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Strange and ever after, p.8
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       Strange and Ever After, p.8

           Susan Dennard
 

  I pulled up short, and before Oliver could notice, I squeezed the clamp. For half a moment the world seemed to hold its breath—or perhaps I held my breath.

  Then electricity burst from my fingertips to blaze over the nearest Dead. They toppled . . . but were instantly replaced by hundreds more. Ahead, behind, and beside, the corpses shambled into the street. They separated me from Oliver.

  “Eleanor!” Oliver shouted. Waves of panic coursed through our bond. “Where are you? Eleanor! Don’t stop!”

  My heels punched through waxy flesh; my toes tripped over skulls. Yet my legs could go no faster. I had no magic left inside me at this point, and not even the explosive power of electricity could carry me the rest of the way to the pier.

  Fingers clawed at me. Teeth chomped. My hair ripped from my skull in chunks.

  But on I went, forcing one leg in front of the other and simply trying to shove the bodies aside.

  Oliver’s magic snaked out. The nearest Dead crashed back, and for a brief moment I had a clear path to him . . . and to the balloon. Down the pier, a mere twenty paces away, was the airship ladder.

  “Come on!” Oliver roared. Then he charged to the ladder and began to climb.

  I tried to run faster, but to my horror, the rope holding the airship snapped free. I blinked, my footsteps stumbling. Were they leaving?

  Oliver paused midclimb and spun toward me, his eyes bulging.

  Then fingers—human and alive—grabbed my arm.

  “Go!” Daniel’s voice ripped into my ears. He dashed in front of me—dragging me. And when he yelled “You’re gonna have to jump, Empress,” I nodded.

  Rain fell into my open lips. My body had lost all feeling. The world was a haze of gray corpses and churning harbor. An orchestra of gasping breaths and scraping feet.

  And shouts—Oliver, now at the top of the ladder, was screaming at me to go faster. But why the devil was the airship moving away from us? How would I ever reach it at this rate?

  Daniel’s fingers released me. His feet kicked up, and as his heels lifted toward the ladder, I shoved all my strength into my own legs and jumped.

  Air whipped past my ears. I rose as if underwater: slow, heavy. Daniel grabbed hold of the rising ladder rungs.

  But I did not.

  I wasn’t even close—I had not jumped hard enough. Hadn’t gauged the distance properly. The final rung of the ladder slid through my grasp and flew away.

  Yet Daniel would never let me fall. His knees sank, his arm swung down. He reached; I reached.

  Our hands clasped, and he tugged me with more power than I ever thought he might have.

  Then I flew up the final inches and slammed against the ladder beside him.

  As we stood there, clinging for our lives and shaking with exhaustion, the Old Port of Marseille and Marcus’s army shrank away beneath us.

  CHAPTER SIX

  The gondola hatch slammed shut, and all sound abruptly vanished. It was as if my senses were blanked out—no roaring wind in my ears, no sting in my eyes, and no gulping for the next breath. I just lay there, shivering and wet and blessedly, blessedly safe.

  My last sight after Oliver had pulled me into the cargo hold had been one of blue Mediterranean waves with whitecaps hundreds of feet below. No land. No ships.

  It had felt like hours of climbing to ascend the airship ladder. Daniel had refused to move ahead—or even release me—so every rung had been a trial. Yet now we were here, my eyes locked on Daniel’s.

  “Thank you,” I tried to say, but the words wouldn’t come. I wanted to ask him about the kiss in the street. About how he knew to come back for me. But I could summon no voice before Joseph shouted, “Daniel! I have lost sight of land!”

  Daniel hauled himself to his feet, threw me a final, anxious glance, and then hurried into the hall.

  I twisted my gaze to Oliver, kneeling beside me. His eyes roved over me. Checking for injuries, but it was not the outside of me that ached. I felt . . . torn apart. Something inside me had shifted. Something had been pushed too far—like a muscle too often unused.

  “Where’s Jie?” I asked, trying to rise onto my elbows.

  “She’s with your friend.”

  “Allison?” My eyes widened, and I jerked farther upright . . . but instantly swayed.

  “Should I heal you?” Oliver asked.

  “No.” I shook my head. “But are you all right?”

