Magic Dreams Page 4

Jim was looking at me.

“Bad,” I mouthed, letting him read my lips. “Bad magic.”

Above us the ceiling creaked. We looked at it.

Another creak. Something heavy moved across the floor over our heads.

Jim pushed ahead of me and we padded up the wooden steps upstairs.


THE STAIRCASE WAS narrow and Jim’s muscular back took up most of it. I gave him a couple of feet to make sure he had room to strike if we ran into something unpleasant.

Magic saturated the staircase. It dripped from the rail in long viscous droplets, it slimed the steps, it boiled in long coils along the wall so thick and potent I wished I’d brought a rain slicker. Now, that was a totally irrational thought. It seemed insane Jim couldn’t see it, but I knew he couldn’t.

We reached the landing. A hallway ran perpendicular to the staircase, and right across it, a doorway was lit by a pale yellowish glow. I smelled lamp oil.

Jim paused for one long second on the upstairs landing and strode on, through the hallway into the room. I padded after him.

A lone lamp burned on the floor at the far wall, illuminating a naked woman, who sat cross-legged on the grimy boards. Her dark honey hair hung in ragged strands down her back. I inhaled, sampling her scent. Michelle. But the scent was wrong. A living scent is hot, vibrant. This was a cold odor, laced with traces of toxic stenches: feces, a touch of urine, and a revolting patina of putrescence, like a meat broth left out for too long. Degrading amino acids. I’ve smelled this nauseating cocktail before: cadaverine, putrescine, and a dose of indole for good measure. My eyes told me Michelle was alive and sitting in front of me. My nose told me she was dead and had been so for at least two days. I trusted my nose. It never lied.

Jim pulled a knife from his sheath. It was his giant G.I. Joe knife, dark gray with a wicked curved tip and a serrated edge near the handle.

Michelle turned and looked at us. Her eyes were empty. Dead eyes, like two dark holes in her head. And I had really liked her, too.

Behind Michelle, another body lay in the corner on its side, long dark hair fanned out on the filthy floor like a black veil. Roger, a werelynx. Dead as well.

Michelle’s left arm jerked up and forward, resting on the floor. Her right followed, like she was a puppet on a string.

“What do you want?” Jim’s voice was a low snarl. That’s why Jim was in charge. I didn’t have to explain that something was controlling the dead. He figured it out all on his own and wasted no time on being weirded out by it.

Michelle’s body turned, flipping her into a crouch.

Many things controlled the dead. I had to figure out who pulled the strings, before I could try a curse. Think, Dali, think.

“Any advice?” Jim asked, his voice casual.

“Keep her busy, so I can figure this out.”

Michelle’s mouth gaped open, showing dark nasty teeth.

“And try not to get bit.”

Michelle launched from her crouch, hands outstretched, fingers like claws. Jim lunged at her. He grabbed her arm, the knife sliced in a furious arch, and Jim hurled Michelle across the room into the wall.

I clenched my calligraphy brush. This thing could’ve sent Michelle at us the moment we stepped through the door. But no, it taunted us from the window with the light. It made the ceiling above us creak on purpose.

Michelle rebounded from the wall, flipping in midair, kicking at Jim. He sidestepped, but she was fast. Her nails raked his chest with unnatural strength, ripping through clothes. Blood swelled through the tears. Jim grabbed her arm and twisted, his knife biting deep into Michelle’s shoulder. Something crunched and Michelle’s arm came away in Jim’s hand—he’d cleaved the ball joint from the socket. Like cutting a wing from a chicken.

Michelle spun around. No blood spilled from the cut. She bared her teeth and lunged at Jim again, swiping at him with her remaining hand. Michelle was a jackal. They didn’t claw, they bit.

He’d have to mince her into tiny pieces before she’d stop.

Something chuckled in the corner, where the magic knotted into a dark bramble. It was laughing at us. Playing a game, a cruel game.

Michelle clawed at Jim.

Just like a cat.

I began drawing my kanji. “Kill her now, please.”

Jim jerked Michelle down. He cut in a vicious swipe and her head plunked down on the floor.

A dark shape coalesced from the knotted magic in a blink and leapt over Roger’s corpse. I hurled my curse at it. The rigid white strip hit it between the eyes. Magic pulsed and I saw yellow cat eyes glowing like two moons at me from a round fur face.

Roger rammed into Jim.

The cat beast leapt in a blur, straight at me. The huge body knocked me off my feet. I flew and the back of my head bounced off the boards.

