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Magic grave, p.6

Magic Grave, page 6

 

Magic Grave
 


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  Only a handful of people knew how to control endars.

  Saiman had managed to piss off the Russians. It's never good to piss off the Russians. That was just basic common sense. My father was Russian, but I doubted they would cut me any slack just because I could understand their curses.

  The endar gaped at me with its glowing eyes. Yep, mad as a hatter. I'd have to kill every last one of them.

  "Well, come on. Bring it."

  The endar's mouth gaped. It let out a piercing screech, like a circular saw biting into the wood, and charged.

  I swung Slayer. The saber's blade sliced into flesh and the beast crashed to the floor. Thick green blood stained Saiman's white carpet.

  The three other duct covers fell one by one. A stream of green bodies charged toward me. I swung my sword, cleaving the first body in two. It was going to be a long night.

  *** *** ***

  The last of the endars was on the smaller side. Little bigger than a cat. I grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and took it back into the bedroom.

  Saiman smiled at my approach. "I take it everything went well?"

  "I redecorated."

  He arched his eyebrow again. Definitely mimicking me. "Oh?"

  "Your new carpet is a lovely emerald color."

  "I can assure you that carpet is the least of my worries."

  "You're right." I brought the endar closer. The creature saw Saiman and jerked spasmodically. Six legs whipped the air, claws out, ready to rend and tear. The beast's mouth gaped, releasing a wide tongue studded with rows and rows of conical teeth.

  "You provoked the volhvs." It was that or the Russian witches. I bet on the volhvs. The witches would've cursed us by now.

  "Indeed."

  "The volhvs are bad news for a number of reasons. They serve pagan Slavic gods, and they have thousands of years of magic tradition to draw on. They're at least as powerful as Druids, but unlike Druids, who are afraid to sneeze the wrong way or someone might accuse them of bringing back human sacrifices, the volhvs don't give a damn. They won't stop either. They don't like using the endars, because the endars nourish the forest with their magic. Whatever you did really pissed them off."

  Saiman pondered me as if I were some curious bug. "I wasn't aware that the Guild employed anyone with an education."

  "I'll hear it. All of it."

  "No." He shook his head. "I do admire your diligence and expertise. I don't want you to think it's gone unnoticed."

  I dropped the endar onto his stomach. The beast clawed at the sheet. Saiman screamed. I grabbed the creature and jerked it up. The beast dragged the sheet with it, tearing it to shreds. Small red scratches marked Saiman's blob of a stomach.

  "I'll ask again. What did you do to infuriate the Russians? Consider your answer carefully, because the next time I drop this guy, I'll be slower picking him back up."

  Saiman's face quivered with rage. "You're my bodyguard."

  "You can file a complaint, if you survive. You're putting both of us in danger by withholding information. See, if I walk, I just miss out on some money; you lose your life. I have no problem with leaving you here and the Guild can stick its thumb up its ass and twirl for all I care. The only thing that keeps me protecting you is professional pride. I hate bodyguard detail, but I'm good at it, and I don't like to lose a body. It's in your best interests to help me do my job. Now, I'll count to three. On three I drop Fluffy here and let it go to town on your gut. He really wants whatever you're hiding in there."

  Saiman stared at me.

  "One. Two. Th-"

  "Very well."

  I reached into my backpack and pulled out a piece of wire. Normally I used it for trip traps, but it would make a decent leash. Two minutes later the endar was secured to the dresser and I perched on the corner of Saiman's bed.

  "Are you familiar with the legend of Booyan Island?"

  I nodded. "It's a mythical island far in the Ocean, behind the Hvalynskii Sea. It's a place of deep magic where a number of legendary creatures and items are located: Alatyr, the father of all stones; the fiery pillar; the Drevo-Doob, the World Oak; the cave where the legendary sword Kladenets is hidden; the Raven prophet, and so on. It's the discount warehouse of Russian legends. Any time the folkloric heroes needed a magic object, they made a trip to it."

  "Let's concentrate on the tree," Saiman said.

