Expansion and Conquest
"Queen Luna is insufferable," Chilla fumed entering the room she shared with her husband and young son. She found Ren in the kitchen scraping food out of a bowl while Nitro scowled from his bedroom door. Ren turned and faced her, listening but letting her vent. "I tried to warn her that the planet wasn't safe for someone of her rank but she won't listen to reason. Let the strong ones go down first, subjugate the planet, and then I will turn over that blasted belt she's looking for." Her fist lashed out and smacked the wall, startling Nitro. She didn't like scaring the boy, but he needed to be toughened up like a true Icewalker.
"It would serve her right if she got killed down there," Ren remarked, though it wasn't a result he particularly wanted. He, like Chilla, knew that Luna was the better ruler between herself and Piscaar.
"He's not eating?" Chilla asked, looking at the bowl and then over at the boy. He still stood in the doorway looking proud and defiant. He'd been that way recently and it was driving her insane.
"Nope. He'll figure it out sooner or later, for his sake." Ren placed the food in the small fridge they'd been provided with. Chilla nodded in agreement. From an early age Icewalker children were taught obedience, and that there were consequences for disobeying your superiors. In most cases, if a child refused to eat dinner they would be denied food again until breakfast. Most learned this lesson quickly. "He also resorted to name calling, which is why he's standing there."
"A pity. I'd hate to have to start over with a new child," Chilla said, with a bit of a sigh. She really did care for the boy, but only the strongest could survive. It was the way of things on the Ice Moon. It was the way she had been raised, and it was certainly the way she would raise her own children.
"I expect it's this trip. The sooner we're back home the better. When do you leave?" Ren asked, taking a hand in his own.
"Within the hour, she says. There are some strange storms that our pilot is looking at before we go."
"Well, you'd better hurry then. Don't want to keep her majesty waiting. Try to leave some people for me to kill, eh?" Ren wrapped an arm around her, unspoken concerns and fears travelling between them in that simple embrace, a reminder of their love and the desire to see each other again. It was unseemly for a warrior to express such doubts, but these two knew the other well enough to know otherwise.
"Maybe I'll save you one or two," Chilla replied with a smirk. She pulled him tightly to her for a kiss, nipping his lower lip with her sharp teeth. The taste of his blood still fresh on her tongue she bid him farewell.
Chilla awoke with a jerk, that terrible dream running through her head. She hadn't realized it then, how could she, but that would be the last time she would ever see Ren alive again. Their ship had crashed and he had presumed her dead. He'd been left to raise their son on his own, a son who had risen to great power on the back of her name, but who also shamed their name by consorting and mating outside his species. She shook her head. She didn't really dislike Nitro, though he was now physically older than she was. He had done well for himself; was respected and admired by the people of the Ice Moon, had defended the moon from invaders and seen his city through many hardships. She just couldn't wrap her head around the idea of mating with a Thunderian of all creatures.
Ever since she'd learned of his proclivities she had tried to imagine what it would be like sleeping with one of the Thundercats and hadn't gotten far at all. The prospect was too disgusting for it to even be an option. Even sleeping with another Lunatak was a difficult concept. She had invited Alluro to bed once in a bout of resignation towards their situation, but had been repulsed at the warmth of his skin against her own. He'd never really forgiven her for that night, and had merrily blabbed the event to the others.
Ren had been different. Ren had made her feel strong, powerful, in control of the world. He'd also made her feel loved, a very rare emotion among Icewalkers. He valued her not just for her body, but her mind as well. She got out of bed and paced over to the bathroom, splashing cold water against her face. They'd only been travelling for a day now, dozens of ships laden with materials and people, all making their way to Third Earth, but it felt like an eternity. She hoped that her nerves would ease soon enough.
Most of the people onboard the Honour of the Moon were Icewalkers, though a few from the other moons had opted to take this ship for varying reasons; case in point was Tug Mug, seated at the table adjacent to her own as Chilla found a seat with the captain. She'd only met Paeder once and had been pleased to see that her initial impressions of the woman weren't justified. Beneath that voluptuous exterior was the cold calculating mind of a proper warrior. Chilla suspected that it was the exterior that had caused Tug Mug to choose the seating arrangement.
She and Paeder were examining a map of the terrain in Dark Side, trying to determine where the Icewalkers would be most at home. There was a large expanse of volcanic activity and the further away from the scorching heat the better. Naturally, the pickings would be improved once Third Earth was conquered, Chilla looked forward to evicting the Snow Man and his pesky cat from Hook Mountain, but that would have to wait.
A groan from Captain Paeder was the only warning Chilla got before she found Psychro sitting next to her, a tray of food in his hands. Broiled fish from the Psion moon accompanying Ice Moon mushrooms. He'd been trying, unsuccessfully, to score a date with her ever since they'd met two months ago at the news conference Luna had held. She knew of him and his reputation as a womanizer and had no desire to be his latest prize.
"Hello Chilla, I was hoping to run in to you on this ship. I've got an excellent bottle of wine stashed with my gear if you'd care to sample it," Psychro said, exuding charm.
She could feel his psionic ability niggling at her will and she wondered briefly if it was conscious or just happened naturally. Her resolve, however, snapped into place swiftly. "Wine? If I wanted to have drunken sloppy sex I'd look for a Graviton before I looked to you," she snapped, a part of her regretting the words even as she said them.
As she'd feared Tug Mug placed an arm around her shoulder. "Really? I can arrange that," he said, chuckling.
"Hey! Keep your hands to yourself. Chilla deserves to be treated like a lady, and I always treat my women properly. Don't I, Paeder?" Psychro said, jumping in before Chilla could retaliate at the Graviton's remarks.
"If I recall, we dated for a week and then you dumped me for an older woman," Paeder said, embarrassedly.
"Ah, but you can't deny that the sex was fantastic," Psychro said, not taking his eyes off Chilla as he said it. If he had been looking, he would have noticed Paeder's blush darkening and her suddenly taking a great interest in the food on her plate.
"Feh! Get this through your head. I am not interested in you," Chilla roared, pushing Psychro aside and leaving the cafeteria, Paeder likewise decided to leave.
Tug Mug turned his attention to the Icewalker/Psion hybrid. "Chilla's always been a bitch, except maybe two days out of the year. But congratulations on bagging the captain," he said, punching his shoulder playfully.
"Thanks, she's not as great as you might think though," Psychro replied absently. A thought occurred to him, though. Perhaps there was a route he had overlooked. The Graviton had known her for a number of years. Perhaps befriending him would prove beneficial to his plans for Chilla. "So, two days of the year, eh?"
Cameo ducked as Amok threw a vase in his general direction at Luna's behest. Day fourteen of the court proceedings hadn't gone well, though at least today his security detail hadn't had to break up any incidents. Eluosi had garnered a lot of public support after the very public assassination attempt had failed, and the people were demanding Luna's head. They well remembered her late husband and the massacres that had followed his reign. Luna was seen as very old school, and that was worrisome.
Today's topic of discussion in front of the judges had been about just that, Piscaar's reign of tyranny. Although he suspected Luna didn't care much for her husband, using him merely as a means to further her own power, she hadn't liked seeing his name dragged through the mud repeatedly, and the furniture in her office was suffering the consequences as a result.
The worst part for it was that Cameo found himself sympathizing with Eluosi. Luna could hardly be considered the most stable of people, as she was demonstrating, and Eluosi deserved to be compensated for her losses. He would never say as much, naturally, out of fear that Amok might improve his aim.
"Are you still here?" Luna suddenly shouted, startling him out of his train of thought.
"Yes, I wanted to drop off my report on the security proceedings for the day, as you requested," he said, suddenly remembering the paper he held.
"Bring it here and go. I want to be alone," she said, selecting a stapler on her desk to be her next victim. As Cameo hurried out of the room, he heard it smack against the wall.
Once again, Knave found himself at the Forest of Mists, a long coil of rope in his hand. He had secured one end to a post just outside the mouth of the cave and was slowly making his way through, one hand pressed against the wall. He assumed that he would eventually either run out of rope or pop out the other side, but he had to try. Some day Zanaya would try and leave him, she'd sworn to do as much, and he wanted to be able to rescue his child from her.
She killed children for her power. She said she had to do it to satisfy her god. She might just sacrifice his baby to feed her needs and he couldn't allow it. Besides, she wasn't an Icewalker. How could she be expected to keep the child safe from harm?
As before Knave found the mists almost suffocating. They muffled sound and rendered his sense of sight and smell useless. It felt disorienting and more than once he had to force himself to keep going. Finally he ran out of rope, after what felt like a good half hour of blindly stumbling through the darkness. That ended this expedition, so he turned around and followed the rope back out to the entrance, promising himself to bring more rope the next day.
It had taken a lot of arguing, but in the end Shade had been allowed to accompany her father on the voyage. The duo were onboard the sleek Darkling ship the 'Valiant,' commanded by Stalker, who also held the title of military commander for Third Earth. Red Eye felt much more comfortable on this ship than he had when the Icewalker ship had ferried himself and Luna's crew from Third Earth not that long ago. It made sense, though, that the cold based Lunataks would have different needs than people from his own moon. Just the ambient temperature alone was enough to make him feel more comfortable. The walls here were a dark green-gray in colour, a sharp contrast to the more white walls on the Honour of the Moon, which he supposed was designed to make the inhabitants feel more at home.
Red Eye wasn't even sure what home was anymore. He'd spent so long on Third Earth, that Sky Tomb had felt more like home than the Dark Moon had these last two months. It was part of the reason he'd found himself spending so much time in the capital helping Luna. That in itself was unusual. Other than perhaps Chilla, Red Eye had had the most ties to the Lunatak moons. He'd had a large extended family, most of whom were now dead or moved on. He'd had a home, which had been converted into a store that sold books. Everything about his former life was gone and he didn't want to be reminded of them. While he wasn't a member of the Luna fan club, she was better than nothing.
He slipped on a forest green shirt and looked at himself in the mirror. Tycho was asking his key advisors to meet with him for dinner, and Red Eye had no intentions of being late. Shade wouldn't be pleased at being left behind, she'd become very clingy he'd noticed, but the invite had been very specific. He and Stalker were expected to come alone. Shade would just have to manage on her own.
On his own Psychro had limited access to the databases of the Honour of the Moon, but his sister was reasonably high ranking thanks to her relationship with Cameo, and she rather naively always used the same passwords. The trick was figuring out which one she had used for any given thing. Like the ability access personal records. Doratmus 9000, Psikaris' favourite model of engine. Predictable if one knew her.
