Forest of Thorns and Claws

Forest of Thorns and Claws by J.T. Hall
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-586-9
eBook release: 
May 15, 2017
eBook Formats: 
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Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-587-6
Print release: 
May 15, 2017
Word count: 
~65,500
Page count: 
~247
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Donovan McGinnis, a veterinarian and conservationist at a research center in Sumatra, is fighting to save the rainforest from poachers and politicians alike. One day he discovers a tigress trapped by a snare, and while treating her injuries, she bites him. He becomes ill with strange symptoms that leave him feverish and dreaming of the jungle and blood.

Kersen and his family are part of the Siluman harimau, a clan of tiger shifters hidden away in a secret village near the rainforest. When Kersen’s sister is caught, he knows he must free her before she infects someone with their magic and reveals their secret.

But Donovan has already been turned, and only time will tell if he can control the tiger within. Kersen must help him, but will the fierce attraction between the pair bring ruin to them all? With the rainforest under threat from outside forces, they may be doomed anyway, unless Kersen and Donovan can find a way to defeat the danger from inside and out.

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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Gunung Leuser National Forest, Sumatra

May 14, 2013

Donovan McGinnis paused to wipe the sweat from his brow with his camouflage T-shirt, then peered through a dense curtain of strangler fig. Ahead of him, sunlight highlighted a small clearing in the rainforest. Behind him, three men, all members of the Tiger Conservation and Protection Rangers, held still and listened. They were kilometers into the rainforest—about two and a half hours away from their base camp near the village of Ketambe. It was important to keep quiet and tread carefully. Here in the jungle, wild animals weren’t the worst threat.

Worst were the poachers and their cleverly hidden snares.

This was the front line of an epic battle, but not one that most of the world was aware of. Every day, Donovan and his men fought to preserve what little rainforest was left on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, home to some of the rarest creatures on Earth. A lot of people didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a Sumatran elephant or rhinoceros. The orangutans tended to draw the tourists, and their population was in better shape. But the most endangered of all was the creature he loved best.

The Sumatran tiger.

“Stay there,” Donovan whispered. Amin, his best tracker, nodded and signaled to the other men. Amin was in his early twenties, beardless as many of the locals near the jungle tended to be, with short black hair and brown skin. He wore cargo shorts and a dark-brown T-shirt, the better to blend in with the dark undergrowth of the rainforest. He was Donovan’s lead assistant at the research center.

Slowly, Donovan parted the vines and stepped into the clearing. Moving cautiously, he searched through a cluster of orchids on the forest floor, alert for signs of disturbance. High over their heads, leaves rustled, perhaps with the wind.

The jungle was quiet today. That wasn’t a good thing.

Using a long collapsible walking stick, he poked the underbrush, noting broken stems and vines which appeared to have been arranged. It didn’t take long for him to find something—a thin, braided rope beneath a cluster of vines. A taut line and a loop was a classic tiger snare. The poachers were here, all right. At least this one was empty. With deft fingers, Donovan felt for the trigger and deactivated it, breathing easier once it was done.

“Found a snare.” He waved for the others to come forward. They gathered up the pieces to throw into the evidence bag, as Amin logged the location.

“That’s eight you’ve uncovered so far today.” Amin sounded impressed. He took the bag once Donovan was done with it, handing it back to one of the porters.

Donovan sighed. Not yet sundown, and already so many traps. The poachers were getting more desperate—only about a hundred tigers were left in this particular forest, and the forest itself was being gnawed away by coffee and palm oil planters. The big corporations funneled money to the nearby farmers in the hopes they’d do the dirty work of clearing the forest and planting the illegal crops. Most of the time, the provincial government turned a blind eye. Sometimes trying to combat it all felt like a hopeless task. In fact, tomorrow he’d be over in Blangkejeren to testify against a paper company trying to take even more of the supposedly protected national park.

But despite the conflicts between the local government and conservationists like himself, Donovan loved Sumatra and this area in particular. The jungle was magical to him. The locals believed there was actual magic in the area and called this forest “Hutan Duri dan Cakar,” which translated into “Forest of Thorns and Claws.” The thorns referred to actual thorns in the plant life. Enduring the prick of such thorns was said to bring health and long life.

