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Strange and ever after, p.2
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       Strange and Ever After, p.2

           Susan Dennard
 

  The Hounds were so close now. Inescapable . . . except that the curtain was close too. Its golden light shimmered brighter with each slam of my heels.

  I would reach it. I had to reach it. . . .

  Then the glow bathed over me. The snarling Hounds faded . . . faded. . . .

  I glanced back once, to lock eyes with the jackal’s. He loped behind me and paused just before the curtain, unperturbed and almost . . . smug. Yes, that was what that lolling tongue meant.

  “Tell her good-bye,” I said to him. “Please, if you are truly a messenger, then tell her good-bye.”

  If he can, the jackal will.

  Then I stepped completely through the curtain and into the earthly realm once more.

  CHAPTER TWO

  My eyelids snapped open. I stood in the middle of my cabin on the airship. My chest quaked. My pulse shrieked in my ears, and with each gasp for air, the echoing howl of the Hounds vanished. . . .

  A dull throb pricked at my senses. I glanced down . . . and blinked. My hands bled. Splinters poked out from my knuckles, yet I barely felt them. Elation and surprise hummed through me, dominating every other sensation.

  I had just crossed into the spirit realm by my own power—something Oliver had sworn to me was impossible—and I had come out alive.

  Though . . . I might not have escaped if not for the jackal.

  Jackal.

  I frowned. I hadn’t seen him when I’d crossed to the dock before, yanked there by Marcus’s magic. Was the jackal truly a messenger? And if so, to whom could he relay messages? Of course, in order to give a message, I would have to return to the dock again. . . .

  As my mind ran through possibilities—of how I could ask Elijah about necromancy, how I could beg for Clarence’s forgiveness, how I could tell Mama I loved her—a scratch began to sound at my cabin door.

  I ignored it, focusing instead on all the things I could ask the jackal to share with my family.

  Splat. I looked down. A fat droplet of blood had hit the wood and now sank into the grain. My forehead knit. The engines on this airship were so quiet I could actually hear my own blood fall. I glanced to the porthole—the view outside was one of wispy clouds and green, patchwork farmland. We could have been anywhere in France right now. Presumably, though, we were south and east of Paris.

  And, good God, we were flying. I shuffled two steps closer to the porthole, but the lush, pale green only served to confuse me. To distance me further from the moment. For seeing the land so far below and streaming by so fast . . . it did not feel real.

  The scratching sound came again at my door, and this time there was a loud click. I whirled around just as the door banged open.

  Daniel stood in the doorway, face flushed and lock pick in hand. Beside him, with his yellow eyes wide, was Oliver.

  At the sight of them, anger sparked in my shoulders. “What the blazes,” I began, “are you two doing—”

  “You’re hurt,” Daniel interrupted. He strode forward, and I didn’t miss the leather wallet of lock picks he slid into his pocket. He reached for me. “What the hell happened?”

  I skittered back. “You broke into my room.”

  “We were worried,” Oliver snarled. He stalked through the doorway. “You didn’t answer our shouts, and then I heard . . . something.” He did not elaborate, but the sudden flash of gold around his eyes told me he knew exactly where I had been.

  Inwardly, I swore.

  Our souls were bound—it was the magic of a demon and a master. So Oliver must have sensed my absence. Or perhaps he had even heard the Hell Hounds since he always knew when the guardians of the spirit realm were near. His existence depended on making sure they never found him.

  “We need to tend these wounds.” Daniel’s voice cut into my thoughts. He gripped my wrists and flipped my palms upward. “This is bad. Your hands are destroyed.” He pushed me toward the porthole, toward daylight. Then his grassy-green eyes bored into my face. “What did you do?”

  “Nothing,” I murmured.

  His jaw clenched. “This ain’t nothing, Empress. Talk to me.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Oliver declared. Yet there was a forced nonchalance to his tone. “I will heal her.”

  Daniel’s eyes clouded with resentment. He did not like my magic. He did not like that I was bound to a demon. Yet I could see in the twitching of his lips that he was trying to keep his hatred separate from this moment.

