Guardian

Jin hugged the wall on the edge of an alleyway. Loud music and conversation filtered down from the OldTown night market two blocks away, but nothing moved nearby.

The ancient coin Auntie Bai Wei had given her hung on a thin leather cord around Jin’s neck. It pulsed with a steady throb that felt as if it should be audible, but she knew from experience that she alone could sense it.

Jin walked this path every day on her way to the cannery where she worked, when it was a bustle of activity. But by night, the darkness pressed heavily on her. Though not a soul broke the stillness, it felt like someone was watching. A tingling sensation spread between Jin’s shoulder blades. Yao had told her that when the bullies chased him that morning, a strange man in a dark suit—unheard of on this side of the river—had watched it all with predatory eyes. It had upset him even more than being thrown in the refuse bin, again.

Knowing her deceased mother’s spirit wouldn’t approve of her illicit ventures into thievery, Jin had ignored the coin’s pull for three days but Yao’s fear and the fact that she couldn’t protect him during working hours had driven her out into the night. She needed the yuan that Auntie would pay for the trinket the coin had chosen, and she needed it now, before registration for the tech school on the other side of the river closed.

She inched forward, crouched low. A solitary electric light burned inside the jeweler’s shop, back beyond the showroom. Its soft glow caught on the figurine that drew the coin’s attention. A white jade lion, shot through with deep, blood-touched red inclusions in its mane and paws. One paw stretched forward, its claws bared, and its jaw gaped wide in a roar. It was a rare piece of stone and a rare craftsman who pulled the beast from its depths. Jin would be sorry to sell it. Undoubtedly, its owner would be sorry when he found it missing.

Don’t think about it. She drove away the image of the jeweler, and his smiling eyes behind their wire-rimmed spectacles, when he waved to her every day. Would he smile tomorrow? Would she smile back, as if nothing had happened?

Metal grates guarded the door and windows. She turned the corner and spied a window high on the wall, just within her reach if she jumped, open a crack. It had been unseasonably warm. Had the jeweler opened it for some ventilation and forgotten to shut it again, since it was so far into October that open windows should be a thing of the past?

No matter. It made her work easier. No need to pull out her makeshift lock pick, carved out of an old knife, secreted in a breast pocket.

She backed across the space between that building and the next, then sprinted forward and launched herself up, her fingers catching on the bricks at the window’s base. With a tug, she pulled the window open wide, then walked her feet up the wall and slithered through head-first. The floor was a long way down, but she kept one hand on the window-ledge and twisted her body until she hung down the wall, then dropped. Her knees bent, absorbing the impact, and minimizing any sound.

Jin froze for a moment, listening. The jeweler lived above his shop. She couldn’t risk being caught. Yao would be sent straight back into the Orphan Care Authority dormitories and the predations of his peers. At twelve years old, he was four years her junior, and she’d only recently earned enough to take him under her guardianship in a ramshackle apartment where they subsisted on O. C. A. nutrition bars. It wasn’t much, but at least she could begin fulfilling her promise to her mother to watch over him and give him his best chance to make something of his life.

After a silent count to a hundred, Jin decided it was safe to move on. She had dropped into the jeweler’s workshop. The worktable sat in the center of the room, littered with tools and coils of silver and gold wire. Jin padded past, guided by the light in the hallway, then slipped into the showroom.

A spirit-bell hung over the entryway, but Jin resisted the urge to ring it, despite the intensifying feeling that she was being watched. Spirits weren’t going to turn her over to the police. People would. Besides, it was probably nothing more than her own guilty conscience. Even now she could hear her mother’s ghostly admonishment. Find another way. I’m ashamed to see my daughter is a thief.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” she whispered, hardly more than an exhale. “There isn’t another way.”

Glass cases lined the walls, filled with handmade jewelry—pearl necklaces, gold rings set with precious stones, and jade figurines ranging from a beetle the size of her thumbnail to a reclining ox, nearly as long as her forearm. She passed them by. The lion in the front window called to Auntie Bai Wei’s coin like a lodestone.

Jin reached the window and picked up the lion. It felt warm. The wild edges of its mane dug into her palm. Gently, she reminded herself. Jade was strong, but not unbreakable. She placed it at the bottom of her jacket pocket, then returned the way she came.

As she slipped out of the showroom, a floorboard squealed under her weight. Jin froze. An electric light flashed on at the top of a flight of stairs leading up to the next floor. Without a backward glance, Jin fled through the workroom and launched herself at the window.

Footsteps shuffled down the stairs. Jin struggled to wriggle through the open window without putting her weight on the pocket that held the precious figurine. Her other pocket caught on the handle that turned to open and close the pane. With a silent curse, Jin backed up and freed herself, then slithered out and dropped to the ground in a clumsy roll.

Jin stumbled to her feet, and the workshop light went on. She sprinted into the darkened alleyway, despite a sharp pain in her hip where she’d hit the ground.

****

Jin burst clear of the alleyway and into the night market’s busy crush. Neon signs advertising beer, cigarettes, and spirit cleansings hung from brick facades, illuminating the patchwork quilt of shacks and tarp-draped booths at the bases of the buildings. With a few quick motions, she lost herself among the milling mass of people.

She pulled her cap lower on her head, making sure her hair was safely tucked, then stuffed her hands in her pockets and hunched her shoulders, curling in on herself. With the collar of her jacket raised, her face was nothing more than a shadow in the neon haze. Her diminutive height and stick-thin body hidden behind loose-fitting clothes made her look more like a young boy than a teenage girl.

A pair of spinsters haggled over pickled eggs while a klatch of young men huddled at the corner warming their hands over a brazier and smoking cigarettes. They looked straight past her. Good. If no one noticed her, no one would connect her to the theft.

The figurine seemed to throb in her hand. Jin released it and pressed ahead. She could hear the river now—the slosh of the water sliding through its concrete banks, the thrum of motors struggling to press boats upstream, the shouting and cursing of cargo men working to unload a supply ship. She moved towards the market street’s edge and ducked behind the stalls. Auntie Bai Wei’s shop was close, but easy to miss.

Jin ran her hand along the rough brick wall. Hot chili sauce perfumed the air by a noodle seller’s cart. A low growl rumbled up from her center. It had been months since she’d tasted something other than the nutritional bars provided by the Orphan Care Authority or the remnants of discarded fish, too poor a quality to can.

