Burnt Sugar

Ava, Lock, and Ezra are on assignment—for the magical mafia, of course. Faced with a gingerbread house, they’re pretty sure that what’s inside isn’t nearly as sweet as the outside. It never is.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by MacKids editor Noa Wheeler.

“Are you sure you’re reading that correctly?” I leaned my elbows on the car hood and stared at the hand-drawn map Lock had spread over the hood, his bottle of Moxie acting as an anchor. As homemade maps went, it wasn’t the best I’d ever seen. It relied heavily on landmarks and pirate-style directions like “twenty paces past the gnarled oak that looks like a naked old man.”

“Yes,” Lock said, “I’m sure.” He stared at the drawing, as if he could glean more information from it just by furrowing his brow. Ezra wasn’t even looking at the map. He was sprawled on the car hood next to it, his sunglasses on and his belly to the sun. Like this, it was all too easy to imagine him in his other form, his kohl-lined eyes closed and his little black booted fox feet pointed to the sky.

Despite the heat, Lock and I both had light jackets on over our tank tops. Jackets have pockets, which is handy for people like us. His was full of seeds, because Lock is half-dryad and his magic is definitely of the nature spirit variety. I guess you could say mine is kind of natural too—forest fires are a part of nature, right? They clear the undergrowth and return nutrients to the soil. I’ve tried to tell Lock that, but he says the trees aren’t buying it. So when we have an assignment that takes us into the woods, Lock takes the lead. Okay, Lock tends to take the lead anyway. Mostly because he’s the organized kind who thinks things through while Ezra and I are more by-the-seat-of-our-pants hot mess kind of situations.

So while Lock has seeds, my pockets are filled with things like electrolyte pills, granola bars, emergency cash, and a pocket knife. Everything a young firebug like myself needs.

“Okay,” Lock said, folding up the map and tucking it into his pocket. “I think I have it.” I double-checked my own pockets, making sure I had everything, my fingers automatically tracing the stitching along my cuffs. To the untrained eye, it looked like brightly-colored embroidery. To a witch or anyone who knew a thing or two about rune magic, my jacket was clearly warded. My jeans pockets had the same stitching. I have this embarrassing habit of setting my own clothes on fire when I’m not careful. I’m no prude, but all it takes is one scorched pair of trousers before you learn your lesson about such precautions.

While we readied ourselves, Ezra continued to sprawl like a model out of a teen magazine. Here’s the thing about Ezra Sagishi—he’s ridiculously good-looking, and he knows it. Between being a fox and being Asian, he sticks out in rural Maine. When you factor in the rest—whiskey-colored eyes, black hair with russet tones, cheekbones that would make a master sculptor throw away his tools in despair, and a perfect physique—the phrase “like a sore thumb” comes to mind. And while you’re drinking all that beauty in? He’ll pick your pocket. Foxes aren’t the best with concepts like “personal property.”

“C’mon,” I said, pulling on his pant leg. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner you can go back to getting your beauty sleep.”

Ezra popped his sunglasses up to look at me. “Are you implying that I would need something as pedestrian as beauty sleep?”

Lock grabbed his other leg and yanked hard, dragging Ezra off the car and onto the ground.

“How pretty do you think you’re going to be if we don’t finish this job on time, hmm?” With that reminder, our good moods vanished. Ezra became all business and we followed Lock into the woods.

We don’t have what I would refer to as normal jobs. Not unless you consider extortion and murder “normal.” Lock and Ezra are tithed to the Coterie, a supernatural mafia run by a vampire named Venus. I know these days vampires have a different reputation—sexy, misunderstood creatures just waiting for someone to see their heart of gold and believe in them. They sparkle and pout but really they’re just looking for someone to love them. Venus is beautiful, that part is right. But if she has a heart, it’s withered and black, and you’d die of extreme old age waiting to see her good side. You can love her all you want, but she’d still use you up and suck you dry. And she’d only sparkle if you covered her in glitter, which I don’t recommend if you like doing things like breathing and blinking.

So why do we work for her? We don’t really have a choice. As tithes, Lock and Ez traded a few years of their time so that Venus would leave their families alone. I am not a tithe. Venus owns me. I’m Coterie until one of us dies. Venus is incredibly stubborn and has a very long life span. Guess who’s probably going to die first?

So we do what she says. We collect protection money, deliver supernatural beat-downs when necessary, and wade through the blood of her enemies. Not your usual teen job. Our 401K is an unmarked grave and our benefits package blows. We all have nightmares.

As I tripped over a rotting log, I had a feeling that whatever happened in this forest was going into the memory banks for new nightmare fodder. The farther we walked into the forest, the darker it got. Mosquitos whined and the air was thick. The breeze I’d felt out by the car didn’t manage to get this far in. The stillness gave the forest an evil vibe.

“Lock, the trees aren’t going to come to life and eat us, are they?”

He half-turned my way and frowned. “Why would you say that?”

I shrugged. “This whole forest has a sort of wicked witch fairy tale thing going for it.”

Ezra slipped an arm around my shoulders. “Does that mean we can trade you to the big bad wolf?”

