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Return to Power
Part Four

He was standing in the middle of a clearing, surrounded on three sides by great mounds of rock and a perilous gorge on the fourth. This was where Cat's Lair should be. Used to be, his mind told him. There was no sign of his home anymore, though, not even the bridge that would allow him to leave this place. He walked along the edge, trying to figure out what had happened here.

The ground was lush and green, seemingly never having been disturbed. No signs of excavations, no broken remnants of his home nor stray bit of cloth to indicate that anyone had ever been here. But what force could erase the Thundercats so cleanly from existence? Across the chasm he saw something, pillars of stone that had been carved to resemble people.

Suddenly he was across, in the way that only dreams can transport you, walking among the pillars and realizing that the figures had been chiselled to look like his friends. Perfect likenesses of all of them. From Lynx-O and Pumyra to the Thunderkittens and Snarf they were all there. Even himself, strangely. He walked closer to the pillars and inspected them. No, they were monuments, his mind corrected for him, not pillars. Each bore a small bronze plaque, detailing their deeds. Each bore the same death date. So his friends were dead. He was dead. How? Why? Was he a ghost like Jaga? Was he cursed to roam Third Earth forever?

The dream, though he didn't realize it as such, carried him on, taking him to the Berbil Village. But it was no village anymore, not in the way he remembered. Lunataks walked the streets, forcing the Berbils to be their slaves, harvesting their fruits and growing other crops to feed their armies. Robear Bob fell as he watched and his master, a massive Darkling brought a metal wand down on his leg, denting the metal and causing Bob to cry out. Lion-O ran forward to intervene, but passed through the Darkling. Robear Bob struggled to his feet, unaware of his efforts, and continued to work.

He travelled to the Warrior Maiden village and the scene there was even worse. The proud women walked in chains, serving their disgusting Lunatak masters in ways that made Lion-O's blood boil when they weren't chopping wood or roasting meat. The dream took him to the other villages and the scene replayed itself; Wollos, Bulkins, Brute Men, even the Mutants were enslaved. The planet belonged to the Lunataks because the Thundercats had failed to protect it.

And the dream didn't end there, he spiralled out into space and saw the Control Force defeated, Mandora helplessly serving drinks to a lanky Psion, and other worlds dominated. The taint of Lunar evil had spread far and wide to planets he'd never even heard of. Lion-O felt an overwhelming sadness come over him, knowing that he had had an opportunity to prevent this and lost. His kin were dead and his friends enslaved, all because of him.

Lion-O woke with a start. He threw his covers from the bed and walked to the window for some fresh air. It was just a dream then. The sun was shining in his face, birds were singing, Cat's Lair still stood and his friends were alive. Weren't they? He reached for the Sword of Omens and called the sight beyond sight. They were alive, going about their routines. Tygra was sleeping, but seemed fine. Cheetara... He still couldn't see Cheetara. "If she were dead, would the sword show me her?" a taunting voice asked in the back of his mind. He'd asked Panthro about that and had been rebuffed. It was foolish to think that way, Panthro had argued, and he refused to do so.

What a dream, though. He'd had nightmares before, usually involving Thundera's destruction, but never anything so graphic. He'd felt the emotions as tangibly as he could the sword. Did dreams mean anything? Cheetara often believed they did, but he didn't think he wanted to know the meaning yet.

He dressed quickly and affixed the Claw Shield to his thigh. Snarf would be making breakfast, and he didn't want to miss it. Mandora would be by in the evening before she launched her investigation, and everything was going as well as it could. Lion-O stopped dead in his tracks as he approached the door to his room and a chill ran up his spine. The date of death on those pillars was today's.

Aristarchus yawned and stretched his tired aching muscles. It was going to be a good day, he could feel it in his bones. Today the Thundercats would be destroyed and by the end of the week he expected the rest of the planet to be under his heel. With all the resources of this planet at his disposal, he would return to the Moons of Plundarr a hero, and rid himself of that wretched pest of a queen.

He wondered, with a dry chuckle, how Lion-O's sleep had gone. Before bed, Mystan had promised to assign his Dreamwalker, a gentleman named Mezmir, to ensure that Lion-O didn't sleep well. With the precious Lord of the Thundercats running on little rest he would become sloppy, make mistakes, probably even fatal mistakes.

In fact, his own sleep would have been classified as marvellous if it hadn't been Nitro pounding on the door in the middle of the night. That whole House would be wiped from the moons if he had his way, nuisances all of them. But Knave was gone, Chilla would be soon, and that left Nitro... Oh certainly there were other members of the family; Nitro's other two sons for instance as well as aunts, uncles and assorted cousins, but the heart of the family was Chilla and Nitro. Aristarchus hoped the latter had an accident in the upcoming fight.

It was a little early yet to rally the troops, so he summoned one of the guards and instructed them to fetch him something to eat. He turned back into his room and regarded the map of Third Earth. Soon, it would all be his.

While the leaders of the factions were waking to a new day, Shade had been up for an hour or two. Nightshade had borrowed her body so that he could do some modifications to his existing one and had roughly shoved her mind aside, preventing her from seeing exactly what he was doing. He was gone now, taking his new body on a joyride and promised to bring her a new friend when he did.

He had barely been gone a minute before she had ducked into his curtained room and taken one of the spell books. She figured she was slightly less likely to get caught reading it in her room than in his. At least if he came back she could hide the book and hope for a distraction so that she could return it. Idly she wondered what the prisoners thought of it all. They hated her, there was little doubt, but she detected a certain amount of pity. Especially from the Thunderian woman. She had made eye contact during the theft and nodded to Shade, as though knowing what she was thinking. She would try and distract Nightshade if the need arose, but hoped it wouldn't come to that.

"Brrr... You look terrible, Lion-O. You sure you don't want to go back to bed, snarf, snarf. I can cook you some breakfast later, if you want," Snarf said, piping up when he saw Lion-O stagger into the diningroom.

It was typical of his onetime nanny, and he patted him on the head to show that it was appreciated. "No thanks, Snarf. I don't think I could get back to sleep after the nightmare I had. And no, I don't want to talk about it, I just want it to go away." He walked over to one of the chairs at the nearly empty table. There had often been times when many Thundercats weren't present for breakfast, but never had it felt so vacant. Wily Kit was on monitor duty, but Wily Kat and Panthro were talking quietly at one end.

Snarf disappeared in a flash and returned with a large stack of pancakes, smothered in a rich Berbilberry jam. A glass of juice materialized beside his arm, along with cutlery and a serviette. Never a detail was missed when Snarf was around. "Food is the perfect thing to cure what ails you, my mother always used to say," he said proudly. "There's more in the kitchen if you want it."

There always was. A good cook made sure that there was always enough to eat, and Snarf had it down to a science. "Thank you, Snarf, it smells delicious."

"Of course it does. A secret recipe. Do either of you want more?" he asked, interrupting the other two. Wily Kat sheepishly handed his plate back but Panthro shook his head. "Okay then. I'll be back with more for you and then take some up to Wily Kit. It wouldn't do for her to go hungry up there."

Lion-O watched Snarf bustle away, almost allowing himself to forget his troubles. He knew the peace wouldn't last forever, but the reprieve was welcome. In no time at all he had finished his portion and found a new batch of pancakes on his plate. He had to admit, the nightmare felt like a thing of the past.

Mystan regarded Aristarchus carefully. They were allies mostly because he was the easier one to manipulate should he ever gain the throne, but Mystan was starting to wonder if he and the other high priests had chosen wisely. Aristarchus was brilliant, but very set in his ways. He had visions for how things should progress and it was hard to move him from them. Of course, a very good telepath could forcibly change his mind, but there was always a risk of such a thing failing, and that would harm their relationship even more.

