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Strange and ever after, p.25
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       Strange and Ever After, p.25

           Susan Dennard
 
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She wiggled her fingers at me. “These will do fine. Here . . .” She moved to me and slid the sword behind my belt. It was stiff, but it was also accessible. Then she laid her hands on my shoulders. There was no missing the terror in her eyes.

  “Be careful, Eleanor.”

  “You too, Jie.”

  She grunted her agreement and turned to Joseph. “I’m not much for prayer, but now seems like a good time, yeah?”

  He nodded absently, his gaze locked on the southern horizon. As I set off toward the north side of the pyramid—toward the second dog graveyard—I heard him begin to chant beneath his breath. The words were Creole, but the message was clear: Please let us survive this night.

  I reached the base of the pyramid and wheeled around it—only to skitter to a stop. Daniel marched toward me, his bandolier in hand, though only two pistols remained. His jaw was set, his spine straight.

  In two long strides, he closed the space between us, dropped the bandolier to the sand, and tugged me into a fierce embrace.

  His lips were on mine. It was a desperate kiss—a kiss to end the world on—and I thought I might crumble beneath it . . . except that I fought against the tide of need, and I kissed him just as hard in return.

  I clutched him to myself, digging my fingers into his back, into his hair, biting and tasting until our lips were raw and I could not breathe.

  Until Daniel broke away. His lip bled, his chest heaved. But his fingers stayed in my hair, and he touched his nose to mine. “I love you.”

  “I love you too.”

  “Please survive this night. For me.”

  I nodded. Then he brushed a final kiss over my lips, hefted his bandolier, and strode around the pyramid without looking back.

  And I did not watch him go. I kicked back into a run, the sword banging against my leg as I raced toward our secondary army.

  As I had done before, I navigated to the center, called in my power as I moved, then released it. “Awake, awake.”

  In four thunderous heartbeats, the dogs awoke—and our army was complete. Now I simply had to get into position.

  By the time I had ascended the pyramid, hunkering behind the top step and easing out the spyglass, the obelisk’s shadow had shifted—and Marcus’s balloon was fully in sight.

  Holding my breath, I raised the spyglass to my eye.

  The Black Pullet was undoubtedly worse than I had ever feared. It was no chicken, nor a cockatrice—nor any monster I had ever imagined. Such black scales seemed to absorb the light. And yet its wings were brilliant, blinding gold. It slithered over the sand on four talons, its snakelike form twice as long as the balloon’s shadow.

  And on either side of it, droves of imperial mummies marched in perfectly uniform lines. Each of their steps was a bounding leap.

  I wrenched my gaze up and honed in on the balloon. On Marcus’s face. He had a spyglass of his own, but he was focused on the obelisk. On Joseph standing beside it. And next to Marcus, her gaze also straight ahead, was Allison.

  My blood curdled. Yet . . . Allison did not look like herself. Perhaps it was merely the shadows, but her face seemed withered. Skeletal even. And her posture was hunched, her arms clasped tight.

  And the fleeting panic returned. Had she been compelled?

  No, my gut told me. She chose this. Long ago, she chose this path.

  I ducked behind the step, crouching out of sight. Daniel and Jie would be taking up their positions beside Joseph now, and there was nothing left for me to do . . . but wait.

  And as Joseph had done only minutes ago, I prayed. I prayed to anyone or anything that would listen. The Annunaki, the jackal, the spirits of the dead—I begged for them to see us through the night.

  But no warm, answering presence came to me. No reply or acknowledgment that a god listened or cared. And I suppose I hadn’t expected one.

  Time trickled past, painfully slow. I heard every scrape of wind over the pyramid, every murmur of Jie’s voice, every spin of a pulse pistol chamber . . .

  Until a steady thumping took over. Until rattling armor dominated all.

  “Eleanor,” Joseph roared. “Get ready!”

  I scuttled to the edge of the step and peeked around the corner, pressing the spyglass to my eye.

  Marcus’s balloon floated closer, his army marching in their constant rows . . . and the Black Pullet sliding along like a cobra.

