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.
1.) Still finals, lol. As of right now, I've got 8 pages out of 10 done for one of my papers, and I haven't started the other ones yet. Just thought you guys would like to be updated on that little tidbit. Then I'll be all done, and hopefully, I'll be able to land a fulltime job for the summer, and make some bank before I do another program. You guys have no idea how happy I will be to finally be out of school for more than a few weeks at a time. I've been in for almost 8 years at this point. ;-;
2.) Holy jumping fish barnacles! I've exceeded 10,000 views for this story! I meant to mention it last chapter, but I forgot. I tend to do that a lot. That's pretty crazy! But, granted, it's been over a year since this bad boy was published, but still - 10 k is a lot! Thanks for all the view, reviews, and hits!
3.) I also meant to mention this a bajillion chapters ago, but since the creators released details about what the second season would be, I laughed. Primarily because there's a lot of things that mesh up with what I created vs. what they created. Some things I was way off the mark with, but there were about two or three aspects I was almost hitting a bullseye for. You'll see some of it in Season 2 of this story, and others won't be. But it'll be entertaining all the same!
Anyway, as promised, Trials of Lion-O, compressed into one chapter!
The plot thickens, and we drew ever-nearer to the end.
Tell me what you think will happen!
Spoiler alert: I like red herrings. And part of the Sue Project is approaching cliches and using them, but it's all about the reasons, guys. I promise. Season 2 is going to explain a lot.
Warnings: Nothing, except for stylistic things FF loves to om nom. Mild cursing.
"Well," Echo said, panting lightly and cutting Tygra with an irritated stare, "What else can we do? Go the opposite way?"
Next to her, the tiger shrugged nonchalantly. "Worth a shot."
Echo rolled her eyes and angled herself away from him.
For all of its minor irritations, it was a gorgeous day out, and she glanced at the sky, loving the endless blue. Quite serenely, fluffy white clouds interrupted the horizon, and below it, a land of forest and rivers and canyon all intersected, painting a unique picture. She would have loved to just relax and take in the scenery, but they were climbing a mountain, and the burning in her legs hardly let her forget that. They'd been hiking up the mountain for a good hour, and while they'd made good headway, her poor legs were not used to steep hills. Echo was glad for a gust of wind that whistled through the tunnel cut into the rock. It was warm, but the wind cooled her off, making it perfect weather for a hike.
Her leg stung a little, but she kept climbing, ignoring it. Whatever the shadow had done before Astral Plains had worked perfectly. There was hardly more than a bruise there, instead of the deep, nasty bullet wound it had been. It was a mystery Echo had pondered for a few minutes, but ultimately decided not to consider it for too long. She was done with the shadow, and most certainly finished with what had happened in the Astral Plains. No reason to dwell on it.
Besides, it was too beautiful a day to get depressed.
It had started early, Lion-O gathering them all onto the bridge to consult the Book as to the next stone's whereabouts. Unfortunately, the hologram it had projected into the air (a new feature it had gained, apparently) pointed directly up. And that meant up up, like, scaling a mountain up.
As if reading her mind, Tygra sighed noisily. "Why does up always have to be so high?" He grouched, frowning. "If he looked, there might have been a staircase or something, an easier way. . ."
Echo made a sound of exasperation. "You saw the picture. It was a mountain, and it pointed up. Might as well follow what the Book is telling us to do."
"Following anything blindly only invites disaster." Cheetara piped up, walking ahead of them. Her words were loud enough for Lion-O (who was leading the pack) to hear, but he made no effort to reply.
"It feels like another wild goose chase." Tygra griped, his words echoing as well.
Lion-O tensed,t he lines of his back going rigid.
"Oh, stop it." Echo snipped, "It's not like you have any better ideas. Tell me, what did the Book mean when it pointed up?"
"Up. But it might not have meant here." Tygra replied, idly gesturing to the mountain, "It could have meant. . .the sky."
At that point, Echo had thoroughly had it with Tygra. Sure, he and Lion-O were still on. . . somewhat sensitive terms, but this was just getting ridiculous. She'd had two days of peace, and now that two days were up, Tygra was back to his critical, criticizing self - but it had returned twofold. It was like he knew he'd been neglecting his duty as "royal pain in the ass" and had decided to critique every breath Lion-O took.
"And how do you propose to touch the sky?" Echo said, her voice carrying a hard edge, "Cutting down trees and getting on stilts?"
Before Tygra could reply, Panthro cut over her with a growl.
"I can always throw the both of you up there. Pipe down and keep climbing."
A brief moment of silence passed, and both Tygra and Echo heeded the general's advice. A few minutes later, however, and Tygra, bored with the sounds of their breathing, stared at his brother's back.
"Do you even know where you're leading us, Lion-O?" He asked.
Thankfully, Lion-O didn't honor that with a response, either. Echo shot Tygra a halfhearted glare. It was hard to muster a proper one when she was getting a heavy dose of cardio, trekking upt he mountainside.
"Up." She responded, mimicking Tygra's trademark snarky tone.
Tygra glared at her, a small growl leaving him. "I've had it up to here with you, Short Stack."
"About how up have you had it? 'Bout this high?" She asked, cheekily gesturing over her head.
Tygra's growl increased, and his glare sharpened. "You are the most irritating human to ever walk Third Earth."
"Enough." Cheetara snipped, pinning them both with a reprimanding stare. "Be quiet and walk."
Echo, to save her sanity (and to stop herself from ragging on Tygra, who was ragging on Lion-O - so it all seemed justified, really), dropped to the rear of the group, walking just ahead of Panthro, who brought up the rear of their train. Kit and Kat were just a few feet ahead of her, eagerly bouncing around with barely-suppressed energy, and Echo nearly warned them to stay away from the ledge when the twins jumped a little too close to it for her liking.
"We're walking right into Mumm-Ra's hands if you ask me," Panthro spoke, casting a wary eye to their landscape, "We're totally exposed to attack on this route."
"We're not gonna be attacked!" Kat said, craning his neck back to look up at the general.
"Yeah! We can fight 'em off if there is one, anyway!" Kit chirped.
In their excitement, Kat staggered, and Echo nearly snagged at his shirt as he teetered close to the ledge. The kitten pulled himself back, and as calmly as Echo could, she said, "Kit, Kat. Get away from the ledge. . . please." Her tone, slightly strained, did make the kittens retreat to the other side of the tunnel, where they cast a wary eye to the edge. Her voice must have caught Cheetara's attention, because the cleric turned around, looked at the, and then to Lion-O.
"Maybe we should consider turning around. What do you think?"
Inwardly, Echo was slightly relieved. Cheetara didn't sound timid or cowardly. She almost seemed to be back to her normal self again. It kind of felt like she was easing back into her position as cleric, and not as just Tygra's girlfriend.
The cleric stopped, and then Tygra stopped - and Echo halted as well. Lion-O paused, glowering at them all, and Echo groaned. She really didn't want a fight today. It was too pretty for a fight today. However, to her surprise, Lion-O's anger dissipated, and he sighed, as though he were about to give in. He looked at the trail ahead of them, and Echo followed his gaze. Candyfruit trees laid just a few feet ahead.
