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Shadowcat
By Mummraa



Chapter 1
  The Prisoner

  If one were to enter dungeons of the reptilian general, Baron Kamork,
one would likely hear strange sounds echoing down the stone throat of
that dismal corridor.  These sounds drifted from the tiny, barred cells
that lined the torchlit corridor--piercing shrieks, crazed laughter, or
the clang clang of prisoners banging their chains against the iron bars
of cells they would never leave.  A bored-looking guard would march up
and down the corridor every so often, making their routine patrols,
carrying out the scrawny carcasses of dead prisoners or slopping gruel
into the feed-buckets of the live ones.
  Travel a little further into the dungeons, and one would be surrounded
by mostly-empty cells.  The torches here were dimmer, and spaced further
apart.  Their soft, guttering crackles were magnified in the deathly
silence.  Shadows danced and writhed on the walls, snakelike.  Still
there was the occasional emaciated prisoner, crouched in the corner of
his cell, muttering lunatic words to himself or simply staring into
space with empty, desolate eyes.  These people were the Baron-general's
former enemies, souls who he'd cast into these dungeons to rot because
death was too lenient a punishment.
  Travel still further into the depths of the dungeon, into the cold
earth, and one would find oneself travelling through a very narrow
corridor.  Here, the walls were not stone, but packed earth.  Roots, fat
and sickly-white, poked from the ceiling and bulged tumorously from the
walls.  No torches here, but lamps, dim electrical lamps that buzzed and
flickered fitfully.  Roughly one in every three of these had gone dark.
All the cells here were empty...all but one, the cell at the very end of
the corridor, the dark and dieased heart of the dungeons, Kamork's
little privately-owned piece of hell.
  If one were to walk toward this cell, one would see a light from
within--a very dim light, a gas-lamp perhaps.  One would shiver in the
cold, damp air, but keep walking for whatever grim perhaps had brought
them to this tomb of earth and rock.  And one would hear sounds...soft,
lonely.  The scritching sound of a pencil being dragged across
parchment.  The rustling, crackling noise of paper being crumpled and
tossed aside.  And, every so often, one would hear weeping...the
exhausted, hopeless sobs of the Baron's most isolated, most prized
prisoner.
  Thundercat Tygra.

  "And how are we doing today?  Have we made any progress on The Plan?"
asked the eager, condescending voice of Baron Kamork.  The reptilian's
speech was smooth and cultured, without the slightest hiss to it...but
he had a very odd way of accentuating words that held no particular
importance.  "Let's see what we've got here."  He leaned over, peering
intently at the elaborate diagram--the blueprint for the inpenetrable
starship that would someday become Excelcior, Kamork's greatest vision.
"It's good," he declared, yellow eyes slitted, tail swaying slowly back
and forth in pleasure.  "It's very good.  Excellent, in fact.  But it's
not right."
  It will never be right, Tygra thought bitterly.  I could work on this
blasted Plan every day, seven days a week, for seven lifetimes, and
still it would not please you, Kamork.
  The reptilian straightened.  Yellow eyes stared coolly at the captive
Thundercat.  "You must work harder, Tygra.  The Plan must be right."
  "Baron Kamork, I am exhausted," he replied in a cracked, dusty voice.
The tiger's amber eyes glittered feverishly.  His orange mane, which he
had once kept so carefully groomed, was disheveled and streaked with
dirt.  "I cannot work in this condition.  I need sleep, and a proper
meal."
  Kamork frowned thunderously.  "No sleep!  Not until you get it right."

  "Please."  Tygra's voice wavered like that of a frightened cub.  He
felt disgusted at himself for showing weakness in front of his hated
captor, but he couldn't seem to help it.  "I need rest, Kamork."  Though
his amber eyes gleamed brightly, beneath that surface-shine there was a
growing emptiness, a dark void that was consuming him from the inside
out.  "I...I am dying."
  Kamork folded his arms over his broad, scaly chest, sighing heavily.
"Alright.  Five hours sleep, but no more.  After that, you finish The
Plan.  Understood?"
  Tygra looked up at his captor with unveiled hatred.  "I understand,
Kamork."
  Kamork gave him a syrupy, sickening smile.  "Good."  He leaned forward
again, regarding Tygra with a bright, searching gaze that made him
uncomfortable.  "I know you can do this, Tygra.  I have faith in your
talent."
  How very reassuring, Tygra thought sourly.
  "Keep working," Kamork continued, "and if you've made a good amount of
progress by nightfall, you can have a proper meal and five extra hours
of sleep.  That's something to work for, isn't it?  We'll even clean out
your cell for you.  The odor in here is getting a bit, ah, ripe."  He
glanced at the piles of waste in the corners of the cell, which were
collecting flies...though not many.  Even flies, it seemed, did not like
to live under these conditions.  Kamork returned his bright, smiling
gaze to Tygra.  "I will be back in five hours to check up on you."
  "Yes Kamork," Tygra muttered, too tired to think of anything else to
say.
  "Get your sleep.  Then keep working."
  "Yes Kamork."
  The reptilian turned and exited the cell, clawed, sandaled feet
whispering across the earthen floor.  Pausing outside the cell-door, he
cast a glance over his shoulder.  "Five hours.  No more."
  Tygra sat, staring at The Plan as the door banged shut and Kamork's
retreating footsteps shuffled down the hallway until they faded into
silence.  Kamork had no need to lock the door during their little
"discussions," because he had no fear of Tygra making a leap for the
door and escaping.  Tygra's leaping days were over.  One would see why,
if one were to let their eyes travel down the length of his emaciated
body...and looking, one would also discover the deepest, most permanent
part of the torture that Kamork had inflicted upon his prisoner.
  For Tygra's legs now ended just above the knees.

  It had been briefly after his capture that Tygra had awakened, groggy
with pain and anisthetic, to find himself on a narrow white bed, in a
narrow white room, staring up into a bright light.  His legs felt
strange.  With some effort, he'd been able to lift his head and take a
look.
  At first, he had not quite comprehended what he was seeing...he
thought the rest of his legs must be hidden under the cold white
sheets.  But with dawning horror, he realized that the rest of his legs
were gone.  Now, there were only two stumps wrapped in bloodied
bandages.  That's impossible! his mind screamed hysterically.  My legs
can't be gone!  I can still feel them!  How can they hurt if they're
gone?
  Tygra knew about phantom pains, but some deep level of his
conciousness continued to insist that his legs were there.  Uttering a
long, shuddering moan, he let his head drop back to the pillow, let the
blinding electric light fill his vision, whiting it out.  Oh Jaga, this
can't be happening, don't let this be happening, he thought, feeling
sick and frightened.
  Then the grinning face of Kamork filled his vision, and that cheerful,
flutely voice piped out, "Well, look who decided to come around.  Rise
and shine!"
  Dimly, Tygra decided that this must be hell.  "My legs," he murmured,
and his voice came out sounding thick and soupy.
  "Ah, yes!" Kamork exclaimed brightly.  "I wanted to make sure you
stayed around awhile longer.  I have great plans for you, Tygra, great
plans.  Oh, and don't worry about your legs...you won't be needing them
anymore.  Where you're going, you'll never have to walk again!"

  In his dimly-lit, foul-smelling little prison-cell, Tygra let his head
drop to the stained wooden desk, to the sheet of parchment on which he'd
drawn most of The Plan.  The gas-lamp cast a dim, fluttering glow over
the sketches that would someday become Kamork's invincible starship, the
mighty warcraft Excelcior, whose hull no laser-cannon or projectile
could breach.  There was a dull ache behind Tygra's eyes, caused by long
hours studying his plans in the glow of a gas-lamp.  He knew very well
that it was ruining his eyes.  Pretty soon, he'd need glasses, and
Kamork would willingly provide him with a pair.  Kamork would do
anything to assure the continued progress of The Plan.
  "I can't go on like this," Tygra muttered.
  Then why not end it? a small, dark voice asked.
  A chill climbed up Tygra's spine.  His eyes strayed to the little pile
of tools he used to draw The Plan.  Amidst the protractor, ruler, and
erasers was a small knife he used to sharpen pencils.  The knife was
very sharp.  He could...one quick stab and this madness would all end.
  With a trembling hand, he reached out, gripped the knife by its
handle, raised it slowly, and positioned it above his heart.  The
gas-lamp flickered, throwing grotesque shadows against the back wall of
the prison, making the knife look five times its size.  The blade
flashed in the weak light.  Tygra shook, trying to make himself bring
the knife down.  Then, in one swift, violent movement, he flung it
across the room.
  It whipped through the air and stuck, quivering, in the wall.  "No!"
Tygra shouted to the empty room, and he winced.  Only madmen yelled out
in empty rooms.
  Curling his hands into fists, he tore his gaze away from the knife and
vowed that he would not kill himself.  That was the coward's way out.
And as hopeless as things seemed, there was still a chance that someone
would come and find him, come help him.  He must not stop hoping.
  What of the other Thundercats?  Were they still searching for him, or
had they given up?  A heavy fog of gloom settled over Tygra's heart.  It
didn't matter.  They'd never find him...not here, in this remote corner
of Plun-darr.  And even if they somehow discovered where he was, would
they be able to stand up to Kamork's soldiers?  No.  They'd likely get
themselves killed trying to rescue him.
  At this thought, he began to cry.  He'd done more crying in these past
few weeks than he had in his entire previous life.  Part of it was the
exhaustion, and the lack of food.  Being in such a weakened physical
state put you on an emotional roller-coaster, a nightmare carnival-ride
that was all dips and swoops and nauseating twists.  So he cried,
(making sure not to drip any tears on The Plan...gods forbid anything
should happen to The Plan) and when he was too tired to cry anymore, he
dropped off into a deathlike sleep, head pillowed on the ragged fur of
his chest.
  He slept...and he dreamt.
  Back in Cat's Lair, Tygra was lying in his own bed, wrapped in a soft
and wonderfully cool coccoon of blankets.  Snarf called from downstairs,
hollering at him to come down to breakfast.  Tygra rose and stretched
out his sleep-stiffened muscles, yawning.  Sun poured in through his
window, making a square of golden light on the floor.  He got dressed in
a leisurely, unhurried fashion, groomed his mane, and went downstairs,
where he was greeted by the marvellous smells of fresh-brewed coffee and
candyfruit pancakes, his favorite, wouldn't you know it (ah, but the
sweetest memories hurt the most, didn't they?).  Snarf was perched atop
a wooden stool, humming to himself as he used a spatula to flip another
pancake onto its belly.  He looked up as Tygra approached.  "Mornin',
Tygra," he greeted, smiling.
  "Good morning, Snarf," he returned, taking a seat at the table.
  Cheetara entered the kitchen.  She caught sight of Tygra and smiled,
casually ruffling his mane with one hand as she walked past.  "Well,
look who decided to join us," she remarked teasingly.  "Tygra, you don't
normally sleep so late.  It's well past dawn, you know."
  "I know."  He looked up and met her amber eyes--a slightly lighter
shade than his own--and the part of him that knew he was dreaming
suddenly ached for her, ached with a deep, burning need.  It was partly
because he had not seen her for so long...and partly because he'd always
felt that way.  He'd just never really realized it.
  Oh Cheetara...I think I would give anything to be able to hold you
right now.  The dream began to waver and shift, to grow hazy.  Sounds
became distorted.  He was waking up.  "No!" he cried out.  "Not yet!
Please, not y--"

  He surfaced from the dream gradually, with the feeling that someone
was shaking his shoulder.
  No, he thought.  Not yet.  I want to go back.  I want to go back to
the dream.  I want to see her eyes again.
  But when he awakened, it was Kamork's mad, bright gaze that greeted
him.  "You've had your five hours," the reptilian declared.  "You must
keep working, Tygra!  The Plan will not complete itself!"
  Tygra looked down at The Plan.  In the past--a time that now seemed
distant and unreal to him--he recalled that he had enjoyed architecture
very much, had taken pride and passion in seeing his visions take shape,
emerging from dream-matter into strong, solid reality.  Now, it had
become a burden, a chore...something to wake up and dread.  That thought
saddened him, but the emotion was muted, as hazy as the memories
themselves.  He studied The Plan, and realized that it really was
excellent.  It was, in fact, the best damn thing he'd ever designed.  In
the past, that might have mattered to him...but now, all that seemed to
matter was the dreams.  The dreams had become his only refuge in a cold,
dark world where the food was slop, the stink of his own wastes was all
around him, and The Plan awaited him whenever he awakened.
  "Come now, come now!" Kamork urged, guesturing impatiently with one
clawed hand.  "We must not waste time!  Excelcior must be built, and we
cannot build her until we have The Plan.  So hurry, hurry!"
  Tygra went to work in the oily, dirty glow of the gas-lamp, sketching,
erasing, sketching again, judging distances and proportions.  All the
while, the steady ache behind his eyes deepened and sent its pulsing
fire racing throughout his head, travelling through the channels in his
tired, blugeoned brain.  And he knew, with an awful certainty, that this
Plan was killing him.  Slowly, surely, it would weaken him, destroy
him...the headaches would steadily worsen, and he would continue to lose
weight, even though the double-zylophone of his ribcage already showed
starkly through his grimy orange fur.  His diet consisted of a bucket of
thin grey mush in the morning and a few scraps of meat at night...along
with whatever bugs he could catch after prying up a stone or two from
the cell's earthen floor.
  After Kamork had left the cell, Tygra put his head down and closed his
eyes.  He felt something in his mind snap like a frayed rope, and with
that expressive snap he realized two things...
  One: He had perhaps a week to live.  There was some sort of infection
smouldering and thriving within him, and unless he got proper medical
help very soon, he would be one very dead cat.
  Two: He no longer really cared.
  With this second realization there came an odd feeling of relief...a
sensation that some part of him had been cut free.  His spirit could
escape, and soar off with the wind to some faraway, happier place--a
place where he would have legs, and friends, and hopefully a decent
meal--leaving only his body in captivity.
  To his amazement, Tygra discovered he was smiling.  With a long, dusty
sigh, he closed his eyes and let himself drift off into the blissful
darkness of sleep.

Chapter 2
  The Search Begins

  "I've got to try, Panthro.  If there is any hope--any hope at
all--that it will help us find Tygra, then I must try!" Cheetara
insisted.  She had confronted the older Thundercat with her idea, hoping
he would understand...but Panthro was almost as stubborn as her.
  "No!" growled Panthro, turning away to signify that the argument was
over.  "No and no and no!  I can't allow you to make such a
sacrifice...not so early in the search."
  "Early!" she burst out in disbelief.  "It has been three weeks,
Panthro!  If Tygra was anywhere on Third Earth, our tracking devices
would have located him by now, and even if they didn't, my sixth sense
would!  You must allow me to do this, Panthro.  It is the only way to
find him."
  The panther whirled around, fists clenched, eyes blazing.  "Has it
occured to you that there might not be any of him left to find?  That he
might be dead after all?"  He lowered his eyes immidiately, as if
ashamed at his harsh words.  "Three weeks, Cheetara," he muttered.  "Has
it occured to you?"
  The cheetah regarded her grey-furred companion with calm,
expressionless eyes.  "Yes, Panthro, it has occured to me.  Many times.
And I realize that it is a possibility...yet I cannot shake the feeling
that Tygra is alive somewhere, that he is in terrible trouble, and that
he is crying out for help.  And no, my sixth sense isn't trying to
protect me from unpleasant emotions by convincing me he's alive," she
continued briskly, forseeing the panther's next argument even before he
opened his mouth.  "My sixth sense is designed to reveal the truth to
me, not to hide it.  If Tygra had died, I would know."
  Panthro regarded her with a shade of doubt.  "How could you be sure?"
  "When my mother was killed by mutant invaders, I was nowhere near her,
but I saw--clearly saw--how and where it happened.  Several years later,
another vision--just as clear--when my father's starship crashed.  Both
times, I understood immidiately that they were gone.  And then, when
Lion-o was almost...no, no almost about it," she amended.  "Lion-o was
killed by the mutants, and I saw it very clearly.  The sword brought him
back, but he died, Panthro...and I knew.  I understood, the same way I
understand that Tygra is alive."  She fell into silence, and averted her
eyes, realizing she had launched into a speech without even realizing
it.  "I must do this, Panthro," she said, more quietly.  "I must find
out."
  The anger flickered and died in the grey warrior's eyes, and was
replaced by an even more basic and primitive emotion; fear.  "But
Cheetara, to go into dream-flight without having any idea where you are
going or when you will return...you don't have the skill or the
experience to attempt such a thing."
  "I must try," she repeated, lifting her chin, fierce determination set
in her strong, graceful features.
  Panthro sighed wearily and placed one huge hand on her shoulder.  "If
you've made up your mind to do this, then I guess nothing I or the
others say is going to convince you otherwise.  But you do understand
the danger, Cheetara?  You know that you have roughly a sixty-percent
chance of returning to your physical self, and less than a forty-percent
chance of coming back with your mind bolted securely together?  Do you
understand that?"
  She nodded.  Her steady amber gaze never wavered.
  "Alright," sighed Panthro, "then by the gods, you'll take your
dream-flight, and if Tygra is alive..."
  "He is alive," Cheetara assured him.
  Panthro gave her a long, tired look.  "For your sake as well as his,
Cheetara, I hope you're right.  You know what will happen if you go into
dream-flight and try to link with the mind of one dead."
  "Yes.  But that is the risk I must take."

  Later, Cheetara sat Indian-style on the floor of Tygra's bedroom, eyes
closed, face expressionless, concentration tightly focused.  Around her
were Lynx-o, Panthro, and Pumyra.  Cradled in her lap was a familiar
object--Tygra's bola whip.
  "Are you ready, Cheetara?" Lynx-o asked.
  "I am ready," she replied in a clear, dreamlike voice.
  "Last chance to reconsider," warned Panthro.
  Cheetara said nothing.
  Pumyra took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.  "Right then."  Turning,
she removed a silver chalice from its place atop the dresser.  The
chalice was filled with a dark, shimmering liquid.  Pumyra knelt beside
the silent, calm-faced Cheetara and held it out to her.  "Drink," she
instructed.
  Cheetara drank as the chalice was held to her lips.  The liquid--warm
and firey--trickled down her throat.  Immidiately, a terrible heat
filled her stomach, and she gasped.  Her eyes flew open, and her hand
went to her throat, which burned like fire.
  "Peace," soothed Pumyra.  "The effects of the potion will wear off
soon."
  "Do we really need the potion?" Cheetara asked, hardly able to talk
above a whisper because of the burning in her throat.  "I was taught
that dream-flight was obtained through meditation."
  "This is only to speed up the process, to aid the dream-flight...you
could have done it through meditation, but that would have taken hours,
even days."
  Cheetara listened to Pumyra's words and realized the effects of the
dream-potion were already beginning to wear off.  Her throat and mouth
no longer felt scorched, and the fire in her belly had faded to a dim,
spreading glow.  Her eyelids began to grow heavy.
  Lynx-o's deep, gruff voice lanced through her awareness: "Now,
Cheetara."
  She closed her eyes and reached outwards with her thoughts.  There was
a violent, dizzying sensation of being torn out of her body, and then
she was floating upwards...she looked down and saw her physical being,
limp as a wet dishrag, being supported by Panthro, who was exchanging
worried glances with Pumyra while Lynx-o stood off to the side.  Then
the room was gone, her three companions were gone, and she was
surrounded by blackness.
  The Void.
  Panic fluttered in her, like moths trapped in a jar.  She fought down
the panic, and forced herself to remain calm.  She was here for a
reason.  Tygra...she must focus on finding Tygra.
  Stretching her awareness outward toward the furthest reaches of the
Void, she searched.  She knew she would recognize Tygra's
thought-patterns immidiately if she found them--though Cheetara's gift
had allowed her only brief glimpses into the minds of her fellow
Thundercats, her bond with Tygra had been remarkably deep and strong.
It was this bond, and this bond alone, that she was relying on to help
her find her lost friend.
  With the single-minded determination of a blood-hound tracking a
scent, she sent the radar-beams of her telepathic powers throughout the
Void, searching for a glimmer of something--anything--that would lead
her to Tygra.
  There!  She sensed something out there, lost in the depths of
oblivion.  It was a mere flicker, the barest spark of light, but it was
there.  Strengthening her narrow beam of concentration, she sent it
toward the pale flicker, at the same time calling out with all her mind
and heart and spirit--Tygra!

  The dreams had come back, and Tygra welcomed them with open arms.
  Back in his bedroom in Cat's Lair, it was morning again...but now
there was a very noticable difference, and that difference was the warm,
sleeping form lying next to him.  Tygra sat up, letting the sun from the
window warm his face, then gazed down at Cheetara.  She was achingly
beautiful, with the soft touch of morning's first light on her golden
hair, and the blanket draped casually across one shoulder so that most
of the fine, fawn-and-creme-colored fur covering her body was
visible...and beneath that fur, the contours of her body, the hills and
valleys of her.
  Smiling, Tygra stroked her hair, and her eyes flickered open;
golden-amber, the same color as the rising sun outside their window.
She gazed up at him, returning his smile, and purred with drowsy
contentment.  "Morning, love," she whispered.
  "Morning," he whispered back, and kissed the soft patch of fur on her
forehead.
  She kissed him back, and as she slipped her arms around him, nuzzling
close to him for warmth, he began to purr vigorously.
  He tried to forget about the other world--the world of stone and
stink, cold and hunger, the world where he was a legless horror--he
tried to pretend that world was the dream, and this world was real.  He
wanted so badly for it to be real.
  But that was apparently not to be...for soon, the world began to
flicker and grow hazy.  Frantic to stop the dream from ending, he
reached out and clasped Cheetara to him, burying his face against her
fragrant fur, inhaling deeply--but soon, even that vibrant scent grew
weak.  The sunlit bedroom wavered and dimmed, fading slowly away into
nonexistance.  He could no longer see or feel Cheetara...the sweet fire
coursing through his veins had turned cold and watery, like the
tasteless, nutritionless gruel that was slopped into his cell's
feed-dish every morning.  The dream was gone, and he was waking up...
  Tygra felt that awful crushing despair settle over his heart, and he
knew that Kamork would be there, shaking his shoulder and yammering at
him to keep working, keep working, the Excelcior must be built and they
could not build her unless they had The Plan, The Plan, always The Plan.

