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Strange and ever after, p.26
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       Strange and Ever After, p.26

           Susan Dennard
 
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  Awake, awake, awake, I thought. Return to your bodies. Wake up and fight—awake!

  A pulsing light appeared behind my eyelids, and my soul slid through my veins—climbing, reaching for my heart.

  Wake up! Awake!

  The light shone brighter, and my magic continued to trickle inward. I had never felt power like this, so warm and . . . yet almost dampened.

  And still the light burned brighter until it scorched red behind my lids.

  Then a soft huff sounded, and my heart turned to stone.

  This light wasn’t magic.

  I snapped my eyes wide—just in time to see the Pullet’s fangs lurch at me. A scream cycloned over me, raising my hair and coating me in static and moisture.

  I fell back, stumbling over the ibis mummy . . . and hitting a wall. Another scream and another snap of teeth. It filled every space of my sight, of my hearing, of my heart.

  But the Pullet’s head didn’t quite fit into the alcove.

  I ducked down, my hand landing right on the bound mummy’s chest . . . and then my fingers poked through the canvas wrappings.

  The ibis moved. It wriggled—it was awake—but it was bound too tightly to break free. These wrappings had not decomposed like the dogs’. My fingers curled into claws, and I shredded the fabric. . . .

  The Pullet reared back for another attack, and my sword gleamed in its throat.

  I dived forward, and in a single move I grasped the hilt and kicked off the monster’s chest. I tumbled back into the alcove, and hot blood sprayed over me. Then, with a slash, I cut the ibis free.

  It burst from the bindings, bone wings and desiccated flesh spreading wide.

  “Attack,” I roared, but I didn’t need to. The mummy knew what to do. Its long beak snapped right for the hole left by my sword, and stabbed.

  The Pullet screamed, staggering backward.

  I lurched across the tunnel, swinging beneath golden wings before I ducked into the other alcove. This bird wrestled its bindings too; I arced my sword out . . . and sliced away more cloth.

  And just like the other ibis, it careened straight for the Black Pullet. Light swept every which way, blinking and swinging as the Pullet struggled to fight the birds. But they swooped and stabbed, effective and vicious.

  As I gaped, trying to find the perfect moment to run, more ibises wriggled from their alcoves. They wrestled free from their bindings, and in moments there were ten ibis. Then fifty. Then hundreds.

  So I moved. Raising my sword high, I bolted into the tunnel and aimed back toward the entrance. The darkness crowded in, shaking with the Pullet’s keening wails, but I didn’t slow. I trusted my feet to get me back to the broken temple.

  And soon moonlight shimmered over bricks and fallen stone. The Pullet’s cries were far behind, almost drowned out by the flapping of bone wings.

  I reached the rubble, shoved my sword behind my belt, and climbed. Using broken stones and crumbled roof, I leaped and grabbed and hauled myself ever higher. The moon was so bright and so brilliant.

  Then I was back to what remained of the temple’s roof and jumping into the dunes. A distant Pop! Pop! Pop! hit my ears as I launched into a run.

  The copper lines around the obelisk must still be working . . . but where was the thunder from Joseph’s electricity? Why was no blue light blazing in the distance?

  Terror welled in my throat, and I hurtled over the sand. The shattered skeletons of my army crunched beneath me, and as I sprinted, I severed all my necromantic leashes to these dogs.

  Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.

  The magic kept me going. A leash cut for each footfall and a burst of strength through my body.

  The noises of battle grew louder. Clashing weapons and indistinguishable shouts.

  I reached the pyramid and slowed to a gasping stop. Rounding the stones would bring me to the imperial guards, but going up would at least let me see the battle before I entered.

  So I dug my heels into the first step and tucked in my head, and I charged up the pyramid. Each step brought more sounds into focus.

  Boom! A pulse bomb detonated.

  Which meant the mummies were to the final line.

  I moved even faster. I pushed everything I had into my legs. My strength, my magic, my life—I had to get to the Spirit-Hunters. To my friends—my family.

  I crested the pyramid. The battle crashed over me.

  And the truth did too.

