Now here's another Challenge I couldn't wait to work on: "Who wants to live fur-ever?", otherwise known as if animals could be Immortal.If there's any animal that deserves to be Eternal, it is the Tiger. The tiger is officially on the Endangered species list, and has been there for years. In many places, the number of tigers still living in the wild are less than a thousand.

Red in Tooth and Claw

She was the guardian of the forest and the instrument of its justice. Her white fur shone like captured moonlight, for she needed no camouflage to survive. No prey could escape her hunting claws; no predator dared face her cutting fangs. Though she mated when the season came to her, she had no cubs. She needed none to continue her line, for she was eternal. She had always been, and always would be, the spirit of the jungle, the Ghost Cat.

§ § §

The man sat patiently in the village square, listening to the hushed tones of the storyteller as he told of the white tigress, the beast that could not die. Darien Kyle worked hard to suppress a sneer of contempt for these simpleminded, superstitious mortals. Yet the fear in their eyes was genuine, as they told of a cat that could shake off arrows and even spears as if they were insect bites. The village built spiked traps to protect their herds, only to watch the Ghost Cat leap out of the pit, its bloody wounds already closing, Even rifles, of which the tiny village had a precious few, could not stop the cattle thief.

Kyle sincerely doubted that the village had one decent marksman among them, yet the idea that a beast could be Immortal intrigued him: an entirely new definition of the term Big Game. Deeper in the forest, the primitive tribes had even older legends of the Spirit of the Forest. The tribesmen were in awe of the beast; some even revered it as a kind of vengeful Goddess. One of the more interesting rumours, the one that had brought Kyle to this backwater hell, was that men and women deemed Gifted or God-Touched were sent out into the forest as sacrifices for the Ghost Cat. Acceptance of the sacrifice was heralded by great displays of fire and light, as though the power of the thunderstorm had come down to earth.

§ § §

She remembered the coming of the Two-Legs; it was a hunter’s flying tooth, piercing her more deeply than any fang or claw, which had changed her forever. The humans had gathered around with knife-claws and spears, retreating in terror as their prize arose to avenge its own death. She did not understand that she had been dead, only that the humans, until then dismissed or seen as potential prey, must now be considered as rival predators.

Since then, she had seen the rise of "civilisation": human ambition and the unending search for the power that Nature had not given them. She saw, and often personally experienced, the development of "technology": the spear, the spear-thrower, the bow and arrow, knives of stone and bronze and iron. These things made Man the peer of nature, and early man seemed to understand that there was a balance to be kept. It was only later that the Two-Legs, with their pride and their hunger for more, thought themselves to be above Nature, no longer a part of it.

Though the weapons of Man could not harm her, others of her kind were not as lucky. She watched as the Clan Feline was decimated: for food, out of fear; for the beauty of their pelts or for the glory of the hunters. First axes, then saws and machines, ate whole chunks of the forest; chasing away prey and forcing predators into smaller and smaller territories. Man had become more than merely a rival, he was a deadly enemy.

§ § §

Kyle made much ado about declaring he could rid the village of their monster cat. The primitives would never let any harm come to their sacred White Goddess, but these terrified ranchers would do anything for him. To Darien, the hunt was everything; over the centuries he had brought down almost every creature that runs, swims, crawls or flies. The excitement, without the danger, faded rapidly; short of hunting Immortals, as his friend Kanis boasted he would someday try, Kyle had despaired he’d lost the thrill forever. Until he heard the stories, of a devil cat, an animal that could not die. The challenge was impossible to resist.

The villagers accepted his authority without question. The hunt would be a small one: one guide, one driver, a couple of strong young men to assist him, and of course Kyle himself. One of the elders protested that the only safe way to hunt the tiger was on elephants, but Kyle liked to be on the same level as his prey. Besides, though he needed to reassure these weaklings, he himself had no interest in being "safe." No one dared ask why the great hunter carried, along with pistol, rifle and shotgun, a full sized longsword.

§ § §

Eventually she learned that she was not alone. She learned to recognise the signs, a sensation that was neither sound nor smell, but something else entirely— a quivering of the whiskers, electricity tingling through her fur like a change in the weather. Prey animals of this kind were exceedingly hard to kill, but provided a nearly addictive satisfaction that went beyond mere hunger. A Buzz from a fellow predator was the ultimate territorial signal: better to evade and survive than enter a combat that went beyond mere threats and posturing.

It was quite a surprise to discover that the Two-Legs also had hard-to-kills among them. Many understood the Balance more than most humans, killing only for food and sometimes even honouring her as they passed close. Others seemed to have an obsessive need to hunt and control anything weaker than themselves. All of them carried unusually large Claws and moved with a grace usually reserved for her Clan.

§ § §

Kyle had felt the Buzz at about the same time they were forced to abandon the Jeep. The sensation, so raw and wild, was like a drug; "She’s close," he whispered. He gestured for two of them to stay with the vehicle, letting the guide move ahead. With luck the fool would get himself killed, allowing him to attack while the so-called Ghost Cat gorged itself silly.

