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Strange and ever after, p.5
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       Strange and Ever After, p.5

           Susan Dennard

  “My gloves,” she screeched as I helped her stand. “They’re ruined!”

  Another gust of wind slammed into us. She almost toppled over again—as did I.

  I glanced at the sky. No clouds marred the perfect blue. Nonetheless, there was an electric charge in the air now. That feeling of a storm about to hit.

  My grip tightened on the parasol’s handle. “I don’t like this weather.”

  “Who cares about the weather?” Allison snapped. “These gloves cost me a fortune.”

  “I’ve got it!” Daniel shouted. “The fastest route to the Notre-Dame is definitely up the hill.” I peered over my shoulder at him. He shook the map in the air. “We head due east.”

  “Obviously,” Oliver groaned, pointing at the basilica. “We can all see where it is.”

  “Hush.” I glowered at Oliver. “Don’t pick on—”

  Suddenly, a scream ripped from Allison.

  I wrenched toward her—and found her arms outstretched. She shrieked again, and her fingers clawed for me. I seized her hands . . . but she was being dragged away from me.

  I held tight, and with all my might I pulled and pulled . . . until at last, in a sudden burst of released speed, Allison fell forward and tumbled against me.

  That was when I saw what had grabbed her.

  Two putrid hands rose from the water and scratched at the cobblestones. Scratched at us. And as I watched, my stomach climbing into my chest, hundreds of other fingers splashed through the harbor’s surface—and far in the distance, a single scream tore through the city.

  “Les Morts! Les Morts!”

  The Dead had risen in Marseille.


  The corpse that had grabbed Allison clawed at the street. I towed Allison behind me as her screams pierced the wind.

  Its arms grappled closer. Then its rotten face appeared above the water. Broken teeth chomped, and fingers grated on the cobblestones.

  Without thinking, I stabbed Allison’s parasol into the corpse’s empty eye socket. The metal tip squished in, clunking against bone.

  I shoved, and the body toppled back into the water, its hands catching empty air as I skittered out of reach. But my heels hit something. I jerked around—it was Oliver, yanking me to safety.

  “Stupid,” he snarled, his eyes locked on the water. “There are hundreds of them!” He grabbed at Allison’s arm next, and then pitched us both toward Joseph and Daniel.

  “What do we do?” Allison wailed. “The Dead are everywhere!” She clutched her face and scrabbled closer to Joseph. “What do we do?”

  “This changes our plans,” Joseph said, shouting to be heard over the splashing and crunching bones of the Dead—and the distant echoes of a shrieking city. “Our duty now lies in retrieving Jie and protecting Marseille. Marcus is second priority to that.”

  “No.” The word rushed from my mouth. We had come here to kill Marcus. “If we have to stop all these Dead, then he wins!”

  Joseph shook his head grimly. “And if we do not stop the Dead, then we leave an entire city at risk. Daniel.” He glanced at the inventor and pointed to the harbor. “Deal with those, please.”

  “Gladly.” With a grim slant to his lips, Daniel unholstered two pistols and marched away from us. Corpses grabbed at the pier, but their bone fingers had not yet gained purchase. So with a steady arm, Daniel took aim at the nearest set of yellow skulls and matted hair. . . .

  Pop! One pistol fired, and the heads sank beneath the waves.

  I wheeled back on Joseph. “Marcus wants us to give up on him—you know he does. This is just a distraction.”

  “She’s right,” Oliver inserted. “He has ambushed us instead of the other way around.”

  “Be that as it may,” Joseph said, “but this is my duty. My job. I find Jie and protect the city first. That is what the Spirit-Hunters do.”

  “What about me?” Allison cried. “What do I do?”

  I pointed up. “You get back on the airship.” At that exact moment, the balloon shifted in the wind, and its shadow moved over us, blocking out the sun. “Climb the ladder, Allison, and then pull it inside once you’re on board.”


  “You will be safe there,” Joseph added. “No one can get to you that high.”

  Her lips clapped shut, and I could see her trying to find a reason to protest—but before she could summon any words, Oliver’s hand shot up.

  “Look.” He pointed to the end of the Old Port, to where a large avenue hit the open quai.

