Magic Burns Chapter 15

I HAD CONQUERED THE FIRST TEN FEET OF THE PATH when the magic hit. It rocked me like a shotgun blast. My breath escaped my lungs in a startled cry, my heart squeezed itself into a hard fist, and I bent over, cradling my chest. The pain released me in a heady rush of power that spread through my arteries, into my veins, into the vessels, into the capillaries, until my whole body tingled with magic. The exhilaration claimed me and lifted me up, as if two wings had thrust from my back.

Around me, deep within the green, flowers opened, glowing stars of white and pale purple. The branches rustled. The vines slithered. An amalgam of scents spiced the air: sweet and honeyed, reminiscent of a rose.

Derek padded out of the green gloom, silent and stealthy on velvet feet and looked at me with wolf eyes from a human face. I fought an involuntary shiver.

The vampire crouched on the side of the path, snug against the greenery, shivering, head tucked to its chest.

The bloodsucker raised its head. Its eyes burned bright red. The vamp mouth opened but no sound issued forth. It showed me its fangs, two yellowed killing teeth. I showed it my saber. I only have one tooth, but it's a lot longer than yours and it will turn the stringy meat on your bones into pus.

"No need for alarm," Ghastek said. "He's quite docile."

The vampire slunk from the path, arched its back, and brushed against my leg.

It took every shred of nerve not to recoil. "If you do that again, I'll kill it."

"I was always curious about your aversion to the undead. What is it that upsets you so much?"

"A vampire is a walking corpse. It oozes undeath that makes the living want to vomit, it has no mind, and left to its own devices it would slaughter until there was nothing left to kill. And then it would cannibalize itself. What's there to like, Ghastek?"

And most of all, Roland had made them. They were his creation.

"Their usefulness far outweighs their few shortcomings," Ghastek said.

I motioned with my saber. "In that case, please go first. Let's benefit from some of that usefulness."

Ghastek took the lead, and we went down the path, single file, vampire, a man on the verge of becoming a beast, and me, bringing up the rear.

The canopy dipped so low, I had to nearly crouch. I scooted through, the twigs snatching at my braid, and finally emerged into the clearing.

Tall pines rose straight and smooth like the masts of a gargantuan underground ship. Their branches stretched to each other, filtering the light, muting the sun to a pleasant green gloom. The ground was thick with decades of autumn, and spongy pine needles gave lightly under my weight. The air smelled of moisture. A gentle murmur of water spilling over man-made waterfalls emanated from the left.

The vamp leaped onto the nearest pine and perched twelve feet off the ground, its body nearly perpendicular to the pine's trunk.

"Two o'clock," Derek whispered.

Beyond the pines lay a sunlit glade, sectioned by neat rows of herbs. Between us and the glade stood a woman.

She was on the heavy side, built solid and thick, but without flab. A plain black dress hung off her shoulders, its hem brushing the ground. Her thick arms matched the color of the pine straw. A mask of beaten iron hid her features, a round stylized face with thick locks of hair radiating from it like the sun's corona. On second glance, those weren't sun rays. Sun rays didn't come with scales and fanged mouths.

A Gorgon Medusa mask. My quip about Medusas in the Honeycomb Gap was coming true. Me and my big mouth. Next time I would imagine a warehouse full of fluffy bunnies instead.

"I'm a representative of the Order," I said. "I'm investigating the disappearance of the Sisters of the Crow. This is my associate." I nodded at Derek. "This is my other associate." I nodded at the vampire. "I request to speak to the Oracle."

The woman said nothing. Moments ticked by, like falling pine needles, one after another. In ancient Greece, Gorgon Medusa could turn a man to stone with her gaze. I had a nice big pine to my left. If that mask left her face, I'd make a break for it. Perseus, who finally chopped off Medusa's head, had a mirror shield. I had nothing. Even Slayer's blade was opaque, so no dice there.

She turned and strode into the sunshine. I followed.

THE COBBLED STONES OF THE PATH VEERED LEFT and right in a gentle curve. The witch's black dress swept them clean as she moved. Her mask flared to cover the back of her head like some bizarre motorcycle helmet and all I could see was a narrow strip of her dark skin right above the neckline.

