Shadows

 

            The next three days went by uneventfully, Aisha being accepted and the rogues looking for every detail that might help them about the pride. “We want to know everything about them,” said Kassan. “How they think, how they walk, what they eat, who they’re related to, what they’re nicknames are. We need to know where they’re from, what they’re worth, who they love, who they hate. Anything that can give us any idea of which hostages to take.”

            In short, the next three days were spent doing boring surveillance.

            The most interesting thing to happen came on the fourth day. Moyo came over to Aisha, who was sitting with some of the other lionesses, talking about her life, and getting convenient insights into theirs.

            “Aisha,” said Moyo, “could I—talk to you?”

            “Uh, sure,” said Aisha, standing up to follow Moyo. He began to lead her away. “I—I’ve really enjoyed my time here,” she said. “I’m glad I got accepted here. It seems to be such a nice place.”

            “We need to talk,” muttered Moyo.

            “Yeah, I know that Mya can be a pain, but still, she is your pride sister,” said Aisha, giving Moyo a pointed glare. Don’t talk until we can’t be heard.

            “But—but I’m sure Mya just means it all in fun,” said Moyo, catching on.

            The two walked on, talking about the pride until Aisha finally said, “What?”

            “It’s about the Shadow,” said Moyo.

            “And? What about him?”

            “He’s working with my father,” said Moyo.

            “What? But that doesn’t make sense. You said your father wants the Shadow dead—”

            “He was lying. He’s working with the Shadow. And he thinks he knows about the rebellion. By any chance, he saw two lions in the kingdom; he told me to watch out for them. I think they’re your two.”

            “But—but Mataka and Darau have been doing everything to stay hidden,” said Aisha. “There’s no way he could have seen them.”

            “He did. And he’s sent the Shadow after you now. I don’t know if he knows you’re moving tonight—”

            “Who said anything about moving tonight?” said Aisha suspiciously.

            “The week is up today,” said Moyo. “The hyenas never gave you an extension. I’m not stupid, Aisha.”

            “I never said you were. I just said you were a fool.” Aisha shook her head, thinking. “But how could he have found out?”

            “I don’t know. But I may know where the Shadow is. If there’s any disturbance in the pride, the Shadow’s going to be around, I know it. But if you stop the word from ever reaching him . . .”

            “Then we won’t have to worry about an assassin.”

            “Exactly.”

            “And how do you know all this?” asked Aisha.

            “My father’s been having me track down the Shadow, remember?”

            “He must have thought you were as inept as we did.” Moyo’s face fell. “Moyo, I’m joking. We needed to know this. But it would have helped to know a little sooner. We’re in the last twenty-four hours.”

            “I just found out last night,” said Moyo.

            “Every hour counts now.” Aisha sighed. “You said you know where he might be? This Shadow guy?”

            “He’s probably going to be around a cave in the western part of the kingdom. It’s a big spire, you can’t miss it.”

            “That’s all?”

            “Just that that’s probably where he’ll be.”

            “It’s more than we had to go on before,” said Aisha reluctantly. “Alright, I have to tell the others about this. Just—just tell the pride whatever lies you have to.” Aisha ran off into the savannah.

            “No problem,” said Moyo quietly. He was getting better at lying all the time.

 

 

 

            “You’re joking,” said Mataka.

            “It’s what he said,” said Aisha. “That the Shadow could be taking time out of his oh-so-busy day to come and kill us if we attack the pride.”

            “And you’re sure that the cave is the right place?” asked Kassan.

            “Do you really think I’m going to be going anywhere near a cave that has a killer in it?” asked Aisha sarcastically. “No, I didn’t look at the stupid cave.”

            “How did the king find out?” asked Janja.

            “Moyo said the king saw Mataka.”

            “Again?” hissed Kassan, turning angrily to Mataka.

            “And Darau,” added Aisha.

            “But—but how the hell did he ever find us?” asked Darau.

            “He might have looked to see what was causing all that moaning from that threesome with me last night,” said Aisha with a grin.

            Mataka playfully hit Aisha on the side of the head. “Don’t be obscene,” he said.

            “Females are meant to be obscene and not heard.”

            “Says you.”

            “Will you two shut up?” growled Kassan. “I’m trying to think.”

            “Kass, there’s nothing to think about,” said Zoma. “We just send a couple of us out to that cave, and the rest of us go and finish the job. From what it seems like, we just get our paws on the lionesses we need and the king, and none of the pride’s going to move. We can do this, Kass.”

            “Kassan, Zoma is right,” said Janja. “There is no other option. We must move tonight.”

            “Fine,” said Kassan unhappily. “Fine. We’ll do it that way. But we’ll have to reconfigure everything.”

            “We then we’d better get started, shouldn’t we?” said Zoma. “Someone go get pretty boy off watch.”

            “I’ll do it,” said Mataka.

            “Great,” said Kassan. “Now, as for the job, we could try this . . .”

 

 

 

            Mataka dug his claws into the dirt slightly, flexing his toes, then brought them back in. He did it again. It was relaxing. He looked down at the pride below. They were asleep, all of them. He continued to look for the five targets they had chosen. This would be simple if all of them stayed asleep, but as soon as they woke up, no one could count on anything the lionesses would do. Animals did stupid things in hostage situations.

            Mataka looked around, seeing parts three other parts of grass that were darker. Makini, Janja, and Darau. They would have to be careful. As soon as one of them moved toward the pride, the rest were committed. Right now they were picking their targets, deciding which ones were closest. Aisha had already marked hers; she had fallen “asleep” by her target.

