EXCERPT FROM TIGER'S QUEST
By Colleen Houck
I closed my phone and looked at Ren. He stared back, and we both knew. Lokesh had found me. I heard Kishan speaking quietly and turned to see he was on his phone, presumably with Mr. Kadam.
We started packing up immediately. Suddenly, the atmosphere at the beach had changed. It now seemed somber, dark, and sinister, when it once had felt friendly and safe. The sky appeared foreboding and ominous, and I shivered in the suddenly cool breeze.
Ren and Kishan agreed that if Jason hadn't told the men anything, it was unlikely that they had found our home yet. We decided to drive home, tie up a few loose ends, and leave Oregon.
On the drive, I called Sarah and Mike and told them I was returning to India right away. "Mr. Kadam has made an important discovery and needs my help. Ren will be going with me. I'll call as soon as I land." I called Jennifer and told her the same thing. She kept hinting that if I was eloping with Ren, I should just flat out tell her. Eventually, she believed the story and said she'd pass along the info to Li. I was careful not to mention the city or how long I'd be away. I tried to be as vague as possible.
When I hung up, Ren assured me that my family would be safe. He said that Mr. Kadam had arranged a surprise vacation for Sarah, Mike, and the kids. They were getting a three -week, all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii, but only if they left immediately. They would be told that the trip was a prize from their favorite running-shoe company.
I kept looking in the mirrors the entire drive home, expecting black sedans to come barreling down on me with shady men shooting at us. To say I was scared was an understatement. I'd faced demons and immortal monkeys, but, somehow, it felt totally different to face modern-world bad guys. I could rationalize that demons weren't real; therefore, even though they were chasing me, they weren't really a threat, but actual men who wanted to kidnap and torture or kill seemed much more menacing.
When we got home, I pulled into the garage and waited in the car until the brothers checked the house. Returning to the garage about ten minutes later, Ren put his fingers to his lips and quietly opened my door. He had changed into dark clothing, heavy boots, and a black jacket.
"What's going on?" I mouthed.
Ren whispered back, "Someone's been in the house, both houses actually. Their scents are everywhere, but nothing's been taken. No one's here now, so go upstairs, and quickly change into dark clothing and good running shoes. Then meet us downstairs. Kishan is watching the doors. We'll go out the back of the house, take the long way to Kishan's truck, and head for the airport."
I nodded, hurried into the house, and ran up the stairs. I washed my face, pulled on dark jeans, a long-sleeved black sweater, and my sneakers. I grabbed my jacket and met them downstairs. Kishan led the way as we crept through my house and into Ren's.
Both Kishan and Ren had armed themselves with weapons from my wushu box. The three-section-staff was folded and threaded through Kishan's belt at his lower back, and Ren had tucked a pair of Sai knives through his belt loop. Ren and I continued to follow Kishan as he led the way outside and into the trees.
He stopped often to smell the air and look at the ground. We had about a mile to hike to the truck. Every noise, every pop and crack in the forest startled me, and I whipped around often, expecting an attack. I felt an itch between my shoulder blades like we were being watched.
After about five minutes, Kishan froze. He gestured for us to get down, and we sank behind some ferns. There was someone in the trees moving quietly, following in our tracks. Even I could hear him, which meant he was close. Kishan whispered, "We need to get out of here. When I say ‘now,' go." A few tense seconds passed. "Now," he whispered.
He led us deeper in the forest at a faster pace. I was trying to move as silently as I could, but I was afraid whoever was behind us could hear me. My feet couldn't seem to find the right places to step, and I often cracked branches and skidded on wet spots as I ran. We came upon a clearing, and Kishan froze and hissed back, "Ambush!"
We turned back. The man who was following us caught up and blocked our path. Kishan ran at him, closing the distance quickly. When he was just a few feet away, Kishan pulled out the staff, and whipped it overhead to gain momentum. I'd thought the weapon unwieldy, but in Kishan's hands it spun like the blades of a helicopter . With a snap he swept the man's legs out from under him, and then, he took a giant leap, twirled the weapon, and cracked the staff across the fallen man's back and head. With a flick of his wrist, the weapon folded into his palm and he shoved it back into his belt. The man didn't get up.
Ren grabbed my hand and yanked me behind him as he ran. Stopping at a copse of trees, he pushed me behind a fallen log and told me not to move, then he ran back to join Kishan. He took a ready stance not far from his brother. I saw the flash of Sai knives as he took them out and twirled them skillfully while Kishan once again wielded the staff. Both brothers peered into the forest and waited.
