Oakland Arcana: Awakening
My phone made a noise like wind rustling through tree leaves. The sound cut through the bustling noon of a business lunch and froze me mid-word. Rustling leaves meant dryad, which meant Kathleen Alston, a woman who only texted me when it was trouble.
I unlocked my phone underneath the table, and someone else picked up the flow of conversation.
Caller reports an escaped lion on the street near 8th and Clay.
What? A lion? Downtown Oakland really wasn’t the African savanna. I was expecting exactly zero lions during today’s team meeting, but apparently, there was one only a couple blocks away.
I glanced at Dominic, my favorite engineer and employee at TechCraft, who was deep into a one-sided argument about performance gains in iOS native versus various platforms. He didn’t care that I was checking my phone at lunch. In a small development agency specializing in mobile applications, texts happened.
Another text arrived, and my heart pattered the first staccato beats of growing adrenaline.
Caller reports a giant dog, supposedly as big as a car, ran across the street near the convention center.
Beyond being a dryad, Kathleen was also an always-busy grandmother who kept up a blog for the community on how the Oakland PD was doing on that racist violence problem. She spent most days with the police scanner on in the background. And, ever since I’d taught Kathleen how to ward her and her family’s trees against Sudden Oak Death disease, she’d kept an ear open for a list of things I would also like to know about. Directly conflicting reports of the same weird incident were on that list.
A massive magical force known as the Veil protected non-magic humans from the magical world all around them, mostly by twisting their perceptions until they couldn’t see it. Instead of seeing a magic-related incident or creature, the human would see something roughly analogous, something their mind would let them accept.
And sometimes, when the Veil was working its ass off to keep a secret, every Protected human who saw the anomaly would be left with a different twisted explanation of what they saw.
Caller reports water buffalo or ox going the wrong way on 9th near Washington, another caller reports a lion crouching behind cars in a parking lot off Washington.
There was no way to know what the creature was until a Veil-sider saw it, and even then, they wouldn’t think to tell Kathleen. Emergency reporting options for Veil-siders pretty much sucked.
I interrupted Dominic. “Hey guys, I’m sorry, I need to go early. Something came up.”
My team members around the table looked a little surprised, which I appreciated, since this wasn’t the first time I’d run out on them for some weird unexplained emergency. I mean, I was the boss, and I was the one who’d dragged them all into the city for a team lunch, so leaving now was pretty weird. But I was trying to avoid reaching the point where they just expected me to ditch them. “I am really sorry. I wouldn’t go if it weren’t a big deal.”
“No problem. I have my company card,” Anaya assured me.
I secured my giant purse around my body and moved swiftly between too-close tables for the front door.
Outside the dim but trendy restaurant, the day was bright and noisy with cars. The nearest buildings were short two stories, converted townhomes or new buildings in an old style, restaurants and shops and barely any dirty little convenience markets left. A couple blocks up, Oakland suddenly got tall—the Clorox building, 1333 Broadway—and a couple blocks beyond that it switched to a mix of tall and shorter. Office workers ducked between the buildings seeking lunch, or waited for busses, or headed into the BART station.
Somewhere among all these people was a lion-like creature.
Van blocking traffic on 880 Nimitz. Registered to Oakland Zoo. Appears to have been torn open from inside by large creature with claws. All officers on alert.
That kicked my pulse up a notch. This wasn’t a local creature, nor a sedate happy-to-be-transported one.
880 to the convention center. Hell, whatever it was, it’d run right past the police station.
I broke into a trot, threading through pedestrians who had no idea things were getting real weird just a couple blocks over. I cut over to Broadway, then stopped at the corner of 9th. Was it still in the parking lot near Washington?
I texted Kathleen back. Thanks. I’m near it, trying to get a look. Keep sending me anything about location or what the police are doing.
She responded. Don’t get your fool ass killed. You’re young, not immortal.
Hey. Thirty wasn’t young.
I texted again. Noted.
I heard a scream behind me, further up Broadway near 11th, and I backtracked. A whole crowd of people must have seen it, because they were all shouting and clustering together.
“I don’t see it! It just disappeared.”
“No, not a horse. I definitely saw it. It was a lion.”
“Someone call 911!”
