A/N: I know, I needed an entire summer to finish writing this chapter. It's ridiculous how slow I've become, but that's what happens when life gets in the way of things. Expect the next update maybe sometime in November or December. I may be slow, but I will finish this story someday. I promise.
A Kingdom Reborn: The Legend of Mohatu
Chapter 49: Halcyon
Above the Badlandian sands, a midnight thunderstorm ruled the skies. This terrifying image painted Mohatu's dreamscape, with all kinds of hail and lightning exploding downward onto an already harsh environment. The muck and wet sands stuck to Mohatu's paws like glue, making even the smallest movements quite difficult. Even as out of the ordinary as it seemed, in reality this was little more than another nightmare. Just one of many. Just another.
When the great sandy badlands shook with thunder, Minerva and her loyal pride descended from high in the clouds. She and her followers hovered gently down to the ground with some kind of regal voodoo magic, her entire form sparkling and glowing with a certain peachy essence. "Well, Mohatu," the queen greeted as she assimilated into the image. "Your uselessness has lasted long enough. Are you ready to die now?"
Mohatu gulped as he faced his enemy directly. "Go ahead..." he whispered. "I guess I am..."
Of course, he had already been through this many times before in past nightmares. Mohatu knew it was already over before it even began; had knew he had no hope of survival left. He never developed any ideas of fighting back. All he wanted was to face his inevitable fate, and to end his suffering before it got any worse.
He wanted his upcoming death to be quick and painless. It seemed like such a small thing to ask for, but he knew it wasn't going to be. Not with Minerva at the other end—nope, not a chance. She was a menace like that; she would make sure he suffered until the very last flicker of his life had been purged from all of existence.
That peaceful death Mohatu desired couldn't happen. As he kept the dream open, he found himself not just facing his old friends, but an entire pride of lions, many varied and most unrecognizable in appearance as they gathered around. Zuria, Buraya, Inari, and Rafiki filled the empty spots between the assorted variety of felines. This was meant to be an show; Mohatu was meant to be the entertainer.
He tried to force a smile as he looked at the many spectators, despite knowing this would be his final goodbye to the outside world. Yet, something told Mohatu it didn't matter what he did anymore. The pride's laughs and cheers made their desire for violence obvious.
"Are you going to fight her, or what?" Buraya asked.
Mohatu groaned, but the crowd around him only egged him on. Their calls turned into a chant, and their chant turned into something more like a chorus. "FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!" they cheered, not unlike the bloodthirsty spectators they were.
"Fine," Mohatu conceded to the demand. "I'll try." He turned back around to face Minerva with his claws extended, but he was in for a violent surprise. At that same moment, Minerva unleashed a deafening roar. Its shockwave was so strong that Mohatu fell off his paws, and in consequence he crumbled to the ground. He had no chance whatsoever—he hadn't even attacked yet, and he was already lying on his backside in the most vulnerable position, with mud all over his face.
"You're so stupid," Buraya teased. "I can't believe you fell that easily! BOOOOOOOOO!"
The entire group of felines erupted into laughter, with Mohatu at the very center of it. He cringed as a cubbish tear of innocence fell from his eye. He tried to look away, but he had nowhere to go—he was surrounded by unfamiliar laughing muzzles in every direction. There was no escape. He could only go downward. He could only sink deeper into that muddy hellhole he was already in.
Mohatu tried to roll over and run away, but his body prohibited it. Instead, he turned his head back up to the horizon line, and looked out at each lion with his glassy ocular organs. "Why do you all hate me so much?" he asked, his voice cracking and whining like a child's.
"Because you are worthless," one of the lions yelled.
Welp, that explained it.
The words stung Mohatu harder than he ever could have imagined. So it was true. He was hated, tricked, fooled, and betrayed, all because he was of lesser value. He wasn't one of those super-badass lions, and therefore he didn't deserve the privilege of experiencing life. Even though he had already been through this before, it still hurt inside.
"I guess I am worthless..." Mohatu acknowledged. It was a brutal blow to him, as he had just been hit in the very center of his own insecurities yet again. This nightmare was just the same as all the others.
