Legal Disclaimer: This
is a fable, a story about intelligent animals, so all characters
are really my own. But the characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules,
Iolaus as pictured in these uber-representations, plus a few others,
belong to you-know-who (MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, in case
you don't). No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of
Oh, and if parts of this remind you of a certain novel by one Rudyard Kipling, it wasn't really intentional. There are only so many animal stereotypes to choose from, after all. Wink, wink.
The story, however, is mine, except for a few references to various Xena and Hercules episodes, among others.
This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers.
Another Disclaimer: No subtext in this one, at least not in
the commonly accepted sense of the word. I don't see how, really. This
is basically a story about the grudging friendship of two normally
There is also some level of violence here, and a few deaths, because these critters are DANGEROUS, lemme tell ya!
Note on the measuring system: A 'leap' is about 5 yards, a 'whisker', 5 inches
If you have any comments, feel free to mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Homepage: Verrath's Book Of Tales
March 28, 1999
In the quiet peace of the pre-dawn jungle, the shadowed shape of the huntress glided silently through the underbrush. Under a canopy of rich, green foliage, high up, monkeys were just starting a hesitant chatter. Irritated by the noise, the black leopard raised her head, and gazed up at the jittery horde, a low growl rumbling deep in her chest.
She was huge, well over two hundred pounds of bone and muscle, larger even than most males and several times as powerful. Her soft velvety coat was the color of a moonless night sky, highlighted by flashes of steel blue where the first rays of light played along her sleek flank. Pale blue eyes burned like chips of ice in her nobly chiseled head. The gaze of this panther was death.
For a moment, she considered launching herself up that tree, just for the satisfaction of seeing the monkeys scatter in terror. But instead, she inhaled deeply, and cocked her head into the wind. Yes, she could still scent her prey. A deer, long past her prime, going for a drink by the river. The big cat licked her chops. She would feast today.
Without so much as a whisper, she slowly, carefully made her way closer to the bank, where her victim stood unaware, muzzle dipped into the clear, sparkling water. The deer's neck rippled delicately with each swallow, and every now and then an ear flicked in irritation at the buzzing flies. Old she might be, but she still had that gentle, graceful beauty of her kind. She would be one of Mahogany's herd. The formidable King Stag was certainly not a creature to anger, but he knew as well as any the law of the jungle, and humbly acknowledged the Circle of Life the great cat was about to close once again.
The panther's movements slowed down until barely perceptible as she gathered her powerful hindquarters underneath her, and bunched her muscles for the pounce. This was the critical part - she had to make that first leap count, for if she missed, or alerted her target prematurely, her chances of making the kill would be slim, indeed. She wriggled her body into position, got her bearings one last time, and...
"Xandra! There you be hiding," a voice cawed above her head. The deer, startled, whipped up her head, and after a moment of standing like a statue, nostrils flaring, bolted into the woods in a crackle of snapping vegetation, and was gone.
The panther closed her eyes in disgust as she gave up her crouching stance. "Cocksure! Of all the times..." she snarled, ears laid flat against her head in frustration. A large black shape flapped lazily into view, and she lashed an angry, clawed paw out at it, even though she knew darn well it was hovering high out of reach.
"I've been looking for you," the raven announced blithely. "I be having some news that might be interesting you." He was almost as black as she was, his well-preened feathers gleaming in the dappling light from the treetops, pale gray eyes bright in his dark head.
"Yeah, don't you always," Xandra rumbled, tail lashing. Irritation made her eyes blaze and the fur along her arched back bristle, but Cocksure the raven chattered on, unconcerned, as long as he was sure there was no way she could come close enough to touch him.
"Oh, but trust me, you will be interested. You will be thanking me for telling you."
"And what is this piece of news that you think will save your little feathered hide?" the panther purred dangerously. She raised one paw, and looked at it thoughtfully while flexing long, razor-sharp claws.
"There be mans in the jungle," the black bird proclaimed with bright eyes.
"Mans," the panther hissed fiercely, suddenly very much alert, "where? And how many?" That was a foolish question, she realized. The stupid bird could not count beyond the claws on his talon, and that with doubtful accuracy at best.
Sure now that he had her full attention, and that she wouldn't kill him before he gave her more information, the raven settled down on a branch above Xandra's head, at what he estimated a safe distance. Still, his talons clenched and unclenched around his perch a little nervously.
"Down river," Cocksure supplied. "Be looking like a hunting party. There be talonful and more."
A low, menacing growl erupted from deep within the big cat's throat, startling the bird into a squawk and making him take a few awkward hops away from her.
"And," he continued importantly from his now somewhat safer place, "They be having a leopard with them, a little female." The raven cocked his head, a wicked sparkle in his cold gray eyes. "And by the way the males be prowling around the site, I'd be saying she was in heat." He cackled at Xandra's disdainful hiss, "I suppose they be using her as bait."
The cat shook her head. "Males," she spat, "stupid enough to fall for that, I'll wager." She locked her blue eyes with Cocksure's gray. "Anyway, thanks for the tip." A grudging growl. "But you still owe me big time for scaring off that deer! And don't think I'll forget that anytime soon. Just you come within reach...," she crouched in preparation for a pounce.
"Fat chance," the raven cawed, and launched himself into the sky with a gleeful screech.
Blue eyes followed the black bird until he was out of sight, then the panther padded to the river for a drink. She delicately lapped the sparkling water and let the cool liquid run down her throat with a little sigh. Whiskers dripping with beads of moisture, she mumbled softly to herself, "And now, for a closer look at those mans." And she leaped easily up the rocky bank, and made her way down the river in a silent, ground-eating lope.
Xandra crouched not two leaps away from the group of mans by the river's bank, hidden in a patch of high fern. Sunlight shining through the canopy of leaves above made dappled highlights across the forest floor, effectively obscuring her outline and making her all but invisible.
There were six of them, one a she-man, and they did indeed have one of Xandra's kind with them, a petite though somewhat flabby young female. The spotted leopard was kept on a flimsy looking leash attached to a leather collar fastened around the animal's neck. She did not look unduly distressed, just vaguely nervous. The way her pupils were dilated suggested that she had been lightly drugged to keep her docile. A distinct odor of sexual readiness emanated from her.
The panther chuckled mirthlessly deep in her chest. The Great Cat curse them, but they do know what they're doing, she thought reluctantly. Two of the mans were in the process of assembling a cage they had brought, and setting it up to be used as a trap.
The big black cat had escaped more traps in her life than any single man could devise, but she knew this might just be enough to snare a male in the stupor of sexual arousal. They were cunning brutes, these mans. The panther felt her hatred rise all over again, and spent a few minutes fighting for control. It would never do for her to go haring into their midst and have them take her down with the thundersticks they were carrying. She had to bide her time, and strike at them when they were distracted.
They had a name for her, the mans. She was not called the Princess of Terror for being rash and foolish. Whenever she could, she would descend on them like a deadly black shadow, killing and maiming adults or cubs alike. Mans were evil, and must be destroyed to the last one.
For the two-legged beasts had long ago given her a reason to hate them with a passion kindled by pain, and loss.
Oh, how they feared her now! They tried to kill her, they sent hunting parties after her, or tried to play their little tricks on her. But she was so much smarter than they gave her credit for! She was a survivor.
About the poison, she had learned the hard way. Only her great mass, too much for the proffered dose, had pulled her through that time. But even so, she had lain half-paralyzed, panting and utterly helpless in the brush, the mans passing only inches from the panther's nose in their search for her. Now she never touched a carcass without having first watched others feed off it, and live.
The spiked pits were ridiculous. But the snares she could only avoid thanks to a sense of smell that was exceptional even among her kind. The faint, sick man odor clung to everything they touched, and it only served to kindle her hatred. She had been known to deliberately spring the wicked nooses, and then lie in wait for the man to come check on them.
They had learned that particular lesson quickly enough, and now only came out in threes or fours, armed to the teeth.
Xandra returned her attention to the cage, and the spotted panther being led towards it. She was pretty enough in her silky, yellow coat and the clearly defined dark rosette marks that were typical of their kind. The pelt on her chin and belly was creamy, a lighter shade of yellow, the fur there finer, softer. But her clear green eyes were lacking that feral light the big panther had come to expect in her brethren, and she looked soft. The black cat's breath caught. This must be one of the domesticated leopards, the ones they captured as cubs to train them to the hunt, or, as in this case, to lure others of their kind into traps.
The panther's anger flared, at the mans, for doing this to one of her kind, and at the pathetic panther, for so willingly betraying her heritage. She decided then that she would kill the little slip right along with the two-legged monsters.
But then the small leopard seemed to realize what the mans were trying to do, and started to pull back on the leash, shaking her head a little and snarling. There was a buzz of excitement among the mans at that, and then the she-man cautiously approached her, holding something small in her extended hand and speaking softly to the cat. The leopard held still, and made no move to attack, but there was now in her green eyes that wild, inner glow that distinguished the creatures of the wild from their domesticated cousins. She regarded the man female suspiciously and sniffed delicately at the proffered tidbit, tail lashing nervously.
That's more like it, girl, Xandra rooted silently for her, maybe you'll be worth sparing after all.
The young leopard felt she had been betrayed by those she had come to trust, and it hurt. She was a smart animal, and it had not taken her long, given her present condition and the cages, to figure out that she was to be used as bait to snare some of her wild brethren. And she could sense them, too, two males at least, prowling around the little clearing, their attention focused on her. As soon as the mans went out of sight, the panthers would come for her, and that would be their downfall.
She was a gentle animal, not given to violence, but she could not allow the mans to make her do this. So, for the first time in her life, she disobeyed those who had raised her.
"Come on, Ginelle, be a nice kitty. We won't hurt you. Come on I've got your favorite here, you like that, don't you?" The she-man was talking to her, trying to goad her into submission by offering her her favorite treat. This was the man who had taken over her care after she had grown up, and she knew her and respected her. But she just sniffed at the offering, and made no move to accept it. Instead, she hissed and growled softly deep in her throat, and retreated as far as the leash would allow.
It would be easy, Ginelle knew, to hurt or even kill the she-man, who was standing close to her, pale neck within easy reach. But the cat had no desire to do so, and it had nothing to do with the thundersticks that were now pointed her way. All the panther wanted was for them to stop what they were doing, and leave her be.
She herself had grown up among the mans. The only memory she had of her cubhood in the wild was of her mother and sister, playing in a sheltered grove when they were but a few days old. Thus for her, it was no particular hardship to be around the two-legs, but Ginelle had seen wild panthers go insane and die a terrible death after being captured. She did not want to be the instrument of such suffering!
She suddenly became aware of another feline presence, very close - a female, and she was practically bursting with menace. Ginelle's breath caught as she surreptitiously turned her gaze toward the patch of fern to her right and found herself gazing straight into the bluest, most striking pair of eyes she had ever seen, set in a noble, coal black head that was framed by the vibrant green of the plants' thick leaves. Later she remembered thinking that this was a creature who must have come straight out of the Netherworld, she was so very beautiful.
She had no time to react, for at this instant the huge cat rose with a shrill, whining roar, like a streak of black light out of her concealment and was among the mans, raking and slashing like a clawed and fanged whirlwind, dealing death and terror with every swipe of her paws.
The spotted panther heard one of the mans cry, "It's the Princess! Get her! Come on, you morons, shoot!" It was the last thing he said, for just then the big black panther pulled him into her deadly embrace, fore legs circling him, and both hind legs raking his gut. With a gurgled scream, he went silent.
Not waiting for him to breathe his last, the Princess whirled and launched herself at another unarmed man, and with negligent ease buried her teeth in his scrawny throat. A quick, violent shake of the head, and she released her hold and sprang away, without looking back to check if her victim was truly dead. There was no need.
One man raised his thunderstick then, and aimed it at the black cat's head.
The young leopard, utterly forgotten for the moment, acted without thinking and flung herself at him, putting him off balance. The stick spoke, and she saw the large panther wince silently, glare at her tormentor, and attack in a fluid flash of speed. It was all the spotted cat could do to scramble out of the path of that deadly avalanche.
The remaining mans had lost their nerve by now, and were beating a hasty retreat to the boats they had moored on the river's banks. The Princess pelted after the man who hat shot her, and lashed out a paw, tripping him. Ginelle saw a tiny pause in her movement, a little shake of the head and a flutter of eyelids, before the black cat clamped her teeth down on his neck. A sickening crackle, and the man went limp, fingers still twitching.
Licking her chops, the huge panther looked about to pursue the fleeing two-legs, but she suddenly swayed and staggered a few steps. Her breath was coming in ragged gasps.
Now Ginelle saw a short, feathered shaft protruding form the cat's neck just behind the ear. She approached cautiously.
"You've been hit," the leopard said softly, "There at your neck, a little dart."
"Tranquilizer," the larger panther's speech was slurry, but she still managed a snarl. "Must... get it... off! Need to..." She sat on her haunches and worried at the dart with a hind paw. The poison was beginning to kick in and made the dark female's movements clumsy.
"Hold still," Ginelle told her gently, after the black cat almost lost her balance. She brought her muzzle close, and gingerly took the shaft between her teeth. A firm pull, and she had it in her mouth. A tiny trickle of blood poured from the wound.
The leopard spat out the dart and ran her tongue once over the puncture, only to be rebutted roughly by her black companion.
"Don't touch me," the Princess hissed, dazed eyes clearing for a moment with sudden intensity. "Never, ever touch me!"
The little leopard drew back startled, and watched the panther drag herself into the ferns where she had originally lain in hiding, and collapse on her side, panting.
Poor Ginelle felt suddenly completely lost. She looked around her, and realized that she was... free. She was in the wild, out here for the first time without the protection of the mans. The leash, still attached to the collar around her neck, dangled uselessly at her front paws.
Not two paces away from her lay the creature she had grown up to know as one of her protectors' deadliest and most feared enemies - Xandra, Princess of Terror - very ill, perhaps dying. Somehow, she could find no fear in her heart of the beautiful, majestic creature, even though the evidence of her doing was still scattered in a bloody mess by the river bank - three of the male mans lay dead, and scavengers were already slinking around the site, waiting for the panthers to retreat. The smell of blood, a coppery, heady aroma, hung heavily over the place.
She ran over to the bodies, sniffed them, then back to the panting black shape in the ferns, and spent some time worrying her collar with one hind paw. At a snap of twig in the brush, she started, back arched, tail bristling, and relaxed with a sheepish sigh when a big muskrat broke cover and waddled importantly towards the river, where it disappeared into a water with a muffled splash.
There was no question about it - Ginelle was very much afraid.
Things got worse. Ginelle watched with trepidation as the big panther descended into the depths of a poison-induced stupor. Most of the time, she lay so still that the little leopard feared Xandra had died, only to jerk violently every now and then, eyes wide and unseeing as she relived long-past events. From what the smaller cat could make out of the mumbled fragments, those memories were far from pleasant. A few names stood out in the cat's insane ramblings, 'Cecyl' and 'Salin' being the most frequent.
Xandra never made it to her feet, but her whole body twitched and arched uncontrollably whenever these spells came upon her, and Ginelle could never afterwards tell which frightened her worse - the terrible seizures or the phases of utter stillness the black leopard went through.
But never once did it occur to her to leave the big female to her fate, and try to find her own way in this newly discovered and exciting realm of the wild. Quite apart from the fact that this creature had fought on her behalf, she had felt an inexplicable attraction towards the Princess from the moment she had first looked into those expressive blue eyes. Xandra was quite possibly the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. Ginelle was determined to guard her with her life, for what that was worth. She wasn't much of a wild animal, after all.
And besides, she admitted to herself with some chagrin, she had no idea what to do with her new-found freedom.
Those two males were still around, she could sense them circling her and her companion, and uttering the occasional alluring growl. Apparently they did not dare approach the black cat any closer, even given her present condition. The Princess of Terror had built herself quite a reputation even among her own kind, that much Ginelle had been able to learn from previously captured brethren.
She could well feel the juices stirring in her womb, and was tempted to answer the males' calls, but a sense of duty and anxiety kept her by the delirious panther's side.
"Sss, my, my, what have we here? If it isssn't the Princsssesss Xssandra herssself. And who isss her little friend?"
Ginelle whirled towards the voice, but at first, she could not see anything. Then a long, sinuous form flowed gracefully out of the tree above her head and dropped into a well-muscled coil before her. The big python raised his head and stared, tongue flicking, at the motionless shape on the ground.
The huge serpent chuckled, the gesture rippling along his whole length, and turned his attention on the spotted cat.
"Great Pythussss' headsss, but ssshe looksss sssick, wouldn't you sssay?" Another rippling laugh.
Ginelle growled, a low rumble deep in her throat, and raised a threatening paw, although she did not feel particularly imposing just now. The serpent looked like he weighed easily twice as much as she, one long, powerful undulating piece of muscle, his center more than half as thick as her own midsection.
The big reptile did not seem to notice the leopard's gesture. "Could it be that the mighty Princssesss of Terror iss at lasst meeting her doom?"
"Who are you? Go away!"
The snake's head drooped theatrically, and a hurt expression crossed his reptilian features. "Oh, but I'm ssso much better company than her. Why don't you ssstick with me for a little bit, hmm?" His head came up, hovering half a whisker from Ginelle's nose and starting to dance in a mesmerizing pattern. With a little blink he caught the spotted female's eyes.
"Baalh will ssshow you what it meansss to have a friend." The voice was lilting and smooth as silk. Ginelle found herself perversely fascinated. Seemingly without her doing, her head began moving in rhythm with Baalh's as the python began humming a low, seductive melody. His tail slowly disentangled from his coiled form to creep inconspicuously closer to the half-entranced leopard, while deep within his eyes the most amazing colors swirled, captivating his victim utterly.
"Now, my little pretty thing," the serpent soothed, "Why don't you lie down? You are ssso very tired, my precssiouss. Sssleep. I ssshall guard you."
It felt very nice. Ginelle was both enthralled and pleasantly lulled, and she was more than happy to follow Baalh's bidding. Her eyelids drooped as she flopped onto the ground, a contented sigh escaping her.
She almost jumped out of her hide when a loud and vicious snarl erupted next to her ear. Xandra was almost upright, staring her straight into the eye. Shaking her head to clear the confusion, the smaller leopard got to her feet.
"You killed him, you bastard," Xandra growled, "and now, you die!" The rest of her speech slurred and fuzzed as she went into yet another seizure, this one the most violent so far. Ginelle tried to put a calming paw to the black panther's face, but the cat was twitching so violently that she could only succeed in hurting her, so she desisted. Instead, she shot the frustrated python a suspicious glance.
"Oh, ssspider droppings! Foiled again," the python cursed. "Well, the leassst I can do is rid thisss jungle oncsse and for all of itsss biggessst nuisssance." His gaze locked onto Xandra's still thrashing form.
"No no no, you don't!" The tip of Ginelle's tail twitched, betraying her nervousness. She positioned herself between Baalh and the black cat and fixed the huge serpent with a cold stare. "She's my friend." Enough time later to find out if that's true, the leopard told herself.
Mustering what courage she could find in her heart, Ginelle drew herself up into a menacing position, back arched, and said in her best threatening snarl, "so if you want her dead, you'll have to go through me to do it."
There was a moment of tense silence, then the serpent chuckled softly. "Sss, no need! Ssshe'sss gone. Look for yourssself!"
And so it seemed. The mighty panther lay rigid, one paw stretched grotesquely into the air, glazed eyes staring sightlessly ahead. Her mouth was open in a frozen snarl, pink tongue lolling uselessly. She was not breathing.
"Oh rapturousss joy, the mighty Princssesss liess dead," Baalh cried in his high, sibilant voice. His head danced before Ginelle's eyes in a seductive pattern, almost catching her off-guard again.
"For thisss piece of good newsss, I'll even let you live. For now," where the snake's words, before he glided silently up the tree, and was gone, his high-pitched laughter echoing after him.
Stricken, Ginelle stared at the body. "No..." she whispered, "I didn't even get to know you. You can't leave me." I need you, she finished silently.
Although she had only met her, something inside her simply would not accept this strange panther's death.
"Maybe all you need is some warmth," she told the unmoving form at her paws. So she lay down, and nestled against the cooling body, draping herself partly across it. She bent over to gently lick the black cat's face, until she had closed the blue eyes, before she settled down. Even in death, the Princess' unmistakable scent was evident, a clean, straight smell of well-aired fur and a faint aroma of crushed herbs and bark that was as pleasant as it was somehow very reassuring.
Soon enough, Ginelle fell into a troubled sleep.
She was a she-man! Xandra did not realize it immediately, but the way she carried herself on her hind legs, and the changed sense of balance in her body, left little doubt about it. She felt naked without her fur, even though her rump was wrapped in leather and bronze, which settled about her shoulders with heavy familiarity.
Not 'she-man', but 'woman', came a stray thought, it's called a 'woman'
She turned to face her companion, a considerably shorter female with red-gold hair and misty green eyes in an open and friendly face. In her hands the other 'woman' carried a sturdy wooden staff.
"I had a strange dream last night," she heard herself say in the mans' guttural language, "I dreamed I was a panther." She smiled. "Wouldn't that be something to make into a story? Xandra: Warrior Panther?"
The red blonde female laughed. "A panther? Well, I've seen you move like one, so I suppose it's not that far a stretch. Let's see... huge, black cat and those incredible baby blues of yours... Oh, yes, I'm sure you'd make rather a formidable kitty!" And the woman gave her a companionable backhand slap in the rump. "Though all that leather and stuff would have to go." Her smile turned suddenly wicked.
"Don't you wish," Xandra replied with a wink. If that was still her name - she wasn't sure. She flashed a grin that matched the other woman's, and slipped a casual arm around her companion's slender but well-muscled shoulders.
A faint sound from the bushes made her stiffen. Her body knowing exactly what to do, she tensed, extended her senses backward, and motioned for her partner to be still. Focus. The little blonde by her side caught her urgency, and moved inconspicuously a few paces back to give her space, suddenly very much alert.
There it was, the creak and twang of a fired crossbow. Xandra felt herself drop to one knee and whip up her hand. Her fingers closed on a feathered shaft, suspended now in mid-air in the exact place where her heart would have been.
Breaking the quarrel in two with casual strength and tossing it aside, she leaped high into the air with a shrill, ululating cry and launched herself towards its source. Still airborne, she pulled something from behind her back, a long, bladed weapon, like a big dagger. A 'sword', some part of her mind supplied.
Within the blink of an eye, she was facing a pawful of burly, glowering men, death and mutilation on their minds. Her face relaxed into a feral grin as her body anticipated the coming fight.
With a snarl on her lips Xandra jerked awake, to find herself gazing into a pair of gentle mist green eyes two whiskers away from her face. The little female's flank was touching hers, soft and warm.
The black panther shook her head to clear it of the last residues of the tranquilizer, then rose and laboriously stretched her aching limbs, all the while studiously ignoring the other cat.
"I'm glad you made it," the smaller leopard said quietly, "for a while, it looked like you were a goner."
"What's it to you," Xandra hissed irritably. "Just keep away from me." The Princess dropped onto her haunches, and started licking her chest with brisk, curt flicks of her tongue, the task demanding her undivided attention.
Dejected, the other cat looked to the ground, the tip of her tail twitching with indecision. The black panther could smell the scent of the other female's season wafting to her, which reminded her that her own heat was also coming on. Already she could feel the faint stirrings in her center and a growing irritation towards males that happened to cross her path. And males had learned the hard way that the more the Princess' body signaled readiness, the further away you kept from her.
"There are males out there," the black panther growled finally. "Go and humor them, or something."
"But I... I'm new here. I don't know anything about the jungle. Please let me come with you."
"Forget it! I hunt alone," came the snarled reply, before the big
cat turned and bounded away into the undergrowth.
The Man Place
"Hey, you can't... Wait," Ginelle cried, one paw raised, and then, quietly to herself, "I'm lost here without you." Green eyes scanned the brush with trepidation, but there was no sign of the black panther. Her scent still hung in the air, though, and had the leopard listened to her primeval instincts, she might have thought about picking up the black panther's trail. But she was too agitated and intimidated by this frightening new situation, and it simply did not occur to her.
So, she was on her own. The young female flopped down onto her belly and curled into a ball, and allowed herself to feel utterly alone and dejected for a little bit.
The sound of large wings flapping above her caught her attention. Ginelle looked up listlessly to see a big raven alighting on a branch half a leap above her. The bird cocked his head and fixed her with a bright gray eye.
"You be new in the jungle?"
Ginelle rested her head on an extended front paw and looked away.
"Go away. Leave me alone."
She felt a breath of air as the black bird landed beside her, and with a few hops came around to meet her eyes.
"Why you be so sad, young one?" he croaked softly, his voice full of sympathy.
Ginelle turned her head the other way, and said nothing. Her eyes stung.
"That was a brave thing you did, with Baalh," the raven persisted, "He be the most feared creature in the jungle - apart from Xandra, of course."
"Yeah," the leopard rumbled crossly, "and a fat lot of thanks it got me, too."
"Don't be worrying. It be Xandra's way. The Princess be a great loner. None may come close. I, on the other talon..."
"You seem to know her very well," the cat said, without turning her head. There was no need, because, wings flapping awkwardly and claws scraping in the dust, the big bird hopped back into view.
He fluffed his feathers importantly, and made a little flourish with his wings. "Cocksure the Valiant, at your service. I certainly do be knowing her. This raven be the most knowledgeable bird in the whole jungle! You be lucky to have met me, if I do be saying so myself."
Ginelle turned her eyes on him without moving her head. "And do you know where she went?"
"'Do I know where she went?' she be asking," the raven cawed, "of course I be knowing. I be the Princess of Terror's personal advisor, is what I be. She would never have been meeting you without me."
Ginelle raised her head a fraction, and fixed Cocksure with a flat stare. "You mean, if it hadn't been for you, she wouldn't have come out there and attacked the mans, she wouldn't have been almost killed by the poison, the serpent wouldn't almost have got me, and I wouldn't be in this terrible mess now? Do you expect me to thank you, or what?"
