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Black Dog - Chapter 40

When Eli arrived, moonrise was still far enough away that Olivia barely felt any hint of the oncoming change. Verity had curled up with her book again, Imogen with a magazine (the pages being easier for her to handle) and Olivia sat down with one of her notebooks to review the beginnings of something she'd started writing some time ago. She couldn't focus. She sat with her notebook on her lap and the pen in her hand, staring out of the window, watching the trees and waiting for the moon.

"Get us a cup of tea, Verity."

Verity's limbs almost instantly dragged her upright. Her eyes narrowed in anger beyond words and she stomped off to the kitchen. There was a loud clattering as the kettle boiled, and a few minutes later she barged back in with the cup of tea. She paused in front of Eli until he could spare some attention from his crossword. Then, looking him straight in the eye, she spat in his tea and handed it to him.

Olivia cringed into her seat, one hand over her face.

"What was that for?" Eli asked, looking bewildered as he held onto the cup of tea, uncertain what to do with it.

"That's for ordering me about without so much as a 'please' or a 'thank you'. I may be dead, but I have feelings! A little common courtesy wouldn't cost you anything."

"She's right," said Olivia, even though she really ought not get involved, "She might be your slave, but the least you could do is mind your Ps and Qs."

"Olivia shut up!" Verity screamed. "You're not helping!"

"Can I have another cup of tea… please?"

"Is that all she's good for?" asked Olivia, loud and clear in spite of herself. "Eli? You brought her back from the grave to make tea for you?"

Verity looked as if she was about to explode.

Eli shrugged, glancing uncomfortably over to Imogen, who raised her eyebrows to communicate some brief silent message back to him. "We don't use her for anything much," he said. "Didn't want to bring her back."

Verity rolled her eyes, grabbing the tea cup. "Oh, thank you," she said, stomping off back to the kitchen. "That makes me feel so loved."

"You don't use her for anything much," Olivia repeated, she hadn't missed the 'we'. "just making refreshments?"

"Just tea."

"And the washing up last month," Olivia added.

"And that."

"Nothing else you've conveniently forgotten?"

"I've got Jim. Don't need another one yet."

"So why does Verity stick around? If you're not telling her otherwise, isn't she free to go where she likes?"

"The village is her home, Libby," Imogen reminded her gently. "Not everyone finds it so easy to pack up and leave."

This fair point completely derailed Olivia's argument. She'd assumed that either Eli wasn't allowing Verity to leave, or that the poor girl felt some warped desire to be close to him, even after all that had happened. Maybe, instead of that, Verity didn't want to leave the familiar setting of home, the landmarks she'd grown up with. Maybe she wanted to rebuild her friendship with Imogen, even if she didn't quite know how to go about it. Maybe she didn't have anywhere else to go.

"Well, maybe it would be best for her to leave," Olivia muttered. "If she has free will. If she isn't just sitting around waiting to be told what to do next."

"I can still hear you!" Verity screamed from the kitchen.

"Speaking of zombies," said Imogen, "has anyone heard from Siobhan recently?"

It was a clumsy attempt to steer the conversation into calmer waters, but there was genuine concern in her expression too, so Olivia mentioned that she'd run into Siobhan not long ago, though she took care not to mention exactly where or when.

"Oh? How is she these days?"

Olivia wished she'd kept her mouth shut. "I think she's been better." She couldn't tell the full blunt truth: that Siobhan had been practically falling apart where she stood, or that she could no longer see very much or speak at all.

"Looked bloody terrible last time I saw her," said Eli. "Won't last much longer at that rate."

"Oh, she didn't look that bad," said Olivia, as Verity had just returned from the kitchen, and Olivia had seen the hurt, anxious look on her face even if Eli hadn't.

"She looked bad," said Eli. "They don't last long at the... What's the matter with her?"

Verity had frozen where she stood, looking like a frightened child, sniffling strangely, with no tears to cry.

"What do you think?"

"She was only going to die and rot anyway," said Eli.

Imogen, whose earthly remains were interred in the churchyard beyond the garden gate, glared at him. "You really are a nasty piece of work sometimes. Verity! Don't go! You'll have decades and decades yet, I'm sure!"

But Verity had slammed the second cup of tea down on the nearest bookshelf and was off running, the back door banging closed behind her.

"What did you have to say those things for?" Imogen demanded. "And you!" she rounded on Olivia, "I don't know what's got into you recently. I ought to kick you both out of the house. No! Don't go after her!" she snapped at Eli, who was getting up and putting on his coat. "She doesn't want to see your face right now, does she? Give her some time to pull herself together."