  He eased a breath through his teeth. Then he dropped his gaze. “I’m sorry. I thought you were right behind me. Back there.” He jerked his shoulder in what I could only assume was the direction of Marseille. “I would never have left you like that.” His gaze climbed back to mine. “Never, El.”

  “I know.”

  “Good.” He stood and offered me his hands. “For once I’m grateful to your inventor.” With a grunt, he hefted me to my unsteady feet. “You need dry clothes.”

  “Jie” was my only response, so Oliver guided me into the hall. At the galley, gold flashed in my eyes and skirts rustled.

  Jie stood in the middle of the room, rainwater pooling beneath her. Blood trickled down both sides of her neck—though one cut was already clotting.

  “Jie.” I pulled free from Oliver and lurched inside. “Are you all right?”

  She blinked and met my eyes, but it was as if she didn’t even know me. She stayed perfectly still. Perfectly flat.

  Until Oliver leaned into the room. Then a shudder exploded through her. “Demon,” she breathed. “Demon.” Her gaze fell and locked on her dress. “Oh God. Get it off me.” With frantic movements, she yanked at her bodice. “Get it off me!”

  I darted to her, grasping her arms. “Settle down—”

  “Get it off!” Her fingers grabbed fistfuls of skirt, and she yanked. I flung a glance at the door—but Oliver was already gone. So I simply moved behind Jie and set to ripping off the hundreds of buttons that closed the gold silk. She stayed silent, but her fingers were flexed taut and quivering—as if she feared to touch anything. Minutes later I had the gown mostly off her.

  Heels clacked and Allison strode in, a metal case in her hands. At my harsh stare she halted and held up the tin. “A first aid kit. To bind Miss Chen’s wounds.”

  “No. The cuts must be left to bleed.”

  “Why?”

  “If they heal, the compulsion spell will take control again—and do not ask why,” I hastened to add as Allison’s mouth opened. “I do not know. All I know is that it’s necromancy, and as long as Marcus is still alive, the compulsion spell still exists.”

  “Seventy-three days,” Jie mumbled. “It’ll last seventy-three days—one for each of Marcus’s victims in Paris.”

  A knot swelled in my throat. “Was it the hair clasp?” I asked quietly. “The one Madame Marineaux gave you. Was it an amulet?”

  “I . . . I guess.” Jie lifted her shoulder almost imperceptibly. “I don’t remember everything. I just know he was proud of the length of the spell. He bragged about all the people he’d killed to make it.” She inhaled a shaking breath, and it sent her shoulders almost to her ears. Her whalebone corset had cinched her waist so tight that her chest overflowed from the top. I grabbed for the first lace.

  “Wait,” Allison said. She fumbled in the case and withdrew scissors. Then, after a frightened glance at Jie’s face, she offered them to me.

  With each snip the laces snapped free—and Jie’s ribs slowly shuddered back into their natural form. But even when the final pieces of the corset tumbled to the floor, her breaths remained too shallow and her skin too pale from lack of blood.

  And all I could think of was Marcus. Of destroying him for this. I wanted to know how he had beaten us to Marseille. How he had gotten that newspaper article printed.

  But above all, I needed to know what he had planned next.

  “What else do you remember?” I asked as gently as I could.

  “Too much,” Jie whispered. “Boarding a train. Leaving a train. Being . . . being stuck while
he raised all the Dead. While he . . . put me in this dress.”

  Suddenly, her fingers bent into claws, and she heaved at her undershirt. She was halfway out of it before I managed to skitter toward Allison. “Clothes,” I ordered. “Find her clothes.”

  Allison nodded and hurried into the hall.

  Jie cried out. I spun around . . . only to find her falling forward. She wore nothing but her pantaloons, and her body was covered in gooseflesh. Her legs buckled beneath her, and she cried out again.

  I dived for her but was too slow. Her knees hit the ground, and the two orchids in her hair toppled to the floor. Her eyes landed on the wilted flowers. In a burst of sudden speed, she snatched the scissors from my hands and scuttled back. Gripping a fistful of her long, black hair, she lifted the scissors high.

  “Oh God.” I crawled to her. “Stop, Jie. Stop—you don’t have to cut your hair.”

  “He touched it. He touched my hair, and I don’t want it on me anymore.” She squeezed the scissors, and a grating sound filled the galley.

  She sawed. She hacked. And her hair fell in clumps and strands.

