Dragon Bound

By: Thea Harrison

 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 the 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.

Pia 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.”

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