A/N: Where do I even begin with this one? Yep, it's been a long time since I've last updated. I know. I have a number of reasons for this, but I'll just cut to the point. The amount of free time I have had for the past three months has been absolutely zero. The spring semester was a killer, as I knew it would be. But it's over now.
I wrote part of this chapter all the way back in February, and didn't get to finish it until just this week. During that time, I have literally written nothing. As you'd probably expect, this chapter kinda sucks because of that. In fact, I hate it. It's been so long since I've been able to write anything, I can tell I'm out of practice. I could hardly even remember where I wanted to go with this chapter.
But it's good to be back. You may now return to your irregularly-scheduled ancient leonine shenanigans. Enjoy!
A Kingdom Reborn: The Legend of Mohatu
Chapter 48: A Private Tour
With the timely fall of the evening sun, Rex's dinner arrived. Minerva and her hunting party carried their zebra into the king's den by the clamps of their teeth. Somehow the dead animal remained almost completely unscathed, even after all their motions. Before Rex bit into it, the whole carcass was practically still breathing. It was only the finest, only the freshest—for only the world's greatest overlord.
"MmmmmMmm," the king murmured, chowing down heartily at his regal meal. The flesh came right off the bone as he bit into it, in all its warm, juicy deliciousness. Each bite was little less than a slice of heaven. Rex glanced over at Minerva with a mouthful, as the other lionesses left the den. "Fantastic! Now where did you find something like this?"
"Sibiloi plains, to be exact," Minerva answered. "We tried doing something different today. To be quite honest, I wasn't sure how well it would work, initially. We were looking around that general direction, then we saw them. There were hundreds of zebra identical to this one, just grazing in their ignorance without a single care in the world."
Rex swallowed another bite from the comfort of his throne. "Good. That's now the designated royal hunting ground."
"I will inform the others in due time," the lioness nodded. "Though..." she paused as another thought came back to her. She waited for Rex's full attention before she even considered speaking her mind. "When you're done eating, I believe I have discovered... something."
The king hardly gulped as he rose to his paws. He walked away from his meal, and out toward the center of the den. From there, he could see the sun's deep red shadows across the promontory—but that was the last thing on his mind. "Go on," he insisted. "I'm listening."
"If you remember what King Adhafera said," Minerva reminded softly, her eyes locked and centered. "They. Are. Coming."
By the queen's reasoning, this meant that they—whoever they were—would find the king, and not the other way around. Whether or not Rex understood this wasn't so easy to determine. The king seemed hardly concerned, though.
"And I've tightened security," said Rex. He shrugged the warning off with the easy tilt of his paw.
"As I understand it, your plan is for Mari to lead you to them. But maybe... that's not the way this is destined to play out. As I have foreseen it, Mari is going to lead them to us." That was how the queen explained her worries, but the meaning behind her words didn't quite sink into Rex's thoughts.
Rex cocked his head. He was ever so slightly disapproving, though he didn't make it obvious—at least not yet.
Minerva was having a hard time expressing herself in front of Rex's unspoken, demeaning gaze, but that didn't stop her. She knew something was off—and unlike Rex, she held a certain degree of uncertainty. It was just a matter of voicing her concerns in the proper manner, however difficult that was. "What happened at Giza was the catalyst," she explained. "That was why Adhafera appeared to us. This is connected to Mari, I do not question it."
"Of course it is."
Minerva almost stepped back, showing utmost caution. "And you don't think...?"
"The lioness does not concern me," Rex insisted. "All that matters is the key. That's all."
"Not to interrupt, but..." A third voice chimed in, seemingly coming from nowhere. "Greetings, sir..."
Both Minerva and Rex shifted their eyes to the new feline on the promontory. It was a familiar face and a familiar voice—Duma, the kingdom's messenger cheetah. In the harsh light of impending dusk, his long shadow was nearly as pronounced as his spots.
