Since the rest of that night was surprisingly uninteresting, I’ll just skip to the next important bit of the story.
I found Orcus the next morning, quite early, down by the river. It was my daily jog hour, as apportioned in my time schedule; his being exactly the same, it wasn’t much of a surprise to find him here. What was surprising was finding him down on all fours, shaking and sweating, his face a look pained concentration. He was wearing sweats and a grey t-shirt, but instead of shoes he was bare-foot. Said feet were caked in mud, which made him look even paler than normal, and the part of his arm that Sebastian had bitten the previous day was inflamed and looked very infected.
“Orcus?” I called.
He shot to his feet, wheeling around in surprise. It had been a bad idea: he slipped and fell back on the bank, his face the pictured essence of pain. I made my way to him, hand out-stretched. He batted it away angrily.
“I don’t need your help,” he snapped, still struggling to get up.
“Apparently you do,” I quipped.
He got to his knees and made another attempt. “I can do this on my own,” he growled.
At this point I figured I’d let him have at it. It would make him feel that much better, presumably. “Fine, then. If it helps to reaffirm your masculinity, go ahead.”
He paused, and then held out his arm. “Help, then. Please.” The last word was sneered, but it was irrelevant. I had won and it was a happy day (my petty sense of childishness hasn’t quite faded, I’m rather embarrassed to say).
I pulled him up and supported him to a part of the embankment that could serve as a proper seat. As I moved away he pulled me down next to him. “Good run?” he asked.
“Nice enough.” I looked at him from the corner of my eye. “Yours not so much.”
He snorted, gripping his arm tightly, his face pale.
“Orcus, that bite—”
“It’s a slow process,” he interrupted, “but only because it patterns. I think.” He looked at me, smile wry. “Not sure I’d recommend it to anyone.”
I hesitated, not sure just what was going on inside his head. “Think you’ll be sleeping in a coffin soon?”
His chuckle was pained. “Not just yet, I don’t believe. I’ve not had much interest in counting either, in case McNab has any rice she’d like to throw in my face.”
“Maybe that bit comes later,” I suggested, then cheekily added, “Maybe there won’t be a difference.”
Orcus tried to fight the smile, but it spread across his face anyway. Even the sociopath had some semblance of a sense of humor. He didn’t speak, though. He sat, squeezing his arm just above where the wound was, blood and some other silvery liquid leaking out of it onto the ground. After a very long while
“I’ve been thinking lately.”
I snorted. “As opposed to every other waking moment in your life?”
He rolled his eyes and ploughed on. “I’ve been thinking about this ordeal, and I’ve concluded that to properly solve this riddle, I’ll be required to ask extended help from the very aged and feeble-minded.”
“You’ve had access to the great idiot for the past month, Orcus,” I said, purposely misinterpreting.
He hissed through his teeth. “Don’t be difficult, Mallory,” he said. “I speak in reference to my grandfather.”
“What exactly would your grandfather know about vampires, Orcus Locke?”
“He knows a lot about everything,” Orcus replied, “and owns practically every book on the planet. He’ll know more than just a little about our predicament . . . I hope.
“You think there will be a cure.” It wasn’t a question.
“It’d be nice, admittedly,” he said. “But more likely than not just a pipe-dream.”
“So you’ve given up on your third-grade ambition?”
“Whatever are you on about?”
“Don’t you remember? In third-grade you said that, more than anything, you’d like to live forever.”
The smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I remember. My priorities have changed since those foolish days.”
“You didn’t think it would involve being a vampire, did you?”
The fake smile turned into a snarl. “What idiot would choose to live forever with a debilitating weakness such as that? I do think I would be rather more intelligent about the whole affair. As I said, my priorities have changed since I was eight.”
“And if they haven’t?”
“Then I will not be saddled with this sort of vulnerability.”
“Everyone has a weakness, Orcus,” I said. “How else do you think we’d manage being human?”
“I will not,” he said coldly. “And that is that.” He stood up angrily, his weakness causing him to wobble a bit. “Weaknesses can be exploited and used to keep control of another. Surely you understand that.” He kicked a stone. “In any case, with that sort of weakness I wouldn’t be human. Don’t be stupid.”
I sat motionless, deliberately processing what he’d said. It didn’t sound much different than how I’d grown up. Paranoia and the need to be invincible combined were enough to eat at even the greatest men. Nixon, anyone? Orcus’ innate mental issues perhaps made things just a little bit harder for him, but I did understand what he meant. Finally I said:
“There’s just one very small, tiny, really insignificant—”
“There is no cure,” he stated grimly. “Even for a pipe-dream, it’s a long-shot.”
“It’d be nice to hope for one, but let’s both be honest: We know there isn’t.”