The other men had caught up to us. What happened next was no fight in a dojo. This was battle. War. Ren and Kishan looked like two uber-soldiers. Their faces showed no emotion. They moved sharply, efficiently. They wasted no energy. They moved in harmony like a pair of lethal dancers, Ren with the Sai knives and Kishan with the staff. Between them, they took down at least a dozen men, but dozens more shot out from the trees.
Ren punched one man in the neck with his elbow, probably crushing his windpipe. When the man bent over, Ren cartwheeled over his back, flipped around, and kicked the next guy in the face. Kishan was brutal. He broke a guy's arm and then kicked another guy's knee at the same time. I could hear the sickening snap and the scream as both of his opponents slumped to the ground. It was like being in the middle of one of Li's martial arts films, only here the blood and the danger were real.
When none of the men could stand, the brothers ran back to me.
"More are coming," Kishan said flatly.
We ran. Ren picked me up and threw me over his shoulder. Even with my weight slowing him down, he still moved faster than I could. The brothers were running at top speed. Fast, but silent. Somehow, they knew where to step to avoid making noise. Kishan slowed and started running behind us, taking up a flank position. We continued this way for at least ten minutes. I figured we were far away from the men, but, suddenly, I heard pings and pops as something hit the trunks of the trees around us.
Immediately, Ren and Kishan doubled their speed, leapt behind a fallen log, and took cover. "Are they shooting at us?" I whispered.
"No," Kishan whispered back. "Not with bullets anyway. Bullets sound different."
We sat quietly. I was breathing harder than they were, even though they were the ones that had been running. We waited. The brothers were both listening very carefully. I was about to ask a question, but Ren pressed a finger to his lips indicating that I should keep silent. They used some kind of hand signals to communicate with each other. I watched carefully, but I couldn't figure out what they meant. Ren rolled his finger in a circle and Kishan handed Ren his staff, morphed into the black tiger, and slunk off into the trees.
I pointed toward where Kishan had left. Ren pressed his mouth next to my ear and whispered in a barely audible voice, "He's drawing them off."
He positioned me in the hollow of the tree and moved so that his body covered mine.
I sat there, tense, my face pressed against Ren's chest for a long time. I heard a terrible roar. Ren wrapped his arms around me and whispered, "They've followed him. They're about a half mile away now. Let's go."
He took my hand and began leading me toward the hidden truck again. I tried to be as quiet as I could. After several minutes, a dark shape leapt in front of us. It was Kishan. He switched back to a man again. "They're everywhere. I led them as far off as I could, but it looks like a whole regiment was sent after us."
Ten minutes later, Kishan froze and sniffed the air. Ren did too. Men jumped down on us from the trees; several of them descended from harnesses and ropes. Two men grabbed me, pulled me away from Ren, and held me tightly, while five men attacked him. He roared in fury and switched to a tiger. The men didn't seem surprised by this. Kishan had already changed to a tiger and had taken down several of his opponents.
Ren stood on his hind legs, thrust his paws on a man's shoulders, and roared in his face. He bit the man's neck and shoulder, pushed him to the ground, and used his body as a jumping off point. He leapt in the air, claws extended, and swiped two men across the chest. His ears lay flat against his head, his fur bristled, and blood dripped from his jaws. His tail raised and lowered like a lever just before he hurtled himself into the air again. He landed on the back of a man attacking Kishan, and the weight of his body alone disabled the attacker.
I struggled but couldn't even move because the men held me so tightly. Kishan roared. One of the men had used a pronged weapon that had some kind of electric Taser attached to the end. The black tiger whirled, knocked the weapon to the ground with a paw, and snapped it in half with the weight of his body.
Quickly, Kishan jumped on top of the man who had fallen to the ground and bit into the man's shoulder. Kishan lifted the man off the ground with his powerful jaws, jerked his head violently until the man stopped moving. Kishan dragged the limp body several feet, and with a fling of his head, threw the man into the bushes. Then, he raised himself up on his haunches like a bear and swiped at other men who came near. His jaws dripped blood as he snarled viciously.
Ren kept trying to get back to me, but men always stepped between us. I took advantage of the momentary distraction when Ren dropped a man at our feet to kick one of my attackers in the groin as hard as I could and elbow the other one in the stomach. He doubled over but kept a tight grip on my arm. Then, he cuffed me at my temple, my vision got blurry.
I heard Ren's terrible roar. I kept struggling, but I felt dizzy. The man held me in front of him as if I was bait. He taunted the tigers by handling me roughly. I knew it was to distract the brothers, and unfortunately, it worked. Ren and Kishan kept trying to clear a path to me and frequently looked my way, which allowed more men to get behind them.