Attacking the Thundercats was pointless. They had the law on their side at the moment. A more prudent and patient man would sit back and let Control smack the Thundercats paws. But if an attack on the Thundercats had to be done, he didn't see the point in giving them a chance to surrender first. They had a fleet of space ships that could decimate Cat's Lair before the felines had a chance to react, then he might offer those in the Tower of Omens the option of surrendering.

Had the man gone mad? Had his defeat to Tycho hurt his psyche enough to make him less trustworthy? It was a ponderous question, and one which he had little time to mull over. Aristarchus was expecting an answer of some kind, however, to whatever question he was asking. "My apologies, governor, my mind has been taxed of late," he said, which was truth, but not the whole truth.

"I merely wondered who should be next. Once the Thundercats are our slaves we can move on to whomever we like. Tuskas? Those primitive women?" Aristarchus said, gesturing at the map behind him. After his breakfast he had called for his most trusted advisor, eager to begin the festivities.

"If I might speculate, I would suggest the sorceress Mumm-Rana be next. Past reports indicate she's almost as powerful, if not more so, than Mumm-Ra was, and we had great difficulty defeating him," Mystan said. "However, the Thundercats will not so easily be crushed. The Sword of Omens..."

"Yes. The Sword of Omens. If we could rid ourselves of it... Perhaps a trade? Tygra for the sword? The Thundercats are just noble enough to surrender their greatest weapon in exchange for the life of one of their own."

And there it was. The brilliance of Aristarchus breaking through the madness. He was absolutely correct, Mystan realized. The Thundercats were all about the honour and loyalty. They would value Tygra's life over their holiest of artifacts. But there would be trickery involved, and the Lunataks would have to be cautious. With things looking a little more promising, Mystan smiled broadly. "Yes, and I think I know just how to carry it out."

For the twelfth time that day, Alluro cursed the Ancient Spirits of Evil and the wretched eye he had been burdened with. All through the night the eye had called him. Speaking in riddles, all of which indicated that he needed to leave Sky Tomb, leave New Lunis altogether, and venture out of Dark Side. They were being vague about what he needed to do when he got wherever they were taking him, and it was frustrating. As he crossed through the Fire Rock Mountains he debated lobbing the stone into the Thundrainium to be rid of it, but something stayed his hand. Rivers of blood. The words echoed through his head, and he knew that whatever he was doing might save him from death.

Or cause it. Anything was possible given the nature of riddles. Why couldn't prophesies be clear and concise? Wouldn't it make more sense? Or did being vague increase their likelihood of being right. He snorted and stopped for a minute to rest. It really would have been better if the riddle had suggested taking one of the jet packs.

The first thing Chilla noticed when she woke up was the foul stench of the unwashed blanket she was sleeping on. It had clearly last been used by a brute man slave with a bladder problem, if the crusty patch that scraped against her leg was any indication. Back when Sky Tomb had been her home rather than her prison she had enjoyed depriving the prisoners of common luxuries, now she knew how it felt. Ultimately, it wouldn't change how she treated prisoners, but it might give her ideas on how to make it more unpleasant.

What had awakened her, however, was a different stench. It smelled fresher, though that didn't make any sense, and there was movement. She opened her eyes to find Psychro with his pants around his ankles and immediately got into a fighting crouch. He turned at the noise, an unfortunate gesture as it put him at eye level with his groin, and chuckled. "Don't worry," he assured her, "just going to the bathroom."

That's right. They didn't have private bathrooms down here. Prisoners were lucky to have chamber pots when the Lunataks were feeling generous. Luckily, this cell was equipped with one. She allowed herself to relax, groaning mentally at the thought of when she would have to use the pot. Psychro would no doubt make some lewd comment about it. Then again, he hadn't just now. Chilla heard Tygra moving around, watching the interaction, and no doubt feeling uncomfortable himself about when he would need to go to the bathroom. She'd dealt with Tygra on a number of occasions and he'd always struck her as shy.

She glanced over to Psychro again and averted her eyes hastily. He was ruggedly handsome, and that was part of the problem, generously endowed too if the glimpse was any indication. She wondered if he would be nearly so insufferable if he didn't have the reputation of being a womanizer. Chilla had heard a rumour that the longest he'd ever stayed with a woman, apart from his first relationship, was a month; It had been with an Icewalker girl who insisted on a bonding ceremony before she would put out for him. When she had finally conceded, the night before they were to be bonded, he'd ditched her.

Chilla sighed. The womanizing was just the tip of the iceberg on Psychro's character flaws; he respected women in most areas, but thought it impossible that they would turn down the chance at a man like him. His massive ego was only further enhanced by the fact that there were a great deal of women who thought he was right. He was also most at home in a bar. The only time his hands weren't holding either a beer or a woman was when he was picking a fight in the bar. He didn't always win, but he did always enjoy the fisticuffs. All in all, she thought, he was one of the most immature people she knew, almost as bad as a Graviton.

As if to confirm her opinion, she watched him walk over to the bars of the cage, still pantsless. "Hey Thundercat! Bet yours isn't this big!" he called out, taking satisfaction when Tygra looked disgusted and turned his back on him. "That's what I thought. And that's why you'll never find a woman unless she's desperate or has issues."

A faint growl could be heard over Psychro's gloating, his member jutting out through the bars of the cell. Finally deciding he'd had enough fun he started to turn around. He barely had Chilla's name on his lips before a stream of ice covered his most sensitive area. Any snide or vulgar remarks he might have made were silenced as he frantically used his heat powers to melt the ice. In the poor light of the cell, Chilla thought she could make out Tygra mouthing a thank you to her.

Further conversation, however, was halted as a group of Psions descended into the dungeons and took Tygra away.

"New Lunis to Cat's Lair. Come in Cat's Lair, like do you read?" a voice piped over the intercom. Lion-O had been dreading this. Two hours after breakfast, following a quick workout, he had come to the control room to give Wily Kit some time off. She and her brother had bolted for the Berbil village almost immediately, presumably to pick candy fruit or something. Now the Lunataks were calling and that could only mean one thing: they were issuing demands.

Lion-O tapped a button, activating the monitor. Instantly a young Icewalker, with faint Psion markings, appeared on the screen. The woman was chewing on something, though he couldn't tell what, and seemed bored. "What do you want, Lunatak?" he asked, probably a little harsher than he should have, but with his friends in danger he didn't feel like using social niceties.

"Anyway, Aristarchus wants to talk to Lion-O. I suppose that's you?" she said. When Lion-O nodded she tapped a few buttons.

Instantly the woman was replaced by Aristarchus, grinning widely. He looked like a man who knew he held all the cards, "Lion-O. Good to see you again. Let me cut to the chase; we found Tygra spying on our city and we have arrested him. Ordinarily the penalty for spying is lengthy torture followed by death. However, I felt in light of our previous relationship that I would propose a deal. Something of value for someone you value, as it were."

"I demand to see him," Lion-O said. He knew Tygra was fine, the Eye of Thundera had told him so, but there was no need to let Aristarachus know all the powers of the sword.

"Very well." The governor stepped aside and Tygra was pushed into the picture. He was shackled around the wrists and neck, but seemed to be in fine condition, all things considered.

"Lion-O! Whatever they want, don't do it!" he started before a Psion clamped his hand over Tygra's mouth and pulled him away.

"As you can see, Lion-O, Tygra is alive and well. His remaining so depends greatly on your next words. If you ever want to see Tygra alive again, you will deliver us the Sword of Omens."

