Chapter III: Simo
Nafsi stared at the half-cheetah, his cold eyes filled with anything but amusement. The cheetah had been stressing the very same fact for over an hour, and Nafsi was becoming . . . supremely annoyed. “Sire, you don’t seem to understand. The rebellion is at the mouth of the den, practically. I’m only worried for your safety.”
“I have told you time and again not to worry. You should be worried for yourself. When I kill you, I won’t have any worry about how safe you feel.”
The cheetah seemed slightly taken aback by the statement. “Y—yes, sire. But the rebellion—”
“Moyo, I gave you this job because you were reasonably intelligent. I may have killed your father, but you did not inherit this job because of your miserable half-breed status. You may not have his silly virtues, but all you are doing is showing that I have made a mistake. I have been tolerant, but I will not be for much longer. Now be silent, or I’ll make sure you’ll need to find a new tongue to speak with.”
Nafsi returned his attention to the beautiful lionesses surrounding him in the den. The den wasn’t Pride Rock. Nothing of the Pridelands remained from the time he had razed it to the ground, save for his one shrine. It and several other kingdoms were tiny things compared to he knew he could do with the power he constantly felt flowing through him, more power than he had ever had when he was trapped in that pathetic cub body with all of its limitations. The acts he had committed as a cub had been nothing. Now that he had grown, the Pridelands were nothing more than a barren wasteland. He had a new den, a better den, a den completely of his making. And the lionesses surrounding him were his as well. Utterly loyal, utterly beautiful, utterly happy. Whatever happy was. There were no mild, subservient lionesses here. All had spirit, a thirst to please their king. And he rewarded them; they were the few he actually bothered to please. He kept them happy, he kept them close. He gave them little pleasures, such as family nearby and well-fed, even allowed cubs to the ones who asked. The newest one came up to him, nuzzled his thick, jet-black mane lovingly. He stroked her gently as she looked up at him, her eyes worried.
“Are you sure you will be fine, Naf—sire?”
“Nafsi to you, pet. And of course. The others have faith, why can’t you?”
“I have only been here a week, Nafsi.”
“Of course, Ashki. But you must trust me.” Nafsi gave her a kiss as she rubbed against him, purring. He had grown to like her, despite her short time here. She shared his same delicious sense of humor, his lack of morals, his disrespect for weakness. All she cared about was him. Nafsi smiled. He might even make her his true mate, have her carry his son. He gave her another kiss and began to nuzzle her passionately when he was interrupted.
“Sire,” said Moyo, “they’re—”
“Would you like the ears off as well, Moyo?”
“No, sire. But they really are right there. Right below. They’re—” He was interrupted by a deep, throaty voice from outside the den.
“The king has been expecting—” The voice was cut off by a sudden gagging sound. A—thing suddenly landed in the mouth of the den, a hideous thing, completely without eyes or nose, its face almost entirely mouth. A lion rushed into the den after it. Nafsi gently pushed Ashki away. The other lionesses cleared a path to Nafsi. If the lion had looked, he would have seen them smiling.
“You made it all the way here?” said Nafsi in mock disbelief. “Oh, what will I ever do?”
“Let’s see how those words come out when you’re dead!” The lion charged Nafsi, knocking him to the ground. He sank his claws into Nafsi’s chest and stomach, tearing deep gashes. He landed blow after blow, Nafsi roaring on the ground in mock pain. He lunged for Nafsi’s neck, tightening his grip on it. Ashki cried out for Nafsi. Nafsi played along, thrashing, slowing down as he ran out of air. It amused him to play along. He couldn’t even feel pain anymore. He finally was still; his eyes which had been rolling around the den finally stopped. The lion viciously tore out Nafsi’s throat, spitting it out onto the den floor. He stepped back, looking at the king lying on the ground, Nafsi’s body riddled with gashes from the fight. Ashki tried to lunge for the lion, but was stopped by two other lionesses. The lion hung his head, sighing with relief. He believed it was over. Nafsi stood up, the lion drawing in a gasp.
Nafsi laughed. “So after killing me, what’s next?” His wounds began to heal over, the lion staring in disbelief. He advanced on the lion, laughing, the lion too scared to move. Nafsi casually swung his paw at the lion, sending him into the wall at breakneck speed, almost breaking his back. He looked up at Nafsi in horror.
“Oh, gods,” the lion said.
Nafsi hit the lion angrily across the den. “I am your god!”
The lion cringed. “Oh, what have I done?”
Ashki sat next to Nafsi, nuzzling him adoringly. Nafsi smiled. “Now, what to do with you? Torture?” he asked Ashki.
“Torture’s too good for him.”
“And killing him just wouldn’t give me the pleasure.”
“What about Her?”
Nafsi smiled. He loved the way her mind worked. “Of course. She’d love to meet him. She’s always hungry.”
“What are you going to do?” asked the lion desperately.
“I’m putting down a rebellion, of course.” The lion didn’t even notice the cords around his legs until they began to drag him towards the back of the den. The lion struggled madly.
“No,” he moaned. “No, Chache needs me.”
“You should have thought about that before starting anything. Picking the wrong side in a rebellion is . . . unhealthy.” He led the lion through the back of the den, emerging into a large chamber, completely empty. He dragged the lion in front of him. He noticed Ashki sitting next to him, her eyes wide, hungering for every detail. The lion was dragged to the mouth of the tunnel connecting the den to the chamber, shivering. Nafsi laughed at his terror. “Why are you scared? There’s not even anything in here.” The lion breathed a sigh of relief.