Eli stood in the hallway, staring at the back door and looking lost. On his way back to his usual chair, he picked up the cup of tea, giving it a suspicious look.

"Yes, she probably did," said Imogen. "The good Lord knows I would have done, if I'd been in her shoes. Olivia, be a dear: pour that down the drain and get Eli another cup of tea, will you?"

While the kettle boiled, Olivia gazed out of the kitchen window at the garden. The night had turned a deep inky blue and the moon loomed low in the sky, like an enormous bright eye seeking her out, a staring witness to her failures and misdeeds. She took Eli his tea, and sat down again with her notebook.

Dear Uncle George,
Well, you must have been very surprised by my last letter! Perhaps I ought to

The big black cat Banana dived into her lap, nuzzling her pen hand and purring like an engine.

"He's very fond of you, isn't he?" Imogen observed with a smile. "He misses you while you're gone."

"Hmm." Olivia managed to lift Banana's dirty paws off her notebook, and tore off the last page. Getting her arm around the over-affectionate cat, she was just about able to put pen to paper again.

Dear Uncle George,
It's strange to think that you received my last letter. I can't imagine

Banana headbutted Olivia's writing hand, wiping his damp nose all along her fingers. She grimaced and tore off another page, starting again.

Dear Uncle George,
I'm sorry.
I never thought my letters had any chance of ever reaching you

Olivia tore off the page, screwed it up into a ball and tossed it at the wastepaper basket. There was a more important matter she had to get on paper. Pushing the protesting cat aside, she pulled her knees up close to her chest for privacy, and started afresh. She was just reading over her page unhappily and considering starting from scratch (again) when Imogen disturbed her.

"Ooh, look at this, Libby." Another of the old family photo albums lay open on the coffee table, and Imogen had been flipping idly through it, having remastered the tricky art of turning pages. "Who's that there?"

The photograph was blurry and brown with age, showing a wedding. Olivia gave it a close enough look to appear politely interested, then shook her head. "Your eyes are better than mine if you can recognise her from that."

"Not the bride - the vicar!"

Olivia folded her letter, popped it in an envelope, and looked again. "Hm. I didn't recognise him without the wings."

"It's definitely him, isn't it? Only his name wasn't Milton back then, I'm sure of it." Imogen sat back from the album, musing far back in the murky depths of her memory.

It wasn't a good photo, the figures small, the faces indistinct, their identities reduced to stock wedding characters: Lovely Bride, Groom in Top Hat, Adorable Bridesmaids, Vicar. Vicar wasn't a bad disguise, obviously, but Reverend Milton appeared completely unchanged by the decades - even his hair was the same, bright and curly. Olivia wondered briefly where he'd been between then and now, to let the village forget him so he could return to it afresh. Not that it mattered. She wrote the necessary directions on the front of the envelope.

Meanwhile, Imogen was painstakingly weeviling the photo out of its place in the album. "Reverend… James, was it? No, Jones." She snapped her fingers. "That was it, Jones. Oh, I did like him. Even Mother hadn't a bad word to say about Reverend Jones. Did you know him then, Eli? You must have done… Eli?"

Eli wasn't listening. He was studying the dregs of his cup of tea, and in his eyes Olivia saw suspicion giving way to fear. There might be some tell-tale sludge at the bottom of the cup, but Olivia had been confident most of the powder had dissolve, only hoping Eli would never notice anything out of the ordinary about the taste. She held her breath.

Imogen glanced from Eli to Olivia and back again. "What's going on?"

Unsteadily, Eli got to his feet, and for the first time in months Olivia really saw how tall he was, how much weight and strength there might be to that apparently gaunt figure. Olivia might over-top six feet in heels, might have outgrown more than one teenage sweetheart, but Eli was still taller.

"Sit," she barked. Would it work as promised? For a moment, she thought Eli would shrug off even this simple command, but then his knees buckled and he sat back heavily in the armchair. Olivia reminded herself to breathe. "Stay."

Judging by the evil look Eli was giving her, there was nothing he could do but comply. If she ordered him to a high bridge, or a clifftop… No, she couldn't be sure that a long fall would kill him and she immediately hated herself for thinking of it. Her conscience whispered to her that the enemy she faced was as much a man as he was a monster. After all this time in the world of men, walking among them, disguised as one of them, how could he not be? Olivia had been quick to hate Eli for using his poison to warp and control the minds of others, but she'd been forced to resort to the same methods in order to level the playing field. The thought spurring her on through the shame and fear was that victory was almost close enough to taste.

