Stark was gone when I woke up. Feeling majorly refreshed as well as starving, I stretched and yawned, which is when I found the arrow lying on the pillow beside me. He'd broken it in half, which immediately caught my attention. I mean, I'm from a town named Broken Arrow. I know what the symbolism of an arrow snapped in half means--peace, an end to fighting. There was a note folded underneath the arrow pieces with my name printed on it. I opened it and read: I watched you while you were sleeping and you looked completely at peace. I wish I could feel that. I wish I could close my eyes and feel at peace. But I can't. I can't feel anything if I'm not with you, and even then all I can do is want something that I don't think I can ever have, at least not now. So I left this, and my peace, with you. Stark.

"What the hell does that mean?" I asked Nala.

My cat sneezed, "mee-uf-owed" grumpily at me, jumped from my bed, and padded to her food bowl. She looked back at me, purring like crazy.

"Okay, yeah, I know. I'm hungry, too." I fed my cat and thought about Stark while I got dressed for what I was sure would be a very weird school day. "Today we're getting out of here," I told my reflection firmly after I'd used the flatiron to semi-tame my hair.

I hurried downstairs and arrived in the kitchen just in time to grab my favorite cereal, Count Chocula, and join the Twins, who had their heads together and were whispering and looking annoyed.

"Hey, guys," I said, sitting next to them and pouring myself a huge bowl of chocolatey deliciousness. "What's up?"

Keeping her voice pitched low for my ears only, Erin said, "You'll see what's up once you sit here for just a few minutes."

"Yeah, observe the pod people," Shaunee whispered.

"Okayyyyy," I said slowly, adding milk to my cereal and watching the kids around us with what I hoped was utter nonchalance.

At first I really didn't notice much of anything. Girls were busy grabbing protein bars or cereal or some other favorite breakfast food. And then I realized that it wasn't what I was seeing that was weird--it was what I wasn't. There was none of the typical joking around going on where someone makes fun of someone else's hair, and then someone else tells her to tell her mom to be quiet. No one was talking about boys. At all. No one was complaining about not having their homework done. Actually, no one was saying much of anything. They were just chewing and breathing and smiling. A lot.

I gave the Twins a WTF look.

Pod people, Erin mouthed to me while Shaunee nodded her head.

"Almost as annoying as that asshole Stark," Erin whispered.

I tried not to sound massively guilty when I said, "Stark? What about him?"

"The buttball walked through here while you were still upstairs. All like he owned the place and didn't care who Gheight="+S knew he'd been raping and pillaging some poor helpless pod girl," Shaunee said, still keeping her voice down.

"Yeah, you should have seen Becca. She panted after him like a terrier," Erin said. "And what did he do?" I asked, holding my breath.

"It was pathetic. He barely looked at her," Shaunee said.

"Talk about being used and then wadded up and thrown away like a snot rag," Erin said.

I was trying to figure out what I could say that would give me more info about what Stark had or hadn't done without letting the Twins know I cared as much as I was caring, and I thought I should maybe try to say a little something that would kinda somehow stand up for Stark, when Erin's eyes got all wide and buggy as she stared behind me.

"Well, speak of the damn devil," Shaunee said in her best mean-girl voice.

"Literally," Erin added.

"Wrong table," Shaunee said. "Your minions are all over there and there." She waved her hand around the room at the other girls who had stopped eating and were staring behind me, too. "Not over here."

I swiveled around in my chair to look up at Stark. Our eyes met. I'm sure mine were wide and startled. His were deep and warm, and I could almost hear the question he was asking with them.

Ignoring everyone else in the room, I said, "Hi, Stark." I was careful not to make my voice too friendly or icy. I just said hi to him like I would any other kid.

"You look better than the last time I saw you," he said.

I could feel my cheeks getting warm. The last time he'd seen me we'd been in bed together. While I was still staring into his eyes and trying to figure out what the hell I could say to him in front of everyone, Erin spoke up.

"Big surprise that she looks better than when you were chomping on Becca last night."

"Yeah, watching that would be enough to make anyone look a little peaked."

Stark broke his gaze from mine. I saw his eyes flash a dangerous scarlet as he rounded on the Twins. "I'm talking to Zoey, not either of you. So butt the fuck out."