Lock stopped and crossed his arms, giving us a look that Ez and I knew well.

“Did we forget to do our homework?” Ezra whispered in my ear.

“Neither of you read the file, did you?” Lock said accusingly.

“I skimmed it.” I said. “Something about collecting money, blah blah blah.”

“I looked at the pictures,” Ezra added.

There weren’t any pictures.” Lock threw his hands up in a gesture I found to be just a little overdramatic. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. Of course neither of you read the file.”

“Why should we when we both know you’ll do it?” Ezra asked, stealing a granola bar from my pocket. “It’s not our fault you’re an enabler.”

Lock scowled at him. “She might need that, Ezra. And if you throw that wrapper on the ground, you’re walking home.”

“I would never.”

I pulled a hair tie out of my pocket, doing my best to pull back my unruly mess of brown curls. I needed to get some sort of air on my neck. “It’s okay, Lock. I have another.”

“That’s not the point. You don’t know what this job will entail—neither of you do. You might need that fuel.” Lock’s natural mother-hen tendencies aside, he did have a point. While it might seem like firebugs create fire from nothing, the fuel for our power actually comes from us. If we over-expend and don’t replace our calories quickly, we burn fat. Then muscle. It’s best not to dwell on what happens after that. For whatever reason, our electrolyte balance is also affected, hence the pills in my pocket. At best I end up with a nasty hangover if my electrolytes get too far out of whack. At worst? Well, let’s just say it’s a long list of “that can’t be good” followed by a lot of vital bodily systems shutting down.

I stole what was left of the granola bar from Ezra and popped it in my mouth. “There, problem solved. Now how about we skip the rest of the lecture and you fill us in as we walk?”

Lock looked skyward, clearly hoping something from on high would grant him patience with us. Ezra and I were very used to this expression. So used to it that we’d actually choreographed a quick dance in preparation for the next time Lock did it.

“What, exactly, are you doing?” Lock asked when he looked back down.

“I like to call it the Happy Prospector,” I said. “It’s a high-class dance we made up.”

“It’s actually more of a jig,” Ezra said, really getting into it. “There’s also a version called the Angry Prospector that we plan to unveil at a later date.” Lock had once had an unfortunate mustache situation that we try to pretend never happened. If it ever seems like he’s bringing that look back, out comes the Angry Prospector, which includes a scowling face and a lot of “dag-nabbits.” It’s fun, but I hope we never have to perform it. Lock looks much better now, without that ridiculous mustache. Not as smooth as Ezra, but then, no one’s as smooth as Ezra. Lock has a nice spiky-bleached-hair-and-leather-jacket thing going on, though.

Lock tried to keep a straight face as we danced, but gave up. His laughter rang through the unnaturally dark forest, and it felt like everything let out a breath. I swear even I could feel the trees respond to him, stretching their branches in joy.

We started walking again, picking our way through ferns and jack-in-the-pulpits as Lock filled us in. “We are here to do a collection. Dolores Walker—Dolly to her friends, if she has any out here in these creepy woods—has been regular in her payments until a few months ago.”

Collection was a nice way of referring to the money people sent to Venus so that they could operate on Coterie turf. And by operate, I mean live. What you paid depended on whether you wanted basic “protection” brought to you by the Coterie—which somewhat ironically protected you mostly from the Coterie itself—or whether you were more of a high-risk venture. Which means you’re doing something illegal or morally questionable that might need to be covered up at some point. If you’re a creature that eats people, you’ll probably pay more than a hobgoblin whose diet leans more to small animals, even if it does mean the occasional house pet goes missing.

“How big were the payments?” Ezra asked.

Lock rattled off a fairly high number and I whistled. “And we’re just coming out here now? Why weren’t we called in at the first skipped payment?”

We’d come to a fork in the deer trail we’d been following and Lock consulted the map again. The sun cut through the trees here, and the forest floor was alive with summer. A heady mixture of flowers, sun, and rich earth met my nose. For a brief moment I wished I had a different life, one where I was on a forest picnic with my friends. One where there was no Coterie and I didn’t have a body-removal service on speed dial. I quashed the daydream. As pleasant as it was, it just served to remind me of a life I could never have.

“I’m not sure why we’re only being sent out now,” Lock said after he put the map away and headed toward the left path. “Boss-lady didn’t share, but I assume it’s something simple like Venus being too busy to deal with someone this far out.”

“Right,” I said, brushing away another mosquito. “Because Venus is often too busy when money is involved.”

Ezra ducked to avoid a spider web. “Actually, it has been a rather busy summer. First we had the ogres, then that werewolf bachelor party incident, and don’t forget that thing with the gnomes that Ava totally screwed up. That really ate up a lot of time, and we had to handle all of it ourselves since it was Ava’s fault.”

“Yes, thank you Ezra for your specific and blame-heavy explanation. Also, I thought we had an agreement to never, ever mention gnomes again?”

Ezra pushed an errant twig away. “Did we?” It was hard to tell if Ezra had forgotten our ‘let’s never mention this again’ discussion, or if he was choosing to ignore it. I let it drop.

“Personally, I’d rather forget the werewolf bachelor party,” Lock mumbled.

