Jailin peered between the openings of the leaves. She crouched on the highest limb with her back against the tall teak tree. It was dark but the cloudless sky lit the ground like a spotlight out of heaven. Clutching her necklace, she watched a man slither across the ground on his chest. He wore black boots and a thin grass-stained white tank top which stretched over his broad shoulders. He had on camouflage pants with a belt full of assorted weapons and tools around his waist, and a white lustrous fur was tied over one shoulder.
“What he doesn’t know may kill him tonight,” Jailin whispered. There was no reply except for a twinkle in a pair of eyes that showed out of the shadows above Jailin’s shoulder.
She made her way down the tree using the interlocking braches of the neighboring teaks. It was done smoothly, effortlessly, and with enough speed to be almost a blur to common eyes. She was on top of the man without a single sound.
“Crouched in the brush. Three o’clock from the boulder.” Jailin’s thoughts indicated the man’s location.
Peering just above the tall blue-eyed grass, Jailin watched the man lift his head and gasp. He wasn’t as skillful as he thought. Yellow, dark-rimmed eyes locked with his and the man held his breath, heart pounding. The cougar snarled.
“Can I attack?” the cougar thought. Even in the darkness, the sandy-brown fur glistened. Its feet kneaded the soil with its head slouched just below its shoulder blades—ready to pounce. The oval eyes displayed no fear.
“Not yet. He hasn’t engaged. Let’s see if he makes the first move.” Jailin returned the thought. Three pounding hearts drummed in her ears. Each raced at a different speed and they mixed harmoniously. Jailin knew the cougar’s heart rate was fast, but normal. The one pressed against her shoulder was slightly elevated even for its naturally quick pace. The third was rapid too. Way too fast to be caused only by fear. This man couldn’t be the source, could he? That didn’t make any sense, but no one else was around and it certainly wasn’t Jailin’s heartbeat.
The man began to try soothing the cougar by talking to it as if it were a mere infant. “It’s okay, big guy. I won’t hurt you… yet.” He slowly reached for the large knife tucked into the belt at the small of his back. As he raised it out and was about to make a quick slash at the cougar’s neck, Jailin grabbed his wrist and in the same movement turned him to face her.
“You shouldn’t have come alone.” She leaned in close enough so that her nose almost touched his. Her face was so intimidating that the growling could have been coming from her instead of the cougar.
“Who said I’m alone?” the man retorted. He couldn’t possibly think that arrogance would help him survive. Jailin backed up, crossed her arms and clenched her teeth.
“I followed you. I know that you were exiled. Do you honestly think they’ll take you back if you bring them another fur?” One arm unfolded so she could swing an irate finger at the fur draped over his shoulder. He jerked his head sideways to see what she was pointing at. He’d forgotten about the fur.
“Well, honestly, I wanted to find something worth more, but diamonds are harder to come by these days.” Jailin only returned a stare of disgust. She found no humor in harming the wildlife. The man’s face hardened. “Who do you think you are? A new animal rights junkie? Saving the Grundagon Jungle one animal at a time?”
“Oh no, I won’t actively do… much.” One corner of her lip curled into a smile. She looked off into the darkness as if to see something that no one else could.
“I’m not the one you need to be defending yourself against.” Her head spun back to look at him. “I give you the options and you choose your own fate.” Her eyes were the first part of her face to express her feelings and she was livid.
“What are my options?” His hand reached up to scratch his jaw bone under his ear. This motion always helped him to think out his next step.
“Now that she knows you are here and what intentions you have, I can let her dismember you or you can change your ways and walk away now.” Jailin pointed to his choices: the cougar and the road.
“Hmm… female. I misjudged that tonight,” the man mumbled under his breath.
“Well?” Jailin heard what he said but it didn’t matter to her. She wanted him as far away from here as possible. Deep down, she wanted to believe anyone could change, but it wasn’t her place to decide who could and couldn’t. No one was punished for their first offense.
“Those are my only choices?” He sounded hopeful. Jailin figured the choices were pretty cut and dry. He was just wasting time, but she couldn’t figure out why he would bother.
“Yes,” she hissed. This was getting annoying.
“What happens if I kill her instead?”
“Instead?” He couldn’t possibly think he could win. It was two against one. She would help the cougar if needed. “I never said she was going to kill you, I said dismember. You can live in agony the rest of your days.”
“Maybe I want to fight back. I’m the hunter, not the prey, here.”
Jailin rolled her eyes. “You have been prey ever since you left that camp. Or did you forget?”
“All right, perhaps I’ll go, but just because I’m no longer hunting.”
“Poaching.” Jailin corrected.
