I ran toward the music. Music meant people. People meant victims I could rob.
Over the last several days, I’d become one of the bad guys, a black hat, threatening the few survivors I’d encountered (even though all I could manage was the merest show of a vine).
Do you have a map? I would steal it from you.
Food? Hand it over.
I like your backpack. It’s mine now.
To keep myself alive for Jack, for Aric—and for Richter—I’d become the monster lurking in the shadows.
As a black hat, I understood so much better how Baggers, cannibals, and militias worked. Always seek out people; they’ll have something you want.
I had no qualms that I was stranding or starving others. As I told them, “Tick-tock. On a clock. None of this will ever have happened.” Because I was going to reverse time.
Thanks to my thievery, I now wore a hooded poncho over my jacket and one of a pair of fingerless gloves. On my back was a bug-out pack with gear: MREs for another couple of days, a knife, glow sticks, and salt for Baggers. . . .
I trudged up that hill, digging with one hand into the muck, fighting against streams of water. Between breaths, I said, “You there, Circe?”
The more I thought about that epic clash, the more I realized the flood had been the unintended aftermath of her attack on the Emperor.
While her tidal wave had vibrated with her presence and hostility, the flood had been violent but . . . lifeless.
Controlling a wave like that couldn’t have been easy for her. Hell, I’d nearly poisoned Jack with my powers. Tess had almost died from hers.
Deciding that Circe hadn’t been trying to murder me, I’d hailed her in puddles. She could see and hear from any body of water. She would know where Aric was.
She’d never answered. No one did. I hadn’t heard a single telepathic Arcana call. Unless I’d been running in circles—possible—I should have covered a lot of ground. Had I not neared any Arcana?
Damn it, we were supposed to converge!
I tried again: Aric? Tess? Gabriel? Joules?
Nothing. I was tempted to hail Matthew—but he had allowed the massacre.
Yet he’d also taught me about Tess’s time traveling: “Sometimes the World spins in reverse. Sometimes battles do too. The word carousel means little battle.”
Maybe all this was an exercise to enhance Tess’s unimaginable power? He might have known all along that I would bring Jack back! Matthew always did things like this.
I called for him. Again, nothing.
As I ran, fears threatened my single-minded focus. Even Aric—the king of the airwaves—hadn’t responded to me. What if he’d been injured? What if the Emperor had been able to side-step Circe and advance? Surely I would sense if other Arcana had died.
Focus, Evie. Every second counted. On a clock.
I topped the rise and narrowed my gritty eyes. In the valley below me, fog made a blanket. Some distance away, lights dimly shone beneath it. The music came from that direction.
I skidded down the mucky slope to the bottom. At the base, the air felt warmer, almost sultry. I ran.
Deeper into the valley, I made out more details. A mall-size parking lot was situated off a highway, filled with scorched cars. Baggers must be roaming that foggy vehicle maze; wails carried in the night.
I charged into the lot. The mist thickened around me, right when I needed to see. Shit! I should be terrified—in a murky maze, surrounded by Bagmen—but I didn’t have time. I put the blinders on.
A structure came into view at last. Bowls of oil fires lit a soaring wall. The music thumped from just beyond.
A coliseum? The Flash-charred arena had withstood the apocalypse! A new song—“Welcome to the Jungle”—boomed from inside, the lyrics clear: “I wanna watch you bleed. . . .”
Real? Unreal? Was I dreaming?
Then I sensed something that made my thorn claws tingle. Can’t be right. Going crazy. With a hard shake of my head, I ignored it. Focus, Eves.
This place was a genius location for a settlement, with a built-in defense—lurking Bagmen. The lot reminded me of the minefield fronting Fort Arcana. Jack’s brilliant idea. Blinders.
So who lived here?
I slowed. Damn it, I couldn’t deny my senses any longer. Somewhere nearby . . . plants grew. A lot of them.
How? Even if the earth hadn’t gone fallow, we’d had no sunlight.
I jogged around the coliseum, trying to home in on the plants. This unseen collection must dwarf even Aric’s extensive nursery.
Their nearness fueled me, exciting the red witch, that dark, murderous part of me. When my body vine budded from my neck, I yanked back my poncho hood. The vine divided behind me until it flared like an aura.
Or a cobra’s head.
A wail came from behind me—the Baggers had caught my scent, trailing me. One was on my heels. As the music blared, I straightened and stiffened a vine—then jabbed the creature through the head.
“. . . feel my, my, my serpentine. I wanna hear you scream. . . .”
Another Bagger lunged; I struck again. Putrid slime coated the vine. I let it fall off, growing a new one.
I could see a brighter glow just around the curve of the coliseum; following it, I came upon a line of military trucks. Perfect! I needed the keys to one and as much fuel as I could transport. Which meant I needed the guy in charge of this place trapped in my vines—with my poisonous claws at his throat.
Voices sounded. Ducking between the trucks, I sidled around one and spied two shirtless men guarding an entrance. They carried machine guns and didn’t seem at all concerned about the nearby Bagmen roving the fog.