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A darkness strangeand lo.., p.21
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       A Darkness Strangeand Lovely, p.21

           Susan Dennard
 
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  “Number seventy-three,” I murmured, but I didn’t go down to the lab.

  Nor did anyone come up for me.

  Minutes later, just as I moved away from the window, two top hats hurried into a carriage, and I couldn’t help but note that they did not carry an influence machine. I supposed Joseph trusted Daniel’s newer, more portable inventions.

  I also couldn’t help but notice Jie’s absence. They might not have been worried about her, but I was.

  Yes, I knew Jie could take care of herself. I had seen her barrel through a line of corpses with nothing more than a casual flying kick. Yet why would she leave? And do it all of a sudden with nothing more than a vague note? It was not like her.

  So I went to the hotel’s front desk and asked if anyone had seen her. They had not. I asked in the restaurant, the men’s smoking lounge, and even in the shops nearby. But no one had seen a bald Chinese girl dressed like a boy. Not since yesterday.

  As I strode back into Le Meurice’s marble foyer, wishing I had read the note she’d left for Joseph, a voice trilled, “Eleanor!”

  I whirled around to find a violet-clad Laure hurrying toward me, her lips at their usual mischievous slant.

  “C’est vrai?” She whipped a newspaper from her purse. “Is it true? The Galignani’s Messenger says you and that balloon pilot ’ad a fight.” She glanced down at the tiny print. “Ah, mais oui, the pilot and a second man fought over you in the Square Louvois. The second man was Oliver, non?”

  I stared stupidly. “How did that get in the newspaper?”

  “Everything is in the newspapers in Paris. Except for me.” She winked. “Though you can ’elp me change that. I want to meet the Spirit-Hunters.”

  “You want to meet them?” My brow wrinkled. “I’m afraid none of them are here now—”

  “Then introduce me later. Or—je sais! Show me their lab.”

  “Really?” I squeaked. “You want to see it?”

  “Bien sûr! These Spirit-Hunters are famous! I can imagine my parents’ faces when I return to Marseille and tell them who I ’ave seen.”

  “The lab is probably locked—”

  For a moment her face fell. But then she flashed a grin. “Ah well. Then I will merely take a peek at the door of their famous lab, and that will be enough.”

  “Well, all right,” I said grudgingly, waving to the stairwell. “I suppose there’s no harm.”

  Less than a minute later, we were standing on the second floor and staring at the Spirit-Hunters’ lab door.

  Laure marched to it. “Let us try it, oui?”

  “I’m certain it’s lock—” I broke off, for Laure had pushed the handle, and it was most assuredly not locked.

  She shot me a grin. “Do you think I could ’ave a peek?”

  I gulped. I knew Joseph—or Daniel—would disapprove . . . but if we looked inside, I could also quickly search for the note from Jie. “Yes. Hurry.” I strode toward Laure. “We’ll go in, but only for a moment.”

  “Parfait.” She eased back the door, and we crept inside, closing it softly behind us. “It smells,” she whispered.

  “Because there is a corpse over there,” I murmured, pointing.

  She made a gagging sound and instantly pinched her nose. “A corpse?”

  “Yes.” I grinned at her. “The Spirit-Hunters do hunt the Dead, after all.” Laure only cringed in response, so, leaving her to stare around the room, I darted toward the windowsill where Jie’s note still lay. I snatched it up and held it to the light.

  Gone out. Be back later.

  —Jie

  For several moments the only sound was Laure’s feet padding over the carpet as she inspected anything and everything. I read the note again. And again and again, my heart picking up speed each time. This was not Jie’s handwriting. It was similar; but after exchanging letters with her for months, I knew her wobbly style. This lettering was too smooth. Too assured.

  So what did that mean?

  I shot a glance at Laure. She was reading the titles of Joseph’s books and mouthing them to herself, her eyebrows arched high.

  My gaze returned to the note. Had Jie been taken? And by whom? For what purpose? In the end it didn’t actually matter—what mattered was that Jie’s absence was bad.

  I needed the Spirit-Hunters to return. I needed to tell Joseph to send out all of his new patrol force. I needed to find Jie.

