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A darkness strangeand lo.., p.8
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       A Darkness Strangeand Lovely, p.8

           Susan Dennard

  He wrinkled his forehead. “I don’t know, El. I’ve only learned what Elijah learned.”

  “So only necromancy.”

  “Yes—” He broke off as two little boys came barreling past in a rousing game of tag. Once they were out of earshot, Oliver continued, “I believe you could call Elijah if you had his body, since a soul and its body have a special connection, but . . .”

  “There is no body.” Disappointment swooped through me. “Damn Marcus.” I looked away.

  “I’m sorry,” Oliver said softly. “If there was a way I could talk to your brother, I swear to you, I would.”

  I sniffed. He sounded just like Elijah, and I didn’t like how it made me feel.

  At that moment a yawn cracked through my jaw.

  “You know,” Oliver drawled, “one of the easiest spells to learn in necromancy is a dream ward. Because necromancers are so vulnerable in their sleep, blocking dreams is one of the first spells they ever learn.” He shot a pointed finger up and recited: “A spell can’t hit its target if the target’s concentration is elsewhere.” He curled his finger back down and dropped his hand. “Spirit world, earthly world—it doesn’t matter. If you’re distracted, the spell can’t hit.”

  “But if all it takes is distraction to deflect magic, it sounds like necromancy would backfire constantly.”

  “Sure, but you’ve seen how hard it is to distract yourself with monstrous dogs salivating for your soul. A non-necromancer wouldn’t know he had to concentrate elsewhere, and the average person wouldn’t even be able to.” He shrugged. “Plus, distracting yourself when you’re asleep is almost impossible. However, if you cast a dream ward”—he dragged out the two words—”you’ll be safe and sound until the morning.”

  “The spell is . . . easy?”

  “Very.” He scooted toward me, his face animated. “And if you’re even half as powerful as Elijah, you’ll be able to cast it with almost no effort at all.”

  I pinched my lips together, considering his words. He wanted me to do necromancy. Necromancy. The black magic that had destroyed my brother and created monsters like Marcus.

  But I couldn’t stay awake indefinitely, and the more tired I became, the less I would be able to defend myself with this distraction technique.

  And . . . there was just the tiniest corner of my heart that wanted to know what Elijah had done. Wanted to know what this magic was that had made him—and made Marcus too—devote his life to studying it.

  Then another part of me—that roiling part in my gut that would do anything to kill Marcus and take my brother’s body back—wanted to see just what kind of power I had living inside me.

  “This simple little spell,” I said warily, “you’re certain it will protect me?”

  “It’s not a permanent solution to the Hounds, but it’ll keep them away a bit longer.”

  I wet my lips, and before I could reconsider said, “All right. Tell me what to do.”

  His lips curved into a grin. “Focus your power and repeat after me.”

  “Focus my power?”

  “It’s quite easy—or I think it is, based on Elijah. Close your eyes.”

  “How do I know you won’t kill me or make me cast some horrible, world-destroying curse?”

  “Because that wouldn’t help me, now would it? I need you—alive—to set me free.”

  “That’s a very comforting response, Oliver. Of course I can trust you implicitly when all you care about is using me for your own designs.”

  “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’ve been thoroughly lonely and bored until you came along. So . . . I don’t want to lose you.”

  I grunted, and his face sobered. “You really are just like him, aren’t you?” He blinked quickly. “Never mind. Just close your eyes and feel for your power—your soul.”

  I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined sending my senses out to the very edge of my limbs.

  “It’s like taking a deep breath,” Oliver said, his voice low. “With each breath, draw power into your chest. The magic is part of you—it’s your very soul—and all you have to do is gather it into one place. You’re making a well. That’s what Elijah called it.”

  I sat up tall, inhaling until my lungs were full. I tried to pull every drop of spiritual energy into my body.

  It happened immediately—a tingle that started in my toes and fingers and buzzed up to my chest. It was warm. Soothing.

  “Wow,” Oliver breathed.

  “What?” I mumbled, keeping my eyes shut. This was nothing like the burning pain in my hand or the electric crack of Joseph’s methods.