We walked quietly for a few minutes, the only sounds being the occasional snap of a twig that I stepped on. The boys moved silently. I found the lack of sound to be unnerving. When we’d started at the edge of the woods, it had been noisy. Chickadees, nuthatches, and kinglets called as they flitted by. Branches rustled as squirrels leapt and bees hummed. In here? I only had my friend the mosquito.

“Where are the birds?” I asked.

Ezra tilted his head, sniffing the air. “I was wondering that, too. And the scent . . . most of the game trails are old. Why?” He stilled, shifting his attention. “There’s not much breeze, but every once in a while, I catch a smell. Like gingerbread.” He huffed out a breath. “I’d think there was something wrong with my nose, only I know that’s not possible.”

“Right,” Lock said. “Because you’re perfect.”

“My nose certainly is, and not just from an aesthetic standpoint.”

“What are the trees saying?” I was still hot and sticky, but I found myself huddling in my jacket.

“They’re uneasy,” Lock said. “And it’s a spreading kind of thing.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Because I’m feeling uneasy, too.”

“It wouldn’t be a Coterie job if we didn’t feel uneasy,” I said.

Ez swatted at something. “Let’s get this over with. I want to go back to that ice cream stand we passed on the way here.”

We finally made it to a small clearing, the likes of which grace idyllic postcards and the insides of old fairy tale books. Emerald green grass, wildflowers, and a thick mass of wild roses gave the air a sweet smell. A tiny brook burbled at the edge. Butterflies and bees moved in a graceful dance from flower to flower. And smack-dab in the middle of this was a small house and an old-fashioned well.

We stayed hidden at the forest’s edge and stared.

Lock spoke first. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Unless we’re having a mass hallucination, then yes, it is.” I nudged him with my elbow. “Did the file mention this?”

“No,” Lock said, still staring at the cabin. “I don’t think Venus knows about this. If she had, the premiums would have gone up.”

“If she didn’t know, then it makes you wonder why they were so high in the first place without taking this into account.” Ezra grinned. “At least we know my nose isn’t broken.”

“We might need another team.” Lock took out his phone and sighed. “Of course. No signal. Well, I’m at least taking pictures.” He snapped a few from where we hid.

“So we have proof, or so they know what happened to us when they come looking for the bodies?” I asked.

“Both.” Lock wasn’t joking, and sadly, we all knew his answer was true. We’d come looking for a witch—I hadn’t asked Lock what kind of witch—and it was clear from the cabin that she was not a good one. There’s no conceivable reason why a good witch would have a gingerbread house.

If Ezra hadn’t smelled it earlier—and if my nose weren’t confirming it—I would think it was a fake. A house made up to look like a gingerbread house. But I could definitely smell it. The walls of the ridiculously adorable cabin were gingerbread. The mortar was clearly icing. Gumdrops the size of my head lined the pebbled walkway. I couldn’t quite tell from where I stood, but I would have bet that all the detailing on the house, from windowsills to the scalloped edging, were edible candy. It was a gingerbread house, and gingerbread houses were only good for one thing. My stomach tightened.

Lock turned to say something to me and stopped, putting a hand on my shoulder to keep me still. I caught the flash of a small black insect.

“What is it? Is it a bee?”

He coaxed the bug onto his hand. By now I could tell it wasn’t a bee, but some kind of beetle. It was all black except for a yellowish head with a big black spot in the middle—it looked like an eye.

“It’s a carrion beetle,” Lock said, helping the bug onto a tree. “They like moist areas, rotten fruit . . .” he trailed off.

“And dead things, right?”

He sighed. “Yes, they particularly like dead things, usually animals. Plenty of those in a forest like this. Carrion beetles are a central part of the ecosystem, helping to break down animal carcasses. Not something I’d normally worry about.”

“Except we’re by a gingerbread house,” Ezra said.

“Exactly.” Lock’s face remained stoic, but I could tell he wasn’t happy by the stiff way he was standing.

“Maybe it was attracted to the sugar?” Ezra offered, but no one was buying it.

“We need to get in there, don’t we.” I said. “We can’t just burn it down from here.”

Lock shook his head. “We don’t know if anyone else is inside.” He didn’t say children, but we all knew that’s what he meant.

“At least we know someone’s home.” Ezra pointed at the smoke trailing from the chimney. “It’s a bit hot for a fire.”

I felt bile rise in my throat. “Never too hot for a cooking fire.” Someone was home, and someone was hungry.

 

Despite our desire to immediately run forth and storm the castle, we decided to proceed with caution. We knew someone was home, but we didn’t know who or how many. Dolly could be alone, or she could have invited friends for dinner. And since human was probably on the menu, her friends probably wouldn’t be human.

On top of that, gingerbread houses usually have defenses. We’d only encountered one before, and one was enough. There’s a reason why they’ve fallen out of vogue over the centuries, and it’s not because of Hansel and Gretel. It’s not like people stumble upon a gingerbread house and think, “Killer witch inside! Run!” They think it’s a gag, or something someone built to be clever. Because on the whole, people don’t think witches are real. So they investigate. And if they go inside, they don’t come back out to warn others.

