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Strange and ever after, p.6
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       Strange and Ever After, p.6

           Susan Dennard
 

  For the tomb read JACQUES GIRARD.

  “I know this name,” I murmured, thinking back to Paris. “Take this.” I shoved the candle into Oliver’s hand and then brought my nose to the broken marble. “Do you remember when you found Daniel and me near the library in Paris?”

  “Yes,” Oliver muttered, an edge to the word. It was the same day I’d accused him of wanting me to be alone.

  “Daniel and I had been researching the Black Pullet,” I continued, “trying to retrace Elijah’s steps. What we discovered was that the man who found Le Dragon Noir in Egypt was a necromancer in Napoleon’s army. His name”—I tapped the plaque—“was Jacques Girard. Or Jack.”

  “Jack and the beanstalk.” Oliver’s breath hissed out, shaking the candle’s flame. “And Le Dragon Noir was the grimoire Elijah sought.”

  “Exactly. And it’s the grimoire Marcus wanted because it supposedly told one how to raise the Black Pullet. Endless wealth and immortality—what isn’t to like about the creature?”

  “The fact that it’s supposedly a serpent-like bird, for one. Endless wealth and immortality do not seem worth raising a monster.”

  “That is easy for you to say,” I retorted. “You already have an immortal soul.”

  Oliver gave a halfhearted snort as I beckoned for him to hold the flame closer to the broken edge of the tomb. The chipped edges were raw, but when I ran my thumb along them, old dust came away.

  Oliver leaned in close to the hole as well, yet his gaze was on my face when he said, “If this Jacques Girard truly discovered Le Dragon Noir, then he must have read the grimoire—and he must have known how to find the Old Man.”

  I drew back slightly, meeting Oliver’s eyes. The Old Man was the only person in the world who knew how to raise the Black Pullet.

  “That was Elijah’s final command for me,” Oliver went on. “To find the Old Man in the Pyramids. I cannot rest until I fulfill that order from your brother, so if Girard’s corpse is really in there”—he jabbed a finger at the plaque—“I must speak to his ghost.”

  “But how?” I asked.

  “We have his body.”

  For a moment I simply stared at Oliver. Then understanding crashed over me. I gasped. “You told me that once, didn’t you? The only way to contact a spirit is with the corpse. And, oh God”—I clutched at Oliver’s sleeve—“Elijah was here. That’s why the tomb is broken! He tried to speak to Jacques Girard. He hinted at it in one of his letters to me. Monsieur Girard was not home today.”

  I closed my eyes and tried to summon the exact words of the letter. “I fear I wrote the wrong address. If I cannot find him, then I will have no choice but to find the pages.” My eyes snapped wide-open. “He was here, but he couldn’t speak to Girard’s ghost—the spirit ‘wasn’t home.’ I bet he thought he had the wrong body, the—the wrong address.”

  “Blessed eternity,” Oliver swore. “You might be right.” He waved the candle back toward the crumbling corner of the tomb. “And Marcus must have figured it all out. That’s why he’s coming here.”

  My mouth went dry. “He wants to raise Girard and learn how to find the Old Man . . . which means we have to destroy the body.”

  Oliver recoiled. “Why?”

  “If the body is gone, then Marcus cannot speak to Jacques’s spirit. No one can.” I reached up and dug my fingers into the gouged-out hole. “Help me remove the casket.”

  “Wait.” Oliver’s hand fell on my forearm. “I want to speak to the spirit. Before we destroy the body.”

  “Yes,” I said without glancing away. “I know you do.”

  His fingers slid up my arm and then wrapped around my bicep. He twisted my body toward him. “Look at me.”

  I complied, leveling him with a stare.

  “We use my magic to raise him,” he said.

  “No.” The word lashed out.

  Oliver’s grip tightened. “Yes.”

  I drew in a deep breath, my eyes never leaving his. “I want to use mine because—”

  “I know bloody well what you want and why. Magic feels so good, doesn’t it?” His nose wrinkled up. “Magic helps you keep all that pain and guilt away. Yet you’re incapable of controlling your power, El. You’re too impulsive.” Before I could argue, he brought his face near mine. “Elijah could not raise this body, which means it must have required a huge amount of magic and skill. Yes, you have the power, but you do not have the discipline.”

