One of my knees gives way; I reel and catch myself on the operating table. I spy my reflection in the stainless steel. I am . . . transformed. I see an aged man, holding a lamp in the dark. My own tableau? Then my appearance returns to normal.
“Arthur, you are the Hermit, also known as the Alchemist.”
“Alchemist?” A dull roar begins in my head. The Alchemist. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to be!
Yes. That is who I’ve always been. Never has it been clearer to me.
Of course Evie looked special to me when I first encountered her—because I’d seen her card. I hadn’t envisioned her with open arms in my bed; I’d seen the Empress’s tableau—the one with her beckoning.
“I kept dropping hints, waiting for you to recognize some aspect of my story, for you to make a move.” She tilts her head, and that length of silken hair sweeps over her shoulder, drowning me in her luscious rose scent, threatening to subdue me even now. “My guess? You’re so high from your wacky concoctions that you haven’t been hearing the voices.” She leans down, tells me in a confiding tone, “Drugged till your brain is soup? I’ve been there, buddy.”
“High? I wanted focus!” Bloody saliva flies from my mouth. “The voices . . .” Suddenly I remember that hated cacophony, those useless repetitions. “They distracted me!”
“It’s like Matthew said. If you don’t listen to the voices, then you’ll die with their gloating whispers in your ear.”
Just as the other Arcana have supernatural abilities, so do I. Reminded of that, of the powers I wield, I lurch toward my lab.
Behind me, the girls beg Evie to free them, though they sound as petrified of her as they’ve ever been of me.
As Evie stupidly obliges them, I hunch over my workbench, grasping for every vial I can reach. I guzzle their colored contents, one after the other.
Black to counteract her poison. Blue to make me stronger, more aggressive, faster. Red to heal my wounds.
I have underestimated her; she’s done the same with me. If I can get upstairs, I can reach the weapons strategically stockpiled throughout my home.
I will sear her to a puddle, just like Father.
Though she must hear me slamming through my potions, she has no fear, patiently telling my subjects—mine—that she’s going to cut their chains with her claws now. “Don’t be afraid,” she assures them. “You’re almost free.”
Three slashes later, the girls clamber out of the dungeon, giving me a wide berth, fighting each other to get up the stairs.
I start for the stairs myself, crawling across the floor, fleeing to buy the elixirs time to work.
“Where were we?” Evie asks as she appears from behind the plastic sheeting. She’s brushing her hands off, as if she’d just dusted.
At the base of the stairs, I twist to keep her in sight. “Why toy with me?” Must keep her talking. Already I can feel one potion neutralizing her toxin. Under my clutching arm, my torso begins to heal. “Why act as if the poison had taken hold?”
“Just as I told you, sometimes I play roles. I portrayed a breezy caretaker when my mom was dying; I pretended indifference about Jackson and Selena, though I was about to go mad with jealousy. I acted drugged so you’d show me what you planned to do to me. And what was down in your cellar.”
“Why tell me your story?”
“Did you not listen to me at all ?” she asks with a sigh. “My MO is to await, remember? To beckon. You had to make the first move.” As I fight to climb the steps, she calmly trails behind me. “And it took me a while to wrap my head around the idea that you’d tried to drug me—that only one of us was leaving this house alive. Besides, I needed time to recuperate from my busy day . . . gardening.”
“Gardening?” I frown, can’t make sense of her words.
“Then you struck. You tipped the scales.”
At last, strength begins to pump through me, my muscles swelling. “This isn’t finished. I’ll strike again. I’ll slaughter you, girl.”
“Will you?” Her expression is hard, her green eyes devoid of pity. “Don’t you see, Arthur? Jackson was wrong. It might not be my way, but I can hunt. I’m hunting you.”
Arthur is inching up the stairs, wheezing, still threatening me at intervals, baring his bloody teeth.
Had I ever imagined it could come to this?
I arrived here an emotional mess, fresh from sobbing for two days. Little wonder. I’ve never been alone like that before, friendless and without family. I’d never felt the stab of betrayal from a boy.
Yes, I came here seeking answers from Arthur, but I was also yearning for more—a sympathetic hug, a pat on the back, any scrap of kindness.
