The noise was deafening. It shook the temple like it was made of cardboard, rattling windows, shaking doors and knocking one prized vase off its place on the kitchen shelf. The blinding light that followed managed to penetrate even the thickest curtains and threw razor-sharp shadows on the floor. In his room, Master Kurtz clutched at his bedside table for support. He could hear his students crying out in alarm as their world became filled with noise and confusion. At long last the temple became still and Master Kurtz relinquished his grip on the table. He made his way slowly to the door, half crouched in expectation of another quake, his eyes still dazed by the mysterious light. His students were joining him now. First, the two eldest: Joseph, a brown bear who towered over everyone, with thick black hair and a forest of stubble covering his dark face, and; Alice, a panda from the neighbouring town, short and round with bright eyes the colour of fresh grass. Right behind them were the two youngest: Lee, her lean tigress body tense and ready, and; Kovu the wolf, eyes wide in excitement. Master Kurtz silenced them with a wave of his hand.
"Is everyone alright?" he asked.
"What the hell was that?" whispered Alice, clearly still in shock. Master Kurtz shook his head slowly.
"I don't know," he admitted. "But that's not important now. What is important is making sure that no one was hurt." Master Kurtz could see that they were all pretty shaken up, but he wasn't about to let things fall apart so easily. He motioned to each of them with a slender finger. "Joseph, you and Kovu go outside and check on the sentries, make sure that they are all okay. Alice, take Lee and inspect the servants' quarters." They split up immediately, each hurrying to their respective assignments. Before they left, Master Kurtz called: "Meet in the library when you are done." They all shared a worried look before parting ways. Master Kurtz sighed. For some strange reason, a sudden wave of dread had come over him. He pushed it aside angrily and made his way to the library.
His fears must have been misplaced, for there seemed to be no real cause for concern. Whatever it was that had happened, it hadn't caused any damage apart from a few broken plates and a few more rattled nerves. By the time they all reconvened in the library, things had calmed down considerably. The library was one of the oldest parts of the temple, being one of the few remaining buildings of the original model. It was a large, airy room whose walls were hidden behind vast shelves. The shelves themselves were almost invisible
"Well," said Master Kurtz once they had all sat down. "I take it, then, that everything is as it should be?" His students nodded their collective agreement.
"Alice, Lee, how were the servants?"
"A little shaken," said Lee. "But they'll pull through."
"Very good, very good." He turned to Joseph and Kovu.
"Tell me, you two, did the sentries see whatever it was that caused this pandemonium?" Kovu cleared his throat nervously.
"We didn't get much out of them," he said. "They were, um… caught off guard."
Master Kurtz fixed a steely gaze on his youngest pupil.
"What else were they, Kovu?" Kovu lowered his eyes, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. Master Kurtz sighed. While Kovu might have excelled when it came to academics, he possessed the innocence and naivety of a small child, a fact which made him the butt of many a joke by his fellow students. Joseph, however, was older and had no such scruples, and answered: "They were entertaining courtesans from the town, Master."
"I see." The silence that followed was chilling. Master Kurtz made no bones about the fact that he hated the guards assigned by the Emperor to the temple, and moments like this only cemented his feelings.
"So again they prove themselves useless."
"Not entirely, Master." Kovu objected. "One of the guards claimed to have seen-"
"Damn it, Kovu, not that!" interrupted Joseph.
"What are you two talking about?"
"Nothing, Master," said Joseph firmly, silencing Kovu with a fierce glare.
"It doesn't sound like nothing, Joseph. Out with it." Joseph groaned quietly but obeyed.
"One of the guards claimed to have seen something in the sky, before… whatever it was happened." He paused briefly and was overtaken by Kovu.
"He said it looked like a dragon, Master, a bright ball in the sky with a tail like a snake and a body made of fire! He said it was like nothing he'd ever seen before! He said it was so close that he was sure he could have touched it if he'd tried! He said it made a noise unlike anything he'd ever heard before, and that it then crashed into the woods nearby, right before the light and the noise." Kovu probably would have elaborated further had he not run out of breath. Joseph was unimpressed.
"I don't buy it, Master. While they seemed to have impressed young Kovu here – and by the looks of things, Alice and Lee as well – it doesn't change the fact that they were drunk out of their minds at the time. This 'dragon' he claims to have seen might easily have been some alcoholic fantasy of his." Master Kurtz glanced over at Alice and Lee.
"You two don't sound so convinced. Is there something you'd like to say?" Alice and Lee exchanged a nervous glance with each other.
"Actually, Master," said Alice slowly. "What Kovu said, about the falling… whatever it was…" She died down under Joseph's glare but Lee soon took over.
"Some of the servants said they saw a giant ball of flame in the sky, right before the earthquake. They described it exactly like Kovu just did." Kovu smiled gratefully in Lee's direction, grateful for the support.
"Master," complained Joseph. "Surely-" Master Kurtz silenced him with a wave of his hand, much to the amusement of the others.
"It is clear," Master Kurtz said slowly, "that the earthquake was definitely caused by something falling out of the sky and crashing in the nearby woods." Everyone was silent now, even Joseph.
