Beautiful, see the cloud, the cloud appear. Beautiful, see the rain, the rain draw near...

The words of the ancient song floated through my mind. I must be dreaming about Grandma Redbird again. It made me feel warm and safe and happy, which was especially nice, since I'd felt so crappy lately...except I couldn't remember exactly why. Huh. Odd.

Who spoke?

The little corn ear,

High on top of the stalk...

My grandma's song continued and I curled up on my side, sighing as I rubbed my cheek against the soft pillow. Unfortunately, moving my head caused an ugly pain to shoot through my temples, and like a bullet through a pane of glass, it shattered my happy feeling as the memory of the last day overwhelmed me.

I was turning into a vampyre.

I had run away from home.

I'd had an accident and then some kind of weird near-death experience.

I was turning into a vampyre. Oh my God.

Man, my head hurt.

"Zoeybird! Are you awake, baby?"

I blinked my blurry eyes clear to see Grandma Redbird sitting on a little chair close beside my bed.

"Grandma!" I croaked and reached for her hand. My voice sounded as terrible as my head felt. "What happened? Where am I?" "You're safe, Little Bird. You're safe."

"My head hurts." I reached up and felt the place on my head that was tight and sore, and my fingers found the prick of stitches.

"It should. You scared ten years of my life from me." Grandma rubbed the back of my hand gently. "All that blood..." She shuddered, and then shook her head and smiled at me. "How about you promise not to do that again?"

"Promise," I said. "So, you found me...."

"Bloody and unconscious, Little Bird." Grandma brushed the hair back from my forehead, her fingers lingering lightly on my Mark. "And so pale that your dark crescent seemed to glow against your skin. I knew you needed to be taken back to the House of Night, which is exactly what I did." She chuckled and the mischievous sparkle in her eyes made her look like a little girl. "I called your mother to tell her that I was returning you to the House of Night, and I had to pretend that my cell phone cut out so I could hang up on her. I'm afraid she's not happy with either of us."

I grinned back at Grandma Redbird. Hee hee, Mom was mad at her, too.

"But, Zoey, whatever were you doing out during the daylight? And why didn't you tell me earlier that you had been Marked?"

I struggled to sit up, grunting at the pain in my head. But, thankfully, it seemed I'd stopped coughing. Must be because I'm finally really here--at the House of Night...But the thought disappeared as my mind processed all of what Grandma had said.

"Wait, I couldn't have told you any earlier. The Tracker came to school today and Marked me. I went home first. I really hoped Mom would understand and take my side." I paused, remembering again the awful scene with my parents. In total understanding, Grandma squeezed my hand. "She and John basically locked me in my room while they called our shrink and started the prayer tree."

Grandma grimaced.

"So I crawled out my window and came straight to you," I concluded.

"I'm glad you did, Zoeybird, but it just doesn't make any sense."

"I know," I sighed. "I can't believe I got Marked, either. Why me?"

"That's not what I mean, baby. I'm not surprised you were Tracked and Marked. The Redbird blood has always held strong magic; it was only a matter of time before one of us was Chosen. What I mean is that it makes no sense that you were just Marked. The crescent isn't an outline. It's completely filled in."

"That's impossible!"

"Look for yourself, U-we-tsi a-ge-hu-tsa." She used the Cherokee word for daughter, suddenly reminding me very much of a mysterious, ancient goddess.

Grandma searched through her purse for the antique silver compact she always carried. Without saying anything else, she handed it to me. I pushed the little clasp. It popped open to show me my reflection...the familiar stranger...the me who wasn't quite me. Her eyes were huge and her skin was too white, but I barely noticed that. It was the Mark that I couldn't quit staring at, the Mark that was now a completed crescent moon, filled in perfectly with the distinctive sapphire blue of the vampyre tattoo. Feeling like I was still moving through a dream, I reached up and let my fingers trace the exotic-looking Mark and I seemed to feel the Goddess's lips against my skin again.

"What does it mean?" I said, unable to look away from the Mark.

"We were hoping you would have an answer to that question, Zoey Redbird."

Her voice was amazing. Even before I looked up from my reflection I knew she would be unique and incredible. I was right. She was movie-star beautiful, Barbie beautiful. I'd never seen anyone up close who was so perfect. She had huge, almond- shaped eyes that were a deep, mossy green. Her face was an almost perfect heart and her skin was that kind of flawless creaminess that you see on TV. Her hair was deep red--not that horrid carrot-top orange-red or the washed-out blond-red, but a dark, glossy auburn that fell in heavy waves well past her shoulders. Her body was, well, perfect. She wasn't thin like the freak girls who puked and starved themselves into what they thought was Paris Hilton chic. ("That's Hott." Yeah, okay, whatever, Paris.) This woman's body was perfect because she was strong, but curvy. And she had great boobs. (I wish I had great boobs.)

"Huh?" I said. Speaking of boobs--I was totally sounding like one. (Boob...hee hee).

The woman smiled at me and showed amazingly straight, white teeth-- without fangs. Oh, I guess I forgot to mention that in addition to her perfection she had a sapphire crescent moon neatly tattooed in the middle of her forehead, and from it, swirls of lines that reminded me of ocean, waves framed her brows, extending down around her high cheekbones.

She was a vampyre.

"I said, we were hoping you would have some explanation about why a fledgling vampyre that hasn't Changed has the Mark of a mature being on her forehead."

Without her smile and the gentle concern in her voice her words would have seemed harsh. Instead, what she said came off as worried and a little confused.

"So I'm not a vampyre?" I blurted.

Her laughter was like music. "Not yet, Zoey, but I would say that already having your Mark complete is an excellent omen."

"Oh...I I....well, good. That's good," I babbled.

Thankfully, Grandma saved me from total humiliation.

