A Darkness Strange and Lovely (6 page)

The muscles in his jaw twitched, but he didn’t argue. “As I was saying, I was simply existing. Then one day, a few years ago, I was summoned. It’s like . . . like a tugging in your gut. One minute I was watching the universe unfold, and the next I was being yanked into a dingy hotel room in London. Suddenly I had a body
and
a skinny young man standing in front of me.”

“And from where did the body come? Is it yours?”

His nose wrinkled up. “Of course it’s mine! I didn’t take some poor person’s corpse, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Well, how else does one get a body?”

“It’s . . . it’s like water and ice,” Oliver said. “Phase changes. On the spirit side I was water. Then as I stepped through the curtain into the earthly side, I became ice.”

I broke off more toast, considering this. “So was it
you
hiding in the shadows downtown?”

He stared blankly—clearly clueless as to what I referred, which could only mean I
had
seen Marcus in Philadelphia. But then a new question occurred to me. “Why are your eyes yellow?”

He ogled them at me. “That’s pretty standard for anyone whose natural form is raw energy.”

Meaning Marcus’s true form was pure soul—which it
was
, since his body had died years ago. “Does this phase change happen to everyone? Because Marcus—the spirit who stole Elijah’s body—crossed from the spirit realm, yet he stayed in his spirit form. A ghost.”

“As for that, I’d guess it’s because he was dead.” Oliver guzzled back more rum and then wiped his lips. “Basically, this fellow’s body and soul were separate. When he crossed the curtain, he stayed in his spirit form because that was all he could be. However, if a man still possesses both a body
and
a spirit, then he would change phases. For example, if
you
”—he tipped his head toward me—“went to the spirit world, you’d change into a watery soul form.”

I grunted. It made sense. “So you had a body and then Elijah bound you? Why did he need to use the locket?”

“The guardians,” Oliver drawled, as if that was the most obvious answer in the world. “The ones who keep unwanted humans out of the spirit world—they also do a rather good job of keeping demons and spirits
in
it. When a necromancer calls something over, he has to hide it from these guardians right away. Hiding is done by
binding
; and to bind a demon, you have to use an object of significance. Elijah chose this. It binds me to your world, hides me from the guardians,
and
keeps me completely powerless.”

“Powerless?”

“Yep.” Oliver ran a finger along his chin. “I can’t do any magic. Only Elijah can use my power—at least until our agreement ends.”

I leaned forward. “But Elijah’s dead.”

He twisted his face away and took another pull of rum.

“So,” I said, forcing Oliver to look at me again. “Does a spirit or demon
have
to be called by a necromancer? Because Marcus crossed over without a necromancer’s help.”

Oliver’s eyebrows jumped. “The guardians didn’t sense him? He must be very strong then. Of course, yellow eyes would suggest that too.”

I fidgeted in my seat. My emotions were stewing in a way I knew best to avoid. Anger seemed the best approach, and if there was one feeling I could summon easily, it was
rage
. “First Elijah hid you from the guardians, then he made you his slave, and now you can’t use your magic. Plus, your master died.” My lips curled back. “Why, I’d say you’re not a very good demon, are you?”

Oliver cringed.

“And,” I continued, “I have to wonder why you weren’t in Philadelphia with my brother. Why didn’t you protect Elijah?”

Oliver screwed his eyes shut. “It was his necromancy that killed him, wasn’t it? He must’ve done something stupid and . . .” His words faded, fresh tears welling in his eyes.

For some reason, this only infuriated me more. “So you
could
have saved him? Why didn’t you, then? Why weren’t you there? If you really are—no,
were
—his demon, then why weren’t you with him when he died?”

Oliver flinched as if I’d slapped him, but his eyes stayed close. “E-Elijah sent me away. He knew he had to give me some impossible task so I’d be out of his way and couldn’t interfere.”

“That is quite a convenient excuse,” I said sharply, my voice rising. “Why, exactly, would he send his demon away?”