A massive, monstrous thing suddenly leapt to the ground in front of the lion, shrieking a horrible, high-pitched cry. Its entire body was black, even the tongue inside its mouth. It was somewhat feline, but no cat ever had massive teeth like that, jagged knives that could easily pierce even stone; or had a neck that was that elongated; or folds of skin attached from its chest to it forelegs that unveiled to reveal monstrous wings. As it landed, claws suddenly shot out of its massive claws, dried blood covering the monster’s claws, paws, and muzzle. The lion leapt back in horror, now free of the cords, but with no hope of escaping at all.
“Of course, she’s in here, but I know she wouldn’t ever do anything to you.” Nafsi walked to the beast and put a paw to her cheek. The beast gave a small moan. “Harmless. Unless, of course, you’ve done something foolish.” Nafsi smiled. “Like leading a rebellion. Even a pathetic one like your own.” The beast’s claws began to sink further into the ground. Nafsi’s smile grew wider at her anticipation. “Feed.”
The beast crouched down. The lion found his legs and turned to run into the den. The beast leapt at the lion and grabbed his tail, swinging him around and into the center of the chamber. Ashki watched it all, fascinated. “What’s she going to do to him?”
Nafsi laughed and sat down next to her, watching as the lion got to his feet and backed away from the beast, obviously thinking he still had a possibility of escape. “Yes, I’ve forgotten. This is your first time, isn’t it? She’ll kill him of course. But she’ll take her time. I’m sure you’ve seen her loose.”
“Yes. It was amazing.”
“Yes. How she devours to no end, hunting and killing every living thing. Beautiful.” He stopped to watch the beast hit the lion, knocking him onto his back. “But here, she takes her time. Sadly, not with the females. But the males . . . No one ever taught her not play with her food.”
The lion swiped at the beast’s face, succeeding in doing nothing more than cutting open his paw on one of the monster’s teeth. The beast pressed her forepaws against the lion’s forelegs, slowly pushing them slowly apart and downward so they were at equal height with his body, then suddenly snapped them to the ground as they popped out of their sockets, the lion screaming. The hind legs had no sockets to pop out of, instead breaking into compound fractures. The beast gave a low cry, barely audible above the lion’s screams. She licked the lion, her large tongue going the length of his body, her pleasure as obvious as the lion’s pain. She held up a paw, all claws retracted save for one. She took that claw and ran it down the center of the lion’s thrashing body, deep enough only to tear open the lion’s pelt. She looked down at the lion’s writhing muscles in fascination.
Nafsi closed his eyes, feeling the beast’s pleasure. “Yes, precious. Feed.” The monster buried her head into the lion’s body, the screams reaching a crescendo. He knew how she would nearly kill him, how she would bring him to the brink of death, only to give him her restorative and begin the process all over again for as long as she pleased. The lion screamed on.
Nafsi woke up, once again a cub. He did not wake up from the dream, which all other cubs would have considered a nightmare. He woke up because it was morning. The dream was nothing to him. It wasn’t the first like it. He had told his mother about these dreams before. She had said they were visions of the future, of the strong king he would become. Some, however, he didn’t need an explanation for. He hadn’t grown up in all of his dreams. Some happened almost to the day—and were always true, in every detail.
He remembered what Taabu had said about dreams being fanciful, imaginative romps around the mind. He’d never had any of those. To him, they were just that: dreams, things that never happened. He was mildly amused by the thoughts of what they would be like. But he normally never thought of them. He was more concerned in trying to understand.
Nafsi was obedient, but only to a point. His mother he almost always obeyed, completely and without question. His father he obeyed just as well, although he was not quite sure if it was for his pleasure or the pleasure of knowing he had pleased his mother. But that was one thing he felt very rarely: the desire to please. He obeyed because it was the only way he knew. He listened closely to his father’s teachings, knowing that he would become much more than him, that he would build enormously on whatever Jadi said to him. Uchu had taken him aside and told him that.
And he knew she was right. He could feel—something—flowing through him. It was power, immense, untapped power, power that could only and would only grow. She had told him everything about him that she knew. His growth, his power, his unimaginable hatred and evil. She was right in every aspect.
Save for one. Friendship.
Uchu was not perfect. She may have been overcome by the pool, she may have even reemerged from the pool after decades inside it, merging with it to become one with the pool, but she still was not the pure, evil force that the pool was. She still retained pieces of her former self, pieces that gave her weaknesses, such as her love for Jadi. However small those were, they were still there. She was not the perfect evil; the only thing that was that was even near was only the pool. Despite her best attempts and spending countless hours in the pool, Uchu failed. Imperfection cannot create perfection, only perfection can. Perfection may create imperfection if it so desires, but it does not work the other way.
Nafsi may have been given years of thought by Uchu as she formed him slowly in her mind then gave birth to him in only two months, and he may have been capable of supreme evil, in every way, shape, and form, but he was still imperfect. He felt nothing but anger, sadness, hate, passion, lust, but he also felt loneliness. Uchu had attempted to drive it out of him, but had failed in the end. Nafsi may have only had a sliver of loneliness, but he clung to it, as if letting it go would kill him. He nurtured it, feeling what little glow of happiness he ever would feel when he thought he found a friend. But ultimately he was alone; no cub would come near him. He was an evil beast, the son of their tyrant, and no one in their right mind would go to any cub that dangerous. He also had the capacity for fear, but had never felt the emotion. He just wasn’t afraid of anything.
