"Storm, are you paying attention?!"
The Teacher's sharp voice jolted me back to reality and I reluctantly turned away from the window through which I had been watching the older kids practising battle techniques. I longed to be out there with them, but, at nine years old, I was too young and was stuck doing Thunderian History. As a future Lord of the Thundercats it was especially important for me to learn as much as possible about our race's history, but the subject bored me stupid - who cared about things that happened long ago? All I cared about was willing the next two years to pass extra quick so I could begin my weapons training.
For now, though, I turned to face my Teacher, a sharp-faced female Serval. She took no nonsense from anyone, as I knew only too well. Sinking low in my chair, I mumbled a shaky reply. "Y - yes, Ma'am."
She adjusted her horn-rimmed spectacles. "Well, Storm," she said with her familiar penetrating stare, "perhaps you can tell me the name of the Thundercat elder who sacrificed himself to ensure the other Thundercats reached Third Earth safely." She folded her arms across her prim blue-grey dress and waited for my answer.
My mind raced through a list of possible answers - Jaga, Lynx-O, Tygra, Lion-O . . . No, I reasoned, it couldn't be Lion-O; he was my great-grandfather and, needless to say, I wouldn't be here if it had been him. In that case . . . I went back to counting names, painfully aware of a feeling of panic rising in my throat as it always did when I didn't know an answer immediately. Claudus? Panthro?
"I'm waiting!" my Teacher snapped impatiently.
There was nothing else for it - I just blurted out a random answer and hoped for the best. "Er . . . Lynx-O?" I ventured. Seconds later, the frown on her face told me my guess was wrong.
"No, Storm, it was not! Lynx-O did not become a Thundercat until after he and his companions were found on Third Earth. The answer, as you would know if you had been listening, is Jaga . . ." She paused and sighed. "I think you'd better see me after class," she added before turning her attention to three girls who were giggling about Midnight, the latest teen pop sensation on New Thundera.
I wished the ground would open up and swallow me. My parents paid good money to send me to the best school on New Thundera and here I was messing up again.
I will not daydream in school
I will not daydream in school
I will not daydream in school
I was in detention, being forced to write those same six words over and over. The Teacher sat at her desk, marking the morning's maths tests and looking up occasionally to make sure I hadn't sneaked out of the room. She had made it clear that I would not be leaving until I had written I will not daydream in school one hundred times . . . I paused to count, whispering the numbers as my finger ran over the page.
" . . . sixty-three . . . sixty-four . . . sixty-five . . . sixty-six," I muttered to myself. "Oh great - another thirty-four to go!" My wrist was aching and I thought longingly of the plans my friends and I had made for the afternoon. Since we only had lessons in the morning, we were going to spend the afternoon down by the stream catching tiddlers in jam jars - now, even if I rushed through my punishment, I wouldn't have time. Why had I picked today of all days to let my attention wander? I sighed and forced myself to carry on.
I will not daydream in school
I will not daydream in school
At length, the Teacher began to speak; she wasn't angry, just deeply disappointed. "Storm," she said, "this is not the first time I have had cause to speak to you. You're a very capable boy, but you're just not trying as hard as you can. Your grades are, to put it bluntly, appalling. And, as for your knowledge of the Code of Thundera . . ."
"Justice, Truth, Honour and Loyalty," I recited as I'd been taught ever since I was old enough to say the words.
The Teacher sighed for the umpteenth time that day and ran her fingers through her collar-length hair, which was tan with black highlights. "Any three-year-old can say the words, but you should be old enough to understand at least something of what they mean. And since you are a Thundercat, a future Lord of the Thundercats moreover, it is especially important for you. That badge on your shirt is not just for decoration."
I looked down at the black silhouette of a cat's head against a red circular background which emblazoned my dark green shirt. It was my Thundercat insignia and, like all Thundercats, I had to wear it at all times. It was a sign of my noble heritage, but I'd always felt it marked me out; children do not, as a rule, become Thundercats unless they inherit the title from their parents. For the umpteenth time, I wondered why I had to have the Lord of the Thundercats for a father. I carried on writing while the Teacher continued her lecture.
"One day, Storm," she told me, "you must shoulder a very great burden - the Mutants and Lunatacs must never be allowed to threaten us the way they did in Lion-O's day . . ."
"But that was nearly eighty years ago," I objected, putting my pen down for a second and turning round in my seat. "And didn't their leaders get banished to some place called Way Out Back?" I knew all about the Mutants of Plundarr and the Lunatacs who lived on that planet's moons; everyone on New Thundera did, even though very few now remembered when they had been any real threat. There was the occassional outbreak of trouble, but it was never anything the Galactic Police couldn't handle and, for the most part, the three races left each other alone these days.
"Good to hear you pay attention to that aspect of our history," the Teacher said flatly. "But we cannot take chances. If the Mutants ever did regain their old power, all we have built here on New Thundera could be destroyed. Above all, we must see that none bring Mumm-Ra back . . ."
I sat with my mouth hanging open. Mumm-Ra was the ominous figure parents used to threaten wayward children; they would say things like: "If you don't do as you're told, Mumm-Ra will carry you off." And now my Teacher was talking as if Mumm-Ra was real, not some childhood bogey. I tried not to laugh but failed miserably.
