In the deep, dark African jungle there are creatures great and small. Elephants trample through bushes, hyenas laugh at their shadows and monkeys swing from vine to vine. Every animal, great or small, has a special protector to keep it safe from harm. These protectors are called Keepers.
At first sight a Keeper is no more than a soft glow of colorful balls of light. In time, the colors slowly take the shape of a little boy or girl, for Keepers know jungle animals are more trusting of children - especially gentle and kind ones.
Although Keepers appear in the form of children, most are hundreds of years old. Each one lived as long as the family line of the animals they were in charge of protecting.
Whenever a Keeper died, the tears of Father Time fell like rain upon Mother Earth. Then all the other Keepers would band together to shine their colors across the rain free skies. When Brother Sun shone his light through the birthing chain, a new Keeper was born. By night, Sister Moon would pair the young Keeper with an older, wiser teacher to teach the young one how to protect an animal family of his very own.
After a rainy day, on the fifth of Spring, the Keepers shone their colors across the skies only to find not one, but two golden colored baby girls at the end of the birthing chain (which is known as a rainbow to you and me).
"Two Keepers?!" exclaimed the Head Keeper. Standing almost four feet tall, he was the tallest Keeper alive. A crown of jungle thorns covered his curly hair. He blinked his big, brown eyes. "This has never happened in the history of all Keepers. What are we to do? What are we to do?"
"Hush, hush, Simeon," said Aja his wife. She burst into a batch of soft, pink lights and floated up into the air to join him on a tree branch. "Give the two girls to me. I promise to train them well."
"My dear, you will have a big job ahead of you if you take both of those babies," said Head Keeper, Simeon. "Every Keeper should have a teacher of their own to show them how to protect the animals of the jungle. A Keepers life depends upon Keeping their animal family alive."
Aja changed into her human form and nodded her head. The gold beads in her long, braided hair clinked together. She turned to watch a group of spider monkeys. The family she was in charge of protecting sat among them.
"Kiro!" She screeched across the trees to the largest of the spider monkeys. She spoke monkey talk very well.
"Yes, Aja?" Kiro twitched his curly tail.
"Gather your young ones together in a tree with lots of leaves to hide them," Aja said. "I have to leave these parts for some time and I sense jungle cats in the area, so please be careful. Make sure your young ones stay close to you and warn them not to talk to any strangers."
"They know the rules, Aja. Youve taught us all well. I promise to keep us safe until you get back." Kiro scurried through the trees to find the young spider monkeys playing hide and seek among the branches.
"Dont worry about your spider monkeys," Simeon said to his wife Aja. "Ill have some of the other spider monkey Keepers chip in to help Keep Kiros family. And Ill speak to Sister Moon about giving you these girls to raise."
"Thank you, dear," Aja said with a smile, for she really wanted to raise the baby, twin Keepers.
They were both beautiful baby girls with pretty, tight black curls that hung around their golden faces. Aja braided the first girls hair with ivory beads. The ivory was from elephants that had died of old age, not at the hand of Poachers. She named the first girl Serenity which means peace.
Aja braided the second babys hair with wooden beads and named her Desiree which means craving.
Serenity and Desiree grew to be beautiful young girls under Ajas care. They learned how to use the jungle for food to eat - which berries and leaves they could munch on and which were full of deadly poison. They learned how to turn into colorful balls of light whenever danger was near. They learned how to talk in the language of Keepers and most animals and humans. But, most of all, they learned about Poachers.
"Poachers are the most dangerous kinds of humans," Aja would say. Her eyes grew dark and angry whenever she spoke of Poachers.
The girls huddled up against her in their tiny home. The home was nothing more than a giant mushroom, hollowed out. The sound of a lion roaring in the distance could be heard through the mushroom walls. Aja put her dark arms around the girls and drew them closer to her.
"Poachers," she said, "kill elephants not for food, but for their precious ivory tusks. They kill jungle cats and snakes for their beautiful skins which they take and sell to other humans for money."
