Author : Anthony Francis

Hariq realized she’d wandered into their territory the moment it was too late to go back. She’d turned too early, into the alley to the abandoned school, a blasted block of creaking swings and dirty chainlink the city had let fall to them. Not even human!

In her forevermurk, she’d mistaken a glimmer down this dark crevasse as her signpost to safety, but the brick alley stretched on too long, the haloed streetlight passed over too quickly, and she found herself in true darkness … while quiet steps crept behind.

There would be no help: the police were afraid of them. She had to turn back—but heard a curse. That voice! Half child, more animal, the snarled insult revealed her pursuer knew she was blind. Hariq walked faster—but blurred fencing loomed.

A T-junction. Turn right, circling the school: a block through their territory—or cut left, shortcutting through a perilous alley: a straight shot to the subway.

Then Hariq froze: she no longer heard footsteps, but breathing.

Hariq bolted to the left, cane clacking her way through debris and Dumpster, buttress and barricade. No curses mocked, no footsteps followed—but that breathing grew closer.

Hariq’s bag caught on a drainpipe, swinging her around, knocking her cane from her hand—and that breathing was upon her. Hariq turned back towards the murky jumble of dark shapes and haloed taillights. “Why are you chasing me?”

“I was tryin’ to get by ya.” An unseen voice. “Don’t like being hassled.”

“You’re afraid,” Hariq laughed, forced, “that I’ll hassle you?”

“Yeah. Okay, I’ll give ya a treat. See the two red lights? Look close.”

Hariq stared—were those taillights? Those haloed lights surged forward, and Hariq drew back. An unseen presence loomed, a tang of cinnamon—and animal musk. God, one of them, too close. Shadows rippled … and the red lights yellowed, and became eyes.

“So your eyes glow.” Little showoff. “So what?”

“Huh. You—fahkk—couldn’t see me turn visible?”

You see I have a cane.” Hariq clenched her fist. “Had one, before—”

“You gots it worse than my mentor,” said the blur. Hariq’s cane pressed into her hand, a whisper of claws brushing against her fingers. “Nota bene, most lykes can’t turn invisible. Just me. Why ya scuttin’ in this alley? Can’t Pythagoras square blocks—”

“I should be able to go where I want.”

“Funny that, I feel the same way,” said the shape—pressing Hariq’s hand to her cheek. The face of a child, warm and smooth … but with the prickle of whiskers. “Don’t be scared. You can feel, can’t ya? Here’s another treat.”

Sharp cracks popped. Fur burst beneath Hariq’s fingers. Hariq laughed, wondrous, as the child’s face bloomed, rising until Hariq stood with her hand in the cheek ruff of a tiger, bigger than any of its natural kind … yet with those same glowing eyes.

“YYOU’Rrre TRRESSpassin,’” rumbled the weretiger, its voice quickly firming up. “You missed—faahkk—the signs, might not even have sussed lycanthrope glyphs if ya coulda seen ’em. No biggie, but I don’t want ya hassled—or snoopin’. I’ll lead ya out.”

“You called me a blind mouse. I didn’t like that—”

“Funny that, neither did I, but, hey, Tourette’s is Tourette’s.”

“Oh!” Hariq said. Obvious, now, the bursty exhalations, so different than a normal voice. Hariq let her fingers sink into the thick fur: this monster had its own struggles. “I guess you won’t eat me. I’m Hariq.”

“Wasn’t plannin’ on it,” said the tiger. “Spine goes far with lykes, Hariq. I’m Cinnamon. MARTA’s a block. Stay close?”