"I believe it is also clear," Master Kurtz continued, "that whatever it is that fell out of the sky is still in the woods somewhere." The students' interest was piqued now. The leaned in closer. Master Kurtz glanced at them all before continuing: "I don't think we should brush this matter off lightly," he said. "Whatever fell out of the sky, it does not seem to be of this world. Now, I believe that it is vital that we find whatever it is, and bring it back to the temple for study." Master Kurtz paused to let them absorb what he'd just said. "Tomorrow," he said eventually, "I want two of you to go out into the forest, find it and, if possible, bring some of it back here where it can be kept safe and studied. Any volunteers?" Joseph's hand shot up like a bolt of lightning. Master Kurtz raised an eyebrow but said nothing. He knew Joseph's pride well enough. He had been shamed by his friends with his denial of the falling star and would now move heaven and earth to get it to the temple. Master Kurtz looked at the other students, waiting for someone else to raise their hand. After a brief moment of hesitation, Alice raised hers. Master Kurtz smiled, not at all surprised.
"Good," he said. "I want you two to leave first thing in the morning. Ask the cooks to pack you some food for the journey. In the meantime, I think we could all do with some sleep after tonight's excitement."
When Kovu woke up, he immediately glanced across the hall into the bedrooms of Joseph and Alice: empty. He was a bit disappointed – he had wanted to wish them good luck before they left – but the feeling evaporated as soon as Lee appeared in his doorway.
"Good morning, Lee," he said cheerfully. She smiled gently at him (he loved the way she smiled).
"Good morning, Kovu."
"When did Joseph and Alice leave?" Lee shrugged her shoulders.
"I don't know. They were gone by the time I woke up." Kovu let out a slow whistle. Lee was the earliest riser out of all of them, often waking up before the sun had even had time to rise. Joseph and Alice must not have gone back to sleep at all.
"You'd better get up," Lee said as she turned to go. "Master Kurtz won't like it if you sleep in too late." Lee walked out, pulling Kovu's door closed as she did. Kovu sighed and dragged himself out of bed. He opened the trunk at the foot of the bed and pulled out a fresh set of robes. Student robes were mostly grey, with a thick black lining around the edges, and made from course cotton that thankfully wore itself smooth over time. Once dressed, Kovu pulled the bed sheets straight and headed outside. The living quarters were at the back of the temple, tucked away into a hollow in the mountain top, and divided into three buildings: sleeping quarters, food hall and servants' quarters. The temple was to the right, built right in the middle of the mountain top, and towered above everything else. Kovu walked past it and made his way to the food hall. The food hall wasn't anything special. It was just a square building, hollow in the middle, and with a small kitchen attached to the back. Inside, two rows of benches ran parallel to each other and a serving table stretched across the far side. Kovu always wondered why they needed so much space for only four people (five, if you counted the Master, which Kovu didn't), but he just assumed the school must have been larger at some point in the past. He spotted Lee sitting down, grabbed some toast from the serving table and moved to join her. She looked up from her meal as he approached.
"Took you long enough," she said playfully as he took a seat on the bench opposite her.
"Sorry," he said as he took a bite out of his breakfast.
"Why do you always eat that stuff?" Lee asked. "You know that they never cook it properly."
"It's not that bad," said Kovu defensively, taking another bite. They ate in silence for a while.
"How long do you think Joseph and Alice will be gone for?" Kovu asked after a few minutes. Lee paused, the spoon halfway to her lips.
"I don't know," she said. "I saw the smoke from where it crashed – well, at least we guess that was where it crashed. It looked quite a long way off. They could be gone all day, maybe longer." She lowered her spoon and shot Kovu a worried glance.
"What's wrong, Lee?" he asked.
"It's just… I don't think Joseph and Alice should have gone alone. I mean we don't even know what's out there. Like Master Kurtz said, whatever it is, it came from out of the sky. We have no idea what it could be. What if something happens? I don't think Joseph and Alice could handle it by themselves." Kovu reached out and put a comforting hand on Lee's arm.
"Don't worry, Lee," he said gently. "I'm sure they'll be fine. I mean, come on. This is Joseph and Alice we're talking about here. What's the worst that could happen?"
"This is the worst assignment ever," Alice grumbled as she swatted another low-lying vine out of the way.
"Oh, quit complaining!" yelled Joseph from the front. "If you didn't want to do it, you shouldn't have volunteered!" Alice rolled her eyes and stumbled forward. The humidity was almost unbearable, and the midday sun beating through the canopy didn't help matters either. Alice couldn't even remember the reason she had raised her hand last night. Oh, wait. Yes she could. It was marching about a hundred meters ahead of her, cutting a path through the undergrowth with a machete. She groaned helplessly and hurried to catch up. Joseph had stopped and was looking at something just beyond him.
"What's up?" she gasped as she finally arrived. Joseph didn't say anything. Alice followed his eyes and gasped. There, just past the treeline ahead of them, was a massive circular hole. It was huge – Alice guessed it must have been at least as wide as the food court back at the temple – and dug deep into the land. The sides of the hole were black with charcoal and were still smoking slightly. That wasn't what was demanding their attention, however. In the centre of it all was a… they had no idea what to call it. In the middle of the crater was another, smaller crater in which a thick black liquid was bubbling away contently.
"What is it?" Alice whispered.
"I don't know," Joseph whispered back. They stood and watched the strange liquid in silence. The sound of the bubbling substance – a sort of burping noise – was disconcerting and making Alice edgy. She turned to Joseph.
"What do we-" He was gone.
"ALICE!" His voice called from below. She peered over the edge.
"What are you doing?" Joseph was already halfway to the pit, swinging his water bottle around his finger. Alice cursed under her breath and slid down the crater-side after him.
"Joseph!" she yelled after him.
"C'mon, then!" he yelled back. By the time she reached him he was already at the edge of the pit.
"Are you crazy?" she panted as she pulled in besides him. He didn't seem to hear; he was too busy staring into the strange, burping liquid, almost mesmerised. Alice grabbed his shoulder and shook him awake.
