Night fell in Imagia, the moon shining brighter than the night before. The forest had been thinning early into the evening and the group of captors and their prisoner now sat just beyond the edges of the trees. As the sun was setting behind the trees, the shadows began to swallow up the hounds. By the time the last shreds of light from the day left, they disappeared into the trees behind them leaving Zantu as Keesa’s sole guard.

She could feel the warmth of his body as he sat near her. It made her nervous, but not in the way that she expected. Her fur, though still warm from the smoky binding, hadn’t been singed at all. But she felt as though something dark still lingered there. She kept trying to avoid looking at Zantu, but her eyes would slip in that direction frequently.

“I know why you look at me like that,” he said.

She blinked quickly and looked away but didn’t say anything.

“I have no choice but to obey my master and he wills me to find beasts for his bidding.” There was a long minute where neither said anything. Then he said, “Disobedience is rewarded with pain.”

“Rewarded?” Keesa finally spoke. “Pain isn’t a reward.” She felt the burn of the smoky ropes no longer there and wondered how much pain Zantu had suffered before he submitted to this master.

“It is better than death.”

“But…at least in death you would be free.”

He turned to look at her, his eyes searching angrily for words he couldn’t find. His teeth were bared and he blinked heavily, once again trying to shake off something Keesa couldn’t see.

“Why do you do that?”

He sighed, turning away again. “Do what?”

“You seem like you want to be free and then some invisible chain pulls you away again.”

He didn’t say anything, but the silence was peaceful.

Keesa looked around, trying to figure out why the hounds had left them alone. “Where did they go?”

She didn’t have to specify who. Zantu knew what she meant. “Shadows are more powerful in the day than they are at night.”

Keesa shivered. The hounds were living shadows. What horror could they come from? But the thought burned brighter in her mind as she realized that she had all night to run before the shadowy creatures would materialize again and hunt her. Her muscles tensed involuntarily as her eyes swept the thinning forest.

Zantu got up and turned to face her. His eyes weren’t angry this time, but he reminded her once more, “I can’t let you escape. And the hounds are close. They may not have strength in the dark, but they have speed. They would slip through the darkness faster than you could ever hope to run. By the time light touches the forest, they’d be on top of you. You’ll never make it.”

His words were more warning than threatening. And in that moment, even though she knew that it was a fool’s hope, she whispered, “But perhaps…we could.” She braced herself for his backlash, certain he would growl at her in anger.

Instead, he simply stared back at her, a mix of confusion and uncertainty in his sea green eyes. It seemed like they stared at each other for a long time before he finally sighed heavily and turned away. “Sleep. The journey is long.”

Fighting the desire to run was easy now. Fighting the desire she had to stay with Zantu, was something else entirely. You’re a fool, Keesa, she thought to herself, and closed her eyes to sleep.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Get up.”

The words were a harsh whisper in Keesa’s ears. Her eyes opened suddenly, but the way the words were spoken kept her from jumping up in shock. She lifted her head and looked desperately around the forest and noticed that it was still dark, but just barely. She wanted to ask what was happening, but the look she saw in Zantu’s eyes made her heart skip a beat.

Looking into the trees beyond, Zantu spoke in a whisper almost too quiet for Keesa to hear, “Run. Now.”

Her sinewy muscles burned in anticipation as she tried to make sense of the situation. Her ears swiveled nervously as she tried to find out what horrible trap he was setting for her. But then her eyes met his and there was no hint of danger – only compassion.

He was trying to help her.

Her claws dug into the ground, but she kept her position, ready to burst into full speed at any given moment. She could leave – run as fast as possible until the hounds were lost behind her. She didn’t know why, but his words spoke more than just an order. For whatever reason, Zantu knew that this moment would be her best chance at freedom and she had to take it.

But Keesa hesitated. He looked down at her and frowned angrily. “What are you waiting for? Go!” he whispered angrily.

Her body jerked infinitesimally but she still didn’t run, her eyes wide and pleading as she looked back at him. “Come with me.” She didn’t know if the feelings stirring inside of her were real or not, but she had to try.

Something in her words held more than a simple plea to follow. Zantu could hear it and it stopped him. The internal struggle with his darkness fought against him, but Keesa could see his muscles tensing, a perfect match to what hers were. He was fighting the urge to run.

“Please,” she begged. She didn’t know what madness must be taking her to keep her from her freedom like this, but something about Zantu drew her in. She couldn’t leave him behind. Saving his life created a connection between them whether either of them wanted to admit it or not. And so her fool’s hope led her to this junction.

In the distance, three hounds howled. Both of their eyes shifted to look back to the thick of the forest. Zantu shook his head as if a stinging bug was landing on his ear. He growled low. “I can’t….just…go. Now!” His whisper was strained.

When Keesa saw the struggle he was having, she knew at that moment what she had to do. Her claws retracted as her muscles relaxed. “Then I will stay.”

Zantu’s expression was pure shock. The madness in his eyes was fully tamed when he gazed back at her. As he peered into her too-blue eyes, his own stomach lurched. His overwhelming need to serve his dark master was replaced completely with the desire to save her – to save them both.

The moment was short, the hounds howls getting closer with each passing second. But Zantu took a few short steps, closing the distance between him and Keesa. He bowed his head slightly and pressed his forehead to hers.

Keesa responded to his touch with a slight shiver that sparked new hope inside of her. Invisible electricity flowed between them. She closed her eyes and let the moment take her wholly as she heard him whisper, “Together.” She felt his muscles tense next to her and she responded with the same anticipation. Once again, her claws dug into the soft earth and then they were off.

(To be concluded…)

(Tune in tomorrow to read the final part of Keesa’s story.)