Home :: Science Fantasy (fantasy/magic in a modern world or tech in fantasy world) :: A Beth-Hill Novel: Wild Hunt Series, Book 3: The Lost by Jennifer St. Clair (Fantasy: Vampire)

A Beth-Hill Novel: Wild Hunt Series, Book 3: The Lost by Jennifer St. Clair (Fantasy: Vampire)

A Beth-Hill Novel: Wild Hunt Series, Book 3: The Lost by Jennifer St. Clair (Fantasy: Vampire)
 
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Almost sixty years ago, Darkbrook opened its doors to students of *different * natures, sending out letters of invitation to the elves, the dragons, and... the vampires. The three who responded banded together despite their differences, and vanished only weeks later, along with an entire class of students and their teacher.

Someone summoned a demon to Darkbrook and trapped that demon in a body the shape of a human boy. That demon is still in Darkbrook after sixty years, and all he wants to do is go home.

The Wild Hunt has healed, and grown closer together, keeping the forest safe and secure for those who live there. Malachi has adapted to Josiah's spell, but when the demon boy disrupts this newfound calm, the Hunt--and those they protect--are thrust into a struggle that should have ended almost sixty years ago--when a vampire, an elf, and a dragon--among others--vanished into the Mists.

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A Beth-Hill Novel: Wild Hunt Series, Book 3: The Lost by Jennifer St. Clair (Fantasy: Vampire)
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Sample Chapter

Prologue

"We received a letter from Darkbrook yesterday." Esmeralda Dawson, Head of Household, opened the meeting with this stunning piece of news, then passed the letter around for all to see as murmuring filled the room.

Ben barely glanced at it. He'd chosen the seat farthest from the head of the table on purpose, because he knew Aunt Esme would bring up his latest failure and he knew he wouldn't want to stick around and hear the hue and cry.

"They're inviting us to send a student," Esmeralda continued. "A 'trial run', so to speak. They want to 'make Darkbrook more inclusive'. They assure us that anyone we send would be perfectly safe and would not feel out of place." She smiled. "I'm not so certain about that."

"And our response?" This from Uncle Ted, who would probably shake his head in disappointment when Esme told them all what Ben had done. Or perhaps they already knew. Children weren't normally invited to a household meeting. Ben's cheeks burned with shame.

"I've decided that it might not be a bad idea to send someone to Darkbrook in secret," Esmeralda said. "Just to ensure the letter tells the truth. I don't believe the Council or the staff of Darkbrook would intend us harm, but the question always arises as such. If they wish to be inclusive, then we're not the only ones who received such a letter."

"But to send someone--one of the children--" Aunt Kacie this time, no doubt thinking of the twins. "All alone--"

Ben thought she might have clutched at her pearls if she were wearing any. He glanced around the table, suddenly realizing he was the only unimportant person there. It only took him a moment to put two and two together and come up with a very upsetting answer to his aunt's invitation.

They had yet to really notice his presence. Oh, perhaps the nearest aunts and uncles had wondered, but no one crashed a household meeting; it just wasn't done. And while he might be in disgrace for the rest of his life, Ben wouldn't have dared come uninvited, and that meant--

He stood up. He couldn't help it.

And then, slowly, he sat back down. Because some part of his mind had stopped him; some warning bell had rung, reminding him that to interrupt his aunt in private was one thing, but in a meeting, like this, was outright insubordination. And that although he knew she loved him, she could have him exiled for defying her because she was the Head of House Dawson. And her word was law. If she'd already made up her mind--

No one paid attention to his gaffe. Ben had to wonder if they'd expected it. Uncomfortably, he shifted in his chair and tried to pay attention to his aunt's words.

"I have a likely candidate in mind," she was saying in response to another question he hadn't heard. "His talents will serve him well in this respect. Benjamin, would you stand, please?"

Cautiously, Ben stood up. He couldn't seem to meet his aunt's gaze or anyone else's. No one spoke for a moment, and then he realized they were waiting for him to speak.

Truthfully, he could only respond one way. "What would you have me do, Aunt Esme?" His voice did not shake, even though he realized he should have called her something other than 'Aunt Esme'. But she didn't mention it.

"I would have you travel to Darkbrook using the portals," Aunt Esme said. "And I would have you enter in secret, and observe, nothing more, for--" She considered the length of his exile for a moment. "For one month. At the end of that month, I would have you return to us and make your report. And it will be a report. No one is to know of your presence, and if you are found, you are to return here immediately. You are to harm no one. You are to speak to no one. You are merely there to observe and ensure that the authors of this letter speak the truth." She paused. "Questions?"