"Huh?" he mumbled.
"Are you out of your bloody mind?" Alice scolded. "We have no idea what this is. It could be dangerous."
"Oh, come off it," Joseph said. "It doesn't look that bad."
"Still, I don't like it."
"Well, you heard Master Kurtz: we have to bring some of it back to the temple."
"And how do you do suppose we do that?"
"Easy." Before she could stop him, Joseph snatched the water bottle she had hung on her belt and proceeded to pour the contents from his bottle into hers. He then bent down slowly, the now empty bottle held over the pit.
"Joseph," Alice cried out suddenly. Embarrassed, she blushed and turned away as he looked up.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing," Alice muttered. "Just be careful, is all." His chuckle only made her blush harder. She watched as he dragged the water bottle through the black goop.
"Ugh," he said. "It's like tar."
"Just hurry up so we can go." He lifted the bottle slowly and twisted the cap on tightly. When he was sure it was secure, he held it up for her to see.
"Nothing to it," he said. Suddenly, the liquid began to shift in the pit behind him. Before Alice could say anything, pillar of the stuff shot out of the pit and wrapped itself around Joseph's legs, knocking him to the ground and making him drop the bottle.
"Joseph!" Alice cried out as the now snake-like arm dragged him towards the pit. She started towards him but before she could get more than two steps the lid of the bottle shot off, releasing the black liquid which now rose up and writhed towards her like a snake.
"Run, Alice!" Joseph screamed. A second later he was in and under. Alice turned and sprinted up the side of the crater wall. Just as her hand gripped the top ledge, she felt a strong tug nearly dislodge her. She looked down and saw a black tendril curling up her leg. Thinking quick, she grabbed a pocket knife out of her trouser pocket and hacked at it, eventually managing to cut herself free. She clambered over the ledge and stumbled to the tree line. Then from behind her… a noise that chilled her to the bone. Suddenly, she couldn't run anymore. Her legs felt like lead and her arms were jelly. Slowly, she turned back towards the crater. Her screams didn't reach the temple.
Master Kurtz' nerves were on edge as he paced around the front gate. It was almost dark and Joseph and Alice had still not returned. He knew he shouldn't have sent just the two of them. If something had happened…
"Sir!" Master Kurtz tried desperately to hide his panic as he made his way to the guard.
"What is it?" he asked, his irritability masking his growing despair. He followed the guard's outstretched finger and cried out in shock. Coming up the stairs now, almost sleepwalking, was Alice. Her clothes were torn – no, slashed – in several places, her body was covered in dirt and blood, and the way she was limping betrayed a broken leg. She was alone. As she reached the top of the stairs she collapsed in a heap by her Master's side. Master Kurtz uttered a guttural cry as he bent down to help his sobbing student. He put her good arm around his shoulder for support and began leading her to the temple. On his way he grabbed one of the guards.
"Run to the servant's quarters and have them wake a nurse." The guard ran off quickly, but not before casting a frightened glance at Alice. Master Kurtz took no notice and began leading her in.
The medical wing was a small area tucked away into the back of the temple. A small hallway ran down the side and regularly spaced doors opened on to separate rooms. Alice was taken to the room on the far left. The nurse on duty had taken one look at her and nearly fainted. Once she had regained her composure, she got to work on Alice: cleaning her wounds, setting her broken leg and stitching the several lacerations on her body. By the time morning came about, Alice was more bandage than person. Despite the nurse's best efforts, she still remained unconscious for another two whole days.
Lee was keeping watch when she eventually woke up. At first Lee thought she was having trouble breathing and tried to shift her to a more a comfortable position. As she laid a gentle hand on her though, she heard Alice utter a single word: "Joseph…" At first Lee was too surprised to do anything, but she soon got a hold of herself and knelt down beside her friend.
"Alice?" she whispered cautiously. Alice didn't answer at first, and Lee almost lost hope, but then Alice turned over.
"L-L…Lee?" Lee breathed a great sigh of relief.
"I'm here, Alice," she whispered. Alice gave the room a bewildered look.
"Am I in the hospital?"
"Yes, Alice. You were pretty beaten up."
"But how…? Oh god." Without warning, Alice burst into a fit of sobbing.
"Oh god. Oh god. He's dead, and it's all my fault. Oh god." Lee sat silently while her friend cried her eyes out. Eventually Alice exhausted herself and fell asleep, her breathing punctuated by the occasional shaking sob. Lee rose quietly, pulled a blanket over Alice's bandaged body, and tiptoed out to tell the others.
"I'm not sure I can do this, Master."
"I'm sorry, Alice, but it needs to be done." Alice looked desperately at the others seated in her hospital ward. They were all looking somewhere else, anywhere else. Kovu was staring at a vase of flowers on her bedside table, Lee was pretending to be interested in a mark on the floor… Even Master Kurtz was avoiding her gaze. 'They can't bear to see me like this,' she thought.
"Alice," Kovu said to the flower bowl. "If you want, we can leave." Alice shook her head – at least she tried to - and took a deep breath. She told them everything that she could remember: how they'd found the crater with the pit of tar, how Joseph had moved to collect some in his water bottle, and how things then went horribly wrong.
"I'd made it to the edge of the forest and was starting to run, when…" The words died in her throat. She felt Lee's hand placed comfortingly on her arm.
"What happened, Lee?" her friend asked quietly. Suddenly Alice was back there, on the lip of the cliff, back to the forest, and in front of her…
"I was about to run when… I heard his voice."
