Akarnae, p.28
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       Akarnae, p.28

         Part #1 of The Medoran Chronicles series by Lynette Noni

  Alex tried to pull away from him, but he only tightened his grip more, enough that she was sure he would leave bruises.

  “Let me go!” she ordered him. She was sick of being manhandled by bullies. It was as if someone had painted a target on her head that said ‘Easy Pickings’. Well, no more.

  When he didn’t release her, she aimed a kick at his shin, hoping that if nothing else, surprise would make him loosen his grip. Instead, the impact on her pins-and-needles foot caused her to hiss in pain.

  “Do you seriously think you can fight me? Me?” Aven laughed at her. It was a horrible noise, full of dark amusement. She shuddered at the sound, more chilled now than when she’d been in the icy water.

  Alex winced when his fingers tightened even more around her arm, and she started to lose feeling in it—again. There was no way she could even try to fight him in her current half-frozen state.

  “Let’s take a walk, shall we?” Aven said. “It’s time to test what you can do.”

  He pulled her forward and she had no choice but to follow. Despite her annoyance—and her growing fear—she managed to amuse herself by kicking water up at him with every forced step. But when his grip increased to an almost snapping-bone level she followed along sedately, although grumbling all the way. She was tired, hungry and freezing. Not to mention, soaking wet. All she wanted was some food, a shower and her bed. Was that too much to ask?

  “Why are you here, Aven?” she asked him wearily. “What can you possibly want from me?”

  He laughed again. “Strangely the two are the same, as fate would have it. I’ve been searching for you for years, it would seem. And now here you are, perfectly situated to see to my will.”

  “Not likely,” Alex murmured.

  “You can’t resist me, Alexandra,” Aven said confidently. “And even if you could, you wouldn’t. For who better to aid me than you? We’re destined, don’t you see? And together we’ll change the world.”

  “I like the world the way it is,” Alex said. “So it looks like you’re on your own with that.”

  He just smirked knowingly and didn’t respond.

  She tried to yank her arm back, hoping that his concentration would have lapsed somewhat, but no such luck. “Seriously, Aven. Let. Me. Go,” she said. And then for emphasis she added, “Now.”

  “What are you going to do?” he asked, not breaking his stride. “You can’t fight me, you can’t escape me. There’s no point in trying. You’ll give in; it’s inevitable. You’ll see.”

  “Not more riddles,” Alex grumbled.

  “Riddles?” he asked, pausing to look into her eyes. “What riddles?”

  “None of your business.” She turned her face away and noticed that they were already at the top of the stairs that led down into the Library.

  “Tell me of what you speak or I’ll—”

  “You! You’re not allowed in here!”

  It was the old librarian, finally, and Alex wilted in relief at the sight of him.

  “Who’s going to stop me, old man? You?” Aven laughed again, that horrible, chilling laugh.

  “I don’t have to stop you, Aven Dalmarta, for you know as well as I that you can’t go where you wish without permission,” the librarian said, shaking his wooden cane angrily.

  “Without permission,” Aven repeated, emphasising the words and looking meaningfully at Alex before turning back to the librarian.

  The little man paled, but held his ground. “She won’t help you,” he said. “And she can’t be forced to do so, as you well know. Only through a decision made out of her own free will can you be given permission to enter. And judging by the look on her face, you won’t be receiving what you’ve come for.”

  When Aven turned to look at Alex, he clearly didn’t like whatever he saw in her stubborn expression. His beautiful face turned menacing, with his eyes blazing furiously and his lips twisting into a sneer. He was terrifying to behold and Alex flinched away from him, worried that he might actually take a swing at her.

  Instead, he let her arm go, and in an instant his features were once again filled with light and beauty.

  “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” he said, his golden eyes begging her to forgive him. “I merely wanted to show you something.”

  Alex shook her head and forced herself to ignore everything in her that was willing to believe his apology. It was an act, she knew. He was lying. He’d been lying ever since they’d first met.

