There is a rainforest in India that the wise poachers avoid. Few who venture in ever return, and those that do rarely come back all the way. The leopards in this forest have a protector who walks the worlds between leopard and man, but who calls the leopard kin and the human only enemy. When a frightened boy escapes from the latest hunting party to feel the protector's wrath, he tracks the boy down, determined to leave no survivors. But when he comes fact-to-face with the exotic, defenseless boy, he cannot bring himself to end that life. Instead, what he has reviled for years becomes his constant companion. That is, until the humans dare to set foot in his forest once more.
He'd made quick work of the poachers. Poachers in his territory never lasted long. He liked it like that. It meant the leopards he protected, claimed as his, were safe. Well, safer. Men with their guns and knives and lack of care for what they mutilated, killed, and destroyed were nothing but meat to him. Meat to be slaughtered. Not eaten, though. Never eaten. Left to rot as they left behind those of his kind, killed for their fur and little else. He had no patience for such destruction, and he had no mercy for the humans that infiltrated his forest.
In the midst of the attack, though, he'd lost sight of one of the culprits. Young with dark hair, slanted eyes, and a scent of pure fear that he remembered vividly. The boy had run from him, but the men had taken out their guns, shot at him, and he'd forgotten about the boy until it was all over. Still, the boy's scent was strong, intense, leading him along a mindless path through the dense, humid jungle. The boy was still here, somewhere, and he was determined to find the last interloper. He'd leave no poacher to return to the cities, to bring back tales of a vicious leopard that killed men.
No, no witnesses. If there were no witnesses, fewer hunting parties came looking for leopards. For him. He had to find the boy. At some point, the boy had washed his stink off in a little pool of water. The boy was clever, but that cleverness didn't help against a leopard. He could still smell the boy, potent and terrified, and then the boy's cleverness ran out.
He could smell the sharp ammonia scent on a bush nearby. It was the third bush he'd smelled it on. This time, though, he also smelled blood. It would make the boy easier to find. Blood and piss. He followed the trail, moving silently through the dense underbrush, careful where each paw landed. He was close. Blood and piss and sweat now. Sweat didn't last as long on the air, so the boy was near. Probably by the lake. Fresh water was important, even to poachers. He'd find the boy there. His tail flicked impatiently as he stalked along an edge of water, the sun high and hot, the water inviting. But he ignored the water itself.
Piss and blood and sweat and vomit. Vomit and sour mushroom. The boy must have eaten one of the floor fungi. From the acidic edge he could scent, it was one of the blue-gilled ones. The boy, with or without his furious intervention, was on borrowed time. He almost wanted to leave the boy to suffer. His leopards hadn't been shown any mercy or peace, and so why should he offer them any? The boy would suffer a few days more before the mushroom's toxins took his life, and suffering...
He growled. If he did that, though, he'd be as cruel and terrible as the men who invaded his jungle. Damn it. Damn him. He followed the scent of vomit until he heard soft weeping, a rustling of dry vegetation. Cleverness, it seemed, had run out when hunger drove the boy to eat unsafe food. With a loud growl, he entered the small clearing, crouched low to the ground with his tail sweeping back and forth behind him, his teeth bared. The boy, writhing on a poorly made bed of fern fronds, saw him, cried out, and tried to scuttle back, but the pain wracking his body made it impossible.
The fear was thick on the air, and then the scent of urine struck him. The boy had wet himself. By all that was holy, this wasn't justice. It wasn't even a mercy killing. The pain in the boy's eyes—he couldn't be more than a year into his manhood—pulled at him. Compassion reared its inconvenient head, and he knew he wouldn't kill the boy. The boy wasn't a poacher. He wore clothing that was all but rags, and he was too skinny. Poachers, while lean, weren't skinny with hunger. This boy was. A tool, then. A tool that had been dragged into the forest without any knowledge of the flora around him. Now, that tool was his responsibility.