the ironhorse sanctuary: chapter 3
Declan woke Stray up at 5:30 the next morning, when he and Blaire got up to get ready for school. His reasoning? If they had to be awake, Stray did too. It was only fair.
He meant for his actions to be annoying. He’d wanted to get a rise out of his new housemate. Of course, Stray had to go and ruin it. The younger teen had woken and bolted upright the moment Declan opened his door, stared at him with bleary eyes when Declan gave his decree, then rolled out of bed without a word of complaint, like being ordered awake before sunrise for no real reason wasn’t even close to the worst house rule he’d ever endured. Then Declan remembered that it probably wasn’t. Stray hadn’t told him much about his life, but Declan had already been able to deduce a fair amount about it just from details he noticed about the other boy – like how he had half a dozen tiny crosses carved into his skin on one arm, and how he shied away from any and all physical contact. That rarely meant anything good.
Stray clearly didn’t mind getting up early, though, so no harm done. He listened attentively as Declan explained his assignments for the day over a breakfast of oatmeal and bacon.
“Congratulations on being the first one to read my book: O’Killeen’s Guide to Hunting Eldritch. It’s a work in progress,” Declan told him, flipping open the binder in which he’d begun systematically organizing his case notes for every hunt he’d ever been on. “Read the first two chapters today. The first one should be a review on what we already told you, with only a little new info – what the Eldritch are, how they’re all crazy, and so on. The second chapter is about common defenses against them. Homework – find ten examples of common defenses we have set up around the sanctuary. Your amulet doesn’t count as one. That’s no common defense. It’s a powerful charm, and will be covered in the third chapter, which you’ll read tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Stray agreed.
“After that, complete these, or at least as much as you can,” Declan said, sliding a small stack of printed out papers across the table. “They’re math problems, and will give me an idea of how much you already know, and where I should start with you. That’s all for today – we’ll worry about history, geography, science, and English later.”
“Okay,” Stray said again.
“And you get your first cooking lesson this afternoon when I get home,” Declan said. “Have you ever cooked before?”
“Yeah. I can make some stuff,” Stray said.
“Like what?” Declan asked, curious.
“Uh, eggs. Hamburgers. Some other stuff if I have a recipe,” Stray said. “Not too much. Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry. I’ll teach you how to really cook,” Declan promised.
“Teach you how to poison people, more like,” Blaire said, stumbling into the kitchen and going straight for the coffee pot.
“Shut up, Blaire,” Declan told her.
“Make me.” Blaire poured herself a travel mug full of coffee then went to the fridge and started rooting through it. “Where’s the cream?”
“Stray drank it,” Declan told her.
“What?” Stray and Blaire asked in unison.
“I poured it into his glass instead of milk,” Declan elaborated. “Cream has more fat and calories, and he’s far too skinny.”
Blaire muttered a few curses. Stray looked uncertainly between the two of them, and Declan saw he was on the edge of his chair, ready to bolt if necessary.
“We’ll pick up some more at Frank’s before we come home,” Declan said to placate them both.
Blaire continued muttering, but not as venomously as before, as she set about making herself some toast. Stray relaxed, seeing she wasn’t as annoyed as she’d first been.
“Other than this stuff, you can do what you want for the rest of the day,” Declan told him. “Beatrice and Thomas will be up in awhile. They’ll have their own work to do most of the day, but they’ll break for lunch around noon, so you can eat with them. You can read any of the books in the library if you want, or watch TV, or go outside, or whatever.”
“What time will you be back?”
“Why?” Declan asked. “Will you miss me?”
Stray shrugged noncommittally.
“He probably wants to know how long he’ll be rid of you,” Blaire put in.
“Or how long he’ll be rid of you,” Declan countered.
“School starts at 7:00. Goes ‘til 2:30ish. It takes about an hour to get back, but we’ll be going grocery shopping before we head home,” Blaire told Stray. “So probably by 4:00. Speaking of which, we need to get going.”
Declan nodded and took his dishes to the sink. He ran some water into his mug and bowl, then left them there, just to annoy Beatrice. Then he grabbed his backpack and coat. “See you this afternoon.”
“Bye,” Stray told them.
Declan let the door fall shut behind him before Blaire could get through. She yelped as she sloshed coffee over herself.
“Damn it, Declan!”
“Sorry, didn’t see you there,” Declan said. “Though I probably should have, what with those bright blonde roots of yours showing.”