  Then, five hundred paces away, the balloon stopped moving—and the mummies all froze. A rope heaved over the side of the balloon’s basket, and in a quick move, the Black Pullet snapped the rope in its fangs. Then it towed the balloon down, bit by bit, until Marcus was close enough to jump out and tie the rope to a boulder.

  My gut heaved. The Pullet was not just a creature of wealth and immortality. It was also a servant able to do its master’s bidding.

  Allison scrabbled from the basket next, but her body almost caved in when she hit the sand. Then, in aching movements, she hobbled around to face us. No shadows blanketed her face. Only pure moonlight.

  My body went limp. The spyglass almost tumbled from my grasp.

  Allison Wilcox was an old woman. Lines seamed her face, and white streaked through her hair.

  The ivory fist.

  With that thought, the image of the desiccated Marquis formed in my mind. The ivory had sucked away his life.

  And now it had sucked away another’s. Allison’s. And I did not think it had been her choice.

  I tried to look away from her, but I couldn’t. No vengeful satisfaction moved through me. Only gaping horror.

  I slid the spyglass back to Marcus. He was watching the obelisk, his eyes thinned. Suspicious. He was not a stupid man—he knew the Spirit-Hunters would not offer themselves up openly. Yet our traps were well laid, and he did not spot anything.

  So with a dismissive arch of his eyebrow, he flicked his wrist toward the pyramid . . .

  And half the mummies launched at us.

  I shoved to my feet, pushing the spyglass deep into my pocket. Marcus’s eyes lit on me, and a slight mask of surprise settled over his features. But otherwise he let his mummies continue their charge. . . .

  They reached the edge of my dogs. Their feet stamped over, and I let them come. Closer, closer . . .

  “Attack,” I said.

  In an explosion of sand, bones thrust upward. Skulls and spines, ribs and claws, the dogs erupted from the earth and careened headfirst into the guards. Fangs slashed into the mummies. Legs shredded, throats ripped wide, and the guards had no choice but to fight back.

  Yet their spears poked through open ribs or smashed on sturdy spines. For every dog they managed to topple, two more would attack.

  Marcus’s face clouded with fury. His yellow eyes met mine, and the message was clear: This will not be tolerated.

  I bared my teeth at him. Do your worst.

  He snapped his fingers, and a second surge of mummies moved. But they streamed around the dogs—looping out and avoiding my skeletons entirely.

  “Attack,” I whispered to the hounds at the edge of the battle—but they were too slow. The mummies moved with such inhuman speed and agility, they rocketed past my dogs in mere breaths.

  I gulped and glanced down at the Spirit-Hunters. It was time to see how well Daniel’s traps worked.

  As if sensing my eyes, he glanced up at me. His green eyes shone, and he nodded once.

  I nodded back. The guards scurried over the sand. Closer, closer they came. . . .

  Pop! Pop! Pop!

  As one, the guards locked into place—some with knees up, others with heels down; some with spears out, and some with spears low.

  Pop! Pop! Pop!

  The pulse pistols fired, over and over—exactly as Daniel had planned—and the mummies stayed trapped in place.

  Or I thought they did, but as I watched, I realized that they did still move, just with such slowness, it was barely visible. They would break through the line eventually.

  My gaze shot to Marcus. He fumed, his hands
in fists and his lips curled back. He had realized he would have to come to us.

  He shouted something, but the words were lost in the clashing of spears, armor, and bones. Then he stalked forward, Allison shivering as she watched him go.

  And the Black Pullet slithered after.

  My heart skipped. I had forgotten it. It was as if the pitch of its scales not only soaked up light but thoughts as well.

  Marcus reached the edge of my dogs, and with a simple slashing attack of magic, he toppled ten. Then ten more.

  I scrambled to draw in my power, but no matter how quickly I sent out new sparks of soul, I could not reanimate their skeletal forms as quickly as Marcus could fell them.

  And at this rate he would surge through my army in a matter of minutes. Marcus’s eyes climbed to mine. He smiled, and with a dramatic twirl of his hand, he pointed at me.

  In a flurry of sand and a flash of gold, the Pullet hurled forward. Like the second wave of mummies, it charged around my dogs and aimed for a sideways attack.