Now with the attention of the two royals set on him, Duma began to speak. "I have a message for the king. It's from Inari." Much like Minerva only seconds ago, the small, lanky cheetah also shuddered under the king's overbearing demeanor. "He says we will lose influence over the Tango zone as long as there is no knight present. The unrest, he thinks, will—"
Before Duma could finish, he realized it was best if he didn't say another word. Rex just didn't seem to care.
Rex blew his breath out and upward, causing the tip of his mane to wave aside. "Right," he sighed thereafter. "I suppose you think I also worry of the cloud color in Botswana, or the growth rate of bananas? Is that not equally important?"
The cheetah gulped. "But— Well, I apologize sire, but..."
"No buts now," Rex stepped back, effortlessly raising a paw to the cheetah's muzzle. "What I want you to understand, is that everything you conceive of is not important. I could spend every second of my life, worrying about every single thing... but instead, I choose not to. It's not that I'm lazy, it's just that I see what you don't."
"Pardon me, sire, but I..."
Rex only paused momentarily, while he considered how to qualify his bold claim. "Unlike you," he insisted, "I know it doesn't matter. All these little problems you see—you truly cannot even fathom their inconsequential impact on this kingdom."
"I'm not arguing," the spotted feline replied. He was trying his best to back out of the discussion, but to no avail. "That's not it. I'm just repeating what I've been told."
Despite Rex's attitude, the queen was a little more cooperative. "Right," she said. "I understand. And it is something we will consider," she added. She shot her mate a momentary look of disdain.
"Of course. But you know, you two," Rex asserted himself, stepping in front of his mate and spreading out the fibers of his mane in an attempt to overemphasize himself. "In only a few day's time, I will become more influential than you could possibly imagine."
"No, not this speech again," Minerva sighed. Her tail twitched slightly as a sign of annoyance. "The contrary is not what I implied. I was merely stating..."
After that little comment, Rex pushed Minerva aside and out of the way, almost a little violently. "I still don't care. Perhaps you just think I'm lost in my own head and full of myself after the recent victory. You would think that, I'm sure." Rex shrugged, though he remained stiff with his voice.
Rex maintained his indifference towards the queen's attitude. "You know we're all here to do better. To achieve better. To become what we never thought we could be."
The queen grumbled. "Haven't we all heard this a thousand times?" she whispered.
In the midst of the kings tirade, some weird form of a smile grew on his face. He filled his lungs with blistering energy, and he could almost feel his forepaws reach out to the heavens. "Minerva, remember, we are lions! We're out here on the verge of something new and exciting... and why? For no other reason than to push the limits—of ourselves, our civilization—to push the limits of discovery!"
"How far...?" Duma asked, humoring his king slightly. At this point, he was just playing along so he could leave sooner.
"You've no idea, really! That's the beauty of the lion kingdom. You come to me with these petty concerns, but they are nothing new. What is new is what we've accomplished... what we're working towards, day and night. I'm breaking legends. I've already done more than I ever could have thought possible."
"I see," Duma nodded.
"Never forget that," Rex continued. "That's why we're here: to achieve that greatness we all strive for. I've already been able to do that, and I've learned that it is worth these small costs you see. As it so happens, everything is proceeding exactly according to my design—including the withdrawal of Safar from the Tango zone. His new job here is of utmost importance."
Minerva tapped her paw on Rex's shoulder. "If I may interject, do remember Adhafera's warning. Perhaps there is—"
"Nonsense," Rex insisted, this time more annoyed than last.
"Ahem... right," Duma apologized. He aligned his paws straight in front of his shoulders, showing as much respect in his formal posture as he could. "I'm sorry to burden you with these troubles, milord. It was not my intention to be bothersome."
The cheetah's apology was short lived, however. His words brought about a slight disturbance in the air, echoing around the great Pridelandian peak. This disruption did not go unnoticed, not even slightly.
Rex twitched his ear, and the other two felines followed suit. He felt a familiar tremble in the ground, not entirely different from the nature of an earthquake. Some nasty yelp from a crying lion was breaking its way through the Pridelands, and with it, every lion in the area jumped a small bit.
