Magic Burns Chapter 13

WE MOVED THROUGH THE STREETS OF BUCKHEAD AT a brisk pace. Few things looked stranger than a vampire forced to run on the ground. No longer bipedal but still too disjointed to achieve good speed on all fours, it loped forward in a jerky gait, leaping and running, at times pressing low to the ground and at others jumping too high. Its gallop was completely soundless, betrayed neither by a scrape of the claw on the asphalt nor a whisper of an errant breath. A vampire belonged to the night, to the darkness, hidden from the world, a stealthy and deadly assassin. Out here, brazen in the sunshine of early afternoon, in full view of the stately old mansions drowning in verdant greenery, it looked grotesque, unreal, a nightmare come to life.

I watched the vampire and couldn't help but think of Julie. She had this abandoned look on her face. But to make any headway, I had to understand what was going on, and for that I needed Saiman. Hopefully, he would give me enough information to sort through this tangled mess, and then I could go back and check on her. She would be behind the wards. In the vault. Nothing should go wrong.

Something always could go wrong.

But as long as she didn't leave the vault, she should be okay. Nothing should force her to leave. Unless there was a fire. Was there anything flammable down there?

I stopped. That way lay insanity.

The vamp crossed the road in front of us for the fourth time. The Order's horses had been trained to work with all sorts of creatures, but no matter how much you train a horse, it still remained a horse. They didn't like the vampire. They didn't buck, but they danced in place and shied.

"I think he's doing it on purpose," Derek growled under his breath.

"He is. He hates horses," I told him. "Allergies."

The purple vampire loped along on the right side of the street and launched itself at the telephone pole. The undead climbed with a gecko's agility to about twelve feet, took its bearings, and casually jumped down to resume its bizarre gallop. Normally it would snow in mid-June before the People let a bloodsucker out in full daylight. The sunlight blistered their skin within minutes of exposure. Unless, of course, they were smothered in a quarter-inch-thick layer of purple sunblock. I wondered what possessed him to take the risk anyway.

"Ghastek? What happens to the Casino during a flare?"

He took a few seconds before he answered. "Lockdown. The Casino grounds all vampires. All personnel are pulled in and put on high alert. The Casino is shuttered and locked. All nonemergency communication with the outside world is restricted."

If the flare made all magic stronger, than the vampires, in turn, experienced a surge in power. How many necromancers would it take to keep them put? I wasn't sure I wanted to know. Nor would I want to be there when the steel chains holding the bloodsuckers within their stables started snapping.

Ghastek drew parallel to my horse, and she tossed her head back.

"How much farther?" Derek asked.

"Patience is a virtue," Ghastek advised.

"Lecturing a wolf about patience is unwise." That was the first time Derek condescended to addressing Ghastek directly, and his face plainly showed he felt quite soiled by having to stoop so low.

"Should I find myself speaking to an animal for some bewildering reason, I'll take it under advisement."

"Are the two of you finished?"

"Quite," Ghastek said.

"Nothing to finish." Derek shrugged.

I sighed.

"Does our bickering displease you?" The vamp leaped straight up long enough to look me in the face.

"No. My ability to get myself into these situations displeases me. It's a special talent of mine." I turned to Derek. "The expert lives at Champion Heights. We're almost there."

"The old Lenox Pointe?"


"He does alright for himself," Derek said.

"Indeed." And I would have to empty my bank account to pay for the information he would provide.

Magic didn't like skyscrapers. It didn't like anything new and technologically complicated, period, but it especially hated tall buildings. Ever since the Shift, Atlanta's skyscrapers had rocked, crumbled, and fallen, like exhausted titans on sand legs.

Against this new jagged skyline, Champion Heights stood out like a sore thumb. Seventeen stories tall, it towered above Buckhead thanks to the deep pockets of its owners and a complicated spell nobody had thought would work. The spell worked just fine: the high-rise still loomed above decrepit buildings, clouded with haze, shifting back and forth between the brick and glass building and a tall granite spire, as the complex web of spells worked tirelessly to support the illusion which permitted its existence. The cost of maintaining an apartment in Champion Heights approached astronomical.

The magic hit, so thick my heart skipped a beat. Derek clenched his teeth. His face strained, muscles on his forearms bulged, and his eyes flooded with yellow.

The hair on the back of my arms rose. The intense cold fire of those eyes chilled me. He was on the verge of going furry.

"You okay?"

His lips quivered. The fire in his eyes died to its usual soft brown. "Yeah," he said. "Took me by surprise."

