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Strange and ever after, p.20
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       Strange and Ever After, p.20

           Susan Dennard
 
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I spared a single glance at the mummies—they were rounding the top of the pyramid now . . . and then they were gone. They followed something I could not see. So I continued my frenzied climb after Jie. Joseph passed me, reaching her long before I was even close. He eased her onto her back and shouted her name over and over.

  Then Daniel was clambering by. He fell to Jie’s side, crying, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

  By the time I finally climbed the last step to reach them, Daniel had wrapped Jie’s leg tightly in his shirt . . . and her eyes were open. But they were empty.

  I threw a glance at Oliver. He swayed with exhaustion, his face too pale and his expression was . . .

  Heartbreaking. Something about him looked broken, I wet my lips, caked in sand and sweat, to call to him. . . .

  His hand lifted. He pointed east, and when I followed his finger toward the morning sun, my knees almost dissolved beneath me.

  For drifting up from the other side of the pyramid was a balloon. A simple, round one—much smaller than our airship and with nothing more than a basket beneath.

  And there were two figures standing within. Marcus and . . . Allison.

  “No,” I whispered. My head shook, slowly . . . then faster. “No.” I staggered into a run, passing Daniel and Joseph and Jie. And still the word fell off my tongue, louder each time. “No. No. No.”

  It couldn’t be. She had to be compelled—it was a spell. Allison wasn’t with Marcus willingly—she just . . .

  Couldn’t be.

  But the truth settled through my chest, spreading outward and inward like the blackest of oils. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. I stumbled. . . . I fell. My hands hit the stone steps.

  I had trusted Allison. I had thought we were allies.

  God, I had been so, so wrong.

  A laugh splintered up my throat. I was a blind fool. Of course Allison and I were enemies; we had been since the day she had learned that Elijah had killed Clarence—and I had known it. Deep within, I had known it all along, but I’d refused to see. I had not wanted her to be the enemy even when the facts were all there—obvious and undeniable now that I truly looked at them.

  Back in Philadelphia, when Allison had demanded answers about Clarence’s death, I had thought it odd how she took the truth so stoically.

  But she had already known—that was why her reaction had been so stiff. In fact, she had probably come to my house that day simply to ensure that I got on the steamer for France. . . . Marcus had dug his talons into Allison ages before I had spoken to her. Somehow, Marcus had found her, swayed her to his side, and then used her.

  For not only had Allison goaded me into traveling to France—even driving me to the wharf—but then she had come to Paris to guarantee that I went on to Marseille. She had inserted herself into the group to make sure we traveled to Egypt. . . . And then finally, she had helped us reach the Old Man in the Pyramids.

  Everything she had done, had said, had shared—it had all been a lie. She didn’t care about Jie’s incisions or Joseph’s bandages. She didn’t care about me. She had helped Marcus get what he wanted by manipulating us.

  And Marcus must have wanted the clappers and the Old Man all along. When Madame Marineaux had not arrived in Marseille with the ivory fist as Marcus had planned, then he no longer had the power to find the Old Man—he was not marked as Pharaoh.

  Instead, I had arrived in Marseille, and Marcus had let me get the information from Jacques Girard. Then he had let me do all the dirty work, step by step, to finally summon the Old Man. All Marcus had had to do was show up and collect the final prizes: knowledge of where the Black Pullet was buried and the complete, unbroken clappers with which to raise it.

  Marcus had coordinated everything. Always one step ahead.

  It was like salt on a wound, and a hot scream writhed up my throat. I dug my fingers into my thighs and threw my head back to stare into the sun until my eyes were raw.

  I wanted to hurt Allison. I wanted to rake my fingernails down her face and into her traitorous smile. I had trusted her; she had betrayed me, and now I wanted her to die.

  The desire was so strong, it pushed against my ribs and swelled in my neck. But with that rage came sobs. They shuddered through me, threatening to explode at any moment. But crying had never served me well, and crying would not catch Marcus.

  So, gritting my teeth, I hauled myself to my feet. My blurry vision latched on to the balloon—and then drifted down. . . .

