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Strange and ever after, p.15
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       Strange and Ever After, p.15

           Susan Dennard
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And as he stormed, presumably letting this doorman know exactly what he thought of him, his eyes slid to mine. A brief flash of gold, the tiniest of winks—maybe even a hint of a smile—and I realized exactly what he was doing.

  My hand latched on to Allison’s wrist, and while Oliver directed the man’s gaze away from us, I yanked her along toward the doors, through the doors . . . and then inside—into a room of tiled floors and artifacts.

  Allison’s breath burst out. “We did it,” she whispered, her eyes gleaming.

  Do not get too excited, I thought. That was only the beginning. And with a scrutinizing eye, I examined our surroundings.

  Enormous walls rose up, mosaicked and lined with glass cases and open shelves. Directly before us was an octagonal case filled with old relics. Beyond, surrounded by a low iron fence, was a small statue of a hunched old man with a cane. And behind him was a curtained doorway that led into an even larger room—and, judging by the sound of voices and a string quartet (to say nothing of the delicious scent of fresh bread), it was where the party was.

  I moved farther into the room, and it was like a gulp of champagne. A pleasant buzz surged into my lungs and up my throat. Empowering and warm.

  I met Allison’s eyes—her cheeks were flushed, her expression triumphant. Perhaps this feeling inside me was merely a shared victory at getting inside . . . but I did not think so. It felt too much like magic.

  Pushing aside the intoxicating hum in my chest, I forced myself to scan the museum further. To find the exits and a hiding place.

  Amid all the glass cases were statues with hard faces and stiff poses. They were useless for hiding—too small and crammed together. But on either end of the entrance rooms there were more curtained doorways. I crept to the nearest one and peeked through. It was a long room lit by skylights.

  Allison moved to my side, and I jerked my thumb into the room. “If we get separated for any reason, we’ll meet in there, all right?”

  Allison nodded. “Next to that large stone thing.”

  “You mean the sarcophagus? The one beside all those maces and clubs?” I squinted into the gloom. The sheer size and rectangular shape certainly suggested an Egyptian coffin.

  Allison’s hand slipped into mine, distracting me. “Come on, before I lose my nerve.” She squeezed with bone-breaking strength. “And I daresay, I hope you are ready for a scene, for I fear I am about to make one.”

  “And I daresay,” I said, squeezing back just as fiercely, “that if you can handle an airship crash and Hell Hounds, then a mere scene will be child’s play.”

  She eked out a tiny smile, and we set off into the gala.

  It turned out to be an incredibly elegant affair. Cases and shelves were everywhere in the huge, high-ceilinged room, but they had been pushed aside to make room for a dance floor and small orchestra. Bright red and blue tiles blended into orange sandstone on the walls, the columns, the floor. Hieroglyphs and gold seemed to pop from the cases and shelves, but as far as I could see, there was no rhyme or reason to the placement of items within their displays.

  Men and women in black suits and pastel gowns swept past us as we hugged the edge of the room and moved toward the center. My memories of the party at the Palais Garnier were hazy, but even that opulence seemed tame compared to this. Perhaps it was simply the Arabian atmosphere—that surreal feeling that I was in a completely different time.

  But of course, the music was as Western as possible—a standard polka redowa—and the faces streaming past were no different from those of Paris or Philadelphia. Or rather, the wealthiest of Paris or Philadelphia.

  Professor Milton was clearly a very important person.

  And for some reason this amused me. As did Allison’s hand in my own. And the yellow glow of the lamps and dull murmur of voices. For some reason a giggle tickled my throat, and I had to clasp a hand over my mouth to trap it inside. There was nothing funny about this situation—was there? Yet I felt drunk off the moment.

  I examined Allison, now awash in warm lamplight. She looked as determined as always. Yet unlike me, she did not look as if she might burst into laughter. I schooled my face into the same severe expression she wore: lips puffed out, chin up, gaze challenging.

  Act normal, I ordered. Now was not the time to let this odd burst of giddiness take control.

  “There he is,” Allison hissed, drawing to a sudden stop. She motioned to the very center of the room, to a stone sarcophagus—like the one we had seen earlier. This one, though, had its top off, and I could only guess that Milton’s surprise artifact lay within.

