As quick as Three Squeaks was with his bow, the lion who named himself ‘King’ was faster to blink his eyelid closed. His defensive energy augmented the small bit of flesh, meaning that his eye wasn’t put out. Not that Three Squeaks had been counting on the success of a single shot, but he had to try. At least he managed to leave a small red patch, not quite bleeding but a bit of the fur was gone.
The Essence Collection level beast roared, leaping forward. Three Squeaks hadn’t been involved in the talking so he was at a comfortable distance, but Pondering Hum was still within range. But a sword shone in the moonlight, deflecting the lion’s claws as Deep Purr stepped in.
The lionesses joined the battle, as well as the three lions on the side of the coalition. The siblings didn’t seem to be losing out against the older lionesses. Half Oink and Forceful Snort were attacking from the side, Contented Grunt was charging towards the nearest lioness, and Echoing Cry shot from the sky as other eagles looked for opportunities to dive and strike with their claws.
Without King being involved, it would have been an easy victory the coalition. But his great power allowed him to bat away Deep Purr and even tackle Contented Grunt. The hippo’s mass usually allowed her to stand her ground against everything, but she was sent tumbling away.
And King still had time to talk. “It’s amusing, you know. You three lions there. You seem so content fighting on the side of lesser beings.”
“Lesser? They’re all way smarter than you,” Rusty Mane declared.
“You think so? Perhaps they are clever. More than yourselves, at least.” The smaller lion charged at King, but he was flipped on his back, open jaws above his neck. “After all, they probably didn’t tell you who killed your parents.”
Three Squeaks’ paws trembled as he tried to fire his bow. What was he supposed to say about that? He’d wanted to tell them, but there wasn’t a convenient way to tell your disciples that you and your coalition killed their parents. Three Squeaks knew what the lion wanted. If those three fought against them… it would greatly swing the tide of battle. Maybe… he should have let them die. But he didn’t want that.
Instead, he continued to fire arrows at the same eye. King couldn’t hold down Rusty Mane and dodge the arrows, so he had to continue to block. And while so far he’d shot a steady rhythm of spirit arrows, he had a trick prepared.
Elsewhere in the battle, a handful of the lionesses were chasing after some of their weaker members trying to get into position, including Meep. “Run… ahead…” Meep said.
“We won’t leave you!”
“Too… slow…” he said. “Go!”
The meerkats hesitated, and seemed ready to stand up to the approaching lionesses. But the force of his voice made them back away.
Meep smiled as the five lionesses came towards him. “Good. That… was… dangerous.”
“Dangerous? You think you are safe now, little meerkat?” said one of the lionesses, as they all moved to surround him. “You don’t look like you have much meat on your bones, but you have a respectable amount of cultivation to devour.”
Meep reached into his bag. “Do… you… like… mush… rooms?” He gave one a little shake.
The lioness gave a throaty laugh. “Mushrooms and meerkat sounds like a fine dish. But such a paltry offering would never save you.”
“Are… you… sure…?” Meep said, shaking more mushrooms. “These… are… special.”
“I’m sure they are. But we can’t let you delay us too much longer. There were many tasty treats to go after.”
“You… can’t… eat…” Meep said.
“Who will stop us?”
Meep shook the mushroom. “No… eating. Guts… will… reject.”
“Let’s just kill this and be done,” one of the others said. “It’s a waste of time, talking.”
As the lionesses pounced forward, they realized something was wrong. Their noses detected it first, but their guts reported the issue to them as they moved. Meep simply ducked as the lionesses landed, too busy puking up their guts to bother clawing him.
“Bad… mush… rooms,” Meep nodded as he crawled between the groaning felines.
“Who killed our parents…?” Sleek Fur timidly asked as she stood not far away from King.
“That’s right. Surely you should know you are not part of the Kapok Coalition by birth? You look much too different.”
“We know,” Rusty Mane said. “We figured it out, but he wouldn’t say…”
“It’s quite simple, really. The very same as those who delivered you to that coalition. Some pitiful show of mercy, perhaps. That annoying meerkat, that hippo… and that blasted eagle.”
Echoing Cry was busy peppering the battlefield with Spirit Arrows. His archery wasn’t quite as good as Three Squeaks, but being in an unassailable position granted him significant leeway to focus purely on offense.
“We thought so,” Sleek Fur said. “Three Squeaks always acted odd around us.”
“I’m sorry,” Three Squeaks said, barely loud enough to be heard by himself. It was far too late to do anything about it now.
“Indeed,” King said. “Now then. Join me, and avenge your father and mother, your pride!” He let Rusty Mane onto his feet, the younger lion shaking out his mane.
“Thank you for telling us the truth. But actually, our father is alive,” Rusty Mane said.
“That’s right!” Mischief said as she appeared from behind the large lion, chomping on his rear leg. Her following words couldn’t be comprehended given her grip on the lion’s ankle.
“What she means to say is probably that our father said you were a terrible leader not to be trusted,” Sleek Fur clarified as she leapt towards his side.
