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Magic grave, p.5

Magic Grave, page 5

 

Magic Grave
 


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  I turned the corner and stopped.

  A high rise towered over the ruins. It shouldn't have existed but there it was, a brick-and-concrete tower silhouetted against the purple sky. At least fifteen floors, maybe more. Pale tendrils of haze clung to it. It was so tall that the top floor of it still reflected the sunset, while the rest of the city lay steeped in shadow.

  "Pinch me, Peggy."

  Peggy sighed, mourning the fact that she was paired with me.

  I petted her grey muzzle. "Ten to one, that's Champion Heights. Why isn't it laying in shambles?"

  Peggy snorted.

  "You're right. We need a closer look."

  We wound through the labyrinth of streets, closing in on the tower. My paper said the client's name was Saiman. No indication if it was his last or first name. Perhaps he was like Batman, one of a kind. Of course, Batman wouldn't have to hire bodyguards.

  "You have to ask yourself, Peggy, who would pay three grand for a night of work and why. I bet living in that tower isn't cheap, so Saiman has money. Contrary to popular opinion, people who have money refuse to part with it, unless they absolutely have to do it. Three grand means he's in big trouble and we're walking into something nasty."

  Finally we landed in a vast parking lot, empty, save for a row of cars near the front. Grey Volvo, black Cadillac, even a sleek gunmetal Lamborghini. Most vehicles sported a bloated hood – built to accommodate a charged water engine. The water-engine cars functioned during magic waves by using magic-infused water instead of gasoline. Unfortunately, they took a good fifteen minutes of hard chanting to start and when they did spring into action, they attained a maximum speed of forty-five miles per hour while growling, snarling, and thundering loud enough to force a deaf man to file a noise complaint.

  A large white sign waited past the cars. A black arrow pointed to the right. Above the arrow in black letters was written "Please stable your mounts." I looked to the right and saw a large stable, and a small guardhouse next to it.

  It took me a full five minutes to convince the guards I wasn't a serial killer in disguise, but finally Peggy relaxed in a comfortable stall, and I climbed the stone stairs to Champion Heights. As I looked, the brick wall of the highrise swam out of focus, shimmered, and turned into a granite crag.

  Whoa.

  I squinted at the wall and saw the faint outline of bricks within the granite. Interesting.

  The stairs brought me to the glass-and-steel front of the building. The same haze that cloaked the building clouded the glass, but not enough to obscure a thick metal grate barring the vestibule. Beyond the grate, a guard sat behind a round counter, between an Uzi and a crossbow. The Uzi looked well maintained. The crossbow bore the Hawkeye logo on its stock – a round bird-of-prey eye with a golden iris – which meant its prong was steel and not cheap aluminum. Probably upward of two hundred pounds of draw weight. At this distance, it would take out a rhino, let alone me.

  The guard gave me an evil eye. I leaned to the narrow metal grille and tried to broadcast "trustworthy."

  "I'm here for one fifty-eight." I pulled out my merc card and held it to the glass.

  "Code, please."

  Code? What code? "Nobody said anything about a code."

  The guard leveled a crossbow at me.

  "Very scary," I told him. "One small problem. You shoot me and the tenant in one fifty-eight won't live through the night. I'm not a threat to you. I'm a bodyguard on the job from the Mercenary Guild. If you call to one fifty eight and check, they'll tell you they're expecting me."

  The guard rose and disappeared into a hallway to the right. A long minute passed. Finally he emerged, looking sour, and pushed a button. The metal grate slid aside.

  I walked in. The floor and walls were polished red granite. The air smelled of expensive perfume.

  "Fifteenth floor," the guard said, nodding at the elevator in the back of the room.

  "The magic is up." The elevator was likely dead.

  "Fifteenth floor."

  Oy. I walked up to the elevator and pushed the Up button. The metal doors slid open. I got in and selected the fifteenth floor, the elevator closed and a moment later faint purring announced the cabin rising. It's good to be rich.

  The elevator spat me out into a hallway lined with a luxurious green carpet. I plodded through it past the door marked 158 to the end of the hallway to the door under the EXIT sign and opened it. Stairs. Unfortunately in good repair. The door opened from the inside of the hallway, but it didn't lock. No way to jam it.

