She’d meted out retribution to most of them, all but these sailors. When she recalled the smell of her burning flesh, she waved her hand once more.
The ropes of green slapped across the decks, crushing the masts, bludgeoning men. Blood pooled on the decks, pouring along the ships’ gutters. Thick cascades of crimson splashed the sea in a froth of pink bubbles.
As the plants coiled around the ships like giant tentacles, cracking the vessels in half, sailors plunged into the water.
More of her allies awaited them, slithering around their ankles, jerking them down. The witch tormented the men, dunking them under, then allowing them an exquisite taste of air, a chance to scream, a second to reach for the indifferent sun—before dragging them to the deep.
She didn’t stop until all were slain.
By the time the sea stilled once more, it was stained red.
When the witch returned to shore, Death inclined his head regally, then spurred his pale mount, leaving her.
She turned back to gaze over her handiwork. In the perfect stillness of the blood-slicked sea, the witch spied her reflection. Staring back at her was . . .
Me. I shot awake, out of breath. It’d been my reflection. Mine!
Shuddering, I darted my gaze around the firelit cabin. Just a dream, just a nightmare. I hadn’t been there. It hadn’t been me annihilating an entire village.
Matthew dozed beside me. Selena and Finn slept across the room. One of Finn’s hands rested on a lock of her hair.
Jackson wasn’t here. Still outside?
I pushed away my blanket, then stumbled toward the lantern-lit bathroom. I couldn’t handle more of these dreams! They were like ghastly horror movies on loop in my brain.
And in this one, the witch had made it sound like she was the Empress—when she’d had a conversation with Death.
Was I now to have nightmares about both of them? I recalled the way his glorious face looked in the sun and shivered.
Why didn’t Selena have to deal with shit like this? Yet another reason to hate her.
Inside the bathroom, I reached for the dimmed lantern, turning up the light. Something was smeared over my hand? I rubbed at my skin, but the smudge didn’t fade.
A trick of the light, a shadow? Did it go past my wrist? I shoved my sleeve up. An ivylike marking stretched the length of my arm.
With a gasp, I whirled around to the dust-covered mirror above the sink, frantically swiping the glass with the bottom of a fist.
I glanced at my reflection, tottered on my feet.
The red witch stared back at me. My eyes were . . . green. My hair? A glossy red, threaded through with leaves.
Those glowing glyphs ran all over my pale skin.
Nearly hyperventilating, I staggered closer to the mirror. No, I didn’t look like the witch exactly. It was still me, just with similar traits.
My thoughts raced. The witch must have been . . . she must have been another Empress. One born in the past. The ships she’d destroyed had looked like galleons.
Matthew had told me there were ancient battles—and he’d never said I was the first Empress.
The red witch and the Empress were one and the same.
Deep down I’d known it. I had to have. But Matthew had told me that the witch was arising, that she was coming for me. That I’d fight her.
I guess I had been fighting her this entire time, resisting the realization. Indeed she had been coming for me. Even now I could feel her arising—inside of me.
Surely Matthew had sent me those nightmares? Or were they included in the Empress package?
As I peered at my emerald eyes, I recalled other details about the Empress card.
Rolling hills had stretched behind her, but now I realized her empire had been awash in green and red—from both crops and blood. Her hair had been strewn with blossoms, vines—and strands of red.
Her hands had been upraised, arms spread wide, beckoning. Yet her gaze had been deadly, her eyes saying, “Come, touch . . . but you’ll pay a price.”
Recognition hit me. That’s my Arcana call.
The glyphs began to move, to swirl over my skin, shimmering from gold to green and back. Mesmerizing.
As I watched, I recognized that a part of me was still high from the power I’d experienced in that dream; just recalling the witch’s feats made my aggression surge.
To be able to crush a fleet of ships . . . ?
In fact, as I reflected over all the nightmares I’d experienced, I could almost admire the witch’s zeal. At least it was pure.
And her victims had tried to burn her. Of course she’d retaliated.
No, no! What was I thinking? She’d wiped out an entire village. They’d probably had reason to burn her!
