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spirits of decay: chapter 1
It was the old nightmare and it always started off the same – with Stray lying in a puddle of his own blood.
“There. It’s done,” his father said, wiping off the handle of the knife and tossing it aside. “You can scream any time now, darling.”
“Give me a second. My mascara’s not even running yet. It’s not easy to cry on demand, you know.” That was his mother. Stray couldn’t see her face, even when he looked toward her. All he got was a glimpse of cold blue eyes. The rest was blocked from his vision by her compact.
He tried to reach for her anyway, reach up out of the pool of blood he was sinking into. “Help me,” he tried to gasp, but ended up choking on the words. Or maybe on his blood. Yes, definitely on his blood. He was drowning. He was drowning and his parents were just standing there. Hell, his father had been the one to open up his throat and let out all the water. Blood. No, water.
He was somewhere else now. In a forest, old and dark. Not on the streets where he’d always suspected he would die, but this place was familiar somehow too. He was still drowning, in a proper pool now, filled with water and lined with stones. There wasn’t even any graffiti on the stones, like there’d been in the alley. But that was a moot point because he was still drowning.
Then a hand latched onto his. Long, slender fingers wrapped around his wrist, and Stray was lifted by his arm, up out of the water. His savior’s flesh smoked where it came in contact with the pool’s water, and he swore in a language Stray didn’t understand. Stray stared at him with wide eyes.
When the dreams first started, he’d thought his savior to be old and grown up. A few years later, when Stray had a bit more understanding of people and their ages, his rescuer had been reclassified as a “big kid.” Now Stray would have said that he was in his late teens. His face, unlike the faces of Stray’s parents, was always clear. Sharp, hawk-like features, ghostly pale skin, and dark eyes, all capped off by a disheveled mane of ink black hair that was, for some reason, riddled with black feathers. That was an odd detail, but one that never changed. Nothing about his savior or his role in the dream ever changed in Stray’s mind, so he already knew what came next.
“You all right, lad?”
Instead of answering, Stray started screaming.
“Whoa, there! Calm down! I’m not going to hurt you!”
Which was true. Even as a child, Stray had been able to reason out that if the youth wanted to hurt him, he would have done so already. Or he simply would have left Stray to drown in the pool. Or the puddle of his own blood.
“I want my mama,” Stray told the youth. Words that made no sense. He wouldn’t have said that to whoever came to help him in that alley, on that night so many years ago when his parents slit his throat for the insurance money. He couldn’t have said that. The damage to his throat had been too extensive. Besides, even he hadn’t been so stupid or pathetic that he would have asked for someone who’d just tried to kill him, but this was a dream. It didn’t have to make sense.
“I’ll help you find her,” his savior said. “I’ll get you out of here – take you home.”
Sometime during his screaming fit, Stray had let go of the teenager’s hand. Now he held his own hand out again to take it, like he would if they were going to cross a street. He was pretty sure that getting home would involve crossing at least one street.
A funny smile crossed the teen’s face – amused and maybe a bit taken in, like he thought Stray had done something cute. He laced his fingers through Stray’s, then asked a difficult question.
“What’s your name?”
The answer that Stray gave him had changed more times than Stray could count. At first he’d answered with the name his parents had given him. Then with the name his new family gave him. But then his name changed again, and again, until Stray could barely remember all the names he’d been called. Then the Family had given him a name to keep. A name that he wouldn’t let anyone take from him. He smiled and opened his mouth to answer.
His eyes widened. The voice that answered hadn’t been his own. Fear surged through him as he realized someone was close by, even though no one was supposed to be there.
His eyes snapped open to darkness, broken by moonlight. A silhouetted form was leaning over him, as he lay stupidly helpless in bed. Raw panic flooded Stray’s every nerve and he jackknifed up with a terrified scream. His forehead cracked against the silhouette’s – something he’d been expecting, but his attacker hadn’t. The other person staggered backwards, giving Stray time to get his feet beneath him and spring. Not to press his attack. No. The window was right there, letting the moonlight spill into the room. The window was his way out, his way to escape.
“No, Stray, don’t!” Something yanked on the back of his shirt, bringing Stray up short.
“Let me go!” Stray screamed.
“All right, I will, just don’t jump out the bloody window.”
It was then that Stray woke up enough to recognize that voice and its dry, sarcastic tone.
“Yeah, it’s me,” the other teen confirmed.
“What are you doing in here?”
“Your room,” Declan said.
Stray stared warily at him. As his eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room, he was able to see Declan’s smirk. “What?”
“You should have asked what I was doing in your room. Because this is, you know, your room,” Declan said. “But to answer your question, you were crying out in your sleep. I came to make sure nothing had snuck in to torture and kill you. Fortunately, you were only having a nightmare.”
“Yeah,” Stray agreed. “Sorry if I woke you.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Declan asked, sounding eager.
“What?” Stray was confused. “Talk about what?”
“Your nightmare, of course,” Declan said, like it should have been obvious, and with anyone else it probably would have been. Declan, though . . . Declan was a diagnosed sociopath, and one who’d admitted to putting his sister’s goldfish through a blender at that. Stray couldn’t see him wanting to help anyone by talking about their dreams or feelings.
“You want me to talk with you about my nightmares?” Stray deadpanned.
Declan nodded. “So I can psychoanalyze you and ultimately help you blame all your problems on your father.”
“Yeah. I’ll pass.”
