Chapter Twenty-Four: A Real Change of Heart
"I'm not Ethro's other son!" Kenobi shouted. Saka and Qymaen's warning glares silenced him.
"That is not in dispute here," Murali said. He looked at Qymaen and Saka. "Unless you two have something to add to the cub's statement…"
"He was separated from his father, Murali," Saka said. "So how could he know if he was Ethro's son or not?" Saka looked to Qymaen for help, but all he got was a small shrug. He knew that Qymaen knew better than to sink himself deeper into a lie.
Murali looked down at Kenobi and raised an eyebrow. "True enough," he said after a moment. It made Kenobi jump. "Bring the other cub and follow me."
Kenobi gasped and froze when Murali opened his gaping, dark mouth and wrapped it around Kenobi's body. He lifted the copper-colored cub as if he were a mouse.
As Murali started striding deeper into the cave, Kenobi felt grateful the Dark Liger wasn't gripping him with his teeth.
Kenobi craned his neck to look past Murali's swaying shoulders and saw Garoe hanging from Qymaen's mouth by the nape of his neck. He was still unconscious. The amulet he wore hung limply around his neck, still glowing faintly.
Kenobi sighed and looked forward again. His green eyes widened when he saw the place where Murali intended to keep them. It was a lion's rib cage. The pale, dry bones were interlaced with other, smaller bones and tree branches. Kenobi swallowed.
Murali strode to the right side of the cage and put his front paws on a small, heavy-looking boulder. He pushed on it and strained against it. The rock slowly slid sideways, leaving a small trail in the dirt on the floor. Murali stopped pushing it when there was a gap just big enough for Kenobi and Garoe to fit through-one at a time.
Murali dropped Kenobi so he faced the opening. "Inside," he ordered.
If I go in there, Kenobi thought. I'll probably never come out again. He looked pleadingly at Murali, even though his instincts told him otherwise.
Murali narrowed his eyes at Kenobi. Then he kicked him into the cage with a forepaw.
Kenobi rolled inside and quickly got to his feet. He met Murali's red glare.
"Never beg for mercy from me, cub," he said. "I never offer it." He backed up as Qymaen brought Garoe to the opening and shoved him inside.
Kenobi pulled Garoe closer to him so the little cub's tail wouldn't be caught between the boulder and the floor as Murali pushed it against the wall again.
Murali lifted a paw and extended his claws. As he examined them, he said, "Normally, Katan does that." He put his paw down and looked at Saka and Qymaen.
Saka hastily exchanged a glance with the masked cheetah.
"I don't know where he is," Qymaen said. "We lost him when we ran with the quarry."
"That doesn't concern me," Murali said. He started walking slowly away from the cage. "What did you have in mind for your payment?"
* * *
"I've never seen anything this spooky!" Manzi said. The black mountain that held Murali's den looked to her like a giant, perched vulture.
"Try passing through hyena territory like Mom and I did once," Peter said.
"Or try Saka's teeth in the dark," Noah said. He shuddered until his spotted fur rippled.
"Or me when I was pounced by Chee," Shani grumbled. He snorted and turned his long neck to look at Manzi. His scruffy, gray mane fell away from his eyes. "Are you sure you don't want to wait for Antonio and your mom?"
Manzi nodded and looked back to the mountain. "I'm sure. We need to do this."
"Yeah," Noah agreed. "Before Murali skins them alive!"
"I'm more worried about what Murali will do to Saka and Qymaen when he finds out they lied," Peter said, smiling.
Shani huffed. "You have a cruel sense of humor."
* * *
Kenobi waited until the three voices were muffled around the bend in the tunnel before he even dared moving. He turned to Garoe and inched closer to him. "Garoe!" Kenobi whispered. He nudged the mud-colored cub with a paw.
"Garoe!" Kenobi whispered louder.
Garoe remained silent.
Suddenly afraid, Kenobi nudged Garoe with both forepaws. "Please wake up, Garoe!" he pleaded. "I can't face those three by myself."
Kenobi's breath caught in his throat when he heard the small, soft voice. He never thought he'd be happy to hear it. "You're okay!" he almost shouted. He blinked when his vision started getting misty. He bent down to lend Garoe his shoulder. With help, Garoe got to his feet. Then he looked at Kenobi with the one gray eye that wasn't covered by his thick, dark-brown mane.
What's he going to say? Kenobi asked himself. He gritted his teeth.
"I fooled them."
Kenobi blinked. "What?"
Garoe looked out the bars of the ribcage. "I was not unconscious."
Kenobi was relieved, but he wasn't sure why. "You were faking the whole time?"
A smile turned one corner of Garoe's lips. "Yes, Kenobi. I learned that from you."
Ouch! Kenobi cringed. He felt as if he'd been cringing all night. He decided to swallow his pride, but only because his old friends weren't there. "I'm sorry, Garoe. I was stupid and wrong, and so…irresponsible!" He thrust his shoulder into the bars of the cage but they didn't budge. He didn't expect them to. "I let Manzi down. I let you down. I let myself down and I let Antonio down!"
"Shh!" Garoe reminded him. "I understand what you were trying to do. I know you were thinking of the pride when you tried to turn me in, but deep down, I think you were only caring about yourself."
Kenobi swallowed and stared at his forepaws. How can someone younger than me, and someone with such a soft, small voice, sound so big and intelligent? he wondered.
"I forgive you, Kenobi."
Kenobi looked at him. "How can you?"
"My father taught me never to hold a grudge. He called it an unnecessary burden. I won't easily forget what you tried to do-"
"Neither will I," Kenobi interrupted.
"-but I will not hold it against you. Besides," Garoe paused and looked around. "Isn't this punishment enough?"
Kenobi felt himself smiling. "Garoe, I think I'm starting to like you." Then he said, "So why did you fake that you were knocked out?"
"At first, I was." Garoe rubbed his head. "The Serpent has hard paws. But when I woke, I thought it best to keep my eyes closed and listen. You can learn a lot with your ears."
"Puh. Sometimes too much. So besides Qymaen's story about you and you brother being separated, what else did you learn?"
Garoe walked closer to Kenobi and sat by the wall. "Murali and the hunters will be bargaining for a long time, at least until Murali gets irritated of them. This mountain is full of gaps and hollow places. I've heard drafts whistling through it ever since we came inside. And Manzi is right outside this wall."