Leena felt less the jaguar men’s
prisoner than their fallen prey. Remembering their long curved
incisors, and the long tongues which unfurled to lick black lips
between guttural grunts, it was not too hard to imagine them
feasting on her remains.
She was bound hands and feet, and
hoisted on a long pole carried on the shoulders of two of the
creatures, one on each end. If she relaxed her back and neck, her
head lolled back, seeing only the ground passing beneath. By
tensing, and pulling herself up a fraction against the rough wood of
the pole, she could see a bit from side to side, though the position
was too much a strain to hold for long.
One of the creatures had retrieved her
survival kit, and carried it in a mesh bag slung over its wide and
muscled back. This creature walked directly in front of the foremost
of Leena’s bearers, and from time to time she would catch a glimpse
of the sunlight glinting off the polished metal of the case.
Any one of a number of items in the
case would be sufficient, Leena knew. If she believed in any higher
power besides the State, she might have prayed; as it was, she only
hoped that the universe herself might be watching, and would be
willing to lend a hand.
With the chrome-plated Makarov
semi-automatic pistol, snugged in its nylon holster inside the kit,
Leena might have held the creatures at bay long enough to make her
escape, back at the banks of the river.
With the signal flare, she might have
been able to call for some assistance, or else set fire to one of
the creatures, for all the good it would have done her.
With the kit’s folding knife, she might
now be able to cut her bonds and free herself, possibly even making
into the forest’s wilds far enough and fast enough to elude her
With the emergency rations, she might
not be as damnably hungry as she now found herself. When her stomach
had first growled, hours before, she’d thought for a moment it the
call of the strange creatures.
But the survival kit was carried on the
back of one of the monsters, and Leena saw no clear way to freedom.
They were taking her somewhere, that
much was certain. If they intended to eat her, whether alive or
cooked and prepared after her death, it appeared they didn’t plan to
do so immediately. From time to time one of the jaguar men would
growl a few syllables, curt orders to the others Leena assumed, but
for the most part the group traveled in silence. They padded along
the forest track single-file, making hardly a sound. With her eyes
closed, Leena found she could scarcely hear even the breathing of
the creatures at her head and feet. The jaguar men moved through the
forest like ghosts.
Leena could not say with any certainty
how long they’d been traveling. Her awkward position, hanging
uncomfortably by bruised numb ankles and wrists from the pole, and
the pounding of her pulse in her ears as the blood rushed up each
time her head fall backwards, left her oblivious to the passage of
There was only Now: this moment, with
the pain, and the anxiety, and the fear of her imminent and unknown
death, surrounded by the silent figures of the strange cat-like
After an eternity of that moment,
something happened, and the tenor of her pain changed key. Leena had
been on the edge of consciousness, straddling the border between
delirium and sleep. Something changed, and she struggled to clear
her thoughts enough to understand what.
She had stopped moving, no longer
gently rocking back and forth with each silent step of her bearers.
The party had come to a halt.
“Tar’elmok,” she heard the creature in
It was dark, the bare moonlight
painting the forest in indistinct grays. Some hours had passed then,
at least, if not more. Was it still the same day? How long ago had
Leena first glimpsed this strange world of monsters? How long since
she’d lifted off from Star City towards the heavens and glory?
“Alal’kasen’lak,” answered the creature
behind, barely above a silent breath.
The creature in the lead, who carried
Leena’s survival kit in the bag at its back, held up on hand, palm
forward. Leena strained to see in the low light, and could just make
out the glints of the retractable claws extending up and out from
“Tar’tamedt,” shouted the lead
creature, and in an instant the configuration of the party shifted.
The two creatures at Leena’s head and feet released their hold on
the pole, jumping one to the left, the other to the right, letting
their captured prey fall unceremoniously to the cold ground. Leena
struck the ground spine first, the breath punched from her lungs in
a painful sigh, and looked up dazzled to see the strange creatures
circle around her.
Eight muscled backs of black and white
spotted golden fur faced her, dimly seen in the gray light. The
party’s full complement faced outward, hands raised defensively,
some holding long staffs, some knives, but most with their hands
empty, their only weapons their extended claws and bared fangs.
Leena could hear the jaguar men now.
They were no longer silent ghosts slipping through the forest. There
was a low rumbling noise, like distant thunder, climbing slightly in
pitch and volume with each passing second, that sounded from
somewhere deep inside the creatures’ chests. Their breathing was
louder, too, sounding closer to panting.
Above these rising sounds, Leena heard
the noise of some movement from the dark forests beyond the circle.
Still bound hand and feet, still crippled by pain numbed limbs, she
tried to lift up on one elbow to see further through the legs of her
The sounds of movement from the trees
increased, and were joined by similar noises from the opposite side
of the circle. The creatures tensed, and began to roar.
Leena understood at last. Her captors,
somehow, were afraid.
Just then a figure, white in the moon’s
low light, burst from the trees and rushed towards the circle, metal
glinting cruel and long in his hand.
The jaguar men were under attack.
