Kitty's Big Trouble Page 55

Anastasia, I noticed, rested her hand on Henry’s arm. Henry had stopped shivering.

We walked for a time, back the way we’d come, toward the room where we’d fought the eyeless creature. At least, I thought we were heading that direction. I also hoped Roman wasn’t waiting for us there. I could have wished for a faster way out of the maze. Some handy escape ladder leading back to the streets of San Francisco.

Ahead, the air smelled of sulfur and burned powder. Sure enough, we emerged into a room with a doorway on each wall. The shredded paper of spent firecrackers littered the space, and black streaks of soot marred the floor. I breathed deep, but I could only smell burned gunpowder. I sneezed.

“Look,” Cormac said, nodding at the floor. He kept the crossbow aimed at the other doorways.

A large body lay before us—the monster with the stitched-up face. He was on his back, unmoving—apparently dead, though you never could tell with this crowd. The stitches had been cut, and jutted out like thorns from loose skin. Gashes crossed his eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth. His jaw hung open, slack; he didn’t seem to have any teeth inside. Traces of frothy pink fluid leaked from the newly opened orifices.

Next to the body knelt Sun Wukong, his head bowed, holding his staff upright.

“Sun?” I prompted, relieved to see him, but hesitant to break the funereal silence.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” he said. No longer grinning, his expression was pinched, sad. “Just knock him around a little. But the stitches broke. He’s not meant to have eyes, you see. It’s what killed him the first time.”

As if that explained everything.

“Are you okay?” I said.

“My old master would be very upset with me,” he said.

“Because you killed him?” I said.



Anastasia put a hand on my arm, silencing me. “Sun Wukong is a good Buddhist. ‘Victorious Fighting Buddha,’ isn’t it?” she said.

He chuckled, but the sound was sad. “I never could stay out of a fight.”

The vampire knelt by the creature’s body. “Poor Hundun. Always being used, always at others’ mercy. No wonder he’s so angry.”

I hunted around on the floor where Henry had lain, and by kicking through the ash and torn paper found what I was looking for—the coin I’d taken off Henry. I held it out to Sun and Anastasia. “We probably ought to do something about this.”

Standing, Sun held out his hand for the coin, which he dropped on the floor, then pounded his staff end-first on top of it. It landed with a bone-rattling crack of thunder. The impact produced a puff of smoke and a scattering of dust, and the coin was gone.

“Stay sharp, people,” Cormac said. He was looking through one of the doorways. The darkness there was solid.

“Cormac?” I prompted.

“Someone’s there,” he said.

“Roman?” I said, tensing. We all backed into defensive stances.

“Dux Bellorum no longer has a guide through the tunnels.” Xiwangmu spoke, emerging from the tunnel on the opposite side of the room. The nine-tailed fox stood at her side, flicking its tails and staring down its whiskered nose at us. The three-legged crow perched on her shoulder, beak slightly open as if about to speak.

The sight of her made me lightheaded, then made me smile. Grace knelt as she had before. Sun also seemed happy to see her. The others—Ben, Cormac, and Henry—blinked, nonplussed.

Anastasa’s relief seemed even more heartfelt. Approaching the goddess, she bowed her head and got down on her knees. Drawing the bag with the Dragon’s Pearl over her shoulder, she offered it to the goddess and spoke in Chinese.

Xiwangmu answered, and I thought I recognized Anastasia’s name—her real name, Li Hua. They conversed. Anastasia became agitated; Xiwangmu was never anything but kind.

I approached Grace and whispered, “What are they saying?”

“I don’t know. They’re speaking early Mandarin and I only know Cantonese.”

“The Queen Mother is refusing to take back the Dragon’s Pearl from Li Hua,” Sun Wukong announced.

Xiwangmu glared at him. “This wasn’t your conversation to pass along, Sun Wukong.” He just shrugged, and the goddess sighed, as if she expected nothing different from him. Turning back to Anastasia she said, so all of us could understand her this time, “I will protect the Dragon’s Pearl, Li Hua, but I want you to carry it for me, and come with me as one of my handmaidens.”

The vampire stared, baffled. “But I have so much work to do here. Someone has to stand against Roman. No one else knows him like I do. I’m the only one who recognizes his tokens—” She gestured back to the coin that Sun had smashed.

“And now others do, too.”

She shook her head. “You’ve seen what he can do—”

“You have allies now who can do the work for you.”

The goddess looked at me. And then everyone was looking at me. The weight of the attention made my shoulders slouch.

I shook my head. “No, I can’t do it, I don’t know enough, I’m not powerful enough—”

“Kitty,” Xiwangmu said, and her eyes sparkled when she smiled. “You have been battling demons for a long time now, and holding your own among gods. You’re powerful enough.” Beside her, the fox barked, as if to say yes!

Well. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I’d survived this long, hadn’t I? That had to count for something. I just had to keep on doing it, one way or another. I could only stare at her, blinking dumbly.

Xiwangmu turned to Anastasia. “You, on the other hand, have been battling for a very long time. Come with me and rest for a little while.” She smoothed back Anastasia’s hair, brushing it behind her ear. Anastasia touched that hand, holding it, and for a moment she seemed like a little girl whose mother had just kissed away some hurt.

For that moment, the scene was perfect—safe, gentle, and full of love. I wanted the credits to roll.

Sun said, “Queen Mother, it’s time to go, I think.”

“Yes. You can lead the others out of the tunnels?”

“I can.”

The goddess said, “Li Hua, are you ready?”

The vampire stood and came to me. She even looked younger, as if eight hundred years of life and cynicism had fallen away.

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