The vampire kept galloping as if nothing had happened.

"Ghastek, you okay?"

He offered Derek a smile. "Never better. Unlike Pack members, the People don't tolerate losses of control."

Derek's eyes flashed gold. "If I lose control, you'll be the first to know."

"I'm quite perturbed by the idea."

We turned the corner. A granite crag greeted us, nestled within artfully landscaped shrubs. The crag rose, completely sheer, until it brushed the sky, where snowdrifts edged its scarred weather-worn top. A flock of birds launched themselves into flight from its top, the setting sun gleaming on their backs and wings. They circled the building once and took off for places unknown.

"Whoa," Derek said. "I thought it was supposed to look like a rock, not be a rock."

"Our furry companion once again forgets the advance of a flare," Ghastek said.

"If the two of you don't stop, I'll send you home."

The flare had turned Champion Heights into a granite spire. And it wasn't even going full force yet. We were just getting the preview of what was to come.

We dismounted, tied our horses to the rail, and went up the concrete steps to where the entrance used to be. Solid rock. Not even a crevice.

The magic fell.

"Window," Ghastek said.

Three stories from the ground a pane of glass shone, catching the sun.

The bloodsucker gathered itself like a cat and launched up onto the wall, finding purchase on the sheer cliff with the ease of a fly. It turned around, hanging upside down, and offered me an arm.

"I'll climb myself, thanks."

"It will cost us time."

"That's fine with me."

It'd been a long time since I had gone rock climbing. By the time I made it to the window, Derek and the bloodsucker had been waiting for a good minute. Ghastek scooted the vamp to the side to make room for me. "You delayed us. It's simply not efficient."

I huffed. "Spare me."

Derek knocked on the window. No answer. He rammed his fist into the glass. The window pane exploded into the apartment. We climbed into the hole one by one and let ourselves out of the apartment. Neither of us mentioned the illegality of our smooth maneuver.

We made it to the fifteenth floor, and I stole a little break by taking my time to find the right door.

"So what sort of person is this expert?" Derek asked.

"The very intelligent, methodical kind. Somber, even. Saiman enjoys erudite discussions. He's like Ghastek - " With a sex drive. "He's like Ghastek except instead of piloting vampires, he indulges in books and late night debate on the virtues of Mongolian folklore."

"Wonderful." Derek rolled his eyes.

I nodded to the vamp. "The two of you will probably hit it off."

The magic flooded us again. This time Derek was ready - his face showed no change. Ghastek, on the other hand, halted in midrise halfway off the ground.

I unsheathed Slayer. Derek backed away, giving himself room for a leap. If the vamp went berserk, we'd be in a hell of a lot of trouble.

"Ghastek?" I murmured.

"Just a second." His voice sounded muffled.

"Are you losing your grip on him?"


The vampire dropped to the floor, regarding me with blood-drenched eyes. "Whatever led you to that conclusion?"

"You froze."

"If you must know, an apprentice brought me my espresso and I burned my tongue on it."

Derek grimaced, disgust practically dripping off his face.

"Can we enter or not?" Ghastek said.

I slid Slayer's blade into the box of the electronic lock. Like many things in Champion Heights, the lock was magic masquerading as technology.

"Anything else we need to know?" Derek asked.

"Just don't stare if he decides to do his thing. He'll draw it out." The memory alone made me queasy.

"What thing?" Derek asked.

"He changes shapes. He's limited to human only, as far as I know, but within that limitation he can assume almost any form."

"Is he a danger?"

His tone had a slightly driven tint to it. His blood oath acting up again. "I met him through the Guild, when I was a merc. On bodyguard detail. I saved his life and now he gives me a discount. Basically, he humors me and tries to get into my pants. He's harmless."

I put my hand on Slayer's blade, fed a little power into the blade, and pushed the door with my fingers. It slid open.

Beyond the door lay Saiman's apartment: an ultramodern backdrop of steel and plush cushions, blending into a monochromatic, almost sterile, whole.

"Saiman?" I called, crossing the white rug.

No answer. A blast of chill air hit me. The enormous floor-to-ceiling window stood open, half of its pane slid aside. Beyond the pane a snow-strewn ledge, barely four feet wide, hugged the building. I stuck my head through the opening. The ledge spiraled to the roof. A trail of footprints led up through the snow.

"IT APPEARS HE TOOK A WALK IN THE SNOW. BAREFOOT." I stepped back into the apartment.

"I'll go first," Derek said.

