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Return to Power
Part Three

When all the Thundercats in Cat's Lair were gathered, and a video link was established with the Thundercats in the Tower of Omens, Lion-O repeated for them what he had seen in with the Eye of Thundera. The looks of his peers ranged from anger to shock to sadness, emotions that were conflicting within him as well. Panthro, predictably, was the first to speak. "We can't let the Lunataks get away with this. I say we attack their city at once!"

"Think, Panthro. They outnumber us five hundred to ten," Tygra replied, he was the rational one, the one Lion-O knew he could count on for his best advice. Lion-O internally agreed with Panthro, he wanted vengeance for such a blatant attack, but Tygra was also right. Even before the incident the Lunataks outnumbered them, now that Cheetara was prisoner and Lynx-O was unavailable they were at a greater loss.

"We can't just leave her at the mercy of those savages," Wily Kat said, remembering Knave's chilling threat to eat him. "Who knows what they're doing to her."

"Something is preventing me from finding out what's happening to her," Lion-O said, he'd tried while waiting for everyone to be assembled and had been met with static. It was frustrating, but he remained confident that she was alive. Surely the Sword would tell him that much.

"We will find out what happened, but we can't go in there all guns blazing, it won't do us any good." Tygra sighed heavily. If there weren't Darklings around, he would have suggested doing a reconnaissance mission with his invisibility. "Do you suppose we can negotiate her return?"

Panthro snorted, and Bengali concurred with the unspoken remark. "Negotiate with them? Look what happened when we tried to trust them once, it cost us Cheetara."

"What about Mandora?" Snarfer suddenly said. "Maybe we could ask Control for help. They've got the manpower."

"If it isn't too late to help Cheetara," Wily Kit mumbled.

"I agree with Snarfer. We can't fight them on our own, so why not bring in some backup? In the meantime, we'll contact the Lunataks, find out what they want in return for her safe release," Lion-O said, considering what his friends had said. "Contact the rest of the people on Third Earth; the warrior maidens, the Tuskas, and so on. If there's going to be a fight, we're going to need all the help we can get. We need to convince them that if the Lunataks do defeat us, they will surely move on to take the rest of the planet."

The meeting broke quickly, each Thundercat being given an assignment and hurrying off to do their duty.

Chilla was waiting impatiently at the gathering point for the jungle clearing duties. Auralin hadn't arrived yet, though she'd heard from some of the others that he was always on time, she was just early. There were about ten of them in total, each sporting small arms in addition to whatever personal abilities they had. She doubted severely whether any of them had seen much hand to hand combat, though an Icewalker from House Kolrad looked promising. She would be hindered by the humid jungles, if Chilla's own personal experience was anything to go by. It seemed, looking from one to another, that this group was largely for those deemed as 'troublemakers' in the hopes that one of them would be killed off.

The arrival of Psychro elicited a groan from the Icewalker woman, both of them Chilla realized. Were there any women that Psychro hadn't been involved with? Psychro had been determined to add her to his list since the day he'd met her, even going so far as to dress like her former bonding partner Ren. It wouldn't surprise her in the least if she found out that he'd arranged to be put on this squad in some vain attempt to impress her, or with the hopes he'd get to rescue her and earn her favour. "Chilla!" he shouted, jogging over to her. She contemplated freezing him before he got close, but figured she didn't want to know where the troublemakers of the troublemaker brigade were sent.

"What do you want?" she said icily.

He glanced around, that stupid grin on his face that drove her nuts, "Looks like we're working together. Don't worry, you can count on me."

"Yes. I can count on you to need rescuing. If you do, I won't be helping," she replied, stiffly turning away.

"Oh don't be like that," he chased after her, and it was a blessing for both of them that Auralin picked that moment to arrive. Immediately the entire group went over to receive their orders.

"You will be divided into four teams, and each assigned a different section of the jungle. Use your judgement. If anything attacks you, kill it and bring it in. If it looks dangerous kill it and bring it in. You get the idea," he said. His voice was nasally and irritating, quite unlike most other Psions that Chilla had met, he sounded like Alluro sometimes did when he had a cold.

The group was divided, inevitably she found herself in the same group as Psychro and the other Icewalker, and she wondered if this was part of Aristarchus' punishment; it probably was. Soon the group was slipping deep into the jungle.

"Are you joking?" Tygra fumed, staring in shock at Mandora. He had taken on the responsibility of contacting the Interplanetary Control Force's agent for the region, a long time friend of the Thundercats, to ask for their help and was not pleased with the response.

"The law never jokes," Mandora replied, her normally flat monotone voice betraying the emotions she felt. "I'm sorry, Tygra, but their word is final. We cannot interfere until we have solid evidence that a crime has been committed, and hearsay from the Sword of Omens isn't enough. I know that Lion-O isn't lying, and I trust you Thundercats as much as the law allows, but it would never stand up in a court of law. Too many people would accuse you of bias and of fabricating what he saw."

Tygra bit back his immediate response. He was all for letting government and politics work, but disliked the slow pace they were taking under the circumstances. He and Cheetara were friends. No, that wasn't quite accurate; they were family. Losing Cheetara to the Lunataks was unacceptable, and his expression showed it.

"Look, Thundercat, there is some hope. I've been authorized to launch an investigation into the matter. I will need to inspect the crash site, speak with Lion-O, Lynx-O and the Lunataks. If there's evidence to be found, I'll find it," she said. "I should be there in the next day or two. Don't do anything foolish before then."

That was as much as she could do, Tygra knew. They hadn't known Mandora for too long, but all of their encounters had been friendly. Lion-O had even helped the evil chaser on a case or two. And she was right, she was the best in the force, she would find the smallest piece of evidence and nail the Lunataks. "Thank you," he said, switching off the view screen. He looked over where Lion-O was sitting, trying to get a hold of Aristarchus in New Lunis and dealing with a rude operator. The Lord was becoming visibly frustrated, so he calmly went over and placed a hand on his shoulder, reassuring his friend that things would work out. He just hoped that the others were having better luck.

At the Tree Top Kingdom, Wily Kit and Wily Kat were having an easier time convincing the Warrior Maidens that they needed help. Though the maidens were technologically inferior to the Lunataks, they made up for their shortcomings through bravery and intelligence. Their sheer numbers, and their adaptability to life in the woods made them ideal allies. "All of Third Earth is in your debt, a thousand times over," Queen Willa told the kittens, in the sanctuary of her tree hut. She arranged for a small lunch to be provided and continued. "It is an honour for us to begin repaying that debt. We've had our dealings with the Lunataks, and if they have done what you say then there is no doubt in my mind that they won't stop with the destruction of the Thundercats. Poor Cheetara, I can't imagine what those brutes are doing to her."

She gazed mournfully out the window, remembering fondly the first time she'd met the Thunderian woman. Her people had largely kept to themselves, having an innate distrust of outsiders, and men in particular. The only reason they ever made contact with the outside world was in order to keep their tribe alive, capturing men and using them to impregnate a woman or two. When the Thundercats arrived the maidens had viewed them suspiciously, watching their actions closely. Willa had been impressed with the fighting spirit of Cheetara, a woman so bold and confident that she seemed to belong to the village. Many times since that first meeting, Cheetara had proven herself to be a true friend as well as a fighter.

Willa realized with a start that she'd been ignoring the kittens, and saw fear etched on their faces. They were so determined to be brave Thundercats that it was hard to remember sometimes that they were still effectively children. They had lost a woman who was like a mother to them and her heart ached for their sakes as well. She gathered them close and hugged them tightly. "Don't worry, we'll bring her back," she assured them.

"The Lunataks kidnapped Cheetara? Oh, they have gone too far!" said the Snow Man of Hook Mountain, trembling with such rage. Snow Meow, his faithful steed, roared in agreement.

"I know. We're going to get her back as soon as possible. Can we count on you for help?" Bengali asked.

"By the snows of Hook Mountain, I will be there for the Thundercats when they call."

