The slavers gave prisoners four hours a night to sleep, but I refused to pass out. I couldn’t stand the nightmares, the ghosts. They were coming for me—’cause I was about to walk among them.
I squeezed my eyes closed. Yet that made the sounds of the ghosts even louder.
Maman’s liquor bottle clinking against a glass. Her rosary beads whispering as I took them from her neck. Clotile’s soft-spoken French. The sharp pop of gunfire when she shot herself.
I heard the folks in my Azey army. Just before Richter attacked, there’d been laughter and music. Everyone had been happy. Hopeful.
Over and over, I heard Selena’s scream of fury: “Emperor!” She’d sensed Richter a split-second before he’d struck.
I replayed her fierce look as she’d shoved me off a moving horse into an abandoned mine. I’d crashed through rotted planks down into that deep shaft just as the blast had hit.
Radio busted . . . lava chasing me underground . . . a rushing flood carrying me through the mountain and out the other side . . . miles . . . pain . . . darkness . . . waking in shackles . . .
Slavers had sold me west. Now I was trapped in yet another mine.
Evangeline haunted me more than all of them. Was she among the living or the dead? I’d led her right to the Emperor. Had she been far enough away from the explosion? Sometimes I thought yes, sometimes no, tormenting myself, going back and forth.
Death hadn’t been far. He might’ve sensed the Emperor’s approach like Selena had. Domīnija could’ve used his unnatural speed to rescue Evie.
I would give anything to know she was okay. Would sell my soul to see her eyes one last time. Whenever she got excited, they shimmered. I’d imagined them all lit up when she’d talked to me on the radio about snow. She’d laughed, and my heart had soared. She’d chosen me.
Right before the blast—
My eyes flashed open in the dim mine. Had I heard whispering along with the ghosts? I couldn’t make out the words.
I darted my gaze. After my last fight with the slavers, I was still seeing double—which was how I’d gotten this fever in the first place. Desperate to escape, squinting in the dark, I’d swung my pickax at the lock on one of my ankle cuffs.
I’d gouged out a good chunk of flesh. At best, half of my leg would be lost to infection. What use would the overseers have for a slave who couldn’t mine salt? None. They’d slit my throat and feed me to the rest.
Probably why the other prisoners avoided me.
’Cause I was already dead.
The whisper returned: “Hunter.”
The hallucinations were getting worse. Losing my mind right along with my leg.
“Hunter, Hunter, Hunter.”
Sounded so real. I wanted to yell, “I ain’t the hunter!” The hunter was the idiot who got all those people killed. The idiot who might’ve gotten Evie killed.
“Va t’en! Laisse-moi tranquille!” Go away! Leave me alone!
I shot upright from the dirt. Damn near blacked out. Was that . . . the Fool’s voice?
Cold rain fell outside, but Gran and I were warm in her lavish sitting room in front of the roaring fire.
If the flames reminded me of Jack, I gave no outward sign, numb again after this morning. I’d furiously filled half a notebook with sketches of him.
Gran sipped from her teacup. Though I sensed a nervous energy in her, she looked more exhausted than yesterday.
She nodded toward the fancy tea tray, with its cheese and fruit selections. “Despite all of Death’s faults, he does provide some perks.”
“He’s definitely equipped to ride out an apocalypse in style.” The inside of the castle was as luxurious as the outside was spooky.
The Flash had charred its gray stone walls with black streaks. Fog seemed trapped on the grounds. Flickering gas lamps lit the courtyard, the training yard, and the long winding drive.
I remember thinking this castle was haunted by Death. By his loneliness. I told Gran, “You could call him Aric, you know. His name is Aric Domīnija.”
She shrugged. “I know. Death introduced himself when he picked me up.”
So much for my little attempt at humanizing him.
“When I first got here, I snooped around,” she said. “And I asked Paul questions. We talked a lot.” She sounded as if she liked the guy. Paul was about twenty-six or so, with buzz-cut black hair. His blue eyes were widely spaced, and he had a toothy grin that made him approachable. “He told me Death calls this place Lethe, named after one of the five rivers in Hades, the river of forgetfulness. Do you know why?”
I’d called this place the castle of lost time, which hadn’t been too far off the mark. “It is close to lethal. But I don’t know for certain.” Aric was such a stickler for meanings and details, I could be sure he’d picked the name for a reason.
In the past, he’d told me he never wanted to forget my previous betrayals. But in the agonizing centuries between games, he’d smoked opium, had probably yearned to forget.
“The knight prepared this place for just about every catastrophe,” Gran said. “It’s out of the flood zone, and away from nuclear fallout sectors. There are thick metal shutters to cover every window. I even found copper plating in the walls to shield against electrical storms.”
With no sun and the temperatures dropping, this castle was a self-sustaining oasis. I pictured it as a spaceship on a barren moon, with the only life support around: crops and livestock, clean water, sunlamps, filtered air, and tankers of fuel.