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Strange and ever after, p.24
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       Strange and Ever After, p.24

           Susan Dennard
 
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  “Marcus,” I croaked, “could be here tomorrow. We are made weaker without Oliver’s magic.” I wet my lips and peeled my eyelids back. “We might not win this.”

  “Ah, but you forget something.” Joseph leaned onto his knees. “Marcus wants only me. He will come to us because—as you rightfully saw—he wants revenge for what I did to him all those years ago. And so, should it seem that we are losing, then there is an obvious solution to change the tide.”

  A chill snaked through me. “No.” I angled my body toward him. “No, Joseph. I will not let you consider that. It is not an option.”

  His eyebrows lifted, and the resignation in his eyes was inescapable. “I will do anything for Daniel and Jie, remember? I will kill for them . . . and I will die for them. And so, should our plans fail, it will be your job to make Daniel and Jie go.”

  “Go?”

  “They will never leave me behind.” His eyes narrowed. “Marcus comes here for me, Eleanor, and I will give him what he wants if it will save the rest of you.”

  “So you’re going to hand yourself to him?”

  “No. I go into this battle to win. But I cannot . . .” He grimaced and rubbed at his bandages. “The truth is, I cannot face Marcus if I worry about the rest of you. This is a fight between him and me that goes back many years—and it is a fight I pulled you into. Marcus should never have been your problem. Or Daniel’s or Jie’s. Yet look at what he has done to all of you. Look at what he did to your family.”

  “Stop talking like this,” I said. “As much as I may want to blame you—as easy as it would be for my conscience, I cannot lay this at your feet, Joseph. Not for a single moment do I see Marcus as your fault. My brother caused just as much damage as he. We are all here today because of the choices we made, good and bad. Nothing we say or think or feel can change that. So when Marcus arrives, we must finally finish what we set out to do.”

  The muscles in Joseph’s jaw worked, as if he was trying to swallow back what he was about to say. But then it rushed out. “Except, I am not sure I can finish it, Eleanor.”

  I grabbed at his arm. “Of course you can. You are the strongest one here.”

  “Yet Marcus is much stronger than I. My electricity cannot hold up against his immense power.”

  My fingers tightened on Joseph’s sleeve. “But you have us behind you.”

  “And that is what frightens me most—can you not see?” He exhaled, a pitiful, shaking sound. “I know you think me rigid, Eleanor. I know my avoidance of black magic confounds and frustrates you. But every man has his limit—a line he will not cross. And every man must choose what that limit is.”

  “And your line is self-power,” I whispered, releasing him. “I understand that, but it does not mean we will lose against Marcus.”

  “But it is very likely, especially with Oliver gone. And that is why I am begging you to make sure Daniel and Jie leave if the battle should fall to me. Promise me this, Eleanor.” He leveled me with a sad gaze. Yet the look on his face was the Joseph I had come to know. The unwavering poise that made him a leader. “Promise me that you will see them to safety.”

  I gazed into his glittering eyes, and ever so slowly I nodded. “I promise, Joseph. But only because you have a line—and that is what makes you worth following. It’s what has earned you the unflinching love of Daniel and Jie. And it is what makes us believe in you. To the end. If I had such a limit, then . . .” I shrugged one shoulder. “Perhaps I would not be so lost without my demon. Or so scared—” My voice cracked. “Or so scared of what the future brings.”

  Joseph’s lips twisted into a smile. “But you do have a limit, Eleanor. Every man has one. Let us simply hope you are never faced with crossing it.”

  Joseph and I sat in silence until dawn, with no company but the stars and coarse wind. By the time the sun began to rise, its misty pink light bathing our left cheeks, I felt better. Though I kept reaching for things with my right hand: an itch, an errant curl. At least the stab in my gut had lessened. The choking in my lungs had tapered off.

  Oliver was gone; I had let him go; I would move onward as I always did. Joseph was right: the loss would fade with enough time.

  “Has the falcon moved?” Joseph asked, his voice a mere breath.

  I closed my eyes, tested the leash. . . . “Not yet.”