  Blast The Plan! he yowled in silent fury.  Why me?  Why, why did he
choose me to design his accursed starship?  Why, why...
  "Why," he whispered, his tongue thick and heavy with sleep.  Though
his eyes were still closed, the dream had vanished, thrusting him back
into wakefulness and dismal reality.  He could feel the meager heat of
the gas-lamp, feel its dim and somehow filthy glow radiating against his
closed eyelids.  He could hear the wet, raspy, rhythmic sound of his own
breathing.  He felt the chill of the damp earth and the rough texture of
wood and parchment against his cheek.
  He was back in this hated world again.  Back in the waking-nightmare.
  "I did not give you permission to go back to sleep!"  The shrill,
indignant voice of Kamork drilled into his ear like an icepick.  "Five
hours, I said!  Five hours and no more!  Wake up!  Wake up this
instant!"
  Tygra fumed inwardly and remained there with his head on the desk,
eyes closed, promising himself that he would not open them no matter how
loud and long Kamork shrieked.  This couldn't go on any longer.  He was
tired dammit, tired, and he wasn't going to get up and get to work just
because some crazy, ill-tempered mutant was screeching at him.  Keeping
his eyes resolutely shut, Tygra tried to sink back into slumber.
  He was yanked rudely back to wakefulness as Kamork seized a handful of
his mane and hauled his head upwards, then backhanded him full across
the eyes, causing his head to snap to one side, like the head of a
marionette.  Kamork, still clutching a fistful of orange mane, thrust
his face toward Tygra's and bellowed, "This instant, do you hear me, you
stupid striped cur?  When I say 'wake up,' I mean 'wake up,' not 'lie
there shamming sleep like the lazy dog you are'!"
  Tygra, his face bathed in the wet mist of Kamork's angry spittle,
looked into the bulging, bloodshot yellow eyes of the reptilian general
and felt hatred bubbling up inside him, hot and vital, washing away all
rational thought and roasting his heart in its red glow.  His hatred was
so strong that his brain seemed to pulse with it, and at that moment, he
made his decision--he was through being hit and kicked and snarled at.
  Kamork would die.
  In his mind, he clearly saw how it would happen; saw himself seizing
one of the tools off the table, the one with the sharp edge, and
plunging it into the back of Kamork's neck, just below the base of the
skull, burying the blade deep in the reptilian's twisted, evil brain.
He saw the yellow eyes glaze over, heard the short, convulsive gurgle
which would burst from the dying mutant's throat, watched as Kamork
shook spasmodically, thick white foam bubbling and curdling from his
jaws, oozing out and dripping to the ground...
  Kamork unleashed another backhand across Tygra's face, causing his
head to snap the other way and shattering his shockingly vivid fantasy
of killing his captor.  "I know what you're thinking about. " Kamork's
voice now flowed as smoothly as syrup.  "Don't you think I know the way
your feral little mind works?"  There was a quivering disgust just
beneath the silk of his tone, like a full and pulsing artery.
  Tygra's eye strayed to the desk, and he realized that he'd never had a
chance at killing Kamork...all the tools, including the one with the
sharp edge, had been moved to a safe and unreachable corner of the
room.  Kamork had known, somehow, that his slave had reached the
breaking-point and would try to kill him that day, even though it went
against Tygra's nature to kill in cold blood--in fact, the very concept
of murder sickened him.
  Now, as he recalled the boiling hatred, the urgent need to kill, Tygra
felt the sickly warmth of shame smouldering in his skin.  He was a
Thundercat--Thundercats were supposed to protect life, yet he, for one
moment of molten need, would have killed Kamork if he'd gotten the
chance...would have killed him without a second thought.  Knowing this,
he was horrified, horrified at what he had become--a creature so
maddened by pain and hunger that it had been driven beyond all rational
thought, had turned feral, and could only strike out in blind, stupid
hate.
  Kamork must have observed the procession of emotions playing across
his prisoner's face, for the general grinned smugly.  "I'm glad you've
returned to your senses, Tygra.  Now...will you finish The Plan?"
  "Yes Kamork," he heard himself whisper brokenly.
  "Good.  That's very good."  He released the fistful of mane, letting
Tygra slide limply back into his chair.  When the baron-general withdrew
his hand, strands of orange hair still clung to his claws.  "I hope we
don't have to repeat this little incident, Tygra.  I don't enjoy having
to punish you.  I like you, Tygra, I really do."
  Tygra decided that Kamork's mind might be twisted enough for that to
be true.  He wondered which fate was worse; being one of Kamork's
enemies, or one of his "friends."
  He realized that Kamork was looking at him expectantly, waiting for a
reply.  Tygra decided he'd better speak up, and quick...he didn't want
to earn another love-tap from the general.  He opened his mouth to say
something--he had no idea what--when a voice spoke clearly in his head:
Tygra.
  He froze, mouth hanging dumbly open, eyes wide with surprise.  He had
recognized that voice.  There was no mistaking it.  It was Cheetara's.

  She had entered Tygra's mind around the time he'd been awakened by
Kamork, but she had not gotten an opportunity to reveal her presence
until now.  She had, however, seen and heard everything that had taken
place before then--she'd seen it through his eyes.  More than seen,
actually--she'd experienced it along with him.  She, too, had felt the
mind-shattering rage at Kamork's cruelty, the need to kill, to taste
blood...and then the shame, when Tygra/Cheetara finally came back to
his/her senses.
  Already, she had learned quite a bit.  For one thing, she'd discovered
that Tygra was alive (and though, on some deep level, she'd known this
all along, it was a tremendous relief to actually see that it was
true).  For another thing, she knew who his captor was; a retired
general, the mutant known as Baron Kamork.  She also had some vague idea
of why he was being held captive--Kamork wanted him to complete
something called The Plan.
  She knew all this, but she was still lacking the one piece of
information that was vital to her: not why, but where he was being held
prisoner.
  So at last, she called out to him, praying to all the Ancients that he
would hear and respond: -Tygra.-

  At first, Tygra could hardly believe it, but there it was, loud and
clear: Cheetara, calling his name.  Still feeling dazed and foggy from
the beating Kamork had dealt him, he wondered if the reptilian could
hear the voice...but when he studied the mutant's grinning, expectant
face, it was clear that Kamork had heard nothing.  Of course he hadn't.
The voice was in Tygra's head, not in his ears.
  -Tygra- she called again.  -Can you hear me?-
 At last, he recovered from his shock enough to reply.  -I hear you,
Cheetara.-
  -Where are you?-
  -On Plun-darr,- he answered, still numbed by surprise.
  -Where on Plun-darr?-
  -I'm not sure.  Somewhere near an ocean.  When they brought me in, I
could smell salt-water.-  He was overcome by a deep, aching nostolgia
for fresh air and the smells of the outdoors.  -I need to get out of
this place.  I'm rotting away in here.  How long has it been?  Seven
weeks?-
  -Three.-
  Three!  Only three!  It had seemed like so much longer.  -Cheetara...-

  Abruptly, something hard and flat connected with the side of his head,
knocking him clean out of his chair and onto the cold dirt floor.  The
impact jarred all his bones, sending waves of pain searing through his
body.  Normally, a fall like this would not have hurt so much, but Tygra
had lost quite a bit of weight in the past three weeks: he had no fat
left to cushion his bones and organs.  Tygra opened his eyes in shock,
blood pouring down from one temple, the side of his face throbbing and
buzzing with pain.

  -Tygra!- Cheetara called desperately, but to no avail...the
connection, flimsy to begin with, had been severed.

  Kamork's face swam into his vision, like a smoke-demon emerging from
its magic bottle.  The reptilian's eyes were wild with rage, his teeth
were bared, his breath hissed in and out.  One powerful, scaly hand shot
out and seized Tygra by the scruff of the neck, shaking him violently,
like a cruel owner shaking a puppy that had just piddled on the carpet.
His voice was a low, dangerous hiss.  "You were trying to contact
someone, weren't you?  Weren't you?!  Who?  Who were you trying to
contact?"
  Tygra just stared dumbly as Kamork shook him and shook him.  His teeth
clicked sharply together in his head, and fresh pain-waves raced through
his body.  How had Kamork known?  How had he known that Tygra was making
telepathic contact with someone?  Did Kamork have some telepathic sense
of his own?  Or had he simply grown suspicious of Tygra's silence, and
the glazed look in his eyes?
  "Who?!" screamed Kamork, spittle flecking the corners of his jaws.
  Looking into those wide, blood-flecked yellow eyes, Tygra thought:
Sweet Jaga, he's crazy, he's stark raving mad, completely insane, and
he's going to kill me right here and now, and I don't even have the
strength to fight back because I've been living on gruel and bugs for
the past three weeks, and I'm going to die like this, lying in the dirt,
oh dear gods please don't let it end this way...
  "Tell me!" raved Kamork, his face barely an inch from Tygra's.  "Tell
me who you were trying to contact!"
  Tygra replied, in a quiet, perfectly calm voice: "No one, Kamork.  I
was daydreaming."
  Kamork blinked.  In a split second, all the rage was gone from his
face.  "Well then."  Straightening, he lifted Tygra off the floor and
brushed the dirt off his fur.  The guesture was affectionate, almost
motherly.  Tygra's skin crawled.  "That's all I wanted to know," said
Kamork.  "You could have told me that right away and saved yourself a
world of trouble.  But we're learning, aren't we?  Yes indeed.  We're
learning."  He chuckled pleasantly.  Then, with that same odd
abrutpness, his face grew serious again.  "And what have we learned
today, Tygra?"
  Tygra stared blankly, and wondered what he was supposed to say.
Kamork was peering at him with a sharp, expectant look that reminded
Tygra remarkably of his old schoolteacher.  Just as he had under his
instructor's stern gaze, Tygra groped for the right words, trying to
drudge up the answer.  He tried so hard, in fact, that his face
contorted with the effort.  "To...not to disobey.  Not to sleep unless
I'm told."
  "Very good!  And...?"
  "And...and not to daydream?"
  Kamork smiled his sly, silky smile.  "What a bright boy you are."  He
gave his prisoner a fond pat on the head--good kitty, good little
tiger--and rose gracefully, lifting his huge bulk from his chair.
  Tygra stared down at The Plan as he listened to the receding shuff
shuff shuff of Kamork's footsteps, and the sharp click as the key turned
in the lock.  When Kamork was gone, Tygra shut his eyes, hands curling
into tight fists.  His claws bit into his palms.  He thought about
Kamork's condescending smile, and the way he had patted Tygra on the
head--the way you'd pat a very young cub, or a dog, perhaps--and his
pride ached.  He'd believed that his pride was dead, but it hurt
anyway...just as his legs had continued to hurt, even after Kamork had
hacked them off.
  He tried to regain his contact with Cheetara's mind, but after a short
while, he realized it was useless.  Cheetara was gone, but at least he
knew that they were still searching for him, and now, they had at least
some idea of where to look.
  At this thought, his spirits lifted.  Hope was not gone after all.

  With a gasp, Cheetara opened her eyes and found herself back in her
own body.  She felt dizzy and disoriented after being torn from another
body, flung through the depths of the Void, and then hurled back into
this one.  Panthro supported her, helping her to sit, and looked down at
her expectantly.  "Well?"
  "He's alive," she breathed.
  "Thank Jaga!  Oh, thank Jaga!  Where, Cheetara?"
  "Plun-darr."
  Panthro's sunny, relieved smile slowly faded.  "What's Tygra doing on
Plun-darr?"
  "He is...in the captivity of a mutant baron named Kamork.  He doesn't
know exactly where he is, but he thinks it's near an ocean."
  "Well," Lynx-o said in his quiet, gruff voice, "that is a start."
  "We must go to Plun-darr immidiately and find him," declared Pumyra.
  "We can't all go," cautioned Panthro.  "Some of us have to stay behind
to guard the Lair and the Tower."
  Lynx-o turned his sightless face toward the sound of Panthro's voice.
"Agreed.  I will remain here to look after the Tower.  Perhaps I can
presuade Bengali to stay behind as well.  It would be good to have help
in case the mutants or Luna-taks make any sudden moves."
  "Right," agreed Panthro.  "And the kittens can guard the Lair.  They
won't like it, but I have a feeling this mission is going to be very
dangerous, and I don't want to risk them getting hurt or killed."
  "I'm coming with," Cheetara said in a stern, no-question-about-it
tone.
  "No argument there.  We're going to need your sixth sense if we're
going to find Tygra."  Panthro scowled into empty space.  "It wouldn't
hurt to have Lion-o along on this mission either."
  "But he and the snarfs are on New Thundera," Cheetara reminded him.
  Lynx-o nodded once.  "Even in a dark time such as this, the search for
the Treasure of Thundera must continue."
  "What about me?" Pumyra asked.
  "Maybe you should stay behind with Lynx-o and Bengal..."
  "No," Lynx-o interrupted sharply.  "I feel strongly that you should
take Pumyra with you this time.  Her healing skills may be needed."
  Panthro was silent for a moment, staring curiously at the old
warrior.  "Alright."  He turned to Pumyra.  "Do you want to come?"
  She returned his questioning stare with her own cool, steady gaze.
"If Lynx-o believes that I may be needed, I will come."
  "We must go soon," Cheetara said.  "Tygra may be alive, but I don't
know how long that will last.  I sensed a terrible sickness burning in
him."  She looked up at Panthro with eyes that seemed as dark and deep
as caves in her too-pale, too-thin face.  It was that depthless look,
more than what she had said, that gave him a chill.

  The Feliner headed in a direct course for Plun-darr, engines rapidly
burning thundrillium to achieve maximum speed.  The red orb of planet
hovered before them, veiled by swirls of cloud and surrounded by the
smaller orbs of its seven moons.  Panthro was piloting the Feliner.
Cheetara sat next to him, and Pumyra occupied the back seat.  The three
Thundercats watched as Plun-darr loomed closer and closer, growing,
until its cloudy redness filled every inch of the view-screen.
  Cheetara studied the rust-colored sphere, peering through gaps in the
veil of reddish fog, inspecting the terrain beneath.  It looked as
though about six-sevenths of the planet was covered by ocean, a
dully-shining grey-green.  Somewhere along the shoreline of Plun-darr's
single, massive continent, there was a castle...and somewhere in the
castle was a dungeon...and somewhere in the dungeon was Tygra.
  If they were to find him, it would be up to her, and her alone.
  Sixth sense, don't fail me, prayed Cheetara.  If ever I needed you, I
need you now.

Chapter 3
  Fish

  Tygra's fever was worse.
  He'd been working for several hours now, perfecting The Plan, waiting
for Kamork to come back and find something wrong with it again.  Now he
stopped, leaning forward, the clawtips of one hand resting lightly
against his temple.  The ache behind his eyes was excrutiating--it felt
as though someone had clamped a pair of pliars down on his optic nerve
and was twisting it, twisting it...
  His eyes winced shut.  Even the dim glow of the single gas-lamp was
becoming too much for him; the light seemed to stab sharp white needles
into his eyes whenever he looked at it.  A spreading fever smouldered
just beneath the chilly skin of his brow, and frequent shivers wracked
his too-thin shoulders.
  Now there came a loud clanging, the sound of a sword being banged
against the bars of his cell.  His eyes winced open again.  Each clang
seemed to go straight through his head, blazing a bright little flash
through his brain.  Tygra turned his head to see a snarf-sized reptilian
standing on the other side of his cell door, banging a short
sword--hardly more than a dagger--against the metal bars.
  Clang.  Clang.  Clang.
  "Dinner!" hollered the undersized reptilian, whose face was fixed in
strange grin that was somehow both insipid and cunning.  "Dinner,
yessss?  Come on, ssstripey, while your table-scraps are ssstill warm!"
  For the first time, Tygra noticed the mutant was gripping the handle
of a battered feed-bucket in one small hand.  A fishy aroma wafted from
the mouth of the bucket.  Tygra's stomach gurgled plaintively.  When had
he last eaten?  Too long ago.  He hadn't touched that morning's
breakfast; he had woken up feeling nautious, and the very thought of
consuming the lumpy, snot-colored concoction sitting in his feed-dish
had almost made him retch.  Gripping the arms of his chair, he slid
forward and slowly lowered himself to the ground.  He then proceeded to
pull himself across the damp earth floor, using his arms and the healing
stumps that were what remained of his legs.
  Skrin, the undersized reptilian, observed his efforts with a smug,
indulgent little smile.  And why shouldn't he be smug?  He had legs!
Maybe the other mutants bossed him around because of his size, but at
least he didn't have to crawl around on the floor like a lowly mongrel.
Skrin set down the bucket.  "You wantsss your dinner, yesss?"
  Tygra nodded.  His stomach was practically roaring now.  The odors
drifting from the bucket were not exactly savory, but his stomach liked
the thought of just having something inside it again.  Skrin sniggered
and picked something out of the bucket.  It looked like a scrap of
cooked fish.  He poked the scrap of food through the narrow bars and
watched as Tygra wolfed it down with blind, eager desperation.  The
fish, though not especially tasty, was a vast improvement over bugs and
snot-flavored gruel.
  "More?" Skrin inquired, almost coyly.
  Tygra nodded.
  Skrin picked another strip of fish-meat from the bucket and reached
through the bars, dangling it in front of Tygra's face...but when the
prisoner reached for it, Skrin snatched it back, yellow eyes gleaming
malevolently.  "Beg for it," he said, his playful grin a sharp contrast
to the cold spite in his voice.
  Tygra's jaw clenched.  Rage pounded in his head.  This was too much.
  Something in his face must have made Skrin uneasy, for the three-foot
mutant took a step back.  For a moment the sneering, insipidly-cunning
look was gone and replaced by dull alarm.  Skrin quickly regained his
confidence; the tiger was behind bars, wasn't he?  "Beg!" he hissed.
  "No," Tygra declared.
  "Ya don't beg, ya don't get fed!" Skrin piped cheerfully.
  "Alright.  Fine.  May I please have some food?" Tygra growled,
glowering at the gloating mutant.
  Skrin sniffed.  "Gotta do better'n that, cat!"
  "No," Tygra repeated.
  Skrin cackled shrilly.  "No food then!  You go hungry, yesss?  Teach
you a lesson!"  Huffily, he picked up his pail of fish and turned to
leave.
  "Kamork will be angry with you if I starve to death," Tygra pointed
out.  He saw Skrin freeze, hand tightening on the handle of the pail.
Skrin was afraid of Kamork.  Tygra intended to use this little fact to
his advantage.  "He'll know it was you.  You're the only one who feeds
me.  If he comes down here tomorrow and finds me dead, he'll know who to
blame, Skrin."
  There was a moment of silence, then Skrin turned back to face the
prisoner, scowling sourly.  "Ssstupid cat," he muttered, poking the rest
of the table-scraps through the bars of the cell.  "Thinks he's so
smart, thinks he's so great, just 'cause he's Kamork's favorite pet."
Sulkily, Skrin picked up his empty pail and marched off.
  "Kamork's favorite pet," Tygra repeated, and laughed, though his
laughter sounded suspiciously like a sob.  Well, that was what he was,
wasn't it?  That was how Kamork saw him; a pet.  A remarkably
intelligent pet, a pet who could do amusing tricks like design
fortresses and inpenetrable starships, but still a pet.
  He ate the scraps of cooked fish, making himself chew each bite
slowly, making it last.  He wouldn't get any more food until tomorrow
morning.  The meat was bland, almost tasteless, and Tygra guessed that
this fish was leftover from the servants' dinner, not Kamork's.  As he
chewed another mouthful of the flavorless fish, he thought about the
feasts back at Cat's Lair, masterpieces of Snarf's unrivaled
cooking-skill.  A vision appeared to him; a hunk of roast meat, dripping
with gravy, with slices of breadfruit on the side.  His stomach
shuddered with longing, his saliva-glands gushed like faucets.  He tried
to pretend that the limp table-scraps were slices of savory, steaming
beef or fresh breadfruit, but his imagination failed him.  No matter how
much he willed the fish-scraps to be beef or fruit, they would still
just be fish-scraps.
  The fish was gone more quickly than he would have liked, and though
his hunger had receded, it was not satisfied.  The hunger never seemed
to go away completely.
  Later, hunched over The Plan, wishing he had more than the faint glow
of the gas-lamp to work by, Tygra was assaulted by a sudden fit of
nausea.  He leaned forward, moaning, as his stomach ached and roiled.
The realization that he might throw up brought a flash of alarm.  He
couldn't allow himself to lose what precious little nutrition he had
within him.  He needed those warm, life-giving calories.  So he grimly
held his stomach in, waiting for the queasiness to pass.  A
nasty-tasting bile rose up into his mouth, and he swallowed it back
down, hoping that Skrin would bring him some water soon.
  The nausea finally receded, but the general feeling of illness did
not.  There was no doubt about it; Tyrga's fever was getting steadily
worse.  Surely Kamork had noticed.  Surely he was going to do something
about it.  Surely he wouldn't allow his prisoner to die, at least not
before Tygra had finished The Plan.  But when he finally did finish The
Plan, what then?  Would Kamork still have a reason for keeping him
around, or would he simply be discarded, like an old toy that has ceased
to be amusing to its owner?  Would Kamork really do that?
  Tygra though the answer to that question was a great big "You Bet."
  Nervously, he straightened his aching back, wiped the back of his hand
across his sore eyes, put down his pencil, and studied The Plan.  It was
almost complete--almost.  A few more minor changes, a few more
measurments, a quick calculation or two, and it really would be
finished...after an unbelievably long period of three weeks, it would be
finished.  Kamork might not be satisfied with it, but Tygra could not
see much room for improvement.  The Excelcior's plans would be completed
within a very short time, and Tygra would then be useless to the mutant
baron.
  Panic rose up in his throat like bile, and he choked it down.  He
thought about his brief telepathic contact with Cheetara.  Already, he'd
begun to wonder if he had imagined it; the memory had lost it's power
and seemed very dim.  Even so, he decided that his only hope lay in
being rescued by his friends.  If he could stall long enough...
  Yes.  Yes, perhaps, if The Plan were never completed, there would be
hope for him.  But how long could he keep up that bluff?  How long
before Kamork realized what he was doing?  Kamork was no idiot.  He was
nutty as a fruitcake, but definately no idiot.  He would catch on.  And
what would he do then?  What torture would await Tygra?
  Slowly, he picked up his pencil and went to work.  Best not to think
about it.
  If worst came to worst, there was always the tool with the sharp edge.

