Two-thirds of the way through the final course, Anthser and Nik enjoyed a solid lead over their competitors: intimate knowledge of the course and their own abilities let them exploit every shortcut. As Anthser jumped twenty feet down to splash into the shallow water of a creek, Nik glanced over his shoulder to look for their competitors. The cliff Nik and Anthser had just descended was too steep for even them to attempt any shortcuts on the trail up, the few scrubby trees adorning its surface too short and angled to be climbed. So Nik was startled to see Southing writhing vertically upwards, perhaps a half-dozen yards from the top. The base of one of the trees growing straight outwards from the cliff served her as a foothold to push off from and surge towards the next. Justin lifted from the seat to hang in the air for an instant before pulling himself back into it. Nik’s heart stopped, watching them. “Saints and angels…”
Anthser splashed out of the creek to the dry beach alongside and glanced up at Nik’s words. Then he stopped to watch. “Oh blood and death. There’s no way they can make—” Southing shoved upwards from another narrow tree trunk; forepaws scrabbled at an outcrop of rock above her but found no purchase and she fell backwards. As Nik and Anthser stared, she caught herself on the same tree she’d pushed off from; its roots strained and trunk bent under her weight. She launched herself again: the wood cracked under the maneuver, tree trunk tumbling down the cliff face even as greatcat and rider went up. Southing caught the outcrop above with her forepaws, hindlegs curled below. With a violent thrust from her lower body she pushed herself all the way up—
—and threw her rider clear off.
“JUSTIN!” Even as the cry left Nik’s throat, Anthser was already in motion, leaping from the beach to a ledge near the base of the cliff and surging up from there as powerfully as he could, his launch almost vertical in an effort to intercept. Justin twisted catlike in the air, curling to get his feet under him as if that might help on an eighty foot drop, and extended his arms out to Nik. Nik dropped his bow and grabbed Justin as he fell. The heavier man’s momentum nearly jerked Nik from the seat himself. By then, Anthser had reached the apogee and was falling as well, and Nik had enough leverage to pull Justin sideways onto Anthser’s back. They landed in the creek with a massive splash, the transmitted shock almost enough to knock both humans off. Nik’s thighs were locked into the seat as his arms clutched Justin to his chest, heart hammering in delayed terror. “Justin, Savior, Justin, are you hurt?”
Justin managed a shake of his head, looking more angry than frightened. Anthser waded out of the creek with flanks heaving, the two humans on his back. Nik clung to the other man, shaking from the spike of adrenaline, stroking Justin’s hair and pressing lips to the top of his head, oblivious and uncaring of how it looked, aware only of one thing: I almost lost you.
I almost lost you.
Anthser more collapsed than lay down on the shore, gasping for breath. Justin broke from Nik’s embrace to slide off and stand on unsteady legs. Southing dropped with a splash into the creek beside them, breathing almost as labored as Anthser’s after half-running and half-falling after them. “Crap, Lord Comfrey, I’m sor—”
“Wildcat bitch! Were you trying to kill me?” Justin roared, cutting her off. Southing rocked back on her haunches in the creek, ears flat back. Nik and Anthser stared at Justin. The viscount didn’t wait for her response, advancing on her with one hand raised. “Because as assassination attempts go, that was pretty fucking convincing! I thought you were a fucking professional, not some Abandoned World demoncat. Just what was bucking me off at a hundred feet supposed to accomplish?”
Southing’s lips peeled back in a snarl. “I wasn’t—”
“Don’t backtalk me you disease-ridden furball!” Justin stopped just inches from her, his head looming over the greatcat’s, though she was more than ten times his mass. His raised palm made it look as though he were about to slap her, which would perhaps rank as only the second-most suicidal thing he’d done that day. “Is this what I’m paying you for? Because I can throw myself off an abandoned cliff for free if I want!”
Nik slid off Anthser. The black greatcat rose to all fours, tense, and Nik placed a steadying hand on Anthser’s shoulder. Southing’s wet fur bristled as she rose from her seated position to a posture as menacing as Justin’s. “You told me to do it!”
“Justin…” Nik could not quite fathom that this argument was happening, much less how to derail it.
The Newlanture lord ignored him, still focused on Southing. “Is your mind made of fur? Because my friend here can fix that for you!” Justin waved a hand at Nik, who winced. “So you know, ‘give it a shot’ does not in fact mean ‘throw me off at the highest possible point’!”
“I warned you that we—”
“Hold your tongue, you insolent wildcat-brained ill-bred monstrosity! I’m not paying you for your worthless mouth, I’m paying you for your equally worthless racing—”
Southing roared, back arched and gums bared to reveal a mouth larger than Justin’s head, lined by jagged pointy teeth. “Blood and death you are! I am through!” She pivoted and stalked away.
“You can’t turn your back on me! I own you!”
She twisted her head to look over her shoulder, snarling, “No, you don’t. I quit, Lord Comfrey.” The greatcat drew out his title like an insult.
“Don’t you dare walk away from me! I’ll see you never race again, you little beast!”
“Just watch me, little man.” Southing leapt to the far side of the creek and paced away down the trail, tail lashing.
Justin sputtered, turning back to the others. “That halfwitted homicidal demonspawn – can you believe—”
“Comfrey—” Nik found his voice at last “—shut up.” Anthser’s fur bristled and his glare at Justin was full of loathing. Nik smoothed the fur beneath his hand. “Anthser, feel free to accompany her if you please.” The greatcat acknowledged with a nod and bounded after Southing.
Justin glowered at Nik in disbelief. “Demons, Striker, you’re not taking her part?” Nik turned away, walking stiffly to a damp fallen log at the base of the cliff. Justin followed him, shaking with rage. “You bastard! She almost killed me!”
“Comfrey, you are being an ass,” Nik said. Justin seized his shoulder and jerked the slighter man around to face him. Nik regarded Justin’s livid visage with icy blue eyes before he dropped his gaze pointedly to the tan fingers digging into his shoulder. “Did you want to insult and threaten me as well, or will you skip directly to the beating?”
Jaw clenched, Justin dropped his hand as if burned. He crossed his arms over his muscular chest and turned away. Nik dropped to sit on the log and leaned back against the cliff, long legs stretched before him and eyes closed. The water of the creek lapped around the heels of his riding boots. Nik could not bring himself to care.
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