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Strange and ever after, p.27
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       Strange and Ever After, p.27

           Susan Dennard
 
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  “And even if you could find the boat,” Elijah said, moving to Clarence’s side, “and even if you could find Daniel’s body, it would do you no good. Daniel’s body and his spirit are cleaved. You cannot hew them back together.”

  “Don’t lie to me.” I stared into his blue eyes—so familiar, so foreign. “You tried it. With a spell from Le Dragon Noir, you tried to return Father’s soul to his body—to his skeleton. I will do the same. At least Daniel’s body is still fresh and whole.” Spinning on my heel, I resumed my stride.

  “It will not matter,” Elijah called after me.

  I ignored him and pushed my legs into a march. The golden curtain was as absent as the boat, so I could only guess I had come very far into this no-man’s-land.

  But not too far. There was never too far for Daniel.

  I moved faster. And faster. Soon I was sprinting, and each step thwacked hollowly on the wood.

  “Miss Fitt.” Clarence’s voice whispered behind me. “I implore you: stop walking.”

  I twisted my head slightly. Somehow he was keeping pace with me. Silent. Ghostly.

  I only ran faster, until each breath was agony and each step thunder.

  “You do not want this.” Elijah’s voice snaked into my ears, but when I glanced back, neither he nor Clarence was there.

  I returned my gaze forward.

  And I slammed into a body. Clarence’s face leaned into mine. I bolted back around—but Elijah blocked me.

  “Let me go!” I shrieked, lurching back at Clarence. “Let me go—”

  “NO.” Elijah’s voice boomed out, shaking through the stillness of the air and scratching over my skin. “Look at what became of me!” He slammed his palm against his chest. “Look at what I have done.” He flung his arm at Clarence. “You will become this if you do not stop.”

  “And,” I growled, “I do not care. I have come for Daniel’s soul, and I will take it.”

  “But he will not be the same,” Clarence murmured. “Your Daniel is no more.”

  “What do you mean? Your soul is here, and it is the same—”

  “And our souls have not passed judgment,” Elijah interrupted. “We are still on the dock, but Daniel is out there now.” He jabbed a finger at the endless water. “When Clarence and I are eventually judged, our souls will be stripped bare. Soon . . .” He glanced at Clarence and swallowed.

  “Soon,” Clarence agreed. “Soon we will have to face the scales ourselves. We have clung to this dock to keep you safe. We have used our resolve and our desire to stay here, where we could protect you from the Hell Hounds and guide you on the dock . . . but once we enter the spirit realm, our souls will be ripped apart and judged piece by piece.”

  I stared at Clarence, not understanding. “But how could Daniel already be judged? Yet you are not?”

  “We were not ready to die,” Elijah whispered. “Daniel was.”

  “He died willingly,” Clarence said. “When a person enters death by their own choice, they cross the dock in moments. Fragments of a moment.”

  “His . . . own choice.” My breaths came in, faster and faster. Daniel had jumped in front of a spear meant for Joseph.

  Just as he had jumped from the airship.

  My life’s nothin’ compared to yours. That was what he’d said a few days ago.

  But he was wrong. His life was worth everything—how could he not have known that?

  “Eleanor.” Elijah spoke my name with an inescapable heaviness. “What you will find will only be fragments of Daniel—good, bad, ugly, or clean. . . .” He lifted one shoulder. “There is no way to know what parts of his soul now drift toward the final afterlife, and if you try to fuse those remnants back into his body, you won’t have a complete human. You will have something back . . . but it will not be your Daniel.”

  “I do not care,” I croaked, but my knees were beginning to shake. “I would rather have a piece of him than none.” I gasped . . . and gasped again. The air felt too cold. My lungs too small.

  “But would Mr. Sheridan want to be summoned back?” Clarence pressed. “Would he wish to return to a shattered life?”

  “No.” Elijah’s head shook, but the movement seemed hazy and slow. “Daniel gave his life willingly. If you bring him back, you will be dishonoring that choice.”

  My legs stopped working. It was as if they’d forgotten how to exist. How to be.

  Elijah’s and Clarence’s faces disappeared, and the dock drew close.

