Nibbling? I shuddered.
“We’ve about done starved, you see. Been conserving—but no longer! Tonight we’re gonna celebrate our catch with a feast from the pantry.”
“Why don’t you eat your own fallen?” Selena said with hardly a tremble.
“We’d never eat one of our own,” he said, adding ruefully, “no tougher meat than a cannibal’s.”
They all laughed like this was one of those everyday, regrettable truths, as if he’d just said, “Toast always lands butter-side down.”
When he saw me staring at his filed teeth, he snapped them at me. “The better to eat you with, my pretty.”
Their cackles echoed off the walls.
I tasted blood, realized I’d been biting the inside of my cheek. I was almost glad Jack was knocked out rather than have him witness this.
We entered what looked like their central gathering hub, a cavern that split into more shafts, like the spokes of a wheel. Too few wall torches fought with the dark. Dirty faces peered out from the shadows. Some smiled with excitement, flashing those eerie teeth.
The area was shaped like an amphitheater. The highest level was a raised dais, with a thronelike chair and a bloodstained dining table. A second level had tables and benches, the ground littered with more bones. In the center of the cavern was a depression that looked as if it were filled with oil. But when I saw meat hooks dangling from the high ceiling, I realized the oil was . . . blood.
I gazed around at the people impatiently waiting for a body to be hung there. They don’t even grill. My skin crawled, the hair on my nape standing up.
We passed a dug-out room filled with piles of clothes and packs. No, not piles, hills. The Teeth must’ve captured an entire town’s worth of people. Two of the guards chucked our things—bug-out bags, weapons, coats—in there as well.
Selena was gazing longingly at her beloved bow when I muttered, “Be on the watch for the Hierophant. And be careful not to look him in the eye, or you’ll end up like these people.”
The guards steered us into one of those split-off shafts, a murkier corridor. The ceiling was lower, the air colder and more ominous.
The end of the shaft had been remodeled as a jail with iron bars—and plenty of shackles, just like in Arthur’s dungeon. A single torch burned outside, casting flickering shadows over the occupants within.
“Welcome to the pantry,” Meth-mouth said as he and his men forced us inside.
Six prisoners were already fettered, all in various stages of starvation—and mutilation. They were “the stores” the Teeth had been conserving, the ones they’d been nibbling on.
The guards began chaining us throughout the cell, wherever there was a free set of shackles.
I wanted to fight. Needed to. There’s a heat in battle. The Empress didn’t get chained!
As if Selena could tell what I was thinking, she muttered, “This isn’t the time, Evie.”
She was right. There were too many people in this small area. Even if I could disperse spores, I might kill everyone. If I slashed at the guards with my empty claws, the other men would sound the alarm before I could stop them. Jack and Finn remained unconscious, unable to run—Finn couldn’t even if he woke up.
For these reasons, I would wait, but also because my overarching strategy had just changed. In this game, I planned to kill Death—and the Hierophant. My claws tingled at the thought, my poison beginning to renew. I just needed to find him.
I had a feeling he’d soon come to see his catch, but not until we were contained.
Meth-mouth shackled Selena himself, saying, “Prettiest breeders I ever did see.” Spittle bubbled up on his blistered lips. “Don’t you worry—you won’t go on the hooks for a long, long time.”
Matthew stared blankly as he was chained. He’d checked out, and considering our circumstances, I didn’t blame him.
Jack roused just as his wrist cuffs clicked shut. Blood streaming down his face, he lunged for the guard, who laughed.
When Jack and I shared a look, I tried not to reveal how on edge I was.
The men must’ve considered Lark and me to be minimal threats; we were the only ones with a single ankle cuff.
They think we’re helpless girls. I might’ve laughed. Worst mistake of their lives.
As the guards filed out, Meth-mouth pointed to the prisoner closest to me. “You’re on the hooks as soon as we gather the flock.”
The prisoner whimpered at this news. Dressed in rags, he had no limbs, just cauterized, oozing stumps where his legs and arms should be.
“See you in ten.” As they returned to their hub, the guards’ laughter echoed down the mine.
I almost vomited, but choked it back.
The doomed man was in shock, feverish, his eyes glassy. Between chapped lips, he rasped, “T-ten minutes, then.”
The other captives murmured phrases of sympathy to him—because he was about to be eaten. They called him Tad.
Jack grated, “Evie, did they hurt you?”
I shook my head. “Finn’s the worst off.” The wide, bloody holes on his pants leg revealed gouged-out skin. But I didn’t think the bone had snapped. Surely he’d wake soon.
“We’re goan to get out of here. Doan you worry.”
Tad turned those desperate eyes—to me. “Please, h-help me. Can you reach me? They don’t waste a bullet first.”
Finn had said that the cannibals fed on the living. I don’t think I’d quite believed it until tonight. I’d once seen a deer being cleaned, the gutting. For Tad to go through that while conscious . . .
But how could I help him? “We’re going to escape. Just hang on.” Hang on? I bit my lip. Stupid Evie, he doesn’t have arms!
Selena rolled her eyes at me, and I deserved worse.
“Finn, wake up!” With his illusions we could escape. He would make us invisible. The guards would open the cell door, see no one inside, then dash off to recapture us. I would use my claws to sever the chains. We’d stroll out of here.
Finn didn’t stir.
“There’s no escape,” one of the other prisoners said, the sole woman, a middle-aged lady with sunken eyes, clad in a tattered sack dress. A square chunk of skin was missing from each of her thighs.
Tad begged me, “Kill me. Smother me.”
