The Eyes Of A Cat
Legal Disclaimer: This
is a fable, a story about intelligent animals, so all characters
are really my own. But the characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules,
Iolaus as pictured in these uber-representations, plus a few others,
belong to you-know-who (MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, in case
you don't). No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of
The story, however, is mine, except for a few references to various Xena and Hercules episodes. Resemblances to other works of fiction, as well as actual persons living or dead, are purely conciedental except in one vey special case.
This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers.
Another Disclaimer: This is basically a story
about the grudging friendship of two normally solitary creatures. They
are not romantically involved, but theri bond does go deep
There is also some level of violence here, and a few deaths, because these critters are DANGEROUS, lemme tell ya!
I am aware that there may be no place on Earth where all the species that feature here co-exist. Let's just say we are in an alternate reality, shall we?
Mythology: There may be a few names that sound familiar either from German, Norse, Innuit or other mythologies, most of the God names, for one thing. I am freely mixing these together in order to create something that I hope fits the setting. I apologize if my taking liberties in this way does offends - it was done for the sake of the story, and not in any disrespect.
Note on the measuring system: A 'leap' is about 5 yards, a 'whisker', 5 inches. A 'shadow leap' is the time it takes for the Time Oak's shadow to travel one leap, I think that would be approximately 2 hours.
This is the second story featuring Xandra: Warrior Panther
Franz, I'm not sure why I used your name in this, but maybe it's my way of saying that as far as I'm concerned, you live on. So, unrelated as the story may be to who you were, I am dedicating this to your memory.
Part 1 - (in progress)
"Oh my god, it's her," the young woman whispered to herself.
Bethany Sawyer was crouching in the cover of the deep brush close by the river bank, watching a pair of leopards bask in the early morning sun to the rush of sparkling water. Her notebook and camera lay beside her, forgotten for the moment as was Franz, her coworker, who was hidden a few feet away, a tranquilizer gun trained on the animals, just in case. While Beth did not feel entirely good about that, she had grudgingly agreed that it was better to be on the safe side. Especially given her present condition.
"And I see you've found a mate, my old friend," she mentally told the spotted, smaller of the two big cats. The other was almost half again as big, a massive, sleek, night black animal, lying on its back, eyes closed, letting the sun warm its belly. Only the foreparts were visible, for the smaller leopard lay snug against its flank.
Both of them looked utterly content.
Beth very nearly broke cover and approached the cats, but a healthy respect for the unknown black panther held her back.
Just then, one of the black feline's eyes flickered open, looking at the other. The eye was a striking blue. Bethany's breath caught. Only one known panther in this jungle had blue eyes. This was no male!
She was in the presence of the dread "Princess Of Terror", less than twenty yards away from the most feared and hated mankiller for miles around, with only a tranquilizer gun for defense.
And her own, dear Ginelle was in the line of fire.
Unaware for now of being watched, the two leopards enjoyed one of those rare moments of quiet and relaxation, that is all the more precious to the creatures of the wild, because their lives are nothing but strings of struggles for survival in a world as unforgiving and harsh as it is beautiful.
Truth be told, having just had a good meal and feeling so at ease with each other, neither Ginelle nor the ever-cautious Xandra were particularly alert at this moment. For surely they should have noticed how the jungle was quieting down - except the monkeys, of course - in the presence of two of those creatures most animals feared beyond reason - mans.
To have a trusted friend at one's side, to feel the soft yet profound warmth of the sun on one's fur, to listen to the gentle lapping of the river running by and the soft swish of the leaves against each other with the breeze, the scent of the blossoms opening to the morning filling one's nostrils; to do nothing but enjoy the moment - was pure luxury.
Ginelle, snug against Xandra's flank, raised her head with a hint of amusement brightening her features.
"What?" The black leopard lazily cracked open an eye and gazed fondly at her friend.
"Is that a purr I hear, o Warrior Panther?" Ginelle said playfully.
"I do NOT purr," Xandra protested.
"Then what do you call that noise coming from your chest right now?"
"A friendly growl," the taciturn panther replied, and pawed Ginelle gently on the face. They looked at each other for a moment, and collapsed in a laughing heap.
Beth watched in stunned fascination as these two mature animals mock-fought and played like week-old cubs. She could not believe she was seeing a vicious killer that was held responsible for the death of somewhere around twenty people in the last year. The latest reported deaths had taken place just over a month ago, and had involved those people who had taken Ginelle away from her.
The animal wasn't being raised in a habitat that was fitting for its species, they had told her. Granted, a back yard, though surrounded by leopard-proof fence, might not be ideal for a large cat like Ginelle, but had she known these people intended to use her not only to lure other leopards into captivity, but also to conduct various experiments, she would have fought harder to keep the leopard she had raised from cubhood, in night after night of patient and tender care.
They had managed to convince Beth that in giving her up, she was doing what was best for Ginelle. That stung, because she had found out that this was not the case.
Her hand went to the considerable bulge in her belly. She might have felt compelled to find a new home for Ginelle anyway, once her child was born. Beth seriously doubted whether the animal would have deliberately hurt the baby, but a leopard was a wild animal, after all, no matter how close to humans it had been raised. As if to confirm, the little tyke inside her delivered a forceful kick.
A grim smile played around her lips. Things had after all gone well for Ginelle, because she was now free, and quite obviously a happy little leopard.
And that... monster had made it happen, killing three men in the process. True, Beth had known them only fleetingly and not liked them much, but the thought of their deaths at the claws of that animal was more than a little disconcerting.
And yet, how tender and cautious she was with Ginelle, how carefully she sought not to play too rough lest she cause injury to the much smaller cat. The young scientist realized then that Ginelle could not have made a better friend to keep her safe. But at the same time, the black cat's notoriety - and the rumors of a price on its head - put Ginelle in quite some danger, as well.
A sudden change in the atmosphere made Beth tense. The cats had gone still, and were peering intently into the bushes where she and Franz were crouching.
The young woman was treated to the most magnificent view of the startling, ice-blue eyes set in that night black, chiseled feline face. The panther was certainly the most stunningly beautiful creature the scientist had ever laid eyes on, and they might well be the last, if they made a mistake now.
