heart.

Chapter 29

 

The next morning, I find Caleb outside my door, his eyebrows drawing together when he sees me scanning the empty corridor behind him.

After Haydn left me in the training room last night, I had returned to my room feeling wounded, my head filled with him, the pressure of his lips, his fingers closing around mine, his strong arms as he picked me up after the Khuulsu attack, his eyes when we first met.

When I finally fell asleep, Haydn invaded my dreams, saving me from my nightmares of Lana, taking away the pain of her death for the briefest moment, only to replace it with the disappointment of waking alone.

“You don’t need a guard outside your door when I’m here.” Caleb frowns.

“I know.” I force a smile, but he looks unconvinced.

Two unfamiliar Smith soldiers guarded my door last night. I had crept into the lounge while it was still dark, opening the door a crack, foolishly expecting Haydn to be there. I was desperate to talk to him, to tell him why I had ended our kiss, but in the harsh light of day, I know that I can’t. Roma warned me not to tell anyone that I can feel the emotions of others.

“Was Hay-”

Caleb’s expression darkens as he reads the rest of the question forming in my mind.

“Never mind.” I step back to allow him entry.

“Roma asked me to give you this,” he hands me a tablet of glass, it’s as thin as paper and barely bigger than the palm of my hand. “It’s your training schedule.”

“Training schedule?” I turn it over, examining the smooth, transparent surface.

Caleb rolls his eyes, but there is a hint of that familiar smirk around his lips. “Put your finger on it.”

I press my index finger to the screen; a red light sweeps from top to bottom and then neat lines of blue text start to appear.

“I programmed it myself,” he says. “It’ll give you a new schedule every day.”

My eyes skim over the tablet. This morning I have telepathy with Caleb, followed by fire divination with Meghan, the thought of having to test my resistance to the flames again making me shudder, then – my heart almost stops when I see his name – I have a whole afternoon of combat training with Haydn.

“Shall we get started?” Caleb says.

I place the tablet carefully on the arm of the sofa. “Is it even possible to learn telepathy?”

He shrugs. “You picked up telekinesis, didn’t you?”

“Not exactly.” I frown, thinking of how the power had burst from me, knocking Haydn unconscious. My stomach squirms uncomfortably at the memory of him lying on the ground.

“You just need to concentrate,” he gives me a lopsided smile that would’ve made me melt last week. “We’ll start easy. I’ll say something in my head and you just need to listen for it.”

“But how do I listen?”

“Here, this might help,” Caleb takes my hands in his, making the back of my skull tingle with anticipation, then he places my fingers at his temples, stepping so close that we are inches apart. “Close your eyes.”

I do as he says, but my head is full of his emotions, his longing and his disappointment. His skin is hot under my touch and I can feel the flutter of the pulse at his temple. It matches the beat of my heart. I am too distracted, I can’t hear anything in Caleb’s mind, maybe I never will. “This isn’t helping.” I sigh.

He holds my hands in place. “Just stay with it, what you’re doing now – feeling my emotion – isn’t that different to telepathy. Try to push through it, listen instead of feeling.”

I try to concentrate, screwing my eyes shut as I try to ignore the tingling in my skull, but Caleb’s emotions are too strong and I’m distracted by something else, someone else, someone pushing his way into my mind, someone who I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since -

Caleb pulls away from me abruptly. “You kissed Haydn?”

“No…I… he kissed me.” I quickly pull the purple cloak in place.

“Don’t bother, I already heard it,” he says, glaring at me. “How could you do that? I thought we were-”

“That we were what?” I ask, more irritably than I intended. “You never made it clear what we were. Back home, you spent more time hanging around Molly than with me.”

“That’s not fair,” he says. “I was following orders.” His face is a mixture of anger and hurt.

“Do you care for him?”

I shake my head firmly. “No, I barely know him.” But my face flushes, the room suddenly hot and airless.

Caleb gives a snort of derision. “You’re lying.”

I concentrate on the purple cloak, holding it behind my eyes so Caleb can’t read my mind.

He takes a step towards me. “Just tell me. Do you care about him?”

I feel the purple cloak slipping and it’s suddenly very difficult to keep it in place.

I do care for Haydn, I wish he were here now. I need to talk to him.

I clutch at my head, battling to keep my thoughts hidden. “No. Caleb, stop.”

“And what about your feelings for me?” He says, his voice low.

The room starts to spin. It’s like there’s a tremor in my head. I-I was attracted to you, but…things are different now. You’re not the one I want.

“What are you doing to me? Please.” The image of Haydn flickers behind my eyes, the smell of the sun on his skin, the feel of his arms around me, the pain that burns through me when we touch, the butterflies that flutter in my stomach when he looks at me. “Stop it. STOP.” There are tears in my eyes, my head hurts so much it feels like my skull is about to crack in two. I can feel Caleb’s mind probing mine, reaching for my darkest secrets. “NO.”

Then, it’s like something exploded. The furniture in the lounge lifts into the air, hovering inches above the ground for a second before slamming back into place with a thud that makes the whole room shake. All of the windows shatter outwards, leaving just the skeletal remains of the frames. Caleb and I are blasted away from one another, landing heavily on the tiled floor at opposite sides of the room.

Caleb climbs unsteadily to his feet and rakes a hand through his hair as he surveys the damage. He starts towards me, and I think he might be saying something, yes, he’s pleading with me, but I can’t hear him because there is a ringing sound in my ears.

My lips tremble as I push myself up from the ground. Stay away from me. I think it loud and clear as I clamber out into the corridor and set off at a run.

He has the good sense not to follow, so once I’m outside I find a quiet spot under the shade of a tree, away from the prying minds of the rest of the Household.

I rest my head in my hands as the ringing sound fades. I can still feel Caleb’s influence, his power probing at the corners of my mind. I’m pretty sure Roma doesn’t allow the Vedmak’s to force each other to reveal their secrets, but this is my fault. I encouraged Caleb’s ‘knight in shining armour’ routine when I asked him to stay in my room.

A shadow falls over me and I look up to find Meghan standing over me, her wild, chestnut hair swept to one side and held in place with a thin, woven band. “Hello, Acacia. Ready for practice?”

I groan inwardly, while simultaneously trying to plaster a smile on my face. “Of course.”

She beams and drops down on to the ground in front me with her legs crossed. She places a lantern between us, the flame inside flickering a cool blue.

“This is from the Fire Oak,” she says. “We’re going to look for visions in the flames.” She opens the tiny door of the lantern and places a hand carefully inside, as though extracting a bird from its cage.

She cups the fire in her hands, and starts to blow delicately, making the flames grow. Then she places the palms of her hands over her eyes. Even though Meghan told me that this is how the Dryad’s look for visions, I still draw away from her in surprise. Seeing the act is much more horrifying than hearing about it.

When she finally wrenches the flames away from her face, I am relieved to find that she still has eyebrows. “Now you try.”

I tentatively take Meghan’s hands, cringing as the blue fire prickles my skin.

“Carefully lift it to your face.” Meghan guides my hands until the fire bites at the tip of my nose. “Close your eyes.” I can still see the flicker of the flames through my eyelids. I take a breath and press my fingers to my face. It feels like the sting of nettles and all I can think of is the pain.

