Fall Of The Empire
Rating: T (for now.)
Disclaimer: I don't own this. If I did, the second season would have been out already, and I would be all over that like white on rice.
Author's Notes: Who stays awake until 1:50 AM in the morning to post chapters? I do.
Why? Because SLEEP IS FOR THE WEAK.
Anyway, some new updates!
1.) It is midterms. I have a bajillion essays due, and all of them range 6 - 11 pages long. And then I have to sit down and revise them, and then write more. . . Sigh. Don't be an English major, folks. It sucks sometimes.
2.) I'm taking a Cultural Theory / Crit class (also don't take these classes unless you want to shoot yourself), but I must admit, it's invariably interesting to see all of the flaws that we have in culture. And then when I'm writing I'm like, "Damn. I'm guilty of all these things, and I am aware of them. I am a terrible human being. OTL" Moral of the class: we're human, and therefore, we suck.
3.) I GOT A NEW LAPTOP. *Throws confetti.* I have a working Z key again! I am so happy. Still working out the kinks on this beast. I had vista, I am SO not used to Windows 8. But this thing is lightning fast and I love it!
Anyway, onto the general story. This chapter is a little bit more dry. I wanted to move things along to the next chapter, where proverbial shit hits the fan. It will be glorious, dear readers. One of the most pivotal chapters of the story I've been planning since the BEGINNING. OMG.
Sucks that you'll have to wait a decent two weeks for it.
Sucks that I have to wait that long to WRITE it. Sigh. Anyway, enjoy this chapter! Thanks to all the reviews, you guys are awesome. Special shout out to Anne!
Warnings: Cursing. Expect this warning for the rest of the story, basically.
Also, italics. I don't know why hates me here, but it does. And stylistic things. Just point them out to me and I'll fix them. c:
Her book of fairy tales was cracked open in her lap, Kit and Kat eagerly pointing at the pages.
"What's that?" Kit asked.
"Cabinet." Echo replied.
"And that one?"
"But that one looks longer. How come it sounds the same?"
Echo smiled. "Good question. I don't have a name for it, though. It's got to do with grammar."
Beneath them, the Thundertank rattled on, roaring back towards the elephant village. The ever-present drone from the engine was already buzzing in the air, making Echo partially deaf. But she'd appeased the twin's wishes of having the "ghost tamer" read to them. She had tried to explain to them that she had no tamed the ghosts, she'd simply been recruited by them (huge difference there), to be a vessel of communication. But the kittens had chosen to have selective hearing that day.
To them, she was the ghost whisperer. She was the magical human who could move things with her mind, and she just seemed to get cooler and cooler every day.
They were enthralled with her book, and loved to peer at the pages and try to discern what the words meant. The rest of the Cats were scattered topside, save for Lion-O and Cheetara, who had perched themselves in the ladders leading up to roof. Every once in a while, Echo could hear muted words float down on stray scraps of wind, but she didn't pay it much mind. They were heading back to the elephant village, and that was all she needed to know.
Lion-O had filled her in on the Astral Plains bit earlier. The only Cat who hadn't wanted to hear about the stone's location had been Panthro, who, quote, "didn't need to hear about any imaginary magical dimensions until he got back to the tank."
"And that one?" Kat asked, getting her attention.
"Ah, that's two words. It means ceramic figurine. Of an elephant."
Coincidence. . . I think not.
Kit let out a happy squeal, and suddenly bursting with energy, hopped up and grabbed a support bar above her head. She started swinging back and forth, tail swirling in the air behind her.
"I'm so excited we're going back to the elephant village. I can't wait to see Aburn!"
Kat smirked. "Like he'll even remember you. What's so great about that place anyways?"
Dislodging from the ceiling, Kit sat back down, startling poor Snarf, who mewled in surprise.
She shrugged her shoulders, and looking a little sheepish, responded, "I guess it just feels like. . . home."
Quite suddenly, Kat snatched up his bag, and dug around. He produced his picture of El Dara, actions defensive and a little angry as he shoved it in his sister's face.
"We'll be home when we get to El Dara!" He asserted, almost glaring at Kit.
Kit, sufficiently cowed, looked away. Echo glanced between the two of them, utterly lost. She had a feeling she was missing some piece of unspoken communication between the twins, something that she just wasn't privy to. And that was odd in itself, because the twins told her mostly everything. Why was Kat bristling?
"Kat, is something wrong?" Echo asked, peering at the kitten curiously.
With a grumble, the kitten rolled up the drawing and shoved it back into his pack. He only offered her a short, "nothing." That was it. Echo, knowing a sullen Kat wasn't going to give her any info, turned to Kit. She had decided to pull out her flupe and clean it, artfully avoiding Echo's gaze.
Almost as if it was meant to punctuate the strife in the cargo hold, Echo heard the words "Astral Plain" meander down from the outside, and almost immediately afterward, Panthro's defiant grumble.
Shaking her head, Echo turned back to her book. Silly Cats and their silly fights.
Especially Panthro. The poor general had just never gotten a hold of the spiritual stuff. But, to be fair, either had Echo. Whenever it happened, it felt like she was just thrown into a dark room while she fumbled for the light switch. Other Cats, like Lion-O and Cheetara, found it without even trying, which really frustrated the human. She wasn't a perfectionist by any means, but it was nice having some control over herself. She didn't like having visions or flashbacks that yanked the reigns away from her and made her seem mentally unstable.
Or, you know, how she hallucinated weird shadow-people that spoke to her in fragmented, cryptic messages.
Echo turned a page, and there came a quiet rustle. Cheetara ducked down below deck, nodding at the three of them. Despite having little to no sleep, and in Echo's case, an adrenaline burnout, the entire group seemed to be pretty energetic. The prospect of finding yet another stone was pretty exciting, and it gave her no small measure of satisfaction to know that Mumm-Ra was going to lose this fight, too.