The story on the evening news would say lion. By tomorrow, the people who thought they’d saw an ox would realize oh yeah, they must have seen a lion. The Veil would do its work. But really, it was probably a strange supernatural species from Asia, and I knew that because Protected humans didn’t look at a magical species originating in the Americas and think “ox”.
I slipped around the crowd, heading further up Broadway. I was wondering how literal that “disappeared” had been when something big and sparkly just appeared about 100 feet in front of me.
I could see where lion and dog both came from. It had a wide, flat lion-like head with a mane of puffy fur in an unnatural orange color. Its skin was green-blue scales on a thick, heavy-set body, with wide shoulders like a bulldog. Its tail was short, like it was cropped, with more of the flaming orange fur. And its claws were longer than my fingers, thick and arching up out of its feet, clicking on the pavement.
It was a nian, and it was looking right at me. It stared into my eyes, assessing me. It seemed to know I could see it better than any of the humans panicking around us. It was deciding how dangerous I was, whether it would attack me, whether it could eat me—the usual questions a predator asked itself on meeting something new. I stood my ground and waited to see what it would do.
Yeah, I see you scary as fuck magical beast. I don’t know how you ended up on a van to a zoo, and I can’t blame you for being mad about that. But you’re too dangerous to just be left to wander through my city.
And then the nian turned and jumped, clearing a six-foot chain-link fence without scrambling, and ambled into a construction area. I watched it go and took a long, deep breath.
Moderately priced shitsicles! What the hell was a Chinese nian doing in downtown Oakland in fucking July? They were rare even in China. And how many people were going to die while it wandered around?
I glanced up Broadway, then behind me again, and saw what I needed a couple blocks away and walking closer. A stylish desi woman was wearing jeans, an asymmetrical hem kurta and a simple scarf as red as red could get. I dug for my wallet and checked my cash.
She saw me bee lining right for her and her expression got a little concerned.
“Hey,” I said. “This is weird, but could I buy your scarf from you? $200.”
Her face clouded, and I realized she thought this was some racist thing, not a “I need your scarf to frighten a nian off the busiest pedestrian street in downtown Oakland” thing.
I did what I do best in a desperate situation: I came up with a ridiculous lie.
“I work for a startup, we’re new, we make an app for hiring and tracking your au pair. We’re doing a teambuilding scavenger hunt, and, well, you don’t know what our CEO is like, but I got stuck on his team, and if we lose he’ll blame us. Not himself, no, never. Anyway. One of the items is a red scarf and the more square inches it has the more points we get. We already have one red scarf, but yours is so much bigger. It’d be a lot of points. $260?”
Somewhere in the middle of my babble her face switched to understanding. Yeah, she understood crazy startup CEOs. Oakland wasn’t as bad as San Francisco, but the stories traveled across the bridge as thick as daily commute traffic.
“You know I bought this for thirty dollars, right?”
“Yeah, but unless it was in a shop right on this street, that doesn’t help me,” I laughed. Then I lowered my voice. “Don’t worry. It’s his money.”
She laughed too, and sold me her scarf for $260, and didn’t even think it was weird that I left her at a dead run when I had it. Yay for lying.
I had some red, and noise would help with a nian, too. I dropped to a walk and found a video of firecrackers on my phone.
A new text came in. Officer down, body found mauled in parking garage at 7th and Jefferson. Weapon has been discharged.
Shit. Someone was already dead and the nian had no wounds on it. Either the cop was a bad shot, or the nian healed immediately—which wasn’t that surprising, but I’d hoped for better luck. If it had magical creature healing, it’d take magic, or an enchanted item, or the claws of another magic beast to do lasting harm. Gunshots, knives, speeding cars, falling off a giant cliff would mostly be shrugged away.
Someone was dead. I had a feeling like nettles squeezing my soul that more would die today. I had to figure out how to stop this thing. If I didn’t stop it, who else would? It was just me, the beast, and the teeming office buildings of Protected industry.
I found the nian slinking up Franklin towards 14th. It moved more like a lion stalking than a dog, despite its broad shoulders. It settled its weight into each step and padded along. It passed a Fiat and they were about the same size, give or take, and both its scales and the car sparkled blue in the sun. I strangled an urge to pull out my cellphone and get a picture.
