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Strange and ever after, p.18
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       Strange and Ever After, p.18

           Susan Dennard
 
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  The need to chase after him swelled in my chest—to grab his sleeve and beg him to yell or drink from his flask or show any sign of what he felt. He was not only worried. Or if he was, it was a more terrifying, crippling worry than I had ever seen my demon wear.

  But I simply set off behind him, assuming Joseph and Daniel would catch up soon enough.

  Of course, climbing the Great Pyramid was no easy feat. Though the structure looked smooth from afar, the walls were actually comprised of steplike bricks that rose up to the peak. Each level of the bricks was as high as my head. So tall were the stones that I could not climb them unassisted.

  “Help?” I called weakly, mortified heat rising in my face.

  Oliver paused, already three levels up and with his clothes billowing in the sandy breeze.

  He glanced back. Then, with seemingly no effort, he hopped to the level above me. He spoke no words, yet he offered me his hand. My heels were just digging into the rough rock when Daniel’s hands gripped my waist.

  “I’ll help her,” Daniel said roughly, pushing me up.

  Oliver towed me the rest of the way, yet the instant I was steady, he backed off. And he even offered Daniel a nod, as if to say “She is all yours.”

  I did not like that. Oliver always jabbed at Daniel given the chance. His temper always ignited around my inventor. But there was no time to dwell on it, for Joseph joined us on the first level.

  “Take these,” he said, withdrawing a pulse pistol from his belt and a crystal clamp from his pocket. “We should all be armed. We do not know into what we are walking.”

  I accepted the pistol, placing it, exactly as Joseph had, in my belt and ignoring how the copper coils rubbed against my stomach. Then I shoved the crystal clamp into my pocket.

  Joseph offered a pistol to Oliver. My demon pretended not to notice, and in an easy leap, he ascended to the next level. Daniel followed, offering me his hand—but his posture was stiff. His gaze constantly moving and checking our surroundings.

  So up we went until I lost all track of time and the sun seared over Cairo. By the time the jackal had stopped his ascent, I was parched and sunburned. I thought surely we must be near the top . . . but a glance back showed we had barely risen half the way. The airship listed in the wind, and a lone figure paced in its shadow.

  Jie.

  Wiping sweat and sand from my eyes, I turned ahead . . . and found the jackal was now racing horizontally along the stone steps.

  Hurry, he insisted. Then he hit the pyramid’s corner and disappeared from view.

  “This way,” I said tiredly, kicking into a jog. Joseph, Daniel, and Oliver hurried behind. I was panting even more desperately by the time we rounded the pyramid’s edge—and I caught sight of the jackal once more.

  He had stopped halfway along the next ledge. Darkness cloaked this side of the Great Pyramid—and a pointed shadow ran off for what seemed like miles of rocky desert. I squinted into the sudden shade and chose my steps carefully. The stones were more eroded than on the south side, and loose pebbles were everywhere.

  When we had crossed almost half the length of the pyramid, I realized with a start that the jackal had abandoned me yet again. I picked up my pace, my gaze darting up and down, ahead and behind. . . .

  “What is it?” Oliver called after me.

  “I do not know where—” My heel slipped on a rock. I toppled sideways, my arms flinging out. . . .

  Oliver’s hands grabbed my waist.

  Time slowed. Electricity shot through me from his fingertips. His emotions—his absolute anxiety over this day—sizzled into my skin. Into my lungs.

  He was scared, but not because of the unknown. Because of how long he had waited for this one moment—because of how much depended on it.

  Oliver towed me around. Each fragment of a second lasted a heartbeat—a full, painful heartbeat. And as I tumbled into his chest, each gust of dry wind was a lingering kiss.

  My eyes latched on to Oliver’s . . . and I was scared. Terrified. I thought each of my ribs would snap beneath the weight of his fear. Beneath the desperation in his gaze.

  He had searched and fought for months to find the Old Man . . . and now he was about to fulfill that mission.

  At last he could claim some peace. He could release this need—this burning, writhing drive in his gut from Elijah’s final, unfulfilled command. . . . And he could feel normal again. He could return home to the spirit realm, and he could shed this human body with all its human feelings.