No, the reason they’ve become unpopular is the cost, and I don’t mean in dollars. Gingerbread houses draw power from the person they’re connected to, like leeches on the soul. Kill the witch, kill the house, so the house does its level best to keep that from happening. But while they may draw heavily on their hosts, they don’t rely on a single food source. One person would go too quickly. So the host becomes a lure to draw in more food. It’s pretty clever in a terrible sort of way.

They also don’t stay in the same place for very long if the witch is smart. A trap is more effective if no one knows it’s there. Deep, dark forbidding forests are perfect locations, because if people go missing, well, people go missing in forests all the time. I asked another witch once how they moved gingerbread houses and she’d just shuddered and walked away. Not the best sign.

“She’s lived here for some time,” Lock said. “The plants, the trees—the whole system has been discombobulated for a while. This kind of thing isn’t good for them.”

“So we have an old gingerbread house that’s probably developed some deep defenses and a possibly crazy man-eating witch on the inside,” Ezra said. “Great. Wonderful. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Look on the bright side,” I told him, patting his arm. “There might be more than one witch.”

Lock put his arm around my shoulders. “We get the best jobs.”

We stood there and sweated for a minute longer, just staring at the creepy gingerbread house. Then we sat down to plan.

 

In the end, we decided I should approach the house alone. I looked the least threatening and I was the youngest—people don’t put up their guard for young teenage girls the same way they would for the boys. It didn’t matter that, out of the three of us, I was the most dangerous. The important thing was that I didn’t look it.

Lock would stay in the woods for the moment and see what he could find out from the trees. Ezra had stripped down and gone fox to explore closer to the house. We were hoping that whatever defensive spells the house had wouldn’t be triggered by an animal. It was risky, but we didn’t have any other way to get information and we couldn’t wait.

As I made my way through the clearing and over the cobblestones, I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist, rolling the sleeves up to hide the embroidery. Even if the witch inside couldn’t read runes—which was unlikely—I wasn’t about to give them a hint that I was anything besides human. Close up, the cabin seemed even more like one out of a fairy tale. The candy-glazed windows shone and after a quick sniff I realized the flowers were made out of pressed sugar. Even the water from the well carried a sweet smell. I was getting a sugar high just from breathing.

There was very little sound as I reached the door. If I hadn’t felt the shiver up my spine telling me that something was terribly wrong, it would have been easy to believe that it was just an idyllic summer day in the woods.

I knocked on the door.

I think everyone has a certain idea of what kind of person lives in a gingerbread house. A gnarled old witch is the usual stereotype. Long crooked nose with warts, knotted hands, snaggleteeth, and gray hair—the typical crone we’ve grown to vilify. It’s odd that, as a teenage girl, I’m perceived as innocuous and safe, while so many of our childhood villains are modeled after the crone. There’s probably a lesson there.

The man who greeted me wasn’t witchy in the least. It was a bit of a letdown, to be honest. He was abnormally tan, his teeth artificially white, and he was wearing one of those spandex bicycle getups you see on fitness nuts. Over that, he had on an apron that read Kiss the Cook.

I blinked at him, trying to process. He smiled a too-white smile and held up a blender pitcher half-full of green goo and a glass with the same. “Smoothie?”

I mumbled that I was lost and asked to use his phone, which was the cover story we’d decided to go with. He didn’t seem to think it was weird that I was wandering alone in the woods, but invited me in, shoving a glass full of smoothie into my hand.

“Absolutely. There’s no reception out here, so this happens occasionally. Still, me and the missus, we love the quiet.” He pulled me along gently by my arm, guiding me into one of the kitchen chairs. “Gives us time to get in touch with nature. Really align our chakras and all that good stuff. Are you into yoga? I’m telling you, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” He nodded to the smoothie. “Lately I’ve been experimenting with juicing. Lots of nutrients, all things grown locally and without pesticides. You look parched. Take a sip. It’s a new recipe and I’d love an opinion.” He bustled around as he talked, cleaning up the rinds and peels left over from his juicing experiment and piling them into a compost bucket.

“Lots of greens in this one—super good for your system.” He wiped the counter down with a wet cloth. I felt like he was going about two speeds faster than me. “So you just rest and I’ll find the phone, okay?” He smiled again.

I have to admit, I was a little weirded out. The inside of the place looked like a regular cabin, and this guy wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Who lives in a gingerbread house and then gets into juicing? And yoga?

Without thinking, I took a sip of smoothie as I looked around. It really had been quite hot outside, and I was thirsty. The juice hit my tongue. I could taste sweeter things like carrots and some sort of berry balancing out the bitterness of the greens. Was that parsley? There was a flavor I couldn’t quite place. I stared into my glass and tried to figure out what it was. That’s when it hit me. I had infiltrated a gingerbread house probably filled with flesh-eating witches and possibly other dangerous people and then I had drunk a mystery liquid that was handed to me by a stranger. I really hoped that the house had some sort of spell attached to it that made you lower your guard. That was much better than being incredibly naive about something, like the possibility that I had just voluntarily drunk poison. I was so busy staring into my cup wondering if I was going to die that I didn’t hear the person who snuck up behind me and hit me over the head.

