Автор: Эдриан Росси (Adrian M. Rossi)

Jungle Flame

Written by Adrian M. Rossi

Edited by Joe McCauley

© 1996, Adrian M. Rossi

First, before the story begins, I want to try and cover all my bases by making several things clear so I don’t get my butt sued by Walt Disney (like they don’t have enough money already).

This story is based on the ‘The Lion King’, a movie produced © 1994, Walt Disney Company. I’m not taking credit in any way so, Walt Disney, please don’t sue me.

All the characters represented in the story, except for Kublia, including Timon, Pumbaa, Mufasa, Simba, Nala, Shenzi, Ed, Banzai, Scar, Zazu and Rafiki, are all the property of © 1994, Walt Disney Company. I’m not taking credit for the characters either, but wouldn’t it be hard to write a Lion King story without using them?

Several instances of scenery in the story, including Pride Rock, Rafiki’s tree, the Pridelands, the desert that Simba has to cross before reaching the jungle that exiles himself to, are all creations of © 1994, Walt Disney Company. So, once again, please don’t sue me.

“Jungle Flame” is not shareware, meaning you can’t pass it off as your own. You can read, copy or distribute ‘Jungle Flame’ at your discretion, as long as it is not modified from its original form. If you’re thinking to use or change the contents in some way, pretty please, with sugar on top, ask for the permission of the author first!

And now, with all of that legal riff-raff out of the way, down to the story.

In brief, this story occurs after Rafiki has discovered that Simba might be alive, after Scar locks up Zazu in the bone cage, and just before Nala arrives in the jungle to chase Pumbaa around. The story speculates on what might have happened in this brief time-span before Simba returns to the Pridelands.

Finally, I would like to thank Joe McCauley for his excellent editing of this story. I very much doubt that it would have made it into this version without his help.

I certainly hope that you enjoy this story as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Tyger tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?

William Blake

***

“Ingonayama nengw’enamabala…”

(“Here is a lion and a tiger…”)

From the opening score of the Lion King

Chapter One: Fire in the Jungle

Simba moaned quietly as he tossed and turned on the bed of green grass, caught in the grip of a nightmarish dream from which he could not escape.

Simba was a small cub once again, standing on the edge of the cliff, staring downwards in horrified shock at herd of wildebeest milling on the valley floor beneath him. The cub saw his father leap magnificently from the crush of bodies below, dig his claws into the hard stone, and begin his way up the cliff face. Mufasa almost slipped at one point, causing Simba to flinch in momentary terror, but the cub slowly relaxed again as his father steadily made his way up.

As his father passed out of sight, the cub proceeded to move up a rocky path lining the side of the valley, so that he could get a better view of his dad’s progress. As he moved, Simba wondered what his father would have to say about his latest adventure. But he couldn’t possibly be in trouble, didn’t his dad get Uncle Scar to tell him to wait in the valley for a surprise? Strange, Simba thought to himself as he made his way up the difficult path, he thought he could hear his dad talking to someone. But, with the hooves of the wildebeest thundering below, he couldn’t be sure.

He stopped, face pouting in disappointment, as he glanced over the side of the cliff. He was at a higher point, but he still couldn’t see his father. He began to turn away, thinking that he could follow the path up the top of the cliff. There he would meet his father, after his dad pulled himself over the edge, and receive the inevitable scolding that must follow. A thunderous roar split the air, startling the cub, and as Simba turned instinctively towards the sound, he gasped in horror at what he was seeing.

For a moment, as the thought crystallized in his mind, time seemed to stand still. Falling. His father was falling!

“Dad!” he screamed helplessly, tracking the descent of his father’s body with stunned eyes. Mufasa plummeted towards the press of bodies below, and when his dad disappeared into the cloud of dust being raised by the hooves of the wildebeest, all the young Simba could say was—

“NO!” Simba roared, coming awake all of a sudden.

He was panting ferociously, his body drenched in a cold sweat. It had been a dream, his mind slowly comprehended, and he glanced around in relief at the familiar scenery of the jungle.

Dreams had been had been bothering him persistently of late, and the nights when he would wake up in a cold sweat were becoming more and more common. He could sleep fine during the day, when his attention was often caught up in some inane activity his friends were concocting, but at night, when everything was quiet and there was nothing to do, a disturbing dream came to him when he closed his eyes. As always, it was the same Dream.

Sucking in deep breaths of the jungle air, Simba slowly calmed down and tried to banish the images from his mind. But the guilt remained, lodged and twisting painfully in his soul, and he gritted his teeth at the sensation. The pain burned just as much as it did when he had been a young cub, newly arrived in the jungle. Three long years had passed since, and now he was almost full grown, thinking himself older and wiser in the ways of the world. But the pain of the mistake that ended his youth still haunted him, still hovered in the back of his mind whenever he tried to find happiness in his new home.

He wondered, for the thousandth time, if he should tell Timon and Pumbaa. Then, just as quickly, he rejected the idea. The burden he carried was his alone. Anyway, he thought, it wouldn’t make a difference if he told them or not.

They had asked him about his past on numerous occasions, to which he had given an ambiguous answer. Eventually, as time went by, the questions had stopped altogether as they realized his need for privacy.

Simba rose, still panting lightly, and stared upwards toward the sky. The points of light that he instinctively sought were there waiting for him, and they blazed in all of their unfathomable glory, bathing the jungle in gentle starlight.

“Father?” he whispered hopefully toward the stars, trying to search for something inspiring, something unusual. Perhaps tonight was the night.

But, as he expected, nothing happened. The stars never wavered in their radiance, twinkling faintly in the purple-black haze of the nighttime sky. He held his stare for a moment longer, then slowly looked away and sighed in shame. The promise that his father had once given him, so very long ago, burned in his mind, but it had been his fault, so why would his father wish to speak to the one responsible for his death?

***

“Huh?!” the light-sleeping meerkat was instantly awake. Awareness flooded his sleepy brain like a cold splash of water in the face, and Timon’s heart began to race in fright as he recognized the familiar anxiety seizing his body. His instincts were warning him that something was watching him, but as to what the “something” was, the frantic Timon wasn’t sure. He glanced nervously around at the trees shrouded in darkness, half-expecting a nasty predator suddenly to jump out at him from the shadows.

“Pumbaa!” he whispered urgently to the sleeping warthog, jumping to his feet onto the warthog’s furry stomach. The warthog snorted and shifted irritably, refusing to wake up.

Frowning, Timon turned to the warthog’s face and said, “Pumbaa?”

Predictably, his warthog companion hadn’t even twitched an ear, despite their obvious danger, hopelessly lost in whatever ridiculous dreams warthogs dreamt. Timon sighed. If it wasn’t for him, the warthog would have been eaten by a nameless Very Hungry Hairy Black Thing a long time ago. It showed how good a friend he was.

“Hey, Pumbaa!” he repeated, jumping onto the warthog’s enormous nose with nimble feet. He pulled at the flexible appendage, trying to rouse the lout. Finally, at his wit’s end, Timon shouted in frustration, “Pumbaa, WAKE UP!”

“Huh?” the warthog exclaimed as he suddenly came awake, and as his head lifted, the surprised Timon was tumbled off his perch. Blinking his eyes sleepily, the warthog asked in a loud, confused voice. “What’s wrong, Timon?”

“Sh!” the meerkat slapped a hand on the warthog’s mouth, glancing nervously around into the shadows behind him, and Pumbaa obediently fell silent. “I thought I heard something.”

“What did you hear, Timon?” Pumbaa whispered back, his eyes reflecting the fear in Timon’s face.

“I don’t know, but whatever it is.” Timon stopped and looked about.

“Timon, I think we’re being stalked by a predator—” Pumbaa began, also nervously looking about.

“Hush, my porcine pal!” Timon held up a hand, not listening to his friend. “Don’t talk while I’m thinking!”

“What are you thinking about, Timon?”

“Where’s a lion when you need one?” The meerkat was muttering to himself. He turned to the warthog. “Pumbaa, where’s Simba?!”

“Simba?” Pumbaa repeated the name, then shrugged. “I dunno, Timon, where do you think he is?”

“That’s what I’m asking you!” Timon snapped, then turned and peered into the shadows suspiciously. “You know, Pumbaa, I’ve just come to the conclusion that we’re being stalked by a predator!”

Pumbaa sighed.

“But, not to worry,” Timon went on, glancing at the warthog.

“Because, my friend, I have a plan…”

Timon broke off his speech, suddenly aware of a snapping of twigs and rustling of leaves in the undergrowth. Fear immobilizing their legs, which had suddenly turned to jello, the two clutched at one another. Pumbaa stared into the darkness frightfully while Timon closed his eyes, regretting at the end that should had eaten far fewer bugs for dinner than he had. A shadow moved out of the darkness, two yelow eyes hung glinting in the air, and the two involuntarily gasped in terror.

“Hi, guys!” The familiar deep voice rolled out of the shadows, and a young lion strode out of the undergrowth.

“Simba!” Pumbaa exhaled in obvious relief.

“Simba? It’s Simba?” Timon opened his eyes, saw the lion staring at him curiously, and began a sigh of relief. Suddenly, he stopped himself when he noticed that Pumbaa was watching him with narrowed eyes. He chuckled nervously, then with a fake grin said, “Pumbaa, I was just pulling your tail! I knew that it was Simba all along! I know things like these!”

“Oh, I’m sure you did, Timon!” The warthog sarcastically agreed, falling on his back and relaxing.

“Still,” The meerkat turned to Simba. “I thought I heard something!”

“Oh, you heard something alright, Timon. “ Simba nodded. “It must have been me you heard.”

“Speaking of you, Simba,” Timon said, jumping off the warthog to land on the ground, tiny hands on his hips. Pumbaa looked wordlessly on. “Aren’t you supposed to be here, protecting us?”

“Well, yeah, Timon,” Simba replied. “But—”

“We’re supposed to be together, y’know? One for all, and all for one, like the Three Musketeers—”

“Simba, what’s a musketeer?” Pumbaa suddenly asked.

The lion shrugged. “I don’t know!”

