Thicker Than Water
A/N: This story is set between ThunderCats Ho! and Mumm-ra Lives., between the new ThunderCats are rescued and the Luna-Taks arrival.
"Over there!" pointed Cheetara, toward the source of the surf-muffled scream. "It came from down by the shore."
She vanished into the direction she'd pointed, as the Thundertank, two spaceboards and their passengers all turned to follow.
Arriving first as usual, the fastest of the ThunderCats glanced about the broad beach for the Third Earthling in distress. About a hundred yards further east, she spotted a large pit in the sand, just above the rapidly approaching tide. Waving the others in its direction, she started toward it, but almost immediately stumbled to her knees. Knowing there had been nothing lying on the windswept shore on which she could have tripped, she glanced down to see a large red claw emerging from the sand, clutching at her ankle. Beside it a second poked through, and soon the rest of a Crabman followed.
Behind her, almost as soon as the Thundertank moved out onto the sand, dozens of other highly territorial scavengers surfaced, so that soon the beachscape was literally crawling with the clicking crustacean bipeds. Surrounded, the sprinter extended her javelin, and gave it a quick and meaningful swirl around her head—clearly defining a personal space the crabs were meant to respect.
As several of them nonetheless moved in her direction, flashes of smoke and light enveloped the surrounded Cheetara, and the surprised burrowers danced to and fro at a loss for where to run or fight back. As the cloud cleared, the limber sprinter dangled between the Thunderkittens, who steered their spaceboards toward the advancing Thundertank.
As Cheetara swung gracefully into the opening rear passenger compartment, Panthro drove the Tank into and carefully through the throngs, avoiding emerging claws and causing fully mobile Crabmen to dive from his path. Spinning the tank about suddenly, he brought it to a stop between the recovering army and the sandpit Cheetara had pointed out.
As ThunderCats spilled forth, fanning out to engage the oncoming cast, Lion-O called out to his team, "Remember, they're not evil, just responding to what they perceive as our invasion of their territory! Be gentle!"
Understanding that they simply needed to distract, not destroy, these adversaries, the felines braced for the fight.
A cry beside him returned Lion-o's attention to the reason they had "invaded," and he peered cautiously over the edge of the sandy hole. At the bottom, a meek Bolken was chained by his ankle to a large iron hook.
Seeing the friend arrived to help, the Bolken bleated up to the Lord of the ThunderCats, "Help me! The tide is coming in; and the pit will collapse on me or fill with water at any moment!"
Aware of the oncoming waves, and the din of gentle battle around him, Lion-O asked and instructed, "Can you pull the chain from the sand?"
"No, it's buried too deeply," bleated the terrified Third Earther. "Please help me!" As a wave surged inland, a segment of the sandy wall gave way below Lion-O, showering the captive with thick, heavy mud. Knee deep in wet sand, and more frightened than before, the Bolken shouted even more urgently in alarm, quieting only when Lion-O leapt into the pit beside him.
Keeping an eye on the increasingly unstable lip above them, Lion-O holstered the Sword of Omens, instructed the smaller being to "Be ready to climb as soon as you're free," and braced himself to apply his considerable strength to dislodging the heavy chain with both hands. With a mighty growl, the Lord of the ThunderCats heaved upward on the hook, which gave way with only the slightest resistance. Unprepared, the force of his pull rocketed the loosely held hook over his head and nearly pulled the chained Bolken out of the pit after it.
"What?" exclaimed Lion-O, recovering quickly enough to grab the Bolken's belt.
A crashing wave, the exiting hook and the stumbling ThunderCat proved too much for the grainy hole, and its edges buckled inward. After so quickly preventing the captive from flying out, Lion-O tucked him under an arm, and leapt out himself, just as the pit walls caved in entirely.
The several competing forces of momentum were enough to just keep Lion-O's boots from clearing the sands as the hole filled beneath him. Setting the Bolken safely at arms' length from the hole, Lion-o found himself buried up to the knee in a heavy mix of swirling, watery sand.
Seeing the other ThunderCats heading his way, and trusting then that Bolken was safe from the sands and their inhabitants, Lion-O turned his attention to dislodging himself from the slippery, sucking quagmire that the tideline had become. He was so focused on the up and down of his own feet, that he did not see the Skycutter swooping from high altitude directly toward him.
With a panicked but excited look on his face, Monkian pulled the machine out of its dive, just in time to brandish a knife and slice off a tuft of the ducking Lion-o's hair before leveling out over the water. The Thundertank fired a few shots in his fleeing direction; and though not quick enough to hit him, they were close enough to throw him slightly off balance. He wobbled away into the distance, howling in apparent terror and disappointment at having only gained a bit of mane for his opportunistic attack.