 

I woke up feeling nauseated, dizzy, and really, really stupid. I’d let myself get coshed over the head like an amateur. I laid there blinking and staring at the ceiling and trying to not vomit.

“She awake yet?” Ezra asked.

“I think I saw her move. Hey, wake up, cupcake.”

After my eyes adjusted I took a good look around. We were in a sort of root cellar. A long low ceiling held rows of wooden birdcages just like the one I was in. It looked like roots had grown out of the ceiling and braided themselves into cages. I counted thirty. About half of them were full, though no one was talking besides my friends, and a few of the cage occupants were so still that I was really hoping that they were sleeping. By the looks of things, we were the oldest.

I turned my head slowly and caught sight of Ezra and Lock, both in their own cages suspended from the ceiling. Lock had dried blood on his temple and his T-shirt had smears of dirt on it. If Ezra had suffered any damage, he’d healed it already. Unfortunately, he’d clearly been a fox when he was caught, because he was sitting buck naked in his cage.

“What happened to you guys?” I croaked.

“I wasn’t expecting the attack vines,” Ezra said with a shrug. He didn’t glare at Lock or anything, but I could tell Lock took offense to his statement anyway.

“They’re not native to Maine! How was I supposed to know? I told you guys the plant life was weird around here.”

“Hold on there, hoss. No use getting worked up,” I said. “What happened to you, anyway?”

“I got jumped in the woods. The trees tried to warn me, but they were a little slow.”

I examined the back of my head gently with my fingers before slowly sitting up. So far, so good. “Ok—bare minimum, we’re looking at two people,” I said, continuing my scan of the room.

The walls of the cellar held shelves full of jars of pickled veggies, sauces and jams, and what looked like pickled pigs’ feet. At least, I hoped it was pig. The floor was hard-packed dirt, but several patches looked like they had been disturbed recently, like someone was tilling for a garden. As I stared, a voice to my left said, “That’s where they bury the bones.” A dirt-smudged little face appeared in the cage next to mine. Thin, delicate fingers wrapped around the wooden bars.

“How many?” I asked.

The kid gave me a half-shrug. “Dunno.”

“From the smell of decay, I’d say more than you’d like to count,” Ezra whispered. I think he was trying to be discreet, but we all heard it. Someone I couldn’t see sobbed off in a corner cage.

“Are we still in the gingerbread house?” The root cellar was cavernous, looking far too large for the cabin we’d entered.

“I think it’s bigger on the inside,” Lock said. “The wood they used on these cages is still alive, and very sick. It doesn’t seem like it would be difficult for us to get out, though.”

“That’s what worries me,” I said. “Ezra, were you a fox when they put you in here?”

“When the vines grabbed me, yes.” He grimaced. “I panicked and changed back when I ended up in the cage. There’s a chance they still think I’m a fox. No one’s been down here since.”

Lock ran his hands over his cage, a sickened look on his face. “I don’t think they would have caged you if they thought you were just a fox.”

“Let’s assume they know,” I said. “So they’re aware of his were status, yet they put him in a cage he could easily slip out of.”

“You think there’s a secondary system,” Ezra said, warily eying his own enclosure.

“Hey kid,” I said, turning back to the cage next to mine. “What’s your name?”

“Julian.” He brushed his hair out of his eyes with dirty fingers.

“Nice to meet you, Julian. I’m Ava. That’s Lock and Ezra. We’re looking to get everyone out of here. You seem like you might have some information to help us.”

By the tilt of his head, I could tell he wasn’t too sure of our chances. “Like what?”

“Has anyone escaped before?” Lock wiped the sweat off his face with the hem of his shirt. He wasn’t the only one sweating. It was like a sauna in here. That’s when I realized they’d taken both of our jackets. Damn. I had no supplies. Which meant no electrolyte pills or anything. Which meant I had to limit my use of fire if possible, because I had no way to replenish my system. Grand.

Julian shook his head.

“What about out of their cage?” I asked. “Have you seen anyone get out of one of these cages?” I was having a hard time imagining that every single person here was simply willing to sit and wait for death. But as I watched, no one was attempting to get through the bars or anything. I mean, we were in wooden birdcages, not Fort Knox. Why wasn’t anyone trying?

Julian paled, but nodded.

“And escaping, that was a bad thing?” Ezra asked. When Julian nodded again, Ezra’s brow furrowed. “What happened?” Julian just pointed at the floor. Oh good, there was something wrong with the floor besides the fact that it was a bone yard. I took off one of my boots and pushed it through the bars until it toppled down to the dirt. As soon as it hit, roots snaked up and grabbed it, pulling it into the soil.

“Well, that was stupid,” Lock said, watching my boot disappear. “Why not use something you don’t need?”

“Watch it or you’re going to get the other boot.” It hadn’t been the brightest thing to do, but it wasn’t stupid, either. “I needed to test the floor. What else should I have used? I’m not exactly overflowing with extra stuff over here. I just have my clothes, and unlike Ezra, I have some qualms about trying to escape naked.”