Jin’s fingers slipped into a nearly invisible seam running up the mortar. She pressed against the next brick and the wall slid inward, releasing a haze of smoke, reeking of opium, that obscured the entryway to Auntie Bai Wei’s domain. You only found Auntie’s shop if she wanted you to.

After ducking through the entry, Jin pushed the wall back into place, leaving her in near-total darkness. Time to close her eyes and wait until she could see again. A steady throb of heat pulsed in her pocket. Jin reached inside with a tentative hand and touched the jade lion. It felt like a dying ember. Her eyes flashed open and she pulled it out.

An amber glow radiated from its belly, illuminating the stone from deep inside. Dark veins shot through the jade, where small impurities gave it texture. The red edges pulsed. Jin stared, transfixed, for a moment, then stuffed the thing back in her pocket. This was no simple piece of jade, she realized. There was a spirit trapped in its depths. She needed to be rid of it.

Afterimages danced across her vision while she inched her way through the storeroom in a carefully precise straight line. If she veered even a little she’d stumble over barrels and crates, and Auntie Bai Wei would deduct any damage she caused from the purchase price. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t there in the storeroom to see it. She always knew. You either waited until you could see, or risked breaking spirits-knew-what. There were folks who were indebted to Auntie so deeply they’d be working off the damage for years.

It didn’t matter that it had been Auntie Bai Wei who found Jin at the O. C. A.’s employment fair and coerced the cannery into hiring her, although Jin had already been passed over for being too small. Nor did it matter that she had gone on to recruit Jin into her band of “collectors,” and occasionally slipped a new textbook for Yao, full of technical details Jin couldn’t begin to comprehend, into the payment. If you broke Auntie’s stock, you paid for it.

Jin had learned the lesson early, and she’d been lucky. All she’d broken was an old teapot that had already been cracked and glued once before. Auntie Bai Wei took the bronze medallion Jin had just snatched from her neighbor—an old blind soldier who had stumbled into Yao in the hallway, then started bellowing that Yao was a spirit host—and called it even.

It was the only time Jin hadn’t felt a moment of remorse when she stole. Anyone foolish enough to accuse a small boy of being a spirit host deserved what came to him. It was only luck no one else had been home and come to investigate the shouting. She’d seen what happened when the government workers came to take away suspected hosts. The protective gear as if they were entering a quarantine ward, syringes full of “medicine” to keep the spirit at bay when they dragged the host off to the black prison perched at the river’s edge.

If they had come for Yao, the old soldier might have found himself dead rather than short one small medallion. Even Jin’s mother’s perpetually disapproving voice in her mind didn’t say a word.

Jin found the inner door by walking straight into it. The purple-rimmed, lion-shaped holes in her vision refused to clear. Wincing at the sharp pain where her knee hit the door, Jin opened it and stepped into the cluttered chaos of Auntie Bai Wei’s shop.

Thick incense hung in the air and tickled the back of Jin’s throat. A brilliant riot of colored paper lanterns hung from the exposed rafters, their flickering light illuminating the room. Cases with sagging shelves lined the walls and mapped a maze through the center. An ancient guqin stood in a corner, quietly playing itself, a haunting, traditional melody. The counter stood on the far wall behind a row of carved wooden chests.

Jin descended the two steps to the shop floor. There were no customers and no Auntie Bai Wei. Aside from the guqin, nothing made a sound. Jin had never been there without at least one other person browsing the knick-knacks, jewelry, antiques, and benevolent-spirit-occupied objects like the guqin, or waiting to haggle with Auntie over the price of a new offering.

“Auntie Bai Wei?” Jin called. Her voice sounded unnaturally loud as it bounced off the cinder-block walls.

There was no reply. Jin crossed the shop, picking her way past the row of vases lining the ends of the shelves, exactly where everyone would have to walk by to reach the counter. Perfect for someone clumsy to brush against and topple, with luck starting a domino wave of destruction they would then have to pay for.

When she reached the counter, Jin picked up a mallet resting on a porcelain platter and banged the gong that stood on the shelf. The clangor reverberated through the shop, temporarily overwhelming the guqin‘s song. When the noise dissipated, Jin listened for any sign of Auntie’s response.

Nothing.

A sense of unease sank into Jin’s bones. It was too early for the shop to be closed, and Auntie Bai Wei wouldn’t have left the outer door unlocked if she’d stepped out. Besides, she had to have been there to light the lanterns.

“Auntie?” she called again.

A gust of wind swirled through the shop. The lanterns flared, then died, plunging the shop into blackness. Jin’s cap flew from her head and the wind pressed her back against the counter. The gong vibrated, sending up a low din, and the guqin went silent.

Heavy footsteps clomped down the stairs. When they reached the cement floor, a sound like bone on rock scraped into the shop.

Jin dropped into a crouch. Whoever, or whatever, was coming, she had no desire to meet it. She inched backwards along the counter’s edge, grateful for her hand-me-down trainers that made no sound.

The footsteps drew closer accompanied by heavy wheezing breaths.

Jin found the corner and slipped behind, into Auntie Bai Wei’s personal sanctum. Her pocket surged with heat and the scent of scalding fabric assailed her nostrils. She grabbed the figurine and tossed the burning jade away, realizing a moment too late that the sound of its clatter would alert whatever was in the shop that it wasn’t alone.

The lion flew. Brilliant light exploded.

Jin threw her arm across her eyes, too late to escape the glare’s full brunt.

Instead of the crack of jade hitting cement, a roar rolled like thunder off the walls, shook the counter, and set the gong reverberating again.

The approaching person/thing, Jin still couldn’t be certain which, howled. Once more, the gale-force winds ripped past. Crashes sounded among the shelves. The roar rang out again and the footsteps retreated, back up the stairs. The door slammed shut.

Abruptly, the wind dropped into nothingness. Jin slowly lowered her arm. Golden light illuminated the shop, though the lanterns remained unlit. She raised herself until she could peek over the edge of the counter. A massive white lion stood on widespread paws on the far side, shaking its ruddy mane, red-tipped tail lashing, emanating light.

Jin dropped back down and leaned against the drawers, not caring that the handles dug into her back. Her breath came in shallow pants.

A spirit-lion, newly released from its jade prison.

She was trapped.

