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spirits of decay: chapter 11
The graveyard, Declan knew, was the most likely place for the keres to take refuge outside. Eldritch were always attracted to their own element, and no place fit that bill for spirits of decay like keres better than a cemetery – not that their attraction to the place would guarantee their presence there. There were actually a few factors that might deter them. Declan had already taken some of those into account, but now it occurred to him to check about the others.
He paused before crossing the threshold as something occurred to him. “Audun, is this graveyard –”
“It’s not on holy ground,” Audun answered.
“Oh.” That wasn’t what Declan had been about to ask, but he realized he should probably pretend like it was. “Good. For our purposes, I mean.”
Audun’s dark gaze was oddly concerned. “Normally that would have been one of the first things you thought of. How bad is your fever?”
“Not that bad,” Declan said, then asked the question he’d meant to ask. “And I should probably check now, you don’t sense anything else here, do you? No church grims, or night ravens, or anything here, right?”
“None,” Audun assured him. “It would have to be on holy ground for any of those to be here, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. Right.” Declan almost winced at his slip. It seemed his fever was affecting him more than he thought. He’d have to be careful, or Audun might get suspicious. Well, Audun was already suspicious, but for reasons that were mostly off base.
“You’re sure you’re feeling okay?”
“Yes,” Declan said, stomping into the graveyard. “I’m fine. And I’ll be better once we find and kill the kere that scratched me.”
They wove through the gravestones, keeping their eyes peeled for any sign of the plague spirits. Unlike before, Declan was armed now – as was Stray. Declan had his shillelagh, and Stray had one of Blaire’s spare crowbars. Declan was pretty sure he was willing to use it with lethal intent now too. Like 90 percent sure.
But nothing sinister showed itself amongst the tombstones. They went through them very carefully. At one point Declan saw Stray crouch down and press one ear to the ground, his eyes closed like he was listening hard. That was a bit confusing, so he filed that memory away to figure out later.
If anything had been hiding there, Audun most likely would have been able to flush it out. He couldn’t sense every type of Eldritch, but his powers were linked to death and darkness, like the keres, and any other supernatural creature likely to be hiding out in a cemetery, so if any had been present, he should have been able to detect them given enough time.
“There’s nothing here,” Audun declared finally. “Where to next?”
“Fire pit,” Declan said immediately. “Ashes, death, and disease. Gotta check places the keres would be drawn to. No sources of disease here, excepting me, of course, and they’re not going to come near me with both of you around. Death was the graveyard. Next best place to check is where we can find the most ashes.”
The fire pit wasn’t too far away, but when they got there, they could see Declan’s suggestion had once again missed the mark. The fire was still going – not blazing, but it hadn’t yet died down from the last load of trash they’d lit up. Unless keres were flame resistant – which Declan knew very well that they weren’t – then neither of them were hiding in the garbage pyre.
“Well,” Declan said, staring at the fire, wondering if the smoke was making his eyes blurry or if that was a side effect of his infection, “I’m out of ideas.”
“How’s your arm?” Audun asked.
“About the same,” Declan told him.
“Let me see.”
Declan sighed but complied, and began loosening the bandaged Ethan had wrapped around his arm. They were still damp with holy water on the outside, but inside . . . they were disgustingly crusty and dry.
“That does not look good,” Stray remarked as Declan pulled them away. Then he saw the wound itself. “Oh, shit.”
Red streaks radiated away from the scratch marks, spreading up and down Declan’s arm now. The wound itself looked like it was midway through the putrefaction process. In the waning light, Declan couldn’t see it perfectly, but he thought it looked kind of green and grayish around the edges – not colors anyone wanted their skin to be.
“We need to soak it in holy water and change the bandages,” Audun said. “Come on.”
“What we need to do is catch and kill the damn kere,” Declan muttered, but followed Audun to his car – a nondescript, dark blue sedan. Once there, Audun popped the trunk and retrieved a gallon sized milk jug, marked in Sharpie with a cross, to keep Ethan from confusing the holy water with actual milk if they ever decided to store milk in their car trunk. Audun wouldn’t mix it up, Declan knew. Audun didn’t do so well with holy water, even when he wasn’t in direct contact with it. Therefore, the cross had to be for Ethan’s benefit. “I can take care of it on my own.”
“You sure?” Audun asked. It was a very stupid question, but Declan knew he meant it in a caring way, rather than an ignorant way. He knew damn well Declan was capable of cauterizing his own cuts if he had to. He just wanted to offer to help because it was the kind of thing people who weren’t sociopaths did when someone was hurt – apparently even if the antiseptic being used would burn them like acid.
“I can help,” Stray offered.
Declan raised an eyebrow at him. “Payback for showing you how you don’t use motion sickness patches?”
