Home > Poison Princess (The Arcana Chronicles #1)

Poison Princess (The Arcana Chronicles #1)
Author: Kresley Cole

Prologue

DAY 246 A.F.

REQUIEM, TENNESSEE FOOTHILLS OF THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS

She’s so lovely, so fragile. Those haunted eyes. Those rosebud lips . . . they’ll scream so prettily.

I gaze out my door’s peephole, willing the girl to come closer. A female so near! Come to me.

In the ash-filled twilight, she paces the sidewalk fronting my charred Victorian home, wrestling with the decision of whether to approach.

Chill winds toss her heavy mane of blond hair. She wears frayed jeans, battered hiking boots, and has her hands buried in the pockets of a threadbare hoodie.

Her clothes are no match for the temperature outside, which has only recently dropped from the punishing heat we’ve had all winter. The weather worsens as summer nears. . . .

She glances up. Has she caught the food scents carrying from my home? I have canned beef stew simmering atop a wood-burning stove. Does she note the smoke curling from the chimney?

She looks hungry; after the Flash, they’re always hungry.

Everything about my lair is meant to lure her to me. If the brightly glowing kerosene lantern isn’t enough of a beacon for travelers, I have a poster-board sign—written in marker and covered with plastic wrap—pinned by the door:

VOICES OF THE FLASH

HOT MEALS, SAFE SHELTER, JUST TELL ME YOUR STORY OF THE APOCALYPSE.

My house is ideally situated at a crossroads in this ghost town. Most of my guests tell me their lives are at a crossroads too. This girl’s obviously is as well.

Earlier, she followed me from a distance, watching as I pruned away wasted plant life to uncover the town’s singed welcome sign. Requiem, Tennessee, population 1212.

The Flash whittled that number down to single digits. Now it’s just me and mine.

As I worked on the sign, I whistled a jaunty tune for effect. She’ll think I’m a decent person, trying for normalcy.

Now she stills, looks straight at the door. Her mind is made up. I can see it in the set of her slim shoulders.

As she nears the front entrance, I make out her features more distinctly. She’s maybe a couple of inches over five feet tall. Her willowy figure and delicate face tell me she can’t be more than sixteen. But the hint of womanly curves I detect beneath that hoodie indicates that she’s older.

Her eyes are a cornflower blue—the color bold against her pale cheeks—but they’re heartbroken. This waif has known loss.

Who hasn’t since the apocalypse?

She’s about to know more. Come closer.

She hesitates to set foot on the front porch. No, come to me! After taking a deep breath, she makes her way to my door; I shudder in anticipation, a spider poised on its web.

Already I feel a connection to this girl. I’ve said this in the past—others like me have spoken of a bond with their subjects—but this time I do feel an unprecedented tension.

I want to possess her so badly I barely stifle a groan.

If I can get her inside, she will be trapped. The interior half of the doorknob is missing; the only way to open it is with my pliers. The windows are made from clear sheeting, unbreakable. All the other doors to the outside are nailed shut.

She raises her hand and knocks lightly, then retreats a skittish step. I wait for several seconds—an eternity—then stomp my feet as if I’m approaching.

When I open the door with a broad smile, she relaxes a touch. I’m not what she was expecting. I don’t look much older than my early twenties.

Actually, I’m younger. Closer to her age, I’d imagine. But my skin has been weathered from the Flash. My experiments have taken their toll as well.

Yet the girls below, my little rats, assure me I’m the most handsome boy they’ve ever seen. I’ve no reason to think otherwise.

Ah, but my mind feels ancient. A wise man in the guise of a boy.

“Please come in out of the cold,” I tell her, opening my arm wide. “Look at you—you must be freezing!”

She warily peers inside, gaze darting from wall to wall. The interior is cheery, candlelit. A homemade quilt stretches over a couch arm. A rocking chair sits directly in front of the crackling fire.

My lair looks safe, warm, grandmotherly. It should; an old woman lived here before I slaughtered her and made it my home.

The girl eyes that rocking chair and fire with longing, yet her muscles are still tensed to bolt.

