“I wonder, me.” Without another word, he took his bottle and bow, then limped out on the porch.
He so clearly wanted to be alone. Deciding to let him go for now, I returned to sit with the others.
When only the four Arcana remained, Finn asked, “So how long have you guys known you were different?”
In an airy tone, Selena said, “Awhile now.”
Matthew answered, “Different?”
I replied, “Um. Just found out recently.” All of us were hesitant to offer more, all of us on guard.
“So, what I really want to know is how. And why.” Finn gazed from one of us to the next. “Shit. I was hoping you guys could tell me something.”
Selena shook her head. “I’ve got nothing. Ask Matthew. The way he was dodging bullets, he must be a clairvoyant.”
Matthew said, “Kill the bad cards.”
Bad cards. He’d said that a lot. Maybe the Arcana war was simply a matter of good versus evil.
As I gazed over this group, I wondered if perhaps we were supposed to band together, like a hand of cards—playing to our strengths and shoring up our weaknesses. As I’d witnessed in that battle of Arcana.
Matthew had told me I was fated to fight Death. I’d vowed never to face the Reaper; would I reconsider if I had backup?
Hell. No. Death and Ogen had been unstoppable together.
Then I noticed all eyes were on me. “I don’t know much more than you guys. But I do know we’re connected to Tarot in some way.” I asked Finn, “Have you ever seen a Tarot deck?”
“Yeah. It gave me the wiggins. Picked it up and put it right back down.”
I nodded, knowing the feeling. Well, except for the fact that I’d apparently loved to gawk at Death’s card when I’d been little. “The trump cards are called the Major Arcana, the big bosses of the deck. They represent us. I think. I’m the Empress, Selena’s the Moon, Matthew’s the Fool. And you’re the Magician. There are other kids too.”
Finn muttered, “Rad-ick-ull.” Then he launched into a spate of questions.
How’d we get our powers, what are we supposed to do with them, how do we find the other kids?
“I wish I knew,” I said with a pointed look at Matthew. “But I don’t. I think my grandmother will, though.”
“Tarasova,” Matthew said in an awed tone. “Mistress of the Tarot, wisewoman, chronicler.”
What had he once told me? “Beware the old bloodlines, the other families that chronicle. They know all!”
If my family chronicled, did that mean Gran knew all?
Selena glared at me. “That was the pressing urgency to reach Granny! You wanted to get the scoop on all of us. Why would she know anything anyway?” Again I got the feeling that she knew exactly why my grandmother would know.
“I didn’t want to scoop you, Selena! I want to figure out my abilities, my life, the world.” I needed to get to Gran more urgently than ever. I recalled that disturbing impulse in the militia’s cage: not to be a girl at all . . .
That call to surrender, to go dormant, scared me as much as my ability to hurt that soldier with the lotus.
“So what? We have abilities,” Selena said with a dismissive wave. “Why do you think there has to be a reason behind it, any more than there was a reason for the Flash?”
I drew my head back. “Are you . . . are you joking? You have to feel that some force is putting us in each other’s paths. Don’t you sense that this is just starting?”
Matthew picked up a fruit cup and handed it to me, like a reward. Evie gets a cookie.
“And what exactly are your abilities again?” Selena asked. “All I saw were some ugly, deformed claws—how helpful! Oh, and you smell good. Big asset! Those rednecks could’ve tracked us by your scent.”
I hated her! When my claws flared, itching to make contact with her eyeballs, Matthew eased between Selena and me. “You’re brimming tonight,” he told me. “It wouldn’t even be fair.”
Selena smirked. “That’s right—”
“Not fair to you,” Matthew said, which shut her up. “Archer in close quarters? Against poison?”
“She’s poisonous?” Selena cried in a horrified tone.
A fake horrified tone. All my instincts screamed that Selena already knew this about me—that she knew more about me and all the Arcana than I could even imagine.
What if Selena had some kind of guidebook or her own Tarasova wisewoman, one who hadn’t been locked up? Selena might have total control over her powers, might have been practicing her entire life.
Her archery skill was unmatched. What other abilities did she possess?
