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However, when they got closer, I saw that they too were sweating, which made me feel better. The three of them were in several of my classes, but they hadn't spoken to me since the first night. I wondered what was up with them now.

"Hey," I said casually, as they caught up with me. "What now?

Coming to warn me of my impending death at the hands of fluffy bunnies?

Or shoot lightning bolts at me?"

Chaston laughed, and to my utter surprise, looped her arm through mine. "Look, Sophie, we were talking, and we feel really bad about the other night. So you don't want to join our coven. No biggie!"

"Yeah," Anna added, coming up on my other side. "We overreacted."

"You think?" I said.

"We're trying to apologize," Elodie added, walking backward in front of us. I really, really hoped she'd walk into a tree. "I was talking to Archer, and he said you were all right."

"Really?" I asked before I could stop myself.

Great, Sophie, I thought. Way to be cool.

"Yeah, and he told me you didn't know anything about Prodigium.

Said it was kind of pathetic, actually."

I tried to smile, but there was something dark and sharp twisting in my stomach that was making it a little difficult. "Huh."

"Yeah," Chaston said. "And then we got to thinking that we probably freaked you out."

"You could say that." I could see the greenhouse now. It was a huge white wood-and-glass building, with windows that caught the early morning sun and sparkled so brightly it hurt my eyes. Unlike the rest of Hecate, it looked pretty cheery. There were a bunch of students milling around, looking like blueberries.

"And we're sorry," Anna added. I wondered if they had rehearsed this weird three-way-talking thing they had going on. I imagined them sitting in a circle in their dorm room, brushing their hair and saying, "Okay, so I'll say we feel bad, and then you'll say that your hot boyfriend thinks she's pathetic."

"So can we start over?" Chaston asked. "Friends?"

They were all smiling hopefully at me, even Elodie. I should have known right then and there that this could not end well, but I stupidly smiled back and said, "Yeah. Friends."

"Great!" Chaston and Anna squealed in unison. Elodie sort of muttered it a split second afterward.

"Okay," Chaston said as we approached the green-house. "So as your friends, we thought we should give you a heads up about Defense."

"The Vandy teaches it, and she's awful," Elodie said.

"Right, the scrunchie lady."

Simultaneous eye roll. Were these girls synchronized swimmers in their spare time?

"Yes," Anna sighed. "That stupid scrunchie."

"Jen . . . um, I heard someone call it her portable portal to hell."

All three of them laughed at that. "She wishes," Anna snorted.

"The Vandy was a pretty decent dark witch," Elodie explained, "but she got a little big for her britches, as they say down here. She worked for the Council. Tried to make a play for running Hecate, and . . . well, it's a long story. But it ended with her getting sent to the Council for the Removal."

"And," Anna added in a conspiratorial whisper, "part of her punishment was that she had to come to Hecate but not as a headmistress.

Just a regular teacher. She's supposed to be an example to others. That's why she's such a bitch."

"She'll definitely pick on you because you're new," Chaston said.

"But," Elodie cut in, "she's super vain. So if you get in trouble, compliment her on her tattoos."

"Tattoos?" I asked. Up close, the greenhouse was even bigger than I'd thought. What the hell had they grown in it? Redwoods?

"She has these really pretty purple tattoos all over her arms. They're magical symbols of some kind, like runes or something," Elodie continued.

"She's really proud of them. Say you like them, and you're in for life with the Vandy."

We walked through the front door of the greenhouse, Chaston's arm still in mine. The room was huge, and felt especially big because only about fifty people were in there. Defense wasn't split up by age for some reason, so I noticed a couple of very freaked-out-looking twelve-year-olds. It was bright, obviously, but not hot. There was cool air flowing all around me, so I figured this building had the same spell going on as the main house.

In a lot of ways it was like a normal high school gym: wooden floors, blue exercise mats, weights. But I couldn't help noticing that some things were most definitely not normal.

Like several iron manacles bolted to the wall. And a full-size gallows erected at the back of the room.

Elodie immediately ran off to find Archer, who, it turns out, was not as skinny as I'd thought. The boys' uniforms were basically the same as the girls', and his blue T-shirt clung to a chest that was a lot more defined than I would have guessed. I tried not to look, and I definitely tried to stamp down the little icy spark of jealousy that shot through me when he lowered his lips to Elodie's for a quick kiss.

A tall redhead waved at me. "Hi, Sophie!"

I waved back, wondering who the heck . . . Oh, right. Red hair. Beth the werewolf. I liked her lots better when she wasn't drooling on me. She gestured for me to come stand by her, but before I could, a loud nasal voice broke through the chatter.

"All right, people!"

The Vandy moved through the crowd, wearing the same uniform we were. I immediately noticed the tattoos. They were a deep vibrant purple that looked even brighter against her pale flabby skin.

The ever-present scrunchie held back her brown hair. She had small piggish dark eyes that scanned the crowd, and even from a distance, I could see this weird eager look on her face. Like she was hoping someone would defy her so that she could squash them like a bug.