But now, this one time, something was different.
In the midst of his turmoil, Mohatu felt something rattle the ground. This was the first major change of pace he experienced in a while. Whereas all the lions in Minerva's pride shared their enjoyment of the situation, Mohatu could feel something they could not. Whatever it was, he wasn't sure. But it was big, fast, and heading right his way. Its pawsteps matched the beat and pattern of a feline, but something about this one felt ever so slightly off. This was something different, foreign and strange.
Then, there was a warning from the sky. "Sheikra here, looks like we have company. Tiger approaching from the east. Estimated time to intercept, thirty seconds."
"What?" Minerva spat. "But... that's impossible. Tigers are extinct!"
"It can't be..." another lion muttered.
The queen hesitated for a moment, before giving out her commands. "Positions, everyone!"
Once again, Mohatu closed his eyes. He didn't think anything of these new sensations. Instead, his mind focused back on the situation at the forefront of his paws. He had no idea why this was taking so long. All he wanted was for Minerva to just kill him already. This little torture session was going on for much longer than necessary; she was just playing with her food. Mohatu felt more like a calf than even... well, a calf.
But whatever that approaching thing was—supposedly a tiger or something absurd like that—it was battling for Mohatu's attention. When the sound inevitably came closer, all hell broke loose. Mohatu's spine twitched. Then, he heard screaming.
"UGH!" The groan was followed by the sound of a landslide crumbling and cracking down.
"Sidara is down!"
"Block her off!"
Mohatu bared his senses to witness a shower of blood across the air, and the carcass of a lion rolling through the dirt. When he caught a glimpse of Minerva's shiny tail, even she was screaming in terror. What appeared to be nothing more than a playful little game had turned into a frenzy, and in the middle of it was something most unusual.
The cries of Minerva's pride blurred together for the most part, but a few select bits stood out to Mohatu's ears.
"Navari! Get outta there! Break!"
"Kassab's been hit!"
"Unbelievable. She's fighting solo—"
"—You're telling me just one of them is killing us?"
"Why is she so special?"
The cause of all this mess was nothing but a very slight streak of orange. Its motion was a blur, but its existence could only have meant one thing. This new feline was alien in origin, and there Mohatu was watching it all from the center. It was only now that he saw it with his own eyes. Now, the realization occurred to him: this really was the feline of legends.
Roars pierced through the air. Talons clashed. Blood spilled. With each rapid heartbeat, there were cries of pain all across the horizon. This was a seemingly endless sequence of nothing but violence and murder. As the battle drew on, the pain that new feline dished out increased in magnitude.
Mohatu, however, felt no such pain. His back remained safe against the desert sands, and the chaos erupted everywhere in a perimeter around him. It was as though he was shielded in a bubble, somehow invisible to the striped menace attacking his enemies. The tiger never even looked at him; she never seemed to recognize his existence.
From the inside of his safety bubble, Mohatu now realized he was watching his most feared enemies fight an even greater enemy. This tiger—a female tigress, no less—battled the entire pride of lions with only two paws. She struck them down like flies, with a precision so masterful, it was unlike anything he had ever seen before. She was bigger, stronger, more agile, and had a sort of omniscient awareness. This feline was the master of solo combat in the same way Minerva was the master of evil.
Minerva's pride tried to flank the tigress time and time again, but even that was no use. No doubt about it, this orange and black furred thing was the overlord of all that ever was and all that ever could be. She was the feline God of war, and as such, she picked them off one by one. In the end, it was only Minerva left. Every other feline bit the dist, their limbs too battered and bruised to continue fighting.
Finally ready to end the fight, the lioness who called herself queen was whimpering down on her forepaws. She had an unforgettable look of defeat plastered onto her whiskers. "You... you may have beaten us, but you'll never kill me!"
"You don't know how right you are," the tigress replied. Her words were barely discernible through her thick breathing, but the meaning was hardly lost. She approached Minerva with her eyes fixed in place, obviously intending to strike fear into the heart of her last opponent. "Oh, I want to kill you. You know I do. But I'm not like you. I won't kill you. What happened here can never happen again, you got that?"
