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spirits of decay: chapter 8
“So, what’s the deal between Audun and Stray?” Blaire asked Ethan that afternoon, as they were dragging another load of garbage out to the pit to be burned.
“I don’t know,” Ethan told her.
Blaire looked at him sharply, feeling a stab of betrayal. Ethan seemed to feel her gaze, because he paused and turned around.
“I really don’t,” he said, and he looked sincere. “Audun didn’t tell me anything about the boy, and I didn’t ask.”
“Why not?” Blaire wanted to know.
“Because if Audun wanted me to know, he would have said something,” Ethan said. “Since he didn’t, I stayed out of it. If it’s important, he’ll fill me in eventually.”
“How can you stand to be around him?” Blaire asked as they began walking again. “He’s an Eldritch.”
“Part Eldritch,” Ethan reminded her. “Only one quarter.”
“But they say that any fae blood makes someone as good as half fae.”
“If that was true, half the old hunting families would be considered half fae,” Ethan said. “Beatrice’s and Declan’s families included.”
Blaire missed a step and almost stumbled. “They’re part fae?”
“They’re rumored to have fae ancestors somewhere in their bloodline. It’s why there are people in their families born with the sight every now and then. Doesn’t make them Eldritch, though. Just weird.” He gave Blaire a mischievous smile.
Blaire laughed. “That’s true enough.”
“I’ve told you that Audun was the one who saved me from the fae,” Ethan said as she fell in step beside him.
“He’s still mostly fae himself,” Blaire said darkly. “He has more powers than just the sight. You can’t trust him.”
“But I do,” Ethan told her. “He’s more human than Eldritch. And he’s my friend. We have been over this before.”
“And I still don’t understand it,” Blaire said. “He’s a monster.”
“He’s not,” Ethan said, his voice rising in tone, letting Blaire know he was getting annoyed. “If you’re looking for monsters, you need look no further than your buddy Declan.”
“He is not my buddy,” Blaire snapped. “We are not friends.”
“I heard you’ve been going hunting with him.”
“Because we both want to kill Eldritch,” Blaire said. “Not because we have any love of being around each other. I think I know better than to make friends with a sociopath.”
“Don’t forget what I told you about him,” Ethan said. Then he glanced at her sideways. “Have you told Stray what I told you?”
“No,” Blaire said. “Stray and I aren’t exactly friends either. I barely know him, and I don’t really like him.”
“He’s a dirty street kid. And he’s stupid. Illiterate. Can you believe that?”
“When I was growing up, before the fae kidnapped me, most people I knew were illiterate,” Ethan said. “Me included.”
“That was like eighty years ago,” Blaire said.
“Not quite –”
“In this day and age, being illiterate means you’re stupid.”
Ethan gave Blaire a look that almost made her cringe. “I disagree.”
That was all he said on the matter. That was all he had to say. Ethan wasn’t like Thomas, who’d berate her and try to drum his way of thinking into her. Or her old teachers who’d give her lame punishments and make her write stupid essays about why it was wrong to bully or make fun of her classmates. Ethan actually made her feel bad about the things she said or did when he gave her those looks.
“But you know how to read now,” Blaire protested. “I wasn’t insulting you.”
“I didn’t say you were,” Ethan said evenly.
“Then I don’t understand what you’re upset about.”
“I know you don’t.”
After that, they didn’t speak for awhile. They lit the fire again, after adding their burdens to the pile of trash to be burnt. Before long, the pit would be so full of ashes and charred lumps of unburnable stuff that it would hardly be a pit anymore. Blaire wondered whether they’d be digging a new one, or just shoveling the ashes out and dumping them elsewhere.
“Go on back to the house,” Ethan said once the blaze was underway.
“You’re not coming?” Blaire asked, fighting to keep emotion out of her voice.
“It’s windy, and we overfilled the pit. I’m going to wait a few minutes and make sure the fire doesn’t spread.”
That sounded like an excuse to Blaire but she didn’t call Ethan out on it. She nodded and turned back toward the mansion. Declan met her on the porch – he was heading back inside too, though she didn’t know where he’d been.
“Trouble in paradise?” Declan asked.
“You had a row with Ethan.”
“How did you – never mind. I forgot, you’re you,” Blaire grumbled. “What do you want?”
The door opened before she and Declan reached it.
“I’ll tell you inside,” Declan said softly, as Thomas and Beatrice stepped out. Then he grinned at the two adults. “Excellent plan. Ethan and Audun fail when it comes to bringing provisions.”
“What’s going on?” Blaire asked, confused as usual by Declan’s abrupt non sequiturs.
