"What time is it?"

We were walking down a narrow hall that curved gently. The walls were made of an odd mixture of dark stone and jutting brick. Every so often flickering gaslights that hung from old-fashioned-looking black iron sconces stuck out of the wall, giving off a soft yellow glow that was, thankfully, really easy on my eyes. There were no windows in the hall, and we didn't meet anyone else (even though I kept peeking nervously around, imagining my first glimpse of vampyre kids).

"It is nearly four A.M., which means classes have been out for almost an hour," Neferet said, and then she smiled slightly at what I'm sure was my totally shocked expression.

"Classes begin at eight P.M., and end at three A.M.," she explained. "Teachers are available until three thirty A.M. to give students extra help. The gym is open until dawn, the exact time of which you will always know as soon as you have completed the Change. Until then dawn time is clearly posted in all the classrooms, common rooms, and gathering areas, including the dining hall, library, and gym. Nyx's Temple is, of course, open at all hours, but formal rituals are held twice a week right after school. The next ritual will be tomorrow." Neferet glanced at me and her slight smile warmed. "It seems overwhelming now, but you'll catch on quickly. And your roommate will help you, as will I."

I was just getting ready to open my mouth to ask her another question when an orange ball of fur ran into the hall and without a sound, hurled itself into Neferet's arms. I jumped and made a stupid little squee sound--then I felt like a total retard when I saw that the orange ball of fur was not a flying boogieman or whatever, but a massively big cat.

Neferet laughed and scratched the fur ball's ears. "Zoey, meet Skylar. He's usually prowling around here waiting to launch himself at me."


"That's the biggest cat I've ever seen," I said, reaching my hand out to let him sniff me.

"Careful, he's a known biter."

Before I could jerk my hand out of the way, Skylar started rubbing his face on my fingers. I held my breath.

Neferet tilted her head to the side, as if she was listening to words in the wind. "He likes you, which is definitely unusual. He doesn't like anyone except me. He even keeps the other cats away from this end of campus. He's really a terrible bully," she said fondly.

I carefully scratched Skylar's ears like Neferet had been doing. "I like cats," I said softly. "I used to have one, but when my mom got remarried I had to give it to Street Cats to be adopted. John, her new husband, doesn't like cats."

"I've found that the way a person feels about cats--and the way they feel about him or her in return--is usually an excellent gauge by which to measure a person's character."

I looked up from the cat to meet her green eyes and saw that she understood a lot more about freaky family issues than she was saying. It made me feel connected to her, and automatically my stress level relaxed a little. "Are there a lot of cats here?"

"Yes, there are. Cats have always been closely allied with vampyres."

Okay, actually I already knew that. In World History with Mr. Shaddox (better known as Puff Shaddy, but don't tell him) we learned that in the past cats had been slaughtered because it was thought that they somehow turned people into vampyres. Yeah, okay, talk about ridiculous. More evidence of the stupidity of humans...the thought popped into my mind, shocking me by how easily I'd already started thinking of "normal" people as "humans," and therefore something different than me.

"Do you think I could have a cat?" I asked.

"If one chooses you, you will belong to him or her."

"Chooses me?"

Neferet smiled and stroked Skylar, who closed his eyes and purred loudly. "Cats choose us; we don't own them." As if to demonstrate what she said was true, Skylar jumped out of her arms and, with a stuck-up flick of his tail, disappeared down the hall.

Neferet laughed. "He's really awful, but I do adore him. I think I would, even were it not part of my gift from Nyx."

"Gift? Skylar is a gift from the Goddess?"

"Yes, in a way. Every High Priestess is given an affinity--what you would probably think of as special powers--by the Goddess. It's part of the way we identify our High Priestesses. The affinities can be unusual cognitive skills, like reading minds or having visions and being able to predict the future. Or the affinity can be for something in the physical realm, like a special connection to one of the four elements, or to animals. I have two Goddess gifts. My main affinity is for cats; I have a connection with them that is unusual, even for a vampyre. Nyx has also given me unusual powers of healing." She smiled. "Which is why I know you're healing well-- my gift told me."

"Wow, that's amazing," was all I could think to say. My head was already reeling from the events of the past day.

"Come on. Let's get you to your room. I'm sure you're hungry and tired. Dinner will start in"--Neferet cocked her head to the side as if someone was weirdly whispering the time to her--"an hour." She gave me a knowing smile. "Vampyres always know what time it is."

"That's cool, too." "That, my dear fledgling, is just the tip of the 'cool' iceberg."

I hoped her analogy didn't have anything to do with Titanic- sized disasters. As we continued walking down the hall I thought about time and stuff, and remembered the question I had started to ask when Skylar had interrupted my easily derailed train of thought.

"So, wait. You said that classes start at eight? At night?" Okay, I'm usually not this slow, but some of this was like she was speaking a foreign language to me. I was having a hard time getting it.

