"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?"
"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?
"I would ask for your trust," Elspeth said softly. "In exchange for saving your life. Neither Riala nor I mean you harm."
"I know you don't," Ben whispered. He couldn't look at them; at least not yet. "I--I want to trust you. I do. It's just that--" He drew his legs up against his chest again and wrapped his arms around them. Lowered his head to his arms. "It's hard." He took a deep breath. Let it out. "You've done nothing to make me not trust you. In fact, you've been quite--kind."
"But?" Elspeth asked.
"And don't say 'but you're a vampire'," Riala said shortly.
Ben raised his head. "But I'm a vampire," he said.
"So what?" Riala said. "I'm a dragon. Elspeth is an elf. We won't intentionally harm you, just as you wouldn't intentionally harm either of us. There's no reason why we can't be--"
"Friends?" Ben asked, and heard a thread of bitterness run through his voice.
"Yes," Elspeth said. "Friends. And friends trust each other."
"Friendship goes far beyond me owing you for my life," Ben whispered.
"You'll need friends if you're going to stay here," Riala said.
That was true enough. If he remained separate from the other students, then the experiment would never work. He had to give a little. Trust went both ways.
He climbed to his feet and stood there awkwardly, staring at them both. "I've watched you. And I've watched the other students. Vampires don't--we don't act like that. We don't have friends. It's not going to work." He realized he was more upset than he ever wanted them to know; angry, even, at the impossible situation and what they were asking him to do.
"Friendship is just another word for ally," Elspeth said. "And vampires do have allies."
Ben opened his mouth, then closed it again. He caught the tail end of Riala's smile--not a suspicious smile, only a satisfied one. Because she knew as well as he did that he could not deny that Elspeth's words weren't true.
"Allies, then," he said.
Riala's smile widened. "Good. Now, the first thing we should do is decide if you will continue observing, or if you should declare yourself to the headmaster and head off any nasty rumors if something were to happen with that demon."
"Observing sounds so much nicer than spying," Ben said. "But the thought of exposing myself like that--" He shivered. "There are reasons why we tend to stay in the shadows."
"But you have allies here," Elspeth reminded him. "You won't be alone, and if the teachers and the headmaster know you are here, that's just another layer of safety."
Her words were true again.
"We'll go with you," Riala said.
Ben was very tempted to allow them to come, but he knew he should go alone, and properly this time--by the front door. "No," he said. "It's still dark; I'll slip out the side door and enter through the front like everyone else. My aunt gave me a letter to give to the headmaster if I decided it was safe; I won't tell him I've been here for almost two weeks."
"That might be best," Riala agreed.
Elspeth frowned. "Perhaps a finding spell would be best, to find you again if they do spirit you away," she said. "Just in case they don't trust your letter. Or if you come to harm."
"In the fifteen minutes it would take for me to walk out one door and in another?" Ben asked.
"The demon knows you're here," Riala pointed out. "And so does its Master. If Maurice Honeycutt has a demon in the basement with the headmaster's approval, then I doubt he would act against you, but if not--you may be in danger."
"We may all be in danger," Elspeth said softly. "So the ability to find each other if needed would not be a terrible thing." She held her hand out straight in front of her. "All you would need to do is clasp my hand; both of you."
Riala put her hand atop Elspeth's hand without a single qualm. Ben placed his hand on top of theirs after a moment of hesitation, and felt something--some sort of connection, or joining, he supposed, tingle up his arm. It was almost like a static shock.
"All you would have to do is speak our names and you would be able to find us," Elspeth said. "And the same would go with us, if you were to disappear. And if we deem ourselves safe and wish to remove the spell, it's an easy thing."
Ben thought she'd said that for his benefit alone, but he didn't mention her kindness. "I should be going, then. May I--just in case something were to go wrong--may I leave my bottles here?" He realized, then, that by leaving his food source behind, he had decided to trust them--completely.
"Yes, of course," Riala said. "You can leave the whole bag behind. And if they ask, you can say you've made arrangements for something to be delivered."
"I don't think they'll ask," Elspeth said.
Ben picked up his other bag. "Then I'll see you when they let me go," he said. And then, softer, "Thank you again."
He met no one while leaving the castle, and it was late enough--or early enough, truly--that there was only one bleary-eyed sentry-of-sorts to answer his knock. And she was senior enough to recognize the letter he presented, and to realize the import of his arrival.
And her smile did not hold a single shred of distrust or suspicion. "Benjamin Dawson. Welcome to Darkbrook. I am truly glad your aunt decided to accept our invitation."
What was the correct reply to that? Ben hadn't thought that they might actually be glad to see him. "I'm glad to be here," he managed, and she didn't seem to think his words were strange.
"My name is Adelia Adams," the woman said. "Ms. Adams, truly; we insist the students don't call the teachers by their first names. Mr. Hendrickson is the headmaster here; if you wouldn't mind waiting in his office, I'll wake him."
"I wouldn't mind waiting until he woke up on his own," Ben said. "I realize it's early, but I had to come before dawn."
"Of course you did," Ms. Adams said. "And he'll want to meet with you as soon as possible--" She paused, because someone had appeared at the end of the hallway; another teacher, Ben thought, but when the man appeared in the light from a nearby lamp, he recognized his face.
"Trouble?" Maurice Honeycutt asked, far too alert for this early in the morning. He glanced at Ben disinterestedly, but then did a double take. His mouth dropped open.
"No," Ms. Adams said. "Just a new student. Benjamin Dawson, this is Mr. Honeycutt. He teaches occult studies. It's a bit of a broad subject, but it--"
"I specialize in the study of demons," Mr. Honeycutt said, a hint of a warning in his tone.
"I'm pleased to make your acquaintance," Ben said evenly. He couldn't think of anything else to say. With a witness beside him, he certainly couldn't be afraid of the man, after all.
Mr. Honeycutt hesitated, then nodded. "Were you going to wake up Edward or shall I?" he asked Ms. Adams. And then to Ben, he said, "I recognize the name; Esmeralda Dawson is your aunt, I believe?"
"Yes," Ben said. "My mother's sister."
Mr. Honeycutt smiled. There was nothing overtly sinister in his smile, but Ben found himself wary nonetheless. "Welcome to Darkbrook," he said after a moment of silence. "I'm sure you will fit in just fine."
Even with Ms. Adams' assurances, it was an hour, perhaps a little more, before Mr. Hendrickson appeared in the doorway of his office. Ben had been a bit surprised that Mr. Honeycutt hadn't insisted to stay with him while he waited, but the teacher had made some sort of excuse and vanished back the way he'd come.
Edward Hendrickson was not an old human wizard, but a younger one. His hair was only lightly touched with gray, and the glasses he wore seemed to have been perched on the edge of his nose since childhood, not a sign of advancing age. His smiled was a bit more reserved than Ms. Adams' smile had been.