She had, however, no leisure to admire them this very minute. If the animals had sensed them, the tranquilizer would not kick in quickly enough to prevent either of the two from attacking. Beth mentally berated herself for once again being so foolhardy. She hadn't been out here much lately, because of her pregnancy, and tended to forget just how dangerous the wilderness could be. There weren't many foolish scientists in these parts - the jungle saw to that. She had been luckier than most, generally. A wicked scar on the outside of her thigh served as a constant reminder of the fact.
While she fingered that scar absently through the thin fabric of her slacks, her mind worked frantically. She hoped Franz had the sense to keep cool, and not do anything rash to aggravate the animals. Well, it was not as if her experienced companion had any tendency to do that; it was usually the good-natured German who was the calmer one of them.
She also hoped against hope that Ginelle might recognize her if things got out of control, but she was not fooling herself. The chances of that were slim at best.
"What is it, Xandra?" asked Ginelle, when the black feline stiffened suddenly and stared away into the bushes, blue eyes glittering. "Trouble?"
"Something in that bush... " Xandra hissed, and gathered her hindquarters underneath her.
Ginelle scanned the undergrowth, but could detect nothing at first. Once again she marveled at her dark friend's exceptional senses. The wind was wrong, blowing towards those bushes. But then suddenly, she, too, could detect... something. It was more of a prickling between her shoulder blades than any sense of scent or sound.
"Hush," Xandra warned, and rose to her feet slowly, motioning Ginelle to stay back.
Ginelle, however, bristled a little at that. She had learned a few things since teaming up with the Princess of Terror. She was no longer a cub, although Xandra seemed to think she was, sometimes. So, she rose as well, and started creeping toward the edge of the forest.
"Ginelle," Xandra growled warningly, but the smaller leopard had already stopped, her ears pricked forward, one paw raised in mid-step, peering intently into the bush.
Then, relaxing, she sat on her haunches, just as Xandra silently let out a breath. The black panther appeared confused, and she shook her head briefly, a puzzled look on her face.
"Hello, Mayla," said Ginelle.
Before them, a shape had materialized out of the depths of the leaves, a thick-furred, cream and black leopard with intent eyes.
"Ginelle, Xandra. Greetings." The newcomer inclined her head briefly.
Xandra, still suspicious, scanned the tree line carefully one more time. Then, detecting nothing, she shrugged, and returned the snow leopard's greeting.
"Have you come for another lesson, Mayla?" asked Ginelle. "I didn't expect you until sundown."
"No lesson yet," Mayla said. "Let us just say that my presence is necessary here and now to prevent disaster."
Ginelle looked mystified. "What do you mean?"
The snow leopard shrugged and licked her front leg delicately.
Xandra's tail lashed back and forth in irritation. "I cannot believe you understand what she is saying," she growled. "It still sounds like gibberish to me."
Ginelle giggled nervously. This had been a sore spot with the Princess of Terror ever since Mayla, once a Singer, a great feline mystic, had taken it upon herself to teach the younger leopard the Song. Mayla had died years ago while protecting Xandra, during one of the panther's travels to the east. Mysteriously, her ghost had turned up not so long ago, just when the rare talent of Singing had started to show itself in Ginelle.
And then, when things had calmed down after their victory over the evil half-breed Callicia, the ghostly feline had approached Ginelle, offering to be her mentor. Delighted, Ginelle had agreed. It wasn't long before they had discovered that to Xandra, Mayla's speech still sounded like the strange, ululating language of the far eastern, snowy mountains, while Ginelle perceived it as her own. Mayla just smiled faintly when asked about it, and did not comment, leaving the black panther to mutter grumpily under her breath. Xandra had been doing a lot of grumbling lately.
"Don't worry, Xandra, I may understand her speech, but I have no idea what she is saying half of the time, either." Ginelle grinned.
"Yeah, well, whatever," Xandra said crossly, and started cleaning herself with more vigor than strictly necessary. The other two leopards she ignored utterly.
Mayla, in the meantime, started humming softly, while fixing the oblivious black leopard with an intent stare.
With growing bewilderment, the two watchers in the bushes followed the scene before them. At first it looked as though a confrontation was inevitable, with the black feline so intent on their hiding place. The panther had already been on her feet, bristling, Ginelle close behind, and had started to advance on them. Now, though, both cats were just sitting there, half relaxed and not even looking into the bush anymore, making small growling noises. What was going on?
Bethany could not see anything that might have drawn the animals' attention, but she did not question her good fortune when both of them suddenly seemed to decide they needed a drink, and padded over to the river.
The rush of the water around the leopards' ears drowned out the sounds of two mans retreating ever so cautiously back to their camp.
"You're sure it was her, then?" Franz asked Bethany when they were safely inside their little Jeep, after having rather hastily disbanded their camp, and bouncing noisily back towards the research center.
"I'm positive, Franz," Beth said as she steered the car around the worst of the potholes. "She has that little black spot on the left side of her chin, just under her lip. I'd know her anywhere. God, I thought she was dead."
"She might as well be, with the company she's keeping."
Beth sighed. "I have no idea what just happened back there, but we're lucky to be alive. I was sure that black terror was going to attack any second."
"It was strange," Franz agreed. "Almost as if they were being told to go to the river."
"Don't be silly, Franz," Beth cuffed her colleague lightly in the ribs.
He grinned crookedly. "Well, do you have a better idea?"
Beth shrugged. "Whatever it was, I'm not about to complain."
They were silent for a time. Presently, Franz spoke. "We should report, you know."
Beth slammed on the brakes. Franz cursed roundly when he was thrown roughly against his seatbelt. "What the...?"
"We can't do that, Franz. They'll kill them both."
"That black one is a mankiller, Beth. We can't let her sneak around where there are people."
"Those people have no right to do what they're doing," the young woman grumbled. "They shouldn't be there at all."
"They are only doing their job. You can hardly blame those poor blokes wanting to make some extra money. If one of them gets attacked, do you want to live with the knowledge that you could have prevented it?"
Beth pressed her lips together and stared straight ahead.
"You know that few live to tell after being attacked by the Princess of Terror. That animal is a real danger. We can't just leave her alone, and you know it."
The young scientist's shoulders slumped. "I know, I know. If it was only the Princess... but Ginelle..." Furrowing her brow, she banged her fist against the steering wheel.
Franz patted her shoulder. "Easy, Beth, we'll think of something. The workers are not going to be back until the day after tomorrow. Maybe we can take care of it. But if we don't find a way before then, we're going to have to give warning."
