THE RELUCTANT PRINCE

Chapter 1: The Unexpected Return Home

"Dark Kat nearly got us this time, buddy," T-Bone grunted, wincing in pain as he moved his shoulder wrong while piloting the Turbokat out of the danger zone they had left behind them.

"At least the bastard is finally dead," Razor muttered darkly, blood dripping from a nasty slice on his forehead and still shaken at how close they'd come to death.

What disturbed him and T-Bone the most was Dark Kat had managed to kidnap the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, and Dr. Sinian so stealthily that no one had learned of it for more than two hours. And, doing something totally out of character for him, the big league omega hadn't requested a ransom nor gloated over the radio waves of his coup.

Only sheer dumb luck allowed Feral to discover the kidnapping. One of his undercover operative's, investigating suspicious losses at the Bolten Munitions Factory, had overheard the plot from a couple of low level minions of Dark Kat. Breaking cover, he immediately reported in and was instructed to quietly capture the pair and have them brought into headquarters. Over the next hour, Commander Feral personally interrogated the pair until they finally broke but it was to no avail. It seemed neither idiot had any idea why their leader wanted the parts nor where the omega was now holed up. Frustrated, Feral had the pair locked up then activated a huge kathunt of the city.

Of course, through means unknown, the SWAT Kats had also learned of the abduction and appeared stealthily into Feral's office and demanded they be allowed to be part of the rescue effort. As much as Feral hated to have the pair anywhere near this mess, he also knew the more eyes he had searching the better their chances of finding the missing pair before harm befell them so he assigned the pair a section of the city to search.

Thus the hunt was on. Beginning just after two in the afternoon, some six hours after the kidnapping, and on through ten that night three-quarters of the city had been searched. No sign of Dark Kat was found.

~o~o~o~o~o~

Just as dawn was peeking over the horizon, two frustrated warriors returned to their lair to refuel their jet.

"We're running out of time, Razor," T-Bone growled. He stood holding the fueling pipe as he waited for the jet to be filled.

"I know!" Razor snapped, just as worried as his partner. Going to a huge map of the city he had mounted to one of the walls of their hangar, he studied it for some minutes. "Let's go over our desert obstacle course."

"Wa … why there?" the tabby pulled the pipe out and dragged it over to hang on the wall.

"I just have a feeling …" Razor scowled. "... And it's the only place we haven't looked yet."

Shaking his head but having no other suggestions, T-Bone leaped into the cockpit followed by his partner. Only minutes later they were once more airborne and racing toward the desert. In the deep canyons on the desert floor, there were many caves and Razor thought there was a chance Dark Kat might change his normal hiding place in the mountains to this less known area. He hoped he was right.

As the Turbokat was passing over the area, Razor had been peering out his side window and soon spotted something out of place. Frowning, he called to his partner.

"T-Bone cut back over the section we just passed. I saw something suspicious."

"Roger. What'ja see, Razor?" His partner asked as he turned the Turbokat and began a second pass over the area.

"I'm not sure … wait … go to VTOL … now … "

T-Bone put the jet on VTOL and they hovered over the farthest end of their obstacle course. This area was honeycombed with caverns, deep crevasses, and caves carved from sandstone by the winds. It had also been turned into a crystal wonderland briefly by the altered Rex Shard a year ago.

Razor dropped his x-ray scanner below the body of the jet and toggled it up and down to allow him to view the area more deeply.

"Crud! The bastard!" He suddenly hissed in shock.

"What is it? What do you see?" T-Bone demanded, wishing he could see what had his friend so upset.

"Dark Kat!" Razor spat. "That asshole found a pocket that didn't clear of crystal when Rex Shard went back to normal. It's a natural, deep cavern and its lined with that special crystal making it impervious to the winds. He's set up a complete operation in there."

"Crud!" T-Bone growled angrily. "Should we give them a warm welcome?"

"Won't work!" Razor said flatly. "Remember how difficult it was to break that crystal? No, we have to get help with this if we want to get Callie and the Mayor out alive.

"Ah, Razor...I just know where you're going with this and I hate it already," the tabby complained bitterly.

"Can't be helped, buddy. Too much is at stake!" Razor said uncompromisingly. Changing the frequency of his helmet radio, he made an urgent call. "SWAT Kats calling Feral! We found them! Respond!"

It took only minutes before a gruff, irritable voice rumbled over the speaker, "Where are you?"

