Endless Knight

Page 25

He drummed his fists across his chest, then tore off for Joules. More concrete dropped.

So now what was their plan?

“Tess, take out Death!” Joules yelled over his shoulder. “Ogen’s on me tail!”

Movement caught my eye. Tess.

She stood a few dozen feet away between scorched trunks, shaking, a dagger in her hand. Was their backup plan to stab Death? I could almost hear their reasoning: if the World Card couldn’t control her powers, she should at least be able to plunge a knife.

But this girl was terrified, watery eyes wide in her face. The knife trembled. Though she didn’t seem aware of it, her feet . . . weren’t touching the ground.

Heaving breaths, Death rolled to his back to kick against the edges of the net. He would be free by the time Tess reached him. Just in time for him to stab her.

“Strike, Tess!” Joules sounded even farther away.

When she looked at me with terrified brown eyes, I shook my head in warning. “Not enough time. Free me, and I’ll help you!” I blinked. Were her clothes growing baggier on her body, right in front of me?

“I-I’m so sorry,” she cried, and fled in Joules’s direction.

The Tower must have realized she wasn’t following orders. He yelled, “Gabe, take the Reaper out!”

From somewhere above the fog, Gabriel answered, “It’s done.” A shrill whistle sounded as he began to dive.

Death met my gaze, his eyes promising revenge.

I narrowed my own. “I told you to watch your six, Reaper.”

Yet just before Gabriel attacked, I heard another explosion.


Ogen was plummeting—along with the entire bridge. Joules went careening down one edge, scrabbling for a handhold. At the last second, he snagged one of those suspension cables.

How long could he hold on to slick metal? He couldn’t regenerate, wouldn’t survive that fall.

When a flailing Ogen sped past the shore, helpless in the water, I raised my face. “Gabriel, save Joules!”

At once, that whine changed trajectory.

Too late. The Tower fell.

“Oh, God. . . .”

Just before Joules crashed onto the jagged rocks below, Gabriel scooped him up, rocketing back up into the clouds.

From a distance, Joules yelled, “Not how this was supposed to go down, Empress! Teeth’re coming, leaving you a wee bit fecked.”

Right on cue, the first vehicle in the Teeth convoy appeared at the top of the rise, another rumbling up behind it—at least ten armored vehicles moving in. A cloudy-eyed man thundered orders from the gun turret of a Humvee, and the other men gave battle cries, beginning to fire down on us.

All to avenge a male who had enslaved their minds. “Kill the unclean one!”

Being called that was really getting old. Like it’d been funny the first two times . . .

Those battle cries faded when Cyclops launched himself at the driver of one jeep. As blood splattered the windshield, the vehicle never braked. At the edge of the canyon, Cyclops leapt to safety, but the jeep rolled onward over the precipice, carrying its screaming occupants to their deaths.

The other two wolves joined the fray, snatching out throats as bullets sprayed them—and the opposite shore. Bam bam bam. Grit kicked up in a line along the edge of Death’s net. He growled with fury when one bullet caught him. Then another.

Somehow, Death rose up, freed at last, setting off for cover. Though he was pouring blood from his left shoulder and his right side, he didn’t quicken his pace as bullets plugged the ground just inches from his feet.

He reached another boulder not twenty feet from me and dropped behind it, long legs stretched out in front of him. His head fell back against it, and he squeezed his eyes to the sky.

The sight sent me adrift, my mind recalling another time when he’d lain like that, his face raised to the sun. He’d been petting my hair as I rested my head on his lap. . . .

Now he was shot. Trapped. When I felt a pang of what might have been pity, I gave myself an inner shake. This situation was what I’d dreamed of: Death without his armor, multiple Arcana gunning for his head.

My pity was unfounded. With a bellow, Death shot up from his cover and launched one of his swords overhead. The blade flew like a throwing dagger—tip over hilt across the width of the river—to skewer the Teeth’s leader through the throat.

Yet there were scores more, gearing up their larger guns. Another male took up the charge: “Kill her!”

With a black look, Death returned to his cover, gripping his remaining sword.

He and I were both screwed. If I ran, they’d gun me down, assuming Death didn’t get me first. If I remained, the Teeth would capture me and do . . . worse.

Blinding streams of silver began descending on the convoy. The first speared the hood of the largest vehicle; lightning erupted, exploding the truck high up into the air. It plummeted, spinning like a dropped pinwheel, ejecting charred bodies with each rotation.

Bodies falling. Just like Joules’s Tower Card.

More javelins rained down, obliterating the vehicles one by one. Destroyed. Wolves scavenged any screaming survivors.

A dripping, enraged Ogen appeared on the opposite shore. With a hair-raising yowl, he stomped off in Joules’s direction once more.

Joules called out, “Farewell, Empress. We canna kill the Reaper—it’s all on you!” As he, Gabriel, and Tess fled the scene, their calls grew fainter, replaced by Ogen’s yell of frustration. . . .

When Ogen eventually skulked back to Death, shoulders low with defeat, I couldn’t keep myself from grinning. Got away from you, did they? Just as my allies had escaped Death’s reach. Reminded of his lack of icons, my smile widened.

“Ah, creature, it seems you’re now a beacon of hope.” Death levered himself to his feet, unable to stifle a grimace of pain. “Well, you heard the Tower—it’s all on you. Come end this.”

“That’d be really fair, boss. With both hands tied behind my back? Free me and let the cards fall where they may.”