The Lord of the Thundercats was shocked. Aristarchus was asking an astronomically high price for the life of one of his friends. Could he truly surrender the heart of the Thundercat race, a powerful weapon that had served the Lords of the Thundercats throughout countless generations? Was the life of one man worth the cost? And yet, there was no choice to make. Lion-O knew it, and could see that Aristarchus knew it. He couldn't bear to imagine Tygra dead, especially if he had the power to save him. Still... "And for Cheetara?"

"Again with Cheetara. Listen closely. We. Do. Not. Have. Cheetara. If you ask again, we will send you a piece of Tygra as incentive. Understand?"

"I do. Fine, I will bring you the Sword of Omens and you will release Tygra to us, unharmed."

"I knew you would. We are already on the way in one of our ships, and you will find that not a hair on Tygra's head has been touched. It's been a pleasure doing business with you."

The screen flickered to black. Lion-O sank back heavily into his chair, the sense of foreboding he'd had earlier in the day returning. The Lunataks were plotting something, and he could only hope he figured it out in time. He summoned Panthro and together they waited outside.

Alluro recognized the route that the eye was taking him, while a new chant played in his head. "The ruin of one leads to freedom for another... Time stands still for those who bear eternal life... Death in the shadows, a heart of stone..." Whatever it meant he knew that the Ancients wouldn't let him rest until he'd completed whatever task they had in mind for him. Were they talking about Mumm-Ra or the other evil? Mumm-Ra was undead; did that count as eternal life? Who brought death and was it connected to the ruin of one? He wouldn't mind having freedom from the stone, he thought with a snort. Whatever they wanted, whatever his purpose, he knew that they were leading him to Cat's Lair.

"Paeder..." Spitfire hissed weakly. She looked horrible, and her commander knew that the woman wouldn't last another attack. Spitfire lay flat on her back, eyes searching vainly for the one person she knew in this godsforsaken place.

The woman in question was seated at her head, propped up against the wall with her knees pulled up against her chest, a fear of death had been haunting her ever since she'd come, sometimes it was stronger, and sometimes she could fight it off. This was not one of those times. It seemed so unfair. An Icewalker was able to fight almost from birth, the result of living on a moon that wanted to destroy them. To die in combat was honourable, and worthy of songs. To die in a place like this, weak, feeble, and helpless, was embarrassing. There would be no tales told of this adventure. "Yes?" she asked.

Spitfire had clearly been thinking the same way. "Kill me," she whispered, her voice a shadow of what it once had been. Paeder looked questioningly at her, as if confirming what she'd heard. "Kill me so that Nightshade doesn't do it. The hall of heroes won't take me if I die at that thing's hands. I'd rather my blood be shed by a friend."

Paeder nodded in understanding. To be killed by a friend, or ally at least, might earn one passage into the hall of heroes, where Icewalkers dwelled until that day when Lunis would summon them for one final battle. Though she didn't have any weapons on her, she did have her bare hands, and gently wrapped them around Spitfire's throat. It wouldn't be a clean kill by any stretch of the imagination, but it would be honourable.

Or it would have been if Knave hadn't found the energy to tackle her, throwing the two of them across the ground and startling Cheetara from her vigil. Paeder decked the hybrid, splitting his lip, and rose to her feet. "Damned half-breed. If you want to die a traitor's death, so be it, but let us die the right way."

"You want to die?" Knave snarled. His eyes narrowed to slits, suggesting that he would dish out death to her if she wanted it. The two had never gotten along, and had bickered often in their time of captivity.

"Stop it. All of you," Shade said, having emerged unnoticed from her room. "When the time comes, we will need as many as we can to destroy Nightshade."

"Why should we listen to you?" Paeder said, turning her attention from Knave to the Darkling woman. She came close to the 'door' of the cell but stopped before she reached the energy field that blocked it. One touch of that would speed up the life draining.

"Because I'm just as much a prisoner as you are. Okay, you have every right to despise me, but we're in this together. I'm learning his magic, and soon I hope to be able to take down these barriers. It looks like there should even be a way to reverse them," Shade said. Paeder muttered a dirty remark but finally settled back down on the floor. Crisis averted, Shade slipped back into Nightshade's room and replaced the book.

Panthro watched the sky, the sun had been up for about four or five hours now, and soon Snarf would be making lunch. At present he was doing the routine patrols of the Lair, since they were so badly short staffed. Much like his Lord, Panthro had an uneasy feeling about this whole mess. To surrender the Sword of Omens was to surrender their greatest weapon. Without it, could they stop the Lunataks? His gut told him that they were about to find out.

It appeared on the horizon like some kind of great bird, the massive Lunatak flagship came ever closer. Even as he and Lion-O watched, standing at the edge of the drawbridge, the ship's hangar doors opened and ejected a smaller shuttle. A ship that size to deliver Tygra? There was something else going on, and every instinct told Panthro to be on guard. He'd never trusted the Lunataks. Well, maybe when Tycho had been governing there had been hope for peace, but not Aristarchus; that one radiated evil.

The smaller shuttle descended slowly to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust as it did so that the two Thundercats had to shield their eyes. Finally the doors to the shuttle opened and out stepped Aristarchus, flanked by his toadie Mystan and two massive Gravitons that he had never seen. Aristarchus walked with the poise of one accustomed to having rich carpets placed before him, lest his dainty feet be sullied by such base things as earth and grass. He eyed the Thunderians with the kind of disdain one would reserve for a meddlesome insect.

Mystan, on the other hand, was keeping a sharp eye on both of them, suspicious and aware of his surroundings. While both men were highly intelligent, Aristarchus was a firm believer in that nature should act in a specific way, he seemed to fancy that he knew precisely how the Thundercats would react and had the confidence that things would not deviate from plan. Mystan viewed the world more critically. He knew that if one side could change the rules that the other could too. He anticipated, and that made him more dangerous.

"Where's Tygra?" Lion-O demanded, striding forward.

"He's safe. For now," Aristarchus gestured and the two Gravitons went inside to fetch the prisoner. The air grew tense, and Panthro quickly weighed the odds. Aristarchus didn't look like he would be much good in a fight. He presumably had some formal training, but it would be nowhere near the level of himself or Lion-O. Mystan, he'd been told, was a telekinetic of some skill, probably fairly high to be this high ranking. In a straight up fight, however, he was probably useless. It was the Gravitons that gave Panthro pause. If Tug Mug was anything to go by, they would be incredibly strong.

Tygra was bound, around the neck and wrists, but seemed healthy. His eyes showed concern, but his stance showed no fear. He was a Thundercat, he wouldn't give them the satisfaction.

"Now then. The Sword of Omens on your honour, or I perform an execution on the spot," Aristarchus said, drawing the sword that hung at his hip. The blade was positioned at Tygra's heart, a single thrust would likely kill him.

Lion-O shared a meaningful look with Panthro, enough to know that they both thought the same thing. Aristarchus was lower than scum for pulling a dirty tactic like this, and they had no choice but to obey. He walked across the grass until he was within arm's length of Mystan and held out the fabled weapon of the Thundercats. "Now. On your word release Tygra to me, or by Jaga..." he began. Aristarchus smiled vilely and shoved the Tiger down. The four Lunataks turned and began walking back to the shuttle.

Panthro and Lion-O helped Tygra to his feet. "Are you okay?" Lion-O asked, glaring over his shoulder at the retreating figures.

"Yes. But the sword, Lion-O..."

"Is worth less to me than your life, old friend. We'll get it back when Mandora and Control get here. Don't worry." The Lord of the Thundercats moved around behind Tygra and took a hold of the chains. His muscles rippled as pent-up rage flowed through his veins and the chains burst apart. While the manacles were still affixed to his neck and wrists, at least now he could comfortably move.

