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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
It was obnoxious to know that by the time I had condemned Casper for drinking from Bludmen, I had already had a taste myself. Sure, I hadn’t known it at the time. But how could I face him again? I was a hypocrite. The blud had saved my life, just as it had probably saved his, even if he had done it for what I considered to be the wrong reasons. I had tasted blud, and I wanted more. Without my consent, being in Sang had changed me.
When I returned to the instrument room, my inhuman lover was leaning intently over a thick leather book, poring over maps. Without looking up, he handed me a tin of cookies. Too ravenous to bother asking where he had found them, I began stuffing them in my mouth as I examined the map. There were several islands clustered just off the coast of Brighton, surrounding the Isle of White. They were too small to have names, and there were at least a dozen. And we hadn’t even discussed what to do when we found the damned place.
Something binged above my head, and Criminy hit a button to stop the noise. The sub shuddered to a stop, and we were bobbing, drifting, a different sensation from the smooth forward motion to which I had grown accustomed. I started to feel a little seasick, actually.
Criminy pulled down a sort of goggle contraption hanging from the ceiling and looked through it, then held it out to me, saying, “There they are. The lesser Isles of White.”
I put my eyes to the brass goggles of the periscope and blinked at the relative brightness of the morning outside. Through water-spattered glass, I could see one large island that reminded me of Greece. It was settled, with an older, faded white city around a church. To the right were three much smaller islands. One of them had a ribbon of sparkling white around the edge. Blinding glints promised razor wire across the top. How welcoming.
“Guess which one we’re aiming for,” he said.
“The one with the wall?” I asked.
“I wish I knew if the locket worked for him,” I said. “If he can get back to my world with it.” Then a horrible thought struck me. “Oh, God, Criminy! What if he’s broken it? What if I can never get back?” I flung myself against him, and he caught me and stroked my hair, which I’d tied back with a ribbon.
“He has no reason to break it, even if it doesn’t work for him,” he said. “And if it didn’t work, perhaps he won’t be guarding it so well. We’ll find it, little love. Don’t worry.”
“What if it’s not with him? What if he left it in Manchester?”
“Impossible. A man like that keeps his weapons close at hand. Like Evangel’s ring. He’ll trust no one.”
“Do you think he knows we’re coming?” I asked.
“He’s looking for you, we know that much,” Criminy said.
“Wait,” I said, looking around. “How do we get off of this thing and onto the island?”
Criminy’s mouth compressed into a thin line. Then his lips started to twitch. Then he started to shake. And then he cackled, head thrown back, as if it was the funniest joke he’d ever heard.
“Darling, I have no idea whatsoever,” he said. “I didn’t think that far ahead.”
“For someone who can’t swim, you’re awfully cavalier,” I said.
“You have to admit it’s funny,” he said. “And you have to know I’ll find a way.”
With the sub bobbing cheerfully in place, Criminy left me at the periscope to search the rest of the ship for ideas. I’d have guessed we were half a mile away from the island. I could see red tile roofs and palm trees rising behind the wall, but that was pretty much it. There weren’t Coppers or guard towers or machine-gun turrets, but I didn’t even know if those things existed in this world. Yet.
Metal and wood and flesh collided in the hallway. Criminy cursed and appeared with a coil of dirty rope around one arm and a big canvas bag dragging behind him. He was bursting with energy, like a little kid on a Boy Scout trip.
“Found a raft,” he said. “And a rope.”
“Please tell me I’m not going to tow you in to the island,” I said.
“Oh, that could be fun,” he said with a grin. “But this isn’t the 1600s, sweetheart. It comes with a propeller.”
“What about weapons?” I asked.
“You think we’re going to storm the island, eh?”
“Well, it stands to reason. If there’s something worth guarding, they’re going to be … you know. Guarding it.”
He looked through the periscope. “I don’t see guards. Or weapons. Not even the glint off a clockwork.”
“To me, that makes it look like a trap. Like they’re waiting for us.”
“Then how do you propose we spring this trap, darling?”
