A Darkness Strange and Lovely (23 page)

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.

“Laure!” I hurled bloated corpses off me. “Laure!” Then Oliver was there, trying to help me rise. “The butler’s victim,” I shrieked. “It’s Laure!”

Oliver’s eyes bulged. He spun around and darted to the collapsed butler. I crawled over, and we shoved the rotten body aside to show an unmoving woman beneath.

Her neck was destroyed—half of it torn out and still in the butler’s teeth. Tattered flesh clung to the edges of a gaping hole.

“Laure!” I wrenched her to me. Blood spurted onto her dress, onto my hands, warm and sticky and red. She was dying.

My eyes flew to Oliver’s. “Help her!”

“How?” His voice was frantic.

“Heal her!” A river of blood slid down the side of her neck, blossoming onto her violet gown. Her eyelids fluttered slightly, but her chest barely moved.

“It’s a death wound,” Oliver said, his voice shaky. “It will take all my magic and yours to heal—”

“Do it!”

“Then lay her down.”

I placed her gently back on the carpet. Her head lolled to one side, stretching the hole and oozing more fresh blood. Oliver gripped my hand in his and laid his other over Laure’s heart. His yellow eyes held mine. “Command me, El.”

“Heal Laure.
Sum veritas.

His eyes lit up. First a flash of blue—pulsing, pulsing—and then an azure flame. So bright, so blinding, I had to squint.

My heartbeat synchronized with the pulsing flames, and time seemed to hold its breath. I was aware of everything around me. Of how Oliver’s eyes shone brighter. Of the fetid stench of the corpses, heavy and gagging. Of the smell of blood, higher-pitched and piercing. Of the animals—rat after rat, sparrow after pigeon. Of how congealed blood and writhing maggots were ground into the teal carpet.

Oliver latched onto my soul and he
pulled
. Each drop of magic slid from me, draining and draining, shriveling my insides.

I wanted to scream at him, “There is nothing left! Stop,
stop
!” But no words would form.

And still Oliver shone brighter. Blue light pulsed in his skull like a jack-o’-lantern, beautiful and terrifying.

Then his whole body tensed up. His hand crushed mine, and suddenly the light burst into his chest. A well of power, glowing through his ribs.

He cried out, and a spark cracked from his outstretched hand. A beam of power shot into Laure’s chest, spreading out like a spiderweb over her body.

Oliver’s voice ripped out again, an agonized sound. His head rolled back. His chest burned brighter and seared my eyes.

All at once, Laure’s body stiffened like a board. Oliver screamed, and Laure screamed too. Then liquid heat rolled over me, bathing us in a perfect warmth.

The light shrank in on itself, smaller and smaller, until it finally winked out completely.

For a moment all was still. My eyes were too blinded to see, my body too stupefied to move. But I saw a shadowy form teetering back. Oliver. I lunged over and caught him. He sank into my arms, a tiny smile on his face.

I looked at Laure. Her neck was as smooth and unblemished as a baby’s, and her chest moved at a normal, steady pace. Her eyes were still closed, but she was alive, and she would be
fine
.

The moment was so strange and calm. The awful smells and blood
everywhere
seemed separate, as if I were viewing it all from afar. My heartbeat in my ears was nothing more than a distant drum, my ragged breaths a far-off breeze.

But the fragile calm was soon shattered. Footsteps hammered up the stairs and into the corpse-laden hall.

“Demon!” Joseph shouted. “Demon!”

Chapter Seventeen

“Demon!” Joseph hissed. He stood over Oliver and
me, a crystal clamp in his hand. Behind him stood Daniel, with a pistol—a real pistol—aimed at Oliver’s head.

“Eleanor,” Joseph said, “get away from that creature.”

“It’s fine,” I said tiredly.


Non
. He may look like a man, but he is not. He is a demon.”

Oliver wound his fingers around my arm. “She knows what I am.”

“Let her go!” Daniel barked.

When Oliver did not budge, Joseph lifted both hands. “I will blast you to the spirit realm.”