"It's too bad the Thunderkittens aren't here. Some extra support would be nice. I don't trust those Lunataks," Panthro said, taking a backward glance at the ship. This was going too easily, and he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Together the three Thundercats crossed the bridge. They were almost to the other side when they heard Aristarchus call out to them again. He and his three companions hadn't yet entered their shuttle and, if anything, had actually started to come back. "I forgot to mention the other price for your spying," he said, gesturing to the flagship.

All at once beams of energy lanced out from the several turrets, scoring direct hits all over Cat's Lair, large sections of rock exploded, and the massive cat head tumbled to the ground. What had once been their proud home was destroyed. The shockwave catapulted the three Thundercats backwards, and Tygra hurtled over the edge of the bridge, tumbling into the moat. It took Panthro a moment to recover from the shock of the brutal attack, and he sprinted to the edge of the bridge in hopes of seeing Tygra, but saw nothing. His bellow of anger matched that of Lion-O's.

Snarf was crawling down the stairs into the basement. He hated this part of the patrol, and always saved it for last. Dark creepy places weren't his cup of tea, and adding Mumm-Ra's corpse to that didn't make any more pleasant. He was almost at the bottom when the explosions occurred. Sections of ceiling came crashing down, blocking the door at the top of the stairs. Fortunately Tygra had designed the basement very well, and it was largely unharmed by the attacks. Even still, it meant that he was trapped in a dark creepy place... with Mumm-Ra.

The attack formation was sadly predictable. Lion-O made a mad rush for Aristarchus, while Panthro, protected his lord by going after the Gravitons. Neither of them gave any thought to Mystan, which suited him fine. He didn't like hand to hand combat if he could avoid it, and this way he could make himself more useful. One of the things that Aristarchus had insisted on, was that the war between Thunderian and Lunatak should come down to the two leaders so that when Aristarchus brought Lion-O back to the Moons of Plundarr, a helpless prisoner, he could gloat that he had been the one to beat him. Of course, that would only technically be true.

Mystan extended his telekinetic power, mindful of where Panthro was at all times, until he wrapped himself around Lion-O's body. The youth was strong, physically and mentally, and resisted the grip. Mystan scowled. His abilities were the best in the moons, no one should be able to resist him, but Lion-O was. Even still, he was slowed by the assault, and that proved beneficial to Aristarchus' meagre abilities.

For his part, Panthro was having great difficulty. He had planted a dropkick on one Graviton's chin, but hadn't managed to take him down, it had barely knocked the goon over. A jolt of pain raced down his leg from the impact, and it was only thanks to his conditioning and anger that he was able to recover so quickly. By this time the second Graviton had moved in and clubbed him in the back with one of his tree trunk like arms. The blow caught him between the shoulder blades, causing the Panther to stumble forward, almost tripping over his first opponent. A voice deep down, sounding remarkably like Jaga's, reminded him to watch his temper and think things through. While there was a cathartic reaction to pummelling people with fists and feet, there were other weapons at his disposal.

"Surrender, Thundercat, you don't have a chance," the second Graviton chuckled.

"You're sounding like a Psion," the first chuckled. Then they were both laughing at the joke.

"So you like to laugh, eh?" Panthro murmured, producing his nunchakus. He flipped the cap of the red handle and a noxious purple gas wafted out, surrounding one of the two. Almost instantly that one began to giggle, collapsing to his hands and knees as uncontrollable laughter took over him. "There. Now it's one on one," he said.

"Ha! Like eet's going to be any easier for you." The Graviton in question produced a smaller version of the gravity carbine that Tug Mug had always carried. "Let's see eef you can still jump around when I increase your weight!"

The fight between Aristarchus and Lion-O wasn't going quite as easily as the former had hoped. It was ridiculous and probably spoke volumes about Aristarchus' skills. Lion-O was unarmed against a sword wielding opponent, was being drastically slowed in his movements by Mystan's telekinesis, and was emotionally unsettled. It should have been a cakewalk for the Governor of New Lunis. A pampered lifestyle was to blame, he thought as he narrowly avoided a flying fist. Too much greasy Graviton food, perhaps. Ah well, Lunataks were known for not playing fair, and he saw no reason to start.

"You fight well, Lion-O. But I wonder, can you see in the dark?" he asked, gesturing with one hand. The battlefield went completely black, and he heard the startled noises from the other combatants. He swiftly put on a pair of infrared goggles and grinned widely. "You didn't think there were only four of us, did you? If Tygra hadn't gone over the edge he might have told you there were others."

A cold humanoid blob moved nimbly over to where Panthro was struggling to find the two Gravitons he'd been dealing with, while another warm shape came over to where Aristarchus and Lion-O had been fighting. Stalker and Josa had been eager to get involved in the capture of the Thundercats, and seemed pleased to be called into action. Lion-O swung wildly in the air, fighting valiantly against the telekinetic hold, and Stalker waded in and punched him as hard as he could. The blow caught Lion-O's jaw and he dropped to one knee. Thus distracted, Aristarchus slashed his sword across the Thunderian's calf making him cry out in agony, he then turned his sword and cracked Lion-O's skull with the pommel. "You are beaten Lion-O! Surrender!" He struck again and again as the Lord of the Thundercats dropped to the ground, thoroughly beaten.

"I've got my target too!" Josa shouted. Panthro had been too focussed on the Gravitons that it hadn't occurred to him to listen for another opponent. Fumbling around in the dark, trying to rely on his sense of smell to tell him where the beefy men were, he was unaware of Josa's presence, until she froze him solid in a block of ice.

At her words the darkness lifted, courtesy of Stalker, and the Lunataks took stock of their situation. Lion-O was bloodied, conscious and alive but barely. The Lunataks themselves seemed to be largely unscathed. The two Gravitons were a little bruised, but didn't seem to mind as long as they were victorious. Aristarchus was covered in blood, though none of it was his own. Stalker looked disappointed, probably that he had done so little. Mystan was... missing. Even as she noticed, she could see that Aristarchus had realized it as well. "Mystan? Where are you?" he shouted. There was no response, only an eerie quiet that was broken only by the sound of their heavy breathing. "It must have been Tygra. He can turn invisible, he must have come back when we weren't looking."

"Then where is he now?" Stalker asked, his infrared vision scanning the area for any life signs. They couldn't have gone that far, as Mystan had been holding Lion-O only moments before.

"Bring him back, Thundercat, or your friends are doomed." To illustrate his intent, Aristarchus kicked Lion-O in the chest. "Fine, then, play your games. If you do not return Mystan, I promise that I will torture your friends until they beg for death, and then I will torture them some more. All the while they will know that you could have saved them but didn't. When I finally grant them their wish, they will die cursing your name. Do you hear me?" There was still no answer, so he gestured for his people to take the two Thundercats to the shuttle. Tygra would reveal himself sooner or later, and he would regret taking Aristarchus' closest advisor.

He felt extremely disoriented. One minute he had been latched on to Lion-O's body with his mind, and the next he was pulled under the ground. He finally got his bearings when he was unceremoniously dumped in a prison cell far below the surface. He shared it with rotting corpses and a frail warrior maiden that he suspected he could break over his knee. He turned and found himself face to face with a broad shouldered human, who was staring at him with contempt and found himself returning the expression. "You just made a mistake," Mystan snarled, lashing out with his powers. The man fell backwards, his momentum only halted by the force field that seemed to be blocking the door. He was strong, and Mystan found himself unable to get a very good grip. It was almost reminiscent of fighting Mumm-Ra.

