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spirits of decay: chapter 7
Breakfast, the next day, was a box of slightly stale donuts that Stray thought were perfectly fine, but that Declan complained and moaned about like he was being poisoned. Neither Ethan nor Audun, who’d provided the donuts, were amused with the young genius’s assessment of their provisions, but Audun consented to teaming up with Declan again when they got to work.
Stray ended up working with Beatrice and Thomas, which he actually preferred to working with Ethan. It wasn’t that he disliked Ethan. Nor was it that he felt excluded when Ethan and Blaire got to talking. What put him off was the way Ethan acted toward Declan – like he loathed him. Not that Stray was a huge fan of Declan, himself. He wouldn’t even claim to like the older teen. Stray just didn’t think Declan deserved to be treated with such blatant disgust. Besides, whether he liked Declan or not, the guy had come through for him a couple times when he really needed it, so Stray couldn’t, in good conscience, approve of anyone treating Declan like garbage.
Even with Beatrice and Thomas, Stray wasn’t all that useful at sorting potentially dangerous artifacts out from all the mundane junk. They tried to educate him as they went along, doling out useless bits of information that meant little to nothing to Stray. Things like, “This is a Fiji mermaid, so not something we need to worry about.” And, “Opals are the easiest gemstone to lay a curse on, so make sure you set any you come across aside.” Like Stray knew enough about jewels to identify opals. He didn’t quite get why rocks were more cause for concern than the dried up carcass of a freaking mermaid, because if that thing wasn’t proof of the Eldritch world, Stray didn’t know what was.
After a lunch of peanut butter and jelly, Stray found himself teamed up with Declan and Audun – but mainly Declan. Declan and Audun weren’t actually working together, despite being paired up. It was more like they were just working in the same room, neither really needing the other’s help in sorting out the dangerous stuff from the fake.
Declan was a better teacher than Beatrice or Thomas, to Stray’s mild surprise. He took the time to give short explanations for why something could be considered safe in general, or why something was potentially dangerous.
“These books, for example,” Declan said, in one such explanation. “See the spines? They’ve all got the logos of major publishing houses on them. That means we don’t have to worry about anything in them. Why, you ask?”
“No, I didn’t ask.”
“Because major publishers don’t endorse ritualistic killings. It’s bad for business and opens the doors to all kinds of lawsuits and crap, even if it’s just animals they’d be sacrificing,” Declan told him. “As for summoning rites that draw or bind Eldritch to you, or open doorways to the Eldritch world, they wouldn’t end up in an actual published book anyway. Why not, you’re wondering?”
“I really don’t care,” Stray felt obligated to tell him.
“Because anyone who found a spell to do something like that wouldn’t publish it for the whole damn world to read,” Declan all but shouted. “Spells are power. Information is power. If you figure out how to work magic, you don’t just give the secret away. You hoard it for yourself.”
“I thought you said hoarding usually isn’t a problem with this kind of collector,” Stray reminded him.
“I don’t mean that kind of hoarding, and you know it,” Declan said. “I mean the guarding kind of hoarding. Like a dragon with its treasure –”
“Do dragons actually exist?”
“Or governments and their advanced weaponry. You won’t catch them putting the plans for their missiles and nukes in a book and selling it for a measly four figure advance,” Declan said.
“You lost me at the figuring, advancing thing. For the record.”
“They’re not going to sell their secrets for petty amounts of cash,” Declan rephrased. “They search for years, decades, sometimes their whole lives, trying to find real arcane knowledge. The last thing in the world they’re going to do is share it with the general populace.”
“Why not?” Stray asked. “Wouldn’t that make them, like famous?”
“Not really,” Declan said. “No one’s ever been able to prove that the Eldritch or anything related exist. The evidence tends to disappear, if you know what I mean.”
Stray didn’t know exactly, but he could imagine.
“As for magic, the secret itself is worth more than they’d get from selling it,” Declan explained. “You might, for example, manage to summon a fairy, trap it, and extort ten years of perfect luck from it, but there would be a price. Something like . . . oh, ten years shaved off the end of your life, or –”
“Or your firstborn child,” Audun said, speaking for the first time since they began working. “Those have always been popular.”