The Thundertank wasn't really designed for travel through the Forest of Mists. Even with the strongest headlights available the going was slow and visibility was reduced to barely a few feet around. Panthro and Pumyra had taken on the responsibility of traversing the Forest in the hopes of recovering the Thunderstrike and, more importantly, Lynx-O.

They were almost there when Pumyra finally asked the question that had been bothering her the last little while. "Why did they take Cheetara, but leave Lynx-O? Why not take them both?"

She saw Panthro's eyes flick over to her and knew that he'd been wondering the same thing. "Maybe they didn't see him, or maybe they thought he was dead. Either way I don't like it. These Lunataks aren't stupid. If they left him behind there's probably a reason for it." He pulled sharply to one side as they came upon the first piece of wreckage, a piece of metal that had been sheered off. That meant they were getting closer, so he slowed down even more. It wouldn't do to run over the elderly Thundercat while trying to help him.

"Surely the sword would have told us if he were..." Pumyra found herself unable to voice the gnawing fear that Lynx-O was indeed dead. She had always known that he would probably die before she did, based solely on the differences in their ages, and certainly she knew that anyone could be killed at any time, especially where such creatures as the Lunataks were concerned. But she'd grown so accustomed to him being around. She had been friends with him back on Thundera, before the explosion, and along with Bengali, the three of them had been rescued by a friendly pair of Berbils, lived as a community on a desert island, and been captured by the Berserkers. So many events that they'd lived through together.

Panthro didn't respond, and she appreciated it. He was more cynical than she was, and might not have had anything reassuring to say. They had arrived at the downed Thunderstrike anyway, the lights of the Thundertank barely illuminating the canopy of the main flight pod. She climbed out and moved to open the door so that she could get inside. She accessed the buttons at the side of the pod, and the hatch opened wide. She saw Lynx-O rise from beneath the control panel and 'look' in her direction, ears straining. "Is that you, Cheetara?" he asked. "No! It's Pumyra! What are you doing here?" She felt a wave of relief wash over her and she rushed to embrace him.

"Panthro and I came to find you," she said. "Are you all right?"

"I am. I was just trying to fix the radio so I could call for help. The Thunderstrike is heavily damaged, as you can see. We were attacked by a woman, and I tried to maintain control but... where's Cheetara?" Lynx-O's voice grew unsteady. In the faint light she could make out a bandage wrapped around his head, and assumed he'd done his own field repairs. He must have suffered a blow to the head, and had thus been unaware of what had happened to Cheetara.

There was a muffled crunch of footfalls on rock as Panthro appeared at her side. "Same thing that's been happening around Third Earth, from the looks of it. I found Cheetara's staff, I nearly ran over it with the tank, and the ground's been disturbed there, just as it's been for the other abductions. Those blasted Lunataks have been busier than we thought," he replied, holding out Cheetara's trademark weapon.

"Perhaps my braille board detected something from the attack," Lynx-O mused, reaching into the Thunderstrike to retrieve it. "It was recording even while I was unconscious."

"Lion-O was hoping that the Thunderstrike could be gotten out of here, but it's not looking good. This pod," Panthro tapped the pod that Cheetara had been in, "should be serviceable, and the centre might get by with some quick repairs, but the other pod is totally shot... If we can disengage it from the Thunderstrike, on the other hand, the Thundertank might be able to tow the worst of it out."

The Panther was clearly talking more to himself than either of them, so Pumyra took the opportunity to inspect Lynx-O's wound. There was a large gash, from where his head had hit the window, but it had stopped flowing. When they got back to the Tower she would clean it thoroughly, but decided to leave it for now. Otherwise there didn't seem to be any major injuries. A few bruises, and a heavy heart for Cheetara's safety, but nothing that wouldn't heal with time.

Snarf walked along the road, heading back to Cat's Lair from the Berbil village. The robotic bears knew that they would be ineffective in combat, even likely being a hindrance to them, but they were eager to help in any way that the Thundercats needed. They had had too many nasty encounters with the Lunataks and didn't seem surprised to hear that the truce had been broken; disappointed yes, but not surprised. They had also told Snarf about the mystery surrounding the Lunatak supply ship, that had been attacked, leaving one dead and two missing. Apparently a Darkling named Stalker had been asking them a lot of questions.

This threw a metaphorical wrench into things, where old Snarf was concerned. If the Lunataks had lost people to whatever was happening, then perhaps they weren't behind the attacks on the rest of Third Earth like he had initially thought. Even if they had decided to stage a capture to throw off suspicion, why would they kill one of their own? Or was he expecting too much out Lunataks? Maybe they had planned on killing whomever it was anyway and thought that this might be a perfect opportunity. Maybe killing friends for the sake of a ruse was the Lunatak way. Either way, this wasn't an area that would be judged by him. He was only a nursemaid and cook, neither profession making him suitable to make such decisions. He would report his findings to Lion-O and the rest of the Thundercats and let them deal with it.

Aristarchus' scowl would have made most operator's wither, but not Chillaura, disappointingly. The young woman, of Psion/Icewalker descent returned the scowl with a look that said 'I don't care that this call is coming at an inopportune time, I was busy doing my nails when it came in, so take it so that I can get back to work.' It was infuriating when people didn't snap to attention or cower before him. When he'd been in power on the Moons of Plundarr he had had that respect, that fear. This far from home, it gave people backbones of steel. Finally deciding that he wasn't going to put of the conversation any longer, he settled in front of a small monitor to deal with the Lord of the Thundercats.

"Ah, Lion-O, I'm sorry to keep you waiting. I was just attending to some other matters. What do you want?" he said, fighting to maintain a semblance of diplomacy. He wished that he had one of his telepaths present to read the Thundercat's mind for him, but such a luxury was not afforded him at the present.

"And what other matters are those? Torturing a Thundercat prisoner?" Lion-O snapped.

Aristarchus jumped in surprise, partly grateful to see the one known as Tygra whisper harshly in Lion-O's ear. It gave him a chance to think more clearly about what had been said. A Thundercat was obviously missing, and they suspected the Lunataks of it? "I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about. We don't have any Thundercats here at all, which I have been meaning to speak to you about. You were supposed to be dropping off supplies hours ago," he said.

Tygra and Lion-O had a longer whispered conversation. "Our ship was en route to deliver those supplies," Lion-O's voice sounded strained, ill concealing the anger beneath, "when it was shot down by a Lunatak woman. We want to negotiate for Cheetara's safe return. Name your price and we will try and meet it."

"Now I wish that I did have Cheetara, a lovely woman from what I've seen, but I have no idea what you're talking about."

"You lie! I saw it with my own eyes. One of your people..."

"Then perhaps your eyes lie," Aristarchus cut him off, growing annoyed at the accusations. These were unlike anything he'd heard of the Thundercats, such peace loving people, and here was their leader, insulting him. "I suggest to you that what you saw was doubtless an imposter, posing as a Lunatak to smear our good name or, though it's highly unlikely that I wouldn't have heard of it, these may be the actions of a rogue Lunatak acting independently. Just because you think you saw a Lunatak committing a crime does not mean that all Lunataks are guilty."

"The Eye of Thundera would see through any illusion. The people of Third Earth will not stand idly by and allow you to enslave its people."

"I tire of this conversation. I have made my case, but you clearly don't believe me. I am severing our ties then, and suggest you keep out of Dark Side. We do not have Cheetara, but we also will not hesitate to destroy you." He ended the transmission with the flick of a switch and turned in his chair. The Thundercats would come, he knew, they would not rest until they had searched every inch of New Lunis looking for Cheetara; which meant he had to find her first.

Chilla recognized this stretch of the jungle, as she used to tease Alluro mercilessly about his encounters with the giant bees that lived nearby. The bees were generally content to leave intruders alone unless one was foolish enough to get close to their nests, which were impossibly high in the sky. Josa and Psychro followed behind, with the latter trying stare through her cape if she knew him.

