Chapter 1: New Blood 1 NEW BLOOD
Nestled in a valley high up in the Swiss Alps is the tiny village of Arnes. Majestic snow-covered mountains tower over a cluster of wooden buildings and block the low winter sun, rendering it too cold and dark to be a popular ski resort.
At 5:30 p.m. on the first day of November, it was already pitch-black. The soft glow of the street lanterns and the festive lights that garlanded the narrow high street were the only sources of light. The ancient village shop was closed; the whitewashed church cold and empty. The faded green shutters that adorned each chalet were shut tight. Despite their jolly Christmas wreaths, every front door was barred shut.
Not a soul was to be seen. A thick layer of snow blanketed the entire village, and the silence was heavy. Even the soft spray of the waterfall, normally flowing down the east side of the mountain, was still—temporarily frozen in time.
The throaty roar of a powerful engine broke the stillness, and seconds later, a bright red Lamborghini Urus raced over icy cobbles and skidded to a stop in the town square. The passenger door opened and a willowy girl stepped out. Ice-blond hair fell in an immaculate, glossy sheet down her back. She was dressed expensively in skintight white jeans, a thick faux-fur gilet, and matching knee-high boots.
Glancing up the high street with piercing ice-blue eyes, she exclaimed, “Is this really it?”
A tall, handsome man, who didn’t look old enough to be her father, stepped out from the other side.
“What did you expect, Celeste?” he growled. “I warned you.”
“I was thinking of something quaint but sophisticated—like Gstaad.”
“Far too busy,” replied her father. “Given our special requirements, this place is perfect.”
Some distance away, Dillon Halloran was uncomfortably aware that they were almost at their destination. A light sweat broke out across his forehead. He and his father, Gabriel, had traveled up the narrow valley in a sled pulled by eight huskies. Four miles out, one of the dogs had broken her harness, but despite Dillon’s efforts, it hadn’t sabotaged their journey; it only delayed them by half an hour.
Now, at the far edge of the village, long before the street lanterns began, the dogs began to slow, then halted completely, forcing Gabriel to brake the sled hard. The pack stood motionless, eyes fixed on the distant village, and then, collectively, they let out a long, low howl. Dillon leaned toward his father, pointing at the agitated huskies.
“That’s weird, Da. It’s like they know there’s something not right up there.”
Gabriel knew animals, and he knew to trust their instincts. There was a sense of unease in the air, and Dillon saw him fight back the desire to turn the dogs around and escape as fast as he could back down the mountain.
As the steam from the animals’ nostrils rose in clouds around them, Dillon turned to Gabriel and pleaded, “I don’t want to go. Please don’t make me.”
Gabriel sighed. “Dillon, we have been through this. I promised your mother that as soon as you turned eighteen—”
“What makes you so desperate to keep a promise to a woman who didn’t even care enough to stick around for us, Da?”
“I told you—it’s complicated. She left to protect you, and I must uphold my promise to her.”
Dillon scowled. “Protect me? Protect me from what exactly?”
“This is why you need to go. You need to learn about yourself and the world your mother comes from.”
Dillon shook his head angrily. “She wasn’t interested in my world—why should I care about hers?”
“You can’t change who you are. Look, there is no time to talk now. You are already late.”
“C’mon, Da, none of this makes any sense. Can we not just turn back and go home?”
Gabriel said nothing, but hugged Dillon tight.
“I’ve kept you safe all your life, son. But I can’t do that anymore. And I think deep down you already know that.” Gabriel glanced at his watch. “You’ve got to go. You need to learn about yourself. But remember, Dillon.” Gabriel pointed to his chest, thumping his heart as he spoke. “This—this is what makes us who we are.”
As he pulled Dillon close, he slid an antique chain over his head. The strange fiery stone at the center of a triangle-shaped pendant glimmered as it caught the moonlight.
“Wear this with pride, son. It means a lot to me. It was your ma’s, but she wanted me to give it to you. Keep it on always, and no matter what happens up there, never—” He broke off and cleared his throat. “Never ever lose heart.”