"Now it's my turn." Quicker than he'd expected, the strange man grabbed Mystan's arm and began drawing his energy out of him. The pain was excruciating, more so than anything he'd experienced in his life, and then, just as suddenly as it had started, it was over. He tumbled to the ground feeling weak. The human watched him, pleased at the results. "I advise against doing that again. You will learn that are nothing to me but an easy meal." He stepped quietly through the field, leaving Mystan alone to ponder his fate.

Alluro watched the Lunatak ship flying overhead and chuckled wryly to himself. If he'd known they were going to be visiting Cat's Lair, he would have hitched a ride instead of walking it. The eye urged him onwards as he traversed through the forest. He would have gotten there sooner, but figured that passing through the Berbil village was unwise. There might be a peace in effect, but they might warn the Thundercats that he was coming.

As it turned out, he didn't think it would be an issue. He crested the last hill and burst through the thick foliage and was flabbergasted by what he saw. Where once had stood Cat's Lair was now only a large pile of rubble and useless rock. Certainly, there were parts that seemed to have survived, but the bulk of it was ruined. "How am I supposed to get to Mumm-Ra?" he asked aloud, not expecting an answer. Still, the eye in his pocket pressed him forward. He just hoped it had better ideas than he did.

Foolishly, perhaps, the Lunataks had returned his whip to him. As the Lair exploded, and Tygra was sent hurtling over the edge, the Tiger had used the whip to render himself invisible in the vain hope that he might be able to get away. He had known, in that split second, that the Lunataks were playing for keeps this time. They would capture the Thundercats and probably kill them, but if he could escape then there was hope he could rescue his friends. Somehow.

The water in the moat was freezing cold, but it was his best avenue of escape because he knew where it drained out, filtering into a complex river system until it reached the ocean. He wouldn't take it that far, only far enough to get him to the Warrior Maiden village. The Thunderkittens were there, hopefully still would be there and not picked off by the Lunataks, and the women there could probably help.

Even bound in thundrainium chains, and placed in a cell with bars made of thundrainium, Aristarchus didn't trust Lion-O. The feline possessed awesome strength and an unmeasurable amount of willpower. If there was anyone who could overcome the thundrainium, it was him. That was why a quartet of guards, one from each moon, was stationed in front of the cells holding him and Panthro. Once the rest of the cats had been captured, he would arrange for a shuttle to deliver them to the Moons of Plundarr, and he would be hailed as a hero. He would demand Luna's throne from her and if she refused he would take it. After all, he had the Sword of Omens, a powerful artifact, and the support of the empire. As he saw it, nothing could go wrong.

"Luna!" Tycho shouted, pushing the doors to her office open forcefully, Darius at his heels. Amok jumped up and stood between Tycho and the desk, looking quite menacing. "You win. Though I hate you for making me do it, I will take the position of governor of Third Earth. It's what you've wanted all along. You set Aristarchus as the man in charge, knowing full well that he was the one person above all others that I would object to being there. You knew that I wouldn't be able to sit quietly while he ruined all the hard work I put into organizing things there, and the peace that I'd made. This is what you wanted, so I will go as soon as I can."

She watched him impassively, tapping her riding crop against the palm of her hand and letting her distant cousin vent. Finally, she gestured for Amok to stand down and set the crop aside. "Are you done?" she asked.

"Do you know what he's doing down there? He's pitting Lunatak against Lunatak, weeding out people who aren't loyal to him, including House Iespyk, and taking on the Thundercats and Control at the same time. It's stupid and it's rash," Tycho said. Darius stood very close, and the latter wondered how well he would fare in a fight against Amok. Probably not very well, and not something he would have to find out if he could keep Tycho in line.

"I'm aware of Aristarchus' actions and I've already informed him of my displeasure. However, you are right and wrong in your ranting. A good queen uses the people around her for the best of their abilities. Unfortunately, you and Aristarchus are opposites. If I could create a clone with your best qualities and his best qualities it would have no weaknesses. What you fail to realize is that when it comes to warfare, I need him. You are not a violent person and care too much to send people to their deaths. Aristarchus doesn't have that weakness, he does what has to be done and gets results. But he's no good to me in times of peace, which is where you excel. People like you, though I sometimes wonder why. They see you and are confident they're in good hands." She saw him wanting to argue her points, but Amok ensured that he would keep quiet.

"And that's my dilemma. You say you're willing to go to Third Earth and be my governor, and I appreciate that. But this is no longer a time of peace, when we need to play nice with the Thundercats and Control. This is a time of war, when diplomacy is thrown out the window in favour of ruthlessness. When a firm hand and cold heart are needed."

"But my queen!" Tycho said, finding his voice at last. He would have taken a step forward had Darius' arms not been wrapped around him.

"Silence! I will send you to New Lunis. Until I can come up with a better solution, you and Aristarchus will be considered equals. On issues on which you cannot agree, and in which you cannot await my answer, your council will decide. Are there any objections?" she asked, daring him to make a challenge. When he didn't answer she leaned back in her chair. "Good. Then you will take one of our newer ships, stocked with soldiers and workers and report there at once." She went back to work, not bothering to look up as he left the room.

Mystan was gone. That was all that Aristarchus had said when he returned to the flagship. Gone without a trace. The news had struck Zanaya like a ton of bricks, it had hit his apprentice Lura worse, but Zanaya couldn't be bothered about that. Immediately the two women had volunteered to search for him and had been granted permission. The former assassin knew that Lura would only slow her down, but an extra set of eyes might come in handy.

She had changed from her more loose beige robes into her more appropriate assassin's garb. A form fitting black outfit with a reversible black and dark purple cloak. She had found a similar outfit for Lura to wear, so that she didn't broadcast their location to anyone who might be looking. Finally they were ready to leave. Krystalin would be safe at home, under the watchful eye of another Psion, and they each carried enough provisions to last them for two days. Aristarchus had kindly arranged for a shuttle to drop them off at Cat's Lair, probably more out of desperation to get Mystan back than for any other reason.

The Electrocharger swooped down through the cloud cover as quickly as it could. Mandora had been trying to contact Cat's Lair for the last hour and was receiving nothing but static. Though Officer Mandora would never admit it, she was nervous. The Thundercats could be relied on to always have someone on hand, and the fact that there wasn't... She ordered the train of thought away. There was a perfectly logical explanation. Whoever was on watch duty might have been in the bathroom, or their transmitter might be under repair...

Or Cat's Lair could be a wrecked shell of what it once was. For the first time in a very long while Mandora gasped, a single tear permitted to show itself on her face. "The Lunataks," she muttered angrily, turning her flying motorcycle around. It had to be them behind this. "This is evil chaser first class Mandora to Interplanetary Control Force base 102, do you read."

"Evil chaser fourth class Bryce responding. What's up?" an all too cheerful voice piped up on the other end of her line. She had helped train him as a cadet, but had never been able to get him to see that law enforcement was serious business.

"I am en route to New Lunis. Perpetrators have attacked and destroyed Cat's Lair, high probability that it was the Lunataks. I am requesting backup," she intoned. She wondered whether she should go past the Tower of Omens and make sure that it was intact. If it hadn't, she might be able to collect evidence.

"Ah shoot, nobody told you. The Lunataks filed a declaration of war first thing this morning. They cited a 2-19 and 3-01. Someone was supposed to tell you about that so that you could confirm their claims."

Mandora's visor flashed at the news, though her one-time trainee had no way of knowing it. "A 2-19? From the Thundercats? That's highly unlikely." It was hard to believe that the Thundercats would engage in any kind of espionage. She could concede that speaking with the other races of Third Earth could be construed into a massing of arms, but that was stretching a point. Still, if there was evidence either way, she would find it. "I will continue with the investigation then under standard 'potentially hostile situation' protocols." She switched off the radio. The Lunataks weren't likely to be unco-operative, but one never knew, so the book said to play it safe. She angled the Electrocharger towards the Tower of Omens, and hoped to find someone still alive.

