Chapter 22 - The Encounter
A row of trees lined lockstep, branches and leaves swaying together ahead of Saraiya. Their uniform performance enticed her to step forward, waving her in. Looking in through the cracks of empty space between the trees, the area appeared to grow denser and darker with flora.
She marched around the outskirts of the grove, checking for any marks of wildlife, hoping to find traces of the beasts without having to step foot inside. However, evidence in this area would be hard to spot as the grass grew tall all around. Even with the sultry weather, she was glad she chose to wear jeans.
She reached the edge of the small forest as it tapered into a corner. There were still no signs of any animal life, but she knew they had to be laying within, perhaps sleeping. Once again, she tried peering into the center of the forest. Even from this angle there was nothing to report.
She sighed. I came here with the intention to gather evidence. I knew the most probable outcome would be me having to venture inside, so why am I hesitating so much? she thought to herself. Yes, she knew there could be dangers lurking within, but there could also be dangers around Lyros within a few days..
“Just one step at a time Saraiya, you can do this. It’s not like you need to go in far, just enough to look for footprints within the dirt. Really. That’s all,” she told herself as she rubbed her hands together.
Why didn’t she just wait until dark and look out her window and try to spot the lions as they search for food within the cages? What was the point in risking her life for such a discovery that could be made from the comfort of her home?
There was one thought that perhaps even Ambri didn’t think of. The singular howl heard every night would appear to most people to be one lion. But, they didn’t know the actual amount that resided in the area. If one lion gets stuck in a cage, who’s to say the others don’t come out when the one howls for help. The situation was too dangerous, for everyone.
If Saraiya could confirm an estimate of how many lions there were, based on observing footprints, or traces from within, perhaps she could talk Ambri out of this reckless plan.
Grabbing a branch, she kept her balance as she snuck into the brush of trees. She could feel her heart thumping at how dangerous this idea was. Even if no results are found from it, she told herself it could be used for writing experience. The thrill of danger.
With each step she took forward, less and less grass surrounded the trees, leaving patches of dirt. Small prints of perhaps bunnies, or maybe even cats were plopped within. Would the cats from Lyros even manage to make it within here? Trees gradually started distancing themselves from one another the further in she walked. The feeling of danger rose. Open spaces with no place to hide scared her, but that was her best chance at finding evidence.
Her heart beat grew rapid. She took a deep breath and patted her jeans, rubbing the palms of her hands up and down her thigh, wiping off the excessive sweat. Strands of her blue hair that were tied back when she began her journey, tucked out of her hair tie, perhaps wanting to escape the situation itself. Hiding behind a tree she let her hair flow down and neatly tied it back once again. She continued forward, looking carefully in every direction.
The variety of plant life wasn’t much for her to write about. The atmosphere though, provided a sense of wonder, and dread. As if walking into a new land, discovering a new world. She compared herself to many famous discoverers, justifying the risk she had gambled on.
If she was able to observe what the lions were doing in Nhaja, perhaps she could get signed to one of the nature magazines she often read. The possibility of making money and being funded to go travel and write about such wonders filled her with determination.
Saraiya kept trudging through as a stretch of dirt laid before her, and what she saw froze her in her tracks.
Giant paw prints. Bigger than what she expected. Bigger than what had ever been recorded? Not only that, various sizes. She could conclude that there were multiple lions. Adults, and even quite a few smaller ones.
Okay, time to get out of here, she thought to herself as her body began to shake. Right when she turned around she heard it. A groan. Not a full blown roar, but a gruff, as if something took interest in her presence and wanted to check in on it.
She pivoted around and stepped carefully, trying not to alert it any further. As much as she wanted to run, that decision could be catastrophic. Light steps tapped against the dirt, not loud enough to cause suspicion to the mighty beast.
The distance between her and the exit was a lot further than she remembered when she ventured in. I’ve got this, I’ll make it out. I have evidence to prove to Ambri about the dangers of her plan, even if she gets pissed knowing I came in here, she thought.
Her nerves were on their ends as she tried being as cautious as she could, which in turn caused a problem. Her foot caught onto one of the tree’s roots that extended from the ground and she tumbled. A thud carried throughout the forest.
Within one second another gruff sounded, coming closer than the previous one. Her breathing was thin, airy, but quick. Her heart pounded. She lifted herself off the ground and booked it.
Thuds of paws from behind her pounded the ground, squashing on her chances of escape. I’m going to die here, she thought, as the forest’s end remained far away in her vision.
The stomps were loud enough that she could feel vibrations on the ground. She refused to look back, even though she knew it was right behind her, preparing its attack.
A mighty roar came from another direction. The lion that had been pursuing her the whole time roared back in response, but it also signaled to Saraiya that her life could be over within a second. Steamy air caressed her neck, It grew in volume, the lion began opening its mouth.
She shut her eyes and cried out as an enormous crash rattled the tree beside her. Saraiya’s body shook as she slowly turned her head and looked behind her. A second lion pinned the other one down as it stared at her. The lion was bigger than the one that chased her, the size of this one alone was terrifying. On all fours it stood about six feet tall.
Saraiya paused. Why didn’t she feel as frightened? It wasn’t that she wasn’t afraid, she was terrified, but in a sense it actually felt familiar. She had never seen a lion like this one. Did they even get this big? Not even in all the research she had done, had she heard of one so grand. A giant white lion.