"Whats money?" Desiree asked.
"Something were much better off without," said Aja.
"But Mum-sey," Serenity said softly. "Arent jungle cats and snakes dangerous. I mean, dont they hunt your family of spider monkeys?"
"Oh, you smart, smart girl," Aja said with a smile. "Youre such a thinker."
"Im a thinker too," Desiree said with a pout.
Aja rubbed the girls head and laughed. "Yes, love. I know you are. Well, to answer the question. Jungle cats and snakes can be very dangerous. But they kill because they have to eat. If they didnt hunt, theyd starve. Mother Earth still looks out for jungle cats and snakes. They have Keepers to protect them the same as spider monkeys and elephants do."
"Well put, my dear wife," Head Keeper Simeon said as he entered the door of the mushroom hut. "As a matter of fact, when the girls are finished their training, they will be assigned to protect the most difficult of all jungle cats."
"Not the Cheetah." Aja frowned as she stood to face Simeon.
"Yes," Simeon said with a serious look on his face. "It is the hardest assignment a Keeper can get, but they are two Keepers, not one. And that should make the job a lot easier for them."
"Why is it so hard to keep Cheetahs, Pa-pi? Is it because they are the fastest of all jungle cats?" Serenity asked of Simeon.
"Not exactly, Serenity. Remember, we Keepers are made up of light and can move faster than any jungle animal there is. Cheetahs are hard to Keep because they are not family bound animals. They dont travel in packs. Once they grow into adults, the family splits apart and each one -brother, sister, mother and father- goes their separate way."
"Has it always been that way with them?" asked Desiree.
"No. Cheetah families used to stick close together once, a long time ago. But they grew apart due to jealousy and arguments about which family member could outrun all the others."
"How silly," said Serenity.
"Jealousy is a silly emotion, but its also a serious one," Aja said. She walked to a small pot that hung over a group of twigs. Lighting a fire, she began to prepare mixed-berry soup. "Having bad feelings towards someone because they have something you dont or can do something you cant only brings trouble and grief."
"I want to see a Cheetah," Desiree said.
"You soon will," answered Simeon. "You soon will."
* - *
The day the twins turned ten years old, Simeon took them to a clearing in the jungle.
"A family of Cheetahs were born last week," he said. "They are part of the Owgali family line. The family line is actually the responsibility of another Keeper, but shes got her hands full protecting the rest of the Owgali Cheetah family. Ive spoke to Mother Earth about it. She told me to give the newborn Cheetahs and their mother a new family name. She also said that on your tenth birthday, I could leave them in your care."
"What are you going to name them, Pa-pi?" Serenity asked.
Simeon smiled. "They will be the Gemini family line, in honor of their twin Keepers. Now, lets go have a look at them."
The girls beads clacked together as they happily jumped up and down. On the last jump, they burst into balls of light and floated through the air behind Simeon. His own lights shone a commanding blue as he stopped behind a group of large rocks. There, on the wild grass, lay the mother Cheetah and two small bundles of spotted fur.
"Hello Zola," Simeon said to the mother Cheetah.
"Simeon. How are you? Mother Earth said youd be by."
"Ive come to introduce you to your new set of Keepers," Simeon said. He floated above her, changing from blue to a proud purple.
"Those two behind you?" Zola said with a laugh. "They look awfully young, Simeon. Their colors have not even brightened yet. Can they even speak Cheetah? I havent heard a word out of them since youve arrived."
"Give them a chance, Zola," Simeon said. "Meet Serenity and Desiree."
The twin Keepers changed into their human forms. They walked slowly towards Zola and the two bundles of fur.
"Hello Zola. Im Serenity." The first girl rubbed the spot between the mother Cheetahs ears. Zola purred appreciatively.
"Im Desiree," the second girl said. "May I ask, what are your babies names?"
Zola smiled warmly. "The one closest to me is a girl, her name is Ambie. And the one with the spot around his left eye is Ian."
"Their heads look almost too big for their bodies," Desiree said with a giggle.
