Not until she brushed her mane after the morning's ablutions did she notice them, trying to disguise themselves. She bent in towards her mirror for a better look, pulling her hair back and away from her forehead as she did.
Three short silver hairs grew at her temple, nearly hidden by the gold and ebony locks surrounding them.
Without thinking, she plucked them, three quick pinpricks of pain, and held them in her palm. The longest was less than two centimeters, so call it a month of growth. She'd been going grey for a month, and had not noticed. She dropped the hairs in the bin beside her dresser.
A quick inspection in the mirror betrayed no other interlopers, no matter how she twisted and turned her head. Only a scouting party, she thought. The invasion will be next. Back in the mirror, she searched for other signs of age. Her body was as firm as always, although she spied what could have been the ghosts of lines to be around her eyes, hidden by her markings. Not good.
Cheetara knew she had been a late baby, an unexpected blessing in the autumn of her parents' lives. In the crystal clarity of memory, she saw her mother, old when her daughter was yet a child, still full of mirth, and kind. Only strands of once radiant gold remained in the dainty grey bun at her neck. At her side was a bearded and grizzled Cheetah, more stranger than father, but beloved nonetheless. Old. Her parents had always been old. And now she was growing old, and had neither mate nor cub, and time ran faster than even she. Chronologically, she was near forty Thunderian years, if not already past. Physically, she was years younger, although none of them were exactly sure how many, and all at once it was important for her to know.
Pluck a grey hair, her mother had warned, and two will grow in its place. Three would become six, and six twelve, and from there, it would only be a matter of time.
Time. What time was it? She glanced at her chronometer, and realized she had spent more time dawdling than she'd intended. They were scheduled to take the Feliner to New Thundera before noon, and she still had to help load supplies for the trip.
For the time being, thoughts of growing old were pushed to the back of her mind.
Pumyra struggled to keep up with the woman ahead of her. Terah slipped through openings in the undergrowth that Pumyra could not even see, and the elder woman would not pause. Out of breath, and cursing the scrapes she was collecting on arms and shins, the Thundercat followed her companion with dwindling enthusiasm.
"Hold, Terah!" she said, after a particularly hungry branch tried to eat her tunic.
The woman paused, a twisted smile pulling her wrinkled face to one side. "And here I had heard such great tales of Thundercat agility and grace."
"Show me an open field, and I'll show you grace."
"Soon, dear one," said Terah, and continued her quick path, leaving Pumyra no choice but to follow. Her words were soon proved true, as the thicket ended abruptly. They stood overlooking a tiny grotto, where a spring bubbled merrily, hidden from the sun by tall trees all around. Despite the shadow, plants enveloped every square centimeter of open space, mostly low-growing, thick-leaved succulents fed by the spring.
"Nice," Pumyra admitted.
"My grandmother found this place," said Terah. She stepped gracefully down to the water's edge and took a drink from cupped hands. Pumyra carefully followed suit. The water was icy, despite the warmth of the day, and she pressed wet hands to the back of her neck. "Much better," she said.
"The harder you've worked, the sweeter the water."
"More wisdom from your grandmother?"
Terah inclined her head, which caused her cloud-grey ponytail to slip over her shoulder. "And now, I shall teach you."
They crouched down to inspect the large-leaved plants. "These have no name. I think of my grandmother when I see them, so I refer to them as Grandmother's Leaves. They don't grow anywhere else in our lands, and I've tried. This trip gets harder each time."
"I can imagine." The other woman had to be at least fifty Thunderian years; her eldest daughter was Pumyra's age. "You seemed to manage it just fine."
"I know where to step. The leaves are at their most potent when they are fresh. Tea from the dried leaves is good for a fever, like willow bark, but the extract should be made from newly-picked leaves." As she spoke, she gathered selected handfuls into the bag she had brought. Pumyra joined her, careful to only take a few leaves from each plant.
"The best elixirs are made from the Wollos' liquor. I have tried mead and beer, but the effects are not as good, and I don't want to waste the leaves."
Pumyra nodded, lost in her own inspection of the leaves. She ran a nail over the thick skin, sloughing off a thin layer of what might have been fungus. The earliest antibiotics were made from such things, and while she had no proof, she was betting something similar was happening in this case. The elixir made from Grandmother's Leaves showed remarkable effectiveness against infections. She planned to take her own share of the leaves back and see what she could culture off them, perhaps steal some lab space from Tygra and try isolating and then concentrating the active ingredient.
"Enough," said Terah at last. "These others will hibernate during the cold months, then send up more shoots by Growing."
Pumyra stood. "It's still odd getting used to the seasons here. On the island, it was always warm."
Terah got to her feet, wincing a little after having been still. "Don't expect it to be warm much longer. We're almost midway through Reaping, and from here on in, the nights get long."
They started their journey back, slower this time. Pumyra noted her friend's discomfort as they walked, but before she could speak, Terah said, "That reminds me. Our Reaping Festival is in seven days. Will you be attending?"
"I'm not sure yet when the others will be back from New Thundera, but if we're not busy, certainly we'll come."
Terah cocked her head to one side. "I think you would enjoy it. There is music, and dancing. " She paused, then spoke carefully, feeling out her words like she might probe a potentially sore tooth: "Tomorrow evening, we will be conducting the Gratitude ceremony. I would be pleased to have you attend as my guest."
Her stomach jumped. "I thought outsiders weren't permitted to participate in ceremonies?"
"Rarely, and only those we trust. You are trusted among our people."
Pumyra blushed. Not long after their arrival, she had assisted at the birth of Terah's third granddaughter. There had been some complications, but she'd done much of her training with Lynx-O's sister-in-law, who'd been a midwife, and both mother and child had come through fine. Since that day, the two of them had traded knowledge, and both peoples thrived from the exchange.
"Thank you," she said. "How is Neeli?"
"She keeps her mother awake at night, but she is already starting to crawl. She'll teethe on a bow."
Unbidden, a smile came to Pumyra's face and stayed. She couldn't help it; babies of all species made her gooey inside.
"You know, you are of the right age for a little one of your own."
"That would be impractical," she said quickly.
"First, a pregnancy would slow me down, for several months preceding and following birth. That places an unfair burden on my teammates. A child would require a lot of care and attention, and would again be a burden on the other Thundercats. We'd always have to make sure he or she was safe, and it would be years before we could expect any kind of independence. With the frequency of our battles with the Lunatacs and the Mutants and Mumm-Ra, we'd always be short-handed. Plus, we are a very small community with precisely three females. In the best case scenario, we'd only get two generations before our descendants were too closely related to interbreed. That would be unfair to a child. And finally, there's the simple practicality that I'd need a mate, and I don't have one." She stopped for breath.
Terah smiled. "You've thought this through."
"Can you tell?" The truth was, part of her ached every time she saw the youngsters of the Tree People. She spent time whenever possible with the kittens, but it wasn't at all the same. She wanted a child of her own, and she had to get used to the idea that given their current conditions she would never have one.
"You nearly do have a mate."
"No. I have a wonderful best friend whom I've known most of my life. He's practically my brother. I think ..." She stopped, aware that this was going somewhere she did not want to speculate. What she would have said was that she thought that he might want to be closer; she wasn't stupid and she could read signals as well as the next woman. She knew, too, that since their arrival among the Thundercats, there had been unspoken currents among the males, the gist of which was that if one of their new friends took more than a friendly shine to her, there would be trouble.
"You said once before that you and he were like siblings."
"Lynx-O knew our fathers. After our parents died, he took Bengali in, and later, me."
"They are your family, then."
She nodded. "It's always been the three of us. I don't know what I'd do without them."
"May you never have to find out."
They spent much of the rest of the trip in silence, each in her own thoughts. Pumyra thought about growing up in the odd little family they had hammered together from broken bits. Lynx-O had not been a rich man, and the forge brought in just enough to keep them fed, even when he'd trained Bengali in everything he knew and had the boy working with him after school. Pumyra had spent her own free time with Lynx-O's brother and his wife, both Healers, but it was only after she'd received enough training to take on patients of her own that they could live comfortably. Yet she had never gone without, or at least, she never considered that she had. Even during the thin times, when Lynx-O had been sick and couldn't work, and they'd eaten nothing but bread and cheese for a month, any possible complaints were silenced in both young minds with the notion that it could have been worse. They could have had no one.
Times came, more often than she would admit, when she watched the twins, and she saw reflections of her own youth in a skewed mirror. They also had no parents, only the kindness of people who owed them nothing but gave them everything possible. Those were the times when she most wanted to go to them, hold a small hand in each of her own, and tell them that things were going to be fine, that they were loved, and wanted, and protected. Someday, maybe she would.
As they reached the outskirts of the village, Terah winced again.
"I almost forgot," said Pumyra, stopping and rummaging through a pouch, "I have something in here for you." She pulled out the small packet she had prepared of arthritis medication for her friend. "This is just something I've been playing with," she said casually. "It doesn't seem to have any effect on Thunderians, but it should work on your people. You'd be doing me a favor, taking it off my hands."
Terah smiled. "I will always do a favor for a friend," she said, and took the packet. It was a ritual between them; Terah would not admit to her pain, and Pumyra would not admit to making the medicine specifically for her. "I meant the invitation to the ceremony. I would be honored if you would attend. It is a special time, when we give thanks to She With Three Faces for a good harvest."
"And what do you do when it's been a bad harvest?"
