Emerald Feather

Ten

“Ready?”

Ninyo nodded, twisting his sword a few times in his grip. Keena gave a nod too, and the two ran at each other, swords flying. Keena had told Ninyo early on about the importance of letting the opponent attack first, and so they had decided long ago they would both attack at the same time, otherwise the fight would never get started.

The blades clashed in the air and Keena whipped around, slashing again at Ninyo on his side, but he blocked her and swung around to Keena’s right. For quite some time the metal slashed and the two cat people dodged, neither appearing to have the upper hand.

Finally, Ninyo managed to flick Blue Serpent from Keena’s hand. It wasn’t a particularly graceful manoeuvre, but it disarmed the cat girl, and for the first time since she had met him, Keena found Gold Dragon pointed at her throat.

Ninyo forgot his exhaustion from the battle and threw his sword up high with a loud whoop, catching it again by the hilt. “Yes!” he yelled triumphantly, “I seriously rule!”

Keena was grinning and panting heavily, her left hand over her stomach where it had been the whole fight. “And all it took was for me to get five moons pregnant,” she teased.

“Oh shoosh, I’m celebrating,” he laughed back.

“So you going to hunt now?”

Ninyo collapsed back into the sand and groaned, his fatigue suddenly returning.

“Course, I can always do it if you want me to.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” Ninyo said, struggling to his feet. “Back soon.”

“Yep, seeya.”

Keena watched him go, Aaka in tow, then sliced a coconut from a palm with her sword and sat on the beach with her back against the trunk. As she crunched on the delicious white flesh inside it, she smoothed her hands over her bulging stomach, enjoying the feel of her magic beneath the skin. It didn’t seem to mind when she touched her own belly, in fact it seemed to quite enjoy the feel of Keena’s fingers, but if anyone or anything else so much as brushed against her, it let out flashes of green light and let Keena know it was a bad idea for anyone to do that again.

As the moons passed by, the Green Magic had become more and more protective of the baby, but it had also grown more restless. If it wasn’t flitting around her abdomen, it hovered in her fingertips, making it clear it wanted to do something more fun. At first Keena had been worried the magic would get so impatient that it would lash out at the next living thing she came across, or even the baby, but thankfully it hadn’t.

Keena smiled when she saw her skin poke out slightly. She could feel the baby kick from her inside. It was a strange feeling. Not painful at all, just funny. It felt even stranger when her magic started playing with the child, when the two of them squirmed around inside her together. She tickled her skin where the baby had kicked, giggling when it kicked back. It didn’t respond in the same playful way as her magic did, but it made her feel good all the same.

The growing infant had a vastly different feel to the Green Magic. It was more physical. She knew exactly how her magic felt all the time; whether it wanted to be let free, whether it was happy or agitated. But the foetus gave her no indication as to what it was thinking or feeling. It felt more innocent somehow.

“Probably because you weren’t created to kill,” Keena murmured. She was suddenly hit with a wave of nausea. Whether it was from her magic, which may have been hurt from her comment about it, or whether it was just standard pregnancy pains she couldn’t know, but she threw down the coconut and ran to the sea, tightly gripping her belly.

This was how Ninyo found her, but he didn’t think much of it. She had been running to the ocean more frequently as the five moons of her pregnancy drew on. He sighed and began building a fire for their dinner.

“Ninyo!” Keena whispered. She jabbed him in the ribs a couple of times, but all this did was make him roll over and groan. “I know you’re awake,” she whispered again.

Ninyo let out another groan. “What is it?” he mumbled.

“There’s someone out there.” She had been lying in the dark for a while, feeling her baby inside her but listening tensely to the rustles in the trees. They were too smooth, too obviously calculated to be an animal. When she heard whispers, she felt she had to wake Ninyo.

Ninyo listened for a while. “It’s just an animal. Go back to sleep.”

A stick cracked in the darkness, followed by three or four irritated ‘shh’es. Keena flicked her ears back and sat bolt upright, her hand on Blue Serpent’s hilt.

But she didn’t hear the soft footsteps on the sand in time. A hollow thunk to the back of her head was the last she heard.

There was no warm, sun-baked sand under her when she woke up, just the cool, moist earth of the rainforest. Suddenly the pain in her head hit her, and she clenched her teeth and eyes against it, drawing her hand up to the wound. But as suddenly as the pain had crept up on her, it seeped away. She could feel the skin healing under her fingers.

Her eyes opened wide, and she came face to face with an earth wall. She flipped over onto her back and saw a white haired, white furred girl kneeling over her, smiling gently. On her cheek were two glinting pale pink stones. Rose quartz, the stone of healing magic.

