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Strange and ever after, p.23
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       Strange and Ever After, p.23

           Susan Dennard
 
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  But that was not all.

  There were footprints. Lots of them. And they were fresh too, since the wind had not blown them away.

  Oliver and I exchanged a glance, but our pace did not slow. The prints led to the temple and descended into a dark hole like the entrance to the catacombs of Anubis. Oliver knelt and inspected the opening.

  “Did something go in?” I asked.

  “I’d say the reverse—something left.” He pulled back, shoving Milton’s booklet into his pocket. “The sand here has been pushed outward. Come on.” He wriggled through the hole . . . and then vanished into the darkness.

  “El,” he shouted back, “there are stai—” His voice broke off, replaced by a yelp.

  “Oliver!” I thrust into the hole. It was as black as pitch within. “Are you all right?”

  “I’m . . . fine.” His words were muffled and distant.

  I scrabbled in, trusting my hands to guide me in the darkness.

  “Be careful,” he went on, sounding slightly closer. I scuttled faster, feeling a stone step. Yet just as he began to yell something else, the floor vanished.

  And I toppled into nothingness.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  I did not hit the ground.

  Instead, I hit Oliver, and he crumpled beneath me with a miserable “Oomph.”

  “Why didn’t you warn me?” I snapped.

  “Your hand is on my nose,” he mumbled nasally. “And I did warn you. I said ‘Watch out for the drop.’ I’m sorry if you were already falling as I said it.” He shoved me, and I toppled to the side of him.

  As in the other catacomb—and the Great Pyramid—the air was hot and dusty, the darkness oppressive. But most concerning of all, our entrance hole was at least fifteen feet overhead. A circle of white light.

  Oliver fumbled the glowworms from his pocket. Their feeble green shimmer only illuminated a few feet around us, and as he rose to his feet, it sprayed and flickered unevenly—revealing a high, vaulted ceiling and a wide tunnel cut directly from the bedrock. It was much larger than Anubis’s temple.

  “How do we get out?” I asked as Oliver towed me upright. My voice echoed off the stone.

  “Not sure . . .” Oliver swung the jar around, his eyes glowing bright—and then widening. “Thank you, Professor Milton.” He strode away from me and revealed a ladder set against the wall. He snatched it up and toted it toward the hole of moonlight.

  “How do you know it was Milton’s?” I asked.

  “It’s either his or some treasure hunter’s. Does it really matter?” He returned to my side, and together we set off into the catacombs.

  “We seem to wind up this way often,” I whispered over our padding feet.

  “And what way is that?”

  “You guiding me through the dark.”

  Oliver grunted a humorless laugh. A laugh that said Are you just now noticing?

  My teeth gritted together. I should do it now—I should do what needed doing right now . . . and lose Oliver forever.

  But I didn’t. I couldn’t, and after twenty paces we came to a three-way split in the tunnel. Yet no paintings adorned the walls here.

  “I see figures ahead,” Oliver said softly. “I think they might be statues.”

  His grip tightened around my fingers, and he towed me onward. Soon enough I could see the statues too. . . .

  But they were not statues at all.

  Oliver pulled up short and shoved me behind him.

  For several long moments we simply stared, our breaths trapped. But then I eased mine out.

  “They aren’t imperial guards,” I whispered. “They’re holding swords—not spears. And they have shields too.”

  “You’re right.” Oliver crept forward—two cautious steps. “And I think they’re smaller. Your size. And look.” He pointed to vacant pedestals—one between each of the current statues. “That’s where the imperial guards were.”

  Releasing his hand, I tiptoed closer and crouched beside one of the vacant blocks. There was an undeniable outline in the dust. “They left. They must have gone when Marcus summoned. And they’re what left those footprints outside.”

  “Then who are these remaining mummies?” Oliver asked.

  I stared at the nearest form—and then it hit me. I barked a soft laugh and scrabbled toward it. “It’s a queens’ guard. She’s a queens’ guard.” I glanced back and found Oliver’s eyes glowing behind me. “Professor Milton mentioned them at the party—how the queens’ guards are even more deadly than the pharaoh’s.”

