I had just finished tattooing around my left nostril and was checking the effect in the monitor when my phone rang.
I started in surprise--just as well I had put the tattoo needle down--and picked up the phone, cursing under my breath. I could have sworn I'd switched it off.
Sure enough, the little plane showed at the top, but the caller ID told me "Sparx". That explained everything.
Sparx is another practitioner--hence the craft name--but his powers run to electronics. He rents the other office space above the New Age shop, next to my studio. We've referred people to each other, and he'd helped me rig up the camera and monitor that I used to tattoo myself, without asking any questions about why I needed a camera that could pick up ultraviolet.
I suspected he might have a thing for me, which wasn't mutual. He's one of those bony, sloppy nerds, and habitually wears wrinkled monochrome clothes, a long black pony tail, a little goatee, and a hangdog expression.
I answered. "What?" I said in a "this better be good" tone, the calm of my working trance shattered.
"Tara," he said, "You have to get out of there."
"What?" I said, questioning this time. "Sparx..."
"Listen to me," he said. "I just got a tipoff from a client. He was warning me, but it's really to do with you. Someone's put out a hit on you."
"Sparx," I said, "are you high? I'm an artist. I'm not political."
"Look, I know this guy. I'd take the warning seriously. Besides, a lot of people on the upper slopes of the power law graph consider what you and I do political. You know, empowering the little people down in the long tail. I got the impression, in fact, that that might be the problem."
He had a point. Probably one of my clients had used something I sold them in a way that annoyed someone dangerous, and that had spilled over onto me. Magical politics can get complicated. Or very straightforward, sometimes.
"All right," I said, "assuming, for the sake of argument, what are you suggesting I do?" I put the phone on speaker, broke the working circle with my ritual dagger, and started packing away the tattoo kit in its box, my hands working at high speed. I have a "fast hands" spell that enables me to do practiced movements rapidly without losing accuracy, and I use it all the time.
"Your studio isn't defensible," he said.
"How do you know?"
"Business premises. Same as mine. Can't ward it strongly enough to keep out the kind of mage they'll send. You need to be in a home."
"My sister has been saying that for years," I said. I'd worn a silk robe for my ritual, one I'd had a clothmage friend embroider to my design, but now I stripped it off and hurried into my usual daywear: jeans, cobalt-blue T-shirt, flat-soled martial arts shoes. I slipped the dagger into its soft leather sheath and tucked into the back of my belt. My jacket would hide it. A decorated clip with some mind-sharpening properties caught back my shoulder-length dark-blonde hair.
I kept talking as I dressed. "Thanks for the warning, Sparx. I owe you one."
"Wait," he said. "My place is closer than yours."
"Sparx," I began.
"No, listen, there's no time to argue. Grab what you can't do without and meet me outside."
I glanced around, grabbed a sturdy black-and-red builder's pencil from the yellow mug that holds assorted paintbrushes and pens, shrugged into my jacket, grabbed a couple of amulets, undid the do-not-disturb spell on my studio door and flung it open.
Sparx stood outside, wearing a Bluetooth earpiece. When he saw me, he did something to his watch, I assumed hanging up the phone. As we hurried down the old wooden staircase, he pulled on a pair of tan leather fingerless gloves with circuitry worked into them and metal bracelets that locked around the wrist end.
I shot him an inquiring glance as I tossed him an amulet, which he slipped over his head without more than a brief glance. Sparx knows my stuff. These would protect us from one direct magical attack, maybe two, depending on the practitioner.
"Tasers, sort of," he said, referring to the gloves, and I nodded.
"You're prepared for something like this?"
"Not as prepared as I'd like," he said, "but I knew it might happen someday."
I nodded. The thing about magic is that it attracts people who like power. They're not always nice people.
Speaking of nice people, I thought, as Kat waved to us through the window. She's the fluffy little hippy who keeps the New Age shop. I put up with her vague earnestness because she's my best source of referral business, and because it would take a lot of effort to dislike someone like Kat. I definitely didn't want anyone breaking up her shop because of me.
