Zobas jaw hung open as he glanced at Kela, not sure what to say. Her expression mirroring his own. He himself blushed equally bright as Kela.
"Let's, um, just go. It's been a long day."
"Right behind you." He whispered. The sun was inching its way slowly towards the horizon. It had indeed been a long day. Before they left, Zoba veered off slightly toward an acacia tree that faced the water hole. With a clean drag of his claws across its trunk, Zoba placed his mark on the tree. This might be a particularly well traveled area by the residents of the land. Perhaps, in time, the mark would encourage others to rebel against Genan and her clan.
After making his mark, Zoba rejoined Kela as they walked away. A cool breeze swept through the grass. It felt good as it blew through Zobas mane.
When they return to the same rock canopy as the night before, Kela immediately climbs on the boulder they slept on previously.
"So, is there anything in particular you want to eat tonight?" She asks, trying to fill the awkward silence. Oddly, the rhino's comment made things a bit weird the two, for a reason she can't explain. "Personally, I could go for a gazelle." Kela adds, idly sharpening her claws on a fallen boulder.
"Oh, I'm not picky. Gazelle sounds good but whatever you find will be fine." Zoba said as he sat down, looking around. He hadn't gotten a chance to really feel out the boulders that they seemed to be calling home for now. The canopy of the tall trees provided some shade where the shadows of the boulders didn't quite reach. "I'm not much of a hunter so I think I'll just take a walk around. Scout the perimeter, just to make sure."
When Kela had left, Zoba took one of the several exits and began looking around, looking off into the distance. There wasn't any sign of any Hyenas. He considered himself lucky for that. Any surprise visits from Genans clan would be unfortunate. As far as he knew, they still didn't know where they had gone. The last place they saw a hyena was the first tree Zoba had marked.
The wind was picking up slightly but still felt good and refreshing. The sun was still setting and hung just above the horizon, casting beams of light through the trees. It was calm and quiet. Zoba enjoyed moments like this. He had made a complete circle around the area and there wasn't a single sign of any hyenas nearby. Hopefuly it stayed that way. Zoba much preferred to take the fight to them.
As the crickets chirping became more prevalent, Zoba headed back to the boulders. The wind carried with it, the scent of a fresh kill. When he arrived, he saw that she had brought in an antelope.
"I see you were successful." He began. "I made a full circle around the area. There's no sign of any hyenas. While I prefer the distance they seem to be keeping, it's making me a little uneasy. They're bound to come looking for us sooner or later. I think we should find another place to stay after tonight. We'll be harder to find if we keep moving." At that, Zoba knelt down and ate.
Once he had had his fill, Zoba took one last look around before lying down. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his paw and moved his mane out of the way. The wind picked up slightly, blowing across his body. He loved the way the wind felt.
"Where should we go? There isn't many places to take shelter." "
Zoba laid on his back, his eyes closed and his chest rising and falling with each breath. "I don't know. We'll have to look around. There's plenty we haven't seen yet." He rolled onto his side and exhaled loudly.
"Also, what's the plan for tomorrow?"
He thought a moment, thinking of all they had accomplished today and what steps to take next. "We have some new friends. Maybe they can help us find a place to stay. And while we're at it, there are always more friends to make." Zobas voice had gained an extra bit of deepness in his tired state. His tail flicked back and forth as he thought some more. "I think we need some more information on this Ozu. I want to know what the hyenas told him that made him switch sides."
Kela snaps up and looks towards the voice, and spies an unfamiliar lion with golden fur and a thick, black mane smirking down at them from one of the larger boulders. Narrowing her eyes, she speaks. "I'm assuming you're the infamous Ozu?"
"You guessed correctly, beautiful. Am I safe to assume you two are the ones disturbing the balance?" Ozu sneers.
"You and those mongrel hyenas are the ones doing the disturbing here." She snarls. "How pathetic must a lion be to side with scavengers?"
With a snarl, Ozu leaps from his boulder, knocking Kela off her own. "Don't speak about something you don't know, lioness." He spats as Kela hits the ground with a hard thud.
Zoba was back on his paws almost before his eyes had even opened. As Kela and this lion who aparently was Ozu exchanged heated words, Zoba studied him closely. When Kela was knocked to the ground, Zoba's first thought was to come to her aid but he knew she was probably fine. She could take it. In an instant, Zoba was up on top of Ozu's boulder and with a hard uppercut from a clawed paw, Ozu slid down the side of the boulder. From atop the large stone monolith, Zoba stood ready to attack again.