"I think," He started, keeping his tone even, "We should stop here for a quick rest."
The cats strode by him, and Echo did too, patting his shoulder pauldron. Slowly, he was maturing. The old Lion-O would have charged on ahead without a second thought. After their rest, it was probably likely the king would let them all wander back down the mountainside. But that posed a new puzzle: what the hell were they going to do when they got off the mountain?
The kittens, oblivious and bored with the power struggles, rushed ahead, squealing in excitement as they caught sight of the candyfruit trees.
"First good head you've had all day." Tygra bit out, brusquely brushing past his brother.
They all dispersed, seeking resting spots and fruit to munch on. Out of habit, Echo reminded the kittens not to indulge too much, but they were already in overdrive, chattering like happy birds. Shirking her backpack, Echo sat down and gladly fished a water bottle out from her pack. She wasn't particularly hungry, but she was glad to sit down. And, knowing it was necessary, she resigned herself to eat some candyfruit. Picking up a fallen fruit from the ground, she nibbled on it, grimacing at the flavor. It was far too sweet for her taste - go figure, she didn't like sweet things - but she continued to munch on it anyway.
Above her, she heard a small gasp of surprise. Craning her neck back, she peered up to see WilyKit bouncing a fruit in her hands, chesire grin firmly in place.
"Too slow, your highness!" She said, and scampered away. While Lion-O was distracted, Kat reached down and stole the fruit Lion-O had in his other hand.
"You really need to keep your eyes open!" Kat snickered.
"Thanks." Lion-O said sourly, moving away from the kittens, "I'll try to remember that."
Echo shook her head, and shot a warning stare up at the kittens, who merely glanced down at her and offered innocent smiles.
"You always do things the hard way, Lion-O." Cheetara said, selecting a piece of fruit off the ground.
Echo looked at her friend and sighed. Lion-O was holding on a branch of a tree, and was reaching for a piece of fruit just out of arm's length.
Poor Lion-O. Is it rag-on-Lion-O day?
As the human watched, Lion-O just managed to wrap his hand on the fruit when a whip cracked, expertly coiled around it, and snatched it away from him. Tygra sat on the branch above Lion-O, smirking as he wound his whip up and began eating his candyfruit.
"A king should never eat before his people." The tiger said smugly, and tucked in.
He wasn't expecting retaliation. Echo grinned as Lion-O shook the branch Tygra was sitting on, and the tactician went plummeting into the dirt. Echo snickered, and took another small bite of her own fruit, shuddering at the sugary-sweetness on her tongue.
"Or lose his temper." Tygra reprimanded, picking himself off the ground. As he collected himself, Lion-O hopped down.
"Oh, is that it? You're all against me?" He demanded, irritated and frustrated.
Tygra glared at him, and Echo picked idly at her candyfruit. The tension between the two was still as strong as ever, practically dripping in the air between them. Panthro, sensing the impending fight, hopped down from his tree and stood beside the brothers.
"It's not us, kid. You're your own worst enemy."
Truer words were never spoken. . .
Above her, Echo could hear two distinctly kitten-sized cats whispering about their lack of a sugar rush, and how they'd decimated their poor tree. Wordlessly, Echo held her own piece over her head, barely eaten, and immediately, Kat snatched it up like a ravenous dog. The kittens, not caring that Echo had nibbled on it, tucked in eagerly.
"He's right, Lion-O," Tygra agreed, "You may be king, but that doesn't mean you can't learn something from us."
Like whistling. I didn't know somebody taught the kittens to whistle. . .
The sound finally registered, and Echo snapped her head up just in time to see a missile hit the cliffside. An explosion sounded above them, and bits and pieces of rock rained down on the group. Echo curled in on herself, protecting her head from the worst of the tiny rock projectiles, and then bounced up to her feet.
"AMBUSH!" Lion-O yelled over the din.
More explosions rocked the mountainside, and through the shockwaves and blasts of heat, Echo grabbed Kit and Kat, dragging them away from the edge as they almost toppled over. Ensuring the kittens were safely away from the ledge, the human jerked to attention as Tygra went sailing past her, flopping like a rag doll as he landed.
Her heart constricted as she spotted Addicus grinning at his handiwork.
"Tygra!" Cheetara cried, rushing after him, but Kaynar dropped from thin air, circling the cleric in a headlock.
"You run like a girl." Kaynar said, his insult dissolving into uncontrollable giggles.
This isn't good. A hand grabbed at her waist, and Kit pressed herself against Echo's side, eyes wide with fear. But I have to get the kittens out of here, first.
Honestly, it was sheer luck that she was just ahead of Tygra and Cheetara, placing her the farthest away from Kaynar and Addicus. But it allowed a clear path for the kittens to flee. Roughly grabbing Kit and Kat, Echo shoved them up the trail, and drew a sword.
"Go!" She barked, "Run!" The kittens, shocked into action, started scampering up the trail, but skidded to a halt. Echo's blood ran cold as she heard guns powering up, and Snarf yelping in fear. There were lizards, behind her, pinning the kittens down.
A gunshot sounded in front of her, and she caught sight of Slithe shooting Omens out of Lion-O's hands. Kaynar and Addicus descended on him, holding him prone. A gun whined behind her, and Echo stiffened, practically feeling a lizard breathing down her neck.
"Don't move, or the kittens die!" He hissed.
Obediently, Echo remained frozen, sword still in hand, her eyes flicking back and forth.
"We have the sword and the gauntlet," Slithe said, voice eerily loud in the quiet that had fallen, "Now give us the Book!"
"I'd rather die." Lion-O spat, eyes narrowing.
With a speed Echo hardly thought possible, Slithe smacked Lion-O with his tail, and her friend fell to the ground. Muted anger washed through Echo, but she tamped it down. Now was not the time to lose her cool.
"You're willing to risk your life for it. . . but what about hers?"
He looked at Kit, his mouth broadening into a sickening smile. Kit gasped, golden eyes growing wide. You won't lay a hand on my kittens. Echo dashed forward, hands wrapping around her sword hilt. Even if she got hurt, she was going to kill Slithe for making such a threat-
A heavy body slammed into her, wrenched her sword from her hand, and pinned her against the canyon wall. She coughed, struggling to breathe as the weight settled over her, and a muscled forearm pressed against her throat.
"Don't move, no-fur!" Kaynar giggled, "Wouldn't wanna hurt your delicate pink skin!" He laughed, as if he'd cracked some kind of joke only he could understand.
"Leave the kittens out of this, Slithe!" Lion-O jumped up.
Echo wriggled, gaining a better vantage point to see.
"Oh, I would never hurt such an innocent creature," Slithe drawled, "Addicus, on the other hand. . ."
The ape approached Kit, who trembled, hands clasped to her chest. Kat stood a few feet away from her, too scared to move, too surrounded by lizards to do anything. Echo wriggled again, trying to free herself, but Kaynar pressed his arm into her throat again, cutting off her air supply. She choked, fingers clawing ineffectively at him, attempting to pry him off.