"Whose voice, Lee?" Master Kurtz asked urgently.
A solitary tear rolled down her cheek and was soon followed by several others.
"Joseph's." The room fell into a frightened silence. To Kovu, it seemed like a horrible accident: he didn't want to listen, but at the same time he couldn't bring himself to leave. Alice continued through her now uncontrollable sobs.
"I heard him call my name. I turned around, and there he was, standing there as if nothing had happened. Only… I saw him get dragged down, saw him drown. I didn't know what to do. I just stood there, watching. He was smiling at me, said I should come and join him. Then… these tentacles started coming out of him… out of his mouth, out of his nose, his eyes… and all the time, he kept smiling and calling my name… Oh god!" This last outburst seemed to push Alice over the edge. She curled into a tight ball and resumed her frantic sobbing. Her friends tried to comfort her but she refused to respond to their efforts. Master Kurtz gestured to Kovu and Lee to let Alice alone, and the three of them exited the room silently.
Master Kurtz led his two remaining students back to the library and ordered them to sit down. They obliged but he chose to remain standing. No one said a word and Master Kurtz took to pacing anxiously. Soon the silence became almost unbearable. Kovu, unable to contain himself anymore, finally asked: "So what do we do, Master?" Master Kurtz stopped his pacing and turned sadly to his youngest pupil.
"It can't be true, can it Master?" Lee added hopefully. "I mean, Joseph can't really be…" The word stuck in her throat like a lump of coal. Master Kurtz sighed.
"I think that, for now, we have no choice but to assume the worst," he said quietly. Kovu let out a strangled gasp and was only silenced by Lee throwing her arms around him in a tight embrace.
"Kovu, contain yourself," said Master Kurtz sternly. "We can mourn your brother in due time. For now, Alice is lying in the medical ward, gravely injured. We need to stay strong for her sake." Kovu nodded tearfully and wiped his eyes with a shaky paw.
"Yes, Master," he said quietly.
"Good. We also need to make sure that the temple is well-protected. Whatever it was that…" He had to take a deep breath before he could continue. "Whatever it was that… killed Joseph" – another cry from Kovu – "is probably still out there. We need to be prepared if we are to ensure that no one else is hurt." Apart from Kovu's barely-stifled sobs, his students remained silent.
"Lee, take Kovu and go tell the guards to be on high alert. With any luck, they'll be inclined to do their jobs for once." Lee nodded and helped Kovu to his feet. With a final worried glance at her Master, she and Kovu walked out.
The air was crisp without being too cold and the frost shone brightly under the full moon-light. The sky was clear and awash in stars. Under any other circumstances, the night would have been considered beautiful. Instead, it just seemed to mock Lee and Kovu as they walked towards the guard barracks. Neither had said a word since they'd left Master Kurtz in the library, though Kovu had managed to calm down somewhat. At least he wasn't sobbing uncontrollably anymore. Lee was worried about him. She knew how… delicate he could be, and a shock like this must be hitting him pretty hard. It wasn't exactly easy for her either. When she'd first seen Alice in the medical wing, all broken up and bloody, she nearly fainted like the nurse. Alice – who was like a sister to her – was now hanging on by a thread and Joseph – whom she also saw as family – was dead. It was taking all of her strength not to collapse into a miserable heap at this very moment. No, she had to be strong, for Kovu's sake if nothing else. She put a comforting paw on his shoulder, which he squeezed gratefully. Hand in hand, they continued their journey to the barracks.
The barracks consisted of little more than two square buildings off to the side of the main entrance. They were the newest buildings on the mountain-top, having only been built fifty years ago during the war against the neighbouring kingdom under Lord Xinta, when it was feared that roving marauders would attack the vulnerable temples and destroy their precious troves of knowledge. Like the temple, however, the barracks were starting to give in to disrepair and apathy. The exterior was noticeably grubby, with peeling paint and overgrown weeds making for a very sorry sight. But it wasn't the run-down accommodation that was currently infuriating Lee. Coming from the inside was the distinct sound of drunken revelry.
"Those sons of bitches!" growled Lee menacingly. Before Kovu could stop her, she was running full-speed towards the barracks. She broke the closed door with a single powerful kick and marched inside. All noise stopped immediately. She glared menacingly at the three antelope courtesans who were sitting in various stages of undress.
"Leave. Now." The sight of the furious tigress was all the motivation they needed. They collected their items and hurried out, ignoring the protests of their five now-ex clients.
"What the hell?" said one of the guards, a large boar with a belly that was straining against the confines of his uniform.
"Yeah," said another guard, this one a water buffalo, "What's the big idea?"
"What's the big idea?" repeated Lee quietly. In a flash she'd grabbed the buffalo by the neck and pinned him against the wall.
"Lee, put him down!" cried Kovu.
"Shut up, Kovu," Lee growled back. Kovu whimpered quietly but remained silent. Lee turned her attention back to the now cowering buffalo.
"I'll tell you 'what's the big idea'." Her voice was dangerously quiet and edged with the distinct sound of murderous intent.
"One of my friends is dead," Lee continued slowly. "My other friend is lying on a hospital bed half-dead, and whatever it is that did that to her is still out there in the forest. Now last time I checked, it was your job to make sure this kind of shit doesn't happen, but you chose instead to stay inside and fuck some cheap village whores. So here's what's going to happen." She closed her claws tighter around the struggling buffalo's throat.
