Gabriel was frustrated.
He and the other Estilorian elders had been steadily interviewing candidates for the better part of three days now, all with less than optimistic results. The truth of it was, he was abysmally disappointed in the class he governed. How was it possible to have met and questioned more than one hundred Gloresti without finding more than one suitable candidate for these very important roles they were trying to fill?
Saraqael’s three daughters, the very first beings ever born on the Estilorian plane, had all been sent to the human plane over a week ago in an effort to keep them safe. Their Estilorian forms were even now under temporary guard, awaiting proper pairings with Gloresti until the girls returned to this plane.
The three Gloresti now selected by the Estilorian elders would assume total responsibility for the safety and care of the girls’ Estilorian forms. Unlike a traditional Gloresti-Corgloresti pairing, these pairings would extend beyond the time the girls resided on the human plane. Such a pairing was absolutely unheard of among their kind. Thus, it was a position of incredible importance and, for most, prestige.
Typically, Gloresti were not selected for pairing with a Corgloresti until they were a minimum of two centuries of age. This was done to ensure that the Gloresti had fully matured, establishing an appropriate amount of emotional control and the ability to focus as much attention as was needed to ensure the well-being of their paired Corgloresti’s form. However, the elders had unanimously agreed that the Gloresti paired with Saraqael’s daughters should not fall within this traditional criterion.
After all, while Saraqael had been a Corgloresti, his daughters were half-human…and thus, emotional beings.
As the elder of the Gloresti class and the one who best understood the pairing process, Gabriel had suggested that they instead consider selecting Gloresti with less than one century of existence for pairing with Saraqael’s daughters. The younger members of any class were more prone to emotions, which the majority of Estilorians no longer experienced. Surely it would benefit Saraqael’s daughters to have Gloresti awaiting them who could more closely relate to their human emotions when they transitioned back to the Estilorian plane, would it not?
It had seemed so logical. They simply had to find three Gloresti with the best combination of human-like emotional connection and the ability to defend. Surely not that difficult.
Or so they thought.
They found the first likely candidate rather quickly. Simon, a Gloresti who had only been on the Estilorian plane for seventy-nine years, had demonstrated more emotion in his interview than any of the elders had witnessed in a long time. His sincere smile was so unusual to them that he had immediately stood out from many of his peers. The fact that he was genuinely interested in serving as a paired Gloresti regardless of who he was paired with had also weighed heavily in his favor.
And when the Gloresti commander, Hitoshi, revealed to the elders after the interview that Simon had also shown a distinct interest in and insight into transporting Corgloresti across the planes, something he hadn’t yet tried at his young age but seemed very capable of, they had made their decision.
He would be paired with Saraqael’s first-born.
Since Simon’s assignment had taken only a matter of twenty interviews, the elders hadn’t ever doubted that the other pairings would be equally simple. After all, Gabriel had rationalized, his class was charged with guarding Estilorians who transitioned to the human plane. How out of touch with human emotion could they be?
It was absolutely unbelievable. They quickly discovered that Simon was a rarity. While the human mother of Saraqael’s daughters had shown the elders how very removed from emotion they had all become, they hadn’t realized just how pervasive the problem was.
“This is highly disconcerting,” the Elphresti elder, Jabari, intoned gravely after they dismissed yet another unsuitable candidate.
With a sober nod, Knorbis said, “The only emotions we are encountering from even the youngest Gloresti are all negative.”
The intuitive Wymzesti elder was putting it mildly, Gabriel thought. His young Gloresti were outrageously arrogant, aggressive and competitive. More than one had said critical and obviously false things about his fellow Gloresti in an attempt to make himself look more appealing. Some of them had even smiled as they did it, trying to mask their lies beneath the façade of emotion. It was both embarrassing and revolting.
“We have obviously been quite blind,” the Orculesti elder, Malukali, added. She looked as disturbed as any of them could manage. “I suspect that we will find this exact problem among each of our classes. Our distance from humans and their emotions these many centuries has prevented us from identifying the issue until now.”
There were thoughts of agreement around the table.
“Who is the next candidate?” Gabriel asked, running a hand over his face in a show of weariness.
