A/N: Geez, it only took me forever to finish this chapter! *collapses* Good lord, and it's a long one, too! Needless to say, I don't feel much of a need to explain anything this time around. Though I will admit, I feel like all the perspective and time jumps are a little choppy in the beginning of each one, but at least I managed to fit in everything I wanted to. If you can make it through this obscenely long chapter, please R&R.
Chapter 14: Prisoners In The Ruins
Dijana had gone to rejoin the generals after escorting Nyrris to the chamber, and was only mildy surprised to arrive in the lower court and find all four generals in the presence of the snake cultists. The cobras were cold, stubborn, pragmatic, aloof, and utterly self-absorbed, and thus rarely left their hideaways in the black pyramid to converse with anyone less than Mumm-Ra. The fact they were there at all set her nerves on edge and the fur rising on her hackles. A quick glance explained some of it, though; Nagendra, the high priest among the snakes, was brandishing something at General Grune and practically spitting venom in his rage, his hood flared out to its full length, and most of the cobras were gathered behind him as though awaiting an order to strike. Dijana silently wished it wouldn't come to that point; she had no love for the fanatic snakes, but she liked Grune well enough for a cat, and she wasn't sure even he could withstand snake venom.
Movement off to the side caught her eye, and she saw Axis dutifully continuing to train, working through basic warm-up exercises and empty-hand combat drills. She struggled to avoid smiling at the sight, and as she started to look away, she saw one of the snakes watching the little kitten with an intense gaze. Slythia, the priestess who was never without her elegant bladed fan. Dijana loosed a low growl as she walked closer. When it came to the cultists, she trusted Slythia least of all, and something about the priestess's sudden interest in the saber-tooth cub bothered her.
"Priestess." She said coolly, and Slythia twisted upon her coiled lower body, yellow eyes going wide.
"Yesss? Hm, it isss Dijana, isn't it?"
"Sssuch a sssour tone!" The snake said in a honeyed tone of false concern. "Are you having a bad day?"
"Just finished escorting our 'esteemed guest' to her audience with Mumm-Ra."
The cobra's eyes flashed dangerously when Dijana mentioned his name, and her fan flicked back and forth slightly in a clear show of irritation.
"No one may underssstand the whimsss of Hisss Dark Majesssty," she responded with a lofty tone, her gaze returning to Axis, "The gypsssy cat isss truly being ssshown a great deal of honor."
Dijana ignored her hissing, glancing back to the young saber-tooth going through a series of punching drills, his little face tense with concentration.
"Hmm. So tell me, do you always find training drills this fascinating?"
The bladed fan snapped shut with a sharp click, and for a good long minute, Slythia didn't reply. Finally her fan spread open again, about halfway, and she relaxed slightly.
"Young Axisss isss a peculiarity," she answered, "And I am most interesssted in ssseeing how he growsss among the army of Hisss Dark Majesssty."
"Yeah?" Dijana snorted. "So am I, snake."
The black slits that served as Slythia's pupils flicked onto her, and the cobra's expression became positively condescending. "Really now? And what would a dog know about the rearing of a cat?" She quipped.
"Considering I used to live among them?" She shot back. "I'd say I know a lot more than you."
A long moment followed, tension charging the air between them, and it was all the dhole woman could do not to reach for her quarterstaff and start a fight. Before long, she could sense some of the other snakes and the generals staring, and it was only when Axis paused in his drills to watch that the moment passed.
"May the best woman win." Slythia said coolly.
"Don't worry, I will."
"Ladies, is there a problem?" Came the nonchalant voice of Slithe, who was approaching them calmly and making a hurried attempt to preen himself at the sight of the cobra woman. Dijana rolled her eyes, wishing someone would gag her, and Slythia's face behind her fan suggested she wished much the same.
"Hardly, general." The snake answered, "I wasss just about to leave."
Slithe shot Dijana a poisonous glare as Slythia left to rejoin the other cultists, as though the priestess's disinterest in him was completely her fault, and she shrugged indifferently. When it came to females, idiots like the lizard general would never learn. She let out a ragged breath, exasperated, and looked over at Axis again, surprised he was looking back at her.
"Dijana, are you okay?" He asked, a skeptical expression on his face. "That was kinda weird."
She opend her mouth to answer him-
And the room spun. She stumbled and lurched, trying to maintain her balance as sudden waves of vertigo assaulted her from nowhere. Her stomach gnawed at her as though suffering from starvation and her strength left her body as quickly as a Thunderan cleric could move. Her vision swam as she became light-headed, and finally she collapsed to her knees, catching herself with her hands. She was soon aware the others nearby, namely the generals and the snakes, were suffering from the same strange vertigo she was, and Axis was staring in frightened awe.
Then, as quickly as it had come, the sense of vertigo was gone. Dijana's body flushed in a cold sweat as she shivered, veins pulsing in her legs and arms, which felt too sore to move. She sucked in several shuddering breaths as though drowning, and glanced to the others, all of whom looked perplexed or irritated, or a good combination of the two.
"Augh, what happened?" Addicus growled.
"It felt like being eaten alive!" Kaynar remarked with a wild cackle, as though he couldn't imagine anything funnier.