“Because people don’t believe in vampires,” he said tiredly.
“And why create a cure for something that doesn’t exist?”
He made a vague gesture that showed he was thinking along the same track I was.
“How do you plan on rectifying that problem?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Orcus’ eyes narrowed. “I want you with me while I find it.”
I snorted. “That’s nice. I wanted salmon for breakfast, but I’m pretty sure we’re getting cornflakes again.” I smirked at him. “Gotta crave those Omega oils.”
Orcus may have been weak, but his temper was short as ever, and he purposely ignored my hilarious quip (it was very irritating). “You’ve got to help me make it; help me find it. I could do it on my own, but there simply isn’t the time.”
“Why is that my problem?” I retorted.
“Sorry?” He sounded close to amused.
“You make it sound as though I’ve got no choice,” I said. “This doesn’t affect me, Orcus, this affects you. It’ll ruin your life, not mine.”
Orcus just stared at me, his face an expressionless mask.
After a moment I stood up from the bank. “I guess we’re at an impasse, then.” I turned to go, but my arm was suddenly caught in a vice-like grip, and I was pulled around. To my own surprise I wasn’t much fazed when I came face-to-chest with Orcus.
“I am not willing to negotiate with you, Mallory,” he said frostily.
“It’s not really something you’ll avoid, Orcus. I’m not doing this just because you say I have to. You don’t own me.”
He laughed his chilling laugh. “I really don’t think you’re appreciating he gravity of this situation, dear.”
“Oh, enlighten me, do,” I sneered.
I’d meant it sarcastically, of course, but he did so, quite willingly. “You’ve attached yourself, wittingly or otherwise, to a dangerous creature which refuses to separate itself from you, and you are unable to attain the necessary resources on your own to send him home; I could do it by myself, yes, but I have another, more immediate problem, and I cannot obtain the required materials to solve this problem by myself in the proper time. I can get things you can’t, and you can help me purge my system of its new pollutant. One would think this would obvious to the bright and shining Mallory Tourney.”
I pulled away decisively. “I’m pretty sure I’m in no danger from Sebastian. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a run to complete.”
My arm was snatched again. “Your inexplicable tendency to leave before I’ve excused you is beginning irritate me, Mallory, darling.” The smile was dangerous.
I scoffed. “Excuse you?”
He leaned in and bared his teeth. “The vampire has been able, thus far, to control his appetite; there is no guarantee that he will do so indefinitely. In fact, it’s a pretty sure promise he won’t.”
“Are you worried about me, Orcus?” I taunted.
“He cannot be trusted with your safety, and that is my primary concern at the moment because of what I need from you.”
I lifted my chin as much as was possible; he was already towering over me. “I can take care of myself, thanks.”
Orcus pushed me then. “Can you?”
I pushed back. “I can.”
He pushed harder, and I took a step back. “Prove it.” I swung at him half-heartedly, but he blocked it, and swung me around. I nearly tripped over my feet, but falling wasn’t necessary to prove his point. “You see, Mallory, you react; you don’t plan, and that is your downfall.”
“Planning doesn’t cover everything,” I said. “Sometimes the best plan is a simple reaction.” I hate having to save face; really, I do.
Orcus laughed and made to push me again. I made to defend, but realized too late it was a feint. He caught up my arms, spun around, and then I was on the ground, caught between Orcus’ pale and shaking body, and dewy grass.
“This ordeal is like a game of chess, Mallory,” he breathed heavily. “If you don’t think three moves ahead, you will lose the game.”
I made an effort and was rewarded with success. I flipped him onto his back and sprung up, making another run. He caught my foot anyway, bringing me back to the ground and pouncing on top of me again.
“Going somewhere?” It was taking its toll, physical activity. His body was shaking nearly beyond control, and his skin was soaked in a cold sweat.
“You’re not well,” I said. “Orcus, you need to rest.”
He snorted, trying to push himself up. “I’m fine.”
“For being so smart you can be a real idiot some—”
His mouth cut me off and I swallowed my words immediately. He pulled away suddenly, his cold grin still in place. “You talk too much, you know, Mallory.”
“Don’t do that,” I said. It wasn’t a threat, even though it should have been.
Orcus chuckled. “Stop pretending like you actually mind. It’s very unattractive.”
“You are an idiot, and that bite is infected,” I snapped. “Seek help. Might I recommend some medical attention while you’re at it?”
He laughed. “Who exactly do you know can tend to vampire bites, Mallory?”
I bit down a retort, and simply dug my fingers into the wound on his arm. It apparently hurt worse than I’d anticipated, because his arm buckled and he let out a pained howl.
“What was that for?”
