Never Fade Page 61

That was a feeling I knew well—the sensation of freefalling into a dark pit, not knowing how soon you’ll hit the bottom of it or if there even is one.

“It won’t matter,” I said. “In the end, it won’t. After we find Liam and get the intel, you better believe I’m going to burn every single one of those camps to the ground.”

He looked so uncertain about it, it broke my heart.

“I have to. Will you stay with me on this?” I whispered.

After a moment, Chubs nodded. “All right.” He cleared his throat again, trying to force it back to its usual gruff tone. “Where did the others go?”

“They’re waiting for us.”

“Are we walking, then?” he asked. “I’ll have to try to hide the car.”

I stared at him a moment, confused. Then, I understood. He’s letting you lead.

“Yeah,” I said. “I think we should try to get into the city on foot.”

Chubs nodded, and there wasn’t any discussion after that. We took the car a ways down the highway until we found a smaller access road. With the SUV properly masked in the trees and under whatever foliage we could find, we set off into the woods.

“I haven’t done this in a while,” Chubs said, shifting the pack we had put together of supplies and one of the twenty-five zillion first-aid kits he had insisted on packing. He was smiling, just a faint touch, but it was still there.

“Wish I could say the same,” I said, putting a hand on his shoulder to help steady myself as I hauled my legs over a fallen tree.

“Where did you say they were?”

I hadn’t even realized we were back in the same small clearing as before until I saw the dizzy array of footsteps pounded out in the mud and mulch. They’d been good on their word, then. They had split, and we’d have to catch up to them.

I looked over at Chubs to tell him as much, but his eyes were focused down on the snow, his eyebrows knit together.

There were more than three sets of tracks here. My brain had taken one look and assumed that Jude had been pacing in his usual way or that Vida had been circling the clearing impatiently. But there were way too many footprints for that.

I saw it then, the way it must have happened. A spiraling circle of steps where Vida had tried to fight, ending in the exposed patch of earth where she had fallen. Across the way, branches broken and littered on the ground—I took another step forward, following the trail until my feet met with a small spray of blazing-bright blood on a melting patch of snow.

No. The wind took on a low menacing growl in my ears. They hadn’t gone on ahead.

They had been taken.


IT DIDN’T EVEN OCCUR TO ME that Chubs might not be able to keep up with my pace as I ran. The group had cleared a path through the mud and pockets of lingering snow, packing it down to a manageable level with their feet. I took in a deep gulp of the dry air, trying to ignore the snow slipping from the low branches of trees and brush as I tore through them. My pants and coat were soaked through by the time I finally skidded to a stop. The trail of prints, so wide and obvious before, came to a definite end at the lip of a frozen stream.

Chubs panted heavily as he came up beside me, one hand pressed hard against his shoulder. I turned to take the bag of supplies he’d packed, but then thought twice. The one he handed me was just as heavy, and I wouldn’t be able to get through the snow with both of them, at least not quickly.

“What now?” he gasped between breaths. “They crossed here?”

“No, it’s not possible,” I said, kneeling down to test the ice. “There had to be at least ten of them. There’s no way they all would have made it across without breaking the ice.”

His eyes narrowed at me as I stood. “You can tell all that just by a few prints?”

“No,” I said, “I don’t know the exact number. Ten or more. Vida wouldn’t have let herself be taken by any less.”

Chubs looked doubtful, but he didn’t deny the possibility.

I walked a ways along the bank of the stream, looking for stray tracks, human or otherwise. They couldn’t have just vanished here.

Shit, I thought, threading my fingers through the messy bun I had twisted my hair into. Shit!

“Could…” Chubs swallowed, shifting the bag uncomfortably on his shoulders. “Do you think they were taken by soldiers? Ones the blockade sent after us?”

I shook my head. “They would have taken the road. We would have seen them.” Or at least, that was what I was telling myself. “Skip tracers, maybe?”

This time he was the one to shoot the thought down. “Ten of them? Why would they all be out here, in the middle of nowhere?”

“Then…” I began. Chubs’s eyes widened as he caught my train of thought.

“The tribe of Blues we’re looking for?” he asked. “But why put up a fight?”

I fought back the first sting of panicked tears. Oh, God. Jude must have been terrified. “They don’t understand how it works. They don’t have a life outside of the League—they, we, I mean, were taught to only trust one another.”

It was only dumb luck that I turned back to the stream when I did, that the wind pulled back the evergreen foliage of the trees across the way. Otherwise I would have missed the silver glint of gunmetal between its branches.

I threw myself over Chubs, tackling him face-first into the ground as the first shot was fired. I felt something tug on my backpack, and I turned away from the small explosion of snow and dirty leaves when the bullet tore through the ground beside us.

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