Other men arrived. Apparently, reinforcements had been called, and these men had more weapons. One of the men pulled out a gun and fired at Ren. A dart hit him in the neck, and he briefly staggered. I saw red and suddenly my vision cleared. I felt power sizzle through my limbs. I popped the back of my head into my captor's nose and gratifyingly felt the cartilage break. The man screamed and loosened his hold enough for me to jump away. I ran to Ren. He changed into a man. Another dart hit. He was still on his feet, but he was moving much slower. I yanked the darts from his body.
He tried to push me behind him, "Kelsey! Move back! Now!"
A third dart hit him in his thigh. He staggered once more and fell to one knee. Men surrounded him, and, knowing I was near, he began fighting again to keep them away from me. Kishan was enraged, mauling man after man while trying to get to us, but more kept coming. He was too busy to help me with Ren. He was barely holding his own ground. I tried to pull the men off Ren, but they were big. They were also professional fighters, maybe military, so they mostly ignored me and focused on the two more dangerous targets. I was just an annoying fly they swatted away. If only I had a weapon.
I felt desperate. There had to be something I could do to protect Ren. He finished off the last man near us and fell to his knees panting forcefully. Bodies were piled in groups around us. Some dead, some wounded. But, more men were coming. There were so many! I could see them creeping closer, eyes trained on the weary man at my side.
Fear for Ren's life steeled my resolve. Like a mother bear protecting her young, I stood in front of Ren, determined to somehow stop the men from advancing, or at least give them a different target to shoot at. There were more than a dozen men stalking toward us, most of whom had guns. A fire burned in me, a need to protect the man I loved.
My frame shook with energy, with power. I faced the man closest to me and stared at him darkly. He raised his weapon, and I raised my hand in defense. My body burned hot, and I felt a molten inferno travel down my arm and into my hand. The flames ignited, and the symbols Phet had once drawn on my hand reappeared and blazed crimson. A lightning bolt exploded from my hand to the body of my attacker. It lifted his body into the air and slammed him into a tree hard enough to make it shake. He fell in a crumpled mass at the base.
Not having time to question or figure out what had happened, I turned to face the next attacker and the next. I was overcome with rage; a furious wrath bubbled through me. My mind screamed that no one would hurt those that I loved. Euphoric in my power, I took them down one after another.
A pinprick struck my arm and another one hit my shoulder. They felt like bee stings, but, instead of burning, numbness spread. The fire in my hand sputtered and went out, and I stumbled to the ground in front of Ren. He shoved an attacker back, still fighting, though he had been shot with darts several times. My vision was getting dark, and my eyes were closing.
Ren picked me up, and I heard him yell, "Kishan! Take her!"
"No," I mumbled incoherently.
The whisper of his lips brushed against my cheek, and then I felt iron arms lock around my body.
Ren shouted, "Go! Now!"
I was being carried swiftly through the trees, but Ren wasn't following. He was still fighting, as the attackers closed in on him. He switched to a tiger again. I heard him roar with outrage and pain, and I knew in the soft fuzziness of my mind that it wasn't the physical hurt that caused him to cry out. It couldn't have been, because I felt it too. The horrible, ripping pain was because I had been taken from him. I couldn't keep my eyes open. I reached out a hand and grasped feebly at the air.
I pleaded hazily, "Ren! No!" before falling into darkness.
The deep thrum of an engine stirred me. My head throbbed, and there was a funny taste in my mouth. Something was very wrong; my mind was still fuzzy. I wanted to wake up, but I knew that on the other side of consciousness, a new kind of horror awaited me, so I allowed myself to sink back a little deeper into the murky blackness, and hovered there, like a coward. I needed something to hold onto, a crutch that I could lean on to give me enough strength to face what lay ahead.
I was lying on a bed. I felt the soft sheets and stretched out my hand hesitantly. A furry head butted against my fingers. Ren. He was here. He was the motivation I needed to rise above the darkness and step into the light.
I cracked open my eyes. "Ren? Where am I?" Every part of my body hurt.
A pretty face looked down at me. "Kelsey? How are you feeling?"
"Nilima? Oh, we're on the plane."
She pressed a cold wet cloth to my forehead, and I mumbled, "We got away. I'm so glad."
I stroked the tiger's head. Nilima looked at the tiger next to me briefly and then nodded. "Let me get you some water, Kelsey."
She left, and I closed my eyes again, pressing my hand against my throbbing forehead.
I whispered, "I was so afraid you weren't going to make it. I guess it doesn't matter now. We were very lucky. Let's not split up ever again. I'd rather be captured with you than be separated."
I slid my fingers into his fur. Nilima returned with some water. She helped me sit up, and I took a long drink then mashed the wet towel over my eyes and my face.
