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Smackdown at Walmart

by Elizabeth A. Vaughan

I decided to take my twelve Sacred Ancient Chinese Warrior-Virgins to Walmart.

Yes, I am aware of the irony.

But how the hell else was I going to get them clothes? They couldn’t run around in those colorful silk gowns of theirs, cut tight enough to show every breath, but slit high enough on the sides to show their . . . assets. Not to mention the lack of underwear.

“Well, actually, they could.”

That would be Doctor McDougall, who’d patched me up in the ER after I was attacked by ninja rats, and then blew my mundane little world to pieces when he confirmed that magic existed, and that I wasn’t losing my mind. McDougall was watching me try to stuff all twelve of the girls into my recently repaired minivan.

Wan agreed with McDougall. “They present an esthetically pleasing appearance in their grace, prowess, and physical form. The clothing is practical and lovely, and allows them the freedom to move when they fight. I do not understand your concerns.”

That would be Wan, short for Wan Sui Ye, the talking Chinese mouse that caused me to think I was losing my mind in the first place. His name means “Lord of Ten Thousand Years,” a title given only to the Emperor of China.

He hasn’t explained his name.

I’ve not inquired further.

The girls scrambled into the van, squeezing their skinny butts into the seats and giggling amongst themselves, just like normal girls do. It was hard to gauge their ages, but all I really needed to know was “young and nubile.”

I fixed Wan with my patented ‘middle-aged-pre-menopausal-woman’ stare. “They are getting proper clothing, and what would you know about the esthetics of human beauty?”

Wan blinked at me from his perch on my shoulder, clearly uncertain of my temper. “It will be as you say,” he said. “You are, after all, the Wise One, Bearer of the Scale, chosen of the Emperor Dragon, Lord of the Dragon Kings, Ruler of the Weather and the Waters of the World.”

As one, the twelve Sacred Chinese Warrior-Virgins all paused, placed their palms together, and bowed their heads to me.

I took a deep breath, still uncomfortable that they were sworn to my protection, since I’d been the Wise One for roughly forty-eight hours. Take a piece of advice, for what it’s worth. If someone shows you an ancient piece of jewelry, and if that said someone is a talking mouse, and if said jewelry was hidden in the hilt of his magic sword, don’t reach out and touch it.

Just sayin’.

Dr. McDougall raised one eyebrow at me. “This isn’t necessary, Kate. Shop online. It can wait a few days.”

“We are going shopping,” I said with as much dignity as I could, and closed the sliding door. “You are not helping,” I told McDougall as I closed the passenger door and headed to the driver’s side. I could hear my two white Westies barking inside the house; no way was I taking them on this little trip.

“This isn’t smart,” McDougall observed, that one damned handsome eyebrow still arching my way as he followed me around the van. “Your enemies are out there, including—”

“Come with us.” I attempted to arch my eyebrow back at him, and failed utterly at my flirtation attempt. It had been far too long, and I just wasn’t too sure where I stood with him.

“I would,” he said calmly, standing there, his arms crossed, looking all sexy and dignified. “But there is no room in the van. And my shift starts in an hour.”

“Coward,” I threw out as I settled into my seat. “A powerful sorcerer like yourself, afraid of a tiny lingerie department.”

“I share his concerns,” Wan said from his perch on my shoulder. He had braced himself by grabbing the hood tie of my windbreaker, his sword strapped to his back. “And his embarrassment.”

“Honestly.” I gave them both an exasperated look. “I’m going shopping at midnight at Walmart with twelve Sacred Warrior-Virgins and a talking mouse. What could possibly go wrong?”

Walmart was twenty minutes from my house, and the car was utterly silent. The girls all stared wide-eyed out the windows. A few had pinched looks around the eyes, and it hit me that I was an idiot. They’d probably never been in a car before, and here I was pelting down Glendale at forty-five miles an hour.