But then, quite suddenly, the arm disappeared, and Echo fell to her knees, gasping and wheeezing.
"Grab him!" Slithe barked.
Kaynar stood in front of her, watching the scene unfold, unsure if he should jump in or not. It gave Echo enough time to suck in a deep breath of air, rise to her feet, and deck him across his muzzle. Sheer maternal instinct gave her enough strength to actually make the jackalman stagger, and, taking advantage of the disorientation, Echo tried to push her offensive, to get the drop on Addicus, but Kaynar recovered much more quickly than she could have, and wiped at her, his spear snapping to attention in his hands.
"No-fur's got bite! I love it when they bite back!"
Kaynar remained where he was, as if knowing that they'd already won, that there was nothing she could do. Behind him, Echo spotted Lion-O, pinwheeling his arms for balance as he tottered on the edge of the cliff. She had to get there.
Addicus approached him. She had to do something.
She feinted to the left, but so did Kaynar, and when she feinted again, Kaynar giggled.
And then Addicus calmly reached out and pushed Lion-O, sending him flying into the open air.
"Lion-O!" Somebody yelled. Maybe it was a scream, maybe it was a cry. Echo didn't know. Lion-O screamed as he fell, but within seconds, it got quiet. So, so quiet. Then she couldn't even hear the echoes of his scream anymore.
"Do you think it's true what they say?" Addicus asked, looking Slithe, "That cats land on their feet? I'd imagine this would break his legs. . . and all the est of them."
Angrily, Slithe elbowed him out of the way, damn near spitting fire. "Fool! He had the gauntlet!"
Then it lapsed into quiet again, and the silence nestled in next to Echo, freezing her in a moment of time.
"You. . . You killed him." Tygra said, his eyes wide, his voice disbelieving.
She could hear sorrow in his voice.
Echo saw things move, heard people talk, but it felt. . . distant. Like she wasn't even there. She just stared, looking at the spot where her friend had fallen. It wasn't true. It just couldn't be true. Lion-O suffered through so much, for so long. . . only to get pushed off of a cliff? That was the end to his story? Voices babbled, but she tuned them out, listening for just one.
Omens. Omens would know the truth. It wouldn't lie to her.
Eventually, she latched onto it, and relief poured through her, almost making her shake. Lion-O wasn't dead. If Omens was still beating, then. . .
But. . . why was it growing weaker? Panic flashed through Echo, as, like a heart monitor, Omen's pulses grew fainter and fainter. . . until. . . Nothing.
Omens completely disappeared. Absolutely nothing sounded. Not a whisper of noise, not a breath of power.
It's last message, it's last notion. . . It's true, Omens said with its silence, he's dead. the king is dead.
Dead dead dead dead dead dead.
Echo screamed, feeling like the world was consuming her all over again, dragging her down and kicking her while she was low, ripping her heart out and smashing it to pieces.
"Echo!" Somebody called.
She didn't care. It hurt. Her heart hurt, her head hurt, her soul was aching. Her best friend. The one she stood by, the one that stood by her. The one that she might have loved, the one she fought and bled for, the one that had believed in her - long nights, lost days. . . and now he was gone.
"Get that thing quiet!" Slithe ordered.
I'm still screaming. She could hardly feel her throat, couldn't hear the sound.
A hand seized her, and something hit her, right in the temple. Echo's body jerked, but the pain didn't register. It hit her. Again. Again. Through those hits, a strange kind of clarity fell on her. Hadn't she faced this scene before? So, so many times before. Each one bloodier than the last, each second of the war leaving her to carve another line on her body. . .
She stopped screaming. Screaming wasn't going to help her now.
She felt the fist coming at her again, and she hardly felt her mind flex as it stopped the lizard, locking him in place. She stood, almost completely calm, and drew her combat knife from its hidden sheath on her right shin guard. The lizard jerked, as if trying to free himself, hissing in confusion.
She hardly blinked an eye before Echo tucked the tip of the knife against his throat and plunged it, blood pulsing over her hands.
She almost sighed from the bliss of it.
It was good to be killing animals again. It felt right.
She saw a flash next to her, but her mind stopped it, too. Barely conscious of her own actions, Echo trapped him, locking him in ice - but he broke free. Echo felt the side of a spear cut into her stomach, and she glanced down, watching as the blue of her tunic was quickly dyed red. It was a deep gash, but hardly fatal, and she'd recover from it soon enough.
She looked up again and Kaynar's face twisted from amusement to confusion as she laughed.
The pain gave her something to focus on. It gave her power. Her mind stretched again, more powerful and stronger than before, and blew him backward.
"I can't move!" He cried, laying on the ground, "I'm stuck! Nobody told me the no-fur knew magic!" He struggled against her grip, but she held fast.
Lasers shot at her, but she deflected them. Blood dripped down her stomach, and down her hands, but she walked calmly, measuring one footstep in front of the other. Reality flickered around her.
Yes. She'd been in this scene of death before. Walker had been one hell of a friend, and an even better soldier. Her one and only human friend. And the beasts had killed him. . . She hadn't gotten to exact her revenge then, but now. . . Walker would be proud.
The mountainside kept trying to change into a rocky, flat landscape. But Kaynar remained the same. It would do to have the animal that had escaped. But Kaynar would fit nicely. As she walked, Echo felt her spine tingle, and she could practically feel a vibration thrumming through it. Something long forgotten, just begging to be woken up again, to help her, wanting to stir to life. . . It was too much, and Echo knew it. In her chest, her heart stuttered, wanting to quit.
Voices called to her, pleading with her to come back, but she had her knife, and her hands were stained in blood already.
It doesn't make a difference. I'm so drenched in sin, there's no redemption for what I've done.
Kaynar struggled, glaring, giggling, and laughing at her, like he was loving every second before his painful death.
Addicus roared behind her, charging, but with another flex, he crashed into the side of the mountain so hard that the rocks splintered. There would be time to deal with him later. She'd have to be artistic about his death, she decided. In the meantime, Kaynar was her biggest concern.
She lifted the knife - and a tiny pair of arms wrapped around her waist.
Unafraid of her, but fearful of what she was doing.
"Please stop," The small voice said, sobbing, "No more. Please, no more."
Her entreaty was enough to make Echo glance down and look at those little golden eyes, bright and filled with fear. Her tears made them sparkle in the sunlight, she mused. For some reason, Echo wanted to smile, pat her on the head, and reassure her that this was war. One person hurting another and more retaliating. It was an ugly, terrible thing, and humans like her kept the cycle going. She wanted to tell Kit that it was okay, that she was a practiced killer, and Kaynar would just be one of the many whose blood stained her hands.
But she didn't. She couldn't.
Something hard struck her head, and Echo dropped like a rock, blackness overcoming her. Time passed in the void, and semi-conscious, Echo was aware of herself being trussed up and manhandled, before being deposited on something hard. She wasn't sure how much time passed, but a wind brushed over her, feathering past her skin.