"Zoey, this is the High Priestess of the House of Night, Neferet. She's been taking good care of you while you've been"--Grandma paused, obviously not wanting to say the word unconscious-- "while you've been asleep."

"Welcome to the House of Night, Zoey Redbird," Neferet said warmly.

I glanced at Grandma and then back at Neferet. Feeling more than a little lost I stuttered, "That's--that's not really my name. My last name is Montgomery."

"Is it?" Neferet said, raising her amber-tinted brows. "One benefit of beginning a new life is that you have the opportunity to start over--to make choices you weren't given before. If you could choose, what would your true name be?"

I didn't hesitate. "Zoey Redbird."

"Then from this moment on, you shall be Zoey Redbird. Welcome to your new life." She reached out like she wanted to shake my hand, and I automatically offered mine. But instead of taking my hand, she grasped my forearm, which was weird but somehow felt right.

Her touch was warm and firm. Her smile blazed with welcome. She was amazing and awe-inspiring. Actually, she was what all vampyres are, more than human--stronger, smarter, more talented. She looked like someone had turned on a blazing inner light within her, which I realize is definitely an ironic description considering the vampyre stereotypes (some of which I already knew were totally true): They avoid sunlight, they're most powerful at night, they need to drink blood to survive (eesh!), and they worship a goddess who is known as Night personified.

"Th-thank you. It's nice to meet you," I said, trying really hard to sound at least semi-intelligent and normal.

"As I was telling your grandmother earlier, we have never had a fledgling come to us in such an unusual manner before-- unconscious and with a completed Mark. Can you remember what happened to you, Zoey?"

I opened my mouth to tell her that I totally remembered it-- falling and hitting my head...seeing myself like I was a floating spirit...following the weirdly visible words into the cave...and finally meeting the Goddess Nyx. But right before I said the words I got a weird feeling, like someone had just hit me in my stomach. It was clear and it was specific, and it was telling me to shut up.

"I--I really don't remember much--" I broke off and my hand found the sore spot where my stitches poked out. "At least not after I hit my head. I mean, up until then I remember everything. The Tracker Marked me; I told my parents and got into a ginormic fight with them; then I ran away to my grandma's place. I was feeling really sick, so when I climbed the path up to the bluffs..." I remembered the rest of it--all of the rest of it--the spirits of the Cherokee people, the dancing and the campfire. Shut up! the feeling screamed at me. "I--I guess I slipped because I was coughing so much, and hit my head. The next thing I remember is Grandma Redbird singing and then I woke up here." I finished in a rush. I wanted to look away from the sharpness of her green-eyed gaze, but the same feeling that was ordering me to be quiet was also clearly telling me that I had to keep eye contact with her, that I had to try really hard to look like I wasn't hiding anything, even though I didn't really have a clue why I was hiding anything.

"It's normal to experience memory loss with a head wound." Grandma said matter-of-factly, breaking the silence.

I could have kissed her.

"Yes, of course it is," Neferet said quickly, her face losing its sharpness. "Do not fear for your granddaughter's health, Sylvia Redbird. All will be well with her."

She spoke to Grandma respectfully, and some of the tension that had been building inside me loosened. If she liked Grandma Redbird, she had to be an okay person, or vampyre or whatever. Right?

"As I'm sure you already know, vampyres"--Neferet paused and smiled at me--"even fledgling vampyres, have unusual powers of recovery. Her healing is proceeding so well that it is perfectly safe for her to leave the infirmary." She looked from Grandma to me. "Zoey, would you like to meet your new roommate?"

No. I swallowed hard and nodded. "Yes."

"Excellent!" Neferet said. Thankfully she ignored the fact that I was standing there like a smiling stupid garden gnome.

"Are you sure you shouldn't keep her here another day for observation?" Grandma asked.

"I understand your concern, but I assure you Zoey's physical wounds are already healing at a pace you would find extraordinary."

She smiled at me again and even though I was scared and nervous and just plain freaked out I smiled back at her. It seemed like she was genuinely happy that I was there. And, truthfully, she made me think turning into a vampyre might not be such a bad thing.

"Grandma, I'm fine. Really. My head just hurts a little, and the rest of me feels way better." I realized as I said it that it was true. I'd completely stopped coughing. My muscles didn't ache anymore. I felt perfectly normal except for a little headache.

Then Neferet did something that not only surprised me, but made me instantly like her--and begin to trust her. She walked over to Grandma and spoke slowly and carefully.

"Sylvia Redbird, I give you my solemn oath that your grand-daughter is safe here. Each fledgling is paired with an adult mentor.

To ensure my oath to you I will be Zoey's mentor. And now you must entrust her to my care."

Neferet placed her fist over her heart and bowed formally to Grandma. My grandma hesitated for only a moment before answering her.

"I will hold you to your oath, Neferet, High Priestess of Nyx." Then she mimicked Neferet's actions by putting her own fist over her heart and bowing to her before turning to me and hugging me hard. "Call me if you need me, Zoeybird. I love you."

"I will, Grandma. I love you, too. And thank you for bringing me here," I whispered, breathing in her familiar lavender scent and trying not to cry.

She kissed me gently on my cheek and then with her quick, confident steps she walked out of the room, leaving me alone for the first time in my life with a vampyre.

"Well, Zoey, are you ready to begin your new life?"

I looked up at her and thought again how amazing she was. If I actually Changed into a vampyre, would I have her confidence and power, or was that something only a High Priestess got? For an instant it flashed though my mind how awesome it would be to be a High Priestess--and then my sanity returned. I was just a kid. A confused kid at that, and definitely not High Priestess material. I just want to figure out how to fit in here, but Neferet had certainly made what was happening to me seem easier to bear.

"Yes, I am." I was glad I sounded more confident than I felt.