  I grabbed her wrist. “Let me do it.” She flinched away, her eyes bulging.

  I held up my hands, palms out. “I won’t hurt you, Jie, but let me cut your hair. Let me do it.”

  Her eyes grew wider . . . but then sank shut. Her posture dropped, and she offered me the scissors. I took them and kneeled behind her.

  “All of it,” she whispered, staring ahead at the wall. “Cut all of it.”

  “I will.” I gathered up her hair, staring at the fluffy wisps growing on her forehead. It had always been shaved bald.

  For some reason, that made the moment all the more real. Something as fundamental to Jie as her shaved head was gone. My best friend was here, but she was still gone.

  And then, to my horror, a sob shuddered through Jie’s shoulders. “You can’t stop him,” she said breathily. “It doesn’t matter what you do—he’s always one step ahead. He’ll raise the Black Pullet, and then he’ll take anything and . . . and . . . everything he wants.”

  The scissor blades gritted through the last bit of hair, and Jie’s head toppled forward. Movement flickered at the door. I glanced up just as Allison reappeared, clothes in her arms. Her lips were drawn up to one side, her eyebrows tight with horror. But she moved to Jie, and in a quick, efficient move, she draped a loose shirt over Jie’s shoulders. Together, we got her arms into the sleeves.

  But as I worked to do up the buttons, I stared hard into Jie’s eyes. “Marcus cannot get the Black Pullet now, Jie. I promise you. We destroyed the only clue left in Marseille.”

  “No.” She pulled back, the buttons only half clasped. “You can’t stop him. He knows where the Old Man is already. He went to the crypt before you—before he went to Paris.”

  Cold wrapped around my heart.

  “He even has his own ship,” Jie went on. “To cross the Mediterranean. He can raise the Black Pullet, and he will.” With a slight lift of her head, she met my eyes. “One step ahead, Eleanor. He’s always one step ahead. And you can’t stop him.”

  “We can stop him.” Joseph’s voice cracked into the room, firm and loud. He strode in, and Allison scurried aside. “We will stop him, Jie—even if it means going to Egypt.”

  With a cry, Jie shoved off the floor and pushed past me. Joseph opened his arms, and she burrowed her face in his chest. He pulled her close, his chin resting on the top of her jaggedly shorn hair.

  Joseph did not look young or lost now. There was a darkness in his gaze that I had never seen before . . . but that I knew.

  The true hunger for retribution.

  “We will stop him,” he said. “We will stop Marcus, and he will pay for this, Jie.”

  Fingers clasped my elbow. I started, but it was only Allison. “Miss Chen’s wounds will fester.”

  I shook my head vaguely. “All the same, we must keep her bleeding. To keep the spell from regaining control.”

  “You want her to bleed . . . all the time?” At my nod, she dropped her hand. “Then Miss Chen needs a scarificator. And a cup.” At my vacant look she added, “They’re devices for bloodletting.” She waved to the inside of her forearm. “My father used to bleed daily—small cuts on his arm to balance his humors. The blood would free his negative emotions. I know how to make the cuts, and I even know how to keep them from scabbing over. I . . . I could cut Miss Chen. Every few hours, so that she never stops bleeding.”

  Joseph eyed Allison, his knuckles pale around Jie’s shoulders—and my stomach turned to lead. He was going to invite Allison to stay.

  Yet before I could open my mouth to protest, Allison plowed on. “And if we could get ginger, or turmeric, or garlic, we can help her bleed longer. Certain foods keep blood from clotting.”

  “Then I will see to it that we get these foods,” Joseph said, peering down at Jie. Then he squeezed her even closer. “Can you tell me if her wounds will heal soon, Miss Wilcox?”

  Allison’s eyes flicked to me, excited and . . . triumphant. Then she bustled to Jie’s side and inspected the cuts.

  I gaped at Joseph. He could not truly consider allowing Allison to stay. Yet as I watched, Joseph removed Jie’s arms from his waist and held her face. “Miss Wilcox will tend to your wounds, Jie.” Then he leveled a firm stare at Allison. “You will make fresh incisions, Miss Wilcox, and then you will tend these wounds. I will ensure we get a . . . scarificator?”

  “And a wet cup to produce suction,” Allison added. She took Jie’s hands in her own and gently guided her to a stool.

