spirits of decay: chapter 4
It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at their destination. Stray couldn’t help but stare, wide-eyed, even as Beatrice cursed the mere sight of it. It was the kind of house that Stray thought only existed in movies, and the overcast skies made it look even more sinister. Still . . . he didn’t quite understand why his new housemates seemed to hate it so venomously at first glance.
“What’s wrong?” he asked as they got out of the Jeep, glad to finally be free. Packed in there with five other people for most of the day had been no picnic. Stray hated cramped spaces even more than he hated being in close proximity to others. If not for the open windows, he was sure he’d have gone crazy.
“Whenever someone tries this hard to make their house look like the Addams Family ancestral home, it’s usually a bad sign for what’s inside,” Declan said, looking surprisingly cheerful. “Though I don’t know why they’re acting like this is a surprise. Ethan did email us pictures last night.”
Thomas gave him an annoyed look. “He emailed me those pictures, and I didn’t show them to you.”
Declan blinked at him innocently. “And?”
Thomas made a disgusted sound. “You hacked my account. Again.”
“It wasn’t actually hacking,” Declan said. “I just guessed your password. On the first try. Again.”
Thomas shook his head and began walking toward the house.
“I don’t know why you even bother,” Declan said, grabbing Stray by the arm and pulling him after Thomas.
Stray immediately wrenched his arm free and jumped back. Declan didn’t seem to mind. He just gave Stray a smile and motioned for him to come along. After a moment, Stray did.
“It’s never taken me more than six tries to guess your password,” Declan continued. “Even when you try getting creative, swapping letters and numbers.”
Beatrice gave a slight laugh, but failed to notice the ironic look Declan sent her way. Stray didn’t. He wondered how often Declan accessed Beatrice’s email account.
Stray’s eyes snapped to Blaire, who suddenly sounded happier than he’d ever heard her. He watched as she tore past them and sprinted up the porch, to where a dark haired teen had just stepped outside. The teen, Ethan, caught Blaire in a hug, not at all phased by her momentum, or the fact that she was taller than him.
“Hey, Blaire. Good to see you again.”
Stray glanced at Declan to see if he was watching Blaire’s unusually friendly behavior, and found that Declan was actually watching him.
Of course, he realized, mentally berating himself. He’s seen Blaire around this guy before. I guess she always gets like this when he’s around, if Declan’s not taking note of it.
“Yes,” Declan said. “She does.”
Stray scowled. “I didn’t say anything.”
“But you were thinking,” Declan said.
“Are you sure you’re not a mind reader?”
Declan didn’t bother answering. Instead he nodded back to the scene in front of them, as Thomas reached the top of the stairs. Ethan untangled himself from Blaire’s embrace, then gave Thomas a quick, brotherly hug. After that, he sent a frosty look Beatrice’s way and didn’t bother greeting her. His eyes skimmed over Declan, narrowing slightly as they did so, then warmed a bit as they fell on Stray.
“So, you’re the new kid,” he said, stepping forward and holding out a hand to shake. “I’m Ethan Danvers.”
“I’m Stray,” Stray introduced himself, giving a slight wave instead of clasping Ethan’s hand.
“Okay.” Ethan shot a suspicious look at Declan.
“No, I did not name him that,” Declan said, “and he goes by it of his own free will.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Ethan told him.
“It’s true,” Stray said defensively. “It’s my name, and no one’s going to take it from me.”
Ethan blinked, like he wasn’t sure what to make of this, then shrugged. “Thomas told me that you might be a changeling.”
Stray scowled. “And?”
Now Ethan looked even more lost. “I was just going to say . . . well, I was too. So –”
“I don’t care,” Stray told him.
“Stray!” Blaire snapped.
“What? Are you trying to form some kind of club?” Stray asked. “Or are we going to sit down and talk about our feeling over this? Either way, I’ll pass.”
“Zing,” Declan sang out, a grin on his face.
Surprisingly, Ethan didn’t look angry. At least not at Stray. He gave another shrug, then opened his mouth to say something that would have doubtlessly been placating or friendly, but a crash from inside shifted his focus away from Stray. “Audun? You all right, mate?”
His only answer was another earsplitting crash that made everyone wince.
“That sounds expensive,” Beatrice muttered.
Ethan hurried back inside the house. “Audun?”
“Yeah! I’m fine!” came a voice from somewhere deeper inside. “The shelves on this bookcase were rotten, and it fell apart when I tried to move it.”
“Why were you trying to move an entire bookcase on your own?” Thomas asked, leading the rest of them inside.
The first room they stepped into was some kind of entry hallway. It had the look of a place that had just undergone some hasty cleaning. There were dust marks on the floor, outlining spaces where stacks of stuff had clearly stood not too long ago. The staircase was still packed with junk, and the walls were dingy, with cobwebs at their bases.
“This isn’t a mound, is it?” Stray asked, just to make sure. The last creepy mansion he’d found himself in had been one.
“No,” Declan told him tolerantly. “It’s not a mound.”
“I was trying to move it because there’s a hidden room behind it,” Audun called as they made their way deeper into the house. Stray’s eyes widened at the ridiculous amount of stuff piled everywhere. A quick glance told him that the others shared his thoughts, with the possible exception of Declan who just looked amused.
“And you felt like you had to do that on your own, because . . . ?”
“Don’t patronize me,” Audun said. “If it hadn’t fallen apart, I wouldn’t have needed anyone’s help, and having someone helping me wouldn’t have stopped it from falling apart.”
