• Published 13th May 2012
  • 4,981 Views, 125 Comments

Tiger Bloom - Tundara

Applebloom finds herself in the Everfree with a guardian that may be more dangerous than the forest.

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Part Five: The Past Returns

Tiger Bloom

Part Five

To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.

I remember Selena quoting that line to me many times. It was something of a mantra for her. Why she often spoke those words in that order eluded me for the longest time. I think I know now.

That night, as my body ached through every fiber it possessed I gave serious thought to the idea that I was dead. All of this was punishment for an act that was within my nature to commit. Never had I felt so weak and powerless, never had I known such fear as when Apple Bloom had been dangling out of reach in those evil branches. I had come to know many types of fear in one short day. Of all of those fears, being afraid for another and feeling unable to do anything is the worst.

Is this how that ebony man felt as he shielded his offspring from me in the moat? I am certain it was.

So much evil and sorrow came from that day, and as my mind finally slipped into the depths of dreams I remembered them all.

He was trying to scream beneath me. Trying because all that came out was a wet gargle as his breath mixed with blood around my teeth. The sensation was euphoric. Never before in my short life had I taken another life. The man tried to punch and kick me, but it was like feathers against my thick muscular body and fur. Clamping my teeth tighter I began to drag the limp body and the screaming child away from the observing creatures.

"Cheater," Czarina grumbled to herself before following.

In the shade of the stone wall where the doors to our dens sat hidden I laid down with my prizes. The little girl was alternating between sobs and screams as she held her father. The man himself twitched and gurgled a few times showing that he still was somehow alive. My bite hadn’t been as accurate as I first thought. By some miracle the jugular hadn’t been torn. Czarina took up a position nearby watching what I did with my prizes. Hunger wasn’t a problem then, we’d been fed only hours before the child fell into the moat. Not one to play with my food I instead just watched and waited curious about what would happen next.

The wait wasn’t long, no more than a few minutes. Sirens began to blare in the distance and the larger door the caretakers used to enter my territory swung open violently. Czarina and I both raised our heads at this. Caretakers never entered our territory while we were in it. They always waited until we had entered our dens before entering the territory to do whatever it was caretakers did. A small moment of fear entered my stomach as I saw that the caretakers were all the large males and carried the long metal sleeping tubes. Selena was nowhere to be seen.

A quick ‘pft’ of noise was followed by a sting in my shoulder. I looked over as Czarina growled and saw a tuft of bright red sticking out of her orange shoulder. Drowsiness almost at once started to seep into my head. I’d seen the Caretakers use the metal tubes once before, when old Spar had been taken away and never seen again. I wondered if I was about to be taken away too before, within the memory, I fell into blackness.

There was a subtle shift to the memories as I was propelled along.

Around me there were bars and the linked mesh of wires that formed a wall around my den. Nearby I saw Czarina. She was cleaning her paws and avoiding looking in my direction. I got the sense that she was upset with me for stealing the kill. With a little huff she rolled onto her side. From nearby voices penetrated a slow clearing of haze around my senses.

“Is he going to make it, Tom?”

I recognised the voice at once and it sent a tremor of pleasure up my spine. It was soft and sweet, but with a certain inner quality that made one respect the speaker. There is no way to explain it, but I’d have done anything to please this voice just to get a moment of adoration or praise. For just a single second of hearing that voice speaking to me I’d pluck a star from the sky and set it in a bouquet of flowers carved from jade and amethysts.

“It’s not looking good. He lost a lot of blood before the paramedics could get to him. We’re lucky your pet missed most of the arteries. Less than half a centimetre and there’d have been nothing we could do.”

Tom was a male caretaker that often spent time with Selena. He came into my field of view around a stack of beige wooden crates. Usually Tom had a carefree easy going countenance about him, one that masked the casual aloofness he and all the other Caretakers held towards me and my sister. Of all the caretakers beside Selena he was the easiest to like, but still couldn’t be trusted.

Running one of his long dextrous hands over the stubble dotting his gaunt face Tom gave me a long dark look that conveyed little beyond underlying anger, but if it was directed at me or elsewhere I was unsure.

