All characters are Kovukono and William Lebeau’s, and are not to be used without explicit permission from either one, except for Aiheu, which his John Morris and David Burkitt’s character. All emails about this story may be sent to either conor0191@aol.com or williamlebeau4@hotmail.com.

            This story isn’t suitable for children due to explicit content.

 

Shadowwalker

 

            The sound of the stone rolling away caught Erevu's attention. He feebly looked up to see the light of day coming in through the crack. The cheetah rolling away the stone finished the job and stepped away from the entrance to the cave. Erevu laid his head back down and waited to be dragged out again for another day's torture. He had long ago stopped trying to protest his innocence. All of his pleas fell on deaf ears.

            A shadow fell across him; a figure blocking the light from the entrance. Erevu's eyes flickered over. It was a lion, he noticed by the mane. He did a double take; he had assumed it was the king. He had never seen this lion before. The lion carried himself with a sense of surety, of pride that Erevu had never seen before. Erevu looked away. He apparently had a new torturer now, someone else that had endeared themselves to the king in that area. Of course, there was always the faint, unlikely hope that the king had been overthrown by a rogue. That wasn't unheard of.

            Erevu's hopes were dashed as the king stepped next to the lion. "This is the one I told you about," said the king.

            The lion stared at Erevu. "He's in bad shape," the lion observed, as if the fact wasn't obvious to anyone who looked at Erevu.

            "Are you sure you want him?" the king asked.

            "Oh, yes. Yes, indeed."

            "The filth is of no use to me," said the king, turning away. "Take him. He's yours."

            The lion watched the king go for a second, then turned back to Erevu. The cheetah who had rolled away the stone made to leave, but was stopped by the lion's voice. "Care to help, friend?"

            The cheetah turned back to the lion (reluctantly, it seemed to Erevu) to see the lion holding out his paw toward Erevu. The cheetah growled slightly as it walked toward Erevu while the lion lied down next to Erevu, Erevu's head right behind the lion's posterior. The cheetah grabbed the scruff of Erevu's neck roughly and jerked him up partially onto the lion's back, Erevu groaning in pain.

            "Easy, friend," said the lion. "Easy."

            The next jerk wasn't quite so bad. Erevu stifled his cries as the cheetah adjusted Erevu across the lion's back so that he wouldn't fall off when the lion stood up. Apparently the cheetah did a good job, as Erevu didn't fall when the lion rose, or when the lion walked out of the cave that had been Erevu's home for far too long. The cheetah started in the direction that Erevu knew the den was.

            "Friend," said the lion, "tell your king that he has my gratitude."

            "I will," said the cheetah, and continued on his way.

            The lion went the other way, toward the borders.

 

 

            Erevu woke up in panic, his head in the water. Instinct and adrenaline pulled his head out of the river.

            “Don’t move too much or your wounds will open.’’ There was standing a lion with a black mane and brown eyes...the one who rescued him...No, he wanted something. Erevu was waiting for his next move, his request.

            “What do you want from me?”

            “Want? That you eat. You might have been starving but it was still a pain to drag you here. I would...I hear you didn’t like orders. You seem to respect that one.” Erevu, who had noticed the carcass next to him, couldn’t contain himself any longer. How long was it since he had eaten a full carcass? He dove into it.

            “...don’t eat too fast, you’re gonna...be sick.” Too late. Erevu threw up. He didn’t care. He was so hungry. He was about to go for another round when a paw on the carcass made him stop. “Give it time for your body to get used to...” Erevu wasn’t listening. He was in pain and had so much on his mind. He was in debt and he never did like to owe someone.

            “Cut it short, what do want?” he demanded. Then his vision faded.

 

 

            Erevu woke up, his head in the water again. He was not going to make it a habit. He was about to make it clear to that other lion when he noticed that he couldn’t move he was paralysed. How could it be? He thought he was going to die like that. Drowned. How pathetic. But at the last moment he was pull out of the water. The lion stared at him and start to laugh.

            “W-hat so fu…funny...?” He wanted to roar at the lion, but he had trouble just talking.

            “You will not like what’s gonna happen next,” the lion answered, visibly amused.

            “Wh…at…a…re…you…?” He didn’t like the tone of the lion.

            The lion cut him short. “Well, the best way for you to heal is not to move. I came across a snake who said he would paralyse you.” Erevu didn’t like the sound of this. He wasn’t enjoying the paralysis. “And since it will take three days for you to heal, somebody must feed you mouth to mouth.”

            It took a couple of seconds for the information to go to Erevu’s brain, and then the image of that lion letting the food go from his mouth to Erevu’s—“Oh no.”

            “Hey, could be worse. You could still be being tortured,” answered the lion at Erevu’s thought. Erevu wasn’t too sure. “By the way, my name is Ronoc. Want to have a drink?"

 

 

Three days later

 

            “Are you nuts? You want me to climb that?” Just in front of Erevu was one of the biggest mountains he ever seen in is life.

            “Is that how you talk to the one who saved you from torture, saved your life...fed you?”

Erevu had a little chill on the last word. He swore to himself it would never ever happen again.

            “So what is this pilgrimage about? Why can’t that guy just come down to the bottom of the mountain and just...”

            “I don’t know, and it’s a she.  For the rest, take it as a challenge.” Erevu always liked a challenge and to explore new places, especially alone. He was one of the rare males that liked to chase. He was the fastest lion in the all of the pride; none of the lionesses could match him. “I bet not even a bird could fly that high.”  Erevu couldn’t help but smile at the idea of seeing himself at the top of the mountain.

            “No they don’t," answered Ronoc. “You know, you’re probably going to die trying to climb it."

            Erevu gave a simple answer:

 

“One sky, One earth, One sea

That was what we see

Through death, which we flee,

We can see that One sky

One sea, One earth is only

Begging us to fly

Through to the other worlds.”

 

            With that, he ran to climb the mountain. Only who was at the top knew how long it would take to get there.

 

 

            Stupid, goddamn, freezing cold! Erevu though as he climbed. It was becoming harder and harder to climb. He enjoyed the thrill of exploration, yes, but this was not what he had in mind when he had the whole thing explained to him by Ronoc.

            It had sounded so great. Become a “shadowwalker.” Become more than you were.

            So goddamn cold!

            The mountain was high, that was obvious from the beginning. Climb it, Ronoc had said. And Erevu had done so. He had counted on it just to be tiring, something to wear him out. He hadn’t expected the bitter chill that was made worse by the wind, the steep slope that barely yielded to claws digging into it, the utter lack of food. Ronoc had done him a kindness when he had filled him up with meat two days in a row. Erevu was so much fuller when it came to the climb.

            The days spent in Ronoc’s care were much better than the last year—or was it two years?—that he had spent in the kingdom. He hadn’t done anything toward the princess. The king had refused to hear his protests, Erevu finding out later that he had not only been thrown into that cave for the death of the prince, but for the princess as well, who had been killed the week before. It was the stupidest thing he had ever heard. He was a member of the pride, for crying out loud! So what if he didn’t follow orders that well? All he wanted was his freedom.

            And he had hated the king for taking it away from him.

            Day after day had gone by, Erevu being dragged before the king, being asked, “Why did you rape my daughter,” defiantly responding with increasing bitterness “I didn’t,” and then being beaten in front of the king. And the king would leave occasionally, actually attending to his waste of a kingdom instead of watching Erevu’s torture. The kingdom had deteriorated along with Erevu’s body, at least from the glimpses that Erevu was given between the darkness of the den and his cave. The king had been furious over the matter of his daughter and Erevu, and it wasn’t just Erevu who was paying; the entire kingdom was going downhill.

            But Ronoc had taken Erevu away from all of that, and had given him a new chance at life. But only one. He had taken wonderful care of Erevu. He had cleaned Erevu’s wounds of all the gravel that had gotten into them, pressed soothing leaves onto them, and had slowly nursed him back to health on a diet, and had done it all so well that it seemed that he did it every day. Even the mouth-to-mouth feedings, necessary because of the paralysis and the lack of proper movement in Erevu’s jaw, had been done by Ronoc with no fuss on Ronoc’s part, though the grimace that Erevu saw on his face as he slid the tongue with the chewed food into Erevu’s mouth showed that Ronoc was just as disgusted.

            It was Erevu that had raised hell about it.

            As soon as Erevu could talk on the second day, he said in no uncertain terms that he would be feeding himself. Ronoc had no problem agreeing to that. Instead he welcomed the chance. A lion ate once every few days, and for the first time Ronoc could eat his own carcass, and Erevu his. Erevu welcomed the food; he had been given far too little in that cave.

            He still couldn’t move, though, until the third day.

            And Ronoc had taken the time to talk to his captive about the life that he had planned for him. He wanted to make Erevu a shadowwalker, a free animal. It didn’t matter the first day that Erevu couldn’t ask comprehensible questions; Ronoc had more than made up for the talking.

            “A shadowwalker,” Ronoc had explained for Erevu’s benefit, “is the noblest animal you’ll find. Forget kings and princes and all of them, a shadowwalker has something that they’ll never have: a shadowwalker has Freedom.” He said the word so that Erevu noticed the capital. “No one will ever tell us what to do. Never. And that’s all we want. Freedom, and to be everything that we can be.”

            There was so much potential in every animal, Ronoc said. So much potential, and so many of them threw it all away. All of that potential gone, and all because the animal said that they would submit to another. An animal was meant to be free, free from every binding force that threatened to chain it down. Nothing was meant to stop a shadowwalker, not vines, not caves, not other animals. Especially not the most hated thing of all, laws.

            “A-an-anr-arch-y,” Erevu had forced out through his unwilling jaws.

            “NO!” roared Ronoc. Erevu was amazed at how much just the word incensed him. Ronoc was literally shaking with anger. “Not anarchy. Freedom. The Freedom to do as you wish, to go where you want, to do what you please. Anarchy is chaos, brought about by idiots who have been chained by laws all their lives. A shadowwalker is disciplined; he tells himself what is right and what is wrong, not laws. He chooses for himself. The only morals a shadowwalker has are his own.”

            And Ronoc had chosen Erevu for this prestigious honour. He had tracked Erevu down, hearing of a stubborn lion, one who wouldn’t submit, who would do as he pleased. And he had watched Erevu for a day, though neither Erevu nor the king had known it. He had to make sure that Erevu truly wanted to be free, and wasn’t simply causing trouble simply for the sake of form.

            So he had done all the explaining he could of Freedom to Erevu in those three days, waiting for him to heal. And he had sent Erevu up the hill, even having taught Erevu the litany he recited before he went. And now Erevu cursed him with every step he took. It had taken him two days to reach this point of the mountain. And from the look of it, he still had two more—at least—to go. Going back down was not an option, not because of Erevu’s determination to show Ronoc that he could be a shadowwalker, but because there simply was no way to get down. Any misstep would send him plummeting to his death; the slope had grown that steep.

            Ronoc had assured him that there was a way up, and that it was quite easy to see the way up. He hadn’t lied. The path was there; with every step that Erevu took there was another obvious step to take, progressing further up. But oddly enough, there was no visible path down, despite the fact that Erevu knew he had just come up that way.

            He hadn’t tried going back down. In Erevu’s mind, it was just as good as failure. It was no longer a test by the second day; it was a private struggle between him and the mountain, one to prove his determination. Erevu was forced to use all of his strength to go through it.

            The eight days worth of meat that Ronoc had stuffed into him had gotten him though two. On the third day he was forced to hunt, if you could call it that. He found a ram on the side of the mountain and had killed it, the ram oddly standing there the entire time, simply waiting to be slaughtered. It had, of course made the customary protest as Erevu strangled it, but beyond that, nothing. It was just an event to Erevu, something that took his attention away from the task at hand. He hurriedly ate all of the ram he could, and continued up the mountain.

 

 

            One paw.

            Two paws.

            And now the head and chest...

            Erevu collapsed on the ground as he heaved himself over the top of the mountain. He lied there, breathing heavily, totally exhausted.

            “Well, you made it.”

            Erevu turned his head to see a lion calmly lying down a short distance away. He couldn’t believe it. “How did you get up here?”

            “Walked, same as you,” said Ronoc calmly. “You can come out now, don’t you think?”

            “You shouldn’t rush an old lady. Where did you learn your manners?” An old hyena was standing next to Erevu.

            Where did she come from? 

            “My debt is clear. I’ll get going now. See ya, Erevu. Try not to die before the end of the training.”

            “And me? I might be old but you don’t have to ignore me. I’m not already dead you know,” said the old hyena.

            “Sorry ma’am. Sometimes I forget my place and the lessons you taught me,” answered Ronoc with a nod.

            “Hihihi,” laughed the hyena. “Don’t forget ego is the first thing that kills a shadowwalker. Now go and farewell. May you forever stay on the path of the shadowwalker.”

            “And may you not die before you leave your final mark on this world.”

            “Hihihi. I don’t intend to." With that Ronoc jumped from the cliff.

            “Wait...” Erevu who couldn’t understand what was going on. He tried to catch Ronoc but stopped at the edge of the cliff. The cliff was so steep that if he tried to go that way he would undoubtedly fall and die. Ronoc was already too far ahead to hear him. But it seemed more like he was ignoring him.

            How did he get down there?

            Erevu turned his head to face the hyena. ”Okay, old hag, tell me what going on?”

            “The young of today have no respect at all.” The hyena turned to Erevu. Erevu hadn’t noticed it before: she was blind. Her eyes were white. When Erevu noticed it he had a new respect for the hyena. Not only was she blind and able to climb the mountain, but something from her came out like an aura. He couldn’t tell exactly, but that old hyena was no nobody. When he looked at her eyes he felt that she could look right through him. His body was shaking, not because of the cold, but something else. Fear? Excitement? Maybe both.

            ‘’My name Neiko. And if you don’t want to bother to remember the name of a poor, dying hyena, call me master. Hihihi.” That laugh again. It was always scary to hear it from that hyena; you don’t know what to say after hearing it. The numerous scars on her body showed that she’d been through plenty of fights, more she could care to count.

            Who is she?

            She took a few steps and Erevu couldn’t help but to notice how fluid her step was, silent and with grace.

            “I thought Ronoc would be my teacher,” he said.

            “Ronoc may be a shadowwalker, but he is too young to teach anything. He was just doing a favour for an old lady when he took care of you. I never really was good in nursing, but I have to admit that in my youth nobody forgot my kiss. Hihihihi.”

            “Something tells me there is more to that than just being nice. And how do you know about that mouth to mouth feeding?”

            “Seeing two male lions kissing I is something I can now cross off my list of things to do before dying. Hihihi.”

            That old hag is nuts. Can I really learn anything from her?

            “Now enough fooling around. I’m gonna ask you one question. Do you want to be a shadowwalker?”

            “I didn’t climb that mountain for nothing. Ronoc told me I would certainly die and I did it, no?”

            “Oh I see. So you are proud to be able to climb a mountain, a mountain you almost die claiming, die if you haven’t been lucky to find that ram who just didn’t notice you, a mountain that an old and blind hyena could climb with no effort to follow you?” Those words hit the sensitive spot.

            “But I...” Neiko waved her paw to cut Erevu off.

            “I’m old; I don’t have time to waist on your ego. Oh, I almost forgot getting old is never fun, I tend to forget things.  Let me define a shadowwalker before you make your decision. That definition of Ronoc’s is a little too romantic for my taste, but the true definition of the shadowwalker:” Neiko paused to catch her breath.

 

“Grace and beauty

World of mystery

Behind the wall

Wall forgotten

Freedom”

 

            Twelve words. Those twelve words lit a fire in Erevu’s heart. Those words burned in him. Everything in him was calling to join the flame, as if...

            “Hihihihi. Those who understand the poem of the shadowwalker have access to their soul and can follow the path. Listen to me carefully. Know that each shadowwalker has his own path to follow, and each one of those paths is unique. That path is absolute, but solitary and dangerous. A path with no way back. Very few chose that path. It will not give you glory, it will not give you a place in someone’s heart, but it will give you a treasure that most animals will never taste. Total freedom. More then a rogue, more then the bird that crosses the sky. You will be absolutely free. If you wish so I will help you take the first step.”

            Erevu just felt the difference now. He knew why Ronoc couldn’t teach him. That old lady who he just met was offering, but what was she offering exactly?

            “A year!” said Neiko to cut through Erevu thoughts.

            “What do you mean?”

            “A year will be the time of your training, a year you give me your life willingly, but before you have to give every thing away. Love, family, friends. Our only curse is to travel alone and have no one to take you back, have no place to call home. But if you understand our poem, our way of life shouldn’t scare you. If it does, then don’t accept. Not everyone is made to be shadowwalker. Most animals are seeking a home, have a family, want love. They are chained. We are not interested in them. We want freedom, no matter what the price.”

            She looked down. She said those last words with a trembling voice. It was as if age gained suddenly on her. Then she faced Erevu with a big smile. “Not like we can’t have any adventure. I, myself have had quite a few. Hihihihi.” She then took a serious tone. “Make your choice wisely. There is no coming back if you say yes. The only escape will be death. If you say no, I will disappear and you will never have the opportunity again.”

            Erevu knew the answer. He knew it since he heard the twelve words that still burning is chest.

            “Yes.”

            “Very well. Do you have any one to tell adieu?” Neiko began to walk away, Erevu following her.

            “Adieu?”

            “Adieu. It means sayonara. Which means ciao. Adios. Au revoir. Hasta la vista. All of which translate roughly into ‘goodbye.’”

            Erevu gasped as she said the last word. The barren, desolate waste that was the flat top of the mountain suddenly disappeared, to be replaced by a paradise. It wasn’t the savannah he was used to. It was a place that seemed to be constructed, if anything. Waterfalls went down sides of a cliff, one that made circled around a large rock, one that looked like a temple, if anything. It looked specially prepared, as if someone had taken the time to carve out every little detail of the place.

            Erevu looked at it in amazement. “This can’t be real.”

            “What can’t be real?” Neiko asked, the image disappearing completely as she turned around. Erevu was back on the top of the bitterly cold mountain.

            “That—that place.”

            “What place?”

            “You must have seen it.”

            “I did. Didn’t you?”

            “Yes—”

            “Then why did you doubt it was real?”

            “But we were just here.”

            “So?”

            “It’s not possible.”

            “Why not?”

            “It’s—it’s just not.”        

            “Hihihihi. All of you, every time. So naēve.” The place reappeared. “You cling to your perceptions of what’s real. Shadowwalkers do impossible things. Do you think Ronoc is dead? A fall like that would have killed anyone, no?”

            “Yes…”

            Neiko continued to walk on her way. “He is very much alive. A shadowwalker knows when one of their kind has died. You, too, will be able to feel that soon. It is a bond that we share, all of us. We may not have each other there, but we know we are somewhere. One of the few comforts that we have.”

            “I didn’t have anyone as it was,” said Erevu. “I doubt I’ll miss—”

            “You’ll miss a lot more than you expect, cub,” said Neiko. “You will have no one. No one but me, and I doubt you’ll be turning to me for much comfort. Your torturers might even seem kind, when I’ve had my way with you. Hihihihi.”

            Erevu swallowed. He realized he didn’t have the first idea of what a shadowwalker actually was. Ronoc had given him the bare outlines, telling him that it was a pursuer of Freedom, luring Erevu into curiosity through that. Neiko had only given him the poem, the definition, and had made him want to join their ranks even more. But what was this training that he was to go through?

            “So if you truly want to become a shadowwalker, you must learn our ways, our traditions,” said Neiko. “And the very first thing you must do it rid yourself of that horrid personality you have. ‘I doubt I’ll miss anyone—’ Ha! Arrogance. And nothing more than a wall. You can be arrogant when you have something to be arrogant about—and by then you won’t feel like bragging at all. Mir!”

            “What?” asked Erevu, confused.

            “Neiko,” said a cheetah that was sprawled out lazily on a rock. Erevu jumped; he hadn’t noticed the cheetah. And yet blind Neiko had.

            “What are you doing here?” demanded Neiko.

            “I came to see the place. The Code doesn’t forbid it. The lights are turned off so often. I just wanted to see it in daylight for once.”

            “Laziness,” reprimanded Neiko as she started up a stone ramp. The rebuke was soft, however.