"Welcome to Darkbrook," he said. "I hope you enjoy your time here. We are truly pleased that you accepted our invitation."
"I hope that my presence here won't cause you any trouble," Ben said, and meant his words as truth. "I'm to make regular reports to my aunt, of course--"
"Of course," Mr. Hendrickson said. "And we won't prevent you from doing so. We truly want to make Darkbrook available to everyone, not just humans. In hope of your arrival, we've already placed wards around the castle blocking the sunlight; you will be safe here."
Ben had noticed the wards right away. "Thank you," he said. "My aunt's concern was the students, and how they would react to a vampire in their midst."
"We were hoping not to announce the presence of a vampire--or anyone else, for that matter--and just allow you to settle in for a little while," Mr. Hendrickson said. "It's best that they meet you and know you as a person before they know you as a vampire. If that would be acceptable? If not and you have other suggestions, I'm more than willing to try another way. We want you to be comfortable here."
"I would like to be comfortable here," Ben said. "But what if someone discovers what I am?"
"We're not expecting you to lie to anyone," Mr. Hendrickson said. "And feel free to tell whomever you wish. There is a dragon here, as well as an elf. I'll make introductions a bit later, so they know you're not here in hiding. Is that acceptable? I realize that goes against what you might be used to--"
"I'm used to everyone thinking I am not to be trusted," Ben said. "Just because of what I am and nothing I have ever done."
"We truly wish to change that," Mr. Hendrickson said softly. "That's why we sent out the letters, and that's why we invited you here."
"Of course," Ben said, and wished--at least for a moment--that his words could be true.
"The teachers will know, of course," Mr. Hendrickson said. "And the only thing I ask is that you come to me or Ms. Adams if you have any trouble or issues with another student--or another teacher, for that matter."
"Thank you," Ben said.
"And the kitchen will provide your meals, just like any other student; there are a few vampires who are friends of Darkbrook. We've been well-advised, and we have our own supplier of bottled blood."
This was a surprise. They wouldn't have put out all of this trouble if they weren't serious about being inclusive. "That's--more than generous," Ben said after a moment. And then, because he couldn't help himself, he asked, "I trust that the supply cannot be tampered with?"
"The head cook and Ms. Adams are the only two people who have a key to that cabinet," Mr. Hendrickson said, as if he'd expected that question. "And the bottles, of course, still have their original seals." He smiled. "Am I missing anything? Obviously, you won't be expected to go to class outside during the day, or participate in anything that might be harmful to vampires--if you'd like, I could show you to a room and leave you with a schedule. You can pick and choose from there, and I could give you a tour later on this morning after you're settled in."
"Thank you, that would be fine," Ben said.
"Then follow me," Mr. Hendrickson said. "And welcome again."
There were a couple of students outside in the hall when they emerged from Mr. Hendrickson's office, but they seemed more intent on their tasks or errands than staring at a new student. After all, it was very early morning, and most students were still asleep.
Mr. Hendrickson led Ben down the hall past the library, to the boys' wing of the castle, and stopped at a room at the very end of the line of doors. The door he opened faced west, and had shutters on the only window; it was very similar to Riala's room, except it only had one bookcase. There was a trunk--large and empty--at the foot of the bed, two chairs, and a small table, instead.
"Is that the only bag you brought?" Mr. Hendrickson asked.
"Yes," Ben said. "But it holds more than you would think."
Mr. Hendrickson placed a plain white folder on the table. "Then I'll leave you in peace for a little while," he said. "I'd appreciate it if you wait for the tour before wandering around; there are hundreds of rooms here and it's fairly easy to get lost. I'll inform the kitchen of your arrival--do you need anything until I return?"
"No, I'll be fine," Ben said, and set his bag on the bed. "Thank you."
"If anyone knocks, feel free to answer. If they ask you anything, again, feel free to answer however you see fit. If they want you to come with them, let them know you're waiting for me. Okay?"
"Okay," Ben said, and smiled.
"I won't be more than an hour or two," Mr. Hendrickson told him, and left.
Ben sat down on the bed and stared around the room. His room, he realized. His very own room. The knot of tension that had never quite left his shoulders suddenly released. He sagged a bit, then straightened up. Walked over to the window, and opened it.
His window looked down on the courtyard, where only a few early-risers braved the cool morning. He didn't unpack his bag, because that could be done in five minutes; he truly hadn't brought much with him. Partly on purpose, since his orders had been to observe, but also because he truly didn't have much to bring. Perhaps if he stayed longer, he could go back to the Dawson house and bring more clothes. If Aunt Esme didn't disown him and cast him out for showing himself to Riala and Elspeth.
Ben sat down in one of the chairs and opened the folder Mr. Hendrickson had left. It was a list of classes, quite a detailed list, in fact, with descriptions beside each title, and the teacher's name at the bottom.
He was halfway through the list when someone knocked on the door. It wasn't a teacher's knock, or at least, he didn't think it was a teacher's knock. Cautiously, Ben walked to the door and opened it.
The boy on the other side of the door hand his hand raised to knock again. He stepped back when the door opened, and Ben saw something flash in his hand.
Vampire reflexes were, thankfully, much quicker than human reflexes. And the door was heavy, and oak and thick enough to withstand quite a bit of abuse. He was behind it before the stuff--whatever it was; it smelled like garlic--hit the door. The boy vanished. He didn't just run away; he vanished. And Ben hadn't truly gotten a good look at him. Human, brown hair, young. At least--he thought the boy had been human.
He closed the door. After a moment, he locked it. And then, because the stench of garlic made his eyes water, he opened the window. When he turned back around, the boy stood behind him, a plastic spray bottle in his hand and his finger on the trigger.
Ben jerked back. The stream of whatever missed him by inches, but he only had a limited space in which to dodge before the boy got lucky.
"Why are you doing this?" Ben asked as another stream splattered the bookcase.
The boy did not speak. The strange smile never left his face. Ben had to wonder if he was some sort of construct or apparition that had to do something with the demon; that was the only explanation that made any amount of sense. He wrapped his talent around himself. A normal human boy wouldn't have been able to pierce it; a demon, on the other hand--
The sprayer clogged. The boy's gaze never left Ben, so he wasn't human, but he didn't seem to be prepared to conjure another bottle. And although the stench made Ben's eyes water, garlic was really a lesser evil. Unless he inhaled it, he would not die from this.
Ben stepped towards the boy, who kept pumping the trigger, but liquid only dribbled out; whatever he'd used as a base--garlic powder, perhaps? - had been sucked up along with the carrier. He shook the bottle, but that didn't help, and then, as if he'd just now realized Ben was so close, he dropped the bottle and stepped back.
Ben caught his arm. The boy stared down at his hand, the smile faltering for the first time. He seemed to struggle with something, then; something internal, or perhaps it was a spell, but Ben was ready for that. The phrase he spoke was one his uncle had used; archaic language, of course, a binding; but the demon boy recognized it and did not struggle. And then, thus bound, he dropped to his knees in front of Ben and bowed his head, as if waiting to be destroyed.
