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Though we’d gotten rain, the breeze felt hot and dry. Like a scarf out of the dryer rubbed against my cheek.

When it blew again and harder, Mom frowned. “Um, just let me check out the Weather Channel really quick.” She grabbed the remote for our kitchen TV and turned it on.

The screen was divided between three harried-looking field reporters, the trio talking over each other. One of them was the guy who’d been all blasé while at ground zero for Katrina.

So why was he sweating profusely now? “Sightings of bizarre weather phenomena in the eastern states . . . get a shot over my left shoulder . . . just look at those lights, folks . . . is that the sun rising?”

The second reporter looked like he hadn’t blinked in a week. “Temperatures spiking . . . fires in the Northeast . . . there’s no cause for panic,” he said in a panicked voice. “Radiation spikes . . . reports of aurora borealis as far south as Brazil . . .”

The third guy’s microphone shook in his trembling hand. “We’ve lost contact with our London, Moscow, and Hong Kong bureaus . . . all reported similar events”—he pressed his ear com—“what’s that . . . New York? DC?” he said, his voice scaling an octave higher. “M-my family’s in Wash—”

One by one, the feeds cut out. Blip. Blip. Blip.

“Mom?” I whispered. “What’s going on?” Why is your face paler than I’ve ever seen it?

She glanced past me; suddenly her fingers went limp. The ice cubes clattered to the floor.

I lurched to my feet, my ankle screaming in protest. I was too scared to look behind me, too scared not to. Finally I followed Mom’s gaze. Across the now-clear night sky, lights flickered.

Crimson and violet like Mardi Gras streamers.

I’d seen this very thing during Matthew’s first visit. It was the aurora borealis. The northern lights in Louisiana.

They were utterly mesmerizing.

As Mom and I both crept toward the front door, that hot wind intensified, beginning to howl, rattling the wind chimes around the farm. The horses shrieked in the barn. I could hear their hooves battering their stalls, wood splintering.

They sounded terrified—

But just look at those dazzling lights! I could stare forever.

From the east, the cane rustled. A mass of fleeing animals burst from the fields. Raccoons, possums, nutria, even deer. So many snakes erupted from the ditches that the front lawn looked like it shone and rippled.

A wave of rats roiled in flight. Birds choked the sky, tearing at each other or dive-bombing the ground. Feathers drifted in the winds.

But the lights! So magnificent they made me feel like weeping with joy.

And yet, I didn’t think I should be looking at them. Had Matthew said something, warned me? I couldn’t think, could only stare.

The massive Haven oaks groaned then, distracting my attention. Mom didn’t seem to notice, but they were moving, tightening their rain-soaked limbs around us. They spread a shield of green leaves over our home, as if readying to defend it.

My cane seemed stunned, standing rigid, even in that wind. As if shell-shocked.

They know what’s coming. They know why I should . . .

Turn away from the lights! “Mom, don’t look at the sky!” I shoved her back from the door.

She blinked, rubbing her eyes, as though coming out of a trance. “Evie, what is that noise?”

A roar was building in the night, the loudest, most harrowing sound I’d ever imagined.

Yet Mom’s demeanor grew icy cold. “We are not going to panic. But we will be locked inside the cellar within thirty seconds. Understood?”

The apocalypse . . . it was now. And Mel was out there alone.

“I have to call Mel!” Then I remembered she didn’t have a phone. “If I drive across the property, I can try to catch her!”

Mom clenched my arm and swung me around toward the cellar.

“I’m not going down there without Mel! I have to get to her!”

I lunged for the front door, but Mom hauled me back, her strength unreal. “Get in the cellar NOW!” she yelled over the roar. “We can’t risk it!”

The sky grew lighter—hotter. “No, no!” I shrieked, fighting her. “She’ll die, she’ll die, you know she will! I’ve seen this!”

“You both will if you try to go after her!”

I flailed against Mom, but couldn’t break her hold. Arms stretched toward the front door, I sobbed, thrashing in a frenzy as she dragged me back to the cellar stairs.