Ezra shrugged. “You get used to it.”

“I’m going to do my best to never have that experience,” I said, eyeing the floor and wishing I had my boot back. “Too bad none of us can fly.” The door opened at the end of the cellar and everyone went quiet. Mr. Healthy came down the steps whistling a tune. He stopped at the bottom right before he touched the floor and sang a song in a language I couldn’t identify, something Germanic, I think, dancing slowly in a circle. He ended the dance with a flourish and then calmly stepped onto the packed dirt. Seemed simple enough, but I was betting the words to that song were important, and I hadn’t caught a single one.

He examined the jars on the walls, pulling a few from the bottom. “A wasabi glaze this time, perhaps.” After selecting his sauce, he studied the cages, finally ending on Julian. “Yes, I think it’s your turn today.” Julian cowered on the far side of his cage.

“Don’t you want to wait?” I asked. “You know, fatten him up a bit? He’s all bones.” Julian gave me a startled look, but I ignored him.

“It’s not healthy, eating all that fat,” the man said. “No, the smart consumer goes for the lean meat.” He snapped his fingers and the roots spun Julian’s cage around and pulled it straight up. The ceiling planks bent open to let the cage through, then snapped back into place as if nothing had happened. The man left, a bounce to his step, totally ignoring all of us as we yelled at him.

Julian had been the only kid willing to talk to us, the only one not completely broken by the experience, and now he was lunch. We had to get out of there.

“Ava,” Lock whispered. “I’ve got an idea, but I need you to be ready to open up our cages, okay?” I nodded, even though I had some doubts after watching the cages in action.

Lock kneeled as best he could and dug into his pockets, pulling out a small pouch. A pouch I recognized.

“Did you, at some point in today’s adventure, stop to gather seeds?” I asked.

He blushed, but wouldn’t look at me. “And now aren’t you glad?”

“That remains to be seen.”

Lock opened the packet and tipped a few out, talking softly as he did. We all watched the seed float down, or tried to. I mean, seeds are small and kind of hard to see. At first nothing seemed to happen. Then a large daisy sprouted out of the ground under Lock’s cage, the face of the flower the size of a hubcap.

“Now!” he said, his voice a sharp whisper.

I got the feeling speed was important. “Feet up!” I shouted as I set fire to the bottom of the cage, concentrating on the edges. The roots hissed and it was hard to tell if it was moisture escaping or if they were feeling pain.

Lock was already hanging from the top like a monkey by the time the scorched cage bottom rained down, a mist of ash and charred splinters. He dropped down, landing comfortably on the top of the flower. He wobbled for a second, then managed to find balance, throwing down another seed as soon as he could. He made a path of them over to me. It was a little trickier burning out my own coop, but I managed.

Ezra had shifted back to fox form, thinking that he’d be lighter and more nimble that way, but went back to human to help with our fellow prisoners. The kids didn’t blink at the giant flowers or being helped by a naked guy or the fact that the naked guy had recently been a fox. They’d clearly seen too much during their stay already.

It didn’t take a lot of convincing to get them to follow us. Some were afraid of falling off the flowers, but Lock stood on the daisies he’d grown beneath the cages and caught them. Each time, the flower dipped alarmingly, and Lock was starting to sweat from all the exertion, the moisture cutting tracks through the ash from the cages. He still managed to hand the kids off to me and Ez, but he was getting tired. It was a good thing that not all of the enclosures were occupied

There were thirteen of them on the stairs as Lock reached for the last one. Even after I’d burnt out the cage bottom, she held on, her thin limbs trembling. She was too afraid of the floor to let go. Lock and Ezra coaxed, but she wasn’t having it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to help so I stayed with the others. Ezra says I lack finesse. I guess I’m better at burning things down than talking to people.

I’m okay with that.

The girl held on until her arms gave out, which meant her fall wasn’t well-aimed, and she missed both the flower and Lock. He reached for her, almost losing his balance. She hit the dirt floor. Everything went still, even the girl, her eyes wide with panic. The floor rumbled and writhed. Roots shot out of the dirt and went for the girl, stopping just as they touched her. They trembled there, hovering along her skin, caressing her as she sobbed.

“Help, please,” Lock said through clenched teeth. “I can’t hold them long.” Ezra and I stepped in at the same time. I scorched the roots while Ezra leaped down, snatching the girl up off the floor before hopping back onto the stairs. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him move so fast. The girl clung to him, shaking.

We were out of the cages, but still facing a very locked door. Normally, not a big obstacle for Ezra. He frowned at it. “The lock’s not a difficult one. I really need to figure out some way to carry my tools with me when I change. Maybe a small bag . . .”

“Ezra—” I said, trying to get his attention, but he ignored me, his attention fully on the problem.

Lock looked like he was about to pass out. “It’s too thick for us to try and kick it down. Maybe we can remove the hinges somehow . . .” He’d really expended a lot of energy if he was ignoring something so basic. Like, you know, that I was a firebug.

“Yeah, hey, too bad we don’t have anything that could burn through a wooden door.” I crossed my arms and waited. They both turned to me, Lock with a sheepish expression. Ez just glared and told me to get on with it.

