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Out of the Blue
Oh, bleep. I was going to die.
I was going to die a horrible, gruesome, painful death.
My hand twitched at my side, reaching for the pink Taser I knew wasn't there. Why had I ever wanted this? What was I thinking? Working at the International Paranormal Containment Agency might have been close to indentured servitude, and sure, I had some nasty run-ins with vampires and hags and creeptastic faeries, but that was nothing compared to the danger I faced now.
We were playing soccer-without shin guards. The girl I was supposed to cover (a creature so hulking I swear she was a troll) charged toward me, steam practically flowing from her nostrils. I braced for impact.
And then I marveled at the clear blue autumn sky. Not a cloud in sight. But why was I looking at the sky? Maybe it was connected to my sudden inability to breathe. Come on, lungs. Come on. They had to start working at some point, right? Bright spots danced before my eyes and I could just see my obituary: Tragedy Strikes During Soccer. How mortifying.
At last, blessed air filtered through. A familiar face, framed by long, dark hair, leaned over me. My one normal friend, Carlee. "Are you okay?" she asked.
"Green!" a tenor barked out. I was pretty sure that Miss Lynn had a deeper voice than my boyfriend. "Get off your butt and get back in the game!"
Ah, Green. It seemed like such a cute last name when Lend made it up to fake my legal documents. However, the more Miss Lynn shouted it, the less I liked it. "GREEN!" Carlee held out a hand and helped me up.
"That's okay. I suck at soccer, too." She smiled and ran off. She totally did not suck at soccer.
It wasn't fair. Here I was, standing like an idiot on a muddy field, while Lend was away at college. What a waste of time. And who knew how much longer I had left, anyway? What if I was expending the precious remnants of my soul on soccer?
Maybe I could get a doctor's note. I could see it now: "To whom it may concern: Evie has a rare condition in which she doesn't have enough of her own soul to live a normal life. Therefore, she should be immediately and permanently excused from all physical exertion involving sweating and getting knocked down in the dirt."
Ridiculous. But then again, it might be worth a shot. Lend's dad had some connections at the hospital. . . .
I ducked as the ball whizzed past my head. One of my teammates, a vicious redhead, swore as she ran by. "Header, Green! Header!"
Carlee stopped. "Just fake cramps." She winked a mascara-heavy eyelid.
I put my hands on my lower stomach and shuffled over to Miss Lynn, who stood at the painted white line on the crunchy grass, surveying the game like a general at war.
She rolled her eyes. "What is it now?"
Hoping my pale face would come in handy for once, I whimpered. "Cramps. Bad."
She didn't buy it and we both knew it, but instead of calling my crap she rolled her eyes and jerked her thumb toward the sidelines. "Next time you play goalie though."
Thanks a lot, Carlee. Brilliant idea. I put some distance between us and slumped to the ground, picking at the sparse, browning grass.
This wasn't how high school was supposed to be.
Don't get me wrong, I'm super grateful to be here. I always wanted to be normal, go to a normal school, do normal things. But it's all so, so . . .
Since school started a month ago, there hasn't been a single catfight. No wild parties where the cops got called, either. And as far as masquerade balls and moonlit rendezvous and passionate kisses in the hallways, well, all I can say is Easton Heights, my former favorite TV show, has taken a serious hit in my estimation.
I still think lockers are awesome, though.
I kept a hand on my stomach for appearances. Lying on the ground was a much nicer position when voluntarily assumed. I watched a tiny wisp of a cloud stream across the sky.
I frowned. It was a weird cloud. All by its lonesome in the otherwise blank sky, and there was something else about it . . . something different. Was that a flash of lightning?
"I said, are you going to attend your next class?"
Startled, I sat up and grimaced at Miss Lynn. "Yes, absolutely, thanks." I hurried inside. Things really were boring if I was looking for excitement in clouds.
I spent my next class calculating the exact number of minutes left until the weekend, when I could see Lend. The answer was far too many, but figuring it out was more interesting than, say, paying attention to my English teacher's lecture on gender roles in Dracula-and don't even get me started on that book. An accurate researcher Bram Stoker was not.