  “Why would you think—”

  “Yesterday,” he spoke over me, “you betrayed me. Twice. You were careless with Elijah’s letters, and you forced me to touch electricity. You killed a piece of my immortal soul, and then”—he dipped closer—“only hours ago, you crossed into the spirit realm with no concern for your life or mine. I must learn how to find the Old Man in the Pyramids, Eleanor, and I will not let your recklessness and bloodlust stand in the way of fulfilling my final command from Elijah. This is my only remaining way to learn where the Old Man is, so I will raise Jacques Girard, and you will stand by and observe.”

  “What if,” I snarled, “I refuse to command you? You cannot use your magic otherwise.”

  Oliver’s eyes blazed even brighter than the candle. “If you refuse me in this, Eleanor, then you have truly become Elijah—and even you can no longer deny it.”

  For several heartbeats I held his stare. I wanted to be the one to summon Jacques because I wanted to use my magic. And . . . a throbbing, tender part of me wanted to do it to spite Oliver. To prove to him that I could control my magic—that I was powerful.

  And that I was not Elijah.

  But at last I simply lifted one shoulder and schooled my face into apathy. “Fine, Oliver. You raise Jacques.” I flipped my hand in the air. “Sum veritas.”

  Oliver’s eyes flashed blue, and the magic from my command spun through my chest. Then my demon bared his teeth in a triumphant grin and shoved the candle back into my hand.

  Bracing one leg on the wall for leverage, Oliver dug his fingers into the broken tomb cover.

  Minutes passed, and the only sounds were Oliver’s breaths and bits of rubble breaking. I watched, silent and fuming. My fingers held the ivory fist, but as before, its usual magical hum did not comfort me.

  Just when my lips parted to bark “Faster!” at Oliver, something deep within the wall snapped. Rock grated on rock, and with each fresh heave, the casket—or rather the stone slab on which it lay—began to move. In minutes Oliver had the wooden casket exposed.

  The top half of its lid was missing. Oliver peeked inside . . . and instantly flinched back. “Nothing left but a skeleton.” He rubbed his forehead on his sleeve. “But it will be enough.” He did not look at me or wait for any sort of go-ahead or nod. He simply eased one hand into the open casket, his face scrunched up, and began to chant.

  His eyes slowly shifted to blue—a gradual glow of his magic instead of the usual, explosive flare—and as his mouth moved, his skin took on a soft, ethereal sheen as well.

  But then thunder boomed.

  His words broke off. I jolted toward the crypt’s entrance. It had been a distant sound, but there was no mistaking it—I knew that explosive sound too well.

  “Dynamite,” I whispered. Then I turned back to Oliver. “It’s a pulse bomb. Keep going.”

  Oliver’s nostrils flared, but he did as he was told.

  As his words picked up once more, a rhythmic song that filled the crypt, I lifted my candle and crept back toward the entrance. My senses slid along the length of my awareness spell, but I felt nothing. We were still alone . . . yet for how long?

  The hairs on my neck pricked up, and each of my footsteps seemed oddly muffled. There was electricity in this crypt. It’s just Oliver’s magic, I told myself. But I wasn’t convinced. This had a different feel—a layered, coated feel that was nothing like the pure, bright surge of Oliver’s magic.

  The rattle of bones suddenly filled the crypt. I stopped midstride just as Oliver roared out, “He’s awake!”


  In a frantic scramble, I hurtled back to his side—and told myself the fuzzy wrongness was all in my head. Just the humidity and coldness of a crypt.

  The casket formed before me . . . and Jacques’s skeleton too. He sat upright—a brittle, fleshless creature held together by ancient, fraying sinews. Even the hair on his head had long since rotted away.

  Jacques Girard, Napoleon’s necromancer, was nothing more than a dusty, old museum skeleton.

  Until his jaw creaked open, and a voice began to rumble out. “Pharaon, pharaon, pharaon.”

  “Pharaoh?” I looked at Oliver. “Is that what he says?”

  “The French word for it, yes.” Oliver’s brow creased—and still the skeleton said, “Pharaon, pharaon, pharaon.”

  Oliver’s frown deepened. “Arrêtez,” he growled. Jacques’s teeth clacked shut.