The blonde woman gave her colleague a grateful grin and stepped on the accelerator. The sudden lurch drew another muttered curse and an amused shake of the head from Franz as Beth steered the vehicle onward along the bumpy path.
"No, no, NO," Mayla said. Even her considerable patience was wearing thin as she repeated the sequence of notes yet again to a by now rather frustrated Ginelle.
"I'm sorry, Mayla, I just can't get this one. It's too complicated."
"In your mind, you are unable," said Mayla patiently. "It's because you are convinced that you cannot. However, you have sung this before."
Mayla motioned towards Xandra, who was lounging on a branch half a leap above them, unsuccessfully pretending not to be annoyed. She looked relaxed enough, but the tip of her tail was twitching irately, and her ears tended to go flat against her head when she wasn't paying attention.
For, of course, she could only understand Ginelle's side of the dialogue, and would have given her left ear to know what Mayla was telling her friend.
"It's the part of the Song that you used to keep Herac and Xandra from killing each other. Remember?" the ghostly feline was saying.
"Really? Wow, but how did I know...?"
Now Mayla smiled. "You didn't know. The Song came to you. The Song of the Wild knows its own. You can't make it do your bidding. You can only learn to live it, and it will come at your call."
"But then what are you trying to make me sing the notes for?"
"Ginelle, Ginelle, you still don't see, do you? This is not about the notes we are singing. It's about knowing where to find the Song within you."
"I- I'm sorry."
"Try again. And this time, keep your eyes closed like I asked you to."
Ginelle shook herself, before sitting back down, and complied.
With a frustrated growl, Xandra got to her feet and jumped to the ground. "You two have fun. I'm going fishing."
She sat for a few moments, licking her chest, then she stretched and yawned. Without looking at her companions, she trotted off into the woods, leaving Mayla and Ginelle to stare after her in mild wonder.
Frustrated, the Princess of Terror lashed at the surface of the water with a clawed paw. Water splashed loudly, dispersing the few fish that hadn't already fled at the sound of her vicious growl.
Trout after fat trout had somehow slipped out of her grasp, while the shadow of the trees on the far bank of the river had traveled almost two whole leaps.
The panther shook herself, irritated at her own anger. Losing your temper here in the jungle meant death, more often than not. Focus. She must focus.
She suddenly stiffened, and flattened her ears even before she heard the voice close behind her.
"What's the matter, can't take being left out?"
"Agulaar. I should have known you'd show up," Xandra snarled, but didn't turn to face the Cat God, who was strutting arrogantly along the river bank. He smelled of that strange mix of sulfur, charred wood and masculine power that never failed to alert Xandra to his impending arrival. A quite annoying aroma, really.
"What is it about me? You always seem to know when I'm around. I must have a certain... presence around you."
"You say presence, I say stench," Xandra stated flatly.
"Oooh, ow! You wound me, Princess of Terror."
"Yeah, whatever. Get to the point."
Agulaar approached her, tail erect, meaning to rub his head against her flank affectionately. However, when he saw Xandra raise a forefoot and flex her claws a few times, he just shook his head and chuckled softly to himself. He did draw back a little, though.
"The point, my dear, is that you seem to be losing your edge. I'm mildly disappointed in you, Xandra."
Xandra snorted derisively. "Losing my edge? I don't think so, Aggy."
"Don't call me that," said the Cat God. "And don't think I didn't see how close you got to getting your hide tanned by man guns back there."
"I don't know what you're talking about. Mans? Haven't seen any in a while."
"That's just what I mean," Agulaar said smugly.
The black female looked confused. "Well, they've been up to something over beyond the ridge, and I don't like it, but they haven't shown their ugly snouts around here lately. They've got a bit of sense in them after all," she added dryly.
"Arrogance," snorted Agulaar. "You really didn't notice, then?"
"Notice what? You so enjoy being cryptic, don't you?"
The cat god circled her slowly, leering. "Notice the two mans that were crouching less than a pawful of leaps away, while you and your irritating Spotty were frolicking in the grass."
Xandra growled wordlessly, blue eyes staring daggers at the divine black leopard, who just grinned.
"It's true, even if you don't believe it. You had a thunderstick pointed at your face for half a shadowmark."
"You're bloody right, I don't believe you. No man can get this close to me without me sensing it."
Agulaar gave her a flat stare and said nothing.
"If what you say is true, then why didn't they blast me? Amarok knows they want me dead bad enough. So, you must be pulling my claw," Xandra reasoned with a triumphant smirk.
"The she-man seemed very interested in Spotty, for some reason. I thought her heart would stop when she thought you'd sensed them." He sighed theatrically. "But alas, you preferred chasing after a ghost leopard, one you don't even understand..." He trailed off. Oh, that insufferable grin!
Xandra, however, froze, as something began to dawn on her. "You mean Mayla... so I did sense something other than her... I knew it. Mans, you say? What do they want with us? They must be after me."
"Who knows?" said Agulaar, certain he had the panther's full attention now. The tip of his tail swayed softly, and he lifted a paw to lick at it as he dropped onto his haunches, looking supremely unconcerned. He looked up as a butterfly fluttered by, and snapped at it, missing.
Realizing he was toying with her, Xandra grumbled something about males in general, and male gods in particular, involving cold water and fleas infesting certain areas of their anatomy. She stalked past the lazily grooming deity, and sat down a leap away, facing the river. She could play at that game, too.
Both feline heads swiveled to the west when suddenly a strange noise, like distant thunder, only more insistent and continuous, rose beyond the ridge.
Even the cat god seemed slightly worried. "What do they want, you ask. They want to destroy. Death walks in their wake wherever they go these days. That noise, Xandra, mark it well. Even you would be well advised to run far and fast from it."
The tone in his voice made the female shudder. She turned to look at him, but he had already vanished.
"Damn him," she muttered. But her ears remained trained on that droning sound in the distance. She'd heard it before, and she knew Agulaar was right. Her nose twitched when traces of a sharp, stinging scent wafted to her, conjuring images of monstrous, noisy man-made things, terror, and mutilation.
She was growling dangerously now, shaking her head against the memories. Squeezing her eyes shut as she might, though, the vision of death would not go away.
She must find Ginelle, and warn her.
"Xandra, that's nonsense. They don't mean harm, I'm sure of it." Not all mans are as evil as you seem to think they are.
