Tiger’s Dream – Colleen Houck

Her wild heart raced, pounding chaotically like the stream she’d paused at. Her thin limbs trembled, and as moonlight cut across her form, I could see her pulse throb and her eyes flick back and forth, alert to danger. I watched her from the shadows of the trees—a black specter intent upon her demise. After sticking her nose in the air one last time, she nervously lowered her head for a drink. Springing from my hiding place, I tore through grass and brush, eating up the distance like a shooting star. My claws scraped against a gnarled root thrusting up through the ground like the arm of a rising skeleton, and she heard the noise. Bounding swiftly, the deer jerked to the left. I leapt, but my teeth caught only the thick fur of her winter coat. She let out a frightened squeal of alarm. As I charged after her, my blood raced and I felt more alive than I had in months. I pounced again and this time wrapped my claws around her heaving torso in a deadly embrace. She struggled beneath me, bucking as best she could as I bit her neck. Sinking my teeth in, I clamped down on her windpipe. Crushing it would suffocate her, and I believed it was a gentler, more humane way to take down an animal, but suddenly, I felt as if I were the one slowly asphyxiating. The exhilaration I felt when I hunted leached away, and I was left once again with the emptiness that constantly threatened to consume me.

It smothered and choked, killing me unhurriedly in the same manner as I was taking the life of this creature. I opened my jaws and lifted my head. Sensing a change, the deer lunged into the creek, knocking me off her back in the process. As she disappeared into the undergrowth, cold water washed over my thick fur, and for a moment I wished I could just breathe it in and let go. Let go of my memories. Let go of my disappointment. Let go of my dreams. If only I believed death would be so kind. Gradually, I made my way out of the stream. My paws were as caked with mud as my thoughts.

Disheartened, I shook the water out of my fur and was futilely trying to get the mud out from between my claws when I heard a woman’s laugh. Whipping my head up, I saw Anamika crouching on the limb of a tree, the golden bow across her shoulder and a quiver of arrows strapped to her back. “That was the most pathetic hunt I’ve ever seen,” she mocked. I growled softly but she ignored the warning and continued making comments. “You chose the weakest creature in the forest and you still couldn’t bring her down. What kind of a tiger are you?” She nimbly hopped down from the thick branch. Anamika wore her green dress, and as she strode toward me, I was momentarily distracted by her long, shapely legs, but then she opened her mouth again. The young goddess put her hands on her hips and said, “If you’re hungry, I can bring down your meal for you, seeing as you’re too weak to do it yourself.” Blowing a derisive breath from my nostrils, I turned my back on her and loped off in the other direction, but she quickly caught up to me, matching my speed even as I darted through the trees. When I realized there was no shaking her, I halted and switched forms.

As a man I spun to her and bellowed in annoyance, “Why do you insist upon shadowing me, Anamika? Isn’t it enough that I’m stuck here with you day in and day out?” She narrowed her gaze. “I am as much stuck”—she rolled the word across her tongue since it was fairly new to her—“here with you as you are with me. The difference is that I do not waste my life away yearning for something I shall never have!” “You know nothing about what I yearn for!” She raised an eyebrow at this and I knew what she was thinking. In reality she knew everything I yearned for. Being the tiger of Durga meant that the two of us shared a bond, a mental connection that linked us every time we assumed the forms of Durga and Damon. We tried to give each other space, putting up a sort of mental barrier, but we both knew much more about one another than we were willing to talk about. An example of this was that I knew she missed her brother terribly. She also hated taking on the role of Durga. Power didn’t interest her, which actually made her the perfect choice to rule as a goddess. She would never abuse the weapons or use the Damon Amulet for selfish purposes.