  Behind the sarcophagus was a long table overflowing with exotic and traditional foods alike, and chatting happily beside it, a glass of champagne in hand, was Professor Milton.

  Or I assumed the monocled man with the neat, peppery beard was he, for he was surrounded by a gaggle of fascinated men and women. And his tan, seamed skin was precisely as I imagined an Egyptologist must look.

  He seemed to be telling a story, so I tugged Allison along, and we navigated our way around people and dancers until we were also in his crowd of listeners.

  Yet before I could hone in on his story, I had to appease my curiosity. I slunk close to the sarcophagus. A placard before it read THUTMOSE II, and excitement flickered through me. Milton’s unveiled artifact was a mummy!

  Rolling onto my toes, I peered inside . . . and instantly recoiled.

  I do not know what I expected since I had obviously seen many corpses before. Nonetheless, I suppose I’d hoped a mummy might be more impressive.

  But it was not. Its skin was blackened and shriveled, with ancient bindings that were mostly disintegrated. One of its legs was actually missing from the knee down, and it looked more like a sad skeleton (with skin and patches of curly hair) than it did a former pharaoh.

  I glanced back at the placard. It would seem Mr. Thutmose II had died around 1480 BC.

  At least that was impressive.

  Allison’s fingers clamped onto my shoulder and wrenched me back to the circle of Milton’s admirers.

  “And there I was,” Milton said, his voice quite bass and pleasant to the ear, “standing face-to-face with an imperial guard’s mummy! I daresay, it’s not often they come to life, but this one was most certainly awake—and ready to kill me for stealing his pharaoh here.”

  “Oh my,” a woman squealed. “Was it one of Thutmose’s own guards?”

  “In all likelihood, no.” Milton patted the edge of the sarcophagus with a proprietary fondness and sipped his champagne. “The mummies that guard many of the tombs are meant to protect any of the pharaohs, and judging by the mummy’s headdress, he was a nineteenth-dynasty guard.”

  “And wha dynath-ty wath Thutmoth the Thecond?” asked a tiny man through a mouth full of pastry.

  Milton smiled indulgently. “Eighteenth.”

  “But,” the first woman said, “whatever did you do about the awakened mummy?”

  “Why, I ran, of course!” Milton gave a deep, throaty laugh, and the party guests all giggled along with him.

  Allison and I exchanged glances of mutual disdain—which only turned darker when Milton proceeded to say, “Once I was out of the cave, I hurried to our camp—which was all the way at the southern edge of the Valley of the Kings. Then I sent my dragoman, which is what we call a native Egyptian guide, of course.” A second indulgent smile. “I sent the dragoman back to deal with the wretched thing. I daresay, I have never run so fast or so far in my life. Though it could have been much worse had I awakened one of the queens’ guards. I never would have survived.”

  “Zey are more dangerous?” asked an elderly woman with a French accent.

  “Absolutely,” answered a British gentleman with muttonchops. “The queens’ guards were all women, and for whatever reason, their mummies are much better preserved than the kings’.”

  “Just so,” Milton agreed. “They also carry much more frightening weapons. I try to avoid any excavations that might bring me near queens’
guards. I always send my dragoman instead.” He gave a smug chortle, and his listeners joined in.

  Allison’s nostrils flared, and with no warning, her mouth popped wide in a shrill shout. “How very cowardly of you, Professor Milton.”

  Instantly his laughter and the crowd’s broke off. Despite the low, almost magical hum that still remained at the base of my spine, I suddenly felt quite sober. I had not considered how very outnumbered we were or how exposed one feels with so many eyes turned upon you.

  Milton’s lips pruned, but he did not bother to move—or even shift his body our way. He merely met Allison’s gaze and asked, “I beg your pardon?”

  “I said,” Allison declared, lifting her voice even higher, “that it was very cowardly of you to run from the mummies. And to force your poor dragoman to deal with them—why, that’s not so different from how you treated the Wilcoxes, is it?”

  Milton’s eyes narrowed even more. “I am afraid I haven’t the faintest idea to what you refer.”