"If you truly came here to talk, then talk. Explain yourself. Your life depends on it." Zoba growled.
Kela stands back up, slightly hurt, but more enraged by the sudden attack. Forcing herself to refrain from attacking the now fallen lion. She'd wait to see if his words are worth listening to.
Ozu shakily stands, obviously hurt by the attack. "Look. You guys will be smart to get out before you get in to deep. Unfortunately, Genan does take prisoners." He glares and Zoba, then smirks at Kela. "Maybe if you make it out of this, Princess, you could stay by the side of a real lion."
She scoffs. "As you can tell, I already am. Besides, no real lion would side the likes of hyenas." She spats out.
Ozu softens slightly before his gaze sharpens again. "Of course. I am siding with them. And you two need to leave, because next time, you'll become a meal for the hyenas." Then, he stalks off into the evening.
After he disappears from sight, Kela sighs tiredly. "When we free these lands, remind me to take a month to sleep off this stress."
"I'm with you there." Zoba said from atop the boulder. He furrowed his brow as he walked down the side of the rock. "What's frustrating is that he didn't explain anything. It seems he only came here to flex. And to be perfectly honest, I'm not impressed." Zoba sniffed at the air, trying to find the scent of any hyenas around.
"Ozu gives off the impression of a coward." He continued as he came closer to Kela. "He came to show off and threaten us, threw a cheap shot, and ran as soon as he took a hit." The lion looked down at the ground and moved a pebble around with his paw, deep in thought. "I think Ozu is the least of our problems. Either way. They know where we are now. We need to find a new place to rest. Tonight." Zoba began walking away, in the direction of their new rhino friends. "And we need to be more careful about where we eat. Ozu probably caught the scent of the antelope."
As he walked, Zoba took a moment to mark a nearby tree with his claws, then continued on. "Looks like we're spending the night with our rhino friends."
"I'm still going to be wary of him. My guess he came more to scope us out than to challenge us. I almost wonder why he didn't just outright try to kill us. He had a perfect chance to do so." Kela wonders, following behind Zoba.
They make it back to the rhinos' resting area without further incident, and Kela speaks before they enter. "I think we should temporarily split up tomorrow. Might make it easier to find information and allies."
"That's a good idea. We'll worry about the details tomorrow. For now..." Zoba trailed off to turn to the herd of rhinos. As he approached them, once again, they tensed at the sight of a large lion out of the corner of their vision, then relaxed, seeing that it was Zoba, and not Ozu, or any other lion they wouldn't recognize. Whispers swept through the herd until Grog came through to meet Zoba.
"Didn't think yew'd be back so soon." He said with a smile. "Wot can I dew for yew?"
"We've been compromised." Zoba replied.
"Conp- Comtro-" Grog said, clearly never having heard nor said a word so big.
"We've been found by Ozu. He found our hiding place and we need a place to stay for the night. If it's alright with you, we'd like to hide among your tribe."
Grog smiled with a slight expression of surprise. He looked up as if imagining something. "My clan, protecting a couple lions?" With that, grog threw his head back and roared with laughter. After a couple seconds, the hearty guffawing ceased suddenly. "We'd be honored to watch your backs tonight. Anything for our new lion friends."
"Great! We can't thank you enough, Grog." Zoba said, relieved.
The large rhino looked back at his tribe and gave instructions. "Make some room in the middle for our lion friends!" With that, the rhinos spread themselves out a bit, allowing Zoba and Kela a way through their ranks and into a wide enough area so that they weren't crowded but still almost entirely surrounded by a sea of thick, grey hide and horns. This was a perfect way to hide. Not only were the lions essentially invisible, their scent was also masked by the scent of the rhinos. As Zoba laid down in the grass, one by one, the rhinos did the same.
From behind one of the female rhinos, a little one peeked out at Zoba and Kela. Zoba took notice and looked in the little ones direction and it shied away. Zoba chuckled.
"So cute!" Kela whispers, looking at the small rhino as she laid next to Zoba. "Kids are so adorable, aren't they?" She whispers, mostly to herself.
The little rhino looks at its mother for a moment, and with a nod of consent, trots happily over to the pair of lions. "I'm Turi! What's yours?"
Kela giggles. "I'm Kela, and this guy is Zoba." When Turi casts a somewhat shy look at Zoba and Kela giggles. "Don't worry. He may look like a big scary lion, but he's really a big softy. See?" She bops her paw on his nose. "Softy."