I recalled Jackson’s strange behavior when we’d arrived at Selena’s house, how bright the moon had been, seeming to call to us.
Beware the lures. Maybe Selena could manipulate moonlight the way I did plants. Had she used it to lure me to her house that first night—unaware I’d be with Jackson? She’d said, “I never expected to meet a guy. Here. With you . . . I just never expected him.”
“Poison?” Finn leaned away from me, but excitedly said, “For real?”
“My, um, claws are.” When he raised his eyebrows, I displayed them, all ten deadly thorns.
“That is righteous, blondie! Hey, we need to come up with superhero names. How about capes—and codpieces? Just think about the idea for now, chew it over for a bit, let me know,” he said. “Hey, do you guys ever hear . . . voices?”
I groaned. “All the time. I thought I was going crazy.”
“Duude,” he said in agreement. “And before the Flash, all kinds of freaky shit was happening to me. I started speaking this weird language. And stuff started transforming—but only in front of me. I saw my cat walking on the ceiling, saw lava coming out of a faucet. The worst? I was doing this girl, and suddenly she looked like my gym teacher!” He shuddered.
And I’d thought I had it bad. Matthew and Finn had also suffered. “What’d your parents think?” I asked, wondering if Finn had gotten institutionalized too.
“Dad couldn’t handle my ‘erratic behavior’ anymore, so he pawned me off on Mom. Same result. They were just about to break out the straitjacket—or, worse, military school—when she got the brilliant idea to ship me from Malibu to North Carolina to rough it with my redneck cousins.”
So Matthew and I hadn’t been the only ones deemed “damaged” by our folks. It made sense, though. I wondered what Selena’s story was.
“Yeah, Mom figured they’d toughen me up mentally,” Finn said. “I can’t even make this shit up. Mental health—through the chugging of Natty Light, the chasing of hot hick ass, and the killing of ducks and bucks.”
At least Finn was forthcoming. Though the boy was abrasive—and had he really called me sugartits?—he was starting to grow on me. Especially when compared to Selena.
I was just about to ask him what my Arcana call was when Selena said, “I don’t hear voices, you two crazycakes.”
After days with this girl—stifling my irritation, trying to rub along—I’d reached the end of my patience. “If you’re going to lie, I’m not doing any more reveals with you.”
“I have never heard voices,” she scoffed, worse than my primary shrink ever had.
I stood, bristling. “You’re a liar, Selena. But that’s what you do best, isn’t it? Deception’s your MO, right?”
She shot to her feet as well, on guard. “What are you talking about?”
“When we first met, you behaved as if you recognized nothing about me, but I think you knew exactly who—and what—I was all along. If you’re so bent on acting ignorant, then that means you know a whole hell of a lot more than you’re letting on. Do you know our powers? Maybe you had some kind of teacher or a book. Maybe you were taught everything we’re hoping to discover.”
She leaned in aggressively. “Prove it.”
“Now, now, ladies, you two know the rules.” Finn rose, holding up his hands like a referee. “No fights outside of a Jell-O ring.”
I twirled my be-clawed fingers in front of her face, and eventually she backed off.
“So tell me what his story is.” Finn jerked his chin in Jackson’s direction. “He’s not one of us?”
After a final threatening look at Selena, I said, “I don’t think so. I haven’t seen him do anything superhuman.”
Selena flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Because you haven’t experienced him in the right situation, honey.” Her tone dripped with innuendo.
Was this the proof that I’d been waiting for? Or another lie? Maybe they had gotten together—at least on the night we’d stayed at her place. And possibly more often.
Though I did believe Jackson was interested in me again, I didn’t know how I could get past them. Between gritted teeth, I said, “Then tell us what card he is, Selena.”
She sighed. “My Jack of Hearts.”
Claws aching, I snapped, “Wrong—deck—hooker.”
Finn groaned. “This can’t be happening! So you’re both digging that Cajun dude? Both of you? Come on, pussycats, that’s just not right! Spread the wealth.”
“To you?” Selena raised her brows.