She turned back to the book, fingers sliding over the pages as she, for the hundredth time, began the achingly slow process of translating sentences from the book's language to Thunderian. She was so engrossed in it, she didn't hear Cheetara calling her name. Kit and Kat both elbowed her, and she jerked her head up. Cheetara was pointing to a picture in the book.
"That looks like you."
Echo glanced at it, and chuckled. It was the drawing with the paper tucked in beside it - the one with the girl with a bow in her hair.
"It isn't me," She replied. "That's Alice."
"Awl. . . ice?" Cheetara repeated. She said it again, slowly, trying to pronounce it as well as she could.
In a strange, very odd moment of disorientation, Echo could hear all the wrong inflections in the cleric's voice. And in that brief second, Echo understood just how weird Thunderian was as a language.
"Alice is a girl who gets lost in Wonderland." Echo explained, flipping the page. She rotated the book to face Cheetara, showing her other doodles of Alice drinking from a bottle, getting lost in a mushroom forest, and walking on a trail.
"Wonderland. . ." Cheetara said, doing much better in pronouncing the word. "Is that where you come from, do you think?"
"No, though I wish I was. Wonderland is like. . . like the Astral Plains. It's an imaginary place. But I wish I could be. Nothing bad happens in Wonderland." She added the last part under her breath, but she had no doubt Cheetara heard it.
Another small clatter of talons over metal, and a familiar red mane of hair joined them. Lion-O peered at the group assembled, and took a seat next to Echo. Kat scrambled out of the way, choosing to sit beside his sister, who was still absorbed in cleaning her flupe.
"I didn't hear all of what you said, but I heard that weird place. It sounds like a headache of a word."
"So is Alice." Cheetara agreed.
"Awhl lice?" Lion-O said, puzzled. "What do those words even mean?"
"I could explain, but it would take a while. How far out are we from the elephant village?" Echo asked.
"A little ways. We still have a bit yet, so you leave the worrying to me. I'd like to learn more about this." Lion-O pointed a talon to a few other words. "These look long and complicated."
Well, they really didn't have anything else to do but stare at the landscape passing them by. Might as well kill some time. Echo placed her finger over the text and read whole sentences at a time before she began to translate them. It was a hard, somewhat slow task, especially considering that, even if she thought one word meant something, sometimes the rest of the sentence completely contradicted it, making her backtrack. Kind of embarrassing to admit, but she was much better at reading mentally than she was out loud.
She murmured the words before finding their counterparts in Thunderian.
Cheetara quirked her head slightly.
"Can you read it just in that. . . tongue?" The cleric asked, "I want to hear how it sounds. It's just so different."
It was much, much quicker for her to read the passages in her native tongue, as she didn't have to struggle to find their Thunderian meaning. Sometimes, the words she read had no translation, leaving her grasping for the closest word for it. After reading just a paragraph, she stopped, and then looked at the confusion expressions of Lion-O and Cheetara.
"It's like," Lion-O said, "You talk with your tongue. And not your whole mouth - like you're talking through a mouth full of cotton."
"I've never heard anything like it before," Cheetara admitted, "And I've traveled far in Third Earth under Jaga's apprenticeship. Unfortunately, I can't say I like it. No offense intended, it just sounds. . . emotionless."
"English," Echo said, pulling the name from the recesses in her brain, "I remember it's called English now. And no, I actually agree with you. Runes in Thunderian can mean over a hundred different things. But these - called letters and words - they mean exactly what they mean. It's really hard to translate it."
"Mind if I?" Lion-O asked, reaching for her book. Echo passed it to him. "I always knew there were other things out there. And this is proof of it. Our first proof of other aliens."
"Aliens?" Kat echoed.
Both he and his sister shared a look, and then fell down laughing. Echo shook her head. Lion-O, quite used to that kind of reaction for his crazy theories, thumbed through the pages.
"I think calling me an alien might be stretching it a bit far." Echo hedged.
Lion-O didn't say anything as he passed her back her book, and Echo shut it. She stowed it in a little hideaway cubby, and heard the loud rasp of metal as it was drawn from its sheathe. Lion-O drew a miniaturized Omens.
"Well, you want to know what else is awesome and alien? This sword. And my learning to use it. That's pretty awesome."
"Hey," Echo said, wheels clicking in her mind, "You said the animals crashed here in a spaceship. So. . wouldn't that make you just as, er, alien as me?"
Cheetara crossed her arms over her chest. "That makes a good point. We are."
"No way!" Kit protested, "I'm not an alien. I was born here!"
"Me too. You're the aliens!" Kat continued.
Lion-O pointed his sword at them. "It's the truth. But don't you worry, this sword will show me more evidence. I guarantee it."
"We'll be at the Astral Plains soon." Cheetara added, "And I'm positive Omens will guide you on the right path."
Lion-O beamed at her. "I'll have the Spirit Stone in no time. Quick as a flash, you'll see."
"Patience is a treasured state of mind, Lion-O," The cleric countered sagely, "Jaga should have taught you that."
At that, Echo frowned. "Why be patient when it would be smarter to just get in there and get it as quick as possible? Mumm-Ra can't be far behind us. I think speed's the best thing we can do."
But it was different than her normal smiles. It was secret, pained, and even a little shy. It was not what the cleric normally looked like, and for a moment, Echo was blown away. Sometimes, when Cheetara looked vulnerable, she was utterly stunning. It completely shattered the tough-girl cleric shell she wrapped herself in, and made her just a little more like a normal Cat.
"Speed is a great asset, but without patience, it is useless."
Sounds like she knows a lot about that. Maybe there's something she's not telling us?
For a moment, a lightning-fast, quick-as-a-rabbit moment, Echo briefly entertained the notion of reaching over and trying to see into Cheetara's mind. But she rebuked it almost immediately. She was horrified with herself. If Cheetara didn't want her to know, she didn't need to know. Not to mention it was a severe invasion of privacy. Echo had no idea how she'd done it with Panthro and Drifter, but she had no want to do the same thing with Cheetara.
