Tess reversing time as though on a backward-spinning carousel . . . carousel meant little battle . . .
Tourniquet came from the French word tourner, to turn or rotate . . .
Everything was turning; I was turning. I’d entered Fort Arcana one way; after finding Tess, I was changed forever. I no longer believed with certainty that I was in charge of my own destiny.
In the middle of a clearing, Sol stopped. “Empress, you’re lost.”
I faced him. “I’m not lost.” I was completely lost. I never thought I’d miss the voices. I still hadn’t heard any. I was relying on my own sense of direction—which sucked.
Even if I could navigate using the sun or stars, neither were visible. Dawn never came, and clouds concealed the night sky. Endless nights.
Now that I assumed Aric was alive, I’d started hailing every puddle for Circe, hoping she would help me, but she never did. I’d imagined I heard her whispers from every raindrop—until I thought I’d go crazy. Eventually, I would.
I just needed to hold off until I’d completed my missions.
Sol rolled his head on his neck. “Please tell me where we’re going. Por favor.”
“I told you. I’m taking you to Death.” Would Aric be immune to the Sun’s powers? Would his armor protect him?
“What will he do to me?”
“Unless he knows something about you that I don’t, he’ll keep you cuffed, your movements limited.” Aric had once kept me prisoner; I knew the drill. “I’ll ask that your Baggers be put somewhere safe.” Inside the castle’s huge menagerie, Lark’s animals now roamed free, their enclosures no longer needed since she’d come into her powers. I could borrow one of the cages. “You’ll eat well and have a warm bed to sleep in.”
In a quiet voice, Sol pointed out, “I don’t get cold, and I was already eating well before—”
“Wait.” I froze. A muted cry had sounded from somewhere. “Did you hear that?”
He shook his head.
Another cry, closer. An animal! A bird? I swept my gaze across the sky, spotting a falcon, one wearing a little leather helmet. “Lark! I’m here!” I jumped up and down and waved my arms. “Hey! Over here!”
The falcon banked, hovered, then dove for me.
“Thank God.” It was flying in fast, straight for me. “Lark, you’re coming in hot. Watch it!”
In a flutter of feathers, the bird leapt onto my shoulder, talons digging in.
“Enough! That freaking hurts.” It swooped its wings, seeming to urge me in one direction. “Okay, okay, I’m coming!”
Behind me, Sol said, “It didn’t have to be like this, Evie.”
I frowned, turning. “How did you know my name—”
His arm was swinging toward me, a large rock in his hand.
The falcon’s screech.
I woke to a creepy sound. A slurping sound.
I managed to crack open my eyes, and almost lost what was left of my mind.
Four new Bagmen . . . drank me.
They’d bitten me. Had slashed at my clothes to get to my skin. They were greedily sucking my blood, jostling my limp body.
I strained to get away, to summon power . . . too weak. Couldn’t move my limbs. Couldn’t scream. Sol must’ve cracked my skull. Blood loss weakened me more.
The falcon tore at the Baggers’ faces, its beak plucking at their eyes.
Another nightmare? Real? Unreal? This couldn’t be happening. I wasn’t supposed to go out like this!
Sol looked on with his two favored Baggers, their thorn collars gone. He’d called my bluff. The Sun wasn’t gloating, didn’t look pleased or displeased. But he was still doing this to me.
I choked out a word: “Why?” Though I hadn’t trusted him, I hadn’t expected this.
“Already in an alliance.” He fiddled with that watch on his wrist. Then he raised his face to the night sky, and light flared from his eyes. Twin spotlights. A signal. He blinked, and the beams flickered in a rhythm.
To signal what?
I gasped, “Then just . . . kill me.” The falcon still fought, but the Bagmen barely seemed aware of it.
“That’s not the plan. I had them bite you because their mutation neutralizes an Arcana’s powers.” He intended to keep me alive? “At least, it did on the last player who attacked me.”
Who? Sol had been in the game for a while.
He was right, though. I wasn’t able to call forth a vine. Even my regeneration stopped working.
A Bagger above me released his bite, but only to sink his teeth into unbroken skin at my waist. I cried out, powerless to stop it. The falcon went crazy.
Would I join Jack and my mom and Mel on some other plane? Or would I become a Bagman myself, cursed to walk the earth? “You’ll keep me around . . . like Bea and Joe?”
Had Sol flinched?
Despite the risk of turning, I should be glad of even the chance to join my loved ones. But I couldn’t stop imagining Death’s reaction to my horrific murder.
Had Aric believed me when I’d told him I loved him too?
Over the falcon’s furious cries, I heard another sound: swoop swoop swoop. Familiar, but so unexpected; I needed a few moments to place it. A . . . helicopter?
Hadn’t I heard one the night of the massacre? That’s how Richter had escaped Circe!
Did the Emperor approach now? The Sun must have been working with him all along!
Spotlights flared as a copter came into view. The lettering read COAST GUARD RESCUE. It circled overhead, a metal buzzard. If Richter was in there, I needed to bring it to the ground!