The following is the 13th chapter of No Savage Under This Moon, a middle-grade noblebright standalone novella by fantasy adventure author W. Scott
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“You must never be cruel or mistreat any animal, no matter how small.”
— The Huntress
Lord Omen Forest
Near the west end of Razor Pass
Kishi hurried across the fallen tree trunk and vanished into the underbrush. Though his weight and size were considerable, especially among creatures common to Threelands, despite his anxious speed, the big cat made not even the slightest sound. Alerting anyone, or anything to his presence here could be dangerous, and not just for him.
A cub was missing. The human cub.
For the wolfpack, the first rule of the hunt was a simple one: defend your own. Members of the pack were not expendable. A trained hunter, after all, represented a tremendous cost in time, food and care. Even wolves were intelligent enough to understand the concept of cost, as it was often paid in blood. At the same time, they understood each trained hunter could be responsible for weeks worth of sustenance for the pack, and the training of many young wolves.
The Huntress understood this, because she had run and fought with the pack well and often enough to be called ‘Sister.’ But for Kishi, though he had been accepted into the same family of hunters as Shannon, his code had a law superior even to the first rule:
Defend the cubs, at any cost.
The other Ajan Warriors were combing through the same forest, using all their powers trying to find Jessica and Cici at the same time. The Warrior of the Sunrise had not been seen since she escaped. Now Cici was lost as well, and that could only mean trouble. Either she was hurt, or worse. Kishi instinctively understood any of those situations could be disastrous, especially here in Razor Pass.
A faint sound sent a surge of adrenaline through his legs and Kishi vaulted straight up, clamping his claws into a tree branch some twenty feet off the ground. He slid past the trunk and padded along a thicker branch, scanning the inky shadows of the forest floor for movement. The hair on the back of his neck rose and his eyes narrowed as he saw the pale fur of a coyote.
It rooted around a nearby tree for a moment, obviously tracking something. Fortunately Kishi had been upwind when he treed, so the creature would have no way of knowing there was another animal here, at least for the moment. The coyote’s insistent snuffling along the leafy dirt indicated it had a trail, and that wasn’t good news. If it was tracking the Warrior of Stone, Kishi would have very little time to figure out what to do.
Kishi considered the Ajan Warriors to be one big hunting party. His “pack” so to speak. The luxury of numerous fighters with powerful weapons and magic combined with their ability to build fires, catch fish, find water and all have the habit of scritching big cat ears was unmistakable. So his hunter’s code had simply been expanded to include them all.
It was possible the scavenger could lead Kishi closer to where Cici might be found, but there was no advantage in allowing a dangerous animal close to an injured or lost pack member. A Midnight Cougar, after all, had considerable tracking skill and senses equal to any other forest creature. It would be convenience, not necessity, that would cause Kishi to follow. But even that convenience would be risky.
No, if the coyote approached Kishi’s friend, there would be no choice but to kill it as quickly as possible. The rib-thin coyote would be no match for the big cat watching it intently from overhead, but if there were other coyotes nearby…
Finally after a few minutes, the scavenger wandered back into the darkness, giving Kishi an opportunity to return to the forest floor undetected. The black cat slid claw by claw down the side of the ash tree until he was close enough to hop down to the dirt. He immediately prowled to the edge of the copse of trees the coyote had been investigating and sniffed around, trying to find the trail the other animal had been following.
It was then he saw a dim yellowish light from behind one of the nearby trees. As quickly as he could, Kishi hurried across the dark grove to investigate. Lying on its side next to a rotted stump in a muddy-looking depression in the soil was the Chronicler’s Lantern.
Only the Citrine Lens was visible, and that was the source of the light Kishi had seen. Only a few feet away, laying on the ground in her full battle armor was the Warrior of Stone.
Kishi’s ears perked, but he didn’t approach right away. There was something wrong with this situation. Cici was just laying out in the middle of the forest. From where Kishi was standing, she didn’t appear to be hurt. She looked more like she was asleep, and that was very unusual. Why would she stop to sleep in the middle of Razor Pass? Like all the other Ajan Warriors, Cici knew how dangerous this part of Threelands was. It was certainly not a place to sleep defenseless in the open forest.
None of the other warriors was nearby, and neither was Teko, so there was no way for Kishi to get word to them that Cici had been found. It was up to him to get her to safety. It was at that moment he saw a pair of staring eyes across the grove. The faint outline of a coyote’s head was visible around them. Pointed ears stood straight up. The coyote didn’t move. It was almost exactly the same distance from Cici as Kishi was.
