spirits of decay: chapter 6
It was around eight in the evening when they called it a night. By then, Stray was more than ready. He was no stranger to hard work, but after spending the majority of the on the road, after a night of almost no sleep, he was exhausted.
“We made good progress today,” Declan declared as he spread a sleeping bag out on the floor of the kitchen – the room the two of them were sharing. Almost all the other rooms were still packed full of occult paraphernalia, which kind of made Declan’s statement seem like a lie, at least in Stray’s mind.
“Did we really?”
“Well, we still have a lot to do, obviously,” Declan said, “but if you look at all the stuff we cleared out today, we did get a lot done. So? How do you like this kind of job? Better than fighting off fae in hand to hand combat?”
Stray shrugged. “I’ve done worse chores.”
“It’s usually not this bad,” Declan said. “We usually don’t have to drag so much stuff outside and burn it. We only have to do that now because whoever used to live here was a freaking hoarder. Over ninety-eight percent of the junk we burned today was actually harmless. We only torched it so we’d have room to get to everything. Otherwise we might have let something dangerous slip through.”
“Who exactly asked you guys to do this?” Stray asked. “How’d you know this place was here?”
“An old friend of the Ironhorse family keeps an eye out for places like this,” Declan said. “She specializes in estate sales, antiques, that kind of crap. When she finds something sketchy, like this place, she sends us to sort it out for her. Sometimes there’s not actually anything Eldritch related. Most of the time there’s a few potentially dangerous things. This time the greatest hazard is getting lost amidst these piles of garbage. Or buried by them.”
“But the stuff that Ethan specifically set aside was dangerous?” Stray asked. The older teen had flagged a handful of items while they were working – some books, some ugly jewelry that Stray doubted a fence would even touch, and a skull that looked kind of human but mostly not.
“It was at least potentially dangerous, I’m sure,” Declan said. “There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s harmless in and of itself, but in the hands of the wrong person can be devastating.”
Stray didn’t bother asking for examples. Even with his limited knowledge of the supernatural, he could imagine well enough what kind of stuff Declan was talking about. He’d seen enough horror movies to give him ample ideas.
“Well, better get some sleep,” Declan said. “Morning comes early.”
“We getting up before dawn?” Stray asked, pulling his hood over his head before curling up on the sleeping bag they’d given him.
“Nah. Eight or so, I think,” Declan said. “We need to be well rested for tomorrow.”
With his ear pressed to the floor, even with several layers of fabric in the way, Stray’s hearing was amplified. Somewhere, far off to his right, he overheard the conversation Blaire was having with Ethan. It still surprised him how friendly she was to the older teen, but that neither bothered nor affected him, so he attempted to tone them out. Elsewhere, Thomas was talking on his phone, reassuring someone named Cecelia that the job was coming along fine. Beatrice was in another room, already snoring. The only person Stray’s hearing couldn’t account for was Audun, but that didn’t bother him. It stood to reason that there would be at least one person in the house not making ample amounts of unnecessary noise.
He still wasn’t sure what to make of Audun. The fact that he looked exactly the same as he had on the night he saved Stray’s life was a little disconcerting. Stray never expected to come face to face with him again, and he always assumed that if by some chance he did, the guy would be significantly older. Now he wasn’t even sure if the night Audun saved him was the night he’d always thought it was – the night his parents tried to kill him.
His head ached when he tried to think about it too hard, so Stray did his best to put it from his mind. It didn’t really matter anyway. Whatever happened, it was a long time ago. Too long to matter anymore.
“Hey, Stray? Got a question for you?”
“What?” Stray muttered.
“What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Audun?” Declan asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Yeah, you do.”
“I’m sleeping. Leave me alone.”
“Would it change your mind about trusting me if I told you I had your best interests at heart?” Declan wanted to know.
“Not a bit,” Stray told him.
“Yeah, I thought not,” Declan admitted. “So what do you remember about the last time you met him?”
“You obviously remember something.”
“And I’m obviously not going to tell you.”
“Well,” Declan said, a hint of annoyance in his voice now. “You suck.”
“You suck,” Stray shot back. “You sucker.”
That startled a laugh out of Declan, and he was actually silent for a few moments afterward. “Good one,” he said finally.
“No one’s ever actually called me a sucker before,” Declan said. “And I’ve never actually called anyone a sucker either. Just about every other insult you can think of, but never a sucker. I must correct that post haste.”