My head was drifting toward an inevitable collision course with the desk when the door banged open and an office aide came in with a note. "Evelyn Green?" I waved a hand and she nodded. "Checkout slip."
I perked up. I'd never been pulled from school before. Maybe Arianna wanted to hang out. She was weird and moody enough to pull something like this.
Then again, not so much. She wouldn't come out during a day this bright, what with the whole being-a-vampire thing. My stomach dropped. What if something was wrong? What if Lend had an accident on campus, got knocked unconscious, and turned invisible? What if the government took him and he was being entombed in some IPCA facility?
Trying my hardest not to run, I followed the aide, a short woman with shockingly unnatural blond hair. "Do you know who's here to get me?"
"Your aunt, I think."
Well, that cleared things right up. Or at least it would, if I had an aunt. I ran through the list of women, all paranormals, who could pass for a relative. It wasn't a long list, and I couldn't think why a single one of them would be here. I burst into the office. A woman with sensible (read: ugly) shoes and black hair pulled into a severe bun was standing with her back toward me. It couldn't be.
Raquel turned around and smiled.
My heart jumped into my throat. On the one hand, it was Raquel, and she was the closest thing I'd ever had to a mom. On the other hand, it was Raquel, and she was one of the head honchos of IPCA, the organization that thought I was dead. The organization I really, really didn't want to find me. And the organization I thought Raquel was protecting me from.
"There you are." She shouldered her purse and gestured toward the double doors leading outside. "Let's go."
I followed her, thoroughly confused. Outside in the brilliant daylight at my normal high school, it felt wrong to be with the woman who represented everything I had left behind. I kept wanting to lean in and hug her-which was weird, since we'd never really had a hugging relationship. Of course, I also wanted to book it in the opposite direction. She was IPCA.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"Judging by your surprise, I'm going to assume that David has not been passing on my messages."
"Lend's dad? What messages?"
She sighed. My interpretation skills were rusty, but it sounded like an I'm tired and this is going to take too long to explain sigh.
A shadow passed over the sun and I looked up to see my wisp of cloud. There was definitely something underneath it, but not lightning. Something shimmering. Something paranormal. Something with a glamour that only I could see through.
"What is-" I was interrupted by my own scream as the cloud dove out of the sky, wrapped itself around me, and flew back into the blue.
I was still screaming when I ran out of air. Gulping a breath, I stared down at the ground. Tendrils of cloud shifted around me, not doing nearly enough to obscure the fact that the tree-filled landscape was much too far beneath us.
I forced back another scream and stared at my waist. Wrapped around me were two arms that both looked and felt terrifyingly insubstantial. I had no idea how something that seemed as light as the breeze was holding me up here, but I couldn't think about that right now. I had more pressing problems. Like where the cloud was taking me and why. Even worse, tiny sparks were flying around us, and I didn't like my odds for avoiding electrocution. The hairs on my arms stuck straight out, tingling with the energy crackling around me.
So, so bad.
I was ready to bid the Earth good-bye when I saw my small town beneath us and something snapped. That was my town. I was done being manipulated by paranormals. If this thing could touch me, then I sure as Hades could touch it. And if I could touch it . . .
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It had to be done. It wasn't because I wanted to-this was a matter of life and death. Odds were it wouldn't work anyway. I might be an Empty One, able to suck the souls straight out of paranormals, but I'd only done it once before. And that was different; the souls had been trapped and they wanted to come to me. This thing probably didn't want to give me its life energy.
Still worth a shot. I threw my shoulder back, reached around, and put my hand flat against the first solid thing I felt, praying that whatever this cloud creature was, it had a chest.
I gave myself up, willing the channel between my hand and Cloud Freak's soul to open. I want this, I thought, my mind screaming desperation. I needthis.
My eyes flew open in shock, the soul crackling with dry, charged heat as it flowed down my arm and into my core, filtering outward until every part of my body tingled.