Had she taken a closer look at what was left of Cat's Lair, she would have seen a lone figure picking through the rubble. Alluro was starting to get fed up with the rock in his pocket, guessing only that it wanted him to get to Mumm-Ra. Following Chilla and Psychro's incarceration Aristarchus had told the rest of the council his plans for attacking the Thundercats, but to see that it had actually worked was nothing less than remarkable. Alluro could count on one hand the number of times he'd seen Cat's Lair sustain a lot of damage, and the wretched felines always seemed to have rebuilt within a week. It was those Berbils, he thought, they were tireless workers and eager to be of use. He could think of a few uses for them himself, target practice for instance.

One of the large main doors to the lair was on the ground, allowing Alluro to easily slip inside with all the stealth he could muster, and he followed the rock as far as a part of a hallway that had collapsed on itself. He snorted loudly and took the eye out of his pocket. "You must be joking," he said to it, no longer finding it strange that he was talking to a rock, "I'm strong, but even I can't move stone."

No sooner had the words escaped his lips than the eye began to glow a deep red colour, bathing him in the light. It was as though a part of his mind was suddenly opened, an obstacle ironically like the one in front of him, and he felt his powers growing stronger. He, like all Psions, possessed a modicum of skill in all the disciplines. In some areas the skill was great, such as his hypnosis, while in others it was a bare minimum. He remembered his teachers trying to get him to practice his telekinesis and scolding him for barely being able to lift a feather. It just wasn't in him to do it... Until now. He waved his arm out at the rubble and watched with glee as it levitated up and off to the side for him. Oh, if only his teacher could see him now. He would pick that balding jerk up and drop him in the nearest lake.

The rock's light wavered, and he understood the meaning at once; the Ancient Spirits of Evil were weak. They could augment his powers, but the less he used them the better. Slowly he continued onwards, going where the eye led and not really knowing what he was supposed to do when he got there.

"Evil chaser Mandora to Tower of Omens, request permission to enter," she called out over the radio. Contrary to popular belief that there was ice water running through her veins, she felt immense relief to see the second home of the Thundercats still in one piece; it meant there was hope that some of the Thundercats were still alive.

"This is Lynx-O at the Tower of Omens. Come on in," came the reply. She could tell by the way he spoke that he didn't even know something was wrong. Well, he deserved to know the facts. She began her descent and parked her Electrocharger.

The four inhabitants of the Tower of Omens had been gathered, and were standing around in the control centre. "I'll get to the point, Thundercats, Cat's Lair has been destroyed," she said bluntly. When it came to the truth she saw no point in dancing around. The reactions were as she'd predicted; shock, sadness, anger. "Control informs me that the Lunataks have declared war on you, claiming that you engaged in espionage and stirring up support against them. Those are heavy charges and I mean to investigate them. Have any of you Thundercats gone into Dark Side since last I talked to you?" She saw the looks of guilt immediately; an officer was trained to see such things. It didn't matter in this case as she knew the Thundercats wouldn't lie, but it didn't hurt.

"Tygra went into their city yesterday to see if he could find Cheetara. I'm sure he didn't do any harm," Lynx-O said.

"I'd like to do them harm," Bengali growled. "If anyone was in Cat's Lair..."

"I will let you handle rescue efforts. I've got an investigation to run. Depending on what they caught Tygra doing, they might have a case. For now, I suggest leaving the Lunataks well alone. Any further actions will only hurt you," she said. After several more minutes of questioning, finding out all they knew about the events, Mandora mounted her Electrocharger once more and departed for New Lunis.

Alluro reached the last door and cleared the staircase so that he could descend into the basement. It had been slow going, taking far longer than he'd expected, for him to get there. The orb from his psyche club hung in the air, providing light. While the lights down here seemed to work reasonably well, they flickered on and off as though the backup generator that was supporting them was starting to run down.

"Lion-O?" he heard a grating voice call out. On his list of irritating voices it ranked fourth after Luna, Aristarchus, and Snarfer. "Is that you Panthro?"

"No, Snarf," he said the name with a sneer, "It's not Panthro or Lion-O. I'm afraid they're both prisoners right now."

"Alluro!" Snarf shouted, leaping into the hall, standing on all fours with his hair bristling in every direction in a vain attempt to look intimidating. The overall effect was more comical, however, and the hypnotist began to laugh. "What do you want you balding freak?"

"Is that the best you can do?" he said, gesturing slightly at the psyche club crystal. He figured that maybe since the Ancients were augmenting his powers that he might be able to hypnotise Snarf. "Make a hair joke? You really should just give up. Surrender, Snarf, let me take Mumm-Ra off your hands."

That was a mistake. Snarf hadn't been able to resist his thrall immediately, his eyes starting to glaze over, but at Mumm-Ra's name he snapped out of it. "You'll have to go through old Snarf first, snarf, snarf. What do you want with that miserable mummy anyway? We're better off without him!"

Alluro had asked that same question on many occasions, even asking the eye directly, and had never gotten an answer, so he was very surprised when it began to vibrate, rising out of his pocket and hovering in the air as it glowed its dark red colour again. Both Snarf and Alluro stood mesmerized by it, transfixed in fear and curiosity.

Suddenly their minds were filled with information, they understood everything the Ancient Spirits knew about Nightshade and how deadly he could be. They understood that he was powerful and would destroy Third Earth, and probably the universe, in his quest for vengeance at the gods who had robbed their people of their bodies so long ago. The duo knew that they would need Mumm-Ra in order to defeat him. In that moment they knew that given a choice between the two foul beings that Mumm-Ra was preferable. He at least merely wanted to rule. Nightshade wanted to destroy. They also knew what they needed to do to bring Mumm-Ra back to life.

Snarf stepped aside, a little unsure as to whether the light show had been some fancy trick or not. The expression on Alluro's face suggested that he was just as baffled. The two went to the chamber were Mumm-Ra's body lay and went in.

The temptation was there, admittedly. Watching Mandora's Electrocharger fly into view and touch down. It would be so easy to give the order that would kill her. She had been a thorn in the side of a great many people, known as much for her stubborn attitude as she was for her adherence to the letter of the law. Mandora was intelligent, and would be next to impossible to manipulate, especially without Mystan at his side to provide telepathic council. But Aristarchus knew that, although there would be great rejoicing in some parts of the universe, to kill Mandora would be to invite the full force of Control's might upon himself.

He could tell immediately that she was under a great deal of strain, as he walked outside of Sky Tomb, where she had parked. So, she had seen what had happened at Cat's Lair. Mystan had speculated that there was some level of friendship there, and he had suggested that an unfavourable inspection could be overturned by citing this friendship. "Evil chaser Mandora. It's good to finally meet you," he said, "I am Aristarchus, governor of the..."

"I know who you are. Aristarchus, former second in line to the Lunatak throne. You had a long list of crimes against you dropped by Queen Luna including murder and attempted murder. You're lucky she did or I'd be bringing you in now. I'm here to verify the Thundercats' claims that you kidnapped Cheetara and to substantiate your claims of illegal Thunderian activities." She ignored the outstretched hand.

"Yes, well. Right down to business then." He gestured towards Sky Tomb and led the way, talking as he did. It really felt uncomfortable not having that second voice in his head, and he wondered if he'd been relying too heavily on Mystan's advice lately. Was that, perhaps, part of the Psion's motives? They were notorious creatures for wanting to rule the throne by manipulating the ruler. It was something to think about at a later time. Right now the other's opinion would have been handy. "As I explained to Lion-O when he first contacted us, it's a shame to hear of her disappearance."