"Is that..." Minerva raised her nose a tad. She stood beside her king, equally as curious as the other two. "It's coming from the den in the back..."
"That would be Safar," Rex answered. Again, he seemed to show as little concern as possible.
Minerva's tail twitched. "I guess you planned that one, too?"
"Not necessarily," replied the king. "But let the monkeys fling their poo around. You know what the real goal is here."
Duma shivered a little. "There is... still... one... more thing I wanted to..."
"What is it?" Rex demanded.
"It's Inari. He seems to..."
"Good, good," the king smiled. Oddly, when he remembered the last talk he had with Inari, the thought only brought him a sick and twisted pleasure of its own. "I'm sure he's done something wrong, yes? Perfect!"
"I'm sorry," the cheetah shrugged. "I... don't understand..."
"Nor should you." The king's almost-amused look was evident more so now than ever. He nudged his head forward a little, so that he could look down on the smaller feline below him. "Duma, it wouldn't matter if go chase your own tail. I've got better things to attend to today."
And just like that, the king turned his tail and left. Whatever the news of Inari actually was, it was something that gave Rex a spark of jumpy happiness. His motion was a bouncy trot, and if he wasn't so certain of himself already, something had definitely changed him for the better.
Duma and Minerva shared a silent glance for a moment, before breaking off in their own directions. Unlike the poor cheetah, however, Minerva knew where she was going—she heard the noise of a weeping lion coming from that one critical spot, and now she had to take it upon herself to investigate.
Something was dangerous about Mari—this, Minerva knew all too well.
While Mohatu had his own problems to deal with, life was arguably no small bit better for Mari. Of course, it was a different kind of pain Mari was experiencing—but it was still some kind of torment, nevertheless. The spot on the lioness's neck where she had been held down was starting to erupt with a pain like fire, and if that wasn't enough, Safar's endless wails were causing an eerie shake of the ground. That familiar feeling of impending doom wasn't helping matters, either.
This was the epitome of dread. Pinned by the tension in her tail and unable to move more than a paw's length away, Safar's display of pain seemed to be little more than a harbinger of Mari's own impending doom. Mari knew what she had done; she didn't have to be a genius to realize she'd probably have some sort of retribution to face.
Like most other things in war, this too brought Mari into an internal conflict. For multiple reasons, Mari knew she hadn't changed much by kicking Safar's package. She knew she wasn't going to be killed, and she did still have that essential hope that Mohatu would be able to turn this all around. Mari had every reason to believe she could find a way out of this situation—and yet, there she was with a tremble in her stomach.
That didn't really make a lot of sense, even the lioness agreed. But when she heard the pawsteps of an oncoming lion, she winced and her imagination took a turn for the worst.
Just moments thereafter, a bright white blob of lionfur made its way into the confines of Mari's chamber. Of course, Minerva was doing her usual giggle as the darkness engulfed her figure. In the light of day, the queen maintained a regal, almost Godly appeal—but in the shadows, her appearance was no less than menacing. "Oh, what do we have here...?" she muttered to herself.
Her eyes inspected Mari for a moment, and then shifted to the marked spot between Safar's legs. Based on the sounds she had heard, she knew something must have happened. "What's with you?" she asked the injured male. She would have stared at his wound, but the lion's paw was in the way of her view.
"UUUUUUUUGHHHHHH!" Safar cried out a groan from the bottom of his lungs. "FARTKNOCKER! FREAKING FARTKNOCKER!"
"I see," Minerva winked. It didn't take long for her to spot the bite marks on Mari's throat, and the immense pain in Safar's eyes. She put the two observations together rather quickly. As she did, she swished her tail a tad, with the tuft wagging back and fourth in an arc-like pattern. Before she knew it, her voice sprouted into a condescending tone. "You were playing too rough, and your little kitty smacked you in the privates. Oh dear..."
"FARTKNOCKER!" Safar yelled again.
"I have just one question," Minerva continued. "Why are you hurting... exactly?" Seeming to enjoy the male's pain, she cocked her head a few degrees. "Last I checked, you didn't have anything down there."
