“Weaknesses?” Finn asked.
“One,” Selena answered. “The Empress.”
“Yeah, so I keep hearing,” I said.
Finn frowned. “If he’s a swordsman, what’s to stop him from chopping down your trees, going all Paul Bunyan on your ass?”
Had Jackson eased closer to us? To me?
Selena said, “It must be her poison, then.”
“So how do I get close enough to him to deliver a toxin without getting stabbed myself? How do I get past his armor?”
Selena pinned me with her gaze. “We’ll have to figure that out if we want to live.”
After a moment, I looked away. “To think I used to feel sorry for him.”
—I do not want your sympathy, creature!—
You no longer have it!
—I’ve missed our times together. Missed touching you.—
Because he killed with his touch.
“Evie?” Finn snapped his fingers in front of me.
“What? What’d you say?”
“Your card.” He held it up.
The Empress sat upon a throne with her arms opened wide. In the background were rolling hills of green and red, from crops—and blood. A waterfall cascaded in the distance.
“You look scary. And sexy.”
I was about to say, Not me. But it had been me, in a previous life.
Finn showed the card to Jackson, whose gray gaze flicked from the card to me and back.
“Okay, so you’ve got poison in your claws,” Finn said, “and a lotus thingy that pops up from your palm to choke and paralyze people, and a tornado of thorns, and your blood revives dead plants. Oh, and wound regeneration. Did I miss anything?”
Toxic spores from my hair. I could lay waste to an entire city with them. Hearing someone else outline these things, I felt even more like a freak. I gazed at Jackson, wishing he could understand that no one wanted to be a monster, to be feared. Hell, even a fiend like Death called me creature.
One of the good things about going full-on Empress? When I was burning with that white-hot battle fury, there was no room for doubt.
Now, as Jackson tilted his head at me, I was awash in it.
Selena happily added, “She can also mesmerize guys.” Revealed, no doubt, for Jackson’s benefit.
He narrowed his eyes, his expression saying, Son of a bitch! That explains a lot.
Finn looked excited. “Mesmerize? Really? It goes with your eerie Arcana call.” Making his voice breathy, Finn said, “ ‘Come, touch, but you’ll pay a price.’ ”
Jackson gave a bitter laugh.
Though the Empress’s arms were welcoming on the card, her gaze was menacing—as if she was thinking her call right at that moment. But then, that was her—my—MO. To beckon, to allure, then to strike.
“Mesmerizing is not something I do every day,” I hastily explained. “Just when I’m in full Empress mode. It doesn’t always work, and not for long anyway. I went all-out against the Alchemist, and he was still keen to slice my tongue out and pickle it in a jar!”
Selena nodded. “Uh-huh, whatever you say, Evie.”
I turned on her. “And what about you, La Luna? You have the power to seed doubt and to lure people to you with moonlight!” Beware the lures. “You set a trap for me at your house in Georgia, but Jack was with me so you held off attacking. You know, I’d bet that wasn’t even your place—I never saw a single photo of you on the walls.”
As she’d told me once before, she said, “Prove it.”
Everyone fell silent.
“What are your weaknesses?” Finn finally asked me.
Again Selena was happy to answer: “When there are no plants around to feed her energy, she taps out quickly, even more so if she has to use her blood to revive or create plants. She needs the sun. Her power is collaborative—some cards are more dependent on the environment than others.”
Keen to get the attention off of me, I said, “And what are your weaknesses?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Selena pointed to her thigh quiver, which held one real arrow and two makeshift ones. She’d been trying to replenish her supply, but, as she’d explained, there wasn’t any green wood to carve new ones from.
I supposed I could help her with that—open a vein, coax a sapling to life—but I didn’t yet trust her enough to weaken myself just to make her stronger. And it wasn’t like I had a lot of juice on tap.
Just as Matthew had warned, my powers continued to deteriorate in this rain.
“Eventually, I will always run out of arrows. Then I have to depend on my enhanced speed, endurance, and grace.”
Rolling my eyes, I picked up the Devil Card. “So, this is Ogen, a.k.a., El Diablo. He allies with Death. He’s got horns and hooves like a goat man, but his body is all ogre—with superhuman strength. His call? I’ll make a feast of your bones.”
“Ogen, the ogre?” Finn raised his brows. “Really?”
I shrugged. “I don’t make the news, I just report it.” I picked up the Judgment Card next. “You guys have met Gabriel as well. He can strike like a missile from above.”
Selena added, “And he’s got animal senses. That’s why it’s so dangerous that he’s hooked up with Joules. Gabriel can scent us even through Finn’s illusions, then Joules could just wait up on some vantage, pointing and shooting, picking us off.”
Strengths and weaknesses. I needed to ask Matthew what could take me out, besides the Touch of Death.
Finn sniffed to Selena, “Hide you with my illusions?”
I’d seen Survivor alliances tighter than mine.
He asked me, “What happens if one of us bites it due to natural causes?”
I didn’t remember the answer, so I waved to Selena.
“The Arcana closest to you gets your icon.”
“What happens to the losers?”
Selena answered him, “They’re reborn, with no memory of their past lives. Well, except for him.” She pointed at Matthew. “The Fool sees everything. That’s what makes him crazy.”
Matthew nodded happily at her.
Directing a scowl her way, I shuffled through some more cards, but Finn stayed my hand over one. “Wait, I’ve seen this guy.” His face paled.
“The Hierophant?” The image was of a robed figure giving a blessing to his kneeling followers. They all had milky white eyes. I handed Finn the card.