Lion-O laughed, breaking the moment.
"Why be fast and patient when you can just be strong?"
"An excellent counterclaim."
Cheetara smiled at LIon-O, and Lion-O smiled back.
Echo tensed when she saw the affection for the cleric in her friend's eyes. Her mind flashed to all the moments the two had been close to each other, to the way Cheetara had placed herself bodily against him, the way he obviously loved her-
"Tell me you don't love him."
Stop, Echo thought vehemently, that's enough. I am not going down the jealousy train today. Besides, I'm tired of yo-yoing all over the damn place. One second I hate him, then I'm back to gushing over him again. I'm acting like a stupid cub!
Echo forced herself to relax.
It was all in vain, though, as in the next moment, the tank jerked to a harsh stop, throwing everyone forward. Not even Cheetara, speed demon she was, could stop herself from being thrown up against Echo, and both girls went down in a messy tangle of limbs on the floor. Echo was lucky enough to land on top, but her arm had been twisted up behind the cleric painfully.
"Ow!" Kit said, "That hurt!"
A bit dazed, the human gently untangled herself from the mass of limbs and stood. She'd be a bit sore in a few minutes, but nothing she couldn't handle. She made for the ladders, climbing up to the hatch. Opening it, Echo blinked her eyes, adjusting to the bright sunlight. After blinking furiously a few times, she searched for Panthro and Tygra, intent on asking them what had happened.
They were both staring at something in the distance. Echo followed their line of sight and saw plumes of smoke. Originating from a hill - a very familiar hill. Flames and smoke bellowed out of the elephant village, but it looked to be contained devastation. From the high rise they'd stopped on, Echo could even see copious amounts of damage on the staircase, pockmarked with giant holes.
Her good mood dissipated in an instant.
Kit and Kat pressed themselves against her, popping up from down below.
Cheetara and Lion-O occupied the other hatch.
"The elephants! I hope they're alright." Cheetara said, voice bleeding with concern.
"What happened?" Kit asked, worried.
Wordlessly, Lion-O pulled out Omens.
"Sword of Omens, give me sight beyond sight!" He proclaimed, cutting over the worried chatter.
Omens flared to life in his hold, the jewel brightening with a hum. Whether it was Lion-O directly allowing her to see it, or Omens deciding she needed to, she felt the sword brush over her mind, and in seconds, reality faded. She saw what Omens saw. The elephants were rounded up and crowded together in the city center. Lizards and mech units stood around them, bayonets and guns aimed menacingly in their direction.
Omens passed away, showing Grune walking to the hut.
"No!" Echo cried, springing forward. She jumped, hand outstretched to catch the ex-general, to seize the back of his armor and bodily fling him against the dirt. Anything to stop him from entering the hut. Instead, the vision broke, and Echo found herself falling.
She was lucky enough to land on Tygra. The tiger moved, and helped break her fall with a low curse. Helping set her on the rise between the pilot's seats, Echo shook her head, getting rid of the dizziness.
"What in the blazes was that, Short Stack? You startled me - I could have drawn my gun on you by accident!"
"We're too late," Lion-O said, voice grim as he cut over his brother, "The lizards have found the hut!"
"What?" Tygra asked, shocked. "That can't be possible! We haven't seen signs of them for weeks!"
"They must have been tracking us somehow," Cheetara theorized, "Either way, we have to plan. We need to get to that hut!"
Echo stared at the elephant village, emotions swirling with a myriad of rage and violence.
Echo stood, silent and motionless, beside Tygra. Outwardly, she appeared calm, but inwardly, she was bristling with energy.
The only way to stop herself from fidgeting was to stand. If she sat down anywhere, she knew she'd start jittering her knee, playing with her fingers, or anxiously braid and re-braid her hair. Instead, she chose to stand, and just continued staring at the elephant village, eyes tracing the stacks of smoke that continually rose and dissipated into the sky. She wanted to be in there, take some names, and kick some major ass. But she couldn't. Lion-O hadn't given anyone the go-ahead yet, and even she knew it would be stupid to just rush in there and hope for the best.
A little ways away from her, Panthro pulled binoculars down from his face, expression tight with anger.
"Grune." He hissed, spitting the name out like it was vinegar.
Kit and Kat, having seated themselves on a large root, looked at Panthro, not comprehending his anger.
Makes sense, Echo thought, glancing at them, they weren't in the mine that day.
The twins had come back just a few minutes prior, rejoining their group after covering the Thundertank with camouflage netting. They had gotten quite adept with helping blend the tank in with its surroundings, and courtesy of the net in its storage compartment, the vehicle was all but invisible now.
"We need to go about this delicately. He's got hostages." Lion-O said, tone serious. Echo couldn't blame him for that.
She remained quiet as she continued staring, hands itching to take her swords up and go charging in.
"Aburn's there. . ." Kit murmured, sounding scared.
Normally, Echo would have comforted her. But, cruel was it was to admit, she just wasn't in the mood. She was wanting to hurt something. Cheetara took up the human's mantle, and rubbed the kitten's back, offering her some comfort.
"It's okay. We'll save him. . . What are you thinking, Lion-O?" She asked.
Lion-O's eyes were hard and flinty, his face speaking volumes of determination. Echo looked at him, just for a moment, waiting for him to say that they were going to go running in, guns blazing, and take the lizards by surprise.
"We'll wait for nightfall. Use stealth." He finally said, decision firm.
Echo was surprised. She really was. Just a month or two ago, Lion-O would have said, "go in, take them by surprise, we'll win!" And the one instance that she wanted him to, he wasn't.
Somewhere along their journey, he'd gotten tactically smart, calculating losses and chances. Though it was good for him, and Echo knew it was a critical tool for him to have as a leader, she pined for the reckless Lion-O. Some parts of her, though she didn't like it, loved throwing caution to the wind and letting fate work everything out. It had been a model that had worked for them for months, and he was changing it up on her now.
Next to her, Tygra growled.