Not that he himself was any better. Psychro's passwords were often variations of 'Psychro is a studmuffin.' The Icewalker/Psion had perused the public version of Chilla's personal file and hoped that his sister would have access to more confidential information on the woman. Psikaris held the official title of 'chief engineer for the fleet' and that often meant knowing security risks. Sure enough there was information available that he hadn't read yet.
Tug Mug had proven to be very useful in the information he'd provided. It seemed that there truly was a brief time of the year when Chilla could be counted on to be in a relatively good mood. She had the same fiery temperament that most Icewalkers had, but for a span of two or three days she was less likely to inflict pain. If he could find out why that was and use it to his advantage then he was more likely to get in her tights. He paused, wondering what the odds were that he could hack into the medical database and see pictures from her last physical. Probably not very good as computers weren't really his specialty and unauthorized access might prompt a security reaction.
There was something interesting. Chilla and Ren had held their bonding ceremony around the time Tug Mug had indicated. It was also the same day as Ren's birthday. Could it be that she wasn't really in a better mood, she was just distracted thinking of her lover? Was there a loving heart beneath that frosty exterior? But how would he be able to use a dead husband to gain progress with her? He couldn't just say "Hey, remember Ren? Wanna have sex?" without expecting to be covered in ice. No. Psychro would have to become Ren, make her think he possessed the exact same attributes. It might work.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" the little Berbil asked, setting a barrel on the ground. The Thundercats had been concerned for Zanaya and Knave's health and had graciously arranged for the Berbils to send over some food supplies, Thundrillium, and medical equipment. Over the last four months since the two had taken up residence in Sky Tomb they had shown resistence to Thundercat aid. As a token of respecting their wishes, the Berbils had been enlisted. Naturally, the robotic bears had been reluctant to do so, but had such faith in the Thundercats' motives that they eventually agreed to being transported into Dark Side with their goods. The Berbil in question was referring to the hungry looks Zanaya was giving it.
"I've been having the strangest food cravings," she said, hastily looking away. The bears were harmless in themselves, but might report back to the Thundercats and she didn't feel up to fighting them at the moment. "I saw a recipe in the Sky Tomb computer called 'Roast Berbil Stew' and the picture made it look good."
The Berbil took a step backwards, uncertainly. All Berbils had heard tales of Red Eye's specialty dish and knew to fear it. While he felt the pregnant woman wouldn't try anything, one could never be too careful. "Yes, well, we do not like being turned in to stew," he explained, wondering where his companions could be. When she turned her attention to the barrel, he ran as fast as his stocky little legs could carry him.
Knave entered shortly after he left and stared in amusement at the retreating form. "What did you say to him?" he asked, bemused.
"I talked to him about Roast Berbil Stew," Zanaya said without looking up. Food wasn't the only thing she found herself craving of late and that was more disturbing to her than anything else. She wanted companionship, someone to hold her and love her. She'd worked assignments in isolated spots for months at a time, but she'd never felt so alone as she did here. She'd actually caught herself thinking of Knave's naked body pressed up against her. His hands trailing up her thighs until... She stopped that train of thought. It was bound to be in part due to their psychic bond. It was designed to bring the couple closer together, so it was possible that that was the source of her feelings.
She glanced up and saw Knave still looking at her and caught a glint in his eye that she didn't trust. "Oh gods," she thought suddenly, "the bond works both ways. What if..?" She felt him standing closer to her now, so close she could feel the cool breath on her forehead. He tilted her head up for a long and lusty kiss. Suddenly she didn't care. She may have hated the man, but her body had needs of its own. She tore frantically at his clothes, desperate for the intimate contact of flesh against flesh and to sate the hunger within.
"Oh my!" said one of the Berbils as he walked in with another box.
To the average observer Rathja was walking alongside another Graviton, having disembarked from a transport ship to the Royal Moon. The other Graviton was unremarkable, save for his taller than average height but even this would have passed without comment. So it was that no one commented when the two entered a restaurant, nor was anyone willing to think about it when the two disappeared together into the bathroom.
As soon as the bathroom door closed a second door, hidden behind a broken toilet, admitted them. Once this second door was closed her companion's skin began to ooze off, puddling on the floor before reconstituting itself as a changeling similar to Darius, though female. Left beneath the 'skin' gasped Kaprenius, grateful to finally be in control of his own body again. Using the changeling, who called herself Thrace, to disguise his appearance and smuggle him off the moon had been a stroke of genius. It was just very unnerving to have no control over one's body.
Thrace, at least, managed to look apologetic at him, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. She was a product of the Guardian program back on the Royal Moon, and had been genetically programmed to be loyal and obedient to Kaprenius. He'd forgotten about her entirely until she'd arrived on the Graviton moon with a plan to free him. She had voluntarily taken his place for the execution, hoping her unique physiology would save her and willing to sacrifice herself if it wouldn't.
It wouldn't have worked if not for the other accomplice. Rathja seemed to be mostly of Graviton background, though Kaprenius suspected that other blood was mixed in, and had grown disenchanted with the governing body of her moon when her mother's brewery had lost a lucrative contract to a rival. It had been she who had made the switch and 'offered' to scrape the body off the floor.
Procuring a ship here had been difficult and they'd been forced to lay low for the last two months until an opportunity presented itself, but now they were here, as was Aristarchus. He was seated in front of a television screen, watching the latest reports on the vaunted expedition to Third Earth and growing sickened by the mention of Luna's name. The only bright spot was that Luna's trial was garnering equal media attention. He rose swiftly as his son entered and embraced him. Kaprenius breathed a sigh of relief. He'd been uncertain what kind of reception would await him. He hadn't endeared himself to his father, spoiling his carefully laid plans on numerous occasions in his haste to gain power. He was unprepared, then, when Aristarchus slapped him hard across the face.
"I rescued you because, despite all you've done, you are my son and I love you. But if you ever fail me again I will turn you over to the Gravitons and use you as yet another example of the incompetence of the Lunar government," he said crisply.
"I won't, father, I promise," Kaprenius said, still stinging from the blow.
"Good. Then you can prove yourself to me by carrying out another little scheme of mine. You're going to pay a visit to Luna tonight. Incidentally, how fast can you run?"
Panthro and Wily Kat sat in the Thundertank at the mouth of the Forest of Mists, waiting for the Berbils to return. With instructions not to wander too far, Wily Kat was inspecting the rope that Knave had tied earlier in the day.
It seemed to Panthro like a waste of time to be extending these tokens of peace to two people who clearly wanted to be left alone. Wily Kat, of course, had protest the whole endeavour as being wasted on undeserving people. Knave had made a disparaging remark to him, implying that the boy would be eaten for dinner. Panthro was almost inclined to pass it off as mis-interpreted, but so little was known about Lunataks.
After only a few hours Panthro could see the group of six Berbils walking back towards the Thundertank unharmed, though something seemed off about them. He called Wily Kat back and approached them. "So? How did it go?"
"It went... well, Panthro. They seemed... content," one of the Berbils said, looking to his companions for confirmation. The others bobbed their heads in accord.
"That's great news. Do they need anything else?"
"We don't know. They didn't say. They were," the Berbil stopped, as though searching its databanks for the appropriate words. "They were in the process of creating more babies." Panthro's eyes widened and he heard Wily Kat gasp in astonishment. "I'm sorry, Panthro. We do not reproduce the same way you do, so our language is very limited."
It made sense to the Panther. Their only experience with sex would be through the natural wildlife in and around their home. He thought about asking how they made new Berbils, a question that had always haunted him, but decided this was not the time. "Well then," he finally said, climbing into the Thundertank's driver seat. "It's getting dark, I should get you back to the Berbil village."
The process of colonizing a new world was a complicated one. Doing so while trying to appease people from five different moons was next to impossible. The unenviable task fell on Tycho's shoulders to try and get these people working towards a common goal. Having this meeting during dinner, at least, seemed to make the Gravitons more amenable to suggestions, he mused to himself.
The choice of sites had been narrowed down to a strip of land in the western part of Dark Side. They planned to build near a cliff face with a steep drop down in to a raging river below. There was a volcano nearby and, the theory went, trenches could be made to divert any eruption around the city and drop the molten lava into the gorge. At least until more permanent arrangements could be made. The river would provide a steady water supply, and much of the site was near the forested region where they would be getting their lumber. The proximity of the Thundrainium fields would also provide adequate defence against the Thundercats.
Of course, the Icewalkers objected in principle to being so close to the volcanoes and the Psions seemed to object to things for the sake of it. He managed to convince the Icewalkers that they could inhabit the region closest to the cliff edge for now and settle elsewhere once Third Earth was under heel, and the Psions were told in no uncertain terms that a desert fortress wasn't happening for a while. The Darklings preferred being closer to the forest, but seemed to be accepting the defensible benefits of his choices. The Gravitons were too busy discussing the name of the new city to be much of a factor.
Once the location was narrowed down he broke the meeting up and assigned people various tasks to keep their interests.
Lion-O screamed in pain as he was hurled against a wall next to his companions. The Thundercats were wracked with pain, suffering from broken bones and wounded pride. The Sword of Omens lay useless, snapped in three pieces. A dull thump and a wet splat signalled the end of his lifelong companion, Snarf. Why was this happening? The Thundercats couldn't be defeated. He looked up as an enormous shadow fell over him and Luna's boot came crashing down to snuff him out.
Luna woke with a start, annoyed that her very pleasant dream had been interrupted. Amok shifted at the foot of her bed, rising to full height and staring at the door to her bedroom as it creaked open. From the pale light shining through her window she could make out the shape of a man. "You'd better have a good reason for being here," she snapped. Never one to be particularly pleasant, she was less so when wakened.
"I do. Your death," came the response.
Her would-be assassin managed to fire a shot from his pistol, a blast that Amok blocked with his body, before bolting. "Catch him, Amok!" she said, though she needn't have bothered. The Guardian was barrelling out the door in hot pursuit. She smiled smugly to herself. Amok was the greatest possession she owned. Loyal, strong, fast, resistant to most forms of attack. There was little hope that her attacker would get away with this. Only well after he was gone did it occur to her how easy the attempt had been to foil, and how far away her communicator was. She rolled across the expansive bed to get to it but found it gone and realized she was not alone. Melting out of the shadows was a man she had only read about, and knew enough to worry. "Aristarchus, this is bold of you. When Amok gets back..." she began.
