Chapter 1

The setting sun covers the fields in a golden glow as the wind rustles through the long grass. It ruffles the fur of a pack of wolves, staring out across the endless plain. Tornears stamps his foot and sniffs the wind. There is a barely contained excitement among the pack. He gives a barely visible signal we are off, running as far and as fast as we can, for no other reason than the sheer joy of running. The horizon never changes, and the pack never tires. We could run forever.

Suddenly, a hill appears where the land was flat before. The rest of the pack continues, over the peak and beyond, but I cannot. The wind shifts and gains the scent of hidden danger. Anxious, I whimper, casting back and forth to find the source of this strange scent. The plains are empty, devoid of any covering, and yet the pack has disappeared. A long, lonely howl rises on the wind, seeming to come from everywhere at once. I turn, and there is Tornears standing behind me.

"Why do you wait?" he cocks his head, "We must run. We must run with the wind."

I whimper in fear. "Can you not smell the danger?"

He turns and runs back across the plains. Did he hear? Will the danger find him too? I step forward to follow him, and the world goes dark. I am falling, snapping and biting at invisible enemies, surrounded by terror. Fear overwhelms me, and I keep falling until –

I crash onto the floor, so tangled in my sheets that I can't even stand. My whole body is soaked in sweat, and when I look at my hand, I realize that I'm trembling. I run my hand through my short spiky black-and-silver hair. I've had that dream every night for a week, and I have no idea why. I roll over, still caught in the sheets, and stare up at my bedside clock. The fuzzy red numbers read 8:20. I know that means something, I really do, but my poor dream-clouded mind can't quite make it out. If only I could focus…

"Kestrel, honey? Are you ok?"

"Yeah, Mom, I'm fine. I just kinda fell out of bed. Bad dream."

"Well, you might want to get a move on."

"What? Why?"

"Don't tell me you've forgotten about the first day of school again!"

"Oh, shit!"

And so begins the mad dash of pre-school panic, which by now is almost routine, since I somehow manage without fail to forget all about the first day of school. You would think I would be pretty used to this by now, in 11th grade, but no such luck. I tear around my room grabbing clothes, backpack and various books, no doubt smashing several World Records in the process, and half-run, half-fall down the stairs into the kitchen. Missing the bus is not an option, since Mom can barely afford the gas to get to work. Single parents aren't exactly known for their extravagant spending habits.

"Breakfast to go?" Mom offers, looking like the 40-year-old version of Daisy Duke in her waitress outfit from Bob's Bar and Grill. She works every shift she can get, but I know she hates it there. I mean, come on, who wouldn't?

I shake my head, "No thanks, I had a major gorge last night with the pack. I doubt I'll need anything for at least a couple of days."

"That's an interesting way to save on groceries," she grins impishly, then tosses me my wallet and keys from where they were stashed next to the fridge. "You've got everything?"

I look myself up and down, quickly. I'm wearing a tight black T-shirt emblazoned with a big silver dragon, black cargo pants and my only pair of sneakers, also black. Most of my clothes are black. It cuts down on the whole matching thing.

"Well, I'm fully clothed," I observe, "So I'm gonna go with yes."

"Good, now get out of here. I'll see you tonight at the Grill." She plants a kiss on my cheek. "Hurry up!"

I yell some sort of farewell as I jog out the door. The school bus is parked down on the corner, its bright yellow paint job standing out painfully against the grey, washed-out buildings around it. I keep running, even though I know that Mr. Bullard, the bus driver, would never leave without me. He keeps threatening to, every year, but he's too nice to ever leave me behind. Needless to say, we don't always get to school exactly on time, but I'm not complaining. The less school I have to endure without punishment the better.

"Hi Kestrel" Mr. Bullard greets me cheerfully as I climb up into the bus.

"Hey Mr. Bullard"

"You're lucky today" he informs me, "I'm already five minutes late; if I'd been on time, I'd have missed you."

"That's me," I mutter under my breath, "Ever so lucky."

I head straight for my usual seat about halfway down the bus, in what I like to call the "safe zone". See, the seat is far enough away from the nervous ninth graders and other social rejects who sit up front to escape outcast status, and still far enough from the rambunctious jocks and their anorexic girlfriends in the back to be relatively calm. The middle is kind of a neutral, no-man's land, which makes it perfect for me and Cassandra Sullivan. Cassie and I have been best friends since the very first day of grade school, when I punched the little jerk who was pulling her hair. I may have had a few violence issues as a child, at least according to the school counselors.