"Think Mumm-Ra's funny, do you?" the Teacher snapped, her hands planted firmly on her hips. "Think he's just a story to frighten cubs? If you spent more time listening and less time dreaming, you might have learned that he was, and is, as real as you and I. Talk to Wilykit if you don't believe me and see what she says. Meanwhile, you'd better get back to your lines."
I got back to my task, resolving as I did so to speak with Wilykit as soon as I had chance.
I will not daydream in school
I will not daydream in school
Wilykit was the last survivor from the Thundercats who served under my great-grandfather and was already in her early eighties when I was born. Ever since I'd known her, she had been a wise elder offering counsell to the next generation as many Thundercats do when they become too old to play an active role in defending the Code of Thundera. I'd seen pictures of her as a young girl with her brother, but it was hard to imagine her as anything other than an old woman whose snow white hair still had a distinctive stripe, now faded from jet black to pale grey. Her favourite outfit consisted of a long blue-grey gown with the Thundercat insignia on the left of the chest.
After what the Teacher had said, I just had to know if Mumm-Ra was real and Wilykit was the only one who could tell me anything. I had hoped to go straight to her quarters, but I'd barely crossed the threashold of Cats' Lair when I collided with something small and furry, something that felt suspiciously like a Snarf . . .
"And what time do you call this? Snarf snarf!" The words prompted me to look down at the speaker, a stout female Snarf with a mob cap perched on her head and a floral apron tied round her waist. For as long as I could remember, she had been there ordering me about.
"Sorry, Snarf Emala," I said, trying to squeeze by her. "The Teacher kept me after school."
Snarf Emala folded her arms and looked at me sternly. "For idling your lessons away, no doubt," she filled in, not moving from where she stood. Not for the first time I wondered if she had some sort of psychic powers; she'd always had a knack for knowing what I'd been up to even if I refrained from telling her anything. And I'd been subjected to her tedious lectures several times as well, forced to stand there while she berated me about "duty", "responsibility" and other boring subjects. What nine-year-old boy, even a future Lord of the Thundercats, wanted to listen to a Snarf going on and on about these things?
Predictably, Snarf Emala struck up her favourite "lecturing" pose, which consisted of her placing one paw on her hip and raising the other in a wagging finger gesture. "Storm, you will be our leader when Lord Feleo is gone," she reminded me for the umpteenth time. "And, whether you like it or not, that means you must act responsibly, snarf! How's it gonna look if we have a Thundercat Lord who got in trouble when he was a boy because he didn't apply himself to his studies? If you don't straighten up and fly right . . ."
At that moment, I was saved from further scolding by the arrival of Tigreta. As you may have already guessed, she was a female Tiger Thunderian, her long hair patterned in brilliant black-and-amber stripes. She'd been a Thundercat for just over a year, the first to join our ranks from outside that I could remember and the first female Tiger annointed as a Thundercat in living memory. The last had been Sita, but that was long ago, long before even the Destruction of Old Thundera. However, Tigreta had named one of her fifteen-month-old twin daughters for the original Sita.
"Storm, there you are!" Tigreta said with a mixture of anger and relief. "We've been waiting over an hour."
"Waiting?" I echoed. "What for?" I was grateful to Tigreta for saving me from another of Snarf Emala's lectures, but I was also puzzled as to why the other Thundercats wanted me. I knew there was an important meeting scheduled . . . for right about now, actually. Children were, as a rule, not allowed at these meetings so what did they need me for?
"Follow me and find out."
Arriving in the Council Chamber, I saw my father, Feleo, seated at the head of the table, the Sword of Omens at his side. To his right sat his consort and my mother, Lady Amber, to his left his lifelong friend and advisor, Pumar. Flanking them on either side were the other adult Thundercats. I counted their names in my head - Leopardo, Katron, Ocelotra, Lynxon and Lynxari, Felis and Fangelo. There was an empty chair where Tigreta usually sat and she resumed her seat as my father turned to look at me.
"Storm," he said, "I fear what our people have always dreaded may come to pass. The Mutants are rising again . . ."
My mouth hung open in astonishment and I was grateful Snarf Emala was nowhere in sight - otherwise, she'd have made a cutting remark about "catching flies". A long silence followed, broken only by a nervous cough from Felis and some nervous shuffling of feet from some of the others. It was clear that this was news to most of them; none of them looked like they had the faintest idea what to say next. Not even Ocelotra and she was usually the most outspoken of the current team of Thundercats . . .
"Father?" I ventured, my throat feeling like sandpaper. "Are you saying we'll have to fight the Mutants again, like in Lion-O's day?" Thunderians had lived in peace for nearly four generations and, free from any serious threats to our way of life, our civilisation had prospered. True, we did have the occasional villian to deal with, but the days when the Mutants were any real threat were long over - or so we had thought. Now, from what my father was saying, it looked as though those days could return.
"Yes," he told me. "As we must fight any who threaten the Code of Thundera. And that is why I am letting you start your weapons training early - you must be ready to defend yourself if you have to. Pumar?"
