A Darkness Strange and Lovely (7 page)

Chapter Seven

As if my narrow escape from death was not enough
agony for one night, things soon became even more complicated. After ogling myself in the porthole for a solid minute, the relative calm of the windy promenade deck was shattered by a childlike squeal.

My heart stumbled, and I spun around to find a terrified-looking Lizzie chasing toward me—her grandmother and a groggy Laure in tow.

“What happened?” Lizzie shrieked. “You’re hurt!”

Mrs. Brown gasped. “Oh, Miss Fitt, we must call a doctor!”


Qui êtes-vous
?” Laure’s eyes were locked on Oliver. “Who are you?”

“The poor man who found me,” I blurted before he could say anything stupid.

“But what
happened
?” Lizzie demanded. “I saw you get up and walk outta the room, but when I called, you didn’t answer.”

“Sleepwalking,” I said, my eyes darting from face to face. “I . . . I have a sleepwalking problem.”

“And now you’re injured!” Mrs. Brown cried. She hurried to my side and inspected my face. “Dear, your face is
destroyed
.”

“It’s not that bad,” I mumbled, dabbing at my face. But I instantly grimaced. The bleeding might have lessened, yet the cuts still stung.

“Oh, it is
that
bad,” Laure insisted. With a groggy yawn, she stepped to my other side. “But Mrs. Brown is right—you must see the ship’s doctor.”

“I can take you,” Lizzie offered. She held up her finger, around which was a small bandage. “I already visited him today. He’s on the bottom level.”

“Thank you,” I said, attempting a smile, “but this gentleman here can guide me.” I waved to Oliver, who looked anything but willing to escort me to a doctor. “You’re in your nightgown, Lizzie, and should go back to the cabin.”


C’est vrai
,” Laure chimed. “I vote we let the
jeune homme
take her.”

“But how inappropriate,” Mrs. Brown proclaimed. “Her nightgown is in tatters, for heaven’s sake.”

“But he’s already seen me this way.” I tried—with little success—to keep impatience off my words. “Please, I appreciate you coming to my rescue, but I can get to the doctor just fine now.”

Laure gave a jaw-cracking yawn. “That is good enough for me, though perhaps you should lock the cabin door when you return.”

“Yes, I certainly will.” I waved good-bye to her—and Lizzie and Mrs. Brown—before turning to Oliver. “I’m going to find the doctor.” He stepped toward me, but I flicked up my hand. “You are
not
coming with me.”

“But they said I must escort you.”

“And
I
don’t want to be anywhere near you.”

“The Hell Hounds are after you, El! You almost died. Don’t you realize what just happened? You
crossed into
the spirit realm. You can’t keep walking around by yourself—it might happen again!”

I didn’t answer, but simply pivoted and strode for the saloon door. As I knew he would, Oliver followed. And for some unfathomable reason, I let him . . . and I was even a bit glad to have him.

Was I so lonely that even the company of a demon was welcome?
No, you merely want answers, and he’s the only creature alive who can give them to you.
Yet even as these thoughts slid through my mind, part of me knew they weren’t true. Oliver was just so much like Elijah. . . .

I glanced back at him. “Why,” I shouted over the gusting wind and my smacking feet, “would these Hell Hounds be after me?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” he yelled back. He lengthened his stride yet was smart enough to hang behind a few feet. “I thought the Hell Hounds were after me, actually. When they showed up at the wharf in Philadelphia, I thought it meant my binding spell was failing. That Elijah was dead, and the Hell Hounds were out to get me.”

“Should the binding spell end with Elijah’s death?” We reached the saloon door. I motioned for him to open the heavy thing, and he hopped in front and heaved it wide.

“I thought it would,” Oliver said, “but . . . I don’t think it did. I certainly can’t do any magic, and I’m . . .” He paused, and I had the distinct impression he was debating how much to tell me. At last he finished, “I think I must still be bound.”

And I knew in an instant he had opted to
hide
something from me. My distrust for him ramped up a notch.

As I strode past him and through the open doorway, he said, “You were in the spirit realm, you know. Right on the edge.”

“So it wasn’t a dream?” The door slammed behind us with a bang.

“No. It was real,” Oliver said, speaking at a normal volume.

I wiped at my face, trying to ignore how
that
made me feel. “Let’s say . . . well, let’s say I believe you. How did I get there? And why?”

