Manas charged the tiikeri closest to Lilavati. It was thrown back several feet. He whirled around faster than the other could anticipate and slammed into it. The beast flew back to land next to its partner.
Manas moved over next to Lilavati. He rumbled at her and nudged her with his paw. She grabbed onto his fur and pulled herself up. Leaning against him, she turned to face her mother. “I have no sister-soul. This is true. As I said, I have something far more precious to me than a tiikeri female that would eventually abandon me in favor of producing cubs and leave me to find another partner. I have a husband, a soulbond, a lifemate who will never leave me. He will protect me when he can, give me aid and shelter when it’s available, and love me unconditionally for the rest of our lives. He is cursed, but living with him and his curse are worth every minute of the joy we feel when we’re together.”
Foolish child, Upsana spat. If you wish to be with him so much, you’ll share his curse. Can you abide by that? Be human by day and tiikeri by night?
Manas growled and whimpered, nudging Lilavati with his nose. She wrapped her arms around his neck, breathing in deep the scent of his fur and his musk. Could she do it? Could she accept the same curse he had? The pain would be intense. That she knew. Any child she bore him could be tainted the same way they were. Would it be worth that risk?
Katali, can you hear me? His voice was soft, a mere whisper in her mind.
Sikha? How is this possible? she asked.
Only here have the Grey of the Twelve granted me this gift, Manas said. What does she offer if you don’t take the curse?
Death, Lilavati said. Or a lifetime of servitude to one of these tiikeri. I wish neither of those, for my life is with you and Magda.
Don’t make this choice lightly, katali, Manas said. You don’t know how agonizing it is to shift from human to beast. You don’t know how lonely it is to carry the curse within you and yet walk alone among the world.
Yet I wouldn’t be alone, would I? Lilavati asked. I’d have you.
There was silence for a few heartbeats. You would, he said finally, a hint of something in his voice she couldn’t quite identify. As I have you.
Lilavati turned to her mother. “If I must become a cursed tiikeri by night and a human by day to stay with my beloved, to be the mother to my daughter, then I’ll do it. I’ll take on the curse.” She paused. “Curses can still be broken, mother. My beloved and I will never stop looking for a way to end this.”
Search all you want. You’ll search in vain, Upsana sneered. If your precious husband hasn’t found a way to break it, with all his years of trying, how do you think you’ll be able to do it?
“He didn’t have me to help him,” Lilavati said, smiling fondly at her husband. He was growling at the other two tiikeri who were drawing closer to Lilavati again. “Together the two of us will accomplish great things.”
So be it, Upsana said. She and her tiikeri disappeared.
Pain beyond anything Lilavati had ever felt ripped through her. Every bone in her body cracked and broke as joints separated and reformed. Fur the color of snow erupted from her skin. Stripes the color of her hair spread across her body. She became a saphaida tiikeri, one of the rarest of all. When she finished the change, she was the same size as Manas.
She flopped to the ground, barely able to breathe. Manas waited for her to stand again and the two of them walked towards the exit. They knew they couldn’t leave until they resumed their human forms, so they waited.
Dawn came and once again the agony returned, but Lilavati was prepared for it this time. Once they were in human form, they retrieved their cloaks – the only clothing to withstand the change – and stepped through the portal.
“Ama’ana! Father!.” Magda threw herself off the horse she was sharing with Christel and ran across the distance to them. Lilavati turned slightly so no one could see she was naked and scooped Magda into her arms. “You came back.”
“Of course we did,” Manas said. “Didn’t we promise we would?” His voice was gravelly and judging from the wounds on his body, he too had fought battles against the creatures in the mist.
“Great Lord, Great Lady, we’ll give you a few minutes of privacy,” Ludger said, a sad look in his eyes. “Then we must be on the road. The gate to Phiri Hu won’t remain open for long.”
Lilavati turned to look where he pointed. A great rectangular section of the bleak landscape was gone. In its place was a beautiful green and blue land with a shimmering white castle in the distance.
Manas sighed happily. “That’s home, katali. That’s Phiri Hu.”
Lilavati dressed quickly and took Magda up in front of her on the horse. She told herself it was to make the child happy. In truth it was to give herself something familiar to cling to. “It is unlike anything I have ever seen,” she said, reverting back to the language of the north.
“It’s going to be unlike anything you’ve ever dealt with too,” Manas said. “You’ll shake things up and we’ll find ways to compromise. I expect you’ll bring some of your ways to my keep, and we’ll teach you ours so you can become who you’re meant to be.”
Who she was meant to be. It would be interesting to find out just what that meant. She nudged her horse forward through the magical opening. The strong smell of sulfur and rust was replaced by one of wildflowers and fresh bread. “We’re home,” Magda said with a laugh. “We’re home.”
The End….for now