"Dark Kat is hiding in a deep cave in the desert …" He gave Feral the coordinates. "My x-ray device can see he has a large force with him. And Feral, the cave is coated in that crystal stuff Rex Shard made. If you remember, it takes something that makes sound waves at high vibrations to break it and I haven't anything like that with me. I don't think you want us to leave so you need to find something like that to do the trick. We'll stay high so Dark Kat won't detect us and wait for you! Get here quick and quiet. We'll need to sneak in on him so he won't kill the hostages."

Shocked silence greeted Razor's report followed by a colorful curse. "We'll be there as fast as possible! Out!" Feral barked then cut the connection.

Razor had heard him shouting orders when his voice cut off. "T-Bone, head upstairs and take station keeping! We'll stay high enough to keep from being seen until Feral and his troops get here."

"Roger!" T-Bone added lift to the Turbokat's turbines and they sailed silently upward for more than twenty miles then halted.

The wait stretched out more than a half hour but finally ...

"There they are!" T-Bone announced, catching sight of a phalanx of choppers and jets flying toward them. Looking down, he saw a platoon of ground vehicles arriving at an oblique angle so their engines would not vibrate the ground nor the noise reach their intended target.

Feral had his jets take up a circle pattern above the SWAT Kat's position and his choppers just below as he, himself, came close to the jet and held position. His voice boomed into the pair's ears.

"Switch to channel 1042!"

Doing so, Razor called back. "Just below us is where Dark Kat's lair is. We need to discuss how we're going to rescue the prisoners and not let Dark Kat know we've found him."

~o~o~o~o~o~

For the next few minutes plans were discussed and discarded until finally they decided on a desperate plan that neither party liked but could come up with nothing else.

They had decided Feral, a handpicked group of black ops Enforcers, and the SWAT Kats would go in on foot to check out the lay of the land first while the rest of the contingency waited out of sight and sound of the enemy.

The SWAT Kats parked their jet some miles from Dark Kat's hideaway with Feral and several choppers landing nearby. Disembarking, the group of Enforcers walked up to the Turbokat. As they watched, the cargo door opened and their eyes widened at the sight of a sleek-looking disk floating out from the interior and down to the sand before them.

"Climb aboard the Hoverkat!" T-Bone called, landing the craft so they could load.

"Interesting vehicle and perfect for sneaking up on that crud!" Feral admitted, as he admired the craft while his troops climbed aboard.

"We think so!" Razor smirked.

T-Bone sent the craft racing ahead at its max speed, sand spraying up behind them as the landscape passed by in a blur. Though he was on the ground, T-Bone was still familiar with the terrain and took them through the narrow pathways without slackening his speed, causing more than one officer to curse in fear at how close the SWAT Kat got to the walls of the canyon.

When they were close enough to the cave, T-Bone slowed the Hoverkat's speed and cautiously approached the area. It wasn't long before Razor's sharp eyes spotted a creepling on a ledge overlooking a massive cave entrance and hissed a warning.

T-Bone quickly sent the Hoverkat into a sandstone cave he'd spotted nearby, floating carefully into it, landing, then shutting down the engines.

"This should be a safe enough place to leave it for a fast get-a-way when we've rescued the prisoners," T-Bone murmured in a low voice as everyone disembarked.

Stalking stealthily toward the cave entrance, Razor picked off the creepling guard before it could sound the alarm then the group slipped inside. Spreading out, the group took out the sentries as they penetrated deeper and deeper, their shadows fracturing into a million images from the crystal walls.

Fortunately, the cave wasn't as large as they'd first thought but big enough for what Dark Kat had in mind which was to build yet another mega-bomb. He probably kidnapped the Mayor and deputy to force them to hand over the city once he'd taken it over.

The rescue team had managed to slip close enough to come upon Dark Kat's work area and be there in time to overhear his plans. The prisoners were chained to a section of the crystal walls nearest Dark Kat's huge monitor which was dark at the moment, which explained how the group had managed to sneak in so easily. If it had been on, it would have ended the rescue before it had even started.

The poor prisoners were forced to listen as Dark Kat wax lyrically about his plans to finally take over the city. Studying them, the hidden group could see that, except for a few scrapes, bruises and claw marks from the creeplings, the three appeared to be unharmed so far. Feral had been surprised to see Dr. Sinian with the group. He could only suppose it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Razor got his attention. "He's nearly got that thing finished." He pointed at the bomb in a pit just past Dark Kat where a small group of ninjas and creeplings were working frantically. "Better take him out now before he's through."

Feral agreed and called the charge. He and his men rushed forward from their various positions to zero in on Dark Kat and his ninja minions while the SWAT Kats dealt with the creeplings and rescued the prisoners.

