DAY 246 A.F.
FOOTHILLS OF THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS
This is what I truly am. . . .
Jackson stumbled back from me, making the sign of the cross. Just as I once predicted.
With that one gesture, he has broken my heart utterly.
—And yet I could not be prouder, Empress— seductive Death whispered in my mind.
I heard him so clearly; he must be close. I had nothing left to lose, no reason to live in fear of him. Watch your six, Reaper, I’m on the hunt.
A rasping chuckle. —Your Death awaits.—
I started laughing, and I couldn’t stop.
Jackson paled even more. I hoped he would desert me now and take the other three with him, out of my reach.
Because otherwise, the Empress might just kill them all—
Moisture tracked down my face. A tear?
As Jackson and I stared at each other, drops began to fall between us.
My laughter died when I saw him clutching my hair ribbon so tightly that his battered knuckles were white—as if by holding on to it, he could hold on to the sweet girl he thought he’d known.
She was gone, replaced by the Empress, still tensed to fight, standing in a puddle of the Alchemist’s remains. As my reddened hair streamed over my cheeks, I felt my face twisting into an expression I’d never made before. One of menace.
I was half-surprised Jackson hadn’t drawn on me, but his deadly crossbow was still slung over his shoulder.
Along with the ominous drizzle, fog began rolling into this ghost town, obscuring everything, but I spied movement out of the corner of my eye. I dragged my gaze away from Jackson to the rest of our ragtag group, three other Arcana like myself.
Selena, Matthew, and Finn.
It was Selena I focused on. She’d removed her bow from her back and was now slipping an arrow from her thigh quiver.
I raised my brows with surprise. I supposed the Archer had finally gotten tired of waiting to kill us.
When she nocked that arrow, the whirling thorn tornado above me tightened. The little vine by my face straightened in her direction, a viper poised to strike.
“So that’s how it’s going to be, Archer?” My voice was raw from screaming in pain. I sounded like a movie villainess. I felt like one too. There’s a heat in battle—just as Matthew had told me. “Do we do this now?” Exhaustion was setting in as my body regenerated. Though the Alchemist’s acid grenades had eaten away part of my clothes—and skin—I still had some fight left in me.
But for how long?
“Whoa, ladies, what’s going down here?” Finn asked in his SoCal surfer accent. “Selena, why in the hell are you drawing on Evie?”
Matthew murmured, “The Moon rises. The Moon sets.”
Selena ignored both boys. “I don’t want to hurt you, Evie,” she said, even as she aimed at me. Her flawless skin glowed, tinged with red like a hunter’s moon. Her long hair streamed around her face, silvery blond, the color of moonlight. “But I will protect myself until you rein this back in.”
“I’ve remembered what we’re meant to do, Selena.” Kill each other. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t end you right now.” I waved to the two huge oaks I’d revived earlier. Behind her, the ground rumbled as their roots snaked closer, readying to drag her into the earth.
My soldiers awaiting my order. It would be a horrific way to go.
“You need me,” she said. “You and I—along with some other cards—will ally to kill Death. He’s too strong for any one of us to take out alone. We work together until we defeat him. Then all bets are off.”
“And if I say no?”
She drew back on her bowstring.
The glyphs winding along my skin burned brighter with aggression. “Shoot me, Selena. I want you to. I’ll just regenerate, and I’ll bury you.” Big talk, considering I was weakening by the second. My soldiers as well.
Selena chanced a glance over her shoulder. “We don’t have time for this right now! Bagmen are coming, more than I’ve ever seen together.” No night after the apocalypse was complete without those bloodthirsty zombies. “But J.D.”—she jerked her chin at Jackson—“and I only have a few arrows between us. We had to steal a jeep from that militia to get here. Let’s just say they didn’t give it up easily.”
I could hear the Bagmen’s bloodcurdling wails somewhere out in the night. Like counting seconds between a lightning strike and thunder, I figured they were some distance away.
But it also sounded like tons of them.
“On top of that, other cards have been on our trail for a day,” Selena continued. “By now they know you offed an Arcana—the Alchemist’s death will draw them here. Soon.”