            “Freedom,” called back Mir. He looked down at Erevu, smiling. He chuckled at a hidden joke and jumped off the rock where he was. Erevu watched him walking back the way Erevu had just come when he heard Neiko reprimand him.

            “Don’t keep an old lady waiting, cub,” said Neiko. There was none of the softness that had been there for Mir. Erevu ran to catch up to her. He took one last look at Mir, only to see that he was gone. “Cub!” called Neiko again.

            Erevu ran next to her. It was amazing how quickly such an old hyena could walk. “I’m not a cub,” he said angrily.

            “Oh? Then what are you?”

            “A full-grown lion, thank you.”

            “You’re no lion. What kind of lion bows down to torture like you did?”

            The remark hurt. “You think I didn’t try to get out of that?”

            “You obviously didn’t try hard enough. A shadowwalker would never have gone through a minute of that. They restricted your freedom. I’d like to see anyone do that to a shadowwalker.”

            ”Is a shadowwalker really all that great?”

            “Hihihihi. Oh, there are great, great things that a shadowwalker may do. Hihihihi. What is your greatest dream?”

            “I—well, it was to be free. But before that…well, I always did enjoy exploring.”

            “And you don’t know how limited your definition of ‘exploring’ is.

 

 

A month later…

 

            Since he started, Erevu was pushed and pushed. There was no magic in a shadowwalker. A shadowwalker developed his body to the extreme. The first thing Neiko did every morning was make him follow her. And gods, that hag could run. She ran two hours until Erevu begged for mercy, and even then she didn’t stop for a few minutes.

            And could that couldn’t even be called the morning. The sun wasn’t even up when the “jogging” was over, and Neiko was never seemed to be out of breath. Then there was climbing. He climbed a lot; not the one mountain, but all the mountains that were surrounding the mountain where he climbed to on his first step of becoming a shadowwalker. The mountains were very steep. Neiko seemed to choose them not for their height but for the sheer drop they had. One misstep could be deadly. He always did every mountain twice. He was always pushed to complete the second ascent in half the time.

            Finally he had to hunt. He usually liked to hunt for pleasure, not by having someone order him to hunt for his food. At the end of the day he was exhausted; the only advantage he had in hunting was that the night camouflaged his black fur. Was his fur even black? He wasn’t sure anymore, and he didn’t care how he looked after the climbing. He just wanted his meal. The worst part was that if he didn’t catch any, Neiko ate her kill right in front of his nose. It happened twice, but at least in those cases she let him hunt in the morning. He needed his food for the upcoming day, but of course he only received the food after the jogging. He slowly learned to ignore his stomach.

            Then came that day Neiko said, “Let’s go somewhere else.”

            Erevu wasn’t that surprised. He knew he’d done most of the mountains around the area. “Finally,” he answered. He couldn’t wait to explore new places. He was getting used to the mountain view. Not that they weren’t beautiful; some of them been imprinted on his mind forever. But he knew there was so much more out there. Still, something was bothering him. The savannah he saw that day he met Neiko he wanted to see it. He opened his mouth, but closed it; if that old hag said something he knew he had no chance to argue it.

            “You have a day,” said Neiko, lying in the grass.

            “What?” He wasn’t sure he heard her right.

            “I’m old. I need to take a break once in a while, you know. Why don’t you go where you want to for once…to seek that ‘illusion.’”

            That old hag can see right through me. Need a break? Who does she think she’s kidding? I’m the one who needs one.

            “Now go, young one. Say your last goodbyes—and be on time! If you’re late, I’m leaving you behind. Hihihihi.”

            The old hag! You promoted me from cub to young one did you? What do you mean by illusion? You won’t answer will you?

            She smiled as if confirming it.

            I better get going and see for myself.

            Erevu stood up and walked back for the temple where he had spent his entire month with Neiko. He knew he would miss it. Then it suddenly hit him: how did he get back in? Right now he was on top of the mountain, not at the temple. He didn’t know how to get back in on his own. He turned back to Neiko. “How do I...”

            She was gone.

            Of all the…

            She couldn’t even be there when he actually needed her for something. He groaned. He tried to think of any way to get back into the place. He closed his concentrated on the place, trying to imagine it. The rocks…the waterfall that surrounded it completely…the temple that was at the top of the stairs, fire burning on pillars of stone that never went out…

            He practically felt as if he was immersed in the place, in the temple, hearing the fire crackle happily on the pillars, lying next to Neiko in a brief moment of sleep.

            He opened his eyes. He couldn’t believe it. There was the temple, alright, and there he was. But he wasn’t standing on anything. He looked down. There was a black abyss beneath him, the abyss that separated the temple from the never-ending waterfall. Fear immediately ambushed him. He looked back toward the temple and immediately stepped toward it, hoping that he was only stepping on a surface unseen.

            He was stopped by a sudden flash of light erupting from nowhere. An intricate seal appeared, a seal that he didn’t understand. There were ten symbols around the edge of it; one of them he recognized as the moon. There was a mass of indistinguishable forms on the inner part of the seal. All parts of the seal were constantly moving in a frenzied dance. Words sprang into his head as he stared at the seal, unbidden.

 

No one believed her

No one imagined it was true

No one could see her

Midnight haven that was in plain view

She said she’d seen the true darkness

She said she’d gone through the tempest

She felt the air beneath her feet

As she freed herself from all earthly

This is not a dream that you’re living

This of just a world of your own

Take yourself from all that you know

Show you what it feels to hope

Only you can face your tomorrow

Only then will you fly

Only then you will finally find

Entrance to this world

 

            Erevu didn’t understand. He had been here many times before, but now the seal seemed to be saying that he wasn’t allowed in. He hesitantly reached for the seal. He felt warmth as he placed his paw inside the swirling object. He felt a force suddenly take hold of his body, and was propelled backwards.

            The scene changed, showing he was back on the mountain. He felt his body hit the ground and roll. He tried to stand and come out of the roll, coming to a halt on the very edge of the cliff that started the mountain’s descent. He teetered on the edge, feeling his center of balance shift too far away from the mountain. He was going to fall. He suddenly remembered what Ronoc had done. Hadn’t he simply jumped off the mountain? Didn’t Neiko say that he was still alive?

            Erevu mustered his courage and leapt.

            He felt his stomach soar along with him. He could do this. It felt so easy. He felt the wind underneath him. All he had to do was control his body. His sinking, going downward body.

            I hate gravity.

            He felt that the first bump had to be the worst; nothing could beat it. The second trumped it. The third trumped the second. The fourth was quite nice, actually, rather springy. The rest weren’t nice at all.

            He finally came to a stop on a ledge, sliding nearly to the edge, only his claws keeping him anchored as they raked the rock. He sighed and looked back up the mountain. It was a long way up. It might even take him the entire day to climb that high. He suddenly heard a cracking sound and looked down at a spider web going across the rock. He closed his eyes.

            Shit.

            The falling resumed as the rock crumbled away. He rolled painfully down the mountain, all the way down, finally landing in the savannah below. It felt so hot after the cold chill of the mountain. He looked back up at the mountain. He groaned. His body ached all over, and now he had to climb it again.

            You have a day.

            Neiko’s words sprang into his head, horrifying him. It had taken him three days to climb this before. Yes, he had climbed other mountains twice in a day, but they had only been on top of this massive behemoth, and had been only a fraction of the size.

            She would leave him.

            The thought horrified him even more. He had worked so hard to become a shadowwalker, had done so much to learn, to become stronger. He wanted it more than anything. The glimpse he had seen of that life made him feel as if anything else wasn’t worth living for.

            He jumped up and began to run for the mountain. He ran up it, unsurprised at how easily it came to him. This was the easy part; there was very little slope. But slowly the slope increased. He felt it become harder and harder as his body became tired. He fought down the pain, attempting to disconnect his mind from his body’s feelings as he did with his hunger.

            The sun went lower in the sky behind him. He was racing against it. The slope became too steep for simple running anymore. The only possible way to go further was slow climbing. Erevu didn’t bother to rest as he leapt up onto the wall, digging his claws into cracks in the mountain.

            He saw a ledge and jumped for it. The jump would have killed him before; he would have gone short. It would have killed him only a week ago, when he didn’t have control enough to stop and would have tumbled over the side. As it was now, he leapt for it and balanced only seconds before leaping for another ledge.

            The action became faster, swifter as his urgency increased along with his skill. At first it took a few seconds to get his bearings. The time in between the jumps became less. His body began to react better and better, its actions becoming fluid, smooth. The few seconds became only one, and lessened even further as he became more and more confident. Not once did he stumble. The jumps became mere bounces as he leapt off a rock for another, touching it only to gain upward momentum. His mind completed the task effortlessly, wondrously, his body perfectly controlled.

            He reached the top of the mountain, leaping over the top. There was no feeling of pain, no feeling of weariness. He had climbed the entire mountain, and in only hours. He took in a deep breath, and felt weariness begin to come over him slowly.

            Neiko was sitting there, smiling. She walked over and calmly hit Erevu across the face.

            “Ow! What was that for?”

            “For cutting it that fine. Look at that sun! It’s nearly gone.” Erevu turned to look at the sun. She was right. The last rays were just now disappearing over the horizon.

            “You said a day.”

            “Yes, I did. And you did make it back. So what was the climb for? The memories? Hihihihi.”

            “I didn’t mean to fall like that.”

            “You jumped. I saw you. That was a wonderful look on your face. Hihihihi.”

            “But I made it. I fell all the way down, and made it back in a day,” he said proudly. He was certain he was a shadowwalker. This proved it.

            “And do you think that’s difficult for a shadowwalker? It would take far less than a day for a shadowwalker if they decided to work at it. You’re no shadowwalker.” She turned away from him, walking away.

            “Damn it, don’t you have anything decent to say?” yelled Erevu. “I’ve been working this entire time, and all I’ve ever heard is that a shadowwalker could do better! I’ve been doing the most I can! Isn’t anything good enough for you?!”

            Neiko turned back to him, her eyes cold. “Do you think that I believe that you’re nothing? Is that it? Just because someone doesn’t pour out praise for you, that makes them despise you? You have no idea what you’ve accomplished in your short time here.” She walked up to Erevu and put one of her hyena paws on the side of his face. “I’m very proud of you, Erevu,” she said, her tone warm. “You’ve done more than I expected, and no matter how hard and unfairly I’ve pushed you, you’ve done it. You have more than earned my respect. But that doesn’t mean that I should tell you, and ruin a perfectly good animal! For all the gods, young one, I’ve been trying to destroy that ego of yours, not buoy it. What do you think you would have done if I had rewarded you? Hmm?” Erevu was silent. “I taught you to answer questions.”

            “I would have been proud,” he said quietly.

            “And you have nothing to be truly proud of. You have made wonderful progress, and you have my respect for that. You don’t know how many come here and have to be killed, only because they wanted to work for it, but not enough. You want to a shadowwalker, Erevu, and I know it. You need to accept praise when it comes, but you should never feel that you deserve it. It’s not the shadowwalker way. I’ve told you, it’s a lonely life. There are many things that we have done, and we will never be thanked for. We don’t expect it. And neither should you. You have to learn to love that anonymity and solitude, or else you’ll be miserable for the rest of your days.”

            Neiko brought her paw down and looked back toward the barren waste that was the mountain. “We’ve spent long enough here. Come on, young one. You have places to go.”

 

 

            Fortunately Neiko did not find any challenges for the few next days. Of course she always chose the hardest way between two points, but it wasn’t as challenging as the mountain Erevu did last month that gave him the time to heal. He realised that back there, climbing up the mountain the first time, two of his legs got broken. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing, no?

            During those few days of travel Erevu saw some of the most beautiful things in his life. Once we were next to a lake and he got to see the dance of the blue moon. This lake was surrounding by spiky vine and poison roses, black roses that would spread pollen on you if you touched them, and put you into a coma for days, usually fatal. Neiko had no problem going between them. It was the most natural thing in the world for her. Erevu, on the other paw, had to keep his breath, or he was a goner.

            When they finally arrived at the lake they drank and took a rest. It was much earlier to rest than normal, but who was Erevu to complain? He fell asleep. Then Neiko woke him up. The moon was up and he noticed that a blue powder mist surrounded us. It was coming out of the roses, but they were different; they were all open, and their color was blue night, with a wave of silver that reflected the color of the moon.

            But what was more incredible was the lake. It was reflecting the moon; not with her silver glow, but a blue like the roses. On the top of the lake fireflies were flying around and the fish were jumping, trying to catch them. To finish that beautiful painting, the scales of the fish were glowing with the color of the silver moon and the blue moon. Erevu wanted to say something, but he couldn’t.

            Neiko did. “Erevu, do you know why we are called shadowwalkers?’’ He didn’t answer; she was about to, anyway. “You know who is our opposite, don’t you?” She had mentioned it once, but Erevu still didn’t say a word. “The Mercenaries of Chaos are the same as us. They went through the same training, save a few differences. But they stand for Afriti. We, on the other paw, live in the darkness, look into the darkness, and try to find the purest light and whiten it. We don’t ask for the truth; we find the truth. We don’t go to Hell or Heaven. We go to Purgatory and escape from it. We don’t make justice, we fight for ourselves and for what we see and believe. We find secrets that no one should know, and that’s why animals fear us.

            “Elchakra, the legendary shadowwalker, told us herself after coming back from the border of Heaven and Hell. The Light and the Darkness are inseparable, but they use all their time to complain over nothing but a few toys. The eternity can seem long, when you are stuck in heaven too long. Now this, what do you think of this?”

            Erevu wasn’t too sure what to say, so he said the first thing that crossed his mind. “What?”

            “This place. The black roses, the blue moon, the glowing fish?”

            Erevu thought about it a few seconds and answered. “There are two answers to your question; the scientific answer and the one of the poem. Which one do you one first?”

            Neiko stared at his while he was thinking of his answer to answer her next answer. “You developed a style of your own, hey? That seems arrogant. But I’ll tag along for this one. Start with the scientific.”

            “The moon creates an illusion with the reflection of the water, and the night makes the colors, and the roses react to it.” That was an answer that Erevu could give easily, thanks to the elder of his old pride.

            “And the second one?”

 

“By the moon

The flowers bloom

Revealing the true nature

For only those

Of the night

Those who don’t wait for the light.

Come and see

Good nature dance,

Seek the Goddess of the Blue Moon.”

 

 

Three days later

 

            “So I have two days off?” Something was fishy about that.

            “I have friends I want to see before dying,” said Neiko, “and I’m getting old so…” That was the fishiest part of her story. Erevu was about to protest when she interrupted, pointing behind him. “Quick, look! A flying elephant!”

            What an old trick. And Erevu fell for it. He turned back, and Neiko was gone, that old hag…

 

Just behind a hill

 

            “HIHIHI! I can’t believe he fell for that. So how did you find us, Ronoc?”

            Ronoc was standing there just next to Neiko. “How did you know I was there? And to answer your question, I wasn’t far from here. I had quite an idea of where you were going. And I thought it would be interesting to see Erevu’s progress.”

            “Oh, you got attached to him, hihihi. And for your question, there is still of few trick that an old lady keep.”

            “A master and a student should never be separated. You know that.”

            “What are you complaining about? I’m not far from him.”

            “True, so why did lead him there, you know that… Oh, I see…” said Ronoc with an evil grin. “Is he still—?”

            “Yes.”

            “Mind if I enjoy the show with you?”

            “Not at all. Hihi. It might turn to be even more interesting than seeing two male lions kissing.”

            “How can you see? You’re blind.”

            “Bats are blind, too. What’s your point?”

            “So you do keep a few secrets, hey?”

            “Shhh, a lioness is coming. It’s going to get interesting. Hihihi.”

 

 

            Again, Erevu thought. She tricks me again. I can’t believe this. Why can’t she just be decent for once?

            His attention was distracted by a lioness walking purposefully toward him. “You, male!”

            “Huh?”

            “Where did you come from?”

            “Uh…just…nowhere.”

            The lioness seemed to ignore the answer. “How many are with you?”

            “Uh, well, there was this hyena, but she kind of disappeared.”

            “What kind of lion travels with a hyena?”

            “That’s a very good question. And there’s not really that good of an answer. She just…ditched me.”

            “There are no others? No more lions like yourself?”

            “No.”

            The lioness smiled. “Sister.”

            “What? I’m a guy, can’t you—” Erevu’s sentence was cut short by a blow to his head, perfectly aimed. He sank to the ground. He rolled feebly onto his side. A different lioness was swimming in and out of his vision. Then everything went black.

 

 

            “…Well, I think he’s kind of cute.”

            “I wonder if it’s really as good as you say.”

            “Yes, you weren’t here for the last one, were you?”

            “I was a cub, ma’am.”

            “And just look at that body…mm, this’ll be good.”

            “Hey, hey, he’s waking up!”

            Erevu’s vision began to swim into focus. There were several lionesses around him, around fifteen. One of them leaned a little closer to him. “Hello, there,” she said. Erevu began to roll onto his stomach, groaning as his head seemed to be lit on fire. He felt a paw on his shoulder push him back down onto his back. “Careful, there. We hit you quite hard.”

            “Where…am I?” Erevu asked.

            “In our den,” the lioness said sweetly. She appeared to be the leader. She turned to the others and said, “The painkiller.” A lioness stepped forward with some leaves in her mouth. The leader took them and placed them on Erevu’s lips gently. “Eat this,” she said. “For the pain. We certainly don’t want anything slowing you down.” There were giggles around the den.

            Erevu brought the leaves into his mouth with his tongue and swallowed. He bolted up as he turned onto his stomach, feeling almost as if there was a small explosion inside of him. The pain was gone instantly. “Whoa.”

            “It works quickly, doesn’t it?” asked the leader. Erevu sat up and had her place a paw gently on the side of his face. “Imani got you in just the right spot, of course. She always was good at aiming. She and Dene brought you to our little home.”

            “Look, I didn’t mean to trespass—”

            “Oh, no one was trespassing,” said the leader with smile, bringing down her paw. “They brought you here.”

            “I would have come if you just asked.”

            “We couldn’t be sure of that, after all. Besides, we couldn’t let you know where we live. That would be—unthinkable.”

            “Er, can I speak to your king?”

            Disapproving glares echoed around the den. There were even some growls. “Relax, girls,” said the leader. “He’s from the outside. He can’t be expected to know.” She turned back to Erevu. “I am the king, if you want to use that filth-ridden title. I am Inaya, queen of these lands, and ruler of the Blessed Ones.”

            “Huh? What Blessed Ones?”

            Inaya smiled. She began to circle Erevu as she asked, “What was your home like?”

            “I don’t want to talk about it,” said Erevu angrily.

            “Oh? You don’t want to share?” Inaya asked sweetly as she brushed against Erevu slightly.

            “No. It was a horrible place.”

            “Really? Why?”

            “Because of the king,” said Erevu. “He made me—”

            “Because of the king. Don’t you see? It was the king’s fault.”

            “Yeah, I know—”

            “The king was a male! Males know nothing of ruling! Males are nothing!” Growls met Inaya’s words, but not angry ones. They were growls that were impassioned.

            “You may want to keep in mind who you’re talking to,” said Erevu.

            “Males are nothing!” declared Inaya to his face. “They bring nothing but evil! They are nothing but the cold, cruel-hearted beasts that gave rise to this world! What have they done for us females? Nothing! Dominated us, used us, cast us aside! You come to our prides, kill the ruler, and then kill our cubs! You have never realized how it is we who are supreme, we who are the true power behind every kingdom! There is no such thing as a kingdom with out a pride, is there not?”
            “No, but—”

            “We females have been cast out by you males—”

            “I don’t have anything against lionesses—”

            “You are a male!”

            “That doesn’t mean I want to ‘dominate’ you—”

            “All of you do!”

            “That’s like saying we all want to rule!”

            “And you don’t?”

            “No!”

            The word created a gasp through the lionesses. “Do you mean that?” asked Inaya quietly.     “Yes,” said Erevu. “What kind of idiot would want to have all the responsibilities of a kingdom?”

            “So,” said Inaya slowly, a smile coming across her face, “do you believe in our cause?”

            “What cause?”

            “The complete subservience of all males, of course.”

            “What?”