  “How about,” he said slowly, “I just get you some bandages instead. I’ll heal you the old-fashioned way.”

  “It’s fine.” I wriggled from his grasp. “It doesn’t hurt.”

  “Of course it does,” he argued. “And it won’t take me but a second—”

  “It’s fine,” I repeated more forcefully. I did not want bandages. I wanted Oliver’s magic—warm and safe. Then I wanted solitude.

  “Please, Daniel,” I added. “You should get back to flying.”

  “Joseph’s at the helm. He’ll be fine for a few more minutes.” He lowered his voice and dipped in close. “Please, just heal yourself the normal way—”

  “Magic is the normal way for her.” Oliver’s drawl held the same false apathy.

  Daniel’s teeth gritted, but he held my gaze. “Please, Empress?”

  For half a breath I considered bandages and salves. It would please Daniel, and I wanted that. . . . But then another splat! filled the cabin. More blood on the floor. Traditional healing would take weeks; I did not have weeks.

  So I said, “No, Daniel.”

  Hurt flashed over his face. His body tensed . . . but he made no move to leave. He simply stared at me, pain and frustration and . . . disgust warring in his gaze.

  I understood his feelings—he believed, as Joseph did, that my magic corrupted me. That necromancy festered inside my soul.

  But he and Joseph were wrong, and if Daniel truly wanted to help me, he would accept my magic as it was. Just as I accepted him for who he was: a man with a criminal past and dark memories.

  “You heard her,” Oliver said, sauntering closer. He wore a smile as fake as his voice. “She asked you to go, Danny Boy.”

  Red exploded on Daniel’s cheeks. In a violent twist, he rounded on Oliver and slammed him to the wall. “You have poisoned her mind, Demon.”

  Oliver’s eyes flared bright gold. “And you,” he growled, all his indifference gone, “have poisoned her heart.”

  Daniel’s fist reared back . . .

  And I finally moved. “Stop!” I staggered toward them. “Just stop!”

  Daniel froze, his gaze fixed on Oliver’s face. . . . Then his breath whooshed out. His fist fell. “I-I’m sorry, Empress—”

  “Empress,” Oliver said with a snort. “That’s so bloody obnoxious.”

  Daniel flung him a sneer. “Go to hell, Demon.”

  “If only I could,” Oliver retorted.

  “Enough,” I snapped at Oliver. Then to Daniel. “Please. Let me heal the way I wish to be healed.”

  Daniel eyed me slantwise, and his chest rose and fell as he visibly tried to gain control of his temper.

  But he lost; his temper won.

  “Fine,” he muttered. “Use your magic. I have an airship to fly.” Then, shoulders tensed, he strode through the door.

  Oliver waited until Daniel was out of sight, then he eased the door shut and turned to me. Any semblance of nonchalance was gone entirely now. “What,” he hissed, “just happened?”

  “He doesn’t like you,” I said softly.

  “He is not what I meant, and you know it.”

  I did know it.

  “Though,” Oliver went on, glaring at the door, “I will say that man is too volatile for you.”

  “Hmmm.” I watched as another drop of blood spattered on the floor.

  “Hmmm?” Oliver repeated, closing the space between us. “It does not bother you that he cannot control his temper?”

  I lifted my gaze. “Daniel knows me better than anyone else.”


  Oliver’s face hardened—his posture too. Even his single word, “Oh,” was made of stone. Then suddenly he pushed his face into mine. “And does Daniel know you just crossed into the spirit realm? Because I know.”

  “I forgot to cast my dream ward.”

  “Really? After almost losing your life to the Hell Hounds several times, you simply forgot the one thing that keeps you safe. Sorry, El, but I do not believe you.” He twisted away and stomped to the porthole. “Your grief makes you a fool.”

  I stretched my hands toward him. “Please heal me, Ollie.” My voice cracked. I wanted his magic—and not just for the wounds. I needed it to soften the blade gouging out my insides.

  “No.” Oliver planted his hands on the wall and stared out the window. “What were you thinking, El? I can’t protect you if you’re in the spirit realm, and you can’t set me free if you’re dead. Recall: death already claimed your brother, and that is what got us in this demon-and-master tangle in the first place. So please—for my sake—stop being such a bloody idiot.”