That was something I admired about her, though I’d never admit it. There were other things I’d noticed that I’d come to respect in the past six months. Anamika was fair and wise in resolving disputes, always thought of others before herself, and she wielded weapons better than most men I knew. She deserved a companion who supported her and helped make her burden easier. That was supposed to be my job, but instead I often wallowed in self-pity. I was about to apologize when she started pushing my buttons again. “Believe it or not, I am not following you around to make your life unpleasant. I am simply assuring that you do not hurt yourself. Your thoughts are continuously distracted, which means you put your well-being at risk.” “Hurt myself? Hurt myself? I can’t be hurt, Anamika!” “Hurt is all you’ve been for the past six months, Damon,” she said more quietly.

“I have tried to be patient with you but you continue to display this…this weakness.” Angrily, I approached her and jabbed my finger in the air next to her nose, effectively ignoring the barely noticeable yet appealing dusting of freckles across it and the long-lashed green eyes a man could lose himself in. “Let’s get a couple of things straight, Ana. First, how I feel is my business. And second…” I paused then as I heard her suck in a breath. Concerned that I was frightening her, I backed up a step and stopped shouting. “Second, when we’re in public, I am Damon, but when we are alone, please call me Kishan.” Turning my back to her, I raised my hand to the trunk of a nearby tree and let the angry fire she always brought out in me dull back down to dead smoking embers. Concentrating on slowing my breathing, I didn’t notice her approach until I felt her hand on my arm. Anamika’s touch always shot warm tingles through my skin, a part of our cosmic connection.

“I am sorry…Kishan,” she said. “It was not my intention to anger you or bring your volatile emotions to the surface.” This time her irritating comments didn’t bother me. Instead I laughed dryly. “I’ll try to remember to keep my ‘volatile emotions’ in check. In the meantime, if you quit pestering the tiger, he wouldn’t be so quick to show you his teeth.” She studied me silently for a moment, then walked past me, heading toward our home with a stiff back. The fading sound of her muttering disappeared as she moved through the trees, but still I caught the phrase, “I am not frightened of his teeth.” I felt a passing guilt at letting her return home alone, but I’d noted that she wore the Damon Amulet and knew there was nothing on this earth that could harm her. When she was gone, I stretched and wondered if I should return to the home we shared, shared being a relative term, or if I should stay the night in the forest.

I’d just decided to find a nice piece of grass to sleep on when my body stilled, sensing the presence of another person. Who would be here? A hunter? Had Anamika returned? Slowly, I circled, making little to no sound, and when I’d fully revolved, I jumped back, my heart slamming in shock. A little man stood before me as if he’d appeared out of nowhere, which he probably had. Moonlight shone on his bald head, and as he shifted, his sandals crunched the grass. We hadn’t seen the monk since that fateful day when I gave over my fiancée, the girl I loved more than life, to my brother. The day I watched my dreams, my hopes, and my future leap through a vortex of flame and disappear, extinguishing like a lamp run out of oil. I’d been depleted ever since. “Phet,” I said simply. “What brings you to my version of hell?” The man took hold of my shoulder and peered at me with lucid brown eyes. “Kishan,” he said gravely, “Kelsey needs you.

” Chapter 1 Phet Revealed My muscles tensed and I stopped breathing. Kelsey. I pictured her face. The last words we’d shared. I’d been an absolute idiot. Six months before, Phet had said that Durga needed a tiger and that one of us must make the choice to stay. When Ren and I moved off to talk about it, my brother completely refused to even consider staying behind. He told me he would go where Kelsey went. There was no other choice for him, he’d declared stubbornly. Phet spoke to us quietly then and explained that Sunil, Anamika’s brother, would be returning with Kelsey to the future and thus would be leaving his sister behind.

I’d glanced at Anamika and seen her gripping her recently rescued brother’s arm. She was still unaware that her brother would leave. I knew through my connection to the goddess that his departure would be a terrible blow. Phet emphasized, “Durga must fulfill her purpose. Generations of people will be influenced by her. Without a companion, she will be left alone and the world as we know it will change utterly. A tiger is meant to embrace this life. You must choose.” As new as our bond was at the time, I was aware, even then, that Anamika hated the idea of posing as a goddess, destiny or not. The odds were good that without someone at her side, she’d likely head back to India and give up the life of the goddess.