And worse, I still expected it.
I’ve been good to people in the past, and even after the Flash—after all the times I’ve been wronged—I still nurtured this naïve belief that people wanted to be good to me too.
When I first gazed at Arthur with his aw-shucks modesty, I thought: New friend.
As simple as that.
God, how badly I needed a friend. Instead, I found a psychopath.
Even now those three girls are upstairs shrieking for help, unable to get out of this lair. I hear the youngest one bawling, begging for her mother. I can only guess how long he’s been torturing them.
Tonight Arthur has changed me forever. He’s pushed me over the edge, forcing me to become what had once been my worst nightmare.
I am altered. Before Arthur. And after. There’s no going back.
I hate him for that.
As we reach the top of the steps, he weakly lunges across the threshold, landing on his lacerated belly with a grunt. Then he begins to scrabble crablike across the floor, half looking at me, half looking at the front door he’s keen to reach.
When he nears the entrance, the girls scream and bolt into a corner.
At the door, he drags himself to his knees, stretching for a doorknob that isn’t there.
“Caught by your own trap? You creepy, filthy fiend.”
Darting glances over his shoulder at me, he reaches into the back pocket of his pants, snagging a pair of pliers.
I continue stalking closer, which makes him more and more agitated. This power is heady. No wonder the red witch laughs so much. I’m beginning to see the appeal. “I followed you around town before I came here—but you knew that, didn’t you? What you didn’t know is that we were both getting ready for this meeting.”
Matthew warned me of lures; the Alchemist used several to coax me into his lair, and I was wary.
The bright lantern on his house—a light in darkness. The stew I’d smelled—a feast when I was starving. But while he’d been stoking his fire in anticipation, he’d left me plenty of time to call for my special kind of backup.
Just as I’d seen the red witch do.
With my blood, I revived dead plants—and it felt delicious to bring them back to life. Then I’d practiced with them.
Now roses, vines, and oaks await just outside, ready to storm the Alchemist’s hold. A tornado of thorns swirls above. “You thought I was so pale and weak,” I tell him. “Yet I was only recuperating from blood loss. Thank you for giving me the TO.”
At that, he bobbles his pliers up . . . up; they land several feet away. In a panic, he grips the metal rod—all that remains of the inner half of the doorknob—twisting with all his might. Blood begins to drip from his palm.
“Ask yourself, Alchemist, do you really want to make it out that door?”
Over his shoulder, he sneers, “You are an aberration, a freak! That’s why your precious Jackson chose another, because he could sense how wrong you are! He spurned you.”
I don’t deny that. Fair’s fair. Hell, it could be true—what do I know? Apparently, nothing about boys.
Even after seeing Jackson kiss Selena, I still miss him. I wonder how long that ache will last—
Arthur begins to rise, lumbering to his feet. This is . . . surprising. I’d heard him drinking stuff downstairs, but I didn’t figure he could counteract my poison.
When he stands, I realize his torso is healing with a speed matching my own regeneration.
“I’m not without talents, Evie.” Before my eyes, his muscles are growing, straining against his clothing.
He casts me such a triumphant smirk that I wonder if he can outgun me and mine.
“You couldn’t guess how strong I’d be.” With a bellow, he plucks the door from its frame like a piece of lint.
He hurls it overhead at me; I scream when it connects with my shoulder, slamming me into a wall.
As my vision wavers, I imagine that I hear Jackson’s echoing voice in the distance. “Evangeline!”
I breathe through the pain, grappling with the weight of the door, frantically squirming to get out from under it. I’m still so weak in body, a scrawny little girl!
“Evie! Answer me, damn it!” Jackson is here? How has he located this town? “Where are you?” I can’t process the anguish in his booming voice, his desperation to reach me. Why would he come? He was finished with me.
Then he yells to someone, “Tell me exactly where she is, boy! Or I’ll gut you, I swear to Christ!”
Matthew’s here too?
Arthur rushes from the doorway across the room. Instead of escaping, he’s pressing his advantage. I watch in disbelief as he vaults clear over a table, skidding to a stop before a china cabinet. By the time I get free and make it to my feet, he has snagged stoppered vials?