He kept hoping for a glimpse of the claws today. Claws of the tigers, that was.

Using the walking stick for support, Donovan stood. “Eight, right. I think we’ve cleared this area. We’ll keep moving toward the west. Stay quiet. We could still run into whoever’s setting these things.”

The fact that the jungle was so quiet worried him. Even the birds and monkeys were keeping clear of this area, which meant there was probably a large predator somewhere nearby. It might be a man. As they began walking, Donovan kept a hand near his rifle, strapped to his shoulder. Vines and ferns brushed his bare legs; it was too humid to wear trousers out here, so he did as the locals did and wore long shorts instead. Also plenty of mosquito repellent.

They’d been walking for maybe fifteen minutes when he heard something thrashing in the dense undercover ahead. Donovan signaled his team to be silent and brought out a pair of binoculars. With a sinking feeling, he tried to spot the source through young teakwood trees and bird of paradise plants.

A frantic yowl confirmed his fears. That sound could only come from a large cat.

“Get the tranq gun ready! I’m moving in closer to see how badly it’s been trapped.” Donovan was no longer concerned about noise. If it was a young tiger, its mother would have already been on them; therefore it had to be a solitary animal.

He kept watch for more snares as he crept closer. Branches swayed maybe twenty meters off, but he still couldn’t see the animal. This wasn’t good; it meant the tiger was probably rolling on the ground, perhaps injured. “Radio the home station,” he told Evan, one of the junior rangers and a conservationist from Germany. “We may be bringing this one back with us.”

Evan quietly began to report the incident to the rehabilitation center as Amin handed Donovan the tranquilizer gun. Donovan checked his watch. They were going to need reinforcements for an extraction. There goes the rest of the day.

“Hang back for now. Once it goes down, I’ll need everyone to help me free the animal.” Donovan gripped the gun in one hand and tucked his collapsible walking stick into his backpack’s side pocket. As he drew closer, he focused on where the snarls and growls pierced the jungle. It was a positive sign that the tiger was making so much noise. A noisy tiger was a live one.

Crouching low, he climbed over a dead branch, then rounded a large rubber tree and finally spotted the animal in a clump of tall reeds. The tiger’s orange and black coat showed clearly through the foliage as the creature flailed, its left front paw trapped by the cruel rope of the snare. The tiger snarled in anguish.

It was a small specimen, most likely a female. There was blood where the snare had cut into the animal’s paw, probably also cutting off circulation. Yeah, they’d want to keep this one overnight, in case she had broken bones or damaged ligaments. Females were particularly important to the breeding pool; this one appeared to have just reached maturity, making her vital to their conservation efforts.

The tiger yowled and licked at the injury, her muzzle red with her own blood. Poor thing. I wonder how long she’s been here.

Donovan raised the tranquilizer gun, and lined up the tiger in his sights. He hoped the poachers weren’t close. It would be Evan’s job to keep Amin and the porters safe while Donovan aided the tiger.

His finger grazed the trigger, ready to fire, when a low growl to his left made him pause. That’s not the snared tiger. Slowly, Donovan lowered the rifle. He glanced at a dense thicket of reeds to his left.

A pair of yellow eyes stared back at him.

Fear paralyzed Donovan’s limbs, and his heart pounded. This was a bigger tiger, with a well-defined scruff around the face, which suggested a young male. He stared at the animal, unable to break eye contact as it silently watched him. It was a gorgeous beast, with an unusual swirling of marks on one shoulder. The power in that gaze was electric. And dangerous.

One pounce: that was all it would take for the tiger to kill him, and a grown tiger could leap about eight meters. Donovan glanced at Evan, who was still on the phone with the center. The rest of the team hadn’t noticed the tiger yet; the foliage was in the way. He could try to tranq this animal as well. But then they’d have two tigers to deal with.

When he looked back, the second tiger was gone.

Shit. No help for it—I’d better warn them.

“There’s another tiger—watch out! I’m going to try and put the first one to sleep,” Donovan called back to Amin. No point in being quiet now; the louder they were, the more likely they’d scare away the extra animal.

