Chapter V

Run, Lion, Run!

Ennui surges past the crowded seats of the arena with Rashid hot on her heels. Surprised he can keep up. While her footfalls do not make a single sound, Rashid’s heavy footfalls echo through the sandstone maze with an alarming clunk. They near the stairwell leading to the entrance outside, she pauses halfway through her step and looks about the area. She thumbs over the blond hair she had taken from Lumi between her fingers, rolling the fibrous tissue gently. Before reaching the stairs to the entrance of the arena, she turns down a dark hallway. Rashid grabs her shoulder, huffing angrily. 

What?!” She asks in frustration, peering past Rashid and around them for any guards. 

Rashid puts his arm on her shoulder, the sound of footsteps draws near. “What is this about? What about y’re lass?” he asks, itching his cheek in confusion. “Iris?”

“Look,” Ennui sighs, “I am not a good person…but I have given Lumi nothing but shit since I’ve met ‘em,” she mutters. “An–” 

AND?” Rashid interrupts with an air of annoyance about him.

AND,” Ennui begins, raising her eyebrows furiously. “We’re going to free the lion!” 

Rashid gawks, “Blood and tears, we aren’t goin’ near that creature. Do you have any idea what y’re gettin’ us into, lass?”

Ennui shrugs, “Don’t need you to help me,” she mutters. “But…this means a lot to ‘em. I’ve always been told that the bond between beastkin and their animal counterparts is like that of siblings…especially when they’re aware or bonded.” 

 Ennui recalls the stories her companions, Surama and Reisa, had told her in the past. Reisa, a Vulpo from Dolmas, had once befriended a woodland fox. Reisa and the fox had shared a close bond in which they could communicate. After the untimely death of the fox, Reisa had spent months overcome with grief. 

Rashid pulls back his arm, releasing her. “What’s y’re plan? Y’re gonna kill all the guards and free a wild beast?” 

“Kill the guards, and release the lion?” Ennui ponders aloud and teases the tips of her horns. “Sounds tempting.” 

Rashid shakes his head, “No killin’,” he whispers. 

“I hate witnesses,” Ennui groans in protest. “I would like to come back to Betset at some point,” she stomps. 

Rashid scoffs and shakes his head before he adjusts his jacket. “Just don’t get caught then.” 

“Easier said than done,” Ennui begins, turning back down the dark hallway. “Some of the lions around the Desert Cites can weigh several stones…so yea–” 

“We’ll manage,” Rashid interrupts, then begins to walk ahead of her. “I’m sure of it…I’m just happy the little lion is still alive,” he mumbles under his breath.

Ennui pauses in the middle of her stride, a curious and knowing smile forms on her lips at Rashid’s words. She had been suspicious of Rashid for some time, and though she had never voiced her concerns, his words only further her suspicions. “What was that?” She asks quietly. 

“N-Nothing,” Rashid grumbles while he continues on with a look back over his shoulders. 

Ennui and Rashid make their way down the labyrinthine passages, turning and crossing down various hallways and archways with empty rooms. After a short journey, Rashid spots a newly constructed hallway. Light from torches below flickers up the stairwell. Ennui heads down the spiral stairwell cautiously, her back against the wall. She places her hand on the pommel of her sheathed dagger. Bloody Rashid and his…stupid honor. She pushes the blade back into the sheath and peers around the corner, Rashid just behind her. Several wooden portcullises line the hallway, the sounds of the arena rings out and echoes through the maze. She takes another quick peek from around the corner. Two guards stand at the end of the hallway, torches lining its length. 

“Stay here,” Ennui whispers to Rashid. 

“No killin’!” He insists, giving her a stern look. 

Ennui whispers an incantation while she pulls her hood over her horns. Her crimson eyes glow with an unnatural brightness. She walks down the hallway, not a single sound emanating from her, while the torches before her dim and flicker until they extinguish, leaving her shrouded in the dark. The inattentive guards sit up, giving a queer look at the ever dimming hallway. Within seconds, Ennui descends upon them. Her movements are deliberate and methodical. The guards reach for their blades, being overtaken before the chance for them to unsheathe their steel arises. The sound of a fierce crack echoes through the hallway, and Ennui slams the first guard’s head against the stone wall. Rashid begins to run down the hallway to aid her. With Ennui’s attention now on the second guard, the guard’s hand shakes unsteadily on the pommel of his shortsword. 