  And another explosion shook through the crypt. Oliver locked eyes with me. “That was closer.”

  I bobbed my head. “Hurry, Oliver. Ask your questions fast.”

  He launched into a quick stream of French. I caught the words le vieil homme and pyramides before another sound—a new sound—tickled my ears. It had come from the other side of the crypt.

  I tensed and swiveled my head toward the noise . . . but all I could hear were Oliver and the mechanical, gravelly responses of Girard. I lifted the candle, and with wary steps, I began to cross to the other side.

  The clattering, rhythmic sound came again, and a chill shivered through me.

  I scooted closer. The pattering was louder now—and with an added scratch. All I could think of were rats clawing at marble.

  It was then, as I stood in the middle of the crypt, my candle aloft and flickering over the flagstones, that I realized the electricity that coated things only moments before was now gone.

  My blood ran cold, and I sent my magic scrambling down the lines of my awareness spell . . . before my senses exploded with static. It rolled over me in a cloying wave. I swayed back.

  Then the spell seemed to regain its focus and settle into individual spots of magic.

  Hundreds of them.

  “Dead!” I roared, lurching around. “Dead!”

  “Where?” Oliver shouted.

  I sprinted toward him, the candle almost winking out. “In the tombs! Marcus must have awakened them—every corpse has come to life!”

  “Then they’re trapped,” Oliver said as I skidded to his side. He slapped a hand on the nearest tomb. “They can’t get through the caskets—”

  A loud crack suddenly shook through the marble. Then another—and this time bits of stone chipped outward.

  “Oh hell,” Oliver hissed. Then he rounded on Girard, and French poured off his tongue.

  Crack. Crack. More rubble scattered, and every tomb started to shiver and shake at a constant speed. It wouldn’t last long at this rate.

  “Ollie,” I yelled, scanning the nearest tombs, “you need to hurry!”

  He waved at me to stay quiet, and Girard’s jaw snapped open with a long, gravelly response. Then he stopped speaking, and Oliver snatched for a skeletal shoulder. He was going to lay the body to rest.

  But an idea flamed through my brain. If Girard was truly a skilled necromancer, then he must know other things. . . .

  “Wait!” I lunged to Oliver’s side. “Ask him how to cancel a compulsion spell.”

  Oliver blinked at me, briefly shuttering the glow of his eyes. Then he nodded slowly, and the question rushed out.

  Crack. Crack. CRUNCH.

  Metal hit the floor with a ping that bounced off the walls. One of the plaques had been punched out . . . and now the crunching of stone was louder than the banging of bone fists.

  “I have an answer,” Oliver blurted, slamming his hand on Girard’s shoulder. “I’m laying him back to rest now, El. Is there anything else?”

  “No,” I shrieked, twirling toward another ping! One of the magical spots in my awareness spell—no two . . . three spots—had started to move. If the bodies weren’t already out of their tombs, they would be at any moment. “Destroy him and come on!”

  The words of Oliver’s spell shimmered through the air, a soft, countering magic to the grating stuff that filled my lungs and scraped at my skin. His eyes glowed that piercing blue of spiritual energy—of clean, natural magic. He shifted his gaze to me as he spoke, and then he eased his hand into his pocket.

  He withdrew his flask, never pausing in his incantation, and extended it to me. I yanked it from his grasp, pushed the candle into Oliver’s now-free fingers, and then set to screwing off the top. The burn of alcohol flew up my nose. Coughing, I splashed the bones haphazardly. There were too many crunches coming from around the crypt, and I didn’t think I was imagining the sliding shamble of skeletal feet heading this way.

  Oliver finished his chant just as I reached the bottom of the flask. Jacques Girard’s bones crumpled backward, and Oliver dropped our lone flame into the tomb. In a whoosh of air and heat, the bones ignited.

  We skittered back two steps, squinting in the light. I grabbed Oliver’s wrist, lifting my voice to be heard over the flames and beating fists. “The Dead are everywhere.”

  “Then command me to fight them.” He shoved into a jog—and pulled me with him. All around us, chunks of marble hit the ground.

  “No,” I shouted. “We need to save our strength for the true enemy.”

  He did not argue, and as we raced back to the entrance, I felt a single thought pulse from Oliver’s mind into mine.

