They were mere inches apart; Cheetara could feel his breath on her face. Her heart was beating a million miles a minute and she felt faint. Maybe it was just the blood loss from the wound in her thigh, or maybe it was because all she could think about was Lion-o's lips.
Lion-o leaned in closer, and the weird part was that she did too. Her eyes closed, and she felt the ghost of his lips on hers before…
Her whole body jolted and she pulled back immediately as a huge splash drenched her in freezing muddy water. Lion-o had jerked back as well his expression was unreadable, but his eyes never left hers.
WilyKat and WilyKit's head's poked out of the water. WilyKit had firmly attached herself to WilyKat's back, as he paddled over to where Lion-o and Cheetara were. Climbing out they shook themselves off, droplets of water flying everywhere.
Cheetara looked around for Tygra, who hadn't come down with the kits. She didn't have to look for long. Tygra landed right in front of her, having jumped down from above. His sudden appearance startled her and she started to fall backwards, but Tygra's hand caught her upper arm steadying her.
She glanced at Tygra's smirking eyes before looking back over Tygra's shoulder at Lion-o. Tygra's hand seemed to tighten making her eyes snap back to his before he released her. He seemed angry.
"Do you have enough mana to heal yourself?" Tygra asked, his voice flat. Cheetara nodded and set to work mending her injury. She didn't know why Tygra was in such a mood; it wasn't as though he were the one who was drenched like everyone else. Her eyes wandered back over to where Lion-o stood, running his hands through his hair trying to get all the leaves and mud out.
What had just happened between her and Lion-o? Something had happened and she had felt it; she knew she did. But for some reason she couldn't put it into words. She had never really looked at Lion-o in that kind of light before. Sure they were 'engaged' or supposed to have been, but for a while he had just seemed like an immature teen needing guidance.
Cheetara had to admit though, that Lion-o had been growing, or perhaps had just not been who she thought he was. He'd proven himself on the battlefield as well as in a place of leadership. He was a man, not a boy. She hadn't really realized it until he had almost… almost kissed her.
She realized her hand was touching her lips, she dropped her hand immediately and blushed furiously hoping that no one had seen that. She shook her head trying to clear the storm of thought and, worse, strange new feelings shooting through her.
"How are we suppose to get out of this hole if you're down here too?" Lion-o asked Tygra, an annoyed edge to his voice.
"It's not a hole" Tygra snorted, "There are tunnels down here." Tygra jerked his thumb to what, were sure enough, a set of tunnels. "Kat saw them when we were trying to see whether you guys were okay or not. Besides Mumm-Rah's forces will have a hard time finding us down here."
"Which one do we take?" WilyKit asked, about the tunnels, she was still ringing the murky water from her hair.
"Flip a coin?" WilyKat shrugged.
"The middle one." Lion-o announced. Cheetara had just been about to say the same thing.
"Choosing randomly isn't going to help us," Tygra crossed his arms, "You ought to have some kind of basis for you decisions brother." His words were biting, but instead of feeling stung Lion-o felt anger. He was about to snap at Tygra when Cheetara spoke.
"Lion-o's right" Cheetara said, Tygra stiffened "I can feel a faint mana signature coming from there." Lion-o gave Tygra a haughty 'I told you so' look before turning on his heels and leading the group down the middle tunnel.
The tunnel was dark and moist. Both Cheetara and Lion-o used their mana to light the way, Lion-o lit the way ahead and Cheetara illuminated the rear. The light from Lion-o's sword and Cheetara's staff cast an eerie glow around the party and the smell of earth surrounded them. They all felt a little claustrophobic; cats were not meant to live in the ground.
WilyKat was having more of a problem with it than the others. He walked behind Lion-o and Tygra with WilyKit. His hands kept twitching and his body was tense. He kept imagining the dirt walls collapsing in on them.
He hadn't even realized he'd been sweating until he felt WilyKit's dry soft hand slip into his clammy one. He looked over at her and she smiled up at him giving him her best smile. It was a smile WilyKat had always liked; it was the one that meant she was truly happy. The skin around her eyes would crinkle and her irises would shine. And now WilyKat was sweating for an entirely different reason.