"Yes," Ben said, surprising himself. He saw a couple of the uncles frown. One of the aunts shook her head. "If there are other letters to other families, what if there are others at Darkbrook who can see past my talent? What if they sent letters to the dragons, or the elves, or the werewolves?"

"Don't be a fool," Uncle Greig snapped. "Why would they want to educate the werewolves?"

His aunt ignored his uncle's outburst, but her mouth subtly tightened. Ben knew that look well. She wasn't happy, but with him or with Uncle Grieg?

"Then I'll tell you this," she said. "If you feel that you are in danger, you may return here through the same portals. And no one will think less of you. We must be cautious--I do not believe they mean us ill, but I need to know for certain."

"Won't hiding--if they discover me--make them distrust us even more?" Ben asked before he could stop himself.

His aunt pursed her lips. Not angry at him, then. That was a normal look. "If you feel completely comfortable, then I give you leave to contact the headmaster and explain why you were observing." Her eyes actually twinkled at him. She was--pleased. "They are unlikely to see fault in that."

Ben wasn't so certain, but he nodded, and sat back down before his legs gave out from under him. Across the table, Aunt Terese gave him an encouraging smile. Ben couldn't find the strength to smile back.

***

And now it was a week later, and he'd stepped out of the last portal to see the castle itself looming up in front of him, and students around, even now, walking across the grounds in the moonlight. And he wrapped the threads of his talent around him--it wasn't invisibility, but close enough--and slipped through an open door--not the front doors; he wasn't brave enough for that. And then he was inside the halls of the legendary school; quiet halls, at least for now. He wondered how the students would react to a vampire in their midst.

He found what looked to be a storage room and stashed his bags inside it, behind a pile of yellowed newspapers and mildewed books. And then, all alone, he wandered the halls until he found the library, and classrooms; he avoided the students' rooms, at least for now.

Once or twice, he passed someone--a teacher at one point, who paused and sniffed the air, as if he smelled something odd (and Ben hoped there weren't any werewolves, because werewolves could smell a vampire a half mile away, or so they claimed), but he moved on without investigating and Ben relaxed.

The deserted library felt more like home than any other room he'd found at Darkbrook, at least so far. And he allowed himself to stay there, at least for an hour or two, sitting on one of the chairs at one of the tables in the very back of the room, in the deepest shadows with his arms wrapped around his stomach, just sitting there, deliberately thinking of nothing.

If he started thinking, he'd loose the storm of pent-up emotion he'd swallowed since his aunt's declaration, and he'd have to return to the house in disgrace, because he wouldn't be able to hide himself any longer.

He felt tears prick his eyes. He rubbed them away. And then, resolute, he stood up, ventured out of the library, and decided to explore.

***

It was two days before he saw the others; not vampires, but others, not humans. An elf, of all things, and a dragon. He'd rounded a corner and almost ran into them both. They seemed to have forged a sort of truce between them, although the dragons and the elves had never been at war; they were polite allies against everyone else.

Luckily, they either didn't notice him, or pretended not to; it was a bit hard to tell. But he melted away as quickly as possible and retreated to his hidey-hole.

Later that afternoon, he saw them again, walking determinedly towards the library, the elf explaining something to the dragon, her voice soft, but not too soft for him to make out her words.

"I feel someone is very sad," she said. "Newly arrived, and a bit frightened, but also very sad."

"That might explain the sobbing you heard the other night," the dragon told her gravely. "Do you think someone else is here and they haven't told us?"

"It's more likely that this person is hidden for some reason," the elf said, and turned her head towards him--Ben could see past her glamour, but he doubted anyone else could, save for the dragon, whose own features were very near to human.

And he hadn't been sobbing. At least he didn't think he had been, unless he was crying in his sleep for some reason. (For very good reasons, a part of his mind opined, considering he was alone here with no one to talk to and no one to turn to should something happen. He hadn't realized the definition of loneliness until his aunt had forbidden him to talk to anyone.)

They paused then, stock-still in the middle of the hall, and the elf girl frowned in his direction, as if she could see him standing there. And although he was standing in deep shadow, he wrapped his talent around himself even thicker until they walked away.

