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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
A few moments later, the tunnel around us shook with a heavy boom, and Vale hurried to shield me under his arm. We had to close our eyes as dust rained down from the stone ceiling, but the passage held.
“There goes the Malediction Club,” Vale said.
“Not if Charmant is still alive,” Cherie added, and a ripple of unease chilled my spine and set my exhausted feet to a faster trot.
The way back felt longer than the trip out, and even after gorging on my opponents, I’d never been so tired. “Shouldn’t we be there already?” I asked.
Vale faltered behind me, and I turned to stare at him. The left side of his face was bruised, and he was limping, and blood trickled from a gash on his neck, which was probably why Cherie was careful to lean away from him.
“I was waiting to make sure, but I’m sorry, bébé. I think we’re lost.”
“How can we be lost? We’re following the yarn.”
I leaned down to pick up the red string. I gave it a tug, but instead of pulling taut as it should have, it slithered down the rocks toward me. Far away, a howl echoed out of the tunnels, jolting me awake and setting my fangs on edge.
Vale spun, his back to me. Cherie’s back pressed against my corset, and a rush of familiarity settled through me before I realized what Vale was doing: anticipating an attack.
“Do you think—” I started.
It rankled, but I shut up. Everything beyond our lantern was dark, which made the eerie howls seem as if they came from every side. I threw out my senses, trying to detect how far away the bludhounds were—because they had to be more of Charmant’s demon dogs, cut loose to run free in the catacombs. The half-dead daimon girls would be such easy pickings; we had to get to them soon and do what we could to protect them.
Up ahead, something moved, just a subtle rustle and a rock loosened from a pile. I breathed in deeply, seeking past the scents of stone and sewage and age-old bones and seeping, oily metal smoke to something alive. And there it was, up ahead where the red string slithered into the darkness, a rank scent that I knew well.
“You two stay here,” I whispered.
“No, bébé. Let me.”
“I’m harder to kill, and if I get hurt, you’re the only one with a hope of getting us out alive. So please, shove down your bad-boy brigand thing and let me do what I do best.”
“Oh, Demi. Always so dramatic.” Cherie sighed. “Just—”
A scream echoed down the tunnel, along with heavy splashing and a victorious bark, and Vale’s head whipped around to stare into the darkness.
“That’s Mel,” he said gently.
I sighed and put a hand on his cheek. “Then go help her. I’ve got this. Come find me, once you’ve saved her like a big damn hero.”
I reached up on tiptoe to kiss Vale’s lips, hoping I wasn’t giving him one last taste of me tinged with the stink of Auguste’s daimon blud. “Je t’aime,” I murmured, so low that he might not have heard.
“Je t’aime aussi.” He touched his forehead to mine, kissed me again, and took off with one of the lanterns.
With him and Cherie safely away, I left my lantern on the floor and ran into the darkness like a bat out of hell heading right back in. My eyes adjusted, my fingers curled, and my mouth opened to taste the scent of my prey. I locked onto the daimon where he crouched, waiting in the shadows of a niche up ahead. With a silent snarl, I sped up and launched myself into the crypt.
Even though he had to be expecting it, he gasped as I drove him into the wall. The force dislodged some heavy stones, and skulls and bones fell around us, smashing against the floor and raining against my back. Part of the crypt collapsed behind me, the air going suddenly thick. Luckily, I’d landed against Charmant’s chest, which meant his venomous tail was trapped beneath him, or at least somehow hindered from piercing me. As I plunged my teeth into the first skin I found, I felt something hot and hard punch into my back. Two gulps of sour blood in, I realized it was a knife.
Monsieur Charmant snickered.
“There’s poison on the blade, you know. You’ll never make it out of the catacombs, Demitasse.”
His voice was slick and cruel, his laughter a mad chittering. And I was done with it. I could have told him how wrong he was, how I would never stop. How I’d died in my world, been dragged into this one, almost died again, and lived to keep going. How he couldn’t kill the daimon girls, and he couldn’t kill me.
Instead, I made the most eloquent argument imaginable: I ripped out his throat.