Saying a prayer, Donovan raised the rifle again. He zoomed in on the fleshy part of the tiger’s shoulder as she rested for a moment, panting. With a muffled pop, the dart buried itself into the flesh, the red tufted end sticking out. The tiger yowled and lurched to her feet, and then curled in on herself, trying to chew at the rope. But it was useless. The poachers used a tightly woven nylon cord, and the tiger’s big fangs, so good at crushing bones and cutting arteries, were just too unwieldy to get through it. The cord would only cut her lips and gums.

“Tiger should be down in five minutes. Where’s our backup?” Donovan scanned the jungle. No sign of the other tiger. Muttering, he strode back to Evan and took the radio headset, putting it to his ear. “Roark? We’re bringing a young adult female in with us.”

Roark was an old friend of his—he’d met Roark while in London at university, where they’d both studied biology and ecology. Donovan liked to hike through the rainforest and get dirty, but Roark preferred managing the rehabilitation center.

“Yeah, I heard you. There’s a team heading your direction, but it’ll take them at least an hour. You think you can keep it under until then? Perhaps make a stretcher of some kind?”

It was impossible for them to move the tiger any other way. “We’d better. There’s another tiger nearby—possibly a sibling. The good news is the five of us should be able to carry the one we found.”

“If you can, then get out of there. You’re taking the Punjab trail? I can meet you along it on your trek back with some guys to help get you to the truck.”

Good enough. There were days Donovan wished for superpowers, to fly or sense enemies nearby. Or his very own satellite camera to spy for him. “The poachers might be in the area as well. I’m hoping not close enough to realize they’ve caught something. Warn the men to keep their guns ready.”

“I’ll do that. Have you had a chance to examine the animal yet?”

Donovan glanced over at the tiger, who was sitting, panting hard. Soon now. It swayed, eyes drooping. “Not yet. I’ll call to let you know if we need anything.”

“Brilliant. Keep me updated. We’ll prepare a holding pen for it. Hopefully it won’t need to stay long. Our budget’s tight enough for this month. The province seems to forget we’re a nonprofit organization.” Roark’s crisp London accent made him sound cheerful, even though Donovan knew this stuff worried him.

Donovan’s anger rose when he thought about funding and provincial politics. “Plus we’ve got the bloody hearing to attend tomorrow. Damned government and their greed.” There was a soft thump as the tiger tried to stand up and fell over instead, succumbing to the drug. “Have to go. Over and out.” He switched off the radio, returning it to Evan. “Try to put some kind of stretcher together—I have some spare tarp in my bag. And stay here until I give the okay to come closer.”

With that, Donovan approached the snared tiger, coming within three meters of it. The panting had subsided into deep breathing, and the tiger’s eyes were closed. Good. He scanned the nearby brush, looking for its companion, but the jungle was still quiet, and would probably remain so until all the humans and predators were out of the area.

Cautiously, Donovan pulled out his walking stick, stepping forward again. He extended it and poked the sleeping tiger in the side. No response. Nodding to himself, he put the aluminum walking stick back, then reached into his backpack for his veterinary kit, which included a simple ear thermometer, gauze, medical tape, and stethoscope. Crouching beside the tiger, he listened to its heartbeat. Steady and slow. Just as it should be.

Next he listened to its lungs, checked the rolled-back eyes, the teeth, tongue, and then moved to check the animal’s injuries. The tiger was indeed female, sexually mature but young, and he didn’t think it had ever given birth before. It looked to be in excellent health, except for the snare around the left forepaw, digging cruelly into the flesh. Bright blood marred the white fur, dripping onto the forest floor. If he didn’t work fast, they’d soon have ants and other nasties to deal with.

He used a knife to cut the main line of the snare, then safety shears to carefully cut the cording from the wounds. She’d likely pulled a muscle or two while struggling. Once the cords were cut, he disinfected the wound and applied a bandage to it. That would have to do for now. He didn’t think any bones had been broken. They’d know more after the animal woke up and began walking around.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said, as Amin ventured near with the makeshift stretcher. It wouldn’t get them back to the center, but it should work until they met up with the other team. The porters set the contraption by the tiger’s head, eyeing her nervously. Donovan waved them out of the way and went to stand next to her head, smiling at the way her tongue lolled. “Evan, we’ll each grab a leg and drag her on. Don’t worry. She’s out cold.”

