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Copyright ©2012 Saloni Quinby
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Han's lungs ached and his entire body hurt. His life was in danger, but he was almost too tired to care, yet he couldn't fail. His village depended on him. If he didn't kill the predator who had been terrorizing his people, Comet Field would be destroyed.
It had been ages since the beasts had attacked humans. Long ago, after many bloody battles, they had withdrawn into the mountains, far from human civilization. Occasionally a hunter would report seeing a man-tiger, but only in the shadows. Usually the creatures disappeared before anyone could approach.
Han's village was newly established and deeper in the forest than other settlements, yet it wasn't on the wrong side of the great river -- the accepted boundary between the man-tiger realm and the human world.
The trouble had started a month ago when a hunting party had been attacked by an enormous man-tiger. Up close, no one could confuse one of them with a normal wildcat. They stood on two legs, but also moved on four. Their faces were a terrifying combination of human and beast. Savage claws tipped their fingers and toes. When they roared, the forest went still, all creatures silenced and hiding in fear.
At first the village leader sent his fiercest warriors to kill the beast, for it was reported by a hunter who had lived briefly after the attack that the man-tiger was alone. Those powerful hunters had been slaughtered as well -- at least those whose bodies were recovered.
Han's parents and younger brother lived in the village. He had stayed with them for a short time before moving to the temple where he had trained with the warrior priests since childhood. He had never been sure if he wanted to become a priest, or if he would travel to the emperor's palace to offer his services as a guard. Lately the former had become more appealing. The emperor's guards were expected to bond with specially chosen slave women to produce future warriors. Han felt no burning desire to mate with a woman and coming from a poor family, he didn't mind the simple life of a priest.
He'd discussed his choices with the high priest who counseled him to think carefully about his decision. Han was among the most skilled warriors ever trained at the temple. He had lived a disciplined life and hadn't fully tasted the world.
Now it seemed he might never get the chance.
The man-tiger's labored breathing and growls echoed behind him. The beast was getting closer.
They'd fought twice already tonight. Han had bandaged his forearm where the creature's claws had swiped him. He'd lost enough blood to weaken him, but not as much as the man-tiger had lost. Known for his talent with a weapon used in ancient times, when humans and man-tigers fought frequently, Han had wielded the tiger fork -- three iron prongs on the end of a staff -- with deadly skill tonight. Surprisingly, the man-tiger had evaded a fatal blow.
The armed man and savage beast were almost a perfect match. They had driven themselves to their limits and soon -- very soon -- their battle would end.
It must end.
Han stopped abruptly and the man-tiger, his black and gold coat matted with dirt and blood, pounced into the clearing and landed in a squat. His powerful muscles rippled and he roared, exposing his gleaming white fangs.
Tightening his grip on his tiger fork, Han faced his enemy.
The man-tiger's eyes were startlingly human -- slanted and glistening green in the moonlight that shone into the clearing. In these final moments before the end of their battle, Han realized how magnificent this creature was. Unfortunately he was more beast than man. He was wild, existing on raw power and pure instinct. Han almost wished there was another way to settle their differences, but he had no choice. For the sake of his people and for his own survival, he must kill the man-tiger.
The beast attacked first and Han maneuvered his weapon, jabbing and feinting, manipulating the man-tiger into his desired position. Then he drove the creature back and with a roar of surprise and rage it dropped into the deadly trap Han had prepared days ago.
To Han's dismay, the man-tiger caught hold of several twisted vines attached to a nearby tree. He clung to them, trying to pull himself out of the hole in the ground before he fell onto the dozens of spikes below. Han had concealed the trap well, covering it with branches and leaves. Just as he'd hoped, in the heat of battle, the man-tiger hadn't noticed it. It should have ensured his death -- a grotesque and painful one for such a majestic rival, but Han's demise would have been no less horrible if the man-tiger had won the fight.
Now all Han had to do was finish it.
Still clinging to his tiger fork, he walked toward the beast who struggled, weakened by his wounds and loss of blood. The vines started to snap beneath his weight and he sank a little deeper into the hole. He paused, panting, and lifted his gaze toward Han.
They stared at each other for several heartbeats. Then the man-tiger did something unexpected. His face and form shifted and changed until, within seconds, Han faced a man who looked every bit as human as Han himself.