They had only been hunting for about an hour, killing one razor toothed creature that bore a vague resemblance to Jackalman, if he were inclined to walk on all fours. Chilla wasn't sure what the natives called it, but she and the Lunataks had always called it Jackalman's Ancestor. Actually, the creature was nothing like the Mutant, being a fierce fighter and very brave. It made the cry of a wounded animal to lure any predators in its territory to it and shredded them with it's teeth and claws. The three Icewalkers had encased it in ice and sliced its throat open. A nice clean kill that they had already dropped off for examination and potentially food.

The kill had excited her, in ways that only a true Icewalker would understand. The thrill of the hunt and watching the life fade from a creature's eyes was intoxicating, she really had missed this part of her life on Third Earth.

Of course, ordinarily an Icewalker would only share this experience with someone they liked or could trust. Psychro was neither, and she knew very little about Josa to make such a claim. "So, how are you and Red Eye doing?" Psychro asked, suddenly, making her wonder how long he'd been waiting to ask that question.

She snorted at him in response. It was a noise that she intended to mean that it was none of his business, but that he read plenty into. He was an expert on relationships and the way people spoke and acted when they were both in and out of love. Her one little snort, combined with a slight bunching of the shoulders, and an involuntary twitch of the hand told him that the relationship was over and was just waiting for them to notice.

"Well, you know if you ever get tired of him, that I'm available," he said. She could feel his weak hypnotic charm chipping at her resistence, trying to soften her feelings for him. Her feelings, however, were reenforced by his need to use the charm. There was a difference in her books between making someone like you and forcing someone to like you, even Alluro had never dared that.

"You aren't satisfied with..." Chilla's voice trailed off as she decided to needle him. "Who are you sleeping with this week? What are you up to, since we came here, four? Five?" Out of the corner of her eye she saw that Josa looked very uncomfortable, confirming Chilla's belief that the two had had something at one point.

"I'm my own worst enemy, Chilla. I enter relationships I know are doomed to fail, for what woman could possibly compare to you? They don't have the beauty or the spirit that you have, and so they don't last..." he almost managed to sound sincere enough that she felt flattered, but not enough to sway her. Nor did his sudden smug transformation. "Wait a minute. You've been keeping track of my status? You're jealous of them, aren't you, wishing that you had taken me up on the offer."

She laughed. It was a hearty laugh, and it felt good. "Jealous? Me?" she scoffed, turning to meet him. "Jealous of a strumpet who can spread her legs? If you must know, Tug Mug feels it's his duty to report who you're doing." Psychro and Josa both managed to look hurt, though Psychro's felt more sarcastic. Well, Chilla didn't care about their happiness. If Josa couldn't handle the truth, it was her own fault.

"So you're saying I could have my way with Josa right now and it wouldn't bother you?"

"Seeing you naked? That would bother me, and earn you an icing. Now hurry up, we've wasted too much time as it is."

Zanaya stood in the training yard, watching the handful of soldiers go through their routines. With such a small population, everyone was expected to assist in military matters, but only a few were on permanent duty, rotating between training, policing, a standard patrols. The training yard was really only a large field divided into sections. An obstacle course, some free weights, a firing range, and another section devoted to power usage. There was a track circling the yard, which could be dangerous depending on who was using the range.

Although everyone was permitted to use the facilities, provided they checked in at the gate, Zanaya was under strict instructions to minimize the amount of physical activity she took part in, causing her to curse again the father of her child. Krystalin was safely in the care of Mystan and Lura at present, who were going over some strategies with the rest of the New Lunis council, which was just one less headache for her to deal with.

A pair of Gravitons were using the free weights when she approached, and she ignored the stench of their bodies as they sweated bacon grease, and their crude catcalls. Soon she would lose the weight she'd put on and be back to her normal figure, slender and physically fit, attributes critical for her assassin background. Very soon, she assumed, she would be ready to track down Knave and kill him.

Lion-O stood as the last of the reports came in from the Thundercats. A monitor had been set up to allow those in the Tower of Omens to take part in the discussions. Things were generally positive, with a few exceptions. The people of Third Earth were inclined to help the Thundercats, especially in light of all the times that the Thundercats had helped them. They also realized that if the Thundercats lost the battle, that the Lunataks would be unstoppable.

Of course, Lion-O wasn't sure how likely a battle was, to begin with. Mandora's message was clear; leave the Lunataks alone until I get there, and he had to admit that it was sound from a strictly logical stand point. The people of Third Earth were loyal and courageous, but against the kind of might the Lunataks possessed, it was bleak. What good would bows and arrows do against guns and psionic powers? Could the Tuskans rifles stand up to balls of fire and ice storms? These villages had been targets ever since Mumm-Ra had freed the Lunataks from their lava prison, and more than once just six of them had taken over those villages.

But there was a personal issue involved, and that could not be disputed. The Lunataks had Cheetara, and he could only imagine the horrible things happening to her. What manner of torture were they using on her this very instant? Lion-O could tell, just from looking around the table, that his compatriots were thinking the same thing.

To cloud things even more was Snarf's report from the Berbils and Aristarchus' own denials. Was it possible? Could there be a rogue Lunatak? A shape changer who was trying to stir things up? All manner of possibilities lay open, and he didn't know where to look.

"You've all heard the reports," he said at last, "Mandora wants us to wait, but I think I speak for all of us when I say that I'm not comfortable doing that. Two days in the hands of those fiends could mean her death sentence, assuming that Mandora even finds Cheetara. We need to act now, start our own investigation. Tygra, if we get you into Dark Side do you think you could sneak into the city?"

"They'll have Darklings watching, but there are other methods of stealth than my invisibility," Tygra nodded.

"Good. Bengali and I will drop you off when we go inspect the Forest of Mists. Hopefully our attacker left us a clue. Snarf and the Thunderkittens will see where the Lunatak ship was attacked and see what they can find there. Panthro, you continue working on repairing the Thunderstrike. If there is going to be a battle, we're going to need it. Snarfer and Pumyra will watch the Lair and the Tower, while Lynx-O rests. Good luck, my friends."

They were evacuating the city on Thundera. Cheetara had received word from the council that they were abandoning the planet, before its destruction. Each Thundercat was told to collect whatever they could carry of their personal effects and then assist in getting everyone else to their ships. It was a sad time indeed, many would be turned away. It wasn't fair, but life rarely was. She tossed her two large bags on her bed and scanned the room, trying to decide in a glance what could be replaced and what she would want. A collection of books went in one, a photo album, a locket that had belonged to her great-grandmother. How did one boil their life down to just a few objects? The objects weren't really important, they were just things. She had her friends, most of whom she figured would escape. It was the ones who wouldn't, for whatever reasons, that she would miss most.

She wrapped a warm blanket around her shoulders and picked up the two bags, weighing heavily on her back, and stared one last time at the room. She would never see it again. As she emerged, she saw Panthro carrying a large duffel bag and a toolbox. He bore the same look on his face as she did. A profound sadness that things were ending and they had been chosen to live while others died. As they jogged through the halls to the waiting flagship, she knew that each Thundercat would have gladly given up their spot for the sake of another Thunderian, surrendering their lives so that another might live. It was part of being a Thundercat. But they also had a duty to fulfill, to ensure that Lion-O escaped and could lead his people back to their former glory. Jaga met them at the door to the ship. "Once you drop off your belongings, get to your posts. Things are worse than we'd feared. We must depart at once!"

She woke with a start, realizing almost at once that she neither on the flagship of the Thundercats, nor in Cat's Lair. Instead she was in a cave with a half dozen others. She could tell by the moans that there was another cave adjacent with even more people. A trio of Lunataks, including Knave, were there, as was a Wollo and a Berbil. They all looked strange, somehow, almost as though they were malnourished.

There was also a heavy fog circling around her, and she realized with a start that it seemed to be sentient. "Yes, I am. And I enjoyed your dream. So noble, your people are, such slaves to your duty."

"Who... Who are you?" she asked, trying to discern which way was its front.

"We call it Nightshade, it's never given us its real name," the Wollo said feebly. "It lives off the life energy of its victims." That explained why they all looked underfed, at least, though she didn't relish finding out first hand how it operated.

