Madly (Madly #1)


by M. Leighton

CHAPTER ONE

I looked out the classroom window, wishing I was outdoors enjoying the ambient conditions of Slumber, conditions that I’d come to love in a relatively short amount of time. If I closed my eyes, I could almost feel the humid sea breeze ruffling my hair, the hot sun shining down on my face. I could almost smell the sweet hint of jasmine in the air, too.

Sighing, I turned my attention to the back of Aidan’s sandy head. My lazy musings coupled with the soft drone of Mr. Laraby’s voice provided the perfect background noise to lull me into a semi-comatose state.

Aidan turned around and winked at me. Whether he’d known I was watching him or he was just being his fun-loving self, I didn’t know. With Aidan, you could never tell what went on behind his warm hazel eyes, but either way he made me smile. He was constantly teasing me or doing something funny to make me laugh.

When he turned back toward the front of the class, I sighed. I couldn’t wait for our mating tie to materialize, for the time when the mere sight of him would make me swoon. That’s what happened between all fated mates and, since I was to be betrothed to Aidan in nine more months, I fully expected it would happen with us. But right now, he just felt like my big brother.

Tingling fingers of unease lifted the roots of my waist length blonde hair away from my scalp, startling me from my stupor. I sat up in my seat and looked around. Just as I was about to reassure myself that it had only been my imagination, the shiny, gilded cuff around my wrist began to heat against my skin.

I looked down at my bracelet, the wide gold band that had adorned my arm practically since birth. It held a charm tight against the skin on the inside of my wrist, where it continually leached power straight into my bloodstream.

The charm itself was a blue-green hoop that looked like a delicate, water-filled doughnut. All of us had a similar charm that we wore somewhere against our skin. It was the source of our magic on dry land. But at the empty center of mine was a single silvery pearl. Upon casual inspection, it seemed to be part of the circle, but it was not. It wasn’t attached to anything, held in place by nothing more than the potent enchantment that marked my family, my entire race.

Like a bolt of lightning, pain suddenly shot from my wrist straight up my arm and into my head. My sharp inhalation alerted Aidan and Jersey, my two best friends, both of whom sat in front of me. I saw them turn toward me right before my vision blurred with tears.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I bit my lip to keep the scream on my tongue from finding its way out. Electricity held my arm stiff as the current began to flow through the rest of my body. My hair felt like it was on fire and my toes twitched inside my loafers. Lips that felt like they were melting off my face could no longer hold the cry inside, but when it escaped, it didn’t sound like my voice. It sounded like the high-pitched call of a siren.

Then, as quickly as it had come upon me, it was over. I felt my body go limp in my seat and I slumped forward over my desk. I didn’t need to open my eyes to know that every face in class was turned curiously in my direction. Despite the shock of what had just happened, I felt the burn of embarrassment sting my cheeks.

“Madly, what is it?”

Jersey’s concerned voice was near my right ear, concern I knew would be mirrored in her sea foam eyes.

“Hey, James, quit trying to scare us,” Aidan whispered into the other ear. Though his comment was meant to sound casual, I could hear the genuine fear in his voice.

I lifted my head and opened my eyes to Aidan’s. I knew by the frown that appeared on his smooth brow that he knew something was seriously wrong.

“Mr. Laraby, Madly’s not feeling well, can we take her down the hall to the bathroom?”

“She doesn’t look very good, does she?” Mr. Laraby asked, eyeing me suspiciously. “No, why don’t you take her to the nurse’s office?”

“Yes, sir,” Aidan replied, coming around to throw my arm around his shoulder and slip his hand around my waist. With virtually no effort, he hauled me to my feet.

“Jersey, grab her bag.”

I heard the rustling of Jersey jumping to obey Aidan and then the patter of her feet as she followed behind us.

As soon as we were clear of Mr. Laraby’s room, Aidan steered me to the long line of army green lockers on one side of the hall and propped me up against the cool metal.

“What was that all about? What is it?”

At first when he asked, I wasn’t sure how to answer, wasn’t really sure what had happened. But then, as the fog cleared from my mind, an image was left in its wake. It was the mental picture of someone I recognized.

“It’s Lady Sheelah.”

As my vision came back into ultra-clear focus, I saw Aidan’s pupils dilate and, for the first time since I’d known him, the jokester disappeared into the royalty that he was born to be.

“Then we need to get to her.”

With that, he took my hand, pulled me away from the lockers and practically dragged me down the hall. I’d forgotten all about Jersey until I heard her speak up from somewhere behind us.

“Um, hello? Is somebody gonna tell me what the devil is going on?”

“Come on, Jersey,” Aidan called over his shoulder. “Keep up.”

“I’m trying, but not all of us are giants,” she snipped.

When I turned to look back at her, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw her short legs flying in her efforts to reach us.

“Just like not all of us are shrimps,” I teased.

“A shellfish joke? Seriously? Are you actually gonna go there?”

Jersey’s expression said she was skeptical. I smiled again.

It helped to have her around to lighten the mood. It gave me a reason not to focus on the sinking feeling that was pulling at my heart, a feeling that assured me that what had happened in Mr. Laraby’s classroom did not bode well.