The Crabmen also had gotten the message, and were in full, burrowing retreat from the collected Thunderians.
No longer fighting on any front, Wiley Kit and Kat repeated their aerial extraction maneuver, and quickly had Lion-O wet but no worse the wear on solid sand among the others.
Nodding thanks to the twins, and turning quickly to others' well-being, Lion-O put a reassuring hand on the Bolken's still-shaking shoulder. "Be at peace, friend; you are free and safe once again." He glanced at his companions to confirm that they too were all present and unharmed.
Cheetara, javelin still at the ready, suggested, "And to remain so, we should move off the beach."
Panthro "Agreed. The Crabmen are easily riled and run off, but won't stay gone long if we stay."
"Come, friend," said the pride's leader, lifting the Bolken up into the Tank. "We'll get you home, and on the way, try to unravel this latest Mutant mystery."
Indeed Tygra began the investigation, as the Tank and team headed inland. "Your village raised the alarm as soon you were taken from the fields by the Mutants. But they made no ransom demands; and so no one has any idea why you were kidnapped. Do you?"
"No, I haven't, I'm afraid," admitted the little man. "The apeman and dogman literally swooped in, plucked me like a berbil-berry from among my own furrows, and planted me in that hole. As soon I was shackled, they all left; and I'm grateful that it wasn't long until you all arrived. Thank you again!"
Lion-O observed, "It seems clear they wanted your abduction to be noticed, or they could have waited for some less public time and place. And they didn't put up a fight at all on the beach; they let the Crabmen doing all the fighting. But why?"
Wiley Kit chimed in from her board a few feet above the open Tank, "Add it to the list of odd things they've done lately."
Cheetara agreed, "It is just the latest in a long history of seemingly pointless or particularly incompetent actions on the Mutants' part. Much they do seems poorly thought out, especially recently."
"Like when they attacked the Wollo caravan traveling through the Bramblewoods last week," suggested Wiley Kat. "Why pick such a sticky place to waylay a Wollo? I think we've only just mended all our clothes!"
"And I could swear that today, Monkian was still covered in the scratches he got," observed Lion-O.
"Well, we also know that just because their actions don't make sense to us, doesn't make them harmless," reminded Panthro from the driver's seat. "Even if we don't see what it is, and even if they don't seem to succeed, you can bet your berbil-berries that their intent was no good."
Everyone, even the Bolken, nodded.
"Thankfully," summarized Lion-O, "they've been little more than nuisances the past few months. And, clothes can be mended, and hair will grow back."
Heading back to the Bolken village and the Cat's Lair that afternoon, they carried the question of what it all meant.
Across Third Earth, another group debriefed the battle as well. Four forms entered the Black Pyramid, grumbling amongst themselves at the bumps and bruises the day's exploits had gained them for no apparent purpose. Jackalman catalogued his latest aches, from head to toe, and back again. Monkian's howl echoed down the stone passage, pointing out that he had bruises on his bruises after weeks of intentional losses to the ThunderCats. Vultureman crackled back that he was less concerned at the number and long history of the raids, than he was about their explicit pointlessness.
As the quartet followed their shouts into the sarcophagus chamber, their leader shook a handful of fiery red mane above his head sarcastically, "But you all forget the treasures these efforts have won. See what a powerful and priceless prize our sacrifices have gained us!"
Without warning, the tuft of hair leapt from Slithe's hand, sailing across the roiling cauldron and landing on a large stone altar at its far edge. Silenced by the sudden flight, they approached cautiously, and eventually could see the table also held a small heap of soil, a pile of multi-colored fur, a large flower blossom, and a decanter of what appeared to be water.
In the background, the grinding of stones heralded the revelation of a huddled, red-draped form as if spoken forth by the large skull canopy surrounding it. Above them, a kaleidoscope of lightning played into the vaulted heights through unseen cracks and windows. And without further introduction, the cloaked mummy glided forward, chiding its visitors with a soft power. "You must learn patience, Mutants, as well as a little humility." A peal of thunder rumbled through the stone walls, as if to emphasize the point.
Reaching the altar, Mumm-Ra finally looked up to face his henchmen, acknowledging and instructing them simultaneously. "Being driven off and beaten by the accursed ThunderCats is no recent development. It is a way of life for your wretched kind; you should not seem so surprised or distraught by your ineptitude. But," he soothed as a smug smile stretched across his much-wrinkled face, "take heart that these recent trounces are not in fact defeats, if like me you can take a longer view."