  Sixteen figures galloped over the sand, their spears erect and helmets glinting in the rising sun. Their inhuman strides kept pace with the balloon.

  Movement flashed to the north, and when I twisted my head, I found even more guards streaming over the sand. They must have come from the other pyramids, answering the call of the clappers. Marcus had himself an army—one that our magic could not stop.

  My breath sawed between my teeth. He cannot win. I will not let him win.

  I dragged my gaze right to Daniel’s airship, still hovering over the Sphinx. It swayed in the breeze, seemingly unharmed.

  But there was blood all over the sand beneath it. And deep, dragging footprints as if someone had limped away—seeping blood with each step.

  For a bleak, vicious moment, I hoped it was Allison’s blood. She cannot win. And neither can Marcus.

  In a rush of desire, I finally gave in to all the hunger and want that had writhed inside me since Paris.

  This magic was who I was, and when I called to it, it came. Like a door burst wide, the power inside me came. The more I inhaled and tugged at the magic, the more it pulsed through me. To me. I gathered it in my chest. More, more, more.

  A wind picked up. It twined around my legs and through my hair, as if the world itself were offering me its soul. . . .

  Then I realized that it was. I was taking magic from the stones and the air and the sand. I was feasting off the living world around me.

  I straightened. Magic rolled up my spine, and the wind kicked harder.

  A shout came from behind me; I ignored it. The balloon was fading too fast.

  My hands reached out; my fingers flexed. I would throw everything I had at that balloon. I would rip it from the sky. I would beat down Allison.

  And I would destroy Marcus.

  “Eleanor!” Oliver’s voice snaked into my ears. “Stop!”

  I did not stop. I narrowed my eyes to slits, focusing everything I had—everything I was—on that distant balloon. I had no spell in mind, but I did not need one. Death and power were close cousins—and I had plenty of power. More than I’d ever had inside me before. It surged in from the world. It breathed and squirmed like a living thing, and I gulped it in as if I were drowning.

  “El!” Oliver’s voice again, nagging like an insect. “You’re hurting us—stop!” Hands grabbed my shoulders. “STOP!”

  The command shuddered through me, reverberated in my skull. The demon I controlled was telling me what to do. His desperation poured through our bond—but with it came magic. I latched on to it like a lamprey.

  And then his power gushed into me. Where his hands squeezed my shoulders, the skin boiled. Where his breath laced over my neck, the hair stood on end. He was so powerful—even weakened as he was, Oliver was made of soul.

  And I would take it. I would take and I would crush Marcus—

  Stop. Oliver’s voice pierced my brain. You will kill yourself.

  “I don’t care,” I tried to say, but the voice that came out was not my own. This voice was layered and charged like the rumble of heat lightning. “I would rather die,” I went on, “than let him get away.”

  But what about me? he pressed, and there was an undercurrent of panic. It chafed against my skull. You will kill me too if you do not stop. You will kill Joseph and Jie. You will kill Daniel. You will push us away forever. Stop, Eleanor. Stop and come back to us.

  “Marcus will get away.”

  And we will go after him, but you cannot stop him like this. I will not let yo
u.

  I almost laughed at that, for there was nothing Oliver could do to me—not when I was this strong. Not when I had his power coursing into me. “How will you stop me?”

  Like this. He slid his arms around my waist, rested his cheek against the back of my head, and opened himself up.

  My legs turned to water. My body collapsed beneath the tide of his magic.

  But it was not only magic that weighed me down. It was him, and in a roar of sound and light, I crumbled beneath his being.

  I am in a world of darkness and stars. It is a resting place before the final afterlife. I exist when moments before I did not—and this puzzles me. But I soon forget, for as I watch the stars drift by, I realize they are actually other beings. Some are pinpricks of light that swirl with power too intense to look upon. Some are weaker, like me. And floating amid us are wispy, fragile things.

  The souls of the Dead.

  For a century I watch, until one day I feel a tug inside me. It is like a pronged arrow in my gut, and it yanks me along. I fight, but it is stronger than me. Quicker and quicker it pulls, until the stars fade into a cloudy sky. Until an ancient, slatted dock rushes beneath me and a distant, golden door appears ahead. I try to gain purchase on the dock, try to slow this hurtling speed . . . but to no avail. The door zooms closer and closer. . . .