The bird was taken aback. The big cat didn't sound particularly angry, just resigned and bitter. He did a few hops back anyway, just in case. These big felines were so unpredictable!
"Well," he croaked uncertainly, "if that's how you want to put it... But," and he drew himself up a little and eyed her warily, "if it be not for me, you would now be sitting in that there cage, and be a pretty little bait for lovesick leopards." He paused a little, watching the leopard's slightly chagrined expression from a bright gray eye. When the cat did not speak, Cocksure continued, putting on a slightly hurt look. "So. If you be like this, you'll not want me to show you Xandra's place. Fine."
"Oh, do show it to me, please," Ginelle said. "I did not mean... Well, perhaps I did. But still, I would very much like you to take me to her."
"Well, well," the black bird said, mollified, "that be sounding lots better. But..." he hesitated.
Cocksure fidgeted. "She might be getting mad when we be showing up. She do be liking her solitude."
The cat considered for a moment. When she spoke, it was more to herself than to the raven. "It doesn't matter. I can't explain it... I just have a feeling I need to be... there... for her."
"Well, you be either very brave, or very foolish, but this raven be liking your spirit. Well, young one, follow me!"
He launched himself into the air with a few awkward flaps - he did so hate taking off from ground level. Tree branches were much more adequate.
Ginelle followed the raven through dense undergrowth down a steep slope that led into a well-hidden dead-end ravine. There were very few tracks here - apparently most animals shunned this area. An occasional monkey peeked down at her from way up in the trees, but monkeys were well-known for the fact that nothing ever scared them away for long.
The leopard could sense something forbidding hanging over the place even before she stepped out into a large clearing at the center of the gully, and saw the huge structure looming ominously before her.
"Why, this is a man place," Ginelle exclaimed, surprised, when Cocksure alighted on a branch on the very edge of the clearing .
Cocksure nodded. "Mans don't be coming here no more," he explained, "but Xandra be seeming to like the place. No idea why. It be very, very old. And scary."
With that, Ginelle had to agree.
Only a few of what must have been several pawfuls of columns remained upright, while others leaned crazily and looked about to collapse, at the same time creating the impression that they had been standing exactly like this for an eternity. Weather-beaten, moss-covered stairs cascaded down towards the columns from a broad dais at least six leaps wide and half that deep, upon which stood a building made of huge stone blocks that must once have been crafted into a smooth surface. Now vines and bushes grew from cracks in the partly crumbled stone walls, covering the ancient building in a tangled green blanket. Here and there the remains of a marble statue peeked through, effigies of mans as well as animals. There was even a representation of the Great Cat, Agulaar Himself, and one of Pythus, the three-headed snake of the Netherworld. It was uncanny how detailed a vision the ignorant mans of so long ago had had of these divine beings. Ginelle had to suppress a shudder when her gaze wandered over the serpentine form of the Snake God. The three heads stared back from faded eyes, adder and cobra from one end of the sinuous body, python from the other.
All others were there, too; Amarok, the Wolf, in a rather idiotic
posture, sitting up raising his forepaws, Torran, the Red Bull, and
many male and female mans she assumed to be man deities.
She noticed wise Amalthea perching on the shoulder of a she-man clad in voluminous flowing robes. This was just short of blasphemy, the Great Owl associating with a man female! And the whole structure exuded a vague sense of dread that chilled Ginelle to the very bones. Anyone coming here voluntarily must either be crazy, or deeply troubled. Perhaps both.
The cawing of some jungle bird close by made Ginelle jump, tail bristling, a snarl on her lips. Startled, Cocksure screeched and fluttered nervously before settling back down with a sheepish sigh.
"I'm sorry, raven," Ginelle said, mustering the shreds of her feline dignity. "This place seems to make me a little nervous. Now. Where's the Princess?"
The bird fixed her with one gray eye, before eyeing the ruins nervously, fluffing his feathers. "This raven will not be going any nearer that place, young one. You be on your own from here. Xandra may be inside that big thing up there, and she may not. I be showing you, now I be going. Cocksure the Valiant, at your service."
With that, Cocksure the Valiant beat a rather undignified retreat, fluttering hastily back the way they had come.
"Valiant my tail," Ginelle muttered, not unkindly, watching him fly. The bird had a good heart, at least, if not the most brave one.
Taking a breath, she dropped into a crouch and made her way towards the ruins, keeping close to the edge of the clear area, belly close to the ground, scanning the terrain nervously. All sounds ceased as soon as she broke cover, even the far-off chatter of the irrepressible monkeys. The jungle seemed to hold its breath.
Evening was now falling, and the ruins were bathed in a magnificent red-golden light streaming into the ravine from the west. The bushes around her were in shadow, and quiet, but, she realized after scenting the air, not devoid of life. In fact, she was sure she could see pairs of luminous eyes flicker into existence at the corner of her vision, only to disappear as soon as she tried to focus on them.
The leopard swished her tail and tried to pick up her pace without seeming to, and swerved a little towards the center of the clearing, for all the world as if that was where she had planned on going all along. She reached the base of the stairs just before she was actually running and slowed, realizing that the eyes had not been following her over the last few leaps.
Silently, she padded up the steps and stood facing the ruin, staring in wonder. The statues had seemed about life-sized from afar, but in truth they were much larger. The effigy of the Great Cat was big enough to make her appear to be no more than a kitten.
Picking a gap in the wall right between the imposing Cat God and looming Amarok, Ginelle climbed daintily on top of a mound of rubble and hoped she had done nothing to anger any of these gods in the past.
She had been inside of buildings before, of course, but never in any this spacious. It seemed the slightest movement she made would echo incessantly from the walls. The light was failing, and most of the inside of the building lay in deep shadow. There was, however, enough light for her feline eyes to make out a black shape crouched by a heap of rubble that seemed to be the remains of a collapsed arch. The sound of Xandra's low, melodic voice drifted to her ears.
"You always did have trouble keeping your face clean. Since you've been gone I kind of lost my way. Once I thought I could start over, but no, they don't trust me. No-one does. I can't blame them, they can't see into my heart." She chuckled bitterly. "Well, the fool raven seems to have taken a liking to me, not that I understand why... I've got no defense but to keep on the way I'm going. But I've got to believe that you know the truth. And I wish you were here. It's hard to be alone."
"You're not alone," Ginelle whispered softly
By some trick of acoustics, her voice carried clearly through the whole room. Xandra turned slowly, training that chilling blue gaze on her. For a moment, the young leopard saw pain and loss written there, but it was gone so quickly that she thought she might have dreamed it. Ginelle took an involuntary step backwards, dislodging a piece of rubble and sending it rolling and tumbling down to the ground. Managing somehow not to jump, Ginelle broke eye contact, gazing pointedly at the wall off to Xandra's side, after giving the fur on her chest a brief lick. When her gaze flicked back briefly to the panther, the black cat was still staring at her, face unreadable.
The young leopard decided then it was time to go. She turned slowly, head and tail drooping, and climbed back out through the gap. It took an effort not to look back. The leash that was still dangling from the collar at her neck snagged momentarily, drawing a low snarl from the frustrated cat. Swiping an irritated paw at the offending piece, Ginelle very slowly made her way down the steps and started heading back towards the jungle, not caring this time that those hidden eyes in the bushes were still following her every move.
When the shrill, eerie laughing bark of the lead hyena echoed through the falling night, Ginelle barely raised her head.
As soon as the little leopard had left her presence, Xandra, slipped out by a much smaller and well-hidden crack in the back of the great chamber and silently hopped up the steep and rocky slope that framed the temple.
Topping the ridge above the ruins, she stood motionless, letting her gaze wander eastward, over a green ocean of vines and treetops, interspersed with rocky ridges similar to this one, to that faraway, darkened and treeless spot sparkling with little starlike lights. The Man Dwellings. She rarely came up here, and the creatures of the jungle knew better than to bother her when she did.
Most did, anyway.
It wasn't long before she heard the familiar flap of large wings above and behind her. A low growl rumbled deep in her chest as the big cat squeezed her eyes shut in frustration.
"What do you want, Cocksure?" she snarled without turning.
The raven alighted in the grass, close enough to the ledge to be able to launch himself into the air quickly should the need arise. He might be stupid, but he was not that big a fool.
"It be Ginelle. The female you saved?"
"What's another leopard to me?" Xandra growled. "And I didn't save her. I killed mans. I couldn't care less about one more leopard in this jungle.
"Xandra. Princess. You should not be slighting her so. You be owing your life to her."
The black cat snorted derisively. "To her? No way."
"Oh, but it be true. On my honor."
Xandra gave him a look. "On your honor. Right. Do you expect me to be impressed by that?"
Cocksure bristled at that, but thought better of it and wisely ignored the insult. "Well, this raven be thinking you should be hearing him out."
When Xandra just continued fixing him with that blue-eyed stare, the raven hastily recounted Ginelle's encounter with the great Python, watching the panther's eyes widen slightly in amazement before narrowing again and looking at him suspiciously.
"She did that? That little slip? You're pulling my claw, raven!"
"It be the truth, Xandra, Amarok strike me down if not." He pulled himself up theatrically and made a flourish with his right wing. "Cocksure the Valiant be no liar!"
"Well, I'll give you that much," the black cat murmured under her breath. She stood up to Baalh? For me? Why? She does not know me... and if she does, why doesn't she fear and hate me like all the others? How dare she...? She is a man-creature. What does she know anyway? Only when Cocksure started flapping his wings and taking an awkward hop away from her did she realize that she was snarling viciously at nobody in particular.
The panther briefly cocked her ears at the sound of hyena laughter in the distance. Voracia and her pack of filthy scoundrels, if she was not mistaken. The Great Cat infest their tails with a treeful of fleas! But they were far enough away to be a minor annoyance for now.
She gave the raven a dark look for good measure, watching in satisfaction as he took a backward hop and tumbled off the ledge with a startled squawk. Served him right, the impertinent fool!
When the big bird, having regained his equilibrium, reappeared above the rim, Xandra swiped a clawed paw at him and hissed. "Out of my sight, raven!"
Cocksure gave her a flat stare from where he hovered in midair at a safe distance, clacked his beak a few times without speaking, and dove out of sight quickly when two hundred fifty pounds of irate panther launched themselves in his direction.
"Silly bird," Xandra muttered, as she resumed her contemplation of the distant man dwellings. Occasional yips and giggles from the hyenas drifted up from the canyon. Another poor critter meeting a cruel and painful death at the vile pack's fangs. None of her concern. A fleeting vision of the young female crossed her mind. She must still be down there somewhere. None of her concern. Xandra shook her head angrily to clear it of the thought.
"That's my girl, Xandra," a rich, male voice purred seductively, inches from her neck.
Xandra whirled snarling, drawing a chuckle from the huge black male standing at her side. "So excitable," my dear. It becomes you."
"Agulaar. Should I be honored?" Xandra sneered.
The Cat God circled her once, sniffing. "My, you are delicious... Is that your season I smell?"
"Don't go there," the black female warned with a low growl. "I'm sure you didn't come here to discuss mating with me, troublemaker."
"And why not? Pythus swallow me, but you're scrumptious enough." That earned him a pawswipe across his nose. "Especially when you're angry," he snickered, running his tongue over the spot where the panther's attack would have drawn blood in a mortal.
Xandra drew a deep breath, and forced herself to calm. The Great Cat just loved to throw her off balance. She had given him more than enough satisfaction already. "Get to the point, Agulaar!"
"I just wanted to compliment you on your judgement, my chosen. It seems there is quite a sharp mind behind those warm and beautiful blue eyes of yours." He grinned at the stare he received for that. Those blue eyes might well have frozen lava at this moment.
"I'm sure that little brat isn't worth your trouble," the god continued. "Even without her, Baalh would never have dared to touch you. You are mine, after all." He realized he had made a mistake when he found Xandra looking at him with a lazy grin etched onto her feline features.
"So that means Voracia and her gang really have picked on my little savior for their evil games, does it? And by your efforts just now, I'd say you would not be very pleased if I went down there to get her out of their grasp, isn't that right?" She flashed him a sweet smile. "I'll be seeing you, Cat God!" Without so much as a backward glance, the black cat quickly and silently climbed down the steep slope towards the commotion in the canyon.
"Drat," Agulaar muttered, "I should have known she'd do that." He looked down into the canyon thoughtfully, running his tongue slowly across his front paw. "But maybe I can make this work in my advantage. Hmmm..." With a not altogether displeased rumble deep in his chest, the Cat God faded out.
Only when she found herself surrounded by a dozen drooling, slavering and grinning hyenas did Ginelle realize that she had gotten herself into big trouble. She cursed herself for the bout of self-pity that had made her let her guard down. Being raised in captivity, the idea of fighting in earnest was foreign to her. She'd had make-belief fights with her family's off-wolf, Bonkers, but they had been such friends, and not one of their attacks had ever drawn blood. This was the wild. And those weren't off-wolves.
Ginelle bravely drew herself up and tried a vicious growl, tail bristling.
The apparent leader, a wiry female with cold eyes, approached her in that awkward, rolling gait hyenas have, and spoke in a harsh mocking voice. "Well, well, well. Look what we got here, fellas. It's a fluffy, oversized kitten. It wants to play."
This was answered by a round of yips and hysterical giggles from her followers. One set of sharp teeth closed about Ginelle's tail, biting down hard, so that she yelped and snarled in pain, whirling to face her attacker.
The shaggy male was savagely attacked by his leader, who proved to be a lot more than she seemed. With lightning speed she hurled herself at the larger male and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, shaking him violently. Within seconds, the big hyena was reduced to groveling before his mistress, the most ridiculous ingratiating grin on his face, pink tongue protruding stupidly.
"I decide when the fun starts, Sleaze, not you or anybody else. Understand?"
"Of course, mistress," he managed to wheeze without breaking his grin. The leader glared at him for a while longer, then she turned to Ginelle, who was still fighting to regain her composure.
"You'll have to excuse them, Fluffy, they have no manners," she said conversationally.
"My name is..." Ginelle began.
"Shut up, Fluffy," the hyena snapped, teeth bared. She stepped close to the big cat, her hot, putrid breath wafting into Ginelle's face. No wonder they fed mainly on carrion. This kind of breath could make a critter drop dead instantly, and be glad for it! Ginelle wrinkled her nose and drew back a little.
"What's the matter, Fluffy?" the hyena taunted. "Can't take my aura? It seems I have that effect on fluffy little kittens." She giggled madly. "Say," she gasped, "does your momma even allow you out at this time?"
It was too much. Ginelle lashed out at the leader with her paw, snarling furiously. She hated to be treated like a kitten! Her claws tore a bloody gash across the hyena's chest, who just glared at her, fur bristling, and hissed a curt command.
"Get her! Don't kill her!" For Ginelle's ears alone, she added, "I will do that myself."
After that, things became a blur. Claws and fangs were everywhere, and it was all Ginelle could do to protect her vulnerable underside. She was off her feet in no time, biting, slashing and raking where she could. Blood ran freely, most of it her own. One of the hyenas had fastened his teeth onto the leash, and the pull threatened to cut off her breathing.
Well, Ginelle, face it. This is where it ends. And all because of your foolish infatuation for a bad-tempered she-leopard who does not want to be loved. Her heart cried out at the thought. She had so wanted to reach out to the stoic panther, and take away some of the pain she had witnessed in the temple. It seemed it was not to be.
A set of teeth clamped down on her nose and held on, foul breath and the sheer power of those jaws suffocating her.
"I said don't kill her, you idi-" The lead hyena's voice cut off suddenly, and the battle went still as a huge black shape strolled leisurely into the midst of the raging pack. The silence was palpable. Every animal froze in the position they happened to be in at the moment, staring at the dark feline.
"Voracia, Voracia," Xandra said lazily, clicking her tongue and shaking her head, "still up to your usual games are you?"
"Xandra! But... they say you died. How...?" the hyena stammered.
The big panther purred. "Well, Voracia, as you can see, the rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated." The purr turned into a growl. "And I can't say I appreciate the way you treat one of my kind." The growl turned into a shrill, whining roar of attack.
Before the hyenas had time to regroup, Xandra was among them, spreading terror and death. She had them reduced to a battered and torn bunch in mere seconds. Three animals lay dead, the rest cowered at a polite distance from the big cat.
Voracia, who for some reason only wore the one scratch that Ginelle had given her, quickly flicked her tongue across her chops and spoke as if nothing had happened. "Oh you mean Fluffy here? Oh the little kitten is hardly in your league, Princess. Anyway, we were just getting tired of... playing. Isn't that so, fellas?"
"But mistress, I thought we were going to..." one of the hyenas started to protest, but the others quickly silenced him, before nearly falling over themselves trying to assure Xandra that they were indeed just now thinking about moving along.
"Well, see that you do," Xandra sneered. "And take that..." she took in the three dead hyenas with a disdainful grimace, "trash with you, too!"
When the pack had picked itself up and made its way out of earshot, most of the animals limping profusely and one female leader continuously muttering under her breath, Xandra dropped onto her haunches and started licking herself clean with lazy flicks of her tongue. The tip of her tail twitched faintly when the spotted female finally stirred and staggered to her feet.
The hyenas had made quite a mess of her. Blood ran freely from countless cuts, smearing her beautiful coat and coloring it a dark red. She limped slightly, but it seemed her wounds were mostly superficial, and looked a lot worse than they actually were.
"Thank you," the young female said quietly, and when she received no answer, she mirrored the larger cat and proceeded to lick herself clean. Blood from a cut on her brow stuck to her eyelid and effectively glued her right eye shut. She worried at it with her paw, snarling softly in frustration, but could not remove the sticky substance.
She froze in her movements, one paw half-raised to her face, when she saw the big panther approach her.
The Princess gazed at her as if daring her to comment, and ran her tongue a few times over Ginelle's eye, cleaning the blood away from it. She contemplated the dangling leash for a while before nimbly taking the collar's catch between her teeth. Moments later, Ginelle felt the collar give and slide to the ground.
"Thank you," Ginelle said again.
Xandra went back to her cleaning before she spoke in a clear, commanding voice. "You saved my life. I saved yours. We're even. Now go." She turned her head to stare at the smaller cat. Ginelle met her eyes bravely for a few moments, but found herself unable to hold that powerful gaze, and looked down.
"But I don't know where to go. This place is so big, and frightening."
"You're a leopard. Listen to your heritage. You'll be fine. Now
leave!" She growled menacingly at the smaller cat, and when Ginelle
didn't move she attacked her with a savage roar. However, Ginelle
noticed that the big panther left her claws retracted, and made no
effort to injure her in earnest. Finally, Ginelle succumbed and limped
slowly out of the clearing. If she had looked back, she would have seen
a big fierce black cat shed one lonely tear before swiping at her face
angrily with her paw and stalking back to the temple, tail lashing.
A night out alone in the jungle can be a very frightening thing, especially when you've never heard its myriad noises and voices up close before. There was very little sleep for poor Ginelle, even though she was thoroughly exhausted. The only comfort she had was the memory of a set of pale blue eyes, and of a raspy pink tongue flicking across her eye with surprising gentleness. She still could not reconcile the image of the beautiful black panther with the horrible monster from the stories that she had grown up hearing.
She had no idea where to go or what to do, but she knew in her heart that she would not stray far from the Princess' haunts. For now, though, she had been effectively dismissed from the dark feline's presence, and while she jumped at every unfamiliar sound, she worked diligently on her resolve to try things on her own from now on rather than face Xandra's rejection again. The gods knew it was hard.
Luckily, none of the wounds she had received from the hyenas were serious, and the slight sprain in her paw only left a little stiffness that eased with continued walking.
What worried her more was her season. The pulsing inside her womb was as strong as ever, now that she had nothing to take her mind off it. She had never mated, and had no idea what it was about. She only knew that the wild male brethren prowling around the place frightened her no less than the rest of this entirely too big and too open and too loud night forest.
When the time came for the creatures of the daylight to rise, Ginelle was ready to drop. She had alternated between curling up on the ground trying to catnap, and stalking mechanically through the undergrowth with no real sense of where she was headed.
Mid-morning found her in a section of the jungle where the trees were less dense. The river was far off, but she could still hear the faint sounds of its rushing water. The ground was rockier here, and stalks of tall grass grew where the treetops were far enough apart to let the sunlight through. This was a mountainous region, and caves and gorges were numerous. One high ridge stood prominent, snaking its way though the tall trees and towards where the river was. Ginelle suspected that it was connected to the canyon that held the oppressing man ruins.
Upon entering a clearing overgrown by tall grass, she paused and looked at a fallen tree. It was of medium size, and seemed to have been torn down recently. The leaves were still green, and sticky sap oozed out from under the bark. She wondered what could have happened to it, since there had been no storm these last few days. Looking around her, the leopard noticed several more that had been similarly felled, lying between others that were perfectly intact. Her natural curiosity getting the better of her, she decided to investigate, her dreary mood forgotten for the time being.
There was no pattern to the destruction, but a swath of trampled vegetation led from each fallen tree to the next. Then she heard it, a mighty crackle and snap of vegetation, accompanied by a deafening trumpet call that smote the leopard's ears.
Several small forest creatures, mice, lizards, squirrels, even one small deer, broke cover and fled before the noise. Birds rose out of the trees in flight, monkeys chattered excitedly. Ginelle gathered her hindquarters under her and tensed, suddenly very much alert. Moments later a huge gray shape broke though the thicket and entered the clearing.
Suddenly left with no large plants in his path to destroy, the big elephant paused, ears flapping uncertainly. He threw his head from side to side, trunk swinging, and stepped from one foot to the other. Then he paused, as if suddenly becoming aware that he had company. He lifted his trunk and sniffed the air, then he turned his head to one side and gave Ginelle a bleary-eyed glare from one small, bloodshot orb.
Dead silence fell, except for the labored panting of the new arrival.
"You're not black," he rasped presently. The one eye never left the spotted feline.
Ginelle's ears shot forward at the unexpected question. "No," she agreed carefully. She slowly backed off half a leap, sensing that this animal was half crazy and probably quite unpredictable. She could feel the fur along her spine start to bristle.
He was a large elephant, and looked quite formidable despite the fact that his long, yellowed tusks were chipped in places, and the wiry hairs on his head were grizzled with age. There was something odd about the way he carried his head.
"But you're a cat," he accused.
"I hate cats."
He charged her without warning, head lowered. Ginelle's claws scrabbled frantically, and she barely dodged the long tusks as he thundered towards her. With a startled meow, she streaked off into the direction of the rocky ridge, the lumbering gray form hot on her heels.
The hunt was on, but the huntress had become the hunted. Try as she might, she could not shake the maddened old animal. He was surprisingly fast, and while she had to dodge those bushes and trees that were too high to leap, he simply ran straight through them. More trees fell, and undergrowth was flattened against the ground by his bulk.
Once, one of the tusks hooked under her hind leg, and with a negligent toss of his head the elephant sent her somersaulting through the air. Twisting desperately, she managed to wiggle herself around in midair, cat style, and hit the ground running. She took the opportunity to go off at a right angle, forcing her pursuer to change direction as well. His greater momentum forced him into a wider arc, which gained her a precious leap or two of distance.
Ginelle soon realized that she could not keep this up for long. While the elephant was filled with that amazing strength that seems to come with madness, she was exhausted and weakened from her recent fight and from lack of sleep. And, she thought bitterly, her pampered life up to this point had not left her in the best shape to begin with. Her sides were beginning to hurt from the exertion, and her breath was coming in ragged, painful gasps.
The high ridge now loomed before her, and she found herself being herded into a small gully, with walls starting to rise to the sides. Oh, wonderful, she thought wryly, so I'm going to be squashed flat against a rock. Agulaar's whiskers, but that's three times I've looked the Red Bull of Death in the eye... in less than two days! I hope this isn't typical of life in the wild. If it is, I'm going back home!
To her absolute dismay, the gully dead-ended a few dozen leaps further. She skidded to a halt when there was nowhere left to go, preparing to turn and face her demise. Then she saw a narrow, high crack half a leap above her in the wall. A quick jump carried her upward just as the elephant bull stampeded in. Before he could react, she squeezed in, leaving him tossing his trunk and uttering a frustrated bellow.
The crack wasn't much wider inside, but it went about one leap in and offered enough space for her to wriggle around and crouch facing the entrance. Very soon an angry, bloodshot eye appeared there, peering in.
"Gotcha," he exclaimed.
Left with no other options, Ginelle resorted to what had always come naturally to her back with the mans - talk.
"Immortal father Amarok in Heaven, curse this brute if he kills me! Send all the fleas alive to infest his tail and may the crows' droppings-"
"Shut up! I hate chatty furballs." He pulled back a little, and when he turned his head, Ginelle caught a glimpse of a tightly shut eyelid, before the other eye came back into view against the crack.
"Well, you better let me out of here. I know Xandra."
He sneered. "I hate Xandra. Hah! The Princess of Terror. She did this to me" He turned his head again to show her the closed eyelid. It fluttered open, revealing an empty eyesocket. Ginelle gasped. "It'll give me great pleasure to rip one of her friends apart with my tusks and trample her into the ground."
He drew back, and with full force slammed his head against the rock, dislodging rocks and stirring up dust. Ginelle sneezed and tried to wriggle herself deeper into the crack, away from the set of huge tusks that was now probing at the entrance. The angle was wrong, however, and the old elephant only succeeded in working himself into a full-fleshed rage, unable to get at the annoying feline.
"Friend? Who said anything about friend? I've been-"
Her words were lost as the cave trembled again with the force of the elephant's charge. More rubble was dislodged. If he did a few more of those head-butts, Ginelle knew she would be buried under tons of rock very soon. He knew it too, she could tell by the glint in his good eye.
"I've got ya, and I'm gonna kill ya. Friends with that black terror or not, you're a cat."
He scraped one tusk slowly against the stone wall, drawing a screeching protest from the rock that set Ginelle's teeth on edge. Seeing her fur bristle, he chuckled low in his throat.
"You're not only gonna die, no, I'm gonna make you suffer the way she made me suffer."