The warthog turned to the meerkat. “Timon, what’s a—”

“Quiet, Pumbaa, you ask too many questions!” Timon snapped, then spoke to Simba. “Simba, you’re a lion, am I right?”

“Well, yeah—”

“And lions have territories that they protect against all nasty creatures?”

“If you say so, Timon—” Simba began doubtfully.

“Since we are currently in what we call ‘your territory’, aren’t you supposed to be protecting us?!”

“Well, I’m sorry, Timon!” Simba apologized, rolling his eyes as he lowered himself to the ground. Then he said, as a way of explaining. “I had another bad dream.”

Timon sighed, threw his arms up, and rolled his eyes to the sky.

“The same one, Simba?” Pumbaa asked, frowning sympathetically.

“Yeah,” Simba confirmed, twitching his tail. “For some reason, I’ve been seeing it a lot more often in the last couple of weeks. I’m not really sure why.”

“You know something, Simba?” the warthog said, looking thoughtfully at the lion. “You should eat some organic green objects that grow on the branches of trees in a half-circular shape in numerous quantities—”

Simba gaped open-jawed at the warthog, not understanding.

“I believe you are referring to leaves, Pumbaa?!” Timon frowned.

“Yeah! Yeah!” Pumbaa nodded at Timon, then went on. “But you have to take these leaves from the martuypain tree.”

“M—muh—marty—” Simba stumbled over the word.

“Martuypain tree.” Pumbaa repeated, handling the word with ease.

“Martuypain leaves?!” Simba exclaimed, a confused look on his face.

“Yup!” the warthog replied, nodding enthusiastically. “ Eat a few, and you’ll sleep like a cub! No dreams, no worries!”

“Oh, really?” Simba said, interested. “How did you know that?”

“Because my uncle Boris told me and, uh,” The warthog hesitated, lifting a hoof to his mouth. “Though you should be careful not to eat too many, because my uncle did that once and he—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Timon waved his hands in the air, interrupting the warthog. “Pumbaa, we want to help Simba out of a hole, not into one!”

The meerkat turned to the lion, who was watching the two with a bemused expression.

“Simba, let’s talk about it, and maybe that’ll help—” the meerkat saw a stubborn look suddenly form on Simba’s face, and he crossed his arms over his tiny furry chest. “Are you ever going to tell us about whatever you’ve been dreaming?!”

“No,” Simba replied, shaking his head, turning away from his friends. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”

Timon rolled his eyes to Pumbaa, and sighing said. “Simba, if you don’t talk about it, we can’t help you, and if we can’t help you, you’re going to keep having these dreams—”

“I wish I could tell you about them, but I’d much rather not—”

“Ech!” the meerkat snorted in disgust, waving his arms in the air as he turned to Pumbaa. “I have a big day planned tomorrow Simba, I’m going back to sleep right now. I suggest that do the same!”

“But what about his dreams, Timon?” Pumbaa asked his friend.

“Dreams, schmeems!” Timon muttered to himself, curling himself up again on the warthog’s rising stomach. “If he were a real lion, the terror of the jungle, then he wouldn’t be bothered with such trivial nonsense. Go back to sleep, Simba!”

The lion rose in silence, glancing reproachfully at the meerkat, then walked slowly away on padded feet, allowing the darkness of the night to swallow him up.

“Gee, Timon,” the warthog said with a worried expression. “Don’t you think you were a bit hard on him?”

“Hard on him, Pumbaa?” the meerkat replied, his eyes closing, hands folded on his stomach. “It’s a little bit of something I call reverse psychology. You see, my friend, by encouraging Simba not to tell us about his problem, we are in fact making him want to tell us—”

“What are you saying, Timon?!” The warthog was utterly bewildered.

“Never mind, Pumbaa,” Timon said. “Just trust me!”

Pumbaa rumbled in caution, glancing at Timon with skeptical eyes, then settled down.

“Now, speaking of dreams, I’m going to dream up something myself,” Timon was muttering quietly to himself, already falling into a deep sleep. “And I’ll dream of juicy grubs, ladybugs with the slightest bit of crunch, ants dipped in a delicate leaf sauce, and oh yes, can’t forget those Macademian beetles—”

***

The trio couldn’t have known, but as they talked, they were being watched by a pair of gleaming amber eyes whose owner was one who wished to remain undetected and unseen.

The huge cat sat concealed in the long shadows of the full moon, patiently waiting as he listened to the conversation. He stood on a large granite boulder, one motionless shadow amongst many others, peering curiously into the valley below. His quarry was down there somewhere. He knew it. He knew it because he could almost feel the one he was Seeking, could almost hear its heart beating loudly in the silence of the night. After stretching tiredly, the old tiger crouched down to observe the valley floor beneath him with unflagging interest.

The tiger’s face, revealed by the light of the moon that cast its gentle rays all around him, had taken on a stern, uncompromising look as he brooded about the future. He was an old tiger, past twenty, but his great age had not dulled the intelligence that still gleamed brightly in the yellow-green eyes. The tawny coat of the tiger was ragged and worn, evidence of an extremely long life; the once fiery orange of his fur had turned almost completely white, emphasizing stripes of midnight black that marked face, legs, body and even tail. His limbs, powerful in his prime, had atrophied as he aged; but he still managed to move with a grace that came from great wisdom and a sureness of his place within the Circle of Life.

The piercing gaze of the tiger rose above the indistinct black shapes of the trio of speakers, above the treetops, to the star-speckled night that dominated that skies. The full moon blazed in the nighttime sky like a silver coin, suspended high within the ghostly clouds. The tiger withdrew into himself, eyes staring into the infinite expanse of the cosmos with a dreamy, unfocused look, as if he were seeing another world to which others were blind.

The tiger’s breath frosted in the chilly air as he considered the full moon. How many such moons had he seen in his life? Reminded of his age, his mind went back through his memories to the earliest times of his life.

Strange, he suddenly thought, remembering his years. He was the last of the generation of tigers that he had grown up with. He could still remember his siblings teasing him about his weakness, saying that he couldn’t survive on his own, that he would amount to nothing. But Destiny had determined that it would be otherwise, for he was now a Seeker. Now, all of his cubhood friends, his family, even his mentor, everyone that he had known as a cub—were now gone. Strange that he, of all cats, should have outlasted them all.

The tiger glanced thoughtfully toward Simba. What had happened before, would inevitably happen again. It was the way of things, the way of the wheel of time, the way of the Circle of Life. Destiny had played games with him, and he was of a mind that it was doing exactly the same thing with Simba.

A few minutes ago, he had been Seeking, sensing the presence of the quarry that he sought when faint voices, carried to the tiger’s sensitive ears on the wind, had alerted him. He had halted, not a muscle moving, ears tilted forward for maximum hearing, then changed the path of his search after a moment’s inner consultation. Lowering himself to his belly, he had crept slowly and silently through the darkness and tangles of vines to the sound’s source.

“Ah!” the tiger had muttered in triumph after he lifted himself over the boulder, and glanced down over the ravine’s edge. Though it was the blackest part of the night, barely illuminated by what little moonlight filtered down through the trees, the keen eyes could see all as though the dim moon were the sun. “There you are!”

At the bottom, it saw, were three individuals.

“A warthog, a meerkat, and a lion, talking to each other!” the tiger whispered in quiet surprise. “Fascinating!”

The tiger had seen and heard more things than almost anyone else alive, and the things that surprised him now were very few; but even so the old tiger was deeply amazed. If he had been in such close proximity to such mouth-watering prey, he surely wouldn’t have hesitated to do what was in his nature to do. But, as paradoxical as it seemed, the lion seemed to speak to them as if the trio were the very best of friends. Perhaps they even were.

His attention returned to the lion and he rose to leave, and the tiger growled as a strange feeling swelled and rose inside him. It was the familiar feeling of the exhilaration and anticipation of the hunt, and the old tiger revelled in the sensation. His eyes glanced back toward the sleeping meerkat and warthog, then passed over them as if they didn’t exist. He had wished to meet the lion alone, with the warthog and meerkat out of the way, and the lion’s friends had solved his dilemma through their slothfulness.

His eyes tracked the lion until he exited the clearing. The old tiger didn’t worry that the lion was moving away from him. He would let him go, for the time being, since the old tiger knew the lion’s aura. There was no place on earth that he could run that the old tiger couldn’t follow him to.

The old tiger rose, and moving on silent padded feet, skirted the edge of the ravine, slowly following without haste in the lion’s wake. The wind of his passing rolled over the two sleeping friends, and they half-awoke, mumbling in trepidation, as if they were suddenly remembering millennia of primal instinct that told them to run whenever their ancient enemies, the carnivores, threatened them.

Then, as the unnatural wind passed, they relaxed and quickly fell back into a deep, dreamless, fitful sleep.

Chapter Two: Fire Meets Fire

Simba intuitively knew that something was wrong.

It was a peaceful night, but for some reason, tonight was different from all the other nights he had seen. It wasn’t something that he could put his paw on, but he could feel it in the air. Something was happening, or was going to happen, and the unnatural quietness of the jungle seemed to echo his disquiet. At this time of night, the air should be filled with the sounds of insects and animal calls. But, instead, it was utterly quiet.

Silence in the jungle only meant that danger was near.

“Who is out there?” Simba murmured to himself in wonder, craning his head into the darkness here and there.

He had been travelling along a deserted jungle path that led to a nearby waterhole, his mind consumed by thought when he had suddenly realized that the jungle was so quiet. He then stood utterly still, listening, allowing whatever was out there to come to him.

From somewhere behind Simba, a twig snapped loudly. His ears twitched in response, and he turned his heard to peer curiously into the dark undergrowth. There was nothing there, except for the sound of air rushing between the darkened trees and branches as they swayed in the night wind. Simba was in the motion of turning back, when he heard yet another twig snap, accompanied by a low growl that rolled out from the darkness of the jungle.

Simba froze. His pulse suddenly quickened, and his body tensed instinctively, his eyes searching for danger. There was something out there! Something was coming. Suddenly, he regretted that he hadn’t taken the fighting lessons that Timon had been trying to teach him more seriously.