“Oh, come on,” Declan said.
“It would be just like a slumber party. We could eat junk food and French braid each other’s hair.”
“No.” Stray didn’t think it worth mentioning that neither of them had hair that was long enough to braid. Declan’s was short and neatly trimmed. Stray’s was shaggy but not long enough to gather into a ponytail, let alone braid.
Declan opened his mouth, no doubt to make another obnoxious protest, but the light flickering on overhead stalled him.
“What the hell are you boys yelling about?” Blaire demanded, glaring at them from the doorway.
“Nothing,” Declan said innocently.
“You were yelling about something,” Blaire snapped.
“We’re not anymore,” Stray said. “Declan’s leaving and I’m going back to bed.”
“You’d better. We have school tomorrow,” Blaire muttered, “and we’ve already wasted far too much of tonight . . . running around town . . . not killing fae.”
The glare she sent Stray’s way made it clear she held him to blame for that. Stray glared right back at her.
“Actually . . .” Declan looked like he was going to say more, then a smirk crossed his face. “Never mind.”
“What?” Blaire asked.
“Nothing,” Declan said. “Nothing at all. Well, I guess we should get back to bed, and leave Stray to get back to his. Here. In his room. That’s his.”
“Just get out already,” Stray said irritably.
“You’re sure you don’t want to talk about your nightmares?” Declan asked once more, that annoying smirk still on his face.
“I’m leaving,” Declan said, flicking off the light right before he went out the door. “Good night, Stray! Sweet dreams!”
“I want a word with you,” Stray heard Blaire say, right before the door closed, muffling the sound.
He didn’t hear Declan’s response, but something about the glimpse he’d gotten of Blaire’s expression bothered him. Stray stood there, staring at the closed door for a moment, debating on whether or not to listen in, before deciding it might be worth it. He crouched down on the floor, then shifted so he was lying on his side, one ear pressed against the floorboards. When he closed his eyes, a myriad of sounds that had been inaudible until that moment flooded his mind – electricity buzzing through the walls, a clock ticking somewhere downstairs, the sound of someone snoring.
Too much, he told himself, and he tried to tone it down. Focus.
“- don’t buy that BS you said about him being useful when he flat out refuses to kill Eldritch,” Blaire was growling when he finally managed to tone in on her voice.
“Now,” Declan said.
“He refuses to kill them now,” Declan repeated. Stray frowned at his implications.
“And based on what he said, he’s not likely to change that stance,” Blaire said. “You heard him as well as I did. He thinks they’re people. He thinks they’re human. He’s too stupid to realize they’re not, and so he refuses to kill them!”
“He’s not actually stupid,” Declan said. “Judging by how quickly he’s able to come to semi-accurate conclusions once you give him the necessary information, I’d say that he’s more intelligent than you.”
“Shut up,” Blaire snapped. “Besides, that doesn’t mean he’s not useless to us – to this team you wanted to put together to kill more fae. I’ve only tolerated him because you said he’d be useful, but –”
“Don’t worry. He will be useful,” Declan said with certainty.
“You heard him say that he won’t kill fae! And you said you could see he meant it!”
“Yes,” Declan said. “He meant what he said. While he was saying it. Most people do, at least part of the time. Stray, I believe, is the sort of person who almost always means what he says at the time when he’s saying it. Fortunately, peoples’ positions can change, given the right triggers, and Stray’s not the sort who’s so stubborn that he’ll stand by what he once said, even when he no longer believes in it. It’s just a matter of motivation.”
“He wouldn’t kill them even in a fight for his life,” Blaire said. “If that’s not motivation to change his stance then what is?”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” Declan said with such condescension that Stray expected Blaire to deck him right there. “I’ll find a way to make him come around to our way of thinking.”
“Not likely,” Stray whispered, opening his eyes and lifting his head from the floorboards and the sounds that they’d conducted to him. Tired and annoyed, he picked himself up off the floor and sat back down on his bed.
It didn’t surprise him that Declan was going to try to get him to change his mind about killing Eldritch. He hadn’t really believed the other teen when he’d said it was all right if Stray didn’t help them hunt down and kill the creatures of legend, many of whom had started off human. That was what Declan had been trained for most of his life. That was what Blaire lived for now, and what the Ironhorse Sanctuary existed for. So, of course Declan was playing him, or had some hidden agenda for Stray. Everyone always did, and Stray wasn’t stupid enough to think that these people were the exception. That was how everyone was, from the string of check-cashing foster parents he’d been running away from for almost a decade, to his own flesh and blood parents who’d slit his throat for insurance money.
The residents of the Ironhorse Sanctuary, at least, cared a little bit about his safety. When he was in mortal danger, they’d gone after him, even though they’d had no reason to. Even though they’d put their own lives at risk doing so. In all honesty, they’d treated him better than just about anyone else Stray had ever met. That was why he was still there, despite his misgivings about what they did. On the off chance that these really were good people, and that he might find a place here with them.
It was a long shot. Stray knew it. That he would run away eventually seemed inevitable to him. The when of it was the only thing in question. In the meantime, though, Declan and Blaire kept things . . . interesting. And there were some things Stray wanted to try and figure out about the Eldritch, who had tried to kill him on several occasions and might continue to do so, despite the semi-understanding he’d come to with one of them.
He’d deal with whatever happened as it came, the same way he always did. Stray had been dealing with nightmares all his life, after all, and not just when he was asleep.