  I hit the wooden slats—my knees, my hand, my chest . . . my face. Each piece of me was broken.

  I had no reason to keep going. None.

  I could not even utter the words, for speaking them—even forming a coherent thought in my brain—would give it power. Would make it real.

  And this could not be real.

  Not my Daniel.

  Not him.

  I would not get to say good-bye. I would never touch his face or hold his calloused hands. I would never look into his grassy-green eyes or hear him say “Empress.” I would never howl at him in rage or kiss his lips with need.

  Because he is gone, and I cannot bring him back.

  The words flickered through my brain, and with them came the truth. It engulfed me. Submerged me. I had no idea which way was up or how to draw in my next breath—not without Daniel to dive in and show me.

  Back and forth, we had saved each other. He had rescued me, and I had rescued him . . . but not this time. I could not save him this time.

  And he could not save me.

  Because he was gone.

  It confounded me. How could someone be alive one moment and then simply dead the next? When I had left, he’d been beautiful and vibrant. When I had returned . . . lifeless and cold.

  And I knew with sick, disgusting certainty that this was my line. My limit: I could not take away what Daniel had chosen—not when I loved him. Not when his choice had been an honest, pure one.

  “You have to go back now,” Clarence said, his voice a gentle whisper.

  I stared at the wood. “No.”

  “You have to,” Elijah agreed. “It’s time to say good-bye to us . . . and it is time to end this.”

  “No.” My head shot up. “Not yet.”

  Clarence smiled sadly. “There are people waiting for you, Miss Fitt.”

  “Jie,” Elijah reminded. “Joseph, Oliver—”

  “Oliver is gone,” I snapped. “I broke our bond, and he left me.”

  “Oh, El.” Elijah knelt beside me, his hand cupping my elbow. “Oliver came back.”

  I blinked—and then blinked again. But Elijah’s face held no deception, and when I glanced at Clarence, he was motioning behind me.

  “Look,” Clarence said. “Your demon has returned, and he has brought you an army.”

  I whirled around.

  And a cry writhed in my throat. The curtain was only twenty paces away, and though a battle raged beyond the golden glow, Oliver stood at the forefront.

  He punched against the curtain, a noiseless scream erupting from his mouth. Again and again he tried to heave his way through the obelisk.

  And tucked into his belt was a set of ivory clappers—they were smaller and less ornate than the ones I had carried. But they were clappers all the same, and the army that raged behind him was one of lithe mummies with swords.

  Oliver had summoned the queens’ guards.

  “Go to him,” Elijah whispered. “Go back and save those who remain.”

  I nodded, and with the power of my own arms and my own legs, I rose. I tipped my chin high and drew my shoulders back, and I inhaled.

  But when I turned to say good-bye to Elijah and Clarence, they were gone.

  And in their places were a jackal.

  And an ibis.

  I started. Then panic set in. “No. No. If you have lied about Daniel’s soul—if this was all a trick to—”

  The jackal and ibis have not lied, they said together.

  “But . . .” A sob shivered over my lip
s. “My brother? Clarence? Were they ever really here?”

  No response came, and behind me, the sounds of battle raged.

  Retrieve the clappers, the Annunaki said. Return them here.

  Teeth clenching back tears, I glanced into the earthly realm. To Oliver’s bloodless face—to his palms beating against the obelisk. Then I flung my eyes back to the gods. “I will do this, but not for you or your goddamned balance. What I do is for me. And what I do is for Daniel—the one you took away from me. The one I can never have back.”

  Then I twisted toward the curtain.

  And I marched ahead.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  The battle thundered over me. In the space of a gasping breath, my eyes took in everything: clashing swords, hammering feet, and Jie’s wailing sobs. The queens’ guards swirled their swords faster than my eyes could follow.

  But they were severely outnumbered.

  I stumbled into Oliver. His face was flushed with relief, but I spared him no words, only a nod of soul-deep thanks before I staggered the two steps to Daniel.

  His body was already stiffening. His lips blue. The blood on his chest was brown and congealed. And his head stayed on Jie’s lap as she continued to rock back and forth, screaming for him to wake up.