“And you wouldn’t necessarily want people to know the price you paid,” Declan continued. “Or have everyone you know getting ten years of perfect luck. That would foul up your own good luck, if they got the job or the prize you were after. In short, we can consider any spell books printed by major publishers to be safe. It’s the handwritten works and journals we have to worry about. Like this one!”
The book that Declan thrust toward Stray was an ancient leather bound thing. Stray took it from him and opened it cautiously. The moment he saw what was inside, he closed it.
Declan gave him a curious look and took it back, then opened it to the same page Stray had opened it to, thanks to an old, faded red ribbon marking the page. Stray averted his eyes from the illustration of an infant being mutilated in some kind of grotesque ritual.
The book snapped shut again, sending up a small cloud of dust. Stray looked at Declan warily.
“I did not know just what was in this book,” Declan said solemnly. He crossed to the window and dropped it outside, on the pile of stuff to burn. “My apologies.”
“It’s fine,” Stray muttered. “I guess we have to see it to identify it.”
They were silent for a moment, attracting Audun’s attention. “You lads all right?”
Declan raised an inquisitive eyebrow at Stray.
“Fine,” Stray said. “So, you want me to work on these bookshelves?”
“You sure you’re up to it?”
Stray nodded. “Skip over anything that looks professional. Set aside anything hand written.”
“You realize there might be more books on those shelves like the one we just tossed,” Declan pointed out.
“I can handle it.”
“I know you can handle it.” Declan studied him a moment longer, then made his decision. “All right. You work on these shelves of books. I’ll work on these shelves of mystery jars.”
“Don’t drop any of those jars out the window,” Audun spoke up again, a warning note in his voice.
“I’m sorry, are you mistaking me for stupid, stupid Ethan, or do you think I’m five?” Declan demanded.
Audun backtracked quickly. “Right. Sorry. I know you know better – but Ethan’s not stupid.”
“That’s what you think,” Declan muttered, then gave Stray a friendly slap on the shoulder. “All right, to work.”
Stray did his best to be diligent. The work was pretty boring, but didn’t come close to being the worst chore he’d ever had to do. Declan made several trips outside to get rid of the jars that he decided had to go. During these times, Stray was left alone with Audun.
He snuck glances at the other teen and tried not to stare when he turned around once and found him perched on top of a very large set of shelves.
Right after Declan left for the fifth time, Stray turned to glance at Audun again and found the older teen – though Stray realized he probably wasn’t a teen anymore – watching him. Stray started then jerked his head away quickly.
“You have questions,” Audun said. He didn’t sound annoyed at having caught Stray sneaking looks at him.
“You know I have some of the answers,” Audun stated. “And you can look at me, you know. I don’t bite.”
“You don’t?” Stray asked doubtfully. That wasn’t exactly how he remembered things in his dream.
Audun gave a soft laugh. “Not unless I’m in a form where I’ve got a beak. Not usually, anyway.”
Stray turned slowly to look at him. Audun, on the ground level now, stopped what he was doing and came closer so he was within comfortable speaking distance.
“We’ve met before,” Stray said. It wasn’t exactly a question, but Audun answered anyway.
“Yes. You were very young,” he said. “I’m surprised you remember.”
“I don’t,” Stray said. “At least not much of it.”
Audun seemed to consider Stray for several moments. “You’re not frightened of me?”
“No,” Stray told him. “From what I remember, you were on my side. But . . .”
“Go on. Ask.”
“In my dream last night . . . which might have been a memory . . . I saw you turn into a bird-wolf,” Stray said. “Can you really . . . ?”
“Yes,” Audun said. He gave a smile that was a little too bitter to really be happy. “Has anyone from the Ironhorse Sanctuary told you what I am?”
Stray shook his head.
“My grandfather was a valravn. An Eldritch. One of the worst types of Eldritch you can find, actually,” Audun said. “They start off as normal ravens, but gain human intelligence by eating the slain on battlefields. Then it becomes their life’s mission to drink the life blood of a very young human child. Once they do, they can take the form of a knight, or a half-raven, half-wolf creature. Or, in rare cases, they can turn into both.”
Audun nodded. “I didn’t kill any children for my powers, though. I inherited them.”
“So . . . you’re an Eldritch? Or just part Eldritch?”
“I see.” Stray shifted nervously. “So the night we met . . . you saved me? I mean, I know you saved me, but I’m sketchy on just what you saved me from. Was it from my parents? Or is Declan right, and you saved me from the fae?”
