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Skin Deep



Chapter One


“Get it off!  Get it off!”   
            “I’m trying!”  Caleb grabbed a numb stick out of a drawer.  “It would help if you’d stay still for half a second!”

            “You stay still with claws in your ass!” I snarled, as they sank in a little deeper. 
            “I can’t do anything if you’re going to continue hopping around like that, Lia,” he rumbled. 

             I glared at him, but it didn’t do any good.  It probably wouldn’t have anyway—Caleb did the strong, silent, imperturbable thing pretty well—but it was especially futile now.  Like me, he was a war mage, part of the supernatural community’s police force.  Unlike me, he was a respected, highly decorated member with years of experience.  He was currently stuck with the worst job in the Corps--deactivating, categorizing and storing illegal weapons—only because he’d been wounded.  An explosion had seared his retinas, leaving him virtually blind until his eyes healed.  
            “Are you sure you can do this?” I demanded, eyeing the swath of gauze wrapped around his buzz cut. 
            “Sonar vision,” he reminded me, tapping a small ward on his temple.  The blue and silver tat showed up nicely against his cocoa skin, its colors flashing as the tiny dolphin smacked his finger with its tail.  “I can see almost as well with echo location as I could before.  Now assume the position.”
            “It’s the almost I’m worried about,” I muttered.
            “I can let Jamie do it,” he threatened. 
            “Sure, I’ll take a crack at it,” the wiry Scotsman punned shamelessly. 

            Normally, I might have taken him up on it.  Despite the ratty Arthur Dent bathrobe he insisted on wearing, Jamie was among the department’s foremost authorities on magical wards.  But at the moment, he was also among the walking wounded, having been hit by a spell that had left him prone to fits of uncontrollable shakes.  It set his hands and red-gray curls dancing on a regular basis, although it hadn’t noticeably affected his sense of humor.  
            “You stay away from me,” I told him severely, just as Caleb yanked my jeans down and pushed me over the specimen table.

            “If you two want some privacy, I could always take a break,” Jamie offered.
            “You make sure it doesn’t get away in case I miss,” Caleb ordered. 
            “What do you mean, in case you miss?” I demanded, only to have my face shoved down to the cold metal table top.  Since that was in no way necessary for the operation in hand, I had to assume it was to shut me up.  I normally would have had a few things to say about that, but instead I bit my lip on what was actually quite a lot of pain.  
              “That’s better,” Caleb said, with the suspicion of a smile in his voice.  “Now I just have to--uh, oh.”

            “Uh, oh?”  It was hard to talk with my cheek smashed against stainless, but I managed anyway.  “What the hell is going on back there?”  
            “It appears to have…er, taken cover, lass,” Jamie volunteered.  Caleb didn’t say anything, but his shoulders were shaking suspiciously. 
            “Gimme that thing!”  I grabbed the numb stick away from him and twisted around.  A small snout and a pair of bright yellow eyes peered up at me from the waistband of my panties for a second before disappearing again.  “Son of a—ow!”

            “They don’t like to be out in the open,” Jamie reminded me.  “I think it’s trying to hide in your—”
            “I know where it’s hiding!”  I waddled to the adjacent store room with my jeans around my knees, slammed the door and they hit the floor--just as tiny fangs took another bite out of tender flesh.  Miniscule they might be, but they hurt like hell.  “God damn it!”
            “If you need any help,” Jamie’s lilting tenor called, “don’t hesitate to ask.”  I was thinking up a suitable reply when he murmured to Caleb, “Get the camera.”
            “I’ve got pictures, too,” I reminded them as the damn thing made a dash up my back, its claws leaving tiny pinpricks all along my spine. 
            “You told me you destroyed those!”

            “Military Tactics 101, Jamie.  Never give away a strategic advan—Auggh!”  I cut off as a wave of heat fried what felt like half my shoulder. 
            “Lia!”  I heard the door open, but I didn’t care.  I ripped my shirt off one-handed, still waving the numb stick around, and caught myself a glancing blow on the side.  My left buttock immediately went dead, my leg collapsed and I fell to the floor. 