"Theyll grow into them," Zola said. The smile left her face and she twitched her spotted tail in irritation.
Ambie hid behind her mother; but Ian sniffed bravely at Serenity and Desiree. "Hi," he said shyly. "Im Ian."
Serenity leaned over to pat him and he swatted at the ivory beads that hung at the ends of her hair.
"I like your hair."
"Thanks," Serenity said, pushing him over to rub his white belly.
"Dont you like my hair too?" Desiree asked.
"Yes, but Serenitys beads are prettier," Ian answered honestly.
Desiree folded her arms and pouted. "Oh, what do you know. Youre just a baby."
In the months that followed, the girls spent their days learning the ways of the Cheetah. Zola taught them their feeding patterns and the paths she traveled. Aja taught them how to listen out for Zolas roar. The roar would signal them if either she or her young ones were in harms way. They learned the trails of Mother Earth, how to travel by the light of Sister Moon and how to join the other Keepers in begging Father Time for rain during the dry seasons.
Serenity learned fast and eagerly, but Desiree often had other things on her mind.
"Why are Serenitys ivory beads better than my wooden ones?" she asked Aja one day. The two were busy looking for one of Kiros baby spider monkeys that had gotten lost during a game of hide and seek.
"Who says theyre better?" said Aja as she peeked under some fallen tree branches. "The only value most object have is the value we place on them. Wood is a very useful tool and can be just as beautiful as ivory when taken care of."
"But its still not fair. Why couldnt I have gotten the ivory beads and Serenity gotten the wooden ones. Ian and Ambie like her better than me because of them." With the words, Desiree turned into light form. She glowed bright green with envy.
Aja stopped and turned into colors of her own. She glowed a soft, wise gray. "Do you think its because of some silly beads that Ian and Ambie have grown close to Serenity? Or do you think its because shes been taking the time to gain their trust. Shes spends hours by their side teaching and playing with them. Perhap, in time, they will grow close to you too. They might have a chance if you spent more time with them than you spend at the watering hole, splashing around and staring at your reflection."
"Perhaps," Desiree said. Her green light faded to a humble brown.
"Desiree, do you remember the reason why Simeon said Cheetah families go their separate ways? Because of silly jealousy. Do you remember that?"
"Working together with your sister is what you need to think about," Aja said as she stopped to rest against a large tree. "You two will have to work together to outsmart the Poachers hiding in the jungle shadows, waiting to take a shot at your Cheetah family. Cheetah skin sells for a very high price these days. Almost as high as the price you may have to pay if you dont learn to curb your jealous ways."
A muffled screech came from the top of the tree Aja leaned against. She looked up to see the baby spider monkey tangled in thick, green vines.
Aja sighed in relief. "Now, lets work together to get this young one home to his mother."
Together, they traveled up to the top of the tree to set the baby monkey free. When they were done, Aja cradled it in her arms. "There you go, little one. Everything is going to be all right."
A Cheetahs roar sounded in the distance. Desiree lifted her head. "Thats Zola!" she cried.
"Hurry to her, Desiree. Go see whats wrong," Aja said. "Be careful!" she shouted as Desiree took flight, heading in the direction of Zolas roar.
She reached the mother Cheetah in a matter of minutes. An old, male lion had backed her into a corner, against the large rocks. Desirees sister, Serenity, floated above, her colors a calming sea-green. She spoke to the lion in his own language. Desiree had never taken the time to learn lion talk.
Zola paced back and forth between the lion and her small cubs, growling from time to time.
Desiree landed and changed into her human form. With a mighty roar, the lion swiped at her with his paw. Lucky for her, he was too old and slow and missed.
"Change back quickly, Desiree!" Serenity said. "Lions dont trust any kind of humans."
Desiree did as she was told and joined her sister in the air. The lion grumbled softly.
"Whats he saying?" Desiree asked.