She groggily came to, and Kaynar was the first thing she saw, snickering down at her, as if he'd been eagerly waiting for this moment. He didn't say anything - how strange, for the jackalman - but he wrapped his hands in her hair, lifted up her head, and bashed it against a hard metal surface. She felt the pain for the first few hits, but then she didn't. Blood stung her skin as it crawled down her face, but Echo sat there complacently as Kaynar toyed with her.
It didn't bother her, because she felt numb and hollow. Lion-O was dead. The king was dead. Her best friend, the only person who really cared about her. . . gone.
Each thought was punctuated by a blow. But it, too, eventually stopped.
"No trace, General Slithe!" A lizard called out, "He probably washed out to the great sea!"
"Mumm-Ra will not be pleased." Slithe hissed.
Grief. Mourning. The dead nothingness of Omens. These things were familiar to her.
And so was war. So was. . . so was Mumm-Ra.
Before she could move, a memory seized her.
. . . do this. I can't go. I'm scared. Walker. . . Walker's dead. Right there. I can see him. If I reach out, I can touch him. His blood is all over my hands, the gun's slippery - what am I going to do?
Her thoughts raced through her mind as she quivered, shaking in fear like a child. She stared down at her trembling hands, at the gun she held there, and remembered all of the men who had looked on her in pity. She remembered one of them, a strong, tall man who had gathered a reputation for being one of the best warriors they had to offer.
He hadn't looked on her with sympathy or kindness. He'd merely regarded her as though she'd been incompetent.
"Stow it, soldier. All that grief, all that anger, all that rage. Lock it up and erase it, bit by bit. And then. . . you fight. If you can't handle that, then turn the gun on yourself. Humankind has no use for worthless things."
A thing, he'd called her. A worthless thing.
Gunfire drew closer, but oddly enough, a strange calm descended on her. Her hands stopped shaking, and she grabbed the gun more solidly. She'd never be normal, not ever again, but she'd rather be something worthwhile than something worthless.
She wasn't going to be written off as a piece of trash.
The tears stopped.
. . . Echo breathed in slowly.
How could she have forgotten something so, so important? She'd thrown a temper-tantrum to end all temper-tantrums. So what if Lion-O was dead? He was just one of the many she'd lost. Markata had told her that, all those years ago, but she hadn't really listened. But now, it was more important than ever. She was a soldier first, a human second.
And soldiers didn't break down. They fought.
Echo closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, visualizing every bit of her grief. She could hear the Captain telling her to stow it, to erase it, grab her gun, and keep going. And it worked. She locked up all of that volatile anger and sorrow inside of a box, and she wasn't the telekinetic-human-on-a-rampage. She was Echo again.
"Surely, these cute kittens will cheer up our saddened Lord." Kaynar commented, voice dark.
Echo opened her eyes, watching as the three generals surrounded the Cats.
Tygra caught her eye, and she stared back. He was planning something.
"If I leave anything of them!" Addicus declared, bouncing on his feet.
"I can assure you, Addicus," Slithe said, advancing forward with his gun, "There won't be. And yours," He said, gesturing to Tygra with his gun, "Will be the shortest reign of any cat king!"
Tygra glared at him, and muttered something. Slithe bristled.
"What's that, cat?" He barked.
"I said," Tygra shouted over the wind, "I'd rather die a king than live forever as a mindless lackey!"
Slithe hit him.
Echo saw the opportunity. Their backs were turned to her. The world lurched as her body revolted, but she stood. Her head throbbed, and she saw double. But she forced herself to press on, to take baby steps forward. Tygra kept them distracted.
"Well, you got one thing for ya. You hit harder than the monkey."
Through her brain ached, she snapped through her restraints. It took an eternity to take a step. Another. Her heart pounded - she would be noticed. There was no way she couldn't be. Addicus leaned in to Tygra, enraged.
"You wanna see how hard I hit?" He snarled.
He picked up Tygra, throwing him overboard, and jumped after him. The transport glided to a stop, and Kaynar leaped over the side, giggling madly. "I wanna play too! Don't have all the fun!"
Now or never. Echo rushed forward, staggering, but threw herself up against Slithe, knocking him down. That damndable tail of his whipped out at her, smacking her in the head, and he pressed the blade of his gun against her throat. Echo's hand groped the air, searching through the blurry masses for Panthro.
She formed a fist and heard a snap.
Panthro was free.
Without waiting, one of the general's fists came flying into Slithe's face, knocking him down. He leaped over the side of the ship, joining the scuffle on the ground. Kit and Kat shed their locks, and helped free Cheetara of hers, and then rushed over to her side. Kit reached for her hands.
"D-Don't," Echo blubbered, her lips swollen, "I've got-"
Kit grabbed her bloody hands, forcing Echo onto her feet.
"It's okay!" Kit said.
"We'll help get you down!" Kat continued.
Somehow, the kittens managed to keep her standing, and Kat shoved her in the back, pushing her off the side of the ship. Kit and Echo landed in a messy pile, and the human laid there, breathing raspy and choppy. Distantly, she could hear a fight, and she struggled to get up before Kit laid a hand on her arm.
"Stay there, Echo. We'll protect you."
Kat's flank glittered in the light as he drew it. She laid there, looking up at the kitten.
"You're not. . . afraid? After. . . After. . ."
"No," The kitten answered immediately. "I'm not."
"You'd never hurt us. We know that. So you just relax. It'll be okay."
"It's not okay," Echo slurred, her tongue swollen, "Lion-O's dead."
"He's not." Kit asserted, "He's not dead. Shouldn't you know that more than anyone?"
Echo stared at her in shock. Kit didn't believe Lion-O was dead? The conviction in her voice was hard to brush aside. Echo didn't have time to ask her more about it, as the sounds of battle faded away, and Cheetara appeared, helping Echo sit up. With a few short words, the cleric channeled healing energy into her, and in a few seconds, Echo felt somewhat back to normal. She had no open wounds, and all of her swelling disappeared.
"Thanks." She murmured.
Cheetara placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing. "It's okay. Don't worry about what happened. In all honesty, I wanted to, too."
There was a tinge of relief in the cleric's voice, as though she were glad that Echo had been the one to snap, and not her. Either way, the human didn't see any disgust or disappointment in the cleric's eyes, and that was a welcome sight. Hell, when Panthro glanced her way, she didn't see any negative emotions there, either. Just an expression seeming to say, yeah, I've been down that road before .
Tygra was the next one to approach her, and he crouched in front of her, taking a knee. He pinned her with a harsh, critical stare.
"Can I count on you?"
Echo looked at him, momentarily confused. But then she glanced down at the drying blood on her hands, on her tunic, and she understood where he was coming from.
"I'm solid." She said, meeting his eyes again. "It won't happen again."
"And how do I know it won't?"
At that, Echo pinned Tygra with a dark stare of her own. If only he knew the things she'd been through.
"Because I've been fighting wars for longer than you, Tygra. I forgot how to be a soldier. It won't happen again. Now. Let's go get Omens back. You'll need it."
