Six years since I’d escaped Larkwood’s clutches, since I’d somehow survived a place determined to destroy me, and it hadn’t changed a bit. It had the same imposing walls, the same layout, the same empty desert that stretched out for miles around it. Sure, the news swore the place was different, but I was way too smart to believe that.
Still, I never thought I’d come back here.
At least not willingly.
Even standing in the intake room, the same one they’d used in the past, didn’t help me differentiate between the past and the present.
“Mara?” The familiar voice made me turn and look up into a face that shouldn’t have surprised me. Kit Porter had taught when I’d lived at Larkwood years ago, and he’d been the only shade given such a position. However, since he worked in level 1 and I was officially a level 4, I didn’t think I was important enough for him to take notice of me.
“I’m surprised you remember me,” I said.
“I have an exceedingly good memory.” He bypassed the unasked question of why he knew me, but that was hardly unusual for him. Kit had always kept things close to his chest from what I’d seen. “Besides, seeing you jogs old memories. Not many shades have returned here.”
“I can’t be the only resident with nowhere else to go.”
“Student.” At my look, he clarified, “Larkwood has changed. We have no residents or guards. Those who choose to come here do so of their own free will. They are students.”
I snorted at the explanation, especially from Kit. We’d all known that he was little more than a pet for the Warden, a shade willing to do her dirty work for his own benefit. The fact he remained increased my suspicion about this place.
He lifted one of his dark eyebrows, but before he could say anything else, a woman walked up who I’d seen on the news enough to identify.
Hera Weston. The previous darling of the influential Weston family and now the Director at Larkwood Academy. The scar at her throat had been difficult to see on the TV, but in person it stood out. Her hands moved in a quick, practiced flurry, but I had no idea what it meant.
Kit spoke to her when she paused. “This is Mara Holland. She was here…” He paused, the flat blackness of his eyes making his expression difficult to read. “Six years ago, I believe.”
Hera moved her gaze to me, then signed again.
Kit translated. “This is Hera Weston, the Director. She’s welcoming you here.”
I nodded at the woman, unsure how else to respond. She looked to be around my age, yet where I wore a large hoodie and leggings, like the normal nineteen-year-old trying and failing to figure my shit out. Hera wore a fitted suit that proved we were not at all the same.
She reminded me of the sort of person I’d look for when I realized I needed an adult who was doing a better job adulting than I was.
She was also a person with absolute power. The Warden had looked similarly put together when I’d arrived at Larkwood, so I knew better than to trust anyone in power.
Hera signed again, then waited for Kit to translate. “She wants to know why you’ve come back.”
“I thought all shades were welcome here?” I wrapped my fingers around the strap of my backpack, which had what little I owned crammed inside.
“They are,” Kit offered, his words slow as if unsure how to keep going. “We’ve set Larkwood up as a refuge for those who need it. I just haven’t seen many return here. Usually, when people get out of the place it used to be, they have no desire to return.”
“Yeah, well, it turns out that life outside of here isn’t that great, either. So do I have a room or not?”
Kit pressed his lips together but nodded. He gestured toward a table farther in. “Deacon is handing out room assignments and will pass you off for orientation.”
That made me turn my head to catch sight of the man Kit had mentioned who, again, looked just the same as I recalled. I swallowed down my unease at the fact they’d kept a guard on staff, mostly because I didn’t want to have any more discussion than I had to.
I needed to stay quiet, to do what I’d come to do, then get the hell out of Larkwood again. The last thing I needed was to draw attention to myself.
So I nodded and followed Kit’s directions. Deacon lifted his purple eyes to me but showed no sign of recognition.
Then again, six years was a long time, and it wasn’t as if I’d been a troublemaker. He’d had no reason to notice me.
I knew exactly what I looked like—any teenager not worth a second glance. I kept my dark curly hair cut short and always wore dark leggings and baggy hoodie sweaters. My eyes were dark, and the only truly notable or memorable thing about my appearance was the freckles on my face that stood out on my dark skin.