"You are going to clean up this mess, you are going to go outside and you are going to do your job!" The poor guard was too terrified to say anything. Lee finally relinquished her grip on his neck and he collapsed, gasping for air. His pig friend picked him up and helped him outside, the three other guards following quickly behind. Kovu just stood there and watched in a state of complete shock. Lee suddenly seemed like a completely different person. He'd never seen her lose it like this and he was a little frightened by the sheer intensity of the moment. However, once the guards had made their unceremonious exit, Lee collapsed onto the floor with a heavy sigh.
"Lee!" cried Kovu. He hurried to her side and wrapped his arms around her. Her body was shaking violently and, with a start, Kovu realised she was crying. He pulled her closer and held her as her tears fell silently, softly staining her fur.
Back in the medical wing, Alice was squirming in her bed. Her bandages were scratching against her skin and itched like crazy. No matter how many times she tried, she could not get into a comfortable positon. Every movement just brought about a fresh round of burning irritation. To make matters worse, she was starving. It felt like she hadn't eaten in months and her stomach was aching almost as much as the rest of her. Her moaning eventually attracted the attention of the nurse.
"Oh," she exclaimed, looking up from her scroll. "You're up!" Alice simply groaned in reply. The nurse hurried over and grabbed a pitcher of water off a nearby cabinet.
"Here you, go, you poor thing," she cooed as she held it to Alice's lips. Alice snatched it out her hands and drank greedily.
"My, you sure are thirsty!" exclaimed the nurse as Alice drained the last few drops out of the pitcher.
"I take it that you're finally satisfied?" Alice's stomach growled loudly in response. The nurse giggled but understood the not-so-subtle cue.
"You just wait right here," she said as she made her way to the door. "I'll be right back." Alice watched her carefully as she left. She was right, of course. Alice was starving. This wasn't a normal hunger, however, and it wouldn't be easily satisfied with a mere snack. No, it required something more… substantial. A few minutes later, she heard the sound of the nurse's footsteps coming down the hall. She licked her lips. Yes, she thought. She was so, so hungry…
"I take it that you're finally satisfied?" asked Nurse Ray. Alice's stomach growled loudly in response. She giggled but understood the not-so-subtle cue.
"You just wait right here," she said as she made her way to the door. "I'll be right back." Nurse Ray closed the door quietly and made her way down the hall. She couldn't help but put a noticeable spring in her step as she made her way to the kitchen. The sight of her young patient recovering so well was the best sight she'd seen in a while. When she'd first come in… she shuddered at the memory. She'd been a nurse at the temple for nearly forty years and yet she'd never seen anything like what had been brought into her ward that night. Alice had suffered multiple lacerations and was nearly dead from blood loss when Nurse Ray finally saw her. It had taken her nearly two hours to stop the bleeding and stitch the wounds shut. On top of that, Alice had broken several bones and had a serious concussion. It was a miracle that she'd been able to wake up at all, let alone crawl all the way up to the temple. Come to think of it, Alice's recovery was pretty miraculous, given the extent of her injuries. It had only been a few days, and yet if it weren't for the bandages, it would have been hard to tell that anything had actually happened… Nurse Ray tutted herself sharply. It didn't matter, she thought. Her patient was getting better – how fast she did it was irrelevant. She pushed the thoughts out of her mind as she entered the kitchen and concentrated instead on preparing her patient's supper. There was a bit of stew left over from yesterday's lunch should do just fine, as well as some bread and cheese in the parlour. Lastly, she refilled the water jug. There, she thought. That should be enough to satisfy the hungry child. She balanced the meal carefully on a tray and made her way back to her ward. She found Alice sitting stock still on the bed, her eyes fixed on the door. She was smiling.
"Ah," said Nurse Ray. "You must definitely be feeling better if you're up." She set the tray down next to the bed and turned to Alice.
"There we are. Eat up!" Alice said nothing and continued to stare at the open doorway. Nurse Ray frowned.
"Are you alright, my dear?" she asked. Alice turned her head slowly until she was looking directly into the Nurse's eyes. Her smile seemed to widen, but otherwise she said nothing.
"Oh dear," said Nurse Ray. "You don't look well at all, my dear." She reached down to feel Alice's forehead when suddenly Alice's hand shot up and grabbed her. She tried desperately to pull away, but the panda's grip was like iron.
"Alice," she cried. "What are-" Before she could finish, Alice had thrown her to the floor and pinned her down. Nurse Ray tried to scream but was silenced by Alice's fist around her throat.
"Don't worry," whispered Alice in a voice that was nowhere near her own. "This will only hurt for a second…"
The library felt considerably colder as Lee and Kovu huddled close together beside their master. They hadn't said a word on the way back but had held hands the whole way. Their master had resumed his frantic pacing and hadn't even acknowledged the two of them when they returned. After a while, Lee spoke.
"Master?" she asked. Master Kurtz stopped mid-stride but didn't turn to face her.
"Master," Lee continued. "What's going on?" The Master sighed and rubbed his temples.
"I'm afraid I don't know, my child," he sighed. "I just don't know." Of all the things that he could have said, this admission of defeat hit Lee and Kovu the hardest. For all their lives, they had lived in the temple. It had been decided from the moment of their birth that they would study the ancient arts and were carried away before they were even a year old. Master Kurtz was a father to all of them, and in all that time he had always had an answer. To see him completely defeated like this… A piercing scream from the medical ward made them all start.
"That was Nurse Rose!" cried Master Kurtz. Kovu and Lee leapt to their feet and, with their Master, ran to the medical wing. As they rounded the corner into the passage, there was a loud crash from Alice's room.
"Alice!" cried Lee. They picked up the pace and stopped outside the door. It was all quiet on the other side.