            “To answer your question, we are the Blessed Ones. We, who have seen the light. We, who will never allow any male to rule over us again, to dominate us again!” She paused as she turned around to Erevu with a smile. “Excepting, of course, one area.”

            Erevu thought it was best that he didn’t voice his opinions about her sanity.

            Inaya walked close to Erevu’s face, much closer than he liked. “We may despise you males,” she said, “but we still need you. For something that I know you enjoy just as much as us.”

            Erevu’s eyes opened wide. She couldn’t be saying what he thought she was. He looked at her jewel-green eyes, and saw her smiling at him in a way that he never would have believed. “Inaya…”

            “You want it, don’t you? Well, take it. We need cubs, lion. And you are going to give them to us.” Her smile grew a little wider. “All of us.”

            “Inaya, I’m…I’m…I’ve never…um…”

            “What?”

            “I’m a virgin.”

            Inaya’s smile grew even wider. “I don’t think this is something that any of us has had. What are you waiting for, male?”

            “My name is Erevu.”

            “Very well, Erevu.” Inaya leaned close to him and gave him a passionate kiss. “Take me,” she whispered into his ear.

            “Inaya, look, it’s not right—”

            “Take me.”

            “Inaya, I don’t want to!”

            “Do you not find me…attractive?”

            “It’s not that, it’s just…I don’t want to do it. Not like this.”

            “You’re going to give us cubs, male. Whether you want to or not.” Inaya smiled, waiting. “Well?”

            “I won’t.”

            “Oh, you will.” Inaya launched herself at Erevu, pushing him to the ground as she licked his face wildly. Erevu tried to hit her. Inaya blocked it easily, as if she had seen it coming. She had, of course. All of the lionesses knew how to fight superbly. “Feisty, are we?” She pressed the leg to the ground painfully as she kissed him again, rubbing her body against his. She drew her head back again. “We’ll just have to restrain you, then.”

            She looked up at the lionesses. One immediately placed herself across Erevu’s chest, pinning him there. Two more pinned his forelegs above his head. Erevu could see Inaya as he thrashed wildly, trying to free himself. He felt her straddle him and position herself. Erevu thrashed harder. Then suddenly, he felt a wonderful feeling as Inaya gasped. He couldn’t believe it. He was being raped.

            Erevu tried to find a plan to get out of there. Unfortunately for him he had some problems focusing with a lioness between his legs. No, Erevu thought, I have been tortured by my own pride, I climbed the highest mountain I’ve seen in my life to become a shadowwalker, to be free, and day after day I have trained to the point of my legs being unable to hold me and for what? Being controlled by another pride? No, I won’t allow it!

            Motivation is a wonderful thing. Erevu had learned it since he started his training and had learned how to control his adrenaline. Before the lionesses knew what happen they were all on top of each other. How did Erevu escape? The lionesses had no clue.

            I guess I have been in worse situations before, he thought, looking at the eleven lionesses in front of him. Then he noticed a little platform just big enough for him to stand on. It was high, but he guessed that with a second jump off the wall, it was possible to reach it. His experience in climbing might be useful after all.

            He jumped on the wall and managed to grab hold of the platform with his forepaws and finally used his claws to pull himself up. Some lionesses tried to reach Erevu but they weren’t close enough to catch him, even when they tried to dog-pile on top of each other. They almost managed to get him, but Erevu just pushed off one that was just a bit too close, and she broke her leg in her fall.

            “How did you manage to get up there?” Erevu turned his head to Inaya and gave her his I don’t know look. “You’ll have to come down from there some day. Don’t forget we have unfinished business.”

            Erevu rolled his eyes. “Sorry, I usually like to finish my business, but I don’t like to be pushed.”

            “You arrogant little…”

            Lionesses that Erevu recognized as the ones that knocked him out went to Inaya’s side.

“Calm down, Inaya, calm down. He’ll have to get down from there sometime. And besides we have nice view from here.” The other lionesses giggled. Erevu tried to squeeze his back legs a little.

            Erevu waited until every lioness was asleep except three that were guarding the den’s exit. They were talking between themselves in low voices. What were they talking about? Erevu thought it was best not to know. He would have to be going for that lioness.

            He counted on three jumps off the walls. From the wall he pounced on one of the lionesses who happened to be in his way. Before the alarm was given, he was already out of the den. He knew he couldn’t beat them, but he was faster and was used to running. It was habit; the few hours of running before sunset could be of use after all.

 

 

            “Damn it, where did he go?” Inaya had divided the lionesses in groups of two. Of course, since there was an odd number of lionesses, she decided to be alone. After all, she had unfinished business with Erevu, and if she found him, she would—

            “That way.” Inaya looked up to see a hyena in a tree, pointing east.

            “How did you manage to…” began Inaya, confused. “How do I know you’re telling the truth? Weren’t you with him?” The hyena gave a little laugh and disappeared, but Inaya knew she was around, and heard “Males are bastards.”

            That was all that Inaya needed to hear.

 

 

            Erevu was hiding in the tall grass, another trick Neiko taught him. He remembered he had to hide is presence at least five feet away from his prey when he was hunting. If is prey noticed him before five feet, Neiko would just stand between his prey and him, keeping him from it, which would mean he had to do it again, or no food.

            He noticed Inaya a little farther away. He crawled in the grass until she was just four feet away from him, and jumped on her before she knew what was happening. Erevu was on her stomach, his claws on her neck.

            “Doesn’t it feel like déją vu? Except on a point, I have the upper paw.” Inaya tried to move and make him lose balance, but it was impossible. If Erevu pressed just a little harder, her neck would crack, and if she made him, he’d slice her neck just enough; she would only die slower. If a male didn’t know how to hunt, he knew how to fight.

            “You…” Inaya started but was cut off by Erevu licking her.

            “Hun, hun. You are in no position to make threats. But here is the deal. You need a cub, and I like to finish what I started. If you’re lucky, you’ll have something to remember me by.” Erevu gave her another lick.

            “I’d rather die then be controlled by a male! I’ll kill you the first chance I get!” Erevu licked her again. She tried to bite him, but Erevu moved his head in time to escape her jaws.

            “That’s not true,” he answered between two licks. “If you really want to die you just have to move. But I know what you want to do. You want me.”  He licked her again. “You like this position that you’ve refused for so long. You still like this deep down, to have a male who is willing to have you. That is the scientific answer.”

            He kissed her again. She was so warm. He saw hesitation before she leaned up slowly to give him a lick. Erevu smiled. “And the other one?” Inaya asked.

            Erevu kissed her again. “The answer of the poem will be given by the night.”

 

 

A little farther…

 

            “Are you sure he’s a virgin?” Ronoc raised an eyebrow and turned to Neiko.

            “Not anymore, hihihi,” answered Neiko.

            Ronoc breathed out finally. “I can’t believe you would have let him be raped.”

            Neiko’s faces looked serious. “As a shadowwalker he can let himself be in control. This will only develop his spirit. Besides, what kind of shadowwalker would let him be raped? And if I recall, you wanted to join the show, too.”

            Ronoc was looking concerned for Erevu. “He is not a shadowwalker yet, and besides, how are you going to explain that to him?”

            Neiko look at the sky. “He is far from ready to notice us like that. He has talent, but his training has just started.”

            Ronoc nodded in agreement. “You have to teach him how to fight. He’s pathetic."

            “You are right, Ronoc, on that point. I never thought he was so far behind, hihihihi. He has strength, but no technique.”

            With that Ronoc disappeared.

 

 

            Erevu lied on his back, staring at the sky. Inaya lied sleepily next to him. “That was wrong,” she said. “It was wrong. Males are meant to serve…” Her voice trailed off as Erevu leaned close and kissed her. She turned to look at him.

            He nuzzled her. “You’re denying yourself pleasure.” He purred as he continued to nuzzle her.

            Inaya rolled away. “I shouldn’t be having that pleasure.”

            “And why not? I enjoyed it, you enjoyed it. Or are you going to say that you got nothing from it at all?” he asked with a smile.

            “Males only exist to produce cubs. Nothing more.” It sounded like a rote response. It also sounded as if she was having trouble believing it.

            “You know,” said Erevu slightly, “we aren’t considered to be worth something if you just use us for your pleasure.”

            She turned back to him. “Then why do I feel like this? I don’t understand.”

            “Feel like what?”

            “That you’re actually…decent.”

            Erevu’s face broke into a grin. “Not every male wants to take over a pride. Believe it or not, we know lionesses are animals like everyone else.”

            We’re animals, you’re not.”

            Erevu was taken aback by the statement. “Well, excuse me.”

            “But it just doesn’t seem right.”

            “How many males have you met in your life? Honestly.”

            “Three.”

            “Including me?”

            “Yes.”

            “And…well, how many times have you…”

            “Five.”

            “Including me?”

            “No.”

            Erevu raised his eyebrows in surprise. “And this is different?”

            “Yes. I mean, the first two times, I was young, and…and eager for it, and the same for the next male. But you . . . I feel bad that we’ll have to kill you.”

            Erevu placed a paw on her shoulder and gently forced her back down to the ground as he said, “Do you really think you will?”

            “They’re looking for you right now.”

            “They won’t find me. Because if they do, it’s your neck. Just a little incentive.”

            “I fail to see how that’s going to happen.”

            “What if a lioness just happened to come here? Right now? With me, on top like this?” he asked as he began to slip a foreleg and a hind leg onto her.

            Inaya began to push him away. “It won’t happen.” It was reluctant, hesitant.

            He gently pushed her paw down and kissed her. “It could. But it won’t. I’ll leave, and you’ll go back to hating males just as much as before.” He licked her again on the neck and heard her soft moan.

            “I—I don’t hate you,” she said.

            “You will when I leave.”

            She leaned up and nipped his neck. “Don’t,” she said. It was almost a plea. “If I lose you…”

            “Well,” he said, “you have me now.” The mood was perfect. She laid her head back, begging for him to kiss her again. They both were more than ready. Just a little more encouragement…

            “You’re coming with me.” Erevu felt a sharp pain in his ear and realized someone was biting into it. “Virgin indeed,” Neiko said through clenched teeth.

            “Ow! Hey, that hurts more than it tickles!” Erevu was dragged off Inaya by the ear and was taken into the grass.

            Neiko let go. “We’re leaving.”

            “You had to come right then, didn’t you?” said Erevu angrily.

            “Well, it just seemed like the perfect time, hihihihi,” said Neiko. “You’d said goodbye…”

            “Right then!”

            “Am I going to have to watch you every time a lioness is around?”

            “I was cooped up in a cave half my life. Remember that.”

            “What I’d give for an animal to look at me like that,” said Neiko. “I was thinking I’d have to drag her off you, hihihihi. Besides, I did you a favour. What do you think she’ll think when you don’t come back? She’ll come up with thinking she’s madly ‘in love’ because you took the time to seduce her instead of just taking her. And she’ll hate you for never being there when she wants you there.”

            “She hates all males,” pointed out Erevu.

            “And now more than ever. And you more than any other. What do you think will happen to your cubs if one turns out to be a male? She probably won’t have any second thoughts about killing it.”

            Erevu was silent.

            “I’m telling you this because you need to realize the consequences,” said Neiko, her voice somewhat softer. “Cubs usually aren’t males. You may not have even given her cubs. But you’ll never know. The only thing that you could do if you go back is put her life in danger if she protects you, or yours if she hates you like you know she will. You need to understand that there are consequences to actions, young one. I know you want to change things like that, but it’s not the shadowwalker way. You will never get credit for anything you do. I’ve told you, a shadowwalker covets his privacy; it’s the only thing he has. Very few of us have ever had a mate, and those that do have very understanding ones. We will leave them alone with no warning and the knowledge that the vows most likely will not be honoured, and come back only when we please. And we outlive them. I’m over one hundred years old, young one. I could have had over ten mates. And I’ve yet to see the usefulness of having one.”

            Erevu was still silent.

            Neiko turned around to look at him. “Smile, Erevu. There will be others.”

            “I barely got to know her,” he said quietly.

            “And you shouldn’t hold that against what you did. You made her very happy for a short period of time, and you made her challenge her beliefs. That pride’s way will lead to nothing but chaos. You did a decent thing.”

            “It doesn’t seem that way, though. I’ve left nothing of value with her.”

            Neiko sighed. She wasn’t going to get through to him. His head was filled with realization of what she had told him. He would wallow in what he did now, something a shadowwalker never did. “Run,” she said.

            “What?”

            “I said ‘run!’” she said, much louder than necessary. “Run!”

            “But—where?”

            “Straight!”

            “But how long?” asked Erevu, confused.

            “Until I say to stop!” Neiko screamed. “Now, run! Go! Now!” Erevu started to run away. “Faster!

            He ran faster, running all out. He thought it wouldn’t last that long. Just a few minutes, just long enough for Neiko to blow off her anger. He realized he must have been doing something wrong. He had just been worried about Inaya, about how she would—

            Faster! Do—not—slow—down!

            Erevu didn’t bother to look for Neiko. He simply ran harder. The landscape rushed by, but he continued to run, putting all of his effort into it. The sun rose, going high into the sky. He became exhausted. He had no idea he could run this far this fast. He tried to stop twice near a pond for water, only to hear a scream of “Do not stop!” He had no idea before of how thoroughly ingrained her voice had become in his head. The mere order made him comply.

            The sun fell in the sky. The sky went dark, completely black from cloud cover. His vision flagged. He had long ago stopped being able to run completely. He continued on, certain that Neiko meant to kill him from this. He tripped over a root and fell. He lied there for a moment before he began to try to push himself up. It was painful.

            He rose about halfway and felt a paw pushing him back down gently. “Rest,” said Neiko. Erevu flopped back down to the ground. His eyes shifted up to her. She was out of breath, but not too much. She smiled down at him. “That was truly amazing, young one.”

            Erevu grunted eloquently.

            “I didn’t expect anyone to be able to do that. No one that wasn’t a shadowwalker, at any rate.” She seemed unhappy. “I probably shouldn’t have put you through that.”

            “I am going to be so sore in the morning,” moaned Erevu.

            “But you stopped thinking about her,” said Neiko.

            Erevu blinked in surprise. “Yes.” Yes, he had. The running had washed the memory from his mind, at least temporarily. Now it finally came back.

            “It’s not good to think on such things too hard, young one,” said Neiko. “It’s only another form of chains you must break from. You must not let anything keep you from your freedom.”

            “I can’t care?”

            “You can care. You can love. But you cannot let the love of others keep you. You are your master, not them.”

            Erevu was finding it difficult to stay awake. “I know,” he said sleepily.

            Neiko dug her claws into his shoulder. “Don’t sleep. Not now. You don’t need it now.”

            “Shut up,” said Erevu. “I just want to sleep. You’ve run me all day, just shut up.”

            Neiko smiled. “I thought you might never say that. The others have always said it much sooner. ‘Shut up, hyena.’ And they ended up dead.”

            “So you’re going to kill me,” muttered Erevu.

            “Oh, no. They couldn’t make it through the training. You don’t need sleep, young one. Every animal has an inner strength, just waiting to be unleashed. But only the shadowwalkers have managed to use it fully, us and the Mercenaries of Chaos. And it is a rare one on either of our sides that have managed to tame it fully. I’ve been waiting to teach you this. I wasn’t sure if you could handle it. I still don’t know. But we might as well start. As Ronoc has said, you need to learn this soon.”

            “Learn what?”

            “To use your body in ways you would never have thought of. To do simple things, such as what you did today without tiring. To acquire skills for battle, skills that will almost definitely give you the upper paw if you learn them well. But you must immerse yourself in the power, and not fight it.”

            “Why?”

            “Because it will kill you. The power isn’t just some tame cub, waiting for you to call upon it and tell it what to do. It is a beast, a monster, and it will do its best to conquer you when you wake it. You must learn to work with it, and you must always let it know that you are the master. It’s…it’s one of the worst things shadowwalkers have to do, destroying the ones that have lost control. This inner strength is what makes a shadowwalker a shadowwalker. When this essence rages out of control, we must destroy it. There is no other way.”

            “You leave an animal without its power?” asked Erevu. “Just strip it away?”

            “It’s worse than that. No shadowwalker can stand to live without his power. He is stripped of his power, his rank of a shadowwalker, everything—even his sanity. We must have this power. Every animal must. An animal with their power may or may not be sane, but one without certainly won’t be, even if they don’t know what it is they are missing.”

            Erevu found his breathing had quickened. “Let me wait to do this,” he said. “Let me wait until morning. I need to rest.”

            “You need to do it now,” said Neiko. “I had not planned this, but there is no other time we can do this. You have already started later than many of my other pupils. Your training is what will awaken your power. If you do not do it now, it will consume you. It will sneak up on you and devour you. It’s not a pleasant thing, at least to watch. I don’t want to see that happen to you. You have much promise, young one. I don’t want to be the one to have to kill you.”

            “I don’t want to go insane,” said Erevu.

            “You won’t,” said Neiko. “I know that. Now stand up. Close your eyes.”

            “Master…Neiko, please.”

            “Up, cub. I won’t let that happen to you.”

            Erevu got up. He looked at Neiko, aware that his face must be showing his fear. She smiled and brought a gentle paw up to his face. “I believe in you, young one,” she said gently. She brought the paw down and said, “Close your eyes.” Erevu did so. “Now look inside. Look into your body, not your mind. Your power is there. Your power comes from your body. Your mind is only there to help guide. All power comes from the body. No other place. Your power comes from your body. Look inside.”

            For any animal that had not gone through what Erevu had, the exercise would have been futile. They would have found nothing. But Erevu’s body had been strengthened, his senses sharpened. It was akin to a bird lying on an egg, keeping it warm, making the chick form inside. But above all, Erevu was exhausted. Not just tired, but completely worn out. Standing took more effort than he thought he could bear.

            He looked inside, searching unconsciously for strength. Something to assist him in his weariness, something to strengthen him. He became more and more aware of his body, of his every part of it, of his breathing, of his heartbeat.

            And then he came upon it. It wasn’t a fire like the poem Neiko had recited had started in him. It wasn’t like it at all. It was a growl, almost, the growl of a slumbering beast that had been awoken. Erevu’s body felt the tiredness ebb away slightly. He went closer to the creature he had found, not knowing what it even was. All he knew was that he wanted to see more of it.

            Suddenly he felt a more pronounced rumble and felt his eyes fly open. His weariness was gone. He saw Neiko in front of him. “It is wonderful, isn’t it?” she asked.

            “What—is it?”

            “It’s everything you’ve ever heard about. Courage. Inner strength. Heart. All of that is one thing. An animal feels fear easily. Animals are skittish things. But that, that is what gives an animal everything that is considered noble. It is tapped into by every animal, most of them never knowing what it is. But it can do much more than just give emotional strength. Much, much more.” Neiko smiled. “But that will wait until morning. You are going to be kind to an old lady, and let her rest while you keep watch. I’ve used up all my power today just trying to keep up with you.”

            “It goes away that quickly?”

            “Oh, no. Hyenas tire easier than lions. The power you possess is far greater than mine ever will be. But you must remember, young one, I’ve been busy with you for quite some time now. I need a rest. So just sit down and guard.”

            “Yes, ma’am,” Erevu said, doing so.

            “And young one?” said Neiko before she laid her head down.

            “Yes?”

            “Don’t probe any further until I’m ready in the morning. I mean that more than you know.”

            “Yes, ma’am,” said Erevu gravely. Of course he wouldn’t. He liked his sanity in the state it was.

 

 

Neiko slept all through the night, and for what seemed like the entire next day. She didn’t rise again until the sun had set. Erevu had been with her too long to not see that she was simply lying there, awake. He wasn’t going to rise to the bait and try to take a catnap, either. He felt no need to. The power, whatever it was, had filled him with a warm glow, one that seemingly gave him all the strength in the world. It was tempting to explore its limits, but insanity was something he didn’t want at all.

            Finally Neiko sat up, making a show of stretching. “That was nice. And how do you feel?”

            “Wonderful,” said Erevu.

            Neiko smiled. “And you didn’t go any further all this time? I’m impressed.”

            “How do you know I didn’t?” asked Erevu slyly.

            “Animals behave differently when they’ve been deeper into their power. You’re still just a cub.” Erevu felt a growl of annoyance escape him. “Oh, I’m sorry. ‘Young one.’”

