Read an Excerpt
Art saves lives, shining a light into the shadowed corners of the soul. Until it brushes you up against something best left in the dark.
Heat, wet and ripe with the scent of decaying plant material, constricted Isa’s ribs. It had no effect on the cold inside. Birds chattered unseen in foliage that did not reach into the plaza to shade her. Leaves rustled when spider monkeys shrieked and chased one another in conflict over a morsel of fruit.
She couldn’t look up, couldn’t turn her attention from sculpting blue pigment mixed with clay. The color was sacred, but the drops of her blood added to the mix ought to entice the gods to hear her supplication. The skin of her hands took on the stain of the material she worked as a plea to be made whole. To be made warm and human.
The flesh between her shoulder blades tightened as, around her, every last sound of life fell silent.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. It resolved into words that rattled her fragile bones. “Brother. A petitioner.”
Wind, laden with the sweet-sick reek of death, brushed exploratory fingers across her skin, testing, weighing. And found her unworthy.
Terror shot a scream into her throat. She clamped her teeth on it until she tasted blood.
Lightning struck. Frigid electricity exploded through her, outlining every fiber of her in cold agony, casting her into the hard-packed dirt.
“Holy shit, Isa,” a shaking feminine voice said. “What the fuck was that?”
Isa Romanchzyk drew a shallow breath, expecting pain and the stink of rotting flesh. She got neither. Frowning, she blinked her eyes open to stare at the exposed steel I-beams of her tattoo shop’s basement ceiling.
She’d been remembering how to paint on something other than a person’s skin. Therapy, her friends had said, to help her cope with having gotten rid of a Living Tattoo who’d wanted to kill her and take over her body for his own use.
How had she ended up on the floor dreaming of a jungle she’d never seen?
She glanced at the stairway.
Cheri, one of Isa’s friends, teetered on a riser halfway down the stairs, uncertainty in her white-knuckled grip on the railing.
“I don’t know what that was,” Isa said. She shivered at the uneasiness skittering up her spine.
Cheri’s gaze flicked from Isa to the canvas still on the easel. Her brown eyes widened. She came the rest of the way down the stairs, slowly at first, then gathering speed like iron shavings attracted by a magnet. “My God, Isa. Is that what you’ve been working on? That piece is amazing.”
Piece? Isa sat up and looked. The blood rushed out of her head.
The canvas was half sculpture, half painting. Textured Maya blue clay hinted at tumbled-down pyramids. Red slashed the heart of the piece so it looked as if the canvas bled. Unsettling shadows and ripped shreds of black cloth—her sweatshirt, she gathered—had settled like vultures in the midst of the canvas. She remembered creating none of it.
“You certainly tapped into—something,” Cheri said. She shook her head and turned her back on the canvas. “Hey. Oki’s going-away party started. Can you leave this and come have a beer?”
“I think I’d better,” Isa mumbled. “Go on ahead. I’m going home first to change into clothes without paint. Or holes.”
Cheri nodded and started up the stairs. “We’ll be waiting.”
Isa scrambled to her feet and fled to the sink to scrub the drying blue clay from her hands. The clay washed away.
The Maya blue would not.
Even though Isa had agreed to put in an appearance at the party, she hadn’t intended to end up in a crowd. Certainly not a crowd of people comfortable inside their own skins.
Yet after turning tail on the inexplicable artwork in her basement to go change clothes, she stood in the early afternoon April rain outside the Tractor Tavern, staring at a sign plastered to the door that said PRIVATE EVENT. It sat atop a poster for her piercing artist—her friend—Nathalie’s band, Rage of the Raptors.
A guy in skinny jeans and a faded black sweater, with wisps of stringy blond hair poking out from beneath the knit cap pulled low on his head, came out the front door for a smoke. A guitar riff followed him out into the cold afternoon like a lost puppy.
Nathalie and Troy had invited her to Oki’s going-away party, and to the show, like they always had.
Isa had said no. Like she always had. Out of habit. Or self-pity maybe. Or was it out of self-preservation? She was a day late and a dollar short on that one. She should have known Troy would send his wife, Cheri, to haul Isa out of the basement of Nightmare Ink, the tattoo shop Troy, Isa, and Nathalie shared.
Isa had once wanted nothing more than to be normal. That possibility had gone up in smoke when Daniel Alvarez had kidnapped and tattooed her with Live Ink against her will. The tattoo had been designed to steal her magic, her sanity, and ultimately, her life. Instead, the tattoo she’d named Murmur and she had negotiated an uneasy truce. Then they’d stumbled on a way to give him what he’d wanted.
Daniel had tried to sacrifice Murmur and Isa. He’d ended up sacrificing himself and his Living Tattoo instead. Maybe she and Murmur had helped make that happen, sure, but it hadn’t gone well for them, either.
Daniel had died.
Murmur had ripped out her throat, taken over Daniel’s body, healed it, and then healed Isa.
Now Murmur was gone. Free.
Isa should have been relieved. Yet three weeks after the fact, she could still taste the smoky caramel of their first and last kiss. And she craved him in ways she’d never imagined were possible.
Within her psyche, an ice-cold razor traced the outline of where Murmur had been. Isa shivered. Driven by longing for something she couldn’t have and shouldn’t want, she went inside. A young woman glanced at Isa’s ID, checked off a list, and nodded.
A simple, sweet melody rang from a single guitar on a darkened stage. A scent that seemed to be a combination of sweat—the kind from exertion rather than nerves—and alcohol hung in the air.
Sound resonated through her as if her barren soul had no further purpose but to vibrate in sympathy with Nathalie’s guitar.
Lights exploded on, aimed at the stage.
The tiny audience roared.
All four women on stage picked up the strand of melody and turned it into a pounding, driving beat.
Music and dancing bodies filled the room. A few people clung to stools and their drinks, tapping their feet or swaying in their seats.
Isa spotted Troy’s tall, broad-shouldered frame in the middle of the dance floor. It took another second of staring to find Cheri.
Hugging the shadows near the edges of the room, Isa looked for an empty spot where she could watch Nat’s girl band perform their brand of blues-y, angry white chick rock while Troy and Cheri danced.
Someone dancing beside them, black hair flying, stopped dead. She stood stock-still amid the gyrating throng and peered at Isa.
Glittering starlight magic brushed Isa’s cheek.