"Are you kidding? We can't waste time waiting for the right window. We should move in now!" Tygra objected, voice blisting, "I say we take the tank. It's our only chance against their firepower."
For once in my life, I actually agree with you.
She wanted to go in there and draw some lizard blood. She had no love for the elephants, but in that village, her glitchy phantom was waiting for her. The only thing standing between her and engaging it again were some stupid lizards. Echo knew she was going to come face-to-face with something. She just knew it. Maybe in the Astral Plains, maybe not, but she needed to meet up with that shadow again.
"Why do you have to challenge every command I make, Tygra?" Lion-O snapped.
"Because I was the one that actually studied military strategies with father while you goofed off." He retorted, voice dripping with acid.
Lion-O opened his mouth to reply, looking ready to tear Tygra a new one, but Cheetara growled, cutting him off.
That made everyone quiet. Nobody had heard her growl before.
"The tank can't make it," She said, slightly snappy, "Besides, I always considered stealth to be your greatest strength, Tygra."
For a moment, the tiger didn't reply. But then he turned his head away, and Echo swore she heard him mutter something under his breath. Lion-O walked away, Panthro in two, the general offering his advice on how to best approach the village. Kit and Kat moved, if only to sit a little lower, keeping a close eye on the mountain.
Echo remained where she was. She had everything that she needed on her person, and if anyone required her, she'd move. For the time being, however, she rapped a knuckle against Tygra's shoulder armor, eliciting a dull thunk thunk from the metal.
"Cheer up. While I don't agree with this either, you'll see us through. You always do."
She and Tygra didn't get along. Never had, probably never would. But Echo knew what she was saying was true. She couldn't count how many times Tygra had saved her life, Cheetara's life - hell, even Panthro's.
"Words I never thought I'd hear you say, Short Stack." Tygra replied, glancing down at her.
For once, his voice lacked the snarkiness, the cynicism. He almost sounded sincere.
Echo chuckled, looking back at the village. It was a rare moment they were sharing, and Echo was alright with absorbing it as much as she could. She didn't like constantly fighting with Tygra, much as he believed she did.
"I know my place with this group. I'm just the moral cheerleader, so I might as well be useful." She replied.
"Hey, you two. Get over here." Panthro called out, waving them over.
The moment was broken as Tygra and Echo both joined the Cats, who were discussing their plan. It would require some observation before dusk fell, as they needed to gather more information. But when it was twilight, they would move into position and start the operation. They each set about their individual tasks, and night fell surprisingly quickly. Echo checked and rechecked her gear, ensuring all of her shin and arm guards were tightly secured.
"Alright." Lion-O announced. "Let's move into position."
The plan was a easy one. Advance on the elephant village, take out a support team at the base, storm up to the top, and take them by surprise. Deceptively simple, but with stealth and surprise on their side, Echo knew they'd fare pretty well. It had worked before, in the Petalar forest. But that was when the lizards had first some into their position of power. There was no telling how skittish they might be now. Their nervousness before might not even be a factor in the now.
The group made a quick descent from the hill they were on, and crept into the tall grass bordering the bottom of the mountain. Echo stayed close to Panthro and Tygra, trying not to make too much noise, but she wasn't having much success. The Cats were naturally quiet in loud environments, and she, a clumsy human, was most certainly not.
The group was advancing on the village when part of the wall was blown away, a very familiar green laser blasting through it. Echo tensed, crouching, holding her breath as her hands flew up to her swords. She had a flashback, albeit of a different kind. She traveled back, many, many months ago, her heart thundering in her chest. She could almost hear the wind, the insane laughter, her own screams. . .
"Woah, easy there," Panthro murmured, touching her arm, "It's all right."
Taking a few deep breaths, Echo relaxed, arms dropping to her sides.
"Thundera." Tygra bit out.
Panthro didn't say anything, and he didn't have to. He just understood. He was good like that. He knew where their grief stemmed from.
Ahead of them, Lion-O and Cheetara crouched, almost entirely obstructed by the grass. A little ways away from the trail leading up to the mountain, the group stopped. Behind Echo, she could hear the twins fidgeting, agitated.
"I can't wait to get up there." Echo whispered, voice barely audible.
"Just wait for it," Tygra said, "You'll get your turn."
So she waited, standing still as a statue. A gentle wind blew, tickling the grass against her skin, but Echo paid it no mind. She just wanted to get on the trail and start.
She didn't have to wait long.
The bell began to ring, cuing a beginning to their assault.
"It's time." Lion-O said. "Let's move."
They began wading forward. Echo tried to be silent as possible, though she was glad for the wind. It helped mask the noise she was making as the group began their approach.
"I still think we need the tank." Tygra grumbled.
"Human. Catch." Panthro said, chucking something her way. Two metal bands clinked together as they flew through the air, and Echo caught them, avoiding nearly slicing her hand open.
"What are they?" She asked, instinctively slipping a band around her palm. They had metal spikes that jutted from the fabric, but Echo had no clue if they were a weapon. They didn't look like one.
"Snarf," Lion-O's voice carried over the wind, "Go."
"For climbing," Panthro responded, "The metal'll grip the rock better."
Oh, they're my own version of talons. . . Have to take them off when I get up the staircase, though.
Thanks," She said, slipping the other one one. With the palm-spikes equipped, it would be impossible to draw her swords, so she'd have to ditch them at the top. Echo grinned, giddy. She'd been worrying about how she was going to scale the staircase, but with these, she didn't have to fret over that anymore.
The lizards let out a surprised cry, and from the grass, Echo could see Snarf weaving in and out of their legs. Panthro departed, vanishing into the grass, leaving her alone with Tygra and the twins. The human watched as Snarf ran away, snickering under his breath. Echo crouched, muscles tense, and listened to the impatient shuffling of Kit and Kat.
The lizards were so absorbed in chasing Snarf, they didn't notice Panthro. The general towered over them, frowning, before bashing their heads together, knocking them out cold.