This was not the demon from the basement. This one was too new, too--innocent, for want of a better word.
"Stand up," Ben said, and the boy glanced up at him, then rose. "Clean up your mess."
The boy snapped his fingers. The reeking stench of garlic vanished, along with the bottle.
"Thank you," Ben said before he could stop himself.
The boy's eyes widened. He stood a little straighter now, as if he knew Ben would not destroy him.
"Who sent you here?" Ben asked.
The boy just stared at him. There was nothing in his gaze but innocence. No calculation; no deceit. It was almost as if he were a blank slate, sent only for one reason--to warn Ben away. But from what? The demon? Darkbrook itself?
He didn't know enough about demons to be able to give the boy a voice or know if he truly wanted to do such a thing. But he knew someone who did. "Riala?"
The boy's face turned an alarming shade of white. He quivered, his eyes half-closing; his teeth clenched, but he remained standing submissively in front of Ben even as his body tensed. He obviously recognized Riala's name; that much was obvious.
"You are bound to me," Ben said softly. "Not to Riala."
The boy finally took a breath. He choked, then coughed; his breath rattled in his lungs.
"Sit down," Ben said, and the boy sank down onto the floor. "On the chair is fine," Ben said, and the boy scrambled up again, swaying slightly. Ben pulled out a chair for him, and he slid into it, still panting; still wheezing. The light knock on the door a moment later was too much for the boy's mind to accept; his eyes slid closed, his head fell forward onto the table.
Hopefully, this was Riala and not Mr. Hendrickson; Ben didn't really want to have to explain a demon on his first official day at Darkbrook. He opened the door warily. It was Riala, alone.
"If you wanted to test--" she began, then caught sight of the boy. She knew what he was immediately. "Oh, I see." She slipped inside and closed the door.
"He was sent here with a bottle of garlic-laced water," Ben said, and realized his hands were shaking now; the adrenalin was starting to wear off.
"Are you okay?" Riala asked, alarmed.
"Yes, I'm fine," Ben said, and sank down on the bed. "He's bound to me; that was the only thing I could think of to do. But I don't know how to give him a voice; I don't know if I should give him a voice--" He glanced at Riala, who hadn't spoken. "He's deathly afraid of you. I think he fainted when you knocked on the door. I thought he would collapse when I said your name."
"Wait, back up," Riala said. "You're saying 'he'. Demons don't really have a sex, no matter what it looks like here. And you bound it to you? Why?"
"What else could I have done?" Ben asked. He told her everything, from the original knock at the door to the boy appearance inside the room. Throughout all of this, the boy's eyes remained closed, his breathing ragged.
Riala paced the room a few times before she replied. "You heard your uncle speak a binding spell once and just happened to remember it at the right time?"
"If you don't believe me, then--" Ben began.
"Nevermind that," Riala said. "It truly doesn't matter. What matters is that you bound a demon to you and now it's your responsibility. Can it do harm in this form?"
"It could have killed me," Ben said. "If I'd inhaled."
"But if it truly wanted to kill you, it would have used silver, which would have done more damage," Riala said. "And oil, I'd think, not water."
"And 'spray', not 'stream'," Ben said, staring at the boy.
"You seem much calmer when faced with a demon than when you woke up in the library," Riala said quietly.
Ben smiled, but he felt the first pinpricks of fear now; he truly could have died, especially if the bottle hadn't clogged. "I think it's easier dealing with a demon than with a dragon and an elf," he said. "And anyway, I've already broken my word. What else could--no. I'm not even going to say it."
"That's probably wise," Riala said. "Can you wake him up? I know how to give him a voice, but I warn you--if you do that, he'll ask questions."
"You said 'he'," Ben said, his voice soft.
Riala sighed. "So I did."
"What kind of questions?" Ben asked.
"You'll see," Riala said. "Wake him up."
Ben touched the boy's shoulder. "Wake up."
The boy jerked upwards, as if Ben had shocked him, saw Riala, and flinched away from her. He overbalanced on the chair and would have fallen if Ben hadn't caught the chair; even so, the boy ended up on the floor under the table, squeezing himself into as small of a space as possible, his eyes wide and blank and terrified.
"I'm not intending to hurt you," Riala said gently, and crouched on the floor in front of the table.
The boy froze, hardly breathing, as if he were a mouse and she were a cat.
"Ben holds you bound," Riala said. "He wants to give you a voice, but he doesn't know how. I know the spell, but in order for me to cast it, I'm going to have to touch your throat."
The boy glanced at Ben quickly, as if to gauge the truth of Riala's words. Ben tried to smile encouragement, but that didn't seem to help.
"Do you understand what I'm saying?" Riala asked.
Hesitantly, the boy nodded.
"Then you should know I speak the truth," Riala said. "Whatever I have done to you before is not now. Ben holds you bound, not me. And he will decide your fate."
The boy's throat worked. He glanced at Ben again, then closed his eyes and held himself very still.
"Don't scream," Ben said as Riala stretched out her hand and placed it on the boy's throat. She whispered a phrase he didn't recognize, and the boy sucked in a ragged breath and opened his eyes.
He did not scream, but in a whisper, haltingly, he said, "Yes, Master." And then, wonderingly, he touched his throat, then his mouth. And then, his eyes, which were suddenly leaking tears.
He touched the wetness, and looked at it wonderingly. Tasted it, even, and made a face.
"Tears," Ben said when the boy might have asked. "That happens when you're sad, or very happy. Or frustrated."
"He has no concept of sad or happy or frustrated," Riala said, and stood. "You can come out now. I'm still not going to hurt you."
The boy crept from beneath the table and stood beside it, his gaze downcast.
"Who sent you here?" Ben asked. "Do you know his name?"
The boy shook his head. "I don't know, my Master. No, my Master." His voice shook, as if he expected punishment.
"Did you see the person who sent you here?" Ben asked. "If I asked you to draw a picture of him, could you do such a thing?" He held up his hand when the boy started to reply. "The first question first, please."
"Yes, my Master," the boy said.
"And then the second," Ben told him.
The boy hesitated. "What is 'draw a picture'?"
"I warned you," Riala said. "Questions. Incessant questions. It's better if you just give him orders and be done with it."
The boy flinched at her voice and briefly closed his eyes.
"Is there any reason why I shouldn't answer his questions?" Ben asked.
"Do you have an unlimited amount of time?" Riala asked. "Have you thought what you will feed him?"
"Feed him?" Ben echoed. "They eat?"
"Someone gave this one flesh," Riala said. "So, yes, they eat."
"When you say that someone gave him flesh, do you mean literally?" Ben asked. "That this was a human child?"