"What was that?" Slithe groaned. Dijana scowled, recalling what Nyrris had said before entering the dark chamber.
"It's…it's my magic. It's awake. It's…hungry."
"I think I know." She muttered under her breath.
Nyrris lost her balance with a hoarse gasp as she sagged against the wall for support. Her body felt charged with buzzing, incredible energy, and yet she was lethargic and her limbs were weak.
"Intriguing," Mumm-Ra remarked, red eyes fixed on the sight of his recovering generals, "Physical distance does limit your power, but you can drain multiple victims at once."
"F-feel sick." She murmured, trying to push her weight back up, and she jumped when his eyes met hers.
"Over-extending one's power can have that effect." He declared haltingly, as though theorizing about her abilities out loud. "That can prove a danger to you until you've had sufficient practice in controlling your magic."
"You're starting to sound like Kuncia. Heh, you're even starting to sound like my aunt."
"Don't insult me!" He snapped coolly.
"Insult you?" She asked, arching an eyebrow. "All I said was-"
"You related me to a mage and that filthy shaman in the same breath."
"But I thought you respec-wait a minute..." She trailed off, staring at him suspiciously, "How did you know my aunt is a shaman?"
Mumm-Ra abruptly stood up, his back completely straight, and she realized for the first time that he was shockingly tall when he didn't hunch over. He looked at her in turn, blinking his eyes once, as though surprised. But Nyrris shook off the effect cast by those red eyes and continued.
"When you broke the seal on my forehead, you kept talking about a shaman," she said quietly, "But I never told you that shaman was my aunt."
"I read your mind." He answered so quickly and unconvincingly she arched her eyebrow again and planted her hands on her hips. Had she actually caught him off his guard?
"Oh you did, did you?"
"Are you questioning me?"
She rolled her eyes and shrugged. "Not entirely. Don't see what you'd be hoping to accomplish by that, though. I don't think men could ever understand how women's minds work by reading them," she remarked calmly, gesturing down at the generals below the overhanging catwalk, "I mean, clearly even if he could read a woman's mind, General Slithe is beyond hope."
A brief second of silence followed her words, and on its heels there was a low, easy chuckle. Nyrris stared at Mumm-Ra openly, surprised. That was nothing like the heartless cackle she'd heard from him before. This laugh sounded more relaxed, almost natural, even. And then it was gone, and Mumm-Ra's breath subsided into its normal rattling.
"Indeed." He agreed softly. "Slithe is rather hopeless in many ways."
"That's harsh..." Nyrris said softly. She had just been joking, but to think he actually would talk that way about any of his generals...
Then again, he was Mumm-Ra. He was devoid of compassion, wasn't he?
"Be that as it may," he replied, "It is the truth. And if you are so stung by it, you had best learn quickly that I suffer no crippling emotions coming from those under my rule."
"And that is cruel..." she whispered, biting her lower lip.
"I prefer the term 'nefarious.'" He responded coolly, sweeping past her and heading back in the direction of his main hall, back to the scrying pool and his sarcophagus. Nyrris stared at his back, covered in the tattered, careworn red cloak, face creasing in confusion as she followed slowly. Had he just made a joke or was he being serious? She wasn't sure at all, and felt more confused than ever. Thinking back to what had happened earlier made it worse. When her magic had resisted her hold on it and he had whipped it into place like a disobediant child, she had been overwhelmed by a sudden surge between the magical contact, and several emotions independent of her own had flown through her mind. Irritation, impatience, shock, intrigue, a slight twinge of fear...and something she half-thought she had imagined. Loneliness.
Surely she'd just imagined that. If her guess was accurate and she'd gotten a glimpse into Mumm-Ra's emotions, there was no way he was plagued by loneliness. He was Mumm-Ra. Why would he be lonely? After all, everyone knew he wanted nothing more than to conquer all of Third Earth and bring every race among the animals to its knees in submission to him. He had nothing to hide, and certainly he didn't feel loneliness, right?
The question continued to nag at the back of Nyrris's mind as she slowly trotted after him into the dark halls of the black pyramid.
The Thundercats did not remain in Shashara long after the feast held in honor of the "heir of the Azhure Ghost." Lion-O, Tygra, Razor, and Panthro had conferred briefly with the Seats of Wisdom and Bodza before leaving, determining that the horned lizards would have to amass a number of their people willing to fight among the army Lion-O planned to build against Mumm-Ra's forces. When the people of Shashara were ready to fight alongside the king of the Thundercats, they would send word to Lion-O with a messenger declaring so.
"Why do I still not feel too confident about this?" Tygra remarked.
"Because there's still a lot that could go wrong." Cheetara spoke up.
"I know that." Lion-O huffed. "We're just going to have to have faith in the horned lizards. After all, Salariss has already joined us."
He gave a nod in the warrior lizard's direction, and she nodded back with a grim smile. There was something reassuring in Salariss's confidence and eager desire to assist them, and despite her fierce appearance, her voice and personality were soothing and inspiring. She hovered constantly around Cougaress, clearly taking her responsibilities as a midwife seriously from the start, but she twitched ever-so-slightly when addressed, Lion-O realized, as thought awaiting the chance to jump to help where she could. And her only objection was to traveling inside the tank, which hardly felt natural to her. She willingly submitted to the idea though, once the Book of Omens had pinpointed something new and far in the distance, and Panthro pointed out the tank would leave Salariss in the dust if she insisted on running on foot.
