By: Melissa Landers

The boy winked. “One extra-large glass, coming right up.”

After closing the warehouse doors, he led the way to the pub. They strode together down the center of the road through town, which seemed deserted now that Cassia had a chance to pay attention. While her new friend tried to impress her by prattling on about the farmland he was about to buy, she peered through store windows and in between buildings for the settlers she’d seen shopping a few minutes earlier. She noticed movement inside the general depot, but aside from that, it seemed everyone had taken a simultaneous lunch break.

That struck her as odd.

She turned to the boy to ask for an explanation, only he wasn’t there anymore. She spotted his retreating form just before he ducked out of sight behind the washhouse.

Her senses fired a red alert.

She halted her steps, darting glances in every direction. Ahead of her, three men stepped out of the pub and ambled onto the street. Her eyes took in the restraints hanging from their utility belts, and she instantly pegged them as bounty hunters. Fear gripped her, but then sunlight glinted off a metal disk embedded in one man’s temple—a prefrontal cortex blocker—and the bottom fell out of her stomach.

These weren’t ordinary bounty hunters.

In a flash, she whirled around and sprinted between two buildings, heading toward a nearby soy field. The short, leafy stalks wouldn’t hide her, but she had to lead the men away from her ship before they tortured the captain into telling them where Kane had gone. The Daeva had found her, and these hunters had no limits. Kane’s name was on the contract, too, but unlike her, he was marked for death.

The worst kind.

When you want someone dead, you hire a hit man. When you want someone to scream until his vocal cords rupture, you call the Daeva. Cassia’s former captain had said that, and she’d never been able to get the image out of her head. She wouldn’t let that happen to Kane, not while she still had breath in her body.

She ignored the burning in her muscles and sprinted faster through the field. A sudden whizzing noise rose above the sound of boots pounding on soil, and before she had a chance to glance over her shoulder, something tangled around her ankles and sent her pitching forward.

She landed hard on her stomach with a grunt that knocked the wind from her lungs. Rolling aside, she tugged in vain at the bindings that had hobbled her. The ropes were metal, fixed in place by two interlocking spheres that wouldn’t release without a key.

Her chest filled with enough air to allow her a single sob of panic. She dragged herself into a cluster of plants and curled up beneath the leaves. Judging by the snap of breaking stalks nearby, she didn’t have much time. With trembling fingers, she unfastened the com-link from her shirt and relayed a final message to the Banshee.

“Renny, the Daeva caught me,” she whispered. “Collect everyone and get as far away as you can. I’m dumping my tracker so you can’t follow me. Please take care of Kane.”

“The tracks lead this way,” said a man. “I see her now.”

She shut down the link and buried it in the soil.

A moment later, strong hands gripped her ankles and tugged her into the open. She squinted against the sun and met her captor’s bloodshot gaze before she scanned his utility belt for anything she could use against him. She spotted a pulse pistol hanging loosely in its holster. When the man bent down to taunt her, she snatched the weapon and shot him in the chest.

His body collapsed beside her, and she heaved him onto his back to search for the key to her ankle restraints. She’d just dug into his shirt pocket when a new hand appeared from her periphery and struck her across the face. Pain exploded behind her cheekbone while the force of the blow sent her slamming into the dirt.

“Careful,” a third man warned from behind them. “She’s a return, not a kill. You break her, you buy her.”

The Daeva towering over her released a snort. “Might be worth it.”

Cassia spat blood onto the soil and laughed, despite the pressure of tears building behind her eyes. “As if you could afford me.”

That earned her another slap, but only half as hard as the first.

“Where’s the boy?”

As she lay on the ground, she resisted the urge to ask which boy the Daeva was talking about. Provoking him any further might hurt her odds of saving Kane. “He’s not here. He flew off world for shore leave.”

“Don’t lie to me,” the man said, and kicked her in the stomach.

Her lungs emptied again as her mouth gaped to take in air that wouldn’t come. She curled into a ball, racked by dry heaves, until a trickle of breath made its way past her throat. Gasping, she told the Daeva, “I swear! He already left.”