  I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. I could only watch as it streaked over the silver sand. Then it thrust between two mummies . . .

  And it crossed the copper line without slowing at all.

  Because, of course, it was not dead. It was a living creature with a soul bound to a body—it could not be affected by electromagnetic pulses.

  And now Marcus had sent it after us.

  My brain exploded with panic—and with a spine-locking need to survive, I hurled around and I ran.

  I stumbled down the pyramid, leaping and reaching. Each step jarred through my body and rattled my teeth—but I could not slow. I had no real plan in my brain other than a vague idea that it was already time for my second army to arise.

  I hit the sand, crashing onto my left hand. But I bounded back up in an instant.

  And then I was sprinting again. Every bit of power I had, I pushed into my legs. I could hear the Pullet. I could hear its claws scratching over the pyramid, its scales scraping over stone. . . .

  God, it was so fast. So big. So close.

  My feet cracked through skeletons—I was crushing my own army. But I could not stop. I just had to get the Pullet far enough into this graveyard. . . .

  I tripped. A stone slammed into my shin—one of the stones we’d tied the balloon to. They were almost invisible by moonlight.

  I flew forward, and the clattering of gold feathers filled every piece of my brain.

  “Attack!” I screeched just as my chest plowed through sand. “ATTACK!”

  Bones burst from the sand around me—vicious and fast.

  And a keening wail erupted from the Pullet’s mouth.

  I crawled around, yanking my sword from my belt while the skeletons of a hundred dogs swarmed the Pullet. Gleaming bones covered the beast.

  Distantly, the pulse pistols kept up their Pop! Pop!, occasionally broken apart by an explosive crack of Joseph’s electricity.

  But most sounds were swallowed up by the Pullet. It writhed and snapped, fighting the skeletons.

  When at last I had my sword free, the moonlight flickered over the stone I’d tripped on.

  It wasn’t a stone. It was a sphinx’s head.

  I wrenched my gaze north, toward the large sand dune I had noticed two days ago. In a numb frenzy, I heaved back into a sprint, my sword hoisted high.

  I bounded over sphinxes’ heads. They weren’t as well preserved or as consistent as the ones leading to the bull catacombs, but they were undoubtedly here. And if this was an avenue leading to another temple, then I would take it. I could at least try to hide within.

  And if that outcropping ahead was nothing more than a sand dune, I would take that too.

  Just before I reached the mound, I flung a glance back at the Pullet.

  And I instantly wished I hadn’t. It was moving again. Most of my dogs were snapped in half, and though they still writhed to reach the creature, they were too broken to succeed.

  Shit, my brain screamed at me, and I pumped my legs faster. . . .

  Then I was at the pile of sand, and my hands were connecting with stone. I brushed and swept and kicked and shoved, but I could not clear away sand fast enough—certainly not before the creature reached me.

  So I climbed up onto the sand-covered temple, and I whirled around to face the Black Pullet.

  It barreled toward me, a line of blurring black and blinding gold. My sword out and my heart in my throat, I slowly backed away from the temple’s edge. The serpent would have to rise onto its hind legs to climb, and I would have one shot. One shot to slash its throat.

  And then the monster was to me. Its enormous, train-sized body was rearing up, and I was darting forward. My sword slipped between black, velvety scales . . .

  But I had severely misjudged. The Pullet’s neck was wider than I was. My sword was a mere bee sting. The creature lurched back, taking my sword with it.

  I bolted. Away, over the sand and to the back edge of the temple. Then its front legs slammed onto the temple roof. Sand bounced, burning up my nose, into my eyes—and I bounced too. My legs crumpled beneath me. I had just enough time to wriggle onto my knees before the Pullet hefted its entire body onto the temple. Blood pooled around my embedded sword, and I briefly considered trying to retrieve the weapon. . . .

  But then a loud crack tremored through the sand. The Pullet paused. I paused.

  The roof collapsed.

  In a roar of crunching bricks and dust, the temple caved in beneath us. The Pullet fell with an ear-shattering screech—and I fell too.