His body tensed, like a coiled spring, and with teeth gritted in dread, Simba stared into the thick darkness ahead. As he did so, there was a succession of deep-throated, angry grunts. There was a flash in the undergrowth, a shadow moved quickly, and Simba drew his breath in suddenly as he briefly glimpsed a pair of eyes glittering in the minute moonlight, watching him watching it. The sounds of crashing in the undergrowth rose into the air. The creature, whatever it was, was making its way toward the trail where the lion stood petrified. All Simba could see was the undergrowth being violently agitated in a direct line for him.

Simba growled in response and backed away as he saw the head and shoulders of a leopard appear out of the bushes a few feet away.

The attacker was a mother, a female leopard, who had just given birth to a litter of three tiny cubs that were in a nearby den. At this stage of their lives, being only a few days old, they were at their most helpless and, likewise, the mother leopard was at her most dangerous. Being unable to see, the cubs were forced to remain in the security of the den along with the mother leopard who became a committed, caring and ruthlessly protective mother. She treated any creature that wandered nearby with extreme suspicion, and if it were an animal that could pose a threat to her young, she moved to neutralize that threat aggressively.

The lion had wandered close, too close for the mother’s liking, and she had decided to rectify the problem. She stepped out of the jungle and onto the path, circling the much larger cat, growling with all the ferocity she could summon. Simba tensed, holding his ground, prepared to match any move that the female leopard might make.

The leopard hesitated, her yellow eyes narrowing. She had lost the advantage of surprise. “Go away, lion!” she hissed with a voice that had the texture of rough gravel. “You’re not welcome here!”

“Geez,” Simba muttered, unnerved at the rage in her eyes. “You got off on the wrong side of your tree this morning, didn’t you? Why don’t you just ask me nicely?”

“Where my cubs are concerned, I don’t ask: I demand!” she snarled, then the leopard, whose maternal instincts were pushing her to do the unthinkable, came at him. It moved with frightening speed, faster than any lion who had ever lived, and it attacked with unbridled ferocity.

“What—” Simba began, already rearing back defensively. The growled words that the leopard hurled at him were incomprehensible, then Simba’s vision exploded into stars as the cat’s heavy paw crashed into the side of his head. Simba grunted in surprise as he reeled back stunned, the world suddenly gone dim and hazy. There was no time for Simba to react, for the experienced leopard wouldn’t allow him to gain the advantage. She knew full well, being half the size and strength of Simba, that her larger foe would eventually defeat her if she allowed him to recover.

Then, as she paused to gather the strength that would tumble the dazed lion from his position on the path, a roar rose into the air. It was a roar such as the jungle had never heard before, which gyred up into the winds, and echoed down through the valley, and put fear into the hearts of whoever heard it.

“Huh?!” the leopard gasped, eyes widened, turning her head.

That was all she said before a tawny missile came bursting out of the jungle wall and smashed into her. There was flash of glistening claws, of moonlight gleaming off yellowed canines. Then they met in the air with a frightening bone-jarring titanic crash, and the creature who was much larger than the leopard, picked her easily up in its arms. The mother leopard growled, twisting around, tackling her attacker, and both of them fell backwards. Snapping trees like sticks and crushing the vegetation, the two crashed through the jungle wall and out of sight.

It all happened in an instant, and being obscured in the dim moonlight, the surprised Simba wasn’t sure exactly what he had seen. He rushed to the devastated opening in the jungle wall and looked.

For the leopard, doubled over in pain, the fight was over. When the creature had leapt from the jungle, a heavy paw had connected with her side, and something had snapped inside her with a dull sound. That she had lost did not matter, for she had done what she came to do. As for the lion, she knew that he wouldn’t dare approach her den, or she would finish what she started. With one final glare at Simba, who returned the gaze with a shocked expression, she limped quickly away into the darkness, wisely seeing that the odds were stacked against her.

The creature had not landed, as it expected, on dry ground, but instead on a soft layer of water and dirt in which it had immediately sunk.

“What?!” it said in an astonished voice, instinctively spreading out limbs to slow down its sinking into the mire.

As hard as Simba tried to, he couldn’t tell what kind of animal his savior was. All that he knew was that the scent it left in the air was cat-like, although one that was considerably different from what he would expect of a jungle or savanna-going feline.

The cat had landed in a peat bog, and it splashed its trapped body about in the muck and mud in an seemingly futile attempt to escape. But Simba could see that it was too large, too heavy, and its strength too little, for it to escape by itself. The cat, now completely covered in the brownish muck of the pool, would eventually lose to the forces that were sucking it down. It had sunk up to it shoulders already, and the remainder of its body was quickly disappearing beneath the surface. Suddenly it halted, remaining perfectly still, not even daring to twitch a muscle, perhaps realizing that the more it fought, the faster it would sink.

Their eyes connected across the clearing, and the yeloow-green eyes of the other narrowed. Simba’s keen ears heard its breath being drawn in suddenly and quickly, as if in surprise.

Now, Simba knew that peat bogs were extremely rare in this jungle, and he thought that Timon and Pumbaa had shown him them all, warning him of their danger. But this was one that they had all missed. Staring at the trapped cat, Simba suddenly understood why the leopard had even dared to attack him. She had hoped to push him or drive him off the path, into the peat bog, thus finishing an adversary that was too powerful for her to take on directly. He shuddered. Death had brushed him by, and he hadn’t even known it.

“You’ve fallen into a peat bog!” exclaimed Simba.

“Gee,” the other replied sarcastically. “Thanks for the update!”

“How’d you manage do that?!”

“I would love to continue this conversation,” The cat answered, shaking its head to dislodge the mud that was seeping into its eyes. “But it is not exactly the most important thing on my mind! Now, will you help me or not?”

“Ok, well, I’ll go get some help—” Simba began, his thoughts turning to what Timon and Pumbaa would make of this.

“You do that,” The creature snapped, slapping a paw on the surface of the pool to get Simba’s attention. “And you better bring back some flowers, because you’ll be throwing them on my grave!”

“Alright!” Simba responded, pacing back and forth at the edge of the pool, his mind churning violently. “I’ll help you. Just wait. I’ll think of something!”

“Think faster!”

Simba disappeared into the undergrowth, and the creature gasped as he slid down another inch into the muck. Simba quickly returned, walking to the very edge of the quicksand pool, and the cat looked eagerly up.

Then it saw what Simba had brought, and it closed its eyes in disbelief, asking, “Don’t you think you could have been a little more creative?”

“Well, excuse me!” Simba mumbled around the jungle vine hanging in his jaws. “It’s the best I can do—”

“Okay!” the creature’s gasp interrupted Simba when he slid down until only his neck and the muck-covered head were visible.

“It’s fine! It’s great! If you’re going to help me, hurry up!”

Simba grunted in response, then with a sharp jerk of his head, threw the vine into the pool, leaving a few feet tightly gripped inside his mouth. The green vine landed on top of the surface then began to slowly sink out of sight. It was the cat’s last hope, for Simba did not have enough time remaining to gather the vine in and cast it out again.

Glaring at the vine, which was just out of reach, the creature seemed to realize the same thing since it mumbled an expletive so vile that even Simba flinched.

Then with a strength beyond its own, a strength born out of desperation, the creature surged forward. Brownish muck rose into the air, splattering on the lion waiting on the shore, and Simba flinched instinctively. When he looked back, the surface of the peat bog was smooth and calm. Both the cat and the length of vine that Simba had thrown out had disappeared.

For several seconds everything was calm, the settling surface was unbroken, with only the sounds of birds twittering and animals calling in the in the distance to break the silence. Then the vine tugged powerfully, and the surprised Simba was very nearly pulled into the pool. Setting his paws down on the ground, digging his claws into the earth for purchase, Simba gritted his teeth around the vine and began to slowly back up.

The cat was much heavier that it looked, and the muck clinging to its fur made it much more ponderous. Straining for the next few minutes with every muscle in his body, Simba pulled the immense bulk of the creature out of the pool. Slowly, the head emerged, vine caught between the jaws, nose snorting out the muck that had filled it. Then the shoulders, followed by the rest of the body, and the cat managed to get its paws on dry land. Assuring itself that it had indeed reached solid ground, it released the vine, causing Simba to grunt and step back in surprise as the taunt vine suddenly went loose. With a final groan of exhaustion, the muck-covered cat pulled itself completely out of the pool and, abandoning all sense of dignity collapsed on the ground.

For a while, it lay on its back, its four legs in the air, tail twitching weakly on the ground. Simba also relaxed, listening to the harsh raspy breathing that told him the cat was still alive. Then it moved, rolling onto its stomach, and glared at Simba.

“You saved my life.” It said.

“And I think you saved mine as well.” Simba replied, unsure of what else to say. “I guess that makes us even, doesn’t it?”

The cat chuckled in response, then sighed as it looked down at itself. Its magnificent coat was in ruins, and all because it had allowed itself to be tricked by a leopard, but the damage incurred was nothing more than a bruised pride. The muck-covered cat sighed again, raising its head to silently regard Simba. “You don’t know what I am, do you?”

“I’m not sure.” Simba admitted. He couldn’t see under the muck, but he had seen the slitted-eyes, claws, and long tail that were characteristic of the great cats. He had thought that perhaps he was saving a leopard, or perhaps even another lion, but he couldn’t be sure because its hide was matted and filthy, and the muck obliterated the identifying marks that all cats wore. However, the scent that reached Simba’s sensitive nostrils, despite being masked somewhat by the stench of the peat bog, was one unlike any other that he had scented before. The mystery of deepened and grew, as did Simba’s curiosity.

“Well,” the cat said, rising and glancing around at the undergrowth. “There is water nearby, I should think. Could you indicate the direction?” The cat had also noticed that Simba had been staring at him, and it chuckled quietly as it added, “And once I get this disgusting muck off my hide, you can satisfy your curiosity!”

Simba gestured in a direction with his head. “If you don’t mind me asking,” he said, moving alongside the larger cat. “Why are you here?”

“I am Seeking.” was the answer.

“Seeking?” Simba repeated the word, confused. “Seeking what?”