But Nafsi woke up from his dream, not thinking of any of this. He didn’t think of his emotions, his life, any more than any other animal did. At least not when he first woke up. But that was still his favorite hobby. Thinking. He spent hours just thinking about what his father said, about what Taabu said. He may have been told to regard everything she said as a lie, but he still questioned it. He chose to disobey his parents when it came to her. She had been kind to him and, according to everything his father had taught, had shown him the utmost respect. But most of all, she loved him. Nafsi didn’t understand that emotion at all. There were those animals he preferred, and those he didn’t. But he never felt anything stronger than a preference toward them, not even his parents. He didn’t even entirely understand hate, but he understood extreme dislike very well. When he grew up, Uchu told him, he would learn everything there was to know about hate.
But Nafsi hadn’t grown. He hadn’t grown at all for at least a week. He had almost two full years before he grew again, for the last time. He yawned and stretched out, remembering what Taabu had always said when she saw him do that. Stretch and grow. She pitied him for some reason. For several reasons, all of them unknown to him in their entirety. He knew she pitied him for his size, which he was perfectly fine with. She pitied him for his parents, whom he was perfectly fine with. She pitied him for his loneliness, which he was not perfectly fine with. And she did it all at her expense. Nafsi did not understand martyrdom. He walked out to the edge of Pride Rock.
Akasare sat there. Nafsi remembered him after carrying out Jadi’s order of the cheetah extermination. He walked up to the top of Pride Rock, blood covering his muzzle and paws, a wide smile on his face. Nafsi could tell from his wild eyes, his unsheathed claws, his half-crazed half smile that he felt that he had still not killed enough. Jadi had simply asked him, “Well?”
“It’s done, sire. Not a single cheetah left. Save that pathetic kitten over there,” Akasare had said, gesturing at Simo, whose head was hung in defeat. The scar that Jadi had given him the day Nafsi was born looked horrible, having been reopened by Jadi with painstaking accuracy. Nafsi himself sat by Jadi, watching in silence. Akasare stared at Simo in disgust. It was no secret that he despised Simo for his “foolish virtues.” Akasare smiled, however, memories cheering him up. “All the cheetahs, and then some.”
“And then some?” asked Jadi.
Akasare’s smile grew wider. “You should know better than to send me hunting like that and expect me not to restrain myself.” His eyes closed in sweet, bloody memory. “It was wonderful, sire.”
“If you have—”
“Sire, I beg you, if you find any wrongness in my work today, kill me tomorrow.”
Jadi had found nothing to criticize.
Akasare turned as Nafsi walked up to him, the sun barely coming above the horizon. “Good morning, sire. You’re coming with me this morning. Your father wanted to sleep in again.”
Nafsi just noted the fact. It made no difference to him who taught him his lesson. If anything, he almost preferred Akasare. It was always a surprise with him. He didn’t know if Akasare was going to teach him how to run a kingdom, or how to fight, or simply teach him why he should feel like he should. Nafsi followed him obediently down the ramp of Pride Rock and into the savannah. Akasare began to speak, this time about how to rule, Nafsi paying almost no attention at first, then none at all. He didn’t mean to, he simply was preoccupied. He was thinking about his friends. Or rather, his lack of them.
The first thing that came to his mind was Why? Why don’t I have friends? Is it just that I haven’t really tried? That could be it. How often am I with someone other than adults? I’m never with the cubs. But maybe I should try. Yes, that’s one thing that I can do. But what about Grandma? Maybe she’d know something that I don’t. Is she a friend? She is always nice to me. But why? In fact, what even is a friend? I mean, Akasare could be a friend. But he isn’t. But what would make him one? I mean, he respects me. But what’s different between me and him and me and Grandma? Maybe it’s that I like Grandma more. Or maybe . . . I respect Grandma, don’t I? Maybe that’s what’s needed. Respect, but from me, too. But why do I respect her? No, it’s not really respect, or at least not all of it. It’s that I want to please her. But why do I want to? Is there even a reason why? Or maybe it’s something like Grandma and Tumai. They just do nice things for each other. Is that all a friendship needs? Just being nice, with some respect? But what if there isn’t—
“And that, sire, is why there are impalas falling from the sky.”
“Huh?” said Nafsi, jerking his head up to look at Akasare.
“Sire, have you listened to a single thing I’ve said?”
“Um . . . you said good morning.”
Akasare gave one of his rare pleasant laughs. “Yes, I did say good morning.” He sighed. “Alright, you don’t want to be here today, and neither do I. Alright, why don’t you show me you’ve learned one thing today. Just one.”
“Well, Maafa says you’re coming along nicely with that power of yours, whatever it is. Show me that.”
“What do you want to see?” asked Nafsi innocently.
“Hmm . . .” Akasare’s mind swirled with possibilities. “That tree, right over there.” Nafsi looked toward a vacant acacia, sitting in the middle of the savannah. “Can you destroy it?” Akasare could barely keep the excitement out of his voice.
“Yeah, I think so.”
Akasare waited. “Well, anytime.”
“Oh, okay.” Akasare turned back to the tree to see fire rippling up its limbs, the fire suddenly quenched by black matter that sprang up from the ground moments later. The black mass tightened, splintering the tree into infinitesimal pieces. Akasare turn back to Nafsi, amazed.
“How did you do that?” he asked greedily.
“I just . . . did. It’s nothing difficult. But no one’s ever asked me for anything like that before.”
“No . . . no, they wouldn’t would they?” Akasare thought of the power he might have if he knew how to do that. He shook the thought away almost immediately; he could never learn it, and besides, he enjoyed his close-up, personal methods just fine. “So, you’ve showed me you’ve learned something, what do you want to do?”
“Nothing really . . . just sit and think, I guess,” said Nafsi thoughtfully. “Um . . . Aka?”
Akasare looked back down at the cub, surprised by the nickname. Nafsi had never used it. “Yes?”
“Do you think you could, you know, leave me out here? Just let me come home when I want to?”
Akasare licked his lips. “I don’t think your father would be very happy with that.”