  Panthro stood outside the Feliner, surveying their new surroundings.
  They had landed on a bleak, rocky beach; beyond the stretch of arid
soil, waves crashed forlornly against the sharp rocks of the shoreline.
Heavy red fog hung over the grey-green water.  As they watched, a small
flying reptile swooped down out of the fog and plummeted toward the
water like a stone.  Thrusting its beak into the sea, it speared a fish
and swooped back into the sky with the twisting silver meal impaled on
its sharp beak.
  "Well, I guess this is as good a place as any to start the search,"
said Panthro.  "What are we supposed to be looking for, exactly?"
  "A castle," replied Cheetara.  "Or a fortress, maybe."
  "How big?  How many mutants inside?" asked Pumyra, descending the
retractable staircase that led from the Feliner to the ground.
  "I don't know," Cheetara admitted.  "I have no idea what it looks
like, or what's inside.  All I know is that it's home to some baron or
general named Kamork."
  "Oh."  The puma had a large satchel slung over one shoulder,
supposedly containing medical supplies.  Cheetara and Panthro had
similar satchels, these ones containing food and water.  They'd all
remembered to stock up on provisions before leaving.  As Pumyra had
mentioned, they didn't know how long they'd be here.  "Well, which way
shall we go?  East or west?"
  Cheetara closed her eyes for a moment.  "East."
  "You sure?" Panthro queried, switching his satchel from one shoulder
to the other.
  "Fairly sure."  In truth, Cheetara wasn't sure at all.  Her sixth
sense seemed to have gone on vacation, and she had no clear intuition of
which way they were supposed to travel.  There had been a slight--very
slight--tickle in the back of her head when she sent her thoughts
eastward.  It could have been her imagination, but they needed direction
so desperately that she was willing to grasp at any straw.
  "East it is, then," proclaimed Pumyra.
  "I don't like the idea of leaving the Feliner here unguarded,"
grumbled Panthro, "and on Plun-darr, no less!"
  "This is the middle of nowhere," Cheetara told him.  "There's a
thousand miles of wilderness to one side of us, and a thousand miles of
ocean to the other.  It could be months on end before anyone wanders
across this particular stretch of beach.  Odds are, no one will discover
the Feliner."
  "And if someone does?" growled the panther.
  "The Feliner is equipped with every state-of-the-art
theft-protection-device we could ever hope for."
  "Alright, alright, you've convinced me.  Now let's go before I change
my mind."  Re-shouldering his satchel once again (Cheetara saw that this
would develop into a nervous habit before long) Panthro set off eastward
across the endless, barren stretch of beach.  Cheetara and Pumyra
quickly caught up with him, and the three of them began their long trek
toward the castle of Baron Kamork.
  To their right, waves crashed and pounded ceaselessly against the
shore.

Chapter 4
  Mind-games

  The fever was worse, and the dreams were back.  These dreams, however,
were not quite as pleasant.
  Tygra slept with his head pillowed against his chest.  Every so often,
he would emit a low, delirious moan, or a string of distorted
sleep-talker's syllables.  A confused blur of light and sounds filled
his head.  Visions flashed by like wooden horses on some nightmare
carousel.
  There was Kamork, grinning wolfishly and holding the bloody
executioner's axe which he used to chop off the legs of his prisoners.
"Where you're going, you'll never need to walk again!" he growled,
moving closer.  Tygra saw that his teeth were also bloody, protruding
like spikes from horribly pink gums, and his eyes were glassy-white; the
eyes of a corpse.  "Never walk again," snarled Kamork, his grin widening
to show more of the grisly shark's teeth, "never walk, never walk
again..."  Kamork's voice lasped into the inarticulate, gutteral snarl
of an animal.  He swung his axe, and then he vanished, lost in the
spinning blur of the nightmare-carousel.
  There was Skrin, banging his sword against the bars of Tygra's cell
and calling out the same words over and over, in his wierd yet
oddly-musical voice; "Never walk again!  Never walk again!
Never-never-never..."  The words bled together and ran like watery
paint, fading into the dull clamor of murmuring voices that presided
over the nightmare.
  There was a pail of gruel, and when he looked inside, he saw the gruel
was covered with skittering black beetles.
  There was the Feliner, sinking into the ocean.
  There was Cheetara, lying on a narrow operating table.  Kamork stood
over her, breath hissing wetly behind his white surgeon's mask, lifting
a dull, rust-flecked executioner's axe into the air.
  There was Snarf, gathering candyfruit, and when he turned, Tygra saw
that his teeth had been replaced by long jagged things like shards of
broken glass.  His eyes were as yellow and opaque as egg-yolks.  "Have
some candyfruit," hissed a dead, rotting voice, and one paw slowly
extended, gripping a pink egg-shaped fruit.  Looking closer, Tygra saw
that the fruit was half-eaten by the plump white maggots squirming
around inside it.
  "If I eat that, I'll get sick," he told Snarf.
  "No you won't."  The Snarf-thing's mouth twisted upwards in a
grotesque parody of a smile.  "You're already dead."  It began to laugh,
horrible, clotted, drooling laughter.
  "No!" Tygra cried out defiantly.  "That's a lie!  I'm not dead!"
  "Yes-yes-yes!" it chanted mockingly.  A long black tongue snaked out
of its mouth, forked end flickering.  "Dead!  Dead and rotting!  Hee hee
hee!"  The Snarf-thing vanished, but its laughter still echoed through
Tygra's head, making him squirm restlessly in his sleep.
  The carousel whirled and twirled; the nightmare images flashed by,
melting into one another.  Bright lights blinked on and off.  Voices
howled and laughed and screamed.
  There was the bright silver band of a twisting fish impaled on the
beak of a seabird.
  There was Panthro, lying silent and motionless on a bloodstained white
floor.  Skrin stood over him, waving a gore-covered blade aloft like a
flag and laughing triumphantly.
  There was Cheetara again, sitting on the edge of a bed and weeping.
Kamork stood nearby, a grinning spector with a blood-spattered axe
gripped in one fist, like Death with its scythe, staring at Cheetara
with eggshell-white eyes.  Her legs had been severed just above the
knees.  "Let's see how fast you run now, my pretty," dribbled Kamork.
  Tygra awoke with a start, hearing the wild cry that lept from his
throat.  He sat up, heart beating out a jerky, irregular rhythm in his
chest, repirating in short, raspy breaths, fur damp with sweat.  Though
his skin felt warm and fevery, his insides were cold.  His eyes were
open, but he couldn't see; his vision was filled with a million
particles of light that danced and whirled like dust motes in a breeze.
When the myriad of swirling light-particles finally vanished, he found
himself staring into the dim, oily glow of the gas-lamp.  The
nightmare--the specific images, anyway--had already begun to fade from
his memory...but the lingering sense of horror remained.  Tygra groaned
and slumped forward...
  and felt a rough, clawed hand clamp over his shoulder.
  He jumped in his seat, letting out a loud yell.
  "You're jumpy," a voice remarked dryly.  It was Kamork, of course.
  A vision flashed in Tygra's mind, a vision from his nightmare; Kamork
with his dripping, rusted executioner's axe and his bloody-toothed
grin.  Kamork with the white eyes of a corpse.  He couldn't suppress the
shudder that ran through his body.
  "You shivered.  Why?" demanded Kamork, his tone sharp and curious and
perversely eager.
  "It's cold in here," Tygra replied lamely.
  "I see," drawled Kamork, and laughed.  "It is a bit drafty, isn't it?
But you're a mammal.  A warmblood.  You should be able to cope."  Tygra
sensed him leaning forward, peering over his prisoner's shoulder.  "I
notice you've made some progress on The Plan.  Very good.  It's almost
right, but there's still something missing.  The Excelcior must be
inpenetrable.  There must be no flaw in her design."
  "I'm working on it," Tygra told him, wishing Kamork would leave.  He
could feel the heavy puffing of the reptilian's breath on his neck,
could smell the roast meat Kamork had eaten for dinner that night, and
the wine he'd washed it down with.  "I've still got a few more
calculations to make."
  "Of course, of course!" Kamork exclaimed.  "A few more should do it."
Kamork fell silent, but he did not leave.  The heavy scaled hand
remained on Tygra's gaunt shoulder, the claws digging in like steel
pegs.  "Who is Cheetara?" the general asked offhandedly.
  Tygra's heart did an odd little skittering beat in his chest--a
slipping sensation, like a squirrel trying to walk across a patch of icy
ground--and he uttered a coughing gasp, lurching helplessly forward.
"Who?" he asked weakly.  His heart had resumed its normal beat again,
but for just a minute, the supreme shock of hearing Cheetara's name
spoken--and by Kamork, of all people--had thrown it off.  He supposed it
had something to do with malnutrition.  When people ate nothing but bugs
and gruel and tablescraps for awhile, their muscles started to waste
away, and the heart was a muscle, after all.  Oh, wonderful.  Now Tygra
could add heart failure to the list of things that could possibly kill
him while he was wasting away in this dungeon.  "Cheetara?" he asked
with what was, in his opinion, a convincingly bewildered look.
  Kamork's eyes narrowed, and his claws tightened on Tygra's shoulder
until Tygra twisted and growled with pain.  "Don't play dumb with me.
You obviously know the name.  From your reaction, one would think you
know it very well indeed."
  "But how..."
  "How did I find out?"  Kamork grinned slyly and winked.  "I've been
standing here for quite awhile."
  Tygra stared, uncomprehending.
  "Hmm...I guess no one's ever told you that you talk in your sleep."
Kamork's grin widened at the shocked look on his prisoner's face.  "You
talk quite a bit, in fact.  I could only understand one in every twelve
words you said, but from what I could understand, your dreams concern
someone named Cheetara."
  "I've never heard the name," he lied.  For some reason, he desperately
did not want Kamork to know who Cheetara was.  He didn't see why it
mattered...except that she was part of the dreams, and to let Kamork
know about the dreams would be to let Kamork probe into the most sacred,
most secret part of Tygra's heart.  He did not want that.  Kamork
already knew far too much of his heart.
  "Oh come now," Kamork said in a playful, you-can't-fool-me tone.
"There's something going on in your head, and I want to know about it."
His claws tightened their hold again, and Tygra bit back a cry of pain.
"Who is this Cheetara?  Was she your mate?  Your daughter, perhaps?"
  "Don't...know...what you're...talking...about," Tygra managed to growl
out.
  Kamork dug his claws still deeper into Tygra's shoulder; the talons
pierced flesh, drew blood.  Tygra drew his breath in sharply.  Kamork
tore his claws away, blood dripping from his talons in rose-hued
pearls.  "Someday you will learn, Tygra," Kamork said, calmly licking
Tygra's blood off his claws.  "Someday you will learn to give me the
answers I want, and then we won't have to go through this anymore.  I
really don't enjoy having to punish you."
  The hell you don't, Tygra thought sourly, watching Kamork taste his
blood as if it were fine wine.  And if I do have some sort of infection
in my blood, I hope you get it, and I hope it kills you as slowly as
you're killing me.
  At this thought, shame--warm and sour--rose up into his throat.
  Kamork was looking at him with something like amusement.  "You know,
you are by far the most entertaining aquaintance I have ever had.  I may
keep you around long after the Excelcior has been built."
  Well, there he had it.  There was the answer to the big question,
'what will happen to you after The Plan is finished?'  Apparently, he
wasn't going to die, at least not for a good long time.  He supposed he
should have been relieved.  He was not.  Instead, he was bitterly
disappointed.

  Cheetara was perched atop one of the jagged peaks that overlooked the
ocean.  She sat, legs folded in front of her, eyes closed, hands cupped
around her feline ears as if she were listening for something.  A cool,
salty breeze lifted her hair, and soft sea-mist caressed her cheek.  She
was searching once again for that frail, lonely spark, lost in the
depths of the Void, trying to regain her contact with Tygra.  She would
not have to enter a dream-flight this time; once contact had been
established, it could be regained without much difficulty.  In theory.
  In reality, it was proving very difficult indeed.  This could mean one
of two things; either Tygra was protected by some sort of telepathic
forcefield which she could not penetrate, or he was deeply unconcious.
Even if he was asleep, she'd be able to recognize the whispers of his
subconcious.  But there was also a third possibility, one which she had
to accept whether she liked it or not; the possibility that he could
already be dead.
  Cheetara opened her eyes.
  Below her, the sandy ruin of the beach was spread out, and beyond that
the monotonous grey-green of the ocean.  No matter how far they moved
down the beach, the view never changed.
  Panthro and Pumyra were sitting on the beach, resting and eating the
meager rations they'd extracted from the food-satchels.  They'd been
travelling almost twelve hours now, and Cheetara was beginning to have
doubts about her intuition concerning where to begin the search and
which direction to go.  If she could only regain contact with Tygra,
maybe they'd be able to track him down...
  Cheetara closed her eyes and reached out with her thoughts, but found
only blackness.  She sighed, letting her hands drop into her lap.  This
wasn't getting her anywhere.
  Panthro looked up to see Cheetara making her way across the rocky
beach, toward them.  "Ho, Cheetara!" he called.  "Change your mind about
having something to eat?"
  She shook her head.  "No, I'm still not hungry.  I just think we ought
to keep moving."
  "We're slowing you down," remarked Pumyra.  "Maybe you should go ahead
without us, and report back if you find anything."
  Cheetara considered the idea.  She didn't really like the thought of
leaving the others behind, but Tygra's life might be at stake here, and
she could make better progress without them.  "Alright," she said.
"I'll go."  But which way?
  East.  That was as good a way as any, and the "tug" from that
direction seemed a little stronger now.  She didn't think it was her
imagination.
  Flashing a quick smile and flipping her long blonde mane over her
shoulder, Cheetara took off across the bleak stretch of beach, blazing
across the sand and trailing a cloud of dust in her wake.
  Pumyra slowly shook her head in amazment and picked up her satchel.
"I don't think I've ever seen her move that fast before."
  Panthro grinned, watching Cheetara vanish over the horizen before the
dust at the beginning of her trail had time to settle.  "Me neither.  I
tell you, your whole concept of speed changes after you've seen a
cheetah run."

  Cheetara ran for a long time, resting briefly between every two-mile
burst of speed, but the flat landscape of the beach never changed.  She
jogged to a halt, peering into the distance, listening to the eternal
roar and surge of waves against the rocky shore.  Her intuition to
travel east was no longer just a hunch; it was a strong, steady pull, a
feeling of being guided by some huge invisible force, drawn like steel
to a magnet.
  It had been awhile; she considered going back and reporting to her
friends, but she couldn't go back now.  Not when the pull of destiny was
so strong.  Not when she was so close to Tygra.  Panthro and Pumyra
would catch up eventually, but Cheetara had to keep moving.  Her sixth
sense was informing her that Tygra was in very deep trouble indeed, and
that she did not have much time left.
  Once she'd recovered her breath, Cheetara kept running.  She was
growing tired; her lungs and limbs burned with exertion, her heart was
pounding wildly, and a deep, aching stitch had developed in her
side...but she forced herself onward and kept herself moving with the
knowledge that she was getting closer, that she was on the right track.
  By the time she finally reached the castle, four of Plun-darr's seven
moons were visible in the darkening sky.  To her right, the waves surged
and ebbed, ebbed and surged, and moonlight glistened on the endless
water which stretched into the distance.
  The fortress reared up from the horizen, a dim outline sketched
against the pale violet of the eastern sky.  Even from this distance, it
projected an ominous sense of foreboding.  It loomed, a dark mound of
misery in the moonlit night, craggy towers cutting clean sillouettes
against the pale disk of Plun-darr's fourth moon.  Cheetara stood, a
lone figure on the infinate stretch of beach, looking very small next to
the vastness of the ocean and beneath the mirror vastness of the sky.
Her shadow stretched out behind her, long and thin, and the sea-breeze
tossed back her hair as the harsh sorrowful cries of seabirds echoed
through the stillness of twilight.
  Cheetara stood, staring at the castle of Baron Kamork and wondering
what to do next.  She felt the urgent tug from the castle, the need to
find Tygra as soon as possible--yet at the same time, the castle
repelled her, the way the smell of death repells an animal.  She knew by
instinct that it was a place of evil and death, and to go inside would
mean almost certain doom for her and her companions.  Yet they must go
inside.  She must go inside.
  "But not alone," she murmured aloud to herself.  "No matter how great
your impatience, to go inside that place alone would be to sign your own
death warrant.  Wait for Panthro and Pumyra.  Together, at least, we
will have a chance."
  So Cheetara sat down on the beach to do the hardest thing of all.
  She waited.

  After following Cheetara's tracks across the damp sand for what seemed
like an eternity, Panthro and Pumyra finally climbed a shallow rise in
the ground--not quite a hill--to see their friend sitting on the beach
not far away.  Cheetara heard their approach, rose to her feet, and
turned to face them.  "Ho, my friends," she said simply.
  "Find something?" Panthro called as he and Pumyra moved toward her
across the pale beach.  The bone-white sand contrasted starkly with the
deep blackness of the ocean.
  Cheetara nodded and looked toward the castle on the horizen.  Panthro
and Pumyra followed her gaze, straining their eyes against the
darkness.  "Looks like a building of some sort," Panthro observed,
squinting.
  "A fortress," Cheetara agreed.
  "Not a very hospitable-looking place," Pumyra said uneasily.  "Those
iron spikes on the gates, and the bars on the windows...it looks like a
prison to me."
  Panthro raised his eyebrows in surprise.  "You can see all that from
this distance?  And at night?"
  "Sure.  Can't you?"
  "You kiddin'?  I couldn't even tell that it was a fortress.  I guess
your eyes are better than ours."
  Pumyra just stood, staring out into the distance for a moment longer.
The castle of Baron Kamork looked like a combination jailhouse, fortress
and country manor.  Even with the aura of doom that hovered about it,
the castle had a darkly graceful elegance in the slant of the roofs, the
delicate peaks of the towers, and the dignified solidity of the iron
gates.  A formidable structure, indeed.  Shaking off the gloom the sight
of the castle had awakened in her, Pumyra straightened her back and
adjusted the straps of the carrying-satchel in a businesslike manner.
"Well, if we're going inside that place, we might as well get moving
now."
  "Shouldn't we come up with a plan first?"
  "We'll be able to form a better plan once we get a good look at the
place, see what their defenses are," replied Pumyra.  "Though I have a
hunch that the place is pretty well-guarded.  It'll be tough to get in."