"Once you take a moment to think about it you'll understand that having classes at night is only logical. Of course you must know that vampyres, adult or fledgling, don't explode, or any other such fictional nonsense, if subjected to direct sunlight, but it is uncomfortable for us. Wasn't the sunlight already difficult for you to bear today?"

I nodded. "My Maui Jims didn't even help much." Then I added quickly, feeling moronic again, "Uh, Maui Jims are sunglasses."

"Yes, Zoey," Neferet said patiently. "I know sunglasses. Very well, actually."

"Oh, God, I'm sorry I--" I broke off, wondering whether it was okay for me to say "God." Would it offend Neferet, a High Priestess who wore her Goddess Mark so proudly? Hell, would it offend Nyx? Oh, God. What about saying "hell"? It was my favorite cuss word ever. (Okay, it was really the only cuss word I used regularly.) Could I still say it? The People of Faith preached that vampyres worshiped a false goddess and that they were mostly selfish, dark creatures who cared about nothing except money and luxury and drinking blood and they were all certainly going straight to hell, so wouldn't that mean that I should watch how and where I used...


I looked up to find Neferet studying me with a concerned expression and realized that she had probably been trying to get my attention while I had been babbling inside my head.

"I'm sorry," I repeated.

Neferet stopped. She put her hands on my shoulders and turned me so that I had to face her.

"Zoey, quit apologizing. And remember, everyone here has been where you are. This was new to all of us once. We know what it feels like--the fear of the Change--the shock at your life being turned into something foreign."

"And not being able to control any of it," I added quietly.

"That, too. It won't always be this bad. When you're a mature vampyre your life will seem your own again. You'll make your own choices; go your own way; follow the path down which your heart and soul and talents lead you."

"If I become a mature vampyre."

"You will, Zoey."

"How can you be so sure?"

Neferet's eyes found the darkened Mark on my forehead. "Nyx has chosen you. For what, we do not know. But her Mark has been clearly placed upon you. She would not have touched you only to see you fail."

I remembered the Goddess's words, Zoey Redbird, Daughter of Night, I name you my eyes and ears in the world today, a world where good and evil are struggling to find balance, and looked quickly away from Neferet's sharp gaze, wishing desperately that I knew why my gut was still telling me to keep my mouth shut about my meeting with the Goddess.

"It's--it's just a lot to happen all in one day."

"It certainly is, especially on an empty stomach." We had started walking again when the sound of a ringing cell phone made me jump. Neferet sighed and smiled apologetically at me, then she fished a small phone out of her pocket.

"Neferet," she said. She listened for a little while and I saw her forehead wrinkle, and her eyes narrow. "No, you were right to call me. I'll come back and check on her." And she flipped the phone shut. "I'm sorry, Zoey. One of the fledglings broke her leg earlier today. It seems she's having trouble resting, and I should go back and be sure all is well with her. Why don't you follow this hallway around to the left until you come to the main door? You can't miss it--it's large and made of very old wood. Right outside is a stone bench. You can wait there for me. I won't be long."

"Okay, no problem." But before I'd finished speaking Neferet had already disappeared back down the winding hallway. I sighed. I didn't like the idea of being by myself in a place that was full of vampyres and vampyre kids. And now that Neferet was gone the little flickering lights didn't seem so welcoming. They seemed weird, throwing ghostly shadows against the old stone hall.

Determined not to freak myself out, I started slowly down the hall in the direction we had been heading. Pretty soon I almost wished I'd run into some other people (even if they were vampyres). It was too quiet. And creepy. A couple of times the hall branched off to the right, but like Neferet had told me, I kept to the left. Actually, I also kept my eyes to the left because those other halls had hardly any lights in them.

Unfortunately at the next right-hand turn off the hall I didn't avert my eyes. Okay, so the reason made sense. I heard something.

To be more specific, I heard a laugh. It was a soft, girly laugh that for some reason made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It also made me stop walking. I peeked down the hall and thought I saw movement in the shadows.

Zoey...My name was whispered from the shadows.

I blinked in surprise. Had I really heard my name or was I imagining things? The voice was almost familiar. Could it be Nyx again? Was the Goddess calling my name? Almost as afraid as I was intrigued, I held my breath and took a few steps into the side hallway.

As I walked around the gentle bend I saw something ahead of me that made me stop and automatically move closer to the wall. In a little alcove not far from me were two people. At first I couldn't make my mind process what I was seeing; then in a rush I understood.

I should have gotten out of there then. I should have backed silently away and tried not to think about what I'd seen. But I didn't do any of those things. It was like my feet were suddenly so heavy I couldn't pick them up. All I could do was watch.

The man--and then with a little jolt of additional shock I realized that he wasn't a man, he was a teenager--not more than a year or so older than me. He was standing with his back pressed against the stone of the alcove. His head was tilted back and he was breathing hard. His face was in the shadows, but even though he was only partially visible I could see that he was handsome. Then another breathy little laugh drew my eyes downward.

