Breaking Point - Chapter 1
Crouching in the corner near a dumpster, the cat hissed and yowled at me in warning. With distinctive features like a bobcat, he stood over a foot tall. His tail resembled a lion’s tail with a tuft of fur at the end. He swished it back and forth while showing his sharpened teeth.
“Easy. I just want to help,” I told him.
“Stay away,” he warned. His voice rasped like a person who had smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for a lifetime.
“You see, I can’t do that. You’ve caused too much trouble,” I said.
He was the third cat-like creature that I’d faced this week. None of them were originally cat shifters. They were all once fairies but had been transformed into cats by an unknown being for an unknown reason. The week wasn’t going so great.
“You will not touch me! I will rip your entrails from your body and eat them for dinner,” he said.
Each one that I faced was violent, and their scratches made deep cuts in my skin that wouldn’t completely heal with magic. They did heal over time, but not as quickly as I would have liked.
“I should warn you that I had spicy ramen for lunch, so my entrails might be a bit zesty for a feline,” I told him.
He hissed and yowled in response.
“Stop playing with the kitty,” Jaehyun said behind me.
“You play with your kitties all the time,” I countered.
Seo Jaehyun, the former Korean Lord of Wind, was my business partner and a daily dose of dry humor. I liked him, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to throttle him occasionally. He had two spirit companions that were Amur tigers. He only summoned them when we faced a powerful opponent. He did not consider these hybrid cat shifters to be formidable.
“Leave my tigers out of this,” he said, not seeing the humor in my statement, which was typical for Jaehyun. Despite living in the United States for over thirty years, he had yet to master humor. I speculated that it had little to do with his immigrant status and more to do with who he was as a person. He’d had a difficult life and had lived it for a very long time. He wasn’t bitter, just very practical. A hard exterior. I didn’t know what his heart held because he never let his emotions show.
I’d met him one night at Magic City Blues, a blues club in Birmingham, where I performed when I had the time. He had arrived by request of Tennyson Schuyler, an old friend of my family. I didn’t know why Tennyson had sent Jaehyun to me, but whatever it was had to be important. He hovered around me like a grumpy shadow. While I could take care of myself, it was nice to know someone had my back.
“Do you know who did this to you?” I asked the cat.
“She did it!” he snarled.
“Well, that’s a gender. What else can you tell me? Did you know her?”
The hybrid coughed and gagged. It was a wretched sound, making my stomach twist in knots.
“Ah, hairball. Hui does that, and it’s disgusting,” Jaehyun commented, referencing the male of his two spirit tigers.
“Actually, I think he’s choking,” I said, moving closer to the cat. He flicked his bright yellow eyes toward me and showed me those razor-sharp claws. I put my hands up in surrender. I did not want to tangle with him.
“Just knock him out so we can get back to headquarters. My ramen will be soggy by the time we return,” Jaehyun grumbled.
“Ramen costs less than a dollar a cup. We can afford for you to make a new one,” I said in frustration as the cat continued to choke.
“You should do something. I think he’s dying,” he said, pointing to the cat. When we’d captured the cats before, they would revert to their previous form and not remember anything about the incident. If I knocked him out, I wasn’t going to get the valuable information that we needed.
“You said it was a hairball!” I shouted in frustration.
“I could have been wrong.”
I gathered the magic of the Winter Realm into my hand and forced a burst of wind toward the cat. He shocked me by dodging the spell.
“Aish,” I hissed. I’d picked up Jaehyun’s tendency to curse in Korean. He chuckled, finding it amusing. He wasn’t completely without humor. “You are a bad influence.”
Again, I summoned the sharp, cold wind of Winter and carefully aimed at the choking cat. He didn’t have time to move, because I managed to alter the space around him preventing his movement. The wind hit him squarely, knocking him back into the brick wall. He slumped to the ground. His chest and belly moved as he continued to breathe.
“That was a waste of time,” Jaehyun grumbled.
“You didn’t have to come with me,” I said.