I felt something tickling my arm and glanced down. A delicate ivy vine was budding from one of the glyphs.
When it snaked from the surface of my skin, briefly peeking out, I gave a cry and leapt back, tripping over a rug.
Pinwheeling my arms, I careened back toward the tub, plunging into the shower curtain. As I sat with my legs sprawled over the side of the tub, panting in disbelief, I heard heavy footsteps pounding down the hall.
Oh, God, Jackson!
Outside the door, he said, “Evie, you all right?”
“Uh, fine. Just tripped in the low light!” I struggled to my feet, then returned to the mirror. “I’ll be out in a minute. O-okay?” As that unnatural aggression began to fade, my disgust mounted. I am the . . . red witch. I dropped my head in my hands, on the verge of sobbing. The things I’ve seen her do . . .
What would Jackson do once he discovered this about me?
No. I would refuse this! Just as I’d declined Death’s challenge, I would deny this curse. I’d never asked for it. I considered it a disease, robbing me of my identity.
Was I doomed to be either a cowardly freak—the dormant girl in the cage today—or a monster who murdered?
Yes. I sensed that I had only so much time before I was trapped, as either one alter ego or the other. Unless I could get help.
“Bébé, let me in.” Jackson was still outside?
I gaped at the door, at my reflection, at the door. “G-go away!” I cried, ripping leaves from my hair and stashing them in a clothes hamper. Breathe through the panic, Evie, breathe.
“What’s wrong, you?”
“Nothing!” Gradually, my hair and eyes began to revert, the glyphs fading. Hurry, hurry!
“Let me in!” He banged against the door. “Or I’m coming in.”
“I . . . I . . . just wait!”
“Back away, then.”
The door came crashing down. Splinters shot into the air, the doorframe battered.
My lips moved soundlessly. Finally, I managed to say, “What is wrong with you?” I darted my wide-eyed gaze toward the mirror. . . .
My appearance was back to normal.
“I thought I heard you cry out earlier!” He swooped down to collect his bottle from the floor in the hallway, though most of it was gone. “Scared the devil out of me.”
He was still filthy. His bow was strapped crookedly over his back.
I shimmied past him into the hallway. The other three were awake, regarding us with curiosity.
I peered hard at Matthew. He’d known what I was all along, had known I’d realize it tonight. “Big night,” he’d said. Grinning from ear to ear, he gave me a thumbs-up sign. I slitted my gaze at him.
“Want to talk to you,” Jackson told me.
“Huh? Okay,” I said tonelessly. My body felt bruised, my mind numb. Did viciousness always simmer within me, just waiting to be unleashed? If I killed like the witch, could I ever come back from it?
Maybe I should have taken root today.
“Talk to you alone,” Jackson added sternly, as if I’d argue with him, or someone else might.
Selena clearly didn’t like this, but she kept quiet. Finn eased beside her, offering her a rare Snickers in consolation. She rolled her eyes at him.
Jackson snagged the bathroom lantern, then ushered me to one of the bedrooms in the back, closing the door behind us.
He scowled at the unfortified window, handing me the lantern and his bottle. Then he yanked the mattress off the single bed, shoving the wooden frame over the window. Using the hanger rod from the closet, he braced it in place.
Satisfied, he collected his bottle from me and started pacing.
“Please, let me look at your leg, Jackson.” Did I sound as deadened as I felt? “And your hands, too.” I hung the lantern on a coat hook, ready to examine his injuries. I was still worried about infection.
Plus, doing something productive might keep my thoughts occupied. I’m the red witch. “You’ve probably got splinters embedded in your knuckles.” Now that he’d been drinking so much, maybe it wouldn’t hurt him too badly when I got them out. “You can talk while I work.”
He shook his head hard. “Non. Got something I need to say, me.”
I’d never seen him this brooding. “Go on, I’m listening.”
“When you got captured, I didn’t know . . .” He trailed off, had to chug whiskey before he could continue. “If it’d be like . . .”
“Like it was with Clotile.”
