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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
He leered. “They paid me in pain, not coppers. Your petite amie Cherie can really scream.”
My talons bit into my palms, my fangs grinding for a taste of his throat. Daimons weren’t satisfying, and no Bludman in her right mind would crave one’s blood; it was the same way I felt about Brussels sprouts back home. But as Criminy had always told me but never encouraged me to discover for myself, the enemy’s blood was always the sweetest, and you didn’t notice the taste so much in the heat of battle. All I had to do was find a way past that tail.
Just before I completely lost it, Vale appeared behind Auguste, bloodstained claw in hand, and said, “I wonder how loud you can scream.”
With one swift slice, Auguste’s tail fell to the ground. Seeing his only weapon disabled, I went for his throat. The girls gasped as I ripped into the yellow flesh, and after a few rage-fueled sips, I sat back on my haunches and spit on the ground.
“Ugh. That taste is just . . . wrong.”
Vale held my shoulders and helped pull me back up to standing. “Bad news, bébé. He was the last one.”
I looked around the blood-spattered ballroom, inhaled deeply. He was right. They were all dead. I wiped the dregs of Auguste off my lips. “Merde.”
“But where is Cherie? Can you smell her?”
I shook my head and looked to Bea.
Mel was on the verge of tears, her arm wrapped around Bea’s shoulder. Bea was back to her usual blue, covered in gore and sporting a line of four Malediction Club pins on her jacket like hunting trophies. At least it was less grisly than ears or scalps on a string.
With a general’s surety, Bea pointed to a nondescript corner. Since the walls of the ballroom were draped in indigo velvet curtains and tapestries to ward off the cold that seeped through the stones, I had imagined it was simply one large room. But as she crossed the boards and twitched the curtain aside, I saw another door. The last one had been ceremonial, carved, ancient, morbidly beautiful. This one looked as if it had been designed by a master artificer. It was thick, riveted metal, with heavy reinforcements and a complicated lock that I was willing to bet even Vale couldn’t pick.
“Can we break it down?” Mel asked, and Bea shook her head and pointed back to the ballroom, signing something. “She says the door is new and heavier than the one she escaped from. But one of the men will have a key.”
Without a word, we spread out, each girl kneeling beside a dead gentleman to rifle through his pockets. It was eerily similar to what I’d been doing every night in the copper elephant. I checked Auguste, but he carried nothing that resembled a key. Probably just a lackey, even after all this time. I did find a fang knotted into a handkerchief, which I retied and tucked into my own pocket. Chirurgeons in Sang could do amazing things, but I didn’t know much about reconstructive dentistry.
Several girls came up with keys, which was good, since it took two of them to open the damn thing. In the end, it was Bea and Mel who turned the keys and swung the door open on a scene more sickening than I had imagined. It was like Frankenstein’s laboratory crossed with the worst kind of animal shelter crossed with an art museum. Daimon girls were locked in cages, manacled to the walls, or strapped to beds like mental patients, the walls around them filled to the ceiling with portraits in heavy gold frames. The girls in the paintings all shared the unique, lively beauty of Lenoir’s masterpieces, and the girls curled in the cages and struggling against their bonds showed signs of being drained and nearly as dead-eyed as the girls we’d freed. Mel, Bea, and all the other daimon girls cried out and hurried to help their compatriots.
But I only had eyes for Cherie.
I ran to where she lay, eyes closed, strapped to a narrow bed with thick leather bonds, shackles digging into her wrists and ankles. Beside her on an easel sat a nearly finished painting of her at her most beautiful, familiar brushes soaking in turpentine. The scent of oils now made me ill.
“Demi? Is that you?”
Her voice was weak and rough and sounded wrong—because her fangs were gone. I couldn’t remember what it was like, having a mouth full of blunt teeth, and my heart ached for her.
“It’s me, honey. Hold on. We’re getting you out of here.”
I fumbled with the thick leather straps, and Vale came to help me. The iron manacles were tougher to get undone, but Bea brought over a key, and I was soon pulling Cherie into my arms, limp as a rag doll.
“Blood? Did you bring any blood?”
“I didn’t. I’m sorry. We’ll get some soon.”