“I don’t know, El.”

“Can you at least tell me what the dock was, then? Or the golden light at the end?”

“That whole area is the border between worlds. The dock is like a no-man’s-land, and that golden light was the curtain to the earthly realm.”

“That’s all very complicated.” I resumed walking. The saloon carpets were soft and welcome beneath my feet.

“It’s not complicated,” he retorted, following after me. “Ghosts that won’t settle collect at the border. They wait for their chance, for the Hell Hounds to look away, and then they run for that golden curtain.”

“But I saw Elijah there.” I glanced back at Oliver. “Does that mean he wants to come here?”

Oliver scratched his head. “You’re certain it was him?”

“Yes. And I saw an old friend of mine—one of Elijah’s victims, actually.”

He grimaced. “It sounds like their spirits were there to help you—on
purpose—
which makes me think that somehow they knew you were in danger. Like maybe they were watching out for you.”

“So that was
really
Elijah?”

Oliver nodded. “His spirit, yes.”

My throat closed tight. Elijah
and
Clarence—two people I’d have given anything to speak to again.

It would seem Oliver was thinking the same thing, for he said, “Did Elijah, um . . . well, did he say anything?”

“Like what?” I stepped onto the main stairs, paused, and gripped the left handrail until my knuckles were white.

“Like maybe a message,” Oliver explained. “For me.”

“No.” I resumed my descent, adding gruffly, “There wasn’t exactly time.”

“Right.” He shambled after me. “Of course not. Silly of me to have hoped.” He stared at the steps, his pace steady. Then his head snapped up. “Never mind. We have more important things to dwell on. Like seeing the doctor. And figuring out why the Hell Hounds are after you—oh, and figuring out how they keep
finding
you.”

“We?” I paused on the next landing. “I don’t trust you.”

“No.” He tapped his chin, and his lips curved up in an almost arrogant smile. “But even if you don’t, I’m the only person who can help you right now. You told me you knew about necromancy, but obviously that was a lie. The first lesson in necromancy has to do with the Hell Hounds: Don’t mess with them. They’ll blast your soul straight into the final afterlife. No second chances. No questions asked. There’s a reason I never let down my guard, and those dogs are it. If they manage to sense me here—to recognize I’m in the wrong realm—I’ll be gone in an instant.”

“So . . .” I bit my lip, my grip still tight on the handrail. “If you hadn’t woken me just now . . .”

“No more Eleanor Fitt.”

I sucked in. There
was
a lot I didn’t know—and now I owed my life to a demon because of it. Fantastic.

Oliver cleared his throat. “It was total luck, actually. Like I said, I never drop my guard. When I sensed the Hounds were here and
not
after me, I thought . . . well, I assumed the worst. I saw you on the dock in Philadelphia, you know—saw how you reacted when the Hounds came. And so I ran to see if you could sense them this time. To make sure you were all right. Luckily I was able to distract you—by waking you up—and that sent the Hounds away.”

“Distract me,” I repeated slowly. “It seems that every time my thoughts are elsewhere, the Hounds disappear.” I lifted my wrist. “And so does the pain in my hand.”

His eyes grew wide. “Your hand? It hurts when the Hounds come?”

“Yes, and it even starts flickering—like the ghost of my hand is somehow here.”

“Because it is!” He sprang onto the next landing and spun to face me. “Oh hell, it’s clever—don’t you see?”

“No, I don’t see at all.”

“Your hand—or the spirit of your hand—is trying to cross the curtain. The Hell Hounds are doing what they do best: stopping it.”

“But why would my hand try to cross?” I clutched my wrist to my chest and strode past him onto the next flight of stairs. “Does it have its own spirit?”

Oliver joined me. “Sort of. Remember what I said about phase changes? Well, the spirit form—the, ah,
water
form—of your hand still exists. Only your ice form—your earthly body—is missing a hand. You must have cast a spell that’s calling your soul hand here. Then, because it’s not hidden from the Hounds, they attack every time it tries to cross.”

“Except that I haven’t cast a spell.”

“So someone else is calling your hand then. Someone who wants you dead, I’d say. But your hand isn’t magically
bound
to you, so it’s not hidden from the guardians.”

My eyes widened. “Marcus! He must be the one calling my hand!”