Between the roar of their mechanical riding beast and the stench of steel and gunpowder, she scarcely needed the Buzz to know she was being hunted. Only one among them was eternal, the rest were barely worth her notice. She had taken Immortals before, and afterwards she knew things beyond the imaginings of her Clan. Thus she had learned about traps and snares, firearms and explosives.

She allowed a flash of white fur to be seen by the men at the Jeep, leading a Two-Leg fool straight into a rope snare. His cries brought the others running, but she had already faded into the shadows. By the time he was cut down, they discovered their tires pierced by inch-wide holes, the mark of her fangs. Even Kyle was getting spooked.

Again and again the cat led them on a merry chase, wasting ammunition while getting Kyle no closer to his prize. One of the cattlemen, foolishly confident, tracked the beast nearly a mile. A long echoing shriek announced that he himself had been herded— off the edge of a cliff. With a touch of paranoia, Darien wondered if they were dealing with an animal at all. Not even a Ghost Cat should be able to outwit his skill and centuries of experience.

As the light filtering through the forest canopy began to fade, their guide announced nervously that even he wasn’t sure where they were. The Jeep was useless, the village too far away, there was no choice but to stay overnight. Kyle and the guide chose to shelter in the vehicle, while the two ranchers set up a small tent. Darien looked on as the locals built up a bonfire, knowing that an animal so cunning would not be spooked by mere flame. For the first time, he truly feared for his life and, ironically, the thrill of that fear made him feel more alive than he had been in centuries. He slept with bare blade and loaded rifle nearby.

§ § §

Night had fallen and she knew that the hunter was still out there. The Buzz maddened her like a thorn just out of reach, urging her on to a hunt of her own. She could smell the cruelty and the bloodlust in him, a Two-Leg of the worst possible kind. The fact that he was Eternal only made her duty more crucial. It was the judgement of Nature, red in tooth and claw.

The smell and sight of their fire proclaimed the Two-Legs’ presence for miles and most night creatures gave the camp a wide berth. The white tigress had no such fear, only a wise caution as she approached the sleeping humans. Her true prey would know of her coming no matter the skill of her stealth. Passing the flimsy cloth shelter, she saw the muzzle of a gun slowly part the tent flaps followed by a moon-pale hairless face.

§ § §

One of the men in the tent heard a noise and cowered under his blankets. His friend, sneering to conceal his own fear, reached for a nearby shotgun. Staying as far back as possible, he used the weapon to push open the tent flap. When nothing immediately leaped at him, he peered fearfully into the night. He is confronted by a pair of ice blue eyes and the deep rumble of a subdued growl. Those eyes held a message, clear as spoken words: "Do you want to live?" Slowly, he let the tent flap fall, praying to be already asleep and that this was only a nightmare.

Kyle could feel the cat creeping closer, knew at the same time that it could feel him. He emptied his mind, trying to play physically and psychically "dead," while one hand reached infinitely slowly for the hilt of his sword. His companion had other ideas.

The so-called guide panicked at the sound of a low growl; he let out a scream and fired blindly into the night. A triumphant roar turned into a yowl in mid-leap as momentum took the tigress over the Jeep. The big cat landed hard and did not move.

"Good shot!" Kyle shouted; the surprise was genuine: the fool had actually done something useful. Soon he would know this forest intimately, and then he wouldn’t need a guide. He leaned close as if to congratulate the man further, cutting him down with a single stroke of his blade. It was a pity, since a sword cut looked completely different from an animal attack, but what did it matter? He had no intention of returning to this place.

Darien took his time walking over to the body, savouring every moment of his triumph. It was his biggest mistake. When an Immortal returns from death, there is a moment of hesitation, a split-second where the mind rejects what the body has done naturally. An animal suffers from no such denial; the instant those blue eyes opened a massive paw swung upward, knocking aside the blade and ripping off most of the hand that held it.

Like a perfectly tuned machine, the Ghost Cat pounced, crushing the Immortal hunter under nearly 500lbs of pure muscle. Lever-like jaws, more powerful than most jungle cats, find a soft, vulnerable throat. Her sharp white teeth, each a dagger in its own right, meet with an audible ‘snap.’ A ghostly mist rises from the remains of the corpse; the cat inhales the essence hungrily. Her roar mixes with the howl of the Quickening storm. Two men cower in terror in a fragile tent as the Jeep explodes in a ball of flame. The Ghost Cat stands in the centre of the destruction, caressed by power yet seemingly untouched. At this moment she is more than mere flesh, she is Nature itself.

Somewhere deep in the forest, a scout pointed to an awesome blue glow on the horizon. A tribal elder smiled knowingly, and turned to reassure his people. There was no danger; the Spirit of the Forest has taken another soul. Justice has been served.

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