Again, Safar groaned. This time it was less of a wail and more like the resultant of a battle cry crossed with a yelp.
Minerva stepped closer to the source of that annoying cacophony. When she was within a comfortable distance, she drew out her claws and violently creamed the lion upside the head. "Get up," she demanded. The sheer mercilessness of her voice in combination with the suddenness of her strike was enough to startle both of the other two felines in the room.
Mari's ears fell backward. She watched with a quick heart and wide open eyes.
Minerva awaited the male lion's movement. When Safar finally had the courage to gather himself, Minerva glanced a shot at Mari. "Don't worry, you didn't break your little friend. Safar here is just being a baby, as I'm sure you've noticed. He likes to pretend he actually has a pair."
"TO HELL WITH YOU!" Safar yelled. Now standing straight on all four limbs, he channeled all his pain into some kind of vengeful strength. He looked up into Minerva's eyes with pure fury, despite being a laughable bit shorter than the queen in height. At this point, he wasn't crying anymore—but he still had blood dripping down his lower half.
"Ahem," Minerva lifted her paw. She placed it firmly on Safar's nose, before offering a few additional words of condescension. "That is no way for a lionbaby to address his queen."
"I don't freaking care," Safar growled. "Don't be freaking rude, okay."
"Me?" Minerva's jaw dropped. "Rude? Why, I'd never..."
The queen paused for a moment. All her movements stopped, as though she was seriously considering the thought. For a second, a sincere look of apology shaped between her brows. Her paw retreated, and she hid her claws. Every last trace of aggression she once displayed was now hidden from view.
"Is that so?" Minerva asked. "Am I... rude?"
The lioness queen then draped her paw over the back of Safar's neck, and leaned forward to slam his chin to the ground. Subsequently, she placed both forepaws over his skull. Due to Minerva's increased size, there was little the knight could to do escape without resorting to any major maneuvers.
"Your chin is wet," Minerva insisted. "You're sitting in a puddle of your own tears, and you can't even get up... and you have the audacity to call me rude!"
"No," Safar bit his lip.
"This puddle smells like the tears of a pitiful, weeping lionbaby, and—oh, look! I see such a lionbaby right now! I wonder... I just don't know who could have left such a mess in my prison. Oh, dear... what a puzzle this is!"
Safar lowered his ears. "Wasn't crying, okay," he muttered.
"Clean it up and get out," Minerva demanded. She retracted her paws again, and allowed Safar to lift his head.
Almost immediately, the lion insisted against his order. "I will not be treated like that, okay. I am a knight—"
"You heard your orders, knight," the queen spat in return. "Suck up your mess and get out. And believe me, the next time I see you cry, you'll be dragged to this very den and have your peanut brain splattered across this very wall. My tolerance for your failure is far thicker than it should be."
"Well isn't that a little gross," Mari interjected. Her breath was short, but the little comment was more than just the dignified retort it seemed to be.
"You," Minerva addressed the other lioness, "I'll get to you in a moment."
"take your time," Mari snapped back. "I can wait; it's not like I've got anything better to do."
Minerva then looked back to Safar, and inspected the lion's tongue with that same notable degree of pleasure as he lapped up the tears from the cracks in the denfloor. If what Mari was experiencing was the pinnacle of terror, this was the pinnacle of humiliation for Safar.
The knight could sense only two things: the saltiness of his tears on the ground, and the churn of embarrassment in his gut. Between licks, Safar raised his head, closed his eyes, and gritted his teeth. "I have you know I did have a freaking pair, okay? So, you stop that bullcrap. You don't bullcrap me. I will be giving them the freaking funeral they deserve, okay."
"Of course," Minerva smirked. "Perhaps you should start with your eulogy. They were a tiny pair, an inert pair, but I loved them so. They were the finest balls I have ever had the chance of imagining. May they rest in peace."
Safar roared without unleashing his breath. Much to his horror, he was still licking the ground. "Not funny, okay."
"Sure it was," Minerva swatted at the lion again. "You're done now. Get out."
