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Her words were swallowed up in a colossal crash as the whole east wall of the room suddenly caved in. It was like the walls of Jericho tumbling down in Tessa’s old Bible stories picture book. One moment the wall was there, and the next it wasn’t; there was a huge gaping rectangular hole instead, steaming with choking swirls of plaster dust.
Mrs. Dark gave a thin scream and seized her skirts with her bony hands. Clearly she hadn’t expected the wall to collapse, any more than Tessa had.
Will caught hold of Tessa’s hand and pulled her toward him, blocking her with his body as chunks of stone and plaster rained down on them. As his arms went around her, she could hear Mrs. Black screaming.
Tessa twisted in Will’s grip, trying to see what was happening. Mrs. Dark stood, pointing with one gloved, trembling finger toward the dark hole in the wall. The dust was beginning to settle, barely—enough so that the figures moving toward them through the wreckage slowly began to take shape. The shadowy outlines of two human figures became visible; each was holding a blade, and each blade shone with the same blue-white light as Will’s. Angels, Tessa thought, wondering, but she didn’t say it. That light, so bright—what else could they be?
Mrs. Black gave a screech and lunged forward. She threw her hands out, and sparks shot from them like exploding fireworks. Tessa heard someone yell—a very human yell—and Will, releasing Tessa, spun and flung his bright-burning sword at Mrs. Black. It whipped through the air, end over end, and drove into her chest. Screaming and twisting, she staggered backward and fell, crashing down onto one of the horrible tables, which collapsed in a mess of blood and splintering wood.
Will grinned. It wasn’t a pleasant sort of grin. He turned to look at Tessa then. For a moment they stared at each other, silently, across the space that separated them—and then his other companions flooded in around him, two men in close-fitting dark coats, brandishing shining weapons, and moving so fast that Tessa’s vision blurred.
Tessa backed toward the far wall, trying to avoid the chaos in the center of the room, where Mrs. Dark, howling imprecations, was holding off her attackers with the burning sparks of energy that flew from her hands like fiery rain. Mrs. Black was writhing on the floor, sheets of black smoke rising from her body as if she were burning from the inside out.
Tessa moved toward the open door that led to the corridor—and strong hands seized her and yanked her backward. Tessa shrieked and twisted, but the hands circling her upper arms were as strong as iron. She turned her head to the side and sank her teeth into the hand gripping her left arm. Someone yelled and let go of her; spinning, she saw a tall man with a shock of untidy ginger hair staring at her with a reproachful expression, his bleeding left hand cradled against his chest. “Will!” he shouted. “Will, she bit me!”
“Did she, Henry?” Will, looking amused as usual, appeared like a summoned spirit from the chaos of smoke and flames. Behind him, Tessa could see the second of his companions, a muscular brown-haired young man, holding a struggling Mrs. Dark. Mrs. Black was a dark humped shape on the ground. Will raised an eyebrow in Tessa’s direction. “It’s bad form to bite,” he informed her. “Rude, you know. Hasn’t anyone ever told you that?”
“It’s also rude to go about grabbing at ladies you haven’t been introduced to,” Tessa said stiffly. “Hasn’t anyone told you that?”
The ginger-haired man whom Will had called Henry shook his bleeding hand with a rueful smile. He had a nice sort of face, Tessa thought; she almost felt guilty for having bitten him.
“Will! Look out!” the brown-haired man shouted. Will spun as something flew through the air, narrowly missed Henry’s head, and crashed into the wall behind Tessa. It was a large brass cog, and it hit the wall with such force that it stuck there like a marble wedged into a bit of pastry. Tessa whirled—and saw Mrs. Black advancing toward them, her eyes burning like coal in her crumpled white face. Black licks of flame sprayed up around the hilt of the sword that protruded from her chest.
“Damn—” Will reached for the hilt of another blade wedged through the belt at his waist. “I thought we’d put that thing down—”
Baring her teeth, Mrs. Black lunged. Will leaped out of the way, but Henry wasn’t quite as fast; she struck him and knocked him backward. Clinging on like a tick, she rode him to the ground, snarling, her claws sinking into his shoulders as he yelled. Will whirled, the blade now in his hand; raising it, he shouted “Uriel!” and it flared up suddenly in his grip like a blazing torch. Tessa fell back against the wall as he whipped the blade downward. Mrs. Black reared back, her claws out, reaching for him—
And the blade sheared neatly through her throat. Completely severed, her head struck the ground, rolling and bumping, as Henry, yelling in disgust and soaked in blackish blood, shoved the remains of her body off him and scrambled to his feet.
A terrible scream tore through the room. “Nooooo!”
The cry had come from Mrs. Dark. The brown-haired man holding her let go with a sudden cry as blue fire shot from her hands and eyes. Yelling in pain, he fell to the side as she tore away from him and advanced on Will and Tessa, Mrs. Dark’s eyes flaming like black torches. She was hissing words in a language that Tessa had never heard. It sounded like crackling flames. Raising a hand, the woman flung what looked like a bolt of lightning toward Tessa. With a cry Will sprang in front of her, his glowing blade extended. The lightning ricocheted off the blade and struck one of the stone walls, which glowed with a sudden strange light.