  The hallway was T shaped with only one exit, which meant that potential attackers could come either through the elevator shaft or up the stairs.

  I went up to 158 and knocked.

  The door shot open. Gina Castor's dark eyes glared at me. An AK-47 hung off her shoulder. She held a black duffel in one hand and her sword in the other. "What took you so long?"

  "Hello to you, too."

  She pushed past me, the thin slightly stooped Rodriguez following her. "He's all yours."

  I caught the door before it clicked shut. "Where is the client?"

  "Chained to the bed." They headed to the elevator.

  "Why?"

  Castor flashed her teeth at me. "You'll figure it out."

  The elevator's door slid open, they ducked in, and a moment later I was alone in the hallway, holding the door open like an idiot. Peachy.

  *** *** ***

  I stepped inside and shut the door. A faint spark of magic shot through the metal box of the card-reader lock. I touched it. The lock was a sham. The door was protected by a ward. I pushed harder. My magic crashed against the invisible wall of the spell and ground to a halt. An expensive ward, too. Good. Made my job a hair easier.

  I slid the dead bolt shut and turned. I stood in a huge living room, big enough to contain most of my house. A marble counter ran along the wall on my left, sheltering a bar with glass shelves offering everything from Bombay Sapphire to French wines. A large steel fridge sat behind the bar. White, criminally plush carpet, black walls, steel and glass furniture, and beyond it all an enormous floor to ceiling window, presenting the vista of the ruined city, a deep darkness, lit here and there by the pale blue of fey lanterns.

  I stayed away from the window and trailed the wall, punctuated by three doors. The first opened into a laboratory: flame-retardant table and counters supporting row upon row of equipment. I recognized a magic scanner, a computer, and a spectrograph, but the rest was beyond me. No client.

  I tried the second door and found a large room. Gloom pooled in the corners. A huge platform bed occupied most of the hardwood floor. Something lay on the bed, hidden under black sheets.

  "Saiman?"

  No answer.

  Why me?

  The wall to the left of the bed was all glass, and beyond the glass, very far below, stretched a very hard parking lot, bathed in the glow of feylanterns.

  God, fifteen floors was high.

  I pulled my saber from the back sheath and padded across the floor to the bed.

  The body under the sheets didn't move.

  Step.

  Another step.

  In my head, the creature hiding under the sheets lunged at me, knocking me through the window in an explosion of glass shards to plunge far below… Fatigue was messing with my head.

  Another step.

  I nudged the sheet with my sword, peeling it back gently.

  A man rested on the black pillow. He was bald. His head was lightly tanned, his face neither handsome nor ugly, his features well-shaped and pleasant. Perfectly average. His shoulders were nude – he was probably down to his underwear or naked under the sheet.

  "Saiman?" I asked softly.

  The man's eyelids trembled. Dark eyes stared at me, luminescent with harsh predatory intelligence. A warning siren went off in my head. I took a small step back and saw the outline of several chains under the sheet. You've got to be kidding me. They didn't just chain him to the bed, they wrapped him up like
a Christmas present. He couldn't even twitch.

  "Good evening," the man said, his voice quiet and cultured.

  "Good evening."

  "You're my new bodyguard, I presume."

  I nodded. "Call me Kate."

  "Kate. What a lovely name. Please forgive me. Normally I would rise to greet a beautiful woman, but I'm afraid I'm indisposed at the moment."

  I pulled back a little more of the sheet revealing an industrial-size steel chain. "I can see that."

  "Perhaps I could impose on you to do me the great favor of removing my bonds?"

  "Why did Rodriguez and Castor chain you?" And where the hell did they find a chain of this size?

  A slight smile touched his lips. "I'd prefer not to answer that question."

  "Then we're in trouble. Clients get restrained when they interfere with the bodyguards' ability to keep them safe. Since you won't tell me why the previous team decided to chain you, I can't let you go."

  The smile grew wider. "I see your point."

  "Does this mean you're ready to enlighten me?"

  "I'm afraid not."

