Not permanently. Not if I can help it.
Sol had just turned off the ignition when the gates swung open, wind battering them against the wall. No one manned them. The metal groaned like a Bagman’s wail.
“Come with me,” I said, climbing from the cab. When Sol joined me on the ground, I stretched the stalks circling his wrists to bind his ankles as well.
“Is this really necessary, pequeña?”
“Really is, Sol.” As I approached the wall, I cried, “Hello! Is someone here? Please answer me!” Aric! Finn! Tess!
I half expected to find Aric waiting here for me. Would I hear his horse nickering in the stable? Had Thanatos survived the flood?
Of course, he would have. So where is he?
Inside, I swept my gaze around and found a ghost town. No fires, no animals, no voices. Just the blustery winds and desolation.
This place was a shell. Fort Arcana had . . . died.
Crates of supplies had been abandoned. The fort’s inhabitants must’ve thought the Emperor would continue his path of hell straight for them.
Maybe some Azey South survivors were camped across the river? I hopped onto a plankway and ran to the tower. Sol hobbled after me, but I couldn’t wait for him.
I climbed the stairs, then peeked from the lookout, hoping to spy a campfire, any sign of life.
I turned back to the fort. In one corner, I saw the orange tree I’d grown for Tess. Without sun, its leaves had already begun to brown.
Beside the tree was a mound of dirt. Was that a . . . grave? Whose? A horrible idea arose—no. No. I quashed it as I raced down the stairs and lurched past Sol.
I tripped over another plankway, blundering around empty animal pens. I passed Jack’s tent and imagined I heard his deep voice saying, “Ma fille aux yeux bleus.” My blue-eyed girl.
Heart in my throat, I slowed when the mound came into sight. The ground was trampled as if someone had been buried in a hurry. A single staff jutted from the dirt to mark the grave.
A cry slipped from my lips. No, no, that didn’t mean Tess was buried here! Her death was my nightmare scenario: the one that couldn’t possibly be.
The one in which Jack had been burned alive by a monster—and I could do nothing to save him.
Someone had just wanted to mark a burial, and her staff had been handy. She had left it behind on occasion. Only one way to be sure.
Sol had hobbled closer. Uncaring of his gaze on me, I knelt and started digging, stabbing my claws through the icy soil in a frenzy.
One foot down; two feet down. Three. Four.
I reached cloth and pulled on it. More dirt gave way to reveal . . .
A husk wrapped in a sheet.
Choking back bile, I peeled away the material and found what had once been a sweet girl named Tess.
Her body was like this fort—a shell of her former self. Without life inside.
My nightmare. One look at her wasted body, and I knew how she’d died. She had already tried to reverse time. To save Jack, Selena, and the army . . .
Tess had tried so hard that she’d lost control of her incomprehensible powers. Lass likes to help. She’d killed herself to bring others back. And she’d still failed.
Jack is dead.
I cradled what was left of Tess in my arms and mindlessly rocked her body like a doll.
From a distance, Sol watched grief destroy me.
Day 393 A.F.
I was covered in mud and out of breath, my muscles knotted. But I neared the top of that peak.
The one I’d stood upon while witnessing a massacre.
When I’d last journeyed to this vantage I’d been filled with hope, riding a hard-working mare that I’d never even named. Her remains must’ve been washed away in the flood.
What would I find atop the peak now? Having no idea, I trudged upward.
I’d remembered more of the Emperor’s attack, and every detail confirmed that Jack had died. But I’d also told him I would never underestimate him again. Maybe I could find some clue, some hint that there’d been survivors.
At the very least, I had to see for myself his . . . final resting place.
And so I gritted my teeth and climbed. Circe’s flood had gouged this slope, making it much steeper.
What will I find at the top?
I’d told Sol to wait in the truck. Had I tied him down? I was so numb with grief that I couldn’t remember.
As I searched for a handhold, I recalled the vision Matthew had given me before he’d disappeared. He’d shown me ten swords in my back—like the ten of swords Tarot card—vowing that the darkest days were ahead. He’d told me, “Matthew knows best.”
On the way back from the Lovers’ lair, I’d asked Selena what she made of his message. Her brusque answer: “That he’s a freaking nutjob?” At my disapproving expression, she’d added, “I know that the ten of swords card means that somebody’s about to be crushed by a merciless power—with no warning. I mean, totaled. It’s supposed to represent rock bottom, when you can’t sink any lower.” Her dark eyes had grown serious. “Doesn’t sound good, Evie.”
Matthew had been preparing me for Jack’s death. Or trying to.
The Fool had no idea. There was no preparing to have one’s heart destroyed. Those ten swords had stabbed me through, piercing it.
He’d asked me what I would sacrifice. I hadn’t been able to answer then, but I could now.
I pulled myself higher. What will I find at the top of this rise?
The Fool had also begged me never to hate him. I would give him as much mercy as he’d shown me. He could have prevented Jack’s and Selena’s deaths, the entire army’s.