A/N: It's been an extremely long time since I last uploaded a chapter, but I promise this story isn't over yet. There's still quite a bit more I have, and I'll see through it to the end. Eventually, that is.
A Kingdom Reborn: The Legend of Mohatu
Chapter 50: Declawed
Mari didn't remember much of what had happened. Her memories turned to something of a blur, like a half-image of a dream she couldn't quite recall. Bits and pieces were there—the insanity of Safar, the shiny white glare of Minerva's fur, and that stinging feeling of pressure on her tail, just to list a few. Perhaps, most clearly of all, was the thought of how deeply she had grown to hate one of her cubhood friends. It was a hatred that had occupied her mind to the fullest extent, blocking her from any rational thought.
Mari had been beaten, pushed and twisted every which way, but it was all meaningless in comparison to the fury in her heart. She was so scared and so worried, yet it was all incomprehensible. By no small margin, she was more demoralized and disgusted than anything else. Rex was a lion she had hoped she could save—like Leo. Today, however, that hope was crushed. It had vanished, gone totally outside the realm of possibility. With Leo dead, as she believed, she wanted only vengeance.
Unfortunately, the den behind Pride Rock had become a familiar location to her, and yet again she found herself being trapped there. Her eyes were closed, but she could feel the movements of each paw of the lions nearby, and she had an innate understanding of where they were standing relative to her. Though, aside from that and the immense pain and hatred she felt, she had little awareness of the world around her.
Most of what she experienced was just a black sight; there was a large, empty void of senses that had become something of a placeholder for reality. Torn as she was between her deep fear and remarkable bravery, her mental state had fallen apart on her way back to her den of imprisonment. She hadn't slept well lately, and perhaps that was interfering with her. Still, considering the circumstances, she was probably in better shape than most lionesses would have been in her position.
She expected this to be the end of her, whether she would die by Rex's claws or die trying to kill him. But when she thought about fighting back, she found that she just didn't have the energy. Even with hear heartbeat pounding so rapidly and the lightness she felt in her paws, she simply didn't have the capacity to open her eyes and lash out as she desired to do. It just wasn't happening.
Yet again, her body was pushed and yanked around by the lions accompanying Rex, but the sensations were dulled to her until she was aware of the weight of the rock crushing her tail again. Her eyes jolted open only at that moment, and her lips gradually parted to expose her teeth as an instinctive reaction. She saw Rex looking down straight at her, and Inari by his side.
"Oh, good! You're aware again! I must say... I don't just want to kill you," Rex began, and an evil grin formed on his muzzle. His whiskers curled upward in an expression that left Mari utterly disgusted. "There's so much... just so much more I have planned!"
"I don't want to know. It's not as if you haven't found enough ways to make me sick," Mari retorted.
"Oh, no," Rex continued. "I spent far too long waiting for this moment to let it end so quickly. Before I terminate your pitiful little life, you're getting your claws removed. And then perhaps your teeth, too. Just... because."
Mari twitched each of her paws as the thought occurred to her. Needless to say, she didn't like it one bit—but she was entirely certain that she didn't want to give Rex the twisted pleasure he was seeking. "You've sure changed a lot since we last talked," Mari replied, attempting to maintain at least some small portion of her dignity. "For some reason, I had the impression that you were still above such petty things, even after you turned evil."
"I'm not," Rex answered. He was content letting her have that, knowing that it would serve him well in due time. "Inari, hold her down."
Mari felt weight pushing down on her shoulders, and her entire figure came crashing down to the den's floor. Not only was her tail pinned back, but the knight had her front end held down as well. As a result, the air in her lungs was forced out with a grunt. She made no other sounds in her state of shock, but she hardly had any breath remaining to speak, regardless.
"I was going to claim you as my lioness, too," Rex added, lifting his brow suggestively. "But I haven't decided if it's... even worth my time. Oh, decisions, decisions..."