Half the black ops team died as did more than half the ninjas. The creeplings fared worse as the SWAT Kats didn't leave a one alive. They freed the prisoners and quickly hustled them out of the cave ahead of them. But before anyone could escape out the cave entrance, Dark Kat made one last attempt to launch his missile but even that was denied him as a huge piece of crystal fell from the ceiling to plunge down and skewer Dark Kat to the cave floor. Though the crystal was nearly indestructible, the sandstone it was melded to was not. With all the shaking done by exploding ordinance during the battle, the crystal pulled loose and began falling in a shower of deadly spikes.

Fleeing as fast as their legs could carry them, the rescue party fled the cave. T-Bone was forced to scoop up Callie and carry her as her high heels made running impossible. Feral and Razor took each arm of Manx and practically carried the fat Kat out while two other Enforcers aided Dr. Sinian. They all raced for the hidden Hoverkat as the walls of the crevasse shook around them and sand began falling like rain.

Dropping Callie unceremoniously into one of the seats and advising her to buckle up, T-Bone hurried to the driver's seat and engaged the engines as the rest of the group piled in. When everyone was secured, he carefully backed them out then shifted the Hoverkat into high speed, navigating the canyon with terrifying skill that had the Mayor crying in terror and Callie keeping her eyes closed and praying while behind them there came the alarming sounds of rocks crashing.

As they drew close to the Turbokat, Razor signaled the cargo door to open so that T-Bone was able to simply flew them inside. There was no time for the Enforcers to return to their own aircraft so they settled into jump seats pulled down from the walls of the cargo hold while the SWAT Kats rushed up the ladder to the cockpit. T-Bone quick started the jet, launching from the ground fast enough to flatten everyone into their seats.

When he thought they were far enough away, T-Bone pulled back on the power and they all sighed in relief. Feral called to his circling forces and got a report that huge plumes of dust could be seen where the caves were collapsing.

He ordered them to return to base then relaxed as the Turbokat cruised at a more gentle speed back to the city. Both passengers and the crew above recapped what happened, thinking the worst was over when suddenly a ripple of intense vibrations shook the jet hard.

"What the hell was that?" T-Bone shouted. He struggled to hold onto the yoke as the Turbokat pitched and yawed wildly then shot forward without the benefit of its engines that whined in protest at the force shoving it from behind.

"The crystal exploded behind us causing a sonic ripple effect which caught us," Razor shouted back, holding on for dear life.

"Crud, something's happening in front of us too!" T-Bone warned as he watched a kind of window appear in the air directly before them.

There was nothing he could do as the jet shot through the 'window'. However, as soon as they passed through the vibrations ceased instantly. However, the jet's momentum kept it moving at a high rate of speed across a different landscape. Though badly shaken, T-Bone managed to slow the jet's speed gradually then brought it to a complete halt, going to VTOL so they could get their bearings.

"Where the hell are we?" Razor said in a hushed voice as he peered out his window.

"I don't know but it sure as heck isn't Megakat City," T-Bone breathed as he stared.

"What the devil were you two hotshots doing ..." Feral growled, climbing up from below and poking his head into the cockpit area.

"The jolting was the crystal cave exploding and sending a sonic ripple at us which sent us here … wherever here is … " Razor responded, pointing out the window with an unhappy expression.

Frowning, Feral squeezed upward into the tight cockpit so he could see what Razor was talking about. His eyes widened in horror at what his eyes beheld.

"Kat's Alive! There's no way we could have gotten here ..." his voice was hushed, a strange note in it that told Razor, Feral might have an idea where they were as impossible as that seemed.

"Familiar to you?" He asked, confused.

"Unfortunately, yes!" Feral grunted, obviously no happier to be here than the rest of them.

Below the jet a lush forest sprawled for as far as the eye could see with trees huge, tall trees that didn't resemble anything they were familiar with. And in the center of it all sat a huge stone castle, it's spires glinting in the bright sunshine in a sky much bluer than their world's greener one.

Within the high walls that surrounded the castle was a large community. Elegant homes could be seen in the north quarter while poorer ones of thatch and wood lay to the south. In the west a variety of markets and streets flowed while to the east farms spread out growing all kinds of crops. Huge gates at two different points of the city could be seen from their high perch.

The inhabitants hurried by on foot, riding wagons pulled by some kind of horse-like animals, and flying and fluttering about with the aid of wings!? Razor and T-Bone could only gape at the flying creatures.

The people didn't look too different from Katkind except for those amazing, huge and beautiful wings of all different colors. That more than anything else told them plainly they weren't home any longer. But were they friendly or hostile? Being this high up there was no way to know.

"Where the heck are we? This isn't our world that's for certain … just look at those amazing wings of theirs!" T-Bone said in awe and shock.