***

The next day, he discovered their names. Elspeth was the elf, Riala the dragon. Darkbrook's version of 'inclusion' was for no one to actually know they were any different than anyone else; the headmaster had encouraged them to stick together until they felt confident enough to reveal their true natures to any student they befriended. There was no secret; if asked, they were to tell the truth. And perhaps the students had never truly seen a dragon or an elf before. What was obvious to Ben might not have been to a human child, even one talented in magic.

Ben realized, after the third day of following them around, that he was fascinated by them, Riala especially. Elspeth had more experience with humans; that much showed in her manner, but Riala did not, and she seemed rather hesitant to interact with the other students. This came across as shyness, and some of them went out of their way to be nice to her, a testament to their upbringing. How would they react to him?

He couldn't watch them anymore; he fled to the storage room after a while, and found tears on his cheeks. He leaned back against the wall and wondered if Aunt Esme had known how hard this would be for him; if she'd done this on purpose. If you feel completely comfortable, then I give you leave to contact the headmaster and explain why you were observing.

He did not feel comfortable. And yet he couldn't bring himself to lie and say he did.

Frustration found him walking the halls as night fell and the students retired to their rooms. Frustration found him in the teachers' wing, not really paying attention to his surroundings until the last sounds of habitation began to fade and he found himself at the foot of one of the towers.

Frustration almost made him climb up to the top, but he wasn't sure if someone lived in the towers, and anyway, he heard footsteps behind him and as he blended into the wall, saw one of the teachers appear around the bend.

It took a moment for Ben to place him. Maurice Honeycutt; Mr. Honeycutt to the students, but Ben couldn't remember what he taught. And he didn't look around, either; he was on some sort of errand, intent on his goal, which seemed to be a lone tapestry that hung in a strange sort of corner at the base of the tower.

Behind the tapestry was a door. Maurice Honeycutt had the key, and as he opened the door, he glanced around--furtively--to make sure no one was watching.

Ben pretended it was frustration that suggested he follow the teacher down a set of winding stairs and into Darkbrook's basement.

He hadn't ventured this far quite yet. He'd kept to the inhabited parts of the school, and now, following Maurice Honeycutt through a maze of rooms and staircases that led somewhere up above, he realized he could get lost down here very easily; each twist and turn took them farther and farther into darkness, and Maurice Honeycutt did not stop to light a torch or turn on a flashlight or anything like that.

He seemed to know exactly where he was going, so Ben followed about ten feet behind him, wrapped in his talent as usual, until, abruptly, he stepped over some sort of barrier; some sort of spell, and he wasn't wrapped in his talent anymore. And he barely escaped detection; for the first time, Maurice Honeycutt paused, and turned around, as if he'd suspected someone was following him and had set a trap.

The voice that emerged from the darkness sent all thoughts of safety fleeing from Ben's mind.

"There is a vampire here."

Wizards had been summoning demons for hundreds of years. Uncle Grieg had possessed a demon as a pet at one point--until Aunt Esme forced him to give it up, which probably explained his attitude towards her--and Ben recognized the sibilant voice. Not the same demon, at least he hoped it wasn't the same demon, but it was a demon nonetheless.

Demons could see through any sort of glamour or spell or talent. Ben slowly backed away. He couldn't see Maurice Honeycutt anymore; if he made it past the barrier, he thought he might be safe--

Right as he stepped over the barrier and his talent rose up to hide him, the ward--or whatever it was--snapped shut. It caught his ankle; he stumbled and fell backwards, onto the path. Fire--pain--ate through his defenses; he barely managed to pull his foot free before it crept past the barrier and further up his leg. The smell of burned flesh hung heavily in the corridor. For a long moment, he couldn't move at all. He lay there on the ground, panting, open to any sort of attack.

Maurice Honeycutt did not appear on the other side of the barrier. Ben heard nothing additional from the demon. After a little while, he managed to climb to his feet, and then, limping, no doubt leaving a trail of blood behind, he slowly walked back the way he'd come.

Only, he turned the wrong way or something, and limped up the wrong set of stairs; he emerged from behind a tapestry in the library, of all places, not that far from the storage rooms, which was a bonus, indeed, because he wasn't sure he could walk much farther without falling down.

The whispered voices, however, were no bonus, because he recognized them.

Riala and Elspeth. Hiding between the bookcases. No doubt lying in wait for him.

He'd hesitated for too long. When he started forward, his ankle twisted and he fell against the table. That noise was too much to hide, even with his talent, and both dragon and elf emerged from their hiding place at the sound. Ben ignored them. His gaze had fastened onto his foot--bare, without shoe or sock--which was, still, somehow, smoldering.