“Just tell him I’m . . . getting to know the kingdom, or something. Please?”
“Well . . .”
“I’ll make it an order if it makes you feel better,” said Nafsi, remembering his father’s “suggestions.”
Akasare smiled. “Yes, sire. I needed to get back, anyway. The king had something for me. Something about Pofu. He’ll probably want me back for that.”
“Okay.” Nafsi sat down, waiting for Akasare to leave. When he felt Akasare was far enough away, he began to work on idea that had suddenly sprang into his head. There were all of these monsters in these dreams of his, and they all were loyal to him. He remembered making them. But he hadn’t done anything like that. But why not? asked a little voice in his head. If he could make servants, he could make a friend. He conjured up a small black puddle of something in front of him. He began to manipulate it with his thoughts. A friend will need a head, of course, and probably four legs—wait, why four? Why does it even have to look like a cub? Let’s see, it’ll have . . .
The thing was hideous by any sane animal’s standards. Its reptilian skin stretched over six legs, its body completely black. Each of the six legs ended in a flat foot, with five toes spread around it at equal angles. In the thing’s case, calling the tail a leg actually did make it a leg. Its scaly body somewhat resembled that of a cub’s in the fact that it had a tail at one end and a head at the other, but no cub ever had two legs on one side and three on the other, and above all no cub had a head like that. It was shaped like an arrowhead, the creature’s multifaceted, insect-like eyes flat against its head, its jaw dropping like the bottom falling out of a box when it opened. Nafsi was very proud of his creativity.
The thing crawled into the den, claws coming out of its toes and digging into the ceiling. The thing followed its orders and placed itself above Taabu, unnoticed by anything in the den. It slowly retracted its claws. It fell from the ceiling directly in front of Taabu’s head, between her and Tumai. Both of the lionesses looked down at the thing in horror, too stunned to move. Taabu reacted first, Tumai milliseconds later. Both of the lionesses stood up, screaming. Nafsi romped into the den, laughing. The thing opened its mouth and, by way of hello, let out a screech. Taabu, still screaming, hit it across the den, the other lionesses scrambling to avoid it. Taabu screamed, “Get away!”
“Grandma, it’s okay!” said Nafsi. “Don’t hurt it!”
“Get away! Get out of the den!”
“Grandma! Grandma! Look at me!” Taabu looked down at Nafsi, her eyes crazed. “It’s okay.” Nafsi walked over to it. “It’s my friend.”
“Uh-huh. I made it.” Nafsi scratched the top of its head. The creature relaxed, a long, forked tongue lolling out. The lionesses made various noises of disgust. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Nafsi,” said Tumai, “it’s a monster!”
“But what does it matter what it looks like?” asked Nafsi. “It’s my friend.”
“I’m sure my son means servant,” said Uchu, striding into the den. She spotted the thing easily. “My, it’s—unique.”
“I—I made it, Mother,” said Nafsi, uncertain how she would react.
Uchu’s eyes lit up. “Really? Amazing. What does it do?”
“Well—not a whole lot. It’s just a friend.”
“Servant, Nafsi,” said Uchu with a smile. “You have no friends. You have no equals. Now send it away. It’s putting me off my lunch.”
“You can always make more later.”
“Mother—” Nafsi stopped with a gasp as the thing was swallowed up in a pool of darkness, screeching its protest. “No,” he whispered.
“And now you can make another one when it suits you. Or one that actually has a specific purpose. Wouldn’t you like that?” Nafsi bit his lip, fighting back tears. That was his friend. He ran out of the den angrily. Uchu smiled. Maybe he’d actually do something rash. She’d enjoy seeing what he did when really provoked. She lied down in her place on the floor.
Tumai said quietly what the rest of the den was thinking. “Well, now we got rid of both monsters.” Only Taabu felt any sympathy.
Pofu walked along on his morning walk, thinking over what was going on. Kovu was gone, Fujo was gone. He was the last male left, save for Akasare and Jadi, and Akasare didn’t really count. Pofu sighed. He should have done something. Anything. He shouldn’t have let Fujo die. Yes, the kingdom was ultimately more prosperous for it, but it was empty, completely devoid of happiness. And no one could leave. He laughed bitterly at that. You could come in any time you like; you could even say you were going to leave openly. But you could never, ever leave. It wasn’t really like Pofu had anywhere else to go, anyway.
He suddenly stopped, hearing voices. He began to turn away, when he suddenly realized he recognized one. It was Taabu. “Just please, you have to leave now. If he finds you . . . I don’t know what he’ll do.”
The next voice was a deep, unpleasant, throaty rasp. “I’ve looked for you so long . . .” Pofu began to walk toward the voices. “I can’t just leave you now.” There was a gasp from the raspy-voiced animal. “There’s a lion behind you,” she whispered, barely audible to Pofu’s amplified hearing.
“Run,” breathed Taabu.
“Wait,” said Pofu. “Don’t go.”
Taabu turned to see him and said to the other lioness, “Wait, Huzuni. It’s okay.”
“It’s not Jadi. It’s Pofu.”
“Is—is he your son, too?”
“No. He’s Nyota’s.”
“What are you doing out here, your majesty?” asked Pofu.
Taabu gave a small hmph of laughter at the title. “I—I found my sister, Pofu. She came for me.”
“We wondered why her visits just stopped,” rasped Huzuni. “We had no idea where she was. We didn’t even know where the Pridelands are. And now we find out that she’s been like this . . .”
Pofu knew what she was talking about. The barrier that surrounded the Pridelands. The one that drowned any animal that tried to leave in darkness. Not even birds could escape it by flying over. They were dragged down to the ground and swallowed up. No one escaped. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t imagine how it feels.”
