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I glared around at the hunters, trying to see if I could recognize any of them. Most had removed their shades, but I couldn’t. None of these men bore burns, so I guessed that they had remained on the boat. Despite just witnessing an attack of gigantic, fire-breathing dragons, all looked quite calm, as though they saw this kind of thing every day.

What do they want with River?

Back near The Oasis, after we had first escaped and ventured out into the desert—a desert that was closely guarded by hunters—I remembered how she had almost died from one of the bullets. They’d chosen to attack without even hearing her out, so I expected them to behave in the same way here. Plunge a bullet into her chest or skull. But they didn’t.

The speed the boat was traveling at unnerved me. When it began to slow, I left River temporarily to poke my head out through the hatch. We had arrived near the huge naval ships. I expected us to head right for one of them, where they’d likely carry River aboard, but instead they stopped two dozen feet away from it.

“Doug, are you ready with the sub?” A man near the bow—the same tall, wiry man who’d addressed my parents on the rocks—spoke into an earpiece.

A few moments later, a submarine surfaced in front of us. It poked out from beneath the waves and a hatch lifted open.

The tall man nodded to another hunter, who descended to the lower deck and instructed the men watching over River to carry her up. They grabbed her and hoisted her over their heads as they transferred her from the speedboat to the submarine. Even bound and with all four men, each of them about twice her size, manhandling her, she still managed to make it difficult for them. But not difficult enough. She was shoved down through the submarine’s hatch, and as I followed, four more men were waiting for her. They picked her up and carried her along a narrow corridor.

“Let me go! Please!” River’s voice cut me again.

It’s my fault she’s here.

They ignored her completely. They reached the end of the corridor and stopped outside a cabin. One of the men reached for a chain of keys from his back pocket and opened the door, one-handed. They moved her into the room—a small, bare room whose walls were made of some kind of grey metal, with a bed, a trashcan, and a tiny bathroom. They planted her down on the bed and then exited.

The submarine shuddered and jolted downward. We were submerging. Away from the naval ships. Away from The Shade.

Where are they taking her?

I gazed down at River. They hadn’t even bothered to untie her. She just lay there uncomfortably on the mattress. “Let me go!” she yelled, her voice hoarse and cracked. “Please!”

I knelt on the floor so that my face was level with hers as she squirmed on the bed. I reached out and traced her face with my hand, wishing more than I ever had before that she could feel my touch. That I could offer her even the slightest reassurance.

If I’d still been a vampire, I would have flung her over my shoulder, torn down the door and ripped through as many hunters’ throats as I needed to get River out of here—or died trying.

But here I knelt, unable to even reach out and touch my girl, let alone fight for her.

I stared down at my pale, translucent hands.

That vial of potion may have given me life… But what kind of life is this?

Epilogue: Aisha

I was still stuck in the box.

I didn’t know how much time had passed since Ben had gotten pulled out, but I had long passed the brink of desperation. I was too exhausted to shed more tears. After the vampire left, I’d spent every moment crushed with the worry of what had happened to him and what was happening to my family back in The Oasis.

To make matters worse, the ship had been motionless for what felt like days. I could only assume that Julie and her crew had abandoned it, left it drifting somewhere in the ocean. I’d begun to believe that I would never get out. I just sat curled up in a corner, trying to numb my mind. It was the least painful state of existence that I could find for myself.

Then one day—or perhaps it was during the night; I had no way of knowing—the ship jolted to a start. I scrambled upright, my eyes wide, ears perked. The vessel hadn’t been abandoned after all and the thought brought me a sliver of hope in the gloom.

Minutes passed, and the ship only seemed to be gaining speed.

I was jerked against the side of the box by something heavy crashing against it. My head banged painfully against the wall. It sounded like a weight had fallen upon the lid of the box. I stared upward at the inside of the lid, my eyes wide with anticipation, barely daring to breathe. Then I heard a sound that made my heart skip a beat.

The clinking of a key. The scraping of metal against a lock. A click.

I must have been dreaming. Even as the lid began to lift open, my brain still hadn’t accepted that this was actually happening. The box was opening. Oh, gods of all things good.

I gathered myself together, preparing to spring out when a heavy, damp, furry body was flung inside the box and crashed on top of me. I hadn’t yet transformed myself into my subtle state, and the weight toppled me and crushed me beneath it. I quickly dissolved my body, allowing me to slide out from underneath it with ease.

Rising up, I found myself staring down at a dead werewolf. It had been gouged in the throat. The fur around its neck was drenched in blood, and there were deep wounds in the flesh around its throat. My eyes darted upward, toward the opening of the box, and I zoomed out…

I’m free. I’m free!

The euphoria surging through my spirit temporarily drove any wondering from my mind about who had opened the box and dropped that corpse inside.

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