Together, they pulled the two-hundred-and-fifty-pound tigress forward, enough so that her front half was on the stretcher.

Donovan adjusted the tiger so that her front paws were somewhat secured to the stretcher. It was going to be awkward, but they’d make do. “All right, everyone. Help me pull her. Pay attention to her eyes. If she starts to come to, I’ll need to dose her again.” He’d probably need to at least once, but it was risky using too much sedative on a big cat. No telling how they’d react.

As they began the laborious chore of dragging the tiger back to the center, Donovan felt the itch between his shoulder blades that meant somebody was watching them. When he looked, however, all he saw was the forest.

 

Chapter Two

Gunung Leuser National Forest, Sumatra

May 14, 2013

As the five humans dragged the injured tigress away, Kersen watched from high up in a tree, safely out of sight. Claws dug into the hard wood as Kersen yawned, long canine teeth flashing, and then he snorted as he almost inhaled a mosquito. Stupid stress response! His heart was pounding in his chest and his gut was churning.

That was his sister down there.

Once the humans were out of sight, he climbed down, loping over to where they’d left the broken strands of the snare. Smelling his sister’s blood on the thin cords, he growled.

Why had he and Gemi been so careless? They both knew how widespread the snares were these days, how bold and clever the poachers were becoming. Bitari was going to kill him for letting humans take Gemi. Ever since their parents died, his older sister had been the guardian of the family, who were all members of the suka siluman harimau, their weretiger clan.

Where would they hide when the natural tiger population went extinct?

Kersen rumbled to himself, taking a moment to memorize the humans’ scents. He’d heard Gemi’s cries from across the valley, but he’d come too late. It should have been him cutting the ropes and freeing her. She must have panicked and gone too deep into her tiger mind. The only positive was she’d been taken by conservationists and not the poachers. But what if they decided to keep her? She’d be trapped in her tiger form indefinitely.

He couldn’t allow that. I have to free Gemi.

The area was layered with scents, but it was the leader’s that most interested Kersen. The man was a veterinarian or something. He’d likely stay near Gemi. Kersen could track him by his scent if he needed to.

Kersen took a deep breath, sniffing. At first he smelled only repellent. Uck. But beneath that, the man had a pleasant aroma. A touch of clove, or coffee, perhaps. Earthy smells. Kersen took another whiff, whiskers twitching. Cinnamon. Great Brahma, I could lick the fellow. He huffed. How can I think of sex when Gemi is in danger?

Well, the man was handsome, for one thing. White skin lightly tanned by the sun, brown hair in a cut close to the head, and a short, neat beard. The man had remarkable blue eyes that had held concern for a wounded animal—not something Kersen typically encountered.

Licking his chops and trying to dispel the pleasant warmth that had begun to stir within him, Kersen followed the trail. He kept low to the ground, mindful of any snares the conservationists might have missed, until he caught up with them near the Punjab trail. Where are they taking her? It was easy to stay out of the humans’ sight, easy to remain unheard with all the noise they were making. The leader was speaking in English on his radio set. Kersen’s English was rusty, taught to him by his grandparents, but he could make out most of it.

“What’s your estimated time of arrival? Has there been any sign of the poachers in this area?” The leader’s voice sounded tense. Again, that warmth spread through him, feeling like home, like safety. He wanted to run over there and rub his face against the man’s leg. Mark him.

That’s preposterous. He’s not of the clan. I shouldn’t entertain such thoughts about him.

Kersen huffed, falling back to make sure none of the men detected him. The jungle had been calm all day, so they probably wouldn’t be alerted to his presence by other animals.

If he could only free Gemi before she infected anyone, they could escape easily. The village where Kersen’s clan lived their human lives was to the west of here. There they’d be safe.

For centuries, the weretigers had lived hidden away in apparently human villages, but nevertheless were connected to the wilderness. They needed to shift at least a few times a month. This meant that it would be very difficult to hide themselves once the real tigers were gone; plus the tiger spirits inside were intimately linked to the land. Who knew what would happen to those tiger spirits if the forests disappeared? Of course, another danger to his kind was that a white foreigner like this leader might discover Kersen’s people and spread news to the world.

Kersen shuddered to think what might happen then. It was hard enough being different from the rest of the world, having both a human and an animal spirit dwelling inside. It could be wonderful and terrible at the same time.