  I could ask Oliver to look, I thought. Except that I was not ready to. I so desperately wanted to trust the demon . . . but I couldn’t. Not after his display yesterday. If only I could talk to Elijah . . . ask him about Oliver and the letters—

  My thoughts were interrupted by a choke.

  I whirled around—only to find Laure standing beside the butler, her face green. “It smells so strongly.”

  I grimaced. “That’s because you’re right beside the body. Come stand here. Next to the window.”

  She clasped a gloved hand to her mouth and rushed to my side. As she worked on opening the window, I turned away and tried to refocus my thoughts.

  The words of Joseph’s book came to mind. The words about a séance. A longer-dead ghost will require more power and therefore more people.

  I straightened. I couldn’t hold a séance by myself, but I could mimic one, could I not? I could pretend to have more people by using a crystal clamp to enhance my power.

  Triumph rushed over me—but then a crash sounded. I jerked toward Laure. On the floor was Daniel’s ornate cream box—upside down and with the lid popped off.

  “Excusez-moi!” Laure wrung her hands. “Je suis désolé, Eleanor! I am so sorry!”

  “It’s fine,” I muttered, shoving Jie’s note into my pocket and kneeling. Please don’t be broken.

  Laure crouched beside me. “When I opened the window, I did not see the hatbox.”

  “I don’t think it is a hatbox.” I yanked the lid off the floor.

  “Then what is it?” She slid the box over, revealing what had spilled onto the floor . . . and she gasped.

  My heart sank like a stone. It was a mechanical hand. Bronze gears shone in the place of knuckles, and polished wood flesh gleamed in the afternoon sun. At the wrist there were a series of tendon-like wires: the muscles to operate this creation.

  I gulped, and with shaking fingers, I reached out to stroke it. The detail was immense and meticulous, from the small, carved fingernails to the soft curve of the palm.

  Tears burned, welling in my eyes. Daniel had told me there were ways to make mechanical hands, and when I had asked if he was offering, he had answered, I can always try.

  He had not only tried, but he had succeeded. No wonder he had been so upset by my phantom limb.

  “Are you . . . are you all right?” Laure’s voice was gentle.

  “No.” I wiped at my eyes. “Daniel made this . . . and it was meant for me.” I picked up the hand and laid it gently back in the box. Then I placed the lid on top.

  “Was meant for you?” Laure pushed herself up and helped me rise. “Why not is meant for you?”

  “Because I have this,” I answered bitterly, lifting my right hand. “I have this cursed, magical abomination.”

  She shook her head and returned the box to the windowsill. “I cannot pretend to ’ave any idea of what you speak. But”—she gazed at me, sympathy dragging at her eyebrows—“I do know a broken heart when I see it.”

  All I could do was bite my lip and nod.

  “Il t’aime.” She offered me her handkerchief. “He loves you.”

  I took the lacy cloth and dabbed at my eyes. “Perhaps. Or more likely he was experimenting—”

  “Non,” she interrupted. “He loves you, Eleanor. Je sais. I saw ’ow he looked at you on the street, ’ow he listened to you. And now, there is this.” She waved to the green box. “He loves you. The question is, Do you love him in return?”

  I stayed silent, avoiding her eyes.

  “Perhaps,” she said at last, “it would be best if I leave you alo
ne for a bit.”

  “Y-yes.” I gulped. “I’m sorry.”

  “Do not be. I will explore the ’otel for now, and when I am finished, if you are—’ow do you say?—recovered, we will go out for lunch. Unless you are attending this ball tonight at the palais? The one in all the papers?”

  “Ball,” I repeated numbly. I had forgotten all about that—and it was quite possibly the last thing I wished to deal with right then.

  “If you are too busy preparing for the party,” Laure said, “then perhaps we can meet for breakfast tomorrow. Before I return to Marseille.”

  “Or perhaps we can do both.” I gave her a small smile. “Lunch and breakfast. Thank you, Laure.” I offered her the handkerchief, but she shook her head once.

  “You keep it. You ’ave more need of it than I.” Then, flashing me her own tiny grin, she waved good-bye and glided from the lab.

  I instantly crumpled onto a stool and began to cry. “Why didn’t he just tell me?” I mumbled to myself, wiping at my tears. I knew I could not blame Daniel for my own mistakes. I had bound myself to Oliver; I had chosen a phantom limb; and I had covered my tracks with lie after lie.