"You don't deserve to know it. You're my meals, not my friends. Not that knowledge would do you much good anyway. You will die like all the others in time. I have been curious for some time what a Thundercat tastes like. Knave tastes exquisite, and I wondered if it was the Lunatak side or Thunderian side that adds so much flavour. Maybe it's both. I could arrange for that, but I don't want to wait nine months for my next meal," Nightshade said, teasingly.

The spirit seemed amused by the looks of disgust and hatred on Cheetara's face as a momentary image of mating with an Icewalker crossed her mind, and the prospect of Nightshade killing the baby.

"It also likes the sound of its voice," Spitfire managed a half chuckle, as the fog whirled on her. When it appeared that she had managed to enrage the spirit the Icewalker woman recoiled and cowered behind Paeder's shoulder. A tendril of smoke caught her ankle, causing Spitfire to shriek, a keening sound that reverberated off the walls, deafening the others.

Cheetara threw herself at the spirit, claws bared, slashing futilely at it, trying to ignore the numbing feeling in her arms where they touched the fog. Nightshade finally drew himself through the force field and regarded the Thunderian woman, whose arms dropped limply to her sides. "Pitiful attempt," he said, "I am invincible, and the sooner you accept that the better. Not bad, though, very succulent. I'll have to remember that." Then the spirit was gone, slipping through the curtain to his room.

She sank to the ground next to where Spitfire was, the latter shivering uncontrollably, the skin on her leg almost showing the bone, it was stretched so tight. "Don't you think we've tried to fight him?" Paeder snapped, consoling her kinswoman as best she could.

"Shut up Paeder," Knave replied, looking groggily in the direction of the three women. "You were no better when you came. At least you did better than your friend did."

Cheetara shuffled over to him, and placed a hand on his arm. He was looking just as poor as the others, more so in some ways, but she could tell that the spirit was treating him differently. He, apparently, tasted unique and so it seemed that Nightshade was measuring out how much of his energy to take. "What do you mean?" she asked, suspecting that the other two wouldn't be as forthcoming with the details. Icewalkers were a proud people, and didn't like admitting to failures.

Knave rested his head on her shoulder, dropping his voice to a whisper. "We think it doesn't like the cold. It looked like Paeder's ice really hurt it, when Spitfire's flames didn't." She nodded in understanding. She didn't know what to make of the information, but it had to be useful.

A bulb went off in her head. "Evil in the dark... horrors lurk below... life traded for life... cold against heat... she will save us... he will rise again." Cold against heat? Had the rock Alluro found been telling them how to defeat Nightshade? Evil in the dark and horrors below certainly sounded like what was going on. Life for life could be the life stealing that Nightshade was doing. But who, then, was the 'she' and how would she save them? Who would she save? The Ancient Spirits? She needed more information, so she prodded Knave for answers.

"Where's the Icewalker delegation?" Stalker demanded. He, along with the rest of Aristarchus' council, had arrived for an emergency meeting. Frankly, Aristarchus would have preferred meeting with only his trusted advisors, but keeping all the moons involved was deemed diplomatic by Luna. Around the table were Tug Mug and Soot Foot, representing the Graviton moon, Mystan and Alluro of the Psions, with Stalker and Red Eye representing the Darklings.

"Paeder is still unaccounted for and Chilla is otherwise busy," he explained. The Icewalkers were reluctant to name a successor for Paeder, believing that she would turn up. They would need one for Chilla too, if his plans went well. He might even put pressure on them to name Josa to that spot, for valour. He liked rewarding his allies and punishing his enemies.

"We should wait for Chilla," Red Eye said stubbornly. Aristarchus recalled hearing the scuttlebutt that the two were an item, which made picking his words important.

"I'm afraid that matters are urgent enough that we can't wait for her. I will see to it personally that she finds out about what happened here. I could fetch an Icewalker from the hall if it would make the Darklings happy," he said.

"That won't be necessary. What's this about?" Stalker conceded before Red Eye could jump in. The latter had been feeling especially protective of Chilla ever since the confrontation between himself and Mystan the previous day, and Stalker feared that he might say something inappropriate that would derail this meeting. As Aristarchus explained the conversation with Lion-O, he was grateful he had shut up Red Eye. "I haven't heard anything about any of our people abducting any Thundercats, but you can bet that they won't believe you. They'll come sooner or later."

"I agree. Our fortifications aren't ready yet, so I suggest we step up efforts," Mystan said, stroking his chin in thought. "I wager they'll send Tygra in ahead, invisible. The Darklings should keep a sharp eye out for him."

"Agreed. In the meantime, I want your telepaths to scan everyone in the city. If anyone knows anything about Cheetara's disappearance, I want to know about it." He scanned the table, watching for any curious behaviours or reactions. Nothing seemed hugely out of the ordinary. Red Eye still seemed agitated, but that was easily dismissed as being anxiousness over Chilla. There was, however, something odd about Alluro. He seemed distracted by something. He made a note to tell Mystan to start with him.

The time is near... rivers of blood... friend turned against friend... death born of fear... It was like trying to determine the whole of a puzzle by looking at a few pieces. Something told Alluro that the recent vision he'd gotten from the stone was talking about this. The Lunataks and Thundercats had formed a friendship of sorts, and there promised to be a conflict, was it really born of fear? Did suspicion of kidnapping count as fear? His brain hurt trying to figure it all out. Really, he knew that he should have brought up the stone to Aristarchus, but then there would be accusations, and then Mystan would probably confiscate it.

He paused mid stride. This was not the time to think about it. Now was the time to set up mental barriers to prevent Mystan's cronies from finding out about this. He rushed to his room and locked the door.

Back on the moons of Plundarr, Tycho watched Nitro's first message again; recorded the previous day he talked about the few things he'd noticed thus far, and especially about the two fights he'd been in. Tycho couldn't say he was thrilled to hear that his spy was brawling, nor that he'd lost one of those fights, but he was less pleased by the reports that the relationship with the Thundercats didn't seem as cordial as when he had been in command. Back then Tycho had realized that the only way to survive was to rely on the support of the felines, and worry about conquering them at a much later date when things were settled. The Thundercats were a friendly people, who liked sharing with their allies, they could be exploited to some degree and then defeated if necessary. Heck, a part of him didn't even think *that* needed to be done. A peaceful alliance was possible.

Luna would be horrified to hear such thoughts, but he actually was putting past grievances behind him. The Thundercats were something to admire, with their devotion to each other and their Code of Thundera. It was so vastly different from the usual politicking that he'd been accustomed to as king of the moons. Luna would be even more horrified that in the sexual play, he'd had Darius shape change into Tygra recently.

He turned off the computer and glanced back into the kitchen where Darius was making lunch. Aristarchus was still governor, and was therefore free to run things however he wanted. Tycho didn't have to like it, but unless he was willing to re-accept the post there was nothing he could do.

Elsewhere on the same moon, likewise checking personal messages, Psikaris watched Psychro's blessing to their bonding, and played it again for Cameo. "Well, he took that better than I thought he would," Cameo said, kissing her lightly on the top of her head.

"Oh he's a big softy," she replied, as she sat with him behind her. It had been awkward between the two of them ever since that night. She staunchly avoided alcohol after that, fearing a repeat performance despite his assurances to the contrary, and was hesitant to do too much cuddling as that was what had landed her in this predicament in the first place. On the other hand, soon there wouldn't be that personal taboo against sex, nor did it matter right now what he did, as she couldn't really get more pregnant. All the same, she had her convictions. While she knew he would respect them she could also see how much it tore at him.

"Yeah, well, he's a womanizing softy," he chuckled, though she knew there was dislike about it. "A little overprotective, but I can respect that. Besides, he's right to feel that way. A woman as pretty as you is probably beating guys back with sticks." His hands were on her shoulders, gently kneading her tender flesh.

She had no illusions about her appearance; guys seemed to find her attractive, and that was that. Of all the suitors she'd had, Cameo was the one most willing to look past her appearance and see the woman inside, loving her for who she was. That was one of the things that endeared him to her; that boundless love he felt, enough to make up for the times when she was too lost in her work to pay him any mind. And he didn't seem to care that there were days when she would rather spend time going over a technical manual than snuggled in his arms because he knew that eventually she would come to him and enjoy that too.