As a youth, he’d only seen the good side of everything.

* * * * * * *

Five years earlier

“Can we go hunting today, Father? I really want to go. I’ve been practicing all week!” Kersen leaned over a rickety chair in the dirt yard. Behind him was his family’s bamboo and timber longhouse, built on stilts for the monsoon rains. Father was sitting cross-legged on the ground nearby, busily weaving a basket. That meant they’d be foraging for fruit. Kersen didn’t want fruit, though. Having experienced his first real shift only a month ago, he craved meat more than anything.

His father chuckled, threading the straw through the firm reed frame. “Yes, Kersen. As soon as I finish this for your mother. She may want to take Gemi as well.”

Making a face, Kersen kicked at the dirt. Gemi was twelve, while Kersen was fourteen—nearly grown up—yet he’d only been shifting for a few weeks when Gemi first changed. It wasn’t fair that girls generally began shifting before boys, but that was nature. Shifting came with puberty. Why did her first shift have to happen so close to mine?

Kersen sighed. “I don’t want to wait for them—Mother will want to change clothing and everything.” The girls usually wore dresses complete with head coverings, and they didn’t like leaving such things in the fields when shifting. Kersen was barefoot and shirtless like Father, the two of them only wearing jeans that were streaked with dirt and mud.

Father folded his arms, staring at him. “Kersen . . .”

Kersen immediately hung his head. Wasn’t it enough that his father had agreed to take him? “Yes, sir. I’ll tell them, and then I’ll help you finish.” He peeked up again. “Do you think we’ll find a deer?”

There were several species of deer in the jungle, but they were constantly on the move. Sometimes the village men organized hunting parties. They’d kill two or three and bring the carcasses back to the village to barbeque on a big bonfire. Lately, however, things had grown tougher, and the jungle kept shrinking. Villagers who used to sell meat and bone tools to outsiders now struggled to support themselves. It wasn’t only the siluman harimau. The human villages were also suffering.

His father shrugged. “If Allah is willing. We’ll see.”

Kersen made a face as he climbed a ladder up to the house. His family actually traced their heritage back to Bali; his grandparents had been born there, and they’d been Hindu. Then they’d moved to Sumatra, when the last Balinese tiger was killed off by hunters. Kersen had been fond of his grandparents, who’d died when he was ten, and he still preferred the Hindu gods. The locals here were Muslim though, so Father and Mother were too, though Father wasn’t very devout.

In the main room of the house, Mother was busy cutting vegetables on the tiny counter by the wood stove where she’d cook the chicken and rice. Bitari was helping grind the spices. She was tall at sixteen, with a square jaw and black hair held in a single braid, pinned up.

Kersen hovered near the door. “Father’s taking me hunting after he finishes the basket.” He held off mentioning Gemi and Bitari, despite his words to Father. I don’t want Bitari to come. She’s bossy.

Bitari whirled, staring at him. “He’s taking you? He didn’t say that this morning. Why wouldn’t he take all of us?”

Kersen jutted his lip out at her. “I have to learn how to hunt. It’s important that I learn.” He dared her to argue. While all the villagers farmed, the tigers inside them demanded meat, and all were expected to contribute to the hunts. There were times the village was all but deserted as the inhabitants sated their urge to follow Nature and roam the jungle.

Crossing her arms, Bitari pursed her lips at him. Gemi paused in the action of washing vegetables, watching. Kersen’s mother sighed. “Here’s an idea. After dinner, we can go as a family. Bitari, if you keep an eye on your sister, then Father and I can show Kersen how to hunt monkeys, since he’s keen to learn that. But everyone will need to stay close. Things aren’t as safe in the jungle as they used to be.”

Kersen wanted to grind his teeth. Monkeys? That didn’t sound nearly as exciting as learning how to chase down a deer, even one of the tiny muntjaks. But when Mother decreed something, there was no going around it. He’d have to be satisfied that he was hunting at all today. “Yes, Mother.” He returned outside to help Father finish the baskets. The sooner household chores were done, the sooner they’d go.

By the time the chores and dinner were finished, the sun was beginning to set, and cries of monkeys and wild birds filled the air. Fields surrounded their village, but Kersen’s house was only a few hundred meters from the rainforest, not kilometers.