“You couldn’t see that it was rotten before you tried to move it?”
They finally made it to the room where Audun had been shouting from. It seemed to be some sort of study that he’d done a halfway decent job of clearing out – the wide open window had doubtlessly contributed to that. Audun had his back to them when they entered. He was picking up broken slats from the shelves, gathering an armful of them to throw out the window.
“I knew it was rotten,” Audun said as he turned to greet them, “because there was a Grecian urn that –”
He stopped talking as his eyes fell on Stray. Stray, for his part, felt like he’d been doused with ice water. The older teen before him was frighteningly familiar – the sharp features, the jet black eyes, the feathers in his hair. It shouldn’t have been possible. It had been almost a decade since the night that always featured so prominently in Stray’s nightmares, yet here he was. It was Audun who always saved Stray in his dreams.
There was recognition in Audun’s eyes. Stray didn’t know how the older boy could recognize him, but it was clear that he did. Their gazes locked, just for a second, but there was no mistaking the familiarity there.
Then Audun started talking again – he’d only missed a beat, even though that moment had seemed to stretch much longer for Stray.
“ – we’ll need to take special care to dispose of,” Audun continued. “I set it over –”
“So, you and Stray have met?” Declan cut him off. “Interesting.”
“What?” Beatrice asked, looking back and forth between Stray and Audun.
“Shut up, Declan,” Stray growled through clenched teeth.
Ethan, too, looked interested. “You know the new kid?”
Audun met Stray’s eyes again and something unspoken passed between them. Then Audun turned to Ethan. “No.”
“Lies,” Declan declared.
“If I knew him, don’t you think I’d have said something when you mentioned we were going to meet a guy named Audun?” Stray asked. “It’s not exactly a common name. I assume this is him?”
“You’re withholding information right and left, Stray,” Declan said, smirking. “You won’t even tell us your real name. I think it’s safe to assume you’d deny knowing Audun too, if you thought it would help you keep your secrets – which is exactly why you’re doing this. However . . .” He broke off and studied Stray’s face carefully.
Stray glared at him.
“You never reacted to the name Audun with any sort of recognition,” Declan stated. “So you didn’t actually know his name.”
“He’s not confirming or denying anything, Declan,” Audun spoke up, “and neither am I.”
“You’re protective of him,” Declan noted. “Curiouser and curiouser.”
“Not really. I lied. Nothing curious here,” Declan said. “I worked it out about ten seconds ago. Audun was the one who saved you from the Eldritch world.”
“What? No, he didn’t,” Stray said, starting off with conviction, which dwindled as he reached the end of that statement. Audun hadn’t saved him from the Eldritch . . . had he? He’d been the first one to help the night that his parents slit his throat for the insurance money. Unless . . .
Pain lanced through Stray’s head, sharp enough to make him stumble.
Hands grabbed him, keeping him on his feet, but the physical contact was like an electric shock to Stray’s reflexes. He shoved the person restraining him – Declan – away with all his strength. Declan yelped and wind-milled backwards, hands waving wildly as he fought to regain his balance. Just when it seemed like he’d succeeded, his foot landed on a sunken floorboard and he pitched backwards again, right toward a heavy wooden desk.
Stray darted forward without thinking and grabbed Declan by his collar. The back of his skull was only inches from impacting with the sharp corner of the desk when Stray halted his descent – a fact that Declan seemed well aware of, if his grip on Stray’s forearm was anything to go by, as Stray pulled him back upright.
“Sorry,” Stray muttered, releasing Declan when the other boy was steady on his feet. He forced himself not to shake Declan’s hands off his arm, though thankfully Declan let go on his own fairly quickly.
“Not a problem,” Declan said, then dove right back into their previous conversation, as though he hadn’t just had a narrow brush with a concussion. “So I’m guessing that you’re experiencing those headaches that you always seem to get when you try to think about the memories you’re repressing. Could it be that you didn’t know Audun saved you from the fae?”
“You’re annoying,” was Stray’s only answer.
“Right,” Thomas said, clapping his hands and making a valiant effort at interrupting. “I think it’s time we all got to work. “Audun, why don’t you and . . . uh . . . Beatrice keep working in this room. Ethan can show me where Stray and I can start, then he, Declan, and Blaire can work in another room.”
Stray watched as Beatrice and Audun eyed each other dubiously, and an annoyed expression crossed Ethan’s face.
“I’m going to work in the hidden room I just found,” Audun said. “Beatrice can stay in this room.”
“And I don’t want to work with the little freak,” Ethan said. “I’ll take Blaire and Stray. You work with Declan, Thomas.”
“I don’t want to work with Thomas,” Declan protested.
“Oh, grow up,” Beatrice snapped.
“And Audun really doesn’t want to work with Beatrice,” Declan continued. “Everyone will end up happiest if I work with Audun, Thomas and Beatrice work together, and Stray goes with Ethan and Blaire.”
“You just want to bug Audun about this . . . whatever this is,” Thomas said, making a gesture that vaguely encompassed both Stray and Audun.
“Of course,” Declan said, “but you don’t see Audun objecting, do you? He’s confident in his ability to keep secrets, and he’s actually clever enough to back that belief up. We’ll get on fine, I’m sure.”
“You all right with that, Audun?” Thomas asked.
“It’s fine,” Audun said, already disappearing into the hidden room he’d unearthed.
Declan clapped his hands together. “Excellent. Now, let’s get started.”