"Oh, really? Well, all I seem to see wherever they have been is blood, pain and misery."
Xandra had returned to find her friend tearing into the last of the skinny doe they had stowed up in a tree. Mayla had disappeared to wherever it was she went when she was not here.
"Don't be silly, Xandra. Mans raised me."
The panther grunted wordlessly.
"I grew up with a she-man, and I loved her dearly," Ginelle continued. "She was a very kind and loving creature, and the best mother I could have wished for, considering."
"She was a man, Ginelle, how could she be a good mother for one of us? They're... well, mans!"
"Well, yes, but I don't remember my real mother at all, or the wild... I always thought of the she-man as my mother."
There was an uncomfortable silence. Both cats sat there staring past each other a little awkwardly.
"What happened to her?" Xandra said eventually, reluctantly.
"I don't know," Ginelle admitted. "I was taken away from her when I was of age. I haven't seen her since. I really miss her, sometimes."
There was another pause, before the panther replied. "But be that as it may, Ginelle, the mans are anything but kind and loving. Don't you remember what they tried to do, the day we met?"
"Yes well, there are rotten ones in every species, aren't there?
"Yes, but more in some," Xandra grunted.
"Anyway, I don't see why we should leave here. It's a perfect place. And I haven't seen a man in ages."
"They'll be all over the place soon. We shouldn't take any chances."
Ginelle barked a laugh. "You, of all cats, talking about taking chances."
Xandra growled. "This is different."
"Oh, is it? How so?"
"I... I just want you to be safe," Xandra mumbled.
Ginelle drew a deep breath, and shook her head slowly. "Xandra, I'm not a cub anymore."
"And this is no cub's playground, Ginelle. This could get nasty. They mean harm."
"Why do you hate them so much?" Ginelle said softly.
Xandra made an angry noise deep in her throat. "You would, too," she growled.
Ignoring Ginelle's intake of breath, the panther jumped nimbly up into the nearest tree. "I am going to do some scouting. Stay put."
The young leopard's mouth worked silently, but before she could give an indignant response, her dark companion had disappeared into the trees.
A Threat Looms
In another part of the jungle, a shadow leap or so later, beyond the ridge to the west, a lone wolf stood over a huddled bundle at his feet, pawing, sniffing, desperately pleading.
The droning sound so close by, while still threatening, went unnoticed by his sensitive ears.
He was a big, tawny animal, heavily built with powerful muscle bulging visibly under his shaggy coat. He was a leader, an alpha male.
"Oh, Breeze," he mumbled softly, when the furry shape would not move despite his efforts. He squeezed his eyes shut against the bitter reality. There, at his feet, lay his beloved mate of many years, milky eyes staring ahead, swollen tongue lolling uselessly, one forepaw hovering above the ground in a final plea.
Mechanically, he started licking her cold, cold face, in a canine good-bye. Then, he dropped onto his haunches, threw back his head, and howled.
The keening wail of the wolf rang through the forest, and was soon joined by others, until the surrounding thickets resounded with the wolves' eerie threnody.
A presence behind him made the wolf turn. He managed a sad smile when he saw who had joined him.
"It's Breeze, Isegrim. She's... she's gone. My Breeze..." He shook his head, still unbelieving.
Isegrim stared at the motionless form on the ground. "Gods, Herac, I'm so sorry." He paused, moving closer to comfort his friend. "The Wasting Sickness?" he asked quietly.
"Come," he said finally. "We can do no more here. We must gather the Pack. Maybe it's time to move. We can't hope to survive in a place man wants to make his own."
"But it's our home, Herac. Do you just want to give it to them?"
"I've got to think of the Pack, Isegrim. There are too many of us who are yet young, and now they have lost their mother. " His gaze flickered to the large bulge in the dead bitch's abdomen, and he squeezed his eyes shut briefly. His unborn children... doomed to join the fate of their mother. "I know who's behind this, Isegrim, and she is using the mans to hurt and destroy. And all because..." He broke off.
Isegrim growled deep in his throat. His friend could only be talking about Memekueshishkueu. Not one to cross, certainly, and Herac's very existence was a constant annoyance to the Vixen Goddess. But even for her, this latest series of disasters in the jungle was a bit extreme.
"Let's go," Herac said harshly, and led the way along the Wolfpath.
Isegrim, pausing once for a last look at Breeze, trotted after him. His mind was churning. Herac may be right in wanting to get the Pack away from this place, but Isegrim did not have to like it. If Memekueshishkueu was behind this, she would hardly be satisfied at that.
"That's almost a pawful dead in as many sundowns," Thunder said grimly. He was of Breeze's last litter of cubs, and had grown into a strong young male with a sharp mind. The resemblance to his mother was such that it gave the lead wolf a sharp pang every time he looked at his son.
"And we still can't be sure what's causing it," Herac replied. "And as long as we don't know," he continued pointedly, forestalling the young wolf's heated reply, "we have no way to fight it."
Herac had called the most trusted pack members together for a counsel. Amber eyes were riveted on him and his young son, as the pack members sat silently on their haunches, some looking puzzled, some shocked at the news of their alpha female's death, all of them decidedly uneasy.
"We know it's the mans who brought it, whatever it is," growled Thunder.
"Son, in all my years, I've never seen them cause this sort of damage. They burn, they destroy, they hunt, kill or capture us, but they do not kill silently. Maybe there is more to this. We need to know this threat better before we can decide how to fight it. And we all know that the mans are outside of the circle. We don't fight mans if we can help it, not like-"
"Like who, big guy?"
All wolves present whirled at the new voice, hackles rising, and watched a black shape drop silently out of the trees above them.
"Speak of the Red Bull..." muttered Herac.
"Nice to see you too, Herac," Xandra drawled, seemingly unconcerned at being surrounded by two pawfuls of none too happy wolves. One, however, looked mildly interested despite a level of hostility.
"You're the Princess of Terror," said Thunder, approaching her cautiously. "I've heard of you."
Xandra's whisker twitched. "Have you now? What's your name, cub?"
The adolescent wolf drew himself up. "I'm no -"
"That will do, Thunder," Herac cut in, without taking his eyes off the black leopard.
As the young wolf subsided with a sullen glower, Xandra spared him a wry grin before quietly addressing Herac. "I saw Breeze. I'm sorry, Herac."