He tasted rancid, like old eggs mixed with stomach acid. Still, in case he wasn’t lying, I took in as much of his nasty blood as I could, hoping it might fortify me against his venom. And then, once the predatory urge receded, I had the good sense to pull the blade from my back, hack off his tail, and take it with me. Criminy had once told me that poison often held its own antidote, and judging by the numbness creeping into my legs, I didn’t have long to find out the truth. Normally, a knife strike wouldn’t take down a Bludman. But Charmant’s poison was insidious. And fast.
The niche was half collapsed, and the stones were too heavy to budge. I wouldn’t have made it out if I hadn’t been a Bludman and a contortionist to boot. As it was, I had to dislocate both shoulders to slip through a tiny crack. I fell out of the niche and crept along the tunnel, first on my feet and then on my knees. I kept waiting to see the lantern up ahead, to hear Vale’s voice calling me or smell Cherie or find a piece of red yarn with a brush of my hand. At the very least, I began to hope the bludhounds would make short work of me before I died alone, one hand trailing in sewage. Instead, I felt cold stone on my cheek and saw only darkness without a single star.
Time stopped as I lay there, numb and freezing and empty, for the second time that night, listening to froth drip from my lips. The bastard hadn’t been joking, then. The tail clutched in my shaking fist would be useless. I managed to move my hand, twitch a few fingers. But I couldn’t hear anything but water, cold and forever running, and my eyes bulged open, blind.
But then I felt something strange: cold, smooth metal.
Breathing in deeply, I could smell it, too, just a little. Copper, brass, clockwork oil. I twitched a finger, and the metal wrapped gently around my hand and squeezed it. Strange that I would die alone in the dark under a foreign city that I’d never seen in my world, dreaming of robots.
Something probed and poked along my back, my arms, as if feeling me out. Metal cradled me, turned me, held me aloft. My head swung back and forth, spineless and light, as I was carried away in the darkness.
I didn’t wake up so much as unfreeze. The first thing I saw was Vale. The second was Cherie. And the third was a brass monkey.
No, scratch that. A copper orangutan, the one from Charmant’s shop. Its soulful red eyes blinked at me, its head cocking to the side in a gesture so human, so sympathetic, that it was almost creepy. Now I understood why I’d felt metal: the orangutan had saved me.
“Thanks, Coco,” I whispered through dry, cracked lips.
“Ooh ooh,” it responded in a tinny voice. It patted me with one metal hand, hobbled across the floor of my old room at Paradis, and swung out of the window. It was possibly the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen, like the Lone Ranger galloping into the sunset. Maybe my killing Charmant had set the sad-eyed creature free.
“That clockwork carried you to us.” Vale stepped close, gently wrapping my hand in both of his. I winced; my palm was still red with burns from the pyre of paintings. “What happened?”
I tried to sit up and failed. “Found Charmant in a niche. It collapsed on us, and I killed him, but he stabbed me with a poisoned knife. Tried to crawl away but didn’t get far.”
“That was smart of you, bébé, to bring his tail. That’s why you’re alive.”
“That and Coco.”
“Yes, love. That and Coco. It led us back to Paradis and followed us up to watch over you. Such a strange piece of machinery.”
“She,” I said, not knowing how I knew. “Coco’s a she.”
“In any case, she saved your life. And we didn’t lose a single girl.”
“Where are they?”
Vale grinned. “The Malediction victims are hidden. Staying with a friend in a baker’s basement across the city. And don’t worry; they’re recovering. As soon as the paintings burned, it was like snow melting to reveal flowers. The Paradis girls are back and recovering, thanks to the adoration of their audience. The bludhounds went for Bea and Mel, but the girls weren’t badly hurt.”
“Quite the fighter, your man,” Cherie murmured.
I reached for her as she stood there, pink tears streaking down her cheeks. She looked a hundred times better than the last time I’d seen her. She took my weak hand in both of hers, and I tried not to look at her broken talons.
“Pretty good blood, right?” I asked.