            Mataka decided that he would be taking the little lioness that was decently close to the edge of the pride. From what Aisha said, she was one of the more valued lionesses, and wasn’t even a full lioness yet, just a half-cub.

            Flex the claws out, slide them back in.

            Mataka didn’t know how long he waited before finally seeing movement. It was Janja. The cheetah was slowly sliding down the hill toward the king. Mataka began to slowly make his way toward his lioness, seeing Makini and Darau do the same. He could see Aisha’s eyes open wide, noticing his movement. She stayed perfectly still, then began to slide a foreleg around her lioness’s back.

            Mataka carefully stepped over a lioness, and then made his way around another. He could see the others positioning themselves around their lioness. Mataka carefully walked around his lioness, positioning himself so that he was standing over her. He looked around at the others and saw Makini over his, perfectly ready. Darau was the same.

            Suddenly there was a growl from where Aisha was. The growl grew much louder as Mataka turned to see Aisha’s lioness realizing just what Aisha was trying to do with that foreleg that had been slipped under her neck. The growling was going to wake them all up.

            “Janja, now!” yelled Mataka. He pressed himself flat against his lioness and wrapped his foreleg around her throat, the lioness jerking awake. He saw Janja lunge for the king, being too far away to have been in position when Mataka had yelled. The king was instantly awake, but not soon enough. Janja wrapped one of his forelegs around the king’s neck.

            And that was that.

            All of them had their lions, all of them were pinned, and all of the lionesses were awake, staring, shocked, Moyo among them.

            All of them except Aisha.

            Mataka could see Aisha clearly on the ground, staring up at her lioness in terror. Her lioness had her pinned on the ground and was snarling down at her.

            There was silence.

            “Aisha,” said Darau quietly. Aisha didn’t say anything.

            “Release my pride,” said the king.

            “You’re not really in a position to demand anything, king,” said Mataka as Janja tightened his grip on the king.

            “Release them, or I will have her killed,” said the king.

            “You wouldn’t,” said Janja.

            “Do you really want to try that?”

            The rogues said nothing. Darau stared desperately at Aisha, unconsciously letting the grip on his lioness slide a little. “Aisha,” said Mataka, “can you move?” Aisha was silent. “Aisha!”

            “No,” said Aisha suddenly, as if jerking out of a stupor. “No, I don’t want to try.”

            “Aisha,” said Darau. “Aisha, be careful.”

            “Release my pride,” said the king. “Now.”

            Darau let go of his lioness and got off her. “Mataka, don’t let him hurt Aisha.”

            “You are getting involved, Darau,” said Janja.

            “How’d you feel if it was Zoma?” demanded Darau.

            “But it is not Zoma. Forget feelings—”

            Suddenly the lioness that Darau had had launched herself at him. Darau tumbled to the ground, other lionesses springing on top of him. Darau was finally pinned on the ground, and someone else no one had expected.

            Moyo.

            “Shit,” said Mataka.

            “Moyo, what are you doing?” demanded the king. Moyo was silent.

            “He attacked me, sire,” said a lioness.

            “What?” The king turned his head back to Mataka. “Release my pride now, or they will both die!”

            Mataka hesitated, then said, “Do as he says.”

            “Are you sure, Mataka?”

            “We’ll see if we can’t do this civilly.” He lowered his foreleg from his lioness’s throat as Makini released his and Janja released the king. All three of them were instantly seized.

            In all fairness, the king seemed to take the sudden surprise fairly well. Instantly he was in command of the situation. “Rogues in my kingdom,” he said, distaste in his voice as he stood up. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if you were here for my kingdom.”

            “Actually, just a little chat,” said Mataka. “You know, maybe over a carcass or two—”

            “Silence,” ordered the king. Mataka complied. “I could care less about what you are here for,” said the king. “This is obviously treason, and will be treated as such. But what I will lose sleep over—and I do love my sleep—is why my son, of all animals, was with them.”

            “We made him come along,” said Makini quickly. “It wasn’t—”

            “It was my choice,” said Moyo. “Don’t try to get me out of this.”

            “I will ask you again, Moyo. Why are you with these rouges?”

            “I—I wanted to make you see, Father. I just wanted to make you see what I thought, not just what you thought. I wanted to make you see things my way. You don’t need to rule this kingdom this way.”

            “Moyo, you can not be expected to know how to rule a kingdom until you have experience. You must rule as I do. Laws are there for a reason, and there is nothing that you can make an exception for.”

            “But Father, what if the laws are wrong?”

            “That is impossible,” said the king firmly. “The laws are there to guide us through what we do—”

            “Bullshit,” interjected Mataka. “Laws nearly got Darau killed when he was three. Three!”

            “Juvenile delinquents—”

            “He grew up! His father ran him out of the kingdom because he didn’t want competition for mating! Is that fair?”

            “If that is the law, that is just,” said the king zealously.

            “Oh, come on—” The king nodded, and one of the lionesses around Mataka hit him in the back of the head, hard. Mataka groaned. “Ow . . .”

            “Father, there need to be exceptions. Or at least changes. You can make new laws—”

            “The laws of our forefathers are the laws that we must stand by,” said the king.

            “Is it in your laws that you can use assassins for your wishes?” asked Janja. “That is exactly what you are doing with the Shadow.”

            “I have no dealings with vigilante filth,” said the king.

