Cou Rouge shrugged. “Suit yourself.” His finger tightened on the trigger.
Oh dear God, he was about to shoot, and Jackson couldn’t stop it, I couldn’t do anything—
The man pulled the trigger. Click. Nothing. Click. Nothing.
Cou Rouge gaped at his gun, then at Jackson, at the chilling expression on the boy’s face.
The same look I’d seen that night in his house, the one promising pain; now it seemed multiplied by a thousand.
I was seeing how much Jackson was about to savor the pain he promised.
Cou Rouge gave a whimper just before Jackson lunged forward, one of his brutal fists connecting with the man’s jaw.
The man went down from a single hit, limp. But Jackson hauled him back up, beating him more, seeming mindless with rage. “Only want the girl?” Another blow shattered the soldier’s nose. “Worst thing you could ever have said!”
“Jackson!” I cried. “Please, let’s go!”
The man’s face grew unrecognizable, shapeless, and still Jackson beat him. I wasn’t witnessing a fight, or a rescue. I was beholding punishment.
When Matthew casually trotted back for me, catching my arm, Jackson yelled, “Get her out of here! I’m right behind.”
“Come with us, please!” I screamed as Matthew forced me away. “Nooo, Matthew! Go grab him!”
Matthew chuckled at that, then shoved me forward.
“Go back, go back!”
He just continued squiring me through a minefield of explosions, brawls, and Bagmen, maneuvering me in different directions.
One time he yanked me back against his chest—just as a bullet whizzed past, missing us by inches. A few seconds later, he palmed my head, shoving me to my knees, and I heard some kind of shrapnel whistle directly above me.
I realized he was seeing a maze of present and future, a web of occurrences visible only to him.
As if he were fate itself. . . .
Still I begged him to go back for Jackson—until I spied soldiers pursuing us.
By the time we’d spotted Selena at the edge of the charred woods, dozens of militiamen were on our trail, calling for their comrades to “Get the girl!”
Selena intercepted them, with two rifles tucked against her sides. She blasted away at them, allowing Matthew and me to dive into a nearby ditch for cover.
A handful of shots sang over our heads, then stopped abruptly. From their shouts, it seemed our pursuers had realized Selena was a she, and ordered a cease-fire.
Selena didn’t follow that order. When they took up positions in a gully opposite us, she emptied her guns at them. Then she dropped into the ditch with us.
As the soldiers decided what to do—they couldn’t risk two females by storming us—Selena snapped, “Where the hell is J.D.? Damn it, there was one person I wanted to see come out of the camp. Not you two.”
I cried, “He wouldn’t come with us!”
“And you took no for an answer? I would’ve made him come with me! You’re not good enough . . .” She trailed off, her attention seized by something beyond our makeshift bunker.
I turned to find Finn strolling past the rednecks to hop down with us. “Yo.”
I found my voice first. “You just . . . walked right by them?”
With a cocky air, he brushed off one shoulder, then the other. “Told you I was a magician.” Then to Selena, he said, “Finn’s my name. Getting you back to my pad’s the plan. You just tell me when this stalemate gets old, because I can seriously change this channel.”
Selena didn’t seem nearly as shocked as I was. She merely patted her bow and said, “As can I.”
“You think you can take out more than I can?” Finn scoffed. “You’re on.”
Should I point out the obvious? “Kid, you don’t have a weapon.”
He chucked me under the chin. “Not to worry, sugartits, I got this.”
With a roll of her eyes, Selena charged up the rise, her bowstring singing.
Finn followed, and began to . . . whisper to the rednecks?
The sound of Selena’s archery was uncanny. In the smoke and confusion, I peeked up over the ridge and saw her shooting arrows with an impossible speed.
A supernatural speed.
Her skin was glowing with that blood-tinged hue—like a hunter’s moon.
Beside her, Finn raised his hands, softly chanting in a language I’d never heard. His breaths seemed to be searing, as if he were diffusing the air with heat. I perceived power, and he was directing it at our attackers.
