Authors: Marcella Burnard
“Isa,” he groaned into her hair, “you’re so cold.”
And he was warm. Or should be. Shouldn’t he? He always had been before. Something else the gods of the Mayan underworld had stolen from her? She frowned and straightened.
He released her, but caught her left hand and interlaced his fingers with hers. “Are you all right?”
Troy picked up the boxes Steve had dumped and lobbed them against the wall as if they had no weight at all.
Her breath escaped in a wry laugh. She couldn’t answer. Easier to reach her free hand to Nathalie, hook her arm around her friend’s shoulders, and hug her to her right side.
“Holy shit, Ice,” Nat croaked. She edged away, peering at Isa’s right hand. “That dye you were working with isn’t supposed to be permanent. It’s also not supposed to spread.”
“It isn’t dye,” Jaiden said.
“No,” Isa said, glancing around at the faces of her friends. A simple mote of contentment poked its head up through the glacial ice inside her. “Is anyone else with you?”
“No,” Troy said. “In fact, I need to go grab another set of boxes. Verisimilitude, you know.”
Steve squeezed her fingers. “Me, too.”
“I won’t go anywhere,” she promised.
It did nothing to lighten his expression, though he lifted the corners of his lips in a parody of a smile.
“We want to know what the hell happened,” Troy warned. “But not until we get back.”
“Hey,” Nathalie said. “There’s pizza.”
“How are Gus and Ikylla?”
“They’re fine,” she said, opening one of the boxes and dragging a pair of pizza boxes out. “I’d totally have brought them if Ria thought we could fly them under the radar, you know?”
Pressure piled up behind Isa’s eyes and in the center of her chest. “I am sick of being prey,” she bit out.
“You can’t afford to go hunting, Irene,” Jaiden said. “Not now.”
Nathalie’s eyebrows rose.
“I’ve been playing rabbit most of my life,” she snapped.
“With reason. Even mountain lions are prey,” Jaiden said. “They just don’t realize it until they get pulled down. Rabbit’s strength is that she knows.”
“There comes a day that the only way to survive is to turn tails on the predator,” Isa said. “There are many paths to hunt. And many kinds of prey.”
“What the hell are you two talking about?” Nathalie demanded as Troy and Steve trooped into the room laden with a set of white banker’s boxes.
Isa retreated to one of the office chairs and lowered herself into it. Aching muscles rushed to remind her that she hadn’t slept in the past twenty-four hours.
“Daniel Alvarez had a Live Tattoo when he kidnapped me,” she said. “Short story, that tattoo was—is a monster.”
“Is?” Steve echoed, accepting a slice of pizza and napkins from the box Nathalie walked around the room.
“Is,” she confirmed, grabbing a slice of pepperoni and black olive pizza. “There’s a portal, a doorway between our world and their world.”
“Wait, what?” Troy asked around a mouthful. “Their, who?”
“Uriel’s world. He was Daniel’s tattoo. It’s the same reality Murmur came from.”
Jaiden listened, watching her face, his gaze intent.
Nathalie, Steve, and Troy stared at her, each of them frowning.
“They’re connected,” Steve surmised.
She nodded. “Uriel and Murmur are enemies.”
“Knowing Murmur, I’m not surprised,” Steve said.
Troy and Nathalie shot her apologetic grimaces.
“What?” Steve demanded, looking between them.
Isa dropped her gaze to her slice of uneaten pizza. “Uriel came off Daniel in the midst of trying to open the door between the worlds. He got sucked back into his world. I slammed the door on him.”
“I’m not going to like this next bit, am I?” Steve asked.
“Uriel’s gotten the door open again,” she said, “but he can’t get through into this world yet.”
“Yet?” Nathalie squeaked.
“He doesn’t have a body here. So his passage between the worlds is barred,” Isa said. “He requires blood and magic. I suspect that getting them conveniently empties a body for him to take over and enter into this world.”
Steve, sitting atop a couple of banker’s boxes, leaned forward to study her. “He’s the reason tattoos are still coming off people.”
“How do we stop him?” he demanded.
Isa met his gaze and shook her head. “You don’t. I do.”
“I hear a ‘but’ in there, don’t I?” Troy prompted.
Protest exploded from her friends. Doctors. Ambulance? How? Why? She looked fine. Jaiden remained silent, though he met her eye, and tipped his head.