  I flinched. “You are as volatile as Daniel is.”

  “Temperamental, perhaps,” Oliver admitted, swinging his gaze to me. “But only when you have earned it. Daniel is cruel whenever his feelings are hurt.”

  “Do not,” I spat, “try to turn me against Daniel. I love him, and your words will not change that.”

  Oliver snorted and turned back to the porthole. “He puts you through quite a lot of heartbreak for love—”

  “Enough.” I crossed the room and thrust my hands at him. “I want these cuts healed, so do it.”

  “You want me to heal your grief, you mean.” He withdrew his flask and gulped back liquor. “Just admit it, El. You want me to erase all your sadness. Well, I fear I cannot. Nothing can heal that sort of wound. Though you might try this.” He offered me the flask.

  “No.” A frustrated hunger burned in my stomach, briefly erasing the stab of loss. The knife of regret. “You will heal me now, Ollie.”

  “Or what?” He straightened. “Will you command me?”

  “Yes.”

  His eyes flashed. “Do it then. Command your tool. Just as you did last night when you scorched away part of my very being with electricity. Just as you always do when you want something.”

  My breath hiccupped. I deserved Oliver’s temper for what had happened in Paris. Yet when I had commanded him to grab a crystal clamp—a device that produced electricity from quartz—I hadn’t known the electricity would kill a piece of his soul.

  But he had been the one to manipulate me into binding to him. He had become my tool willingly, and he had given me a two-month deadline in which I had to set him free.

  “Use me, Eleanor.” Oliver leaned toward me. “Betray me so that for that brief moment while my magic keeps you warm, you can pretend your life is not broken. Why, I bet if you tried hard enough, you could even pretend your mother is still alive.”

  His words crashed into me. I rocked back on my heels, and all my guilt for mistreating him vanished.

  “Heal me,” I said. “Heal my wounds now, Oliver. Sum veritas.” The words of command slid off my tongue like snakes, and instantly Oliver’s eyes ignited with bright blue magic.

  His flask fell to the floor. He grabbed me and viciously squeezed my hands in his—so tightly that my cuts ripped wider and the splinters dug deeper.

  Then through clenched teeth, he began to murmur. A heartbeat passed. Two more . . . until finally the warmth came—a sparkling, pure heat a thousand times more comforting than alcohol or an embrace. It washed over me, through me. It circled around my heart and then settled into every piece of my soul.

  And one by one, the splinters wriggled out of my skin. The lacerations on my hands and knees closed up, and the pain around my heart eased. When the last cut was finally healed, Oliver flung away my hands and stalked to the door. “You will push everyone away,” he growled beneath his breath. “Just like he did, you will lose us all.”

  He. Elijah. My brother.

  Oliver grabbed for the doorknob.

  “Wait,” I called. I finally felt strong again. I finally felt alive.

  Stooping down, I retrieved Oliver’s flask. He drank too much, my demon. It might dull his grief, but he was wrong: magic did heal mine.

  I stepped toward him. “I am not Elijah.”

  “Yet you are becoming him.” His golden eyes met mine, glowing in time to his pulse. “All you care about is how the magic makes you feel. How is that so different from your brother?”

  “You were the one who introduced me to power.”

  “Perhaps I did,” he agreed, “and perhaps I inflated your ego too much in the process. You are strong, but you are not omnipotent.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, and his eyes fluttered shut. “Nor does it atone for what you did to me last night—forcing me to touch electricity. . . . I can never forgive you.”

  Before I could open my mouth to argue—to explain how his power saved all of Paris—he said, “And what of Laure?” His eyes opened and latched on to mine. “She is your friend, yet you killed her—you actually killed her when you brought that corpse back to life. If I hadn’t been there to save her, then Laure would be dead now. And”—his eyebrows rose—“as if that was not bad enough, you promised to explain everything to her. Yet instead, you left her in Paris with nothing but a note.”

  “That,” I ground out, “was my only choice. We have to reach Marseille before Marcus does—you know that. And as for the butler’s corpse, raising it was an accident.”