The creature let out a shrill cry of surprise and pain. It jerked back, breaking the connection; my head spun, drunk with the rush of new, strange energy.
And then we fell.
What a brilliant idea, Evie, go ahead and suck the energy out of the thing keeping you aloft thousands of feet in the air. But it was still holding it together somehow. We were spinning out of control, but we weren't falling as swiftly as we should have been. If we could make it to the ground, we'd be okay.
It dropped me. I screamed, scrambling and grabbing onto its foot. It shrieked in frustration, kicking out, but I wasn't about to let go. We were in this together. The earth rushed up toward us, a green and orange carpet of trees.
Before I could brace myself, I slammed through the canopy, leaves flying around me as I bounced off a branch and let go of my cloud's foot. Another branch whacked my hip, slowing me enough that when the ground and I finally caught up with each other, it only felt like I'd been hit by a truck.
Every bone in my body had to be broken. There was no way I could be in this much pain and have any surviving appendages. I'd be in a body cast for the rest of my life. This was going to complicate cuddling with Lend. At least I'd get out of school for a while. And I'd definitely be off the hook for gym.
Electric tingling sensations rushed up and down my body, replacing the pain and making me feel buoyant, like my limbs were fuzzy and disconnected.
Oh, bleep. I was paralyzed.
Panicked, I leaped to my feet, running my hands over myself in horror. Well, duh. If I could do this, probably not paralyzed. Why did I feel so weird then? And where was Cloud Freak?
"Horrible thing!" a voice like the wind through dead trees rasped. "What has it done to me?"
Still covered in clinging tendrils of cloud, the small creature crawled across the dirt toward me. Although shaped like a person, it was delicate-almost childlike. Its eyes flashed brilliant white like lightning, but the rest of its features were blurred and indistinct; even its color matched the pale shade of cloud. To anyone else it would look like an animated section of solid fog, but my glamour-piercing eyes saw everything.
I took a step backward, trying not to stumble on the exposed roots of the massive tree kind enough to break my fall. "Hey, I didn't ask to be snatched and flown off!"
"It took me-it took part of me away. Give it back."
I backed up against the tree trunk. The creature levitated, turning upright and hovering in front of me. Thin traces of lightning surrounded it like a web. Its limbs blended in and out of the cloud-sometimes there, sometimes not-but there was an undeniable sense of power and force to it.
I was so out of my league here. I held up my hand and tried to look braver than I felt. "Leave me alone or I'll take it all." My voice trembled, part fear but part longing. My fingers tingled, my body yearned. A taste wasn't enough. I wanted the rest.
No, I didn't. I couldn't have it. I didn't want it. I wasn't that person. I'd give it back if I could, but I didn't know how.
Cloud Freak narrowed its large, flashing eyes at me. The air between us was dry and hot, charged with crackling electricity. It was going to kill me. I took a deep breath, wondering how much it would hurt, when the thing shot back up into the sky with a shrill blast of air. I watched as it went higher, occasionally veering to the side or losing altitude before climbing again. And then it was gone.
Letting out a trembling breath of relief, I leaned back against the tree. When I daydreamed about something happening to make my life more exciting again, this wasn't what I had in mind. Clearly I forgot what being involved with paranormals-real, uncontrollable paranormals-entailed.
Lots and lots of fear.
And now I didn't even have Tasey with me for comfort. I stepped forward resolutely, taking stock of my situation. I had dropped my bag when Cloud Freak snatched me, which meant no cell phone. And while I was pretty sure we had been close to home when we fell out of the sky, who knew how far off course our fall had taken us? Still, how big could a forest be in the middle of Virginia?
No doubt I was going to find out.
By the time I hit a road an hour later I was tired, sweaty, and depressed. What were the odds that Raquel showed up the exact same time a paranormal tried to snatch me? What was she playing at, pretending to let me off the hook with IPCA and then coming back for me? I found it hard to believe that her goal had been to lure me out of the school so Cloud Freak could grab me, but it seemed the likeliest explanation. The idea that Raquel-who had been like a mom to me during my years at the Center-would do something like that broke my heart.