  Yet no matter how bravely I, Eleanor, acted or how fearlessly I forged ahead, a single misstep would mark the end of everything Oliver had fought for.

  If I failed now, I failed everyone—not just myself.

  The dusty, shadowy steps blurred around me. I saw nothing but Oliver’s blazing, golden eyes; I felt only his scorching fingertips.

  Then a single word thundered into the front of my brain.

  Hurry. And with that thought I spotted where the jackal had gone.

  Two levels above us there was an unnatural crack in the rocks that had not been there moments before.

  I had no doubt this entry into the pyramid was magical. Supernatural, even. It shimmered with a hazy blue light.

  Time reclaimed its hold on the world, lurching forward in a flurry of seconds, breaths, and whipping wind.

  Oliver released me, his gaze pleading. His desires clear: Do not ruin this for me.

  I stumbled back, my fears and his fears already melting away beneath the jackal’s command. “There,” I shouted, and then I set to scrambling up once more.

  Oliver, Joseph, and Daniel followed, and in mere moments we reached a narrow gap between two stones. A black tunnel descended within—but it was not so dark that I could not see the jackal. His ears were back, his hackles risen.

  Hurry.

  I scrambled after him, but just as I wedged myself between the stones, Daniel called out, “Hold up! Be careful!”

  Then came Joseph, clipped and wary: “You are certain about this, Eleanor?”

  I ignored him—the jackal was already scampering off—and after I squeezed completely within, I found a tunnel before me. It sloped steeply down but was quickly swallowed up by darkness.

  At the sound of Oliver crawling behind me, I hurried into the shadows. The ceiling, walls, and floors were made of smooth bricks, and just as the stone steps outside had become worn away and dangerous, the floor was littered with gravel and slick dust.

  We had been so prepared with weapons . . . but lighting had never occurred to us.

  Yet if the jackal had gone this way, then I would have to follow.

  Footsteps echoed behind me, and soon we had lost the safety of the sun’s light. When I glanced back, all I saw was a dim glow around the others’ silhouettes.

  Oliver stepped in front of me. “I can still see.” His hand slipped into mine—and then I grabbed Daniel’s. He gave me a reassuring squeeze before reaching back for Joseph.

  But we only made it three paces before a loud groan filled the tunnel. The sound of rock grinding on rock above us—and behind. Light flashed overhead . . . then shifted to fill the tunnel beyond. I squinted at the sudden onslaught, only to find a square mirror hanging from the ceiling. It had rotated to catch the light from outside, and though it was no larger than my head, it sent a sharp beam farther down the tunnel.

  “Magic,” Joseph murmured. “Those mirrors were triggered by magic.”

  I gulped. He was right. A gentle layer of power was settling along my skin like the finest of dusts. “But what triggered it?” I whispered.

  “Does it matter?” Oliver’s voice was edged with impatience. He pulled free from my grasp and scooted ahead. “Let us simply be grateful we can see. Now where is the jacka—”

  A second groan broke out, and a series of cloth fans shaped like palm fronds dropped from the ceiling—then began to wave. How they had not decayed I could only guess at. Magic seemed the likely explanation.

  No matter the caus
e, they kicked up a draft and brought in fresh air.

  I gulped, and with the pretense of scratching my leg, I let my fingers run over an ivory tusk. I instantly felt stronger. We have light, we have air, and there is only one direction in which to go. “Keep walking,” I said, easing into a stride. “We should hurry.”

  After another fifty steps we reached a second mirror . . . and a second cloth fan. As the fresh light stabbed farther down the tunnel, I glimpsed an abrupt end to the brick walls. From here on the tunnel was hewn from the bedrock.

  We would soon be underground.

  And I could not help but think of the tunnels beneath Paris—especially when the dust thickened and muffled our footsteps. Or when Daniel’s pistol would bounce high at every sound, his grip on my arm releasing and his body moving to protect Joseph. I knew, in those moments, that he thought of what Madame Marineaux had done—how he hadn’t kept his leader safe from her claws.

  And I knew Joseph thought of Madame Marineaux too, for he scrubbed at his bandaged head.