             I lost sight of the little menace for a minute, but spotted a tiny tail headed south when I rolled onto my back.  “It’s on your leg!” Caleb informed me.  
            “No shit!”  Something red and black and vicious had sprinted back down my torso to perch on my knee, and I could swear it was laughing at me.  Caleb lunged for it with another numb stick, but it darted back up my thigh.  He was too late to pull up and my right knee went dead.   
            “Don’t help me!” I panted, as it reappeared on my stomach, its painted wings fanning out just above my belly button.  It was 2D, as all wards are on the skin, merely thin black lines and brightly colored paint.  But I swear it felt heavy, warm and all too real.  
            “Give me your stick,” I told Caleb, as the ward eyed me warily, a tiny cloud of painted smoke issuing from its nostrils.  “I’m going to trap it between two of them.”
            “And if you miss?  That thing was taken off a dark mage, Lia,” he reminded me, suddenly serious.  “I’m guessing it can do more damage than we’ve seen.  A lot more.”
            “Let me worry about that.”
            “You’ve been hit with a numb stick twice already.  Once more and you’ll be out cold.”
            A few stray sparks tickled my stomach, glowing gold against my skin for a moment, before dissipating and leaving tiny scorch marks in their place.  “I’m not going to numb myself,” I told him, through clenched teeth.
           “Uh huh.  And what am I supposed to tell the doc if—”

           “Just give me the damn stick!”
            The tat didn’t wait for Caleb to make up his mind.  It suddenly dove for cover again, making it as far as the pink satin rose on the front of my panties before Caleb and I almost simultaneously stunned it.  “You all right?” he demanded, as the tat froze against my skin, still wearing a small smirk.
            ”Ask me that in half an hour, when I can feel my butt,” I told him unsteadily, as I gave the thing a careful poke.  It didn’t move, but it didn’t come off, either.  
Magical wards appear as tattoos on the body, but in their inert form, they’re small gold charms that fall easily away from the skin.  Only that wasn’t happening here.  I poked it again.  Nothing. 
           “Why isn’t it coming off?” I demanded, trying not to sound as freaked out as I felt.  
            One look in the reflective side of the nearest shelf told me I wasn’t fooling anybody: my gray eyes were wide and startled, my color was high, and my long brown hair was everywhere.  
           “I told you it was taken off a dark mage,” Caleb said, squatting down to have a closer look.  He muttered the standard release spell we used on especially stubborn charms, and nada.  
            I glared at it, fresh out of ideas.  I hadn’t worked in what the Corps only half-jokingly called the dungeon for very long, and wasn’t an expert on magical wards.  I had one myself—a small horned owl that had been a present from my father when I joined the Corps--but it had never gone bat-shit crazy and attacked me.  At least, not yet.  
            Caleb tried again, this time with a spell strong enough to raise goose bumps on my skin. But the tattoo was still a tattoo, its colors glowing warm and jewel-bright against my stomach.  “It must be a talisman,” he informed me.  

           “So what?  My owl’s a talisman.”  
           “Your owl is part talisman. It gathers energy from the natural world or pulls it from a built-in reservoir to avoid draining you every time you use it.  But there are rare wards that are pure talismans—that don’t draw from your own magic at all.  It looks like that’s what we have here.”
           “That still doesn’t explain how we get it off!”  I said, brushing at it uselessly. I could feel the raised outline against my fingertips, but there was nothing to grab hold of.  Just skin and ink.   
           “That could be a problem,” Caleb said, helping me to my feet.  “Talismans like that are illegal because they’re made by draining the magic of a living creature into the tat.  It gives them a large reservoir, but sometimes characteristics of the creature are passed on as well.  Tats like that have their own minds, in a way.”
           “So you’re saying it’ll turn loose when it wants to?” 