Their cue. Cheetara, Lion-O, and Tygra raced forward, pressing the advantage to beat down the rest of the lizards. Echo wished she could join in on the fun, but she knew her chance would be coming. Kit and Kat got into place next to her, and Echo scanned the battlefield, watching as Cheetara's staff dug up thick roots from the ground. She whistled, impressed.
"Echo." Kit whined, jumping up and down.
"One more." Echo replied without looking at her.
The lizard closest to the staircase fell, and she got up, tapping her hip.
It was an unspoken signal for the twins to follow her. Kit and Kat raced alongside her, and together, the three of them sprinted over to the staircase. A lizard caught sight of them, but Cheetara intercepted, whacking him with her staff. Kit and Kat bounded up the steps, running on all fours, and Echo followed beside them.
With her new palm-grips, she was able to ascend much quicker, and she lagged only a few seconds behind the kittens. Once they got to the top a minute later, Echo sucked in measured breaths, forcing herself to be quiet. Her lungs ached for her to double over and just breathe noisily, but she refused.
The trio pressed themselves against the ruins of a wall, and peered into the village. Grune stood just before the elephants, surrounding them with an entourage of lizards and small-sized mech units. Kit leaned forward, a concerned sound escaping her, as she caught sight of Aburn. Echo, without looking, pulled off her palm-grips and feathered her fingertips over her shoulder.
"Steady." The human murmured.
"The third moon is rising." Grune announced, "Are you ready to talk?"
He stood, sure and proud, unaware of their group, a hand propped on his hip.
"I love a good discussion. Any topic in particular?" Annet asked.
Mentally, Echo groaned. Of course Annet would say that.
The elephant answered incorrectly, apparently, as Grune growled. He was clearly out of patience, and looked severely annoyed.
"Very well," He said, calm and smug, "Since you have more than tried my patience. . . start with Aburn!"
The elephants murmured in fear as several of the lizards approached and gestured Aburn apart from the pack. When the elephant failed to understand, they jabbed at him, forcing him to separate from the group. Next to her, Echo could feel Kit tensing.
"Steady!" Echo hissed. "Wait for it!"
The human cast a quick glance down the staircase, trying to see if the scuffle was over yet. She was relieved to see the Cats were ascending quickly, Lion-O at the head of the pack. Not quickly enough at this rate, she thought worriedly, glancing at a very oblivious Aburn.
"It's Aburn!" Kit protested, "We have to do something!"
Before Echo could snatch at her, the kitten jumped through the wreckage of the wall, heading to the lizards. Fear lanced through Echo, washing her blood with ice.
It doubled as Kat joined his sister.
"Kit, wait!" He cried, running after her.
Echo cursed, looking down the steps again, and then sprinted after the kittens.
Kit climbed what looked like a destroyed statue, and stood on top of it.
"No one touches. My. Friend!" She shouted, broadcasting her voice through the clearing.
No, Kit, you stupid Cat!
Guns jerked to her in a kneejerk reaction, a few of the lizards taking aim. In a fluid movement, Echo drew a sword and bodily checked a lizard, keeping the lethal attention off of Kit. She wasn't quick enough to block a blow from a gun, and it hit her in her temple, making colors explode in her vision.
Saving Kit came with an even higher price.
Echo heard a rifle fire, and felt a bolt impact with her right leg. The pain smacked into her a moment later, and it seared through her muscles, sharp and nasty. It burned, and she collapsed as she could no longer stand. With a muffled cry, the human fell down, clutching at her injured leg. She clenched her teeth, eyes water, and she writhed in pain. Kat called her name, fear in his voice.
Echo glanced at her wound, and paled when she saw blood, quickly oozing out from between her fingers.
Great. Perfect. Just what I needed.
Lizards surrounded her, aiming more guns at her, and she glared up at them from the ground. Or, she tried. She did as best as she was able.
"Hey. It's Kit!" Aburn greeted happily, completely oblivious to what had transpired, "And Kat-Kit. And Lionus and all his friends!"
Echo huffed a dark chuckle as she heard unhappy grumbles.
There went that plan.
Despite the pain she was in, Echo felt her skin crawl.
She was closed in by lizards. As she stared up at one, finding malice staring back at her, she couldn't believe that, once upon a time, she had felt pity for them. But she had. And now, quite frankly, she hated them - despised them, actually, for what they had stripped from her. Echo sucked in shallow breaths, trying to manage the pain coursing through her thigh.
Grune smiled, and lazily aimed his hammer at Aburn, a high-pitched whine emitting from it.
"Weapons on the ground or the grass-eater gets it."
Echo didn't hear anything from behind her, so she assumed they were hesitating. Good.
Grune's hand tightened on his weapon in warning, and he continued. "I assure you. I won't miss a target this big."
Another beat of hesitation, but then she heard the distinct clatter of weapons hitting each other. Kit, just at the corner of her vision, looked at her nervously, worry and concern and guilt wrapped up into one neat kitten-sized package. A bayonet pressed against her cheek, and Echo flicked her eyes up to the lizard.
"Sword. Off!" It hissed.
Echo didn't think she could move from her little curled-up ball of pain. She stared up at the lizard, wondering if the creature was that stupid - and yes. It was. It gestured with its gun, waving at her back. Echo swallowed against a tightness in her throat as she gently pried her fingers off of her wound, and ignoring the large splashes of blood on her palms, she quickly snapped the harness portion off of her body.
The lizard kicked her weapons away, even grabbing her discarded blade and adding that to the pile of weaponry, too. Echo recovered her blood thigh, hearing Panthro snarling behind her, voice nearly vibrating in rage.
"General?" Grune asked conversationally, as though he were discussing the weather.
"Traitor." Panthro bit out. Another noisy, somewhat forceful, clatter sounded behind her.
Grune strode forward, completely bypassing Echo (didn't even look at me, what an ass), and made a beeline for the weapons pile. Echo twisted herself, ignoring the sharp stab of pain that reverberated in her leg. She was greeted with the sight of Grune holding Omens, stroking the blade in delight.
