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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I turned to face the sea.
I was almost ready. I opened my little bag and found the folded knife inside. Criminy hadn’t taught me how to use it yet. But I didn’t need instructions for what I was about to do.
The dress had a bunched and bustled overskirt, and the first thing I did was cut off the heavy bustle at the waist to reveal the lighter, straight skirt below. I gathered a handful of my skirt and then chopped that off at the knee, just above the tops of my boots. I stepped out of my petticoats and threw my hat to the ground, too. And then I realized that I had to get into the water before something hungry smelled me.
I put the knife back into the bag and tied it around my waist. With a deep breath, I waded in. The heavy gray clouds seemed as solid as the stone wall at my side, pressing down from the sky against the sea, and I imagined that in Sang, it probably was possible to sail off the end of the globe, just as old sailors in my world had feared. The horizon was a flat line broken only by jagged islands far in the distance, a goal as unreachable as my grandmother’s kitchen.
When the first waves licked at my boot, I shivered. The water was freezing, and I could feel it through the leather. I waded deeper. Then I felt the cold lapping against my stocking-clad knees and gasped. This was going to be so much worse than jumping into a pool in a bikini on a summer day, corset or not. And I’d forgotten to loosen my corset.
It was too late now. I was up to my waist, and the laces were wet. The remains of my dress were tangled around me. I had to use my arms to keep myself steady, to keep the current from tumbling me into the waves, out of control.
I’d never feared water before, but the sea of Sang was just as bloodthirsty as the land.
And then I was up to my shoulders, dog-paddling, the jagged cloth of my dress pulling me down toward the darkness. The waves smacked against me, cold and impersonal, and I found myself flailing, fighting. Criminy had said that Bludmen could only sink, but I could barely keep myself above the water. The salt stung my eyes, and I could taste it in the back of my throat.
I floundered along parallel to the wall, closer and closer to my goal, the open sea. I was twenty feet away, and then ten, and then I could see the barnacles clinging to the degrading stones at the end of the wall, their hungry purple mouths grasping into the water. The little bastards were probably razor-sharp. I paddled away from them, giving myself room to mess up. I was almost there.
And then I felt something that made my blood run cold.
Just as I rounded the wall from ten feet away, something nudged against my leg. Something large and smooth and hard, just brushing by. Almost impersonal, like bumping a stranger’s shoulder in a crowd.
But it was cold.
My first thought was Shark, and my second thought was Sea monster.
Then my caveman brain kicked in, and my third thought was Swim, run, escape, kick, swim harder, go go go!
So I did. I started kicking like a frog, putting power behind the sharp heels of my boots. My arms were cutting through the water in a breaststroke, and the current was finally on my side. I rounded the wall, and the waves began pushing me in toward the shore.
Then I felt it again. The nudging.
More insistent this time. Against my thigh.
Despite myself, I looked down. The water was too dark and roiling for me to see anything, even my own body. I kicked harder, frantically, with every ounce of strength I had. My feet were numb now, my legs burning. I focused on the shore, a hundred yards away. It felt like forever. Impossible. But then I thought of Nana fighting to stay alive every day and realized that I couldn’t do any less. I took a deep breath, determined to reach land again.
Then I felt teeth around my calf, almost gentle. Teasing. Like a dog testing a stick to see if it will break or stand up to a little rough playing.
I gasped and got a mouthful of water. With my other boot, I aimed a kick just to the side of where I felt the teeth, and my heel connected with something thicker than a fish. Something rubbery.
SHARK! my brain screamed. SWIM NOW!
I kicked again, and the teeth shook a little and released, and then I was floundering, kicking, thrashing, willing myself toward the shore.
Something nudged my belly from underneath. It felt slightly pointy, like the end of a nose. But larger.
A sob rose, choking me.
I was so close.
My fingers sought the tender points of whatever was nudging from beneath me. It felt like a slimy reptile, an alligator covered in a frilly doily. I shuddered and pushed away.