"Sometimes yes, sometimes no," Riala said, and studied the boy silently for a moment. "Sometimes the wizard creates the body from his own flesh and a lot of magic. It's difficult to tell."
"But if a human child was missing, wouldn't there be a search?" Ben asked. "Is there a spell we could use to make certain?"
"Yes to both questions," Riala said. "But to the second; I'd have to cut off a piece of him to know for certain; usually a finger or something small--"
"A finger is something small?" Ben asked faintly. The boy didn't make a sound at this; his eyes were closed again, his face pale.
"You could drink his blood," Riala suggested, as if that were the simplest thing in the world.
"I--no, I can't," Ben said. Even the thought made him break out into a sweat. "Elspeth didn't tell you?"
"She didn't tell me," Riala said. "What, did they enchant you or something? To make sure you wouldn't harm one of the students?"
Ben closed his eyes. "When I was ten years old, my parents were murdered by hunters. I had to wade through their blood to get out of the house to call my aunt. I can't--Ever since then, the sight of fresh blood makes me ill. I've been known to faint. So when I say I can't--"
"What if you closed your eyes, I pricked his finger, and then you tasted his blood?" Riala asked after a moment.
Ben opened his eyes. "The smell--"
"Oh." Riala nibbled on her bottom lip for a moment. "Does it help if you hold your nose?"
"Not really," Ben said, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I'm--"
"It's okay," Riala said quickly. "We can work around it."
"Would he know?" Ben asked.
"I doubt it," Riala said, studying the boy again.
"Mr. Hendrickson said he'd be back in an hour or two," Ben said. "We don't have much time."
"Are you willing to try one drop?" Riala asked. "That way we'd know absolutely whether or not there will be a search party. Otherwise--"
"Otherwise, you cut off his finger," Ben whispered, horrified by the thought. "I'll try, but if I faint you'll have to promise me you'll stay until I wake up. Because the last time they left me alone, and I almost didn't make it back inside in time."
"In time for what?" Riala asked. "You own family made you--why would they do that?"
"They seem to think I'll get over it," Ben said. "And in time for sunrise. They left me outside."
"And yet your family is one of the better ones," Riala said softly.
"Yes." Ben took a deep breath. "I'll--um--wait over by the window."
"Look," Riala said a moment later. "There have to be other ways. I can go back to the library and look and come back here later--"
"No." Ben left the window open; the fresh air would combat the blood smell, at least he hoped it would. "Do it quickly. Please."
The boy made no sound behind him. Riala said something, quietly; Ben pretended not to listen. And then, after what seemed to be an eternity, Riala said, "Here."
Ben made the mistake of turning around too fast. He grabbed hold of the bookcase beside the window, and looked at what Riala was holding out to him. It looked like blood, smeared on her finger. But it didn't smell like blood. It smelled like--like dirt.
"That's not blood," he said. "I don't have to taste it." Sheer relief made him sag against the bookcase; he barely held himself upright. "That's not blood."
"Then there won't be a search party," Riala said, and wiped the stuff off her finger. "Here. You're very pale. Let me help you back to the bed."
He let her take his arm, allowed her to help him sink down on the bed again.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. His hand shook when he lifted it to wipe across his face.
"No, I'm sorry for insisting," Riala said. "I had no right to do that." She sat down next to him. "Will you be okay? Truly?"
Ben tried to smile. "I'll be fine in a moment. Truly." He looked at the boy, who still stood beside the table. "At least we know now."
The boy returned his gaze, then said, unprompted, "Someone comes."
"Mr. Hendrickson?" Ben asked, but of course the boy wouldn't know names.
The boy quivered. "The one--the one who called me here," he whispered.
"Then hide yourself," Ben said, "Since you are now bound to me. When I call you, you are bound to come to me."
The boy vanished. Riala ducked between the trunk and the bed. A moment later, someone knocked on the door.
Ben opened it cautiously. It was, as he expected, Mr. Honeycutt, who seemed surprised--at least at first--to find him whole and unharmed.
"Mr. Honeycutt," Ben said, keeping his voice calm. "I didn't expect you here; Mr. Hendrickson said he'd be back in a couple of hours at most--"
It was an out, and Mr. Honeycutt took it gladly. "I came to tell you he'll be a little longer than he expected," he said. "He's been--detained. He asked me to take you on a tour of the school if you're ready."
Now it was Ben's turn to hesitate. He truly didn't trust the man, but if he refused to go with him, then Maurice Honeycutt would suspect more than he already suspected. "Mr. Hendrickson told me to wait for him," he said. "It's not that I don't want a tour, but--" He shrugged. Spread his hands apart. "It's my first day."
"I admire your restraint, but it's completely unnecessary," Mr. Honeycutt said. "Edward asked me to show you around. If you are ready."
Ben wasn't sure what would happen if he outright refused to go. "I--I'm not quite through the class schedule yet," he said.
"You'll have to sign up for one of my classes," Mr. Honeycutt said with a small smile. He glanced past Ben, as if trying to see into the room, but it should have been obvious that his attack had not succeeded. Even humans could smell garlic.
"I'm a bit tired," Ben said, which was the truth. "Would you mind waiting on a tour until--"
"Come with me now," Mr. Honeycutt said quietly. "Don't force me to make a scene. You will not be harmed, but we need to talk."
"You didn't want to talk before," Ben said, his voice just as soft. "Aren't you afraid I'll make a scene?"
"Talk, nothing more," Mr. Honeycutt insisted. "And not here, in your room. You've stepped into something you shouldn't have, and I want to make things right."
There were students in the hallway now, and some of them glanced at Ben curiously. Well-aware that Riala still hid behind the bed, Ben said, "Very well. You can give me a tour. And we'll talk. Nothing more."
Mr. Honeycutt smiled. There was nothing overtly sinister in his smile--again, but Ben remembered the boy's appearance and resolved to be on his guard. He stepped out of his room and closed the door behind him, hoping Riala would understand why he hadn't put up too much of a fight.
They walked down the hallway towards the library again, and Mr. Honeycutt pointed out all of the pertinent places Ben had already discovered. After a few minutes, they were alone in the corridor, and Mr. Honeycutt said, "Shall we skip the rest, since you already know your way around? And before you deny it, I know you followed me into the basement, and I know you were caught by the barrier. How did you manage to get free of it?"
"My uncle once had a captive demon," Ben said. "He taught me a few things." That was a lie, but Ben thought he sounded convincing enough.
"And the hellfire?" Mr. Honeycutt asked.
Ben stared at him. "I'm a vampire," he said, as if hellfire was merely an annoyance, nothing more.
"Hellfire will kill your kind just as it kills humans," Mr. Honeycutt said mildly. "Perhaps you had a spell for that as well?"
"Perhaps," Ben said. "Why are you keeping a demon in the basement?"
"For research," Mr. Honeycutt said promptly.
"Surrounded by a deadly barrier anyone could stumble into?" Ben asked. "I have my doubts about your 'research'."
