The Thundertank stopped in the middle of the road. "Panthro what's going on?" Lion-O hopped up, rushing to the vid screen.
The elder didn't turn, "Scanner's showing there's a transport hauler a couple miles ahead."
"Just one? Is it moving?" Lion-O continued to question as the kittens scrambled topside.
Tygra nodded from the front seat, answering, "It's been stationary since it first came up."
"What do you want to do about it Lion-O?" Cheetara asked as they stepped outside.
The young king nodded once, "We'll take to the trees, scout around and see what's out there." He turned back to the tank, "You go on ahead Panthro. It'd be embarrassing if the Thundertank couldn't handle one hauler full of lizards." Lion-O added with a smirk.
"Like that could ever happen," Panthro returned the sneer.
They chuckled and giggled, five jumping high; Cheetara and Tygra taking the right side as Lion-O followed the kittens into the left. He quickly fell behind, having to work around some of the larger light patches that Kit and Kat glided through. Just as the tree line came in sight, Lion-O jumped at the kittens yelling his name. Quickly tracking them, he landed in the tree at the same time as Kat. "Lion-O, we just found her like this. Some kind of animal got her," Kat started as they jumped down.
The young woman was lying face first, heading into the trees when whatever it was attacked. There was a bad bite mark on her right arm, four deep scratches across her back staining her green top with a bloody, orange puss. Kit was kneeling by her arm, holding both her hands to her chin. "She's still breathing but she won't wake up."
Lion-O stepped around Kit, kneeling at the girl's shoulder. Afraid to touch her injured arm, Lion-O swept tawny, black-streaked hair out of her face, only getting a soft flinch from her. "She's a Cat," he whispered in astonishment, drawing the kittens even closer. They jumped when she groaned, Lion-O turning to the Claw Shield in confusion before a gasp snapped him back. She was trying to get up with her bad arm. "Whoa, whoa." Lion-O barely caught her before she fell, "Its okay. We're not going to hurt you. We just want to help."
Brown eyes peeked open as she flinched, biting back a growl of pain. "O-" she inhaled sharply, "Okay."
Lion-O nodded, "Kat, help me get her on my back. Kit, pick up everything she dropped." She flinched, gasped and growled with every move they made, only holding onto Lion-O because of his shoulder guard. "Which way do we go?" he twisted toward her.
She laid her head across his left shoulder, squinting through the pain. "Back," she whispered against his neck, making him shiver slightly.
"Towards the hauler? Are you nuts?" Kat almost yelled, flailing his arms. Kit nodded, barely dodging in time.
She peeked over Lion-O's shoulder at them, "Issmine," she hissed through clenched teeth.
Two steps away and Lion-O would have been glad she'd passed out if it weren't for the heavy breathing across the back of his neck as they crossed the meadow. His blush increased tenfold at the thought of his brother when the kittens ran around the tank to tell the others. Cheetara was at his side in an instant, trying to examine the wounds without moving her. One look at his brother made him growl, "She's been poisoned Tygra." The bastard grin slide right off Tygra's face, his whole body hardened as Lion-O walked by, giving him a good look.
Lion-O stopped as the sound of charging weapons filled the air. Panthro turned from them to the hauler, "It's got a security system of some kind, kid. Step any closer and they fire." Six different guns were lined across the roof, two more down each side with two at the door and one above both of the makeshift windows.
The girl groaned as she came to again; jumping at the others then crying out at the pain. "It's okay, they're friends," Lion-O purred, before nodding at the hauler. "So how do we get in?"
She surprised everybody when she raised her injured arm toward her neck. Cheetara caught her hand, "You're only making it worse. Tell me what to do."
"The collar," she hissed as Cheetara put her hand back on Lion-O's shoulder. The cleric nodded, moving the billow of hair to reveal a studded red-gold band hovering two inches off her neck. "three smallest…"
"Clever. No one would think the remote would be there," Panthro smiled as he pushed them down at the same time. He kept his eyes locked on hers, catching the smile that barely reached her eyes when nothing moved or powered down, he chuckled. "Its okay guys go ahead."
Tygra hummed as he looked at the array still pointed at them. "Nothing obvious changes so no one knows it's deactivated."