Oki Oshakagiri, the reason for the party. She’d used her power on Isa’s behalf, chasing down research rabbit holes and coming back with exactly what Isa had needed. Oki had caught the attention of the Imperial Order of Living Art in Japan. They’d recruited her.
Isa suppressed a groan. Not only was it her fault that Oki was leaving for Tokyo that evening, Oki had caught Isa lurking in the shadows.
Oki spun, gesturing as if she meant to flag down a naval carrier. Dancers dodged.
Troy stopped mid-bounce.
Cheri led the charge to Isa’s position. Troy’s diminutive wife had an explosion of curly brown hair and pale skin in a heart-shaped face that sported a spray of freckles across her nose and cheekbones. She hit maybe five foot four, but she cantered off that dance floor.
Isa had never seen anyone that small move so fast. She waited for Cheri to body check any of the dancers who weren’t quick enough to get out of her way.
“Isa!” she crowed. “Come on! We’ve got a table set up in the back. I’m going to get that beer.”
The song ended.
The crowd yelled and whistled approval.
Nathalie stepped up to a mike beside the bass player and added her voice to the lead singer’s as they started the next song.
“This way,” Troy said. The former bouncer turned tattoo artist played ice breaker through the enthusiastic dancers.
Cheri angled toward the bar.
Isa couldn’t do anything but follow in Troy’s wake. He led the way to a table tucked into a shadowed corner beside the bar where it couldn’t be a mortal danger to the people on the dance floor.
“This is it,” Troy said. “Let me get your coat.”
He took Isa’s rain jacket from her shoulders and draped it over an empty chair.
Isa sat and shifted so she could see the band.
Onstage, Nathalie waved. She’d dropped out of the duet. Grinning, she applied herself to the strings of her guitar, her eyes suspiciously red.
Isa had no idea how Nat could see her past the glare of the lights.
“One pitcher of porter and an extra glass,” Cheri announced, plunking the glass before her.
“Where’s Austin?” Isa asked.
“The ankle-biter, by which I mean my beloved son, is hanging with my folks,” Cheri said, “who, I discovered, have a bunch of my cast-off canvas. I’m not going back to painting. Since you are, I’ll bring you the canvas.”
Isa lifted her palms, stained bright, vibrant blue, for Cheri to see. “You’ve done enough, thanks.”
Cheri stared, then doubled over, cackling.
“That is so disturbing,” Isa said.
Oki grabbed one of Isa’s hands. “What the hell?”
“Maya blue,” Isa said, “a pigment someone sent Cheri. She wasn’t into it. And I’ve discovered it doesn’t wash off.”
“Cheri had me bring it to Ice when I mentioned Isa had taken up painting again,” Troy said between chuckles.
Wiping her eyes, Cheri sobered and filled Isa’s glass, then everyone else’s. She dropped into the seat next to Isa.
Troy picked up his chair, spun it so he could straddle it facing the stage, and sat beside his wife.
Oki took up position on Isa’s other side. “Thanks for coming, Ice! I didn’t think I’d see you again before I had to fly out.”
“I had no idea you guys had bought out the Tractor.”
“Only because we agreed to a Thursday afternoon,” Troy said.
“I know how this sounds, but who are all these people?” Isa asked.
Oki downed half her beer, then said, “Friends from the university, some customers. There’s Cynthia from the yoga shop. You know. People like you who wanted to see me before I fly off.”
Isa watched Oki polish off her beer and then reach for the pitcher. “Do you intend to be sober when you get on that plane for Tokyo?”
“Yes,” she said, after downing half of her second glass. “Have to be at the airport a couple of hours early. That’s enough time to sober up, right? I can’t face Mom crying anymore. Not sober.”
“I feel a little of her pain.” Isa grimaced. “It’s selfish, but who’s going to bring me California rolls?”
“Hey, if you cry, I swear I’ll dump what’s left of the beer on your head,” Oki said.
Cheri grabbed the pitcher. “Don’t you dare!”
“Your California roll is officially no longer my problem.” Oki grinned. “I’ll be able to dish up better stuff where I’m going.”
Nodding, Isa breathed in a slow, thin stream of air. It did nothing to stabilize the feeling that another chunk of the world was crumbling beneath her feet.
“The library of the Imperial Order of Living Art,” Isa said. “While it’ll be nice to have someone I haven’t pissed off in a position to look stuff up for me, I’m learning to hate change.”
Oki and Cheri laughed.
“Any wisdom for the departing student?” Oki asked. “Tell me the rules.”
Isa blinked. “I must have misplaced my copy of the rulebook. I didn’t think rules had been worked out in the past fifty to one hundred years that magic has been a thing.”
“But you do everything a certain way,” Troy protested.
“Sure. The way I was trained,” Isa said and looked around a circle of glum faces. “Okay. Maybe we start the manual of magic. My first rule would be: Train hard so you know your limits and your abilities. Find out what they are before someone else does.”
“Whoa,” Oki said. “That starts us right off on a paranoid note. I like it. What else?”
“Same rules as life, I’d say. Be a decent human being. Help people. Protect the innocent. Defend life. Respect death.”
“Now you’re writing a philosophy treatise,” Cheri said.
“I don’t think you could grow up with the three elders I grew up with and not,” Isa said.
“I was hoping for something like, ‘You’ll be able to find six unlikely things a day. After that hit the sake and give it up,’” Oki said.
“How many unlikely things have you found in one day?” Isa asked.
Oki wrinkled her nose. “I—It’s not like that. The expenditure of energy goes on for days while I loop down a spiral, circling ever closer to the thing I need. It’s like a lost kid, you know? Hiding and crying. I have to zero in on the crying.”
Isa sat back. “Congratulations. You’ve written your own first rule.”
“Hey! Great work.” Troy lifted his beer glass in toast.
“What are your rules, Ice?” Cheri asked.
Isa wanted to offer a flip answer. She couldn’t. “I wish I could tell you. It isn’t that I don’t want to. It’s that everything has shifted inside, and I can’t help thinking that the rules I’ve internalized and built my practice on were for a game that has changed in a way I don’t yet understand.”
The three of them stared at her.
Cheri put an arm around her shoulders. “It’s the aftereffect of losing your tattoo. It has to be. Your reality got turned inside out twice, first when Daniel forced that Ink on you, and then, second, when that Ink came off in the worst possible way. Give it time.”