  I hit a ground of rubble and bricks. A fall of twenty feet in less than a second. Debris knocked into me, and dust choked my vision, my lungs. But I kicked free easily—unlike the Pullet, which was too heavy and too layered beneath the broken roof. As it writhed ineffectually, I scrambled to my feet. Then, in a flash, I took in my surroundings. I was in a catacomb, but it was narrow and shallow like the dogs’ tunnels.

  And I had two options: try to climb out, which would require getting past the Black Pullet’s maw.

  Or descend into the tunnels behind me.

  The decision was easy, for at that moment the Pullet was rapidly gaining purchase and digging itself out from under the broken roof, and though my sword had been slammed even farther into its neck, the monster was no worse off than before. Its claws knocked away bricks bit by bit, and its breath heaved hotter than the wind and reeked of carrion.

  So, in a burst of speed, I threw myself into the lightless depths of a catacomb unknown.

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  Moonlight from the caved-in roof did not extend into the catacombs. I instantly cast an awareness spell, silent words trilling over my tongue and the net flying out, out—

  It hit the Pullet.

  And the spell exploded. Magical threads shriveled up and tangled through my muscles.

  I stumbled, choking. I couldn’t cast that spell—I didn’t think I could use any magic on the creature. It would simply backfire again.

  I lurched to the left wall and, using my one hand to guide me, I scurried farther into the tunnel. If this was like the bull temple, I would hit queens’ guards soon—and maybe I could hide behind one. If this was like the dogs’ catacombs . . .

  I prayed it was not.

  A shrill scream pierced the darkness behind me. It bounced off the limestone walls.

  Ice rolled down my spine. The Pullet was still coming after me.

  I hurried my steps. Soon I could see absolutely nothing, and the heavy air clogged my lungs. But I jogged on—I had no other choice. If I could just reach something, I might have a chance. . . .

  Yet nothing came. For all I knew I was walking right by potential hiding spots, but my feet and my one hand touched nothing except chalky stone.

  And behind me, talons tapped, golden feathers shook, and breath huffed. The creature was close, but how close was impossible to gauge.

  Faster, I ordered myself. Faster.

  My toes sudd
enly bumped something. My hand lurched out—and connected with stone. Fear shot up my throat, and I had to bite back a scream. Was this a wall?

  I sidled right, dragging my hand . . . dragging . . .

  Until I tumbled forward. It was not a wall—thank God—and when I crept forward, I found something even better than a queens’ guard: an alcove.

  It was narrow, barely enough space for me to squeeze into, but it was there nonetheless.

  Just as I wrestled my body into the tiny space, my back knocking against something strangely soft and familiar, a yellow light filtered into the tunnel.

  I clamped my hand over my mouth, trying to stifle my breaths. To contain my pounding heart.

  The glow brightened, sweeping side to side, and I realized with twisting horror that the Black Pullet could see in the dark. Like Oliver, it had yellow, glowing eyes.

  Its scuttling claws slowed as it neared me.

  Then it was in front of me, talons clacking and head swinging from side to side. It paused, black scales quivering and so close I could pluck a golden feather from its wing.

  For several endless moments the tunnel was sprayed in pale light, and I stared with trembling eyeballs at the wall opposite me. Vivid murals spanned from the floor to the ceiling: paintings of a farmland crowded with the usual, rigid Egyptian people. Yet between each person there was a black-and-white ibis, its beak curved and majestic.

  My breath hitched in, my eyes widening. Oliver had mentioned a god with an ibis head: Thoth. This was Thoth’s temple . . . and this had to be the bird catacomb that Oliver could not find.

  Then another thought hit, and my eyes bulged even wider—for what had Oliver told me about the ibis? They once protected Egypt from a great winged serpent. A great winged serpent like the Black Pullet.

  And at that moment the winged serpent was resuming its stalking steps and carrying its yellow light away. But not before I glimpsed a shadowy alcove across from me . . . and a small, canvas-wrapped mound inside.

  A mummy, and if I was right, there was one directly behind me too. And more throughout, if this catacomb was anything like the others.

  The Pullet’s scaly tail flicked past, and I squeezed my eyes shut.

 
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