Though she sported no visible weapons, a huge hawk perched on one shoulder—and three enormous black wolves surrounded her protectively, baring their fangs.
Pet wolves in the movies were always majestic; these were the ugliest I’d ever imagined, with patches of fur missing and scars all over. Raised lines crisscrossed their snouts. One was missing an eye. Another limped.
“State your business,” Jack ordered, pointing his crossbow.
Her tableau flashed over her, a girl controlling the gaping mouth of a lion. Then the image was gone.
Finn stared at her, his lips parted. All of his recent illusions began to waver over him in a rush, as if from an involuntary response to the girl. He went invisible—twice—as he mumbled to her, “We b-both have infinity symbols on our cards.”
She frowned at him, then said to the group, “I’m Lark. And we’re in trouble.”
“Why shouldn’t I kill you right now?” Selena demanded with her bow aimed at the girl’s face. “Why should we trust anything you have to say?”
“Because I’ve come here as an ally,” she said. “And to prove myself, I’m about to save your asses.”
Selena gave a laugh and drew back farther on her bowstring.
Finn and I gaped at the Archer. “Let her talk!” he said.
“She’s been following us for days? And now all of a sudden she’s here to help?”
Lark nodded. “Yeah. I had to make sure you weren’t psycho like other Arcana I’ve seen. Besides, you haven’t needed my help before.”
“But we do now?” Selena scoffed.
“You’ve got a horde of Baggers to the north and gaining fast.”
“We know this.”
“Did you know that cannibal scouts to the east spotted you and are CB-ing for reinforcements right now? Four-wheel drives and ATVs will be coming, full of them. For this many healthy people, the Teeth’ll bring an army.”
“The Teeth?” I asked.
Finn said, “You’ll get it when you see them.”
Lark cast him a surprised look. “You know them?”
He nodded. “I crossed these mountains before. Invisible. I saw . . . everything.”
Selena relaxed the tension on her bow a fraction. “Baggers to the north, cannibals to the east? What about south and west?”
“One direction dead-ends in a sheer rock face,” Lark explained. “The other funnels into a narrow pass that’s littered with snares. Bear traps and pitfalls.”
I was familiar with the latter.
“And it’s rocky.” Lark turned to me. “Not a lot of dead trees for you to revive, Empress.”
Weird that a stranger was calling me that.
To Selena, she said, “And it’ll be close quarters with no vantage points. Not favorable for an archer.”
So she had recognized our tableaux and knew who we were, which meant she knew the deck, knew the game.
“Why would you guys come this way?” Lark asked. Rain ran off the brim of her hat in sheets. “You’ve got the Fool with you, and he led you here? Tactically, this is about as bad as it gets.”
“The better question?” Selena said. “Why would you stay here?”
“This is my hood. I know these brutes, know the mountains and the mines.” Her accent did sound Southern. “Plus the Teeth keep the worst of the Arcana away. But now they’ve expanded their territory.”
“Why? When?” Finn’s voice scaled an octave higher. Whatever he’d seen had done a permanent number on him.
“Recently. They’re starving down in the mines. For fresh meat and three breeders, the Teeth’ll hunt us to the ends of the earth.”
“Breeders?” I asked.
In a deadpan tone, she said, “Cannibals need love too.”
I glanced at Finn. He appeared fascinated by Lark.
Selena glared at him. Was she the type of girl who wouldn’t want her former admirer ever to move on?
Lark said, “The good news is that they will try to take us alive. Flesh wounds and clubbed heads.”
Finn muttered, “Because they lack refrigeration.” Had he sidled closer to Lark?
“Then we run.” Selena finally lowered her bow. “We take our chances on that pass, if it’s rigged as you say.”
Lark scratched one wolf behind its scarred ear. “You try running that canyon in the dark, you’re going to die.”
“Why aren’t you running?” Selena demanded. “You could’ve slipped away from all this.”
“I told you—I want in on your alliance.”
“Obviously you know all about this game,” I said. “But our group is a little different. We’re not planning to play. We don’t want to kill anybody.” Except for Death.
Lark’s lips parted, as if this news was too good to be true. Her tough-girl façade cracked a little, and I thought her brown eyes watered. “Not to kill?” God, she looked so young. “I’ve been alone out here, and when I saw Gabriel and his crew closing in on the area, I freaked, thought I was done for sure.”
Selena’s shoulders tensed. “They were here?”
Damn it, I would’ve expected them to head in the opposite direction!
“So close that Gabriel almost ran into my falcon. They turned back, but I realized my cannibal cover wouldn’t keep me safe much longer. Sooner or later, Arcana are going to come for the Hierophant.”
“We’ve heard his call, then,” I said. We go now to our bloody business. “He’s near.”
Lark nodded. “Figures, since he’s in charge of the cannibals. His name’s Guthrie. He spouts all this stuff, twisting religion. He’s got them all enthralled. It’s a cult, a cannibal miner cult. They file their teeth to look like him.”
I hadn’t thought they could get eerier in my mind. They just had.
Selena’s expression was suspicious. “Why has the Hierophant never targeted you?”
“I’m pretty sure Guthrie doesn’t know about the game. He hears my call and thinks an angel is chatting at him or something.”
“Which force will reach us first?” Jack asked. “How long do we have?
“I’ll get a real-time estimate.” She murmured something to the bird on her shoulder. It unfurled its wings behind Lark’s head, bouncing on its thick legs. It even had a little leather helmet.