With a rustle of aging cloth, Mumm-Ra unfolded his arms, placed his hands on the stone table before him, and leaned against it in resignation. "I too have grown increasingly unhappy with your inability to secure any lasting victory against our common foe. I have vanquished so many opponents through the ages, I had almost forgotten that bitter staple of your people's diet: defeat."
The Mutants exchanged unhappy glances at the insult; and more than one considered pointing out that it was not their dish alone when it came to the feline adversaries.
As if reading the simple text of their minds, yet without ceding the point to them, Mumm-Ra continued, "But it has been served to us all too often of late, and so I have given much thought to what distinguishes the ThunderCats from the many others I have decimated over the ages." In his mind, his long memory recounted how most had fallen prey to simpler schemes or spells, others had required slightly more complex or ingenuous ruses, and a very few had ultimately been overpowered only by a convergence of all his skills and servants.
"The ThunderCats call for a somewhat different and more persistent approach. I have been testing and learning them as they reacted and, true, bested my time-honored tricks. I have finally come to understand that they must be approached in their own way: with patience, stealth, and cunning. To hunt a cat, you must become a cat, stalking its prey—slow-moving, silent and suddenly swift. And so see now that the bumps and scratches you've received in gathering hairs from each of the ThunderCats over the recent weeks, these have been small steps in a larger plan to take the noble ThunderCats at their own wholesome game!"
Slithe, Monkian, Jackalman and Vultureman exchanged nervous, but excited glances in the flickering light. None wanted to suggest in front of the others that he didn't understand what was happening; yet, none did know. And all were more than a little anxious to learn.
Withered hands shot up above the altar, cutting off their minimal introspection, as the wizard shrieked, "Ancient Spirits of Evil, for thousands of years I have served you well. In the days of earlier Earths, I wrecked havoc upon these lands—despoiling, disrupting and defiling all that grew pure and good. Indeed, by the time the wretched ThunderCats arrived short years ago, nothing of substance remained on this miserable planet except scattered, splintered communities and decaying ruins of ancient splendors. Such was the handiwork of Mumm-Ra, the Ever-Living!" As he spoke, he seemed to grow, not in size but still of stature; his pride and success feeding his very being.
"Yet, I sense well how you share my frustration at the rays of hope and contagion of courage that these aliens from Thundera have brought with them. How all our ages of evil-done-well have failed to prepare us to stand against these few, foreign felines. And how none of our time-honored subterfuge, foul deeds or malicious machinations has succeeded against them." With these admissions, Mumm-Ra seemed to grow smaller again, as if weighed down by the shame of failure in the angry eyes of the tall figures around his cauldron.
"And so, my ageless ancestors, I call upon you this day for an altogether new assistance. Your humble servant understands at last the unique needs and risks this unique foe requires; and he offers you a sacrifice of himself to turn the tide. I offer to take upon myself a novel peril, in order to create a novel peril for the fight. Tonight, I call upon all your powers to create for us an ally that is of both Third Earth and Thundera. One that is both friend and foe to the wretched ThunderCats. One that will bring them down finally and forever!"
With fervor none the Mutants remembered seeing from him at any previous time, the mummy leapt upon the altar and shouted as if the words themselves were weapons hurled. "Ancient Spirits of Evil, transform this decayed form to Mumm-Ra, the Ever-Living! And from your ever-faithful servant, accept now these offerings as ingredients for a new and most insidious servant."
As he continued his transformation and his incantation, the items on the stone table rose and circled around him; as he named each, it was pulled hungrily and whole into the now-bubbling cauldron. "Accept this clay to make body whole. Accept this water to make body soft. Accept this blossom to make body beautiful. Accept these hairs to make body… kin!"
As the last pinches of fur fell into boiling froth, the surface heaved down and then up in a mighty spray. When it had fallen back into the basin, remaining above it was a dark, still form.
Cackling with euphoric delight, Mumm-Ra leapt from the stone table, alighting at the very edge of the cauldron, his entire body alive with the wild energies playing about the room. Casting his arms out to his sides, he seemed to careen forward as he added a final ingredient: "And, accept this second of time in the life of the Ever-Living, to make body… live!" A surge of energy ripped from Mumm-Ra, and encased the silhouette suspended before him in a blinding light that slowly sank into the form, as if absorbed there.
A sharp and stuttering gasp filled the cavernous chamber, as its population increased instantly by one. And before Slithe could determine whether the startled in-breath came from him, one of his fellow Mutants or someone else, Mumm-Ra turned smugly to him, and commanded, "Now, Slithe, for the reunion. Get me the Vertus…"
Unnoticed by anyone amidst the grander spectacle, a cobweb swung empty above the now still cauldron's surface, its builder-occupant lost to the magical tumult of the previous moments.
To be continued... (as always, fueled by reader's constructive reviews!)