All of those people had set off, filled with hope about a place called Acadiana. Jack would’ve made good on his promise of a refuge.
Matthew knows best? He’d ridden away like a coward before the Emperor attacked, telling Finn one last cryptic statement: I’ve made peace with it.
With letting my Jack die.
I blamed Matthew as much as Richter. One of those ten swords had been the Fool’s. He had stabbed me in the back.
What will I find at the top . . . ?
I blamed myself as well. It should have been me. I had been fated to die.
At the very least, if I had listened to Circe’s advice—leaving Selena in the hands of the Lovers—Jack and all those people might’ve been spared. Selena had died anyway.
I’d made those choices—I’d pretended to be a leader—so those deaths were on my head. Tess’s was as well.
Last night, after I’d reburied her body, I’d run down to the shore outside the fort, where Circe and I had once talked. I’d yelled to the river, “I know you’re here, Circe! Show yourself!” Nothing. “Have you seen Aric?”
She hadn’t given me even a ripple on the surface. “You were right about taking out the Emperor!”
When she’d still refused to answer me, I’d waded into the river and kicked the water to provoke her. “Damn you! Why won’t you appear?”
Silence. Even as my tears had spilled into her domain. . . .
Finally, I reached the top. Gasping for breath, I levered myself up on my feet—and stared in shock.
The peak was no longer a peak. Circe’s tidal wave must have flash-cooled Richter’s lava because a sea of smooth black stone stretched from the top of this mountain to a distant one, across what used to be a valley. The drizzle made the surface shine.
“Mark this image,” Aric had told me as he’d pointed to the cauldron of bubbling lava. “Where will you search for him?”
A sob burst from my chest. I’d watched Jack’s murder.
No, I refused this! There must’ve been a way for him to escape. I fought to clear my dazed mind, to recall what I’d seen before the attack.
The long line of the army’s caravan had inched across that valley, a glowworm in the dark. Cars and trucks had sprawled for about a mile, a fraction of the valley’s length. Jack and Selena would have been riding at the forefront, but had turned back toward me when I’d radioed.
Jack and I had marveled at the snow. At tiny drifts of white. He’d marveled that I’d chosen him.
He and Selena might have ridden a mile or two at most before Richter had struck. Lava had buried the line of trucks from front to back—as well as this entire valley and several rises all around.
Even if Jack and Selena had covered ten miles, they still would’ve been in the middle.
Selena, the girl who’d just endured the Lovers’ hell, had died. Part of me had sensed that kill. Other Arcana had as well, and Matthew, in his own way, had confirmed it.
She’d had superhuman speed, agility, and senses, yet she’d perished. And she’d been right beside Jack.
No one could have survived this.
That battle had left behind a vast gravestone. Buried beneath it were hundreds of victims. My Jack was buried there.
Why had I made the decision not to fight in this game? Maybe the game was punishing me for daring to challenge it. Or the gods were.
By trying to reverse time and bring back Jack, I’d challenged fate as well. And I’d failed.
Did that mean I always would? Could a fate ever be changed?
In a daze, I trudged across the stone. Roughly halfway across, I stopped. Here the wind blew even harder, the rain stinging.
With a sob, I dropped to my knees to mark Jack’s and Selena’s graves. How could I sum up their lives in a few short lines? They’d been so much more.
Flaring my claws, I began to engrave the rock, starting with Selena.
Then . . . Jack. Sweating, bleeding, hyperventilating, I carved. Time passed. Who knew how long? Night rolled over into more night.
When I finished, I’d worn my bloody fingertips to the bone, and insanity beckoned as seductively as a blossom. I collapsed onto my back and lay between the two memorials, dripping blood on them.
I grew friendship ivy for Selena.
And honeysuckle for Jack.
I wondered if grief could be so strong it was fatal. My heart hurt so badly it must be bleeding out inside my chest. I must be bleeding to death. Ten swords pierced me through.
But something else was competing with my heartache, a thread of fury.
After Jack and I had watched the smoke plume from my mother’s funeral pyre, he’d told me, “She died in grace. I only hope to go out so clean.”
He hadn’t. Because of the Emperor. Richter had laughed as he’d murdered Jack and all those people.
Richter would die. The red witch would annihilate him. Hatred made me rise. Hatred forced one foot in front of the other as I staggered away from the graves.
With each step, blood dripped from my ragged fingers, dotting a trail across the vast black gravestone. A tether from me to Jack.
As I neared the edge of the stone, I remembered those last moments with Aric, my new arm aching. What if he hadn’t survived that searing flood? Maybe he wasn’t invincible.
No! No Arcana had gloated over Death’s death; none of us had sensed it.
Then I frowned. We were all disconnected now. And I didn’t know when the switchboard had gone down.
What if he’d . . . drowned? He might’ve called for me as he’d died. His lifeless body could be washed up somewhere along the flood’s path. Maybe that was why Circe’s river wouldn’t answer me.