They’d pumped me full of drugs, then asked, Do you understand why you must reject your grandmother’s teachings? Those mental ward docs had done a number on my head, but I’d thought I’d shaken off most of their “therapy.”

Yet I’d failed to recall vital events from the past. No, the situation was worse than that: I hadn’t even realized the memories were missing in the first place. “I have . . . gaps in my memory.” My brain felt like Swiss cheese at this point. Apparently, the gaps even predated the deprogramming.

If Gran was telling the truth about all this . . .

So why did I sense she was lying to me—about something? “I remember the day you were arrested. You talked to me about the cards.”

“I’d been talking to you about them all your life, always telling you stories.” Almost to herself, she said, “I knew Karen hated my beliefs. Didn’t know how much though.”

“Maybe reading will trigger some recollection.” Would I recognize these pages from my childhood? Why would she ever lie about this?

But I hesitated to open the book. It gave me chills. Even Gran gave me chills. “This was passed down?”

“From my mother, and then her mother before her.”

Mom had told me the whole line was disturbed. I supposed I was merely the latest in a long line. “How far back do these chronicles go?”

“There are detailed entries from the last two games, but the games before that are summarized.” She waved me on. “Open it, then.”

If this book was the gateway to transforming permanently into the red witch, would I be tempting fate just to read it?

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With a shaking hand, I cracked open the weathered leather. The scent of old parchment swirled up. An orderly script filled the page. It began: What followeth is the trew and sworne chronikles of Our Lady of Thorns, the Emperice of all Arcana, chosen to represent Demeter and Aphrodite, embody’g life, all its cycles, and the myst’ries of love. . . .

“Who was the chronicler here?” I asked. “Who wrote these words?”

“They’ve been translated by chroniclers over the generations, transcribed and retranscribed. But they were first recorded by the Empress’s mother.”

“My mother, in that other life. Was Mom reincarnated too? Were you?”

Gran shrugged. “Maybe. We can’t know for certain.”

“Was this chronicler a Tarasova?”

“Probably. We’ve been fortunate in our line. Our chroniclers are usually gifted with second sight.”

I took a deep breath, bracing myself to read. . . .

At the beginning of the oldest entries, the Empress’s mother—possibly Mom in another life—had summarized what they’d gathered about the previous games, all the way to the first one.

In the inaugural game, my allies had been the Fool, Fauna, and the Priestess. My kills: the Star, the Hierophant, and the Hermit.

Though I’d been brimming with power, it hadn’t saved me. My death had been at the hand of a trusted friend, the ultimate winner—

The Fool.

My jaw slackened. My stomach roiled. He’d murdered her.

Me.

Matthew, my former best friend, had beheaded me. His ally.

Gran’s tone was smug as she said, “Still feel the same way about your friends?”

No. No, I did not. I’d barely cracked open the book before I’d almost puked.

Matthew had won the entire game. And he remembered the past! He knew about his betrayal. My nausea worsened as I gazed at the back of my hand, at my icons.

Did the Fool stare at his hands so much because he missed seeing his own sick icons? The markings must be earned. . . .

25

The Hunter

The second metal cuff finally fell away, revealing my lower leg. I winced. Infected to high hell and back. I told coo-yôn, “If you doan have a plan—or an army—to get us out of here, then we need weapons.”

Say we could somehow make it topside. I knew of only two ways in or out: one for people, and one for trucks. The first was insanely guarded, the second impossibly guarded.

“No weapons.” He stretched my arm over his shoulders, lifting me with surprising ease. But then, I’d lost weight and he’d gained muscle. He’d grown taller too, was my height now.

He started down the mine shaft. Too bad we’d never get to the elevator, much less up.

We passed coughing, bedded-down slaves. Everyone down here seemed to have sickness in the lungs, myself included.

The other men didn’t holler to be freed or to join us. ’Cause they all knew this escape attempt was hopeless. I heard some of them muttering: “Dumbasses.” “Where do they think they’re going?” “We’ll be dining on them all week.”

Matthew and I neared the elevator. “Coo-yôn, I can’t see shit. But I know the guards have automatic weapons.”

“Yes.”

Again, what choice did I have but to trust this boy? When we arrived at the elevator, I frowned. No guards?

Damn my heart for pounding. All it did was make my head swirl and my leg throb some more. And it wasn’t like we would get past the dozen or so slavers above anyway.

Matthew shoved the elevator gate aside, helping me in. It took me three tries to push the right switch. We started upward. “If they ain’t waiting for us, then get ready to run for the door.”

We were about to reach topside! Never thought I’d live to see it again.

The elevator clanged to a stop. He dragged back the door with a screech, and I tensed to fight. . . .

No one. “I’ll be damned.” We lurched out into the overseers’ quarters, a large area with corrugated metal walls. Low fluorescent lights dangled from the rock ceiling. Beds and chairs were scattered throughout. “Where is everybody?” Maybe the Fool had timed this rescue while the men were away.