  “You’re glowing.”

  My eyes sprang open. “I’m what?”

  “Just concentrate!”

  I looked down. My entire body was emanating a soft blue light. I stared in horror at Oliver. “M-my skin!”

  “It’s fine.” He threw his hands up. “No one’s looking at us. Trust me, El. Don’t worry. It just means you’re strong. Bloody strong.”

  I gulped. “Wh-what do I do now?”

  “You’ve got plenty of power here for the spell, so just repeat after me: Hac nocte non somniabo.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “I will not dream tonight.”

  “Oh.” I drew in a steeling breath. I could do this—I could cast a spell.

  “Hac nocte non somniabo,” I whispered. Warmth rushed through me like a wave, and the magic twirled around my heart—once, twice—before coursing back through my limbs and out. A heartbeat later, all the magic was gone.

  I collapsed back onto the seat.

  “You did it!” Oliver clapped. “And on your first try. Do you feel all right?”

  A tired smile tugged at my lips. “Actually, I feel amazing.” It was as if balmy bathwater lapped at my skin, and all my worries had fallen away.

  “A complete sense of well-being?” Oliver’s eyes crinkled knowingly. “That usually happens with necromancy. You ought to go to bed now—while you’re relaxed. Your body needs to sleep anyway, to replenish the soul you just used. I’ll be here—at the bar—if you need me.”

  I nodded, too exhausted and happy to do much else. Necromancy hadn’t been what I expected at all, and I suddenly understood exactly why Elijah might have turned to it.

  For not only was it a dark magic—it was a strange and lovely magic too.

  I slept like a stone for the rest of that day. It was far more sleep than a single waking night warranted, yet I wrote off the exhaustion as part of the necromancy.

  And I also blamed the necromancy for the abysmal pit of hunger in my stomach. Laure kindly ordered sea biscuits and oranges to the room, but no matter how many I stuffed into my face, the hunger never seemed to fade.

  Nonetheless, I managed to ignore it long enough to conk back out and sleep straight through the night. I spent the next morning gluttonously eating—this time with something more substantial than seasickness fare—and writing letters to Mary, Mama, and even Allison.

  I reveled in the fact that I felt safe. That, for the first time in months, not a single cloud of grief blackened my sky.

  Eventually Laure convinced me to dress, and she looked on as the stewardess’s fingers flew deftly up the final buttons on my gown.

  “Mademoiselle Fitt,” Laure drawled, lounging against our bunk, “you must be the easiest woman to dress on this boat.”

  “Why do you say that?” I asked, giving the stewardess a thankful nod as she left our room.

  Laure arched an eyebrow. “You ’ave no stays to pull or laces to tie.”

  “It’s much more comfortable.” I smiled and patted my corset-free belly. “Perhaps one day all women will forgo the wretched—” I broke off as an itch began in my missing hand.

  Holding my breath, I glanced down—and found the air over my wrist shimmered. Distract yourself, Eleanor. Focus elsewhere. Distract!

  “The wretched . . . ?” Laure prompted.

  “Um.” I wet my lips, attempting to recall what we’
d been discussing. “Uh, one day we’ll forgo the wretched things and start wearing trousers instead—”

  Pain rammed into me—so hard and so fast, a moan broke through my lips.

  “What is it?” Laure stepped toward me.

  “It’s my hand.” I grasped my wrist to my chest, hoping she couldn’t see the glow.

  Then a single, long howl burst through the room.

  It was happening again. The guardians had found me.

  Without thinking, I bolted for the door. I needed Oliver—now! He would know what to do.

  Laure shouted after me, but I shoved into the hall without a backward glance.

  Snatching my skirts in one hand, I barreled down the corridor and toward the stairs. My absent hand throbbed with each step, and I didn’t have to look to know that it glowed. The bluish light shone in my eyes like a lantern.

  I reached the stairwell and headed toward the bar. Moments later, I burst into the second-class saloon. Shocked faces turned toward me, and I ran my eyes over each one. But none of them had the familiar rosy cheeks and rounded jaw I needed.