"Are they a threat to us?" Razor eyed Feral questioningly.

The Chief Enforcer seemed reluctant to speak at all but finally said in a tight voice, "they don't like strangers and will attack any who approach without prior authorization from the king that rules here. I strongly suggest we get away from here...now!"

Surprised but not willing to waste time asking more questions, T-Bone quickly took the jet off VTOL and was just making the switch to forward motion when all the functions on the Turbokat went dead.

"What the hell?! T-Bone shouted as the jet began to plummet toward the ground. He pushed the engine restart button several times while Razor frantically searched for the reason the jet had lost all power.

Feral clung to Razor's seat as the jet continued to fall at an alarming rate while T-Bone cursed and continued to try and coax the engines to restart. From the cargo hold came screams of terror and curses of dismay which only added to the chaos.

But just as it seemed they were going to crash into the trees, the jet came to a jolting halt just a few feet above the tallest tree. As they panted to catch their breath they were further unnerved when the jet began to move again, this time forward by some invisible force that sent the jet a short distance until it was halted over a small clearing then began to lower slowly toward the ground.

Nothing T-Bone could do halted their motion so he shut down all the engines so they would be damaged if they started suddenly when, whatever was inhibiting them, was turned off. When they were getting very close to the ground, he lowered the landing gear. Within minutes the Turbokat settled to the ground with a light bump. All went silent again. No one felt inclined to move or speak for some moments.

Then T-Bone detected movement below his cockpit window. "Don't look now but we've got visitors! So what do we do now, Commander?"

Feral didn't respond at first as he watched a large group of winged beings emerge from the forest and march up to the jet. Each member of the group wore some kind of medieval uniform and held some kind of strange weapon. All wore identical grim expressions on their faces. Now close up, the ones in the cockpit could see these beings did indeed resemble Kat kind very closely. If it weren't for the wings, they would have been able to blend into Megakat City without any trouble at all.

Continuing to stare at the strangers, Feral growled, "We get out."

"What? Why can't we just stay in here until we find out what they want first? I don't like the odds if we just go out there without any kind of plan or deal in place," Razor objected strongly. T-Bone seconded that statement with a stubborn look.

Feral sighed, his expression clearly showing he was in agreement with them but his eyes held resignation. "You won't have a choice. Better to leave of our own free will rather than lose our only way back because, believe me, they can rip this jet apart to retrieve us."

The SWAT Kats stared at Feral in consternation. T-Bone would rather fight but it was becoming increasingly obvious Feral knew a lot more about this place than he should. Though he didn't like it, the tabby knew they had no choice but to follow Feral's lead … at least for now.

"I don't like this one bit!" Razor growled. "If we have to leave then we'll go out the cargo door and lock the jet. I want our escape to remain un-tampered with."

Feral merely snorted and nodded. He didn't point out that he'd already said the creatures could take the jet apart easily. But he said nothing. If the pair wanted to believe their jet would remain safe he wouldn't push the matter since it would provide them with a sense of hope even though in his heart he feared they wouldn't be leaving here anytime soon.

Bracing himself for facing the ones outside, Feral squeezed back down the ladder, followed by Razor then T-Bone. Feral took a moment to explain the situation to those in the hold.

Manx pushed forward and shoved a fat finger into Feral's chest. "I'm not leaving here without some kind of explanation, Feral!" Fear made him shake a little. No way did he want to go outside into a world that wasn't his own. He'd wait here!

"Then they will drag you out," Feral said flatly. "Your choice Manx … however, I wouldn't recommend it as they aren't very gentle with strangers." Turning away from Manx, Feral said to the others, "We must disembark before they get impatient and decide to come in and get us."

Not being able to argue with that, Manx subsided and waited miserably as Razor signaled the door to open. Feral led the way, followed by Ms. Briggs, Manx, Dr. Sinian, then three healthy enforcers aiding two injured ones with the SWAT Kats bringing up the rear.

As they stepped down the ladder, they could see the strangers had formed a half circle around the door preventing any escape as they watched with hostile eyes while the passengers climbed out to stand before them. Razor quickly signaled the door closed before anyone unwanted could enter.

They stood tightly grouped together and waited for the strangers to make the first move. A big, powerful tom, wearing a colorfully decorated shield plate with an odd symbol embossed on it, pushed his way through the circle and stared at them for a few minutes. They guessed he must be the leader then startled when he began to sing.

His voice was a pleasant tenor. As an anthropologist, Dr. Sinian immediately realized this was their form of communication. Though she should be afraid, Dr. Sinian couldn't help but be excited and intrigued at hearing a new language, especially one that was sung rather than spoken.

