The dusty steel ruins of Avista rose to greet her and shone in the moonlight. Cheetara slowed her running when she glimpsed the broken city at the edge of the forest, and she scanned for any of the ThunderCats she could find. Tygra was walking to and fro, tearing through the dusty yellow grasses of the campsite and looking in the direction of the forest. Cheetara saw the striped prince and called to him.
The large tiger turned his head toward her voice and sprinted across the campsite to meet her.
"There's the woman I love! What on earth took you so long?" he scolded. "I was worried!"
"Come help me with the meat. I need to get it onto a fire as soon as I can." Cheetara unloaded the backpack onto the ground to relieve her sore shoulder, and motioned for Tygra to pick up the pack.
Tygra was always in his armor. Still, she appreciated his thick, muscular arms and solid, broad shoulders. She imagined the shape of his finely-sculpted breast and abdomen beneath the green metal plates, tapering into his long narrow waist and firm hips. He used his powerful thighs to hoist the pack onto his back. The two walked toward the camp where Tygra had already started a large fire and assembled a spit for roasting.
"You started a huge fire," Cheetara said, smiling. "How did you know . . . "
"I never had any doubt." Tygra grinned. "The only time you ever come back with nothing is when you go out hunting with me."
"And why d'you think I leave you at home?" Cheetara screwed her eyes to the late evening sky and jabbed him in the arm with her elbow. She relaxed her shoulders, grabbed his arm, leaned into him and sniffed him, smelling the smoke from the fire on his fur. As they walked closer to the fire, she saw the reddish plumes in Tygra's light brown eyes, bringing out their golden, orange, and chocolate tones.
"You're cute when you go hunting," he teased her and brushed his nose against her face. "What is that smell on your cheeks? It's nice . . . ."
Cheetara's toe caught on a small rock she hadn't noticed and she stumbled a few steps forward before righting herself.
"Just help me unload the meat," she said. Cheetara grabbed her shoulder, now throbbing anew after the stumble. Looking at herself, covered in blood, entrails and spit, she felt fatigue settle over her. She was not really in the mood for flirting. Not now, at least.
WilyKat called out to her, excited to see the haul from her hunt. "I should've gone with you," he bragged. "I could've tracked for you, you know."
"Of course." Cheetara grinned. "Next time."
"Good job!" Lion-O approached and stood close to her; his pet Snarf trailed close behind him. Lion-O looked over Tygra's shoulder and admired the gazelle meat. "This will feed us for days and it's enough for the dogs, too," he said.
"It is an honor to provide sustenance for our guests," Cheetara said. She stiffened and managed a stilted nod to the King.
"Taught her everything she knows." Tygra quipped.
"Good thing she unlearned it." Lion-O smirked.
"Enough you two. You're both ugly, all right?" Panthro joined the younger cats. He knew as well as she did, that the easy jostling between the royal brothers could turn into quarreling at any time. It was far too late in the evening for silly war games. "Cheetara, are you still up for keeping watch with me tonight?" he asked.
"Sure," she grimaced.
"Fine. Then I'll help you roast the meat. Lion-O, Tygra, go find something else to do." Only Panthro could order the King and the Prince so blithely and get away with it. Cheetara was grateful for the break from the brothers' antics. She sat down next to Panthro and sighed.
"Sleep," he said quietly when the others had gone. "I'll take first. You can take second."
"Thanks," she said. General Panthro always understood. Cheetara curled up against Panthro and rolled onto her side to offload the pressure on her bruised shoulder. Tomorrow would be a good day. They would have plenty to eat. She could bathe in the morning. But for now, she could rest. Through half-parted eyelids, Cheetara looked at the hypnotic flecks and sparks from the flame that cured the meat. She imagined wading in the northwest lake with her rockwood at dawn, rubbing its petals against her fur in the cool water. She would freshen and clean herself to serve the meat to Lion-O, the other cats, and the dogs, but she would remember the smells of dung, musk, and iron as she sank her own teeth into the hard-earned flesh. She inhaled, licked her lips, and sighed before falling off to sleep.
Cheetara then walked in the mist of a sapphire blue sky. White clouds, like plush cushions, padded her steps and comforted her feet. She looked down and touched the pleats of the silken white gown that hugged her body. Golden spiral bracelets encircled her arms, and she admired the emblems of royalty and wealth.
Her jeweled arm reached out to him and welcomed him to dance with her in the evening light. Now there was no reason to keep her distance. She could freely admit how deeply she loved him. That love had hurt her so much over the years. Seeing him with her had seared the air inside her chest like orange coals under a covered clay oven. She couldn't help loving him. She didn't want to help it. Every tournament and festival proved his sensuality and strength; not a poet in Thundera could match him for lyric or wit, and he knew it; but behind his displays of intensity and passion lay a kindness - and with it, a grounded, disciplined resolve; and all these facets of him were like rakes stirring embers into fire.