Rusty Mane, who had been half turned towards Three Squeaks, bowed his head and swiveled at the same time. “And you would never let me live regardless, you greedy bastard.” Three lions in Spirit Building piled upon one in Essence Collection. It was only their surprise that gave them a proper fighting chance… and Three Squeaks almost wasted the moment on his own end.
But regardless of why, he had an opening. He shot one spirit arrow, aiming for the same eye once more. King roared more in annoyance than pain. Three Squeaks following arrow was not something he was an expert in, and forming it quickly made it even less effective. Even so, its near complete lack of travel time made it reach its destination in the lion’s other eye in a literal flash. His third shot was one much more practiced, one of fire… shooting right into the larger lion’s mane. The thick fur was there to protect the lion’s throat against teeth and claws, but it wasn’t made to resist burning. And while an Essence Collection cultivator could normally block his shot, with his focus split King was unable to prevent the attack from piercing through his defensive energy.
Then he was left with the terrible decision of protecting himself or putting out the fire. He managed both reasonable well, biting and clawing at Rusty Mane as the other lion attacked him from in front, while at the same time kicking his rear legs and rolling to throw off the lionesses. That might have even helped with the flames, if they were natural. But since he hit, Three Squeaks had been focusing his will on growing the flames.
King managed to shake off the attackers for a single moment, but he ended up on his back. The two lionesses grabbed a rear leg and an ear, while Rusty Mane leapt for his neck- with a mane that was still aflame but significantly less dense. Red blood began to flow everywhere, and while in his death throes King managed to slash Rusty Mane’s underbelly and crack some bones of the others… he was ultimately the one who stopped moving.
The others, meanwhile, were well dealt with. Meep taking out an astounding five of the lionesses on his own was a huge help, and the Contented Grunt had taken her distance from King as an opportunity to fight the others. Along with Deep Purr and Half Oink slicing the lionesses to pieces and the artillery support from Echoing Cry, their victory was secured.
Some of their coalition had died, others had severe injuries, but considering that a single one of the lionesses was close to the strength of Bloodcurdling Roar from a few short years prior, it was clear how far they had come.
“Thank you,” Rusty Mane said to Three Squeaks.
“I- of course. You were fighting for us, obviously I would support you.”
“Not for that,” Sleek Fur said. “For bringing us to our father.”
“Yeah!” Mischief said, her face dripping blood and mouth open wide right next to Three Squeaks. “We heard our other pride wasn’t very good. They didn’t even leave anyone to watch over us when they went off to battle. That’s now how parents should act!”
“In short, we recognize our lives would have been much worse without you. And that you could have easily left us to die,” Rusty Mane explained.
“I asked around and I heard that some people in your coalition wanted to kill us,” Mischief said. “Which would have been the smart thing.”
“But here we are,” Sleek Fur said. “And we are grateful to be alive. And that you would teach us the secrets of cultivation, knowing that we might use them against you.”
“I was really hoping you wouldn’t,” Three Squeaks admitted.
Echoing Cry landed nearby. “You kids should have been more careful. I almost shot one of you while you were pretending to turn traitor.”
“Well,” Rusty Mane shrugged. “He was the one who made the assumption that we would turn. But his words smelled more of bees and their stingers than of honey.”
“Yeah, we’d never let our brother be around that guy!” Mischief said. “He’d get killed! Also there’s way better males around the coalition. Hey, do you think they had cubs? We should go check. I could raise cubs!”
“Mischief,” Sleek Fur said. “You’re absolutely not ready to be a mother.”
“I’m old enough!”
“Age is the least of your worries,” Sleek Fur said. “But we should indeed make certain they don’t have any cubs that will starve for their hubris. And if they were wise enough to leave mothers to watch over them… it would be best for them to join our coalition. If they aren’t awful.”
“And Rusty is coming along with us,” Mischief said. “Because we might have to carry a lot of kittens.”
Rusty Mane sighed. “Well. I suppose we can do all this… in the morning,” Rusty Mane pointed out. He turned towards Three Squeaks and the other. “I hope you don’t mind us traipsing off for a few days. We’d like to return to your tutelage as soon as possible, however.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Three Squeaks said.
Now there was only the problem of what to do with the dead lions. The Lower Plains coalition wasn’t going to eat them, obviously, but they didn’t want to waste the natural energy. Once again, they would be buried. The fields above the first lions were quite a sight to behold, and these would most likely be even more impressive. If King hadn’t been so assured of his ploy and simply fought with his full power the whole time, things would have gone very differently.
Ty Quigley took his hand off his sword. He really hadn’t wanted to interfere, to the point he even let some die. But no offense to them, they weren’t his personal disciples. And ultimately, the coalition needed to withstand the strife to grow stronger.
He prepared a follow up message for Anton, so that he would know things turned out alright in the end. The older man likely wouldn’t have interfered either, though he might have had more subtle ways to influence things compared to cutting something in half. But subtle was never in Ty’s wheelhouse.
His personal disciples were important, not just for him but also for Chikere. She seemed to be recovering, or she might even be better entirely. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be disappointed if pictures of meerkats with swords stopped coming to her.