The Baggers lurched closer, their path decided for them. I held my breath as they approached our cliff. Keep it moving. Nothing to see here.
Yet when they were directly beneath us, they stopped, scenting the air—
They’d detected us this high up! Even over their own stench?
More wails sounded; they began attacking the barrier to reach us. With vicious strength, they tore at the briars, biting them, uncaring as the barbs ripped their slimy skin. I felt every blow, every bite.
Jack snapped, “Fire, Selena!”
They began shooting, dropping Bagmen, but more replaced them.
I gritted my teeth, sweating, getting my ass kicked by proxy. My hair turned red, my glyphs burning bright.
Jack reloaded. “Evie, hang on!”
“I’ve got this.” But power was draining from me in this damn rain. Pain reverberated throughout my body like the tolling of a bell. We had to make them want to run. I gazed over at Lark. “H-hurry with the wolves!”
“Not yet!” Her red eyes were narrowed, her claws digging into the rock, her canines lengthening. “The Teeth are just hitting the valley now. Buy us five minutes!”
I grated to Finn, “Make your mountain move!”
I’d only been in battle with one opponent before. Now enemies teemed. Just when Jack and Selena had both run out of arrows, we heard a welcome sound.
The Bagger tide swept forward, driven by the snapping beasts. Screams of pain sounded. Some zombies stumbled a retreat, now missing hands and feet.
Red of tooth and claw, Lark’s wolves snatched out throats by the dozens. By the time the Bagmen started descending into the valley, the beasts’ fangs dripped, their sable coats soaked with rancid slime. It oozed off them in the rain, like thick paint.
Dizziness as I’d never known seized me. I sucked in ragged breaths.
“Evie!” Jack lunged toward me, pulling me against him.
Finn collapsed to his back, muttering, “I can’t believe I used to think creating illusions was better than sex.”
The cannibals arrived in the valley, only to be greeted by hell.
Jack helped me to my feet. From our spot, we surveyed the scene as the Bagmen charged the Teeth. We heard men yelling orders. Shots fired. Chaos. Muzzle flashes lit up the night, but there were too many Baggers.
Just a matter of time.
Selena said, “Holy shit, they ran right for the Teeth!”
Despite my exhaustion, I couldn’t stop smiling. “It worked!” I turned to hug Matthew. “We did it!”
He blinked. “Did we?”
Face beaming, Finn turned to Lark, words leaving his mouth in a rush: “I’m hooked on you like phonics.”
She gave him a startled half-smile.
When Finn stared at her smile, she grew flustered, closing her mouth to cover her fangs. Embarrassed in front of the cute boy.
She cast him a woebegone look, but he grinned. “Let your freak flag fly, hotness.”
As if she couldn’t help herself, she grinned back, flashing fang.
As I gazed over our alliance, pride surged through me. We’d combined our powers and had created a perfect storm of badassery. I felt in my bones that we could defeat Death.
Because we were unstoppable. With wonderment, I thought, We can do anything!
I realized I’d spoken aloud when everyone turned to me.
Jack, the boy I loved, pulled me closer, resting his chin on my head. Lark grinned, giving me a gang sign of respect. Finn put his arm around her. Even Selena’s shoulders jutted back.
That was when we heard the first cannon.
“What the hell?” Selena cried as more booms shook the night.
Then what sounded like machine guns on steroids began blasting.
“I know that sound.” Jack’s expression was grim. “It’s artillery. Just like the Army of the Southeast had.” No longer were men screaming—they were yelling with pleasure, mowing down the zombies.
From the backs of newly arrived pickup trucks, they aimed huge guns, their bullets cutting through the Bagmen, scythes through hay.
Selena narrowed her eyes at Lark. “You couldn’t see that they were sporting that kind of weaponry?” She strapped her bow over her chest, preparing to run.
“I said they had trucks. I didn’t know what was in them!”
“ ‘This is my hood,’ ” Selena said, imitating Lark’s voice. “ ‘I know the Teeth up and down.’ How could you miss that they’re armed like the national guard?”
“They’ll be coming for us.” Jack grabbed my arm and started down the rise.
My legs were already like jelly. I reached for Matthew to hold my hand. The others followed.
As we ran, Lark said, “They must’ve found an arms depot in the last week or something.” By the time we’d reached the ground, her wolves had caught up, flanking her as we wound around charred tree trunks.
Selena snapped, “Or maybe you didn’t miss it—how do we know you’re not working with the Hierophant?”
“Don’t know if you’ve noticed this, Archer, but my happy ass is running right alongside yours, straight into that canyon. And I’ve got twelve paws to be concerned about down there.”
The tree trunks thinned out, the ground turning gravelly. In the distance, gunshots grew sporadic. Truck engines revved as the Teeth began rolling out.
Finn jerked his head around. “They’re coming!” I’d never seen him look so terrified.
“Through there,” Lark called, pointing to the looming canyon.
The rock walls were sheer, about four stories high, the width between them no more than a two-lane highway.
Jack stopped at the entrance, cupping my face. “Stick to me like a shadow, you.” How many times had he told me that?
“I regenerate. I need to go first!”
Dafuq. “You’re goan to stay behind me and step where I step. Same for you, coo-yôn. This ain’t up for discussion!”
“The wolves can go first,” Lark said, concern in her eyes. “They should take the lead.”
Jack raised his brows. “Mais yeah!” For sure. “Send ’em through!”
The trio started forward swiftly. They were difficult to see, blending with the dark. Jack rushed to catch up with them, dragging me behind him, while I yanked on Matthew.
Within the walls, it was even darker. Sound was amplified, the rainfall deafening. I could barely hear the others trailing behind us.
