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.
"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.
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.
"BASTARD!" THE GIRL YELLED. "I HATE YOU!"
"Any clue why he took off in a hurry?"
"No!" She sat down cross-legged on the crates, her face a picture of abject misery.
Alrighty then. "I take it you're Julie."
"You're real smart. Did you figure it out all by yourself?"
I sighed. At least she had dropped out of street speak for my benefit.
"Just because my boyfriend thinks you're all that, doesn't mean I'm going to listen to you. How are you going to guard me? You don't even have a gun."
"I don't need a gun." A small hint of metallic sheen within the crates caught my eye. I approached the pile. "Any clue what I'm guarding you from?"
I peered into the space between the crates. A broken bolt, stuck tight in a board. Blood-red shaft. The fletch was missing, but I bet it had three black feathers. My bowman had been here and had left his calling card.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
I wandered to the ring of stones, crouched, and reached for the nearest rock. My fingers slipped through it. Whoever set this ward really didn't want his hiding spot disturbed. But the trouble with wards was that sometimes they didn't just hide. They also contained. And a ward of this caliber could contain something nasty. "Where are we?"