Jin pressed down on the cold cement floor, wishing she could become a part of it, or turn invisible, like the heroes in the old tales. She bit down on her tongue, and fought the urge to scream. Instead, she forced herself to focus. There were ways to send an escaped spirit back, if only she could remember. The heroes always spoke words of power, lost now in the dim recesses of her memory.

Besides, she was no hero.

She didn’t know what to say, but she clasped her hands in front of her and moved her lips silently, afraid to make a sound. Go back, lion.The danger is gone.You’ve frightened it away, and you can go back home now.

So slowly that at first Jin didn’t notice, the shop dimmed until she sat in blackness. Her pulse thudded in her ears. She stood up and squinted into the shop.

Nothing. No lion. No strange, scraping creature that tossed winds like weapons.

She blew out a whooshing breath and leaned on the counter, her arms trembling.

“Are you here to help us?”

Jin jolted so hard she knocked the mallet and its platter off the counter. The porcelain crashed in a burst of shards. “Who’s there?”

“I’m sorry,” came the voice again, with a strange, lilting cadence. “I didn’t mean to startle you. But you brought the guardian, so I ask again, are you here to help us?”

A hiss like a match sounded overhead and a lantern lit. The single flame cast the room into deep amber light. Shadows danced among the shelves as the lantern flickered. The lion figurine stood in front of the counter, its paw once again raised and muzzle roaring wide.

“Who are you?” Jin asked.

A tiny woman, no taller than Jin’s thigh, stepped out from behind a carved box. Two blue sticks inlaid with mother-of-pearl caught her ebony hair in a sleek twist. Her eyes glowed a soft cerulean that matched her traditional silk robe. “I am Liu, Spirit of the Guqin.” She steepled her hands in front of her and bowed. “Greetings to you, and thank you for protecting us.”

Jin returned the bow reflexively. She stepped out from behind the counter, accidentally grinding porcelain shards underfoot. A voice in the back of her mind wondered how much the platter had been worth and how she would pay it off when Auntie Bai Wei returned.

“My name’s Jin,” she said.

A smile spread Liu’s red lips. “We know. Auntie Bai Wei tells us all about you.”

“I need to sit.”

“Please,” Liu gestured to the box she’d come from behind. “Rest yourself.”

Jin settled herself gingerly on the carved lid. The contours impressed themselves into her bottom, but she didn’t dare sit anywhere else. “Where is Auntie Bai Wei?”

Liu frowned, the corners of her painted-on eyebrows crinkling down towards her nose. “They took her.”

“Who took her?” Jin tried not to think about the fact that she was having a conversation with a spirit.

Everyone knew spirits existed, of course, but nobody ever actually saw one, despite the show the spirit cleansers put on, tricking gullible folks into spending their hard-earned yuan to rid their home of “evil spirits.” Some drifted harmlessly on the breeze, with nothing to ground them. Others took up residence in objects. Still other spirits, the most dangerous of all, took human hosts.

“We don’t know,” Liu said. “Two men came last night to trade. When Auntie Bai Wei took the statue they offered, she went stiff. They led her away, and she didn’t struggle, but I saw her eyes. She was afraid, Jin. Terrified.”

Jin tried to wrap her mind around the image of Auntie Bai Wei frightened. She was a giant of a woman, taller than most men, and broad-shouldered. In her youth, she’d trained in wushu, and while she’d put on weight in the years since, she could still lift objects Jin wouldn’t have been able to budge, and her reflexes were tiger-sharp. She wore her silvering black hair spiky and was never without a set of heavy knuckle rings that she could use with power and skill. If ever there was a woman less likely to be afraid, Jin had never met her.

“Were they like that . . . thing . . . that was just here?”

“No. They were men like you, or at least they appeared to be. One never really knows if they’re a spirit wearing someone else’s skin.”

Jin rested her head in her hands and closed her eyes. She shouldn’t be involved in this. She should walk out the door, go back to the apartment and Yao and pretend this night had never happened. Leave the lion and the guqin and all the strangeness behind.

But she wasn’t going to leave Auntie Bai Wei to the mercy of whoever it was who had taken her. Not after feeling the power of the thing that had entered the shop that night. Besides, after a year of coming to trade at least once a month, Jin had come to consider Auntie Bai Wei a friend. A strange sort of friend, perhaps, but outside of Yao, Jin had no one else.

“How can I help?”

The rest of the lanterns flared into life and shouts of joy rose from all over the shop. Tiny people appeared from beneath teacups, out of vases, dropping down from the lanterns. Larger spirits hid in the shadows, nearly as tall as the shelves. Some looked human. Others were animals: rabbits, dogs, monkeys; and yet others were some motley combination of both.

The spirits swarmed towards her.

Jin pulled her feet up onto the box.

“Find her!” they cried. “Find Auntie Bai Wei and bring her home to us.”

“I don’t know how,” Jin whispered, awed at the sheer number of spirits crowding close.

There must be a spirit for every item in the shop. Was that what Auntie Bai Wei did? Collect spirit-occupied items? Was that what called to her coin?

White-hot pain flared in her temples and Jin grasped her head tight, overwhelmed at the revelation.

Liu picked up the jade figurine in both hands. “You must take the guardian.” She lifted it towards Jin.

Jin flinched away.

“Don’t be afraid,” Liu said. “It answers to its keeper. You.”

Jin didn’t want to take it—the beast it unleashed was terrifying—but she leaned down and let Liu drop it into her palm. The jade was cool now. No hint of light glowed within, but a warm feeling of comfort and safety wrapped Jin in its heavy paws. She pocketed the lion.

“We cannot leave this place,” Liu continued. “We’re bound to our hosts. But you can find her, Jin, and you must, soon, before they find you.”

Jin’s heart skipped a beat and she stared at the miniature woman. “What do you mean?”

“We heard them talking. They’re hunting down the sensitives. They’ll find you.”

A spirit with the face of a dog, the body of a man, and the tail of a monkey pressed through the crowd carrying Jin’s hat. He handed it up to her.

“Thank you,” she said.

The spirit yipped and turned in a circle, chasing its tail.

Jin shoved the cap back onto her head, once again tucking her hair underneath.

Liu reached up and laid a dainty hand on Jin’s foot. “I can give you little help, but this—they smelled of the river.”

“All right,” Jin said. “I’ll lock the door on my way out. Hopefully it will help to keep you safe.”

“Just bring Auntie back to us,” Liu said.

The sea of spirits parted, leaving a clear path of concrete to the stairs.