“It is my duty,” he replied simply with no explanation. His long black ponytail swayed in the light breeze of the evening. I envied his hair.. If I grew mine out like that, I’d be tripping over it. However, he carried it perfectly. Even when wielding a sword, it never got in his way. Paired with his leather jacket and dark jeans, he pulled off the elegant bad-boy look nicely. It gave him an edge. He was an intimidating force. I wished I could be like that. Other than the curse mark on my face, I looked like the boy next door.
“I’ll call the cleaners to come get him and take him to headquarters.”
I knew we wouldn’t get anything out of him. He’d return to his former form, and I’d be left with the mystery until the next one showed up. I took my cell phone from my jacket pocket and dialed a familiar number.
A.M.O.K. was my go-to for cleaning up messes. Granted this mess was smaller than most, but I didn’t have the means to transport a 40-pound bobcat hybrid back to headquarters. I didn’t even own a vehicle. If he shifted back to his regular form, I wouldn’t be prepared for that either. However, the AfterMath Onsite Kleaners had the right gear both practical and magical to do these sorts of jobs for me.
“If you run amok, we’ll clean it up. This is Nico speaking,” Nico said in his usual jovial manner.
“Nico, I’m in an alley off 5th Avenue North between 22nd and 23rd. I have another cat to transport,” I said.
“Ah, is this one as wild as the last one?” he asked.
“No, I knocked this one out. He started to choke, and I didn’t want him to die,” I replied.
“Hairballs. Yuck,” he responded. I still wasn’t convinced about the hairball theory. I was sure that whoever was doing this wanted to keep the cats quiet about it.
“Who is it?” I heard Riona ask in the background. Riona and Nico were a married couple. Nico ran the business. Riona ran Nico.
“It’s Kill. More hybrid pussy,” Nico responded. I heard a loud thunk. “Ow!” I had no doubt that she’d just thwacked him in the back of the head.
“I’d rather tangle with a death cactus than another one of those hybrid cats,” she said.
“He knocked this one out,” Nico informed her.
She took the phone from him. “Is it out-out? Like really out?” she asked.
“He’s breathing, but not moving,” I replied. “I’m not an expert on cat anesthesia.”
“I doubt you are an expert on anything,” she muttered. “We are on our way.”
She was great. No, really. I loved her to death. I also knew that I should never, ever piss her off. As she said, I’d rather tangle with a death cactus.
Jaehyun and I waited in the alley until A.M.O.K. arrived. Nico wore a pair of jeans with a couple of oil smudges on them. Riona wore a full hazmat suit.
“I think that is a little too much,” I said.
“My wounds have not healed. I don’t want a repeat. The threads are magically reinforced. I made it myself. Nothing will get through this baby,” she explained. She was a woman of many talents.
The last cat had marked both of us while Nico and Jaehyun managed to get clear of the angry feline.
“He’s definitely knocked out,” Nico said, nudging the cat carefully with his boot.
“Did you get any information out of him this time?” Riona asked.
“Nothing,” I replied.
“She. He said it was a she,” Jaehyun corrected.
Riona patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll just ask you next time.”
Loved her to death. My death.
A pair of Nisse carried a cage from the back of the A.M.O.K. van. The Nisse were wearing matching coveralls with the A.M.O.K. logo. Standing three feet tall, not including their pointed hats, they looked like overgrown gnomes. The Nisse were quiet guys and expected little pay in return for hard work. They especially loved Christmas time and expected bowls of porridge with butter on the eve of the holiday.
“Oskar. Emrik. Good to see you.”
The pair smiled up at me as they passed with the cage. Nico began to direct them on how to position it so he could just scoop the cat into the cage quickly. Riona, Jaehyun, and I kept a safe distance just in case the cat awoke.
“He’s under strict orders,” Riona said, watching her husband survey the situation.
“Orders?” I asked.
“No more pussy jokes,” she said.
I held my hand over my mouth to contain my laughter. Jaehyun cocked his head sideways, and a rare grin formed on his face.
