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Strange and ever after, p.1
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       Strange and Ever After, p.1

           Susan Dennard
 
Strange and Ever After


  DEDICATION

  For Sarah J. Maas, who taught me to seek out my darkest fears and to write them with courage

  CONTENTS

  Dedication

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Excerpt from Something Strange and Deadly

  Acknowledgments

  Back Ads

  About the Author

  Books by Susan Dennard

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  CHAPTER ONE

  I was not supposed to be here. Oliver would be furious. Joseph even more so. This dock was the no-man’s-land between realms. It was a place for ghosts.

  But my mother was dead.

  And I, Eleanor, intended to find her.

  Wood groaned beneath my feet as I shifted my weight. A soft, golden glow pulsed behind me. It was the curtain, a door back into the world of the living. I could almost catch a few sounds from that earthly realm—low voices and the hum of an airship engine—but the dark, lapping water beneath the dock was louder.

  I took a single step forward. The curtain throbbed brighter, flickering in the corners of my vision. Then it pulled back—taking the sounds from earth with it.

  Another step—the wood creaked again. At least this time I wore boots, unlike my last trip here. I’d been barefoot then, sleeping on a ship bound for France. At that time I had thought I merely dreamed this empty expanse of black water, with its driftwood dock and still air. Now I knew this place was a barrier and that I ought to turn back—I ought to leave this world before the Hell Hounds came.

  Those giant, monstrous Hounds, guardians of the spirit realm. They kept the Dead on their side of the curtain . . . and the living on theirs.

  But let the Hell Hounds come. Let them blast me far beyond this dock and the spirit world. Let them send my soul straight to the final afterlife.

  For at this moment I truly did not care.

  I glanced down and found I wore exactly what I had fallen asleep in: Daniel’s loose shirt, tucked into a pair of his trousers and rolled up to expose my hands. I flexed my fingers before me. Everything about me looked hazy, as if my body were layered in fog.

  All except for my right hand. My spirit hand. That was clear and crisp.

  I examined it more closely. This hand had been amputated—cut off after a Hungry Dead had shredded it beyond repair. Though I had been without it for only three months before my demon, Oliver, had returned the hand to me. He had bound the ghost of my amputated hand in the earthly realm, leaving me with this phantom limb.

  So perhaps my right hand appeared more real than any other part of me because it was the only part of me that actually belonged in the spirit world.

  With a deep breath, I lowered my arm and set off at a steady walk down the dock. I was here to find Mama, so that was what I would do.

  Mama. Is dead. Mama. Is dead. The thought had not stopped pounding in my brain, beating in time to my heart.

  Allison Wilcox had been the one to tell me, only a few hours ago. It felt like years. Or maybe only minutes . . .

  It had been a beautiful, sunny morning in the Tuileries Gardens of Paris. The sort of sunny day that had made it impossible to believe I’d barely escaped the previous night with my life.

  The Spirit-Hunters had come to Paris to stop a surge in walking corpses, only to learn too late that the source of les Morts was actually a demon—Marcus’s demon.

  Yet the Spirit-Hunters, Oliver, and I had done our jobs well. We’d killed the demon named Madame Marineaux and saved the City of Light from hundreds of rabid Hungry Dead.

  The following morning, Daniel’s huge, egg-shaped balloon had creaked and swayed in the wind off the river Seine. Its shadow had drifted over me . . . then away . . . then over me once more. The long gondola hanging below gave it the look of a white-sailed ship with a wooden ladder dropping to earth.

  “Hurry, Eleanor,” a voice had called. I glanced up and found Joseph’s head poking from the gondola thirty feet above. A bandage wrapped around his head; his black skin was sickly and puffy with exhaustion.

  Madame Marineaux had cut off Joseph’s ear in a blood sacrifice.

  “There is no time to waste,” Joseph added, with a final scratch at his bandages.

  I nodded and tiredly grabbed at the first rung. The Spirit-Hunters and I were traveling south today—racing a train bound for Marseille that had departed the evening before with Marcus on board.