"Give thanks still. There could be *no* harvest."
"I am honored, but please, may I think about it?"
"Of course. Safe journey back to your home, my friend."
"Safe journey, Terah."
She watched the old Healer climb the rope ladder up to her home, and then headed back towards the Tower to make her elixir.
When she arrived home, instead of going immediately to the kitchen, where she'd set up her own workspace, she detoured to the makeshift forge that might as well have been Bengali's second bedroom.
He looked up from his work when she came in, but at her shrug, he went back to what he was doing without a word. She dropped her bag at the doorway, walked closer, but maintained a safe distance as sparks flew out from the impact of his hammer to the metal. This was a sound and rhythm she knew from her youth, soothing like a heartbeat. She let it fill her, pushing the noise and the heat away from her conscious senses, and she watched him at his craft.
He'd been working with Panthro on redesigning the shields for both the Lair and the Tower. They'd been getting some very good preliminary results with new alloys of the local metals combined with scrounged scrap from the Flagship. With the other Thundercat away on yet another mission to New Thundera, Bengali was busy here at home working on scale-up for real use.
As she moved to get an unobstructed view, her foot brushed against something. A rough wooden bowl, barely more than a saucer, sat comfortably on the floor against the wall. Her foot had caused a touch of milk to lap over the side. She frowned.
A breathy hiss slithered through the air, and the piece was finished. Bengali set it carefully aside, removed his safety goggles, then saw the expression on her face. "What's the matter?"
"You're wasting milk again."
"It's not a waste."
"I thought we agreed that it was superstitious and silly. And wasteful. And let's not even get into unhygienic."
"So why are you doing it?"
"It just seemed ... I was having trouble getting the temperatures to stay constant, and you know I burned my arm twice last week."
She nodded. "But you can't honestly think that leaving out a bowl of milk is going to change that."
"Why not? I haven't burned myself since. And the fire has remained perfectly calm."
She rolled her eyes, silencing her own tirade on the psychology of good luck charms. The fact was, Lynx-O had a firm, if unfortunate, belief in Old Ardri Firebiter and the pyrani, probably instilled in him by the smith he'd apprenticed under so long ago. Bengali had grown up in the forge, and gently curdled milk was part of the smell of a well-maintained forge. She'd grown up beside him, forever unofficially in charge of the kitchen, and she noted the loss of foodstuffs that could have been dinner.
"So did you want something? Or did you just come in to make fun of me?"
"A little of Column A, a little of Column B." He smiled, the argument forgotten. She smiled back. One of the many things she loved about her friend was that he could not ever carry a grudge. "I wanted to let you know that I'm going to be busy working on something tonight, so you'll have to forage for your own supper."
"Whatever. I just thought I'd tell you. Tell Snarfer for me?"
"Fine," he said, in what was probably not intended to be a dismissive tone, as he pulled his goggles back over his eyes.
Pumyra considered lingering here, continuing to watch him work, maybe try and convince him to dump the damned bowl. Instead, she grabbed her bag and headed towards the kitchen to try and make coax medicine from leaves.
"I found something!" Panthro's voice boomed through the narrow valley, echoing off boulders and sharp craggy walls.
Cheetara stood up from where she'd been crouched over and stretched her back until something popped back into place halfway down her spine. She'd been in one position far too long, sifting through scree for possible information. Tygra suspected part of the Treasure of Thundera could be buried here in the rubble. Thus far, she had encountered rocks. Lots of rocks. Also a spider.
Cheetara could have done without the spider.
With a less-than-amiable attitude, she made her way to where her two best friends already were looking over Panthro's find in the dying light of the day.
"I think it's part of the Treasure," said Panthro, turning the disk around in his large, nimble hands. He brushed off some of the dirt still clinging to it from the ground.
"We'll have to ask the Book of Omens what it does," said Tygra, taking the disk. "I don't remember anything about ... whatever this is." He handed it to Cheetara.
She stared at the item in her hands. To her eyes, it resembled a thick saucer with a Thundercat symbol in the middle. Around the rim, there was a repeating pattern of what could have been moons.
"It looks like a dinner plate," she said. Her stomach rumbled at the mention of food. They had not eaten since dawn. She was hungry and tired and cranky, and her ears rang.
Panthro frowned, annoyed at her dismissal of his find, and took it back from her. "What do you make of these?" he asked Tygra of the moon-designs.
"Interesting. They could be Lunar Plundarrian in origin, but then, what would the symbol be doing on the same item? Perhaps the Book will be able to shed more light onto the symbols."
"I still think it's a dinner plate."
"It's not a dinner plate!"
The sound of engines stilled their argument, as Lynx-O brought the Feliner to a smooth landing several meters away.
"Lynx-O," said Panthro, as the older Cat hopped out of the vehicle. "I found something. Any ideas what it might be?"
Panthro pressed the disk into Lynx-O's hands. Lynx-O ran his fingers around the edge, tracing the little moons. "Interesting. There are indentations here, here and here." He pointed to three equidistant places on the disk's edge.
"That could be the means of activating it," said Tygra. "Whatever it is."
"It could be a weapon," mused Panthro.
"We should wait until we have examined it throughly to test it," said Lynx-O. "The Ancients had many artifacts which predated even the first Thundera. Who knows what kind of powers this disk could contain?"
"Then by all means," said Tygra, "let's take it back to Third Earth. We can study it better there."
"So we have yet another unknown artifact, that might be part of the Treasure, and might be an ancient weapon, and also might be part of someone's kitchenware, and we're going to take it home with us? Am I the only one who thinks this might be a bad idea?" asked Cheetara.
"Looks like it," said Panthro.
"We'll be careful, Cheetara," said Tygra. "If it *is* part of the Treasure, it's better we have it at the Lair, safe from Mumm-Ra or the Mutants. And if it's just a plate, well, then Snarf will have something nice to put his roasts on."
"I do not believe it is a plate," said Lynx-O. "I'm not certain what it is, but I do not believe it to be an ordinary disk by any means."
"Hah," said Panthro.
She resisted an impulse to stick out her tongue in response.
Back at the makeshift camp they had set up for the trip, Cheetara went through their rations, looking for something good. Snarf always provided fresh provisions for their journeys, which invariably ran out early on, leaving nothing but powdered foods which traveled light but tasted terrible. She settled on a vegetable soup which had been freeze dried back on Old Thundera before the great exodus, added some water, and set it over their fire to cook.
"Hey," said Tygra, coming up behind her, "is there enough for everyone?"
"Sure." He sat down beside her, warming himself in the thin night air. "So, is there a reason you're in a bad mood?"
"I'm not in a bad mood." She clasped her knees against her chest, felt the fire's heat warm her ankles.
"Of course," he said, and placed a hand between her shoulder blades. He began massaging a tight spot, and despite herself, she purred. His other hand joined the first, working on her neck muscles.
"Thanks. That feels nice."
They sat in silence for a while, as the camp filled with the smell of rich, bubbling broth. Tension eased from her body under Tygra's gifted, but not quite intimate, touch. From their long association, he knew what boundaries not to cross. Yes, he and Panthro had been her friends for a long, long, long ...
She tensed again.
He pulled his hands away from her, went to rummage through the supply sack, and pulled out two bowls and spoons. Without a word, he dished out soup to both bowls and handed her one. He returned to his spot beside her and began eating.
"It's stupid," she said, staring at her food. "I didn't want to say anything in front of Lynx-O."
"He and Panthro are still trying to figure out how to make the disk work. They'll be occupied for a while. What's on your mind?"
A joyless smile came to her lips, and she looked away. "Growing old."
"Oh." He stared into his own soup, pushing it around in the bowl with his spoon, finally settling on a bite of potato and placing it in his mouth.
"It's going to happen. It *is* happening."
"These things do," he said.
"Yes, but we've been cubs again. Twice. I can remember the energy I had, and how big the world seemed. And now I don't know how old I am, physically. I get tired. I ache after I exert myself." She chose not to tell him about the grey hairs she'd found.
"I don't suppose it makes you feel any better to know you're not the only one?"
"Actually, it worries me."
"Not me. I'm looking forward to getting old."
She watched him incredulously. "Really?"
"Really. All things being equal, I like the notion of growing old among friends. Too many of our people never had that chance."
She nodded once. She still remembered a time right after their arrival on Third Earth, when it had finally sunk in that Thundera was gone, Jaga and Clawdus were gone, their families and friends, most likely the rest of the Thunderian people, all gone. In the middle of the night, she had sat up in her bed and screamed, her rage and grief for all they had lost coiled into a soul-rending shriek. The others had poured into her room, frightened to see her sobbing like a child in her crumpled blankets. The kittens were the first to join her, and soon all seven of them had been weeping, clutching to one another for something that approached but never quite reached solace, there on her bed until daybreak.
He brushed at his eyes. "Anyway, maybe more will have that chance now. We have our home world returned to us. We have found survivors, and surely there will be others. This is an exciting time to be alive."
"For the young, maybe," she said, sinking back into depression.
"And who do you think will be right there showing them how to rebuild, and to keep from mucking things up too badly?"
That brought a smile to her face. "Us?"
"Exactly. Picture it, you and I and Panthro hobbling around on canes, grey-haired and ornery, yelling in loud voices at the twins," he adjusted his voice, "'In OUR day, we had to walk to the Lair in ten feet of snow, barefoot and naked. And we liked it!'"