"He was kicked out of his pride by a younger male. Hes been walking for miles in search of a new home. He saw Zolas rocks and he wants them for his own. Its close to the watering hole and there are zebras and gazelles nearby for him to hunt. But Zola is refusing to leave these rocks. She can find no better place to raise Ian and Ambie."
"Maybe if we ask her nicely Zola will leave and let him have the rocks," Desiree said.
"Shell only refuse," Serenity said. "But I have an idea. We can use our thoughts to call Nigel. Hes the Keeper of this old lion. Perhaps he will think of something."
The sisters beamed their thoughts out to Nigel who was at their side in a flash.
"You called?" he asked - his voice small and weak and his colors dull from lack of use, since it took little effort to guard the King of the Jungle.
"This lion seeks a place to call home," Serenity began, and he has set his eyes on these rocks which are already home to our Cheetah family. We are trying to work this out with no fighting or killing. Its not only the lives of our animals, but our own lives that are involved as well.
"What do I have to worry about," Nigel said with a weak laugh. "My lion can easily tear to pieces your Cheetah family."
"Are you so sure of that, Nigel?" Serenity asked. "Your lion is big, but hes grown old and slow. He still licks wounds from the fight he had with the young male in the pride he once traveled with. If my sister and I were to blind him with our light, it might give Zola time to open up a deadly wound with her sharp teeth. Think about it, Nigel."
Nigel floated silently, but his colors turned an angry red before fading back to white. He spoke a few words to the lion before speaking to Serenity. "You are young, but you are wise. My lions name is Enoch. He will agree to look for another home if one of you will help him look."
"Why cant you help him look?" Desiree said with a frown.
"Hmm, it seems your twin does not share your wisdom," Nigel said to Serenity. "Does this mean you would rather tempt fate by allowing these two animals, one quick, but small and the other big, but slow to fight to the death?"
"No, no," Serenity said quickly. "We agree to your terms. My sister will help your lion in his search for a home."
This time Desiree turned an angry red, but she said nothing.
"Please go," Serenity whispered to her. "I want to stay behind and help Zola calm Ian and Ambie."
"All right," Desiree finally said.
Nigel spoke again to the old lion before disappearing into the dusk. Desiree led the lion further out into the clearing, looking back to see Serenity cradling Ian and Ambie in her arms. She angrily turned away and began moving faster. She could hear the old lion breathing heavily as he tried to keep up with her, but she didnt care. The sooner she found him a new home, the sooner she could return to her real job of Keeping the Cheetahs safe. It just didnt seem fair to her that the Cheetah cubs liked Serenity more than they liked her.
The lion stopped and grumbled and Desiree slowed her speed.
"There!" she said, pointing into the distance. "Theres a group of rocks right over there. Youll be even closer to the watering hole if you make your home over there."
She stopped when she realized that she was speaking Cheetah.
"Its a smaller group of rocks than the other ones. And theres no overhang. Id have no shelter from the rain," the lion said.
"You know how to speak Cheetah!" Desire said, surprised.
"Im the King of the Jungle. I know how to speak the language of all jungle cats."
"Well, why dont we take a closer look at those rocks before you make up your mind, old lion."
"The name is Enoch," the lion grumbled.
"Very well, Enoch. Lets have a closer look, shall we? And can you do me a favor and let me change into my human form. I would like to feel my senses for a while."
"As you wish," said Enoch.
Desiree walked beside the lion towards the small set of rocks. They were not as small as they had first appeared; but as they got closer Enoch stopped in his tracks with a low, rumbling growl.
"Whats wrong, Enoch. This would be a great home for you. Theres even a tree nearby to shelter you from Father Times tears and Brother Suns glare."
"Quiet," growled Enoch. "I smell Poachers."
"P-Poachers?" said Desiree.
A shot rang out and Enoch sped away with a roar, knocking Desiree to the ground. She lay dizzy for a while before trying to stand again.
"You okay, little girl? Did that lion hurt you?" said a strange voice in human talk.
She looked up to see a man kneeling over her. He was young, even for a human, not much older than 20. In Keeper years, she was almost twice his age. His hair hung in small dreaded locks that framed his dark face.