“Huzuni,” said Taabu, “you really do need to leave. Before someone comes.”
“I’ll bring help,” said Huzuni.
“No! Please, just promise me you’ll never do that! Please! I don’t want any more to die!”
“We can help. We’ll kill him, like Sibu.”
“No. No one can kill him. No one can touch him. Look at this,” said Taabu, sticking her arm across the barrier, having the darkness leap up and enclose it. Huzuni gave a gasp of shock. “He’ll swallow you, just like that. Please, just stay away! Just promise me you’ll stay away.”
“Taabu . . .”
“Please! I don’t want any of you to die.”
A tear slid down Huzuni’s face. “I’ll never see you again, will I?”
“I’ll send someone, as soon as you can come. I promise. Now please, leave! He’ll drag you in here! He’ll enslave you like the rest of us!”
“He wouldn’t . . .”
“He’s done it before. He’ll take you, and rape you, and never let you go! Now please! Just please leave! Do as your big sister asks for once!”
“Taabu . . . goodbye, Taabu.” Taabu watched as her sister ran off into the savannah.
“Pofu . . . when will it stop?” Taabu asked. He didn’t have an answer.
Fujo looked down into the omniscio. Despite the name given to it, he just called it his looking-pool. He didn’t see any reason to use complicated words for little things like this. Just think where you wanted to look, and you could see it. He didn’t want to look too much anymore. The only place he did look was home, and all that was there was horrible desolation. He wondered how his son could have turned like this. But, as his father pointed out to him, it didn’t pay to dwell on his past mistakes. That only made for a miserable eternity.
Fujo wasn’t alone. Next to him, looking down into the pool, was an Illuminati. When he first heard the name, he thought it referred to those animals. He later learned it didn’t. He still didn’t have a name for those animals, and he still didn’t have the humility to ask. But an Illuminati, that was different. It was difficult to not wonder about them. Just a hint about them and you wanted to know more. They were just like Fujo. Fujo could have even been one. But Illuminati were the elites of the mortals, as close to godhood as you could get. They had lived good, wholesome lives, and had been rewarded with elevated status. But it wasn’t easy; they had to be nearly flawless to even be considered. The one sitting next to Fujo was actually one of the higher ranking ones. He’d been considered for admittance into the ranks of the gods. Of course, he didn’t get it. It wasn’t even remembered the last time that had happened. But as this Illuminati put it, “It’s fine by me.”
Fujo didn’t think of any of this when he was next to this Illuminati, though. He considered Ilemi, the Illuminati, as a friend more than anything. And he needed a friend now more than ever. He stared down at the omniscio, looking at his mother, his poor Taabu, at Simo’s sorrow. But he couldn’t see Nafsi. He wasn’t allowed to. The gods let no one except for the few privileged, such as the Illuminati next to him. It was one of the things that made him the most bitter. He couldn’t speak to Nafsi, he couldn’t do anything to help the cub. It infuriated him how they had this “do-not-interfere” policy. If there wasn’t one, he may not have had to look at the empty spot in the back of the den, remembering with regret how Kiara would be arriving shortly. A thought crossed his mind. He turned to the creature next to him. “Ilemi?”
“Hmm?” asked Ilemi, a faint hint of amusement at the mention of his name. He was, like Fujo, a lion. But no normal lion possessed a shining aura around his body. Some Illuminati decided to display their aura more than others. Ilemi kept his subdued, almost as if it wasn’t there.
“You know how Mom’s coming, right?”
“Yeah,” Ilemi said, his voice guilty. “But don’t worry about it. She’ll be much happier up here.”
“That’s not what’s bothering me. It’s this.” Fujo waved a paw at his pool.
“Don’t worry about that, either.”
“How can I not worry about that? My own son is decimating the kingdom, and my brother is killing animals without any thought at all. Jadi’s bad enough, but Taraju . . . I never wanted him to go back to that. I thought he never would.”
“You know that’s Akasare. I don’t know how you can forget that Taraju’s here.”
“But he’s just like him . . . look at him, how he treats his lover.”
“Fujo, don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”
“How can you say something like that?” asked Fujo in disbelief.
Ilemi smiled. “Trust me. They are benevolent, no matter what you may think. They always make sure it turns out okay.”
“I hope so.”
There was a pause where Ilemi looked over Fujo, wondering how to comfort him. “Come on,” he finally said. “She’s going to be here soon. Don’t want to be late, do you? Didn’t she ever teach you to be on time?”
“Yeah . . . I guess so.” Fujo took one last look at his looking-water and walked away.
Simo sighed. He sat outside the den, waiting to give the morning report. He wondered why he even bothered. He had nothing. Absolutely nothing. He had gone back after the massacre that had obliterated everyone he knew. But it was worse than that. They weren’t all dead. Maafa and Akasare hadn’t done a complete job. Maafa, maybe, but Akasare . . . he had just gone from one cheetah to another, killing in a frenzy of bloodlust, not even bothering to check for death. And Simo had gone back, after Jadi had given him permission to go home, back to the slaughter, finding exactly what he didn’t want to see. Bodies everywhere, torn and mutilated. And then, what he hadn’t expected: cheetahs, live cheetahs, looking among the dead hopelessly for a live loved one, while others cradled mates and cubs, weeping. Simo nearly vomited as a cheetah with an odd number of limbs staggered about, half his face gone from claws. The cheetah finally stopped and bent down, picking up the missing leg in his mouth. The sobbing was quiet, but there. They couldn’t let their sorrow show; any loud noises would be sure to bring unwanted others.