Cheetara was at the very rear of the party. The tunnel seemed never ending, they just kept walking and walking. It was giving her too much time to think. Of course all she could think about was Lion-o.
Just admitting that to herself made her a little angry. She was not some young juvenile kit in heat! She mentally slapped herself. She was a cleric, and a Thunderian, so she wasn't going to waste her time obsessing like some silly little girl over the 'prince', or princes...
Looking over the kits heads she could see Tygra's strong broad shoulders. She liked Tygra; she really did, it was difficult not to like him. He was handsome, with his exotic black stripes, amber eyes and gorgeous bright orange coat. He was witty, independent and willful; all traits that made Tygra a great cat, and yes she was attracted to him. But who wouldn't be attracted to him? His whole demeanor screamed sex and aggression. Cheetara was certainly not immune to that.
But past Tygra was Lion-o's slim figure, red flaming hair, tan coat and light blue eyes. He was naïve sometimes, believed in others a little too readily maybe, but he was sweet and today Cheetara had seen some side of him she hadn't even known existed. She wanted to see that side again. There was something there; she had felt some kind of spark. It was more than just heat; there was something Cheetara couldn't quite name.
"So, what happened?" Tygra asked in a low growl. Lion-o turned towards Tygra as they continued walking side by side.
"What do you mean?" Lion-o wasn't about to even try to answer such a vague question, especially when Tygra seemed so pissed.
"You know what I mean," he snapped, "With you and Cheetara."
"I don't think that's any of your business," Lion-o strode forward at a faster pace leaving Tygra behind. He wasn't about to kiss and tell, although they hadn't really kissed. But she had leaned forward too. Lion-o couldn't help but smile at that.
The tunnel gradually started to get brighter, and they could see light at the end. It wasn't bright like sunlight. It was more like firelight. It turned out it was just that.
The group exited the tunnel to find themselves in a huge underground cavern lit by countless fires and lanterns. They were in an underground city. The buildings were wooden although some were made of dirt. They had found the mana signatures all right, and whom they belong to.
All around them, every single citizen, was a lizard.
Lion-o swallowed hard, glad he already had his sword drawn. Knowing there was nowhere to really go back to, Lion-o led them forward.
"We should turn back," Tygra hissed, but Lion-o continued forward ignoring his words. Where could they go back to? If they went back and tried to exit the swamp woods that way they'd run into Mumm-Rah's army again; civilians were less likely to attack.
The lizards watched the cats with wide eyes. WileyKit and WilyKat stayed close behind Tygra and Lion-o, as did Cheetara. They made a close-knit little unit as they made their way towards what Lion-o identified as the inn.
"They work for Mumm-Rah, right?" WilyKit asked in a hushed voice to her counterpart. "Shouldn't we be getting out of here?"
"Not all lizards work for Mumm-Rah." Lion-o answered her in a voice loud enough for the whole group to hear. The conviction in Lion-o's words made Cheetara smile.
They entered the wood-built inn; it was small likely due to the low volume of traffic into such an isolated city. All the lizards looked up when the cats entered, some of them looked scared others had narrowed their eyes and hissed menacingly. WilyKit and WilyKat were practically joined at the hip at this point they were so close.
The owner was an old grey lizard, his eyes drooping and his pink forked tongue slipping out the side of his mouth. His scales were flaky with age and many had fallen off altogether. He was ancient.
"Hi," Lion-o started when he approached the old lizard "We would like a room for tonight, and directions to the surface…please." The lizard just gazed blankly at Lion-o for a moment.
"What is a pack of cats doing so far underground?" the old lizard inquired cocking his head to the side. He did however reach behind to the wall where there were hooks with keys, picking out one of the keys from the many.
"We're-!" Lion-o started.
"It's none of your business." Tygra cut him off. He scowled at Lion-o. They had just entered a nest of lizards that may or may not be on Mumm-Rah's side. Telling them that they were escaping Mumm-Rah's forces was not the most prudent idea.
"It's you mangy cats that don't have any business being down here!" One of the lizards at the bar hissed getting to his feet.