He looked remotely shocked, but then he nodded. He stood, and offered her a hand, which she took. Echo breathed in deeply, resolving her will. It felt familiar - like she was made of steel and titanium, and not flesh and blood. She'd been fighting in a war since the day she was born. She lived it. She ate it. She breathed it. War was in her blood. War was who she was.
And damn her the day she forgot it.
Settling into a steady jog beside Panthro, she relaxed as much as she could, forcibly dispelling any pain in her heart. There would be time to grieve over Lion-O. Later.
Echo shifted, seeking to relieve some of the aches in her body. Yeah, Cheetara had healed her up, but it never quite took the pain away. She had just finished eating some of her migraine-relieving leaves, the minty/citrusy flavor washing off the coppery taste on her tongue. Finding a comfortable position beside the kittens, Echo settled back down again.
Lizard battalions guarded the outside perimeter, constantly scanning for threats. Overhead, thunder rumbled, as if threatening away potential intruders. Purple lightning arced to the sand, promising death to anyone stupid enough to approach.
I guess we're stupid enough, she used.
As she stared, voice stirred in the back of her mind, but she forced them to be quiet. It wasn't like before - not like the last time she'd been present. She was a hell of a lot stronger now. The voices quieted, becoming the faintest, barest murmur in the back of her mind.
"I nearly died in that pit," Panthro said next to her quietly, "Thanks to Grune. And you want my help getting in? Getting out was hard enough."
Down the line, Tygra let out a thoughtful hum and pressed a scope to his eye. In the hours since Lion-O's death, Tygra had slipped into the role as King of the ThunderCats easily. . . but he wasn't power-hungry. He was calm, Echo had noticed, and most of all, he was efficient. He was strong where every one of Lion-O's volatile emotions had been weak. He made a good leader, but Echo hesitated in calling him king. Not yet.
Maybe the next day, when the mission was over, when she had time to consult her grief and tamp it down permanently. Then. . . she'd be ready to call him king.
"I don't like it either, General," Tygra whispered, "But we have to get the Sword of Omens back."
Panthro sighed, and assessed the perimeter below them. After a moment of silence, he spoke again. "There's an air shaft on the north side. Dangerous, but it's your call. . . my king."
As if the word startled him, Tygra jerked his head to Panthro, eyes slightly wide. He swallowed, but then nodded. "We need to take out the guards."
Nodding in response, Panthro heaved himself up to his feet, and silent as the wind, sprinted down the dune. Echo watched him, and lost sight as he melted in the shadows the sand created, the general somehow finding cover where there was none.
"You okay?" Cheetara asked, voice somehow piercing the violent tempest of sound above them. Out of the corner of her eye, Echo glanced at the pair.
Tygra stared at the Black Pyramid, looking pained. "I always told him that I should be king. . . I never wanted it like this."
Echo and Tygra locked eyes, his expression reading guilt and anguish. It also looked as though he expected for Echo to fight back, to rally against him and snarl that there was only one true king, and that king was dead.
Instead, she offered, "You were made for it, Tygra."
The tacitian jumped, shocked. His eyes widened. "What?"
"It's true," Echo continued, ensuring all of her gear was properly fastened to her body, "You were made to be king. Lion-O was my friend, but you are too. We might butt heads, but. . . I'll follow you. If that's what you want."
Tygra stared at her in shock, and Echo pinned him with an intense stare of her own, willing him to understand that she was telling the truth. He was utterly speechless, eyes wide, mouth slightly open. Echo was slightly surprised herself, because a day ago, she never would have thought that those words would have left her mouth.
Cheetara reached out and grabbed his hand, squeezing it. "The only thing we can do now is finish what he started." She murmured.
And then she jumped up, and raced down the slopes after Panthro. Tygra still laid there, giving his head a shake, as though that would get rid of the shock he was feeling.
"Alright," He breathed, mostly to himself, "Alright. We'll do this. Together." With that, he looked at Echo.
She smiled at him, a tiny, honest-to-god smile, and then turned to the twins. "Stay close. Keep your eyes on my boots."
With that, they got up, and were moving. Kit and Kat whispered behind her, Kit insisting on Lion-O being very much alive, but Echo ignored her. She didn't have time to help Kit get over her little fantasy. Besides, she couldn't hear Omens anymore. . . and that was proof enough. Echo led the twins over to the side of the pyramid, a hole in the defense already created, courtesy of Panthro and Cheetara.
Pressing the kittens against the side of the structure, she watched, one hand wrapped around the hilt of one of her swords, waiting. Tygra cracked his whip, yanking two lizards off their feet, and as he knocked them out, Cheetara rushed in, incapacitating the reinforcements. Panthro came around a sand dune, two unconscious lizards over his shoulders, and chucking them onto a pile of reptiles, he walked up to the pyramid.
Echo watched as he laid his hand flush against the Black Pyramid, and magically, lines of it came to life, bathing them all in a bloody red glow. Panels slid back, admitting them entrance. Flicking her eyes to the pulsing red lines, Echo noticed that the rock, pulsing in strange, foreign lines, was unnervingly like the stone she had seen in the Astral Plain.
Gesturing Kit and Kat to follow, Echo ducked inside, shaking her revelation off. She'd think about it later. Much later. When she was alone, and she had time to think. As she headed inside, she swore she would feel. . . afraid. After all, the last time she'd been here, she witnessed the rebirth of Mumm-Ra.
But no. There was no miasma, no shadows, no insanity.
Just her, and a mission.
The Cats ran inside, and Echo shook some stray dirt off of herself, glancing around. They had two options: left or right. And she had no idea where Mumm-Ra would be, or Omens, for that matter.
"So far, so good." Panthro said, voice echoing strangely in the hallways.
"Our plan may just work after-"
At that moment, red lights began to flash, and a loud klaxon made Echo wince. A flash of nervousness wove through her, but she tamped it down and bit the inside of her cheek. She could hear the din of lizards running towards them - too many to fight. Not without alerting Mumm-Ra. . . if he didn't know already.
Beside her, Tygra tensed, and glared.
". . . whiskers!" He hissed.
The only other option was to run back to the hallway and press themselves against it for cover. Echo looked down at Kit and Kat, and felt a pang of pride upon noticing that the pair didn't look terrified. No, they looked serious and confident.
"Now what, king?" Cheetara asked hurriedly, peeking around the corner.
Echo's hands itched, begging her to take her swords up. The odds were against her, but didn't she always like it that way? It proved she was a soldier, a warrior of the most elite class - a sharp pain pounded behind her temples, and she shook her head. Where are all of these thoughts coming from?
"Just - just let me think." Tygra said, voice strained. She could see his mind racing to come up with a possibility, a plan, anything.
"Don't worry!" Kit chirped, running out and grabbing her flupe, "I got this."
She glanced at Echo, and the human stared back, blinking. It wasn't the kitten nonverbally asking for permission, it was an expression that seemed to say, I can defend myself now. As hard as it was, she let the kitten run out into the hallway that promised death, a cheery grin on her little face.
