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Strange and ever after, p.19
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       Strange and Ever After, p.19

           Susan Dennard
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  “How?” Joseph began, just as pale. “That fist was atop the Marquis’s cane. How did you get it?”

  “Madame Marineaux.” It was all I could say right now. They could scold me later, but the jackal had said to hurry—and I knew I needed to listen. So, twisting back to the Old Man, I thrust the clappers toward him. “You said Hathor had these. Who is Hathor? And why do I have his artifacts?”

  “She. Hathor is a she, and she is one of the Annunaki.”

  “The what?” I demanded.

  “The Annunaki,” Oliver murmured nearby. His eyes flicked to me, a dull yellow. No anger keened off him now. Only defeat. “That was the magic Elijah told me about, El. The one even darker than necromancy, remember? I told you of it in Paris. Elijah called it the magic of the Annunaki.”

  “The Annunaki are not darker than necromancy.” The Old Man wagged his head. “You should know that better than anyone else here, demon boy. They come from the spirit realm. Your world, and they wield your magic. It is simply stronger than yours or mine or any magic ever seen. They possess the purest energy of all: the power of life and death.

  “So now you must see that this is how an ivory artifact can steal a man’s soul. The power over life is inside Hathor’s clappers. Which is why a closed fist”—he flourished his cane at the clappers—“can contain a soul. Or part of it.” He flashed his white eyebrows at me. “Someone has been using the energy.”

  “What?” My voice cracked out. “I don’t understand.” Except I did understand. The ivory fist had held a person’s soul inside; and every time I had touched it, stroked it, or gazed upon it, I had taken some of that soul. The ivory fist had made me feel strong because it was bolstering me—giving me power.

  And I knew whose power I had used—whose power the fist had stolen.

  The Marquis’s.

  We had found his body, shriveled and drained of life, in Madame Marineaux’s sitting room. That was when Oliver had referred to the Annunaki as a magic darker than necromancy.

  “The fist holds the Marquis’s soul,” I rasped. “It sucked the life from him and killed him, didn’t it?” My breathing turned shallow. I grabbed at my stomach. Of course the fist had killed him. It made too much sense to be anything else. And then . . .

  I had used the Marquis’s soul. I had touched it. I had even savored the feeling as I used up bits of that soul. As the fingers had begun to unfurl once more.

  Oh God. Nausea rose in my chest. I never wanted to touch the fist again. I wanted to fling it away and pretend I had never seen it.

  But the jackal’s voice blasted in my skull.

  If you drop the clappers, then you are no longer Pharaoh. You will lose control over the Old Man.

  I paused . . . and I grasped the clappers more tightly.

  But Joseph stalked toward me, a furious Daniel at his heels. “Why did you not tell me of these artifacts?” he demanded. “How long have you carried them? It is one thing to lie about your magic, but to hide something that belonged to Madame Marineaux—”

  “Enough,” Oliver interrupted, appearing at my side. “Eleanor did what needed doing. You wish to stop Marcus, and she has led you to that.”

  Joseph’s lips parted, but I spoke first. “Please. We can argue over this later, but not here. And not now. First”—I pointed at the Old Man—“he must finish his tale.”

  Joseph’s nostrils flared, but he remained silent. Daniel would not even look at me.

  The Old Man’s lips twisted into a smile. “It all began some three thousand years ago. There was a foolish Annunaki named Hathor. Because she doted on an even more foolish mortal, she created a gift for her human lover: an enormous serpent with wings of gold called the Black Pullet. This creature would not only guard Hathor’s lover, but it would grant him an immortal life and endless wealth. Yet as I said”—the Old Man lifted a hunched shoulder—“her mortal was a foolish man. As king of the Hittites, he cared only for gathering more land. He hoped to use the Black Pullet to conquer Egypt.

  “So he asked Hathor to craft two sets of clappers. One pair would go to the Egyptian pharaoh; one would go to the Egyptian queen. And these clappers were beautiful—they begged to be touched. They also sucked away the wielder’s soul with each caress, and through this the Hittite king could use the clappers to kill the pharaoh and his queen. Then the Hittite king would lay waste to Egypt with the Black Pullet at his side.