He lobs them at me. They shatter, splashing their contents across my skin.
The pain. Paralyzing. Mind-numbing.
I shriek. The skin on my upper arm, one thigh, one calf—dissolving. I drop to my knees. Consciousness dims.
“Evangeline!” Jackson’s agonized roar is like a beacon, focusing me.
Arthur stalks closer, vowing, “I will melt you inch by inch, will make you beg, just as I did Father.”
I struggle to rise, to ignore my hissing, burning flesh as it begins to heal.
When the Alchemist sees my skin regenerating, he mutters, “Not possible.”
I gasp out, “You keep saying that . . . about things that are . . . already occurring.” He hasn’t witnessed even a fraction of my powers. The idea makes me proud, smug. I stagger to my feet.
Ready to end this, I call on my soldiers, loosing them into the fray. Battering-ram limbs beat down doors and windows so that vines can snake inside, overrunning every room.
Just as Matthew said, there is a heat in battle, and I feel it pumping inside me. Glorious! I yell from it and my soldiers respond violently.
Thorny stalks drape the front of the house. Behind me, a wall of green roils, a twining mass. As we creep forward, Arthur freezes, gaze blank with horror.
Just before we reach him, he whirls around, sprinting for the exit. He doesn’t get two steps outside before a limb shoots in front of him, blocking his way. Ivy flies at him from the sides of the porch, coiling around his torso, the tips boring into his skin.
“Nooo! Stop this, you freak!”
A rose stalk creeps along the ceiling like beading water. Descending with vicious stealth, it slithers around his neck.
When it locks tight, I murmur, “Your new collar, Arthur.”
More stalks bind his legs, ascending to his arms as if he were a trellis, wringing a high-pitched scream from his lungs. Tightening like barbed wire, they dig their thorny fangs deeper, deeper, until his lungs can’t expand enough for a second scream.
He peers back at me over his shoulder, his eyes pleading.
How many girls have begged him not to hurt them? How many has he poured acid on?
How many has he maimed?
He’d been planning on doing it to me—
Suddenly he thrashes, freeing one arm with that insane strength. From his pocket, he snatches one last vial of acid.
Before he can strike, I wave my hand: the order for execution.
The vines holding his body slingshot in different directions, ripping him in half.
In a spray of arcing blood and splintering bone, the Alchemist is no more.
Two separate halves. Deposited on opposite ends of the porch. A puddle of crimson in the middle.
I’ve won the day, but the victory has taken its toll on me. When I totter on my feet, my soldiers press against my back, steadying me like a bookend. As I’d seen the red witch do, I stab my claws into one rose stalk, siphoning the life I’d given it back into my body, speeding my healing.
“Evangeline!” Jackson nears.
Why have you come here? Why, why? Fleeing from him is no longer an option. I won’t hide what I am anymore.
“Bébé, answer me! Please . . .”
I spy him sprinting down the street, Matthew close behind. They’re not alone. Selena and Finn follow.
When the four slow in front of the house, the web of briars parts to reveal me standing at the head of the steps. Half of my bloody T-shirt and the legs of my jeans have dissolved, baring my regenerating skin and glowing glyphs. My red hair whips from the tornado of thorns above.
A vine curls about my neck affectionately. I rub my cheek against it, petting it, my poisonous claws glinting.
Behind me, the thorny barbed wire, the vise of vines, and the battering-ram oaks all await my command. They choke every opening of the Alchemist’s lair, until the shape of the house is unrecognizable.
I gaze down at the other Arcana. Matthew is proud. Selena is lethal, icy. And not surprised at all. Just as I’d suspected, she knows all about us. About me.
Finneas appears stunned—and guilty? He mutters, “Never thought you’d walk in.”
Off to the side, lips parted and eyes wide, is Jackson.
Walk in . . . ? Just then, the three girls begin fighting their way past the vines in the front doorway. With another wave of my hand, I allow them passage. They run out of Arthur’s house past me, screaming for their lives.
Then something draws my attention down. A new marking appears on my hand, not one of my glyphs, but a small tattooed illustration. It’s the Alchemist’s symbol, a glowing lantern—his lure.