“James,” answered Hitoshi.
He was the only non-elder at the table. Gabriel had wanted his commander to participate in the process of identifying the acceptable candidates for pairing with Saraqael’s daughters, however. After all, Hitoshi would be the acting leader over the Gloresti class in the very near future. He should most definitely be allowed to provide input toward these weighty choices.
Gabriel had made the decision shortly before Saraqael’s daughters had been born that he would transition back to the human plane himself, something that only the most experienced Gloresti could do, and usually only under extreme circumstances and for very brief spans of time. The attempt he intended to make would send him across the planes in the form of an infant so he could grow like a human, something that would take unimaginable power to accomplish. The other elders had ultimately agreed that the plan was their only hope to possibly relearn the emotions they no longer understood…emotions that had led to the dramatic and shattering circumstances resulting in the girls’ births.
Before he made this unprecedented attempt, however, he wanted to be sure the girls’ Estilorian forms were properly paired. At the rate they were going, he would never transition.
“Please tell us a bit about James before we bring him in,” Jabari requested.
“Of course,” Hitoshi said in his calm voice, folding his hands in front of him on the table. “James is among the youngest candidates we are considering, just seventy-one years. He has demonstrated remarkable intellect throughout his studies, often requesting to spend extra time on subjects that interest him. His learning capacity is far greater than many of his peers, in point of fact. I have often found his observations quite insightful.”
“That could be positive,” mused the Scultresti elder, Zayna. “If he is an eager and capable student for his Estilorian studies, perhaps he will more easily learn the things he will need to know to successfully interact with Saraqael’s daughters.”
“Perhaps,” Jabari allowed. Several of the other elders nodded in agreement.
“He is also quite patient,” Hitoshi added. “I have never observed him losing his temper or speaking disrespectfully to his peers.”
Gabriel had not had much direct contact with this particular Gloresti and thus had no further information to provide. “Very well. We can bring him in now.”
The Lekwuesti elder, Sebastian, left the room briefly. When he returned, James trailed behind him. As Sebastian took his seat, James stood in front of the long table of elders and bowed deeply with his right arm crossed over his chest. When he rose, he stood with his legs braced slightly apart and his hands held behind his back.
“Welcome, James,” Jabari greeted him.
“Thank you, archigos Jabari,” he responded.
The polite response had several of the elders exchanging glances. Such manners had also been notably lacking among most of the previous candidates.
“Do you know why you are here, James?”
“No, archigos Uriel,” he answered the Waresti elder matter-of-factly. “I do not.”
Hitoshi raised an eyebrow. “I explained to all of you that we are seeking three Gloresti to pair with Saraqael’s daughters,” he reminded him.
“Yes, sir, you did. But that does not clarify for me why I am here.” His sharp, dark-blue eyes moved along the table, catching the gaze of each elder in turn. He ultimately focused on Gabriel. “Surely you are looking to our most skilled and experienced Gloresti for these important pairings.”
That was a highly unexpected response.
“You believe the half-humans warrant such powerful protection?” Gabriel asked neutrally.
“Of course,” James said, a puzzled expression flashing briefly across his features. “Why would they not?”
Why not, indeed. Aside from Simon, James was the only candidate to issue such a genuine and unqualified response to the question. There were more looks exchanged around the table.
“Tell me, James,” Knorbis said. “What is it you consider your greatest strength?”
That seemed to throw the young Gloresti off-balance. Unlike his peers, who had often waxed lengthy on their many fine attributes, he remained silent, blinking as though trying to process the question.
After a long moment, he finally admitted, “I find that very difficult to answer, archigos. I have never been asked to assess myself in such a manner.”
Seeing he meant every word, Gabriel tilted his head consideringly. Then he asked, “What do you consider the most important quality in a Gloresti?”
“I believe dedication and vigilance are equally important qualities,” James immediately responded.
“Do you feel you possess these qualities?” Hitoshi asked.
“While I have not been tested in any real capacity,” he said humbly, “I believe I do.”