“I’m not that petty,” Stray said. “Just tell me what to do.”
“I need new bandages,” Declan said, and Audun immediately dug a roll of gauze out of the first aid kit for him. “Okay, pour the water over my arm, in a slow, steady stream, and don’t stop until the cut stops smoking – even if I scream.”
Stray looked a little pale, and a little more disgusted, but not at all squeamish. He did exactly what Declan requested, without so much as a flinch. Normally, Declan would have been tempted to scream really loud and pretend to beg for mercy to see if he could rattle Stray’s resolve, but all thoughts of joking around fled his mind the moment the holy water came in contact with his cut. Steam rose from the wound, thicker this time, and Declan clenched his teeth, but was still unable to hold back a groan of pain.
“Sorry,” Stray said, but didn’t stop pouring.
“Graaaaah!” Declan replied, turning his face away so they couldn’t see his twisted expression.
“The steam’s getting thinner. Just a little longer, Declan,” Audun told him, putting a hand on his shoulder.
His arm hurt too much to even try to respond to that. Declan felt warm tears welling up in his eyes. He clawed at them with his free hand, to get rid of any proof of their existence before Stray or Audun could see, or at least he tried to, but Audun grabbed his wrist.
“It’s okay. You’re okay.”
“Done,” Stray announced, and the stream of holy water abruptly cut off. “Now what?”
“Pour some holy water onto the bandages and soak them,” Audun said when Declan just hissed in pain. “Then use them to wrap his arm again. Quickly.”
“Should we, you know, use some alcohol to disinfect it?” Stray asked, speaking as he worked if the sounds of sloshing water were anything to go by. “Or some kind of healing cream stuff?”
“Normally the answer would be yes, but regular medicines don’t work on kere sickness,” Audun told him.
Seconds later, Declan felt more bandages being wrapped around his arm. He fought the instinct to twist his arm away and deck Stray for the pain the younger teen was causing him.
Then finally, finally, it was over. Declan’s arm was newly bandaged. Slowly, the pain subsided to a dull ache, now that they’d stopped magically burning the wound’s infection away, and constantly jostling it.
“Well, that was fun,” Declan said hoarsely. His throat ached now too, and he wasn’t sure if it was from choking on his own screams, or the kere sickness spreading through his system.
“Sorry,” Stray said again.
Normally Declan would have made a callous remark, because such a stupid apology warranted one, but there was something vulnerable in Stray’s eyes.
“Not your fault,” Declan told him, then wondered if his fever was higher than he’d thought. “We need to keep searching. Find that damn thing ASAP.”
“Yeah,” Audun agreed, looking a little worried, “but are you sure you’re okay for it?”
“Stupid question,” Declan declared. He used his shillelagh to get up. There was a disconcerting moment as he realized that he didn’t remember ever sitting down, but he pushed it out of his mind. He had to stay focused on the important things.
It was almost fully dark now, he realized. Time was passing faster than he’d expected.
“Any ideas on where to look next?” Audun asked.
“Fresh out. Where do you want to look?”
“I think I should fly up and take another look around.”
“Fine. Do that,” Declan said, leaning against the car. “We’ll wait here.”
“Are you really okay to be doing this?” Stray asked as Audun took flight again.
“Well, the alternative is for me to sit around and wait while everyone else tries to hunt down the keres, even though my life is the one on the line,” Declan said.
“Could you even fight them right now, in the shape you’re in?” Stray wondered.
“Another stupid question.”
Stray glared but didn’t say anything else. Instead he leapt up on top of the car trunk, then hopped onto its roof.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to get a better look,” Stray said.
“Those shadows in that window.”
Declan tried to follow Stray’s gaze but even at 100 percent he wouldn’t have been able to see through a window that far away, in such poor light – especially since none of the windows were lit from the inside. More proof that Stray had changeling vision, not that there was much doubt of that at this point.
“Which window?” he asked, fishing out his phone.
“That one.” Stray pointed.
“I can’t see that far in this light,” Declan said impatiently. “Which floor? And how many windows is it from the closest corner?”
“Third floor,” Stray said. “I saw movement in the window right at the corner furthest from us.”
Declan dialed Ethan’s number.
“What do you want, Declan?” Ethan asked as a greeting.
“You guys aren’t on the third floor now, are you?”
“We’re on the second. Why?”
“Stray saw something moving in a third floor window, on the side of the house closest to the cars. The corner room, closest to the fire pit. Do me a favor and go kill it.”
“On it,” Ethan told him, foregoing the opportunity to insult Declan in the face of their current situation. He did, however, hang up without saying goodbye.
Declan stared at his phone for a moment then scowled. “Bastard. I might have had something important to add.”
