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A darkness strangeand lo.., p.29
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       A Darkness Strangeand Lovely, p.29

           Susan Dennard
 
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  And for half a moment I was bound to the ball of soul that animated the body. I did the only thing I could think to do. “Sleep,” I said. “Sleep.” The soul flared once and winked out like a match.

  The corpse fell—one single corpse out of hundreds. Panic and frustration boiled through me . . . yet this was the best I could do, so I had no choice but to keep going.

  “Oliver!” My vocal cords snapped as I screamed for the demon. “Stop as many Dead as you can! Sum veritas!”

  His eyes flashed beside me, and then his voice took up with my own. “Dormi!”

  “Sleep!” Blue light shot from my hand, and more Hungry toppled over. If I could only make a path and get the Spirit-Hunters out, then we could run.

  Over and over, Oliver and I took aim one after the other and chanted, “Dormi, sleep, dormi!” And all the while, Joseph’s electricity never stopped blazing and Daniel’s pistols never stopped cracking.

  But my magic was getting weaker—Oliver’s too. The light whipping from our hands was paler and our chanting fainter. Would he keep going until he was so drained he collapsed? “Stop,” I ordered him.

  He didn’t stop. “They’re almost free! Dormi!” His eyes shone blue, and a final flicker of power pierced the nearest corpse.

  And he was right: the Spirit-Hunters could get out.

  “Come on!” I bellowed at them. “Come!” Then, grabbing Oliver’s arm, I wrenched him toward the tunnel in the right corner. If Madame Marineaux wanted to take it, it had to be the best way out. It was also our only choice.

  I spared one glance back to check that the Spirit-Hunters followed. They did.

  And so did the Hungry.

  I could barely see—only the flash of Joseph’s electricity gave me any light—but Oliver held fast to my hand, and he seemed to know where to go.

  And behind us, the corpses’ jaws did not stop chomping. The sound—that clattering and snapping of long-dead teeth—covered everything. Louder than my rasping breaths, than my thrashing pulse, than Daniel’s screams for me to run faster . . .

  Then we reached the tunnel and were barreling through. Ahead was the faintest flicker of orange—torchlight. But I could not spare a moment for relief. For the grating sound of the Hungry Dead had reached the tunnel too. The sound echoed, and at every bend in the passage, I expected to see a fresh army of corpses. But forward was the only way to go—one foot in front of the other—so forward we went.

  Abruptly, the tunnel veered into a white archway, and before I could even process, we had run onto a tightly winding staircase with steep steps and no space. We were rising back up to the city. Though where we might come out, I had no idea.

  Oliver rocketed up and out of sight. But I was tired. I could not seem to draw in enough breath, and my legs—they were as weak as pudding. I pumped all I could into each step, but . . . the stairs, and so much spinning . . .

  “Don’t stop!” Daniel roared. He shoved me against the rounded wall, skittering in front, and then his hand was crushing mine. He wrenched me up the stairs. “Come on, Empress!”

  Electricity flared behind me, thundering over the skeletal feet. How was Joseph still going? How could he battle so many Hungry and for so long?

  I should help, I thought vaguely, instinctively pulling in the dregs of my magic.

  And with the magic came a fresh spurt of energy. I straightened, pulled free from Daniel, and let Joseph catch up. His bloodied head rounded the stairs. “Go!”

  “Duck!” I threw out my hands and screamed, “Sleep!” The power lashed out like a whip . . . but I only connected with a single corpse—not even the closest.

  Joseph heaved into me, forcing me up the stairs. “Run!”

  “But I can help.”

  “They are too close. Just run!”

  So I did, because Joseph was right. The Hungry were so close, I could hear individual toes clattering on the stairs. Hear their fingers scraping the walls. They were just around the spiral, almost on us . . . almost on us. . . .

  Then Oliver’s voice burst through the stairwell: “You’re at the top! Run!”

  And that was all Joseph and I needed. With a final burst of power, we flew up the steps—two, three at a time—around and around . . . and then we tumbled through a doorway and into a dark cellar.