Isa took a bite of pizza, letting her friends run out of denial, waited until brittle silence solidified like thin ice over the room.
“When her tattoo came off,” Jaiden said, “Irene sustained more than physical injury.”
“Irene?” Steve asked.
“My name before I changed it,” Isa said.
“Okay. More than physical injury,” Steve said. “You’re talking about magical injury.”
Jaiden nodded. “She has suffered a tear deep within, one that cannot be healed by anything a medical doctor might do. So we turn to alternatives.”
“More magic?” Troy asked.
“Partially,” Isa hedged in her cousin’s stead. “A blend of spiritualism, magic, and tradition.”
Her cousin nodded his thanks. “Ideally, we would reunite Isa and her tattoo.”
“No,” Steve said.
“The both of them are bleeding out via their souls,” Jaiden snapped. “Is that what you want?”
Wiping a hand down his face, Steve wilted. “I want Daniel Alvarez dead.”
“No,” Isa said. “You want Uriel dead.”
“I wouldn’t discriminate.”
Troy barked a laugh.
“Irene refused,” Jaiden said.
“Good,” Steve muttered.
“This leaves us to address several things at once,” Jaiden said. “I will perform a healing ceremony to close the rift within Irene’s soul. Irene must confront the cold afflicting her.”
Every eye in the room turned to her. She shook her head. “I have no idea . . .” She broke off.
“You do,” Jaiden countered. “This blue on your hands and arms. What is it?”
“Maya blue,” Nathalie supplied. “Cheri gave her the pigment as a present when Ice started painting again.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Isa said to her cousin. “It isn’t remotely possible and I am not going.”
“What? No one’s said anything about going anywhere,” Steve said.
Isa scrubbed the pizza grease from her bright blue hands. “I’ve been told that I’m in the House of Cold.”
Nathalie’s eyes widened.
Troy and Steve exchanged a confused glance.
“Part of the Mayan underworld,” Nathalie said. “One of the nine levels of Xibalba.”
“The what?” Steve demanded.
“Xibalba,” she said. “The Place of Fear. It’s the Mayan depiction of the underworld.”
“I have been marked by the spirits of that place,” Isa said, lifting her hands. “It is incumbent upon me to journey into the underworld to find out why.”
Nathalie, staring at Isa’s hands, scowled. She stepped in and tugged Isa’s right sleeve higher on her arm. The sweatshirt sleeve rode up to the middle of Isa’s blue forearm.
“That’s not good,” she breathed. “Mayans who volunteered as sacrifices dyed themselves this color.”
“You are being summoned, Irene,” Jaiden said.
She nodded, hearing the far-off clatter of rattles and the throb of drums. “I don’t understand why. But if the Mayan underworld wants me, I have no choice but to go. I’ll have to seek a vision based on the expectations of the Mayan gods.”
“Bloodletting,” Nathalie said.
“What?” Steve and Troy yelped.
“You know how that went down,” Nathalie said. “Right?”
“I had a chance to do a little research,” Isa said. “I have a few vague ideas.”
“What do you want to pierce?”
“But . . .”
“First, the ritual you’re talking about is for royalty,” Isa said. “I can’t assume it’s okay for me to do that. And boiled down, the issue is an altered state brought about by blood loss.”
“They burned the blood with copal incense,” Nathalie said. “Your prayers to the Mayan gods are supposed to be carried on the combination.”
“How do you know all of this?” Isa demanded.
Nathalie flushed. “It’s a rich mythology.”
“She’s trying to seduce a Latina lady who says she’s descended from Mayan kings,” Troy offered from his place lounging against the door frame.
Isa perked up. “Yeah? She’s hot?”
Nathalie’s grin answered for her.
“She’s playing too many games,” Troy said, shaking his head while he smiled.
“It’s not like I want to marry her yet,” Nathalie grumbled. “Stop letting Isa sidetrack us. We’re talking about running twine through a hole in her tongue as a means of getting her into Xibalba.”
“I am not Mayan,” Isa protested.
“You don’t know that,” Jaiden pointed out.
No. She didn’t.
Nathalie shifted, glancing at Jaiden, then back to Isa. “Fringe theory about the fall of the Mayan Empire. Fringe, okay? Seems there are similarities between the ancient Mayans and some native people of the Southwest, including the Navajo.”