The thought snapped Lion-O back to reality, and he called up to the main cockpit, where Panthro and Kuncia were discussing their current destination and the surrounding landscape.
"Panthro! Kuncia! Where exactly are we headed, again?" He asked. When no immediate answer came back to him, he ran up the stairs to them, hoping nothing too bad was developing. He found them examining the holographic map projected by the Book of Omens and cross-checking it against something in a book Kuncia had brought with her. Lion-O leaned a little closer, glancing over Kuncia's shoulder to take a peek at the book. It appeared to contain a map of all the known areas of Third Earth, but before he could get a better look, she snapped the book shut and turned her scrutinizing blue eyes on him.
"You're not a cub, Lord Lion-O, and I would appreciate some courtesy," she said in a calm tone, "Please don't read over my shoulder."
"Sorry," He apologized immediately, taking a step back, "I'm just...anxious."
"We know, kid," Panthro said, not unkindly, "Just have some faith in us, alright?" And when Lion-O gave a nod, he continued, "It seems the book is leading us straight into the heart of the most blasted dense jungle on Third Earth."
"Jungle?" Lion-O parrotted, eyes going wide. "What in the name of Thundera is in the jungle? Is it the next stone?"
"Couldn't tell you," the general replied, "The Book of Omens isn't giving us a hint, it's just pointing in the general direction."
"Do we have any idea how long it will be before we reach this jungle?" He asked, spreading his hands helplessly. "I know we restocked supplies and rations at Shashara, but I'm concerned about making sure nothing happens in the meantime, especially with Cougaress in her condition."
"I hear you, kid. Don't worry, we should reach the borders of the jungle territory within a few days."
And so it was that within less than two days, the Thundertank and all those within found themselves at the borderland territory of the vast jungle, staring out of the window of the cockpit into a dense world of greenery and trees that rose to the heavens to form a dark canopy. Lion-O, Tygra, Razor and Panthro stepped outside of the tank, trying to place a solid judgment on the dangers the jungle might have to offer, and whether or not the tank would be able to withstand trekking through such territory.
"With all the adjustments the Berbils made," Tygra remarked, "We shouldn't have a problem plowing through most of it. All we might have to worry about is whether or not fallen trees or vegitation in the path will slow us down."
"We could clear it with the laser cannons." Razor pointed out.
"If we do that, we run the possibility of disrupting the balance of nature in this place." Lion-O pointed out calmly. "Something I learned from the elephants."
"Sounds like the best course of action right now is just to keep going forward, and if anything happens, we'll think of a solution when we hit it." Panthro said with a grunt, and after the four nodded consent, they went back inside the tank, the general hopping behind the controls once more. The others looked up at their return, and Cheetara and Kuncia approached them at once, looking concerned and skeptical.
"So what's the plan?" Cheetara asked, hovering near Tygra, though her eyes flicked to each of them in turn.
"We're going ahead for the time being." Lion-O answered, "Unless anyone has a better recommendation for a course of action...? We're open to almost anything right now."
"I can think of nothing better for cutting our way through all this thick greenery." Salariss remarked, rising from where she had been crouching at a widow, examining the outside. "Plants are particularly stubborn and resistant in some places, if the stories we've heard are true. The best we can hope for is to keep going ahead as far as we can until we run into something that refuses us passage."
"Salariss has a fair point, and I share her opinion." Kuncia said calmly, and the prince nodded to her, red hair swaying slightly.
"Anybody else have anything to add?" He asked once more and when no voices rose to meet him in response, he nodded to Panthro, who eased the tank forward. With a sense of lethargy, the Thundertank advanced in a slow, lumbering roar into the heart of the forest. Time soon became lost to them all, vanishing in the half-waking sense that pervaded the tank inside and out, and many of them soon became restless, something Kuncia referred to as a sort of "cabin fever." The hours wore on and on, and tense silence grew in the interval, itching at each of them like a rash just waiting to be scratched into irritated, bleeding pain.
No one had any notion how much time had passed, or how much closer they were to the destination marked by the Book of Omens, but at last something occurred that jarred the monotony of their passage. Panthro was half-asleep at the controls, when something stirred outside the tank in the underbrush. He jerked awake suddenly, bringing the vast machine to a grinding halt and jumping out of his seat, taking a quick look outside. Little sunlight reached the jungle floor through the thick overhead canopy, and there were shadows everywhere, playing tricks on his good eye.
"Panthro?" One of the kittens called up to him.
"What's wrong?" Razor asked, bounding up the stairs to the cockpit, followed quickly by the princes, alert and ready for battle as ever.
"Think I saw something, but I'm not sure," the general answered. "Cursed sunlight's playing tricks on my eye, what little of it there is."
They stood examining the foliage outside of the tank for several agonizing minutes, until a voice spoke up behind them.
"Perhaps it would be best if we went outside and got a better look?" Kuncia said calmly.
