Guilt twisted inside me. “Where did he go?”

“Dunno. He always passes outside of my animal network when I’m asleep.”

Then he did it on purpose, because he didn’t want to be tracked. Still . . . “Lark, I need Cyclops to scent his trail and lead me to him.”

“No way, Evie!” She held up her palms, her claws curling. “He’d be freaking furious! That would seriously put me in his crosshairs.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What makes you think I won’t do worse than he ever could?”

She tilted her head. “Good point.”

_______________

The Hunter

Somewhere east of the old Mississippi River

Closer still . . .

Another truck. Another highway.

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But Matthew swore we were closing in on our destination.

Barely a week had passed since he’d broken my fever in the snow. Only yesterday I’d felt my first glimmer of hope that I would hang onto my foot and leg after all. I was using a crutch and a crude brace to walk, but I was fast on the mend.

My vision and lungs were clearing, yet my head and my heart still suffered, ’cause I knew I was running out of time to reach my girl. Urgency clawed at me, till I thought I’d go mad.

Did she remember that it’d always be Evie and Jack? That even death—or Death—couldn’t keep us apart? Would she remember how perfect it’d been between us?

With her, I’d known true peace for the first time in my life. Hadn’t she?

As coo-yôn and I covered miles, I’d craved that cellphone—with its pictures of Evie—and her taped recording. When I’d been separated from her before, I’d used her voice like a drug. Now I was a junkie needing a fix, but my pack had been stolen early on. Gone forever.

Matthew had sourced another one for me—up was down—but it was empty. Fitting. ’Cause I was starting over with nothing.

From behind the wheel, coo-yôn said, “You need her.”

“Tell me something I doan know.”

He frowned, taking me literally. “You don’t know the future. I see far. I see an unbroken line that stretches through eternity—and back on itself.”

“Uh-huh.” Just hold on, peekôn, I’m coming.

35

The Empress

Somewhere in the Ash

As I followed Cyclops on horseback through the drizzly rain, panic was my constant companion.

I’d been so freaked out at the castle, I’d barely taken time to stuff gear into a pack before galloping down the drive, with Cyclops leading the way.

I had no idea how much time or distance had passed since Circe had opened her floodgates for me. Dark rolled into dark as I ascended mountain trails and traversed canyons.

No signs of life. No Baggers. Just ash.

To keep myself occupied—and to keep from replaying my grandmother’s words—I’d tried to sense seeds buried in the earth. Surprisingly many. At one point, I must’ve crossed an old farm; the ground had been thick with them.

When I crested another rise overlooking a valley, Cyclops grew more animated, craning his huge head back at me more often.

“Are we getting close?” Talking to a freaking wolf again.

He snuffled, so I took that as a good sign.

We followed a meandering path that descended gradually, skirting the valley, before opening into a clearing.

I was almost upon a small cabin before I’d realized what I was seeing; the structure looked as if it’d been built right into the side of the mountain. Beside it was a stable under an overhang of rock.

Thanatos! The massive warhorse snorted a warning to me, but didn’t really commit to it. I tied my horse beside him, then hurried to the cabin.

The door wasn’t locked, understandable with Thanatos as sentry. I ducked my head inside, calling, “Aric?” No answer.

What a weird place. The walls looked like . . . copper. Maps of constellations were pinned to corkboards. Some kind of electronic gadgetry covered a large workstation.

Aric’s things were in a back room. His armor! Why was he outside unprotected? My pulse raced so fast I thought I’d pass out. He could be in danger right now!

He could be dead.

With a cry, I lurched from the cabin. “Take me to him!” I commanded Cyclops. The wolf started off, following a path between boulders. As I tripped after him, the rain grew more intense, drumming down on my head. Lightning flared—

A chunk of ice the size of a soccer ball landed feet from me, and other smaller ones pattered all around. Postapocalyptic hail? Aric wore no helmet! “Let’s go, wolf!”

The path veered around an outcropping of rock; I rushed along it to another clearing, then stutter-stepped. A raised plateau stretched before me. Atop it was a gigantic dish, dozens of feet tall.

Was it a telescope? Or some kind of antenna? The Flash had scorched the expanse of metal black in places.

I raised my hand to shield my eyes against the rain. Spotted Aric. He was climbing in the base of the structure, amid the framework. That explained his lack of armor. He wasn’t even wearing a shirt as he effortlessly moved from beam to beam.

Why was he here? Uncaring of the hail and lightning, I found a path leading up. As soon as I reached the plateau, he caught sight of me.

He leapt down from what must have been twenty feet, then stalked toward me. His muscles flexed with tension, and the tattooed runes on his torso seemed to come alive.

He’d told me those slashing marks were our story, to remind him never to trust me. I’d told him history didn’t have to repeat itself.

“What in the hell are you doing here?” He seemed to grow larger with every step closer, his body thrumming with aggression. In the night, his eyes glittered with fury.