And then they saw Simo. They limped to him, weeping, the first one embracing him. Some stayed, clutching their lost loved ones close to their bodies. “Leave,” the one who embraced him begged him. “Please, leave.” Others had told her she was a fool to say that, that he was the last one left that was whole. “He’ll bring them back again!” she said. “He’ll slip, and you know it! He won’t be able to help it, but he’ll do it. We’re not safe with him here. He can’t see us.”
Simo was devastated. He saw the horrible logic. He would slip. He knew he would. He was unable to hide anything from Jadi. Jadi would find out, whether Simo told him or not. Simo had to forget them, forget they even existed. But he pleaded with them, showing Msasi as an example. There were those that honestly wanted him to stay, some that truly loved him. But even they saw reason. Simo knew better than to appeal to the ones who wept by their dead, the looks they gave him showed they hated him utterly. The ultimatum was finally given: “You must leave forever. And—and if you come back, you will die.”
So Simo allowed a single tear to escape his eyes as he sat, waiting for Jadi. He had no home, he had no family, he had no race. Jadi had taken it all away from him. He hurriedly wiped the tear away. If Jadi saw him, his pain would only increase. The thought of suicide crept continually into his mind. He had almost done it, several times. And then he had stopped, right before he jumped or drowned himself or cut open the underside of his foreleg. He couldn’t do it. He simply couldn’t bring himself to do it.
There was movement in the mouth of the den. Simo hurriedly straightened up, swallowing back his tears. Uchu walked out of the den, Jadi not with her. He stared at her in surprise. She walked over to him with a gentle, “Report.”
She sat before him, her eyes seeming to laugh. “I said, ‘report.’”
Simo’s mind seemed to compute the command. “It’s—quiet today. Not too much . . .” His voice trailed off as Uchu began to circle him. The wonderful smell of pheromones began to waft up to his nostrils. “Not too much to report on,” he said firmly, keeping his eyes looking straight at the Pridelands. “The antelopes are complaining about not enough grass.” Her tail snaked across his neck as she began to rub against him. “I tried to explain that you and Jadi don’t control the weather, but they just wouldn’t—” His eyes snapped wide open as she kissed his neck. “—listen . . .”
“I don’t give a damn about antelopes,” she said, her voice barely suppressing her emotion. She licked him again, passionately, the pheromones reaching new levels in Simo’s brain.
Simo’s jaw shivered. He wasn’t sure if it was out of emotion or fear. “Ma’am, please stop,” he begged. “When Jadi comes out—”
“Jadi won’t be coming out.” She pushed him to the ground, giving him another lick. “It’s just me. And you.” She leaned close to his ear and whispered, “And I want it.”
Simo swallowed. He desired her, and she knew it. He always had, since he had first begun to see her every day. And he had never said a word, never shown a single sign, because it would have been instant death, for Jadi was always right there. But Jadi wasn’t here. She’s evil Simo’s sanity protested. She’ll use you, and discard you. There is a reason she is doing this. “Ma’am—” Simo’s words were cut off as she pressed her body to his, rubbing upward as she licked him passionately. And the pheromones—oh, gods, the wonderful, wonderful smell she had, the smell that overwhelmed him and choked off his logic. He hadn’t been this close to a female in so long; none of the cheetahs wanted to mate with the king’s advisor. But Uchu did. Hesitatingly at first, then in a sudden rush, he raised his head to her neck, nuzzling it, kissing it. “Now,” he whispered.
Uchu smiled. “Just wait a little. Follow me. If Jadi sees . . .” She kissed him again and got off him, her tail dragging across his body as she did so, finally tilting his chin up to see her walking down the stairs of Pride Rock. He watched her go for a second, chest heaving in anticipation, before he turned over and followed her eagerly.
In the den a figure stirred, getting up and coming out of the den. Jadi looked at the two figures walking across the savannah. Uchu, Uchu, Uchu.
Simo followed her across the savannah, still not believing his luck. Her pheromones continued to flood his mind; she was practically perfumed with them. Oh, he would make love to her like no other. He would make her see that she wanted him, not Jadi. He followed her into the spire that housed the pool. Yes, this was it. Oh, gods, it would be wonderful.
Uchu stopped and turned to him, with a smile. “Now.”
Simo leapt toward her. “Oh, Uchu!”
Uchu swatted him across the face, knocking him to the ground. She put himself on top of him with a smile. “You’ve been a very bad boy, Simo.”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I have.” He leaned up to kiss her again.
She whipped her claws across her face. “How dare you even think of touching me,” she said coldly. “I don’t know how I’m going to get the stench of your fur out of my mouth.”
“Like this,” said Simo. He leaned again to kiss her.
Her paw found his throat and slammed his neck to the ground. “Shame on you, Simo. Trying to make love to me. I can’t believe you even let yourself think of it. Although I can’t blame you.” She leaned close to him. “You want me so much, don’t you?”
“Oh, gods, yes!” Simo tried desperately to kiss her nuzzle, to make love to her in any way he could. The pressure on his throat increased. The effect of the pheromones began to lessen slightly. Uchu had stopped trying to seduce him.
“And that’s bad. Very bad. Almost as bad as keeping secrets. Jadi doesn’t like secrets. And when Jadi isn’t happy, I most definitely am not.” He struggled to breathe. He could, but it was a fight. “You should have never thought you could hide your cheetah friends from us. You have no idea how delighted I was to do this for Jadi. How happy I was to make your pathetic little hide suffer.” Simo felt his body being slowly moved backwards by the paw on his throat. He looked behind him to see the pool. He looked toward it, terrified. “This is what I wanted, Simo. More pleasure than you could ever give me.” He began to struggle madly. His legs were spread out on both sides of her, a testimony of the foolish way he had been lured here. His hind legs were useless. But his forelegs he wrapped around her, sinking his claws into her back. She gasped in pleasure and pain. “Yes, that’s it. Fight. Make it all the more rewarding for me.”