Tygra's hand hovered above his weapon and he glowered back at the lizard.
"If you can't be civil with my other guests I'm going to ask you to leave." The old lizards words were soft yet forceful. Lion-o thought for a moment that he had been speaking to them until he noticed the direction of the old lizards gaze.
"Fine," the other lizard growled walking towards the door hissing at the two kits as he did so, "I wouldn't want to stay anyway. Not if you're letting these cats stay."
With that the lizard left. The other lizards there shifted uncomfortably before one by one they exited the establishment. Only the old lizard was left, his expression having not changes since they had first walked in.
"Sorry about your other customers," Lion-o rubbed the back of his neck. He hadn't expected to be greeted warmly per se but he hadn't expected that.
"Don't worry about it." The old lizard shrugged clearly unconcerned with the events. "They are young, they don't remember the times of peace." Tygra raised an eyebrow at the word, as did Cheetara.
"What do you mean?" Cheetara asked. None of them had ever heard of a time when there was anything resembling 'peace' between cats and lizards. Sure there was a long period of time when wars between them weren't fought but there had still been general animosity between the two sides.
"You are so young yourselves aren't you?" The lizard laughed softly to himself his aged eyes smiling. Lion-o opened his mouth to ask for further clarification but didn't get the chance. "Why don't you take a seat, I'll get some drinks yes?"
They did as asked, finding a large round table near the back. The old lizard waddled over to the table baring food and drink, taking a seat at the table with them. The two kits glugged down the drink quickly, thirsty and tired from the trek through the tunnels.
"You must be running from something dreadful to find your selves all the way down here." The old lizard's words made them shift uncomfortable, giving validity to the lizard's statement.
Tygra crossed his arms watching the lizard intently. The old lizard noticed and chuckled softy.
"I don't mean to pry," he assured waving a scaly hand, "But it is for that reason that we, the lizards, found our way down here as well."
"What did you mean before, about 'peace '?" Lion-o asked changing the subject. He was truly curious at this point.
"Ah, yes," the lizard nodded "Before the reign of Leo the IV."
"That was over several generations ago," Tygra scoffed.
"Do you know the lifespan of a lizard?" The old lizard inquired, he didn't seem at all angered or moved at all by Tygra's disbelief. Tygra didn't answer. Of course he didn't know; that wasn't something that was taught.
"So you were alive then?" Cheetara prompted. Tygra snorted and Lion-o shot him a glare.
"I was young then, but yes." The lizard's eyes seemed far off; "All animals lived together in relative peace in the Capital, before Leo IV took the throne."
"Leo IV was a great ruler though," Cheetara interjected, "In history he's remembered as bringing stability the empire."
"Is that how your history is written?" The lizard didn't seem surprised, "Leo IV sought to purge the empire of technology."
"What?" Lion-o breathed aghast, "But technology was just a myth, it's ancient, if it was used in the time of Leo IV then there would be records about it!"
"Technology was collected, destroyed, and blacked out of history. That is Leo IV's legacy," The old lizard shook his head sadly. Lion-o and Tygra were shocked, had there history really been altered so greatly?
"What does this have to do with…?"
"The majority of lizards, and many of the other animals as well rejected the 'technoclasm'. They were prosecuted as a result. The nobility was primarily cats at the time, but those titles did extend to the other animals including my father. But with that it gave Leo IV another reason to call for segregation." His droopy eyes held sadness as he said this, and he sighed. "And because of the policies in place then, from generation to generation lizards are taught to hate cats for their poor existence."
There was silence all around the table save for the crunching of WilyKit and WilyKat as they munched on the food the lizard had provided. Both of them had been paying attention, but the information didn't have as much of an impact on them as it did for Lion-o, Tygra and Cheetara.
"Mumm-Rah exploited that segregation," Lion-o said softly, more to himself than to anyone specific.
"Indeed he did," the lizard nodded in agreement, "but not all lizards agree with his methods. Many of the lizards here hate cats with a passion but refuse to take up arms without direct provocation."
