By Lisa Elis
Hessie crept through the underbrush, in search of an ancient pyramid filled with legendary treasures. The rustling ferns, howling monkeys, and cawing toucans told her the jungle was alive and awake.
Grima had gone first. Not because he was the best at navigating the jungle—though his knee-high boots, the wide-brimmed hat on his bald head, and his cargo vest stuffed with tools seemed to suggest otherwise—but because he insisted.
Meren brought up the rear, unkempt in his matted, shoulder-length hair. No shoes, shirt, or equipment. But then, Meren wasn’t like Grima. He was jungle raised, fully connected to each of his five senses, and it was rumored that he had a sixth one—the ability to understand every living creature.
As they stepped out of the brush into a small clearing, Grima took a moment to collect his bearings. “This way.” He waved a treasure map full of illegible writing in the direction of a steep incline.
“Grima, can I see the map?” Hessie called.
“Not right now!”
Hessie sighed. How was she supposed to help locate the pyramid if he couldn’t let go of his precious map for two seconds?
Meren strode up to Grima and stared him in the eye. “That way isn’t safe.”
“And how would you know?” Grima retorted.
“I have a nose. Up there lives a cat.”
Grima snorted and began trekking up the hill. “Just a cat? I can handle that.”
Meren growled, and Hessie patted his shoulder as she passed. “Don’t mind him. He’s been doing this for over thirty years.”
“How is he still alive?” Meren’s upper lip curled, but he climbed after Grima anyway.
After fifteen minutes of tripping over vines and slipping on moss, Grima held up a hand. “Time for a breather,” he announced, sitting down on a rock, breathing heavily.
“Why?” Meren looked like he’d merely gone for a stroll.
Hessie wanted to laugh, but only succeeded in collapsing under a tree. “We’ve been hiking for two hours, and we don’t climb as well as you.”
Grima uncapped his canister, splashed water over his sweaty face, and handed the bottle to her.
She quenched her thirst, then extended the canister towards Meren, who sniffed at the sky. “What do you smell?” she asked.
“Where?” Grima snatched his canteen and clipped it to his belt.
Meren waved for them to move behind him. Hessie did. Grima stood and drew his knife instead.
“Fool!” Meren hissed.
“No, just reckless…” The sound of rustling reached Hessie. “Grima, step ba—”
The bushes ahead exploded as a small, bizarre-looking creature rocketed out and flung itself on Grima.
The animal appeared feline in form, but also possessed backward curving ram horns and two fox-like tails. Grima fell under the little ball of fury as it dug its claws into his vest and bared saber teeth. The cat raked a paw across his face, tails lashing furiously—but Grima held it at bay so that the claws only produced red scratches.
For several stunned seconds, Hessie couldn’t move. She glanced at Meren, who watched with narrowed eyes.
The cat snapped at Grima’s nose, but he managed to block the bite by laying hold of a horn. Wielding his knife wildly, he sliced one of the tails, eliciting a cry from the beast, which then wrenched itself free and threw itself at Grima’s other hand.
Hessie flung herself forward. Meren leapt into action as well, growling as he lunged and smacked the cat aside. The animal backed a few steps, back arched and hair bristling.
Hessie knelt beside Grima and grabbed his tightly fisted hand. When he unclenched it, she saw two puncture wounds that went right through skin, flesh, and bone.
Hesse flung the pack off her back, frantically searching for her first aid kit. She risked a glance at Meren, who, to her surprise, was crouched low before the cat, his gaze on the ground. He murmured something in a throaty language.
“Grima, you idiot!” Hessie held up his hand, binding it tightly with gauze.
Grima waited until his hand was bound, then started toward Meren, who still hissed, chirped, and meowed at the beast.
Hessie grabbed Grima’s sleeve.
Meren scowled at Grima’s sudden movement. “We walked right into her territory like lumbering buffoons!”
“That’s no reason to make lunch out of me!” The knife in Grima’s uninjured hand twitched.
The cat looked at him with a glint in her eye and gave a purr.
“She says that if you blunder into a mother cat’s territory, it’s entirely your own fault if you get eaten!”
Meren cocked his head. “Don’t you know the jungle laws?”
“Look.” Hessie crouched and addressed the cat. “We’re sorry. It won’t happen again.”
Meren translated for the cat. Its expression softened, and she made a series of chirping sounds.
“She says the pyramids we’re looking for are over the hill, and if we promise not to come here again, she’ll let us go.”
Grima and Hessie exchanged glances, while Meren crouched even lower, eyes closed, and gave a purr. The little beast fixed its golden eyes on Grima for a heartbeat, then disappeared into the underbrush.
Meren stood, and Grima grabbed his shoulder. “How do you speak cat?”
“How are you so stupid?” Meren shook off his grip. “I just saved you from being lunch. Next time, listen to my nose!”
“We need to keep moving.” Hessie stepped between her two companions. “I want another look at that wound as soon as possible.”
Meren let out a breath. He started climbing the hill without looking to see if they would follow.
“Is he always like this?” Grima asked Hessie.
“He’s jungle born,” she replied.