There was no time to examine the chain now. Struggling to hold back his emotion, Dillon tucked it under the neck of his sweater and felt it heavy on his chest, just above his heart. After one final hug, he wrenched himself away from his father. As he strapped on the snowshoes Gabriel had made for him back in Ireland, his eyes blurred. He blinked furiously and began to plunge across the snow, not trusting himself to look back. After a pause, he heard his father whistle to the dogs, and then their excited yelps as the sled turned and headed back the way they had come.
He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t hear the two snowmobiles until they were almost upon him. He swore loudly and threw himself to the side as one of the riders shouted something at him, swerved violently, and hurtled past.
At the sound of snowmobiles approaching fast from the south, Celeste and her father both turned with lightning speed. Within minutes, the first one appeared, shot through the alpine trees, and landed in a flashy circle, spraying snow and ice in a plume behind it. The drop-dead-gorgeous boy straddling it cut the engine, and with the grace of a natural athlete, leaped off in a single high bound. His brown eyes were bright with the exhilaration of the ride, and he shook snow out of his dark hair. He clocked Celeste and struggled to tear his eyes away as, remembering his manners, he extended his hand toward her father and introduced himself.
“Hi, I’m Ace. Nice to meet you, sir.”
Celeste’s father assessed him coldly, ignoring Ace’s hand, before he replied, “I’m Eric Torstensson, and this is my daughter, Celeste.”
Ace’s eyes drank in her flawless face. “Great to meet you,” he drawled in a relaxed American accent.
Celeste, clearly used to everyone falling at her feet, smiled graciously. “Nice entrance.”
Ace ran a hand through his artfully long fringe. “Yeah, well, this place is pretty remote. My folks had to stay back in Florida to sort out a couple of last-minute issues, so I thought I might as well have some fun.”
The two local men on the second Ski-Doo had hurriedly unloaded a trunk and a leather carryall from a sled attached behind. Without stopping to say goodbye, they revved the engines and sped away, bouncing high over snowy bumps in their haste.
“Can’t think why they didn’t want to hang around.” Ace smirked.
Celeste chuckled, revealing perfect, slightly pointed white teeth, and stepped closer to the Lamborghini as two blacked-out Mercedes G wagons and an Aston Martin DBX purred up. Romanian flags fluttered on the bonnets of the Mercedes, and a chauffeur hastened around to open the back door of the first car. Bodyguards jumped out of the second car as a fine-boned, raven-haired boy dressed in a dark wool coat unfurled his long legs from the back seat.
“Bram Danesti,” he announced in slightly accented English, casting a somewhat haughty gaze over them and, unlike Ace, managing not to betray a flicker of interest in Celeste’s beauty.
“Ah, Bram, you must be Alexandru’s son. Is your father here?” Celeste’s father asked. “I need to talk to him urgently.” He strode over to talk to the striking but intimidating man who had emerged from the other side of the Mercedes.
Bram turned to Celeste. “You’ll probably know, then, that my father was chosen to lead his year for three years running. I’m expecting to follow in his footsteps.”
Celeste didn’t blink. “Nice to meet you too.”
Bram’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“I think you’ll find that I’m a strong contender,” she continued with icy poise.
Bram smirked. “Let’s wait and see.”
Ace stepped forward, hand outstretched. “Hi, Ace Ellison.”
Dragging his eyes away from Celeste, Bram ignored Ace’s hand. “Ah, you’re the orange juice heir.”
Ace’s perfectly chiseled face betrayed no hint of annoyance at the mocking tone. “That’s right, my father built his entire business empire on orange juice. He tells me that, even in our world, too much privilege kills ambition. One of the reasons I made my own way here,” he said, eyes sweeping over the two Mercedes and the bodyguards.
Bram’s jaw tightened. He was about to reply, but Celeste spoke first.
“Now he looks interesting…,” she mused.
An exceptionally tall and muscled boy strolled toward them. He wore just a casual T-shirt with jeans and appearing impervious to the cold, and his huge biceps rippled as he slung a bag over his shoulder. His dreadlocks were finely twisted and drawn in a luxuriant ponytail down his back. A single ancient gold coin pendant gleamed against his neck. For a second, Celeste, Ace, and Bram stared.