“No, you won’t.” Oliver’s fingers tightened. “I’m bound to Eleanor. Use that
gadget
, and you kill her too.”

“Silence!” Joseph roared. “I will not hear your lies.” He squeezed the clamp.

“Wait!” I screamed, lurching to my feet. “It’s true. Oliver is my demon.”

Joseph froze, and his face paled. “
Non, non—
it cannot be.”

“It . . . is.”

Daniel choked, and when I glanced at him, I saw horror rip over his face. Horror and betrayal.

Joseph stared at Oliver, his eyes as hard as stone. “What lies have you planted in her?” he growled. “Show me your binding piece.”

“No lies.” A smugness settled on Oliver’s face. He stood and slipped out his locket. At that, Joseph’s eyes closed, and he finally lowered his hands.

Daniel, however, did not move. His pistol stayed trained on Oliver though his gaze was on me. “Have you been bound to this thing the—” His voice cracked. “The whole time?”

“Yes. I had no choice, Daniel. Please, I—”

“It’s a monster.” Daniel’s voice was barely above a whisper.

“Oliver isn’t a monster. He saved my life,” I added. “And Laure’s.”

Joseph and Daniel flinched, as if noticing the bloodied woman on the floor for the first time. Yet neither approached.

“Why?” Joseph demanded. His neck bulged. “
Why
would you bind to a demon?”

“You make it sound as if I set out to do it, but I did not.” I tipped up my chin. “As I have said over and over,
I had no choice
. Marcus sent the Hell Hounds after me.” I raised my right hand. “He had a spell on me, and the only way to survive was to bind to Oliver.”

“Why did you not tell me?” Joseph straightened to his full height, and his voice bellowed out. “I told you I thought a demon was responsible for
les Morts
! How, Eleanor,
how
could you hide a demon from me after knowing that?”

“Because Oliver is not the one raising
les Morts
.”

“How do you know that?” Daniel lowered the pistol, and I noticed that his hands trembled. His voice too. “And how do
we
know this creature isn’t the one raising the Dead?”

“Because I’m
telling
you it is not Oliver.”

“And you are a liar,” Joseph spat. “A liar and a necromancer. I should have seen it—you are no different than he.”

It was like a punch in the gut.
He. Marcus
. And for a split second my heart clenched . . . but then all regret vanished in a seething rush. After everything we had done together, after we had stood side by side against the Dead, after Joseph had
seen
what Marcus had done to my family, he thought I was no different? All my past loyalty had bought me
nothing
?

“No!” I spat. “
No
. I am not like Marcus. I am not the corrupt necromancer you so desperately want me to be.” My lips curled back. “Do not look at me like that—as if you do not understand what I mean. All you see, Joseph, is black or white, and I am sorry, but I do not fit into those lines.”

I drew back my shoulders. “Necromancy has not corrupted me, but Marcus
has
corrupted you and how you view the world. I am still Eleanor and the same girl I have always been. Only I’m stronger now. Stronger than you, Joseph, and stronger than your machines. I can use my magic—my
necromancy—
without turning into Marcus.”

“Is that what you think?” Joseph gave a growling laugh. “That you are somehow immune to the darkness inside you? You are not, Eleanor. You are only blind to it, and eventually it will take control.”

“And if it
does
take control?” I threw my arms wide. “So what? I don’t care—and you shouldn’t either. I am on
your
side! If this magic is the only way to stop Marcus, then so be it!”

“Is this truly what you believe, Eleanor?” Again Joseph laughed, his face twisted with disgust and his scars stretched taut. “You believe you are powerful enough to face Marcus? Do not mistake the feeling of strength for
actual
strength.”

“Tell yourself that,” Oliver snarled. “Tell yourself she’s weaker than you if it makes you feel less afraid. But know that it isn’t the truth. Eleanor
is
strong; and once she is trained, she will be as strong as a demon, as strong as Marcus, and certainly stronger than you.” He flourished a hand at the corpses littering the hall. “She raised these. All of these, and all by herself. The rats, the birds, the butler—it was all Eleanor’s magic.”