  “Clay Wilcox of Philadelphia. He invested ten thousand dollars in your excavation of . . . of . . .”

  “Saqqara,” I whispered, thinking back to the booklet at Shepheard’s.

  “Saqqara!” Allison thrust a finger in the air. “Ten thousand dollars, and yet you never paid him back. What do you say to that, sir?” She cast him her nastiest stare . . . yet Milton showed no sign of embarrassment.

  In fact, after a moment, his lips burst wide in a laugh. “Of course! That’s why you look so familiar—you must be Clay’s daughter.” He took a step toward Allison, his gaze raking over her. “You do look like him, don’t you? Same coloring. Same ridiculous demands.”

  “Ridiculous? You promised my father you would double his money.”

  “Yes, well.” Milton tugged at his waistcoat. “Some investments do not pay off as well as others. I would imagine a man such as Clay could find other sources of income—if you take my meaning.”

  “I most certainly do not take your meaning.” She advanced on him, her face scarlet and eyes bulging. But before she could part her lips, Milton called out, “Guards! Get this nuisance of a child out of my party.”

  And with that simple command, everyone reared away from us. A moment of panic seized my lungs. . . .

  Then came cool action. Getting thrown from the museum would leave us with no airship and no carriage ride, so we must not be thrown out. Snatching Allison’s wrist, I yanked her—hard—after me.

  “We’re leaving!” I shouted, in case anyone cared enough to listen. Then I dragged her back through the dancers. Fortunately, people cleared out of our way.

  “You’re a criminal!” Allison shrieked over her shoulder. “I hope a mummy eats you, you coward!” I wrenched her into the entrance hall just as two guards reached Milton’s side.

  “Hush,” I snarled, “and run.”

  She must have spotted the guards as well, for she instantly shut pan and bolted behind me. Our heels hammered much too loudly for stealth, but we raced into the dim side room . . . and back, back, back until we finally ducked behind our chosen sarcophagus.

  Then, my heart pounding against my lungs, I held my breath and listened. The orchestra had stopped playing, the party guests had grown quiet, and there was no missing Milton’s bellows to find us.

  “Eleanor,” Allison whispered.

  “Shhhh.” I poked my head around the sarcophagus and squinted to see into the entrance hall. Yet it was hard to tell which distant figures were statues and which were people.

  “There’s something glowing in your dress.”

  “What?” I jerked my gaze to her . . . then down. Sure enough, a faint blue glow pulsed inside my bodice.

  I fidgeted with the fabric over my chest and finally withdrew the ivory fist. My jaw went slack, for it flared with a throbbing, blue light.

  I gasped, and my fingers jumped to my throat. To the heartbeat that pulsed at the exact same speed.

  Allison gawked at me. “What is that?”

  “It’s only a . . . an artifact.” I lifted one shoulder. “I found it in Paris—but it has never glowed like this!”

  “Put it away.” Allison shrank back, covering her eyes. “It’s too bright, and someone will see.”

  But someone seeing us was the least of our worries, for at that moment, a shriek—rattling and desperate—ripped through the museum.

  I met Allison’s wide eyes through the glowing blue light.

  Another scream broke out, followed by another.

  With no concern for caution, I scrambled around the sarcophagus—for something was happening, and it was bad. Through the distant curtains, I could see figures racing for the door.

  “Eleanor.” Allison’s fingers latched on to my bicep and squeezed.

  “What?” I snapped. But then I saw what had caught her eye. The ivory fist was pulsing twice as fast now.

  I shoved the fist deep into my bodice. The light dulled, but even the layers of silk could not hide it completely. “I think it’s time to go—we can get out while everyone is fleeing.”

  “But what about my money?” Allison cried. “And we don’t even know why they’re fleeing.”

  “We’ll find out soon enough.” I had to shout now to be heard over shrieking party guests. Yet as I crept back toward the entrance, I saw that the main hall was blocked—too many people were trying to get out. I watched in horror as one man tripped and fell, hitting the tiles hard . . . and no one stopped to help. They simply climbed over him.

  I tried to swallow. Tried to breathe. My feet stumbled two steps forward, and my hand waved dumbly for Allison to follow. Two more steps . . . then one more. . . .

