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14 UNFAMILIAR GROUND

VLAD DREW HIS SHOULDERS UP in an effort to block the freezing early-January wind from his ears. It didnt work. The wind picked up and pushed against his chest with all its might, slowing his already slow steps to the school. Snow drifted over his shoes as he made his way down the sidewalk, soaking his socks and chilling him to the bone. His ears were completely numb, as were his gloved fingers. Winter break was over, but clearly, winter was not.

And whose sick idea was it to have school today anyway?

At the top of the steps, tucked safely inside the warm school, stood Principal Snelgrove, eyeing each student with his distrustful, rodentlike stare. Vlad rubbed his numb hands together and swore under his breath. Of course. Snelgrove. Rat-man extraordinaire. Next time the weather got this fierce, somebody had better distract the principal with a maze and the promise of cheese. Maybe then school would be canceled for the day.

He climbed the steps and went inside, thankful for the heat of the building, even if it was school. It took him a minute, but he fumbled with numb fingers to unlock his locker, then looked around. Henry was nowhere to be seen, something that deeply troubled Vlad. He hadnt seen Henry since before winter break, since the day Henry had told him that he no longer wanted to be his drudge. Vlad was hoping hed cooled off by now and maybe changed his mind. After all, Henry was the only human in the world besides Nelly who knew what Vlad really was. Except for Eddie. And his were only unconfirmed theories. So far anyway.

Vlad drifted impatiently through his morning classes, with no sign of Henry between classes. By the time he got to lunch, Vlad was beginning to wonder whether or not Henry had called in sick, despite the fact that Henry hadnt called him to bemoan his various aches and pains. Deep down, Vlad knew he was kidding himself. But the possible truth was far more upsetting to consider.

Vlads stomach rumbled angrily. Hed been so anxious to get to the cafeteria that hed forgotten to stop by his locker and grab his sack lunch. But at the moment, he didnt care. All he could think about was finding Henry and righting whatever was wrong between them.

Winter break had given him plenty of time to consider why Henry might feel suddenly put off by his drudge status. And while Vlad had only recounted a handful of instances where hed ordered Henry to grab him a Pepsi, and maybe two where hed told his best friend to back off and let him win a video game, clearly those moments had meant a lot more to Henry than hed realized. And though he hadnt at the time, recalling each of those things now filled Vlad with a burdening guilt. Maybe Henry was right-maybe Vlad had been acting more like a vampire overlord than a best friend. Whatever it was, he had to make things right, and hope that Henry would abandon the insane notion of leaving his position as Vlads drudge.

As he approached his usual table, he smiled at Meredith before scanning the room for any sign of his best friend. Just as he was about to count Henry as absent, he spied him seated at the popular table, a table that made the tiny hairs on the back of Vlads neck stand on end. Vlads shoulders slumped in confusion as he made his way across the cafeteria toward him. The air grew thicker with every step he took. Vlad was most definitely uninvited here.

Chelsea Whitaker was the first to detect the intruder. She flipped her hair and wrinkled her nose, as if Vlad didnt smell very good. And though she was looking right at Vlad, she spoke to Henry, who was sitting to her right. It looks like we have company.

Vlads jaw tightened. He managed to squeak out, Henry?

But Henry wouldnt look at him. He just slumped down in his seat and said, Im sitting with Chelsea today, Vlad.

Vlad spoke through clenched teeth. He didnt like standing this close to the popular table any more than Chelsea liked him doing it. We need to talk about something. Its important.

Henry picked a French fry off his lunch tray and swirled it around in a pile of ketchup. I havent changed my mind, if thats what youre wondering.

Can I please talk with you? Vlad moved his eyes briefly to Chelsea and raised his voice slightly for emphasis. Alone?

After a moment, Henry nodded and left the table with him, directing him to a quiet spot near the Pepsi machine. Look, Vlad

No, you look! Vlad paused and got a firm grip on whatever part of him was still in panic mode. This wasnt going to be easy, but it would be a lot harder if Vlad approached with the wrong attitude. I mean, Henry Im sorry, okay? I was thinking about what you said, and if I have been treating you more like a slave than a friend lately, Im really sorry.

Henry looked as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. But he didnt speak.

Vlad did. So do you accept my apology?

Of course.

A rush of relief filled Vlad-a rush that was cut short by Henry turning back toward the popular table. Wait. Where are you going?

Henry shrugged, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. I told you. Im sitting with Chelsea today.