Aristarchus led her up the elevator and into his office. As they went, his crew snapped to attention, stopping what they were doing. "You're more than welcome to look around, but I assure you that you will find no trace of Cheetara here. As to the other matter, I will arrange for you to see Lion-O and he will verify my claims. They have been turning the population of Third Earth against us and sent Tygra to spy on us after we specifically told them not to enter our territory. We acted properly."

"You think destroying Cat's Lair is acting properly?" Mandora asked, her visor flashing, forcing Aristarchus to suppress a grin. If she was showing emotion, then there might be a chink in her armour.

"Our methods may sound strange to you, evil chaser, but I assure you that we did it to protect ourselves. We have shown the outside world that we can be kind and welcoming, but now we have shown them that we are prepared to mete out swift justice when needed."

"No person is above the universal law. I will speak with Lion-O now." He detected an underlying threat in her words. But he shrugged and led the way down to the cell block.

The body of Mumm-Ra hadn't moved; Alluro wasn't sure if this was a good thing or not. Snarf reluctantly opened the door to the previously vacuum sealed chamber, allowing Alluro to step in. Although he had seen the sorcerer before, it was chilling to see him like this. He had always looked frail and weak in his almost skeletal form, but he somehow looked worse, as though he was truly dead this time. But they had been fooled before, they had thought him dead, only to discover that he had survived whatever disaster had occurred. Alluro stepped inside and gently lifted the body, surprised at how light it felt. Was this the Ancients' magic again or had he always been like this?

His snort drew the attention of Snarf, but he ignored the feline. The thought of the demon priest ever allowing himself to be carted around like a sack of flour was laughable, and he had to remember that rubbing it in probably wouldn't be a good idea. While Mumm-Ra could be gracious, he only displayed that generosity once every hundred years. Even the one time he had seemed to be kind to Alluro it had been for his own twisted purposes. A glance at Snarf reminded him of why his Egora talisman scheme had failed.

"Let's get to the cave of time, snarf, snarf, and get this over with," the feline said, grumpily.

Wily Kit and Wily Kat were just putting the last satchel of food on their hover boards when Tygra came sprinting into the Warrior Maiden village, looking very relieved to see them. Their own relief and joy at seeing Tygra, whom they believed was still a prisoner of the Lunataks, was negated only by the expression of doom on his face. He fell to his knees in front of them, alarming the few maidens who were present. "Fetch Willa," he panted, his adrenaline waning now that he was there. "Something terrible has happened."

About twenty minutes later, Tygra sat on a log in the middle of the village, wrapped tightly in a blanket at Willa's insistence, and having slaked his thirst. He had told the story of what had happened, from his imprisonment to the bargain the Lunataks made and the subsequent betrayal. When he told how Cat's Lair had been destroyed a loud gasp went up from the audience. Such an act was nearly unfathomable from a race who were claiming to be reformed. He hung his head sadly. "I don't know what happened to the others. Captured or dead. Hopefully they're still alive."

"That's horrible. What are we going to do, Tygra?" Wily Kit sobbed.

"Forgive me for intruding, Tygra, but what about your friends in the Tower of Omens?" Willa asked. "I can send scouts to the edge of the woods to see if they can tell what happened at Cat's Lair, but the Tower is too far away."

"We'll take one of our hoverboards!" Wily Kat said. "It's not too far, and we'll be careful to stay out of sight."

"I don't like it, but we don't have much choice. I'll go with your maidens. I can still turn invisible and might be of some use."

Willa looked about to tell him that he was too exhausted, that he would only hinder them, but she understood. These were his family members. He needed to know whether they were alive or not. "Agreed. For Lion-O and Panthro!" she said, stretching out her hand.

The others placed their hands on hers. "For Lion-O and Panthro. Ho!"

Nuiane looked nervously around as she worked in the kitchen, preparing an afternoon snack for Nitro. It was only a sandwich, and not terribly unusual a request from him, but the way he'd made the demand made her feel uncomfortable. The precise recipe he had requested was from an old family cookbook, and on the adjacent page was for a particular meat pie whose main ingredient was Darkling heart. She had no doubts that he had done so intentionally, that there was deep inner meaning behind his selection. Her heart had betrayed him, and if things went the wrong way it would cost her her life.

There was still no word on the sentencing, though she had little doubt that Aristarchus would be making that pronouncement soon. Her gut said that Chilla would die, something which caused her to stop what she was doing as tears began to roll down her cheeks. They'd pretty well been flowing non-stop ever since Nitro had confined her to the kitchen. She didn't want to die. She had tried to be true to him, and serve Aristarchus at the same time. This was the second time her life was in Nitro's hands, she thought sadly.

She had been caught red handed pilfering some valuables from his home, in hopes of buying a ship off the frigid moon. He had reminded her that the penalty was typically a lengthy term in the dungeons, which very well might kill her, but that he had the authority to speed up the process. But, he'd said, he was enchanted by her. It was the breasts, it was always the breasts. She'd been both gifted and cursed with them, but here they had saved her. She was given a choice between a year in the dungeons and a year in his bed. She knew that she wouldn't survive those cold dungeons, and had chosen the option that would grant her life. She had hated him at the time, with a passion, but she'd quickly learned that he could be very kind, and even found herself loving him enough to stay with him when the year ran out.

But no amount of skin would spare her this time. She looked at the knife that she had just set down. Did she dare? Could she? No. Nitro was many things, and a formidable fighter was one of them. She had seen the trophies, and the tattoos on his back that marked him as a master in the arena. A fight would last about two seconds, just long enough for him to get over the shock. About the only lenience she could expect was a quick death.

As she picked up the knife again, cutting a block of meat into thin slices, she remembered the day Panthra had been disposed of. She'd been a sweet girl with a fiery spirit, but Chilla had ordered that all non-Lunar women be removed from his harem. Nuiane had been working in the kitchen that morning when the carcass was dropped off. She had been horrified as the Icewalker cooks prepared the breakfast. She had been forced, as had the rest of the harem, to eat some as a reminder. And now it would be her turn.

Aristarchus led the evil chaser through the dingy halls of Sky Tomb into the dank dungeon. He had studied the layout of the place and knew that behind these walls ran the sewage lines, and that the stench from them often wafted through the metal to create a tangy atmosphere. Anything to make life uncomfortable for the incarcerated, was the Lunatak policy. Now, though, he was wondering about that. Mandora seemed to be eyeing every crack in the wall, every burned out bulb in the light fixtures, her eagle eyes searching for infractions. She would doubtless be doing so anyway, but the personal nature of the visit suggested she'd be looking that little bit harder. In hindsight, he should have had Mandora wait in his office while Lion-O and Panthro were brought to her. No matter, it was too late for that now.

"Here we are, cell block A," he announced as a pair of guards opened a heavy steel door. There were three cell blocks in total, with each one having a door that led to the rest of Sky Tomb and another leading into the furnace room where prisoners could be expected to load thundrillium into the massive ovens that once would have put Sky Tomb airborne.

She walked past him and up to the cell in question, looking at the two occupants. "These bars are thundrainium," she said, managing to make an exclamation sound monotone.

"As are their chains," he conceded. "They're prisoners of war, we needed some way of ensuring their co-operation."

Mandora's steely gaze met his and he flinched. "Thundrainium can be lethal to Thunderians. Prisoners of war are expected to be treated humanely until peace can be established." She turned back to Lion-O and Panthro, ignoring the hatred coming off Aristarchus. "Apart from that, how are you being treated?"