  I nodded. "I see. Well then, I'll clear the rest of the apartment, and then I'll come back and we'll talk some more."

  "Do you prefer brunets or blonds?"

  "What?"

  The sheet shivered.

  "Quickly, Kate. Brunettes or blonds? Pick one."

  Odd bulges strained the sheet. I grabbed the covers and jerked them back.

  Saiman lay naked, his body pinned to the bed by the chain. His stomach distended between two loops, huge and bloated. Flesh bulged and crawled under his skin, as if his body were full of writhing worms.

  "Blond, I'd say," Saiman said.

  He groaned, his back digging into the sheets. The muscles under his skin boiled. Bones stretched. Ligaments twisted, contorting his limbs. Acid squirted into my throat. I gagged, trying not to vomit.

  His body stretched, twisted, and snapped into a new shape: lean, with crisp definition. His jaw widened, his eyes grew larger, his nose gained a sharp cut. Cornsilk blond hair sprouted on his head and reached down to his shoulders. Indigo flooded his irises. A new man looked at me, younger by about five years, taller, leaner, with a face that was heartbreakingly perfect. Above his waist, he was Adonis. Below his ribs, his body degenerated into a bloated stomach. He looked pregnant.

  "You wouldn't tell me what you preferred," he said mournfully, his pitch low and husky. "I had to improvise."

  *** *** ***

  "What are you?" I kept my sword between me and him.

  "Does it really matter?"

  "Yes, it does." When people said shapeshifter, they usually meant a person afflicted with Lyc-V, the virus that gave its victim the ability to shift into an animal. I'd never seen one who could freely change its human form.

  Saiman made a valiant effort to shrug. Hard to shrug with several pounds of chains on your shoulders, but he managed to look nonchalant doing it.

  "I am me."

  Oh boy. "Stay here."

  "Where would I go?"

  I left the bedroom and checked the rest of the apartment. The only remaining room contained a large shower stall and a giant bathtub. No kitchen. Perhaps he had food delivered.

  Fifteenth floor. At least one guard downstairs, bullet-resistant glass, metal grates. The place was a fortress. Yet he hired bodyguards at exorbitant prices. He expected his castle to be breached.

  I headed to the bar grabbed a glass from under the counter, filled it with water, and took it to Saiman. Changing shape took energy. If he was anything like other shapeshifters, he was dying of thirst and hunger right about now.

  Saiman's gaze fastened on the glass. "Delightful."

  I let him drink. He drained the glass in long, thirsty swallows.

  "How many guards are on duty downstairs?"

  "Three."

  "Are they employed by the building owners directly?"

  Saiman smiled. "Yes. They're experienced and well paid and they won't hesitate to kill."

  So far so good. "When you change shape, do you reproduce internal organs as well?"

  "Only if I plan to have intercourse."

  Oh goodie. "Are you pregnant?"

  Saiman laughed softly.

  "I need to know if you're going to go into labor." Because that would just be a cherry on the cake of this job.

  "You're a most peculiar woman. No, I'm most definitely not pregnant. I'm male, and while I may construct a vaginal canal and a uterus on occasion, I've never had cause to recreate ovaries. And If I did, I suspect they would be sterile. Unlike the male of the species, women produce all of their gametes during gestation, meaning that when a female infant is born, she will have in her ovaries all of the partially developed eggs she will ever have. The ovaries cannot facilitate production of new eggs, only the maturation of existing ones. The magic is simply not deep enough for me to overcome this hurdle. Not yet."

  Thank Universe for small favors. "Who am I protecting you from and why?"

  "I'm afraid I have to keep that information to myself as well."

  Why did I take this job again? Ah yes, a pile of money. "Withholding this information diminishes my ability to guard you."

  He tilted his head, looking me over. "I'm willing to take that chance."

  "I'm not. It also puts my life at a greater risk."

  "You're well compensated for that risk."

  I repressed the urge to brain him with something heavy. Too bad there was no kitchen – a cast-iron frying pan would do the job.

  "I see why the first team bailed."

  "Oh, it was the woman," Saiman said helpfully. "She had difficulty with my metamorphosis. I believe she referred to me as 'abomination'."