“Uchu,” he said, for some reason wasting his breath on the word, and then, on an even more useless word, “please.”
She laughed. He felt the top of his head become moist. “You’re right to beg. Oh, what I have planned for you . . .” The dampness spread, covering his ears, his forehead, his eyes, his mouth, his neck. He struggled madly as Uchu held him underneath the surface of the pool. Then, slowly, he felt pain assault him as the pool invaded his mind. He realized what Uchu planned to do. She wanted to change him, to make him as she did Jadi, cruel and heartless. He fought desperately. He could see her on top of him, chest heaving, partially from the effort of holding him down and from tearing apart his mind, partially from the sheer pleasure she received from the act and the pool. It wasn’t nice for Simo. His mind was assailed, its layers torn apart as it attempted to do to him in a few minutes what took Jadi nearly two years. His body shook violently, no longer from trying to escape, but simply from the pain the pool forced upon him. Gradually, the pain went away.
Simo stopped moving, somehow breathing under the water of the pool. His breathing slowed down to a regular pace. He felt the paw removed from his throat. He wished it had stayed. Just having Uchu touch him was a blessing, something which he most definitely didn’t deserve. He turned over and lifted his head out of the water. It wasn’t wet; it was completely dry. He looked over at Uchu. “Your majesty . . .”
Uchu still breathed heavily, exhausted. “Well, I do love my work,” she said, looking him up and down as if he was completely different. Her work was so much fun. “Feel—better?”
Simo bowed before her, touching his lips to her forepaws. “Your majesty, thank you.”
Uchu smiled. “That’s right. You bow to me—and only me. And Jadi,” she added, almost as an afterthought. “But I think you have some things you need to fix, don’t you? A few things you’ve been hiding from us?”
A horrible smile crept across his face. “Yes, your majesty. Thank you for the privilege.”
Laka watched her two cubs play happily. They may not have had their sister, but the boy and girl still had each other. Laka sighed. They had lost so many family members when Jadi had decided to exterminate them. But cheetahs still lived. And they would keep living. Her two cubs were proof of that as they wrestled on the ground. And they would grow up, and be married, and have cubs of their own. They still didn’t cease to amaze her, with how they played, even with their wounds that weren’t fully healed. Most cheetahs were much better; some were completely healed, the others nearly healed. As healed as they would be. Many of them had disabilities now, handicaps. Just as she had. She was unable to do more than hobble. But she had let the wounds heal, trying to get them to heal quickly. The cubs picked at their scabs, opening the wounds over and over. All the mothers could do was stop them when they saw them doing it.
And Simo was gone, Laka reflected sadly. He was exiled. She hadn’t wanted him to go; none of them had. Well, most of them, anyway. There were still doubts about whether or not he would have betrayed them. She knew how much he must have longed to come back. She wanted to take him back. But they couldn’t. He could be the doom of them all. Just a word about “my family” would have Jadi hunting for them. The living conditions weren’t the best, either. They couldn’t hunt; they could be seen. They relied completely on the generosity of others for food. They couldn’t even go too far to go to the bathroom. If you went too far, the perimeter nearly made you pass out from the stench.
But they lived. They may have been hidden and forced to live in horrible conditions, but they lived.
Laka watched her cubs turn over and over, each trying to get on top and stay there. Laka smiled. They were so happy, nearly oblivious to what horror they would grow up in. They would never be free. Not while Jadi reigned. No animal would be, save for the ones that bowed low to him, serving him with their everything. They were the lowest scum the Pridelands had. But her cubs would never grow up into that. They were sweet, goodhearted things. She loved them so much.
She looked around the clearing, looking at the other families. Some had mates, some didn’t. Laka’s was dead. Maafa had killed him, had brutally torn through his stomach. He had died a slow, painful death. She looked around, seeing the happy cubs that had all but forgotten the horrible slaughter, the youths that still reflected on it sadly, and the adults, who brooded on their situation, many of them seeming to have forgotten how to smile. And then her eyes landed on something she didn’t expect to see. “Simo?” she whispered incredulously. It was him. He was walking into the clearing. Almost immediately he was stopped by one of the females.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded. All or the adults turned to Simo. “We told you to leave.”
“I—I couldn’t help it,” he said, staring at the ground. “I couldn’t leave you.” He looked up at her. “My family.” He passionately nuzzled her, the cheetah’s eyes widening. She had mated with Simo just two or three times; she didn’t expect this. Simo brought his mouth to the ear of the cheetah, whispering words that Laka didn’t hear: “My traitorous family.” His mouth suddenly closed around the cheetah’s neck. Laka gasped as Simo tore out the cheetah’s throat. The cheetah collapsed to the ground. Several cheetahs rushed at Simo. He fought back, slashing with his claws as the cheetahs came, making them fall to the ground, disabling them if not killing them in one or two swift strokes. The cheetahs were injured, Simo was whole. They were no match as they came upon him one by one, falling under his claws. There finally were no more that came. They all lied on the ground, dead or injured. The injured didn’t stay that way long. Laka watched in horror as Simo bent over them and carefully tore open their stomachs, letting the acid eat away at their insides, as Laka’s mate had died. Horrible screams were heard from the mouths of the dying. And Simo did yet another thing that Laka would have never believed possible.
