Magic Dreams Page 10

Red Hat smashed into Jim.

Everything slowed down as if we were all underwater.

Jim’s knife sliced, across, down, across the other way, still so fast, like lightning. The blade glanced off Red Hat’s new wooden skin. Red Hat bared his teeth and swung his giant fist. Jim leaned out of the way, lean and graceful, and thrust. The knife bit deep into Red Hat’s left eye. The big man bellowed like a bull.

Jim vaulted over him.

The caged man moaned. I’d need a week to figure how to break the seal without hurting myself. I didn’t have a week.

Outside the window people screamed. More poachers coming in.

I grabbed the magic cord and jerked. It broke, leaving dark stripes of burned flesh across my hands. Pain lashed me, but I was too busy. I jerked the door open, grabbed the man by his shoulders, and pulled him out of there. He crashed on his side.

A hand caught my shoulder and pulled me up. “Time to go,” Jim breathed.

“No!” I pointed to the prisoner. “I can’t leave him. Help me.”

Red Hat spun toward us, screaming, the knife still in the socket of his eye.

Jim cut, once, twice, and the prisoner’s hands came free. Another cut took the mask from his head, and I stared at the face of the most stunning Asian man I had ever seen. He was like a celestial being from a Chinese watercolor—absolutely flawless.

The eyes of purest turquoise stared at me and within their depth I saw a spiral of fire.

Oh no.

The prisoner surged to his feet. Magic unfurled from him like a mantle in splashes of red and gold, forming the translucent outline of a scaled beast on four sturdy muscled legs.

Jim pushed me behind him and raised his knife.

Transparent claws the size of my hands dug into the wood. The head of a dragon formed upon the massive shoulders. The prisoner stood within the beast, still clearly visible. His hair had broken free of the bandages and it streamed down his back in a long dark wave.

Red Hat froze in midstep.

The old man howled a curse and clawed the air. A serpent of bright crimson launched itself from his fingers and bit at the translucent beast. The prisoner waved his arm, and the serpent sparked and melted into ash.

A Suanmi.

People burst through the door.

The Suanmi looked at them. The magic beast’s maw gaped open.

Red Hat turned and started running.

Fire burst from the beast’s mouth, roaring like an enraged animal. It caught the old man first, jerked him upright, and swept by, leaving a charred ruin of a body. The smoking corpse took two steps toward us and fell.

Jim clamped me to him, trying to shield me.

The men at the door scrambled to get out, but the fire fanned hot, all-powerful. Screams filled my ears. I shut my eyes and stuck my face into Jim’s chest.

The screaming went on forever.

Finally the roar stopped. I pulled my head away from Jim.

The man within the dragon turned and looked at us. Jim growled, and his clothes exploded off his body. His skin ripped, releasing muscle underneath. Bones thrust, growing, muscle formed new powerful limbs, and a new skin sheathed it, showing the coils of black rosettes against a thin golden pelt. A new creature stood in Jim’s place: half man, half monster. A werejaguar in the warrior form.

Jim snarled, his black lips framing enormous fangs, and stepped between me and the prisoner.

The Suanmi opened his mouth. Words flowed in English. “There is no need to fear me.”

There was every need to fear him. He had dragon blood in his veins. I swallowed. “We mean no harm to you.”

“I know.” The Suanmi looked at the cage. “I’d come here, sick and helpless. My family had been slaughtered and I was hurt. I came looking for medicine, but I lost consciousness and I awoke here. Nine months. I spent my eighteenth birthday in this cage while they carved pieces of my body to make themselves stronger. Healing the damage and waiting to be cut again. Nine months. Felt like forever.”

“It was a bad dream,” I told him. “It’s over now.”

“For me, yes.” The man smiled. The transparent beast stretched his maw, mimicking the smile, baring enormous teeth. “For them, the nightmare is only beginning.”

I took a deep breath. “We don’t want to be a part of their nightmare. May we go?”

The Suanmi bowed his head, his turquoise eyes fixed on my face. “I owe you a debt, White Tiger.”

I bowed back. Just let me and Jim go and we’ll call it even.

“When you wish to collect it, come here,” the Suanmi said. “It is my place now. I will take it from them by midday and by evening they will be bringing gifts to their new emperor.”

He turned and walked away, deeper into the house.

