If I “broke bread” with him, if I committed that monstrous act, then I’d be doomed forever. His control would last even after he died—
“What’s your name?”
Say nothing! “Evie,” I answered, frowning at myself. He was so much stronger than me! Even as I ordered myself not to look, even as I heard Selena and Jack urging me not to, I glanced up again.
Guthrie’s beady eyes had turned a filmy white. Because he was using his power?
Such intriguing eyes. I couldn’t seem to break his stare.
“I sense strength in you,” he told me. “And uniqueness. Yet there’s no need for individuality here. In our commune, we’re all the same.”
“Individuality isn’t bad,” I said, but it sounded like a question.
He smiled. “It’s unnecessary. But we’ll take care of that for you, little one. When you get hungry, I want you to call for my guards.” Maybe I should call for them when I got hungry. “They’ll bring you to my table, to sit at my right hand.” At Guthrie’s right hand. “We have quail, pork, and beef—more food than you’ve seen in days, by the look of you. It’s a fine setting, like a mead hall of old, full of good cheer. All you have to do is make the choice to come to me. And then choose to eat.”
“Choose to eat,” I repeated.
“Evangeline!” Jack grated. “Snap out of this!”
“Out of what?” All I was going to do was call the guards when I got hungry. I wasn’t hungry now, though. My stomach was in knots.
“Why are her eyes clouding?” Jack demanded, his words panicked.
The Hierophant smiled down at me. “Evie, you’re going to like it here.” I just knew that I would. “Eventually, your friends will too. After I’ve dined and rested up, we’ll come back to convert them as well. We’re each surrounded by spirits.”
He was so sure about this, it must be true.
“Be calm, relax. And know that all good things are coming to you.” With a wink, the Hierophant left.
I sank back against the wall, confused as to why I’d been so bent on escaping.
Meth-mouth scowled in Tad’s direction. “He died? Son of a bitch! I knew he didn’t have long.” He snapped his fingers, and one of the guards hefted Tad under his arm, carrying him like a suitcase. “Hurry before the flesh cools. Come on, be quick about it.”
On his way out, the last guard hit Jack with the end of a rifle. “It’s impolite to interrupt the boss.”
Jack collapsed back, head lolling, as if he saw the ceiling spinning. But, to be fair, he shouldn’t have interrupted the Hierophant.
Matthew began squirming, trying to hit his fists against his head.
I turned to him. “Relax, sweetheart. All good things are coming our way.”
“Water!” he yelled. “Water water WATER!”
“Okay, honey. I’ll bring you some as soon as I get out of here. Just have to get hungry first.”
With effort, Jack reached his leg over and kicked Matthew’s. “Easy, coo-yôn,” he said weakly. “We need you focused.”
To my amazement, Matthew calmed.
His outburst had roused Finn. By degrees, the boy opened his eyes and sat up, cringing at the damage to his leg. “I take it they’ve got us?”
“About time you came to.” Lark’s face was stamped with relief.
Finn gazed around the cell. “Jesus. How long was I out?” he asked, sounding like a condemned man.
I didn’t understand his alarm. We were all going to like it here.
“Couple of hours,” Lark said. “We’re working on an escape. One little glitch: the sole person who could free us from these shackles looks like a contented flower child over there. Pun intended.”
I waved at them. When would I get hungry?
“Her eyes are clouded?” Finn asked.
Selena nodded. “If he makes her eat, she’ll be like that forever. Even if we take him out, there’ll be no saving her from this.”
As if that was a bad thing?
Finn said, “Escapes are my specialty. Just give me a chance to shake off this pain so I can concentrate. Damn, is it me, or is the cell spinning?”
Jack muttered, “It ain’t just you. . . .”
Time passed. Everyone was too frightened to talk, not relaxing as they ought to. Finally I felt the first twinge of hunger. “Guards,” I called with excitement. “I’m hungry.” I started braiding my damp hair, wanting to look halfway presentable for a big dinner. “Guards!”
Jack was cursing, telling me in French to shut my trap.
I pursed my lips. “You’re supposed to relax, Jack.”
Meth-mouth slunk back to the pantry, his chin bloody for some reason. He was picking at his sharp teeth with a pinkie nail.
Jack was tensed against his shackles, muscles tight beneath his shirt. “You hurt her, and I’ll kill you!” Blood poured from his wrists. “I swear to Christ, I’ll gut you!”
Meth-mouth ignored him and reached down to release my ankle cuff.
I admitted, “I used my claws to break it open. Sorry.”
He just rolled his eyes: yeah, right. With a harsh grip on my arm, he escorted me out. As he locked the gate behind us, Jack continued to bellow, thrashing against those chains.
Once we reached the cavern, I blinked at how different everything seemed now. The area looked exactly as Guthrie had described it: a mead hall of old. Boisterous men and women drank from tankards and ate heartily of the beef, pork, and quail. Guthrie ate alone on a dais above all the others. And he wanted me to join him in that place of honor.
Meth-mouth led me up the steps, bones crunching beneath my feet—probably leftovers tossed to the dogs, like the Vikings used to do.
Guthrie welcomed me, offering the chair beside his. When I sat, he blinked at me. “You smell like flowers.”
“I get that a lot. It’s because I’m the Empress.”
He looked charmed. “Oh? Of what?”
“Of Tarot cards.”
His amiable expression faltered. “You sound overtired. You should eat. What would you like first?”
“Quail.” Was there blood on the table? No, no. Mead halls didn’t have bloody tables. As I waited to be served, Guthrie kissed my hand suavely; Jack yelled in the distance, “Damn you, girl, doan eat ANYTHING!” He must be jealous that I was about to get a full meal.