  And to where two figures strolled into the sunlight . . . followed by row upon row of shambling corpses.

  My stomach curdled. I knew who it was—even from this distance. That broad-shouldered shape could only be the necromancer wearing my brother’s skin.

  I launched myself toward Daniel. “Spyglass,” I shouted.

  He whipped around, a pulse bullet clenched between his teeth as he reloaded his pistols. Without waiting for a response, I thrust my hand into his pocket and snatched the spyglass from within. I ignored his shocked stare and stalked down the pier, pushing the glass to my eye.

  First I found Marcus. God, he looked so much like Elijah still . . . and yet so different. So large. And while the auburn hair that waved in the wind was like my brother’s, the way Marcus tugged at the black sleeves on his perfectly tailored suit was nothing like my unfashionable older brother had once been.

  Then, several paces back, I found Jie.

  Bile rose into my throat. She looked nothing like herself. She wore a dress—her waist pulled in unnaturally tight. Painfully tight, while the dress was a monstrosity of a gown. Gold, enormous, and with a wide, trailing skirt. And her hair—her hair. It had been piled on top of her head, a column of black with enormous orchids pinned in at all angles.

  She looked like a puppet. A doll dressed up to walk alongside a monster.

  I jerked down the spyglass. “I will kill him—”

  Arms lashed around my waist, holding me back. “What are you doing?” Daniel bellowed. “We need a plan!”

  I pushed him off, rage boiling in my lungs and up my throat. Marcus would die—and he would die now.

  But then Oliver jumped in front of me and grabbed my shoulders. His yellow eyes blazed in the sunlight. “This is what Marcus wants, El. To be seen. To make you furious and careless. We can’t give in—we must stick to our original plan and go to the Notre-Dame.”

  “Go without me—”

  “You will both go,” Joseph said, appearing beside me.

  “I. Want. Marcus.” I shoved the glass at Joseph. “You and Daniel can go to the Notre-Dame—”

  “Are you insane?” Daniel demanded as Joseph lifted the spyglass to his eye. “Joseph and I don’t know what to look for there!”

  “Marcus”—I snarled the name—“has made a plaything of Jie. I will not allow him to get away with that.”

  Joseph’s breath caught, and he swore as he wrenched down the spyglass. “He will pay for this. He will die for this.”

  Yes. I grinned, drawing in a breath to start running again—but then Joseph turned to me. “Daniel and I will make sure Marcus pays; yet if he gets through us, then you and your demon must be waiting at the Notre-Dame, Eleanor. Whatever it is Marcus seeks, you must destroy it.”

  “What about the compulsion spell?” I demanded. “You cannot break it without killing Marcus—”

  “I said,” Joseph roared, his eyes bulging, “that Daniel and I will make Marcus pay. There is no time to lose, Eleanor. You go to the Notre-Dame, and you go now.”

  Oliver’s fingers clamped on my bicep. “Joseph is right. If these corpses are meant to distract us, then we cannot lose sight of our original course: the crypt.”

  I swallowed, groping for any excuse I could conjure to face Marcus.

  But I found none, because Joseph and Oliver were right.

  “Fine. I will go to the Notre-Dame.” I jerked from Oliver’s grasp, and then I lurched around to stomp toward Allis
on. She stood, arms over her chest and skirts flipping. Her gaze never left the thrashing waters of the harbor.

  “Get on the airship,” I shouted at her, “and do not lower the ladder unless you see one of us return. Do you understand?”

  She trembled, and for half a breath I feared she might argue. But then she gave a strangled cry and bolted for the dangling ladder.

  I waited until she had ascended all the way into the airship, pulled up the ladder, and slammed the hatch shut. Then I angled my head up and east, toward the Notre-Dame. No matter what lay ahead, I would not leave this city without destroying what Marcus sought.

  And not without rescuing Jie.

  “Empress!” Daniel’s voice whipped out, and I glanced over my shoulder as he jogged to me. “Take these.” He fumbled with something in his pocket . . . and then withdrew his goggles—the lenses that allowed us to see when spirits and the Dead were near.