She was on her knees in front of him. All I could see of her was her blond hair. There was so much of it that it looked like she was wearing it as some kind of ancient veil. Then her hands moved up, running along the guy's thighs.

Go! my mind screamed at me. Get out of there! I started to take a step back, and then his voice made me freeze.


My eyes got huge because for a second I thought he was talking to me. "You don't really want me to."

I felt almost dizzy with relief when she spoke. He was talking to her, not me. They didn't even know I was there.

"Yes, I do." It sounded as if he was grinding his words from between his teeth. "Get off your knees."

"You like it--you know you like it. Just like you know you still want me."

Her voice was all husky and trying to be sexy, but I could also hear the whine in it. She sounded almost desperate. I watched her fingers move, and my eyes widened in amazement when she drew the nail of her index finger down his thigh. Unbelievably, her fingernail slashed through his jeans, just like it was a knife, and a line of fresh blood appeared, startling in its liquid redness.

I didn't want it to, and it grossed me out, but at the sight of the blood my mouth started watering.

"No!" He snapped, putting his hands on her shoulders and trying to push her away from him.

"Oh, quit pretending?" she laughed again, a mean, sarcastic sound. "You know we'll always be together." She reached up with her tongue and licked along the line of blood.

I shuddered; against my will I was completely mesmerized.

"Cut it out!" He was still pushing at her shoulders. "I don't want to hurt you, but you're really starting to piss me off. Why can't you understand? We're not doing this anymore. I don't want you."

"You want me! You'll always want me!" She unzipped his pants.

I shouldn't be there. I shouldn't be seeing this. I tore my eyes from his bloody thigh and took one step back.

The guy's eyes lifted. He saw me.

And then something truly bizarre happened. I could feel his touch through our eyes. I couldn't look away from him. The girl in front of him seemed to disappear, and all there was in the hallway was him and me and the sweet, beautiful smell of his blood.

"You don't want me? That's not how it looks now," she said with a nasty purr in her voice.

I felt my head begin to shake back and forth, back and forth. At the same moment he cried "No!" and tried to push her out of the way so that he could move toward me.

I ripped my eyes away from his and stumbled back.

"No!" he said again. This time I knew he was speaking to me and not her. She must have realized it, too, because with a cry that sounded uncomfortably like the snarl of a wild animal, she started to whirl around. My body unfroze. At the same instant I turned and ran back down the hall.

I expected them to come after me, so I kept running until I reached the huge old doors Neferet had described. Then I stood there, leaning against their cold wood, trying to get my breathing under control so I could listen for the sounds of running feet.

What would I do if they did chase me down? My head was pounding painfully again, and I felt weak and totally scared. And completely, utterly grossed out.

Yes, I was aware of the whole oral sex thing. I doubt if there's a teenager alive in America today who isn't aware that most of the adult public think we're giving guys blow jobs like they used to give guys gum (or maybe more appropriately suckers). Okay, that's just bullshit, and it's always made me mad. Of course there are girls who think it's "cool" to give guys head. Uh, they're wrong. Those of us with functioning brains know that it is not cool to be used like that.

Okay, so I knew about the whole blow job issue. I' d definitely never seen one. So, what I had just seen had definitely freaked me out. But what had freaked me out more than the fact that the blonde was doing the nasty to him was the way I'd responded to seeing the guy's blood.

I'd wanted to lick it, too.

And that's just not normal.

Then there's the whole issue about me sharing that weird look with him. What had that been all about?

"Zoey, are you all right?"

"Hell!" I gasped and jumped. Neferet was standing behind me looking at me with total confusion.

"Are you feeling ill?"

"I--I..." My mind flailed about. No way could I tell her what I'd just seen. "My head just really hurts," I finally managed to say. And it was true. I had a killer headache.

Her frown was full of concern. "Let me help you." Neferet placed her hand lightly over the line of stitches on my forehead. She closed her eyes and I could hear her whispering something in a language I could not understand. Then her hand started to feel warm and it was as if the warmth became liquid and my skin absorbed it. I closed my eyes and sighed in relief as the pain in my head began to fade.


"Yes," I barely whispered.

She took her hand away and I opened my eyes. "That should keep the pain away. I don't know why it suddenly came back with such force."

"Me, neither, but it's gone now," I said quickly.

She studied me silently for a little while more while I held my breath. Then she said, "Anything upset you?"

I swallowed. "I'm a little scared about meeting my new roommate." Which technically wasn't a lie. It wasn't what had upset me, but I was scared about it.

Neferet's smile was kind. "All will be well, Zoey. Now let me introduce you to your new life."