Turi smiles and pads around to see Zoba's face. "Are you really gonna eat all the hyenas?"
Zoba simply smiled in response. He always had a fondness for cubs, though he never had any. He had a strong protective instinct towards them. He often put his own life in danger to save one. What struck him now was that he felt the same way toward this little rhino. He had never thought of his feelings toward the young of other animals. It seemed his compassion extended further than those of his own kind. Then again, perhaps he already knew that. One way or another, Zoba was discovering something about himself that he hadn't put much thought into.
Zobas smile widened as the little one approached. She was a brave one, for sure, leaving her mothers side to talk to a couple lions. "I'm Turi! What's yours?" He looked at Kela as she introduced herself and then back to Turi as Kela introduced him.
"Don't worry. He may look like a big scary lion, but he's really a big softy. See?" Zoba laughed after Kela pressed her paw up against his nose. "Softy."
"Don't worry, I don't bite brave rhinos." He said teasingly with a wink. Her eyes widened for a split second before it clicked in her mind and she understood what he meant and that he was joking.
"Are you really gonna eat all the hyenas?"
"Oh, I don't know. That's a lot of hyenas. Maybe you could help me. I'll bet you could eat a hyena or two." He smiled at her with a slightly mischievous look. Turi giggled as she made chomping motions and sounds with her mouth. Then she looked back at Zoba with a curious, quizzical expression.
"What do hyenas taste like?"
"Not very good. They're very dirty." He said truthfully. Though he had never tried to eat a hyena, biting them was never a pleasant experience.
"Turi." A voice came from the cluster of rhinos. "Leave the lions alone. They're probably tired."
"Ok, mom!" Turi said as she began walking back to her mother. Briefly, she turned her head to look at the lions once more.
Kela smiles and motions Turi away with her head. "Goodnight, Turi."
"Goodnight, lions!" Turi smiles and runs off to her mother to lay down for sleep.
Kela turns to Zoba and curls closer to his side. "I like this land. I think I might stay after all this is over." She says and lays her head down, closing her eyes. "Goodnight, Zoba." She yawns and falls asleep.
Zoba woke slowly to the sound of purring and a nudge to his side. With a groan and his eyes still closed, Zoba muttered. "Uriah, what are you doing? Go back to sleep..." The lion turned over to the other side, one paw over his eyes.
Suddenly, Zoba was jolted awake with the force of Kela pouncing on him.
"Oohf!" Uriah flinched to grab whomever had landed on him. Seeing Kela smiling and hearing her giggle, Zoba donned a mischievous expression. With a grunt, he pushed off the ground and rolled her over onto her back, landing a paw on her chest.
Zoba smiled. "It was nice. Until I got attacked by a lioness." With that, he laughed.
"Go, Kela!" Came a voice from just ahead. Distracted, Zoba looked up to see Turi cheering on Kela. The little rhino wasn't the only one watching. Many of the other rhinos had taken an interest in the spontaneous brawl that was apparently taking place. Zoba had forgotten that they were in the middle of a herd of rhinoceroses. Still slightly grinning, Zoba's eyes shifted back and forth as he tried to decide if he should be embarrassed at the current situation or not.
Zoba's eyes widened as his shoulders hit the dirt. How long had it been since he had been pinned? Zoba couldn't remember. "Don't lose focus." How many times had he told Uriah that?
Grogs deep, accented voice broke the quiet morning.
"Morning, Grog." Zoba said as he got up and moved his mane out of his eyes.
"'Mornin'." He said and turned to Kela. "Don' go 'round thrashin' your lion all day. You'd wind up hurting his pride that way." As Grog laughed and Kela giggled, Zoba chuckled embarrassingly.
"Don't worry. I actually think he likes being beaten. Don't you think, Turi?"
"Yeah! He likes being pinned by pretty lionesses!"
Zoba blushed. Somewhere, Turi's mother was probably blushing too. Though he wouldn't admit it, he couldn't truthfully deny the statement completely. Wearing an embarrassed smile, Zoba sighed. "I'm at a loss for words." He laughed.
"I suppose this means yew'd like a rematch then?" Grog winked at Zoba.
"Perhaps, when there's time." Zoba smiled at Kela, then turned back to Grog and his smile faded. "Unfortunately, there's still work to be done. Kela and I are going to split up today. Do you have any hints we could follow? Other possible allies, or locations of Genans clan?"
