Chi Lin had been standing across the street watching the bakery when the newcomer arrived. He was one of the tallest men she had ever seen, probably a lot closer to seven feet tall than six. He was dressed in black leather pants and boots and wore a sleeveless T-shirt. His bald head was covered by a bandana. The thing that she noticed more than anything, however, was his power.
She had sensed the first man’s energy and was sure he was her target, but the energy that was radiating from the second man was almost overwhelming. If he could be captured along with the original target, she would be that much closer to seeing her own plans come to fruition.
Since all eyes were focused on the two men, no one noticed the little girl hold her doll up and begin speaking to it. “I know where the target is,” she said softly. “Unfortunately, he may not be alive much longer.”
“Please explain.” Had anyone been close enough to hear, they would have been surprised to discover that the voice coming from the doll was male.
“A really, really big man just walked up to him, and he doesn’t look happy,” Chi Lin told her doll.
“If the target has powers of some sort, then he should be able to handle himself.”
Chi shook her head. “You don’t understand. I’m detecting so much power from this new guy that he can’t be human.”
“Are you sure?” When Chi didn’t answer, the owner of the voice realized who he was talking to. “We are sending you assistance. He should be there in a few minutes.”
“Who should I expect?” she asked.
“Are you sure about that?” Chi Lin had her doubts. “He likes to think for himself sometimes.”
“He is the only one capable of possibly going toe-to-toe with someone with the magnitude of power you are describing.”
The girl was about to say something else when she heard a loud roar above her. Looking up, along with the other spectators of this drama, she saw a large lion hovering in midair.
“There’s no reason to be afraid,” Huo was telling Yun Hsu. “This is my roommate, Hui.”
“Please forgive my appearance,” the big man said. “This is the only outfit I had to wear. Someone forgot it was his turn to do the laundry.”
Before the conversation could go any further, a loud roar filled the air. Both men spun around to see a large lion hovering in midair.
“Friend of yours?” Huo asked as he removed the bamboo tube hanging across his back.
“I don’t believe so,” the big man replied. He glanced at his friend. “Do you carry that everywhere?”
Huo pulled one end of the tube off to reveal a straight-bladed sword. Grasping the handle, he lay the tube on the counter. “I’d feel naked without it.”
As the onlookers watched, the lion began to change shape until it resembled a muscular, lion-headed man. He roared again.
“We heard you the first time,” Huo yelled back.
“Did you see that?” Hsu whispered just loud enough for her suitor to hear.
He gave her a wink. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
As his friend spoke, Hui began to change himself. His skin began to redden as he started to grow. The taller he got, the thicker his body became. Several people gasped as two large, curved horns erupted from the sides of his head and bone spurs stretched the skin on his shoulders and elbows. His teeth lengthened into razor-sharp fangs, and his fingernails became great claws. Where the man once stood was a demon straight from Hell.
“Don’t worry,” Huo laughed, “he’s reformed.”
Without waiting to see what his friend would do, the demon leaped into the air, his powerful legs easily propelling him within reach of his foe. Despite his speed, however, the lion-man was quicker. Striking out with his palm, he caught Hui between the eyes and sent him tumbling back to the ground.
Huo, in the meantime, had drawn his sword and was performing a kata that helped him focus his inner chi. Leveling the tip of the blade at the lion-man, he released a bolt of pure chi energy. His opponent wasn’t prepared for the attack and found himself suddenly knocked to the ground as well. The young man was on him in an instant.
The Celestial Lion had not expected this kind of resistance. Taken by surprise, he had allowed himself to be brought down. He was wise enough to know that this put him at a major disadvantage. He threw the young man aside and climbed to his feet.
Hui was on his feet at almost the same moment and rushed to help his roommate. Seeing his friend coming, Huo dived behind his adversary and kicked toward the backs of his knees. The man-lion began to topple about the same time Hui hit him square in the chest with a flying tackle. Both shapeshifters went down as the young man rolled clear.
Across the street, Chi Lin watched in fascination. Seeing the big man in his true form had sent a shiver of excitement down her wicked little spine. This one could accelerate her schemes greatly.
As the demon struggled to keep his opponent pinned down, Huo placed his sword at their attacker’s throat. Immediately, the Celestial Lion went still.
“Much better,” Huo said. “Now, how about you tell us why you attacked us.”
“Uh, actually,” Hui spoke up, “I attacked him.”
“Let me do the talking,” Huo replied.
“I am called the Celestial Lion,” the pinned man said as he became fully human. “I was sent here to aid you. We thought you were in trouble.”
Huo was confused. “Who thought I was in trouble?”
The Celestial Lion tactfully dodged the question. “We believed — erroneously, I now realize — that your, uh, friend was about to attack you.”
“But that still doesn’t answer my question,” Huo told him.
The man started to speak when both Huo and Hui grabbed their heads in agony. Discovering that he now had leverage, the Celestial Lion suddenly transformed back into his lion form and leaped into the sky.
No one noticed the little girl with the doll disappear down the street and around the corner. The waiting lion met her.
“What did you think you were doing?” she asked.
The lion-man began, “I was going to…”
“Never mind,” Chi snarled. “We are going to have to wait until later to convince the target to join. This mission is over,” she informed him. “Take me home.”
The Celestial Lion allowed her to climb on his back and then leaped back into the sky.
Meanwhile, back at the bakery, Hui had already recovered from the sudden mental assault and reverted back to his human form. Huo was shaking his head, trying to find a focus.
“Are you OK?” Hsu asked as she brought the young man a cup of tea.
Huo saw the concern in her eyes and suddenly found his focus. “Yeah, I think so.”
Zhou had emerged from his kitchen when the fight first started and had seen what Hui really was. He handed the demon a cup as tea as well. “You really reformed?” he asked.
Zhou thought about Hui’s answer a second, then turned back toward his kitchen. “No charge for the tea and sticky buns,” he said.
“Who was that?” Hsu asked the two men.
“He said he was called Celestial Lion,” Hui told her, “but we have no idea what he wanted.”
“For some reason, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him,” Huo said. “Not by a long shot.