Authors: Kresley Cole
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DEDICATED WITH MUCH LOVE TO THE EXTRAORDINARY CHRISTINA LAUREN (CHRISTINA HOBBS AND LAUREN BILLINGS).
IT ALL BEGAN ON A BUS.Â .Â .Â .
My deepest thanksÂ .Â .Â .
To my editor, Zareen Jaffery, and the production department at S&S Books for Young Readers, for letting me color outside the lines (lifesavers)!
To Marie L., for your invaluable assistance with Cajun French, and for patiently answering all my questions. (“We'd use
for a guy?” “Why is there an English word in the translation?” “
To Beth Kendrick and Barbara Ankrum, for all your support and eagle-eyed beta reads!
I couldn't have done this without you all!
0.Â The Fool, Gamekeeper of Old (Matthew)
I. The Magician, Master of Illusions (Finneas)
II. The High Priestess, Ruler of the Deep
III. The Empress, Our Lady of Thorns (Evie)
IV. The Emperor, Stone Overlord
V. The Hierophant, He of the Dark Rites (Guthrie)
VI. The Lovers, Duke & Duchess Most Perverse (Vincent & Violet)
VII. The Chariot, Wicked Champion
VIII. Strength, Mistress of Fauna (Lark)
IX. The Hermit, Master of Alchemy (Arthur)
X. Wheel of Fortune, Lady of Fate
XI. Justice, She Who Harrows (Spite)
XII. The Hanged Man, Our Lord Uncanny
XIII. Death, The Endless Knight (Aric)
XIV. Temperance, Collectress of Sins (Calanthe)
XV. The Devil, Foul Desecrator (Ogen)
XVI. The Tower, Lord of Lightning (Joules)
XVII. The Star, Arcane Navigator
XVIII. The Moon, Bringer of Doubt (Selena)
XIX. The Sun, Hail the Glorious Illuminator
XX. Judgment, The Archangel (Gabriel)
XXI. The World, This Unearthly One (Tess)
THE FIELD OF BATTLE
During the Flash, a global cataclysmic flare, the surface of the earth was scorched to ash, and bodies of water evaporated. All plant life was killed, most animals as well. The vast majority of humans perished, with women hardest hit. After months of total drought, rain falls constantly. The sun has ceased to rise, leaving the world in endless night. Plague spreads.
Militias unify, consolidating power. Slavers and cannibals hunt for new victims. All are bent on capturing females. The Bagmen, contagious zombies created by the Flash, roam the dark, thirsting for moisture, especially blood.
The Arcana. Into every dark age, twenty-two kids are born with supernatural powers and destined to fight in a life-or-death game. Our stories are depicted on the Major Arcana cards of a Tarot deck. I'm the Empress; we play again
. In my sights: the Lovers, who hold Jack captive.
To defeat the Lovers and the others, I'll have to draw on my Empress powers: enhanced healing, the ability to control anything that roots or blooms, thorn tornadoesâand poison. Because I'm the princess of it.Â .Â .Â .
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 someoneâor some
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 agoâif 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 minutesÂ .Â .Â .
So much was on the line. Jack's
I was determined to save him from the Lovers, Vincent and Violet MilovnÃci.
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
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.Â .Â .Â .
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 Jackâfor a price.
His scentâsandalwood, pine, masculineâhad 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 youÂ .Â .Â . 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,
. 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
When I'd readied a bug-out bag and my gear in a panic, Matthew had telepathically directed me: â
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.â
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 eyesâjust 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
. I didn't accept
. I couldn't reconcile
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?
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 beautifulâlike sighing. I heard my mother's faint voice telling Jack, “Use the pillow.Â .Â .Â .”
No, Matthew! I'm not ready to see this! Not readyâ
A wolf's howl pierced the night.