Mari growled, still struggling to breathe with Inari on top of her. She knew he was thinking of raping her, but she also knew better than to appear to fear that thought. It was Mari's immediate thought that if she pretended she didn't care, Rex might not get that twisted pleasure he was seeking. "Does it matter?" she asked, her voice demanding an answer.
"Oh, I think it does," King Rex replied. "Maybe I'll come to a decision when I'm ripping your claws out. So which one should I start with?" he asked, still grinning as much as before.
Mari gave no response. She may have twitched her nose a little, and her tail if it was able to move. Other than that, she had nothing to say anymore.
"What about you, Inari?" Rex asked. "Which ones should I start with?"
"Why not one on each front paw, then one on each back paw?" he suggested. He had a specific reason for suggesting this, though he wasn't going to say what it was when Rex was well within earshot.
"Sure!" Rex agreed. "Oh, that's fine by me. Now hold her down."
Mari gulped and shivered, but there was nothing she could do when the weight of a fierce leonine knight was forced on her. Her shoulders buckled, and her paws were all pinned down no matter how much she struggled to move. Every effort was breathtakingly futile, like pushing against an immovable wall.
Mari saw Rex's paw coming close to hers, and she had to close her eyes. There were tears of hopelessness forming inside her, but she did her best to hide them. Her face contorted in a cringing response, and her neck craned as far downward as it would go. Some combination of a whine and a roar escaped her lips.
She could feel the incision, sharp and painful. At first it was just her skin hurting, but the cut went all the way to the bone underneath. She gasped for air repeatedly, becoming more and more lightheaded with each passing second. She wasn't sure she could maintain consciousness through this, but strangely, she welcomed the thought of blacking out again. Despite the dire circumstances she was in, she had already accepted her fate. The more painless it could be, the better.
So this was how it would end, or so she believed. She'd come so close to death before, and had one too many dangerous encounters already. Mari knew all along there was some chance she'd fail, some chance something would go so catastrophically wrong and she'd end up paying with her life. It was something she had always understood and always accepted, even though she so rarely wanted to believe it on a conscious level.
The reason why she had tried was because there was no other option. She never wanted to go all out hurting lions, perpetuating wars, and running from some inevitable fate. All she wanted was peace and prosperity for her and her pride, and everything she did was just out of some hope of achieving that. Up until this point, every act of hers wasn't one of hatred or some search for power or superiority—it was one last breath of survival.
Now, Mari couldn't shake the thought: her survival was about to come to a conclusion.
Once the incision stopped, Mari opened her eyes to find Rex staring straight at her. Quickly and impulsively, she had to spit in his face. She didn't even realize she was doing it until she saw her opponent turn away and flinch.
"You... I'm impressed, little liongirl. You just never give up," Rex muttered, brushing off his face with his one not-so-bloody paw.
"Don't worry," Mari spat again as a retort. "I already have. I gave up the moment you killed Leo."
"So... so sad," Rex replied, shaking his head and pretending to demonstrate some sorrowful emotion, even if it was a strange and contorted one. "Ahem... you do know Leo was never the king I am? Has that occurred to you yet?"
"I... I don't care," Mari scoffed. Though she was still breathless, she was starting to regain her energy again. "Sometimes I wonder... what would have happened if I had followed you and your brother out into Lea Halalela? What if I had seen it all too... what if I had become Leo's queen? What if, instead of trying to redeem you, we had given up hope so long ago?"
"You know the answer," Rex insisted. "I am the king. That destiny was never Leo's, as the prophecy has foretold. It was mine... it has always been mine!"
"I've never been so certain," Mari replied. "Perhaps you're right. Perhaps we've all misinterpreted the prophecy. But, y'know, I really would have thought that the lion to restore the kingdom to its former glory... wouldn't be the one to kill his brother and exile his family to do it."
"Shut up!" Rex yelled. He then complimented his response with a swift kick to Mari's jawbone. "My father is weak and a buffoon. My brother is dead now, as he should be. I have been chosen to succeed Regulus and take my rightful place as ruler over all that is known. Your faith in these infantile imbeciles has already—mark my words—lead to my very rise to power."