  I knew Slavic mythology well enough, but I hadn't had to use it for a while and I was a bit rusty. "It's a symbol of nature. Creature of the earth at its roots, the serpent, the frog and so on. There is a raven with a prophet gift in the branches. Some myths say that there are iron chains wrapped around the tree's trunk. A black cat walks the chain, telling stories and fables…"

  Saiman nodded.

  Oh crap. "It's that damn cat, isn't it?"

  "The oak produces an acorn once every seven years. Seven months, seven days, and seven hours after the acorn falls from the tree, it will crack and grow into the World Oak. In effect, the tree manifests at the location of the acorn for the period of seven minutes."

  I frowned. "Let me guess, you stole the acorn from the Russians and swallowed it."

  Saiman nodded.

  "Why? Are you eager to hear a bedtime story?"

  "The cat possesses infinite knowledge. Seven minutes is time enough to ask and hear an answer to one question. Only the owner of the acorn can ask the question."

  I shook my head. "Saiman, nothing is free. You have to pay for everything, knowledge included. What will it cost you to ask a question?"

  "The price is irrelevant if I get an answer." Saiman smiled.

  I sighed. "Answer my question: Why do smart people tend to be stupid?"

  "Because we think we know better. We think that our intellect affords us special privileges and lets us beat the odds. That's why talented mathematicians try to defraud casinos and young brilliant mages make bargains with forces beyond their control."

  Well, he answered the question.

  "When is the acorn due for its big kaboom?"

  "In four hours and forty seven minutes."

  "The volhvs will tear this highrise apart stone by stone to get it back, and I'm your last line of defense?"

  "That's an accurate assessment. I did ask for the best person available."

  I sighed. "Still want that sandwich?"

  "Very much."

  I headed to the door.

  "Kate?"

  "Yes?"

  "The endar?"

  I turned to him. "Why were you chained?"

  Saiman grimaced. "The acorn makes it difficult to control my magic. It forces me to continuously change shape. Most of the time I'm able to keep the changes subtle, but once in a while the acorn causes contortions. Gina Castor walked in on me during such a moment. I'm afraid I was convulsing, so my recollection may be somewhat murky, but I do believe I had at least one partially formed breast and three arms. She overreacted. Odd, considering her profile."

  "Her profile?"

  "I studied my bodyguards very carefully," Saiman said. "I handpicked three teams. The first refused to take the job, the second was out due to injuries. Castor and Rodriguez were my third choice."

  I went back to the bed and ducked under it. They'd chained him with a small padlock. Lock-picking wasn't my strong suit. I looked around and saw the small key on the dresser. It took me a good five minutes to unwrap him.

  "Thank you." He rose, rubbing his chest, marked by red pressure lines. "May I ask why?"

  "Nobody should die chained to the bed."

  Saiman stretched. His body swelled, twisted, growing larger, gaining breadth and muscle. I made a valiant effort to not vomit.

  Saiman's body snapped. A large, perfectly sculpted male looked at me. Soft brown hair framed a masculine face. He would make any bodybuilder gym proud. Except for the bloated gut.

  "Is he preferable to the previous attempt?" Saiman asked.

  "There is more of you to guard now. Other than that, it makes no difference to me.
"

  I headed into the living room. He followed me, swiping a luxurious robe off a chair.

  We stepped into the living room. Saiman stopped.

  The corpses of endars had melted into puddles of green. Thin stalks of emerald-green moss sprouted from the puddles, next to curly green shoots of ferns and tiny young herbs.

  "The endars nourish the forest," I told him.

  He indicated the completely green carpet with his hand. "How many were there?"

  "A few. I lost count."

  Saiman's sharp eyes regarded my face. "You're lying. You know the exact number."

  "Thirty seven."

  I zeroed in on the fridge. No telling when the next attack would come and I was starving. You can do without sleep or without food, but not without both and sleep wasn't an option.

  Saiman trailed me, taking the seat on the outer side of the counter. "Do you prefer women?"

  "No."

  He frowned, belting the robe. "It's the stomach, isn't it?"

  I raided the fridge. He had enough deli meat to feed an army. I spread it out on the bar's counter. "What do you do for a living, Saimain?"