The guard quakes, “DEMON!

 Ennui glares at the second guard, grabbing his blade with her bare hand. She pushes his steel aside. Her knee slams into his stomach. A violent grunt and choking sound echo through the hall. Spittle flies from his mouth, and he crumbles to the floor with bulging eyes. 

“Don’t kill me!” The chestnut-haired youth pleads to Ennui. He glances up, “Please!” He begs. 

Ennui pulls her dagger from her belt, and she flips it several times in her hand, as if weighing the value of the guard’s life.

“Don’t!” Rashid shouts. 

The pommel smashes into the back of the boy’s head. He falls to the floor, his green cloak draping over his form. 

Ennui shrugs, “You really thought I was gonna kill ‘em?” She asks and looks at Rashid with a playful smile. “Truly, do you think so little of me?”

“Y’re a hard one to read,” Rashid says, checking the guards for signs of life. He looks up with a look of surprise after a moment, “Still alive…even though he shouldn’t be with how hard you knocked him.”

Ennui shrugs, her eyes suddenly returning to their usual crimson hue, “Course they are, you said not to kill anyone,” she mumbles under her breath. 

Rashid stands, looking through the cells. “There’s a damn bear in this one…maybe we should free that too?” Rashid jokes with a bit of a laugh before he catches an angry glare from Ennui. 

Ennui ignores the comment and bends down by the guard, removing the pin key from his belt. Twirling the ring of keys about her finger, she walks past the cells and back down the hallway, looking along the opposite side of cells from Rashid. A half dozen cells down, she finds what she seeks. Slumped in the back of a large cell, a massive mound of fur looks up at her, its golden eyes reflect the dim light. Come on, beast…be gentle. She pushes the key into the lock and tosses the door wide, approaching the lion with open arms. It must be heavy as a damn wildebeest or two…he’s got to be the biggest lion I’ve ever seen. She pulls Lumi’s hair from her pocket, rubbing the tuft over her arms. 

“Come on, big boy,” Ennui whispers, drawing near the lion. She nervously places a hand forward. 

Rashid approaches the cell from behind, “Ennui, I think opening the cage is enough,” he whispers cautiously. “Let’s go back, we should get out of here.”

“Yeah, well…he has no idea how to get out of this damn labyrinth,” She mutters, pausing before the rising lion. “But hopefully this works…”

The lion brings himself to his feet, his massive paws spreading through the sand. Talons dig into the ground while he stretches his back. He’s just a big cat, Ennui tells herself. The lion moves towards her, and Ennui’s hand instinctively flies to the pommel of her weapon. It takes every bit of Ennui’s will to keep it sheathed at his approach. He pauses just before her, his nostrils flare against her, taking in her scent. Ennui holds her ground while the massive lion nuzzles against her cheek, then trots past her and Rashid. Ennui shakes her head in hesitation and disbelief. 

“Come on, big boy,” Ennui calls to the lion while she walks alongside it. She reaches her hand out, feeling the coarse fur along his hind, admiring the majestic nature of the beast.

Rashid stares at them in disbelief, “Shocked he didn’t tear y’re damn head off,” he whispers. 

“It’s Lumi,” Ennui replies, guiding the lion towards the stairs. “He smells him,” she says, ascending the stairs with the lion just behind her. “But I promised Lumi I would see the lion freed from Betset. Told him to put on a good show and make it last.” 

Rashid follows, still shaking his head in disbelief. His breaths are heavy with each step. At the top of the spiraling stairs, he continues, “Do you intend to lead him all the way out of the city?” 

“The arena drew in most of the city to begin with…we can probably make it pretty far unnoticed,” Ennui whispers with the lion trotting beside her. 

Rashid snorts, “Ennui, this…is the worst idea you’ve ever had.” 

Right?” She replies, laughing at herself. Hells, I’ve grown soft. “Come on,” she says to the lion, patting his flank again. 

The lion begins to move quicker, the light from the braziers flickers ahead. It turns up the stairwell to the entrance of the arena. Ennui and Rashid dash behind it, unable to keep pace with him. Shouts and screams of panic ensue when they reach the top of the stairs, merchants and vendors scatter, the lion dashing through their stalls. Braziers clang loudly to the ground, their burnt wood and embers scattering over the red stone tiles. A man near the wall pushes a child behind himself, pulling a dagger from his waistband. Women scream for help and run past them towards the arena, holding their bright-colored dresses above their knees. Don’t make me hurt you, lion. Ennui watches the lion dart through a merchant stall, reducing it to splinters. Glasses shatter on the ground, bronze chalices scatter, their metallic clang echoing through the open-faced entrance. 