When I clung to the doorway, she yanked on me, peeling my fingers from the doorjamb. “No, Mom! P-please let me go after Mel—”

Then came a shock of light—a blast of fire that shook the ground—my eardrums ruptured—

A split second later, the force of the explosion hurled us down the stairs, the door slamming behind us.

Chapter 14

DAY 246 A.F.


“Arthur, what was that?” Evie asks.

I blink. And again. I’d been utterly caught up in her tale of the Flash. “What was what?”

She shakes her head hard—as if to throw off her drug-fueled fog.

Good luck with that. I am a master of concoctions, unparalleled in chemistry; the only reason she is still awake is because I want her to be.

Everything is moving along according to my schedule.

“I thought I heard a thud downstairs.”

She likely had. I use the spacious cellar as my lab and containment facility. One of the little bitches down there was probably straining to reach the waste bucket. I’d left it just close enough to give them hope.

I never miss an opportunity to demonstrate the godlike power I wield over my subjects.

“Probably rats,” I tell this one, inwardly laughing at my joke. “Just ignore it. Please go on.” I’m eager to hear more of Evie’s story.

Even though I believe little of it.

She tilts her head and gives me an appraising glance. “Arthur, what were you doing before the Flash?”

I’m taken aback. None of my visitors has ever asked me this before, and for a moment I grope for an answer before settling on a lie. “I was preparing to go to college in the spring. Majoring in chemistry at MIT.”

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in chemical concoctions, in the transmuting of one substance into another. A chemistry degree would’ve given me a good base for what I truly wanted to study.

Alchemy—the ancient occult art of potions and elixirs.

“I’d intended to be a chemist.” An alchemist. But MIT wouldn’t have me. Apparently, my entrance essay on the criticality of human testing had “raised red flags.”

“Wow.” Evie is genuinely impressed. Her expressions are so telling. “You must be really smart.”

“I prepared all my life,” I say with false modesty. My intelligence is off the scales, unquantifiable by even the most sophisticated measurements. “So now I study on my own, still working toward the dream.” My own independent research—conducted in the cellar of my stolen lair.

God, I love to . . . learn.

But I don’t want to speak about myself any longer. Evie will have plenty of time to discover exactly what I am—and what I do. “On the side, I compile these histories. Are you ready to recount more?” When she nods, I press record. “What happened to you and your mother after the Flash?”

“I was knocked unconscious from the explosion. When I woke up, we waited in the dark for hours. At dawn, we peeked out. You can imagine what we saw.”

I could. Laserlike shafts of sunlight had blasted the earth for the course of one entire global night. Those fields of green cane she remembered dreamily would’ve been charred to ash. Anything organic—any living thing caught outside shelter—was incinerated.

And so many people, transfixed by the pretty lights, had wandered from their homes, drawn like moths to flame.

As if by design.

All the travelers who have visited me at these crossroads—those who’ve involuntarily surrendered to me their clothing, food, and even a rare daughter on occasion—brought tales from their regions. Before I slew them.

Certain details remain uniform.

Bodies of water flash-evaporated, but no rain has fallen in eight months. All plant life has been permanently destroyed; nothing will grow anew. And only a small percentage of humans and animals lived through the first night.

In the ensuing days, hundreds of millions more people perished, unable to survive the new toxic landscape.

For some reason, most females sickened and died.

An unknown number of humans mutated into “Bagmen”—contagious zombielike creatures, cursed with an unending thirst and an aversion to the sun.

Some call them hemophagics—blood-drinkers. I believe they are anything drinkers, but without water to be found, they’ve turned to people, walking bags of liquid.

They drink and drink but can never be slaked. Like my quest for knowledge. “Why do you think it happened, Evie?”

She shrugs, and curling golden locks tumble over her slim shoulders. Again, I am spellbound.

For a moment, I truly consider keeping her as my helpmeet, my companion. Though I am devoid of compassion, I do have some emotional needs.

Loneliness preys on me. Perhaps I have at last found a girl who can understand my genius, the importance of my work.