Rubbing my hands across my face, I suggested, “Why can’t her brother stay with her?” “Her brother is a part of her human life. She must step into the role of an immortal, see to her duty, and leave thoughts of her past behind. Trust me when I say, it will be better for both of them to place their feet on separate paths.” Phet knew more than he was sharing. That much was always true, so when he said Sunil needed to leave his sister, I didn’t question it further. Ren seemed to come to the same conclusion because he nodded and answered, “Then, I will stay and serve, but only if Kelsey remains as well.” Adamantly, Phet shook his head. “Kahl-see’s course lies in the future.” The old monk headed off to console Kelsey and left me alone with my brother. “She’s my fiancée,” I began.

“I loved her first, Kishan.” “Yes. But you walked away.” “It was a mistake. One I don’t plan on making again.” The two of us went back and forth for a few minutes trying to convince the other to stay, but neither of us budged. Phet returned and told us an answer needed to be given soon, and as he said it, he gave me a look. A look that suggested I should end this. What did that mean? Was he trying to tell me I should be the one to give in? To give up the girl I loved? Or maybe he meant I was the one who understood the calling of Durga, who had the connection. I shifted uncomfortably.

Desperately, I whispered to Ren. “You know what I’ve seen, what my vision in the Grove of Dreams showed me.” Ren nodded reluctantly. I pressed, “If I stay behind, then Kelsey’s son will…” I glanced around to see if anyone was listening. No one was. They seemed to be giving us a private moment. “Will never be born,” I finished with a whisper. “You don’t know that,” Ren stubbornly affirmed. “He had my eyes, Ren. Mine!” Ren looked away as if it pained him to see the proof of Kelsey’s future son in my direct gaze.

Instead, he said softly, “You owe me, brother.” I sucked in a breath as his words spun in my mind. I owed him. Did I? I thought back on what I’d done, how I’d betrayed him by not only stealing his fiancée, Yesubai, but by endangering his life and our kingdom. Then, with Kelsey, I’d pressed her, kissed her, when I knew she still had feelings for Ren. Later, I’d tried to be noble and promised her that she could decide the terms of our relationship. But when I finally had her, I knew I would never let her go, no matter the circumstances. I did owe Ren, but I just couldn’t bring myself to give him the girl I loved. Frustrated, I ran a hand over the back of my neck. I glanced at the group and noticed Kelsey was missing.

“Where is she?” I asked Phet. “She mourns for the one she believes will stay behind,” Phet replied. My body stilled and I cocked my head, listening to the sounds of her soft weeping. Her heartbreak carried through the forest as clearly as if she were standing right next to me. All I wanted was to go to her. Stop her tears. Heal her hurt. I took a step forward and then hesitated. Suddenly, I realized two things. The first was that I knew who she was crying for.

She believed that Ren would stay behind with Durga. When I’d taken on the role of my great aunt Saachi, Kelsey had confessed her feelings about Ren’s so-called heroic tendencies. What she didn’t know was that my brother much preferred the company of diplomats over warriors. The only reason he leapt into the breach time and time again was because he was crazy in love with my fiancée. The second thing I realized was that my brother had been attuned to her and had heard her crying long before I’d even realized she was gone. His overblown sensitivity toward Kelsey verged on the irritating. Was I always to compete with my brother? Shrugging off my insecurities over Ren, I listened to the woman I loved weep. How can I leave her? Another part of my mind whispered, How can I not? The weight of the world suddenly seemed as if it fell upon my shoulders, and I was no Atlas with the strength to carry the load. I’d break under the burden. Can I do this? Can I leave her? I acknowledged the fact that she still loved Ren.

