Chapter Twenty-Five: Lets Do This
Manzi had her hind paws on Shani's back, and her forepaws on a black rock ledge. Even in the dark, her white toes stood out against it. She hoped that the rest of her otherwise crimson fur wasn't as flashy. Vultures didn't usually come out at night, but in this part of the savanna – on the outskirts no less – Manzi didn't want to take any chances. She looked up at Noah and asked, "Are you sure this is it?"
Noah had already climbed his way off Shani's back and onto the ledge. "I'm pretty sure," the cheetah cub said. "There should be a gap here."
Manzi had to steady herself against the ledge as Shani snorted.
"What if there isn't?" he said.
"No," Peter said. He was on the ground, watching Noah and Manzi. "There's a gap. I saw light coming through it. I know I did."
"I did, too," Noah said. He looked behind a loose stone. "My baby blues never lie. Well – almost never.
Manzi gave the grumbling zebra a nudge on the back with her foot. "Quiet, Shani," she whispered.
"Me? The cheetah's the one making noise."
"Here." Manzi pulled the rest of her body onto the ledge. "Let me take a look." The black rock was smooth and cold under her paw pads, even though Noah had been standing there a few seconds before.
He looked at her and said, "I could've sworn it was right here." He gestured with his head toward the rock wall. His ear twitched at the same time.
Manzi squeezed beside him on the narrow ledge and felt with her forepaw for an opening on the mountain face. Her ear swiveled when she heard Noah accidentally kick a loose pebble off the edge.
"Careful, you two!" Shani warned.
Manzi took his advice and moved closer against the wall. "Ah!" she yelped when some fur on her shoulder got caught on the jagged edge of a small crack.
Then, a muffled sound came from the other side of the rock.
Manzi couldn't make out what it was.
"You okay?" Noah asked.
"Shh!" Manzi hissed. She pressed her ear against the rock. "I heard something."
"Manzi?" said the muffled reply.
That sounds like Kenobi! Manzi thought. She smiled and asked, "Kenobi?"
"It's you!" Kenobi said. It sounded like he was trying to keep his excitement and his other overwhelmed emotions from raising his voice. "Manzi, you made it! Garoe was right!"
"They're back here!" Manzi said over her shoulder to Noah. "I can hear Kenobi."
"Pawesome! Where are they?"
Manzi turned back to the crack. "Where are you? Is Garoe there?"
"He's here. We're locked in a cage. No way out except through a boulder that's as heavy as an elephant's butt."
Manzi, out of the corner of her eye, saw Noah renewing his search for the gap. "We think we saw a gap back here," she said to Kenobi. "Can you see any from where you are?"
Garoe's soft voice answered her. "You are speaking through it."
Manzi's heart sank when she realized it was impossible for any lion cub – fit or underfed – to fit through that crack.
Garoe seemed to sense her thoughts. "Look up a bit, Manzi."
She did. "Hey, Noah!" she said without looking at him. "Help me dig!"
"I should get at least half!" Saka snapped. "And I say that only because I'm feeling generous."
Qymaen rolled his eyes. Come on, Saka. Let's get out of here before the search party arrives. The masked cheetah knew that Calypso would have been spared by Antonio, only so she could lead the pride to rescue the kidnapped cubs. If she knows what's good for her-and she does-she won't lead them astray. She might give me some time to leave here, but that is questionable. "Just take what's yours and let's go, Saka," Qymaen said aloud. He started for the cave exit, carrying nothing except the skull-mask on his face and a string of lion and jackal claws around his neck – proof of a pledge that Murali wouldn't send Katan to kill him. It was enough.
Saka was still trying to sway Murali into giving him a rare ocelot cub skin and a crown of peacock tail feathers.
The black liger was everything but willing to give up two of his prized possessions simply for the delivery of the heirs of his late adversary Lord Ethro. Qymaen knew now that Murali was questioning the legitimacy of that delivery.
"Aren't the lion's teeth and cobra fangs enough?" Murali's voice growled. His red eyes were narrowing now that he was more impatient and bored with the bartering. He tapped his extended, left foreclaws in time with Saka's large, sickle-shaped toe-claws.
"No, not nearly," Saka answered with an oily hint in his voice. "I still want – What's that?" The big, bipedal reptile turned his narrow, snake-like head toward the prison room where they'd put the cubs. His small nostrils flared. Then he growled. "They aren't alone in there."
Manzi had never been so happy get her paws dirty. With Noah's help on the outside, and Kenobi and Garoe's help on the inside, they'd been able to open the gap above the crack, clearing out the dirt and old slate. Now it was large enough for one cub to fit through at a time. The gap was nearly as high as Manzi was long; she'd been stretching the whole time she'd been digging. Noah was finishing the job since he was longer.
Manzi stretched and readjusted her spine as she asked, "Can they get through, yet?"
"I think so," Noah answered. He got down on all fours again, standing just in front of Manzi. "Come on, Kenobi!"
Manzi craned her neck to look past Noah's yellow, spotted shoulder and saw Kenobi's front paws in the gap. A second later, he retreated.
"What's wrong?" Manzi asked. She was answered when Garoe's front paws and head came through the gap. She smiled.
Garoe seemed to notice and smiled back shyly. "He insisted that I go first," he said.
Manzi smile widened. "Need any help?"
Garoe slipped out the gap and landed lightly on the ledge. He backed up when he realized how close he was to the edge. "I have only one question," he said. "How are we all supposed to fit here?"
Kenobi poked his head out of the gap. His black braid of mane fell forward as he turned his head. "Can I come out, now?"
"Just a sec. Lemme make some room." Noah jumped off the ledge and landed on Shani's back.
Shani screamed a high-pitched zebra scream and bucked once – instinctively. Then he stopped, twitched an ear, and grumbled something about "obnoxious cheetah pranks."
"You can come out, now, Kenobi!" Noah said, chuckling. He playfully tapped Shani's rump with his back foot. "Let's do that again!"
Shani slowly glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "It'll be your last ride."
Kenobi started squeezing out of the gap. He knew he wouldn't slip through easily like Garoe. His shoulders felt trapped. He could barely move them. Then, behind him, he heard the unmistakable one-two, one-two footfalls of Saka.
"Help me!" Kenobi yelled. "They're coming!" His heartbeat was in his throat when Saka roared.