  And with Jie on board too. He had taken her from us, so now we would take her back.

  Then we would make the bastard pay for everything he’d done.

  Yet the instant my boot hit the first rung to Daniel’s airship, a new voice called, “Eleanor! Eleanor!” and my stomach plummeted.

  I recognized that shrill pitch—and God, I’d so desperately prayed I would not have to hear it.

  Allison Wilcox.

  I had known she was coming from Philadelphia . . . but now? Already? It wasn’t even eight o’clock in the morning, and nothing good could have brought her all the way to Paris.

  Last I had seen her, only a few weeks before, I had confessed to her that my brother had killed her brother. Yet despite that awful truth, Allison had still helped me reach the Philadelphia wharf when I needed to get to Paris—though she had also promised to call in the debt one day.

  This day, it would seem, when speed was needed above all else to rescue Jie.

  I slowly twisted away from the airship ladder. Allison stalked toward me, dressed in black. In mourning. Though she certainly looked healthier than she had a few weeks before, she was still a bony, angled version of herself.

  “Why weren’t you in the hotel?” she demanded, stomping across the gravel and swinging her parasol. “I told you,” she continued, “that I would arrive this morning, yet when I read the letter at the front desk, I learned you are leaving the city!” Her gaze raked over me, her nose wrinkling up. “What the dickens are you wearing, Eleanor? And . . . is that a hand? How did you get your hand back?”

  “Allison,” I said, forcing a smile onto my lips. It felt more like a wince. “I apologize for leaving town, but I must do so immediately.” I motioned up, to the airship.

  She followed my finger and started—as if she hadn’t yet noticed the enormous balloon.

  “So,” I continued, in the proper tone that etiquette demanded though my brain shrieked at me to make haste, “if you will please excuse me, I must go. Good day.” I turned back to the first rung.

  “Is this some sort of joke?” She stomped quickly to my side. The feather on her hat bobbed in the breeze. “You cannot possibly leave! Do you realize how far I have come?”

  “I am truly sorry.” I was not sorry at all. “But I cannot stay—”

  “Then bring me with you,” she blurted.

  At those words I froze. It was such an absurd, unexpected request. And so impossible—even she had to realize that.

  “Please,” she begged, her harshness shifting to desperation. “Do not leave me here, Eleanor. I have traveled all the way from Philadelphia to see you be
cause I bear news that I must give.”

  “Then tell me your news.” My words sounded distant beneath the growing boom of blood in my ears. “And then return to the hotel.”

  Allison’s lips suddenly pressed tight. She shook her head.

  “Allison, tell me what happened so that I may go.” Another headshake, and this time, tears shone in her eyes.

  I leaned closer, and the world seemed to slow. Her feathers left black trails in my vision. “Who is it, Allison? Who died?”

  She still would not reply. “Who is it, Allison?” Horrified by my violence yet unable to stop it, I grabbed her arms and shook. “Who? Tell me!”

  “Eleanor!” Joseph’s voice crashed down from above. “Control yourself!”

  But I could not. All control had slipped through my fingers as quickly as the splintered hole in my gut had opened.

  I knew exactly who had died—and with her death, there was no one left for me in Philadelphia.

  “Your mother,” Allison rasped. “Just like Clarence. Just like the other boys.” Her chest shuddered. “Eleanor, your mother was murdered. Decapitated.”

  “Ah.” I released Allison. De-cap-i-tated. Such a strange word. It knocked around meaninglessly in my skull. . . . And in a cold, slow clench, everything went numb.

  No thoughts. No sounds. No pain.

  I twisted back to the ladder, and I climbed. Allison shouted after me, but it was gibberish. All I saw was the next rung. All I heard was my heartbeat. When I reached the open gondola hatch, Joseph tried to speak to me—Daniel too. But it was all still gibberish.