Before I could say anything, he ducked into the opening and headed up the ledge. Damn it. I followed him. Behind me the vamp climbed the cliff. Using ledges and paths was clearly below Ghastek.

Wind slapped me. My feet slid a little and I pressed against the side of the building. I crouched and rubbed the snow with my hand. Under the snowflakes, the ledge was ice. Figured.

The entire city stretched below, so small, it looked almost tidy from this height. Between me and that tidy city lay a dizzying drop. I swallowed. I could do a lot of things but I was pretty sure I couldn't sprout wings and fly. Right after my father's death, when I was fifteen, Greg had taken me to his ex-wife's house in the Smoky Mountains. That was the last time I could remember being this high. It felt a lot different sitting on the edge of a mountain cliff. In fact, compared to crawling up a four-foot ledge made of ice, sitting on a mountain, dangling your feet over the edge, was downright comfy.

Another gust hit me. I gritted my teeth and peeled myself from the wall. Keep moving, wuss. One foot before the other. As long as I didn't think about falling. Or looking down there...Boy, that's high.

The ground beckoned me. I almost wanted to jump. How the hell did people ever live in high-rises?

Above me female laughter rang out, followed by a low warning growl. Oh crap. Derek. I tore my gaze from the drop and started up the ledge.

I can do this. I just need to keep moving.

The ledge brought me halfway around the building. A large picturesque iceberg blocked most of the view from this side. More laughter floated on the breeze. Something was going on up there. What possessed Saiman to prance around in the snow barefoot anyway? And why was there snow atop the high-rise? It was bloody June, for crying out loud.

I climbed the last few feet separating me from the top. My feet found the solid roof under the blanket of snow. Finally.

I skirted the iceberg and saw Derek. He stood rigid, hands spread wide, his upper lip wrinkled in a preemptive growl. He was trying his best not to touch a blonde whose hands rested on his shoulders.

She was nude. Short, with hair down to her butt, she was proportioned with an almost obscene generosity: round ass, solid thighs, big heavy breasts tipped by pink nipples. Considering the size of her waist, it was a wonder she didn't fold in half under the weight of her boobs. Her skin glowed, almost as if lit from within by sunshine, and so she stood there, naked, unashamed, golden. Sex in the snow. She looked at Derek with huge eyes and purred. "A puppy. Play with me!"

Derek's eyes had gone completely yellow.

Past him, Ghastek's vamp crouched on the edge, making no move to assist.

I swiped a chunk of crusty snow, clamped it into a ball, and hurled it at the blonde. The snowball hit her upside the head, bursting into powder.

"Saiman! Step away from him!"

The blonde whipped her head around. "Kate..."

Her body twisted with preternatural fluidity. Female flesh melted like wax and re-formed into a muscle-corded frame. She swept toward me through the snow, growing, twisting, molding, hardening, too fast to follow and then a man wrapped his arm around my waist pulling me to him.

He was tall, perfectly proportioned, and muscled like a Roman statue. The same golden radiance that had illuminated the blonde lit his skin from within. His hair, a deep red streaked with gold, fell to his waist without a trace of a curl. His face was angular, yet masculine, and his grin had a mordant edge sharp enough to draw blood. He leaned toward me and I got a good look at his eyes. They were orange. Radiant, brilliant orange, streaked with pale green that almost looked like the crystals of ice growing on a window during a freeze.

They did not look human.

"Kate," he repeated, pulling me closer. He towered at least half a foot above me. Snowflakes swirled around us. His breath smelled like honey. "I'm so glad you came to visit. I was so dreadfully bored."

That's it. The flare had driven him insane.

I tried to pull away, but Saiman held me tight. There was strength in those arms that I had never expected. If I struggled too much, Derek would go ballistic. A woman wrestling with a naked man who probably outweighed her by eighty pounds tended to trigger onlookers' protective instincts, even if they weren't bound by a blood oath.

"Derek, please go down to the apartment and wait for me at the window."

He just stood there.

"Jealous?" Saiman laughed.

I tore myself long enough from those eyes to stare at Derek. "Please go."

Slowly, as if waking up from a dream, he turned and left the roof.

"What about the vampire?" Saiman asked.

"Just ignore me," Ghastek said. "Think of me as a fly on the wall."


Saiman touched my hair and I felt my braid unwinding on its own. In a moment, my hair framed my face. "What happened to you?" I asked.

He grinned wider. "Deep magic. It sings in my bones. Don't you feel it?"