"Perhaps I panicked, since you didn't declare yourself," Mr. Honeycutt said. "I apologize for that. I've toned down the barrier to hold any trespassers now, and nothing more."
"Except for the demon you sent after me, I'd almost believe you," Ben said.
The look of surprise on Mr. Honeycutt's face was almost too genuine. "I sent no demon after you," he said. "But I--" He stopped, frowning. His eyes narrowed. "But I know who did. And I will speak to her immediately. Did you destroy the demon?"
"Not yet," Ben said. "But 'she' no longer holds it bound."
"You don't know what you're getting into here," Mr. Honeycutt said. "I suggest you try your best not to get involved. Think of it as a friendly warning."
"If I am harmed here, my family will--" Ben began.
"No one here means you harm," Mr. Honeycutt said. "I'll speak with Eliza. I swear it. She misconstrued something I said and acted on her own with my formula and my spell. That is completely my fault. All I'm asking is that you stay out of this."
"I don't know what 'this' is," Ben said.
"And you have no need to know," Mr. Honeycutt replied. "If you involve yourself in this, I can't be responsible for what might happen."
"Very well," Ben said, because the man obviously wanted an answer. "But if this is something sinister--if you're plotting against Darkbrook--"
Mr. Honeycutt laughed. "This has nothing to do with Darkbrook and everything to do with demons," he said. "Just play your part. Be a model student, so Edward and the others feel as if Darkbrook is welcoming to everyone. And perhaps one day there will be more of your kind here."
"Perhaps," Ben said. He still wasn't certain Mr. Honeycutt hadn't sent the demon himself, despite his surprise.
"Forget about the demon in the basement," Mr. Honeycutt advised. "That would be for the best."
"And what if Eliza doesn't heed your warning?" Ben asked. "What if she sends another demon after me, this time with silver?"
"She will heed my warning," Mr. Honeycutt said. "What did she send it with?"
"A spray bottle full of garlic water," Ben said. "Which clogged."
"And the demon--it had flesh?" Mr. Honeycutt asked, almost wistfully.
No, proudly, Ben realized. Was Eliza a student? "Yes," Ben said. "It did."
"I would have liked to see it," Mr. Honeycutt murmured, then glanced away, as if he'd just remembered the demon had tried to kill Ben. He cleared his throat as they emerged into a more frequently traveled hallway. "Classrooms are down this wing; all of the doors are labeled quite clearly. I'll show you the kitchens, and then--"
"Benjamin!" It was Ms. Adams, sounding a bit relieved. She hurried over to where they'd stopped. "I have someone I want you to meet. I'll take over from here, if you don't mind, Maurice."
"Of course," Mr. Honeycutt said. "I have a class to prepare for anyway. It was nice to meet you, Benjamin Dawson." He walked away before Ben could reply.
Riala stood behind Ms. Adams, of course, the worry in her gaze easily explained away as wariness at meeting a vampire, perhaps for the first time. They stood there awkwardly for a moment while Ms. Adams made introductions--Riala's family name sounded something like 'Vecknell', which Ben vaguely recognized.
He hesitantly held out his hand; Riala had to bite her lip to keep from grinning as she shook it.
"Welcome to Darkbrook," she said. "I've heard of your family, of course."
"I think I've heard of yours," Ben said. "But I don't remember where."
"Well, your uncle Silas was an acquaintance of my grandfather," Riala said. "Perhaps that's where you've heard of us."
Ben stared at her, surprised she hadn't mentioned that before. "Uncle Silas died a long time ago," he said.
Riala nodded. "So did my grandfather."
Ms. Adams looked at Ben, then Riala, frowning slightly. "Is that going to be a problem between you two?" she asked.
"Oh, no!" Riala said, and her surprise seemed real enough. "I merely wanted to point out there was a connection between our families, nothing more."
"Very well," Ms. Adams said. "Would you like to show Ben the rest of Darkbrook, then? Mr. Hendrickson is still tied up, and I have to get back to the office. I can't leave it unattended for long."
"I would be happy to," Riala said, and smiled until Ms. Adams walked away. As soon as she was gone, she asked, "What possessed you to go with him?"
"People are staring," Ben said uncomfortably.
"Then let's go visit the kitchens," Riala told him. "And then I'll show you how not to get lost; it's very easy to get lost around here."
Ben had already discovered that, but he nodded nonetheless. "Thank you."
As soon as they were away from the more-traveled hallways, he said, "Otherwise, he would have found a way to get inside my room and he would have found you. And he told me he didn't send the demon; that it was sent by someone named Eliza, using his spell and his formula."
"Oh! That actually makes sense," Riala said. "I've met Eliza. Eliza Smith. Her brother Thaddeus is also a student here. They're both said to be brilliant. And Eliza is Maurice Honeycutt's protege; so it wouldn't be a stretch to think she might have used both his formula and his spell. Which would make the demon believe he was the one who sent it."
"He'd give something like that to a student?" Ben asked. "That seems--irresponsible."
"To a trusted, brilliant student," Riala said. "Who evidently thought you were a threat to her research. Or whatever they are planning."
"A coup of the mists, perhaps," Ben said. "Where the Council cannot touch them."
"The kitchens," Riala said, and opened a door. They walked inside and down a short hallway. "You may be right. But we can speak about it later."
They passed only one person--a tall, white-haired man with pale eyes who glanced at them, at first without curiosity, but then quite openly. And perhaps he would have spoken, but Riala tightened her grip on Ben's arm and hurried him around the corner.
"Who was that?" Ben asked as soon as he was out of sight.
"That was Gabriel," Riala said. "The Master of the Wild Hunt. I wonder what he's doing here?"
"Council business, I suppose," Ben said. He knew of the Hunt, of course, and its Master. Everyone knew of the Hunt and its Master. And what the Council had done to bind the Hunt, some fifty years or so before.
"I hope they told him we are here as legitimate students," Riala said, and glanced back the way they'd come.
"You don't have anything to worry about," Ben said. "You're a dragon."
"The dragons and the Hunt have been at odds for a long time," Riala said softly, and glanced away. "Come on. This is important, otherwise you're stuck with what you brought with you."
Arthur Percival "Call me Percy; everyone does" was the head cook, or chef, as he put it. And he was completely pleasant, showing both Riala and Ben where the store of bottled blood would be kept (inside a locked box inside a locked cabinet in his locked office) and after insisting Ben take a bottle back to his room with him, he was more than happy to show them around the kitchens as well. And there were three kitchens--all long, spacious rooms where the bustle of breakfast had started to die down and the bustle of lunch was only beginning.
Ben tucked the bottle into a bag Percy provided and followed Riala out of the kitchens and into the hallway again.
Riala caught his arm as a group of students walked past.
"That's Eliza," she said, as a tall, dark-haired girl in the middle of the group caught Ben's gaze. She hesitated. Said something to the others, and let them go on ahead.