  And we descended back into silence until the sun was fully risen and burning with heat. Until Daniel appeared with breakfast—and saw my missing hand. Until Jie followed behind him and asked about Oliver.

  Until I could not handle the chatter or accusatory gazes a moment longer.

  Then I claimed the need for sleep and stumbled down the north side of the pyramid.

  But Daniel hurried after. “Empress,” he called once my feet had dug into the warming sand.

  I slowed, biting back a sigh. Ahead, the balloon shifted against its tethers, a graveyard of dogs now resting beneath its shade.

  Daniel stopped beside me. The sun lit his face, his skin as golden as the pyramid now. His hair the same color as the tawny sand. His fresh white shirt billowed around his frame, and sunburn sprayed lightly over his nose and brow.

  My frustration instantly dried up. And in an unexpected tide, grief buckled through me. Oliver was gone, we would soon face Marcus, and it all felt much, much too real.

  So I turned and fell into Daniel’s arms, and I wept.

  For my brother. My mother. My old life. For Jie. Allison. Oliver.

  And finally for me.

  I cried and cried until Daniel’s clean shirt was soaked through. And my wonderful inventor never said a word. He simply waited.

  When at last I wiped my eyes and pulled away, he flicked my chin with his knuckle. “Cheer up, Empress. We’ll be home soon.”

  “Home?” I croaked. “But . . . but we don’t have a home.”

  “And that’s just it. It’s time to make one.” He pulled me back into an embrace, and my cheek rested against tear-soaked cotton. “We’re all family now, you know. None of us has anyone but one another. So I reckon it’s time for me, you, Joseph, and Jie to make a home. Though, of course”—he smiled into my hair—“you and I will have our own little place. Just the two of us.”

  “Ah.” My eyelids fluttered shut. It was such a blissful image. A home. With Daniel.

  For a long moment I sank into the warmth of his body so near to mine. And I reveled in how his heart thumped against my cheek. How his ribs vibrated as he breathed. “I would like a home,” I admitted.

  “So let’s go then.”

  I snapped my eyelids up. “You mean after all this.”

  “Let’s leave Marcus behind, and just . . . go.”

  “Marcus will never let us leave,” I said quietly. “You know that. He will chase us until he has gotten to Joseph. Until he has gotten to me, to you, and to Jie.”

  “I know.” Daniel shrugged one shoulder. “But you can’t blame a man for tryin’.”

  “What happened to unflinching and unafraid?”

  He drew back slightly and peered into my face. “I ain’t flinching, Empress. And I ain’t afraid. Not while this”—he took my hand and curled my fingers inward—“can make a fist. And not while breath still burns here.” He laid his other hand over my chest. “I will fight until the end, no matter where it takes us. But sometimes a man needs a few good dreams to warm his wicked nights.”

  “Then let us dream right now.” My lips quirked up, and without thinking, I moved my arms back around his waist. “Let’s dream about what we’ll do when this is all over.”

  A soft laugh ruffled my hair. His arms slid around my shoulders and tugged me even tighter. “We should start by getting your hand attached. The surgeon I designed it with is in Munich.”

  My hand. Daniel’s perfect, mechanical prosthesis. I had forgotten it.

  “And then what?” I asked.

  “Then let’s go back to Paris so I can finally see the Louvre, and then . . . how do you feel about London?”

 
I feel good about London.” I grinned. “But we mustn’t forget Vienna. Oh, and there’s always Rome.” I tipped my head back and rested my chin on his chest.

  He smiled down at me, the breeze sweeping his hair in all directions. “And how about after we see the world with all that money we don’t have?”

  “Oh, we’ll have money,” I declared. “After we patent all your inventions and become disgustingly wealthy, we’ll have heaps of it.”

  He chuckled. “In that case, after we see the world we’ll open a school.”

  My eyebrows shot up.

  “For all the kids like me,” he added. “All the kids who got kicked around by life but want somethin’ more.” He twined his fingers through my hair. “For all the kids who never even dared to dream about a life as perfect as mine is right now.”

  I swallowed as cold crept over me. Nothing about our life was perfect. This sunny morning would end very soon, and the darkness would seep back in as it always did.