“Maybe so,” Isa said. “If you don’t like the philosophy treatise as rule two, try this on for size. I was taught that magic is only as good as your concentration and focus. I don’t know if you can train to get more magic, I suspect every branch of the military is researching to find out, but I do know that concentration is a muscle. It can be developed.”
“It’s also the thing that can be drugged away, right?” Oki said. “That’s why Live Ink means no mind-altering substances.”
“Is that rule three?” Troy asked.
“Specific to Live Ink,” Isa said, shaking her head. “This is a labyrinth, isn’t it?”
“A whole series of rulebooks? Applicable to different situations,” he said.
“Oh, no. I have a job.”
“We’d help you,” Oki said. “So what are the limits? When do you—does anyone—run out of magic?”
“For me, it was working with someone whose power doesn’t mesh with mine,” Isa said. “Nothing since has bled me dry faster or more completely than that.”
Troy grimaced. “Apprenticing alongside Daniel?”
Isa nodded. “It’s one of the many reasons I believed I was an idiot when I was an apprentice. I’d trained so hard on the reservation and then I got here and didn’t seem to have enough power to do Live Ink bigger than a postcard.”
“If you were an idiot about anything, ever,” Cheri said, “it was for dating Daniel past the point that it became clear he was trying to grow his power at the expense of yours.”
“Hindsight,” Isa said and lifted her beer. “Maybe that’s rule three. Don’t let anyone feed off of you.”
Her friends laughed.
The song ended, but the band dove straight into their next piece. Cheri drained her glass, rocketed to her feet, and held out a hand.
“Let’s go, you’re dancing!”
Oki jumped up, grabbed her hands, and pulled.
Cheri, Oki, and Isa found a few inches of space on the floor, squeezed in, and danced. When Troy joined them, they won considerably more room. Nathalie even hopped offstage to dance with them at one point.
The physical exertion in time with the music didn’t drive away the chill plaguing Isa the way she’d hoped it would. Silvery frost, sharp and biting, traced the scars inside her again. In the middle of the crowded dance floor, uneasiness crept over her. The flesh between her shoulder blades tightened.
Power rose from her center like a dog lifting his nose to test the breeze. It yanked her around to stare at the eastern wall of the tavern. She scowled. “What the hell?”
A fist of multicolored, multivoiced magic slammed her. Ears ringing, she rocked and stumbled.
That was a magical scream for help if ever she’d heard one. Felt. Ouch. Gold surged to the underside of her skin, shoving away the bruising magic.
Oki slumped. Ashen, Troy grabbed her. She sagged, limp, in his arms. Troy helped her to a chair.
Dancers stumbled as people sensitive to magic registered the hit and either fell or fainted outright.
Nathalie fumbled a chord. The music crashed to a stop.
Isa’s cell phone buzzed in her back pocket. The faint strains of “I Shot the Sheriff” played into the silence, then died.
Onstage, Nathalie snorted.
Isa grabbed the phone. Maybe now that she was dating Officer Steve Corvane, head of the Seattle Police Department Acts of Magic Unit, she ought to change his ring and text tone.
911 where r u? Steve’s text said.
Isa frowned. Had Steve felt that hit? Or was whatever had caused it generating emergency calls to the police already?
Her heart bumped against her ribs.
Oki’s party. U were invited. Come on down, Isa answered, edging off the dance floor.
People were recovering. Nervous laughter and a few “I’m fine, just need another beer” statements signaled the return to normalcy.
“I’m okay,” Nathalie said from stage. “Sorry.”
The phone buzzed in Isa’s hand. Meet @ shop. 5 min.
Isa shoved the phone into her back pocket and grabbed her coat.
“Something just happened, didn’t it? With magic. And Steve expects you to help?” Troy asked.
She hadn’t heard him follow her. She nodded. “He’s issuing orders.”
Troy’s brow lowered. “Steve’s sense of self-preservation is usually better than that.”
“I—” She hesitated, not sure how to give voice to the uneasy frisson lighting up her internal scar tissue. “I’ve got to go.”
She tilted her head at Oki, who’d achieved her feet and was busy denying that she needed to sit down. “If she has any further trouble, get her to the containment studio and close the door.”
Troy frowned. “Rule four. Gotcha. Do what you have to. We’ve got your critters covered.”
She glanced at the stage.
Nat lifted her chin in one of those all-purpose gestures that could mean “all good,” “so long,” or “see you later.”
Maybe Isa wouldn’t change Steve’s ring tone. When her friends heard it, they knew she’d been summoned to consult for the Seattle Police Department’s Acts of Magic Unit. Isa strode out the front door into blinding afternoon sunlight. Typical April weather that couldn’t make up its mind.
At least one driver on Ballard Ave had been hit by the magic surge that had kicked Isa and Oki in the gut. The white minivan had swerved into the side of a parked car. People surrounded the vehicle. The driver pressed the heels of his hands into his forehead, as if still trying to drive dizziness away.
The block and a half to Nightmare Ink stretched long, even though Isa jogged it, dodging the people wandering between the shops and restaurants lining the avenue.
Steve wasn’t there yet.
Isa went inside, locked the door behind her, and clattered down the narrow stairs to the basement. She’d built her metal and basalt containment studio into the bedrock of the place so it could ground magical energy rather than let it escape out into the world the way that rainbow-hued fist had. Ducking into the dark studio, she grabbed a backpack she kept on a rack Troy had built beside the door.
Working as Steve’s Live Ink consultant, Isa had learned to keep a kit of all the things she might need at a crime scene packed and ready to go. She slung the pack containing Live Ink, stasis paper, and binding ink to her back.
Upstairs, the Nepalese goat bell tied to the door jingled. She’d locked that door. Someone with a key to the shop, then. Which, given her friends, didn’t narrow the field much.
Frowning, she glanced up the staircase. “Steve?”
“Nah.” Troy poked his head around the door at the top of the stairs and peered down at her. “You okay?”
“Yes. What’s wrong?”
“Nat. Oki and Cheri,” he said, flashing a grin. “Worrying.”
“You weren’t?” Isa asked as she climbed the stairs.
“I know when I’m outgunned, Ice.” He stepped aside and held the door open.
Smiling, she drew breath to comment.
A bolt of puce magic slammed through her sternum. It knocked the air from her lungs and set her heart to pounding. Tottering on the top step, she gasped. What the hell? Another one?
Troy snagged her gray-and-black jacket and yanked her into the lobby.
Gunfire. Two shots. Three. Near enough that the percussion wave rattled her bones.