  Joseph gave a final once-over to the scene before moving to the door. I followed, gripping at his sleeve, yet he pulled away to stride into his cabin across the hall.

  I hurried after him. “You cannot let Allison stay,” I hissed. “She will slow us—”

  Joseph paused in the middle of his room. Then, in a careful, controlled movement, he pivoted toward me. “Eleanor, I will say this to you only once, so listen closely. I protect people—it is what I do. I fight the Dead so that others may live, and there is nothing I value more than a human life. Except”—his voice dropped to a whisper, and he bowed his head toward me—“for Jie and Daniel. I will always, always put their lives above others. And above mine. I would kill for them.” He leaned in closer. “So if Miss Wilcox can keep Jie safe, then she will remain a part of this team. And that is the end of this discussion. Do you understand?”

  For a moment I was speechless—unsure I actually did understand. Would I put Jie’s and Daniel’s lives above finding Marcus?

  Of course you would, my heart nudged. And it was right. So I nodded at Joseph. “I understand.”

  “Good.” He straightened. Then he ran a hand along his bandages—along the space where his ear had been.

  I flinched. “You’re bleeding.”

  “Wi.” His hand fell. “I will have Miss Wilcox change the bandages once she has dealt with Jie.” He turned, as if to dismiss me—but I had one more question.

  “Do we go to Egypt?”

  Without looking back at me, he nodded. “If Marcus seeks the Old Man in the Pyramids, then so do we. Somehow, we will find the Old Man first.”

  With cautious steps, I moved to Joseph’s side. “I . . . or rather, Oliver knows how to find him.”

  Joseph watched me slantwise. “How?”

  I hesitated. He would be angry; he would not like that Oliver had interrogated Jacques Girard.

  My right hand moved to my pocket, seeking the ivory fist’s calming power. For two heartbeats I simply savored the way it eased my nerves. Then, in a rush of soft words, I told Joseph what Oliver and I had done in Marseille. “Girard gave Oliver instructions,” I finished. “Oliver knows what to do to find the Old Man.”

  For several breaths, Joseph was silent—and I feared furious. But then his lips pursed. “Learn what your demon knows so we may set a course.”

  My breath kicked out, relief overwhelming me. “Yes. I will.”
>
  Joseph angled his body toward me, and in a voice devoid of emotion, he said, “Mark my words, Eleanor. Every fresh cut we must make on Jie’s skin, I will give to Marcus. He will feel the deepest pain imaginable—over and over until he has paid for what he has done. Until his soul and his body are nothing but dust.”

  My mouth went dry. “We go to Egypt to end this,” I rasped out.

  And Joseph stared at me with unfocused eyes. “Yes, Eleanor. We go to end this. And this time we end it once and for all.”

  After leaving Joseph, I staggered to the washroom. Even the simple acts of relieving myself and scrubbing blood off my hands almost destroyed me. I barely had enough energy to reach Oliver’s cabin and peer in.

  He sat on his bunk, his elbows on his knees and his flask in his hands. He glanced up and briefly met my eyes. . . . Then he blinked once and returned his attention to the flask.

  He wanted to be alone, and I was more than happy to comply. By the time I finally shambled into my own cabin and fell onto the bunk, I was too exhausted to dwell on him or Allison or Egypt. I could not even bother to change from my damp clothes. It took every last ounce of my energy to crawl beneath a blanket and summon the magical words of a dream ward. . . .

  Then I slept.

  Hours later I awoke, cold and hungry. All was dark outside. I hauled myself to my feet and stumbled for the door. A light shone dimly around the edges, and when I opened it, I found jars of glowworms roped along the ceiling outside.

  A snort broke through my lips. How typically clever of Daniel—no open flames in an airship. At the end of the hall, a brighter light gleamed. The galley. I crept toward it, and the sound of a slicing knife hit my ears.

  Someone was cooking. Perfect.

  Of course, when I peeked my head through the doorway, I found an electric lamp glowing over a sandy-haired boy hunched at the table. With a surprising lack of coordination, Daniel chopped at a piece of garlic.

  “What are you making?”

  He jerked around, the knife flying up. His eyes met mine; his breath whooshed out. “It’s just you, Empress. Sorry.” He lowered the knife.

 
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