The library was imposing in the dark. Multi-storey shelves stretched upwards, vanishing into the darkness that now enveloped the ceiling. They looked so tall now, so distorted. Sometimes if I stared for long enough it felt as though they swayed, like a haunted forest made up of the corpses of trees. It was well past midnight. The library had been closed for at least a couple of hours now so not a soul could be seen or heard. No shuffle of feet on the tiles, no sounds of pages being turned or the occasional whisper of borrowers. Nothing except the sounds of my own breathing and my heart that jack-hammered at my eardrums.
I kept on moving through the haunted space, my feet making no sound on the granite tiles. I retraced every step Laurence and I had taken only hours earlier. Tried to recall every corner, every crevice. As I'd observed, the security staff shift changeover had occurred when the library closed and now the Hall of Records wasn't as well guarded. The two watchmen who originally stood in the doorway was now a solitary older man who slept slumped in a chair against the nearest wall. I stepped around him, carefully giving the chamber door a push. Its hinges moaned in protest.
Crap! I froze.
The man next to me shuffled in his seat, murmuring something before he started snoring again. I dared not move. I didn't even breathe until I was certain he was fully asleep. I watched a line of dribble that had formed from his mouth as he snored. Every time he drew in a breath it would slip back into his mouth only to appear again when he exhaled. It was disgusting, but I also took it as confirmation that I was safe. I decided to keep moving, gradually putting more pressure on the door, careful not to make it squeak again, and created a gap just big enough for me to slip on through. With just enough moonlight to guide my way, I headed for the desk were Laurence and I had been studying earlier. Fortunately, he'd left the index there, ready for the librarian to put away come the morning. Strangely enough it was already open to the page I was looking for. Even in this greyscale lighting, the black markings covering the names of Sa'lu and her disgraced kin stuck out like bleeding stab wounds. Using the LED on my phone I searched the mess for my name and spotted it wedged between two blacked out entries. Andrea BLANK. I exhaled a pent up breath, relief washing over me like a cool stream. She was here. The girl from my past. All I had to do was follow Laurence's instructions and locate her file...
A shadow sweeping across the room scared me upright and my mind snapped back to the library. I dimmed the light on my phone, suddenly alerted to the feeling that I wasn't alone here. A quick check behind my shoulder confirmed that the sleeping guard hadn't moved. Was I just being paranoid? Shadows surrounded me, pressing in on me like clawed hands reaching out to choke me. I felt a chill rattle its way down my spine, my senses snapping to full alert. I wasn't alone. A figure hovered between the bookshelves, moving like a ghost in the night... Except, as far as I knew, ghosts didn't shuffle on their feet. It was too late to pretend I hadn't noticed him. The ghost was attempting to round the room to avoid me, hiding in the areas that were unreachable by moonlight. I had two options, run or keep looking. I'd come too far to leave now.
I carried on with my search, jotting down Andrea's file number before scanning the dust laden shelves for the matching record. A leather folder baring the name sat neatly tucked away on the shelf but I stopped short of reaching for it. The dust here had already been disturbed. Under the LED I could clearly see there were smudge marks on the shelf. They were shaped like fingers minus the prints. Gloves. I felt my gut twist, a pit of knowing forming in my stomach as I slid the folder from its hiding place, letting it fall into my shaking hands. It felt so light.
I sensed him standing behind me before I even turned around. Dressed in black minus the exposed Adam's apple. Dragon medallion on his chest. The vigilante.
"You." I took a step backwards, bumping into the bookshelf and sending up puffs of dust into the air. He held a wad of paperwork in his hand. Andrea's paperwork. The toggles in my mind clicked into place. Our last conversation at the docks. The horror in his expression as he registered the woman I sought. I quickly glanced about for something that I could use as a weapon but came up empty. "You sent me here, to what, rat me out?"
He watched me behind his ninja-inspired mask, his eyes showing no expression. "What is your association with that abomination?" his voice sounded so thick, so deep that it had to be aided by a distortion device. He took a quick glance at the file. "Andrea?"