  I rubbed the bridge of my nose. "Let's try simple questions. Do you expect us to be attacked tonight?"

  "Yes."

  I figured as much. "With magic or brute force?"

  "Both."

  "Is it a hit for hire?"

  Saiman shook his head. "No."

  Well, at least something went my way: amateurs were easier to deal with than contract killers.

  "It's personal. I can tell you this much: the attackers are part of a religious sect. They will do everything in their power to kill me, including sacrificing their own lives."

  And we just drove off a cliff in a runaway buggy. "Are they magically adept?"

  "Very."

  I leaned back. "So let me summarize: You're a target of magical kamikaze fanatics, you won't tell me who they are, why they're after you, or why you have been restrained?"

  "Precisely. Could I trouble you for a sandwich? I'm famished."

  Dear God, I had a crackpot for a client. "A sandwich?"

  "Prosciutto and Gouda on sourdough bread, please. A tomato and red onion would be quite lovely as well."

  "Sounds delicious."

  "Feel free to have one."

  "I tell you what, since you refuse to reveal anything that might make my job even a smidgeon easier, how about I make a delicious prosciutto sandwich and taunt you with it until you tell me what I want to know?"

  Saiman laughed.

  An eerie sound came from the living room – a light click, as if something with long sharp claws crawled across metal.

  *** *** ***

  I put my finger to my lips, freed my saber, and padded out into the living room.

  The room lay empty. No intruders.

  I stood very still, trying to fade into the black walls.

  Moments dripped by.

  A small noise came from the left. It was a hesitant, slow clicking, as if some creature slunk in the distance, slowly putting one foot before the other.

  Click.

  Definitely a claw.

  Click.

  I scrutinized the left side of the room. Nothing moved.

  Click. Click, click.

  Closer this time. Fear skittered down my spine. Fear was good. It would keep me sharp. I kept still. Where are you, you sonovabitch…


  Click to the right, and almost immediately a quiet snort to the left. Now we had two invisible intruders. Because one wasn't hard enough.

  An odd scent nipped at my nostrils, a thick, slightly bitter herbal odor. I'd smelled it once before but I had no clue where or when.

  Claws scraped to the right and to the left of me now. More than two. A quiet snort to the right. Another in the corner. Come out to play. Come on, beastie.

  Claws raked metal directly in front of me. There was nothing there but that huge window and sloping ceiling above it. I looked up. Glowing green eyes peered at me through the grate of the air duct in the ceiling.

  Shivers sparked down my back.

  The eyes stared at me, heated with madness.

  The screws in the air duct cover turned to the left. Righty tighty, lefty loosey. Smart critter.

  The grate fell onto the soft carpet. The creature leaned forward slowly, showing me a long conical head. The herbal scent grew stronger now, as if I'd taken a handful of absinthe wormwood and stuck it up my nose.

  Long black claws clutched the edge of the air duct. The beast rocked, revealing its shoulders sheathed in shaggy, hunter green fur.

  Bingo. An endar. Six legs, each armed with wicked black claws; preternaturally fast; equipped with an outstanding sense of smell and a big mouth, which hid a tongue lined with hundreds of serrated teeth. One lick, and it would scrape the flesh off my bones in a very literal way.

  The endars were peaceful creatures. The green fur wasn't fur at all; it was moss that grew from their skin. They lived underneath old oaks, rooted to the big trees in a state of quiet hibernation, absorbing their nutrients and making rare excursions to the surface to lick the bark and feed on lichens. They stirred from their rest so rarely, that pagan slavs thought they fed on air.

  Someone had poured blood under this endar's oak. The creature had absorbed it and the blood had driven it crazy. It had burrowed to the surface, where it swarmed with its fellows. Then the same someone, armed with a hell of a lot of magic, had herded this endar and its buddies to this highrise and released them into the ventilation system so they would find Saiman and rip him apart. They couldn't be frightened off. They couldn't be stopped. They would kill anything with a pulse to get to their target and when the target was dead, they would have to be eliminated. There was no coming back from endar madness.

 
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