I'm not sure she believes in insurance, for one thing.
Sparx takes the bus to work, but I wasn't going to endanger innocents by getting on a bus, and we couldn't wait in any case. I led him around the back to the alley where I parked Maria.
Maria is my classic Vespa. I restored her myself, working certain designs into her in the process, under the azzuro chiaro paint job, and she runs better than when she came out of the factory. I scowled at Sparx when he gave her a sceptical look.
"Shut up," I said, "and get on." I pulled on a pair of light gloves over my pale, burnable Irish skin, despite the overcast sky.
"The horn," he said. "It has a rubber bulb."
"Yep. No electronics anywhere on her," I said, unlocking the seat and pulling on my helmet, the black one covered in gold Celtic designs. It would protect my head from anything short of direct artillery fire, though unfortunately it wouldn't do the same for the rest of me. I passed him the white helmet with the daisies. He gave me one of his woeful looks, but put it on.
"Why is no electronics a good thing?"
"Because there are people like you."
"Nobody is like me. I stand alone."
I snorted, and swung myself onto the seat. "You will if you don't get on the scooter," I said, and started it as he climbed hurriedly on behind me. "Watch where you put your hands."
As we puttered onto the road, Sparx said, "Those martial arts shoes."
"What about them?"
"Do you actually do martial arts?"
"Tai chi," I said. He sighed, and I gunned the engine, insofar as you can gun the engine of a forty-year-old 125cc Vespa.
We didn't take the most obvious route to Sparx's place, but there was a street we had to use or go ten minutes out of our way, and I decided to risk it. I did activate my tattoos, though.
Nobody knew about the tattoos, not even Sparx. They were an idea of my own, and so far it was working out. Starting on my hands with Celtic spirals, they ran up both arms and across my shoulders, then up my neck, where they branched to loop around my ears, eyes, and--as of that morning--left nostril. All in ultraviolet ink, but I knew where they were, and they united the magic in several different parts of my body, meaning I could shift it to where it was most needed. I don't have much magical whammy (that's a technical term), not compared to some, but I make up for it with skill and hard work. It's amazing how much you can do with a small amount of power, well directed.
Right now, my mediocre talent was focused into my eyes, watching out for signs of other people working magic.
Two nondescript men stood opposite each other on the sides of the road, just as it passed a small block of shops. I wouldn't have given them a second glance--they didn't have any magic showing--but something about the way they looked at me and then each other roused my suspicions. I slowed Maria, narrowing my eyes, just as they pulled a clothesline taut across the road at the height of my chest.
I slammed on the brakes and turned into the skid, aiming for the man on the left, whose eyes widened. Sparx clutched at my waist and made an inarticulate noise. I shoved him off me as we screeched to a stop, my right shoulder pressed against the taut line.
"Get the other one," I yelled, and headed for the left-hand man, drawing my ritual dagger from behind my back where Sparx had been crushing the handle into my right kidney. The man let go of the rope and took to his heels. Even at Maria's speed, that clothesline stunt could have killed us both, and I was seriously vexed. I gave chase.
Most people, apparently including Sparx, think of tai chi as a gentle exercise to help Grandma improve her balance, so she doesn't break a hip tripping over the cat. What they don't realise is that it's basically kung fu slowed right down.
I sped it up again.
I made my ritual dagger myself, and I work with it every day. It's almost a part of me, and with the help of my tattoos, I can pour enough power into it to make it, for about a second, a tai chi sword.
A second was enough. I could have killed the guy, but apart from the ethical and legal issues around that, it would have tainted my dagger, and I didn't have fourteen hours to spare to make another. I struck him only with the magical part of the blade, and chose a nerve plexus rather than, say, his heart. He went down in a twitching heap, and I spun round.
Another twitching heap on the other side of the road was our other attacker, and Sparx, with a self-satisfied look, was changing batteries on his taser gloves.