Minerva cringed, raising her paw in defense.
"ENOUGH! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?" the tigress demanded.
Her question, however, went unanswered. Instead of surrendering to her enemy, Minerva vanished into a less opaque form, and faded back up into the skies. The queen's final words rained like thunder from the sky. "I am all powerful! You can't be!"
"Yeah, right," the tigress stopped the tension in her muscles. She knew she had won, yet she didn't even attempt to follow her opponent back into the clouds. She kept her paws on the ground, and kept her head just as level.
Mohatu's jaw fell ajar. His heart stopped, and his breath died the moment he set his eyes on the tigress. "Who... are you...?" he asked, examining the feline through his watery, distorted eyes.
"I'm here to help," the tigress answered.
"No one, and I mean no one, deserves to die like that."
"I do," Mohatu admitted. "I'm worthless. No one loves me and I don't deserve to be here."
The tigress calmed her breath and sat down beside the lion. "Can you just stop and think for a minute," she asked, the tone of her voice oddly similar to Mari's. "If you think about this, you'll realize it's all completely, ludicrously absurd and none of what you just said is true."
Mohatu rolled over. He now sat with his belly against the ground, looking up at the tigress whose head hovered above him. His spirits lifted a little, but in his heart, he still knew he was as worthless as ever. "What part isn't true?" he asked.
"All of it," the other feline answered. "I love you, I don't think you're worthless, and I want to see you live."
"But..." Mohatu almost attempted to argue. In reality, though, he wasn't necessarily arguing so much as he was getting his guilt off his chest. "I killed my best friend," he said. "It's my fault that she's dead, and that's why she's not here to save me."
Mohatu blinked the tears from his eyes. He looked up, wondering why the tiger was smiling as much as she was. She almost started to laugh, but Mohatu had not the slightest idea why.
"Yeah... about that," the tigress grinned. "Think again."
"I killed her!" Mohatu repeated himself. "It's true... I saw it happen! I let her die!"
"You said she's not here to save you," replied the tigress. "Isn't it funny you're so certain she isn't here right now? As far as I remember, I did just save your furry butt."
Mohatu blinked. "You mean to tell me..."
"Oh, yeah, I'm Mari," the female tiger smiled back flirtatiously. "Hi."
Mohatu felt a jolt so strong, he woke up from his midnight slumber in only a matter of milliseconds. His breath flushed from his lungs, and being that he was very shocked by what he had just experienced, his awareness reached maximum levels.
"Whoa," he fumbled to his paws as his heart pounded. He needed a moment just to gather his thoughts and examine the entire situation. Normally he would just dismiss the entire ordeal as a dream, but after what Rafiki had said, now he wasn't so sure. It was entirely possible that Mari had indeed been reincarnated, and now she was a friendly tigress. That could really have been her.
Mohatu padded his way back over to the book he had looked at earlier that night. Sure enough, the sketch of the tiger on that one page was nearly identical to the tiger he saw in his dream. Everything mentioned about tigers on that page all held true for the way the reincarnated Mari fought in battle. She was, effectively, one of them now.
Truthfully, Mohatu could not believe it. Yet, who was he to argue against what he saw? That tigress claimed to be Mari, and she possessed all the qualities of a tigress and the lioness he once loved. This was, seemingly, the irrefutable truth. Mohatu had to believe what he saw; it was the only thing that made any lick of sense.
Mohatu rested his forepaws down on the book's pages, and closed his eyes once again. Though his mind was filled with a million or so questions, he tried to quiet his inner thoughts. He tried to focus all of his energy on that one lioness he loved, so that he could see her reborn. What he wanted was to go back to sleep, and see Mari make another appearance in his dreams.
Mohatu found himself back in his imagination, but this time it wasn't so amazing. He again rested above the badlandian sands in his mindscape, but this time there was neither any Mari nor any tigress. Even though that was all he could think about, it was still too difficult to see on his own. He couldn't just make her appear—not at will, anyway.