If the lead wolf was taken aback at the feline's show of sympathy, he did not show it.
"What brings you here, Xandra? I'm sure this is not a social call."
"Very perceptive," Xandra said wryly, dropping on her haunches and licking at her paw.
"What an annoying habit," Isegrim commented quietly, for the ears of a male wolf next to him, who snickered softly. Xandra flashed them a sharp look, but otherwise gave no indication of having caught the insolent comment. Instead she gnawed delicately at a lump of dirt that had gotten caught between her claws.
Isegrim just grinned.
"Actually, Herac," the cat said, "As I'm sure you noticed, Breeze is far from the only one who lost her life recently. I know the mans are behind it somehow, and I want to get to the bottom of this." She flexed her claws experimentally.
"You want to join forces... again?" Herac asked a touch incredulously.
"I want to compare notes," Xandra corrected him. "Death seems to come to those who stay near the man made monsters for too long. Something must be there that kills us. And I'd like to find out what it is before... before there are any more losses."
"I see," said Herac thoughtfully. He exchanged a glance with Isegrim, who nodded, then he shot his son an admonishing look. Thunder lowered his head with a submissive, if somewhat sullen grin, ears flattened and tail held low.
Then, the lead wolf turned to Xandra. "A word with you, Xandra? Alone?"
When Xandra nodded, he trotted into the forest, towards the river, where the rushing noise of the water would cover up their words. Scanning the assembled wolves with a frown, the cat turned and followed him silently. Still suspicious, she stopped once, whirled and looked around.
When the woods around her turned up empty, she loped on after the wolf, who was making enough noise to startle a bear out of hibernation. The panther shook her head. Canines!
"Okay, big guy, what's the deal?" she asked when she caught up to him in a narrow space between sparse bushes and high trees. There was not enough growth here to hide a mouse for long, and the branches of the trees were too high up for birds or monkeys to hear them clearly above the babble of the nearby river. It was an ideal spot for such privacy as could be had in the jungle.
Herac got to the point immediately. "I don't think this whole thing is entirely the mans' doing."
"And who else do you think would be behind this?"
"The Vixen." The way he said it made it clear he was not talking about the fox in that den a few leaps away.
"Memekueshishkueu? Hm... why?"
"Oh, just being her. She hates me, and would do anything in her power to make life miserable for me."
"Yes, of course." Xandra growled. "I, however, think a certain lupine leader is growing rather too big for his feathers. Like this whole man-on-the-move thing is all an act of vengeance of a sulking Goddess who can't think of anything less conspicuous to get back at a little mortal? Oh, please!"
"Xandra, you have no idea what that one is capable of. Besides, 'too big for my feathers', as you put it, or not, I am hardly just a little mortal, no more than you are."
"And just what makes you think I'm so special?"
"Really, Xandra, playing dumb with me? Look at that physique of yours."
"Yeah well, I work out a lot. But you? Okay, you've got yourself a nice, large pack, the envy of wolf-dom, I suppose, and you're no weakling..."
"Gee thanks," said Herac wryly. "But that's not Memekueshishkueu's problem."
"Wait a moment, you're not going to try and sell me that silly story of you being the son of Amarok himself. Only a cub would believe that. And Ginelle." She snorted.
"Apparently your little friend is smarter than you give her credit for. The Vixen has been trying to hurt me from the moment she knew about my dad's little romp with a mortal bitch, and she doesn't care who else suffers in the process."
"You know, call me a silly kitten, but I actually believe you're making some sort of sense here," Xandra rumbled.
"I'm flattered," was Herac's wry response.
"But whatever," Xandra continued, ignoring him, "what I see is the work of mans, not some insane goddess too tough for her coat."
"Careful," Herac warned while he staggered, struggling to keep his footing as the earth beneath them gave a violent lurch that started up before Xandra had quite finished speaking.
The tremor subsided, leaving the jungle in deathly quiet for as long as it took the monkeys and parrots to find their voices again. Which wasn't very long, for the monkeys.
Xandra, however, looked unruffled. "Awww, put a lid on it, Mem," she snarled. "You know what I think of you."
At Herac's incredulous look, she said lightly. "Not my fave deity, and she knows it, but apparently she doesn't think I'm worth the trouble, or she would be doing something about it."
"Yes, well if you keep annoying her, she might change her mind. Or she might do so just because you're with me.
"Let's get this straight, wolf, I'm not 'with you', I just happen to be in the same spot as you."
"Whatever," said Herac. "But are you denying her presence here?"
Xandra was thoughtful. "She, like all other gods, is bound by the divine rule not to meddle and let the Circle run its course." She paused, freezing. "And unlike the Cat God, she actually vaguely honors those rules. Go away, Agulaar!"
"Oh, brother," groaned Herac at the sight of the Great Cat, who was strutting in between them with his tail held high, another annoying habit he had, apart from his tendency to meddle with the Circle's creatures. Xandra and the wolf exchanged a glance, mildly unsettled about their identically adverse reactions to the God's appearance.
"Such a nice welcome," Agulaar drawled.
"Cut the droppings," Xandra growled, hackles rising. She arched her back and growled some more, for good measure. Agulaar pointedly ignored her.
"You two realize that you'll never get rid of this particular threat without divine intervention, don't you?"
"And you think you should provide that intervention?" hissed Xandra.
"I can have them out of here before the day is out," the Great Cat claimed.
"And why would you? You love what's going on, don't you? So why? Because you have such a caring, giving nature, is that it, Agulaar?" said Herac bitterly.
"Actually, brother wolf, I'm not in it for charity." His lip curled around the word 'brother'.
"Of course not," Xandra put in. "You're in it for war, and bloodshed."
"Precisely," the god agreed, looking mildly disgusted.
"So, what's your point?" Herac was confused.
But Xandra caught on. "There has been neither." She moistened her paw and groomed her ear with it, the tip of her tail flicking.
"If you don't count the occasional unfortunate monkey or lizard who got too close to one of the man-monsters and could not get away in time. They just lay down and die." Agulaar lashed his tail. "Hardly what battle is all about."
"I see," said Xandra. "So it's in your interest to stop them. Why don't you? What do you need us for?"
