A finger of sunlight touched the wheel dangling from the overturned wooden cart. Wind in the trees shifted light until it pointed silent accusation at a charred pile of rags among the wreckage: Tarq.
He’d dashed from the forest, a camo-coloured blur, and vaulted into the enemy cart. The second he landed at my side, he detonated his personal explosive to salvage my failure. Because I, Aida Maria Solis, token female on the team, had been captured alive.
I couldn’t even die decently. I’d been thrown clear.
My head throbbed fierce enough to blur my mind. I lay on my side, one arm dead behind me. A stream chuckled in the distance. My mouth felt like an ash pit.
Time to move. I rolled onto my stomach, got my knees under me and did a shaky one-armed push-up. Pain in my left shoulder said my arm was caught on something.
My one duty now was to get out of here before they came looking for the cart… and its driver. Vague alarm slid through my mind and I scanned the area. The beast pulling the cart had vanished. If my enemy had gone for reinforcements there wasn’t much time.
Gritting my teeth, I turned to free my arm and found rumpled clothing instead of decaying deadfall. He hadn’t gone far, and now I remembered why: the cursed strips of metal that had bound us together and neutralized my own explosive.
A neural inhibitor, he’d called it. I called it a thing of shame and defeat.
I balanced on my knees and reached with my good arm for his wrist. No pulse that my numb fingers could find. I pulled the camo hood away from his head and the sight drove the air from my lungs. Pale skin, wisps of close-trimmed drab-brown hair, a mouth I’d always thought too wide: my face.
Everything froze. A searing ripple forced up from my stomach and emptied onto the forest carpet. Tremors seized me and it was by luck more than choice that I landed on the corpse and not the splatter of sickness.
I flung myself off the body. Chest heaving, I wiped my mouth on my sleeve, blinked hard.
I wore my enemy’s flesh.
My left arm hung numb, but with the other hand I raised the metal-wrapped wrist. The release mechanism had to be on this end. If the wires had saved my consciousness when my body died, had they sent my captor into my now-dead body?
A tiny indent in the metal might be a key hole. The chain around his—my—neck had what I needed.
Would breaking the connection kill me? No matter. Death was part of the mission, we all knew that. Mine might just come in stages.
The clasp clicked open and I dropped it to the ground beside my former self. I stood on shaky legs and pulled in deep gulps of conifer-scented air.
Freedom. But for what?
The forest felt suddenly dank. Distant.