Year of the Chameleon – Shannon Mayer

Shadowspell Academy . I was on my way, and I was on my own again. Given I wasn’t much of a team player, you’d think I’d be okay with that, but I really wasn’t. Because I’d gotten to like my crew in the end. We’d bonded while fighting for our lives in the Culling Trials, and now they were on their way to their own houses. Pete, the honey badger shifter; Wally, the necromancer and only other girl; Orin, the not-dead-yet vampire; Gregory, the goblin; and Ethan, the mage. At least Orin and Wally were in the same house—the House of Night. The rest of us were flying solo. Well, not quite. Most of the people on the bus with me were strangers, but Rory, who’d been my brother’s best friend growing up, sat toward the front. Then again, Rory was an unknown right now—as in, I didn’t know if I could trust him. I stared out at the scenery as the bus swept us away from the Culling Trials in upstate New York, the gold and green leaves just turning color in the early fall, I ignored the voices of the other trainees as they buzzed around my head. About as annoying as mosquitoes, which were as easy to ignore for a girl who grew up on a ranch.

That being said, I was no fool, and my ears picked up certain words that prompted me to listen to the other kids. Tipping my head, I focused on their words, picking apart their conversations. “Where are we going?” one girl asked. “House of Shade is out on the docks somewhere, that’s what I heard.” “The other four houses are spread out throughout the city,” someone responded, confirming what I’d already expected, “but we’ll meet once a month for games with them to test our skill sets.” “Did you see that guy up front?” the first one asked in a low-pitched voice. “He’s, like, a fourth-year Shade. He is so damn hot. I’d totally do him. What’s his name?” “I don’t know. You should ask him.” “Did you hear?” one of them asked.

“That kid Wild Johnson is not a boy. She’s a girl who came in her brother’s place. Crazy, you think she’ll get kicked out for lying?” “No idea, but damn, that’s ballsy. I mean . for a girl.” The last couple lines perked up my ears, considering they were talking about yours truly, and I leaned off the edge of my seat in time to see the four girls who sat closest to the front twist around to eyeball me in the back. I tipped my ball cap at them and then flipped them off for good measure, and they whipped to face forward so fast, there was a flurry of ponytails whacking the kids who sat behind them. Yeah, they didn’t know I had supersensitive hearing. That was one of the perks of being friends with my crew—their abilities bled into my own. And Pete being a shifter allowed me some of his extrasensory skills.

Nowhere near as good as his own, but enough that it helped me listen in. They lowered their voices and tucked their heads tightly together, whispers ensuing. So much for listening in on more gossip. I eased back in my seat at the rear of the bus and, from under the brim of my hat, continued to watch the other students. Around me, the bus all but vibrated and hummed with nerves, but I felt none of my own. Maybe something was wrong with me. Check that, I knew something was wrong with me. I was going to be educated in the House of Shade, a specialized academy that would train me to kill efficiently and silently and for money. I would learn how to be an assassin and enforcer in a world full of magic and monsters that were most decidedly deadly. It was one of five houses in Shadowspell Academy and, in my humble opinion, the most dangerous of the bunch.

The only issue was that as good as I was with a knife and as ruthless as I could be in dealing with anyone who got in my way, I wasn’t only good at that . I could just as easily have been sorted into any of the other houses. People weren’t supposed to have access to more than one type of magic, but I did, and that scared the tar out of me. Because if word got out, there would be hell to pay. Rory twisted in his seat at the front of the bus, green eyes locking on mine, as if he could feel my growing discomfort even at that distance. Quite possibly he could. He’d been a huge part of my life until the academy had called him in for his own training. Only I hadn’t known that was why he’d left his farm down the way from ours. He’d told me he’d gone off to travel the world, and given he’d never come back to Texas, I hadn’t had a chance to question him. To say I’d been pissed at his abandonment would be an understatement.