Screams erupted from the street, the noise ghostly, filtered as it was through the brick, steel, and plate glass of the building.
Was this another wave of the initial strike that had hit at the Tractor? The magic didn’t look or sting in the same way. A single color dominated the attack, which was different. The first one had clearly been multiple cries for help.
This bolt had been an unshielded attempt to kill.
Chest aching, Isa dove for the front door. Innocent people on the streets would be as vulnerable to magic as to gunfire. She couldn’t do anything about bullets. She could interrupt a magical attack.
She barreled out onto the uneven sidewalk into the chilly spring breeze. At least the rain had stopped.
Red-brown power pierced her chest again, a spreading bloodstain of terror. Isa marshaled her magic, not to block the attack, but to trace it to its source.
Liquid gold, cold and bright as midwinter sunshine, rose from within to obey. She opened her etheric eye.
Did consulting for the Seattle Police Department Acts of Magic Unit give her the obligation, not to mention the right, to respond? Or was that a matter of sheer human decency?
“Isa!” Troy yelled from the doorway.
Isa pulled up short and spun to face him. “Call Steve! Report the gunfire! Tell him unshielded magic attack!”
Maybe she hadn’t shielded, either. Troy jolted back a step when Isa met his eye. Hastily, she pulled her power back into the confines of her skin and bone and slammed a shield into place. Rule five: Shield.
Hands shaking, her business partner unhooked his cell phone from his belt clip and dialed.
Isa’s fingers curled on the strap of her brown leather backpack. She strode around the corner of the building. West.
Someone screamed. Sharp. Gurgling.
Her heart slammed into her ribs. Breathing too quickly, she risked twisting an ankle running downhill. Unconscious bodies slumped on the sidewalks. One or two were already recovering and stirring. Isa caught glimpses of pale, wide-eyed faces peeking out of the shops lining the street.
She picked up speed. Wrought iron fence posts, pointing at the sky, blurred past.
Cars littered Shilshole Avenue, still running, fenders dented, hoods crumpled, and in one case, radiator fluid dripping. A couple of drivers slumped behind the wheels. The few conscious drivers she spotted as she ran held cell phones to their ears.
She ducked between a pair of parked cars. Sunlight filtered through the patchy clouds showed through the tinted windows of a dark luxury SUV, illuminating the shadows of people inside.
As she darted between their car and the dented primer gray door of an ancient pickup, the hair at the back of her neck lifted in warning focused on the SUV.
What was that about?
Another flare of brownish-red magic rippled through the street.
No time to decipher the reaction to the four silhouettes inside the vehicle.
She found a stretch of asphalt not blocked by an accident and ran across the street to the gravel on the other side. She jumped the decrepit railroad tracks paralleling the shore of the boat canal.
A rising cloud of blue gun smoke directed her into the crumbling parking lot of a shuttered restaurant. Between the rows of parked cars, Isa spotted someone on the ground.
A huge, white bird, wings beating, swooped over the body.
Pausing in the dubious shelter of the parking rate sign, she renewed her shield and once more shifted her eyesight out of the ordinary into the etheric. Sunshine broke through fast-moving slate-colored clouds. The yellow rays slanted to earth, competing with the splashes, trails, and pools of other people’s magic.
The bird hit the person huddled on the ground with his arms wrapped around his head. It looked like an owl, save that it was the size of Gus, Isa’s forty-pound dog.
An agonized shriek followed the thud of flesh impacting flesh.
“Lady! What the hell are you doing?” a male voice bellowed behind her.
The man on the ground rolled, dislodging the bird. It shrieked and launched skyward.
Sobbing, the man lifted a gun. Three shots exploded across the parking lot, so close she caught the muzzle flash. That was the only way she could count the shots. After the first, her ears buzzed and ached as if stuffed too full with cotton.
The man on the ground hemorrhaged magic the color of old blood. As Isa stared, her breath caught in the confusion of trying to make sense of a barn owl attacking a grown man in broad daylight, a tendril of dusty yellow erupted from the man’s flickering aura.
Live Ink pulling free?
Unless she got close enough for touch, she wouldn’t know for sure, and the longer she stood looking, the greater the chances the tattoo would pull free and escape. The last time that had happened, three people had died, one of them a critical witness in an organized crime case. The other two had been Acts of Magic Bureau of Investigations—federal—agents.
Isa stepped into the open, pulling up enough magic to color even her mundane vision gold.
A hand closed hard around her upper arm, stopping her.
She glared over her shoulder at the owner of the hand.
The man wore a slick black business suit. He was a boulder, broad, thick, and immovable.
Instinct whispered, Danger. Isa ground the internal warning between her teeth and yanked her arm free. The waffle weave cotton of her shirt tried to stay behind in his grasp. It took a few layers of skin.
The man grimaced, his clenched teeth bared. His dark brown eyes flicked away, as if seeking escape from the rising tide of gold moving through Isa. He tried to say something.
Her ears, still ringing in response to the gunfire, refused to register anything more than the fact that he was speaking. All she got was a thick, muted parody of sound, not words.
She slid away from him and raced for the incomprehensible attack under way in the parking lot.
Had the guy on the ground tried to fight the owl with magic? Only he glowed with the faltering brown-red magic that had slammed through the surrounding blocks.
In the time she’d wasted shaking off someone trying to protect her, the bird hit the man again. Its beak came up bloody.
The owl turned orange coal eyes upon her. Silver magic, pure and inhuman, warped the air around the creature like the shimmering waves of heat rising from sunbaked asphalt.
Magic leaked out of her on an exhaled breath. Isa stumbled. Her power collapsed, sinking into her core as if running from a bogeyman.
That was no owl.
A high-pitched whine kicked Isa’s brain.
She’d seen eyes like this once before. And she shouldn’t look into them. Where did that knowledge come from?
Ripping her gaze away from the unearthly orange filling her vision left her sweating and gasping. Memory opened before her. Murmur had still been a part of her. He’d known this thing, had been afraid of it. It was from his world. What had he called it?
A Magic Eater.
Don’t look it in the eye, but don’t let it out of sight.
Isa glanced back, determined to track the thing without letting it catch her gaze again.
It lifted sharp-edged wings. Wicked, bloody hooks glistened at each wing tip. It opened its beak in a cry she couldn’t hear and launched at her.
Through the spurt of adrenaline burning a hole in her gut, Isa reached for power.
