I explained how she needed to slice the skin above and below the cuff, along the edges, like she was tracing around a Solo cup. The barbs were in too deep for the metal piece to be slipped down my arm, so I figured we’d just work that circle of skin down too. Easy, peasy. Oh, and we’d do this while excising my bicep. So a couple more slices on each side of the muscle, please.
I yanked off my sweater, twisting the sleeve for something to bite down on, because I’d seen that before in a movie.
When I stuffed the material between my teeth, she raised her scalpel-sharp foreclaw. “This is so messed up.” With her pupils the size of saucers, she began to cut around the cuff.
The pain made my eyes water, but I nodded for her to keep going.
Once she’d made all the cuts to my skin, blood was streaming, making everything slippery. I was growing so delirious that I thought I saw a flicker of enjoyment in her eyes. Red of tooth and claw.
But when I looked closer at her face, all I saw was queasy paleness.
I drew the material from my mouth. “You have t-to hurry,” I choked out. “With this much green and light . . . I’ll heal right up. When I pull the cuff higher, you slip beneath and”—my voice quavered—“yank on the muscle. Quick.” Back in went the sweater sleeve.
With an unsteady nod, she used her claws to get a good pincer hold of the slick muscle, then began her gruesome task.
Through gushing tears, I stared up at the ceiling, feeling pressure, pain, pressure, pain! I shrieked against my sweater. As if he’d heard even that muted sound, Ogen bellowed from somewhere above, bounding through the manor.
“We’re done with that part.” Why was she swaying so much? Or was that me? Delirious. Stay conscious, stay conscious. She started pulling down on the cuff.
Oh, God, the barbs! I vomited in my mouth, choking it back. My legs tottered as I tried to give her a counterforce.
Almost to my elbow, almost . . .
The metal came free in a rush of blood, hitting the floor with a bounce. Done! Shuddering, I spat out my sweater, then rested my good arm on a plant shelf. As I leaned over, I narrowed my eyes at the grisly sight of the cuff. The barbs looked like roots growing into my former skin.
Lark tore the hem of her jersey, using the material to tie a bandage around my mutilated, limp arm.
Good. Didn’t want to see it.
“I can’t believe we did that! Now don’t mummify me in vine, ’kay?”
Freed, I commanded everything to grow. Despite my injuries, I was brimming with power.
Conserve? I had for months.
My army obeyed so quickly, I could hear their skittering spurts. As stalks, stems, and leaves sprang to life, Lark’s eyes darted. “This is so disturbing.”
“So were your cobras.”
“What’s the game plan?” she asked.
“We’ll have to behead Ogen, right?” At her nod, I said, “To reach us back here, he’ll have to fight his way through a jungle, getting weaker and weaker. I’ll hold him in place while your wolves tear at his softer belly. After we force him to the ground, we’ll use their fangs to sever his neck.”
“Okay. They know the program.”
Somewhere above us, he roared, “I smell pretty MEAT.”
“He’s coming, Lark. Use my blood. Get it on any leaves you can. It’ll make them even stronger. I’ll create a last barrier to defend us.”
She dropped down to flatten her palms in the puddle at my feet. Patty-cake. Delirious.
“Our blood is mixing like crazy.” She rose to flick her coated fingers. Crimson on green. “Like we’re blood sisters. Think that’ll give me an extra life in this battle?”
“I have no idea.” While my barricade thickened, I spied something along the back wall . . .
A rosebush. My lips curved. Oh, Aric, you shouldn’t have.
As Lark lined up her wolves in front of the barricade, I grew the rose until the thorns were as big as blades, the stalks like chains. Recalling another Arcana’s tactic, I positioned the stalks just so for Ogen. A last backup.
Finished, I turned to Lark. “You could leave the wolves and go hide.” When she hesitated, I said, “Weirdly, I care if you live or die. I’ll be more concerned with saving your bony ass than taking him out. You can’t help me against him.”
“That doesn’t feel right. I’ll stick around—”
Rock and rubble exploded down from the ceiling; not fifty feet from us, Ogen had punched his way through the floor of the manor!
He lowered his head through the new hole, sharpening his horns on the jagged side of the opening. “Smell BLOOD!” When he dropped down into the warehouse, tremors rippled beneath our feet.
Lark’s face paled even more. “Oh. Shit.”
Ogen wouldn’t have to negotiate a jungle before he got to us, wouldn’t be weakened.
When the wolves hunched down, snarling to fight, I snapped out of my shock. With a wave of my hand, vines shot out to lasso him. They bound his wrists and ankles, coiling around his horns.
Once he was caught, the wolves attacked as one, going for his belly. He roared with pain as the three snatched chunks out of his hide. Greenish-yellow goo seeped from his wounds.
The falcon dove into the battle, hovering above Ogen’s head, scratching and pecking at his eyes.
“It’s working!” Lark cried.
I’d just nodded at her when Ogen thrashed, ripping free from all my vines. He whipped his head around, jabbing one horn into the falcon’s breast. A bloody bundle of feathers thudded to the ground.
Eyes wide, I threw everything I had at him, unending vines. The wolves took turns snapping at any exposed hide.
Despite this all-out assault, he began to advance, shuffling past a minefield of plants. If I could restrain his right arm, he used his left to peel off the bindings. If I managed to snag one leg, he’d drag it behind him until it pulled free.
Where was he getting this strength from? Was he growing even larger?
“NO boss.” He grinned, dripping saliva. “Now FEAST!”
When he reached the barricade, the wolves redoubled their attack—
He scooped one up, twisting its body like a blood-soaked rag. I cried out when he broke Cyclops over his knee. He trampled the third under his hoof.
Through each attack, Lark jerked and gasped for breath. Turning watering eyes toward me, she sputtered, “Wh-what do we do now?”
