Fuli had never liked the mountains. Her short fur was ill-suited to the cold, and the constant humidity was not something she cared for either. But that wasn't what bothered her the most; the uneven terrain made it impossible for her to get up to speed, and a cheetah who could not run was a useless one. Fuli did not like feeling useless, especially when she was trying to find out more about the three lions she was trailing.
I don't blend in so well around here, she reflected as she stalked the trio, trying to stay out of sight. She ducked behind a nearby protruding rock face, cringing as one of her back paws scattered a few loose stones with a conspicuous clatter. Up ahead, three sets of pawsteps halted.
"Nothing there," one of the lions muttered. Although Fuli wasn't looking at him, she recognized the speaker as the black-maned male whom she guessed was the leader. "Let's...just keep moving."
"I picked up a scent just now," responded a second voice, belonging to the younger male in the group. "It wasn't a lion's, but..."
"Then it isn't them," said the black-maned lion. "Not every creature who lives in these mountains would take kindly to trespassing, I know from personal experience. There's a chance they've driven our enemies off, but we'll end up the same way unless we get out of here."
The only lioness in the group spoke up. "What about the rest of the pride, your pride?" There was a hint of accusation in her voice. "You need to do something about this mess, Malka." It seemed like Fuli's suspicions were correct.
"The others know the way," Malka replied wearily. "If we try to find them, we'd only be endangering the ones that have already made it."
"So we hide, and then what?" the other male questioned. "What are we supposed to do about the lions that attacked us?"
"I...I don't know," Malka admitted. "But I'll figure it out, once we reach the Hollow. Now come on. It's not much further."
Fuli waited until the lions' pawsteps faded before releasing the breath she had been holding. Running the conversation over in her head, she was frustrated to realize that she still had no idea what was going on.
Still, what she overheard just now might have some use. I could show myself, she thought, peering around the rock face. The lions had changed direction and were slipping into a discreet crevice between the mountains. They didn't seem to be hostile, and she was sure she would get more information through making contact than she would spying on them. Not to mention they really looked like they needed the help.
No, Kion's orders were very specific, Fuli reminded herself. We need more to go on before the Lion Guard takes action. As much as Fuli wanted to do more than eavesdrop, she knew that a single cheetah could not win against three potentially hostile lions—or even outrun them in this terrain. I'll see what the deal is with this "Hollow". Maybe I'll find out more about them then...
Fuli's eye caught movement above her, not too far off in the distance. She peered up and spotted Ono's familiar form, his white-feathered silhouette unmistakable in the early morning sky. From the way the egret was circling, it looked like he was also watching someone—a someone who was not far from Malka's group. Mystified as she was about her quarry, she darted after them with as much silence as she could manage. Something important was about to happen, and she wanted to be ready when it did.
Ono decided that he did not like the look of the lions in the canyon below. The egret had been in enough combat to recognize a trap when he saw one, and the grey-furred lioness leading the team of six looked like she knew what she was doing. They were dumping rock after rock into the crevice, blocking it off completely.
Who knew there was so much going on outside the Pride Lands? Ono's sharp eyes took in the features of each lion, committing them to memory as they worked away. They looked busy and had yet to notice him, but in adulthood Ono was no longer as diminutive as when he first joined the Lion Guard. He wasn't about to take unnecessary risks by watching them any longer than necessary.
But until I find out what I need to know, here I am. Ono stretched his canvas-like wings all the way out and made another wide circle, listening through the rush of the mountain wind for any snatches of conversation he could pick up. Although his unrivalled eyesight was his most famous trait, his hearing was also quite acute at discerning details in sound. But so far the lions below hadn't spoken since he spotted them, and he had no names to put faces to.
But that grey one...I have a feeling about her. Ono's gaze lingered on the crafty-looking lioness in the front. The calculating silver eyes, the swift noiselessness with which she moved, the way the others followed her lead in silence—he would bet his tail feathers she was instrumental in whatever was happening. So whatever it was they were after, Ono intended to find out.
The egret's attention was diverted as he noticed a lanky yellow form lurking behind a huge fallen tree. He immediately recognized Fuli, not far behind the lions by the canyon. She was looking straight up and was waving at him with the "regroup" signal developed by the Lion Guard. Ono peeled off from the lions and swooped into a steady glide down to his friend.