The cat muttered something that Simba could not quite catch, and it moved in the indicated direction toward the clean water. His curiosity piqued by the strange visitor to the jungle, Simba followed.

***

The tiger emerged from the waterhole, shaking its aged body to remove the water that was running down his newly-cleaned hide. Simba watched in wordless fascination. He had seen many things in his three years, but he had never seen an animal quite like this one. The cat was feline, like himself, but much heavier and larger, possessing fur, four legs, a tail, and feline facial features; but there the similarities ended. The cats of both the savanna and jungle possessed some type of coat marking, differing greatly from one individual to another in arrangement, but the markings were universally spots. The jaguars, rarely seen in the jungle, leopards, cheetahs, and even the lions if one looked carefully at their hides under the right light, possessed the spots that indicated that they were one people.

But Simba was faced with a cat that he had never seen before, a cat that possessed not spots, but stripes.

Powerful, elusive and mysterious, little was known of the tigers, for they ventured into Pridelands perhaps once in a hundred years, hailing from their frigid snow-locked lands far to the north where no lion dared go. Simba had heard stories of these cats from his father, but like all youngsters, he had assumed that they were myth. But it seemed that the old stories were true! But… if that were so, then could the other stories that his father told him also be true?

Realizing the consternation that his appearance was causing Simba, the old tiger sat down as he glanced curiously at Simba, flicking drops of water from his whiskers. He wasn’t surprised at the lion’s reaction, for he knew that he was a legend come to life before the lion’s very eyes.

“So,” the tiger spoke first, shaking his head free of remaining the water clinging to his fur. “To whom do I have the honor of owing my life?”

“Uh… Simba,” answered Simba, startled, as if awakening from a dream. “My name’s Simba.”

“Simba, hmm?” the tiger muttered, shaking one leg then another, before settling down on his stomach and scrutinizing the lion before him with a bemused expression. “How original, I must say!”

“I’m not the one who picked my name, so don’t get on my case… um, what was your name again?”

“I don’t recall giving my name to you, Simba,” the old tiger chuckled. “But if you must know, you may call me Kublia.”

“Kublia.” Simba repeated the strange name. It sounded outlandish, but seemed to fit its equally outlandish owner.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, I guess.”

“Ah, that feeling is mutual, my friend!” the tiger chuckled, tilting his head at Simba. “I did not think that the leopard would trick me in such a way, and I do not know what I would have done if you hadn’t done what you did. I fear that my eyes and legs are not as sure as they used to be! But, before we continue, I must ask you: why save an old tiger like myself?”

“I dunno,” Simba shrugged, also settling himself down near the tiger. “Why not?”

“Altruism doesn’t apply here, Simba.”

“Al—what?” Simba shook his head, confused.

The old tiger tried a different track. “It is counter-productive to save someone like me, Simba. I am a tiger. And a tiger is a creature that could potentially take your prey, your land, perhaps even your life. My death would have only served to reduce your competition in this jungle. Now, I ask you again: why save an old tiger?”

“I don’t know!” Simba answered uncertainly, slightly annoyed at the question. “Maybe its because I’m sick and tired of standing by and watching while others die for no reason.”

“Then, I must guess that you acted the way you did, because at one time you were unable to prevent the death of another?”

“What—” Simba stopped himself, then glared at Kublia. “Who are you, really?”

“Nothing:” Kublia replied, a crafty look in his narrowed eyes. “But an old tiger with many foolish ideas in his head.”

“Where are you from?” Simba asked the tiger, now curious.

“The land of my birth?” The tiger replied, shrugging, glancing lazily into the distance. “It is a distant land, far beyond the horizon. I have not walked upon it, nor smelled its sweet fragrances, nor seen it with my own eyes in many, many years.”

“You said that you were Seeking.”

“I said that, didn’t I?”

“What is that?”

“It—” The tiger hesitated. “It is difficult to put into words. Simply put, it is an… instinct that my people possess. Only a few can be taught how to employ it properly, and even fewer have the ability inborn. The best way that I can describe it is that it is the looking for that which was once lost, yet can be found again.”

“So,” said Simba, thinking that he understood. “You are looking for a new home?”

“I am a wanderer.” the aged tiger replied, as if it explained everything. In a way, it did.

“Then, you have no home?”

“My home is where I make it. The dirt beneath my feet is my floor. The sky is my ceiling, the stars my family. The walls of the horizon are the walls of my cave. The entire world is my home, Simba.”

“You must get lonely sometimes.” Simba commented.

“Sometimes.” The old tiger admitted with a shake of his head. “We tigers keep to ourselves, Simba, unlike your own people. What is a young lion like you doing out here all by himself?”

“Oh, I have friends. They keep me busy… mostly.”

“Other lions?” Kublia asked curiously.

“No,” Simba smiled quietly. “They are not what you would expect them to be.”

“Ah,” The tiger raised an eyebrow, “The warthog and meerkat?”

“Why, yes—” Simba glanced at the tiger suspiciously.

“How’d you know that?”

“I was there when you spoke to them, a short while ago, watching them watching me. Sharp one, that meerkat. He knew that I was there.”

“You were following me!” Simba exclaimed, pointing a paw accusingly at the tiger.

“I was merely curious.” The tiger retorted. “It is not often that I see a lion so far from his home.”

“This is my home!” Simba snapped angrily.

“Odd,” The old tiger glanced at Simba, then looked. “For I know that your people live in prides. Yet, I also know that you are the only lion in this jungle. Why is that so?”

Simba hesitated, staring at the old tiger with some wonder. He had decided not to say anything more than necessary, but when Kublia had spoken the last sentence, all of his determination and self-resolve fell away leaving him with the feeling that he could absolutely trust this stranger that he had never met before in his life. How, Simba wondered, could the old tiger manipulate him in such a way?

“I’m an outcast.” Simba answered, not sure of what else to say.

“An outcast, you say?” the tiger responded, seemingly disinterested.

“A long time ago, I did something terrible.” The lion explained, bowing his head as he looked away from the tiger. “So terrible that I ran away from the Pride of my cub-hood. How could I stay to the… questions? To the… blame? To the answers that I dreaded to give? I regretted what I did on that day, and I have done so for every day thereafter.”

“Ah, I see!” the tiger murmured in understanding. “And how did it come to pass that you are what you are?”

“If I told you, you wouldn’t understand,” responded Simba, shaking his head.

“Try me.”

“I said no one would understand!” Simba snapped, leaping up and walking to the edge of the waterhole. There the lion paused and stared at his own reflection sadly.

Kublia stared thoughtfully at the lion for a moment, then said quietly. “I might understand, Simba; more than you could know.”

“How could you possibly know what I’ve been through?!” Simba glanced upwards and back to Kublia in surprise.

“From personal experience.”

“You’ve never been through what I am going through now!”

“Do not judge me by that which you don’t know, Simba, because I have!” The hissed response caused Simba’s anger to suddenly drain away, and he looked at Kublia, suprised by the sudden emotion in the other’s voice.

The moon shone down on the old tiger, making him look shadowy and ghost-like in the silver half-light. Kublia had pulled himself up to his full height, staring at Simba, his eyes luminous in the dark. The years melted away from the tiger, and he was suddenly transformed from a weak, old tiger to a powerful charismatic, awe-inspiring presence. The awed Simba respected, perhaps even feared, the old tiger’s knowledge and ability, which surpassed his own meager talents by far.

“Simba, I have a story to tell you, so listen well.” Kublia began, speaking in a strong voice. “I was once as you were. Young, optimistic, without a care in the world. I had a mate, had a territory, and I had fathered cubs. I was happy, alive, and content. Then, came the day, when out of my siblings, I alone was chosen by my father to be a Seeker, as was my father was before me. It was my Destiny.”

“What happened?” The entranced Simba prompted the tiger after Kublia had paused for a moment.

“Briefly;” Kublia sighed sadly, closing his eyes. “The knowledge of what it was to be a Seeker was coveted by my siblings, those that wanted that which they could not have. When our father picked me, they engineered my downfall and tried to have me killed. I lost my cubs, my mate, my land. I lost everything. I was suddenly all alone in the world, a transient learning to live again.”

“It must have been terrible for you.” Simba murmured in sympathy.

“Oh, it was.” Kublia opened his eyes and looked at Simba. “I was filled with anger at the family that had betrayed me, ridden with guilt that I had caused the deaths of those I loved, saturated with hatred at this knowledge that had been the cause of all my suffering. I hated it. I wanted nothing to do with it anymore. I left my homeland and wandered… drifted without purpose… for many years. By purposely neglecting my Destiny, I became a shadow of what I once was. I might as well as been dead.”

“But,” Simba replied. “You are a Seeker now, aren’t you?” Kublia nodded. “It was ten years later, when I met a wise baboon, that I finally realized the enormity of my mistake. You see, Simba, in shirking my duty to my profession, believing that it had betrayed me, I had in fact betrayed it. And by not going on with my own life after the death of my family, by drifting into oblivion, I had made it so that they had died for absolutely nothing.”

“And so you became a Seeker again?”

The tiger nodded. “I said my farewells to the ghosts of those I loved, turned my eyes to the future, and set out to become what I became. For setting me on the path that I had forsaken for so long, I owed that baboon a debt of gratitude that I still owe him to this day. For it was with his help, that I realized my mistakes, and overcame them.”

Simba was shaking his head. “But I what I did—”

“What you’ve done,” The tiger quietly interjected. “Is something so terrible, that you refuse to even speak about it. And the memory of that will be with you for a long time, Simba. A long time. But you’ll have to learn to live with it, turn that tragedy into a triumph, and go on towards your Destiny.”

Simba was staring curiously at the tiger, as if he was seeing someone different. Kublia glanced around at the jungle, his yellow eyes roving over the green trees, then fell back to the lion.

“Look at yourself Simba. You do not belong here, hidden within this dark jungle of vines and tangles. You belong with others of your kind, in the golden grasses of the Pridelands.”

“The Pridelands?” Simba said the word in surprise, stumbling over the syllables. “You know where I came from?!”

“I do now.” The tiger smiled.