Gabriel nodded. He kept his gaze focused on James when he prompted, “And if we asked you to pair with one of Saraqael’s daughters, you would feel…”
James’ eyes widened. He finally seemed to realize that he was being seriously considered for the pairing. His gaze swept the table as if trying to gauge whether he was being deceived. After another long moment, he gave his answer to Gabriel.
“I would feel…unworthy.”
Those simple and sincere words sealed his fate.
Gabriel knew then that he had found the Gloresti for Saraqael’s second-born daughter.The screaming started when Kyra was halfway down the hall. She was surprised it had taken this long for things to escalate. She’d been listening to the constant bickering between the two freshmen moving into dorm room 1411 for nearly thirty minutes. Based on past experience, she’d known it was only a matter of time before things got violent.
Picking up her pace, she made it to the open door just as a ceramic figurine flew out and crashed into the opposite wall, missing her nose by inches. One of the resulting shards nicked her right cheek. The brief jab of pain made her temper rise.
“Hey!” she snapped out, rushing into the room and forcing herself between the two females, who were now grappling in an embarrassing display of cat-fighting. “Knock it off!”
It took two solid minutes before she managed to separate them. The fact that they held fistfuls of each other’s hair made it particularly challenging. She wondered where the hell the dorm monitor was and why all of the other girls just stood in the doorway with unhinged jaws. Eventually, she forced the roommates apart and managed to hold them at arm’s length.
She glowered at them. “Seriously? You two have to spend at least a full semester together. You need to get over yourselves and work this out.”
“She’s hoggin’ all the space!” whined the blonde with a nasally southern accent. “These rooms are small enough as it is. Why should she get extra space just ‘cause she claims she needs a mini fridge? No one else is allowed to have one.”
“I’m diabetic,” retorted the brunette with more calm than her red-faced roommate. “My insulin has to be refrigerated.”
Kyra shot a pointed look at the blonde, who had the grace to look down at the floor. “You’re complaining that someone with a life-threatening disease needs extra space to keep her medicines?”
The blonde sniffled, moving quickly from anger to tears. “I just really hoped to fit the storage chest Gran gave me before she died. The fridge makes it impossible.”
Glancing at the brunette, Kyra saw a softening of her expression. She realized the two girls hadn’t discussed the specifics of why space was an issue. They’d gone straight to arguing. It was a scenario Kyra had seen too many times to count in her two years in the dorms. Young freshmen, especially, were already so stressed out about the many changes in their lives that every little thing set them off. It made her feel ancient in comparison.
Lord, she wouldn’t miss this next year.
“I’m sorry that I’m taking up more room than my side allows, Savannah,” the brunette said in a quiet voice. “If I could change things…”
“We can change things,” Kyra said when the brunette drifted off. “We can change the room’s layout.”
Both girls looked at her. The blonde—Savannah—shook her head. “Dorm policy states that the room can’t be altered from the condition we find it in.”
“You’re right,” Kyra agreed. “But in situations like these where one roommate has a special condition requiring the room to be altered, changes can be made until both of you are satisfied.”
Savannah’s mouth opened. Hope lit her eyes. “You mean I might be able to fit Gran’s chest after all?”
“We’ll make sure of it.”
Crisis averted, the hallway outside the room soon cleared. Kyra put a hand on her chin and surveyed the room and its contents. After a short discussion with the roommates about any remaining items they intended to bring into the room, she started directing them on furniture placement. In less than thirty minutes, the room had been arranged in a way that fit both the refrigerator and the chest while leaving room to maneuver.
“Thanks, Kyra,” said the brunette, whose name Kyra had discovered was Patrice. “You’re a life saver.”
Smiling, Kyra shook her head. “Nah. I just don’t like seeing two smart females resorting to violence in an attempt to get their way.”
“We’ve learned our lesson,” Savannah said, leaning over and giving Patrice a one-armed hug. “From now on, we’ll talk things out.”
Kyra thought they just might. In fact, judging by the way they exchanged grins and the earlier plans she’d heard about using part of the mini fridge to store energy drinks, she thought they’d become life-long friends.