  Kamork was relaxing in his study, sipping at a cup of hot herbal tea
as he inspected Tygra's newest version of The Plan.  It was good.  Very
good.  But it was not right.  Kamork scowled and sipped at his tea,
tapping his claws against the rich, polished wood of his study-desk.
The tiger was willfull, yes.  That will-power, that sense of
individuality, was foolish and counterproductive and only got in the way
of The Plan's completion.  Tygra was not trying his hardest.  Kamork was
mortally certain of this.
  A small smile played about the face of the reptilian warlord.  Tygra
would require a good deal of training if he were to become a proper
servant.  In the past, cutting off a prisoner's legs usually did the
trick; it took away that counterproductive, rebellious attitude and made
them more managable.  But Tygra was a special case.  He would have to be
punished continually, broken in, as a wild colt is broken in so it may
learn to bear the weight of the yoke and contribute its own part to that
huge, complex machine known as society.  Everyone played a part.  That
was the way things were done.
  Kamork sipped his tea.
  Tygra would have to be punished severely, yes.  And would Kamork dole
out that punishment?  Why, of course!  That was Kamork's job.  He didn't
enjoy it, no, not one bit (as he continued to assure himself) but he
would punish his servant because it was his duty.  His sacred duty, just
as it was the duty of a parent to punish his children so they would grow
up to be obidient, productive members of society.  Just as it was the
duty of a horsebreaker to beat a wild colt so the colt would grow up
fearing and respecting the hand of its owner.  Tygra still had much to
learn, mused Kamork.  He had a splendid mind, but it was cluttered with
foolish notions of freewill and justice, notions that were outdated and
unpractical--and, of course, counterproductive.  But perhaps, if Kamork
kept hammering away at that mind, he could shape it into something more
useful.
  Society.  Productivity.  The way things were done.
  Kamork took another sip of his tea, savoring its warmth, its subtle
flavor.
  The Plan would be completed by tomorrow night.  If not, he would have
to get serious with Tygra's punishment.  The colt must be broken in, and
the Excelcior must be built.  Once she was finished, no one would be
able to stand up to Kamork.  No more would he be a lowly baron, a
retired general to be ignored or laughed at by his peers.  With
Excelcior, he would be invinsible.
  The door burst open, shattering Kamork's reverie, and a shrill voice
drilled into his ear; "Baron Kamork!  Baron Kamoooork!"
  "What?" he snapped, lurching from his chair so violently that it
tipped over.  In the process, he also knocked over his mug of tea.  It
hit the ground in an explosion of ceramic shards.  The dark amber liquid
spilled and was quickly absorbed by Kamork's expensive Kortish rugs.
Kamork looked at the stain with building fury.  His bunched fists
quivered.
  Skrin stood in the doorway, looking warily at his general, trying to
decide whether or not he should flee.  Kamork looked like he was about
to explode.  Before Skrin could make up his mind, Kamork turned upon him
with a cheerily-smiling face and beckoned with one claw.  Skrin
relaxed.  Maybe Kamork wasn't going to explode after all...the Baron
could change moods very quickly.  And he could be nice when he wanted
to.  "Come here, my loyal Skrin," Kamork said pleasantly.  "Come and
tell me your news.  It must be important, the way you came rushing in
here."
  "Oh, it isss!" Skrin hastened to assure him.
  "Well?  Don't keep me in suspense."
  "Intrudersss, my General.  Three of them!  I saw them, but they did
not sssee me."
  Kamork frowned.  "Intruders?  There have been no intruders since the
war ended."
  "They were there, Kamork," Skrin replied solemnly.  "Outside the
castle.  They were hiding.  They thoughtsss no one would see them, but
Skrin saw.  Ssskrin saw!"
  Kamork seized the smaller reptilian's shoulder, making him flinch.
"What sort of intruders, Skrin?"
  "Catsss," whined the small mutant, writhing under Kamork's punishing
grip.
  "Cats?  Were they tigers, Skrin?"
  "No.  Different.  Three of 'em.  A big grey fella, a spotted she-cat,
and a smaller one.  Dunno what kind.  Lemme go Kamork!  Hurtsss!"
  Kamork glanced at the claw he had wrapped tightly around Skrin's
shoulder, as if noticing it for the first time.  He tightened his grip
slightly before releasing the whimpering creature.  Skrin snivelled,
nursing his shoulder.  Kamork smiled brightly.  "Oh, I'm so terribly
sorry, Skrin!  I haven't hurt you, have I?"  His yellow eyes dared Skrin
to tell him that he had.
  Skrin managed a weak, rather pitiful smile.  "No Kamork, 's alright,
Skrin's not hurt!"
  "Oh good," Kamork said silkily.  His face contorted in a grin.
  Skrin backed away.  "Should I sound the alarm, General?" he asked
meekly.  "Should I warm 'em?  Should I tell 'em to chase the cats away?"

  "No, that won't be necessary, my faithful subject," dripped Kamork.
"I've got a little plan.  I'd like to give our new guests a warm
welcome, and you're going to help me."
  "Me?"  Skrin looked bewildered.  "What can I do?"
  "Listen."  Kamork pulled his servant closer and leaned down, speaking
in a low, conspirational tone, hardly more than a whisper.  Skrin
listened.  As understanding gradually dawned, a delighted grin spread
across his face, and he giggled insanely.  "Got it?" Kamork asked when
he had finished speaking.
  Skrin bobbed his head enthusiastically, still sniggering wickedly.
"Yesss, yesss!  I understandsss!  Oh, you are a clever one, Kamork!"
  Kamork smiled thinly.  "Of course I'm clever.  That's why I'm the one
giving the orders.  Now, be a good Skrin and run along now, hmm?  We
can't keep our feline friends waiting.  It would be rude."
  This time, Skrin positively screeched with laughter.  "Yesss!
Yesssss!"  Still shrieking his abrasive laughter at the top of his
lungs, Skrin turned and skipped away.  As he skipped, he chanted; "Can't
keep 'em waitin', can't keep 'em waitin'!"
  Kamork continued to smile thinly as he watched his servant go.  Once
Skrin was out of sight, Kamork's smile melted away and was replaced by a
dark scowl.  "Imbecile," muttered the baron.

Chapter 6
  Capture and Escape

  "It's too quiet," remarked Panthro.  "Something is afoot.  I can smell
it."  A deep growl rumbled within his cavernous chest.
  The three Thundercats had crept 'round to the back of the fortress to
look for a possible entryway.  They'd been met with the same iron
railings, vicious-looking spikes and barred windows, but there was not a
single guard in sight, and that alone was enough to warrant suspicion.
Panthro knew what it smelled like--it smelled like a trap.
  "We should have run into one of Kamork's mutants by now," seconded
Pumyra.  "Do you think the place is deserted?"  She glanced at Cheetara,
noted the look on her face, and answered her own question in a quiet,
subdued tone, "No.  No, I guess it isn't.  But then why the lack of
guards?"
  "Perhaps, after living in this isolated spot for many years, Kamork
has been lulled into a sense of security.  He does not expect intruders
anymore."  Cheetara paused.  "That doesn't feel true, somehow, but it
makes sense."
  Panthro stared up at the lonely-looking towers, the barred windows,
the steep stone walls, and said; "Alright, if we're going to do it,
let's do it."  Stepping back, he whipped out his nunchucks and aimed one
of them at the lock of the iron gates.  A compartment at the tip of the
nunchuck flipped open, and a burst of flame shot out, making an abrupt
flash of brightness in the velvet-dark night.
  Cheetara glanced nervously up at the barred windows, wondering if
anyone had seen the flame.
  Holding out his nunchucks, Panthro began to melt the heavy gate-lock.
Flame licked at metal, and metal dripped down like water.  Finally, the
lock had dribbled down the iron bars of the gates, allowing Panthro to
reach out and pull the gates open with both hands.
  The hinges of the gate voiced a rusty squawk of protest, and they all
winced at the noise, which exploded in the silence like a firecracker.
Panthro glanced at his two companions; they nodded in return, and the
three of them moved swiftly and soundlessly through the open gates like
the moon-shadows cast by the gently-swaying trees in the castle's
courtyard.  Wind swept through the bare branches, moaning its low,
ghostly moan.
  At the other side of the courtyard was a simple oaken door, about six
feet tall.  It was fitted with a similar lock, only smaller.  Cheetara
whisked out her bo-staff; the staff glowed soft yellow, quickly growing
to four times its size.  In one swift, deft movement, Cheetara swung the
staff; it whistled through the air, neatly splitting the lock in two.
The two halves dropped to the grassy ground with a soft thud.
Cheetara's staff diminished to its normal size.  She sheathed it,
reached out, placed a hand on the door, and stopped...casting a
questioning glance in the direction of the other Thundercats.  They gave
her a nod of agreement.  Cheetara took a deep breath, steeled herself--
and opened the door.
  Immidiately she lept back, bo-staff out and ready, prepared for an
attack...but beyond the door, there was only a shadowy hallway.  Empty.
Tomblike.  Cheetara let her breath out in a whoosh of air.  Panthro and
Pumyra, who had also been tensed up and ready for battle, lowered their
weapons and relaxed.  Once more, they exchanged glances; once more, they
nodded to each other in wordless agreement.  Facing ahead, they moved
forward and entered the shadowy hall.
  Though it was utterly silent, their footsteps made no sound on the
stone floor.  The three Thundercats looked around in growing
astonishment.  The hall was spacious, the ceiling so high it was lost in
darkness.  Once it might have been a dining hall, or a council chamber,
or even a grand ballroom; now, it was utterly deserted, and from the
look of it had not been used for decades.  The floor-stones were damp,
slick with moss and filth.  Insects skittered here and there, clicking
as their quick little legs carried them over stones and into cracks in
the walls.  To their right, an old, rickety-looking staircase wound its
way upwards toward some other floor.  The wooden bannister had
collapsed, and lay in fragments near the bottom of the steps.  Pumyra
glanced up and saw a very ancient, cobweb-caked crystal chandelier
hanging suspended from the ceiling; its upper part was lost in gloom,
making it seem to float over their heads.  Abrutply, a sound ruptured
the stoney quiet; a gust of flapping wings, accompanied by a chorus of
squeaks and shrieks.  The Thundercats looked up, tensing.
  A cloud of bats swooped down out of the darkness, their fluttering
wings sillouetted dimly against the moonlit stain-glass windows.  With a
roar, Panthro brandished his nunchucks, spun around wildly and shrank
away from the swarm of bats.
  "Easy!" Cheetara cautioned in a loud whisper.
  The bats had vanished back into the gloom whence they came, and
Panthro stood with his back to them.  The panther glanced sheepishly
over his shoulder.  He was emberrassed.  "Shouldn't've yelled out like
that," he whispered gruffly.  "Gods curse me, if Kamork didn't know we
were here before, he certainly does now."
  "It's alright," Pumyra replied with a confidence she did not quite
feel.  "If trouble comes we'll deal with it.  We're Thundercats.
Right?"
  Just then, the door slammed shut behind them.  They whirled around in
surprise, eyes wide, weapons at the ready, but they could see no one
there.  Yet laughter echoed throughout the hall; high-pitched, shrieking
laughter, accompanied by a patter of small feet.  Panthro spun toward
the sound of the laughter and fired a blast from his nun-chucks; the
bright spurt of flame illuminated the dwarfish figure which was
scurrying toward the staircase, giggling obscenely.  "Stop!" Panthro
yelled out in his most deep, commanding voice, though he had no idea
what they were going to do if the creature actually did stop.
  The snarfish figure reached the foot of the stairs and began to
scuttle toward the second floor, still cackling like some shrill-voiced,
noisy bird.  "Heehehehehee!  Kamork says welcome guestsss!  I give 'em a
welcome alright!  Heeheeheehee!"
  "Wait, you!" shouted Panthro, but to no avail; the creature had
reached the top of the staircase and vanished through the round,
hatchlike doorway.
  The second after he disappeared, a wierd hissing, whirring noise
filled the air.  Cheetara glanced around sharply and saw that every
opening--every door and window--was being sealed off by mechanical steel
plates which slid into place and locked there with solid, resounding
clicks.
  "They've sealed us in!" Pumyra exclaimed, dismayed.
  "Blast!" growled Panthro.  "We've fallen right into a trap!"
  But that wasn't all--now several of the large, square stones were
sliding inward and vanishing, leaving huge, gaping holes in the walls.
Thick, greenish fog poured in through those holes and billowed
throughout the hallway.  It filled the noses and throats of the three
Thundercats, making them cough and gag and sink to their knees, making
them drop their weapons and clutch at their constricting throats.
Panthro shut his eyes against the stinging green gas and wheezed
painfully, "H-hold your breath...wh-whatever you do, don't...breathe
this stuff...innn..." and he slumped to the floor, senseless.
  "Panthro..." Cheetara whispered through a raw, stinging throat.  With
her senses rapidly fading, she looked up and saw three dark shapes
looming out of the green fog; heard the hollow raspy breaths that came
through the gas-masks on their faces.  The hulking shapes leaned over
her, slitted yellow eyes burning into hers.
  One of them reached out and gripped her arm with a powerful, scaled
claw, and a wierdly calm and pleasant voice filtered through the
gas-mask and into her dimming conciousness; "Just relax, my dear.  Sleep
and dream sweet dreams.  When you wake up, all will be well."
  Cheetara's eyelids slid heavily shut.
  Unconciousness blanketed her mind, and for a short while, Cheetara
knew no more.

  Kamork admired his new prisoner.  The spotted she-cat was stretched
out across the narrow steel table which Kamork usually used for his
little "surgeries."  Several straps of tough synthetic material secured
her to the table, and Kamork eagerly awaited her awakening.  The other
two prisoners were stashed away in the dungeon; he would deal with them
in due time.  It was this creature which interested Kamork.
  The she-cat's eyelids flickered.  Kamork watched eagerly.  The
sleep-gas was wearing off.  "Ohh...where am I?" the cheetah asked
weakly, blinking her eyes in the bright glare of the electric lights
which harshly illuminated every corner of the stark, white-walled room.
"Panthro?  Pumyra?"
  "They are not here right now, nor does it matter.  I am all that
matters now, my dear.  What did you think of the little trap I set up in
the old dining hall?  Clever, eh?  It was once a very useful ploy, back
in the days when there were battles to be fought and this old castle was
still plagued by intruders."
 Half-awake, the cheetah looked about with muddy confusion.  She could
only move her eyes--one of the tough synthetic straps secured her neck
to the steel table and prevented her from turning her head.  She looked
up at Kamork, and some of the confusion left her eyes, burned away by
the anger kindling deep within that amber gaze.  "Undo these bonds!" she
ordered.  Despite her desperate predicament, her voice was clear and
strong and commanding; the voice of a born leader.
  "I'm afraid that's just not possible," Kamork said regretfully.  "Not
yet."
  "Who are you?"
  "I am the baron-general Kamork.  This is my castle."
  "Kamork!"  Fierce recognition blazed in her eyes.  "I knew you looked
familiar!  You're the bastard who's been keeping Tygra prisoner all this
time!"
  Kamork clasped his scaled hands together.  "You know Tygra!  Oh, how
delightful!" he swooned.  "My my, it is a small galaxy, isn't it?"  A
sly idea had taken root in Kamork's fertile mind, and now he smiled.
"Cheetara--my, what a lovely name.  A lovely name for a lovely young
cat."  He gathered a handful of her silken gold mane, marvelling at the
texture, the way it slid between his claws.
  Cheetara jerked away from him, but the straps held her in place.
Quivering with rage, she glared up at the reptilian general.  "How did
you know my name?"
  Kamork's smile widened, displaying his long sharp teeth to their full
advantage.  "I have my ways.  Let me give you a bit of advice, Cheetara,
and it will save you a lot of pain in the future; watch your step around
me.  If your tiger friend had heeded this advice, he could have saved
himself a lot of pain.  Learn from his example, my dear."
  She growled, and twisted violently in the restraining straps.  "What
did you do to Tygra, you filthy kidnapper?"
  "Nothing he could have prevented himself, had he taken that little bit
of advice I just gave you."
  "What did you do to him?" she roared, lurching forward, straining
against the straps.  The straps did not break, but the little wheeled
table jerked and rolled forward a few inches.
  Kamork skipped around to the side of the table and laughed;
breathless, delighted laughter.  "My, you are a firey one!  You will
need special training."  Kamork snapped his fingers, and the door burst
open.  Two hulking reptilians shoved their bulk through the narrow
doorway.  "Give her something that will calm her down a bit," ordered
Kamork.
  One of the muscular mutants came forward, holding a hypodermic needle
that gleamed in the glaring flourescant light.  The reptilian seized her
arm with powerful, scaly claws, and she tried to twist away.
"Ssstruggling will only make things worse.  Lie ssstill," he advised
her.
  "Stay away from me!" she hissed, glaring poison at the guard.  He
wrapped his claws tighter around her arm as she fought him, twisting and
writhing like a serpent.  The needle slid into her arm, and she twitched
once, convulsively.  Her muscles went limp, and her eyes began to close.

  "Very good," said Kamork.  "Take her down to the dungeons and secure
her."
  "Right away, my lord," the second guard replied in a fittingly servile
tone.  He began to undo the straps that held Cheetara to the operating
table.
  Kamork stroked his scaly chin thoughtfully, and a sly grin began to
form around the corners of his mouth.  "On second thought, take her to
my chambers, and make sure that she stays there.  I will return
shortly.  I have a little business to complete with Tygra."
  "As you wish, General Kamork."
  Both reptilians turned to him and bowed at the waist, planting fists
against their hearts in a guesture of devotion.  Then one of them turned
back and continued to undo Cheetara's bindings.

  Pumyra awakened with a splitting headache.  She was lying on a hard
surface that felt damp and cool beneath her cheek--dirt.  Opening her
eyes, she found herself in a dimly-lit underground cell.  Both her
slingshot and her pouch of ammunition were missing.  "Blast it!" she
muttered to herself, angry at being tricked, angry at herself for not
seeing the trap ahead of time.  Picking herself up off the filthy floor,
she took in her surroundings.
  It was hard to see in the small cell; the only light came from the
torches flickering outside.  There was a stout wooden door, with a
single barred window set about two-thirds of the way up.  The cell was
utterly devoid of furniture, and empty except for Pumyra.  Where were
they keeping Panthro and Cheetara?
  Walking over to the solitary door, she gripped the grimey bars of the
square window and peered into the tunnel outside.  There was another
door directly across from her cell.  "Cheetara?  Panthro?" she called
out hopefully.
  A shuffle of movement from beyond the door, and then Panthro's face
appeared behind the bars of the tiny window.  "Pumyra!  Thank the gods
you're alright.  I take it they relieved you of your weapons too?"
  "Yes," she sighed.  "We're in a bad spot, that's for sure.  Where's
Cheetara?"
  "I don't know."  A shadow of guilt fell over Panthro's face.  "This is
all my fault, Pumyra.  If I hadn't shouted out like that..."
  "No, Panthro," she interrupted gently.  "You mustn't blame yourself.
Those blasted mutants obviously knew we were coming, otherwise they
couldn't have trapped us like that.  We're all equally guilty for not
taking a few minutes to put all the clues together.  If we had, we would
have realized something was wrong."
  Panthro shrugged moodily.  "Well...no use brooding over it now, I
guess.  Now, we've got to focus on getting ourselves out of this
puke-hole and finding Cheetara and Tygra."
  "That's the spirit!" exclaimed Pumyra, trying to sound bold and
confident.  She sure didn't feel bold and confident, though.  She felt
worried.  Worried, and badly scared.  Their captors might be torturing
or killing Cheetara right now, and they might be next in line.
Furthermore, there didn't seem to be anything they could do about it.
They were stuck in this filthy dungeon, weaponless and at the mercy of
their jailors.
  Pumyra was jerked out of her dismal thoughts by the sound of
approaching footsteps.  Panthro looked up sharply.  "Be alert," he
warned.  "Here comes a guard."
  The reptilian came strolling through the torchlit tunnel, carelessly
twirling a ring of keys.  He paused outside Pumyra's cell, long tail
swishing back and forth.  "New prisonersss," he observed impassively.
  Pumyra watched the guard carefully, an idea beginning to take shape in
her mind.  She had a--well, it wasn't quite a plan, but it was
something.  A spark.  A flicker.  And if she was careful, they just
might have a shot at getting out of here after all.  Clearing her
throat, she called out in her meekest, most humble tone of voice;
"Um...excuse me.  Sir?"
  The guard looked surprised.  He regarded her distrustfully.  "Yesss?"
  "Sir, I was wondering.  My friend and I are very hungry, and I was
wondering if you could bring us something to eat."  She gave him what
she hoped was an adequately timid look; she was trying to appear as
nonthreatening as possible.
  Panthro stared at her from across the dim corridor, brow furrowed in
disbelief, flinging a silent question at her with his eyes: What are you
doing?
  She returned his angry, questioning gaze with a single hard stare:
Just watch.
  Clearing her throat again, Pumyra turned back to the mutant guard, and
her face was once again shy and humble and hopeful.  "Please, sir?  I'm
very hungry.  If you could bring us some food--it doesn't have to be
much, just a little something--I'd be very grateful."
  The guard frowned.  "Kamork would ssskin me alive if I fed you without
hisss permission.  I'd be taking a big risk to bring you food, even a
little something."
  "Please," she emphasized, forcing herself to whine a little.
  The guard sighed heavily, giving her an open, speculative look that
seemed out of place with his stormy frown.  Then she saw something she
would not have expected from a mutant; pity.  The reptilian's course
features softened, and he grunted softly, "Alright, I'll see what I can
dig up.  I don't know if it will be sssuitable for a feline; I must
admit, I find sssome of the things in your diet rather objectionable.
But then, you probably feel the same way about what we eat."
  This mutant, Pumyra decided, was actually a pretty decent fellow.  He
was willing to go out of his way to bring them something to eat, even at
the risk of punishment.  Pumyra felt a pang of regret for what she was
going to do.  "Thank you," she told him, smiling with gratitude that was
completely unfeigned.  He had, after all, just provided the means for
their escape.  "You're very kind."
  The mutant only grunted again, turned, and ambled off down the tunnel.