  I am through, and I am in a world I never knew existed. I have a body—it wraps my soul around bones and traps it within skin. I do not like it, and though years will pass, I will never learn to like it.

  Yet I am able to forget for a time, for the boy who called me through is fascinating. His laugh, his jokes, his mind—they are alive, and it captivates me.

  I revere him. Even when he starts to shut me out, I love him. He is all I have, and though he commands me away, I cannot stop what I feel.

  But then I meet her. She confuses me. Her laugh is just like his. Her wit and her heart—like his, except brighter. She tells me my love is dead, and I hate her for it . . .

  Until I do not hate her anymore. One day I awaken in a city of lights and magic to find that she is no longer my bane but my beacon. Where I had thought myself neutral and indifferent, I have fallen onto a side. Her side.

  And perhaps this is the worst part about being alive and trapped in a human form.

  I do not know what I want, much less how to get it. There is something writhing inside me—something that aches for fulfillment.

  I had thought it was the Old Man—I had thought fulfilling that command would solve everything. Make this hunger go away.

  It didn’t.

  Now she is all I have, and that knowledge crushes me . . . yet also keeps me from drowning.

  But I do not belong in this earthly realm, Eleanor, and if you die now, then I can never go home. Please, I will not let you do this to me or to yourself.

  Come back to me, El. Come back to me.

  I snapped into myself. Me—only me. No Oliver, no magic. It was my brain and my body . . . and it was shrieking at me to breathe.

  Because I couldn’t. I had pulled in so much magic, there was no space for my lungs to expand. My ribs were bowing beneath the pressure in my chest. I had no feeling in my skin—no sense of sand, no touch of wind.

  “Give it to me,” Oliver murmured. His words brushed through my hair, and he hugged me tighter to his chest. “Cast it into me, El, like any other spell.”

  Take it, I thought, sinking into him. Take it, Oliver. Sum veritas.

  A howl like a tornado burst from my mouth. A wave of magic pulsed out of me, so strong, it lifted me off the stone step and boomed outward. I watched it rush forward in a great wind of power. Down the pyramid, it swept up sand and wind and daylight. The airship swung dangerously, and its shadow gusted over the earth . . . until the wave had moved on. Until it had reached the rows of far-off trees and finally vanished.

  My legs turned to pudding beneath me. I fell into Oliver . . . and then together we collapsed onto the rock.

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  The sky was brilliantly blue behind Oliver’s head. My chest quaked, and each breath was like fire, each blink acid.

  His lips trembled as he gulped in air. His eyes shook, trying to stay latched on to mine. The wind twined through my hair—and through his—and sand collected on the pyramid steps around us.

  But I could not look away.

  He was so much more than I had ever thought or understood. So much soul—so much pure emotion. Each of his hurts was an agony and each tenderness a blistering flame. No human was meant to feel what he felt, and no body was made for it.

  But worse—what scared me—was that I had changed him. I had irrevocably made him into a person he did not wish to be.

  Slowly, his eyelids shuttered, and a flicker of a thought whispered through my mind. And now I have changed you.

  “Eleanor!” Joseph’s voice seeped into my ears, distant and fuzzy. He was shouting for me from the other end of the pyramid. “Eleanor! Help!”

  I wet my lips and tried to swallow . . . but I was still falling into Oliver’s eyes.

  “Eleanor!” Joseph bellowed again, and this time he added: “Oliver!”

  My demon looked behind me. Our moment slipped away. Like a punch to the gut, my breath burst out. I rocked back and gaped up at the sky.

  I was changed. His thoughts and his feelings were inside me. Even if I didn’t want them, they flailed in my lungs and in my skull—

  “Eleanor! Oliver! Help!”

  Oliver staggered to his feet and set off in a listing jog toward Joseph, Daniel . . . and Jie.

  Jie.

  My throat closed off. The world reeled and blurred, my blood rushed in my ears, and I had to grab at the stones to get upright. But I dragged my feet, and soon enough I reached the others.