He knew what it was, of course. Hellfire. And there were spells to banish it, but he didn't know if Darkbrook's library held such knowledge. And it had crept up his calf, almost to his knee. He couldn't put his weight on what was left of his foot; couldn't think to even attempt to find the right spell, the right book.

He heard Riala gasp. Realized his talent had left him, no doubt because he could barely hold himself upright. And he met her gaze, ignoring his aunt's edict, at least for now, and whispered, "Hellfire. Please--help me--" And then, ungracefully, collapsed across the table, and then, slid down into a boneless pile on the floor.

***

He awoke when someone moved his leg.

"Please don't scream," Elspeth's familiar voice said, quickly. "I know it hurts. But my spell won't muffle sound."

Ben squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. When it subsided--a little--he whispered, "I won't scream as long as you don't touch me there again."

"It's healed," Riala said, puzzled. "The spell worked; it's no longer burning. Why does it still hurt?" Ben heard her paging through a book. "Oh--food. You need food. Do you have supplies here? You haven't been feeding on the students--"

"I would hope not!" Elspeth said, almost sharply.

Ben decided not to reply to that, if only to keep his dignity intact. "I'll just--" He tried to get up, struck his heel on the floor, and almost fainted again.

"No, you won't," Riala decided. "Where have you been sleeping?" When Ben didn't reply, she crouched down in front of him and said, "You might as well trust us. We're not going to give you away. Did you get a letter like we did?"

Ben nodded. "Yes. My aunt--had me come here to observe. I wasn't supposed to talk to anyone." He hesitated. "My name is Ben. Ben Dawson. I know your names. I've been--"

"Following us," Riala said without any anger.

"You have a talent to make yourself invisible?" Elspeth asked.

"Not really invisible," Ben whispered, and let his eyes slide shut. "There's a storage room where I've been sleeping. My bags are there."

"Where did you get wounded by Hellfire?" Riala asked. "In the storage room?" Elspeth was gone now; presumably to bring him back something to drink. His aunt had sent him with four bottles of blood, one for each week. There had been no reserve for potential injury.

"Basement," Ben said. "Followed a teacher down there."

"There's a demon in the basement," Riala said flatly. "And you didn't summon it?"

Ben pried open his eyes. "My uncle had a demon once," he said with as much indignation as he could muster. "He set wards around its cage, but one of my human cousins decided to try to get past the wards. We found a pile of ash on the wrong side of the barrier. He'd triggered a spell. He didn't even have enough time to scream before he was dead."

"I see," Riala said. "So you didn't summon the demon. Who did? The teacher? How did you survive?"

"The barrier caught my ankle," Ben whispered. He realized he was quickly running out of strength; if they intended to do something else for him, it would have to be soon. "I pulled free."

"And you didn't burn to ash," Riala said. "Although your foot and ankle was well on its way to falling off."

Ben didn't even want to think about that. He closed his eyes again.

A few minutes later, he heard the library door open, then close. "I brought both bags," Elspeth said. "One has clothes, and the letter and a notebook and pen. The other has four bottles and a cup, wrapped up so they don't break."

"Is one bottle opened?" Riala asked, and then, Ben felt someone's arms under him, helping him sit up against the table. He opened his eyes.

Riala knelt beside him with the cup in her hand. She started to give it to him, but then reconsidered. "They only sent you with four bottles of blood?"

"One for each week," Ben whispered. "I won't need them all. I'll have to go back now because you know I'm here."

"Drink this," Riala said, and lifted the cup to his lips. He tasted tears along with the blood, and realized he was crying. "You don't have to tell them, right? That we know you're here. They don't need to know, do they?"

Ben would have laughed if he'd had the strength. "Clearly you don't know much about vampires."

"I know enough to know that your aunt didn't become Head of Household by obeying her elders in everything," Elspeth said gravely.

Riala poured another cup. When Ben would have protested, she asked, "Is the pain gone?"

"No," he whispered.

"Then you need more to drink," she said, and he drank without another protest.

His foot did look like a foot again. The Hellfire no longer burned; the skin was fresh and new and perfect. After the second cup, Ben found he could move his leg with only a whisper of pain. After the third, which he truly did not need but drank anyway--and that meant the rest of the bottle--he managed to stagger to his feet.

"Your shoe burned away," Elspeth said. "And I didn't see any extra shoes in your bag."

"I didn't bring any extra shoes," Ben said.

"I'm sure we can find you something," Elspeth said, and gave Riala a look.

