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