            “Vigilante,” said Mataka thoughtfully. “I’ve never been called that. Has a nice ring.” He was hit in the back of the head again. “Ow! Easy!”

            “Sheria has no need for those who would break its laws,” said the king. “It is a kingdom of justice.”

            “But Father, the laws aren’t justice,” said Moyo. “It’s what I’m trying to say. They’re just there as guidelines, aren’t they?”

            “The laws are etched in the deepest earth of this land,” said the king fiercely. “Nothing can touch them.”

            “But don’t you need to exercise judgment?”

            “The laws are all we need,” said the king. “And though I sometimes wish I was not forced to, I must follow them.”

            “Father, you must see—”

            “You are all convicted of treason. Your acts will be punished by death. You will be executed by falling from the Cliff of Death.”

            “The Cliff of Death? Is that really the best name you’ve got?” Mataka received another blow to the back of his head. “Aiheu!”

            “You will be executed immediately. You are a danger to the kingdom; there will be no wait.”

            “Oh, good. Just so long as it’s done quickly,” said Mataka. “I hate it when it’s long and drawn out.”

 

 

 

            Kassan and Zoma moved slowly toward the cave, each heading for a different side of the cave entrance. Each was checking all around them, making sure they did all they could to see everything. Nothing could be left to chance; they were dealing with someone they knew to be an assassin. Just do it slow and careful.

            Kassan darted out of the grass to press himself against a side of the cave entrance, out of view of anyone inside, Zoma doing the same. Kassan looked over at Zoma. Kassan lifted up a paw next to his head, Zoma watching closely. Kassan swept it toward the mouth of the den, and both of them rushed in.

            The cave was empty.

            “There’s no one here,” said Zoma.

            Kassan straightened up from his half-crouch. “This is the cave that the prince said. It’s the only one. It has to be.”

            “Oh, he’s going to get it. I just love royal information, don’t you?” asked Zoma, turning to Kassan.

            “But this doesn’t make any sense,” said Kassan. “The prince wanted us here. He invited us. He wouldn’t just send us off like this unless—”

            “Unless he knew there was something here,” said Zoma, staring past Kassan. “Kass, turn around.” Zoma began to back away from the den entrance.

            Kassan turned to see several hyenas in the entrance of the den, all of them snarling as they advance on the two rogues. Kassan could see that the two of them were outnumbered. He watched helplessly as the hyenas slowly spread out around the den, flanking and circling him and Zoma.

            “I don’t suppose you’re with Katili,” he said quietly. The hyenas didn’t answer.

            “We’re gonna die, we’re gonna die,” muttered Zoma.

            “There’s a way out,” said Kassan as he and Zoma turned slowly, each one facing exactly the other way so that none of the hyenas could sneak up on them. “There always is.”

            “Yeah? And what’s your idea this time, hotshot?”

            “Run like hell.”

            “You aren’t going anywhere.” The voice came from the mouth of the den. Zoma was suddenly tackled to the ground as the hyenas charged. Kassan turned to look at the speaker and felt a blow on his head. He sank to the ground as if his legs had turned to water, darkness closing in quickly.

 

 

 

            The prisoners were escorted quietly. None of the lionesses complained about the chill of the night or the sleep they lacked. The killings were finally coming to an end. It seemed they had finally caught “the Shadow.” It all made sense now, how they were never found, with Moyo turning away his father’s head every time there was something he didn’t want his father to see. They would all be able to sleep soundly now, knowing there were no more killers in the kingdom. Sheria was a safe place once again.

            Moyo trudged along in silence. He kept on looking over at his sister, who was following blindly, having no idea what was going on. No one would care for her, no one would love her as he did. He spoke to the lioness next to him. “Tama?”

            Tama didn’t speak.

            “Tama, you’ve always been good to me. Please, just do me one favor—”

            “You’re not escaping, Moyo,” she said coldly.

            “I know. But my sister . . . Chuma needs someone. She needs someone to look after her, and care for her—”

            “Are you joking?” said Tama. Moyo could see the same disgust on her face that was there when any of the pride talked about Chuma. “I despise her, even more than I hate you now. There’s no way that I’m going to be looking after that freak. We’re going to make sure what should have happened a long time ago happens now: that she dies. No one wants her around, Moyo, no more than any of us want you. So you can shut your mouth, Shadow, and get on with your death.”

            “Tama, I’m not the Shadow.”

            “You’re a killer, Moyo. And you’re going to die.” There was cold finality in her voice.

            Moyo turned away. There wouldn’t be a tomorrow for him, he knew that. There wouldn’t be that many tomorrows for Chuma, either. She would starve to death; he knew they wouldn’t feed her. Moyo had always been her protector and guardian; he had gotten her everything she needed. He realized, now more than ever, that he was the only one in the pride that loved his retarded sister. He prayed to the gods that she wouldn’t understand what was happening as he was forced off the ledge, as he fell screaming to his death.

            He could hear Mataka speak to Makini a little farther ahead. “Well, kid, it’s been fun.”

            “Yeah,” said Makini. “Yeah, it has.”

            “You should’ve never left home, you know that?”

            “And what about you? You left because you were bored.”

            “I couldn’t stay. I can’t stay. I told you that. . . . I told Amana that.”

            “What’ll she do when you’re not back in time?” asked Makini.

            “I don’t know. Wait, probably. I don’t know how long. Maybe a month, maybe a year . . . She’s been a better mate than I could have ever asked for.”