I cleared my throat and looked at them in the rear-view mirror. All young, with dark eyes and black hair, as if stamped out by a cookie-cutter, or computer-generated anime. “So, you all know my name,” I said. “But I don’t know yours.”

They all stared at me a bit blankly, then looked at one another as if seeking permission. One in the far back blurted out something in Chinese, and then looked startled at her own audacity.

“Okay, good. But what does that mean,” I asked. “In English.”

“Clouds on Moon.” The girl sat up straighter. “I am Clouds on Moon.”

With that the floodgates opened, and each introduced herself carefully in turn, saying their names in Chinese, then translating. I gave up on the Chinese fairly quickly, and struggled to place faces with names for the future.

“Flying Swallow.”

“Morning Orchid.”

And so on. There were lots of flowers, including four blossoms: Lotus, Cherry, Almond, and Peach. Glorious Phoenix, who looked like she was about to die of terminal shyness as she mumbled her name. Sun on Snow, Ocean Pearl, Willow on Bank, they continued on in a stream of until—

“Say again?” I asked, as I pulled into the parking lot. “I didn’t quite catch—”

“Filially Pious and Incorruptible.” The girl spoke defiantly, arms folded across her chest.

I blinked.

“A fine and noble name,” Wan said from my shoulder.

“Ah,” I said cleverly, and concentrated on finding a parking space. Which wasn’t hard. The place was deserted, with heavy wire shopping carts scattered about like so many lost sheep. I didn’t know which entrance was closest to the clothing section, so I picked one and stopped the car in the nearest space to it.

“You can look, but don’t touch,” I said, gathering my purse. Wan crawled under my collar, where he usually hid when people were about. “And stay with me. Don’t wander off.”

I was worried about the effect the girls would have on Walmart.

I should have been more worried about the effect Walmart would have on the girls.

There was no greeter in sight, not a surprise considering the hour. I grabbed a cart and hurried them past huge posters announcing the release of the new video game Unnatural Disasters, with a female heroine in metal armor, aiming a huge laser rifle in our direction. I winced at the picture, imagining the chafing that little fantasy piece would involve.

It had taken me six months to kick EVE and WOW to the curb—no way was I buying another addiction. I averted my eyes with the resolution of a reformed sinner. “This way,” I said, leading them down the widest aisle.

They clustered next to me like chicks trying to get under my wings. The giggling was gone, now there was just wide-eyed, serious contemplation of their surroundings. They stared at the posters and lights, and bumped into the bargain bins lining the aisle. My Warrior-Virgins suddenly looked uncomfortable, uncertain, and out-of-place.

Clothes first, I thought, heading to the racks of jeans. Pray all the gods they had enough of the same size. It would help if there was a—

“Can I help you?” The rarest of all things appeared from between the racks: an actual Walmart sales associate.

“Crap,” I jumped, startled out of my wits by the elderly black woman wearing the traditional blue vest and the nametag that stated she was Edna. She stood there, waiting patiently as I caught my breath. Then I remembered what Wan had said: “What is needed will be provided” to the Wise One. The trick, of course, was to know the difference between needs and desires.

Apparently, Heaven saw my need.

“These ladies all need clothes,” I said with a smile before turning to my wards, who were all clustered behind me with looks of stunned astonishment on their faces. Surprised at their reactions, I paused. “What’s wrong?”

“She’s . . . h-her skin . . .” Cloud stuttered.

“She’s black-skinned,” one of the girls hissed.

Edna drew in a sharp breath.

They were staring at her like she was a thing, less than human. Mortified, shamed, I lashed out. “Oh my God—you will apologize this instant!” I snapped. “Were all of you raised in a barn?”

Instantly all the girls fell to their knees and kowtowed, their arms outstretched towards us. “No, Wise One,” came Glorious Phoenix’s voice, muffled by the floor. “We were raised in the Monastery of the Distant Clouds, beyond the influences and corruption of the modern world.”

Edna gave me the eye. “For real?”

I smiled weakly. “Exchange students.”