“Mara Holland.” I kept my voice strong but non-confrontational. Don’t be memorable but don’t be weak, either. The rules of Larkwood were shockingly similar to those in prison.
He furrowed his brows, tapping his finger across the tablet in his hand. “You were here before, right?”
“You don’t recognize our little selkie?” That voice was one I sure as hell wouldn’t forget. Wade walked up, the void older but with the same old smirk. “We only had one in the years I’ve been here.”
“Aren’t selkies level 4s? Why would you know her?”
“She wasn’t housed in level 4.”
Deacon turned his gaze to me, his eyes full of suspicion. His lifted eyebrow asked the question so he didn’t have to.
“They wanted to do experiments and since the North Tower is connected to level 1, they thought it was easier to keep me here—not so far to transport me.” Even as I spoke, I kept my voice flat. If I didn’t, if I went back to the memories of the North Tower, of the hell they’d put me through, I’d let Deacon and Wade see far too much.
“I see,” Deacon said, his tone giving nothing away about how he felt. “Your room’s in level 1. We don’t have that many people, and because they made level 1 to house shades long-term, it’s got the best set-up. We’ve been putting everyone in level 1 while we work on getting the other levels renovated.”
“By which he means that level 1 has kitchens, full bathrooms, and it’s directly connected to the other areas,” Wade explained, as if Deacon needed a translator just as Hera had.
Instead of asking more, I held my wrist out.
Deacon went still, a frown touching his features.
Wade shook his head, then gently set his gloved hand on my wrist. “We don’t do wrist bands anymore.”
Oh… I guess that made sense. I ignored the warmth on my cheeks as Deacon pulled a card from a stack on the table he leaned against, then swiped it through a reader on his tablet. A few beeps rang out before he held the card out. “This will get you into your room— one-three-four-five.”
“Will it get me into the pantry and rec areas?”
Deacon shook his head. “We don’t keep the same security measures they had back then. The only off-limit areas are dangerous or security-centric. Otherwise, none of the areas require special access.”
“The North Tower?” I asked, unable to help the slight quiver in my voice at mentioning that place. It felt like talking about it might call its attention to me.
Deacon didn’t answer, with Wade taking that one. “The North Tower’s locked. There’s way too much stuff in there that we don’t understand yet. Plus, we don’t want people breaking in just to steal things. A lot of what’s there could seriously hurt shades if it got into the wrong hands. Don’t worry, though no one’s working there.”
Which means this is going to be more complicated than I wanted…
“Come on, I’ll show you where to go,” Wade said, gesturing toward the door at the back of the intake room.
“I’m good,” I assured him, tucking the keycard into the side pocket of my leggings. Even after six years away, this place haunted my dreams. I couldn’t possibly forget a single hallway of this prison, of the place that had tried to destroy me…the place that had taken what mattered most from me.
* * * *
My room was much nicer than I expected. Before, the rooms had been mostly bare. They’d had a kitchen but lacked most of the useful tools—no stove, no knives, no ovens.
Taking forks away from shades who had claws always seemed like performative security to me.
This time, however, they’d added most of that back in. Food filled the fridge, and the kitchen also had a full set of knives, pots, pans and a gas stove.
It took me back to when I’d first arrived six years ago, having just turned thirteen. I’d changed a year prior but had kept it a secret. Instead, I’d left my family home and moved to the beach, giving myself the ability to slip into my seal skin and lose myself in the freedom of the open waves whenever I wanted.
It had all ended when someone had glimpsed me leaving the water and my shift back to my human form. Before I’d known it, Larkwood guards had set up a trap for me.
I’d come here so afraid, running my fingers over my seal skin where it attached between my shoulder blades, trying to become as small as possible. Everyone else had looked so large and imposing. Full-grown men had glared at me, and everyone had called me 4 as though my level were all that had mattered about me.
I swallowed down the memories, the pain, the fear.
No. I’m back to get what they stole from me. Larkwood won’t win this time.
I took a deep breath as I settled in for the night, ready to sleep away my worries.
I got out of this place alive six years ago, and now I was going to need to survive it again.
But this time, I’d come out on top no matter what.