Jin stepped down from the box, took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, forcing herself to ignore her throbbing headache. She strode towards the door.

“Good luck,” Liu called out. “Bring her home.”

****

Outside the false wall, the market went on as if everything in the world hadn’t just changed. The noodle-seller shouted his wares, but the last thing Jin could think of was food, no matter that it had been hours since the nutrition bars she’d shared with Yao at dinner-time. Setting one foot in front of the other, she followed the sounds of the river.

The jade lion lay quiescent in her pocket, but she couldn’t forget the image of it standing so proudly against the intruder, its muscles flexing beneath its pale pelt, nor the sense of comfort she felt when she once again held it in her hand. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to have, after all. If she hadn’t stolen it, she wouldn’t have gone to Auntie’s shop. Whatever that thing was would have done whatever it came to do, and Jin couldn’t believe it had good intentions. Was it chance that brought the lion to her attention, or was she meant to find it?

Her mind whirled. These weren’t the sorts of thoughts she was used to. She was a simple cannery girl. Her brother was the smart one, the one destined to make a mark on the world. How could she entertain the idea that something as powerful as the guardian wanted her enough to put itself in her path?

She reached into her pocket and ran her fingers over the cool jade. The same reassuring presence blanketed her as she’d felt back in Auntie Bai Wei’s shop.

The market thinned when she drew close to the river. A few merchants catered to the dock workers, but most stayed closer to the apartment buildings and shops back towards the OldTown‘s center. Jin kept her face hidden behind her collar, head down. They smelled of the river, Liu had said. It wasn’t much to go on. The river wound through the center of the city, kilometers long, and she might have to search both banks, although she’d never crossed to the far side, where the tech-runners’ sleek, glistening towers speared the skyline.

Keeping to the shadows, Jin slunk to the river’s edge. A reeking miasma hung over it like fog. The stinking refuse that clogged the water’s edge, and the persistent odor of sweat from the dockhands who worked day and night loading and unloading cargo mingled with a stale hint of urine from along the base of the nearest building. Jin took a step away, still clinging to the shadows.

Downstream, electric lights blazed at a slip where a barge crammed to overflowing with crates sat at anchor. Men swarmed like ants, boxes balanced on heads or cradled in muscular arms.

Jin closed her eyes. She needed a plan. Wandering aimlessly along the riverbank would do nothing but give her blisters, and maybe get her arrested for trespassing into freight company property. There had to be some way to narrow the search.

She reached into her pocket and grasped the jade lion. It throbbed with heat.

“All right.” Jin took a steadying breath. “Can you help me find Auntie Bai Wei?”

Two pulses.

Fine. If trusting a spirit was the only way to find her friend, that was what she’d do. What would Yao think if she ever told him? His head was so filled with facts and theorems, he’d probably laugh and say she was as superstitious as the rest of the OldTown folk.

“Let’s try this,” Jin said. “I’m going to turn in a circle. When I’m pointing the right way, give me a sign.”

She held the figurine in front of her, then slowly pirouetted until a flash of warmth stopped her. Peering into the darkness along the upstream path down which she was pointed, Jin swallowed hard. No light, but the dim glow from the freight slip and the glimmering towers on the opposite bank. So be it.

****

After following the lion’s compass for what felt like hours, Jin stopped at the base of an abandoned warehouse and stared at what lay ahead. The black bulk of the prison that housed accused spirit hosts. As she’d crept along the river’s edge, she’d begun to suspect the jade lion might lead her to this place. Although she’d seen it before from a distance, she’d never had a reason to come close. It loomed overhead, blotting out the few stars that managed to shine through thin tears in the cloud cover.

No windows. No doors. How was she supposed to get inside? Even if she could, what would await her there? Stories whispered in dark corners told of crazed spirit hosts, caged and chained—of screams loud enough to be heard even through the heavy cinder block walls. If Auntie Bai Wei had been taken to this place, did it mean she was a spirit host? And if she were, was she dangerous? How did the men, whoever they had been, subdue her? Liu hadn’t said anything about syringes or quarantine suits.

It didn’t matter. Jin was committed. She’d find a way inside, no matter what waited there. Besides, the lion figurine still hummed with residual heat and it reassured her. She wasn’t alone.

A chain link fence topped with razor wire encircled the prison. There were no lights, so Jin slipped out from hiding and darted towards the fence. While she’d have no difficulty scaling the chain links, the razor wire was a problem. No matter how small or how flexible she was, she didn’t see a way she’d be able to get through it without serious injury. Instead, she followed the fence around the building’s perimeter, looking for any weak spots.

On the far side from where she’d begun, she found what she was looking for. In the stretch between two poles, a section of chain had been warped inward. It wasn’t much, but Jin doubted she’d find better.

She lay flat on the concrete and pressed forward, her head and shoulder further bending the fence until they burst free on the far side. Wriggling like a snake, Jin scooted forward, despite tearing her jacket on the rough ground. An edge of chain caught in the back pocket of her jeans. Panic surged through her veins, but she backed up, readjusted her hips, and tried again.

At last, she was through, and she raced toward the shelter of the prison’s shadow, where she leaned up against the cinder blocks and gasped for breath.

The easy part was done. When she stopped panting, she rose and ran her fingers along the wall, like she did to find the entry to Auntie Bai Wei’s shop. Maybe the same sort of hidden door served this place. Maybe, if she was lucky, she’d find the seam before the sun rose.

A sudden squeal of metal on metal froze Jin in place. Somewhere up ahead, around the corner of the building, the gate was opening. Jin inched forward on silent feet, then ducked low and peered around the corner, keeping her face in shadow.

Two men in black business suits walked through the open gate, leading someone between them. For a moment, Jin’s heart leapt at the thought it might be Auntie Bai Wei, but the person was much too small. Once inside, the nearest man stepped away to close the gate behind them.

A moonbeam pierced through the thin clouds and illuminated the scene.

Jin stopped breathing. Yao.

Before she could react, the man was back and they led Yao towards the wall at a brisk pace. He followed without protest, awkward and stiff.

Her years of petty theft told her to wait and watch. See how the suits got inside. Follow when it was safe.

But that was her brother.

With a howl, Jin leapt from the shadows and barreled into the nearest man. She rammed her head into his gut and he staggered back, gasping for breath. In his moment of disorientation, Jin swept her leg behind the other man’s, knocking his feet out from under him. He crashed to the ground.