The cat clamped me down, its weight crushing my chest. A dark feline mouth gaped at me, exhaling fetid breath into my face. Pain punctured my shoulders like red-hot needles. I tried to snarl, but I had no air and only a small squeak came out.

The black mouth bit down. The kanji on the white piece of paper flared with green.

The paper burst into a dozen strips. They shot outward, jerking the cat off of me.

I blinked, trying to suck in a breath. Jim leaned over and thrust his hand down to me. I grabbed it and he pulled me up. Roger’s corpse, broken and twisted, crumpled on the floor. Above it, a long feline body hung about two feet off the ground, wrapped in long strips of paper. It was six feet long and shaggy with orange and white fur, a house cat that had somehow grown to a leopard size. The strips adhered to the walls and ceiling, clutching the cat like the wrappings of a mummy.

The beast wasn’t moving. Two paper strips had caught its throat in a makeshift noose. Its head hung limp, mouth open, a long tongue sticking out of the corner of its mouth. The yellow eyes, once glowing with bloodlust, were dull now.

I swallowed. My mouth tasted bitter. The cat monster was dead. My hands trembled from adrenaline. I had screwed up.


“WHAT THE HELL is that?” Jim asked. His voice was calm. His hands didn’t shake. Cool as ice. Why couldn’t I be more like that?

I sniffed, trying to hide the trembling. “Two tails or one?”

Jim took a step to the cat and lifted two long furry tails.

“It’s a nekomata,” I said. “A yokai.”

Jim gave me a blank look.

“The yokai are Japanese demons.” I rubbed my face. “Legends say that if a cat’s tail isn’t cropped and some other conditions are met, it has a chance to become a bakeneko, a demon ghost cat. Bakeneko cats grow to a huge size and get supernatural powers. Sometimes their tails fork and they become nekomata, demon monster cats. They have the power to control the dead, take on human form, and can do some nasty things.”

“Do they have the power to put people to sleep?”

I knew he’d get around to that sooner or later. “No. It’s possible that the woman you saw was a nekomata in disguise, but it’s not likely. She had you and she let you go. The nekomata is a cat, Jim. It’s cruel and mean, and it likes to play games, but you know yourself, the prey never gets away. This”—I waved my arms around—“is complicated. Too complicated for a demon cat. They mostly set fires, steal corpses, and walk around in human clothes, pretending to be your elderly mother so they can get free grub. There is magic here, really bad magic. It kind of scares me. The nekomata is dead, but the magic is still here. Something else is going on. This isn’t over.”

Jim tapped one of the paper strips with his knife. The strip didn’t give. “And this?”

“This is the curse of twenty-seven binding scrolls.”

Jim slashed at the paper strip. The paper held. Jim scowled. “How the hell …”

Kate, one of my friends, always said that the best defense is a good offense. “Before you say anything, yes, I know that the curse didn’t function as expected and I know that it would’ve been better to have the nekomata restrained so we could question it, and I was trying to do that, but it’s not like it’s an exact science, and how was I supposed to know that the binding scrolls would choke the stupid demon to death? So you don’t have to tell me—I know! You try guessing some weird creature’s identity and writing calligraphy while it’s trying to bite your nose off and then don’t come crying to me.”

And that didn’t make even a tiny bit of sense. I was an exceptionally smart woman. Why did Jim always reduce me to some sort of ditzy bimbo idiot?

“I was going to say, how the hell did you pull that off,” Jim said. “You made paper with the tensile strength of steel out of nothing. The physics of this makes my brain hurt.”


“And I would’ve said it and some other nice things, except that you jumped in my face and started sputtering and waving your tiny fists around.”

“Tiny fists?”

“That’s the root of your problem right there. You always rush into things looking for a fight. You’re like one of those First Responder magic cops: Ride in, kill everything, and then sort bodies into two piles: criminals and civilians.”

My face turned hot. My body was pumping out all sorts of angry, upset hormones. He was chewing me out like I was a child. I was this close to going furry, except it wouldn’t do me any good.

“If you take a tenth of a second to check if the fight you’re charging into isn’t there, it would save you a lot of grief.”

He didn’t get it and he would never get it. “Are you finished?”


“Good.” I turned away from him and crouched by Roger’s body. Roger’s head hung in a weird angle, and both of his arms bent in places where no joints existed. Jim had broken him like a twig.

“What is it?”

You’re so special, why don’t you tell me, Mister Always Look Before You Leap. I dragged my finger against Roger’s skin. It came away with a powdery gray residue. I showed my finger to Jim. “I’m pretty sure normal corpses don’t do that.”

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