  A quick scan of the airship showed a metal room the size of my bedroom back in Philadelphia. It was crammed with sandbags and pulleys, with familiar crates that held Daniel’s latest inventions—and presumably supplies.

  A cargo hold, I thought vaguely, aiming straight ahead, toward a narrow hallway of wood-plank walls.

  “Empress.” Daniel’s hand reached for me. “Talk to me.”

  But I couldn’t even look at him as I walked past.

  My feet reached the hall. Doors hung open on either side, spaced close together, while at the end of the hall was a glass-walled room with an enormous steering wheel. The pilothouse.

  “Please,” Daniel called after me. I remained silent. All I needed was a moment alone, to remember who I was—and to remember what I was doing. . . .

  I drifted past open doors. On the left, a tiny galley. An even tinier washroom. A cabin with two bunks. On the right, three more cabins . . . and then finally, a fourth with only one bunk inside.

  I stumbled in, my fingers brushing against the doorframe, against the left wall. I gaped at the tiny porthole opposite me. The buildings of Paris were just visible outside, their beige fronts and gray roofs melting together. I looked down at the wooden floor instead. But it looked equally as fuzzy. It did not help that the gondola listed and swayed with the wind.

  I felt sick.

  Footsteps pounded in the hall outside. “Empress. Eleanor. Please—”

  I toed the door shut. Then I locked it. But Daniel would not go away.

  “Please talk to me.” His voice was muffled through the door. Through the roar of blood in my ears. “Please, Eleanor.”

  “I just need a minute,” I mumbled. “A minute alone.” I stared at the closed door and barely managed to choke out a final word. “Please.”

  I turned around, and a fresh numbness engulfed me. My posture deflated; my knees buckled; I slumped to the floor. I planted my hands on the wood, and stared vaguely at the swirls and grooves in the planks.

  No. No. I refused to believe Mama was dead. Not her—not my dragon mother.

  I needed proof. I would not accept this until I had evidence.

  Or . . . until I had said good-bye.

  I leaned right, curling into a ball against the low bunk.

  Daniel pounded on the door. Then Joseph. Then Oliver. I ignored them. Even when Allison’s voice began to mingle with theirs, even when the engines started to rumble and the airship’s gondola swayed more wildly, even when my ears popped painfully from the rapid change in altitude, I stayed firmly curled on the floor.

  Until eventually, I had fallen asleep. And when I had opened my eyes again, the floorboards had been replaced by a golden, glowing dock.

  Though I knew entering the spirit realm meant certain death, I did not care. Now that I was here—now that I was in this no-man’s-land—I could find my mother. And I could say good-bye.

  My boots struck the dock, muffled in the heavy air. Unnatural. I risked a backward glance. The golden door was distant now—much farther away than it should have been, given I had moved only twenty paces or so. . . .

  Fear rippled down my spine, and for the first time since I had crossed into this world, my numbness pulled back.

  Then it reared back, and panic crashed over me. Was this truly what I wanted: to find Mama? Was it worth the risk of the Hell Hounds? Of final, explosive death as they protected the spirit realm from the unwelcome living?

  Yes, my heart told me. I wanted to see her so fiercely, I thought my lungs would burst and my ribs snap. For my mother’s final words to me had been filled with hate and rage. . . . How could I go on living if that was all I had for a good-bye? How could I accept that Marcus had sacrificed Mama? Decapitated her just as Elijah had decapitated all those young men. . . .

  Suddenly, a whine sounded, and I jolted forward. A dog stood on the dock.

  I scooted back two steps. This was not a Hell Hound—this dog was much too small. Yet it was something, and it was here. In a no-man’s-land that should be empty.

  “Go away,” I croaked, stumbling farther back. “Go.”

  It did not move.

  I gaped at it, my heartbeat throbbing in my skull. This dog was much too real—just like my phantom hand. Its black-and-yellow fur was scruffy, its body lean and wild, its ears tall and erect. For whatever purpose, it belonged here.

  Jackal. He is a jackal.