Her flupe filled the air, singing a soft, sweet lullaby that enticed the listener to fall asleep. Echo ignored it, not wanting to be put under its spell, and ran when Tygra gave the signal. As a group, the cats ran into the hallway, and Echo saw the cadre of lizards that would have killed them sleeping, all unconscious on their feet.
"Way to go, Kit!" Tygra congratulated. The kitten smiled, still playing her flupe, fingers dancing over the holes.
Dropping to the back, Echo let the other cats run ahead of her, and beckoned for Kit to follow. The kitten danced around the lizards, before she broke out into a sprint and left the battalion behind. She let loose a breathless giggle as she caught up with Echo and fell into step beside her.
"I told you I got it!"
"You did," Echo said, pride in her voice, "You did great."
Catching back up to the Cats, Echo forced her breaths to come in measured pants as they all settled into a heavy run. I hate not having as much stamina as they do. You'd think with all this running, I'd be able to sprint for miles now. As they ran, the klaxon turned off, and the flashing red lights stopped.
"That better be a good sign." Cheetara said, glancing up at the ceiling.
"It might be." Panthro groused, casting a long glance behind him, to ensure they weren't being followed.
"I hope it is." Echo replied breathlessly.
Tygra halted, and as a group, they stopped. Her heart pounded in her chest, and her lungs burned, but Echo forced herself to breathe normally. Peeking around another corner, Tygra bit out a low curse and rounded back on the group.
"Another lizard patrol. There's at least three times as many. . . how are we going to get to Mumm-Ra?"
"That bag of bones is probably holed up in the throne room," Panthro said, striding forward, "And last time I was here. . . I got out through one of these babies."
Wrapping his fingers around a metal shaft in the wall, Panthro wrenched it out. Echo flinched at the noise, but was relieved to see an air shaft laying just beyond it. If they got in, they'd probably have free reign of the Black Pyramid. After all, who would look in an air shaft? Tygra nodded, and crawled inside first. Cheetara followed, and then Echo ushered the kittens in after. Panthro shooed her in, citing his need to lock the air shaft panel back into place, and Echo breathed a secret sigh of relief.
She might have liked the odds stacked against her, but it felt good to be out of the line of fire, if only for a little. On her hands and knees, the human crawled after the other cats, glad for her small stature. She and the kittens had the easiest time, being slightly smaller, and the other cats seemed to have a slightly larger problem, especially Panthro.
Still, they made it through the vents, and eventually emerged into a vent that was large enough to walk around in. They strode forward, masking the sound of their footsteps, until they came upon a larger vent panel, where the sounds of a chant drifted up to them. Echo didn't know what the words meant, but it made her blood run cold, and her stomach started to knot up.
"At long last!" Mumm-Ra crowed, "The king of cats is dead, and the Eye of Thundera will be mine once again. . . and this time, no spell will keep me from the stone, for within these walls, my powers are immeasurable."
Propping themselves against the grate, Echo looked down into the room below them. Mumm-Ra, Addicus, Kaynar, and Slithe were all standing on a central platform, where the dreaded terror himself was pawing at Omens, a delighted smile on his ugly face. Lizards surrounded them in a perfect circle, their bodies swallowed up by ratty white cloaks emblazoned with black hieroglyphs.
Mumm-Ra joined their chant, laying his hands on Omens, and the sword screamed-
Echo flinched, almost staggering, and beside her, the human heard Cheetara let out a muted hiss. Though it was useless, Echo massaged at her head, wishing that Omens would stop screaming, begging and crying for help.
"You okay?" Cheetara asked.
Echo nodded. "That was loud."
"What?" Panthro asked, glancing at the women.
"Omens is. . . screaming. It's loud."
"You can hear the sword?" Tygra asked, eyes never wavering from the scene below them.
"It's crying for help," Cheetara answered, "Mumm-Ra is physically trying to remove the spell. We have to get down there and stop it. What do you want to do, Tygra?"
"Drop in for a surprise attack." Tygra answered immediately, straightening and looking at them.
Echo supposed, on another day, she might have been shocked. Tygra had never been one to be so bold. But here he was. And inwardly, she liked it. It was brash and bold and reckless, and she knew they'd win. There was no way they couldn't. Third Earth was at stake, and failure wasn't a luxury they could indulge in.
"And land in the middle of trouble?" Panthro demanded, blistering.
"It's not a perfect plan, but we owe it to Lion-O to try." Tygra's tone left little room to argue, and Panthro shook his head, and then looked to Echo. As if asking for help.
She grinned at the general. "I like the odds."
He groaned. "I'm surrounded by greenhorns."
Cheetara drew her staff, wordlessly supporting Tygra's decision. They stepped back from the grate, giving Tygra the honor, and the new ThunderCat king chambered his leg and kicked, freeing the grate with a deafening screech.
"ThunderCats, HO!" He cried, jumping down.
It doesn't carry the same weight, doesn't have the same strength as Lion-O's. But it's Tygra's version, carrying a new power, and it's strong, too. Echo jumped down, bending her legs to absorb the impact, and the fight was on.
"Keep them from the sword!" Mumm-Ra barked.
Echo dashed forward, drawing both her blades, and attacked the clerics, taking them out one at a time. They posed no challenge against her resolution. She was doing this for Lion-O. A few of them seemed to know offensive magic, however, and one chanted. A black ball of light struck her in the arm, and it instantly went numb, hanging uselessly by her side.
But she kept fighting. She wouldn't be a very good fighter if she was. She took out the cleric, drawing blood as she slashed at his arm, and prepped a swing for the next one.
"You were fools to come here!"
And then electricity flowed over her. She screamed, or she tried to, as pain overwhelmed her, agony racing through her nerves. Really? A tiny voice in her mind laughed, I just keep getting kicked while I'm down today. Her mind started to slip from her, and unconsciousness began to welcome her with open arms. She dropped, barely feeling herself hit the floor, and her vision wavered.
She swore she saw snippets of purple and pink, and a blurry, messy blob of fiery red, wading through it all. . .
But then, there was nothing but darkness.
Echo threw a rock at the wall, idly grabbing it as it bounced close back to her. It was the only form of entertainment she'd had in a while, and heaven knew how long she'd been locked up. At her best guess, it had been a good two or three hours since they'd all come to. In all honesty, after she had blacked out, Echo didn't think she'd ever wake up again.
But she had, much to her utter surprise.
And everyone else had, too.
Mumm-Ra seemed to have have wised up slightly, and instead of placing them all in the same cell, they all shared different prisons, each guarded by a glowing forcefield that shimmered with heat and energy. There was no way to get in or out, save for the door. Echo knew, because she'd already scoured the floor and walls, looking for a vent, a loose panel, anything. And she'd found nothing.
Which meant that Mumm-Ra was keeping them captive for a reason, waiting for some grand reveal. Probably wants to kill us when he tears that spell off of Omens. Echo sighed, and threw the rock (a small thing she'd found trapped in the bottom of her boot) at the wall again.
