Evernight Page 2

The last thing I needed was to start flashing back to my nightmares. I took a deep breath and kept going downstairs until I reached the great hall on the ground floor. It was a majestic space, built to inspire or at least impress: marble-tiled floors, high arched ceiling, and stained glass windows that stretched from floor to rafter, each in a different kaleidoscope pattern—save one, right in the center, which was clear glass. Setup for the day’s events must have been completed the night before, because a podium stood ready for the headmistress to greet the students who were arriving later today. Nobody else seemed to be awake yet, which meant that there was no one to stop me. A hard tug opened the heavy, carved outside door, and then I was free.

Early morning fog blanketed the world in bluish-gray as I walked across the grounds. When they built Evernight Academy in the 1700s, this country had been wilderness. Even though small towns now dotted the distant countryside, none of them were very close to Evernight; and despite the hillside views and the thick forests, nobody had ever built a house nearby. Who could blame them for not wanting to be anywhere near that place? I glanced behind me at the school’s tall stone towers, both of them coiled with the twisted forms of gargoyles, and shivered. Within a few more steps, they began to fade into the fog.

Evernight loomed behind me, the stone walls of its high towers the only barrier the thorns couldn’t break. I should have run for the school, but I didn’t. Evernight was more dangerous than the thorns, and, besides, I wasn’t going to leave the flower behind.

My nightmare was starting to feel more real than reality. Uneasy, I turned from the school and started to jog, fleeing the grounds and vanishing into the forest.

It’s all going to be over soon, I told myself as I hurried through the underbrush, fallen pine branches crackling beneath my feet. Even though I was only a few hundred feet from the front door, it felt like much farther; the thick fog made it seem as though I were already deep in the woods. Mom and Dad will wake up and realize that I’m gone. They’ll finally see that I can’t take it, that they can’t make me do this. They’ll come looking for me, and, okay, they’ll be mad that I scared them, but they’ll understand. They always understand in the end, right? And then we’ll leave. We’ll get away from Evernight Academy and never, ever come back.

My heart pounded faster. With every step I took away from Evernight Academy, I felt more afraid, not less. Before, when I’d come up with this scheme, it had seemed like such a good idea. Like it couldn’t fail. Now that it was real, and I was alone in the forest running into a wilderness I didn’t know, I wasn’t so sure. Maybe I was running away for nothing. Maybe they’d drag me back there no matter what.

Thunder rumbled. My heart beat faster. I turned away from Evernight for the last time and looked back at the flower as it trembled upon its branch. A single petal was torn away by the wind. Pushing my hands through the thorns, I felt lashes of pain across my skin, but I kept going, determined.

But when my fingertip touched the flower, it instantly darkened, withering and drying as each petal turned black.

I broke into a run, heading east, trying to put some distance between me and Evernight. My nightmare wouldn’t leave me alone: It was that place; it had spooked me, made me scared and hollow. If I got away from there, I’d be okay. Panting, I looked behind me to see how far I’d gone—

And I saw him. A man in the woods, half concealed by the fog, maybe fifty yards from me, wearing a long, dark coat. The second I laid eyes on him, he started running after me.

Until that moment, I hadn’t known what fear was. Shock jolted through me, cold as ice water, and I found out just how fast I could really run. I didn’t scream—there was no point, none, because I’d gone off into the woods so nobody could find me, which was the dumbest thing I’d ever done and looked like it would be the last. I hadn’t even brought my cell phone, because there was no service up here. There was no rescue coming. I had to run like hell.

I could hear his footsteps, snapping branches, crunching leaves. He was getting closer. Oh, God, he was fast. How could anybody run that fast?

They taught you how to defend yourself, I thought. You were supposed to know what to do in a situation like this! I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t think. Branches tore at the sleeves of my jacket and snagged the strands of hair that had fallen loose from my bun. I stumbled over a stone, and my teeth sank into my tongue, but I kept running. He was even nearer to me now, too near. I had to go faster. I couldn’t go any faster.

“Unh!” I choked as he tackled me, and we fell. The ground slammed into my back, and his weight pressed down on me, his legs tangled up with mine. His hand closed over my mouth, and I pulled my arm free. At my old school, in the self-defense workshop, they always said to go for the eyes, seriously just poke the guy’s eyes out. I always thought I could do that if I had to, in order to save myself or someone else, but as terrified as I was I wasn’t sure I could stand it. I arched my fingers, trying to screw up my nerve.

At that moment, the guy whispered, “Did you see who was after you?”

For a few seconds, I just stared at him. He lifted his hand from my mouth so I could answer. His body was heavy atop mine, and the world seemed to be spinning. I finally managed to say, “You mean, besides you?”

“Me?” He had no idea what I was talking about. Furtively, he cast a glance behind us, as if on the defensive. “You were running from someone—weren’t you?”

“I was just running. There was nobody after me except you.”

“You mean, you thought—” The guy jerked back from me that second, so that I was free. “Oh, hell. I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to—Man, I must have scared you to death.”

“You were trying to help?” I had to say it before I could believe it.

He nodded quickly. His face was still close to mine, too close, blocking out the rest of the world. Nothing seemed to exist except us and the swirling fog. “I know I must’ve freaked you out, and I’m sorry. I really thought—”

His words weren’t helping; I was getting more dizzy, not less. I needed air, quiet, something that I couldn’t think of while he was so close to me. I pointed a finger and said something I’d hardly ever said to anyone in my life, definitely never to a stranger and certainly not to the single most terrifying stranger I’d ever met: “You—just—shut up.”

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