"He says he didn't summon the demon, and that he followed a teacher into the basement and got caught in the barrier around the place the demon is kept," Riala said. "I am inclined to believe him."

"Thank you," Ben said, a little stung by her words. "I'm inclined to tell the truth."

"That's not what I meant," Elspeth said. "I already know he didn't summon the demon. He wouldn't do something like that."

"May I ask how you could possibly know something like that?" Ben asked.

"It's more of a curse than a talent," Elspeth said. "And I can tell if you're lying, too. So please don't bother lying to me. It's easier that way."

"Okay," Ben said.

Riala gave him a look this time. "That's all you are going to say?"

Ben shrugged. "I don't tend to lie; it's not worth what punishment my aunt will hand out if she finds out I've lied." He pushed himself away from the table and took an awkward step. And then, because it would be far too annoying to walk with only one shoe, he sat down and removed it.

Riala's lips twitched. "You'll need a new pair. Maybe there's a closet somewhere we can raid? They have to have a lost and found here--"

"We?" Ben asked. "I only have to be able to walk far enough to go home--"

"And I ask again: Must they know?" Riala's voice was mild, but firm.

"You don't understand," Ben said, his throat tight.

"And you are willing to allow a demon in the basement of a human school?" Elspeth asked. "You would flee because of that?"

"No, because I spoke to you," Ben said. "And I showed myself to you. Aunt Esme was very clear. She said--"

"'No one is to know of your presence, and if you are found, you are to return here immediately. You are to harm no one. You are to speak to no one.'" Elspeth intoned the words, as if she were reading them out of a book.

Ben stared at her, stunned. "Yes. That's what she said."

Elspeth smiled. "We are 'no one'."

"That won't--no," Ben shook his head. "You are an elf and a dragon. No. She won't--"

"And you intend to leave a demon in the basement of a human school?" Riala asked. "Without informing anyone?"

"Sometimes you must disobey to do the honorable thing," Elspeth said softly.

"You know about it," Ben said, and knew that argument had failed as soon as he spoke the words.

"We have your word that there's a demon in the basement," Riala said. "Elspeth, if you'd take Ben back to my room please, I'll go and see."

"You'll--no! I can't let you go down there!" Ben stood up, but he wasn't sure what to do next. He couldn't physically prevent her from going; she was a dragon, after all. And a girl, at that. "The hellfire--"

Riala smiled fiercely. "Dragons are impervious to hellfire," she said. "Don't worry. I'm only going for a quick look. I'll come right back. Will you stay?"

Ben opened his mouth, then closed it again. It occurred to him that he'd already broken so many of his aunt's edicts that one more surely would not be the end of him. "For now," he said, his voice hoarse.

Riala nodded and vanished down the stairs.

Elspeth took Ben's hand and tugged it. "Come. Bring your shoe and your bags. We don't want anyone to know we were here, after all."

Considering the stench of brimstone still hung heavily in the air, Ben doubted that no one would notice. But he meekly followed the elf-girl, only hesitating in the doorway when he realized he hadn't wrapped his talent around him.

Elspeth put her finger to her lips. "My spells will shelter us," she said. "Just don't talk very loudly."

Ben nodded and followed her down the hall.

There were segregated rooms, of course, the boys on one side of the castle, the girls on the other. Riala and Elspeth didn't share a room, but they were next-door neighbors.

Riala's room was--ordinary. There was a small collection of polished rocks sitting on the chest of drawers, and a filmy froth of fabric draped across the bed, but it seemed a normal student's room otherwise. Her cases--two battered brown leather suitcases and one smaller trunk--were stacked against one wall.

The rest of the room belonged to the bookcases, which weren't all full of books by any means, but seemed to be quickly approaching maximum capacity. And there was one window--tall and narrow--facing north, so the sun did not shine through the many panes of glass.

"Give me your shoe and please wait here," Elspeth said, and Ben handed it over, and then, for want of a better place to sit (he didn't want to sit on Riala's bed, after all), sat down on the only chair. "If Riala comes back while I'm gone, tell her I'll be back momentarily."

The stone floor was cold under Ben's bare foot. He hadn't really noticed that until now; perhaps Riala's room was colder than the hallway for some reason. He saw a set of rolled up scrolls on the very top shelf of the tallest bookcase, along with more polished rocks--red and green and blue and purple. One sat on the edge of the windowsill--as black as a raven--and Ben had to wonder if the rocks were attached to some sort of spell.