  Finally I know how to find the Old Man.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  I had never seen so many Dead in my life.

  We stood at the edge of the fortress-like base of the Notre-Dame, the stairs down the cliff before us and all of Marseille beyond—and hundreds upon hundreds of walking Dead. For as far as I could see, there were rows of them advancing up the hill—silently, for the wind carried away all sounds.

  And they were coming toward the Notre-Dame. To us.

  Marcus had raised every corpse in the city. Even at this distance I could see fresh dirt and silt from the buried and the drowned. Gleaming bones and green flesh from the long dead and the newly deceased.

  I flung a backward glance to the crypt’s entrance. The skeletons within had not reached the door. Yet.

  “He raised them too,” Oliver said, following my gaze. “I do not know how he did it from such a distance—I didn’t know a human could even possess so much power.”

  “He is not human.” I shook my head, my eyes never leaving the crypt door. “He was dead for years, a spirit waiting for a chance to come back. And we have been fools—all of us—dancing to Marcus’s tune like puppets.” I wet my lips. “What do we do, Ollie?”

  “Try to leave here alive.” He pointed slightly north. “See that speck of gold? In that big intersection by the quai? I think that’s your Chinese friend.”

  The wind was rough as I turned my gaze into it. I had to blink constantly . . . but yes, I could just make out the flamboyant gold of Jie’s gown. Which meant that black-clad speck beside her was Marcus.

  A growl bubbled up my throat. He was so close. And Joseph could not stop me now.

  I dragged my eyes away from Jie and over the streets. Daniel and Joseph were somewhere among all those writhing bodies, but until another pulse bomb detonated, I had no way of knowing where.

  “We go to Marcus,” I said. “Back the way we came. Down the hill, left onto that main avenue, then—”

  “Are you insane?” Oliver cried. The wind carried his words away. “We need to flee Marcus—not walk right up to him.”

  I shook my head, a sharp movement. “This ends now, Oliver.”

  “No.” He cupped my face in his hands. His eyes blazed golden. “Listen to me, Eleanor. Marcus knew we were coming. He has us outnumbered and far, far outmatched. We will die if we try to stop him today.”

  “But we came all this way. I . . . I can’t just leave. And what about Jie?”

  Oliver
winced, his hand dropping from my face, and I knew he’d been hoping I would forget her. Yet he did not argue. He simply said, “Fine. We get her and go.” He glanced back at the crypt and pressed his lips tight. “The bodies are here, so whatever you’re planning, we need to do it soon.”

  Holding my breath, I turned . . . and everything inside me hardened at the sight of the skeletons scraping into daylight. Unaffected by the wind, they moved in a single-file line—like an army—toward us.

  I tugged the crystal clamp from my pocket. I would use it only if I had to, but it was better to have it ready.

  An explosion thundered, trembling through the air. Oliver and I spun our heads toward the sound. Smoke billowed up from only a few streets away—but the wind instantly scattered it.

  Daniel. Joseph. And only a few hundred corpses between us.

  I had been planning to kill Marcus, certain that I could do it. Yet the fact of the matter was, I could not. But I would still use this power and this resolve to rescue Jie.

  I had the rage and the skills inside me. So did the Spirit-Hunters. We could do this.

  “Together,” I said, “we can make a path to Daniel and Joseph.”

  “All right.” Oliver’s head swiveled once more to the skeletons leaving the crypt. Then he grabbed my sleeve and pinned me beneath a stare. “We must put aside our differences, El. Right now. Otherwise we’ll never survive this.”

  “Yes—”

  “I mean it.” He yanked me closer, looking nothing like his boyish self. This was the demon in him speaking. “Your friend’s life is of no consequence to me. But your life is. I will follow you to the end of this, whatever that may be. So I beg you, Eleanor—beg you—to do the same for me.”

  “I . . . will.”

  “Then for now we are partners and allies once more.” Abruptly, he pulled back, and a cold, lethal expression settled over his features. “Command me, Eleanor, so I may use my magic, and let us see how long we can survive.”

  “Yes.” The word growled out, hungry. Ready. And as I turned to face the oncoming tide of putrid faces, I said, “Let’s lay these Dead to rest, Oliver. Sum veritas.”

 
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