  “But the Egyptian queen was clever. She realized the power of the clappers and had her necromancer tweak the magic. The clappers could still take the soul of whoever held them, but they also gave the queen power over the Black Pullet. She let the pharaoh’s clappers kill him, and then when the Pullet arrived to destroy Egypt, she used her own clappers to control it.

  “And because her necromancer was so adept, she became the new master of the Black Pullet and crushed the Hittite king.”

  “You.” I frowned. “You were that necromancer, weren’t you?”

  “Of course.” The Old Man grinned, a wicked mask of shadows. “But for all my powers—even after I claimed the Pullet’s gift of a demon soul—I could not kill the creature. Only another Annunaki can claim the creature’s life. So I mummified it, exactly as I would any other being that wished to return to life one day. I removed its organs and bound its soul in eternal sleep.”

  “Where are the organs now?” Joseph asked. “If they are destroyed, then the Pullet cannot be raised.”

  The Old Man motioned to the empty chest. “Its organs used to rest here, but they were removed long ago. They now reside in the Valley of the Kings. A different pharaoh tried to bring the Pullet to life, but if you wish to raise the creature, you must have two human souls. The clappers must be filled, and both fists must be closed.” He shrugged dismissively. “Right now you only have a single fist partially closed.”

  “We do not,” Joseph growled, “intend to summon it. Eleanor told you; we wish to destroy it.”

  “And I told you.” The Old Man sneered. “Only an Annunaki has the power to judge and kill the Pullet. Yet I can feel it. Someone here does wish to raise it. This person will travel to the Valley of the Kings today.”

  I opened my mouth to protest—but then a wave of static shivered over me. It prickled deep within my ears and laid over my tongue.


  I blinked.


  Terror shocked through me. I dropped to the floor, and the clappers skittered from my hands. . . .

  A pistol shot cracked—explosive in the small chamber. Blood burst from the Old Man’s throat. He fell, and I crawled behind the nearest pedestal.

  Then a rich Creole voice sang out, “I am the one bound for the Valley of the Kings. Mèrsi for telling me where to go.”


  My blood ran cold. My lungs choked off.

  Marcus was here, and he had shot the only person who knew how to destroy the Black Pullet.

  And now the Old Man was dying. His expanded soul could not keep the blood from pooling on the floor—this was an injury too vast.

  The jackal shrieked in my brain. RUN!

  But I couldn’t run. I had nowhere to go. Marcus was striding toward us, his eyes as bright as torches in the darkness.

  And even if I could run, I wouldn’t. Marcus was alone. No army, no escape. Now was my chance to destroy him.

  Joseph and Daniel crouched behind the pedestal opposite me, Oliver behind another nearby. I locked eyes with my demon. Stop Marcus, I thought. Sum veritas.

  Blue light flashed around his pupils—then from his fingertips. Marcus’s pistol fired, but not before Oliver’s magic slammed into him.

  But the power had no effect. If anything, it sank into Marcus like water into sand . . . and the monster laughed.

  My hand mindlessly shot into my pocket for the ivory fist. . . .

  Shit. It was part of the clappers now, and they were on the floor. Next to the dying Old Man.

  Thunder ripped through the room as Joseph’s electricity
blasted from his fingertips and Daniel’s pistols fired.

  Marcus stumbled this time—even toppled back several steps. But it wasn’t enough. He had spotted the clappers, and he was moving toward them faster than Joseph or Oliver could mount another attack. Faster than Daniel could reload.

  And faster than I could dive for the ivory.

  I lurched at the Old Man anyway, clawing for the clappers. But as more electricity and magic blazed overhead, I lost sight of them. Lost sight of anything. My hands slapped through the Old Man’s blood, through his robes . . .

  But no clappers. No clappers. Where were they?

  I could use them to lead the imperial guards. I could finally take down Marcus. Crush him from the body that was not his and watch as his soul burned—

  Joseph’s electricity snapped off—Oliver’s magic too—and all that was left was Marcus’s purring laughter. It rolled into my ears, and I knew with a sickening hitch in my gut that somehow he had found the clappers first.

  Run! the jackal roared.

  I shoved off the floor. Another gunshot exploded—blasting into the stone chest. I dived behind a mummy and yanked out my pulse pistol just as Daniel fired his.

