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Vanish

For my agent, Maura — for being more than an agent

The heart that truly loves never forgets.

— Proverbs

Chapter 1

Sometimes I dream of falling.

Of course, I start out flying in these dreams. Because that’s what I do. What I am. What I love.

A few weeks ago, I would have said it’s what I love most in the world, but a lot has changed since then. Everything, really.

In these dreams, I’m racing through the sky, free as I’m supposed to be. And then something happens because suddenly I’m descending in a tailspin. I clutch air, my screams eaten up by angry wind. I plummet. A human without wings. Just a girl, not a draki at all. Powerless. Lost.

I feel that way now: I’m falling, and I can do nothing. I can stop none of it. I’m caught up in the old nightmare.

I always wake before I hit ground. That’s been my salvation. Only tonight I’m not dreaming. Tonight I hit the ground. And it’s every bit as painful as I expected.

I rest my cheek against the cool glass of the window and watch the night rush past me. As Cassian drives, my eyes strain through the motionless dark, skimming over rock yards and stucco houses, searching for an answer, a reason for everything that’s happened.

The world seems to hold its breath as we slow for a stop sign. My gaze drifts to the dark sky above us. A deep, starless sea beckoning, promising sanctuary.

Mom’s voice drifts forward from the backseat, low and crooning as she talks to Tamra, trying to coax a response from her. I peel my cheek from the glass and glance over my shoulder. Tamra shivers in Mom’s arms. Her eyes stare vacantly ahead; her skin corpse pale.

“Is she okay?” I ask again, because I have to say something. I have to know. Did I do this to her? Is this, too, my fault? “What’s wrong with her?”

Mom frowns and shakes her head at me like I shouldn’t speak. I’ve let them both down. I broke the unbreakable rule. I revealed my true form to humans — worse, hunters — and we will all pay for the mistake. The knowledge presses on me, a crushing weight that sinks me deep into my seat. I face forward again, trembling uncontrollably. I cross my arms, pinning my hands at my sides as though that might still them.

Cassian warned me there would be a reckoning for this night’s work, and I wonder whether it’s already begun. I’ve lost Will. Tamra is sick or in shock or maybe something worse. Mom can hardly look at me. My every breath is misery, the events of the night burning inside my eyelids. Me, shedding my human skin and manifesting in front of Will’s family. My desperate flight through crackling dry air to reach him. But if I hadn’t manifested — hadn’t flown to Will’s side — he’d be dead, and I couldn’t bear that thought. I’ll never see Will again, no matter his promise to find me, but at least he’s alive.

Cassian says nothing beside me. He did all the talking he needed to do to get Mom in the car with us, to make her understand returning with him to the home we fled is the only viable option. His fingers hold tight to the steering wheel, his knuckles white. I doubt he’ll relax his grip until we’re free and clear of Chaparral. Probably not until we’re safely back in the pride. Safe. I strangle on a laugh — or it could be a sob. Will I ever feel safe again?

The town flies past, houses thinning out as we near the edge of town. We’ll be gone soon. Free of this desert and the hunters. Free of Will. This last thought claws fresh the already bleeding wound in my heart, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Could there ever have been a future for us? A draki and a draki hunter? A draki hunter with the blood of my kind running through his veins.

That part of it all still stumbles through my head, refusing to penetrate. I can’t close my eyes without seeing the flash of his shimmering purple blood in the night. Like my own. My head aches, struggling to accept this terrible truth. No matter how valid Will’s explanation, no matter that I still love him, it doesn’t change the fact that the stolen blood of my kind pumps through his veins.

Cassian exhales slowly as we leave the city limits.

“Well, that’s that,” Mom murmurs as the distance grows between us and Chaparral.

I turn to find her looking back through the rear window. She’s leaving all her hopes for a better future in Chaparral. It’s where we were making a fresh start, away from the pride. And now we’re headed back into their midst.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I say, not just because I should, but because I mean it.

Mom shakes her head, opening her mouth to speak, but gets nothing out.

“We’ve got trouble,” Cassian announces. Straight ahead, several cars block the road, forcing us to slow.

“It’s them,” I manage to utter past numb lips as Cassian pulls closer.

“Them?” Mom demands. “Hunters?”

I give a hard nod. Hunters. Will’s family.

Glaring headlights pierce the dark and illuminate Cassian’s face. His gaze flicks to the rearview mirror and I can tell he’s contemplating turning back around, running for it in the other direction. But it’s too late for that — one car moves to block our escape and several figures step in front of our car. Cassian slams on the brakes, his hands flexing on the steering wheel, and I know he’s fighting the impulse to mow them down. I strain for a glimpse of Will, sensing him, knowing he’s there, among them somewhere.

Hard, biting voices shout at us to get out of the car. I hold still, my fingers a hot singe on my bare legs, pressing so deeply — as though I were trying to reach my draki buried underneath.

A fist bangs down on our hood, and then I see it — the outline of a gun in the gloom.

Cassian’s gaze locks with mine, communicating what I already know. We have to survive. Even if it means doing only what our kind can do. That very thing I already did, that got us in this jam tonight in the first place. And why not? It’s not like we can reveal our secret more.

Nodding, I move, climbing out of the car to face our enemies.

Will’s cousin Xander steps ahead of the others thrusting his smug face toward me. “Did you really think you could get away?”

Crushing pain fills my chest, anger at what these monsters have cost me tonight. Ash gathers at the back of my throat, and I let the acrid burn build, preparing myself for whatever may come.

A hunter beats a fist on the back window, shouting at Mom and Tamra. “Get out of the car!”

Mom steps out with as much dignity as she can muster, pulling Tamra with her. My sister’s grown even paler since Big Rock; her wheezy breath scrapes the air. Her amber brown eyes, the same as mine, look cloudy, almost filmy as she stares into space. Her lips part, but no words escape. I step close and lend a hand, helping Mom support her. Tam’s icy to the touch, her skin not skin at all. Chilled marble.

Cassian faces Xander, regal as the prince he essentially is. Light glints off the purple and black strands of his hair.

I moisten my lips, wondering how I can convince Xander he didn’t see me manifest. “What do you want?”

Will’s cousin stabs a finger at me. “We’ll start with you — whatever the hell you are.”

“Get away from her,” Cassian commands.

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