  But for now it was good. For now I had my inventor. My Daniel.

  I pressed my ear back to his heartbeat.

  “I’ll call it the Joanna Sheridan Institute,” he declared. “After my mother, of course, and we can all be teachers there. Joseph’ll teach about magic, I’ll teach about machines, and Jie can teach self-defense.”

  “And what will I teach?” I asked.

  “What do you want to teach?”

  I chewed on that for a moment—but then the obvious answer came. “Literature, of course. Oh, and geography. I daresay I am more than qualified to discuss that nowadays.”

  “I daresay you are,” Daniel murmured.

  “I like this dream,” I whispered, my words sailing off with the sand and the sun and the wind.

  “Me too,” he whispered back. “And when this is all over, it’s exactly what we’ll do.”

  “Promise?”

  “Yeah, Empress.” He squeezed me just a bit tighter. “I promise.”

  I stood before the spirit curtain again. It was the strangest sensation—seeing my body stand in the middle of my cabin though I knew I was asleep.

  I blinked. The curtain hovered before me instead of behind, and when I looked down, I was standing in the real world.

  Cautiously, I reached for the shimmering doorway to the dock.

  My hands hit a cool, flat surface.

  I pushed. Nothing happened. For some reason I was trapped on the earthly side of the curtain. I leaned into the light, struggling to see the spirit dock. Yet it was like staring through a window in a thunderstorm—a thousand lines of gold trickled and slid down a pane I could not cross. The view on the other side was blurred.

  Except . . . the more I squinted, the more I thought I could see an old man. No, the Old Man. He shook his cane in the air, and his mouth moved as if he was shouting at me.

  I pressed in, straining to hear something from the other side. The hairs on my neck and face pricked up, and when I laid my ear flat against the curtain, it sparked with static.

  But the faintest sound also crept through. A voice—the Old Man’s voice.

  I screwed my eyes shut and focused all my energy on shoving into the wall, on catching any strands of his words. . . .

  Stupid girl!

  It crashed into me. I straightened, the curtain flickering and fading—but briefly granting me absolute clarity.

  The Old Man, cane in hand and toothless mouth wide, roared at me, By blood and moonlit sun, stupid girl! You cannot enter without the clappers. Only by blood and moonlit sun.

  I stumbled back from the curtain. It flamed once, so brightly my eyes screwed shut. . . .

  And they stayed shut, for with the disappearance of the curtain, my body fell into a deep and thoroughly dreamless sleep.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  I awoke, the Old Man’s words resounding in my skull. By blood and moonlit sun. It was meaningless to me.

  As I sat there staring at the ceiling, a hiccup caught in my throat. It was as if a taut line were slackening—whirling back into me.

  I shot up in my bunk.

  The falcon was returning. A day after I had raised it, the leash that bound us was drawing tight.

  Scrambling from bed, I bolted to the cargo hold. Daniel’s crates were back inside, the hatch open. In moments my feet sank into the sand, and I ran toward the pyramid. The sun was in the western sky—midafternoon—and if Marcus took as long returning here as he had traveling south . . .

  He would arrive in the middle of the night.

  I found Joseph pacing beside the obelisk—back and forth along the sand, up the pyramid, down again, and eventually in circles. Daniel waved at me, crouched beside the outermost buried copper line. Jie stalked among our buried army.

  “He’s . . . coming,” I said breathlessly when I reached Joseph’s side.

  His lips pinched tight. He nodded once, and I could see him mentally counting the hours as I had done.

  “What should I do?” I asked.

  “What we have been doing.” He opened his hands. “Waiting. Restoring our strength. And praying.”

  The day passed accordingly, with obsessive checking and rechecking of our traps. Then a meal. Then more checking and rechecking. But our ambush was as well laid as we could make it.

  Three giant circles of copper wire were rigged to the pulse pistols, plus a final fourth line that would detonate the pulse bombs. My twenty-five rows of dogs before the obelisk and fifteen rows behind the pyramid were hidden and ready. They shimmered with dormant power, awaiting my command to reawaken.

  And always, the falcon closed in.