“What do you see?” Meghan asks.

“Fire,” I say, squeezing my eyes tightly shut. “Just fire.”

“And what colour is it?”

It’s like the flames have passed through my eyelids, a rainbow of colours leaping and swirling. “Lots of different colours.”

“That’s great, Acacia,” Meghan says. “The flames will start to form shapes for you to interpret.”

I watch the flicker of colour as the flames lick at my eyes, but the pain is intense, I can’t keep this up for much longer.

There are shapes of course, but they’re just indistinct squiggles created by the movement of the flames. When I can take no more, I pull my hands away from my face, savouring the cool relief of the breeze as it kisses my eyelids.

Meghan takes my hands in hers and I feel the flames leave my fingertips. When I open my eyes, they sting painfully in the light.

Meghan cups my face in her hands. “Your eyes may be sore for a while, that’s normal for your first time. The swelling should go down soon.”

“Swelling?” I groan, thinking of my session with Haydn this afternoon. The last thing I need is two great big puffy eyes.

Meghan closes the door on the lantern, the tiny blue flame now flickering innocently inside. “OK, what did you see?”

I don’t want to disappoint her so, “I saw…a person, maybe, but I couldn’t tell who it was.”

Meghan looks thoughtful. “What did they look like?”

“I’m not sure…they were tall, I think.” I feel my face flush.

She leans back on her hands and tips her head to look up at the branches of the trees. “Hmmm, I will look for a tall figure when I consult the flames this evening,” she smiles. “Our next session is not for a couple of days, but I want you to practice.” She hands the lantern to me before rising gracefully from the grass, her bronze sheath billowing in the breeze.

“Good day, Princess.”

I barely eat at lunchtime, my stomach pitching with nerves as I watch the clock. Thankfully, neither Caleb or Roma are around, so I don’t have to explain the devastation in my quarters. I wonder, briefly, how much trouble I’ll be in, but then I figure that Roma won’t be happy about what Caleb did either. This was his fault. My head still aches from the power he used to force me to share my thoughts, and I hate him for it.

When it’s time for my training session with Haydn, I walk along to the training room in a daze, both dying to see him and dreading it at the same time.

He barely looks at me when I walk into the room, busying himself instead with examining the blunt edges of the training swords.

His hair is wet, as though he has just showered, and it clings to his neck. He wears a long-sleeved t-shirt and I can see the muscles in his shoulders moving beneath the thin fabric. “Where’s your armour?”

My mouth is suddenly dry. “My what?”

“The armour Nicholas gave you yesterday, you need it for training.”

“Oh,” I hadn’t seen it since I passed out yesterday. “I’m sure I don’t need it, I can self-heal, remember?”

“Not if I accidentally pierce you through the heart.”

I think you already did. “Those swords are blunt,” I say. “Besides, I wasn’t wearing it last night.”

He looks at me then, his dark eyes smouldering. His face flushes a little and I don’t need to be a mind reader to know that he’s thinking of our kiss. His mouth forms a tight line as he kicks the lid of the weapons crate closed.

“I was hoping to move on from the training swords,” he says. “But since you’re not prepared…” He looks away from me, speaking instead to the space around us.

The sudden change in his mood is both startling and irritating. I snatch a sword out of his hand and take up my stance, my fingers trembling.

He strikes first, relentless in his attack, and I have to dart left and right to avoid him. The sudden burst of movement makes my head feel like it’s about to explode and it’s not long before I’m pressed against the wall.

He lowers his sword. “You’re not even trying.”

“I’m… I’m not feeling well.”

He ignores me. “Let’s go again.” This time he swipes at my knees, knocking me to the ground. He snatches the sword out of my hand and throws it to the floor with a clatter that echoes around the room. “If you’re not going to take this seriously, we’re done for today.”

I stare up at him open-mouthed. “I told you, I’m not feeling well.” I sit up and rest my head on my knees.

Haydn lets out a long sigh. “Here.”

I look up to find him holding out his hand. I take it without thinking, gasping as his emotion surges through me. He pulls me to my feet and I stumble a little, leaning into his chest for support. His expression softens. “Let’s call it a day.” He says quietly. He releases me and walks away, taking his time picking the swords up and dropping them back in the crate.

“I know you lost someone.” I don’t know why I chose to say it now, I just needed to say something to stop him from leaving.

“Stay out of my head,” he says without looking at me. “Just because you’re a Vedmak, it doesn’t give you the right to read my thoughts whenever you please.”

“I wasn’t; I can’t do that yet.”

He turns and glares at me, like he’s not sure if he believes me.

“So you’re not going to tell me?”

“Why would I tell you? I don’t know you.”

“Fine,” I say, my voice shaking. “Maybe Caleb was right; I should have another trainer.” I climb to my feet and start towards the door, my breath catching in my throat.

“The Foundlings are supposed to be equal representations of all the Households,” he calls after me. “But stubbornness and arrogance are definitely Vedmak qualities.”

I whirl around. “Oh, are you a Vedmak too?”

He looks like he just swallowed something sour.

“I’ve had enough of your mood swings – one moment you’re treating me with contempt and the next you’re kissing me, and now-”

“That was a mistake.” He says.

My stomach twists. “Then why did you do it?”

“Everyone is drawn to the Foundlings,” he shrugs. “We can’t help it.”

“So the only reason you kissed me is because I’m a Foundling?” It’s a low blow and I blink back the tears.

“There’s no other explanation for it.” He lifts his chin, but I see his jaw clench.

“You’re a liar.”

“You think I like you? You think I’m attracted to spoiled Vedmak Princesses who can’t stand on their own two feet?”

“You know nothing about me.”

“I know that you’re a Vedmak, born and bred, I know that you have everyone here running around after you, people risking their lives for you.”

My head is throbbing again, the blood pounding in my ears. I can feel heat gathering in my chest and in the palms of my hands, a power threatening to burst out of me. “Stop it.”

“Do you honestly think I could care for you after what your father did to our planet? To our people?”

“Stop.” My whole body is shaking.

“I feel nothing for you. I didn’t want to kiss you and the only reason it happened is because you’re a Foundling.”

“No I’m not,” I scream at him, my voice echoing around the room. “I’m not a Foundling.”

Chapter 30

 

Silence falls between us, broken only by my ragged breathing. My heart is pounding so loudly that I’m sure he must hear it.

Haydn looks confused. “What did you say?”

“I’m not a Foundling, I’m not Acacia Vedmak.”

His dark eyes scan my face. “Is this some kind of a joke?”

I take a deep, shaky breath. “My name is Casey George, and I’m human, or at least half-human. I was obtained as a decoy to protect the real Acacia Vedmak.”

He looks like he’s not sure whether to believe me, his face set in incredulity.

“It’s why I can’t do everything the Foundlings can. I can’t read minds, I can’t see visions in the fire, I’m not fast and strong like the Smith’s…it was all a lie.”

“Roma said that you can’t do everything because your powers were supressed.” Haydn says, eyeing me doubtfully.

“She lied.” I say, my voice thick with tears.

He puffs out his cheeks, exhaling slowly. “Then… why all this?” He says, gesturing around the training room.

