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The flames of the campfire danced high in a warm breeze. In the inky night sky, a million stars flickered.
April Powers glanced around the circle of kids. Their faces glowed orange in the firelight.
April counted ten kids in all. Nine who had been on the island for the first Life Games competitions last spring. And Pam Largent, who had tagged along with April.
Pam and April weren't exactly friends. But their parents were. For as long as she could remember, April kept getting stuck with Pam.
Back home, Pam had been so jealous that April had been invited by The Academy to compete in their Life Games especially when April's team won. Pam admitted she would do anything to be a part of the games. Then, when April was invited back for this reunion, Pam made sure she got asked along.
So now, here she was. Chatting nonstop with everyone. Working hard to impress the other kids. Eager to be the most popular and the most successful.
April watched Pam across the campfire. Pam was flirting with Anthony Thomas. April could hear her teasing Anthony about his red hair.
April sighed. She hadn't wanted to come to the reunion. The island frightened her. The last time she was here, her team barely made it off alive.
And she left with a souvenir. April's hand touched the spot on her temple where there was now a blue crescent moon.
April counted the kids again. Nine. Only nine out of twelve had returned. Where were the other three?
Where was Marlin Davis, a member of April's team? April's friend. Marlin had vanished. He had promised to write to April, but he never did.
Marlin's mother saidhe was still on the island. But how could that be? April and the others had returned home nearly two months ago.
April turned to Kristen Wood. Kristen sat cross-legged beside her. She stared thoughtfully into the fire.
Kristen, Marlin, and Anthony had all been on April's team.
After they left the island, strange things had happened to both April and Kristen. April had terrifying dreams. She found herself wandering in the middle of the night with no memory of leaving her house. She heard sounds and smelled things from the island.
She saw the woman in the blue cloak.
Are Kristen and I the only ones here who realize that something is very wrong? April wondered.
As if something had followed them home from the island.
As if something had pulled them back here.
Staring at the darting yellow flames, April remembered the terrifying woman in the blue cloak. She lived in the caves high on a rocky hill overlooking the shore.
She had captured April. April didn't remember how.
She remembered waking up with the woman hovering over her, sucking away her breath. Sucking away her strength . . .
The woman had touched her temple. The woman's touch burned. Later April saw the blue crescent moon where the woman touched her.
Despite the waves of heat from the fire, April shivered.
Back home, her memory had been fogged. Erased. It took weeks and weeks until it all suddenly came back to her.
Did that frightening woman have Marlin up at her cave? Did she have Dolores and Jared, the other two missing kids?
April swore she would never return to this place. But she had to learn the truth. She had to find out what happened to her friend Marlin.
Until she solved the mystery, she knew the island would haunt her. It would never let her live in peace.
The fire popped noisily. A few kids laughed.
Pam had moved close to a young man holding a video camera. There were camera guys everywhere. This whole island reunion was being taped for TV.
Pam chattered away, smiling into the camera.
She really wants to be a star, April thought bitterly. I wish my mom hadn't forced me to bring Pam along.
Clark Jones and Kendra Willis started tossing a tennis ball back and forth across the fire. Anthony made a grab for it, and the ball bounced into the fire. Everyone laughed.
Another TV guy, a tall, lanky young man with a long blond ponytail, captured it all on video.
April leaned close to Kristen. "Are we the only ones who aren't here to have a good time?" she whispered.
Kristen nodded. "None of the others realizes the danger . . ."
April turned as everyone started to cheer. Donald Marks came lumbering across the sand, followed by Mira and Blake, two new assistants.
All three of them wore khaki shorts and white T-shirts with academy staff printed on the front in bold black letters.
Marks was the director of The Academy. He was a huge man with a round, bald head and bushy black eyebrows over round, dark eyes.
He had a bulging stomach that bounced as he strode over the sand to the campfire. And a booming voice with a hearty laugh that came from deep in his belly.
He stepped into the circle of kids, wiping sweat off his broad forehead with a handkerchief. "Hot night," he said. "It's great to see you all. Great to be back on the island."
The cameraman with the blond ponytail moved in close to Marks. Marks waved him back. "No close-ups please!" he said, laughing.
He turned back to the circle of kids. "I hope you will all just act natural. Ignore the cameras, okay? It won't be easy. They are everywhere. But just pretend these guys don't exist."
That will be hard for Pam, April thought. She's been following the video guys around since the moment we arrived.
"You're all going to be TV stars," Marks said, grinning at them. "We are going to hold our Life Games competitions again for the cameras. And once again, there is a big cash prize to the winner."
Everyone except April and Kristen cheered at that announcement. I don't care about winning more money, April thought. I just want to learn what is really going on here....