Dragon Bound – Chapter One
Pia was blackmailed into committing a crime more suicidal than she could possibly have imagined, and she had no one to blame but herself.
Knowing that didn’t make it easier. She couldn’t believe she had been so lacking in good judgment, taste, or sensibility.
Honestly, what had she done? She had taken one look at a pretty face and forgotten everything her mom had taught her about survival. It sucked so bad she might as well put a gun to her head and pull the trigger. Except she didn’t own a gun because she didn’t like them. Besides, pulling the trigger on a gun was pretty final. She had issues with commitment and she was so freaking dead anyway, so why bother.
A taxi horn blared. In New York the sound was so common everyone ignored it, but this time it made her jump. She threw a glance over one hunched shoulder.
Her life was in ruins. She would be on the run for the rest of her life, all fifteen minutes or so of it, thanks to her own foolish behavior and her shithead ex who had screwed her, then screwed her over so royally she couldn’t get over the knifelike sensation in the pit of her stomach.
She stumbled into a narrow trash-strewn street by a Korean restaurant. She uncapped a liter-sized water bottle and chugged half of it down, one hand splayed on the cement wall while she watched the sidewalk traffic. Steam from the restaurant kitchen enveloped her in the rich red-pepper and soy scents of gochujang and ganjang sauces, overlaying the garbage rot of a nearby Dumpster and the acrid exhaust from the traffic.
The people in the street looked much as they always did, driven by internal forces as they charged along the sidewalk and shouted on cell phones. A few mumbled to themselves as they dug through trash cans and looked at the world with lost wary eyes. Everything looked normal. So far so good?
After a long nightmarish week, she had just committed the crime. She had stolen from one of the most dangerous creatures on Earth, a creature so frightening that just imagining him was more scariness than she ever wanted to meet in real life. Now she was almost done. A couple more stops to make, one more meeting with the shithead, and then she could scream for oh, say, a couple of days or so while she figured out where she would run to hide.
Holding on to that thought she strode down the street until she came to the Magic District. Located east of the Garment District and north of Koreatown, the New York Magic District was sometimes called the Cauldron. It comprised several city blocks that seethed with light and dark energies.
The Cauldron flaunted caveat emptor like a prizefighter’s satin cloak. The area was stacked several stories high with kiosks and shops offering Tarot readings, psychic consultations, fetishes and spells, retail and wholesale sellers, imports, those who dealt with fake merchandise and those who sold magic items that were deadly real. Even from the distance of a city block, the area assaulted her senses.
She came to a shop located at the border of the district. The storefront was painted sage green on outside, with the molding at the plate-glass windows and door painted pale yellow. She took a backward step to look up. divinus was spelled in plain brushed-metal lettering over the front window. Years ago her mother had on occasion bought spells from the witch who owned this shop. Pia’s boss, Quentin, had also mentioned the witch had one of the strongest magical talents he had ever met in a human.
She looked in the storefront. Her blurred reflection looked back at her, a tired young woman, built rather long and coltish, with tense features and a pale blonde tangled ponytail. She looked past herself into the shadowed interior.
In contrast to the noisy none-too-clean surroundings of the city street, the inside of the shop appeared cool and serene. The building seemed to glow with warmth. She recognized protection spells in place. In a display case near the door harmonic energies sparked from an alluring arrangement of crystals, amethyst, peridot, rose quartz, blue topaz and celestite. The crystals took the slanting sunshine and threw brilliant rainbow shards of light onto the ceiling. Her gaze found the single occupant inside, a tall queenlike woman, perhaps Hispanic, with a gaze that connected to hers with a snap of Power.
That was when the shouting started.
“You don’t have to go in there!” a man yelled. Then a woman shrieked, “Stop before it’s too late!”
Pia started and looked behind her. A group of twenty people stood across the street. They held various signs. One poster said, magic = highway to hell. Another said, god will save us. A third declared, elder races—an elitist hoax.
Her sense of unreality deepened, brought on by stress, lack of sleep, and a constant sense of fear. They were yelling at her.