  But I didn’t need them anymore; I had my magic, and it was far more effective. So I shook my head. “Keep them, Daniel.”

  His lips pressed thin—a grave mask, not an angry one—and he lowered his hand. “Stay safe.”

  “You too.” Then, with nothing more than a beckoning finger in Oliver’s direction and a final, hard nod at Joseph, I set off up the hill.

  It took longer than I had expected to ascend to the Notre-Dame—the hill was steep and the wind was rough. We passed beige, gray, and cream-colored buildings, but they all had their shutters closed tight and doors locked.

  Which terrified me. How did the city know to flee indoors? It was as if they had expected the Dead to come.

  As we pounded up a curvy road called Montée des Oblats, Oliver and I both had to lean into the wind to keep from tipping backward and tumbling down the hill. Just as we reached the first cliff of limestone jutting up from the hillside, the road twisted left . . . and a newspaper came flapping toward us.

  It slapped into Oliver’s face—but not before I caught sight of the headline: “Les Spirit-Hunters amènent les Morts où ils vont.”

  My feet slowed to a stop, and I yanked the newspaper off Oliver. Below the headline was a hazy photograph of Daniel’s airship on the day he had landed in Paris. “What does this say?” I shouted, thrusting the article at Oliver.

  He took the shaking pages and quickly scanned them. Then his face paled with fury, and he flung the paper into the wind. “It says the Spirit-Hunters bring the Dead. It says they were feared in Paris and that the city should hide at first sight of the balloon. It claims Joseph and his team raised les Morts.”

  My stomach flipped. How could such a story have reached Marseille? We had only left Paris a few hours ago. Oliver must have thought the same thing, for he said, “Telegraph travels faster than train—or airship. Marcus must have sent the story ahead.”

  “But . . . why?” I clutched at my stomach . . . and then my fingers moved instinctively to my pocket. To the ivory fist.

  But the fist’s trill of magic held no comfort for me right then. Not when my brain couldn’t slow. Questions scattered and twisted every which way. Because truly, why would Marcus want to get the citizens of Marseille locked inside? Unless it was to make things easier. To make this a final battle between him . . . and us.

  Yet even if this was the reason, how far in advance must Marcus have planned to coordinate such a feat?

  I spun around to face the Old Port—as if I might be able to catch a glimpse of the necromancer and his corpse army. But at this angle all I could see were buildings and shadowy streets.

  “Come on,” I said, turning back to Oliver. He nodded once, jaw set, and we launched back up the hill.

  But we moved faster this time, our heads down and bodies angled. I felt Oliver’s fear as clearly as my own, pulsing over our bond—a sudden certainty that we were, yet again, walking into a trap. That we were helpless flies clambering up the web and directly into the spider’s maw.

  The road led us around the exposed, craggy limestone before finally spitting us out before an old fortress wall. The heavy stone base rose up, bisected by two stairwells leading to the church itself. We darted for the nearest set. Higher, higher we went—Oliver skipping two steps at a time and me gasping to keep up—until we finally reached the summit of our climb.

  And we almost toppled over, for now we were fully exposed to the erratic wind. It careened into me, and if not for Oliver twirling around at the last moment, I would have plummeted right back down the stairs.

  But he caught me, and his fingers slid around my wrist to grab tight and hard. . . . Then we heaved ourselves against the wind and toward the nearest door.

  When at last we stumbled into an opening below the bell tower, I almost crumpled to my knees from the sudden lack of wind. The gusts continued overhead and resounded deep within my eardrums.

  Oliver pointed warily ahead, to a dark doorway beneath an arch of gray stone. Gold letters above said CRYPTE.

  “Well,” I said between pants, “at least that was . . . easy . . . to find.”

  He snorted, a harsh sound, and looked back toward the city. I followed his gaze. Marseille sloped below us. But all I could see at this angle were red rooftops and distant mountains.

  Oliver’s fingers laced through mine, and he tugged me beneath the crypt’s arched entrance into a shadowy entry room. Two white statues flanked another doorway, but it was too dark to see farther than the glow of the statues. I moved to a sconce beside the entrance and carefully eased off a candle. Then, in a low voice, I asked, “Should I cast an awareness spell?”