And it wasn't even that she didn't find him attractive, far from it. There were days when she would see him heading for the shower that she would find herself aroused at the sight of him and she schooled herself to push those feelings down, reminding herself that she would have all the sex she could handle once they were properly bonded. It was difficult on them, probably him more so than her, she figured. She, at least, was able to hold those feelings back. She remembered last week when she'd been excited by the latest upgrade on a piston configuration that she'd burst into his room unannounced and found him making his own piston movements. It was only their mutual embarrassment that helped her close the door instead of joining him.

"Now that we've heard from him, we should talk dates. It will take a week for him to get back, and it would be nice if he was here well before that. We can't wait too long or else it will be very obvious why we're bonding now and..." she started, trying to derail her thoughts.

He didn't help matters by kissing her firmly on the lips. "You're rambling," he whispered, gently moving a strand of hair behind her ears. She shivered at the touch, and didn't want it to stop. She unconsciously leaned towards him, yearningly, but he stepped back. "I'd better get back to work. I'll see you when I get back."

She watched him go, content. He loved her. He respected her. The feeling was mutual... And that bonding ceremony couldn't come soon enough.

The air was still stifling hot for the Icewalker trio as they walked deeper into the jungle. Strictly speaking, Chilla didn't understand why this section needed to be checked out; it was far enough away from both the city and the logging camp that any wildlife wouldn't cause any trouble. Still, orders were orders and she was walking on thin ice as it was with Aristarchus. While Josa was walking along quietly, the same could not be said for Psychro. They finally came to a halt near a small pond, though calling it a pond was a bit of an overstatement. The water was barely a foot deep and was scarcely a metre wide. Still, it seemed like a good place to stop for a quick break. It would be time to make their way back to the meeting point soon anyway.

Chilla was removing her boot to dislodge a stone when she saw a Torfubeast. It was easily the size of two Gravitons, and had a horn sprouting from beneath the jaw. It was generally a gentle creature, but was vicious when it was cornered and it also had tasty flanks, unless Red Eye was cooking it. She winced at the memory of his name, and all the home cooked meals he'd tried to prepare for her; he seemed to like them, but just looking at them made her stomach churn.

"I'm going to go relieve myself," Josa said, and Chilla waved her off. It meant she was alone with Psychro, but he seemed content to refill his water bottle. She bet he didn't even see the Torfubeast at the other end of the small clearing, heading to get a drink itself. Gradually she sighed and closed her eyes.

She was half-asleep when she heard Psychro shout and looked over in time to see the beast charging at him. It closed the gap between them and hooked him under the arm with its horn, launching him several feet away. Chilla wasn't even aware of getting to her feet, until she realized that she was running towards the pair. She cursed him every name under the sun for managing to provoke the creature while a more sarcastic side of her suggested that he'd tried hitting on it. She drew her gun and fired mid-stride, moments before the Torfubeast could ram its horn into Psychro's throat. The creature was bellowed, but dutifully collapsed. "What did you do?" she accused.

"I didn't do anything! It was drinking, I was drinking. Next thing I know I've got wild horny things coming at me," he said, still staring at the downed animal as it went through its death throes.

"Maybe it saw a fellow wild horny thing," Chilla snorted. He seemed genuinely surprised by the attack though, so it was possible he was telling the truth. Something caught her eye so she walked around the Torfubeast. A scorch mark? On its rump? "How..?" she started to ask, until the world went black.

Lura started the probing gently. The key to a good mind reading was if the recipient didn't know their minds were being read. She searched through Alluro's thoughts, looking for anything relating to Cheetara, and then wrinkled her nose. The Lunataks, under Luna, had battled the Thundercats on many occasions, so Alluro and Cheetara had had many encounters. There were numerous one on one encounters, but nothing that she would quantify as being terribly recent, certainly no abductions within the last twenty-four hours. She was about to give up and report her findings when she came across a section of the cranial landscape that she couldn't access. Some sort of wall was preventing her from exploring it.

What was he hiding here? What was so important that he would erect a barrier here? She tested it carefully with her senses, probing to see if there was an obvious weakness and knowing there would be none. Alluro was gifted, brilliant even, and there would be no flaws here. Certainly, given time she could break through, but he would be alerted to her presence and she doubted she could fight him here in the psychic plane. Slowly she pulled away. She would report it to Mystan and await further instructions.

"Josa?" Psychro began, watching as she walloped Chilla from behind. Before he could get up she had her gun pointed at him. "What are you doing?"

"Carrying out my orders," she replied and he saw a glint in her eye. "You managed to upset Aristarchus and he was very clear. You are not to come home alive. That beast should have killed you, if only that woman hadn't gotten involved." She turned her head and spat on Chilla's prone form. Psychro knew that if he could keep her talking long enough, he might be able to puzzle out an escape.

The Icewalker woman went on. "Although, what Aristarchus really wanted was you both out of the way, so I guess I can work this in my favour. Kill you, frame her for the murder. Who do you think Aristarchus will back, me or her?"

"And what do you get out of it?" Psychro asked. He knew he shouldn't interrupt, but curiosity got the better of him.

"Power. I have no chance on my own of having any power on the Ice Moon. Ninety percent of the population would have to die before I got my shot. But Aristarchus' favour is power itself, it lends me the prestige I need... And yet, I would have killed you even if he hadn't asked. You used me," she said, taking a step closer. He saw the hurt, he'd seen it written on the faces of so many. She'd loved him too much and couldn't let go.

"That's not my fault. When we met, I told you all about me, that we'd only last a couple of nights until I found the next one. I was straight forward and honest about that," he replied. It wasn't a tactic he used often, but some women only wanted that one night stand with a proficient lover.

"I thought I could change you. I thought you might actually love me once I gave myself to you," she was on the verge of tears, old memories and emotions bubbling to the surface. "And to make matters worse, not only did you leave me, you left me for a Snowskin. That bitch Paeder, someone who was going places. It made me so angry. Our rival House."

So that's what it was about. The Snowskins and the Kolrads were enemies, and he had gone to support the other team. An idea occurred to him. If he could tap into the old emotions, the love they'd shared, he might be able to get her to lower her guard. "You're right, Josa. I was an idiot then. I gave up on a woman who completed me for a quick grab for power. We're not that different. I saw a woman on the rise, Paeder's stock was rising, she would be high ranking on the flagship of the Icewalkers. I thought if I was with her I could gain the prestige. But it wasn't worth it. She was nothing compared to you, and it's a sadness I've long carried in my heart," he said, sending out waves of his charm. He'd had to try similar tactics before on jilted lovers, never quite so dire, but it had happened. Angry fathers and brothers were a little harder to try it on.

He saw her wavering, her hand drooped a little, as his words had the desired effect, "I know I don't deserve anything from you but would you give me one last kiss?" He widened his eyes and wet his lips, watching her resolve crumbling. Gradually, as though unconsciously, she knelt, letting her gun drop to the ground. She reached around and pulled his head close for the kiss, her lips pressing hard against his. She pulled back slightly, her eyes offering him much more than just a kiss, and saw his fist coming in fast.

Tygra ran hard across the uneven rocky ground, cloaked in his invisibility. It wouldn't do him much good once he got near the city, but at least predators would probably leave him alone. Bengali and Lion-O had dropped him off some time ago, leaving him with only the clothes he wore and his bola whip for protection. If things turned badly for him, he'd be on his own.

The city wasn't that far, located near the volcanoes and situated along a ridge. He knew there was a jungle nearby and a river at the bottom of the canyon. The question was where to start looking for Cheetara. Where would they keep her? In the dungeons of Sky Tomb? Would it be that obvious? His thoughts returned to the distinct possibility that Aristarchus really had nothing to do with the kidnapping. That sounded even less probable to his ears, and yet it was an option that needed to be considered.