“Who are you?” Keena demanded, ignoring the fact that this girl had obviously healed her wound. Chances were that she put her here in the first place, or at least had a hand in it.

The girl shook her head. “I’d prefer not to get too attached to you,” she said softly. Her eyes flitted to Keena’s stomach, then she looked back up and smiled apologetically.

Keena sat up and looked hard into the girl’s pink eyes. “Where’s Ninyo?”

The girl frowned, as though thinking hard. “Ninyo? Oh, the father.” Her eyes fluttered again on Keena’s stomach. Keena protectively shielded it with her right hand. “He’s fine.”

“I don’t think you quite heard me.” Her eyes flashed dark green. “Where’s Ninyo?”

The healer began to look slightly nervous. “Stay here a while and get your strength back,” she said hurriedly, “All will be revealed to you in time.” She stood and smoothed out her cream skirt, then nimbly scaled the three-metre-high wall of the pit. Keena was shocked to see the girl bore no sword, or weapon of any kind. She didn’t even have a sheath to hold one.

Keena stood, with more effort than she was used to, and put her hands on the moist earth wall, looking up at the circle of sky, dappled by rich green trees. A few moons ago she would have been able to climb that in a second or two with no second thought about it. She frowned in determination, flattened her back against the earth and ran at the opposite wall, leaping as high as she could. Her fingers didn’t even reach the top, and instead she crashed stomach first into the wall. She gasped and clutched her stomach at the sick feeling that had suddenly emerged, but it passed in a few seconds.

“Scratch that idea,” she muttered, staring up the wall with her hands on her hips.

Once she got out of the hole she’d have no problems. True, Ninyo had beaten her the day before, but she was still a keen swords person. She began digging a hole in the wall, about waist height, then tried lifting her left foot up to it. She growled when it wouldn’t go any higher than her other knee, silently cursing her enlarged belly.

As she dug out a second, lower hole, she wondered vaguely how long she had been blacked out. It was night time when she had been captured, and now it seemed to be late in the afternoon. Almost a full day. Or more. She had no idea. How bad had the blow been?

She heard a loud roar from somewhere outside the hole, too close to be safe. Even less so given her current location. She abandoned her digging and looked up again at the sky, her hand on Blue Serpent’s hilt.

A growl that sounded much like a protest made its way into the hole, and it sent tingles up Keena’s spine. Whatever big cat it was that she could hear it was heading her way. She gave a growl of her own, sliding Blue Serpent out of its sheath and listening intently for any footsteps or other signs of the feline.

Just after she heard them she saw a pair of heavy, black paws appear at the edge of the hole, pushing earth down into the hole in its haste to get away. Obviously the panther was being forced into the hole. Why the creature didn’t just turn and attack who or whatever was pushing it in Keena didn’t know, but her main concern was that it was eventually going to end up down there with her. The hole was relatively substantial, but not large enough for both her and a black panther. What were these people playing at?

Eventually the panther was heaved into the hole, and Keena slashed at it at once, missing the big cat’s jugular by a hair’s breadth. She lunged forward again, this time scratching its sensitive nose.

The panther roared, more with anger than pain. Its ears flattened and it lashed out with a heavy paw. Keena blocked the flying claws with her sword, but the strength of the panther threw her to the ground. The panther yowled again, leaping at Keena with claws extended. Its right paw dripped with crimson blood.

Keena screamed in fear for the first time in her life, turned away and lashed blindly with Blue Serpent. She felt it make contact, and the panther landed heavily on her body, blood leaking from its throat.

She screamed again, and with much effort rolled the dead cat off her stomach, then slowly sat up, using her right hand and Blue Serpent to support her, her left gripped her stomach. Her breathing was shaky, and she closed her eyes to try and steady it.

She was trembling all over. Never before had she feared for her life. It was a new experience for her, and she was less than willing to face it again. Like most cat people, she felt a certain attachment to the panther. She hated having to kill it, but it was either her or the cat, and by some miracle she had come out on top. She didn’t look at the panther, knowing what it would do to her.

“Impressive.” Keena lifted her head to the male voice. His hair was short and bright orange, streaked with black. His ears were furred with the same effect and his cheek bore a pair of opals, the mark of those with animal magic.

“And you didn’t even resort to magic.”

Keena would have responded, but she was too tired out, so she was just content with a menacing growl.

“We were hoping you would,” the tiger-man continued, obviously trying to get a reaction out of her.

Keena swallowed and tried to catch her breath enough to say something. “What are you trying to do?” she panted, swallowing again. Her throat was parched dry. “Kill me?”