            “Does Kumbukizi know about you two?”

            “Yeah. Yeah, she does. Came up to me when we came back from Muutoshonga. Just came right up and asked, ‘Are you my father?’ Just like that. And . . . and of course, I said yeah. Yeah, I was. And she just stared at me. You ever get that feeling that you’re having judgment passed on you?”

            “Yeah. All the time from Nasiha.”

            “Yeah, but this was bigger than just getting judged for your training. I mean this was—it was like she was deciding, then and there, if everything I had done about her was right or not.”

            “What did she say?”

            “She just said, ‘I thought so.’ Nothing special at all. And no special treatment after that either. She just treated me . . . I guess just like she treated Amana. Just as a parent. She values my opinion, I know that. And I think she’s forgiven me for leaving. I think she knows I tried to find her.”

            “Amana probably told her.”

            “Probably.”

            “She’ll miss you, Mataka.”

            “Yeah. And you barely got to know your father.”

            “But Kassan . . . Dad was good to me. It just took some time to realize what he’d left behind. That’s all.”

            “I know this has to hurt you.”

            “Yeah, but it’s only a few seconds of screaming and falling, right? Then everything will be over. Hell can’t be that bad.”

            “Let’s hope so,” said Mataka quietly.

            “It won’t be . . .” Makini’s voice trailed off as he heard Darau speaking softly.  Mataka chuckled as he heard the words.

 

Oh, Father, we’ll all go to Hell

So soon we will all be in Hell

We’ll die for our brothers

And sisters as well

And for this we’ll all go to Hell.

 

            It was the battle hymn of the Askari. Every warrior in the group had lived up to those words. Mataka joined in with Darau.

 

Oh, Mama, we’re all going to die

So soon we are all going to die

You know that I love you

So please do not cry;

You know that so soon we’ll all die.

 

            All of the rogues began to quietly sing, the singing growing louder. The lionesses looked around at each other, unsure what to do.

 

Oh, good gods, we’ll meet you so soon

We’ll see all our fam’ly so soon

And then we will see the

Dark side of the moon

We’ll all be in that Hell so soon.

 

My brothers, we’re all going to die

My sisters, in glory we die

So raise your claws high for

Tomorrow we die

And then from the ashes we’ll rise!

 

            “And then from the ashes we’ll rise,” murmured Makini quietly. He turned to Mataka. “We’re all going to die, aren’t we?”

            “Yes,” said Mataka. “We’re all going to die. And we’ll die dead.”

            “It’s a good song, though.”

            “Kind of short.”

            “Yeah.”

            “But none of the Askari have come back to life, you know. Nobody does.”

            “I’m suddenly wishing I’d done a lot more things.”

            “Like what?”

            “Spent more time with Dad . . . with you . . . said goodbye to Nasiha properly . . . gotten laid . . .”

            Mataka looked at Makini in disbelief, then shook his head, chuckling. “You poor bastard.”

            Makini protested, “I never got a chance—”

            “Liar.” Mataka laughed quietly a little bit more, then fell silent. He looked over at Makini and said, “You did good, kid. Really. You did good.”

            “Thanks,” said Makini. “That means a lot.”

            A few moments later they were stopped near the edge of a steep cliff. From their high vantage point, they could see the sun peering over the top of the ground to watch the execution. “Dying at sunrise,” said Darau quietly. “If that doesn’t go against every symbolism I know.” He turned to Aisha. “I—I wouldn’t have minded being your mate, Aisha. I wanted it.”

            Aisha nuzzled Darau gently. “I know.” She gave him a kiss. “Who knows, maybe we will end up in Heaven. Maybe there will be forgiveness for everything.”

            “I love you,” said Darau.

            “I love you, too.”

            Janja was silent.

            The rogues were all herded to the edge of the cliff. They all turned to face the pride. The king said, “You know the crime for which you are here. Your punishment is death. You are all now given the opportunity to enact this punishment yourself.”

            None of the rogues moved.

            “Very well,” said the king. “Turn around.”

            The rogues did so.

            “Force them off.”

            Makini found that his breathing had become so much more rushed. He felt tears come to his eyes. He wasn’t ready to die. He drew a sharp intake of breath as he felt a set of claws dig themselves into his rear. He involuntarily jolted forward. The claws were removed hand were sunk in again, with the same result.

            “Janja!”

            The pride and the rogues both craned their head to see a cheetah standing behind them. A few seconds later, five lionesses were dead.

            “Moyo, come on!” yelled Makini. He knocked down another lioness and sunk his teeth into her gut. Moyo stood alone at the edge of the cliff, watching Makini kill the lioness that had been prodding him. He suddenly found his legs and began to rush toward the pride, the rogues clearing a path for themselves through the stunned lionesses.

            “Chuma!” yelled Moyo. His sister began to run toward Moyo, following him as he and the rest of the rogues broke free of the pride. All of the rogues ran as fast and far as they could, the lionesses taking little or no notice of them, now being distracted by the screaming coming from their pride sisters as they lied on the ground in agony.

            “Come on, prince,” said Zoma, appearing next to Moyo. “Move.” Moyo ran harder.

            When the rogues finally felt that they were safe enough, they stopped. “What happened?” asked Moyo, breathing heavily. “It happened too fast . . .”

            “Zoma just yelled, and we just took that opportunity to escape,” said Mataka. “Simple. It worked, didn’t it?” He sank to the ground, bleeding from a deep gash in his right shoulder.