There was something about his voice that was deeply frightening. He didn't yell. His expression hardly changed. Instead, he radiated a terrible sense of coiled snake, pissed and deadly and on the brink of striking. I looked more closely at him and saw a ripple in the air around him, like heat waves lifting from a tin roof in summer. I don't know if the Twins saw it, too, but they definitely sensed something. Both of them paled, but I hardly spared a glance for them. It was Stark I was keyed on because I knew I was glimpsing the monster he'd talked about. Seeing the almost instantaneous change that came over him, I was reminded of Stevie Rae--before she'd found her humanity again.

Was that why I cared about Stark so much? Because I'd seen Stevie Rae struggle with the same dark impulses and win over them, and I wanted to believe he could win, too?

Well, dealing with he b but I harStevie Rae had taught me one thing for sure, and that was that a fledgling in this position could be a very dangerous creature.

Keeping my voice completely calm, I said, "What was it you wanted to say to me, Stark?"

I saw the struggle on his face as the kid I knew fought with the monster who clearly wanted to leap across the table and eat the Twins. Finally he shifted his gaze back to me. His eyes still glowed slightly red when he said, "I didn't really have anything to say. I just found this. It's yours, isn't it?" He lifted his hand and, clenched in it, was my purse.

I looked from it to him, and then back at the purse again. I remembered what he'd said about being scared of purses like I'm scared of spiders. When I looked into his eyes again, I was smiling.

"Thanks, it is mine." I took it from him, and as our hands brushed I said, "A guy once told me that girls' purses reminded him of spiders."

The red left his eyes like he'd thrown a switch. The terrible aura that had surrounded him was gone. One of his fingers wrapped around mine and held for just an instant. Then he let loose the purse and my hand.

"Spiders? Are you sure you heard him right?"

"I'm sure. Thanks again for finding this."

He shrugged, turned, and slouched out of the room.

As soon as he was gone, all the fledglings except the Twins and me started whispering excitedly about how hot Stark is. I ate my cereal in silence.

"Okay, he's beyond creepy," Shaunee said.

"Was that what Stevie Rae was like before she Changed?" Erin asked.

I nodded. "Yeah, basically." I lowered my voice and added, "Did you guys notice anything in the air around him? Like a weird rippling or an extra-dark shadow?"

"No, I was too busy thinking he was going to eat me to look around him," Erin said.

"Ditto," said Shaunee. "So is that why he doesn't freak you out, because he's like Stevie Rae before she Changed?"

I lifted one of my shoulders and used the excuse of a mouth full of Count Chocula to not say much.

"Hey, seriously, I know what Kramisha's poem said and all," Erin said. "But you gotta watch yourself around him. He's totally bad news."

"Plus, the poem might not have been about him," Shaunee said.

"Guys, do we really have to talk about this right now?" I said after swallowing.

"Nope, he has zero importance to us," Shaunee said quickly.

"Ditto," Erin said; then she added, "You gonna check to be sure he didn't steal your stuff?"

"Yeah, what ever." I unsnapped my purse and looked into it, pawing around a little and taking an out-loud inventory. "Cell phone...lip holder thing with, yep, all my money and my driver:e #rdq's license in it...and--" I broke off abruptly when I found the little note that had an arrow broken in half drawn on it. Below the arrow were the words: Thanks for last night.

"What? Did you find something he ripped off?" Erin asked, trying to peer across the table and into my purse.

I snapped it shut. "No, just nasty used Kleenex. I wish he had ripped that off."

"Well, I still say he's an asshole," Erin grumbled.

I nodded and made little agreeing sounds as I finished my cereal and tried not to think about Stark's warm hand stroking my hair.

My classes, as my Spanish teacher, Professor Garmy, would had said, had she not turned into a good little pod professor, were no bueno para me. And the worst part was, if you took away the disgusting Raven Mockers, who seemed to be everywhere, I could have almost convinced myself that everything was normal. But almost can be a really big word.