"So you're not with Mumm-Rah then?" Tygra clarified. He received a laugh in response from the ancient lizard.
"I assume that is who you are running from then?" The lizard smiled, his already wrinkled features becoming more so from the action.
"Yes," Lion-o confirmed with a nod, "But we're also trying to find the book of omens." Both Cheetara and Tygra widened at his admission. Tygra pinched the bridge of his nose. Lion-o needed to stop being so trusting.
"So you are headed to the western range then, to the temple."
"You know the place?" Cheetara asked, maybe Lion-o hadn't been so foolhardy after all.
"These tunnels extend farther than most can guess, and there is one tunnel that exits at the base of the range." The old lizard answered.
"Can you show us where it is?" Lion-o's eye brightened. Falling into that hole may have actually been a stroke of luck.
"Of course," the lizard began, but his words were cut off as the air was filled with the sound of crumbling earth. The group leapt from the table and ran to the door, WilyKat however was frozen still. His ears flattened and his eyes became as large as dinner plates; the earth was swallowing them. WilyKit grabbed his hand, squeezing it softly, and tugged him along after the group.
All of them flinched when they exited the inn, the sun assaulting their eyes. Above them the 'ceiling' of the cavern had been torn open to form a huge hole. Worse still were the giant mechs entering the cavern one by one from above.
Lizards were scattering in every direction running from the destructive machines. To their horror they saw the mechs mercilessly shooting down civilians. Mumm-Rah's lizard soldiers were killing their fellow lizards. Lion-o drew his sword and rushed forward, followed by Cheetara and Tygra.
"Cats, don't!" the old lizard called after them, trying to stop them. But Lion-o wasn't about to stop. He would destroy these mechs, he wasn't about to let this city be destroyed.
Surrounding his sword with a haze of mana he sliced through the leg of one of the mechs making it loose balance and collapse. No; he wasn't about to lose this fight.
Cheetara and Tygra weren't far behind Lion-o. Cheetara shot blasts of mana from her staff and Tygra utilized both his whip and gun to slow and destroy the mechs.
WilyKit and WilyKat tried their best to help the civilian lizards to get away from the battle and to the escape tunnels, realizing that their knives and slingshot weren't the most effective weapon against the giant mechs. They got strange looks from the lizards, some of whom had no idea what two little kits were doing there and others as to why they were helping.
Lion-o, Cheetara, and Tygra cut through Mumm-Rah's forces one by one. But it was no good. There were too many, and Lion-o didn't have enough stamina to continue on like this. Looking around him he saw the city was already destroyed, buildings crumbling and bodies everywhere. There was no city here anymore. Lion-o's heart sank.
"Cats!" The old lizard's voice caught his attention. "You must retreat!" Begrudginly Lion-o knew he was right. If they kept at this they would all end up dead. Lion-o cursed. As yet they hadn't been able to actually defeat Mumm-Rah's forces, only elude, and it grated on him.
Lion-o gave the signal and Cheetara and Tygra retreated to where the old lizard was beckoning them.
WilyKit and WilyKat were on the opposite side of the battlefield; at the tunnel were the lizard citizens were escaping through. They dashed towards the rest of the group but were stopped abruptly as a mech landed right in front of them, the impact of the machine on the ground causing them to fall back.
The mech raised its arm. Realizing he wouldn't have enough time to get to his feet WilyKat pulled WilyKit to him, placing himself between the mech and her. His eyes tightly shut waiting for the impact.
It didn't come. WilyKat felt someone grab both of them and yank them out of the path of the mech's blast. Snapping his eyes open WilyKat saw their savior. It was the young lizard from earlier at the inn that had hissed at them.
"But you hated us…?" WilyKat said confused, the words tumbling from his mouth before he could think.
"You're still children." The lizard grumbled, "Now get out of here!"
WileyKat and WilyKit did as they were told and ran. Looking back over her shoulder WilyKit saw the lizard that had saved them engaging the mech in battle. The lizard was no match though, and she saw the mech fill the lizards body with metal shards, falling to his knees before falling forward blood seemingly dripping from everywhere. WilyKit gasped in horror and stumbled.