He saw the first signs of life on the outskirts of the jungle. A group of eight or nine Lunataks were gathered and talking amongst themselves, glancing occasionally in the direction of the jungle. None of them seemed to be Darklings, so he took the chance to creep closer to them and listen in. There were three Lunataks missing, something about having failed to return for a debriefing. He heard Chilla's name mentioned and the hair on his back rose. Missing Lunataks? Three of them? Was it the same enemy that had been plaguing the rest of Third Earth or something else? Finally, the apparent leader of the group decided to give up waiting, and returned everyone to the city.

Among her ranking of places she didn't want to wake up, laying next to Psychro was number three behind a sacrificial altar and Tug Mug's bed. She was relieved to see she was at least wearing clothes. Memories came back to her and she was on her feet in a heartbeat. Josa was bound and gagged next to the deceased Torfubeast. Psychro smiled wryly from where he'd been laying, several feet away from her. "About time you woke up," he said, his voice and smug smile making her want to ice him, but not until she found out what had happened.

It took him a few minutes to fully relate what had happened. "...and when she pulled back, I hit her, tackled her to the ground and hogtied her. I thought about killing her, to be honest. Then I decided to wait for you to wake up. I couldn't very well carry both of you so I contented myself with laying here. You'll also be glad to know that I resisted the temptation to take a peak, though there was substantial leering."

She aimed a breath of ice at his legs, momentarily pinning him while she regarded Josa. "Why should we let you live?" she asked as she removed the gag. "You tried to kill him and set me up."

"Aristarchus won't let you get away with it!" She said, trying to look intimidating.

Instead Chilla laughed. "Aristarchus doesn't reward failure," she turned to Psychro, "I bet we bring her back with us she'll be found dead in a back alley within a week." Chilla took Josa's chin between her fingers and held the gaze for a long while. "We will let you live, if only because his pet telepaths would nail us for your murder. Enjoy what little time you have left." She rose and planted a kick in Josa's abdomen, making the other woman cry out pitifully. Then, forcing their prisoner to walk ahead of them, she and Psychro returned to New Lunis.

Tygra crept closer to New Lunis, following the make shift road to the sturdy walls that surrounded what there was of the city. Thick walls built for defence, from the Thundercats or the wildlife Tygra didn't know. He felt conspicuous, though, out in the open as he was.

He hated using his illusionary powers as they drained him swiftly, but under the circumstances he would gladly use up his reservoir of strength to help his friend. But it wasn't so simple to just throw up an illusion. The best disguise was a plausible disguise, especially with Darklings about. They would surely notice a discrepancy in body heat if he'd chosen Icewalker, and body mass if he'd picked Graviton. Instead he was a shorter than normal Psion; if anyone gave it serious thought, they might assume he was part Royal.

The road led through a large open gate, shaped like a crescent moon tilted on its side, and was guarded by a Darkling and a Graviton. The former examined him closely, while the latter yawned into a meaty fist, but both waved him on through. It seemed as though most of the work teams were coming back into the city now, which meant there was less fuss. He found the rough road to Sky Tomb and head in that direction.

The Ice/Cheetah hybrid had long fallen asleep on her shoulder, and she didn't want to disturb him. The Wollo, a farmer named Nomo, had explained that Nightshade was cruelly making sure that Knave had just enough energy to survive for another day. Just the thought of it made Cheetara shake with fury. He was a living being, he deserved better than this. She wasn't sure why, but she generally liked Knave. There was hope that he could be reformed into being more than what his father had raised him to be. He trusted her, which she had the sense was a rare thing, and she suspected it had something to do with his mother. Did she remind him of his mother in some way? It was plausible, but only he knew the truth.

She looked up to see a woman, a Darkling woman that looked familiar, shuffling around, having been staring into the pool visible by the magical light. The woman, she realized, reminded her of the brief glimpse she'd gotten of her attacker however long ago it was. As those ghostly hands dragged her through the ground, a fleeting image of that woman appeared before her, and yet it wasn't. This was an old woman, hardly capable of picking up a book, let alone dragging a full grown woman. Knave had spoken of her as being Shade, during one of his talkative spells, explaining that she and the spirit could bond together to become a young sorceress or some such.

"Your world is on the brink of war," Shade said sadly, seeing Cheetara looking in her direction. "The Thundercats blame the Lunataks, and the Lunataks are being stubborn. There will be much blood thanks to you."

"You're the one who kidnapped me. Send me back, and I'll set things right," Cheetara said, soliciting a laugh from both her cell mates and Shade.

"I would if I could, but defying Nightshade is a death sentence for myself and those I love. I'm sorry. I never wanted any of this. I just wanted my youth again. It's a terrible thing to grow old."

"Growing old is something we'll never get to do, so don't expect pity from us," Paeder retorted.

"I've done it!" Nightshade cried out from his curtained area. It parted and a young human male in the prime of his life, rippling muscles and bronzed skin, stood proudly, if naked, in the doorway. He moved his hands back and forth and took a few tentative steps. "I had enough energy to build this body. Now I don't need you, Shade. I'm going to go try it out." He rose through the dirt and vanished. Once he was gone, Cheetara saw immense fear in Shade. With her bargaining chip gone, those she cared about were now at risk.

*Thunk* The knife hit just a hair shy of the bullseye. Zanaya had returned to the room in Sky Tomb that she was temporarily sharing with Mystan and Lura. Krystalin lay on her bed, wrapped tightly in blankets, while her mother practised with her throwing knives. Ordinarily these could be coated with any manner of poisons, but for practice they weren't. As she retrieved her weapons, she looked over to see where her room mates were. Lura was sitting cross-legged on the carpet, while Mystan pored over what little information there was on the Thundercats.

She hurled her knife again, pleased when it hit where she'd aimed, and readied another one. When it came time to fight the Thundercats she wanted to be part of the action. That wretched child had prevented her from seeing a lot of conflict, first due to an overprotective father and then the pregnancy itself. Fighting these Thunderians might even help her get combat ready for that particular hunt. The next knife whistled through the air and missed by a good inch and she cursed quietly.

"Did you know Panthro is afraid of energy bats?" Mystan scoffed, as though this was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever read.

"That is insane," the next knife sank deep into the dart board, causing her to exert herself to retrieve it. "And how can we use it against him?"

"Well, it can't be too hard to replicate something like that..." Mystan began.

"Mystan!" Lura cried out, her eyes scrunched up in concentration.

"Did you find Cheetara?" he asked. Zanaya moved closer to the door to relay any instructions Mystan might have.

"No. Something else. I found Tygra."

There was a feeling of being watched that Tygra found a bit unnerving, so he tried ducking into a crowded bar to see if he could alleviate that feeling. It didn't work, but then he started thinking. It was only natural that he feel like that. He was in an enemy city, surrounded by people who would kill him if they knew what he truly was. It all made perfect sense. Perhaps if he just sat in the back and stayed put he could properly evaluate all his options.

He took a seat with his back to the door, people passing by were less likely to see him, his mind reasoned, and was surprised to find a clear blue drink being placed by his elbow. "On the house," the Graviton bartender said, "eet's on the house."

Well, that was very nice of him. Perhaps the Lunataks weren't quite as evil as he'd thought, which made his mission that much harder. Yes, his mission. He was supposed to be on a mission for the Thundercats, to spy on the Lunataks and see if he could find Cheetara. They didn't want to wait for Mandora to inspect New Lunis, they wanted to march in there with their armies.

The drink slid down his throat, tasting sweet and a little fruity. He liked it, really and he had a craving for another. He gestured to the bartender and ordered a second one, not thinking about how he was going to pay for it. The second went down like the first. Lion-O would love these too, Panthro probably. Those two normally didn't drink, but this? This was amazing. He found his mind opening up, all thoughts of being watched vanishing into a haze, as images of his friends danced in his head. He thought of their adventures, their strengths and their weaknesses. The joys and sorrows they'd had together.