It was their usual morning routine – picking at each other, provoking each other. In fact, it was their usual all day routine. Neither had ever been overly concerned about staying in the other’s good graces. It had been that way since the day they met.
Blaire tossed a few more insults at him on their way to the Jeep, then fell silent after climbing in the passenger seat, choosing to stuff her face with toast instead. Declan drove, as he did every morning. Even though they were both only fourteen, South Dakota’s laws allowed for them to get driver’s licenses so they could get to school. Blaire drove them home each day, but in the mornings she took longer than Declan to get ready, so she always ate her breakfast on the way.
“I think that Stray is going to end up staying,” Declan told her as he pulled out of their driveway and onto the road to town.
“I don’t care if he stays or not,” Blaire said around a mouthful of toast.
“You should,” Declan said, “since his presence here directly affects how much hunting we’ll be doing in the near future.”
Blaire looked at him suspiciously. “How so?”
“Think about it. It’s too dangerous for just the two of us to go hunting, what with how active all the Eldritch have been lately, and how they’re always traveling in packs now,” Declan said. “Add in a third hunter though, and we’re a lot better off. Especially one who fights as dirty as Stray.”
Blaire smirked. “He does fight rather dirty.”
“He’s ruthless,” Declan said with a nod. “He’s probably had to be. It’ll serve us well, now.”
“So you don’t think he’ll run away again?” Blaire asked.
“If he was planning to, he would have gone last night,” Declan said. “He knows we’re a lot less likely to be able to go after him on a school day.”
“He might have known you were expecting him to run,” Blaire pointed out. “He might just be biding his time.”
“Except his only reason to run away from us is if he thinks we’re a danger to him,” Declan said, “and if he feels threatened, he’ll get out as quickly as he possibly can. He’s got the mentality of a cat when it comes to danger.”
“Why, because of his name?” Blaire sniffed. “Dogs can be strays too, you know.”
“Stray dogs are a lot more likely to lash out, though, even against people who have done nothing to them. Stray cats will almost always flee, and only attack if you back them into a corner,” Declan said. “Leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone.”
“Which is not going to be helpful if we want him to help us kill fae,” Blaire said.
It was Declan’s turn to smirk. “Cats kill rats. It’s a survival thing.”
“We just have to help him see that they’re not human,” Declan said, remembering Stray’s hesitation when it came to dispatching of the first Eldritch he came across. “He’s reading about what they actually are today – how they’re created and what not. That should help, and he’ll be ready soon after. Then we can finally get this sanctuary up and running like it used to. You would have loved it back in the old days, when Luther was in charge. Hunts every week, a network of allies, half a dozen hunters living at the sanctuary at any given time. Those were the days.”
Blaire was uncharacteristically silent for a moment – usually she would have some emphatic remark to make that dealt with how they needed to get back to that state again so they could kill as many of the Eldritch as possible, but this time when she spoke it was tempered with curiosity. “I get that you all loved Luther . . . but I don’t see how Beatrice is that bad, or how she could have messed up everything you guys had going on that badly.”
“Because you weren’t around then,” Declan said, “and Beatrice was a very different woman when she first got here.”
“She can’t have changed that much,” Blaire protested. “She was still part of the society – ergo, she still hunted fae.”
“Except she didn’t believe that there were any here,” Declan said. “No one in Europe does. She thought we were all delusional, puffed up mavericks, running around pretending we were cowboys. It took awhile for her to see just how bad the Eldritch problem is here. By that time all the hunters Luther trained had left, except Thomas – and me, but I would have left if I could have.”
“I wish they would all come back,” Blaire said. “We could accomplish so much more if there were more of us.”
“I wish they’d come back too,” Declan muttered, “but their leaving might have been for the best. They couldn’t very well stay forever.”
“Why not?” Blaire demanded. “Headquarters funds us, right? And the Ironhorse family has their own income from railroad interests or whatever, right?”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean staying was the right thing for them all,” Declan said. “They needed to strike out on their own and live their own lives. And all good things have to end eventually. Trying to hold onto them once they’re gone only prolongs the inevitable.”
“Thomas is always saying that you guys were like family,” Blaire protested.
“They were. I wasn’t.”
“But you miss them –”
“No, I don’t.”
“You just said that you missed them,” Blaire argued.
“No, I said I wished they’d come back,” Declan said. “Purely for selfish reasons. More manpower equals more hunts we can go on. Simple math. Of course, with Stray here now, we just might have the beginnings of a new good thing, so we might not even need the old crew anymore. I reserve the right to stop wishing they come back at any time.”