“The Vedmak’s brought me here to convince the council to leave the Foundlings where they are,” I can’t seem to stop speaking. “They ran some tests and found out I was half-Displacian. They’re testing me to see what powers I have and to help my body to adapt.”

He lets out a small sound of disbelief, his face set in astonishment. “Does anyone else know about this?”
“Just a few of the Vedmak’s – Roma, Ivy, Caleb, Parker, and the Emperor.”

“The Vedmak’s lied, this could jeopardise their claim to the throne.” He looks at me sharply. “I knew there was something different about you, I thought it was just because you’d spent so long on Earth, but this…” He looks at me like he’s seeing me for the first time.

“I hated it,” I say, swallowing a lump in my throat the size of a golf ball. “Having to pretend to be a Foundling, having to train to do what they can, knowing all along that I would never be as powerful as they are.”

“But you do have some powers,” Haydn says, furrowing his brow. “I’ve seen them. How is that possible if you’re human?”

Half-human, the Vedmak’s are trying to find out how that happened. I also have powers that aren’t Displacian, and they can’t explain that either.”

He folds his arms over his chest. “What kind of powers?”

“Maybe some kind of psychic ability, I saw something in a dream that came true, and… I can feel other people’s emotions,” The heat starts to rise in my face. “It’s the reason I pulled away from you, you know…last night. I can feel everything you feel.”

He shifts a little awkwardly. “You can?”

“Yes, and it’s overwhelming sometimes,” I say. “Especially when people are feeling particularly… emotive.”

He clears his throat. “So um… where’s the real Acacia?”

His question catches me off guard and my lip starts to tremble. “She’s gone.”

“Gone? What do you mean she’s gone? Gone where?”

“She…she died.” Fresh tears gather in the corners of my eyes.

“He steps towards me, his expression suddenly dark. “The Foundlings are supposed to be protected.”
“They are; it was just her,” I bite my lip to stop myself from saying anything else.

“You said you were obtained as a decoy,” he says. “What does that mean?”

I swallow down the hot tears gathering in my throat. “Ivy adopted me when I was a baby, she raised me as Acacia’s twin. It was an extra cover, because Acacia is royalty.”

“Because twins don’t exist in Displacia.” Haydn says, looking thoughtful.

I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand. “I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I can’t believe I told you, I’ve ruined everything.”

“The Vedmak’s dragged you into this,” Haydn sighs. “It’s their mess.”

“What will you do?” I ask. “Will you tell Nicholas?”

“I probably should,” Haydn says quietly. “Roma lied to him, and now I’m part of that lie too.”

I squeeze my eyes shut to stop the tears from falling. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I just couldn’t bear the way you were looking at me.”

“What do you mean?” He says, a little taken aback.

“Like you hated me, you were looking at me like you hated me.” The tears start to fall then, leaving hot, wet tracks on my cheeks.

He moves towards me, then he hesitates. “You don’t like to be touched.” He clasps his hands behind his back. “Because you feel everything everyone else is feeling.”

I take a deep, shuddering breath. “You’re the only one I want to touch, but you feel more pain than I’ve ever felt from anyone.”

I’m sorry, here.” He takes a cautious step towards me, pulling the cuff of his shirt over his hand. He brings it to my face and dabs at my eyes using the fabric to absorb the tears.

I look up at him through wet lashes, blinking away the last of the tears. “Thank you.”

He holds my gaze for a long time, his hand still at my cheek. Without speaking, I lift my mouth to his. I kiss him long and deep, the taste of my tears on both of our lips. I raise up on my tiptoes and wrap my arms around his neck, pressing myself against him until I feel the thrum of his heart against mine. Instead of cringing away from his pain and anger, I absorb it. His pain becomes mine, both of us burning together. When we finally break apart, he tucks a lock of hair behind my ear.

“So what now?” He says.

“I don’t know what the Vedmak’s will do when they find out I’ve told you.” I step away from him with a heavy, sickly feeling, closing my fingers around the gem at my chest. “I guess I have to go home.”

“You don’t have to go,” Haydn says. “I’ll keep your secret.”
I shake my head sadly. “I don’t like lying, Haydn, it eats me up, and I won’t put you in that position. Besides, they’ll hear in my thoughts that I told you.”

“You can’t just leave, not now.” He says, taking my hand in his. He looks at me with those dark eyes that remind me so much of the Displacian night sky.

“You were right by the way, I did lose someone,” he says. “Only it wasn’t just one person.” His face is suddenly etched with pain. “I lost everyone.”

“In the war?”

He nods. “My father was killed, along with my aunts, uncles, even my grandparents. Then my mother and brother left. My brother is a Foundling, he was sent to Earth with the other Foundling children, with Acacia. My mother went with him.”

I realise, then, that by telling him about Lana, I made him doubt the safety of his brother. “Haydn, I’m-”

He shakes his head. “You don’t need to say it. But now you know why… why I’m like this.” His brow furrows and I desperately want to put my arms around him, hold myself against him again, stay here with him forever.

“The Foundlings are well hidden,” I say. “Your mother and brother are safe.” It’s not untrue, the Foundlings are well hidden, so well hidden that even their own people can’t find them, but I can’t tell Haydn this. I’ve felt his anger, who knows what might happen if he finds out that the Vedmak’s can’t trace the Foundlings.

The ground below us shifts suddenly, violently, sending us both falling to the ground. Dust showers down from the ceiling and the tall, glass windows rattle in their frames.

Haydn helps me up and guides me over to the wall, where we hold on until the shaking subsides. When the ground is still, I can still feel the vibration in my bones. “You have the quakes here too?”

“They’re like an aftershock of the quakes on Earth,” Haydn says quietly, still clasping on to my arm and sending jolts of anxiety surging through me. “Casey, what did they tell you about the earthquakes?”

I look up into his face, it reflects my own unease. “They didn’t tell me anything.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” He says, shaking his head.

“What do you mean, what is it?”

“Haydn,” A Smith soldier strides into the room, his face grim. “You’re needed in the fountain room.”

“Come on,” Haydn takes my hand and we follow the soldier out of the training room. Haydn walks quickly and I almost have to jog to keep up, trepidation coursing through both our bodies and combining in the palms of our interlocked hands.

We find the fountain room crowded with people – mainly Smith’s dressed in compression suits of green, and Vedmak’s dressed in blue, with some Halers dotted here and there wearing white – Aimee amongst them. There is also a handful of brown-clad Wanderers watching nervously from the side lines.

I scan the noisy crowd for Roma, the proximity of so many bodies making me heady.

Nicholas pushes through the crowd towards us. “It’s zone one, level five. The quakes brought down dozens of buildings and sent a nuclear power station into meltdown.”

“Level five?” Haydn says, his face suddenly pale.

Nicholas nods firmly. “We have to go now; the capital city is overrun with rioters. It’s chaos.”

“Which capital city?” I ask, my breath catching in my throat.

Nicholas starts to walk away. “Our communication systems are down so Roma’s staying behind with a team to try to bring them back online. You’re to stay here with her, Acacia.”

“Nicholas, where did it happen? Which country?”

When he turns, his expression is pained. “England.”

Chapter 31

 

My legs feel like they’re about to give way beneath me. The capital city. London. “Ivy and Parker are there.”