Simba flushed, looking away, and Kublia continued. “It is in the Pridelands that you will find your Destiny, Simba, but only if you’re lion enough to reach out and touch it! Remain here, you will stagnate, and the longer you linger here, the further from your Destiny you will float. Remain here long enough, your Destiny will fall so far from you, that you will never rise and take hold of that greatness that was set down for you the day you were born.”

Simba was staring strangely at the tiger. “You sound like someone that I once knew, Kublia. Who are you?”

“I told you once before, and I’ll tell you again: I am merely an old tiger with many foolish ideas in his head.”

“What do you think I should do?”

“Now that, Simba,” the old tiger replied, craning his neck to stare up toward the lightening nighttime sky. “Is something you’re going to have to decide for yourself.”

Simba also raised his head, and saw that the fiery sparkle of the stars had faded to a cold faraway gleam in the coming light of the dawn. Above them, the two watched as the stars spun in silver wreaths through the expanse of space, twirls of cold light dancing in frostlike patterns against velvet blackness that was slowly turning to white with the coming light.

“My father once said,” Simba suddenly said, after a brief silence, rising from the ground on all four legs to stare sadly at the disappearing stars. “That all the Kings of the past are up there, watching over us.”

“Oh, really?” the voice replied quietly, then asked. “They live in the stars themselves?”

“Well, no,” Simba hesitated. “I think that they are the stars.”

“Fascinating.”

A flash of light flickered in the corner of Simba’s vision, and he curiously craned his head toward it. There, wreathed in a halo of silver and white light, a line of fire stretched toward the horizon then vanished. Simba blinked in surprise: it had occurred so quickly that he was unsure of what he had seen.

“It seems, then,” Kublia’s voice spoke quietly behind him. “That the time has arrived for even the stars themselves to fall from their invincible thrones in the sky.”

Simba turned, a retort on his lips, and his eyes met only empty air. He glanced around in sudden surprise. The tiger had completely vanished into thin air! Sitting in the clearing, hearing only the sound of the wind rushing through the trees, a puzzled Simba stared wordlessly into the distance, Kublia’s last words ringing in his mind.

***

“Hakuna Matata!” the warthog exclaimed excitedly, pointing in a direction with one of his hooves. “There he is, Timon!”

“Oh, there you are!” The meerkat exclaimed in relief, bounding in front of Pumbaa as he watched the lion emerge from the undergrowth of the jungle. “We’ve been looking for you all morning, Simba! Where’ve you been?!”

Simba merely lifted his head, glanced at Timon with sad eyes, and wordlessly walked past him.

“Geez,” the meerkat muttered to his equally mystified companion, rubbing his head in bewilderment as the lion swept past him. “What’s with him?”

“I dunno, Timon.” The warthog answered, twitching his long tail. “Hey, maybe he ate some of those leaves I told him about!”

“Well, whatever it is,” Timon shrugged. “I’m sure that he’ll get over it soon enough. We’ll talk to him after we grab some grub, and speaking of leaves, I hear that there are some ripe pickings by the acacia trees down by the plains!”

“Sounds good to me, Timon!” the warthog beamed, and Timon jumped nimbly onto Pumbaa’s head, hands on the floppy ears to keep him steady as they moved.

They glanced at Simba, perhaps with the idea of inviting him along on their little excursion, then halted as they saw the motionless form of the lion asleep on the ground.

“Humph!” Timon snorted. “He’s sleeping! He’s always sleeping. Doesn’t he know this is a jungle we’re in?” His face brightened as he remembered something. “Say, Pumbaa, how does that song go?”

“What song, Timon?” the warthog glanced up at his tiny friend who was prancing back and forth on his head.

“Y’know! The song.” The meerkat swung its arms to punctuate each syllable of the verse. “Hmmmm—Hm!—Hm-hm! Hm!--Hm-hm!- Hm!-Hm!--c’mon, Pumbaa! You know this!”

Pumbaa’s eyes had widened, recognizing what the meerkat had been getting at, and he was humming in time with meerkat’s words.

“In the Jungle, the mighty Jungle—” Timon began.

“Akeema-wep! Akeema-wep! Akeema-wep!” Pumbaa said between Timon’s words.

“—the lion sleeps tonnnniiiighttt!”

“Akeema-wep! Akeema-wep! Akeema-wep!”

Simba opened his eyes and smiled as he heard the voices of the musical duo fading into the distance.

His thoughts turned to the old tiger that had called himself Kublia, and what they had spoken of together. When Simba had watched the old tiger talk, the gentle moonlight falling all around him, he had seemed… so ancient, so wise. It was almost as if Kublia had been the first cat that had ever walked the earth.

Simba wondered that, if he lived as long as the tiger had, would he ever know all that Kublia did? Simba yawned tiredly, lounging on his back on the cool jungle grass. He wanted to just lie back and relax in the lazy, steamy atmosphere of the jungle. The memory of his meeting with the strange tiger was already receding into the distant past, and he decided to put it entirely from his mind. He sluggishly made a mental note to eventually get back to it someday, and rolled onto his stomach, lazily gazing about to find something of interest.

As there was a sudden flash of white in the undergrowth before him, Simba’s eyes widened in recognition, and his pulse quickened. Breath catching in his throat, he saw the sun gleaming off a faded, striped hide, and pair of yellow eyes danced among the trees, staring disappointedly back at him. Simba blinked in surprise. The image vanished. There was nothing around him, except for the trees of the jungle and the reflective dew glinting off their leaves. The lion sighed inrelief; it must have been only a trick of light and shadow.

His mind wandered again, and as it usually did whenever he rested, his thoughts turned lazily to that of Nala, his childhood companion. As he laid back on a soft cushion of green grass, he idly wondered what she was doing at this exact minute, and allowed his mind to slowly drift off into the relaxation that befitted those that followed the path of Hakuna Matata.

Chapter Three: Savanna Heat, Savanna Flame

Oppressive heat choked the Pridelands, and the lioness’s parched throat cried out to her for something to slake its thirst. Her hunger had retreated to a dull ache in the back of her mind.

The sight of her wasted, wounded body alone told the story of her ordeal. Revealed in the light, despite her weakness, she was a beautiful lioness. Her hide, once a light creamy gold, was now mangy and dull. Flesh had melted from her bones, causing her ribs to stick out, but her body still remained muscular and beautifully proportioned. Her yellow eyes gleamed with intelligence and the fierce determination of one who wishes to survive, no matter what the cost. No one could know of the turmoiled events of her last two days, of her constant running, of her fearful hiding, of her brief troubled moments of restless sleep, or the twenty terrible miles of wasteland that she had dragged herself across.

Her name was Nala of Pride Rock.

She glanced around despondently. Each area of the Pridelands seemed to be a mirror of the one before it; dead and empty, unnaturally glowing in all the sickening shades of grey and black. There was so little of everything anymore, Nala thought as she glanced around despondently, there was no meat, no water, and therefore, no hope.

She closed her eyes, sighing in exhaustion. The heat was unbelievable! Despite the iron sky that hid the sun, the ball of

flame nevertheless made its presence felt, for everything from the grasslands, to the forests, to the living animals themselves, seemed to shrivel, sweat and melt under the onslaught of the heat wave. Nala knew this time well, for she had lived through three such dry seasons. But this was the worst one in recent memory, and its unforgiving intensity showed its effects on the land and its creatures. The worried lioness ruminated over the absence of water and prey that the pride depended on for survival. The usual prey that the lions depended on, the wildebeest, antelope, and zebra, had completely vanished, perhaps migrated out insearch of more fertile lands. Waterholes all across the land were drying up quickly from the intense heat, forcing the few animals to congregate around the few remaining water spots. In time, if this heat didn’t abate, even those would disappear as well.

And, as for Scar, he wasn’t doing anything. He always remained in his cave, dreaming his evil dreams, seemingly oblivious to the crumbling affairs of a kingdom that was falling down around his ears. His hyena allies were equally neglectful, carelessly fouling the waterholes with their indecent and disgusting activities, and ruthlessly hunting what little prey remained to extinction. The Pride had to have meat and water, and soon, for if they remained here as Scar commanded, they would surely perish.

“But we will live, Scar,” Nala whispered at the sky, her teeth gritted in silent rage. “Because I’ll find someone that will take from you that which you do not deserve, no matter what the cost! I will not let you be the doom of us all!”

She suddenly gasped, falling to her belly, a wave of dizziness washing over her. She was reaching the very limits of her strength, but she would rather die, rather starve to death, than go back to that life with Scar that she had once known. But the unbearable heat, the lack of food and water, the fear of being discovered, had all taken their toll on the weary lioness.

Nala licked her lips. She had to find prey soon, and she had to find it before she lost the strength to hunt. But where? In the distance, thunder rumbled, and Nala glanced curiously toward it, then rose and began to move again.

***

Many miles to the east, at the periphery of the Pridelands, a similar scene was unfolding as a tiger crested a hilltop. Kublia suddenly halted, gazing sadly at what he was seeing. A long time had passed since his last visit to the Pridelands, and time had a way of changing things. Of the green pastures, yellow grasses, flowing streams, gushing waterholes, gentle sunlight, rows of tall mighty trees, summoned from the memories of his earliest days, there was absolutely nothing left but devastation. The yellow grass had been destroyed, replaced by a lifeless topsoil of brown sand and dirt. The huge river that crossed this land, the one so deep that even he dared not attempt to cross, had vanished, leaving only the cracked dry earth of the riverbed behind.

But the one thing that stunned him was the disappearance of the trees. Every single one had been broken down, perhaps by starving animals desperate for any scrap of food, and silent rows upon rows of stumps bore testimony to the fact that a forest had once stood here. The few trees that remained were stripped of leaves, bark blackened under the heat of the sun, with withered branches sticking like fingers into the cloudy grey sky. The land of his youthful memory was gone, destroyed by a relentless and heartless King, one that he could not understand. He shook his head, eyes staring about in disbelief, amazed by the scope of damage that had occurred. Why had Scar allowed this to happen?

