"What are you, retarded?"
I looked at her for a second. "I came through a tunnel from the Warren. I don't know what neighborhood this is."
"This is the Honeycomb Gap. Used to be Southside Park. It pulls metal to itself now. Gathers the iron from all over - Blair Village, Gilbert Heights, Plunket Town. Pulls it all into itself, the iron from all the factories, from the Ford Motor plant, cars from Joshua Junkyards...The Honeycomb's right above us. Can't you smell the stink?"
The Honeycomb. Of all the hellholes, it had to be the Honeycomb.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
She stuck her nose in the air. "I don't have to tell you."
I pulled Slayer from its sheath.
"Whoa." Julie crawled forward on top of the crate tower and flopped on her stomach so she could get a better look.
I put my hand on Slayer's blade. Magic nipped at my skin, piercing my flesh with sharp little needles. I fed a little of my magic into the metal, aimed the tip of the saber toward the stone, and pushed. Two inches from the rock a force clutched at Slayer's tip. Thin tendrils of pale vapor curled from the sword and the magicked steel began to perspire. I gave it a little more of my power. Slayer gained another half inch and stopped.
"I'm looking for my mom," Julie said. "She didn't come home on Friday. She is a witch. In a coven."
Probably not a professional coven. The daughters of professional witches had more meat on their bones and better clothes. No, most likely it was an amateur coven. Women from the poor side deluding themselves with visions of power and a better life.
"What's the name of the coven?"
"The Sisters of the Crow."
Definitely an amateur coven. No legitimate witch would name a coven something so generic. Mythology was full of crows. With magic, you made sure to cross all your t's and dot your i's. The more specific, the better.
"They met here," Julie volunteered.
"Right here?" I fed a little more power to the sword. It didn't bulge.
"Did you ask the other witches about where your mom might have gone?"
"Gee, I'd love to, except none of them came back."
I paused. "None?"
That wasn't good. Entire covens didn't just disappear into thin air.
"I'm going to break this ward. If something ugly comes out of there, run. Don't talk to it, don't look at it. Just run. You got me?"
"Sure." Julie's tone plainly pointed out that she'd have to be crazy to listen to some idiot woman who doesn't even have a gun.
I dug my feet into the ground and pushed, putting all of my weight behind the hilt. The blade quivered under the strain. It was like trying to push a baseball into a wall of dense rubber, but giving the saber more power would leave me too drained to defend myself against a magic attack.
Sweat broke on my forehead. Oh, screw it.
I shot my power through the blade. With a sweet whisper, Slayer cleaved through the invisible barrier. Steel struck stone with a loud clang and the white rock slid an inch out of its place.
A shudder ran through the circle. The stones blinked into reality and I scrambled to my feet. Brilliant light rippled through the air above the broken ring, a silvery aurora borealis gone mad as the forces held captive in the ward flailed, unleashed. The glow flared and streamed to the ground in a torrent of pure white. The ward burst. The magic aftershock pulsed through the building and caught me in a dizzying whirlpool. My teeth chattered, my knees shook, and I clutched at Slayer's hilt, trying to keep the saber from slipping from my trembling fingers. Julie cried out.
So much power...
Viscous drops slid from Slayer's metal, evaporating in midfall. I felt it too, a fetid smear staining the building - the magic of undeath. There was enough of it to make a layman vomit. I turned to the circle. A dark hole gaped in the broken ring of the stones. I leaned over the edge and glanced into the black hole, grimacing at the reek of rotting flesh emanating from the moist earth.
So deep I didn't see the bottom.
The walls of the shaft were smooth and even, punctuated by roots severed cleanly at the edge. The hole stank of damp soil and moldering bodies. I picked up one of the stones and ran my thumb over its smooth surface. Rounded and pale, like a pebble from a river bed.
No mark, no glyph, no sign of a spell. Just a ring of white stones that no longer hid a bottomless hole in the earth. The Sisters must have let something into the world, something dark and evil and it claimed them for its own.
Julie sucked in her breath. A corona of dark spills appeared around the hole. With a faint buzz, a fly landed on the nearest stain, closely followed by another. Blood. Impossible to say how much - the ground had soaked up most of it. As I looked at the blood circle, I noticed three impressions in the ground, each a small, roughly square hole in the dirt. I connected them in my head and got an equilateral triangle with the pit smack in the middle. Three staffs arranged in a triangle to summon something? If so, where did they go?
The heap of crates behind the hole shivered, as if about to melt with Julie on top of it. With a faint magic tremor, a skeleton materialized right below the kid, nailed to the crates by four crossbow bolts.
"Freaky," Julie said.
No kidding. For one, the skeleton had too many ribs, but only five pairs attached to the sternum. For another, not a shred of tissue remained on the yellowed bones. If I hadn't known better, I would've said it had weathered a year or two in the open somewhere. I leaned closer to examine the arms. Shallow bone sockets. I was no expert, but I'd guess this thing could have bent its elbows backward. At the same time, I'd probably dislocate its hips with one kick.
"Your mom ever mention anything like this?"
The bolts anchoring the skeleton were red and fletched with black feathers. One punctured the skeleton through the left eye socket, two went through the ribs on the left, where the heart would be if it was human, and one between the legs. Precision shooting at its best. Just to make sure the odd humanoid aberration doesn't get away, always pin it through the nuts.
I grabbed a crate from the pile, planted it in front of the skeleton, and climbed atop it to get a better look. Fewer of the neck vertebrae fused than normal, which provided for a greater flexibility of the neck, but made it fragile. No incisors, no canines, either. Instead I saw three rows of teeth, long, conical, sharp, used to puncture something struggling and keep it in the mouth.
The crate snapped under me with a loud pop. I dropped with all the grace of a potato sack, grabbing at the skeleton on the way down. My fingers passed through the bone and snagged a bolt. I landed on my ass in a pile of shards, the shaft in my hand and light powder on my fingers.