Chapter Twenty-Seven: Silver Scar
Manzi peeked around Antonio's hind leg when the dust settled in front of them. When it cleared, Manzi saw Murali's huge, dark form standing a whisker's breadth from Antonio's muzzle. Manzi could feel the rumbles from their breathing through her paws.
Murali's red eyes looked down on the golden lion's blue-green stare. He raised one side of his black, wet lips into a feral grin. "Hello, Antonio."
Manzi hid behind Antonio's leg when Murali looked at her. She swallowed. Noah and Peter exchanged nervous glances with her before Antonio spoke.
"You have no right to stand there and smile at me, Murali." His Spanish accent rolled around his strong voice. "You have stolen my cubs – and intended to murder them."
Murali snarled. He quickly glanced over his shoulder when Saka stopped beside him. Then he looked back to Antonio. "Some have told me I was banished for a reason. Some have called me the Dark One. Some have told me that cold murder and deceit courses through my black-blood veins.
"I say Ethro took my inheritance. The Lord of the Northern Plains overthrew my parents' reign. He drove us from our home – forcing us to live off of carrion and scraps like the hyenas, vultures, and vermin do."
"Your parents stole the land from Ethro. They killed his parents."
"He killed mine by sending them here to starve and lay exposed to the sun!" Murali shouted. White foam gathered around his mouth. Some dripped off his jaws and into the sand.
Saka snapped his long, triangular jaws at Antonio's face.
Antonio didn't flinch.
Manzi looked around Antonio's leg again and saw the long, jagged, silver scar on Murali's right cheek.
Antonio said, "Zareb the Wanderer was right to reveal you for what you are."
Murali snarled. Then he roared. "Scarred or not, I am a Dark Liger! Born of blood, granite, and death. I will have no more of this senseless talk, Antonio. I will have my revenge on Ethro's heirs and stain the desert sands with their young, red blood. Even if you try to spill my black blood, you can't stop me!"
"Children!" Dafini's call came just in time.
Manzi, Noah, and Peter ran to her just as Murali lunged.
Antonio reared and blocked the attack. He swatted Murali under the chin and then slammed his shoulder into Murali's side. Murali lost his balance. He collapsed on his side in the sand. He took a swipe with his claws at Antonio as he went down. Antonio roared in pain.
"Antonio!" Dafini cried. She turned to her sister. "Take the cubs, Tanari," she said. Roaring furiously, the blue-eyed lioness charged Murali while he was still down.
"This way!" Tanari said. She ran with the cubs to a small stand of black rocks. "You can hide here."
"Mom!" Manzi said. She stole a glance over her shoulder when they stopped at the rocks. "What about-?"
"I'll go if they need me. You stay here."
Manzi winced and closed her eyes tight when she saw Antonio take another blow from Murali's black claws.
Saka's original intent was to kill the lioness in front of him. Just as he was about to jump and lay his toe-claw through her spine, he spied Calypso – the caracal that Qymaen was so fond of, the caracal that had led Antonio to Murali's lair – sneaking away from the fight.
So, he thought, she sold us out. She two-timed us and led Antonio here in the first place! Saka jumped over the lioness and charged at Calypso instead.
The small, pointed-eared cat saw him and ran. Saka easily overtook her. He lowered his long neck and used his head like a battering ram to knock her on her side.
"No! Please!" she cried. "I had no choice!"
Saka smiled. His long, thin, scaly lips pulled slowly away from his teeth. He poised on of his toe-claws over Calypso's ribs while he used his foot to hold her down. "Say 'good-bye,' traitor!"
An ear-splitting screech came from somewhere on Saka's right. He turned in time to see two amber eyes glowing from behind a skull mask rushing towards his face.
Qymaen crashed into Saka's head and neck. The impact was painful, but nothing had felt so good to him in a long time. Both creatures fell in the sand and rolled in a snapping, growling heap.
Calypso leapt to her feet, favoring her left forepaw. "Qymaen!"
"Run!" Qymaen shouted. He dodged a kick from Saka's right foot. "Now!"
Calypso pinned her ears back. She bared her teeth. Then she charged. "I'm not gonna let you do this by yourself!" She punched Saka in the face, right below his eye as he bent down to bite Qymaen. He howled and screamed. "Not this time!"
While Saka screamed, Calypso jumped for his pale throat and held on with her teeth.
And he knows it, Manzi thought, shuddering. She looked up at her mother, Tanari, who was standing ready. Manzi knew she wanted to go, but she wouldn't unless Antonio and Dafini desperately needed help. Manzi looked back to the fight and saw Antonio take another blow across the face. She winced.
"Come on, Antonio," Tanari whispered.
"That's gotta hurt," Noah said behind Manzi's shoulder.
Manzi watched Dafini roar and jump on Murali's back. She sunk her teeth into the nape of his neck. Murali reared on his hind legs and shook his body wildly but Dafini held firm.
Then Antonio charged. He plowed into Murali and knocked him on his side.
Manzi cringed when she heard a sound like a cracking tree branch. She knew it was one of Murali's ribs. She wished she could hold her ears against his howl. It was weak and sharp, like the wind was knocked out of him.
"Run!" Antonio roared. He ran beside Dafini toward Tanari and the cubs' hiding place. His face was streaked with claw marks and his golden body was smeared with something that looked like tar. He leapt the last few feet and landed in front of Manzi. He took Peter in his jaws, then gestured with his head for the others to follow him.
Dafini took Noah and Manzi's mother took her. Together, they all ran over the sand back toward the Savanna. Manzi could hear the screams and fighting behind them. Then she heard Murali's heavy, swift footfalls. He was coming closer.