The thing dove for her upturned face.
She threw herself to one side, hit a car hood, and slid to the ground in front of the bumper. The wind from the Magic Eater’s dive buffeted her as it missed and beat wings as wide as she was tall to pull up.
The pack slung over her left shoulder stopped her cold, face up to a fresh spurt of icy rain. And to the talons of the winged monster circling for another strike.
She threw herself right and scrambled to her hands and knees.
The owl struck her shoulder. Or would have, had the backpack not been there to take the blow rather than her flesh. Her hair fluttered around her face, responding to the rhythmic gusts stirred by flapping wings.
Shaking, bile biting the back of her throat, she bolted for the narrow space between two parked cars. Gravel atop crumbling concrete and green shards of broken glass dug into her skin. She didn’t care.
Hampered by the cars, the Magic Eater would have to attack from the ground rather than from the air.
Isa slid her pack to the ground and slammed her back against a shiny blue car door.
A whirl of bloodstained white dropped to the ground in front of the cars where she sheltered.
She fumbled the backpack open, clutching within for anything she could use against the creature.
What the hell had Murmur said about how to kill one?
A chill walked up her spine. That’s right. She couldn’t. Only someone without magic could.
Movement between the cars.
Her hand closed on a crystal vial. Nothing pinged her fingers. Her bottle of binding ink. A light flashed on inside her head. If someone without magic could destroy a Magic Eater, what would ink Isa had brewed to bind and destroy a creature of magic do?
The monster stalked between the cars, scoring the metal and paint with those wing-tip talons.
Isa wrestled the top from the ink vial, risked focusing on the frame of the too-close-to-her creature, and flung the binding ink in its face.
They both froze.
Isa sobbed in a breath.
The thing blinked in so owl-like a fashion, Isa nearly succumbed to the urge to meet its gaze.
Hurling the empty vial at it for good measure, she swung around on her butt, braced her hands behind her, drew her legs to her chest, and kicked with all her might.
It fell backward, flailing.
Isa struggled to achieve her feet. Her legs responded as if her frantic commands to get up had to travel through molasses. Why wouldn’t her legs work? Gasping, keeping the Magic Eater in her peripheral vision, Isa hauled herself up the passenger’s door of the blue car.
The creature hadn’t attained its feet, either. Nor had it taken wing. It struggled, thrashing like a beetle on its back.
Isa still couldn’t feel her feet. Holding on to the car, she shuffled sideways, trying to put the car between her and the winged thing.
Smoke puffed from where the Magic Eater lay. The breeze grabbed the tendril of oily, black smoke. It flagged down the monster’s body toward where Isa leaned against the car.
The Magic Eater rolled and climbed to its feet.
Isa’s heart thudded hard.
Greasy-looking smoke rolled from its face. Orange goo seeped down its snow white feathers. Its beak was wide open as if the bird screamed.
Isa still couldn’t hear.
Windmilling clawed wings, it came for her.
She nearly burst her throat shrieking as she backpedaled on legs taken over by pins and needles.
In a blur of motion, something dark struck the Magic Eater’s head. Viscous purple blood fountained into the April rain. A burst of smoke tasting like burning rubber coated her tongue. Fire, amber and deeper orange, erupted from the blood, charring white feathers.
Isa dared to take her eyes off the burning thing flapping in a mud puddle.
Cold, dark eyes set into a man’s expressionless face met her gaze briefly before jerking back to the creature on the ground. Four teardrops tattooed beneath the man’s left eye glinted in the rain as if they were real and not merely ink.
Ria, the local gang leader. He had a length of rebar in his hands. He gripped it as if it were a baseball bat and he meant to knock one out of the park. Reversing his hold on the rebar, the gang leader shoved the struggling Magic Eater onto the gravel-strewn pavement with the toe of his scuffed black motorcycle boots. He stabbed the rebar through the creature’s body.
Wings spasmed, then went limp. Fire flared up around the iron, fizzled, and died. Nothing but ash remained, sinking into a coffee-colored mud puddle.
Only someone without magic.
Isa blew out a shaking breath.
A flash of dusty yellow spun out across the parking lot, sucking away relief. She dove for her backpack and bolted for the man lying facedown where the Magic Eater had left him.
“Live Ink going bad!” she shouted at Ria as she dropped to her knees beside the body.
He stopped short.
Her fingers slid across the wet, slimy surface of a nylon jacket, the smell of blood so strong her mouth filled with the metallic taste of it.
She touched clammy skin.
As she counted, she caught no hint of the man’s red-brown magic. Desperate, howling yellowish power swirled into her bloodstream. His Ink, but no answering surge of energy from the Magic Eater’s victim.
Isa frowned. Chilly amber magic answered her call. She threw a shield into place, expanding it to contain her, the wounded man, and his Ink. A cold sage-and-pinyon-scented breeze brushed her cheek.
Isa fed her power into the man’s sluggish blood. Her attempt to nudge the three of them—man, Ink, and tattoo artist—into the etheric dragged at her like sticky, rank mud. They finally fell into the other world, dragged down by the weight of the man’s curiously absent power.
Gold light flared in the nowhere of the astral. The dusty yellow whirl of Ink manifested before her. Wind buffeted her, rose to a howl.
Isa glanced at the tattoo.
A whirlwind? A dust devil, maybe.
It flung stinging particles at her face and eyes.
“I want to help,” she said. She dove into the river of power flowing through her. Liquid amber enfolded her and invited her to feel at home. Once upon a time, she would have. Before she’d become addicted to the gold of her magic shimmering through the night of the demon who’d been forced to share her psyche.
Now, the bright, shining energy struck her as flat. Inadequate.
In the physical world, she dug in her pack for stasis paper and settled it over the tattoo on the injured man’s skin. The Ink had to have someplace to go if it couldn’t remain on its host. No matter how Isa nudged with power, no trace of magic answered from within the man’s body. Without magic to feed upon, the Living Tattoo couldn’t remain on his skin.
Isa pressed the paper to the tattoo. Blood soaked into the surface. She wouldn’t get the chance to ease the tattoo off the man’s skin. The Ink was coming off the hard way, tearing free. Sudden weight came into her physical hands, as if she’d caught a buzzing softball. The dust devil had landed in the stasis paper. Assured that it was safe, she turned her attention to the wounded man.
Forcing magic into him the way Murmur had taught her, she tried to heal his physical wounds. Energy drained out of her. It healed nothing.