Some of humankind persisted in a belligerent disbelief of the Elder Races, despite the fact that many generations ago folktales had given way to proof as the scientific method had been developed. The Elder Races and humankind had lived together openly since the Elizabethan Age. These humans with their revisionist history made about as much sense as those who declared the Jews hadn’t been persecuted in World War II.
Besides being out of touch with reality, they were picketing a human witch to protest the Elder Races? She shook her head.
A cool tinkle brought her attention back to the shop. The woman with Power in her gaze held the door open. “City ordinances can work both ways,” she told Pia, her voice filled with scorn. “Magic shops may have to stay within a certain district, but protesters have to stay fifty feet away from the shops. They can’t come across the street, they can’t enter the Magic District, and they can’t do anything but yell at potential customers and try to scare them off from a distance. Would you like to come in?” One immaculate eyebrow raised in imperious challenge, as if suggesting that to step into the woman’s shop took a real act of bravery.
Pia blinked at her, expression blank. After everything she had been through, the other woman’s challenge was beyond insignificant—it was meaningless. She walked in without a twitch.
The door tinkled into place behind her. The woman paused for a heartbeat, as if Pia had surprised her. Then she stepped in front of Pia with a smooth smile.
“I’m Adela, the owner of Divinus. What can I do for you, my dear?” The shopkeeper’s face turned puzzled and searching as she looked Pia over. She murmured, almost to herself, “What is it? . . . There’s something about you. . . .”
Crap, she hadn’t thought of that. This witch might remember her mom.
“Yeah, I look like Greta Garbo,” Pia interrupted, her expression stony. “Moving on now.”
The other woman’s gaze snapped up to hers. Pia’s face and body language transmitted a closed sign, and the witch’s demeanor changed back into the professional saleswoman. “My apologies,” she said in her chocolate milk voice. She gestured. “I have herbal cosmetics, beauty remedies, tinctures over in that corner, crystals charged with healing spells—”
Pia looked around without taking it all in, although she noticed a spicy smell. It smelled so wonderful she breathed it in deeply without thinking. Despite herself the tense muscles in her neck and shoulders eased. The scent contained a low-level spell, clearly intended to relax nervous customers.
While the spell caused no actual harm and did nothing to dull her senses, its manipulative nature repelled her. How many people relaxed and spent more money because of it? Her hands clenched as she shoved the magic away. The spell clung to her skin a moment before it dissipated. The sensation reminded her of cobwebs trailing across her skin. She fought the urge to brush off her arms and legs.
Annoyed, she turned and met the shopkeeper’s eyes. “You come recommended by reputable sources,” she said in a clipped tone. “I need to buy a binding spell.”
Adela’s bland demeanor fell away. “I see,” she said, matching Pia’s crispness. Her eyebrows raised in another faint challenge. “If you’ve heard of me, then you know I’m not cheap.”
“You’re not cheap because you’re supposed to be one of the best witches in the city,” said Pia as she strode to a nearby glass counter. She shrugged the backpack off her aching shoulder and rested it on the counter, pulling the tangle of her ponytail out from under one strap. She stuffed her water bottle inside and zipped it back up.
“Gracias,” said the witch, her voice bland.
She glanced down at the crystals in the case. They were so bright and lovely, filled with magic and light and color. What would it be like to hold one, to feel the cool heavy weight of it sitting in her palm as it sang to her of starlight and deep mountain spaces? How would it feel to own one?
The connection snapped as she turned. She looked her own challenge at the other woman. “I can also feel the spells you have both on and in the shop, including the attraction spells on these crystals as well as the one that’s supposed to make your customers relax. I can tell your work is competent enough. I need an oath-binding spell, and I need to walk out of the shop with it today.”
“That is not as easy as it might sound,” said the witch. Long eyelids dropped, shuttering her expression. “This is not a fast-food drive-through.”
“The binding doesn’t have to be fancy,” said Pia. “Look, we both know you’re going to charge more because I need it right away. I still have a lot to do, so can we just please skip this next part where we dance around each other and negotiate? Because, no offense, it’s been a long bad day. I’m tired and not in the mood.”