"At last," He sighed, "The sword falls into worthy hands. Of course, it's not what I am here for, but it's an excellent addition. Where is the Spirit Stone?"
He pointed the tiny blade at Lion-O's throat.
Lion-O, eyes flickering to the elephants, and then to Grune, smiled. "Have you checked the hut?"
Dark humor. Her favorite. Echo just barely managed to stifle a snicker.
"Ohh," Grune said, stepping back, "You may be prepared for your death, but are you prepared for theirs?"
With a wave of his hand, the lizards began to approach the unarmed elephants, fingers tightening over triggers.
"I don't know where it is." Lion-O replied, turning his head away in defiance.
"And yet you come back to the village? Oh, little lord, I could have sworn I taught you better than that. Wipe out the entire herd!" Grune barked.
I might not like them, but I don't want them dead!
Without thinking, Echo reached for a sword that wasn't there, and her lizard guard kicked her for it.
"Don't move." He snapped.
Echo grit her teeth, rage and helplessness curling through her. What could she do? With her leg injured, there was no way she could fight. She wrenched her eyes shut, silently praying, preparing herself for the gunshots, the cries of pain-
Instead, she felt a cold hand on her leg.
The intimate touch made her gasp and jerk around, wondering what the hell the lizard was up to, but she wasn't staring at a lizard.
"I said no moving." The lizard asserted, pressing the bayonet against her neck. It nicked her, and she felt a few drops of blood.
But Echo paid it no mind.
The shadow-figure was there, crouching next to her, hands moving over the injury.
"What are you doing?" Echo asked, her voice just a squeak, her lips barely moving.
The shadow craned a neck to look back up at her, and if Echo was reading the amorphous mass right, she swore she could feel frustration and determination emanating off it.
"Cats. . . aren't. . . that can heal."
The shadow covered her wound with both of its hands and pressed down, hard. Echo bit her lip, keeping herself from crying out, and was rewarded with the pain abating a moment later. A fierce, incredibly distracting feeling wove itself through her right thigh, instead. It was like a pins and needles sensation, but a million times stronger. Her leg twitched involuntarily in response.
"Wait!" Lion-O shouted.
The shadow muttered something Echo couldn't hear, her hands still on her wound. Echo turned back to what was occurring around her.
"I'll tell you. Where the stone is. Don't kill them."
"If you say it's in the hut. . ." Grune trailed off, his voice carrying a clear warning. He raised a hand to ward off the attack, and silence settled over the clearing again.
"It's not in the hut," Lion-O explained, "It's through it. In the Astral Plains."
"Ah, i knew you would figure it out eventually, Lion-O. Now be a good cat and take me to it." Grune ordered.
Lion-O nodded stiffly, and Grune turned, walking to the hut. Lion-O trailed behind him, and as he passed her, his blue eyes narrowed at the sight of her blood. He looked at her, and when she did, she smiled tightly, reassuring him.
She had a secret ace up the hole.
Both Cats disappeared into the hut, and the lizards shifted, fingers itching to shoot their hostages. Long minutes passed as the shadow's cold hands worked on her thigh. Finally, however, she heard Lion-O's voice yelling, "HO!"
Echo's eyes jerked to the hut, which was exploding in a vast array of gold colors. Her heart seized in her chest.
"I've. . . for you." The shadow said, voice fading slightly, "Go. Do not. . . fail. Cats will. . . stop you. Go!"
"You'd be so much easier to understand if you actually talked." Echo muttered.
In response, the glitchy phantom stood, and made its way over to the hut, urging her to follow. Echo glared at it. Now was so not the time to try and get her to do what it wanted. Grune's voice echoed in the air, but it was drowned out by the sound of canons powering to life, of the mech units moving, aiming at the elephants.
Oh. . . Oh shi-
A screech pierced the air, and Echo barely had enough time to throw her hands over her head as a missile struck the first mech. It exploded, washing them all in a bright light and fiery heat. Several more followed, deafening her wars with an incredibly annoying ringing. But it was a hell of a lot better than death by firing squad. Through the intense sound in her ears, Echo could hear the furious snarl of an engine.
The tank? But how is it all the way up here?
A claw flew over her head and crashed into the ground, followed closely by another, leaving deep rends in the earth as they scored it for purchase.
"Thunder. Thunder. Thunder! ThunderCats, HO!"
Her leg felt a hell of a lot better. Echo smiled darkly to herself as she finally lashed out, kicking the closest lizard. He reeled, dropping his rifle, and moving on instinct, Echo seized his fallen gun. It was a cumbersome weapon, heavy and gaudy. She was totally unused to it, but Echo brought it round and smashed the stock against another lizard's face. She wasn't very trained on guns, but Echo had to admit, there was something decidedly familiar and right about bringing the rifle to her shoulder and bearing it on her target.
Her leg flared, but it was a dull, muted pain, something she could withstand.
"Hurry!" The shadow beckoned, "Hurry! You must. . . Astral Plain. Quickly!"
"Shut up!" Echo snapped. Compared to the voices of Magi Oar, the glitchy phantom was just a quiet murmur, even when it was screaming at her, but it didn't make it any less distracting.
Battles waged all around her, as each of the Cats retrieved their weapons and began to fight back. Echo dashed through the laser fire and discarded the gun. She slid, dodging a peppering of lasers, and scooped up her swords. She drew them both, leaving the sheathes behind, and charged into the fray, her steel flashing in the light. The gun may have felt right, but the swords felt even better.
She lashed out, drawing blood. Through she was angry and injured, Echo didn't kill. She wanted to - she really did - but on an intrinsic level, she knew it was wrong. It was what they'd warned Lion-O against all those months ago, and she wasn't about to start down that path herself. As she fought, however, she somehow managed to get closer and closer to the hut.
Almost like it was meant to be.