  "What was that all about?" demanded Panthro.
  "Wait," Pumyra replied simply.
  The mutant returned shortly, bearing a tray.  Piled atop were two
rolls of bread, a clay pitcher which presumably held water, and half a
cooked fish.  Pumyra wondered if he'd had to smuggle the food from
Kamork's own kitchens.  Would anyone notice the missing rolls and fish?
Whether someone did or not, the mutant had taken a risk for them.  Even
this small act of selflessness was enough to make Pumyra ache with
guilt.  What she was about to do was very cowardly and
un-Thundercat-like...but if they were to rescue Cheetara and Tygra, she
had no choice.
  "I'm back," the guard announced, and there was the click of a key
turning in a lock.  Pumyra steeled herself.  The door creaked open, and
a reptilian head poked into the cell.  "I brought something for you to
eat.  I hope it's s--"
  In one swift, fluid motion, Pumyra drew back her fist and unleashed a
powerful blow that knocked the guard clean out.  He slumped to the
floor, blood pouring from one temple.  The tray clattered to the floor,
bread and fish rolling in all directions, clay pitcher shattering into a
dozen fragments.  Water gushed out across the cell-floor, dark and
glistening in the torchflame.  "Gods forgive me," she whispered, and
knelt, slipping the key-ring from the guard's pocket.
  The mutant groaned slightly and stirred, turning his head to one
side.  There was a lot of blood pouring down the side of his face, but
scalp-wounds tended to bleed a lot; chances were, he'd awaken with
nothing more than a bad headache.  Of course, once Kamork found out this
guard had allowed two prisoners to escape, the headache would be the
least of his problems.
  Stepping over the unconcious reptilian, Pumyra crossed the narrow
hallway and stood before Panthro's cell door.  She sorted through the
ring of keys, fitting one after another into the lock, until she found
one that clicked.  The door swung open.  Panthro lept out, regarding
Pumyra with a broad grin.  "I have to admit, Pumyra, that was pretty
amazing."
  She glanced at the limp bundle of limbs and tail in her cell doorway.
She felt empty.  Sick.  "Yes...I guess it was."  She thought about her
healing supplies, sitting in a satchel out on the beach, behind a rock
outcrop.  They'd hidden all the satchels the previous night, not wanting
to be burdened with them when they made their move, but now she
regretted leaving them behind.  If she'd had some ointment and bandages
with her, she could have at least treated the guard's wound.
  "Come on," said Panthro.  "Let's get out of here before that mutant
wakes up.  We'll see if we can find where they're keeping Tygra in this
blasted dungeon."

  Tygra's fever was worse.
  He sat slumped in his chair, head resting on the desk, awake and yet
dreaming.  He felt the rough grain of the desk-wood against his cheek,
he smelled the thick, oily reek of the gas-lamp and felt its loathsome
warmth on his face; he was very aware of his own breathing, which came
in thin, labored wheezes, and of a firey itch beneath the fur of his
back.  Fleas, probably.
  Yet though he remained aware of all these sensations, his concious
mind continued to slip in and out of the fever-dreams.  Voices echoed
down the shadowy corridors and stairwells where his dream-self wandered,
lost and terrified.  Thick cobwebs were strung across his path; near the
ceiling, candyfruit-sized spiders dangled from gossamer-thin strands,
their long black legs twisting, looking as though they might drop down
on him at any moment.  Torches guttered in their iron sconces, and it
seemed that there were faces concealed within those leaping flames,
materializing briefly in a grin, or a silent scream, only to be
swallowed once more by the fire.
  A soft voice jerked Tygra out of his fever-induced illusion; someone
calling his name.  His eyes, already open, blinked groggily, but still
he saw the shadowy hall and the spiders and the faces hidden in flame.
  "Tygra!"--louder this time, and he recognized the voice.  Panthro.
  Desperately, he tried to call back to his friend, but no sound emerged
from his parched throat.  Nor could he seem to move.  He was trapped
here, locked in this waking dream, blind and inert.
  Pumyra's voice now, quieter: "I don't think he can hear us, Panthro."
  Oh, but I can!  I hear you, Pumyra!  Please don't leave me!
  "I guess you're right," Panthro admitted, but he didn't sound entirely
convinced.  "Wierd.  His eyes are open, but he doesn't seem awake."
  But I am awake!  I am! he cried out silently, and felt hot tears
beginning to seep from his eyes, spilling down his face, carving dark
paths through his fur.  A thin sound forced its way through his clotted,
constricted throat; a tiny, barely-audible moan, the sound some small,
dying animal might make.
  Pumyra's gasped; she might not have heard the moan, but she saw the
tears.  "By the gods!  Panthro, I think he is awake!  Tygra!  If you can
hear us, give us a sign."
  Summoning all his strength, he uttered another sound, this one much
louder.  His vision cleared, and he broke out of the trance, heart
flooded with tremendous relief.  "Pumyra!" he called.  His voice was
hoarse and mangled, almost a snarl, and he flinched upon hearing it.  He
sounded like a demon, like something that had crawled out of a dark,
foul cave to abduct helpless cubs and devour them whole.
  Panthro leaned forward and gripped the bars of the cell; in his face
was a mixture of anxiety, relief, fear, and something akin to love.  He
had found his old friend, who was alive, but decidedly not well.
"Tygra!  Gods, man, you look terrible!  You think you'll be able to walk
once we get you out of this dump?"
  The word walk cut straight to his heart, shocking him down to the very
core of his being, and for one horrible moment, he thought Panthro might
be teasing him...
then the explanation unravelled itself in his mind, perfectly logical
and perfectly simple.  Tygra was sitting behind the solid block of wood
that he used for a desk.  They couldn't see past this block of wood.
They couldn't see the hideous, half-healed, bandaged stumps.
  Panthro and Pumyra were regarding him anxiously, peering through the
bars of the cell.  Tygra heaved a long, dusty sigh.  "There's something
I have to show you," he said in that hoarse, quavering croak.
  "Can it wait?" asked Pumyra, who was already busy fitting key after
key into the lock of his cell-door, trying to find the one that fit.
"We've got to get you out of here as quickly as possible, and we've no
time to..."
  Tygra did not wait for her to finish.  Instead, he gripped the arms of
the chair and lowered himself to the floor, as he'd done so many times
in order to receive his evening table-scraps.  Pumyra froze just before
fitting another key into the lock, staring at him in utter
bewilderment.  "Tygra, what are y--" she trailed off, eyes widening, as
she saw him begin to crawl awkwardly across the floor, using thin arms
and short, healing stumps that were not legs at all, and he could almost
read the frantic rush of her thoughts--
  Oh Jaga, I can't be seeing this, this isn't real, please don't let it
be real...
  Tygra stopped in front of the cell bars, propping himself off the
floor with both arms and staring quietly at his horrified companions.
"You see," he said simply.
  There was a moment of shocked silence.  "Tygra--" Pumyra began at
last, eyes huge and dark in her pale face.  "Did Kamork do this to you?"

  He nodded and averted his eyes.  He could not bear to look at his
fellow Thundercats.
  "Oh, Tygra..." whispered her soft, heartbroken voice.  A hand
tentatively touched his face.  He raised his eyes and saw Pumyra looking
steadily at him.  Her face was still too drawn, too pale, but there was
none of the disgust or queasiness he had expected--the disgust he saw in
his own eyes whenever he happened to catch sight of himself in a
reflective surface.  "We'll get you out of this place, Tygra.  We'll
take you back to Cat's Lair.  I will do everything in my power to help
you escape--I promise it."
  "Same goes for me," Panthro agreed, reaching through the bars to rest
one broad hand on Tygra's gaunt shoulder.
  Tygra looked up into their faces--the grey warrior, the amber-eyed
healer--and felt a powerful surge of gratitude for his friends.  Their
loyalty ran deep, though what he'd done to earn it, he did not know.
Even as a kitten, Tygra had been burdened with an intense
self-conciousness that only increased as he grew older.  Sometimes this
heightened sense of self-awareness helped him, but often it got him into
trouble, plaguing him with deep doubts about the quality of his own
character.  The other Thundercats gave him a faith that he had never
quite been able to give himself.
  "Let's see if we can get you out of this cell, now."  Pumyra began
once again fitting keys into the lock, sifting through the ring of
possible candidates.  Each time she inserted a key into the keyhole and
it refused to turn, frustration flickered across her delicate features,
and she tried yet another.  "None of these work!" she exclaimed in
dismay.
  "Where did you get the keys?"
  "A guard."
  "No wonder," Tygra said wearily.  "Kamork holds the only key to this
cell."
  "Then we'll just have to get the key from Kamork!" declared Panthro.
"And I give you my word that I'll wring the bastard's scaly neck for
what he's done to you, Tygra."
  Tygra managed a smile.  "Thank you, Panthro, but I couldn't ask you to
endanger yourself further for me."
  "Not at all!" growled the warrior.  "It will be a pleasure."
  "Come, Panthro," urged Pumyra, straightening her back.  "We have no
time to waste."  She cast a glance at Tygra.  "Will you be alright here
for awhile?"
  "I've lasted this long.  I can manage for a little longer."
  "Alright."  She turned.
  Panthro nodded a brief farewell to the prisoner before following
Pumyra down the long, torchlit corridor.  "Stop," Panthro said suddenly,
holding out one arm to halt his companion.  "Someone's coming."
  The shuffle of sandled feet on the floor reached their ears, and a
second later, a large, hulking shadow appeared on the wall, flickering
with torchlight.  Both of them reached the same conclusion in the same
instant--after what Pumyra had done to the unfortunate guard, they did
not want to hurt anyone.  It would be better to get out of sight
quickly, and avoid a conflict.  Swiftly, moving as one, they ducked into
an empty, open cell dug out of the side of the tunnel.  It was very dark
within; no passers-by would be able to see them, even if they looked
directly into the cell.
  They stood there, tense with waiting, as a large reptilian appeared in
the hall and passed them by without even glancing in there direction.
Another guard, probably.  As soon as the mutant had vanished from sight,
they relaxed, letting out their breath...but waited a minute longer in
the safety of the shadows, just to be sure.  When they were reasonably
convinced that it was safe, they moved quickly out of the cell and down
the hall.
  "How will we find Kamork?" asked Pumyra.
  "Not sure," Panthro murmured.

  Although Panthro and Pumyra did not know it, they'd already found
Kamork; they had waited in the darkness of an empty cell as he passed
them by.  Now, the reptilian general approached Tygra's cell, swinging
his thick tail back and forth as he regarded his prisoner.
  Kamork slid a keyring off his belt--it contained only one key, a
large, primitive-looking thing.  Kamork inserted it into its keyhole.
He turned it, hearing the soft click as the locking-mechanism was
released, and entered the cell.
  Kamork glanced down.  Tygra lay on the dirt floor, curled up into a
tight ball of orange fur near the reptilian's sandal-shod feet.  The
tiger's sides rose and fell with an evenness that told Kamork he was
sleeping.  Anger boiled up within the mutant baron.  "Wake up," he
snarled.  When Tygra did not respond, Kamork lashed out with one foot,
kicking him.
  Tygra rolled over onto his side with a groan.  His eyes slid painfully
open.  Hatred sparkled brilliantly within their amber depths.  "If I
could stand, perhaps you would not be so quick to kick me."
  "Shuttup!" Kamork bellowed, and aimed another kick, but Tygra rolled
out of the way, neatly avoiding Kamork's clawed foot.  "I am in a bad
mood, a very bad mood.  I've been to the cells of my other prisoners to
check on them, and do you know what I found?  Do you?  They were gone!
The cells were empty!"  He kicked again, this time catching Tygra in the
ribs.  "And you know what that means, don't you?"  Another kick, this
one landing in Tygra's stomach.  "It means that those two prisoners are
now loose in my castle!  I am very displeased with this turn of events!"

  Tygra, lying in the dirt and wheezing with pain, smiled.  "How does it
feel, Kamork?  How does it feel not to be in control of things?  Not
much fun, is it?"
  Kamork looked as though he wanted to squeal with rage, but he clamped
his mouth shut, claws bunching into fists.  His breath hissed in and out
through both nostrils and his eyes bulged, giving him a bug-like look.
Quivering, he bared his teeth and twisted the corners of his mouth up in
a bizarre parody of a smile.  "Oh, it will do me so much good to hear
your screams."
  "I thought you didn't enjoy punishing me, Kamork," Tygra said, knowing
his sarcasm would probably earn him another kick and not caring.
"That's what you always told me."
  This time, Kamork really did squeal.  Bubbling over with fury, he
seized a handful of the prisoner's ragged shirt and hauled him off the
floor.  "I'm going to leave now, before I do something I'll regret," he
growled, obviously working hard to keep his tone level.  "But I will be
back.  That I promise you."  He flung Tygra to the floor and aimed one
last kick at his prisoner.  Tygra groaned as the kick landed in his side
and watched, dizzy with pain, as Kamork stormed out of the cell.  The
door slammed shut with a loud, ringing bang, and the key clicked
sharply, securing the prisoner within his tiny dirt-walled world.

Chapter 7
  Dagger

  Kamork stormed down the hall toward his chambers, breath hissing in
and out, fists trembling at his sides.  Oh, but that tiger was trying
his patience!  And to make matters worse, two prisoners were now loose
in the castle.  They might even free the cheetah, if they found where
she was being held.  Halting, Kamork snapped his head to one side, eyes
narrowing at the sight of Skrin hunched fearfully in the doorway to his
right.  "Well, what are you looking at?" Kamork spat bad-temperedly.
  "Nuh-nothing," stammered Skrin.  He backed away, wide-eyed, wringing
his claws together.  "Nothing, General!"
  Kamork was suddenly seized by the urge to strangle someone.  Snarling,
he pounced upon his official scapegoat, grasping Skrin's shirt-collar in
both hands and shaking him violently.  "Stupid little fool!  The
prisoners were your responsibility!  You let them escape!"
  "No, General, I wouldn't!" howled Skrin.
  "Are you calling me a liar?"
  "Nuh-noooo!" Skrin wailed miserably.
  "Then you admit it?  You let them escape?"
  Skrin, who had no idea how to answer, began to whimper.  "Pleeeze,
pleeeze don't kill me, Kamork!  I'll catch the cats for you!  I ssswear
it, just don't kill me please oh please..."
  "Shuttup!"  Kamork flung him to the ground.
  Skrin landed in a tangled heap, holding up one arm as a shield and
squeezing his eyes shut.  "Don't kill me!  I be quiet!  I be so quiet,
you see, don't hurt me Kamork..."
  Kamork drew a long dagger from his belt and, leaning down, placed the
tip under the chin of the small reptilian.  Skrin immidiately grew
silent, staring up at Kamork through huge, terrified eyes.  "I won't
kill you," purred Kamork, "if you catch the cats.  Do you understand
me?  Catch them and lock them up."
  He withdrew the dagger, and Skrin brightened.  "Oh, I will Kamork!
You see, you see!  Catch 'em and lock 'em up!  I lock 'em up good!"
  Kamork smiled his thin, dangerous smile.  "That's good, Skrin.  You'd
better.  Because if you fail me..."  He tapped the dagger at his belt,
and Skrin's smile quickly faded.  "Off you go now.  Find them.  And take
a few good mutants with you, because you're obviously not going to
subdue those cats by your scrawny self."
  Skrin nodded mutely, picked himself up, and dashed off, eager to get
away.
  Kamork turned and began walking once more, feeling slightly better.

  Panthro made his way down the narrow, torchlit hall.  Judging from the
decor and lighting, Kamork really enjoyed that rustic "dungeon"
atmosphere.
  At the thought of Kamork, the panther curled his hands into fists and
clenched his jaws, causing the muscles in his neck to bulge and strain.
The shock and pity of seeing Tygra crippled for life had not worn off,
not by a long shot, and the knowledge that it was Kamork who had done it
to him filled Panthro with a deep, smouldering hatred of the reptilian
baron.  There'll be a reckoning, Kamork, he thought.  When we meet,
you'll wish you'd never set eyes on a Thundercat.
  "Panthro, listen!" Pumyra hissed, reaching out to catch hold of his
arm.  "Someone's coming!"
  He stopped.  "I don't hear anyth--"
  Skrin appeared from around a bend in the hall, flanked by two hulking
reptilian giants.  "There they are!  Kill them!  Kill them both!" he
shrilled, charging toward them and waving a tiny dagger aloft.  The
sight was not very threatening, and would have been funny if not for the
very real threat of the full-sized reptilians who were now pouring into
the hall.  All of them were armed and decidedly unfriendly.
  "Kill them!  Kill them!" Skrin shrieked wildly.  He made a dive for
Pumyra, who tripped him neatly and effortlessly.  Skrin went sprawling
across the hallway, dagger flying from his hand.  Lying on the floor, he
pounded his fists and kicked his feet like a child throwing a tantrum,
still yelling at the top of his lungs; "Kill them!  Kill the cats!"
  The first two reptilians came thundering toward them, swinging huge
battle-axes.  Panthro dodged the flailing axes and lunged at one of the
mutants, trying to wrest the axe from his grip.  Pumyra lashed out with
her right foot, kicking the axe from the second mutant's hand.  It spun
through the air, burying its blade in the wall.  Weaponless, the
reptilian turned and made a hasty retreat, plowing through the throng of
yelling, axe-waving mutants who were still pushing towards their
enemies.
  "No good.  We're outnumbered," Panthro panted, kicking a mutant in the
stomach--it went stumbling backwards, into the ranks of its comrades,
who continued to plow forward, blind with battle-fever.  Axes swung
wildly.  Trapped in the enclosed space of the hallway, the crowd of
crazed, axe-wielding mutants were wounding each other without seeming to
notice.  One lost an ear; another lost an arm.  He fell to the floor,
screaming, blood spurting from his dark shoulder-socket, and was
immidiately trampled by the feet of his fellow mutants.
  Panthro held a severed axe-handle and was using it as a staff,
striking out at the mutants who got too close.  He was busy fending off
two armed reptilians when Skrin lept onto his broad back, latching sharp
little claws into his neck.  With a roar, Panthro spun around, trying to
throw the undersized mutant off his back, but Skrin clung like a leech.
Raising his small dagger, he stabbed it twice into the panther's
unprotected shoulder.  With a shocked gasp, Panthro sunk to his knees,
blood pouring down his back in a scarlet waterfall.  Skrin tugged his
dagger free, lept to the ground, and ran off giggling wildly.
  Pumyra saw the grey warrior go down, wounded badly.  The reptilians
were closing in around them, bellowing war-cries and swinging their axes
clumsily, but they didn't get far.  In trying to crowd past each other,
each wanting to be the first to have a chop at their enemies, the
mutants had somehow gotten stuck in the narrow hallway.  They struggled,
tripping, clawing, squirming, crushing each other against the stone
walls, trying to free themselves from the tangle of limbs and tails, to
shove their way past.
  Pumyra darted forward, dropping the broken axe-handle she'd been using
as a weapon, hooked her arms under Panthro's and pulled him backwards
across the floor.  It was hard work; he weighed much more than her.
Panthro slumped limply, head bowed, blood gushing from the gaping hole
in his back.  The mass of snarling mutants, still lodged tight in the
narrow corridor like a lump of unchewed food in a throat, bellowed
threats and curses after them, and Pumyra knew she'd be defenseless if
one of them came after her.  Oh, if only she had her slingshot and pouch
with her now...
  Then she remembered that she still had one pellet concealed in a
hidden pocket of her uniform, one pellet she kept just in case she ever
lost her pouch of ammunition and found herself in a position like this
one.  Reaching into her pocket, she withdrew the small blue sphere.
  One of the mutants broke free of the tangled heap and charged them,
roaring, axe held over its head.  Pumyra hurled the pellet.  It went
whistling in a deadline for the mutant's head and exploded on contact,
evaporating half of the unfortunate fellow's face.  The mutant's scream
sliced through her ears like a butcher's knife through cheese.  Dropping
his axe, he raised trembling claws to the bloody ruin of his face.
Pumyra couldn't bear to watch.  She had been hoping the pellet would
kill him instantly; watching him suffer like this, knowing she had
caused that suffering, was unbearable.  Turning her face aside, she
started to tug Panthro backwards once more.  The warrior groaned and
lifted his head slightly, peering up at her through pain-clouded eyes.
"Got to find...shelter," he wheezed.
  Pumyra looked around frantically for some sort of shelter; someplace
where she could hide Panthro, where he would be safe from the
reptilians.  Shouts and snarls echoed down the hallway.  She spotted a
half-open door, leading into what looked like a storage closet.  Well,
it wasn't very big, but right now she could hardly afford to be picky.
Changing direction, she hauled the semi-concious panther through the
doorway, into the dim of the closet, and shut the door firmly.  Sliding
the keyring off her belt, she sorted through the keys with trembling
fingers, trying one after another, hoping to all the gods that one of
them would lock the closet.
  She was in luck.
  The lock clicked into place, and they were safe for a short while
longer--the door was metal, and thick.  It would take more than a
dull-bladed battle-axe to slice through it.  Slumping against the wall,
Pumyra let out a shuddering sigh.  Panthro voiced a moan into the
silence of the small closet, reminding her that she couldn't relax just
yet.  Reaching into her pocket, she fished out another small
sphere--this one, however, was no weapon.  She rapped it sharply against
the ground, and a soft light bloomed within the crystal sphere, growing
steadily brighter and allowing her to see the full extent of the damage
Skrin's dagger had caused.
  Panthro lay on his stomach, sides rising and falling with his harsh,
labored breaths.  Blood still gushed down his back, though it had begun
to harden into a black crust around the edge of the wound.  He lifted
his head weakly and peered at her through pain-clouded eyes.
"Anything...you can do?" he rasped.  Blood bubbled from one corner of
his mouth and ran in a dark rivulet down his chin.
  Pumyra felt utterly helpless, kneeling in the small storage closet and
staring at her wounded friend.  Was this what Lynx-o had meant when he'd
said her healing skills would be needed?  Were her skills any good if
she didn't have her healing supplies with her?  She opened her mouth to
tell him that she would try, but that she couldn't do much without the
proper equipment...then she looked around and discovered something that
proved to her once and for all the existance of miracles.
  The storage-closet's shelves were lined with medical supplies.
  Closing her eyes, Pumyra whispered a brief, silent prayer of thanks.
Then, opening her eyes and rising to her feet, she began to search the
shelves.  "Yes.  There is something I can do, Panthro."
  "Hurry...please..." he gasped.
  "Shh, don't try to speak.  Save your strength."
  Panthro nodded once, then let his head drop to the floor, lapsing into
unconciousness.

