“I’ve heard of one who could hand you your ass. Doesn’t the Emperor control fire and volcanoes and earthquakes? He should be able to take on some measly plants.”
Enough! “The Emperor is a mass murderer! For sport, he annihilated hundreds of men, women, and children—non-Arcana, people who had nothing to do with this game.”
“Oh, really? And how do you know that?”
“I watched him do it! I heard Richter laugh as his lava burned them alive.”
Right before then . . . Jack and I had marveled at the snow.
Sol frowned at me. “Why should I believe you?”
“Half a day’s ride from Fort Arcana is a valley. You’ll be able to tell that he struck.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Why am I even telling you this? You don’t have sympathy for innocent people.”
He quietly asked, “How many people are innocent after the Flash?”
I hated that he had a point.
“Empress, from where I’m sitting, you’re merely the diablo I know.”
No, the Devil had been a totally different card.
I could hear the howl of the wind even through the bunker-thick walls of the electrical substation where we’d holed up. Jack always loved to stay in these—concrete cubes with steel doors and no windows. Good A.F. shelters.
Gale-force gusts had foiled my need to push ahead. The canvas on the back of the truck caught the winds like a sail; when we skidded on a patch of black ice, we’d nearly headed off a cliff. Guard-rail maintenance was a thing of the past.
Though I was racking up minutes I didn’t have to spare, I figured I couldn’t help Jack if I was in the bottom of a ravine somewhere.
I’d made a thorn cage inside for the Baggers, keeping them close for leverage. While I’d used flints to start a fire, my vines had dismantled a storage crate for wood. The smoke wisped upward and vanished through some crack or vent overhead. The flames were a reminder of Jack’s death, but soon I’d have him back.
I glanced over at Sol on the other side of the fire. He was still sullen because I’d yelled at him. Sure enough, there’d been a fairly new corpse when we’d stopped to refuel. I’d ordered Sol to remove the dead man’s boots.
The Sun had put up his nose. “That’s disgusting. I’d rather go without.”
I remembered when I’d been too freaked out to source sunglasses off a body. Or to retrieve a precious arrow out of a Bagger. How had Jack put up with me all that time? “You hang out with slimy Bagmen,” I’d pointed out, “and you’re calling a corpse disgusting? Baggers are corpses.”
He’d looked at me like I’d insulted his mother.
“Boots, Sol. Now!”
He’d refused, launching into a diatribe in Spanish, and things had gone downhill from there. . . .
Now I dug into my bag for a package of freeze-dried soup and a collapsible pot, courtesy of Sol’s “worshippers.” I’d always depended on easy-to-carry energy bars, but beggars, choosers, blah blah.
When had I eaten last? Couldn’t remember.
I dumped the package into the pot, mixing in water from my canteen. After the last week, I’d never take having two hands for granted. I set the pot over the flames, and stirred with an all-purpose utensil.
Sol’s stomach growled. “Are you going to share any with your captive?” He gestured to the soup with his bound hands.
“I might have, if my captive had offered to heat this room—and this meal—with his powers.”
His lips thinned. “If you’re not nicer to me, I’ll make sure you get a Bagman bite. Maybe not tonight, or even this week. But someday.”
I took the pot off the fire. “Try it, Sol. See where that lands you. I’m sure I’m immune.” Well, five percent sure. At his frown, I said, “Poison’s my thing.” I started to eat, blowing to cool my first spoonful. Pretty good.
“Bagmen don’t inject poison, venom, or even a pathogen. It’s a radiation-based mutation. Like something you’d find in comics.”
“I’ll just take your word for it. Besides, I regenerate. I can’t get sick,” I lied. I had no idea how my body would react to a comic-book mutation. I hadn’t caught bonebreak fever—but then, I hadn’t had the plague injected into my skin via a zombie’s mouth.
“One of my worshippers is a scientist,” Sol said. “He’s been studying Bagmen. Besides, I wouldn’t order a bite to turn you—I’d do it just to be a dick.”
“Ah. So I should watch my back for them?” I pointed to his caged pets. Silent and motionless, the two stared blankly ahead, gruesome with their creased skin.
“Those particular ones don’t bite anyone.”
The pot had cooled, so I drank straight from it. “Again, I’ll take your word for it.” And your icon, if you don’t shut up.
Once I’d finished about half the soup, I gazed at his seemingly sincere expression. Maybe I shouldn’t be trying to shut Sol up when I could be learning about an enemy. “So . . . does it make you tired to shine?” I took one last swig of dinner, then passed the pot to him.
He beamed. “Sí, it does.” He drank the soup straight down, then swiped his brawny arm over his mouth. “The colder the weather, the harder it becomes. But I’m getting more efficient with practice, so I use less power. Soon I’ll be able to light up the entire world, commanding a legion of Bagmen.”
Good to have goals, Sol. I wondered if the Sun Card had possessed this kind of control over Baggers in past games, latent within him, but had never discovered his ability. After all, there’d been no zombies to experiment with, no Flash to create them. “How’d you figure out you could direct them?”