"Are you there...?" he called. Then, he waited. He was rather patient considering his condition. Well, more accurately, he was patient as a feline could be, at least.
Unfortunately, Leo waited longer than he could. In the end, there was no response other than the gusts of air blowing alongside his mane.
"Mari?" Mohatu called again. "Mari Mari, Mari Mari Mari? Mari Mari. Mari Mari Mari? Mari Mari!"
Indeed, Mohatu's behavior was the embodiment of feline patience at its finest. "Aww, come on, Mari! I want to see you again!"
The only response to Mohatu's call was a much less pleasing voice. "Just let her go," Zuria sighed.
Mohatu's sense of reality came back to him. He found himself back in the library he was once in, with Zuria standing right behind him. "What do you want?" he rudely asked her.
"Nothing of you," Zuria spat. "I've given up on you."
Leo groaned. "Gee, thanks."
"I'm just here for a certain book, and I'll leave you back to your moaning," the lioness said. She looked around briefly, but found no sign of the book anywhere. "Alright, what did you do with it?"
Mohatu moved aside, and kicked the book out from underneath him. "Is it this one?" he asked.
"Yes! That!" Zuria answered. She lowered her head to pick the book up with her teeth, and then she carried it out of the room.
Mohatu watched the lioness intently at first, but when he realized that she had been reading the very same book, a burning thought occurred to him. "Wait," he raised his paw. "Don't go yet. What do you know about tigers?"
Zuria shook her head, the spine of the book still pinched between her lips. "They'd make better kings than you," she replied, her voice only slightly distorted from the object in her teeth.
The comment, while not necessarily the worst thing Mohatu had heard, still stung a little bit. Mohatu didn't even bother to give a retort; he knew what the lioness said was true. He didn't necessarily blame Zuria for thinking so little of him. Mohatu knew that in all reality all of his strength came from Mari. Without her, he was nothing... and that was why he needed her so desperately. He needed her, and he needed her as the tiger she now happened to be, no less.
"Come on, Mari," Mohatu whispered. "I'm hopeless. The whole world hates me, can't you see? This is why I need you..."
The lion sighed again and returned his chin to his forepaws. He tried to relax his muscles enough to go back to sleep, and in his mind, he hoped he would see Mari again. Realistically speaking, however, he was only giving birth to something far more unbelievable.
What Mohatu saw in his dreams was just that—a figure in his dreams. But it was also something much more than that; this was the turning point in his experience of torment, as he was soon destined to learn.
"Late morning for you, heh!" greeted Rafiki. He stood in the library's doorway, resting his arms on the sheath of his sword. "You sleep well, I see."
Mohatu groaned himself awake a second time. He didn't exactly feel well-rested, but it was better than he felt before. "Not really," he answered. "I still..." he almost tried to explain himself, but he knew he couldn't. "I saw something weird."
"Mhm?" Rafiki asked.
"It was..." Mohatu looked down at his paw, as he slid it across the smooth tiled floor. "Just a weird dream, I guess."
Somehow, Rafiki managed to understand what Mohatu was thinking almost immediately. Regardless of whether it was baboon instinct or just a lucky guess, he seemed to know exactly what was going on in Mohatu's head. "It was about Mari, mhm?"
Mohatu's breath jumped. "Yeah," he nodded. He waited for Rafiki to inquire further, but he eventually realized the baboon wasn't going to. "But... it was weird, though," Mohatu explained. "It was her... but it wasn't really her."
Curious, the baboon walked all the way into the room. He looked as interested as ever, and even though this seemed like a discussion not really worth having, Rafiki's reaction was certainly suggesting otherwise.
"It's like..." Leo tried to continue his train of thought. "I know she was there. It was just like before, when I saw her. But she looked different this time, she's something different now... I can only see her in my head, and even then, it's not complete. She's not really there, just..."
"Aaaaaaaah," Rafiki nodded. "She is a thoughtform."
"A what?" Mohatu asked.