  A heavy door slammed shut behind us. I fell to my knees, breath scalding my lungs and my bladder burning. I needed to vomit. Needed to catch my breath . . . but there was no time. Blinking, I lifted my head and tried to gauge where we were. . . . The tunnels had led us to a random entrance in someone’s wine cellar—Oliver had been right about the honeycomb of quarries.

  Nearby, the demon held on to a wooden shelf, his head hanging and chest heaving. Beside him stood Daniel, a pulse pistol aimed at—

  Bang!

  I jerked around. The door shook dangerously, while the rasp of bone on bone vibrated through the stone floor. Joseph, who was somehow still on his feet, had his crystal clamp in hand and his eyes locked on the door. The hole where his ear had been still oozed blood, but most of it had crusted and scabbed down the side of his head.

  Another dangerous slam against the door, and this time the wood groaned.

  Oliver stalked to me. “Let’s go!” He yanked me to my feet. “That door’s going to break.”

  “He’s right.” Daniel said. “We’re out of time.”

  “I cannot leave.” Joseph’s voice was weak, but his words were fierce. “If we go, this door will break, and these Hungry will overrun the city. I cannot let that happen.” He turned to us. “You all must leave while there’s still time.”

  “Hell if I’m leavin’.” Daniel spat on the floor and, fingers flying, began to reload each of his pistols. “I can fire four shots, then you attack.”

  Hinges squealed, filling the room with their high-pitched keening. The door was coming free.

  “I’m staying too,” I said hoarsely. “But I cannot stop more than one corpse at a time—”

  “And you’re exhausted,” Oliver cut in, glaring at Joseph. “There’s no way the four of us can stop all those Hungry.”

  “I can.” Joseph fixed his gaze on me. “I can magnify your power. Remember the library in Philadelphia? I stopped Marcus because I used your magic. We can do that again.”

  I nodded slowly. “Will it be enough?”

  “I do not know, but I must try.” His jaw clenched, and a fresh trail of blood slid down his neck. If Joseph could still fight, then so could I.

  “I’ll squeeze the crystal clamp, then.” I hurried to him and took the gleaming device from his hand. Wrapping my fingers around the clamp, I shot a glance at Oliver. “You could also magnify—”

  “No.”

  “Please.” I had to yell to be heard over the pummeling corpses.

  “No.” Oliver’s eyes thinned to slits. “I can fight the Dead on my own.”

  “Please.” I grabbed his hands. “We can stop these Hungry—”

  “Yes, we can. You use your magic, and I use mine. I will not let that electricity touch me. We can fight these Dead without it. Or, better yet, we can leave before that damned door breaks!”

  “I will not leave! Joseph can lay all the Dead to rest—at once—so if you—”

  “No!”

  A hinge broke free and pinged across the cellar.

  “You will help me,” I shrieked. “Squeeze the clamp, Oliver. Sum veritas.”

  Betrayal and fury flashed in his yellow eyes, quickly replaced by blinding blue. He snatched the clamp from me, his face contorted with rage, and his fingers gripped mine with bone-breaking strength.

  For a brief flash I connected to Oliver—his anger seethed through my veins; his pain lanced into my chest. He hated me. Elijah would never have done this to him. I would pay for my cruelty.

  Abruptly the connection ended, and if not for the roaring groan of the wood, I would have clawed at Oliver and begged his forgiveness.

  But I did not. I threw out my free hand and screamed, “Jos
eph!”

  Joseph hesitated—only a breath, but it was a breath too long.

  In a deafening explosion of splinters, the door smashed inward. The Hungry toppled in.

  Pop! Pop! Daniel’s pistols fired, and the first wave of Dead fell to the floor.

  Joseph lunged for me, and the instant he had hold, Oliver squeezed the clamp. Electricity pierced through Oliver’s hand into mine. Up my arm, rippling beneath my skin until I boiled with power.

  The pistols rang out again. Again. Yet for each corpse felled, ten scuttled in to replace it. Yellow skulls, shattered teeth, empty eyes.

  My muscles twitched uncontrollably, and my heart raced. Why wasn’t Joseph using the power? I wanted to shout for him to attack, but my body was locked in place. I could do nothing but twitch. And watch as the Hungry clambered in. Daniel had to reload, and with each agonizing second, the chomping jaws closed in.