"You're mine, Grune!" Panthro shouted, voice impossibly loud over the din of the battlefield.
Echo completely gave herself over to the firefight, mopping up what the Cats had missed. Her leg began to ache as she danced, lethal and graceful, reminding her that her injury, while partially healed, was no entirely gone. She engaged another lizard, but her leg buckled mid-attack, and the reptile swung his gun at her head. Echo tensed, expecting another skull-cracking impact, and the darkness of unconsciousness, but it never came.
Instead, a gauntlet-ed hand caught the stock, stopping it just a few inches away from her head. Echo breathed out a shaky sigh of relief as Tygra shoved the lizard away, firing a few paralyzing shots at the reptile.
"You alright, Short Stack?"
Holstering his gun, he reached down and bodily hefted her up. Echo tensed, about to ask him if he was crazy, but the battle was subsiding. Lizards were fleeing, tucking tail and running. Bits of shrapnel and charred, smoking pieces of metal were scattered everywhere, the smoldering remains of the mech units. Echo had no idea how they managed it, but their motley crew had chased off a sizable amount of lizard firepower.
Somehow. It was baffling.
Tygra looped an arm around her waist, supporting most of her weight. Echo glanced down and found a hefty amount of blood staining her pant leg. Her thigh ached and throbbed, but in regards to pain, it was nothing compared to what it'd been. Tygra helped her hobble over to a rock, just a little thing, tucked slightly out of the way, where he set her down. Echo thanked him as she perched herself gingerly on it.
She was placing her swords next to her when she heard footsteps running up to her.
"Echo! Echo, I'm so sorry!" Kit yelled, rushing up to her. The kitten had tears in her eyes, and her voice was thick with guilt. "I didn't know they'd shoot - honest! I just wanted to protect Aburn and the elephants. I'm so sorry!"
"Hey." Echo said gently, placing a hand on her head and giving her fur a bit of a ruffle, "That's enough of that. Don't worry. This won't keep me down for long. We all make mistakes. So let's learn from this one, okay?"
She really wanted to snap at Kit. She did. She wanted to ask what the hell the kitten had been thinking, running up to guns like that. But just one look at Kit's face, and she knew she couldn't. The cub just couldn't tear her eyes away from the blood running down Echo's leg, and the hole the laser had ripped through her pants. She was haunted, and she didn't need Echo screaming at her to drive it through her head.
"Kit, go find Kat." Tygra suggested, his tone a little authoritative. It got Kit's attention, though, and she didn't need to be told twice. Guilt let her run away, and Echo knew that same guilt would be plaguing her later.
"Alright, Short Stack. Let's take a look at it."
Without waiting for her consent, Tygra used his talons to deftly slice away some of the fabric, revealing a large swatch of her thigh. Echo jumped, and when he began to probe at the wound, she batted at his hands.
"Excuse you! I do not like getting naked in public."
"We're out of the way, nobody can see. I just saved your hide! Now sit down and let me dress it."
"No!" Echo said, warding off his hands, "Cheetara can heal it-"
"No can do," Panthro rumbled, walking to stand beside Tygra, "She got a little banged up in the last explosion. Got a bit of a head wound herself."
Echo caught sight of something flashing in Tygra's eyes, something like concern and worry, but then it was gone. He reached for her thigh again, all business, but Echo guarded her wound voraciously.
"No!" She tried again, "I can do it myself."
"What in the blazes is wrong with you?" Tygra asked, getting angry, "You're terrible at field dressings and you know it!"
It was true. First aid was not Echo's strong suit, and it never would be. Her version of a bandage was to get some tape, throw whatever absorbent surface she could on the wound, plaster it all together and hope for the best.
But. . . But her thigh.
It was her skin.
She didn't want Tygra to see what was there. And he'd probably slice off her whole pant leg to get a good look at it, too. Echo breathed sharply, ignoring the hot sting of blood on her skin. Tygra growled, irritated and frustrated, and opened his mouth to unleash a tirade when Panthro placed a hand on his shoulder.
"You go get Cheetara fixed up. I got this."
He didn't need to be told twice. He glared at Echo, and then spun on his heel and strode away. The general approached Echo and she looked up at him, feeling slightly skittish and afraid.
"I t-told you I can do it." She forced the words out.
It was weird, she briefly considered, that she could face down death at the end of a barrel, but the thought of any of the Cats seeing her scars caused her to panic. Panthro, thankfully, didn't crowd her space or force her hands away. He just looked at her, thoughtful and sincere.
"We all got scars, kid. Some of ours are just a little more visible than others."
As if his words were magic, Echo blinked, and saw Panthro again. Each and every single one of his scars that she'd gotten used to - that she'd just stopped seeing. Some were big, others were deep, but they all spoke of a history of struggle and violence. As if sensing that - with just that sentence - he'd gotten through to her, he knelt down and gently moved her hands away.
"How did you. . ." Echo asked, watching as he peeled back her pant leg. There, on her skin, tons of nicks and scars and neat, little lines stared back up at her. She swallowed. Please don't ask me where those come from. . .
"You're not exactly hard to read, human." Panthro explained, working quickly and efficiently. "You cover yourself up on the outside, and from what's visible. . . well. We even have a matching pair." He tapped at his eye.
"Yeah. . . Doesn't make it any easier, though."
"Never does. You just learn to get used to who stares back at you in the mirror."
Somehow, Panthro managed to tie up the wrapping on her leg, and then stood.
"All done?" Echo asked.
She glanced down at her leg, and while her pants were ripped, they were still useable. The hole wasn't that large, but she'd just have to be careful moving around until she could get a spare pair. Panthro gestured for her to stand up, and she did, testing her weight on her leg. It held, but it throbbed under the pressure.
"Done. Try not to get into anymore scuffles tonight. . . Not an easy thing to say, given we'll probably be having a few encounters through the night."
"Great." Echo groaned. "Let's just get the stone and get out of here."
Echo and Panthro hobbled over to the Cats, whom had all gathered in the city center. Upon seeing her, Lion-O's expression lit up.