  Skrin came charging into Kamork's study, giggling like a lunatic.
  Kamork, who'd been studying an ancient scroll and sipping at a cup of
herbal tea, turned sharply.  "You?" he spat, as if saying Skrin's name
would poison his tongue.  He slammed his cup to the desk, sloshing tea
everywhere.  "What do you want?"
  Skrin, in a haze of euphoria, failed to notice his general's obvious
bad mood.  He came pelting across the study, waving a gore-covered
dagger aloft like a sparkler and shouting, "I got 'em Kamork!"
  "Got who?"
  "The big male cat!  I wounded him, Kamork!  Got 'em good!"
  Kamork smiled smoothly.  "Oh you did, did you?"
  Skrin nodded happily, a huge grin stretched across his face.  The
baron chuckled and rose to his feet.  He leaned toward Skrin, patting
his cheek affectionately.  "What a clever fellow you are, Skrin.  I bet
you're very proud of yourself, aren't you?"
  Highly-pleased with his own accomplishment, Skrin puffed out his chest
and beamed up at Kamork.  Without warning, Kamork lashed out and
savagely scratched the cheek he'd been patting.  "Stupid!" he yelled in
a harsh, grating snarl.  "Dead Thundercats are no good to me!  I want
them alive, do you hear me?"
  Skrin screamed and dropped the dagger, clutching at the side of his
face in shock.  Kamork hissed and contemptuously wiped his bloody claws
on the shirt of the cringing reptilian.  "Now get out of my sight you
simpering, whimpering little wretch.  Your presence offends me."
  Squealing and nursing his bloodied face, Skrin slunk away.
  Kamork sunk back into his chair, slowly shaking his head in disgust.
For a moment, he stared into space...then he picked up his mug of tea
and his scroll, scanning the lines of the ancient prose as he sipped the
herbal brew.  Two Thundercats were loose in his castle, but they would
be recaptured--of this he had no doubt.  Every entrance and exit had
been sealed, there were well over fifty reptilians within the walls of
Kamork's fortress (and only reptilians; Kamork would not be served by
the lesser mutant races, the jackals and monkians and vultures).  Over
fifty reptilians, and only two Thundercats.  Sooner or later they would
be captured.  Kamork needn't concern himself with them...right now, his
presence was required elsewhere.  "Excelcior must be built," he
murmured.
  Kamork sipped his tea.
  Excelcior must be built, and if she was to be built, The Plan must be
completed.  But there were complications.  Tygra was more rebellious
than ever--he simply refused to listen to reason, and even seemed to be
feigning illness now.  Something must be done.  Kamork could torture
him, as he'd done in the past, but he had a feeling that would do no
good now--it would only make the tiger less willing to cooperate.
Kamork could not convince him that it was in his best interest to
complete The Plan.  But perhaps someone else...
  ...the cheetah...?  Why yes!
  Kamork began to laugh aloud in sheer delight at his own brilliance.
Why yes!  The cheetah was obviously very close to Tygra.  She could
convince him.  She could bend him to Kamork's will.  Of course, before
this was to happen, the cheetah herself might need some convincing.
  And would Kamork be the one to teach her the way things were done?
Why yes.  He would not enjoy it--not a bit--but it was his sacred duty,
after all.  His obligation.
  Excelcior must be built, after all.  Destiny must take its course.
  Kamork took another sip of his tea, rolling it across his tongue,
lowering his eyelids in pleasure.  He was unaware that he had begun to
tremble with excitment.
  In just a short while, Cheetara's training would begin.

Chapter 8
  The Shiller

  "Awaken, my dear."
  A hand, hard with scales and tipped with long, curved claws, caressed
her face.  She sensed someone leaning close, felt a puff of breath
against her cheek.  Her eyes flew open.
  Not much had changed--she was still strapped into place with tough
bindings that only seemed to grow tighter if she struggled.  The only
difference was that now she was strapped to a huge bed with silken
scarlet covers, and the drab, white-walled room had been replaced by a
large richly-furnished chamber.  Kamork was standing over her, smiling
the sweetest of smiles, yellow eyes half-lidded and reflecting the soft
glow of the lamps which filled the room with a mellow buttery light.
  "What do you want?" Cheetara hissed.
  "Now then, there's no need for hostility.  You must learn to trust me,
Cheetara."
  "I'd sooner trust Mumm-ra himself!" she spat.
  "I suspected that would be your attitude," sighed Kamork.  Then a
long, slender rod appeared in his left hand, so quickly it seemed to
have materialized out of thin air.
  Cheetara eyed the wire-thin silver wand distrustfully.  "What is
that?"
  "A little something of my own invention.  I call it 'the shiller.'
Would you like to see how it works?"
  "I...what does it do?"
  Kamork winked.  "Just wait and see."  Holding the shiller between the
thumb and second finger of his left hand, Kamork placed the tip gently
against Cheetara's shoulder.  The metal wand began to glow a soft green.

  Sudden, excrutiating pain shot down Cheetara's arm, and she gasped,
fingers jerking open convulsively.  Kamork withdrew the tip of the
strange weapon, and the green glow faded back into silver.
  "That was just a small taste of the shiller's power," Kamork informed
her.  "I can do much worse.  Just ask Tygra."  He gave her a feral smile
as he toyed with the thin metal rod.  "Would you like a sample a
slightly stronger bit of power?"
  Cheetara stared up at him in mute horror.
  "Very well then!"  Kamork laughed his breathless, cheerful laugh.
"When I'm through with you, you're going to be a very different
cheetah!"  The shiller began to glow its soft green, and a thin hum
wormed its way into Cheetara's ears.  The hum intensified as the green
glow brightened.  Kamork touched the shiller to her right shoulder (the
left was still burning with dull agony) and another bolt of pain raced
down her arm, tingling in each nerve and blood-vessel.  Cheetara choked
back a cry, gritting her teeth so hard that her jaws ached.  "You know,
we don't have to go through with this," Kamork told her, as the green
glow faded once more.  "Tell you what--I'd like you to have a little
talk with Tygra.  He's been very difficult lately, and I need you to
persuade him that his rebellion is useless.  Can you do that for me,
Cheetara?"
  Cheetara's reply was muffled by her clenched teeth, but its meaning
was made perfectly clear by her blazing eyes and snarling tone.
  Kamork shrugged.  "You have made your choice.  Though I think that by
the time I'm through with you, you will want to reconsider."
  The shiller lit up with its soft green radiance and emitted its thin,
ghostly hum.  Cheetara jerked away as it snaked toward her, but the
straps held her in place.  The shiller's tip found the spot just below
her ear, and paralyzing pain shot down her neck, through her abdomen,
tracing its path all the way into the tendons of her right leg.  She
screamed.  The metal wand moved slowly downward, its tip coming to rest
on the taut muscles of her stomach.  Green light flared.  She screamed
again.
  "I know, I know, it hurts," Kamork said sympathetically.  "It's going
to hurt a lot more, Cheetara, a lot more, I can assure you."  He twisted
the torture-wand deftly, touching it to the finely-sculpted tip of her
feline ear, and a white pain filled her skull.  She twisted her head to
one side, moaning.  Kamork slid one claw along the length of the glowing
metal wand.  "So many places to hurt.  So many kinds of pain.  And you,
my dear, will become aquainted with all of them."
  Cheetara, breathing hard, sweat beading on her brow, gasped out, "How
is it that you can hold the shiller and not feel pain?"
  A bright grin lit up Kamork's face.  "Ah, I was hoping you'd ask
that!  You see, the shiller is a very special weapon, atuned to the
touch of its wielder.  The shiller can never hurt me.  Like a
well-trained dog, it will tear apart anyone who threatens its
master...but to the master himeslf, it is loyal and gentle and
obidient."  He grasped a fistful of her thick golden mane.  Leaning
down, he whispered into her ear; "You thought that hurt?  We're just
warming up."
  "Do your worst, Kamork.  I am not afraid."
  "Really?  That's odd.  Because you look afraid.  Terrified, actually.
And you should be."  Tightening his grip on her mane, he dropped his
voice even lower, speaking in an intimate whisper; "Now, we're going to
really make you scream."
  Cheetara's eyes followed the shiller as it glided slowly upward.  The
tip came to rest, light and delicate as a butterfly, on the spot between
her eyes.  "No," she whispered, beginning to tremble.
  "Yes," smiled Kamork.
  The shiller flared a bright green.

  Pumyra's head jerked up at the agonized scream that came rolling
toward them from down the hall.  The sound, though it came from another
room, was loud enough to be physically painful.  It ripped through the
air, vibrating in the delicate structures of her inner ear, making her
flinch and clap her hands over her ears.
  Panthro propped himself up on one arm and looked toward the locked
door, alarm flaring in his eyes.  "That was Cheetara!  She's in trouble,
Pumyra.  We've got to help her!"
  Another scream sliced the air.  Trembling with effort, he climbed into
a crouch and began mustering the strength to rise to his feet.  Though
his wound had been cleaned and bandaged, the flow of blood stopped, he
was still weak from the huge quantity of blood he'd already lost.
  "Alright...let's just hope none of those reptilians are hanging around
outside."  Pumyra fitted a key into the lock, turned it, and opened the
door a crack to peer out at the hall.  It seemed empty.  "We're in
luck.  Come on, I'll help you."  She knelt, assisting him to his feet
and slinging one of his broad arms around her shoulders.  Carefully, she
opened the door and stepped outside with Panthro leaning against her for
support.
  Quickly, silent as shadows, they made their way down the hall.  The
screams had faded away, and the only sound was the soft spitting,
guttering whisper of the torches.

  "I am losing patience with you, Cheetara," growled Kamork.  "You are
not cooperating.  I guarentee you, this can and will last the entire
night...unless you decide to come to your senses."
  "I'd sooner die," declared Cheetara.  Her throat was raw from
screaming.
  "That's really quite unfortunate," Kamork pouted.  "I hope that's not
the case, because I'd hate to have to kill you.  I really would."  He
trailed the shiller across her stomach, burning a thread of agony into
her flesh.
  She tried to hold back the scream--she didn't want Kamork to know how
close she really was to the breaking-point--but it was impossible.
Another scream erupted from the torn, abused tissue of her throat, and
when that primal howl finally faded away, she was trembling all over.
Her entire being was a haze of pain, yet through it all, she discovered
an amazing thing; she was sleepy.  She wanted to just close her eyes and
sink into the peaceful nothingness of slumber...but that would not be
wise.  Being woken by the shiller was an experience she wouldn't mind
skipping.
  Kamork shook his head and sighed.  "I suppose I should have known it
would take a little more to convince you.  The shiller usually does the
trick, even with strong-minded prisoners like you, but even the shiller
has its limitations.  Tygra needed a little extra convincing..." Kamork
chuckled a little, as if revisiting a fond memory, "and it looks as
though you will too."  His eyes turned flat and cold and merciless, and
his smile hardened.  Turning away, he slid open a drawer and slipped
something out.  He quickly concealed it behind one claw, but Cheetara
had glimpsed the lamplight winking off something long and thin and
silver.  Her eyes widened.
  A needle.  A hypodermic needle.
  Cheetara lurched upward, straining against the tight straps and
opening her throat in a roar of terror and defiance.  She would not be
drugged again, no matter what.  She would die before she let Kamork
stick that needle into her.  "No!"
  "My dear, you don't have a choice."  He lunged forward and seized her
arm.  Holding the hypodermic in front of his face, he pushed down
experimentally on the small lever, and a glistening thread of fluid
spurted from the needle, like blood from a punctured artery; like
semen.  "Now, just relax, and this will be much easier..."
  Violently, Cheetara wrenched her body to one side, freeing her arm
from Kamork's grasp.  Her eyes flared with brilliant gold light.
"Leave...me...alone."  Her voice was low, but pulsed with a deep scarlet
rage.
  Kamork took a step back.  Fluid dribbled from the tip of the
hypodermic.  For one brief instant, Kamork looked almost afraid...then
the confident, sneering grin was back.  "You are powerless, Cheetara.
You will learn that, as Tygra learned..."
  At the mention of Tygra, Cheetara's eyes blazed with liquid golden
fire.  She hated hearing that cherished name in this creature's wet,
filthy mouth.  Her chest rose and fell, rose and fell.  Abrutply, one of
the restraining straps snapped.  Kamork's jaw dropped.  The hypodermic
clattered to the floor.  "No," he breathed.
  Cheetara writhed within her bonds, muscles coiling and flexing.
Another strap snapped, a noise like a gunshot.
  "Guards!" bleated Kamork.  "Help me!"
  Two more straps snapped like cheap rubber-bands, and Cheetara was
crouched atop the bed, glaring at Kamork with feral fury.  Kamork let
out a little mewling cry.  Cheetara's eyes glowed like twin suns.  "Not
so brave now," she hissed...
  and sprang from the bed, claws outstretched, ready to rend and tear.
  Frantically, Kamork dropped to his knees and fumbled for the
hypodermic.  His claws closed around it, and he lifted it, brandishing
the needle.  "Stay away!" he shrieked hysterically.  "Don't come near
me!"
  Cheetara lept upon him, clawing and biting like a wild beast.  Kamork
scrambled backwards across the carpet, blood oozing from his arms and
throat and face.  He raised the hypodermic, laughing wildly.  "Away with
thee, hellspawn!  Back to the Void whence you came!"
  The needle plunged into Cheetara's side.

Chapter 9
  Rescue

  Pumyra's eyes widened at the cacophony of sounds coming from behind
the doorway--shrieks, growls, crashes and thuds.  "What's going on in
there?" she whispered in horrified awe.
  Panthro coughed wetly.  "Only one way to find out," he declared in a
weak, raspy voice.  He was standing on his own now, but he looked
unsteady, and wobbled drunkenly from side to side.  "Open the door."
  Pumyra sorted through the ring of keys, trying each one in the lock
and getting the same result each time.
  Panthro watched.  "None of those do the trick?"
  She shook her head.  The frenzy of noises from beyond the door had
robbed her of speech; she could only listen, heart fluttering rapidly in
her throat.
  "Move aside," Panthro said hoarsely, with a trace of his old
confidence.  He backed slowly away from the door, appraising it with a
glint of steel in his eyes.  "Gonna bust that door down myself if that's
what it takes.  Don't need a key.  Don't need a battering ram, neither.
Hell, I am a battering ram!"
  "But your wound..."
  "Wound?  What, you mean that little scratch?"  He gave her a roguish
grin.
  Pumyra looked at his bandaged shoulder, saw the spreading scarlet
stain that had blossomed on the white cloth.  Behind the door, a single
shrill yowl pierced the air--then all was silent.  Pumyra turned cold
within.  That yowl had sounded tortured...the cry of a dying animal.  If
that was really Cheetara in there...
  She felt a sharp twinge of terror.  There was a click in her throat as
she swallowed.
  Panthro had heard the dying yowl as well.  His entire body quivered.
"That's it," he growled, and charged headlong for the door.  A fearsome
warcry burst from his throat.  His shoulder cannoned into the door.
Panthro shut his eyes tight as the heavy timber cracked and splintered.
Sharp spears of wood poked his flesh, and splinters buried themselves in
his neck and shoulders.  With his flesh singing out in pain, he emerged
from the ruined door like a grey juggernaut...but he did not stop.  He
charged straight across the room, still bellowing his terrible
battlecry, headed straight for a stunned-looking reptilian crouched over
a semiconcious Cheetara.  In the reptilian's scaled fist, he gripped a
hypodermic with a long gleaming needle...
  "Stay away!" squealed the mutant.  His hand tightened threateningly
around the plastic tube of the hypodermic.
  Panthro did not hesitate.  Charging straight at the mutant, he swung a
fist, knocking the hypodermic from his grasp.  A second swing landed
squarely under the reptilian's chin, sending him flying backwards into
the wall and knocking him out clean.  In the grip of a mind-clouding
bloodrage, Panthro stood, chest heaving, staring at the unconcious
reptile and coldly debating whether or not he should kill him.
  Then Cheetara groaned, startling Panthro, and the red battle-fever
slid away.  He knelt, now aware of the spreading agony in his back and
shoulders.  "Cheetara!" he cried out.  "Say something!"
  She lifted her head weakly.  A dim golden light flickered in her
eyes.  "P-Panth-th-thr..."  The gold light flickered once more and
died.  Her eyes rolled up until the whites gleamed like wet eggshells
and her head thudded to the carpet.
  "Oh no.  No.  No, please," Panthro begged, cradling her head in his
lap.  "Don't you die, Cheetara.  Don't you leave me."  One large,
calloused warrior's hand stroked her hair with infinate tenderness.
Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes, carving dark paths through
his short fur.  "Don't you leave me," he pleaded, in a tone barely more
than a whisper.
  Pumyra knelt beside him and studied the cheetah's pale, slack face.
Tentatively, she reached out and checked for a pulse.  "She's alive,
Panthro!" Pumyra exclaimed, breathless with relief.  "Her heartbeat is
very slow, but it's there."
  "Thank Jaga," Panthro whispered, and smiled...but his smile quickly
faded.  "Will she be alright?  What if that fluid in the hypodermic was
lethal?"
  Pumyra picked up the needle and examined it thoughtfully.  "I think if
Kamork wanted to kill her, he would have done so already.  I think this
stuff was just meant to quiet her down for a little while."
  "I hope you're right."  Panthro looked up.  His eyes grew steel-hard
as he regarded the unconcious mutant slumped against the wall.  "You
think that cowardly wretch is Kamork?"
  "He must be.  That pendant he's wearing is engraved with the symbol of
leadership.  And if he is Kamork, he must be carrying the key to Tygra's
cell."  Crawling over to the limp bundle of reptilian flesh, Pumyra
began searching him for a key.  "Here!" she exclaimed triumphantly,
pulling a heavy iron keyring off Kamork's belt.  "This must be it.  Now,
let's get Cheetara out of here before he awakens."
  "Why don't we just kill him?" growled Panthro.
  "The Code," Pumyra replied firmly.
  "Is it worth it?" he demanded.  "Is it worth letting this creature
live?  Think about how many he's tortured and killed!  Think about how
many more he will torture and kill!  Think about what he did to Cheetara
and Tygra, for Jaga's sake!"
  Pumyra stared at him for a long moment.  "Do what you feel is right."
  He stared back, furious...then he looked back down at Cheetara, and
uncertainty clouded his rage.  "I don't know what's right.  Nothing
about this is right.  I just want to get out of this blasted room.  I
hate it."  Standing, he awkwardly scooped Cheetara into his arms and
staggered toward the door.  The bandage on his shoulder had almost
completely soaked through with blood.
  Pumyra followed him, eager to get away from this place, and from
Kamork, who was already beginning to twitch and squirm.  She knew how
Panthro felt.  She hated this room too.  Somehow, she knew that hundreds
of people had been tortured here.  It was as if a ghost of all that pain
still lurked within these four walls, screaming and moaning just beyond
the bounds of hearing.
  Once they were outside the room, Cheetara began to stir within
Panthro's arms.  Her eyes blinked drowsily.  Panthro smiled, though he
was out of breath; normally, carrying her wouldn't have been much of a
strain, but Panthro wasn't in peak condition.  Far from it.  "Hello,
Cheetara."
  "Panthro," she murmured, and smiled wanly.  "I can't tell you how good
it is to see you again."
  Panthro trudged down the hall with the solid, plodding diligance of a
tortoise trying to complete a race.  "Pretty good to see you too," he
panted.
  "How are you feeling, Cheetara?"
  Cheetara craned her neck, searching for the source of the voice.
"Pumyra?"
  The puma appeared at Panthro's side.  "I am here."
  "You came...you both came."  A clear radiance shone in her eyes, and
for a moment, her face was transformed into something so beautiful and
utterly alive that it seemed to glow with a magnificent inner light.
"You really came for me."
  "Of course we did.  You didn't really think we'd leave you with
that...that..." Panthro gave up, unable to come up with a suitably foul
word to describe her captor.  "Well, anyway, sure is good to have you
back.  Say, think you could walk on your own, Cheetara?"
  "The drug is wearing off.  I should be alright."
  Panthro set her gently down.  The instant her feet touched the floor,
Panthro swayed unsteadily and collapsed against the wall.  Cheetara's
eyes widened.  For the first time, she noticed his blood-soaked
bandage.  "Panthro!  What happened?"
  "Little stab-wound," he replied impassively, and straightened his
back.  "I'll be fine.  Don't worry about me.  Right now, we gotta worry
about getting Tygra out of that dungeon and then getting ourselves outta
this godforsaken fortress.  I tell you, I'll be a lot happier once this
place is behind us."
  "Same goes for me."
  "And me," Cheetara said wearily.  "I'll have nightmares about this
place for the rest of my life."
  They made their way through the twisted network of corridors hidden
within the bleak stone walls of the castle, and soon Cheetara had taken
the lead; she chose her path by instinct, gradually leading them deeper
into the fortress, toward the dungeon.