He loomed menacingly closer, threatening her with his presence. "Amok won't be getting back. My men are leading him on a merry little chase. Soon he'll be safely captured onboard one of my ships and you'll never see him again. Unless..." his voice trailed off and Luna knew that whatever he wanted was something she didn't want to give.
"You won't get far. Even without Amok, I am still the queen," she replied tersely, though her voice held less conviction than she'd have liked.
"If you don't give me the power I want I could kill you myself and take it. But I think you will. You don't have many friends, and the few you had you sent away to Third Earth. You want Amok alive and I want my name cleared. I'll give you some time to think about it, but I wouldn't take long. Where he's going, Amok might not survive for long," Aristarchus smiled again and disappeared again into the shadows. Luna shuddered, feeling very alone.
Thrace ran through nearly deserted hallways, always making sure that Amok was close enough that he wouldn't give up the pursuit. In her repertoire of shapes she could assume were numerous species that could outrun the brute. Fortunately she was more intelligent than he, and he wouldn't catch on to her tricks.
She bolted into the waiting shuttle and immediately shape changed about the door to conceal herself. As Aristarchus had predicted, Amok barely slowed down in taking the stairs, feeling confident that he had her cornered. She counted to three and slipped out the door. Even before the hatch slammed shut the engines fired up, sending the shuttle and its occupant into the night sky. Kaprenius walked over and patted her on the back. "Just as we planned. And as a bonus, he gets a travel companion."
An incessant shaking of his shoulder roused Cameo into a state of consciousness. He'd been inspecting a shuttle, wondering why it was parked with the door open and lights on with no obvious signs of activity around it when he'd heard a noise behind him. Then something had clocked him on the head. He opened his eyes and found Amok looking down at him, meaty hands jostling him. "What is it?" he asked, assuming that Amok hadn't been the one to attack him.
"Kidnapped!" Amok grunted pointing out the front window. Indeed, when Cameo inspected the instruments, they did seem to be abducted. The controls were jammed, and a predetermined course plotted. It didn't look like they had much choice in their destination. Although he wasn't a skilled engineer, though, there was a chance that he could rewire the systems and undo whatever his attackers had done. If he could, then he might be able to turn the ship around, because if Amok was here then Luna was in grave danger.
"How about this one? Boron Stormhammer, champion of the Unification War," Darius said, adjusting his shape to match that of the legendary hero, a Psion who had helped unify the moons.
"Nah, I'm not in the mood for Psions tonight," Tycho sighed, removing his shirt.
"What about Graviton, I could be Tug Mug for you, I know how much *that* excites you," Darius said, grinning as his body changed again and laughing as the shirt landed on his head. "Why do you resist this? I like being able to please you." He finally reverted back to his normal form and met his ward by the foot of the bed.
"I know you do, it's just that I love you as you are. If I wanted to sleep with someone else I'd have gone looking for them," Tycho replied. It was an old fight, and it felt almost like a ritual dance; Tycho would resist for a while but he would relent in the end. They both knew it. They didn't do this often, but every so often Darius insisted on using his powers for their mutual benefit.
"You do that, I'll come looking for you," Darius replied. "What about Red Eye? He's got a nice chest on him."
"I'll tell him you said that. Fine, let's go with an Icewalker today. Anything but Nitro," Tycho chuckled, caving in quicker than usual, watching as his friend once again adjusted his shape, this time into a well toned Icewalker with long flowing white hair.
The communications system chirped, indicating an incoming message. Knowing their play would have to wait, Tycho approached. It was from Luna. Since they were so far away it was a recorded message, telling him about Amok's capture and warning him to be careful. While he was distressed to learn that his old enemy was being more aggressive, there was also very little he could do about it. He issued a response indicating his support and offering to come back if she thought it would help. That done he turned back to where Darius was sitting patiently.
"You look hot," Darius said, winking, "come, let me cool you off."
It wasn't so much that the ship had been sabotaged, Cameo would later explain, nor was it even that the ship had been programmed to take them to Plundarr. It was the fact that whoever had done all this work had set the ship for a controlled crash on the planet's surface, designed to weaken and injure Amok without killing him, while making it easier for the ambush to gain the upper hand on him.
Once he'd coaxed the information out of the computer systems, Cameo gently placed a hand on Amok's shoulder while he explained what was going to happen. What the beast didn't realize is that Cameo had taken the opportunity of flesh on flesh to copy his abilities. Like any copy they weren't as good as the original, but he hoped they would toughen his hide enough to survive the impending crash, unless he could undo the programming.
Luna glared nastily at the two deceased guards outside her living quarters as they were carted away by her security forces. Every single light was in the living area, and guards were sweeping through the palace looking for any signs of Aristarchus and his known allies. It was disconcerting to know that he had managed to get into her room so easily, especially since there was no obvious sign of how he got in or out. She assigned four guards to be stationed around her person at all times, and doubled the guards at every entrance. She had never taken kindly to assassination attempts and was determined to stop at nothing to get her revenge.
Miles away, in the basement of a quaint restaurant, Aristarchus was feeling good about how things were progressing. He would either have Luna under his control or eliminated altogether any time now. With the money and support he was providing to Eluosi, public support for her was dropping, once it got low enough he would stir the populace up to revolt against her... unless she acquiesced to his demands, returning him to power, in which case the revolution would merely be delayed.
He had considered trying to manipulate her and leave her on the throne, but a woman like that was dangerous and unpredictable. No. She was better off removed from his plate entirely. Now, if he could get Eluosi on the throne, that would be a different matter.
This phase of the operation wouldn't have been nearly so successful if not for the assistance of Nuiane, however. She possessed a rare gift among Darklings, the ability to travel through shadows, even the tiniest crack. Taking Aristarchus with her was difficult, but it was a task she thoroughly enjoyed. She had been a long term project of his, arranging for her to become a member of Nitro's harem and provide him with valuable information on one of the Ice Moon's most powerful people. He had to be careful what he asked of her, though, as she genuinely seemed to care for Nitro. Nuiane had returned to Nitro's temporary lodging immediately after dropping Aristarchus off at his hideout.
His thoughts were interrupted by Kaprenius' arrival. His son was whistling softly and bore a smug look on his face. "Well, I did my part. I got that dumb brute on to the shuttle. In a few moments he'll be safely on Plundarr where my associates will make sure he's taken care of. Oh! And as a bonus I've got the commander of the fleet, Cameo of House Mymekon, onboard too."
"That wasn't part of the plan," Aristarchus said warningly.
He waved off the concern and helped himself to a glass of wine that had been set on the table in the middle of the room. "He got in the way and there wasn't time to remove him. Besides, he won't even survive the crash. I promise," he said.
"And you weren't expected to live through your execution, need I remind you. No matter, we might be able to use this to our advantage."
"This doesn't look good," Cameo grunted, extracting himself from beneath the computer console. "Brace for impact, Amok!" The good news was that he had finally figured out how to rewire the computer to accept his commands, the bad news was that there wasn't time to do it in. They were just starting to enter the atmosphere, so he braced himself in his seat the best he could and waited.
Time seemed to crawl as the planet's surface loomed closer and closer. A swampy region came into focus and he prayed that this gods forsaken planet wouldn't be his final resting place. The sound of tree limbs cracking against the hull of the shuttle filled his ears, a wing snapped off with a grating noise, and then they hit swamp. Mud and rocks flew in every direction as the two Lunataks and everything inside were propelled forward by the sudden stop. Even with his arms bracing his head, the impact was jarring and the chair he was seated in squeezed his torso against the console.
For a brief moment his world went black, a disconcerting sensation given the circumstances. Groggily he forced the chair back and looked around to find a shelving unit had fallen on top of Amok, who was angrily pushing it off. Fortunately the door was at the rear of the shuttle and had popped open upon impact, allowing the two Lunataks to emerge and stare blearily around them.
Movement in the trees told Cameo that they were not alone. Soon they began emerging from the brush, dozens of Reptilian Mutants surrounding the crashed ship, most them bore only clubs and axes, though four that he could see had rifles out. Under normal circumstances Cameo would have surrendered immediately, but Amok was so thoroughly enraged by the situation, injuries and all, that he plowed into their midst, massive fists colliding with any Mutant he could reach. Cameo was a little more methodical in his approach, deeming the energy weapons as the greatest threat he lunged at the nearest one, his own fists landing with greater impact than normal thanks to his borrowed abilities.
Mutants, as a rule, gained their courage through superior numbers and greater weaponry, so they gleefully waded into combat, clubbing and shooting at both Lunataks whenever an opportunity presented itself. Amok's hide, and his own by extension, was tough to penetrate but with the number of blows he was taking, Cameo knew he couldn't take much more. He had decked a Reptile armed with an axe when another took him down at the knees, driving his face into the muck. He struggled vainly before finally surrendering.
One of the Mutants hauled him to his knees and turned his head to regard where a large group had managed to bind Amok's limbs together. Cameo stared horrified at his companion. Every inch of the Guardian's white skin seemed to be covered in welts, bruises, and oozing blood. "Take them to the dungeons, yes," the Reptile said, shoving Cameo back into the mud. Another Mutant rushed over and began tying him up in a similar fashion to Amok. They loaded the pair on to a hover sled and took them away.
This wasn't like Cameo at all, Psikaris thought to herself, pacing across the livingroom of their shared home. When she'd lived with her brother it wasn't uncommon for him to vanish for a night or two, but this was Cameo. He wasn't that sort of person at all. It had only been a few hours since his shift had ended, and it was possible he'd gotten caught up in something, but there was an undefinable feeling that he was in trouble. She'd had this sensation before, likely due to her Psion half, and had been proven right more often than not. But who to turn to? The local authorities would argue that he hadn't been missing long enough, and most people she knew within the city would be asleep at this hour.
There was nothing for it, then. If she wanted to learn what had happened to Cameo, she would have to do it herself. She grabbed a light jacket and slipped on her shoes to explore the city.
She checked the control tower first, where Cameo's office was located, and looked over the skeleton crew that were handling the night's affairs. The few people appeared to be busier than usual, sending small fighter crafts all over the moon. "Sorry, Psikaris, haven't seen him since his shift ended," an older Lunatak said, "we're running ourselves ragged right now. We just got word that Amok may have been abducted and taken off moon."
"Amok?" she asked, startled at the thought that anyone could abduct a creature like him. "You don't suppose they got Cameo too, do you?"
"I hope not. I'll tell the patrols to keep their eyes open, just in case," he replied, turning almost immediately back to his work. All things considered it was the best she could hope for.