He drew lines between them in his mind, at least all the ones he could see. They covered all four corners of the room and formed a pattern too complicated for Ben to decipher. If it was a spell, it was beyond any knowledge he possessed. But he--truthfully--knew very little about dragons, and even less about elves.

There was a small clock hanging on the side of one of the bookcases. It was shaped like a dragon--wooden and carved, and the dragon's tail swung back and forth with each second's passing. Ben watched the hour hand inch down to the six all the way from the twelve before the doorknob turned and Elspeth let herself in.

She was carrying a pair of shoes that looked suspiciously familiar; in fact, downright identical to the ones Ben had lost. He opened his mouth to ask, but she spoke first. "Riala?"

"Not back yet," Ben said. "Should we be worried?"

"About Riala?" Elspeth smiled. "No. Put these on." She handed him the shoes. "Oh, and here, I found these, too." She pulled a pair of socks from the little bag she had slung over her shoulder.

Ben stared at her. "Why are you doing this?"

"Riala thinks we should stick together," Elspeth said.

"You and Riala, perhaps, but I'm a vampire," Ben said. "I'm not your ally or your friend."

"You could be," Elspeth said implacably.

Ben could think of a hundred different reasons why that would never work, but the argument never made it to his lips. Instead, he heard himself say, "Who would want to be allies with a vampire?"

"Ah," Elspeth said. "Benjamin Dawson, you have worth."

"No, I don't," Ben said roughly. He pulled on the socks and shoes, then walked over to the window. Wrapped his arms around his stomach and leaned against the bookcase. Stared out at the darkness. "I don't," he said again.

"You do," Elspeth wasn't quite arguing, but her voice was firm. "Why do you think you don't?"

"My aunt--"

"No. Not your aunt. Why do you think you don't have worth, Ben Dawson? Why do you think no one would want to be allies with a vampire?" When he didn't reply, Elspeth said, gently, "I heard you crying."

"I must have been crying in my sleep then," Ben whispered, his throat so tight that it hurt to speak. "I used to--I used to have nightmares."

"I think you still do," Elspeth said. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No," Ben said, and tensed, because he expected her to protest.

Instead, she said, "Okay. We won't talk about it, then." And she turned, and opened her bag, and started taking out what was inside. A ball of yarn, a few very thin wooden sticks. Ben supposed they were knitting needles, but he'd never actually seen anyone knit before. And she settled down on the bed and started knitting. It looked like she was making a sock. Had she made the socks she'd given him?

"I don't think I thanked you," Ben said after a long moment of silence.

"You didn't have to," Elspeth said, her fingers working quickly to loop the yarn around the needles, and pull it through to make a stitch.

"I should have," Ben said. "You saved me from Hellfire. You didn't turn your back on me because I'm a vampire." He sat down on the chair again. "So, thank you."

"You're welcome," Elspeth said. "Riala did all the work, however. You should thank her, too."

"I will," Ben said, and glanced at the door. "Did you make the socks you gave to me? They're very warm."

Elspeth smiled. "Yes, I did."

Ben knew his feet were much larger than hers. "And you just happened to make them too big for you? And you just happened to be carrying them around?" He couldn't quite figure her out. Nothing seemed to worry her; she was as calm as if they were talking about something completely inconsequential.

"Or maybe I just happened to know we'd find you, although not under what circumstances, and that you would need a new pair of socks," Elspeth said, and looked at him steadily, almost daring him to call her a liar.

"Does this have to have something to do with your curse?" Ben asked instead. "And what about the shoes?"

"A duplication spell," Elspeth said promptly. "Not that difficult, although it's harder to make one left foot and one right foot."

"You did a good job," Ben said, well-aware she hadn't actually answered his first question.

"Thank you," Elspeth said, and concentrated on her knitting for a little while. Ben satisfied himself with watching her knit, surprised at how quickly she could make the needles fly. She didn't seem to miss any stitches, either. "You could try," she said after twenty minutes had passed.

"What? No. I couldn't. I wouldn't know where to start." He found himself inching away from her as he spoke, realized what he was doing, and stopped.

She hadn't gone so far as to offer him her yarn, or needles; she'd just stopped, watching him, her gaze a bit sad.

Uncomfortable now, Ben said, "Stop. Please stop it." He stood up and walked back to the window, as far from her as he could get without leaving the room.

"I'm sorry," Elspeth said. "You seemed interested; I'm merely trying to be friendly."