Oliver’s eyes snapped open. “He knew I’d try to stop him. I didn’t like what he wanted to do—the killing, the black magic. We argued. A lot.” He dabbed at his eyes and then guzzled back more rum, swishing it around in his mouth.

“You know what I think?” I watched him from the tops of my eyes. “I think you were careless. You didn’t
want
to save him or be with him—”

“No,” Oliver breathed. “El, he gave me a direct command. I couldn’t disobey him—not while we were bound. I told him—so many times—that there was nothing good in
Le Dragon Noir.
I told him any ghost in the spirit realm should stay there, but Elijah . . . he was determined to resurrect your father.”

“Determined?” I gritted my teeth. “More like insane. Where did he send you?”

“We were in Luxor. He sent me to Giza to find the Old Man in the Pyramids.”

“The who?” I snapped.

“The only person in the universe who knows how to raise a . . . a terrible creature. The
Black Pullet
.”

The
Black Pullet.
That sounded familiar. Then I remembered some of Elijah’s final words:
I’ll go back to Egypt. I’ll resurrect the Black Pullet, and we’ll live in wealth for the rest of our days, and everything will be all right.

“And did you find the Old Man?” My voice was a low snarl. “Was this mission that kept you from saving Elijah at least a successful one?”

Oliver’s head shook once. “I couldn’t find a bloody thing, and by the time I got to New York to meet Elijah, he had already left for Philadelphia. He was probably already dead.”

I hugged my arms to my chest. It was a lot to take in, and the hot rage in my chest was spreading to my throat.

Here was some person—some
monster
—who not only knew my brother, but had spent the last three years with him. Three years that should have been mine. Three years during which Elijah had transformed from my loving brother into a vengeful murderer.

My eyes stung, and I bit my lip to keep the tears away.

“You know,” Oliver said, popping open the locket and glancing inside. “You’ve changed a lot since this photograph was made.” He tilted his head and squinted at me, his eyes overbright. “No wonder I didn’t recognize you sooner.”

My whole body stiffened. “Were you trying to find me?”

“No. I was
trying
to find Elijah’s letters, and, well . . . they led me to you.”

My heart beat faster. The letters—it was always about those
damned
letters. I glanced at the table of Frenchmen. As long as they were still here, I could keep talking to Oliver with some semblance of safety.

I looked back to the demon. To his unnatural beauty . . . and increasingly drunken comportment. “What,” I said, my voice dangerously soft, “do you want with the letters, Oliver?”

“They’re all the ones I wouldn’t let Elijah send. I thought if I found them, I’d find
him.

“You mean you
kept
him from sending me letters?”

“Egads, yes!” Oliver blinked quickly, as if it took a lot of concentration to focus. “They’re filled with explanations of necromancy—of spells and translated grimoire passages. It’s dangerous stuff. Plus, he wrote to you almost every day. Like you were his diary.”

“Oh?” I wound my fingers in my skirts. “I don’t have three years’ worth of letters.”

“The ones you have are the ones he considered most valuable. He must’ve destroyed the others. But I know he cast a spell on the important ones. A finding spell, so that one day—in case things went wrong—they would reach you and you would understand.”

“But I
don’t
understand.” My teeth were grinding so hard, my jaw had started to ache. “I have read the letters, Oliver, yet I
still
can’t fathom what Elijah was doing.”

Oliver jabbed a thumb to his chest—or he tried to. His movement was sloppy, and he swayed back in his seat. “I can try to explain them to you. I was there for everything.”

“No,” I snapped. “You are not allowed near my letters.”
Especially not if they have secrets of necromancy in them.
“And,” I added, “I still do not see why you were trying to find them in the first place.”

“No? I thought I was being
very
”—spit flew with the word—“clear. It was
my
magic that made the finding spell, so that means I can track the letters. I sensed the letters were boarding the ship, so I
might
have picked a pocket to get on board.”

“I don’t believe you.” I slid my uneaten toast away and pushed back from the table. “You were in my room just now, and you were searching through my things—not for Elijah or for me. You were searching for my letters.”