Then as he turned his head, his flagging hopes rose suddenly when he spied fertile yellow and blue in the distance. There was hope yet for the Pridelands, he knew, for the blight had only affected its broken heart, where Pride Rock stood. Around the edges, skirting the huge blotch of darkness that sat in its center, the land was still healthy, still alive. But the blight was spreading its fingers into even this, and in time, a time that was fast approaching, the Pridelands would slip beyond all hope of healing.

He forced himself to clear his mind, and closing his eyes, he concentrated. There, surely enough, was the familiar pull of something that he sought. It was a strong pull, indicating that it was nearby. Opening his eyes, he spied a collection of hills in the distance. Perhaps, what he was Seeking was there? He began to move in that direction, travelling down the section of the hillside that still bore grass. At the bottom, where the grass turned into lifeless earth, he halted, seemingly unwilling to step on the desecrated land.

“Spirits of the land, hear me now!” he whispered to the unseen spirits that he believed in, gritting his teeth as he placed his paws upon the lifeless soil. He glanced toward Pride Rock one final time, then turned his eyes away, muttering to himself, “Know this: the day when you will have your vengeance is at hand! Scar shall pay for this! And he shall pay, and pay, and pay—”

Thunder rumbled in the distance, seeming to agree with him, and Kublia’s ears twitched in response.

“Spirits of the land;” he continued, speaking quietly to those that where unseen, but a part of everything around him. “Do not call to me, for I am not the one destined to challenge the King! That is for another, for when he finally seizes his Destiny, it will be his own salvation that he will discover, and yours!”

Kublia then stared upwards toward the iron-grey sky. The overhead view was all the color and texture of fouled water, and as he watched, it threw occasional flashes of lightning, rumbling and boiling threateningly above his head. A storm was coming, Kublia realized, and it would be a dark and terrible storm. As the storm clouds rolled ever closer toward the unsuspecting Pridelands, always growing and building in intensity, the watching tiger also realized that it would be a storm that would change the Pridelands forever.

He only hoped that it would change it for the better.

***

Hyenas were waiting in ambush along the sides of the valley, and Kublia thought that there were fourteen of them. They were hiding among bushes, trees, and even in holes that had been hastily scraped out of the earth by frantic paws along a beaten path that ran through the valley.

He sighed as he shifted his form for the hundredth time, easing the pressure on his tired legs. He was not as young as he used to be, and the screams of protest from his exhausted muscles seemed to agree with this statement. But, with an iron will, he ignored and continued to make himself scarce. His back was to the wall of the cliff-face, just above the concealed hyenas, and with great difficulty, he had managed to make his immense bulk disappear in eight inches of dried, yellow grass. He was waiting, for she that he knew must come.

“This is stupid!” a hyena suddenly exclaimed, raising his head from concealment.

Kublia’s ears pricked, and he raised his head slightly and glanced over to the hyena who had come out of concealment. Fifteen. There were fifteen hyenas. He had missed that one.

“Aw, shut your mouth, Banzai!” a second hyena, a spotted female, snapped as she too rose beside the first hyena.

“But we’ve been here all day, Shenzi, sitting out in this hot sun! And how d’ya know if that lioness is going to show up here at all?”

“Oh, she’ll show up, alright! You just wait and see.”

“But I’m bored, Shenzi!” Banzai whined.

“Why don’t you sing us a song, Banzai!” Giggled a third hyena, much farther away than the two.

“What, are ya kidding me?” Shenzi snorted as she pointed a paw at her companion. “He couldn’t carry a tune if you strapped it to his back!”

Whooping laughter and insane giggling broke up and down the cliff, and Kublia had to grit his teeth as the noise rolled over him. No matter how many times he heard it, he still had to fight the impulse to run whenever he heard hyena laughter.

“Anyways, Banzai,” Shenzi said with a smile, after the other hyenas had quieted down enough. “He told us to stay here and keep watch, and that’s what we’re gonna do! She’s bound to come through here soon enough. The antelope are on the other side of this valley, and there’s no way around that we haven’t covered!”

“What’s with Scarface, anyways?” Banzai said excitedly, gesturing back in a direction toward Pride Rock. “He came roaring out of his cave that morning, and I tell you: I’ve never seen a lion so angry! I mean, he was actually foaming at the mouth!”

“Not a pretty sight!” Shenzi agreed, snickering.

“I tell you,” Banzai was also giggling. “I ran when I saw that!”

“You’re not the only one that ran!”

Giggling rose into the air, and Kublia cringed again, forcing himself to listen.

“Then he started ordering us around, like usual.” Banzai muttered in frustration. “It’s not easy, waiting on that one paw and foot.”

“But we got it easy, Banzai!” Shenzi replied. “All we have to do is sit and wait. The others, you don’t even wanna know what they are doin’!”

“I don’t even know what we’re doin’ here! She’s probably miles from here by now, anyway,” Banzai said. “And I don’t really see any point in us wasting any more time around here. Besides, I’m starving!”

There were sounds of agreement all around him, and he saw tongues rolling out of mouths as the other hyenas salivated at the thought of eating.

“Welcome to the club!” Shenzi muttered, glancing toward the mouth of the valley again.

“Well,” Banzai paused, glancing at the slobbering hyenas.

“How about some zebra? Zebra sure sounds good now—”

“Have you looked, you lazy bag of fleas?!” Shenzi interrupted in irritation, gesturing around her with an upraised paw. “See a zebra around here somewhere that I’ve missed?”

“What about wildebeest? I heard that the lionesses brought some in—”

“The lionesses?” Shenzi chuckled, then snorted in disgust, shaking her head. “That’s funny! Those are the laziest bunch of lions that I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying somethin’!”

“What’d you mean, there’s no food?! Aw, man!” Banzai exclaimed in dismayal, then he snarled. “That’s it! I’m sick of being hungry all the time!”

“Yeah, well, you’re not the only one!”

“Man,” Banzai muttered, scratching himself with a hind leg.

“My stomach is hollow!”

“Funny,” Shenzi snickered. “I thought that your head was hollow!”

“I’m talking to Scar about the food as soon as we get back!”

“Well, that’s where we’ll be going in a little bit,” Shenzi replied. “And just remember: let me do the talking, alright?”

“It’s been three days since my last meal, and it wasn’t a very filling one, either. I’m starved!” Banzai snapped peevishly.

“Why I ought to give Scarface a piece of my mind—”

“Just let me do the talking, ok!”

“Why? You’re always talking!”

“Shhh!” Shenzi had glanced up to the mouth of the valley, and she had spotted movement. Turning to the others she growled. “Put a cork in it, y’all! Someone’s coming!”

Around her, the hyenas quieted instantly, lowering themselves eagerly to the ground. Kublia also tensed himself, unsure of what exactly he was going to do if Nala came down into the valley.

“Here she comes—” Shenzi was whispering in excitement, then halted, rising as she growled in frustration. “Never mind, everyone! It’s only Ed.”

The spotted hyena emerged from the brush, and a collective groan rolled from his clan-mates. Ed stared about with his vacuous eyes, giggling as he saw the dismayal in everyone’s eyes.

“Eh-huh-huh-ha-ha-ha-ha!” He began to laugh, rolling in the dust, seeing the consternation that his arrival had caused. The curses and threats that his disgruntled fellow hyenas tossed down on him only served to make him laugh even harder.

“So, what is it, Ed?” The irritated Shenzi finally demanded when the insane hyena paused for breath.

Ed grunted, rolling onto his stomach, and pointed back up the way that he had come, tongue lolling out of his mouth.

“What? She’s coming, ya mean?” Shenzi suddenly brightened.

“Then what are ya doing, bonehead, standing in the middle of the trap?!

Get your flea-bitten tail up here!”

Ed complied, slobbering and giggling all the way up to his companions, before hunkering down with them.

Golden movement flickered at the corner of Kublia’s eye, and old tiger turned his head instantly. His keen eyes picked out the form of a lioness with a hide of creamy gold moving around at the mouth of the valley, and he could see her eyes glance down cautiously into the valley.

Nala! It had to be Nala.

She had to be stopped before she came down into the valley, or the hyenas would spring the trap. He moved himself into action, and none of the hyenas beneath him, their attention riveted on the valley floor beneath them, paid any attention to the sudden quick movement along the side of the valley.

***

Nala stared hopefully into the distance, beyond the valley beneath her. In the shimmer of heat, she thought she could see water, and she knew that where there was water there must also be prey as well. But, even if it were a trick of a the eyes, a mirage, there had to be some water or food in that direction. Nala glanced down uncertainly into the valley, unsure if she wanted to go into it or not. It was the only quick way through this part of the Pridelands; there were alternative ways, but those were desolate and would require many days travel. She had to have food and water now.

Nala was also convinced that she had heard voices rolling out of the valley, but now it was quiet. Utterly quiet.

Too quiet, she realized instinctively.

She sighed. She will have to deal with whatever danger happened as best as she could. There was no other quicker way to the water on the far side, except through the valley, and that’s what she must do. She gathered her legs beneath her, ready to outrun anything that tried to stop her from going where she wished to go—

“STOP!”

The lioness skidded to a halt, her eyes widening as she saw an old tiger suddenly appear on a rock ledge above her. He was slightly out of breath, and appeared to have run a distance to reach her. “Stay—” he paused, and catching his breath, wheezed out the words. “Stay right where you are!”

“W—who are you?” she gasped, pulling back instinctively.

She had heard of tigers, but she had never expected to see one in her lifetime. She knew that, on occasion, they came into the Pridelands, but the Pride hadn’t seen a representative of theirs in many, many years. What was this one doing here now?

“I am merely a friend.” Kublia answered, staring calmly down at the anxious lioness.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you,” Nala muttered, glancing back to the tiger, barely slowly down on her trip down the path. “But, really, I must be going—”

“I wouldn’t go that way!” He said warningly, his tail twitching.

“You wouldn’t?” Nala halted, glaring back at the tiger, thinking that he was challenging her. “Why not?!”

“If I recall correctly hyenas and lions do not exactly get along on best terms with each other.” The tiger said, then gestured with a tail to the tree-covered valley beneath. “There is an entire company of them down there, my dear, and if you go there you will almost certainly be killed.”

“I can take care of myself—” she began, moving to pass the tiger.