"If Mumm-Ra gets the Eye, we won't be able to stop him." Cheetara bristled, voice echoing in the empty cellblock.
Another thing that grated on Echo's nerves - no guards. Apparently, they had no need of them, being trapped in inescapable cells and all. Which just stung Echo's pride. She didn't like being taken as an idle threat. At least they didn't take our weapons from us. . . Which only added to the insult all the more.
"I don't know what to do," Tygra said, pacing his cell, "I always questioned Lion-O's decisions, but in the end, they worked out. Suddenly, I'm in charge and we end up in here."
"Why are you all worrying?" Kit said, rolling her eyes and planting her hands on her hips, "Lion-O will be here soon, and he'll find a way to get the sword back!"
Echo paused, wrist poised to flick the stone again, but then she did. Clink clack clatter. She picked up the small rock again. She didn't want to be the one to tell Kit. She didn't think she was ready to say the words out loud, either. Thankfully, Cheetara seemed to step up and accept the mantle.
"Kit. . . Lion-O is-" She started softly.
The kitten interrupted, glaring at the cleric. "He'll be here! He'll be here!" She said, a strong conviction in her voice. At that, Echo finally paused, turning her stone over in her hands, and looked at the kitten.
"How do you know?" She asked.
Kit looked at her as though she were touched in the head. "You spent time in the Plains and you don't even know? Gosh, Echo, I didn't think you were that dense."
Tired of Kit's fantasies, Echo opened her mouth to deliver the kitten the truth of the stark realities they were facing, but her jaw shut with a click, and she scrambled to get up to her feet. Lizards emerged from an adjacent doorway, entering the cellblock. All of the cats watched with wary eyes, and Echo tensed as she found the lizards coming to her cell.
Guns were trained on her as a lizard powered down the forcefield.
"Out, pet. You have an appointment."
Echo glanced at the lizards, and clenched the stone painfully in her hands. An appointment? There was only one person with enough authority to open the cells, and Echo was positive she didn't want to have a meeting with him at the moment.
Still, she had no other option. Complacently, she emerged from her cell, and was quickly surrounded in a ring by the lizards, guns and knives pressing into her sides. Even with her swords within reach, Echo couldn't escape. Not without being turned into a pile of mincemeat. The lizards prodded her, forcing her to walk, leading her by the other cats.
Anxiety and nervousness cramped her stomach, blending with nausea, almost making her want to throw up. The other cats watched her, fury in their eyes.
"You better not do anything to her!" Tygra snarled, pacing in front of the forcefield, "Or I swear-"
"Quiet, cat!" A lizard hissed, banging the tip of his gun up against the forcefield. It crackled with energy, warning Tygra to stay back. Echo walked calmly, projecting an aura of calmness, but on the inside, that was the farthest thing from the truth. She glanced at Tygra, silently telling him she'd be alright, and then she and the lizards were out of the cellblock.
They led her through a few hallways, barely even a five minute walk, and she emerged back in the throne room. Her entourage of lizards pressed in against her as they guided her towards the center ring again, where the clerics had assembled, and Mumm-Ra. . . no.
No, she was looking at Markata.
Markata stood there, in all of his human glory, his hands calmly tucked behind his back.
"Leave us." He commanded.
"But my lord-" One of the lizards stuttered, digging his gun into Echo's side.
Markata turned, black eyes staring right at the lizard. "I wasn't aware of this being up for debate."
At that, the lizards beat a hasty retreat, leaving her and Marakta alone. The lizard clerics were tending to their wounds, and they glanced at Markata, and then to Echo. Silence reigned supreme as Markata turned, facing her completely, and Echo stared up at him. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she was terrified.
But the rest of her, the soldier, the friend of a dead king, was tired of being afraid.
So, Echo did the only thing she could do. She slipped into the most comfortable skin she knew: be the most nonchalant, slightly annoying, and confident human the world had ever seen.
"I have to say, I'm insulted," She said, stretching out the aches in her muscles, "You lead me in here, armed, with only you and those clerics to defend you? That's underestimating my abilities, if I'm not mistaken."
Markata didn't look amused. "We both know, child, to try such a thing would be nothing more than a folly. I could easily kill you where you stand."
"But you don't. And you haven't tried." Echo said quietly, a hard edge to her voice. "And I'm tired of guessing. Tell me why. Why play these games with me? For that matter, why bother wearing. . . that? We both know what you really are."
"I quite enjoy my old body." Markata answered, eyes never wavering from her own, "And I knew this form would be easier for you to associate with. If you knew the truth, child, you would not stand there, acting superior."
If he was going to stand on top of a platform, and mock her, acting holier-than-thou, well. Echo had other ideas in mind. Fearless, she approached him, marching up the staircase and pushing past a cleric that tried to stop her. She joined him on the platform, and despite how he was taller than her, she glared up at him.
"I don't care how we were related in the past. It's the past for a reason. What matters is what you are now: and that is a monster. I'm not your subordinate. I'm one of the world's best assassins. And my target is standing right in front of me."
"Go ahead," Markata said, standing calm as ever. "Run me through with your swords. Make me bleed. And lose the only chance you have to finally uncover the truth."
Her hands were a blur as she drew a sword and leveled it against his heart, the metal gleaming in the light.
"I don't bluff." She said, digging the sword into his chest. "And we both know there is no truth. There was a war. And I'm leaving it at that. I don't want to know any more."
Markata laughed. It wasn't mocking, it was bitter and dry, like he knew something she didn't. "There was a war, you are correct. But a war against who?"
"I don't know, and I don't care." She said, digging the sword deeper into his chest. Blood trickled down the blade, but he hardly looked fazed. His expression never wavered.
"I'll help you, since you seem to have forgotten. You and I are both scarred. And I know you've looked at those scars, wondered where they came from. How oddly they resemble claws and teeth-"
"Shut up!" Echo snarled. She drove her sword forward, taking her opportunity, and a stunned noise escaped her as she found herself next to his chest. Her sword was all the way in, tucked up to the hilt, and he was still. . . why wasn't he falling down? Why wasn't he screaming?
Markata sighed, annoyed. "Here we have that famous temperament. You were always wanting to learn, to explore, until you hit that one facet you didn't like, that aspect that made you recoil, and then you turned violent."
Echo staggered backward, and watched in muted horror as Markata drew her sword out of his chest and dropped it to the floor. The wound on his chest closed, skin knitting together like nothing had ever happened. He smiled, dark and bitterly, at her.
"We are gods, you and I," He continued, unflappable as ever, "But you, corrupted and tainted, fell from grace-"
Echo retrieved a small throwing knife from her arm guard and threw it. It landed true. Markata pulled it out, dropping it to the floor as well, and began to advance on her.
"-and now look at you. Barely more than a human, grasping in the shadows for lost memories, for your power-"
Echo drew her other sword, intent on finally killing him, but he disarmed her, and stood in front of her, nearly towering over her with his presence.
"-and I am here to offer you a chance to ascend. Join me once more."