The attack was swift, concentrated, and
confusing. Leena, lying hands and feet bound on the unforgiving
ground, perceived it only as a series of sounds and obscured images.
Metal on metal, metal on flesh, flesh on flesh, and the quick ballet
of shadows and shapes dancing fatally over her were all Leena
managed to follow.
The pole from which she’d been suspend
lay across her, pinned between her legs, pressing down into her
stomach, and resting against one side of her helmet. Her hands were
tied together, but only looped over the pole, so as she flinched
away from the sounds of battle first on one side, then the other,
she found herself inadvertently working her hands up and over the
The attacker, a blur of white and metal
in the moonlight, was joined by another from the clearing’s far
side, a hulking shadowy figure who plowed the leader of the jaguar
men to the ground, snarling and bloodthirsty.
While the jaguar men’s leader and his
shadowy foe thrashed across the rough forest floor, the other
attacker moved like a shot from one end of the clearing to another,
shouting and laughing by turns.
The first of the jaguar men to fall
collapsed backwards over Leena, a gruesome rent opened across one
side of his neck and down his chest, a black bubbling ribbon in the
moon’s low light. Leena’s breath was knocked from her, the pole
pressed harder against her chest, the helmet forced to one side,
with her legs from the waist down trapped beneath the insensate hulk
of her captor.
Leena struggled to free herself,
working her shoulders and hips from side to side and reaching her
hands back and over her head for any hold. Snaking her way out from
under the jaguar man’s bulk, her hands slipped loose over the top of
the pole without warning. Pausing for breath, the fierce struggles
continuing all around her, Leena brought her bound hands down and
against the fur and muscle of the jaguar man’s side and pushed for
all she was worth.
The fallen form would not budge. Leena
fell back, the jaguar man immobile, and took a deep breath. Gritting
her teeth, her parched dry lips splitting from the effort, she
pushed again, harder and longer, and slowly the jaguar man began to
move. Angled slowly up on one arm, rolling up on his side and
pressing into her knees, the senseless form lifted off her waist and
Leena paused in her exertions, unable
to continue without rest. A glint of moonlight caught her eye, from
below. Dazed from hunger, exhaustion, and the shock of her present
circumstance, Leena looked with slow blinking eyes to the
unconscious jaguar man’s back, and saw the mesh bag still hung over
his shoulders. The mesh bag, and the metal glint of her survival kit
Her hands, bound and encased in their
thick insulated gloves, lunged for the kit. Leena’s first thought
was just to retrieve the kit, to take back that which had been taken
from her. It was only as her hands brushed against the hard metal
corners of the case, and brought to mind the contents and their
uses, that she saw a more immediate purpose.
With gruesome luck, the strap holding
the mesh bag in place had been almost completely severed by the blow
which had felled the jaguar man, so it was a matter of relative ease
to pull the bag away from its back, and the kit away from the bag.
It remained, then, to open the kit.
A dark figure flashed before Leena’s
eyes as one of the combatants leapt over her, whether jaguar man or
attacker she couldn’t say. Leena ignored their threat, and
concentrated on the kit.
She battered at the simple metal latch,
her fingers useless in the thick fabric of the gloves. She dragged
the kit up onto her chest, angling her head up within the helmet for
a clearer view, trying for finesse. It was like threading a needle
with a plumber’s wrench. The sturdy catches on either side of the
case’s lid had both to be opened, but in opening one her exertions
seemed always to shut the other.
The melee continued, and someone kicked
Leena’s side, almost knocking the survival kit from her grasp. As
she scrambled to maintain her hold on the kit, inspiration struck,
and she turned the case on its end, leaving the two catches
positioned one above the other. Holding the kit in place with one
hand, she could angle the other up far enough to flip open the
latch. Sliding her hands carefully down the case, she then repeated
the procedure, and the lid flipped open with a snap.
There was a shout and an accompanying
groan from somewhere to Leena’s right, but she ignored the sounds.
Pushing the kit back onto its base and down onto her thighs, careful
that the lid not close again, Leena pulled herself painfully into a
sitting position, the deadweight of the jaguar man still laying
across her knees. Breathless, she pawed with bound hands through the
contents of the kit, finally closing her thick gloved hands on a
piece of nylon wrapped chrome and steel.
She lifted it to her mouth, and
unsnapped and pulled loose the nylon holster with her teeth. Then,
carefully, she worked one gloved finger into the trigger guard, and
thumbed off the safety.
Her wrists and ankles were still bound,
her hands still encased in insulated leather and an unconscious
monster pinning her to the ground. With the chrome-plated Makarov
semi-automatic in her grip, though, Leena suddenly felt more in
control of the situation.
Leena looked up, and her grip on the
A man stood over her, breathing heavy
with exertion, naked to the waist and gored black with the blood of
fallen jaguar men. In one hand he held a curved sword, in the other
some kind of pistol.
Leena aimed the Makarov at his chest.
“Maht elmok,” he said smiling, and
Leena pulled the trigger.