One did not, but he was polite enough to wait far enough away so as not to overhear.
"I suppose I owe you an apology," Eliza said with little grace. "Mr. Honeycutt tells me I over-reacted to find that a vampire has knowledge of our experiments."
She reminded Ben of some of his cousins, rather self-important and vain.
"You destroyed my demon?" Eliza asked.
"No, not yet," Ben said.
"May I have it back?" Eliza asked. She didn't even spare a glance at Riala.
"No," Ben said.
Eliza's eyes narrowed. "It took me days to perfect that spell."
"Then it can take you days to cast it again," Ben said softly. "And if you send a demon after me again--"
Her lips twisted. "That won't happen. I've sworn not to."
The young man near the wall--perhaps a little younger than Eliza--shifted position. He was staring, quite plainly at Ben, as if he couldn't quite pinpoint something about him, but Ben wasn't about to tell him the truth. He had no doubt Eliza would take care of that.
"I'm coming, Lucas," Eliza said without turning around. To Ben, she snapped, "Stay out of my business." And then she was gone, taking Lucas' arm and marching him away. Lucas glanced back at them. He looked puzzled by her vehemence.
Riala waited until they both were gone before speaking. "You could have given it back to her," she said.
Ben remembered the look in the boy's eyes when Maurice Honeycutt had appeared at the door. "No, I couldn't have."
"They don't have souls, Ben," Riala said patiently.
"The Hunters think I don't have a soul," Ben said.
Riala could not reply to that. Instead, she said, "Are you going to name him, then? Give him an identity?"
"It would make more sense to name him than to continue calling him 'it' or 'the boy', wouldn't it?" Ben asked.
"I suppose," Riala said reluctantly. "What do you intend to do with him later on, though? You can't keep him like that--a slave--"
"No, I can't," Ben said. "I'll have to return him to the mists eventually. But that won't stop Eliza from summoning him again, and I doubt she'll be as kind."
"No, she'd destroy him," Riala said. "And no one would think any worse of her for doing so." She sighed. "Come on, let's go see what Elspeth has to say."
"Where is Elspeth, anyway?" Ben asked.
"Out in the garden, gathering herbs," Riala said. "She wouldn't tell me why."
"Well, I can't go out to fetch her with you," Ben said.
"True, you can't," Riala said, and he could tell by the look on her face that she'd forgotten. "Will you wait in your room?"
"How about in the library?" Ben countered. "I don't have anything to do in my room except look at the class schedule, and I'm nearly done with that."
"I'd feel more comfortable if you stayed in your room," Riala said. "Please? Just until Elspeth knows what has happened?"
Ben didn't want to argue with her. Not after all that had happened. "Very well. I'll wait in my room."
Riala smiled. "Thank you."
She left him alone in his room a few minutes later, and Ben walked to the window to look out, both restless and curious. Since Percy hadn't provided him with a cup, he drank his breakfast; the unsealed bottle would last a day or two before he'd have to replace it. And then, quietly, he said, "You can come back now. It's safe."
The boy appeared beside the table, very near to the spot where he'd stood before. His face was blank; his eyes downcast.
"Have you ever had flesh before?" Ben asked.
The boy shook his head. "No, my Master."
"Where did you go when I sent you away?"
The boy struggled with this for a little while, then said, "I don't know, my--"
"My name is Ben," Ben said. "You can call me by name. If you've never had flesh, then you've never had a name?"
"No, my--" The boy briefly closed his eyes. "Ben. No, Ben."
"Would you like to have a name?" Ben asked.
The boy twisted his hands together. "May I speak freely?"
"Of course," Ben said, curious as to what he might say.
"A name might signify worth," the boy said slowly, and glanced up to gauge Ben's reaction to his words. "May I ask a question?"
"Yes," Ben said.
"Am I--am I real to you?"
Ben reached out and took the boy's hand. "Can you feel my touch?"
Confusion bloomed in the boy's gaze. "Of course," he said.
"Then you are real to me," Ben said, and--belatedly--wondered about the significance of the words.
The boy's eyes filled with tears. He wiped them away, or tried to, but they kept slipping down his cheeks. After a moment, he whispered, "I don't think you know what that means."
"If a name might signify worth, then if you are real to me must signify even greater worth," Ben said slowly. "Am I correct?"
"If I am real to you, then you will not be able to destroy me," the boy said. "I cannot harm you; you hold me bound, but if I am real to you, then I am not--" he hesitated. "Disposable."
"Can I send you back?" Ben asked.
The boy's face underwent a curious change. Ben couldn't quite pinpoint the emotion that passed across it. Longing? Desire? "This shape--this shape hurts, my Master Ben."
"Hurts how?" Ben asked. "Where?" How long would the 'flesh' - the spell, in truth - hold before it started to disintegrate? The formula and the spell might have been Maurice Honeycutt's, but the casting was Eliza's, and she was, if not brilliant, only a student.
The boy touched his stomach, then his throat. "Here and here."
"Are you hungry?" Ben asked, and realized he would have to rely on Riala for the boy's food; he doubted the kitchens would not notice a vampire asking for human food.
"I don't know," the boy whispered, and clasped his arms around his stomach. He glanced up at Ben; pain riddled his gaze now and he hunched over, gasping. A drop of blood appeared at the side of his mouth.
Not blood, Ben reminded himself. It's not blood.
Blue fire sparkled between the boy's feet and the floor; he stared down at it, mesmerized, as it spread to form a circle--incomplete, but forming quickly. His gaze rose to meet Ben's gaze; there was hopelessness there now, among the pain.
"But you are bound to me," Ben said and reached out to touch the boy's arm. The boy's hand came up, and grabbed at Ben's; he stumbled forward, across the line of the forming circle.
Something--the spell, perhaps--imploded. Ben pulled the boy forward as little burning embers drifted through the air; the only sign of the circle's destruction inside the room.
Someone else, perhaps Eliza, would have a bigger mess to clean up.
Ben looked down at the boy. He was crouched on the floor beside the bed, holding onto Ben's hand even now, pressed against Ben's leg like a much younger human child. Was his terror real? Was this all a ruse for sympathy? The fear in the boy's gaze--no. Demons feared one thing: to be destroyed. The boy knew that Ben wouldn't destroy him, but the same couldn't be said for Eliza. Or Maurice Honeycutt, for that matter.
Someone knocked on the door. Ben tried to pry the boy's grip from his hand, but it only tightened; patiently, he said, "I have to answer the door. Do you know who's there?"
The boy took a shallow breath. Coughed. Blood--not blood--flecked his lips. His eyes were rimmed with red when he raised his head to meet Ben's gaze. "The dragon. And an elf." The knock came again, a bit more urgent this time.
Faintly, beyond the door, Ben heard a bell ringing. An alarm.
"I have to open it," Ben said.