"Kat!" WilyKit's voice broke as she tried to tell him what had just happened. WilyKat didn't stop though, instead he scooped her up and continued running carrying her in his arms.
"Don't think about it Kit." He said trying to sound strong, but WilyKit could hear the pain in his voice. She swallowed her tears and buried her face in his neck.
They met up with the rest of the group, following Cheetara and Tygra down the tunnel. Lion-o waited making sure everyone got through before he went.
"Come on," Lion-o gestured to the old lizard. The lizard shook his aged head.
"I must go with my own people." Lion-o looked over to the tunnel on the opposite side, where the other lizards had escaped through.
"You'll never make it," Lion-o implored, crossing the battlefield would be suicide, Lion-o extended his hand silently willing the old lizard to take it.
Just then the groan of metal announced the incoming of several large mechs. The glare of the sun shimmered across their metallic bodies like light danced across water. Lion-o tightened his grip on his sword. But the old lizard stepped in front of him, trapping him in the opening of the tunnel.
"You must go now," his old voice was firm and final. Nevertheless Lion-o began to protest, but the old lizard cut him off. "You can't die here if you are to rebuild the empire and restore Leo I's legacy."
Lion-o was taken aback, his eyes widening. Did he know who he was? How was that possible?
"There aren't many cats with the red hair and blue eyes of Leo." The old lizard answered his unspoken question. A soft smile graced the ancient withered face before it happened.
The onslaught of gunfire, and the grotesque twisting and retching of the old lizard's body as he shielded Lion-o from the attack. His body fell forward, the light fading from his eyes, and a smile still on his face as he left the world.
Lion-o felt more than just sadness, and anger. After all his training in mana with Cheetara, he now could feel the mana within his new friend slowly disperse and then vanish entirely.
The mechs reloaded quickly but they never got the chance to fire again. Lion-o rushed forward and with a great cry he sent out a wave of mana energy. The mechs were pushed back and damaged. Cutting the arm from the first mech, Lion-o attacked the mechs mercilessly.
His fatigue soon caught up with him though, and more mechs were coming. Glancing at the fallen body of his friend, Lion-o knew he had to retreat, or else the old lizard's sacrifice would have been in vain. Gritting his teeth in frustration he retreated into the tunnel, where the mechs couldn't follow due to their size.
Lion-o ran down the tunnel leaving the city behind him in ruins and countless innocents dead. He grit his teeth and ran faster. Maybe he could outrun these troubling emotions that seemed to be chasing him.
Lion-o soon caught up with Cheetara, Tygra, and the kits. This time as the group traversed the long tunnel there was a heavy cloud of dismay and depression upon them. WilyKat was still carrying WilyKit who held onto him tightly, her eyes sealed shut trying desperately to forget. They'd seen some disturbing things while living on the streets but she'd never seen someone die like that. Right in front of her, and what made it so much worse is that it had been partly her fault that he had died.
So much destruction, so much death…
"Are you okay?" Tygra's voice was as soft as a whisper, but it still jolted Cheetara out of her train of thought. She looked up at his concerned eyes.
"I'm fine," She tried to smile, "You?" He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He looked tired, his amber eyes glazed over from fatigue and frustration.
"We should never have been in that city," he muttered in response. Cheetara looked down. It was almost as though Tygra were blaming Lion-o. Glancing back at Lion-o Cheetara saw that he looked just as emotionally worn out as Tygra, perhaps even more so. She hoped he hadn't heard them, he probably felt bad enough as it was.
Despite Tygra's words being so quiet, and meant only for himself or Cheetara, Lion-o's keen ears picked them up. Tygra's words stung. It was because Tygra was right.
Lion-o's hands balled into fists and his jaw clenched, his whole body shaking…from what? Sadness? Desperation? Anger? At Tygra or himself?
It had been his decision to go there, to stop and talk, and that in doing so Mumm-Rah's forces had destroyed and killed all those lizards. A whole city massacred, and it was all his fault.
The tunnel at last came to an end and the group stepped out looking up at the now dark sky. It was a deep uncertain black, just like their future.