I felt it. It had pulsed through me like a wild wine ever since this magic wave had hit. Power twisted and wound within me, wanting to break loose, but I had held it in check this long and I wasn't about to let myself off the leash now.

"Can you dance?" he asked.


"Dance with me, Kate!"

And we were off, spinning and twirling through the snow, raising glittering snowflakes with our feet. The snow refused to fall but chased us, following our movement like a light shroud. It was a wild dance, primitive and fast, and all I could do was follow his lead.

"I need some information," I yelled at a strategic moment.

He clamped my waist, picked me up like I weighed nothing, and spun around. "Ask."

"Too complicated for a fast dance."

He set me into the snow and held me close in a classic stance, one hand on my waist, one cradling my fingers. "Then we'll dance slowly. Put your arms around me."

No! "I don't think that would be a good idea."

We moved gently through the snow. "Things are chasing me." Which wasn't strictly true, but considering the circumstances, brevity was a virtue. "They're called reeves. They are undead. Their hair can tangle you up and hold you like a lasso."

"I don't know what they are."

"They are piloted by a tall creature who wears a white habit like a monk. He has tentacles. His name is Bolgor the Shepherd. I was told he's a Fomorian."

"I don't know him, either."

Damn it, Saiman. "What would a sea-demon want in our world?"

"What we all want: life." Saiman leaned in close, his lips nearly brushing my cheek. His eyes drew me in, and I knew that if I looked too long into them, I would forget why I came here.

"This Shepherd's hunting a young girl. Can you research why?"

"I could, but there is too much magic. I can't concentrate. I would rather dance. It's a magic time, Kate! Time of the gods."

The thought of mentioning money briefly popped into my head. But then he always gave me a discount, both because I had once saved his life and because he found me entertaining. He wasn't that interested in money even during normal time, and right now he was simply too far gone.

"Morrigan is somehow involved. And a cauldron," I said.

His face was alarmingly close to mine.

"The Celts have a liking for the cauldrons. Cauldrons of plenty. Cauldrons of knowledge. Cauldrons of rebirth." His breath warmed my cheek. His hands were warm, too. By all rights he should have been freezing.

"Cauldron of rebirth?"

"A gateway to the Otherworld."

He tried to dip me, but I resisted and he smoothly turned the dip into a turn.

"Tell me more about it."

"You should ask the witches. They know. But ask later. After the deep magic wanes."


"Because if you leave, I'll be bored again."

Oh crap. "Tell me more about the witches. Which coven should I ask?"

"All of them."

He slid my hand onto his shoulder. I pulled back, but he already held my shoulders, hugging me tight to him. His huge erection pressed against me. Great, just great.

"How can I ask all of the covens? There are dozens in the city."

"Simple." Honeyed breath washed over me. "You ask the Witch Oracle."

"The witches have an oracle?" We had slowed down to mere shuffling now. I shuffled backward, heading toward the end of the roof where the ledge lay.

"In Centennial Park," he said softly. "There are three of them. They speak for all the covens. I hear they have a problem they can't fix."

"Then it's best I go to them."

He shook his head. "But then I'll be all alone."

"I have to go."

"You never stay." He turned his head and kissed my fingers. "Stay with me. It will be fun."

I noticed the ice building around us. If this kept going, we would be encased in an igloo in a matter of minutes.

"Why is the ice growing?"

"It's jealous. Of the vampire!" He laughed, throwing his head back like it was the funniest thing.

I knocked his hands off my shoulders and jumped off the roof.

I landed in a crouch on the ledge and slipped. My back slapped the ice. I slid, rolling down the narrow path. I dug my heels into the snow, grasping at the wall to slow myself down, but my hands slipped. I hurtled along the path, helpless to stop my fall.

The end of the ledge flashed, feet away.

I ripped a knife from its sheath and stabbed it into the ledge. The momentum carried me forward and I jerked to a halt, my legs suspended over the edge. Carefully I flexed my arms and slid myself back onto the ledge, trying very hard not to think of the bottomless chasm yawning at my feet.

Derek grabbed my shoulder, pulled me up, and neatly deposited me on the carpet within the apartment. "Some expert," he growled.

"Yeah. Last time I come here." My brain finally realized that I wouldn't be falling from fifteen stories and impersonating a pancake on the ground. I scrambled to my feet. "I owe you one."

He shrugged. "You had it anyway. I just sped it up a bit."

The vampire met us as we untied our horses.

"You dance very well," Ghastek said.

"Not a word. Not another bloody word."

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