"What are you doing by yourself, all the way out here?" he said as he helped her to her feet. Suddenly he grabbed hold of her arms. "Wait a minute. Ive heard stories. Do you mean to tell me theyre true? Are you a... Keeper?"
Desiree sucked in her breath. She tried to free herself from his hold.
"No you dont. Im not letting go of you. If I do, youll turn into light and fly away."
"Let me go!" Desiree screamed. "Youre nothing but a filthy Poacher. Let me go or Ill call for my sister with my thoughts."
"You cant do that if youre in the shape of a human, can you," the man said with a grin. "Besides, who says Im a Poacher."
"If youre not a Poacher, what are you doing out here in the jungle. And why do you have a gun?"
"Im not a Poacher," the man said with a serious voice. "My name is Remy Remington. Im a hunter."
"If youre not a Poacher then why did you shoot at that old lion?"
"I shot at him because I thought he was going to hurt you. I dont hunt animals for their skins or tusks. I hunt animals to feed my family the same way that lions and tigers do."
Desiree relaxed a little. "Well, I guess thats okay. But I still have to warn the other Keepers that you are hunting in this part of our jungle."
"No, wait," said Remy. "Please dont. It will only make it harder for me to hunt."
"Im sorry, its the rules."
"Well, then maybe I can get you to bend the rules just a little." Remy reached into a pouch and brought out a small piece of ivory. "I could carve them into beads for you," he said. "A pretty girl like you should have ivory beads in her hair. Sit with me on these rocks. It will only take me a few minutes to carve them."
"Okay," Desiree said smiling brightly. She forgot all about the Keeper rules. She forgot about the family of Cheetahs she was supposed to protect. She watched, excited, as Remy began carving the beads for her.
"What's your name?" Remy asked.
"Tell me, Desiree, what type of animals do you protect?"
"My sister and I were put in charge of a small family of Cheetahs," she said.
Remy pretended to shiver. "Cheetahs. Those are the only jungle animals that I am afraid of. They run so fast." He looked around. "Are your Cheetahs anywhere near here."
"Yes. They live by the rocks nearby. But its nothing to be afraid of. Only a mother and her two small cubs."
"I see," said Remy. He put his knife back in his pouch and handed her five beads. "This is for keeping my secret. It was very nice to meet you Desiree. Could you turn into light now, just so I can see."
Desiree smiled proudly then burst into a ball of proud, purple lights. She circled Remys head, slowly changing colors before racing off to put the ivory beads in her hair.
That night in the mushroom hut, she wore a secret smile as she helped Aja serve the family dinner.
"Where did you get those ivory beads?" Serenity asked.
"From the old lion, Enoch," Desiree lied. "He was very happy that I found him a new place to live."
"Im glad," Serenity said with a smile. "Now we are really twins."
"Youre happy for me?" Desiree said, surprised. She had expected her sister to be jealous.
"Of course," Serenity said. "Youre my sister."
Aja shook her head. "Where on Mother Earth would an old lion get ivory beads?"
Later that night, the twins awakened to Zolas roar. In a flash they sped out of the mushroom house towards the rocks. But they were not fast enough to stop the two shots and the mother Cheetahs final, pained roar. When Serenity and Desiree reached the rock, they found Ambie crying over her mothers still body.
"Who did this?" Serenity said, bursting into tears. She picked up Ambie and cradled her in her arms.
Desiree stood shaking. She thought about the human she had spoken to. She had told him about the Cheetahs. She had told him about the rock. He had a gun and he carried ivory in his pouch. But, Desiree still didnt want to believe he was the one who had done this.
"This couldnt be the work of Poachers," she said. "If it was Poachers, they wouldve skinned Zola."
"They said they were going to take mommys skin," Ambie sobbed.
"How can you understand human talk?" Desiree asked.
"I spent some time teaching her and Ian," said Serenity.