"'Friendly' is too confusing," Ben whispered, and turned away from her. "'Friendly' implies trust. And you can't honestly tell me you trust me just as I can't honestly tell you I trust you. I already broke my aunt's edicts; I've disobeyed; I might as well have died back there; it won't do any good that I survived. I--"

"Your parents died when you were ten years old," Elspeth said, her voice soft and sad. "You were there when they died; you saw everything; what the Hunters did to them; how your mother tried to shelter you from their fury. You waded through their blood to reach the door; you called your aunt because it was the only phone number you actually knew. And since that point your aunt has sheltered you and given you a home. But she does not understand what you lived through, and she doesn't understand why you--"

Ben had slid down the side of the bookcase as she spoke; he now sat on the floor, knees bent, arms wrapped around them. "Faint at the sight of fresh blood," he whispered, and closed his eyes. "Not only that, but get actually physically ill at the sight of fresh blood." He tried to laugh. "And I'm a vampire."

"And you think that's what make you worthless," Elspeth said.

"How do you know all of this?" Ben asked. "How can you know all of this?" He wiped tears from his cheeks. "I don't understand how you could know."

"It's part of my curse," Elspeth said. "To know things about other people they would rather keep in secret."

"That sounds like a terrible curse," Ben said softly.

"It is, at times," Elspeth said. "At other times, it's not. I've learned to live with it. It's part of me, whether I like it or not."

"So, you're saying that I should learn to live with my--my past," Ben said. "And not worry so much about being worthless." He sighed, then, and covered his face with his hands. "That will go over well with my aunt."

"Are the lives of vampires wholly consumed by blood?" Elspeth asked.

"It would seem so," Ben said. "But power is important, too. Weakness is not. No one trusts a vampire with a weakness. A flaw."

"Everyone has flaws," Elspeth said.

"Not if you ask my family," Ben whispered. "But they aren't as bad as other families; there are some families who would have locked me up or had me killed. At least my aunt gave me a place to stay. She could have left me there." Before Elspeth could ask why, he said, "My parents decided to leave the family. To set out on their own. To raise me without the influence of the Household. And they were murdered by the Hunters for their trouble."

"Perhaps that's why your aunt sent you here," Elspeth said. "Not because you're worthless, but because you were raised differently until you were ten. And maybe she thought you really were the best candidate to come here. Because of that."

Ben hadn't really thought about it that way. He'd been too preoccupied with his failures. He'd thought she had sent him here for punishment. What if that wasn't the reason? What if Elspeth was right?

"And anyway, she knows she can trust you not to hurt anyone, even by accident. Or drink anyone's blood. I'm sure some of your cousins wouldn't have that much control."

Some of the cousins, yes. Ben could name them easily. "That's true," he said thoughtfully.

"So you're not worthless," Elspeth said.

"I still broke my word," Ben said, unwilling to concede her point.

The door opened then, and Riala slipped inside, seemingly none the worse for wear. She stopped when she saw Ben sitting on the floor under the window, and glanced at Elspeth. "What happened?"

"We were merely talking," Elspeth said. "There is no quarrel between us."

"That's true," Ben said. "Elspeth--gave me a lot to think about."

"Good." Riala nodded. "Have you decided to stay, then?"

"You were gone a long time," Elspeth said, deflecting her question before Ben could even consider an answer.

"The demon and I had a lot to talk about," Riala said.

"You spoke to it?" Ben stared at her, shocked. "Why did you do that? Won't it just tell its Master--"

"Not only are dragons impervious to hellfire, we can also incinerate demons with our fire," Riala said. "Of course, it wouldn't have been a good idea to shift shape in the basement and I did promise my parents I would stay in human form, but the demon didn't have to know that. It knows I'll destroy it if it tells its Master anything." She paused. "I can be very convincing."

"I imagine you can," Ben said. "So you spoke to it? What did it say?"

"That you didn't summon it," Riala said with a small smile. "Not that I thought you did, truly. It was summoned and imprisoned by one Maurice Honeycutt, who is a human teacher here."

"That's the teacher I followed, yes," Ben said.

"According to the demon, its Master has not asked it for anything except information about where it came from. It was a bit puzzled about that, because humans--or vampires, or whomever--tend to summon demons to ask them to grant them favors or give them things they normally wouldn't be able to acquire."

"I think my uncle kept his demon just to say he had one," Ben said. "Although I don't know for sure."

"He also asked it to create a direct portal into one of the pockets in the mists," Riala said. "The demon said it seemed he knew exactly which pocket he wanted, but it also said it couldn't grant his wish."