Feigning sadness, I say, “I’m afraid it’s just me. After the Flash . . .” I trail off, letting her assume that my loved ones were lost in the apocalypse.

Pity me. Until you first set eyes on your new collar.

At last, she crosses the threshold! To keep from roaring with pleasure, I bite the inside of my cheek until the tang of blood hits my tongue. Somehow I manage an even tone when I tell her, “I’m Arthur. Please take a seat by the fire.”

Her fragile form is trembling, her eyes stark as she gazes up at me. “Th-thank you.” She heads for the rocking chair. “I’m Evangeline. Evie.”

Behind her, I furtively pocket my pliers and close the door. As it clicks shut, I smile.

She’s mine. She will never leave this place.

Whether she remains alive or dead within depends on her. “Are you hungry, Evie? I’ve got stew simmering. And maybe a cup of hot chocolate?” I can all but hear her salivating.

“Yes, p-please, if it’s not too much trouble.” She sits, raising her hands to the flames. “I’m starving.”

“I’ll be right back.” In the kitchen, I ladle stew into a bowl, arranging the dinner carefully on a TV tray. It’s her first meal with me. It must be perfect. In things like this, I am fastidious. My clothing is spotless, my hair neatly combed. My organized sleeve of scalpels sits tucked in my blazer pocket.

The dungeon, however, is a different story.

Beside the bowl, I add a steaming cup of cocoa, made from my dwindling water stores. From the sugar dispenser, I pour one teaspoonful of white powder—not sweetener. With each sip of her drink, she will relax more and more until her muscles fail her, yet her consciousness will remain.

Unmoving yet aware. It’s important that she experience our communion fully. My homemade concoctions never fail.

In fact, it’s time for my own elixir. I collect a stoppered vial from my cabinet, downing the clear, sour contents. My thoughts grow even more centered, my focus laser-sharp.

“Here we are,” I say when I return. Her eyes go wide at the bounty. When she licks her plump bottom lip, the tray rattles in my quaking hands. “If you’ll just grab that stand . . .”

She all but lunges to help me set it up, and in no time, she’s digging in. I sit on the couch—not too close, careful not to crowd her.

“So, Evie, I’m sure you saw the sign out front.” She nods, too busy chewing to utter an answer. “I want you to know that I’m delighted to help you. All I ask is that you share some information with me.” And cry as I touch you, flinch whenever I near you. “I’m archiving folks’ stories, trying to collect them for the future. We need a history of how people’s lives were rocked by this catastrophe.”

This is essentially true. I tape my girls’ stories—background on my subjects—and later their screams. “Would you be interested in sharing?”

She eyes me cagily as she finishes her stew. “What would you want to know?”

“I’d like you to tell me what happened in the days leading up to the Flash. And then how you coped with the aftermath. I’d record you with this.” I point at the battery-operated cassette recorder on the end table and grin sheepishly. “Old-school, I know.”

She reaches for her mug, raises it, blows across the top.

Drink, little girl.

When she takes a sip, I release a pent-up breath. She’s drinking a toast to her own doom, to our beginning.

“So you’ll just record me talking?”

“That’s right.” When I rise to remove the tray, she snatches her mug, holding it close to her chest. “Evie, I’ve got more in the kitchen. I’ll bring back a whole pot of it.”

By the time I return with a pot and my own mug, she’s finished her drink. Her hoodie is now wrapped around her waist, and as she stokes the fire, her short-sleeved T-shirt molds to her br**sts.

I clench my mug handle so tightly I fear it will break. Then I frown. I’m not usually so lustful of my subjects. Mixing business with pleasure is . . . messy. But her allure is intoxicating.

Earlier in town, when I first saw her, I’d desired her, imagining her in my bed, opening her arms to me.

Could she be the one?

She returns to her seat, breaking my stare. “Why do you want to know about me?” Her voice has a drawling southern lilt to it.

After clearing my throat, I answer, “Anyone who makes it here has a story of survival to tell. You included.” I take my spot on the couch. “I want to know about your life. Before and after the Flash.”

“Why before?”