  “Eleanor!” a voice yelled behind me. It was Laure, but I didn’t turn. At that instant a howl burst through the saloon, carrying with it the dark stench of grave dirt.

  Every lamp flickered and winked out.

  Screams erupted—high-pitched and terrified—and I realized that, for the first time, it wasn’t only I who could hear them. But what did that mean? Did it mean the Hound was here—actually in the earthly realm?

  No, not hound. Hounds. There were several now, growling and barking over one another.

  I spun around until I spotted the exit onto the second-class deck. Then I surged back into a run, my good hand out to shove people aside and my right hand a beacon to see by. If people noticed my glowing hand, they didn’t react—they were too busy scrambling and screaming in the dark.

  “Move!” I shrieked, shoving people harder.

  But I only made it halfway across the room before an icy wind blasted into me. I toppled forward and hit the ground. Pain burst in my chin, and the recent scratches ripped open. All around, the passengers’ shouts grew louder.

  I dragged myself to my feet and trudged onward to the door. The wind was so strong, it felt like slogging through mud. Then came the sound like a full-speed train. The Hell Hounds were here—right behind me, with roars so intense they consumed every piece of my mind and being.

  My legs pumped harder, my knees kicking high, and the bright square of daylight grew closer and closer. Just as I reached the door, a new voice shouted my name. “Eleanor!” Oliver’s figure formed in the doorway, arms outstretched. “Faster!”

  It was exactly like the dream. Faster, I had to run faster.

  I reached the door, and Oliver grabbed my sleeves and yanked me aside just as the Hounds galloped past—screeching like tornados and fully visible now.

  We ran as clouds crowded in overhead, blocking out the sun.

  We reached the smokestacks at the center of the boat. Oliver shoved me between them. “You’ve got to hide!”

  “How?” My breath came in short gasps. “They know I’m here!”

  He shook his head. “You’ve only got seconds.” He grabbed my stump and lifted it. My hand was there in its entirety, pulsing from blue starlight to pink flesh and back. “You’ve got to hide this!”

  “How?” I strained to keep breathing. I wasn’t ready to die—to have my soul obliterated! But the howls were racing closer, back on my trail. The smokestacks wouldn’t protect me from the Hounds’ supernatural jaws.

  Oliver glanced desperately toward the sea. As my heart battered my lungs, I grabbed Oliver’s sleeve and yanked him to me. “If I bind to you, can you save me?”

  His yellow eyes locked on mine. “Yes.”

  “Then do it!”

  He pulled me close. “Promise to set me free.”

  The Hounds were so near, I could hear each snarl and the gnashing of their phantom teeth. “I can’t set you—”

  “Promise to set me free,” he shouted, “and then I’ll save you!”

  “Fine! Yes!” I shrieked over their raging howls. “I promise!”

  Triumph flashed over his face. Gripping my left hand, he started whispering words I didn’t recognize and could barely hear. Then he leaned in until our foreheads touched. “Say Sum dominus et veritas.”

  I hesitated.

  “Say it, Eleanor—now!” The boat tipped dangerously, and the Hell Hounds’ growls shattered through my skull.

  “Sum dominus et veritas!” I screamed.

  Blue light flashed in Oliver’s eyes, and he tugged my glowing right hand up. The air around it sparked, cracking with electricity. Oliver’s eyes flashed the same color as my hand.

  Abruptly, the wind stopped, and with it the howls.

  But not the smell of grave dirt.

  I turned to face them. The guardians of the spirit realm. They looked exactly as they had on the spirit dock, but now they stood still, confused. Four dogs towering over us, their noses sniffing and yellow eyes staring.

  “Wh-what do we do?” I croaked.

  “Give them a minute,” Oliver whispered. “Their target—your hand—just vanished. They should leave soon . . . I think.”

  After what felt like hours of holding my breath, the dogs finally did twirl around and leave. I darted forward to watch them go.

  Over the ship they bounded, their feet barely skimming the wood, before they leaped up off the edge and winked out of existence completely.

  I spun to Oliver. “They’re gone?”

  “Yes. Gone.”