He raised an eyebrow, and I pointed my chin at the girls. He grinned and swung around to the side to talk to them. In seconds, they were laughing and flipping their ponytails around, flirting for all they were worth. Charmer. He’d always been good with the pretty girls. Nice to see that hadn’t changed, and at least it took their attention off me. More than anything, Rory knew how irritated I got when teenage girls acted like noodle heads. Those girls were going to be trained in the House of Shade right alongside me, but they were still acting like teenage girls. Not deadly killers. Of course, they hadn’t cut through someone’s throat the night before.

I had. And even if it had been a vampire—one who’d killed a lot of people—I was not the same person I had been yesterday. In that moment, I’d aged, the last of my childhood stripped away. Death had a way of doing that, I guess. I wasn’t sure I was up to discussing all that with anyone, least of all Rory, who left me feeling all kinds of uncertain. Sometimes I wondered what he saw when he looked at me. The girl he’d grown up with? A stranger he no longer knew? A competitor for the best of our house? Or something else? I closed my eyes, pretending to sleep so he wouldn’t come to check on me, and with a portion of the world blocked out, I did my best not to think about anything. Except my memories had already been stirred, like a hornets’ nest poked with a twig. So much for being calm. I kept seeing the vampire’s head roll back as my knife slit his throat down to his spine, feeling the crunch of metal on bone—and his cold, already dead, blood coat my fingers.

I bit the inside of my cheek, the pain cutting through some of the memories, and wiped my hands on my pants as if that would help. My crew. I needed to focus on them. We’d roomed together, kept one another safe, and had one another’s backs even though we were so very different. They were the few I trusted, fully and completely. Well, except for Ethan. He was helpful enough when something worked in his favor, but otherwise he was out for himself. The occasional glimmers of goodness we’d seen in him could hardly be relied on. What could be relied on was a pattern. And yet, when I thought about my friends, even Ethan, I felt a sucker punch of homesickness.

Not since I’d lost my brother, Tommy, had I felt this need for other people. The feeling rolled in the pit of my stomach, making me nauseous and threatening to give my breakfast a reappearance. I didn’t like the weakness it represented to me. That failing could be exploited if anyone realized how close my group had become. My friends could be hurt because of me. Because I had secrets even they didn’t know. My heart tripped upward and lodged in my throat. “Damn,” I mumbled as I turned my hat backward and leaned forward, resting my head on the back of the seat in front of me and trying to slow my breathing and thoughts, trying to quell the rolling tide in my belly. I was not about to get sick. I was not.

“Hey,” a baritone voice said, “get off the back of my seat.” If he’d left it at that, I could have ignored his tone. Hell, I might have even obliged. But he slammed his body into the seat, ramming it into my head, and that’s where I drew the line. I slowly lifted my eyes, knowing that the amount of pressure I’d put on said seat was minimal at best. The student in question was a big guy; hard to say how tall he was with him sitting, but his head nearly brushed the ceiling of the bus, even with his ass on the seat. I frowned up at him, not remembering him from the trials. A dude that big, I’d have remembered. Which meant he was likely one of the older kids who had been bused in to take part in the graduation ceremony the night before. A Shade in training—a second, third, or maybe even fourth year.

Only about fifteen of the kids on the fully packed bus were newbies, like me. My head throbbed where he’d rammed me with the seat. More than that, he was a perfect distraction for the places my head was going, and I took hold of the opportunity with both hands and just about strangled it. Better a fight with him than to think about the night before. Or the distance between me and my friends. “Maybe if you didn’t take up so much space, I wouldn’t be encroaching on it.” There, let’s see if he could figure out that great big word. “I ain’t no roach,” he snapped. Apparently not the brightest bulb. I smiled as I leaned back, stomach pangs easing off as my competitive nature flared.