“Ennui,” Rashid gulps, “Are…ya gonna have to kill the lion?” 

Ennui sighs and follows behind, “Fuck if I know,” she confesses and adjusts her cowl. “Just keep on him.” 

The lion pushes into the dark streets. Ennui and Rashid chase behind it, the empty streets providing the ideal trek for the confused beast. He slows his pace nearing the path descending the hillside. Ennui and Rashid follow, keeping their distance. The few bystanders flee at the sight of the massive lion. The beast trots behind a house, leaping over the brick wall leading down the hillside. They pursue, and Ennui aids Rashid in climbing the red stone wall. The arena bursts with cheers, which boom across the city. Rashid and Ennui look back to the source of the sound, giving one another a curious look. 

“How do you think they’re handling it?” Rashid inquires with a worried glance back at the center of the city. 

Ennui chortles, “You should know better than most…Khimi is hard to best in combat. Well, when someone isn’t shapeshifting into his father, anyway.” She shrugs, turning back to the lion descending the dusty hill. “We’d best make sure he gets out of the city before the fights end.” 

“What’s y’re lass think about ya running away from her before the event even starts?” Rashid asks, sliding down the dirt hill beside Ennui. 

Ennui smirks while the dust flies up behind them. “I’ll make it up to her later,” she says, covering her mouth to keep the dust out. “And if not, Rashid…Iris is just one of many beautiful girls in Betset.”

The lion reaches the wall at the base of the hill and roars in panic. He dashes back and forth along a stretch of the red stone wall. Ennui approaches again, the bits of Lumi’s hair held outstretched in her hand. The lion trots to her curiously, then follows her lead back to the entrance of the city. Rashid follows behind, wading through the thickets of grass growing against the wall. Ennui pulls her cloak tighter over herself, lowering the cowl once they draw near to the southern gates. Torches stand lit on either side, guards rest about, playing cards on a low table. Rashid grumbles angrily, pushing past Ennui. He approaches the guards, forcing a hearty laugh. What are you doing!? Ennui watches in amusement, the old man feigns a drunken stupor, intentionally tripping over his own feet. Coins spill from his purse across the dirt. The guards, alerted by the clinking coins, come quickly to the older man’s aid. Ennui grabs the lion’s mane, tugging on the grainy hair. 

Rashid shakes his head, his eyes fixed on Ennui and the lion, “Ay, you stealin’ my hard earned coin?!” He demands of the guards with a shout and pushes himself to his knees. “That’d my bloody coin!” 

“What are you mumbling about, old fool?” One of the guards asks, pocketing a silver piece. 

Ennui dashes through the gate, the lion at her side. A snoozing guard startles on the opposite side of the gate. Her eyes fill with fear before she lowers the wrap back over her eyes. I’d do the same thing. Ennui pulls on the lion’s mane harder, causing it to growl in retaliation. But he allows it. She runs off into the wheat fields, her heart beating as quick as the stalks bend and break beneath them. Their loud rustling sends droves of sparrows into the air. Nearly half a mile from the city, Ennui stops suddenly in the middle of the golden field and releases her grip.

“How’d Lumi find you anyway?” She asks the lion. 

The lion replies with a gentle nuzzle, his nose against her, before turning to the distance and sitting beside her. Ennui sits in the golden field, crossing her legs and stroking her hands through the lion’s coarse fur. The heavens are illuminated, the stars out in full force. The wheat is bright and beautiful as Sidian gold. 

 After a moment, the lion rises from the bent wheat and nuzzles his nose against Ennui’s neck once more before vanishing through the fields, disappearing deep in the distance. Ennui stands, watching birds break into flight in the distance, while the lion continues to sprint through the field. She pulls the tuft of Lumi’s hair from her pocket, letting the wind take the blond locks from her open palm. 

Maybe…you’re not so bad, Lumi. 

She begins her walk back to the city, her eyes set on the beautiful display of stars in the sky. You used to always tell me about this, Khimi…but I never thought to look up.