“Got your work cut out for you there, that’s for sure.” She shook her head. “Get ’em up off the floor, and let’s get ’em dressed.”

We needed two carts for the jeans and tees, enough so that each girl had one to wear and a spare. Glorious Phoenix found one shirt that said Princess in sparkling rhinestones, much to my horror.

Edna was truly a miracle, as far as I was concerned. She dealt with the girls kindly, ignored their stares, and did not take offense at their sideways glances and whispers. She even walked with us when we headed toward lingerie, and got me through the worst of that with minimal fuss.

She took a moment to slide up next to me when the girls got distracted. They’d found the D cup bras, and were holding them up to their own chests and giggling like mad.

“You had the talk with these girls?” Edna asked, pretending to re-arrange the panties display.

“Talk?” I asked absently as I counted out pairs of socks. All white, damn it, I was not spending the rest of my life trying to match socks.

“You know,” she kept her voice low. “No glove, no love.”

My heart stopped as it hit me. Oh dear God. Virgins.

I took the carts and the girls to the Pharmacy area, wherein I initiated a very awkward conversation about feminine hygiene products and protection.

Twelve faces flared bright red, and from nowhere the girls produced twelve pastel flowered fans to hide behind.

So I threw in everything I thought they’d need, and a couple boxes of condoms. Then we detoured to the fresh fruit section and bought a huge bunch of green bananas.

Demonstration purposes, you understand.

And a large bag of dark chocolate-coated pretzels with kosher sea salt, because I was really not looking forward to the rest of the evening. Virgins, for the love of God.

What the hell—didn’t Heaven think sex education was a need? The next time that all-powerful, all-knowing Dragon appeared before me, he and I were going to have words.

We got to the checkout. Heaven apparently decided I needed a pimply-faced young man to ring up our purchases. He blushed while scanning the bras and panties, trying not to actually touch them, mind. In between exchanging shy glances with all of the girls.

The girls blushed too, giggling and fluttering their fans and not helping at all, except to get in my way.

I really tried very hard not to roll my eyes at the lot of them.

I got everything unloaded from the carts, praying that the kid would not topple over at the sight of the condoms. Honestly, he did fairly well until he saw the bananas. He couldn’t meet my eyes, his face beet red as I swiped my card and held my breath.

“Th-th-that’s $6.25,” he stammered, and then handed me the receipt.

Yup, that would be Heaven again. Needs, not wants. I made the girls pick up the bags and carry them, all but the bag with the pretzels. The doors slid open as we walked out and I glanced at the receipt. I hadn’t been charged for anything except the pretzels.

Apparently Heaven didn’t think chocolate was a need.

Nuts to Heaven. Digging through the bag, I brought forth the precious treasure. I needed one for the road.

Surrounded by the girls, loaded down with bags, I headed out into the dark and forlorn parking lot. Storm clouds had gathered; it looked like it was about to rain. I barely gave them a glance as I started handing out the goodies to the girls as we walked. I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of introducing them to chocolate and high fructose corn syrup all in one go, but they had to adjust to the real world sometime.

My mini-van sat all alone in the parking lot, somehow looking sad and neglected. I took a pretzel for myself, tucked the candy away in the shopping bag, and started digging for my keys with my free hand.

The warm lump under my collar wiggled. I took a bite, letting the bitter chocolate and salt melt on my tongue as I snapped off a piece for Wan. “It’s clear,” I said, holding the tidbit up for him. “You’ll like—”

“Greetings, fat one,” snarled a familiar voice.

The possum.

For one long frozen moment, nothing moved. I took in the sight of my nemesis, the scabby old possum with a knobby walking stick, standing on top of my van, his tail lashing back and forth. Surrounding the van was a host of human-sized ninja rats, their faces masked, wearing the traditional black clothing and holding swords.

The small piece of pretzel dropped from my fingers and fell, a long slow tumble to the pavement. Drums started beating, or maybe that was my own frantic heart pounding in my ears.