"Good," Mari agreed with what she was hearing. She stretched out her forepaws as she sat leaning against the wall of the den. "So, I take it you're done with this whole flagellation thing you have going on. Maybe now we can actually get to the important matters, rather than cater to your sexual gratification."
Minerva paid the comment no mind. Meanwhile, Safar wasted not even a second before he hauled his tail away. He couldn't wait to get away from the two females, and finally inhale the fresh air of day. Any more of those shenanigans and he thought he was going to go crazy. Crazier than he already was, anyway.
After Safar left, tensions only rose in the den. Mari glared at Minerva, and the other returned the same look of disdain. Both of the lionesses knew that if this was a game of chess, they were the opposing queens. That much was obvious.
Still, Minerva's intentions remained less transparent. This was all a bit confusing in the first place—Mari struggled to figure out why that nutcase Safar had been in the den, anyway. Why she was being kept hostage like this wasn't the easiest thing to determine. Still, Mari could guess. Whatever it was, it had something to do with that key of Algenubi.
"I remember you; we've met before," Minerva began. "You're the troublemaker."
"I guess you could say that," agreed Mari. "I think it's fair to say we're all troublemakers here."
"I fundamentally, wholeheartedly disagree," the queen insisted. "It is you who challenges the great destiny of our prophet."
Mari relaxed a little. She tried to, anyway—whether or not she actually did was another matter. "You'd be surprised," she said. "I'm not so much an enemy of the kingdom. Whatever you've heard about me probably isn't as true as you believe."
Minerva's ears twitched, as intrigued as she was. "Go on... though I'm sure I already know what you're going to say."
The other lioness's eyes tried to dart for a moment, but she kept herself focused. She hid her nervousness well, and tried her hardest not to give the impression she was being deceitful. "I'll offer you information, in exchange for something in return. The location of the key of Algenubi, for the freedom of Mohatu and I. No tricks, no violence, no trouble. You give me what I want, and I'll give you what you want. It's that simple."
Minerva smiled, almost laughing at Mari's brave notion. "Mhmmmm... what a noble gesture. Under normal circumstances I would consider your offer, though I guess you haven't heard the news. How unfortunate.
"The truth is," Minerva lowered her head, "he didn't make it." There was an odd inflection of sarcasm in the lioness's voice. "Oh yes, so much sorrow... so much loss..."
"What...?" Mari breathed a little heavier than before. She very easily picked up on the queen's change of voice, that much was true. Nevertheless, the thought still sent one hell of a jolt down her spine. "You didn't kill him... like I'd believe that."
"I'm afraid Rex and I did," Minerva answered. "The so-called 'trial' at Giza was actually an ancient execution chamber. Your companion did not survive."
"That's a lie," the other lioness argued. "You didn't kill me, so why would I believe that you'd kill him? Look, I can see through this... I know you're after the key of Algenubi, and I would be crazy to think that you'd kill either of the two lions who know where it is."
Minerva grinned. "Let Mohatu live, and take the risk of King Leo's return? Oh no... not a chance."
"Except you misunderstand," replied the queen. "Mohatu was the true threat—the former king and false prophet. You assume I have no knowledge of this, but I do. I can see through your ploy, despite what you may think. I killed Mohatu so you could not make this precise bargain."
"I don't believe you..." Mari grunted with a forceful breath. All the while, her level of agitation was increasing steadily.
"Actually," Minerva licked her lips. Her mouth was feeling a little dry from all the taunting, but she enjoyed it nonetheless. "As it so happens," she continued thereafter, "it was your own neglect of him that led this to happen. I must congratulate you for that—you sure know how to turn a lover into someone who hates you."
"I don't need to imagine where you got your delusions," Mari argued. Her voice deepened considerably. "Whatever you're trying to do, it isn't working. I know more than you ever could have known about Leo. That was only half the story."
"Not at all," Minerva very gently shook her head. "Leo always spoke very highly of you... he had a great deal of respect for you until that night before he died. You should have seen him, so devastated and hopeless—an easy target. You should have seen the look on his face when he realized that I, too, turned against him...
