Firespell, p.1part #1 of The Dark Elite Series
Table of Contents
Praise for Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires Novels
“With her wonderfully compelling reluctant vampire heroine and her careful world building, I was drawn into Some Girls Bite from page one, and kept reading far into the night.”
—Julie Kenner, USA Today bestselling author of The Good Ghouls’ Guide to Getting Even
“I’d so hang out with Merit the vampire. Some Girls Bite is smart . . . and delightful. A must-read.”
—Candace Havens, author of The Demon King and I
I flicked on my flashlight and swung the beam into the dark, the arc of light barely penetrating the blackness, even as I squinted to get a better look.
And then I saw them—Scout and Jason behind her, both in uniform and both running toward me as if they were running for their lives. I dropped the beam of the flashlight to the floor to keep from blinding them.
“Scout?” I tried to call out, but fear had frozen my throat. I tried again, and this time managed sound. “Scout!”
They were still far away—the corridor was a deep one—but they were running at sprinter speed . . . and there was something behind them.
Chasing after them was the blonde we’d seen outside on Monday—the girl with the hoodie who had watched us in the memorial garden. She was in jeans, running shoes, and a T-shirt this time, and she ran full-bore after Scout and Jason. But even as she sprinted through the corridor, her expression was somehow vacant, a strange gleam in her eyes the only real sign of life. Her hair was long and wavy, and it flew out behind her as she ran, arms pumping, toward us.
Suddenly she pulled back her hand, then shot it forward as if to throw something at the two of them. The air and ground rumbled, and this time the rumble was strong enough to knock me off my feet. I hit the ground on my knees, palms out in front of me.
By the time I glanced up again, Scout and Jason had reached me. I saw the look of horror on Scout’s face. “Get up, Lily!” she implored. “Run!”
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, January 2010
Copyright © Chloe Neill, 2010
eISBN : 978-1-101-17130-1
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A special thanks to the Putzy and Murphy families for their hospitality (and patience) during the editing process, and to the always entertaining folks at my online forum (go Team Eel!) for their enthusiasm, humor, and support.
This one is dedicated to Nate.
(He knows why.)
For more information on Chloe or the Novels of the Dark Elite, visit: http://chloeneill.com.
“Chicago—a city where they are always rubbing a lamp, and fetching up the genii, and contriving and achieving new impossibilities.”
They were gathered around a conference table in a high-rise, eight men and women, no one under the age of sixty-five, all of them wealthy beyond measure. And they were here, in the middle of Manhattan, to decide my fate.
I was not quite sixteen and only one month out of my sophomore year of high school. My parents, philosophy professors, had been offered a two-year-long academic sabbatical at a university in Munich, Germany. That’s right—two years out of the country, which only really mattered because they decided I’d be better off staying in the United States.
They’d passed along that little nugget one Saturday in June. I’d been preparing to head to my best friend Ashley’s house when my parents came into my room and sat down on my bed.
“Lily,” Mom said, “we need to talk.”
I don’t think I’m ruining the surprise by pointing out that nothing good happens when someone starts a speech like that.
My first thought was that something horrible had happened to Ashley. Turned out she was fine; the trauma hit a little closer to home. My parents told me they’d been accepted into the sabbatical program, and that the chance to work in Germany for two years was an amazing opportunity for them.
Then they got quiet and exchanged one of those long, meaningful looks that really didn’t bode well for me. They said they didn’t want to drag me to Germany with them, that they’d be busy while they were there, and that they wanted me to stay in an American school to have the best chance of going to a great college here. So they’d decided that while they were away, I’d be staying in the States.
I was equal parts bummed and thrilled. Bummed, of course, because they’d be an ocean away while I passed all the big milestones—SAT prep, college visits, prom, completing my vinyl collection of every Smashing Pumpkins track ever released.
Unfortunately, I was only right about the first part.
My parents had decided it would be best for me to finish high school in Chicago, in a boarding school stuck in the middle of high-rise buildings and concrete—not in Sagamore, my hometown in Upstate New York; not in our tree-lined neighborhood, with my friends and the people and places I knew.
I protested with every argument I could think of.