The image was too much. The giggles started in her stomach, and soon had her in stitches, as Tygra looked on, pleased with himself. "The funny thing is," she said when she could catch her breath, "we tell them that now. And it's true!"
"See? We're already old-timers. And we're doing fine. You have nothing to fear."
"I'm supposed to feel better now?"
"A little," she admitted. "Thanks."
"'S what friends are for."
Pumyra made a valiant but futile attempt to disguise her unease as the ritual began. Against her better judgement, she had come to the Gratitude Ceremony with Terah. A thousand excuses had come to her when the woman had come to the Tower earlier in the evening. She had to be on duty. She had to make dinner. She had to go check on the kittens, who had come down with the sniffles. She had to wash her hair. One look into her friend's eyes, and she'd stuttered into silence, then radioed Snarf to let him know where she'd be if their fevers came back.
The Warrior Maidens, more than she had ever seen at one gathering, thronged around an eager bonfire. She hovered at the circle's edge, trying not to block anyone's view, hoping she might blend her way out of the group altogether, and knowing that wasn't going to happen. Here she was, and here she would be, whatever came.
Willa stepped before the fire, flames lighting her masked face as she spoke:
"We invite Thee of Three Faces to come among us, She who is Daughter and Mother and Grandmother." Two other women in masks, whom Pumyra knew to be Nayda and Terah, joined her in the center, but did not speak.
"We meet Thee here in the season of Reaping to do honor to Thy face as Mother. The world has grown big with fruit and grain, and has birthed that which we will store for the season of Resting. We thank Thee."
"We thank Thee," chorused the response from the other Maidens.
"For the rains that fell upon the crops, we thank Thee."
"We thank Thee."
"For the sun that shone upon them, giving them warmth, we thank Thee."
"We thank Thee."
"For the winds that blew, and caused the flowers to bear fruit, we thank Thee."
"We thank Thee."
The litany rolled over her, and she found her lips forming the words for the simple response. She made herself stop. She had absolutely not come to participate in tonight's events. Pumyra knew very well that the sun and the rain were dependent on weather patterns preset by the shape of the landscape surrounding them. Anyone with a basic grasp of geography and a map of Third Earth could reasonably predict what the weather patterns would be like on this part of the planet. The sunrise was caused by the world's rotation around its sun, not by some mystical force.
She peered closer at the masks Willa and the others wore. They were not dissimilar to Thunderian masks, although the masks of the Warrior Maidens were of course more primitive to her eyes. The masks of Felis and Felinia, worn at high ceremonies on Thundera, were delicate workings in porcelain and silver. These were little more than wood and daubed paint. The symbolism was the same, though: those in the masks took on the role of the deities. Willa, symbolizing their goddess's form as Mother, spoke now. In the Resting season, Terah would speak, and in the Growing season, Nayda.
Another memory tickled at her mind. As custom dictated, there had been a priest and priestess at her parents' funeral, dressed in masks as avatars of those who would pluck the souls of the dead and plant them in the next world. She remembered the pair, officiating before the mourners, as they intoned the funeral rite. She had been taught to believe that, wearing the masks, the priests *were* Felis and Felinia; she had also believed the heavenly couple were at that same time keeping court in their celestial palace, watching over Thundera. The priests, she recalled, were getting on in years, and Felis kept flubbing his words. She had watched him mumbling, and she had thought to herself, "He's just an old man in a mask." The woman beside him was not Felis' sister-wife, but merely his associate in another mask. Her parents were not being ushered into another life, but were getting shoved into the ground from which no new souls could spring. And she'd cried.
While searching for something in the Lair, she'd stumbled across the royal masks. By the dust and clutter around them, they had been unused since the arrival of the other Thundercats on Third Earth. Possibly, she'd mused as she had left them, to keep from giving the twins any bright ideas. She was just a touch relieved to note that the others did not feel a need to participate in such outdated ceremonial nonsense, and she had warmed more to them.
The litany ended, and Willa said something she did not catch about sharing the fruits of the year. A loaf of bread, baked that morning, passed her way that she might partake of a bite. Firm in her resolve to be merely an observer, she nodded politely and passed it along without tasting. She also passed the meat, bite-sized chunks of game roasted with herbs, although her tummy rumbled as the bowl left her hands. Last came fruit, apples they called them, and again she did not take.
There was more talk, and Willa cast the last of the bread and candyfruit into the bonfire. A sigh went up from the crowd, and then the ceremony was complete. Pumyra allowed a sigh of her own in relief. Social duty for the day completed. Yay.
She spent some time talking with the women near her in the crowd. She knew most of their names by now, although she was still new enough to be pleasantly surprised that they all knew hers. Part of being a Thundercat, she mused.
"I'm pleased to see you here," said Terah, suddenly behind her. Pumyra turned her head, and noted her friend, sans mask.
"It was interesting," she said, to say something. Terah made a motion with her head, and the other women she had been talking to murmured partings and wandered off towards others. Terah took her hand, squeezed it, and said, "We should talk."
"All right," said Pumyra, mystified. Had something come up with a patient?
They walked, still hand in hand, away from the congregation. When they were well away from the others, Terah turned to her.
"I was watching you, there in the back. You seemed unhappy."
"Then why, among a sea of smiles, was yours the only face with a frown? Why, when food was offered in companionship, did you not take?"
"I wasn't hungry," she said. Her stomach chose that moment to prove her lie.
"I see. I'm sorry."
"Making you uncomfortable. You do not feel right giving thanks or praise to goddesses that are not your own. I apologize for asking you to attend."
She smiled. "I'm not uncomfortable, and believe me, I'm not worried about offending my gods."
The other woman stared at her a moment. "You're not, are you?"
"No. Look, Terah, I don't want to be impolite, but really, I know how and why the sun comes up, and why the rain falls, and believe me when I say, asking or thanking someone in the Great Beyond is not going to change anything. I know this is important to you and your people ... "
"But you think that our ways are primitive because we believe there is Someone watching over us."
"I didn't say that. It's simply that, for me, it makes more sense to accept that science either can or will be able to explain everything."
"Ah yes. Your friend Tygra once tried to explain the same thing to me, before you came to our part of Third Earth. He said it was difficult sometimes to mesh his belief in your science with his belief in your god and goddess."
She was momentarily silenced. She had assumed that Tygra would share her own opinions on the matter. To hear, from one of the Tree People no less, that he did hold a belief in the gods was disconcerting, and she said offhandedly, "Well, everyone believes what they will."
"Indeed. Our men have a God Who Is Three like our Goddess. Mumm-Ra has the gods of First Earth. Hammerhand and the Berserkers have their one-eyed god and his kin. I'm sure even the Mutants and the Lunatacs have their own gods."
Pumyra smirked. "I've heard about what they believe." On Thundera, there had often been great jests made about the Plundarrian pantheon, especially Myrna the Mutant Love Goddess, and the Father of the Gods, Bob. Of the Lunar Plundarrians, she'd heard that they had a dark, nameless god to whom they made worship, and some said, blood offerings. Now that she thought back, she wondered how much of what she thought she knew might have been propaganda, and too, if the other races snickered about the Thunderian sibling-mate deities.
"How did your mother die?"
"What?" The non-sequitur confused her.
"How did your mother die?"
"What does this have to do with anything?"
"Perhaps nothing. If you do not wish to tell me, I will understand."
She shrugged. "I don't mind. I just don't see what relevance it has to anything. She died in an earthquake. She and my father were out to see a play with Bengali's parents and Lynx-O and his wife. The theater collapsed. Lynx-O was the only one of the six to survive."
"How old were you?"
"Twelve." That remained the worst night of her life, the night that changed everything, when she'd been told by her grandmother that her parents were dead. She remembered a sense of dullness, like being wrapped in fluffy blankets, not seeing, not hearing, and above all, not feeling anything for what seemed like a long time. She knew without asking that the same surreal numbness had gripped that man, that boy, both nearly strangers to her then. She and Bengali had lost their families, Lynx-O the only woman he would ever love.
"And that's when you stopped believing."
"Please. No psychoanalysis tonight." She took Terah's hands again and squeezed them. "Thank you for inviting me to the ceremony. I have to go back to the Tower. I will see you soon. Safe journey, Terah."
"Safe journey, my friend."
Upset, and a little annoyed, she walked off into the darkness towards home.
In the pyramid, all was dark. This was not unusual. Mumm-Ra's lair was typically cast in gloom, the shadows always the stronger adversaries in their endless struggle against feeble torchlight and the sallow glow from the dark pool. To an observer long accustomed to watching in this dimness, different aspects of dark would eventually delineate themselves from one another. At times, the dark was choking and thick, at others, it growled and menaced like a rabid bear. There were nights when the dark grew thin enough to cross over to other darknesses, and then the decayed master of this unholy place wandered briefly into shadows on other worlds, passing wraith-like through the dreams of sleeping children, who would wake their parents with terrified cries.
Tonight, the unknown observer would have noted a new quality to the dark. Tonight, the dark was anticipatory, the kind of dark that begged a match be lit, or for some hand to pass over it, declaring that light must be.
And then there was light.
The light oozed from the bubbling pool, not piercing the dark so much as seducing it into a murky grey-green luminescence. Spirits, older than two Earths, muttered to themselves in the silence.