  Why didn’t Joseph attack?

  My heart galloped faster, pumping the hot oil through me and ballooning into my head. Black closed in on the edges of my vision. I was going to die, going to explode—

  Blue light snaked from Joseph’s fingers. Thunder boomed.

  Like a wind through grass, the Dead gusted backward. Flattened and lifeless for as far as I could see—all the way into the black tunnel and beyond.

  But again the blue lightning struck out. This time it sizzled into the tunnel, a thousand veins of electricity flowing down, down.

  Blue power laced through the air and boiled through my body. Then screams filled the air—my screams! Oliver’s screams, Joseph’s screams! Our heads rolled back, our throats burned raw with the inhuman shrieks. . . .

  Until, all at once, it stopped. The hot crawling beneath my skin, our screams, the electricity . . . and the Dead. Everything stopped.

  And as one, Joseph, Oliver, and I tumbled to the ground.

  We stayed in the cellar a long time—too exhausted to do anything else. But eventually Daniel hauled us up and forced us to leave the devastation behind. Rising from the cellar, we came into an empty hallway. I instantly recognized it: Madame Marineaux’s house. Somehow, all that winding through the mines had taken us beneath the river Seine and directly into her basement. Obviously she had chosen this house for precisely that reason.

  Joseph hung on to Daniel, his dark face drained white and his ear losing blood in bright red spurts, while Oliver stalked ahead of me, refusing to meet my eyes. Refusing even to acknowledge my existence.

  “There’s a sitting room,” I rasped, turning to Daniel. “It has a fireplace. Joseph can rest there until we find a cab.”

  Daniel’s eyes flickered over the hallway. “Shouldn’t there be servants?”

  “The house is empty,” Oliver growled.

  I did not ask how he knew—he did have exceptional hearing. Instead, I simply nodded and beckoned for Daniel and Joseph to follow. We shuffled to the back of the house until I found a familiar door. It was open, and embers burned in the hearth.

  But the instant I stepped in, I drew up short. For there was an old man sprawled on the floor between the armchairs and the fireplace.

  A squeak broke through my lips. I recognized the man’s elegant clothes—and I recognized the cane lying inches from his open hand. But his chest did not move, so though I knew it was the Marquis, nothing about him looked as it ought. His skin sagged with age, and his formerly black hair was brittle and white.

  Daniel spotted the Marquis next. He shot me a wide-eyed glance before easing Joseph into my arms and darting forward. He crouched beside the body, but it only took him a moment to check for a pulse. He shook his head once.

  “Is it LeJeunes?” Joseph asked tiredly. I helped him shuffle toward the closest armchair, and as Daniel eased the Creole to a seat, I bent down to examine the cane.

  The handle was missing, the ivory fist gone, and though something tickled at the back of my mind—something that said it should have been around here somewhere—I could not find the full memory.

  Daniel’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “Do you think Madame Marineaux killed the Marquis?”

  “I don’t know.” I rose, my gaze flicking back to the man’s ancient face. “He looks as if he aged a hundred years since yesterday.”

  “Because he has,” Oliver said from the doorway. He stalked toward me, still avoiding my eyes. “The man’s body was drained of soul. Look at how desiccated the skin is. How fragile the bones.”

  Joseph cleared his throat. “How is that possible? I have never heard of such a thing.”

  “I’ve only heard of it once,” Oliver admitted, leaning over the Marquis’s corpse. “Your brother”—he pointed at me without actually looking my way—“mentioned it in passing. He said it was one of the darkest magics there is. Darker even than necromancy.”

  I grimaced, my stomach suddenly churning. “Can you sense who did it? Like with the butler’s body?”

  He straightened. “No. There is no soul left. Not a drop of spiritual energy, and without that, I cannot tell you anything.”

  “What magic is darker than necromancy?” Joseph asked—or tried to ask, but his voice was barely audible. He wilted back in the armchair.

  “We can worry about it later.” Daniel knelt beside Joseph’s chair. “You’re losin’ blood too fast.”

  “We should clean the wound,” I added. “Before it festers. There must be alcohol in the—” I broke off as Oliver thrust his flask into Daniel’s hand.