  "I collect information and use it to further my interests."

  "It seems to pay well." I nodded to indicate the apartment.

  "It does. I also possess an exhaustive knowledge of various magic phenomena. I consult various parties. My fee varies between thirty-six and thirty-nine hundred dollars, depending on the job and the client."

  "Thirty six hundred per job?" I bit into my sandwich. Mmm, salami.

  "Per hour."

  I choked on my food. He looked at me with obvious amusement.

  "The term 'highway robbery' comes to mind," I managed finally.

  "Oh, but I'm exceptionally good at what I do. Besides, the victims of highway robbery have no choice in the matter. I assure you, I don't coerce my clients, Kate."

  "I'm sure. How did we even get to this point? The stratospheric fee ruined my train of thought."

  "You stated that you prefer men to women."

  I nodded. "Suppose you get a particularly sensitive piece of information. Let's say a business tip. If you act on the tip, you could make some money. If you sell it, you could make more money. If both you and your buyer act on the tip, you both would make money, but the return for each of you would be significantly diminished. Your move?"

  "Either sell the information or act on it. Not both."

  "Why?"

  Saiman shrugged. "The value of the information increases with its exclusivity. A client buying such knowledge has an expectation of such exclusivity. It would be unethical to undermine it."

  "It would be unethical for me to respond to your sexual overtures. For the duration of the job, you're a collection of arms and legs which I have to keep safe. I'm most effective if I'm not emotionally involved with you on any level. To be blunt, I'm doing my best to regard you as a precious piece of porcelain I have to keep out of harm's way."

  "But you do find this shape sexually attractive?"

  "I'm not going to answer this question. If you pester me, I will chain you back to the bed."

  Saiman raised his arm, flexing a spectacular biceps. "This shape has a lot of muscle mass."

  I nodded. "In a bench pressing contest you would probably win. But we're not bench pressing. You might be stronger, but I'm well trained. If you do want to try me, you're welcome to it. Just as long as we agree that once your battered body is chained safely in your bed, I get to say, 'I told you so.'"

  Saiman arched his eyebrows. "Try it?"

  "And stop that."

  "Stop what?"

  "Stop mimicking my gestures."

  He laughed. "You're a most peculiar person, Kate. I find myself oddly fascinated. You have obvious skill." He indicated the budding forest in his living room. "And knowledge to back it up. Why aren't you among the Guild's top performers?"

  Because being in top anything means greater risk of discovery. I was hiding in plain sight and doing a fairly good job of it. But he didn't need to know that. "I don't spend much time in Atlanta. My territory is in the Lowcountry. Nothing much happens there, except for an occasional sea serpent eating shrimp out of the fishing nets."

  Saiman's sharp eyes narrowed. "So why not move up to the city? Better jobs, better money, more recognition?"

  "I like my house where it is."

  Something bumped behind the front door. I swiped Slayer off the counter. "Bedroom. Now."

  "Can I watch?"

  I pointed with the sword to the bedroom.

  Saiman gave an exaggerated sigh. "Very well."

  He went to the bedroom. I padded to the door and leaned against it, listening.

  Quiet.

  I waited, sword raised. Something waited out there in the hallway. I couldn't hear it, but I sensed it. It was there.

  A quiet whimper filtered through the steel of the door. A sad, lost, feminine whimper, like an old woman crying quietly in mourning.

  I held very still. The apartment felt stifling and crowded in. I would've given anything for a gulp of fresh air right about now.

  Something scratched at the door. A low mutter floated through, whispered words unintelligible.

  God, what was it with the air in this place? The place was stale and musty, like a tomb.

  A feeling of dread flooded me. Something bad was in the apartment. It hid in the shadows under the furniture, in the cabinets, in the fridge. Fear squirmed through me. I pressed my back against the door, holding Slayer in front of me.

  The creature behind the door scratched again, claws against the steel.

  The walls closed in. I had to get away from this air. Somewhere out in the open. Somewhere where the wind blew under an open sky. Someplace with nothing to crowd me in.