The urge to shift was upon him. He tugged at his father’s shorts, stomping his feet in impatience. His father looked at him with a smile, and ruffled his hair, sending it into his eyes. “Soon, son. Your mother’s changing into her casual clothing.” Even as he spoke, Bitari and Gemi came out of the house barefoot, wearing only some old T-shirts and shorts. It was better than walking to the jungle naked, and they’d find somewhere to hide their clothes before shifting together.

Kersen ran to grab Gemi’s hand, ignoring Bitari’s glare. “Come on! We’ll wait for everyone at the edge of the field.” Let the adults meander; he needed to run. Gemi laughed at him, and with that, they took off, little puffs of dust on the ground rising from where their feet fell.

He let go of her hand as they reached the old wooden fence that separated the fields from the village proper, leaping over a low spot where a board had fallen. In other villages, he imagined the children would be warned against running through the fields, for fear of cobras or other creatures. For him, they weren’t a problem. He could smell them, hear them in the brush.

The change was so close, he could feel his teeth lengthening. Kersen rumbled deep in his throat, a tiger’s purr. The scents of freshly turned earth and rice sprouts filled his nostrils. He didn’t run too fast, letting Gemi keep up with him. But it felt good.

Gemi shoved at him playfully. He grinned at her and saw tufts of white fur appear along her jawline. She was skinny and narrow-faced with hair in two long braids down her back, which looked funny with the fur.

Bitari yelled, “Don’t go under the trees alone! Father will kill you if you get lost!” Kersen risked a glance behind and saw Father had started to jog as well, smiling. Only Mother and Bitari were walking, falling farther and farther back.

Nevertheless, as they neared the end of the field, Kersen slowed, breathing hard. The sun had fallen below the trees, bathing everything in reddish light. He’d never entered the jungle at night before. But that was the normal time for tigers to be awake, wasn’t it?

Gemi leaned on the fence, her black braids swaying in the breeze, her gaze intent on the shadows beneath the canopy. “It’s dark in there, isn’t it? Will we be able to see, once we’re changed?”

Kersen followed her gaze, sniffing at the breeze. He was getting itchy and hot, as fur began to sprout along his arms. Perhaps they’d better strip. “I don’t know. I suppose. We won’t be much use, otherwise.” He’d only been into the jungle twice before, and since Gemi had only started shifting last week, this would be her first time.

“Oh, you two! You’ll be the death of me someday!” Father laughed as he finally caught up with them, panting. “I’ve sat around too much. This was a good idea. I can’t let myself fall out of practice either, can I?”

Kersen and his sister exchanged looks, and Kersen shrugged, scratching his arms. “Sure, Father. Now can we change? I can’t hold it back much longer.”

Father nodded. “Off with the clothes. I’ll stash them here by the fence. Now mind me—don’t stray! Stay close to either me or your mother. Follow what we do. And if you want to catch anything, be patient! Monkeys have sharp eyes, and sharper ears, and they’re smart. The art of the hunt is learning how to move silently and get as close as possible. You’ll see.”

Kersen was already pulling off his shorts before his father finished speaking. Naked, he crouched in the tall grass, digging his fingers into the rich, dark soil. He closed his eyes, smelling it, feeling the animal inside. Another low purr rumbled in his chest. The night air cooled his skin, and then it was happening: the aches as his limbs shifted, some lengthening, others shortening. He cried out as his fangs grew and fur sprouted all over his body. The most painful part was the tail, going from having none to a long dexterous one that lashed back and forth. Then there were a few seconds of blackout as his mind adjusted to the new form—Father had said after Kersen’s first shift that this was normal, and sure enough, the change was smoother now. He retained his memories and his personality.

Kersen opened his feline eyes.

He was crouched in the grass on the edge of the rainforest, next to a young tiger still yowling in pain—his sister. The smell of humans from the village was strong in his nostrils, warning him that he should move away. One scent stood nearby, but that was Father, sending off a confusing mixture of human and tiger. Even as Kersen looked up, his father began to change.

To witness the shift was always amazing, especially with Kersen’s enhanced night vision. He watched as Father’s head grew larger, the jaw more pronounced, the nose longer. Kersen stepped forward to take a sniff, as tiger-smell replaced man-smell. It was strange, being half aware, still thinking like a human in some ways, but with animal instincts that threatened to take over at times.