The witch’s mouth curled. “Certainly,” she said. “Although with a binding, there’s only so much I can do on the spot, and there are some things I won’t do at all. If you need something tailored for a specific purpose, it will take some time. If you’re looking for a dark binding, you’re in the wrong place. I don’t do dark magic.”
She shook her head, relieved at the woman’s businesslike attitude. “Nothing too dark, I think,” she said in a rusty voice. “Something with serious consequences, though. It’s got to mean business.”
The witch’s dark eyes shone with a sardonic sparkle. “You mean a kind of ‘I swear I will do such-and-such or my ass will catch fire until the end of time’ type of thing?”
Pia nodded, her mouth twisting. “Yeah. That kind of thing.”
“If someone swears an oath of his own free will, the binding falls into the realm of contractual obligation and justice. I can do that. And have, as a matter of fact,” the other woman said. She moved toward the back of her shop. “Follow me.”
Pia’s abused conscience twitched. Unlike the polarized white and black magics, gray magic was supposed to be neutral, but the witch’s kind of ethical parsing never did sit well with her. Like the relaxation spell in the shop, it felt manipulative, devoid of any real moral substance. A great deal of harm could be done under the guise of neutrality.
Which was pretty damn self-righteous of her, wasn’t it, coming fresh as she did from the scene of her crime and desperate to get her hands on that binding spell. The urge to run pumped adrenaline into her veins. Self-preservation kept her anchored in place. Disgusted with herself, she shook her head and followed the witch. Here goes nothing.
She really hoped that wasn’t true.
They concluded business in under an hour. At the witch’s invitation she slipped out the back to avoid more heckling from the protesters. Her backpack had been lightened by a considerable amount of cash, but Pia figured in a life-or-death situation it was money well spent.
“Just one thing,” said the witch. She leaned her curvaceous body in a languid pose against the back doorpost of her shop.
Pia paused and looked back at the other woman.
The witch held her gaze. “If you’re personally involved with the man that is intended for, I’m here to tell you, honey, he isn’t worth it.”
A harsh laugh escaped her. She hefted the backpack higher onto one shoulder. “If only my problems were that simple.”
Something moved under the surface of the other woman’s lovely dark eyes. The shift of thought looked calculating, but that could have been a trick of the late afternoon light. In the next moment her beautiful face wore an indifferent mask, as if she had already mentally moved on to other things.
“Luck, then, chica,” the witch said. “You need to buy something else, come back any time.”
She swallowed and said past a dry throat. “Thanks.”
The witch shut her door and Pia loped to the end of the block then moved into the sidewalk traffic.
Pia hadn’t shared her name. After the first rebuff, the witch knew not to ask and she hadn’t offered. She wondered if she had trouble tattooed on her forehead. Or maybe it was in her sweat. Desperation had a certain smell to it.
Her fingers brushed the front pocket of her jeans where she’d slipped the oath binding, wrapped in a plain white handkerchief. A strong magical glow emanated through the distressed denim and made her hand tingle. Maybe after she met with the shithead and concluded their transaction, she could take her first deep breath in days. She supposed she should be grateful the witch hadn’t been more of a shark.
Then Pia heard the most terrible sound of her life. It started low like a vibration, but one so deep in power it shook her bones. She slowed to a stop along with the other pedestrians. People shaded their eyes and looked around as the vibration grew into a roar that swept through the streets and rattled the buildings.
The roar was a hundred freight trains, tornadoes, Mount Olympus exploding in a rain of fire and flood.
Pia fell to her knees and threw her arms over her head. Others screamed and did the same. Still others looked around wild-eyed, trying to spot the disaster. Some ran panicked down the street. The nearby intersections were dotted with car accidents as frightened drivers lost control and slammed into one another.
Then the roar died away. Buildings settled. The cloudless sky was serene, but New York City most certainly was not.
She pushed upright on unsteady legs and mopped her sweat dampened face, oblivious to the chaos churning around her.
She knew what—who—had made that unholy sound and why. The knowledge made her guts go watery.
If she were in a race for her life, that roar was the starter pistol. If God were the referee, He had just shouted Go.