Chapter Twenty: Not Quite Enough
Kenobi kicked Calypso with his hind foot. "That was close!" he thought aloud.
Calypso leapt for him again, but higher. Garoe swung at her with all his strength. Calypso yowled and dropped back to earth, obviously blinded by her watering eyes.
Garoe tried to put his foot back on the branch. He missed it and fell forward. "Help!" he cried. He struggled to keep his grip on the bark.
"Hold on!" Kenobi shimmied further up the tree and reached for Garoe's paw.
Below, Calypso jumped at them and swatted at Garoe's dangling form.
Kenobi didn't reach him in time. Garoe's paw slipped off the branch, taking some of the bark with him. "Garoe!" Kenobi called as the mud-colored cub fell into the darkness of ferns, right in Calypso's path. "I'm coming!" He jumped down, putting himself between Garoe and the caracal. Even though his legs and paws stung from the impact of his landing, Kenobi growled, forcing a strong, young lion roar. Calypso stood back. Kenobi heard Garoe running away from them into the forest.
Qymaen had lost the red lioness cub almost before he started chasing her. Now, he followed his ears. He heard running, and it was coming toward him. Qymaen stopped as he locked eyes with one-half of his quarry-Garoe. The cub's gray eye that wasn't covered by his long hair tuft widened in shock. Qymaen suddenly remembered his skull mask was somewhere back in the clearing. He knew his scars, the long claw marks on the left side of his face, were visible even in the dark. Though he wasn't proud of it, he took advantage of the cub's predicament. Qymaen swatted Garoe hard and knocked him on his side. Qymaen roughly picked him up by the nape of his neck. Then he turned and ran back to the clearing, hoping to retrieve his mask before he met up with Saka.
A miscalculated turn led Manzi and Peter straight into a fight. Manzi gasped when she saw the huge zebra stallion grappling with the reptile bounty hunter and the saber-toothed lion-tiger hybrid. Manzi gasped again when the tall reptile's yellow eyes spotted her. Before she could move, Saka charged.
Peter waited until Saka snaked his neck and bent down to snap his jaws at Manzi. He sprang on Saka's triangular head and smashed his face into the ground. In one second, Peter was back at Manzi's side.
Saka spit out a mouthful of dirt and roared furiously. He tried to lunge at the cubs again, but the hulking saber-tooth smashed into him.
Manzi watched Saka bolt away through the ferns. Then the zebra stallion knocked the saber-toothed liger away from the cubs. Trapped with Peter, all Manzi could do was watch.
Kenobi was starting to wonder how long he had before the caracal in front of him lost her temper when a loud roar erupted in his ears. The next thing he knew, Kenobi was off the ground. He felt sharp teeth pinching his neck nape. He saw Calypso get kicked aside before his captor charged through the forest. "Help!" Kenobi yelled. He hoped someone would hear him. No one came.
Meanwhile, Noah searched for Manzi. Where the scrub brush is she? he wondered. Just then, a cheetah ran past him. Noah spun around and recognized the limp form of Garoe hanging from the cheetah's jaws. Noah ran after him, shouting loudly. "Drop him, Serpent!"
Manzi squeezed her eyes tight as the saber-tooth drew blood. She heard the haunting, heart-rending sound of the stallion's scream. She suddenly heard herself screaming as her paws left the ground. "Let me go!" she shouted, trying to free herself from the saber-tooth's powerful, painful grip.
"Manzi!" Peter called from behind.
Manzi heard uneven hoof beats behind her. Her-heart skipped a beat, then sank when the zebra couldn't run anymore.
Noah charged faster after the fleeing, masked cheetah. Hoarse from shouting, Noah focused all his energy on covering ground as fast as possible. The plants rushed past him like a green river on either side. His little paws pounded the dirt, picking up speed with every long stride. He stole a glance over his shoulder when he thought he heard hoof beats behind him. If my baby blues don't deceive me, he thought with a smile. That's Shani!
The young zebra pulled beside Noah and lowered his neck. "Get on, sprinter!"
Noah swung onto the strong, striped neck and then slid down to Shani's back. "We need to get closer, Shani! He's got Garoe!"
"I think Saka has Kenobi," Shani answered between breaths.
Noah blinked. He hadn't realized, until now, that he was chasing two cub-nappers. "Let's hit Qymaen! Saka'll come back when he goes down." Noah felt Shani nod. They drifted closer to the dark cheetah and then pulled beside him.
Noah reached for Garoe. "Closer! I almost-Ah!" Noah lost his balance and fell forward. Shani tried to save him by slowing down but the cheetah cub left his back.
Manzi's eyes widened as she saw Noah fall. She was still hanging from the saber-tooth's mouth as he ran after Saka and Qymaen. Noah was in the saber-tooth's path. Before Manzi could shout a warning, her captor plowed right over the fallen cheetah cub. The huge beast stumbled head over heels as Manzi flew free of his mouth. She landed on her feet at Noah's side. "Are you okay?"
Noah jumped to his feet with an "I planned that" smile. Then his face fell as he shouted, "Watch out!"