Danger surged and Kishi’s fighting mind took over. He lowered his ears and head. The muscles in his back, shoulders and legs rippled and tensed as he began to move forward, placing one massive paw on the ground in front of the other. His eyes flashed with feral anger, locked on the rival animal. Kishi kept his tail low and his back legs coiled tightly, ready to spring in any direction in case the coyote decided to fight over Cici.
The rumbling, hard-edged growl from Kishi signaled in no uncertain terms to whatever animals heard it that this area was off-limits, especially to scavengers. Most coyotes rarely, if ever, found themselves up against a 300-pound cougar, but even though most of them had never heard such a sound, there could be little doubt as to its meaning.
A claim had been staked. There were two remaining choices: Leave or fight. This particular animal immediately cringed and backed away, lowering its own ears and baring its teeth. As it moved away, it revealed a second coyote just behind it. The second animal flipped its tail back and forth once as it trotted forward, pausing several yards away.
It was clear by now these coyotes were more than casually interested in whatever Kishi was guarding.
The second animal was covered in dried mud. It yipped a few times, almost playfully, as the first continued baring its teeth, watching the enormous graceful form of the shadowy cat as it slunk past Cici and took up a squarely defensive position between the coyotes and the unconscious human.
Though coyotes had their own understanding of them, cougars were known by humans far and wide as “devil cats,” mainly due to their blood-curdling screams when confronted. Kishi was easily a hundred pounds heavier than even the most overgrown mountain cat, and it was for that reason he should never have been able to move as quickly as he did.
The coyotes scattered in opposite directions as Kishi exploded forward in a silent lunging strike. The freshly wet leaves under the coyotes tracks left no doubt as to their state of mind facing this black-clawed specter. Kishi circled back towards Cici, swishing his tail angrily and watching one of the creatures with a locked stare as it trotted along the edge of the grove.
Whatever the big cat was guarding, the coyotes knew it must be priceless. There was no other reason for a cougar to risk its safety like this. This just made the coyotes more curious. They continued to circle at a considerable distance. Kishi reached the spot where Cici was and nudged her with his snout a few times, trying to get her to wake up. She still appeared uninjured. Even though the Warrior of Stone was somewhat… unpredictable, if Cici were awake, Kishi knew her powers would be substantially useful. As hungry as they might be, coyotes were unlikely to stick around for long if they were facing Ajan battle magic.
Cici was breathing, but she couldn’t be awakened.
Kishi’s whiskers and fangs pulled back as he inhaled and hissed, glaring furiously at the dog-like scavenger now standing its ground only a few feet away. Even though the cat’s challenge crackled over the coyote’s fur like electricity, it stood as if daring Kishi to attack. The big cat was smarter than that, though. With the second coyote on the opposite side of the grove, the further Kishi pursued the first, the more time the second would have to sneak in and possibly injure Cici.
There was another, possibly more dangerous factor involved now, however. The longer this standoff continued, the more likely it was other coyotes would arrive, and soon. As their numbers increased, so would their bravery. Kishi wasn’t concerned for his own safety. As stupid as coyotes could be, they weren’t given to openly attacking a midnight cougar unless cornered or protecting their own pups. The human cub, however, didn’t have the same speed or defenses. This had to end, and quickly.
A spine-freezing scream erupted from the big cat. The coyote sprang back and lowered its own ears. Kishi’s eyes flashed intensely as his growl subsided. Making such a loud noise was risky, but time was short. Kishi rushed forward, accelerating as he bore down on the cowering animal. The coyote turned to flee and the big cat’s snake-quick claw snagged it’s hind quarters just before it escaped. The animal yelped and scuttled into the darkness.
Kishi whirled as the second coyote, head down, approached within a yard of Cici’s feet. Unfortunately for the animal, it had over-reached. In a single leap, the big cat was upon its foe. The coyote reared back, snapping and barking desperately, looking for the crucial openings: throat, eyes, ears; but it was hopelessly outclassed, off-balance and on the defensive. Kishi didn’t waste time with the tactics of fighting dogs: those were mostly noise and show designed to warn off an opponent.