Snuggled together on the floor next to the computers, Zanaya stared at the arm blue furred arm that was draped possessively around her. Why did this bond have to work that way? She cursed inwardly. There was only one answer. The gods. Lunis had warned her to expect the worst possible pregnancy, and an unsatiable lust for the worthless spawn of two hated races would certainly fit the bill. Mental link or no, she was determined that once the child was born Knave's life would be ended.
On the positive side, her parents would never know about this, seeing as she was stranded on an alien world. They, like most Psions, hated the other races, deeming themselves superior, and would find the thought of such a coupling repulsive. She had never felt quite as strongly, knowing that when dealing with the average male that sex was a powerful weapon. But she'd always been careful in the past to avoid this kind of predicament. Yet another 'blessing' from the gods no doubt.
She tried shifting away from him, but his grip was like iron so she gave up. "I've been thinking," he said suddenly. She hadn't even realized he was awake and hoped he didn't want more. "You said we're bound mentally so I can't hurt you. Can it be removed?"
Zanaya answered his question with a question of her own. "Can you remove your arm from its socket? Because I'm told that's far less painful. Even then, I've never tried it, so I can't guarantee it would work." She decided not to mention the effects the bond had on his libido. It was better to let him think he was falling for her again and keep him off his guard.
He was silent for a long time, and she wondered if he'd finally gone back to sleep, when Knave spoke again. "I've done that before, pulling arms off. It's not as hard as you think. Looks like it hurts though," he said, disconcertingly stroking her arm as he said it. She hoped she wouldn't find out.
There were mornings when Eluosi wished her arm was gone completely. This was one of them. The genetic engineers had tried some concoction on it to revitalize the tissue and she'd awakened with it tingling from shoulder to fingertips. She still could barely move it, and that with a great deal of concentration. She rose from her bed and went through her morning routine. When she had gotten dressed she went down to the livingroom to find Aristarchus waiting patiently. "Any news?" she asked, ducking into the kitchen to get some breakfast.
"None so far, though we may be closer to breaking Luna's will. Some fiends kidnapped her pet Guardian, if you can believe it. I'm going to use my resources to see if I can find him," he said, the lie sliding out so smoothly that he almost believed it himself.
"That's great! With Luna out of the way, I can take my place on the throne. Guide it to a new age of prosperity and peace," she said, eyes gazing off, envisioning such a better place.
"I pray you are successful, my dear. The moons have been at war too long, and now Luna leads us in another. We need an end to this bloodshed, an end that only your hand can create. Now, once you finish you should go to your lawyer, I've got his fee here, and urge him to use this latest incident in his case," he said.
"Yes. Of course I will."
Still visiting the Royal Moon, though scheduled to return to the Ice Moon in a day or two, Nitro was dismayed to hear of the brazen attack on Luna's person and the inadequacy of the Royal Guard. This was now the second time someone had managed to get that close to the royal person in a very short time. He'd been arriving on the moon when Aristarchus had abducted Tycho, during the latter's brief reign, almost four months ago and now this? He would suggest to Luna, at some point in the near future, that she employ Icewalkers to her guard to prevent such an occurrence from happening again.
Although she had already done so, Nitro contacted the Ice Moon himself and told the people there to be on the lookout for anything suspicious.
Psikaris had been out looking for any signs of her boyfriend all night and was growing tired, but she couldn't give up hope that he would be found safely and that there was a logical explanation for all of this. She decided to stop at home, see if he'd managed to leave a message for her there somehow.
Through her fatigue she didn't notice that the door was ajar, possibly assuming she'd forgotten to close it properly in her haste last night, and didn't notice Kaprenius sitting on the couch until she was well inside, though she couldn't recognize him thanks to the disguise he wore. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" she demanded, irritation bubbling to the surface. Uninvited guests had a tendency to change her ordinarily sunny disposition.
"Someone you want to meet," he replied evenly, trying to mimic his father's demeanor. "We have Cameo hostage, and you're going to give us what we want."
The hybrid's eyes widened. "You have Cameo? What do you want?"
Kaprenius had no way of knowing how short a rope he had. Psikaris hated being used like this, and her exhaustion only shortened her temper. "We want all your passwords. Between you and her boy toy there's a lot of juicy information we would like. Of course, we could always torture him and see what he tells us. I just hope he doesn't die on us." Kaprenius grinned, feeling confident in his position. His expression changed when she lunged at him, knocking him backwards over the couch and upending a lamp in the process.
Psikaris was spurred on by her fury, pummelling Kaprenius about the head and chest. It was an easy mistake to make, assuming that she was physically weak. Beneath her baggy clothes were powerful arms, used to lifting heavy pieces of machinery about. Kaprenius wasn't a lightweight by any stretch of the imagination, but he was unprepared for the assault, and the buffeting about the head was making it difficult to concentrate properly. His one advantage, though, was Thrace.
The changeling detached herself from disguising her master and enveloped Psikaris' face, cutting off her air supply. Though the woman clawed at the ooze covering her, she couldn't fight the need for oxygen long and slumped to the ground helplessly. Content that she would be of no further threat, Thrace reformed into her normal state and helped Kaprenius to his feet. "What now, master? Should we kill her to set an example?"
"No. Not yet, anyway. We'll leave her a note telling her that we'll be back soon and want an answer. And if she refuses, then we'll kill her."
Psychro, countless miles away, admired his reflection in the mirror. In his attempt to become more like Ren, he'd been forced to shave his head clean of hair, and he had to admit that his naked scalp looked less like a thumb than he'd feared. The style of dress was out of the question, clothes that far out of date would make it obvious what he was trying to do, but the colours were a separate issue. Every picture of the man he'd been able to find showed him in red, so he adopted the colour for his own wardrobe.
This was far more effort than he'd ever taken in his pursuit of a lovely lady, and deep down he wondered if this was 'the one' he'd been searching for all his life. It wasn't so much that he viewed women simply as sex objects, although that was occasionally his attitude, he simply found that he grew bored of them quickly and yearned for the thrill of the chase. Once a woman had opened herself up, emotionally and physically, it wasn't as exciting.
Deep down, psychologically speaking, one might also believe that his attitudes stemmed from a disastrous first relationship. He'd been young and naive. She had been from a house with far greater standing and looking for a way to irritate her father. She'd led him on for several weeks, winning his heart, and promptly laughed in his face when he'd asked for a bonding ceremony. That's when she had revealed that she'd never loved him, a wound that still stung on the rare occasion he thought of it. His first conquest after that had been motivated by revenge, blooding and impregnating the woman's younger sister.
But Psychro didn't think of her. He thought of Chilla and tried to formulate how he would overcome his reputation. Of the two hundred some-odd women going to Third Earth, he had bedded about forty of them, and gossip went around very quickly. He had no doubt that Chilla saw him as wanting one night with her so that he could gloat to his friends.
He probably would gloat, when he thought of it. A hero of Chilla's stature would be a big feather in his cap. Staying with her forever would be even bigger. Thus the efforts. Content that he was as close as he could be, Psychro went hunting.
"We didn't think of it immediately, but we think Amok may have been taken to Plundarr," a Royal Lunatak with dyed white hair said. "There was a ship that transmitted a flight plan, but said they were waiting for another passenger before departing. They didn't confirm their trajectory when they left, but we assumed that was just pilot's error."
He could tell Luna was displeased at the news. She couldn't really invade Plundarr without risking a war. As much as she despised Mutants, her army was already depleted with many going to Third Earth. A battle on a second front would only make things worse. "Do you know where on Plundarr?" she asked. Perhaps it would be possible to send a transmission requesting his return, that would be made easier if she knew which of the Mutant governments she needed to deal with. They all would have prices.
"The pilot wasn't very specific, just saying they were headed to southern Plundarr, Rubbareth continent," he replied. Even without Amok, Luna was dangerous. The guards around her looked like they would be trigger happy.
"Rubbareth. Probably the Reptillians then," she said aloud. While there were other species of Mutants in the region, the Reptillians were the dominant. She couldn't imagine many of the lesser races acting without their knowledge. "Very well, see if you can pinpoint the location more precisely. I don't care how you do it, just do it."
Surrounded by the best available Psions, Mystan led the group in a concerted effort to scan the minds on the adjacent ships. A gentle touch was required, it wouldn't do for the wrong person to pick up on their efforts, so Lura hadn't been invited to actively participate. The collective mind swept over the flagship first. This was one of the reasons why any wealthy Royal Lunatak had a Guardian. Most of the creatures were immune to psionics and many could detect them being used on their masters. Sadly, the Psion empire had long learned which Guardians could and could not do this and avoided them accordingly. Tycho was one who didn't have such a protector. Darius was difficult to read telepathically, but it was possible. Both, however, were asleep and dreaming of things that none present really wanted to explore.
There was plenty of information to gather, though. Seeds of distrust from moon to moon were prominent in the minds of almost everyone and dark secrets lay beneath the surface. This one wanted another one dead. That one was sleeping with someone behind their partner's back. Another was grieving over the loss of his parents and hoped that he would die on Third Earth so he could be with them again.
They drifted silently over the other ships, skimming the thoughts of the key people onboard, learning all they could before withdrawing. "I saw plenty there that we can exploit if the need arises. Well done," Mystan said.
"That should teach them," the spirit whispered in her head. Shade was in the process of consuming a small bowl of Edible Darkness when the spirit within spoke. "Those Psions are almost as treacherous as the Icewalkers. They were in your head." Shade was shocked. They would dare to try something like that? They might as well have instigated a war, with an act like that. Her anger was checked as she recalled what the spirit had said.
"What do you mean?" she asked aloud. Red Eye was in the other room reading a book, so she had to keep her voice down.
"I was just going to send false thoughts, but I decided on something more delicious. I turned their mental pathway into a two-way street. I learned a great deal about our Psion friends, and I intend to use it for our benefit."
When she had first received the message, Luna had been extremely angry. Cameo was one of the few people on the moons that she had felt she could trust. The man had even saved her from harm on at least two occasions. So now that he too had gone missing and was being held for ransom made her furious. Psikaris had the unenviable task of trying to calm the pint sized queen, though she was inwardly equally enraged. Now was not the time to let it consume her. Now was time to plot revenge and figure out how they would retrieve their two friends, assuming they were being held by the same person.
"Our enemies seem to feel they can come and go as they please," Luna said, finally allowing herself to calm somewhat. "Which may work to our advantage. They may become sloppy, think themselves safe. A shape changer complicates things, but there are ways to trap them as well."
"They'll probably come here again tonight," Psikaris said. She looked around warily, trying to determine if there was some chance that the changeling was now a piece of furniture.