  “You need to leave,” she said, wishing her voice didn’t sound quite so shaky.

  Aven stilled, and she could see the effort it was taking for him to keep the pleasant expression on his face.

  “As you wish,” he said, surprising her. “But we’ll meet again soon, my dear Alexandra.” And then he was gone, vanishing in front of her as if he’d never been there.

  “I’m not your ‘dear’ anything,” she whispered into thin air.

  She looked up and made eye contact with the librarian whose face was pinched with worry. But he wasn’t looking at her, or even at the space where Aven had been standing. Instead, he was looking over at the oil painting. Or rather, he was looking at the pool of water on the floor underneath the painting.

  The librarian turned back to her, took in her appearance, and then finally pointed at the watery mess on the ground. “You’ll be cleaning that up, I suppose?”

  It wasn’t a question, but Alex nodded anyway and followed his instructions to find a mop and bucket.

  By the time she’d finished wiping up all the water she was ready to collapse. She didn’t even bother grilling the librarian for information about Aven before she hurried out of the Tower and up to her dorm for a steaming hot shower.

  Questions, questions, questions. Her head was full of them.

  Judging by the lack of light outside when she finally left her bathroom, Jordan and Bear would be due to arrive back at the academy soon. But she was too tired to do anything other than fall into bed and try to forget the events—and the choices—of the day.

  The last question that flitted across her mind as she drifted off to sleep was perhaps the most important: Did I make the right decision to stay?





  “Huh?” Alex looked up from where she was doodling in her notebook. “Oh, yeah. I completely agree. She’s an absolute toad.”

  Bear looked at her for a moment before he gently said, “Alex, we stopped complaining about Luranda a full five minutes ago.”

  “Oh,” she said sheepishly. “Sorry, guys, I’m not really with it.”

  “You’re thinking about Aven again, aren’t you?” Jordan guessed.

  It was true. She’d been distracted ever since speaking with Jarvis first thing on Monday morning. He’d completely dismissed her concerns, telling her that the librarian had already met with him to discuss Aven and she didn’t have to worry about anything. Despite his reassurances, he hadn’t been able to meet her eyes during their entire conversation, which had made Alex believe that he was hiding the truth from her. She just couldn’t figure out why he’d decided to keep her out of the loop, especially when it seemed like she was the loop.

  When Jordan and Bear had seen Alex that first morning back at breakfast they’d known straight away that something was wrong, and not just because she’d been absent the previous night. She’d been forced to tell them every detail of her Library encounter, and while they were pleased she’d decided to stay in Medora, they were furious about the way Aven had treated her. In the few days since then they’d remained as close to her as possible, just in case he’d decided to make another surprise appearance. Their obsessive-compulsive tendencies weren’t necessary, but she appreciated the support all the same.

  “We can worry about him later, but for now we should get going,” Bear said, breaking into Alex’s thoughts. “We don’t want to be late for Varin’s first class back.”

  That was enough to motivate
Alex to forget about Aven for the time being. She’d been looking forward to her first Species Distinction class ever since meeting the teacher on the weekend, and she eagerly followed Jordan and Bear as they led the way across the campus. They walked for what felt like forever until they finally approached a massive barn-like building at the border of the grounds. A huge sign labelled it as ‘The Clinic’.

  “Welcome students!” Varin called out once their entire class had arrived. He was again wearing the horned Viking helmet and armour, but no one else seemed weirded out by his strange attire. “Come on in!” He opened the large doors and beckoned them to move inside.

  Alex’s eyes widened when she stepped through the entrance and found a massive grassy arena surrounded by a solid steel fence. Around the perimeter of the room—outside of the fence—were raised seats overlooking the enclosed space.

  “I know I’ve been away for a while,” Varin said as soon as they were all seated, “but that just means we’ve got a lot to catch up on. I’ll be moving through the material quickly, so make sure you ask questions so you don’t fall behind.”