"A thoughtform," Rafiki placed his sword down as he prepared himself for what he knew was going to be a long conversation. "A being of thought. She exists inside you now, so you see her when your mind is focused and you are in deep thought."
"But she's different now," Mohatu continued. "She acted the same and had the same voice, but she looked different, so much different. I didn't even recognize her at first—"
"Ah, yes," Rafiki nodded. "A thoughtform can do that. She is a nonphysical being, so she can take any form she pleases."
"Well, how do I...?" Mohatu tried to ask some question, though even he wasn't sure what his question was. This was all more than just a little weird to him, and he wasn't entirely sure what all he was really supposed to believe.
"You only need to relax and focus," The mandrill answered. "Let her be, and let her come to you."
"Yeah, I get that," Mohatu sighed. "But is it really her, though?"
Rafiki answered very carefully. He didn't exactly want to be direct with his response. "Maybe," he said, as simply as that.
"That doesn't tell me anything."
"It is exactly as I said," Rafiki continued. "Mari is all around you, and especially inside you. But you cannot expect her to remain the same—she will change, as any thoughtform does. What she becomes is all up to her."
"I take that back. I don't understand any of this," Leo admitted. "All you've done is confuse me with this stuff, and I don't know what's real and what's not anymore. For all I know this is all one bad dream and Mari could still be alive... I just don't know anymore."
"I am real, you are real, this is real," Rafiki nudged Mohatu with his free hand. "Mari and her thoughtform is just that. A thought."
"Then she's not real!" Mohatu whined. "You're just trying to trick me into thinking—"
"No," Rafiki quickly retorted. "I am not!"
"Identity... it is a muddy concept," the baboon continued. "It is not so easily defined as yes or no. Life evolves, moves on, changes. This new character stems from Mari, no doubt, but whether this is a new being or an old one is not to be determined."
Mohatu raised his brow. "Meaning?"
"This thoughtform comes from Mari, but it is only implicitly a shared continuity of Mari. It is a sentient being, if nonphysical—a conceptual being no less real than you. You must not force her into the ideal of Mari if she chooses otherwise."
Now Mohatu was starting to get a little frustrated. "I still don't understand a word you just said. Why can't you just speak like a normal lion?"
"Because I am not a lion! Haha!" the baboon answered.
"But... just tell me!" yelled Mohatu. "Is this Mari or not?"
"It is your mind reconstructing her."
"So it's not really her..." Mohatu said, and his ears fell. After his hopes had been rising all morning, he was now a little disappointed.
"But nor is it a delusion," Rafiki added. "When you think of someone enough, imagine them enough... the character can gain sentience and become part of you. She can live on in your mind."
"And you're sure that's what's happening?" Mohatu asked.
The baboon nodded. He seemed pretty sure of himself, but even despite that confidence, Mohatu was still much less certain.
"So... how do I let her come back?"
"Just relax," Rafiki repeated himself. "Relax, and think of her. Imagine she is with you, imagine she is real. Assume sentience. Treat her as you would another lion. She will come back to life inside your head."
"And you're sure this will—"
"Yes!" the mandrill smiled. He darted off and came back less than a second later, this time with some kind of magical dust in his hand. As he scattered said dust through the air, it didn't take long for Leo to have another hallucination.
When Mohatu's mindvision took hold of the darkness, he found himself at the waterhole. This time, the sky's dreamy orange backdrop at dusk matched the tigress's coat almost exactly. She barely moved from her nest in the grasses, her eyes fixed intently on Mohatu's hesitant gaze.
"Hello again..." Mohatu addressed the strange-looking creature. With no immediate response, he was starting to worry. "You said you're Mari now?"
The tigress twitched her forepaws a little bit. She didn't speak, but each of her breaths were rapid and visible.
"You remember me...?" Mohatu asked. Still, no response. He stepped back an inch—now he wasn't just concerned, but outright terrified. "Or... don't you?W-what's happened to you?"
The tigress moved closer; her nose twitched in the process. She licked her lips with her gargantuan feline tongue, and simultaneously perked her rounded ears inward. It wasn't exactly an innocent look, but it wasn't entirely aggressive either.
