DAY 372 A.F.? (MAYBE 373?)
SOMEWHERE IN SLAVER TERRITORY
Inhale exhale inhale exhale
As I raced over the countryside on horseback, I kept hearing deep, ragged breaths.
Rain fell from the black sky, drops pelting my face. Winds whipped my horse’s mane and made my poncho hood flap.
But I still heard breaths.
The tiny hairs on my nape rose. My mare snorted, her ears pricked forward. I didn’t have Lark’s animal keenness or the senses of a huntress like Selena, but I could feel someone—or something—watching me.
I rode harder, pushing myself, pushing my staggering horse, forcing her to navigate the rocky terrain faster than was safe.
I hadn’t slept since fleeing Death’s lair days ago—if you could call them “days” in this never-ending darkness. Sheer will kept me in the saddle. Delirium was taking hold.
Maybe nothing stalked me, and my own breaths sounded foreign to my ears. If I could just rest for a few minutes . . .
Focus, Evie! So much was on the line. Jack’s life was.
I was determined to save him from the Lovers, Vincent and Violet Milovníci.
Sadistic Vincent had captured him; Violet journeyed to meet up with her brother. Once they reunited, those twin serial killers would torture Jack with their contraptions.
I raced to beat Violet, taking untold risks. Even now, I couldn’t believe what I’d done to escape Aric.
Every other minute, a raindrop would hit one of my eyes directly, the sting blurring my vision. I would blink to clear my eyes, and details of my last encounter with Death would blossom in my mind. . . .
The feel of his sword-roughened palms as he’d seized my waist and laid me in his bed. His rasped words: “If you surrender to me, you will be mine alone. My wife in truth. I will do anything to have that.” Even coercing me, promising to save Jack—for a price.
His scent—sandalwood, pine, masculine—had weakened my will like a drug, quelling the heat of battle inside me. Still I’d managed to say: “This won’t work out as you plan.”
His head had inched closer, his amber eyes intent, just before his lips had covered mine. His kiss had a way of muddling my thoughts, making me forget all the things I needed to remember.
“There. That’s better,” he’d murmured as he’d removed my clothes. “Just let me see you . . . touch you.” With his supernatural strength, he must have taken pains not to rip the lace of my panties.
When I lay naked before him, his amber eyes had glittered like stars. Pinpoints of light had mesmerized me. “So lovely, siev?. My gods, you humble me.” He’d given me one of his rare unguarded smiles. “This is joy I feel, is it not?” I’d wanted to sob.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
I shook my head hard. I needed to pay attention. I couldn’t afford to get lost in memories. To get lost at all.
When I’d readied a bug-out bag and my gear in a panic, Matthew had telepathically directed me: —Follow the rushing water upstream into slaver territory. Find the soot valley, then travel its length. If you reach the mass gravesite, you’ve gone too far. Ascend the next mountain to the stone forest.—
Yet since then, he hadn’t answered any of my calls.
I reached the end of a soot-filled valley and started the climb. Rain began to pour.
Minutes? hours? days? passed. Despite the threat I’d sensed, I could barely stay awake. My head kept dipping. Maybe I could close my eyes—just for a second. I dropped forward, resting my cheek against the horse’s mane, an arm on either side of her neck.
My lids slid shut.
When I opened them, I was at Haven.
The mare was gone. No rain, no winds. The sky was star-strewn black. All around me, that eerie A.F. silence.
Matthew, am I in one of your visions? Every detail felt so real. Bitter ash tinged my tongue. The scent of scorched oaks and sugarcane stung my nose. In the distance, Haven House was a blackened ruin. My mother’s funeral pyre.
I’d burned her body and our home.
Jack had secretly helped her die. I understood why. I didn’t accept how. I couldn’t reconcile after.
How many lies he’d told.
Grief ripped through me, for my mother, for our life before the Flash. My new existence was so brutal and visceral, I wondered if my pre-apocalypse memories were actually a soft and hazy dream.
What was real? Unreal?
Though Matthew had looked away when my mom had died, he could still access scenes from the past. Was he giving me the memory of her death?
A breeze feathered over the ash on the ground, the sound beautiful—like sighing. I heard my mother’s faint voice telling Jack, “Use the pillow. . . .”
No, Matthew! I’m not ready to see this! Not ready—
A wolf’s howl pierced the night.
I jolted awake in the saddle. The rain had dwindled to a foggy drizzle. How long had I been out?
I rubbed my gritty eyes. Almost screamed. I was surrounded by shadowy figures.
Wait, not figures. All around me were towering stacks of rocks, placed like logs for a bonfire. There were so many stacks the area resembled a forest. The stone forest.
Who would waste calories to assemble these? And why did I find them so chilling?
Matthew, are you there?
At last, I felt his presence in my mind! —Empress!—
Has Violet joined her brother yet?
—The Violet is not there.—
Oh, thank God.
Shit! You told me Vincent camped within days of Death’s castle. I’ve ridden for DAYS.
—Arcana all around.—
I heard their calls, as if from a sound-out. . . .
—Eyes to the skies, lads!— Joules.
—Trapped in the palm of my hand.— Tess.
—I watch you like a hawk.— Gabriel.
—Behold the Bringer of Doubt!— Selena.
—Don’t look at this hand, look at that one.— Finn.
—Crazy like a fox.— Matthew.
—We will love you. In our own way.— The Lovers.
So many Arcana were close. Which meant I was close.
—Terror from the abyss!— Huh?
Before I could ask about the new call, my sense of being watched returned. I jerked my head around.
—Empress, you’re one stone forest and one clearing away. Some . . . obstacles between us.—
Movement. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man skulking from one stack of rocks to the next.
Another man loped to join the first. The armed pair wore fatigues and creepy night-vision goggles. Soldiers of the Lovers’ army?