Lion-O just walked right in, heading toward the back. Amazed, the other cats followed, surprised to find him helping her onto her stomach on the bed. Lion-O kneeling at the right side of the bed snapped Cheetara out of it, stepping to the left side. As she cut open the back of the girl's shirt, Snarf and the kittens jumped back at the sight and the smell. Orange puss was soaking into her fur, slowly covering her back as a rotten smell got stronger. "Some of these are pretty deep, and I don't recognize the poison," Cheetara said.
The girl tried to nod, hissing through her teeth, "Bas-basket," Kit jumped high, rushing to Lion-O's side. "The ye-," she gasped, flinching at Cheetara's touches, "yellow root. Mash… mash it."
Stepping up beside Cheetara Tygra took it from Kit, squishing one end between his fingers. "Just little…" she panted as Cheetara took a pinch, "sha-shallow spot." She nodded quickly, dabbing the end of one. The kittens let out the sigh everyone was holding as the girl relaxed a bit. Lion-O froze as she looked at him, a slight fear in her eyes. "What color is it?" she almost whispered.
Quickly tearing his gaze away he stuttered, "It-it's blue."
"Get it off!" The fear filled her eyes now as she tried to get up. "Get it off, get it off, get it off!"
They all jumped at that, Lion-O and Cheetara wiping it off. Hissing loudly as she arched away, she grabbed the pillow and one of Lion-O's hands as she turned back to him. Eyes and jaw held tightly shut, she squeezed his hand tight as Cheetara tried to clean her wounds again. "The grey, grey-" Kit cut off her growl as she held up a fist-size fruit. "Juice in the wa-" Tygra snatched it away, squashing it over the water pan. Everyone watched as the purple juice fell into the water, barely tinting it. Cheetara wet the cloth again, easily wiping the puss away now as the girl winced. She tried to slow her breathing down, raise her face from the pillow. "This helps, but it's been too," she flinched as she breathed too deep, "too long. I'll need a poultice."
"But some of these are too deep for one right now." Cheetara argued, laying some soaked cloths over two wounds almost bone deep.
Earth-brown eyes peeked open, looking straight into sky-blue ones. Barely a second passed before Lion-O turned away, drawing the sword. "How do I do it?"
Everyone pulled back in shock, "Lion-O, what do you think you're doing? The sword's not for healing, you know that!" Tygra stuttered out, reaching for his brother's hand.
Lion-O turned, shooting an angry glare as she let go of his hand. "Take the rags off," she tried to control her breathing, "Just hold it flat… 'til the glow stops." He nodded sharply, holding the sword in both hands over her back like he was offering it to Cheetara. Even Lion-O jumped as it glowed softly, her collar gleaming lilac in return. When the lights came together, she screamed violently, bowing away and clenching the pillows with both hands. Tygra, Cheetara and Panthro all jumped forward to grab at Lion-O's arms, "NO!" he snapped out as she screamed it before passing out.
"Look! Look, they're closing up!" Kit exclaimed as he hung off Panthro's arm, Kat tugging on Tygra and Cheetara's elbows. The nearly bone-deep scratches were slowly closing, the depth evening out along the curve of her back. Just when all four started to heal the glows faded out, a touch of anger flashed across Lion-O's face as he put the sword away.
She growled softly as she came to, taking his hand. "It's-It's enough." Lion-O forced a smile and a nod as he looked at her, watching her flinch and twitch as Cheetara kept cleaning her back.
"Give it up kid," Panthro stepped away from the bed, smiling down on her. "Questions can wait, get some rest."
Lion-O jumped, turning back to her just as her eyes slipped shut. "Wait," he almost cried out, "at least tell us your name."
"It's Da-" she whispered, her head sliding towards her shoulder, "Dalis."
Everyone just stared for a moment, more at their leader than their patient. Blinking once, the air of authority slid into place as Lion-O turned to the others. "Kit, Kat, show Tygra where you found her; those fruit must be growing around here. Cheetara, look around and see if you can find more in here. Panthro, see if there's more clean water in her tank."
"And what are you going to do, illustrious leader, sit there and hold her hand." Tygra shot back, miffed.
"In case you haven't noticed Tygra," Lion-O raised his hand, fingers straight as he swung it lightly, Dalis's arm swaying right along, "she's holding mine."