  Another fifty paces and a mirror creaked into position . . . to reveal a brick doorway ahead. Its frame was lined with hieroglyphics: eyes, falcons, cobras, and thrones. Beyond was a long, low-ceilinged room carved from the bedrock. On either side, running the length of the room, were eight pairs of blocks, each as ornately carved as the doorway. And standing atop the blocks were man-size statues. With their bronze headdresses, they looked like miniature versions of the statues guarding the Bulaq Museum—except these ones held spears. Real spears with metal tips.

  Oliver marched through the doorway, and he did not bother to dampen our bond. His anticipation rolled off him.

  I scurried after . . . but quickly stumbled to a halt—for Oliver had paused between two statues, his head cocked as if listening.

  “What is it?” I whispered.

  “This room is . . . waiting.” He tipped his head in the other direction. “There is magic, and it will soon be triggered.”

  I moved closer to him, a confused question on my tongue, but as soon as I crossed the first pair of statues, a loud snap! grated through the chamber—and dust billowed.

  Instantly, I had my pulse pistol out and trained on the statue to my right. Its spear was now extended.

  I held my breath, my pistol trembling, and when I glanced back, I saw Joseph with his crystal clamp up.

  None of us moved. None of us breathed. The only sound was the flapping of the fans.

  “Keep moving,” Oliver hissed. “They respond to you. You are what the room waited for.”

  “Why?” I asked, locked in my stance.

  “They serve you,” Oliver said with a flicker of meaningful emotion across our bond. “Pharaon, recall?”

  With a tight swallow, I nodded and stepped carefully onward. Snap! The next set of statues and spears shot out; dust exploded off them, and they did not move again.

  Sand clogged my nose and mouth, yet as I stood there waving the air, I could just make out the various air currents. Dust twirled and twisted, carried away by the cloth fans.

  “Again,” Oliver ordered. So again I crept ahead until all sixteen statues had their spears thrust out.

  Until I stood before a final pedestal with a stone chest on it. I motioned for Oliver, Daniel, and Joseph to join me; and as they warily stepped near, I hunched over the chest.

  Its lid was shoved off, just like the open sarcophagus at the museum. Yet when I peered inside, there was nothing more than a thick coating of grime.

  “It’s empty,” I said as the three young men materialized beside me.

  “Excludin’ all the dust,” Daniel muttered.

  Joseph bent closer. “It looks to have been empty for many years.”

  “Because it has,” said a new voice. “It has been empty for many centuries.”

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  I spun around . . . and jolted.

  In the center of the chamber, hobbling with the aid of a cane, was a gnarled man with a stringy, white beard. His tattered gray robe was streaked with stains, and if not for the power oozing off him, I would have thought him nothing more than a beggar.

  The Old Man in the Pyramids had arrived.

  And the jackal now sat, tongue hanging out, by the room’s entrance.

  My pulse pistol was ready as the Old Man shuffled toward us, and Daniel’s also stayed aimed at him—while Joseph held out his crystal clamp.

  But then the Old Man paused ten feet away, lifting his chin to sniff the air like a dog.

  His eyes landed on me—eyes that glowed golden. “Forgive me, Pharaoh, if I do not bow. I am old and have been for millennia.”

  None of us moved. None of us answered—until a sudden, incredulous laugh broke from Oliver’s lips. “You are a demon, aren’t you? Bound in this world?”

  “Not quite.” The Old Man’s eyes shifted to Oliver. “I was once a man, and I looked just as you see me now. But then I was blessed—or some might say cursed—with a demon soul. If you stripped away my skin, you would find a spirit like yours.”

  “But how is that possible?” Oliver frowned and approached the Old Man. “How can you have a demon soul?”

  “In the same way that you could have a man’s soul, demon boy.” He bared a toothless grin. “All that separates man from demon is the size of our souls. When I was granted a second spirit, I stopped aging. Disease could no longer touch me.”

  My breath caught—something about his words sent all the pieces twirling into place. “The Black Pullet,” I breathed. “That’s what it does, isn’t it? It grants a longer life by giving you a larger soul.”