  “Then let’s be glad Marcus cannot control them. I wonder though. . . .” He paused, chewing his lip thoughtfully. “Well, it doesn’t matter at this point. What matters is finding these bull mummies—or any others, for that matter.”

  He turned to go, the jar spewing beams over the long row of armored mummies. There were at least fifty in this tunnel alone . . . and perhaps twenty-five empty pedestals.

  I gulped, my throat pinching tight. Marcus’s army was going to be vast indeed.

  “And a vast army has never stopped you before,” I muttered to myself, folding my fingers into fists. We were going to face Marcus here, and we were going to defeat him. That was all there was to it.

  “Are you coming?” Oliver called, glancing back. “I think I see a sarcophagus ahead.”

  I scooted after him, giving each of the queens’ guards a wide berth. If they were as dangerous as Milton had declared, then we absolutely did not want to awaken them.

  My footsteps faltered . . . and my breath huffed out. “Oh no.”

  Oliver wheeled back. “What’s wrong, El?”

  “We can’t raise any bulls.” I dug my knuckles into my eyes. “If we do that, we risk awakening the guards. They protect the mummies—that’s what Professor Milton said. So if we touch these bulls, the guards will awaken. We are not pharaohs; we cannot control them.”

  For a breath, Oliver remained silent. Then he swore. “Dammit.” Then louder. “Dammit. As useful as your dogs are, I don’t think they’ll be enough to keep us alive.” He stomped toward me, and, yanking up my hand, he marched me back the way we’d come. “Maybe we can find another tomb that isn’t guarded. The bulls were the most sacred animals in Egypt, but Milton’s booklet said he found birds. So there must be some birds . . . somewhere.”

  “And if not?” I asked quietly. “You do not think we can win this?”

  Oliver didn’t answer me . . . and he didn’t have to. It was apparent in his voice. In his stride. He thought we would lose. That we would all die tonight.

  And it had become his problem when it never should have been. He was trapped in a body he did not want, helping a girl he didn’t want to help.

  “Oliver,” I murmured.

  He slowed, then twisted back to face me. His face shimmered in the glowworm’s light, but his eyes pulsed their steady gold. “Hmmm?”

  “Earlier. At the Great Pyramid. What you did was—”

  “Is this another thank-you?” he cut in. “Because I told you to hold off on gratitude until you set me free—and now is not the time.”

  “But it is the time,” I insisted, my voice rising. “Everything has changed between us. Can’t you see that?”

  He simply turned back into his stalk. “You’re wrong. Nothing has changed.”

  The glowworms flickered onward, and with a frustrated sigh, I trudged after him. A blinding silver ring of light was visible, and we would reach the ladder soon.

  “Wait,” I called, lengthening my steps. I had to say this to Oliver now, in the safety of darkness. If I went outside—if I had to do this in the barren, vulnerable ruins . . .

  I couldn’t.

  “Oliver, please wait.” I reached his side and grabbed at his elbow. “What you did this morning does change things. What you did to Jie too. I see how much I depend on you. It was never you who pushed my friends away—it was me. And I pushed you away too. Over and over again, but you always stayed true even when I didn’t deserve it
. I know that now.” I tried to moisten my mouth. I had to say this. “And I know . . . I know I have no right to keep you.”

  The words whispered up from my chest. Over my tongue. Across my lips. I have no right to keep you.

  His golden eyes twitched. I inhaled to continue. “I have called on your magic, on your friendship, on your mere presence more times than I can count. Yet this is not your fight. It was never your fight. Elijah made you come to this world, and I . . . I have to send you back before it’s too late. Before you are too much a man and forget everything about your home.” Tentatively, my hand trembling, I traced up his arm, over his shoulder, and to his collar. To the locket I knew rested around his neck.

  His face stayed very still as I twined my fingers around the gold heart.

  “Tell me how to do it, Oliver, and I will set you free.”

  His hand lifted; his fingers gripped around my wrist. “No.” His voice was so quiet, I could barely hear it. But then he took a step closer, and his voice trickled in my ear. “I cannot let you do this. I was wrong about you. You are not Elijah. And I see that now.”