Laka watched in horror as Simo watched them die. Another cheetah, unable to walk a decent speed, like Laka, began to limp toward Simo, obviously intending to kill him. She fell with a thud and a groan. Simo looked away from the death he had created to the injured cheetah. His smile grew even wider. He walked toward her. The cheetah feebly swung a leg at him. Simo caught it in his mouth and pressed down. Laka felt her blood chill as the bone crunched. The cheetah screamed. Simo bit into her throat, as he had done to the first cheetah, tearing it out.
“Mommy!” yelled a cub. Simo’s eyes turned to the cub. The cub froze. Simo advanced toward his next target, the cub and his sisters. One fell with each swipe of Simo’s paws. Laka was horrified. She looked down at her cubs. They were watching the horrible scene, rooted to the spot with fear.
“Run,” she whispered. They ran, screaming. Simo looked toward them and easily caught up. He snapped his jaws twice. Her cubs had their backs broken. “No!” Laka screamed. Simo looked up at her, advancing on her now. “Simo, don’t do this!” she begged. “Don’t do this!”
He caught her throat with a paw. “How dare you defy your king! And Queen Uchu! How dare you!”
“They want us all dead!”
“And you should go to them and beg them to kill you!”
“Simo—” Simo threw her to the ground. He slashed a brutal paw through her stomach. She screamed in pain. The agony was overwhelming. She rolled on the ground, vaguely aware of Simo going onto the next cheetah, leaving her to die. Simo paid no attention to her again. He went to each cheetah, killing them, forcing them to suffer, murdering cubs in front of mothers. He delighted in their pain. These traitors deserved every bit of the pain that they suffered. He had been given the opportunity to show Uchu who he really did give his loyalties to. He would not let her down.
He sliced open the throat of the last adult. He looked around, making sure they were all dead. And there it was: a cub that he had somehow missed, pushing his father frantically, trying to get him to wake. Before the cub knew it, his body was crushed under Simo’s forepaws, beaten into the ground ruthlessly. Simo looked down at the cub with satisfaction. There were no more traitors to the kingdom here. And then, instantaneously, his mind seemed to snap. It suddenly saw the carnage in a completely new light. In a horrified light. He looked at the massacre. Bodies lied over the area of the clearing, seeming to cover every inch. Simo looked at them, aghast.
“What have I done?” he whispered. The pleasure he had felt at killing them had long since gone. And how he had believed the things he had said to that cheetah. How Uchu and Jadi should be obeyed as if they were gods . . . Simo was revolted. I am a monster.
A lithe, black figure walked into the clearing, looking over the slaughter with approval. “It’s decent. By my standards. Probably wonderful for yours.” Uchu looked away from the bodies and up at Simo. “You should be proud.” She smiled. “Doesn’t t feel so good?”
“What have you done to me?” he whispered.
“I made you see the way things are, Simo. And wasn’t it wonderful while it lasted?”
Uchu put a paw to his face. Simo felt no pleasure from it. He was disgusted with what he had done. It consumed his mind. “I murdered them,” he said, his voice dead. “All of them.”
“And it was so much fun to listen to.” Uchu removed the paw, and began to walk away, looking at the bodies.
“I don’t deserve to live,” Simo said quietly.
“By whose opinion? What you’ve created is a work of art.”
“It was butchery.” Simo shook his head. “I killed every one of them,” he said, his voice choked with tears. “Oh, gods, it feels so horrible.” He looked up at Uchu. He wanted to ask her to finish him, to label him as a traitor with the rest of his kind, but couldn’t.
“You wish you were dead,” she said matter-of-factly. “You don’t know how you’ll live with yourself.”
“I don’t want to die,” he said softly. “But I don’t want to live.”
She looked back at him with a smile. “Well, what are you to do, then?” She began to walk out of the clearing.
Simo watched her go. The horror mounted in his stomach, the pain that crept through his mind unbearable. He was nauseated. He watched Uchu go, then suddenly cried out, “Wait!” Uchu stopped and turned. Simo didn’t want to say it. He hesitated. Then, finally, softly, “Do it again.”
Uchu smiled and began to walk back toward him. “What?”
“Put it back. Please. Just take away the pain.” Uchu stopped next to him, her smile wide. “I can’t take the guilt.”
“You want me to make you loyal again? So wonderfully unwavering?”
Simo looked away, closing his eyes. “Yes.”
Uchu nearly laughed at the pain he went through. “No, no. I want to hear you say it. Now. How you love me. How you want me. How you believe that I am your goddess.”
“I—I love you, Uchu.”
“Look at your queen when you speak to her.”
Simo painfully brought his eyes up to her malicious, smiling face to stare at her amused, pitiless eyes. “I love you, Uchu. I—want you.”
Her smile would have gone off her face if it became much larger. “How much?”
“So much. I want you desperately.” Anything to end the pain. Anything.
“Bow to your goddess. Don’t you have any respect?”
Simo bowed to her, his head nearly touching the ground. He touched his lips to her paws. “I love—I love my queen,” he said miserably.
Uchu’s smile split to show her sharp, dangerous teeth. “Rise.” Simo brought his head up. “And so many of you think I’m this horrible beast.” She sighed theatrically. “I’m not the horrible, uncaring animal that so many of you think me to be. I reward loyalty.” She put a paw to the side of his face.
Simo closed his eyes. Mother . . . Msasi . . . Father . . . forgive me. I can’t take this pain. He felt Uchu take hold of his mind, a hold he knew would never be released. And he never wanted it to be. He opened his eyes, a different cheetah. He smiled. The pain was gone. In its place were only sheer ecstasy and a lust to serve his queen in any and every way possible. He resisted the overwhelming temptation to kiss her for what she had done, and to kiss her, for she was what he wanted. He bowed low once more, touching his lips to her paws joyously. “Thank you, your majesty.”
Uchu smiled. He would serve her well.