As I’ve mentioned over the past week or so, I’ve been polishing Shadow Cat. It’s a contemporary fantasy with strong romantic elements and 100% written. I’m thinking I can get it all dolled up by the end of the month if I can knock out one chapter a day. So far so good. I think I’ve only missed one day of finishing a chapter, but I spent it incorporating select critter suggestions. It’s a bit longer than I’d like, topping in at 100k words, so I’ve been toying with trimming it though. I recall a few slow scenes which I’m thinking about nixing, if I can. Anyway, I’ve been seriously thinking about self-publishing this piece. For now, I’ll leave you with an excerpt. Enjoy and feel free to comment!
Endau Rompin Rainforest, Malaysia
Berani raced between the trees. Behind her, the tiger crashed through the underbrush urging her forward, gaining with every second. She forced herself not to look back. If she lost her footing…
No. She couldn’t think like that.
Lungs burning, arms pumping, she redoubled her efforts. A wisp of hair snagged a low-hanging branch and ripped free. Searing pain shot through her scalp, but she didn’t falter. She couldn’t. Not if she wanted to escape.
There… a flicker of light? Yes! The sun broke through the dense foliage, promising safety.
A roar thundered loud and ferocious. Birds took flight, and her chest resonated with the sound of it. She missed a step and recovered, putting forth an extra burst of speed. She could make it. Only a couple more feet. If only—
A low growl was the only warning, vibrating so close it whispered in her ear. She spun mid-stride and tumbled backward. Her heart skipped a beat as a mass of orange flew at her. Great Spirit! She clamped her eyes shut. Her body tensed. The tiger hit, its shoulder slamming into her midsection. Jerked from her feet, she grunted as the air whooshed from her lungs, and her fingers clenched tight around fur.
Wind chilled her skin. Time lost meaning. Berani opened her mouth, but the scream caught in her throat, and she fell in silence.
The tiger rotated, putting her on top, and her eyes flew open. The ground rushed at neck-breaking speed, and she threw out her hands just in time to jar all the bones in her arms. Her shoulders threatened to pop out of the sockets as her hands scraped along the dirt and rocks.
Berani slid to a stop and lay stunned. With her wits too scattered for action, her only thought was: Alive. Her body kick started, taking over where mentally she could not. Like a baby inhaling its first gasp, her lungs expanded with a jerk and drew in a much needed breath.
The huge cat chuffed beneath her, shaking her with each sneeze-like sound. Laughter slowly replaced the chuffing as the fur faded, and the immense bulk of the tiger diminished. In place of the massive feline lay a young man.
Young man? She scoffed to herself, more akin to a boy barely entering adolescence. Berani pushed off him. Her deep breaths slowed to a steady rhythm as she let her head fall to the side, facing him.
A light sheen of sweat glistened on his tanned skin, flawless save for the ragged scar running down his belly. His body quaked with mirth, and his yellow catlike eyes stared back at her in amusement. “Not quick enough that time, Berani.”
She clenched her teeth. “If you were anyone but my brother, I would kill you.”
He might be approaching adulthood, but he had a long way to go in maturity, and his decision-making abilities left much to offer. Attacking with such force proved his lack of good judgment.
“You did not have to hit me so hard!” Berani said.
His snickers erupted into a full-bellied rumble.
“Sometimes I really hate you, Pejuang.” She slapped his bare chest and barely managed to stifle a moan as the sudden movement caused a sharp pain to radiate up her side. Berani struggled to sit, pressing an arm tightly around her middle. A hiss escaped her lips. “I think you cracked a rib.”
Pejuang froze. His eyes widened, and he scrambled to his feet. “Forgive me, Berani. You know I was only playing. I would never intentionally hurt you.” His face filled with concern as he held out a hand to her.
“Well, you did.” She closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing through the pain. “You are always so careless. You never think before you act. Anyone would know how dangerous it is to strike at a full sprint.” She lifted her gaze. “What if you had broken my neck or…”
The words caught in her throat. The regret flowing from him chipped at her heart, and she softened her voice. “You are not a cub anymore. You should know better.”
She removed her hand from her side and cringed. “This is horrible. Even after healing, bruises will remain. Look at this.”
Pejuang’s eyes flicked to the reddened patch of flesh already darkening to bluish-black. All remaining liveliness fell from his face, and his shoulders slumped as if he had the weight of a thousand elephants upon him.
