Magic Dreams Page 6

“Is there any other way?”

My mother shook her head. “Don’t even think about it. You can’t go to the Underground.”

I exhaled, blinking. “We don’t have any choice.”

My mother made a short cutting motion with her hand. “No!”

“Yes. We need to buy the snail.”

My mother drew herself to her full height. I stood up and did the same.

“No, and that’s final.”

“You can’t keep me from doing it.”

“I am your mother!”

Jim opened his mouth. “Mengapa?”

Oh my gods.

He spoke Indonesian.

My mother’s eyes went wide and for a second she looked like a furious cat. “He speaks Indonesian!”

“I know!”

“Why didn’t you tell me he speaks Indonesian? This is a thing I need to know!”

I waved my arms. “I didn’t know!”

“What do you mean, you didn’t know? You just said you knew.”

“I meant I didn’t know that he did and then he did and I went ‘I know!’ because I was surprised.”

“Ladies!” Jim barked, standing up.

We both looked at him.

“You’re speaking so fast, I can’t understand,” he said. “Why does Dali need to go to the Underground?”

“You explain it to him,” my mother said. “I will make tea.” She went into the kitchen.

I pointed at the chair. “Sit.”

He sat and lowered his voice. “What happened to your mother’s accent?”

“We’re past that now,” I whispered to him. “Her little Asian lady act is just for show. She has a master’s in chemistry from Princeton.”

Jim blinked.

“Well, where did you think I got my brains?”

Jim shook his head. “Explain the Underground thing.”

I sighed. “How much did you understand? And since when do you speak Indonesian?”

“I’ve got the idea that something is seriously fucked up and it seemed like an interesting language.”

“Interesting language? Really? So what, you got up one day and said, ‘Hmm, I think I will learn Bahasa Indonesia today’?” He was up to something.

A green sheen rolled over Jim’s eyes. “Dali, the Underground?”

There was no easy way to say it. “Something is feeding on your soul.”


I leaned closer. “All people generate magic. Some can use it, some can’t; some generate more than others, but all of us are magic engines: We absorb it from the environment and emit it back out. That’s why we can shift during technology: We store enough magic in our bodies to allow us to change shape. Let’s take Kate.”

Jim’s voice betrayed a quiet warning. “What about Kate?”

Kate used to work with Jim in the Mercenary Guild. Kate was gorgeous, funny, and she could kill anything. I hated her. She could say anything to Jim and he would just needle her back. I was so jealous of her I used to have to leave the room, until I realized that Kate crushed on Curran. She was now mated to him, and since he was the Beast Lord, that made her the Beast Lady and not interested in Jim. Kate and Curran had some seriously rough time with an ancient goddess who blew into town, and now Kate walked with a cane and Curran was barely three weeks out of a coma.

“Ever notice how when Kate gets stressed out the phones stop working?”

“The phones are unreliable as a rule,” Jim said.

I shook my head. “No, it’s Kate. She generates so much magic, she short-circuits tech if she isn’t careful. I do the same thing, except I control mine better. She can’t shoot a gun either. I’ve watched her practice and it either goes wide or doesn’t fire at all. And she has no clue. Watch her sometime: She will stomp in, grab the phone, make that growly noise, and walk away. Ten minutes later you can order takeout on the same phone. It’s the funniest thing.”

“What does that have to do with my soul being drained?”

“You’re magic, Jim. You absorb and consume magic, emanating it into the environment. By doing so, you modify the environment to be more suitable to your existence. It’s like the evolutionary loop: A species is shaped by its environment, because those with the mutations most suitable to the environment survive and reproduce, but a species also modifies its environment to make it more suitable to its survival.”

Jim sighed. “Give me the short version.”

“Something is interfering with your ability to emanate magic. You absorb and convert it, but then something or someone is siphoning it off. That’s why you feel tired and sleepy.”

“So it’s feeding off of me?”

My mother walked in carrying a platter with a teapot and three cups. “Yes.”

Jim frowned. “Makes sense. That’s why it didn’t kill me—the more magic I make, the more it eats.”

“You do realize that you’re going to die?” My mother shook her head.

“Yeah, I’ve got the dying part.”

