Chapter Twenty-Eight: Dawn
"Stop, Antonio!" Murali roared.
Manzi's breath caught in her throat when she saw that the black liger was right behind them – and he was in a snarling rage.
He must smell Peter! Manzi realized. "Mom!" she said, looking up at the lioness who was holding her. "He's after Antonio and Peter!"
Tanari's words came through her clenched teeth while she held Manzi's neck nape. "How close is he?"
Manzi caught sight of the charging black liger as she swung in Tanari's grip. "Very close!" Manzi felt Tanari pick up a burst of speed.
"Now!" Antonio shouted, still holding Peter.
Manzi braced herself when her mother made a sharp turn, separating from Antonio. She caught a glimpse of Dafini, who was holding Noah, doing the same thing but in the opposite direction.
Antonio kept going straight. Murali was closing on him.
Peter's heart pounded in his throat when Murali roared behind him and Antonio.
"Run!" Antonio said through his teeth.
"What?" Peter asked.
Antonio swung his head, throwing Peter through the air. Peter flipped and landed on all four paws in the sand. Then he saw Antonio wheel around to face Murali head on. The two crashed together and wrestled until they were covered by a cloud of sand and dust.
Peter didn't see any choice but to run. The scruffy gray cub could see the two lionesses running together now in front of him. He stole a glance over his shoulder and saw Murali, still fighting. Suddenly, images of Peter's mother – lying dead at the paws of Qymaen the Serpent – flashed through his mind. Then he thought of his brother Garoe – the brother he never knew he had; and then of his father that he never met, because Murali sought to kill him.
Peter stopped running. He turned to face the fight. This is all Murali's doing, he thought. My family separated because of him. My mother is dead because he hired Qymaen and Saka. Peter's bright blue eyes narrowed. His chest tightened and a growl escaped his throat. He pinned his ears back. He extended his claws. Then he charged back to Antonio, who was pinned under Murali's forepaws. Peter saw an open gash on Murali's shoulder; it showed silver skin and it was seeping a black ooze that Peter guessed was blood – Dark Liger blood. Peter roared a cub roar. He didn't care how high-pitched it was. As his running brought him closer and his paws pounded the cold sand, he heard Murali say: "I'm going to enjoy this very much, Antonio. And I assure you, your sacrifice will be in vain. After you're dead, your pride will have no one to protect them. They will be easy to find with all yours cubs in tow."
"Murali!" Peter screamed. He leapt for Murali's face when he turned to look at him. Peter landed on Murali's muzzle and bit down on the bridge of his nose. He latched on, with his foreclaws dug into the sides of Murali's cheeks.
Murali roared and jumped off Antonio to get his paws free. He shook his head wildly. He swiped his paws, one at a time, at Peter's clinging body.
"Peter!" Antonio shouted. "Let go!"
No, Peter thought. Not yet. I have to do this.
"Mom!" Manzi shouted. "Stop! They need help! Peter needs help!"
Tanari skidded to a stop and wheeled around so Manzi could look back. Manzi couldn't see them very clearly because they were so far away, but she knew Peter and Antonio needed help.
"Put me down!"
"We can't just stand here!"
"Look out!" a deep voice boomed behind them.
Manzi screamed when Tanari jumped back. She nearly dropped her. A streak of white ran past them. It was followed closely by another, sleeker white streak. Manzi saw that the second white creature was a zebra stallion, and she knew it could only be the zebra stallion. Zareb the Wanderer, she thought. But who's he chasing? Then she thought of the saber-toothed beast that had attacked her and her friends in the forest. That saber tooth was Murali's bodyguard Katan. Manzi knew for sure that's who it was when she saw them running toward Antonio and Peter. But is Katan running to help his master, or is he saving his own skin?
* * *
"Leave her alone!" Qymaen snarled in Saka's face. It was more a threat than a command, now.
Saka was lying on his side. His hat had flown off his head a long time ago. Calypso was still holding his throat in her jaws, slowly suffocating him. Qymaen was assisted her by pressing his paws on Saka's neck. Saka wheezed. His yellow eyes glazed over. He tried to cough. His pupil rolled to look Qymaen in the eye. "I'll – I'll give you two minutes, cheetah," he gasped. "You'd better run quickly. Pray your legs don't fail you."
Qymaen exchanged a glance with Calypso. The sleek, green-eyed caracal nodded and then released Saka's throat. Qymaen jumped away from his neck. Then they bolted.
"Run!" Saka bellowed behind them. "Run while you still have time!"
Qymaen glanced at Calypso again. She smiled at him.
"Does – does this mean you're – you're done working for Murali?" she asked between breaths.
Qymaen nodded. He remembered the token around his neck when he felt its weight. It was a necklace of vulture talons that insured his safety from Murali and his hit beast Katan. "It's over," he said simply. It wasn't the first time he'd said it, but this time, he actually believed it.
"Where to?" Calypso asked quickly.
Qymaen slowed his pace so he was running behind her shoulders. "I'll follow you."