“They’ll be OK, Casey,” Roma says, appearing behind me. “The rioters won’t get near enough to hurt them and the power station is miles away from the city. Some of my agents have already gone ahead to deal with the melt down and Nicholas has assembled a team of Smith soldiers and Vedmak agents to extract Parker and Ivy.”

“I want to go.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Roma shakes her head firmly. “You’ve only just started your training.”

“I can’t stay here waiting to find out if they’re OK, I have to go.”

“Ivy made me responsible for you,” Roma says. “I can’t let you leave.”

I stare at her intently. You promised I could go home whenever I wanted. I’m choosing to go now. Let me do this and I promise to come back.

Roma’s mouth tightens into a thin line as she hears my silent plea. She considers me for a moment and then sighs a little exasperatedly. “Nicholas, I want you to take Acacia with you.”

He looks at her in surprise.

“She should see what we are dealing with. You’ll take care of her?”

“With my life.” Nicholas says, taking her hand and skimming a gloved thumb over her knuckles.

She takes a long inward breath, looking me up and down. “Well you can’t go dressed like that.”

Ten minutes later I stand between Nicholas and Haydn wearing a compression suit in Vedmak-blue, my hair tied in a knot on top of my head.

Nicholas slides a sword into the sheath at my back. This is no training sword; I see the glint of sharp steel as it is slotted securely in place. “We don’t really use these, do we?” I ask, my stomach twisting.

Nicholas smiles. “Only in extreme circumstances, they’re mostly just a scare tactic. No one’s going to mess with you when you have a sword in your hand.”

We near the front of the line and I step up on to the ledge of the fountain, my stomach squirming with nerves. I look over my shoulder at the group assembled behind us and I see Caleb. He catches my eye and I hastily look away, wondering for a brief moment if my quarters are still in devastation.

Haydn pulls my hood up over my head and wraps his arms around me. “I’ll need to hold on to you so I can guide you through to the other side.”

I nod. “And thank you… for not saying anything to Nicholas about what I told you.”

He frowns, then he plants a quick kiss on my forehead. “We can talk about it later. Now, on three. One, two, three…”

I feel a stab of panic as he pitches us into the fountain, but this time the temperature of the water is bearable, the compression suit protecting me from the icy sting. Electricity flashes and crackles around us, but my head doesn’t spin like it did before.

Before I know it, we are swimming towards a dim light and then my face breaks the surface. I wade towards the edge of the fountain, and as my eyes clear, I take in the familiar surroundings.

Haydn pulls back his hood, shaking out his dark mane. “Are you OK?”

“Trafalgar Square,” I say. “We’re in Trafalgar Square.”

But it’s not the Trafalgar Square I remember. Instead of the usual hustle and bustle of tourists and the surrounding traffic, the square is empty except for a man sleeping on a nearby bench, his body covered with a sheet of cardboard. There are no rioters, no police sirens like I had imagined, just an eerie silence.

“Where is everyone?” I ask.

“No idea.” Haydn replies, scanning the area.

Nicholas appears on the ledge beside us and gives a signal. The Smith’s and Vedmak’s in front of us shift into position, creating a perimeter around the fountain. “An emergency broadcast was released,” he says. “Everyone was instructed to stay indoors.”

I jump down from the ledge, shivering in my now-wet compression suit. More Displacian’s emerge from the fountain, leaving puddles on the pavement as they step into Trafalgar Square.

“Here.” Caleb appears beside me and reaches around the back of my neck. I feel him press something on the back of my collar and my suit starts to heat up, warm air spreading through the leathery fabric and warming my body.

“Thanks.” I say, as tiny blasts of warmth shoot from the shoulders to dry my hair.

“You need to take care of her.” Caleb says, glowering at Haydn.

Haydn clenches his jaw. “She doesn’t need anyone to take care of her.”

“Yes, she does.” Caleb says, turning to me with a pained expression.

Before I can respond, Nicholas ushers Caleb over and the two of them walk silently towards the sleeping man. I watch Caleb’s back feeling both irritated and embarrassed.

At first, I think he and Nicholas are going to wake the man, to send him to safety, but then he whips off his cardboard sheet with a flourish and springs to his feet. “Good to see you both,” he shakes hands with Nicholas and then Caleb, before signalling in the general direction of the road. “We’ve searched the area for Ivy and Parker, but we haven’t been able to locate them,” the man takes off his ragged cap and scratches his head. “They were last seen heading towards Tower Bridge, followed by a herd of rioters, must be at least a hundred of them.”

Haydn squeezes my hand reassuringly, but I feel his own panic spike through me.

“OK, I’ll take a team in search of the rioters, try to distract them,” Nicholas says. “Caleb, you head towards the bridge, try to locate Ivy and Parker.”

“It’s going to take some time to get across the city,” Caleb says. “With our communications down, we couldn’t call in logistics ahead of our arrival.”

“It’s all been taken care of.” The man says, just as a huge, black truck comes rumbling around the corner.

The Displacian’s surge forward as Nicholas and Caleb open the shutter on the back of the truck and jump inside. A ramp emerges, hitting the tarmac with a clatter, then I hear the guttural roar of an engine. Caleb and Nicholas emerge on a pair of shiny, black dirt bikes, riding steadily down the ramp, their heads encased in black helmets with a letter ‘D’ stamped on the side.

Haydn releases my hand to join the other Smith’s and Vedmak’s jumping into the back of the truck to get bikes of their own. There isn’t enough for everyone, so Nicholas calls for people to pair up, then he rounds up a team to search for the rioters. Haydn and I are to go with Caleb, in search of Ivy and Parker.

Haydn exits the truck astride his own bike, he hands me a helmet before slipping his own over his head.

“I think you should come with me, Casey.” Caleb says, so close that it sounds like he’s whispering in my ear.

At first, I think I’m hearing his thoughts, then I realise that the helmets have a built in communication system, and from the way everyone turns in my direction, it appears that they all heard Caleb too.

“I’m going with Haydn,” I say, swinging my leg over the seat of Haydn’s bike. “You’ll need a clear head so you can listen out for Ivy and Parker.”

“Fine,” he says, pulling his shaded visor down over his eyes. “Then I’ll take point. I’ll see if I can get a reading when we get closer to the bridge.”

“We’ll meet back here in three hours.” Nicholas says, his voice reverberating inside my helmet. He revs his engine and then he and his team take off with a deafening roar.

Aimee climbs on to the back of Caleb’s bike and then he starts in the opposite direction.

I clutch on to Haydn as we speed through a street lined with damaged shop fronts, my stomach dipping as adrenaline courses through me.

The surrounding windows are smashed, the insides of the buildings in disarray. Now and again I think I see a face peering out from a window, startled by the offensive sound of the bikes.

We pass under a bridge, a stationary train clinging to the tracks above, we weave through abandoned cars, dodge around huge cracks in the road and shattered glass.

When Caleb pulls his bike to a halt and takes off his helmet, the rest of us group around him.

“I heard Ivy,” he calls over the snarling engines. “They’re close, she can see the bridge from wherever she’s holed up, and-”

Caleb’s expression goes blank for a moment, then he starts to scan the road around us. He looks over his shoulder towards the bridge, frowning as something claims his attention. I follow his gaze and see a red bus lying on its side.