If I was going to die today, I did not want it to be like a tourist winning a Darwin award.
The nian looked back at me, a smaller stare this time, then turned back to stalking. I had the thin scarf bundled into a little ball in my hands.
I hoped it wouldn’t go much more east—we were about to hit the boundary of Chinatown. I wasn’t allowed in Chinatown.
Two men walked onto Franklin from a side street right in front of it, and the nian vanished. It completely disappeared, a wink in physical reality and then it was gone. The men never saw their near-death.
Well, hell. I’d read that they could vanish, but I’d assumed we were being allegorical here. You know, vanish, as in hide in the brush, not vanish, as in become completely invisible. But if it could go invisible, why was it letting so many people see it?
A second later, the beast winked back into view, only a few feet beyond the men. It was still moving with that lazily lethal gait, still slowly swiveling its head to look down each street, still stalking like the embodiment of danger.
Okay, maybe that was why. It could only go invisible for a couple seconds.
I didn’t like the stalking. Stalking was a hunter’s movement. Maybe it just walked that way, or maybe it was hunting the streets of my city. And nian ate children.
I got another text, and my phone made that sound of leaves in the wind. The nian turned, not looking at me this time, but sort of ambling toward me anyway. Like hey, that woman is annoying, let’s go fuck with her. I backed up a little, but that stalking gait was faster than it looked. I didn’t want it any closer.
I pulled at the scarf, spreading it wide and tight between my hands and raised it over my head. The nian stumbled and scrambled all over itself, forming a weird dog-like knot in its haste to get away. It ran a hundred feet up the sidewalk and slowed down, then turned to hiss at me and my big scary red.
The hiss was vicious, more cat than dog, thick with spit and forceful. The skin at the back of my neck crawled with fear and I felt goosebumps raising. Some caveman part of my brain informed me we were fucked and should make a run for it, right now.
I slowly folded the scarf back down, and the nian kept walking away. I checked my text, and set my phone to vibrate.
I needed this thing off the streets before it found some toddler to eat, and I suddenly had an idea for accomplishing that, if I could get it to wait for me to get the pieces in place.
Sighting at Franklin and 15th out a window. All officers converging on area.
And speak of the devil, the first cop car arrived. It didn’t have its sirens on, or lights. That was probably a good idea for dealing with a lion. He saw the creature and pulled his car in front of it, blocking the sidewalk on Franklin. The nian slowed.
The cop pulled his gun out, pointed it at the beast, and started yelling.
I was so intent on the nian, it took me a minute to realize he was yelling at me. “Lady, lady, stop gawking and go inside.”
Well. Solid advice, really, except my big red scarf was the only thing that might save him. Giant magic beasts were pretty fucking unimpressed by guns. I nodded yes, but kept walking, not getting out of his line of fire.
A second cop car arrived. The nian had stopped in a stairwell leading to a basement beneath an old building. It was peering over the edge of the railing, watching the cops, watching them point guns at it. Did it know what the guns were yet? Nian weren’t sentient, weren’t too smart, but they weren’t that dumb, either.
I crossed the street and kept walking up, past the nian, past the first cop. I was counting on the cops to like me enough to not shoot me. I had a powerful magic charm drawn in the basement of the downtown police station nudging every cop in the city to like me, at least a bit.
I stopped when I was a few feet behind the cop. “I will arrest you!” he yelled.
But me getting out of the way seemed to satisfy him.
A third car arrived and two more cops got out. I moved up against a Walgreens and crouched down. I reached into my purse and found a bullet I kept in there, an impacted slug pulled from a wall; the thing I wanted protection from. It had been shot there by an Oakland PD officer, too, which should help. I turned it over and over in my fingers and began to chant under my breath, building a ward against bullets.
I pulled power, as much power as I could from myself and the streets around me. I pulled magic from an artifact in my purse, as well, a little battery of half-spun shield filaments saved up for just this sort of emergency. I didn’t have much power, but luckily this ward was more about skill, concentration, and not moving my feet.
More cops were arriving. Two of them ran past me, their car parked further up the street, doors standing open. Neither of them bothered to harass me about my safety.