"It was easier than killing a calf," Minerva bragged. "And he died like a calf."
Mari felt a hard pain in her gut. Her whole body grew heavy, but she never let it show. "I'll believe it when I see the fungi and flies on his cold, dead carcass," she demanded. "For all I know, you're bluffing—and I bet if I go to any of the other dens around here, I'll find Mohatu."
"Your optimism will only lead this to be more painful for you than it already is," Minerva argued. "Funny... you were so willing to cooperate just a moment ago. But do not fret—king Rex will still get what he wants, regardless of your decision here."
As the queen finished her words, she looked like she was getting ready to leave the den. She picked up her shiny white paws in a glorious motion, and swiftly made a turn for the exit. "It's too bad about your poor guy," she added. "It looks like you'll need someone else to make your puppet."
For a moment, Mari bit her lip. Her anger was almost ready to burst. She couldn't hold herself for much longer; this was too much. Whether or not what Minerva said was true, the queen's actions were inexcusable.
Mari's ears flattened, and the rumble of her voice shook the ground. "I was trying to make this easy for you..."
"Oh no, Mari," the queen whispered. "I was trying to make this easy for you."
Even after Minerva vacated the room entirely, Mari was left furious. Her teeth clenched together with all the force she could muster. This was the end of it, Mari assured herself. Not for her, but for the pretty liongirl trying to run away.
And now, Mari knew exactly how she was going to pull off her next trick. Of course, the whole display from Minerva and Safar had given Mari an idea. Now, she knew she had a way out.
"Guards," Mari yelled. As it so happened, there was only one guard by the entrance—but that was good enough, anyway. She only needed one.
"You heard what the queen said," Mari nodded. "She doesn't want this den dirty, but..." Before she could finish, Mari's mind suddenly scattered in all different directions. She tried to maintain her dignity, but that was much easier said than done. "You know I can't stay here forever. I have to use the tree..."
With a heavy, weary sigh, the guard stepped closer. He approached Mari demonstrating utmost caution, staying low to the ground and ready to dodge any impending attack.
"Release me," Mari demanded, forcing her deepest breaths through her mouth. "Escort me to the tree. I'll be a good fartknocker and I'll come right back. I promise."
The guard hesitated at first, but eventually complied. He planted his head against the side of the boulder that pinned Mari's tail, and after a few seconds, the pressure was weak enough for Mari's tuft to escape.
The lioness remained still for a moment, smiling as she appreciated her newfound freedom. She did not want to hurt the guard if she didn't have to, so she tried to demonstrate a peaceful, friendly posture. "You lead the way," she said.
Inari held a small, wedge-shaped rock in his paw. Stroke after stroke, he sharpened its fine edges with the long side of his talon. This was his new job now—at least, it was the job he assigned himself. Rex hadn't actually given him any official orders, so the boredom he faced grew stronger by the hour.
The experience was something new for the knight. It was a time of stagnation and reflection, the first he had experienced in years. With the kingdom's war coming to a close and the ancient artifacts all but in Rex's paws, the lion dreamed of his final battle. No doubt, unless he was to challenge the king himself, retirement was soon to be upon him.
Inari ceased his motions. He stared into the rock's reflective, polished surface for a moment, admiring the smoothness of his day's work.
"Inari..." the lion heard a voice address him from behind. Inari flicked his rock out of the grasp of his paw. Consequently, it skidded across the ground, where it kicked up a small cloud of dirt that blocked the sunlight.
"...yes, milord?" he responded. He was a bit slow with his words, and apathetic all the same. His eyes made a turn after his pause, and there he found the presence of what was a surprisingly delighted king.
"I am here to announce that I sincerely apologize," Rex smiled with his usual insidious grin.
Inari's eyes darted over, unconvinced that he was seeing the real world. "You what?"
"I was considering disbanding your pride for a long while... especially after how utterly awful you were being recently. I almost did it, yesterday. But..." the king explained before he was cut off by the other lion's roar.