"Maybe it was an accident," the now nervous leopard offered with an ingratiating grin.
The groan and creak of the mountain as the huge head once again hit home answered that question.
"Maybe not," Ginelle murmured to herself.
She watched as the elephant struggled once more to poke his tusks into the crack, without success but with more spine-jarring noises. "Come on, come outta there," he cooed. "I don't wanna pull the mountain down on ya." He paused and drew his face into an evil leer. "I wanna feel you under my feet as I squash ya into the ground."
"Oh yeah, right, now there's a REALLY tempting prospect." She huddled back on her haunches, pupils dancing from the display of light and shadow as the huge shape moved around in front of the opening.
Eventually he settled down, muttering under his breath. He just stood there staring blankly at the hole, with the trapped leopard staring back at him. The rage slowly faded from his bearing, and all of a sudden he just looked old, and lonely.
Ginelle was a gentle, caring creature, and in spite of her predicament, her heart went out to the old elephant. True, he was out there plotting her demise, but on the other paw, who knew what the poor fellow had gone through, being blinded on one eye and all. Some part of her mind wished fervently that Xandra had had a good reason for doing that to him, other than just being the terror she was reputed to be.
Gathering her courage, she crept silently forward until she perched at the opening, and spoke softly, "I'm not your enemy."
He appeared not to have heard, he just continued mumbling to himself and swaying his body from side to side in time with some obscure, internal cadence.
She tried again. "What's your name, old fellow?"
The elephant raised his head, a flicker of his former rage causing Ginelle to scoot back from the opening just slightly. He raised his trunk proudly. "They call me Cyclone in these parts. 'Cause I'm so very fierce."
"You certainly are," she agreed. "Very fierce indeed. I'll bet there are stories galore to praise your valor."
"You mean you haven't heard of Old Cyclone and his great battles? Greak Amarok, cat, were ya raised by the mans or somethin'?"
"Uh... of course not, don't be ridiculous," the leopard replied.
"Good. Because if there's one thing I hate worse than cats, it's them there mans and their animal slaves."
"Oh absolutely. I couldn't agree more," said Ginelle and felt suddenly weak in the legs.
"They tried to enslave me, once. Lemme tell ya, they sent mans on elephant slaves after me. But oh, you shoulda seen the mess I made outta them. They came at me from behind, four o' them. I was a strapping young bull then, mind ya. They wanted me for haulin' their wood, doin' their bloody work for'em. But I wasn't having none of it, that's fer sure..."
Ginelle could tell he was talking himself into another frenzy. She had to find a way to make good her escape before he decided to pull the mountain down around her ears after all.
Her attempts to draw his attention by speaking softly to him failed utterly, so she took a stance on the edge of the crack overlooking the gully, and raised her voice in song.
She sang wordlessly, her crystal-clear voice lifting above the breeze rushing through the ravine, and the ranting of the old elephant, the haunting tune it carried conveying more emotion than words ever could. A hush fell over the jungle as the first notes rang out, so complete that it seemed even the wind must be holding its breath to listen.
As she sang, memories of her youth came back to her, of times when she had sung with Bonkers, her truest friend back then, his high, canine whine harmonizing wonderfully with her rich alto. Truth be told, the mans never seemed to appreciate their singing much, but then everybody knew that the mans had very poor hearing and where quite incapable of telling a true harmony when they heard it. What passed for music with these strange creatures was only a sad, empty echo of what even one as influenced by them as Bonkers could do with his voice. Tears stood in her eyes as she remembered her dear off-wolf friend. She had not seen him since she had been taken from the gentle and loving young she-man who raised her from a cub. Launching into another verse, she wondered what had become of them.
Old Cyclone's words trailed away as he became gradually aware of the sweet melody so close by his ears, and he stood very still, afraid that the slightest movement would make it stop. His old cold heart clenched painfully. Never in his long life had he heard anything more beautiful. He stood, a slight tremor shaking his left foreleg, enraptured. A lonely tear snaked its way down his cheek from his good eye.
The old elephant was not the only one moved by the song of the leopard. All around, the creatures of the jungle paused in what they were doing. Mother squirrel hushed her offspring, a pair of parrots stopped their squabbling and moved closer together, and even the irrepressible monkeys were silent for a few heartbeats. Their attention span was exhausted after a short time, though, and they resumed their rampage through the treetops. Let's not ask too much of them. They did try to keep their chatter down while the song rang through the woods.
One other stood entranced by the sound. Blacker than night, blue eyes shining bright, one Princess of Terror listened intently from her cover of dense bushes, far enough away for the leopard's voice to be little more than a faint whisper above the wind. To Xandra, the song told the story of a dark and lonely soul forever in search of redemption, life after life after life, failing in some lives but succeeding in others, sometimes alone, though more often with a much loved companion at her side, always brave till the end and accepting whatever punishment the gods decreed with quiet pride. It was pain like none she had known before. It was sorrow. It was pure joy. And she knew with calm certainty who that soul must be.
Quite unaware of the impact her song had had on those around her, Ginelle only saw that she seemed to have succeeded in lulling Old Cyclone into some sort of trance. Silently she slipped out of the crack and made her way out of the ravine, looking back frequently to the huge gray form still standing like a statue, except for one leg twitching faintly. When he was out of sight, she fell into an easy lope, heading for where she knew the river must be.
The excitement of Old Cyclone safely behind her, Ginelle allowed herself to admit that she was ravenous. She hadn't eaten anything since the mans fed her before bringing her here. She made her way back to the river, in search of meat. Surely there must be some lying around here that hadn't been eaten yet. There had always been food for her with the mans, who had never required her to hunt. After getting a drink from the river and taking the time for a quick catwash, she strode off confidently, expecting to have a good meal soon.
Now no-one would have thought of comparing the mighty Princess of Terror to other cats, at least not where she could hear. But to tell the truth, even that surly, tough-as-old-roots warrior panther had gotten her fair share of the proverbial feline curiosity. Thus she found herself irresistibly drawn towards the song that the wind had carried to her, and that had moved her more than she cared to admit even to herself.
And so, while Ginelle was trekking back to the river through the deep jungle, Xandra made her way along the high ridge leading to the gully that she had identified as the source of the song.
Only one delicate arc spanning a ravine separated her from her destination, and she easily balanced across to another ridge overlooking the mouth of the gully. From there, she made her descent by hopping down over protruding rocks.
Her paws had hardly touched the bottom when she heard the stomping. Old Cyclone plowed around the bend, and skidded to a halt as he sensed her presence. He had not seen her right away because she was on the side where his eye was missing. His trunk snaked in the air, sniffing.
"Smell trouble?" Xandra drawled.
"It's you! Aaaah," the elephant bellowed. He charged into her general direction, head lowered. The nimble panther easily sidestepped his clumsy attack.
"You've put on some weight since I saw you last," Xandra remarked. He had her focused now after turning his head to bring his good eye to bear. He tried to skewer her with a tusk, but again she dodged his swing lazily.
"I guess that job I did on your eye must have cut down on your wild romps and goring of hapless critters, huh?"
"A day hasn't gone by since then when I haven't dreamt of feelin' your bones crunch under my feet."
They circled each other, the elephant bull trying to score a hit, the Princess of Terror ducking and sidestepping as she kept throwing taunts his way.
"I don't suppose that was you I heard singing," Xandra said after listening to his hoarse, frustrated grunts for some time, "I would recognize your sweet, melodious voice at any distance." She chuckled wryly.
She was prepared for another furious onslaught, but the gray behemoth stopped dead in his tracks.
"Great Amarok," he mumbled. "She's gone. She tricked me."
"I'm sure that required some intelligence," the panther put in dryly. Old Cyclone didn't seem to hear her.
"Of course she would," he continued, "she's a cat. I hate cats. But oh, so beautiful." He seemed to become aware of Xandra once more, but the fight had gone out of him. "One more reason to hate cats."
Xandra eyed him warily, ready for another outburst, which didn't come. Hmm.. a 'she', and a cat... interesting. Don't know of any Singers around here, but that was one or I'm an old monkey.
"You know, you should find a different pastime," she told him.
"Like what? I'm an old and crippled elephant."
Xandra started back up the mountain. "You could mosey on down to the river. There's a herd there. I hear they've lost a bull to the mans recently.
"I ain't takin' no charity from the likes o'ye!"
Suit yourself." With that, she turned and climbed back the way she had come.
August 27, 1999
Circle of Life
Lost in thought, the big black panther made her way back into the depths of the jungle. A Singer was something to take note of. The only one she knew of had died when Xandra was not yet old enough to hunt alone, though she had been forced to leave the safety of home long before her time.
The fact that that particular Singer had probably been the single positive influence in her entire life made the memory all the more poignant. Mayla had taught her many things that were later to save her life on countless occasions. Though only about two thirds of Xandra's mass, the lithe little leopard had sent Xandra sprawling at the flick of a claw, again and again, with a smile on her face.
She had met the mysterious feline far from here, during one of her many travels. Mayla had been of a different kind, her fur being all but white except for the black marks, and very thick to protect against the cold climate where she made her home. Humid heat of the kind that the creatures in this jungle knew had been completely foreign to Mayla.
Pushing memories of Mayla and her snow-covered homeland firmly out of her mind, Xandra padded silently towards the Man Temple. She needed time to think. Whoever this would-be Singer was, she certainly was not her one-time mentor. She herself had witnessed Mayla's death, after all. Again, that man-raised female pushed her annoying little nose into Xandra's thoughts. A low growl came unbidden to her throat.
Absently she scented the air for trouble before breaking cover to cross a large space where a few trees lay toppled. Then she paused, and sniffed again. She had not seen this clearing before. A strong smell of man hung in the air, but it was a few days old. And also several sharp, biting odors that stung her nostrils. Had it been any stronger or fresher, she was sure she would have gagged.
Satisfied that no man was now in evidence, and overcome once more by that confounded curiosity, she broke cover to investigate. She soon tracked one smell to a bright red blotch of something on one of the fallen trees. All the others had similar marks on their trunks. The other smell seemed to come from a set of deep ruts in the soft ground. Oh, she knew those tracks, and now she remembered whence she knew that stench as well! Fighting back the memories of her encounter with the huge, noisy man monsters, she made her way to the far end of the cleared area, feeling slightly uneasy. The mans were getting entirely too bold. A way would have to be found to stop them, and soon.
Suddenly her predatory instincts became aware of a presence close by, shadowing her movements. She stopped, narrowing her gaze, and scanned the surroundings with renewed interest.
A rustle at her side made her whirl and face a small bush. Its leaves were stirring gently, though there was no wind. Curious, Xandra approached it, sniffing the air. The unnatural, man-made stink overpowered any scent that might have been lingering here, and so the panther had to rely on hearing and eyesight.
The tip of a bushy tail protruded from under the bush, trembling uncontrollably and making the whole plant shudder in sympathy.
With an evil chuckle, Xandra sank her claws into the traitorous tail and pulled a scrawny little jackal out from under the bush. The small canine quickly rolled onto his back, quaking with fear.
"Ow! Ow," he yelped.
"Well, well, what've we got here," the panther drawled as she transferred her paw to his throat, letting her claws puncture the tender skin there. "Tell me what you're doing snooping after me!"
The jackal bared his fangs in an ingratiating grin. "No, no! I'm just a nobody. Please don't kill me! I beg you," he whined.
"Give me one good reason."
"It would be very unpleasant for me! We haven't even been introduced? My mother will cry?!" The last came out as a squeak.
"Not good enough." The paw-pressure on the little animal's neck increased. A small trickle of blood appeared near his jugular.
"Wait! Wait a moment," the jackal croaked. "I'm not even supposed to be here! I'm a... a traveling storyteller! I can tell you a few great stories. I can amuse you. I-"
Xandra cut him off with a snarl. "You talk a lot." She made as if to crush his windpipe.
"Hold it," squeaked the jackal. "You're very quick with that killing thing. Wait... please! I know animals in high places! Uh, I... I... I know Herac!"
Xandra's eyes grew intent. "What do you know about Herac?"
"I... we... um, oh, we... We're best buddies, he and I! Really. I know him like no other, actually. In fact, I'm sure he must be looking for me this very moment."
"Is that so?"
The jackal gulped, and nodded. Smiling coldly, Xandra eased her hold on him a little, and scratched him under the chin with one claw. "What's your name, jackal?"
The jackal swallowed again. "Erm... Shakhi," he croaked.
"Well, erm, Shakhi. You amuse me."
"Amusing? You like amusing? I can do that. A leopard and a porcupine walk along the river. A crow passes and asks..." he trailed off, catching Xandra's icy cold stare. His tail thumped weakly as he attempted another grin.
Faintly bored, the panther pushed him away. "Well, I guess you may live, for now. Go and tell your friend," she said it with a sneer, "that my little... discussion with him isn't finished yet. I'll be back. You tell him that."
He scrambled to his feet and wagged his tail, shooting her nervous glances.
"Am I speaking the man language? I said go," Xandra roared and charged him.
Tucking in his tail, the jackal fled, yelping.
By mid-afternoon Ginelle was beginning to doubt if there would be any meat lying around for her to eat at all. She had come across an old badger worrying over the carcass of a monkey that must surely be too big for him to eat all by himself. So she had inquired politely if he would mind sharing some with her, only to be attacked savagely by a whirling mass of claws and very sharp teeth, and told in no uncertain terms that her presence was not appreciated.
Daunted by the ferocity of the much smaller jungle denizen, Ginelle had retreated rather hastily while trying not to appear to actually run away. She continued her quest for food, muttering to herself about how rude the creatures of the wild were, as a rule.
Thus she came upon an offshoot of the main river running through a part of the forest that was overgrown with ferns and brush, while the bright sunlight filtered warm and green through the broad leaves of the trees above. There was a strip of rocks and shorter vegetation about a leap wide along the little streamlet, bathed in the full blast of the hot afternoon sun.
A brown slim shape lay there in the sun, breathing raggedly. She was a tawny deer, not very old by the look of her. She seemed healthy enough, except for her strained breathing.
Slowly and silently, Ginelle approached her in that gliding, fluid way cats have. As she came closer, she saw the doe spasm, and spittle ran from her mouth and dripped in viscous strands down onto the grass beneath her. Then she lay still again, except for her heaving chest. She was quite unaware of the feline presence barely a pawful of whiskers away.
At first, Ginelle was reminded of Xandra's ordeal after the tranquilizer dart, but this was different. The deer's eyes where open, and she did not seem delirious, just unable to control her body.
Ginelle sat back on her haunches and watched her intently for a few moments. "Are you all right?" she asked finally, when the doe gave no further signs of distress.
A delicate head whipped up and around, large brown eyes wide, startled. She gave a strangled gasp at the sight of the predator so close by, and staggered frantically to her feet, apparently recovered. But instead of making a dash for it, she just stood there, trembling, the way deer will when peril comes this close.
Though her stomach growled madly with hunger, either the young leopard did not make the obvious connection, or she was still hoping that food would be found lying around somewhere. It never occurred to her that there was a good meal standing right there before her eyes, one pounce and a well-placed bite away.
So prey and predator just stood there looking at each other, one paralyzed with fear, the other fidgeting a little, aware that she was the cause of that fear and uncertain what to do. Until a voice from within the woods interrupted the moment.
"You have to kill her, you know." Ginelle whirled at the sound of the rich, deep male voice behind her. She had been so engrossed with the doe that she had not heard the mighty stag approach, who was now walking out into the open from between the tall trees. He was magnificent. Broad antlers almost as wide as his body was long, the animal had easily twice her mass. His coat was a rich, reddish brown color which shone with golden reflexes in the sunlight that filtered through the trees.
"Who... who are you?"
"I am Mahogany, King of the Deer. She is one of my own, and I ask you to take her."
Regaining her composure, Ginelle asked incredulously, "you want me to kill one of your herd?"
The stag nodded. "The seizures she is having are making her an unfit member of my herd. Any offspring she may have might have the same problem, and my herd will get weaker with every calf she bears. It is the law of the Circle that she must be taken. Had she been healthy and strong, I would have tried to protect her. But then, if she was that, you would hardly have had a chance to get this close to her." As if in answer, the doe gave a wheezing cough, and staggered a few steps, gasping for air. She remained standing, however, and no new seizure came.
"How can you be so cold and cruel? And aren't leopards and deer supposed to be enemies?" asked Ginelle, her green eyes flicking to the motionless doe, and back to the great stag. "But now you're not on her side, but on mine."
"No, my dear, I'm on the herd's side."
Mahogany moved to a tree, and proceeded to rub his antlers against it. Ginelle watched in fascination as strands of tissue came off the broad expanse of horn, while the big stag groaned pleasurably as he continued his scratching. "I hate this time of year," he said conversationally. "You would not believe how this beastly thing itches sometimes." While giving the impression of being completely caught up in what he was doing, his eyes never once left the young leopard, who in turn was very much spellbound by the spectacle before her. When he straightened, he took a deep breath, shook his head to clear it of the remaining strands of bast, and spoke.
"We never were enemies. I take it you are not familiar with the Law of the Circle." When she nodded her agreement, he continued. "Let me tell you a story, perhaps all will be clear to you then. A long time ago, there was the Stag, and the Wolf. And they were brothers, and great friends.
"Now, remember, this is a story of long ago, from a time when all creatures lived in peace, and no man had yet walked the face of the earth. The Wolf and the Stag had offspring, the Pack and the Herd, and their offspring were all brothers and sisters and also played together and were happy and content.
"But very soon things began to change. Whether some god had played a cruel trick upon them, or it had been ordained from the beginning, no-one knows. The pack began to suffer from malnutrition, and the Herd was weakening as sickness and birth defects spread among them, passed >from dam or sire to calf. The Stag and the Wolf saw this, and were saddened. Both the herd and the pack declined rapidly, until only a pawful of starving wolves and a sizable herd of sickly deer remained. Both the Pack and the Herd were miserable, and started fighting among each other.
"Until, one night, a deer was found dead, with a huge strange wolf sinking his teeth into it. The Pack, furious, started to attack the murderer, but lo! it was Great Amarok himself who looked up at them >from the carcass of the deer. He just stared at them until he was sure he had the full attention of both the Herd and the Pack before he spoke, and it was as if his voice was in their very minds. 'Life is a Circle. I have shown you the way. You must live by it, or perish. If the Circle is broken, we all suffer.' And he disappeared.
"The Wolf and the Stag thought about that, and realized that the deer Amarok had killed was one of the very weakest in the herd, and old, too. 'If,' the Stag said, 'the weak were to be taken from the Herd, the remaining animals would reproduce, and the Herd would get strong again with time.'
"'And if," continued the Wolf, 'the Pack took it upon themselves to catch and to... eat the weak from the Herd, they would be fed, and be stronger as well. We could help you grow strong, as you could help us grow strong.'
"'We could help you grow strong, as you could help us grow strong,' the Stag agreed. They wept for a long time after that, and it is said that many rivers were filled by their tears. However, gathering their courage, they went to tell their offspring what they had discovered, and what must be done.
"Shouts went up cursing the cruelty of the gods to impose the Circle of Life upon them, much raging and weeping went on, but in the end both the Pack and the Herd saw that it was the only way. They parted ways, and have met only as hunter and hunted ever since. But no true follower of the Circle will ever forget in their heart that all are brothers and sisters, and all is for the greater good. Thus was the Circle of Life born."
Ginelle was silent, mulling over what she had just heard. There was a certain cruel logic to it all. But she did not have to like it.
Hesitantly, she approached the doe, who looked at her out of big, liquid eyes.
The leopard crouched, preparing for the pounce. With a determined frown, she got her bearings, and wriggled her posterior into position. She was a predator after all, and she would fit into this circle thing if that was what it meant to be a creature of the wild. She would! A little more to the right... there. She would go straight for the doe's throat. Make it quick, she hoped. Yet she hesitated. What if she missed, and made the poor thing hurt?
"I forgive you, cat," the deer said quietly.
With a frustrated growl, Ginelle relaxed her pose. "I can't do this," she cried.
"Then you have a problem," a new voice said contemptuously. It was none other than Xandra, sauntering out from among the bushes. "What it all boils down to is, either she dies, or you do. She knows it, and so do all the creatures who have learned to live inside of the Great Circle."
The great stag turned his head slowly and gave the new arrival a hard stare. "This from one who would put herself outside the Circle by slaying her own, and who is the Chosen of Agulaar the Troublemaker."
"I do what I must," Xandra said tersely, locking eyes with the King Stag, who just snorted for a reply.
"But, that's the way it is", Mahogany told Ginelle. "We feed you, and you keep us strong. When you die, your remains grow into the plants that in turn feed us so we can thrive. If you put yourself outside of this Circle, as the mans do, or a few others I could name," this with a withering glance at the big black cat facing him, "you are an abomination, and a shame to your brethren."
Now poor Ginelle had tears in her eyes. "But I can't kill her! I've never taken a life before."
The King Stag smiled. "You have a good and brave heart. I can tell you would rather die than cause hurt, and I can't find it in me to hold that against you. But you will have to find a way to deal with this. Or you die. It's the law of the Circle. Farewell, sister." He turned and walked slowly into the jungle.
Xandra looked longingly after the doe, who, breaking from her trance, had cleared the little stream and was fast disappearing into the dense brush. "There goes another nice meal. That's twice in as many days," she muttered.
"What did he mean when he said you were putting yourself outside of the Circle?" Ginelle asked the panther.
"Just what he said," Xandra growled. "And it's none of your business."
"Okay, okay," Ginelle replied. "I was just curious."
"That's your problem," Xandra said glibly. "Curiosity could kill you one day, you know. It killed many a cat." She sat on her haunches and started cleaning herself.
Something in the big panther's voice made Ginelle's fur bristle, and she calmed herself with an effort. Whatever Xandra was trying to do, Ginelle would not let herself get angry at the black cat.
"My, you must be the cleanest cat in the jungle," she told Xandra a touch sourly, "all you ever do when I try to talk to you is wash yourself."
Xandra shrugged, a ripple that ran shimmering along her glossy black coat, and scrubbed behind her ears with her paw.
"I take good care of myself. If you want to survive, you had better keep yourself in the best shape you can." This with an appraising look along the length Ginelle's body.
Ginelle fidgeted under the scrutiny and took in the black cat's sleek, muscular form. There wasn't a shred of flesh out of place on the large panther, whose coat reflected the light like silk over steel. Having been raised in captivity, Ginelle's own physique left much to be desired - her belly sagged a little from ample food, while her chest and hindquarters sadly lacked muscle. She truly was in a sorry state.
"You couldn't hunt down a clubfooted monkey if you tried," Xandra continued with a sneer, "You really should have taken that doe while you had the chance." She chuckled low in her throat, arrogantly. "Not that it would have done you much good, though. I would have taken it from you by now."
"You would have...?" Ginelle began, and paused to consider the black leopard. "Yes, of course you would have," she said with a feeling of utter defeat that she couldn't quite explain to herself.
"Of course. It's survival of the fittest, kitten. Nobody around here gets pampered the way you domesticated animals do!" She drove the words home with a long, hard stare. It was all Ginelle could do not to take a step backwards and cower. She met those blue eyes bravely, and if her hindquarters were shaking a bit, she did her best not to let it show.
One more lick at a coat that really didn't need it, and Xandra rose gracefully. Flicking her tail once, she hopped lightly across the streamlet and slipped silently away into the jungle beyond.
Ginelle took a breath, and considered. Then, gathering what was left of her dignity, she crept stealthily but resolutely after the elusive black cat. It took more than a little humiliation to daunt her.
Hazy green eyes followed the big panther from the safety of the dense undergrowth as she made her way across the streamlet into the forest. Pupils briefly contracted to slits as the unseen watcher's gaze swept across the sun-kissed stream and widened again as Xandra disappeared into the darkness of the thicket. The younger, spotted leopard, after hesitating for a few moments, followed her at a generous distance, making slightly less noise than a warthog on the run.
"Now that is interesting," a silky-smooth voice murmured quietly.
"The old Terror has a soft spot for this sorry excuse for a cat? Who
would have thought..." And with a quiet chuckle, the watcher blended
back into the jungle, without so much as stirring a leaf.
Leader Of The Pack
In some other part of the jungle, a band of fierce, brave and cunning wolf pups was in the process of subduing a foe four times larger than they were. With grim determination, one had clamped his little sharp teeth on an ear, while another was engaged in battle with a large, bushy tail. Three more were strategically spread around their quarry, yipping and growling. The sixth, the smallest of the litter, lay spread-eagled across a broad, shaggy back, panting happily as she sank her teeth into a muscular neck.
Their victim, a large, tawny wolf, accepted it all with the kind of stoic acceptance a parent has got to have, lest he go insane. He lay there, head raised high to protect his tender nose from sharp little teeth after foolishly having brought his ear within their range, front paws extended and his hind legs gathered underneath him.
From time to time, his eyes would flick to the slightly-built gray female two leaps off, who was dozing peacefully in the late afternoon sun that made broad, bright patches where it touched the ground. This was Breeze, the mother of four of these little monsters, and his chosen. He would sigh, and decide once again to leave her be. The mother of the remaining two, a young bitch named Moss, was out with a scouting party.
He flinched and gave a little growl when the gnawing on his ear became too intense. The little muzzle relented, but only slightly. "Sorry, daddy," young Riverfog said around a mouthful of fur and tender skin, before renewing his attack.
While the big wolf went into the fiercest battle without turning a hair, he found being a father to be sorely trying. His eyes were desperately casting around for some honorable escape from the little darlings. Quite defenseless against the charms of clumsy paws and floppy ears, he never even considered just sending them off. But, no matter how he tried to inconspicuously nudge their attention elsewhere, mighty Herac, lead wolf of the largest pack for miles around, was for the moment the undisputed number one plaything for his offspring.
With another heartfelt sigh, he playfully nipped young Fleece in the heels and watched as the little furball tumbled to the ground with a delighted giggle. How he envied them their careless little lives! His own mind was troubled these days, and he hoped Isegrim would be back soon with news.