Calypso beamed at him. Her green eyes sparkled. She changed direction and Qymaen followed her – West – where their shadows – and their futures – stretched out in front of them.
* * *
Peter lost his grip on Murali's nose. He yelled for help as he flew through the air. He felt Antonio catch him by the scruff of his neck.
"Give him to me!" Murali roared.
"Give him to me or I'll take him!" Without waiting for an answer, Murali charged.
Then, something ran past them. Something else crashed into Murali. Peter's eyes widened when he saw Zareb the Wanderer. The zebra screamed a warning and then ordered Antonio, "Go! I'll hold him and Katan here!"
Antonio ran with Peter, leaving Murali to Zareb's mercy.
"They're coming this way!" Manzi said when she saw Peter and Antonio. Antonio's gait was uneven and he looked exhausted, but he seemed to be all right otherwise.
Tanari ran with him to catch up with Dafini, who was standing not too far away. When they reached her, Antonio stopped to rest. He set Peter down. Dafini did the same with Noah and went to look at her mate's wounds.
After a moment, Manzi asked, "Is he going to be okay, Aunt Dafini?"
"I think so," Dafini said.
Antonio panted and nodded. "I'm fine." He picked up Peter again. "Come. The Savanna is still a good distance from here."
"Can I give someone a lift?"
Manzi craned her neck and saw Shani trotting toward them. "Mom, put me down, please!" Tanari finally released her and Manzi ran to greet her zebra friend. "I'm so glad to see you!"
Shani bowed his head and nuzzled Manzi until she almost fell over. Suddenly, his ears swiveled forward and he raised his head. His neck went stiff. Manzi followed his gaze. "What is it?"
"Zareb the Wanderer is fighting - ?"
"Murali," Manzi finished for him. "Yes, and we don't have any more time to stand here. I lost track of Qymaen, Saka, and the caracal. And I think that big saber-toothed beast went past here, too."
Shani quickly lowered his neck again. "Get on, then."
"Go ahead and meet us at the pride, Shani," Antonio said. "We'll meet you there."
Shani looked over his shoulder to make sure Manzi was balanced on his back. "You got it." She held on when Shani started running. "What did you do with Garoe and Kenobi?" she asked.
"I took them to a hidden spot, just as you asked. I'll be able to find them as long as they didn't move."
"I'm really worried about them."
"No, really, Shani."
Shani's shoulder muscles tensed under Manzi's paws. "Oh, no you don't! I'm not letting you talk me into another detour. Antonio gave me strict orders to meet him –"
"They were not strict orders! And besides, that first detour was your idea."
"That's not how I remember it."
"We're going to get in trouble."
Shani sighed and slowly started to change direction. "Just remember, I had no part in this!"
Manzi squeezed Shani around his shoulders as far as she could reach. "You're the best!"
"And don't you forget it."
* * *
Zareb stood squarely over Murali. Murali looked up at him, breathing in short, strong gasps. He hid his pain behind a mask of anger while he glared at Zareb. He couldn't move his back legs; he didn't know if they were broken or not. "This isn't over," he growled. "Katan!" he called. His bodyguard was standing a short distance away. "Finish the zebra!"
Katan didn't move.
"Coward!" Murali screamed. "Finish the zebra!"
Instead of obeying, Katan slinked back to Murali's mountain lair, limping badly.
"Your friend will not help you," Zareb said. "His rumbling voice shook Murali to his core. "He is weak from the distance he ran. He is also carrying a broken leg."
Murali tried once more to get up, but couldn't. "What more can you take away from me, zebra?"
"Then kill me. Put me out of my misery."
"No." Zareb stared at Murali a moment longer. Then he turned to leave.
"Why not?" Murali laughed behind him. "You've come this far!"
Zareb turned his great head to look Murali in the eye. He took a deep breath. "I never kill." The zebra stallion turned away and left Murali lying in the sand.
The Dark Liger spat some blood at the sand in Zareb's direction. Then he tried to get up. When he couldn't, he muttered a string of curses that only he could understand.
"Tsk, tsk. Such language, Murali. So, the mighty Dark Liger has fallen."
Murali's ears swiveled backwards. He couldn't turn his head to see, but he knew who it was. "Why didn't you finish him, Saka?"
Saka stepped in front of Murali so he could see his raised toe-claws. He bent down to make eye contact. Murali wrinkled his nose against Saka's hot, old meat breath. "Do I look like your bodyguard? My contract with you has ended, Murali – as if I have to remind you." Saka licked his lips.
"Where's Qymaen?" Murali tried and failed to hide his fear of Saka's intentions.
Saka sniffed the fresh blood on Murali's face and licked it off. His yellow eyes lit up. "Qymaen who?"
Murali shuddered and tried again to get up. He couldn't.
"So …" Saka dragged out the word as it slipped through his sharp teeth. "Do you prefer I bite your neck? Or slice your spine?" He didn't wait for a reply. "Don't worry, Murali, I won't leave you to the vultures. You see, I've never tasted black blood before."
As Saka poised his toe claw over Murali's trembling back, thunder rolled in the distance.