"No!" Echo cried, shoving at his chest. Her mind flexed, pushing him, and to her surprise, Markata actually went flying. He recovered, skidding to a halt, and crouched there, looking more deadly and predatory than any animal she had ever known.
"You spurn my hand again." He murmured, standing.
And he started walking over to her a second time.
What happened was a fight. A fight Echo barely remembered, because it was a battle of the mind. She weaved and dodged as Markata chased after her, shaking off his mind locks and throwing her own at him. She had no idea what he was going to do to her if he actually got his hands on her, but she was determined to not let that happen.
Markata, tired of the chase, pushed her.
Echo went flying.
She landed on a messy heap on the floor below the platform, groaning as her battered body flared in protest.
"There will come a day when you will regret not accepting my offer. Not joining my side. Today may very well be that day. Terra's war is over, but here, another brews. And I so wish for my last remaining general at my side."
He was getting closer and closer to her, and there was nothing she could do. He'd won the fight. She was pinned to the floor, the grip of his mind too strong to escape. Echo writhed, trying to crawl away, to get away, but she was paralyzed. She wrenched her eyes shut as he got closer and closer, his combat boots echoing in the throne room.
She heard whispers rising in her mind, feathering over her, promising her strength in return for her loyalty.
Markata came to a stop just before her, staring down at her. He stretched a hand forward, reaching for her head.
"I only stand at one person's side." She snarled. "And you're not him."
The door to the throne room exploded, showering all the occupants with bits of metal shrapnel and a large cloud of smoke and dust. Markata jerked up to it, distracted, and taking advantage, Echo shoved him as hard as she could with her mind, freeing herself. In a swirl of smoke, the form of Markata disappeared, and Mumm-Ra toppled back onto the platform.
Stretching her arms out, Echo yanked on her swords with her mind, her hands shaking. That call was too close. Markata - Mumm-Ra - had almost touched her, and she didn't know what he'd been planning-
"Lion-O!" She cried.
A lizard appeared from the woodwork, trying to tackle her, but she dodged him, and staggered up to her feet. Relief poured through her, and damn, it felt good. Lion-O rushed into the throne room, and Echo wanted to start crying. Her friend was alive. Alive!
"They must not break the circle!" Mumm-Ra shouted, infuriated.
The clerics began to chant again, more soldiers pouring out of doorways set into the walls.
"Mumm-Ra!" Lion-O shouted, "You have something of mine!"
"And without it, you will never defeat me. Ancient Spirits of Evil, transform this decayed form into Mumm-Ra, The Ever-Living!"
Dark power washed into the throne room, and in a heartbeat, Mumm-Ra stood, muscled, disgusting, and radiating power. Echo edged away from him, glad to finally get some distance between the two of them, and set to mowing through a few clerics that had stumbled away from the circle, wary of the fight.
But the clerics, bolstered by the energy Mumm-Ra was putting off, were stronger and faster. They shot orbs and electricity at her, which she dodged, and after clearing two more clerics, Echo came face-to-face with Tygra.
"You hurt, Short Stack?"
"Only my pride."
"Move!" Cheetara shouted.
A red flash lit up the air, and Echo ducked out of the way as splashes of Omen's power rocked through the throne room. The human stood still, just for a moment, as Omens's presence flooded her mind, assuring her it was very much alive and real. That Lion-O was alive and real. All was well in the world.
Mumm-Ra screamed, but the bright, fierce ray of red light drowned him out. He retreated, body steaming, and her friend ran after him, screaming a war cry.
Panthro caught him, speaking to him, but Echo couldn't hear what they were saying as lasers streaked the air, and the klaxon drowned out all sound. Cheetara grabbed her arm, forcing her to run, and with only seconds to spare. Battalions of lizards poured into the room, lasers flying in the air. She sprinted, relieved to see everyone whole and live, racing for the exit. They ran for it, taking out lizards stupid enough to wander close to them, and finally broke free of the Black Pyramid.
They hit the dunes at a run, not stopping until they were a solid mile outside of Mumm-Ra's base. And although that wasn't safe, they finally pulled to a stop, and Echo breathed heavily as she stared, catching sight of a familiar mane of spiky red hair. Lion-O looked forlornly at the pyramid, as though he were. . . regretful.
"Okay, Lion-O," Cheetara said, breaking the silence, "I think it's time you told us what happened to you."
"I'm sorry," He said, tone slightly wooden, "But I have to leave."
Echo's jaw dropped. "What?" She sputtered.
"Leave? Why?" Kit asked, tail flicking behind her.
Lion-O didn't answer. He stared down at the ground, too pained to speak. At his hip, the Spirit Stone glittered to life, flashing a cheery pink.
"Because he has paid the ultimate price."
Echo whirled, and caught sight of a ghostly apparition of the head cleric. She glared at the ancient jaguar, wanting to throttle him. She was tired of his cryptic games and this prophetic nonsense.
"What price? What are you talking about? Lion-O, what is going on?" Tygra demanded, just as fed up as Echo.
Lion-O ignored him, seemingly entirely preoccupied with the sun.
Despite Echo's withering glare, Jaga smiled warmly.
"It's time for you to use what you've learned to lead your people to victory. . . as the reborn King of the ThunderCats."
At Jaga's words, Lion-O's eyes widened to the size of dinner plates. "I can stay? H-How?! But the trials!" He spluttered, sounding disbelieving and hopeful at the same time.
"The trials were designed to test more than just your skill. They were designed to test your heart. When you made the ultimate sacrifice to save your friends, you showed what it means to truly be a king."
And Jaga faded.
"Yeah, what trials?"
Snarf danced around Lion-O's feet happily as the cats babbled, all asking questions. Echo shimmered, glaring at Lion-O.
"Woah, woah! Let me start at the beginning. . . hold on. Echo?"
She approached him, steps sharp and quick, and reached a hand up, touching his face. Maybe Lion-O was blushing under his fur, but he sure as hell looked shocked. He blinked down at her.
"Is it. . . Really you? You're alive?"
A tiny smile cracked his face. "Yeah. I'm here."
Echo smiled in return, and before he could blink, she cocked back her fist and popped him in the face.
A stunned silence fell over the clearing, but Echo hardly cared. She stood over him as he fell, moaning and holding his bleeding nose, but she simply reached down and started to shake him, words pouring out of her mouth.
"Do you have any idea how worried I was? How sad I was? And by god, you better wish Jaga put you back together indestructibly because you are in. For. IT!"
"Help!" Lion-O wheezed.
Echo tried to punch him again, but he squirmed out of her grasp. He ran, but Echo chased after him.
"Get back here!" She demanded, "So I can rip your head off! Nobody gave you permission to die!"
"Tygra, help!" Lion-O called.
Tygra laughed. "She's doing what I feel like doing. Have at it, Short Stack! Aim for the left of his torso - he's got a weak guard there!"
Lion-O squealed like a girl, his sound of terror reverberating over the dunes, as Echo took him down a second time, using Tygra's advice to tackle her best friend into the sand and beat him to a bloody pulp.