Agulaar licked his chest briefly. "There's the catch. I can't just stop them. I need mortal agents. And who better-"
"Forget it," Xandra and Herac said at the same time. Their heads whipped around to glare at each other. This agreeing business was unnerving! Both growled softly, but decided to focus once more on the Great Cat; ignoring him could have unpleasant effects.
"You don't even want to hear what I have to offer?" He sauntered over to Xandra, emanating male readiness as powerfully as only a god can.
"Nope," Xandra said, dodging the Great Cat's attempts to get in close to her.
"Not really," said the wolf, watching Agulaar's moves with faint disgust.
Agulaar lowered himself on his haunches, sighing theatrically. "Ah, the prejudice I have to deal with!"
"Oh, guano," Xandra snorted.
Ignoring her comment but for a twitch of a whisker, Agulaar, temporarily at a loss, started grooming.
"Annoying habit you cats got there," Herac whispered to Xandra, who gave him a silent stare. To Agulaar, she said, "What I would like to know is why you've decided to stick to the rules all of a sudden."
"What do you mean?" grumbled Herac. "He is breaking every god rule in the lot just by trying to talk us into working for him."
"Granted," Xandra agreed, "but there is the fact that he could meddle directly, if he chose to. You do have that power,don't you, Aggy?"
"Don't call me that," Agulaar mumbled automatically. "And I suppose I do."
"So, why so cautious?"
"None of your business," the god growled.
"Did Amarok singe your feathers for being a naughty boy?" Xandra asked innocently.
"I said it's none of your bloody business," Agulaar roared.
"I think you put your paw on it," Herac muttered approvingly to Xandra, and met the cat god's answering glare with a toothy canine grin.
"Anyway," said Agulaar, gathering the shreds of his dignity like a tattered cloak, "you have heard my offer, think about it." Lashing his tail, he once again addressed Xandra, in an oily-smooth tone, although the female was still studiously looking away from him. "Think about the rewards," he purred.
Then he vanished.
Both mortal animals watched the residue of the divine presence disperse, before Herac spoke.
"Well! not exactly what I expected of my private talk with you, but I guess it was... enlightening."
"Indeed," Xandra agreed wryly. "Makes me wonder what is going on there. Sometimes I think it's-"
Herac was never to learn what Xandra thought, for just then an excited chitter sprang up from almost under their feet, making both animals jump, fur bristling.
"Xandra! Quickquickyouhaveto," said a squeaky voice.
"Comerightawaycausethesingeris," this voice was slightly stronger, speaking before the first had quite finished.
"Again," the second finished breathlessly.
Herac shook his head in confusion, while Xandra just flattened her ears briefly before she relaxed, recognizing a couple of Ginelle's most ardent fans in the two squirrels on the ground before her.
Unable to stay in one place for more than the blink, of an eye, Frilly and Lace were zipping back and forth relentlessly, only to pause briefly, sniff, and dart away again. And they never stopped chittering!
As Xandra was drawing breath to say something, Frilly added urgently, "comecomecomecome."
Herac looked at the panther questioningly.
"Herac, meet Frilly and Lace," the cat said wryly, "They're good friends of Ginelle's."
"Ah, I see," the wolf said slowly, "But do you have any idea what they just said?"
Xandra snorted. "The Vixen bite me if I do, but I guess they want something. They stay well clear of me, mostly."
The squirrels looked at each other in exasperation. They never had much patience for the slowness of the larger creatures. How they managed to survive and in some cases, like Xandra's or the Singer's even thrive, was completely beyond them. Why, they could not even speak, let alone hear properly!
"The," Frilly said patiently, catching hold of her fluffy tail to scratch an itch.
"Singer," Lace said on top of her, and ran up a tree trunk, from where he looked accusingly at the two large animals.
"Isgettingintotrouble," they said on top of each other.
"Singer?" Herac asked blankly.
"Talking about Ginelle," Xandra grunted. "Remember that spiritual type thing she seems to have some form of talent for?"
"Oh, that's right, Singing," said the wolf, catching on. "So what about her, then?"
"No clue. But by they way they're carrying on, I'd say I should probably go check it out." The panther was suddenly more alert, the tip of her tail dancing. She motioned for the squirrels to lead the way.
"Right," said Herac, preparing to follow her.
Xandra gave him a flat look.
"What? I've never had any quarrel with her."
"Whatever," Xandra growled as she turned away from him and started following the diminutive pair zipping in and out of sight faster than she could focus on them. The wolf ambled after her, looking faintly amused but careful not to let the panther see it.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. This had better be good."
Franz sighed. As fond as he was of his colleague, he would never get used to her stubborn streak.
"Beth," he said with a patience he did not feel, interrupting the young woman's excited rush of words. "That's madness. We'll get into no end of trouble. You can't even be sure it's-"
"But if my suspicions are true, if we could prove that, then they have no right to cut down those trees. Maybe we can stop them before they level that jungle all the way. God knows they've already destroyed more than I care to think about."
"I know that. But if your suspicions are true, then what you're planning is very dangerous. And in your condition..."
Beth's hand unconsciously went to her bulging stomach. "We'll have to be careful."
"I'm not saying it's true, but again, if it is, then we are dealing with a bunch of criminals. Who knows what they'd be capable of if they found a bunch of scientists snooping around their camp?"
"We'll have to be careful," Beth said again.
"No, we won't have to be. We're not going anywhere. You hear?"
Their eyes met, and for a long moment remained locked. Finally, Beth looked away and sighed.
"It's the sensible thing, believe me," Franz said gently. "We'll try and have someone sent to investigate, right? I'll make a call first thing in the morning. There is also the Princess to deal with. Right?"
"Right." Beth's mind was whirling. Tomorrow? Time was too short. Tomorrow was way too far off. Lives were being destroyed out there, right now, the lives of species not found anywhere but here. That could not be allowed.
She looked at her friend and colleague again. "Have them send someone, then, if they will. But, could we keep the panther to ourselves for now? Please?"
Another long look passed between them. At last, Franz nodded. "Very well." He did not look too happy, but he softened visibly when he saw Beth's grateful smile. What he failed to notice was the fierce resolution in the young scientist's step when she turned and walked away from him.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm coming, sheesh," Xandra grumbled. The two jittery little rodents were a sore test to her fraying nerves. More than once during their trip to wherever they were going, she felt half tempted to end their troubles with a quick bite or a swipe of her paw. At one point, it was only the thought of the sad and reproachful look Ginelle would surely have given her that stayed her claws.