  I would ask the Spirit-Hunters to forgive me—for hiding the truth and for betraying their trust.

  But I would not be ashamed of the magic inside me. This was who I was now, and I would have to show Joseph and Daniel that there was nothing to be afraid of.

  And, by God, I would find Jie.

  With a final sniffle, I pushed away all the sadness and locked it up, far out of reach in the back of my mind. As I pushed to my feet, my eyes caught on the crystal clamp. A séance. It was something I could do.

  I snatched up the clamp’s box, grabbed Joseph’s book on spirits, and marched from the room.

  Once I was safely stowed in my bedroom, I assembled the crystal in the device and plopped down, cross-legged, onto my bed. Opening the spirit book, I flipped to the proper page.

  My pulse thrummed as I scanned the text. It told me I needed to focus all my power, fix my target firmly in my mind, and then find the curtain.

  I lowered my eyelids. “Step one: focus my power.” With a deep breath, I began to draw in my magic. Immediately it tingled through me, up from my toes and in from my fingers. The same delicious buzz as always, warm and intoxicating. And as always, my worries evaporated one by one. Daniel and demons and corpses—they all felt meaningless compared to this feeling. To this power.

  But I didn’t let Joseph’s warnings go completely. I knew this was an addictive warmth, and I made myself cling—if only by a thread—to the reality beyond. Soon, the last drop of soul had poured into my chest, and I could feel the well pulsing in time with my heart.

  “Now think of Elijah.” I imagined his auburn hair. His glasses—the way they constantly slid down his nose. I thought of his smile. His sea-green eyes. His goofy, braying laugh . . . Then I slowly squeezed the crystal clamp.

  Electricity—a sharp zap—slid up my arm and into my chest.

  The well grew bigger, and my heart raced faster.

  I sent my senses out, groping for the golden, glowing curtain. It was always there, always present . . . and then I found it.

  I opened my eyes. The curtain shimmered before me as clearly as my bedroom had only moments before.

  I grinned, proud. I could use this power without letting it taint me.

  All right, now I simply say his name.

  “Elijah Fitt,” I whispered. “Elijah Henry Fitt, your sister, Eleanor, wants to speak with you. Answer my call.”

  Nothing happened. I tried again. “Elijah Henry Fitt, your sister, Eleanor, wants to speak with you.”

  Still nothing happened, and now my chest was starting to ache. “Elijah,” I called, a sharpness creeping into my voice. “Answer me!”

  Maybe he was busy . . . or . . . or blocked! I could try someone else.

  “Clarence Wilcox,” I rasped, quickly running out of breath. “Clarence Wilcox, come to my call!”

  Still nothing. Was I doing something wrong?

  And why was electricity still zapping up my arm?

  I looked down in horror at my right hand—it was still squeezing the crystal! I tried to pry the clamp from my fingers, but I couldn’t let go. My muscles would not release, and the well continued to grow. Blindingly bright, it pushed every last drop of air from my lungs. As my heart beat faster, I knew with terrifying certainty that this would kill me.

  No! A whimper escaped my throat, and with it, the last of my air.

  I needed to cast a spell, needed to get this magic out of me . . . but I couldn’t remember any spells—not with my pulse careening and the room spinning. All I could think was that I had to stay awake, had to keep my eyelids up. . . .

  Just as I toppled forward, I latched on to the only words I could conjure. Awake, awake, awake . . .

  When I finally came to, I was facedown on my bed. My head was pounding, and the instant I peeled back my eyelids, I wished I hadn’t. It hurt. Everything hurt.

  I pushed myself up. My vision sparkled with painful stars, and yet I felt so relaxed . . . aching, but somehow good.

  It’s from the magic, I thought. Whether I meant to or not, I had found a way to cast the power from me.

  I scooted off the bed. For a moment I swayed unsteadily, but I knew that if I did not move, I would collapse into sleep. I had failed, and now it was time to move on. I needed water, needed to find Laure, and needed to launch a full search for Jie.

  I scuffed to the door, but just as I was leaning on the doorknob, a scream erupted from outside.

