Chapter Twenty-Three: Murali's Lair
Kenobi cringed when Saka scraped one of his huge, hooked foot claws across the black granite. He looked up. Hanging by his neck nape from Saka's jaws, he was able to see the edge of an outcropping that possibly led to the mouth of a cave. Kenobi looked down and traced a climbable line from the ground to just below the edge of the outcropping on the far left side.
"Murali!" Saka bellowed. He dropped Kenobi.
Kenobi fell on his rump on the cold, black stone. "Ouch!" he yelped. He quickly gathered his wits and got to his feet. He tried to run, when he suddenly felt a weight on his tail. It held him back. "Ow!" he yelped again when his tail stretched to full extension. He looked over his shoulder and saw Saka's left foot firmly planted on his tail.
"Special delivery!" Saka continued. He snaked his neck around as he bent down to grab Kenobi's neck nape again.
Kenobi winced. "Not so tight!"
Saka chuckled. "Mmm… Is this lion's blood I'm tasting?"
Kenobi shuddered again.
Then Saka turned to Qymaen. "Don't tell me you're nervous, cheetah."
Qymaen just bared his teeth and growled. "Shut up, Saka. You're damaging your quarry."
Kenobi suddenly looked up at the outcropping as Saka turned his head to do the same. Standing on the edge of the rock was a tar pit black, tiger-like creature with narrowed red eyes. A long, jagged, silver scar ran down the right side of his otherwise-perfect face.
"Greetings, Qymaen." Murali's voice was smooth and surprisingly soft spoken. However, Kenobi detected menace and deception. Murali looked over the edge at Saka. "Greetings, Saka Sefu." He smiled without showing his teeth. It was hardly noticeable on his dark face, but his eyes made it clear. "Congratulations on your success. I was beginning to worry you had met an untimely death."
"If you mean your pet snow-liger saber," Qymaen said, "we emerged unscathed."
Murali's grin widened until Kenobi saw his white fangs. "So I've seen. Now, come up here. It's impolite to lurk on my doorstep. I'll see you inside."
When Murali turned around to go back inside the cave, Kenobi saw the dark purple stripes going down his back and tail. Then he felt Saka move. Soon, they were climbing up the rock path to the cave. Saka's two-legged stance made it difficult for him to get a firm grip on the rocks. He nearly stumbled forward and Qymaen took the opportunity to slip past him.
Kenobi couldn't stop the single laugh that escaped his mouth. Too late, he clasped a paw over it. The last thing he needed was a hysteria attack.
Saka pinched his nape hard and Kenobi screamed. Suddenly, he felt he was flying toward the outcropping. The earth and sky revolved around his head until he saw he was heading for the front of the cave. He cringed and landed heavily on his paws. Ignoring the stinging sensations in his legs and paw pads, he scrambled for the edge and stopped. He looked down as two loose pebbles rolled over the edge. Aside from the trail Qymaen and Saka were hiking, Kenobi didn't see any other way up or down.
He glanced nervously toward the trail. Qymaen was already at the top and he was staring at Kenobi. He gestured with his head to the entrance of Murali's cave.
"Move!" Qymaen said through his teeth.
Kenobi looked into the cave's forbidding entrance. There was a flickering orange light inside, but the source was hiding around a short bend in the tunnel. Two sharp stalagmites hung from the top of the opening like fangs. They reminded Kenobi of the fangs he saw, and nearly felt, on Katan. Kenobi planted his paws on the hard rock and glared defiantly at Qymaen. Not a chance, he thought. Then he saw Saka finally come up the trail. The reptilian, bipedal bounty hunter tripped on the last ledge and fell flat on his underbelly. His floppy brown hat slid over his eyes.
Kenobi bit his lip so he wouldn't laugh again.
"Troubles, Saka?" Qymaen asked with mock pity.
Saka thrust his neck up and rocked back on his heels. He swung his long, stiff tail so it was level with the ground. Back on his feet, he looked at Kenobi.
"Inside!" Saka roared.
Kenobi scampered for footing and ran into the cave. He didn't think. All he could hear were his short, quick breaths and his pounding heart. When he heard Saka's distinct 1-2, 1-2 running gait behind him, he ran faster. He didn't stop until he rounded the bend in the tunnel.
His eyes widened as he looked around. The small cave was well lit by several small fire pits that lined the walls. Kenobi looked up and saw racks of antlers and horns lined side by side on a rock ledge that ran around the chamber. On the floor between the fire pits were strange stone sculptures and assorted predator skulls. He recognized a train of peacock feathers, lying spread in a fan on top of a cheetah skin. Kenobi looked down when he realized he wasn't standing on rock anymore. He gasped and jumped backwards, off the lion skin. He backed up until he hit something. Craning his neck, he looked over his shoulder and saw Saka staring angrily at him.
"Move it, cub!" he said. He cocked his left foot like he was threatening to kick.
Kenobi growled and started walking. "Okay! Okay!" he said, stepping around the lion skin. He marched further into the cave, Saka at his heels, until he saw Murali.
The Dark Liger was lounging on three leopard skins, picking his teeth with a vulture's talon. He smacked is lips and looked up when he saw Kenobi. He smiled. Then he flicked away his toothpick and stretched. "I suppose I shouldn't hide the fact that I'm impressed."
"You don't need to pat our backs, Murali," Qymaen said. He set Garoe down, right beside Kenobi. "We have our quarry and that's what matters to me."
Murali half-closed his eyes and nodded. "Of course."
"So when do we get paid?" Saka snapped.
Murali casually got down from his bed of spotted skins and stretched again. He stalked toward them and looked down at Kenobi and Garoe. Kenobi felt for sure that his heart was going to jump out of his chest. Murali's nearly a size bigger than Antonio! he thought.
Murali looked at Garoe for a moment. He nudged him with one of his huge black paws, but Garoe didn't wake up. Murali looked from Garoe to Qymaen. "You hit him hard, Serpent."
Qymaen looked at the floor. "I did what needed to be done."
As Kenobi looked at Garoe, he felt strange. His stomach didn't feel right and he started biting his lip. His paws felt itchy and he started grinding his teeth. He suddenly remembered that he'd felt that way once before…when he got into trouble with Antonio for wandering away from the pride at night. He pinned a word on the feeling and owned it. He was guilty. He looked up when he saw that Murali's attention had turned to him. Kenobi instinctively made eye contact and swiveled his ears back to show respect.
Murali lowered his head so close to Kenobi's face, Kenobi could smell his hot, old-meat breath. He coughed as Murali sniffed him.
"This one doesn't smell like the other cub you brought."
"They've been separated, Murali," Saka said. "Technically, he doesn't smell like much, anyway."
Murali lifted his head and kept his eyes locked on Kenobi's. He pursed his lips. Then he closed his eyes, turned away, and shrugged. "After I lock them up, I'll discuss your payment."