“I don’t know,” I said, exasperated. “What else do you have in your wacked-out world? Heat sensors? Mine fields? Dirigibles? Booby traps? Machine guns? Shrink rays? What?”
“Aside from dirigibles, which are rather expensive and rare outside of trade routes, most of what you just said made no sense whatsoever,” he said, as delighted as a child hearing a foreign language for the first time. “But it all sounds very dangerous. And fun. Especially the part about the boobies.”
I waited, eyebrows raised.
He sighed. “Look, love, I know I seem like a tactical genius, but really, I’m just a magician who occasionally kills a bunny or drives a train.”
“So we’re just going to putter up to the beach in our raft and walk up to the gate and kindly request an audience with Jonah Goodwill?” I asked.
“You keep forgetting our two greatest strengths,” Criminy said.
“My magic and these harpoons.”
We were still inside the sub when Criminy did his invisibility spell on us both. Just as I remembered from the field on my first morning in Sang, I felt a cold trickle that spread until I could see through myself, my manly clothes, and even Uro on my wrist. It was very strange, seeing a framed luna moth hanging on the red velvet wall through Criminy’s half-see-through, grinning face, as if he were made of glass. With another wiggle of his fingers, the raft and the harpoons joined us in near-transparency.
Then we clambered up the ladder and out onto the roof of the sub. Criminy threw the nearly transparent raft into the air, and it exploded into shape and landed in the water with a slap. I was glad that we could half-see each other and our gear, because leaping into a truly invisible raft would have been impossible.
Criminy hopped in with his harpoon and helped me down. With the touch of the propeller’s button, we were buzzing toward the beautiful but most likely deadly island. It was a short trip, and Criminy used our time by showing me the simple mechanism for shooting the harpoon.
“We’ve got one shot each, love,” he said, slipping my finger around the trigger in an all-too-intimate manner. “So make it count. And don’t forget we’re invisible. A nice harpoon butt to the face will do wonders. And then we steal their weapons.”
“But what do we do?” I asked. “Besides break teeth and steal things? How do we know where to go?”
“We sneak around until we figure that part out,” he said. “Just follow me. It’s going to be fun.”
When the raft was almost to the sand, I jumped into ankle-deep water and turned to drag it in. I expected Criminy at my side, but he was still sitting in the raft with a funny smile on his half-invisible face.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” he said, “but you’re going to have to drag me in. I touch that salty stuff, and I’m not going to be much help to you. Might even make the magic waver.”
So I lugged the raft in by myself and beached it, marking its place with a large clump of driftwood. Criminy stepped off onto the sand, dry and chipper. I now had sopping-wet boots, sagging socks, and scratchy, damp breeches. But it was worth it to know that my locket was finally within reach.
With a blithe “Shall we?” he ran toward the jungle, faster than I could keep up. We ducked into the shade, dodging droopy tropical trees and flowering bushes. Up close, about twenty feet from our hiding place in the jungle, the wall was actually quite pretty, with glittering shells and sand dollars and bits of sand and mica mixed in. It was warm and breezy and absolutely nothing like any island that had ever existed near Britain. It would have done wonders for the tourist trade in my world.
But the effect was ruined by the skulls lined up along the top of the forbidding wall, right under the razor wire.
Criminy exhaled out his nose the way men do when they’re about to return to their caveman roots and beat something unconscious. “They’re all Bludmen,” he said. “And women. And children.”
I couldn’t tell the difference at first. But then I saw the teeth. At least the skulls were old, bleached white in the sun. Nothing fresh.
“That bastard’s going to pay,” he growled under his breath.
Under cover of the jungle, we trotted along the wall, looking for a way in. There were no windows, no arrow slots, no people. Nothing. Not for a long time. Just strange noises from within, crashes and snuffles and the sounds of movement. Finally, when it seemed as if we had run all the way around the island, we came across a set of double doors lashed together with heavy, rusted chains and an enormous lock.
Criminy looked at it and laughed.
“All that, old man? All that, and it’s just a lock?”
“But maybe there are guards on the inside,” I said. “Maybe it’s bolted?”
