Arcana Rising (The Arcana Chronicles #4)(12)


by Kresley Cole

“You screamed a name. Who’s Jack?”

My tears came faster.

“Was he family?” Sol’s brows drew together. “Or did the Emperor kill the man you love?”

I ran my sleeve over my eyes. “Richter killed him, and a loyal friend of mine, and an entire army.” I freed Sol from his cage, mainly to have something to do.

He swiped his hands down his toga, the blood stark on the material. He’d hurt himself trying to help me. After tossing wood on the embers of the fire, he sat on the other side. “What happened to Jack?”

Unguarded, I found myself saying, “I was riding to meet him, to go away with him, starting a future together.” A blank slate. “We were talking on a two-way radio . . . he told me he was going to marry me . . . and we talked about the snow.”

“And then?”

“I-I was just about to tell him I loved him, was wondering why I had never said those three words, when I heard three other ones: ‘Quake before me.’ The Emperor’s call. In seconds, the entire valley was a lake of lava. All those people, dead instantly.”

Sol’s lips parted. “Why would he attack so many?”

“Richter enjoys killing. He gets off on using his power to destroy. I’d been warned about him. No one is safe while he lives.”

“But aren’t we all supposed to kill each other?”

“Some of us have been fighting not to,” I said. “We’ve made an alliance.”

Sol seemed to consider this, then he said, “You must miss Jack very much.”

“Every second.” And each second took him farther out of my reach. Damn it, the winds still howled outside. Desperate for a change of subject, I said, “What about you? Have you been in love?”

“Sí. Before the apocalypse.”

My hand shook as I raised my canteen for a drink. “Did your girlfriend die in the Flash?”

He cast me a playful grin. “You assume I was with a girl?”

Given the way he’d been flirting with me . . . yeah. “Did you lose your boyfriend, then?”

“I had both.”

“You loved two people?” I handed him the canteen.

He took it, drinking deep. “Desperately.”

God, I could relate. Sol and I now had something in common outside of the game. He’d probably just ensured I could never kill him.

“Bea, Joe, and I were committed.” He squared his shoulders proudly. “Everyone doubted we could make a go of our trio, but we’d been together for two years.”

I’d never met anyone who’d been in a relationship like this.

He tilted his head at me. “Will you judge me? Us?”

A bitter laugh spilled from my lips. “Are you joking?”

“Good, pequeña,” he said. “Do you believe a heart can be big enough to love two?”

“I know for a fact that it can.” The Lovers—for all their disgusting faults—could detect what was in a person’s heart. Mine was divided evenly. “I’m in love with two.” Jack was foremost in my mind right now, of course. I was crazed to bring him back because I’d seen him die. But I was plagued with worry about Aric too. Though his armor weighed so little, it would have to hinder him in the water. What if—

I shut down that thought. Going back in time would protect him as well.

Sol frowned, as if I might be pulling his leg. “Truly?”

I nodded. “Jack and Aric.”

“So now you will be with Aric?”

“It’s complicated.” One of my favorite non-answers.

“Sí, it can be.” He gazed into the fire. “I loved them so much.”

“What were they like?”

Raising his face, he said, “Beatrice was this warm, affectionate angel with a backbone of steel. She volunteered at the hospital each Monday, reading to kids with cancer. She was brave and helped them be brave—but she would bury her face against my chest during scary movies.” His eyes watered. He didn’t seem to realize he was rubbing his chest, as if he could still feel her. “Joe was an ex-linebacker, law student. He planned to be a big-shot lawyer—but he couldn’t knot his tie. I had to do it for him. I’d bought engagement rings for them. Would have married them both.” Gazing past me, he said, “But then, on our anniversary, I got them . . . hurt.”

Chills tripped up my back. “I don’t understand.”

“It happened on Day Zero. The three of us, business partners as well, were in a basement, setting up for a rave. I needed more supplies. Instead of getting them from the van myself, I asked Bea and Joe to go.” His expression was stark. “I sent them outside of a perfect shelter—just in time to see the Flash.”

My head whipped around to the Bagger cage. Oh, dear God, those creatures were his girlfriend and boyfriend. Joe, the law student, and Bea, the hospital volunteer. They stared at nothing, cracked lips moving soundlessly.

I’d threatened them. No wonder Sol had freaked out. In his mind, I was the monster.

For so long I’d been fighting Bagmen or running from them. I’d hated them for causing my mom’s injury. But I’d rarely stopped to think that they’d once been people.

Maybe Sol wasn’t evil. Yes, he delighted in blood-sport contests. But if I lost Jack and Aric, I would do far, far worse.

Sol’s troubled gaze rested on Bea and Joe. “While I was alone down in the basement, I got sick, felt like I was spinning, and passed out for what must have been hours. I woke just as they were finding their way back inside. They attacked me, holding me down to drink.”

I couldn’t imagine how horrific that must have been. To see loved ones turned?

“Understand me: I would have died before I hurt them. I resisted, but I couldn’t hit them. Then, as I told you, they obeyed me.” He paused to clear his throat. “When more Bagmen descended into the basement, I began to suspect that the Flash had created countless legions like them. We emerged, and I saw all the world was broken.”

I recalled my first look around after the apocalypse. If I hadn’t had my mother with me . . .

Had Sol been all alone? I glanced at the Baggers again. No—not in his mind.

“Empress,” Sol murmured, his brows drawn. “Do you think Bea and Joe could ever turn back?”

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