A growl sounded to his left, and small teeth tugged at Kersen’s ear. He snarled back, taking a swipe at his sister’s muzzle. With the twitch of her tail, she spoke to him mind to mind. Come on! Want to hunt! Want to run! Come play!

Kersen wanted to. But he remembered what Father had said, about waiting for everyone. Play with me here! He crouched and batted at Gemi, and she pounced on him. They wrestled, rolling in the grass, until new scents forced both of them to stop. Standing over them was the remainder of their little pack: Mother and Bitari, in tiger form. A few feet away stood Father, sniffing at the air, his body turned toward the jungle in alert watchfulness.

Follow us, Father sent. Keeping his body low, he loped into the forest.

* * * * * * *

Kersen would always remember that first time he entered into the jungle at night, how every smell, every sound seemed to jump out and grab hold of him. He couldn’t remember everything they had done that first hunting trip, whether Bitari had helped out or played with Gemi while he had stalked with his parents. Kersen did remember that he hadn’t caught anything. Neither had Father. Mother had managed to kill a tapir, but it had already been wounded.

He remembered the taste of fresh meat and blood that was still warm. The joy of that first trip would long sustain Kersen against the grief of what happened only a few months later.

Pushing away the heartache that came nowadays when he thought of his parents, Kersen crept a little closer to the men carrying his sister, intent on not letting them out of his sight. No way was he letting humans keep hold of his little sister. Forget the fact that Bitari would shriek when she learned he was leaving the jungle in tiger form. Sometimes he followed the rules. Other times, he determined it was better to break them.

This was one of those times.

 

Chapter Three

Ketambe Conservation and Research Center, Ketambe, Sumatra

May 14, 2013

Donovan wiped at the sweat pouring down his face and blinked to clear his vision. It had been a grueling two hours, but they’d finally reached an area accessible by vehicles. The sight of the research center truck, waiting for them to load the wounded tiger, was a welcome relief, not only physically, but because he wanted to keep details of this rescue quiet, lest anyone try to steal the animal. The quicker they got the young female patched up and returned to the forest, the better.

A few times under the canopy he’d had the nagging sense that they were being followed. Not that he’d detected anything; he’d stopped the group twice, listening for a heavy footstep or the whiff of tobacco, a clue that might give away whatever it was that had been following them. But he’d found nothing. If they were human, they would know how to erase their tracks. If it was an animal . . . but that was daft. No wild animal would track a large group of humans with a wounded predator in their midst. Not even another tiger would be so bold or clever.

They’d upgraded to a real stretcher when they’d met up with Roark an hour ago, who had quick footed it with a couple extra helpers. With the extra men, it was easy lifting the tigress into the truck. Donovan climbed into the front passenger seat, letting Roark do the driving.

Twenty minutes later, they arrived at the animal research and conservation center. When Donovan opened the back door of the truck, the tiger was lying sprawled across the stretcher, still asleep. Donovan sighed in relief, and grasped the front handles, allowing Amin and Evan to take the other end. He walked backward in order to monitor the animal.

As they hurried toward the veterinary clinic doors, the tiger opened her eyes groggily.

“She’s waking up! Hurry and clear a table. Then get the anesthesia ready so that we can put her under again. She’ll need stiches at the very least. I also want a full X-ray scan,” Donovan called out, arms straining to hold up his end of the tiger’s weight. Roark ran ahead to carry out the instructions. If everything went smoothly, Donovan wanted to also tag and chip her. The more tigers they could track for research purposes, the better.

As staff hurried to clear the way, Donovan, Evan, and Amin carried the tiger into the hall. Donovan tried to keep one eye on where he was going and the other on the tiger. She sneezed—she was definitely waking. Fortunately she didn’t yet seem fully coherent; her lids were still closed and her movements sluggish. They rounded a corner, and Donovan swore as Amin jostled the stretcher.

The tigress’s eyes opened and fixed on Donovan’s.

He had time to pull back one hand as the tiger raised her injured paw, but if he let go with the left hand, they’d have a very pissed-off wild animal falling off the stretcher. The tigress swiped at him, and Donovan winced as her claws broke skin, leaving three gashes across the top of his forearm. “Anesthesia! Quick!”

