Chapter Nineteen: Rescue
"This is crazy, Manzi!" Noah said in a sharp whisper.
"I know," Manzi whispered back, crouching lower to the ground. "but until Shani gets back with help, there isn't anything else we can do."
Noah gulped as he crouched beside the crimson lioness cub. "If you're sure, then I am."
Manzi smiled to reassure the young cheetah. "Just stay calm and follow my lead."
* * *
"Hey, Qymaen," Katan said, smacking his lips around his huge fangs. "Murali's gonna be surprised; you and Saka actually did your job."
Qymaen glared at the hulking saber-toothed liger in front of him. "I'm sure you would be just as happy to stain your claws with my blood and take the cubs, yourself."
Katan rumbled in his throat and raised his head to look down at the masked cheetah. "Maybe I will. Our fight remains unfinished. I see you even took trouble to cover your scars."
Qymaen's amber eyes burned from beneath his skull-mask's eye sockets. He saw the only mark on Katan from their fight: a small scar across his nose. Qymaen nearly grimaced as he remembered his own scars. He growled as Katan stepped forward.
Saka interrupted them, coming between them and tapping one of his sickle-shaped toe claws on the ground. "I might just take you both out. I don't need you fur-covered scum..." He paused and looked down at the cubs with one yellow eye. "…seeing as how I need to babysit the whole way to the outskirts, anyway." Qymaen and Katan drowned Peter's angry growl. Saka roared at them and snapped his long jaws until the slim caracal intervened. She leapt in front of Qymaen.
"You have to go through me, first, reptile!"
"Calypso, don't," Qymaen said, moving her aside.
"It with be my pleasure, cat," Saka hissed.
Calypso and Garoe were the first to look for the source of the shout. Qymaen followed their gaze.
"Hel-lo! Over here, skull-face!"
Qymaen snarled at the cheetah cub in the ferns.
"Hey! I knew you would be here!" the cheetah cub exclaimed, almost mockingly. "Antonio's been looking everywhere for you, but I found you first! I'm gonna go tell him. You stay right there, okay?" With that, the cheetah cub winked and ducked into the ferns.
"After him!" Qymaen shouted. In response, Katan and Saka tore through the brush.
Kenobi felt someone behind him. He turned his head and saw Manzi.
"Shh!" Manzi said. "Run!" she whispered. "No time to explain! Get Garoe! GO!"
Kenobi nodded a thank you as Manzi went back into the foliage. Then he ran.
Qymaen noticed Kenobi's break for freedom just as Garoe ran after him. "Calypso, there!" he ordered. "I've got the gray one!" As Calypso obeyed, chasing after the fleeing cubs, Qymaen checked to be sure that Peter was still between his legs. He watched him closely; Peter's gray pelt would be nearly impossible to see in the dark forest. At least, Qymaen thought. I can take half my quarry. Maybe I can blame the loss of the other on Saka. Suddenly a sharp pain erupted in his left hind leg.
"Ouch!" he yelled. He shook his leg, but Manzi held tightly. She held on until Qymaen wheeled around and snapped at her ear. She drew her claws and swatted the cheetah's skull-mask before she ran into the ferns.
Qymaen snarled and ran after her, leaving his mask behind.
Peter was left in the clearing, alone and confused. Thirty seconds ago, he was in the Serpent's clutches, found out he had a brother, and thought he was at Katan's mercy. Now everyone was scrambling. What was going on? Then Peter felt a tap on his shoulder. He gasped.
"Shh!" Manzi scolded. "Let's go!"
"But how-But who-?" Peter stuttered.
"Trade secret. I'm Manzi. Now, no more questions. Come on!"
Peter struggled to keep up with her as she led him through the underbrush.
* * *
"Faster, Garoe!" Kenobi said. He zigzagged between the trees when Garoe bolted past him. Man, he's fast! Kenobi thought.
"Here!" Garoe leapt on a log and them onto a tree. He shimmied up, making sure Kenobi was close.
Kenobi dodged Calypso as she jumped, trying to knock him down. Caracal's can't climb very well, Kenobi remembered. But they can jump! he thought as he dodged again.
"Keep her down!" Garoe said.
* * *
Noah panted as he ran. His legs burned. Don't they ever give up? he wondered. Then he came to a massive fallen tree. He put his front paws on it. Too slippery to climb; too high to jump. Noah got down and looked over his shoulder. They were too close, no time to go around. Noah decided to face them. He growled and bared his teeth.
Saka stopped running almost before Katan. The tall theropod stalked toward Noah. "You overestimated your speed, sprinter."
Noah felt his body shake, but he kept his teeth bared. Then he realized he wasn't shaking. He listened and felt the ground tremble beneath his paws. Something was coming from behind… fast.
Noah pressed his back against the log just before a huge zebra stallion leapt over the log and over his head at Saka and Katan. Noah didn't have time to watch the fight. He took the opportunity, however, and ran through their legs to go find Manzi. "I hope-I hope Manzi's having as much luck as I am," Noah panted to himself. He took a quick glance over his shoulder. "I mean, how many cubs can say they've been rescued by Zareb the Wanderer?"