"That's even better. With me they will expect heavy security, but with you they might not. I think some hidden security here might play in our favour," Luna chuckled as she began to formulate a plan.
As it seemed to happen whenever he had something weighing on his mind, Knave found himself in Chilla's old bedroom in Sky Tomb. He found the atmosphere comforting, somehow. Though she'd only lived there a year or so, it had been arranged to suit the tastes of an Icewalker warrior, with pale blue furnishings and a temperature control set low.
The irony, of course, was that Chilla would not find Knave's presence in her room to be comforting at all. She'd looked at him with the kind of look that told him he was the lowest form of life. He couldn't really blame her. Icewalkers were raised to believe in the superiority of their own blood, tainting it with the blood of others, especially another race altogether, was almost blasphemous. These lessons had been drilled into his head so much that he believed it himself, had tried to cleanse his blood and rid himself of the Thunderian half, a trick he'd yet to learn.
It made him wonder about his father. Surely he had been raised with the same values, and yet he kept company with women of many races. Was it some sort of rebellious nature that caused him to lean in that direction, perhaps? Were there other bastard hybrids running about that Knave didn't know about? Certainly his three brothers had all appeared to be purebred Icewalkers.
He chuckled dryly. He always thought of his father when he was trying to avoid deeper thoughts. His father produced easily reached anger, there was no love for the man just anger, fear, and a touch of respect. Such a topic of thought was easy and didn't concern him. He was trying to avoid the inevitable thought of Zanaya.
He hated her. She'd lied to him. She'd used and manipulated him. She'd tried to kill him. And yet he loved her. He wanted, on some level, to protect the mother of his child and craved the feel of her body moving intimately against his own. It didn't make any sense. How could he love and hate her so much? How could he want to make love to her one moment and kill her the next? Zanaya said the mental bond between them would keep him from killing her, probably until the baby was born, but what then? Could he actually carry out what the rational part of his mind wanted or would he allow the emotional part to rule?
That vile stain of Cheetah blood running through him only made him weak. He knew what had to be done but really didn't want to do it. His halves were at war and he hated it. Is this why his father had allowed him to live? Most Icewalkers would sooner have killed the child than raised it. Could it be his father actually loved him? This train of thought upset him even more. His father could not become a sympathetic figure to him. Ever.
He had to break this line of thinking, so Knave approached the stack of boxes in the centre of the room and picked up the top most box. Chilla had finished packing her meagre possessions and, had the flight not been so hasty, she would have taken these boxes with her. A spare cloak. A pair of blood spattered boots. A book of Bulkin history. As he shifted the items around, a slip of paper, carefully folded and protected from the elements by a strip of animal hide, fell from one of the boots. Carefully unfolding it Knave was surprised to see a picture of Chilla, clothes tattered and stained red with blood, standing triumphantly over a helpless man. It was hand drawn, with 'Ren' signed at the bottom. The name was familiar. Nitro had rarely spoken of his childhood, but when he did, Ren's name was spoken with reverence. So, grandfather Ren had drawn this for Chilla. It seemed out of place, and made him wonder about the care Chilla had taken.
To an onlooker, one would think that Chilla had lost the fight in the arena. She walked with anger into the locker room and hurled her cape into a corner and thrust her knife into the bench. The locker room was really just a wider space at the end of the tunnel that led into the arena's battle area, a wooden door had been erected to grant the gladiators a measure of privacy after their battles. There was a row of benches and a few hooks set into rock wall. A steam room and shower were in an adjoining room.
She glared as the arena door opened and Ren entered, drying himself with a towel. This had only been their second contest and she had narrowly won this round after a sound drubbing the first time out. "How dare you," she hissed, vapour drifting in the air as she spoke. "I'm not some child that needs to be coddled. I'm a warrior. No one makes a fool of me like that."
Ren had the audacity to look momentarily confused and then began laughing. "Are you suggesting I let you win?" he asked.
"I am. You're much better than me and everyone knows it. You threw that fight. Why? Because my House is ranked higher than yours? Because you felt sorry for me?" She grabbed him and thrust him against the wall, eyes narrowing and boring holes in his skull. He calmly grabbed her hands and forced them away from his person.
"Do I need me to demonstrate that I'm better?" he asked, voice dropping low and threatening. She stepped back, but didn't release her gaze. "Good. There's a brain behind that anger. You're right, I am your better. But every warrior can be beaten, every warrior has good and bad days. You? You got lucky. I twisted my ankle and you took advantage of the opening. Good on you. I've been watching you and you're good, with the right training you might be one of the best. I can make you the best, if you want."
Chilla regarded him skeptically, if somewhat flattered that an excellent fighter like him would take an interest in her. "And what do you get out of it?"
"What else? Honour and prestige. My family is ranked low, but if I can transform you into the best fighter the moon has ever known, I might be able to pull my stock higher. I could become a master trainer, with students from all Houses. And I'd be serving the empire in training recruits for battle," he replied, walking over to a bench. She noticed now that there was a subtle limp in his step, though he hid it well.
"I'm not sure, what if..." she began before he cut her off abruptly.
"You only get this one chance. Take it or leave it. I can find others who will accept my offer. And I will smile as each one manages to beat you. You're a raw piece of steel, untempered, unshaped. There's a fine blade there, but it needs to be drawn out. Without me, you'll just be a worthless lump of metal. Forget it, you're wasting my time." He walked to the shower and she followed without thinking.
"Wait," she said. "I'll do it."
She couldn't have asked for a better teacher, Chilla thought as she sat again in the mess hall of the Honour of the Moon. She was eating alone, having made it obvious that she desired it so. In the end, he had gained so much more than honour and prestige, he'd gained her heart and together they'd brought their house to great power. He'd trained many of the army in hand to hand combat, and his students generally outperformed anyone else. He demanded a lot, but he was patient and rewarded excellence. The first time she'd beaten him cleanly he'd rewarded her with his body. He'd sensed the passion brewing between them long before she did, and her cries of ecstasy that afternoon had reverberated through the empty arena. Within days they'd had their official binding ceremony.
For a moment she thought she was still re-living the past. A man who bore a striking resemblance to her Ren was fast approaching her table. It only took a moment for the excitement to be replaced by disappointment and resentment. It looked like Ren, but only at a distance.
Psychro strode with purpose to her table and sat across from her, ignoring the look she was giving him. "What do you think? Thought I'd try out a new look for you," he said. The charm was there but it was falling on deaf ears.
"I think you're defiling the memory of Ren, and doing it on purpose. I demand you meet me in combat. Today. I'll make the arrangements, you just make sure you're here," she hissed, storming away.
He had wanted his hands on her, but this wasn't quite the way he'd had in mind. There was legal procedure for combat between two Icewalkers, ranging from friendly competitions to fights to the death. Psychro worried that what Chilla had in mind would be closer to the latter.
Cameo was miserable. The Reptilian Mutants weren't gentle in their handling of their prisoners, beating them to keep them weak and submissive and scarcely providing them with any nourishment. The prison cells were set deep into the ground, with about three feet of murky water for carpeting. Two large beds were bracketed into the walls just above the surface, forcing Cameo and Amok to stay where they were. Food was a loaf of bread that had been tossed into the water, and he'd had to wrestle with some kind of eel to get it. All in all it wasn't among his favourite places to be.
The water also made escaping difficult. Wading through the liquid to get to the door would slow down any rush to be free, and the guards outside appeared to be heavily armed. Not that escape was much of an option, given their condition. Whoever was holding them clearly wanted them alive but wasn't picky on how barely they fit into that category. Amok was awake, but stared around him blearily, causing Cameo to wonder if the food was being drugged. "Don't worry, big guy, we'll get out of here and back to Luna."
"Luna?" Amok asked, eyes focussing briefly on Cameo before glazing back over. That was a good sign, anyway. There was some life in the Guardian. If Cameo could get the two of them out of here and to safety, there was a chance that Amok would return to full strength. But that all hinged on getting out.
The minutes ticked by as Psikaris nervously moved about the room. Somehow the presence of a half dozen heavily armed security personnel in her home and many more outside wasn't comforting. This was Luna's plan, hide people in her home and hope for an attack. Psikaris felt just the opposite, in a way; she hoped for no attacks at all. Being ambushed in her own home had set her nerves on edge, especially since there was every chance that they would kill her next time. What if the security forces weren't enough? What if the assassin chose some other method of delivering his message.
And it wasn't just fear for her own safety that pervaded Psikaris, it was Cameo's as well. He was being held by those scoundrels and they wouldn't give him back unless she capitulated. What condition was he in? Was he even alive? She loved the man because he accepted her, flaws and all. He was warm, considerate, and very handsome. If he were there he would hold her tight and know the right words to say to ease her mind. But he wasn't. He might never be again.
She picked up a book and tried to read, but gave up after a few words. Instead she brewed some tea and settled to watch the local news.
"I said to myself, 'if I had a shape changer I would have them disguise themselves as an officer investigating Psikaris' attack,'" Luna said out loud. "And I knew the perfect way to lure Aristarchus out would be to discuss the defences of her and myself with the officers. I know you're there, Aristarchus. Lights!" Instantly the room was flood with lights. Additional fixtures had been arranged and were focussed on the walls, greatly reducing the number of shadows. They also revealed the Lunatak himself squinting near an armchair specially sized for the queen.
"Very good," he said, shielding his eyes with his hand. "You figured out how I got in here last time. And if I had used the same method this time, I'd be in trouble. That's the trouble with you Luna, I'm one step ahead of you."
"Indeed, then you've accounted for us having found the Mutant ship in orbit that's waiting to teleport you back?" Luna asked, pleased to see genuine shock flicker across his face. Mutant teleporters had been a favourite trick of her husband's, though she couldn't stand having to deal with the Mutants.
"Touché. Still, you won't detain me unless you want Amok and Cameo to die," he replied after a moment's pause. "And if you do detain me that will happen. I also happen to be carrying an explosive device that would probably kill both of us, though I'd rather not use it."
"So it seems we are at a stalemate. I warn you, you will never regain the throne, even if I were to pardon your offences."
"No? It wouldn't take much. Tycho has relinquished his claim to the throne and once Eluosi proves you unfit for reign there are no possible candidates, especially given what your medical file says. You know, I always wondered why you were so keen to regain that belt. It seems that without it you couldn't produce an heir. Probably for the best, I hardly see you as the mothering type," Aristarchus chuckled as he picked up a knickknack from her bookshelf.