Inari growled. "You wouldn't dare do that to me!"
"BUT!" The king insisted again, this time a little less pleasant after being interrupted so rudely. "I have made the decision that I will not recall your pride. I will return your warriors to you. I now realize that taking away your knighthood would be a mistake." He paused thereafter. Lowering the volume of his voice, Rex feigned a hint of vulnerability. "Actually, the truth is, I need you for something very, very important."
"Like what?" Inari demanded. "If you want me back as a knight, I want you to actually tell me what your plans are this time. I think that's fair."
"I'm afraid I can't do that," Rex said. He remained calm yet firm with his voice.
"Then why should I listen to you?" Inari asked. The display of his teeth was an indicator of his feeling of deep hatred. Inari was not one to favor Rex in any major way, but this was just adding fuel to the fire. "Give me one good reason why I should do what you say, when you don't respect me or the other knights!"
"Because if you don't, I will kill you," the king smirked. "It is as simple as that." He trotted forward innocently, but conveyed his usual image of fearless, leonine power with each step. "You're lucky I'm in a good mood today, but do not take advantage of my generosity. This is your last chance."
On the inside, Inari was steaming with ferocity. If only he was strong enough, he would have attacked Rex right then and there. But he wasn't, unfortunately—and this meant he was expected to play the part of the sycophant. "I will not be threatened like this," he fumed. "You've never been fair, but this... I won't stand for this!"
"Oh, I think you will," Rex snapped back.
"And why is that?"'
An intentional silence prevailed for a moment, before Rex let himself speak. "Because Mari attacked Safar, and now you're going to kill her."
"I thought you said you killed her?" Inari inquired, no less frustrated than before.
"I lied. Now I need her dead."
A slight breeze fell in between the two lions. Inari stepped back from his king and let his blood cool. That news gave him an idea; one he certainly liked. Of course, the first thought to cross his mind was a simple one: what if he didn't?
If that was what Rex needed him to do, he'd show him. He'd let the lioness go, and watch with glee as Rex's plan fell flat in front of his face. Sure, he couldn't fight Rex head-on, but he didn't need to. Finally, Inari was set to get his passive-aggressive revenge. Its cold sweetness already filled his tongue.
Little did he understand that was exactly what Rex wanted of him.
"You must understand," Rex continued his lie. "Mari poses a serious danger to us all, and if we cannot stop her... this will be the end of the lion kingdom, right here. In times like these, we need to put our feuds aside and work together..."
"I... understand," Inari nodded.
"I knew you would," the king replied. "Let us go now. Quick, there is no time to waste."
Mari gradually lowered herself under the Pridelandian grasses. Noticing that the guard wasn't going to stop looking, she coughed gently. "A little privacy, y'know?"
The guard turned his back. "You have ten seconds, but that's it," he growled. "One... two... three... four..."
Mari padded at the soil below her paws. She pretended to do her business, then nudged her head up out of the grasses before the counting ceased.
"Five... six... seven..."
"I'm done," Mari announced.
The guard looked back over, then motioned with his tail for Mari to follow. "You're going back now," he demanded.
"Right..." Mari nodded. She followed behind at a slow pace, hoping the guard would take his time. There were things she wanted to see, and things she needed to know. The last thing Mari wanted was to go right back into that den, with the heavy weight of a rock crushing the end of her tail. "Just wondering..." Mari proposed, "do you think we could take the long way around? I just need to stretch my legs a little."
Mari didn't expect much, but surprisingly, the guard conceded. "I don't see why not," he replied. "But I'm warning you, if you try anything, you're dead!"
"I know, I know," Mari sighed. "I'm not planning on escaping or anything. I have noooooo plan whatsoever."
The guard stared at his prisoner for an uncomfortable length of time. That, he was hardly sure he could believe. He didn't say a word, but he knew in his gut that something was very, very wrong with this.
"You know," Mari continued, "I'd actually really like to see the main den by the promontory. Could we just... walk by there...?"
"That's the king's den," the other lion spat. "He's eating."