Suddenly, Mari felt a hindpaw on her tail. It was strangely light to the touch, but what made it even weirder was that she now noticed there was nothing else holding her back. Either she had lost feeling in her tail, or the weight had been lifted. In her state of mind, Mari was unsure of which it was, and even unsure of whether or not she was still alive. Perhaps this light feeling was just the first step into some weird kind of afterlife, but she didn't know.
"Excuse me," Inari interrupted, "I have something to say. I've fought with Leo, and I've fought with you, Rex. I'm older than you are, and keep in mind I've seen more in my life than you have thus far. No, I'm not as big or as strong as you... but I'm tired of your lies and deception, Rex. I'm sick of your ego and your demoralization of every other lion you encounter. I don't intend to stop you, but I'll be damned if I don't try."
"Are you challenging me?" Rex asked, glaring Inari's way.
"Absolutely," Inari answered. "Let's do this. If you're so strong and unstoppable, then your conquest will have to continue without me."
Now, reaching a paw out on the rocky floor of the den, Inari made marks on the ground. He had his claws sharpened, and he was more than ready to attack. "For a lion who's so confident, you made a fatal mistake," he said, attempting to taunt his superior. "You thought I'd trust you. But I don't. I'm betraying you, in the same way you've betrayed me. Mari is free now, and she still has enough claws to rip through your neck. It's two against one, and if you decide to fight me—you're at the disadvantage."
Mari looked around at the two lions, pulling her tail back closer to her. Inari was right in that she was indeed free now, but this was all so sudden and surprising. It was like waking up from a bad dream, and now, she was shocked to understand reality.
"FIGHT ME!" Inari yelled. Since the king wasn't doing it, he lunged forward at Rex and delivered the first blow. It would be a challenge for Inari to dish out any real pain to a lion so much more ferocious, but Inari was nothing but a warrior at heart. He'd sure try.
Mari stepped back, avoiding the two males. As their squabble began to intensify, she looked out and saw the light of the outside world beckoning her. She wanted out—she needed out—but she wasn't sure she could bring herself to leave the lion who had just given her a second chance at life.
Before the battle lasted even twenty seconds, Inari already had the king pinned down to the ground. Based on that, it looked like it was going to be over quickly. The knight's paws were already digging into the king's throat, and he was showing his opponent absolutely no more mercy. It didn't happen often, but sometimes the underdog really could win against all odds. For Inari, today sure looked like that unlikely day.
Mari glanced over one more time, and as she continued to watch, she knew Inari was actually succeeding in his fight. It almost brought a smile to her face to see the lion she hated in so much pain, but considering every remaining facet of the situation she was in, she knew she still had nothing to smile about. One quick glance to the outside world told her what to do before she had even made her decision.
"And... that's my cue to leave," Mari thought to herself. Her paws were already taking her outside, whether she liked it or not. She hadn't given it much consideration in the short amount of time that this all unfolded, but it was no doubt a welcomed change. Shortly after she thought she was going to face a slow and painful, agonizing death, she came to the realization that she just might live to fight another day.
Her good friend and lifelong companion Leo was still gone, sadly enough—but for the heartbroken lioness, there would again be another day to continue the fight. This was anything but over.
Once Rex looked over and saw Mari was long gone, he pulled his paws around Inari's shoulders and brought the knight close towards him, down to his level on the ground. "You're a wonderful knight..." he said teasingly. "Believe it or not, you just did exactly what I wanted you to do. Splendid!"
Inari was shocked enough that his grip loosened a bit. This allowed Rex to break free, and the two rolled across the cave floor until Rex could finally push him away. Knight Inari was struggling to react, left completely speechless now. Was this real? Could he really have been manipulated so easily? It seemed almost unthinkable to the leonine warrior.
"You wanted her to get away?" Inari asked, almost in disbelief. Truthfully, however, there was some small part of him that didn't question the fact that he had been deceived. It was only that he didn't want to think it possible.