"So I take it you've seen them," the egret said, landing with barely a rustle.
"Seen is about it," Fuli grumbled. "They're not a very talkative bunch, are they?"
"They haven't said a word," Ono lamented. "Whoever they are, they sure don't mess around. These are the ones we need to watch out for."
The cheetah peered out from around the tree to make sure the lions hadn't taken notice of them. "Maybe not just us," she mused. "I was following another group when I spotted you. It doesn't look like they're on the same side."
Realization dawned on Ono. "Hapana," he gasped. "The barricade they built—we have to do someth—" He made to take off when Fuli's paw closed around his beak.
"Hold it, Ono," Fuli hissed. "Remember what Kion said. We need to make sure we're on the right side."
"So we do nothing?" Ono mumbled around her paw.
"I didn't say that," she said, letting go of his beak. "Let's take a look at what they're up to."
"And if we have to intervene?" he implored.
"Then Kion will understand," Fuli said simply.
This was never in the job description, Ono thought, somewhat annoyed despite the gravity of the situation. It was infinitely more difficult to solve a problem when they had to remain hidden. But the Lion Guard doesn't leave the innocent in danger.
I hope this all clears up soon. I don't know how much longer we can just stand by and let this happen.
If he had to be honest, Beshte was actually really enjoying the cold. The vast snowbanks draped across the mountaintops were deep enough for the hippo to sit in, and its coolness reminded him of the water pools back home at Big Springs. It had been years since the Lion Guard had journeyed to the Theluji mountains, and the memory made Beshte smile as he waded through the snow.
The hippo felt his foot brush against something wet, more so than the snow he was digging at with his enormous body. He looked down and spotted a patch of dirt protruding from beneath the layers of snow. I'm on the right track. Beshte dug vigorously at the snowbank, clearing it away in moments.
Pressed flat against the dirt, looking barely half-grown, laid a pair of spiny plants, consisting of little more than pod-like leaves sprouting from each stem. Their pale silver-green hue was unique to the everlasting snowflowers described by Rafiki, the only Pridelander outside the Lion Guard who actually believed in Beshte's reliability. The hippo was pleased that Kion had trusted him to bring back the snowflowers on his own, and even more so that his trust had turned out to be well placed.
Taking care not to crush the plants, Beshte carefully but firmly extracted each one and placed them onto a nearby rock ledge. He proceeded to find a new spot in the snowbank, digging around until he found more dirt. Some of them came up empty, but before long he had enough to last the Guard until the end of their mission. Satisfied, Beshte collected the plants between his teeth and hauled himself back up onto solid ground. He was about to head down the mountain when he heard voices. The hippo immediately recognized the strong, guttural timbre; lions, two of them, were coming nearer.
Stay out of sight until I give the all-clear, Kion had told each of them before they set out to complete their tasks. So when you're on your own, that means under no circumstances should you reveal yourselves. It was simple enough, and Beshte looked around for a hiding place. But all he saw was rock and snow upon the open mountainside. Then his eyes found a smooth, undisturbed expanse of snow, and he decided to take a chance.
Beshte broke into a jog, his massive feet sending reverberations through the ground beneath him. He leapt into the air with all his might and landed with a clean whump into the middle of the snowbank. The hippo ducked his head and tail down and planted himself as deep into the snow as he could manage, arching his back up out of the surface as he did so. He held still as the voices came closer.
"This should be far enough." The voice was young but unmistakably adult, and sounded noticeably weary. "There are snowflowers buried under here, wherever you can find dirt."
"Let's get to it then," replied a second male voice. This one was gruffer, older. "It's not safe to be up here alone for long. I heard something big stomping around just now, and we won't pick up scents so well in the cold."
Beshte listened as the lions walked past him, most likely mistaking his protruding back for a rock as he'd hoped. He heard two muffled thumps as they leapt into the snow and began burrowing. But from what he could make out, they were having a lot more trouble than he was, and before long both lions had stopped.
"This is harder than I thought," the younger one panted from inside his pit. "I've haven't hit dirt, how about you?"
"I have," grunted the older one. "But no snowflowers."