Relatively speaking, the brightness and the din were more than sufficient to wake the sleeper in the sarcophagus. The stone slipped open, revealing Mumm-Ra's shriveled, bandaged form, a sleepy Ma-Mutt in his arms.
Mumm-Ra set his pet down. Ma-Mutt yawned to reveal decayed teeth and rotten breath, then went and did something unspeakable in the corner. His doggy brain was bright enough to know without being told that cocking a leg against one of the statues which dominated the chamber would be the fastest means of transportation possible into the underworld.
"Ancient Spirits of Evil," intoned Mumm-Ra, "Why have you summoned your servant, Mumm-Ra, from his rightful rest?"
Ma-Mutt sat down and scratched a spot behind his left ear. Flecks of dead skin came loose and drifted lazily down in the stifling air. His master's masters were calling them again, and this was usually never good news for him. In the deepest part of what passed for his soul, Ma-Mutt would have been just as happy to spend eternity chasing balls and napping, not running errands and being chastised by his master for things that weren't his fault.
"We have summoned you," said the Spirits, in voices like honey-dipped scarabs, "to show you a new threat to you, and to us."
The pool churned, and Ma-Mutt loped back to his master's side and peeked into the putrid depths. A ship appeared, one belonging to the Thundercats. Ma-Mutt whined; they came to play with him sometimes, but his master was never ever happy afterwards, and would vent his anger on his faithful pooch. The scene cut to some of the 'Cats, standing around, holding something that looked like, oh could it be ...
Ma-Mutt wagged his tail, bits of racial memories trickling through his synapses. He knew this thing, and things like it.
"You must retrieve the disk from them before they discover its potential."
"What secrets does it possess, oh Spirits?"
"Ancient magic," rumbled the many-voices-as-one. "As old as our own. Bring the disk to us, that we may enfold it within our own powers."
"How should I accomplish this?"
"We leave that up to you."
As his master began working on a plan, Ma-Mutt's attention drifted. He turned his teeth and tongue towards an itchy spot on his back, as he enjoyed daydreams of running through a dank night, howling at the hollow moon.
Cheetara's good humor lasted until they were on their way back to Third Earth, pieces of Treasure, including what she insisted on thinking of as the Dinner Plate of Thundera, safely stowed away. Panthro and Lynx-O had not figured out how to make it work, which secretly gladdened her. She had a bad feeling about the thing. Maybe it wasn't just a dish, but she was certain it wasn't something beneficial, either.
She and Lynx-O were in the back resting while Tygra and Panthro took a turn piloting the ship towards home. Lynx-O had a book spread over his knees, fingers dancing across the raised dots that spelled out words for him. Mandora had brought it to him not long ago, a gift for no reason but truly a priceless treasure.
Cheetara closed her eyes, listening to the feathery brush of his fingers against the paper, the whisper of a turned page. Soothed by the noise, she tried to drift into sleep, but found it escaping her each time she almost fell off.
"Am I disturbing you?"
Her eyes flew open. "No."
"You seem restless. Your breathing slows like you will sleep, and then you reawaken. Is something troubling you?"
Great. Lynx-O was really the last person she wanted to discuss this with, as she feared she might upset him, or worse, cause offense.
"I'm all right. Just having a little trouble nodding off is all."
"I believe Snarf packed some powdered milk. Perhaps if you warm some of that, it would help."
"I'll try it, thanks." She slipped off the narrow cot and opened the food sack. As she prepared the less-than-yummy sedative, she watched her friend as he returned to his reading.
"That must be some book."
"I enjoy it. I must say, I read this one when I was young, in Thunderian rather than Standard Speech. The translation is surprising in some places."
"Yes. For example, this passage:
"No one can see death,
no one can see the face of death,
no one can hear the voice of death
yet there is savage death that snaps off mankind.
For how long do we build a household?
For how long do we seal a document?
For how long do brothers share an inheritance?
For how long is there to be jealousy in the land?
For how long has the river risen and brought the overflowing waters
so that dragonflies drift down the river?
The face that could gaze upon the face of the Sun
has never existed ever.
How alike are the sleeping and the dead."
Cheetara shuddered, but did not speak.
"It is different in Thunderian, as I recall:
" ... so that dragonflies drift down the river
their faces staring into the face of the Sun god?
Suddenly, there is nothing.
The prisoner and the dead are alike ... "
He stopped. "What's wrong?"
She didn't want to tell him how closely the passage matched her own mood, so instead she countered with a question. "How can you remember a difference like those few lines?"
He smiled gently. "It was important to me. A good friend introduced me to the story while we were serving in the military together. He used it to remind himself and the rest of us that we were not playing at soldiers, that we could die."
"Perhaps it was a touch morbid. We were hardly more than boys then. Now the warning is also a comfort. I can read the words, and think of my friends, and know that I will rejoin them someday soon."
"Not that soon," she said quickly.
"Oh, I'm not planning on it, have no fear. I have too much to do yet. Why, just when I thought my days of raising children were past, I meet two young cubs who could do with some advice now and then."
"'Clean your room' would be a good start."
He laughed. "Now that is a magic I could never make work on either Bengali or Pumyra. I still fear going into either one's room to this day."
"Pity. They really are like your children, aren't they?"
"Very much so," he said, warmth flooding the words. "I doubt I could be more fond of them if they had been my own."
"I understand, I think."
"I think perhaps you do."
She sipped at her milk, lost in thought for a while. "Do you ... Do you ever regret not having children of your own?"
After a long pause, he said, "My wife was heavy with our first cub when she died. There are times I wonder how different my life would have been with them, if we would have had other children, what they would have been like." A thickness filled his voice as he spoke.
"I didn't mean to bring up bad memories."
"Bad? No. Bittersweet is the better word." He coughed, clearing his throat. "So, why this interest in an old man's life?"
"I've just been thinking. About a lot of things. Children." She was suddenly grateful he would not see her blush.
"Ah," he said, delicately.
"I feel ... I think I should want to have a cub. I feel almost ... obligated."
"But it is not what you want."
"I don't know. I really don't. Have you ever heard Pumyra go on about babies?"
He chuckled and nodded. "We've had more than one dinner dominated by talk of some new infant among the Balkans or the Wollos."
"I listen to her, and I think, I should be that excited. But I'm not. When Lion-O and the twins were little, they were cute, and I did care for them very much. I still do. But all three drove us up the walls. A lot. Lion-O is better now, but the other two ... " She shook her head. "There are times I'm sure Panthro will throttle them both. There are times *I'd* like to throttle them both."
"That impulse does eventually fade."
That impulse was foremost in the mind of one Snarf, known as Osbert to his peers. Years of specialized training, especially in early childhood physiology and psychology, had prepared Snarf for a quiet life of tending to Thunderian young. When he HE! had been chosen for the duty of caring for Lord Clawdus' son and heir, his bosom had swelled with pride and self-importance. He'd prostrated himself before the Lord and Lady, taking on his sacred duty with oaths of loyalty unto his own death.
Lady Clawdia had presented her son to him. He could still recall the burbling laugh Lion-O had made, the first time their eyes had met, and Snarf had known he would love this boy like his own.
The ceremony had finished, and Lord Clawdus had taken him aside, still holding the infant Lord-to-be. "Snarf Osbert ... "
"Just 'Snarf,' your Lordship, if you please." He had tickled Lion-O under his chin. The baby had squealed.
"Snarf, there is one other matter I neglected to mention. Actually, to be precise, there are two."
"Snarf, snarf," said the old snarf, stamping his way down the halls, on a beeline for the Thunderkittens' room. "He could have told me first. He could have told me, and I could have gone back to the Valley of the Snarfs, and ... and ... " And there was really nothing else. He wouldn't have gone back. Pride and duty bound him to the child he'd been chosen to keep, and soon, deep affection. He had already followed Lion-O to another world, would follow the boy to a thousand others if necessary.
He reached the door, considered knocking, then barged in instead.
"All right, how many of my spices have you two replaced with pellet powders?"
Two sets of identically wide and innocent eyes peeped over two sets of blankets, followed by two mouths trying desperately not to grin.
"Don't know what you mean, Snarf," said she.
"We've been in here all day," said he.
"Just like you told us to."
"We've been asleep." He sneezed.
"Asleep, my foot. You've been sneaking into my kitchen. How are you ever going to get better if you keep getting up and wandering around?"
"We're fine!" insisted Kit, who threw her covers off, and got to her feet. She managed three steps, but the fourth was too much and she crumpled onto her brother's bed. Kat frowned and stroked her hair as she moved into a sitting position, holding her head.
"Snarf, snarf, will you listen now?" He grumbled about disobedient kittens as he helped her back into her own bed, then checked her forehead. She was warm, but not burning. A quick check of the boy's temperature yielded the same low fever. "Snarf, snarf," he muttered again.
There was a knock on the door, and then Lion-O came into the room. "How's everyone?"
"These two would be better if they'd stay in bed," said Snarf.
"We have been in bed all day. Honest!" said Wily Kat. Kit nodded.
"Oh really? Then who switched all the spices?"
Snarf had been a good nurse. He'd raised his charges to be polite (mostly), courteous (within reason), and honest (for certain thoughtful definitions of the word). Thus, he knew what to read on their faces when they were trying not to lie, and trying even harder not to get caught. One furtive glance was enough.
The kittens broke into laughter, punctuated by dry coughs. Lion-O grinned.
"It was getting too quiet around here with everyone else gone."