“We’re going into town,” Thomas told her, “to get –”
“Better food than peanut butter and stale donuts,” Declan finished for him. “That’s what I just said.”
“Yeah. What he said,” Beatrice agreed.
“Sounds good,” Blaire said. “I’ll get Ethan.”
“We’re not all going,” Thomas said. “Just Beatrice and I.”
“Beatrice and me,” Declan corrected.
“It’s only a quick food run,” Beatrice said.
“Why can’t I come?” Blaire wanted to know.
“There’s not room for everyone, and there’s still a lot of work to be done here,” Beatrice said.
“But both of you are going. You only need one person for a food run,” Blaire argued.
“Seniority has its privileges,” Declan said, “and who really cares who goes, so long as we get some real food? Come on, we’ve got stuff to do.”
“It’s not fair,” Blaire said as Declan pulled her inside. “They’re taking a nice long break and getting a change of scenery. Why can’t we?”
“Because I’m putting a scheme into action tonight, and I need you for it,” Declan said. “Come on – to your room. We’ll talk there.”
Declan let go of her wrist and hurried ahead. Blaire rolled her eyes, wondering what he was planning to do now. Then she scowled, seeing he’d left a mark on her hand – a black, oily smudge.
“Declan, what the hell is this?”
“What is what?” Declan asked from a good ways ahead. Blaire hurried after him.
“Whatever it is you got on my skin!”
“I dunno. Lamp oil, maybe?” Declan suggested. “I found an old hurricane lamp that was leaking. That was the biggest pain to clean up.”
Blaire rubbed at the smudge, trying to get it off her skin, then gave up. What was a little more dirt on top of the grime she’d already accumulated that day?
They entered the study that Declan had helped clean out yesterday – the room where Audun had broken the bookshelves. Beatrice had claimed that room for her and Blaire, though Blaire would have rather slept alone, or shared with Declan and Stray. Beatrice snored horribly. Blaire would rather deal with Stray’s stupid nightmares.
“So what is it you want?” she asked. “What are you planning?”
“Several things,” Declan said, “and I need your help.”
“And why should I help you?” Blaire wanted to know.
“Because it’s in your best interest to,” Declan answered. “You do still want to do more hunting, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Blaire said, “but just so you know, I don’t trust you.”
“Yes, yes, of course you don’t,” Declan said. “Make sure you tell Ethan that a few more times, so you can get back in his good graces. Then find out everything you can about what happened between Audun and Stray for me.”
“That’s no good,” Blaire said. “He doesn’t know.”
“Of course, he knows,” Declan insisted. “He’s Audun’s closest confidant.”
“Ethan told me that he doesn’t know. Audun didn’t offer any info, and he didn’t ask.”
“Then get him to ask,” Declan said.
“How is knowing this going to let us hunt more?” Blaire demanded.
Declan gave her a superior smirk. “You really can’t do the math?”
“I could work it out if I had to, but if you don’t do it for me, what good are you?”
“I’m the one who comes up with the plans in the first place,” Declan said. “That’s what good I am. But since it’s easier than arguing with you, I’ll give you the rundown. Given the threats we’ve been facing lately, and taking into account our ages, and the fact that we’re not yet full grown, therefore not as strong as adults, having a team of three is much more desirable than a team of two. Conveniently, there are three of us now – you, me, and Stray. Problem – Stray won’t kill. Not an ideal quality in a hunter, and it does make him useless to us and our purposes. Thus we must find a way to convince him that killing Eldritch is the right thing to do. How, you ask? That’s what I’m working on. Right now, in fact. Like I told you, it’s a matter of motivation. And you know what helps figure out peoples’ motivations? Information about them. So get Ethan to find out for you.”
“He won’t,” Blaire said. “I already asked and he already made it clear that he’s not going to bug Audun about it. He thinks it’s none of his business.”
Declan shrugged. “So convince him that it is his business.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
Declan walked to the desk that he’d almost cracked his head against the previous day and started fiddling with some knickknacks that had been left on it. “Appeal to his insecurities. Or charm him. I don’t really care how you do it, so long as you get the information I need.”
“No, Declan,” Blaire said exasperatedly. “I’m telling you, I don’t have any idea how to manipulate him into finding out for me.”
“Yes, you do. You were a mean girl in your old school. You know how to push people’s buttons. You didn’t just magically forget how after the fae stole you.”
“I’ve never tried to manipulate Ethan before,” Blaire growled, “and honestly, I’m not even sure I want to. I like him.”