And then it felt like teeth. Fast as lightning, they grabbed my arm and dragged me under, and I inhaled water, and everything was lost in darkness.
“You have to open your eyes,” I heard in my mind as I floated in the cool blackness. “You have to swim.”
I obeyed. I opened my eyes to an eerie, floating, greenish-gray darkness. I could see tendrils of something in front of my eyes, and after a moment, I saw my hand, trailing inky blood, the glove half ripped off.
I was underwater.
And there was a gentle, cool glow radiating from the other side of my hand.
But she was made of light, floating weightless in the water, her bobbed hair and long dress untouched by the shifting currents. I hung suspended, my lungs cold. I wasn’t breathing.
I shouldn’t have been alive.
Her mouth moved.
“You have to swim to shore,” she said in my mind, her voice musical and sweet. “Kick up, get above the waves. You’re so close.”
Am I dead? I thought.
“Almost,” she said. “But you have to make it to the lighthouse. You have to free me.”
“Open the door upstairs. Find my bones and bury them. I’ve been waiting for years. Help me, and I’ll save you. Will you do it?”
I promise. Just help me.
“Then kick up. Break the surface. Breathe. Swim. Go now!” she cried.
A burst of white-hot lightning shot through my muscles, shocking me into action. I gave a mighty kick, and my head broke the surface. Water dribbled from my mouth, and then I was gasping for breath, starving for air. My arms churned in the water, my legs kicked, and the waves seemed to help me, pushing me toward the shore.
I hit the sand hard, the waves driving me into the rocky beach. I coughed and dragged myself forward with my elbows, until Criminy lifted me from the sand. He sat on the beach with me collapsed across his body, his arms holding me tight.
“I knew you could do it, love,” he said fiercely. “I knew you could.”
“I didn’t,” I said, holding up my ragged glove and ripped sleeve. When he saw the blood running down my fishbelly-white arm, he licked his lips and shuddered, and I tucked it under my armpit and scooted away to a safe distance. “Something dragged me down. But then there was a girl, and she helped me.”
“A girl?” Criminy asked, eyes sharp.
“I guess she was a ghost,” I said, hugging myself tightly and shaking, the fear finally catching up with me. “Or my mind playing tricks on me. She made me promise to go to the lighthouse and find her bones and bury them. She said she’d been waiting.”
“Then we must,” Criminy said, patting me from farther away than we would both have preferred. “Ghost curses are hard to break. But first you need to wrap up that wound. I can be good, but not that good.”
He looked toward the lighthouse, and I followed his glance up the tall building, the upper story lost in thick clouds. More time lost.
As we picked our way along the large rocks and tide pools, I asked, “Ghosts are real here?” I wasn’t surprised, not really. But I wanted to know more. Was I going to be seeing ghosts all over the place now?
“As real as they are anywhere, I suspect,” he said. “I’ve never seen one, only the results of their handiwork. It’s only natural that a glancer would see such things. You walk the line between the worlds in more ways than one, you know.”
He was trying very hard not to look at me, not to smell me. Despite his self-control, it was still difficult for him to ignore my freshly bleeding arm. On the beach, he had tossed me a handkerchief and kept his distance as I tied it around the wound. And then he’d found a vial in his pack and chugged it, his bright eyes never leaving me. I briefly wondered if it was the one taken from my own veins in Manchester.
The lighthouse loomed over us, a sagging tower of loose boards and peeling paint. The stripes that had seemed so fresh and new from the hill, pitch black and snowy white, were faded to light gray and darker gray, desolate and reproachful. I didn’t want to get near it, but I was bound by my promise to a dead girl. Criminy said that she had the power to curse me, and I believed him. I didn’t want another enemy in Sang, especially not a paranormal one.
Criminy kicked the door open. It smacked against the wall, making the entire building shake. The stark room inside was coated with dust, the furniture leaning and splintered.
“What happened?” I asked.