The nian had decided it was done with being trapped.
The beast took a running start out of the stairwell, onto the sidewalk above. Guns went off with a roar that clapped in the still air of the street. And then the nian went absolutely ape shit.
Blue scales and orange flesh were torn with bullet holes, but those were already healing. The noise of gunfire had hurt it more than the bullets. It flopped and strained against the pavement, and the cops kept putting bullets in it, waiting for it to still. It didn’t still. The guy nearest me had to change his clip, then more of them did. Then they shot again, but slowly. Cops only carried so many bullets.
And slowly the Nian collapsed, quivering, covered in blood.
“Wow, something something,” one of them said, and my ears weren’t working well enough to understand most of it.
I didn’t look at him. I was watching the nian, because I knew it wasn’t dead.
The cops weren’t aware of that detail. They thought the thing flopped in front of them was a dead lion carcass.
I glanced behind me at the abandoned cop car, then back at the street. I could see the nian’s wounds knitting back together, flesh reforming, but the cops were protected by the Veil. They wouldn’t see anything until it was too late.
So far, the nian had been set on moving northeast.
I walked up Franklin again, the way the nian seemed to be heading, while the cops were talking and congratulating each other, calling things into the station. None of them were watching me. I ducked behind the open door of the cop car and pulled out my phone.
I had a couple texts from Kathleen, but I was focused on my contacts list. I had an auto body shop in here, somewhere… right there.
“Hello. Master Fong, please.”
A guy’s voice answered, with the slightest Chinese accent. “I make appointments. What do you need?”
“This is tiger business,” I said firmly, but not too loud.
There was a pause. “Then why are you calling this number?”
“Well, I didn’t say he liked me much. But it is tiger business.”
The guy laughed at that.
I prodded. “Listen, it’s an emergency. Tell him it’s Zizi, that woman who owes him, and see if he wants to talk to me or let me know if he refuses. That works too.”
Whether he’d talk to me or not, there was a good chance Master Fong was about to get a nian dropped into his backyard. Maybe, if he didn’t refuse to talk to me, we could actually make friends over the whole thing.
Master Fong’s voice came through, then. His accent was stronger than the first man’s, but I knew the angrier he got, the more it faded. “You. What do you want?”
“I might have a way to repay my debt. How does that sound?”
“Witch, your blood debt is steep. My grandson is in San Quentin because of you. I will not consider less than a full payment worthy of his suffering.”
I peered into the cop car, making note of the knobs and dashboard bits. There was a little control panel of push buttons, like something out of 1990, and oh hey, a camera. I resisted the urge to wave at it. Hopefully, however the Veil twisted this conversation, the nice police officers wouldn’t decide I was a drug dealer.
“How much, if I were paying dollars?” I asked.
“Forty thousand USD,” he responded promptly. Apparently prison suffering had a nice round number, and he’d had to figure it up before.
“Great!” I said cheerfully. “How about a nian liver?”
“A nian liver. Entire thing, pristine. Last I heard, you could get 400k, maybe 600k from the pieces of a full nian liver.”
“Witch, how the hell did you get a full nian liver?”
I peeked under the cop car. The cops were still in a circle around the nian. A few of them had guns pointing, but most of them were congratulating each other and taking cellphone pics. It was turning into a real celebration.
“Do you want it? I need your word.”
“Yes, yes. It’s a deal. You have my word. You bring me a nian liver, we are even. Your debt is forgiven. Now where did it come from?”
“Well, it’s a funny story. But I should be delivering your nian to Chinatown within a half hour. Um. You will need to extract the liver, though, so I’d suggest having friends ready.”
A long pause, and I cringed. Master Fong’s silence didn’t sound very happy.
“Let me get this straight,” he said, and his accent had thinned. “You want me to pay you to kill a nian for you?”
A gunshot sounded like a rip in the heavens.
I jerked my head up and clipped it on the door of the car. Pain clobbered me and I fell back. Fuck, that hurt.
I could hear snarling now, and a meaty tear, but all I saw was a bunch of cops running around and shooting. Shit, shit, shit.
I dove into the car and started hitting buttons until I got the siren. They were labeled, but I wasn’t sure what half the labels meant. When I found the right one, the noise burst into the chaos.