  We were losing. Three of the copper lines had been dug up and smashed apart. The mummies scurried over . . . and toward the final line.

  Beside the obelisk, Joseph was doubled over. The crystal clamp shone in his hand, but he wasn’t able to squeeze. Daniel and Jie flanked him, pistols and fists at the ready. . . .

  And beneath his balloon, waiting like a cat beside a mouse hole, was Marcus.

  I jumped. In a leap that carried me two levels down, I rocketed through the air and drew the world’s magic to me. My feet slammed down; my knees crunched. Onward I moved, gathering in the magic of the stones, of the night, of the sand. I called it to me just as I had two days ago, and I damned the consequences. I just inhaled . . . and ran.

  But then light exploded, sand flew, and thunder crashed over me. Mummies flew back—only to be instantly replaced.

  The final copper line was finished.

  And a single mummy darted through, spear out and aiming for Joseph’s back.

  “No!” The scream ripped up my throat. “No!” I lashed out with my magic, aiming for the mummy, trying to sway its spear. . . .

  But I was too far. Too slow.

  The spear cut through the air.

  And Daniel stepped into its path.

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  With a single twist of his body, Daniel blocked Joseph from the spear.

  And the spear impaled him.

  Right through his heart, until it thrust out the other side.

  Screams blistered inside me and tore out, rattling and unearthly. I ran and dived as fast as I could. I threw my magic at the mummy—at the spear. At any goddamned thing that would stop this moment.

  But nothing stopped it.

  The guard wrenched back his spear, and it yanked free from Daniel’s chest. Daniel spun around, limp but reaching.

  His eyes locked on to mine. His lips parted.

  He hit the obelisk.

  His body slid down.

  And he stopped moving.

  Jie reached him, tumbling to her knees. Her screams melted with mine as Joseph’s electricity exploded into the lines of mummies.

  I hit the sand and hurled myself forward. All I saw was Daniel. All I thought and felt and shrieked was Daniel. My Daniel.

  I dived at him, Jie’s sobs meaningless to my brain. My hand grabbed his face. Blood was everywhere. I tried to gather it up, as if I could push it back into his chest.

  But he wasn’t breathing. His eyes were still. His lips frozen.

  He wasn’t dead, though. He couldn’t be dead. I shook him. I screamed at him.

  And all the while, electricity sizzled and held the mummies away.

  “Daniel, Daniel, Daniel.” Jie’s cries sounded over and over. She rocked back and forth, and I wanted to screech at her to stop!

  Because he wasn’t dead. I wouldn’t let him be dead. There had to be some way to change this. Some way to go back. Some way to bring his soul here, where it belonged.

  I clutched the side of my face. It was warm with his blood; the sharp stench seeped into my skull.

  And my eyes landed on the obelisk. Like me, it was streaked with Daniel’s blood . . . and as I stared at it, it shifted and swayed.

  It shimmered golden. Like a sunray trapped in moonlight and covered in blood.

  By blood and moonlit sun.

  Suddenly the phrase made absolute sense. I could cross the curtain. These obelisks—which had reminded me of sunbeams each time I looked upon them—were gateways to the spirit dock. But they had needed blood and moonlight to open. . . .

  Now th
is obelisk had both. Sprayed with Daniel’s blood, I could cross into that realm.

  I shoved to my feet, roaring at Jie to hold Daniel. Keep him safe. Then I staggered to the obelisk and slammed my bloodied palm against it.

  I fell through the curtain.

  Instantly, Joseph’s electricity and Jie’s sobs vanished. Everything was silent. Too silent after all the violence bursting in my chest.

  The dock spanned ahead of me, empty.

  Where was Daniel? He should be here. He had just died, and he should be here.

  “Daniel,” I screamed into the stillness. “Daniel!”

  Nothing.

  So I kicked into a run. The wood thumped beneath my boots, and the slats smeared beneath me. I swung my arms and drove my knees high. I ran and I ran and I ran.

  Until a silhouette appeared before me. An ambling stride. A lanky build.

  He paused, his head cocking as if he heard me. . . . His lips twitched up.

  But then he blinked and resumed his unhurried stride.