“There’s someone inside,” Caleb says. “A woman, she’s hurt.”

I climb off the back of the bike and take off my helmet. “In the bus?”

Caleb nods. “She’s pregnant.” He starts towards the bridge, followed by a group of Vedmak’s.

“Wait,” I say. “She’s probably scared out of her mind. Let me go first.”

“I’ll go too,” Aimee hurries forward. “If she’s injured I can help.”

Aimee and I head towards the overturned bus, it’s so quiet that I can hear the gently sway of the river below and the wind as it whistles through the railings.

Luckily, the door to the bus is on the upside and it’s wide open. Caleb gives me a foot-up so that I can clamber onto the wheel. I peer inside and I hear a whimper.

“It’s OK, we’re here to help you.” I call, lowering myself into the bus.

I see dark hair and then a small, pale face peeking around the side of a seat about halfway along the row. Aimee lands softly beside me on the door to the driver’s booth. She holds up a hand for me to wait, and then she starts towards the woman, her footsteps crunching on shattered glass.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” she says, crouching down beside the woman. “What’s your name?”

“S-Sarah.” She is huddled in a kneeling position, clutching at her swollen abdomen.

“Sarah, I need to have a feel of your tummy. Are you injured?”

“My head,” she sweeps back her short, black hair, revealing a red welt above her left eyebrow. “They pushed the bus over – a gang – they just went crazy.” Sarah’s eyes are wide, her breath ragged.

“It’s OK,” Aimee says. “You’re safe now.” She touches her fingers to Aimee’s abdomen. “Your baby’s fine.” She inspects Sarah’s forehead and then cups her palm over the wound. When she pulls back her hand, the welt has gone.

“I need to get her to a hospital,” Aimee says. “Her baby is OK, but she could go into labour at any moment. I’m going to speak to Caleb.”
Aimee makes her way carefully along the inside wall of the bus and then lifts herself out of the door, using the railings as a step up. “Stay with her.” She calls back to me.

I make my way along the bus, disorientated by the interior being on its side, and I crouch down beside Sarah, trying desperately to think of something reassuring to say. Her head hangs forward, her hair obscuring much of her face.

“So…. is it a boy or a girl?”

She doesn’t respond, but she appears to be shaking, her whole body shuddering with every breath.

“Sarah, are you OK?”

She draws her head back slowly and I recoil in horror when I see that her eyes are black, just like Molly’s were, just like the beetle-black eyes of the Khuulsu.

“He’s coming for you.” She says, her mouth pulling up at the sides into a wide smile.

I start to back away from her. She is staring both at me and right through me. “He’s coming for you and they won’t be able to stop him,” Sarah continues. “He’ll destroy everything and everyone you love. It’s too late for me, I’ll die before I help him.”

I stop then. “Who will, Sarah? Who are you talking about?”

Her face crumples and she begins to sob.

“Sarah?”

Her tone changes to something closer to a cry. “You have to run, Casey. You have to run. Don’t go to Evergreen, don’t go to Malvern, he’ll find you there.”

“What-”

Sarah clamps her hands over her ears and lets out a scream that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

“Casey?” Haydn’s head appears in the doorway.

“She’s being controlled,” I say, moving swiftly towards him as he drops down into the bus. “She sai-” I turn to look at Sarah, but her eyes are back to a normal, her brow furrowed in confusion.

“What do you mean controlled?”

“She said someone’s coming for me.”

Haydn looks back at Sarah, now clutching at her swollen tummy, silent tears rolling over her cheeks. “She’s not showing any signs of mind control,” he says. “Maybe she’s just confused.”

“Her eyes were black,” I say, impatiently. “She said I should run and then she screamed.”

He looks at Sarah again and she looks back, her eyes wide.

“You have to believe me,” I say. “Something’s wrong.”

“Ok,” Haydn says. “I believe you, but Aimee said we have to move her, at least to somewhere secure until we can get her to a hospital.”

He approaches Sarah cautiously and holds out a hand. “It’s OK,” he says, softly. “We’re here to help you.”

She takes Haydn’s outstretched hand and then he shifts an arm around her waist before carefully manoeuvring around the debris towards the door.

I climb out of the upturned bus first, aided by Smith soldiers, then Haydn and Caleb help Sarah out. She looks at the empty bridge littered with abandoned cars, her face set in bewilderment, as though she can no longer remember how she got there.

As the Smith’s help her down on to the road, I turn to Caleb. “Sarah was being controlled.” I say quickly. I’m not ready to forgive him for what he did to me, but I know he’ll believe me. He only needs to look into her mind to know that I’m telling the truth.

He scans my face and I see a flash of guilt in his eyes.

“It was just for a second, her eyes were black and she said something to me.”
“You’re right,” he says, narrowing his eyes as he fixes Sarah with a stare. “I can see the darkness in her mind. What did she say to you?”

Before I can answer, Haydn grabs my hand, sending a jolt of panic up into my brain. “We’ve got incoming.”

I turn to follow his gaze. At the far end of the bridge, I see a swarm moving towards us, men and women moving silently, weaving around the stationary vehicles.

“Rioters.” Haydn says.

“Aimee, take Sarah into that building,” Caleb says, pointing to a glass building at the closest side of the bridge. “We’ll lead them away.”

Aimee takes off, assisted by one of the Smith soldiers who half-carries Sarah towards the building.

As we climb back on to our bikes, I hazard a glance at the approaching crowd, there must be at least a hundred of them.

We’ve barely turned around before Caleb pulls his bike to a sudden halt. There’s another crowd heading in our direction, trapping us on the bridge.

“Can’t we push through them?” I ask, but the words die in my throat when I see the guns in the hands of the rioters.

Caleb moves his arms in a sweeping motion, and the scattered vehicles form a barricade across the bridge. “Head to the steps.” He calls.

But as we dump our bikes, more rioters emerge from the stone steps at either side of the bridge, the water from the river lapping at their feet. “The Shadows,” Caleb says. “They’re here.”

The crowds have come to halt. Most of them look like ordinary people, young, old, male, female, some are dressed in suits, as though they have just come from the office, others wear a more casual attire. But all of them have the same black eyes.

I realise, then, that the water has started to rise, the river rocking backwards and forwards, sending water rushing between the railings on either side of the bridge. “Morgana’s.” I say.

“Amongst others,” Caleb replies. “I can hear their thoughts; they’re controlling the rioters.”

That’s when I see them, in amongst the gathering of ordinary people, figures shrouded in black cloaks, their faces concealed.

My breath catches in my throat. “What are we going to do?” I say, reaching for Haydn’s hand. I can feel his panic thrumming against my skin with every beat of his pulse.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Caleb says behind me. “It’s too late.”

I turn to look at him and he fixes me with a sad expression. “Take her.”

“What-”

Haydn grabs me around the waist, just as the river rises up to form two huge waves on either side of the bridge. I hear a snap, a rush of wind and then everything goes black.

Chapter 32

 

When I open my eyes we’re back in Trafalgar Square, the fountain tinkling serenely behind us. The sky is darker now, the clouds a thick, steel grey and I can feel the cool patter of rain on my face. Both the homeless man and the truck are gone, the square once again deserted.