"Alice?" Lee called nervously. No response. Master Kurtz nodded to Kovu who reached out to open the door. It was locked, so he broke it down with a deft kick. The inside was a complete war zone. Broken furniture was strewn across the room, linen was ripped to shreds, and – most terrifying of all – a gaping hole and been torn in the back wall which led outside. The three of them crept slowly through the wreckage, alert for any signs of life. A low moan under the remnants of the bed caught Master Kurtz's attention and he beckoned to his two students. They lifted the various pieces and found the battered body of Nurse Rose underneath. Apart from a few gashes across her chest, she seemed thankfully unscathed. Kovu and Lee helped her to her feet.
"My dear Nurse Rose," said Master Kurtz gently. "What happened here?"
"I-it was… A-Alice…" Nurse Rose stammered. "She was crazy… she just…" her voice was choked off by powerful sobs as she buried head in Kovu's chest and began crying. As Lee watched the nurse, she felt anger slowly burn in her chest. It suddenly exploded, tearing through her body like fire. She wrenched the nurse from Kovu and flung her against the wall.
"Where is she?" Lee snarled viciously. "Where is she?" she screamed again as Kovu yanked her off the trembling nurse.
"Lee, what the hell?" shouted Kovu as he struggled to restrain his friend. She finally broke free and spun around to face Kovu and Master Kurtz.
"Oh come on," she said. "She has to be lying. There's no way Alice could have done… all this. " She waved her arm around the room limply for emphasis.
"I'm telling you," cried Nurse Rose. "It was Alice. Only -"
"Only what?" snapped Lee.
"Only…" stammered Nurse Rose, "there was something… different about her. It was like she was Alice… but she wasn't." Lee glared at her but said nothing. She was curious now as to what the nurse had to say.
"Go on, dear nurse," urged Master Kurtz gently. Nurse Rose cast a fearful glance in Lee's direction before she began to speak:
"I was coming back from the kitchen with her supper," she said quietly. "She'd just drunk an entire pitcher of water in one breath but was still very hungry. I thought that was odd, but told myself it was because of her injuries. So I went to get her a meal and when I came back, she was sitting on the bed, watching the door. I put the food down on the table, and then…" Her voice trailed off and she began sobbing again. Master Kurtz reached out and took her hand in his.
"It's okay, my dear," he said. "Take all the time you need." Nurse Rose nodded slowly and took several deep breaths.
"I was just about to leave when she attacked me and pinned me to the ground. I was able to throw her off and we fought." She rubbed the cut on her stomach at the memory.
"She then went for the knife I'd brought and that's when I screamed."
"Yes," nodded Master Kurtz. "We heard you from the library."
"When she heard you coming… that's when she punched the hole in the wall and ran. She just tore it like it was paper…" The whole room was quiet as Nurse Rose finished her story. No one knew what to say. What the nurse had said was completely crazy, and yet the evidence was all around them. Kovu and Lee just stood there, waiting for the Master to tell them what to do. Master Kurtz stroked his chin slowly as he weighed up his options. The thought that Alice could be capable of something like this was deeply disturbing. He would never have considered anything of the sort before, but then again… Something had definitely happened in that forest and now one of his students was dead, the other was possibly on the loose, and the other two were tired and afraid. This needed to be resolved as soon as possible. Finally, he reached a decision.
"Kovu, I want you to stay here with Nurse Rose while Lee and I go look for Alice."
"But Master -" cried Lee.
"That's enough, Lee!" the Master snapped. Lee opened her mouth to protest but closed it when she met her Master's angry glare.
"Now, listen here, my children. Right now, Alice is out there, hurt and possibly deeply troubled. Now I don't know what's wrong with her, but if we want to help her then we need to find her before she hurts anyone else. Am I clear?" Lee nodded but remained silent.
"Good," said Master Kurtz. "Kovu, tend to Nurse Rose. Lee, follow me." Lee grumbled as she followed her Master through the hole in the wall. Kovu watched them leave until eventually the darkness seemed to consume them both.
"You're behaviour was completely unacceptable," Master Kurtz berated his student as they trudged through the darkness. "Not only did you attack poor Nurse Rose when she was clearly injured and distressed, but you then went on to accuse her of having a hand in this terrible mess!"
"I'm sorry, Master," said Lee meekly.
"I should hope so," was the Master's sharp reply. "I thought I had raised you better than that." Lee said nothing and the two continued their search in silence. It seemed a pointless endeavour, however. Despite the aid of the moonlight, it was still difficult to see clearly in the darkness and besides, thought Lee glumly, Alice could be hiding anywhere. For all they knew, she had run back into the forest and taken up refuge there. This did little to comfort Lee's already troubled mind. Despite everything she'd seen she still couldn't bring herself to believe that Alice was capable of such a crime. Of course, the attack on Nurse Rose was the least of her concerns. Though no one had said it yet, Lee knew exactly what the implications were: if Alice had attacked the nurse and fled, it also meant there was a strong possibility that she was responsible for Joseph's death. No, thought Lee as she forced these thoughts back. Alice was innocent. She just knew it. If only they could find her…
Meanwhile, Kovu was busy tending to Nurse Rose. He'd moved her into an adjacent room and had fetched some water from the kitchen which, much to Kovu's astonishment, she seemed to drink in one breath. She was now sitting on the bed, waiting for Kovu to see to her injuries. He'd managed to find some disinfectant in the supply closet down the hall and began to dab at her cuts with some soaked cotton-wool. He grimaced as he did: the cuts were deeper than they had first thought. He was amazed she was still able to sit up at all, let alone smile like she was.