Yao, run!” she shouted.

She turned her attention back to the first man, who had recovered his wind and lunged forward, fists swinging. Jin ducked and dodged close enough to smell his cologne, then slammed her heel down on the top of his foot. He staggered away with a grunt.

Jin turned back, but Yao hadn’t so much as turned his head. “Yao?” She grabbed his hand and yanked. If they could get outside the fence the way she’d come in, the men were too big to follow. They’d have a head start while the others wrestled with the locks on the gate.

Yao remained immobile, as stiff as a statue, but his eyes followed her with a pleading stare. Just like Liu had described Auntie Bai Wei.

Jin slapped him, hard. Smarting pain bloomed in her hand, but Yao didn’t move. His eyes went wide, looking past her left shoulder.

She spun in time to see the second man’s fist just before it crashed into the side of her head. The world went black.

****

Jin’s eyes blinked open in a dimly-lit cell. Her head throbbed where the man in the suit had clobbered her. A sick sensation hung in the back of her throat. She swallowed back the nausea.

Where was Yao?

A quick glance told her she was alone, with nothing save the rickety cot on which she lay and a toilet in the far corner. The back wall was bare cinder-blocks. A sharp chill emanated through it into the cell. Iron bars formed the other three walls. Another row of cells lay on the far side of a central hallway. The only light came from a bare bulb glowing over the hall.

The cells to either side of her were empty, but across the way, a dark figure hugged the shadows. Jin swung her feet to the floor and sat up. Dizziness swept over her in waves. She probed the lump on the back of her head. Her fingers came away bloody, but from what she could tell, her skull was in one piece, only the scalp split. Jin wiped her hand on her jeans.

She lurched upright and stumbled forward, catching herself on the bars of the door. Clinging there, she closed her eyes and waited for the world to stop spinning.

When she was fairly certain she wouldn’t collapse if she let go, she straightened and dug in the breast pocket of her jacket for her lock picking tools. When her fingers closed around them, she let out a relieved breath. The men in suits must not have worried too much about her—or else they had something much bigger to think about—if they hadn’t taken the time to search her. The pick wasn’t well-hidden.

With deft motions, she set to work.

The figure across the hall inched forward, crouched low, until it was pressed up against the bars. “Shouldn’t do that.” The voice was high and light. A woman. “They won’t like it.”

Using the tension wrench to turn the cylinder gently counter-clockwise, Jin felt the pick catch one tumbler after another. When the last tumbler fell into place, she turned the cylinder further counter-clockwise. The bolt slid back with a welcome thunk.

Moving smoothly, less dizzy with each passing breath, Jin pushed the door open.

It creaked, as if it hadn’t been oiled in decades. She paused and waited, not breathing. When nobody came to investigate, she slipped out of the cell, crossed the hall, and knelt in front of her fellow prisoner. “Did you see who brought me? Was there a boy with them?”

The figure giggled. “Boy, boy, plays with toys!”

Jin plunged a hand between the bars and grabbed the stranger’s plain black T-shirt, yanking the woman forward until the bars dented her skin. Jin pressed her own face close enough she could feel the other’s breath on her skin. “Did you see?”

The woman shied away, breaking free of Jin’s grasp. “Never see anything.” She slid back on all fours. “Not safe to see.”

Jin rose and backed away. The stranger was crazy. Maybe she was a spirit host. Maybe whatever rode her had shattered her mind. Further talk wouldn’t bring her any closer to finding Yao. Or Auntie Bai Wei, a small voice reminded her.

Jin pushed the thought away. If she found Bai Wei, she would try to help her, but Yao came first. Her hand slid into her pocket, and when she found the jade lion still resting there, she nearly sobbed. She pulled it free and cradled it in front of her lips. Help me find Yao, she begged silently. Help me find my brother.

She swung the lion first to her left, then to her right, where it flared with heat. With catlike steps she padded down the hallway’s length to the closed door at its end. She pulled it open. The woman she’d left behind began to wail, throwing herself against the bars. “Take me with you! Don’t leave me!”

Jin shut the door behind her, muffling the woman’s cries. Her heart thudded against her ribs. The figurine’s warmth centered her, and she followed its lead into a maze of winding corridors.

****

As she crept through the bowels of the prison, Jin became aware of a low, steady thrum, like the building had its own beating heart. She felt it reverberating in her chest, only barely able to pick it up at the lower spectrum of her hearing. Her hand tightened around the jade lion.

She passed cellblocks full of prisoners, mostly sleeping, some pacing their cells from end to end like caged beasts, others chained to the walls. Most ignored her, although a few hid like rats when she approached, and other reached through the bars, begging her to release them.

Time and again, she shook her head and walked on. What good could it do to undo the cages? With a contingent of prisoners tromping at her heels, or running loose through the prison, it would not be long before someone, or something, noticed. Besides, she still had no idea how to get into the building, never mind out.

So she left the wretched souls behind and blocked out the sobs of the few who begged her to set them free. She held the lion in her left hand, its amber glow hidden in her palm, and the lock pick in her right, ready to use as a weapon if she were forced to fight.

More than once, the lion led her through doors into stairwells leading down, deep below ground level. The lower she climbed, the stronger the skeletal building’s throbbing pulse, until she felt her teeth rattling against each other as her feet touched the floor.

The stairwell led past several doors with small rectangular windows. Jin glanced through when she passed. Wide rooms, lit by blue-tinged fluorescents, stretched as far as she could see. The tubes illuminated stacks of electronics, humming with energy.

She’d seen illustrations like this in the textbooks Auntie Bai Wei gathered for Yao. Some deep tech that Jin couldn’t hope to comprehend. What it was doing on this side of the river was a mystery, but one she wasn’t interested in solving. All she wanted was to find her brother.

Two more floors, then the lion gave a sharp surge of heat. Jin glanced through the window. This floor was dark. No light, save what shone in through the stairwell window.

So be it. Cautiously, Jin pulled open the door. It opened without a sound. She slipped into the darkness.

The jade lion led her into the black, beyond the arc of the stairwell’s glow. Unable to see so much as her hand in front of her face, Jin opened her fingers, allowing the figurine’s amber radiance to light the way.

Heavy metal doors without windows lined the hallway on either side. Was Yao in this place? What sort of terror must he be enduring? Jin increased her pace.

When the hallway dead-ended at the wall, the lion flared bright. A low groan emanated from behind the right hand door. Jin knew that voice. Auntie Bai Wei.