"That sounds like a fine plan." Cougaress said from the lower bunking levels, getting to her feet. Razor immediately spun on his heel, shaking his head.
"You're not going anywhere, Cougaress, not in your condition."
"Razor!" She snapped, planting her fists on her hips. "I'm not made of glass, and I'm not that far along in my pregnancy yet! Besides, Lord Lion-O and the rest of you could need my help!"
"Cougaress..." Lion-O said gently, struck by the white cat's astonishing dedication and loyalty to the mission. There she stood, pregnant and still suffering bouts of morning sickness, and yet, willing to fight on alongside them all. He glanced to Salariss, who hovered nearby her charge, and the horned lizard arched a brow at him, a smile turning up the corners of her angled mouth. He let out a sigh of defeat; they weren't about to win this argument any time soon.
"Well, someone's gotta stay with my tank!" Panthro protested, "I'm not about to let anything happen to it! It's the only method of transportation we've got right now."
"We'll stay with it!" Kit volunteered immediately, bouncing up onto the metal railing with an eager smile on her face. Kat groaned from somewhere below, clearly unhappy with his sister making them impromptu volunteers. Still, the twins had proven time and again an uncanny knack for tackling the most surprising odds...
"Very well," Lion-O said, raising his voice so they could all hear what he had to say, "We'll explore outside for a few minutes to see if we can't find Panthro's phantom, but nobody stray too far from the Thundertank. Kit and Kat will stay here and keep an eye on things inside."
Despite the expectant groan from Kat, they immediately made their way out of the tank, Lion-O taking point while Tygra vanished in a shimmer of light, and Cougaress strung her bow under the watchful eye of Salariss. They were assaulted by the sudden humidity, stifling and thick, very different from the dry heat of the desert near the black pyramid. A slight breeze whispered between the overgrown leaves, but it was hardly enough to keep them cool, and Lion-O could feel his body start to sweat within a few minutes of exploring. This didn't bode well; if the entire jungle was this humid, they would run short of water in a couple days. Not to mention the navigation was-
Something stirred in the underbrush, and a dark form darted across the path, vanishing once more into the trees. Immediately the cats tensed and Salariss let out a low hiss. It appeared Panthro's instincts were right on-target again. There was a tense pause, followed by the sound of a yelp piercing the air, and the same dark form was smacked back into view, the shimmering image of Tygra coming into view, lowering his fist and wearing a triumphant grin.
"Nice work, brother." Lion-O said with a smile and a nod as he approached the two. A moment's glance chilled his heart, but a second later it was swept away. The "ghost" was another monkey, but smaller in size than General Addicus, with darker fur and a long tail, clad in the careworn clothes of a highwayman. Lion-O frowned as he looked down at the monkian, who trembled and glanced up at him with bright, wide eyes as blue as the sky.
"P-p-please, don't kill me!" The monkian yelped, his words ending in a yowling screech that had the cats wincing. "Treekee did nothing wrong!"
"Treekee?" Lion-O repeated, "Is that your name? You can stand up. Just don't get any ideas about running off."
Immediately the highwayman scrambled to get to his feet, still shaking violetly and shuffling as though he wanted nothing more than to get away from Tygra.
"Y-yes, Treekee is this one's name," He mumbled, fidgeting and bowing repeatedly, "Please f-forgive me, master cat! W-was just curious, w-wanted to see your machine! N-not much t-t-tech here in the jungle! Birds hoard it all in their cities, they do. Nasty people, birds. Treekee just wanted a look."
The prince relaxed a moment, lowering the Sword of Omens, only vaguely aware of having raised it in the first place. Around him, he could sense the others relaxing, one by one, save for a few. He risked a quick glance over his shoulder, not surprised at all to find Panthro's nunchucks were still in his hands, nor that Salariss was scanning the trees with a scrutinizing eye. He couldn't blame them for being wary, but still, this monkian seemed genuinely afraid of them, and he hardly posed a threat. Quietly, he raised his left arm and sheathed the sword into the claw gauntlet, then spread his open hands.
"Why didn't you just come out and say so in the first place, Treekee? We wouldn't have harmed you." He said calmly, making the monkian's face pale slightly.
"We-well...thought about it...would have, but-"
The cats looked up at the sharp remark, to find Salariss's gaze boring into the monkian as she drew her twin scimitars. Treekee took a step back, going paler.
"N-not lying! H-honest, just wanted a look-"
Salariss darted across the distance faster than Lion-O thought possible and slammed the monkian into the thick trunk of a tree, driving the flat of her arm against Treekee's throat to avoid impaling him.
"He's a lying, thieving bandit," she hissed, "And his partners are hidden in the trees. This is an ambush. Quite a clever strategy, but we won't fall for it. Call your men off, monkian."
"Salariss, what are you doing?!" Lion-O said with a gasp. Had the cabin fever driven her mad, or was this Treekee more of a threat than they realized? He watched her press harder against the shabbily-clad man, and he gasped for breath under the pressure of her arm, struggling to speak and shaking more violently than before.
"D-don't know what you're talking about...T-Treekee innocent..."
Salariss's eyes narrowed dangerously, and after several terrified heartbeats from them all, she lowered her arm, sheathing both her scimitars. Treekee panted, his shoulders relaxing as he rubbed at his throat, tail gently swaying back and forth.
