I must apologize for the delay in the final part of this story. Due to a quite sick toddler, I was unable to get on here and post it. But without further ado…the final part of Keesa’s story…

Weaving and bobbing through the thick underbrush should have been more difficult, but something new and powerful pushed Keesa and Zantu forward. They didn’t only run for themselves, but for each other and the future that desperately called to them.

The two ran together, Zantu leading only slightly as he knew the best course to take, but the sounds of the hounds were still too close behind them. Keesa could feel the familiarity of the path they were taking and wondered. If she was thinking the same thing he was, then would there be a possibility that it could work? She could sense the shadowy beasts still on their trail, but they weren’t quite fast enough to close the gap. Their howls were falling behind, but only barely.

Keesa’s muscles burned. She’d never run so fast before. Zantu didn’t look like he was struggling as much, but he was built for this. He was made to win these races. And when he looked to his side, he saw that Keesa was slowing. “Keep going!” he urged. “Not much further!”

She panted heavily, her lungs working so hard that it hurt. “I’m trying!”

The howls were closer now. The sun still hadn’t risen, but its rays had begun to lighten the forest. Keesa could feel the shadows getting stronger in the forest and the beasts’ growls were closing in. She dug deep, trying to find the will to push her body further but it was too late. She felt the sting of the shadowy bonds whip out and try to grasp her paws. It didn’t hold and she jumped forward with her last burst of speed. “Zantu!” she cried out to warn him.

With an impressive leap, Zantu jumped up against the trunk of a tree and launched himself back, springing over Keesa’s head and landing heavily into the lead hound. The two tumbled back and took out the other two hounds in a blur of shadow and brown fur. As the creatures yelped out from the unexpected blow, they shook their heads and attempted to get their bearings after the betrayal of their leader.

Zantu was already up and urging Keesa on. “Go!”

They ran up a slight incline and Keesa could smell the trail that led to the murky water they’d fallen into from the other day. Now that she knew about it, she could sense the terrible beast lurking below the water, always eager for unsuspecting prey to fall into its home. She was nervous, not entirely sure if the seeker hounds would follow them over the edge. “Zantu,” she panted, “what do we do?”

His trio of eyes were fierce, his lips drawn back over his saber-teeth. “Jump!”

Her heart thudded painfully. She tried to decide if it would be better to die in the jaws of the beast below than to lose her freedom and succumb to the madness of some unknown, dark master. She knew her answer almost immediately and didn’t hesitate as she leapt through the bushes that had surprised her – was it just two days ago? Instead of tumbling terrified into the water, now an inky black from the pre-dawn gray, she leapt confidently into the cool pond.

Behind her, she could hear Zantu falling and felt it when his body splashed heavily next to her. Both of them frantically clawed at the water and then three unexpected splashes disturbed the water behind them as the seeker hounds leapt into the water in pursuit.

The water stirred below them, the hidden monster surfacing towards the plethora of prey in the water. Keesa and Zantu, in spite of their tired muscles and burning lungs, pushed towards the shore as the white teeth of the menacing beast sliced through the surface of the water and snapped down onto two of the seeker hounds at once. They yelped as their shadowy tendrils spiraled and thrashed, trying to close around the beast’s jaws, but the attempts were feeble as the beast crushed them in its powerful bite. The last hound yelped as it tried to escape its inevitable doom.

The pair of kupa cats pulled themselves to the shore and clawed through the soft ground until they were a safe distance from the jaws of the hungry monster. They both turned just in time to see the last of the seeker hounds pulled under the water, its fiery eyes extinguished suddenly as it joined the fate of the other two. One last smoky tendril wriggled above the surface for but a single moment and then the monster’s tail disappeared below to digest its morning meal in peace.

Keesa panted hard, her eyes wide in residual terror. Despite the water-logged fur, she felt his warmth with Zantu came to sit next to her. He looked down at her when she turned to meet his eyes. The terror melted away from her soul as she realized that that they were safe and that he was there – with her.

Her heart still pounded, but there was newness to how it felt. It was a feeling she had never thought she’d find in her life. Kupa cats, when they found their life-mate, formed a strong bond quickly. She could feel the bonds as they wove into her heart. She stared into Zantu’s eyes wondering if he could feel it too.

Shakily, and still a little unsure, she whispered, “You saved me.”

There was no remorse or fight against the madness. It simply was no longer there. He grinned at her, his eyes softening with his words. “I owed you.”

The words struck her for a split moment and she thought perhaps he didn’t feel the same way she did. That perhaps he was truly only repaying her for saving him. But then he bent his head low and touched his forehead to hers once again. He purred quietly and assured her, “I will always save you.”

Her heart soared as she closed her eyes and purred back, “Always.”

* * * * * * * * * *

From inside their den, she could hear Zantu nervously pacing outside. Keesa could understand how nervous he was, for having cubs was a fear he’d had from the moment she told him that they would soon be here. Zantu knew all too well that there were those that hunted for their kind and that they would never wholly be safe. He’d told her that there were only three seeker hounds in existence, but that his former master would find new ways to hunt again.

Keesa tried to keep his fear at bay, but knew he would always worry. As Zantu wore the grass down outside of the den, a soft mewing reached his ears and he stopped. “Zantu?” Keesa called quietly to him.

He rushed to the opening of the den. “Are they…are you…” he stumbled across his words, “is everything okay?”

Though exhausted, she was smiling when she answered him. “Yes. Come and meet your cubs.”

With nervous steps, he ducked down into the underground den and came upon Keesa. Three perfect cubs, each shades of russet, chocolate, and ocher, lie sleepily nuzzled next to her, nursing quietly. He was struck by how much he already loved them. Keesa smiled back at him, her crystalline eyes tired but proud. He beamed back at her and asked, “Are they okay?”

“They’re perfect.”

“Three?” he sounded surprised. “I was sure there’d be only two.” Pride washed over his nervous eyes for a moment, but then he sighed.

She knew that Zantu was considering all the ways he would need to keep three young ones safe from the dangers of the world. She tried to pull him from his reverie. “Yes,” Keesa purred back. “I know it’s uncommon, but my mother also had three. Of course, we were all girls. You have two boys and one girl. What shall we name them?”

“Oh,” Zantu paused to think about it. He’d never thought he’d find love let alone have cubs to name. But as the reality had been sinking in of his good fortune he’d considered it frequently. “I was thinking…”

“Yes?”

“Well, I’d like to name one after my father – Zaru.”

She grinned back. “And perhaps after my father then. Allogis for this sweet one.” She nuzzled the chocolate brown cub. “And I was thinking Alaria for the girl.” The little girl cub seemed to twitch when she spoke her name, her tawny fur nearly the exact shade as her mother’s.

“Alaria.” Zantu went to lie beside his perfect family. “Yes.” He looked down at the now sleeping trio and a sadness flickered behind his eyes. Memories of his past were flooding his mind.

Keesa had seen it many times before. She closed the small gap between them and rubbed her head just beneath his jaw and cooed. “I know this world has dangers. But I found my way to you. You defeated the madness, my love. We can protect them.”

Zantu sighed again and leaned into her. He smiled. “Yes. We will protect them – always.”

Keesa closed her eyes, perfectly happy. And then she whispered, “Together.”

“Yes,” he purred. “Together.”

The End. (I hope you enjoyed it!)

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