  I did not move—though my heart did. Something about those simple words made my pulse stumble and my gut tighten.

  And when Oliver’s free hand slipped behind my head, I still did not move. Nor when his fingers tangled in my hair or his forehead lowered to touch mine.

  “You asked me how I could speak to your mind, El, and I told you that there were many things demons could do.” He gave a dry, whispering laugh. “The truth was, I didn’t know how I’d done it. I’d never done that with Elijah—and my thoughts had never reached you before either. Not until that moment when . . .”

  “When?” I breathed.

  “When I realized I . . .” His words died on his tongue, and he shook his head ever so slightly against mine. “It’s our bond. Don’t you see? It’s so strong. So much deeper than what I had with Elijah. So much . . . bigger.”

  And you think that’s why we can do this? I asked. Speak to each other mind to mind?

  Yes. The word shimmered through my brain, bright and poignant. That is why we can do this, so are you sure you want to give it all up?

  “I . . .” My voice cracked. “I want you to be happy. That means letting you go.”

  “But if you set me free,” he whispered, “you will lose your hand.”

  “I know.”

  “And you will no longer be able to use my magic. Or even touch it.”

  “I know. But you were right, Oliver. Like you said on the airship, I must let go of everyone I love. And that includes you.”

  He smiled sadly. “I appreciate that you have listened to me for once, but I don’t think this is what you actually want. You feel guilty—am I right? You saw my pain and my memories, and now you pity me.” He shifted as if to draw away.

  “No,” I croaked, yanking him closer. “That isn’t it at all. This . . . this is it.”

  I tipped up my chin and stared into his yellow eyes. . . .

  And then I bared my soul to Oliver.

  I poured everything I had through our deep, wide bond. My life in Philadelphia, before Father died. Then after. Before Elijah’s return—then after that too.

  I showed Oliver how much I had loved my brother—idolized him. He had been older and so clever, and I had always trusted everything he did or said.

  I let my pain for Clarence crash out of me. My heartbreak when Daniel rejected me, and the tears when Mama disowned me. My bone-deep terror over Jie. My grinding hatred for Allison.

  I gave Oliver everything I had—and I showed how much I loved him too. How much I loved and relied on him, both as a demon and as a man.

  Yet I also showed him how fear lived inside me. Fear that I had changed him, fear that he had changed me. Fear that we could never exist apart . . . unless I let him go now.

  Bit by bit, memory by memory and heartbeat by heartbeat, I showed my soul to Oliver until there was nothing left to give.

  Then as the final pieces of who I was washed over our bond, I tried to let him go. To pry my soul from his—and to release my grip on his locket.

  “Wait,” he rasped, squeezing my wrist and tightening his fingers in my hair. “Don’t do it. Don’t break the bond. Not yet.”

  “This is what you wanted.”

  His head nodded, his nose touching mine. I want to go home, he whispered to my mind. But if you do this, I will leave you.

  “Then,” I whispered, my lips skimming over his chin, “that is what you should do. Leave. No more commands. No more pain. Find what you want, and I will find what I want.”

  And with those words, I let him go completely. My fingers released the locket. My heart released his soul.

  Oliver staggered back, his eyes brilliant as the sun. Then he began to cough.

  And I began to cough too.

  I was drowning . . . no—I was suffocating. There was a hole in my body, and it was real this time.

  I gaped down, watching my chest billow ineffectively. Oliver was gone from me. I had lost him.

  “Oh God,” I wheezed. My gaze leaped back to him. But his yellow eyes swayed in my vision.

  He stumbled close and gripped the sides of my face. “Desperate measures.” His words were rough and broken. “Desperate measures to do what needs to be done. Thank you. Thank you.”

  Then he dropped his hands, pressed the glowworms into my left palm, and lurched to the ladder.

  And for several agonizing seconds, all I could do was watch him climb the rungs and disappear. My lungs heaved and heaved. I tried to claw at my throat . . .

  But I had no hand.