"Okay, let's pick another spot. Maybe we still need to go higher..."
"No. Kiza is running out of time. I'm going to keep digging. I suggest you do the same."
Slowly, Beshte raised himself up and cut a path through the snowbank, approaching the pits dug by the two lions. He made for the nearest one, masking the sound of his approach with the lions' ferverent digging. Suddenly, a golden paw broke through the wall of snow in front of him, and the hippo found himself face-to-face with the young male. The lion jerked back in surprise, but before he could say anything, Beshte uttered a single word. "Kion?"
The lion blinked. "W-what?"
No, it wasn't Kion—this lion was slightly older, and his tuft was brown instead of crimson; most notably, he didn't have the famous Lion Guard vigil on his shoulder. But the resemblance was otherwise uncanny. "Sorry," Beshte whispered. "I thought you were someone I knew. Here, take them." He opened his mouth, dropping the snowflowers in front of the lion.
"Uh, thanks," muttered the gold-furred male. "Don't you need them?"
"Not urgently," Beshte assured him. "But it sounds like your friend does." He bent closer. "Hey, listen. I was told not to show myself, but you don't have to tell anyone you saw me. Deal?"
The lion glanced down at the snowflowers. "Deal. And thank you. What's your name?"
"I can't tell you, sorry," the hippo said, looking a bit sheepish. "Not until I know we're on the same side."
"But you're helping anyway?" the lion asked quizzically. "Why?"
Beshte smiled. "Because you are." And with that, he withdrew from the pit and disappeared into the snow.
Siri filled her breath with cool, clean air as the rain drizzled down on the mountain range. The clear morning sky had gradually faded to a sullen grey, but she didn't mind it; rainstorms frequently found their way to Mount Tempest, which helped maintain its basin's massive supply of clean water. But it served a different purpose now; the cocoon of the rainfall—and the way it concealed their scent—helped to put her mind at ease, just a little.
Tumaini, who was keeping pace beside her, had remained silent through most of their trek. Siri sighed, not needing to ask him what was on his mind. For the hundredth time, she wished she had done things differently.
Tumaini caught her eye and scowled. "Stop that," he said, all traces of concern replaced by mild annoyance.
"Stop what?" asked Siri.
"Blaming yourself for what happened. For finding us."
"There's no way you're completely okay with this," she said skeptically. "A part of you must wish I never found your forest, that you and Kopa could have just continued with your lives."
Tumaini said nothing for a moment. "I think a small part of me does," he admitted. "But then who's going to stop Janga from conquering all the prides?"
"Do you think that's what she's after?" Siri asked, a little disturbed by the thought.
"Why else would she be doing all this?" Tumaini pointed out. He looked troubled. "I don't get it. Mount Tempest is a fortress. How did she beat your pride in their own territory?"
"I don't know, I wasn't there," she said resignedly. "It's like she's always a few steps ahead. It scares me."
"Because she's smart?"
"Because she isn't afraid to hurt others to get what she wants. And because it looks like she's got this all planned out. I can't shake the feeling we're still being herded right into her trap."
"That's why we're here," Tumaini reassured. "Janga hasn't planned for us. She doesn't know Kopa and I are involved now."
"She will," Siri cautioned.
He shrugged. "She doesn't know who we are, or how we think. I bet we could do some real damage to her plans." He tried to sound encouraging, but his voice rang hollow.
She sighed. "You're afraid of losing him."
"Of course I am." He didn't have to ask who she meant.
"But you won't walk away? Not even to keep him safe?"
Tumaini shook his head. "He wouldn't do it, not even if I wanted him to." When Siri looked mystified, he explained, "He's got family somewhere in the Serengeti. He hasn't seen them in years and he's trying to find them."
"Right," said Siri. She frowned. "How long has he known?"
"Since last night," Tumaini said. The tightness in his voice gave her pause.
"And how long have you known?" she asked slowly.
"Since the day Tanzu found him half-dead by the river." Tumaini's expression was stormy. "Siri, I did something terrible once, and that day I lost everything. I might've never been myself again, if Kopa hadn't come along and depended on me to be better than I thought I could be. Believe me, I would never keep him away from his family unless it was to protect him."
