I’d assumed Jack’s death was the worst that I could endure. Matthew might have been preparing me for both of their murders.
Dear God. Both.
I shrieked with fury and pain. As I screamed and screamed, rose stalks burst from my trail of blood, spreading until they’d blanketed the gravestone and the surrounding mountains.
If Aric lived, I had to find him. But how, when I was dying from grief?
I pictured a tourniquet around my pierced heart, stopping the bleeding and keeping me alive long enough to reach Aric and then to get revenge. Yes, I would twist the tourniquet, tightening it to constrict my heart, starving it of blood. Strangling it.
A bloodless heart couldn’t feel.
Twist, tighten, constrict.
Numbness settled over me. My emotions shut down. Like this, I reasoned that Aric must still live. He had for so long. He was strong.
We might have simply missed each other over all this distance. The flood waters had parted often; he could have been carried in a different direction. I seized on that thinking.
Yes. This was what I needed. Numbness. Just until I’d completed my two missions:
After that, I would release the tourniquet and let myself bleed out.
Jack and I had marveled at the snow.
My eyes flashed open.
The Empress’s screams had awakened the dark in me. Reverse, perverse.
The Dark Calling.
Her smile was broken. It was time. I always know best.
Sol sat at the edge of the black stone. As I closed in on him, I tilted my head. “You followed me. You were watching me.” The Sun’s icon would look so good on my hand.
He stood, his gaze bouncing from my eyes, to my reddened hair, to my bloody fingers. “You, uh, get everything taken care of?” He backed up a step. And another.
I advanced. “You should have escaped me while you could.”
“I considered it,” Sol said, as I struggled not to slice him. “But I’m trying to earn your trust.”
The red witch ached for a kill. Until the Emperor’s turn, this card would do. “By spying on me?”
He stumbled backward, nearly falling. “What did you carve?”
“Epitaphs. Have you ever written one? Ever summed up someone’s life in a few lines?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“I’m going to pay the Emperor back for these murders.” Aric and my grandmother would teach me Richter’s weaknesses, and I would figure out how to use Sol as well. Which meant I didn’t get to kill him.
Seething with displeasure, the red witch receded.
I had to get the Sun to Death. Maybe with this card strengthening me—and the help of every player in our alliance—we could take out Richter.
But then, our small alliance had recently dwindled by two Arcana.
The game seemed to be speeding up, building on itself. Right around the deaths of Tess and Selena, I’d met the Sun.
Were we spinning to an end?
How stupid I’d been to think I could avoid fighting—that Jack and I could live happily ever after. The Arcana did converge; I’d face them for the rest of my life. Unless they all died.
That doesn’t mean I have to take them out, I thought, even as my claws tingled for Sol’s vulnerable flesh.
“What will you do to the Emperor?” he asked.
“Vines will grow through his body like veins, oh-so-slowly flaying him. Roots will burrow and feed on his organs. When he begs me to kill him, I’ll force him to pick his next meal: thorns or pieces of himself.”
Sol coughed. “Remind me not to get on your bad side.”
“You and I are going on another little trip.” Logically, getting to Aric’s castle made the most sense. Then Lark could help me find him. I didn’t exactly know the location of his home, but I’d made the journey from there to Fort Arcana not long ago. Matthew had given me directions; I would simply reverse them.
“Where are we off to now?” Sol said.
I smiled evilly. “Right to Death’s door.”
Day 396 A.F.
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Sol asked for the third time this hour.
I ignored him and kept walking.
Two days ago, the truck had died, probably due to Sol’s driving. I didn’t miss the ride too much though. The roads had gotten so bad that we’d bottomed-out every other mile. Each time, Sol and I had freed it with the help of my vines and his Baggers.
Pushing the truck shoulder to shoulder with zombies had been bizarre.
We’d been forced to continue on foot, trudging through mountainous terrain. Sol had found some clothes and boots at Fort Arcana, so he wasn’t slowing me down. He, Bea, and Joe had restocked our food and water from the supplies there, while I had . . .
I frowned. Huh. I didn’t remember what I’d been doing.
Now Sol asked, “Pequeña, can we stop for a moment?”
I kept walking.
Ever since the gravestone, he’d tried to be nice. He’d said consoling things. We’d politely shared food and water as we’d traveled the Ash together.
But I had nothing left. Bea and Joe showed more liveliness than I did.
Whatever burgeoning friendship—or at least understanding—between me and the Sun had disappeared.
Jack had been one of my last links to humanity. Without him, I was cruel.
Without Jack. I was already thinking about him in past tense. I might have sobbed, but my tourniquet was holding fast. Yet my mind suffered, making odd connections.
The whirlpool I’d been trapped in just days ago, spinning like a roulette wheel . . . roulette meant little wheel . . .