Mohatu felt his heartbeat accelerate. He was now leaning back against a rock behind him, anticipating the worst. "I'm Mohatu," he said. "You're Mari... friend..."
The tigress remained unresponsive, walking ever closer to the frightened lion.
At this point, Mohatu was nearly panicking. He knew what tigers were, and he had seen what they were capable of. This wasn't a creature he wanted to mess with. Not in the least. The lion's thoughts raced by with intense fear, and he could think of nothing else but the incessant repetition of his last words. "Mohatu. Mari. Friend. Mohatu, Mari, Friend. Mohatu, Mari, Friend. MohatuMariFriend. MohatuMariFriend! MohatuMariFriend!"
The tigress stopped. Now at a very uncomfortably close distance, she began to smell Mohatu's nose with her own. The lion's fears never died down, though—he hardly moved, paralyzed by his worry of being attacked.
Now leaning almost directly below that Godly tigress, the unmistakable scent of fish filled the air adjacent to Leo's nostrils. He wasn't sure if that was the tigress's breath he was smelling, or something else entirely. As it so happened, this seemed just as novel to her as it was to him. The tigress didn't really appear to know either.
Of course, that wasn't until she looked down at Mohatu's paws, and found the carcass of an animal standing right there. There was indeed a fresh fish right below Mohatu's paws. Based on its look it hadn't been outside the waterhole for very long, but based on its lack of movement it was already dead. The tigress sure didn't care—she bent right down and swallowed the whole thing whole.
With a gulp and subsequently a nice, filling belch, the tigress spat the fish's remaining skeleton out of her mouth. She then looked up almost lovingly at Mohatu. Yet, something was still missing. Those weren't Mari's eyes; that definitely wasn't Mari's look.
Mohatu's breath stopped at that moment. "Who... are... you...?" he asked slowly.
Again, the tigress didn't speak. She hunkered down a little, lowering her ears and tail and allowing her head to sag beneath her shoulders.
"You can't be Mari," Mohatu reasoned. "You don't look like Mari, you don't act like Mari... you're not her."
The tigress looked away. For such a powerful and magnificent creature, she seemed a little sad. Something was definitely wrong here... though what, Mohatu had no idea.
"I don't know who or what you are, or where you came from," Mohatu continued. "But..." he was going to say something else—not now, though. He lost himself.
The tigress's coat of fur turned pale, but when she looked back, her eyes kept the same vibrant and glowing gold as before. After a long and prolonged moment of silence, she finally managed to squeak out a word. "Mari? Friend?" she asked.
"No," Mohatu repeated himself. "You're definitely not Mari." The exotic accent of the tigress's voice wasn't even the deciding factor there. Mohatu knew exactly what Mari looked and sounded like, but this just wasn't it. This wasn't even remotely close.
The now-pale tigress closed her eyes with disappointment. A bright, golden mist surrounded her, and her hue started to change from an orange to something more like a blueish-purple.
"Friend?" She asked, this time a little sadder than before.
"Well..." Mohatu finally let himself relax. He exhaled a satisfying sigh of relief, now feeling some slight degree of happiness. Sure, this tigress wasn't Mari, but she was definitely, almost certainly, his friend.
The first thing Mohatu remembered was how terrible he felt when Mari lied to him about the special red-maned lion that one night. She said she wanted someone better than him, someone with a red mane. She was so fixed on that one attribute—that one small minor thing—and completely ignored him in the process. Now, the tigress's look of sadness was something similar, almost too similar.
"You're not Mari," Mohatu announced. "But that's okay. You don't have to look like her, act like her, or replace her. Of all lions, believe me when I say I would know better than anyone... I would never tell you we can't be friends because you aren't a certain way. I would never do that to you."
Still a little confused, the tigress reached her paw out into the air. She stopped just slightly before Mohatu's muzzle, holding there.
"Yes," Leo affirmed. He leaned forward slightly to meet the tiger's paw with his nosepad. "Friend."
Leo awakened from his hallucination, but found no such trace of Rafiki anymore. He was still in that ancient library, but not a sentient creature could be seen anywhere.