Unperturbed, he introduced himself. “Hey, I’m Jeremiah.” His voice was deep and musical, with a gentle Caribbean lilt.
Celeste recovered her manners first and, flicking her hair over one shoulder, smiled up at him. “Hi, I’m Celeste.”
Jeremiah smiled easily back at her. “Celeste, nice name.”
“Thank you.” She indicated her father, who was talking intently to Bram’s dad. “It was my father’s mother’s name. Have you traveled far?”
“I’m based just outside Montego Bay, so just a hop across the Atlantic, I guess.”
The loud throb of a sleek black helicopter appearing over the mountains filled the valley with noise. As it swept down and started its descent, Celeste winced and covered her sensitive ears with a pair of fur-lined earmuffs. Powerful landing lamps flooded the old outdoor ice rink with light, and as it neared touchdown, the spinning rotor blades created a temporary blizzard. From the maelstrom of swirling snow and bright light, a boy and girl leaped out and, bending low to avoid the blades, sprinted with cheetah-like grace across the snowy ice toward the group.
Close-up, the boy looked hard as nails. He had close-cropped fair hair and an impressive array of tattoos. He shouted over the engines, “I am Aron and this is my twin sister, Ásta. We have traveled here from Iceland and we’re excited to meet you!”
Ásta looked anything but pleased and shook her blunt blond bob in irritation at her brother. Above razor-sharp cheekbones, her shrewd green eyes measured Celeste’s stunning, icy beauty.
Dillon was still battling through the snow toward the village. When he had flung himself out of the way of the Ski-Doos, one of the straps on his left snowshoe snapped. He tied it back as best he could, but his progress had been painfully slow. The sight of the sleek black helicopter sweeping overhead added to his irritation, and sweat dripped down his face as he dragged his left foot out of the snow yet again.
At last, he reached the main road into the village and he was able to remove the snowshoes. Just as he started walking again, a Ferrari FF whipped around the last mountain bend and howled past him up the main street.
“God’s sake,” he muttered. “Who the feck are these people?”
The Ferrari screeched to a halt in front of the other cars, and a wickedly gorgeous boy slid out of the impossibly low seat. He had the small, wiry frame of a race-car driver and looked just as glamorous with his slanting, mischievous eyes, diamond earring, and dark, wavy hair. He headed straight over to the group, leather jacket slung over a shoulder, and almost asphyxiated them with cologne. With a wolfish smile for Celeste and Ásta, he introduced himself as Angelo da Silva, son of world-famous polo player Seve da Silva.
Sparks flew as he and Ásta locked eyes. “Delighted to meet you, Angelo,” she said with a smirk, looking up at him through her heavily mascaraed lashes.
A lithe and exquisitely beautiful Nigerian girl who had arrived at the same time as the helicopter stood slightly to the side of the group of excited teenagers. Her instantly recognizable parents, both famous scientists, were engaged in conversation with the other parents. She hung her head and stared at her feet, making patterns in the snow with the toe of her boot.
Ace was about to call her over but was distracted by the sight of Dillon dressed in a shabby woolen sweater, walking up the high street with a backpack and his snowshoes strapped to his pack.
“Jeez, that’s the dumbass we almost ran into back down in the valley,” he exclaimed. “What’s he doing here?”
As he approached the group, Dillon’s heart began to beat faster. He had never seen such a group of glamorous and intimidating people in his life. What was his father thinking?
Swallowing the urge to turn and run back the way he had come, and not knowing who was in charge, he addressed both the teenagers and the small group of parents. “Sorry I’m late, had a bit of trouble back there.” Every set of eyes turned to stare at him. “I’m Dillon Halloran,” he added nervously. The boy he’d glimpsed roaring past him in the flashy Ferrari inched closer, narrowing his eyes, looking for all the world as if he was ready to pounce and eat him alive.
“What is he doing here?” he hissed.
“I was told this is the meeting place,” Dillon said, standing his ground but feeling his heart pound.
“Leave it, Angelo!” hissed the tough-looking girl next to him, who attempted unsuccessfully to pull him away.
One of the tall, handsome boys standing in the main group broke the silence. “Snowshoes? I thought they died out in the eighteenth century!” he joked.