In response to his name, Pumar, a Puma Thunderian in his late forties, got up and walked towards me. As he drew level with me, he reached under his long grey cloak and handed me a large metal ring with a flat surface. I ran my finger round the outside. "Ouch! It's sharp!" I cried as I pulled away and sucked at the resulting cut.
Pumar smiled - he was the weapons' expert in Cats' Lair and had trained all the other Thundercats in the use of their weapons. It was said that there wasn't a weapon on New Thundera that he couldn't use, but he preferred a simple dagger if he ever had to fight himself. "You don't hold it like that, you spin it around your finger and throw it," he told me. "It's called a chakram and I thought it should serve you well until you inherit the Sword."
Gingerly, I took the chakram and placed it on my right forefinger. Then, I tried to spin it like Pumar had said but only succeeded in dropping it with a clatter. I was flustered - was I too clumsy to handle even the lightest weapons? And, if I couldn't handle a chakram, what hope did I have of ever wielding the sacred Sword of Omens? "What you trying to be, Storm?" Lynxon called out jokingly. "A circus clown?" He and his sister, Lynxari, were Lynx Thunderians in their teens, both of them given to teasing comments. I was used to their smart remarks, but, for some reason, Lynxon's words on this occasion really got to me. I was failing at school and I couldn't seem to handle weapons. Maybe I was only fit for a career in the circus . . .
Pumar looked at Lynxon sternly. "I seem to recall a certain Lynx who took two years to master his morningstar." Lynxon blushed and averted his eyes. "Don't worry, Storm," Pumar said to me. "You can't expect to be perfect the first time you try something. But, with a little practice, I'm sure you'll be ready for battle in no time."
I nodded resolutely and was about to leave when my mother called me back - she wanted me to hear the rest of what was said at the meeting. It wasn't very interesting, just a load of stuff about stepping up security and sending a spy satellite to Plundarr if need be. Whatever the Mutants were up to, my father said, could mean bad news for us. If they were indeed regaining their old power, there was every possibility that they could try to restore Mumm-Ra. Therefore, we had to be ready.
As soon as the meeting was over, I headed straight for the playroom where Wilykit and Snarf Emala were watching the other Thundercat children. Ocelotra's seven-year-old son, Hunter, was sprawled in a chair with a book open on his lap. We had been friends all our lives and had been responsible for so many pranks that Wilykit had once said we were the current generation's answer to herself and her brother. Looking at her now, an old woman seated in her favourite chair, I found it hard to believe she had ever been as wild and wayward as she said. Right now, she was rocking two cradles at once and humming an old Thunderian lullaby.
"Shh!" she whispered as I walked in. "I've just got Lata and Sita down for their nap."
I peered into the cradles, both of which contained an infant Tiger Thunderian of around one-year-old. They looked completely identical with their soft stripey hair and little button noses; the only way to tell them apart was by the colour of their rompers, pink for Lata and yellow for Sita. Even the patterning of their body stripes was the same for both of them and it usually varies between individual Tiger Thunderians.
Anyway, I looked at them for a moment, thinking of how innocent they looked and how, even as I stood there, the Mutants could be planning something that could destroy that innocence. Then, I remembered there was something I wanted to ask. "Wilykit?" I ventured.
She looked up. "What is it, Storm?" she asked.
"Do you . . . I mean, can you tell me something . . . about Mumm-Ra?" I'd rehearsed how I was going to ask the question in my head, but, when it came to it, the phrasing seemed clumsy and inelegant. I waited for a response. Hunter's book fell to the floor with a bump, Snarf Emala pricked her ears up and Wilykit looked at me seriously. Since she was the only one in the room who had been alive when Mumm-Ra was more than just a childhood bogey, she was the one I looked to for the answer.
"Mumm-Ra is pure evil," she told me at length. "He lived in a Black Pyramid on Third Earth and he sought to destroy us almost from the moment we landed there. We all feared him, but we hoped we'd be rid of him for good when Thundera reformed. But he followed us and it wasn't until your great-grandfather fought and vanquished him that he ceased to be a threat . . ."
"So . . . did Mumm-Ra die?" was my next question. But Wilykit shook her head.
"You cannot kill Mumm-Ra - he is the Ever-living Source of Evil. No, what happened was that he was sealed within the Book of Omens - and there he remains to this day." I nodded; my father had told me of the Book and its magical powers. For as long as I could remember, it had been kept in a vault deep within the bowels of Cats' Lair, a vault to which only my mother had the key. No-one was allowed down there without her permission and now I knew why. If that Book ever got into the wrong hands . . .
Wilykit must have seen me shudder because she stroked my hair soothingly. "Don't fret now," she said. "The Book of Omens is safe and will remain so as long as there are Thundercats to guard it. There's no need to worry about Mumm-Ra getting loose."
But, after what I'd just heard at the meeting, I wasn't so sure. "What if the Mutants somehow got a hold of it?" I asked.
"That will never happen - because we're not going to let it happen." For a moment, Wilykit's voice became as powerful as that of a female Thunderian warrior. "Do you understand, Storm?"
I nodded slowly.