With a tiny battle-cry, Wan leaped from my shoulder, his sword out and gleaming. At the top of his arc, there was a puff of dust, and Wan stood facing our foes, six feet tall, his own tail lashing back and forth in anger. He looked back over his shoulder at us, the glare of battle-rage in his eyes. “Protect her,” he commanded, and turned back before I could utter a word.

With that, time slammed on the gas and everything exploded into action. In an instant, the girls took dramatic defensive positions, their fans acquiring razor edges, their silk gowns whipping about in the growing wind.

Unfortunately, the fans were too much for the shopping bags. The plastic tore open, and for a moment, delicate little panties of various colors floated away on the breeze.

The ninja rats’ beady little eyes tracked their flight.

Sword high, Wan charged the enemy. I was torn between sheer breathlessness at his heroism and the absolute stupidity of charging a mass of ninja rats.

“Help him,” I shouted.

The girls glanced at me, I swear in unison, gave sharp nods of their heads, and followed Wan in a flurry of silk gowns and steel-edged fans.

The two groups clashed. I stood, stunned, unable to move, clutching my shopping bags as if they would protect me somehow. It was all happening too fast and I watched in terror and fascination.

Weapons sparked off each other, and the fantastical dance began. Swirling pastels against the black and silent ninjas, with their masked faces and pale pink tails. The girls’ faces were lovely in their ferocity, eyes gleaming, black hair swirling about them. It was like a ballet, like an awesome scene in a—

A ninja rat swung his sword in a high arc. Blood spurted from Lotus Blossom’s arm.

I sucked in a breath as the reality of what was happening hit me.

“Back!” Filially Pious was still at my side. “Back to the store,” she demanded. She interposed herself between them and me, pushing me back even as she faced them, two curved swords in her hands.

I pressed my hand to my chest, feeling the necklace, sharp and cold under my clothes. The girls . . . my girls . . . they needed . . . protection.

The battle raged on, the ninja rats’ eyes gleaming with hate.

The poster flashed before my eyes, Unnatural Disasters, and my hand flung out of its own accord, pointing to the nearest shopping cart. I wasn’t sure . . . And then I was, as the necklace warmed against my skin.

“Armor!” I cried and the wires of the shopping cart writhed and dissolved into a swirling mass that enveloped Filially Pious. Her dress disappeared, and instead she was encased in the wires, bare skin showing through in ways never thought of by any fantasy artist I’d ever seen.

She started, blinking, then moved her arms smoothly, weaving her swords before her. With a fierce grin of satisfaction, she ran forward, charging the rats.

“More!” I screamed, and all around the parking lot carts moved and unraveled, seeking out the Warrior-Virgins as they fought. Catching on, each girl leaped for a mass of metal, swirling in mid-air to land lightly on her feet, weapons ready, armor gleaming.

The ninja rats paused, their little beady eyes reflecting fear.

Lightning arced across the sky.

The girls attacked.

The possum still stood on the roof of my van. “The fat one!” it called out. “Seize the fat one! She has—”

Wan leaped atop my van, all six feet of enraged mouse, facing the one-foot-tall possum. “Now, you pay,” he growled. “Pay for your threats to my Kate, pay for—”

“No monologues!” I shouted, but it was too late. Ninja rats swarmed up the sides and threw themselves at Wan. One picked up the possum so it was riding his shoulder. The possum’s mouth stretched into a smile of jagged teeth as they lashed out at Wan.

“Wan!” I screamed, looking around for something, anything—

There were no more carts. How could there be no more carts? Maybe a cart corral? That—

A scream. Wan was down, a sword to his throat. I didn’t have—

A crash of thunder. Lightning. I’d summon lightning.

How hard could it be?

In desperation, still clutching my purse, I raised the hand with the plastic shopping bags still around my wrist. I should’ve cried out something dramatic, but honestly I just gave a choked cry of fear, and lashed out at the ninja rat on top of Wan.