I round on Haydn. “What happened?”

“We teleported.” He says, avoiding my gaze.

“What? How is that even possible? I can’t-”

“No, but I can,” he says, softly. “I’m a Wanderer, Casey. I’m not a Smith. You aren’t the only one who has a secret.”
My head starts to spin. “You’re a Wanderer?”

Haydn nods, his mouth tight, his eyes filled with shame.

“Why did you bring me here?” I ask, fear suddenly gripping my insides as I think of the Wanderers I met in the woods. I start to back away from him.

“I was following orders.”

“What do you mean you were following orders? Whose orders?”

“The Household leaders,” he says. “The reason Nicholas kept me so close to you was so I could help you disappear if you were ever in danger.”

“What are you talking about?” I can feel my hands shaking at my sides.

“Nicholas believes in you; he believes that the Foundlings can help stop the war with the Shadows. He wanted to protect you at any cost.”
“But I’m not a Foundling, I’m a fraud, if Nicholas knew-”

“You are not a fraud, Casey. You are powerful; you may be the most powerful being we’ve ever seen. You’re part-human, and yet what you did in the training room-”

“That was nothing, Haydn, less than nothing,” tears start to pour over my cheeks. “We left them there, we just left them to die.” My voice has risen to a high-pitched wail. “We didn’t find Ivy; I might never see her again.”

Haydn looks away from me. “If we’d stayed, we’d be dead too. There were too many of them and they had guns. We’re not bulletproof.”

“Neither are they,” I squeeze my fists against my cheek to stop myself from screaming. “Take me back to them, there might be something I can do.”

“I can’t.”

“You take me back, Haydn,” I grab his arms, feeling his shame burn under my touch. “Take me back.”

“My orders are to return you to Displacia,” he says. “I have to take you to Roma.”

“I can’t go back to Displacia; I can’t tell Roma that they are…that Ivy is….”

“You’re not going back.” A familiar, deep voice calls.

I feel Haydn react under my grip, and when I turn I find Morox standing knee-deep in the fountain, two Morgana’s behind him, his crossbow aimed at my heart. Haydn tries to shift around me.

“Stay where you are, Wanderer.” Morox spits. He steps out of the fountain, as more Morgana’s rise from the water behind him.

“You were behind all this?” Haydn asks.

“The Shadows were behind the attack,” Morox says, smiling dangerously. “Morgana’s do not have the power to control minds.”

“No, but you do have the power to start an earthquake.”

Morox grins, showing his rotten teeth. “That’s true. Members of my Household have been defecting to the Shadows for years. I’ve remained somewhat neutral to their cause, but I switched my allegiance after the last council meeting.”

“You don’t switch allegiance to a terror organisation because of an argument with another Household leader.” Haydn says.

Morox curls his lip. “It was the last straw, the Vedmak’s can’t be trusted. Displacia will be a better place in the hands of the Shadows. They’ll cloak our world in darkness once again, they’ll bring control, order.”

“They’ll bring chaos, just like before.” Haydn says.

Morox shrugs his shoulders. “Maybe, but I’ll be on the right side. After I hand this one over, I’ll be revered by the Shadows.” He dips his head in my direction.

It’s just like Sarah said. ‘He’s coming for you.’ She told me to run. Whoever was controlling her was trying to warn me.

I have to do something. I try to gather my strength; I try to find the power to deal with Morox, to blast him back off his feet, just like I did with Caleb and Haydn in the training room, but my whole body is shaking with nerves.

“If you want her, you’ll have to go through me.” Haydn says.

The Morgana’s shift closer, but Morox just smiles. “What’s one less Wanderer?” He presses the butt of his crossbow more securely against his shoulder.

“No,” I say, my heart pounding furiously in my chest. “I’ll go with you.”

Haydn puts a hand on my wrist, his fingers tingling with fear. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“Enough of this.” Morox yells.

I hear the clunk of the crossbow, as he releases his arrow.

“NO.” I throw my hands up and Morox is knocked off his feet, slamming into the Morgana’s assembled behind him. I whirl around, throwing myself at Haydn, but the arrow finds its mark.

Everything slows down. I think I hear the distant rumble of motorbikes, but I can’t be sure, because everything around me is melting away.

Haydn and I fall to the ground, my fingers are closed around his forearm, but I can’t feel him. If this is it, if this is the last time I will see Haydn, I should be memorising every curve of his face, every fleck of gold in those dark eyes, but all I can see is his mouth forming my name and the spread of blood across his chest.

Chapter 33

 

I look down at my hands. They are covered with something dark and sticky, almost black in the half light, and my knees are skinned where they made contact with the ground. I touch the lump on the side of my head with trembling fingers, following the streak of blood that trickles down my temple.

I don’t know where I am, but the ground is cold and grainy, like sand and I can hear the sound of waves crashing against rocks below. The moon appears from behind a cloud and I see her balancing on the edge of the cliff.

My eyesight is still blurred from the blow to my head, but I try to crawl towards her, I try to use my last ounce of strength to save her, because that is my purpose. I am inches away from her when her arms flail out. Everything around me seems to freeze as she slips, the wind whipping her hair around her face, white in the light of the pale moon. Her hand stretches out towards me and she yells something, but the wind carries her words away like petals from a dying flower.

The ground below me trembles and I scream her name until my throat is raw, hot tears streaming down my face as my fingers claw at the ragged cliff edge. Her white dress billows around her like the sails of a ship, but it doesn’t slow her fall. The darkness below rears up and swallows her whole. Then she is gone.

 

Everything is suddenly too bright and there is a face leaning over me, long hair tickling my cheek. “You made it,” Lana says. “But this was only the beginning, you have to learn the truth.”

 

I wake with a start, taking in a rattling breath that leads to a coughing fit. I clutch at my chest as a sharp pain shoots through my ribcage. There is a swirl of images rushing around in my mind, and I try to piece them together – Trafalgar Square, the woman on the bus, the Shadows, faceless, standing on the bridge amongst the rioters, Morox releasing his arrow.

I try to sit up, but soft hands push me back against the pillow.

“Take it easy.”

I rub at my eyes with the heel of my hand until the face in front of me comes into focus.

“Ivy.” I gasp, lunging towards her and throwing my arms around her neck. I try to ignore the shooting pain in my chest as I cling to her. “You’re OK,” I croak. “What happened?”

She leans back to look at me, brushing the hair off my damp forehead. “You don’t remember?”

I try to think back. Trafalgar Square… Morox… the crossbow… and… “Haydn!”

“He’s fine,” Ivy smiles. “Thanks to you.”

I remember my breath catching in my throat as Morox’s arrow sailed towards Haydn, I remember wheeling around and throwing myself at him, but the arrow… “I thought I was too late.”

“The arrow hit you,” she says. “Right between the shoulder blades. You saved Haydn’s life.”

I remember Haydn’s dark eyes widening with horror, the blood staining the front of his compression suit, only it wasn’t his blood. It was mine.

Ivy’s eyes are teary as she sees the memory in my mind. “The arrow pierced your heart. Not even the Foundlings can survive that.”

“Did I…. die?”

She swallows. “Your heart stopped, but your body pushed the arrow out almost immediately and began to heal itself. It was miraculous.”