We were trapped in the back corner, with only one barricade to keep Ogen out.
With a slobbery grin, he squeezed his right hand into a fist. I braced myself, knowing what was coming. He launched that fist at my barrier, punching a hole through it, sending agony all over my body. Though I fought to seal the rift, he’d already gotten one leg in.
He yelled, “ALTAR!” and busted through. Lark scurried out of the way, but he was too quick. With the back of one hand, he swatted her. She flew into the wall—and didn’t move.
My fear gave way to the heat of battle. “You’re going to die for that.” Needing to get him into position, I skirted closer to my trap. “Come, Devil. Touch.” In our Arcana battle at the riverside, Gabriel had surprised Death with a net. I had one of my own at the ready.
When Ogen lunged for me, a net of rose stalks cascaded over him, giant thorns sharper than barbed wire.
“But you’ll pay a price.”
He roared as I tightened the stalks around him, their blades razoring his hide. Tighter, tighter, cutting to the bone. “Don’t you remember your commands, Ogen? I’m telling you to stay . . .” My words trailed off.
Ogen was morphing again. As I watched in horror, he grew even larger, his height stretching toward the lofty ceiling.
That sly brute had been sandbagging all this time. He’d hidden the true magnitude of his power. Did Death even know?
When his horns speared the sunlamps above, raining glass down, I knew I couldn’t hold him.
Ogen flailed against his bonds. They disintegrated, pain scoring me. The giant had freed himself.
Hunching over, he stomped closer to me. I backed away from him, throwing vines between us.
My back met the wall. Nowhere to run.
He snatched at me, seizing me in one of his enormous hands. “Pretty meat!” He inched me closer to his face.
I slashed at him with my claws, but he didn’t seem to feel them.
His slitted pupils expanded as he sniffed me, his foul breath hitting my face. “DEAD meat.” He slammed me to the ground, wrenching a scream from my lungs.
He began strangling me as he had once before. Only this time he took my neck between his thumb and forefinger, savoring, making it last.
The pressure was excruciating. Did he mean to pop my head off, like a doll’s?
Did this doll no longer have teeth?
As consciousness wavered, I thought I heard Aric bellowing for me to hold on. Delirious. I’d never see him again, would never get a chance to convince him how different I was. Would he pass another seven centuries of misery?
Ogen’s drool pinged my cheek. This would be my last sight?
Almost a relief when my lids slid shut and scenes flashed through my mind. I beheld Jack’s face as he’d gazed down at me in that suspended moment of time. So perfectly, I saw him. Heard him. I am home, Evangeline. Finally found the place I’m supposed to be. With my death, would Matthew tell him to stop hunting, to stop searching?
Dimly I perceived a yell. Aric? I managed to crack open my eyes in time to see him speeding into view. Behind his helmet grille, a menacing light burned. I never thought I’d be so happy to see Death charging toward me with both swords drawn.
“You disobey me, Devil? I warned you never to hurt her again.” He had?
Ogen leapt up, releasing me. “Not my boss. I sit upon Lucifer’s knee!”
I sucked in breaths, struggling to rise. This wasn’t over. The battle still called.
When Ogen barreled toward him, Aric feinted right, then struck with his left sword. Ambidextrous. The blade cut deep into the Devil’s flank.
Ogen howled with fury, shattering more lamps. Beating the ground, he charged once more.
Aric leapt over a table, but Ogen caught him with a long sweep of his giant arm, flinging him into the wall not far from Lark. His head snapped against it so hard his helmet was knocked off.
“Aric, no!” I choked out. I threw another wave of vines at the Devil. Connected to so many plants and soaking up the light, I was swiftly regenerating. But even at full power, I could only buy Aric so much time.
Somehow he’d kept hold of his swords. Somehow he rose to a crouch. He gave a shake of his head, as if to clear his vision. “Ah, Ogen, all brawn and no brains. No skill—no style. Don’t you know that quality will always win over quantity?”
Ogen roared so loud it pained my ears. He charged once more.
At the last instant, Aric rolled out of the way, dodging an anvil fist, driving one sword up into the Devil’s guts. Rancid goo oozed.
“B-boss?” Ogen whimpered. He began to shrink as if he’d been deflated.
Twisting that sword, Aric planted his second one.
Ogen’s body dwindled until he was not much taller than Aric. Only then did Death remove his swords—to scissor them at Ogen’s neck.
As Ogen tottered dumbly on cloven feet, Aric said, “Until next time, Devil.” Slice.
The Devil Card was no more. . . .
With an exhausted rise and fall of his shoulders, Aric stared down at the still-shrinking body of his onetime ally.
The battle was done.
Aric’s back was to me. No more cuff on my arm. No helmet for him, leaving his neck vulnerable. An impulse seized me.
The heat of battle? More than.
“I heard you calling for me, Empress,” he said as he began turning toward me—
I’d already bounded up and struck, planting five claws into Death’s neck.
All his muscles tightened, but Aric didn’t try to defend himself. Just hung his head and let me stab him—surrendering, allowing me time enough to pump poison into him.
When I released him, he faced me with an agonized look. “Well-played, creature.” He dropped one sword, grasping the blade of the other to hand me the hilt. “Finish me, then. I won’t fight back.”
Reeling with confusion, I took the blade, but made no move to strike. I’d meant to explain my actions, but his expression robbed me of breath. “Y-you want to die?”
With a bitter laugh, he said, “Why would I want to live on for centuries more when I would despise myself at every second?”
“For coveting you yet again. Over and over, I fall for this. The first time you attacked me, I defended myself, disbelieving it was you. I struck you down before you could deliver a full dose of your poison. You died in the next game before I could find you, but in the third, I watched you and waited.”