  My breath whooshed out. I almost doubled over. Oliver slipped his hand around my waist and guided me to the nearest bench, where we both plopped down and swallowed in air.

  “That . . . that was close.” I was coated in sweat, and my scratches were scabbing over anew.

  “Too close.” Oliver leaned onto his knees and held his head. “But that was smart of you, El. To bind to me, I mean.”

  I winced. Maybe it had saved my life, but at what price?

  “Don’t look so miserable,” Oliver grumbled. “You got to keep your life, and you got your hand back.” He reached for my right wrist and held it up.

  My jaw sagged. All I could manage was a shocked sputter.

  For there, wiggling at me as good as new, was a very flesh-colored, very real hand.

  Chapter Eight

  The first thing I did with my new hand was pinch Oliver.

  “Hey!” He scooted away from me on the bench.

  “Is it real?” I leaned toward him to pinch again, but he wriggled away.

  “Of course it’s real! Well, mostly.”

  “What do you mean ‘mostly’?” I held it to the light, flexing and straightening the fingers. My body blazed with a warmth ten times more powerful than after the dream ward was cast. The closest I’d ever come to a feeling like this was when the doctors had fed me laudanum after amputating my hand. But this was a much, much better feeling. Instead of a happy lethargy, I felt ablaze with energy. I could do anything.

  Oliver returned to his seat, eying me cautiously. “It’s a phantom limb—it’s only here because of my magic.”

  “A phantom limb,” I repeated, shaking my head. “And will it stay forever?”

  “About that . . .” He fixed his eyes on his feet. “It’s bound to me.”


  “Meaning the hand only exists as long as I exist.”

  “So if I set you free, I lose the hand.”

  “If?” Oliver wagged his finger at me. “When, you mean. You just made a binding agreement.”

  “What happens if I don’t follow through?”

  He bit his lip. “There is, um . . . a time limit. If you don’t set me free within the next two months, then your new hand will vanish. And, if Marcus’s spell is still in effect, then the Hell Hounds will come after you just like they did five minutes ago.”

  “So I’m really no better
off than before!” I cried. “All I did was sign over my life to you!”

  “And I signed over mine!” He threw his hands up. “You ought to be thanking me, El! You’ve got absolute control over my magic now—anything you want done, I have to do.”

  I deflated slightly. “Why two months?”

  “The longer the time frame, the longer the incantation. We were in a bit of a rush, you know.”

  “And now . . .” I stared at my fingers, torn between staggering relief and pulsing terror. “Now you’re my demon? Like a djinn?”

  “Precisely. And you’re my master.”

  “Will you call me Master Eleanor?”

  “No.” He looked horrified. “I never called your brother Master Elijah.”

  “What if I command you to?”

  “Then I have to.” He groaned. “But is that really the sort of command you want to give?”

  I shrugged. “Well, I have nothing else to ask for . . .”

  “Then it’s a damned good thing I haven’t taught you the words of command yet.”

  I fixed my eyes on him, and he shifted uncomfortably. “Of course, I will tell you.” He crossed his legs and lowered his voice, leaning close. “Sum veritas. You said it when you bound to me. It means ‘I am the truth.’”

  I drummed my new fingers on my thigh, savoring the feeling. “So all I do is give you a command and add those words at the end?”

  He nodded.

  “All right. Go to the edge of the boat”—I pointed at the railing around the deck—“and wait for me. Sum veritas.”

  A warm wave rolled over my body, and for a split second Oliver’s eyes shone blue.

  He blinked, and then a scowl cut into his forehead. “Truly, El? That’s your command?” He slid off the seat, muttering, “Abuse of power.”

  I shoved up and hurried after him. “Can you not resist?”

  He slowed and clenched his teeth. “It . . . hurts. Don’t you feel it?”

  I frowned and focused on my body. Sure enough, there was a strange sense growing in my belly—as if my breakfast wasn’t sitting quite right.

  “All right,” I said, “I cancel the command. You can go wherever you want. Sum veritas.” Again the pleasant tingle coursed through me, and Oliver exhaled sharply. We padded back to the bench and sat.

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