"Th-thank you, Miss Lizard, very nice of-"
She lunged, the knife edges of her hands striking the sides of Treekee's throat with a loud, wet smack, and the monkian's eyes flew open wide as he made a strangled, choking sound. Salariss frowned as she hoisted him by the collar of his tattered shirt for the cats to see.
"Hear that?" She said in a low hiss. "That's the sound of your blood not reaching your thick brain. You'll be dead in moments if you don't call off your men."
The monkian bandit's eyes narrowed, and suddenly his countenance hardly resembled any shade of innocence as he snarled at her. "Bitch!" He spat, blood slowly beginning to trickle from his nose. There came loud rustling in the trees, followed by the unmistakable whooping of more monkeys, clearly agitated. Lion-O jumped, drawing the Sword of Omens, and the others whipped out their weapons, tensing and throwing up their guard. Only Salariss remained calm as she held Treekee into the air, staring him down as the blood vessels in his eyes threatened to rupture.
"Call them off." She ordered again. Treekee struggled against her grip wildly, gasping for air that he couldn't draw in. Finally, he started to go limp and let out a short, sharp whoop, and the monkeys in the trees reacted, throwing an assortment of various weapons to the ground with a resounding clatter. Salariss smiled triumphantly as she dropped the bandit and pinched both sides of his neck with more than a little unkindness. Treekee collapsed on his side, sucking in deep breaths as though he had just escaped drowning, and curled into a little ball, tail puffing out in agitation.
"Damn you..." he said in a hoarse voice, "How did you find out...?"
Slowly, the monkian bandits began to descend from their hiding places, roughly clad in clothes similar to that of their leader, and they rushed to him immediately, anxious to help him. Lion-O felt as though he were caught somewhere between irritation and pity; he was angry that they had been taken for fools and nearly fallen for the monkeys' trap, but on the other hand, they looked so bedraggled and poor, it was hard to be horribly angry at them. They had probably just been motivated to raid them because they had so little.
"Why?" Lion-O asked. "Why would you try to ambush us?"
Treekee was overcome with a fit of coughing, and every time he attempted to open his mouth to respond, his body was wracked with violent heaves. Finally, he simply flicked his hand at them in a rather rude gesture, and one of the other monkeys shook her head, turning to address the cats.
"Please, have mercy." She pleaded. "We don't have much; we were hoping to simply take your technology and be done with it. We wouldn't have killed any of you."
"You wouldn't have been able to," Salariss snapped coolly before any of them could speak, and she gestured toward Kuncia, whose eyebrows flew up in surprise, "We have with us one of the Lady Witch-Women of the Far North. If you had any intent to kill us, she would have read it, plucked from your minds like a ripe fruit, and she would have done away with you before you had a chance to open your sorry mouths. She can charm away your tails and curse off your fur and turn you into gibbering, stupid tree frogs, forever doomed to hop around uselessly and eat insects. You would be fools to stand against Lord Lion-O when he has such an ally at hand."
Lion-O glanced to Kuncia, who mouthed "Witch-Woman?" in silent confusion, but the horned lizard's bluff had done the trick; the monkian company paled and quaked where they stood, taking several frightened glances in Kuncia's direction and clutching one another in fear.
"Relax, all of you," Tygra said with a sigh, "We won't harm you if you're done with this ridiculous stunt."
"Treekee probably won't be able to raid anything for a while." The female bandit said gloomily, "And we don't raid without a leader."
"Guess it's back to Ritan, to tell him we failed." Another bandit muttered.
"Ritan?" Cheetara asked, "Who is Ritan?"
The monkeys exchanged several glances for a moment, the silence broken only by Treekee's continued gasping. Finally, the same female who'd spoke before answered.
"You picked a bad time to come to the jungle of Monkey City, cats." She said quietly. "Our people are at war."
"With whom?" Lion-O asked, fearing Mumm-Ra had already beaten them there.
"With ourselves." She answered.
It was only a matter of hours before cats found themselves seated in the presence of Ritan, a burly monkey highwayman with an eyepatch, watching over a small, bustling hollow of monkian bandits that were fighting over their sparse meal. The muscular fellow leaned forward heavily, propping up his elbow to up his chin in his hand, and sorrow lined his young face, giving him the illusion of age he hadn't yet reached.
"Chovani spoke true when she told you our people are at war." He said in a scratchy, weathered voice that was tinged with an unfamiliar accent. "We damn ourselves with our constant fighting and cowardice."
"Cowardice?" Razor prompted, tilting his head to the side in confusion.
"We're cowards by nature, the lot of us." Ritan said with an unhappy nod. "Our newest king is a violent sort, he is, and it's not sat quite right with any of us since he got on the throne. Things only got a little bit better when his brother, Addicus, vanished to hunt the birds in their high cities."
Lion-O gave another start, eyes widening. "Addicus?"
"Aye, Addicus," Ritan said with another grim nod, "He was the king's enforcer, right-hand man, and our people's feared judge. After he left to slake his damned appetite with those flying pests, we got a bit bolder. The king is hardly so threatening without Addicus at his side, so the few of us you see here, we staged a revolt."