I didn’t need to burn down the whole door, just the area around the knob. I guess with all the other security features, whoever made the house hadn’t bothered with anything fancy on the door. I held out my hands. Gestures aren’t necessary when I use my power, but they help me to focus.

“As soon as I get it open, you guys get the kids out. I’ll go for Julian.” I didn’t wait to hear their response. The wood smoked, the knob turning a bright cherry red. I kicked it with the foot that still had a boot on, and it hit the floor with a clang.

We ran up the twisty stairs, cresting onto the top floor like a wave. The man looked up from the cauldron he was stirring, shocked. There was a woman with him now, probably Dolly. She had Julian in an enormous mixing bowl. Though he was trembling like a frightened Chihuahua, his eyes darted around, looking for an opportunity to escape. They hadn’t broken him yet if he was still hoping for a chance to get away. He’d been stripped and I assumed bathed—he was clean now, and people tend to wash their food before they eat it, even if those people are human-eating witches. Julian was now being brushed with what I think was a wasabi glaze. A roaring fire had been built in the cast-iron stove, which was big enough to roast a boar inside. As the two adults gawped, the kids ran out the door. They didn’t manage to react until it was just me, Ezra, and Lock left inside.

Dolly looked a lot like the guy. Exercise gear, skin kissed with health, too-white teeth. Like she’d popped out of an infomercial for exercise equipment.

“Reggie,” she shrieked. “What’s going on?”

Reggie left the cauldron, his expression one of calm and ease, taking the basting brush from her hand. “These were the three I found snooping earlier, dearest.” He dipped the brush into the bowl of glaze.

“I’m going to be honest,” I said. “I was expecting some sort of hag situation.”

“That’s the problem with these houses. They have a reputation,” he said, continuing to brush the glaze lightly onto Julian’s skin. “People get them to bring in power, to bring in extended life, and then what do they do? They let themselves go.” He stabbed the air with his glaze brush, getting into his speech. “But you can’t do that. You have to take care of yourself. Eat right. Exercise. Plenty of sleep.” Dolly’s attention was fixed on him while he talked, her eyes aglow.

I wanted to point out that the problem with gingerbread houses wasn’t that the owners got a spare tire and forgot to brush their hair. It was that the houses drove you barking mad. But apparently this guy was already barking mad, so there wasn’t much point. “Yes, well, clean living is great, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to put the ol’ kibosh on your current lifestyle.”

Dolly hissed at me. She actually hissed, then curled her lip derisively. I wasn’t super fond of Dolly’s attitude, to be honest.

“You think you can?” She flicked her fingers at us in shooing gesture. “You are in our house. We have the power here.” Another finger flick and the flames in the oven roared. “And don’t get any ideas about shoving us in the oven. We read the pamphlets that came with the house, and we’ve no intention of going anywhere near there.” The wood creaked as the boards warped, allowing the roots to snake up through the floor. I’d really hoped that the roots couldn’t come up this far.

Cold fear at the sight aside, I couldn’t help laughing. I mean, really. The oven. We may be young, and yeah, she managed to capture us, but we weren’t new. The oven. As if! I just couldn’t help it. I kept laughing at the very idea. The roots stopped at Dolly’s feet as she studied me, confused by my reaction.

“Lady,” I said, “I hate to tell you this, but you’re in deep—”

Lock coughed “language” at me to remind me of the little ears in the room. He’s kind of adorable—Julian had been terrorized, almost eaten, and were now in a standoff with two crazy witches, not to mention that Ezra was still naked, and Lock was worried about language.

“Well, you’re in deep. Let’s just say that. You’ve missed a few payments to Venus. Maybe they slipped your mind?”

Dolly blinked at us. “You’re the collection team?” Now it was her turn to laugh. “You? You’re children.” She cackled. She legitimately cackled. Finally, a witch stereotype coming true. I just wish it hadn’t been aimed at me.

“Have you seen what happens to children in this house? You’re not a threat, you’re a side dish.” She cackled again as the roots snaked along the walls. “All these years kowtowing to Venus and you were the threat we feared?” Her eyes shone, the gleam of madness apparent. The house had gotten to her good. “Besides, she can’t touch me. Not here. Not in my lovely home.” A root snaked around her in a caress and she petted it fondly. Like it was an adorable puppy.

See? Absolutely bonkers. Reggie just kept covering Julian in wasabi sauce, totally unconcerned.

“I would have you pass on the message to Venus that we don’t need her ‘protection’ anymore, but you won’t be seeing her again.” Her hands curled like claws as she called on the power of the house—cupboards rattled, a window broke. The floor rippled.

“On three,” I said. “Three! The boys sprang into action—they knew I always skipped one and two. Ezra dodged the twining roots as they started to move again, then tackled Reggie. Lock did his best to redirect the roots, tying them into knots while making his way to Julian. And I did what I did best. I burned. There’s nothing more terrifying than having someone walking at you while they’re wreathed in fire. Dolly screamed. I shot a volley of fist-sized fireballs at her feet.