“Did you?” Stray asked.
“No,” Declan admitted, “but I could have!”
“I didn’t see anything from above,” Audun announced, fluttering down in raven form again and perching on the car’s trunk. He didn’t bother changing back to human immediately this time. “Did something happen down here?”
“Stray saw something through a window. I called Ethan and told him to check it out. ‘Course it’ll probably be gone by the time he gets up there.”
“Which window?” Audun asked.
“Third floor. Window in the corner room, closest to us,” Declan said, and Audun took to the air again immediately, shifting into his raven-wolf form as he made a beeline toward said window.
“Declan! I said the window furthest from us,” Stray said urgently.
Declan looked at him then shook his head. “No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did. Remember? And you told Ethan the corner closest to the fire pit, which is the furthest corner from us. Now, you’ve just told Audun the wrong window.”
Stray’s claims were punctuated by the sound of a shattering window.
“No, I didn’t,” Declan said after a moment.
“Yes, you did.”
“You said the window closest to us.”
“No, I said the window furthest from us,” Stray said. “You said the window closest to us.”
“No, I distinctly remember –”
“I think the kere sickness is messing with your brain.”
“Is not!” Declan insisted.
“Oh, all right,” Declan growled. He took out his phone and called back Ethan.
“Now what?” Ethan demanded.
“Stray says I told you wrong, that it’s the window closest to us –”
“The window furthest from us!” Stray corrected, his voice shaded with annoyance.
“What?” Declan gave him a disgusted look. “But you just said –”
“No, you just said –”
“I know you said the window closest to us!”
“I said the window furthest from us!”
“That’s what I told Ethan the first time, then you said I told him wrong!” Declan shouted.
“No, it’s what you told Audun –”
“Then why’d you tell me I told him wrong?”
“Because you did tell him wrong!”
“What are you two babbling about?” Ethan wanted to know. “Is it the window closest to the fire pit or not?”
“Hang on, just a second,” Declan told him, then said to Stray, “I know I told him the first time that it was the window closest to us.”
“He doesn’t even know where we are, stupid! How could he find the right window based on that direction?”
“So . . . you’re saying I told Audun wrong?”
“Yes!” Stray practically screamed.
“Well, why didn’t you just say that?” Declan asked. Then he spoke to Ethan. “Never mind, I don’t need to talk to you.”
Then he hung up.
“Declan . . . I think maybe you should . . . I don’t know, take it easy? Sit down?” Stray regarded him the way a normal person would regard an unfamiliar dog – like they didn’t know whether it was friendly, or whether it would bite them, or why they’d let it get so close in the first place.
“I don’t have time to sit,” Declan said irritably. “I don’t have much longer before this kere sickness starts messing up my mind completely.”
“I think it already has, Declan!”
“Don’t think, you’re not very good at it,” Declan advised.
“You’re the one who can’t keep a single set of directions straight!” Stray argued.
“Of course I can! Everything is going exactly according to my plans!”
“Whatever, man,” Stray grumbled.
Declan glanced up at the window and tried to calculate how much time he had left before Audun gave up the chase and came back down. How long had he been gone? It was troubling to realize that he couldn’t accurately gauge time the way he usually did.
“Stray,” Declan said, letting some of his apprehension seep into his voice. “I . . . you might be right.”
Stray’s gaze was wary. “What?”
“My mind’s not what it usually is right now. My thoughts are getting hazier and hazier. I don’t – oh God . . .”
“What?” Stray looked alarmed. He hopped off the car and down beside Declan – then jumped backward just in time to keep Declan from throwing up all over his shoes.
It had been a long time since Declan had been sick. One of the advantages of going to such a small school, and living in such a small town – less diseases going around and less people to spread them. Five years had passed since the last time he’d vomited. He’d forgotten how much throwing up sucked – how disgusting the taste was, how it burned in his nose, and how much energy the act of it drained away. He almost fell to his knees in the puddle of his own sickness, but thankfully Stray saved him from that fate. The smaller boy caught him by his jacket and pulled him backwards. Declan stumbled into Stray, almost knocking him down, but somehow, Stray managed to stay on his feet. He pulled Declan over to the car so that he could lean against it.
“Thanks,” Declan said breathlessly.
“Declan, I don’t . . . What do you need? Tell me what to do,” Stray said, sounding lost.
Declan tried to think this over, but his thoughts were foggier than ever. More than that, he felt weak – like his strength had all suddenly been sapped. He wasn’t going to be able to stumble around outside, pretending to hunt down the keres anymore, that was for sure. He didn’t even know how long he’d be able to stay conscious.
“Help me get inside?” Declan asked finally. “To the kitchen. To my sleeping bag. I just want to lay down.”