            “When, if ever, do I become a shadowwalker?”

            “You’ve taken the first step. This power is everything to us. It gives us strength that ordinary animals don’t have. I could have killed you when you first came, and very quickly, did you know that? Simply snapped your neck in my jaws, if I managed to get them around that big neck of yours. Hihihihi.”

            “And you could have done it because of this—power?” The thought was ridiculous, but now that Erevu felt what she was talking about, it didn’t seem all that crazy. He eagerly wanted to test its limitations.

            “Yes. But you are new to this. I don’t want you to go too far with it. Simple things tonight. No real shows.” Erevu groaned. “Yes, yes, complain. You will begin to find your true powers later. Maybe tomorrow. But not after a good, long rest.”

            “I can handle it,” said Erevu. “Perfectly.”

            Neiko stared at him for a moment before hanging her head and shaking it slowly. “Your ego is something you must overcome.”

            “But look at me,” said Erevu proudly. “This power could let me do anything, it feels like.”

            “That power will thrive on you if you are not careful. I believe you have a natural talent for it, yes. Look at your coat. Darker and darker. Remember how it used to be almost golden? And just from a little while in training, it’s brown-black. And if you continue, it will turn black, night-sky black. But that ego must go, or else you’ll slip into white. I’ve seen it happen before. The Mercenaries of Chaos have adepts as well, pure white adepts. This is where your training matters. You must control yourself even more than you did before, and even more rigorously. I will not have another one of my pupils become a Mercenary. I warn you, young one, you must control it, you must not slip that way, or I will kill you without hesitation.”

            Erevu was shocked by her bluntness. She had made good on all her previous threats. He had no doubt she would do the same for this one. She turned to him, though, and smiled. “But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” She took a big breath. “Hihihihi. But before that let me tell you the true nature of our powers. You see, the beast that lives inside you is the source of your power, but foremost, it is your soul. Your true identity lies in it. That why each power of a shadowwalker is different.”

            “So it’s magic?” asked Erevu.

            “We use don’t use any magic, we only use the force that lives deep inside us. When you truly use that power, you use your soul. If your heart and your mind are not one when you start to use it, your soul will devour your mind and drive you insane while it exits your body, little by little, and in the end it will disappear, and no god will be able to recreate it or save it. But the assets that you gain from your soul if you control it are amazing. Call it and it will emerge from your body and you will be able to use its power, so long as your heart and mind are one.”

            “It’s an actual being?”

            “Yes. A true being, one that you will—hopefully—never be parted from. But you must not tell your true name, your soul’s name, to anyone. If you do and they kill you, they will be able to steal your soul and your power. But don’t forget, when you change, your soul changes as well, and this is the reason why your power will evolve. When your power calls you for the first time, name him, but at that moment you take a bet with your soul that gambles with your entire afterlife. If you die, your soul will disappear if your heart and mind are not one. You will disappear. But if you are one with yourself, you will be reborn in a body that will know no barrier. But now take a few hours of sleep. Your training will now—intensify. Hihihi.”

 

 

            “I guess, it’s about time you learn how to fight,” dropped Neiko in the morning.

            “I thought you would show me more about my power. Besides, I already know how to fight,” Erevu retorted.

            “Really? I didn’t see that.”

            “Don’t worry, it’s normal; you’re blind.”

            “Where’s that respect I had last night? The ‘master’ stuff, you know.”

            “You told me I had no master. I happen to learn faster than you think.”

            “And respect for your elders?”

            “Did I ever have any?”

            “Odd, because you got beat by an elder last time. And a female.”

            “She surprised me.”

            “A shadowwalker would never let himself be surprised like that. You must always be on your guard, young—“

            “Young one,” Erevu added before she finished. He knelt slightly, ready to fight.

            Bring it on old hag. I’m probably going to be beat up in a second, but at least I will see for once what you can do.

            “But before that there are a few things you must do.”

            Shoot.

            Neiko took Erevu to the jungle that was visible from there.

 

 

            “So you want me to climb that tree?” Erevu was facing a huge tree of about a few hundred feet, with no branch whatsoever except on the top.

            “What did you say? Come closer; I’m afraid my hearing is getting worse with age.” Erevu couldn’t believe how Neiko suddenly managed to be climbing the tree. It didn’t even look like she was climbing. Walking seemed to be closer.

            I guess it better then jumping off a cliff. Alright, if she did it, I can, hey? Ok, first put out the claws and start with the left one to climb. Slowly but surely Erevu manage to climb about a tenth of the tree.  Neiko was just next to him, upside-down. Erevu muscles never shook violently from the effort. His muscles were killing him.

            “Is it how far you can go?” asked Neiko with a smile. Erevu simply jerked head to confirm it.

            I can’t go farther, and she went to the top and now is just standing upside-down like it was nothing. And how the hell will I go down?

            “Go slowly,” Neiko answered to his silent question. Erevu took just one step back and slid. The fall felt like a second, but the moment right before his claw ripped out of the tree felt like forever. Just before Erevu was sure he would feel the impact, something caught him. It was Neiko. She was holding him like a mother holds her cub while walking except for two little differences: they weren’t holding a cub twice their size or from a tree while facing upside-down.

            “What part of slowly don’t you understand? Hihihihi.” Once she let go of Erevu she just jump next to him. “Don’t look down on yourself, little one. Your training has just intensified. I needed to see your limits. You went high. That tree could have only been done by a student at the end of his training. From now on, we will climb a tree every day like this, and one more thing, hihihihi.”

 

 

            “What do you think of the water?”

            Erevu looked at the river made from melting snow from mountains. “It must be cold.” And cold seemed to be an understatement.

            “The current is strong enough to make any one swim in this river be carried away by it and die. Keep that vine in your mouth or you’re dead.” Neiko was holding a vine in her mouth. Erevu took it.

            “What for?” Erevu feared the answer.

            Neiko just jumped into the water and swam, swimming as if the current wasn’t even there. She swam, making a circle.

            “If you want to know, yes it is cold, but a shadowwalker plays with the forces of nature. They use the strength of Mother Nature against her, and play with it.” She came out of the water.

“Your turn.”

            Erevu looked at the water and put a paw in it. He felt like a thousand needles were piercing his paw. He jumped in the water. It didn’t take four seconds before the current swept him away. Neiko used the vine to pull him back to shore.

            “Again” was the only thing she said.

            After four times Erevu gave up, his body frostbitten all over.

            “It’s impossible!” Erevu screamed with what felt like the last breath he had.

            “Don’t worry. Nobody has done it the first time, and most of the animals gave up long before they got this far. Take this.” Neiko push a few herbs in front of him. “It will help.”

            The herb tasted bad, but the shivering stopped and he felt better. But Neiko’s next sentence had the same effect as the bath he just took.

            “Hihihihi, it is outstanding, the number of rivers between here and the Pridelands.”

 

 

            Erevu slowly became better at the tasks Neiko had assigned him. He had felt cold before, but only on the mountain, where he could exercise to warm up. In the river, there was no way to escape the all-encompassing cold. He slowly began to realize that it wasn’t quite water that he was battling against, but just the cold. He fought against the cold, letting the water wash over him, retreating into his mind and letting the water wash over him. He slowly learned to ignore the cold.

            He wasn’t about to let Neiko beat him. That was what the tests almost seemed like, a personal challenge from her. Erevu trained harder, going past what even Neiko had expected. She woke up one night, only to be scared out of her wits to not find Erevu next to her. She was scared even further when she found Erevu with a vine in his mouth, floating in the water, head underneath the water and eyes closed. She jerked frantically on the vine to drag him back.      Erevu’s head snapped up in surprise. “What?” he asked. He spit out the vine and swam against the current, only being able to stay in place. “I was just practicing,” he explained. Neiko went back to bed, cursing.

            The tree was the same thing. He wasn’t able to climb all the way to the top, not at all. But he didn’t have that specific tree to practice on the whole time, either. Neiko was moving steadily toward somewhere she called “the Pridelands” and found plenty of trees for Erevu to practice on. They weren’t the same calibre of tree as the first, but he found himself being able to climb higher and higher, even topping some of the easier ones.

            His body changed along with it. His muscles became more prominent and toned as they were used over and over again. His fur did become darker, but the process had slowed down much more than before. It was almost as if he was working to get over a hill in his training. He didn’t worry about it too much. He just pressed Neiko for her to teach him more about his power, to tell him how to use it. He even tried when she wasn’t looking to set it free. Nothing worked.

            He was finally found by her one day, in a secluded spot in the savannah, straining to break his soul free of its bonds. He froze as he saw her looking at him. Neiko chuckled. “You aren’t adept enough yet, young one,” she said. “Only when you are truly exhausted, will you have that opportunity. Focus on your training instead.” Erevu did. He was proud of the progress he was making, and felt that he had every right to be proud.

            He became less proud one day when something he never expected happened. Neiko suddenly turned around and clubbed him across the face. “OW! Hey, what was that for?”

            Neiko just continued walking. “Always on your guard, young one. Hihihihi.”

            Erevu found nothing to say to that. He just shook his head and continued walking.

            It happened again the next day. And the next one. Finally Erevu had prepared himself for it enough to be able to block the blow when it came. In a sudden burst of movement, Neiko swiped at him with her other forepaw and swiped him across the face. “OW!”

            “Hihihi. Always on your guard. Hihihihi.”

            “I’ll show you on your guard,” muttered Erevu angrily. He, like any other animal, didn’t enjoy being hit.

            The next day things took a turn for the interesting. Neiko turned around and swung, as expected, and Erevu blocked it. She swung again, and Erevu blocked again. Erevu had just a second to see a smile creep across Neiko’s face before she launched a volley of blows. He tried to block them all, still catching a few in the face as she forced him backward. He lashed out at her, a move of desperation more than anything, not aimed at all. Neiko ducked under it, edging back as he wanted her to. He slashed at her again, putting as much force as he could behind the blow, aiming at her head.

            Neiko stopped the mighty blow with an old foreleg. She pushed back against it, putting Erevu off balance. Immediately Neiko rammed her head up underneath his chin, then another time, knocking it up successfully, and then whipped a paw into his neck, knocking him to the ground. Erevu tried to raise his head up, only to find Neiko’s paw on his throat, her claws digging into his neck slightly. The entire affair had taken less than a minute.

            “Hihihihi. And you say that you can fight.”

            “I’ll—I’ll be more—cautious next time,” said Erevu.

            Neiko lowered her head down toward Erevu’s. “You’ll be dead!” she hissed. “I could kill you right here, and there wouldn’t be a thing you could do to stop me.”

            “Alright.” Erevu made to turn over onto his stomach.

            Neiko pressed down into his throat, making him gag. “Is that what you think you can do? Just walk away when you make a mistake?”

            “Look, I know I made a mistake,” said Erevu, trying to be reasonable. He tried to get up again, but Neiko shoved her paw against his throat, ramming his head against the ground. For such an old lady, she was strong.

            “You will forget,” she said angrily. She got off him and Erevu began to sit up. Neiko suddenly slashed him across the stomach, Erevu crying out in pain.

            “What was that for?” he yelled.

            “To remember,” growled Neiko. “Now get up.”

            And that began it. From that one fight, Neiko began to critique Erevu’s fighting skills. “You overbalance. If you know you’re going to hit a target, put some weight behind it.” “Keep your head low. I’m sure you’d rather be missing an ear than your neck.” “Faster! Do you think they’re going to sit around and wait to be killed?”

            Erevu was worn out at the end of every day. It was like the first time he was being trained all over again. The beginning of his training had just been to build up his body. Now it seemed that Neiko was determined to tear it down. They traveled a little further every day, and though a decent portion of the day was dedicated to travelling, Erevu felt that most of the day was given up to the exhaustive sparring.

            Even though she was blind, she noticed every flaw that Erevu had, and though her eyes might not work, her tongue certainly did. She critiqued his every move, always telling him if his slash wavered, if his feet weren’t positioned just right, if his center of balance was off, if he was exposing a part of his body needlessly.

            The fight that she had had with him wasn’t the only one. She was relentless in insuring that he was proficient in not only drills, but actual combat as well. She sparred with him on almost a daily basis. Every time Erevu limped away defeated.

            There was no escape from his mistakes, either. Every mistake he made was either immediately said to be wrong, or he was given a souvenir for it, or, when she was feeling truly angry with his incompetence, both. Sleep was a thing Erevu only daydreamed about; Neiko waked him before the sun had risen and let him sleep long after it had set. He had become so sleep-deprived, twice when Neiko knocked him to the ground he actually fell asleep before he got up.

            Water was delivered to him every day in a half-shell that Neiko found, and she filled it up when it pleased her. Food was another thing that Erevu wasn’t allowed to get himself; Neiko got it all for him. Erevu was sure that when he got through the training, if he got through it, he would be useless at hunting.

            But finally, one day, he snapped. He had had enough of the training, enough of the relentless critiquing, enough of the lack of sleep, enough of the being beaten down constantly. It happened while Neiko was talking. “How many times do I have to tell you, cub, swing levelly! You lose power, and that is unaccepta—”

            Erevu turned around and swung at Neiko perfectly levelly, hitting her across her face and knocking her onto her back. He placed himself over her, his body over hers. “Shut up!” he roared. “Shut up, you stupid old bitch! I’ve had enough! Isn’t anything I do good enough for you?!”

            Neiko smiled. “Look down,” she said simply.

            Erevu looked down to see one of Neiko’s hind legs positioned directly for a kick into his groin, a perfect disabler. Erevu looked back up at Neiko.

            “You are standing where it is quite easy for me to bring you to the ground,” Neiko said tonelessly. “Your paws are by my sides, whereas at least one should be on my neck. Your balance is shifted completely over my head, and you are unable to lean back quickly enough to avoid being swiped in the face, possibly even taking out an eye. Your head is positioned too close to the top of my head to get in close decently to bite at the neck.”

            Erevu just stared.

            “This, young one, is why I take so much effort in your training. You do not know the first thing about combat, and I guarantee you every Mercenary does. If they find you, they will kill you without a second thought, as Afriti wants every shadowwalker dead. You aren’t ever going to be perfect, young one, but I expect at least an effort,” Neiko said coldly.

            “What do you think I’ve been doing?” snarled Erevu, the last comment causing his anger to flare up again.

            “Improving.”

            “You don’t think I’ve improved at all!”

            Neiko hit him across the face, as hard as she could from her position. “There you are. Good job.” Her hind legs shot up into Erevu’s gut, causing him to grunt with pain as he was winded. He staggered off of her. “Don’t expect praise from me, cub. Don’t expect praise from anyone. I’ve told you this. Just because someone doesn’t glorify you, that doesn’t mean they don’t respect you.”

            “Like you’d ever respect me,” muttered Erevu. He slowly got to his feet, still feeling pain in his gut.

            “I did until that little outburst. Now again, swing, cub. Level.”

            Erevu hesitated a moment, then swung.

            And the training continued. To any outsider, it would have looked like sheer madness, having a lion be beaten physically and verbally by a hyena and simply buckling down again. Erevu didn’t know quite why he did it. All he knew was that he wanted to be a shadowwalker, and Neiko was the only thing that stood in his way.

 

 

            The two continued traveling. Erevu continued to ask Neiko for more information on how to use his power. He wanted to tap it, train it, strengthen it. He was more than tired enough to call on it in need. But Neiko firmly said no.

            “I’m regretting ever having exposed you to it. The only reason I ever did let you tap into, cub, was that you were building it up, and it needed some way to escape. You’ve tapped it, you’ve shown it that it has an outlet, and that was all that it needed; an assurance that it would be used.”

            “I haven’t used it at all,” Erevu pointed out.

            “You need your body firmly under control, young one. I will not make any more mistakes with a pupil. Besides, think of all the time that you get to spend complaining to me about something. Hihihihi.”

            And they kept walking. Erevu kept training. And finally, by accident, Erevu did tap his power again. Neiko had been sparring against him again, and he had been knocked to the ground, exhausted even more than normal. He tried to summon the strength to stand back up, and in doing so, tapped his power. He didn’t stand up, he leapt up.

            Almost immediately Neiko gasped as Erevu scrambled to his feet with new strength. He leapt toward her, determined to change the way the brawl was going. Suddenly he saw a thick black-red cord grab a foreleg and he was lifted high over Neiko. He was slammed back down to the ground behind her.

            “No!” Neiko yelled. “Let go of it, Erevu! Let go!”

            Her warning wasn’t needed. He was unable to fully tap his power; she hadn’t trained him enough. The impact shook his connection, and he felt it slowly ebb away as he tried to stand up and recover from the blow of the impact. He slowly tried to stand back up, feeling his legs shake more and more the further he rose, strength leaving him. He finally collapsed and blacked out.

            He didn’t know how long he had been out when he finally came to. Neiko was lying next to him, caressing his head with a paw. Erevu saw her worried face come into view slowly, then saw her smile. “Erevu?” she asked gently.

            “Uhhhm,” he groaned.

            Neiko smiled. “Feel any pain?”

            Now that she mentioned it, he did hurt. He had been slammed to the ground so quickly by that cord—whatever it was—and his body ached miserably. “Yes.”

            “How bad? Do you think you’ve broken a bone?”

            “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

            “That’s good.” Neiko’s face became sober. “How tired are you, Erevu? Really?”

            “Pretty tired.”

            “More than back at the mountain?”

            “Yes. I don’t think it’s ever been this bad in my life. I mean, it’s hard enough, seeing your ugly face when I get up in the morning, but this…” Erevu looked up at her and smiled.

            Neiko didn’t smile. “I was afraid of that. I’m sorry, young one. This was my fault. I pushed you to this.”

            “To what?”

            “You shouldn’t have been using your power. You shouldn’t have been able to try. You weren’t supposed to be that tired. I thought I could push you more. I overestimated you. And now look. I had to injure one of my own pupils.”

            Erevu sat up slowly, feeling the pain. “It’s not too bad.”

            “You reached out to your soul. It could have consumed you. And there would have been nothing I could have done to bring you back, not at this tender of a stage in training.” Neiko seemed to be feeling horribly guilty.

            “Master, it’s fine. Really—”

            “You don’t understand, young one. I won’t lose another pupil. I’ve had to kill seven of my own.” Neiko shook her head. “One was too much. When you’re with someone for as long as the training is, when you’ve been through all that with an animal…you become attached. It’s not easy, killing someone you know and care about. And not like that.”

            “Neiko…really, I’m fine.”

            Neiko tried to smile. “I’m sure you are.” She paused before saying, “Take the day off, young one. Just rest.”

            “Master?”

            “You need it. Now go.” She motioned toward the southeast. “Off with you. There’s something over there you’ll probably want to see.”

            Erevu walked off quietly, limping a bit from the pain. He wondered what could possibly be over there. They’d been here for he didn’t know how long, and the only thing that was over here was the water source that Neiko drew his water from. He began to walk through the savannah, noting that it was early morning. Neiko really did intend for him to have the day off.

            Erevu emerged from the tall grass to see a waterhole in the middle of the savannah. He walked over to it, wanting a drink. He couldn’t see anything anywhere that would be of interest to him. He wondered if Neiko hadn’t just wanted to be alone for a while. He looked around as he took his drink. Animals were walking around the savannah. He looked back down into the waterhole after he finished and received a shock.

            He had been around rivers so long; he hadn’t actually seen a still form of water. He looked into the water, seeing his reflection for the first time in ages. The face he saw he didn’t recognize as his own. He had been a tan with a red-brown mane. The lion that stared back at him was black. He wasn’t utterly black, but he was black nonetheless. His fur was black, his mane was black, his nose was black. It seemed as if Erevu was a part of the night that had somehow slipped into the sunrise that day. And his eyes…he used to be blue-eyed. Now they shone, a radiant orange, their beauty shining through the early morning and sticking out from his dark exterior.

            Neiko had been right. There was something worth seeing.

            Erevu spent the rest of the day at the waterhole, looking over his body, creating a new mental image of himself, one that included the larger, toned muscles, black pelt, and shining orange eyes. He also slept, long and hard. When Neiko came to get him that night, she found him still asleep. She had a rare feeling of kindness, and decided that one more day of rest couldn’t be that bad. Erevu slept all the way through it.

