Cheetara and Horus accelerated through the portal. Cheetara thrust the yellow staff into the opening and used the blinding white energy to seal it after they safely passed through. They stood together in the windowless room, staring at a small closet where the portal had been.
"You actually got that door closed, Cheetara. My hero!" Horus teased her.
"You're the hero, Horus," Cheetara embraced and kissed him. "I . . .I got overwhelmed in there. The abilities I have . . . I have to stay reflective . . . meditate daily on humility or I . . . make mistakes."
"I'm no hero, Cheetara. I've lived long enough to know who I am, and I'm comfortable playing second flupe to great men, and women. And if you should ever need anything from me, Your Grace, I am at your service." Horus said with a gentle dip of his head.
Horus licked his beak. "You are certainly not that gentle little girl you appear to be. Do your companions know who you are? Neha and all?"
"No." Cheetara admitted.
"Well you had better let your King know. With the dangers we face, he needs a guardian whether he knows it or not."
Cheetara sighed. "Guardian. I've wanted to defend our people from harm. Support my King in his decisions. But now it's more complicated than that. If I'm going to help Lion-O win this war, I'm going to have to face up to some things I'd rather not have to deal with."
"From what I saw in there, I think you can handle it." Horus said.
Cheetara blushed. "I appreciate that. But I've still got a lot to learn. About myself. About the dangers we face. Lion-O and I have some things to discuss."
Horus stared at Cheetara with probing green eyes.
"What you said about your King... Do you really believe that somehow his decisions will magically lead to a great society, or some victory against Mumm-Ra?" Horus asked.
"Yes, I do."
"Why would you believe that?"
"Evidence." Cheetara said, fixing her gaze on Horus. "The first time I met Lion-O, I mean, really met him face to face as my charge, he was in the slums fighting with a group of alley cats who were shaking down dogs for money. Lion-O attacked four cats twice his size to protect someone you might consider one of the inferior species. It really made me think.
"The very next day, Lion-O took on an entire mob of his own people to protect two lizards, mortal enemies of the cats. He even stood up to his father to get the lizards set free. Even I had never stood up to Jaga on behalf of lizards we'd enslaved on minor offenses. It made me hope our people really could do things differently.
"And when Thundera fell, Lion-O bravely fought an entire army against whom we were hopelessly outmatched. Lion-O alone had the foresight to use alien technology to save the lives of King Claudus and Prince Tygra. And yes, he had been ridiculed all of his life for even studying technology. After that, I believed. I believed in him, and in his vision for a new order between the species."
Horus blinked before returning her gaze. "A new order, you say? Your people stormed into my city and brought it to the ground to save yourselves. I'd say that was business as usual for the cats."
"Horus . . . "
"Let me finish!" Horus continued. "I believe things need to change, too, Cheetara, and I want to help you. I . . . I just need to believe that your people will stand by us in the end. You know the history. Such promises have been made by your ancestors before."
"What do you mean, Horus?"
"Read your history, Cheetara. I think you will understand. Your little show of charity these past few weeks pales in comparison to what my people want from you. Like it or not, Cheetara, you are the leader of the clerics, now. I want you to give me something to believe in. You think about that during your 'discussions' with your King."
Cheetara nodded and eyed the yellow staff.
"You had better keep that," Horus said softly. "I get the feeling it's found its way into the right hands."
Cheetara and Horus made their way back through the hallway door to find Aria and the cats hovering over a slowing recovering Lion-O. Cheetara appeared with Horus in the narrow doorway of the dining hall, her dress blood stained and soiled. Upon seeing her, Tygra bared his claws and flew at Horus, pinning him to the floor.
"Let go!" Cheetara shouted at Tygra. Panthro and the kittens ripped Tygra off of Horus and managed to subdue the tiger.
"It's all right. I'll explain later." Cheetara said. "Right now, I'd really like to get back to the camp."
The cats changed out of their fine clothing and were mostly quiet as they reflected on Cheetara's story at camp.
"I wish I could've seen the look on Grune's face after you broke his leg!" Panthro snorted.
Tygra put his arm around Cheetara's shoulders. "I'm glad you're alright," he said, and kissed the nape of her neck.
"You don't have to worry. Horus is an ally. Complicated. But an ally." Cheetara reassured him.
Lion-O rose and moved away from the group. Tygra and Cheetara looked at each other and sighed.
"Somebody needs to go." Panthro said.
Cheetara rose and walked after Lion-O. She touched his arm to let him know she was near.
"Lion-O, I'm glad you're okay," she said. "I was horrified when I saw the danger you were in." Lion-O looked down at her arm, which rested upon his.
"Oh! I'm...sorry..." She stammered.
"No, it's all right." Lion-O smiled at her. "I'm glad you're okay, too."
"Lion-O," Cheetara started, deciding that now was as good of a time as any to make her request.
"I didn't tell you everything that happened to us in the Astral Plane or before we went in. I learned a great deal from Horus about our people's history. And I've had some dreams. Visions. A lot of it still doesn't make sense to me. I need help to sort it out, and I'd like to borrow the Book of Omens to help me do that."
Lion-O shifted his ears backwards and looked at the grass below his feet. "You're not going to like hearing this Cheetara, but I don't think that's a good idea."
"What do you mean?" Cheetara raised her eyebrows, surprised.
"I mean what I said," Lion-O frowned. "There is a lot of sensitive information in the Book. And with everything that's happened lately, and with Pumyra's betrayal and all..."
Cheetara advanced and stared down into Lion-O's eyes. "You would not dare compare me to the traitor, Pumyra? Or Grune?"
"I just don't know who to trust, Cheetara. And I don't always think you have the best judgement. You got awfully cozy with Horus while I was lying there unconscious. And..." Lion-O glanced backward toward the camp and watched as his brother unfolded the blankets for the night.
"And...?" Cheetara pressed.
"Nothing." Lion-O scowled. "There's just a lot you don't know. I'm not saying no. I'm just not ready to say yes. Just give me some time to think about it." Lion-O closed his eyes and gently touched Cheetara's cheek before turning to walk back to the camp.
"As you wish, Lion-O." Cheetara nodded stiffly and departed.
Cheetara looked into the night sky and saw that the third moon was starting to rise. She aimed her body upward, and let her thoughts escape in all directions. Of course Lion-O could not know what she had given up all these years and what she continued to deny herself so that she could serve him. Still, all the meditations and the sacrifices were silly, meaningless, pointless because Lion-O did not want a cleric and she did not want this bother. The air scattered beneath her feet as she accelerated away from the camp, to where she neither knew nor cared. For now, she just needed to get away. As her sprint turned into flight, she tucked the yellow staff away and decided to take her chances in the dark.
Thanks for reading!