A vast herb garden stretched on both sides of us; flowers and grasses were separated in rows, bordered by a dense evergreen hedge in the distance. Basil, yarrow, mint, brilliant red poppies, yellow cornflower, fuzzy bush clover, white umbrellas of elderberry...They never needed to leave the premises to look for wild plants. Most covens used the same herbs in their rituals. Very convenient when the herbs grew right by the gathering place.

My memory claimed that there was a big grassy lawn somewhere here, but beyond the herbal field rose trees, massive dogwoods and oaks tinseled with Spanish moss. The trees looked entirely too old to have grown naturally. I couldn't recall how I knew the lawn had been there, but I remembered it. And the fountains. Many water jets shooting from the ground.

And a woman. A very tall woman who laughed a lot. Her face was a fuzzy blur in my memory.

Derek wrinkled his nose. I glanced at him.

"Animal," he said. "Odd."

"What kind?"

"Not sure."

The trees parted before us, revealing a hill sitting in the middle of a large clearing. More of a kurgan, actually, rising straight up out of the herbs, like a cap of a colossal mushroom. Kudzu and grasses blanketed the hill in a green shroud, but at the very top the bedrock broke through: smooth, polished dark gray marble, tinted with swirls of malachite and flecked with gold.

If I had a marble dome that pretty, I doubt I'd let it get overgrown like that.

The Medusa impersonator circled the hill and stopped. We stopped, too. Ghastek sent the vamp up onto the hill and it perched among the kudzu like some gaunt ghoul.

Derek sneezed.

"Bless you."

He sneezed again, pulled a canteen from his belt and washed his nostrils out.

The guide waited. We stood with her. A light breeze rippled through the tree branches. Birds sang. The sun, highly amused by our presence, did its best to barbecue us.

The vampire sprang straight into the air and landed ten feet behind us. Derek snarled. And sneezed again.

A deep rumble shook the ground. I backed away.

The grassy soil fell away in heavy slabs. The hill quaked and crept up, higher, higher. A colossal brown head emerged from underneath the kudzu, the flesh hanging from it in wrinkled folds. Two eyes stared at me, black and shining like two giant chunks of anthracite.

A tortoise.

I quested: not a shiver of magic. No scent of burning grasses associated with illusion. It was an actual living tortoise.

The curve of the gargantuan mouth widened. The jaws opened and a black maw gaped before us. I braced for a wave of turtle breath, but no discernible scents emanated from the mouth. The mother of all tortoises rested her chin on the grass and held the pose.

Okay, now I'd seen everything.

Our guide bowed her head and pointed into the tortoise.

"In there?"

She nodded.

"You want us to go into the tortoise?"

Another nod.

"It's alive."

Another nod.

"No." Derek sneezed again.

"I must say it's a bit irregular." Ghastek's voice vibrated with excitement. It's easy to be deliriously happy about investigating something, when you're in no danger of being swallowed.

I glanced at the vamp. "How fast can you rip it apart if it eats us?"

"The shell is quite thick. We'd have to exit back through the neck. If it withdraws its head, we'll have to carve through a lot of flesh."

"In other words, if it eats us, we're screwed."

"Crude but accurate."

I faced the guide. "Are you coming with us?"

She shook her head.

Nice plan. Take the gullible outsiders, walk them around for a bit, then feed them to the giant tortoise. The tortoise is full, the outsiders are dealt with, and everybody's happy.

"Derek, what do you smell?"

He stepped forward, took a deep breath, and doubled over in a sneezing fit. My werewolf was allergic to tortoises. Why me?

"Anything sour? Animal breath?"

He shook his head. "Water. And flowers."

I pointed my blade at the guide. "If it eats us, I'll kill it, and then I'll find you."

The guide nodded again. She didn't take a step back and flee in horror. Perhaps I just wasn't scary enough. Maybe I should invest in some horns or fangs.

"I'm going in. You two are welcome to stay outside." I bent my back and took a step into the tortoise's mouth.

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