"Come on," I said, and we piled back on Maria and roared off before anyone could come out to investigate the ruckus.
As we drove, and as the adrenaline faded, I wondered what had come over me. I'm a maker, not a destroyer, and yet when threatened, I'd gone right on the attack. It gave me the shivers, and I wasn't keen to repeat the experience any time soon. I hoped that the two clothesliners would be all we had to face.
I also ran through in my mind who might have started this trouble. Apart from my usual stock items, the amulets and such, I'd sold three commissioned pieces recently. Potions Dave had bought a ritual dagger similar to mine, but Dave was well-established, had a decent amount of power himself, and was the kind of person who's in good standing with everyone. Rachel Weaver had commissioned a plaque with one of her poems for a friend's wedding, but I couldn't see that upsetting anyone.
That left Steampunk Sally. She had a very small ability to see events a few seconds before they happened, and she'd bought a pocket-watch case and a pair of brass goggles worked with spells to enhance her powers. Now that I thought about it, there were all kinds of ways that could go bad, from poker to safecracking. If I made it to Sparx's place, I was going to call Sally and have a serious discussion. Assuming she was still alive.
A block away from his house, Sparx directed me away from his street towards a nearby park.
"Back way," he explained, shouting to be heard over Maria.
We parked in the shade, and he led me to a walkway at the back of the park, fenced on both sides from the properties it ran between. I oriented myself. One of the properties was Sparx's place, I thought.
"I didn't know you had a gate back here," I said.
"I don't spread it around," he said, pausing by what looked like just another piece of wooden fence between two posts and laying his fingers against it at one end. He closed his eyes. After a moment, a latch clicked and he drew the disguised gate open and waved me through. I glanced at the latch as I passed. Electronic, with a keypad. Sparx, of course, could operate it through the gate with his powers.
I switched my attention to the back yard. It could have done with mowing, about a year ago, from the looks, and several dusty patches needed re-seeding. A weather-beaten green patio umbrella covered in spiderwebs leaned drunkenly above a couple of dirty lawn chairs. I got the impression Sparx didn't come out here much, though his pasty complexion could have told me that.
"Right," said Sparx, turning away from the relocked gate, "we..."
I flung a hand back, gesturing for silence, as something caught at my enhanced senses.
Sparx's place is small, a freestanding house but close to the neighbors on either side. The roof has a steep pitch, and it was behind that roof that I had noticed something, a surge of magic.
Before we could sprint for the house, a tall man dressed all in black rose over the roof.
When I say he rose, a whirl of wind lifted him, black trousers flapping, and deposited him on Sparx's corrugated-iron roofing (which needed painting, and creaked under the strain).
That wasn't good news. Anyone who could do that had a lot of power and decent control, and could sic the weather on us. I glanced up. Black clouds. Wonderful.
I grabbed Sparx by the shoulder and hauled him into the biggest patch of dust, then pulled my knife and crouched. He jumped over my arm as I swept a perfect circle around us.
Before I could close the circle, something that felt like a large pillow hit me right in the chi. My amulet and Sparx's both cracked, and I blessed my forethought in grabbing them. Without them, that pillow would have been more like a car.
It would take our opponent a few moments to recover from a hurried casting like that and put together a more sophisticated attack, and I took advantage, completing the circle and laying down a series of interlocking curves just outside it, like opening fern fronds, each overlapping the next. My fast-hands spell enabled me to complete the well-practiced movement in moments.
Even so, I had just finished when the black-clad man's next spell started whirling the air around my protective circle. I swallowed hard. To cast a direct magical strike like that and then raise that much air power that fast afterwards, he had to be seriously strong. Well out of my league, and I was stronger than Sparx, who couldn't move anything much bigger than an electron.
Well, what we lacked in raw power we would have to make up in skill. I visualised the pattern I had scribed into the dust rising up into a column around us, diverting the force of the wind. Sure enough, the dust outside the circle whipped into a small tornado, but the air around us remained still.
"Good circle," said Sparx. "Now what do we do?"