The three of them had probably concocted the plan together; Snarf had wondered what Lion-O had been doing in their room so long earlier in the day. He harrumphed. "Sure, make more work for old Snarf, trying to put everything right again, then laugh at him." He started grooming his tail.
"We're sorry, Snarf," said Kat. Definitely a conspiracy.
"Where did you put the real spices, Lion-O?" asked Kit.
"Somewhere safe. Come on, Snarf. I'll show you." Snarf, appeased, tucked the covers in around the children, then made for the door. "Oh, I almost forgot. Pumyra called to say she'll be by later this evening. She's got a new elixir she wants you to try."
The twins groaned in unison, and Snarf smiled, feeling much better. Pumyra was a good Healer and a decent cook, but her various potions and powders had yet to combine medicinal qualities with flavorful ones.
"Rest," he admonished them, and closed the door behind him.
He followed Lion-O down the hallway towards the kitchen, remembering a time when the man in front of him had been tiny. Man? Ha! To Snarf, he would forever be a little boy, wide-eyed and curious, needing attention and guidance. Reality had more than once tried to disrupt his illusions, but in restful times such as now, especially when Lion-O's prankish side showed its face, Snarf could allow himself the luxury of pretending the lion was still a cub, and all was well.
Three cubs had been a handful. More times than he could easily recall, he had run to the playroom at the sound of something falling or breaking, or someone crying, fearful that his favorite had been injured while roughhousing with his just-older companions. The twins had started their Thundercat training at their young age partly at Snarf's insistence. He'd hoped that they would be kept busy, getting out all their dangerous pent-up energy in practice and lessons, and leaving little Lion-O in his own safe presence.
It had worked, too.
However, Snarf Osbert had taken on the role as nanny because he did, to his core, love little children, and although he fussed at them, he cared a great deal about Kit and Kat. While he had sworn his oaths to Lion-O, and would always hold him first, he'd done his share of tear-drying and scraped-knee-kissing and scaring-away-of-bogeymen for the other two. Having them bedridden was a blessing in that life at the Lair had less of the distinctive "spaceboarding along the chaos event horizon" atmosphere which followed the twins, but after two days, Snarf found to his secret dismay that the silences frightened him. They whispered of children all grown up and no longer needing a nanny, and bedrooms tidy enough to break his heart.
So he worried, and he fixed soup, and he chastised the kittens for going out in the rain, and in a quiet part of his heart he prayed they would stay young for a good, long time.
"Here you go, Snarf," said Lion-O, reaching into the highest cabinets. He pulled down several of their small storage containers. Snarf pulled the first open, and a breathed a whiff of rosemary. "I'll even help you put them right."
"All right, then," said Snarf, unable to stay angry at the boy. "Let's put these back where they belong."
As they set to the task, Snarf stole glances at Lion-O. He'd been very thorough with his trick, substituting every spice with a corresponding powder. Sneezing powder had replaced pepper. Something that shimmered as he poured it replaced his tarragon. Flutterby-wisps appeared from nowhere as he opened another bottle that had contained something tasty that the locals called oregano. Lion-O started to giggle, covered it with his hand; laughing powder, no doubt.
Snarf sighed. Kids. Momentarily, he saw three squirmy little bodies, covered in mud and grins, and he sighed again, his mind on happier times.
A buzzer went off. Snarf's head shot towards the stove, but he hadn't been cooking anything. The noise came from a speaker above the door.
"That's the Feliner," said Lion-O, dashing away from the table and towards the Control Room, knocking over a bottle in his haste. A dustcloud surrounded Snarf.
The itching started behind his ears, and trickled down his spine to the tips of his toes and tail.
As he fell to the floor, scratching and biting at every inch of his fur, he thought maybe it would be a good time to find constructive hobbies for the twins that didn't involve chemistry in any form.
And then, he scrambled for the shower.
"Will you hurry up in there?" As fingernails to a blackboard, so was Luna's voice outside the locked door. Chilla turned the water up higher, but even that could not block out the repeated knocking or the shouts from the other side. "If you're not out of there in one minute, I'll have Amok break down the door!"
"All right!" she said, and turned off the shower. She grabbed a towel, cursing under her breath. At one point, it had seemed only logical that the two females in SkyTomb should share a bathroom. They both viewed the habits of their male companions with barely-concealed horror, and there would be no arguments about positioning The Seat.
"I'll be right out!" She dried herself off quickly, as the pounding on the door changing from the tap of a small fist to the teeth-rattling thump of Amok's shoulder. She had just enough time to throw on a robe before the locking mechanism gave up the struggle. The door groaned open.
"It's about time," snarled Luna, brushing past her. The top of her head was in perfect swatting range, but Amok stood in the doorway, and Chilla wasn't stupid.
"I said, I'd be right out."
"You always take too long," said Luna. Chilla snorted, checked her appearance quickly in the mirror (one nice thing about taking icy showers was the lack of steam), and fled the room before Luna started to use the facilities. She glanced back once, just to check the condition of the door, and cursed again. Red Eye would have to fix it later, and she'd just bet that he'd take his sweet time doing it.
At least there was no one in the hall between the bathroom and her quarters ...
TugMug came around the corner, stopped dead, then whistled. Alluro stood with him, his eyes moving up and down her form appreciatively. The robe really didn't cover much.
"Not one word," she hissed at him. "Not one single word."
Alluro looked at TugMug. TugMug looked back. Then they both applauded.
She let out a growl, and Alluro had the presence of mind to duck. Tug Mug, never quick on the uptake, caught the icy blast on his throat, and scrabbled at it, gasping for breath.
"Beetch!" he managed to spit at her.
"Blame the troll," she retorted.
"I heard that!" came a screech from down the hall.
"Come on, TugMug," said Alluro, uncharacteristically kind. "We'll go back to the kitchen and get some coffee into you. That'll warm you up."
TugMug scowled but allowed himself to be pulled away towards the temptation of warmth. As they reached the end of the hallway, Alluro shouted, "It's a good look for you, Chilla!"
She sent a blast towards him, but he dodged it, and was gone. She made a mental note to kill him later, then ducked into the safety of her room.
As she dressed, she muttered under her breath: "Why do I have to share a bathroom with that gods-damned kalika?" She fastened her cape, amusing herself with thoughts of sending the little crone into permafrost.
The intruder alert sounded through SkyTomb.
"Damn damn damn!" She tugged on her boots, and ran down the corridor towards Ops. Luna, again astride Amok, passed her on the way. Their enmity temporarily on hold, Chilla asked, "Do you know what it is?"
"No idea," said Luna, wringing warm water from her hair as they went.
Red Eye was already in Ops when they arrived. He wasn't alone. Mumm-Ra, in his Ever-Living Badass form, floated a few feet above the floor.
"What in blazes is this?" shrieked Luna. Seconds later, Alluro and TugMug arrived on the other side of the room, some frost still clinging to TugMug's throat. Chilla shot a quick heat ray in his direction to shake the last of it free; they needed everyone up to strength now.
"I have a job for you," said Mumm-Ra. Red Eye's head swivelled over a touch. Chilla saw Mumm-Ra's damned dog sniffing at the corner. When this was over, someone who was absolutely not her would have a mess to clean up.
"Well isn't that nice?" snapped Luna. "And here, we were just sitting around asking each other, 'I wonder if Mumm-Ra will find something for us to do?'"
"Silence, witch!" He flicked his finger, and Luna crumpled. Only her strong grasp to her mount kept her from falling. TugMug snickered, and Chilla couldn't prevent a smile. Despite his pushy manner, Mumm-Ra could sometimes be handy.
"Do you recognize this?"
He waved his hand, and an image formed above it: a disk, perhaps a third of a meter in diameter, with a Thundercat symbol in the center, and a pattern of moons around the edge. Ma-Mutt began to wag his stump of a tail.
"So," said Alluro. "The Thundercats have registered a china pattern. How nice."
"This is no ordinary disk," warned Mumm-Ra. "It has great power. You must take it from the Thundercats before they learn how to wield it against us."
"It almost looks like an artifact from the Moons," mused Red Eye, peering at the image.
Luna snorted. "Nonsense. What would the Thundercats be doing with something from our people?"
"Maybe it was originally from the Moons, and stolen in the distant past."
"Bah!" said Mumm-Ra, and cast away the image. "It matters not where it came from. The Thundercats have it, and you must retrieve it from them."
"And why should we help you get this disk?" asked Luna. "If you're so concerned, get it yourself."
Chilla nodded in agreement. Mumm-Ra opened his mouth, then stared at the two of them. "Perhaps you are correct, Luna," he said. "I should not trust such an important mission to you and your lackeys."
"Lackeys?" came four annoyed voices, almost in unison.
"Don't think you can trick us into doing your dirty work for you by insulting us," snarled Luna.
Ma-Mutt growled. Mumm-Ra said, "Very well then. I shall remember this when I have the disk, and all its secrets are mine!" With a puff of smoke, he and his undead pooch were gone.
"Good riddance!" said Luna. "Now," she said, more thoughtfully, tapping her riding crop against her leg. "We must think about acquiring this disk."
"I thought we weren't ..." started Alluro.
"Oh, we're not getting it for Mumm-Ra. We'll grab it for ourselves, and finally take over this backwater planet."
Chilla knew better than to argue with Luna when she was in a mood, so instead, she caught Alluro's eye. He nodded, slightly. This was another bad idea, doomed to a horrible failure, and he knew it too.