           “Or when it runs out of power.”
           “And that will be when?” 
            He smiled like a man who didn’t have a dangerous magical weapon stuck under his belly button.  “No way to know.”  He picked my jeans up off the floor and tucked the numb stick in the pocket.  “I’d keep this, if I were you.  The effect wears off after a while.”

            Great.  I grabbed my jeans and assessed the damage.  On the plus side, the stinging pain in my backside was no longer noticeable, thanks to the numb stick’s deadening qualities.  On the negative, the knee that had been hit didn’t seem to be working too well, and threatened to give way whenever I put any weight on it. 
            And then a flash went off, almost blinding me.  “Jamie!”
            “Now we’ll talk about those pictures,” he chuckled, clicking the door shut.                  
            I threw my clothes back on and barreled through the door.  “You conniving little bastard!  Fork over that camera right now or I swear--”
            “Mage de Croissets! What precisely is going on here?”
             I stopped, jeans unzipped and shirt askew, blinking away after images.  Shit.  The boss never came down here.  It was practically the only advantage to working in the dungeon.  And now it didn’t have even that much going for it. 
             My eyes slowly adjusted to show me the wavy silver hair, high forehead, and sour expression I’d feared.  Richard Hargrove, better known as Dick to his friends or The Dick to the rest of us, had been brought out of retirement after the war started.  He was old school, demanding things spit-polished and perfect, like his excruciatingly correct posture.  It made his too-thin form, which as usual was encased in a dark-colored three piece suit, look even more skeletal than it was.  I didn’t like the guy, but I kept wishing he’d eat a sandwich. 

            “Well?”  The barked word surprised me, and these days, that wasn’t good.  The piece of contraband we’d been working on before the ward went nuts flew off the examining table and through the air—straight at the source of the disturbance. 
              Hargrove ducked as the five-foot-long metal staff tore through the air just over his head.  It went on to shatter a reinforced glass door, obliterate a computer, take a bite out of a wall and lodge like a quivering spear in one of the steel-plated elevator doors.  That would have ended it, except that this was a wizard’s staff, which apparently still had some juice left in it.  It melted a chunk of the door into a sizzling silver mess. 
             And then it exploded. 
             The remainder of the glass door protected us from some of the pieces of flying metal, and the shield Hargrove threw up while still on one knee absorbed the rest.  I would have helped him, but it was all I could do to reign in the waves of magic thrumming under my skin, begging for a spell, an aim, a target.  I concentrated on not gasping as the now-familiar vice clenched around my gut.  It felt like all of my organs were twisting together, as if they were trying to wring themselves out.  I’d have clawed at my flesh to straighten them out, if that hadn’t been a completely crazy idea. 
             As it was, my fingers clenched over the circle of radiating lines just below my third rib.  It looked like a stylized sun a little larger than the pad of my thumb, but the ugly silver scar was a blank in my memory.  They say you never hear the one that kills you.  But you don’t hear the one that knocks you cold for three days, either. 
             Or the one that leaves you a magical cripple. 
             “Watch it,” Caleb murmured as the boss turned toward us, his shield riddled with glass and metal, like a porcupine with fully extended quills. 
             “Are you under some semblance of control?” Hargrove demanded icily.
              I nodded and his shields fell, causing the trapped pieces to drop to the floor with a clatter.  Jamie ran to gather up the remains of the staff, while Caleb helped the boss back to his feet.  I didn’t budge.  Hargrove had caught me on his glare like a bug on a pin, his expression somewhere between murderous and mortified.  I didn’t understand that last part, until I belatedly noticed the man standing off to one side, out of the line of fire.  No, not a man, I realized, as the spicy, musky scent of wolf hit me. 

            “It’s good to see you again, Lia.”  
            “Mr. Arnou,” I said awkwardly. 
            “Sebastian, please.”  He paused, glancing at Hargrove’s furious expression. “We are family, after all.”

            Well, crap.


 Look for "Skin Deep" in the Inked anthology, January 2010!