“Speaking of which . . .” He whistled for his horse, and the red-eyed mount trotted to him. From his saddlebag, Death took out that strip of metal harvested from his black armor.

Only now it looked like a barbed cuff.

“My strategy for the game has changed.” As he strode toward me with a menacing expression, he said, “It will be best if you don’t struggle.”


Death freaking neutered me.

As we rode, he had his right arm slung around my neck, resting over my collarbones, his hand gripping my shoulder.

And I was powerless to do anything about it.

The metal device he’d been fashioning had a name: a cilice, an armband with spikes that dug into my skin. And when this cilice was made of the same metal as his armor, it neutralized my powers. Death weakening life, or whatever.

As the Reaper had put it earlier today: “Aside from some superficial glowing and your customary rapid healing, you’re just a normal girl now. The only way for you to remove it would be to excise your bicep muscle, as you did your thumb. But you won’t be alone for long enough to perform that procedure.”

That bastard had painstakingly carved every single barb, knowing what it would do to me, knowing he would shove it up my arm and make Ogen squeeze it tight.

I had screamed with pain. In the hours since then, my skin had regenerated around the barbs, but they were still agonizing. No need to tie me up anymore, now that I was helpless.

Today’s count: Powers defused? All. Attempts to kill Death? Several. Successful attempts? None-point-none. The Arcana were gloating:

—Failed attempt on Death!—

—Empress is still his prisoner.—

—Until he slits her throat.—

Despair settled over me, as bitter as the cold. We’d failed. And we’d never get a chance like that again. Even my earlier joy at finding Death’s hand clear of those icons had faded. If my friends lived, then why hadn’t Matthew contacted me?

What if they were still trapped in the mine?

I tried to console myself with the knowledge that I’d gained new players for our alliance, but the worry was sharp. Until I managed to escape, I couldn’t do anything to help them. Unless I got this cuff off me.

I told Death, “I will get freed of this thing.”

“Though you’re probably vicious enough to chew your own arm off—I put nothing past you—your odds of shedding the cilice are long.”

My teeth had started chattering. As usual, he’d denied me my coat, my boots. But he’d insisted on me riding with him, to make up time. We must be closing in on his home. “If you believe in this cuff thing, then why are you keeping me cold? Why not give me back my coat?”

“You thought that was to weaken you?”

“Wasn’t it?”

“No, that was for our enjoyment.”


“You should be grateful for the cilice,” he said. “With it, there’s no need to bind your arms.”

“Then why do this now? Why not put it on me from the very beginning?”

“My armor has served me well—I preferred it unaltered. Plus, I never expected you to live this long.”

“You would put a lot of store in that armor. In your first fight without it, you got plugged—twice—by cannibals. I bet you’re still bleeding under all that metal. Which is a definite mood brightener.”

“I’ll heal from these as I have from all my other wounds.”

I frowned. “Do you regenerate like I do?”

I heard him exhale heavily. “You truly remember nothing about me?” He sounded almost . . . troubled by this.

Matthew had told me he’d given me memories of past games, along with some kind of safety valve to keep me from accessing them all at once. Or else I could go crazy like him. So I hedged: “I thought we weren’t supposed to remember, that only the Fool and the current winner know about the past games.”

“And I thought our struggles would prove unforgettable.”

“Anything I recall is because Matthew showed snippets to me. Besides, why should I tell you how much I remember?”

“Why should I reveal how quickly I heal?”

Touché. “Fine. You first.”

“I heal quickly, but not like you. And I retain my scars to remind me of my victories.”

So he had strength, speed, skill, and enhanced healing? “I remember you stabbing me in a desert,” I admitted. “I remember how badly I wanted to live, but you didn’t care. Not until you realized you could touch my skin. You said you’d see me well.”

“The Fool showed you nothing else?”

“Before you tried to kill him? No.”

“If I’d wanted him dead, he would be so.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

“You think I couldn’t have gotten your mortal to drop the Fool’s unconscious body into the deep? The boy was already frenzied to save the female he . . . sleeps with. All it would’ve taken was a few cuts across your pretty flesh, or maybe a jostle of your broken arm. He would have dropped the Fool to rush headlong to you. Then I would have gutted him without even setting you down.” In an absent tone, he said, “I regret not gutting him.”

“Jack’s smarter than you give him credit for.”

“I think he’s sly, like an animal, but you have him under your spell. He, at least, believed that what you gave him that night was worth dying for.”

“You’re disgusting.”

“Merely stating fact.”

“What Jack and I share is more than a single night. That was just the icing on the cake.”

Death’s grip on me tightened, as if he were jealous. Which made no sense. I could accept his attraction—since I was the only girl he could touch—but I couldn’t accept his jealousy. Not when I knew how much he hated me.

“Everyone thinks of you as some kind of earth mother,” he said. “They have no idea you’re a femme fatale, more Aphrodite than Demeter.”

Gran had mentioned Demeter as well.

“You used the mortal to keep you safe, until you came into your powers. Now he is obsolete.”

“I didn’t use Jack. And we will be reunited. We’re fated—”

Death’s arm squeezed even harder. “Do not talk to me of fate.”

“I don’t have to talk to you about anything,” I told him, resolved to say nothing else.

Dusk came and went, the rain pouring with abandon. Late into the night, we rode.

I hadn’t been on a horse for this long a span since riding my old nag Allegra. Jack and I had freed her before we’d burned down Haven, before the arrival of the Army of the Southeast. Would they have captured her? Eaten her?

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