Neferet opened the thick wooden door and we walked out into a large courtyard that fronted the school. She stepped aside and let me gawk. Teenagers wearing uniforms that somehow looked cool and unique while still being similar walked in small groups across the courtyard and along the sidewalk. I could hear the deceptively normal sound of their voices as they laughed and talked. I kept staring from them to the school, not sure which to gawk at first. I chose the school. It was the less intimidating of the two (and I was scared I'd see him). The place was like something out of a creepy dream. It was the middle of the night, and it should have been deeply dark, but there was a brilliant moon shining above the huge old oaks that shaded everything. Freestanding gaslights housed in tarnished copper fixtures followed the sidewalk that ran parallel to the huge red brick and black rock building. It was three stories tall and had a weirdly high roof that pointed up and then flattened off at the top. I could see that heavy drapes had been opened and soft yellow lights made shadows dance up and down the rooms, giving the entire structure an alive and welcoming look. A round tower was attached to the front of the main building, furthering the illusion that the place was much more castle- like than school-like. I swear, a moat would have looked more like it belonged there than a sidewalk ringed by thick azalea bushes and a neat lawn.

Across from the main building was a smaller one that looked older and church-like. Behind it and the old oaks that shaded the schoolyard I could see the shadow of the enormous stone wall that surrounded the entire school. In front of the church building was a marble statue of a woman who was wearing long, flowing robes.

"Nyx!" I blurted.

Neferet lifted one eyebrow in surprise. "Yes, Zoey. That is a statue of the Goddess, and the building behind it is her temple." She motioned for me to walk with her down the sidewalk and gestured expansively at the impressive campus that stretched before us. "What is known today as the House of Night was built in the neo- French-Norman style, with stones imported from Europe. It originated in the mid- 192os as an Augustine monastery for the People of Faith. Eventually it was converted into Cascia Hall, a private preparatory school for affluent human teenagers. When we decided that we must open a school of our own in this part of the country, we bought it from Cascia Hall five years ago."

I only vaguely recalled the days when it had been a stuck-up private school-- actually the only reason I'd ever thought about it at all was that I remembered hearing the news that a whole herd of kids who went to Cascia Hall had been busted for drugs, and how shocked the adults had been. Whatever. No one else had been shocked that those rich kids were majorly into drugs.

"I'm surprised they sold it to you guys," I said absently.

Her laugh was low and a little dangerous. "They didn't want to, but we made their arrogant headmaster an offer even he couldn't refuse."

I wanted to ask her what she meant, but her laugh gave me a skin-crawly feeling. And, plus, I was busy. I couldn't stop staring. Okay the first thing I noticed was that everyone who had a solid vampyre tattoo was incredibly good-looking. I mean, it was totally insane. Yes, I knew that vampyres were attractive. Everyone knew that. The most successful actors and actresses in the world were vampyres. They were also dancers and musicians, authors and singers. Vampyres dominated the arts, which is one reason they had so much money--and also one reason (of many) that the People of Faith considered them selfish and immoral. But really, they're just jealous that they're not as good-looking. The People of Faith would go see their movies, plays, concerts, buy their books and their art, but at the same time they'd talk about them and look down at them, and God knows they'd never, ever mix with them. Hello--can you say hypocrites?

Anyway, being surrounded by so many totally gorgeous people made me want to crawl under a bench, even though many of them greeted Neferet and then smiled and said hello to me, too. Between hesitantly returning their hellos I snuck looks at the kids who walked by us. Each of them nodded respectfully to Neferet. Several of them bowed formally to her and crossed their fists over their hearts, which made Neferet smile and bow slightly in response. Okay, the kids weren't as gorgeous as the adults. Sure, they were nice-looking--interesting actually, with their crescent moon outlines, and their uniforms that looked more like runway designs than school clothes--but they didn't have the glossy, inhumanly attractive light that radiated from inside each of the adult vampyres. Uh, I did notice that, as I had suspected, their uniforms had a lot of basic black in them (you'd think that a group of people so up on the arts would recognize a clich? when one goes walking by in boring Goth black. I'm just saying...). But I suppose if I was going to be honest I'd have to admit it looked good on them-- the black mixed with tiny plaid lines of deep purple, dark blue, and emerald green. Each uniform had an ornate design embroidered in gold or silver on either its jacket breast pocket or blouse pocket. I could tell that some of the designs were the same, but I couldn't see exactly what they were. Also, there was a weirdly large amount of kids with long hair. Seriously, the girls had long hair, the guys had long hair, the teachers had long hair, even the cats that wandered across the sidewalk from time to time were long-haired balls of fur. Odd. Good thing I'd talked myself out of getting my hair cut in that short duck butt style Kayla had cut hers off in last week.

I also noticed that the adults and the kids had one other thing in common-- their eyes all lingered with obvious curiosity on my Mark. Great. So I was beginning my new life as an anomaly, which figured about as much as it sucked.

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