Ah well. At least now she knew what she was doing with her day.
From the safety of his black pyramid, Mumm-Ra chuckled a low, throaty laugh. "You see, my pet, how easily they are manipulated? They will steal the disk, and then you will take it from them for me." A shrivel of a hand patted Ma-Mutt on the head. He leaned into the tender touch.
"Go, boy." Tingles filled his half-decayed body, the feel of magics within him, and Ma-Mutt knew he could fly. He scampered up into the air, and with a lick in his master's direction, headed off to follow the Lunatacs, tail still wagging like a metronome.
He was going to go play.
They'd taken the thing outside. The day was clear and bright, and the sun beat warmly upon Tygra's head in the clearing among the trees. He allowed himself a deep breath, tasted the end of summer on the air. Seasons were something Thundera had lacked, at least in the places most Thunderians had settled. On the newly-reformed world, the air was still, almost lifeless. On Third Earth, every mouthful of air and water teemed with life; he'd examined both in detail. There was vitality here. As excited as he was about talk of perhaps relocating to New Thundera, he was also certain that he would leave this green planet with reluctance.
Mostly green, he amended, as the breeze hushed through leaves already reddish from early frost. Winter, or Resting as the Tree People called it, was shambling their way, ready to bite fingers and sink painfully into bones. No wonder Cheetara was feeling old.
Lynx-O's voice cut through his reverie. "The indentations *could* be fingermarks. The shape is right, and if you feel, there's a place for the thumb underneath."
Tygra reached and felt for the spots, his hand resting uncomfortably in the faint grooves. "I think I feel it."
Lion-O appeared at the edge of the clearing, Cheetara beside him. "I've consulted with the Book of Omens."
"Well?" asked Panthro.
Their leader shrugged. "It wasn't very helpful. The Book said that it's called the McGuffin Disk, and that it is older than the first Thundera."
"That could describe many of the artifacts we've uncovered," said Tygra.
"I told you it wasn't a plate," Panthro said to Cheetara. She shrugged. "Did the Book say anything about how to make the Disk work?"
Lion-O nodded. "That was the unhelpful part. All it said was, 'Three.'"
"It didn't say."
"Perhaps three hands?" suggested Lynx-O.
"It's a good start," said Panthro. He looked over to Tygra, who shrugged as his reply. He had inspected the disk all last night, using every non-invasive instrument he had, and come up with nothing. "Lion-O, can we try it?"
"Yes. But point it away from the Lair?"
The other three chuckled, then arranged themselves uncomfortably, aiming the center at a tree across the clearing.
Lynx-O counted, "1 .. 2 .. 3!" They placed the fingers and thumbs of their right hands into the grooves.
Tygra shielded his eyes.
"Ummmm," said Lion-O, after several seconds. "Should something be happening?"
"Dammit!" said Panthro, and broke the link. He pulled the disk close to his face. "I thought we had it there."
"Don't give up," said Lion-O. "Try your other hands."
The three around the plate shifted position, and tried again. Nothing.
"Maybe it's broken," suggested Cheetara.
"Perhaps," mused Lynx-O, "we are thinking in the wrong direction."
"What do you mean?" asked Tygra.
An explosion killed the conversation, and sent a large chunk of the ground into the air.. Tygra craned his neck to find the source, only to see the Ice Runner and the Lunattacker bearing down on him like angry wargods. He jumped out of the way of a second volley, then dove for cover.
He looked around quickly to locate the others and assess the damage. Lion-O and Cheetara had taken cover back the way they'd come, while Panthro and Lynx-O were still running for it. Panthro had the disk clutched to his chest. As Tygra watched, the two attack craft circled around and started chasing the panther and the lynx.
"They're after the disk!" he shouted, but his words were drowned in the rumble of weaponry.
As Chilla brought the Ice Runner low for another strafing run, Lion-O ran underneath her, holding up the Sword of Omens, neatly slicing the belly of the flying machine. Sparks flew, and Chilla crashed in an undignified heap. She leapt from her vehicle, snarling and spitting ice. Lion-O blocked most of the blasts, but one struck his sword-arm, and he fell clutching it before Tygra and Cheetara could plow into Chilla and knock her down.
Not that this was necessarily a good idea, either. Instead of being distant, moving targets, suddenly they were up close and personal with someone who could freeze them both to death with little effort.
Another blast went off beside the three struggling figures, the shock sending them tumbling. The Lunattacker kept its bead on Panthro, and the next shot found its mark. Tygra didn't see what happened, only saw Panthro on the ground moments later, Lynx-O trying desperately to shield him from the onslaught.
Chilla took advantage of his distraction and he felt rather than saw the ice take over his chest.
Cold, deeper than space, filled his thoughts, his bones, and he fell to his knees, unable to cry out. Cheetara pulled away from Chilla to attend to him, and he couldn't even tell her to stop, to watch herself. Chilla sent a quick breath in her direction, missed, and ran off towards Panthro and Lynx-O.
"Help them," he said, or tried. His words hit his own ears like sandpaper. The bright day was growing dark quickly, and all he wanted, more than anything, was to sleep, here in the cold.
"Tygra!" he heard, from a great distance, and then, nothing.
"Tygra!" Cheetara cried, shaking her friend as his eyes drifted closed. He was barely breathing. If she didn't get him help, and immediately, he would die.
But Panthro was already down, and Lynx-O might be able to hold off against Chilla, but TugMug had jumped from the Lunattacker, gravity carbine in hand, and there was just no way he could face them both.
"Thrice damned dinner plate," she grumbled, and she ran to Lion-O's side. The Lunatacs were ignoring him as he struggled to free his arm. She pulled out her staff, slammed it into the ground to activate the energy pulse, and said, "Hold out your arm!"
Lion-O held his arm far from his chest, and she directed the power beam into it. There wouldn't be enough energy to save Tygra, but there might be just enough to get the Sword free.
"Got it!" shouted TugMug, and he pulled the McGuffin Disk from Panthro's still form. Chilla had bound Lynx-O with ice-cuffs. He struggled against them, but could not move.
"Good!" shouted Luna, from the Lunattacker. "Bring it up here!"
"Now how does thees thing work?" TugMug wondered aloud, ignoring his boss.
There was a snapping noise, and the ice around Lion-O's arm fell loose.
"Thanks!" he said, and swung the Sword into position.
"Thunder ... "
"Oh no you don't," said Luna, from high above him, and the Lunattacker swooped around for another volley.
Lion-O leapt and ducked, then hurried through the chant: "Thunder ... Thunder ... Thunder ... Thundercats! Ho!"
The surge of adrenaline hit Cheetara like a lightning strike. She felt her eyes glow, her body saturated with power. The symbol flashed into the sky, and she wanted to howl with joy. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tygra's body convulse, breaking the ice around him. He leapt straight up, and immediately went towards Panthro, who was sitting up, groggy but better. Her heart warmed to see her friends safe.
There was a growl. From the bushes, Ma-Mutt flew in a determined line towards them.
"Panthro! Look out!"
The dog paid no heed to the Thundercats, but bore down on TugMug, biting the disk neatly out of his hands.
"Give that back!" he shouted, tugging on it. Ma-Mutt dug his paws in, shaking his head back and forth. The disk flew free from both of them, and flew spinning. Ma-Mutt's tail wagged as he jumped up and caught it in midair.
Another roar of engines came over the trees, matched by two high-pitched whines from the other direction. The Thunderstrike flew into view, targeting and firing on the Lunattacker. Smoke poured from the Lunatac vehicle, and forced it into a hard landing. Moments later, the kittens shot out of the trees on their spaceboards, lariats in hand. Cheetara took a moment to curse. She didn't fully understand the surge of power they all felt when the Sword called to them, but she knew it did have a price, after. The kids would feel great while the energy pulsated through them, but they'd be flat on their backs later.
The Thunderstrike landed, and Bengali and Pumyra leapt out, ready for battle. All their forces were together, minus the snarfs. Most times, this would be enough to frighten their enemies into a retreat. This was not one of those times.
"Attack!" shouted Luna, as Amok pulled her from the wrecked vehicle. "And get the disk away from that miserable dog!"
Lynx-O was the nearest to Ma-Mutt, and made a quick grab for the slobber-covered disk, despite his restraints. Cheetara did not see if he got it, as Red Eye was suddenly bearing down on her, and only a quickly-timed jump saved her from a nasty shock.
Lion-O pointed the Sword towards TugMug, who was stalking Ma-Mutt. "Ho!" A blast of energy hit TugMug square on the behind. He squealed, then spun and blasted Lion-O with his carbine, sending the young lord spinning up into the sky.
Tygra's bolo flew out at the same time as Wily Kit's lariat, and they caught his arm and his leg, tethering him to the ground. Pumyra tossed a pellet towards TugMug, which exploded at his feet and sent him flying. Bengali caught his gun as it flew from his hands, and fiddled with the controls until he found the reverse, then brought Lion-O's personal gravity back to normal.
Bengali grinned, and fell to his knees as Amok struck him hard in the back. The Lunatac beast struck again, and Cheetara swore she heard something crack. She vaulted over to where Luna rode her steed, placed her staff beneath his feet, and ran as fast as she could around them, toppling both.