Kublia growled, and leapt down from his vantage point, landing nimbly in front of the lioness. She reared back, ready to defend herself, but there was something in the bright yellow eyes that soothed her, that told her that he was just an old cat, and one that meant her no harm.

“Get out of my way, old tiger!” she demanded, a scowl on her face.

Kublia shook his head, then said in a soft voice. “I’ve been sent to stop you, Nala, by whatever means possible.”

“You know my name!” her wide eyes plainly revealed her surprise, but then they narrowed in suspicion. “But… but how?

Who sent you?”

“This is Rafiki’s doing.” the tiger answered.

“You know Rafiki?” she said in some astonishment, resting back on her haunches as she considered the old tiger in a new light. “But… how do I know I can trust you?”

The tiger’s eyes narrowed. “Rafiki knew that you would ask that question. Look, then!”

Lowering his head to the ground, he scratched something in the dirt with his paw. The curious Nala came over, and recognized the curves and lines of a symbol that Rafiki had shown her a long time ago. It was her Name-Rune that he had given to her at birth; only she and Rafiki knew it.

“So,” Nala nodded thoughtfully, wiping out the rune with a paw stroke. “He did send you. But why?”

“He knows what has happened.”

Nala flushed in embarrassment, her mind going back to the incident with Scar, unsure of what to say.

“Even as we speak, the King searches the land for you with his hyenas, and I do not think he will stop until you are back in his grasp, or dead. You are in terrible danger, and the longer you remain here, the greater your danger will grow.”

“But…” Nala shook her head. “The Pridelands need a new King! Surely, if you know my problem, you must also know that we can’t endure Scar much longer! And, where else am I going to find one, but here in the Pridelands?”

“If you are speaking of the transients, the prideless males that wander the land, there are none to be found here anymore, Nala. Scar got rid of them all, so none of them could do what you are trying to do now; replace him.”

“Then,” Nala bowed her head brokenly. “What am I going to do?”

“You must go away.” Kublia replied softly, tilting his head in sympathy. “You must leave the Pridelands, and find someone that can aid you in your cause.”

“But, where could I go?”

“Do know the sun?” the tiger gestured to the sky, and Nala nodded. “Where it sets on the horizon, follow it, and keep true to its path. It will carry you away from the Pridelands, across the burning sands, and into a jungle on the other side. There you will find help, if you’re willing to make the journey.”

Nala paused. “It doesn’t seem that I have much of a choice, do I?”

“Every one has a choice in every situation;” The tiger answered. “It is just some choices are more attractive than others.”

“I can’t stay here—” Nala muttered to herself, then looked back towards Kublia. “Okay, fine then. If you were me, what would you do?”

“If I were you,” The old tiger chuckled at his own remark, then indicated the edge of the path with a shake of his head. “I would leave the path here. I know that the cliff-face at this point is merely packed dirt, and it would be simplicity itself for one of your strength and youth to reach the bottom.

“But what about the hyenas?”

“Ah, yes,” The tiger turned and glanced down into the valley. “The question of the hyenas still remains.” He paused for a moment, thinking, then finally said to the waiting Nala, “Do not worry about any hyenas following you, for I shall take care of them. Just remember that, once you reach the bottom of the cliff, align yourself to the sun, and don’t look back.”

The tiger turned away from the view of the valley beneath him and strode up to the seated Nala. He noticed that she was watching him attentively with renewed hope in her eyes. “Do you understand?” he said.

“Yes—” she nodded, then hesitated. “Except for one thing: I’m hungry.”

Kublia shook his head resolutely. “You must leave now, right this very minute. The hyenas are watching the prey and the waterholes. If you try to drink or eat now, they will find you, and you will be destroyed.”

Nala opened her mouth to complain, then quieted as saw she the tiger’s unyielding face.

“I’ve been to the jungle already,” he continued, as a way of easing her concerns. “ And I’ve seen that it is a veritable Garden of Eden, overflowing with prey of all kinds. Eat and drink your fill when you reach it, but not a moment before. “ the tiger paused, then asked. “Are you ready, then?”

Nala nodded.

“Go, then.” the tiger replied, and closed his eyes. “And may Jungle-Favor go with you!”

“Thank you for your help… uh…” Nala spoke as she turned, her eyes sweeping over the land up to the horizon, judging the distance that she would have to travel. She hesitated for a moment, then turned back. “I’m sorry, what was your name—”

Nala halted in mid-sentence, staring sharply around her in surprise. The old tiger had completely vanished into thin air!

Turning her eyes to the sky, she sighed in frustration, realizing that it would be a long journey. But she had no choice since, as a lioness of the Pridelands, she knew she bore a responsibility toward ensuring and protecting its future. As she began her journey, her jaw tightened in resolution; no force could move her from the path that she had chosen.

She would find the new King, and she would bring him home.

***

Fifty feet above the lioness, hidden in the shadows of the rocks, an old tiger glanced down. He grunted in satisfaction as he watched her figure shrink in size as she travelled away from the Pridelands. Briefly, he wondered what would become of her, then disregarded his own concern. She could take care of herself. It had been her choice to listen to him, Kublia knew, and there was nothing more that he could do for her. But he was secretly glad that she had taken his advice.

“Goodbye, Nala, and good luck!” Kublia said, then shook his head ruefully as he whispered. “You are going to need it.”

A wind suddenly blew up, ruffling his whitened fur, and his soft words were stolen away. In the distance, with the wind at her back, Nala continued to move forward toward a fateful meeting with Destiny.

Chapter Four: Fire, Fire, Fading Out

Kublia glanced around at his surroundings. He was now striding toward the north-and-east across the landscape, nearing the edge of the Pridelands.

In the distance, the hyenas followed. He had intentionally alerted the hyenas in the valley, and they had followed him. With their attention diverted, the old tiger knew, Nala would have a greater chance of escaping the Pridelands unscathed. As for his own safety, he did not worry. Employing his superior quickness and vast knowledge of the land, the old tiger had scaled down hillsides, ran through forests, cut through the yellow grasses, and generally outdistanced his would-be assassins.

Several times when he had paused to catch his breath, the hyenas had curiously approached him, but a snarl from him had sent them fleeing. They dared not challenge him, for it was one thing for the hyenas to hunt grass-eating prey, but entirely another thing to attack a healthy meat-eating carnivore with razor claws and teeth. But, nevertheless, they continued to slink in the background, just out of sight, but not out of mind. He paused again for a moment, adjusting the grip of his claws on the ground. The joints in his legs, the curse of the elderly, were beginning to ache terrible, but he didn’t dare stop completely to let them rest. He glanced back thoughtfully towards the waiting hyenas.

They had been following him for almost twenty minutes now, unable to screw up the courage to attack him. There were perhaps ten of them, probably more, but enough to pose a serious threat to him. Why they hadn’t attacked already, he wasn’t sure; maybe they were waiting for the darkness that was already falling on the Pridelands? In that case, Kublia thought, they were going to be disappointed since he planned to be in a place of safety long before he lost the advantage of daylight. The scavengers wouldn’t dare attack him now, but the fall of night would bring more of their nocturnal brethren to join with them, and they might discover courage in numbers.

Kublia glanced sharply towards the iron-cast skies which were slowly darkening as the unseen sun began to sink beneath the horizon. It was time to go. He broke into a comfortable lope, leaving the slower hyenas far behind, headed for the safety and shelter of a nearby field of yellow grass. The landscape passed beneath his padded feet quickly. The brown, lifeless dirt of the Pridelands’ heart eventually turned into the moist, green carpeting of the fertile outer Pridelands.

Just as he entered the transition zone between the heart of the Pridelands and the surrounding grasslands, there was a howling of rage in the distance. The hyenas had broken off the pursuit; where he was going, they dared not follow. Kublia slowed, glancing back through the yellow grasses, tail raised in victory. Here, the old tiger knew that he was in his element, and any hyena who tried to fight him would be at an enormous disadvantage. If they came after him, he could pick them off one by one at his leisure.

Kublia thought that the hyenas seemed to realize this as they reluctantly crept into the coming gloom, eyes reflecting the last rays of the sun. He glanced around, raising his head above the tall grasses, observing the horizon, searching for a particular tree. After a moment of gazing, the tiger found it, standing just inside the boundaries of the Pridelands. Kublia turned his eyes to the ground, continuing on his way at a pace that was more to his liking. Leaving the grasslands, Kublia followed the turns and twists of a babbling stream that would take him near the great tree. Before long, the river turned a bend and emptied into a large pool of water in the center of a clearing that was shrouded in shadow. The tiger skirted the edges of the water hole, glancing around the empty area. The brown earth beneath his paws was carpeted with pieces of dead wood, leaves, and green vegetation, making his quiet steps somehow even more silent. And, there, looming up before him, was his goal. It was a bayan tree, and Kublia was quietly awed at its enormous size; it was easily the largest tree in the Pridelands.

It must be hundreds of years old for it to reach such legendary proportions. Its canopy hung over the entire waterhole providing welcome relief from the blistering sun, not to mention a permanent home for birds, squirrels and a host of insect life. At its base, stepping over the curled and knotted roots that spread across the ground, Kublia stared up.

Rafiki had shown him a way to ascend the tree, shown him secret cracks that his claws could slip into, for the bark of the tree was of an exceptional hardness that even claws would not dig into. Unless a cat were invited, he or she would not enter Rafiki’s home, for they would not know the way up the trunk to his platform high in the branches.

Grunting, his old strength severely tested by his enormous weight, the tiger ascended, and was soon pacing the platform nestled in the branches of the tree impatiently. Kublia glanced around once again, noticing the strings of unusual fruit that Rafiki craved, the bowls stacked neatly in one corner, the strange orange and brown drawings of animals and symbols that anointed trunk, ground and even the branches that surrounded him. But of the old one himself? Not a whisper.

“Rafiki?” he said uncertainly into the air, speaking for the first time.

There was a movement of shadow, a shuffling of feet, and the startled old tiger pulled back instinctively on his back legs.

But it was a moment too late, for a long stick swung from out of the darkness, inserted itself behind his hind legs, and neatly twisted his feet from beneath him.