It was little Moonshadow's excited yell that finally alerted him to the return of the search party.
"It's Uncle Isegrim!" he howled happily, and within moments the mass of yipping puppies threw itself as one at the newcomer, who greeted them with a huge smile and a flick of the tongue for each of them in turn.
"Hiya, gang? Been daddy-hunting again?" he said with a knowing grin in Herac's direction, who had a look of profound relief on his face as he got to his feet and approached his friend.
"Anything?" he asked quietly.
A minute shake of Isegrim's head answered him. "We lost her tracks less than a quarter of a day from here, near where the mans have been tearing down the trees. There's no telling what may have happened to her. Bunches of tracks out there - man, cat, water buffalo, you name it."
They had been on the lookout for one of his daughters, who had been discovered missing a few days ago. It hit all the harder because this was the last cub grizzled Wind was likely to bear. Knowing little Cannabis, the pup had probably wandered off on her own and gotten lost. The pack had done everything in their power to find her, but Herac had little hope left for Breeze's half-sister. The jungle was no place for a lone wolf cub.
Strangely, though, Wind seemed to be relieved rather than saddened at the loss of her cub. When asked about it, her eyes would cloud over and she'd murmur ominously that it was "for the best", and that her youngest daughter "bode ill for the pack". Herac shook his head sadly. It was quite obvious that the ancient she-wolf was getting senile.
"But there's more," the stocky male told his leader. "Look what we brought." He directed his gaze to the back of the party, where a jackal was crouching, trembling all over. Isegrim chuckled mirthlessly. "All he was able to say past his chattering teeth was 'Xandra'. He insisted on coming along."
"Oh, it's Shakhi." Herac looked back at his friend, his brow creased. "Do you think Xandra...?"
Isegrim shrugged. "With that old terror, anything is possible," he said wryly. "Maybe you should hear what the jackal has to say. If he manages to say anything at all."
Unhurriedly, Xandra padded through the dense brush, heading for the man ruins, and her brother's resting place. She needed to be close to him now, the only soul who had ever been able to understand what drove her. She had felt angry before, even frightened, but never this confused. It was an emotion she felt unequipped to deal with, and that enraged her no end. She wanted nothing more at the moment to lash out at something, and longed for the peace of mind that only the spirit of her dead brother could help her find.
There was no outward sign of her inner struggle, however, as she glided gracefully through the thick vegetation. The panther's face was a mask of arrogant calm, her movements smooth and controlled to the very tip of her gently swaying tail.
Nor did she need her exceptional senses to tell her that the pesky little female was still trailing her. That cat made enough noise to startle a deaf ape! Xandra shook her head in wry amusement. It was a wonder the pitiful thing had survived out here this long. But then again, if Xandra's suspicions about her were correct.... She shook her head angrily and brushed the thought away. It was unthinkable. Yet, something made her take care not to let the distance between herself and the leopard grow too great. Not that she would have admitted it, had anyone had the nerve to point it out to her.
However, she also sensed something else following her, a tingle along her spine that made the fur on her neck bristle. The air carried little scent beyond a faint aroma of burned wood and crushed plants. A predator, by that token. Xandra herself had used that little trick of rolling in ashes, plants and other, less appealing things to cover up her own scent and confuse her prey. She had seen wolves do it, and quickly adopted the procedure for herself.
The black leopard had no idea if others of the feline persuasion made use of this, but she did not really care either. Whatever creature it was that was stalking her was in for a nasty surprise once it got too close. There weren't many jungle denizens who could best the Princess of Terror in one-to-one combat.
Ginelle, on the other paw, was not so cool. Her senses were hardly sharp enough to detect the presence that seemed to be following her, but once or twice the smell of burned wood and crushed plants wafted to her, accompanied by that eerie feeling of being watched. Once she even thought she saw a set of luminous eyes from the corner of her vision, not two leaps away. But when she whirled nervously, they were gone.
She also found herself hard pressed to keep up with the black panther, who, though quite clearly in no hurry, moved with great efficiency and easily navigated the thickest brush, while Ginelle had to extricate herself repeatedly from tangles of vines and burrs.
Thus, with Xandra maintaining her leisurely pace and Ginelle scrambling through the woods for all she was worth, the distance between them remained roughly the same, about two pawfuls of leaps.
However, while the big black cat showed no signs of tiring, Ginelle was close to her physical limit. This dashing to catch up to the Princess, then ending up entangled in the undergrowth and scrabbling madly to free herself only to sprint after Xandra once again was a severe strain on her reserves.
All this combined to make for one very edgy young leopard who whirled and snarled at every stir of a leaf. The bristling fur along her neck and tail made her seem more menacing than she really was. One might almost have thought her dangerous, even.
In truth, she was quite ready to tear something to shreds, if only to get rid of the nervous tension that was fast building up inside her. She told herself that, if a tree so much as bent the wrong way now, she'd give it a claw-lashing it wouldn't soon forget. Strangely, that thought made her feel a little braver.
Xandra chided herself for letting her troubled thoughts distract her, when suddenly a large, shaggy wolf blocked her path. His long legs made him somewhat taller than herself, but though he was stocky for his kind, his mass was slightly less than Xandra's. And yet he held himself with a calm confidence that suggested he might very well be a match for the panther in a fight.
Behind him, more of the pack now came into view, wiry, strong-looking animals to the last one. Herac's pack was the biggest in the area, and by far the most disciplined. This stemmed from a deep respect among the members as well as a love for their leader that was unsurpassed by any other pack. It was even rumored that no mortal wolf had fathered the great lead wolf, but that his sire was none other than Great Amarok himself.
Xandra didn't think much of those rumors, but it remained a fact that Herac was not one to be trifled with. "Hey there, Herac," she drawled and gave him a lazy grin.
"Xandra," the wolf said in a deep rich voice. His amber eyes never left the night black feline. A stir ran through the other wolves as they caught the underlying aggressive tension, but none of them moved. The lead wolf's hackles rose even as he spoke calmly. "Would it be terribly impolite to say I'm not overly glad to see you?"
"Oh, not in the least," the panther said pleasantly. "In fact, I second that sentiment." She stood perfectly motionless, except for the tip of her tail which twitched madly. She had frozen the moment she had caught sight of the wolf, so that one paw remained poised above the ground. Fierce blue eyes locked with Herac's, daring him to make a false move.
The big wolf shrugged. "Well, at least we're agreed on that. There is, however, one thing I've been meaning to ask you."
Now this was new! Masking her sudden curiosity with a quick lick of her chest fur, Xandra spoke. "And what would that be, wolf?"
Herac hesitated for an instant, exchanging glances with his second-in-command, Isegrim, who stood a leap back with the rest of the wolves. "You don't happen to know of the whereabouts of one of our pack?" He gave the cat a probing look. "A puppy? Not yet two moons old, and answers to the name of Cannabis."
"That is, if she bothers to answer at all," Isegrim muttered wryly, which got him a withering glare from his friend.
Xandra, however, found enough humor in the smaller wolf's comment to snort a quick laugh. "Got a runaway brat on your paws, do you? And what makes you think I should have anything to do with it?"
Isegrim eyed her suspiciously. "You mean you don't? I don't believe you, you conniving little..."
"Why, Isegrim, darling, such harsh words, after all you and I have been through," Xandra sneered.
With a howl, Isegrim started forward, only to be stopped in his tracks by several wolves at a sharp command from Herac. He subsided, dividing sullen glowers equally between the suddenly smug looking cat and the lead wolf.
"Now, now, let's not start talking dirty with the lady, Isegrim." Herac said calmly as he positioned himself between his friend and the panther.
"Watch who you're calling a lady," Xandra snarled.
"So? What about Cannabis? Your trouble is with me, not with my pack, so leave them out of it!"
"Well aren't you the noble one," the black cat drawled, letting her gaze wander over the big canine's body looking faintly bored by what she saw. "You know, I've heard a few rumors about me, but that I should be fond of wolf brats certainly wasn't part of them."
"The cunning wench still hasn't answered you, Herac." Isegrim growled. "I'll bet she's behind it all."
Herac considered the panther. "You know, the way you've been dodging my question does make me wonder.... Just how much do you know about this, Xandra?"
"At this point, it won't matter what I say, will it? You'll only believe what you want to believe."
And she was right. Ordinarily, Herac was ever one to remain calm and objective, and consider several viewpoints before coming to a decision, even if one as evil-minded as the Princess of Terror was involved. He did tend to believe that there was good in every creature the Great Wolf made.
But today his mind was set, in part because of Xandra's refusal to give him a straight answer, in part because her arrogant demeanor irritated him, but also because the grief for his lost little daughter had clouded his judgment, and he just wanted to blame someone. It did not help that Isegrim, who had saved him from just this kind of folly on countless occasions, was blinded by his own rage.
As for Xandra, she was more than ready to engage the wolf once more in a fight. The strife between these two went deep, as well as the grudging respect for each other's prowess. To do battle seemed to be the way between canine and feline, just as Amarok and Agulaar were forever at odds with each other.
There was no need for further words - a confrontation was inevitable.
Xandra took in the scene around her. She was outmatched, but she estimated she could take half of the pack with her if she went at it cleverly and tried to avoid confronting the lead wolf right away. With easy grace she took a fighting stance, a feral glow lighting up her blue eyes as she watched Herac start to circle her. The heat of the impending battle put a grin on her face even as a low growl erupted >from her throat.
To her surprise, however, no-one except the lead wolf made any move to attack. "What's this, big guy," she teased, "think you're gonna do me by yourself?"
He barked a laugh. "What? You think I need help for this? Don't be ridiculous."
The panther arched her back and advanced on the wolf, presenting her side to make herself seem even larger. Blue eyes blazed as she watched her opponent.
Herac's lips curled back to display an impressive set of glinting white fangs, while a growl erupted from deep in his chest.
With a shrill, whining snarl that had become a sound of death and terror in the jungle, and Herac's fierce deep growl, the two opponents finally threw themselves at each other in a flurry of claws and fangs. The fight was on.
It was more than a fight, though. It was a dance, both beautiful and terrifying all at once. Feline and canine circled each other in deadly harmony, each testing the other, seeming as one although their fighting styles were as different from one another as they could be.
Thinking to catch the panther off guard, Herac made a feint to one side and deftly ducked under Xandra's paw, dodging a blow that would have sent him sprawling to slip inside her defenses and clamp his teeth into the loose fur at her neck. The huge cat howled in outrage, for while he had only caught a fold of skin and hardly done much damage, she was furious at herself for not seeing through this basic maneuver.
She let her legs buckle and rolled over onto her back, so that the wolf was now on top of her. Before she could pull him into her deadly, feline embrace, however, Herac wriggled around and jumped clear, coming to rest half a leap away facing her, panting a little.
"I get first blood," he said with a smirk.
Gracefully, Xandra flowed to her feet, fierce blue eyes locked with her opponent's. "I got news for you," she snarled, "the one who draws last blood wins!" And with that, she gave a mighty roar and raised herself on her hind feet, front paws wide.
Hoping to use her momentum against her, Herac quickly scrambled out of her path. This time, however, the panther had been ready for the move, and with blinding speed, she snatched the wolf's hind feet out >from under him with the swipe of a paw. Unbalanced, Herac's own movement sent him into a roll.
Before he could regain his footing, Xandra followed up with her other paw, tearing four deep, long gashes into the wolf's side. Her lunge for his throat just barely missed its mark as he rolled, legs flailing, out of range of those deadly fangs. With a loud clack, the leopard's teeth closed on empty air, and she howled in frustration.
"I'm not as easy to get at as a wolf cub, am I," Herac growled.
"But you talk enough for a pawful of them," came the panther's hissed reply, before she advanced on him again with a series of lightning-fast left and right blows, which the wolf blocked with his forelegs as he strove to position himself for his next attack.
Soon it became obvious that what seemed to be a one-sided affair hugely in favor of the bigger cat was in fact close to even. Although the cat had the advantage of four sets of claws on top of her sharp teeth and that supple spine cats call their own, the tall wolf more than made up for it with well-practiced moves and sheer strength.
From the bushes across from where Herac's pack was watching, a fretting and quite exhausted Ginelle followed the fight with anxious eyes. She did not know the strange wolf, but she had liked him on sight. That he should be engaged in a fight with the one creature she cared about out here in this frightening wilderness, a fight that could only end in the death of one opponent, agitated her beyond bearing.
"Is that the best you can do?" Xandra was saying. "I've seen off-wolves who had more fight in them." Her chest was heaving and her breath was coming in rugged gasps, but she struggled to keep her voice calm. Herac was no better off. Both their coats were sticky and glistening with blood from numerous cuts and bites.
"That's because they have real opponents," the wolf barked. "Those little man-cats can be quite a pawful, or so I'm told."
And that's how it was for quite some time. They would tear and bite at each other until Ginelle thought they must drop dead from sheer exhaustion, then pause to throw taunts and catch their breaths, only to resume their frenzied fighting with renewed vigor. Neither of them seemed to be able to gain the upper paw.
And then, suddenly, Herac stumbled and staggered sideways, off balance, giving the black leopard the opening she needed, his throat bare and defenseless. The panther never hesitated. She shot forward, jaws gaping, for the kill.
Incredibly, the wolf somehow regained his footing and scrabbled out of the way. He even managed to score a bite on Xandra's sensitive nose as she rushed by harmlessly.
The Princess' charge had left her vulnerable, for her throat was now once more within range of Herac's teeth. Due to her greater mass, she was unable to recover her balance as quickly as the wolf. With blinding speed, Herac swung about and buried his teeth once again in Xandra's throat, bowling her over in the process. Only this time, he had hold of more than just a fold of skin. His teeth were clamped firmly on the cat's throat. If the pressure of those mighty jaws failed to crush Xandra's windpipe, surely the long canines must puncture and tear the jugular.
Poor Ginelle, rooted to the spot by the sheer horror of the scene before her, gave a pitiful little meow when she saw the beautiful black leopard so obviously doomed.
However, the fight had not yet gone out of the mighty panther. Her forelegs pulled the wolf into a tight hug as she brought up her hind claws to kick and rake powerfully, tearing away at his tender gut. Herac squirmed in her hold, but did not give up his own. Now it seemed that neither of them could hope to survive this deadly embrace. And still Ginelle found herself unable to act. She just stood there under cover of the dense undergrowth, with no choice but to watch one or both of these magnificent creatures die.
It took her a moment to realize that the voice she heard singing was her own. By the time she became aware that she had lifted her voice in the same kind of eerie, haunting melody that had so entranced that old elephant, something deep inside her prevented her from stopping.
But, had she been aware of the effect her song was having on the two fighters and the jungle around her, surely nothing short of death could have made her stop. For suddenly, all movement ceased. Xandra's hind legs were the last thing to stop moving, twitching weakly once, twice, as the panther cocked her ears to listen, blue eyes taking on a distant look. Barely aware of the wolf's weight still on top of her, she started to get to her feet.
Herac's jaw went slack, but he hardly noticed the shift under his teeth as the windpipe he had almost succeeded in crushing snapped back into shape. Both animals extricated themselves from their Gordian knot and rose slowly, careful not to make a sound, entranced by the power of that ancient Song that each and every wild-born animal had carried in their hearts from the dawn of time.
Few creatures had the power to give voice to the Song, however, and a rare and wondrous thing it was to witness.
Faintly aware of the sudden quiet all around her, Ginelle broke out of her own half-trance and fell silent, abashed.
She watched as Xandra and Herac shook their heads, puzzled, before eyeing each other suspiciously.
"I don't know what you just did and how, cat," Herac said, spitting out bits of black fur, "but that was some trick. I had you."
Xandra gave him a cold stare and started licking her blood-matted coat. "Not me, wolf," she rumbled. "And as for 'having me', I hardly think the way you were struggling to escape from my hold testifies to your control of the situation."
There was a pause as the two locked gazes, amber staring into blue, fire and ice, the hostility that was passed back and forth almost tangible.
"So, what's with the pup?" Herac asked flatly.
"Agulaar's arse, don't you get it? I don't have her!" Xandra snarled.
Fearing that, exhausted as they were, wolf and panther would be at each other's throat again in a few moments, Ginelle took heart and leaped out of hiding. Though, what she would do if they did attack each other - or her, for that matter - she had no clue.
The black feline's pupils narrowed briefly when she saw the smaller leopard, but she showed no sign of surprise. "You again," she said without much enthusiasm. "What do you want?"
"I... uh... I just..." Ginelle stammered, taken aback by the hostile mood around her.
Seeing a second leopard thrown into the fray, Herac's pack advanced, their hackles rising. Isegrim strode forward to his leader's side, giving him a questioning look. At a slight shake of Herac's head, he signaled the other wolves to stay put, and positioned himself close by to interfere if need be.
"Relax, Isegrim," Xandra said with a crooked grin, "I know this one. She's not going to attack."
Ginelle wasn't sure whether to be pleased or insulted.
"Yeah, right," Isegrim growled. "A peaceful leopard. And I suppose next you'll be trying to tell my she was raised by the mans."
"Well, she was," Xandra smirked.
Ginelle fidgeted, half wishing she was somewhere else when she found herself under the stocky wolf's intense scrutiny. A narrow crack in a rock guarded by a crazed elephant sounded like a good place to be just now! Finally, Isegrim sniffed angrily and glowered at the panther. "I don't..." he began.
During the whole exchange, Herac had remained silent, his amber gaze never leaving the new arrival. When he spoke, it was in the measured tones that meant he was in control again, the blind rage of battle gone and his good judgment returned.
"Just tell me one thing, leopard," he said slowly, addressing Ginelle. "Was that you we heard Singing?"
A murmur ran through the assembled wolves at their leader's question.
Xandra snorted. "Impossible! I'm telling you, she's a man creature. Tame! How could she even know of the Song? She can't be a..."
Ginelle, however, nodded shyly in answer to Herac's question. "I... I didn't realize I was doing it. I..."
"... Singer," Xandra finished belatedly.
"Easy to find out," Isegrim threw in, intrigued now by the spotted cat. "Let her do it again."
"I don't think..." Ginelle began.
"Yes... um... Danelle, was it?" Xandra said, "why don't you sing for us some more?"
"That's 'Ginelle'," the young leopard said a touch sullenly. "And I'm not sure if..."
"Do it!" Xandra snapped.
"Please, leopard," Herac added, directing an icy glare at the black cat. Xandra met him stare for stare. It seemed that once again they were about to forget their surroundings in their passionate dislike for each other.
Before they could do more than glower at one another, Ginelle gave a small sigh, harrumphed twice, sat back on her haunches, and began singing one of her favorite tunes from back home.
It was a merry little tune, one she had sung often in harmony with Bonkers, and it almost transported her back to those happy times. If not for the stern faces watching her expectantly as she spun the melody.
Ginelle wasn't really sure what it was these creatures expected of her, but it was clear from the look on their faces, a mixture of disappointment and impatience, that this particular tune wasn't it. She fell silent, at a loss. Uncertainly, she looked from one to the other.
"Well, I used to sing it with an off-wolf... maybe it needs a canine counterpoint?" she offered in a small voice, but no-one seemed to be listening.
"I guess that takes care of that," Xandra stated. There was an air of finality to her voice that made Ginelle's heart sink, although she could not quite say why.
"I don't know," Herac said thoughtfully, "the voice sounded about right, wouldn't you say?"
"Does it matter?" Xandra objected, "That wasn't the Song, or I'm a furless monkey."
"Excuse me," Ginelle said, slightly miffed because they were talking about her as if she wasn't there.
"But who else could it have been?" Isegrim put in right on top of the leopard. "One of the wolves? Longfeathers maybe, he of the sweet voice?" That drew a chuckle from the pack. Longfeathers couldn't carry a tune if his life depended on it.
Xandra surreptitiously scanned the surroundings for any signs of the presence that had been following her earlier. She found nothing. And she had to admit that the wolves were right. The voice did sound right, and there was no other likely creature close by. And yet.... "I still don't think she could..."
Meanwhile, Ginelle had just about had it. She cleared her throat loudly and spoke up again. "Excuse me, but would somebody please tell me what the fuss is about? I'm new here, in case you hadn't noticed."
Three faces turned towards her as if seeing her for the first time. Herac was about to reply when a commotion up in the trees caught their attention.
"Xandra! Xandra, there you be! This bird be looking up and down the jungle for you!"
The black leopard groaned softly and closed her eyes when Cocksure the Valiant dove down from the treetops and just barely avoided crashing into her. Dodging the panther, his wing grazed Ginelle's flank, the sudden jerk sending him into a sideways spin that was finally broken when he careened into Herac's forelegs, where he screeched to a stop in a cloud of dust.
Sneezing twice, he ruffled his feathers to shake some of the dust out of them, trying vainly to muster some dignity before he took a few awkward hops towards Xandra. It was a measure of his preoccupation that he approached her without even a hint of his usual, well-justified caution.
"You found me," the black feline said dangerously, flexing her claws and contemplating his mostly defenseless form within easy reach. She seemed taken aback when the bird didn't turn a feather under her scrutiny. "So, what's it this time, raven? More mans?"
"Worse," Cocksure blurted. He started to say more, but his beak was chattering so heavily that no words came out. "T-t-t-t-t-t....t-t-tr t-t-trouble!" he finally managed.
"Is that so?" the panther said pleasantly. "Could there possibly be any worse trouble for you than what you got yourself into when last we met?" She growled softly and brought her glacier blue eyes closer to his face.
That got a terrified squawk for a response as the distraught bird scrambled backward out of her immediate reach, bumping once again into the lead wolf. "Ah, hi, Herc," he said, seeming to notice the others for the first time. "Hi, there, Ginny."
"You know, Xandra," Ginelle said reasonably "it might help if you tried not scaring him any further."
The panther's head swiveled slowly to loose the full power of that glacier stare upon the leopard. She did, however, assume a slightly less menacing stance and allowed the bird to regain his composure before asking mildly, "well, what about the trouble you mentioned?"
Cocksure shook himself again and scanned the treeline nervously before speaking. "She be coming at me from behind. I swear she be every bit as sneaky as you, Xandra." He gulped, and clacked his beak a few times in agitation. "No offense, of course," he added quickly. "She be scaring the living daylights out of me." He fell silent, looking apprehensive.
"Go on, Cocksure," Herac prompted gently.
"She..." he had to stop again to clear his throat," she be saying she be coming back to get revenge. She be looking for you, Xandra. She be saying to tell you that."
"Who?" asked Xandra.
"She say her name be Callicia, and..."
He cut off when Xandra suddenly hissed, "Callicia...", her eyes taking on a new, feral light. Some of the wolves gasped. "Are you sure that's her name?" Herac asked quietly. The raven nodded. "That's trouble, indeed, Cocksure. Thank you for telling us."
"This raven not be given much choice," Cocksure said woefully. "She be saying I'm dinner or I go find Xandra on the double." He sniffed. "And she be doing this to me." He twisted his backside a little, so they could see his tail. Or what was left of it. Two lonely feathers, one of them broken with the tip dangling, still stuck to an otherwise bare, pink stump. "See?" He waggled it a little for emphasis.
Herac clearly did his best not to laugh in the face of the poor bird's plight. Isegrim did not show this kind of tact. He guffawed. The whole thing, though surely painful, was just too comical.
Ginelle, however, was shocked. How cruel and heartless must a creature be to purposely do such a thing? No wonder the bird had had trouble landing. "They'll grow back, don't worry," Ginelle told Cocksure softly, which got her a grateful look from the raven.
"If that monster is around again," Herac said, "I suppose I had better go warn the pack. I want no lone wolves out there with Callicia on the prowl."
"And that takes care of any doubts as to my status as a villain to strike fear into your hearts," Xandra said wryly.
"Ah, but you're our villain," the tall wolf answered with a half-grin and an almost-wink. "We know you. She, however, is not of the jungle, and therefore to be treated with extra caution."
Xandra half returned his half-grin but did not comment. "I think I'm going to go see what that infernal cat is up to," she growled, and turned to leave.
"Take me with you this time? Please?" Ginelle said.
Xandra glared at her. "Well, it seems no matter how hard I try to get rid of you, you always find your way back into my presence." She gave a defeated sigh. "Oh very well. You may come with me. But this could get dangerous."
Ginelle was by the panther's side instantly. "Oh thank you, Xandra. I swear you won't regret it. I can be of use to you. You see, I've studied the skies, and I know all about-"
"First Rule of traveling together," Xandra interrupted harshly, "absolutely no talking unless it can't be helped. Got that?"
"Yes, yes of course. No talking unless it can't be helped. No problem. I can be quiet as a mouse. I'll only talk when you need to know something from now on, okay? Just so you know I-"
"I said quiet!" the black feline roared, and the small leopard clamped her mouth shut.
"Second Rule," Xandra continued. "When I say stay, you stay, when I say run, you run. Got that?"
The young feline nodded mutely.
"Now if you'll excuse me, it seems that there is business that requires my attention," the panther said after a while. She took a few steps towards the deep forbidding darkness beyond the little clearing, then stopped, without looking back. "Well? Are you coming?"
Ginelle gave a start, and hurried after her.
Before she disappeared in the shadows, the black cat turned her dark head towards the waiting wolves. "We meet again, wolf," she said. "This isn't over."
Ginelle turned as well, to smile at Herac. "If we see any sign of your lost pup, we'll let you know. Won't we Xandra?"
Xandra closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. She couldn't believe she had actually agreed to this.
"I'm sure that's a yes," the spotted cat said cheerily, glancing at the panther.
They slipped into the bushes, leaving behind one raven with a badly
hurt pride, and a handful of wolves with their jaws hanging open.
New Friends And Old Enemies
Although bleeding from numerous cuts and bites, the black feline set a harrowing pace through the brush, so that Ginelle once more found herself hard pressed to keep up. After tagging along behind the Princess of Terror for a while, the leopard stopped walking.
"Stop," she said resolutely.
Xandra screeched to a halt, more from surprise that the little tagalong had spoken up in this way than from any real sense of obedience.
"What?" she rumbled, not turning around but flattening her ears against her neck and squeezing her eyes shut.