  My right wrist was a puckered, shadowy scar. Green in the glowworms’ light. “Stay,” I tried to call after him.

  I shambled to the ladder and clumsily ascended—only to topple up through the hole and into the harsh moonlight.

  By the time I had crawled upright, Oliver was long gone.

  My demon was gone. He would not be coming back.

  And I had made my choice.

  A sob burned in my chest. How could I have finally realized how much I relied on him yet been so utterly blind to it too?

  I needed Oliver simply to keep standing.

  Far to the west, something gleamed. The obelisk. It wavered and shone like a beam of silver sunlight. Without thinking, I scrambled upright and set off toward it.

  Time passed. When I finally reached the obelisk, almost tripping over the sand piled around it, the Spirit-Hunters were nowhere to be seen. No doubt they were sleeping—and I was grateful for it.

  I laid my left palm against the carved granite face. “You can do this, Eleanor. You are strong. You are an empress.”

  Nothing. No spark of strength. No surge of self-belief.

  I rolled my head back to stare at the pointed tip. It swam and drifted in my vision.

  “Can I, though?” I whispered to the stone. Then to the starry sky, to the moon, to anything that would listen. “Can I?” I had learned how to use my magic with Oliver’s help—before him, I had been simply me. . . .

  A girl with no hand and no family.

  My fingers fell, dragging down the obelisk’s surface.

  “Eleanor?”

  My head snapped sideways. Joseph stood at the base of the pyramid. The worried lines on his brow told me he’d heard my outbreak, seen me cry.

  “Come,” he said softly. “Join me.” Without waiting to see if I would follow, he began a graceful ascent up the worn steps of the pyramid.

  And I hurried after. There were only thirty steps to climb, and they were waist high—easier to rise than the Great Pyramid had been.

  By the time we reached the top, I was sweating and my breath burned in my throat. But I welcomed it—any feeling that distracted me from the gaping hole in my heart.

  Joseph settled onto the top stone and eased Daniel’s spyglass from his pocket. I dropped down beside him, rubbing my face on my sleeve.

  “He is gone,” I said into the damp fabri
c. “He is gone for good.” I risked a peek at Joseph.

  But all he did was nod. Other than that, he showed no reaction.

  And I was grateful. So very grateful. I lowered my arm, and as if Joseph were a priest to absolve my sins, I confessed. “I don’t know why I did it, Joseph. I suppose I hated feeling like I was no one without him.” I lifted my left hand helplessly. “But I am no one. His magic was everything that kept me alive.”

  “You do yourself an injustice,” Joseph said softly, pressing the spyglass to his eye and scanning the horizon. “You saved all of Philadelphia without him. You battled spirits, you battled corpses, and you battled Marcus—all before you’d ever met Oliver.” He lowered the spyglass. “I realize the loss hurts, but it will fade with time, Eleanor.”

  “But not soon enough. And there is such a vast emptiness where our bond used to be.” I clutched at my belly. “It is like someone scooped out my insides. Like he scooped them out and took them away.”

  I sank forward and cradled my head. It was as if part of me had not let him go. As if this swelling in my chest was a desperate hope that he would return.

  Joseph rested a hand on my shoulder—a brotherly gesture that was so unlike him . . . but that comforted me all the same. “Jie told me something,” he said softly. “She said that when Oliver healed her, their minds met. She thinks it was by accident—that he was so upset by how close you went to the edge, he lost control of his feelings. They poured into Jie—and do you know what she felt?”

  I shook my head.

  “She felt lost and alone. Confused and angry. She felt a love so powerful, it branded her heart and reminded her why it was worth being alive.”

  “But I felt that too,” I murmured. “He showed me his soul too.”

  “Ah, but I do not think he did, Eleanor. You felt what your demon wanted you to feel. Jie felt what he could not hide.”

  Joseph’s hand withdrew, and I nodded—though I did not truly understand.

  Remember this, El: not everyone who you invite in will wish to be there. And no matter what you might want, I will one day have to leave.

  My eyelids flicked shut. Perhaps I could understand. He had warned me, time and time again.

 
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