            “They were unbalanced by Zoma’s yell,” said Janja. “Without it, we would have all died if we had tried to fight.”

            “And you all just did the same thing at once, no communicating or thinking?”

            “Yeah,” said Aisha. “It’s not like we always have a plan or something.”

            “We need to get out of here,” said Makini. “They’ll be hunting us down by sunset. We have to leave.”

            “Guys, Kass is in trouble,” said Zoma.

            “Well then why didn’t you say something?” asked Darau. “Where is he?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “You don’t know?” asked Mataka, Darau, and Aisha simultaneously.

            “We were together checking out that cave, and then we were ambushed, and I woke up in that cave alone. That’s all I know.”

            “How many animals?” asked Mataka.

            “Uh, twenty, maybe thirty hyenas. There’s another animal, too, I think. I just heard this voice and then they tackled me.”

            “Wonderful,” said Mataka. “We nearly die, and then we have to save his sorry ass.”

            “Do you know if he’s alive?” asked Makini worriedly.

            “No. But we need to find him.”

            “Alright, Janja, you and Zoma head over there,” said Mataka, pointing in a direction. “Makini and I will take over there. Darau, you and Aisha just get the royals out of here. We’ll check back at that cave Zoma was looking at in an hour, and we’ll start again from there if we have to. But if this goes on longer than a day, we’re all gone.”

            “I can work with that,” said Darau, Zoma and Janja nodding assent.

            “But this is my father!” burst out Makini. “We can’t just leave him!”

            Mataka fixed Makini with an icy glare. “Then we’d better start looking, hadn’t we?” he asked, pushing himself off the ground. He began heading away, Makini hurriedly following him. Zoma and Janja headed off in their direction.

            Darau and Aisha looked down at Moyo and Chuma, both of the royals still on the ground, resting. “Whenever you’re ready, sires.”

 

 

 

            Kassan’s eyes opened slowly, seeing a stone ceiling. Light flickered from flames, but he couldn’t see what was burning. He groaned and tried to move, but found his legs wouldn’t. He was on his back, his forelegs stretched out above his head, his hind legs being pulled toward his tail. A black face appeared above him. His face.

            “Hello, Kass.”

            Kassan closed his eyes with a more pronounced groan. “Yanu.”

            “So you do remember me. How touching.”

            “How could I forget?” asked Kassan, opening his eyes. “You were left on that battlefield with me. We were so close—”

            “You’re not going to flatter me, Kassan. You took everything from me. You took my mate. You took my son. You drove me from my home. You promised they would be safe.”

            “Brother—”

            “Not anymore, Kassan. Not after what you’ve put me through.”

            Kassan looked up at his twin. “It was a way to survive, Yanu. You saw what the Askari could do. If we could do that, too—”

            “They murdered,” hissed Yanu. “They killed everyone.”

            “Not everyone—”

            “Mother was dead, Father was dead, and to me, at least, that was everyone. You don’t understand what family is, Kass. You never did. You left me; you didn’t want any more to do with someone who didn’t follow your dream, your vision.”

            “Yanu, you wanted something you could never have—”

            “But I got it, didn’t I? I got a family. I got Ashki, and I got her parents, too. And you don’t know what that was like, Kass. I had parents. They loved me, just like Mother and Father loved us, all until the day they died. And I had Makini, too, didn’t I? A family, Kass. What you said the world would never give me, I got. And then you murdered her—”

            “I had to, Yanu. That king would have killed me—”

            Then you should have died!” yelled the Shadow furiously. “You told me to leave, Kass! Leave, and she’d be safe! That they were after me!

            “I said that you made it all too easy for them to find her. How many black leopards—”

            “There will be one less in the world after tonight,” hissed Yanu. He leaned close to his brother’s face. “You lied to me, Kass. You sent me away. You killed Ashki in that stampede. You left Makini to starve, parentless. You took away everything I earned. Earned, Kass. And now it’s your turn.”

            “So killing me will take away everything? Yanu, I thought you thought things through better than that.”

            “You’re going to die, Kassan. Here. Tonight. And so will your son. I haven’t tracked down your mate, but rest assured, when I do, I will make her life nothing short of a hell.”

            “Yanu, it wasn’t anything personal. It was just a job—”

            “You’re right, Kass. It’s just a job. My job.”

            Kassan sighed as he relaxed. It didn’t look like he was going anywhere soon. “I don’t suppose a heartfelt apology would make things any better?”

            Yanu let out a cold, chilly laugh. “Heartfelt? From you? Please, Kass, don’t take me for a fool.”

            Kassan stared up at his twin, then experimentally tried to move a foreleg. He felt something dig into his whole leg as he did so. “So this is how you’ll kill me? Leave me here to starve?”

            “Oh, no, Kassan. I’ve been thinking about it for quite a long time. And I’m sure that you’d find a way out if I let you die that way. No, you’re going to die a slow, agonizing death. You’re going to have your legs torn off.”

            “Ah. Interesting,” said Kassan, his voice normal. “And how is this going to happen?”

            “Oh, I think I’ve—thought it through,” said the Shadow with a smile. He walked away from Kassan and said loudly, “Release the stoppers.” Kassan felt nothing, but heard a quiet, hissing sound. He didn’t see the Shadow as he next spoke, but instead heard the Shadow’s voice circling slowly around him with his owner.