The shooters he addressed stumbled on their feet, looking as dumbfounded as I felt, because the soldiers beside them now resembled Bagmen.
The rednecks began murdering their own comrades.
Somehow Finn was making these men look like their enemies.
And his ability seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I needed to witness this, needed to reach the memories that felt just on the verge of surfacing.
As Selena picked off stragglers, she winked at Finn; he grinned back. They accepted their powers, readily accepted such abilities in others.
“Arcana,” Matthew murmured at my ear.
“Yes,” I breathed. “This is real? Not another vision?”
I possessed abilities. These three kids did as well. Matthew had his live-streaming foresight, Selena could run and shoot like a goddess of the hunt, Finneas could create illusions.
And me? I smelled my own rose scent steeping the air—so lovely, almost intoxicating. I glanced down to find my claws had flared.
Matthew cast me a relieved look. “Thorns.”
“I can go help Jackson, fight with him!”
He shook his head firmly. “You don’t attack. You await, you beckon.”
Come, touch, but you’ll pay a price. I remembered the witch’s besotted admirer. She’d beckoned him.
The admirable deviousness of briars I’d once admired? Was that guile mine as well?
I heard a twig snap behind us and whirled around.
Matthew was staring at the end of a rifle, the barrel just inches from his face.
I glanced up at the slavering soldier who brandished it. I didn’t dare think he would run out of bullets too. He would capture me and kill Matthew. I had to stop him!
“Beckon, Empress,” Matthew whispered.
And then . . . I did.
I raised a trembling, delicate hand to the man, palm up. A fragile lotus bloomed directly from my skin, right before his riveted gaze. I blew him a kiss across its petals—and the rifle dropped, abandoned.
Because the soldier was clamping his neck, face gone bright red from the spores closing his throat and robbing his lungs of air.
As he thrashed on the ground, helpless, the lotus disappeared; my claws grew, sharpening—but now they were dripping like hypodermic needles.
“Poison.” Matthew grinned. “Lethal.”
I gaped. Ten thorns working like ten needles?
For the briefest instant I wondered if it would feel good to plunge them into flesh.
No! “I-I can’t! Matthew, I can never be like her.”
“You fight her, you’ll face her. You must.”
Sink to her level? I feared I would literally become my worst nightmare, losing myself forever. “Matthew, what if I can’t come back . . . ?”
Selena trotted over with a glare and drilled an arrow into one of the soldier’s wide, disbelieving eyes—
The tanker blew, shaking the world like an atomic blast.
When we realized Jackson wasn’t at the spot where he was supposed to meet Selena, Matthew had to hold me upright.
He can’t be dead, can’t be dead.
But if he’d gotten caught in that blast, how could he have survived?
I’d just stifled a sob when Finn asked, “So what do we do now?”
“We wait for Jackson,” I quickly said. “Or we go back in for him.”
“This is your fault!” Selena snapped at me. “God, will you turn off that scent?”
“Just shut up and let me think!”
With his lids at half-mast, Finn said, “I dunno. I really like the way she smells.” When he lifted a lock of my hair and inhaled, Selena rolled her eyes.
“So what’s up with you guys?” he asked, still sniffing me. “Are you like the Super Friends?”
Matthew said, “Cards. Cards! Cards. Cards—”
“Stop, please.” I jerked back from both boys. “Just let me think! Finn, can you get back into the camp, or disguise me?”
Selena scoffed. “They’ll smell you, little shop of horrors. I still can’t believe you left him behind!”
Neither could I. “Why don’t we save the blame for later—for now we need to FIND JACK!”
I whirled around.
Emerging from the smoke, Jackson stumbled toward us, covered with grit and ash, his clothes blood-spattered. One of his calves was burned severely.
I gave a cry of relief and ran toward him, wanting to help him, but his furious gaze made my steps falter.
Still quaking from his fight, he just held up one finger, warning me away.
So volatile. Had he just killed a man with his bare hands?
Finn broke up the tension. “Okay, now that the gang’s all here, let’s start making tracks back to my totally secure pad.”
An hour later, we learned that Jackson did not agree with Finn about the security of his pad.