Frowning, she renewed her grip on power and poured it into him once more.
What? She sucked in a shaking breath.
Chill air, reeking of gritty mud and charred rubber, burned her nose. Subtle pain crawled her psyche, not quite headache, not quite muscles burning. She opened her eyes.
A flock of pigeons stood just outside her shield, heads jutting forward, then sliding back, feathers ruffling in the gusty breeze. When she looked at them, the flock cocked their heads in a strange, unified dance as each bird examined her.
Waiting for her to offer food she didn’t have? Or had they been drawn by the energy of what she’d done? Isa hoped not. If they had been, it meant her shield had leaked. That could and would draw the Acts of Magic police. At best. She’d once been warned about how many worse things could be drawn to unshielded magic.
With shaking hands, Isa tucked the stasis paper containing the whirlwind into her backpack.
Why couldn’t she heal the bleeding man?
The pigeons started into the air, feathers, the musty stink of pigeon dung, and the wind from their flapping wings sweeping her face.
A hand closed around her upper arm and attempted to urge her to her feet.
Isa expected Ria and swung her head to glare at him. She started at seeing the boulder wearing a suit instead.
When her gaze met his, the man flinched.
She hadn’t grounded.
Isa’s lip curled. Served him right for barreling straight through her shield.
His grip tightened. His lips moved. He pulled on her arm again.
Ears still buzzing, Isa drew her shields back into her body. Her magic responded. What had she done wrong with the healing?
Ria strode into her line of sight, his Glock in one hand as he approached. He spoke.
She couldn’t make out what he said, but that he carried his gun openly told her he considered the man trying to haul her upright a threat.
It occurred to her to heal the damage to her ears. The roar of gunfire that had deafened her would fade overnight, but she needed to hear now. Magic still simmered beneath the surface of her skin, bubbles rising up, and bursting in thick, oozy spatters. It stirred, rising into the damaged cells and cilia.
The hand on her arm jerked away as if her use of magic had burned him. At least she actually heard the startled cry that accompanied his move. She could heal herself but not the man on the ground. Why?
Ria snarled at her in Spanish Isa didn’t understand. He angled around to bring up the Glock.
Aimed at the suit.
“Ms. Romanchyk,” the man in the suit said, “my colleagues and I would like a word. If you’ll come with me.”
“No,” Ria said, his voice flat. His knuckles showed white as his fingers tightened on the grip, and possibly the trigger, of his gun.
“There’s been enough shooting for one day, don’t you think?” Isa said.
“Absolutely,” the boulder said.
“A friend of yours recommended we seek you out,” the man interrupted as if Ria didn’t stand there with a gun pointed at his heart. “George Tollefson. Come with me. I’ll take you to him.”
Emanuel, Ria’s second-in-command, walked out of the line of parked cars behind the man, put his gun to the back of the boulder’s head, and cocked it. “Señora Ice goes nowhere.”
“I don’t know you,” Isa said to the boulder, “and I don’t know anyone by the name you mentioned. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“You’re in danger here,” the boulder countered.
“The guns are pointed at you,” she noted.
“Walter is down. What’s one body more or less?” Emanuel asked.
“Not in front of Señora Ice,” Ria said. He held out his left hand. “Isa?”
She stepped behind him so as not to cross his line of fire. “I won’t touch you. I’m not grounded. And your friend is alive.”
“Bueno,” he said.
“Walk away,” Emanuel coaxed the suit.
“This isn’t over,” the man gritted. He stalked past Isa.
The SUV she’d passed earlier roared up a line of cars. It screeched to a halt. One of the doors burst open.
Isa counted the sinister snicks of at least four more guns cocking in the parking lot behind her.
“Leave it,” the man who’d tried to strong-arm her said as he climbed into the car.
After a moment, the car door closed. The vehicle powered past. Ignoring the stop sign and the train tracks, it jounced out of the parking lot onto Shilshole Avenue and went east.
“What the fuck where you doing, walking into a fight?” Ria snarled at her.
She glanced at him.
Though he’d tucked his gun away as if he’d never held it, anger spun through the chill air, thumping her square in the chest. “You drew the attack to yourself. What was that thing? Walter could have shot you. How you weren’t harmed . . . Do you have no fear? No sense of self-preservation? You’re no good to me dead.”
Isa blinked, taken aback by his rage.
“Ria,” Emanuel said, crouching beside Walter. “Look.”
Both Ria and Isa glanced at the prone man.
Disquiet like ice water dribbled down her spine.
Emanuel had rolled Walter over so he laid face up.
Walter was awake, but not aware. His wide-open eyes stared, unfocused at the sky. Every muscle in his face and body pulled slack against his bones as if nothing remained of him to oppose the force of gravity.
Memory dumped her into another of Murmur’s remembrances. Shattered, vacant-eyed men littered a battlefield, every ounce of their vital essence, the stuff that had made them them, sucked out until only a hollow, brittle shell remained. They’d been attacked by Magic Eaters. Like Walter had.
“Is this normal?” Emanuel demanded. “Because his Ink came off?”
“No.” She pressed her lips tight to hold back the terrible suspicion that, for Walter, there’d be no recovery.
Ria cut a sharp look her way. Whatever he saw in her scrunched-up face, he drew himself upright. He pulled his gun and fired.
Isa stumbled back, throat scratched raw by the shriek of protest no one would hear above the Glock’s report. The magic still fizzing her blood repaired her hearing again while Isa stared at the hole in the middle of Walter’s forehead.
Blood and material she couldn’t bear to identify trickled like a tear down his hairline. A muscle jumped in his right cheek, pulling his mouth into a brief grimace.
Flinching, she caught in her breath. What had happened to not in front of Señora Ice?
Silence settled, save for the breeze flagging the painter’s plastic wrapped around a monstrous fishing boat in the dry dock. And in the distance, a siren wailed, coming closer. Finally.
Ria studied her, his expression smooth. No compassion. No remorse. “I will need a new tattoo.” He lifted his left cheekbone to the sky. The iridescent ink of the teardrops there shimmered.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she whispered because she couldn’t trust her voice.
Ria shook his head. “What did you see when you treated him, señora?”
“Sí. He was a good man. A good warrior. His family will not be burdened by medical bills and false hope.”
She was breathing too fast, her trembling hands clenched.
Emanuel, his lips pressed tight and regret shadowing his eyes, picked up her backpack. He offered it to her. Across Walter’s corpse.