Jackson gazed back and forth between me and Selena. Fifteen minutes ago, he’d thought we were two somewhat normal girls—or as normal as we could be A.F., after the Flash.
Now we were talking about killing each other, killing a card named Death. While a thorn tornado swirled above us. Not to mention that Jackson had seen the Alchemist’s remains, and knew I’d ripped a teenager to pieces.
Selena eased up a fraction on her bowstring. “We need to call a truce for the night and get as far away as possible.”
“A truce—there we go, good idea!” Finn said. “Let’s get on the road and talk this out. Evie, tell me you have my truck.”
“Out of gas.”
“Shit. Ours, too. Looks like we’re on foot.”
No reaction from Jackson. He looked both stunned and whipped with fatigue. Eyes bloodshot. Stubble covering his rugged jaw.
The heat of battle was ebbing; I no longer had to stifle the overwhelming urge to annihilate the other Arcana. Maybe it had flared hotter because I’d denied my Empress nature for so long.
Selena would be an idiot to take me out while Death lived. Was an alliance possible? I needed time to think about everything, to consider my options. “Truce,” I agreed. “For tonight.”
She popped her arrow off the string, sliding it into her quiver with one fluid movement. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Such a show-off.
Without that threat, I began reining in my powers. As my claws morphed into regular pink nails, I directed my tornado of thorns to drop to the street. The barbs plummeted like a swarm of bees dying in unison. On my left forearm, a skin glyph of three thorns shimmered from gold to green before dimming.
I pressed a farewell kiss to the caressing vine. When its length seeped into the skin of my right arm as if submerging underwater, a winding vine glyph glowed, then faded. My red, leaf-strewn hair lightened back to blond. I knew my eyes were changing from green to my normal blue.
Jackson, ever watchful, studied my movements, my reactions. Warily, as he might a wild animal. I didn’t blame him. I would be losing my mind to see this stuff for the first time.
And actually, I had lost my mind when I’d first seen these things through Matthew’s visions.
Tonight Jackson had learned the world wasn’t at all what he’d thought it was. Right now, he looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here.
But if he feared me—or us—then why hadn’t he left?
I was about to ask him when a wave of dizziness and chills hit me, regeneration sapping the last of my strength. The drops of rain were sparse but enough to dampen my hair and uncovered skin. As I limped to go find my jacket, I wondered if I would have time to harvest the life out of the oaks.
I could sink my claws into their bark and suck them dry, like mainlining energy. But it took time. One bad thing about using trees as weapons? After the Flash, I had to load them with my own life force, my blood.
Another bad thing? You couldn’t take them with you.
The others followed me inside, skirting the puddle of remains. Not really “inside,” I thought, gazing at the surreal scene.
Though the house was split in two, its exterior walls and roof collapsed, parts of the parlor were untouched. Doilies clung to tables. The fire lingered in the standing hearth.
This house was like me. We’d started out the day one way, and now we were both damaged beyond repair. But a part of me remains the same. I hope.
Jackson’s gaze flickered over the dribbled burn marks on the floor. Acid had eaten away areas in the same scatter-patter array that marked my blistered legs. The wood was pocked around two perfect footprints, like twin islands.
When he looked at my healing skin, I knew he was putting together what had happened to me here. Surely he’d understand why I’d had to do what I did.
My eyes fell on Arthur’s recorder, still sitting atop an end table, now dotted with raindrops. A tape of my life’s story lay within. It’d clicked off just before he’d threatened to carve up my face with a scalpel. . . .
Matthew crossed to me, grinning down at me from his towering height, big brown eyes so trusting. “I missed Evie. The Empress is my friend.”
The flare of aggression I’d felt while in full Empress mode had faded almost to nothing. Had I really believed that I might harm the others? I was ashamed of my thoughts.
Of course I’d never hurt Matthew. Which meant I’d never play this game.
He raised his ruddy face to the sky, catching drizzle. We’d gone eight months without rain; Matthew had predicted all bad things would come with it.
One threat at a time. “We need to find shelter, sweetheart. Preferably one with a standing roof and no body parts scattered around.” Wincing at the pain in my legs, I asked, “Do I have enough time to drain energy from the oaks?”
Just as Matthew answered, “No,” Finn yelled, “Bagmen!”