Frustration coursed through her. She’d asked the guardian to lead her to Yao, not Bai Wei. Still, she was here. She would do what she could.

She tried the door, but, as she expected, it was locked. Once more, she went to work with the pick. Auntie’s voice went silent.

After several long moments, the lock clicked open and Jin pulled the door wide.

Auntie Bai Wei stood with her back to the wall, crouched in a fighting stance. When the figurine lit the room, Bai Wei squinted. “Stay back, demon,” she growled. “You surprised me once. Never again.”

“Auntie Bai Wei, it’s me, Jin.”

Bai Wei’s arms drooped to her sides. “Jin?” She blinked and rubbed her eyes.

“It’s me, Auntie. Liu sent me.”

Auntie Bai Wei’s gaze settled on the figurine clutched in Jin’s hand. A look of wonder spread across her face. “Is that . . . the guardian?”

“Yes. At least, that’s what Liu said.”

Auntie Bai Wei straightened and she clasped a hand against her chest. “Spirits be blessed,” she breathed. “We may yet get out of this alive.”

The coin nestled beneath Jin’s shirt throbbed, in time with the building’s strange pulse. “Auntie,” she said. “They have Yao.”

Bai Wei looked down, piercing Jin with her dark gaze. “They took your brother?”

“I tried to stop them, but they hit me over the head and threw me in a cell. I don’t know where they took him.”

Bai Wei stalked forward, looming over Jin. “Those fiends are fools to have left you in possession of the guardian. It must have been Yao‘s presence that protected you. His spirit guest is powerful, though meek. They couldn’t see past it to your own strength.”

Yao‘s a spirit host?”

“Of course, foolish girl. Why else do you think I pulled the two of you from the orphanage? His spirit guest and your innate sensitivity shine like beacons to those who have eyes to see.”

“Please,” Jin said, “I need my brother back.”

“I’ll help you,” said Auntie Bai Wei, “but you’ll need the guardian as well.”

“It didn’t help when I attacked the men who had Yao.”

Bai Wei stepped out of her cell and into the darkness.

Jin scurried out behind her, holding the jade lion high.

“That’s because they were men,” Bai Wei said. “Against men, the guardian can do nothing. Against spirits, though, it will be your best hope. Ask it to find your brother.”

“I already did,” Jin said, shadowing Bai Wei along the corridor. “It brought me to you.”

“You need me, girl.” Bai Wei’s voice hid grim laughter behind it. “The guardian isn’t stupid.”

“All right.” Jin closed her eyes and drew Yao‘s image on the back of her eyelids, his slight frame and intelligent gaze. “Find him,” she said, “before it’s too late.”

Back into the stairwell, then once more down. The building’s pulse hammered at Jin’s eardrums. Auntie Bai Wei didn’t seem to notice, or she was better at ignoring. Neither spoke another word while they descended into the prison’s depths. They were deep enough now that Jin wondered if they were beneath even the river’s floor.

At last, they reached the bottom. The guardian flared, but there was no need. Only one way remained. A black door painted with red calligraphy, in an old style Jin couldn’t read.

The building’s pulse drowned out her own. Sweat slicked her hands and her legs trembled. Her bravery fled in the face of that door and its incomprehensible scrawl.

Auntie Bai Wei clapped a hand to her shoulder. Jin looked up. Bai Wei gave her a lopsided grin. It heartened her. She smiled back.

Bai Wei put her hand to the doorknob and pushed. It made no sound. Nothing stirred on the other side. Jin followed Bai Wei through. The lights on this level looked like the fluorescent tubes above, but they were as red as the calligraphy on the door, reminding Jin far too much of blood.

Together, Jin and Bai Wei crossed the room, the guardian once again within Jin’s closed fist. The disturbing lights were enough to see by. There was no reason to announce their presence.

A piercing shriek echoed down the hallway. Jin sucked in a harsh breath. Yao.

She would have rushed forward, but Auntie Bai Wei wrapped a strong hand around her wrist.

“Carefully,” Bai Wei whispered.

The wail died off. Jin squeezed her eyes shut, trying to ignore it. Impossible. She opened her eyes and pressed forward.

As they followed the blood-red corridor, a heavy, moist scent wafted towards them. The painted concrete walls gave way to natural stone that arced away to either side, opening into a vast cavern. Jin and Bai Wei hugged the wall, circling towards a brilliant, scarlet light that brightened and dimmed in time with the overwhelming pulse.

When they drew closer, it resolved itself into a massive garnet, the size of the noodle seller’s cart, throbbing red to black and back again.

Four men in suits stood beside a metal surgical table where Yao‘s small form lay prone. Two were the men who had kidnapped him.

Wires and tubes led from Yao‘s body into a bank of machinery and from there lines of pure scarlet energy lanced into the beating garnet.

Bai Wei sucked in a breath. “So that’s the answer. They’re stealing spirit life-energy to feed that . . . thing.” Her hand squeezed hard into Jin’s wrist. “Wait here,” she breathed, so low Jin could hardly hear her. “If I can do this alone, then let me.”

Auntie didn’t wait for a response. She picked up a stone from the cavern floor and raced forward. With a howl, she launched it. The rock crashed into the machinery. Sparks geysered in a sizzling shower. The men turned away from Yao and found Auntie Bai Wei nearly on them. She fell among them in a dizzying whirl of kicks and punches. Two men slumped to the ground and lay there motionless. The others quickly realized their danger and dropped low, sliding to either side of Bai Wei.

Jin grasped her lock pick and inched forward. The nearest man had his back to her. Moving soundlessly, she advanced when Bai Wei feinted towards him, keeping him distracted, before spinning to keep an eye on her other opponent.

Yao shrieked again, the sound echoing off the cavern’s high ceiling.

Distracted, Jin stumbled over an upthrust of rock. A cry leapt from her lips before she could pull it back.

The man turned and advanced. His eyes glowed as red as the garnet.

Jin regained her balance and held the lock pick on its knife handle in front of her, trying to mimic Bai Wei’s fighting stance. “You want me?” she cried. “Come and get me!”

He lunged, swinging with powerful blows. Jin ducked low and stabbed up with the pick. It gouged into his gut with a sickening squelch. Lurching to the side, he wrenched away and Jin lost her grip on the pick. He staggered back, the makeshift weapon protruding from his belly.