"You're bleeding," Ginelle accused, and approached to gently run her tongue over a deep gash in the black panther's shoulder. "I bet this hurts".
"It's just a scratch," the big cat growled irately, but made no protest against the treatment.
"So," the smaller leopard said, "did you plan to go after some creature those wolves seem to fear more than they fear you, in this condition? Who is this Callicia anyway?"
For a while, it looked like the dark feline was not going to reply. Several times, Xandra drew breath as if to speak, only to exhale again with an air of mild frustration. Finally, she dropped onto her haunches and started idly pawing a fallen leaf as she spoke haltingly.
"Callicia... is a creature that shouldn't exist. I should have killed her back when I had the chance, but how could I have known... She's become a monster." She fell silent, contemplating the leaf under her paw.
Although pawfuls of questions came to Ginelle's mind, she held her peace, suspecting that she would be told only what Xandra chose to tell, and questions would only irritate the black cat. Yet, keeping quiet was a struggle for the talkative leopard!
When the silence lasted so long that Ginelle almost burst with the need to prompt her companion further, Xandra shifted her weight and began speaking again. Ginelle wasn't sure the black leopard even remembered that she had company, from the distant expression in her bright blue eyes.
"It was just another of my raids into man territory... nothing out of the ordinary... a man enclosure where they kept their creatures... I was fighting off a pawful of off-wolves to get through to the mans I knew must be there... I had a large band of followers then, and they were into the meat storage. Fire broke out... And I don't know if it was one of the band, or me, but somehow one of us dislodged a firestick from one of the walls. There was a strong wind... those flames just swept through that place like a wave of death. Most animals were huddled in their cages, unable to escape... I can't know how many caged wild brethren died that day. There was just a handful of survivors... a few mans and man creatures, one leopard." Xandra flinched when she mentioned the leopard, for some reason Ginelle could not fathom. "And..." She broke off.
"And Callicia," Ginelle finished gently.
Xandra nodded. "She was only a cub then. A little odd-looking, but definitely feline. I let her be. If I had known..." She shook her head slowly and fell silent.
"So now she'll do anything for revenge."
"I don't blame her."
"I do. The fire was an accident." Ginelle shuddered at the thought of the flickering orange nightmare sweeping through all those cages. She could almost hear the screams of the trapped creatures dying a horrible death.
"It killed her mother and siblings. The hatred she's been carrying all that time has made her even more of a monster than her birth."
"I don't understand..."
"Never mind. It's not important. I'm glad not all man creatures are alike," she said with the hint of a smile, as she finally raised her head to look at Ginelle out of eyes clouded with pain.
Ginelle smiled back. "How come Herac knows of her? Did she get away from the mans, then?"
"For a while. She spread death and destruction for a moon or so, before the mans recaptured her. She was only half grown then. She should be a regular terror by now." Xandra sighed. The leaf under her paw crinkled and tore. "And somehow, I have to stop her."
"We," Ginelle said firmly. "We have to stop her."
Xandra looked at her as if to reply, then shook her head and sighed.
"But I don't think we'll get very far with you bleeding all over and ready to drop from exhaustion," Ginelle continued, unruffled.
The black panther just looked at her, one whisker twitching.
"What?" the smaller leopard huffed. Then Ginelle looked around at her own, bedraggled appearance and heaving sides, and had the grace to look embarrassed. "Okay, so I'm not in the best of shapes myself," she amended, "but... but that's different!"
"Riiight," the dark feline agreed wryly. Shaking her head again in silent amusement, she motioned for the smaller leopard to follow her, and slipped through a growth of fern, towards the sound of the distant river off to their side. Ginelle scrambled after her.
Presently, they neared the river. Before they reached its bank, Xandra veered off and made her way along it under cover of the denser vegetation, until she stopped by the base of a large tree. With a little sigh, she raised herself onto her hind feet and raked her foreclaws along the already bedraggled bark, stretching luxuriously.
She looked over her shoulder at Ginelle with a half-grin. "Well, we're here. Will this do for a little nap?"
Ginelle tore her gaze away from the splinters that went flying from under the night black paws. "You mean... up there? You want me to go up that tree?"
"Well, yes. We're leopards. Leopards like to sleep up in trees, you know."
Ginelle's eyes wandered slowly up the massive trunk. Up, and up, and up! It was easily the largest tree for pawfuls of leaps around, starting to branch at a height of two or three leaps and fanning out to cover a wide area around them. It even reached halfway across the river! The light it let through was just enough to allow a few smaller trees at a polite distance from this tree's base, and a thick, elephant-high tangle of undergrowth that teemed with small creatures bustling and burrowing.
A family of cream-colored, long-tailed monkeys stared down at them out of coal black faces, from where they perched among the upper branches. One locked eyes with Ginelle for a few heartbeats, then it raised a deafening, high-pitched chatter that the others took up with a vengeance. Even from where she was, far below, the leopard could see the tiny pointed teeth and the pink tongue as it screamed its defiance at her. She flattened her ears against the noise.
"Idiotic bunch," Xandra grumbled. "Not enough that they just love to foil me by spooking my prey, no, they have to infest my favorite tree as well! If I find their droppings up there again, I swear I'll eat monkey for the rest of the season!" Her voice picked up volume as she spoke, so that the last words were clearly audible even above the din.
Dead silence fell. The monkeys froze in whatever they were doing, passing worried glances back and forth.
"You heard me!" Xandra roared, and made as if to run up the side of the trunk.
As one, the band turned tail and fled the tree, screeching and chattering. One, apparently their leader, stopped and turned to shake his little fist at the cats, before he, too, disappeared among the treetops.
Ginelle watched until they were out of sight. She laughed nervously. "Xandra, this thing is huge... just how high up in trees are we talking about?"
"See that three-way fork up on the second level of branches?"
Ginelle followed Xandra's gaze and gulped. "I don't know if I can make that," she murmured, thoroughly embarrassed. Her head dropped.
"You sound like you've never climbed a tree before!"
"Well, in my enclosure, there was this big ol' branch that my mans had put there for me..."
The panther snorted. "Ginelle, you are a leopard, for Agulaar's sake! How much longer are you going to deny your heritage? Leopards climb trees all the time. We even drag chunks of food up there that can weigh as much as we do, to keep it away from the scavengers."
The smaller leopard perked a little. "Food?"
Xandra smirked at her. "I seem to remember hauling half a deer up there this morning. You hungry?"
"I, uh... no, I'm okay." Just then, a huge rumble came from Ginelle's bowels, giving her the lie.
The black cat chuckled. "After you, then."
Ginelle eyed the tree skeptically.
"Go on," Xandra coaxed, "I'll be right behind you. You're not going to fall."
Before long, the Princess of Terror began to doubt the wisdom of her decision to get her new companion up that tree. Ginelle was an even worse climber than she had feared! More than once, Xandra caught a tail or a hind foot in the face as the smaller cat slipped and scrabbled desperately to regain her hold. Once the grappling claws tore a set of shallow gashes from just below her eye all the way to her nose. She ground her teeth to keep from swearing. After all, with all the cuts an bruises she sported after her fight with Herac, what difference did one more make? Sighing quietly, she gave the struggling leopard another shove in the rear.
At last, Ginelle was able to heave herself up onto the fork, where she promptly collapsed, panting, to straddle a branch that was easily as big around as her chest.
Xandra jumped lightly onto an adjacent branch and watched the exhausted animal with a touch of amusement. To be perfectly honest, the panther was touched and impressed the way this pampered little thing struggled to keep up with the wilderness. True, she had a long way to go before she would be a true jungle denizen, but if she made it through the first few weeks, she had a fair chance of survival. And of course, with someone like Xandra to keep her from doing something foolish, her chances would be that much better....
If not for Callicia. And all those others out there intent on hurting the Princess of Terror.... Xandra shook herself to dismiss the thought.
"You ready for that deer?" she asked quietly when she noticed that Ginelle's breathing had slowed.
She received no answer. Ginelle was fast asleep.
Xandra's mouth twitched. "Guess not."
She took some time to carefully clean her wounds, and get the dried blood out of her coat. Then she settled down for a quick nap herself.
"We're agreed, then?" the voice said out of the dark.
"Agreed," Voracia said.
Even with her night vision, the hyena could not make out anything there in the shadows beyond a set of intense green eyes and an occasional flash of fangs or a pink tongue when the unseen creature spoke. The eyes, however, where more than enough to make Voracia uneasy. She had the distinct feeling that she would have been torn to shreds then and there had she done anything less than agree to the mysterious feline's plans.
But then, those plans were very much to her own liking, too. She'd had a grudge against the Princess of Terror for a long time now. Ever since that confounded cat had shown her snout in this jungle, Voracia and her pack had had a hard time. Gone were the days when creatures roamed the forests carelessly! Prey stepped lightly, afraid of that black terror, and predators hid their catches well enough of late to make finding and stealing them a chore. That made it so much harder for her lazy band of scoundrels to feed themselves.
Stealing from the Princess herself was out of the question, of course. Hyenas were very much capable of taking prey from a leopard under normal circumstances, but Xandra was far from normal. After the fourth death in her ranks in as many days she had grudgingly declared Xandra's food off-limits except in the most desperate need.
Truly, things had gone downhill for her and her pack since the black leopard had appeared.
And lately, Xandra had taken to defending the weak as well, as the incident with "Fluffy" had shown. It was just disgusting.
Now this mysterious stranger had come to the jungle, never showing herself but apparently well in control of matters. From what Voracia had been able to glean from this little talk, the unseen feline - those eyes could not be anything but a cat's - had gathered quite a little force around herself. She had even enlisted the help of Theodorus the orangutan, an implacable opponent, as Voracia knew from past encounters. The hyenas were on less than friendly terms with him and his band of rogue apes.
It was also quite clear that this cat was obsessed with the Princess of Terror. Whenever the name left her mouth, her eyes lit up with a fierce hatred that made Voracia's own dislike of Xandra seem like pup's play. There was little doubt in the hyena's mind - this animal was quite insane.
But she was also a clever tactician - a dangerous combination, and an interesting trait in a cat. Solitary felines weren't known for leadership qualities, as a general rule.
This morning, Voracia had been met by a completely distraught Cocksure, telling her she was to report to this place at sundown. Voracia had not become one of the first female pack leaders for being stupid. Something in the raven's voice had told her it would probably be a good idea to comply, as much as it galled her.
And so here she was, talking to this mad cat, with mixed feelings. She liked the idea of putting an end to the Princess of Terror's reign once and for all, but she did not like the fact that she was being all but forced to do it. So far, there had been no open threats, but considering what the cat had done to Cocksure's tailfeathers, Voracia had no doubt that she had ways to enforce her orders that were less than pleasant.
"Good," the silky voice said. "Have your hyenas and those of Burly ready at the appointed spot two sundowns from now. The bird will keep you informed."
She made it sound as if "the bird" would either do that or be cat food, no matter where he tried to hide. Voracia suppressed a shudder.
"We will be there."
"You will handle Burly?" It was less a question than an order.
"See that you do. And one more thing: I want them both taken alive. Xandra is mine. I will give you the little one after I'm through with her." She chuckled softly. "If there's enough of her left."
With that, the eyes winked out, and the presence among the bushes vanished as silently as a shadow. Voracia realized she did not even know her name.
Callicia hummed softly to herself as she made her way back to her lair. Things had gone extremely well. Voracia was a fool. The hyena never realized that her pack was to be mere fodder in this battle. Theodorus the orangutan, however, had not been so easily fooled. He would prove a valuable ally.
Xandra was as good as dead.
She wasn't aware that all sound ceased wherever she passed. The very leaves of the plants seemed to shrink away out of fear of being touched by her. Even the monkeys cowered and froze, hoping she would pass without noticing them.
She wasn't aware, because this was how it had always been. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Still humming, she climbed up the gnarled, hollow tree she had picked for her base of operations. She paused to tear a few bites out of the wild hog she had slaughtered earlier that day, before proceeding to the large but well-concealed hole in the trunk where she slept.
The tiny ball of fur that had been curled up at the bottom of the hole stirred when she poked her head in. It unfolded into a wolf cub, perhaps two months old.
"Please, can I go now?" the pup asked. There was no fear in her voice, only a mild impatience and sullen defiance. "I hate this place. It's boring."
That was what had aroused the cat's curiosity in the first place - the little thing's complete lack of fear, when every last thing alive seemed to cower before her.
So she had simply grabbed the little animal by the scruff of its neck and unceremoniously dumped it in this hole, confident that it could never get out by itself, being too small to jump and lacking claws suitable for climbing. Canines were so poorly equipped!
Callicia had come across the cub upon returning from her meeting with the ape. Since she had no time to spare because the hyena would be on her way to meet her, she had decided to put the little creature away for later examination.
"Well, I'm here now," the cat purred as she slunk inside the hole. "So it won't be boring anymore." The hollow spanned the entire inside of the tree trunk, and the two animals fit in comfortably with some room to spare. Callicia settled herself and started licking her fur, proceeding to ignore the pup, who was edging towards her cautiously, though still more curious than afraid.
"Who are you?" the wolf cub asked finally. She cocked her head in that way canines had, that many humans seemed to find so adorable.
Callicia snorted. "Didn't your mother teach you that youngsters don't talk unless they're spoken to?" she said sternly.
"My mother is afraid of me. She never teaches me anything," the wolf said in a serious tone that completely got Callicia's attention, though she hid it behind a thorough examination of the fur on her striped and spotted tail.
"And why is that, little one?"
"She thinks I'm evil."
"What would make her think that?" Oh, the cub definitely had her attention now!
The wolf shrugged. "She's old. Maybe it was because of my brother."
"He's dead. She never told anyone about him. But I know"
"Because I killed him."
"An accident," the feline surmised.
Large puppy eyes looked at her full of innocence. "I broke his neck when we were born. He would have stolen momma from me."
Callicia could barely contain her excitement. This little thing was a cold-blooded killer? What a rare and fortunate find.
"And your momma never told anyone?"
"She got rid of him, and has told everyone in the pack that I was the only one. I don't know why. Maybe she thinks he was evil, and mentioning his name is bad luck. You know, like you're not supposed to say Torran's name because he might hear."
The moment she spoke the name, a slight tremor shook the earth, and leaves stirred outside where there was no breeze.
"See what I mean?" the pup whispered excitedly.
"Yes," Callicia agreed. "But let's not rouse the Red Bull's attention any more than we need to, shall we, little one?" She waited for the wolf to nod. "And do you think your brother was evil?"
"I don't know. But momma, I think she's crazy. She never feeds me, I had to suckle with other mothers from the first day. She does not even let me come near her if she can help it. She hates me. I think she's sorry she didn't kill me the first day."
Callicia's mind was working feverishly, trying to figure out how to use this little gem to her advantage. She had already decided to keep the wolf cub. Maybe she could convince her to stay of her own free will. Callicia could not have cubs of her own because of her parentage, but she had always wanted a daughter.
"Well, little one, I'm not afraid, and I don't hate you. How would you like me to be your mother from now on? I can teach you many, many things your mother will never know." The cat bared her fangs in a grin.
The pup looked at her, considering. The wisdom in those puppy-blue eyes was disconcerting. A pleasant shiver of anticipation ran along Callicia's spine.
Then the wolf cub grinned, too. "Sure. But only if you give me meat to eat. I hate suckling."
Callicia chuckled softly. "So, now that's settled, what's your name, little one?"
"Cannabis," said the wolf cub.
March 19, 2000
A bright beam of sunlight on her face gently tickled Ginelle awake. So deep and peaceful had her sleep been that for a moment she did not remember where she was, or how she had gotten there.
While her eyes were still adjusting to the light, she became aware of a myriad of jungle birds sharing their song with the world, and the inevitable chatter of the monkeys in the treetops that sounded so much closer than she remembered.
The feeling of tough, stringy bark under her paws when she stretched reminded her of where she was. Though it remained a miracle to her that she had really managed to get up this tree. She thought ruefully about the many kicks and punches she must have given Xandra in the process.
There was no sign of the big black leopard now, so Ginelle decided to explore a little and see just how high up she really was. The cover of foliage below was too thick for her to see the ground, which she suspected wasn't within jumping distance by far.
Getting to her feet, she slowly made her way out on the branch until it grew too narrow for her to walk comfortably. Her breath caught when she raised her head to look around.
The tree topped most others by several leaps, and so she was treated to a view of the jungle usually reserved for the birds and maybe the monkeys. The morning sun shone upon treetops stretched all the way to the edge of her vision, sticking out of a silky layer of morning mist like little green islands in a milky white sea. Dew drops like tiny diamonds sparkled on the leaves in blinding brilliance.
Here and there rose a larger isle in the form of a mountainous rise, and off to the left Ginelle could see the ridge that ended in the canyon where she had met Old Cyclone the day before. It stood proud, a winding snake churning through creamy water. Closer, though for now at the edge of her vision, was the gully that must hold the dreary Man Ruins, a darker hole in the luminous white mass.
Overlaying the magical scenery were the ever-present jungle sounds, parrots squawking, monkeys chattering and a mild, humid breeze stirring the leaves into a soft rustle. The breeze picked up, tickling her whiskers and ruffling her fur, even as she inhaled to take in a rich scent of moist vegetation, and impending rain.
Completely in awe, Ginelle bent her head for a few heartbeats and closed her eyes, praising the gods for allowing her to see such beauty.
Then, going with the mood, she drew a deep breath and raised her voice in Song.
The magic took hold. Once again, the world around her froze, enraptured.
Not too far away, a little wolf cup was roused. Little ears perking, Cannabis whispered to her new mother.
"Mommy, can you hear that? What is it?"
Callicia opened one eye and murmured sleepily, "Don't listen. It's bad."
"Then why does it sound so beautiful?" asked Cannabis.
Yawning and shaking her head to wake herself up, Callicia explained. "The eyes of a serpent are beautiful, too, when it mesmerizes you. They're beautiful until the moment it strikes and pulls you into its deadly embrace."
"You mean this is like a serpent?"
"Even worse," Callicia said seriously. "I've seen creatures totally pulled in by this singing, though I can't say I know why. It's just singing to me. It seems other creatures have been made to believe that they felt something they didn't really feel. Would you want someone to hold you in thrall that way? Would you want to forget your true beliefs?"
Appalled, Cannabis shook her head no. She lay down and covered her ears with her paws. "But I can't make it go away. I can still hear it," she whined.
"Then howl. It's what off-wolves like to do when they hear it. They're kind of smart that way."
Grateful for the advice, the little wolf threw back her head and howled, her tiny baby voice a little shaky but drowning, to her own ears, enough of the faint sounds of the Song of the Morning that wove through the jungle like the lifeblood that runs through the veins of every living thing.
It was not just a song. It was giving voice to every facet of life that made up the jungle, in days to come, in days long past, The very force that drove each living thing on, day after day.
From afar, Ginelle was aware of a wolf howling, and was instantly transported back to her days with Bonkers. The off-wolf had produced the most intriguing harmonies to her singing. Mans, however, had always seemed strangely unappreciative of their music, probably due to their inferior hearing.
A sound of someone smacking his lips brought the leopard out of her reverie. She raised her head and found herself looking at a pair of reptile eyes iridescent and utterly fascinating, barely a whisker away from her nose.
"Sssss, my, my, what have we here?" Baalh said sweetly. "If it isssn't Xsssandra'sss little friend.
"Unghhhh...." Ginelle said intelligently. As her own song had entranced the forest, now these eyes entranced her.
"Why are you ssstopping? That wasss beautiful. And it wasss alssso the only thing keeping me from making you breakfassst, you sssweet little thing." He smacked his lips again.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Ginelle registered danger, but she could not tear her eyes from the reptilian face. So she did the next best thing, backing up slowly until her rear came in contact with the rough bark of the tree. She went on until her hindquarters had crept up the trunk as far as they would go while her foreparts were still on the branch. Baalh's head followed her movement.
"What'sss the matter, aren't you pleasssed to sssee me?" Baalh's tongue flicked erratically in front of Ginelle's face as the serpent spoke.
The leopard's pupils dilated. Try as she might, she could not tear her eyes away form the fascinating gaze of the huge snake. Her body was fully in Baalh's power, and her mind was about to follow suit. It was so easy to lose oneself in those eyes... to relax... to sleep...
A big black paw shot from out of nowhere and batted the snake sideways as if he was some pesky insect.
"Get away from her, you freak!"
Baalh's head connected sharply with a branch above, then bounced off to hit one to the side, which in turn dislodged some of his carefully arranged coils. With a drawn-out "oomph", the serpent slid backwards, and down.
His voice could be heard, fading with the distance, howling with frustration. "Oh! Oh! You will pay for thisss, missscreant! Ooooh, my head..."
The black feline's cold chuckle followed him down.
The large black panther on the adjacent branch was not Xandra, Ginelle realized with a start when his deep, rich voice rang through her head.
She did not need to look closely, for she knew who He must be without ever actually having seen Him before. He just had this certain... presence about Him...
"Ah... Ag... Great Cat!" she stammered.
"The same," Agulaar said smoothly.
He walked up to her on the adjacent branch, tail raised high and swaying gently. His night black coat glistened in the sun.
"Whaa... Why?" Ginelle inquired. She shook her head to try and get her mind to work again.
"Why did I just save your pitiful hide? You know, I'm not really sure. You come into the jungle, your Song brings peace into souls I've worked hard to make angry, you even manage to steal my pet black leopard from me! A barely grown kitten turning my warrior cat into a bundle of fluff! Look at her! She's actually thinking about setting out to find that pathetic wolf cub!" He paused, fixing her with a cold stare out of pale green eyes. His pupils contracted briefly when he continued.
Briefly, Ginelle allowed herself to wonder if what the Cat God said could be true. She would never have expected Xandra to show that kind of interest in a lost pup. Maybe the Princess of Terror wasn't as bad as her reputation.
"And here I am, saving your sorry rear from becoming dinner. I must be out of my mind. And yet... " he let it trail off. His tail swished erratically back and forth as his eyes continued to bore into her.
The nervously twitching tail froze suddenly, and he cocked his ears. Then those stark, chiseled features relaxed into an expectant leer. He looked up.
"Well, Agulaar, that's the longest speech I've ever heard you make," Xandra's voice sounded dryly from somewhere above. "I'm touched at your deep concern for my spiritual well-being."
Half an instant later, Xandra's sleek form dropped lightly onto the branch beside Ginelle, soundless and dark, like a shadow. Blue chips of ice sparkled their defiance at the Cat God, who, if anything, looked faintly amused.
"Always one to make a grand entrance, my sweet, aren't you?" he drawled.
"Cut the droppings, Agulaar, what do you want here?" snarled Xandra.
"Ah, ouch! We Cat Gods have sensitivities, too, you know."
Xandra growled as she moved herself between Ginelle and the deity. "This is no social call, Agulaar, and you know I know it." She turned to Ginelle, who looked shaken with her tail fluffed up to twice its regular size. "Did he harm you? Threaten you? Try to talk you into something?"
Ginelle shook her head. "He saved me," she whispered, and at Xandra's incredulous stare, she added, "Baalh".
The dark female looked at Ginelle for a few moments, blue eyes intent. Then her pupils narrowed as she whipped her head about and rounded on Agulaar, who wore a quite infuriating grin.
"Why would you do something like that, Agulaar? You hate her, I know you do. You hate everything that means anything to me, don't you? Because I turned my back on you, and it's driving you crazy. So, why?"
Agulaar curled back his lips in a soundless snarl. "You'll find out..." he said, chuckled coldly, and disappeared.
Silence followed as both felines gathered their respective composures.
"Well, that was... interesting," Ginelle said finally, still shaken, as she ran a nervous tongue across her shoulder.
Xandra flicked an ear. "I wonder what he's up to," she murmured thoughtfully, staring fixedly at the spot where he had stood a moment before.
Neither of them paid any attention to the small black shape that was fluttering through the jungle towards them.
Cocksure hurtled through the trees like a maniac. He had some trouble steering - well, even more than he usually did - and his butt still hurt where Callicia had plucked his tailfeathers. In fact, it was starting to itch like crazy as the shafts were starting to grow back.
His mind was spinning. Being a literal, natural birdbrain, he was completely unequipped to deal with the dilemma he had gotten himself into.
"Hheeyy, wwaattcchh wwhheerree yyoouu'rree ggooiinngg," a sloth called lazily after him when the tip of his wing knocked a piece of food out of its claws, which sent the bird crashing off course, smack into a tangle of branches.
The clipped "sorry" he replied was lost on the placid creature, who was slowly inching along its branch in search of another morsel, the disturbance forgotten already, sloth style.
The Raven disentangled himself hastily and shook off a leaf that his beak had inadvertently speared. He wasn't too sure where he was going, but it seemed any place was better than... than wherever it was he happened to be now.
He glanced ruefully at his left foot, where Callicia had deftly pulled two of his claws. Just clipped their ends, to very little pain, actually, but the suggestion in the act had been that she would remove more body parts without turning a hair, if the mood took her. A very dangerous animal.
And Xandra. She was the one the strange feline was after. Just as formidable as Callicia in her own way, though at this moment it was Callicia who struck cold fear in his heart. Xandra was dangerous, sinister, and cold-blooded. But Callicia was pure evil. Add the touch of insanity, and his urge to get as far from her as his wings would carry him was more than reasonable.
Xandra, at least, was a familiar figure. True, he always seemed to be irritating her, although he never meant to, but the truth was, she had never actually harmed him. Well, once, she very nearly... well, he wasn't sure what she would have done, since he had managed to get away just in time. Anyway - he fluffed his feathers nervously, remembering that particular close call - she was a predator after all, and predators were supposed to be unpleasant characters. As a scavenger and opportunist, Cocksure himself of course had the sweetest disposition!
But even with predators, there seemed to be exceptions; that Ginelle, for example, seemed nice enough... The raven shrugged, no small feat for a bird in flight. Of course, Xandra probably wasn't so bad either, once you got to-
A large black object broke his momentum, in an area where he knew for a fact there had been no tree trunk the day before. With a muffled "oomph", the raven slammed head first into the obstacle, and with a startled squawk he suddenly found himself held by one wing, none too gently.