If the typical high-school social hierarchy had its way, Cassie would be sitting in the back of the bus, on the arm of some jock, but I think she's too smart for that. She may be the kind of girl who gets whistles and stares when she walks by, thanks to her long, blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, but she is still one of the nicest and smartest girls I have ever met. Not that I have exactly hung out with a lot of people. I don't seem to attract quite the same kind of attention as Cassie does. With my black and silver spiked hair, gray-green eyes, and all-black outfits, I usually get stares of derision rather than admiration. Not that I care.

As soon as I sit down, Cassie turns away from the window and gives me one of her looks. The kind of look that says I have some explaining to do. I hate those looks, especially since they never seem to be directed at anyone else but me.

"Hey Kes" I stare at her, not trusting her innocent tone.

"Hey Cassie, what's up?" May as well get it over with.

"Oh nothing. Say, what were you up to last night?"

Uh-oh. What I did last night is right up there on the list on things-I-cannot-tell-anyone. Not that I have a list, or anything. At least not written down.

"I was at home, as usual. Why?"

"Well, I called at 9:30 and your mom said you were already asleep."

Yeah right. I haven't been asleep before midnight since we were 13. This must be why she is giving me the look. Damage control time.

"I….uh….felt sick, yeah, and so I went to bed majorly early. Much good that did me huh?"

"Oh, ok."

Just then a member of the squad catches Cassie's attention and starts interrogating her about the human pyramid or some other such miracle of human degradation. I don't think I have ever been so grateful to a cheerleader in my entire life.

Contrary to popular belief, I hate lying, especially to my friends. It just so happens that in my situation I don't really have any other choice. There is no way I can tell Cassie or Joan, my only other friend, or anyone else in town about the huge, crucial chunk of my life that I have been hiding, more or less successfully, since I was old enough to recognize it. More than anything right now I would love to be able to turn to Cassie and say "You want to know what I was doing last night? I was hunting with the local wolf pack. Strange, you say? Well, yes, I suppose it is, but the really strange part of it is I was a wolf, dear Cassie. Yes, I can change into a wolf a will. No, Cassie, I'm not a werewolf. Cassie, stop screaming!" And so the conversation would go. Pleasant, yes?

Mom calls this little ability that she and I share a "gift" that has been passed down through generations of the Hunter family, and apparently other families as well, though I have yet to see evidence of that. As if the suffering of past generations makes my life any easier. Mom can turn into a kestrel, which I suppose is where my name came from. To be honest, it is pretty cool to able to hunt with the pack and communicate with other animals, but more than anything it's lonely. My father left Mom when he first saw me change, so I highly doubt I will be having a happy-ever-after with my future mate either. It would be so nice just to have someone my own age to talk to about all this stuff, because it's really not the same talking about high school with a pack of genuine wolves.

With a jolt I am thrown out my increasingly depressing reverie by the halt of the bus in front of a large grey brick building with huge brown double doors and a hundred small square windows.

"Welcome to yet another year at Oakbridge Penitentiary – oops, that is, Oakbridge High School of course." I say in my best fake-announcer voice.

"Oh you," sighs Cassie, "All doom and gloom. For once couldn't you be optimistic?"

"Of course not," I reply, smiling, "You're optimistic enough for the both of us."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Do me a favor and at least spike up your hair. It looks all ratty down like that."

Ah Cassie and her fashion advice. One day I may even pay attention. She is right though, my hair could use some serious gel. And probably a dye job to bring it a step or two closer to normal. The hair is my wolf-personality's way of showing up even when I'm human. Sure, black and silver hair looks cool in high school, but try explaining to a first grade teacher why her student looks like a Goth with a bad dye job. Just as hard is explaining why the tiny little girl keeps growling at her classmates. Not the easiest thing in the world, I can tell you.

I slick some gel into my hair haphazardly as we all squeeze through the bus doors at once and into the school. This is definitely one of my least favorite places, and with two whole years under my belt it's all old news.

Cassie turns to me just inside the main entrance, "What's your first period?"

I look down at my schedule and groan, "Math with Mrs. Knight. Someone up there hates me. You?"

"English with Mr. Anderson." She laughs as I groan a second time.

"He is the easiest teacher ever! I'm so jealous, I'm just going to have to walk away."

As I begin to stalk off, Cassie calls after me "I'll see you at lunch!" and then melts into the crowd, still laughing.