He fell backwards, crashing onto his back. “Oof!” he managed to gasp before all the air rushed out of his lungs. For a moment Kublia lay there stunned, stars clouding his vision, but otherwise completely unhurt. Then, after he had the opportunity to shake his head and clear his vision, the old tiger rose and glared at his attacker.

“Oooh!” The baboon clucked its tongue in sympathy as he emerged from the shadows gathered in a corner. “Those long years of easy living have slowed you down, my friend! Are you not the one who taught me to always be aware of his surroundings?!”

“You caught me by surprise!” Kublia growled.

“Mm-hm,” The baboon said knowingly. “My point exactly! Hmmm, well, do not glare at me like so! I thought that you were a hyena, old tiger!”

“Like a hyena could get up here?! Why, you old doddering baboon!—” Kublia stopped, rubbing his aching head with a paw, snapping at the baboon testily. “Do you always treat your guests like this?”

Rafiki chuckled, then shook his head as he set his staff against the wall.

“These are dangerous times now, Kublia. An old doddering baboon like me cannot be too careful! Well, I hope that you bring me good news, because, like they say, I’m all ears!” The baboon chuckled again.

“Well,” Kublia dragged his words, staring at the canopy above him as if he were suddenly confused. “Due to this blow to the head, I don’t really remember—”

“Oh, come on! Come on!” the baboon snapped, eyes narrowed, gesticulating wildly with his arms. “Are you going to tell me or not?!”

“Well, if it’ll keep you from hitting me,” The old tiger smiled as he gave the happy bit of news. “Know that Mufusa’s son lives!”

The baboon closed his eyes in relief. “I knew it—” he muttered quietly, then his eyes opened wide in triumph, and he shouted: “I KNEW it! Ha ha ha ha! He’s alive!”

The baboon leapt from his sitting position and sprang over to Kublia, and before the old tiger could move, the baboon had caught him in a bone-crushing hug such as only a baboon could give. Gasping for breath as his bruised ribs struggled to rise, Kublia fell back. The baboon was old and frail-looking, but the arms had not lost an ounce of the legendary strength that baboons were famed for.

“Well, do not just stand there! Tell me something!” The excited baboon was saying, prancing around Kublia in joy. “You spoke to him, did you not?”

“Indeed I did.” The old tiger nodded, breathing much easier now. “He is a fine lion now, full-grown. You would be surprised to see how much he resembles his father.”

“Hmmm. Well, that is no surprise! He is his father’s son after all! And, what else did he say—” Rafiki left the sentence hanging, his jaw dropped, his hands motioning, as he impatiently waited for Kublia’s response.

Kublia glanced apologetically at the baboon. “It doesn’t seem like he wishes to return to the Pridelands anytime soon, Rafiki.”

The baboon gave a noise of disgust, threw his long arms into the air, and turned away, muttering to himself. Kublia’s ears pricked up as he thought he heard something about ‘knocking some sense into the boy’.

“So;” The word escaped Rafiki like steam hissing from a kettle. “He doesn’t want to be King! Well, it is his destiny!”

Kublia smiled inwardly as he saw that Rafiki was arguing with himself again. “Does he not realize that? The time is now, and now can never come again if the silly boy allows it to pass by him!” Rafiki suddenly spun around, glaring at Kublia, his white hair whipping in the wind. “Where is he now, old tiger?”

“You were right, you know.” Kublia replied calmly, leaning back to recline on his side as he admired his claws. “He is in the west, beyond the boundary of the Pridelands, beyond the Great Desert itself. Seek a great river, with blackened silt, that runs through the very center of the jungle, and then follow it to its source. There you will find your wayward lion king.”

“Hmmm. Well, good!” the baboon murmured, nodding wisely, his eyes narrowed in deep thought. “Very good.”

“Rafiki,” Kublia asked after a thought suddenly occurred to him. “What happened to the blue bird that summoned me forth from the Winterlands?”

“The—eh?” Rafiki was momentarily startled at the sudden question. “Blue bird? Oh, Zazu, you mean?”

“If that was his name, then it must be so.”

“The truth be told,” Rafiki murmured worriedly,

gesticulating with his hands. “This old baboon is not so sure! I have not heard from him since he returned to Pride Rock. Hmm! I do not think Scar took too kindly to his majordomo flying off on him like that!”

“But, why in the world would he go back to Scar?” Kublia replied with some disbelief.

“Why, because he insisted!” Rafiki laughed. “And would you like to know what he said before he left?”

The tiger shrugged in indecision.

“Well, I will tell you! ‘Sire,’” Rafiki imitated the bird’s voice, making such an outrageous expression with his face that even Kublia smiled. “‘It is my duty to serve the Pridelands, just as my father did, and his father before him. Nothing you can say will convince me to ignore my duty. Shame on you for thinking like that!’” Rafiki chuckled, shaking his head ruefully. “He said it just like that!”

“It sounds like something he would say. He is loyal, that one.” Kublia replied. “But your Scar—”

“Nein! Nein!” Rafiki shook his head, muttering as Kublia spoke. “Not my King, old tiger!”

“—is undeserving of such loyalty! Surely, Zazu realizes that?!”

Rafiki paused for moment, then sighed, and began to explain.

“Kublia,” Rafiki began. “Zazu’s family has served as

advisors since the very beginning of the Pridelands. One-hundred and-fifty years ago, in a faraway land, it was a majordomo who advised a lion, barely mature, to fight his way up to be the First King of the greatest of the Lion Prides. Then, with the help of this majordomo, the First King established himself in this land, christening Pride Rock his throne; it was thus that the Pridelands were born. From that time forth, in honor of the original, a majordomo is selected as advisor in each generation, through all the generations of the Kings of the Pridelands. He cannot help his loyalty, Kublia, because it is in his blood.”

Kublia sighed, shaking his head, and Rafiki continued quietly, staring into the distance.

“Zazu’s ancestors have advised the Kings for more than twenty generations; they have served heroes, they have served cowards. They have served loyal Kings, and they have served traitor Kings. Saviors and murderers, good Kings and evil Kings. And through it all, they have maintained their loyalty to the throne and whomever sits on it. But the devastation spreads with each day of Scar’s wrongful rule, and the land slips more and more into decay. If this is allowed to continue, I have no doubt that Zazu’s generation will be the last.”

“Didn’t he betray his King by coming to you for help?”

Rafiki shook his head. “Once I told him of what I had learned, he volunteered to bring you to me. He knows that Scar isn’t the true King, and will never be, as long as Simba lives. Zazu doesn’t recognize Scar as King, but his loyalty to Pridelands itself holds him here.”

“Is that why you brought me here?” Kublia asked. “To find Simba?”

Rafiki nodded. “Time is running out for the Pridelands, Kublia, and it needs its true King now, more than ever. I needed your help because you know the land like no other, you know its twists and turns, its complexities; that is because you are a Seeker, born to find things. That is the reason why I sent Zazu to summon you from the Winterlands, so that the lost King could be found to return life and hope back to a dying and despairing land.”

Kublia was silent, regarding Rafiki with thoughtful eyes.

“And what of Nala?” the baboon suddenly asked, an eyebrow rising in curiosity. “Have Scar’s hyenas found her yet?”

“No,” the tiger shook his head. “I found her first—”

“Hmm!” Rafiki whispered, a smile on his lips. “But, of course!”

“—and she told me that she believes that another male could be found to challenge Scar and reclaim the Pridelands. To which I responded that one might be found in the jungle to the west. She has left the Pridelands, and where she goes, the hyenas will dare not follow.” the tiger cocked his head, looking curiously at the baboon, who was in deep thought. He asked, “Do you think she will succeed where I failed, in convincing Simba to return?”

“If she does not,” the baboon replied, turning to gather up his staff which was leaning nearby, and shaking it in the air with one fist as he glanced back to Kublia. “Then I’ll knock some sense into the boy. You watch me!”

“As much as I would like to see that, Rafiki,” The old tiger yawned, exposing yellowed teeth and canines worn down by years of use, glancing towards the sun that was already sinking towards the horizon. “I must regretfully decline. The journey pulls me back to my path, and I must obey its call. The object of my quest remains unfound, the road that stretches before me still goes ever on, and my Seeking is never done.”

“Thank you, my old friend, and I hope you find what you are looking for. “ the baboon patted the tiger’s foreleg. “I don’t know how I could have done this without you—”

“It was nothing, Rafiki.” the tiger replied as he rose. “The old debt has been repaid. We are now even.” Kublia prepared to descend down the side of the tree, to resume his journey, then he halted as he recalled something that had been burning in his mind. “But before we go our separate ways, old monkey; one final question.”

Rafiki turned to him with a questioning look, stick in one clenched hand.

“How did you know that Simba was alive?”

“Hmm! Well, I suppose you deserve a straight answer, old tiger!” Rafiki looked craftily at Kublia, rubbing his chin with one of his long grey fingers, then he spoke. “It was simply an accident of the most miraculous sort. You see, one day, while I was sitting in my tree, a strong wind whipped up from the west. The winds can say much, if one knows how to listen to them, and what they carry can tell you even more, if one knows how to look.”

“What was it that the western winds brought?”

“Why, it’s in my bowl right now!” The baboon gestured to an overturned turtle shell some distance from the two.

The tiger glanced at the bowl, then back to Rafiki. “May I?”

Rafiki gave out one of his cackling laughs. “By all means, look for yourself, old tiger!”

Kublia approached the bowl cautiously, and peering curiously into the overturned turtle shell, he sniffed as a strange organic scent met his nose. At the bottom of the baboon’s divining shell lay tufts of pollen, leaves and seeds; seemingly ordinary objects that had once been borne along the wind. Surely, Kublia thought, this was not what alerted the baboon! He glanced back to Rafiki, an odd expression on his face.

“Your eyes are failing you, old tiger!” Rafiki chuckled, a knowing look in his eyes. “Look again! Look harder! Do you not see what I saw?”

Then, after the old tiger turned and looked closer, his eyes suddenly widened as he understood. For entangled with the contents, wrapped around the dried vegetation, were long strands of golden hair.