It was a weekender, secluded in a blackened forest, overlooking what used to be a lake. A Bagman draw.
But Finn vowed that no one would bother us—just as they hadn’t on our trek to get to his place.
Selena, Matthew, and I had known that Finn was disguising us. Jackson hadn’t. He’d limped along, bow at the ready, taking point. No one, not even Selena, had dared to approach him. We’d held back, agreeing not to discuss our new discoveries around Jackson. . . .
At the front door, he said, “You doan board your windows here, boy?” He cautiously entered, motioning for me to follow right behind him. Matthew trailed me.
Inside, I was looking less at the windows and more at the Sam’s Club warehouse of goods stored here. Yes, that militia had been rich; apparently, Finn had taken full advantage of his abilities.
Wares were piled high: batteries, boxes of chocolate bars, Coleman lanterns, crates of bottled water, cereal.
Selena snidely observed, “Kind of looks like your mom’s old place, Matt.”
Matthew squeezed my shoulder, just preventing me from a screeching girl-fight attack. Even Jackson frowned at her.
“No need to board up any windows,” Finn told Jackson as he fetched three Duraflame logs—from a towering pile of them. He bundled them over to a fireplace with a stone hearth and antlers above the rough-hewn mantel.
Jackson eyed him cagily. “And no one can see the smoke, either?”
“Seriously, Cajun-type guy. We’re camouflaged here. I’ve stayed at this cabin for weeks, stealing from that militia.”
As the fire started warding off the chill inside, we raided Finn’s food, dragging our fruit cups, Doritos, and Chef Boyardee cans in front of the hearth.
But not Jackson. With ash and blood still streaked all over, he rummaged till he’d found a fifth of whiskey.
Bow strapped over his back and bottle clenched in one mangled hand, he limped to a bench before the fire, sinking down. He sat with his elbows on his knees, staring at the flames, drinking heavily as we finished stuffing ourselves.
I put together a selection of food for him, but he declined with a sharp shake of his head, turning up the bottle instead. Then he leveled bloodshot eyes at Finn. “How have you been getting in and out with all this stuff?”
Finn shrugged. “Candy. Baby. I even made it out with one of their trucks. It’s out back.” When Jackson looked incredulous, Finn said, “What can I say? I’m crafty. I’ve had that Tahoe gassed up and ready to take me back to Cali. But it’s been so easy leeching off those reds that I guess I got lazy. Plus, I like to play pranks on them—more of a compulsion really. Not to mention that I’ve had this excruciating boner for Hickette.”
Casting a significant glance at Selena, he added, “I’ll never set my sights so low again.”
Seeming unfazed by Finn’s colorful personality, Jackson swigged that bottle. “Somebody want to explain to me why those soldiers were shooting each other?”
Jackson had seen that? I glanced at Finneas, counting on him to have a ready answer.
He smoothly said, “Inbreeding?”
God, this night must be awful for Jackson. Probably nothing was making sense to him, puzzles left and right, and we were hiding all the pieces from him.
“You been north of here, boy?”
“I have. All over the Carolinas. And I will not be going back.”
“That’s where we been goan.” Jackson must be getting buzzed for his accent to sound so thick. “To the Oudder Banks.”
“Bad idea, Cajun. There’re three ways to get there from here, each one worse than the last. You can either hold your breath through the plague colonies, slip through Slaverville, or take the mountain route.” Something flashed in his expression, something somber, which seemed out of place on his animated face. “That’s where the cannibals really like to hole up.”
“You’ve seen them?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. And it’s, like, totally worse than you can imagine. Their steady diet of grilled Homo sapiens really screws with their heads. And the miner cannibals in North Carolina? They’re the worst! Dude. They don’t even grill.”
Selena said, “The Outer Banks are looking less and less like my future.”
“We sure will miss you, Selena,” I said, sugar and snide.
When Jackson unsteadily rose, favoring his good leg, I shot to my feet to help him. “We need to get your burn bandaged up.” No response. “Jackson? Please eat something.” He glowered. “What’s wrong with you?”