“Call it what you will. You’ll be better off following a different path in life after a stunt like this.” He was getting fed up with her. It was one thing to threaten him. He was used to that, but her hatred for someone she didn’t know based on false information was another thing. Granted, she didn’t know the truth.
“Are you threatening me on their behalf?” she questioned. He couldn’t scare her if he tried. Poachers were men with childish fear for real work. Fear of being seen as weak for working a desk job in the city.
“I’m just telling you the truth. Take it however you like,” he said in a nonchalant manner.
There was a long silence. The man thought she was contemplating his future. Jailin remained still. Her eyes glassed over, deep in thought. The cougar let out a low growl that almost sounded to the untrained ear like a sigh of frustration.
“What should we do with him?” the cougar thought as she turned her back on the two of them and peered out into the wilderness, anticipating another attack.
A slight rustling sound came from the underbrush. “Did you tell anyone where you were going tonight?” Jailin asked the man. She was anxious for his answer. Whether he told the truth or not, she couldn’t know for sure.
“What’s it matter? I’m either dead or a brand new man because of you.” The lightness in his voice surprised her. He sounded sad. Nothing like the proud man she had loomed over moments ago.
She searched for stray thoughts as the man’s eyes slowly met hers. “Do you see anything, Socrates?” Jailin thought.
“There is some movement in the brush. I cannot confirm from this perspective whether it is animal, man or apparition. Are you not able to break the barrier?” The voice she heard was a masculine tone. Not deep, but soothing in a father knows best sort of way.
“I’m not picking up any thoughts. It’s either man or a true hunter with abilities like mine or better.” She paused to smile slightly. “Besides, you don’t believe in the unknown,” she quipped. He didn’t believe his own words either and she could tell. If he had, he would have been halfway across the jungle by now.
“In this case I have an inability to explain the white in the brush,” Socrates thought. He didn’t like to be ridiculed.
The cougar crouched and Jailin squatted down into her fighting stance, ready if needed. “Do apparitions smell like dirt?” the cougar thought.
The man saw Jailin look past him toward the cougar. He looked over his shoulder and saw that the cougar was stalking her way toward the underbrush.
“What’s going on?” he asked, looking entirely confused at what had transpired.
“I suggest you change your ways right now and take the road to freedom before you regret it,” Jailin advised between clenched teeth. She didn’t know what was coming for them and she didn’t want to have to defend someone who’d only just proved himself worthless to her.
Just as the man turned to go, a white cat jumped out of the brush. The cougar, looking like a domestic dog in comparison, went for its neck and slashed with its claws. The bewildered man staggered backward and then turned to run into the jungle.
“Follow him, Socrates.” Jailin thought as she reached for the stick strapped across her back. It was a four-foot wooden bo staff. She spun it in a circle on her right, and then making a figure eight across her chest she made another circle on her left. Then she lunged toward the white beast.
As the man ran, his panic dissipated and he regained his thoughts. “What’s going on here? I should go back. That was a big cat. Could it be the panther? It was white after all. Apparently it exists—it must be the one from the myth.” He touched the fur at his shoulder and shuddered. “He’s definitely bigger than a normal panther!”
The man had stopped running at this point and was pacing. “Jailin, he appears to be considering his return. What do I do?” Socrates thought in a fretful rush.
“Stop him. I’ll come as soon as I can.” She grunted and gasped as if her advancements on the white beast weren’t quick enough.
“Any suggestions on how you expect me to achieve success?”
“Do what you do best.” The words in her thoughts were increasingly ragged with exhaustion.
“My logic has no effect on a subject that cannot hear me,” he said, annoyed.
“I know that. I meant throw rocks at him or something else annoying. I’m busy here.” Jailin jumped down from the boulder and landed on the back of the giant cat. Her bo staff popped open into a thin wire and she looped it around the cat’s jaw, then under the muzzle and pulled back on it like a harness. “Open your mind. I know you can hear me. Answer me! What are you doing here?” She prodded at the black wall the white cat had built in his mind. Not many animals were like this. This was like the human minds she couldn’t penetrate.
The thrashing and head bucking began to slow. Jailin still held on. She felt his body slow and his mind wavered slightly. “Back away. We need room,” Jailin said aloud to the cougar.
The cougar stopped pacing around the fight and reluctantly began to back away.
“I was after that man and you let him go. He killed my cub and my mate. I’m all alone. I have nothing!” The giant cat fell to the ground with grief. He had seen the fur on the man’s shoulder.
“Beg your pardon, Jailin, I could not stop him,” Socrates gulped.
Jailin turned to see the man standing on the boulder holding a ring-tailed lemur by its scruff. The man appeared as if he’d been struck across the face with a repressed memory at the sight of Jailin wrestling with a giant cat.