I try not to dwell too much on that, my mind struggling to understand the wonders my body can perform. “What about you and Parker, and Caleb and the others? How did you make it out of London?”

“The Morgana’s dealt with the rioters on the bridge,” Ivy says. “They created a tidal wave and brought on a huge storm that distracted the Shadows, forcing them to relinquish their hold on the rioters. It bought us enough time to call for reinforcements and to bring you here, to the Halers Household.”

“The Morgana’s? But Morox was behind all this. He tried to kill Haydn, he was going to hand me over to the Shadows.”

“Morox was acting independently of his Household, he managed to convince a few of his members to join him, but the rest of the Morgana’s, including Morox’s son Marius, are loyal to the Emperor. Marius led the Morgana’s defence against the Shadows.”

“So everyone’s OK? Caleb? Parker? Aimee?”

Ivy smiles. “They’re all OK.”

“But how did Caleb find you with all that going on?”

“We found him,” she says. “We were listening in to what was happening outside and we made a run for it. We arrived at the bridge just as the rioters were being swept into the river.”

“And did you find anything? About my parents I mean.”

Ivy looks away from me. “The orphanage is gone; the records were all moved to an archive building. We made it there, but we didn’t find anything before the attack. I’m sorry, Casey.”

I feel my heart sink.

“We’ll go back,” Ivy says. “We’re helping rebuild the city, we can visit the archive again. Right now, there’s someone outside who’s dying to see you.”

Ivy kisses me lightly on the forehead and leaves the room. Seconds later, she is replaced by Haydn, who perches on the end of the bed and rakes his fingers through his hair. “I thought you were-”

“I’m fine, really,” I say. “How long was I out for?”

He pulls me gently towards him and I wince as pain shoots through my ribcage. He rests his forehead against mine. “A couple of days, we were all worried. Ivy was a mess.”

“I think you underestimated my abilities.” I smile.

His expression stiffens. “Please don’t do that again.”

“I can’t promise that.” I brush my lips against his.

“I’m grateful,” he says. “You saved me, but my life is nothing if you’re not in it.”

“I thought you said you don’t know me.”

“I know you.” He says, pressing his lips against mine, harder, insistent. When he finally pulls away, I find myself breathless.

“I want to keep you all to myself,” he groans. “But everyone’s waiting to see you.”

Haydn shifts off the bed and extracts a bundle from a chair in the corner. “Get dressed,” he says, tossing the bundle towards me. “I’ll meet you downstairs.”

“Wait,” I say. “I remember what you said, about being a Wanderer.”

He turns to look at me, his expression tight.

“I don’t care,” I say. “Whether you’re a Wanderer or a Smith, but I don’t get why you’re pretending to be something you’re not.”

He raises an eyebrow at me sardonically.

“That’s different,” I say. “I didn’t exactly have a choice.”

“Neither did I,” Haydn says. “My father joined Ezra’s followers when I was just a kid. He did terrible things, but then Ezra started rounding up Foundlings and my father realised that my brother would be a target. He turned himself in, in exchange for his family’s protection. My mother, brother and I were taken to the Smith’s Household. When they were sent to Earth, I was cared for by a Smith family until I was old enough to start training.”

“What happened to your father?” I ask, afraid to hear the answer.

“He was killed trying to bring Ezra down.”

A silence falls between us and Haydn shifts somewhat awkwardly towards the door.

“I like you better as a Wanderer.” I say.

He smiles then. “I like you better as a human.”

Half-human.” I correct.

“Oh, that’s right,” he laughs. He gives me a long, blazing look before he leaves.

It takes me a while to dress, my back and chest aching as I pull on a soft, pale-blue shirt and trousers.

I find the Household leaders gathered in the fountain room of the Haler Household – a brightly-lit space filled with green vines that creep across the walls. The Haler’s fountain is like a miniature waterfall, the water cascading from the wall into a rocky basin below.

“It’s good to see you up and about.” Galen smiles widely from across the room, his arms around Alistair and Aimee.

Roma pulls me into a hug, radiating warmth. “I’m so glad you’re OK.”

“You surpassed all of our expectations.” Parker says, squeezing my shoulder.

Nicholas tells me how grateful he is that I saved Haydn’s life, while Caleb flashes me a grin, but I only have eyes for Haydn. Without his usual scowl, his expression is softer, his eyes even more beautiful. He gives me the briefest of winks from across the room as the crowd flocks around me.

Marius is here too, his chest bare, revealing the deep gouges in his flesh. I can see the tip of his arrow over his shoulder and my stomach twists uncomfortably.

“You have nothing to fear, Princess,” Marius says. “My father may be in allegiance with the Shadows, but my loyalty lies with the Emperor, and any member of my Household who cannot accept that will be arrested for treason.”

I eye Marius warily, but Roma rests a comforting hand on my shoulder. “We can trust him. Marius is going to help us in our search for the Shadows.”

“I believe my father will have information that can help us,” His expression darkens at the mention of Morox.” “We’re going to extract it from him using any means necessary. We’re going to bring all of the Shadows to justice.”

When Marius says ‘any means necessary’, I feel myself shudder. I can’t believe that Marius would hurt his own father, but the steely expression on his face makes me doubtful.

“I don’t understand,” I say. “The Shadows were right there in London. Why couldn’t they be captured?”

“The Shadows have been toying with us,” Roma says. “The earthquakes on Earth are a call to war, the Shadows send the signal, then when we arrive they use humans to attack us. We’ve fought battles like this before, but the Shadows evade us every time.”

“But why would they do that?”

“They want us to respond with the full Displacian army, leaving Displacia unprotected,” Nicholas says grimly. “They know how much we care about Earth and they’re using that to their advantage.”

I swallow reflexively, wondering how vast the group of Shadows is, worried about how far their reach extends.

“Could we have some time alone with our niece?” Roma asks politely.

The room murmurs their ascent before leaving, Haydn briefly linking his fingers with mine before being ushered out of the door by Nicholas.

When there is just Roma, Ivy and me, my adoptive Aunts turn to me with serious expressions.

“Caleb said that someone spoke to you on Earth,” Roma says. “Someone who was being controlled by the Shadows,”

I nod. “It was a woman, she was pregnant,”

“She’s fine,” Ivy says, hearing the question forming in my mind. “But we need to know what message she conveyed to you.”
“I think it was a warning, she said he’s coming for you.

“Anything else?” Roma asks.

They both look at me with interest.

“She told me to run,” I say, clearly remembering what Sarah said. “She said they won’t be able to stop him.”

“Well she was obviously talking about Morox.” Ivy says quickly.

“But why would she warn me that he was coming? Who would be using her to convey that message.”

“That’s a good question,” Roma says.

“I think whoever it was, they were trying to help me,” I say, an idea forming in my mind. “Do Displacian’s believe in life after death?”

I had never given it much thought before, but after discovering this strange, new world, I feel like anything could be possible. “I think it was Lana. She said it was too late for her, she said she would die before she helped him.”

Ivy’s face is filled with anguish. “I wish it was Lana,” she says sadly, “But she’s gone.”

“We believe that people pass on to the next life when they die,” Roma says softly. “They don’t hang around to give messages to their loved ones. I’m sorry, Casey.”