Siri did not respond immediately, deep in thought. "I lost my parents in a flash flood," she murmured distantly, remembering the day it happened. "I was an adolescent, and one day they were gone and suddenly I was on my own. I was terrified, so I can't imagine how Kopa must have felt." She shuddered. "What if his parents miss him? What if they'd do anything to get him back?"
"They hurt him, Siri!" Tumaini protested indignantly. "They cut him up and let the Zuberi claim him. They—" He broke off, unable to describe the details.
Siri's expression softened with sympathy. "I get it," she said earnestly. "Kopa means everything to you, I can see that clear as day. But how do you know his parents were the ones who hurt him? Did Kopa ever tell you as much?"
Tumaini looked down. "He doesn't remember a thing," he mumbled. "Not since the river."
"Then he deserves to learn the truth, doesn't he?"
Tumaini didn't look up. "He does, you're right. And you were right about me too. It was just wishful thinking on my part..."
"What are you talking about?"
"He doesn't need me anymore," he said quietly. "No one needs me."
Siri looked slightly surprised at this statement. Then she understood. "Tumaini, look at me." She waited until he did so before continuing. "Even if he still has a home where he came from, there will always be a place for you in his family."
"Do you really think so?" Tumaini asked quietly.
"Well, sure," Siri said nonchalantly. "King Simba of Pride Rock was raised by a meerkat and a warthog, out in the oasis." It had become a famous story, after word spread that Scar's reign had finally ended.
Tumaini blinked. "Seriously?"
"Seriously," she laughed. "They live in the Pride Lands with him now. So you'd better not go anywhere when Kopa finds his parents."
He looked a bit more encouraged at her words. "The Pride Lands," he said thoughtfully. "I've never been there before. It's a good place to start our search, and King Simba might know who Kopa's parents are."
"Maybe," Siri mused, her gaze lingering on a tall bush as she walked past it. "I've never met him, but I heard he—" Without warning, she shot a paw into the bush and hauled out a stocky adult honey badger by the neck. "I thought so. This one's been following us for a wh—ow!" She dropped the squirming blue-grey creature, who had unfastened a wooden stave from his back and whacked her on the paw. As he landed on his hind legs, he cheekily wiggled his stubby snout at Siri.
"That's on you, you know," he told her, lowering the stave. "I was supposed to stay out of sight, but then you had to grab me like that. So now we're even for you ruining my plan."
"What plan would that be?" Tumaini asked, holding a foreleg in front of Siri as she made to get at him.
"Afraid I can't tell ya," the honey badger said nonchalantly. "That's for the Lion Guard to know and no one else to find—"
"The Lion Guard!" Siri exclaimed. "You mean King Simba sent help from the Pride Lands?"
The honey badger rubbed his head sheepishly. "Well...no. We're kind of on our own right now, but we noticed there was trouble, and we're the Lion Guard, so..."
Tumaini frowned. "Isn't a Lion Guard...?"
"Made up of lions?" the honey badger interrupted. "Yeah, yeah, that's what they all say. But we've been doing great for years, and Simba's cool with it, and—"
"I didn't even know there was an active Lion Guard in the Pride Lands," Siri interrupted, cutting off his rambling. "Maybe we do stand a chance after all. Where's your leader?"
"Not present," the honey badger said unhelpfully. "We all split up to try and figure out what's going on. I got it!" His face lit up. "If you tell me what you know, then maybe he won't be mad I got found out."
"Seems fair," Tumaini conceded. "Okay, here goes..."
"How did you find so many?" Sajin asked as Kopa followed him down the mountain. Both lions were drenched and shivering, and they were eager to return to the relative warmth of the lowlands.
"I found a pile, it looked like someone was collecting them," he answered truthfully. The way down was much easier than it had been going up, but it was also more terrifying. Don't look down, he reminded himself, taking care to step where Sajin was stepping as they scaled the wet, slippery incline.
"It could be a setup," the older lion muttered darkly.
"Could be," Kopa agreed. "But do you really have a choice?"
Sajin didn't respond. Kopa wondered if he suspected anything was amiss, even though he himself was certain that the hippo was a friend. Strange as it was to see one up in the mountains, Kopa was more preoccupied with the lion-shaped insignia he had spotted on the hippo's shoulder. He had a feeling it represented something important—something he should keep secret from Janga's lions. But are they really all that bad?