"Nothing, I swear," I said. Every muscle in my body was poised and ready to act. My hands clenched into partial fists, my fingernails digging into the flesh of the empty folder. My body was the weapon. "I don't even know if that's really my name."
He seemed unconvinced. "Then what is your name?"
"None of your business." I sprung forward at him like a coiled snake, my whole body slamming him into the bookshelves behind.
"Oof!" the vigilante heaved as the air escaped his lungs.
I quickly grabbed the paperwork from his hands and bolted for the door where the sleeping guard had since snapped awake. I shot past him before he had a chance to get off his chair, and tore through the rest of the library all the while stuffing the papers back into Andrea's folder.
I heard the yell from behind me, the guard contended with my pursuer while I bolted for the library door. My feet pounded on the granite tiles, heart racing in my chest as the forest of bookshelves passed by in a flash. I caught a figure in my peripherals, just above my head. The vigilante. He chased me down on the adjacent mezzanine, determined to reach the exit before I did. I doubled my efforts until my own breath burned in my lungs but he was just too fast. He flung himself over the rail and bounced off the doorframe like he was made of rubber, before landing on his feet directly in front of me. Unable to stop in time, I ploughed right into him, crash-tackling him into the door that burst open on impact. The library door bounced off its hinges and our bodies hit granite, sliding across the slick tiles until we hit the staircase banister. I struggled upright, clutching the folder to my chest but the vigilante grabbed for my legs and I staggered forward over top of him. My torso hit the banister and the file flew from my hands, the papers it held raining down like snow over the floor below.
"Shit!" I swore, but had no time to think on it as the vigilante bolted to his feet.
I evaded his grab, my body barely slipping through his fingers and hurled myself down the stairs. The vigilante was behind me in seconds, leaping the steps three at a time. We hit the ground floor foyer, the vigilante taking another grab at me but I twisted my body around into a spin-kick, my foot snapping him in the chest. He staggered backwards several steps before taking another lunge at me. I pivoted to the left and grabbed for his outstretched arm, yanking it away from me and using the momentum to knee him in the gut. I spun around into another bolt but he lunged, his hands slamming onto my shoulders. He pulled me back into him, my back landing into his chest. I grabbed for his arm and wrenched it over my shoulder, spinning my body around behind him as he staggered forward. I used the momentum of his stagger to bounce off him in a flying kick with the intent of getting over top of him as he tumbled to the floor, but the vigilante turned his tumble into a roll. He bounced back to his feet just as I hit the floor in front of him. I made a run for it but with a sweep of his leg he kicked my foot out from under me and I staggered forward, my arms windmilling. He grabbed the back of my shirt and I snapped back like a bungee cord into him. I reeled with the intent of punching him in the face but he blocked me with an arm. I swung the other fist and he ducked and chopped it out of the way, grabbing my hand. I yanked my torso backwards, him following after, and hoisted my foot into his chest.
"Oof!" He let me go and tumbled backwards, hitting the floor on his butt.