Flash forward two weeks and 240 miles to the conference table where I sat in a button-up cardigan and pencil skirt I’d never have worn under normal circumstances, the members of the Board of Trustees of St. Sophia’s School for Girls staring back at me. They interviewed every girl who wanted to walk their hallowed halls—after all, heaven forbid they let in a girl who didn’t meet their standards. But that they traveled to New York to see me seemed a little out of the ordinary.
“I hope you’re aware,” said one of them, a silver-haired man with tiny round glasses, “that St. Sophia’s is a famed academic institution. The school itself has a long and storied history in Chicago, and the Ivy Leagues recruit from its halls.”
A woman with a pile of hair atop her head looked at me and said slowly, as if talking to a child, “You’ll have any secondary institution in this country or beyond at your feet, Lily, if you’re accepted at St. Sophia’s. If you become a St. Sophia’s girl.”
Okay, but what if I didn’t want to be a St. Sophia’s girl? What if I wanted to stay home in Sagamore with my friends, not a thousand miles away in some freezing Midwestern city, surrounded by private-school girls who dressed the same, talked the same, bragged about their money?
I didn’t want to be a St. Sophia’s girl. I wanted to be me, Lily Parker, of the dark hair and eyeliner and fabulous fashion sense.
The powers that be of St. Sophia’s were apparently less hesitant. Two weeks after the interview, I got the letter in the mail.
“Congratulations,” it said. “We are pleased to inform you that the members of the board of trustees have voted favorably regarding your admission to St. Sophia’s School for Girls.”
I was less than pleased, but short of running away, which wasn’t my style, I was out of options. So two months later, my parents and I trekked to Albany International.
Mom had booked us on the same airline, so we sat in the concourse together, with me between the two of them. Mom wore a shirt and trim trousers, her long dark hair in a low ponytail. My father wore a button- up shirt and khakis, his auburn hair waving over the glasses on his nose. They were heading to JFK to connect to their international flight; I was heading to O’Hare.
We sat silently until they called my plane. Too nervous for tears, I stood and put on my messenger bag. My parents stood, as well, and my mom reached out to put a hand on my cheek. “We love you, Lil. You know that? And that this is what’s best?”
I most certainly didn’t know this was best. And the weird thing was, I wasn’t sure even she believed it, considering how nervous she sounded when she said it. Looking back, I think they both had doubts about the whole thing. They didn’t actually say that, of course, but their body language told a different story. When they first told me about their plan, my dad kept touching my mom’s knee—not romantically or anything, but like he needed reassurance, like he needed to remind himself that she was there and that things were going to be okay. It made me wonder. I mean, they were headed to Germany for a two-year research sabbatical they’d spent months applying for, but despite what they’d said about the great “opportunity,” they didn’t seem thrilled about going.
The whole thing was very, very strange.
Anyway, my mom’s throwing out, “It’s for the best,” at the airport wasn’t a new thing. She and dad had both been repeating that phrase over the last few weeks like a mantra. I didn’t know that it was for the best, but I didn’t want a bratty comment to be the last thing I said to them, so I nodded at my mom and faked a smile, and let my dad pull me into a rib-breaking hug.
“You can call us anytime,” he said. “Anytime, day or night. Or e-mail. Or text us.” He pressed a kiss to the top of my head. “You’re our light, Lils,” he whispered. “Our light.”
I wasn’t sure whether I loved him more, or hated him a little, for caring so much and still sending me away.
We said our goodbyes, and I traversed the concourse and took my seat on the plane, with a credit card for emergencies in my wallet, a duffel bag bearing my name in the belly of the jet, and my palm pressed to the window as New York fell behind me.
Goodbye, “New York State of Mind.”
Pete Wentz said it best in his song title: “Chicago Is So Two Years Ago.”
Two hours and a tiny bag of peanuts later, I was in the 312, greeted by a wind that was fierce and much too cold for an afternoon in early September, Windy City or not. My knee-length skirt, part of my new St. Sophia’s uniform, didn’t help much against the chill.
I glanced back at the black-and-white cab that had dropped me off in front of the school’s enclave on East Erie. The driver pulled away from the curb and merged into traffic, leaving me there on the sidewalk, giant duffel bag in my hands, messenger bag across my shoulder, and downtown Chicago around me.