Ten minutes passed, twenty. How much farther could it be? Terror in the rain, Matto? When would it end?
“Hang on, bébé. Not too much longer—”
A scream sounded over the din.
“Ahhh, my leg!”
We whirled around, saw Finn collapsing to his back, a bear trap biting into his right calf. Blood poured.
As he screamed, his illusions began to flash erratically all around us—day to night, the mountainside he’d created.
Jack rushed back, dropping to his knees, grappling with the metal jaws. The muscles in his neck bulged as he wedged the rusted jaws a couple of inches wider, but they slammed back shut.
Finn screamed again, his eyes rolling back in his head as he passed out.
“I can cut through it!” I called.
“You and coo-yôn doan move a goddamned inch! Look at that boulder, Evie!” He jerked his chin at a nearby rock.
I could see where that trap was attached by a chain to an anchored bolt. I could also see several other bolts and disguised chains leading to still-hidden traps.
We were surrounded by them. Selena, Lark, and Matthew froze. I started sweating in the rain.
Jack used his crossbow to wedge open the jaws, freeing Finn at last. Then he reeled in the chain of the trap, throwing it like a lasso onto the ground between me and him. One trap snapped, leaping off the ground. Another.
He turned behind him, doing the same for Lark and Selena. “There could still be more,” he said as he hefted Finn over his shoulder. “And watch your six for Teeth!”
We’d just started forward when bullets began to rain down.
Lark cried, “They’re above us on the canyon walls!”
“Move your ass, Evie!” Jack yelled as he came storming toward me, Finn secured in a fireman’s carry. The wolves waited until we’d started moving once more.
Bullets pelted the ground around us, but the men were careful not to hit us—
One of the wolves stumbled. Immediately, I heard a thick whizzing sound. A tree trunk hurtled through the air, a battle ram swinging from a height right toward the wolves. Jack lobbed Finn at me, knocking me and Matthew over like dominos—just as the trunk hit a wolf.
Impact. The creature came flying back at us, its great body colliding with Jack. They were both hurled into the air, careening over where we lay. I screamed as they landed, twisting over on my stomach to keep him in sight.
The wolf scrambled up, unharmed, revealing Jack’s limp body, his head bashed against a rock. He was unconscious, blood streaming.
As bullets continued to ping, I untangled myself from Finn and Matthew and crawled to Jack. “Please wake up. Oh, God, please, Jack!”
Behind me, Matthew sat rocking, muttering incoherently. “The three, the three. . . .”
Selena sprinted for me, Lark behind her. “The Teeth are coming down the canyon behind us!”
Fangs bared, Lark’s wolves charged back to attack. Machine-gun fire rang out. Whimpers, howls. Then the wolves went quiet.
The last one limped back to its mistress, falling dead at Lark’s feet, twitching. She stared down with parted lips. Shock.
Selena grabbed my arm. “We need to run, Evie!”
Run? Jack and Finn were unconscious. “Never! I’m not leaving them.”
“You’re going to get them killed! We run and draw the fire.” Though the bastards weren’t aiming at us, bullets were ricocheting right above our heads. “We can break the guys out later, just like J.D. and I did with the militia.”
What she said made sense, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave Jack. “Wake up, Jack! Please wake up!”
Spotlights flared down, blinding us. By the time my eyes adjusted, we were surrounded, armed cannibals spilling out of a nearby trap door in the ground.
Hell was a cannibal mine, and its entrance was just as we expected—torchlit, foggy, littered with bones.
Ten guards surrounded us, forcing us closer. They had spiky teeth and sickly skin. Their bodies were gaunt, starving.
Each had milky white, clouded eyes, a sign of the Hierophant’s enthrallment.
Seven of the men leveled rifles at Selena, Lark, Matthew, and me, even though we were bound, stripped of gear and weapons.
Neither Jack nor Finn had awakened, filling me with even more panic. One guard dragged Finn by an ankle. Two more hauled Jack by his arms. Matthew seemed not to register any of this, just kept murmuring, “The three. Water. The three.”
With dread, I realized the Hierophant’s call was getting louder. “He’s down there,” I whispered to Selena.
She nodded, her eyes a little wild. “Just stay calm. Your glyphs are dark. Every second we can survive, you recharge from the Bagger attack.”
“Recharge? In a mine?” My stomach roiled, my steps halting. I glanced over my shoulder, saw Lark’s eyes fill with tears. She was too young for this. We were all too young. She’d lost her beloved wolves, and we’d still been captured.
At the threshold, the lead guard collected a torch. His filed teeth were blackened. Like the others, his eyes were clouded. Sores bubbled around his lips, pus glistening in the firelight. His mouth looked like one you’d see on a meth addict’s mug shot. Meth-mouth.
On the long and jarring truck ride here, he’d lamented that he and his men couldn’t eat one of our “boys” for the road; they were starving, you see. But they obeyed the boss absolutely.
As we stepped into their underground lair, panic took root. Only my concern for the others kept me from resisting. My empty claws ached to sink into flesh.
Our captors forced us to descend deeper. Human bones and skulls were strewn throughout the mine. Rainwater seeped from the rock walls, gathering in streams at the sides of the shaft; it frothed over those bones, snagging them, tumbling them ever lower.
Oh, God, the stench was unimaginable—rot, mold, decomposition. I couldn’t get enough air, as if my lungs were constricting.
Selena said, “Easy, girl, we’ll get out of this.” But with every step deeper, she started to look as freaked out as I was.
Farther in, men were digging ditches to divert the water. From what?
Meth-mouth informed us, “Your arrival came at a perfect time. We were gettin’ mighty low on stores.” On bodies. “Just been nibbling here and there.”