            “Now you see, Kassan, this took quite a while to conceive. Nearly five months. It’s been tested on me—or at least the vines have been. There’s a monkey in this kingdom that’s quite good with knots. Mbulu. He’s been aiding the hyenas. I believe you saw him at the hyena pit?”

            “The one with the branch of fire.”

            “Yes. Well, these vines are his own invention. Carefully wrapped with specially sharpened rocks. They’ll take a massive amount of strain, and still not break. I doubt that they could suspend an elephant like he said they could, but I wouldn’t be surprised. He has been an invaluable help to me. I owe him far more than I can give in return. For you see, he also helped design this—contraption.

            “Each one of your legs are completely entwined in a vine, and the vines, in turn, are attached to a rather heavy rock each. Despite what you think, you are not on the ground. You are on a small spire, more of a slab or stone two or three feet above the ground, and it is here that you’ll die. Each rock rests on a separate bed of sand, contained in a stone hole. Another thing that Mbulu has helped me with. I couldn’t have carried a grain of sand, but he has managed to fill four containers, containers which he built himself.

            “But the containers . . . no one can access the containers now. The hyenas which have been so kind in helping me in exchange for my aid in their—revolution—they’ve pulled the stoppers on the containers. The sand is slowly leaking out, and the rocks are falling. And with the rocks, the vines are falling. And pulling on your legs, which you no doubt have begun to feel. And you won’t escape these, Kassan.

            “But I digress. Where was I? Oh, yes. Containers. You see, though you are only a few feet off the floor, there’s more to this cave. There is an entire place below this one. And it’s so easily accessible, too. Just walk through the back of the cave, and you’ll find yourself below. And if you look up, you can see the roof of the first section of the cave. There are holes in the ceiling of the lower part, Kassan. And your vines trail down these holes.

            “But you can’t get to the containers anymore. Not if the passageway is blocked. And I’ve rolled a boulder, all the way here, just for that purpose. After those hyenas exit—here they are now—I will be sealing the passage to the containers myself. You won’t be able to get to the containers, Kassan. The sand will keep falling out. The rocks will keep going down. And your legs will slowly be torn from your body.”

            Kassan let out a groan. Yes, he could feel the pressure on his shoulders. The hind legs had no joints like the shoulders though. Or did they? Could they be torn from his body? He could feel the fine with it specially sharpened stones pressing against his legs like needles. They hadn’t punctured anything yet.

            Kassan heard the sound of stone on stone, and then heard a smash. “No one will access the containers,” said the Shadow. “No one will stop this. And no one will save you, Kassan. Because I’m not going to cut those vines. And I’m not going to let anyone else, either. But if it’s any comfort, your son should be here soon, looking for Daddy.” Yanu chuckled unpleasantly. “And to think, I won’t even know his name as I slash through his throat right before your eyes.”

            “It’s Makini,” said Kassan with a smile.

            “What?” asked Yanu, his smile disappearing instantly from his face.

            “It’s Makini,” said Kassan. He yelled out in pain as Yanu rammed a paw hard into his gut and he recoiled, the vines tearing into his legs.

            “Don’t you dare mock me like this,” hissed the Shadow.

            “I’m not lying,” groaned Kassan.

            “You named you son just to spite me?”

            “Who said he was my son?”

            “You don’t . . .”

            “Yes,” said Kassan. “And he’s here. And he’s going to die, too. Because if you knew that I would be there, in that cave, this night . . . there’s no way he’s going to escape that trap you and the king have made for the others.”

            “The king wants me dead,” said Yanu. “I only brought all of you here for the prince.”

            Kassan laid his head back so that he looked at the ceiling, letting out a sigh. “Of course. And none of us expected the prince to be able to be involved in that. He lied to us all.”

            “None of that matters now,” said Yanu. “You’re going to die, Kassan. And Makini is going to know exactly what you are.” He walked toward the exit of that room of the cave.

            “You know, Yanu,” said Kassan, “I think I would have been a decent father. Just for the record.”

            Yanu stopped and looked back at his twin. He shook his head. “No, Kass. You’re missing a heart.”

 

 

 

            “We’ll check in there,” said Makini, pointing to a rock face. Mataka could just make out the opening.

            “We’re almost due back,” said Mataka. “We don’t have—” He fell abruptly silent at Makini’s glare. “Or we could—yeah, let’s just check in there.” He began to follow Makini toward the entrance. The two of them slowly approached it, staying low in the grass. As they entered it, a scent was easily recognized.

            “Dogs of some kind,” said Makini quietly.

            “Could be hyenas,” said Mataka.

            “It’s almost fresh.”

            Mataka looked around the place they were in. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s do this slow and careful.”

            The two of them began to head deeper into the cave, the light becoming worse and worse as they progressed. They finally came to a fork. The cave went deeper than they thought, possibly all the way through the rock face they were in. Mataka gestured toward one way for Makini, and went the other way himself.

            Makini slowly made his way through the passageway, the scent of hyenas becoming fainter. He looked everywhere for activity, the increasing darkness being able to shroud more and more. He stepped into a room. There was nothing there. It was a dead end.

            Then, suddenly, he heard Kassan’s voice echo through the dark room. “On a hill, during a sunset. I told you just how much I loved you then.”

            “Dad?”

            “You said that you loved me, too.”

            “Dad, where are you?” Makini began to turn around, looking for Kassan.

            “And then I died, didn’t I? You have no idea how much it hurt to watch you and your mother weep over that wildebeest, both of you knowing I was gone.”