"You mean other than having little in the way of bedding, privacy and food?" Panthro snorted. "We're not doing too badly." Despite the bravado, it was painfully obvious that he was in worse shape than he would admit. He sat limply on the floor, scarcely enough energy to lift his head, let alone cause any trouble.

"Do you solemnly swear on your code of Thundera to co-operate with the Lunataks, and stay here until a treaty can be signed?" Mandora asked.

"Of course. We always strive to uphold the law. If that means staying here then I swear it, for as long as the Lunataks treat us well," Lion-O said, interjecting before Panthro could say anything. He knew that Mandora would help them, but that they needed to help her to do it.

"That's good enough for me. A Thundercat would never break his oath. Take away the thundrainium and see that they're well cared for," Mandora said, leaving no room for argument from the Lunatak governor. He scowled at her but acquiesced. "Good. Now on to the other reason I'm here. I want you to tell me everything that happened, from Cheetara's disappearance to your arrival here."

Psychro, along with Chilla, listened to the exchange with fascination. They knew some of it, had gleaned some from things they'd overheard, but had never heard the full story. Psychro was only half listening, however. Mandora fascinated him, ever since the first story he'd heard. She was a legendary figure among any group that might be classified as not being law abiding. She would round up crooks no matter where they went, and there was no getting out of an arrest. In her dozen or so years on the force she could honestly say that she had never accepted a bribe.

It was sort of funny. He'd developed an image of her in his head, listening to barflies telling their tales of woe, and it wasn't too far off. She wasn't nearly as muscular as he'd expected, but he supposed that worked to her advantage. Looks were deceptive, and she had plenty of those. As she bent over to examine where the thundrainium shackles had been he admired the roundness of her posterior. He wondered whether he could crack that shell of stone and reach the woman inside. He was game to try. But not yet. He could wait until he was out... if Aristarchus let him out for something other than an execution.

The thought had occurred to him as a possibility, that Aristarchus would decide that it was in everyone's best interests if the two traitors should die. Psikaris wouldn't be happy about that, and frankly neither would he. He shook his head. Aristarchus was a crafty man, but even he wouldn't be so stupid as to execute two people with such influence. Couldn't happen.

"I told you to stay put," Mandora said when Lion-O finally finished the story. Aristarchus had wisely kept quiet through the telling, though he clearly wanted to protest several points. He would get his chance soon enough. "While the claims that you were inciting violence and gathering an army are suspect, you did violate a direct order to stay out of Lunatak territory. Declaring this an act of war is a borderline defence, however, and I can't say I wholly approve. I am going to recommend that Control rule the Lunatak actions to have been unnecessary and that sufficient punishments be invoked."

"Is that so," Aristarchus sneered.

"It is. Furthermore I'm writing you up for several building code violations. Faulty wiring, improper plumbing systems, illegal security systems... Yes, I saw those lasers in the entrance. Once I get an inspector here, Sky Tomb will be shut down," Mandora rattled off the list of violations and punched them into a handheld electronic device.

"Violations? Under whose law? This is the city of New Lunis, and we operate under our own rules. We don't need an inspector because Sky Tomb meets our building codes. You have very little jurisdiction here. In fact, if it wasn't for these Thunderians, you would have none. Do you know what the penalty for spying is? It's punishable by death. I fully intend on taking them back to the Moons of Plundarr and holding a public execution, and there's nothing you can do about it." Under ordinary circumstances Aristarchus was considered to be a relatively patient and reasonable man, but these were far from ordinary circumstances.

"Wrong. According to universal law, trials for prisoners of war must be conducted in a universal court where an unbiased judge will decide their punishment. What you do with your own miscreants," she gestured at Chilla and Psychro, "is your business. But the universal law can not be circumvented."

There was a tense moment as Aristarchus listened to her. His fists clenched into balls and her visor challenged him to take a swing. Finally he turned on his heel and left. There was a whoop of joy from the Lunatak prisoners. "Alright Manny! You showed him!" Psychro shouted.

"The name is Mandora, not Manny, and I'm merely upholding the law," she replied tersely, heading back outside to make her report to Control. Once that was done she would perform a search of the premises for any signs of Cheetara.

He hadn't gotten a good look at the Lair before his sudden dunking in the moat, but now that he did he was stunned. All the hard work put into building it, into designing it, ruined in seconds. That Lair had been his pride and joy. Tygra often spent his time drawing blueprints, even before the exodus, for fantastic structures and vehicles. But he'd never been able to do better... Beside him the two warrior maidens who'd come with him likewise gasped. While they didn't have the same attachment to the building, the destruction on its own was stunning enough.

The battleground itself was evident. The large depression where Aristarchus' ship had rested and the disturbed ground all around it. There was little blood, which was promising, and suggested that Lion-O and Panthro had either escaped or been taken captive. But surely, if they'd escaped, they would have gone seeking the Thunderkittens or the Tower of Omens, wouldn't they? That's what he did.

When he looked for the warrior women, he saw that they too were examining the scene, trying to piece together what had happened from the story he'd told and the obvious evidence. "Tygra!" one called suddenly and he sprinted over. "This looks like what happened when my sister disappeared." She pointed at a patch of ground that looked like the soil had been churned. At first glance there was nothing unusual about it, but then he noticed that the area around the four foot wide spot was undisturbed. The Thundercats had been speculating that whoever or whatever was responsible for the disappearances was taking their victims underground, and this certainly fit that description. But who was it that had been taken? Lion-O, Panthro, or a Lunatak?

Satisfied that they would learn no more, the trio returned to the village to await the return of the Thundercubs.

Nightshade watched Aristarchus and Mandora through the scrying pool with a certain amount of pleasure. There was so much distrust and violence that the Lunar governor wasn't paying attention to the disappearances going on around him. Certainly the loss of Mystan was hurting him, but it also was making him more unhinged. The only thing missing was an all out war between Control and the Lunataks. That would be the icing on the cake. Perhaps... Nightshade turned and walked over to the prisons and slipped through the shield. "Spitfire, it's time." He grabbed the woman's ankle, staring down the others as they moved to help her. The Icewalker woman was doomed, and they knew it. Still, Cheetara had to try. She jumped on Nightshade's back and began pummelling him with her fists. He flicked her back like one might swat at a fly, sending her hurtling into the wall with a sickening thud. Knave immediately moved to her side to make sure she was alive. "Fool. Your time will come soon enough."

Spitfire was dragged, futilely clawing at the floor, through the force field. "Finish me then, coward," she snarled, spitting contemptuously on the floor. Were she at full strength she might have tried to stand and fight, but as it was she could only prop herself up on her elbow.

"I will finish you off, and then you will serve a greater purpose. War for the Lunataks, wipe out your pathetic race."

"No!" Nightshade turned, startled, to find Shade standing by the pool. "I said no."

"You dare tell me what I may and may not do?" Nightshade advanced on this challenger and hurled a bolt of magical energy into her chest, knocking her sprawling to the floor. "I have tolerated your presence because I thought I might need your body again. I will claim my prize and feast on this one's life. And when I'm done, there will be consequences for your bravado."

He returned to Spitfire and touched the woman's chest, sucking the life out in one clean shot. "And now, my masterstroke." He closed his eyes, pouring magical energy into the deceased woman's flesh. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, she began to morph, changing size and shape to become Cheetara in appearance. "Good. Once Mandora finds this in a Lunatak home, she will declare war on the Lunataks. They'll resist, and many lives will be lost. But don't worry, Shade, Red Eye won't. He'll be here."

As Nightshade carried his decoy away, Shade knew that the time to play the weak old woman was over. They had to get out and defeat Nightshade.

On to Return to Power - part five
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