That made her think of her own freshman and sophomore roommate, Avana. Kyra was supposed to be going out with her and their mutual friend, Sam, tonight. Her eyes shifted to the single window in the room. She finally noticed that the sunlight was dimming into a deep pink color. Glancing at her watch, she realized she was running late.
“Sorry, you two,” she said. “I’ve got to go.”
“Oh, sure,” Patrice said. “Thanks again. Sorry we kept you.”
“Are you in one of the neighborin’ rooms?” Savannah asked.
“I was, but I’m moving out.”
Savannah’s face fell. “Bummer. Well, it was nice to meet you.”
“It really was,” Kyra said with a smile. “I’m sure we’ll see each other around campus. I start my junior year next semester.”
Both of the girls smiled back. “Yay!” Savannah cheered. “We’ll catch ya at a party or somethin’.”
Waving and giving a vague commitment to see them again soon, Kyra hurried back down the hall to her former dorm room. She hadn’t gone ten feet before she spotted the dorm monitor, Rachel Ferris, stepping off the elevator with a distinct post-coital glow. She wore a self-satisfied smile, an incorrectly buttoned short-sleeved top, and a mussed hairdo. The sight of her had Kyra narrowing her eyes even as she debated whether to talk to her at all. She’d be out of this dorm forever in a few more minutes. It wasn’t like she had to say something.
Her mother’s censuring voice rang in her head, making Kyra sigh. “Hey, Rachel,” she said, halting the other woman’s progress. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“What?” Rachel said, her smile fading. “Surely you can’t have another complaint about the way I monitor the floor. You’re leaving…aren’t you?”
Kyra could tell Rachel was worried she wasn’t about to get rid of the bane of her existence. While others may have turned a blind eye to Rachel’s blatant disregard for campus policies about appropriate dorm room activity, Kyra hadn’t been able to do so. How could the person responsible for upholding the rules disregard them and expect everyone else to respect her?
“While you were out,” Kyra said, not bothering to answer the question, “there was an incident in 1411.”
Rachel didn’t comment as Kyra walked through the basics of the altercation and ultimate resolution. Her posture stiffened, though, as she realized she had missed something significant that had been witnessed by most of the residents on the floor. Kyra knew she was considering what this might mean for her future as dorm monitor.
“Anyway, it’s all resolved now, but I thought you’d want to know why the room had been rearranged,” Kyra finished.
Rachel’s eyebrow lifted. “That’s it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You aren’t going to spend ten minutes lecturing me on how I should have been here instead of spending time with my fiancé? You’re not going to threaten to report me to the dean? You’re not going to storm off in a huff to vent to your weird roommate?”
Kyra fought a wince. Was it her fault that she was a responsible person and expected other people to be the same? Her mother chalked it up to her being an old soul. She only knew that she had no patience for people who skirted rules and obligations.
Offering a deliberate shrug, she finally said, “My not-weird roommate is probably waiting for me in the quad, and I think the other things can take a pass in light of the fact that I am, indeed, leaving. But Rachel, these girls are counting on you to guide them. Don’t let them down.”
Rachel’s eyes widened. She seemed about to say something, then just nodded.
Seeing she understood, Kyra nodded back and hurried on to the room she’d shared with Avana for the past two years. She’d offered to supervise the move-out that afternoon because Avana had to attend a family function. She wanted to do a thorough walk-through of the small space to make sure nothing was overlooked. When she reached the door, she paused in the threshold.
Scanning the nearly empty room, she wondered how she’d ever managed to fit her belongings into half of the tiny space. Hell, she hadn’t even really had half. Avana had all but taken over the room by freshman year’s end. It was a rather accurate reflection of their overall friendship, she couldn’t help but think in an affectionate way.
She eyed the small bed with the rock-hard mattress she’d slept on and pitied the poor soul who would inhabit it next. She’d suffered on that sucker for much too long, but she’d be living the apartment life as a junior. Her new job as an admissions assistant would finally allow her the freedom to live off-campus. Well, that and Avana’s agreement to room with her and split the rent. Unlike Kyra, Avana never had to worry about money. Her parents were made of it. She’d only chosen to room in the dorms for the social element.