“Oh, Jackson, no. I was okay. I’m unharmed.”
“Didn’t know if I’d get there too late,” he said with a shudder. Then he crossed over to me, until we stood toe-to-toe. “Evie, if you ever get taken from me again, you better know that I’ll be coming for you.” He cupped my face with a bloodstained hand. “So you stay the hell alive! You doan do like Clotile, you doan take that way out. You and me can get through anything, just give me a chance”—his voice broke lower—“just give me a chance to get to you.” He buried his face in my hair, inhaling deeply. “There is nothing that can happen to you that we can’t get past.”
Nothing? I gazed at the ceiling in misery. If only that were true. But how could he possibly accept these changes in me—when I couldn’t?
I transformed so drastically I might as well be a different species.
Or a plant. I choked back a hysterical laugh. A different classification altogether.
What boy would want a girlfriend with claws? Hey, Jackson, you probably won’t want to drink after me.
Still I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “When you say we . . . ?”
He pulled back, gazing down at me, his eyes blazing. “I’m goan to lay it all out there for you. Laugh in my face—I doan care. But I’m goan to get this off my chest.”
“I won’t laugh. I’m listening.”
“Evie, I’ve wanted you from the first time I saw you. Even when I hated you, I wanted you.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “I got it bad, me.”
My heart felt like it’d stopped—so that I could hear him better.
“For as long as you’ve been looking down your nose at me, I’ve been craving you, an envie like I’ve never known.”
“I don’t look down at you! I’m too busy looking up to you.”
He seemed amazed by my declaration. “For true?”
The corners of his lips curled for an instant before he grew serious again. “You asked me if I had that phone with your pictures, if I’d looked at it. Damn right, I did! I saw you playing with a dog at the beach, and doing a crazy-ass flip off a high dive, and making faces for the camera. I learned about you”—his words grew hoarse—“and I wanted more of you. To see you every day.” With a humorless laugh, he admitted, “After the Flash, I was constantly sourcing ways to charge a goddamned phone—that would never make a call.”
I murmured, “I didn’t know. . . . I couldn’t be sure.”
“It’s you for me, peekôn.”
My face fell. A thorn. He might have feelings for me, but that didn’t mean he wanted to. And he didn’t even know about my vile alter ego.
How could this be happening? Why did I have to discover I was one in a line of cackling, murderous psychopaths—on the night I’d learned of his feelings? I bit back a sob. “W-we both know your life would be so much simpler without me! I am just a thorn in your paw.”
He nodded easily. “And it reminds me of you—every move I make, I think of you.”
My lips parted. Again I realized that he was the only thing in my life that made me feel sane, made me want to fight for a future.
“Evangeline, I’ve got to feel you with my every step.” His shaking hand closed over my nape, squeezing. “Or I go a little crazy, me.”
Despite everything, I felt a tendril of hope. Jackson wanted me. I wanted him. Which was all that should matter, right? He never needed to learn what I was. Gran could teach me how to rid myself of this curse, or how to keep it buried forever—without slipping to that cowardly other side.
With her guidance, this didn’t have to be an either-or situation. I could learn how to be a normal again!
And we were only weeks away from the Outer Banks. There was still time. Optimism filled me. . . .
Until I recalled yet another of the many barriers between us. “What about Selena? Didn’t you two get together?”
He shook his head. “She’s all right, and if I’d never met you, I might’ve looked twice. But I only flirted to make you jealous. To see if you felt the same way about me at all.”
“The same way?” Half of me wanted to be kissing Jackson; half of me wanted to hear anything else this beautiful boy wanted to tell me. I threw my arms around his neck, squeezing him close, uncaring of the dried blood and mud.
He stiffened at first, as if in surprise, then closed his arms around me with a groan. “Ah, I know that smell. Honeysuckle.”
I felt laughter bubbling up inside me. “Yes, yes.” I went to my toes to smooth my lips along his neck, to press kisses across his proud, weary face.
His eyes slid closed, his expression one of bliss. He rasped, “I’m goan to protect you, bébé.”