Taji crept along on all fours; his claws keeping him steady as he traveled along a branch more than twenty feet above the ground. The boy was somewhere on the ground, below him, moving with such stealth that Taji hadn't even been able to hear him when they were side-by-side.
The branch he was crawling along now was thick and sturdy. As long as he didn't grab any other branches, he would be fine. He stopped, holding his head up, tilting it to the side a little, and listening. A sound, low and eerie, was coming from his right, some ways ahead. He climbed down to the branch below him, which headed off in that direction. Just as he thought he had the renegade with his partner, the sound – it was singing – stopped. He was close; he slowed down, proceeding as softly as possible. Then he saw Akela. She stood from the ground and leaned against the tree behind her, one hand on her head. The mezoi was right below him, Tigre behind her. He was look up at Taji, who motioned for him to stay there. Taji dropped from the tree, right behind the mezoi, and back-handed the side of her head. She shrieked, surprised, as she flew across the clearing they were standing in.
"Taji!" Akela was standing nearby, staring at him. He left the mezoi to the little boy and ran to her. She threw her arms around his torso. "What are you doing here? You're not supposed to be here. You're supposed to be–"
"Helping you," he said, "that's what I'm doing. I'm going to take you back, now."
"Not yet," she said softly. She was silent for a moment, then looked up at Tigre, who was with the mezoi. They were circling each other.
"Lyra, no!" Akela said softly. She knew there wasn't much she could do about it.
"Don't be stupid, boy," Taji called. He strode forward before his partner could stop him, and he grabbed the boy's shirt. There was a loud bang that resounded through the woods. Everything was still for a moment, and then there was a scream. A shrill scream that ripped through the night air, and shattered it into thousands of pieces.
Akela raced forward to catch the falling body of her comrade. The shot had impacted on the surface of Taji's hip, and ripped it apart to the bone. He fell forward into her arms, blood seeping through his yellow fur. She buried her face into his soft neck.
"Oh, God, no . . . ," she whispered softly, "You idiot, you shouldn't even be here."
Swearing, Lyra allowed her gun to fall to the ground with a dull thud.
The burning pain in Taji's leg – it felt like someone had taken a white-hot brand and pressed it into his leg, deeper and deeper and hotter and hotter. He could hear his voice rasping against his throat as he breathed. He didn't even bother with speaking.
Akela's left hand moved down his side, feeling for the injury. His hand shot up to her shoulder, fingers, claws, digging into her flesh, pushing her arm away. She pulled her hand away.
"I can help you if you'll let me see it."
A groan, the only reply he could manage just now, rasped up from his throat. Rest was what he needed now; a good, long rest . . . and a little morphine. More than a little: enough to drown out his brain for a little while – make the pain stop.
The ground rushed up to meet him, and then he realized that Akela was putting him down on his stomach, then she moved him onto one side so the injured leg wasn't touching the ground. One of her hands covered his own, the one clenching her shoulder. She squeezed it, holding it there, and he willingly dug his claws in deeper. It helped, but very little.
"I'm so sorry," it was the female's voice, somewhere behind him, "I didn't mean to hit him."
"Get away from us, both of you!" Akela snapped sharply, "And get away from each other! LYRA! Thank-you. . . . Now, I need to call the city. Lyra, take your gun and get out of here, I'll meet you later and we'll talk. Tigre, sit down and be still. He'll be fine. . . ."
Whatever else was said, Taji didn't hear it. Akela didn't move that he could tell, and neither did he, save that he dug his claws deeper into her shoulder. His leg was burning . . . and the fire was spreading to his head, until all he could see and feel were flames and burning heat.
"Damn it!" Akela snapped after a moment, "Those stupid bastards!"
Her voice was choked – she was still crying. He couldn't figure out why . . . he was the one who should be crying. But the mezoi don't cry. He finally passed into sleep.
**The world was on fire. He was burning, his form nothing but fire in itself, and the ground ablaze. He was standing in an inferno. And out of the fire came a shining streak of silver. Its surface was shiny, yes, but it did not reflect the fiery hell-pit. What came for him was a serpent, with deep blue eyes.
~Hold fast to life. Do not allow the blaze to consume you.~
How in hell was he supposed to do that? He was made of fire!
~You must not die.~
The snake was talking to him. God, was this what death felt like? A fiery blaze and a silver talking serpent? Snakes were not made of silver and they did not talk. This one did.
~I'm . . . dying. What am I supposed to do about it?~
~You must not die! Come back!~
But to where? Come back where?
~Taji!~ the voice was suddenly familiar, ~Come back! Oh, God, don't leave me!~
The fire was suddenly drowned in water, and he was certain he would drown as well.