“Not on you,” Declan said, though he couldn’t have seen Stray’s expression. “At least not right after you used it on me. That would be lame. Someone else. Tomorrow. Probably Ethan.”
“Well, good luck with that,” Stray said. He pulled his hood down lower over his head to block out the moonlight from the window, and closed his eyes.
Normally, Stray had a hard time sleeping in the presence of people he didn’t know very well, but he guessed he was starting to get used to Declan because slumber claimed him quickly.
The dream was different this time. Stray still knew, on some level, that it was a dream, but like his usual nightmare, he had no control over it, just because he knew it wasn’t real – or at least that it wasn’t real right now. It might have been real at one time. He wasn’t sure.
He was running, following a big black dog . . . except it wasn’t a dog. Dogs didn’t have feathers or wings. This thing had both. It was flying just a few feet off the ground, while he hurried after it, as fast as his legs could carry him.
Something veered into their path – some kind of reptilian monster. The bird-dog crashed into it, and the reptile thing went down hard. There was a spurt of red. Blood, Stray realized as he skidded to a stop, just as the bird-dog jumped off the monster’s corpse. Calling it a bird-wolf might be more appropriate, he realized then, as he watched blood drip from its beak. Now that he’d gotten a look at it, it definitely seemed more wolf-like than dog-like.
“Get down!” the bird-wolf suddenly snapped. The thing had Audun’s voice, but somehow, in his dream, Stray didn’t think that was strange. He hesitated only a fraction of a second before dropping to his knees. The bird-wolf, that very well might have been Audun, leapt over his head with a war cry halfway between a wolf’s growl and a raven’s caw. When he looked over his shoulder, Stray saw that his protector was locked in combat with several smaller creatures. They looked like cats, with tree bark instead of fur, and coals for eyes. There were a lot of them. Within seconds, Audun was swarmed. He swore and yelped in pain, but kept fighting, snapping his beak at any he could reach, leaving great gashes that bled tree sap, sometimes tearing their heads or limbs clear off.
There was a rock by Stray’s hand. A pretty big one. Stray snatched it up and got back to his feet. The next wood-cat that Audun threw off him, Stray leapt upon, bringing his rock down hard on its head. The thing made a horrible sound that made Stray feel like a beast. When he moved his rock away, he saw a dent in its face. It twitched several times, then went still. Stray dropped back to his knees beside it. Tentatively, he reached out to touch it, only to scream in pain and try to jerk his hand back as the thing twisted its head up and clamped its jaws down on his wrist.
Suddenly, Audun was there. Not as a bird-wolf, but as a human again, and wearing armor for some reason. He sliced the wood-cat’s head right off with a wicked looking sword, then hauled Stray up, off the ground, one handed. Stray got a good look at his armor then. Shock ran through him, because Audun looked evil. His armor was black with silver patterns twisted into raven, wing, feather, and claw motifs. Cruel, jagged spikes jutted out of his shoulders. And his sword . . . it was a monster of a sword, black like Audun’s armor, with a wide, thick, blade at least two feet long, and blood grooves that look like they’d been gouged into the metal. It had to be heavy, but Audun held it in one hand like it was made of straw, as he inspected the bite on Stray’s wrist, turning it over with his free hand.
“It’s not too bad,” he decided after a moment, “and we have to keep moving.”
“I’m tired, Audun,” Stray heard himself say. “I can’t run anymore.”
“You have to,” Audun told him, already dragging him along again. “Every second you spend in Elphame changes you a little more, and right now we’re in the very worst part.”
“But what if it changes me to be like you?” Stray asked. He didn’t think this would be too bad a thing.
“It won’t,” Audun said with certainty. “And even if it could, you wouldn’t want that. Trust me.”
Stray did trust him. In his dream, at least. Awake, Stray trusted very few people. “You’ll take me home?” he asked. Somehow he knew that’s what Audun was doing, but he asked anyway, just to make sure.
“Yes,” Audun said. “I’ll take you home.”
Then the dream changed. Audun was gone, and Stray was in a house with hardwood floors that looked remarkably like the ones at the Ironhorse Sanctuary – floors made of Eldritch repelling woods, fitted into strange patterns. A man and a woman were arguing. A baby was crying nearby.
Then Stray was somewhere else, with another man and another woman – his parents. He couldn’t see their faces but he recognized them by their eyes, his father’s a dark, cold blue, his mother’s paler and even icier. They were helping him into his coat as they got ready to go out for dinner. Then they were in the alley, and Stray was where his nightmares usually started, lying in a puddle of his own blood.