  “Daniel!” I shoved my body harder, but for every slam of my heels, he stayed the same distance ahead.

  But I didn’t stop.

  Not until my body betrayed me. My legs tangled together. I plummeted forward, my single hand lurching out to catch me.

  My face hit the dock. Wood stabbed my cheek. My teeth chomped through my tongue, and blood splattered onto the deck.

  I dragged my head up.

  Daniel walked on, his pace constant, his silhouette never vanishing.

  His name shredded over my vocal cords. “Daniel, Daniel, Daniel.” I screamed it, and my tongue gushed blood.

  But still he walked on.

  Then came the sound I knew would arrive eventually. A muffled baying, far out over the black waters.

  Gritting my teeth, I staggered upright. The Hell Hounds could not have my soul, and they could not have his.

  Daniel was mine. He was my Daniel, and I would not let this death claim him.

  I shambled back into a run, shouting for him. Begging him to wait.

  Even when ice gusted into me, I stumbled onward.

  Even when howls splintered my skull, my course stayed true.

  But the Hounds would reach me at any moment. Their frozen storm kicked at me from behind. Harder, colder, and louder with each second. They would claim my soul and blast it into a million pieces.

  But they couldn’t shatter an already-broken soul.

  And then I saw the opening—the jagged hole that cut into the dock. I could keep going. I could escape the Hounds. . . .

  I lunged low, hitting my knees and sliding over the wood. My pants shredded, my legs sliced open, and I choked on the blood that surged from my tongue.

  I reached the hole; I toppled through.

  The Hell Hounds’ fury screeched overhead, exploding through my eardrums. Ice clawed into my hair and yanked chunks from my scalp.

  But my eyes were blanketed in darkness. My hearing cloaked in thunder.

  I hit the boat.

  You found the way.

  I snapped my head up, and in the gloom a figure formed.

  It was the jackal—yet he had the body of a man. He sat on a bench at the opposite end of the boat. In his hand was a pole that sank down into the gentle waves. His tanned chest was exposed, and he wore nothing but a small flap of fabric around his legs.

  “You,” I snarled, pushing to my knees and gulping for air. “Take me to him.”

  He is gone.

  “I saw him!” Blood hit the boat’s floor. “Take me to him.”

  You cannot reclaim his soul.

  “Of course I can.” I scrubbed my left hand on my pants, ripping flesh off my palm with each vicious wipe. “I know what you are, Annunaki, and I know that you hold the power of life and death.” I thrust my face at him. “I want life.”

  The jackal cannot do this for you.

  “Yes you can!” I screamed. “Why would you show me this boat if not for this moment? You knew it would come to this.”

  The jackal did not know. He only showed you the boat so you could bring him the Pharaoh’s clappers.

  A harsh laugh broke through my lips. The boat shook. “I don’t have the clappers, and even if I did, why the hell would I bring them to you?”

  They are not meant to be in mortal hands.

  “Then,” I growled, “you shouldn’t have given them to us. Was it you? Were you the one who fell in love with a human?”

  The jackal would never do this. Mortal souls are weak, and that is why the balance has been disrupted.

  “Balance?” I repeated. “I don’t give a damn about balance or clappers or you. If you will not take me to Daniel, then I will find him myself.”

  No.

  A new voice flamed through my mind, and the boat tilted back. I lurched around—and froze. A second Annunaki had joined us. It was the god Oliver had mentioned. The god with the head of an ibis but the body of a man.

  “Thoth,” I whispered, shock briefly overcoming my fury.

  Yes. The ibis head bobbed.

  And rage instantly curled back through me. “You are the god of balance, no? So you take care of this.”

  Only the jackal may enter the earthly realm. His eyes rolled, just like a bird’s but with fire flickering inside. And even the jackal may not interact directly. He is nothing more than a messenger.

  I shook my head. I didn’t care, and I was wasting time. But when I tried to rise, both Anubis and Thoth blasted their thoughts at me—so bright and loud, my body locked into place.

  The jackal and the ibis do not care about you, yet Hathor’s clappers were never meant to be in the earthly realm—

  “So punish Hathor. Not me.”

