"What happened is the three of you made me kill a dog for no reason."
A drop of sweat slid from Jeremiah's dark hair and rolled down his unshaven neck. A two-millimeter change in the angle, and the enchanted saber would bridge the distance between him and his wings. I was pissed as hell and keeping my hand steady proved an effort.
"I paid my fee, and you, greedy assholes, decided to shake me down a second time. And threaten my kid, while you were at it. What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you at all human or did this place leech all decency out of you?" My voice was low and growling. I knew I was wasting my breath talking.
Bryce finally sucked in a breath and moaned.
"You killed my dog," Jeremiah said, his voice high with disbelief. "You killed my baby. Jesus Christ. You killed my dog."
They were done. I took my blade from his throat. Jeremiah sank in the dirt. His face stretched. He put his hand over his eyes. I walked past him to the dead dog. It lay in a glistening metal heap, great paws unmoving, ruined eye bleeding crimson. What a waste.
Bryce got to his knees and stood up shakily.
I pulled a piece of gauze from my pocket and wiped Slayer's blade. "I'm going to break into this trailer so I can find this little girl's mother and Esmeralda, or whatever her real name is. While I'm doing that, why don't you go and get some help. However many you think it will take to get the job done, and then you can have a do-over. I'll be right here. But this time, I'll cut to kill human, not dog. And I'll enjoy it. In fact, you would be doing me a favor."
He took a step back.
I glanced at Julie. "Come."
She scurried in front of me to the door. I walked up the metal stair and hammered a kick to the lock. The frame splintered with a sharp crack and the door flew open.
Julie ducked inside and I followed her into the gloomy house of the head witch.
THE PLACE STANK OF ROTTING CITRUS AND OLD socks. Julie clamped her nose. "What stinks?"
"Valerian extract." I pointed to the dark stain on the wall. Glass shards studded the floor below - looked like Esmeralda hurled the vial against the wall. "Our head witch had trouble sleeping."
Narrow to the point of inducing claustrophobia, the trailer lay steeped in gloom. Blood-red tattered drapes hid the windows. Julie picked up a flyswatter off the narrow counter separating the tiny kitchen from the rest of the space and used it to push the curtains open. Smart kid. Who knows what the hell was on those curtains.
In the light of the afternoon, the trailer looked even sadder. A beat-up fridge took up most of the cooking area. I opened the fridge. Years ago I had bought a perpetually cold egglike object, which the seller had called an ice sprite egg. I have never seen an ice sprite, although there were rumors of a swarm in Canada. The egg cost me a pretty penny, but I hung it up in a small sack in a corner of my fridge, and it kept my food partially frozen through the magic waves. Esmeralda had used a cheaper, "friz-ice" method: chunks of enchanted ice, sold for a small fee by Water and Sewer Department. They melted about twenty times slower than regular ice. The trouble with friz-ice was that eventually it did melt, and it had done precisely that, and some time ago too, leaking all over the ritualistically beheaded black chicken on the middle shelf. The sickeningly sweet stench of decomposition slapped my face.
I gagged on putrescence and shut the door before I vomited onto the chicken corpse. Chopping off chicken heads when you're worshipping a bird took some balls. Either that or Esmeralda was an equal opportunity dabbler and tried other magics on the side.
The kitchen held no clues, and I headed to the opposite side of the trailer. I passed a small immaculate bedroom on my left: bed made, no clothes strewn on the floor. An equally pristine bathroom followed, and then I stepped into what should have been the final room.
The Honeycomb had expanded the room, pulling the ceiling up and widening the walls. The grimy linoleum floor ended with the hallway. The bottom of the room consisted of packed dirt, and it sloped to the center, where an iron cauldron sat. The curve of the floor and the bloated ceiling made the room look nearly spherical.
Past the cauldron, at the opposite wall sat a wicker chest. Next to it stood a concrete picnic table. The table was stained with blood.
Behind me Julie shifted from foot to foot.
The magic sat over the cauldron in a big tense knot, but I sensed no wards. I took a step onto the dirt. The room shimmered a little but remained as it was.
I approached the cauldron and lifted the lid. The greasy stench of burned fat and rancid broth assaulted me.
"Ugh!" Julie stumbled back.
My eyes watered. My stomach churned and squirted acid into my throat. I swallowed it back down, took an iron ladle from the handle of the cauldron, and stirred the nauseating brew. Chicken bones, with shreds of rotting meat still clinging to them. No human. Thank God for small favors.
The magic wave died. The technology regained its control, snuffing out the knot of magic above the cauldron.
I slapped the lid back onto the cauldron and moved on to the altar. A few black feathers had stuck to the blood. A long curved knife, sharpened to a razor edge, lay on the table. Black runes, etched with hot wire, covered the handle of the knife. The pieces clicked together in my brain. Now the chicken in the fridge made sense.
Julie finally braved the room. "Is that human blood?"
"So what, she did voodoo or something?"
"Voodoo isn't the only religion that uses chickens. Europe has a very long tradition of divination using bird entrails."
She looked blank.
"You behead a chicken, cut it open, and try to foretell the future by how its guts look. And sometimes" - I used the knife to raise a blood-spattered rope from behind the altar to show her - "you don't kill the chicken first."
"That's just sick. What kind of people did that?"
Julie blinked. "But druids are nice."
"The modern Order of Druids is nice. But they didn't start out that way. Have you ever seen any girl druids?"
She shook her head. "They're all guys."
"So why was Esmeralda messing around with druid rituals?"
Julie stared at me. "I don't know."
"Neither do I."
I had a feeling that she had done it because someone had instructed her to do so. The sick premonition that had made me shiver at the edge of the pit returned full force. The deeper I got, the less I liked this.
I crouched before the wicker chest and opened it, half-expecting more grisly chicken remains. Books. MacKillop's Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Myths and Legends of Ancient Ireland by McClean, Awaken the Celt Within by Wizard Sumara, and Mabinoghen. Three books on Celtic rituals and one about King Arthur.