“He’s not my pet,” replied the gentle yet stern voice of Selena.

“You sure treat him like he is. Constantly playing music and showing him movies and shows on your laptop. I don’t know why you bother. It’s not like he can understand any of it.”

“They are more intelligent than you give them credit for, Tom,” snapped Selena as she rounded the same crates Tom had moments before.

My heart did a little twist as I got my first good look of Selena. She resembled the woman I had chased through the forest that had led me to the flesh eating tree. I learned later that I had been chasing an illusion cast by the bird that made me see something I desired or yearned for more than anything else. Sitting up I gazed longingly at the woman, her auburn hair held back in a bun. She had the gentlest brown eyes and skin pale like fresh milk.

“Uh huh, sure.” Tom rolled his eyes in that sarcastic gesture. “You used to swear he was reading over your shoulder when you used to host those D and D sessions in here before Hostettler found out about them and threatened to fire you if you didn’t stop.”

“Yeah,” a whimsical smile cast itself on Selena’s soft round features as she slowly glided towards my den. “Remember the way he’d sit in my lap back then? He was so cute.”

“He was also a cub, and not a man-eater.”

“Come on Tom, you can’t blame him for this! He was just doing what comes naturally to him. Even I won’t go into the cages with him now unless he is sedated.” Selena rested her forehead against one of the bars comprising my den. “And that’s not because of this incident.”

“Lena, this ‘incident’ as you so blithely call it could bankrupt the park. I’d be shocked if the family doesn’t sue the pants off us. Never mind it was his own bloody fault.”

“Do you think they could win? You have a brother who has been studying law, right?”

Tom scratched the back of his neck as he looked towards me. “I don’t know. Everything was to code, but sometimes that doesn’t matter. It’d depend on the lawyers I guess.”

Memories flowed past in a sudden blur. I recognized events, mostly sunning myself on my rock or sleeping in my den with Selena leaning against the side of my cage. In her lap a tall L-shaped device that would have images flicker across a screen and play music. One of the songs I recognised as the same one I had tried singing to Apple Bloom in the forest. That particular song was played more than any of the others, Selena often adding her strong voice to the rolling sad tones of the male vocalist.

The speeding memories slowed back to a regular crawl showing me once again sunning myself beneath a wonderfully clear azure sky. Near the reinforced and heightened fence on the far side of the moat stood two men. The first I recognised as Hostettler from his cream suit, matching bowler hat that Selena said was a hundred years out of date, and thick bristly white moustache. He was a short pudgy man who had a genuine love for all his prisoners. Next to him was a younger man that was tall and lean like a walking skeleton. This man’s piercing black eyes looked on me with a predatory glint.

Hopping off my rock I began to pace back and forth occasionally growling at the interlopers. There were no other people around; not even the caretakers. The area had an eerie silence that was broken only by the occasional roar of the nearby lions and the ape cages in the distance.

“So, he is the one?” the second man asked giving a slight nod at me as I continued to pace.

“Yeah,” Hostettler said dabbing at his face with a white handkerchief. Poor Hostettler, he always sweated whenever it was hot, or cold, or he was stressed, or he was happy. Basically he just sweated all the time.

“Magnificent specimen.”

“Yes, he is. One of the main attractions for the park along with Zeus and Heracles,” Hostettler said smiling at me with a broken toothed grin. “The silverback gorilla and lion respectively,” he added when the second man gave him a questioning glance.

“So, is it agreed upon then?”

“I-I don’t know. It seems so wrong, so very wrong,” Hostettler bit his lip and gave me a long pleading look.

“Do not worry so much, Mr. Hostettler. The tiger will be fine in my private facility. Besides, this will save your park, will it not, after all that nasty business with the lawsuit?”

“Yes, but all this under the table stuff, it’s all so... I don’t know.” Mopping his face Hostettler turned away from me. “You just want one, right? Czarina gets to stay?”

“Didn’t I say not to worry? The male will be sufficient for my needs.”