"Here…I brought you some aspirin," she said.
I swallowed the tablets gratefully and tried to open my eyes again. I looked into Nilima's concerned face and smiled. "Thanks. I feel better already. At least we all made it. That's the important thing. Right?"
I looked over at the tiger. No. No! I started gasping for air. My lungs locked. "No! Kishan? Where's…?" I pleaded in a raspy voice, "Where is he? Tell me we didn't leave him behind! Ren?" I yelled. "Ren? Are you here? Ren? Ren?"
The black tiger just watched me with sad, golden eyes. I looked at Nilima and grabbed her hand.
"Nilima! Tell me! Is he here?"
She shook her head, tears filling her eyes. My vision became blurry, and I realized that I was crying too.
I desperately clutched her hand. "No! We have to go back! Tell them to turn the plane around. We can't just leave him there! We can't!"
Nilima just looked at me. I turned to the tiger.
"Kishan! This isn't right! He wouldn't leave you. They'll torture him. They'll kill him! We have to do something! We can't let this happen!"
Kishan changed to a man and sat on the side of my bed. He nodded to Nilima, and she left us alone.
He spoke quietly while holding my hand, "Kelsey, there was no choice. If he hadn't stayed behind, we wouldn't have made it."
I shook my head in denial. "No! We could have waited for him."
"No, we couldn't. They shot me with tranquilizers too. I only got hit once, and I barely made it to the plane despite my ability to heal. He'd been hit at least six times. I was amazed that he could still stand. He fought bravely and well and bought us time to get away."
I grabbed his hand as tears dripped off my chin. "Is he…?" I sobbed, "Did they kill him?"
"I don't think so. None of them had weapons other than the tranquilizer darts and the Taser sticks. It appeared their instructions were to take us alive."
"We can't let them do this, Kishan. We have to try to help him."
"We will. Mr. Kadam is already working on locating him. It won't be easy, though. He's been searching for Lokesh for centuries, and the man has kept hidden well. There is one thing in our favor. Ren doesn't have the amulet, so Lokesh may be willing to offer a trade: the amulet for Ren."
"Fine. We'll give him the amulet if we can get Ren back."
"We'll worry about that when the time comes, Kelsey. For now, you should rest. We'll be in India in a few hours."
"I was asleep that long?"
"You were hit twice and were knocked out for about fifteen hours."
"Did they follow you to the plane?"
"They tried. Luckily, we had the plane ready to take off. Jason probably saved our lives."
I thought about Ren being engulfed by enemies while we ran away, and I choked on a sob. Kishan leaned over, wrapped me in a hug, and patted my back.
"I'm sorry, Kelsey. I wish it had been me, not Ren. I wish I'd had the strength to carry both of you out of there."
My tears dripped on his shirt. "It's not your fault. If you hadn't been there, we both would have been captured."
I sat up, sniffed, and wiped my eyes on my sleeve.
He ducked his head to look in my watery eyes. "I promise you, Kelsey, that I will do everything in my power to save him. He's still alive. I can feel it. We'll find a way, and we will defeat Lokesh."
I wished I felt as sure as Kishan that we could save Ren. Nodding and squeezing his hand I whispered that I'd be alright. He asked if I'd like to eat something, and even though I felt knots twisting my stomach, I said yes. He looked relieved as he rose to look for Nilima.
I wondered if he was right. Could Ren still be alive? Since the day I first saw Ren at the circus, there was a strange connection between us. Tentative and wispy at first, it grew stronger. When I went back to Oregon, the link stretched and pulled like a rubber band.
It tugged me and tried to draw me back to him. And, in the last few months as we became closer, the connection solidified and tightened, forming a steel connection. We were part of each other. I felt his absence, but the bond was still there. It was still strong. He was alive. I knew it. My heart was still tied to his. It gave me hope. I resolved that I would find him, at any cost.
Nilima invited me to eat something. She set out a dinner with a glass of lemon water that I sipped slowly while I thought about what I could do to help Ren. Kishan had changed back to his tiger form before resting at my feet. His golden eyes watched me sadly, and I leaned down to pet his head, reassuring him that I would be okay.
By the time we landed, I still didn't have a clue as to how I would find Ren, but I knew that I would never let myself be so unprepared again. The next time something like this happened, I would fight. Now that I knew I had this…this lightning bolt power inside me, I would practice it. I would also ask Kishan to continue to train me in martial arts and maybe even in weapons. Perhaps Mr. Kadam would teach me too whenever Kishan was a tiger. Regardless, I would never let someone I loved be taken again. Not while I was still alive.