  But then a muffled voice screeched, “Joseph!” It was Jie, distant yet approaching. “Joseph!”

  Marcus’s head jerked toward the archway—just as Oliver’s magic flashed.

  But as before, the demon magic had no effect. When the blue light faded, I saw Marcus striding easily from the chamber, the ivory clappers held high. “Kill them!” he bellowed over his shoulder. “Now.”

  “Stop!” Joseph hurtled from behind a mummy, his crystal clamp flying upward. . . .

  A spear swung out, and the handle smacked his stomach like a baseball bat. It was one of the guards—and it was moving. Joseph flew backward, barely darting aside before a second mummy slashed out.

  That was when I noticed that the mummy before me was rearing back for an attack.

  “Stop the guards!” I shrieked at Oliver, scrabbling backward. “Sum veritas!”

  Oliver’s magic crashed over me, spiking the mummy and its spear backward. But almost immediately, the guard clambered upright and lunged at me once more.

  I fired my pistol—Daniel fired his. All the mummies in the room froze . . . only to reanimate half a breath later. Just as fast and just as deadly. Left and right, they slashed at us with spears. Their attacks were jagged and stiff, but too quick for us to hold off.

  Yet the pistol’s pulse had given me enough time to yank out my crystal clamp, and as I clenched it tight, a hot, angry power rippled through me.

  I let it loose. The nearest mummy toppled backward, its spear snapping in half, and before it could rise again I rounded on the next guards.

  Yet they were everywhere. Oliver, Joseph, Daniel, and I—we twisted and blasted, kicked and ducked, but our magic and our weapons were ineffective.

  We really had only one choice—exactly as the jackal had said: Run.

  A pistol popped through the room, and then Jie’s voice ripped out, “Come on! I’ll clear a path!”

  Yet as we bolted toward the archway, the jackal spoke once more—and this time his message was different. Wait.

  I didn’t wait. Except the message came again, reverberating with command. WAIT.

  So I staggered around. The jackal’s scruffy body was bent over the Old Man . . . and the Old Man’s eyes were open.


  I wanted to scream at the jackal—No!—but I knew I had to obey.

  So, with a running leap, I slammed onto my knees and slid through puddles of blood across the floor.

  I bent over the Old Man. His throat was healing—but not quickly enough. Each of his ragged breaths sent too much blood spurting out. His hands bloodied but his eyes sharp, he grabbed my wrist and yanked me close. “Stop the Pullet,” he rasped. “Stop that man who wants to raise it. You can get help on the dock. By blood . . . and moonlit sun. Get help and stop him.”

  Then the Old Man released me. The jackal vanished.

  I clambered back to my feet, my fingers already gripping the crystal clamp. Half the mummies charged straight for me.

  Briefly, Oliver’s panic twisted through me. He knew I wasn’t with everyone else. He was coming back for me.

  No, I ordered. I am coming.

  Then I let the electricity collect inside me. The guards were moving in fast—ancient spears and skeletal, sinewy bodies. One breath, two. The electricity scorched through my veins, boiled in my skull. Too much of it—too much . . .

  I flung up my hands and let the magic loose. Like a thousand bees stabbing me, like a thousand voices shredding my throat, it erupted from my body. So much electricity—it erupted from my fingertips and my eyeballs. From my tongue and my chest. It was everywhere, and for a long, endless moment, I thought I had gone too far. Drawn in more power than my body could handle . . .

  Then it broke off, and my scorched vision saw the faintest line of escape. A path through the mummies. I shambled forward, and the haze cleared with each step. I tripped over two spears—spears that were already drawing in and mummies that were already returning to life.

  I reached the doorway. Blue light blazed ahead, and the pop-pop! of the pulse pistols slipped between the thunder in my ears.

  I bolted up the narrow tunnel. Faster, I ran. Faster. There were mummies ahead, and there were mummies behind. Their armor clanked, and their bony feet clattered. Soon enough, the guards in front would realize I was behind them. They would turn around and swarm over me. . . .

  And I could not call on Oliver’s power—not while I used electricity. So I simply pushed more strength into my legs. One foot in front of the other, and one ragged, heaving breath after the next . . .