Herac, meanwhile, was trotting easily after them, slightly bemused by the squirrels' display, and mildly curious about what might have caused their agitation. He carefully ignored the occasional sharp looks that the black cat flashed him. From time to time, he squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head to clear it of a pang of memory that came unbidden, of Breeze and the cubs she would never bear. Mourning had to wait.
Preoccupied despite all attempts to keep his mind on here and now, he almost bumped into Xandra, who had stopped dead and stood frozen, the fur on her back rising.
"Where in the Red Bull's name are you taking us?" Xandra asked the two squirrels, who had disappeared out of sight and only darted back when they realized that their giant companions were not following.
Even if she had been able to decipher the diffuse babble she received in reply, the squirrels' response would hardly have registered. The feline's eyes were fixed straight ahead, her mouth just slightly open - this helped heighten her sense of smell - and she did not even twitch at Herac's soft curse when he staggered to a sudden stop behind her.
"Shush," Xandra hissed. She was staring intently into the darkness of the woods.
"I don't see a thing," Herac said, squinting intensely.
"Of course you don't. You don't have the eyes of a cat."
The wolf muttered something under his breath. Instead of responding, Xandra edged forward slowly, towards a cluster of brush growing around a particularly wide tree trunk a leap ahead. A fluid motion made her body appear to lengthen and flow into the shadows of the undergrowth, where she all but disappeared.
Herac followed blithely, looking unimpressed. The squirrels were gesticulating wildly. He gave them a shrug, which they did not seem to acknowledge.
He did jump, however, when he heard the leopard make a strange noise somewhere between a surprised meow and a shocked gasp.
"Wetoldyouwetoldyouwetoldyou," Frilly said - or Lace, or both, it was hard to tell, with the squirrels swapping places back and forth in frenzied agitation.
"Shut up," Xandra hissed, and satisfaction flashed briefly on her face when the two of them froze in shock and fell silent. For as long as it took her to advance two steps towards the source of her consternation.
The clearing was huge, its regular shape quite unnatural. Fallen trees lay everywhere, all facing the same way, their dying branches clawing at the sky like gnarled talons, their bases smoothly cut by tools that no creature of the jungle could wield. The reek of man was everywhere; overpowering. Xandra reeled.
The squirrels zipped back into the woods, their mission accomplished.
"Hey Xandra," Ginelle said cheerfully from atop the yellow contraption - one of several that were placed irregularly around the area - she was perching on. The leopard gave no sign of noticing Xandra's horror. She was busy pawing playfully at a chain that dangled from a metal beam just above her.
The thing Ginelle was sitting on was a fairly large metal box mounted on wheels, full of little levers and buttons and pipes and arms that gave it the look of a crooked creature escaped from Netherworld. It positively stank of man, but there was also some other sharp, stinging odor that was so thick and aggressive it threatened to eat Xandra's windpipe. How Ginelle could even breathe this close to the monster was beyond her.
"Did you feel the earth shake?" Ginelle asked. "What do you think it was?" The chain jingled angrily, and she pawed it again, fascinated.
"Goddess with hiccups," grunted the panther.
"Oh, funny," Ginelle said.
"Yes. Now get away from there," Xandra said flatly.
At last, Ginelle looked at her friend more closely. Puzzled, she said, "What's the matter? It's just an old machine, and it's not even running. It's not dangerous."
"It's man-made. That's reason enough for you to stay away from it, as far as I'm concerned," Xandra growled.
Herac choose that moment to step out of cover. "Much as I hate to say it," he said with the hint of a wink towards Xandra, "I have to agree. We don't go near anything the mans made or tinkered with. Once they have had their paws on something, it can no longer be trusted."
Silently, he indicated a space on the side of the yellow thing, where a symbol was painted in red. It was the head of a fox. He gave Xandra a meaningful look.
Ginelle bristled. "Why is everybody always trying to tell me what's good for me?"
"Because you keep forgetting," Xandra murmured too quietly for Ginelle to catch - she hoped.
"I'm not a cub anymore."
"I know that, Ginelle..."
"Xandra, I grew up with the mans. "
"Yes, I know, but..."
"There was something like this in the back yard when I was a cub. It was smaller than this, but it smelled almost the same. Bonkers and I used to play on it, and sometimes the mans would turn it on and mess around underneath it with metal tools and stuff. But it never harmed us, not once. I never thought I'd see anything like it again!"
"This isn't your she-man's den. What do you think cut down all those trees? Look around you."
And Ginelle did, as if seeing for the first time the chaos and destruction. Her ears drooped, "They do get a little... destructive, I guess," she admitted. She looked around again, pained. "I guess this is a little more than what Old Cyclone would do, huh? I was so excited to see the play-machines that I never really saw the damage... It's bad, huh?"
Herac snorted wordlessly.
"It's not just the trees," Xandra said. "Animals are dying, and we don't know why, but it must be linked to... this. Let's get away from here, Ginelle," she added gently. "It's a bad place."
But Ginelle made no move.
"You've kept me away from here, haven't you, Xandra? So many times in the past few sundowns you've diverted our course just enough so we passed this place by. How many others like it are there in the jungle?"
Xandra made no reply.
"When I came here this morning, I started wondering how all these machines got here without me seeing them. But you made sure I didn't find out, right? Why?"
Before Xandra could reply, Ginelle answered her own question. "You're mothering me again, aren't you? At first I thought you were afraid I'd want to go back once I saw the man things... I thought you were jealous of my memories..."
"Ginelle, I never..."
"But in truth, you were trying to protect me, weren't you? Trying to make me think the mans are far away, trying to make me think everything is fine. I don't know which is worse. I've become a jungle creature - I deserve to know these things."
"I'm not a cub," Ginelle said sullenly.
"So? How many places like this?"
"A.. a few," the panther admitted.
"But that's not all," Herac said.
"What else, then?"
The wolf lowered his head.
"He's lost Breeze," Xandra said quietly.
"What? Oh, Herac, I'm so sorry..."
He raised his amber eyes to look at her intensely. "She died not far from here. Xandra is right. This is a bad place. We should leave."
"But isn't there anything we can do? It's our home, do we just let them destroy it?"
"We don't even know what they're up to," Xandra said. "They've cut down trees before, animals have been killed at their hands before, but never like this. It looks like they just lay down and die. I don't know what to make of it."