"Ow! What...? Oh, it be you, Xandra... he he... I be thinking you be a tree..." he gulped. "Um, would you mind... my wing...? Ouch!" He struggled briefly, but the panther's teeth dug deeper into his delicate wing with each move, so finally he just hung there, trembling.
"Pweease," he whined.
The black leopard was not impressed. "Hwag ah yoo gooing heah?" she inquired around a mouthful of feathers.
"I didn't mean to... it be an accident, really. Lemme down, you be breaking my wing..."
He could feel the soft vibrations running through him as Xandra chuckled. "Aah yoo fhuure? Wook gown."
Cocksure looked at her out of one eye before he complied. Below him, far below, he could see the forest floor through tangles of vines and uncomfortable looking, spiky branches. There was no way a large bird like him could regain control of his flight while crashing through that. He cleared his throat nervously. "Ah, Xandra... could you, like, just be easing me gently over onto that branch? I won't be no trouble to you, really."
There was a little giggle to the side. "I'm sorry," Ginelle said, "but I've never seen a bird that's afraid of heights."
Ignoring Cocksure's dark look, she addressed Xandra. "Come on, Xandra, put him down. I'm sure he has good reason to be racing through the trees as if the Red Bull himself was after him. Don't you, Cocksure?"
"Yes!" the raven exclaimed. "I mean no! No reason at all, really..."
Xandra eased him onto the branch beside her and pinned him under a paw before letting go of his wing.
"Is that so?" she asked pleasantly.
The raven nodded frantically.
The panther flexed her claws playfully, watching them make little dents in the bird's feathers. "Do tell."
"It be nothing, honest," Cocksure squeaked.
"Well, if it's truly nothing, then there is no need for you to be so nervous, raven," Xandra purred.
"I suppose if you ease your hold on him a little, he might calm down somewhat," Ginelle offered.
"Oh, I don't know, Ginelle, I have a feeling he's keeping something from us. Aren't you, Cocksure?"
By now, Cocksure's voice had a definitely hysterical quality to it. "I be swearing..."
"Ah ah ah, you're not going to swear falsely now, are ya? Amarok wouldn't like that..."
"Ama... " Cocksure squeaked again, and fell silent.
After a while, the black cat lost interest in the prone bird, and released him. "Get out of here," she snarled.
Fluffing his feathers, the bird took a few awkward hops away from those claws and teeth, realized he was now within reach of Ginelle, who might look peaceful, but was still a predator. She gave him a questioning look that he found somehow more disconcerting than the Princess of Terror's display of power.
"I be sorry!" he shouted. "I didn't be meaning to do it, honest! She be making me, or Amarok strike me down!"
"Who made you do what?" Xandra asked, advancing on him with suddenly renewed interest.
"Easy, Xandra," Ginelle cautioned, "he was just getting ready to tell us. Weren't you, Cocksure?"
"Well, he'd better," Xandra rumbled. "I'm losing my patience."
Cocksure's head whipped back and forth between the two a few times, before he cleared his throat loudly.
"See, it be like this..." his voice broke, and he began again. "It be Callicia... she..."
"Yes, go on," Xandra said, too calmly.
"She be massing an army and meaning to go against you at sundown tomorrow," he blurted. "She got the hyenas and the orangutans under Theodorus. She be meaning to take you alive, and do all sorts of gruesome things to you before she make you die a painful and slow death." His voice dropped. "And she got me... She be using me as a messenger. I be having no choice." He hung his head. "You can kill me now."
"Nobody's going to kill anyone here," said Ginelle, with a warning glance at Xandra, who looked faintly disappointed at that, Cocksure thought.
"Exactly what is keeping you from just flying away?" the petite leopard asked. "You're a bird, for Amarok's sake!"
"She be having ways of making you do her will," Cocksure said darkly. "You not be wanting to know."
Ginelle drew breath to respond, but Xandra spoke first. "I was wondering when she would make her move," she said thoughtfully. "Well, she can come and get me, for all I care. I'll go down fighting. She will regret this."
"But Xandra...." Ginelle began.
Xandra just looked at her, and Ginelle saw something in those blue eyes that had not been there before - peace.
"You just going to let her slaughter you?" Cocksure asked incredulously.
"What's it to you, raven," Xandra said a trifle bitterly. "I'm a monster, aren't I? The world will be a better place without me."
To that, Cocksure found no reply.
"Xandra," Ginelle said intently, "do you really think she'll stop there? Do you think she'll just kill you and be satisfied? From what the animals seem to think of her, she's utterly insane. There's a jungle to be taken. Nothing will be the same if she succeeds. It's your home, Xandra."
Xandra snorted. "This is no more a home to me than any other place. What has this jungle done for me? What have its creatures done for me? They hate me, for Agulaar's sake! And I don't blame them."
"And where will I be without you? I'm not ready to face this life on my own. I need you," Ginelle said quietly.
For a moment, Xandra's features softened. "You'll do just fine, Ginelle. I'm sure of it."
"Erm, excuse me?" Cocksure piped in. "There be something I should be mentioning..." Both feline heads swiveled to face him, looking as if they had forgotten all about him already. "Callicia be planning to take Ginelle, too, and torture her. She be meaning for you to watch her do it. After she be through with her, she be turning her over to Voracia."
"Then you must leave the jungle immediately," Xandra told her friend. "I want you safe."
Ginelle's fur bristled. "I'm not going anywhere, Xandra. I will not be sent away. I will fight by your side, for what it's worth."
"Ginelle, I don't-"
"I mean it, Xandra, don't try to stop me." Her green eyes sparkled, daring the Princess of Terror to object.
But Xandra would have none of it. "Ginelle, you're not staying with me, and that's final."
"But if I'm out there all alone, she might catch me anyway, and then you won't even know about it before it's too late," Ginelle retorted.
"She be right, you know," Cocksure offered. He was recovering somewhat from Xandra's harsh treatment, and had retreated to where the branch thinned enough to make walking unsafe for the cats.
Xandra pondered for a few moments. "Then I'll just have to take you to a place where you'll be safe, won't I?"
"But I don't-"
"Silence!" Xandra roared. Cocksure's head feathers flattened against his skull, and he saw Ginelle flinch as all spirit seemed to drain out of her.
"Very well, Xandra," she said quietly, head drooping.
If Cocksure hadn't found the notion so ludicrous, he might have said
that the great panther looked even more hurt than Ginelle did.
The Storm Builds
After the considerable ordeal of getting back down onto the ground, Ginelle was now hurrying once again after the Princess of Terror, who, it seemed, led her purposely through where the brush was at its thickest and spikiest. Xandra had not been very forthcoming about where she meant to take her that would be safe from Callicia. In fact, she had not spoken at all since that curt command for Ginelle to get on down from the tree already.
Cocksure didn't have quite as much trouble, being able to avoid the undergrowth by flying above it. Ginelle had no idea why the raven was still with them, but the wild chase had her too winded to inquire.
Presently, Ginelle began to notice her surroundings again - and found that they were entering the ravine that held the Man Ruins, Xandra's retreat.
"This is the place where you think I'll be safe?"
Xandra turned her head. "Wait and see," she said curtly.
By now, Ginelle was not only hurt, but also getting definitely angry with the big panther. Who was she to tell Ginelle what to do and what not? How could she send Ginelle away when she faced such great danger? The little leopard could not bear the thought of Xandra walking so willingly to her doom. She had to find a way to help her. Somehow. Whether Xandra wanted to or not.
Meanwhile, Xandra led her right up to the dread man temple, and through the crack in the wall into its main chamber. A sense of oppression covered her like a thick blanket, and unconsciously, she lightened her step, as if afraid some long-dead man deity might hear her, and be roused from its sleep.
Ginelle could see fairly well although it was almost dark in here, with light filtering in through the overgrown windows and cracks in the walls. Dust motes sparkled in the bright rays, twirling crazily where their passing disturbed them. Not a sound was to be heard outside.
In front of the pile of rubble that Ginelle had observed the day before, Xandra hesitated. For an instant, it looked like she was going to say something, but then she just shook her head. Ginelle felt tempted to say something, but the subdued mood of the place kept her silent.
There was a commotion at the crack where they had entered as the clumsy raven managed to somehow get himself wedged way up where the cleft was narrow. A trickle of debris, a subdued squawk that nevertheless echoed eerily throughout the chamber, and a few wingbeats later the bird joined them again. His coat was covered with dust, so that each flap of the wings stirred up a little cloud around him.
Xandra squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head slowly.
"Okay, Cocksure, this is as far as you go," she said firmly.
The panther snarled. "Out, I say! Go ahead and tell Callicia I will be ready for her."
At the mention of Callicia's name, poor Cocksure winced. Xandra was relentless. "Go, for Torran's sake, or whatever she's doing to you to, I swear I'll find something worse."
Xandra's wordless roar cut him off. This time, Cocksure saw the wisdom in a hasty retreat, and flapped out. On the way out, his wing clipped the edge of the wall, and he tumbled several times before he finally righted himself, and winged back into the jungle proper.
"We can't trust him right now," was all the explanation Xandra offered Ginelle.
To Ginelle's surprise, the panther now continued on into a lesser chamber towards the back that must have been built right into the mountain. This was in much better repair than the one they had come from, being protected by the rock around it. A peculiarly shaped opening way up in the wall behind them cast a bright beam of light that was trained on a large statue at the far end, leaving the rest of the room in relative darkness.
The statue itself was not only huge, it was also phenomenally ugly. The thing was man-like in appearance, except that it had a pawful and one arm, some of which held some obscure artifact, while others just seemed to wave threateningly. It was obviously female, and crouched atop the prone form of a much smaller male. Most details where obscure, and one of the arms had long since broken off at the elbow, but the golden glow from the beam of light gave it an awe-inspiring appearance. Ginelle stood entranced, torn between fear and worship. Surely this must be one powerful man goddess!
Xandra's impatient growl resounding through the chamber brought her out of her reverie. The panther had proceeded to the base of the statue. She motioned for Ginelle to follow, and promptly disappeared!
Ginelle advanced towards the statue, never taking her eyes off it. There, at its base, hidden from direct view, she could see a darker patch.
From within that patch, two luminous eyes appeared, accompanied by Xandra's hissed "what are you waiting for?"
Ginelle gaped. It was a secret tunnel! Cleverly hidden in the base of the statue, it was all but invisible until one was right upon it. Gingerly, she entered it, following the sound of Xandra's voice.
Because the mouth of the tunnel was so low and tight, Ginelle had to squeeze through on her belly. Inside, she kept still for a few moments, letting her catsight adjust to the deeper darkness. Her whiskers told her that the tunnel must me about twice as wide as she, and considerably higher than its entrance suggested; she suspected it was about the right height for a man to walk comfortably upright. It descended slightly. A musty but not unpleasant smell wafted up to her, but was gone before she could identify it. Other than that, the place smelled of old moss and humid rock. No man scent clung anywhere, nor the smell of any creature larger than a rat or lizard.
Once her night vision was fully functional, she could see Xandra, a darker shadow in the blackness, eyes glowing red with the residue of the weak light that filtered in from behind Ginelle. But even with the superior vision of her kind, Ginelle had to rely mainly on her sensitive whiskers for orientation.
"Come," Xandra murmured. "It's not far."
"Xandra, I still don't want to-"
The panther cut her off with a pained growl. "Ginelle, please! I couldn't bear... Just don't argue, okay?"
Sighing, Ginelle complied, padding along behind Xandra through the moist darkness.
An errant current of air carried another whiff of that intriguing smell; Ginelle raised her head so she could sniff it better, trying to discern its origin. It seemed to come from the walls. She put her head closer to investigate, and sure enough, there was some sort of strange fungus growing there.
Ginelle crept closer to get a better noseful - the smell was quite delightful. In fact, she had never felt so good in her entire life! The cavern seemed brighter, somehow, and she found that she could not think of much except that she wanted more of this.
Closer and closer she crept to the wall, until she could scrape a small bite off with her teeth. It didn't taste quite as exciting as it smelled, and so she was content to just let it rest on her tongue and drink deeply from its aroma.
She noticed that Xandra had gained somewhat on her, and hurried to catch up.
The cave was changing. For one thing, it was growing larger, and she noticed a few details that were quite remarkable. Large, natural pillars loomed all around. Some were smiling down at her, another was bowing and motioning her on in a very friendly manner. He looked quite comical, in a rock-hard way. What a wondrous place Xandra was leading her to!
Even better, she could hear traces of the Song floating all around, just scraps of that haunting melody, crude and gravely, perhaps, but easily recognizable. There was a choir in these caves! All they needed was a competent conductor...
"Oh, and whatever you do, don't sniff the fungus," Xandra warned over her shoulder.
Ginelle giggled. "What fungus?"
"The one that's growing all over here. You don't want to get too much of a noseful of that stuff."
"Whatever you say, dear," Ginelle said, grinning to herself.
Xandra paused for an instant, looking back at her sharply, but when Ginelle made no further comment, she just shrugged, and trotted on.
Presently, the big panther stopped. Ahead, the tunnel widened into a cave that ended in a spot of glaring daylight.
Ginelle had not spoken again during the trip, just plodded silently after her. From time to time, she thought she had heard amused sounds coming from the smaller leopard, but considering the way Ginelle felt about being sent away, surely that must have been just a trick of Xandra's mind. Unless...
"Ginelle, we're here," she said.
Xandra looked at her askance. "This cave opens to the shore of a large lake. Nobody should be able to find you here, so you're safe for now." She paused. "I- I'm sorry, Ginelle, but I feel it's for the best."
"Wonderful," Ginelle said again. She had started humming softly to herself, an extremely silly grin on her face. The acoustics in this place were simply stunning!
"Ginelle, are you all right?"
"Splendid, my dear, splendid. Don't you think, Mr. Quartz?" Ginelle's speech was strangely slurred as she addressed a vein of glittering stone in the wall of the tunnel. Then her eyeballs turned up, and she fainted.
Xandra groaned inwardly as she turned around fully to start nudging the senseless feline with her nose.
"Ginelle, Ginelle, can you hear me? Wake up."
It took a few moments of insistent shaking to bring the unconscious leopard around. Ginelle groaned and cracked half an eye open.
"You all right?"
"I'm great," Ginelle murmured. "I - I can't see, but I'm good."
"Try using both eyes."
"Oh, yeah. Much better."
"Think you can stand?"
"You mean I'm not?"
Sighing heavily, Xandra grabbed Ginelle by the scruff of her neck and heaved her to her feet. "There."
Ginelle shook herself, and looked up at the big panther. Her eyes widened, and she drew back.
"By the Gods!"
"What is it?" Now Xandra was confused.
"You are magnificent!"
The panther grunted. "Uh-huh. And you are drugged - that fungus is almost as potent as a man's tranquilizer. Anyway, a few good lungfuls of fresh air should... Get back here!"
Ginelle, having lost interest, had started wandering back into the tunnel. There had to be more of this delicious stuff... Besides, she was going to teach those stupid hunks of stone how to Sing properly!
"Well, Ginelle, I'll be going now." She blinked her eyes a few times as she took in once more the sight of the one creature in this jungle that refused to see her for the monster she was.
"What are we waiting for? Let's go! The rest of you, follow me!" Ginelle motioned with her head for the rocks to follow, and started back the way they had come.
"Hold it," Xandra growled.
The leopard stopped, and commanded, "At ease!" She turned to Xandra. "What?"
"You're not coming, Ginelle. Try to go outside and get some fresh air. You'll be fine here. You can... um..."
"Work on our Song? Mmm, yeah. Just between you and me, these guys have a looong way to go."
"Perfect. Ginelle, don't let anyone leave here. Understand? Stay here, and... work on your song. Have I made myself clear?"
"Uh, no. You're a little fuzzy around the edges. So you keep trying - You'll get there." She turned to face her imaginary rock band. "Now I want everyone this side of the cave.. We're gonna keep working till we get it right! So, let's start with the top! Are you ready? You! Hey, hey! You're standing like a stone... Relax...."
Rolling her eyes, the black feline started back into the tunnel. She hoped Ginelle would be fine. With time, the effect of the fungus would clear, and she would be able to find her way back into the jungle. Ideally, by that time everything would be over. It was for the best. Really, it was.
As the sound of the leopard's voice faded to a faint echo that bounced off the tunnel's walls, Xandra slowed her pace, considering. If Ginelle recovered too quickly, she would likely try and make her way back through the ruins, and put herself in danger, foolish as she was. That could not be allowed to happen.
Her blue eyes scanned the tunnel walls, finding what they sought even in almost total darkness. A natural pillar, off to the side, with a long crack down its center, that the panther detected with her sensitive whiskers. Carefully, she inserted her claws and pried, listening for the grinding deep inside the structure. The feline grunted with effort as she gave a last shove, and jumped clear just before a section of the tunnel collapsed in a heap of rubble.
It was hopeless. These guys might have the basics of Singing ingrained into them, but their voices were harsh and gravely, completely untrainable. Frustrated, Ginelle stepped outside to get a drink of water from the lake.
Still shaking her head in defeat, the leopard crouched by the shore and lapped up mouthfuls of the lukewarm water. It tasted faintly of fish, and algae, but not unpleasantly so. It reminded her that she was hungry. How long since she had eaten?
Well, no time for that now. She straightened, and drew a deep breath, savoring the sweetness of the fresh, moist air. She had to go back to her chore... of teaching ROCKS to sing???? She shook her head. What in Amarok's name did she think she was doing? Xandra had gone off into certain death, and she was trying to tickle emotion and song out of a bunch of granite slabs. She dimly remembered Xandra's warning about sniffing the fungus that grew on the walls of the tunnel.
Guiltily, she spat out the chunk of soft material that was still nestled under her tongue, before she went back to her pupils.
She cocked her head, listening. "You're perfectly right, Sir Graphite, Xandra's life is more important now," she said firmly. Why don't you guys just stay where you are, and I'll go help my friend real quick? I'll be back before you get a chance to move." She smiled. "Oh, I'm glad you're such a sensible, er hunk of stone."
And thus, setting her jaw determinedly, the petite leopard padded back along the dark tunnel.
She very nearly ran smack into a pile of debris that had not been there before. She felt around, using paws and whiskers, and her heart sank.
The way was blocked.
Xandra emerged from the hole, a darker shadow in the depth of the tunnel's blackness, and went straight to the pile of stones that was her brother's final resting place.
There she sat for a long time, just staring ahead, rigid like Agulaar's statue a few leaps away on the outside wall of the temple.
Her voice was like a rasp on brittle stone when she finally spoke. "Well, brother, looks like my past has at last caught up with me. I should probably feel flattered that she's gathering a whole army against me." She laughed bitterly.
"Anyway, I'll be with you soon, my brother. Too much has happened. Everybody hates me." She paused. "Well, it seems Ginelle doesn't, but then she doesn't know me. How could she not hate me when she learns of all the terrible things I've done? It really is for the best. Maybe that way she'll never have to find out." She sighed, deeply. "Let Callicia have me, I'm all she wants. As long as she gets me, she'll leave the others alone. That much, at least, I can do to make up..."
She trailed off, and sat staring into nothing once more. If she heard the flap of large wings outside the temple at one time, if she noticed the sun traveling on his way an setting majestically to the west, she gave no indication.
But then something did produce a reaction - or rather, someone did.
"Go away, Agulaar."
The cat god strutted up to her arrogantly and sniffed her. "Is it true what I heard? You don't really mean to just walk up to Callicia like the rabbit to the snake?"
"And why not, Agulaar? It's not as if I would be greatly missed."
"By Amarok, this little fluffball has taken more fight out of you than I thought," Agulaar exclaimed.
"Yeah well, I'm not the mindless killer anymore that you were so fond of. That's one battle you lost, War-God." Her voice was flat. She did not look at him even when he was next to her; her eyes were fixed. Not a muscle twitched in her chiseled features.
"Oh, but you are, my precious. I can still feel it inside you. And you do not want to die. Think about it, Princess. I can help you beat Callicia. You know I can. All you have to do is ask."
Xandra's pupils flickered briefly. "Go away," she said again.
"Ah but you know I can't do that. What kind of a God of War would I be if I allowed my own Chosen to go down without a fight?"
The female looked at him askance. "Whatever gave you the idea that I don't intend to fight?," She asked the god. "I will take as many with me as I can, but let's face it, even I can't win against a whole army."
"Not on your own,that is," said Agulaar with a suggestive grin.
"Forget it," was Xandra's curt reply.
The Cat God looked up at the ceiling theatrically. "Can't blame me for not trying," he muttered, and vanished. His parting words hung hollowly in the air above. "Remember, all you have to do is ask."
Meanwhile, Ginelle, dragging herself whisker by whisker up the cliff that separated the bay from the jungle beyond, was not a happy cat just now.
She had made her way back to the lakeshore as quickly as possible, resisting the delicious smell of the fungus beckoning to her, oblivious to the strange and wondrous shapes still calling out to her in their off-key voices.
Once there, she had seen two possible avenues out of this place - swimming, or climbing. In her time with the mans, the largest body of water she had ever seen had been the pool in her enclosure. The size of this lake daunted her a bit. Besides, she told herself, scaling the cliff would be the shorter route. Surely it must be.
Now, hanging there five leaps above ground, she was reminded again of how lousy a climber she was.
Muttering under her breath about the unfairness of life in general, and the pigheadedness of one black leopard in particular, she pulled herself up towards another ledge, and shuddered as her claws slipped briefly, dislodging a few pebbles that tumbled down clicking softly. Oh, she would give that monkey-brain a piece of her mind when she saw her again!
In the end, her own stubbornness persevered, and she made it safely across and into the jungle proper.
Not pausing for more than a quick breather, she got her bearings, and took off at a dead run.
She knew exactly who she was looking for, and as if by a miracle, she almost bowled him over just as he was finishing a drink down by the river with some of his packmates.
Scrabbling to avoid splashing into the water in her frantic efforts to avoid collision, Ginelle ended up flat on her belly with all fours splayed, right at the big lead wolf's paws.
Before she could move another muscle, she was surrounded by a pawful of large wolves, regarding her silently out of amber eyes, daring her to make a false move.
"All right, everybody, keep cool," Ginelle said quickly while she carefully got back to her feet. "I'm not here to hurt anybody. I need your help, Herac."
If the large wolf had been taken off guard by Ginelle's spectacular entry, or the suspicious absence of the Princess of Terror, he had given little indication. But surprise registered clearly on his sharp canine features at her request.
"My help? How so?"
The leopard quickly related what they had learned about Callicia's plans. Herac listened patiently until she finished, although his expression became more and more incredulous.
"Are you suggesting I put the pack at risk to help save my archenemy's sorry hide?"
"She has no chance on her own," Ginelle pleaded.
Isegrim, who had been keeping in the background, spoke up. "Well, Ginelle, I hate to tell you this; that cat may be your friend, but she won't be missed much around here."
"You don't understand," Ginelle said. "She's changed. The Xandra I got to know isn't the monster you think she is."
Herac shook his head slowly. "No offense, leopard, but it's going to take more than the word of one of her kind - even if that one is a Singer - to convince me that the Princess of Terror could be anything other than what we know her to be."
Ginelle drew a deep breath. This was going to take a little more convincing. Not that she had seriously expected it to be easy...
"But, have you thought about what will happen after Callicia wins? You don't seriously think she'll just happily go back to where she came from? She's got the hyenas and a large band of apes and who knows what else at her command. She might just decide that she likes conquering. This isn't just about Xandra. It's about all of you."
The big wolf considered that.
"She might have a point, you know," Isegrim put in. "Much as I hate to admit it." He flashed her a canine grin.
Herac sighed deeply. "You're probably right, Isegrim. We don't know enough about Callicia to rule out the possibility that she's out for more than just revenge on the old terror."
"So, I guess that means we call a Great Gathering," said Isegrim. "Hasn't happened in a while."
"I'll say," said Herac.
"So, do you think we should..."
"Excuse me, guys?" Ginelle was bristling a bit at being left out of the conversation again. But at least it looked like they were going to help.
Both lupine heads turned towards her. There was something about those intense amber eyes that Ginelle always found a little disconcerting.
"I... I guess that means you're with me on this?" she asked carefully.
Herac smiled wryly. "Doesn't look like we have much choice. We may even owe you a thanks for the warning. That Callicia character does seem to be a bit of a threat."
"Well, I do what I have to do," the leopard said stoutly.
Herac's smile was genuine. "You have integrity, cat. I can't help but admire that, even if I think your loyalty is directed towards the wrong creature."
Ginelle let that pass. She thanked the wolves profoundly, and set off to find another King of the jungle. She knew she was crazy to even consider asking him, but she had to try.
"You can't be serious!" Mahogany exclaimed. "We are deer. We do not fight. It is against the Circle. I should be insulted that you even approached me with this."
"Well, I know I'm new here, and I don't know much of the ways of the wild yet. But I know enough of the Circle to know that Callicia is the one perverting it. If she isn't stopped, nothing will ever be the same again."
"Listen, you are a warmhearted creature, unschooled in our ways. But we are on opposite sides of the Circle. You should be hunting me, not asking me for help, even if we are brother and sister. But I guess you will need time to learn all this. I any case, I can't go against my nature, nor will I ask it of others of the herd. I'm sorry, leopard."
"Won't you at least consider it?" Ginelle asked plaintively.
"I will not. But I wish you luck."
"Well, thanks," Ginelle said dryly, and went on her way, disheartened.
By the time Ginelle had asked the help of all the creatures she could think of, she realized that things were getting a bit pathetic. Aside from Herac's pack, she had enlisted the dubious help of Shakhi the Jackal, a rather ferocious wild boar - she'd first had to convince him to let her down from the tree she had sought refuge in after his vicious attack, and suspected he had agreed solely because of the prospect of being officially allowed to gore a few of his predators - a toothless aging tiger, and, most embarrassing of all, two squirrels named Frilly and Lace. These two had heard her Singing to the old elephant, and had practically begged to be of help.