Walking over to each bed, Kyra looked underneath them and made sure she didn’t spot anything. She opened each of the drawers on the two small dressers and the shared nightstand, but didn’t find anything there either. Her search complete, she deemed the move-out acceptable and stepped back out of the room, closing the door behind her. An unexpected pang struck her as she realized that this was the last time she’d do so. Despite the hassles and headaches, she’d miss this place.
A faint noise reached her ears…the dull bonging sound of the university’s bell tower striking the hour.
Damn! It’s eight o’clock, she thought, running for the stairs.
She was supposed to meet Avana and Sam in the quad at quarter to eight. She hadn’t realized how much time it took to talk to Rachel and finish her inspection. Pulling her cell out of her purse as she descended the few flights of stairs, she texted Avana.
Sorry. Be there in 5.
The dorms were only steps away from the edge of the quad, but the spot where she’d agreed to meet Avana and Sam was on the far side of the heart of the campus. The three of them were headed to a party hosted by Sam’s fraternity, and she’d dressed before the move was finished to make sure she was ready on time. She was wearing a red and white knee-length sundress and matching red peep-toed heels. The adorable shoes added three inches to her five-foot-five height, but greatly hindered her ability to hurry across the grassy ground of the quad.
Her cell buzzed in her hand as she walked. K. C U then.
She smiled. Of course Avana wouldn’t have been worked up over her tardiness. She was a free spirit, more inclined to go where the wind directed her on any given day than to follow a compass or path. Punctuality had never been one of her hang-ups.
Kyra’s cell went dark. Looking up, she realized she was walking in shadow. Typically, the quad was well-lit by tall lights designed to look like old-fashioned gas lamps. The posts stood about twenty feet apart and surrounded the square area, offering plenty of luminescence and providing a sense of safety. Now, at least three of the lights along Kyra’s route had gone out.
Her steps faltered. She looked to her right, where the school’s science building stood. Rows of bushes cast deep, uneven shadows along the brick face. A muggy breeze rustled the leaf-covered limbs, generating an eerie scratching sound as they brushed the harsh surface of the wall.
Feeling as though someone was watching her, she cast a furtive look around the quad. On any normal evening, there would be plenty of people walking around the area. Now, however, not another soul was in sight. Kyra supposed they were all either still moving into their dorm rooms or had already left for the big party.
Despite the visual confirmation that she was alone, she had the pressing urge to call out and ask who was there. An image of herself acting like a horror movie cliché kept her lips firmly sealed, however.
Another scraping noise on her right had her starting. She clutched her purse closer to her body and picked up her pace. Surely the shadows were just making her jumpy, she reasoned. That didn’t explain why every hair on her arms and neck now stood on end.
Swallowing her rising fear, she almost broke into a run as she reached the last twenty feet of darkness. Her eyes didn’t move from the gloomy bushes. She couldn’t explain her reaction, as the university was in a small, sleepy town and had a low crime rate. But every instinct in her told her to run.
Just as she neared the halo of light cast by the closest lamppost, it went out. She staggered to a halt.
That was when the darkness moved.
Not possible, she thought.
She watched the shadows take shape, growing ever taller. Five feet, six feet, seven feet tall…like a creature advancing and casting a longer and longer shadow. Her heartbeat accelerated. The voice in her head ordered her to flee.
Before she could command her limbs to move, she felt her arm taken in a firm grip. She barely avoided issuing a terrified shriek over the contact. Her fear had escalated to a point where she couldn’t even get a sound past her throat.
Her head whipped to the side. She realized the man who had grabbed her was a good eight or nine inches taller than her, even in her heels. She got a sense of a chiseled profile and broad shoulders as he urged her to move. Her gaze flew to the ground as she tried to avoid breaking an ankle. Only when they emerged from the darkness did her sense of panic begin to ease.
Her unexpected companion’s pace also slowed once they reached the light. She turned her gaze to him once again. Had he been the one who had cast the shadow?
She didn’t think so. Although she couldn’t tell much about him from his profile, she didn’t sense that he would harm her.
“It isn’t me you need to worry about,” he said in a deep voice. “You were right to fear the dark.”