Declan moved so that he was standing in front of Blaire with the desk to his back, and raised an eyebrow. “Well, I wasn’t suggesting that you seduce him to get the information, but if that’s how you want to play it –”
“That’s horrible! And I wasn’t suggesting that either!” Blaire snapped. “Give me a real example of how I could get him to find out for me, or just forget it!”
“Okay,” Declan said. “If I was going to try – which I’m not going to, because Ethan won’t listen to anything I say – I would drive a bit of a wedge between him and Audun. Make Ethan question their friendship.”
“That’s not going to work,” Blaire said. “He trusts Audun even though Audun’s half fae –”
“Quarter fae, actually, and obviously that’s not enough to dim Ethan’s trust in him,” Declan said dismissively. “The guy saved him from the Eldritch, and has saved his life at least a dozen times since. You’re not going to get him to turn on Audun just because of his pedigree.”
“Make him wonder why Audun hasn’t shared the information without him asking,” Declan said matter of factly. “Isn’t that what a real friend would do? Fill him in on potentially dangerous kids with freaky powers who are suddenly in their lives? What does it say about Audun that he’s not talking? Ethan’s his best friend, after all. His hunting partner. Doesn’t he have a right to know? Doesn’t Audun trust him? No? Then maybe they’re not really friends. Only one way to find out – by asking him.”
“And you think Audun will tell Ethan if he asks?”
“Yes,” Declan said, “because Audun trusts Ethan, and his friendship is important to Audun.”
“But we can’t be sure that Ethan will pass on the information to me,” Blaire pointed out.
“You really need me to tell you how to persuade him to do that too?” Declan asked dryly. “Are you really that useless?”
“I’m not useless,” Blaire snapped.
“Useless and stupid. Typical traits of a beauty queen,” Declan sneered. “You think you’ve got a pretty face, so you don’t need to bother cultivating any real skills.”
“Why didn’t you stay with the Eldritch? You would have liked their lifestyle, just sitting around, being pretty and useless all day long.”
“I said shut up!” Blaire shouted.
“I think you’d have made a really good fae,” Declan said. “Why did you come back, again? It’s not like your parents actually missed you.”
“I’ll shut you up myself!” Blaire screamed and lunged at Declan.
He dodged. He needn’t have bothered to, though. Blaire’s foot caught on a sunken patch – a place where the floorboards were lower than they should have been. She stumbled into the desk, at least a full foot to the right of where Declan had been standing. Her weight knocking against the old piece of furniture jarred it. The force was sufficient to send an ugly old vase that had been right at the desk’s edge over the side. It hit the floor and shattered, sending up a cloud of gray dust.
Blaire swore and stepped back, belatedly realizing that the vase probably hadn’t been a vase, and that the dust probably wasn’t just dust. Most likely it had been an urn, and those were human ashes hanging in the air, swirling into unnatural patterns.
“Oh no,” Declan said, and suddenly he was at her side, grabbing her arm and pulling her back. “Bloody hell, please tell me . . .”
“What’s wrong?” Blaire demanded, recognizing the urgency in Declan’s voice, and letting him pull her away. “What did you do?”
“Me? You’re the one who broke the damn urn!” Declan snapped, then shouted. “Audun! Ethan! Might need some help!”
“What is it?” Blaire stumbled again as Declan shoved her behind him, then watched as the ash cloud broke into three separate forms.
Each one was shaped like a small, winged humanoid – female and naked. They were about four feet in height, completely gray, with grainy skin, and wings that looked like they’d been through the spin cycle, feathers all a mess and ruffled to hell and back. Their faces were skeletal, like the skin across them was too tight, their eyes sunken but smoldering like coals, and their teeth – or what teeth they had – were long, sharp, and yellow.
“What the hell are those?” Stray demanded from behind them.
“Stay back, Stray!” Declan ordered.
“What are they, Declan?” Blaire wanted to know. She reached into her hair for the scissors she’d tucked behind her ponytail that morning, glad to have a weapon in her hand, even though she’d have preferred a crowbar.
“Keres,” Declan said, backing away and trying to herd Blaire toward the door as he went. “Greek Eldritch whose powers are tied to disease and decay. Move!” He shoved Blaire one way while he dove the other, right as one of the keres attacked.
The ugly little thing was fast, and apparently could change directions on a dime. It started for Blaire, but pulled back when she lashed out with her scissors, just missing its face. Then it hissed at her and changed direction again, seeking easier prey.
“Declan, look out!” Blaire screamed.
Declan had only just recovered his balance. His eyes snapped to Blaire at the sound of his name, then to the Eldritch, but a second too late. It was already bringing its claws to bear.