What stood before me, I thought as I gazed up at St. Sophia’s School for Girls, wasn’t exactly welcoming.
The board members had told me that St. Sophia’s had been a convent in its former life, but it could have just as easily been the setting for a gothic horror movie. Dismal gray stone. Lots of tall, skinny windows, and one giant round one in the middle. Fanged, grinning gargoyles perched at each corner of the steep roof.
I tilted my head as I surveyed the statues. Was it weird that nuns had been guarded by tiny stone monsters? And were they supposed to keep people out . . . or in?
Rising over the main building were the symbols of St. Sophia’s—two prickly towers of that same gray stone. Supposedly, some of Chicago’s leading ladies wore silver rings inscribed with an outline of the towers, proof that they’d been St. Sophia’s girls.
Three months after my parents’ revelation, I still had no desire to be a St. Sophia’s girl. Besides, if you squinted, the building looked like a pointy-eared monster.
I gnawed the inside of my lip and scanned the other few equally gothic buildings that made up the small campus, all but hidden from the rest of Chicago by a stone wall. A royal blue flag that bore the St. Sophia’s crest (complete with tower) rippled in the wind above the arched front door. A Rolls-Royce was parked on the curved driveway below.
This wasn’t my kind of place. This wasn’t Sagamore. It was far from my school and my neighborhood, far from my favorite vintage clothing store and favorite coffeehouse.
Worse, given the Rolls, I guessed these weren’t my kind of people. Well, they used to not be my kind of people. If my parents could afford to send me here, we apparently had money I hadn’t known about.
“This sucks,” I muttered, just in time for the heavy double doors in the middle of the tower to open. A woman—tall, thin, dressed in a no- nonsense suit and sensible heels—stepped into the doorway.
We looked at each other for a moment. Then she moved to the side, holding one of the doors open with her hand.
I guessed that was my cue. Adjusting my messenger bag and duffel, I made my way up the sidewalk.
“Lily Parker?” she asked, one eyebrow arched questioningly, when I got to the stone stairs that lay before the door.
She lifted her gaze and surveyed the school grounds, like an eagle scanning for prey. “Come inside.”
I walked up the steps and into the building, the wind ruffling my hair as the giant doors were closed behind me.
The woman moved through the main building quickly, efficiently, and, most noticeably, silently. I didn’t get so much as a hello, much less a warm welcome to Chicago. She hadn’t spoken a word since she’d beckoned me to follow her.
We turned one corner, then another, until we entered a corridor lined with columns. The ceiling changed, rising above us in a series of pointed arches outlined in curved wooden beams, the spaces between them painted the same blue as St. Sophia’s flag. Gold stars dotted the blue.
It was impressive—or at least expensive.
I followed her to the end of the hallway, which terminated in a wooden door. A name, MARCELINE D. FOLEY, was written in gold letters in the middle of it.
When she opened the door and stepped inside the office, I assumed she was Marceline D. Foley. I stepped inside behind her.
The room was darkish, a heavy fragrance drifting up from a small oil burner on a side table. A gigantic, circular stained glass window was on the wall opposite the door, and a massive oak desk sat in front of the window.
“Close the door,” she said. I dropped my duffel bag to the floor, then did as she’d directed. When I turned around again, she was seated behind the desk, manicured hands clasped before her, her gaze on me.
“I am Marceline Foley, the headmistress of this school,” she said. “You’ve been sent to us for your education, your personal growth, and your development into a young lady. You will become a St. Sophia’s girl. As a junior, you will spend two years at this institution. I expect you to use that time wisely—to study, to learn, to network, and to prepare yourself for academically challenging studies at a well-respected university.
“You will have classes from eight twenty a.m. until three twenty p.m., Monday through Friday. You will have dinner at precisely five o’clock and study hall from seven p.m. until nine p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Lights-out at ten o’clock. You will remain on the school grounds during the week, although you may take your exercise off the grounds during your lunch breaks, assuming you do not leave the grounds alone and that you stay near campus. Curfew is promptly at nine p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Do you have any questions?”