“You found some sort of zombie instead of a man.” My mother pointed at Jim. “Look, he isn’t even concerned.”

I poured the tea. “He’s concerned, Mother. He just doesn’t panic, because he’s in charge and if he panics, everybody else will panic.”

“I can jog around the room pretending to scream if you would like,” Jim offered.

My mother raised an eyebrow. “You’re working so hard to dig your own grave, you might work yourself to death. Simmer down.”

Jim drew back as if she’d smacked his hand with a ruler.

“We have to sever the connection between you and whoever is doing this,” I said before they started slapping each other. “But we can’t see it. To make it visible we need Keong Emas. It’s a magic snail. There is a legend in Indonesia that talks about a beautiful princess, who was cursed and turned into a snail. The legend is figurative and the snail doesn’t turn into an actual princess, but with the right magic, it will reveal hidden things. The only way to get the snail is to buy it at the Underground. It’s rare and expensive.”

“Money isn’t an issue,” Jim said.

“It’s not about the money, you stupid boy.” Mother set the teacup down. “She can’t go there because of the yisheng.”

Jim looked at me.

“Yisheng is the Chinese word for a medicine man,” I said. “The dealers at the Underground call themselves that, but they aren’t medicine men. They’re animal-parts dealers. Do you remember that big shapeshifter case in Asheville three years ago?”

Jim frowned. “Vaguely. I was in Florida, dealing with Kaja’s loup pack. I remember there was a fifteen-year-old kid, Jarod, I think. He was a black bear. He said he was walking in the woods, encountered a group of hunters, waved to indicate that he was a shapeshifter, and when he turned away, the hunters shot him in the back and he had to defend himself. By the time the game wardens showed up, Jarod had the shooter pinned and everyone else had cleared out. The medic pulled sixteen bullets out of the kid. The hunter claimed he was attacked without provocation. They had a hard time proving Jarod’s story because his wounds had closed, so there was no way to determine how he’d been shot. The prosecution argued that Jarod was so huge in his beast form that if he was walking away from a hunter, no sane man would have shot him, so the hunters must’ve fired in self-defense. Curran sent the entire legal division down there.”

Clearly, Jim wasn’t sure what the word vaguely meant.

“My uncle Aditya testified in that trial,” I told him. “He is a federal park ranger for the Smoky Mountains National Park. The hunter’s name was Williams. Chad Williams, MD. Uncle Aditya testified that Williams has been detained several times on suspicion of poaching with intent to sell animal parts. He had friends in the right places and he was let go every time.”

“Stupid people believe that bear cures everything,” Mother put in. “Diabetes, stomach pain, weak heart, limp penis …”

“A black bear gallbladder goes for about forty-five thousand dollars on the black market,” I said.

Jim repeated, “Forty-five grand?”

I nodded. “When your family is sick or your equipment stops working, people get desperate. Especially ignorant white people—they think mystical ‘Oriental’ medicine will cure all their ills.”

I refilled our cups. “A black bear’s gallbladder is expensive. A bear shapeshifter’s gallbladder is worth even more. Williams shot Jarod on purpose. He wanted his organs. They found silver bullets hidden in his campsite.”

“Poachers think that if the bear dies in pain, his gallbladder will get bigger.” My mother grimaced.

Jim’s eyes sparked with green. “They shot the boy with regular bullets to torture him before they killed him.”

“Yes. Once all this stuff came out on the stand, everybody got involved.” I waved my arms. “The marshals, the FBI, the GBI. Williams even got in trouble with the post office because the idiot used the mail to ship some animal parts down to Atlanta. He went down in flames.”

“And our family got blacklisted with the poachers forever and ever and ever,” my mother said. “That’s why Dali can’t go into the Underground. A black bear is a valuable animal, but you know what’s better?”

My mother got up, went to the cabinet, and pulled a folded paper out. Oh no. Not again.

“A tiger!” My mother slapped the paper in front of Jim. On it a stylized tiger curved his back in a garishly bright watercolor. Arrows pointed to different parts of the tiger’s body, each marked with a label: brain to cure laziness and acne, blood to cure weak constitution and gain power, teeth for breathing problems and venereal diseases, whiskers to help with the toothache …

Jim stared at it. His eyes went completely green, glowing with barely restrained violence.

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