I hugged her so tightly she squeaked and pushed away. Her long blond hair was carefully pinned into an updo, her sunken cheeks rosy with fading paint. She looked around the room, and her button nose twisted up in a very Cherie gesture. “Daimons and an Abyssinian? Am I dreaming?”
“Nope. We’re here to rescue you.”
“And the men? Charmant? Are they—”
I shook my head in anger. I’d forgotten about Charmant.
“The men are all dead, but Charmant escaped. Lenoir’s dead, too.”
Her arms wrapped around my neck, and she sobbed into my hair. “Thank Aztarte. Oh, Demi. I can’t even describe . . .” She trailed off and looked up at the half-finished portraits crowded on the walls. Some were almost complete, just awaiting final touches and varnish. Others were in their early stages, rough outlines and splashes of color. “We’re trapped in the paintings. Lenoir does something, and you’re drained afterward. I feel like half a girl. And if he’s dead . . .”
“Yes, bébé?” He turned to look at me, and a rush of love filled my chest.
“Burn the paintings. Burn them all.”
Cherie sighed softly, her eyes rolling back as she went unconscious in my arms.
My best friend weighed almost nothing. Her breathing was shallow, her heart beating fast, as I placed her back on the bed. When I went hunting for vials to fortify her for the catacombs, I was horrified to find the opposite of what I was looking for: Cherie’s blud in tiny, ornate vials, marked for shipment to a Darkside winery. She couldn’t drink them, and I couldn’t find any human blood to sustain her, and all the gentlemen outside were cold. I tried to soak up puddles of blood with a handkerchief, but when I put it to her lips, she took one suck and turned away.
“Oil and magic,” she muttered, dashing it to the ground. “Floor wax and poison.”
The only answer was to hurry back to Paradis as quickly as possible and pour as many vintage vials down her throat as she could handle. But first, I had to see the Malediction Club ended forever.
Heading out, the daimons looked like survivors of a war. The gore-stained dancing girls of Paradis supported the half-broken, barely alive girls from the cages, hobbling past the bodies of their captors and hurrying into the catacombs. One girl was so far gone that Bea and Mel had to carry her strung between them. There was a lot of strange machinery hidden in the laboratory, and some of it looked liable to explode once we started a fire. But the paintings had to burn, and with them, the men who had brought women deep underground to use them against their will, raping their bodies and minds. It was dirty work, dragging heavy corpses into the laboratory. I found one still barely breathing, but he was gone by the time I presented him to Cherie where she sat on the narrow cot like a queen, commanding us in the proper stacking of tuxedoed lords. She managed a few token sips before drawing back with a shudder and wiping at empty spots that had once held fangs.
“Cold. And he stinks of piss.”
I smothered a giggle. Cherie’s prissiness and disdain were back, but I’d never heard her utter a single curse word. Perhaps they hadn’t destroyed her spirit after all.
The dragged bodies left slug trails of blood from the grand, soaring ballroom to the smaller laboratory. When Vale began pulling down the paintings and piling them on top of the men, I wordlessly went to work with him, knocking them down with a broom when they were too high up. Men and art were soon piled too high to reach the top, and my shoulders ached by the time we were done.
“Is there anything else here we need?” Vale asked Cherie.
She shook her head primly. “Everything should burn.”
I reached for her hands, careful of the places where her talons had broken off. “If Lenoir used the same magic on you and the girls here that he used on me, you should all go back to normal once the paintings have been destroyed.”
Cherie’s beautiful eyes went faraway and hard. “We will never be normal again.”
Vale picked her up like a child and carried her to the door. I went to a sconce bolted to the wall and used the flame within to light one of Lenoir’s expensive brushes. The oil-soaked bristles went up so quickly that I singed my fingers, and I tossed it onto the pile of paintings with a grim smile. Brush after brush, I stuck the soft hair into the fire and held them to tuxedos, to frames, to raw canvas, to the prince’s curly-toed boots. The flames crackled and caught and spread until sweat soaked my chemise and I choked on oily smoke.
I had saved Cherie’s painting for last, and I selected a long-handled brush to paint it with flame. The portrait was nearly complete, and the surface flared into a blaze of blue, the corners curling as it burned. I had just thrown the brush on top of the pyre and turned to run when someone burst through the door: Bea, with Mel right behind her.
