A bullet whizzed past Lia’s head like an angry, supersonic bee when she snatched up her tomcat at a lucky moment and ran for it, ducking under branches and distancing herself from the gunmen behind her. She was far more agile around here in the gathering gloom than they could ever hope to be. She knew this ground better than anyone ever had.
The sun’s upper arc had sunk dangerously close to the western horizon. The vegetation around her blazed with the last of the afternoon’s smoldering light as she tore across the property, sprinting as hard as she ever had. It was the hour of day Lia normally loved best, although she had no time for smelling roses now.
Her heart was thundering by the time she reached the back of the Yard. Her teeth tasted like copper and she had a deep, lancing stitch in her side, one that threatened to seize into a cramp when she pulled up short and paused in front of the eight-foot-long pile of cordwood that was stacked almost as high as the rear fence.
As vast as it was, the nursery couldn’t go on forever.
The odd, misshapen stump that had been a man earlier that morning was rooted deeply into the earth before the woodpile, like it had been there for a century. Lia let Tom out of her trembling arms and he leapt down onto it with easy, feline grace.
Her first instinct was to run for Bag End, which lay off to her left, but Tom gave her to know that men were coming from that direction, and less than a second later she heard their swift if clumsy approach with her own two ears. So that wasn’t going to work. There’d be no hiding underground.
The thing with a false hood of skin hanging askew over its ivory-yellow facial bones was much nearer, practically in sight of her already and closing fast, by the sound. It would seem to be another reanimated skeleton like Dexter, which both awed and bewildered Lia. There were old trees to her right, the same trees she’d hidden in before (as well as one new, magically-sprouted camellia), but she only had a moment left in which to bolt for cover and the woodpile was closer by.
She snatched up Tom and ducked behind it right before the corpse with the secondhand face burst from the potted treeline at her back. He had at least half a dozen of Mictlantecuhtli’s remaining henchmen at his heels.
Lia felt sure they’d seen her. They must have. She couldn’t have been fast enough. As a hiding place, the woodpile was shot. It was good for nothing but cover now.
Still, she cowered there, trying to breathe quietly while her lungs burned and her blood thundered in her ears, just in case she was wrong and they hadn’t spotted her after all. She clutched her bristle-tailed Tom against her breastbone, wishing as hard as she could that her pursuers would move on.
“All right, now, brujagirl,” the dead henchman in charge said, dashing any hope of a reprieve. “We’re done with this, so come on outta there. You ain’t gonna be happy about it if I have to send my people in.”
With a glance, Tom let Lia know that this was likely true. He’d known this man before, in another era, and was willing to vouch for him as a serious threat. She therefore set her cat down and complied with the skeleton’s order, holding up her hands and stepping out from behind her small mountain of split-and-stacked firewood.
She broke a small branch off from the new camellia shrub as she did so. Almost a twig, really. And yet it was still a wand-a symbolic channel for her will.
She glanced west at the moment the sun finally disappeared from the horizon, leaving the sky above a cloudless cerulean blue that would bleed away to starry blackness within minutes.
It was officially night, and all the worlds’ nocturnals were free to roam.
“Where, pray tell, is the bloody cat?” the dead man with the torn face asked, switching from a Spanish to a British accent for no reason Lia could begin to fathom.
She looked right at him, into the lenses of the cracked sunglasses he hadn’t yet removed, in spite of the gathering darkness. They were the only thing holding his face in position. Lia was no longer afraid, even though she could see teeth through the bloodless rents in his stubbly cheek. A strange calm descended over her, and a subtle breeze she couldn’t feel against her skin nonetheless stirred the leaves of the nearest rooted plants. The trees around her hissed as if in quiet anger, and the living men glanced around themselves nervously, even though they all were armed and Lia plainly was not.
Except for the crooked little stick she raised and pointed in their direction.
She gasped in a breath and straightened her spine when a semi-perceptible shock rolled up her legs from deep within the earth, igniting each of the seven chakra points that ran up the median line of her body as it traveled all the way to the crown of her head. Rising ethereal energies rippled across her skin, trailing fever-waves of gooseflesh after them. Her intentions could now be grounded into manifestation, and she reached out with her mind to share the current, brushing the last of Ingrid’s binding hexes away from Black Tom.
“Boys,” Lia said, smiling wickedly and training her makeshift wand on the gunmen, each in turn, stopping on their leader. “There’s something the old people used to say that I believe applies to this situation.” She let her conscious mind unfurl down the wand’s shaft, pushing at the men’s perceptions with the full force of her will as she quoted a Zuni proverb she’d once read:
Before any of the men could ask Lia what in the name of hell she was talking about, a sleek, black mountain lion stepped out from behind the woodpile and nuzzled its head against her hip, purring like it had an eight-cylinder engine buried within its massive chest.
The observing gangsters were staggered. Lia saw their eyes go wide, and the color drained from their faces. Late-to-the-show cops looked merely confused as they emerged from the trees.
The enormous black cat, easily the size of a full-grown tiger, roared and pounced on the dead leader with the torn face without further ado. The costumed skeleton went down screaming. The wildcat planted two fist-sized paws on its chest and clamped its leathery skull between his jaws, then shook it with all the force those powerful predator’s shoulders could muster.
Incredulous, Ben Leonard stepped up beside her, taking in the surreal scene. Lia barely noticed him, or any of the other officers, either, as she was so busy cheering. Her champion had long ago been christened in honor of his maternal grandfather, a man named Tomas de Leon, Tom the Lion, and Lia knew that one’s true name was always the key to one’s true nature. She knew it because he’d taught her everything he could, and never asked for anything in return.
The six or seven henchmen looked on in horror; the cops in weird wonderment. Nobody could quite countenance what they were seeing, although all of them believed in it. In her fever pitch of excitement Lia was catching impressions from their minds without even trying to. She was sending and receiving all at once, exquisitely aware of every emotion within the vicinity.
Ben Leonard looked down to see Tom the plain old housecat clawing at a screaming, flailing perpetrator-one that happened to be a long-dead skeleton dressed in black jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. (The sort of shit that would never wind up in any report, he thought).
Hardface’s henchmen, however, saw a man-sized, melanistic wildcat, as Lia intended them to. (The police officers hadn’t been within her spell’s sphere of influence when she cast it, and so remained untouched by its effects.) The monstrous cat stopped shaking the gang’s freakish leader by the head and looked up, flashing green eyes at the final lingering knot of the King’s hired men. The mountain lion lowered its head and lunged at them, almost playfully, although it was more than enough to send them screaming away through the darkened trees.
The puzzled Blackdogs saw only a small, ordinary tomcat hissing and puffing its tail after the half-dozen sizable gunmen it’d somehow routed, all by itself. They exchanged confounded looks before they remembered their jobs and went chasing after the escaping suspects.
Ben Leonard walked over and cuffed Mictlantecuhtli’s partially-disguised manservant, tightening the bracelets all the way down to the very last notch to enclose his bony wrists. Lia smiled, watching her new friend restrain the rogue cadaver like a pro.
They could play Ingrid’s brand of mindgames too, she thought, as she picked up and hugged her Tom.