"I've heard enough," he heard someone say. "Get the Thundercat!" Tygra lurched to his feet, knowing that they were talking about him. Somehow his cover was blown, but how? He reached for his bolo whip and saw it in the grasp of the bartender. He must have taken it while dropping off the drinks. The drinks! They explained why the world was spinning, and his arms felt like they were made of jelly. Mystan, who had been the speaker, approached him with a self-satisfied smirk on his lips. "Yes the drinks. But also the weak minds of Thundercats. You told us everything we needed to know, without us using torture. Oh, I can't say I'm pleased to be missing out on that, but I'm sure we can improvise. Guards, take him to the dungeons. I'm going to report our findings to Aristarchus."

At the exit to the Forest of Mists, in Dark Side, Lion-O looked around, trying to place the exact spot he'd seen the Lunatak woman through the Sword of Omens. He had Bengali take a few more steps to the left and still wasn't satisfied. Whatever tricks the Lunataks had used, they hadn't seemed to have left any clues behind.

He was about to suggest to Bengali that he try further back when the Sword of Omens cried out in warning; one of his Thundercats was in danger. Part of him hoped it was Cheetara so that they could pin down her location. "Sword of Omens," he said, raising the mystical blade to his face, "give me sight beyond sight!" Bengali's concerned face in the distance morphed into that of Tygra, the rocky plains turning into a bar full of Lunataks. He seemed unsteady on his feet as a pair of police rushed him. The colour drained from Lion-O's face, watching and unable to help as a second Thundercat was taken. "Get in the Thundertank," Lion-O said, choking back tears. "We have to tell the others."

"So. We are about to receive a visit from Mandora, while the people of Third Earth mass against us," Aristarchus said, soaking in the news from his chief aide. He and Mystan had a long history together. The Psion high priests, effectively the rulers of the Moon, had seen Aristarchus as their ticket to power and had thrown their favour behind him in the fight against Tycho, before Luna returned and took the throne. Mystan, he knew, wasn't a fan of the way Aristarchus went about things, but he could be trusted to speak his mind and give reasonable advice.

"I don't see how Mandora can side against us, if we put the right spin on it. Threats, espionage, invasion. We're actually the innocents in all of this, as much as it surprises me to say so. With the right push, we might even get Control on our side, helping us to force the Thundercats out of Dark Side," Mystan replied. They were seated in Aristarchus' office, formerly Luna's, in Sky Tomb.

"The only trouble is this business with Cheetara. I wish I knew where that blasted woman was. No matter, you're right. We have been invaded, and I think it's time we retaliated."

"Retaliate? Are you sure that's wise? If we wait for Control..." Mystan started.

"Yes, we must retaliate. The Thundercats have launched the first salvo against us, and we must counterattack. They won't wait for Control to come, and neither shall we. Prepare the armies, we attack tomorrow."

The sky was beginning to turn dark as Psychro, Chilla and their prisoner approached the gates to the city. Standing guard, and looking surprised at the procession, was Red Eye. Immediately he sprinted out to meet them, taking Chilla's shoulder in his hands. "Are you all right?" he asked, concerned. She pulled away.

"You and me need to talk," she said, and Psychro winced as he heard the words that no man wanted to hear. "But first we need to see the council."

Nightshade had been gone for several hours already, and the prospects of what he was doing made Shade uneasy. Was he taking more lives? Capturing more prey? How much life did he need anyway? She cast a furtive glance at the curtain that separated his room from the rest of the cave and debated how much time she would have to be in there. She walked over slowly, wondering whether he'd put any wards on the curtain to alert him to intruders. Carefully, taking one final glance over her shoulder, she pulled the edge back and peered into the darkness.

Although the mystical light from the cave proper wasn't shining brightly into the large recess, Shade was able to see better than most thanks to her Darkling heritage. There was a plethora of books strewn about, and she wondered where he had gotten them. Had they been Mumm-Ra's? There was also a pit carved into the floor that hadn't been here when he had first had her build these caves.

No noise outside yet, so Shade took a chance and moved into the room, knowing that she should take as little time as possible in case Nightshade found her in there. She didn't know what he would do if he caught her, but it would doubtless be horrible. He might even kill her, now that he didn't need her body.

The pit seemed to be at least four feet deep, and had three inches of some foul smelling liquid in the bottom. She couldn't tell what it was, so she left it alone and turned her attention to the books instead. One of them, a smallish red tome, was open on the floor. She found that she could make out many of the words, some sort of residual effect of having Nightshade in her mind she suspected, enough to realize that it was a spell to create life from life. She scanned the rest of the page quickly, but gave up when she realized that she wouldn't be able to either duplicate the spell's effect or reverse it.

She knew that somewhere in these books was the means of defeating Nightshade, either permanently or temporarily enough that she could make good an escape. Too long had he held her here, forced to do his will under threat of violence. In the bleak moments she'd thought of taking her life, but the Lunatak soul demanded vengeance, a price to be paid for what he'd put her through. She figured she'd taken long enough, there was no more to be learned right now, so she slipped back out into the cavern.

When Nightshade returned later, he was wearing a green and beige outfit and was carrying a struggling, if naked, Tuskan over his shoulder. He tossed the latter in one of the cells and smugly returned to his cave. Shade held her breath for a long minute, waiting to see if he'd noticed the intrusion, and only released it when she felt it safe. So there were no wards on the door. Good to know.

Tug Mug was away on other business, business involving a keg of ale that had just arrived by shuttle, but the rest of the council was present. Chilla stood at the front of the room with Psychro and Josa explaining what had happened with Psychro correcting as needed. The room was silent as the heavy charges were laid against Aristarchus. Murder wasn't unheard of amongst Lunataks, but getting caught was still a crime. But Aristarchus was a calculating man, not easily taken by surprise, and he managed to look shocked and offended by these accusations.

He also had a powerful ally sitting next to him in Mystan. Though telepathy wasn't his primary skill, he was adept at it enough to carry on simple conversations, and he did such with both Josa and Aristarchus, explaining what they would have to do. It started with the governor. "We've heard your version of the events, now let's hear Josa's," he said.

She wasn't a great actress, but fear was a keen motivator. Mystan had explained in great detail the consequences if she didn't pull this off. "Chilla didn't see what really happened," Josa said, shuddering as though recalling some traumatic event. "Once her back was turned to him he jumped up and hit her. I started to ask why he'd done that and he told me that it was so the two of us could have some alone time."

Psychro seemed about to protest but Aristarchus silenced him immediately. "You were given a chance to speak, now it's hers," he said.

"We dated a long time ago, and he was trying to restart things. I told him we were through but he kept touching me. I told him to stop, and he said that bad things would happen to me if I didn't. He overpowered me. He tied me up and I thought he was going to rape me, but he said that he had something else in mind. A scheme to get me in trouble with the council while putting Aristarchus in his place. So he made up the story you just heard and told it to Chilla. When she heard it she agreed. She's hated Aristarchus for a long time and this sounded like a perfect opportunity," she began crying. The rest of the council looked uneasily at each other, unsure whether they should be comforting her or not.

"Two conflicting stories, then. In one we have a poor girl set up to commit two murders, and in the other we have two people besmirching my good name and that of Josa," Aristarchus said. "Since the accusations concern myself, and since Chilla is making them, neither of us will hold a vote. I don't envy you, there's no way of determining who is telling the truth."

"Actually," Mystan said as if on cue, which it was, "there's a possibility. I could send for a telepath to read their minds. Someone impartial to any Lunataks involved who could then relay what they saw." He would have suggested himself, except that the incident involving himself and Chilla would cause a lot of argument. Aristarchus nodded his head in approval and Mystan sought for the nearest Psion friendly to his cause.

Tygra was still sitting in the dungeon inside Sky Tomb, looking bored and frustrated. The effects of the alcohol had worn off, gratefully, but there didn't appear to be any way out. Luckily the Lunataks seemed to have contented themselves with the information they'd pulled out of his head, and hadn't resorted to any physical torture. Not yet, anyway.

Lion-O sheathed the Sword of Omens and paced the length of his bedroom. He'd already spoken to the others, telling them what he'd seen, and there was a general outcry against the Lunataks. Arguments had been made to retaliate immediately, while most agreed that the Thundercats had, in fact, been the ones at fault this time.