"I just can't believe Alice would do something like this," he said as he put the cotton-wool down and reached for a roll of gauze.
"I guess she just wasn't who we thought she was," Nurse Rose replied. "Perhaps she's capable of a lot more than any of us ever expected."
"I mean," Kovu continued, not listening. "I mean, we've known Alice all our lives, and she'd never hurt anyone without good reason." He wrapped the gauze tightly around Nurse Rose's chest, causing her to wince as he did so. He apologised but all seemed well.
"Well, aren't you just a charming young gentleman?" remarked Nurse Rose as they both stood up.
"Oh, it was nothing," said Kovu. "I'm just glad you could help. Is there anything else I can do?" Nurse Rose smiled sweetly and grabbed his shoulder.
"Now that you mention it, I'm incredibly thirsty. Would you be a dear and fetch me some water? Oh, and some food would be nice. I feel like I haven't eaten in weeks!"
"Of course," Kovu replied. "I'll be right back." As he closed the door behind him, he let out a long sigh. He was glad to be out of that room. There was something off about Nurse Rose. He couldn't figure out what it was, but there was definitely something. Maybe it was the way she seemed to have recovered so quickly. Her wounds, on closer inspection, had been pretty serious and yet she was now acting like they were nothing. And then there was that smile… Nurse Rose's words returned to him as he poured more water into a pitcher.
"She'd just drunk an entire pitcher of water in one breath," she had said. Nurse Rose had just done the same thing and yet she still asked for more. She'd also said that Alice had been incredibly hungry before the attack.
"I feel like I haven't eaten in weeks!"
'Something is definitely wrong here,' thought Kovu. He'd have to watch Nurse Rose closely.
When he returned, he found Nurse Rose sitting back on the bed, watching the door intently. She smiled at him as he walked in. He put the food and water on the nearby table but she didn't move to eat it. She just kept watching him with a smile. Kovu felt his skin begin to crawl.
"Say, Nurse Rose…" He hoped his growing fear was not evident in his voice. "I'm still not exactly sure what happened here. Could you try and explain it again?" For some reason, this seemed to make the nurse's smile grow even bigger.
"Why, I'd love to, sweety!" She got up and came closer to Kovu, who started edging closer to the door.
"You see, I'd just come back from bringing her dinner when I noticed she was acting rather strange." She kept walking closer to Kovu and he somehow found himself wedged in a corner. He was suddenly very afraid of the nurse.
"Of course, I'm surprised I didn't notice sooner, considering what she was doing at the time."
"Wha… what was she doing?" stammered Kovu.
"Why, she was doing this." As Kovu watched in horror, Nurse Rose dug her fingers into her forehead and began to rip her own head in two, until both halves split and flopped around her shoulders. All that was left was her bloody skull grinning wickedly at him. The skull laughed viciously.
"What's the matter, sweety?" it asked in a voice like knives on a chalkboard. "Don't like what you see?" It laughed again. "Well, how about this?" The creature's chest exploded, raining blood and gore all over Kovu. Kovu's screams mixed with the maniacal laughs of the monster as he desperately tried to crawl towards the door. Before he could make it, the beast dug its claws into his shoulder and lifted him up and flung him like a rag doll against the back wall. He felt the cool night air rush against his face as the wall gave way and he continued flying outside. He groaned in pain as his hard landing drove splinters deep into his back. Kovu's entire body went numb and his ears rang like church-bells.
"Kovu!" A familiar voice managed to pierce the haze and he turned painfully to see Lee and Master Kurtz running towards him. Lee fell to her knees next to him and tried to pull him up. He opened his mouth and tried to warn them but all that came out was a hoarse moan.
"What happened, my child?" cried Master Kurtz.
"Let me show you," was the chilling reply from inside the building. All three gazed in horror as the figure of Joseph stepped out of the gaping hole in the wall.
"Joseph?" said Lee in disbelief.
"Hello, Lee," laughed their former comrade. "Glad to see me?" Then, before their eyes, Joseph began to convulse violently. As they watched, his skin began to crawl and deform until he… it… had now taken the form of Alice.
"Gods preserve us," whispered Lee. 'Alice' opened her mouth and let out a terrible, shrill laugh and began to move slowly towards them.
"Guards!" called Master Kurtz, his eyes scanning desperately for the now-much-needed soldiers. This just made 'Alice' laugh harder.
"Oh, don't worry about them," she hissed gleefully. "I took good care of them already." Once again, the creature morphed violently, this time taking the form of one of the antelope courtesans that Lee and Kovu had seen earlier.
"Master," groaned Kovu. "Master, what do we do?" Master Kurtz hesitated for a second before finally yelling: "Run!" Lee yanked Kovu to his feet and the three of them began running, not caring where they were heading as long as it was far away from whatever it was they had just seen.
After running for what seemed like an eternity, the three of them arrived at the dining hall and decided to take shelter there. Master Kurtz helped the injured Kovu as Lee shut the door and began dragging the tables to use as a barricade. When she was done, she collapsed next to Kovu while Master Kurtz began to pace frantically.
"Master," gasped Kovu, "what the hell was that thing."
"I don't know, my child," sighed the Master, "but I think it's safe to assume that Alice – and Joseph – are no longer with us." Lee and Kovu were too worn out to say anything but this realisation hit them hard all the same.
"So," said Lee after some time. "What do we do, Master?" Master Kurtz collapsed on a nearby chair and sighed heavily.