None of her fellow travelers shared her interest though as they much preferred knowing what was being said by these strangers. It became immediately obvious they were going to be treated as prisoners when the leader suddenly ceased to sing and his soldiers began to make unmistakable aggressive moves toward them. The SWAT Kats and Enforcers immediately took defensive postures but before a nasty battle could ensue Feral suddenly spoke.

From his throat the same musical language poured out. His deep baritone voice was remarkably beautiful and powerful as he 'spoke' to the leader in clear ringing tones. The moment the first notes left his lips, the soldiers froze in their tracks, completely stunned. As Feral continued to sing, they suddenly dropped to their knees and bowed to him. The leader didn't, but did bow his head in a sign of respect. Feral finished 'speaking' and waited for the leader's response.

The leader immediately sang a short stanza that caused his soldiers to leap to their feet and stand at attention. He sang another volley of words and the troop quickly formed what looked like an honor guard formation on either side of the Megakat group. Turning from his soldiers, the leader pointed toward the castle in the distance and sang an urgent sentence to Feral.

Feral sighed and nodded then sang a response back before turning to his own group. His face was grim as he said quietly, "We are to be treated as honored guests in respect for who I am but I'm not so sure our welcome will remain that way once we reach the King. Remain close and do as I say. The leader's officers will help our wounded."

Two soldiers came forward and firmly but carefully took over the duties of helping the wounded and soon the Megakat group were being urged along through the forest at a brisk pace.

Manx moved closer to Feral and muttered, "What is going on here Feral? It's abundantly clear they know you and add in the fact you speak their language, I'm sure you understand we're all wondering why that is?"

"Now is not the time to discuss it!" Feral hissed.

But Manx, for once, wasn't intimidated. His fear of the strangers and their situation was greater than anything Feral could do to him. "I think it is. We've apparently a long walk ahead of us, so why don't you enlighten us so we don't walk into whatever this is blindly?"

However, Feral shook his head again. "No! Not with all these ears about."

"What difference does that make. They don't speak our language," T-Bone spoke up suddenly from directly behind the tom.

Gritting his teeth, Feral turned his head to look over his shoulder so he could give the SWAT Kats (both now followed directly on his heels) an aggravated look. "They may not speak our language but believe me, they most certainly do understand yours perfectly."

"Huh? How?" T-Bone blinked behind his mask in shock.

Feral shook his head firmly again and snarled, "Later!"

Even Manx backed off as a feeling of sheer menace and power seemed to emanate from the dark tom. But that didn't put off the SWAT Kats long. However, before Razor could open his mouth, it was Dr. Sinian who moved up between them and spoke.

"I find it very odd that you're so familiar with these people and that you can speak their language with apparent ease, Commander. By their reaction you are much more than a visitor … almost like someone very important to them," Sinian remarked carefully.

"Yeah, bowing sorta gave that away, so just who are you to these guys? Right this minute I'm finding it hard to trust you so how about giving us something? I don't like being in the dark like this, it makes me dangerous and antsy!" Razor growled warningly.

Feral rumbled another annoyed growl, his body seeming to glow briefly (though Razor thought it was a flash of sunlight) before turning his head to address them. All eyes were staring at him with varying looks of confusion, anger, suspicion and fear. Tamping down his own rising anger and fear, he realized he had to tell them something so they wouldn't do something foolish. They didn't realize just how precarious their situation was and he didn't want any of them to suffer harm or worse.

"Listen to me closely! If you want to get out of here alive, you must obey my every command. Don't speak, guard your conversations until you're sure no one's listening, don't react with violence no matter what the provocation, and, above all, don't get separated. I will do my best to keep you safe as long as you stand by me at all times while we're here."

"Why the heck should we believe you?" T-Bone snarled, getting steamed which made the guards around him tense.

"Because I'm the long missing heir to the throne of Crysalis."

"Uh...did you say heir to the throne … you mean as in you're a prince?" Razor blurted, shocked.

"Yes!"

Mayor Manx choked and his eyes bugged out. "You're royalty?"

Feral's face twisted with a mixture of loathing and helpless, grim amusement. "You could say that...and it's the very reason I left … I had no desire to remain here for reasons that are my own."

"Talk about running from your responsibilities," Razor said caustically.

"Stuff it, SWAT Kat!" Feral snarled. "You know nothing about me nor my reasons for leaving!"

"Well, I'd certainly like to hear this story," Callie interrupted.

He gave her a dark look filled with pain and anger. "No you wouldn't," he said coldly then turned away making it plain the conversation was over.