Leander and Evander were gliding toward a small lake nestled
in a valley between some mountains. A robotic female voice emanated from somewhere
within Leander’s feathers:
“You have arrived at your destination.”
“This looks like it”, Leander said. “Let’s land and go into that valley on foot.”
The two birds landed on a logging road and they took human form. Leander pulled his phone out of his pocket. He clicked the navigation app to stop it providing him voice directions, then he assumed his jaguar form. “We should go in as our alternates”, he said to Evander.
“Good idea”, Evander said as he took his cheetah form. “I’d
much rather have my animal senses about me going into this. We might be a
little less conspicuous, too.”
“Hardly. Cheetahs and jaguars aren’t exactly native to these mountains, and Darion will know that. We can at least cloak from humans, though. We will find it quicker and easier on four feet as well. Let’s go.”
The two jungle cats descended Into the valley, being careful to stay as hidden as possible by walking in the woods beside the road, one on each side, while also looking for clues that Daecon might have been here. After a half hour of walking they arrived at a small natural gravel beach on the lake. A well-worn dock was jutting out into the water.
“Daecon really used to come here? This doesn’t seem like him at all. I thought he was more of an urban type, not caring much for nature”, Evander said. “He told us that he didn’t know how to fish, remember? I can’t imagine coming here for any other reason than fishing.”
“I don’t know. Dion gave us this location, and we must search it. It must have some connection to Daecon.”
Leander and Evander started searching the area for signs that anybody had been there. Evander noticed one thing straight away. “There. Footprints in this fine gravel, and they’re recent. It doesn’t smell like Daecon though.”
The footprints meandered back and forth along the water’s edge, almost as though whoever made them had been pacing. Evander mentioned this.
“Or fishing”, Leander pointed out. “An impatient human angler may have walked back and forth, casting into different places hoping for a bite. If he was unlucky he likely got into his car and left to search out a different spot. Keep looking.”
As they nosed about, Evander suddenly said “Oh! Look! A little stoat! Over there, on the edge of the woods. It’s still got its white winter coat! It looks as though it’s watching us.”
Leander looked over to the woods just in time to see the stoat disappear into the low bushes. He walked over to Evander and said in a very low voice, “Be careful. There was something strange about that animal’s behaviour. It would be an odd stoat to sit and watch two largge predators who, as far as it would be concerned, are sniffing around looking for something to eat. Also, it is summer. A stoat should not have its white coat at this time of year.”
Evander whispered back, “Do you think it might have been Daecon? That his alternate may be a stoat?”
“It could be, but I doubt it. Daecon would probably have approached us. It was likely really just an especially curious true stoat, perhaps an albino. Regardless, we must be more careful, especially with our talk of Daecon. We do not know who may be watching or listening.”
“Ok. Well, I don’t think we will find him here anyway. These footsteps are the only ones here and I don’t think they are his”, Evander said. “Where should we look next?”
Leander took his human form and took out his phone again. “According to this map, the next location is quite close, just a little further on up the shore of this lake. Just wait, there is a note here attached to this pin marker.”
Leander read the note, put his phone back into his pocket, changed back into the panther, then walked over to Evander.
“Dion’s note says that we must be exceptionally careful while approaching the next location. This is a spot that was important to Daecon, but it was even more important to Darion. Remember Dion's story about meeting Darion in a tree? This is that tree. Dion and Darion used to bring Daecon there when Daecon was very young, before Darion was driven away, and Dion continued bringing him there even afterward, out of nostalgia. Daecon may seek that tree, and Darion may be expecting him to do so.”
“Ok, then, let’s go. How far away?”
“It’s about a kilometer and a half. There should be a well-established game trail following the shore of the lake. It shouldn’t take us more than a half hour to get there, taking our time and looking around. But BE CAREFUL, and BE ALERT. Watch and listen for anything out of the ordinary.”
The two cats located the game trail and started to follow it.
Evander noticed that the same footprints they found at the beach were on this
trail and mentioned it to Leander.
“Probably just that angler seeking a new spot. Still, we don’t need to worry about being seen by a human. It's Darion that worries me. We can cloak from humans, but Darion would see us. Ok, now. Quiet. We are getting closer”, Leander said. “Nose to the ground, and look for any signs at all that somebody has been here, but keep your eyes to the sky as well. Daecon has good control over his bird form now and he may be using it.”
“If he’s gotten full control of his royal cloaking abilities we’re not going to see him anyway”, Evander pointed out.
“That is true, but there is nothing we can do about it except to hope that if he sees us he will reveal himself. We’re coming closer. I see a clearing ahead, and there is a large tree in its center. I would bet that’s the one.”
They stalked to the edge of the clearing. Nobody was to be seen in it or in the tree.
“Let’s check the circumference first, for signs of people having been here. You go that way, I will take this side. Look for things such as broken twigs, crushed leaves, anything like that. Be careful, and be quiet.”
After a brief and fruitless search around the edges of the clearing the two cats met on the opposite side of it. The natural game path continued in this direction along the lake’s shore.
“Are you sure this is the place?” Evander asked. “It might be further up that path.”
“Yes, I am sure. This is the place”, Leander replied.
“I’m going to check the map”, Evander replied, and shifted into human form. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and clicked on the map icon. Staring at the icon he started walking out into the clearing, toward the tree in the center of it.
“Evander, no! Come back here!”, Leander hissed.