Electricity filled the night, and the hair on my skin rose in response. There was a sharp smell of ozone, a flash of heat, a loud crackle—

The smell of fried rat hung heavy in the air.

The possum, the ninja rats, Wan—all stared at me like a woman who’d lost her mind.

Oh dear. Metal armor. Swords. I hadn’t thought—

The power was building within me, crackling on my skin as my hair rose around my head. I sucked in a breath, knowing somehow that if I didn’t discharge it, it would turn on me and burn me to a—

I focused my rage on the possum, and screamed.

The crackles in the air was enough warning. The possum leaped away, landing on another ninja’s shoulder. Everyone else on top of the van flung themselves off as the lightning bolt plunged down out of the sky, blinding in its intensity. The image burned into my eyes, leaving me blind.

I swayed, suddenly drained and weak-kneed, as if I’d tried to take a couple flights of stairs.

Okay, maybe just one.

The possum laughed harshly.

My eyes cleared to see my poor mini-van a smoldering wreck, its tires melted and smoking. The girls, each still encased in their shopping-cart armor, were lined up in a defensive crouch before me. Wan was also there, his sword at the ready.

“She does not know!” the possum shrieked as he danced on the ninja rat’s shoulder. “Untrained, unknowing, and weakened. Get her!

The ninja rats attacked again, fierce in their determination to cut through the line. Wan cast a desperate glance at me before he met their charge. It was only a matter of time before they did an end-run or flanked the line and got to me. I took a shaky step back, turning for the warm, welcome lights of the store.

A limo pulled up behind me, its back door swinging wide. McDougall was inside, secure within its golden light, his hand extended to me. “Kate,” he said, his eyes warm and bright. “Come to me.”

The sight was a relief, a vision of safety and shelter. I stumbled forward with my purse and bags, tears forming in my eyes.

“Kate, Kate!” Wan screamed as I reached the limo. “THAT’S NOT MCDOUGALL!”

The bony, skeletal hand grabbed my wrist and yanked me inside.

I couldn’t breathe; terror closed my throat. The Chinese vampire tumbled me to the floor and straddled me, its mummified face frozen in an eternal grin revealing teeth blackened with age. One hand closed on my throat; the other gestured to the limo door.

He sure as hell wasn’t sparkling.

I caught a glimpse of Wan charging toward us as the limo door whipped shut.

Wan slammed into the side. I heard his muffled cries and saw his sword skittering across the glass as he tried desperately to shatter the window.

The vampire leaned in to me, pressing down on my chest with his weight. My vision went gray as his foul breath wafted over me.

“I have so looked forward to this,” he whispered as his eyes started to glow.

I closed my eyes and struggled, but my one hand was caught in the shopping bags and it was pointless. The damn monster was bigger, stronger, and more powerful. As I fought to breathe, fought desperately to get free, it occurred to me that in all the stories, movies, and series I’ve ever watched, ever tried to write, the wise one, the old master, usually takes it on the chin. And since I wasn’t even close to that, what chance did I have?

The vampire laughed, as if on cue. “Your powers are weak, old woman.”

Really? Quoting Vader? I had a hard time believing this—thing—had ever watched Star Wars. I opened my mouth to make some snarky reply, but there was no air. Terror ripped through me even as I gasped desperately. God, I didn’t want to come back more powerful than anyone could possibly imagine, thank you very much.

A knife flashed before my dimming eyes, and I felt the cold edge as the vampire cut through my clothes. It froze as its eyes focused on my chest, but I knew damn well it wasn’t lusting after my heaving bosom. Oh, no.

It was staring at the necklace.

Wan was still pounding on the window; I could hear the cries of the girls as they tried to break in. My lungs burned; my vision blurred. I couldn’t move, couldn’t summon a bit of power.

I was going to die.

I’d never pet my fat white dogs again, never get published, never take a chance on kissing McDougall, never again eat chocolate-covered pretzels—

With frickin’ sea salt!

Jerking my eyes open, I flailed my free hand around in the bag. The vampire laughed at my struggles and squeezed down harder.