 

 

            After a month of intense training Erevu was starting to be able to climb any tree. Not with the same grace that Neiko could do it, of course, but he had no doubt that with time he would be able to climb trees with the same grace that he had walking on land. His fighting skills were getting better, although Neiko always beat him, and without a scratch. The big difference was that now he could last ten minutes before making a deadly mistake instead of two minutes. It was helped by his knowledge of every vital point of a body, and the best way to knock out his opponent through pressure in the right places. If he missed the spot he was aiming for, generally, at the best it would most likely kill his opponent, or at the worst his or his opponent would have a clear shot to kill him.

            The exercise that Erevu had the most success with was the river crossing. He was able to swim against the current with no difficulty at all. Even Neiko was impressed by the way Erevu could do that so early in his training. So she decided that instead of letting him swim anymore, that he would have to carry her all the way while they were traveling. Of course Neiko was enjoying it.

            Erevu didn’t complain for two reasons. First, it was useless to do so, and second is body was now strong enough to carry her. It didn’t really make that much of a difference, carrying her. He just thought that not walking wouldn’t be good for Neiko. She was starting to be overweight.   In fact, the only thing Neiko ever did was fighting him. She said that it was to work his endurance.

            One morning Erevu just slept a few hours as usual, but instead of going straight to training, he decided that for once, he would enjoy the sunrise as far away from Neiko. He just needed to be alone without the old hag ruining everything. Especially when he just wanted to sleep and Neiko would attack him, just so he got used to always be on his guard, even when he slept. He almost became an insomniac thanks to that, but after a few weeks he actually got used to it…almost.

            He silently made his way to a tree were he would be out of Neiko sight…for a while. He knew that Neiko wouldn’t take a lot of time to find him. He climbed up the tree. It was about twenty feet high. It only took him forty-five seconds to climb it. I’m getting good at this, he thought with a smile. He was proud that Neiko hadn’t surprised or found him yet. He stared at the sunrise. It seemed as though the animals were reborn with the rays of sun that dawned closer every minute.

            After the sunrise he started to focus on a wildebeest who was trying to show to his calf how to walk. At first Erevu didn’t notice it, but he felt that the more he focused on the little calf, the more he felt like he was getting closer to him. Suddenly, everything slowed down. The young wildebeest’s movements were slow, unnaturally slow. The movements of its legs were slowed and distorted. Even the grass that was being waved by the wind had more grace as they slowed. It felt like time itself had slow down.

            He tried to look at something else and is eye caught a bird whose movements were slow down, too. What the…. He couldn’t finish his thought. His body suddenly felt heavy. He passed out.

 

 

            When Erevu woke up he freaked out. Everything was orange. He thought he was just seeing things, but he it stayed too long to be that. Then something caught his eye. Behind a rock he could see Neiko’s body, or rather, the heat coming out from her body.

            “Neiko I can see you behind the rock,” hissed Erevu.

            Neiko join Erevu with a smile. “So it has started, hey? Hihihihi. So the time will soon come when one will be destroyed or one will be submit. Who can tell us? Only time. In either case, there’s a point when both of them are going to change, as they’re starting to be one.”

            “Riddles are just not your style, and orange is definitely not your color either. Now tell me what the hell is going on, oh master Neiko,” added Erevu sarcastically.   

            “Arrogant…But you have a point. You are my pupil and it is my duty to show you the path. Tell me, what do you see?”

            “I’m not sure. It’s like…I can see the heat coming of your body.”

            “Hmm. Anything else happen before you pass out?”

            “I’m not sure…I think I could see every thing in slow motion and like farther…a lot farther.”

            “Sounds useful. Of course, that is if you master it. It seems using this ability drains you. So did you hear a voice?”

            “I don’t think so.”

            Neiko simply smiled. “Oh, well. They can’t always be the best.”

            “What? Are you rambling again?”

            “Get some rest. You’ll need it.”

            Erevu shook his head., trying to get used to all this. “Did the same thing happen to you?” he asked Neiko. He turned to look and she was gone. Erevu could see her running through the savannah with a speed that he knew he could match, but he probably wouldn’t be able to catch up to. Guess I’m on my own…Bitch. Erevu decide to go east, knowing that Neiko would only appear when she will feel like it. He was on is own to discover his abilities.

 

 

            Neiko was right. Erevu did a rest. It had been two days since he had started walking. He was starting to control is heat vision and the close-up vision. He had even discovered night vision, perfect night vision. All he needed was the smallest amount of light, and he could see perfectly. He was still exhausted easily. He had to control his power all the time, and when he just let it go for too long he had to either eat or sleep.

            The controlling it was the hardest part. His vision would change without warning, from one kind to another. He would go hours at a time without seeing things normally. Things would go from being zoomed in to being red-tinted with heat to being overwhelming bright from light amplification. But time never slowed down again for him.

            The night vision was undoubtedly the worst of all of them. He could almost see nothing with it in the daytime. He was blinded by the brightness of it, and when he did get used to it, his depth perception would be ruined. He would crash into trees and rocks that seemed father away than they were. Once night rolled around it was fine, but before that, his night vision was useless.

            He didn’t collapse again, although he became steadily more tired. His control over the types of vision became better, and he could almost switch to what he wanted when he wanted it. But the control to just keep one kind of vision there and not keep the others from crashing in was draining.

            But most of all, he wondered where that jerk could have run off to when he needed her most.

 

 

Erevu was in a canyon resting for a bit until he felt the ground shaking. Let me guess nothing good right? Erevu tried to use his new ability to see what was coming at him, but his exhaustion wouldn’t let him choose the zoom-vision. It looks like I won’t need it anyway. Just in front of him a big dust cloud was heading right for him. Fear flashed through him as he saw what was going on. Wildebeest going straight at me with no where to hide and huge cliffs surrounding me…Alright, that’s a new one. How the hell am I going out of this alive?

            Suddenly, his vision changed to heat vision. He tried to change it back to regular, but it flashed into night vision, then straight to magnification. He tried again, and once again his vision changed erratically, finally ending normally. He got to his feet, he was going to have to do something fast. Then, surprisingly, he felt something take hold of him, something he had never felt before.

            I WANT CONTROL!

            Erevu’s eyes widened at the sound of the voice. He made to run, but something held him back. He tripped, hearing the herd thunder closer. I so don’t need this right now.

            THIS IS MINE, THIEF!

            I have to get out of this canyon, thought Erevu desperately. He looked back at the herd and yelled. They were right in front of him, and would trample him in only a second. Suddenly they were much father away. Erevu realized that his vision was zooming in and out without being asked. It zoomed back on a wildebeest’s head, and looked down its body toward the flanks. It zoomed back out. Erevu got to his feet and tried to turn around, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the stampeding herd that was coming closer. He realized it wasn’t that he was fighting something; it was fear that held him. It had to be. Fear that kept him from moving, fear that had tripped him, fear, plain and simple.

            The herd thundered closer.

            Erevu’s breathing became heavier, becoming panicked. The wildebeest came closer and closer, and then, suddenly stopped. Their movements didn’t stop, but it slowed dramatically. It was another one of his vision tricks, but it had only happened that once, and had drained him to the point of blacking out.

            I really do not need this.

            Suddenly, he realized an advantage. There was a hole in the front line of wildebeest. He ran for it. His movements were slowed, too. He made it into that hole, then dodged toward another opening in the herd. He could see the openings fast enough to move into them, even though his motions were slowed as much as the wildebeests’. But if the power drained him again…

            Through this opening, scramble for that one, stay for three seconds and dodge this way. He went as quickly as he could, almost as if he had foreseen the entire experience, which he almost had. He finally made it through the last of the herd and breathed a sigh of relief. It was over. And, amazingly, he wasn’t drained. He didn’t feel drained at all.

            Then, suddenly, all strength left his body. He collapsed. A ferocious roaring filled his head.

            LET ME OUT!

            Erevu didn’t understand. All he knew was that his body began to jerk sporadically. He fought to keep it still, but it would jerk nonetheless. He was exhausted, he was in no shape for this physically. His eyes widened in horror as he saw a figure that was too small to be a full-grown wildebeest rushing straight toward him through the dust that had been kicked up. It didn’t matter if it was full-grown; a calf could just as easily kill him.

            He tried to stand to move out of the way, but suddenly was flipped onto his back. He tried to move again, but felt his body writhing, jerking in and out of his control. He saw the figure emerge from the dust. It wasn’t a calf; it was Neiko.

            “Neiko!” Erevu gasped. “Neiko, hel—help me!” Even his mouth tried to jam shut.

            Neiko slowed down as she approached him. She smiled, though Erevu could plainly see worry. She stood over him, staring and saying nothing.

            Erevu felt his body thrash again, turning him onto his stomach. He slowly brought his head up to Neiko. His body hurt as it jerked. He felt as though his mind was being slowly crushed. He didn’t know what was happening, but he didn’t like it. “Neiko, please!” he begged. She simply stood, the worry increasing on her face a small bit. “Neiko—Nei—Neiko, I need help!” He slowly stretched a shaking paw out toward her. “Neiko, please!  Nei—”

 

 

            Colors clashed and flowed, attempting to assert dominance. The overall tone was dark. Erevu stared at another lion, one that looked exactly like him. But it wasn’t him. Erevu’s eyes were orange, not emerald green.

            “These are my conditions,” said the lion, his tone filled with wild bestiality. His eyes flashed angrily. “You will bow to me. This body is mine, and mine alone. You are only an unfortunate inhabitant.”

            “What—” began Erevu, completely confused. The surface he was stepping on didn’t even seem solid, and yet he stood there firmly. He didn’t understand this place at all.

            “You must submit to me,” snarled the lion. “This is not negotiable.”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “Fool!” The lion hit Erevu across the face, knocking him to the ground. Erevu made to get up, but the lion had his paw on Erevu’s throat immediately. “Submit to me! NOW!

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” protested Erevu. The lion forced his paw down on Erevu’s windpipe, Erevu gagging. The lion meant to strangle him.

            “I don’t need you,” hissed the lion. “I am offering you one chance. Obey me!

            Everything suddenly clicked in Erevu’s head. He was amazed he hadn’t realized it sooner. It had finally happened. His soul, his power, had awakened. It had started before with the visions, but now, now it was truly awake. The corners of Erevu’s vision began to fade as oxygen starvation began to set in. The face above him was one of absolute fury and desire for dominance.

            It is a beast, a monster, and it will do its best to conquer you when you wake it.…It’s one of the worst things shadowwalkers have to do, destroying the ones that have lost control.

            Erevu’s realization of the situation scared him. If he bowed to his doppelganger, he’d not only lose all will; he’d lose his life. Neiko had promised him that much. He suddenly felt the pressure on his throat ease as the paw was removed and felt a painful thud in his side as he was hit by the lion.

            “Why do you not submit?” snarled the lion angrily. “You have no choice! The only other option is obliteration!”

            Erevu stared up to the ceiling, looking at the colors that were in constant flux. He sighed, realizing what had to be done. “You need me,” he said quietly.

            You need me!

            “Yes, I do,” said Erevu. “But you need me more than I need you. I can live without a soul. You can’t live without a mind.”

            “Lies!” roared the lion, bringing his paw down toward Erevu’s face.

            Erevu reacted so quickly he surprised himself. Both of his forepaws flew up to block the lion, followed immediately by his mouth going up to grab the lion’s foreleg. The lion yelled out in pain as Erevu sank his teeth into the lion’s leg, and then twisted, turning the lion onto his back as he rolled over Erevu. Erevu let go of the foreleg, then applied pressure to the lion’s throat, not with his paw, but with his entire foreleg.

            When your power calls you for the first time, name him.

            “Now listen to me, Nunda,” said Erevu. “You will obey me. This body is yours, but it is mine before anyone else. I can live without you, but that is something I would rather not do. I like my sanity. I’m offering you a chance to live with me, Nunda. Together.”

            “I want control!” spat the lion.

            “This is my body,” said Erevu, putting more force on Nunda’s throat. “You are under my rule.”

            “I will not serve something as weak as you!”

            “Weak?” asked Erevu, putting still more pressure on his soul’s throat. Nunda squirmed. “I think I’ve overpowered you.”

            “You surprised—me.” Erevu could see Nunda was having immense trouble breathing.

            “Your life is about to be destroyed,” said Erevu. “You must submit; you won’t allow anything else. Your body requires life, therefore you cannot deny it. That is the scientific answer.”

            Nunda struggled, trying to break free. Erevu applied more pressure. He knew Nunda couldn’t have much more air in his body. Erevu was worried. Maybe his soul didn’t want to live under his rule. Maybe there was something that wouldn’t allow Nunda to quit, to give up. But then, finally, to Erevu’s immense relief, Nunda relaxed. Erevu removed his foreleg and Nunda gasped in air, coughing slightly. Erevu smiled.

            “And...and the other answer?” asked Nunda, still breathing in heavily.

            “You want to submit to me,” said Erevu.

            “Maybe,” said Nunda. He laid his head back, his chest slowing somewhat. “Maybe you’re worth it.”

            “I am,” said Erevu. “And you are not to doubt it.”

            “I can’t have my thoughts?” asked Nunda.

            “Not your traitorous thoughts.”

            Nunda looked over at Erevu, Erevu seeing for the first time what was at least a trace of a smile. “You’re strict. That’s good.”

 

 

            “—ko!” Erevu’s foreleg dropped to the ground, his head joining it shortly. He was so tired. So very tired. He felt as if he couldn’t move at all.

            Get up.

            I can’t. I can’t move.

            Get UP! Or are you as weak as I thought?

            Nunda?

            Get up!

            Erevu slowly started to stand, finding new strength. Yes, that’s it. I can aid you. You’re worth it.

            What?

            I—trust you. Believe in you is closer. For some reason, Nunda’s reassurances made Erevu’s heart soar. He slowly stood, Neiko staring at him.

            “Erevu?” she asked, worry obviously in her voice.

            Let me have some fun, asked Nunda. Just a little control.

            No!

            Please? Nothing bad.

            ...Alright.

            Erevu’s paw suddenly whipped into the side of Neiko’s neck, Erevu having nothing to do with it at all. Neiko was knocked to the ground. How’s that for always on your guard, hag?

            I think I like you, thought Erevu. “Always on your guard?” he asked. Neiko’s head flew up, her eyes murderous, teeth bared in a snarl, her blind eyes seeming to be even more white than normal. “Whoa—”

            “You destroyed Erevu!” she screamed. “I’ll kill you—”

            “Neiko, it’s me!” said Erevu hurriedly.

            “What?”

            “It’s Erevu. It’s me.”

            “Erevu?” she asked, her tone quiet. He nodded. “Oh, thank the gods! Oh, I was so worried—not that I didn’t doubt that you’d…”

            “Am…am I a shadowwalker now?” Erevu asked.

            Neiko paused. “No. But this is a big step. A huge step. Erevu…” She went up to him and gave him a gentle kiss on his cheek. “I’m proud of you, Erevu.”

            The statement shocked him. He had been waiting for it for so long, when it finally came, he couldn’t believe it. He felt his eyes tearing up. He looked away. Neiko smiled. “You have a day off,” she said. “You’ll probably want to get to know it.”

            “Thank you, master,” Erevu said. He slowly walked away, trying to take in all the new changes.

 

 

            Neiko sat, watching Erevu from a good distance away. She suddenly felt a presence beside her. “Yes, Ronoc?”

            “A day off?”

            “Yes.”

            I don’t remember you giving me a day off.”

            “Then your memory must be going, cub. This old lady remembers at least five occasions. Hihihihi.”

            “Maybe it’s your memory that’s gone. Age and all that.”

            “And you still haven’t learned to respect your elders.” The two of them sat, watching Erevu. He was lying down, head down. He might have even been asleep. The sun was setting, light turning into the darkness that the shadowwalkers loved so much.

            “So he made it?” asked Ronoc.

            “Yes. I still have it in me to train shadowwalkers. Even if my memory is reputed to be failing. Hihihihi.”

            “Is he really an adept?”

            “It would seem so. His was one of the worst fusions I’ve seen. He had to fight to gain every inch. He possesses a very strong soul. He will be a great shadowwalker.”

            “Just remember, I found him.”

            “And who did all the hard work?” asked Neiko.

            “Definitely not you. You just sat on your butt and gave orders. I was the one who had to feed him…ugh.”

            Neiko laughed. “I will never forget seeing you two kissing.”

            “It was not kissing.”

            “Hihihihi. So, what brings you out here? Just curiosity on your part?”

            “I...I wish it was,” said Ronoc, his tone suddenly grave.

            “Ronoc, what’s wrong?” asked Neiko, concerned.

            “Neiko…I’m dying.”

             “That’s not new, hihihi.”

            Ronoc couldn’t believe that Neiko was laughing about it. He was about to give her a piece of his mind when he noticed the sadness on her face even with the laughs she couldn’t hide all of her sadness. Neiko, how many animals close to you did you see die? How many of them did you have to say farewell to, knowing you would never see them again? The road of a shadowwalker is long and infinite, we see what others can’t see, but in the end we can only dream of traveling the world and its mysterieswith someone by our side. 

            “I found a cure,” was all Ronoc said.

            “Really? So you will be able to control your other self?”

            “The cure should obliterate all will that he has.” Ronoc shook his head. “I thought I could negotiate with him, but it’s useless. Now he’s poison going through my body, killing me little by little, waiting until my time is up. Unfortunately, I’m neither a real shadowwalker, nor am I a natural like Erevu.” Ronoc watched Erevu stand up and begin to walk. I can’t believe he could do all of that without the help of his soul. His body still has not yet fully transformed. It’s—unrealNeiko what are your plans for him? thought Ronoc, knowing that asking would be a waste of energy to ask.

            “So what do you want?” asked Neiko, cutting short Ronoc’s thoughts.

            “I’m going to need help, especially now that the Mercenaries of Chaos will try to stop me and recruit him. They’ll come looking for me, you know how they try to take every dying shadowwalker. I don’t think the poison going through my body will simply pause now that I found out where the cure is or…might be.”

            “You’re sceptical; that’s good. But…shouldn’t it be done by yourself?” added Neiko, remembering the way of a shadowwalker.

            “Not with Mercs coming at me. I need help.”

            “True, but what can I do with these old bones of mine?” added Neiko, faking misery with a small smile.

            Ronoc rolled his eyes. “Oh, no, here we go again. What have you planned out, old hag… wait! No! Uh-uh. I have no time to do cubsitting! I need help, not a recruit!” roared Ronoc.

            “He has already advanced farther on the path of the shadowwalker than you, and you know it,” pointed out Neiko.

            “But he has no field experience. He doesn’t even know what it’s like, fighting for your life.” said Ronoc. “Did he ever fight against a Merc?”

            “He’s fought me. He even managed to hit me, several times in fact. Besides, you will not have time to find anybody else, and I have to take care of my training, unless I put him on a test. So I’m thinking, how can I help you and put it in my interest? The answer is simple: use you for the test. Don’t forget that in a way you are both my pupils. Even if we had to stop your training, together you are still my student, or you wouldn’t be alive and not a shadowwalker. I could have let you die long ago, or let the Mercs have you. Remember, your time is almost up as it is. Seven suns left before your death or your insanity.”

            “He’s a recruit,” said Ronoc in a voice of trying explanation.

            “Don’t forget, even if you have more field experience, he is farther in his training than you. Even without his, power he managed to reach your level in much less time.” Neiko was staring Ronoc with her blind eyes. Ronoc wasn’t even able to hold her glare. “Don’t forget, if you survive this, we haven’t finished your training…Letting myself hit by Erevu, being emotional about old student who’s finished his lessons…I’ve got to get a grip on myself. I can’t let age make me this sensitive, hihahahahihi!”

            That old hag is definitely nuts, thought Ronoc. “The cure is a plant in a jungle next to the Pridelands…I heard weird things are going on there. Do you know anything about it?” asked Ronoc.

            “Yes, I heard that there is a huge lion that is…huge everywhere. And chaste. I love a challenge, hihihihi,” added Neiko with a smile, her head elsewhere.

            “Ew…I heard he could see through minds.”

            “He won’t be able to read my mind. Not that way, anyway. Hihihihi.”

            “Can you be serious?”