  The Plan was finished, and Tygra's fever was worse.
  He'd been working on the Excelcior ever since Kamork left; not because
he felt compelled to finish it, but he needed something to take his mind
off the agonizing task of waiting for his friends to return.  His hope,
which had dwindled to a frail, flickering spark in the bleakness of the
past few days, had suddenly been kindled into a roaring flame.  For the
first time in weeks, he dared to believe that he might not die in this
putrid puke-hole of a dungeon.
  Now, The Plan was finished; there could be no doubt.  Every line and
angle of it was correct; every proportion cruelly perfect.  Even to
Kamork's fiercly discerning eye, there could be nothing wrong with this
design.
  Tygra sat back, shivering, sniffed loudly, and wiped a ragged sleeve
across his nose.  He looked down at The Plan, the object of his pain and
sorrow and toil, and realized an incredible thing--it was beautiful.  It
was more than perfect.  It was beautiful.  And it was his.  Tears
brimmed in his eyes, flowing down the deep paths already carved into his
fur.  So beautiful...
  Tygra lurched forward, seized by a violent fit of coughing.  He turned
his head aside as his thin body shuddered with coughs and a thick wad of
phlegm flew from his mouth.  It splattered to the ground, yellow and
blood-flecked.  He opened watery eyes and moaned, feeling as though his
throat and lungs had been scraped raw.  The ache behind his eyes surged
and ebbed, ebbed and surged.  "I'm dying," he murmured, and dread stole
into him like cold water, filling the hollow places in his ruined body.
  No!  No, he mustn't give up...they were coming for him...they'd be
here soon...he could not die now, not with help so near!
  Again, there was that slipping, skittering sensation in his chest.
His heart had fallen out of rythm, and for an instant, it stopped
altogether...but an instant was enough to scare him witless.  Gasping,
he clutched at his chest.  His eyes bulged, pressure building behind
them until it felt like they would spurt out of their sockets.  There
was a terrible constricting sensation in his chest...then his heart
began to beat again.  The beat didn't feel quite right--it was a rapid,
fluttery, frantic beat, like a metronome that had been set to three
times its normal pace--but at least it was beating.  Thank the gods for
that.
  How long would it last, though?  How long before his tired,
malnourished heart quit for good?  "Hurry, Thundercats," he murmured
weakly.
  Time passed--how much, he could only guess.  He knew only that his
fever worsened, and that he came very near to death.
  The gas-lamp had gone out, and the cell was plunged into almost-total
darkness.  Tygra lay with his head resting on the desk, listening to his
rapid, skittery heartbeat and his slow, wet, labored breathing.  All was
dark and stillness.  Cold...so cold.  Surrounded by that tomblike
silence, enclosed in damp stone and dark, cold earth, Tygra's mind began
to wander in and out of visions that were half-dream, half-memory, and
he thought about everything he had loved in that bright world that came
before this waking nightmare.
  He thought of Cat's Lair, of the warm, sunlit forests and meadows of
Third Earth, of his friends, his fellow Thundercats.  He thought of the
Thunderkittens--Wilykit's roguish grin and playful sense of humor,
Wilykat's boundless curiousity and solemn, thoughtful frown.  He thought
of Snarf, the gentle, motherly old creature who was never much of a
warrior but whose loyalty and courage were unquestioned; and of Snarfer,
bright, energetic and unfailingly cheerful.  He thought of Lynx-o's
wisdom and kindness, Pumyra's compassion, Bengali's fierce dedication to
his friends...he thought of Panthro, a tough fighter and a fearless
warrior, but beneath that hard shell, a kind spirit.  He thought of
Lion-o, who would someday be one of the greatest leaders ever known to
Thundera.
  And he thought of Cheetara...of her warm amber eyes and gentle
laughter, her quiet strength, her friendship over the long, hard years
when he'd had no one else to turn to, the long talks, the wordless,
meaningful looks, all the times they had helped each other, fighting
side by side.  He thought of that day back on Old Thundera when they'd
been no more than cubs; the day when Cheetara's father's starship had
crashed, leaving her an orphan; the day he'd held her and comforted her
as she cried, telling her that she wasn't alone, that he would always be
with her.  He thought of that one, brief night when they had been more
than friends, just before they left their doomed planet, when she had
come into his room and quietly told him that she wanted to share her
last night on Thundera...
  In the darkness of his prison cell, Tygra spoke her name in a fading
whisper.  His breaths grew shallower and shallower, and he knew that if
his friends came at all, they would be too late.  His time had come.  He
was so cold he could no longer feel his body.  His heart beat slower,
slower.  The Void reached out to enfold him in its all-consuming
nothingness.  Beyond that stretch of blackness was a light; a doorway
into a place where he could be free.  The light beckoned.  I'm coming,
he thought, even as the nothingness enveloped his mind, carrying him
away on black silken wings into the Void, toward the light.  He let it
take him away; it was not worth it to fight anymore.  Pain would end.
Fear would end.  Sorrow would end.  Peace awaited him.  The soft wings
bore him away--away from the world of stone and stink, of cold and
hunger--toward eternity.
  Clank!
  Tygra's heart lurched in his chest, beating wildly.  His lungs
expanded, pulling in air, and he gasped.  His eyes flew open.
  He recognized the sound.  The door to his cell had been flung open.

  Cheetara had been wandering through the dungeons alone for some time;
Panthro and Pumyra had gone in search of their weapons, which Kamork had
hidden somewhere in the castle.  They'd decided that they would meet one
hour later, at the entrance to the dungeons...provided they were all
still alive, of course.
  At first, Cheetara had let instinct guide her through the dark
catacomb beneath the castle.  Now, that sense of guidance, that steady
tug, had vanished.  She could only wander and wish that Panthro and
Pumyra had taken time to give her directions.
  Moving swiftly along, she cast a quick glance into cells she passed.
Some of them were empty; occasionally, she would see a scrawny prisoner
huddled in the corner.  Most of them didn't even look up when she
passed, and that wasn't surprising; it only took a single glance to tell
her that these poor creatures were almost dead from starvation.
  Whatever they'd done to offend Kamork, it couldn't have been enough to
justify this sort of treatment.
  At last, she came to a dead-end.  She was about to turn and retrace
her steps when she noticed a dark cell at the end of the long, narrow
hallway.  It looked empty, but...well, it was worth a check.
  Trotting to the end of the hallway, Cheetara peered in through the
bars of the cell-door...and gasped.  Hastily, she took the key that
Pumyra had given her, jammed it into the keyhole, turned the key and
gave the cell door a violent shove; it burst open, hinges squawking
rustily.  "Tygra!" she exclaimed in dismay.
  Her friend lifted his head slowly and painfully; she could almost hear
the bones in his neck creaking.  A cold dread wrapped its coils around
her heart.  Tygra looked near death.  His face was so thin and gaunt
that every contour of his skull stood out clearly; heavy shadows painted
the hollows beneath his cheekbones and eyes.  Those eyes seemed sunken
deep into their sockets, dulled with unimaginable weariness.  Trembling,
skeletal hands grasped the edges of what looked like a crudely-made
wooden desk.  His fur had lost its shine and faded from its former firey
orange to a dim brown, like a bruised, rotten pumpkin that had been
sitting by the roadside for weeks.  His mouth was open slightly, and his
breath hissed in and out.  At first, he did not seem to see her; then,
gradually, his eyes focused.  The glazed, dead look was replaced by
dawning hope and wonder.  "Cheetara?" he breathed.
  "Tygra!" she cried again.
  Gripping the edge of the square desk, he pushed himself backwards
violently and tumbled out of his chair, landing in an untidy heap on the
dirt floor.  In an instant, Cheetara was at his side, kneeling and
helping him to sit.  She wrapped her arms around his body, and her mind
reeled with shock at the way his skin clung fleshlessly to his bones,
making him feel as if he were nothing but a skeleton wrapped in a
tattered fur coat.  Tears stung her eyes.  Gods, he was so thin!
Looking down at the wasted remains of his body, she got such a shock
that for a moment she thought she might faint: Tygra's legs had been cut
off.  Cheetara stared in mute horror, then slowly returned her gaze to
his face.
  "They didn't tell you?" Tygra croaked softly.
  She shook her head, unable to speak.
  "Where--where are Panthro and Pumyra?"
  Cheetara found her voice, but it was shaky and weak.  "We split up.
They went to look for the weapons that Kamork took from us.  We decided
we might need them before this is over.  Tygra, I..."
  "It's alright.  We've found each other.  That's all that matters now."

  But it's not all that matters, Tygra, she thought, sad and confused.
As she knelt, cradling him in her arms as if he were a small cub,
sadness and confusion mingled with a deep, aching pity, and a love more
powerful than anything she'd ever felt.  But it's not all that matters.
What Kamork did to you...that matters too.  How will you ever walk
again?
  Tears brimmed in her eyes.  One of them escaped and slid down her
face.  "Don't cry, Cheetara," he begged.  "We've found each other.
Nothing can go wrong."
  "Oh Tygra," she whispered.  "Oh, my dear one.  I love you.  Don't ever
leave me."
  He managed a small smile.  "I'll never leave you.  I made a promise.
Remember?"
  At first, she did not understand.  Then she remembered...that day on
Thundera, so very long ago, when her father's starship had crashed.  She
had been only twelve seasons old, alone and frightened.  She'd
cried--something she had not done since the death of her mother, two
years before--and he'd held her close as the two of them sat in a quiet
part of Cat's Lair, and he'd made a promise...
  You're not alone, Cheetara.  I'll never leave you.  I swear by all the
gods and all the Ancients that I'll be with you, no matter what.
  Though she hadn't known it at the time, that was the moment she began
to love him.  "Let's get you out of here," she said quietly, and picked
him up.  Three weeks ago she would not have been able to do this, but
the combined loss of his legs and most of his muscle-mass made it
possible.  In fact, he was terrifyingly light; he seemed to weigh no
more than the tattered, dirty clothes draped over his fur-clad bones.
  "Wait," Tygra said.  "The Plan."
  "What?"
  "I've got to take it with me.  Bring me over to the desk."
Bewildered, she obliged.  Reaching out, Tygra took the sheet of
parchment from the desktop and carefully rolled it into a long tube.
"Alright," he said, clutching The Plan to his thin chest.  "Let's go."

  Cheetara was certain they'd run into a guard on their way out of the
dungeon, and if they did, she had no idea what she'd do--Tygra was in no
condition to fight, and she, carrying him, could not fend off an armed
mutant by herself.  However, they escaped from the dark, filthy
catacombs unnoticed by anyone except the gaunt, silent prisoners, who
huddled in their cells, watching Cheetara go past with haunted eyes.
Pity tugged at her heart, and she vowed to herself that once they were
out of this mess, she would return to free as many of these lost souls
as she could.
  When she reached the place where she was supposed to meet Panthro and
Pumyra, her friends were already there.  Pumyra was carrying her
slingshot and pouch, as well as Cheetara's bo staff; Panthro had his
nunchucks.  "Cheetara.  Tygra," Panthro acknowledged.  His gaze
flickered to the emaciated, ragged, legless form cradled in Cheetara's
arms, and he seemed to be wondering if this could really be his old
friend Tygra, who had fought by his side for so many years.
  "Ho, my friends," Tygra returned.  There was an odd clarity and
strength to his voice, and in his dark amber eyes.  "Tell me, how will
we escape from the fortress?"
  "Same way we got in," Panthro replied.  "The exit'll probably be
sealed, but we should be able to blast our way through."  He tapped his
claws against the nunchucks, secure in their holster at his belt.
  "Come on," Pumyra urged.  "We've got no time to waste.  Once Kamork
regains conciousness, he will be after our blood."

Chapter 10
  Kamork Goes to War
  Pumyra could not have been more right.  Kamork was awake and thirsting
for blood.  He no longer felt it would be worthwhile to keep the
prisoners alive.  It would be quicker, more convinient--and more
satisfying--to kill them.  Only the tiger would remain alive to complete
The Plan, but once The Plan was finished, Kamork would kill him as well.

  He'd regained conciousness soon after Panthro and Pumyra left his
chambers.  A minute ago, he'd been down to Tygra's cell, and his worst
fears had been confirmed; his prisoner was gone.  Those blasted
intruders had set him free.
  Now, Kamork stood in his chambers, readying himself for battle.  He'd
strapped armor onto every part of his massive, scaly body; his black
warhelmet was studded with spikes, and the end of his long, powerful
tail was equipped with a cruel barbed hook.  The hook was tipped with
lethal poison.  That, along with the segmented armor that paraded down
his back and tail, gave him the appearance of an enormous metal
scorpian.  Kamork marched over to his desk, opened a hidden compartment
in the bottom, and pulled out a gun.  No dainty little laser-pistol was
this.  This was a good old-fashioned hell-raiser; huge, bulky, and
powerful enough to knock out a wall at close-range.  The battle-axes
wielded by most reptilians were cheaper to make and suitable for quick,
sloppy slaughter...but when you wanted to cause some real damage, a more
sophistocated weapon was called for.
  Kamork faced his mirror, studied himself, and was pleased at what he
saw.  He felt infinately more confident now that he was properly
outfitted.  It was almost like the old days.  Ah yes, those had been the
days...wars to fight, troops to command...Kamork had been respected,
then.  Kamork had been someone.  Once he had Excelcior, he would be
someone again, but to build Excelcior he needed Tygra to complete The
Plan, and for that to happen, he needed to kill these intruders.
  "Carpe diem," he murmured, and cocked his laser-gun.  Turning, Kamork
thundered out of his chambers, his head swimming with visions of war,
gore and glory.

  Skrin crouched in the shadows of the empty doorway, flanked by two
larger reptilians.  They watched in awe as their general strode past,
decked out in clanking black armor and armed with a titanic laser-gun; a
vision of savage, apocolyptic fury, like a raging thunderstorm instilled
with purpous and vengence.  Kamork's followers had been given orders not
to interfere unless their leader was in serious trouble; he wanted to
skin these cats himself.

  Panthro froze.
  Standing ahead of him was a hulking reptilian giant carrying what
looked like the universe's oldest laser-gun.  It was huge and deadly,
the sort of gun the Interplanetary Council had outlawed centuries ago,
but here was the cold hard truth--only about ten-percent of the United
World's citizens actually obeyed the laws of the Council.  The other
ninety-percent--like this charming fellow Kamork--couldn't care less.
Bad luck for the four Thundercats confronted by this dark, grinning
spector.
  "Good day!" Kamork boomed out cheerfully, and opened fire.
  Panthro ducked and dropped to the floor, pulling Pumyra and Cheetara
along with him.  Flattening himself against the cold stone, he wriggled,
eel-like, down the hall.  The rapid, babbling scream of laser-fire
filled the air.  Chunks of stone exploded from the ceiling, vaporized
into powder and rock-fragments.  Kamork's teeth and armor rattled
violently as he tried to control the laser-gun.  The weapon kicked and
jumped like a wild animal, its nose swivelling back and forth as it
noisily spat out its deadly hail of lasers.
  That was another thing about those old guns; they didn't quietly and
obidiently expel their cartridges, like the newer models.  It took quite
a bit of strength just to keep your grip, and after the first few
seconds it was almost impossible to hold the gun steady.  As a result,
Kamork's death-machine now began to swerve back and forth crazily,
spewing laser-fire in every direction.
  Panthro hissed with pain as a rogue laser-beam sliced off his eartip.
Another one singed the top of his skull, and he smelled burning fur.
He'd heard no screams; his companions seemed to be managing alright.  If
they could just make it to the end of the hallway...
  "Filthy creatures!" Kamork shrieked insanely.  "Feel the wrath of
justice!"
  Panthro sneaked a look over his shoulder and saw the reptilian's
snarl, spit-flecked jaws, flaring nostrils and glaring, bloodshot
eyes...
  Oh yes.  Charming fellow.
  "Come back!  Come back here!" howled the reptilian, his voice rising
over the harsh chorus of gunfire like the scream of a seagull over the
roar and surge of the ocean...
  Come back? thought Panthro, crawling and clawing his way across the
stone floor.  Does he actually expect us to do that?  I guess he
might...gods know, his head's messed-up enough for him to believe just
about anything.
  This thought was wierdly calm amid the roaring chaos of laser-fire.
In fact, Panthro felt as if he were surrounded by a bubble of quiet and
serenity; the calm in the eye of a storm.  It was the sort of cool,
single-minded determination that descended upon him whenever he found
himself in a really bad scrape.  He cast a glance to his right and saw
Cheetara with her head down and her belly to the floor, pulling herself
along with bruised and battered arms, face grim and determined.  Tygra
crawled along beside her, equally determined, using his hands as well as
the healed stumps of his shortened legs.  "Pumyra!" Panthro roared above
the thunder of gunfire.
  "I'm behind you, Panthro!"  She sounded out of breath, but unhurt.
"Keep going!"
  The rattle and roar of the laser-gun rose in pitch, growing steadily
louder until Panthro's ears rang and he gritted his teeth, thinking,
I'll go deaf if that keeps up.
  Then--so suddenly he thought that he really had gone deaf--the gun
fell silent.

  Kamork stood at the end of the hallway, breath hissing in and out,
chest heaving, staring down at the suddenly-silent laser-gun.  The
weapon lay there in his hands, like an animal that had exhausted itself
from fighting, a thin coil of smoke curling from its barrel.  With a
roar, Kamork flung it to the floor and cursed it in three languages.
Empty!  How dare the gun be empty?
  Looking up, he saw the panther climb to its feet.  The others were
already on their feet and running.  The cats were escaping!
  No time to reload.
  "AFTER THEM!" Kamork bellowed, pointing one claw after the fleeing
prisoners.  "AFTER THEM!  KILL THEM!  KILL ALL OF THEM, EXCEPT THE
TIGER!"
  Axe-waving reptilians burst from closed doors, stampeding down the
hall toward the retreating backs of the Thunderians.

  Panthro ran down the hall, gasping for breath, the wound in his
shoulder throbbing unbearably.  Each time his right foot hit the ground,
white-hot needles stabbed through the muscles in his shoulder and back.
He risked a glance over his shoulder and saw three axe-wielding mutants
closing in on them.
  Oh, wonderful...more of these axe-happy maniacs to contend with.
  Kamork's vengeful roar rang out, drifting from around a bend in the
hall; "KILL THEM, AND KILL THAT PANTHER FIRST!  ONE-THOUSAND SILVERS TO
THE MUTANT WHO BRINGS ME HIS BALLS!"
  Not my day, thought Panthro, putting on an extra burst of speed.
  "That's right, run!" yelled one of the mutants.  "Run, you cowardsss!"

  Anger simmered in Panthro's veins.  He was through running.  Wheeling
around, he whipped out his nunchucks, spinning them skillfully from hand
to hand as he advanced on the startled reptilians.  "You wanna fight?"
he demanded.  "Fine by me!  Come on, scaly, let's see what you got!"
  The reptilians stood, frozen, axes lowering the slightest bit.  Pumyra
stepped up beside Panthro, fitting a pellet into the cup of her
slingshot.  Panthro glared at the nervous-looking mutants.  "Three to
three, fellas.  The odds are even.  Think you can handle it?"  And then
he realized something; the odds were not even. Cheetara was missing, and
so was Tygra.  Panthro looked around, startled.  "Pumyra, where's Ch--"
  One of the mutants lunged forward, swinging his axe.  Caught off
guard, Panthro kicked out wildly, catching the mutant in the stomach.
The reptilian stumbled backwards with a grunt of pain.  "Attack!" he
wheezed.
  Axes raised to a chorus of wild warcries.  The mutants charged.

Chapter 11
  Skin, Blood and Bone

  Kamork prowled into the darkened ballroom, gun at ready.  Torches
flickered, casting long shadows.  Kamork's yellow eyes slid back and
forth, scanning the darkness.  "Here kitty kitty kitty," he hissed.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are!  Why make it harder on yourself?
There's only so many places you can hide.  I'll find you."
  Crouched in the shadowy space beneath the stairway, Cheetara held her
breath and watched Kamork pass by.  Tygra huddled near her, curled into
a ball of dirty-orange fur, shivering, exhausted.  He had barely made it
this far.  If this went on much longer, he'd simply break down, like a
machine that had been running too long without proper care or
maitenance.
  Kamork froze, listening closely.  "I can't see you," he called out,
his voice ringing mockingly through the vast silence of the ballroom,
"but I can smell you, cheetah!  I know you're here!"
  Cheetara held perfectly still, eyes wide, not daring to breathe.  The
dust beneath the stairway was thick, and it tickled the inside of her
nose.  A potential sneeze was starting to build up, itching furiously in
her sinuses.
  "Come now, be reasonable," Kamork coaxed in a rational, level tone.
"I won't hurt you, my dear.  It's not you I want.  It's the tiger.  Just
give him to me, and you and your friends are free to go.  One of him for
three of you.  Doesn't that sound like a fair deal?"  Kamork whirled
around, gun swiveling from side to side.  "Last chance!"
  Cheetara could hold it back no longer.  The dust was stinging in her
nose and throat, making her eyes water.  Covering her mouth and nose
with both hands, she prayed that Kamork would not hear the sneeze...but
when the muffled burst of sound exploded through the thick silence,
Kamork's fierce yellow eye fastened on the shadows beneath the stairway.

