spirits of decay: chapter 12
Stray was able to get Declan inside and to his sleeping bag without incident. He stayed as alert as he could, in case one of the keres decided to make an appearance, but thankfully neither of the remaining two reared their ugly heads.
Declan collapsed onto his sleeping bag the moment he reached it. He’d only managed to get to it by leaning heavily on Stray the entire way there. Stray had endured the physical contact because Declan clearly could not make it three steps on his own, but he was very glad to be relieved of his burden. He stepped back, regaining his bubble of personal space, then glanced around the dark kitchen uncertainly.
“Can I get you anything? Help you any way?”
“You can kill the kere who did this to me,” Declan said, then coughed.
“Appologies,” Declan said after a moment. “That was supposed to be a joke. I know you don’t want to kill any Eldritch, or at least any fae.”
“And I know you’re planning on having me do that anyway,” Stray pointed out.
Declan rolled onto his side and cracked his eyes to look up at Stray. “How’d you know that?”
“I heard what you said to Blaire the night before last, after I woke you both up.”
“You did? How – never mind. Damn changeling sense of hearing.” He gave a hoarse laugh. “You know, I didn’t intend to try getting you to kill a fae this soon. Was going to let you settle in, hang with us for awhile . . . get to see the Eldritch for what they are, and hopefully come to realize killing them is all right on your own.”
Stray tried to remember exactly what he’d said a few nights ago. “That’s not what it sounded like you meant.”
Declan summoned enough strength to wave his uninjured hand dismissively. “Was trying to appease Blaire. You might have noticed . . . she has no patience.”
“Yeah,” Stray agreed.
“Don’t worry, you’re not going to have to kill any keres,” Declan said. “You’re not even going to get the chance.”
“Because they’re not going to show themselves if they’re outnumbered,” Declan said. “Keres are like carrion birds. They’re more scavenger than predator. If they’re going to attack something, it’s going to be weak, and alone.”
“They attacked the three of us when that jar broke,” Stray pointed out.
“They didn’t really have a choice then,” Declan said. “They found themselves in the middle of a confrontation as soon as they got free.”
“Oh.” Stray sat down beside Declan so they were closer to the same level.
“Besides,” Declan said, closing his eyes, “In about thirty seconds, Audun’s going to come storming in, frantic to find us, with this ridiculous notion in his head that the keres got us. Then he’s going to finally hunt down the keres alone, like he should have been doing from the beginning.”
The front door flew open, down the hall, and Stray heard the sound of light but rushed footfalls.
“Declan! Stray!” Audun shouted – and he really did sound frantic.
“Damn it,” Declan muttered.
“My timing was off,” Declan said.
“Declan! Stray!” Audun yelled again.
“In the kitchen!” Stray called to him.
Moments later Audun skidded through the doorway, eyes wide and worried. He relaxed slightly when he saw the two of them. Then he scowled. “What are you doing in here? Why did you wander off like that?”
“Declan got sick,” Stray said, standing up again.
“Did you miss the puddle of my vomit near your car?” Declan asked.
“He wanted to lay down, so I brought him here.” Stray crossed his arms over his chest and gave Audun his stoniest look, wondering if this was going to cause a fight. In some of his foster homes, acting on his own initiative, or one of his foster siblings’ initiative would earn them both a beating. Declan was in bad enough shape as it was. If Audun wanted to unleash his temper on someone . . . well, this wouldn’t be the first time Stray had deliberately drawn someone’s ire. He sized Audun up, wondering how bad this would hurt.
“I didn’t see it,” Audun admitted, his anger suddenly evaporating. “I just came back out and you guys were gone. I thought the keres might have gotten you.”
“And done what to us? Eaten us whole?” Declan asked. “I’m the only one here whose brains are being addled by supernatural sickness, ergo I’m the only one with an excuse for thinking stupid thoughts!”
Audun looked troubled. “How bad off are you, Declan? Answer me honestly.”
“I’m not going to be any use for the rest of this hunt,” Declan said, looking like he’d much rather be having teeth pulled than offering that admission.
“‘Not good,’ you say. ‘No, it’s not,’ I agree. Then we move onto what’s really important – what to do next. ‘I don’t want to leave you two alone,’ you tell us with a concerned look. ‘You won’t be leaving us alone, there are two of us, you moron,’ I reply, not bothering to censor my thoughts because this fever is lowering my inhibitions. ‘You’re ill and Stray’s ill-trained,’ you’ll say to that. Okay, you wouldn’t really say ‘ill-trained,’ but I felt like being poetically repetitive. ‘You and I both know it’s the only way we’re going to kill these keres,’ I tell you, and it’s true. We’ve both known all along that a group of three had no chance of catching those damn things. Thank you for wasting our time and putting my life, and more importantly, my mental capacities on the line in your misguided attempt at protecting us!”