Eli was trying to think fast, something he obviously wasn't used to. "How the hell did you..."

"Ah, yes." Olivia couldn't help herself. "You remember Malcolm, don't you?"

Eli looked sick. "Malcolm?"

"Mm. A bit odd, but very helpful, for the right price." It hadn't taken as much as Olivia had feared. The money Imogen had left her had more than covered it, and Malcolm had seemed excited just to show his collection to someone who might appreciate it. The paltry hoard of books hadn't impressed Olivia much (not after the Lockwood library) and many of the curiosities in the collection had been too grisly for her to do more than skim over them, but Malcolm had found just the right thing for Olivia… "He called it 'zombie powder'. He warned me it might not work on you, but it does, doesn't it? Stop!" she shouted. "Stay there!" because Eli had been testing his new boundaries, and had been about to get up again. Olivia, concentrating as hard as she could, stared at him until the rest of the world faded out of her notice: stay.

Eli relented.

Ever since the plan's conception, Olivia had been afraid the powder would have no effect on somebody who'd never really been alive in the first place, or that it would work but not as well as she needed it to or it would wear off after a few minutes. She'd better not waste any time. "Look. I'm not going to ask very much from you," she said. "All I'm going to do is take you out to the usual place and leave you there."

'The usual place'. She hadn't wanted Imogen to know about any of it. She didn't want Imogen to go looking for the night between worlds: to see the place where Eli would spend his exile; perhaps risk getting herself lost there too. Awful place, just awful. Olivia could recall it so vividly since the shared dream had unlocked her memories...

Eli launched himself at Olivia, and she didn't react fast enough. Her head hit the corner of the coffee table on the way down, the sharp edge of it gouging a furrow in her scalp, and as clammy fingers closed on her throat she could feel the wetness of the poison sinking into her skin, a hot sticky wave of nausea rolling over her.

"Why couldn't you have been a good girl?" Eli snarled. "Why did you have to ruin it all?"

As darkness crept in from the edges of her vision, Olivia disconnectedly told herself that - after what had happened with Verity - she ought to have expected Eli's reaction to this new betrayal to be just as violent. The iron grip tightened on her throat, Eli intent on silencing the only voice in the world that could order him to his destruction. The electric lights flickered and went out. Distantly, somebody was screaming; a thin wordless keening without breath or strength, only helpless paralysed fear. Olivia clawed at the murderous hands around her throat, fighting in vain to kick or twist out from under her attacker's weight.

"Stop!" The word that escaped her lips barely came out above a whisper, but it didn't go unheard: a barely audible yet irresistible command. The crushing pressure relented, not a second too soon. Eli got off her.

Olivia lay on the floor in the dark, the cold air burning as it rushed into her lungs, her ribs shrieking in protest - she suspected she'd cracked a few. Cracked ribs, nasty head injury, maybe more that she'd discover if she dared to move. Without her supernatural strength, she'd be dead. She couldn't guess how much time it had bought. Rationing out shallow breaths, she stared wide-eyed at the ceiling and the curtains and the dead standard lamp, willing her eyes to adjust to the gloom. She was a creature of the night, for God's sake, and not being about to see in the dark looked as if it was going to get her killed any minute. Where's Eli? Gritting her teeth against the pain of her ribs, she propped herself up enough to scan the room.

There was Eli - pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, head held low, deep in thought. Looking for a way to avert the future Olivia had just outlined, no doubt. Or perhaps that was giving him too much credit, and perhaps he was just shifting his anger from one point to another across eight feet of dingy carpet, a caged and dangerous animal. He glared at Olivia with fire in his eyes. She swore, soundlessly, and grabbed for the sofa, trying to pull herself to her feet.

Imogen, as if suddenly remembering where her true loyalties ought to lie, rushed to her stricken niece's side. "Oh, Olivia! What have you done?" she breathed, her face a mask of horror. "He's going to kill you and there's nothing I can do to stop him."

Olivia smiled up at her, aiming for reassuring but probably more like concussed. Warm blood trickled down through the roots of her hair. "It's going to be all right," she said, her voice hoarse.

Imogen shook her head, holding her niece's hand as tightly as she was able in her ghostly grip. "No, no, it's not."

But Olivia was recovering: the nausea receding, the floor stabilising, the pain appalling but manageable. With the aid of the furniture, she hauled herself to her feet, staggering backwards a couple of paces as Eli approached - but he just pushed past her, throwing his weight back into the armchair, his head in his hands. If Eli was capable of tears... Olivia stifled that dangerous thought.

