“Aric said he sees evidence of them everywhere in some games; other games, no sign at all. He also said that some believe Tarasovas are Minors.”

Gran crossed her arms over her chest. “Bull manure. I’m no Minor. They have their own functions—to hide evidence of the Major Arcana, to hasten the game, and then to rebuild the civilization afterward. My function is to make sure you win.”

Why hadn’t Matthew told me about them? Or had he? The last time I’d seen him, he’d said there were now five obstacles to beware: Bagmen, slavers, militia, cannibals, and . . . Minors. “The Fool told me the Minors watch us, plotting against us. I thought he was talking about miners, with an e.” How many times had I misunderstood his decoder-ring talk? Sometimes I could have sworn he’d confused me on purpose. “Why would they plot?”

“They’ll want the earth righted as soon as possible. Minors like to see dead Majors—because catastrophes end with the close of the game.”

I’d made promises over my mother’s body to find Gran and see if we could fix all that the apocalypse had broken. Was dying the most helpful thing I could do to further that end?

“Once you’ve collected all the icons, the earth should come back,” Gran said. “The sun as well.”

“Should come back?”

“There’s never been a disaster like this. I can’t say for certain.” She rubbed her temples, like I did whenever my head was hurting. “When you were a girl, I knew you would be important to the future of humanity, but I didn’t know how. Maybe you’re supposed to reseed the planet.”

Yet I couldn’t do that permanently until the game ended and daylight came back—if I even won. For that to happen, I’d have to lose Aric, Lark, Circe, Finn, Joules, and Gabriel. In other words, I’d be insane.

Now Gran had just confirmed a new threat—to all of them. I’d have to think about the Minors later. Put ’em on the list. “When the Empress won before, what did she do until the next game?”

Aric had revealed how he’d spent his solitary centuries: “I wander the earth and see men age before my eyes. I read any book or paper I can get my hands on. I watch the stars in the sky; over my lifetime some dim, some brighten. I sleep for weeks at a time and chase the dragon.”

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When he’d made that confession, I’d thanked God I hadn’t been cursed to that. His horse looks sick, and he has no friends. Why would he have made friends? Just to watch them die, over and over?

Gran frowned. “What did the Empress do? She was immortal.”

“But how did she spend her time? What was her life like?” My life.

“I don’t know,” she said, clearly stumped. “Chroniclers only document the games. She probably ruled over men as a goddess. And relived her most glorious victories.”

So the Empress had spent centuries gazing at the twenty-one icons on the backs of her hands. I’ll pass. The more I thought about the game, the more I saw my battle against Richter as a one-way ticket. I didn’t expect to walk away unscathed from a murderer who leveled mountains and bled lava.

And I’d never stop until he was dead. “Gran, would you rather that I live happily for a few months or be miserable for hundreds of years?”

“We don’t have time for silly questions,” she said, exasperated. “Your immortal life will be a tribute to the gods. You will be the winner. You must be.” She waved at the vines seeming to pulsate all around us. “And why shouldn’t you win? You’ve already made brilliant plays. Your alliance is well-picked for the most part. Though Circe can be tricky.” A sudden gust of wind spattered rain against the window. Her eyes darted toward the glass. “The Flash must have weakened her. Her attack on the Emperor would have too. But she regains her strength with every single drop.” Gran met my gaze again. “At least that little Fauna will be easy to remove.”

My claws sharpened at even the imagined threat to Lark. The vines on the ceiling skittered. Enough. “I need you to understand some things. I didn’t turn out like you hoped. Given the choice, I would never fight or play this game. These icons on my hand disgust me—I have them only because I fought for my own life. I’ll help take out the Emperor and his allies, but I could never hurt my friends.”

Her eyes went wild. “Friends? Friends? They will betray you at the first opportunity!” Spittle dotted her lips. “The only reason Death might not is because his lust is stronger than his age-old need to kill.” She leaned in aggressively. “Do you think they care about you?”

I squared my shoulders. “Yes, I do.”

“You won’t for long,” she promised me. “Not after you’ve read our chronicles from front to back.”

“What are you talking about? We don’t have written chronicles.”

“You know we do.”

Mouth gone dry, I shook my head hard. “You would’ve . . . you would’ve shown them to me.”

“Evie,” she said in a measured tone, “I did.”

23

The Hunter

“Coo-yôn?”

A light neared, getting brighter. A lantern? Shadows wavered over the rock walls. I raised a hand to my forehead, shielding my eyes. Hadn’t seen this much light in weeks.

I squinted. Blinked. Blinked again. The image remained.

Before me was two of . . . Matthew. “Hunter!”

“You a ghost? You goan to take me to hell?”

He frowned. “Do you know the way?”