My hackles had risen with every word this new man said. Hostettler was frantically scratching his head, looking from me to the other man and then to the rest of the park at large. Licking his lips Hostettler gave me a final look and seemed to deflate.

“I suppose it’ll save the others. You have a deal Mr. Howard.”

Memories shifted forward again, this time to the evening of the same day. Czarina and I were in our dens resting after being fed. Idly I watched her tail as it twitched every few minutes. She hadn’t taken the discussion of the two men well. Every few minutes she’d shoot me a furtive glance before looking away again. For my part I just laid in the dark with my head resting on my paws. A key turning in the door the Caretakers used to enter and leave the area where Czarina’s and my dens were kept drew both of our gazes.

A hinge squeaked, my ear flicking back in irritation at the noise intruding on my rest. Tom flitted into the room looking over his shoulder before slowly making his way towards my den. He paused next to the door that the caretakers used to give me my food. Pulling out a keychain Tom began to fumble with the first of two locks used to secure the entrance. This was highly unusual making me lift my head from my paws and regard the caretaker. Tom was sweating profusely and biting at his lower lip until it was almost bleeding. The stink of fear practically wafted off the tall caretaker.

Placing the key into the second lock he headed over to the cabinet where the Caretakers kept the metal rods that could put Czarina and me to sleep. A new male entered the room, one I had never seen before. He was tall and muscular with a short cropped head of blonde hair. Behind him came another man, this one pushing a trolley with a large wood crate. With them came a scent, that ghosted on the edge of familiarity, but that I couldn't place. Looking from the new men to Tom I turned my head to the side and give a little huffy grunt, one that Selena always interpreted as me asking what she was doing or happening. Tom looked over at the noise and gave a sad sigh.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, his voice cracking a little. “I-I gotta do this. If the park closes and I lose my job I...”

“Are you talking to the cat?” one of the new men asked with a decided note of mocking in his voice.

“Guh, yeah, okay, yeah, Jesus, let’s just get this over with before anyone sees us.”

Tom turned away from me and began loading the metal tube with one of the fluffy red tailed sleeping darts. Growling and unsure what was going on I looked again from Tom to the other men. I had no idea what was happening, but this was new, and I just don’t like ‘new’. Czarina was also on her paws and growling at the newcomers.

“Hey, Tom, I saw the light on and... What’s going on here?” Selena asked stepping into the room from the same door the men had used.

“Lena, what are you doing here?” Tom whirled around trying to hide the metal tube behind his back.

Selena looked from Tom, to the other men, the crate, and my den with one lock open and the other with a key sticking out of the bottom. Her eyes widened and she started forward balling her small hands into fists. I’d seen Selena angry at other Caretakers a few times. Each time her voice had taken on an edge like steel and her eyes seemed to smolder with an inner fire that put everyone on the defensive. Those looks had nothing on the indignation she poured onto the three men in front of her.

“What the bloody Hell is going on here Tom?” She practically screamed the question.

“It’s not what it looks like ‘Lena, honest,” Tom said raising one hand to try to fend off his enraged friend.

“Well, it looks like your trying to steal one of my tigers! Tell me that isn’t what you lot are doing? I should report you right now to Hostettler and the police.”

At the mention of the police the stance and demeanour of the unknown men drastically altered. Their shoulders became set, as did their jaws. Sharing a look the second man nodded to the first, who nodded back. From inside a fold in his fur he pulled out an object. I couldn’t tell what it was or looked like as his body blocked my view. The change in Selena though when she saw the object was even more drastic than that in the men had been. Where before she had been angry and filled with righteous indignation Selena was now afraid. Extremely afraid. Selena’s legs shook violently her knees knocking together like a rattle as she backed away from the men.

A sharp pop filled the room followed by Selena falling to the floor.

“Oh, Jesus Christ!” Tom moaned backing away from the other men his face draining all its blood until he looked like a pale ghost. “You killed her? Why did you kill her?”

“Shut up,” growled the man who had pulled out the object.