I crawled back out of the car before someone thought I was stealing it. The siren continued, grating yet stoic, in that way police sirens have.
The nian was gone.
A couple of the cops were kneeling around the badly torn body of one of their own. His face was mangled, shredded, nearly gone, and what I could see of his leg was tattered and rent. I could smell that awful smell that meant perforated bowel. He was probably dead, but if not, I didn’t have much hope for his continued survival.
The rest of the cops were turned with guns out, trying to figure out where their lion had disappeared to.
This was why the term “Protected” was such a crock of shit. Supposedly, the human was protected from the magic by being protected from knowing about the magic. In reality, it just meant those humans died to the magic side all the quicker.
It still tore at me. I hadn’t killed him, and I knew better than to embrace responsibility for all the world’s wrongs, but still. He had died on my watch. That hurt.
One of the officers came around the hood of the car and her eyes widened when she saw me.
“I didn’t know what to do,” I said loudly, competing with the siren. “I think I scared it off.”
She nodded resigned agreement. “I think so. Stay right here,” she pointed at a spot on the pavement a few feet away, right out in the open, and leaned into the car. She didn’t seem very happy about my help.
Burning in my gut like a bad case of cheap takeout, I wanted to warn her, to tell her sound was better than bullets. But years of bitter experience kept me silent. They never understood you, never believed you, and then they blamed you.
She was probably going to turn off the siren, and I didn’t want to be here for that mistake. I walked a few feet to where she pointed and just kept walking until I was around a corner into a parking garage and moving east. No one threatened to shoot me, so I called it good enough.
My head hurt and, you know, it was a stupid time to be complaining, but my feet kind of hurt, too.
Suddenly I remembered the phone in my hand, and held it up to get a look. Master Fong had long since hung up on me.
The nian wouldn’t have run toward the siren, so I was betting it’d gone east on 15th. I jogged through the parking structure, then further up Franklin, taking a right on 17th. I kept jogging, and not an easy pace. I pushed past Webster, and kept going to Harrison. I had a destination, now. I just needed to find the nian and herd it with me to Chinatown.
While I jogged, I dug a little Bluetooth speaker out of my purse and paired it with my phone. I set the video of firecrackers to play on repeat, but kept the volume off. And through it all, I kept a hold of the scarf. I was letting it flow around me, now. I didn’t want my first glimpse of the nian to be it swatting me to the ground with a paw the size of my upper torso.
Somehow, after the immense amount of pain it had just gone through, I thought my new friend might remember me. I thought maybe the nian wouldn’t like me much.
At Harrison, I walked slowly back south. My texts from Kathleen were still coming: a shootout, another officer down, had anyone seen the brunette woman (and Kathleen knew they were talking about me with that). But none of them gave me anything useful on the position of the nian, not right now.
While I was half looking at the phone, I saw a flash of orange and blue low to the ground and coming closer. I flapped my scarf and the movement slowed. The majestic, blood-splattered nian stood in the middle of the road and hissed at me. Some of its scales were smaller, thicker but barely meeting, new. It made the creature look splotchy. Its dark eyes were wild and somehow hardened, shiny like angry marbles. I understood the rage. It was having a far worse day than I was.
It moved a tentative step toward me, and I flapped the scarf again, twining it through the air like an eight-year old playing rhythmic gymnastics. My heart was a piston, hot-rodding overheated blood through my body. I was fully convinced I was going to die. Please work, I prayed to some nebulous universal force.
The nian hissed again, but it started walking away from me, and I followed. I picked my pace up to a trot. I tried not to let it get too far ahead, because I didn’t want it to decide to take a side road. I needed to keep it on Harrison.
A car passed us, then another. A third car swerved around the nian, and the nian snarled back at it. A couple people seemed to notice the lion, and many didn’t see anything. The Veil was overcompensating.
The nian sniffed at buildings and rubbed its face against their corners. A few of the residential buildings it really liked, and I wondered if there were children inside. The nian had to be hungry. Healing like that, and fear like that, both made a beast hungry. Eventually, would it get hungry enough to just grab an adult to eat? I bet it was regretting not eating the first cop while it had a chance.