"Sajin?" Kopa said suddenly, hurrying forward so that he was next to the older lion.
Sajin turned to look at him. "Yes?"
"Can you tell me about your leader?"
"Janga?" He thought for a moment. "She's strong, unyielding. She inspires not just loyalty, but courage and purpose as well...and she never wastes the lives of those who follow her. That's why I cannot either."
"And who is it you're after?" Kopa asked slowly.
"Lions who have lived too long in the old ways," Sajin replied. "Monarchs who either tear their kingdoms apart with their personal affairs, or become complacent and do nothing at all. The Circle of Life will not remain unending with lions shaping the world as they please."
The Circle of Life. Why does that sound familiar? Kopa put the thought aside. "So what, you kill their rulers?"
"If necessary," Sajin conceded. "We're more inclined to find a peaceful resolution."
So why didn't you with the Tempest Pride? "And who's in charge then? Janga?"
Sajin actually smirked. "Oh, no. She's not interested in ruling. We have more...resilient ideas."
For some reason, the words gave Kopa a chill that even braving the mountaintops couldn't contend with. And he was very glad just then to see that they had reached the bottom of the mountain.
Taya was crouched by Kiza's side beneath the giant groundsels, her paws as bloody as the pieces of yellow moss strewn around them. She looked up when she spotted Kopa and Sajin. "I've disinfected his wounds," she told them. "But he's going into shock."
Kopa hurried over, dropping the snowflowers from his mouth. "Stand back. Hold him down, Sajin."
Sajin added his snowflowers to the pile and knelt down next to Kiza, firmly taking hold of the younger lion's shoulders. Kopa clenched one paw and crushed the leaves against the ground, popping the pods one by one as the nectar inside began to seep out. Hastily, he bunched up the snowflowers, and placing one paw on the feebly stirring Kiza, Kopa shoved the oozing plants into the injured lion's side.
Kiza writhed and screamed incoherently, but Kopa held fast. Sajin kept his grip firm until his subordinate's struggles subsided. "What did you do to him?" the older lion asked.
Kopa withdrew the snowflowers at last, tossing them aside as he beckoned for Sajin to look at Kiza's wounds. "The everlasting snowflower grows only in the cold. Its nectar is usually frozen, but when it reacts to the air..." They watched as the fluid expanded into a snow-like foam, closing off the jagged wounds. Kiza's chest heaved as his lungs filled with air, now able to inflate properly. "The foam is porous, and it disintegrates harmlessly in his bloodstream. The nectar can heal scars and even repair organ damage." Kopa smiled tiredly. "He's going to be okay, but he needs rest."
Sajin looked astounded as he bent down to check on Kiza. He let out a sigh of relief as he heard his subordinate's steady breathing. "I...I never expected...thank you." He stood and turned to face Kopa. "You've done me a great service today, young lion. I would like to repay you."
"Then the next time you're about to take a life, reconsider," Kopa told him, getting up to leave. "You place a lot of value in theirs," he indicated Taya and Kiza, "but it means nothing if you're indifferent to the rest. I was able to save Kiza's life today because somebody once saved mine. Maybe one day Kiza will need to do the same."
Sajin nodded. "I'll keep that in mind. There's just one more thing."
Kopa, who was about to continue on his way, paused. "What's that?"
"You seem like a good kid, so I'm telling you this for your own safety. Stay away from the Pride Lands, Kopa. You'll only run into trouble if you go there."
Kopa was already wondering if he had made the right choice. But all he said in response was, "Thanks for the warning." Without another word, he sprinted back into the lowlands, leaving Janga's lions behind.
I've gotten off-track, he thought feverishly. I need to find Tumaini's trail before it disappears. We're almost out of time to beat Janga to the Pride Lands.
The snowflower is made up by me, based on the sunflower family helichrysum (or "The Everlasting Flower"). Helichrysum grows largely in Africa and parts of eastern Europe, and some members of the genus are actually known for healing properties including scar removal and organ repair. The foaming attributes are entirely fictitious, but it is a subtle nod to a certain video game series with a technological counterpart. Can you guess which franchise it is? Hint: It's a highly popular FPS.