spirits of decay: chapter 13
The knife sunk into the kere’s back so much more easily than it should have. Stray knew this for a fact. He’d cut apart chickens, pigeons, and other birds for food. Stabbing into its rib cage from behind meant he should have hit bone. He’d even been expecting it, and put enough force behind the blow so that it would glance off any ribs he hit, and hopefully be driven between them. This knife – Declan’s blood iron knife – sliced right through the ribs like they were butter.
“Deadliest substance in the world to Eldritch.” If Stray hadn’t believed Declan before, he definitely did now.
He pulled the knife free, yanking it horizontally through the kere’s ribcage and out the side, not even realizing what he was doing until he saw the gash he’d made. Dimly, he realized that the kere hadn’t even uttered a sound, even though he’d just eviscerated her from behind. He wondered if that was because he’d hit her heart with his first strike . . . or if it was some other reason. He had no idea, but as the first kere’s body hit the ground, the second became aware of his presence.
She hissed and hopped backwards, abandoning her task of trying to shred Declan’s arm. Then she said something to Stray – something mocking, and nasty, and in a language Stray couldn’t understand, but he was pretty sure he got the gist of it.
Declan might have understood her words, because he seemed to almost panic. He lunged at the kere, grabbing for her arm, but she jumped back and gave a hideous smile. Then she turned herself into smoke and dust.
“No!” Declan cried, still reaching for her.
Stray growled and tore the cap off Ethan’s canteen. Before the kere’s smoke cloud could dissipate, he flung the canteen’s entire contents over it. Almost instantly, the kere transformed back into her humanoid shape, and where before she had been floating, now she crashed to the ground, where she writhed, steam rising from her body, chunks of her grainy flesh sizzling away into nothing, leaving obvious gaps where they should have been filled in.
Stray couldn’t help but feel horrified as what he’d just done really sank in. He’d practically dissolved something that had once been human – probably. And now it lay at his feet, twisting and clawing at itself, screaming in agony. Its sister lay dead not two feet away. He stared and took a step back.
“Stray?” Declan’s voice startled him out of his daze. Declan still sounded weak and sick. When he locked his gaze on Stray, his eyes were fevered. He was shaking, barely managing to stay sitting, but he still reached toward Stray with one trembling hand. “Give me the knife.”
“What?” Stray asked, feeling stupid.
“My knife,” Declan said hoarsely. “I’ll finish this.”
“But . . . you’re . . .”
“I can drag a blade across the damn thing’s throat,” Declan growled. Then he doubled over, coughing.
“Forget it,” Stray said, and knelt down beside the kere, tightening his grip on the knife. “You can’t even sit up straight.”
“Stray!” Declan choked, making a valiant effort to stop hacking and talk. “You don’t have to. I can –”
“I’ve got it.” Stray raised the blade and grit his teeth, ready to stab it down into the kere’s chest. His hand shook a little, and his stomach started churning. He steeled himself for what he had to do, but then Declan’s hand wrapped around his wrist right before he managed to get the necessary resolve. “Why are you stopping me?”
“Because I told you . . . this wasn’t what I . . .” Declan bowed his head and started coughing again.
Stray carefully peeled Declan’s fingers away from his wrist. “This isn’t your fault. I’m not going to hold this against you. And . . . I’m doing this because it’s what’s right. So let me.”
Declan stayed doubled over, and Stray wasn’t sure anymore whether he was coughing or choking. He didn’t bother waiting to find out.
This is what’s right, he reminded himself. If I don’t kill this thing, Declan will die.
Keeping that thought at the forefront of his mind, he plunged the blade down, right into the kere’s heart.
All at once, the Eldritch went still. Then Stray’s stomach threatened to rebel. He scooted backwards, away from the corpse, and clasped both hands over his mouth. Tears blurred his vision.
“Stray? Are you all right?”
Stray didn’t answer. He couldn’t. He was too busy trying not to throw up.
A hand fell on his shoulder. The touch was light, but Stray still flinched away from it on instinct.
“Oh. Right. Sorry,” Declan said. He sounded better, at least.
Stray blinked rapidly and let his tears spill over so that his vision would clear. Then he looked at Declan. His eyes went to Declan’s arm, where the bandages had been mostly torn away. As he watched, the red streaks in Declan’s skin faded completely, and the infection in and around the kere scratches disappeared. The only wounds that remained looked no more dangerous than cat scratches. Stray blinked again, then met Declan’s eyes, unable to hide his amazement.
Declan smiled at him – not his usual sarcastic smile. This one was different. Almost . . . friendly.
Stray slowly lowered his hands from his mouth as the sick feeling subsided. “You’re better now?”
“Yes.” Declan suddenly looked awkward. “Thank you. For what you did, there. You saved my life. Again.”
“I think I owed you one,” Stray reminded him. He pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his chin on top of them. “We’re even now.”
“We’re not,” Declan said.
Stray gave him a confused look.
“My apologies. For whatever it’s worth. I didn’t mean for you to have to kill for me,” Declan told him.
Stray shrugged, then drew his hood up. “I don’t want to think about that right now.”
“You don’t have to,” Declan said. “I just want you to know . . . I am grateful.”
Stray nodded in acknowledgement, then tilted his face so that his forehead was pressed against his knees. He was so tired . . . and they still had to explain this to Audun and Ethan. Then, to Beatrice and Thomas tomorrow.
“Why don’t you get some sleep?” Declan suggested. “I’ll call the others and let them know the hunt’s over. It’s time to call it a night anyway.”
“You should sleep too,” Stray said. “You were the one who was so sick.”
“I’m feeling much better now – but I will head to bed too, after I finish fielding Ethan’s whining and Audun’s disapproval,” Declan said. “You don’t need to deal with that.”
Stray didn’t think Declan needed to deal with that either, but it was true that someone had to.
“If you’re sure . . .”
“Sure, I’m sure,” Declan said with his usual annoying cheerfulness. “Catch some Z’s, my friend. And try not to worry. The rest of the week will be nice and boring.”