My vision went black as my hand clutched a handful of pretzels. I flung them at its face.

The vampire jerked back, first from the impact of the tiny missiles, but then he screamed in an inhuman pitch as the salt hit his leathery skin. I grabbed another handful, feeling the chocolate melting against my palm, and smashed them into his face. He reared back, and the limo filled with the scent of dark chocolate and sizzling flesh.

He screeched and rolled off me. I drew in a sweet breath and scooted back, dragging my bags with me. Clutching his face, writhing in pain, the reddish glow diminished as the vampire wailed in agony.

I’d like to claim that I screamed in victory at that point, but honestly I shrieked in panic. I started slamming my hand down on the various control panels as I scrabbled to the back of the limo.

The vampire snarled, fixing me with his terrible gaze, his face a mess of chocolate smears and small pits of burnt skin where bones showed through. “You wangbadan!” he hissed.

I screamed again and smacked my hand down on what turned out to be the control button for all the windows.

Sacred Chinese Warrior-Virgins flooded into the space like avenging angels, still dressed in their gleaming shopping cart armor and looking mad enough to kill a thousand vampires. Wan threw himself through the nearest window, interposing himself between me and the vampire. I cowered behind him on my hands and knees.

“Begone, vile spawn!” Wan shouted.

The vampire lunged at Peach Blossom, but even in the close confines of the limo she dodged and parried with her sword. “Your deaths,” he hissed. “All your deaths will strengthen me!”

I let him have it with all the salt at the bottom of the bag.

There was a wild, high shriek of pure rage, and the vampire leapt for the open sunroof and flew into the night, leaving only a trail of melted chocolate drops and sea salt behind.

In the sudden silence, all I could hear was my harsh breathing.

“Kate . . . ” Wan leaned over me, sheathing his sword on his back, his worry clear.

I tried to reassure him, but my voice was a rattle in my throat, my neck throbbing with pain.

“We must take her to McDougall. He is a healer,” Wan announced.

Oh no, no hospitals, no condescending looks from Dr. “Told ya so.” I tried to struggle up, but only managed to make myself breathless.

The girls clustered around me on the seats, gleaming in their armor. Cherry Blossom eased my head into her lap.

“Her wagon is destroyed,” Clouds on Moon glanced out the window. “At least, I do not believe it was designed to work while on fire.”

“No indeed,” Wan said. “We will take this one. I will operate the vehicle.”

I squawked in rough protest.

“I have observed her drive,” Wan said. “It does not appear to be difficult, provided a reasonable speed is maintained.”

Many hands eased me down to the seat, removing the plastic bag handles from around my wrists. My vision was going now, but it was sheer exhaustion, not the lack of air.

“How will you navigate?” Filially Pious asked, her voice sharp. She had her doubts. Smart girl.

“There is this device,” Wan’s voice was getting fainter to my ears. “I believe it is called ‘GPS.’”

“And if the spell that enlarges you dissipates?” someone asked, but I didn’t hear the response. I gave up, let my eyes close, and sank into a morass of ozone, chocolate, and exhaustion.

Thankfully, consciousness didn’t return until I was in the ER cubicle, on a gurney, buck-naked except for a hospital gown, wrapped in warm blankets and feeling no pain.

I was, of course, still wearing the necklace. I could feel the weight of its power, heavy on my skin.

I didn’t bother to open my eyes, choosing to float in the darkness a bit longer. I listened to the beeping of the machines, the soft whispers of the girls, and the rustling of cellophane and chewing. For a brief moment, I had a vision of Wan at a vending machine, trying to feed it quarters. It made me smile.

“Kate?” Wan asked. I felt his small weight on my chest as he skittered to my shoulder. I blinked, trying to focus as a warm paw touched my cheek.

“Wan.” I smiled at him. He was back to his normal size. The girls were perched around the room, wherever they could find seats, munching health bars and drinking juice, dressed in their jeans and tees.