Evander ignored the cries of his father and continued across the clearing while looking at the phone. As he got near the tree he looked up. A small flash of white had caught his attention. It was the stoat, and it was running toward him at top speed.
“Oh, look! It’s that little stoat again! I wonder what it’s running from?”
Leander saw the danger immediately. “EVANDER! CHANGE! CHEETAH! NOW! RUN! THAT IS NO STOAT! IT’S…”
Evander’s eyes widened. “Daecon? Is that…”
It was too late. Before he finished the sentence the stoat leapt into the air. Mid-jump it turned into a huge white wolf, the largest wolf that Evander had ever seen, bigger even than Dion’s silver wolf. In an instant it was upon him. It knocked him down and started savaging him with its teeth. He did not even have time to turn back into a cheetah, so he was forced to repel the onslaught with human arms.
“YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE COME HERE”, the wolf snarled as it ripped at Evander’s flesh. “YOU ARE NOT WELCOME IN THIS PLACE. NOW YOU SHALL PAY WITH YOUR LIFE!”
It picked Evander up by the throat and started shaking him. Hanging onto the wolf’s head for dear life to support his own weight and prevent it from tearing his throat out, Evander heard a guttural scream and saw something black pile into the wolf’s side, closing its jaws on the wolf’s neck. The shock of the impact caused the wolf to release its grip on Evander. He was thrown free and lost consciousness as he hit the ground.
The wolf was briefly stunned at this new attack but quickly recovered and shook itself wildly in an attempt to free itself from the black jaguar’s grip. Leander was blind with rage and had the strength of anger and fear, though, and he would not let go. The wolf twisted and howled in anger. Finally, it was able to shake the jaguar off. Leander hit the ground with a thud but was instantly back on his feet and into the wolf again, biting and clawing with all of his strength.
“You fool!”, the wolf snarled. “Do you really think that you can harm me? I am your superior, pussy cat. You’ve barely ruffled my fur!”
With that the wolf reared up on his hind legs and shook the jaguar off. Again, Leander hit the ground, but this time the wolf was on him before he could get back up. Evander felt the wolf’s jaws close on his neck.
“And now you shall suffer the same fate as your friend there”, the wolf snarled as it tightened its grip. “I hope he was worth it.”
“That is my son”, the panther gasped, struggling for breath as the wolf’s jaws clamped tighter on its windpipe.
“Oh?” the wolf said, momentarily loosening its grip. Then it tightened again, and the wolf said “All the pity. I had a son once and I was driven away from him. It matters not. As I shall soon be reunited with my son so too shall you join yours.”
Leander could do nothing. The jaws were growing tighter and tighter and he could no longer breathe. The world was starting to grow dim. Just as it seemed like it was about to flicker out of existence forever, a deafening roar was heard. Leander was vaguely aware of the wolf releasing its grip and then being knocked off of him. He barely had the strength to lift his head to observe what was happening.
A white lion, pure white and much larger even than the wolf, had tackled it and was now attacking it with a ferocity that Leander had never witnessed before.
“You’ve killed my friends!”, the lion screamed as it gave the wolf the full brunt of its teeth and claws. “You fucking son of a bitch, you’ve killed them both!”
Leander recognised the voice. It was Daecon. He had at last discovered his alternative: A Royal White Lion. And, it appeared, he was fully in control of this animal’s abilities. Leander could see that the wolf was taking on real damage now. Chunks of fur were missing, deep red gashes in its flanks and legs from the lion’s claws and on its face from the lion’s teeth. Still the lion pressed its attack, growing more savage with each passing second.
It also quickly appeared that although Daecon had full control of the lion’s abilities, he may have lost control of his own temper. The wolf was clearly fighting for its life, and it was losing badly. It was easy to tell that it had never expected to be bested, or even hurt. Now it was panicking, but it was no use. Daecon was all over it, offering it no respite. Leander was certain that the wolf had not gotten a single bite in against the lion.
Leander had to do something, or Daecon would surely kill Darion.
“Daecon”, he said. He was surprised at how weak his voice was. He struggled to sit up. Still, the lion continued to savage the wolf.
“Daecon”, he repeated, a little louder but still not loud enough to be heard over the snarling of the lion and whimpering of the wolf. He struggled to pull himself up, but he was too badly injured. He had no choice but to revert to human form, knowing that being human in the presence of an angry lion and an injured wolf could be perilous, but also that the transformation should repair most of the damage that he had received.
A brief flash of light and he was human again. He felt stiff and had lots of pain but he was mostly intact. Clearly the transformation would not heal all of the wounds, but he felt much better than he had as a panther. He limped over to the battle that was raging and shouted “DAECON!!!”
As soon as Daecon heard his name he stopped fighting. The wolf was in really bad shape, barely conscious and covered in blood. Daecon looked at Leander, then down at the wolf, then back at Leander. A deep growl started emanating from his chest.
“Daecon, it’s over”, Leander pleaded. “Please stop. That wolf is defeated. He is no longer a danger to us, and you are not a murderer.”
Daecon’s eyes were fixed on Leander. They had a crazed look in them, and for a moment Leander was afraid that he might be the lion’s next victim, but the crazed look was soon replaced by one of recognition. The lion released the wolf from his grip and spoke.
“Leander, thank God. I thought that this wolf had killed you.”
“No, he did not kill me”, Leander said sadly. He glanced over at Evander’s lifeless body and said, “Of Evander I am not so sure.”