I turned and bolted for the exit, giant, dragon statues pointing me on my way. I threw myself through the front doors of the parliamentary building and down the stone stairs. My legs burning and my lungs heaving with my every breath. I heard the sound of the door but didn't dare look back at my pursuer who was once again hot on my tail. My feet virtually flew across the uneven cobblestones, a slither of moonlight my only guide. Imposing buildings pressed in on me from all sides but I was still out in the open. Exposed. I risked a glance over my shoulder swearing under my breath as I realised the distance between us was closing. He was already catching up to me. I needed to lose him. Rounding a bend, I dashed for a parking garage, leaping the boom gate in a single bound. The vigilante flew in after me just as I ducked behind the first line of cars and kept running. Pivot, duck, pivot, duck. I weaved in and around parked cars, desperate in my attempt to lose him in this maze. My hip bounced off a side mirror, almost smacking it from its socket. The car alarm blared, lights flashing, alerting the vigilante and everyone else in the vicinity to my location. I bolted from the parking garage and down an adjoining walkway, cursing, chest heaving, feet pounding at the hard concrete. The walkway wound downwards in a steady decline, working to push me into a faster run. I heard his footsteps behind me. Felt his pursuit vibrating up through the walkway, bouncing off the walls of buildings that pressed in around us. I watched from the corner of my eye as the vigilante kicked off a wall and landed on the walkway one bend below me. He then took off in a bolt back towards me. I skidded to a halt and ran back the way I'd come from, my body screaming in protest at the steady incline. Rounding the building, I made it back onto the street and immediately luged for a stone wall and scrambled over it. I hit the ground running, this time across a lawn so plush that it almost added a bounce to my step. The shadows of trees hung over playground equipment. It was a park of some sort. My body begged at me to stop, my lungs screaming from the exertion. I stole a glance behind me and realised that my pursuer wasn't there. I slowed to a stop before dropping to my knees, my body keeling over in the cool grass. My lungs heaved for breath as I gulped for air. Guardians. Who was he? And what did he want with me? I cursed myself for not holding onto that file, but there was no way he was going to let me have it. Why though? What was so important? So secret that I couldn't see what was in it? Why had a lost little girl been deemed such a threat to the Dragon Clan?
Gathering myself together, I got to my feet and ambled on through the park, virtually staggering into a drinking fountain. My fingers fumbled at the tap and I gulped down sweet water as though I hadn't drunk in days. I spotted the figure from the corner of my eye. He was trying to sneak up on me as I drank. He stepped out of my line of sight and I turned off the tap and straightened, wiping my mouth. I sensed him creeping up from behind. Seconds before grabbing me I spun on my heels and jump kicked him in the chest. Shocked, the vigilante staggered backwards and I turned and bolted through the park. He jumped on my heels, his panting breaths heaving down the back of my neck. A set of monkey bars was just ahead of me. I lunged for an overhanging beam and used the momentum to swing myself up over the top of the bars. The vigilante blew past beneath me before skidding to a halt and backtracking toward me. I sat on my haunches atop the monkey bars and rolled forward, gripping the bar with my hands as I fell. My body swung around, my feet kicking the vigilante in the back of the head and he face-planted into the dirt. I hit the ground running, not even looking back to see how long it took for him to get back up. I flew through the park gates like a bat out of hell and landed on the street, the vigilante doubling his efforts to catch up to me. A sign pointed me to a subway station across the street. With only parked cars to dodge, I bolted across the road and bounded down the subway steps to a two at a time. I leapt over the ticket machine onto the empty subway, only then taking a moment to catch my breath. A train was just coming into the station, breaks squealing and wheels clicking on the railway as it drew to a stop. I took off in a sprint along the side of the train, throwing myself inside it just as the door slid open, ever aware that my pursuer was somewhere behind me. I fell into a seat, heaving for the breath that didn't want to come. I wasn't sure if I wanted to throw up or pass out. The doors slid shut and the train moved on just as I made eye contact with the vigilante. He stood on the platform outside, watching me leave.
That was too close.
I got off at the next station and opted to catch another train rather than risk meeting the vigilante again. By the time I emerged from the subways system and made it back to the hostel, dawn was just peeking over the mountains. I fell into bed, sore and exhausted and slept for most of the day.
Disturbing dreams filled my sleep. The vigilante still hunted me. He cornered me inside a dark warehouse. There was nowhere I could run except a door where light seeped through the crack underneath it. I ran for the door, my legs so heavy it was like running through concrete. It was locked. The vigilante was quickly catching up. I scratched and pounded at that door until it came open and suddenly I found myself in the dragon hospital, surrounded by dragon body parts. The blood... was everywhere. I felt my stomach twist, the bile making its way into my throat. The vigilante was right behind me and I spun. Only now he was Laurence. He held up a knife dripping with dragon blood and plunged it into my chest.