  The words formed in my mind almost as if . . . as if they had been planted there. From somewhere else.

  My throat pinched tight. “You’re . . . a jackal?”

  The jackal gave another keening whine. Then it . . . no, he sank onto his haunches and very distinctly nodded his head.

  My jaw went slack, surprise replacing panic. And when the jackal’s yellow eyes latched on to mine expectantly, I eased out a breath—relaxing slightly.

  Why are you here?

  I flinched at the second blast of thought that was not my own. “You . . . want to know why I’m here?”

  The jackal nodded.

  “I’m looking for my mother. She . . .” My fingers curled into fists. “She died several weeks ago. She would have crossed this dock to enter the spirit realm.”

  And?

  “And I heard that those who are not ready to die will stay here. On the dock. My brother did it—he stayed here and did not pass to the final afterlife. Since . . .” I swallowed. “Since I do not think my mother was ready to die, then perhaps I can find her on the dock too.”

  The jackal shook his head. She is gone.

  My heart sank like a stone. Heavy. Choking. “So you have not seen her?” I could not keep the tremor from my words. “She is taller than I—broad shouldered and . . .”

  The jackal saw her pass on, and you are too late.

  “But maybe she is here anyway.” I insisted. “How do you know she’s gone? Who are you? What are you?”

  The jackal is a messenger, and the jackal knows. Your mother is gone, and you are too late.

  The thought burned in my skull, bright and penetrating. I stared stupidly at him. . . . But then the words shifted and sank. Down they slid, like clotted oil into my throat. Into my chest.

  My mother was dead, and I was too late. She had left the dock, and I would never, ever see her again.

  It was over; she was over; my family was over.

  Everything inside me went limp. My legs stopped working, and I fell forw
ard. My knees hit the dock, my hands too. My wrists snapped back.

  I did not care.

  Because I could not have my good-bye. My final “I love you.” There would be nothing.

  My lungs spasmed. No air in, no air out. I would suffocate, and I would not care.

  I clutched at the dock, digging my fingers into the weathered wood. Splinters sliced beneath my fingernails. Into my knuckles. Blood welled.

  You are angry, the voice said in my head. And he was right. I was angry. I was angrier than I’d ever thought possible.

  When Marcus had taken my brother’s dead body and donned it like some ill-fitting suit, I had wanted to kill him. When he had murdered all those people in Paris and then kidnapped my best friend, Jie, I had wanted to destroy him.

  But now he had sacrificed my mother’s blood for his own power. Now . . . the fury blistered inside me.

  I would crush Marcus. I would slice him open, and I would laugh as he bled out. I would rip his soul apart bit by bit.

  He had stolen my good-bye, and I would obliterate him.

  A growl sounded.

  Dazed, I looked up. The jackal’s lips were drawn back, and the hair on his spine was high. He lurched at me.

  I blundered back onto my knees. He lunged again—biting the air before my face. I scuttled upright.

  Then for half a heartbeat, the jackal paused. His ears twisted behind, and the motionless air seemed to pause too. . . .

  Go. You must go. In a rush of movement, he thrust at me again.

  My feet shambled backward, my eyes locked on the jackal’s bared teeth. Go, go. And that was when I heard them. A new, layered snarling echoed over the water. . . .

  The Hell Hounds were coming.

  The jackal dived at me once more. You must run. NOW.

  In a blind scramble, I turned and charged for the distant curtain. Terror and grief coiled together at the nape of my neck, as heavy and inescapable as the Hounds.

  I pounded my feet harder. Each step was like a drum, and my knees kicked up higher, higher. I was out of breath before I was halfway down the dock, yet I barely noticed the scorch of air in my throat.

  For as the curtain drew closer, the Hounds grew louder.

  Then a wet, frozen wind slammed into me, and the baying of the Hounds shattered through my skull. I staggered, listing dangerously to one side—toward dark waves speckled with starlight. But my arms windmilled, and I maintained my course.

 
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