            “This isn’t funny, Dad. We need to get out of—”

            “And then your mother died while hunting. Your uncle started a stampede. He murdered your mother.”

            I don’t have an uncle.

            “I thought you were dead. I thought you had no one. I don’t know how you survived. But I just want you to know I still love you. I still want my son.”

            “That’s great, Dad, but we need to get out of here—”

            Makini felt something suddenly wrap around his body and force him to the ground. He roared, lashing out and hitting nothing. He felt something wet on his neck. “My son,” he heard in his ear. “My son, my son, my son.”

            “Dad?”

            “Oh, Makini, I love you so much. And you’ve grown up so big and strong. I’m proud of you, son.”

            “Dad, you’re not making any sense. Now’s not the time—”

            “Makini, I’m your father. Not him.”

            “What?”

            “It’s me. Yanu.”

            Makini fell silent. “Mom used to call you that,” he said quietly.

            “And you called me Daddy. I thought you were dead, Makini.”

            “I don’t understand. I can’t see you right.”

            “It’s all this darkness. Please, just follow me. We need to talk, Makini. About a lot of things. I need to show you something.”

            “Alright, Dad,” said Makini uncertainly. He got up and began to start toward where he remembered the entrance to the room was.

 

 

 

            Mataka progressed slowly through the cave. As it was for Makini, it was getting darker for him, too. The scent of hyenas was becoming weaker, as if the last place they had been was at the entrance. The only way that would have made any sense at all was if they had left.

            But if they’re gone, thought Mataka, who’s still here?

            Claws came out unconsciously as he saw a flicker of light across the wall. He stopped dead. It happened again, and again, in a completely unnatural pattern. Fire, Mataka realized after watching it for a few moments. His immediate thought was an ambush. But there was no way for the fire to spread, at least not to him; stone didn’t burn.

            He crept farther, the light becoming brighter, then becoming easily seen on a wall as he made a slight turn. He heard heavy moaning. He edged his head around the corner to see a large stone bowl filled with some kind of burning substance. He also saw something on a stone slab that was writhing on the table, yet it seemed to be restrained. He paused for a second, then, seeing no danger, rushed over to the slab.

            “Kass,” he breathed.

            “Get these off,” begged Kassan. “Get them off now.” He let out a prolonged groan. Mataka looked at his legs to see blood on them, unsure as to how it got there. He tried to paw the vines off and immediately withdrew his paw with a sudden intake of air.

            “It bit me,” he said.

            “Just cut them,” pleaded Kassan. “Just cut them. Please—ah!”

            Mataka began to work through one of the vines on Kassan’s forelegs. He had to be careful; too much pressure and Kassan’s leg would start bleeding more fiercely; too little and his claws would barely scratch the surface of the vine. The vine was thick and the work was slow.

            “You know, I have been through hell last night and today, and then I find you just lying here—”

            “Just get them off,” said Kassan, desperation in his voice.

            “I’m working on them,” said Mataka. Luckily the vines were taut, that fact aiding in the job. After about a minute, one vine was cut through. Mataka began unraveling it from Kassan’s leg, the vine entwined all the way around Kassan’s leg.

            “No—no, get the others—get the others first,” said Kassan.

            “You mind telling me what the hell’s going on?”

            “Not right now—not right now—just get them off,” pleaded Kassan. “Oh, gods, it hurts!”

            Mataka set to work on the other foreleg in silence, then the two hind legs. Kassan breathed in relief as he felt the last vine cut. Mataka began to take the vines off the hind legs, Kassan’s breath being drawn in sharply in pain.

            “Ouch! These things are nasty,” said Mataka as he felt the rocks in the vine scratch his paw. “Who wanted to do this to you?”

            “The Shadow. He wanted me dead—ahh, that hurts.”

            “That’s off now.”

            “He wanted to kill me for a job . . . just a job . . .”

            “We’ve got a lot of animals like that.”

            “The revolution?”

            “Didn’t work. Other vine’s off. Lift up that foreleg.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “I mean the damned king found us out. Or maybe it was dumb luck. I don’t know. All I know is Aisha’s part didn’t work, and Darau surrendered, and then it was all over.” Another vine dropped to the ground.

            “We have to finish the job—”

            “We have to get the hell out of here, that’s what we have to do. The king’s looking all over the kingdom for us; he thinks we’re the Shadow. We have to get you out of here now.” The last vine dropped.

            “Makini—”

            “He’s fine, I’m sure. Now we need to get out of here. Can you walk?”

            Kassan rolled off of the slab, falling to the ground. He pushed himself up. “Yes,” he said. “It hurts a little—”

            “A little? Aiheu . . .”

            “We just have to get out of here,” said Kassan. He began to walk toward the exit with a slight limp. “I want to find Makini.”

 

 

 

            “I died with her in that stampede,” said Yanu. “When I found out that Kassan was the one who did it . . . it was almost too much.”

            “But I don’t understand,” said Makini quietly. He looked across the savannah he was in. “That means he was lying to me this whole time.”

            “Makini, I am your father,” said Yanu. “Me, not him.”

            Makini looked back at Yanu. Yes, he did indeed look like his father. Exactly like his father. The honest smile, the tender paws, the beautiful black pelt. The only thing that Makini felt didn’t belong was the loss in his eyes, the loss of his mate and cub that never went away. The years that he had been looking for revenge wouldn’t leave.