I spun to Oliver. “Why are you saying that? I didn’t do this!”

“Oh yes, you did. It might not have been on purpose, El, but I felt your magic all over it.”

“But I couldn’t have!”

“Yet you did.” He gave me a sad half smile. “It
was
you who raised the Dead.”

Bile rose in my throat. “But how? There is no possible way!” Then I remembered the words I’d thought before passing out:
Awake, awake, awake . . . “
Oh God, oh God,
no.
” My breathing came faster. I clutched my stomach. “It
was
me. Oh no, no, no . . . it was an accident! I was trying to hold a séance.”

“You need multiple people to hold a séance,” Joseph declared.

“So I used the crystal clamp. But it overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t reach any spirits.”

“Of course not!” he yelled. “The séance is not about power. It is about focus. Focus and
discipline
—neither of which you have!”

“Because you have not taught me!” I screamed. “If you want me to learn, then
teach
me! Do not tell me simply to
resist
my magic. I cannot; don’t you see?”

Daniel took a step toward me. I jolted. He had been so silent, I’d forgotten he was here.

“How,” he said in a rough voice, “can Joseph be expected to teach you? You lied to him—to
me
.” His eyes ran desperately over my face. “What . . . what
are
you?”

A fresh wave of fury crashed into me. I scoffed. “That is a stupid question coming from you since, pray tell, what are
you
, Daniel? You prance around the city pretending to be a gentleman in your fancy suits and with your fancy manners. Well, you are not a gentleman. You’re a
criminal
, remember?” I rounded on Joseph. “And you—you have the same magic in you. It must be
so
wonderful simply to fight the corruption. But how, Joseph?
How
do you do it? I can’t solve this on my own!”

Joseph’s mouth opened, but I surged on before he could fling out any more unwarranted accusations. “Both of you are running around chasing your tails and attending parties and
salons
while
les Morts
run free. While an amulet with seventy-three compulsion spells hides somewhere, waiting to be detonated. While Jie is
missing
! And while Marcus could be here any blasted moment. The Spirit-Hunters are an ineffective joke.” I pounded my chest. “But I have power, and I intend to use it.”

Before Joseph or Daniel could answer, I spun around and knelt beside the still-unconscious Laure. “Ollie, can you lift her? She’s small.”

“I can manage,” he answered, crouching beside me. Together we hefted the woman into his arms.

“We will take her to the lobby and call for a doctor,” I said as we trudged past the Spirit-Hunters toward the stairs. But I barely made it two steps before Joseph’s voice rang out.

“Stop. I cannot let you go free.”

Oliver and I paused, but I nudged the demon to keep going. Then I pivoted around and advanced on Joseph. “And what will you do to me? Blast me to pieces like one of the Dead?” I spun to Daniel. “
Shoot
me?”

“If we have to,” Joseph answered quietly, “then yes.”

“Well, you do not have to because I am not your threat. You
know
me, Joseph. Daniel.” My gaze darted between them. “All I want to do is search for Jie, and after I find her I will leave Paris—leave
you
—for good.” I pushed out my chest, pumping all the assertion and command I could muster into my words. “I am
not
a threat to you—not unless you try to stop me. If you get in my way, then this”—I motioned to the corpses—“will seem like child’s play.”

Without waiting for a reply, I marched after Oliver, and together we descended.

It was a bluff. I couldn’t fight Joseph. Oliver and I could barely carry Laure down the stairs, much less use any more magic. But it didn’t mean I
wouldn’t
fight Joseph if he got in my way.

The truth was, despite my exhaustion, I felt ablaze with potential. I would finally
do
something. I would find Jie and stop Marcus.

“Are you . . . all right?” Oliver asked between gasps for air, his cheeks bright pink.

We were passing my floor. Tufts of putrid fur and feathers littered the carpet, only broken up by brown bloodstains or by mounds of rotting corpses. And every so often, a dazed hotel guest gawping at the disaster. It was a replica of the top floor—as was every floor in the hotel.