“You mean the necromancer wearing Elijah’s . . .” Oliver’s face tightened. “Him?”

“Yes. He’s the only person I can think of who could cast a spell like that. He wants something from me—” I broke off. I didn’t want Oliver to know Marcus wanted the letters as well. Not before I knew what exactly was in those letters that made them so valuable.

Beside me, Oliver shivered. “This Marcus must know quite a few tricks to cast such an advanced spell. If he is really the one behind this, he must know a lot about you as well—if he knows your hand is missing, I mean.”

I gulped. Mama must have told him.

“There’s no way you’ll be able to escape him,” Oliver went on. “Not without learning some necromancy.”

“No,” I spat. “I’m not doing that.” We rounded another landing and moved onto the final flight.

“You have no choice, El. Not with the Hell Hounds on your trail. You have to learn how to hide your hand—just as I am hidden from their senses.”

“I am not learning necromancy.” My voice came out a growl. “It’s too
awful
. Look at what Marcus has done. And Elijah!”

Oliver winced. “You’re right.” He slid his hands into his pockets. “But then that leaves you with only one other option.”

“What?”

“Bind yourself to me.”

I stopped midstride. “What did you just say?”

“Bind yourself to me.” He paused and glanced at me. “Then you have access to all my power—”

“No.”

“And then you can set me free.”

“No!” I shrieked, pushing past him onto the lowest level. “Set you free? Bind to you? Absolutely
not
.” I scanned the hall—it split in two directions.

“I was afraid you might say that,” Oliver called after me. Yet nothing about his tone sounded afraid. If anything he seemed smug—as if my refusal was precisely what he wanted to hear.

“But bound to me or not,” he continued, now following me once more, “you’ve got to protect yourself, El.”

“Why do you think I’m going to Paris, Oliver?” I whirled around to face him. “There are people there who can help me.”

He shook his head. “You don’t have enough time. It’s only a matter of days—hours, even—before Marcus’s spell is too strong for you and distraction won’t be enough. Then you’ll be dead, and I’ll be trapped in the earthly world for all eternity.”

“Trapped?”

His eyes met mine. “My master may be dead, but as you can see, I’m still bound to his blood. Only someone with that same blood—
you
—can set me free. But”—he shrugged casually—“I can’t
make
you do it. I’m just a man as long as this locket stays chained to my neck.” With a huffed sigh, he pointed left. “I’m pretty sure the doctor is that way. Now, can you at least
consider
my offer? Then maybe, if you’re still alive in the morning, you’ll have come to your senses.” He nodded his head to the stairs. “I’m two levels up, right by the stairwell. Room three-oh-four—
if
you decide you need me.” He gave me one last melodramatic sigh before ambling off.

 

I didn’t sleep the rest of that night. How could I? For one, the doctor—a nice old sailor with muttonchops and an easy smile—had rubbed a stinky white salve all over my face, thereby forcing me to stay locked in one position in my bed lest I disrupt said salve.

For two, Lizzie came every hour to poke me and make sure I was all right. And though I appreciated this gesture, I also wanted her to
stop
.

And three, terror of the Hell Hounds blazed through me. I’d been so close to death. To complete and final oblivion . . . Would it happen again if I fell asleep?

So I lay in bed, and I ran through my dream over and over again. Though the fact that Clarence and Elijah were watching out for me was partly comforting, it was mostly disconcerting. If only I had known they were real at the time, maybe I could have found a way, a spare second, to ask Elijah about his letters. About Oliver. For no matter what the demon said, I didn’t trust him. Why would he want to bind to me? Was it true that
I
was the only person who could free him? And what would a “free demon” even mean?

I stared up at the bottom of Laure’s bunk, and an idea formed in my mind. What if I could go back to the spirit realm—knowingly and intentionally go there? What if I
could
talk to Elijah? The thought of seeing him again . . . of seeing Clarence—my heart squeezed so hard, I couldn’t see straight.

I would have to ask Oliver how, though. He was the only one who might be able to tell me how to cross the curtain intentionally.

Of course, waiting until the morning turned out to be especially difficult. By the time the sun rose, a gray pink at our porthole, I was barely able to keep my eyelids up. I felt gritty and heavy with exhaustion, but I forced myself to wait for the sun to crest before dressing and marching down to Oliver’s floor.

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