it off! Get it off!”
trying!” Caleb grabbed a numb stick out
of a drawer. “It would help if you’d
stay still for half a second!”
stay still with claws in your ass!” I snarled, as they sank in a little
can’t do anything if you’re going to continue hopping around like that, Lia,”
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.
you sure you can do this?” I
demanded, eyeing the swath of gauze wrapped around his buzz cut.
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.”
the almost I’m worried about,” I muttered.
can let Jamie do it,” he threatened.
I’ll take a crack at it,” the wiry Scotsman punned shamelessly.
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.
stay away from me,” I told him severely, just as Caleb yanked my jeans down and
pushed me over the specimen table.
you two want some privacy, I could always take a break,” Jamie offered.
make sure it doesn’t get away in case I miss,” Caleb ordered.
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.”
It was hard to talk with my cheek smashed against stainless, but I
managed anyway. “What the hell is going
on back there?”
appears to have…er, taken cover, lass,” Jamie volunteered. Caleb didn’t say anything, but his shoulders
were shaking suspiciously.
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!”
don’t like to be out in the open,” Jamie reminded me. “I think it’s trying to hide in your—”
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!”
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.”
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.
told me you destroyed those!”
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
“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
“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
“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.
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.
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.
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
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
saying it’ll turn loose when it wants
“Or when it runs
out of power.”
“And that will
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.
then a flash went off, almost blinding me.
we’ll talk about those pictures,” he chuckled, clicking the door shut.
threw my clothes back on and barreled through the door. “You conniving little bastard! Fork over that camera right now or I swear--”
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.
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.
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
And then it
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.
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
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
please.” He paused, glancing at
Hargrove’s furious expression. “We are family, after all.”
Look for "Skin Deep" in the Inked anthology, January 2010!