  Until the mirrors shifted. As one, they rotated, and all light winked out.

  Black, clotted panic surged up my throat. I couldn’t see. I lost all sense of the tunnel or where anything was: the mummies, the Spirit-Hunters, the exit. All I could do was hear the guards’ footsteps and armor. Closing in . . .

  My feet slipped on the loose gravel. My hands hit the floor. My chin hit next. The crystal clamp fell and clattered back down the tunnel.

  “Sleep!” The scream burned up my throat, and magic I hadn’t even gathered rushed from me. It poured out of me in a great wave of blue light.

  Oliver’s magic. I pushed myself back up with bloodied hands. In pulsing gusts of magic—Sleep, sleep, sleep—I kept the guards above slowed and slogging.

  And through the light, in front of Daniel and Jie, I saw Oliver. His eyes glowed so brightly that the contours of his skull blazed.

  I reached the next mummy, ducking below its spear. Then the next mummy and the next—they were slowed by Oliver’s unrelenting power. It rolled off him, gushed from me. All the while, Jie kicked at knees, and Daniel heaved bodies aside.

  And Joseph ran onward, chasing someone who always managed to outrun us.

  I pushed past the final mummy, shoving its spear aside, and then Daniel’s hand was latching on to mine and pulling. We reached Jie—Daniel grabbed her too. Then we were to Oliver, and it was my job to snatch his wrist.

  My demon jolted, his magic roaring back and the glow leeching from his face. “Run,” I shouted.

  He did run, shoving at me from behind while Daniel towed ahead. The mummies’ speed was fast returning—and ours was fast flagging. . . .

  But Joseph had already reached the sunlit door. With a final burst of strength, I pumped every ounce of life into my legs—into my grip on Oliver and my grip on Daniel. We were so near, so near. . . .

  Then we were through, back on this high stone level of the Great Pyramid. The morning sun stabbed my eyes. Joseph had bolted left along the worn-pyramid side. We followed.

  The mummies followed too.

  I don’t know why I’d thought daylight would be our salvation. The guards were not slowed in the least. They hopped the pyramid steps as easily as acrobats. In fact, the narrowness of the tunne
l had slowed them—now that we were open and exposed, they doubled their speed, scuttling on all fours like bronze spiders.

  “Faster!” I shrieked at Oliver. But he needed no prodding. His eyes flashed blue; his face paled; he lashed out with another attack.

  It did nothing. With the extra space, the mummies simply fanned out. The magic licked harmlessly over them.

  So on we ran. My ankles rolled, and the corner of the pyramid came into view. We would round the edge . . . and then what? Even jumping to the next level would be too slow, and at this point, the only thing that kept me going was Daniel’s hand on mine—and Jie’s hand on his.

  We reached the edge, barreled around . . . and then as one skittered to a stop, our arms spinning.

  For Joseph had halted, his gaze on the distance, his shoulders back.

  “Run!” Jie screamed, bolting to him. She made it in three steps, her hands outstretched to shove him into action . . . and then she froze.

  Midstride, her entire body locked up.

  “Jie!” I screeched. “Move!” But she didn’t move, and had it not been for our own motion—for Joseph’s twisting body and Daniel’s beating steps—I would have thought the world had frozen once more.

  But then Jie pivoted sharply left, and when she began to bound up the pyramid in great, inhuman leaps, I realized what was happening.

  Somehow the compulsion spell had taken control once more.

  I lunged after her. “Shoot her!” I screamed at Daniel. “Stop her!” In a frantic climb, I hauled myself up the stone and then the next. Mummies scrambled ahead of Jie, moving at the exact same speed and in the same direction.

  She was so much faster than I was. Ten steps above me quickly became fifteen. . . .

  Daniel’s pulse pistol cracked. Jie’s right leg ripped wide, the cloth shredded and turned instantly red. “Resiste!” I screamed, focusing all my magic on canceling the compulsion spell. My vocal cords snapped, yet over and over I shrieked at her, “Resiste! Resiste!”

  For a moment her arms clapped to her sides and she stiffened like a plank . . . then she toppled forward. Her face hit the stones in a sickening thud.

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