“Are you hurting?” he asked.

“No,” I pulled myself up in the bed a bit. Wan leaped for the controller and raised my head.

“She shouldn’t be,” Dr. McDougall stood in the doorway to the cubicle, glaring, all “Sexy Stethoscope” with his white coat and broad shoulders.

I crossed my arms over my chest in a purely defensive measure, never mind the lack of a bra, and met him glare for glare.

Wan scrambled to the tray table and stood there, eyeing the two of us, clutching his tail with both paws, a habit he has when he worries.

“So, no permanent injury this time,” McDougall said. “But this can’t continue, Kate. You need to learn to use whatever powers that medallion has given you.”

“No,” I said, firmly.

“You need to learn mastery, at the very least,” McDougall continued. “Mastery of your emotions, your fear, not to mention some basic defensive moves.”

“Oh no,” I shook my head, knowing full well where this was going. “If you think for one minute that I am trekking through some swamp with some lizard on my shoulder yelling in my ear, lifting my van from the muck—”

“Your understanding of the forces at your command is weak,” McDougall plowed on. “You have no grasp of how to properly wield your power, or control it.”

“Wan can teach me,” I said.

Wan shot me a worried look, as he grasped his tail. “Honorable Lady—” he started. Wan gets formal when he’s upset. “Honorable Lady,” he repeated. “While I am learned in history and the ways of magic, I am only a humble guardian, not a wielder of power. The learned Doctor is correct. You need to find a teacher, a wise one to train you in these gifts.”

“Oh sure,” I growled. “Some Mr. Miyagi to tell me to ‘wax on, wax off?’”

“Kate, don’t be—” McDougall broke off, looking confused. “Wax?”

“I’ve watched those training montages in all those movies, thank you very much,” I snapped. “And in every one the poor sap with the newfound abilities gets the crap beat out of him as he learns. Thanks, but no thanks.”

McDougall had the gall to roll his eyes. “Kate, I am talking about the real world here. You’re like a mouse given the keys to a limo who thinks he can drive.”

Wan lifted his chin in defiance. “It was a small tree, and planted in the wrong location.”

McDougall ignored him. “You have to be trained, and quickly.” He saw the same defiance in my face, sighed, and shook his head “Or you will hurt them,” he said gently, gesturing to the girls.

I let my head drop back on the pillows. That got me. “Fine,” I said, glumly contemplating the ceiling. “Then train me.”

“I can’t.” McDougall didn’t sound all that regretful. “Your powers come from a different source than mine, and I wouldn’t—”

Stung by what felt like rejection, I lashed out. “Who’s gonna train me then?”

There was a gentle pop of displaced air.

“I will,” said an ancient, creaky voice.

I jerked my head around to see an old, withered Chinese woman at the foot of my bed, in full formal gown and headdress, arms folded in her sleeves, and looking at me like I was three-day-old cat food.

“I do not know what the Emperor Dragon, Lord of the Dragon Kings, Ruler of the Weather and the Waters of the World was contemplating when he chose a gweilo,” she said in a tone that made it clear exactly what she thought. “But she will be trained.”

“Wan—” I tried to struggle off the gurney.

“Kate—” Wan started to run and launched himself toward me.

The woman clapped her hands twice.

—I stood on the edge of a stone platform, looking down at a classical scene of clouds and mountaintops, a long staircase stretching out below my feet. It was lovely and chilling, mostly because a stiff breeze was blowing up my hospital gown.

Clutching the back together, I turned to see a tall pagoda surrounded by stone walls. In the gateway stood the old lady, surrounded by other elderly women, all glaring at me like I’d offended the very stones I stood on.

My girls were at my feet, once again clad in their silk gowns, now kowtowing toward the women.

“Welcome to the Monastery of the Distant Clouds,” the eldest said with a wicked smile on her lips, her eyes gleaming with sharp satisfaction. “Your training will commence immediately.”

Oh, no. Who’s gonna feed my dogs?

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