I can’t sleep.
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve spent the last four months sleeping or if it’s because of everything that’s happened today. Maybe it’s a combination of both.
Probably it’s a combination of both.
Losing your memory will do that to a girl. So will finding out that the boy you’re in love with, your mate, is the boy—the man—you’re going to spend the rest of your life with.
Macy was all excited about it, going on and on about how lucky I am to have found Jaxon when I’m seventeen years old. I don’t have to go through jerks like Cam (apparently, she and Cam broke up, badly, while I was busy being a statue) while I wait, and I don’t have to worry about never finding my mate (apparently, this happens more frequently than it should). I have a mate and, according to Macy, that’s pretty much the best thing I could ask for, better certainly than being human again. Better even than getting my memory back.
Mates are forever, after all, while almost nothing else is—or so she told me over and over and over again last night.
And I get it. I do. I love Jaxon. I have pretty much from the beginning. But is that because I love him or because of the mating bond, which supposedly has been in place from the moment we first touched?
Which means, what? That first day, near the chess table, when he was being so awful to me and I rested my hand against his scarred cheek, that’s when we mated? Before either of us had a clue about the other? Before either of us even liked each other?
I swallow a lump in my throat. Before either of us even had a choice?
For now, I refuse to focus on the fact that he knew from that first touch but never told me. Once again, I file that tidbit in my “Shit I Don’t Have Time for Today” folder—which I’m beginning to think might need its own filing cabinet before this mess is done.
Instead, I try to wrap my head around having a mate in the first place. I mean, I get it in concept. I’ve read enough urban fantasy and YA novels to understand the mating bond is the best thing that can happen to two people. But to go from that to understanding it as a real thing that has happened between Jaxon and me… It feels like a lot.
Then again, all of this feels like a lot.
Too much for me to sleep, anyway. Maybe too much for me to handle at all. I don’t know.
I grab my phone and notice Heather texted me back earlier. I let out a slow breath as I read her message. She wants to FaceTime later next week, and I quickly shoot off a reply that it’s a date. Next, I spend a few minutes thumbing through a news site, catching up on everything I missed in the world the last four months. Turns out I missed a lot. Eventually, though, I grow bored with the news and set my phone on my chest and stare at the ceiling.
But I can’t just lie here all night letting the gargoyle thing, the memory thing, and the mating thing all run through my head on a continuous loop.
I’d watch TV, but I don’t want to disturb Macy. It’s late, close to two in the morning, and she has a midterm tomorrow. Which means I need to get out of here.
I roll off the bed, trying to make as little noise as possible, then grab a hoodie from my closet—the castle can be cold and drafty at night. Next, I slip on my favorite pair of daisy-patterned Vans and tiptoe to the door as quietly as I possibly can.
I have a moment’s hesitation when I go to pull open the door—the last time I wandered the castle alone in the middle of the night, I nearly got tossed outside in the snow. I definitely do not want that to happen again. Mate or no mate, I can’t go around expecting Jaxon to rescue me whenever I get into trouble.
Not that I imagine he’ll be all that thrilled to rescue me anyway tonight. Especially since I canceled my plans to meet up with him, claiming exhaustion.
But things are different now than they were four months ago. No one’s got any reason to try to kill me, for one. And for another, even if they wanted to, no one would ever deliberately go after Jaxon Vega’s mate. Especially not after Jaxon nearly drained Cole for trying to drop a chandelier on me.
Plus, I’m a gargoyle now. If someone tries to hurt me, I can always just turn to stone. As exciting as that sounds. Of course, I have absolutely no idea how to do that. But that’s a problem for another day, already filed away.
Before I can reconsider, I’m out of my dorm room and down the hall to…I’m not sure where yet. Except my feet seem to know what my brain doesn’t, because it isn’t long before I’m standing at the opening to the narrow hallway that leads to the tunnel entrance.
Part of me thinks I’m ridiculous for going in here alone—or at all, for that matter. Just this afternoon, I avoided heading this way with Flint because of all the bad shit that happened the last time I was down here.
But I’m not dressed to go outside, and suddenly the only thing I really want to be doing is working on my art piece. The only way to get to the art room right now is to go through the tunnels, so…it looks like I’m about to get up close and personal with the site of my almost demise.