Mari protested a little. "Yeah, but can't we just drop by and say hi?"
"You are grinding my patience," the other growled.
"Just let me see the den and I'll stop," Mari continued. "It's just a little thing. It'll take twenty seconds at most."
"Fine," the guard conceded. "You're lucky I need to stretch my legs just as much as you do."
"See?" Mari smirked. "That's the spirit! A little walk never hurt anyone!"
In due time, the mountainous peak of Pride Rock made its way into the foreground. Mari set her paws on the promontory for the first time in ages, and as she passed by that one familiar cavity, she couldn't help but have a quick peek.
Unfortunately, the den was even emptier than her prison cell. Aside from the king's new rocky throne and a few zebra remnants scattered about it, there was not a single sign of life anywhere to be found. Not one sign of Leo and not even a sign of Rex. Now, the inevitable truth really was lingering over Mari's head.
Maybe Mohatu really was dead. Maybe there really was no hope left.
"Move faster!" the guard demanded. "Rex is coming!"
Mari's ears jumped, but she couldn't bring herself to move another step. The lifelessness of the den seeped into her stomach. She didn't care what was about to happen anymore—whatever it was, she was ready to face it.
The same guard raised his voice. "Why aren't you moving!"
"Having a problem?" Rex asked as he walked up the promontory.
"She refuses to go back to the den," the guard complained. "I say we kill her."
Mari exhaled her breath. She was so sick and nervous, she felt like she was going to throw up at that very instant. Looking down at the ground, she had nothing left inside her. "It's... fine. I'll go back."
Rex practically ignored the guard and focused his attention solely on his prize. His eyes dialed in on Mari, and he took great delight in her defeated expression. "I suspected you were up to no good..."
"I was," Mari admitted. "But I'm not anymore. I've got no hope left... no plan..."
"Back to the den," Rex commanded. He waited for Inari to take Mari's other side, before he kicked the lioness with his hindpaw. "It's time for you to die."
Mari tried not to let the brutality affect her. She raised her head up, walking slowly behind the two. "And... you know what..." she added, with a long, deep pause afterward. "Doesn't that scare you just a liiiiiiiittle bit?"
Rex looked back and scowled. "You are no concern to me!"
"I was trying to play nice," Mari warned. "But since you killed him... I've got nothing left. Nothing to live for." Mari stopped walking and waited for Rex to notice her disobedience. When he did, she stared him dead in the eyes. "That's right. Nothing to live for, and everything to die for."
Rex showed his teeth.
In consequence, Mari retaliated in kind. "Tell me that's not the scariest thing you've ever seen. I dare you."
Without warning, Rex slashed Mari's neck. A new stream of blood added to the trails that were already there, but Mari endured the pain without even flinching. This response irritated Rex in the highest of ways.
The lion king held himself back, however. "You will walk," he insisted. "You will walk to your den, where you will be ripped apart limb from limb for your transgressions against my kingdom!"
The lioness continued to walk and obey, but no matter how tough Rex tried to present himself, Mari knew she still held something of value. "You try to act all high and mighty, but I know you, Rex," she said. "I know, deep down inside, you fear me more than anyone else. That's why you have to kill me."
"Not true," Rex growled.
"You know it is," Mari insisted. "I never wanted to kill you any more than I wanted to kill Leo. I loved him, and I always loved you too. You two were the first friends I ever had as a cub... even after what you did, I never had any desire to bring pain to you. That wasn't me. I was never an assassin and you knew this."
"You are a traitor to the kingdom and you will be killed with extreme prejudice!"
Mari lowered her voice. "So be it. All this time, I only had three words for you. I forgive you. I knew you were being played just as Leo was. Whoever was making you do this... I wanted you to join Leo and me, and together, we could put a stop to it. But now..."
"YOU WILL STOP TALKING!"
"You've dug your own grave, Rex. It doesn't matter that I'm helpless, defenseless, and without a plan. Now that you've killed Leo—what matters is that even I no longer forgive you, and even I offer you no more mercy."