The man folded his arms. “No, just that,” his waved his arm at Keena’s stomach, “that thing growing inside you. Though if you don’t co-operate with us, we may have to kill you to kill it.”

Keena’s ears flattened. “You come down here and say that,” she growled.

“No, I think I’ll stay here. I won’t underestimate your abilities again, Keena. We thought that since Ninyo had beaten you, you would have to resort to magic to save your own life, thereby killing the thing.”

“My child,” Keena snarled, “Is not a thing. It may have Green Magic, but-”

“That’s where you’re wrong, I’m afraid,” the man interrupted. Keena thought she could detect a hint of sympathy in his voice. “It’s got Black Magic.”

“I don’t know what the hell you think you’re talking about, but my baby has Green Magic. Can’t you see the emerald?”

“Perfectly, but unfortunately in this case the colour of the jewel is no indication of the magical attributes of the baby. If Black Magic left a black jewel when it was developing in the womb, the mother would not hesitate to kill it the second she saw the stone, and no child with Black Magic would ever be born. So it has evolved to take on the colour of the mother.”

Keena growled again. “I don’t believe you.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you believe me or not, your baby has Black Magic.”

“What makes you so sure of that?”

“I and the other people in our group have developed a way to sense Black Magic, but only when it is not yet strong enough to conceal itself. It’s hard to explain, but that’s pretty much how we found you. Or more precisely, the thing inside you.”

“Where’s Ninyo?” Keena demanded.

The tiger-man sighed and rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. “Very well, you’ve asked for him twice now.” He turned and signalled with an arm.

Ninyo was shoved down into the hole by a pair of invisible arms. He instantly embraced her, sobbing into her hair.

“Are you okay?” he asked, holding her by the shoulders at arm’s length. His deep green eyes were worried. “I heard what they were doing to you, and your screams. I know it’s true now.” He took her in his arms again.

“I’m okay, just shaken up,” Keena sobbed back. “Is it true what they’re saying? About our baby?”

Ninyo sniffed and nodded. “You’ll have to kill it. Next mozzie that comes down here, you’ll have to kill it with magic.”

“Ninyo, what is Black Magic?” She gently eased herself out of Ninyo’s arms and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “Why is it so bad that we have to kill our baby before he or she even gets a chance?” She wasn’t about to kill her first child just because of the kind of magic it held. She wouldn’t stoop to the level of her parents.

“It’s like all kinds of magic rolled into one, only evil.” Ninyo’s voice was dark.

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

“I didn’t want to scare you,” he said lovingly.

Keena frowned and looked hard into Ninyo’s eyes.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” he asked.

Keena didn’t say anything. A mosquito buzzed into the hole and landed on Keena’s hand. “Kill it,” she said simply.

“No, you have to.”

“Kill it,” Keena ordered.

“Keena, you have to kill the baby!”

Keena touched Blue Serpent to Ninyo’s throat. As she had expected, he reeled back with a cry of pain, grasping his neck with his hands. “You’re not Ninyo.”

He sighed and looked away. Slowly his face began to change. The rich black hair shrunk into his head and faded to a light mousy brown. A pair of golden eyes looked back up at her, coupled by a pair of golden stones where green ones once lay. He was a shape-shifter.

“How’d you know?” the man asked, dejected.

“Ninyo doesn’t worry about me so much he’d hide something like that from me. Which brings me to another point, why won’t any of you idiots tell me where Ninyo is?” She nodded her head at the panther. “And don’t forget who you’re talking to.”

The shape-shifter’s eyes looked nervously at the panther. A woman who could kill a panther, pregnant or not, was well worth fearing. He swallowed and spoke hastily. “To be honest, I don’t know.”

Keena put Blue Serpent to his neck again, this time holding his head so he couldn’t escape the pain. She had no intention of hurting the man, and she knew that the pain he was currently feeling wouldn’t injure him, but she was running on the idea that he wouldn’t know that. “Care to repeat that?”

“I-” He cried out in pain, “I don’t know!” he spat finally. “H-he esca-escaped!”

Keena removed the blade from his skin, just so she could understand him properly, but kept it hovering over his shoulder as a warning. He rubbed his neck as he spoke. “We had him in a hole like yours, only deeper, but he escaped. Half our group’s out hunting for him now. I promise, that’s the truth, please don’t kill me.”

Keena took the blade away. The man’s explanation seemed plausible enough. “Just get out,” she snarled, “And don’t send any more poor animals down here to try and get me to use my magic, I really don’t like killing for no apparent reason.”

He nodded quickly and scrambled rapidly up the wall, leaving Keena alone again below.

Eleven