“I am . . . fine,” I answered, panting. Laure was a small woman, but Oliver and I had no energy left. We rounded a bend in the stairs, and the dull roar of a distant crowd hit my ears.
It must be all the guests—they must have gone downstairs.

“That . . . didn’t go well.” He slowed and shifted his grip beneath Laure. “With . . . the Spirit-Hunters, I mean.”

“It went how we thought it would go.”

“And you’re not . . . sad?” Oliver pressed.

“No,” I said stoutly as we trekked past the Spirit-Hunters’ lab and the sounds from below grew louder, nearer. I wasn’t sad. Not at all.

“That’s the magic, you know.” Oliver spoke the words carefully, watching me for a reaction. “When the power wears off, you
will
feel this.”

I wiped my face on my shoulder, but the movement was sloppy . . . and I realized I was shaking. We were almost to the foyer, and the frantic cries of all the guests were now thunderous; but it wasn’t the noise that tremored through me. I was keyed up on magic.

And that meant that Oliver was right. When this passed, I would probably feel a great deal of guilt over Laure, over the Spirit-Hunters, and over all the damage I had caused. But for now I did not. All I cared about was finding Jie.

And,
I thought, anticipation warming my blood anew,
if the magic begins to wear off, I can always use more. . . .

 

Most of the hotel’s patrons had taken refuge in the restaurant. Everyone was a disaster—clothes torn, eyes wide with shock, and skin coated in bits of animal corpses. No one even noticed Laure and me, and while I dealt with her slowly rousing form, Oliver had his eye out for the Spirit-Hunters.

It was all going surprisingly well. We had called for a doctor to tend to Laure—not that she had any injuries to tend—and she seemed to have no memory of what had happened. She thought she had fainted, and she was in a happy buzz from Oliver’s magic.

But then Laure noticed the blood on her dress, and the panic set in. “
Qu’est que c’est
?
Qu’est que c’est
?” she breathed over and over again. “It is blood,
non
?
Mais comment
? How, Eleanor, how?”

I grabbed her hands and forced her to look at me. “Listen, Laure: it’s not your blood. It’s mine.”

This was perhaps a poor response, because although she stopped her frantic questions, she now looked incredibly suspicious.

“Your blood?” Her lids lowered slightly. “But you are not even hurt.”

“I’m not?” I glanced down, and for the first time I realized the state I was in. My sleeves and skirts were ripped to shreds; my hair hung in thick, crusted clumps before my face; and my arms were covered in jellied animal blood. Yet the skin beneath was as smooth and perfect as Laure’s.

Oliver had not only healed the young woman.

So I wound up telling her the truth. “It was magic, Laure. We . . . we were both attacked by the Dead, and I healed us.”

Her brow furrowed. “Magic. You healed me with magic?”

I nodded wearily. “I am afraid there’s much more to it.” I glanced at the restaurant’s entrance. Oliver was motioning to me—the doctor had arrived. I turned back to Laure. “But I cannot tell you everything now. And your doctor is here.”

She pushed to her feet, the picture of vitality. “I do not need one. I shall call a cab and return to my friend’s house. However”—she leaned close, her eyes boring into mine—“I expect to hear the whole story tomorrow, Eleanor. I will call on you. We have plans for breakfast,
non
? So tomorrow morning before I leave for Marseille, I will return.”

“Fair enough,” I murmured.

After walking with her to get a carriage, I returned to the crowded foyer to search for Oliver. Sometime in the last hour of hell, I had decided I would turn to the demon for help finding Jie. I
had
been willing to give him my letters—had decided I could rely on him—until he’d ruined my moment with Daniel and my temper had clouded everything. No, perhaps I would never trust the demon completely, but he at least deserved my respect. He had saved my life and Laure’s. . . .

Besides, he was all I had left now.

“Mademoiselle Fitt!”

I paused, searching for who had called me. “Mademoiselle Fitt!” The Marquis’s dark hair and oily mustache appeared nearby, and he pushed through the throngs to finally pop out directly in front of me. “
Mon Dieu
, are you hurt?” His eyes ran over my destroyed gown.

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