  The Old Man nodded, his beard wiggling. “A second soul, to be precise.” He flourished his hands like a performer. “I have twice the magic and twice the soul that you have. I can still be killed, certainly, but only if the injury is so vast I cannot heal. Disease . . .” He smiled. “It never ails me.”

  “What of the endless wealth?” Joseph asked, his expression tensed and his body ready. “How does the Black Pullet provide that?”

  “It is not a magical reason,” the Old Man answered. “Or even very interesting. Its feathers are made of gold.” He shuffled toward me, passing by Oliver. “But you are not here for immortality or wealth, are you, Pharaoh?”

  I shook my head slowly. “We are here to find you—so that we may learn how to destroy the Pullet.”

  “Hmmm.” The Old Man twirled a knobby finger in the air. “Well, you have found me. Your first step is complete.”

  “Then tell me how we may dest—” My voice cut off, teeth chomping on my tongue. In a single, slamming heartbeat, rage crashed over me.

  Oliver.

  “It didn’t work,” he snarled, advancing on the Old Man. “Why didn’t it work? I have found you, so why am I still in pain?” He lunged at the Old Man, grabbing for his throat.

  “Oliver!” I shrieked.

  Two of the statues dived off their pedestals.

  Oliver stopped, fingers frozen at the Old Man’s wrinkled neck . . . and the statues’ spears frozen at Oliver’s.

  “Oh God.” I stumbled toward Oliver, screeching at the Old Man, “Get the statues off!”

  “Do it!” Daniel shouted, two pulse pistols now aimed at the Old Man.

  “I did not call the guard.” The Old Man turned a bemused eye on Oliver’s fingers. “The girl is their pharaoh, and the mummies protect her. And you . . .” The Old Man’s eyes slid to Joseph, then Daniel. “You should not even bother with your electricity. It cannot kill an imperial guard.”

  “Then how do I call them off?” I cried.

  “Command them, Pharaoh.”

  I wet my lips, tasting dust, and looked at the mummies. “Uh . . . leave Oliver alone?”

  As one, the two guards jerked back in a clank of armor and marched to their pedestals on stomping, cloth-wrapped feet.

  And all I could manage was a gawk. I had controlled them.

  Oliver staggered away from the Old Man. His fury pulsed off him, and like a s
corching sun, I could not dampen our bond enough to block what he felt.

  And what he felt was a high-pitched, digging rage. He had fulfilled his command to Elijah—he had found the Old Man—yet the boiling in his gut had not lessened.

  I clutched my hands to my ears and staggered to the nearest mummy, trying to stay in the moment. The dirt and armor had made it seem carved from stone, but up close, I could see its desiccated skin.

  The mummies that guard many of the tombs are meant to protect any of the pharaohs. Those had been Professor Milton’s words only the night before—and here I was, facing them. Controlling them.

  “Empress.” Daniel laid a hand on my shoulder. “Empress, are you all right?”

  “Yes. No. I don’t reall—”

  No time. The jackal’s voice sliced through my thoughts. You must hurry.

  I gulped. I had to hurry, so with a nod at Daniel, I forced myself to face the Old Man once more. “Why am I the guards’ leader?”

  He blinked. “You do not know?” At my glare, he hastened to add, “You wield the clappers of Hathor. The ivory artifacts made to look like hands.”

  Daniel stiffened behind me as Joseph repeated, “Ivory artifacts? She has no such things.”

  The Old Man’s eyes crinkled with pleasure. “Yes, she does. Stuffed into her boots, she has two ivory clappers that were once gifts from a Hittite king to an Egyptian pharaoh. Whoever possesses the clappers possesses the power to control the imperial guards, the power to control me. And,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “the power to raise the Black Pullet.”

  “Eleanor,” Joseph said, his voice low. “Please tell me he is wrong.”

  I clamped my lips tight. What could I possibly say right now? Even when Daniel whispered “Is this true?” I simply replaced my pistol in my belt and slid the ivory pieces from my boots—before holding them out for Daniel and Joseph to see.

  Daniel choked, the blood draining from his face. “No. No, Empress.”

 
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