  Like Daniel’s goggles, the spell would alert me to the presence of the Dead—or the living too. But since spirits and bodies were more likely to be found in a crypt, the Dead were what I sought awareness of.

  “Cast the spell,” Oliver said, his gaze whipping forward and then behind. He actually seemed tenser than I was. I squeezed his hand once, reassuring, but other than a flash of gold in his eyes, he did not relax.

  So I let him keep guard while I focused on drawing in my magic. It trickled in from my fingers and toes, warming my veins as it slithered into my heart. Then I whispered, “Sentio omnia quae me circumentur.” The words of the spell slid off my tongue like a snake. I feel all around me. I feel all around me.

  And my magic expelled, like a throbbing, living fisherman’s net, before finally settling many feet away.

  “We’re alone,” I murmured. “Let’s light this candle and proceed.”

  Oliver nodded, and after searching the other sconces, he found a matchbox. Once the orange flame of the candle flickered before my face, strangely warm against the cool air rolling in from the darkness ahead, we set off.

  Then we were through the second archway. “At least it’s not big,” Oliver declared.

  I squinted, straining to see what his demon eyes could, but all I found were flagstones like those in the foyer and a low, vaulted ceiling. The candlelight flickered and made shapes in the shadows around us.

  Ice ran down my neck—and it was not from the crypt’s cool air, but from fear. After chasing through the quarries beneath Paris, I had had quite enough with dark, damp places.

  Yet fear had never stopped me before.

  “If it’s not big,” I said, “then it will not take long to explore. Do you see anywhere worth starting?”

  “More important,” he countered, handing the candle to me, “do you have any specific ideas for what we seek?”

  “All Elijah’s letter said was that you told him a joke in this crypt. About Jack and the beanstalk.”

  “Which I didn’t do,” he muttered. “So we have assumed that a single throwaway comment is a clue. Wonderful.”

  “But you said yourself that the Black Pullet is a chicken-type monster—”

  “A cockatrice more like,” he inserted.

  “—and just as the chicken in Jack and the beanstalk offered its master endless wealth, so does the Pullet. Elijah’s letter must have pointed us here for a reason, Oliver.”

“We shall see soon, I suppose.” Oliver eased into a careful walk into the darkness. “You go right, El. I’ll go left—I can see well enough in the shadows.”

  I gulped, watching his figure fade away. He might have declared it a small space, but it was also pitch-black and with only one doorway in or out.

  If Marcus wanted to trap us, this was an excellent place in which to do it.

  My pulse kicked up at that thought, and I flung my senses along my awareness web. . . . No one. Nothing. The crypt was as empty as it had been two minutes ago.

  “Coward,” I muttered to myself, rolling my shoulders and bouncing on my toes. “There’s no one here.” My words ricocheted off the low ceiling, sounding all too much like whispers and moans. But I forced my brain to task and set off to the right. I didn’t have far to go, though, before I reached a wall of plaques. Or I thought they were plaques; yet as I approached, I realized the marble slabs were held in place by fat screws—and that each was labeled with a name.

  These were the tombs of the crypt.

  My breath fogged, spiraling out in time to my slow steps. There were corpses everywhere, but they were fully dead. There was no spark of magic flickering on my awareness spell.

  Still, being near potential Dead was never ideal.

  I hugged the wall, waving the candle up and down—until a figure appeared in the corner of my vision.

  I shrieked, jerking back. But it was only a statue.

  “El?” Oliver’s footsteps rang out. “El, are you all right?”

  “Fine,” I squeaked. The statue was nothing more than a praying saint—and I was nothing more than a coward.

  Oliver scrambled to my side, his eyes wide and glowing gold. “What happened?”

  “Nothing. I am an enormous fool. . . .” My words died on my tongue, for just beyond the saint’s halo was a tomb with a giant chunk of rock missing from its corner. I darted around the statue and held the candle aloft.

  Oliver joined me, his brow furrowed. “It looks like someone has opened it.”

  I nodded, suddenly unable to speak. All my earlier panic had vanished, replaced with a surge of excitement.

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