The tiger turned her head and bit him in the same spot, snarling. Even though she was half out of it, she managed to clamp down on his arm. Donovan braced himself for the pain; those jaws could break his bones. But instead, the animal only mouthed him and nudged him with her nose. Her rough tongue swept over the gash left by her claws, and sent a fierce stinging sensation through his nerves.

Donovan lurched, fearful that if he tried to pull away, she’d bite harder. Vet assistants surrounded him to help. One grabbed the free handle of the stretcher, while another eased the tiger’s mouth open and fitted a breathing mask over her muzzle. The gas hissed. The tigress yowled in protest and kicked with her back legs, but Amin and Evan were ready; they held on, and together the team hurried the tiger into the surgery and onto a large steel table.

The tigress blinked, swinging her head back to avoid the mask, but the assistants were used to this. They secured the mask and strapped on the pulse monitor, working efficiently to prep her. Donovan was able to let go of the stretcher handle and inspect his wounds. A few stitches and he’d be good as new, but he needed to clean the scratches and small punctures where her teeth had broken skin. Her bloody saliva wouldn’t have done the cuts any good.

He’d been lucky. He could have lost his right arm today.

“Get that X-ray,” he instructed Helena Sun, his primary vet tech, as he headed to the sink. They’d find out if the tiger had suffered any broken bones or internal injuries. Then if she was okay, he’d stitch up the tiger’s left forepaw where it had been injured, and then himself.

As they prepped the tiger for the scan, Donovan turned on the water and stuck his arm under the flow. He winced as cold water flushed the wound, then braced himself as he soaped up. The sting was less than expected. However, strange pains had begun to shoot up his arm, almost like electrical pulses. Donovan shook his head. Tiger must’ve hit a nerve. He allowed an assistant to wrap his arm in gauze as the buzzing noise behind him announced the activation of the X-ray machine.

Amin appeared in scrubs to pull off Donovan’s shirt and replace it with scrubs. As soon as he was clean and prepped, Donovan rechecked the animal’s vitals and sighed in relief. Heart rate was right where it should be, temperature was good, breathing was good. The animal didn’t appear to be in shock.

Roark appeared at his side, standing out amongst his smaller colleagues with his wider girth and his bright-red beard. “Got a holding pen ready for her. God, she’s a beaut, isn’t she? Glad you were able to reach her before the poachers.” He glanced at Donovan’s arm. “What happened?”

Donovan didn’t even slow down, checking the tiger’s muscle reflexes to make sure she was really under this time. “She woke up. Didn’t appreciate me carrying her, I reckon.” He stood aside as Helena began shaving the fur from the tiger’s paw where it had been captured by the snare. An assistant stood nearby to clean off the blood. Donovan pulled out what he needed for the stitches from a set of drawers. “At least she doesn’t look like she’s in too bad a shape. We were lucky.”

“Bad news about the bite. I swear, sometimes I think Mother Nature’s put a curse on this stretch of forest. Wish it would work more against the poachers, though.” Roark gently touched the fur on the tiger’s haunch. “I’ve got a tag and chip prepared, so we can keep an eye on her after we release her. And for now, I’m putting her into our private records. We can decide later whether to announce the rescue on our website.” He scowled. “I’d love to prosecute the poachers responsible for this!”

Donovan shook his head. “We’ll never catch them. Fuck, it’s hard enough to get the government to care about corporations coming in and illegally tearing down whole swaths of forest! However, we could generate some support from the aftermath of this incident. Post some pictures of her to our blog. Maybe we can get a few donations out of the exposure.”

He paused as Helena approached him with the X-ray film on a light board. She looked relieved. “You released the snare just in time. There’s a hairline fracture of the third metatarsal, and there will probably be bruising. Nothing that should keep her here for long.” Her news helped to settle Donovan’s nerves. He nodded.

“Thank you. If we bind up the paw and give her a week, she can be released after that.” He took the X-ray from her to study it for himself, and then nodded at Roark. “Hear that? We won’t have to go broke trying to feed her. Order enough meat for a week and take pictures for our newsletters. We’ll make as much use of this as we can.”