The morning came, suffusing the world in golden light as the first rays of sun illuminated the swirls of mist. Lily felt a quiet sense of calm. No one else seemed to be stirring just yet; the climb to this point had been exhausting and most of the team simply didn’t have the energy to rise. Lily felt this way herself, and continued to lay in the snow, letting her aching muscles rest. The mountain-top got brighter and brighter as the sun fully cleared the horizon, but still hidden behind the mist.
Slowly, the camp stirred and the peace that had filled Lily’s soul evaporated. Tents were unzipping, and there was the rattle of tack. The scent of cooking food rose up, tantalizing and delicious. Lily’s rider, Silak, still hadn’t woken and Lily saw no reason to bother her. The sphinx stretched out on the snow and dozed slightly.
About a half hour later, Silak’s tent finally moved as the young woman came to the world of the waking. She emerged, hair messy and her eyes bleary. Lily greeted her with a rumble and a thump of her tail. “Well, good morning to you too,” Silak said, stretching. Her green jacket rode up, revealing her belly. Lily noted with concern that the slight amount of pudge she had always carried around her middle was gone, and she even seemed slightly sunken. Lily peered closer at her friend and saw her eyes were sunken in too. It was hard to tell under all the winter gear, but Silak had lost a lot of weight. Lily vowed that she would catch some sort of prey in the valley below to restore their rations so Silak could have more at each meal.
Silak wasted no time in getting ready. She set some snow to melting in a pot over a small travel torch and while it came to a boil, she lifted the warm wool blanket from Lily’s back and haunches and replaced it with a lighter riding blanket. It would be enough to keep the short-furred sphinx warm without overheating during a long journey.
Lily licked Silak’s hand as she fastened the last buckle. The sphinx watched with head on her paws as her human made herself a small pot of soup with chunks of fish and potatoes. Once it was simmering, she thawed several frozen salmon over the flames and tossed them to Lily, who tore into the rich orange flesh with vigor.
After they finished eating, Silak packed away the cooking supplies and tucked everything inside the tent before locking the zippers together. Lily got to her paws as her saddle was dragged out. She noted that Silak had added several carbineers with paracord loops. They would be doing a lot of climbing.
The saddle settled comfortably over Lily’s shoulders, the cinch firmly pulled against her barrel. Silak brought out the bridle next, much to Lily’s irritation. She hated the sensation of the leather rubbing against her cheeks when she opened her mouth. Still, she lowered her head to that Silak could pull the contraption over her ears and under her throat.
Silak clipped several pouches to the saddle. Evidently, they wouldn’t be returning to camp by nightfall. Lily kneeled and Silak swung herself lightly into the saddle and ruffed the sphinx’s ears. “Let’s go!” Silak said, leaning forward. Lily shook herself and launched into a steady run. Chief Thunderfeather waved as they passed. Lily didn’t slow down; instead she found the nearest trail down the mountain and began to tear down the slope.
Eventually, the sphinx had to slow to a trot. The snow was deep in this valley and there were many hidden rocks. The pair continued to descend, picking their way down until finally, the land flattened out into a frosty meadow. The snow here just dusted the grass, and the last of the summer’s wildflowers were still fighting to bloom. Lily’s nostrils flared at the barrage of scents. There was no trace of the acrid smells Lily associated with humanity, but instead there was the rich, damp aroma of freshly turned earth. The sweet scent of the wildflowers mingled with the crispness of the snow. Lily had a feeling that this place was sacred, and had yet to be touched by man. A brief pang of sadness thrummed through her as she realized what the humans had disturbed.
Silak made a clicking noise with her tongue and Lily slid to her belly. Her rider dismounted and began to sketch the scene. Lily looked closely at one of the flowers. It was rather interesting; the petals were like little swirled horns.
A few minutes later, Silak repacked her book and clambered back into the saddle. Lily rose and continued at a slow trot across the meadow. The slope became steeper. The pair descended rapidly; the soil became considerably more damp and Lily felt swirls of warm, humid air caressing her muzzle. How strange. They continued into a bank of mist so thick that Lily could only see a few feet in front of her.
Without warning, the ground gave way beneath Lily’s paws. Silak gave a ringing shout as the pair tumbled down a steep scree slope. Lily reached back and yanked Silak from the saddle and tucked her between her legs so that she could shield her. A moment later, the sphinx’s back slammed into a boulder and a shock of agony jolted through her body. Still, relief coursed through her. Silak had been on her spine just a moment earlier.
Silak scrambled to her feet and helped Lily right herself with a hearty tug on her saddle. Shaking the last ache of the impact, she let Silak swing back atop her shoulders. Lily’s breath caught as she looked around. They seemed to have fallen into a completely new world. Ferns and strong, tall tree grew everywhere, all dripping with water as steamy fog wreathed between the upper boughs. The smell of damp earth was overpowering as well as heavy mammalian scents that seems to creep from every direction.
Silak wasted no time in taking out her sketchbook. Lily waited patiently as each sample she was directed to walk to, and once or twice reared up on her hind legs to yank down a high-growing plant for Silak to draw. Lily’s rider scooped several samples of earth and plants into baggies for her own studies.
The pair wandered for nearly two hours in a space only a quarter mile wide. In that time, Lily was sure she’d seen something lurking in the low-hanging ferns that looked remarkably cat like, though it didn’t fully show itself. She had the thought to chase it, but Silak was so deeply buried in her sketchbook, the sphinx didn’t have the heart to break her concentration.
More time passed and eventually Lily laid down, tired, while Silak dismounted and made a drawing of a small frog that was resting on a particularly large leaf. The sphinx was dozing slightly, though she left one eye open to track her human’s movements. Lily noted it was steadily growing darker, though the fog had fully obscured what time of day it was. The valley was slowly moving into shadow of the surrounding mountains.
Silak moved to the edge of the pair’s little clearing and was messing with some sort of mushroom. The ferns swished beside her, just slightly, though there was no breeze. Lily felt a jolt of alarm and began to get to her paws. Just then the ferns seemed to explode as a tawny blur leapt from them. A split second later, lily was airborne, jaws wide.
The creature landed on Silak’s back and made a move to sink massive fangs into her neck. The girl screamed and twisted just enough to where they punctured the hood of her jacket and not her skin. Lily was there a moment later, her teeth snapping closed on the animal’s scruff. She shook it once, twice, three times before it yowled and released Silak. Only then did she fling it away.
Lily snarled and hugged the ground, shielding her belly. It was the cat from earlier! It was like nothing Lily had ever set eyes on. About the size of a cougar but heavyset with two long, blade-like teeth protruding from its upper lip. It hissed once, turned, and fled into the ferns.
Silak was shaking, but was already sketching the creature. Lily wished she could point out the flaws in her drawing, mainly the lack of stripes and the more pronounced bend in the hind legs. She waited just long enough for her human to get the rough shape down on paper before snatching the book from her hands and cramming it into her saddle bag. Silak looked shocked but didn’t complain, and clambered into the saddle. Lily did not like this place after dark. She took once last look at the blackening jungle before pelting up through the fog and back into the meadow and toward camp.