His hand wrapped around it and he pulled it free, wiping it clean on his immaculate suit pants. Jin stumbled away. What kind of monster was this? His wound didn’t so much as slow his advance, and now he brandished her own weapon against her.

The man feinted with a punch. Jin tried to dodge, but she was too slow. The pick sank into her shoulder in a burning blossom of pain. Once more he plunged it downward, aiming for her throat. She spun away, but tripped over her own feet and fell forward to the ground. She rolled to her back, trembling.

“Get up, little girl,” the man goaded, ignoring the blood staining his shirt.

Jin staggered to her feet.

“Go ahead,” he said, a maniacal look in his ruby-red eyes. “Hit me.”

Her left shoulder throbbed so badly, she could hardly think for the pain. Gritting her teeth, she drew back her right arm and swung for his jaw. He danced away, laughing, until he gave a sudden grunt and collapsed, twitching, to the ground.

Auntie Bai Wei stood behind him, breathing hard, a bloodied stone in her fist. “Go,” she gasped. “Get your brother.”

Jin lurched towards Yao. Tremors shook the cavern, and the light flared bright. She flexed her knees and kept moving until she reached her brother’s side.

Yao stared up at her, tears pooled in the corners of his eyes. She knew he hated when she saw him cry, so she pretended not to see. Thick, red fluid pulsed through the tubes inserted under his skin. Jin hesitated to touch them. The wires were a different matter. Sharp-toothed clamps pinched his skin, leaving bloody welts.

Hands shaking, Jin released the first clamp. The garnet howled.

Jin ignored it, tearing Yao free from the wires. Auntie Bai Wei appeared at her side and joined in. In a matter of moments, all the wires with their vicious clamps lay in a tangled pile on the ground.

Jin looked over at Bai Wei. “What do we do now?”

What would her mother have said? How poor a guardian she was to have left Yao alone and unprotected? How Jin’s thieving ways had brought this horror down on them?

Jin felt it keenly. If she could replace him on that slab, sticking each tube into her own flesh, would it save him? She made up her mind to try.

She reached for the first tube. The garnet’s pulsing rush went silent, and the cavern sank into a blackness so deep Jin couldn’t even see Yao, less than a hands-breadth away. She froze.

“That can’t be good,” Auntie Bai Wei said.

With a crash and groan, the garnet ruptured, searing ruby light flaring from the eggshell crack that formed along its side. Blood-red shards splintered and fell in a staccato rain. A monstrous spirit stepped free, swelling when it left the stone’s confines, until its head nearly touched the ceiling. Scales armored the creature’s muscular body. Long, curving talons scraped the cave floor. A powerful stench of sulfur surged forth from the shattered garnet.

In the broken stone’s dim glow, Yao spasmed, nearly throwing himself off the table. Auntie Bai Wei lunged forward, pinning him beneath her.

Jin stared up at the towering beast, momentarily frozen. Then its red eyes focused on Yao and it advanced, clawed hands outstretched. Jin’s heart stuttered. Adrenaline surged through her limbs. Only a small part of her mind registered the guardian’s searing heat as she shouted and threw the jade figurine towards the monster with her good arm.

The radiant lion burst free in a rush of amber brilliance that made Jin look away. Its roar rattled her teeth. She clenched her jaw and forced her eyes forward. Landing on broad red paws between Yao and the spirit—it had to be a spirit, if the guardian could challenge it—the lion shook its heavy mane and bared its teeth.

“Jin, help me,” Auntie Bai Wei called in a low voice, just audible over the guardian’s growl.

The monstrous spirit stepped closer, and the lion lunged forward, its muzzle curling with a warning snarl.

“Jin!”

She didn’t want to look away. What if the guardian wasn’t enough? Could she fight? Her injured shoulder ached bone-deep, the pain blurred beneath a curtain of terrified energy. Jin felt helpless. Useless. What could she, a cannery girl and a thief, hope to do?

But Bai Wei was calling and maybe, even if she couldn’t fight a spirit, maybe she could help Auntie. She dragged her gaze away from the confrontation.

Yao had stopped moving. The tubes lay flaccid. Empty.

Auntie Bai Wei shook Yao‘s shoulders. “He’s not breathing,” she said. With her powerful hand, she grasped his wrist. After a moment, she squeezed her eyes shut. “No pulse.”

Jin shook her head and moved forward with stuttering steps. He couldn’t be dead. Couldn’t leave her alone with nothing but failure and regret.

Auntie Bai Wei began chest compressions, hard and fast. Yao‘s still form was so small, surely she must break his ribs, but if it saved him, Jin would willingly pay her any price. If only he would live. If his lungs would fill, his blood would flow . . .

“Auntie!” Jin grasped the nearest tube. “There’s nothing in here.”

Continuing her work, Bai Wei glanced over. “The demon wasn’t stealing his blood, girl. It was stealing his spirit guest. Yao‘s been a host for so long, his body doesn’t know how to live without it.”

“Then he can’t be saved?” Anger and fear battled for dominance, but both agreed on one thing. If the tubes had done their work, then they were nothing but a blight, desecrating her brother’s corpse. In a haze of rage, Jin tore them free, ignoring the blood that seeped from each empty wound.

When the last tube curled to the ground, a shriek like a thousand fingernails down a thousand blackboards echoed through the cave. Jin fell to her knees, fists pressed against her ears. She turned back towards the battling spirits.

The demon closed its heavy jaws and the wail vanished. It crouched down, muscles bunching as it prepared to leap.

With a swirl of amber, the lion vanished.

The jade figurine lay on its side, tiny and dull. The guardian was gone. In the face of the demon’s power, it had fled. Was this the spirit that Liu had put such faith in? That Auntie Bai Wei knew by reputation and name? A coward?

Jin’s lock pick was gone, lost in the earlier fight. Her hand closed around a garnet splinter as long as her forearm, and she staggered to her feet.

“Stay back!” She insinuated herself between the demon and her brother. “He’s mine.”

Baleful red eyes looked down at her and Jin thought she caught a glimmer of amusement. Then, the powerful muscles flexed and the demon soared towards her.

Jin lunged, felt the garnet shard pierce scaly skin and delve into the demon’s warm, wet innards. Its bulk carried it forward and she landed on her back, caught beneath it. She struggled to draw in air.

It reared back and Jin could breathe again. The shard went with it, pulsing from red to black to red again. Once more, the demon turned its attention onto Jin. It reached back, talons outstretched, ready to slash at her exposed throat.

