Chapter Twelve: Murali
Kenobi cocked an eyebrow. “What’re you doing, Manzi?”
Manzi looked from Kenobi’s sly, green eyes to Noah’s curious, blue eyes. She gulped. “Um, nothing,” she stuttered, managing to squeeze past them.
Noah spoke up. “It must be an awful big nothin’.”
Kenobi stepped past the cheetah cub. “You weren’t ‘listening in’ on a ‘private conversation’, were you, Manzi?” he pressed, a slick tone in his voice.
Manzi kept walking, hoping that at least Kenobi would stop following her.
But Kenobi stuck to her like a burr, continually poking and prodding.
“I don’t think Antonio would appreciate it if he heard about you, of all cubs, ‘eavesdropping.’”
Manzi, finally clear of the tall grass, sat down with a huff. “What do you want?”
Kenobi’s copper face hardened and his black hair tuft fell forward as he said, “What did they say?”
“You mean you didn’t hear anything?”
“I wouldn’t be asking you if I did.”
Manzi sighed. This was about Garoe. Should she tell Kenobi? And with Noah standing beside her, was any secret safe? Manzi decided to keep it to a minimum. “They said something about that cheetah that chased me and the others. He was send by someone named Murali.”
Kenobi started to say something but Noah shuddered.
“Murali scares me.”
“You’ve heard of him?” Manzi asked.
“Heck yeah!” Noah said. “I’d say everybody’s gonna hear about him sooner or later, if there’s anyone left who hasn’t heard of him.”
Now it was Kenobi’s turn. “Who is he?”
Noah took in a jumpy breath before he replied. “He’s a Dark Snow Liger Ex. A cross between a black lion and a dark tigress. I’m not sure what he looks like, but I know he’s black with stripes and he thinks a lot of his looks. A wise lion, the keeper of the northern savanna, banished Murali and his parents to the outskirts, but I dunno why. I heard that after his parents died, Murali rose to power as one of the richest creatures in the savanna. He’s mean, rich, quick-tempered, and smart. I don’t think anyone who enjoys livin’ would try to stand against him.”
Manzi let out a low whistle. “Wow.”
“He sounds… interesting,” Kenobi said. “But why did he send the masked cheetah in the first place?” He turned back to Manzi.
Manzi shrugged. “I must’ve missed that part,” she lied. She didn’t want Kenobi to get mad at Garoe for putting the pride in danger.
“Too bad,” Noah said. “But with The Serpent involved, you know Murali’s up to somethin’ big.”
“Who’s The Serpent?” Manzi asked, getting to her feet. She didn’t want to keep Kamaria, Shani, and Mala waiting much longer.
Noah followed her. “That’s what they call the masked cheetah.”
“I thought his name was Qymaen,” Manzi said. She glanced over her shoulder when she realized Kenobi wasn’t following. She saw him walking away, his black braid swinging over his shoulder.
“Well…” Noah said, causing Manzi to look at him. “That is his real name, I guess, but most call him The Serpent. It’s because he’s cursed.”
Manzi blinked. “Cursed?”
Noah trotted around her in a circle and stopped in front of her so she had to stop too. Noah sat down and brought his tail up to his chest so Manzi could see.
“He has the mark on his tail.” Noah flicked his for emphasis. Then he stood up again. He extended a claw and drew a long, curved line in a patch of dirt. After he drew another curved line, the shape resembled the path a snake makes when it slithers, crooked, long, and curved. “That’s it.”
Manzi stared at Noah’s drawing and cocked her head. “That’s his curse?”
Noah seemed astounded that she still didn’t understand. “Don’t you know? Only three cheetahs have ever had that mark. And every one of them did something really bad.”
Manzi suddenly felt nervous. “Like what?”
Noah looked around and then looked Manzi in the eye, leaning forward. “They were so bad, no one will tell me.”
Manzi felt her eyes widen. Even her mother and Aunt Dafini told her about the fights they’d been in, and even detailed accounts of their hunts. Then she thought of Murali’s plans for Garoe. She looked back at Noah, but could only nod nervously.
Noah twisted his lips into an upward frown and shrugged his spotted, yellow shoulders. Then he looked past Manzi’s shoulder. “Hey, where’s Kenobi?”
Manzi craned her neck over her shoulder. Kenobi was gone. She wanted to investigate, but her first thoughts were of her waiting friends. “Mala’s waiting for me,” she said.
Noah suddenly beamed. “I’ll race you!” He reared onto his hind legs before he took off.
Manzi allowed herself to smile. “No fair getting a head start!”
Two red eyes formed a stare as dark as the black fur surrounding them. Murali’s gaze cut across the flat landscape. A growl erupted in his throat and escaped his jaws. He roared, revealing his perfect, white fangs. His bellow echoed off the rocks around him, scaring a lone bird.
As he closed his mouth, Murali looked over his shoulder. “Katan.”
A white, hulking, lion-like creature stepped out of the shadows of the cave. Katan’s green and blue hair tuft nearly covered his piercing green eyes. The strange mane ran down his spine, cutting the blue marking on his back in half. The Saber ran his tongue over one of his long, front fangs that protruded under his lips before he answered. “He’s had too much time.”
Murali’s gaze immediately traced the scar on the bridge of Katan’s nose. “Yes, I agree. Qymaen is taking too long. I thought Saka would prove to quicken his pace. Perhaps I was wrong.”
“Or they killed each other.” Katan ambled to stand beside Murali’s dark form. They stood almost at equal height, Murali only being slightly taller.
Murali chuckled through his nose at Katan’s suggestion. “My sources tell me otherwise.”
Katan raised an eyebrow. “Just because the vultures beg you for food doesn’t mean one or the other isn’t dead. They hate cheetah flesh.”
“As do I.”
Katan growled, twitching his nose where the scar was.
“Go find him, Katan,” Murali said, turning to him. “Check his progress. If he doesn’t have anything to report… kill him.”
Katan pulled his black lips into a smirk. “What of his quarry?”
Murali growled, returning his gaze to the landscape. “Go after them yourself. I’ve been waiting too long.