Stray stared at Declan, not sure how he’d managed to spout that all out in the shape he was in. He’d spoken – well, more like ranted – so quickly that Stray had barely been able to keep up.
“Except, of course, you weren’t actually trying to protect us,” Declan spat. “Not really. You knew my original points were valid, and that the way I suggested splitting us up was the most practical way. You just didn’t want to argue with Ethan.”
Stray switched his gaze to Audun, anxiously, to see how he’d react. At first, Audun’s expression was unreadable. Even his eyes were like stone. Then, to Stray’s immense surprise, Audun nodded, and regret shaded his face.
“You’re right,” Audun admitted.
“I know I’m right,” Declan said wearily. “Now will you please just go and do what you should have done in the first place? Stray and I will be fine. You know we’ll be fine.”
“I don’t know that,” Audun said, “but you definitely won’t be fine unless we kill the kere that scratched you.”
“So go already.”
Audun looked at Stray. “Are you all right with this?”
“There’s still a slight chance the keres could attack you.”
His concern was oddly . . . annoying.
“We can take care of ourselves,” Stray said coldly.
Audun only hesitated a moment longer. “If you need help, call Ethan. He’s still on the third floor, but he’ll come.”
* * *
“So, what’s Ethan got against you?” Stray asked again, after they’d been sitting in silence for twenty minutes, give or take.
Declan wasn’t sleeping – his eyes were open. He was resting, but trying not to pass out, or so Stray assumed. At Stray’s question, he turned his gaze toward the younger teen and quirked an eyebrow.
“Is it because of the sociopath thing, or did you actually do something to him?”
“Why don’t you ask him about it?” Declan asked.
“Because he’s not here. You are.”
“Let him tell you that story,” Declan said. “He likes telling it.”
“But you don’t?” Something seemed off to Stray. Declan usually enjoyed regaling his tales of how he annoyed people or made them look like idiots.
“I’m tired. And my throat hurts. Talking is too much effort.”
“Oh. Do you want some water? Or . . . I don’t know, cough syrup?”
Declan’s eyes flitted back to Stray with more interest. “Cough syrup?”
Stray had the feeling that he’d just given something away, some detail that would help Declan dissect his life story, like he claimed he would – but Stray had no idea what. “Yes, cough syrup. I know you heard me.”
“You think first aid kits are usually stocked with cough syrup?” Declan asked. “Tell me, how many foster homes did you stay in where you had easy access to cough syrup?”
Stray froze. Then he cursed himself, realizing what Declan had zeroed in on. Still, he tried to brush it off, hoping Declan’s fever would make him forget it, or get off topic. “I don’t remember. What does it matter anyway?”
“It matters,” Declan muttered, staring at the ceiling again. “You’d be surprised how much people give away with seemingly inconsequential remarks.”
“I didn’t give away anything –”
“Except that you lived with someone who cooked up meth, at one time,” Declan said.
“How can you possibly know that?” Stray demanded.
“It’s not a difficult inference,” Declan said. “Your foster homes were hell. If they hadn’t been, you wouldn’t be a runaway. Cough syrup isn’t common in low income households, or anywhere parents or guardians don’t give a damn about their charges. It’s the kind of thing you find in a loving parent’s medicine chest – and yeah, it’s possible that you might have stayed in a good foster home for a time, except if that was where your experience with cough syrup was from, you wouldn’t have reacted like you did to my question. So, the logical conclusion was that one of your foster parents illegally manufactured methamphetamines. Thank you for confirming it.”
Stray stared at him, not sure if he was awed or freaked out by how much Declan had figured out from one careless comment. It made him wonder what else Declan had deduced about him from other seemingly unimportant things he’d said or done, back when Declan wasn’t fighting infection and fever.
“Don’t worry,” Declan said, “I’m not going to tell Beatrice or Thomas anything that’ll help them figure out who you were. Not that they’d be able to from that scrap of info anyway. Sadly, there’re probably hundreds of registered foster parents who’ve been arrested for cooking up meth, never mind the ones they haven’t caught.”
“I thought you said your thoughts were all hazy,” Stray said, still staring at Declan, “but you were able to figure out all that from one stupid comment about cough syrup?”