Any chick who carried around a bird of prey with a little helmet was cool in my book. Oh, man, I really hoped she didn’t intend to kill us all. “Can you see through the hawk’s eyes?”
“She’s a gyrfalcon. And yes.” In a flash of feathers, the falcon took off from Lark’s slim shoulder, soaring up into the rainy sky. The bird’s size blew my mind, its wingspan at least four feet.
Lark’s gaze grew blank, her eyes beginning to sparkle red—the color of an animal’s gaze caught in headlights. When her head and body canted to the side, like a kid playing airplane, I realized her senses and the falcon’s had married. They were changing directions in flight.
Moments later, Lark blinked, her eyes clearing. “The Bagmen’ll be here around midnight. I forecast the Teeth’ll show about the same time.”
“Both of them?” In four hours.
Finn crossed to the wolves. They growled, but he ignored the warning.
“Don’t!” Lark cried. “They’ll kill you. They’re war wolves—”
After a hesitation, they began licking his outstretched hand. Lark’s jaw slackened. Score one for Finn.
“These guys have seen some action, huh?” Turning to Lark, Finn said, “So our choices are either to fight a horde of zombies and a cult of cannibals—or to risk running a booby-trapped mountain pass in the pitch dark?”
Her tough-girl façade back in place, Lark smiled, showing sharp canines. “Bingo. There will be at least five dozen of the cannibals mobilizing. Double that in Baggers.”
“Then we make a stand here,” I said. I’d been ready before. Now I saw no choice.
Jack muttered to me, “A word.” He squired me some distance away. “I don’t suppose you’ll run with me, give that sheer rock face a try?” When my gaze fell on Matthew, Jack bit out a curse. “Always with coo-yôn. He could’ve warned us about this, could’ve steered us out of this valley.”
“He told me he’d let us know when we stepped off the correct path.”
“Does this feel correct to you?”
“I’ve asked him to use his powers as little as possible. I hoped it would make him clearer.”
Jack motioned for Selena to join us. She did, still shaking her head. Matthew followed her. Finn made apologies to Lark, then hastened over like we were huddling up.
“Well, Matthew?” I asked. “Give us the skinny on her.”
He whispered, “Basement.”
Huh? “Does she mean to do us harm?”
“Good. Bad. Good. Bad. Good. Good. Bad. Bad. Good. Bad. Good—”
“I get the picture,” I said, interrupting. With a sigh, I brushed his wet hair off his brow. “Thank you, sweetheart. We’re going to figure this out.”
Jack asked us, “You think this fille’s telling the truth?”
Finn glanced to Lark and back. “Totally.”
“I think she’s a little liar.” Selena might’ve lowered her bow, but she kept an arrow strung. “I don’t believe a word of this.”
“Yeah, but you don’t trust anybody,” I pointed out.
“I trust you,” she said, surprising me. “I believe you will do what you say and not lie to me.”
I frowned with realization. I kind of trusted her too.
Selena tilted her head at me. “Do you think she’s telling the truth?”
I couldn’t be certain. But I knew I’d have to chance it—because we needed numbers. We could turn this game, but only if we attracted more players to our movement. “I think we have to take a leap and trust her, for no other reason than to grow our alliance.”
Selena rolled her eyes.
“I have to look at the big picture on this,” I explained. “Plus, what she says makes sense. We know the Bagmen are closing in, and we tripped the cannibals’ alarm.” Everyone was listening to me again, like I was a leader. Screw it; I owned it. “If we believe these things, then we should assume there’s a booby-trapped canyon. So the next step is deciding which of the options she presented is the least likely to get us killed.”
Finn said, “I think we should stay and use our powers.” Glancing at me, he added in as nice a way as possible, “You might, uh, have trouble getting down a rocky canyon?”
Another dafuq? look from Jackson. “Worry about yourself—I’ll carry her ass if I have to.”
I laid my hand on Jack’s chest. “He’s right. We should use our powers.” And my MO was to lie in wait.
Or maybe I just didn’t want to risk a bear trap snapping any of our leg bones in half.
“Then we’re going to need Lark’s wolves too,” Finn said. “I say we call her over.”
We all gazed at her. The falcon had just returned to land on her shoulder, shaking off its feathers. She rubbed her nose against its beak.
“You’re kidding, right?” Selena looked aghast. Just as I hadn’t trusted her, Selena didn’t trust Lark.
But Finn had already waved the girl over.
“What did you decide?” Lark asked me.
“We’re going to fight.”
Jack exhaled, blowing rainwater. “Then let’s be smart about this. We got two enemies. When you got a pair, best thing to do is make ’em touch gloves.” I frowned. “It’s what we did to break you out of the militia jail—we sicced Bagmen on them. We all know how hard Baggers are to take down. If there are twice as many Bagmen, the Teeth stand no chance. Selena, let me see that map.”
She pulled it out of her pack, handing it over.
Jack slung his crossbow over his back. “Remember the last valley we passed, with the stretch of flat ground? It’s a kill zone, a tactical nightmare. Hard to get out of. If the cannibals are in trucks, they’ll have to drive through there to get as close to us as possible. So we lure the Baggers to them. Selena and I can get their attention, get them to chase us.”
Jack as bait? There had to be a better way.
Selena studied the area. “It’s perfect, but we’d be creating more zombies.” One bite was contagious, assuming the victim lived through the attack.
Jack shrugged. “Lesser of two evils. At least Baggers can’t think.”