  I wrenched open the door. An old woman barreled toward me, her eyes huge. “Rat!” she shrieked. “Rat!”

  My breath whooshed out. A rat—nothing dangerous.

  But then another door burst open, with a fat man toppling out. “Les oiseaux sont enragés!” He sprinted frantically toward me. “Aidez-moi!”

  I barely had time to sort through this when three more doors—no four, then five—tore open and panicked guests came screeching toward the stairs. Toward me.

  As the first old woman scrambled desperately by, I finally caught sight of the rat.

  But this was no rat. The giant, raw hole in its neck crawled with white maggots, and its eyes were milky white. This rat was Dead—a Hungry Dead.

  And it wasn’t the only one.

  I kicked into a run. I needed the Spirit-Hunters. If all the animal corpses in the area had come to life, I could not face them alone. I had wasted all my energy on the failed séance.

  I bounded onto the stairs. A flight below was a black-uniformed steward. “Help!” I shrieked. “Get help!”

  He didn’t react, just continued his quick descent. I clambered after. Someone needed to find Joseph and Daniel. “Help!” I yelled again. “Á l’aide!”

  He paused on the second floor, and I jumped the remaining steps between us.

  But I stopped midstride.

  The stairwell reeked of carrion, and this was not a steward—it was the butler from the lab.

  No, no, no!

  I lurched back around. So did the butler, his jaw gaping and bloody eye sockets close. Stiff arms flew up, grabbing for me.

  Somehow I managed to sweep up my skirts and leap two, three steps at a time. “Run!” I screamed as guests came toward the stairs. “Les Morts! Run!” Thank God, they listened, and as I raced up floor after floor, the broken beat of footsteps stayed close behind.

  It felt as if it took forever to climb those stairs. My legs burned and my chest was on fire. I couldn’t maintain this pace—and the hotel had to dead-end eventually . . . because I was almost to the top floor. I would have to face the Hungry here. Now.

  I scrambled onto the top landing and surged into the hall.

  But I instantly skittered to a stop, my mind erupting in panic. There were rats everywhere! And mice and sparrows and a mangled cat. They were all dead yet somehow brought back to life.

  I couldn’t stop them all.

 
A door flew open behind me. “No!” I shrieked, lurching around. “Stay inside!”

  A woman in violet stumbled into the hall—Laure! Oh God, where had she come from?

  She screamed, and in a flash the Hungry tackled her to the ground.

  I flung up my arms and threw out every ounce of power I could muster.

  “Stay,” I chanted. “Stay, stay, stay!”

  The Hungry slowed, its jaw chomping a staccato beat. Laure fought and clawed to wriggle free, shrieks flying from her throat, but the corpse was much heavier, much stronger.

  And its teeth inched closer and closer to her neck.

  “Don’t move!” I screeched. “Stay, stay, stay!”

  But the corpse was stronger than me too, and its teeth were now clamping down on her neck.

  Then pain burst through me, bright and sudden. My concentration broke. The decomposed cat was latched onto my arm.

  I screamed and jerked back, but the animal’s fangs were deep. And now the other animals had reached me.

  I lost sight of the butler as a mangled bat flew into my face, teeth bared. From every direction, I was ripped and scratched and bitten. Each slash stabbed through my mind, blinding and white.

  I toppled back, tripping over my skirts, and hit the ground hard.

  The corpses kept coming. Everywhere, everywhere. Rat teeth and jagged fangs knifed into me. I flung out my power. I kicked, I shoved, I screamed. . . . My fingers dug into jellied flesh and rotting fur. My feet crunched through bones . . . but there were still so many. So many!

  “Eleanor!” a voice bellowed. Oliver. “Command me! Say the words!”

  But I couldn’t speak—I could not even breathe. All I could do was think, Sum veritas.

  It was enough. The magic oozed from me, and a breath later, Oliver roared, “Dormi!”

  But only some of the animals stopped their attacks. So I kept fighting.

  “Dormi!” he shouted again. Though I felt the attack lessen, it was not the end. I pumped even more energy into clawing my way free.

  “Dormi! Dormi! Sleep, dammit! Dormi!”

  The final rat stopped. It tumbled over, stiff and dead once more.

  And the hall was silent. Too silent.

 
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