Just as Nico lined his boot up behind the cat to give it a shove, Riona stopped him.
“Aren’t you going to put a grasper on it?” she asked. A grasper was a pole with a retractable cord that could wrap around the animal’s neck to control it. Most of them hand quick-release buttons to prevent you from harming the animal who was hurt or sick.
“It’s unconscious,” Nico replied with a shrug.
She waved her hand at him to continue. She was going to let him take the brunt of the attack if the cat awoke. I felt bad for him.
“Where is the grasper?” I asked.
“In the van, but I don’t need it,” he assured me.
“You are just going to scoop it up and shove it in?” Riona asked.
“That’s what she said,” Nico replied as he lifted the cat’s butt with his boot and reached down to guide it into the crate.
With a hiss and a snarl, we knew that we’d underestimated the cat.
The beast turned on Nico, latching its razor claws into his leg, climbing him like an overgrown cat tree. I’m not sure who yowled louder. Nico or the cat. The teeth followed the claws, and I already knew I’d be healing Nico’s leg once we extracted the cat. If I threw magic at it, I’d hit Nico. I contemplated freezing them both and worrying about separation later.
The Nisse bolted toward the van, wanting nothing to do with the angry puss. I wanted to bolt with them, but I knew that I couldn’t leave Nico.
“He deserved that,” Riona muttered. No mercy.
I gathered Winter power with no other evident options. Nico hit the ground as the cat hissed through the edges of its mouth which was firmly attached to Nico’s inner thigh.
“Do something, Kill!” he shouted. “It’s too close! Too close!”
As I raised my hand, I felt power shift nearby and a swirl of green smoke solidified into two massive spirit tigers. Jaehyun finally entered the fight.
“That’s unfortunate,” Hui said. The male tiger watched the tangle of human and fur. His mate, Ma Rae, tilted her head to the side. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I could have sworn she winced.
“Take command of the creature,” Jaehyun ordered.
Hui roared. The bobcat hybrid and Nico froze. The bellow shook the walls of the buildings on each side of the alley.
“Let him go,” Hui ordered.
The bobcat’s claws retracted, and he removed his fangs from Nico’s leg. Nico scurried backward away from the cat in case it changed its mind. But the hybrid’s eyes were locked on the pair of tigers. Hui stalked closer to the cat, and he backed against the wall. His back raised in a mix of fear and defiance. A weak hiss passed his lips.
“Go into the crate,” Ma Rae said. Her voice was lighter than her mate, but still commanding.
“Noooo,” the bobcat replied, in a whine that was mixed with a yowl.
“These people are trying to help you. I know your small brain can hardly comprehend it. However, it is the truth. Your other option is for me to put you into the crate, and I assure you that I won’t be gentle,” Hui warned. The tiger smiled, showing his massive teeth. Amur tigers were the largest tigers in the world. Hui and Ma Rae were enhanced by magic. They were massive and intimidating beasts.
The bobcat took two steps toward the crate, then stopped. Nico braced himself for another attack by covering his crotch. I couldn’t see Riona’s face, but I was sure I heard her eyes roll back in her head.
“You are losing time for a sympathetic capture,” Ma Rae said, reinforcing her mate’s words. I’d seen the tigers fight with Jaehyun. They were connected by instinct and bonded by fate. They were one force instead of two separate ones.
The bobcat lowered his head and entered the crate. I reached down and secured it quickly.
“Good job,” I said, complimenting the tigers. There were many times that I wished I could pat their heads, but since they were spirits, it was impossible. “Would you mind seeing if he will give you any information on how this happened?”
Hui gave me a nod and moved closer to the cage. I turned to find Riona crouching over Nico. His pants were torn and deep gashes leaked blood down his leg.
“I can heal it,” I said. “It won’t be complete, because the magic that made him is something that I’ve never seen.”
“Do what you can,” Nico pleaded. “That was a close call.”
“I’d let you suffer,” Riona said, but I could see the worry in her eyes.
