Soon, I would rise.

“Why haven’t you taken another marking?” she said, her faint voice slurring. “Because your powers are suffering?”

They continued weakening. I had a theory about that, but I pushed it from my mind. “Hey, I brought some pictures with me.” I collected my laptop, then sat beside her on the bed. Though I wanted to learn more from her, I refused to listen when she talked about killing my friends. So I grasped for other subjects.

I opened up the family albums. As I scrolled through them, her eyes appeared dazed, as if she wasn’t seeing the images. Yet then she stared at a large picture of my father.

I said, “I wish I could remember him.”

“David used to carry you around the farm on his shoulders,” she said. “He read to you every night and took you to the river to skip stones. He drove you around to pet every baby animal born in a ten-mile radius. Lambs, kittens, puppies.” She drew a labored breath. “He brought you to the crops and the gardens. Even then, you would pet the bark of an oak and kiss a rose bloom. If the cane was sighing that day, you’d fall asleep in his arms.”

I imagined it all: the sugarcane, the farm, the majestic oaks, the lazy river that always had fish jumping. My roots were there, but I knew I would never go back. Jack’s dream had been to return and rebuild Haven. A dream we’d shared. I would feel like a traitor going home without him. Plus, it’d be too painful. Everything would remind me of the love I’d lost.

“David’s death was so needless,” she said. “Don’t know what he was doing near that cane crusher.”

I snapped my gaze to her. “What do you mean? He disappeared on a fishing trip in the Basin.”

She frowned at me. “He did. Of course.”

Chills crept up my spine. Was she lying? Why would she, unless . . .

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No, no. I shook my head hard. She had the same kind of mental fog I had, understandable if she’d had strokes.

With all the double crosses of the game, I was paranoid. She’d loved my mom. Mom had loved my dad. Gran would never hurt him.

“Love of her life, gone forever,” Gran muttered. “Nearly broke your mother. Now you are broken. You’re getting weaker. If you don’t win this game, then my life has meant nothing. Karen’s sacrifice for you will mean nothing. Nothing!” For the hundredth time, she said, “Take out the little Strength Card. The low-hanging fruit.”

My well of patience spat up sand, dry as a bone. I slammed my laptop closed and shot to my feet. “I will never agree with you about the other Arcana here. We should avoid discussing them.”

I searched for another subject, realizing there were none. Every conversation led back to the murder of Aric and my friends.

As if I hadn’t spoken, she said, “Weaker, weaker. Take the icons while you still can. Even Death’s. Seduce him out of his armor, then strike. Use your poison kiss!”

I lost it. “I am not killing Aric. I will never hurt him!”

At last, she seemed to have heard me. Comprehension lit her eyes for the first time in forever. “Dear God . . . you . . . you . . . love that monster.” Her face grew red and blotchy. “You don’t deny it? You will rue it!” She went into a coughing fit. “I-I spent eight years in an institution, caged, trapped—for you! But you refuse to hear me. To see.”

I backed away from her. Maybe she’d done even more than those eight years. My grandmother might be a murderer for the Arcana cause. And now her player was refusing to conform.

An angry vein pulsed in her temple. “You want Death so badly, he’ll end your life. He will take your head; I swear it. And if you’ve truly fallen in love with him, then you deserve it!”

As I stared at her in disbelief, Paul strode into the room.

In a firm tone, he told me, “Evie, you need to take a break. Now. I will stay with her till morning.”

I staggered on my feet. I needed Aric. I needed us to be the way we were. Hadn’t I always been on this path to him? Our story had been building for two thousand years. I might as well try to hold back the waves of the ocean.

Jack wouldn’t begrudge me this, not at the end of the world.

And this time, I wouldn’t be going to Aric with nothing new to offer.

I told Gran, “I-I’ll be back soon.” In a daze, I headed toward Aric’s study. Animals tromped past me in the halls—a black tomcat, a rabbit, and a goat. In the living room, a bear cub and a lion cub sparred, shredding the carpet.

Aric’s well-ordered sanctuary had been overrun. He was going to be furious.

I opened up his study. Not there. But I felt a pang to see that he’d left the poppy growing in his desk. I gave it a little juice to perk it up, then headed to the training yard. No sign of him. Then to the stable.

Thanatos was gone.

I hurried down to the river. “Circe! Where’d Aric go?”

“Hmm.”

“Not now with that shit, Priestess!”

“The last I saw of him,” she answered in a snippy tone, “his eyes were alight with anguish.”

I sprinted back up the steep drive. I found Lark in her room—which now had wall-to-wall fur, feathers, and scales. I stepped on something’s paw and earned a hiss.

As usual, Lark’s eyes glowed red as she searched.

“Where’s Aric?”

She shook herself out of her trance. “Away.”

My glyphs flared. “What?” He was out there alone? With the Emperor on the loose? What if Aric never returned? If Richter found him . . .

“Chill, unclean one. The boss has been leaving on and off for the last few weeks. You just never noticed.”