His eyes darted sideways, and he swallowed several times. But before he could weave some clever excuse, I stood and puffed out my chest. “I’ve heard enough from you, Oliver. I’m going to my cabin now, and if you follow me, I will scream.”

“B-but . . .” His lip quavered. “I thought we could . . .”

“Could what?”

He tapped his rum. “Grieve together.”

I rolled my eyes. “I dealt with my grief months ago. I’m not doing it again.”

I strode past him, giving his chair a wide berth, but I wasn’t far before Oliver called after me—his voice barely audible over the rowdy Frenchmen. “I’m sorry for going into your room. I won’t do it again.”

I paused, my left fist curling, and strode back toward him—but only far enough so he could hear me speak.

“No, you won’t go into my room again, Oliver. You won’t come
near
me ever again. I want nothing to do with you, do you understand? Elijah wasn’t the only necromancer in the family.” I thrust out a pointed finger, wishing with all my heart that my charade could be real. If only I
were
a necromancer. If only I
were
powerful enough to destroy those in my way.

But Oliver did not know I was bluffing, so I said with all the authority I could muster, “If you dare come close to me without my permission, I will use everything I know to destroy you.”

Chapter Six

I thought I would start bawling the moment I
reached my cabin, but, in fact, being away from the depressed demon and his drink and walking with long, purposeful strides was enough to lift my mood—or at least to clear away some of the pulsing anger.

But not enough to calm my thoughts.

A demon? Bound to my brother by a necklace? An old man in Egypt?

I was more confused than ever . . . but I felt I could be certain of one thing: the drunk young man in the dining room was
not
Marcus.

I found Mrs. Brown in her dressing gown, lounging in one of the armchairs and reading. “Miss Fitt,” she said with a nod.

I winced. “Please, just call me Eleanor.” Ever since I’d realized Miss Fitt sounded identical to “misfit,” I had vowed I would never use my surname again.

She sniffed. “As you wish.”

“Where’s Lizzie?” I asked, crossing toward my bed.

“The bathroom, preparing her evening toilet.”

“Oh.” I peeked at what Mrs. Brown was reading as I passed: a book on manners. My lips twitched, and I wondered if it was the same book Daniel toted.

At that thought, an image of Daniel in a black evening suit materialized in my mind . . . and my mouth went dry. If anyone could fill out a dress suit well, I was certain it was he.

Clarence filled out his suit well too

My lungs clenched shut, pushing out my air. I did
not
want to think of Clarence. Dwelling on his memory would stir up emotions I did not need.

I sucked in a shaky breath and dropped to the floor before my drawer. As I yanked out my nightgown, I checked quickly for Elijah’s letters—still nestled beneath my spare petticoat.

Right then the door swung open. Laure strutted in. “Ah, Mademoiselle Fitt! You were not in the saloon—you missed the most wonderful card game.” She stopped beside me and leaned onto her bunk, adding in a lower voice that smelled of wine, “Please tell me you did not spend the evening with the old goat.”

“The who?”

“Madame Brown.” She motioned to her chin and mouthed, “Beard. Like a goat.”

Despite my rattled nerves, I couldn’t help but laugh. “No, I spent most of the evening on the promenade deck.”

“Ah, do you feel better now?”

“Much.” I smiled.


Magnifique.
” She bent down to her own drawer and withdrew a white shift. “Come, let us prepare for the night’s slumber. I wish to ’ave great dreams of true love and adventure.”

A little snort came from the armchair. Laure whirled around and wagged her finger in Mrs. Brown’s face. “Oh, what do you know of
l’amour
, you old—”

“That’s enough.” I grabbed her arm and towed her to the door.

Laure hooted a laugh. Once we were in the hall and headed toward the bathroom, she whispered, “But she
is
an old goat,
non
?” She raised her voice in song. “Old goat!
Vieille chèvre
! Old . . .” She trailed off as a wide-eyed Lizzie Brown walked by, her head swiveling to watch us pass.

I had to press my fingers to my lips to keep from laughing.