Grog thought a moment. "Normally, 'round this time, Genan and her clan run everyone out of the Southern waterhole. This 'ere is the Northern waterhole. If ye leave now, ye might be able to catch em. As for friends, well... we've got a pact with the local Oxpecker population. They've done us well by warnin' us of any danger nearby. Might speak with them about doin' the same for yew."
Zoba cleared his throat. "I'll head off to the elephants. You go talk to the Oxpeckers." At this point, Grog piped up.
"That'd be to the west. I think they'll like you, you're very polite. That'll get you points with them."
" Thank you, Grog. Kela, I'll meet you back here. At dusk, I think we should see if we can find Genans clan. If all goes well, we could end this tonight. If not, we'll just slip in and out, hopefully with some new information. We'll go over details later." With that, he began walking away. Before he took three steps, he turned his head slightly. As he continued to walk, he said "Good luck, Kela!"
"Stay safe!" Kela calls back, slightly worried, even though she knows he can handle himself.
Then, she turns towards Grog. "Which way are the Oxpeckers?"
The rhino nods his head in a direction. "Jus' a little ways north of here. Mus' warn ya though. They eat a lot mo'e than they talk" Grog laughs and Kela joins for a bit.
"Noted. I'll see you guys soon!" She says and runs off north to find the birds.
Finding them was easy enough. They were at the waterhole, picking the ticks off of hippopotamuses. "Hello." She greets as she approaches, and one of the large hippos with quite a few birds on his back looks up at her.
"What do you want?" He mumbles. "Can't you see I'm a little busy getting my ticks removed?"
"Well, I wanted to talk about the hyenas, and how our feathery friends can me and my friend out." One of the birds looks up at her curiously, then continues her meal.
"Don't you worry, just tell me what you need. They're listening. My name is Matu. What do you want to know about the hyenas?"
"Anything they could tell us, honestly. My friend and I have noticed that the hyenas have this place under an iron paw. Can you Oxpeckers keep us informed on what Genan and Ozu are up to?"
One of the birds, seeming to no longer be interested her meal pipes in. "Oh, sure! We could even tell you what Genan is doing this very moment!"
"Really?" Kela smiles at her luck. "What is she doing?"
"A rotting corpse."
The birds started talking about Genan, and Kela's jaw drops. "Wait! What do you mean by that? If she's dead already, then who's controlling her hyenas?"
"He's the one that killed her!"
"Ripped her throat to shreds."
"Now he's in charge."
Matu yawns. "Explains why we haven't seen her ugly mug, doesn't it? Anything else you need?"
Kela runs her paw down her face. "Then, can you keep us informed about Ozu?"
One of the birds flies off Matu and lands on the lioness's head. "Sure. We saw you come around with that other lion. We'd love to help you out!"
With a tired smile, she thanks them and leaves. She might as well walk around a bit before heading back to the rhino tribe. She has to find some way to break this new to Zoba.
Heading West, Zoba continued to follow his nose, trying to pick up the scent of elephants. Along the way, he passed a dik dik. Stunned for a moment at suddenly seeing such a huge lion casually walking across it's view, Zoba called out to it nonchalantly.
"Hello! I'm looking for the elephants. Am I headed in the right direction?" The small animal nodded its head, jaw dropped. "Thank you. Have a nice day." And with that, Zoba carried on in the same direction.
Soon after, Zoba could make out the large, grey forms of elephants. As he approached, he noticed the dust being carried away by the wind. They were throwing dirt on themselves to keep the bugs off. One of them stopped as it noticed Zoba. One by one, the others seemed to notice, though none of them seemed to have any reactions other than to watch as the lion got closer. Zoba stopped a good distance away, about one elephants length between him and the nearest one.
"Zoba, I presume?" The one closest to him said.
"Yes. I uh, I see word spreads quickly here." Zoba replied, surprised.
"It does. And your reputation precedes you." The elephant continued casually.
"My reputation?" He asked nervously.
"Oh, don't act so surprised." The elephant said with a friendly smile. "Two new lions come into the land, one bigger than most have ever seen and the two of them rallying allies in an attempt to overthrow Ozu? Such ongoings are hard to ignore and there's hardly anything that goes beyond the notice of us elephants. In fact, we have been expecting you. We all believed it was only a matter of time before you came to us asking for our help." Zoba reeled his head back uncomfortably. "And our answer is yes."
Surprised at the simplicity of this meeting and the forthrightness of the negotiations, Zoba stammered a moment. "Oh. That's... good news. But what about Genan? You only mentioned Ozu."