"And?" Panthro prompted.
"And it did not at all go according to plan," the bandit said with a sigh, "We lost many of our number, including my nephews and niece. Chovani is the only remaining member of my family. We were driven out here, into hiding, and we've been sitting like cowards in our little hole ever since."
"Surely you cannot all be that cowardly?" Kuncia suggested in a gentle tone, "After all you have managed to begin a rebellion to free your people."
Ritan looked at them, a guilty expression entering his eye, and he tensed as he glanced to Lion-O before he said a word.
"No, we are cowards." He insisted. "The only reason there are still so many of the rebels here with me is because we have allowed other animals who have entered our domain to be the fodder for us."
"What do you mean?" Lion-O asked testily, clenching his fist within the gauntlet. He was starting to like the monkeys less and less by the second, and now, with this...
"The king often tries to find us, though he fails each time. But every now and then, other animals...other animals will come to the jungle...and they encounter us. And we have coerced most of them into going back to Monkey City in our stead, to try to reason with the King. We have not seen any of them since."
"That's disgusting!" Razor snapped, springing to his feet and clenching his fists. "You just let them play the sacrifice for you so you all can just continue to hide here without consequence? You are cowards! The worst kind!"
"Razor, please." Cougaress whispered, pulling at her husband's arm until he sat down next to her again. Ritan bore the accusation quietly, hanging his head in shame, and it was only with a great deal of effort that Lion-O refrained from a similar outburst himself.
"We are, that I will not deny."
"What sort of 'other animals', Ritan?" Tygra asked abruptly, and Lion-O glanced over just in time to catch his brother giving him a significant look. He gave the barest nod to show he understood, for he himself had a similar nagging suspicion.
"Cats, Ritan?" Lion-O demanded, leaning forward and letting the edge of a growl enter his voice. "Did you send cats to Monkey City?"
"...yes." He admitted wearily, posture sagging in defeat. "Just two, one once, and another recently. The latter wished to trade with us, but since we had nothing of value, she asked for directions to the city, and we willingly gave them to her, and told her she would want to address the king. That was roughly a month ago or so, and we have no idea what has become of her. The other cat...he fought with us for a time, hoping to find some lost treasure of the cat kings within the ruins of Monkey City. We don't think he ever did, but the king's forces captured him on the same day he was planning to leave the jungle for home."
A lost treasure? Lion-O thought, the wheels turning in his head. Could that be what the Book of Omens was pointing toward? He stored the thought away in his head for later, wanting to run it by Panthro and Kuncia to be sure. If any of them knew of a lost treasure of the line of kings, it would be those two.
"Is there any possibility either of them are still alive?" Cheetara asked, brow furrowing.
"Yes. It's not a great possibility, but the king prefers to execute prisoners when his brother is around to...assist. Since Lord Addicus's sojourn to the bird nation, he hasn't been seen, so it's entirely possible both of them are still alive." Ritan admitted before his face fell once more. "But they'd be kept in the dungeon levels of the ruins. And it would take a great force of many numbers to overwhelm the city's militia to break in there and rescue them."
"Or," Salariss finally spoke up from her long silence since attacking Treekee, a grim smile forming on her triangular face, "It can take less than a handful to sneak in there and free these prisoners."
They looked up at the warrior lizard in surprise, and Ritan's single eye widened in shock. Tygra, on the other hand, caught Salariss's eye and broke into a grin.
"You know, she's got a point," he said in a significant tone as he tossed his younger brother a look. Lion-O could feel their infectious grins working on him, and the corners of his mouth slowly began to turn up as well.
"I'm beginning to wonder what I would do without you guys." He said with a dry chuckle before returning his attention to the bandit leader. "Ritan, what are the chances one of you could lead us to the back door of these ruins?"
The monkian hesitated, sitting back sharply and stroking at his chin thoughtfully, warring emotions playing across his scarred face. At long last, he let out a heavy sigh, shoulders sagging once more, and rubbed his temples.
"It is the least we could do, after all the harm we've caused with our selfish cowardice." He said with a solemn nod. "Ask Chovani. If she says no, I'll accompany you myself, but she's a good girl, and she knows the ruins better than anyone."
"But if this is a stealth mission," Panthro pointed out, "Then what will happen to everyone?"
Lion-O tensed, glancing up at the hulking general, his mind racing. He had to go, and since the whole thing was originally Salariss's idea, it would be unfair to leave her out. And nobody beat his brother when it came to matters of stealth and enshroudment. But would the three of them be enough? It would help to have a fourth along, but Panthro's arms weren't exactly suited to this sort of mission.
"Everyone will wait in the Thundertank," he declared slowly, "On the outskirts of Monkey City, out of sight. If we run into trouble-no, when we're ready for you to come get us, we'll send up a signal."
"But if you plan on doing that, it's gotta be more than just three of you!"
"We'll take Kuncia." Lion-O said with a pointed nod at the snow leopard, who smiled warmly. Panthro immediately let out a grumble echoed by the whirring of the various machinations in his arms, which he crossed in grouchy defiance.
"If you ask me," He remarked, "I should be the fourth."