Declan grimaced and rubbed his throat. “I wish we did have some cough syrup right now. Thoat’s raw. Gonna stop talking now.”
“Oh. Sorry. Do you want some water?”
“I’m not sure I can keep it down,” Declan admitted.
“You should try. I’ve been really sick before. I’ve seen my friends get really sick too. I may not be a crazy genius like you, but I do know that if you don’t drink, you only get worse,” Stray said. Then he amended, “At least as long as you’ve got good water. Not bad water.”
Next to Declan’s Sherlock Holmes-esque revelations, Stray’s attempts at talking sounded really, really stupid, but Declan didn’t call him out on them. In fact, something that Stray said made his eyes widen, like he just realized something.
“What?” Stray asked.
“Good water,” Declan repeated. “I should try drinking it.”
“Uh, okay. I’ll get you a glass.” Stray stood and moved toward the sink.
“No, not tap water. Holy water,” Declan told him.
“It might help slow down the infection if I –”
“ – drink it,” Stray said along with Declan.
“Provided I don’t throw it up,” Declan added.
“Do we have any in here?” Stray asked, looking toward Declan’s backpack.
“No,” Declan told him. “Stupid Beatrice and Thomas don’t like me having my own kit, so I don’t bring it when I go places with them. There should be some in Thomas’s bag, in the entry hall. Or the rest of Ethan’s canteen, in the study.”
Stray hesitated. “You’ll be okay while I go to get it?”
Declan gave him an incredulous look. Stray refused to be cowed and glared back at him.
“It’s a fair question. You’re not in good shape and you know it.”
“Rub it in, why don’t you?” Declan muttered. Then he sat up – very slowly. Just doing that caused him to put a hand to his head like the action made him dizzy, but only for a second. He reached for his backpack and pulled it to him.
After rummaging through it, he came up with a small, sheathed knife. When he drew the blade, it glinted a strange reddish color in the light.
“Blood iron,” Declan said. “Deadliest substance in the world to Eldritch.”
“Only if you’re strong enough to use it,” Stray pointed out.
Declan rolled his eyes. “You’ll be gone like thirty seconds. You really think a kere is going to attack me in that short amount of time?”
He had a point . . . and they did need the holy water. Even if Declan wasn’t planning on drinking it, they would have to change his bandages again before too long. Stray’s eyes dropped to Declan’s arm and he frowned, seeing that the red streaks had spread beyond what the bandages covered. Those bandages probably needed to be changed again now.
Stray made his decision. “I’ll be right back.”
He ran to the entry hall – it was closer than the study where this mess had all started. When he got there, however, he couldn’t find Thomas’s bag, or any other bags. Someone had moved them, but Stray didn’t know where, or when they’d been moved. He didn’t think the keres could have done it. It was more likely that Ethan, Audun, and Thomas had chosen a real room to bunk down in, since there were more cleaned up rooms now, and since their sleeping bags weren’t in the entry hall anymore either. Stray didn’t have time to guess which room they’d moved to though. He only stayed in the entry hall long enough to determine that Thomas’s bag was not there, before hurrying on to the study.
Ethan’s canteen of holy water was on the desk where he’d left it. Stray had just reached for it when he heard a thud. He froze for just a second as the sound registered, and his mind mapped out where the sound originated from. Then he grabbed the canteen off the table and started sprinting back the way he came.
Another crash reached his ears, and Stray fought the urge to shout for Declan. That would be useless – worse than useless. He’d be throwing away any element of surprise he might have.
The hallway and the entry room passed in a blur, and the next thing Stray knew, he was tearing through the kitchen door.
The sight that greeted him wasn’t unexpected, but still made his blood boil. Declan was sprawled on the floor, pinned down by not just one but both keres. One was snapping at his throat with her teeth, as Declan fended her off one-handed. The other seemed to be trying to finish the work she’d started when she scratched Declan’s arm – she was pulling at the bandages, hissing when her fingers came in contact with whatever holy water remained soaked into them.
Stray’s foot hit against something as he took a step forward. Instinctively, his eyes dropped to the floor, and his gaze landed on Declan’s blood iron knife. The keres must have knocked it from his hand. Stray snatched it up and lunged forward, as silently as he could.
Something crystallized in Stray’s mind, as he realized he’d already decided what he was going to do. Sociopath or not, manipulative jerk or not, he owed Declan. If it came down to a choice between letting the keres live, or making sure Declan lived, there really was no choice.