She would have much preferred the help of such as formidable as the stag, or others among the horned beasts, but aside from Mahogany, she had not been able to approach any of them close enough to address them.
Once, an angry hippo protecting her calf had charged her, bellowing at the top of her lungs, little black eyes glittering furiously. After just barely scrambling out of the big animal's path, and remembering her run-in with the one-eyed elephant, Ginelle had prudently given up on the idea of approaching any other large creatures. How anything this big and heavy could move so quickly and aggressively was beyond the little leopard!
Now, running out of ideas, tired, and hungry, the leopard allowed herself a brief rest and a drink from the cool river.
The smell of rain was still in the air, and indeed by now thick, heavy clouds were massing on the eastern horizon, hanging low but towering high, accentuated by a low, distant rumble of thunder. Ginelle shook herself briefly. She hated getting wet.
As she crouched down to lap some more of the cool water, the high-pitched chatter of apes overhead made her look up - in time to see a large net descend upon her.
Drawing a deep breath, a large black shape nodded once more silently to the mound that held her dead brother, before she stepped out into the late afternoon.
Almost sundown now, although the bulging mass of heavy rainclouds darkened the sky before its time. An errant breeze carried a strong smell of rain. The warm humidity in the air was even now almost palpable, made breathing a chore. Of all the times, Callicia would have to pick a day where they would get wet! At least the water would wash away the blood. Hunting was bad when the earth reeked of blood. Prey feared and hated the smell. Not that it would concern her much after this was over.
Head held proudly, tail erect, the black panther strode majestically out into the jungle, waiting for her nemesis to make her move. Her night black fur swallowed what little light there remained, with only the occasional steel-blue glimmer where an errant ray of sunlight grazed her glossy coat. Two chips of blue ice that were her eyes stood out from the shadowlike form in startling brilliance.
Ginelle was safe. That was all that counted.
Now, to go out there and take as many enemies with her as she possibly could. Who knew, maybe she would even get a chance to whack Callicia herself. She doubted the infernal feline would have the backbone to meet her one-on-one, though. The crossbreed might be insane, but she was no fool.
As she walked through the brush, she could sense the jungle holding its breath. Silence had fallen, and a gloom deeper than that of the cloud-laden sky hung in the air. Even the wind that had been carrying the promise of impending rain had died.
The calm before the storm.
Something bright moving among the bushes caught her attention. A large, feline shape flitted soundlessly in and out of vision.
Xandra froze, focusing all her senses. No scent, no sound, no stirring of leaves or ground - nothing to tell her there had been anything there at all. There was only the oppressive silence of the jungle. And yet there was something...
Back arched and tail bristling, Xandra faced the spot where the shape had disappeared.
"Show yourself." Her voice was a low, insistent snarl. Razor-sharp claws flexed unconsciously, digging into the soft, moss-covered ground. Whatever was out there - she was ready.
And then, suddenly, there she stood. Again, there had been nothing to announce her presence by the way of sound, scent or movement. She was just there.
Xandra's eyes widened. "You!" she breathed.
As sundown drew near, Callicia found it more and more difficult to contain her excitement. At last, at long last, the one who was responsible twice over for her suffering would be brought to justice!
Checking once more that her prisoner was secure, she continued pacing in front of her lair. She had not seen the raven in a while. She could have used him now, to act as a messenger between her and the troops. No matter. She would eat him when she saw him again.
"You won't get away with this you - monster!" she heard the captured leopard snarl. She chuckled softly.
The net had been a brilliant idea. Growing up among humans did have its advantages. As feared as nets and cages were in the wild, no jungle denizen would have actually built one, even if anyone had known how it was done. But with her instructions and... persuasive skills, the apes had done a decent job in setting the trap.
"Oh, now you're scaring me," Callicia said with mock fear. "Do you really think the big bad cat will hurt me?"
Ginelle just glared at her from her less than comfortable position, suspended upside down, paws up, inside the sturdy net.
"What, has the little fluffball lost its voice?" Callicia mocked.
"Why do you hate her so?" Ginelle said quietly.
Callicia brought her face close to the netted leopard - close enough so that Ginelle could smell the faint odor of hog from the other's mouth. Immaculate white fangs bared, Callicia hissed softly, bitterly, "What's there not to hate? She made me... look at me!"
Ginelle craned her neck a little to comply. "You're a beautiful creature," she stated truthfully.
"Pah!" spat Callicia. "I'm a bloody freak, that's what I am. Can't even have cubs." A wistful look fluttered across her finely crafted face, and was gone.
She was indeed beautiful, and the strangely patterned coat, spots interspersed with stripes, added an exotic allure. She was also quite large, almost as tall as a tiger, but with the stocky build of a leopard. Quite unlike any creature Ginelle had ever encountered... and that probably meant...
"I don't understand... what kind of creature are you, anyway? And how did Xandra 'make' you?"
"Thanks to your friend," she sneered around the word, "I am now the only one of my kind. She killed my mother and my brothers. They died a horrible death, there in the tiger cage."
Callicia seemed to have forgotten for a moment that she had an audience. "Ironic, isn't it, that her own, dear son fathered me..." She tilted her head, as if listening to some unheard voice.
"Wa... wait! You say Xandra has a son? She never said..."
Callicia gave a little start, but then she laughed. "There are many things you don't know about your dear friend, fluffball. And she probably knew darn well why she kept it that way. But that doesn't matter now. You two won't have another chance for chitchat."
Ginelle squeezed her eyes closed for a moment. This was some news! But how could she trust this creature? Callicia had the marks of insanity clearly written across her features. And yet, her story rang true, especially since Xandra had been so hesitant to talk about it. Ginelle did not know what to think.
"So," she ventured carefully, "you're a crossbreed? A man-made creature?"
Callicia's eyes narrowed to slits, and the fur on her neck bristled. A vicious snarl distorted her face, and for a moment she looked like she was going to gut the trapped leopard then and there. Instead, she just raised a paw, and slowly dragged a needle-sharp claw along the side of Ginelle's face, hard enough to draw blood. Ginelle clamped her teeth together and tried hard not to flinch.
"Don't you ever," hissed Callicia, "ever, mention humans again in my presence!" Her voice was like white hot lava running over dry grass.
Then, as quickly as the rage had come on, it was gone. The crossbreed dropped on her haunches and began washing herself, starting with the claw that had scratched Ginelle's face.
"So, you see?" she said nonchalantly. "She made me, in more ways than one." She smiled beatifically, and her piercing green eyes looked directly at the leopard. " And for that, I'm going to kill her. And I mean to take my time about it."
Xandra stared. The other was a leopard, but not a common one. Far from a common one, in more than one sense. Recognition did nothing to ease Xandra's tension. It could not be...
Her spotted, creamy white coat stood out brightly against the dark of the jungle, thicker and longer, and lighter in color than was common here. For she was a snow leopard. Her kind lived in the high, cold-bitten regions far to the east.
Pale amber eyes gazed at Xandra with an unearthly intensity, seeming to bore right into her soul. And yet those eyes were filled with the quiet calm and peace of one who had nothing to fear, and whom nobody needed to fear who sought no quarrel with her.
Far from being at ease, Xandra nevertheless relaxed her pose somewhat. She still could not quite believe who she was seeing.
Upon hearing her name, the strange leopard inclined her head briefly in acknowledgment. "Xandra," she said softly. Her voice had a strange, lilting quality to it, as if the name felt somehow unfamiliar to her tongue.
"But I thought you had died... how can you be here?"
The snow leopard looked at her blankly.
"But of course," Xandra continued dryly, "you didn't understand me then, so there's no reason to believe you do now."
Slowly, she approached her former mentor. The complete lack of scent still puzzled her a little. Now, looking at the snow leopard more closely, she found that Mayla's shape seemed to be just a touch translucent. Suddenly the truth sank in.
"Well, either I'm delirious, or you're a ghost. You really are dead. God's, I'm so sorry."
Mayla said something in that strange language that Xandra had never really had a chance to learn.
"Damn," muttered Xandra. "I thought as much. I'm sorry, but you make no more sense to me than the gargling of the river back there."
Mayla spoke again, gibberish.
Xandra gave a frustrated growl. "I had thought that ghosts could make themselves understood when they need to. You do have something to say, don't you?"
The snow leopard looked at her intently, the clear amber of her eyes seeming to grow in her face, pulling in the crystal blue orbs that were trained on them. Her mouth did not move, but the word could be heard clearly.
Startled at hearing her own language, Xandra made no reply at first.
"I fully intend to," Xandra said, recovering. "I will take as many with me as I can."
Mayla just looked at her.
"What? You don't honestly think I have the slightest chance of survival here, do you? Even with all that you've taught me..."
"Fight. Live," the snow leopard insisted.
"Easy for you to say, you're dead," Xandra muttered dryly.
With a touch of impatience, Mayla closed her eyes briefly, and began to Sing softly, for Xandra's ears only. Where Ginelle's Song was as yet tentative, searching, Mayla's was sure and assertive, her crystal clear voice giving the notes the vibrancy of life and the power that only one long experienced in Singing could control. Quiet though the Song was, Xandra could feel it stir her very soul, rousing the wild energies that she drew upon daily without knowing, calling them to the surface. The black panther was rapt.
Then, abruptly, the Singing stopped, and Xandra experienced a sense of loss. Thoughts flashed through her mind, of meeting the strange leopard years ago, of learning new fighting techniques from her, of fighting side by side, man thundersticks roaring... of the Song, that she had felt all her life like every wild animal, but had first heard up there on the snow-covered, rocky reaches of Mayla's homeland. Of Ginelle, her sweet nature, her talent for the Song, her gentle green eyes.
Blue eyes met amber again, and Xandra just nodded, her eyes stinging.
Fight, live. She would try.
Mayla smiled. She turned and walked slowly away. Her creamy white shape faded into the dark green of the jungle after a few steps.
"Careful, over there, you silly brutes!" Callicia hollered. "Do you want her to work free? Tighten that rope some more, and pull down those branches so she stays hidden from view. Let's make this a surprise for my dear friend." The crossbreed smiled a sickly-sweet smile and winked at her prisoner.
If apes could have paled, these two orangutans would have gone dead white. As it was, they looked suddenly weak in the knees, and hurried to comply with their commander's wishes to the best of their ability. You did not cross this one, not even unintentionally!
Ginelle, whose jaws and feet had been tied together by a piece of vine, gave her captor a dark look. She had been unceremoniously dragged all the way here on the prickly jungle floor, and now the net that was her prison was tied to the sturdy branch of a large tree. While she could see out through its thick foliage well enough, she imagined that she was fairly well hidden from view. Just about every spot on her body burned with bruises and scratches.
At last, Callicia grunted in approval, and sent the two apes scurrying to their battle stations.
The time had come. Everything was prepared, the prisoner moved to where she could have the best possible effect, apes and hyenas hidden in the trees and bushes all around. Their scent was there despite the fact that they had covered it in carrion and dirt (oh, how Theodorus and his gang had protested against that!); there were simply too many of them to hide the smell effectively. But she had chosen this spot so the only feasible ways to approach were upwind, and with the breeze blowing strong as it was now, and the impending rain, Xandra would be right in their midst before she had a chance to detect them.
She was in an area where the snaking mountain ridge curved slightly outward, putting a sheer rock wall behind her and to one side, while in front of her the ground was clear of larger trees for the space of about a pawful of leaps. Most of the tall grass and the bushes that did grow there, as well as some of the trees at the edge of the jungle proper, had been trampled flat not too long ago, presumably by a passing band of elephants, or foraging hippos.
Only the tree that held the net and Ginelle stood within the clear area, beside a flat slab of rock about half a leap high and one leap across, backed against the rocky base of the mountain ridge. It was on top of this rock that Callicia planned to make her stand.
Callicia's pulse raced. Soon now... Thunder rumbled in the distance.
Now, to lure the panther here...
To Uphold The Circle
Fight. Live. The prospect was beginning to sound better.
As Xandra padded through the brush, she considered her options. There were things she could do to to tilt the odds a little bit in her favor. Veering towards a stagnant branch of the river, she found what she sought - a still, overgrown pond, it's murky water covered in a thick, slimy layer of dead and dying algae.
The panther wrinkled her nose in disgust. Getting wet was bad enough, but this - this was distasteful! As if in response, a bolt of lightning tore the sky, followed by a sharp crack of thunder.
Lifting her head high to keep it out of the water, and the fetid odor out of her nostrils, she stepped gingerly into the lukewarm water, shuddering with revulsion.
When she emerged again, she was covered in a layer of slimy green goo, reeking faintly of decay but not of cat, and most importantly, about as slippery as an eel.
Resisting the urge to shake her feet and rid herself of the wet, smelly stuff, Xandra reared up against the trunk of a tree and dug her claws into its bark, stretching as high up as she could go. Nothing like a good warm-up to get you ready for battle!
An errant gust of wind brought something more than just the smell of the thunderstorm, before the wind turned again. There were hyenas close by. Quite a large number of them, although they had rolled in dirt and carrion to cover up their scent, as was their disgusting but effective habit. She could also detect apes, although their number was uncertain. If she had not been so sure that no orangutan would submit to the indignity, she would have said they had rolled in the muck just like the hyenas had.
A memory from somewhere she couldn't place popped into her mind, of two she-mans she knew better than she knew any other creature, in the face of an invading man army. Two lone she-mans, one of them injured, dying, yet they had driven them back against all odds...
The panther shook herself, both angry and confused. Where had that come from?
In any case, that freak gust of wind told her exactly which area to avoid. If she could circle around and approach them from a different direction than they expected, she might be able to get the element of surprise working for her.
Darker and darker the clouds were building up, as the panther made her way up the tail end of the mountain range, a fair distance from where her sense of smell placed her enemies. She hoped Callicia was with them. She wouldn't put it past the crossbreed to use her whole army of creatures just to put her off track. But then again, she suspected that Callicia would want her troops to back her up, even if she meant to fight Xandra by herself. Whichever was the case, the Princess of Terror was ready.
"What do you mean, you can't find her?" Callicia hissed. "It's a goddamn black leopard, for Christ's sake."
"Who in the Netherworld is Christ?" one of the orangutans whispered to the other.
"Silence," the feline roared. She glared at the two wretches before her until they were sufficiently cowed. "She's a large creature. It's not like she can just vanish into the ground."
"B-but Mistress, she's the Princess of Terror... not just any l-"
Callicia cut him off with a snarl. "I want no excuses. If you don't find her before the sun is down, you are going to face the wrath of the Queen of Terror! And now go!"
The two apes squeaked and almost fell over each other in their haste to get out of her sight. Quite satisfactory.
Halfway up the mountain, Xandra paused. Her nose had once more caught a scent, coming from somewhere behind this time, and close by. Tiger? Could be. Callicia was half tiger. And it was following her. Sniffing once more to make sure of its position, Xandra continued up the slope.
When yet another scent came to her, she did not stop again. More carrion. But moving, pacing her. So it had to be another band of hyenas. Small, though, two or three at most. They were off to her right, at the foot of the mountain range. They must have been there since before she had bathed in the pond, and picked up her new scent.
The panther drew a deep breath. So they knew where she was. The game was on!
The realization set Xandra's blood pumping; a surge of feral power heightened her senses until she was sure she could hear the Song of the Wild in the grass growing, feel it in the rocks eroding under her paws. Her whiskers fairly hummed with it.
She was a warrior, a survivor; this was her way. She sent silent thanks to her ghostly mentor. The huntress was once again on the prowl.
A high-pitched chatter almost under her feet momentarily brought her out of her battle-frenzy. Two jittery little squirrels scrambled away to a safer distance even as she caught sight of them, both talking at once and gesticulating wildly. Squirrel speech was almost too fast and squeaky to follow at normal times, and this pair was quite obviously upset about something. Xandra's ears flattened against her skull.
"Get out of here," she snarled irately. "I can't be bothered with you right now. Besides, you're too scrawny for dessert."
Undaunted, the tiny animals continued their display. When Xandra started to walk on, the little things actually jumped in her path, trying to make her listen.
"Do you have the raving sickness, or are you just tired of living?" the panther growled. If either was true, she would do them a favor if she just squished them now. But their reckless behavior had piqued her curiosity, and she looked at them with mild interest. It appeared they were mates, one male, one female.
"Imfrilly," the female chirped, racing half a leap to the side, then stopping abruptly and raising herself on her hind feet, bushy tail erect, nose twitching.
"Imlacewevecome," the male said on top of her as he was running up a bush, where he froze, hanging upside down.
"Totellyousomething," the female piped in again, before the male had finished speaking. By this time she had zipped back in front of Xandra, to be joined by her mate an instant later.
"It would help if only one of you spoke at a time," Xandra grated impatiently. "And stay still, for Amarok's sake!"
"Imfrilly," the female said again. Tiny squirrel feet pattered in place, wanting to move about. Her little black eyes almost popped out of her head with the sheer effort to stay in one spot.
"Andimlace," the male added, almost managing to let his mate finish speaking first. He was clamping his tiny teeth together, trying to pronounce each word slowly and distinctly. He knew how slow-witted most larger creatures were.
"All right," Xandra rumbled. "Frilly and Lace. And I assume you know who I am?" Frantic nods. "Well, what do you want? I'm in a bit of a hurry here."
No sooner had she finished speaking, than Pandemonium in the shape of two little rodents broke loose again. The female - Frilly - even scampered up Xandra's leg to perch between her shoulder blades!
"Itsterribleitsterriblethesingeris," she explained calmly. Xandra's head whipped around to snap at the irritating little critter, but the squirrel was already gone, sitting up on her haunches on a dead branch over a leap away.
"Indangershesbeencapturedandshesgoingtobetortured," Lace supplied synchronously. He was running in circles now, unable to stand still but understanding the large animal's difficulty in following what he and his mate were saying.
"Orworse," the female said seriously after joining Lace in his frenzied circling.
"Youmustcomequickly," Lace was informing the panther in the meantime.
As one, both squirrels froze, tails raised high and tufted ears perked, looking at the huge feline questioningly. As if she had understood even one word of their senseless chatter!
"Oh, fruitbats! Why do I bother," Xandra muttered crossly, and stalked away, this time ignoring Lace, who threw himself almost under her feet in a daring maneuver, and Frilly's frantic chitter that faded into the distance.
The two squirrels looked after panther's retreating rear, their noses twitching in unison.
"Now that's..." said Lace, brushing his forefeet across his face.
"... A rude one," agreed Frilly, frowning in disapproval.
"Pretty dense, too," they said together.
"Wonder what the Singer sees in her..."
Frilly looked at her mate fondly. "Let's not be too harsh, love." She waggled her ears suggestively.
He looked back at her, comprehending. "Soulmates?"
She nodded. "Soulmates. Must be."
For an eyeblink or two, they stayed in thoughtful silence. Then, a look of fierce determination transformed their peaceful little features.
Almost too swiftly for the eye to see, they hopped a little way down the rocky slope and up into the nearby treetops, their world.
They had a battle to get ready for.
Shaking her head in mild disbelief, Xandra trotted on, extending her senses once more into the surrounding jungle. The tiger was still out there. Now that Xandra analyzed its sent, she realized that it wasn't Callicia; this smelled like a male. Very puzzling. Maybe he was just there by coincidence. Not many tigers left hereabouts, though. Very few escaped the man thundersticks. Those few rarely if ever bothered with her.
What was even more startling was the fact that the two other animals pacing her were not hyenas. They were wolves. Now, she knew for a fact that Herac was no friend of hers, but wolf and panther had a deep respect for each other, and she was certain that his sense of honor would forbid him any alliance with Callicia.
Then why were these wolves following her? Were they even of Herac's pack? She didn't know of any other significant packs in the area, so she had to assume they were. What in the Red Bull's name were they doing? Maybe they were on her side...
She chuckled dryly. That was about as likely as... as two squirrels throwing themselves in her path... She hissed softly. It was no use wondering about it. She would have to take things as they came.
A tiger, wolves, squirrels. Was the whole jungle going crazy today?
Heavy, humid air made breathing a chore. Callicia stood proudly on the tall rock in the clearing, scanning the treeline for signs of commotion. Waiting.
Sunset, and her minions had not returned. They were to set out, get Xandra's attention and taunt her into following them here.
No time to be angry now. Either Xandra had killed them, or they had failed to find her, in which case they would soon wish the first had been the case.
Her plan was failing.
Utterly frustrated, she bellowed her rage out into the jungle.
It could not be!
"Waiting for someone?" The voice behind her was icily calm.
A slow, cold smile spread on the crossbreed's face and was firmly in place by the time she had turned her head to look up to where Xandra stood on top of the ridge.
"Why Xandra," she said pleasantly, hiding her surprise. "Welcome to my party." Her green eyes glittered with menace.
Callicia tried to pick up the black cat's scent, but her efforts were futile, for the panther was upwind - in the direction she had thought the least likely, if not downright impossible, for anyone to approach this site from. The crest Xandra now stood upon was more than two leaps above the nearest pawholds worth mentioning on either side. She must have flown up there!
She did catch a noseful of the gunk the hyenas had bathed in - best not to dwell on its exact ingredients! Chances were Xandra caught this, too, but she would not be able to identify its sources. If it wasn't so very disgusting, Callicia might have tried that particular ruse herself some time.
"So," she said to the dark feline up on the ridge. "How you wanna get down here? It's a pretty darn deep drop." She was examining a forepaw, removing dirt from between her claws with her teeth. The task required her full concentration, it appeared.
Xandra dropped onto her haunches and proceeded to wash her chest, looking for all the world as if she was not balanced precariously on a ridge that was scarcely broader than her paw, but somewhere safely on the ground, with no maniac half-tiger and an army of bloodthirsty animals to worry about.
She watched the crossbreed out of the corner of her eye as she said lazily, "Why don't you join me up here? Nothing here to distract us." She put a peculiar emphasis on the word "distract", and was rewarded by a flick of Callicia's eyes towards the forest. The half-tiger smelled quite sure of herself.
"Oh, sure, so you can bat me out of the air before I have a chance to find my footing. I'm not suicidal, despite everything you've done to me." Callicia continued to work on her other paw, still not looking up. "I'd really much rather you came down here," she added pleasantly.
Then suddenly, a quick flick of a striped and spotted tail, a barked command, and chaos broke loose among the treetops. The high-pitched chatter of excited orangutans erupted even as something hard struck Xandra's chest, unbalancing her before cluttering down the steep incline of the ridge. The apes were hurling rocks at her! Another missile hit her, and another. She just barely dodged a fourth that would have taken her right eye out.
"It was just a thought," snarled the panther when she finally regained her balance amidst the barrage. Without further ado, she launched herself into the air in a powerful leap, roaring out her battle cry.
The sky chose this moment to open up its floodgates. A flash of lighting brightened the sky and momentarily framed the leaping cat in a dazzling halo that lingered for a few eyeblinks, quickly followed by a huge crack of thunder. First one large drop fell, then several more. A moment later a rushing torrent of raindrops drowned out most other sounds.
By this time, Xandra had touched down on top of the large tree that grew close to where Callicia perched. Using one of the upper, sturdy branches to land on, she pushed herself off again, landing lightly as only a cat can on the rock beside the crossbreed. There was a fierce grin on her face.
Rocks continued to rain down from the treetops, until one of them hit Callicia on the top of her head.
"Idiots," she roared. "Stop that!"
The rocks stopped. Xandra chuckled mirthlessly.
"Well, I'm here," she said. "Let's play."
If Callicia was impressed by the impossible jump she had just witnessed, she did not show it. However, her demeanor had changed. She stood motionless, hackles rising, her eyes never leaving the black panther. Only her tail slashed back and forth violently.
"Oh, do let's," she said mildly.
One moment the two felines were standing still, eyeing each other menacingly, the next they were a snarling blur of orange and black, teeth chomping, claws raking.
The apes cheered.
The crossbreed had the advantage of greater mass, and she knew how to use it, slowly pushing the panther nearer to her edge of the rock, all the while trying to fling her front legs around Xandra's rump in a feline embrace.
Now the panther's preparations were paying off. The questing claws found little purchase on the algae Xandra had bathed in. Every time it looked like Xandra would be crushed by the other's bulk, a little turn or a twist were enough to free her, to Callicia's utter frustration.
The heavy rain in turn made footing treacherous. The ground could not accommodate this much water this quickly, and soon the jungle floor looked like a glittering lake, splattered by the deluge. The lichen-covered face of the rock was becoming as slippery as Xandra's coat.
The tangle of fur and claws cleared up as the cats paused, both panting only slightly, facing each other with raised backs and bristling tails. Battle frenzy was blazing in two sets of feline eyes - chill blue and hazy green.
"I'm going to take you alive," Callicia grated. "You're gonna die slowly."
"Don't count your cubs before they're born," Xandra retorted.
Rain drenched them both, forming their fur into wet spikes and making small droplets run along their whiskers.
With a wordless howl, Callicia flung herself at the panther once more.
"Oh, my, did I strike a nerve there?" Xandra taunted as she barely dodged the attack. Her evasive action brought her dangerously close to the edge of the rock, where she scrabbled frantically on the slippery surface for a few breathless heartbeats.
Never one to pass up an opportunity, even when all but blind with fury, Callicia closed in again. A powerful head-but was enough to upset the flailing panther's equilibrium. Clawing the rock helplessly and howling in outrage, the black feline slid down the ledge.
From her uncomfortable prison a leap and a half away, Ginelle had been able to follow most of the events by craning her neck painfully.
Her whole body ached; Callicia had been far from gentle with her. Scratches covered her face and flanks. Nothing serious, just enough to smart, and burn fiercely whenever a quick movement made them break open again. The bumpy journey here, being dragged, it seemed, through where the bristles were at their thickest, had not helped any.
Rocking back and forth as much as her ties would allow, she had managed to put the net in a twisting motion, so that now it spun back and forth slowly, affording her a clear view of the battle scene, then swinging around until she was forced to look at the rock wall behind her, pausing there, to spin slowly backward.