  Then I stopped trying to move at all, for now I could see what had sparked the panic. His rotted, cloth-draped body had reached the octagonal case in the entrance, hopping along on one leg.

  Thutmose II had woken up.

  People kicked and heaved to get away as he clawed with skeletal fingers for anyone in his path. Then a guttural groan poured from a lipless mouth . . . and his head snapped toward Allison and me. In a twist of ancient sinew and bone, he lurched toward us.

  A scream tore from Allison’s throat—then her hands shoved against my back. “Go! Go!”

  But I stayed glued to my spot, unable to look away from the approaching mummy. There was something in his hand—something in each hand . . .

  And the items were glowing blue—identical to the ivory fist.

  “Do something,” Allison screeched. “Stop it—lay it to rest.”

  “Not yet.” My hand moved toward my bodice.

  “Yes yet!” Allison yelled at me. “Do something!”

  But I did not do something. At least not what Allison likely wanted. And it was certainly not what Oliver or Jie would recommend. But they were not here to stop me.

  I tried to swallow. Tried to nod, but the old hunger for magic was beating to life—and it was as loud and insistent as the mummy’s moans. Somehow Thutmose II was walking again—and somehow he was linked to the ivory fist.

  And I needed to know why.

  Then my eyes landed on the display of maces, and an idea ignited. I dived for the nearest one, its head of spiked bronze looking particularly effective.

  For half a breath Allison gaped at me, her mouth hanging open—and in a flicker of a half-formed thought, I realized how much I would rather have had Jie beside me at that moment. She would know instantly what to do.

  But then Allison caught onto my plan, and she snatched up another mace. “Now what?”

  My only response was to slink back into the middle of the hall, for the mummy was close now. His groans—a sound like ancient wind—grated against my skin. The glowing items in his hands burned my eyes with their light. There was a heaviness in the air. An electrical shimmer. It set my teeth to grinding, and my hairs pricked up.

  This wasn’t simply one of the Dead—the mummy reeked of power.

  With a deep inhale, I sank low into my stance. But then Allison’s hand thrust
up, pointing ahead to a lone figure limping through the entrance hall. “Milton,” she growled. “And he’s getting away.”

  She was right. Why the professor was the last to leave—and why it looked like he could barely shamble out, I had no idea. But this was our chance to get what we’d come for.

  “All right.” I tightened my grip on the mace. “I’ll distract the mummy, and you go after Milton.”

  She nodded once, and a stiffening in her body told me she was ready—and absolutely unafraid.

  “We’ll run straight at it,” I said, taking a single slow step. “And when I say ‘move,’ you’ll slip around it. Can you do that?”

  She gave another sharp nod, and without another word we set off. Our heels clicked in unison, picking up speed until we ran almost as fast as the pounding light.

  And the mummy hopped onward. Its moans grew louder and louder until they vibrated up my body, through my chest. The glowing items in his hands—whatever they might be—glowed more brightly. Blinding.

  Then we were to Thutmose, and my arm was swinging back to aim for its one and only leg. . . .

  “Move!” I swung out just as Allison skittered left. As if on instinct, she threw in a twirl and ducked low to glide around the mummy. Then she was behind it and barreling onward.

  My mace connected with its knee.

  Shock waves thundered up through me. Thutmose II did not move—I moved, thrown backward as if caught in an explosion. A shout burst from my lips. My back hit the tiles, my head cracked down, and as a thousand stars fell over my vision, I knew with deep certainty that I had made a mistake.

  Oliver! Help! Sum veritas! My mind screamed the command, unbidden yet absolutely needed.

  Instantly, a sensual, explosive heat rushed over me. Perfect and pure. Oliver was coming, and I felt a tug in my gut that said he was approaching fast.

  So I tried to sit up, tried to draw in my elbows. But when I lifted my torso, I instantly froze.

  For the mummy had reached me. His twisted form was bent halfway, his closed eyes shifting as if the eyeballs behind could see me. I had the definite impression that Thutmose II was inspecting me.

  “Dormi!” Oliver’s voice trickled into my ears, a million miles away and strangely drawn out.

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