Focused on the immediate threat, I hadn't thought beyond it. We couldn't move the circle; it was anchored to its physical representation on the dusty ground. If we tried to leave it, the winds would seize us, and most likely snatch us into the air and impale us on someone's old TV aerial. Even if I hadn't been reluctant to attack, I didn't have that option.
"Can you call anyone for help?" I asked. He looked embarrassed.
"I kind of maxed out all my favours over a thing last week."
"Doesn't matter," I said, panic rising. "You can owe them. I can owe you. Just..."
"It's going to be too late," he said. "You feel that?"
He tore off his right glove and grabbed my hand. At first, all I could feel was his clammy palm in mine, and then I sensed it, a shift in the air that raised the hairs on my neck.
"He's building up a charge around us," said Sparx. "Can your circle cope with a lightning bolt?"
I clutched my forehead with my free hand. That was way above my pay grade. If he could feel it building, the charge must be inside my circle already. Unless...
"Sparx," I said, "you can reach through my circles, right?" He must have done so earlier, to set off my phone.
"Sure," he said. "You don't block off much, to be honest. From my perspective," he hurried to add, anticipating my glare.
"Can you build on my spell to shut the charge outside?"
"If I could see it, maybe, but working just from the marks on the ground..."
I took a deep breath. "Here," I said, and pushed all my power into my left hand, the hand he was holding. All my power, and all my senses, open to him. "Can you see it now?"
He didn't need to answer. I saw him grin, saw his look of concentration as he reached out his power, borrowing mine to work on a scale he'd never worked on before. I felt my body temperature drop as he drew on me, and goosebumps rose on my arms. I felt nauseated, too, like you do when you're in shock.
I clamped my jaw shut and hung on.
I could only see glimpses of what he was doing, weaving his very different power with my own, but the spreading grin on his face told me that he was succeeding.
I don't know if you've ever been in a magical circle that's creating a tube of safety in the middle of a lightning charge when that charge suddenly goes off. If you ever find yourself in such a position, close your eyes. There's nothing much to be done about the deafening thunderclap, but at least you can avoid being blinded. There you have it: the famous benefit of hindsight.
I recovered first, probably because my senses had been dulled by Sparx pulling on my power, and glanced over Sparx's shoulder at the rooftop. Somehow we had ended up in a slow-dance position, propping each other up in the rapidly dissipating protective circle. I scanned desperately with my dazzled eyes for the assassin.
I finally figured out what I was seeing, and yelled in Sparx's ear.
"Sparx! What do you think happens when you're high up on a tin roof and call lightning, and it doesn't hit its target?"
"I'm guessing nothing good."
"I'd say you're right." The assassin lay on the roof, his head hanging over the leaf-choked guttering.
We approached the house and looked up. I narrowed my eyes and tried to see through the flashing lights in my vision. Was he breathing?
"Sparx," I said, "call an ambulance. Better get the fire service too, they'll need a ladder."
Sparx hung up his phone from his smartwatch and gave a wry laugh. "Seems strange," he said, "calling for help for someone who just tried to kill you and got hoist with his own petard."
"You don't come from a magical background, do you?"
"Nope," he said, "I'm muggle-born."
I shot him a look, but didn't comment on his terminology. We don't use the J.K.R. word. "My father's a practitioner, and even though he raised me with a more... mainstream morality, he made sure I knew about what you might call the magical code duello. Humanitarian concerns aside, in the world of magical politics a gesture like that sends a message. We're telling whoever's peeved at me, 'We dealt with your guys, but we didn't kill them, like we could have. If you back off now, this ends here.'
"Now, I need to talk to Steampunk Sally and see if she's connected to this."
Sparx nodded, then grinned at me.
"What?" I said.
"We made a pretty good team there, didn't we?"
"Don't get any ideas," I said.
But I was grinning too.
It worried me.
This is the draft of Chapter 1 of my new urban fantasy novel. To be informed when it comes out, sign up in the sidebar.