In this fashion, she had seen Xandra appear up on the ridge even before she had made herself known, had watched her sail gloriously through the air, framed by the flash of lightning - that had been an image Ginelle would never, ever forget! - and engage Callicia in battle. Her heart had missed a beat or two when the black leopard had landed on the very branch that her prison was suspended from. But Xandra never saw her, being so intent on her enemy.
And then, the fateful fall down from the rock. It was not a long drop, but Xandra was so unbalanced by Callicia's powerful blow that she didn't have enough time to twist around, and landed with a wet thud on her side. Her claws made little furrows in the soaked ground as she righted herself. Before she had time to get her bearings, rocks were flying once more from the trees where the orangutans were hidden, one scoring painfully on her snout. Ginelle's breath caught when she saw a glistening trickle of blood appear at the panther's nose. It might be a trick of the light, but she thought one of Xandra's pupils was suddenly larger than the other. That wasn't good.
Momentarily dazed, the panther only saw the pawful of hyenas when they were already upon her. Just then, the scene once again left Ginelle's field of vision as the net continued its journey around. She could do nothing but growl softly in frustration, and listen as well as she could.
A deep rumbling erupted and slowly built up to become a ferocious snarl, broken by what must be lightning quick paw swipes of the panther, each one punctuated by a sharp yelp. Growls and yips from the hyenas, and the sound of teeth connecting to flesh; she could not say whose. But there seemed to be many more hyenas now; at least two pawfuls, maybe more.
From just beside her, Callicia barked an order. "Quick! Get the other net. Don't let her get away! Hurry up, fools."
Maddeningly, the sounds intensified, Xandra's snarling changing into a furious roar, muffled thuds, the scrabbling and sloshing of feet in the muddy ground that was still trying to soak up the deluge. The net stopped, about to swing back.
When, at long last, Ginelle could see again, Xandra was constrained by a net similar to the one she herself was in, only stronger. Three pawfuls of apes sat on it to keep it down, and two hyenas perched on top of her, one with his teeth poised above her jugular. Only Callicia's snapped command held those teeth back.
Of the hyenas who had initially charged her, not one remained standing. One of the apes lay staring sightlessly, one limp hand still holding a rock. Ginelle tried not to think about whose blood it might be, coating that rock.
Where were the wolves? They had promised... Managing to pry her eyes away from the trapped panther before her, she scanned the deeper darkness that was the jungle. Pairs of eyes glittered in the dark. More hyenas, more likely than not. Voracia had brought packs from days away; a mind-boggling number. Ginelle had given up trying to count them when they reached a pawful of pawfuls. There were about half as many apes as there were hyenas; Theodorus had a large family.
Callicia strutted up to the edge of her rock, where Xandra must be able to see her clearly. There was a long gash across her chest, and several cuts on her face and forelegs, but overall she was in much better shape than Xandra, even when one forgot for a moment about the net and the mass of animals covering the struggling panther.
Ginelle's net began its journey anew, and the scene slipped from view.
"Oh my, I'm glad you decided to stay a while," she heard Callicia say. "It was just getting really cozy, wasn't it?"
"Well, aren't you impolite," the crossbreed said with mock reproach. Ginelle could almost hear the evil grin on her face, a mixture of insanity and excitement about what she would probably reveal to the unsuspecting panther in a few moments.
Her fears were realized when Callicia continued to speak. "And here I went through all this trouble and got a nice surprise for you." In a moment, a rustle of leaves revealed her to the trapped panther, even as the net was spun around so she was facing the scene.
Ginelle had been fairly sure that she had accepted the gravity of their situation, but when she saw the look of utter despair and defeat on Xandra's face when the panther recognized her, something shattered inside her that she hadn't realized had still been there - a confidence, way down deep, that things would somehow work out. After all, for her, they always had.
Her heart plummeted. This wasn't a controlled, man-made environment, where food lay there waiting to be eaten at regular intervals, and your greatest worry every day was which of the many nice spots to use for your afternoon nap. This was the wild. Animals died every day, those who failed in the never-ending struggle for survival. It was dangerous. Deadly. And it was very real. It began to dawn on Ginelle that things just might not somehow work out.
Seeing sweet little Ginelle in that net, tied up like a sack, bruised and miserable, was the last thing Xandra had expected. She had drawn her strength from the knowledge that the little leopard was safely out of harm's way. Now, all the force she had been gathering for an attempt to break free against the overwhelming odds, all the feral power, just drained out of her like the blood out of a freshly slain beast.
Callicia had Ginelle.
And she was going to torture her, probably kill her. All because of her hatred for Xandra. Because of something that Xandra had done, whether through her own doing or an accident, a long time ago.
"The little piece of dung means nothing to me," Xandra said coldly. She knew her voice lacked conviction, but maybe Callicia would be fooled.
Callicia laughed, a maniacal laugh that sent shivers up Xandra's spine. Then her laughter cut off abruptly, her face became a mask of stone. "Did you feel the same way when you killed my mother and my siblings?" she said in a low, dangerous voice.
Xandra could not answer past the pain in her heart. She did not want to excuse what she had done then. It had been the only thing to do, for reasons that Callicia would never understand. Neither would Ginelle, for that matter. She was not about to explain herself now. It would not help Ginelle.
"If she really doesn't mean anything to you, you won't mind if I have a little fun with her, will you?"
The panther watched, helplessly, as Callicia strolled leisurely towards the net where the leopard was kept. Slowly, she extended a claw, and just as slowly, she punctured Ginelle's ear with it. The little leopard whimpered softly though her tied jaws.
Xandra struggled briefly, but the net was tight; she could barely move.
"You're not so tough now, are you, Princess?" Callicia taunted. With a negligent flick of her paw, she tore through the leopard's ear.
Ginelle screamed terribly.
Fight. Live, Mayla said in Xandra's mind. Rage flooded the dark feline. Closing her eyes, she desperately focused inward, to draw the last of her reserves, and more. Powerful muscles bulged as she covertly strained against the net. She felt it tighten around her with the force. The hot, fetid breath of the hyena assaulted her nostrils, slimy saliva dribbling down onto her face. Surreptitiously she gathered her hind legs as best she could underneath her, waiting, continuing to put pressure on her prison.
Meanwhile, several things happened at the same time.
The rain lessened to a steady drizzle that would soon stop, as was the way of such downpours. The clouds were dissipating, revealing the pale light of an almost full moon.
A commotion had risen back in the woods, sounds of fighting drifted into the clearing. Apes chittered, rocks thudded to the ground everywhere, there were yelps and howls, barks and roars.
Callicia whirled, green eyes wide, trying to discern the source of the distraction. "What...?"
Xandra's breath caught. The wolves were here, and fighting. How was this possible?
Suddenly, unexpectedly, she felt the vine under her feet give. The panther never questioned her good fortune; one mighty heave, and she tore the inexplicably weakened material like so many spiderwebs, sending apes and hyenas flying around her. The Princess of Terror was back!
Like a black whirlwind of death, Xandra laid about her, slashing, biting, raking. The apes that were still on the ground hurried back up the tree to a dubious safety; hyenas fell away in the face of her suddenly renewed fury.
Nobody noticed the two tiny shapes scurrying out from almost underneath her, making for the tree where Ginelle was being held.
Having chased most of the hyenas from sight, Xandra launched herself at the tree the last of the orangutans had scrambled up. Rocks dropped, apes shrieked, furious snarls sounded from the first layer of branches. One ape dropped down, his throat slit. A second slid limply down the trunk and lay still. Rocks thudded dully as they connected to wood, or feline flesh, as the case might be. By the outraged screams, the rest of the apes were fleeing this particular tree; it was becoming a little too panther-infested to be good for one's health.
Now a mass of large animals was pouring into the open space, noble wolves led by mighty Herac himself, and slavering, bloodthirsty hyenas trying to get into the thick of the fray. Blood soon coated the jungle floor, mixing with the muddy rain water in glistening swirls of red and brown. Not a good place to be just now.
Frilly and Lace, the two squirrels, were just as glad to be out of the way. They were up on the branch that held the Singer, noses twitching as they assessed the situation.
"They did a better," Lace said.
"Job on the other one," Frilly put in. "This will"
"Be easy," Lace agreed, testing the material with nimble forefeet.
The Singer's ears perked up at the sound of the squirrels' chattering. Frilly deftly made her way down the vines until she had reached the leopard's face.
"Well, here we are, as we promised. Now remember," she told the leopard, taking care to speak as slowly as she could - although, judging the Singer's fierce look of concentration, the leopard was still having trouble following her, "you agreed there would be no stepping on us, and no eating us under any circumstances, and no playing with our tails. Are we still clear on that?"
She had to repeat it twice before the feline finally nodded her head in confirmation. It must take a long time for sounds to travel all the way from the ear to the inside of the head for such large creatures. Shaking her head sympathetically, Frilly set about chewing through the vines around the leopard's legs and snout.
"Tthhaannkk yyoouu," Ginelle said, when the last of the fiber fell away from her mouth. Not only were they slow-witted, they spoke in slow-motion, too! The Singer tore her mouth open wide, showing a set of bright, sharp teeth. Frilly jumped back, alarmed.
"Ddoonn'tt wwoorrrryy," the cat said, smiling. "Ii'mm oonnlly ssttrreettcchhiinngg mmyy jjaawwss. Ii'mm tthhaatt ccrraammppeedd..."
"Oh. Okay. Now prepare yourself - we'll get you loose in a bit."
Before she had quite finished speaking, she was up by her mate's side, who had already begun gnawing through the supporting vine of the net. Now she too, sank her sharp little teeth into the fiber.
"Tastes worse than," Lace said, making a face as he chewed.
"A rotten nut," complained Frilly around a mouthful of the tough, stringy material.
In no time at all, they had reduced the sturdy vine to one last thin strand.
"Headsupheadsupheadsup," yelled Lace, just as that strand snapped, dumping the leopard unceremoniously on the ground, where she landed on her back with a painful "ooomph!", unable to right herself cat-style because of the net still wrapped around her.
The squirrels where gone by the time Ginelle had extricated herself from the remains of the net. Down onto the ground they jumped, scuttled along the base of the base of the rock, pausing frequently along the way to stand stock still for a heartbeat and cast an anxious eye on the battlefield. In this fashion they swiftly made their way to the edge of the clearing and up another tree, where they disappeared from sight.
The leopard made a mental note never to underestimate the usefulness of squirrels again.
She stretched, painfully, trying and get the kinks out of her stiff joints and muscles. Her injured ear throbbed loudly, the blood from it caked the side of her face. A dull ache had spread throughout her whole body; there was no telling where it originated. Worse, though, was the pain in her soul. She had never been mistreated in this way!
Unsure what to do now that she was free of her prison, Ginelle advanced a few steps towards the thick of the battle. She could not see Xandra anywhere. The sounds of the fighting rang like a waking nightmare in her ears, its images would remain etched into her mind forever. She wanted to run away, to crawl into a deep dark hole, or to the safety of the man cages. She wanted nothing of this to have happened! She hoped Xandra was okay.
Before she could chide herself for her foolish whining, a large feline form landed fluidly before her. In the semi-darkness of the now moonlit night sky, she looked like a demon from the Netherworld - huge, shadowed in shades of gray, eyes gleaming like red coals. Bared white fangs glittered with saliva as the shape advanced menacingly on the dumbstruck leopard.
Ginelle retreated slowly, heart thumping wildly. What now?
"Well, kitten," the crossbreed hissed, "I don't know how you got free, but I'm going to make sure you won't be enjoying yourself." When she opened her jaws wide in a roar, reddish strands of spittle spanned her mouth and formed tiny bubbles around the base of her teeth. She had killed today, and she was more than ready to do so again.
Poor Ginelle's mind raced. She knew she didn't stand a chance against the crazed half-tiger; Callicia was a seasoned fighter, while Ginelle herself hadn't even been able to harm a weakened deer! Plus, she was effectively cornered between mountain ridge, rock slab, tree, and mad cat. Her only chance was the Song... but would it come to her now?
She cleared her throat, and sang a few shaky notes. Nothing happened, except that Callicia started laughing.
"They say you're a Singer," the crossbreed taunted, "but to me you sound like a dog with lung-fever. Your pathetic squealing isn't going to stir up a blade of grass." She took another step towards the leopard, who backpedaled nervously. "Go on, sing for me, kitten!" Callicia cackled hysterically. "Sing your little head off!"
No Singing... well, then... think Ginelle, think! On sudden inspiration, Ginelle whipped her head up and stared at a spot behind the crossbreed. "Look! A three-headed monkey!"
Callicia snickered. "Very clever, kitten. Do you think I was born yesterday?"
"You might have wished she was right, Callicia!" Xandra roared as she flung herself at Callicia out of the darkness of the tree above. "Get out of here, Ginelle!" she yelled, before the two cats tumbled down in a snarling, spitting ball.
Ginelle never hesitated - she streaked past the fighting felines towards the edge of the forest, out of reach of the raging claws.
And ran smack into a pair of broadly grinning hyenas.
What was worse, she recognized one of them.
"Well, if it isn't little Fluffy," leered Voracia.
Meanwhile, the battle in the clearing and among the surrounding trees was turning largely in the favor of Callicia's troops; the hyenas outnumbered the wolves roughly two to one, and the apes that hadn't fled in terror at Xandra's vicious attack were still lobbing their missiles. They kept a store of fist-sized rocks in rough bags made from large leaves and vines, suspended in the trees.
Of course, they scored on their own a few times, but overall they took out more wolves than hyenas.
But imagine the looks on their faces when suddenly in several of the trees chittering cries of "Headsupheadsupheadsup" went up, and the leaves holding their ammunition dropped down to the ground as if by magic! They never saw the brave, diminutive warrior squirrels making quick work of the containers and scurrying on to see where they could do yet more damage.
Yet, even without having to worry about attacks from above - the apes were scattered, some salvaging a few of the rocks and making their way back up into the trees but most of them milling about aimlessly - even without that threat, the wolves were hard pressed. Hyenas have been known to take on fully grown tigers successfully, and they are at their worst when they know they have the advantage of numbers. Merciless and bloodthirsty, they were mangling and maiming methodically with jaws designed to rip flesh or crunch bone with equal ease.
There were some places, though, where even the hyenas were hesitant to go. One was the spot where the crossbreed and the black panther were still engaged in fierce combat - neither for now gaining the upper hand - feinting, biting and raking in a breathtaking dance of death. Then there was an open space in front of Callicia's rock, and in its middle two wolves - Herac and faithful Isegrim - and an aging tiger, who fought back to back in what seemed a grudging truce, dealing destruction to all who came close.
Just when hope was ebbing for the brave wolves, a new force entered the clearing. A cry of "For the Circle!" rang through the woods as a pawful of young stags, heads down and antlers extended, charged through a mass of startled hyenas, kicking and stomping. The shocked animals scattered yelping before the stampede, struggling to keep their footing on the still slippery ground.
But alas, the glory of the moment did not last. All too soon, the hyenas had regrouped, and were holding their own once more. It seemed there was no unbalancing them - they were simply too numerous.
They would go on fighting for as long as their leader lived and beyond, for battle frenzy now had them firmly in its grasp.
Callicia was fighting with the strength of insanity. While Xandra had scored several serious hits already, not one of them had made the crazed animal pause. She was intent on only one thing - to kill. Her own exhaustion, her breath coming in painful, ragged gasps, the spots starting to dance before her eyes - all that she hardly registered. Her legs were still supporting her, and while they did, she would carry on.
Her opponent was in no better shape. Xandra may have been stronger, pound for pound, than the half-tiger, but Callicia more than made up for that with greater mass and superior determination.
It was an even match. Try as she might, the black panther had not managed to get in close enough to deliver one of Mayla's stun blows, that somehow seemed able to immobilize, or even kill, with no more than the slightest pressure of a claw.
Out of the corner of her eye, she had seen Ginelle scurry away, and as Callicia claimed her attention once more, she could only hope the young leopard made it to safety. Now, she risked another glance towards where she had last seen her friend, and almost failed to dodge a slash at her face that might have cost her an eye. And she almost did not care, for she had glimpsed Ginelle in the cruel clutches of two hyenas.
It seemed the little leopard was just barely holding up, but it was only a matter of time before she would succumb to the ferocious assault.
Frantic, Xandra tapped her last reserves to launch a furious attack, in the hopes of catching Callicia by surprise and breaking through her defense. She had to get out of this fight, and quick, or Ginelle was doomed!
Whether it was the renewed urgency in the exhausted panther's bearing, or the panicked final effort of near-fatigue - Callicia matched the increasing pace of the combat blow for blow, hissing and spitting her defiance. Xandra had all she could handle just to remain standing, and was forced to watch helplessly, in brief glances, as the hyenas were starting to get the better of the inexperienced leopard.
When she saw Ginelle go down, she was ready to just walk away from Callicia, even at the risk of receiving a killing blow from behind. Maybe, just maybe, she could manage to get at the hyenas before...
Just then a black shape dropped like a rock out of the sky and flung itself at the attacker,who was none other than Voracia herself, her open maw poised above the prone leopard's throat.
With a pained yowl, Voracia drew back clawing madly, the black, winged form still attached to her face, flapping to keep its balance. Had Xandra had the time to be surprised, she would have gawked. For it was Cocksure, striving to get at the suddenly panicked hyena's eyes.
Finally Voracia managed to bat the raven away from her face. There was no telling whether she had retained both her eyes, but her face was bleeding profusely.
The other hyena had released his hold on Ginelle to come to his commander's aid, leaving the cat to crawl slowly to her feet.
"Headsupheadsupheadsup," the by now familiar cry sounded from above.
All three animals were caught completely by surprise when the last of the orangutans' rock depots plummeted down in a huge crash of twigs and foliage, missing Voracia's nose by a whisker and grazing her comrade's backside.
Violent ravens, and rocks from above - it was too much. The two hyenas, losing their nerve, turned tail and fled, leaving behind a thoroughly shaken and battered but immensely grateful leopard.
A no less grateful Xandra was finally able to focus all of her attention once more on her own problems.
Both herself and Callicia were just about spent, breath rasping in painfully forced bursts, their blows almost enough to unbalance the one dealing it.
It was, at this stage, more luck than battle prowess that finally presented Xandra with an opening, however small it might be. All of her strength went into a lightning-quick jab towards the other's jugular. She watched with relief and satisfaction as Callicia's eyes rolled up, and she fell down like a sack. Paws were twitching uncontrollably, the crossbreed stared at the panther through grossly dilated pupils, a look of shocked wonder on her face. A trickle of blood appeared at her nose.
She looked up at Xandra and smiled. "So, it ends now," she panted.
The sudden quiet on the battlefield made both cats' ears perk up. A low, dull thrumming sounded in the distance and grew louder quickly, accompanied by a huge crackle of splintering wood as... something... approached from the depths of the jungle.
A trumpeting roar, and a gray behemoth broke the cover of the trees in a shower of leaves and branches, preceded by a pawful of un-treed orang-utans, shrieking and shaking their fists at him as they scrambled out of his path.
Out in the open, the elephant blinked a few times, weaving his huge bulk from side to side, trunk dangling as he surveyed the situation. Then, up went that trunk in another deafening blast, before he set about his work methodically.
Left and right hyenas were flung, trees were uprooted where the last of the unfortunate apes were cowering. The rage of Old Cyclone was such that, within moments, those animals that were still able had fled the clearing.
The one-eyed elephant stomped and roared a few more times, then pushed down another tree for good measure, before he finally subsided. Now, he just stood there, ears flapping uncertainly, looking a little lost all alone in the empty clearing. He seemed smaller now, somehow.
Still poised above Callicia, Xandra had watched the mad rampage of the elephant in awe. Things had been happening today that set her head spinning!
The panther looked down to where Callicia was spasming uncontrollably, eyes glazed and staring into the distance. One of the most evil and vile beings she knew was about to breathe her last. Why did she feel so torn?
The panther looked up into a set of gentle green eyes. Eyes that she had thought she would never see again. Eyes that looked pained, pleading.
"Please don't kill her, Xandra. There's been so much blood..."
At her feet, Callicia coughed, and drew a rattling breath.
She found herself held by Ginelle's gaze, drank some of the compassion and the love she saw there, felt it flood into her. For an eternal moment, the black and the spotted leopard remained like this, two souls looking into each other for what seemed like the first time, as they had before, and would again.
Then time started up again. Wordlessly, Xandra jabbed the crossbreed's jugular a second time, then motioned for Ginelle to follow her.
"You'll feel better once your blood starts flowing again," she said to the prone half-tiger as an afterthought.
They walked slowly towards the jungle, leaving the clearing behind. There by the first trees, they found Herac, Isegrim, and one of the young stags standing side by side in an uneasy truce.
Xandra found herself fidgeting. She knew she should say something, she owed them so much. But talk was not one of her many skills.
Thankfully, Ginelle came to her rescue. "Thanks for your help. I know you weren't too keen on doing this, but I'm glad you decided to do it anyway." She smiled radiantly. "You too, Isegrim."
"Yeah, well," Herac said. Why, he seemed just as uneasy as Xandra felt!
Isegrim grinned a canine grin, tongue lolling, and said, "I guess we did have a common interest here. I'd much rather have a villain I know than one I can't predict." And he actually winked at Xandra!
"Oh, just one more thing," the petite leopard asked. "Whatever happened to the tiger?"
Both wolves stared at her blankly. "What tiger?" asked Herac.
Now Ginelle was confused. "The tiger you and Isegrim were fighting with, over there in the clearing."
Isegrim barked a laugh.
"There must be something wrong with your sight," Herac said. "That was a wolf. I've never seen him around here before, and he didn't talk much, but he was one hell of a fighter."
"A wolf? I would swear on Pythus' rear head that it was that old tiger I talked to this afternoon. That's weird."
"It is indeed, if you aren't pulling our tails," Isegrim said. "But you wouldn't do such a thing, would you," he added belatedly when he noticed Herac's reproachful look.
"Well, whoever he was, he saved our tails more than once," the lead wolf said with a grin. "I guess it will remain a secret of the Gods..."
All four animals looked thoughtful. A god... could it have been?
After a brief and somewhat awkward good-bye, the two wolves trotted into the forest, quietly debating among themselves about the identity of their strange ally.
The stag, who had followed their conversation but had not interfered, nervously retreated a few steps. His eyes flicked towards the forest and safety, but he remained standing, even after a loud rumbling in Ginelle's stomach made him flinch.
Ginelle smiled apologetically. "Truce, for now," she said, with a sidelong glance at Xandra, who really was too exhausted to even think of trying a hunt. "After my talk with Mahogany, I did not expect any of your kind here."
The stag shrugged. "The King Stag told us of your plea. He said that he could not find it in himself to go against his upbringing in this way, but that he would not deny us to make that choice for ourself, every one of us. And here we are. He always did call us rebels, my friends and me. Sometimes he used a less friendly term." He grinned shakily. "But if you don't mind, I'd much rather not be here for much longer. Your kind makes me feel flighty."
Ginelle had to giggle. "I don't think I blame you. Go in peace, and try not to come too near my friend in the future." Xandra grunted in comfirmation. She suddenly felt so very tired.
The stag nodded, and bolted into the woods.
"Are you okay?" Ginelle's soft voice was close by her ear.
"Yeah, I'll be fine. Just a little out of breath." She did not look at Ginelle right away, contemplating her numerous injuries, and the drying blood matting her coat. When she did, it was with a lopsided grin. "And I guess I need a wash."
"I guess you do, at that," Ginelle grinned. Then something made her look up.
The black panther raised her head to follow the leopard's gaze.
There, up on the rock two leaps away, her impossibly patterned coat shining in ghostly colors under a moon that cast its pale, silvery light onto the scene, her outline sharp against the night sky, stood Callicia, coat glistening sickly from the blood that poured from her many wounds.
Head held proudly, the strange feline roared her defiance at her blue-eyed enemy. "You should have killed me, Xandra! I will be back! With every shred of my being I shall strive to destroy you. This I swear, and may the Great Agulaar himself be my witness." And she hopped off the far side of the rock, and was gone.
"Phew," said Ginelle, "she doesn't give up easily, does she?"
"You can say that again," Xandra muttered. "Maybe I made a mistake when I..." She trailed off, and tattered a few steps. At Ginelle's worried glance, she grunted. "It's nothing, really, I..." She broke off, staring past the leopard and upward.
Old Cyclone, having noticed them there at the edge of the clearing, was rushing towards them, obviously looking for more creatures to crush. His appearence had been a streak of pure luck, for he had certainly been the one responsible for the rout of Callicia's army. But the panther was not so happy right now to see the mad old elephant. Neither herself nor Ginelle were in any shape to stand up to him.
She edged forward and put herself between her friend and the behemoth, giving the big animal her most defiant stare.
Cyclone came at them with incredible speed, screeching to a stop with his head down, less than a whisker from Xandra's face. Bringing his good eye almost level with Xandra's face - he had to bend a forefoot and drag his trunk in the dirt in order to do it, he spoke in his grating, rusty voice.
"You're not my friend," he said to the black feline, "but she is." And with a tusk he indicated Ginelle, who was cowering behind the panther, expecting nothing but death.
With that, he turned and crashed back into the forest, leaving the two felines to stare after him with hanging jaws.
"Well, seems you have a powerful protector." Xandra shook her head and smiled, following the old elephant with her gaze until he was gone from view. "You really are quite incredible, Ginelle."
If leopards could have blushed, Ginelle would surely have turned a bright red. As it was, she just shuffled her paws and grinned shyly at the ground.
The gentle tongue running over her cheek made her look up into blue eyes brimming with tenderness. She purred and rubbed her cheek against Xandra's head.
"Let's go home," the big panther rumbled.
Ginelle smiled. "Yes, let's."
As they stood there amidst the carnage, their heads rubbing roughly against each other in feline affection, Xandra could not help but think that at last, at long last, her life was beginning.
Well, here we are! I hope you enjoyed this little excursion into the farther reaches of uber-Xena - I know I did, writing this. Verrath humbly thanks you for sticking with her till the end :-)