To make matters worse, Lion-O found that he could watch Tygra's every move, but still see nothing of Cheetara. It just didn't make sense and actually leant some credence to the possibility that the Lunataks didn't have their kinswoman. Surely if they had two Thundercat prisoners they would keep them in the same general area, or take the same precautions in their captivity. He walked over to the bed and tried to get to sleep, there would be little of it this night, but he had to try.

The lanky Psion named Extroc placed a hand on Josa's head first, following instructions from Mystan. "I see Chilla unconscious, Psychro standing over her. He's... making advances on Josa, threatening her to sleep with him... he's attacked her, tying her up..." he broke the connection, seeming horrified by what he'd seen. A smattering of murmurs broke out around the table, anger from Psychro and confusion from Chilla.

"Interesting. Now Psychro," Aristarchus said.

"I see Chilla attacked, Psychro seducing Josa, threats, violence..." Extroc began.

"The only violence I'm threatening is against you, liar," Psychro bellowed, grabbing the Psion and thrusting him against the wall. He managed only one good shot, smashing Extroc's nose and sending blood everywhere, before Stalker restrained him.

"Well, I think that settles that. Take Psychro and Chilla down to the dungeons for interrogation," Aristarchus said.

"But we haven't voted yet," Red Eye protested, thumping his fist against the table.

Aristarchus rolled his eyes, it would figure that he would argue the point. Everyone had acted their parts perfectly. From Psychro's outburst to Josa's tears. What more did Red Eye need to believe his girlfriend was guilty? "Fine. Anyone believe that Psychro was telling the truth, raise their hands." Red Eye's went up. "Anyone believing Josa?" Somewhat reluctantly Alluro raised his hand, along with those of Stalker, Mystan, and Soot Foot. "There you have it. Take them away."

Tygra heard the sound of many feet coming down the hallway and braced himself. Thus far the Lunataks had been content to leave him alone, but that would change sooner or later, he knew. It was with great surprise to see Chilla and another Icewalker being led down in shackles, then. He had been under the impression that Chilla was fairly important among the Lunataks, what had she done that merited being locked in a dungeon? Or was this some sort of trick to try and get him to spill more secrets? One of the guards gave them an apologetic look as he opened the cell across the hall from Tygra and pushed them in. Once they were in, he removed the chains and led his entourage back out.

With the guards gone the two Lunataks ignored the Thunderian and settled on one of the hard cots to talk.

Nitro slept, one arm draped over the many folds of Gravica. The two had engaged in an evening of sumptuous food and passionate sex, two things that Gravitons were very good at. Put them together and both got even better. Given his blissful state of mind, he wasn't thrilled at being wakened by Nuiane's persistent shaking. She was his favourite because she loved him wholeheartedly, but if she was wanting in on the action, she was a little late.

"What is it?" he asked groggily. Gravica shifted and rolled to her other side, but didn't wake. A heavy sleeper when she'd had a little to drink.

"Chilla's been arrested! I just saw her being taken down to the dungeons. I talked to some people and... I think it's partly my fault," she said, instantly capturing his attention. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her into the office of his modest home. Being high ranked he'd been given one of the first completed houses; a small thing with two bedrooms, a living/dining room, and an office. When bigger houses were built, he would move into one of those.

He set Nuiane down in a chair, waiting for her to explain, and she told him everything. She explained that she had been working for Aristarchus for years, reporting on Icewalker movements but explaining that she had never betrayed her true master; she swore this point vehemently. She proceeded to tell Nitro about Psychro's flirtations and her agreement with Aristarchus, she could see his face turning a deep purple. He was enraged and she could see veins jutting out like throbbing caterpillars from his forehead and neck.

The story advanced as quickly as she could tell it, so that she could find some rock to crawl under to hide. She had seen Chilla and Psychro being led away and had an inkling of what had transpired, so she had consulted with Aristarchus and he had told her the official version of the events. That Psychro and Chilla had concocted a scheme to smear Aristarchus' reputation and frame Josa at the same time.

When she finished, she shuddered under Nitro's stare, knowing full well that he was weighing her words and trying to decide if she was telling the truth. Under any other circumstance, being this close to her naked master would have been an exciting moment. Not this time. He leaned close to her face, and she shrank back under that powerful gaze. "You had my mother arrested for a crime that could cost her her life," he said slowly, as though only by doing so could he keep from exploding in anger.

"I'm sorry," she started, but was interrupted by his hand covering her mouth. He lifted her to a standing position this way and drew her even closer.

"You'll be sorrier if she dies. Back on the Ice Moon we have a custom of having disobedient servants for dinner. You've lied to me, betrayed me, and may have caused serious injury to House Iespyk. If Chilla dies, you die. Until then, you're confined to the kitchen, a reminder of your fate. If I see you out of the kitchen, for any reason, your life is forfeit. Understood?" his voice was low, and she knew that he wasn't bluffing. She had seen servants disappear and then reappear as choice cuts of meat. Nitro knew that it helped put the others in their places. As soon as he let go of her and stepped aside she bolted, running for her new post, praying that justice would be kind to Chilla.

The woman in question looked up as footsteps came down the hall. Psychro had been pleading his case to her, and she was inclined to believe it. Mystan was one of Aristarchus' flunkies, so it was very conceivable that they had concocted the whole thing. If only Alluro possessed a modicum of telepathy they might have had an unbiased opinion.

Chilla was not terribly surprised to see Red Eye tromping towards the cellblock. He paused outside the door and glanced back at Tygra, who had fallen asleep. She gestured for Psychro to stay back while she talked to him. "I'm sorry about this. I believe you," he whispered when she was near. "You would never get revenge this way on someone, and I think there's something going on. Aristarchus has named Josa to the council in your place, ignoring the Icewalkers' wishes. He says it's in light of what happened to her, that he needs loyal people on his council."

Chilla spat harshly on the floor, the news of the promotion angering her even more than her incarceration did. "Idiot. She's low ranked he's going to upset all the moons."

"I know. I just wanted you to know that I'm still on your side. I support you, and I love you," he said, reaching through the bars to stroke her face.

She recoiled from the touch but managed to cover the gesture by taking his hand in hers. "Red, this isn't how I wanted this conversation but..." she looked away, a rare sign of embarrassment from the proud woman. "It's not working out between us. I know it and you know it."

"You're right," he sighed, though his knees buckled. He had known it but hadn't been willing to accept it; he needed her to make that move. "It doesn't change how I feel about you, but you haven't been happy with this."

"I'm rarely happy with much," she snorted. Inwardly she was happy that he managed the ghost of a smile, it meant that she hadn't crushed him completely. She did care for him, as they had so much in common, it was just that the things they had in common were overwhelmed by the things they didn't.

"I'll try and keep you posted on what's happening. I think Alluro and Tug Mug will be on your side, but I can't guarantee that." He let his hand slip from hers and shuffled off again down the halls.

Returning to the cot she recounted what Red Eye had said, and was both surprised and pleased when Psychro didn't make a romantic advance. Instead he asked if she wanted to talk about it, and respected her wishes when she said she didn't. Maybe there was a proper gentleman buried all that macho posturing.

Having been blocked at every turn to speak with Aristarchus, Nitro was in the computer room fuming. Guards were barring him from entering, and the man himself was supposedly asleep in bed. Nitro wasn't overly surprised, really, any idiot would have known that imprisoning Chilla would have that kind of effect on her son and to expect some kind of confrontation with him. Nitro paused, any idiot? Well, Aristarchus certainly qualified as an idiot. He had rounded up his few sources and learned the full story, and sided fiercely with Chilla on the matter. The Lunar empire was on a collision course with disaster; Aristarchus had them on the brink of war with an entire planet and was trying to kill his own people all at the same time.

Nitro didn't like playing politics, but in this game he knew what to do. He logged in to the computer terminal and made his report to Tycho. "My prince, I hope to be calling you my governor soon. Third Earth and New Lunis need you now more than ever. With Aristarchus in command, we are doomed. Tomorrow we attack the Thundercats, and tomorrow he may sentence Chilla to death. Allow me to elaborate..." he began.

On to Return to Power - part four
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