"Dammit, Taji, don't you leave me!"**
The sun beat down on the back of Akela's neck, and she knew her neck was turning red. She could feel it baking. But at least it wasn't her face. She had moved Taji to the side of the road, just off into the trees. She was standing by the pale, cracked asphalt of the country road, stock still in the rising morning sun, facing the city.
Her supervisor had contacted her by Taji's handheld radio, demanding to know where Taji was. So she had to tell him. Her beloved partner was bleeding to death, and she could not take him to any local doctors. Now she just had to wait for help to arrive. Her own truck she had moved this far, but then her supervisor had called and told her to stay put.
Somewhere behind her, Tigre was sitting next to Taji in the shelter of the trees. She would have to wait to deal with the boy. Right now, the important thing was that Taji did not bleed to death. At least, that was her priority. The government's priority would be to make sure there was no record, no evidence of Taji's time outside the city, and they would want her to go after Lyra. She would not be separated from her partner. . . .
It wasn't too much longer before a truck came barreling down the road at . . . Akela estimated it to be going about eighty-five miles an hour. Unusually slow for an emergency vehicle, but she wasn't going to complain. Her partner needed proper medical care, and they were coming. She could gripe at them later for their lack of sensitivity.
Taji was on his way safely back to the city, and Akela was alone at last. She came back to Tigre, who had never left the shelter of the trees.
"Do you want to go home, Tigre?"
"Not really. I have plenty of brothers and sisters to keep mi Madre company. I will not be missed."
Akela frowned, "Ordinarily, I would take you home whether you wanted it or not. Unfortunately, you guessed too much from the start, I am afraid, and you have seen and heard too much since then. At any rate, if I do not have to, I'd rather not face your mother again. No offense, but she is more frightening than a rabid cambo," another moment, and then she said, "I will have to speak to her, at least to get her clearance to take you to the city."
Suddenly, she was in motion, striding for her truck, "Well, come on, hurry up! I have to get back to the city in the next thirty minutes!"
Tigre leapt after her and she was sprinting, then running for her truck. He came up behind her, and she started up the car so fast he couldn't tell if he'd shut the door before or after they were in motion, because she took off, kicking up dust and dirt as she turned the truck around and spend back out onto the highway. She didn't stop at the road, and Tigre wondered if the door would hold his weight as she spun around corners. She pulled the truck sharply into the driveway, narrowly missing one of the neighbor's dogs, and then she was gone, bolting up the stairs to the house, the driver's side door hanging open and the summer heat rushing into car. Tigre ran after her.
When he stepped into the house, his mother stopped whatever she was saying (something about the insolence of city people). She looked between him and Akela for a moment, and finally asked him if he would rather leave with this strange woman. Akela backed up her request, saying that he would have a fine education in the walled city, and he would learn things that no one in the country would ever know. To her apparent surprise, Tigre's mother seemed rather pleased that she would have one less child to worry about and she didn't have to feel guilty for letting him go, since he seemed to want it, anyway. She stated airily that she and her late husband had never meant to have anymore children, anyway. Akela gave a short nod and led the boy out the door. He didn't speak as she ushered him quickly into the truck and tore back up the road and straight to the city.
"Welcome back, Tracker 5-6-5-9."
That's what Akela expected to hear at the gates to the central city. Instead, the female mezoi leapt out of the gatehouse so her furry snout was touching Akela's face, and Akela had to pull away to see her properly.
"My God!" she cried, "What happened out there? I just cleared an ambulance, and they had to show me all their passengers, because it's standard procedure, and. . . . What the hell happened to Taji??? Is he going to be okay? I still haven't told my daughter, oh, God, she'll be so upset. . . ."
Akela started to speak, but before she could make a sound, the mezoi leaned closer, whispering conspiratorially, "Listen, something's wrong. There was your partner, bloody from the waist down, tearing the IV out of his arm and screaming at the doctors. He didn't want to go to the hospital."
The tracker pushed her away gently. "Tigre, get out of the truck. I want to you to stay here," she spoke sharp and quick, reaching to open the door for him, and then she leaned back toward the mezoi, "Taji was shot. This boy needs to be registered. I need to get to the mezoi hospital."
Tigre and the gatekeepers stared as she sped away. He looked up at the mezoi, who said softly, "I hope she doesn't get caught for speeding, or she'll never get there in time."
I can't remember where I was going with this. I am happy to listen to suggestions that might spark a creative flow again. All I know is there is a conspiracy. I know what the conspiracy is. Taji now has a girlfriend. Akela is going to Lyra's people for help. They need to get Taji out of government hands and quickly. I need to reread the story for myself and think of what to do with it. --Alysa Taladay, Formerly Acrocanis