Isa clapped a blue hand to her forehead. “So I grew up in one tradition that potentially overlaps another tradition?”
“No.” Jaiden shook his head.
“I said it was ‘fringe,’” Nathalie grumbled.
“Let’s assume I carry Mayan blood in some capacity. It’s simply not credible that it’s royal blood,” Isa said.
“It may not matter,” Jaiden said. “You’ve heard the theory that when a powerful people collapses, their gods suffer, too.”
“The notion of vampiric gods—gods feeding on their worshippers—disturbs me.”
“None of us believes our relationship with our deities flows only one way,” Jaiden said. “It is an exchange. You do not step out of this reality into any of the others without taking offerings.”
Especially not if she went in wanting something from the spirits or the gods. “I’m not comfortable walking into a spirit world I don’t belong to.”
“At this point, the Mayan spirits might be relieved to see any supplicant, Irene. You’re trained. You have every right to act as a priestess.”
“I was trained in the way of the Holy Ones!”
“You trained in many spiritual traditions. Ruth, Joseph, and Henry insisted. The spirits are the spirits.”
“And there’s no safety to be found in leaving our world for theirs,” Isa said. She couldn’t go into the spirit world to quiz the spirits or the gods without an offering. A respectful guest brought gifts to her hosts. That same respect dictated that her gifts take the form her hosts craved. It would be the height of arrogance to deny them their preferred coin and still ask for answers.
“No pain, no gain,” Jaiden quipped.
“Terrific,” Isa grumbled.
“I know where I can get copal resin,” Nathalie said. “I need two hours to get to Pike Place and back.”
“Tenzing Momo?” Troy said. “Let’s go.”
“We can’t stay here,” Isa protested.
“You have to,” Steve countered. “If what you said about that door between the worlds is true—it needs blood and magic—it’ll have it. Tonight.”
“The march,” Troy said, clenching a set of keys in his fist. “Damn it. We’ll make the market run faster.”
“What march?” Isa rose, uncertainty tearing at the wounds in her psyche.
“Antimagic protesters plan to crash the march protesting all of the people who’ve disappeared without due process. Like you did,” Troy said. “It’ll end in violence.”
“Ria is leading a pair of AMBI agents all over the city,” Steve said. “He has a secure line to me. We’ll have warning if this location is compromised.”
“Hurry,” Jaiden said to Nat and Troy.
“Okay,” Nathalie said. “I’ll need charcoal and . . .”
Troy and Nat strode away, Nathalie still listing what she’d need.
Isa should be the one gathering materials. She should be the one preparing for her journey.
“You can’t go out there,” Steve said. He must have interpreted her expression.
She scowled. Of course she couldn’t go out into her own world to make the preparations to cross into a world not her own in hopes of wresting guidance from the tight-closed fists of gods she’d never known and who had no reason to know her.
So many ways for this to go horrifically wrong.
“Rest easy, Irene. You have other preparations to make,” Jaiden said.
Yes, she did.
She wanted a fire. And a sky full of stars above, rather than bare, flickering fluorescent bulbs. While she was busy feeling sorry for herself, she wanted her teachers back. In the flesh. So she wouldn’t have to face the journey alone.
Rule seventeen: You rarely get to do magic in ideal conditions.
Maybe that was just her.
At least Jaiden would be present. So would Nathalie. And Troy. And of course, Steve. Not a single one of them knew more than Ruth or Joseph or Henry. Jaiden hadn’t even been trained by them.
Isa was their legacy. She was in no way prepared to step into the shoes it had taken three of them to fill.
Jaiden opened two of the cardboard boxes. From one, he drew forth a blanket Isa recognized. It had been hers.
Ruth had woven it. The blanket had adorned Isa’s bed throughout her childhood.
Her cousin took the blanket to the mattress tucked into one of the back corners of the room. He spread the blanket, and turned to meet her eye.
Isa drew herself up, pried her sneakers from her feet, and went to sit cross-legged upon the blanket her mother had made with her hands, her spirit, and her magic.
Jaiden knelt before her, careful not to touch the blanket. “Do you want peyote to ease your way?”
Steve’s brows had lowered at the mention of the drug. His frown followed Jaiden as Isa’s cousin rose and walked away.