The three of us made our way quickly from Building C to the dorms that crouched in a tight circle in the center of campus. Veritas Academy was a private school, so our handler, Lady Sheelah, stayed in our dorm acting as our Resident Advisor, a very human-looking position.

As we arrived at her room, Aidan took the lead and knocked on the door. There was no answer, so he knocked a second time. When still there was no sign of Lady Sheelah, he reached for the knob. It was unlocked, turning easily.

Pushing the door open a bit, Aidan poked his head into the room and said, “Hello? Sheelah?”

When there was no response, my breath began to come faster. Something was desperately wrong; I could feel it.

“Stay here,” Aidan ordered as he swung the door wide and stepped inside.

He disappeared into the dark interior of the small room and Jersey and I looked at each other. Then, as she so often did, Jersey said exactly what I was thinking.

“As if!”

I took the first step into Lady Sheelah’s room. Jersey was right behind me. I felt her fingers fist in the tails of my shirt, tails I’d purposely left hanging out over my cheesy blue plaid skirt.

Leaving my shirt untucked was my tribute to individuality among all the other uniform-clad students. “They” frowned upon it, but Jersey and I had decided two months ago that they could make us wear a uniform at Veritas Academy, but they could never make us all look the same. For Jersey, that meant wearing lots of costume jewelry and fingernail polish in every color of the rainbow.

In the quiet of the room, I heard nothing but the smack of Jersey’s lips as she chomped on her gum.

“Jersey, shh,” I whispered over my shoulder.

“I can’t help it. I’m ‘nervous chewing’,” she explained in a hushed voice.

I don’t know how it was possible that I hadn’t yet become accustomed to her loud gum-chewing. She’d done it almost all our lives, ever since she’d bought a pack of Hubba Bubba on our first trip to dry land.

Doing my best to tune it out, I called softly to Aidan.

“Over here,” came his response.

The normal tones with which he spoke eased my fretting mind. In fact, I was just about to relax when I rounded the corner and saw him standing over Lady Sheelah.

From behind Aidan’s shoulder, I could only see her head. Her dark brown hair was spread out around her, fanned out almost purposefully. Her face was turned to one side, her expression blank, her jaw slack. When I saw the splatters of silver on her pale cheek, I gasped. There was only one thing I knew of that looked like that. It would’ve been red inside her body, but outside it…

Numbly, I edged my way around Aidan. My stomach rebelled at the sight that lay before my eyes.

At the foot of her twin bed, Lady Sheelah lay prone on the floor, surrounded by a pool of liquid silver. It was mercury, the blood of the mermaid.

CHAPTER TWO

I heard the slap of Jersey’s hand as she covered her mouth, smothering a scream. My mind raced. Why would anyone kill Lady Sheelah? It just didn’t make any sense. No one had killed a mermaid—or any Mer for that matter—in hundreds of years.

As my mind sifted through options for what to do next, I heard the noise of approaching feet in the hallway outside Lady Sheelah’s door. The three of us looked at each other, silently wondering what we should do. But before any of us could speak, the room began to fill with the ghostly forms of the Seers.

Their dark, smoky presence overwhelmed the small space to the point that I felt instantly suffocated. I was almost glad when they wordlessly forced us out into the hall.

It was when I stepped through the doorway and turned the corner that I suddenly felt breathless for a totally different reason.

Standing in the hall right outside the door, hovering like an ominous, disapproving cloud, was Jackson Hamilton, Jersey’s brother and one of the most promising Sentinels the Mer had ever seen. My mouth dropped open for a second before I brought my jaw shut with an audible snap of my teeth.

Though I hadn’t seen him since I was almost fifteen and he was sixteen, I was instantly transported back to the days when I idolized him. At one point, I was crushing on him so hard my parents actually grounded me for pining away over a Sentinel, a match that was strictly forbidden in the Mer culture.

Now, at nineteen, Jackson was fully matured and every inch the Sentinel. Standing nearly a foot above my tallish 5’8” frame, his shoulders looked wider than the doorway behind me. His hair, cut short for his assignment in Slumber, was the same blue-black as the other Sentinels, denoting his station, and his skin was as tan as ever. His jaw seemed a little harder than before, probably because he was gritting his teeth, but it was his eyes that caught and held me, eyes I had thought I’d finally managed to put out of my mind.

They were the clear, pale blue of shallow water and they were glaring at me furiously from beneath a straight, heavy brow and thick, raven lashes.

I was taken aback by the anger I saw in their mesmerizing depths, so much so that I lost my tongue.

Jersey, however, had no such problem.

“What crawled up your butt and died?” she demanded tersely.

After a few more seconds of blatant intimidation, Jackson swung his gaze to Jersey. He said nothing until his startling eyes moved on to pin Aidan.

“Get them out of here,” Jackson ground out in a deep and booming voice, his expression growing even more thunderous if possible. “What were you thinking, bringing them here?”

Although Aidan was royal, he wasn’t exactly a warrior like Jackson. I could almost see him shrinking back inside himself.

“I didn’t…we didn’t know that…I never expected that she might…”

Poor thing, he never did form a complete sentence, just stammered nervously.

“If you even suspected that something was wrong, you should have called. Never, ever, ever bring the Princess out without protection.”

“But I was here with her, I didn’t think—”

“No, you didn’t think. And don’t imagine that the Warden Major won’t hear of this.”