Magic Burns Chapter 5

WE CLIMBED UP THE SCRAP-METAL EVEREST, WITH me leading the way and Julie slightly behind. Her breath was coming in ragged gasps. Too little food. Julie wasn't much stronger than a mosquito. In fact, if a big one rammed her, she might fall over. She didn't complain, though.

About halfway up the slope she finally gave in. "How far?"

"Keep climbing."

"I just want to know how far!"

"Don't make me turn this car around, missy."

"What does that even mean?" She mumbled something else under her breath but kept moving.

The edge of the Gap crept closer. The rhythmic whoom, whoom, whoom grew louder. Had to be a beacon of some sort. I climbed onto the narrow ledge and reached for Julie. "Give me your hand."

She stretched a matchstick arm. I grabbed her wrist and raised her over the jagged remains of the refrigerator onto the ledge next to me. She weighed next to nothing. "We'll take a little break."

"I can keep going."

"I'm sure you can. But Honeycomb isn't a nice place. By now someone probably knows we're here and they have a welcoming committee prepared."

"Oh boy! They'll throw us a party!" She sat in the dirt.

Heh. I sat next to her. "You're not from there, by any chance?"

She shook her head. "No. I'm from White Street."

White Street got its name during the snowfall of '14, which refused to melt for three and a half years. When a street can hold three inches of powder despite the hundred degree heat, you know it's packing some serious magic. Anybody who could afford to move did.

"How old are you?"

"Thirteen. I'm only two years behind Red."

Looking at her, I would've guessed eleven tops. "How old is your mother? What does she look like?"

"She is thirty-five and she looks like me only grown up. I have a picture at home."

"So what do you know about the coven? Who did they worship? What sort of rituals did they do?"

Julie shrugged. In front of us the gorge stretched into the distance, bristling with spikes and rusty iron. Thin tendrils of mist clung to the steep slope. A deep threatening growl echoed from the walls, too far to be a threat. The Stymphalean birds answered it with their screeches.

"Did you know the birds are metal?" Julie said.

I nodded. "They're Greek. You know who Hercules was?"

"Yeah. The strongest man."

"When he was young, he had to go through twelve challenges..."


"His dad's wife made him temporarily insane. He killed his family and had to atone by serving a king. The king very much wanted to kill him so he kept thinking up more and more difficult challenges for Hercules. Anyway, the Stymphalean birds were one of the challenges. He had to drive them away from a certain lake. Their feathers are like arrows and their beaks are supposed to pierce the strongest armor."

She looked at me. "How did he do it?"

"The gods made him some loud clapper things. He wrapped himself in the skin of an invulnerable lion and made noise until the birds flew away."

"Why is it in those stories that the gods always pull your butt out of trouble?"

I got up. "It helps if the king of the gods is your dad. Come on. We've got to climb and I'm pretty sure your dad isn't a god, is he?"

"He died," she said.

"I'm sorry. My dad is dead, too. Now climb, young grasshopper, so your kung fu won't be weak."

She braved a crumpled barrel. "You are so weird."

You have no idea.

TWENTY FEET BELOW THE LIP OF THE GAP, I FELT THE Honeycomb. Above us magic twisted and streamed, boiling in a chaotic frenzy, its intensity spiking hot enough to scald. The magic field felt me and spilled over the edge, sending thin currents toward me like invisible lassos. They licked me and fell short. That's right. No touching.

The magic waited, almost as if it were aware. Up top, where it boiled, I would create one hell of a resonance and that was never a good thing. The Honeycomb couldn't touch me, but it didn't like me and it would keep trying. The sooner I got out of there, the better.

I climbed over a water heater, twisted and crushed like an aluminum can, and pulled myself over the edge. Before me the bloated trailers, contorted and rippling with strange metallic bumps, clung to one another. Some had merged into hives, some three trailers high, and a couple joined ones looked identical, like two cells caught in the middle of mitosis. A few sat on top of each other, hanging at precarious angles yet apparently steady. Long clotheslines ran between the trailers and freshly washed garments flapped in the breeze.

I pulled Julie up. She winced as the magic smashed against her body. The currents wound about her...and calmed. It was as if she suddenly wasn't there. Interesting kid.

"You been here before?"

She shook her head. "Not this deep."

"Walk where I walk. Stay away from the walls. Especially if you see them get fuzzy."

We started through the labyrinth of trailers. A long time ago the Honeycomb was a mobile park retirement community called Happy Trails or some such. It sat just under the Brown Mills Golf Course, across the Jonesboro Road. At first it had survived the magic waves pretty well, and when the cheap project apartments east of it crumbled and split, a slow but steady trickle of homeless refugees filled the mobile park. They pitched tents on the manicured lawns, bathed in the communal pool, and cooked on the outdoor grills. The cops chased out the squatters, but they just kept coming.

Then one night the magic hit especially hard, and the manufactured homes warped. Some expanded like glass bubbles, some twisted, others stuck together merging into hives. More yet divided and grew additions, and when the dust finally settled, a fifth of the inhabitants had vanished into the walls. To the Outside. Nobody could ever figure out what the Outside was, but it was definitely not anywhere in the normal world. The retirees fled, but the refugees had nowhere to go. They moved into the trailers and stayed put. Once in a while somebody would disappear, as each new magic tide twisted the Honeycomb a little more. A fun place to live if you were into that sort of thing.

"How can we find out where Esmeralda lives?" Julie puffed behind me. "I only know she lives in the Honeycomb. I don't know where exactly."