Audun’s gaze darkened. “It was from the Eldritch – from the fae. I would ask why you would need to be saved from your parents, but . . .” His gaze fell to the scars on Stray’s throat.
“Declan told you,” Stray guessed.
“Yes. I’m sorry if my knowing bothers you.”
Stray shrugged. “I haven’t exactly made a secret of it. But . . . my parents . . . I can’t help but wonder now if it was because . . . I mean, I always thought it was for insurance money that they tried to kill me, but now I can’t help but wonder –”
“If it was because they thought you were the fetch?” Audun asked.
“The replacement,” Audun explained. “A changeling of Eldritch origin.”
Stray nodded. “Do you think that was why . . . ?”
Audun’s expression grew stormy and he looked away. “There . . . is a lot that you don’t know. Not just about the night I brought you back, but about your family, and . . . other things. It’s not really my place to tell you, but considering what happened to you . . . If you want to know the truth, the whole truth, I will tell you.”
Stray looked at him warily. “What kind of whole truth are we talking about?”
“The kind that you might very well be happier not knowing,” Audun said. “The kind that you’ll definitely be safer not knowing.”
“I don’t understand.”
Audun closed his eyes for a moment and seemed to be considering what to say next. “You can see through façade – and if I’m right, you can probably do more than just see through it. There’s a reason for that. It has to do with what happened while you were in Elphame –”
“One of many names for the Eldritch world,” Audun explained. “The reason also ties into why your family . . . why they . . .”
“Tried to kill me?” Stray filled in.
Audun grimaced and turned his face away. “There is a lot you don’t know. I can’t really tell you part of it without telling you everything – which I will if that’s what you want. It will probably make your family furious – the rest of your family, that is, but I can deal with the consequences of that.”
“Wait, the rest of my family?” Stray stared at him. “You mean I have . . . I have more family than just my parents?”
“You were – are – actually the son of a very large family,” Audun said.
“And if you tell me everything, you’ll have to get in contact with them?” Stray asked.
“Then I don’t want to know,” Stray said flatly.
Audun blinked at him. “Are you certain?”
“Yes, I’m certain,” Stray growled. “I don’t want anything to do with my so-called family.”
“Don’t call me that!” Stray snapped, clenching his fists. “Don’t call me that, that’s not my name! I’m Stray.”
“Stray, then,” Audun said quickly. “You don’t –”
“I don’t want anything to do with them!” Stray repeated. “I won’t have anything to do with them. I don’t care if you’re talking about people other than my parents – if they’re grandparents, or aunts and uncles, or cousins – whatever. They gave up any right to anything related to my life when they put me in foster care. Don’t you dare tell them anything about me!”
“All right, I won’t,” Audun told him. “Calm down.”
He tried to put a hand on Stray’s shoulder, but Stray twisted aside on instinct, and Audun’s hand met empty air. He didn’t try again.
“If you do, I’ll disappear,” Stray warned. “I don’t mind Declan using me for my true sight, or Thomas, or Beatrice, but not my family. I won’t –”
“I won’t tell them, Stray,” Audun cut him off. “If you’re all right with not knowing exactly what happened, then I don’t need to contact them and tell them that you know. You’re safer not knowing anyway.”
Stray didn’t so much care about the danger aspect of this mystery. He was used to danger. If not for the fact that Audun was going to get his family involved if Stray chose to learn the truth, Stray almost definitely would have asked to be told everything. Now he didn’t care. He’d rather never find out than have to deal with people who were allegedly related to him, even if it wasn’t his damned parents he’d be dealing with.
“Am I interrupting something?” Declan asked from the doorway.
Stray jumped then glared at him. “No. Nothing.”
“How long were you standing there?” Audun asked wearily.
“Are you accusing me of spying?” Declan asked as he made his way back to the shelf full of mysterious jars.
“I know you, Declan,” Audun reminded him.
“No one knows me,” Declan scoffed. He gave Stray another light slap on the shoulder as he passed him, and though Stray saw it coming, he made no move to dodge.
Declan, he remembered, was extremely good at figuring things out. If he really wanted to know, Stray could ask Declan for help. Of course, that would mean trusting him – trusting a diagnosed sociopath. But when the only alternative was maybe having to deal with his family, Declan was definitely the lesser of the two evils.