I bolted upright, screaming and scrambling for the knife in my chest. Sweat covered my body despite the fact that I felt freezing cold. I'd kicked off the blankets in my sleep. Taking a moment to let the dream settle, I watched the sun disappear behind the building across from me. I'd slept all day. My stomach screamed at me for food, but the thought of eating made me feel sick. The dream felt so real.
I flopped back onto my pillow and took a moment to check my email. I flicked through a few prospective jobs I could undertake while I was here, but nothing seemed to stick out. I'd need to pick up something soon though, before my funds ran dry. I shot off an email to a contact of mine who served as an information runner in the local underworld ring, requesting details on the woman in the newspaper picture. Was she indeed the woman named Sa'lu? And if so, where would I find her? My finger hovered over the send button for a moment. Would contacting such a person be a wise course of action? What if she had been responsible for my family's death? The thought had only just crossed my mind. The murder of my family. Was the plane crash even an accident? I shook off the thought. That was dumb. There were much easier and less devastating ways to kill off a family. Still though, I deleted the parts about meeting her. Best gather as much information as I could before making a judgement. I mean, all I had to go off was a faded memory and a name that I think was probably mine.
Next, I scrolled through the news. No mention of the library being broken into. No sightings of me or the vigilante. Good. I could stick around a little longer.
By the time I'd finished catching up on everything, the dream had faded and I was ready to eat. I rolled out of bed, only then realising how sore my body felt from all that running the night before. Guardians. I needed to add more cardio to my routine. I trudged into the shower and stood under the hot water until it ran cold, letting it work its way into my aching muscles. Then grabbing my trusty jeans and a new T, I headed downtown. I opted to catch the bus which let me off not far from the tavern where I'd met Laurence, and found a cute little noodle bar. It was busy. That was always a good sign. I joined the queue. Most of the customers were my age and spoke with varying degrees of affluence, indicating that they were most likely university students. I guessed the campus wasn't that far away. Ametrine University was a prestigious school. You only got into that Uni if you were exceptional or your parents had money to burn. I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn't even notice the figure sneak up on me until he tapped me on the shoulder. I jumped sideways only to realise it was Laurence.
"Sorry," he said, looking sheepish, but all I could visualise for a moment was the knife he'd held in my dream.
"Hey," I felt myself turn red. "I wasn't expecting to see you there."
Laurence joined the queue beside me. Tonight he was dressed casually. Jeans and a long sleeved T. His shirt did little to hide his impressive physique. I felt my blush deepen. Guardians, was I 15 again or something?
"Actually I saw you get off the bus and ran all this way to ask if you wanted to join me for dinner?" he said. Casually. Not stalker-ish at all.
I glanced down at my phone. I was just in the process of checking my bank balance.
"The sky's the limit... until we hit twenty dollars. Then you're pitching in."
The rich kid pulled a hundred from his wallet and stuffed the note into my pocket. Normally, I would have punched a guy for getting so close. "I think you're holding out on me," he gave me a wink. Smart-ass.
We ordered takeout, Laurence insisting that I keep the change. I hadn't even managed to break the hundred. And then following Laurence's lead, we wandered the streets until we found a park. We sat on the grass and slurped our noodles, sharing stories of our backgrounds that were worlds apart yet strangely similar. Laurence was 13 when he'd lost his father and thereafter found himself shipped off to the Dragon Clan's version of boarding school. He'd suffered the ups and downs of losing a parent. He'd gone through his 'troubled teen' years like any other kid. In fact, for a rich brat he seemed so... well... grounded. Serious, yes. And perhaps a little on the arrogant side which was expected given his upbringing. But there was also depth to him. I don't know why but I found myself surprised by this.
"You know," Laurence eventually said as we lay back on our elbows and watched the stars. "I've been meaning to ask you, how in the world did you get that dragon to trust you last night?"
I quirked an eyebrow. "How do you mean?"