Cheetara turned from one brother to the other. "It's best if Lion-O stays with Dalis. She seems comfortable with him."
Panthro nodded, "You need an anchor, support with an injury like this. It's damn near impossible to stay that focused in that much pain."
"What!" Lion-O gasped, eyes wide as he turned back to her.
"She had to Lion-O," Cheetara started, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Being found by a group of strangers when she's injured this badly, Dalis had to stay aware to make sure she was treated properly. You already helped just by bringing her back so she knew she could trust you, and by extension us, to listen to her. That trust meant she could focus on her diagnosis, her injuries."
All he could do was nod as he held her hand in both of his, staring at them as the others slipped out.
Panthro and Cheetara came back in the room just as Lion-O was tucking her hair behind her ear. "Why do I feel like I already know her?" He almost whispered, not turning away, "like we've met before."
"Believe me little brother," Tygra started as he followed Kit and Kat in, "I would remember meeting someone this exotic."
"What breed (1) is she anyway? Jaguar? Leopard?" Kit asked as she and Kat went to each side as everyone looked at her. Dalis's fur was a soft sand color. The sides of her nose were black, leading in two lines up her forehead into the pair of streaks through her long dark tawny hair. A single black dot covered the outer corner of her eyes. Her shoulders were peppered with black spots that turned into rosettes across her back, tapering into a line of black spots running down her spine and under the sheet across her waist.
Reaching for the sheet, Tygra smirked. "Wond-" the words died in his throat as Lion-O instantly gripped his wrist, a deep, rumbling growl aimed at him.
Panthro grabbed Lion-O's shoulder, cutting into the older kids' fight as he answered the younger ones. "She's an Ocelot."
"But I thought they were wiped out," Cheetara jumped, turning back to the bed.
"I'm surprised you know Panther," Dalis grumbled as she slipped her head across the pillow. "My breed doesn't - didn't leave the jungle."
"You're a long way from home kid," Panthro kept talking as everyone got jumpy.
"That's a lon-" she gasped sharply, arching away from Cheetara's touch, "a long story sir."
His smile and nod were barely there. "We don't have time for this Panthro," Lion-O cut in, brushing Dalis's hair from her face again. "You're getting warmer Dalis, you need to take something for it," he told her.
She gasped as she tried to shake her head. "Can't… can't yet," she snapped her eyes shut, tears finally falling as she started breathing harder, "The poultice will…"
"We got more of the fruit, what else do we need," Cheetara stated as Tygra picked up the basket.
"Kitchen… green-green jar under," she forced her eyes open, turning to Kit, "under sink."
Both kittens darted out, coming back just as fast to stand by Lion-O. "Which one is it?" Kat asked as they held identical jars in their arms.
Dalis licked her lips before panting, "Smells… smells grass."
Holding tight with one arm they quickly snatched off the lids, sniffing. "It's this one," Kit shifted hers higher.
Kat nodded, "This smells like fruit."
"How much is in there?" Tygra questioned as the kittens hefted them again.
Kit and Lion-O looked; he held his fingers to the side about two inches up. "That's… enough," Dalis added as it was passed above her, "Probly four or five."
"We need another bowl," Cheetara said, looking around the room.
"It's o-" Dalis hissed, cringing as she gripped Lion-O's hand painfully, "No time. Just-" she pressed harder into the mattress.
"Cheetara!" Lion-O snapped; glad to see Tygra already squeezing the juice into the jar.
"Just put it right on-" Dalis clasped her eyes shut as they started, "needs to get… deep-" she cut off with a sharp inhale, "wrap it tight. Once shou-" another gasp and she passed out.
Cheetara kept applying the poultice, shooting a quick glance at Kit who nodded. "Okay all the boys get out," she started shoving her brother towards the door.
Panthro nodded, patting Lion-O's shoulder, "Come on. She'll probably be out for the rest of the day, a few minutes isn't gonna hurt." He nodded back, slipping his hand from hers.
Snarf made Lion-O smile slightly as he hopped onto the corner of the bed, nodding to the door with a "snaarrf," before curling up at Dalis's feet.
"Are you sure you don't need help Cheetara? Holding her up won't be easy," Tygra offered cockily even with Lion-O growling at him.