  “Accident or no, you have pushed Laure away.” He ticked off one finger. “And you have pushed me away.” He ticked off a second finger. “Who will be next, El? I understand how much you want to make Marcus pay, but at what cost—”

  “How can you possibly comprehend?” I cut in, my pitch rising. “Do you have a family? Or loved ones? Or someone you would give your very life to protect? No,” I went on, unconcerned when his nostrils flared or his breath hitched. “You have none of those things, so do not speak to me as if you understand.”

  For a long moment he stayed silent. His lips pressed tighter and tighter, turning into a white line.

  Then I felt it. Felt the deep, agonizing pain that lived inside him.

  He didn’t mean for me to feel it—it simply shuddered over our bond and then instantly vanished again.

  Yet I almost staggered back from the force of it. I had to bite the inside of my mouth to keep my face blank. I would not give him the satisfaction of thinking he had gained something with that display.

  “You’re dismissed,” I said, swiveling away and crossing to the bunk.

  “Am I?” Oliver barked a laugh. “You will push everyone away, El. Even your precious Danny Boy.”

  I flung myself onto the bunk and squeezed my eyes shut. “Do not act as if you care for my life, Oliver. You only want me around so I may set you free.”

  Fabric shifted and feet padded. I popped my eyes wide—to find Oliver only inches away, his body angled down. “You’re right,” he whispered. “I have no family. Yet I do have a home—a spirit realm that I will do anything to return to. You see me as your tool, Eleanor, and I see you as mine. After we destroy Marcus and my responsibilities are complete, do not forget: you owe me.”

  Then without another word and with his unnatural, demonic grace, he strode to the door and left.

  I lay on my bunk for a time, staring at the curved, metal walls. Joseph’s and Daniel’s voices drifted through my open door from the pilothouse. Allison was, I assumed, on board as well, but where, I did not know—and I was too focused on Oliver’s words to worry over it.

  Was he right? Would I push everyone away as Elijah had? The way this bright, hot guilt burned along my shoulders and through my chest, the words felt all too true.

  But maybe this was another of my demon’s tricks—another cruel twist of words to keep me wallowing in pain and grief. Maybe he pushed my friends away.

  I had accused him of that onc
e before, in Paris. First Jie had discovered Oliver’s existence and raced off in a rage. Then Oliver had interrupted Daniel and me right before Daniel was going to kiss me. And of course, seeing Oliver had sent Daniel into a wild, red-faced fury.

  One by one, Oliver had turned my friends against me, whittling away my allies until I had only him. Perhaps he did the same now.

  You cannot give in to him, I ordered myself, and with a forceful huff of breath, I shoved aside all those black thoughts. I would focus on my magic instead. So warm, so perfect. The further I sank into it, the less I had to feel. The less I had to think.

  Yet I could not seem to make the heady contentment come. It wasn’t muffling my troubles as it usually did. The magic was fading too fast—so quickly, in fact, that I feared there was a hole in my chest through which it leaked. And if I looked down, I would see straight through to the other side.

  I drew in a big breath, begging the thrum of power to stay . . . to grow, when my right hand slid into my pocket.

  And my knuckles grazed against something grooved and smooth and palm sized.

  I stiffened, then wrenched the ivory fist from my pocket and sat upright in bed. I had completely forgotten I had it, and as I traced the lifelike wrinkles and fingernails carved into it, I finally felt something.

  I felt the air slide into my lungs. I felt my heart beat steadily in my chest. And I felt better. Stronger.

  I didn’t know what this artifact was—only that it was magical. And ancient. I had originally thought it was an amulet and that it contained a vast compulsion spell. But Madame Marineaux had told me I was wrong.

  It is a far more powerful artifact than any amulet, she had said. And yet she’d offered no more explanation to what the carved ivory might be or what it might do. Then, just as the Hell Hounds were blasting her soul into oblivion, she had shown me where to find it. She had planted the image of the fist into my brain, and I had claimed the artifact for myself. There was something so appealing about it. As if whatever power that lived within was somehow pulsing out when I held it. When I watched it.

 
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