Magic Dreams Page 11

IT WAS ALMOST noon by the time I made it to South Asia. It was a grand name for a small spot in southern Atlanta, where the Asian-themed shops aggregated in a large plaza formed by an old mall. I stopped there a couple of times a month—it was the closest place to buy manga. Also, Komatsu Grocery was hands down the best Asian market in the area. They had a large selection and their seaweed salad was delicious. Whenever I went, I’d buy a two-pound tub of it and then pig out as soon as I got home.

I parked Pooki on a remote street, stepped out of my car, and stripped off my clothes.

There was a thing that August’s family would dislike even more than having to speak to outsiders. They would go to great lengths to avoid attracting attention. And I was about to Cause a Scene.

My panties were off. I crouched and scratched a name in the pavement with the car key: Jim. Next I put my glasses on the passenger’s seat, locked the car, dropped the keys behind the left wheel, and took a deep breath.

The world dissolved, swirling into a thousand bokeh, blurry little lights in every color of the rainbow.

Pretty colors.

Ooooh, so pretty.

Mmm, pretty, pretty.

So many scents. I liked that one, and this one, and this other one was kind of disgusting, and this one made me hungry.

I licked my lips. Mmm. Yummy smell, so good.

The bokeh slowly came into focus: I was lying in a street. Hmmm. I knew this street. This was South Asia.

Why was I here?

I looked down. On the pavement in front of me, right between my two paws, was a single word: Jim.

Jim. My handsome, awesome, scary Jim. Rawr. I smiled and sniffed the name. It didn’t smell like Jim.

A memory popped in my head like a soap bubble bursting: Jim, dying, soul siphoned, Keong Emas, poachers, August. I came here to find out why August had disappeared for twenty-four hours.

I rose and padded around the corner. The magic was still up and when the light caught my fur, every hair gleamed. People stopped and stared. They knew who I was; I had come to South Asia before many times. They knew my magic, too, because it rolled off me with every step.

I walked over to the door of Komatsu Grocery and lay down in the middle of the street, staring at the door.

People looked at me, shocked.

I gave them a nice big smile. That’s right, look what big teeth I have. I knew I was a vegetarian, but aside from Jim and a few friends, nobody else did. Besides, just because I didn’t eat meat, didn’t mean I wouldn’t bite.

The few people aiming for the store decided they had better places to be.

After fifteen minutes August’s second cousin, who liked to call herself Jackie, stuck her head out the door. I released my claws and stretched, making long scratches on the pavement. She gulped and ducked back in.

I could just imagine the conversation inside: “She’s lying in front of our store!” “In front of our store? In the street where everyone can see?” “Yes!” “Oh no.”

Minutes passed by. A little blue butterfly landed on my nose. I blinked at it and it fluttered to my ear. A big yellow butterfly gently floated over and landed on my paw. Soon a whole swarm of them floated up and down around me, like a swirl of multicolored petals. It happened in my backyard, too, if the magic was strong enough. Butterflies were small and light, and very magic sensitive. For some reason I made them feel safe and they gravitated to me like iron shavings to a magnet. They ruined my ferocious badass image, but you’d have to be a complete beast to swat butterflies.

If a baby deer frolicked out from between the buildings trying to cuddle up, I would roar. I wouldn’t bite it, but I would roar. I had my limits.

I flicked my tail. Hmm, a half hour had passed and we were getting close to the forty-five-minute mark. The family was trying to save face or having an argument, but if nobody came to say hello in the next few minutes, their behavior would be edging on rude. One can’t ignore a mystic white tiger on their doorstep. It just wasn’t done.

The door opened and August’s auntie bowed and held it open. “Please, come in.”

I trotted inside, leaving my Lepidoptera entourage outside. August’s auntie led me past the counter to the back room, where August’s grandmother, his uncle, and his mother sat. The entire Komatsu family with the exception of the children and August’s white father. Their faces looked ashen.

I sat, curling my tail around me.

We looked at one another.

“We know why you are here,” August’s uncle said. Mr. Komatsu was a solemn-looking man in the best of times; now his expression was so grave, he could’ve been carved out of stone.

I waited.

“August is dead,” he said.

I sighed. August was the first male son in his generation. The one who would be forgiven every wrong and permitted every privilege, because years later, when his father and uncle were old, he would assume the burden of taking care of Komatsu family. It was a terrible loss for the family.