  I had to get out.

  If I left, I risked Saiman's life. Outside the volhvs were waiting. I'd be walking right into their arms.

  The shadows under the furniture grew longer, stretching toward me.

  Get out. Get out now!

  I bit my lip. A quick drop of blood burned on my tongue, the magic in it nipping at me. Clarity returned for a second and light dawned in my head. Badzula. Of course. The endars failed to rip us apart, so the volhvs went for plan B. If Muhammad won't go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Muhammad.

  Saiman walked out of the bedroom. His eyes were glazed over.

  "Saiman!"

  "I must go," he said. "Must get out."

  "No, you really must not." I sprinted to him.

  "I must."

  He headed to the giant window.

  I kicked the back of his right knee. He folded. I caught him on the way down and spun him so he landed on his stomach. He sprawled among the ankle-tall ferns. I locked his left wrist and leaned on him, grinding all of my weight into his left shoulder.

  "Badzula," I told him. "Belorussian creature. Looks like a middle-aged woman with droopy breasts, swaddled in a filthy blanket."

  "I must get out." He tried to roll over, but I had him pinned.

  "Focus, Saiman. Badzula – what's her power?"

  "She incites people to vagrancy."

  "That's right. And we can't be vagrants, because if we walk out of this building, both of us will be killed. We have to stay put."

  "I don't think I can do it."

  "Yes, you can. I'm not planning on getting up."

  "I believe you're right." A small measure of rational thought crept into his voice. "I suppose the furniture isn't really trying to devour us."

  "If it is, I'll chop it with my sword when it gets close."

  "You can let me up now," he said.

  "I don't think so."

  We sat still. The air grew viscous like glue. I had to bite it to get any into my lungs.

  Muscles crawled under me. Saiman couldn't get out of my hold so he decided to shift himself out.

  "Do you stock herbs?"

  "Yes," he said.

  "Do you have water lily?"

>   "Yes."

  "Where?"

  "Laboratory, third cabinet."

  "Good." I rolled off of him. I'd have only a second to do this and I had to do it precisely.

  Saiman got up to his knees. As he rose, I threw a fast right hook. He never saw it coming and didn't brace himself. My fist landed on his jaw. His head snapped back. His eyes rolled over and he sagged down.

  Lucky. I ran to the lab.

  It took a hell of a lot of practice to knock someone out. You needed both speed and power to jolt the head enough to rattle the brain inside the skull but not cause permanent damage. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't even try it, but these weren't normal circumstances. Walls were curving in to eat me.

  If I did cause too much damage, he would fix it. Considering what he had done to his body so far, his regeneration would make normal shapeshifters jealous.

  Third cabinet. I threw it open and scanned the glass jars. Dread mugged me like a sodden blanket. Ligularia dentata, Ligularia przewalski… Latin names, why me? Lilium pardalinum, Lobelia siphilitica. Come on, come on…Nymphaea odorata, pond lily. Also known to Russians as odolen-trava, the mermaid flower, an all-purpose pesticide against all things unclean. That would do.

  I dashed to the door, twisting the lid off the jar. A grey powder filled it – ground lily petals, the most potent part of the flower. I slid open the lock. The ward drained down, and I jerked the door ajar.

  Empty hallway greeted me. I hurled the jar and the powder into the hall. A woman wailed, smoke rose from thin air, and Badzula materialized in the middle of the carpet. Skinny, flabby, filthy, with breasts dangling to her waist like two empty bags, she tossed back grimy tangled hair and hissed at me, baring stumps of rotten teeth.

  "That's nice. Fuck you, too."

  I swung. It was textbook saber slash, diagonal, from left to right. I drew the entirety of the blade through the wound. Badzula's body toppled one way, her head rolled the other.

  The weight dropped off my shoulders. Suddenly I could breathe and the building no longer seemed in imminent danger of collapsing and burying me alive.

  I grabbed the head, tossed it into the elevator, dragged the body in there, sent the whole thing to the ground floor, sprinted back inside, and locked the door, reactivating the ward. The whole thing took five seconds.

 
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