The cleric didn't even blink, "That's why Kit's staying to help."
Panthro smacked the tiger upside the head as Kit dragged Lion-O out of the room. "Are you trying to get him to kill you?"
Tygra rubbed the back of his head, "I'm trying to get some answers."
"You heard him; Lion-O doesn't know what going on either." Cheetara stated, starting on the last scratch, "He's the one experiencing it Tygra. He's even more confused than we are."
"You two, out!" Kit cut in, glaring at them and pointing out the doorway. Panthro just chuckled as he dragged Tygra out by his collar.
Once they got to the door Panthro tossed Tygra outside, standing in front of it. Lion-O leaned back against the hauler as Tygra stumbled a few steps, turning to Kat as he prowled toward the front. "What's wrong with you?" Tygra questioned.
Kat peeked around the corner, "Whatever attacked her could still be here."
All three men started watching the forest. "What kind of parent would leave a kid like her alone in the middle of nowhere?"
"She's not a kid Tygra," Lion-O glared at him.
"Come on, she can't be much older than them," he put out, waving towards Kat.
"Actually Dalis is probably his age." Panthro said, pointing at Lion-O. "Her breed doesn't grow big. They weren't known for their strength."
"Ocelots were masters at stealth," Cheetara added as Panthro let the girls outside. "Small and agile; their breed was able to get around and through things without raising any suspicions. They served as spies in the King's army."
Lion-O looked up, a touch of shock in his eyes. "But the breed died out after the Second Great War. How could Dalis be alive?" he turned to the general, "How did you know Panthro?"
"It's true; most of the Ocelots died in the war, in Thundera. Grune and I found them in a jungle far south of here. He dismissed them with one look," Panthro answered. "Grune didn't see them as a problem. Small cats living in trees couldn't have the Book."
Lion-O turned to Tygra who wouldn't look back.
"SSNNNAAAARRRRFFF!" the screech made everyone jump up from the campfire. Lion-O rushed to the door only to get tackled by the furball, knocking him back into the others. Instantly back on their feet, the Thundercats rushed inside, Lion-O blocking the doorway in shock. Weak chuckling made him jump, start towards the bed. Dalis was sitting on the left side trying to tie that strap of her blue camisole. Bandages peeked from the fluttery bottom, rose past the slight bodice and wrapped around her right shoulder down almost to her elbow. Tight green shorts just emphasized Dalis's petite body even more.
"Dalis what are you doing, you shouldn't be out of bed," Lion-O snapped out, instantly checking her for fever.
Finishing the knot, she took the strap out of her teeth. "I'll be alright. Since we had to go to extremes with the antidote most of the poison is neutralized and the scratches are closing up a bit faster than I thought they would." Dalis blushed as Lion-O tucked her hair behind her ear.
Cheetara stepped closer, "What do you mean, how could they be healing faster?"
Pushing off the bed, Dalis stood, turning to them. Even Lion-O gasped as they finally got to see the front of her collar. The red-gold band widened from an inch on her shoulders to three just below her collarbone. The studs disappeared under leaves that surrounded an askew bud-shaped setting. The two inch hole was empty, the same lilac glow from that morning filling it. "It's another part of that long story," Dalis answered; one wobbly step forward and Lion-O had his hands on her waist, making her blush again.
"Even so, you're still healing. You shouldn't be moving around so soon Dalis," Lion-O started, not realizing what he was doing until Kat and Kit's "Oooohhh!" made his blush rival hers as he stepped back.
Trying to hide it, Dalis flinched as she tried to straighten her shoulders, stand taller. Still she barely made it past Lion-O's chin. "I got dressed on my own, I'll be okay," she turned, started walking away. "I've had to do it before. My back's never been this bad though…"
"What!" Lion-O called out, rushing up behind Dalis as she walked by Tygra and Cheetara. Panthro just stepped out of the way. "Panthro what are you doing?" Lion-O asked, shocked.
The big cat stood by as Dalis walked out, the kittens trailing her. "The girl knows her limits, how much pain she can take." Turning to follow, Panthro smirked over his shoulder, "She's not some pampered palace kitten."
All three stood in shock, Cheetara and Tygra calling out "Hey!" before rushing after. Lion-O blinked, following at a sedate pace.