"Ian," Ambie said softly. "Those bad men shot mommy and took Ian. They saw your lights and took him and started to run. They said they could get a lot of money for him."
Serenity frowned. "They're probably planning to sell him in the black market. Hell never survive the trip overseas."
Ambie began to sob again.
"Its okay, Ambie. Dont cry. Well get your brother back. Simeon spoke of a human camp that is not too far from here. I bet we would find the people who took Ian if we looked there. If only wish we knew what they looked like."
Desiree turned her head and started to cry.
"Whats wrong, my sister?"
"I think I may know what one of them looks like," Desiree sniffed.
"What do you mean?"
Desiree pulled the ivory beads from her hair. "I met a human this afternoon when I was taking the old lion to the rocks."
"He said he was a hunter, not a Poacher. He promised me that he only hunted animal for food. And he gave me these beads because I promised not to tell anyone I had seen him."
"Its all your fault!" Ambie screamed. "Mommys dead and its all your fault. And Ians going to be dead soon and so will I without good Keepers to protect me. And when Im dead then youll be dead and Ill be glad."
"You dont mean that, Ambie," Serenity said, holding her close. "Youre just angry and afraid because your mothers gone. And you have every right to be." Serenity looked up at her sister. "Why would you do something like this Desiree? Why?"
Desiree wiped her tears. "I just wanted to be as pretty as you. I wanted ivory beads and I wanted somebody to like me the way that everyone likes you."
"You dont give anyone a chance to like you, Desiree. You havent even given Ian and Ambie a chance to get to know you like I do. I know you, Desiree. I love you as my sister and I like you as my friend. Youd see that if you looked past your jealousy. But we havent got time for this now, we have to get Ian back. At least youll be able to recognize the Poachers face when we get to the human camp."
"Wait," said Ambie. "Please bury my mothers body so they cant come back for her skin."
"Good thinking, Ambie," said Serenity. She kissed the cub on her forehead.
They buried Zola and hid Ambie in a hollowed tree trunk.
"I cant climb out of here," fussed Ambie.
"Thats the idea," said Serenity. "Dont move and dont make any noise. Well be back for you before dawn."
They headed East towards the human camp. Once they caught sight of it, they changed into their human forms and crept slowly past the tents, hoping to keep from being seen. All the men in the camp were sleeping soundly and Desiree peeked into all the tents, looking for the face of Remy Remington. She found him in the third tent she tried. A whimper came from a cage in the corner.
"Ian," she whispered. "Dont make any noise. Its Desiree. Im here to save you."
She opened the cage and pulled out Ian. He trembled against her. "Its okay," she said, "dont be afraid. Im here." She heard noise outside the tent. When she walked outside, she saw a strange man holding Serenity by her arm.
"Give me that Cheetah," he snarled.
Ian whimpered, then growled. He jumped out of Desirees arms and scratched at the Poachers face. The sisters burst into balls of bright, white light. They flew past the Poachers eyes, blinding him. Then, grabbing hold of the small cub, they flew away.
"Wheeee!" shouted Ian as they sped through the night air.
The next morning they hunted for a new home for Ian and Ambie. They found the perfect spot on the other side of the jungle, far away from the human camp. It was a group of rocks next to a watering hole and a giant mushroom.
"Are you going to leave us here all alone?" Ambie asked.
"No," said Desiree. "We wont leave you alone. We want to see you live to have a Cheetah family of your very own. This mushroom will be our new home, right next to yours. Well teach you how to hunt for food and how to survive. I promise to be a real Keeper to you from this day on."
"Yes, but you have to promise us something too," Serenity said to the Cheetah cubs.
"Promise you what?" said Ian and Ambie.
Serenity knelt down and gathered them into her arms. "You two are a family. And family should always stick together. Not only would it make it easier to protect you, but it would keep you from ever being lonely."
"We promise," said Ian and Ambie.
Serenity looked up at Desiree. "And family does not keep secrets from one another."
"No," said Desiree softly. She bent to hug her sister and their Cheetah cubs. "Secrets kill."