“Evie, you stay put!” Jack ordered. “You can’t help him.”
Was I going to sit back and let a man be butchered alive? In Arthur’s basement, I’d realized that I had power to fight back against evil, that I could help others. All I had to do was repurpose myself. I’d wondered how many were chained out in the world.
With that thought in mind, I reached for my cuff and used a claw to jimmy it open, earning a stern: “Damn it, fille.”
The lock popped open with a click, spooking the other prisoners. “Stop this, girl!” “They’ll come quicker, and there’s no fighting them.” “Tad’s gone anyway.” “They’ll whip us for this!”
Selena snapped, “They’re going to kill every single one of us—or worse—and you’re worried about a whipping? You might be resigned to your fate down here, but I’m not!” To me she said, “Carry the hell on, Evie. Your glyphs are getting brighter. Free us all, and we fight.”
Jack shook his head. “You doan listen to her. Sit your ass back down and act chained. We doan make a move without Finn, and he should wake soon. If those guards come back and see you freed, they might take you instead!”
“Bébé, we can’t help everyone. Be smart about this.” In French, he added, “That man will never survive, even if we freed him.”
In a desolate voice, Tad said, “The others are r-right. There’s no fighting the Teeth. Not that I would be a help anyway. They bring even more guards when they harvest. More than a dozen of them.”
God, I wanted to fight.
Tad was now crying. “But could you . . . would you put your hand . . . over my mouth and nose? Please. I can’t hurt you, can’t stop you. It’d be a mercy.”
I glanced at Jack. He shook his head firmly. “You need to look like you’re chained.” Whatever he saw in my expression made him bite out a curse, then mutter, “Hurry.”
Lark said, “I can let you know when they’re coming.”
Her eyes began to sparkle red. “They have a couple of rats that survived down here. I’ve moved them into the central area now.”
I crossed to Tad, lifting his head into my lap, shocked by how little he weighed. “I’ll make this better.” I sounded so assured, while inside I was horrified, had no idea how I was going to do this.
Tears welled as my glyphs began to brighten and swirl, my emotions fueling my arsenal. Others in the cell gasped in shock, but Tad gazed up at me with a dazed stare, as if I were a savior.
Just before I leaned down, I murmured, “A kiss good-bye, then?”
“B-bless you,” the man whispered, closing his eyes. “Angel.”
My tears hit his face as our lips met. My poison seeped into him.
Without even a twitch, he stopped breathing forever. Awash with grief, I straightened, a nebulous idea forming.
Jack’s brows were drawn. “Get back, now!”
I nodded, yet that idea kept insisting I acknowledge it. What an evil plan, I thought, embarrassed even to consider it.
But how better to deal with evil people?
“I have an idea.” My hair was changing colors, my claws sharpening. The prisoners fell into stunned silence.
Matthew finally spoke. “Arsenal.” He was telling me to use it.
Jack looked alarmed. “What are you thinking? Talk to me!”
I raised my dripping claws.
Lark’s expression flashed with comprehension. “Poison.”
Selena nodded slowly, admiration in her gaze. “Fuckin’ A. Do it!”
Jack repeated, “Hurry!”
“I’m so sorry,” I said as I sank my claws into Tad’s side. Like a snake, I injected my venom into his chest muscles, his neck, what was left of his shoulders. To disguise the marks, I connected them until they looked like solid gashes.
Silence fell over the cell. No one dared speak. The prisoners were terrified of me. Nothing new there.
Lark said, “And now?”
I’d injected so much, I was weakened to the point of exhaustion. My fingers felt like they’d been asleep for years. Vision blurring, I whispered, “Now we wait.” I’d desecrated a body and couldn’t tell if I was ashamed. Or proud.
Standing up was beyond me, so I began crawling back to my chain.
“They’re coming, Evie!” Lark hissed. “And they’re bringing him. . . .”
—WE GO NOW TO OUR BLOODY BUSINESS.—
I’d just clasped my ankle cuff back together, pressing the seam against the ground, when the gate groaned open.
They did bring back a dozen guards—and also the Hierophant.
He stood silhouetted in torchlight. He had thick gold rings on each of his fingers but no icons on his hands. He wore a black rain poncho. With the hood down, it resembled a robe. Looking to be no more than eighteen or nineteen, he was dark-haired with a bloated face, eyes like beads, and red, feverish cheeks.
His tableau flashed over him, an image of a robed male holding his right hand high, two fingers raised, blessing his followers.
The Hierophant cast the older prisoners a grandfatherly smile—with hideous jagged teeth—then did a double take at me.
At my tableau. His eyes met mine. “What a little beauty.” His voice was even-toned, pleasant. Unlike his men, he had no discernible accent. “I can see that the spirits surround you too.”
Don’t look at him, don’t look at him. “You’re sick. All of this is sick.”
“I’m quite hale, thank you,” he said, purposely misunderstanding me.
Don’t look. But whenever he spoke, he compelled my gaze toward him, no matter how hard I resisted. I peeked up, saw he’d started perspiring. He was trying to mesmerize me, and as with most Arcana, using his power was taxing.
“My name is Guthrie, and these are my people. You and I must’ve been destined to meet, for I’ve heard your voice in my visions.”
My Arcana call.
“Would you like to break bread with us, child? Commune with us?”
I had to think about his question before I could sputter, “N-never!”
If I mesmerized someone, it might buy me a second to use some element of my arsenal. Yet this man’s spellbinding gaze would take hold like a disease, never ending until his death.
Unless he made me eat.