"I can always name a successor," Luna pointed out. "What of the mark on your claim to the throne?"
"The one involving your great grandmother. You forget how old I am, I remember my mother telling the rumour. A little fact checking proved that the rumour was probably true. Seems your great grandmother was on Plundarr at the time of conception while your great grandfather was out of the solar system entirely. Seems he was implicated in the murder of a Simian Mutant on the Royal Moon shortly after that. The rumour was he tried to blackmail your great grandparents to keep a secret. I wonder if DNA tests would reveal that your tenuous link to the royal line is broken?" Luna said. It was well worth her while to keep information on all her enemies. Her mother had taught her that lesson.
Aristarchus crushed the knickknack in his hand and slammed it back down on the bookshelf. "How dare you imply..." he said, stomping toward the bed.
Instantly a laser pistol was out from under Luna's pillow and stopped him dead in his tracks. "The truth hurts, doesn't it?"
"I should have killed you when I had the chance," he snarled, trying desperately to compose himself and regain control of the situation. "Fine. You win this round, but not the fight. I'm leaving now, and you're going to let me. I'm sure we can come to some kind of understanding."
"The only understanding is when you realize you can not win. But go, lick your wounds then," Luna considered shooting him anyway, but chose not to. He was a dangerous man but held the lives of two people she needed hostage. It was a shame, really. He could have been a powerful ally.
The door to the prison cell creaked open, showing three heavily muscled guards. One of them stepped forward and pointed squarely at Cameo. "You come out, yes?" he said.
The Lunatak hybrid rose and waded over to the thuggish creature. "You come in, yes?" he said as he grabbed the Reptile and pulled him into the water, punching him in the back of the skull as he did so. The other two guards moved quickly to rescue their friend, jumping into the swampy mess, clubs raised. Cameo had been thinking ahead, though, and managed to position himself between the two Mutants. When they tried to strike him they wound up belting one another instead. "Amok! Let's go!" he shouted to no effect. The Guardian stared blankly at him, weakened by whatever was in that food and his numerous injuries. Cameo let out a colourful curse, overheard at a bar one day, and walked over.
He knew Amok was strong, he just prayed that his own borrowed strength was enough to lift the heavy brute. Amok didn't resist as Cameo's hands slipped underneath him and half dragged him through the doorway of the prison cell. Logically, there had to be some sort of space capable ship nearby, something to load and transfer prisoners, he just hoped it was very nearby and poorly guarded. It was a longshot, made more probable by the lack of Mutant intelligence, but it was his only shot.
Carrying his heavy and awkwardly shaped burden, Cameo picked his directions at random, listening carefully for any signs of more guards, but always heading upwards. Behind one battered door to the left he heard the lamentations of an Avian Mutant, but otherwise this cell block seemed to be uninhabited. Slowly he tried the door at the end of the hall, dropping Amok to the floor first, and peered into the room. It was full of torture devices, all of them coated in blood of all sorts. There was a door at the other end, at the foot of a narrow staircase, and he made for this door, hoping it was a way out.
No such luck. Looking through the iron grate he saw that it led to a balcony with a set of gallows that swung the victim over the balcony, presumably so that the gathered crowd below could watch.
"Why thank you, you've saved us the trouble of dragging you here, yes?" a Reptilian voice said. Cameo sighed and turned, finding eight burly guards waiting just inside the doorway. He was feeling exhausted from carrying Amok, and knew he was beaten. He would feel even worse by the time the Mutants were done with him.
The Honour of the Moon didn't have a proper change room, being a luxury item, but Psychro managed to secure a corner of the dining hall. The tables and chairs had been moved to one side to accommodate the combatants, and a section of floor had been marked off. Psychro had been in a few of these fights before. He had some natural strength, but would certainly not count himself as a good fighter. When he thought about it, it was mostly angry brothers and fathers he'd had to do battle with, and they were easy to provoke into making mistakes.
He was in the process of wrapping tape around his wrists when Tug Mug wheeled over to him. The Graviton seemed to have taken a liking to Psychro, but the latter could tell it was more than friendly concern that brought him. "You're really going through with this?" Tug Mug asked, watching with interest.
"Absolutely. I'm not going to win Chilla's favour by being a coward. She'll probably beat me, but it might be worth it in the long run," he replied, discarding the roll of tape and picking up a water bottle.
"Good. Good. I was afraid you might back down," Tug Mug replied.
Psychro noticed a notebook sticking out of the heavier man's belt and raised an eyebrow. "Taking bets? What are my odds?"
"Well, eet's twenty-five percent een favour of you not showing up. Twenty-nine say you won't last two minutes. Forty that you don't last five minutes, and six that you last ten," Tug Mug answered, flipping out the notebook and reading off it.
"No one bet on me?" Psychro asked, more than a little stunned. He didn't think he had many supporters, but he'd expected someone to take the chance on him. Some of the ladies, for instance.
"There was one, but he thought you were fighting someone else and changed eet to Chilla when I corrected him," Tug Mug chortled. "Don't worry. I know Chilla. This ees bound to help your chances. She respects people who can match her hand to hand. I know these things... Just try to at least make eet to five minutes. Please?"
The hybrid Lunatak shook his head in disbelief. The Graviton's words weren't inspiring, but maybe he could use them as added motivation. If no one was expecting him to win, then an upset over Chilla could gain him some favour in the eyes of the crowd. Maybe Chilla would respect him more if he could beat her... Or she'd hate him more for embarrassing her. Love was complicated and, he suspected, it hurt.
An hour later the dining room was full of Icewalkers and a few guests from the other moons. Paeder sat in a place of honour along one side with a pair of other high-ranking Icewalkers and, unfortunately, Tug Mug. The latter had leered at her upon arrival and was in the process of asking how it felt to have a one time lover competing for the heart of another, and an offer to console her in his bedroom if she needed it. If he weren't an important dignitary she would have iced him and had done with it.
It felt odd doing this. The last time she'd been involved in a formal combat her captain, the late Havallance, had perished in a fight to the death against Knave. She had gained captaincy of the ship as a result of his demise, a fact that both a blessing and a curse. Chilla entered the room with little fanfare and took her stance in the middle of the floor, Psychro joined her. All that was left was for Paeder to start the fight.
"According to the laws of the Ice Moon it is allowed we may challenge one another to combat. Chilla of House Iespyk has, today, challenged Psychro of House Myntaello. They will fight unarmed until one person surrenders or until blood is drawn. Anyone interfering in this sacred tradition will be punished on the spot. If, after two hours, there is no victor, the combatants will be permitted a short break and given knives," Paeder said, her tone indicating that she didn't believe Chilla would need two hours to finish the hybrid. "Good luck warriors, and may Lunis guide you both." She stepped back and settled in her chair to watch.
He had guts, Chilla had to admit. She'd put money on him not bothering to show up, and her having to fetch him from wherever he was hiding. It was all bravado, though. He didn't really want to hurt her, and that gave her all the advantage she would need. What was it Ren had told her in that first lesson? "Find your opponent's weakness and exploit it." Psychro was vain, overconfident in his good looks getting him out of any entanglement. She knew just what to do. She circled him, and took a swing at his face. It was an easy blow for him to block, but it allowed her to test his reflexes. When he made to kick she stepped out of the way. He was far too uncertain, this would be over in no time.
Chilla moved in, grappling with Psychro, leaning in and watching his face intently. As she anticipated his eyes flicked from her face to the generous cleavage she was showing. It was only a second, but it was all she needed. Lightning fast she brought her knee up into his groin, dropping him like a sack of rocks. She jumped on him and raised a fist to smash his pretty face in. At once he surrendered. Sniffing contemptuously at him she rose and enjoyed the adulation of the crowd.
Tug Mug was horrified. Thanks to Psychro, he now had to pay a lot of money to a lot of people. It was the oldest trick in the book, though he had to concede that he would have fallen for it too.
"Queen Luna is insufferable," Aristarchus growled, safely back in his hideout. He was hopeful that Luna's people hadn't followed him, but was in the process of destroying evidence that he'd ever been there. He had other safe houses he could go to. "I'm of half a mind to kill Amok. That would teach her a lesson she wouldn't soon forget. She's too dangerous. Too smart. How can I turn that around on her?"
"Why not just blow up the palace?" Kaprenius asked. His boy was sitting on a chair with his muddy boots on the table chewing on a piece of fruit.
"Just blow up the palace? You make it sound easy. Tell you what, why don't you go do that. Rub two sticks together and maybe the place will go up. Why don't you rub two brain cells together instead and make yourself useful? Wait a minute. Maybe I'm going about this all wrong. Maybe I can't intimidate Luna. Maybe another tactic is called for." A plan was formulating in Aristarchus' keen mind. He'd suffered setbacks before, but never found it terribly productive to dwell on them. Whining wouldn't get him what he wanted, but he had an idea of what might.
There wasn't an icepack big enough, in Psychro's eyes. He sat on his assigned bunk, enduring quietly the ridicule of his companions. He'd even turned down an offer from a pretty nurse to inspect the damage. He should have taken her up on the offer. It was obvious he wasn't going to get anywhere wooing Chilla. Nothing but rejection from that woman, and he had tried every trick he knew. Maybe it just wasn't meant to be. Nothing, short of the most powerful telepath, would ever make her feel anything for him, and that made him sadder. A tear trickled down his cheek at the thought. He had never felt this down and out before, and he didn't like the feeling. A fleeting thought of killing himself flashed through his mind, but that probably wouldn't impress her either. He didn't get it.
Unbeknownst to him, this was the other part of Chilla's test. His persistence was indeed paying some dividends. The attention was flattering, even if his heritage and his history were drawbacks. She needed to know what kind of man he was, and see how he rebounded from this humiliating defeat. If he was the man she thought he was, he would mope and eventually give up. A man worthy of her would be back, demanding a re-match.
A man worthy of her wouldn't have fallen for that trick. Sex ruled Psychro's thoughts, a dangerous thing in a battle situation. A warrior needed to be able to focus on nothing but the fight, tapping into emotions only to fuel their strength. And if he could be that distracted under fire he was sure to be distracted at other times, confirming in her mind that fidelity was not a strong point of Psychro.
It was late dinner in the dimly lit room that was home to Stalker, captain of the Third Earth military forces. He had invited Red Eye and his daughter to join him to go over the abilities of the natives. These discussions had been going on ever since Luna had first announced this voyage, but he liked hearing it again. Dinner was a combination of a deer-like animal found on the Dark Moon stuffed with vegetables and served slathered in a milky sauce.