            “Who said I wasn’t?”

            “There is a mountain popping out of nowhere, and god-like lions and you…you know something about this, don’t you?”

            “Back off Ronoc. You may be good to steal the others’ secrets and information, but don’t you dare come close to mine,” Neiko said with a glare that chilled Ronoc’s body. “We will meet at the Pridelands—if you’re still alive at that time.”

 

 

Behind a cliff at the Pridelands

 

            “Oooo. Hihihihi, he’s good looking,” said Neiko with a big smile.

            “What do you mean? It’s just a big blind lion,” said Erevu. A thought struck him. “And how can you see? You’re blind.”

            “Well, that the point is, if he is big, I wonder if it’s everywhere, like the rumours,” said Neiko, forgetting Erevu was near.

            “What? Ewwww! He’s a lion, you’re a hyena,” add Erevu with disgust.

            “What’s your point? It’s not like it’s the first time, hihihihi.”

            “That’s even scarier, how many species did you do? Forget it, I don’t want to know.” Erevu looked back down at Neiko, only to not see her there. He looked up to see her running toward the lion.

            “Hello there. Do you still live in a pride?” ask Neiko, already next to the lion.

            I got to help him, thought Erevu.

            Leave the old hag. We don’t care about that guy, shot Nunda.

            Erevu reach Pofu, ignoring Nunda. “Sorry, the hyena is with me. She doesn’t quite have all her mind.”

            “I might not have my entire mind, but I still now how to ride, hihihi,” answered Neiko, pushing away Erevu.

            “What?” asked the lion, visibly confused.

            “She means she’s pregnant,” said Erevu, trying to push Neiko away.

            “Pregnant, who are you kidding? I might be a little overweight but...”

            “I…understand…” answered the lion, visibly disturbed by what he thought he understood.

            “Thanks,” answered Erevu. He suddenly noticed that Neiko had escaped his grip and was leaning up to the lion’s head.

            “You know,” she said in a quiet, seductive voice, “I might be old, but I’ve got a lot of experience in OUCH!” Neiko was being pulled off by Erevu.

            “Sorry, contraction just hit her,” said Erevu.

            “Get off me, you idiot! I’m not pregnant! OW!” yelled Neiko feeling Erevu bite her as he tried to pull her away.

            “Would you mind giving us some privacy?” Erevu asked the lion. “These contractions look really nasty.”

            “That it’s, I’ll show you contractions!” Neiko whacked Erevu on the head. Erevu sank to the ground like a stone. Neiko turned to the lion. “Now that he’s out, it’s just you and me, hihihihi.”

            “Stay away from me,” said the lion warningly. Neiko brushed against his leg and saw the strangest thing: the lion’s eyes went from blind-white to a startling ocean-blue.

            “Oo, a mind reader. Hey, we don't see those all the time,” said Neiko.

            “What?” asked the lion. “How do you know—”

            “I know a lot of things about you, Pofu,” said Neiko with a smile. “And I know you want to know more about me.”

            “How do you know my name?” demanded the lion. “Who are you?”

            “I’m someone special, just like you,” said Neiko with a smile. Pofu’s blind eyes widened as Neiko’s voice grew deeper, taller. “Is that really so bad?” Neiko asked.

            Pofu took a few steps back. “What are you?”

            Neiko rubbed up against his leg. “Now, now, we don’t want you fright—”

            “Get away from me!” Pofu’s leg rose up, pushing her away. “We don’t need any more magic! We’ve had enough!”

            Suddenly Neiko’s attitude changed as she hit the lion in the neck, knocking him to the ground. She immediately placed her paw on his throat. “I think you’re going to be getting plenty more soon,” said Neiko. Pofu struggled underneath her. Even this massive, muscular lion was unable to budge Neiko. The strength of a shadowwalker was great, especially one like Neiko.

            “I’d stop struggling, or you might strangle to death,” said Neiko sweetly. Pofu immediately stopped moving. He didn’t doubt that Neiko had the power to do so. “Good. I’m looking for something.”

            “What?” asked Pofu, trying to use as little air as possible.

            “A pool.” Pofu’s eyes widened. “Oh, so you know it. Now, we can do this easily, or we can do it—forcibly. Where is it?”

            “I—I don’t know.”

            “Forcibly it is.” Neiko swung back the paw on Pofu’s neck in preparation for a vicious blow.

            “No, really, I don’t!” said Pofu. He normally wasn’t afraid of any animal, but this Neiko scared him. “I don’t. It disappeared. I swear, it’s gone.”

            “A pool of darkness?”

            “Yes, yes, a pool of dark water.”

            Neiko stepped back. “If that was water, you would be much safer. Lead me to it.”

            “But it’s gone—”

            “Nicely or forcibly.”

            “Alright. But you’re wasting your time.”

            “That’s for me to decide. Now lead.” Pofu got up and began to walk, Neiko following him with a smile, looking at him from behind. Wow. Big everywhere. Hihihihi.

 

 

 

            Erevu woke up slowly. “Damn her,” he muttered. He opened his eyes to see a familiar set of paws in front of him, and a carcass next to them.

            “Wakie, wakie,” said Ronoc.

            “Where’s Neiko?” Erevu asked, still a little groggy. Nunda helped wake him up. All pain and grogginess disappeared immediately.

            “She’s gone,” said Ronoc. “And I’m in charge of you. Come on, you need to eat.”

            Erevu looked up at him to see an evil smile on Ronoc’s face. “You are not feeding me,” Erevu said firmly.

            “Oh, but it’d be so much fun!

            “Touch me and die,” said Erevu, leaning down to take a few bites out of the carcass.

            “Hey, those weren’t the most fun days for me, either.”

            The two of them sat, eating. Finally Erevu asked again, “Where’s Neiko?”

            “Gone. I told you.”

            “Gone where?”

            “You know as much as me. I think she went off with that lion.”

            “Oh, great. You know, that was exactly what I was trying to stop.”

            “Well, you’re stuck with me now.”

            “Why?” asked Erevu.

            “Because you’re going to help me find something.”

            “Could you be a little more vague?”

            “Sure. You’re going to help me.”

            “Sarcasm isn’t your strong suit.” Ronoc just took another bite out of the carcass. “So what is it we’re getting?”

            “A plant.”

            “A plant?”

            “A plant.”

            “And what’s so special about this plant?”

            “It could save my life.” The humour had fallen out of Ronoc’s voice like a rock.

            “What do you mean?” asked Erevu. Ronoc hesitated, then slowly took a bite out of the carcass. “Look, if you don’t want to say—”

            “You’ve got your soul, right?” asked Ronoc.

            “Huh? Yeah.”

            Did someone say my name?

            Go back to sleep, Nunda.

            Oh, that’s nice.

            “Course you do,” said Ronoc. “Stupid of me. It’s just…you control yours, right? It’s…it’s not so easy for me.”

            “Huh? What do you mean?”

            “My soul…hates me, I guess is one way of putting it. He despises me. He just doesn’t think I’m worthy to be his host. And he’s…he’s poisoning me. I’m dead in a week if I don’t find a cure, or give control back to him.”

            “Why don’t you just…you know, talk with him?” asked Erevu.

            “Talk?” asked Ronoc, confused. “You can’t talk with your soul. Heck, you can barely communicate at all.”

            “Are you sure?”

            “Yeah, I’m sure. Neiko said so. Okay, she said a very few shadowwalkers can do it, but I’m definitely not strong enough to do that.”

            Which is why you’re in this position.

            Nunda, shut up. Can’t you see he’s scared?

            Wouldn’t you be, too, if I didn’t behave?

            “Well then fight back,” said Erevu. “Just beat him back like you did when you woke him.”

            “I didn’t beat him back,” said Ronoc miserably. “It’s why I’m where I’m at now. My dominance has never been more than a shaky thing. He’d kill me if he didn’t need me.”

            “And this plant can change that?” asked Erevu.

            “It’s supposed to be able to. Come on, we’re going.” Ronoc stood to leave.

            “What? But I’m not done eat—”

            Ronoc turned around, teeth bared, eyes filled with slight anger. “Now!” he hissed. “You’re coming with me, oh perfect shadowwalker, if I have to drag you. I am not going to wait for this. This is my life!” Ronoc seemed to gain control of himself. “Now come on.” Ronoc resumed walking.

            I don’t think he really knows what he’s doing, observed Nunda.

            What do you mean?

            I think something’s sprung loose up top.

            Nunda, if he dies, he’ll lose his soul forever. Can you imagine anything worse?

            Missing a couple of meals.

            You’re hopeless.

 

 

 

            Ronoc had led Erevu to a highly dense jungle. Ronoc had been searching frantically for the plant, which he had told Erevu was a small, dark green plant, one with only three leaves on its stalk. One the top was a small blue flower, just as dark as the green the stem had. Ronoc had been looking everywhere almost frantically. Erevu asked quietly, “Are you sure it’s here?”

            “Yes, I’m sure,” said Ronoc irritably. “I’m not stupid.” He shook his head quietly. “I have to find it soon.”

            “Ronoc…if it helps, I can see things—differently. In different ways than animals normally can. If you think that would help—”

            “Do it.”

            Erevu began trying out his different sights. Slowing down time would be of no use, and night-vision wasn’t much help either; the only result was that he walked into trees with embarrassing frequency and to the sound of Nunda’s laughter. Magnification only let him see things that were far away; he had to be looking on the ground.

            “Is the flower hotter than anywhere else?” Erevu asked Ronoc.

            “How should I know?”

            “Well, what did whoever told you about the cure say?”

            “They said…they said that it would cure the soul, that it would “freeze its intentions and stop it cold.’”

            “Then…maybe it’s colder?”’

            “How should I know? Just keep looking.”

            Erevu tried heat-vision. It was the only thing left to him. He found nothing that was remotely colder or hotter on the ground. He finally heard Ronoc’s cry of anger. “Why can’t I find it?!”

            “Ronoc—”

            “Go that way!” Ronoc ordered Erevu. “Look over there, and I’ll take over here. Move!”

            Erevu obediently turned south, hearing Ronoc stomp off in the other direction. Erevu kept his head low to the ground, searching for anything out of the ordinary temperature range.

            Do you think he didn’t just make it up? asked Nunda.

            What?

            Maybe he’s so desperate, he has to find something.

            Nunda, that’s crazy.

            Maybe there is no cure. Maybe we’re just wasting our time.

            Maybe you should put some faith in him. He’s the one that found us, remember?

            You remember. I was asleep.

            You don’t remember anything that came before you woke up?

            I can remember everything you do. I just didn’t live it. My mind has almost all your memories. For example, I remember very vividly about one Inaya

            You do, do you?

            Uh-huh. And if I have a vote, and I do, I say that we pay her another visit sometime.

            She’d kill us, Nunda.

            There are plenty of lionesses

            We’re looking for a flower right now, not a lioness.

            Well, I’ve found one.

            Where? Erevu’s head jerked around, trying to see something out of ordinary.

            Not a flower. Look up. Around that cave.

            Nunda was right. There was an animal inside the cave. Erevu could see the heat of something feline through the rock. He began to walk toward it. Erevu didn’t know who would be out here. It was a very pretty jungle, but there was no reason for any predators to be here and not the Pridelands; there was no game here.

            Erevu slowly made his way to the side of the mouth of the cave. Nunda suddenly violently hissed. What? asked Erevu.

            Their soul is—aware. And strong.

            A shadowwalker?

            I think so.

            Erevu peeked around the corner slowly. There was a lioness that was sitting and looking at the back of the cave wall, her fur light even in the darkness of the cave. On the wall were carvings that Erevu didn’t comprehend.

            “No, that can’t be right,” she muttered. “‘Ten days to the hornbill?’” She placed a paw on the wall and turned her paw in a circular motion, a piece of the wall moving with her paw. Apparently the carvings weren’t set in the wall; some of them could be moved. She stared at the wall again. “‘Portal to the hornbill.’ Oh, yes, so much more sense.”

            Erevu slowly began to creep up behind her, his paws making no noise as he set them down. The lioness moved another piece of the wall. “‘Portal…of death.’ Hmm. Well, what do you think?”

            Erevu stopped dead. The lioness turned around to look at him. “Well?”

            “Uh…”

            The lioness laughed. “You have no idea what I’m even doing, do you?”

            “No.”

            “Oh, well.” The lioness turned back to the wall.

            “I didn’t know there were any other shadowwalkers here,” volunteered Erevu.

            “There aren’t.”

            The lioness continued to stare at the wall, frowning. Erevu was unnerved. If she wasn’t a shadowwalker, and her soul was aware… “I’m looking for a flower,” he said. “It’s blue, only three leaves? Know where I could find any that looked like that?”

            “Oh, yes. There’s an entire field nearby.” The lioness turned to Erevu. “You want to give it a try?”

            “What, the wall?”

            The lioness nodded. “Go ahead. I’m not getting anywhere.”

            Erevu stepped toward the wall. He could see there were faint outlines where the pieces of the wall turned. He placed a paw on one experimentally and pushed it clockwise. Suddenly he felt a foreleg around his neck. Two rapid, fierce blows were delivered to the back of his head, dazing him. The foreleg around his neck was changed to a paw on top of his head, holding him steady as a weighted blow was delivered to his neck. He crashed to the ground.

            Erevu’s pain was suddenly distant, thanks to Nunda. The lioness would have to kill him before she would knock him out. That bitch! yelled Nunda, roaring in anger. Erevu made to stand up and suddenly felt a body on top of his back and a paw wrapped around his neck again.

            “You shadowwalkers are so gullible,” whispered the lioness into Erevu’s ear. “Is it any wonder that it’s so easy to kill you?” Erevu tried to thrash free, but he found he couldn’t move. The lioness’s strength was amazing. He could practically hear the lioness’s smile as she said, “Or maybe you’re not actually a shadowwalker.” She laughed. “It’s not even fun to kill you when you haven’t finished training.” Erevu thrashed even harder. “Ooh, it seems I’ve touched a nerve.”

            Kill her, growled Nunda, his bestiality plain and open. Kill her, tear her to pieces, thrash her so hard her ancestors feel it.

            “Now, before you die, what’s your name?”

            “What?” Erevu couldn’t help saying.

            “Your true name.”

            Erevu instantly realized what she was doing. Nunda suddenly shut up in surprise. She wanted Nunda for her own power.

            But you must not tell your true name, your soul’s name, to anyone. If you do and they kill you, they will be able to steal your soul and your power.

            “Never,” said Erevu through gritted teeth.

            The foreleg around his neck suddenly pressed viciously against his windpipe. “Think about how much you really want to tell me.”

            Erevu, don’t, said Nunda. Erevu couldn’t believe it. Nunda was actually begging. Erevu, don’t tell her, please. It’s not right, it’s not naturalI don’t want another master, Erevu, don’t let her take me.

            Then help me.

            I’m trying, but she’s so strong.

            Erevu suddenly tried to stand up. The lioness wasn’t expecting that. It worked. He immediately flipped over onto his back. The lioness let out a grunt of pain, her foreleg flying up. Erevu caught it in his jaws and bit down as hard as he could. The lioness sank her teeth into Erevu’s ear. Most surprisingly, not only did Erevu yelp in pain, but Nunda did, too.

            The lioness pushed off Erevu and stood up, to see Erevu standing, too. The lioness looked at him with a smile. “So that’s how you want to play? You have no idea what you’re dealing with, cub.”

            “A filthy Mercenary,” spat Erevu.

            The lioness’s smile vanished. She rushed at Erevu. Erevu swung at her, but the lioness ducked under the blow and hit Erevu’s face. Erevu staggered, and the lioness caught a foreleg underneath her neck as she ducked under it. She brought her head close to his, almost throwing him off balance because of his foreleg.

            “You should learn to respect your betters,” she said. She suddenly locked her jaws around Erevu’s neck and bit down, but on his neck, not his airway.

            Erevu didn’t know what was happening. All he knew was that he was in more pain than he cared to think about. Nunda was gasping in pain. Erevu could hear the lioness moaning and swaying slightly in pleasure, but what pleasure she was deriving from this was beyond Erevu. Erevu began to feel faint as the lioness continued to bite, her tongue writhing against his throat.

            Erevu, said Nunda, obviously in pain, I feel soweak. II can’tgoon

            Erevu’s eyes widened in horror as he suddenly felt the strength that he knew as Nunda slip away. He began to sag to the ground, his foreleg around the lioness trying to support him. He felt his back hit the ground and his foreleg slide off, the lioness’s jaws still around his neck. He felt himself becoming so faint, so weak. The darkness of the cave he was in seemed to grow, and grow, and grow…

            Not here, thought Erevu desperately. Not now.

            He spat in her face, straight in her eye.

            The Mercenary let go of her grip and Erevu pushed her away, rolled over, and before she knew it, he was back on his paws. He may have been exhausted and nearly ready to collapse, but he would fight.

            “You spit on me? How…How…You can’t do that!” said the Mercenary, more insulted than anything.

            “I’m afraid I just did. All’s fair in war.” Erevu smiled on his teacher’s lesson he just dictated.

            “And what about honour?”

            “Did I ever pretend I had any? I’m not proud, and I can live with that or without it,” answered Erevu, trying to find a way to escape.

            “…You know what, you got attitude. I like that. How about you come with us. Who knows, it might become…interesting…” she purred.

            “Sorry honey, not on the first date.” Erevu tried to reach Nunda, but Nunda didn’t answer. Something had happened to him.

            “You don’t even know my name, and you think there’s anything between us?” said the Mercenary, half amused, half disgusted.

            “But I almost died just now. We were so close to each other. I thought you were about to get going. A little more and I would’ve had a hard-on.” Erevu didn’t know how to get out of there. He needed to figure out something to buy time. Lucky for him, his sense of sarcasm and irony seemed to please…the female killer he had in front of him.

            “Don’t worry, right after you die I’ll be off. Give your name, and I’ll kill you quickly.” The Mercenary stepped forward.

            “My name is Erevu. Give your name and I will die on the spot. Happy to have met you.”

            The Mercenary rolled her eyes and said, “Shawnia.”

            Erevu collapsed and didn’t move.

            You’ve got to be kidding, thought Shawnia. Who would fall for that? Is he an idiot or does he take me for one? She jumped at him and put her claws on his neck. He didn’t budge, didn’t breath, and had no pulse. Could he actually be dead? He could have at least given me his soul before thatIt seems like such a wasteWait, what am I thinking? He can’t be dead. But I’ll make sure that he stays that way

            “My name is Kark. Would you mind put away your paw from my throat?” asked Erevu, his eyes opening suddenly.

            Shawnia stared down at Erevu in surprise. So he gave up and let his soul win instead of dying, she realized, taking away her paw from the throat of who once was Erevu. That’s veryunshadowwalkerlike.

            Kark breathed in a breath of fresh air. He closed his eyes in pleasure. “And now it’s totally mine,” he said. He looked over at Shawnia. “I’m in your debt,” he said with a smile.

            “Will you join us?” she quickly asked.

            “Yes, I owe you this much,” Kark answered with a bow.

            “Good, follow me.”

            They walked for about ten minutes without talking. Shawnia observed him carefully. He staggered as he walked, obviously weakened. She wasn’t surprised; she had drained his strength as she bit Erevu. But he would be stronger soon enough. Souls were one of the most difficult things to destroy. She smiled as she looked back over the path she was walking on. Another task completed, and a completely unexpected Mercenary conversion. She did so love her work.

            “So how does it feel to be free from your prison? I have to admit it is a first that a shadowwalker gave up himself so easily and willingly.”

            No answer.

            Shawnia turned her head and…he wasn’t there. He just disappeared. …He’s good. I must be getting soft.

 

 

            Ronoc looked around on the ground, feeling that he had been walking in circles in this jungle. Everything looked the same to him. He had found no sign of the flower. If he didn’t know his soul was already trying to kill him as quickly as possible, he would have sworn it was trying to redouble its efforts. The feeling of weakness and frailty kept becoming stronger and stronger. He needed the cure soon.

            He looked in the hollow of a tree. Nothing there but a bird’s nest. Near the roots there was only a burrow for some kind of small animal. Ronoc found it somewhat amusing that the thing that would save his life was in a place that was so full of life. It seemed natural. Of course, there was always the irony that if he didn’t find it he would die here, surrounded by life.

