THE BURNING ARROW THUDDED INTO THE WALL.
Fire. The old, dry wood of the meetinghouse ignited in an instant. Dark, oily smoke filled the air, scratching my lungs and making me choke. Around me, my new friends cried out in shock before grabbing weapons, preparing to fight for their lives.
This is because of me.
Arrow after arrow sliced through the air, stoking the flames higher. Through the haze of ash, I desperately sought Lucas’s eyes. I knew he would protect me no matter what, but he was in danger, too. If something happened to Lucas while he was trying to rescue me, I could never forgive myself.
Coughing from the soot-thick air, I grabbed Lucas’s hand and ran with him toward the door. But they were ready for us.
Silhouetted against the flames, a dark, forbidding line of figures stood just beyond the edge of the meetinghouse. None of them brandished weapons; they didn’t have to in order to make their threat clear. They had come for me. They had come to punish Lucas for breaking their rules. They had come to kill.
This is all happening because of me. If Lucas dies, it will be my fault.
There was nowhere to go, no place to run. We couldn’t remain here, not with the blaze around us roaring, already so hot that it stung my skin. Soon the ceiling would collapse and crush us all.
Outside, the vampires waited.
IT WAS THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, WHICH MEANT it was my last chance to escape.
I didn’t have a backpack full of survival gear, a wallet thick with cash that I could use to buy myself a plane ticket somewhere, or a friend waiting for me down the road in a getaway car. Basically, I didn’t have what most sane people would call “a plan.”
But it didn’t matter. There was no way I was going to remain at Evernight Academy.
The muted morning light was still new in the sky as I wriggled into my jeans and grabbed a warm black sweater—this early in the morning, and this high in the hills, even September felt cold. I knotted my long red hair into a makeshift bun and stepped into my hiking boots. It felt important to be very quiet, even though I didn’t have to worry about my parents waking up. They weren’t morning people, to say the least. They’d sleep like the dead until the alarm clock woke them, and that wouldn’t be for another couple of hours.
That would give me a good head start.
Outside my bedroom window, the stone gargoyle glared at me, fangs framing his open grimace. I grabbed my denim jacket and stuck my tongue out at him. “Maybe you like hanging out at the Fortress of the Damned,” I muttered. “You’re welcome to it.”
Before I left, I made my bed. Usually it took a lot of nagging to get me to do that, but I wanted to. I knew I was going to freak my parents out badly enough today, so straightening the covers felt like I was making it up to them a little. Probably they wouldn’t see it that way, but I went ahead. As I plumped up the pillows, I had a sudden strange flash of something I’d dreamed the night before, as vivid and immediate as though I were still dreaming:
A flower the color of blood.
Wind howled through the trees all around me, whipping the branches in every direction. The sky overhead churned, thick with roiling clouds. I brushed my windswept hair from my face. I only wanted to look at the flower.
Each rain-beaded petal was vividly red, slender, and blade-like, the way some tropical orchids are. Yet the flower was lush and full, too, and it clung close to the branch like a rose. The flower was the most exotic, mesmerizing thing I’d ever seen. It had to be mine.
Why did that memory make me shiver? It was only a dream. I took a deep breath and focused. It was time to go.
My messenger bag was ready; I’d loaded it up the night before. Just a few things—a book, sunglasses, and a little cash in case I needed to go all the way to Riverton, which was the closest thing to human civilization in the area. That would keep me occupied for the day.
See, I wasn’t running away. Not for real, where you make a break and assume a new identity and, I don’t know, join the circus or something. No, I was making a statement. Ever since my parents first suggested that we come to Evernight Academy—them as teachers, me as a student—I’d been against it. We’d lived in the same small town my whole life, and I’d attended the same school with the same people since I was five years old. That was just the way I wanted it. There are people who enjoy meeting strangers, who can strike up conversations and make friends quickly, but I’d never been one of those people. Anything but.
It’s funny—when people call you “shy,” they usually smile. Like it’s cute, some funny little habit you’ll grow out of when you’re older, like the gaps in your grin when your baby teeth fall out. If they knew how it felt—really being shy, not just unsure at first—they wouldn’t smile. Not if they knew how the feeling knots up your stomach or makes your palms sweat or robs you of the ability to say anything that makes sense. It’s not cute at all.
My parents never smiled when they said it. They were smarter than that, and I always felt like they understood, until they decided that age sixteen was the right time for me to get past it somehow. What better starting place than a boarding school—particularly with them along for the ride?
I could see where they were coming from, sort of. Still, that was theory. The first moment we’d come up the drive at Evernight Academy—and I’d seen this huge, hulking, Gothic stone monstrosity—I’d known that there was no way I could possibly go to school here. Mom and Dad hadn’t listened. I would have to make them listen.
On tiptoe, I eased my way through the small faculty apartment my family had shared for the past month. Behind the closed door of my parents’ bedroom, I could hear my mother snoring lightly. I shouldered my bag, slowly turned the doorknob, and started downstairs. We lived at the very top of one of Evernight’s towers, which sounds cooler than it is. This meant I had to make my way down steps that had been carved out of rock more than two centuries ago, long enough to be worn and uneven. The long spiral staircase had few windows and the lights weren’t yet on, making for a dark, difficult trip.
As I reached out for the flower, the hedge rustled. The wind, I thought, but it wasn’t the wind. No, the hedge was growing—growing so quickly that I could see it happening. Vines and brambles pushed from the leaves in a tangled snarl. Before I could run, the hedge had almost surrounded me, walling me in behind sticks and leaves and thorns.