Maybe she will excuse my eccentricities, since she herself has tasted of sweet madness.

Or perhaps, I muse darkly, she will try to distract me from my studies.

I ruthlessly eliminate distractions.

“All the theories I’ve heard of make sense in a way,” she says. “I guess it was a solar flare.”

Yes, but we’d had them before, often. What made this one so catastrophic? Why has the entire planet gone barren?

Some say the very tilt of the earth’s axis wobbled, disturbing the balance of our world, lowering its defenses. Others claim that the depleted ozone layer—already a peeling scab—ripped open, leaving us vulnerable to heat and radiation.

Basically, we know as much about the Flash as medieval quacks knew about the black death. Will the answer turn out to be something as simple as disease-carrying fleas spread by rats?

“I really don’t know what to think,” Evie says. “I try not to dwell on things I can’t control.”

Smart girl.

“What’s your theory, Arthur?”

“I’m in your camp. Best not to obsess over it,” I say, though I obsess over it continually, fixated with how perfectly organic matter was destroyed, while at least some homes and buildings were spared. My theory would only frighten her; and I’m not ready to put her on edge. Yet. “Did any of your friends survive? Your boyfriend?”

Her eyes mist with tears. “None of them lived. Mel . . . she never made it home.” Evie glances down, beginning to rock in the chair again. I’ve noticed that she rocks more whenever she feels particularly unsettled. “She died alone, without her family nearby, out on a lonesome highway.”

“How do you know?”

“Her car was in a ditch. The door was open, and inside there was . . . ash.”

“I see.” Piles of ash had become the gravestones for much of the world’s population—until the winds had come, dispersing the remains into the air, for all the rest of us to breathe. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I say, though I’m not.

My lack of empathy is a boon for a scientist like myself. It allows me to experiment without hesitation. I experience only joy when my scalpel divides flesh—like two curtains, revealing secrets to my probing gaze.

Somehow Evie stems her tears. What a brave little girl. It will be all the more rewarding when I bring her to sobs.

“Did you lose all of your family to the Flash?” she asks, again surprising me with her interest.

“Yes, in the Flash.” I muster a grieving look.

She offers me one of compassion. “This was your childhood home?”

I nod, though this is my sixth home since the apocalypse. I’ve moved like a hermit crab, from shell to shell. In the past, I would exhaust all the resources in a given place, then abandon it.

But I like this crossroads town, like that resources come directly to me.

I plan to stay for some time.

Another knock sounds in the basement. Evie tenses, cocks her head. My hands clench. Those little bitches . . .

I reach for the recorder, turning off the tape. Barely containing my rage, I rise, saying, “I’ll go check my mousetraps really quick.” I’m so incensed that I fear I’ll do murder and get blood on my corduroys. “You stay put.” As if she could possibly escape. “I’ll be right back.”

I pull out my key ring on the way to the cellar door, quietly unlocking it. As I descend the darkened stairwell, I hear the hushed voices of my test subjects. They know they’re supposed to be silent unless I address them.

Disobeying me? Mindful of my spotless corduroys, I grapple for patience.

When I enter my dimly lit lab, the familiar scent calms me to a degree. All along the workbenches are bubbling vials and distilleries, flasks simmering on Bunsen burners. Myriad body parts are preserved in jars of formaldehyde.

The loose eyeballs in one jar always seem to follow my movements, which amuses me.

In one crystal vial, I’ve distilled a new potion that will spike my adrenaline, giving me a concentration of strength and speed. Another flask holds the key to accelerated healing.

I’ve weaponized other formulations. Bagmen—rumored to be allergic to salt—will stand no chance against my sodium chloride spray.

If any of the numerous militias roll through this town, they’ll be in for a surprise when I launch my stoppered vials of acid at them. . . .

The other half of the cellar is screened by heavy plastic curtains. I call it the dungeon. This is where the dirty work gets done. There’s an oversize butcher block, a stainless-steel operating table, drain fields, and anatomical tools.

Tags: Kresley Cole The Arcana Chronicles Book Series