  Before the sun set, Daniel moved the balloon to a less obvious location farther in the ruins. He came shuffling back to us just as the moon started to rise. Joseph took up residence atop the pyramid, spyglass at his eye. Daniel, Jie, and I sat at the bottom—hand in hand. Then we all began our mind-numbing wait once more.

  The moon slid by overhead. The stars twinkled. The breeze never stopped.

  A clack! sounded from atop the pyramid. “He comes,” Joseph shouted. Then he skipped quickly down the stone steps.

  For a split second my heart clenched so tight, I couldn’t breathe.

  But then Jie pushed to her feet, cracked her knuckles, and said, “Hey, we aren’t dead yet.” And Daniel rose, his face tight but eyes bright.

  Joseph dropped to the sand beside us. Beckoning a crooked finger at me, he strode toward the obelisk.

  “Remember what I told you,” he said once we were out of the others’ hearing. “You take them and you leave.”

  “Only if it’s the last option.”

  He did not reply. He simply offered me the spyglass and said, “The Pullet is with them. And it is worse than I feared, Eleanor. It is a true monster of darkness, so you must prepare your army now.” Then he marched off to help Daniel.

  Closing one eye, I lifted the spyglass . . . but Marcus was still so distant. His balloon was a mere white ball on the horizon with a snaking shadow below.

  No, not a shadow.

  My stomach lurched into my throat. I swayed back.

  The long, winding shadow was the Black Pullet. Its wings gleamed—pure gold, as the Old Man had said. And the waves rippling alongside the Pullet were the mummified imperial guards. Hundreds of them.

  “God save us,” I whispered. But no sound would come. My lungs ached with a feeling I barely recognized—as if they were trapped beneath a thousand stones. How many villages and farms had they trampled as Marcus came north? How much waste had he left in his path? At least Saqqara is isolated, I thought. But it held no comfort.

  For I was afraid.

  Truly afraid.

  I lowered the spyglass, clacked it shut against my chest, and thrust it into my pocket. Then, without thinking, my left hand reached for my other pocket—and my mind reached for Oliver.

  But the ivory artifact was gone, and so was my demon.

  And I could do this on my own.

  So I withdrew my fingers, curling
them into a vicious fist. And then I inhaled until my ribs bowed outward.

  It was time to end this.

  My heels dug into the sand as I picked up speed. Daniel flashed me a grim nod as I bolted past. . . .

  But I barely noticed him. My attention was on my army now. They would topple beneath those imperial mummies, but at least they would be a distraction. As soon as I had crossed the final ring of copper lines, I began to draw in my power.

  With each hot breath, I sucked in the magic. With each sliding step, I wrapped it around my heart.

  I sprinted to the dogs, and when I sensed the skeletons beneath me, I slowed to a walk . . . then a careful creep. Bones rolled beneath my feet, and my magic throbbed in my chest.

  At last, when I had reached the center of the dog graveyard, I stopped and opened my arms wide.

  Dust billowed over me. Moonlight shone down. Then, with my left fingers flexed taut, I poured my magic from me. “Awake.”

  As before, the magic sifted into individual sparks. Hundreds upon hundreds spiraled out to each and every skeleton. Then they stabbed in, nestling deep within the dog’s bones . . . and the strands of magic pulled tight. Over and over, my power gushed from my heart until every ancient hound was awake—and was mine.

  Then, with a tired breath, I pushed back through the rows and jogged toward the pyramid—toward Jie. She waited at the obelisk, Joseph beside her. His face was unusually pale, his forehead pinched, but otherwise he looked ready.

  Jie, on the other hand, fidgeted and swung something in her hand.

  A sword.

  “Take this,” she said, extending it to me.

  My forehead bunched up. It was a dented, chipped thing as long as her arm and double-edged.

  A laugh escaped my throat. “This was from Philadelphia. The ancient Roman sword you stole from the Centennial Exhibition.”

  “Yeah.” She bared a tight grin. “It still works fine, even if it is a thousand years old. I’ve kept it in my luggage since Philadelphia.”

  My left hand wrapped around the hilt. “But what will you fight with?”

 
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