“Better than they gave us at the caravan.” She grinned, showing an all-too-human smile, with her fangs gone. “And my bed here is a lot bigger, too. I could get used to Paradis.”
“And Paradis would be glad to have you, ma chèrie. Demi has told us that you two are partners.” Madame Sylvie must have been listening at the open door to pop through like that at just the right moment. She put a flesh-colored hand on Cherie’s shoulder, and I would have slapped it away had I yet figured out how to move again. The smile Charline leveled at Cherie as she sashayed in beside her sister was so empty, so hungry, so obviously manipulative that I couldn’t believe I had ever fallen for a single word either daimon had said.
I shook my head. “No way. We’re out of here tomorrow. I expect my wages delivered in francs by morning.”
Charline flew to my side, batting her feathered eyelashes and tsking. “Oh la la, my dear. You’re weak. And even with Lenoir and the most wealthy gentlemen gone, you’re still the brightest star in Mortmartre. Take a week off. See the city. And then we’ll build a new show for you and your Cherie.” She tried to touch me, and my fangs snapped the air by her fingers.
“Oh, hell, no. If Vale has to carry me on his back, we’re gone.”
“I beg you to reconsider. The Malediction Club is destroyed. Mortmartre has never been safer.” Madame Sylvie dismissed my words with the flap of a powdery hand. “You’ll make your fortune!”
“I already made one.” She looked away, a little muscle by her eye twitching. “And just because we put an end to the Malediction Club doesn’t mean that suddenly the audience is filled with kind-hearted gentlemen who just want a good show. There will always be predators in Mortmartre.” All three of us glared at her meaningfully, and she cleared her throat. “This place is like a Venus flytrap. And I’m done.”
“How much is she owed?” Vale asked.
Charline tapped a foot and studied the ceiling, and Madame Sylvie waved a hand. “Not as much as you would guess. We must deduct the costumes, the board, the laundry, the elephant she destroyed, the blood—which was a very fine vintage and not easy to procure.”
“They talked about you, you know.” Everyone turned in surprise to focus on Cherie. She spoke quietly, as if her throat was still bruised from what had passed in that laboratory underground. “I heard the gentlemen talk about how Charline kept the best girls, how Sylvie knew just what the club wanted and always delivered on time.” Even without her fangs, she looked like a murderous doll, the way she bared her teeth at the daimon sisters. “What do you think they meant about delivering?”
Sylvie’s color slipped, the human flesh rippling briefly with dark spots like thumbprints. “Bah.” She turned and sashayed out the door in disgust. “You’ll have your francs tonight, and you’ll leave before show time, before you poison the others with your lies. I’m a businesswoman, not a nun.”
Charline just shook her head. “Such promise,” she said. “All lost.”
“It’s not lost.” I smiled, showing fangs. “It’s just getting the hell out of here.”
* * *
I spent the rest of the day in bed, mostly sleeping. Vale and Cherie stayed with me, but a rainbow of anxious faces came and went, hands touching my forehead or pushing hair out of my eyes or just briefly stroking my arm. I heard the word merci so much that it chased me in my dreams.
Vale woke me at dusk, one hand gentle on my shoulder. “Bébé, it’s time.”
I was able to sit up, at least, and I found Cherie waiting on a steamer trunk by the door, where Blaise’s blue face peeked curiously through the crack. When I smiled at him, he ran up with a grain sack dragging behind him and heaved it onto the bed.
“What is this?”
“From Madame Sylvie. Your wages.”
I opened the bag and bit my tongue. They weren’t just francs; they were mostly silvers. She must have been terrified that we would spread the truth about her or exact our own vengeance. Truth be told, it wasn’t sitting well with me, just letting Sylvie and Charline go on at Paradis. If they could find another way to line their pockets, they would.
“All this is mine?”
Blaise nodded. “You’re the most famous act in Mortmartre, mademoiselle.”
Mel stepped into the room, with Bea just behind her. “So it’s true, then? You’re leaving tonight?”
They were both in full costume and makeup, so very different from how they had looked in their fighting clothes and natural skins, painted with blood. These daimons, they never gave up.