Put simply, she freaked me the hell out.

"Listen up!" she barked in a thin voice. Like Mrs. Casnoff, she had a Southern accent, but hers sounded harsh instead of smooth and melodic. "I'm sure your other teachers will tell you that your classes in Magical History or Classifications of Vampires, or, what, Personal Grooming of Werewolves"--I noticed a few boys, including Justin, bristle, but the Vandy continued--"are more important than this one. But tell me this: how much are those classes going to help you when you're under attack from a human? Or a Brannick?

Or, worst of all, an Eye? You think books are going to save you when ll'Occhio di Dio comes calling?"

I guess we didn't look sufficiently impressed, because she seemed to puff up with anger. Her finger practically pierced the clipboard in front of her as she pointed to something.

"Mercer! Sophia!" she shouted.

I hissed a very bad word under my breath, but I raised my hand. "Um .. . here. Me."

"Come forward!"

I did. She yanked me by my arm until I was standing next to her.

"Now, Miss Mercer, it says here on the chart that this is your first year at Hecate, correct?"


"Yes, what?"

"Uh . . . yes, ma'am."

"So apparently you did a love spell that got you sent to Hecate. Was it for you, or were you just trying to make some human your friend, Miss Mercer?"

I heard snickers from the crowd, and I knew my face was flaming red.

Stupid pale skin.

Apparently, it was a rhetorical question, because the Vandy didn't wait for an answer. She turned and knelt down beside a large canvas bag.

When she straightened up, she was holding a wooden stake.

"How would you defend yourself against this, Miss Mercer?"

"I'm a witch," I said automatically, and again I heard the crowd murmur and giggle. I wondered if Archer was laughing, but then decided I really didn't want to know.

"You're a witch?" the Vandy repeated. "So, what? A large pointy piece of wood slamming into your heart won't kill you?"

Stupid, stupid, stupid. "I, uh, I guess it would, yeah."

The Vandy smiled, and it was one of the most disturbing smiles I've ever seen. Clearly I was the bug for today.

Turning away from me, she looked though the crowd until she saw someone who made her eyes narrow. "Mr. Cross!"

Oh God, I thought weakly. Oh please, please, no . . .

Archer made his way to the front and stood on the other side of the Vandy, crossing his arms over his chest. The sunlight coming in through the windows glinted off his hair, which wasn't black after all, but the same deep dark brown as his eyes.

Then the Vandy turned to me and put the stake in my hand.

I don't know what kind of stakes vampire killers normally use, but this one was pretty crappy. It was made of some cheap yellow wood that felt prickly against my palm. It also felt totally wrong in my grip, and I let it just sort of dangle at my side. But the Vandy grabbed my elbow and positioned my arm so that I was holding it up as if I were ready to jam it through Archer's chest.

I looked up at him, and saw that he was struggling not to laugh. His eyes were nearly watering, and his lips were twitching.

My hand tightened on the stake. Maybe shoving it into his heart wasn't such a bad idea.

"Mr. Cross," the Vandy said, still smiling sweetly, "kindly disarm Miss Mercer using Skill Nine."

Instantly, all levity vanished from his face. "You've got to be kidding."

"Either you demonstrate it or I will."


For a second I thought he was still going to refuse, but then he looked back at me and muttered, "Fine."

"Excellent!" the Vandy trilled. "Now, Miss Mercer, attack Mr. Cross."

I stared at her. I had never so much as wielded a flyswatter in my life, and this woman expected me to just lunge at a guy with a pointy wooden stick?

The Vandy's smile hardened. "Any day now."

I wish I could say that I suddenly discovered my inner warrior princess and expertly leaped at Archer, weapon hoisted high, teeth bared.

That would have been cool.

Instead I raised the stake to about shoulder height and took two, maybe three shuffling steps forward.

Then viselike fingers clenched my throat, the stake was wrenched from my hand, and a sharp stabbing pain shot up my right thigh as I landed on the ground with a thump that knocked the breath out of me.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, once I landed, something hard and heavy--his knee, I thought--hit me right in the sternum. You know, just in case there was one last breath left in my lungs. The point of the stake scraped the sensitive skin just under my chin. I looked up, wheezing, into Archer's face.

He was off of me in a heartbeat, but all I could do was roll onto my side, draw my knees up to my chest, and wait for oxygen to reenter my body.

"Very good!" I heard the Vandy say from somewhere far off. I was literally seeing stars, and every ragged breath I took felt like I was trying to breathe through broken glass.

On the upside, my crush on Archer was totally gone. Over. Once a boy has slammed his kneecap into your rib cage, I think any romantic feelings should naturally go the way of the ghost.

Then I felt hands under my arms, lifting me to my feet. "I'm sorry,"

Archer murmured, but I just glared at him. My throat still felt thick and swollen, and I didn't want to try to push any words through it.