To get a baseline history on my new test subject. Instead I say, “The apocalypse turned lives inside out, altering people. In order to survive, they’ve had to do a lot of things they never thought they could. I want as many details as possible. . . . You don’t have to give your last name, if that makes you feel more comfortable.”

Over the rim of her mug, she murmurs, “My life was turned inside out long before the Flash.”

“How do you mean?” I reach over and press the record button. She doesn’t seem to mind.

“In the weeks leading up to it, I’d just gotten home after a summer away. And things were strained.”

“Where was your home?” I ask, nearly sighing as I gaze at the girl. Her lids have grown a touch heavier, and the blond waves of her hair shine in the firelight. She smooths the silken length over her shoulder, and I catch the faintest hint of her scent—sublime, flowery.

Even eight months post-Flash, and with all the lakes and rivers evaporated, she manages to smell as if she’s fresh from a bath. Amazing. Unlike the fetid little rats in the dungeon.

“My home was in Louisiana, on a beautiful sugarcane farm called Haven.” She leans back in the chair, gazing dreamily up at the ceiling, remembering. “All around us, there was a sea of green cane stretching forever.”

Suddenly I find it imperative to know everything about this girl. Why is she alone? How could she have made it this far north with no male protecting her? If the Bagmen didn’t get her, then the slavers or militiamen surely would have.

I realize she must’ve only recently lost her protector—which is why a girl this fine would be alone.

My gain.

“How were things strained at home?” Which will it be—a tale of strife with her parents, or punishment for staying out past curfew, or a messy breakup with the local high-school stud? “You can tell me.” I give her an earnest nod.

She takes a deep breath and nibbles her lip. In that moment, I know she’s made the decision to tell me everything.

“Arthur, I . . . I’d just been released from a mental institution.” She looks up at me from under her lashes, gauging my reaction while seeming to dread it.

I just stop my jaw from dropping. “Mental institution?”

“I’d been sick the last quarter of my sophomore year, so my mom made me go to a clinic in Atlanta.”

This girl’s been heaven-sent for me! I, too, had been sick. Until I’d tested my concoctions on myself, eventually discovering a cure.

Her idea of sickness and mine would likely differ to a murderous degree . . . but I could teach her to give in and embrace our darkness.

“I can’t believe I’m confiding this.” She frowns, then whispers, “I couldn’t tell him my secrets.”

Him—her previous protector? I must know these secrets!

She gives me a soft smile. “Why do I feel so at ease with you?”

Because a drug is at work even now, relaxing you. “Please, go on.”

“I’d only been home for two weeks and strange things were starting to happen again. I was losing time, having nightmares and hallucinations so realistic I couldn’t tell if I was awake or asleep.”

This troubled girl is as frail in mind as she is in body. She’s mine. Heaven-sent. I know I can take the merest spark of madness and make insanity flare to life. I begin sweating with harnessed aggression.

She doesn’t notice, because again she’s studying the ceiling, thinking back. “A week before the Flash would have been the day the school year began, seven days before my sixteenth birthday.”

“Your birthday was day one A.F.?” I ask, my voice high with excitement. She nods. “What was happening then?”

Drawing a foot up on the chair, she uses her other to gently rock herself. “I remember getting dressed for school Monday morning—my mom was worried that I wasn’t ready to go back.” She exhales. “Mom was right.”

“Why?”

Evie meets my gaze. “I’ll tell you. All of my story. And I’ll try to remember as much as possible. But, Arthur . . .”

“Yes?”

Her eyes are glinting, her expression ashamed. So exquisitely wretched. “What I believe happened might not be what actually took place.”

Chapter 1

DAY 6 B.F.

STERLING, LOUISIANA

“How are you feeling?” Mom asked with an appraising eye. “You sure you’re up for this?”

I finished my hair, pasted on a smile, and lied through my teeth, “Definitely.” Though we’d been over this, I patiently said, “The docs told me that settling back into a normal routine might be good for someone like me.” Well, at least three out of my five shrinks had.

The other two insisted that I was still unstable. A loaded gun. Trouble with the possibility of rubble.

“I just need to get back to school, around all my friends.”

Whenever I quoted shrinks to her, Mom relaxed somewhat, as if it was proof that I’d actually listened to them.

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