"I'm sorry, my child, but once again I must confess I am at a loss. I have never seen anything like this before." He paused. "I think we should focus on staying safe for now. Come sunrise, we can properly assess the situation." He paused again. "We should all take turns keeping watch. I will go first, Lee second. Kovu, you just rest as much as you can. Now then…" Before he could finish, Master Kurtz was interrupted by the sound of something large crashing into the newly-barricaded door. The whole building seemed to shake but thankfully the barricade seemed to hold. Another blow rocked the dining hall and the three of them were terrified to see their barricade strain against the onslaught.
"Hide, my children!" cried Master Kurtz as blow after blow rained down on the door. Lee grabbed Kovu and the two of them sprinted in the kitchen, slamming the door closed behind them. The pair collapsed, panting heavily, to the floor.
"Okay, Master," gasped Lee, "I think we're safe." She glanced around. "Master?"
Master Kurtz watched grimly as his students made their way to the safety of the kitchen. He knew it was only a matter of time before the beast discovered them. There was no other choice. He had to lead it away from Lee and Kovu. The attacks on the door were becoming more frequent and violent and the entire building shook with each blow. Master Kurtz sighed and prepared to face his attacker. He had no fear about dying for his students. He just hoped it would be enough. At long last, the door could take no more abuse and splintered at the hands of the beast, scattering the makeshift barricade in all directions. Master Kurtz was struck by a flying chair and flew back several feet. As he struggled to his feet, he heard the cruel laughter of the creature as it made its way towards him. The creature had abandoned all pretences of disguise and had now taken on a truly horrific form. Pieces of its previous victims sprouted out of its body like cancerous tumours. Arms bent at unnatural angles stretched out in all directions, heads – including, Master Kurtz was sickened to see, those of Alice and Joseph – twisted themselves so that all eyes stared soullessly at him and the body was supported by several pairs of legs. Master Kurtz nearly retched as he gazed up at the unholy monstrosity. Seeing his terrified expression, the beast's heads opened and let loose a blood-curdling roar.
"Master!" cried Kovu as he and Lee rushed to his aid.
"No, children, get back!" came Master Kurtz' desperate reply. The beast turned its gaze to the two students. The heads of Alice and Joseph laughed manically.
"Hey, guys!" they shrieked in unison. "Why don't you join us? It's so much fun in here!" The beast stepped over Master Kurtz and angled for Lee and Kovu. Just when it seemed like it would be able to grab both of them in its terrible claws, the pair each sprinted in opposite directions. The beast's many heads couldn't seem to decide which one to follow and for a moment it spun around in confusion. Kovu stuck his fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle.
"Hey, over here!" he cried.
"No, over here!" Lee shouted back. This only confused the beast even more and the heads strained against each other as they tried to decide which of the two students to focus their attention on. Eventually, they reached a decision and charged at Kovu, who leaped nimbly out the way. The beast failed to dodge in time, crashed head-first into one of the dining hall's support columns and lay stunned on the ground. The building shuddered on the collision but seemed to hold fast. Kovu and Lee ran over to their Master and helped him to his feet.
"What are you still doing here, children?" he exclaimed. "You should have escaped when you had the chance!"
"We're not leaving you, Master," replied Kovu. Before Master Kurtz could answer back, they heard the beast crawl sluggishly to its feet.
"Master," said Lee hurriedly. "We have a plan: if we can trick it into breaking the supports, we can bring the entire building down on top of it!"
"That's a big risk, child," said Master Kurtz.
"It's the only one we've got," The beast turned its heads to them and growled menacingly.
"Very well," said Master Kurtz. "Let's destroy this unholy creature once and for all." With that said, the three of them scattered to different parts of the room and tried to turn the beast's attention to them. The beast roared but didn't move, its many heads fighting each other in an effort to decide on a target. This decision proved too difficult and it chose instead to pick up a bench and hurl it in their general direction. Master Kurtz – who was closest to the bench's target – stepped quickly to the side and the bench successfully broke another supporting beam. The building shook once more and pieces of tile from the roof broke off and shattered on the floor. The beast roared again and charged at Kovu. Despite his attempt to dodge, the beast was still able to strike him with an outstretched claw and sent him flying off to the side. Thankfully, the wound was only minor and he was able to stagger to his feet. The whole building was shuddering violently now from the activity inside and looked set to crumble at any moment.
'This building's going to fall on all of us,' thought Master Kurtz grimly as he eyed the beast. 'There's only one way any of us are going to survive this.'
"Monster," he called. The beast turned to him, growling. "Children," called Master Kurtz again. "I want you to run as far away from here as possible." Lee and Kovu began to protest loudly. "I'm not going to ask you again, children," Master Kurtz cried. With that, he charged straight at the monster, dodging its first swipe and kicking it sharply in one of its knees. The beast cried out in pain and fell down. Master Kurtz turned to his faithful students for the last time. "Run!" With a final, mournful glance at their Master, Lee and Kovu ran to the door and out the dining hall. As they exited, they heard another roar followed by the sound of splintering wood. As they watched, the dining hall collapsed violently in on itself. The beast cried out once more, and then all was silent.
For a long time Kovu and Lee just stood and watched, unsure of what to do. Eventually, Kovu said: "So is it over?" Lee nodded numbly.
"I guess so." Another moment of silence passed.
"So what do we do now?" asked Kovu.
"I guess we send a letter to the capital," Lee answered quietly. "Someone needs to know what happened here."
"Do you think they'll believe us?" Lee paused.
"I don't know." Kovu said nothing. Lee reached out and took his hand in his and squeezed it gently. He squeezed back and, hand in hand, they walked slowly back to the main hall.