  Alex was certain that no matter how many questions she asked, she would likely still be behind.

  “We’re going to carry on where we left off last year,” Varin continued. “Who remembers what species we were learning about?”

  A tall blond girl named Kimberly raised her hand. “Dertfoots, sir?”

  “Dertfeet,” Varin corrected. “Plural, they are ‘Dertfeet’, on their own they are a ‘Dertfoot’. They can get rather touchy about that, so it’s important you remember.”

  Alex looked at Jordan. He just winked at her and motioned to the front where Varin was typing into a TCD panel mounted on the fence. A groaning noise rumbled throughout the arena as the steel boundary slowly rose higher until it touched the roof of the barn.

  Alex couldn’t see anything through the barrier and she wondered what the point was until Varin clicked at the screen again and the solid metal faded until it was completely transparent.

  “That’s so cool.” It reminded Alex of the roof over On The House.

  “Keep watching,” Jordan said, pointing to a gate on the far side of the arena that Alex hadn’t noticed earlier.

  She had to blink a few times when the gate opened, because slowly walking through it was one of the strangest looking creatures she’d ever seen. It was like a rock, really. A huge animated boulder—brown and dirty, with some patches coated in moss and lichen. As it moved closer, Alex could see a small leafy plant growing out of the crevasse where its neck joined its shoulder. It was utterly bizarre.

  “What is that?” she asked, though not as quietly as she’d intended.

  “It’s a Dertfoot, Alex,” Varin answered. “He’s been in the sun all day so he’s rather sleepy right now, but don’t underestimate these big fellows. Their skin is as hard as the earth itself, and one blow will knock you out for a week.”

  Alex watched as the Dertfoot circled a spot in front of them—strangely enough it reminded her of a cat—and it lazily plonked itself onto the ground. Within seconds it looked like a sleeping lump of rock, and if she hadn’t seen it moving with her own eyes just moments before, she would have thought it was just a normal boulder.

  “They’re not the most intelligent of beings,” Varin continued, “but it doesn’t really matter since barely anything can cause them harm.”

  The rest of Alex’s first Species Distinction class was spent learning all about Dertfeet—what they ate (mud), how they communicated (by grunting), what they liked (sunshine) and disliked (anything cold), and where they lived (on the outskirts of the Soori Desert, just south of the Durungan Ranges). Alex was still a bit unclear about how they reproduced—let alone how to distinguish between genders—but she wasn’t quite willing to ask those questions in front of her classmates.

  All in all, it was the weirdest class Alex had ever experienced, but even so, she was already looking forward to whatever Varin might teach them next time.

  As the weeks passed by, Alex slowly fell into a comfortable pattern again. Species Distinction quickly became one of her favourite subjects as she learned about all manner of creatures from Flips (human-like beings who live in pressurised underwater cities and can breathe in both atmospheric and aquatic environments) to Goppers (toothless lizard-like reptiles) to Jarnocks (tree-dwelling little people who use poisonous darts as weapons) and even Veeyons (large flying creatures that spit venomous green sludge).

  True to Varin’s teaching style, not only did she learn the theory about the different creatures, but she also got to see what they looked like and how they acted when they paraded around the arena. The Flip and the Jarnock even answered questions for the students, since both species were somewhat bilingual even if they did have strange accents. Those were particularly fascinating classes, and not just because of the differences between their races.

  The Flip, named Tork, sat amongst the students and spoke with them as equals, answering their questions with confident ease. He had a diplomatic manner and after a while Alex was able to overlook his luminescent green skin with its bright yellow tribal markings. Aside from the unique colouring—and his webbed hands and feet—he otherwise looked and acted like a normal human being.

  Mareek the Jarnock, however, had to be contained behind the transparent barrier for the entirety of his stay. Some moments the small dirt-covered man was as civil as could be, answering questions and providing them with anecdotes about his life in the trees. But then out of nowhere he would raise his hollowed pipe to his mouth and blow a poisonous dart straight towards them, screaming in his native language. The barrier blocked his attacks, but his unexpected change of mood always earned a squeal or two from some of the students in the class—and not just the girls.