  Hathor has been punished. Two layers of Annunaki thoughts, like fire searing through my brain. She was punished more harshly than you can even fathom, mortal. Yet now the imperial clappers have chosen you, and the queen’s clappers have chosen your demon. The magic within them has spent millennia drifting and seeking the ones who could bring them home.

  “Ridiculous,” I gritted out. My arms would not move. My legs were trapped in time.

  It is fact. The clappers made their choice, and now you will do as required. You will return the clappers here. Then you will restore balance. The one called Marcus has broken it. You will fix it. And your demon will fix it too.

  “No. No. You took the purest of all souls—the only person in this world who truly wanted to be good. You think that is balanced? If so, I do not want your balanced world. You may bind my body in place, but you will have to hold me for an eternity before I will ever be your pawn or do your bidding. I do not care how much you punished Hathor. It can never be enough. The clappers and the Black Pullet should never have existed—and Hathor should never have fallen for a mortal she could not have.”

  My eyes bored into Thoth. I fought against the power that trapped me.

  “I came here to find the man I love, and that is all I will do. I have made my choice, and it is for me. The balance of the world may crumble for all I care. I will have my Daniel back, and you. Cannot. Stop me.”

  With those final words, I pushed against Thoth with my mind. Against Anubis. Against anything that was not my choice.

  I was not a pawn.

  I was a queen. I was an empress.

  My hand shot up. Movement rippled through me, through the boat. My eyelids lowered, and when they popped back up, the ibis was gone.

  So was the jackal.

  On wobbly legs, I jumped up and grabbed the dock. But I was so weak. I had to swing my legs—back, forward, back—but even that did not give me the momentum I needed.

  A hand appeared before me.

  My gaze leaped up . . . and met sea-blue eyes. Elijah. It was my brother, and though his body looked like Marcus, his soul did not. Nothing about my brother’s spirit felt like the monster outside.

  Elijah gripped my wrists and hauled me out. My belly scraped over the dry wood, but soon I was upright.
/>
  And my arms flew around his neck. My brother.

  “I’ve been waiting for you, El.”

  “Help me,” I mumbled into his chest. But then I trembled back a step, trying to see beyond him.

  Daniel’s silhouette was gone.

  I clutched at my heart. No matter how many breaths I gulped in, my lungs would not stop shaking. “W-where did he go? Where did he go?”

  “He left the dock.” Elijah stroked my hair. “He passed into the spirit realm.”

  “No.” I shook my head, a desperate swinging that made the dock spin. Made tears scorch down my cheeks. “He was right there.” I pointed ahead.

  “I’m sorry, El.” Elijah’s eyebrows lifted, a pitying look that I wanted to scratch away. It was not time for pity. Not yet.

  “He has passed on,” Elijah added. “Daniel crossed from the no-man’s-land, and now he’s out there.” He gestured to the black waters around us.

  My breath hiccuped. Left, right—I searched every wave and ripple for some sign of him. . . .

  “So I must use the boat then.” I pivoted back to the hole.

  But I instantly stopped. My nose hit an evening suit, and I rolled back my head to stare into Clarence Wilcox’s face.

  “You,” I breathed. He looked so much like Allison.

  I grabbed his jacket. “Why didn’t you tell me about her?” I screamed. “You should have warned me!”

  “You do not understand,” he shouted back.

  “I do! She made this happen. I wouldn’t be here if not for her. Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “Enough.” Elijah yanked me back. “Clarence has been so focused on protecting you, so intent on helping me keep watch of this spirit dock, that he lost sight of his sister.” He wrenched me around, and his fingers dug into my elbow. “I promise you he feels enough agony.”

  “He may feel shame,” I snarled, “but that does not mean I forgive him. Or forgive Allison. Let go.” I snapped my arm free. “I will take the boat, and I will find Daniel.”

  I kicked into a stalk, shoving past Clarence.

  But the boat was gone. The hole was gone.

  I rounded back on Clarence, whose brows were drawn tight with sympathy.

  “Where is the boat?” I demanded.

  He lifted one shoulder. “That is the way of the no-man’s-land. You may find it again. Or you may not.”

 
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