But when Meth-mouth returned with a metal camping plate filled with gore, I frowned. He grinned at me, cracking his lip blisters open. Pus ran down his bloody chin, dripping onto the plate.
I was no longer hungry.
“Is the leg of quail not to your liking?” Guthrie was looking at me intently. “You’re so hungry.”
I was starving! Like I’d give up a free meal?
Finding no silverware, I picked up the quail. It wasn’t very hot, and felt spongier than any I’d ever eaten. Still, I leaned in to take a bite—
Suddenly I heard Death’s coaxing voice: —Ask her about the game, Guthrie.—
When Guthrie saw me stiffen, he said, “You heard that too? His voice often fills my mind—has for months! Is he the devil?”
I huffed with irritation, tossing down my quail, making the plate rattle. “No, that’s a totally different card. You’re hearing Death. Because he always butts in when I’m enjoying myself. Earlier today, I was with Jack in a cave, and—”
“Who is Death?” Guthrie interrupted. “Why can I hear him? What is this game he speaks of? Answer me!”
I looked longingly at my quail, but obeyed Guthrie’s order. “Death is one of the Arcana, a group of twenty-two kids who’ve been chosen to play in a life-or-death game, all with special powers. We’re commemorated on Tarot cards, yadda, yadda. You’re one of us—the Hierophant. You can brainwash people.” I lowered my voice to a confidential tone. “I know you think you see spirits, but it’s really the images of our cards flashing over us. You hear our calls when we get near.”
“Why should I believe this?”
“You heard a boy murmuring Crazy like a fox, didn’t you? And a girl saying Behold the Bringer of Doubt.”
His lips parted. His were cracked almost as bad as Meth-mouth’s. “How could you know these things?”
“You might want to rework some of our commune’s beliefs. A tweak here and there?” I grimaced as I asked, “I just overstepped, didn’t I?” Way to insult your leader, Eves.
“I-I don’t understand.” For the first time I heard uncertainty in Guthrie’s melodic voice. “Who started the game? Why was I chosen?”
I put my elbow on the wet table—had someone spilled ketchup or something?—and settled in to dish. “Oh, Guthrie. Where do I even start?”
“At the beginning. But first, I want you to have a bite.” He flashed his pointy smile.
Death whispered in our minds: —Don’t you want to know who she slaughtered last week? This creature cut a man in two.—
Guthrie scowled, but couldn’t resist saying, “What is he speaking of? Someone like you could never harm another in such a manner.”
As I put down my supper yet again, I mentally yelled at Death: Leave us the hell alone! Struggling for composure, I said, “It’s an awful story, but if you really want to know . . .” Then I proceeded to tell him about Arthur. Throughout the tale, Guthrie’s skin grew paler, and his face started dripping with sweat.
I’d had no idea I was such a compelling storyteller!
A vague recollection tugged at the edges of my attention, of some wrong I might have done him, but I was too caught up answering his questions to pinpoint it.
Suddenly he clutched the table, nails digging in, and gave a long groan of pain. I heard more groans from the lower tables, then frenzied cries. Throughout the cavern, people started dropping to the floor, convulsing, clawing at their throats as if they couldn’t get enough air.
Guthrie shot to his feet, teetering as he swung his gaze on me. “What have you . . . wrought?”
My eyes went wide. “Oh, God, my poison! I didn’t know you then! Had no idea what you would come to mean to me!”
With a strangled gasp, he collapsed to his back, as if his legs had been taken out from under him. I rushed to kneel at his side, filled with guilt. Below, chairs clattered, tables overturning. Grown men screamed.
Over the pandemonium, I could hear Jack bellowing my name to the sound of rattling shackles.
“There are . . . more of us,” Guthrie grated to me. “Whole clans. Scouts, followers . . . throughout this range. They’ll feel my death . . . will follow my last order.”
“You can’t die!”
The chaos was already beginning to fade, the death throes below growing quieter and quieter.
With his eyes clouded like those of his followers, Guthrie yelled, “Avenge me! Kill this girl! She is everything that is foul, all that is unclean!” His words boomed across the cavern.
I was foul? If Guthrie said it, then it must be true. Hadn’t I known I was a monster? Jack hadn’t been able to accept me until he’d heard all about my trials and my fears, until he’d thought he could help me with my problem.
As life left Guthrie’s body, the echoes subsided. His last words to me: “You’ll . . . rot . . . in hell . . . for this.”
“Wait, I’m so—” I fell back on my ass, jolted out of my panic.
Exactly why was I apologizing to a murderous cannibal? I scrambled to my feet, gaze locked on my plate, on the “quail” in the center. Human flesh had been cut in a square like a serving of lasagna, only the layers were striations of skin, fat, muscle.
I’d been inches from putting that in my mouth! Because I’d been . . . brainwashed? Again, to have another control my thoughts! I’d nearly eaten part of Tad. I’d nearly become a slave to the Hierophant. Fury boiled up inside me.
“What have I wrought, Guthrie?” I surveyed the amphitheater full of bodies. “I’ve wrought your doom.”
The back of my hand tingled as a marking appeared. Beside the Alchemist’s icon was a tiny likeness of two raised fingers. The Hierophant’s symbol.
I’d destroyed him, and I was glad. Kill them all. Heat in battle. As I grinned down at my pair of icons, I craved more. There were four other Arcana in this mine, chained and helpless.
No! Rein it in, Evie! That wasn’t how this night would end. My next move was getting everyone free. On unsteady feet, I hurried toward the pantry, speeding down the stairs, winding around contorted bodies—
A hand shot out to seize my ankle. Meth-mouth. He was still holding a chunk of flesh in his other hand. “You’re unclean. Must die!” he choked out just before his body relaxed, his bladder emptying.