“I just can’t help feeling that there’s more, like there’s something about her death that we’re missing, I’ve always felt it. And it’s not just me, my friend, Bria, she has nightmares about that night too, she dreams that a man took Lana, a man without a face,” My heart starts to beat furiously as all of the pieces start to slot into place like a jigsaw puzzle. “I saw the Shadows on the bridge, they were faceless.”

“They’re not faceless, they wear masks.” Roma says kindly. “Your friend probably has those dreams because of the trauma of losing her friend.”
“Maybe, but I keep dreaming about Lana. It’s like she’s trying to communicate with me. It’s all starting to make sense.”

Roma and Ivy exchange a glance.

“I don’t expect you to believe me,” I sigh. “But I know what I saw and I know what I heard on that bus. I’m going to find out what happened to Lana. What really happened.”

“What do you honestly expect to find out that we don’t already know?” Roma asks incredulously.

“I don’t know, but it’s the right thing to do,” I say. “Before all of this, I was driving myself crazy trying to remember what happened that night. At first, Displacia was a distraction, but all the things I’ve learnt since I got here seem to be leading me closer and closer to finding out what happened to Lana. I have to go home.”

“We need you here,” Roma says. “I need you to be Acacia and we need to keep you safe.”
“I think it’s obvious that I am no safer here than I am back home and you promised I could return. Let me do this and I will come back to Displacia, I’ll pretend to be Acacia, but please, let me find out what happened to my sister.”

“Roma, I don’t like this anymore than you do,” Ivy says. “But we’re already strengthening security around the school and I think we’ve established that Casey is no safer here than she is on Earth. Let her go back.”

Roma sighs. “I’ll need some time to work out the logistics and you’ll still have to return to Displacia regularly. Caleb will go with you, along with a team of my choosing. You will follow their orders and you will not put yourself at risk, do you understand?”

“I understand.” My heart leaps at the thought of going back, of returning to Earth stronger, armed with the knowledge of Lana’s tyrant father, of the danger she was in before she died. It fuels my desire to know more, to learn the truth about what happened to her. And I know exactly where to start.

 

Haydn drives me there, to the three-storey house with the big gates and the garden room on the side.

It seems that Displacian’s don’t just have motorbikes on hand, they have a whole fleet of cars stored in almost every county across the world, so it didn’t take Haydn long to acquire a sleek, red sports car to take me where I need to go.

I ring the doorbell at the front door and it gives a grand, tinkling sound. Molly’s eyes widen when she sees me standing there, her face pale and wan, but she beckons me inside all the same. She motions for me to sit in the comfy armchair in her spacious living room, then she perches on the edge of the sofa waiting patiently for me to speak.

“I came here to tell you that I’m sorry,” I start. “For not keeping in touch with you when Lana was missing and for not telling you when she was found.”

She nods and I see tears forming in her eyes.

“I want to say sorry for how things have been between us these last few months. I’m sick of fighting, Molly, I want us to be friends. You were Lana’s best friend; you were my friend. It’s not right that we don’t speak. I-”

My voice is muffled as Molly launches from the sofa and wraps her arms around me. “I’m so sorry, Casey,” she sobs. “I don’t know what was wrong with me.”

“It’s OK.” I stroke her long dark hair, because I know exactly what was wrong with her.

“No it’s not,” she says. “But you have to believe that it wasn’t me. I just miss her so much and it made me crazy.”

“I know; I miss her too.”

We sit there for a little bit, Molly’s head cradled against my shoulder, and it’s a while before I work up the courage to say what I want to say. “I need your help, Molly.”

She pulls back to look at me, tears still clinging to her eyelashes.

“I’ve learnt a lot of things these last few weeks,” I say. “About Lana and me. I don’t believe her death was an accident, I’m not sure I ever have, and I don’t think you believe it either.”

Molly wipes fresh tears away from her cheeks. “I don’t know what I believe anymore. My therapist said it was the grief that did it,” she says quietly. “Pushed me oved the edge, made me do the things I did. Sometimes I couldn’t remember what I’d done, it was like I had these big, dark spots in my memory, but there were signs.”

Her eyebrows contract and fresh tears bloom at the corners of her eyes. “You know I damaged the paintings?”

I nod. “I know.”
She squeezes her eyes shut. “My dad hopes that Malvern will have me back, I owned up to it all. The fire in the woods, that was me too.”

“Oh, Molly.” I wish I could tell her that it’s not her fault, that she was being controlled, but I can’t, Roma already warned me about this. But I can’t let my friend go on believing that she’s crazy. “I know something happened to you, something that you can’t explain.”

Her face pales and she begins to shake.

“It’s OK,” I say, grasping her hands between mine, cringing internally as her fear reverberates through me. “You’re safe, that will never happen to you again.”

She takes deep breaths until she is calm. When she speaks again, her voice is a whisper. “I’ll help you.”

“You will?”

She nods. “And I have something that you need to see.” She leaves the room and I hear her footsteps on the stairs. When she returns, she has a book clutched in her hands. “I took this from your room the day of the funeral, it’s Lana’s diary.”

I take it from her, recognising the diary as a Christmas present I bought for Lana a couple of years back.

“I’m sorry, I broke the lock,” Molly says. “I don’t know why I wanted it, but it seemed important.”

“I gave her this,” I say. “I didn’t think she ever wrote in it.”

Molly shrugs. “I only saw her with it shortly before she died,” she hugs herself a little awkwardly. “There’s some strange stuff in there, I don’t know if the police should see it, or if they’ll even be interested, but you should definitely read it.”

I run my finger over Lana’s name printed neatly on the front of the diary. “I will.”

We say our goodbyes with a hug that radiates genuine warmth and relief.

Haydn waits for me outside, slipping an arm around my waist and pulling me into a long, lingering kiss. “Where to next, Miss George?”

“Home, Evergreen”

I open the diary as Haydn drives, my eyes skimming over Lana’s words, her thoughts, her feelings. I read descriptions of days spent with our friends at Malvern, her time with Molly, with me, and then something else, something much more sinister.

My tears dot the page, making the ink run. I trace Lana’s last words with my finger, her last message to me, a warning, and then the diary slips from my trembling hands.

 

It wasn’t an accident. Don’t trust them.’


Where Foundlings Hide

Secrets unravel in this science-fiction fantasy about a girl troubled by the death of her twin sister. Haunted by dreams and memories, seventeen-year-old Casey George struggles to reconnect with her former self, and when strange things start happening at school, Casey is convinced she's going crazy. Things go from bad to worse when Casey is implicated in the strange goings-on, and her future at the Malvern Academy hangs in the balance. After an attack by a malevolent creature, handsome newcomer, Caleb, takes Casey to Displacia - a rogue planet where the inhabitants possess unusual and powerful gifts. In this new world, Casey learns that her life is not what it seems and that her sister's death may not have been the tragic accident it was thought to be. Surrounded by mystery and intrigue, can Casey overcome her personal barriers to save both Earth and Displacia from the sinister force known as the Shadows?

  • Author: KL Mitchelson
  • Published: 2017-01-08 18:50:18
  • Words: 93267
Where Foundlings Hide Where Foundlings Hide