A thousand words ran up Vlads throat, but only a few managed to escape. Chelsea Whitaker is quite possibly the most obnoxious person on the planet. Why would you want to hang out with her?

Henry paused. A good long pause too. At least he had to take a second to think about it. We have stuff in common.

Like what, other than the fact that youre both human? And Im still not all that sure about Chelsea. Vlad snorted at his wit, but when he looked in Henrys eyes, all the humor drained out of his body. That was it. Exactly it. Chelsea was human. Henry was human. And Vlad Vlad was not.

His mouth went dry from the sudden onset of shock and anger. You know, youre a real piece of work, McMillan. I guess youre more like your cousin Joss than I realized.

Henry scowled with contempt. Are you done? Or are you planning on ordering me to sit, stay, and roll over for your amusement, master?

Vlad stepped closer and jabbed his finger into Henrys chest. Ill give you an order. You do whatever you want to do. But youd better choose right now-either me or Chelsea.

Fine.

To Vlads horror, Henry turned and rejoined the popular crowd.

Vlad turned in a huff and left the lunchroom. He slammed the school doors behind him, and was halfway across town before he realized where he was going.

His old house looked exactly as it had the last time hed visited-cold, dark, empty, haunted. Not haunted by ghosts, but with thousands of happy moments and memories, all spoiled by the horrific reality of his parents passing.

He moved around to the back door, knowing it would still be unlocked, and opened the screen. Before he went inside, he took a deep breath-both for bravery and to bring with him a little piece of the outside world, the world where he was slowly getting past the pain of their demise, the world where he was beginning to feel safe once again.

The floorboards creaked slightly as he made his way inside, and that familiar acrid stench of smoke invaded his nostrils. He wasnt exactly sure why hed come here, only that he needed to be somewhere alone, somewhere that reminded him of who he was. He climbed the stairs and walked into his fathers office. Papers still littered the floor from when he and Henry had searched the office two years before. A fine layer of dust now covered them. Vlad sneezed, and the sound of it echoed through the house.

He ran a hand over the surface of his fathers desk, then whispered angry words that only his father could answer. Who am I, Dad? What am I? Am I a vampire? A human? Both?

He hesitated a moment, choking back horrified tears, then added, Neither?

His concern, the same concern that haunted his dreams, was that he would never really fit in anywhere. And he couldnt help but wonder if Henrys recent detachment was just another reminder that he wasnt one hundred percent anything, only two halves incomplete.

Sometimes he wondered if he would ever be whole.

Disgusted at the mess he and his potentially-former best friend had made, he knelt on the floor, plucked several papers from the floorboards, and stacked them neatly in an empty file box. The least he could do was put everything back in order. Besides, he was technically skipping school, so he needed something to do while he was hiding out until the last bell rang. With any luck, the school wouldnt call Nelly. After his recent detention, he was pretty sure shed come down hard on him for walking out in the middle of the day. Normally Vlad would have stuck it out, but todays events called for truancy. After all, it wasnt as if it would have done him any good to sit through physical science with Chelsea after Henry had chosen her over him.

Most of the papers Vlad had gathered up were boring-old tax returns, receipts for furniture, photocopies of various things that Vlad didnt recognize. But then he came upon something he very much did recognize-his fathers handwriting. All it was was a simple list of things to buy, but what made the corners of Vlads mouth lift in a small smile was the note at the bottom: Buy roses for M, bring chocolate for V. Whenever his dad had to go into Stokerton to make purchases that werent available in Bathory, hed always bring Vlads mom a dozen of the sweetest blood-red roses he could find, and hed bring Vlad a small gold box of delicious milk chocolates. It was just one of those things, one of those tender things that had made Tomas such a loving and attentive husband and father.

Vlad folded the note and was about to tuck it into his pocket when he noticed a single word scribbled on the back of the list.

Pravus.

He read the word again, silently wondering what that word was doing on a list that had belonged to his father, let alone scribbled in his own handwriting. But then, maybe that was what Tomas had meant in his journal when hed written that he had suspicions about his son. He must have known what an oddity it was for a human and a vampire to procreate, so of course he would have wondered if Vlad was the Pravus.

Tomas wasnt the only one. Vlad couldnt help but wonder if the story was true, if he were some subject of ancient prophecy.

But there was no way to know, as Vlad wasnt too keen on the idea of testing out the checklist of traits that only the Pravus would have. Sunlight? No, thank you. Immortal? He wasnt touching that with a ten-foot stake.

But one thing was for sure.

He had to learn as much about that prophecy as he could.



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