Dillon shifted his feet awkwardly but lifted his chin and looked him in the eye. “My da made these for me with his own hands. And they got me here, didn’t they?”
“Ah, sorry… Dillon, did you say? I’m Ace. That’s very clever of your father. I wish I’d had them instead of my snowmobile,” he deadpanned.
Ace’s expression was so smooth, Dillon wasn’t sure if he was mocking him or not.
“Yeah, those snowmobiles look like a handful to drive.” Dillon shrugged. As most of the others were still staring at him, and he was unsure of the protocol, Dillon edged closer to the beautiful girl who was standing off to the side and looked less intimidating than the others. “Hi, I’m Dillon.”
As she looked at him with her huge brown eyes, he was reminded of a deer about to bolt back to the safety of the woods.
“I know, you just said,” she replied.
“Jaysus, sorry,” he muttered, feeling like a complete idiot. Clearly she wasn’t as shy as she looked.
She seemed to take pity on him. “I’m Sade. You made quite an entrance.”
“Nice to meet you, Sade. You wouldn’t know why everyone’s staring at me, would you—or what his problem is?” he asked, inclining his head toward Angelo, who, fortunately, had been distracted and was now showing the Ferrari off to the others.
“You really don’t know?” Sade asked.
“Seriously, no. It’s not the clothes, is it?”
“Well, I don’t wish to be rude,” she said, fiddling with a gold bracelet as she spoke, “but you look—how shall I put it—different. If you notice, none of us, lighter- or darker-skinned, ever change.”
“What do you mean? My skin?”
“Well, sorry, but you look a bit hot and sweaty—your cheeks are flushed.”
Self-consciously, he pushed back his dark, messy curls and looked around at the group. It was true. Despite the cold, everyone looked startlingly perfect. Not a single person’s nose was red or running, and their skin was so smooth and uniform it looked poreless, as if carved from marble.
“And we all heard that,” she added, pointing at his heart.
“Ah, well now, you’ll have to excuse me for breathing!” he exclaimed.
“Shush!” she whispered, looking around nervously.
“Do you know everyone?”
“Not really, but I think the tall blonde is called Celeste. You already met Ace—he seems to have already made his play to be the joker of the pack. Ásta and Aron are the Icelandic twins. She distracted Angelo, who owns the Ferrari, for you. The moody, dark one is Bram, and the huge, stunning one is Jeremiah.”
“Ah grand, looks like I’m going to fit right in… as the mascot,” he joked, and was rewarded with a smile that lit up her whole face.
A soft whistling noise distracted them, and they both looked up. A peregrine falcon and a raven glided over their heads and landed gracefully in the center of the town square. Immediately they transformed into a supernaturally beautiful woman and a sharp-looking man with a gleaming black beard.
An awed hush settled over the entire group. Dillon, who was staring open-mouthed, guessed the woman must be the headmistress. A headmistress who had just transformed from a bird. He shook his head in disbelief, but as her penetrating emerald-green eyes swept over him, he experienced a very real mixture of adoration and terror.
Although she looked small next to the teenagers surrounding her, she radiated power and poise. A hooded, fine woolen cape only partly concealed the thick auburn curls tumbling to her waist and perfect porcelain skin. A deep-red velvet dress, the same color as her lips, clung to hourglass curves, enhanced by a narrow filigree gold chain clasped about her waist.
“Welcome to Arnes, and congratulations.” Her voice was low and musical. “I am Madame Dupledge, headmistress of the oldest and most exclusive vampire finishing academy in the world: Vampire Academiae ad Meritum, Peritia et Scientia. Commonly known as VAMPS, it stands for excellence, skill, and knowledge. You are joining an elite group who have benefited from their education here and gone on to achieve great things in the world. I hope you will utilize your stay here well and, eventually, fulfill your own potential.”
Surreptitiously, Dillon looked around at the others as Madame Dupledge spoke. Ace, Bram, and Celeste looked determined. Ásta rolled her eyes and Angelo smirked back at her.
“This”—she gestured to the vampire next to her—“is Mr. Hunt.”
The bearded man, who was wearing a sleek black ski jacket, bowed but didn’t smile.