"Absolutely, I did!" Rex answered, displaying his uniquely sickening smile. "It was no coincidence that I had you, of all lions, in here with me during this... torture session. You had a specific role to fulfill, and you did that beautifully. I always knew you were the traitorous one."
Furious, Inari lunged forward once more and attempted to go after the king again.
Rex retaliated now, and this time, dodged Inari's attack. He threw Inari off balance and straight into the wall, then put his two unsheathed paws on Inari's skull.
"I was going easy on you," Rex growled, directing his booming voice at the pitiful lion below him. "Did you really think you had some kind of chance? The answer was always, and has always been... a very obvious no, if only you had been paying as much attention as I have."
"Then so be it," Inari retorted. "If I die... I die with honor. It was never worth my time to suck up to you." It was clear he believed strongly in his words, as his brow furrowed so heavily in response.
Inari tried and tried to break free, but much like Mari before him, he couldn't manage to do much. Rex just kept hitting him until his vision turned light and narrow, and then it was done. Knight Inari could no longer hear the wind or the chirping of birds outside. He looked down and saw blood all over his aching body, but by that time, it was too late for him to care. His body relaxed, and for a final moment, he felt at peace with the world.
Rex grinned, turning away and leaving the cave after he was sure that the knight was dead. By that time, Sheikra was overhead, and flying down to bring the news.
"Sheikra here. Mari is leaving the Pridelands," he announced. Simultaneously, he made a gentle descent down to Rex's shoulder, then stood there to rest. "It looks like she's headed to the northwest. Should I watch the region?"
"OF COURSE!" Rex answered, albeit rather rudely. "Let her escape... but DO NOT act like you're letting her escape. This is crucial. We need to track her every movement—she'll take us to the key of Algenubi if we're alert enough to watch her."
"Understood, milord," Sheikra replied.
Mari looked left, then right. Her ears were as attentive as could be, and her eyes wouldn't stop darting to every small movement they picked up. Even though she had gained her freedom, there was little keeping her heart from continuing to race along as fast as before. Its strong, rapid beats overpowered even the pain in her neck and paw, absorbing the majority of her attention.
She needed to stay low and keep quiet, that much was as obvious as ever. Despite that, she couldn't help but realize that there was not a single lion in her view. This was the Pridelands, the land Rex had declared his own. She expected to see a guard at every turn, but she simply didn't. The land was clear and free, with the only noises around coming from birds in the sky.
It was most peculiar—but here, Mari wasn't taking any chances.
Mari darted to a boulder, then a tree. She spent very little time outside of shadows, but made a substantial effort not to linger in any particular place for too long. Every step she made was quiet and calculated, but brisk nonetheless. Even her injured, declawed paw still ended up bearing a good portion of her weight. She bit her lip and grunted along as she needed to do.
It was roughly an hour or two until she had neared the Outlands, and by that time, the environment was working in her favor. Dusk had fallen, and still there had been no sight of a peeping lion anywhere nearby. She could now be confident that she would make it home safely. With no other understanding of the recent events, she came to the conclusion that the squabble between Rex and Inari was something greatly beneficial to her escape.
Mari didn't come to rest until she saw the gentle flow of the stream dividing the two lands. She'd have to step through the fjord, but first, she needed a nice long drink. Fairly certain no lion was watching, she dipped her mouth into the water without bothering to keep aware of her surroundings. The cool water splashed her tongue and soothed her throat, giving her the much-needed relief she had sought for so long now.
Instead of crossing, Mari's limbs ceased to hold her weight. She collapsed into the stream, and let the water wash over her fur. The blood stained within gradually faded out, leaving a slight red tint in the downstream flow. That all mattered very little to her, however, as the chill of the water brought her muscles a soothing, relaxing feel.
The trickling noise of the water as it flowed around nearby rocks was enough to almost put her to sleep. The lioness started to yawn, and minute after minute, she grew increasingly calm. She still felt pain over the loss of Leo, but that was something she could confront another day. For now, she found solace in the fact she was simply alive.
If all went well, she'd see her mother again soon. Maybe then—just maybe—her pride would have some idea of something to do with the disasters they faced.