Reminded of his loneliness, he tried his best to make that tiger come back. He forced all his thoughts on that one image in his head, until eventually it came back to him. So she appeared again, but this time with the same look and a whole new personality.
Back in Mohatu's mind, the tiger eyed the fish curiously. She looked down at it, poked it, patted it, swatted it—anything she could to figure out what it was. "Wow," she exclaimed, using Mari's voice, no less. "Oh wow... this is soooooo weird!"
Mohatu's head leaned back. "What?"
"It's just... this feels so different!" the tigress smiled. "Sure, you were Leo and and then reborn as Mohatu. But you really don't know what it feels like to be inside a completely different body. Everything looks different, feels different, smells different! It's like a whole new life!"
"So... Mari? Is that you?"
The now blue tigress leaned down to taste the fish, then leaped high into the air. As was evident by the expression between her whiskers, she was going completely bonkers with a cub-like excitement. "Oh! That tastes fantastic! I never cared much for fish before, but that! Mhmmm! That! And! Ohh! My paws! I have such strong paws now!"
Mohatu shrugged. "That's good?" he replied, but it was really more a question than a statement.
"Look," the tigress finally started to calm down a bit. She stood in place for a few seconds; long enough to explain a few things to Mohatu, at least. "It's like this. Normally, you look brown, the sky is blue, and the grass is green. But with these eyes, your fur is green, the sky is a yellowish-orange... basically red, and the grass is some kind of... I've never even seen that color before!"
She blinked her eyes and moved slightly. As it so happened, however, that was completely unintentional. "Everything feels different, too. Like, normally if I wanted to move my left paw, I would move my left paw. But now moving my left paw makes my tail twitch. Moving my right paw makes my ears lean forward. Everything feels completely sideways, and... it's different, too."
The new Mari reached her paw down to rub her belly. "Like... my nipples! Oh wow, I can't believe how much bigger they are now than they were when I was a lioness. I must be lactating... or... something. It's a bit inconvenient, but I'm sure you'll love that."
Leo wanted to cover his eyes, but nevertheless, he was just as fascinated by this new revelation as the tigress was. His ears perked forward, and he stepped in a little closer. He couldn't really resist. "Umm... can I...?"
Mari paid that comment no mind. "Hmm... teeth. Nice teeth, too. I love this body. Aside from the clumsy sideways awkwardness of it all, I feel like such a badass. As soon as I get comfortable with this, I could take on the whole kingdom myself!"
Mohatu's eyes lowered so that his vision met his own defeated paws. "Yeah..." he replied, but his voice and his thoughts trailed off.
"Oh, don't be like that," Mari replied with a warm smile. "We can take them out. Easily, too."
Leo tried to nod, but still, he was on the hesitant side of things. Mari or not, tiger or not, nothing would change that.
Noticing this, Mari tried to give a fitting demonstration of her new beastly strength. She leaned back in an attempt to balance on her hindlegs, but toppled over before she could get very far. "Okay... balancing is something I'm going to have to work on. It feels like something big is obstructing the movement of my back legs. That's weird. I feel so much stronger, but I can barely move. Did I become a male or something?"
Mohatu shook his head, twitching his whiskers. "N—No... at least, not that I can tell," he replied. "You don't have a mane, or anything else. You still look female to me."
"Well... at least that's good news for you, I guess," Mari replied with a casual, seductive smile before going back to a more thoughtful expression. "But if that isn't it, maybe it's that I have too many hormones upstairs. Something feels unbalanced." She licked her lips with her new tongue, stimulating her nerves as though it was going to help her stumble into some sort of explanation for this strange feeling.
Mohatu stayed still, but the tigress twitched her paw as she thought further. "Hmm... do I have funny pheromones now? I mean, I've been in heat before, and that's sort of what this is like. But I've never felt anything as odd as this. Maybe the feeling is a little different for tigresses... who knows."
"Yeah..." Mohatu conceded. A visible blush appeared even through his fur, so he lowered his head and ears a little. "I mean, you do smell like..."