“Stray! Stray! Wake up!”
“No!” Stray didn’t just wake up. He didn’t just sit up. He leapt up to his feet in one smooth motion and away from the hands trying to grab him. “Stay back!”
“Look. See that? He’s fine,” Declan said from halfway across the room. “I told you I didn’t stab him in his sleep.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you to try,” Ethan said darkly. He was the one closest to Stray, Stray realized now. Blaire was standing behind Ethan, her expression somewhere between concerned and annoyed. Someone else was hovering back in the doorway – Audun, Stray realized.
“It was just a nightmare,” Stray said, finding his voice. “Declan didn’t do anything to me.”
Ethan studied him with a hawk-like gaze for a moment. Where Blaire was concerned and annoyed, he was concerned and suspicious. “You’re sure?”
Stray scowled at him. “Yeah, I’m sure. It was just a stupid dream.”
“A stupid dream that had you screaming bloody murder in your sleep,” Ethan stated.
“He actually wasn’t yelling that loud,” Declan said. “He didn’t wake up Beatrice or Thomas.”
“Only because they have the hearing of normal humans,” Ethan argued.
“It seems like Stray is indeed fine,” Audun said, still hovering in the hallway, “and that Declan really didn’t have anything to do with this.”
Ethan studied Stray a moment longer then sighed. “You’re right.”
“No need to sound so disappointed,” Declan told him.
Ethan shot him a glare, then stood up. “Go back to bed, freak. And Blaire, it’s probably time we tried to get some sleep as well. We can talk more tomorrow.”
“’Night, Ethan,” Blaire said. She watched him go, but made no move to leave herself. By the time Ethan reached the hallway, Audun had already disappeared. Once Ethan was gone, Blaire turned back to Stray. “So, is this going to be a habit?”
“You didn’t have nightmares your first few nights at the sanctuary,” Declan commented.
“I’m sorry,” Stray said grimly. “If it bothers you, I can leave.”
“That’s not necessary. I’d just like to know how often you have nightmares like this,” Declan said, sounding way too damn reasonable.
“Usually only once every couple months,” Stray muttered.
“Ever had them two nights in a row before?”
“I don’t know. No. I don’t think so,” Stray told him.
“You don’t sound so sure,” Blaire said.
“I think meeting Audun again acted as a stressor,” Declan said. “I know you’ve met him before. He confirmed it – accidentally, but he confirmed it nonetheless.”
Stray pulled his hood back up – sometime in his sleep, or in the process of jumping up, it had fallen down. Then he laid back down. “I’m going back to sleep.”
“Was your dream of when he saved you from the fae?” Declan asked.
Stray curled into a tighter ball and crossed his arms over his chest. “Good night, Declan.”
“Blaire’s got a question for you before you go to sleep,” Declan said. “I can see her just dying to ask it. Go on, Blaire. Ask it.”
“Shut up, Declan,” Blaire said through gritted teeth.
Stray uncurled a little and raised his head to look at Blaire. “Did you actually want something?”
“The first time you met Audun . . . did what Declan say happened really happen?” Blaire asked. “Did he save you? Or was he one of the ones who kidnapped you? Or hurt you?”
“He didn’t hurt me,” Stray said immediately. “And he didn’t kidnap me. I don’t remember exactly what happened. I just know he was helping me. And that’s all I can say, because I don’t know anything else.”
“You’re sure?” Blaire asked. “The guy is part fae.”
“Worse, he’s part human,” Declan cut in.
“Who knows how far we can really trust him,” Blaire continued.
“I never said I trusted him,” Stray said.
“Stray doesn’t trust anyone,” Declan added.
“All I know is that he was helping me,” Stray said, realizing that he was giving Declan the exact information the manipulative bastard wanted, and probably knew Blaire’s question would lead to him getting. “In my dream. Or memory. Whichever it was, he was helping me. Now, I’m going back to sleep.”
“For real this time?” Declan asked. “Are you sure?”
“Good night,” Stray growled. He heard Blaire retreat, but Declan wasn’t quite finished yet.
“If you want, I can find you some motion sickness patches,” he offered.
“Good night,” he snapped again, and buried his face into the sleeping bag he was on.
Declan laughed softly, then finally let it go.
They lapsed into silence, but it was a long time before sleep came again for Stray. His new nightmare had unsettled him more than he wanted to admit. He turned the fragments of it over and over in his mind, trying to make sense of them, until at last, sleep claimed him.