Berani gingerly prodded the wound. As much as she loved him, she couldn’t keep the scold from her voice. “If mother finds out you injured me again, you will be banished. Your time with us is already limited. Even without this incident, it will not be long before you are forced out of the clan.”
“You are right,” he whispered, reaching for her.
She batted him away. “Do not be so impatient. Wait.” Closing her eyes, she covered her injured ribs with a hand and channeled energy, her gift from the Great Spirit. The sacred incantations ingrained since birth flowed from her lips and provided focus. Warmth seeped through her fingertips to her side, sealing broken blood vessels, knitting ribs, and repairing bruised muscles. With a deep pain-free breath, she opened her eyes. She could do nothing about the blood already dispersed and trapped under the skin—her biggest concern and evidence of her brother’s harsh treatment. Nothing but time would make the discoloration fade.
She held out her hand, allowing his help as he wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her gently to her feet. His hands went to work, plucking twigs and leaves from her hair like an orangutan grooming a child. Any moment, she expected him to find an insect and pop it in his mouth. Ridiculous. Berani slapped his hands away. “Being regretful early is advantageous; being regretful later is of no use.”
Pejuang’s arms fell to his sides, and he opened his mouth. A single raised eyebrow from Berani daring him to speak, and he snapped it shut. He looked into the distance before dropping his gaze. His long copper hair with just a hint of red, like his tiger pelt, fell in his face and covered his eyes.
She shook her head at him bowed in submission, so common for a reprimanded cub. His youthful appearance gave him a feminine attractiveness, yet his physique hinted at the adult he would become. While most boys his age were gangly, Pejuang was tall and sturdy. He lacked the muscular physique of a mature wehr-tiger, but he was close. In truth, he stood eye to eye with a few full-grown males. The combination alone might merit him an early exit from their clan.
Unmated adult males were not allowed to stay with their birth family. Soon, Pejuang would be forced to leave and tackle the world on his own. She feared with his maturity level, he would not survive long. He was so prone to rash decisions. Alone, he would have no one to save him from his own stupidity. She only wished she could find a way to keep him nearby.
“Sometimes I know not what to do with you. If I ever lost you…” Her throat tightened around the words.
He lifted his eyes to meet hers, defiance replacing guilt. “I can take care of myself.”
“So you say.” Despite his confidence, she still had doubts. She laughed. “You are just like the monkeys. Tomorrow, you will return to your old tricks.”
Pejuang’s nostrils flared, and his pupils dilated.
She smiled knowingly. “See? You get harder to control every day. How long do you think the clan will let you stay within its safety?”
Berani dismissed him with a wave of the hand. “Go home. I will be back in a couple of days.”
“I cannot return without you nor leave you alone out here. What will I tell the others?” His tone turned into a plea. “Please, Berani. Do not make me leave you. Let me stay and make sure you are okay. I will hunt for—“
“Pejuang.” Her voice sharpened. His begging put her on edge like nothing else. “I do not need you to hunt for me. I need you to grow up.”
His entire face lit with surprise before his features darkened, and his eyes narrowed to slits. He took a step forward, towering over her. “I am not the cub you used to push around, Sister.”
Berani held his gaze, refusing to back down. “Really? You could have fooled me.” She played a dangerous game, but she was not about to let an overgrown cub intimidate her.
Pejuang growled low in his throat, and his fangs lengthened.
She inched back a step before she could stop herself. Her brother’s display dimmed a light deep in her center, leaving her cold. Surely their relationship couldn’t have gotten so bad.
“You would attack me?” Her voice wavered, echoing her uncertainty.
Pejuang jerked back as if slapped.
“No, of course not.” The roughness in his voice revealed he barely contained his tiger. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. His behavior proved why he couldn’t stay in the clan. A well-placed nip could bring a cub into submission. Pejuang, on the other hand, did not back down as easily. He met strength with strength. Already, he was beyond her physical control.
Reassured his behavior had little to do with her and everything to do with her little brother teetering between childhood and adulthood, she calmed. “I will be back soon.”
Pejuang opened his eyes, brows knitting together. “You think you can protect everyone. But you deceive yourself. No one can be everywhere all the time… and that is what you would have to be to save us all.”
He was right. She chastised him because it was true. If she could just keep him in line, she’d be able to protect him from the many dangers of the world. Then the clan wouldn’t make him leave. He just had to listen to her. The knowledge he wouldn’t weighed on her… drained her. “Just go home, Pejuang. There is nothing you can do here.”