Steve squatted down in front of her. “Thanks for refusing the drug.”
“I have used it,” Isa said. “It’s another tool in a deep box. It’s a convenient shortcut, but one that’s too dangerous for this situation.”
He nodded to encourage her to go on and waited.
Despite the cold permeating her, his gesture made Isa smile. Was this his family’s way of being polite? Or had she infected him with what she’d been taught—that it was polite to wait for a story to unfold without prompting?
“Peyote pries open the consciousness,” she said, “and props it wide. Where I’m going, I want as much control as possible.”
Words piled up in her mouth before her brain could weigh the wisdom of letting them spill. “Do you know about Jackie?”
He clenched his fists. “What about Jackie?”
“She’s alive,” Isa said. “As far as I know. She was injured last night helping me chase down a serial killer.”
He swore. “I should be out there. What the hell happened to you, Isa? I got your message. The AMBI wouldn’t officially tell me where you were . . .”
“Anne Macquarie let it slip?”
“Not before I was
to take a leave of absence,” he said. “I did some checking, asked a few questions. You were reported missing from the containment camp. They said you escaped.”
“No,” she said. “I was taken out of that camp by government agents.”
The muscles in his jaw flexed. “What agents?”
She told him about the operation Lawrence, Dick, and Max had been running.
Steve’s expression hardened. He listened without comment as she ran down the events in the market.
She told him everything.
Everything except Murmur.
“There’s a warrant out for my arrest,” she said. “Murder.”
“The griffin killed them.”
“Yes. The two who died weren’t the only ones in the city. I did not destroy their operation. It’s still out there,” she said, seeing Max in her mind’s eye. “Hurting people. Patty isn’t safe. I may not be.”
“We’ll deal with it, okay? After we know you’re all right. Who is this guy?” His tight voice quivered with uncertainty as he glanced over his shoulder at Jaiden. Maybe jealousy.
“He’s my cousin,” she said, “and the clan Singer.”
Steve met her gaze. He shifted his shoulders, settling them lower. “Sorry. We’ll get this cleared up.”
Snorting, Isa rolled her head, trying to drive the tension out of her neck. “I don’t know how. I’m pinned down. I don’t even know how to stop Uriel.”
She lifted her bright blue hands in a gesture of defeat. “I don’t know how to handle this weird Mayan thing dragging me into a culture I don’t understand. I don’t know if this is related to Murmur leaving or Uriel opening a door or . . .”
Steve took her face in his hands, leaned in, and kissed her.
Isa leaned into the contact, craving the peace of him, the determination. She suspected she’d need it where she was going.
He drew away. “Find out. I can’t pretend to understand what you’re about to do, but you’re looking for information, right?”
“Knowledge is power,” he said.
Isa stared at him, trying to see whether he knew he echoed a Live Tattoo of a Mayan god. “Gather as much as you can,” he finished.
“Why didn’t you tell me that before I decided I hated school and ran for the exit the moment I’d barely graduated?”
He smiled. “You can still go to college.”
“Oh, hell no,” she said. “Now, mister. No more distraction. I have some meditation to accomplish before Nathalie shoves a needle through my tongue.”
She had no way of knowing how much time had passed when the gong of the front door opening pulled her up from attempting to quiet her fears.
The pair came armed with more boxes. Nathalie brought one to Isa’s corner, set it down, opened it, and began unpacking piercing supplies.
Troy rounded the chair Steve had dragged up beside Isa’s position and parked himself in.
Steve rose and paced the hallway while Troy unpacked a fragrant bag of resin, charcoal, bowls, and a brand-new backpack.
Isa frowned. It looked like her Live Ink kit. “You didn’t.”
“Yes, we did. Figured you’d want this if you have to deal with Daniel’s tattoo,” Troy said. “Couldn’t find a key for your Live Ink. Except for them, this should be everything you lost.”
To an out-of-control hydra on a bridge. How long ago?
Isa found an unbidden smile on her face. Stasis paper. The kit wouldn’t contain stasis paper, either. She hadn’t had a chance to make any more.
“Here.” She pulled the uncomfortable notepad from her back jean’s pocket. Then the big cat tattoo. The griffin, she’d keep. She didn’t want anyone knowing where that tattoo was. Not with Murmur hunting it. “Put those in there, too?”