            “Gods damn it,” he cursed for the umpteenth time. He had to find that plant. He had to.

            “Looking for something?”

            Ronoc looked up to see a stunningly beautiful, pure white lioness sitting on the forest floor, examining a dark blue, three-leafed flower in her paw. “Oh, gods.” He didn’t know what was worse, that she had the flower, or that she was quite obviously a Mercenary of Chaos.

            The lioness looked over at him with a smile. “Something like this?

            “Please,” begged Ronoc, “give it to me.”

            “Of course.” The lioness tossed the flower toward him. It landed on the ground in front of him. “But I wouldn’t eat it just yet.”

            “Why?” asked Ronoc.

            “Just the simple matter of it being a deadly poison unless you know the proper rites first.” The lioness smiled again. “Of course, I’m sure you know what’s needed, right?”

            Ronoc stared at the flower in horror and dismay. He had come so far, and now…now he could do nothing, even with the cure right there. “I can’t believe it,” he whispered. He looked up at the lioness. “What do I need? Tell me!”

            “Why, the blessing of a god, of course. The nearest temple is only two days’ walk from here, at least for a shadowwalker. Someone whose soul is slowly sapping their life away, it would take them, eight, maybe nine days.”

            Eight or nine days. Ronoc had six to live. “Please,” he begged the lioness, “there has to be another way.”

            “I’m afraid not. It must be a god who blesses it.”

            “Then I’m dead.” Ronoc sank to the ground in despair. “I can’t make it there. I’m dead.”

            The lioness walked over to Ronoc. “Oh, come now. You’re simply not looking hard enough,” she said, tilting his head up with a paw.

            Ronoc gasped at her smile with its sharp, pointy teeth. “No,” he whispered. “You can’t be…”

            “Is it really so hard to believe that I wouldn’t want to help a poor wretch like yourself?”

            “Afriti hates shadowwalkers,” said Ronoc, unable to look away from her. “You despise them.”

            “And?” Afriti picked up the flower between two toes and held it in front of Ronoc’s face tauntingly.

            “Please,” begged Ronoc, “don’t ask me to become a Mercenary. I can’t. Please.”

            Afriti laughed, her laughter beautiful and light. “Why would I put you through that? You hate me.”

            “But…”

            “Well? Do you want the cure?” she asked, jiggling the flower again.

            “What’s the catch?”

            “No catch.”

            “There’s always a catch.”

            “No catch.”

            Ronoc stared at her suspiciously. “What do you want?”

            “Let’s just say that I feel that you haven’t reached your—full potential. And I want to help you with that. So, you can either take the cure and live, or take your chances trying to make it to that temple.”

            Ronoc stared at her, then at the flower, then back to Afriti. The goddess of hate and vengeance wanted to help him. He didn’t understand. Finally he said, “The cure.”

            Afriti smiled. “As you wish.” She brought the plant close to her mouth and breathed slowly on it, closing her eyes slightly. She licked the stem slowly, and then the flower. She held it out to Ronoc. “Eat all of it,” she said.

            Ronoc took it in his upturned paw hesitatingly. He stared at it, then bit down on the flower. Somehow it tasted better than the sweetest meat he had had. He brought the flower further inside his mouth, the stem following it. He threw his head back to swallow it. He paused, looking up at Afriti. Then, in less than an instant, he felt his strength return. His soul was being kept at bay, he knew it.

            “It…worked,” Ronoc said incredulously.

            Afriti smiled. “Did you doubt me?”

            Ronoc looked up at her, quite ready to say no. Something in her beautiful face just seemed to warrant the truth. “A little,” he said.

            “Wise,” she said. “After all, I do hate you shadowwalkers.”

            “What now?”

            “Whatever you want. But I wouldn’t tell anyone about who helped you, would you? Who knows what they might start thinking about you.”

            He would be labelled a Mercenary, Ronoc realized. Anyone could see that. He looked up at Afriti. “Yes,” he said.

            “Let’s just keep this between you and me,” she said. “A secret. Like this.” She leaned close and gave him a small kiss on the cheek. Ronoc’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “Remember,” she said, “tell no one.” She turned and walked away, slowly vanishing into thin air.

            Ronoc stared at where she had gone, already doubting if what he had just experienced was actually real. But his strength was back. He was fine. He would live. He smiled and stood up. He needed to find Erevu, and then they could both go back to Neiko.

 

 

            “So this is the place the pool was…It really has begun,” said Neiko with a smile.

            “Who are you and what are you talking about?” asked Pofu.

            “My name is Elchakra. Of course, just the fact that you know this name would interest the gods. Now let me tell you how this is going to work. You give me the information, and I give you some information. Now tell me everything that was out of the ordinary, starting with the pool. Up until now.”

            “Why would I do that?” ask Pofu trying to play smart.

            “Because something is starting, something big. You know that much. You are the protector of this kingdom, and you are a mind reader. You have psychic power, and I believe you didn’t develop its full capacity. Until you do…lets just say the land you are standing on will never be the same in about… I say would say less than half a sanctuary, if nothing works out according to the gods’ plans. Significantly longer if it does. And I’m the only who can give you information.”

            Pofu swallowed. The Pridelands being transformed completely? And he was their guardian, though how he had been given that title, he didn’t know. Pofu start to say every thing until the arrival of the new king and the bit—er, witch.

 

 

            “A pure soul as a king?” asked Elchakra. She glanced around the cave again, as if she had missed something another time. Interesting, but pure souls are so boring; way too nice and full for my taste. Well, you told me what you knew, so I guess it’s about time for me to tell you a little story that will turn everything you know upside-down,” added Elchakra with a purr.

 

 

An eternity ago…

 

            “Honey! Listen to me you know that…”

            I finally made it to the room of the gods of her world, the final step before getting to see a new one. It was not the first time I’d seen Aiheu, though. Aiheu was big but the size didn’t really matter. It almost seemed sometimes like he’d change his size to be smaller to not intimidate his friends, not exactly the thing Afriti would do. Right now he was kind of in between, and so was his mate, Afriti.

            He’s not half bad. But he’s not my type; no matter how much you look at it when a guy is too nice, he seems just too annoying and always holds back when it’s time for real fun. On the other hand, it’s always a pleasure to break that barrier apart, I thought. Aiheu was amazing, even if I didn’t approve of his…niceness. His fur was the darkest mane a male lion could have, and was like earth of the deepest brown on the tips, the exact same color of his pelt. His eyes were the color of the night.

            Afriti was the opposite. The first thing I noticed was her terrifying blue eyes. Looking at them was frightening. The color blue was always considered the color of the sadness, and from sadness came rage. Looking in Afriti’s eyes could freeze the most courageous lion that chose to defy her, except maybe her mate. The rest of her fur was pure white. Legend says she choose this color so blood could turn her red after her torture. They also said that before leaving Purgatory, where she spent so much time “training” the malaiki, her fur would be almost fully red. She was never interrupted during this; any messenger who interrupted her would help cover her fur—with his own blood. The only exception was when her husband was sending someone. She may not have been able to fully control her hate and lust for violence even then, but she respected her mate, and did try to love him, and did try to obey his requests to not torture the inhabitants of Purgatory. Like I said, she tried to love him.

            Until, of course, I came.

            I had studied them and finally manage to go threw to their room. I needed information from the two gods. It wasn’t information they would give willingly, but now I had the chance to—maybe—influence them. Suddenly I notice that Afriti was silent.

            She knows someone’s here, I realized. I smiled at my idea. I focused to communicate with my inner self and took the form of a lion cub with big green eyes and a brown pelt that could match Aiheu’s, and ran to Aiheu screaming “Daddy!“ And before Aiheu could or Afriti say anything, I was rubbing Aiheu’s legs.

            “Aiheu, my love, you have ten seconds to explain yourself,” hissed Afriti. “One…”

            Hey it was working; not only did I enter the gods’ room, but I mange to confuse them. I’m a genius, I thought. That will give me just the time to think of what do to nextIf I don’t found out something soon I’ d better get ready to runThe story of my life.

            “I swear, I don’t know her, I’ve never seen her before,” answered Aiheu, trying to get rid of me. I wouldn’t let go of his leg, I was playing with it like it was some kind of toy.

            “Six…How could she get in? No one other than us and our cubs may come here, you know that,” pointed out Afriti.

            Wow her eyes can actually glow when she’s angry. Aiheu. you are in trouble and all thanks to me. Can I go to heaven when your wife kills me? Nah it’d never work; I’d better find something else.

            Then the most surprising thing happened. Aiheu took a big breath and said, “You know I couldn’t lie to you.”

            I was like, After you-know-how-many years with your wife, that’s the best you can come with? Who do you think you’re kidding?

            I notice Afriti’s eye stopped glowing, but then saw a huge paw and a full set of claws coming at me. They never touched me; Aiheu blocked it. That was close, a little too close. The problem with being in a cub’s form: everything is bigger, and your body doesn’t answer as fast as you want.

            “You know that’s not the solution,” said Aiheu.

            “I’m a goddess, not a fool. I just wanted to hurt it, not kill it,” defended Afriti.

            I couldn’t believe she actually could believe that Aiheu was never lying to her. How many times did I hear this crap…Let me see…not once, actually; they knew it wouldn’t work with me. What can I say? I’m the one who usually sat that craps before disappearing the next day, leaving a poor and unfortunate soul behind me, insulted that he wasn’t the one to live. Then Afriti attacked again. Guess who? Yup! Moi.

            So I did what every good shadowwalker does against a goddess: I ran for my life. I ran to another room, a goddess at my tail. I turned a corner and transformed myself to be one of Aiheu’s real sons, Mano.

            Moments later Afriti came around the corner. I turned, saying “Mom!“ She past right in front of me, ignoring me as she chased after, well, me. I know, I’m a genius, what can I say? I’m me.

            So I went back to have a personal meeting with Aiheu, in my own body. Like I said, he’s cute, but just not my type. He was just at the corner and surprised to see me. Before he could say a word I went directly to the point.

            “I wish to go threw the door, but you’re blocking it. Let me pass or I will use another way that…you might say is the hard way.”

            Aiheu looked at me seriously and simply said, ”No.” In his tone, that simple word he chilled me, reminding me exactly who I was dealing with. I wasn’t really impressed by his answer and I knew it was useless to insist. Besides, Afriti was just behind me; I could feel her presence.

            “You know, I think you both should take a break from each other,” I simply said to Aiheu with a smile.

            “Maybe,” said Aiheu with a smile. “But—“ He never got the rest of that sentence out. I wasn’t about to leave without a souvenir. I kissed him passionately, just to let him know what he was missing out on with Afriti.

            “What?” I heard Afriti scream.

 

 

            “That was when I decided to disappear. All I know is that three days later, she left Heaven and made Hell,” finished Elchakra.

            “Why do I feel you are the one to blame for all this?” asked Pofu.

            “Why? I didn’t do anything. I never said they should break up, only take a break. But as for the pool being in all of this…well, let’s just say that there are other doors besides the one that has a god sitting on it.

            “Door to where?” asked Pofu.

            Elchakra smiled. “Who do you think made the gods?”

            “No one. They just are. And always have been.”

            “And you’re sure?”

            “There’s no one greater than the gods. Everyone knows that?”

            “What if I’d told you I’d see one of the creators?”

            “You must have seen something else.”

            “Oh, really? You’re a mind-reader, go ahead, take a look at the most wonderful thing you’ve ever seen.”

            Pofu stared at her for a moment, then reached out his paw for her mind. His eyes opened wide as they swirled, reflecting her dark purple eyes instead of the pearl-white-blind they had been. He saw a creature that seemed to drain the light from the sky, a creature that he knew possessed speed and strength and skill, all of it naturally. It was pure black, standing on four legs, and it was staring right at him. Then, just a moment later, it darted into the savannah, too quickly to follow, although he tried. The animal was gone, taking its darkness with it.

            “Isn’t it the most wonderful thing?” Elchakra breathed as Pofu dropped his paw. “That is power. That is darkness.”

            “That can’t have been real.”

            “I’d stalked it for an entire day. I had better not have been stalking an illusion.”

            “That can’t have existed.”

            “Why not? Because it can’t happen here? I’ve been to Heaven, and to Hell, and things happen there that you would think are impossible.”

            “But that’s Heaven. Are you sure you just didn’t see something from there?”

            “Pofu, that was a Maker. That was one of the ones who created the gods. I’m sure of it. And that is what I want to see. And you’re going to help me.”

            “And why would I do that?”

            “Because you’re a shadowwalker. You must do it.”

            “I’m a what?”

            “A shadowwalker. One who has harnessed the power of their soul, that has pushed their body further than it was ever thought it could go.”

            “I did this with my mind.”

            “Really?” asked Elchakra, intrigued.

            “I’ve never exercised a day in my life.”

            “But your body . . . I must admit, it is amazing.”

            “And yours isn’t?”

            Elchakra smiled. “If that isn’t a pickup line, I don’t know what is.”

            “You’re even more of a freak than me,” said Pofu coldly.

            Anger crossed Elchakra’s face. “So you meant it that way. Can I help my—power?”

            “No more than I can help possessing mine. But I don’t show off.”

            “Do you think that’s what I’m doing? I change my form to see the shock on others’ faces? I’m hiding, fool. Aiheu wants me, and he wants me dead. Afriti wants me for gods know what. I’ve killed enough of her Mercenaries and shetani to make her want me dead fifty times over.”

            “Then why don’t you live a quiet life?”

            “What do you think I’ve been doing? I have been Neiko for over a hundred years. I’ve been more things than you can imagine. Margays, pride leaders, elephants, everything. Do you really think that I don’t have any idea of how to hide? And do you think that if I could live a ‘quiet life,’ that by now, I would have?”

            “Then get the hell out of here. We don’t need a goddess’s wrath brought down on us.”

            “Why do you think I’m here? Now? There is an animal that just died here in the Pridelands, an animal of immense power, and all of her efforts and eyes are focused on him. He is the first to ever be reborn from the world of the dead, at least voluntarily. He had enough power to convince them to do that. She wants him under her control. If she made him a Mercenary, there would be no hope for shadowwalkers like you and me.”

            “I am not a shadowwalker.”

            “But you are. A new kind of shadowwalker, from what I see. You’ve been given the gift; you never had to work for it. But you will live an ordinary life, and die an ordinary death at an ordinary age. You are a weaker shadowwalker. But if we mixed in your kind with mine—the power he could have! Living hundreds of years, and honing his skills from birth!”

            “Mix? You can’t be suggesting—”

            “Why not?”

            “Never,” growled Pofu. “I’m not a shadowwalker. I don’t want anything to do with you; I never wanted anything to do with you! You’re the last thing we need around here! I want you gone!”

            “You’re going to help me, Pofu. Or do you really want to see what I can do?” Elchakra’s body suddenly changed form. Pofu gasped as he heard breathing that had followed him for years. His own.

            What

            “Now you can either help me, or you can have a nice visit to the gods—after I get something I never came here for,” said Elchakra sweetly. Her voice was Pofu’s, the same deep rumble.

            “What are you suggesting?”

            “Quite simply, I’d rape you and kill you. But that’s something I really don’t want. It wouldn’t be enjoyable for you at all, at least not my way. Quite painful for you, and quite exhausting on both our parts.”

            “You…”

            “Well?”

            There was a pause. “What do you want me to do?” Pofu finally said.

            “That’s more like it,” said Elchakra, changing back into an utterly beautiful lioness. “It’s quite simple. Remember me. And when you get to Heaven, collect all the information that you can about that door to the Maker’s world.” She ran her paw down the side of his face. “You’ll be my little spy.”

            Pofu’s eyes closed in shame. “That’s it?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

            “Oh, no. You’re going to give me a cub.”

            “Please,” he begged, “don’t ask me to do that. I’ve already damned one of my cubs. Don’t ask me to do it to another.”

            “Damn it? You won’t damn it. You’ll be giving it more power than I could ever conceive—or rather, I will conceive it.” Elchakra smiled at her little joke.

            “Don’t ask me to do this. Please.”

            Elchakra pressed herself close to Pofu. “I can make you do it. I can make your body move on its own, and your mind won’t be able to do a thing. Would you prefer that?”

            “I don’t need pheromones.”

            Elchakra smiled. “I know. You already want me. Why not take me?”

            “Elchakra . . . whoever you are . . . please . . .” His words died as he smelled her pheromones trying to seduce him. “Oh, gods,” he said quietly.

            “Do it,” she whispered hoarsely. “Take me. You want me. Take me for your own.”

            Pofu wrapped a foreleg around her to bring her closer, unable to consciously prolong the inevitable.

 

 

            “Mmm . . . That was wonderful. I haven’t had pleasure like that in over two hundred years,” purred Elchakra. She looked over at Pofu, who was lying next to her on the floor of the den. “Of course, there is the danger of me being seen while I’m a lioness. I can’t change form again, or the cub will be lost. And we’ll have to do this all over again.” She smiled. “Maybe I will change form.”

            “Please,” said Pofu, “just leave. Just leave and leave me alone with my life. I want to forget this ever happened.”

            “Ah, but we have a deal, yes? After all, you promised. You are, after all, a shadowwalker.”

            “I never was one and never will be.”

            “Don’t you have any honour? Or dignity?”

            “I don’t know anymore,” said Pofu. “After what I did today . . .”

            “What did you do that was so bad? You helped create a power that—”

            “How do I know what you’re going to do with my cub?”

            “I am going to train it to be a shadowwalker. A great shadowwalker.”

            “I’ve brought you into the kingdom. I’ve showed you things that you should never have been shown—that no one should have ever known about—and then I made love to you. And you’ve demanded that I be a spy, and on the gods, no less. I’m ashamed of what I’ve done today.”

            “Oh, but I would have gotten it anyway. Your cub at least. There was no way I could force you to look for that door. But don’t you want to meet them? Don’t you want to see the ultimate darkness that is the Makers?”

            “The saddest part about all of this,” said Pofu, “is that I do. I—I wanted to do this. And I shouldn’t have. Something tells me that this was dead wrong.”

            “Is that it? Just a little bad feeling?”

            “It’s more than that, Elchakra. It’s . . . ominous. There are some things we shouldn’t try to discover. I learned that with the pool. And I think this is just another one of those things.”

            “You want to find them, Pofu, don’t you?”

            “Yes. But maybe it’s not the best thing.”

            “It’s too late for second thoughts now. You’re going to help me find a way to get through that door, Pofu. It’s your choice on whether or not you follow me through, but you’re going to help me.”

            “Get out,” said Pofu. “Get out of the kingdom. I don’t want to ever see you again.”

            Elchakra smiled. “Oh don’t worry. You won’t see me until you’re safely, cosily dead.” She made to leave.

            “And Elchakra?”

            “Yes?”

            “About my cub. I never want to see it. Ever. Not until I’m long gone from this world. So don’t you dare let it set foot in the Pridelands.”

            “Of course,” said Elchakra with a smile. She walked out of the den, purring happily. She’d never let it see the Pridelands. It would fit into her plans perfectly.

 

 

            Nunda, can you hear me? Nunda? Erevu collapsed in the underbrush. He had been using Nunda’s strength to fight off the Mercenary. He was surprised he even got out of the fight alive. He felt so weak. He had to find Ronoc and get out of there. His body felt like it was falling apart. He was losing a lot of blood, all from where she had bitten him.

            He slowly got to his paws, barely able to stand. Even breathing hurt. He could feel the bite marks on his neck where Shawnia, if that really was her name, had drilled her teeth into him. He had to make sure Nunda was okay.

            Nunda wake up… Still no answer. Erevu took a breath. I said get up! He thought that possibly his thoughts were simply not loud enough. It frustrated Erevu. He felt like he should have just been obeyed by Nunda, like a parent who didn’t have time to mess with his children or even an older brother who had the responsibility of his younger one. Nunda!

            I’m up, I’m up! screamed Nunda, almost like a frightened cub, a little ashamed.

            Good. Nunda… He didn’t have to finish his sentence. Right at that moment his vision changed. It was heat and long distance vision working together. Erevu found himself looking east at a hundred yards…a hundred fifty…there! He could see Shawnia going farther to the north. Good, she wasn’t searching for him.