Blaire gave a very unladylike snort. “You really think Stray will be that useful to us?”
“Do you think I’d have put this much effort into getting him to stay if I didn’t?”
* * *
Blaire hated school for a lot of reasons.
Once upon a time, she’d loved it – back before she was kidnapped by the fae, then escaped from them and found one of them in her place, pretending to be her. School hadn’t so much been about learning back then, as it had been about winning. She’d had perfect grades, and was the captain of her middle school’s cheerleading squad, with various other academic achievements stacked up on the side, and plenty of other extracurricular activities – not the least of which were those damned beauty pageants. She’d been so proud of them at the time. Hell, she’d been proud of everything about herself in general.
Now it all seemed so fake that it made Blaire sick just thinking about it. And though things were very different at school in Rusted Hill, they still seemed fake. Just the idea of going to class and learning a bunch of meaningless drivel, memorizing facts she’d never need to know, and formulas for equations that she’d never use, while there were horrible things living in a world parallel to theirs made her want to scream.
And Declan . . . Declan was the fakest of all. At school, and whenever anyone else was close enough to overhear them in town, he acted like he was someone else completely. Gone was the scheming sociopath, the cold, selfish jerk that Blaire had come to know him as, and in his place was this simpering, sycophantic nice guy who was everyone’s friend, every girl’s crush, the guy everyone wanted to be around. He pretended to be smart, but not too smart, though Blaire knew that his intelligence was so high, it was somewhere between genius and psychic, and he pretended like he cared about everyone and their problems, when Blaire knew damn well that he wasn’t capable of caring about anything, much less people he spent so little time around.
As soon as he parked the Jeep, Blaire got out, because if she didn’t, Declan would try to open her door for her – that was how far he took his stupid act of being a nice guy. Declan smiled amiably at her, with no trace of sarcasm or malice on his face, as he got out, and walked beside her toward the schoolhouse – and it was a schoolhouse. Not an actual school. An honest to God schoolhouse, with blackboards on the walls inside, a belfry on top, and sulfur pot scorch marks on the floor. Declan said that it used to just be one room, but over the decades a few more were added, and the original large room was split into two. Now it had a total of four classrooms – one for all the elementary school age kids, one for the middle schoolers, one for freshmen and sophomores, and the final one for juniors and seniors. Rusted Hill was that small a town.
“Don’t forget,” Declan said as they reached the school’s steps, “we shouldn’t talk about Stray where other people can overhear.”
“I won’t,” Blaire snapped.
Declan held up his hands in surrender. “It was just a friendly reminder.”
“Which wasn’t needed. I might not be as smart as you, but I’m not an idiot.”
“I never said you were,” Declan protested, all innocence.
“You didn’t have to. You were thinking it.”
Blaire was aware of the eyes on them, and knew perfectly well what everyone was thinking – that she was harassing Declan again, for no good reason. It grated on her last nerve how easily they all ate up Declan’s little act. If they knew the truth about him they wouldn’t be so quick to think she was the one always bothering him.
“Hi Declan,” Marie Sunder chirped, trying to elbow her way between Blaire and Declan. Blaire shouldered the older girl roughly to the side. Marie glared at her then fell in on Declan’s other side. “How was your weekend?”
“Quite good,” Declan said, giving her a big smile. “Uneventful, but peaceful. How was yours?”
“Great. Some of us girls drove to Pierre and went shopping. I got this new coat.”
“Looks good,” Declan told her.
Blaire peeled away from him and stalked to her seat in the back of the freshmen and sophomore classroom, where she wouldn’t have to listen to that stupid drivel.
The school day passed slowly, as it always did. Blaire was never sure how she managed to get through a full day without screaming and pulling out all her hair. Classes were boring enough in a regular school. In a puny, sorry excuse for a school like this one, where there was only one teacher for two separate grades, their teacher had to alternate between the two groups to cover all the material that the state required that they learn. Their instructor switched between them constantly – every half hour, actually, so they were never left to their own devices too long, but even so, they still spent half the day not doing much of anything. Yes, they studied what he told them to, read assignments, and filled out worksheets, but it wasn’t anything they couldn’t have done at home. Blaire didn’t see why they weren’t allowed to just come for half a day, and spend the other half doing useful, productive stuff elsewhere. Nothing worthwhile was ever accomplished at school, after all.