Jim picked me up and took off running. I hugged his neck and then we were out in the courtyard. Around us people ran in panic. Smoke and fire billowed from the buildings.

“What the hell was that?” Jim growled, his words distorted by his huge mouth.

“A Suanmi. In Chinese legends the dragon had nine sons, each with their own powers. Turns out the nine sons gave rise to nine families. He is a descendant of the son who wields fire.”

“He’s part dragon?”


“I don’t care if he’s part dragon. If he looks at you like that again, I’ll cut his face off.”

“How did he look at me?”

Jim leapt up the stairs and stopped almost in midstep.

“Why did you stop?”

He pointed at the vendor’s cart filled with reproductions of old Japanese pornography. “The scroll with the woman in red.”

On the fake scroll, the woman lay on the floor, her red kimono falling apart while a man with a huge mutant penis crouched over her. A string of kanji characters explained the scene. “Yes?”

“The first two characters in the second column, that’s what I saw on the floor in the office.”

“Put me down.”

He lowered me to the ground. I leaned toward the scroll. The first character, second column: Joro. Joro? Really? “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Jim, that’s a very old word for whore. Baita is more common. I’ve never even seen joro on a sign anywhere, it’s that obscure.”

“That’s what I saw.”

I had no idea what that meant. How would August even know that kanji? He could barely remember the word for bathroom.

Behind us someone roared and a burning wood beam crashed down, just like in an old movie. Jim took my hand, and we ran up the stairs, out of Underground Atlanta, and we didn’t stop running until the door of my mother’s house loomed before me.


AS SOON AS we walked through the door, my family mugged us. My mother had called an emergency. Everyone was there: uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors. They pulled Jim away from me and took him to the garden. I tried to follow, but my mother stopped me.

“Do you have it?”

I dug in my pocket and deposited the snail into her hand. She held up the shell to light. “Alive. Good!” She swept to the corner of the room, where a glass box held the delicate white stars of the jasmine blossoms. She gently deposited the snail onto the snowy petals and shut the box.

“How long?” I asked.

“Six hours, if we’re lucky. Ten, if we’re not.”

People fussed over me and asked me questions, and then I had to explain that the poacher market was no more. Then I was pushed into the kitchen and made to eat. There were so many dishes that the counter had no space. In my family, any emergency was met with an avalanche of food; the more dire the problem, the bigger the spread.

Over an hour later, I finally snuck away to steal a look at the Keong Emas. The snail had fed on jasmine. Its shell lay discarded and the fat body of the insect glowed with weak golden radiance.

“It’s going well,” my mother said. “So far.”

“I’m going out,” I told her.

“Where to?”

“To Komatsu Grocery to see August’s family. I want to know what we’re dealing with.”

My mother pursed her lips. I knew what she was thinking. Of all the nationalities I have come across, the Japanese were usually hardest to talk to. They were always polite to a fault, but they didn’t speak to police and they didn’t speak to foreigners. Family matters were kept private and problems were resolved behind closed doors, so no undue attention would be drawn to the family.

“A waste of time,” Mother said.

“I have a plan.”

My mother clamped her hand to her chest, pretending to be scared. “Dali, do not make Komatsu Grocery explode. Where will I shop?”


My mother rolled her eyes to the heavens with a look of uttermost suffering. I growled and went off to find my alpha.

By the time I fought my way through my relatives to the garden, Jim was human again and very naked. He was seated by the tree and the four older women were pouring spelled water over him, trying to purify the body.

His gaze found me, dark eyes pleading for help. I walked over to him, trying not to ogle.

“Help,” he said.

I took his hand and held it. “They’re trying to keep the evil out, until my mother can get the snail to hatch.”

“Snails don’t hatch,” he said.

“This one does. Stay awake until I come back.”

“Where are you going?”

“I have to do something. Nothing dangerous. I’ll be back soon, okay? Don’t worry, my family will take good care of you.”

The hard alpha mask snapped onto Jim’s face. “I look worried to you?”

“No. Don’t kill any of my relatives while I’m gone either.”

“Where are you going?”

I walked away.

If you deny a cat information, it will nag at him. If the cat happens to be a spymaster, it will drive him completely crazy. It would keep him awake. Besides, after his lecture on how I was smart but stupid and had a chip on my shoulder, I was allowed a little payback.


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