“No one’s come here for years,” Criminy said. “The ships have enough instruments and clockworks to tell the navigators where the rocks are. It’s crude and outdated technology, shining a light around the darkness.”
“But I saw it,” I said, puzzled. “Earlier, when we looked down from the hill. It was orange, and it spun slowly and hit the water.”
He turned to look down at me, troubled. “You saw a light? Here? In this lighthouse?”
“Yes,” I said. “Didn’t you?”
“No,” he said quietly.
I didn’t know what to say. Why was I seeing things that weren’t there?
Criminy pointed to the spiral staircase. “If you must do this, that’s the only way up,” he said. “But I won’t think any less of you if you want to walk right back out that door and bugger the ghost. There are ways around curses, although they aren’t pretty.”
“We’re already here,” I said. “Let’s get it over with.”
He sighed and bowed. “After you, love.”
My boots squelched up the tight curve of the stairs, and the ancient wood creaked threateningly under my heels. I picked up the pace, eager to be done with this errand and on to my own treasure hunt. The city, the storm, the sea, the ghost—it was high time to be gone from Brighton.
Around and around we went, Criminy’s step light behind me. I hadn’t asked him much about his own journey over the wall, but he looked as fresh and crisp as if he’d just stepped out of his wagon. But he was missing his satchel.
Finally, the staircase opened up in a smaller, sparse room. It was the living quarters, with one narrow metal bed against the wall, a tiny potbelly stove, and dozens of sharp metal hooks hanging empty from the faded white wood. I felt as if I was being watched, but there was nowhere for a watcher to hide.
“This is where the lighthouse tender lived,” Criminy said softly. “One lonely person, tending the flame above.”
“I don’t think that was her, though.”
“I don’t see any bones,” he said. “Not even a chest or a box or a cupboard.”
“She said there was a door upstairs,” I offered.
“Only one way to go, love,” he said, pointing his chin at the stairs. “You’re not scared of heights, are you?”
“Because I think most of the glass has blown out, and it’s going to be windy up there.”
I stepped gingerly back onto the staircase and clung to the inside rail on my way up. The tight curve opened onto a narrow walkway with a waist-high wooden railing. He was right. It was a long, long way down, and most of the glass was gone. The jagged remains of the windows that had once sheltered the flame invited the wind to whip us with an impersonal, random violence. Thunder boomed, making the lighthouse shake and quiver beneath us.
There was a small, cylindrical room in the very center of the roof, about five steps away. A metal ring that reminded me of a giant cigarette lighter sat on top of the room. She had to be there, in the metal closet under the flame. It was the only place we’d seen where bones might be found, and a sinister place it was for a young girl’s eternal rest.
I edged away toward the door. I felt blind and tiny, with nothing to hold on to, and the wind played with me like a cat toying with a mouse. I tried the handle, and it was unlocked. I glanced behind me to make sure Criminy was close. He raised his eyebrows at me but said nothing. When I opened the door to look inside the small room, his hand was on my shoulder.
The room had riveted metal walls, and it was about six feet square. The warm air hit us like a puff of breath, carrying the stale scent of death. The evening light from the open doorway showed a grisly scene.
Rusty bloodstains remained where fingers had once clawed helplessly at the walls. A figure huddled in the corner, mostly preserved by the dry, salty air sealed within. A mummy. The bobbed black hair was intact, and the skull was covered with taut black skin. Her dress was so thin now as to be transparent, white with a high, lacy collar.
“The poor girl,” I whispered.
Before Criminy could speak, the door slammed shut behind us.
And we were trapped in the blackness with a ghost.
“That little bitch!” Criminy shouted.
I found his hand. “She’s here, you know,” I whispered.
In response, eerie, girlish laughter echoed off the metal walls. “Three ghosts in a lighthouse,” she whispered, and the voice was different from the calm, pleading sweetness I’d heard underwater. Up here, the voice was filled with madness.
She giggled, and Criminy growled, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend eternity with a little strumpet like you.” He pounded on the door. It didn’t budge. It was airtight, of course.