“He is our deputy head and will be instructing you on the next stage of the journey. The location of VAMPS is a closely guarded secret. We try to minimize travel to and from the academy as much as possible. As such you will be with us for the duration of the darkest months until the end of our year on March thirty-first.”
Dillon looked down at his boots to hide a wave of homesickness and horror. How was he going to survive five months with a bunch of hostile vampires?
“Now, we have disturbed the villagers enough for tonight. Please say goodbye to your parents and let us prepare to leave as soon as possible. Some students have already arrived at the academy and are waiting to meet you.”
As everyone collected their luggage and said goodbye to their parents, Dillon watched Bram’s father draw Madame Dupledge aside and engage her in an intense conversation. After she graciously dismissed him to talk to another parent, his face darkened with fury and he spoke to Bram urgently. Both shot Dillon a hostile glare. Hurriedly, he looked away. It was pretty clear that the dark, brooding Bram and his father were not happy about him joining VAMPS.
To distract himself, he watched the casual farewells between the others and their parents. There was no sign of the emotional wrench that had occurred between himself and his father. Sade’s parents appeared to be issuing instructions rather than hugs before they left, and he saw her hang her beautifully shaped head like a delicate orchid.
As the supercars and luxury SUVs began to drive away, Mr. Hunt shouted out instructions. “Listen up, everyone. I need you to form two groups: fliers and non-fliers.”
Dillon had no idea what either was. “Flier? What in the hell does that mean?” he whispered to Sade, who had kindly returned to stand next to him.
“If you don’t know, you’re a non-flier—trust me. I’m a non too.”
Dillon watched as Ace and Aron high-fived and whooped as they joined the flier group. Bram, Celeste, Ásta, and Jeremiah joined them, grinning.
“I expect perfect behavior on this flight,” Mr. Hunt warned, his sharp, birdlike eyes raking over each of them.
“The rest of you will travel with Madame Dupledge. Leave your luggage; the school porters will be here shortly.”
“Shame,” Angelo muttered, shooting a snide glance at Dillon. “I could do with a snack.”
Ásta snorted and tried to cover her smile as Mr. Hunt directed a disapproving frown at them.
“Everyone coming with me, prepare yourselves.”
Ace, Aron, and Jeremiah whooped again.
“Wanna bet on who gets there first?” Ace asked.
Celeste and Ásta sighed.
“Ready?” Mr. Hunt leaned forward, poised like a bird about to take flight. “We go on the count of three.”
The teenagers stopped jostling each other and were instantly stone-still and alert.
“One… two… three!” roared Mr. Hunt, and suddenly they were gone.
Dillon startled. “Hold on a minute—where did they just go?”
Sade looked at him curiously. “You really don’t know much about us, do you?” she noted, not unkindly.
“No,” he admitted. “Next to nothing. My ma left when I was born, and it was just me and my da. He shielded me from all this. It’s all doing my head in, to be honest. I only found out a week ago I was coming here.”
“My family is one of the elite vampire lineages. I have had to live up to my siblings and my parents’ expectations my whole life.” She sighed. “You are lucky to have escaped that so far.”
“I wouldn’t call this lucky,” Dillon replied with feeling. “This is straight-up weird.”
“Come now. Join me,” Madame Dupledge interrupted, beckoning the remaining group toward her in the center of the town square.
With some trepidation, Dillon approached her. Sade and Angelo followed. Close-up, her allure was palpable, as was a sweet, overpowering scent. Dillon’s head swam, and he felt overwhelmed with a desire to please her.
“Now,” she said, “hold on to my cape, and whatever happens, do not let go.”
Still wary of Angelo, Dillon stood on the other side of Sade, and as he reached out and grasped her cape, he felt a jolt of electricity shoot through his entire body. Every nerve tingled and pulsed as if he had plunged into icy water.
“Well done.” Madame Dupledge smiled her approval. Turning to them all, she added, “Enjoy…”
With a slight tremor, like the flutter of a bat’s wings, they dissolved into thin air. Except for the abandoned piles of luggage, the village square was silent once more. Just one green shutter opened a fraction, and a young boy peered out before his mother shouted and it slammed shut again.