  Alex’s other classes continued pretty much like normal; the only surprising development came from Professor Marmaduke who pulled Alex aside one day to comment on how proficient her mind defences had become. The teacher raved about how much studying Alex must have done to reach such an accomplished level of mental defence in such a short time. Alex had no idea what the woman was talking about and simply smiled and nodded. By the sound of it, it seemed like Marmaduke wasn’t able to read her mind anymore, and ultimately Alex didn’t care why that was as long as it stayed that way.

  As for the rest of her classes, Finn was still the psychopath he’d been before the holidays; Karter consistently forced Alex to battle it out on his ever more challenging obstacle courses; and even Maggie increased the difficulty of the targets Alex had to aim for in Archery. Tayla, Caspar Lennox, Doc… it seemed like everyone had jumped on the ‘go hard, or go home’ bandwagon.

  When it came down to it, Alex was secretly grateful for their rigorous demands. Every night she fell into an exhausted sleep where not even her dreams had the energy to dwell on her worries. She didn’t forget Aven’s threat, but as time progressed, she began to feel much more at ease.

  January turned into February, and February turned into March. The academy suffered from a late cold snap right at the beginning of spring and with it came a surprising amount of fresh snow, but as they entered April the weather brought warm, sunny days and clear blue skies.

  It was on one of these days that Alex found herself heading to Jarvis’s office on an errand for Fletcher to retrieve one of his patient’s administrative files.

  When she ascended the Tower staircase and reached the eighth-floor antechamber, she noticed that Jarvis’s door was slightly ajar. She was just about to knock and enter when she heard voices from within.

  “I’m telling you, we need to warn her.”

  Alex was surprised to hear the voice of her Archery instructor, and she hesitated by the door.

  “And I’m telling you, Magdelina, the less she knows, the safer she is. The safer we all are, in fact. She already knows too much as it is. Worse, he knows that she knows.”

  That was the librarian’s grizzly tone, and Alex felt her stomach clenc
h at his words. Was it possible they were talking about her? She leaned forward, anxious to hear more.

  “He hasn’t been back since then,” came Jarvis’s measured tone. “Maybe he doesn’t know as much as you believe?”

  “Oh, he knows,” the librarian said, his voice grim. “It was written all over his face. Triumph. Victory. Like he’d already won.”

  “Then we need to tell her!” Maggie cried. “If she knows what he means to do, and why, then she won’t help him!”

  “I don’t think Alex would help him regardless,” Jarvis said.

  So they were talking about her. Alex felt the air rush out of her lungs and she missed whatever it was he said next, something about her knowing right from wrong.

  “You underestimate Aven,” Maggie warned. “He’ll find a way to take the choice away from her. She’s the only one who can give him what he wants, and he’ll stop at nothing to get his way.”

  “He can’t enter the Library without her permission—permission that can’t be taken from her. She has to give it willingly,” the librarian stated, as if reading from a textbook. He’d said something similar to Aven all those months ago, and it made as much sense to Alex now as it did then.

  “Do you understand what it would mean?” Maggie demanded. “If he gets through, do you know what will happen? The moment he steps through that doorway—”

  “It’s impolite to eavesdrop,” a voice whispered in Alex’s ear, causing her to jump. Thankfully, the people inside Jarvis’s office didn’t hear anything and they continued their heated conversation. But Alex missed what was said next because she was trapped by the dark eyes of Ghost as he locked her in his piercing gaze.

  “I wasn’t…” Alex started to tell Hunter, before realising that she’d been caught red-handed and lying wasn’t going to do her any good. “I mean, I was. But I didn’t mean to.”

  Lame. Even he seemed to think so, since he cocked his head as if daring her to do better.

  “It wasn’t my intention,” she clarified, still speaking quietly. “To eavesdrop, I mean.”

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