"You hear that whooming? The Honeycomb changes all the time so they have to have some sort of beacon. It's probably at the entrance, which should be guarded by somebody. We're going to go there and ask nicely where Esmeralda lived."

"What makes you think they'll tell us?"

"Because I'll pay them."


And because if they don't tell me, I will pull out my Order ID and my saber and make myself very hard to ignore.

I wasn't wild about heading into the Honeycomb with a little girl in tow, but considering the neighborhood, she was safer with me than without me. I wondered how she got down there in the first place...

"How did you get down into the Gap?"

"We hiked from the Warren. There's a trail." A little light went off in her eyes. "But I probably can't find it now. So if you send me back, I'll just wander around without any water or food."

Why me?

The street turned slightly, bringing us into view of wide-open chain-link gates. Just in front of them a man in faded jeans and a leather vest worn over his bare chest sat on an overturned oil drum. An unlit cigarette drooped from his lips. To the left of him sat an old military truck, its back end pointing toward the gate. Despite rust stains and dents, the truck's tires and canvas top looked to be in good condition. The canvas probably hid some heavy-duty hardware, a Gatling gun or a small siege engine.

On the other side of the man sat a huge rectangular tank. Soft emerald-green algae stained the glass walls, obscuring the murky water within. A long section of metal pipe stretched from the tank and disappeared beneath the twisted remains of a trailer.

The man on the drum leveled a crossbow at me. The crossbow looked a lot like a good old-fashioned, flat-sided Flemish arbalest. The prong gleamed with the bluish-gray shade particular to steel, not the brighter, pale aluminum of cheaper bows, meaning the bow's draw weight probably ranged to two hundred pounds. He could put a bolt into me from seventy-five yards away and he wanted me to know that.

Whoom. Whoom.

An arbalest was a decent weapon, but slow on reload.

The man eyed me. "You want something?" The cigarette remained stuck to his lower lip, moving as he spoke.

"I'm an agent of the Order investigating the disappearance of witches belonging to the Sisters of the Crow coven. I was told the head witch lived in the Honeycomb."

"And who is that?" He pointed to Julie behind me.

"Daughter of a witch in Esmeralda's coven. Her mom's missing. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

"No. You got an ID on you?"

I reached for the leather wallet I carried on a cord around my neck and took out my Order ID. He motioned me closer. I approached and passed it to him. He turned it over. The small rectangle of silver in the lower right corner of the card gleamed, catching a stray ray of the sun.

"Is that real silver?" he asked. The cigarette drew an elaborate pattern in the air.

"Yes." Silver took enchantment better than most metals.

The man gave me a quick glance and rubbed at the silver through the clear plastic coating. "How much is it worth?"

Here we go. "You're asking the wrong question."

"Oh yeah?"

"You should be asking if your life is worth a square inch of enchanted silver."

He gave the card another cursory glance. "You talk big."

I snapped my hand at his face. He shied back and I handed his cigarette back to him. "These things can kill you."

He stuck the cigarette back into his mouth and returned my ID. "Name's Custer."

"Kate Daniels."

The canvas shielding the truck shifted, revealing a lean Latino woman next to a black cheiroballista. Built like a giant crossbow, the cheiroballista was small but accurate and delivered with amazing power. It could put a bolt through a vehicle door at close range. The Latino woman gave me a hard stare. She had the kind of eyes one gets after life hammered out all softness.

I held her gaze. Two can play the staring game. "I'll pay for the information."


I passed two fifties to Custer. Bye-bye, phone bill.

"Trailer twenty-three," she said. "The yellow one. Head left, then turn right when the path forks."

"If I have to take anything, I'll write a receipt."

"That's between you and her. We don't want any shit from the Order."

I held another twenty out. "Know anything about Esmeralda?"

The woman nodded. "She was power hungry. Liked to scare people. I heard she tried to enter one of the older covens, but she played the game too much and tried to take over, so they kicked her out. She's been threatening to 'show them all' ever since. Last I heard she made her own coven. Don't know how she managed that - she wasn't well liked."

She took the twenty and pulled the canvas closed.

Custer tossed me a ball of telephone wire.

"Use it. Stuff changes around here. We get geeks down from the University of Georgia trying to study the 'phenomenon.' They go in and never come out." His eyes lit up with a wry spark. "Sometimes we hear them calling out in the walls. Looking for a way back from the Outside."

"Ever try to find them?"

"You're asking the wrong question," Custer's face split into a happy grin. The cigarette performed a pirouette. "The question you should be asking is what they look like when we do."

Oh boy. I tossed the wire back at him. "No thanks. I could hear that damned whooming even in death. What's making the noise?"

Custer reached over to the tank on his left and knocked on the glass. A dark shadow flickered in the tenebrous water. Something struck the far wall with a thud, and a huge head, as wide as a dinner plate, brushed against the glass. Mottled black and slimy like a toad's spine, it rubbed its blunt nose on the algae. Tiny black eyes stared dull and unseeing past me.

The head split in half revealing an enormous white mouth. The folds on the side of the head trembled, and a low sound rolled through the Honeycomb. Whoom! The creature scraped its broad nose against the glass once more and whirled, impossibly fast. I caught a glimpse of a clawed foot, a flash of a long muscled tail, and then it was gone, back into the churning water.

A Japanese salamander. Big one, as tall as Julie at least.

"Whomper," Custer said and waved me on with a dismissive flick of his hand.

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