Staring up at him, I lifted both feet and planted them in the middle of his seat and pushed until my knees locked and the seat in front of me bowed into him. Our eyes locked, but he couldn’t hold my gaze. He whipped to his feet as the bus rocked around a corner. Holy crap, he was even bigger than I’d realized. He couldn’t stand on the bus without bending his head forward. “You don’t want to push me, little girl. I’ll hand you back in pieces ain’t nobody going to put back together. I ain’t no first year to mess with. I’m a third year, and I could snap you like a twig.” “Yeah, I think I do want to push you,” I drawled, pulling on my Texan roots.

“I think you could use a cattle prod or two to teach you some manners, little boy.” He stepped out into the aisle and I followed him, squaring off. Maybe it was dumb on my part. But it sure as hell was giving me the distraction I needed. His eyes about bugged out as he flexed his oversized muscles and lunged at me, swinging one beefy fist straight at my head. To me, it looked like he was moving through molasses in February. Which meant I had plenty of time to react to his stupidity. I slid down to the floor, grabbed the bottom of the seat in front of me and scooted myself forward under it. His fist hit where I’d been sitting, the seat giving way with a screech of metal and faux leather as I pulled myself upright. Yup, those were some serious guns he had.

But I wasn’t the least bit worried. Before he could turn, I stepped into the center walkway and grabbed the seat backs on either side of the aisle as anchors, lifted my knees high, and booted him in the lower back with both feet. He went flying down the aisle, landing on his knees, and his head hit the rear escape door and cracked the glass at the bottom. “Wild, what the hell are you doing?” Rory was right behind me, but he couldn’t get around me. I was completely blocking the aisle. “Thug here wants to play,” I said. “Shaw, stand down. She’s new and you know the rules. No fighting till we get to the pier,” Rory said with more than a little authority to his voice. Shaw twisted around, his face bloody from a cut on his forehead, trickles running down over his eyes like poorly done mascara.

“Imma kick her right in the cun—” I shushed him. “Shhh. Kids, there are kids in here. Watch your language, little boy.” Yeah, I wasn’t done pushing him. Snarling, he dove forward, his reach pretty good because of his ginormous body, and his mitts big enough to wrap around both of my ankles. At the last second, he blinked. Not smart. I jumped straight up, managing to get my feet onto the tops of the seats in a straddle that impressed even me. The other students gave me a series of ooohs.

Someone actually clapped, which only made me cringe. My focus was on Dumbass. Because his big stupid eyes were closed. I could hear my mom’s voice in my head. No matter what, if you swing a fist you do it with your eyes open. A lot of people shut their eyes at the last second. That’ll get you in trouble, so watch yourself. So, with his eyes shut, Shaw’s giant mitts snagged Rory’s ankles. He pulled hard, which dumped Rory onto his back with a yell. I waved at him as he whipped underneath me, being dragged toward Shaw.

I hopped down, landing lightly on the balls of my feet, now a good six or seven feet from the big guy, who was now wrestling with Rory in the tight space. “Shaw, you are really thick, man. You grabbed the boss,” I said. “He ain’t my boss!” Shaw roared, his face twisted with anger and humiliation, and for a moment I thought he was going to shift into another form, like a bear or a wolf. Maybe he was on the wrong bus. Maybe he should have been in the House of Claw with Pete. Before I could wonder out loud if that was indeed the case, Rory rolled upward, grabbing Shaw’s arm, and easily flipped him over. With the big kid on his belly, Rory twisted the arm until Shaw tapped the floor in submission. “I give. I give! Don’t break my arm! I got testing this week!” “Do not start fights,” Rory growled.

“I didn’t. She leaned against my chair,” Shaw whined. Whined. Rory looked up at me, his eyes flashing. “Then you can both talk to the head of house when we get there.” He let Shaw go, took a step, and pointed to my previous seat at the back of the bus. “That way no one pushes on your damn seat.” Shaw slid into it, a glower on his face, blood still running freely, though he didn’t make a move to stop it. For just a second, I wondered if he was going to stick his tongue out at me. Rory grabbed my upper arm and pointed me to the front of the bus.

“You sit with me, where I can keep an eye on you.”

.

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