“How much farther do you think it is?” Sol asked, dragging me from my daydream.
I shrugged. “We could be there late tonight or tomorrow.”
“What will happen to me once we get to the fort? Will the other gods hurt Joe and Bea?”
“We’re not . . . forget it.” I let it go. “To answer your question, I won’t let anyone hurt them—or you. If you behave.”
“We will behave. I swear to myself.”
“Swear to yourself? You. Are. Not. A. God.”
He waved that away. “Tell me about your alliance. How do you expect to defeat someone like the Emperor? Can’t he simply bomb your hideaway? Attack with his lava?”
Bingo. “We have advantages that I won’t tell you about. And strength in numbers.”
“Which Arcana are in your alliance?”
Most. Was Circe? Every time I passed a body of water, memories arose of our past. The more I remembered of her, the more I missed her friendship.
I told Sol, “I won’t talk to you about strategy or strengths and weaknesses. Even if I trusted you were on my side—which I don’t—you could get abducted. Richter could force you to talk.”
“Empress, you are forcing me to get involved in this game. I don’t want to fight. Especially not against a man who is as strong as a volcano.”
“I don’t want to fight either. I want revenge against the Emperor, but after that . . .”
After that, what? I had a connection to almost all the players left. But Aric had warned me that the game wouldn’t be denied, calling it “a hell we’ve all been damned into.” I hadn’t believed him until Richter had entered the arena—with Jack caught in the crossfire.
With that in mind, my plan to run off to Louisiana had been ridiculously naïve.
After I brought Jack back, and we’d destroyed Richter, what would we do?
“You should come live with me at Olympus.” Sol slid me a seductive look. “You could be my goddess queen. Together, we’d build the largest settlement on earth! With your crops and my sun, we’d feed thousands. Between your thorns and my Bagmen, we’d maintain order.”
Order. Jack had wanted the same thing. I absently said, “That is something to think about. Well, except for the goddess queen part.”
“Don’t knock that part, pequeña. It’s my favorite detail about our future. We would do our duty and repopulate the world. Because we are givers. I, myself, would be devoted to giving.”
I quirked a brow at him. “No kids for me. Would you really bring children into a world like this?”
Eyes alight with playfulness, he said, “No. It was just an excuse to get in your pants.”
“Ugh. Behave. Or you’ll get a vine where the sun don’t shine.”
His jaw slackened; then he started laughing. Belly-laughing.
Despite everything, I felt my lips twitch. If he weren’t a homicidal god-wannabe, and I didn’t have a murderous red witch inside me, we might’ve been friends.
When his laughter died down, he said, “Back in the day, we would’ve made a great reality TV show. The Sol and Empress Show.”
“The shit show,” I muttered. The way I felt right now, I would’ve gotten top billing.
Day 392 A.F.
“Drive faster!” I told Sol, all but bouncing in the truck seat. From the bridge, I’d spied Fort Arcana’s outline up on the windy bluff.
I was concerned about the lack of lights, but maybe they were conserving after the massacre. Or they’d gone dark for cover.
Being this near the fort made me feel closer to Jack. Excitement welled inside me as I ran my fingers over the ribbon in my pocket.
When Sol got his first good look at the fort, his lips thinned with disgust. “Pedazo de mierda. What is this piece-of-shit place?”
I had my hand wrapped around his neck so fast, my claws dripping. “This is a place where people dreamed of having a better life. While you were holed up in your coliseum stronghold, others were out in the Ash fighting and scrapping for everything they got.”
“I-I’m sorry, Empress.”
I released him with a glare. “You’re like the Hermit Card—you crawled into a ready-made shell. It cost you nothing.” Choking back my fury, I commanded, “Drive around that stretch of dirt.”
At the edge of the minefield, a rutted trail meandered this way and that. Tire tracks. As if from a mass retreat. “Follow those ruts. Carefully. There are mines everywhere.”
He swallowed, and drove along the trail. As the truck closed in on the fort’s outer wall, we passed chunks of some charred animal. A huge one with frizzy black fur. “Oh, my God.” Cyclops. Or half of him.
“What was that?” Sol’s eyes went wide. “A giant dog?”
I muttered, “Something like that.”
Tracks and furrows led away from the legs and tail, as if the wolf had dragged itself from its severed hindquarters. Why was his pelt riddled with bullet holes?
Who would’ve shot him?
Though a favorite of mine, he’d remained here to help Finn reunite with Lark once the Magician had healed enough to make the journey.
I reminded myself that the wolf couldn’t die. Not as long as Lark lived. Cyclops could be holed up in the neighboring rock forest, regenerating. He might even pick up my scent, and then Lark would know I’d survived.
I told Sol, “Drive up to the entrance and park.”
As we neared the gates, I replayed my memory of Jack riding through them with his chin up, his bearing proud. All the army soldiers had respected the legendary Hunter, as he’d been known. They’d made him their general. So many of those men had died.