Magic Burns Chapter 3

WHEN YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT, GO back to the beginning. I had no name, no description, and no place to start looking for the mysterious sniper, so I figured the garage where Jeremy almost toasted us was my best bet. Since the magic was determined to fluctuate and I didn't fancy being stranded, I decided to take a horse from the Order's stables, located a block away.

Turned out I wasn't the only person who had noticed the magic craziness. The stables were nearly empty, and all my regular choices were out. I entered on foot and left atop a red molly. Her name was Ninny, she was fifteen hands tall, and as she braved the downtown traffic with nary a twitch, I began to see the wisdom of mule breeding.

The shortest route to the garage lay along Interstate 85 through the heart of the city. In happier times, the view from the highway must have been breathtaking. Now both Downtown and Midtown lay in ruins, battered to near rubble by the magic waves. Twisted steel skeletons of once mighty skyscrapers jutted like bleached fossil bones from the debris. Here and there a lone half-eaten survivor struggled to remain upright, all but its last few stories destroyed. Shattered glass from hundreds of windows glittered among chunks of concrete.

Unable or unwilling to clear the rubble, the city grew around it. Small stalls and stands had sprung up here and there along the twelve-lane highway, selling everything from fake monster eggs to state-of-the-art miniature palmtops and precision firearms. The palmtops rarely worked even when tech was in full swing, and the monsters sometimes hatched.

Horses, mules, camels, and bizarre vehicles all attempted to negotiate the crowded road, blending into a huge multicolored crocodile of travelers, and I rode within it, bathed in the animal smells, choking on automobile exhaust, and assaulted by gaggles of vendors each trying to scream themselves hoarse.

"Potions, potions, cure for arthritis..."

"...the best! First two are free..."

"...water purifier. Save hundreds of dollars a year..."

"...beef jerky!"

Beef. I bet.

Twenty minutes later we left the highway's noise behind by way of a wooden ramp and trudged down into a tangle of streets collectively known as the Warren.

Bordered by Lakewood Park on one side and South view Cemetery on the other, the Warren stretched all the way to McDonough Boulevard. A few decades ago, the area had been included in the South Urban Renewal project, its layout redesigned to accommodate several large, sturdy apartment complexes and new two-and three-story office buildings.

In the years since the Shift, when the first magic wave hit the world, the Warren had grown poorer, tougher, and more segregated. For reasons unknown, magic displayed a selective appetite. It chewed some buildings into rubble, while leaving others completely intact. Walking through the area now was like trying to make your way through a war zone postbombing, with some houses reduced to refuse, while their neighbors stood untouched.

The garage where Jeremy had lost his life sat sandwiched between a bank and an abandoned Catholic church. Three stories high and three stories deep, stained with soot and missing its roof, the garage jutted like a burned-out match of a building. I dismounted and tied Ninny to a metal beam protruding from the wall. Nobody in their right mind would try to steal a molly with the Order's crest branded on its butt. The Order had a nasty habit of magic-tagging their property and there was nothing the street life disliked more than finding a couple of knights full of righteous anger on their doorstep.

Inside the garage, the air smelled of chalky powder, the familiar dry scent of concrete turned into dust by the magic's ever-grinding wheels. I took the stairs down to the bottom floor. The spiraling levels of the garage had crumbled in places, letting enough light filter down to dilute the darkness to a weak gloom. The stench of sulfur nipped at my nostrils.

I found the big black stain on the wall and backtracked from there, until I came to Jeremy's headless body. The Gray Squad must have been overloaded with cadavers this morning - they should have taken his body to the morgue by now.

I walked the perimeter of the room until I found the fissure in the wall we had seen last night. I stuck my head into it: dark and narrow, smelling of damp clay. Most likely this was the way the bowman had escaped.

I pulled my saber out and ducked into the tunnel.

BEING UNDERGROUND WAS NEVER ON MY "THINGS to do for fun" list. Being underground in the dark for what seemed like an hour, with dirt crumbling onto my head, walls rubbing my shoulders, and a sniper possibly waiting on the other side ranked right up there with getting a face full of giant toad vomit. I had only gone up against a giant toad once, and the nightmares still made me gag.

The tunnel turned. I squeezed around the bend and saw light. Finally. I stood still, listening. No metallic click of a safety being released. No voices.

I approached the light and froze. A huge chasm carved the ground before me. At least a mile wide and close to a quarter mile deep, it started a couple of yards from my feet and stretched forth for a good two miles, veering left, its end lost behind the bend. Piles of metal refuse lay in heaps along its bottom, giving slope to sheer walls. Here and there clusters of thick metal spikes punctured the trash. Razor sharp and shiny, they curved upright like the claws of some enormous buried bear, rising to three times my height. Above this baby Grand Canyon, two tall storklike birds surfed the air currents, circling the gorge as if they rode an invisible aerial calliope.