"Would you rather leave me behind to drive the Thundertank?" Tygra asked, the picture of utter innocence. The only response they got was a paling face and an incoherent, strangled stutter.
"We really appreciate your help, Chovani." Lion-O said softly as the petite monkian girl led them through the thick flora, gently pushing aside vines and leaves and flowers, leading them along what appeared to be a hidden, overgrown path.
"Oh, you're welcome, Lord Lion-O," she answered absentmindedly, her tail curling and swaying gently behind her as she walked, "Thank you for giving us a second chance. It was more than any of us could hope for, after the way we tried to attack you back there. That was far more than any of us deserved."
He half-expected Salariss to make a stinging response, but oddly enough, it was Kuncia who spoke up first.
"Chovani, how long have the people of Monkey City been at war?" She asked.
"Not sure," Chovani replied, glancing over her shoulder with large, sad eyes the color of caramel, "Sometimes it feels like it's been forever. It can't have been too many years, though, but I cannot say for sure. Less than ten, but more than six. That's the best I can tell you."
"Writing this down in your journal?" Tygra asked the snow leopard.
"Committing it to memory so I can record it later." She corrected. After several more agonizing moments of navigating the choked, invisible path, their monkian guide came to a halt, pointing just ahead of them. A low, thick stone structure rose out of the ground several yards ahead of them, crumbling and covered in creeping vines. The area beyond looked ruined and deserted, but something in Lion-O's instincts held him back, warning him against simply charging in carelessly.
"There's the closest entrance to the lower levels of the ruins," Chovani whispered, pointing with her fingers and tracing different paths through the maze-like structure beyond the low wall, "Hang closer to the east wall as you head for the door. There's more natural cover there, so you should encounter less difficulty getting down there."
"Thanks, Chovani." Lion-O said, giving her a solid nod and clapping a hand on her shoulder, and she gave a quick nod, curly hair bouncing around her large ears.
"Good luck to you," she replied, "All of you."
With that, she raced away into the trees, and the four of them turned to one another, exchanging furtive glances.
"This is it everyone. Tygra, I want you to lead."
"Salariss, could you bring up the rear?"
"Of course." She answered loftily.
"Then I'll follow behind Tygra, and Kuncia, you're behind me."
"Well enough," she responded, reaching out to tap Lion-O on the head and shoulders, "Hold still a moment."
Her magic passed over him like the trickle of a stream, making his limbs and neck tingle, as though they had half-fallen asleep. He gave a small shudder, nearly hopping in place, and shook his head.
"The spell will last for a while," she explained simply, "Whenever you sense danger, simply freeze on the spot and remain still. The spell will allow us to pass unnoticed. Still, I must warn you, it will come undone if you make too much of a din or hold eye contact with anyone we're trying to evade."
"Sounds like a nifty little spell," Tygra remarked with a grin, "Too bad it's no match for my skill."
"I'll accept that challenge, tiger-prince!" Salariss huffed. Within a few moments, they had finished preparing, and Tygra leapt over the low wall, immediately hanging to the east, and Lion-O followed suit, Kuncia and Salariss close on his heels. The second he hit the ground on the other side though, he realized why Chovani had warned them.
There were monkian guards, an entire patrol of them, toward the far west wall. Many were crowded around a low-burning campfire but at least three were up and about, moving and cautiously scanning the ruins. Lion-O wasn't sure what their vision was like in the dark, but the light from the canopy above indicated it was barely dusk, and he knew if they didn't move with utmost caution, they were dead meat.
"Kind of makes you appreciate being a cat." He whispered below his breath, slowly following his brother's careful footsteps, inching along the wall toward the door that cut deep into the ground.
Talking was a mistake. The closest guard immediately went rigid, then swung around and faced in their direction, sharp eyes examining the east wall as he raised his ax level with his chest. They froze in place, trying to quiet their breathing as best they could, but Lion-O felt his heart was pounding loud enough it didn't matter. They would be discovered anyway. But after a moment, the guard relaxed with a snort, shook his head, and continued on his way. Lion-O let out a quiet sigh, then resigned himself to silence. There was no way he was going to jeapordize this mission; there were at least two cats below depending on them, and he was going to free them, no matter what it took.
After what felt like hours passing in the span of several tense minutes, the four reached the doorway cut into the hill, and began their slow descent into the darker underground. Even with their exceptional vision in the dark, Lion-O worried they wouldn't be able to see a thing, but his fear was abated when they reached the end of the steep staircase and found lit torches mounted in brackets on the walls, waiting to be carried off.
"Nice of them to leave the light on for us," Tygra remarked, reaching for one of the torches. "So what now?"
"I guess we explore. " Lion-O said with a shrug. "Chovani didn't say where in the lower ruins the cats are being held."
"If I may?" Kuncia asked calmly, raising a hand. They glanced, puzzled, when sparks of ethereal energy flared and began to spin around her palm. The magic spun faster and faster in a circuit, until it lifted above her hand, and made a soft ball of gray fog that floated in place, spinning and shimmering with ethereal energy. With a small exhale, Kuncia prodded the hovering wisp, and it floated toward a right-hand corridor, letting off a faint luminescence, pausing and hovering in place as though waiting for them.