A chocolate brown Crown Vic, light bar in the back window flashing, swung into the parking lot and screeched to a sliding halt on the wet pavement and gravel. The driver’s door opened.
“Isa!” Tension rode his voice. His short, sandy brown hair was rumpled. Harsh lines showed at the corners of his gray eyes. “What the hell is going on? Troy told me to follow the gunfire.”
“Ink emergency,” she said, cringing at the wobble in the gross understatement.
Steve’s gaze flicked to the dead man, to Ria, then back to Isa. “No time for this. We have a situation. I need you now.”
No time for a killer, still armed with the murder weapon, standing over the body of the man he’d killed? That jolted her. She grabbed her pack from Emanuel.
Ria shifted. “Thank you, señora. You should know. George Tollefson. You do know him.”
“Patty,” Ria said.
The flamboyant cross-dressing prostitute who’d worked the street in front of Isa’s shop. Patty had helped save Isa’s life after the kidnapping. And subsequently gone missing.
“Son of a bitch.” She threw her pack in the car and got in.
“I’ll ask what that was later,” Steve said. “What do you need in the way of gear and what happened to your hands?”
“The blue is a long story. As for gear, I need a quick stop for more bind ink,” she said as Steve turned the car around and sped out of the parking lot, screeching to a halt in front of Nightmare Ink a couple of minutes later.
Isa sprinted inside, clattered down the stairs, and grabbed another bottle of binding ink. She took an extra few seconds to fish the stasis paper with the whirlwind tattoo on it out of her pack. She locked it into the containment studio and took the stairs two at a time back up to the street.
When she threw herself into his car, Steve hit the siren and took off once more.
Isa couldn’t ask Steve for a briefing, not over the siren. Constant chatter filled the radio, and while Steve had it turned up, she caught only the tension and fear in the voices. She couldn’t make out the words.
It echoed the noise of confusion and conjecture in her head. A Magic Eater. Where had it come from? Her brain threw a visual memory before her for inspection. Pure, inhuman, silver power warped the air around the creature.
She wrapped her arms around her ribs to suppress a shudder. That energy signature belonged to something she’d thrown out of this world. Hadn’t she? What the hell did seeing it mean?
And why hadn’t she been able to heal Walter?
Isa had to brace against her door as Steve whipped the car through the streets and around the traffic stopped on the surface streets leading to I-5. The freeway was jammed with cars. Both directions. Not just slow traffic. Parked traffic. Barely any motion at all. The Department of Transportation had erected emergency barriers, diverting traffic off the 520 floating bridge. The notification signs on I-5 flashed: 520 BRIDGE CLOSED. ACCIDENT MID-SPAN.
Annoyed drivers didn’t seem to be in any hurry to move out of the way of the police car. The calls on the radio became indistinguishable from the wail of the siren.
Isa craned her neck as they inched up the crest of the ship canal bridge, peering east even though she knew she’d never get a glimpse of 520.
A glimmer of hazy, visual disturbance warped the cloudy sky above Lake Washington. Pressure imbued with dreadful, crushing wrong landed on her ribs. Gasping, she slammed up a shield. Not just around her. She shielded the entire car. The weight of whatever was happening would be strong enough to affect any magic sensitive who got close enough to the source. Including Steve.
Damn, she needed to teach him to shield for himself.
Once they’d negotiated the narrow shoulders of I-5 to the 520 interchange and edged past the DOT barriers, people who’d made it onto the highway before the barriers went up were abandoning their cars, and fleeing Lake Washington. Some had tears coursing down their faces. Isa detected a pattern in which of the people had little to no magic and which of them had enough to see past the ordinary world. Over half of the pedestrians, while they wore perplexed frowns, didn’t look back. Not once. The rest cast terrified glances over their shoulders as if afraid of what they’d see coming after them.
Rule six: It takes magic to perceive magic.
Magic, real arcane power rather than simple sleight of hand, had appeared in the world between fifty and one hundred years ago. Historians couldn’t agree on exactly when. The first obvious evidence had come from seventy years ago. An arcane explosion—overloaded magic—had leveled a town in rural China. To this day, the farmland remained fallow. Not even the birds would fly over.
More arcane explosions, usually triggered by someone coming into too much power for the human form to handle—or so the theories went—had followed. In those early years, anyone who suddenly developed an affinity for the uncanny found themselves driven out of town, if they weren’t killed outright. Then, as suddenly as they’d begun, arcane explosions had stopped. Either the advent of magic into the world had settled in or the people with magic had learned how to handle it. Or maybe it was a form of magical Darwinism. If having too much magic resulted in death, then power self-selected down—into a form the human animal could manage.
Whatever it had been, the human race had coped. Was still coping. Some people had magic. Some people didn’t. In order to see the effects of magic—like the shimmer of power warping the air above the bridge—a person had to have power of their own as a frame of reference.
She shifted forward, straining against her seatbelt to catch a glimpse of what the people fleeing the scene feared. Emergency vehicles had preceded Steve’s car and cleared a path. Drivers, assuming there’d been an accident that the ambulances, police, and fire trucks could clear, had shifted off sides, opening a narrow, treacherous lane down the middle that now filled with people running up the bridge deck for Seattle.
As Steve laid on the horn, people shifted grudgingly to one side. Someone shouted at him to fuck off—they were running for their lives and not even the police had the right to divert them. At least no one was waving a gun around. Yet.
Isa began to detect blood and minor injuries on the pedestrians. They gave way to more severe injuries—visibly broken bones, semiconscious victims supported between grim-faced, uniformed first responders. Some of the victims were carried by other, less injured drivers.
As Steve’s car started down the western high rise, Isa looked into Armageddon. A bus lay overturned across the westbound traffic lanes, surrounded by victims who would never rise again. Half of the back section of the double long, reticulated bus dangled over the water. Cars and trucks had been tossed like the blocks of a two-year-old in the midst of a tantrum. One was a fire truck, lights still flashing amid the crumpled, shredded wreck of red and chrome.
News helicopters hung high above the bridge, tottering back and forth in the air.
Dark fluid wet the concrete bridge deck.
Isa’s breath rose high in her chest as her shoulders tightened.