It tried to change course into a parking lot. I lunged forward and raised my hands, like me and my red cloth were going to charge it. It startled away from me. I also turned on my little speaker, and it was expensive enough to make a decent noise.
The nian took off running south, escaping its centuries-old enemy—loud noises.
I ran after it as fast as I could, still waving the scarf, but have you ever seen a thirty-year-old woman carrying a giant purse chasing a car-sized lion? It left me in its wake immediately, running straight into Chinatown.
“Yeah, keep running!” I yelled.
A second later a long crash sounded, and I jumped. A woman in a floral print shirt had brought a gong out of her shop and waited for the nian to pass before smashing it. She sounded it repeatedly, and in the distance, I heard more noise. We were in Chinatown now, and it looked like a few people had been warned I was coming.
A few blocks down, the nian ran so hard its mane streamed behind it like little streamers of orange fire.
Man, nian are just beautiful. I’d seen one safely in a cage while still a child, and I’d marveled about it to my guards and escorts until they could repeat the nian story, too. “It was this big! And so pretty!”
For a fun change of pace, a large tiger ran past me in the street. Up ahead I heard snarling. I slowed, then walked, clutching the stitch in my side. If they had it, they didn’t need me getting in the way.
There were four tigers by the time I caught up. They were in different shades of orange, different sizes of stripes, smashing into the nian then weaving away. They pushed it into the concrete, asphalt and plastic slides of Jefferson park, away from the busy streets. Another tiger joined them, and a few more seemed to set up a perimeter. Too many tigers in one fight and they started to get in each other’s way, but there was plenty of backup in case someone needed to tap out.
That’s what was in Chinatown—a large weretiger clan, under the harsh leadership of Master Fong. If he had a first name, pain-in-the-ass witches who called the cops on his grandson for doing donuts near her house didn’t get to know it. I still maintained that it wasn’t my fault junior had a trunk full of meth when the cops seized his car, though.
I leaned against a building and took deep lungfuls of air. When I looked at my hands, they were shaking with the after effects of adrenaline and fear. This wasn’t the afternoon of reviewing software bugs with Dominic that I had anticipated.
I listened to the snarling and watched the tigers take pieces out of the nian, what I could of it. The lycanthropes moved faster than born tigers, faster than I could see. There’d be a flash of orange against the gray of the faded asphalt, a snarl rising and falling on the heat of the moment, and when the nian was alone again it had a new set of deep furrows across its side or flank. At first, it returned the favor a few times, injuring the people attacking it and making me wince. But they just limped away with deep furrows in their fur and were replaced by one of the backups.
Even I could smell the blood on the hot summer air.
Eventually, the tigers killed it. Then I watched them take tearing bites, each of them growing in power from the corpse of their enemy in that way shapeshifters had—that was worth more than the liver was, if Master Fong was smart enough to know it. That was why I was hopeful he wouldn’t kill me for being in Chinatown.
The tigers had been careful not to disturb the soft underbelly of the beast. As they finished off most of the easy to reach meat, a wizened woman came out of the auto body shop with a cane and a big knife. She started to butcher the nian properly, old hands still strong, laying aside each of the organs for resale.
The tigers were glorying in the power rush, batting at weeds and licking blood from asphalt.
It was a good day to be a weretiger. The organs alone could put half of them through college, though how Master Fong would divvy things up was none of my business.
And another near-disaster had been held off. There were Protected dead, and I wasn’t happy about that, but it was still a better ending than children disappearing in the night. I was as happy as I could be with a pounding head and slowing heart and too much heat rising from my scalp.
Man, I could kill for a bottle of water. I glanced back at a convenience store plastered in cigarette and phone card advertising and tried to decide if walking the few hundred feet was worth it.
A man walked up the sidewalk, and his clothes were gray with dirt, his face sunburnt so many times he had sores. He caught me looking at him and tried to smile at me, but it was more of a grimace. Unease overpowered my body’s reluctance, and I started moving towards the store. There were a lot of homeless folk in Oakland, and it was always hard to guess if interacting with them would net you a great conversation or a horrible day.
“Weird Chinese and their weird festivals,” he said. He was Protected, then.
I nodded and kept walking. “Yeah, odd stuff around here sometimes.”