"Don't worry, I'm just unlocking the supplies so you can make-" Dalis stopped, looking out the doorway, "-supper. I'm in no condition to make it, but it's the least I can do for your help today." She stopped at a wall with one full-length door and four large cabinet doors.
Cheetara stood beside her, putting a hand on Dalis's uninjured shoulder. "You don't have to repay us; it's our duty to help."
Dalis just stepped to a small keypad, punching in a short code. "Don't worry; I get paid in almost everything. There's more than enough." She opened the largest door, cold air rolling out as seven different meats became visible through the puff of fog. Turning, Dalis opened one of the bottom ones, a drawer full of vegetables and breads. Gurgles and rumbles made her look up to two pink faces and the kittens already eating some bread. Dalis fought a chuckle as she went to the cabinet by the sink, punched another code in and waited as the door slid up into the ceiling. A glass bottle, a half-full skin and a brown jug sitting in the small space got a chuckle from two of the men and a tiny gasp from the third. "You're welcome to this too."
"You get paid pretty well around here," Tygra started as he stood in front of her.
"If you can call it that. As small as I am I can't handle much. The jug's too stong for me and I can only have a little from the skin." Dalis stated as she got some water, "I can't stand the smell of passionflower wine but it's supposed to help when you're in heat so I had to accept it."
"So the bottle's off limits," Panthro added, Dalis tried to nod as she took a drink. Lion-O blushed openly while Tygra laughed to hide his.
Lion-O sputtered, "Uhh, thanks but no thanks. We won't be having any tonight." The order lost all authority as he turned away to hide his blush. Dalis's soft giggle just made it worse.
"It's okay," he jumped as she took his hand, getting him to turn around. "I was just offering." Dalis smiled softly at him; Lion-O couldn't help smiling back. Both of his servants smiled at the sight.
Even Panthro couldn't help chuckling at the sight of Lion-O and the kittens doting on Dalis. After opening a few more cupboards in the kitchen, she let the three of them lead her outside. By the time Panthro got the fire going again they'd pulled a chair out of somewhere and both the bed pillows and sat Dalis up just to the left of the door. It was obvious that she was having trouble staying comfortable, shifting and flinching as Kit and Kat talked and joked. A sharp gasp instantly had Lion-O on his knees beside her, ready to take her back inside. Everyone laughed as Dalis shoved him back on his ass.
They were halfway through supper when Dalis spoke up. "I supposed I should tell you some of the long story." She set her plate on the ground as the others turned to her, "My breed- village's history starts with what I now know was the First Great War. It was a civil war, what started all this hatred between species. My ancestor, Nahuatl, volunteered to go with the Monkeys to stop the fighting."
"Why would he do that? How could one Cat change things?" Tygra asked.
Lion-O's gaze followed Dalis's hand as she touched her collar. "He had one of the stones."
Dalis nodded as the kittens gasped, everyone realizing what the necklace really is. "Our legend calls it the Life Stone, but we always referred to it as the Bud of Nahuatl. The elders said that the stones were separated after the crash in a gesture of good faith; the Cats wanted to show they wouldn't lord over the other species like Mumm-ra had. The other three stones were passed to whoever could use them."
"The Cats having two of the stones and the Book would have easily started the fighting." Cheetara added.
"The only reason the war started some time after the Crash was because the stone's healing magic was needed those first few years; for all the species even some of the Third Earthans(2). Once the cities were finished and everyone found a place to live and work, some wondered why it was hidden away and used only at the king's order. Unlike your stone it couldn't be used for fighting, but it could still hold power over others." Dalis smiled weakly as she touched the empty setting, "The other species saw it as the Cats showing their superiority; something that should have been given freely had to be asked for. When he realized that Nahuatl offered to go, my breed split apart to stop the fighting."
Looking up, Dalis wasn't surprised that no one was looking at her. Tygra and Panthro were looking at each other, a tiny bit of regret on their faces. The kittens were looking at Cheetara as she closed her eyes and turned away. Lion-O was staring into the fire. "So it really is true…" he mumbled to himself.
Dalis nodded. "It's hard to see problems through other people's eyes. My ancestor saw that the Cats guarding the Bud looked like they were lording it over the other species. At that time Nahuatl was the only one that could use its powers, the only times he got close to the Bud was when the king summoned him."