"Echo! I saw you got shot - you okay?"
She waved off his concern. "Yeah. Looks worse than it is, promise. Who got the tank?"
"Tygra." Lion-O supplied. "Don't know how he managed it. . . He'll never let me live this down."
Echo shot him a tired smile. "Does he ever let you live anything down?"
Lion-O snickered. "Good point."
Kat chose that moment to walk up to her and hand her her empty sheathes. Echo accepted the harness again, thanking the kitten, and in a short minute, had everything strapped up. With their weight on her back, she was able to ease some of her anxiety.
"Come, ThunderCats," Annet said, voice echoing in the quiet village, "I will show you to the hut."
Echo fell in line, limping, and ignored the whisper on Kat's part on how they already knew where the hut was, but they all followed behind the elephant anyway. Everybody in their party looked fairly alright, save for her and Cheetara. The cleric was sporting a good three bandages, telltale signs of shrapnel she hadn't been able to dodge.
As they entered the hut, Echo stared at the open portal leading to the Astral Plain. It glowed, ethereal and beautiful, and already, Echo could hear murmurs of something. . . Memories, maybe, just waiting for her to discover them. It was calling to her, begging her to enter it.
The glitchy shadow appeared, as if summoned, and slid behind the portal, gesturing for her to follow.
"Finding the stone will not be easy." Annet warned them. "The Astral Plain is unlike anything you've ever encountered. There, thought itself is formed into reality."
Lion-O took a deep, steadying breath. "Okay. I can do this."
Cheetara, as if sensing he needed more reassurance, walked up to him and kissed him on the cheek. Echo stared at the blatant display, surprised. Lion-O jumped, startled, and out of the corner of her eye, Echo could even see Tygra looking wounded, but it quickly transformed to anger.
"I'm going with you. This mission's too important for you to handle alone." Tygra declared, coming to stand beside his brother.
"Thanks." Lion-O replied curtly, "But I don't need your help."
"Funny." Tygra retorted, "Because I already saved your tail once today."
Nobody commented on the nearly palpable tension in the crowded hut. Everyone knew well enough that Lion-O and Tygra didn't get along well, and there wasn't much need to point it out.
"I sense a negative energy between you two." Annet commented, tiny eyes flickering between the pair.
Thank you, Captain Obvious, Echo thought, rolling her eyes. No duh.
"Yeah," Tygra affirmed, "Ever since we were cubs."
"Fine." Lion-O bit out. "After you, Prince Tygra."
Tygra ignored the parting shot, and Lion-O's grandeur bow as he walked by him. Echo shook her head, just barely managing to suppress a sigh. All of this because of Cheetara. Her eyes flicked over to the semi-injured cleric. I wonder if she even knows what she's done.
The tiger stepped up to the portal, and he just. . . disappeared. One second he was there, and then he wasn't. There was no bright flash of light or loud crackles of energy. It was just silent. Lion-O moved to follow his brother, but Annet laid a heavy hand on his shoulder, stilling him.
"There is one thing I must tell you," The elephant spoke sagely, "I see something. A vision. By evening bell tomorrow, you will know a betrayal from your brother like you have never known."
Elephants can have visions too. Who knew.
Call her a little bitter, but she just couldn't shake the last conversation she'd had with Annet.
"We don't always get along," Lion-O said, "But Tygra wouldn't betray me."
"My visions are never wrong." Annet replied, dropping his hand off the lion's shoulder.
"Never?" The lion repeated.
For once, Annet was silent. Taking that as the end of his conversation, he started forward again, and Echo caught her friend's arm.
"Lion-O." She said, stopping him.
She quieted as the phantom on the other side of the portal prowled, yelling and almost screaming at her to hurry up!
"What? If you're afraid, it's okay. Tygra and I-"
"No. . . I want to come with you." She said softly, her voice somehow horrendously loud in the tiny hut.
"Kid," Panthro interjected, "We need as many fighters as we can have out here. Besides, you're injured. You won't be much good at runnin' for a day or two."
"And I'm out of magic to heal." Cheetara added begrudgingly.
"Something's there for me, Lion-O," Echo pressed on, making her case, "Something important. I wouldn't be asking unless I knew it for sure. I have to go in there."
A lot of thoughts flickered behind those blue eyes. He looked as though he were waging war with himself, weighing all of his options. Eventually, he looked at her.
"You can. I promise. Just not now. Panthro's right. Once I have the Spirit Stone, you'll be able to visit the Astral Plain."
Echo was lying if she said she didn't feel a little stung.
But he and Panthro were right, and she knew it.
It was one of the hardest things Echo had ever had to do, but she released him, and watched him walk to the portal. On the other side, the shadow screamed at her, angry that she was letting her only chance slip through her fingers. As Lion-O disappeared, the portal remained open, much to everyone's surprise.
"Alright. Let's go, set up a defense." Panthro announced, taking control of the situation.
One by one, each of the occupants began to file out. Echo remained where she was, staring at the glowing portal. Her glitchy phantom had taken to reaching out the doorway, beckoning her, enticing her to step in.
Lion-O wouldn't lie to me.
I'll have another chance. Just not today. I'm trusting them this time around, since I can't trust myself.
Turning, Echo began to walk out of the hut, ignoring the frustrated cries of the shadow behind her.
She made it to the doorway when something big and black filled her vision.
Energy washed over her skin, and Echo gasped, realizing she was staring down something evil, something bad. Her instincts prickled, telling her to pick up her swords.
As she shot up to grab her hilts, she heard. . .
It was something dark and sinewy, but she didn't have any time to analyze it further.
The black thing plowed into her with more strength than she thought possible, sending both of them crashing into the portal.
Echo didn't have time to process anything after that.
The world exploded into a bright kaleidoscopic mass of swirling golden lights, and in seconds, she was gone.
Her body evaporated, becoming a misty wisp of thought.
Becoming part of the Astral Plain.