Kitty's Big Trouble Page 21

There, on the floor in the corner, was a bamboo cage as tall as my hip. Inside was a foxlike creature with thick ruddy fur, a narrow snout, and a mouth open to reveal needle-sharp teeth. I would have called it a fox, except it had a thick bouquet of tails flickering off its backside. Disconcertingly, it was making the crying noise, as if it had swallowed a baby whole and alive.

I approached cautiously, trying to reconcile the contradictions of sight, sound, and scent before me. The creature was trapped, anxious, circling in the cage, pressing against the bars. The cage was sturdy; the bars didn’t budge. The creature looked as if it barked, a lost puppy drawing attention to itself. But the sounds that emerged were those all-too-human cries. The tails, thick and covered with fur, slapped against the bamboo bars.

When the creature saw me, it stopped moving to stare up at me with amber eyes, large and shining. Wrinkling its nose, it let out a couple of warning yips.

“What is that thing?” Ben said. The others had stopped at the doorway.

“I’ve heard of this,” I said. It was the multiple tails—I couldn’t count them all, because the creature kept flicking them, agitated. But there were a lot. “In Japanese folklore, there are these fox spirits, kitsune. The more tails they have the more powerful—”

“Kitty, get away from it!” Anastasia said. The vampire lunged for me, grabbing my arm with both hands and shoving me back until we were both pressed against the far wall. Her speed and force knocked the wind from me. She was so easy to underestimate physically, with her slim, small frame, designer clothes, and fragile features. My arm hurt where she held me.

With a short growl, I yanked away. “What is your problem?”

Ben and Cormac braced in the middle of defensive actions, pausing in the moment of a breath between realizing that something was wrong and moving to attack. She had moved too quickly for them, and they seemed stunned to realize it. Cormac held a long, narrow length of sharpened wood in one hand, tucked away.

Grace had slipped into the room and stood, lantern raised, staring at the creature in the cage. “The kitsune is Japanese,” Grace said. “You’re in Chinatown. This is completely different.”

Anastasia pressed herself against the wall, arms spread, as if she could fall through it. All elegance vanished, her eyes wide, she stared at the thing in the cage with a slack-faced intensity.

“What is it?” I said, backing away from her. If she had an all-out panic attack I didn’t want to be anywhere near her.

“The huli jing. Nine-tailed fox,” she said.

Well, that answered that question.

The creature, the nine-tailed fox, sat on its haunches, tails fanned behind it, looked us over, and yawned, showing off its mouthful of teeth.

“And?” I said.

“It lures people in with the sound of crying, then devours them.”

Ben was scratching his head, skeptical. “That’s actually pretty clever.”

I said, “However scary it is, it’s in a cage. What’s the problem?”

“It’s also a companion of the gods,” Anastasia said, with the devoted certainty of a true believer. “So who caged it?”

The answer, of course: something even scarier than the carnivorous nine-tailed fox. And the gods.

“What, whoa. Gods? What?” I said.

“The gods are under assault,” she said, still staring at the thing, her eyes wide and glassy.

“I thought this was about Roman.”

“It is!” she said.

I couldn’t come up with a snappy comeback to that.

“I think we should get out of here,” Grace said.

The nine-tailed fox opened its mouth and wailed like a baby who’d been dropped. Then the wild, angry scent of human sweat and animal fur washed into the room—werewolves.

“Kitty—” Ben said, warning.

“Everybody get back,” I ordered. The room didn’t have any other doors. No escape route. I lunged back to the corridor with Ben and saw them. The three werewolves who’d attacked us earlier, and this time two of them had shifted to wolf form, flanking their leader—the one in the T-shirt, tall and muscular, toned rather than bulked, suggesting powerful agility. But I already knew that about him.

They approached us down the corridor, blocking our only way out.

Chapter 8

I GOT OUT in front with Ben, who held his gun in hand, ready to fire. He could take out one, maybe two of them before they attacked. I’d be ready to follow up. Not taking a chance this time, he pulled the trigger—and nothing happened. He squeezed it again, and again. “Jammed,” he muttered, and threw the thing away, growling.

It wasn’t the gun, I thought. It was the tunnels. No flashlights, no gun, probably no cell phones. At least I couldn’t mess up his aim this time.

The lead werewolf smiled.

“You have a plan?” Ben said. His hands flexed, his shoulders bunched. He met the man’s stare across the few paces separating us. Way too few paces. I glared at the wolves, challenging, not backing down. They were big, two hundred pounds—bulky, lupine versions of their human forms and even more threatening. Their teeth were bared, their ears pinned back.

“Keep them away from Cormac and Grace,” I said. Anastasia could damn well take care of herself.

“Generic. Flexible. I like it,” he said, with a little more snark than the situation called for.

“Okay then.”

Anastasia shouldered past me, upsetting my balance so I rocked into Ben. “Hey!”

“They must have the pearl,” Anastasia said. “They know where Roman is.”

I tried to growl at her while not taking my stare off the wolves. “Anastasia—protect them.” I pointed at the two humans behind us.

Intent on staring down our enemy, she didn’t seem concerned with them at all. If we had an escape route, I’d be happy letting her take care of the wolves all by herself. But we were cornered and someone had to look after the most vulnerable in the group. The three of us formed a wall across the passageway. On the plus side, the space was defensible—as long as we could keep the werewolves out of the room, Cormac and Grace would be safe. On the other hand, we had no space. No room to pace, to circle, to flank, to attack. They must have felt the same way, because they didn’t attack, either. We were sizing each other up. I must have seemed insignificant to them. Ben wouldn’t look like much more of a threat. But our experience counted for a lot.

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