“Only one way to find out,” he answered, and he handed me his harpoon.
Before I could ask him how he expected me to shoot two invisible harpoons at once, he had jogged to the wall and skittered up it like a cat climbing a tree. I dropped his harpoon and set mine to my shoulder, waiting for something horrible to happen, for the trap to spring finally.
He glanced quickly over the wall into the compound and ducked back down. Then he slowly looked back over and cocked his head at a strange angle. He slid under the razor wire and disappeared. I was nearly hyperventilating with worry and curiosity, and my finger was slippery on my harpoon’s trigger.
Something boomed inside. The chains fell away, and the door squealed open. Criminy walked out, no longer transparent, with the strangest smile on his face, disbelieving but amused.
“Come along, Letitia,” he called. “There’s no one here.”
Still nervous and distrustful, I picked up his harpoon and tiptoed out from the shade and into the bright glare of the sun. I could not fathom that the island was empty, that someone wasn’t waiting to hurt me. Criminy extended his gloved hand. I took it, and he half-dragged me through the door and beyond the white wall.
It was entirely deserted.
We had found Jonah Goodwill’s fabled island, that was for sure. But he wasn’t there, and neither was anyone else. Just lots and lots of animals, a veritable Noah’s ark that explained all of the weird noises I’d been hearing. Some of them were creatures I’d never seen before, and not a single one was a predator.
Criminy shut the door softly behind us, muttering, “We don’t want these poor creatures wandering into the jungle or the sea. Might as well tie tags around their necks with ‘Eat me’ on them.”
I smiled to myself at the irony of a vicious, cutthroat predator worrying about the safety of the soft, squishy innocents of the animal world. He was right, though. The animals had no fear. As soon as he’d made me visible again, deer and giraffes and cows and a strange sort of club-tailed porcupine were all nosing and snuffling hopefully at me, and I felt a little sorry that I hadn’t brought a bag of bread or bananas for them. They all shied away from Criminy, though, and a llama even spit on him.
“Can’t hide the blud,” he said with a shrug.
I shoved past the hungry animals, and we headed straight up to the main building, a two-story manor that looked as if it had been lifted straight out of an American’s version of quaint Mexico. White walls, dark orange roof tiles, a fountain in the courtyard. It was beautiful, inside and out. But no humans at all. Just echoes and creepiness. Someone had been there recently, as the fruit bowl on the table was filled with fresh mangoes and pineapples. I was too anxious to eat, but I scooped water out of a fountain with my hand after suddenly realizing I was parched.
We checked every room, harpoons at the ready. And we found no one.
Criminy searched the closets and checked under the beds. I sifted through chests and dressers and anything that might conceivably hide treasure. My locket was nowhere to be found.
We tried the cookhouse next. The ashes of the fire were still warm under the spit, which held an abandoned haunch of meat, burned to the bone.
Beyond that, we found a sandy field with a tall tower, several iron rings sunken into the ground, and a windsock.
“Bastard’s got a metal cladder,” Criminy said grimly. “No wonder he keeps beating us. It’s only two hours to Manchester by dirigible.”
I felt as if the breath had been knocked out of me.
“From here to Manchester?” I spluttered. “My locket’s all the way back in Manchester now?”
“Don’t fret, little love,” he said softly. “We’ll get it back.”
He folded me into his arms, harpoon and all, and I started sniffling, then full-out crying. Whether the old man had tricked us, outrun us, or just coincidentally left his island was unclear, but he was undoubtedly very far away, as was the locket.
I clung to Criminy as if he was the only thing between me and madness. Maybe he was. He held me, patted me, and muttered kindnesses into my ear. I couldn’t help thinking about my other world, wondering if my body was in a hospital yet and, if so, how long it had taken my proud grandmother to break down and hire a new nurse for her homecare. What if she tried to get out of bed by herself and broke a hip? And who was feeding Mr. Surly? But I wasn’t going to sit around, uselessly indulging my own frustration. I needed to act. I took the handkerchief he offered and blew my nose.