"The Thundercats and Mutants are the only ones we know of with space flight capabilities, though Interplanetary Control Force operates in the area too," Red Eye said, swallowing a large mouthful. He wasn't entirely sure what condition the Rat Star was, but it wouldn't surprise him if the Mutants still had it up and running. Either way, he doubted the Mutants would bother them. The Thundercats only had the one space worthy ship, the Feliner, so there was less to worry about there.
"What about Mumm-Ra?" Shade asked, interrupting his train of thought. She had been fascinated by stories of Mumm-Ra ever since he had returned from Third Earth. The demon priest was the biggest threat on the planet, so talk of him made some amount of sense.
"I don't know for sure," Red Eye replied, mulling it over. He'd certainly never heard of Mumm-Ra venturing into outer space. Perhaps it was too far from his pyramid. "I know he's resistant to many attacks, but I'm not sure about his need to breathe in space. There were so many legends about him that we read about that it's hard to distinguish fact from fiction."
"Resistant? Like what?" Stalker asked.
"He seems to be resistant to the elements, at least the cold and heat don't bother him, he can withstand most physical blows. He was buried under the Fire Rock Mountains and survived."
"Then how do we beat him? If dropping a mountain on him doesn't work..." Stalker's voice trailed off and he walked to his window, staring at the stars as they streaked by.
Red Eye tried to recall everything from their encounters with the devil priest, and the stories they'd pulled from the natives. The knowledge wasn't extensive but, after their lava incarceration, they'd made a point to try and learn more. "Rumour has it that his own reflection can drive him away, but we tried that and he seems to have adapted. I believe that the best bet is to destroy his pyramid. It is the focus of his power and where his masters, the ancient spirits of evil, live. Without them to give him power he is weakened."
"Do we know anything about these ancient spirits?" Shade asked.
"Only that there are four statues in the pyramid that they inhabit," Red Eye said.
"Great. So we break these statues, destroy the pyramid, while hoping that this wizard with no known weakness doesn't kill us all," Stalker sighed. The trio finished the meal in silence, an aura of bleakness hovering over them.
Cameo had lost track of the days that he'd been in this filthy, disease infested dungeon. At least once a day he was taken out of the cell and tortured at length in the chamber he'd found. He wasn't sure what was happening to Amok while he was gone, but the brute appeared to be even more drained when he was tossed into the filthy water. He'd managed to keep his strength up by doing some fishing when he wasn't too sore to move and had caught an eel and a pair of smaller fish. He'd tried, at first, to give the food to Amok but he seemed less responsive now.
He wondered what that meant. If they wanted either of them dead, Cameo had no illusions that they would have done so by now. Mutants weren't good at much, but mindless killing was certainly a trait they possessed. So if they were being kept alive, but not interrogated, then they were being used to collect ransom. Which meant someone was after Luna. After all, Luna was next to useless without Amok, he figured.
A group of guards opened the door, Cameo counted eight that he could see. "Your lucky day, Lunatak. You get to go home," the lead Reptile said, as his cronies moved in to cart Amok from the cell. Seeing no reason to fight yet, Cameo followed willingly.
Aboard the royal flagship, The Crown, Tycho and Darius awoke still cuddled together. They were feeling the excitement onboard the ship. Third Earth was now only a day's travel away. Soon the new city would be under construction. There was a lot to do, but it was worthwhile for the growth of the empire. "I suppose I should make sure that everyone knows their role as soon as we land," Tycho sighed, reluctant to break his lover's embrace.
"You probably should. And I should go see if there's anything to eat for breakfast," Darius replied sagely.
"Probably. But not yet. It can wait," Tycho replied. He was just too comfortable under the blankets, and quiet moments like this would be rare soon enough.
"It's your own fault," Knave muttered to himself, though he could scarcely hear the words. He was journeying through the Forest of Mists with yet another coil of rope to continue the chain of ropes he'd already assembled. He hoped it wasn't much further to the exit, because this was the last rope in Sky Tomb. The thought of asking the Thundercats for more made his skin crawl.
However, it was less the journey than the reason for the journey that had gotten him so riled. Zanaya had complained about wanting spicy foods, complaining that the diluted Icewalker genes were to blame. He wasn't sure if she was right about that, and had argued loud and long that if she wanted spicy foods she could get them herself, and yet here he was, almost through the Forest of Mists, on his way to find some spicy food. He was just nearing the end of the coil of rope, and dreading having to backtrack, when he burst out into open air. It felt wonderful and he filled his lungs with refreshing air, enjoying the feel of the pleasant breeze washing across his face. He tied the remainder of the rope to a rocky outcropping and looked around, trying to decide which way to go. Then he saw a Thundercat ship, making a beeline towards him and opted to wait for the Thunderian.
Bengali had been out on a routine scout patrol in the Thunderstrike's left pod when Lynx-O had reported activity near the Forest of Mists, and indicated that he should investigate. He was surprised to see Knave seated on a rock as he landed, but also pleasantly surprised. He'd seen the hybrid in passing once or twice, and was curious to learn more about him. He parked the pod and approached. Even from this distance he could see the tensing of muscles in Knave's stance, as though he were trying to compose himself but wanting action.
"Ho, friend! What brings you out of Dark Side?" he asked, keeping a safe distance to show that he wasn't there to fight, but also far enough away to be able to counter an offensive strike.
"I'm doing some shopping, Zanaya wants spicy food," the hybrid replied warily. Bengali knew nothing of the history between their two peoples. Snow Tiger hide had been a favoured catch among Icewalker pirates, and while this generations long feud had tapered off there was still an instinctive distrust. Knave knew a little of this history, he'd used one of these pelts as a child, when the night was especially cold. Still, since Bengali was trying to be friendly he would make an effort too.
"I know just the place. The Berbils run a taco stand not too far away from here. I'll take you there." Bengali gestured to the pod, which did indeed seem to accommodate multiple people. Knave had felt like a run, but decided that, since he didn't know the lay of the land very well, he might as well take him up on the offer.
He climbed in hesitantly, surprised that the Thundercat would leave his back so exposed to an enemy. It would be a simple matter to sink his claws deep into Bengali's throat, to tear the flesh from bone and commandeer the flight pod. He and Zanaya would have meat for a week easily... Until the Thundercats came for revenge. No. It was too soon. They weren't ready to fight all the Thundercats. Yet.
Knave was so caught up in his thoughts that Bengali had to repeat his question. "I asked what life is like on the Ice Moon. My own home back on Thundera was far to the north in the frozen wastelands. I came to the city to ply my trade as a blacksmith."
"It isn't that much different. There's more vegetation where you're from though," Bengali took his eyes off where he was going and glanced back in confusion. "Don't look so surprised. The Lunataks visited Thundera on numerous occasions. Our history books tell of many such encounters. Slave raids, food raids, attempts to expand. Our history is full of it. That's how my mother came to the Ice Moon. She was on a freighter trying to establish a trade route with Plundarr when my people attacked. Nitro led the mission and killed everyone except her. They were the lucky ones, we don't treat prisoners very well." Knave grinned, remembering how, as jailer, he would torture prisoners for days before letting them die. Lucky prisoners arrived when food supplies were running short.
"Really? How terrible. I can't imagine growing up like that," Bengali said.
"We're not that different. We're punished when we do bad. Rewarded when we do well. The punishments and rewards are higher than you Thunderians, but that's led to a very low crime rate within the Icewalker society. Why would you steal when you know that it might cost you your life?"
Bengali tried to blot out the thoughts of what would happen for a more serious crime, if death awaited a simple crime like theft. Instead he tried to draw the hybrid out on a more pleasant issue. "Tell me more about your mother. Maybe Cheetara can tell you more about your family."
"Her name was Amber," Knave's voice faltered. His father had forced him to kill her. Punishment for their trying to flee the Moon. "What's Cheetara like? She seemed friendly."
"Oh she is. She's one of the nicest people I know, very caring and considerate of others, but strict with the rest of us when she needs to be. Lion-O may be the Lord of the Thundercats, but he listens to every word she says. You should meet her some time, with your common ancestry and her personality, I'm sure you'd both like it. Ah! Here we are, do you want me to wait?" Bengali asked, lowering the pod to the ground.
"No. Thank you. I could use a good run back to Dark Side." He climbed out and walked slowly to the restaurant. When the time came to kill the Thundercats, Bengali would die a swift death.
"Please repeat," Mandora said into her headset. It was wired to allow her direct contact with the Interplanetary Control Force, of which she was an officer. They were police of the space ways, keeping the peace between planets and ensuring that basic laws were conformed to. They had been set up long ago by a group of planets and employed agents from these and several others. It was an efficient system, and they were well respected throughout the galaxy.
The human female was cruising through her sector, on her daily patrol, when she had spotted the large convoy of Lunatak ships. The Moons of Plundarr weren't in her jurisdiction, but the planet Third Earth was, and that seemed to be where the Lunataks were headed. Her immediate response, knowing full well that a single officer could not hope to slow down, let alone stop, a group of ships like that, had been to radio it in. She was not pleased with the response.
"We are aware of the Lunatak presence in your sector, evil chaser. They've put in the necessary paperwork to lay claim to the region of Third Earth known as 'Dark Side.' They intend to settle there," a masculine, if bored, voice said over her headset. "A prince Tycho sent it in last month."
"How is that possible? Surely some native species already has a claim in," Mandora said, knowing deep down that her superiors would have been very thorough on this matter.
"There are no indigenous persons in that region and, in lieu of a formalized planetary governing body, the Interplanetary Control Force is permitted to divide parcels of land where it sees fit, providing sufficient claims are made. The Lunataks rightly have pointed out that they were living in Dark Side for eighty years without any land rights being infringed upon, and the ICF has deeded them the necessary land."
"So we've given them land so they can take over the rest of the planet? There are known criminals among that group," Mandora insisted. Every instinct screamed that this situation was wrong, that the Lunataks had slipped a Psion into Control's brain trust, anything that might rectify the problem.
"That's merely speculation. We received a crew manifest from prince Tycho and, while there are people with criminal records, the ICF has decided that most of their crimes don't fall under our jurisdiction. They've also decided, given your history with a number of the Lunataks, that you are to stay clear of Third Earth unless specifically told otherwise." The voice on the other end of the head set almost sounded apologetic, and Mandora appreciated it, even if the implication was insulting.
"Fine. Can I at least warn the Thundercats?" she asked.
"Good. Mandora to Cat's Lair. Come in Thundercats..."