Her feelings were obvious to anyone who saw them together, but I believed that, given enough time, she’d come to love me just as much, if not more. Remembering how devastated she was when Ren died, how heartbroken she felt when he didn’t remember her, and grudgingly, how she reached for him first when we’d rescued her from Lokesh left a bitter taste in my mouth. Ren spoke then, distracting me from my thoughts, and said softly as he stared at the trees where she’d gone, “I can’t live without her, Kishan.” So what does that mean? That I should just walk away? Forget happiness? Forget my future? Forget the family I longed for, the one I saw in vision? Rubbing my hand over my jaw, I considered my brother. That he loved Kelsey was certain. If I stepped away, I knew he would make her happy. The question was…could Kelsey be happy without Ren? I knew the answer in an instant. No. She’d try her best, but a part of her would always grieve for him. The choice was suddenly obvious.

The tiger that stayed behind would have to be…me. Letting that idea sink into my mind was about as painful as being shot full of arrows. Hundreds of little hurts stung me at once. If someone had come along and yanked my beating heart from my chest, I would have thanked him for the favor. Even breathing hurt. Phet glanced at me urgently once again and I nodded slightly. Marveling that I had the strength to do it, I put my hand on my brother’s arm and said, “You won’t have to, brother. Just let me…let me say good-bye,” I murmured. Ren turned surprised eyes on me, then gripped my arm as well. He nodded, with an expression of relief and gratitude.

The pain eased a fraction. It still crushed me unbearably, but I was finally able to look my brother in the eye. After centuries of guilt and distrust, I felt the sweet relief of forgiveness and sensed my sacrifice had mended the gulf that I’d caused between us—a divide that should never have been. Suddenly, I felt as if I were the wiser, older brother. As I moved through the trees to say good-bye to the one I loved, a part of me hoped that she’d deny it, that she’d insist on me returning with her. When she erupted into hysterical sobs upon seeing me and I realized she was crying not for me but for him, I knew that my cause was lost. That her love for him was, and would always be, stronger. She claimed she couldn’t let me go but the fact was… she did. I’d regretted my choice ever since. I’d been an idiot for allowing it to happen.

For allowing my need to mend broken fences with my brother to influence my decision about Kelsey. I rationalized that Kelsey was distraught because she thought Ren was staying behind and that if she had had a few minutes longer to consider my staying in the past, she would have been just as upset. Now, here Phet stood before me, six months later, and said that Kelsey needed me. Inwardly, I thrilled at the idea. Perhaps all was not lost. Perhaps she’d realized that she did love me after all. I let out a pent-up breath and asked, “Is she in danger?” when what I really wanted to ask was, “Does she miss me?” “She is. Kelsey is in grave danger. But not the kind you’re thinking of.” “What do you mean?” I asked, confused.

Then another thought rose to the surface. “Wait a minute. You called her Kelsey, not Kahl-see.” I folded my arms across my chest. “What exactly is going on here?” Phet exhaled slowly and said, “Perhaps it is best if you know everything.” He clutched a necklace emblem hidden beneath his robes, and the familiar gesture confused me. A sense of foreboding trickled through my veins and I took a step back. “What…what are you doing?” The little man straightened to his full height and smiled as he said, “Divine Scarf, please return me to my normal form.” Brown robes shifted as threads wound around his body. What I was seeing made no sense.

I knew the Divine Scarf was, right now, in Durga’s care, and even if he’d gotten ahold of the scarf somehow, then why was he changing to a different form? The magic swirled around him, obscuring his face, and then, when the threads finally settled, I fell to my knees and tears blurred my vision. “It’s not…not possible,” I whispered, unable to believe my own eyes. “You know that it is,” he answered gently. “How did you—?” I swallowed thickly, overcome by emotion. “When?” “Ah…the when is a bit complicated. The how I will show you.” He took hold of my arm and helped me to stand. His eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled and said, “It is good to see you, Kishan.” “Words cannot express how it feels to see you once again, Kadam.” “Yes,” he murmured somewhat distractedly.

“Now, let’s see what we can do about saving Miss Kelsey, shall we?” I nodded, completely overwhelmed that my mentor, friend, and surrogate father had somehow returned from the dead.

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