A loud crash sent Berani nearly jumping out of her skin. No doubt, Pejuang’s wide eyes matched her own. She listened as a host of voices reached her ears. “The Great River maybe?”
Pejuang took a step toward the waterway, but Berani grabbed his arm. “Already you leap into trouble, so soon after your last folly.”
He shrugged her off. “Do you expect the noise to investigate itself?”
She searched his face and found only determination. “We go together.”
His mouth drew into a sneer. “Come then.” Back hunched, he walked away with a stiff gait, leaving her to follow at will.
She never should have pushed him so far. Too late to erase the past, she trailed after. By the time she reached him, he was at the tree line, lying down, concealed by the tall grass. She dropped to her belly and crept the remaining way.
On the other side of the river, about twenty humans laden with packs meandered. At least half of them were Malays from the city. Their facial features resembled her people, but their dark hair set them apart. Pale-pinkish skin and hair varying in shades from fair to dark marked the others in the party as strangers from distant lands. She’d never allow them to stay.
Berani held out a hand, palm up, and blew over its surface. A breeze rippled the water and grew stronger as it reached the strangers, lifting a hat from one head. The man scrambled for it, and she smiled.
Finding camp would be the least of the humans’ worries. She drew in a deeper breath and focused on the mound of supplies two men carried on a litter between them.
Pejuang’s hand clamped over her mouth as he yanked her wrist. “What are you doing?”
She bit his finger, and he jerked away.
“Regretful early,” she scolded. She inched back the way she came until well out of sight of the intruders and sat on her heels, waiting.
Her brother followed and knelt before her. He glowered as he examined his reddened finger ribbed with teeth marks. “Why did you do that?”
“How dare you interfere?” Berani demanded.
“You cannot do this.”
She scoffed. “If you could, you would not?”
“No, that is not the way.”
“They are here to destroy our forest. How easily you forget the refugees who passed through our lands. I will never allow them to stay.”
A muscle twitched in her brother’s cheek, and she found herself locked in a stare down. If she controlled any element other than air, she’d scourge the humans from her home. As it was, she could cause little more than mischief. A minor annoyance, but maybe enough to make them reconsider staying.
Pejuang broke eye contact first and stood, looking down on her. “We waste time. We need to tell Nenek.”
Her brother was right; their grandmother did need to know. Berani glanced toward the river hidden by the trees. “Yes. You go. I want to watch them. Perhaps I can learn more.”
“No, it is too dangerous.”
“I will be fine and cause no more trouble today.” She dropped to her stomach and crawled forward, but Pejuang caught her leg, impeding her progress. She glared at him.
“I cannot let you. If something happened, I would never be able to explain it to the others.”
“Let go. I do not need your protection.” She kicked out, knocking him away. “I said I will be fine.”
“What if you get caught?”
“The humans cannot see me through the brush.”
“I said…” Berani’s voice deepened to a rumble which bordered on a growl and left no room for debate. “I… am… staying.”
“You think your bravery will save you. I hope it does, but everyone has to depend on someone sometime.” Not waiting for a response, he shifted. His tanned skin mottled to orange as thick fur sprouted in waves over his body, and black and white stripes added contrast. Pejuang fell forward. His shape took the form of a tiger, and he gained an extraordinary amount of volume. Although he went through a massive transformation, the entire process only took seconds, with majority of the shift spent filling in his bulk. Fully changed, Pejuang shook his fur. He gave Berani one last glance then ran in the direction of their clan.
For a long while, Berani watched the path where Pejuang had disappeared. The bitter truth of his words stung. When had their roles changed? She had always protected him, not the other way around. To acknowledge that was to admit Pejuang was ready to leave the clan, and she was not prepared to accept his exile.
Even worse, her injury was mostly her fault. After all, she had started their play. If the clan forced Pejuang out because of it, she had only herself to blame. She blinked back tears which threatened to spill, hating the weakness. Wiping at her eyes, she laughed through blurred vision as she thought about the handful of fur she’d ripped out of Pejuang’s flank before she’d fled.
Berani lived to torment her brother but should have known he would retaliate with excessive force. He was a fighter and never one to let a slight go. She was proud of that side of him. He definitely was not an easy target. When the time came, and if he survived the recklessness of his youth, he would have no problem establishing his own territory. Reassured, Berani crawled back to the strangers.