“We have buried his body. It is our affair,” Mr. Komatsu said.

I shook my head slowly. August was a shapeshifter and other shapeshifters died because of him. It was our affair now.

Mr. Komatsu stared straight ahead.

The grandmother leaned forward. “It’s the woman. Her name is Hiromi. We do not know her family name. It happened seven years ago, just before the flare.”

The flare came every seven years. If a normal magic fluctuation was a wave, the flare was a tsunami. Bad magic happened during the flare. It dissipated after three days or so, but those three days were terrible. The flare before last dumped a phoenix onto the city, right over the Asian neighborhoods. We had another flare this year and I made my family go to the Keep to stay safe.

“The bad magic was coming,” August’s mother said. “People boarded up their houses and flooded the stores to get supplies. Everyone was in a rush. Hiromi came in to buy groceries. I’d seen her before a few times. She looked poor. Her clothes were bad and she was thin. Very skinny. She had her daughter with her, a small little girl. She might have been two or three.”

“The child liked cookies,” Mr. Komatsu said. “We offered some to her every time. Hiromi would only let her have one. Very proud.”

August’s mother took a deep breath. “Hiromi bought her groceries and went out, carrying her little girl. A street person stabbed them outside the door. We found him later. He was a crazed old man. The flare had made him insane. He didn’t even remember doing it. He just stabbed them and walked away. Hiromi slumped against the wall, holding her baby, and people walked by. Everybody was in a terrible rush. Nobody wanted to get involved. Nobody stopped him and nobody helped her.”

How terrible. To lie there and bleed out slowly into the street, knowing your child is dead in your arms. How awful.

“We didn’t know she was dying outside of our store,” Mr. Komatsu said. “When we found her, she had no pulse. She looked dead. We brought her and the little girl inside, in here. They were both cold and neither had a heartbeat.”

“The flare had unleashed a phoenix and the city was burning,” August’s mother said. “We had to go. We left her. Meanwhile, the flare had awakened magic within Hiromi and pulled her back from death, but her little girl didn’t survive. When we came back after the flare, she had woven a cocoon within the store. Before she left, she warned us that everyone would pay.”

I had this sick cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. I knew exactly how this story would end.

“She remembered everyone who’d passed by her as she lay dying and didn’t stop to help,” Mr. Komatsu said. “On the one-year anniversary of her child’s death, a mark and a note appeared on the door of the first family. Hiromi demanded a sacrifice: One member of the family had to go to her so she could … feed. If someone volunteered, the rest of the family would be left alone. They ignored it at first. Three days later she took the family.”

“The families put together our money and hired the Mercenary Guild,” August’s mother murmured. “She killed them. Nobody would help us after that.”

If only I could speak. They had let this monster terrorize them. They didn’t ask for help. They could’ve gone to the Order, they could’ve gone to the cops. They could’ve gone to the Pack—August was a shapeshifter, after all, and his family was in danger. But they didn’t, because everyone was too ashamed to admit that they had let a young woman and her child die alone on the street in plain view. They just took their punishment, paid their blood debt, and lived with guilt. It was the old honorable way and it cost them so many lives.

August’s mother kept talking. “She is growing stronger and stronger. She has turned her cat into a nekomata, and it serves her with dark magic. Even her blood is no longer human. She bleeds ichor like a spider. She is growing greedy like one, too. People have been disappearing more and more as time goes by. Every year she marks a new door. This year she marked ours.”

I’d guessed as much.

“I said I should go.” August’s grandmother drew herself upright. “I’m old. I’ve lived long enough.”

“We argued about it,” August’s mother said. “While we argued, August decided that nobody should go. He went to meet Hiromi himself.” Her voice broke and she closed her eyes.

August had died for them. For his family. The first son of the new generation, the heir to the family. They had lost their future and they were crushed.

Because August had disobeyed and fought, Hiromi had toyed with him. She must’ve infected him somehow, and he brought her magic with him to the shapeshifter office. Jim was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now she wanted him. Well, she couldn’t have him. He was mine.

Mr. Komatsu rose and put his arms around his sister. “We don’t know what happened between Hiromi and my nephew. We found August’s body on our doorstep. He was drained. His corpse, it was devoid of all liquid. We buried him. The mark has disappeared from our door. We cannot help you. Now leave us in peace so we can grieve.”

I rose and walked out, leaving the shards of a broken family behind me. I felt sick, but I finally knew what my enemy was.

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