The boy released him and slid down to the floor against the bed, staring at the spot where the circle had been.
Ben opened the door. The alarm was louder now; there were students in the hallways and teachers shouting for order. Faintly, from somewhere not that far away, he smelled smoke.
Riala and Elspeth stood outside in the hallway. Elspeth held a basket full of something in her hands; Riala's attention was on the teacher--one Ben didn't recognize--who had finally gotten the students' attention. He informed them that a spell had gone awry, and that all students were to remain in their rooms until the damage could be assessed.
"They're going to start suspecting something," Riala said as Ben moved away from the door so they could step inside. "I presume that had something to do with him?"
"Someone tried to get him back," Ben said. "I stopped them. What do you mean, they're going to start suspecting something? Me?"
"You show up here and--pardon the expression--all Hell breaks loose?" Elspeth asked. "They're bound to find the demon in the basement; that's where the fire started." She smiled to take the sting from her words. "Or maybe not; the demon was there before you arrived, after all."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Ben said. "I couldn't let them have him--"
"I know," Riala said. "You'd better give him a name to cement him to your binding; otherwise, they might try again." She crouched next to the boy, who hadn't moved. "Elspeth brought you some food. We'll show you how to eat it, and it will make you feel better. Okay?"
The boy's breath hitched in his throat. He raised his head; avoided her gaze. "Okay."
"Any lasting damage?" Riala asked.
The boy considered her question for a moment, then tried to get to his feet. His legs would not hold him. "Perhaps," he whispered, and fell back against the bed.
"Give him a name," Riala said. "Please."
Ben's mind went completely blank. He stared at Riala, then the boy, completely at a loss. Naming someone was more important than just pulling an appropriate word out of thin air.
"I have a name you could use," Elspeth said quietly.
"He's not a dog," Ben protested, but that wasn't what he truly wanted to say. "He's not--"
"I know," Elspeth said. "What about Julian?"
"If you ever have children, I hope it's not this difficult for you," Riala said, which broke the tension.
Ben laughed. "I hope not, too. Julian is fine. It's a good name." He turned towards the boy. "What do you think?"
The boy's lips moved, as if he were trying out the name for himself. And then, slowly, he said, "Julian is a good name. Thank you."
"Better now?" Riala asked.
The boy slowly stood. Ben didn't realize he'd been holding his breath until he exhaled. "Yes. Better now." He took a deep breath. "What would you have me do?"
Ben glanced at Riala. "I'd like to know how they could try to get you back if you are bound to me," he said. "Do you know the answer to that question?"
The boy--Julian--blinked. "Yes. The wizard used his own flesh to bind me here. He made me in his image."
"But the wizard you say summoned you here claims he didn't summon you," Riala said. "He says one of his students summoned you using his formula and his spell."
Julian considered this for a moment, then shook his head. "I only feel one wizard."
"Why would he lie to you?" Riala asked.
"And why would Eliza claim Julian as her own?" Elspeth echoed Ben's question before he could speak it. He had to assume Riala had told her what had happened, or perhaps it was her curse again.
"That does not mean another wizard couldn't have used the spell," Julian said slowly. "To mask herself so that I could not see her. So that no one could, if I were to fail."
"But you did fail," Riala said.
"But you did not tear me apart to see who had sent me here," Julian pointed out, which was true. He glanced at Riala. "Even if you wanted to."
"Don't push your luck," Riala said. "You may be bound to Ben, but that doesn't mean I can't hurt you."
Julian closed his eyes. "Yes, of course. I am sorry. I spoke out of turn."
"No, you didn't," Ben said. "But perhaps we could all work together and not threaten each other?"
"You are asking us all to be allies?" Elspeth asked.
"Is that such a terrible thing?" Ben asked.
Riala smiled. "Coming from you, no, it's not," she said.
"In for a penny, in for a pound," Elspeth said.
"What does that mean?" Julian asked.
Riala sighed. "Questions."
"How can anyone learn without asking questions?" Ben asked.
"It means we are allies," Elspeth said. "And we will not threaten you."
"Unless provoked," Riala added.
Julian nodded. "And you won't destroy me, even if you want to." He smiled, then, and it was an innocent smile, full of relief and hope and delight.
Elspeth held out her hand to Julian, and he took it. Gravely, she said, "Your task should be to protect your Master at any cost."
"Am I likely to need such protection?" Ben asked, half-joking.
Elspeth glanced at him. "Yes. You will."
Ben fell silent in the face of her certainty. He looked at Riala; she seemed just as surprised. But Julian merely nodded. "Then I will protect him, my lady."
"Is this part of your curse?" Ben asked. "Because you're starting to scare me a little. Do you know the future?"
"When we are no longer allies--" Elspeth began, her voice soft.
"Wait," Ben said. "Just wait a minute. The only way we would no longer be allies is if you betrayed me, and I just can't see you doing that. Not unless I've done something terrible to betray you--am I going to do something terrible?"
"No," Elspeth said. "You are not going to do something terrible. Not really. You might think it's terrible, but it won't be."
"Then why--" Ben sat down on the bed. He couldn't remain standing, not through this. "Why wouldn't we be allies anymore?"
"Yes, why?" Riala asked.
"I am not at liberty to say," Elspeth said, and carefully set the basket on the table. "I'm sorry. Maybe I shouldn't be here right now. Because if I--"
"If you tell us, then we might not do whatever it is, and then the future will change, not necessarily for the better," Ben said. "Right?"
Elspeth's smile barely reached her eyes. "Yes. Something like that, yes."
"This has something to do with the demons," Riala guessed. "Were you sent here for this purpose?"
"I was sent here because this is where I'm supposed to be right now," Elspeth said. "Nothing more and nothing less. But I do know a portion of the future, and I do know what will happen if I tell you what I know."
"But here's my question," Ben said. "If you know, and you could act on that knowledge and prevent something bad from happening, then why would you allow it to happen in the first place? Why sit back and watch?"
"Because no matter what I do, Eliza will complete her research and finalize her plans. Nothing--not even the Council, if it came to that--can stop her. If we accuse her of something, there is no proof, because she has protected herself very carefully and will continue to do so."
Julian was listening closely; his face grave.
"What are you saying?" Riala asked. "That we are the only ones who can stop her?"
"Stop her? No, not stop her. Prevent her from succeeding, but not stop her." Elspeth sighed. "Maurice Honeycutt is organizing a field trip into the mists. It would be a good idea if you followed along."
"A field trip?" Riala asked. "Don't they know the mists are dangerous?"
"The forest is dangerous, to some," Elspeth said. "He has the approval of the Council, with the proper amount of chaperones."
"That doesn't help the fact that I can't go out in sunlight, and everything I've read or heard about the mists is that the pockets are mostly uninhabited forest and caves," Ben said.
"Wait--you said 'follow along', not 'sign up'," Riala said. "You want us to go unauthorized?"