Something was at her own feet, and she fell. She stared up into Alluro's smiling face, psyche club raised. "Now, Cheetara, you really don't want to be fighting us, do you? You want to help me get this silly disk. It won't be a bother at all."
Of course. He was right. She needed to get the disk for them. It was only proper that Alluro have the disk. Didn't it have those moon symbols on it, after all?
There was a thud. She looked up again as Alluro slumped over, unconscious. Lynx-O lowered his arms, still bound by the ice-cuffs.
She thanked him, dazed.
Chilla was several paces away, going after Ma-Mutt, who danced on the air out of her reach. She sent breath after breath, just missing him. Red Eye crept up from the other side, and placed his hands on the dog's legs. A burst of electricity shot through them both, and the dog yelped, releasing the disk. Chilla snatched it, and ran.
Luna, no longer on her trusted mount, ran on stubby legs after her, shrieking, "Give it to me! GIVE IT TO ME!" She put on a surprising burst of speed, and her little hand grabbed part of the disk as Chilla ran.
Her ears rang, and Cheetara shook her head. Had she taken a blow that she didn't remember?
Chilla yanked the disk away from Luna, then held it above her head to keep the diminutive Lunatac away.
Wily Kat zoomed in with his spaceboard and yanked it from her grasp. "Thanks!" he shouted over his shoulder as he flew off.
"Give that back, Thunderbrat!" Chilla screeched.
"I don't think so," said Wily Kat, and then TugMug was right in front of him, arms extended to grab both boy and disk. Kat ducked, then pulled the disk against his body, and flung it away, spinning towards Cheetara.
She jumped up and caught it. The ringing was back in her ears as she landed, badly. She clutched her head. In a moment, Pumyra was at her side.
"Are you hurt?" She lay a careful hand on Cheetara's shoulder, another hand on the disk in case she needed to run with it.
The ringing changed pitch, and Pumyra gasped. Cheetara blinked. "You heard that?"
The other woman nodded.
"It takes three hands to operate," said Cheetara, mind already flying.
"Three hands, three faces, three ... " murmured Pumyra.
"KIT!" Cheetara shouted. Wily Kit was on the other side of the clearing, but her head spun around as her name was called.
Comprehension dawned on Luna's face. "Get the girl!" The other Lunatacs stopped the battles they fought, and concentrated their firepower on one small form zipping through them like a firefly.
Red Eye blasted the spaceboard, and Kit leaped from it, her eyes fever-bright as she dashed the last few yards. With one motion, Cheetara grabbed the girl, and Pumyra grabbed her hand, pressing it into place.
A blast of blue-white energy burst from the Thundercat symbol in the center of the disk like a fountain.
"Oh ... " said Cheetara. Pumyra's mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out.
"Cooooool, " said Wily Kit.
The power splashed back down into the disk, and washed over them.
and Cheetara was and was not, and she could remember events that had and had not been and things that could never be, and she was young and in love, and he was handsome as he pressed his lips to hers, and her mother was dead but the priest was only an old man in a mask, and Thundera gleamed as it burned, and they would not notice if she borrowed the weapons to practice, and the baby screamed as she was placed into her arms and she ached but she ached with love, and her father rocked her as she cried because she was scared, and the sun was warm on her shoulders as she stretched nude on the sand tasting the ocean salt, and she was safe when he held her and she would never be safe again because he was gone forever, and she felt pain as their bodies joined but it was also pleasure and she cried out for love of him
the power surged as the oceans
and She was there, the first She, Felinia the Mother of Cats, and Her hair was stormcloud grey with streaks of gold, and She was power, She was wisdom, She was hard-earned freedom, the Closer of the Year, and She stood above them
and then she was She, and beside her she felt not saw the others, the younger wore a face she knew once upon a time with mischief in her sparkling eyes, the elder she never knew and always knew, with hands firm but kind and arms to hold the infant world at suckle and they were three
and she had the power and the wisdom for that was who she was, her mind touched theirs and held, familiar with the power, guiding, slipping within, seeking the silver threads of their thoughts and beings, gathered them in her palm, and held out her hand, and the feeble things in the clearing fell to their knees before her save one who stood without cowering and shook a tiny fist and swore foully in defiance
and she was the Destroyer and knew she could eradicate all their enemies with a whistle, and she was the Lifebringer and knew that even such as they were sacred, and she was the Daughter who was neither yet but could be all and she looked upon the trembling beings and the one who stood alone and she laughed with a child's mirth
Back she told them And Do Not Come Here Again and she knew they would forget
and their enemies were gone from the clearing
and there was more, oh so much more, the smells of curdled milk and banked flame, the warmstickysweet of candyfruit plucked right from the tree, fresh-kneaded dough, and male musk, and dung, and sweat, and liquid silk skirts worn for the balls, and gritty powders beneath her fingertips as she mashed together something that would knit bones, and the ache of muscles deep inside for to expel new life from hers, and the heartbeat hum of the motor under her nearly bare feet as she flew above the treetops, and the fire-trail of kisses he placed along her neck, and the words oh protect us mother Felinia father Felis along the dark roads we must walk, and two four six eight how many kisses did it take, and promises whispered after fevered love in the dark
and she felt
and she knew
and Felinia who was and was not her leaned down and whispered My Child
and the power moved out of her, away from her, and she let it go knowing to keep it would kill her
and she woke.
She shuddered, stretching her eyes open. She lay on the grass, Tygra holding one arm, Panthro the other. Their eyes were large and worried.
"Are you all right?" Panthro demanded.
She nodded. "I think so." She didn't need to ask if it had worked. The disk lay away from them, centered among them, and the Lunatacs and Ma-Mutt were nowhere to be seen. She took a deep breath, remembering who she was, individual again, and knowing there were new memories of old events she would have to deal with that were not her own.
"Are they ... "
She heard a moan, and Pumyra woke, Bengali and Lynx-O beside her. She looked disoriented, then her eyes focused. Cheetara tried to touch her mind, and found the link was gone, and a strange sadness touched her heart.
She turned her head, and stopped cold. Kit lay still, her brother anxiously crouching beside her. Pumyra pulled herself up and went to the children. She placed a hand on Kit's forehead, then placed her hand against the small throat for a pulse.
"Why won't she wake up?" asked Wily Kat, terror on the edge of his voice. Lion-O touched, then held his shoulders.
"And she's been unconscious since. Her temperature is up, but only by half a centigrade." Terah blinked. "Just a little," she amended. "Her eyes respond to light. But she didn't respond at all when Tygra took a blood sample." She frowned; Wily Kat had gasped and winced in her stead, knowing as they all did how much his sister feared and despised needle pricks.
"Does she dream?"
"If she does, I can't tell. I just don't know what to do," said Pumyra. She leaned against the wall outside the kittens' room, rubbing her temples. At least there had been no other casualties; Bengali's ribs had only bruised, not broken as she'd first feared, and Panthro was completely healed from the stun blast he'd received.
"They may be nothing you can do. I have seen cases like this one before, although usually there was a strike to the head involved."
Pumyra shook her head. "Not unless she was hit during the battle, but none of us saw it. Tell me, did any of the others you knew wake up?"
She spread her hands. "Some. Often, the sharp-smelling leaves brought them 'round."
"I tried." Terah bowed her head. "We've locked the disk away. I'm not sure what we're going to do with it. We can't risk using it again. Panthro is beating himself up over finding the thing in the first place." She pulled her hands down from her head, began rubbing her upper arms.
"Tell me again, what was it like?"
"I don't know if I could tell you properly."
"You said you knew their memories."
"That must have been a strange experience, seeing life from two other sets of eyes."
"It seemed perfectly natural at the time. I mean, I knew absolutely everything about both of them, every memory." She smiled. "Which reminds me. When Kit gets better, she and Wily Kat are going to be in a lot of trouble. Now we know everything they thought they got away with." Her mind had grown crowded with thoughts and feelings unfamiliar to her, but she was sorting through them, allowing them to become less real, like stories from books.
"And the child knows everything you knew? That Cheetara knew?"
"I assume so."
"And may I hazard there are some memories you have that would be less than appropriate for a twelve-year-old girl to share?"
Her jaw snapped shut. There were quite a few, actually, and now that she had spent time linked to Cheetara's mind, she knew her colleague also had led a full and interesting life. She could face Cheetara's past, had context for images and sensations that would leave Wily Kit mystified. Her mind was still developing; what kind of damage could be done to it by dropping in two lifetimes of experiences?
Night passed, and morning followed.
"' ... dreamed of a great city, towers brushing against the red sky.'"
Although the door was open, Pumyra knocked twice on the doorframe. Wily Kat looked up from the book he read and nodded greeting.
"'"This is the place I must go," she said. "This is where he waits for me."'" He closed the book.
"I don't think I know that one."
He shrugged. "It's Kit's favorite book. I thought maybe she'd like to listen." His eyes were dark in their sockets.
"Have you had any sleep yet?" she asked, worried, taking his slim hand into her own without asking. The skin there was warm, and he shook. "You're not back up to speed yourself."
"I'm okay," he said, pulling his hand back. "I don't want to be away when she wakes up. She might get scared. You know?"
"I know." She sat down beside him on his own bed. In just the past twenty-four hours, he seemed to have shrunk, become even more of a child, the way Lion-O had. He needed rest and food, or he would collapse. "Snarf said you didn't want breakfast this morning."
"You need to eat. What do you think Kit's going to say when she wakes up and sees what a mess you are?" She smiled.
