The Heart of a Leopard
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 and 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!
After a brief and somewhat awkward good-bye, the two wolves trotted into the forest. The stag retreated a few steps, nervous. 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 now to see the mad old elephant. Neither herself nor Ginelle were in any shape to escape from him now.
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 :-)