"Well," Laurence shifted onto his side to face me, "Dragons don't naturally trust Humans, we have to earn it and it can take many years of training. But he chose to trust you."
I offered him a shrug. "I just did what I would to one of the girls at home if they were hurt. I mean the little dragon was barely conscious."
"He was conscious enough to put up a fight." He seemed to mull on this for a moment, biting his lip with interest. "You won't have me believe that you just instinctively knew how to sooth it would you now?"
I genuinely had nothing. I sat upright, brushing the grass from my hands.
"Maybe I learnt it somewhere. From someone from my past. But I don't remember."
Laurence eyed me up and down, the fascination never leaving his face like a treasure hunter in the process of unearthing his greatest find. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were more suited to a life of Dragon Caretaking than dealing in antiques." He left his comment open to interpretation.
I smirked at the thought, mainly due to his ignorance at my true line of work. If he knew then we wouldn't be here talking. Sitting back, I crossed my legs over, the amusement on my face turning to a cocky grin. "Where do I sign up? Would you care to train me?"
Laurence's smile spread wide and he laughed. Everyone knew that only those with Dragon Clan blood in them were allowed to care for dragons. Then a realisation struck him and his mouth snapped shut. "But you've already received some sort of training haven't you?"
I kept my cocky grin though all it took was the uneasy twitch of my eyebrow for him to realise he'd just hit something.
"You have," he said. "Who?"
"Pardon?" I defended.
"Who trained you? You've got the body of a Master of Arts. I mean, by the way you moved when I snuck up on you in the noodle bar, you can't expect me to believe you taught yourself."
"I don't know," I said honestly.
Laurence frowned. "What do you mean you don't know? Don't tell me that was pre-foster-home too."
A sheepish smile was all I had to offer him.
Laurence joined me in sitting upright, not taking his eyes off me. He sat so close that I could feel his body heat emanating from him. I felt an involuntary shiver. There was something about him that made me want to rip his clothes off and run my hands all over him.
"Kaida Lance. You are a complete puzzle to me. You know that don't you?" his voice sounded velvety. Silky smooth.
I laughed at this. It sounded borderline hysterical though it was more so aimed at the assault of erotic thoughts that were suddenly invading my brain.
"Oh trust me. I'm a puzzle to me too." My laugh petered off.
I soon found myself staring at his lips that were pressed together into a thin line. He looked perfectly rugged with his wild hair and five o'clock shadow. Green eyes stared into me like a medium looking into her crystal ball. What did he see in me? The air between us was so charged it felt electric. His hand reached out to brush a stray lock of hair from my face and before I knew it I was leaning into him, his invisible tug too irresistible to fight. The brush of his breath tickled my lip, sending heat coursing through my body. Embers smouldered underneath my skin, something inside screaming at him, Kiss me, damn it! Then, as if to hear my silent plea, his mouth touched mine. The kiss was gentle at first; soft and caressing yet the sensation was electric. He took his sweet time, teasing me with the gentle touch of his lips, savouring the moment before gradually increasing the kiss. His tongue brushed my lip and sent butterflies swirling through my stomach, and my lips parted on reflex, the kiss deepening into something much more intimate with the invasion of his tongue. The embers beneath my skin exploded into a full blown raging inferno. My head was spinning so fast I wasn't sure which way was up. I wanted to touch him. Reach out and feel every part of him. But the chance was never given me as just then Laurence ripped his mouth away from me, eyes wild and chest heaving.
"Kaida, forgive me."
For a second the only thing I could think of was how cold his absence suddenly felt. Laurence was sitting up again, his face so flush I thought he might pop a vein.
"That was... I shouldn't have. I don't normally..." he scrambled for an apology.
I sat up, reality finally crashing down with a resounding thud.
"Guardians, Laurence," I said, my voice hoarse. My pulse thudded in my ears and my lips tingled from the kiss. I couldn't help the grin that spread right across my face. "You move fast."
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