He didn't return the smile. His eyes flickered back to the other bed. Wily Kit lay in her own bed as still as when Panthro had carried her in and set her there. She barely breathed, and her eyes did not move beneath their lids. Pumyra and Tygra had decided that they would start feeding her intravenously at noon. She feared they might have to take the same action with Wily Kat.
"Do you think she's going to get better?" he asked, a hint of a quiver on his lower lip.
"I don't know," she said, taking his hand again. "But I swear to you, I will do everything in my power to help her." He took a ragged breath. "Now please, go eat something. Snarf's still in the kitchen. I think he's kept some eggs warm for you." Kat made a face. "At least try some juice."
"What if she wakes up while I'm gone?"
"I'll wait here with her. If she wakes up, I'll have you here in under a minute. I promise."
He looked at his sleeping twin. "All right. I'll be right back."
Pumyra resisted the impulse to pat him on the head as he got up and went quickly out the door towards the kitchen.
When his boots were out of earshot, she went back to the other bed. Kit's temperature had gone down in the wee hours, but had risen again at dawn, and there was no change. Feeling useless, Pumyra tugged the blanket a bit higher around her neck.
"Come home soon, okay?" she whispered.
She had also not slept since yesterday, had not allowed herself time to sit and wonder at what had happened to them in the clearing. She and Cheetara had barely spoken, had barely needed to speak. They could finish each other's sentences. The others were on tiptoes around them, but more so around Wily Kat. No one wanted to talk about what they had seen, there from the outside. A routine probe had indicated that the Lunatacs had been returned safely to SkyTomb, but nothing more had been said or done.
During what had passed for the debriefing Cheetara had said she'd seen and been Felinia. Pumyra had said nothing, only nodding now and then, more concerned with her patient than anything else. But she was here now, alone with someone whose thoughts she currently knew as well as her own, and there was no need to talk.
Who are you? she wondered. Did you build the device? Did you just use it as we did? How did you draw us together? And how did you pull my mother's face from my mind, when I can barely remember her sometimes?
The apparition, whom one part of her soul insisted on calling Felinia, had worn her mother's tired and loved features, and she wasn't sure she could face that. What she was even less certain she could face were the *other* memories. She had felt the contractions ripple through her, seen through other eyes the birth of a child, a tuft of soft brown and white hair on her head. She had looked up and seen her father's face, smiling through misty eyes, and in the same instant, she had felt the Other, birthing the first of their people, her brother-lover watching on in happiness.
She bit her lip.
Who are you, and who am I?
"Mother," she whispered in the quiet room. "Are you still here?"
There was no sound, but for the softest hush from Kit as she slept.
"I think you are. I think you can hear me. And I want you to know, I miss you." She felt a brush against her shoulders like a gossamer cloak, thought it might only be her imagination. "I don't know how this works. Kind of rusty, you know. But if you have any kind of say, maybe you could talk to someone. Or something. No," she said, thinking of the kind and terrible Being, "Someone. Tell Her, and Him, that Kit's just a baby. Really. And there are so few of us left. Ask them if they could please make an exception. Ask them to send her home. Okay, Mom? Please?"
There was no reply.
Warm. Happy. Floaty.
Warm happy floaty.
Floaty happy warm.
She giggled, and the sound was muffled. Her ears knew giggles shouldn't sound like that.
Hey! She had ears!
She spent a long time playing with her ears. It took ages to notice that she had fingers, too, and an age was spent exploring them, running one hand up and down the other. And then there were toes.
After fingers, toes were the best things yet.
Floaty happy warm fingers toes.
She giggled again.
Something was missing.
She frowned, exercising brand new muscles in her face. Her fingers moved over them, spent a while playing with a newly-discovered nose.
But the something still wasn't there.
More giggles. There should be more giggles.
She tried making more giggles, but there were not enough inside her.
She started to cry.
Warm floaty unhappy no giggles.
Her head swam up. She knew words, knew what they meant. Words meant people.
The other giggler.
Her mouth moved to form two words that meant a person.
You'll see him soon enough.
No. There's much to do yet.
She knew that the sound was tenderness.
You have always been such a handful. You tried to ride the dragon.
Dragon? She became fascinated with her elbows. Try as she might, they wouldn't come to her mouth.
You tried to take in all the power. It wasn't yours.
A thumb found its way into her mouth and stayed there. Rhythmic sound reached her, sound always there and so unnoticed until now. A thousand years passed as she listened, sucking.
You could have died. You still might. Your brain isn't strong enough to handle twenty thousand years of experiences. It tried to shut down. That's why you're here.
Happy floaty warm.
Yes. Here you have no memories at all. To survive outside of here, you will need your own memories back, and no one else's.
Outside? Unhappy cold?
She frowned again.
You don't have to go. You can stay here, and be safe. You will always be safe here with me.
Floaty happy warm!
She giggled. Again there was the absence of a second sound.
He can't be here with you.
You'll have to go outside, out to the unhappy cold.
Want! Wy Kat!
And there was another her, older, rich red hair with a stripe sweeping to either side, and a sparkle in her eyes. The other her leaned over, pressed lips against her forehead.
Then wake up, little girl, and remember only who you are.
She opened her eyes.
Pumyra sat on her bed over her, head bowed, a single track of tears running along her nose. She tried to lift her arm, found that it hurt to try.
There was a face, from her dreams, but the dream slipped away from her even as she tried to remember ... Safe. She'd been safe, and there had been someone with mischievous eyes ... and the dream was gone.
"Hi," she croaked.
"Kit?" Pumyra's hand hit her mouth. Then she shouted, "She's awake!" She placed a hand on her forehead. "How do you feel?"
"With my fingers," she said. Feet pounded the corridor outside her room, and then they were there with her. Wily Kat threw himself onto her bed and wrapped his arms around her neck, almost choking her.
She read cold relief on his face, on all their faces. The adults told her variously that they were glad she was okay, that she'd worried them. Panthro stood back from the rest, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. She smiled at him, and he nodded back to her, but didn't speak.
"Don't ever do that again!" said her brother, finally loosening his hold.
"You should talk. You look awful."
"What do you remember?" asked Cheetara.
"About the clearing." The room fell silent.
"Do you remember the disk?" asked Lion-O.
"The dinner plate thing that Panthro found?" He nodded. "Sure. You guys took it outside to try and make it work. Did it?"
A look passed among the others. "I'll fill you in," said Kat.
"You better," she said. She spotted Snarf at the foot of her bed. "Snarf, could I please have some water?"
Snarf's face split into a grin. "Of course! And I'll fix just a little soup while I get that. Mrrrrmmm. You need to eat something." He pointed at Kat. "That goes for you, too. You're not healthy yet, either."
"Yes, Snarf," said Wily Kat, meekly.
And that was that.
There were lanterns strung from every tree in the Kingdom, or at least it looked that way to Pumyra. Children of various ages and species scampered at her feet, sweets held on sticks in little hands, shouting and shrieking in their games. All the peoples of the forest and the surrounding area had been invited, and theirs was not the first party to arrive. Warm smells of roasting meats teased her nostrils, while her ears were tickled by the warming musicians. The drummers and pipers had found a nice spot in which to set up; spritely melodies drifted through the party, underscored by rich and complex beats.
Lion-O sighted Willa in her ceremonial garb, and he and Panthro wandered in that direction to pay their respects and thank her for the invitation to the Reaping Festival. Lynx-O made his way closer to the musicians where he would happily spend most of the evening, joining in on the small hide drum he had brought.
A loose band of older Wollo children sauntered by after the first group. Two sets of hungry eyes watched in longing, but stayed put as per orders.
"You know," said Cheetara above their heads, "they don't spend nearly enough time around people their own age."
"Lion-O is their age," pointed out Tygra.
"That's not the same thing."
Pumyra took a deep breath, then turned to the twins. "All right. No running. Keep your cloaks on at all times. If I hear so much as a cough out of either of you, you're back in bed for a week, no arguments."
"Snarf snarf, and no candyfruit. Save your appetites for real food."
She saw a protest begin and die without ever being verbalized. They were getting a good deal, and they knew it.
"Thanks!" they said in unison, and were gone.
She watched after them. In reality, they would probably be fine. Wily Kat had recovered completely from his cold. Kit had spent the last few days in bed bored out of her mind, begging to be allowed to do anything, even her chores. She apparently did not remember a thing about their experience with the Disk, although she had started asking shy questions among the other Thundercats about her parents.
The drumming altered tempo, became fast like a runner's heartbeat, and Pumyra's feet started tapping on their own. The pipes sent a signal which bypassed her higher functions and set her spine to swaying. Not far away, she saw Terah sharing a nimble dance with her wife, and she noted that while three was a good number for many things, two also had its benefits. The autumn night was full of light and scent and noise, her friends were all together and safe, the world had yielded up her fruits for the year, the music was intoxicating, and really, what else was there but to dance? And who better to dance with than her best friend in all the worlds?
She grabbed Bengali's hand. "Come on."
He turned to her, surprised, but like the twins, he was bright enough not to say a damned thing. Oblivious to the amused looks from the others, he allowed her to lead him to a space among the others already gathered.
And they danced, like siblings, and like lovers, and like friends. They danced, and they laughed, and they rested when his ribs hurt him, and they feasted among good companions, and they danced again until long after all the children had been tucked snugly into bed.
And it was good.