I was sitting in stunned silence. I couldn’t understand what Tom meant when he said that they had killed Selena. Caretakers didn’t hurt other caretakers. Not ever. They went out of their way to protect each other, especially from the hunters and predators like Czarina and I. To think of a caretaker killing another caretaker was bordering on blasphemy.

Then I smelled the blood. Selena’s blood.

Understanding ratcheted into place in my brain. These new men were not caretakers, they were intruders and had harmed my Selena. My beloved, gentle, sweet Selena. Smashing my body against the chain wall of my den I let out a roar I wouldn’t rival until Apple Bloom hung in mortal peril in the branches of the killer tree. From her den Czarina added her voice to mine.

“Shut the damn tigers up,” the man who had hurt Selena shouted.

Tom was almost catatonic with fear, a quivering mess slouching in a corner that reeked of urine to my keen senses. The man who had pushed the trolley into the room sighed retrieving the metal tube Tom had already loaded. Turning towards me he leveled the device. A gentle ‘pft’ that couldn’t be heard over my roaring, a little pinch of pain in my chest, and the world started to go dark again. Czarina was calling my name as I collapsed onto my side, but I couldn’t make out the words. I did make out the last thing the man who had hurt Selena said.

“Put the girl in the box. The tiger will have a meal waiting when it wakes at least.”

The world spun for a moment before blackness claimed me as I watched the final lock to my den fall open.

When the dream finally re-solidified I found myself surrounded in pitch black. All around me was a deep roaring rumble of pure noise that made my bones tremble. Worse, I could smell the strong scent of blood. Edging forward I felt something soft and pliant in front of me. Shaking my head to clear the last vestiges of the forced sleep I waited for my eyes to adjust. A few pinpricks of light came through the top of my cage, just enough to show a slender form rolled into a ball at the end of the cramped space.

Nudging the shape my heart fell and did a flip. Even in the shroud of black I would know the auburn tresses that only belonged to Selena. Nudging one of her arms out of the way I saw the large bloody patch on her grey hide. Carefully I began to lick and tend to the wound as I would one on myself. After a few minutes Selena groaned, her eyes slowly flitting open.

“Ugh, is that you boy?” she asked.

Her voice was so weak, so tired. In the poor light I could see her eyes unable to focus on my face only inches away from hers. She’d not been this close to me since I’d been sick. Before that only the short time I was a cub had I been closer. Back then she would let me sit in her lap and had even bottle fed me warm milk. Those are some of my fondest and most precious memories now.

“I can’t feel my legs,” she said after a moment blinking back some tears that shimmered in the faint light. “Why can’t I feel my legs?”

Selena lifted up an arm and draped her fingers across my face. Her unfocused eyes slide across me. I don’t think she was able to see me in the darkness of the cage. Instead her delicate fingers fumbled around my muzzle and ears, a little smile pulling at Selena’s face.

“It is you, isn’t it,” she sighed in a voice barely detectable above the endless roar all around us.

Rolling her head a little she coughed a few times. I felt something wet hit my muzzle. Selena moved her fingers from me to her lips. She looked at them, or tried to look at them, before giving up and leaning back against the solid wall of the cage.

“Blood,” she whispered, a second set of wet coughing wracking her body. “So cold.”

Whimpering I tried to nuzzle Selena. My heart was twisting and turning faster than a swarm of bees. Selena tried to push my head away, but there was no strength in her arm. I pulled my head back as another fit of coughing overtook her body.

“I wonder if I’ll dream.”

Her hand went limp as Selena’s eyes slid closed.

I sat numb in the cage whimpering as I nudged her with my large head praying to the Fates that Selena was just sleeping. So pre-occupied with Selena was I that I didn’t even notice the change in the noise permeating the cage. I did notice when I was suddenly flung against the cage’s roof. From beyond the cage there was a long tearing noise of metal parting followed by a rush of wind. Inside the cage Selena and I tumbled. With a long crack my head impacted one of the cage’s sides and I was swallowed by darkness.

The next thing I’d know would be waking up alone in the cursed forest with no memory of who I was or how I got there.

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