The hours crept by, each one slower than the last, but finally, finally, 2:30 rolled around. By that time, half of Blaire’s homework for the night was finished, and her bag was packed and ready to head out. She made a beeline for the Jeep and got into the driver’s seat, then ended up waiting another ten minutes for Declan to detach himself from his crowd of admirers and finally make it out there.
“Took you long enough,” she growled when he finally climbed in through the passenger’s side.
“Not as long as usual,” Declan countered. “I wrapped it up early today.”
“How thoughtful of you.”
“Onward. Let us go forth and grocery shop,” Declan ordered, ignoring her sarcasm.
Blaire started the Jeep and pulled out of the school’s uneven gravel parking lot, onto Main Street – which in Blaire’s opinion, should have been called Only Street. Rusted Hill’s only other road was a dirt one that could hardly be called a street. She sped to Frank’s Market, the town’s grocery store, and frowned, seeing a commotion outside the general store across the street.
“Something’s going on,” she said, taking note of the town’s sheriff, and his truck. Then she started when her door opened without her touching it. She looked down and scowled, when she saw Declan holding it open for her.
“So it is,” Declan agreed.
“You couldn’t have heard what I just said.”
Declan smirked. “No. But I read your lips.”
“You’re annoying, you know that?”
“I do,” Declan said. “Now, are you coming?”
Blaire unbuckled her seatbelt and slid out of the Jeep. “So what is going on?”
“I don’t know,” Declan said.
“Yeah, you do,” Blaire argued.
“I don’t just pull information out of the cosmos, you know,” Declan said.
“Your best guess, then.”
“Well . . . that’s Davie Walker’s horse they’re all gathered around,” Declan observed. “My best guess is that something’s happened to him.”
“Something like he got caught shoplifting?”
“No. Like he’s gone missing,” Declan said. “If he got caught shoplifting, Old Man Herne would be chasing him up and down Main Street, trying to shoot him full of rock salt, and Sheriff Anson wouldn’t be doing a thing to stop it.”
Blaire snorted. “That, I’d like to see.”
“I’m sure you would. Not sure you’ll ever get to, though,” Declan told her, then called out louder, “Hey Sheriff! What’s going on?”
“Davie Walker’s missing,” Anson told him. “His horse wandered into town about half an hour ago, but there’s no sign of him. We called his parents, and they haven’t seen him since yesterday. I’m still trying to get some of his friends on the horn, but the ones I spoke to all say they haven’t seen him since he left The Saloon last night.”
“Sent out any search parties yet?” Declan asked.
“Not yet. We’re about to, though,” Anson said.
“Blaire and I will head out now. We’ll drive along the route he would’ve taken back home and see if we can find anything.”
“You have a satellite phone, right?” Anson remembered.
“Yeah,” Declan said. “We’ll give you a call if we find anything.”
“Thanks, son,” Anson said. “You’re a good man.”
Declan saluted, then motioned for Blaire to get back in the Jeep.
“What did you go and volunteer us for?” Blaire demanded once the doors were closed. “This has nothing to do with us.”
“Maybe not,” Declan said, “but it’s what people around here do, so it’s what we’re doing.”
“What people around here do?” Blaire asked, starting the Jeep’s ignition again. “Put their noses into everyone else’s business?”
“That too,” Declan agreed, “but what I meant was look out for each other. In a town as small as this one, apparently people are supposed to care about their neighbors.”
“Except you don’t,” Blaire reminded him. “You can’t.”
“Don’t I know it,” Declan said, “but it’s still expected of us, and this way Thomas won’t threaten to turn us out of the sanctuary. In addition to that . . . well . . .”
“What?” Blaire demanded.
“Walker’s disappearance may very well be our business,” Declan said, “or at least our sort of business.”
“What? You mean the fae are involved?”
“Possibly the fae, or some other type of Eldritch,” Declan said. “Think about it. We stirred up that hornet’s nest of a mound. Now a man from a town that they probably suspect we have some kind of connection to has gone missing. Pretty big coincidence.”
“Why didn’t you just say that to begin with?” Blaire demanded.
“Why didn’t you come to that conclusion on your own to begin with?” Declan returned.
“Because I don’t have a big, freaky brain like you,” Blaire said. “So what do we do now?”
Declan looked at her like she was stupid. “Exactly what I said we were going to do. We drive the route Walker would have taken home and look for clues. And a body.”