It didn't help that my schedule had been changed around at semester, so that I was in classes with all different kids, none of them being Damien and the Twins. Aphrodite was nowhere to be seen, making me worry on and off about whether she and Darius were being eaten by Raven Mockers. Of course, knowing Aphrodite, they were still in her room playing doctor.

It was with that gross mental picture that I slid into a desk for my first class, which was now Literature 205. Oh, when Shekinah had moved all my classes around so that I could be in an advanced level of Vampyre Sociology, she'd failed to mention that the rearrangement had caused me to be bumped up to the next level of my lit and Spanish classes. So my stomach churned as I waited for Professor Penthasilea, better known as Prof P, to assign a piece of literature with a correspondingly awful essay that was so far over my head that it could roost.

I shouldn't have worried. Prof P was there. She looked like her gorgeous, artsy self. But she acted like an utterly different vampyre. Prof P, by far the coolest lit teacher I'd ever hoped to encounter, began the hour by passing out grammar worksheets. Yep. I stared down at the half dozen pages, Xeroxed front and back, she wanted us to complete. The worksheets ran the range from comma splices and run-ons to diagramming complex sentences (seriously).

Okay, some kids--well, I guess the majority of kids if they had an on-level public school education--would not have been shocked at all by the assignment. But this was Prof P at the House of Night! One thing I could say for Hell High (as human kids called it) was that the classes were not boring. And even among the totally not boring professors, Penthasilea stood out. She'd captivated me in the first sixty seconds of the first day I'd sat in her class by saying that we were going to read Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, a book about the sinking of the Titanic. That was cool enough, but add to that the fact that Prof P had actually been living in Chicago when the ship sank, and she remembered tons of amazing details about not just the people on the ship but what life had been like in the early 1900s, and you have an excellent class.

I looked up from my totally boring worksheets to where she was sitting at her desk, bloblike, staring stone-faced at her computer screen. Her c ke an n the shipharisma in class today would definitely fall on the South Intermediate High School crap teacher scale at about the level of Mrs. Fosster, who consistently got the prize for the Worst English Teacher Ever, and had been called Queen of Worksheets or Umpa Lumpa, depending on whether she was wearing her M&M blue muumuu or not.

Professor Penthasilea had definitely been changed into a pod person.

Spanish class was next. Not only was Spanish II insanely too hard for me (hell, Spanish I had been too hard for me!), but Prof Garmy had turned into a nonteacher. Where before the class had been immersion, which means basically all the talking was in Spanish and not English, now she flitted around the room nervously, helping kids write the description of the picture she'd put up on the Smart Board of a bunch of cats, er, gatos getting all tangled in string, um, hilo--or what ever. (I seriously don't have many Spanish skills.) Her vamp tattoos looked like feathers, and she'd reminded me of a little Spanish bird before. Now she looked and acted like a neurotic sparrow, flitting from kid to kid and getting ready to have a nervous breakdown.

Pod professor number two.

But I would have chosen to stay in Prof Garmy's confusing Spanish class all day if it could have kept me from going to my third-hour class, Advanced Vampyre Sociology, taught by-- you guessed it--Neferet.

Since day one at the House of Night, I'd resisted being put in an advanced level of Vampyre Sociology. At first it was because I'd wanted to fit in. I hadn't wanted to be known as the weird third former (or freshman) kid who'd been stuck in a sixth former (or senior) class because she was so "special." I mean, barf. Well, it hadn't taken me very long to figure out that there was just no way for me to stay incognito. Since then I'd been learning to deal with my specialness and the responsibilities (and embarrassments) that go with it. But it didn't matter how hard I'd talked to myself about the Vamp Soc being just another class, I was still majorly nervous going into it.

Of course, knowing Neferet would be the teacher didn't help at all.

I came in, found a desk near the back of the class, and proceeded to hunker down in my seat, trying to impersonate one of those sloth-like kids who slept their lives away, waking up only to move from class to class, leaving a slug trail of yawns and bright pink spots on their foreheads.

My sloth impersonation might have worked had Neferet turned into a pod professor. Sadly, she hadn't. Neferet was glowing with power and what would appear to those less well informed as happiness. I recognized it as gloating. Neferet was a bloated spider, radiating her victory over everyone's head she had bitten off, delighted to be contemplating more carnage.