"Like what?" the tigress leaned in closer and licked Mohatu on the nose. "Do I smell really, really good?"
Mohatu closed his eyes and flinched back at first, but knowing this tigress was Mari, he managed to calm his heart a little. "Yes..." he admitted. "Not that you ever smelled bad, though."
Mari leaned in and hugged her old friend, but unlike the usual procedure she ran through, this time it wasn't a friendly hug. This was something completely different—this was a passionate hug, a loving hug. Those monstrous eyes of the tiger had a very atypical look inside—it was as though Mari was silently saying, let's cuddle each other to death and make out until we can't breathe anymore.
Needless to say, breathing wasn't something Mohatu was doing.
Eventually, the lion's heart started beating so fast that his mind failed to continue generating the false image. His vision came back to reality, and in the tigress's place, he found those same old, boring surroundings. He was back in the library, yet again.
"Mari, no, don't go," he pleaded aloud. "Don't leave me; I was really enjoying that!"
Almost on cue, the same tigress came back into Mohatu's vision from behind, recognizable by her exotic form and her pale blue coat. Mohatu turned around to greet her, but instead of existing in a dream-like state, her image was superimposed in front of the shelves of books.
She opened her mouth, and had a genuine look of concern on her face. "Who... who is Mari?" she asked slowly.
Mohatu's jaw fell agape. "You," he answered, so surprised by the feline's sudden change of attitude. She was just trying to cuddle him, and now she was here, in the library, roaming around without having the slightest idea who Mari was.
To Mohatu, it was the strangest thing.
The tigress strafed aside slightly, keeping her eyes centered on the lion in the room. She was a bit defensive at first, but after seeing how big his pupils were, she inevitably concluded that he was the more frightened one. "But..." she explained, "I'm not Mari. Never have been, never will be. I'm a tigress, and my name is Xi."
Mohatu stepped back, worried and nervous. "Xi...? Is that it? I'm sorry, but I don't know who's who, what's real, what's here and what's not." Tears were forming in his eyes, but he didn't bother to blink them away. "Tell me what's going on!" he pleaded. "I'm so confused! I don't even..."
The tigress shrugged. "I don't know either. But something tells me that you're incredibly sad and lonely about something that happened in your past. I'm a thoughtform. I don't know who you are or why you created me, but... I'm here. And since I'm here, I must exist for a reason."
Mohatu raised his ears. "And... you said your name is Xi?"
"Yes," the tigress replied. "Please stop trying to change me. Please stop doing what you're doing, and just breathe. Relax. This is just as difficult for me as it is for you. I may not be real in the physical sense, but your brain is creating me. And let me tell you... your brain is a very, very messed up place right now. So, call me Xi. Just forget about all that, and call me Xi. Don't worry about a thing. I'm just here to help."
Mohatu shook his head. "No, no, no, no... no! This can't be real!"
"Everything you see is real but me," Xi replied. "I'm just an image in your head. You could make me do anything, make me look like anything, make me say anything. Maybe I appear to be some other creature outside of your body, but I'm not. I'm an extension of your own mind, like an imaginary friend."
"So..." Mohatu was still on the verge of tears, but he stepped forward and reached out his paw.
Xi touched Mohatu's paw with her own. "I'm here, always. I promise. Do you need someone?" she asked.
Mohatu was slow to reply at first, but his answer eventually came. "Yes," he answered, and a tear fell from his eye. It took the same path as the others downward, flowing through the streams of dried tears that had been left behind over the past several days.
"Well, I am that someone," the thoughtform replied warmly. "And I can be that someone, if only you stop, relax, and let me be. Okay?"
Mohatu closed his eyes, but he still saw Xi's image in front of the darkness. "Okay," he replied.
"Good," Xi smiled. "Now why don't we go outside and get some fresh air?" she suggested. "Maybe it'll help you feel a bit better, because you don't look too good right now."
"No..." Mohatu replied. "I don't. I feel just awful. All the time, and it doesn't end."
"Would you like to tell me about it?" Xi asked.
"Maybe... some other time."