            He turned his head, his sight going to three hundred yards…there he was. Ronoc was still alive, and waiting at the entrance of the forest where they were supposed to meet after they got the plant. Erevu started to walk, starting to think of this mission. Only get a plant, yet he almost got himself killed… Yet he didn’t regret doing it; he had learned so much this day that he felt it was like his first step as a shadowwalker. Even though he hadn’t finished his training yet, the day was near when Neiko would leave and that day…he would finally start to learn. He realised that, the skills he was learning were only the base to develop his own, because Neiko said it herself: “the path of the shadowwalker is long and infinite, but before all that is individual.”

            Erevu II know you’re angry butIstarted Nunda

            Huh? Sorry I’m not used to thinking and having another voice talking in my head. I thought you should rest after what you went through. Relax, really. I won’t force you to do anything more. For now I can take of myself. I just hope everything is alright in there. If I can do anything just tell me.

            Actually I feel fineIcan. I’m s Nunda‘s voice grew faint.

            Nunda!  screamed Erevu.

            Yes? Nunda answered quickly.

            What’s wrong? And don’t say nothing. That’s an order. I just want us to be honest with each other. I can feel when something is wrong with you. After all, you’re a part of me. We shouldn’t have to lie to each other; it would only be a wall between us and our communication. I ask you this as a friend; if you want us to share our bond, not between slave and master, but as equals. Maybe even let you control once in a while. Erevu grinned. Maybe we could stop by a pride before joining Neiko, and I’ll let you lead and you could get yourself a lioness. Don’t rape her, though, he thought, amused. And I mean it; no rape or anything like that or you’ll deal with me. Now tell me what wrong, he added seriously.

            I’m justI’m sorry I failed you. I couldn’t do a thing against her, but you managed to fight her on your own.

            Yup, you were pretty useless against her. Thanks to you, I had to use one of my natural powers.

            What power? asked Nunda

            Charm.

            What’s charm?

            It doesn’t matter. Let’s just say I ran like a coward, if it makes you feel better.

            That’s not true. You may be a coward, but you had to run. We couldn’t even beat her with the two of us.

            Don’t worry, I have no regrets about running for my life. “Live today to fight tomorrow” is a concept I can live with.

            But how? I’m sure she could outrun you.

            I won’t lie to you. I’m just a genius.

            What?

            Why are you so worried? Don’t feel bad I’m not angry at you. Our power will get stronger with time, and I’m happy to have you in my head more then any other person. Even though you get on my nerves sometimes, but hey, it’s normal. Like an annoying little brother.

            What do mean by little? growled Nunda.

            There you are, back to your old self. Now quite whining like a chick and let’s hurry to meet with Ronoc.

            He took a few steps then collapsed.

            Erevu! screamed Nunda.

            Sorryit’s worse than I thoughtNunda, mind watching our body? asked Erevu before passing out.

            Nunda took Erevu’s place, not even able to move from all the pain that was filling the body and his self.

            How could Erevu have withstood all this? wondered Nunda, almost fainting from of the pain. Yet he couldn’t lose Erevu, not after what he’d done. He couldn’t do anything to get rid of the pain, not from where he was. He was going to have to wait for Erevu to wake to heal the body.

            He heard something next to him. Friend or foe? He didn’t know but one thing was sure; he wouldn’t be able to last very long if it was a foe.

            “Erevu, guess what? I found the cure. I’ll sur…”

            “Ronoc….h…help,” pleaded Nunda, his voice shaking. He felt his control slipping as his own pain and Erevu’s began overwhelmed him. How could Erevu endure the pain for so long?

 

 

            Erevu woke up, feeling much better. Most of the pain had faded, and his biggest wounds were closed. Then he was suddenly hit by a blinding headache was gone almost instantly.

            Thanks, Nunda.

            Don’t move. I’m using all our energy to close the wounds, but if you move too much they’ll open again. You’ve lost a lot of blood. Any more and I’m afraid you’ll pass outor die.

            We can’t stay. Ronoc is searching for usme.

            Like I said, don’t move. Sleep or something while I heal you.

            Me or us? asked Erevu.

            You. I’ll take care of me later. Your body is a mess. I don’t even know how you managed to even walk with those wounds. Just breathing hurt like hell.

            I’m used to pain. I had the worst when I was being tortured. I learned to ignore most of it.       Erevu turned to see Ronoc. “So you got what you want?” he asked.

            “Well, I’m alive right? You suddenly start to heal a lot faster then anything I saw. What should have taken two week to heal seems to have been done in a night. That your power?

            Don’t speak about me. The less they know, the better it is. Neiko didn’t show all her abilities. You shouldn’t either, said Nunda.

            “Looks like it. What do you got?” Erevu asked Ronoc.

            “You showed me yours. I guess it’s only fair I show mine.” Ronoc’s mane suddenly started to grow and move on its own. It was getting harder, sharper and longer. Suddenly it shot out of his mane and struck a rock, making it crumble into pieces.

            “Nice,” said Erevu with a smile.

            “Think you can walk?” Ronoc asked.

            Nunda?

            If we have to, grumbled Nunda.

            You just wanted to stay here, didn’t you?

            A little. But you are hurt. Take it easy.

            “Yeah, I can go,” said Erevu. “But go slow, okay?”

            Ronoc turn his back to Erevu and started to walk back toward Neiko, Erevu following him.

            That power of his isn’t too much. We can do better, said Nunda arrogantly.

            Yeah right! Our performance with the merc really showed that. He gets a power able to cut anything in two, and I get a second voice in my head. How great is that?

            You’re not being fair. Don’t forget I’m healing you.

            Wow…for someone who’s supposed to be an evil, power-hungry creature, you sure are decent.

            Who says I’m not an evil, power-hungry beast? asked Nunda. Erevu was unnerved by the sudden ferocity that seemed to have gripped Nunda when he said that.

             You’re nothing more than a cuddly little cub, thought Erevu confidently. Besides Neiko, told us our power will grow.

            I’ll make sure of that.

            How?

            Nunda didn’t say a word all day and Erevu didn’t insist.

 

            They finally managed to get back to the Pridelands. Erevu and Ronoc took their time getting back, taking a few detours to explore a little.

            “You think she is going to be pissed?” ask Erevu.

            “Well, she didn’t tell us to hurry back, or how long it should take.”

            “But I didn’t tell you to slack off,” said a voice behind them.

            Erevu turn to face a lioness. She was rather tall for a lioness and her body was well-built. He felt like her dark eyes could see right through them.

            Impressive, said Nunda. I didn’t feel her at all coming. The only one who’s come this close before without being noticed is Neiko.

            “What, you don’t recognise me yet? Here’s a hint. You two are my students.”

            “Neiko?” asked Erevu incredulously.

            “Of course,” said the lioness with a smile.

            “But how?”

            “Oh, I have a very special power. But I have a new task for you. Find the five immortal shadowwalkers.”

            “What, where the hell are you coming from with that? Aren’t you supposed to end our training?” shot Ronoc.

            “I’m pregnant, you fool. I have to be careful for my cub. Stress isn’t good for it. That’s why I have to stay away from both of you. Think of it as maternity leave. I know the perfect place, too, right in a pride. It’d help to get some hints from other mothers and all,” explained Neiko.

            “You mean you…” said Erevu in disbelief.

            I can’t believe it. She raped that lion, said Nunda.

            “Anyway I think it’s time to see how you’ve…progressed. How about a little fight to see your skill?” ask Neiko.

            “Wait a minute…you can’t—” protested Erevu.

            “Let’s do this.” The word came out of Erevu’s mouth against is own will.

            Nunda? thought Erevu. Then he felt his eyes changing, the color of the iris having black mixed in with his orange, then started to stretch and become wider. Around his eyes he could feel veins forming from the strain.

            I can take him. We can take him.

            Nunda, are you sure

            Erevu felt his muscles tense against his will. “This shouldn’t take too long,” said Ronoc.

            Nunda, you’re not supposed to be using my body! I told you

            I want to kill him, said Nunda, his tone vicious and bestial. I want to hurt him, make him feel pain. You know you want it, Erevu. Kill him, take his soul for us. For me. The last word was spoken with such bestiality that Erevu was scared.

            Nunda, stop this now!

            Erevu felt Nunda launch himself at Ronoc. Time seemed to slow down, just as it had done in the stampede. He tackled Ronoc, then was suddenly out of Ronoc’s reach as Ronoc swung a vicious blow.

            “That wasn’t very nice,” growled Ronoc. “Respect your elders.”

            Erevu felt Nunda jump at Ronoc again, and suddenly had his jaws sink into Ronoc’s side. Ronoc roared out in pain and dealt Erevu a chop to the neck. Erevu’s grip was suddenly weakened, partially by the blow, partially by Erevu’s struggle with Nunda for control of the body. Ronoc squirmed free of Erevu, Erevu’s time-sense becoming normal.

            Abruptly, his vision began to change. His power went haywire, changing rapidly and disconcerting him, making it harder to fight both Ronoc and Nunda. Nunda, ordered Erevu, let go now! This is my body!

            No, said Nunda, increasing his hold. I have to have control. You don’t know the power. I have to have the power.

            Nunda, stop!

            Erevu was suddenly aware of Ronoc swinging a blow straight at his face. He tried to dodge it, but instead caught it full. He was knocked onto the ground, and Ronoc placed himself on top of him, ready to strike for the kill.

            Erevu found his vision directed directly into Ronoc’s eyes, very much against his will. Ronoc suddenly stopped, though Erevu didn’t notice in his struggle with Nunda. Let go!

            No, Erevu! We have to finish him! I can do this!

            You’re not doing anything! Stop!

            Abruptly, Ronoc shook his head, as if clearing it. Erevu’s eyes opened wide as Ronoc swung back a paw and dealt him a blow fully across the face, snapping his head back. He pulled back for another, and Erevu felt his legs move again of their own accord as they slammed up into Ronoc’s gut as hard as he could. Ronoc immediately staggered back.

            Erevu turned over and quickly found Ronoc again. He brutally clubbed Ronoc against the face, and did it again, and then again. Ronoc finally escaped his barrage and gave Erevu and uppercut, knocking him back. Erevu felt his legs suddenly gain strength as they stopped his movement.

            NUNDA, LET GO!

            It was too late. Ronoc swung at Erevu from the side and knocked him down, Erevu losing his balance. Erevu was dazed as his head hit the ground, and didn’t feel the usual immediate clarity that came from Nunda. He winced and looked up to see a sharp spike protruding from Ronoc’s outstretched leg, pointed directly at his throat. It was over.

            “I don’t know which surprises me more, Erevu,” said Neiko, her tone dry. “The fact that it’s over so quickly, or the fact that you seem to forgotten just about everything I’ve taught you.”

            Ronoc lowered his leg, the spike simply forming back into it, as if it was never there. Erevu laid his head back gently and closed his eyes. Nunda, he growled. He got no answer, possibly the only thing that could have infuriated him more. Nunda had crossed the line.

            “Thank you, ma’am,” said Ronoc. Erevu could practically see his smile.

            “I wasn’t complimenting you,” said Neiko. “You need polish.”

            “I’m sorry, ma’am,” said Ronoc, humility creeping into his voice.

            “But good job,” conceded Neiko. “The herb obviously worked.”

            “What now, ma’am?” asked Erevu, his tone flat. Nunda?

            “I told you. The five immortal shadowwalkers. You’re to find them. They are, after all the ones that induct new shadowwalkers into the order. You’ll want to find all of them and tell them to return to our home for the ceremony.”

            “So that’s it?” asked Ronoc. “We’re done?”

            Neiko smiled. “After the ceremony, yes, you are done. Of course, there are the trials.”

            “Trials?”

            “You don’t think the five would let just anyone into the order, do you?”

            Great, thought Erevu. More work. It was the last thing he wanted. He wanted rest, he wanted quiet. Just for a day or two. But already he was being given something else to do.

            “Well, are you just supposed to introduce us to them?” asked Ronoc.

            “The key phrase was find them. They could, after all, be anywhere. I’m not even quite sure where one or two are.”

            “So you’re not even going to give us anything to go on? Not even a name?” asked Erevu sullenly.

            “I’d watch your tongue, young one,” said Neiko harshly. Erevu said nothing. “If it’s names you’re looking for, the names are Mir, Hasidi, Tatu, Nsangao, and Elchakra. I’d advise you start looking for all of them, cub. If you think they’ll come to you, you are severely mistaken.”

            “That’s it? Start looking?” asked Ronoc.

            “Start looking,” said Neiko, in a much more pleasant tone. “And I think I’ll be going now.”

            “Where?” asked Ronoc.

            “Off to that pride, of course,” said Neiko as she headed away. “Oh, and I would advise staying away,” she said as she stopped to address them. “I’d prefer my cub to have some good influence.” She turned and continued on her way.

            “Okay,” said Ronoc. “Although what good influence it’ll get from you, I have no idea.” He looked back down at Erevu. “You alright?”

            “I’m fine,” said Erevu moodily. Nunda?

            “You weren’t too bad.”

            “I should have won that,” said Erevu.

            “Yeah, well, things happen. It probably could have been the other way around, you know. When you find a way to harness your power—”

            “Go away,” said Erevu, his head still on the ground with his eyes closed.

            “Huh?”

            “Just go away. I want to be alone.”

            “Want to talk about something?”

            “I want you to go away,” said Erevu. “Go ahead, look for the five. Just—just leave me alone right now.”

            “Erevu,” said Ronoc quietly, “it was just a fight.”

            “Didn’t you see how she treated me?” he asked angrily, jerking his head up. I thought I had her respect, I thought I had control, and you know what? I don’t. I’m not really all there, Ronoc. I can’t do all of this right now. I keep on getting handed shit by her, being given more and more and more, and I’m tired of it.”

            “If it’s any consolation, the soul’s a pretty hard thing to control.”

            “It’s not any consolation. I just want some time alone.”

            “You want me to come back in the morning?” asked Ronoc.

            “I want you to leave. For good. I can do this on my own.”

            “Alright. If that’s what you think. I—I guess I’ll be going now.”

            Erevu lowered his head and closed his eyes again, hearing Ronoc walk away. Nunda, he called again. There was no answer.

 

 

 

            Erevu lied down, well outside the kingdom. He didn’t want to be found by some animals and brought before the king of the Pridelands. It was the last thing he needed or wanted. Nunda hadn’t answered at all. Erevu slumped down by a tree. The disappointment in Neiko’s voice kept on flooding into his mind.

            Nunda.

            SHUT UP! The roar was almost loud enough to deafen him, if it hadn’t been in his head.

            Erevu immediately found himself face to face with Nunda in his own mind, but wasn’t sure if it was his own doing, or Nunda’s. “You don’t give me orders!” yelled Erevu. “I give you orders!”

            “That is a lie!” yelled Nunda. All of his claws were out, his teeth were bared, and he was obviously ready to tear something to shreds.

            “You lied to me! You tried to take my control!”

            “What happened to our control? What happened to sharing?! I could have beaten him down! I could have been stronger right now!”

            “Is that what you wanted to do? Kill Ronoc and take his soul for your own? Is that what was in your head?”

            “I want power,” snarled Nunda. “And you’re getting in my way.”

            “Yeah? Well guess what? You’re going to have to control that particular desire. There is no way I’m taking someone’s soul unless I have to!”

            “You are weak!

            “What happened to me being strong? What happened to my respect?!” yelled Erevu.

            “You betrayed me,” said Nunda, his tone murderous. “You promised and gave me nothing.”

            “You think I was going to let you have control in a fight? You’re nuts!”

            “You said I could have control!”

            “With my permission!”

            “I could have gotten killed because of you!”

            “And I’m not going to stop that now! You have to want power, you fool! You have to want to obtain it! And that, above all, is at my core!”

            “It’s not at mine!” said Erevu.

            “You’re misguided, you’re weak, you don’t think of anything but what will please others! You could have been your own master!”

            “That’s crazy talk! No one wants to shadowwalk more than me—”

            “Do you? All you wanted was your pathetic freedom. And you definitely aren’t going to ever have that. Not now.”

            “What are you trying to say?”

            “I’m saying I’m not going to take it anymore! This slave treatment! I’m stronger, Erevu, and you refuse to gain strength for yourself. I want a strong host. Not someone as weak as you.”

            “You’re starting to sound like a Mercenary,” said Erevu coldly.

            “Then maybe that’s what I want to be. I’m going to grow stronger, Erevu. And you can either choose to go with me, or you can be overwhelmed. I don’t care if I crush someone like you.”

            “So that’s what it is? Bow to you, or die?”

            “I can wait,” said Nunda. “I can take as long as it needs. Let’s see how long it takes before you come crawling back for my power.”

            “Fine,” said Erevu, walking away.

            “Fine.”

            “Fine.”

            “Fine.”

            Fine.” Erevu angrily cut off the link, feeling weariness beginning to sink in. He needed to sleep soon. He figured that he could sleep safely; Nunda must have somehow known that he couldn’t overtake him just yet. He spread out underneath his tree, and dozed off.

 

 

            The next few days were quiet. Erevu spent them in utter solitude. He didn’t know exactly what he was going to do. He supposed that looking for the five immortal shadowwalkers should be the task he was undertaking. He supposed he was looking for them as he went from place to place. The going was slower than he was used to; it took more out of him to do things now that Nunda wasn’t around. Weariness snuck up on his more easily. He was just an animal again. An animal with a fantastically strong and disciplined body, but just an animal.

            He was tired of this life, almost. In just one short day, it seemed like he had lost everything. If Nunda felt any of his pain, he didn’t make it known. There were times when he felt as if he would do exactly what Nunda had said and would go back, begging forgiveness, and offering his body in return for just a taste of that power again.

            But it could never work, Erevu knew that. Nunda would overwhelm him if given any chance. He wasn’t sure if he was strong enough to ever get control back if Nunda took it. It wasn’t an option, no matter how low he sank. It was his body. That, at least, was one thing he wasn’t going to give up.

            But the bottom seemed to have fallen out of everything else in his life. No guidance, which he had never before realized he needed. No mentor to make sure that he didn’t wither away. But most of all, no company. He was alone. Nunda never spoke, he never saw another animal. There was no one.

            That hurt most of all.

            It was almost like being back in his cave at his old home. He had never been allowed to see the light of day for more than a few minutes at a time. The darkness of his cave had enveloped him, took hold of him, and dragged him down into an abyss. He lied at the bottom of the chasm, clawing at its walls occasionally when he heard the sound of laughter from the little cubs coming in from outside his prison.

            And now it was just like it, all over again. He was alone.

            He made his way through the wilderness, doing nothing but reflecting on what a waste his life had been. Almost his entire life spent in a cave, and almost the last year spent training for something he could never achieve.

            He finally stopped by a lake one night. He could see the moon reflecting off of it. He lied down beside it. The scene was vaguely familiar. He laid his head down quietly and watched the fog go across the water. Then it hit him. He had seen almost the exact same thing so long ago. The Dance of the Blue Moon. The fog could have so easily been the deadly and beautiful pollen, delicately changing the shading of the moon as it shone down.

            It had been such a long time ago. There had been so many different dreams he had then. But most of all, the one of a shadowwalker. It seemed like he would never reach it now. He thought back to Neiko’s asking him what the Dance was. He had been such a smartass to her, wanting to show off as much as he could. There had been two answers, according to him. Erevu sighed, taking in the beauty of the scene.

            There were two answers, he realized. Two choices to choose from. One he knew. There was nothing down that path. But still, right there, right then, he could start on the other path. He could try again. He didn’t need Nunda’s power to start. He had never heard of Nunda before any of this had started.

            He could start again.

            He looked up a tree. It wasn’t especially big, but it was high, one of the highest he saw in the jungle. He stood up and climbed all the way to the top. By the end his muscles were burning from the lack of exercise he had had in the past few days, but he smiled. Because when he was at the top, looking at the jungle and his waterfall, the wind was speaking to him, not in words, but in memory and in advice.

            The shadowwalker knows no limit. Nothing holds him back. If he finds a barrier on his path, he will overcome it. The ways to do so are many, but he will cross it. This the way of a shadowwalker.

            He smiled. It was just like his first wall as a shadowwalker. It was time for him to begin again.