  I couldn’t watch. Instead, I honed in on Jie’s face. On her weeping eyes.

  “Where’s Joseph?” I shouted.

  No response—I wasn’t even sure she heard.

  But Oliver did. “Marcus has him.” He motioned into the fighting guards. “He collapsed right before I arrived, and Marcus reached him before I could.”

  “I have to get him.” I swooped down and hefted my sword off the blood-covered sand. Daniel had died to protect Joseph; I would not let that sacrifice be for nothing. “You stay here and keep Jie safe.”

  “No.” Oliver yanked the clappers from his belt. “I will get us through.” He thrust the ivory toward the attacking queens’ guards. Then he snagged my sleeve and yanked me onward.

  The queens’ guards opened a path.

  And we stepped into the battle.

  Imperial spears stabbed at us; queens’ swords arced up. Tattered arms and shriveled skin blurred. It was an endless roar of slamming bodies and clanking weapons. Each step brought bronze armor and spear tips into my face, but always, swords would streak up and sling away the attacks.

  On and on we moved, until I finally caught sight of Marcus. Just as he had done in Philadelphia all those months ago, he had Joseph by the collar, and he dragged. Joseph’s feet left two long trails in the sand. His eyes were closed.

  I couldn’t tell if he was still alive. It didn’t matter; I was coming for him.

  But the queens’ guards weren’t fast enough for me.

  I shoved into the fray alone. I thrust and parried and screamed at the mummies to sleep. My magic blazed over my sword, blue and brilliant, and Oliver’s power scorched around me. Each mummy I met blasted back, briefly frozen. Each spear I hit snapped beneath the fury of my blade and my magic.

  Until we finally reached the edge of the battlefield. Mummies gave chase, but Oliver’s magic and the queens’ guards kept them at bay.

  I lurched into a run. Marcus was almost to his balloon two hundred paces away. He was almost to the boulder on which it was fastened.

  And Joseph’s eyes stayed closed.

  I screamed Marcus’s name. My heels kicked up sand. Moonlit dunes and crumbling ruins melted within my vision. But I wasn’t fast enough. Never as fast as I needed.

  Marcus reached the boulder and slung Joseph across it. Then he knelt to his boot.

  Silver flashed in his hand. A knife. Which meant Joseph wasn’t dead yet—and Marcus was finally doing what he’d planned all along.

  But just as light glimmered on the blade, a second shimmer caught my eye. A movement in Joseph’s hand.

  A crystal clamp.

  Marcus stood, his back to us.

  “Stop!” I shrieked.

  “Attack!” Oliver bellowed beside me.

  But slow. We were so slow.

  Marcus reared back with the knife.

  Not again, I thought. I would not let this happen. So with all the strength and soul I could summon, I threw my sword.

  Tarnished and ancient, the sword was carried in a perfect line through the air by my magic. . . .

  It sliced into Marcus’s back. All the way to the hilt.

  His knife fell. He staggered into the stone . . . but immediately shoved himself back up. When he twisted around, blood bubbled from between his teeth.

  For the tiniest space of a breath, I saw him as Elijah. My brother impaled.

  But then he smiled, and his hands rose. This was not Elijah.

  Magic rammed into me. Cloying and putrid, it charged over me—over Oliver and the queens’ guards.

  I swayed back . . . and then clutched my throat.

  I couldn’t breathe. Magic coated my throat, choked off my airway. My lungs heaved and fought, but there was nothing coming in. Nothing going out.

  Shadows crossed my vision. Just a little air, I pleaded with my body, thrusting magic against him. I fought the oil sliding through me. I pushed it back out. . . .

  But it didn’t work. Marcus continued to chant . . . and smile . . . and dig his fingers toward us. And the sword in his back began to push out of his body. The flesh mended with each passing second.

  My legs buckled, and panic seared through my brain. Was this the end? A single spell to suffocate us?

  Just as I tumbled toward the sand, I had enough time to see a dark figure rise up from behind the stone. Behind Joseph. Behind Marcus.

  She lifted her arm, and a distant crack! pierced the fog inside me.