Another elephant stepped forward, this one much older looking than the other. "Genan is dead. The hyenas only use her name when it becomes convenient to hide the fact that they are lead by Ozu." Zoba blinked, dumbfounded. He thought back to a couple nights ago when Ozu had showed up right in front of them. Had he only known, He and Kela could've ended it right there. "You've met him, haven't you?"
"Yes. We have."
"Then I must warn you that it would not be enough to simply kill him. Hyenas are vengeful creatures. They'd come for you until they were merely a few if you were to kill their leader."
"Then why haven't they killed Ozu?"
"Ozu killed the only female in their clan. Genan was a particularly cruel leader to them. She treated them like ants. When Ozu killed her, he promised them better treatment. He runs the clan more like a pride. However, what Genan did to them, they now do to whomever they view as 'below' them. They failed to take a step above the treatment they received from their previous leader, I suspect, due to Ozu. Ozu does not care what they do. He simply has a lust for power and dominion over others."
"This is... very insightful. How do you know all this?"
A third elephant began from behind the other two. "We have lived here very long and, in a way, consider ourselves keepers of the ongoings of these lands." Zoba remembered that elephants have a remarkable memory. "The birds report to us what is happening as well as a few other animals and we piece together the history of these events."
"That's... good news! My friend, Kela is seeking the Oxpeckers for information and to ask them for help as well."
"Then she'll be getting the same information, although a more shortened version." The 2nd, oler elephant said.
Then the first elephant spoke again. "It is good to have you in these lands. We all believed it was possible to overthrow Ozu and his clan, pride, whatever you want to call it. But it needed a spark of leadership to ignite. We will stand with you in this fight."
The older one came forward and motioned with his trunk to the left. "Now, if you'd be so kind..." He said. Zoba looked in the direction of the gesture to see a large baobab tree that the elephants had huddled next to for shade. With a smile and a nod, he approached the tree and found a spot in plain view. With a glance back at all the elephants, now spread out, watching him, he dug his claws into the tree, making the same mark. As he turned around, each elephant had his and her head bowed ceremonially.
Zoba approached them all silently as they raised their heads back up. The older elephant reached out his trunk and Zoba reached out his paw. They embraced each other as the elephant introduced himself. "My name is Hekima. And I am glad to call you a friend."
"As am I, Hekima." The elephant released Zobas paw. "I should get back to Kela. We have much to discuss. I'll send word for you if I need you."
"Very well." Said Hekima. "We await your instruction."
With that, Zoba turned and left in the same direction he came.
Soon, he was out of sight of the elephants. Wait. Was that a hyena he smelled? As he glanced around, he saw the dik dik from earlier. "He's right there!" It yelled. And with that, a dozen hyenas came out of the tall grass and from behind the rocks.
"Good." A rather large one said in a gruff, gravelly voice. It smiled as it came up beside the dik dik. Without looking down at it, the hyena smacked the little animal with the back of his paw. "Now scram! Unless you want your insides hung up on a tree too."
Zoba dropped into a defensive stance and looked wide-eyed at the dik dik as it stood back up, bruised. "I'm sorry..." it seemed to try to say, but Zoba couldn't quite hear it as it ran away quickly.
"Take him." Came the raspy voice of the hyena. With that, six of them leaped out to attack Zoba. He swatted one out of the air and grabbed the back of another with his teeth, but a fraction of a second later, the another five came in to grab his paws, holding him in place. Zoba struggled against them but there were too many. He looked up, trying to find the bigger one that seemed to be leading this ambush. Instead of at a distance, he stood right in front of him, paw raised. Zoba couldn't react before the hyenas paw made contact with the side of his head.
Zobas eyes squinted open and he heard faintly the kackling of hyenas and felt the sensation of being dragged by his mane, tail and legs.
Again, his eyes opened slightly. It was dusk and he could make out some words as he floated in and out of consciousness again. 'Not yet.' came one voice. 'Ozu will know what to do.' came another.
Zoba opened his eyes, this time, wider, taking in his surroundings in more detail this time. He was wet, and muddy. His body ached again. Just when he was starting to feel back to normal health. The stars shown brightly and the full moon illuminated enough to show that he was at the bottom of a deep, muddy pit. A brown, dirty puddle of water glistened in front of him. He tried to stand but his legs gave out underneath him and he splashed down into the puddle, further getting him muddy and wet. With that, he closed his eyes again, unable to retain conciousness.