"Not wouldn't, but couldn't," Elspeth said. "Hmm."

"Why would he want to create a special portal to go into the mists?" Ben asked. "There are plenty of portals that already exist that will take him there; even I know that."

"But you can't choose which pocket you end up in, and even if you use the same portal, there's no guarantee you'll return to the same pocket," Riala said. "We used to fly there--in both the pockets and the mists--until it became too dangerous."

"Dangerous?" Ben asked. "I thought you said dragons were impervious to hellfire."

"You do know that the name 'demon' is a wholly human creation," Riala said. "It used to be that the spirits in the mists--the ones now called demons--were merely spirits, curious, but harmless. Each pocket had a guardian--a protector, they called themselves, and an other. They were spirits, too, but they had physical form." She paused. "After they saw us for the first time, they started to appear as dragons. They caught on to speech very quickly, too."

It occurred to Ben that he should probably ask her if this story was ancient history or if she'd actually been one of the dragons to see what she described.

And as if she'd anticipated his question, Riala said, "My grandfather studied demons. And the mists, and the pockets. He wrote down his impressions. I've read all of his journals. I probably know more than Maurice Honeycutt."

"How did it become dangerous?" Ben asked, and noticed that Elspeth had gone back to her knitting; either she'd heard this story before or she knew it already--probably the latter, considering her curse.

"They began to want to be like us," Riala said. "The spirits, I mean. They learned to speak, and learned to reason, and they started to question what never was questioned before. And when the first human wizard summoned the first 'demon', it got worse. They were powerful, these spirits. And they did not comprehend pain, or suffering, or loss. Until we arrived."

"Oh," Ben said. "I see."

"My grandfather conferred with our king, who forbade us from venturing into the mists ever again. But the damage has continued, because the human wizards--and everyone else--keep summoning demons. And when they are finished with their captives, the humans, at least, destroy the demons for fear that they might find a way to return for revenge."

"Do they know the meaning of the word?" Ben asked.

"They do now, thanks to the humans," Riala said. "And the dragons who have disobeyed the king's orders and traveled into the mists."

Ben looked at her closely. "You've gone, haven't you?"

Riala folded her arms. "Yes, I have."

For the first time, Elspeth paused in her knitting. "Against your king's wishes?"

"No, of course not," Riala said, and Elspeth nodded.

"We--we lost someone to the mists," Riala said slowly, choosing her words very carefully.

"Lost someone--like, they died?" Ben asked.

"We don't know," Riala said. "But that's why I went; to look for--him." She paused. "And I failed in my quest."

"Did you ask the demon about the one who was lost?" Ben asked.

Riala looked at him thoughtfully. "No, but only because that would imply I'd be willing to give the demon something in exchange for that information. And if it knew I wanted something from it, then it would be more inclined to lie to me, now that they know how to lie."

That made sense. Ben didn't have much experience with demons, but he knew about favors. And since he'd asked both of them for help, he realized he owed them both for his life.

"Obviously there is no debt between us," Elspeth said quickly, as if she knew what he was thinking.

"It doesn't work like that," both Riala and Ben said at the same time. Ben flushed and looked away from her. Riala said, more mildly, "It doesn't."

"That's true," Ben said. "It doesn't work that way. You saved my life--and I thank you both for what you've done for me. But I owe you my life."

Elspeth sighed. "Very well."

"Then you'll stay," Riala said. "And see this through."

Ben wondered if he truly had a choice. And then, he realized that this could be his out; his excuse, for want of a better word. If his aunt questioned why he'd disobeyed, he could tell her the truth--that he'd almost died and they had saved him. And she would understand. She wouldn't like it, but she would understand.

He found, to his surprise, that he was smiling. "Is that what you want?" he asked. "In exchange for saving my life?"

Riala matched his smile with one of her own. "Yes."

"My aunt would have to accept that," Ben said. "She won't be pleased, but she can't argue. You haven't asked me to betray the Household, or anything like that--"

"You would have to trust me," Riala said.

Ben realized Elspeth hadn't spoken. She seemed to be waiting for something; perhaps for Ben to recall that he owed them both his life and not just Riala. Or perhaps she was waiting for him to reply to Riala, since he'd already said he couldn't trust either of them.

He glanced down at his clenched hands, and then at his feet, clad in Elspeth's duplicated shoes and Elspeth's handmade socks. They had asked for his trust and that he stay. He wanted to stay; that wasn't the issue. But to trust them? Truly trust them?

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