Bound by Ink (A Living Ink Novel) (2 page)

BOOK: Bound by Ink (A Living Ink Novel)
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“It’s also the thing that can be drugged away, right?” Oki said. “That’s why Live Ink means no mind-altering substances.”

“Absolutely.”

“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!”

“Wait. What?”

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.”

“Thank you.”

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.

West.

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.

Isa shouted.

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.

Chapter Two

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.

Nothing answered.

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.

Isa rolled.

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.

Nothing happened.

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.

She connected.

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.

A pulse.

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.

Before Murmur.

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.

Nothing happened.

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.

Isa rose.

“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.

Ria growled.

“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.

BOOK: Bound by Ink (A Living Ink Novel)
3.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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