Ginelle shuddered. "I want to see the other places like this, Xandra," she said bravely. "All of them. Please?"
Xandra looked about to protest, but then she sighed. "Very well. But only if you promise to run when I tell you to."
For a little while, Bethany's resolve wavered as she carefully made her way closer to the construction workers' camp. She should have planned this whole thing a little more carefully. Then again, time was of the essence, and she couldn't be bothered wasting precious hours trying to convince Franz, or their superiors, of the urgency of the situation. If her suspicions were true... She patted the bag dangling at her waist from a strap slung over her shoulder, felt the contours of the camcorder she had taken from their gear, solid and reassuring. She had to get proof. Nothing else would convince the authorities. Now was the time. She drew a deep breath.
It was nearly dark, the pale sickle of a waxing moon already hovering above the treetops. Several times her foot snagged in the stubborn undergrowth, and brambles tore at her clothing. She was sure her noisy progress must have scared off every wild creature within miles by now. Except the monkeys, who were keeping a steady running commentary on her efforts, or so it seemed.
Huffing slightly - her bulging stomach was making its presence known more and more - she slowed her pace when she caught the faint murmur of voices ahead. If she held her breath - which she did for a bit, but desisted because it made her heart thump madly in her throat - she could discern at least three different speakers, all male. However, she was too far off to make out any distinct sounds apart from the rolling 'r' sound and clipped speech that marked at least one of them as a local man.
She fumbled with the zipper of her bag until she could grab the camcorder, before proceeding cautiously. Hopefully, the camera would yield some usable material despite the bad lighting. At least, she hoped, she'd catch some of their conversation.
Creeping closer, she suddenly felt a sharp contraction in her belly, and had to bite her lip to keep from crying out. She took a few steadying breaths, hands pressed against her belly. This was not the time!
All of a sudden she realized that the voices had stopped; the forest around her was eerily silent.
Great, she thought, I bet they heard me. Of all the times for the little guy to start acting up in there... Easy, Beth, it was just one. Only one, nothing to worry about. Just keep still. She struggled to make out any sound above the rush of blood in her ears and her suppressed breathing, and nearly fainted with relief when the voices started up again. This time, she could actually make out some of what they were saying.
"... not going to solve our problem! " This was a distinctly British voice. "Fox Corp can't afford any leakage of this. I don't think you realize the gravity of the situation."
Bethany cautiously maneuvered the camcorder past a few branches, hoping the lens was not obscured too badly by the foliage, and pushed the record button. If she could not get any pictures, perhaps she could get enough of the conversation to alert her superiors. She did not dare reposition herself so she could see - the camera would have to do.
"I assure you it is a good way to destroy the evidence," Local Man put in. "It's dry season, nobody will investigate."
"I suppose so," British Voice said thoughtfully.
"But then,of course, there is the question of witnesses," a third, remarkably low-key voice said. The words held all the more menace because of their mellow tone.
"Witnesses?" This was Local Man. He sounded suddenly nervous.
Things happened quickly after that, too fast for Beth to grasp what exactly was happening. There was a metal click, then the crack of a gunshot, followed quickly by a second.
"Are you out of your-" The rest of what British Voice said was drowned by a roaring explosion.
A wave of heat blasted through the undergrowth, nearly tangible against the already hot jungle air, followed by the hiss and crackle of searing vegetation and a biting smell that threatened to eat away Beth's nostrils. She did not wait for the oily black, roiling mass of smoke that billowed out into the jungle like an army of mishappen slugs, nor did she really pay heed to yet another twinge in her womb.
Ginelle slunk after Xandra with her belly scraping the ground and her tail low; she had seen more than enough of the horrifying changes that were creeping through the jungle, slowly, but inexorably. And yet, whenever she thought this must surely be the worst she had seen, the black panther led her to yet another site that fairly reeked of wrongness.
They had seen several places where the man-machines still stood, and some where they clearly had been and wrought destruction, but now they were advancing into an area where no trees had been cut. No, there was something much more sinister going on here.
Not that she could put a paw on what exactly was wrong, though, apart from a ring of dead and dying vegetation and the thinning of wildlife that seemed to point towards the heart of the problem just over the next hill.
The wrongness was subtle; there were still so many live plants that the dead ones were not apparent; creeper, vines and other parasitic growth seemed to thrive. Someone who was not keyed into the Circle of Life surely would not notice anything amiss.
It seemed that even Xandra and Herac were taken aback; they had certainly ranged farther and seen more than Ginelle, but now that they actually sought these sites systematically, the twisted, filthy feel in some places seemed to startle even them.
"I think we've seen enough," Herac finally said, his voice a low murmur as if he was afraid of raising his voice. The sounds of the jungle were muted, snuffed completely in those places where the wrongness was strongest. Xandra, for once, did not look like she was going to offer even token disagreement - there was something very disconcerting in her striking blue eyes. Fear?
Indeed, it appeared as if the very jungle as holding its breath in sympathy with the panther's anxiety. The silence was suddenly ominous.
Before Ginelle herself could allow that, perhaps, yes, they should end this excursion and get some food, a loud crackle of vegetation sprang up before them, as of something large rushing blindly towards them.
Moments later a familiar trumpeting howl sounded as the old elephant Ginelle knew as Old Cyclone crashed out of the trees, his one good eye so wide that the white showed all around, and stampeded blindly towards them. It was all they could do to dash out of the panicked beast's path as he thundered past them and disappeared into the jungle.
"What the...?" Whatever Xandra had been about to say was drowned in a surge of motion as a herd of deer came into view, hot on the old elephant's tail, looking just as fear-crazed.
After a brief respite, smaller animals followed, hogs, squirrels, and finally, mice and lizards. By now it was obvious to the leopards and the wolf that something was seriously wrong. The stinging, smoldering scent wafting towards them, that smell from their darkest nightmares, confirmed their deepest fear.
"Fire!" yelled Herac. "Run for it!" --- Beth, forest fire (to get rid of the brush and make progress/cutting down trees easier), premature labor --- Fire forces both X&G and S&F to flee to a dead-end valley with a waterfall, where they become trapped Franz attempts to defend Bethany with a stick, while Xandra attempts to attack the humans, with Ginelle in between trying to stop it all. She gets hurt in the process, and Bethany goes into labor from the strain
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