His strategy was a single, powerful strike directed squarely at the coyote’s throat. The speed and weight of Kishi’s shoulders and head knocked the animal back as lethal feline teeth clamped down around it’s neck. The scavenger flipped backwards as Kishi’s jaws speared the coyote’s head into the ground. Had the fractured skull not killed it outright, the animal’s broken neck would have.
First blood. Now Kishi was out of options. He had to get Cici to safety. He had just performed the wilderness equivalent of setting off a burglar alarm, and not the silent kind.
The big cat nudged Cici a few more times. Failing to get a response, he gathered one of the shoulder appliques of the Pathfinder Warrior’s thick leather armor in his teeth and picked her up as if carrying a baby cougar by the nape of its neck.
Cici’s arms and head hung from her armor as Kishi stalked along, dragging her feet on the ground. Within moments they were far enough away from the coyote’s corpse to at least make it a chase for any latecomers to threaten them again.
The Warrior of the Night ran faster than she thought a human being was capable. The sensations in her mind were all too familiar: Pain, fatigue, danger. She had heard the sound of her hunting companion’s battle cry, both with her ears and then with her mind, and her instincts had responded. Unfortunately for Ranko and Talitha, that meant watching Shannon race into the night alone, responding to something they neither saw nor heard.
Ranko was about to say something when she noticed Talitha’s eyes were closed. She was concentrating intently. The Forest Warrior’s senses operated differently than the Huntress, but they were augmented by the abundant plant life that surrounded them. She reached out into the leafy flora with her mind, listening to the immense and powerful primal heartbeat of her own brothers and sisters, seeking their guidance as to what the approaching danger was.
Unfortunately, the trees and leafy ground plants considered few things urgent, so gathering information was often time-consuming.
The Warrior of the Night scrambled up a stout incline and stopped at the treeline.
Alanna MacLeese had broken from a sloping stand of ash on to a rocky clearing when she heard the unmistakable sound carry off the ridge and soar into the gully.
It was the Huntress’ battle cry, and it was close. She hefted her weapon and quickly began the climb back out of the gully towards the forest.
Shannon darted through the densely packed trees, her Longbow twisting against the harness across her back. Whatever it was, she was getting closer. Animal scents were everywhere. Either there was a forest fire and they were fleeing their homes, or something was moving in numbers.
It wasn’t her pack, as they had just began to range back towards Threelands from Snow’s Edge many miles to the north. It might have been a rogue wolf, but a single animal wouldn’t account for the frenzied cacophony of scent all over the forest. Same for a cougar. It was a group of animals. The Huntress had her suspicions, and that only made her run faster.
She leaped over a gnarled pile of tree limbs, a willow trunk, and a tightly packed pile of recently thawed mud, and landed face to face with a snarling coyote. The dark-furred, thin animal looked up into the face of the Warrior of the Night.
The tall girl’s hair was strung with laces studded with pointed teeth, and hung loose across her shoulders. The smooth, threatening upper half of her ominous black weapon loomed over one shoulder, and the fletched ends of her silvery arrows were visible over the other. The scavenger’s ears flattened as it saw her eyes. They were feral green points against a face covered by a bottomless shadow. There would be no posturing here. No challenge and no show of fight. Behind those fiery eyes and standing on two feet was a creature like no other with the mind and heart of the most formidable predator a coyote’s relatively tiny mind could possibly fathom.
The Huntress had no time for challenges either. She whispered a cruel challenge in the feral language of the night: the equivalent of ten cougars screaming at once. They were sounds only a nocturnal animal could understand, and their effect was both immediate and profound. The slithering grip of death fear clamped around the creature’s lungs and it tore away into the darkness, whimpering.
Kishi continued along the sparser edge of the forest, slowly angling towards the water as he dragged the unconscious Cici along by her armor. If he had to fight, and it had to be against several other animals, the water would give him valuable advantages. Big cats learned from an early age to swim, dive and move in river water so they could keep themselves supplied with tasty freshwater fish. A cat’s cuisine, after all, was much more sophisticated than a coyote’s. Scavengers would eat anything. Kishi preferred a finer menu. More importantly, he was twice as dangerous in four feet of water than he was on land.
Shannon knew if coyotes were on the move, that Kishi would know exactly what to do. For that reason she immediately changed direction and began hurrying along the banks of the river at the forest’s edge. If there was going to be a fight, that’s where it would happen. The Huntress was not quite as adept at water combat as her companion, but if the fight did start at the river’s edge, she was well prepared to make absolutely certain it ended there.
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