Where the hell was I?

Below, at the very bottom of the chasm, a large metal structure slumped among the iron debris. From this angle, it looked like some giant with a sweet tooth had gotten ahold of a metal hangar and squeezed its sides to see if there was cream filling inside. If I needed a place to hide, I'd be in that hangar.

One of the birds swooped in my direction. A bright spark broke from its orange wings and plummeted down, slicing into the ground a few feet below with a heavy metallic clang. I negotiated the knot of crooked rusty pipes and climbed over to where it had fallen. A feather. A perfectly shaped bird feather, red at the root and tinted with emerald green at the edge. I flicked my fingers at the shaft. It chimed. Holy crap. Solid metal, shaped like a knife and sharp like a scalpel. A feather of a Stymphalean bird.

I pulled my knife out of its sheath on my belt and pried the feather out, managing not to cut myself. A bird straight out of Greek mythos. At least it wasn't a harpy. I stuck the knife into a spare loop on my belt, slid the feather into the sheath, and started down the slope. Mythological creatures tended to occur in bunches: if there was a Russian leshii in the forest, in the nearest pond you'd likely find a Russian vodyanoi. If there was a Greek bird in the air, some Greek critter would surely jump me in a moment. If my luck held, it wouldn't be a handsome Greek demigod looking for the love of his life or at least his love of a couple of hours. No, it would be something nasty, like Cerberus or a Gorgona Medusa. I gave the hangar a suspicious glance. For all I knew it was crammed full of people growing snakes instead of hair.

Midway down the slope, the Universe treated me to another magic wave. The wind brought a whiff of an acrid, bitter stench. In the distance something thumped like a sledgehammer hitting a drum with mind-numbing regularity: whoom, whoom, whoom.

Five minutes later, sweaty and covered in rust stains, I reached the hangar. Soft voices filtered through the metal walls. I couldn't make out the words, but someone was inside.

I put my ear against the wall.

"What 'bout my mom?" A thin, high-pitched voice. A young girl, probably an adolescent.

"I gotta split." Slightly deeper, male. Heard it somewhere before.

"You promised!"

"The magic's cresting, okay? Gotta split."

Young voices. A boy and a girl, talking street.

The only available door hung crooked and would make noise when I tried to open it.

I kicked the door in and walked inside.

The hangar was empty, save for a huge heap of broken wooden crates. Sunlight punched into the building through the holes in the roof. The hangar had no floor, its dented metal frame resting on packed dirt. In the very center of the dirt sat a perfect ring of barely visible white stones. The stones shimmered weakly, wanting very much to be invisible, trying to slide out of sight into nothing.

An environmental ward. A good one, too.

"Anybody home?"

A kid stepped out from behind the crates, dangling a dead rat by its tail. He was short, starved, and filthy. Ragged clothes, patched, torn, and patched again, hung off his skinny adolescent frame. His brown hair stuck out in all directions like the needles on a hysterical hedgehog. He raised his right hand, fingering a knotted hemp cord, from which dangled a dozen bones, feathers and beads. His shoulders were bony, his arms thin, yet he stared at me with unmistakable defiance. It took me less than a second to recall that stare.

"Red," I said. "Fancy meeting you here."

The recognition crept into his eyes. He lowered his hand. "Sokay," he called. "I know her."

A dirty head poked above the tower of crates and a thin girl climbed into view. Ten, maybe eleven, she had the waifish sort of look that had little to do with her petite frame and everything to do with being underfed. A wispy cloud of grimy hair framed her narrow face, making the deep circles around her eyes seem even deeper. She looked tainted with adult skepticism, but not beaten yet. Life had abused her and now she bit all hands first and looked to see if they offered food later. Her hand clutched a large knife and her eyes told me she would be willing to use it.

"Who are you?" she asked me.

"She's a merc," Red said.

He reached inside his shirt and pulled out a stack of papers, held together by a string. He dug in it with dirty fingers and deposited a small rectangle in my hand. My business card, stained with the brown whorls of a thumbprint. The print was mine; the blood belonged to Derek, my werewolf boy wonder.

Derek and I had been trying to drag ourselves home after a big fight that hadn't gone too well. Unfortunately, Derek's legs had been torn open and Lyc-V, the virus to which shapeshifters owed their existence, decided to shut Derek down so it could make repairs. When we met Red, I was trying unsuccessfully to load my bleeding, unconscious sidekick onto my horse. Red and his little band of shaman kids helped, and I had given Red my card and a promise of help if he should need it.

"You said you'd help. You owe me."

Now was not a good time, but we didn't often get to choose the time to repay our debts. "That's true."

"Guard Julie." He turned to the girl. "Shadow her, sokay." He darted to the side and out the door. I followed and saw him scrambling up the slope like a pack of wolves was snapping at his heels.

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