As a side note: Darius would be really pleased at my retention of the vocab words he'd been using around me.

Besides the fact that she seemed spiderlike to me, I noticed Neferet, again, wasn't wearing the insignia of Nyx, a goddess embroidered in silver with her hands raised and cupping a crescent moon. Instead, she was wearing a gold chain from which hung wings carved from a pure black stone. I wondered, not for the first time, why no one seemed to notice she was totally twisted. I also won s D { fdered why no one noticed the way she radiated a dark energy that filled the space around her like the air right before a lightning strike.

"Today's lesson is going to focus on an aspect of abilities that only a vampyre, or sometimes an advanced fledgling, can use. So you won't need your Fledgling Handbooks at the moment, unless you'd like to make additional notes in the physiology section. Please open your texts to page 426, which is the chapter on concealment." Neferet held the small class's attention easily. She strode back and forth across the front of her room, looking regal and typically gorgeous in a long black dress trimmed in golden thread that looked like liquid metal. Her auburn hair was pulled back, and lovely curling tendrils of it escaped to frame her beautiful face. Her voice was refined and easy to listen to.

She absolutely scared the bejeezus out of me.

"So, I'll want you to read this chapter on your own. Your assignment will be to document in a journal all of your dreams for the next five days. Often secret desires as well as abilities surface in our dreams. Before you go to sleep, I want you to focus on your reading and think about what concealment means to you. What dark secrets do you keep hidden from the world? Where would you go if no one could find you? What would you do if no one could see you?" She paused, looking at each student as she spoke. Some smiled at her shyly. Others looked away almost guiltily. All in all, the class showed more animation than any of the others I'd been in.

"Brittney, darling, would you read aloud the section on page 432 on cloaking?"

Brittney, a petite brunette, nodded, turned the pages, and began reading:


Most fledglings are familiar with the inherent ability they have to cloak their presence to outsiders, i.e., humans. It is practiced by the fledgling tradition of sneaking off campus to perform rituals under the very eyes of the human community. But this is only a small taste of the ability a mature vampyre can command. Even those without affinities can call night to them and conceal their movements from the inadequate senses of the typical human.

Here Neferet interrupted. "Part of what you will learn from this chapter is that any vampyre can move stealthily among humans, a skill which comes in handy because humans tend to be overly judgmental of our activities." I was frowning down at the text, thinking that I couldn't be the only fledgling to notice Neferet's prejudice against humans, when her voice whiplashed at me from next to my desk.

"Zoey. So nice of you to join a class that is more fitting for your abilities."

I looked slowly up into her frigid green eyes and tried to sound like any other fledgling. "Thank you. I've always liked Vamp Soc class."

She smiled, and suddenly reminded me of the creature in Alien, that totally freaky old movie with Sigourney Weaver and the really scary alien that ate people. "Excellent. Why don't you read aloud the last paragraph on that page?"

Glad that I had an excuse to duck my face, I looked down at my book, found the paragraph, and read:

Fledglings should note that cloaking can be very taxing to their strength. It takes great powers of concentration to call and hold night for any protracted period of time. It is also important to understand that cloaking has its limitations. Some are as follows:

1. It is a draining practice and can cause excessive weariness.

2. Cloaking can only work with organic things, which is why it is easier to remain cloaked if one is skyclad (or naked).

3. To attempt cloaking items like cars or motorcycles or even bicycles is an exercise in futility.

4. As with all of our abilities, cloaking exacts a price. For some that price will be mild fatigue and a headache. For others it can be much worse.

I came to the end of the page and glanced up at her.

"That will be quite enough, Zoey. So, tell me, what did you just learn?" Her eyes bored into mine.

Well, actually, I'd just learned that my friends and I wouldn't be escaping from the House of Night using the Hummer unless we somehow got permission to leave campus. I didn't say that, though. Instead, I tried to look studious and said, "That cars and houses and such can't be cloaked from humans."

"Or vampyres," she added in a firm voice that the uninformed (or the body-snatched) might think was concerned and teacherly. "Don't ever forget other vampyres will see through the cloaking of inorganic materials, too."

"I'll remember," I said solemnly. And I would.