"It's a seeking spell," she explained quietly, "Hopefully it will lead us to our imprisoned bretheren. I haven't had time to truly fine-tune the schematics of the spell, so we'll just have to make do."
"Good enough," Lion-O declared, nodding toward the fog-wisp. "Let's go, we don't have much time."
Slowly the twirling ball of fog floated down the right-hand corridor, waiting in place every now and then when it got too far away from them. Before long, the magic wisp led them to another right turn, where the ruins were in even worse repair, and the ceiling was a lot lower than the previous hallway had been.
"I feel cramped in here..." Salariss remarked in a low hiss.
"I know that feeling," Tygra muttered, "Hey, how much farther, Kuncia? Your little magical friend better not be leading us down a dead end."
She glared, about to reprimand him, when Lion-O darted ahead of them a few strides, straining to listen.
"Shh! Do you hear that?"
The others fell silent and came to a halt, and as one, they listened. There, faintly somewhere ahead, there was a soft voice, murmuring words none of them could make out.
"Let's go!" Lion-O sighed, charging ahead of them. The others followed, perhaps a tad reluctantly, and the voice drew nearer and nearer as they followed the wisp down the corridor, until they came to a wider, open area full of several cells that were in disrepair. And then the voice fell silent. They looked around, keeping close together, scanning the cells.
"Hello?" The prince said in a low tone, glancing from cell to cell. Something stirred in one of the far, dark corners, and as it caught his eye, he watched a petite figure shuffle into view.
"Who are you?" She whispered in a scratchy, hoarse voice, staring out at them with frightened yellow-green eyes.
"Lion-O, look!" Kuncia exclaimed.
It was only because his mouth had failed him that he didn't remind the older woman he was already looking. The captive was definitely the female cat Ritan had mentioned, but she seemed vaguely familiar somehow. He wasn't sure why that was; she appeared to be one of the wildcat clan members, a lower ranking family than even the lynxes, and the various assortment of pouches and tools on her belt lended one to the notion she had grown up around technology. The prince couldn't remember ever meeting such a cat before, but still, there was something about her that nagged at his brain, like an important question he'd studied for one of Jaga's tests, but forgotten.
"Prince Lion-O?" She murmured, looking at him with a furrowed brow before her eyes flicked to his brother. "Prince Tygra?"
"We're going to get you out of here," he answered immediately, unsheathing the Sword of Omens as he eyed the bars of her cell. "Step back."
The wildcat immediately complied, backing up quickly and keeping her hands drawn close as Lion-O swung the sword, slicing through the iron bars as though they were made of thin paper. The thought reminded him briefly of his trial against Zig and the Wood Forgers, bringing a grim smile to his face. The bars fell away with a clatter that made him wince; he hadn't thought about how well the sound might carry in the empty ruins. However, the prisoner didn't seem to mind in the least
"Oh, thank you, my lord!" She exhaled, a weary smile coming over her face, turning up her cheeks. "You have no idea what this means to me! I feel like I'm coming out of the end of a long nightmare!"
Her words caused heat to flood his cheeks, and his heart lept into his throat a moment, fluttering a little.
"N-no problem, Miss...?"
"Kellas," she supplied. "My name is Kellas."
"Well as much as we would like to stick around for introductions," Tygra stepped in, tossing his younger brother a flat look, "We need to get you out of here."
Kellas turned her wide eyes on him, looking shocked. "Surely we can't just leave the old fellow here!"
"Old fellow?" Kuncia prompted.
"Over there!" The wildcat supplied, pointing to a cell farther down from hers. The four exchanged curious glances, then gestured for her to lead them. Kellas gave a sharp nod, then trotted down toward the cell, crooking her fingers for them to follow quickly. They sped up, unsurprised to find themselves looking into a cell where another cat, an older male, was slumped over, arms suspended in the air by hanging chains clamped around his wrists. Anger stung Lion-O's heart like a venomous fang. He was reminded briefly of Mumm-Ra, mocking them all, wearing Panthro's face and half-hanging by chains tied around the bell tree in Thundera, waiting to seal Claudus's fate. Then, the image of his father's grisly death was replaced by the grim countenance of Cazarak, bound in slave irons against his will.
"Watch yourselves," he murmured, swinging the sword in a delicate arc, slicing through the iron bars, cutting higher this time to allow himself entry into the cell. The cat in the chains stirred slightly, looking up with a glazed, glassy expression as Lion-O stepped inside. The prince bent, sitting on his knees to get a better look at the older cat. What he saw astonished him.
Long, lanky black hair shot through and peppered with streaks of gray framed a thin, gaunt face, colored by markings and patterns he had seen not too long ago. The cat's shirt had long been ripped away, but his leggings and pants remained, and they were made from a faded material that had once been bright. And those runemark spots were unmistakable; this was an ocelot, probably one of the same members of the gypsy caravan.
The cat shook his head, glancing up and blinking as though to clear his mind, and Lion-O gasped as he looked into a familiar pair of gray-blue eyes.
"Nyrris?" He blurted out.
The ocelot's eyes snapped wide open with a bright clarity that hadn't been present before.
"How do you know my daughter's name?" Rhys Ocelotti demanded in a low voice.