After we had used the bathroom, a stewardess came to our cabin to help us remove our dresses and—in Laure’s case—corset. I hadn’t worn one in months, and I rather liked the snide glares people gave me for it. One day the suffragists and I wouldn’t be the only ones foregoing the whalebone prisons.

By the time we were in our nightgowns, Laure’s wine giddiness had faded into wine exhaustion; and once the stewardess left, I practically had to carry her to her bunk. The Browns were already tucked in, and I waited until I could hear Laure’s heavy breathing before I switched on an electric lamp beside my bunk, pulled Elijah’s letters from my drawer, and spread them over my bed.

There were only eight in total, and if Oliver spoke the truth, then these were the most important. I started with the first, dated from the summer of 1873, when Elijah had first left.

As they had seemed when I’d originally read them, the letters were a confusing, rambling mess. Mentions of his work were dropped in with names. A hotel steward, a cab driver, a librarian—they were all sprinkled around his day-to-day activities.

And then there were the lines addressed to me. The descriptions of places he thought I’d like, stories he knew I’d laugh at, and promises to come home soon.

In the second letter, Oliver’s name appeared twice, but it was only in reference to a joke. There was no mention of Oliver in the third letter, nor did anything crop up in the fourth or fifth.

Until my eyes lit on the name “Ollie” in the final line of the fifth.

 

Once, in Marseille, Ollie told me a hilarious riddle about Jack and the beanstalk, but since we were in the crypt of Notre-Dame de la Garde, our laughter echoed around all those soldiers’ tombs until the priest finally made us leave.

 

“Very useful story, Elijah,” I muttered under my breath. “You don’t even share the riddle’s answer.” All the same, now I knew that he must have called Oliver “Ollie,” and that nickname did appear rather frequently.

A yawn took over my mouth, and my eyes stung with exhaustion. I sank back on my bed. It was late, and I had eight more days of sailing to sort out things with this demon. I hadn’t felt a single twinge in my hand since leaving Philadelphia, and I had three roommates to awaken if anyone entered our cabin. For now I felt safe.

It wasn’t long before the rocking ship lulled me to sleep.

 

It was a dream. I
knew
it was a dream—I’d had it so many times before—and as always, I was terrified it would end.

Daniel, Daniel, Daniel. Smelling of machines and forest, tasting of salt. His lips pressed to my neck, his hand on my waist.

My hand—my
right
hand—pushed against his stomach, and my left scratched his back. My eyelids fluttered open, and I pulled back slightly. A yellow streetlamp shone on his sandy hair and sun-roughened skin.

“Empress,” he whispered. His lips locked back on mine, and I sank into the embrace.

Then, as always happened no matter how hard I clung to the kiss, the dream shifted.

Daniel sat at the edge of my hospital bed, his face cast in shadow. My wrist ached—my hand having recently been amputated—and was wrapped tightly in a bandage. My heart was cracking right down the middle, yet as long as I focused on my hand, on the laudanum pumping through me, I could keep going.

“You’re not in love with me, are you.” I spoke it as a statement and tried to ignore my pounding heart.

He twisted his head away. “It’s not that simple.”

“It’s a yes or no.”

“Then . . .” He set his cap on his head. “Then no. No, I’m not.”

A howl burst through the night.

Daniel’s head shot up. For a single breath, all was silent and still.

Then the howl came again. This was
not
part of the dream, I knew.

Daniel lunged at me. “Run!”

At that instant a wind broke through the open hospital window, as loud as a locomotive and filled with angry baying.

Daniel yanked me up. My bare feet landed on cold tile. “Run!” he roared, but when I glanced at him, I found someone else entirely.

Clarence Wilcox, dressed in an evening suit just as I’d seen him last. “You have to go!” He grabbed my elbow and pulled me into a sprint. We bolted for the hospital’s hallway.

No, now it was the ship’s hall. We were racing toward the main stairwell, red carpet underfoot. And the boat rocked, fighting me.

“Faster, Eleanor! Faster!”

Another hand grabbed me from the other side. I choked at the sight of Elijah, filthy and huge—just as he had been before he died.

