Jaya crouched, motionless. She had learned from the ancient trees. She could keep still for hours. Perched high in the canopy of Divinus Silva, one of the last primeval forests, she watched the interlopers quietly pad along trails older than Men. Saaya sat patiently, watching as Jaya watched, moving as Jaya moved. The black rings and spots on her blue-gray coat helped her blend perfectly into the dappled light. Her long, thick tail lashed back and forth and her padded paws flexed against the moss-covered limb.
Jaya reached out and touched the giant panther’s neck, setting her at ease. Before the written word the panthers of Divinus Silva had been faithful allies of the Nox Custos and they roamed the forest as one. They were the keepers, the guardians, and the warriors of Divinus Quercus, the last Dryad. Many believed the Nox Custos were no longer even human. They moved through the canopy like simian creatures, as deft and quiet as the ancient cats at their sides and, perhaps, as lethal. The last band that wandered into Jaya’s woods had tried to cut down the eldest oak in her quercetum. They wanted to harvest the Mana from the ancient wood to run their machines and fuel their cities. They had failed, and had never heard her coming. Silently throats had been opened and bodies were gently laid in the underbrush as they shook off the last death throws. But Jaya’s world was dying. She had seen the grotesque devices that lifted cities into the clouds and contraptions that sped men through the air faster than the falcons. Once the cities were ripped out of the earth and lifted into the sky they left nothing but hideous craters. Roots were exposed and withered in the sun. Migrations were disrupted and left flocks lost and exposed to the elements. Herds were forced to find new trails to watering holes but the men and women in their cities didn’t care. Not once their heads were immersed in the clouds.
Jaya’s world was dying, but it was not dead. The forests were her world. Divinus Silva was her world and those on the trail below did not belong. They had dragged a woman and a small girl behind them on chains like livestock. Jaya had no compassion for any trespassers, but the girls were not there by choice and what Jaya saw those men do to them in the night had turned her stomach. The men below didn’t know what lurked in the ancient places of the world, nor that they would never again feel the sun on their faces. These were the paths of Divinus Quercus, and Jaya was their keeper.
Below her the men had made camp and lit a small cook fire. The largest one, his hands and face grimy from unwashed days on the ancient roads, pulled the woman close and shredded what was left of her tattered dress and the little girl began to wail.
Jaya’s muscles flexed. “Saaya,” she whispered. Without a sound the massive cat worked her way down through the limbs toward the vulgar vignette. Jaya watched the panther for a moment, noting every step on every limb before unsheathing her blade. As silently as her feline ally her bare feet touched the moist ground amongst the ferns. The men never had a chance.