Less than a day away. The news had been spreading throughout the armada of ships. Alluro found that he couldn't be nearly as jubilant as the rest of the crew. He didn't need to be a telepath to know that they had visions of glorious conquest. They didn't know the truth. Mumm-Ra was a dangerous foe, capable of doing terrific damage on his own. His counterpart, Mumm-Rana, was said to be just the same. The Thundercats with that Sword of Omens that seemed to gain new abilities every week. And if the inhabitants weren't trying to kill you, the planet itself was. Alluro had seen regions like Acid Lake and The Void. None of these Lunataks really knew the dangers they were up against. Half of them would die within the first month.
He wondered whether Luna cared about that, and whether she hoped her old associates would be among those that perished. No. Before they'd left she had offered him a surface reading of her mind, to allay his fears and assure him in the confidence she had that he could do this. It had helped, a little, to quell the nagging fear. After all, she was right to have confidence. He was one of the greatest masters of the mind. But was it enough?
Alluro settled in his hammock more comfortably, staring at the back of the Psion sleeping above him. It would have to be enough, he was the only one around he could count on.
A knock at the door startled Luna. It was nearing lunch time and she had just been about to send one of her guards to fetch it. She was settled in the office just off the official throne room. For appearances she conducted audiences in there, for the real work she relied on her office. A woman entered, after a thorough security check. It was a Darkling woman she'd never seen before. "State your business," Luna said, swallowing back the anger at being interrupted.
"I come from a mutual friend," the Darkling said, her face shimmering and twisting to that of Aristarchus. It snapped back to its original appearance seconds later, before the guard in the corner could notice. Luna had, though, and understood. Aristarchus was being more cautious this time. Even so, Luna debated having the guards arrest this woman. It was obviously the same shape changer that had attacked Psikaris.
"And what does this mutual friend want?" Luna asked.
"He wishes to return to you that which is yours and to negotiate a peace," she said. "If it is your will, I can take you now."
Luna considered this. Was it a trap to capture her as well? Entirely possible. It was also entirely possible that Aristarchus truly was trying to make amends. She wasn't stupid though. She couldn't afford to take any risks that would leave the empire vulnerable. "Very well. I will go with you," she said at length, making eye contact with the guard who stood where Amok should have been. His head moved imperceptibly. A contingent of people would follow and could rescue her if need be. She picked up her riding crop, equipped with a locating device, and gestured for the Darkling woman to lead the way. She was rather startled when the woman became a brute of the same species as Amok, complete with saddle.
The spirit within Shade quivered with an unnamed excitement, knowing how close they were to Third Earth. Shade knew little of the spirit, other than it was some kind of ghost that had once lived long ago. He disliked speaking of its past, but she gathered he had some kind of connection to the planet, asking many questions, especially about Mumm-Ra. When she asked if he had ever encountered the demon priest it said no, and she believed it. She'd come to like the spirit, a kind of constant companion who treated her kindly, so she didn't press the point.
A warehouse on the outskirts of the capital. Typical. Luna was hardly surprised to see where the changeling was carrying her. It took them almost an hour to reach the hardy wooden structure, and a garage door rose at their approach. It reeked of mould, having been used at one point to store grain, and was unnaturally black as night within. Once through the door the changeling changed shape, cradling her unceremoniously in its arms and placing her on what felt like a wooden crate. Luna heard the garage door close again.
"I think we can dispense with the darkness," a voice, Aristarchus' said. At once light filled the room. Luna could see a Darkling, the spitting image of the one the changeling had appeared as, standing, drawing the last of the magical darkness into herself. The shape changer, Thrace, stood nearby in her natural state. Aristarchus stood in front of her, blocking her view of Amok and Cameo. When he stepped aside she could see that both were bound, hand and foot, and seemed to be unconscious... or dead.
"What have you done, monster?" she snapped, fearing the worst.
"They're unharmed. They've been drugged to keep them docile until I hand them over. I intend to give you the antidote," the royal Lunatak said, handing her twin vials of a strange purple liquid. "There. You see? I'm not so bad. We got off on the wrong foot, and I mean to correct that. You are obviously a wise woman and a formidable foe. I think it is in my best interests to have you on my side. So, as a token of my generosity I will return these two to you. I can even arrange for your lawsuit to go away."
"That's a good start," she replied, struggling to hop down from the crate and rushing to Amok's side. She was pleased when Aristarchus didn't try to stop her. She forced her Guardian's mouth open and tentatively poured the liquid in, dismissing the possibility that it was poisoned. "If you can do all that, I might forgive your transgressions against me personally. I admire your tenacity, I might even be able to use it. A few more gestures of good will, and I might just rescind all charges against you."
Amok was slowly beginning to stir, his beady eyes fluttering open, and widening further when he saw Luna. Gently she coaxed him to calm down, not wanting him to overexert himself so soon. "That's all I ask. I don't like running from the law and hiding, it doesn't suit a man of my position. Thank you. Come, we have work to do," he said to his associates as they all slipped out.
Luna stared at the door that Aristarchus and his allies had used, shaking her head. He might prove useful indeed.
She was back home on the Ice Moon, the network of caves that she and Ren had once called home. Chilla recognized it, somehow, as the day the two had first taken possession of these tunnels, having just been bonded in ceremony in front of their family. She glanced down at her arm, a fresh wound marring her otherwise smooth skin. A few drops of blood had been dripped on the altar of the goddess to seal the bond. Walking in a daze still, Chilla walked through her home, exploring and remembering.
The table where, only a month from now, she would lay her prized kill, a beast twice her size that resembled a bear, but had six legs and razor sharp fangs. It had taken great effort to bring it down, and had nearly cost her her life, but the pride had been worth it.
Down the hall a painting on the wall, depicting a dozen Icewalkers fending off an invading Mutant army. The main hero in the picture was Ren's uncle, who had fought in that brief skirmish. Their patrol had been ambushed by some thirty to forty Mutants of all sorts and had defeated them all. Half the patrol had been killed, no Mutants were taken captive.
She pushed open the door at the very end and saw the bedroom. The large animal hide covered bed was just as she remembered. She jumped as she felt hands on her shoulders, loving hands that caressed and soothed. She turned and saw Ren, his smile familiar, eyes twinkling with lust. Rational thought that this was merely a dream, that Ren had died long ago, vanished, replaced with yearning for this man. Bodily she pulled him to the bed, shucking her cape as she did so. Their kiss was a veritable explosion of emotions and she tore frantically at his clothes.
Ren was not immobile through her frenzy, touching her in places that, from any other man, would have meant death. She lightly singed his skin with her firey powers, breathing cool mist over the spot, causing him to moan loudly. He responded instantly by overpowering her and taking her for the first time as bonded mates. She basked in the sensation, coaxing him on. She fluttered open her eyes, wanting to see his face at the moment of rapture and was startled to find Psychro's face instead. She was so close, though, that she didn't care. So very close to that ultimate release...
Chilla sat up in bed, angrily. She'd been having the most wonderful dream and it had been ended abruptly by a knocking on her door. Determined to throttle whomever it was, she opened it and was startled to find Psychro standing there. He looked nervous and somewhat sheepish. For about half a second Chilla wanted to pull him into the room until the realization hit. Some Psions were able to manipulate dreams and Psychro was half Psion. Psychro had done so in order to trick her into sleeping with him. Instantly she leapt at him, punching at any exposed part of his body.
He'd been half-asleep at his post, going over one of the fighters, when he'd had a vague impression that now would be the time to apologize to Chilla. He'd given her space following their fight, and he should deal with it before they landed. Plan in mind he walked up to her door and knocked. What a sight, one he would remember for a long time. He'd slept with enough women to recognize the signs of arousal when he saw it. The look didn't last long, however, and he soon found himself on the defensive.
On another ship in the same convoy, a well past middle-aged Mezmir was happy with how things had gone. Most Psions dismissed his skills as useless, but Mystan knew better. A person was most vulnerable in their sleep, likely to show their true selves. But it wasn't just observing he could do. Mezmir could influence and affect dreams. And while he'd enjoyed playing the part of Ren, he'd enjoyed the results of his plotting even more.
Mystan had come to him earlier in the day, expressing concern that Chilla would be a thorn in their side and it might be to their benefit if she was otherwise distracted. Psychro's addition to the equation was an added bonus. Mezmir had been furious at the hybrid upon learning that he'd violated his daughter. Yes, this would teach him a lesson and please Mystan as well.
"Cameo! You're alive!" Psikaris said, rushing into her boyfriend's arms and trying, ineffectually, to swing him around.
"Yeah. Aristarchus let Amok and I go free. Luna didn't say why, and I chose not to press. I'm just glad to be free of that place," Cameo said. He'd been escorted home, but the guards had left as soon as he'd gone inside. As far as they could tell he was out of danger. Psikaris had been in the living room putting a small engine back together when he'd entered. He kissed her tenderly on the lips and pulled back, grateful to once again see her. He'd started wondering if he would ever see his love again.
She wrinkled her nose at him and wiped her lips. "You smell like a sewer and taste like fish," she said, though there was little hostility in her statement.
"Mutant dungeons and Mutant cooking will do that. I'll go shower, just for you," he said.
"And I'll have something edible ready when you're done. I'm just glad you're alive," she said.
A long black car pulled up to the Brythago house, and Eluosi climbed in. She was surprised to see that Aristarchus had brought a companion but didn't question it, he often insisted on accompanying her to the trial so perhaps this person was part of it. "You're looking well," her benefactor said, noting that she wasn't holding her arm nearly as awkwardly today.
"I am. I think they're on the right track. Once that and this business with Luna are done I'll be able to get on with my life," she said, settling back into the comfortable leather seats.
"This business with Luna is done now. I want you to withdraw your claims," he said.
For an instant she thought he was joking and started to laugh, but noted that he wasn't joining in the fun. "How can you say that? We're so close, we've got her right where we want her," she started.
"I am well aware of the situation. The queen and I, however, have made other arrangements and this trial is no longer necessary, and neither are you." He gestured to the woman beside him and she began to morph again into a gelatinous blob, engulfing Eluosi in her gooey mass. Eluosi struggled in vain for a few moments, trying to breathe, but her efforts gradually ceased. When Aristarchus was convinced that she was truly deceased he motioned again to the changeling.
Thrace slowly slid from around Eluosi corpse and settled in the seat, assuming the dead woman's shape. "You know, Aristarchus, I think you're right. I think I will withdraw my charges against Luna," she said, her voice identical to Eluosi's.
Aristarchus chuckled. "I thought you might."
On to Expansion and Conquest - part four
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