Besides, she was far more concerned with the change that must come soon. Despite the darkening of the sky, all she felt was a slight tingle dancing along the surface of her skin. She'd learned how to hold the change back, but she'd never before tried to bring it on early. "You will not kill me," she told Eli. It hurt to force her voice above a whisper, but the room had gone deathly quiet. "You hear that? That's an order. You're not allowed to kill me. You're not allowed to hurt me, or anybody else. Understood?"

"Understood," the shadowy figure echoed, grudging and resentful. The look in his pale eyes was still murderous.

Olivia imagined herself as having pulled the pin from a grenade, only to realise she had no idea how much time she had in which to hurl it as hard and as far as possible away from herself. "Eli: I'm going to change soon," and of course, then she'd have no voice to give orders with. What she said now, she must make count. "When I have, you're going to come with me into the woods, past the two pines, and you're going to stay there on the other side..."

"No!" Imogen screamed. "You can't! You can't take him away from me again!" Every book on every shelf took flight, whirling round and round the room, filling the air with the deafening rustle of flying pages. One of the flying books clipped Olivia sharply on the back of the head, and she cowered down out of the way in vain.

"This is for the best!" Olivia protested, but the flapping and tearing of a million yellowed pages drowned out her voice. She turned, half-expecting Eli to have made use of the distraction to disappear. But no, there he was sitting miserable and defeated exactly where Olivia had left him, sheltered in his corner from the storm of books.

"I'll never forgive you!" Imogen shrieked above the racket. "You'll never be welcome in this house again!"

"Good!" Olivia shouted, throwing up one arm just in time to fend off a hardback to the face. "Fine! I don't care!"

The bookstorm ended as suddenly as it had begun, paperback falling out of the air like birds dying in flight, and Imogen collapsed, sobbing and exhausted.

"Stay here," Olivia warned her. She still didn't know what would become of a ghost who strayed too far from whatever it was that anchored them to the world. The air seemed filled with prickling fuzz and Olivia's skin itched to turn itself inside out - in the space of a couple of minutes the change had crept close enough that it took an effort to hold it off. "Get out," she said to Eli, and reluctantly he moved towards the French windows.

"No!" Imogen cried. "Wait!"

It was the moment Olivia had been dreading. If anybody could counter Olivia's orders, if Eli would bend to anybody's will beside that of his new mistress, it would be Imogen… He hesitated midstride on the threshold, shoulders knotted.

"I said: get out," Olivia growled, low and dangerous. She was beginning to worry that Eli had done permanent damage to her voice. Could she give orders if she couldn't speak? She was counting on it.

Eli lurched out into the night, and Imogen collapsed again into tears.

"Please!" she wailed, the whole house resounding with her misery, "Don't leave me alone!"

Eli didn't answer, didn't so much as look over his shoulder, and in the next moment he was gone.

Olivia wrenched a blanket out from under the tumbled books, hurrying after him, but once out in the cool night air, she hesitated. The pull of the moon was more powerful outside, with the smell of the trees and the grass and the world at large strong in her nostrils. "I'm sorry," she said, though she was mostly sorry for Imogen's sake. Eli had shown her by his actions that she didn't have any other choice. From her pocket she took the letter, putting it down on the garden bench, but in the next instant had to slam her hand down on it to stop Eli from grabbing it. He could move fast when he wanted to - Olivia kept forgetting that, used to the slow awkwardness of his usual behaviour. "No. You can't have that yet."

She glanced around in the darkness, judging the distance of the lights of cottage windows, and draped the blanket over her shoulders. Under the blanket she undressed, an undignified business and she hated it, but it was a clear choice between getting undressed while she still had fingers and thumbs, or having to struggle and tear her way out of her clothes when she only had paws and teeth to do it. She stashed her clothes in the shed where they'd be safe and dry when (God willing) she came back to them later.

Seconds later, she was huge and shaggy and strong. She picked up the letter awkwardly in her teeth, trying not to drool on it too much, and looked towards the line of trees silhouetted against the star-glittered sky. She growled, afraid that Eli would resist, but he began to walk, up the hill, winding resignedly through the headstones with the black dog at his heels.

This time there would be no collar - Olivia couldn't risk having that noose around her neck. She watched Eli constantly, her throat tight with a growl waiting ready. She didn't need the full extent of human intellect to understand the danger if Eli should think of some loophole in her words now that she had no voice to amend or add to her orders.