Her sense of honor and her loyalty to the crown forced her into strict silence, and she hid her feelings for him behind walls of self-denial, restraint, acceptance and serenity. She performed this service with unfailing humility. But when she realized she had to confess the truth to him, she pulled him into her arms and tasted justice on his lips. It felt euphoric. That kiss, long-awaited, had felt like a vindication of her commitment to duty. And the feeling of new love made her eager, breezy, powerful, careless, silly, tripping over her own feet at times. But it had also opened her to a kind of pain; the guilt of self-indulgence, and at times, a sense of loss and sadness. Cheetara had been unsure if she should be happy, or how she should proceed. Being near him, though, touching his face, sharing a simple dance with him was at once thrilling, and also blissful; Cheetara needed this respite now, if only for a moment.
The three moons of Third Earth illuminated his face; his orange and black stripes glinted in the evening light. Tygra appeared in front of her in a white silk tunic with a high upturned collar; he secured the tunic with a navy whip tied tightly around his waist. Tygra's sumptuous brown eyes were warm chocolate baths that lapped around her and soothed her. Cheetara took his hand in hers and he wrapped his arm firmly around her waist. They danced and swayed in each other's arms to the rhythm of a flupe's lilting melody. As they laughed together waltzing on the pearly carpet, Cheetara was startled to see an enormous scarlet hood and a scowling decayed face wrapped in rank white ribbons, hissing in the sky beside them.
"Who is that?" Tygra's comely face was bright with curiosity. Cheetara swept the sky with her hand and covered the foul vision with wispy mist.
"That is just Mumm-Ra." Cheetara said. "Ignore him. Lion-O will handle him." They waltzed past the mummy and danced toward four dark figures cloaked in charcoal vapor. She could make out the shapes of a jackal, a vulture, a lizard, and a monkey.
"Who are they?" Tygra inquired.
"I have no idea." Cheetara ran her fingers along Tygra's cheek.
"Are they Ancient Spirits of Evil?" Tygra quizzed her.
"I suppose. I mean. . . I know this must be important. But I heard what Lion-O said to me. Lion-O was clear. So I'm backing off. If he needs me, he'll say so." She raised her lips and looked into Tygra's aqua blue eyes. Cheetara blinked and stepped backward. Behind Tygra she saw the young lion King draw his ancient silver sword. Lion-O swiped at the transformed Mumm-Ra The Everliving who was plated in dark coal-colored armor; a sallow lime-green light radiated from the gauntlet Mumm-Ra carried.
"Lion-O!" Cheetara shouted. Her lungs exploded in her chest as she sped to catch him. The lion and the mummy passed further and further away from her grasp with each step.
"Lion-O! Lion-O! Look!" Cheetara's eyes widened. Mumm-Ra hoisted up his double-edged blade and stabbed the mist beneath Lion-O's feet. Lion-O began to fall to earth.
"Lion-O!" Cheetara's heart raced as she felt the air shift beneath her. She jumped toward Lion-O scrambling to reach him.
"Lion-O! Grab my hand!" Cheetara shouted again, but it was useless. She could not reach him. She shrieked feeling the air scalding her fur as she tumbled from the sky. They were heading for a well on the earth below. In the blackness of the well she saw a gaunt, stern face frowning at her. An old jaguar stretched up from the well and held out a book to her. The jaguar called her name ferociously.
"Cheetara!" She gasped and sat upright. She looked over at the General who stared back at her, one eye hollow, one sharp.
"Um. You okay?" Panthro asked.
". . .Yes." Cheetara rubbed her face and searched for the boy King. Lion-O lay sleeping in a tent on the yellow-green grass near the Thundertank, wrapped in a navy blanket. He seemed still and peaceful. Panthro sighed and pushed on.
"You. . . want to talk about it?"
"About what?" Cheetara's eyes widened, unsure of what Panthro had observed.
"Don't make this difficult," Panthro snapped. "It just looked like you were having a rough time, and. . . you kept calling out for Lion-O. . . . " Cheetara could not stop her cheeks from flushing.
"Look. None of my business. Just thought maybe you had a hard hunt or something."
"No," Cheetara looked solemnly at Panthro. "Just the opposite, I think. More hunting may be exactly what I need." Cheetara had learned to take dreams, or rather, visions after hunting seriously. And this vision was certainly from Jaga himself. She could not be sure what Jaga wanted, but she knew exactly where to look to find out.
"Uh huh." Panthro was done pressing. "You going back to sleep?"
"No, you sleep." Cheetara stood alert and gazed intently at the young lion king. "I'm okay. It's my turn. I've got the watch now."