The visual shimmer of here-be-magic resolved into a huge, scaly, five-headed monster of Ink and magic. A hydra. An enormous myth with gleaming, rainbow-hued scales stood splay-legged across the decks of both the east- and westbound lanes. Claws, dripping unspeakable meaty globs of human remains, grasped an SUV. One of the heads bent and ripped the roof from the vehicle as if it were a pop-top soup can. The other heads darted in, picking the struggling driver and passengers out of their seatbelts.
Blood sprayed. Kicking legs went limp, dangling from the monster’s teeth. The creature flung the empty shell of the vehicle into the water on the north side of the bridge. It landed amid the people who’d taken to the lake to escape.
Isa couldn’t count how many went down beneath the impact. A few bodies bobbed back to the surface, bouncing on the ripples. But they no longer swam. Or moved.
As it snapped the corpses into its mouths, the hydra grew.
Isa had to look away.
The exodus of wounded had ended. Abandoned cars and trucks surrounded them. Their path to the battlefield spread out before them. Too short to where the vehicles of the first responders piled up against one another.
“Do you see it?” Isa breathed.
She didn’t know how he heard above the siren. Or above the multithroated roar of the hydra.
Steve glanced at her, white outlining his lips. He clicked off the siren. No one remained in the cars around them to care, much less move out of the way. He nodded.
An arcane pressure wave built against her shield the closer they drew.
“Stop the car,” she rasped, her heart a sudden ache in her chest. She didn’t know yet why she’d said it, only that they couldn’t go any closer. Not both of them. “Stop the car!”
Steve didn’t answer. The car kept moving at a crawl toward the murderous thing.
“You can’t go down there,” Isa shouted at the windshield, surprised by the surge of determination that seemed to starch her quaking limbs. She undid her seatbelt, grabbed the strap of her backpack, opened her door, and rolled out of the car.
“Oof!” She hit the cement shoulder and hip first. The raincoat absorbed precious little of the impact. Sharp pain exploded through her shoulder. Her arm went numb.
Even though the car had measured their speed in a single digit, the momentum was enough that she slid a foot. Maybe more. If she survived the day, she’d have a hell of a fabric burn on her right hip where her jeans had saved her skin from the concrete.
The door hit a white van and rebounded.
Steve jerked the car to a halt.
Isa struggled to her feet in the south wind while he slammed his door into a shiny green sports car.
“Isa! We don’t have—”
“You have too much magic to go unnoticed and not enough training to use it to protect yourself!” She hefted the pack strap over her left shoulder and faced him across the hood of the car.
Outside the sound barrier of the car, she could hear the shrill din of human voices raised in terrified unison. And the crunch of snapping bone in the creature’s many maws.
Her stomach turned.
She didn’t have enough power or training to protect herself from something that had been gorging on blood and magic all afternoon.
His lips curled. “Someone has to—”
“It’s why you brought me, Steve.”
He glanced at the carnage. The flush of rage drained from his face. “What’s your plan?”
Plan? Isa swallowed hard. “The only hope is to contain it.”
“You can do that?”
“I have to try.”
He blew out an audibly unsteady breath. “Be careful.” He opened his mouth as if to say more, closed it, and nodded once.
She mirrored the gesture. Her throat closed on what she couldn’t say to his face. So, coward that she was, Isa retreated to business. “No closer. If it starts coming this way, get the hell out of here.”
Without waiting for an answer, she turned and, ignoring the ache in her hip and shoulder, strode from the frying pan into the fire.
She reached the first police and aid cars clogging the center of the bridge deck.
Clouds scudded across the lowering sun. Dark in the next two or three hours. If she couldn’t get the hydra under some kind of control before sundown, the survivors wouldn’t stand a chance. Especially the ones in the water.
Teeth chattering, pulse hammering in her ears, Isa fought nerves twitching with the impulse to flee.
The wind could no longer blow away the stench of death, spilled fuel, and the sharp, electrical tang of magic overloading. She and the survivors were running out of time. Arcane sparks could ignite aerosolized gasoline as surely as any physical spark.
The hydra froze. Every single head swiveled. Too many eyes to count turned to glare at her.
Isa’s gut clenched.
Magic rolled through her middle in a queasy-making wave. The ever-present river of shimmering light that ran through her core had given away her approach. She desperately needed it to protect her. And she couldn’t seem to gather enough of her scattered will to summon more than a mote.
The hydra opened three of its bloody, reeking maws and trilled what sounded like a question. Wondering whether she’d taste good when one of its heads bit her in half?
Adrenaline scorched a path from behind her sternum straight down. It sloshed around inside the wound left by Murmur’s departure.
She missed him. A bitter laugh escaped her lips.
It broke her paralysis.
Staring into the burning, whirling yellow-green eyes of the hydra, she breathed the odors of terror, death, gasoline, diesel, and hydra poison deep into her lungs. Drawing energy in with the foul air, she concentrated power at her core. It steadied her.
The hydra took an impossibly big step toward her. It crushed a semi beneath one clawed foot and a tiny import car beneath another.
Quaking, clenching every muscle to keep from running, she shoved her awareness deep into the river of liquid sunlight, gathering it, calling it up for use.
“Changing Woman, I sure need help with this one,” Isa muttered, naming one of the deities from her childhood. She wasn’t blood of Changing Woman’s people; 520 wasn’t necessarily Changing Woman’s land.
Isa hoped it wouldn’t matter. She only knew she was unequal to the task of neutralizing the being currently dedicating two heads to plucking shrieking victims out of Lake Washington.
Terrible, wet splintering sounds stopped the screams.
Her heart faltered and her gorge rose. Isa swallowed hard.
No more victims. She had to get the thing under control.
Power rose in a whirl, lighting her from within. Bright as noon on the desert, but no warmth. Isa pushed the glittering magic outward in a bubble around her, strengthening her shield, drawing it tight and impenetrable, she hoped, around her.
The creature appeared to sense the energy moving. Every eye fastened upon her. One of the hydra’s many heads darted down.
She poured power into the shield, turning the magic into something impermeable.
Serrated teeth, dripping bloody slime, impacted the shield. The hit resonated through to her bones. She stumbled.
The hydra rebounded, shock in the coiling of its other necks. It threw four heads to the sky and bugled a challenge.
Her ears rang. Isa cringed.
The creature had more raw power running through it than she’d ever encountered. It could snap her shield with a thought. If it had any rational ones with so many heads. Given that it didn’t seem to realize it courted destruction by overloading on magic, she gathered it didn’t know how to handle the energy coursing through its matrix.
Her first piece of luck.