            “I don’t want to believe you,” said Makini quietly. “I really don’t want to think he was lying to me all this time. I thought there was good in him . . .”

            “Whatever good there was in my brother’s heart was left on that battlefield with our parents. He does nothing without calculating what good it will do him. But he’ll never trouble us again.”

            “I didn’t want to believe it.”

            “He lied to you, Makini, just like he lied to me. He wanted to use you. Maybe just as someone to have with him, but he used you. I guarantee it.”

            “Was Mom a whore?”

            “What?” snarled Yanu. “Don’t you ever call your mother that!”

            “He said she was.”

            “And that is a lie! Your mother was marked for death because she turned down an offer for sex! She was married to me! We both cherished that marriage, and more than you know. We loved each other, Makini, just as much as we loved you.”

            “It’s just—he told me so many things . . . It sounded so much like the truth.”

            “I doubt my brother knows what truth is anymore. All he knows is lies. And I’ve almost become like him. All because I thought you were gone.” Yanu caressed his son’s face with a paw. “I missed you, Makini.”

            “I missed you, too, Dad.” He wrapped a paw around his father’s neck and pulled him close.

            Yanu gripped his son tightly, then pulled away. “I . . . I don’t really know where to go from here.”

            “You can come back home with me. We can stay there.”

            “But—but they think I’m dead—”

            “Dad, they’ll forgive you. I promise. . . . You’re not lying to me, right?”

            Yanu smiled. “No. I’m your father now. I don’t need to hide anymore.” He breathed in a deep breath, smiling. “I don’t have to be a shadow.” He turned back to Makini, a broad smile on his face. “Everything can be normal agai—”

            Yanu’s face was frozen in a smile as the jaws closed around his neck and shook his throat fiercely, breaking it. Makini watched in horror as his father fell to the ground, the first traces of shock and pain appearing on his face. “Dad!” yelled Makini.

            Kassan spit on his brother and ran away from his murder as quickly as he could. Makini ran after him, catching up quickly and tackling him to the ground. “You son of a bitch!” he yelled as he tackled Kassan to the ground. Kassan quickly rolled over and slashed Makini across the face. Makini roared out in pain as he stumbled off Kassan. Kassan immediately got up and hit Makini sharply across the muzzle, knocking him to the ground. Kassan quickly slammed a paw into Makini’s neck, knocking him out as he nearly broke his neck, missing killing him by luck.

            “Kass, what the hell are you doing?” yelled a voice. Kassan turned to see Mataka coming toward him. “That’s Makini!”

            “He tried to kill me, Mataka.”

            “Why would he do that?” asked Mataka. “You’re his father.”

            Kassan was silent. He stared at Mataka, weighing his words. “Mataka, I’m in bad shape right now. My legs hurt like hell, and it’s hard enough to run as it is. Walking’s just about the best I can do.”

            “I know that. Now what were you doing to Makini?” Mataka looked down at Makini. “Is he even alive?” Mataka asked furiously.

            “He’s alive. I just knocked him out. I wanted to kill him.”

            “He’s your son—” began Mataka incredulously.

            “No, Mataka, he isn’t. He’s not my son. He’s never been my son. I just killed his father tonight. And Makini knows it.”

            “You did what?” hissed Mataka.

            “Makini’s father is dead. I killed him.”

            “I’m hoping that there’s a lot of metaphorical stuff I’m missing.”

            “I’ve never been his father, Mataka. I tried to tell you. You wouldn’t listen.”

            “Kass, you have been lying to us all this time.”

            “You wouldn’t let me explain. I was going to try to be a good father, Mataka. It’s the least I could do for my brother—”

            “Your brother? You killed you own brother, and you just took away any chance your nephew had at being normal?”

            “He’ll never be normal, Mataka.”

            “Not anymore!” yelled Mataka.

            “Please, just try to explain it to him when he wakes up. Just tell him that I . . . I wanted to be a good father.”

            Mataka stared at Kassan, unable to comprehend exactly what was going on. Too many things were being thrown at him. “I think you’re lying, Kass.”

            “I’m telling you the truth. I’m not his father.”

            “Not that. You never wanted to be a good father. You wanted what was best for you. You always have.”

            “Mataka, just because I enjoy sex—”

            “It’s not that, Kass!” exploded Mataka. “It’s you! Everything about you! You’ve hurt him more than I can imagine, and all in one day! I’m pissed, Kass, and I am sure as hell not going to tell him that you’re sorry. I thought you’d changed, Kass, but all you’ve done is slap me in the face.”

            “Mataka, it’s not like—”

            “Yes, it is like that. Pick a direction and start running, Kass. Because that is exactly what I’m going to tell Makini when he comes to.”

            “You can’t mean that,” said Kassan in disbelief.

            “You wrecked his life,” said Mataka. “And probably a lot more than I realize right now. Pick a direction and run, not walk, Kass. Before I beat Makini to it and beat the shit out of you right now.”

            “He’s my nephew, Mataka. I wanted to help—”

            “I doubt it, Kass. You’re not going to hurt another one of my friends. Not like Loma. Not like Nasiha. Not like me.”

            “Don’t do this to me, Mataka. I’m in bad shape, I don’t need this—”

            “Start running, Kass. Pick a direction, and start running.”

            Kassan took one last look at Makini, then began to limp away as fast as he could. Mataka looked down at Makini’s still form and sighed. He sank down next to him, the weariness of all of the activity of last night and that morning gnawing at him, and all of it for another job gone wrong.