Using the power of Winter, I placed my hand over his wounds. He winced as the cold power sank into his skin. I used the icy magic to knit his skin back together. The bobcat’s claws had dug deeply. It wasn’t an easy job, but I had never run out of juice. I would tire if using large magic like the space distortion earlier, but healing didn’t drain me.
“Sorry about the cold,” I muttered.
“Just do your thing,” Nico assured me.
The wounds closed leaving red lines in their place. Scars that wouldn’t fully heal. “I’m sorry. I should have restrained him before you arrived. Or perhaps Jaehyun could have deployed his tigers. I didn’t think ahead as I should have.”
Riona placed her hand on my shoulder. “Killian, you are learning. Mistakes will be made along the way, but you are doing a good job. Things in the city have gotten much better since you arrived. We have faith in you. Don’t we?” Riona nudged Nico with her foot.
“Oh, yes. Yes, total faith,” Nico responded. He didn’t sound too confident, but he wouldn’t lie to me.
I reached down and offered him a hand. He took it, and I hauled him from the ground.
“Let’s get this feline back to headquarters,” I said. Nico walked past me toward the crate. Riona’s eyes widened, and she covered her mouth. I wasn’t sure what prompted the reaction.
“He’s not telling us anything,” Hui declared with a huff.
I thought Riona was reacting to the tiger. However, when I turned, I got the full moon. Not the one overhead. The one hanging from the left side of Nico’s torn pants. The bobcat must have cut through them. There weren’t any wounds, just pure white buttcheek.
My mouth dropped open. Jaehyun couldn’t see it. Nico turned back to me, showing his back to the Lord of Wind.
“Help me with this?” Nico asked.
I nodded, speechless. Jaehyun’s eyes widened as he got a glimpse of his ass.
“Um, Nico, I think…” Jaehyun started to speak. Riona interrupted him.
“I think the two of them can carry it. Don’t you, Jae?” Riona asked, keeping the exposure a secret between us.
Jae nodded as he palmed the amulet that stored his tigers. Hui gave me a wink before he and Ma Rae returned to their haven within the jade trinket. The amulet hung from a special button that Jae had on all his pants. The combination of the amulet with two tigers carved in jade and the tassels that hung from it was called a norigae. Jae walked next to me as I helped to carry the crate.
“Shouldn’t we tell him?” he asked.
“Nah,” I replied.
“Because it is funny?”
“Exactly. See you are finally getting it after thirty years. Good job, hal-aeboji.” My Korean didn’t impress him. He grunted in response.
Nico and I lifted the cage into the back of the van where the Nisse took it and moved it into place. They strapped it down with thick canvas ties.
“Thanks for all the help back there, Oskar,” Nico commented.
“We are more intelligent than those who like to tangle with danger,” Oskar replied. Emrik nodded in agreement.
“Danger is my middle name,” Nico replied.
“Whiffle is your middle name,” Riona supplied.
“Whiffle?” I questioned.
Nico groaned. “My mother thought it was pronounced like Wyatt with two ffs and a lay at the end. Kinda French, right?”
“No, it is not French at all,” Jae remarked.
I held back a chuckle. “It’s unique. Just like you.” I reached up to pinch his cheek. His face cheek. However, he jerked away. Riona had moved up next to him. Her eyes were twinkling with danger. It scared me.
“Shall we get a move on?” she asked.
“Yes, Jae and I will meet you back at headquarters,” I replied.
“Great. Let’s go!” Riona’s hand slapped Nico’s bare asscheek sending him two feet in the air with a yelp. When he landed, he spun around in a circle trying to get a glimpse of the problem.
“You could have told me my ass was hanging out!” he exclaimed.
“Consider yourself told,” she replied as she circled the van.
Nico turned to close the back van doors. A bright red handprint marked his white cheek. He reached back and rubbed it.
“Thanks a lot,” he groaned at me.
I laughed from that moment until I made it back to Headquarters via an obliging tree.