In a hushed tone, Matthew said, “Hierophant. He of the Dark Rites.”
I remembered Gran warning me about him: He’s a charmer, Evie, a spellbinder. Never look him in the eyes. You are vulnerable to him. And he’s not the only one. “My grandmother told me he can control your mind to make you commit monstrous acts. Once you do, you’ll be enslaved forever—even after his death, you’ll keep doing whatever it is he wanted from you. The monstrous acts vary each game.” Having been brainwashed in a nuthouse, I had a particular dread of mind control.
Eyes locked on the image in his shaking hand, Finn said, “He was with the cannibals. I think I can guess what the monstrous act is. He’s making people eat human flesh.”
“No one needs to force people to eat others.” Jackson was joining in the conversation? “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s no food in these mountains. None.”
We were going on months of empty grocery stores and zero crops growing. Few animals were alive to be hunted.
His voice a whisper, Finn said, “These particular cannibals feed . . . on the living. Not just raw. Living. Monstrous enough for you?”
No. No way.
Finn looked at Matthew, his gaze haunted. “These Arcana are sick, and they aren’t just fighting each other. What the hell is the point of our existence?”
Matthew glanced up, startled. “Point? Cachet. We are champions of the gods!”
“Gods?” I croaked, peering up at the low ceiling. “Are there, like, deities running around, controlling the game?”
Suddenly Jackson yanked his crossbow over his back, aiming out the hut’s opening. “We got company.”
Selena had already risen to one knee, her bow and arrow aimed—a little too close to my head. “It’s a wolf,” she said just as I spied gleaming yellow eyes in the burned woods.
Big yellow eyes.
Though Jackson relaxed his aim a fraction, Selena looked even more deadly. Before I could say a word, her arrow zoomed past my ear toward the animal.
When we heard the creature speeding away through the mud, Selena bit out a curse.
“Why would you kill it?” I demanded. “That might be the last of its kind on earth!”
Even Jackson—a seasoned hunter—was giving her a look that said, Not cool.
“That was no ordinary wolf.” Selena looked uneasy. Selena never looked uneasy. “We’ve been scouted by the Strength Card. The Mistress of Fauna.”
I remembered that card, and Gran’s words: Fauna can control animals, Evie, borrowing their senses and making them her familiars.
“Why didn’t we hear her call grow louder?” Finn said.
Selena had already strung one of her makeshift arrows. “Because she isn’t near us, not yet. Only her familiars.”
I scrambled out of the line of fire. “Why didn’t she sic the wolf on us?”
Selena shook her head. “I don’t know why, but Fauna just wanted a look-see. And I think . . .”
“I think she wanted us to know she’s watching us. That wolf has been stalking us for days, but I never caught sight of it. Now it reveals itself?”
I swallowed, and Finn said, “What do you mean, watching us? And why would the Strength Card be involved with animals?”
I remembered this one—I’d had the same question eight years ago. “People only started calling her Strength in recent times. She used to be the Fortitude Card, referring to her single-minded purpose. She thinks the way animals do, like beasts on the hunt, with a sole, blood-driven resolve.”
I drew out her card, showing them a delicate girl in a white robe, holding the mouth of a ferocious lion. “Her card is one of the most literal. She can manipulate animals the same way I do plants. Like Gabriel, she has animal senses.”
Selena said, “Not only that—she can tap into the senses of nearby creatures.”
I nodded. “I remember that. If she wanted to spy on us, she could get a crow to fly over and see us through its eyes.” Even Jackson was listening intently to this. “And if she exchanges her blood with an animal, it becomes her familiar, connected to her forever. I don’t know how exactly. Selena?”
“Trade secret. Sometimes we don’t know all the powers. Though Matthew would.”
He cast her a mulish look. “Not your psychic.”
“Matthew, please,” I murmured, “can you tell us anything?”
He gazed down at his hand. Yet now he seemed to be looking for something there.
Or maybe my paranoia was spreading like kudzu. I asked Selena, “Do you ever ally with Fauna? Does her family chronicle?”
“Not normally. Each game she’s allied with different cards.”
Finn stared for long moments at the image. “She’s got an infinity symbol on her card. It’s right above her head. Like on mine.”
Those shared symbols. Death’s card had a waterfall like mine and a rose upon his flag. In essence, he carried a single white rose—as the Fool did on his card. “. . . to be read like a map.”
Seeming to give himself an inner shake, Finn said, “So, to recap, we’ve got zombies on our trail and cannibal mines nearby, and now we’ve got another Arcana on our ass.”
“Look on the bright side,” I said. “How many animals can still be alive? This game, it would suck to be the Mistress of Fauna.” No sooner had the words left my mouth than a wolf howled in the distance.
With plaintive calls, two more answered.
Blood spilling from my mouth and wound, I writhe on Death’s sword.
Please. The word is on my lips, but I am too proud to utter it.
Though I want to live, I will never beg!
The Reaper removes his gauntlet, revealing a hand covered with icons. He must have nine kills.
Soon to harvest five more.
He reaches for me with that bared hand, a weapon in itself. I shudder with fear and agony. The more I shake, the more his sword slices at my entrails and raps against my spine. Tears blur my vision, spilling down my cheeks.
In the distance, a lion roars.
“This will hurt for nary a moment more,” he promises, his eyes intent on mine.
All the things I wish I’d done. At least my family will pass on to future Empresses what knowledge I’ve garnered. I made sure of that.