  “Vodka. It’ll sting like hell, but it’ll clean.” Then he strode to the window, ripped down one of the scarlet curtains in a single move, and threw it over the Marquis’s body.

  I gaped at him, surprised.

  Oliver scowled. “It’s disgusting. Scares me—not that you care.”

  “What do you mean I do not care?”

  But he didn’t respond. He had already pivoted toward the door and marched off.

  “Where are you going?” I called, hurrying after.

  “To find a cab.”

  “Are you upset with me?” I knew the answer. I had felt his fury in the wine cellar, yet I had hoped it might have dulled some. “Please, Ollie. Wait. I do care. I’m sorry for what happened in the basement.”

  He skittered to a halt, his body tensing. “Not sorry enough, El. Do you have any idea what you did to me? Blasting me with that electricity?”

  “It was the only way!” I reached his side, clasping at his sleeve. “We needed all of our magic—”

  “That wasn’t magic,” he spat. “It was filthy. Unnatural—”

  “And strong!” I clutched my hands to my chest. “You saw how many Dead Joseph stopped. We can’t do that with our spells.”

  “No, perhaps not, but at least my spells won’t kill me.”

  I flinched. “Kill you? What do you mean?”

  “I told you electricity would kill me slowly—”

  “I thought you were being dramatic.”

  He gave a scathing laugh. “Being dramatic? Thank you, El. Thank you very much for seeing me as nothing more than a jester.” He pushed up his chin. “Electricity kills demons. It blasts away their soul like the Hell Hounds, but instead of all at once, it’s bit by bit. I hope you got a good look at what happened to that Marquis, because that is exactly what you did to me. You”—he jabbed his finger into my shoulder, pushing me back a step—“just withered away part of my soul. Part of my very being. And for what?”

  “T-to stop the Dead—”

  “I didn’t want to stop those Dead in the first place. We had time to get away—to leave.”

  “But then the Dead would have overrun Paris!”

  “So?” he snapped. “That was not my problem, Eleanor. It was your problem, and then you made it mine.” He leaned into me, his face scored with rage and pain. “You gave me no choice. You betrayed my trust.”

  “I-I’m sorry.” I cowered back. “I truly am, Ollie. Please . . . what can I do to make it up to you?”

  “Free me. Free me and get the hell
away from me.”

  “I-I do not know how—”

  “Because you’re not training!” His roar blasted over me, and I shrank back farther. “You’re running around Paris with everyone but me! You seem more upset about that damned Marquis’s death than you do about hurting me. I really am nothing more than your tool!”

  “I’ll start studying—I promise.”

  “You’re bloody right you will, but don’t think it will be enough for me to forgive you.”

  “Empress?” Daniel stepped into the hall, his hands in fists. “What’s goin’ on here?”

  “Nothing,” Oliver snapped. And without another word, he went through the front doorway and stormed into the night.

  Daniel looked at me, clearly expecting an explanation.

  But I couldn’t speak. Guilt and shame coiled inside me. Only the blackest magic in the world could drain a person’s soul, yet I had done exactly the same thing with electricity. I had killed a part of Oliver.

  For several minutes, all I could do was stare silently at Daniel—and somehow he understood that staring was all I was capable of, for he did not speak. He simply waited for me to return to the moment.

  And as time ticked past and the world slowly cleared before me, I began to see Daniel. To see how his lanky body slouched with his weight on one foot. How his face was streaked with dirt and sweat. How his hair was dusted white and poking up in all directions. How his chest moved beneath his shirt—a shirt that used to be white but was now mottled gray. . . .

  And above all, how beautiful he was—not just on the outside but on the inside as well. He knew me; he understood.

  My mouth went dry. I took a step toward him. “Thank you.”

  His brow creased. “For what?”

  “For . . .” Two more steps, and I was in front of him. “For still caring, despite everything.”

  “Caring? I didn’t do anything. I heard shouting from the other room and—”

  “I mean, thank you for caring enough to save my life tonight. Twice.”

  His eyes ran over my face. “You saved my life, Empress. And Joseph’s. I reckon that makes us even.”

 
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