When they finally came to the two tall pines marking the way through to the night between worlds, Olivia's legs stopped of their own accord, her tail curling against them. Eli had walked on, his silhoutte blurred by the mirage shimmer even though he couldn't be more than a few feet ahead. Olivia bolstered her resolve and followed.

It was only once they were in the night between worlds that she realised how keen her senses had become, how tight her nerves had stretched. She tried to take it as a good omen, a sign that the zombie powder had diminished Eli's abilities, perhaps to the point of uselessness. Nevertheless, she recoiled at the first snag of something invisible in her fur, and nearly took flight back into the cool green woods. She steeled her nerves and continued. The shadowy inhabitants of the otherworldly realm were clearer, sharper, but Olivia still couldn't make out quite what they were, and dared not give them her full attention anyway. Eli trudged along, resentful, waiting for one last opportunity to strike, to somehow retake his rebellious servant. Or otherwise hoping that if they didn't go too far, he'd find his own way back to the mortal world, to the woods, to the house. Olivia couldn't allow that. She put her nose to the ground. One last chance to fulfill her original quest.

"You won't find it," said Eli, startling her. He hadn't spoken a word since they'd been back in the house. "You never could before. Take me back home."

Home. Olivia bristled. My home, that you've destroyed. My friends and family that you've hurt. She growled, her anger renewed, and her heart jumped as she remembered the letter gripped tightly between her teeth. With effort, she relaxed her jaw… and dropped the wretched thing. Eli grabbed it, not caring about the dog drool, and tore the envelope open, not fleet enough of thought to wonder why the letter should be addressed to him. The moment his gaze fell on the first line, he was committed irrevocably to reading the whole thing. Olivia had been proud of that part. She waited patiently, following every minute change of expression as Eli read his final orders.

Stay here. Don't even look for home. Don't ever return to Lockwood House. Never forget what you've done to Verity, to Giles, to everybody else you've ever hurt. Stay here and suffer for it.

It was cruel, perhaps, but who had ever deserved it more? Olivia only wished she'd known what a powerful emotion shame could be in this shape; how much influence guilt could hold over her. Every muscle fibre in her body demanded she lie down in the dirt and grovel for forgiveness. Instead she turned and ran, fleeing into the darkness, the harsh winds of the night between worlds stinging her eyes and nose as she followed the trail back home.

*

Exhausted, the black dog staggered through the woods, tongue lolling as she panted for breath. She feared she might have to spend another night stretched out in the undergrowth, but before long she wriggled between the fallen and greening panels of a dilapidated fence, finding herself in the churchyard. She'd done it! She'd done it! She was so close to home -

The unmistakable scent of jasmine perfume and cigarettes pulled her off course. Verity lay across the grave under the yew tree, collapsed like a puppet with all her strings cut. The dog whimpered.

Wake up. Wake up, please…

She nudged Verity's arm with her muzzle, recoiling from flesh as cold as stone, then sat back on her haunches, staring at the body. Eli might have abandoned Verity the moment he knew his own fate, but Olivia could never leave her like that. Dredging up strength from resources she scarcely believed she had, she began to scrape away at the damp soil. If nothing else, a dog knows how to dig, and by the first light of dawn Verity's body was returned to the earth.

This duty fulfilled, Olivia went back to the house, dragging her muddy blanket in from the garden, stumbling over that and her numb paws. Imogen was nowhere to be seen - a horrible relief - and Olivia found the French windows left unlocked and half-open. The fires of adrenalin had raged through her until there was nothing left to consume, leaving a ravaged hollow shell so that she could only gaze glassily across the sea of tattered pages and broken-backed books. The light of day picked out more damage, crockery and ornaments that Olivia hadn't even noticed being smashed in the fight. One of the panes of glass in the French windows was broken. How had she failed to notice that before? Too much else to think about, at the time, and now she stumbled beyond thought, lying down on the floor. Even breathing felt like work, and then the change came, whether she wanted it or not: a bone-wrenching series of convulsions that almost made her sick.

A breeze sent leaves of paper skittering through the debris, amongst them a crumpled note bearing the words 'Dear Uncle George'. She never had found out what Eli meant when he'd said he'd delivered one of the letters, and with him exiled, she never would. Perhaps it was for the best.

She pulled the blanket tighter around herself. With tears drying to salt on her cheeks, and the dirt of Verity's grave under her fingernails, Olivia closed her burning eyes and finally succumbed to the feather-soft embrace of a deep and dreamless sleep.

 

 

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