So odd to see it on my skin, yet familiar in a way. Just as Matthew told me, the battles must be fought, the markings earned.
Make a kill; earn a tattoo trophy. I swallow, going light-headed as a memory bombards me. At last, I recall the answer to that chilling question.
The doctor asked, “Do you understand why you must reject your grandmother’s teachings?”
I nodded, slurring my words: “Because she wants me to do bad things to other kids.”
The rest of that car ride with Gran blossoms in my consciousness, the scene as fresh as the day it was created:
Just as the cops blared their sirens behind us, she told me, “Every few centuries, a new life-or-death game begins. You must trump the twenty-one other Arcana, Evie. Only one can live.”
“What does that mean, Gran?” I asked, panicked.
“At the end of the game, your hands will be covered with their symbols.” After pulling over to the side of the road, she gently cupped my chin, meeting my gaze with grandmotherly affection in her twinkling brown eyes. “Because you’re going to kill them all. . . .”
Kill them all.
This is what I am. Deep down, hadn’t I known I might have to murder Arthur? It was the Alchemist who’d been doomed the moment he’d “trapped” me.
I now wear his symbol, will forever. I have entered the game, whether I wanted to or not.
No wonder Matthew asked me if I was going to kill him. And what of Selena? Has she kept us around, planning to murder us in our sleep?
Maybe she waits for us to attract more Arcana, like Finn. I wonder if the Archer finds it challenging not to kill us until the time is right.
I turn to Jackson, meeting his stunned gray gaze. This is what I truly am. . . .
I notice a blood-soaked bandage wrapped tightly around his hand. He’s injured himself? I look closer. Not a bandage. Clutched in his grasp is . . . my poppy-red ribbon.
The ribbon he’s saved since before the Flash.
He’s not standing near Selena, and he’s come here for me. Do I believe what is right before me—or my memory of them kissing? What if I’d misinterpreted things?
Oh, God. Finn.
Had I walked in on Selena and the Magician—disguising himself as Jackson?
Am I grasping at straws because I still want Jackson so much? It’s possible that he never touched her, right?
For a dizzy moment, I wonder if Jackson and I still have a future. I ache for it. He can bring me back from this.
He can save me—
The house groans beneath the weight of my vines and limbs, the frame snapping. The foundation quakes. Though I’d practiced with my new powers, they are not yet completely under control. My weakness makes me clumsy with them.
I begin to withdraw my soldiers in a churning, snakelike retreat, but before they can fall back, dormant once more, they’ve ruptured the entire house wide, like a broken egg.
Jackson’s jaw slackens. His gaze darts from one half of the house to the other; then he squints at something off to the side.
Oh. Part of the Alchemist. The little doll’s got teeth, Cajun.
What will he say? Do?
I nervously rub my thumb over my claws until blood drips anew. He told me we could get through anything. Can I trust that?
Save me, Jack. . . .
He stumbles back, making the sign of the cross. Just as I once predicted.
With that one gesture, he has broken my heart utterly.
—And yet I could not be prouder, Empress— seductive Death whispers in my mind.
I hear him so clearly; he must be close. I now have nothing to lose, no reason to live in fear of him. Watch your six, Reaper, I’m on the hunt.
A rasping chuckle. —Your Death awaits.—
I start laughing, and I can’t stop.
Jackson pales even more. I hope he deserts me now and takes the other three with him, out of my reach.
Because otherwise, the Empress might just kill them all—
Moisture tracks down my face. A tear?
As Jackson and I stare at each other, drops fall between us. . . .