"You might find evidence of your lost--" Elspeth said, not looking at either of them.
"That was cruel," Riala said shortly. "Considering they're presuming he's dead."
Elspeth whispered, "I know." But she didn't say anything else. Ben saw a tear trickle down her cheek.
"When's the field trip?" he asked, if only to keep the conversation away from doom and portents.
"Four weeks from now," Elspeth said.
"Oh." Ben sighed. "I'll be gone by then, I guess. My aunt wanted me to stay for a month and then bring back my report. She's not going to let me stay, at least not yet. Maybe I can convince her to allow me to come back afterwards."
"Maybe you can," Elspeth said cautiously.
Ben opened his mouth to ask, then closed it again. "Maybe I can," he agreed, and Elspeth looked a bit less wary. "Although it's going to be difficult enough to tell her I broke my word, acquired a demon, and stayed anyway."
Riala's gaze had been on Elspeth, now she transferred it to Ben and smiled. "True," she said. "But if you approach her as you've approached this--so far--then perhaps she'll listen to you."
"I'll do my best," Ben promised, and truly, that was all he could do was his best. "And if someone here sends word to my aunt that I'm here, exposed--I might not be here for two more weeks."
"I think she knows already," Elspeth said. "And she's decided to allow you to stay until you are supposed to return."
"I wonder what would happen if I sent my report, but stayed here?" Ben wondered aloud. "Surely she wouldn't send someone to bring me back--and risk embarrassment--" He couldn't help but glance at Elspeth when he said that, but she did not say a word.
Throughout all of this, Julian had remained silent, standing beside Ben; he stirred, now, and said, "They've put out the fire."
And the alarm had stopped ringing, Ben realized.
"We should go," Elspeth said. "Be careful," she said to Ben. "Julian is unlikely to be able to protect you from the wizard who summoned him here."
"Oh, that's reassuring," Ben said, but didn't press the subject. "I'm supposed to pick out classes--do you have any suggestions?"
"Not any that Maurice Honeycutt teaches," Riala said, and followed Elspeth out the door. "She's right--be careful. I'll come back when I have a break, okay? A little before lunch?"
Elspeth had walked away without hesitation; Riala seemed to be honestly concerned. "I'll see you then," he said, and they left him in peace.
A week passed without much activity on the demon front. Ben chose classes, got them approved by Mr. Hendrickson, and tried to blend in with the other students, although sometimes it was a bit difficult.
Mr. Hendrickson was the only one who knew he'd have to return to give his report by the end of the month; he'd said something about wishing Ben could have stayed longer than a couple of weeks, but Ben hadn't dared admit he had been hiding out at Darkbrook for a week and a half already.
He had two classes with Riala--just basic ones--but the summoning class was his favorite. He was honestly and actually good at summoning, and every spell he tried seemed simple to him, much to the teacher's delight and Eliza's chagrin.
He couldn't seem to escape from Eliza. She was in four of his classes, including the summoning class, and she went out of her way to be nice to him, or at least civil. And while Ben couldn't bring himself to trust her, especially after what Elspeth had said, he could pretend just as well as anyone that they weren't enemies, at least for now.
Riala seemed to think Eliza was biding her time until the field trip. Elspeth did not say one word about that; in fact, she refused to speak about it at all. Any reference to Eliza, demons, or the mists was answered by silence, and after two days of this, both Ben and Riala got the point.
It was the elephant in the room--the forbidden subject. But there were plenty of other things to talk about.
"They're studying vampires in the 'Magical Creatures' class," Riala said four days before Ben was supposed to leave. "Although I think they should rename it; that's rather insulting."
"I'd be offended if it wasn't so funny," Ben said. "I assume there's no 'show and tell'?" He'd been working on his report for his aunt, trying to make his argument in writing for his return. There was no mention of demons, hellfire, or Julian in the report.
"Not unless you want to stand up in front of the class and tell them everything you know about vampires," Elspeth said. "Although I did convince one of my cousins to come while they were learning about elves."
"How true is their information?" Ben asked.
"It was written by a vampire," Riala said. "Or so the teacher said. There are a couple of vampires, evidently, who are 'friends of Darkbrook', or whatever they call it nowadays."
"Mr. Hendrickson said that, too," Ben said, and glanced at Julian, who was carefully studying a banana Elspeth had brought. He'd done pretty well with fruit in general, but the banana had him stumped.
"Here, you have to peel it," Elspeth said, and showed him how.
It had been--interesting--after Julian's first meal. But he seemed to be getting the hang of it. And Riala had already agreed to take charge of him while Ben was away--in the hopes that he'd be able to return. Riala had been all for sending him back immediately, but Ben had wanted to ensure Eliza couldn't snare him again. And that was a bit harder to accomplish.
Julian didn't seem to mind staying in Ben's room or keeping out of sight. He listened, but did not speak unless he didn't understand a request or an order, of which there were few. Ben answered all of his questions without impatience, knowing how it felt to be in a new place, surrounded by strangers.
And so the days passed.
The day before Ben was supposed to leave, he realized that he had somewhat of a crush on Riala. Since that was totally inappropriate, he didn't mention it or act on it at all; a dragon befriending a vampire was one thing, but anything else--he closed it out of his mind.
So when he found himself laughing at something she said the afternoon before the night he had to leave, and when she paused and looked at him with something odd in her gaze, and when he turned away, embarrassed that she'd seen something or heard something or even felt something--
"You'll come back," she said. "She'll let you come back."
"I hope so," he told her.
And even Elspeth, who had been rather absent of late, stopped by to wish him well. And he'd slept a little, badly, alone in his room now, because Julian was with Riala, and his bags were packed and ready to go.
After sunset, he bid goodbye (temporarily, he hoped) to Mr. Hendrickson and Ms. Adams, who had come to see him off. And then, he walked out the front door, down the path, and into the forest. They'd offered him use of Darkbrook's portals, but Ben thought he should use the same ones he'd used before, and they hadn't argued.
He didn't want to go back. He truly and honestly wanted to stay.
He was only a few hundred feet inside the forest, not quite to the first portal, when he smelled blood. Fresh blood, and the scent alone was enough to turn his stomach. But out in the open like this, it wasn't overwhelming and he was in no danger of fainting.
As he drew closer to the portal, the bloodsmell grew stronger until he couldn't ignore it any longer. It was elven blood, but that was all he knew; he didn't realize whose blood it was until he drew abreast of the portal and saw Elspeth lying in front of it, her eyes closed, her--
He tried to step back. Dropped his bags. Felt the world lurch around him. Didn't realize he had an audience until Eliza stepped out from behind a tree and said something to him; something he did not comprehend.
He had to--get help, his mind supplied, but he couldn't think; he couldn't--
This time, at least, he tried to fight when the familiar black spots appeared before his eyes, but his mind surrendered long before the floor rose up to meet him, and the stench of blood followed him down into darkness.