“Precisely. I’m your guy, Archer. You and me.” He winked. “Think about it.”
She looked at him as she might at a pesky insect.
Unperturbed, he asked, “In any case, do we continue to keep our shit secret from the Cajun?”
“Secret,” Matthew hissed.
“Right, dude. Guess that answers that. . . .”
By the time we started getting ready for bed an hour later, I was beyond exhausted. Though there were three rooms in the back, I made pallets for Matthew and me by the fire. I wanted to stay near Jackson. He remained just outside on the porch, still drinking.
I’d gone out there once, but he’d held up that finger again. “Want to be alone, me.”
Now I crawled under my blanket, shivering as the events of the day caught up with me. Still, I was determined to wait up for him. If he didn’t let me tend to his injuries, they might get infected. Plus I yearned to talk to him, to find out what was going on in that mysterious mind of his.
To find out what tomorrow would bring.
I also wanted to stay up because I was on edge after my fight with Selena. She’d laid her blankets on the other side of the hearth. Despite the fact that Finn had a bed in the back, he’d unrolled his sleeping bag directly beside her. Much to her annoyance.
He’d repeatedly tried to coax her to his bedroom. The poor guy must have burned through his entire repertoire, but she’d shot him down completely.
Selena only had eyes for Jackson. . . .
Matthew burrowed down beside me, sleepy-eyed and adorable. We lay facing each other—the front door in my peripheral just in case Jackson walked in. I told Matthew, “Get some sleep, kid.”
“Big night,” he whispered.
Yes, it had been. He reached over to take my hand.
And my lids slid closed.
The villagers taunted the red witch from aboard their fleet of ships.
They’d anchored offshore, out of reach of any trees, vines, or thorns. The becalmed sea was unfavorable for her spores.
As she watched from the beach, they called her the “Countess of Chaff” and the “Queen of Famine.” As if the crop failures had been her doing.
The dazzlingly blue water was flat as a mirror under the sun. When she drew back her hood, light bathed her face, invigorating her. A glorious day for retribution.
Yet everyone knew that unless she could walk on water, there was no vengeance to be had.
Death had arrived at the shore to observe her, always fascinated with her Empress gifts. Astride his stallion at the top of a sandy rise, he took off his helmet, looking like a god.
“And what shall you do now, creature?” he called. Sunlight lovingly highlighted his flawless features, his long blond hair. “The sea is her dominion—not yours.”
The witch tapped her chin with a thorn claw, reminding herself that it was not yet time for her encounter with Death. She turned her attention to the sailors, the last remaining survivors of the village she had plagued with spores and a tempest of thorns.
Now the sailors grew bolder, more boisterous. They mocked her, lewdly exposing their genitals.
Death’s glittering eyes were locked on her face, ever watchful of his foe.
He would enjoy a show indeed.
“Though it’s not my way . . . if they shan’t come to me, I must go to them.” She strode purposely down the beach. At the sea’s edge she didn’t slow, simply stepped upon the surface, blithely walking on water.
The crews fell silent. A stray gasp here, a whimper there.
She glanced over her shoulder at Death. His mien was impassive, those starry eyes giving away nothing.
Sea plants rising up from the deep held her afloat.
The sailors were finally jolted into action, but no wind caught their lax sails. They frantically rowed, yet her underwater allies trapped the ships in place.
Then came the men’s impassioned pleas to gods old and new.
But it was too late.
Once she’d neared enough to see their faces, she waved one tattooed hand. At once, giant ropes of slimy sea plants burst through the surface, exploding up from the abyss.
As the men screamed, she grinned back at Death. “No, the sea is not my dominion.” Her powers over the ocean paled in comparison to a certain other Arcana’s. “But I can borrow it from time to time.”
Those plants danced above the ships, raining water, positioned to strike. Grown men whimpered for mercy, begging “the lady” for her grace.
She threw back her head and laughed with pleasure. “I shall give you as much mercy as you afforded me.” These villagers had tied her to a wooden stake and begun burning her; she’d felt the lick of flames before she could revive the stake into a tree, freeing herself.