Endless Knight

Page 22


“Let me off! Let me off!” I thrashed against him, spooking his mount. “LET ME OFF!” I shrieked.

“I can be obliging.” Death plucked me up and discarded me over the side of his stallion. My legs must have fallen asleep in the saddle; they couldn’t support me. I staggered for few feet before collapsing into the gutter. Unable to catch myself quickly enough with my bound hands, I smashed my forehead on the edge of the curb.

Pain seared along my split skin. Blood coursed down my face, dripping off my chin and jaw. Just as it had in the barn when I’d first discovered I could bring plants to life.

Ogen laughed at my fall. Lark muttered, “Dumb-ass.”

Drip, drip, drip.

Too weak to move, I stayed in that position, on my knees in the gutter, face-planted, as if the curb were my pillow. With my back to the three, I watched runoff race around me, draining into a nearby opening.

“Get up,” Lark said. “Stop dicking around.”

Hadn’t we passed a retention pond just moments ago? One with charred trees and dead reeds all around it? My blood was probably rushing toward that pond even now.

“More cannibals are coming, Evie.” Lark huffed with impatience. “They’re hot on our trail, because you’re ‘unclean’ or something. Surely we’re better than they were.”

No. No, you’re not. At least the cannibals were loyal to their own. Lark was a two-faced betrayer. Because of her, my Jack and my Matthew had died horribly.

That ember of fury was flaring into a wildfire, so hot I almost missed a telltale electric tingle pricking my skin. Something nearby was coming to life, unfurling for me. Rising from the dead. Seconds later, I detected tree trunks fattening with life, new limbs splaying.

Bleeding, kneeling like a victim, I smiled. Because I was about to kill this trio. My army was silently stretching to the sky, slithering along that muddy slope, sneaking up behind these Arcana. I’d show them unclean.

There was no reason to quell the heat of battle now. I would give myself up to it.

To fight, I needed to get free. The cuffs around my wrists were welded together, preventing me from reaching a claw down to slice the metal open. If I could just work one hand through the tight circle . . .

I strained to twist my smaller left hand free, but my thumb got in the way. The heat of battle was like a growing thing within me. I knew what the red witch would do in this situation. Hatred scalding me inside, I gazed down at my thumb.


I couldn’t reach the metal, but I could reach my own flesh. Didn’t know how long it’d take me to regenerate, didn’t care.

With an undertone of disquiet in his voice, Death ordered, “Empress, rise.”

Oh, I’m about to. The Empress didn’t get caged or collared—or captured.

Biting the inside of my cheek, I used the claw of my right forefinger to slice halfway through my left thumb. A nerve there sang, the pain dizzying, but rage blunted the shock of what I was doing. Blood spurted into the rushing water. More fuel for my growing fire.

Death’s stallion stamped its sharpened hooves on the street, sensing the building threat. Lark’s wolves growled and raised their snouts to sniff the air. They’d scent nothing out of the ordinary.

Death commanded, “Rise, Empress, or Fauna will send her familiars in for a bite.” I heard him dismount, his spurs spinning.

With another swipe and a stifled scream, I severed my thumb. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the water sweep it away. My mutilated left hand slipped through the cuff with ease. The right cuff was no match for my claws.


I was a marionette, and hatred pulled the strings. Finally, I was ready to rise.


I turned to them, my face a mask of blood, my reddening hair whipping in the wind.

Death’s eyes glowed behind his helmet grille just before he twisted around, drawing his swords.

A wall of murderous green towered above him like a tidal wave. He craned his head up and up.

I commanded the swell to break over this embankment, to swamp them all. With a yell, Death flashed out his swords. But he was not yet my focus—I had a plan for him. I tried to ignore the pain as he slashed through my battalion.

Lark sicced her wolves on me. If they caught me, they’d rip me to shreds, as they had those Bagmen. It would be my legs cracking beneath their fangs. Before they could reach me, vines snatched their paws, trapping the beasts upside down. Whimpers, howls. They couldn’t be killed until I took out Lark.

All in good time.

Ogen bellowed, leaping for me; a cypress crashed down on him. Pinned, he punched the trunk with fists like anvils. Agony racked my body. So I punished him with a larger toppling tree. His yell was cut short. Another tree, and another. To combat his strength, I sent poisoned thorn stalks to bind and kill him. Just to be safe, I ordered roots to suck him into the earth, wrenching him down.

Other plants were at work on a more insidious task. . . .

Eyes wide with horror, Lark abandoned her wolves, sprinting a retreat. My vines seized her, suspending her upside down as well, like the Hanging Man. As she dangled and screeched, I waved for her to be brought closer, until our faces were inches apart. “You’re worse than they are,” I murmured, canting my head at her. “We trusted you.”

“Wait, Evie! Please!” Her eyes were terrified. As Joules’s had been.

I enjoyed it just as much. “You’re going to die extra bad.”

I sensed there was little of that retention pond left, the surface replaced with a bed of writhing plants. Vines and slimy water strands. I waved my hand, and Lark was sent airborne, screaming as she sailed directly into that squirming green morass.

Trapped there. A nest of serpents. A nightmare.

One vine reared above her like a viper, plummeting down to gore her. She twisted and rolled, dodging it. Again the vine struck. She eluded it, but she was getting slower.

“There is no shame in surrender,” I told her, as a past Empress had once assured her victims.

Death had cut through the battalion I’d sent his way, and now was coming for me. All according to plan.

I watched him nearing, readying to take my head. Hatred, hatred, boiling. In the midst of this frenzy, another memory of my grandmother’s voice floated into my head: You take after Demeter, a goddess who was not to be crossed. When someone stole her daughter, she was so enraged, she refused to let crops grow, starving the entire world. Evie, there’s a viciousness in you that I must nurture. . . .