  Blood exploded from Marcus’s forehead.

  His spell lifted.

  And I thrust back to my feet as Oliver staggered up beside me.

  Crack!

  Blood burst from Marcus’s chest, and Allison’s pistol smoked. She fired again. And again. Yet somehow, even as each bullet broke through him, Marcus stayed upright.

  He was so strong.

  But so was I.

  My hand shot up. Power lanced out. Straight at Marcus’s heart, I poured every ounce of my soul into the assault. And I stumbled closer and closer.

  Then from the boulder, lightning exploded. In agonizing slowness, Joseph gathered himself upright. Yet, though his body listed, his hand stayed steady. His electricity stayed true.

  Like a thousand spiderwebs, my magic and Joseph’s sizzled over Marcus’s body. Then Oliver’s power unleashed, and Marcus was nothing more than a beacon of blinding light.

  Yet no matter how much energy I shoved into my attack, it wasn’t enough. I could feel Marcus pushing back. Even as our souls wrapped around his, he wriggled and writhed free.

  My feet carried me, shambling through the sand, toward Joseph. I was draining too fast, and even though I sucked at the world around me, the world had nothing left to give.

  Marcus was taking his power from the sand, the wind, the stones.

  I needed the power of the crystal clamp. I needed electricity.

  I reached the stone, my left hand slung clumsily out toward the lines blazing from Joseph’s fingertips. I laced my fingers through his. . . .

  Electricity tore from me. Blistering and trembling, it sliced through my veins and gathered in my heart—then surged from my right wrist. Smoke filled the air. Flames licked up my sleeve. I could barely see, and I certainly couldn’t hear.

  But I could feel. Somehow, with the power of electricity, Joseph and I had stabbed into Marcus’s soul. I felt each of his heartbeats. I understood the scale of his power. And even his thoughts trickled around inside me.

  And that, more than anything else, terrified me.

  For Marcus was amused. Eventually our power would run out, and he simply had to wait until that moment. Then he would crush us. He had two souls to lean on. He had the Black Pullet’s soul too. And he had the very soul of the earth.


  We could not stop him, and he found it funny that we even tried.

  Horror choked through me, spiraling around the electricity. I looked at Joseph. His eyes shone blue, but there was fear within. We weren’t strong enough.

  Crack! More pistol shots, almost lost in the eternal thunder of our electricity.

  My eyes crept right. The world swam, and each fragment of a breath was torture. I met Oliver’s gaze, glowing with the pure magic of who he was.

  As I watched, the light in his eyes dimmed and dimmed. He was stopping—and I couldn’t blame him. He had already given more than he needed to. He had come back, and my soul would never forget.

  Save yourself, I thought, though he could not hear me with our bond broken. I hoped he might see the want in my eyes. Save yourself, Ollie. Please go while you still can.

  The slightest tug wound through my gut. Then the flicker of a thought nestled inside my brain. Somehow, despite our broken bond, he still managed to meet my mind with his.

  And what he thought was simple: No.

  At that moment the sword popped from Marcus’s chest and hit the sand. Then the bullet in his forehead spat out. The bullet from his heart.

  And again, the hint of Oliver’s thought flamed inside me.

  No.

  Oliver’s magic cut off. In two impossibly long strides, he came to me.

  He grabbed my wrist.

  And his vast demon soul hurtled through me. Instantly, the electricity doubled. Tripled. It grew so hot, I lost all sense of where I was or who I was. My body became a distant, fleeting thing. A vessel much too small for all this raw power gathering inside.

  Three spirits laced together as one. Joseph. Oliver. And I. Power boiled in my brain, beneath my ribs, behind my eyes. My clothes burned—my eyelashes, my hair. Everything ignited.

  And our power hit Marcus’s attack. For an endless fragment of a second, it was a balanced collision of souls.

  But then the scales tipped too far. In a heavy, clicking twist, all the electricity shifted.

  And Marcus could not stop it. His eyes widened. His mouth fell open with silent screams. His skin caught fire, melting over sinew and bones.

  Elijah’s skin. My brother’s body was crumbling before my eyes.

 
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