Figuring the best way to get through the tunnels is just to get through them—no side trips, no detours—I make my way down the ever-narrowing, ever-darkening hallway as fast as I possibly can. My heart is pounding in my chest, but I don’t let it slow me down.
I finally make it to the dungeon-like cells, with their creaking hinges and ancient chains. Since I’m alone and there’s no one around to rush me, I let myself stop and look them over for a minute. At night, alone, they’re even creepier than they are during the day. And they’re plenty creepy then.
There are five cells in a row, each one equipped with an iron-barred door. Each door has an ancient padlock threaded through its latch bar, but each of the padlocks is closed (with no keys in sight) so there’s no chance of anyone getting locked in the cells by accident…or, for that matter, not by accident.
The cells themselves are made of giant stones, each one about the width of a dragon’s foot (or at least the width of Flint’s foot, since he’s the only dragon I’ve ever seen), and I wonder if there’s a reason for that or if my imagination is just running wild. Either way, the stones are black and craggy and more than a little ominous-looking.
Then again, everything about the cells is ominous-looking—especially the three sets of shackles driven deep into the wall. Judging by the age of this place and the condition of the padlocks themselves, I would expect the shackles to be in pretty rough shape, too.
But they’re not. Instead, they’re a blindingly bright silver, free of any rust or sign of age. Which, not going to lie, makes me wonder how old they are. And why on earth Katmere Academy—which is run by my uncle, for God’s sake—might have need of shackles thick enough to hold a rampaging dinosaur. Or, you know, a dragon, werewolf, or vampire…
Because thinking about it takes me along a disturbing path, one I’m not ready to go down tonight, I tell myself there must be a reasonable explanation—one that doesn’t involve locking students up in a freezing dungeon for who knows how long.
Figuring I’m going to lose my nerve if I stay here any longer debating this, I take a deep breath and step into the fifth cell, which is the only one with the extra door that leads to the tunnels.
As I do, I brush a hand over the padlock on the door, just to make sure it’s securely locked and no werewolf can come along and trap me in the tunnels.
Except, the moment my fingers brush against the lock, it clicks open…and falls out of the door latch straight into my hands.
Not quite the confidence builder I was looking for, especially considering I know it was locked. I know it.
Totally creeped out now, I slip the lock into the pocket of my hoodie—there’s no way I’m putting it on the door until I’m safely back from the art cottage and heading to bed. Then I bend over and plug in the code Flint taught me for the tunnel door all those months ago.
I enter the last digit and the door swings open, just like it has every other time I’ve gone down here. But every other time I’ve been with someone else, and somehow that’s made it less creepy.
Unless I concentrate on the fact that two of the four people I’ve been in the tunnels with literally tried to kill me here. Then it seems like pretty good odds that I’m by myself.
Deciding I either need to stop freaking myself out or go back to bed, I walk through the door. And try to ignore that all the candles in the sconces and chandeliers are still lit.
Then again, it’s a good thing they are. Because it’s not like I can just flip a switch and flood the place with light. Even though I want to. The bone chandeliers look a million times creepier now that I know they’re actually real bones and not some cool student-made art project.
For a second, I think about forgetting the whole thing. About heading back to my room and to hell with the tunnels. Staring at the ceiling above my bed has to be better than making my way through Katmere’s very own version of the Paris Catacombs on my own.
But the need to paint has been growing exponentially in me since I left my room a little while ago, until I can practically feel the paint brush in my hand. Until I can practically smell the pungent oil of the paints on my canvas.
Besides, if I let these tunnels—and the memories they hold—run me out of here now, I don’t know if I’ll ever again work up the nerve to come back.
With that thought in mind, I pull out my phone and swipe open the music app I downloaded earlier. I choose one of my happy playlists—Summertime (Un)Sadness—and “I’m Born to Run” fills up the silence around me. It’s hard to be scared when American Authors are singing about how they want to live their life like it’s never enough. Talk about an anthem tailor-made for this situation.
So in the end, I do what they suggest. I run. And not some little jog, either. I run my ass off, ignoring how the altitude makes my lungs feel like they want to explode.
Ignoring everything except the need to get through this damn creep-fest as fast as I possibly can.