  Jie lay on her back, her head in Joseph’s lap as he stroked her hair—over and over, he petted her forehead and murmured soft words. Daniel knelt beside her, his voice hoarse. “I’m sorry, Jie. I’m so sorry.”

  And Jie simply lay there, as pale as a corpse and with blood gathering in the stones. Bits of flesh and bone flecked her clothes, her skin, the ground. . . .

  So much blood. So much damage.

  “Heal her,” Joseph said, his eyes locking on Oliver. “Please—you must heal her.”

  “I . . .” Oliver’s hands opened helplessly.

  “Please,” Joseph begged us. “She will die.”

  Daniel gaped at Joseph. “No . . . not magic—she wouldn’t want it.”

  “And she will die otherwise.” Joseph’s gaze never left my demon. “Please. Oliver. Please heal her.”

  Again Oliver gave a helpless, almost lost shrug and looked at me. “I cannot heal her unless you command me.”

  I stared down at Jie. My magic was gone. It had pulsed out, a harmless wind, and now all I had was Oliver’s power. I would command him if I had to, but I didn’t want to force him. Not now that I understood him.

  “What do you want?” I asked him.

  He cringed. “No. No, El. Do not put this on me.”

  “B-but . . .” I tried to moisten my mouth—each word was a blade in my throat. “I do not want to make you do—”

  “You can,” his voice hissed. “You must command me or I will leave her—”

  “You won’t.” I searched his face, his eyes. “I know you now, and you won’t.”

  Pain tightened his features—and something else . . . something angry. “If you believe that, then you do not know me at all.” He leaned in and gripped my elbow, rough and tight. “But command me, El, and command me fast or your friend will die.”

  My breaths came in quicker. Harsher. I refused to back down from his gaze. I did know him, and I did not believe for a second he would abandon Jie. “Oliver,” I whispered, bringing my nose to his and driving the command into his eyes, “do what needs doing. Sum veritas.”

  His irises blazed blue. I blinked, and he released me—lurching around toward Jie.

  But Daniel refused to mo
ve. “No,” he mumbled, angling toward Joseph. “Please. We can heal Jie the natural way—”

  “Get your inventor out of here,” Oliver growled at me, “or this girl will bleed to death, and we will be too late.”

  I marched to Daniel. Blood splashed on my boots, on Jie’s clothes. I grabbed his collar. “Come with me.”

  His head rolled back, his gaze uncomprehending. “Jie needs—”

  “She’ll be fine.” I tugged harder. “We need to get the airship running, and you have to be the one to do it.”

  Understanding flickered through his eyes, and with a final, broken glance at Jie, he staggered to his feet.

  Together, we descended the pyramid. Our boots scraped on the stones. The sun seared into our scalps, into our faces, while the wind carried away Oliver’s chanting.

  But I felt my demon’s magic, so pure and gentle in my chest. He was tired—drained from the hell I put him through—yet he did as I had commanded, and each word he uttered pulsed through my veins.

  And it made me strong.

  Far to the south, small mounds poked up against the horizon . . . and a white dot floated above. Marcus. East was the Nile, a mirror of molten crimson. Sails moved along it like gliding gulls, and seas of orange grass fanned out along the banks as far as I could see.

  My fingers closed and opened with each step. Curling, unfurling, and back again.

  Why had Marcus done all this? Why had he pulled our strings like this?

  So he can raise the Black Pullet.

  But again, why? Were immortality and wealth worth all this planning and puppeteering?

  “Empress?”

  I looked down, my vision spotted and broken from the sun. Daniel was waiting for me, but his gaze was leveled high. On Jie.

  “She’ll be fine,” I said to him, resuming my steady shamble. “Trust Oliver.”

  “That’s exactly it.” Daniel’s lips twisted down. “I don’t trust Oliver—any more than I trust a Wilcox. And I don’t understand how you can.” He spoke with such venom that I knew he only wanted a target—a focus for his rage.

  “Oliver is saving her life,” I said wearily, hopping down the next level. And then the next. “Come on. We have a balloon to follow.”

 
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