“See, here’s the thing, Dolly. If Venus sent us, that means we’ve got her seal of scary approval. That even she will admit that we’re something to be feared. You of all people should know that in our world, looks can never be trusted.” I heard Reggie yelp as Ezra tossed him into the wall. Dolly didn’t notice as Lock snatched up the slippery Julian and went for the windows. Dolly’s mental grip on the house would keep the front door shut, but a well-placed elbow could open up a new exit.

I threw another blast of fire her way. Dolly’s eyes were wide, her body trembled. She’d finally figured out she was in trouble.

“Venus wants her money? I’ll give it to you! All of it!” She backed up until she hit the wall. I noticed she was right by the giant oven she had said she’d avoid and smirked to myself.

I shook my head. “Oh, no. We’re past that now. You’ve become a liability. A danger. Venus doesn’t like hiccups.” I paused as Reggie flew into the cabinets, sliding down with a whimper. “And the thing is, while your little operation wouldn’t bother our boss, it sure as hell bothers us. And you’ve just given us plenty of leeway to put you down and your little house, too.”

I could tell Dolly had thought of something, because she calmed and straightened. She squared her shoulders. “You’re all talk. If you could take on a gingerbread house, you would have done so earlier. You had plenty of time.”

Ezra came up beside me, tying Reggie’s blood-spattered Kiss the Cook apron around his waist. It didn’t quite cover everything, but it helped. “Because there were children inside before.” He grinned, and for that brief moment, let his predator side show. Dolly shrank back. Reggie remained an unconscious pile on the floor.

I jerked my head in his direction. “Better check on your friend.” She scuttled over to Reggie, crooning over his injuries, and turning her back to us. Maybe she thought it was all over. That we were taking her into custody or something. Laughable. Ezra covered me as I started to back toward the door. The gingerbread house wasn’t going to burn like a normal house, but I could manage, especially with the oven roaring like it was. I pushed the fire there out and up—crawling on the walls and the floor. Then we backed out of the house. Dolly was too preoccupied to hold the door. We retreated out onto the lawn, but I didn’t take my eyes off the house as I burned it.

“Ovens,” I said with a scoff. “We don’t need no stinkin’ ovens.”

The smell of burnt sugar filled the air. I could hear the screams over the hiss and pop of melting sugar and chocolate, but they didn’t go on for long. In the end, the roots shot up, waving like drunken tentacles, before pulling the last of the mass of sugar into the ground. By the time it was finished, all that remained of the house was a heap of churned earth and far too many tiny white bones jutting up like flowers. How long had Venus been ignoring them, giving Dolly and Reggie time to feed the house? I shuddered. Ezra put an arm around me and led me further into the field where Lock had gathered the kids.

All of them were dirty, thin, and tired looking. It was going to be a long walk back to the car. And cell service. We needed to call in a cleaning crew. I didn’t want another gingerbread house growing out of this mess, and Venus wouldn’t want anyone stumbling across the impromptu graveyard. Not that she cared about the victims or the sanctity of a burial, even one such as this, but she wouldn’t want attention drawn to our world. Venus hated complications unless she was making them.

“So many tiny bones,” Lock whispered. The little girl was back in his arms, and Julian had a firm grip on his leg.

Ezra pried him free. “You’re with me. Us naked guys have got to stick together.” Julian took his hand. “You know, I think I saw a creek a while back. You could probably rinse off if you want. Though you might consider leaving it on—that wasabi glaze could double as a cologne. Who knows, you could be a trend setter.” Julian looked up at him and smiled. The other kids followed Ezra as we went back into the woods. Birds tweeted. The air was warm and fresh if you were upwind of the house. In a few weeks, this part of the forest would be back to normal. It would be like nothing had ever happened.

Lock waited for me as I caught up. I couldn’t tell who was more tired, me or him. We were both pretty drained and I’d lost any resources to recharge when they took my jacket. It was hard to walk in one boot, so I took it off and left it. I would have to step carefully.

He offered me a hand to help me over a downed log. “I was thinking,” I said, twisting to avoid some nettles, “that maybe ice cream might not be the best thing right now. I’m kind of off sweets for a while.”

Lock squeezed my hand. “Can’t say I blame you.” He cast a look back the way we’d come. I knew where his mind was going.

“Evil, Lock. Eating children.” We were all uncomfortable when our roles dipped into the judge, jury, and executioner zone, though better us than Venus. But as I watched the trail of bedraggled kids ahead of us, I didn’t feel bad this time. Later, in my nightmares, I might have regrets. But not right now. Out of the three of us, though, Lock always took this stuff the hardest. At some point down the line Ezra and I had become too pragmatic.

“Thanks,” he said. “I needed the reminder.” He cleared his throat. “So, lobster roll? A burger? A nice, cold, soda? Condensation dripping down the side . . .”

I groaned, my stomach rumbling and my throat parched. “You keep that up, it’s going to be a long walk to the car.” But Lock kept listing food, and the kids got in on the game, some of them talking for the first time since we’d rescued them.

It didn’t take nearly as long to get back as I thought it would.

 

“Burnt Sugar” copyright © 2014 by Lish McBride

Illustration copyright © 2014 by Junyi Wu

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