“Bea, love, no! This place is going up quick. We must run.” Mel tugged at Bea’s arm, unintentionally tearing her shirt to reveal blue skin splattered with blood. But Bea shook her head and stumbled past me, past the pyre of paintings and into a corner of cabinets that I’d ignored, assuming it was just a collection of paints and turps or possibly horrible instruments that I certainly didn’t want to see up close, much less touch.
The smoke was thick and getting thicker, and Bea’s mostly silent cough was one of the saddest sounds I’d ever heard. Ignoring us, ignoring the flames, ignoring every shouted warning, she ripped open the cabinet and began knocking its contents to the ground. The first jar that broke carried the stink of Monsieur Charmant and his magic, and the brief snatches I could see through the smoke showed me the same sort of dark ingredients and talismans I had seen in the daimon’s Darkside shop. Soon I couldn’t see what was happening, could only hear the crashes and clanks of Bea’s bizarre desperation.
“Seriously, Bea. This place is about to explode. We have to go!” I shouted. Mel tried to run around me and make a break for Bea, but I caught her around the waist and put my mouth to her ear. “She can’t last much longer in this smoke, and you can’t go over there. It’s too dangerous.”
“I have to get her!” Mel’s voice was part cough, part sob, part scream as she thrashed in my arms.
“No, you don’t.”
The voice was husky and rich and utterly unfamiliar. Every hair on my body rose as Bea fought through the smoke and into Mel’s embrace.
“I am here, my Melissande,” she said, and for the first time, we heard her sob with joy.
Mel danced her around in an ecstatic hug, and I couldn’t resist putting a hand on Bea’s back, hoping she could feel the insane amounts of comfort and happiness I was experiencing, knowing that she had found and reclaimed her voice.
Something exploded in the corner where Bea had been tossing the cabinet, and I caught them both by their sleeves, pulling them toward the door.
Bea grinned at us. “Let’s go,” she said, and I knew I would never get tired of that beautiful, magical voice of hers.
In a confused jumble of hugs and coughs, we dragged one another out the door. I slammed it behind me, twisting the submarine-like wheel to lock it. Vale waited by the curtain, Cherie’s slender arms around his neck and her face held away from his skin as if he smelled like wet dog.
“Is it done?” he asked.
“Completely,” Bea said, and Vale’s face lit up.
Taking Mel’s hand, Bea darted through the curtains and into the catacombs. The amount of joy in the last five minutes had put wings on the girl’s feet, and I couldn’t wait to hear her sing. But I had to get topside, first.
I rubbed my eyes with soot-stained fists and stumbled toward Vale and Cherie. Neither of them would leave without me, of course. A muffled boom made the floor shake, and I hurried past and held open the curtains.
“We’d better get out of here before the catacombs start to collapse.”
Vale sucked air through his teeth. “Oh, merde. I did not think about that part. Can you make it back on your own feet, and fast?”
“I can do anything.”
“I believe it, bébé. I believe it.”
The daimons had left us two lamps, and I took them both and led the way up the slick stone steps. It was warmer in the catacombs, and the dry rasp of rock and bone under my boots was reassuring and familiar. I followed the red string, foot after foot, sometimes putting a raw palm against the wall to steady myself from falling into the sewage. Behind me, Vale shuffled sideways, careful not to hurt Cherie. After the third time her slipper struck the wall, she grunted.
“Oh, this is ridiculous. Carry me on your back.”
I held the lamp up to her face, and she looked ten times better than she had, her eyes bright and her lips pursed in annoyance. I couldn’t help smiling. “How do you feel?”
“Utterly wretched in the best possible way. And thirsty. Now, get that light out of my face and move me around so I don’t break a foot on this hideous wall.”
With his usual grace and good humor, Vale managed to maneuver Cherie onto his back, her ragged slippers wrapped around his waist. After that, we went faster. It was a nightmare, stumbling past piles of fallen bones and tripping over loose rocks. But I could smell Cherie behind me, hear her familiar little sighs of irritation, and the relief thrummed through me with every heartbeat. Burning her painting had killed the magic. She didn’t have fangs, but she was still my Cherie.