Lark needed me to hold it together, if nothing else.
Ahead of us, the trails came to a divergence, branching in four directions. Norm slowed and blew out a big breath that fogged the air. “Which way are we going?”
I knew we needed a bigger town, one that had enough technology that we could find potential areas where Cassava was hunkering down. Preferably a town where I had a hidden Ender stash.
“West. Head for the humans’ big city.”
He grunted. “I don’t like that city. It’s too noisy.”
He had a point. The city could be a real problem for him. “Do the humans see you as a Yeti?”
“Oh, heck no. They just see a big human with a lot of hair.”
I had to hope he was right and that we could slip through unnoticed. Because in a city like New Delhi, there were bound to be a few supernatural creatures looking for trouble.
But as it was not only the closest major city, but one I’d been in before, it was our best shot to get what we needed and get back on the hunt for Cassava, Granite, and Peta as fast as possible.
Norm settled into a ground-eating run that made the mountains seemingly flash by in a blur of white and rock. He paused for a break only once and ate a bunch of snow, happily munching on it. “It won’t fill me up, but it will keep my belly busy,” he explained, even though I didn’t ask.
I stretched my legs and wandered across the plateau he’d come to a stop on. The softest meow snapped my head around. About ten feet above me, peering over the ledge, was a tiny snow leopard kitten.
Blue eyes instead of Peta’s green ones blinked down at me. Maybe one day that kitten would be taken as a familiar, but I doubted it. Peta was one of a kind.
“Oh, a kitty,” Norm breathed out. He moved past me and held his hand out to the kitten, taking her gently into his cupped hands.
“Norm. That’s not a good idea. That kitten has a mother somewhere around here.” I had no desire to injure or kill a snow leopard of any kind.
Even as I spoke there was a low rumbling growl above our heads. “Norm. Put her back.”
“It’s all right,” he said softly, his voice full of . . . reverence. “It’s all right.”
I glanced at him. The kitten was stretching her nose up to touch his, and a soft purr rolled out of her tiny body.
“Snow leopards are sacred, you know. One of them is going to help save the world one day.”
An absolute chill cascaded over me. “What?”
Norm didn’t look at me as he spoke. “They are sacred, and they trust Yeti. We are their protectors now from the humans. They killed so many of them, you know.”
I flicked my eyes back to the ledge, shocked to see the mother leopard peering down at us. Her ears flicked forward and she licked her lips once, but otherwise didn’t move.
“Put the kitten back, Norm.” Not to say that I didn’t trust him, but again . . . I didn’t want to add to the problems I had on my list.
“Okay. Bye, little heart.” He squished the kitten to his mouth and she batted his cheek. He lifted her up over his head and placed her next to the mother. Then patted the mother on the head with one big mitt. “Good kitty.”
The two cats backed away, leaving me staring at nothing.
I did the same, backing away from the ledge. “I didn’t know about . . . that.”
Norm smiled. “I like kitties.”
That might work in my favor. “You know the friend I’m trying to help is a snow leopard. She was taken by a . . . very bad woman.”
The big Yeti gasped. “That’s very not good.” He threw his head back and let out a long, warbling cry. The sound echoed through the mountains, bouncing off the crags and peaks. “There. My family knows to look out for her now.”
His words were a small consolation that I was moving so slowly to rescue Peta. Even though I knew there was no way I could move faster, all I wanted was to pull her away from that bitch who held her against her will. How long before Cassava decided to kill Peta? To take out her revenge on Lark’s familiar? My guts churned with sudden fear, knowing Lark’s banishment would be nothing to her if she lost Peta.
No, I had to be wrong about Cassava. If she’d wanted to kill Peta, she could have done it right there on the mountainside. There had been no blood on the snow.
Cassava had a reason why she took Peta—more than the obvious to hurt Lark—and I had no doubt it had to do with drawing Lark to her. But instead she would get me, she had to know that. So what was her end game? I crouched and pressed my hand into the ground at my feet as if the answer could be found there.
What did Cassava have to gain by killing Peta and me? Really, the answer was nothing. Our deaths would only electrify Lark into action, bringing about Cassava’s downfall all the sooner. There had to be something more than our deaths, then.
The word slid through me and the truth of it hit me hard. If Cassava held both Peta and me, she could manipulate Lark to do her bidding. Cassava was using Peta as bait for me, as Raven had done the same thing to Lark to draw her into a fight.
Like mother, like son.
Even knowing that, I was going to walk right into Cassava’s trap. There was no way I could just leave Peta with her. And no way I was going to tell Lark. I scrubbed my hands over my face, anger and frustration flowing through me like a wave of lava.
“Norm, are you rested enough to keep going?” I called over my shoulder. The Yeti stood and gave me what I thought might be a thumbs-up, but it was hard to tell when he only had three fingers.