“To illustrate a point,” I said. “Now, then, let me up. If you’re going to insist on this, I’m going to be on my way. Come speak to me when you’ve decided not to be an asshole.” I pushed him a way and made to leave, but his next question caught me in my tracks.
“Have you been speaking to Carson?”
I whipped around. “Sorry?”
“I don’t believe I stammered.”
“What exactly would I have to say to Carson? Have you been speaking to him? You’re so quick to point fingers.” Okay, that was lame, I’ll be the first to admit it.
He smirked. “I would think my intentions were obvious from the beginning, but I suppose I wasn’t clear enough.”
I sighed. “Look, I know Carson was aware of things he shouldn’t have been, and I, just like you, Raechel, and perhaps every other person in this school, am wondering just what other private information he has that he shouldn’t have. Given this, why would I be making chums? And why would you think it was me?”
“I want to be sure our group has no leak.” Orcus said casually, “and our history isn’t a very clean one, you understand.”
“Why don’t you check with your troupe?”
Orcus snorted. “They wouldn’t dare. They’ve been given their orders; you don’t actually think they’d be brave enough to disobey me, do you? Not everyone in this school is so lacking in respect as you, Mallory. Are you sure your fluffhead hasn’t spilled anything to Carson?”
“Positive,” I reaffirmed. “She’s got the memory span of a goldfish, except where Ian Somerhalder is concerned, and I still don’t really understand why that is.”
Orcus nodded once. “I want to be sure he is kept as far out of the loop as possible.”
“I don’t think we have to worry about it, they don’t film here, and Michelle’s been given a restraining order.”
“Not the actor, woman,” said Orcus crossly. “If I go to Carson to request time away to make inquiries of my grandfather, I don’t want him to possess even the most infinitesimal bit of knowledge.” He rolled his eyes. “Think ahead, Mallory.”
I took a deep breath and promised myself I wasn’t going to kill him. “What’s the story you plan to spin?”
“We’ll spin him a lovely sort of fabrication; ask for time away from school. We’ll tell him there may be something in the mine that has affected your lover’s brain; shouldn’t be that great a stretch of the imagination. My grandfather is an expert chemist, and he has government credentials; Carson won’t blink at it.”
I didn’t bother correcting his description of Sebastian; he wouldn’t be as annoyed if I did. “And the bite? How exactly do you plan on explaining that to Carson?”
He looked down at his arm. “I’ll put a poultice on it. What Carson doesn’t know will hopefully kill him.” He began to walk the other direction.
“How do you know Carson isn’t on our side?”
Orcus turned back and looked at me like I was stupid. “What makes you think he is?”
“I’m not saying he is,” I replied tetchily. “I’m just saying, what if we’re wrong, and he’s trying to help us out.”
“How do you know?”
“Carson is like me,” he said decidedly. “I’d be trying to sabotage us if I weren’t stuck in the middle of the situation.”
He sighed. “Oh, I can’t be the only one who gets bored watching a school full of stupid adolescents.” Orcus wouldn’t need any other reason, but it wasn’t the only one; his eyes said as much.
We were both thinking it; I was the one to voice it. “He suspects Sebastian.”
Orcus nodded. “He’ll want to keep it from getting out.”
“I wouldn’t think so.”
Oh, indeed. “I think he maybe found from someone else in the hall that Raechel and I have been sneaking certain types of food to Sebastian – he’s gotten healthier in the last week, have you noticed? – and when we were all finally in Prime’s office he put the two together. And he might be bluffing on how much he knows. When was the last time you saw your quarry from the mine?”
Orcus dropped down on the bank again, considering what I’d said. Part of me squirmed at the thought of him being so weak, but I quashed it immediately. He deserved every ounce of pain he suffered, I determined, and I’d be sad when it was all over. On the flip-side of that coin, it was strangely nice that he wasn’t overriding what I’d said without letting it hang in the air. I didn’t know what to make of that.
“Perhaps,” he said finally. “I do not, however, believe so; I’m confident I’m not wrong.” Oh, should I show you my shocked face? “For now, though, let us pretend he knows more than he does; it would be too great a risk to underestimate him. As for the people from the mine…I haven’t seen them. And that does concern me. But it doesn’t matter now. There is a more pressing problem at hand, and we can solve this one when we return from this one.”
Much to my chagrin, he had a point. “Shall I tell Raechel and our dearly-beloved tin-head what you’re planning to do?”
“Yes. I want to leave tomorrow at the very latest, as there’s no telling how long this – condition will take to set in completely.”
I still beat myself up for having asked, “Would you like help with your arm?”
He smirked. “No. I’ll mend it on my own. Put the other two on stand-by. If Carson lets us leave earlier, it’ll give us more time, and I want to take full advantage of it.”