“Go!” he screamed, and suddenly we were racing twice as fast. My legs spun like wheels, but still I could barely keep up with the two young men.

“Don’t stop,” Clarence shouted. “They’re almost here!”

The hallway blurred, shifting like paint into a murky, gray landscape. Barren, endless, this world was only broken by pinpricks of light across the sky.

Our feet pounded on wooden slats, and I realized with horror that we were on a rickety dock. Splinters sliced into my bare soles, and a wind beat at us from behind. My nightgown whipped up into my face.

The howling of the dogs was deafening.

“We’re too late,” Clarence cried.

“Just keep going,” Elijah urged. Then he and Clarence released me, and they both fell back.

Somehow I pushed on. Ahead, a golden glow beckoned to me, growing closer and closer. I ran and ran and—

The wind shoved me. I flew forward onto my chest. My face slammed into the gray dock, and the roaring hounds swallowed everything. I tried to scrabble to my feet, but the moment I lifted my face, the howling stopped.

And I froze.

The dogs were there. Four of them, lips drawn back and fangs bared.

They were huge—bigger than me, bigger than a horse. Hulking, black, and with eyes of sun-bright yellow.

Eyes that were locked on me.

“Eleanor! Wake up!” I heard the voice, distant and dim.

I was shaking. Someone was shaking me.

“Wake up, El—wake up!”

And I knew that voice. This dock was a dream.

The moment the realization hit, the world winked out of existence. My eyelids popped open. I was staring at polished tan wood. The air was frigid.

“Eleanor, please wake
up
!”

I lifted my head, dazed, and found Oliver crouched over me.

“Where am I?” I tried to sit up, and he helped me rise.

“You’re on the bloody promenade deck—you almost walked off the
edge
.”

My eyes widened, and the contents of my stomach rose into my throat—because Oliver was right. Three feet from my face was the railing.

And beyond that was the roiling, gray sea.

Somehow, I had sleepwalked onto the deck.

Oliver gasped. “Oh no.”

I wrenched my face toward him. “What?” In the swaying electric lights, his eyes were shining and his face was pink.

“Your . . . your face,” he said. “And your dress.”

“What do you mean?” I lowered my gaze. My nightgown was ripped to shreds. “Oh God.” I wrapped my arms around myself.

Then I realized who knelt beside me, and my eyes jerked back to his face. “Get away from me—I warned you!” I tried to scuttle back.

His jaw fell. “But I just saved your life!”

“What are you talking about?”

“The Hell Hounds, El. Didn’t you see them?”

My throat clenched shut. I stopped crawling. The Hell Hounds. The dogs from my dream. “H-how do you know about them?”

“Because my entire existence depends on it.” A gust of wind thrashed over us, sending his chestnut curls into his eyes. He had to shout to be heard. “My life hangs on making sure the Hell Hounds never find me!”

And in a flash it all made sense. “The Hell Hounds”—my vocal cords strained over the ocean wind—“they’re the guardians of the spirit world?”

“Obviously!” He swiped his hair from his eyes. “But why are they after you?”

“After me? What do you mean? It was just a dream.” I struggled to my feet, my head spinning and the wind fighting me. Oliver reached out to help, but I bared my teeth. “
Stay back
.”

He retreated, his hands up. “I’m back! I’m back! But, El, that was
not
just a dream.” He pointed to my face. “Just look at yourself.”

I reached up and touched my cheek. “Ow!” I whipped back my hand. It was covered in blood.

For half a breath I stared blankly. Then I darted away from him, fear churning in my gut, and tottered to the nearest wall. My bare feet slapped on the smooth wood, and the wind whipped my gown in all directions.

I found a porthole, and in the yellow lamplight, I could clearly make out my reflection.

Lacerations lined my chin and nose. I leaned into the glass, and a new terror jolted through me, for there, embedded in my flesh at jagged angles, were giant splinters of dark, gray wood.

I glanced down at the deck and stomped my foot to be sure.

But no—there was no way this damage had been done by the deck.

And that could only mean one thing: my dream had not been a dream at all. It had been real.

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