We passed each other without incident, though, and I felt silly—
“Give me your purse,” he said.
I looked back at him. He was holding a knife, now, in a shaking hand. It was a paring knife, 50s style with a little orange plastic hilt, and his movements were twitchy. It wasn’t what TV muggings were made of, but that made it more dangerous.
I had ways to overpower a simple human, but none without chanting or a ritual. I had a gun, but it was in said purse.
So I held out the purse toward him and slowly lowered it to the ground. He kept looking up the street, back at the park, at the cars rarely passing by. The tigers must have done something to scare off traffic. I backed up a couple steps.
“Get out of here,” he said.
I started walking toward the convenience store again, worried but calm. Panicking wouldn’t help. There was nothing in the purse I couldn’t lose. After surviving the nian, it would be a damn shame to die over my purse.
“Wait,” he said, and I didn’t like the sound of that. I glanced back, but I kept walking a few more steps. “Wait,” he insisted. “Give me your wallet.”
“My wallet is in my purse.” Slowly, I turned out my two front pockets, illustrating they were empty. I held my arms wide, trying to look harmless, project harmless, think harmless.
There was nothing else I could do. Even if I could chant, I didn’t have enough power to hold a ward against someone specifically, maliciously trying to harm me. The best I could do was ricochets.
While I stood, he came closer, and closer. He was getting in my personal space and my brain was screaming fear. I could call out for the tigers, but would any of them come? Would they get here before he killed me for yelling? But he was just feeling my back pockets, looking for my wallet.
Up close, his skin was a weird shade of ashen beneath sunburn beneath dirt. His hair was brown with big shocks of gray. He had peeling skin on his cheek, and I could just imagine how painful that was. His hand still shook, and the rest of him projected that same trembling intensity.
He looked back at the purse and took a step, and I sighed in relief.
Maybe it was the sigh. Maybe there was something about that he didn’t like. He turned and lunged, and I tried to jerk away but it wasn’t nearly enough. He stabbed me somewhere in my chest, and my movement away from him turned into a fall. While I was on the ground, he slashed at me again with his knife, and for a second I thought he had missed me, but then it hurt, really, really hurt. And I drew my legs into my body, covering my stomach the best I could.
He jerked forward again, leaning to stab me. I could see him yelling, but I wasn’t tracking the words. I kicked out with my feet with everything I had, which didn’t seem to be much right now, and hit him squarely in the face. He stumbled, but came back to lean over me again.
And my attacker disappeared, jerked upward by a hand. I heard a snarling growl nearby, and I knew he was going to die. They wouldn’t want the cops searching Chinatown for a tiger, not today.
I tried to turn my head to the noise, but the world was oddly gray. It came and went and I belatedly realized I might lose consciousness. I tried laying excessively still, but my body still felt like it was moving in time to the pain, an odd ghost throbbing centered around my stomach.
A man appeared and I tensed, but he just started talking on his phone.
I drifted in a spinning world, just for a moment, then I realized the man was kneeling beside me with a concerned expression.
“This fucking hurts,” I told the person.
“Yeah, I bet,” he answered me. “I called 911.”
But the dizziness started to pass, and that was a huge relief. My slice wounds hurt, and I couldn’t have unwound from my fetal position if I tried, but at least I was in a fetal position. I’d gotten that way somehow. I was in pain, but if I could move, maybe I wasn’t too hurt.
An ambulance arrived and it was way too loud; how did they expect injured people to bear that? And why did my head hurt so much? My stomach was the part that got stabbed.
“I’m sure I’m fine,” I told an arriving paramedic. “I doubt I need a hospital. Maybe I have heat exhaustion?”
I looked hopefully up into the business-like face of an EMT. He shot a poignant look at my shirt soaked in blood.
That’s probably why the first thing he did was sedate me.
Someone tucked my purse onto the wheelie bed beside me right before I was lifted into the ambulance.
Shit. I still haven’t spoken to Master Fong. If he’s mad about the nian, he can assassinate me in the hospital before I ever wake up.
But they had given me something medicinal, multiple somethings. The drugs pulled away my ability to reason, then my ability to stay awake, long before we reached the emergency room.