Tygra turned to her. "But healing magic's pretty common, why would it matter?"
She shot him a knowing smile as Lion-O glared at him. "True, but healing magic is only for injuries. In the hands of a high level healer, the Bud of Nahuatl can be used for much more. Its presence alone is how my village's lasted so long." Dalis sighed as her gaze fell to her lap, "The Bud was stolen eight generations ago, some said it was the Vultures others the Rabbits, but it took two more generations for my breed to start seeing the signs. There were less children being born each year, more illnesses were hitting them. Many were unable to have children."
Dalis looked up at the gasps, not surprised to find Kit holding onto Cheetara's arm, the woman holding Kat's shoulder. Panthro was giving her a knowing look as both princes stared in surprise. "Nahuatl's bloodline held strong even though the healing magic had been lost four generations ago."
"Had been? So you brought it back?" Lion-O asked, kneeling beside her.
Dalis nodded softly. "I was born when the moons embrace(3), a good blessing among my breed. So when my power appeared when I was seven the whole village thought I was favored by the goddesses, that Nahuatl had returned. When I turned twelve it was discovered I was fertile, I could have children."
A pair of whispered "no"s barely overcame the kittens confused "huh"s. "You don't mean they…" Tygra muttered out.
"No," Dalis replied, looking at Lion-O. "No, but everyone that was able started fighting over me. When my parents heard what the elders were considering they decided I had to leave the village." Her eyes fell away, she barely spoke above the fire's crackle, "I was to be shared."
"What?" Panthro almost roared.
"No…" Lion-O mumbled as he sank back on his heels.
"That's barbaric! How could they think to do that to a little girl?" Tygra growled as Cheetara clung to the kittens.
"What do you mean?" Kat asked, even though Kit's gaze begged Dalis not to say it.
"Every child I had would have had a different father." She answered, watching him fall on his butt in shock. A hand on her knee made her turn back to Lion-O, "Father snuck us out of the village that night. It took us five days non-stop to leave the jungle, another sixteen until we met Ursa, the Bear that owned this hauler. When Father found out she was a medic he told her our whole story. I fell asleep before he finished and woke up in the back while Ursa drove away. She took me on as her apprentice and Father went back knowing they'd likely kill him for it." Dalis put her hand over Lion-O's, "We traveled north for seven months and Ursa started this route."
"Where is Ursa?" Cheetara asked.
"Buried half way between Atria and Bluewall. Her age finally caught up with her," Dalis smiled softly as she looked up.
Lion-O caught her eyes, "You've been out here on your own?"
"Two years with Ursa and two without." Dalis smiled as they looked on in shock, "I've gotten to know a lot of the people around here, they're pretty protective of me. I know the terrain well, and I don't have a timetable so I'll stay in one of the cities until I know the roads are safe." She turned back to her hauler, "besides I've got plenty to protect myself with."
"Still you sho-" Lion-O stopped, everyone suddenly on guard as lights blinked in the distance.
Dalis chuckled as she stood, Lion-O snapping up beside her. "It's just the flickerflies." She giggled as she started into the tall grass. The kittens rushed to the edge of the clearing as Dalis took what appeared to be five steps to cross twenty-some feet. Coming back with more flashing lights coming closer to the clearing, Dalis smiled at the insect. Large palm-size wings slowly moving, the black underside opened to reveal patches in all four sections glowing bight blue. Everyone gaped, Kit and Kat laughing as it flew away, following it out to the others. Turning to the others Dalis smiled at the same awe on Lion-O's face. She grabbed his hand, laughing as she pulled him out to join the kittens.
Panthro and Cheetara smiled as they danced and played in the grasses. Tygra huffed. "Leave it to Lion-O to find his queen during a mission."
"I think it's sweet," Cheetara smiled as she turned to him.
Panthro hummed. "I for one am glad, he needs someone who knows hard work," he turned back to the fire. "It's not like we're going home to a hot meal and a warm bed. Rebuilding Thundera is not going to be easy. The queen will have to work as hard as the rest of us, she can't just sit around and look pretty."
They turned back at the yelp, finding Dalis half fallen into Lion-O's arms. They gasped and stared as the teens held each other.