Flanked by protective thorns, I screamed with a godlike rage, and the whole world seemed to tremble.

I screamed for Jack and Matthew. For Finn, and even Selena. I screamed for my family and friends I’d lost. For this entire ruined planet.

I screamed because I was about to embrace the red witch once again.

I am the red witch! Would a future Empress see an image of this grisly scene and recoil? No. Because I’m going to win the entire game!

Kill them all? With pleasure.

When my scream ebbed, I motioned Death closer with both hands, nine wriggling fingers. He couldn’t know that my soldiers had bored out the side of this hill and the underpinning of the asphalt that stretched between him and me. A few steps closer, and he would plummet, hurtling through a chute to be trapped below with Lark.

“Afraid to strike? Come to me, Death. Touch me again.”

He approached as if in a trance. “Ease your wrath, and I won’t kill you today.”

I laughed, a throaty sound.

He reached my trap. The roadway crumbled; before he could escape, he dropped. At the last second, he stabbed one sword into the asphalt. He clung to his anchor as vines snaked up his body, curling around his shoulders and neck to drag him down. One of them struck his helmet free, revealing his perfect face, his grimly determined features. He showed no panic, not even when vines tangled over his head, across his mouth.

I stared into his glowing eyes. In a rush of dizziness, I remembered a time when they were bright in the night, looking down on me like stars. Just before his lips met mine—

Wham! Ogen tackled me with the force of a freight train. How?!

We crashed into the ground, with me breaking his fall. Ribs snapped. My head was flung back, cracking my skull. My vision wavered, my army stunned.

How had he escaped my poison and the pressure of those trees?

With the last of my strength, I sank my claws into the tough hide of his neck, injecting him with toxin until my fingers went numb.

He wrapped a hand around my throat, squeezing harder and harder. The Devil’s strength wasn’t fading?

As I stabbed Ogen frantically, I glimpsed Death with a blade between his teeth, climbing up from my trap.


Now it was Death’s turn to laugh. “Ogen is one of two players immune to your poisons. Come, Empress, ask yourself: why else would someone like me ally with someone like him?”

Under Ogen’s grip, something deep in my neck popped. My arms fell limp beside me. I couldn’t feel them. As my lids slid shut and consciousness faded once more, I heard Death grate words to Ogen in that foreign language.

What was the Reaper saying . . . ?

“To match your eyes.”

I gaze at the gift Death presents: a golden collar studded with emeralds. My sworn enemy is trying to woo me, has already declared his intention to take me to his bed.

I’ve been with him for four days, recuperating from his sword blow.

He sits next to me on my pallet in the tent we share. “Do you like it?” he asks, reaching forward to stroke my hair from my forehead. At the contact, his amber irises lighten, beginning to glow.

Death touches me at any chance, will shudder with want just from brushing his thumb over my bottom lip. He seems to relish baring his hands around me, snatching off his hated gloves the second he enters our dwelling.

“It’s beautiful,” I answer with honesty. He must have purchased the piece at the bazaar we passed earlier. I wish I could touch the gold, but my arms are bound behind me. Death wants me, but he does not yet trust me.

Though I am almost healed, I haven’t determined my strategy with him. I know I must escape him, but he has met up with his ally, the Devil. That brute guards the tent whenever Death leaves.

“The gift is very kind.”

“Kindness has nothing to do with it.” His lids grow heavy as he grazes the backs of his fingers along my jawline, then across my collarbone. “You are mine, Empress. You deserve fine things.”

His. Death’s. He intends to take me to his home far in the frozen north, far from my home of winter grasses and endless fields. As alien as this desert.

“Allow me.” He moves to put the collar around my neck, lifting up the length of my hair. Once he fastens the clasp, he presses a lingering kiss to my nape.

When I shiver, he groans against my skin, “You like my touch.”

Gods help me, I do. The hands that deliver death with such ease are beyond tender to me.

He moves closer, facing me. “Ah, creature, for that reaction, I shall buy you jewels every day.”

How different this must be for a boy who has killed everything else he touched. How many new experiences he can enjoy with me alone. I’ve caught myself wondering what it would be like to be possessed by him.

Still, when I am completely healed, I will strike.

Only one can win.

I woke to the sound of metal being pounded and the smell of wet dog. It was nighttime, and I was tied up once more, lying on a dry sleeping bag.

Direct from another disturbing dream.

One of Lark’s wolves lay before me, its snout inches from my face, eyes gazing into mine with that unnatural intelligence. Or rather, its eye, singular. Hello, Cyclops. Probably the mangiest of the three.

The other Arcana had made camp beneath a bridge and lit a fire, seeming to dare anyone to attack.

In addition to posting the guard wolf, they’d bound my elbows tightly behind my back, making it impossible for my claws to reach the rope. I still had difficulty moving in general, but at least feeling had returned to my limbs. Unfortunately, that meant I experienced every second of regeneration as bones reset and regrew, as skin fashioned itself anew. My thumb was a fleshy nub.

I tried to call on my powers—like the Empress in my dream, I was ready to strike—but they were tapped out. Damn this rain! Even if I could manage spores, they probably wouldn’t be strong enough to kill this trio.

I gazed past Cyclops to find Ogen and Death beside the blazing fire. The two horses rested nearby. No sign of Lark or the other wolves.

Ogen squatted next to the flames. In the firelight, his eyes were even more revolting. Around his diamond-shaped pupils, those greenish-yellow veins bulged. They were the color of sickness, of infection. Uneven before, his horns were now the same length. I squinted. There were two raised scars across his back. As if something had been cut from him.

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