“Henry,” Will shouted, without turning, “if you could remove Miss Gray to a place of safety—soon—”
Henry’s bitten hand came down on Tessa’s shoulder, as Mrs. Dark flung another sheet of lightning toward her. Why is she trying to kill me? Tessa thought dizzily. Why not Will? And then, as Henry pulled her toward him, more light sheared off Will’s blade, refracting into a dozen blazing shards of brightness. For a moment Tessa stared, caught by the unlikely beauty of it—and then she heard Henry shout, telling her to drop to the floor, but it was too late. One of the blazing shards had caught her shoulder with incredible force. It was like being struck by a hurtling train. She was knocked free of Henry’s grasp, lifted, and flung backward. Her head struck the wall with blinding force. She was conscious only briefly of Mrs. Dark’s high screeching laughter, before the world went away.
Love, hope, fear, faith—these make humanity;
These are its sign and note and character
—Robert Browning, Paracelsus
In the dream Tessa lay once again tied to the narrow brass bed in the Dark House. The Sisters leaned over her, clacking pairs of long knitting needles and laughing in shrill high-pitched voices. As Tessa watched, their features changed, their eyes sinking into their heads, their hair falling out, and stitches appearing across their lips, sewing them shut. Tessa shrieked voicelessly, but they did not seem to hear.
The Sisters vanished entirely then, and Aunt Harriet was standing over Tessa, her face flushed with fever as it had been during the terrible illness that had killed her. She looked at Tessa with great sadness. “I tried,” she said. “I tried to love you. But it isn’t easy to love a child that isn’t human in the least… .”
“Not human?” said an unfamiliar female voice. “Well, if she isn’t human, Enoch, what is she?” The voice sharpened in impatience. “What do you mean, you don’t know? Everyone’s something. This girl can’t be nothing at all… .”
Tessa woke with a cry, her eyes flying open, and found herself staring at shadows. Darkness clustered about her thickly. She could barely hear the murmur of voices through her panic, and struggled into a sitting position, kicking away blankets and pillows. Dimly, she recognized that the blanket was thick and heavy, not the thin, braided one that belonged to the Dark House.
She was in a bed, just as she had dreamed, in a great stone room, and there was hardly any light. She heard the rasp of her own breath as she turned, and a scream forced its way out of her throat. The face from her nightmare hovered in the darkness before her—a great white moon of a face, its head shaved bald, smooth as marble. Where the eyes should have been there were only indentations in the flesh—not as if the eyes had been ripped out, but as if they had never grown there at all. The lips were banded with black stitches, the face scrawled with black marks like the ones on Will’s skin, though these looked as if they had been cut there with knives.
She screamed again and scrabbled backward, half-falling off the bed. She hit the cold stone floor, and the fabric of the white nightdress she was wearing—someone must have put it on her while she was unconscious—ripped at the hem as she scrambled to her feet.
“Miss Gray.” Someone was calling her name, but in her panic, she knew only that the voice was unfamiliar. The speaker was not the monster who stood staring at her from the bedside, its scarred face impassive; it had not moved when she did, and though it showed no signs of pursuing her, she began to back away, carefully, feeling behind herself for a door. The room was so dim, she could see only that it was roughly oval, the walls and floor all of stone. The ceiling was high enough to be in black shadow, and there were long windows across the opposite wall, the sort of arched windows that might have belonged in a church. Very little light filtered through them; it looked as if the sky outside was dark. “Theresa Gray—”
She found the door, the metal handle; turning, she seized on it thankfully, and pulled. Nothing happened. A sob rose up in her throat.
“Miss Gray!” the voice said again, and suddenly the room was flooded with light—a sharp, white-silver light that she recognized. “Miss Gray, I am sorry. It was not our intention to frighten you.” The voice was a woman’s: still unfamiliar, but youthful and concerned. “Miss Gray, please.”
Tessa turned slowly and put her back against the door. She could see clearly now. She was in a stone room whose central focus was a large, four-poster bed, its velvet coverlet now rucked and hanging sideways where she had dragged it off the mattress. Tapestry curtains were pulled back, and there was an elegant tapestry rug on the otherwise bare floor. In fact, the room itself was fairly bare. There were no pictures or photographs hanging on the wall, no ornaments cluttering the surfaces of the dark wood furniture. Two chairs stood facing each other near the bed, with a small tea table between them. A Chinese screen in one corner of the room hid what were probably a bathtub and washstand.
Beside the bed stood a tall man who wore robes like a monk’s, of a long, coarse, parchment-colored material. Red-brown runes circled the cuffs and hem. He carried a silver staff, its head carved in the shape of an angel and runes decorating its length. The hood of his robe was down, leaving bare his scarred, white, blinded face.
Beside him stood a very small woman, almost child-size, with thick brown hair knotted at the nape of her neck, and a neat, clever little face with bright, dark eyes like a bird’s. She wasn’t pretty exactly, but there was a calm, kindly look on her face that made the ache of panic in Tessa’s stomach ease slightly, though she couldn’t have said exactly why. In her hand she held a glowing white stone like the one Will had held at the Dark House. Its light blazed out between her fingers, illuminating the room.