A small form stepped past her prone body, hand raised in a gesture of warding. Amber light streamed from him, nearly blinding. “You are banished,” he said with Yao‘s voice.

Jin blinked and shook her head. Impossible. She crab-shuffled backwards until she collided with Auntie Bai Wei’s legs.

“You are banished,” the boy repeated, his voice now tinged with a deep, rumbling resonance beneath the young-man soprano.

The demon retreated, the arm that had been ready to kill her now shielding its eyes.

Auntie Bai Wei hoisted Jin up and pulled her close, which was good. She didn’t think she could have stood without support.

As the boy—Yao?—advanced, the demon shrank, hissing and spitting, until it was no larger than Bai Wei. The garnet shard burst free and clattered to the floor. Its pulsing light faded and died.

The boy placed his blazing hand flat on the demon’s chest and said, a third time, “You are banished.”

With a wail that vanished into silence, the demon sank down, down, down, until it was the size of a beetle. The radiant boy knelt and picked up the toppled figurine and held it in his palm. Muttering words in a language Jin didn’t know, he extended it towards the tiny demon. It tried to run, but the figurine pulled it in, subsuming it into its stone heart until there was nothing left but the jade lion, a crimson heart now pulsing in its depths.

Yao rose, his brilliant aura fading, and turned to face Jin and Auntie Bai Wei. And it wasYao—raw wounds where the clamps had grasped him and Jin had wrenched the tubes free erased any doubt—but behind his black eyes a new awareness looked out at them.

Jin felt an overwhelming sense of power and protection under her brother’s gaze. She straightened, trying to stand under her own strength. “Yao?”

He smiled, a broad, encompassing smile that Jin hadn’t seen since their mother died. “When you broke my connection to the stone heart, you freed me. My spirit guest was gone, but now another could take its place without fear of being consumed by the demon.”

Yao extended his hand where the jade lion rested. “This one should not be left like this. It will find a new host, given the chance.”

Jin reached for it—hesitated—then snatched it up by the tip of its tail. It felt foul. A shudder ran down her spine. “What would happen if it broke?”

“The spirit within dies with its host.”

Jade was strong, but it could be broken, Jin remembered. She dashed the lion to the ground with all that remained of her strength. It shattered into pieces on the stone floor.

A tremor shook the cavern. The metal table shuddered, then toppled. Jin clung to Auntie Bai Wei. Her head swam. From the corner of her eye she saw her left shoulder. Blood saturated the jacket and her shirt, seeping down to stain her jeans. So much blood . . .

“Follow me, Bai Wei,” Yao ordered.

It didn’t seem strange to Jin that he would know her name. After all, she had known the guardian.

Jin tried to stumble along over the quaking ground, but couldn’t keep her feet. Bai Wei hoisted Jin over her broad shoulder and chased after Yao. Jin tried to protest, but her head kept knocking against Auntie’s back and the shoulder digging into her stomach gave her no room to breathe, and besides, she was so very tired . . .

Images swam by in fits and starts. Into the stairwell. Bai Wei’s labored breathing. No lights. Shouldn’t there have been lights? Up and up and into the cellblocks. Yao melting locks. More quakes. So many people, all following her little brother like he was some sort of promised savior. Boy, boy, plays with toys . . .

Walls crumbling. Yao‘s powerful radiance deflecting the stones. The smell of the river. Nothing.

****

Jin woke to the strong scent of chili sauce. Her eyes flew open. She was in Auntie Bai Wei’s shop.

Yao sat beside her, shoveling noodles into his mouth. Seeing she was awake, he picked up an extra bowl that sat on the carved box beside him. “Want some?”

Her mouth watered and her stomach gave a growl that felt nearly as loud as the lion’s roar. She pushed herself into a sitting position. Her shoulder protested, but didn’t give out. Heavy bandages wrapped it, underneath an embroidered silk robe. “Please,” she replied.

She didn’t know what to say to him. Her little brother, the mouse, was the boy she knew. Who this boy—this little lion—would be, was a mystery.

She accepted the bowl and took a cautious bite. It had been so long since anything other than nutrition bars or cannery remains had touched her tongue the chili sauce felt like fireworks and flame. Tears welled in her eyes, not from pain, but from the simple relief of being cared for. For once, not shouldering the weight of expectation and guilt.

The little dog-faced spirit who had given back her hat not so very long ago capered up and down the nearest shelf, dodging trinkets and bric-a-brac, peering over with curious eyes. Liu sat, poised and dainty, at Yao‘s side.

Jin heard Auntie Bai Wei coming before she saw her. Although there was weariness in her face, she looked happier than Jin could ever remember seeing her. She stood straighter, as if a yoke that burdened her had been lifted.

Auntie looked Jin up and down. “You’re looking better.”

Jin ducked her head. “Because of you,” she said. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. I’m in your debt for as long as you live. If you hadn’t found the guardian when you did, every one of those souls in the prison would have been lost to feed the demon. My spirit refuge would have been destroyed, and all of my companions killed. You saved them, Jin.”

“And me with them,” Yao added.

“I did nothing but what I had to do,” she said, looking over her steaming noodle bowl at her brother, “to fulfill my promise to Mother.” She shook her head. “I was never good enough on my own. What a poor guardian I’ve been.”

Yao handed his bowl to Liu, who took it without difficulty, despite it being nearly a fourth of her size. He dropped to one knee beside Jin. “You’ve been the best guardian I could have asked for, but now it’s my turn. Auntie Bai Wei has offered to pay my entry to the tech school. I’ll thrive there, and when I’m out, we’ll never be in want again.”

Jin looked over at Auntie Bai Wei. Suspicious moisture clung to the corners of the shopkeeper’s eyes.

“You’d do that?” Jin asked.

“As I said, I’m in your debt.” Bai Wei shrugged. “Besides I’ve grown fond of you, my little scamp. Now finish your noodles.” She turned away before rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand. “You’ve got to build up your strength.”

Jin bit her lip to keep from crying. Despite the pain, she felt lighter than air. She speared the noodles with her chopsticks and took another bite of paradise.

****

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About Rebecca Birch

Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction has previously appeared in Penumbra eZine, and she has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest.

When not writing, she enjoys making music and practicing Tae Kwon Do.

You can learn more about her at www.wordsofbirch.com .