  The gun centered on her, and a scream of laser-fire tore through the
air.  Cheetara rolled to one side, pulling Tygra with her.  Just as they
squirmed out of the space beneath the stairway, lasers exploded into
their former hiding place, evaporating the stairs and part of the wall.
Sawdust filled the air in great, choking clouds.  Rotted wood burst open
like ripe fruit, and hundreds of tiny skittering white bugs poured out;
they had been living in the moldy, damp darkness behind the wall.  Some
of them landed in Cheetara's hair, and sharp, stinging points of pain
began to spread across her neck and back as the bugs scuttled over her
body, biting.  Ignoring the pain, and the hideous feeling of insects
squirming all over her flesh, she searched desperately for a sign of
Tygra.  There!  A flash of orange fur amid the wreckage.  He was trapped
beneath a wooden beam.  Lunging through the haze of sawdust and
scurrying bugs, she pushed the beam to one side and pulled Tygra out
from under the wreck, one thought pulsing urgently in her mind; she had
to get him to safety.
  Kamork peered eagerly into the clouds of dust, certain that he'd
gotten her that time...but a moment later, the cheetah emerged from the
ruin, pulling the tiger along with her.  Both of them were bruised,
scratched and badly shaken, but they had not been hit.  Kamork had
missed.  But he would not miss again.  Snarling, he aimed the gun, but a
cautionary voice spoke up in his mind--
  Fool, if you fire now, you're as likely to hit Tygra as you are the
she-cat.  You don't want him dead yet, remember?  You need him to finish
The Plan.
  Kamork heeded the voice...reluctantly.  He lowered the gun, his mind
racing frantically; how could he kill Cheetara without killing Tygra as
well?  The answer came to him, and a confident smile spread across
Kamork's face.  When the well of ingenuity ran dry, brute force could
come in handy.  Charging across the mangled remains of the stairway,
ignoring the colonies of white bugs scuttling over his clawed feet,
Kamork raised the gun over his head like a club and clouted the cheetah
on the skull.  She had no time to get out of the way--she only looked
up, once, eyes wide with dismay, before the weapon connecting with the
side of her head and all the lights went out.
  She dropped to the floor with a small moan, eyes rolling up, golden
hair soaked with blood.
  "Cheetara!  No!" howled Tygra.  He crawled over to her, clamboring
over fallen beams and fragments of wood.  His chest heaved with gasping
sobs.  Flinging himself in front of her, he glared up at Kamork.  "Don't
come near her!  If you touch her, I swear I--I'll..."
  "You'll what?" Kamork asked calmly.  He cast his laser-gun aside; he
would not be needing it.  He could snap this creature's will with his
bare hands.  "In your current condition, my friend, you are a threat to
no one, least of all me.  Now, just move aside."
  "Never."
  "Come now.  There's nothing you can do for her.  It is my will that
she die, therefore, fate has already taken its course.  You, however,
may live.  If you cooperate, I may even set you free, after you've
completed The Plan, of course.  How does that suit you?"
  "Go to hell."
  Kamork's smile wavered.  "You're being unreasonable again.  I hate it
when you're unreasonable.  I'm offering you the opportunity to be free,
and all you have to do is move aside and let fate take its course."
  "You lie," spat Tygra.  "You'll never set me free.  And even if I
thought you were telling the truth, I wouldn't move.  I'll die before I
let you hurt Cheetara."
  Kamork stared at him for a long moment, then slowly shook his head.
"You're a fool, Tygra.  I really didn't want it to come down to this,
but it appears I have no choice."  Kamork clenched one iron-clad fist
and raised it over his head.  With a roar, he brought his fist down,
intending to bash in the prisoner's mange-eaten skull like a ripe
melon...but Tygra was not finished yet.
  He reached up and caught Kamork's fist, holding it back with his
waning strength; Kamork snarled in disbelief.  He could not budge his
arm.  Stunned, he stared down and met the grim, cold stare of his former
prisoner.  Somehow, Tygra held the massive reptilian at bay.  His claws
tightened around the metal-plated fist, and his arm--no more than skin
and bone--quivered, infused with sudden, mysterious, alarming strength.
"Never again, Kamork," he whispered in calm, deadly voice.
  Kamork's surprise was short-lived.  His hatred quickly flared up
again.  "Oh, you will suffer!" he declared.  He was choked with rage,
and it was a struggle to get the words out.  He spoke slowly,
enunciating each word carefully to make himself understood.  "This will
not be tolerated.  I will make you scream for mercy, you
insolent...stupid...little...animal."
  "I am no animal, Kamork," Tygra replied in that same calm, maddening
tone.  "If you want to see a true animal, look in the mirror."
  A cry of hurt outrage burst from Kamork's throat.  "You are an
animal!  A beast!  An inferior being!  You are an animal, and you shall
be broken in, you shall learn to bear the weight of the yoke, or you
shall be slaughtered like the animal you are!"  With his fist still
caught in Tygra's supernaturally-powerful grip, Kamork swung his long
reptilian tail--equipped with its sharp, poisoned hook--aiming for
Tygra's face.  Startled, Tygra released his grip and ducked out of the
way as the lethal armored tail whislted by over his head.
  Kamork lashed out blindly with his tail, hissing and squealing with
fury.  Tygra rolled out of the way, dodging the flailing hook.  Kamork
wheezed with exertion.  He took a step back to catch his breath--then
Tygra threw the stone.  It happened so swiftly that Kamork's brain was
not able to piece together what his senses were taking in before it was
too late.  He saw the tiger's arm dart out, saw his claws wrap around a
blunt fragment of stone on the floor...saw the tiger wind his arm back
and then snap it forward, releasing the stone...heard a shrill, thin
whistle, saw a flash of movement, then there was a dull sickening thud
and an explosion of pain between his eyes.  Kamork stumbled backward,
dazed; colors burst, swirling across the backs of his eyeballs.  His
foot caught on something, and he plummeted to the floor, flailing
helplessly.  A sharp spike of pain drove itself into the back of his
neck, skewering his brain, and nothingness pounced.

  Tygra stared dumbly.  Kamork was lying on the floor, impaled by the
hook that had been fastened to his armored tail.  When he'd fallen, he'd
instinctively stretched his tail out behind him to cushion his
fall...and the long, curved hook had been driven into the back of his
neck, just below the spot where his helmet ended, plunging deep into his
twisted brain.  A short, strangled scream split the air.  Kamork began
to twitch wildly, convulsively, uttering long wet gurgles.  His eyes
bulged from their sockets.  His jaw hung slackly, and thick, pinkish
globs of foam squeezed from the corners of his mouth.
  Tygra stared with rapt horror, wanting desperately to look away and
yet unable to...and wasn't there a part of him that was drinking this
in, watching with filthy, eager delight as his hated captor slowly died?

  Kamork thrashed and twitched for almost a full minute...then his limbs
gave the floor one last, violent thump and grew still.  The baron lay
silent and inert, head lolling to one side.  His gaping mouth and white,
bulging eyes gave him the look of a dead fish.  Blood oozed from his
eyes, ears and nose, and thick bubbling foam dribbled down his scaly
chest.  The hook protruded from the back of his head like a mast from a
ship.  The foam on Kamork's dead jaws glistened in the torchlight.
  Tygra suddenly felt like throwing up.  He turned away from the grisly
sight and crawled over to the limp form of Cheetara.  She was still
unconcious, but breathing steadily.  Tygra forced himself to look at the
wound in her skull, where the long strands of golden mane were dark with
glistening blood.  So much blood.  It was all over the floor and
splattered across her clothes as well.  A flap of skin hung down, almost
to her eye...and in the patch of missing skin, a naked gleam of
whiteness; bone.  She was alive, but hurt badly.  She needed medical
attention.  Pumyra.  Where was Pumyra?
  Cheetara moaned feebly and moved her head.  The flap of bloodied scalp
brushed her pale cheek.  Then, incredibly, she opened her eyes.
"Tygra...am I dead?" she whispered.
  "No, my love," he replied, taking one of her cold, trembling hands in
both of his.  "You are alive, and safe.  Kamork is gone.  Pumyra and
Panthro will be here soon, and then this nightmare will be over.  We can
go back to Third Earth, to all our friends."
  She smiled; her skin was a stark, sickly white, but her smile was so
brave and so sweet that it made him ache.  "I would like that, Tygra."
  In spite of himself, Tygra glanced again at the horrible scalp-wound,
and he thought of Kamork's sneering grin and smug, condescending tone.
His hatred flared briefly, then the ugliness of the whole thing crashed
down on him, and he began to cry.  "I'm sorry, Cheetara," he said
through his tears.  "There's just been too much hatred.  I'm so sick of
it.  I just want things to be like they were."
  She squeezed his hand gently.  "Me too, Tygra."
  He closed his eyes tightly and buried his face against the downy fur
of her breast; then he realized he was being selfish.  Cheetara was the
one who was hurt.  It was he who should be comforting her, not the other
way around.
  A small hand found its way into his mane.  Cheetara ruffled the long,
orange fur, just how she always used to do.  "I will be glad when we get
back to Cat's Lair," she said quietly.
  "Me too," he murmured into her soft fur.
  "To climb into a warm bed again...with you...like that night back on
Thundera.  Remember?"
  "I could never forget, Cheetara."
  "Could it ever be like that again?"
  "Yes.  Oh, yes."  His voice, low and husky, trembled with emotion.
  "Forever?"  She was fading now, like a star at dawn.  Her hand felt
very cold in his.
  "Forever," he whispered.  She uttered a soft, sighing breath.  Her
eyes closed.  Her hand slid limply from his grasp.  Tygra studied her
face with anxious, worried eyes.  "Cheetara?"  No response.  "Cheetara,
say something!  Cheetara!"  Weeping, he cradled her limp body against
his chest and rested his cheek against hers.  Her skin was cold...the
skin of a corpse.
  "Oh no, no please," Tygra begged.  "Please gods, don't take her from
me."  Turning his head, he called out in a hoarse, exhausted, terrified
voice; "Pumyra!  Panthro!  Where are you?  Pumyra!"
  Silence.  Tygra sat, holding Cheetara, trying to transfer some of his
warmth--his life--into her still, cold body.  He would not give up.  Not
while there was life within him.  "Hang on, Cheetara," he whispered into
her ear.  "Help is coming.  We'll be alright.  Just hang in there,
girl."  Turning his head once more, he yelled out; "Panthro!  Pumyra!
Please hurry!"
  He waited...how long, he was not sure.  The seconds dragged by, each
seeming to go a little more slowly than the last.  Oh please, please
hurry, Thundercats...
  His ears caught a faint sound--the distant thudding of footsteps,
coming closer.  Tygra's head snapped up, eyes wide and alert.  "Here!"
he shouted.  "Over here!"  His lungs burned and ached, his throat was
raw, but still he shouted.  "Thundercats, here!"
  Panthro burst into the ballroom, closely followed by Pumyra.  Both of
them looked as though they'd been through a nasty scuffle.  "Cheetara!
Tygra!  W--"  Panthro stumbled to a halt, taking in the scene with
growing astonishment.  "Tygra, what happened to Cheetara?  Oh, please
tell me she's only unconcious...Kamork...is he..."
  "Dead, he's dead.  But Cheetara isn't.  Not yet."  Tygra looked up
into the faces of the two Thundercats.  "We have to get out of this
castle, Panthro.  Cheetara is badly hurt.  One of you will have to carry
her, and one of you..."
  "Say no more.  Pumyra, you take Cheetara, I'll carry Tygra."
  "I'm nothing but a burden now," he said bleakly.  "Gods, if only I
could walk..."
  "No time for that!" Panthro interrupted roughly.  "We've got to get
out of here before Kamork's goons decide to come looking for us."
Leaning down, he lifted Tygra in his arms as effortlessly as if he were
a sack of flour.
  With Panthro carrying Tygra, and Pumyra carrying the unconcious
Cheetara, the two of them headed out of the ballroom.  As they left,
Tygra cast one last, desolate glance back at the small, dark mound in
the center of the room, the lifeless bundle of flesh that had once been
Kamork.
  Bad kitty, breathed a cold voice in the back of his mind.  You think
you've killed me, but this is not the end.  Bad kitty.  Bad, bad...
  "Shut up," muttered Tygra.
  Panthro gave him a worried look, but said nothing.

  Though they saw no mutants, the Thundercats could feel dozens of eyes
following them as they made their way down the hall.  Kamork's followers
were there, watching from the shadows, but they dared not move; they
were terrified.  They knew their leader had been slain.  To them, Kamork
had been some sort of god, and anyone who could slay a god could be no
less than gods themselves.
  Only one reptilian had the blunt courage to try to stop them.
  Not long after they left the ruined ballroom, Skrin came bolting
through a dark doorway, shrieking and waving his tiny dagger.  "Bad cats
kill Kamork!  Skrin kill catsss!  Bad, bad, baaad!"
  "Stay back!" warned Panthro.  "We don't want to hurt y--"
  "Kill!" wailed Skrin.  He stuck his dagger out clumsily, aiming for
Panthro's leg.  Panthro dodged and lashed out with one foot, kicking the
dagger from Skrin's grip.  It went spinning through the air, flashing,
and landed on the stones with a dull clatter.
  Skrin stood, unarmed, staring up at them fearfully...then, quick as a
rabbit, he dashed off and vanished into the shadows.

Chapter 12
  The Journey Home

  Night had fallen over the barren wilderness of Plun-darr.  Plun-darr's
sixth moon, the Red Moon, had risen in the sky, and bathed the beach
with bloody light.  The stars looked down on two lonely figures making
their way across the crimson sand, toward a sparse fringe of woodland at
the edge of the beach.  Two sets of tracks stood out clearly in the wet
sand, marking the path of the two escapees.  Soon, those tracks would be
washed away by the waves--the eternally surging, ebbing waves.
  In the distance, far behind the escapees, a dark fortress loomed,
drowning out the stars.

  Morning came pale and cold.  Watery yellow light broke across the
horizen, washing across the dawn sky and glimmering on the grey ocean.
A cool, salty breeze swept Pumyra's hair back from her brow as she gazed
out over the water.  The puma knelt at the edge of the scruffy woodland,
unpacking food and medical supplies.  She and Panthro had recovered
their satchels the previous night, and now their little group took
shelter beneath the scrawny trees of these woods, resting and
recovering.
  Panthro approached, another satchel slung across his shoulder.
  Pumyra looked up.  "Ho, Panthro.  How are Cheetara and Tygra doing?"
  Panthro shifted the satchel from one shoulder to the other.  "Cheetara
is still unconcious, but her breathing's a little stronger, and her skin
isn't as cold now.  Tygra's fever is still pretty bad, but he's
improving--that foul-smelling concoction you gave him seems to have
helped."
  "What about you, Panthro?  How is your wound?"
  "What, this?"  He reached over one shoulder and touched the fresh
bandage on his back, wincing a little.  "Oh yeah!  I'd forgotten all
about it."
  Pumyra smiled a little.  "Fibber."
  He grinned back.  "Well, it really is feeling better, thanks to you."
  "I'm glad," she replied...then her smile wavered.  "Perhaps I'd better
go check on Cheetara again.  I'm very worried about that skull-wound of
hers.  I don't know how long she'll be like this, and I don't know what
she'll be like once she comes out of her coma.  We have to accept the
possibility of brain-damage..."
  Panthro shifted the satchel from his left shoulder, back to his
right.  "Tygra said he talked to her right after she took that blow to
the head, and she seemed alright."
  "Really?  Odd...if it was the force of the blow that caused this coma,
she shouldn't have been able to talk to him before passing out.  She
would have lost conciousness instantly.  Perhaps with Tygra's fever, and
the confusion of everything that happened, he's not remembering
correctly."
  "Maybe."  The satchel returned to his left shoulder.
  "Well...I suppose we'll find out when the time comes."

  Tygra was awake and sitting up, his back propped against a treetrunk
and cushioned with a folded blanket.  Another blanket had been wrapped
around the bony harp of his body, and he clutched at the edges of the
thick, soft cloth with thin, spidery claws.  Heavy shadows lay beneath
his eyes.  "Pumyra...I feel better."
  "You look better, Tygra."  Pumyra knelt at his side and offered a
steaming mugful of liquid.  "Here, drink."
  He grimaced.  "Oh, not that stuff again!  It tastes like liquid
chalk."
  She shrugged.  "Whoever said medicine was supposed to taste good?"
  "Alright," he sighed, taking the mug.  His hands trembled a bit, but
he was able to hold it on his own, and that was a good sign.  Lifting
the mug, he braced himself and took a gulp of the evil-smelling
concoction.  Nose wrinkled with distaste, he handed the cup back to
her.  "That's all I can drink for now.  Say, how is Cheetara doing?" he
asked anxiously.
  Pumyra's smile faded, and she cast a glance down at the silent, pale
form lying nearby, wrapped in blankets.  "I'm afraid I can't tell you
anything that you haven't been able to observe for yourself.  Her
condition is improving, but there's no sure way to tell when she'll
awaken."  Pumyra corrected herself softly; "If she'll awaken."
  A look of pain lanced through Tygra's eyes.  Pumyra cursed herself for
speaking so bluntly.  If Cheetara died, Tygra would not be able to bear
it...after all that had happened, something like that would be the straw
that broke his spirit.  The injustice of it all brought a flash of
anger.  He had suffered so much already.  Why did Fate seem to delight
in tormenting those like Tygra, one of the gentlest, noblest people
she'd ever met, when beasts like Kamork lived lives full of riches and
power?  Kamork had died, yes...but his death had been relatively quick,
more merciful than the fate of the hundreds of prisoners he'd tortured
and killed.  "I'm sorry, Tygra," she said.  "I wish there was something
I could do for her...but my skills are limited.  Forgive me."
  He gave her a reassuring smile, but his smile looked so terribly
weary...so old.  "There is nothing to forgive.  You've already done so
much--you saved Panthro's life, and mine as well.  It was wise of Lynx-o
to advise Cheetara and Panthro to bring you with."
  She looked at him warmly, flattered.  "I...thank you, Tygra."
  "Pumyra?" a new voice called out, low and hoarse.  Both of them turned
in surprise to see Cheetara peering out at them from beneath the bandage
wrapped around her head.  She looked dazed, drowsy.  "Where...where am
I?  Did we get out of the fortress?  Tygra...where's Tygra?"
  Hurriedly, he shook himself free of the enfolding blanket and crawled
over to Cheetara's side.  "I'm here."
  "Oh, thank the gods...I thought Kamork had..."
  "I'm alright.  Kamork's gone forever.  We're safely outside the
fortress, and pretty soon, we'll be leaving Plun-darr.  Cheetara, I was
so worried.  We didn't know if you were going to wake up.  How do you
feel?"
  "Not bad, considering the circumstances," she replied with a small
smile, "but I am a little thirsty."
  "I'll get some water," Pumyra offered, rummaging through one of the
satchels.  She found a flask of water and poured some into a wooden
cup.  Tygra helped Cheetara to sit up as Pumyra held the rim of the cup
to her lips, and she drank.
  When she'd drained the cup, Cheetara breathed a sigh of satisfaction
and slowly sunk back into the warm nest of blankets.  Her eyes closed,
and in an instant, she was breathing with the slow evenness of sleep.

  Later, Cheetara and Tygra sat side by side, leaning against the broad
trunk of a silverleaf-tree as Cheetara quietly told him the whole story;
how she had gone into dream-flight and learned where he was being held
prisoner, they had come to Plun-darr, how they'd been captured by
Kamork's soldiers, how Kamork had drugged her and tied her up so he
could torture her at his leisure...
  "Did he use the shiller?" Tygra asked in a strained, tired voice.
  Cheetara nodded and looked away, pulling a few strands of hair behind
one sharply-pointed feline ear.
  Tygra leaned back against the trunk of the huge, stout silverleaf,
letting his gaze drift upward toward the shimmering treetops.  "I
remember the shiller.  He used to use it on me, before he...before he
cut my legs off.  Afterwards, too, when he felt I needed a little extra
encouragement in my work on The Plan."  A sour, cynical smile touched
his lips.  "Kamork was always using words like that.  It was never
'torture,' it was always 'encouragement,' or 'motivation'...and he was
always talking about 'breaking me in', as if I were a dog, or a horse.
It was madness."
  "Do you think Kamork really felt justified in what he was doing?"
  Tygra was silent for a long moment.  "Maybe," he said at last.  "I
spent three weeks listening to his ramblings, and I still never came
close to understanding his mind.  Perhaps that's for the better.  He
talked a lot about what he was going to do one he had Excelcior, and how
everyone was going to be sorry, how they would pay for what they'd done
to him."
  "Who's 'they'?  And what did they do to Kamork?"
  "I think he was referring to the other mutant warlords--they'd taken
away his position as general, stripped him of his ranks, leaving him a
lowly baron.  Can't say I blame them.  When Kamork was a general, he
used to torture his soldiers for minor offenses--he'd use the shiller,
and the other soldiers would have to lie awake, listening to the screams
of their companions...and Kamork's laughter."
  "Gods," breathed Cheetara, horrified.  She'd known Kamork was insane,
but she hadn't even begun to guess at the depth and breadth of his
madness.  She was surprised that Tygra had managed to come through this
whole thing with his sanity more or less intact.  Yet somehow he'd
survived, by the sheer strength of his spirit.  Cheetara decided that
Tygra's shyness was only a disguise; his true nature lay deeper within.
Now, she studied his narrow, gaunt face, his mane--shot through with
strands of grey that had not been there before--and his dark amber eyes,
filled with unimaginable weariness, weariness that went far deeper than
any physical exhaustion.
  He had survived, but he'd paid a terrible price.  She wondered if he'd
ever really be the same, and felt a brief pang of fear that the man
she'd known and loved was gone forever...then she reprimanded herself.
He was still Tygra, and she still loved him.  Nothing would ever change
that.

  They walked for most of the day, resting frequently; Cheetara was not
yet well, Panthro wasn't feeling his best either, and the added work of
carrying Tygra wore him out quickly.  Tygra himself felt utterly
useless.  He was a burden, just like the satchels they carried.  No, he
amended; more of a burden, because he wasn't holding food or medical
supplies, like the satchels.  He was just dead weight.
  Around late afternoon, they stopped again, and Tygra took the
opportunity to wash the weeks of dust and grime out of his fur.  He sat
by the shore, waist-deep in seawater, letting the waves wash over him.
Then he climbed onto the warm sand and shook himself dry.  Before his
bath, he'd dunked his old clothes in the salty water and scrubbed the
dirt out of them, then stretched them across a flat rock to dry; now, he
crawled over to the outcrop and put on his newly-washed clothes.  They
were still damp, but they'd been out in the sun and were pleasantly
warm.  Tygra made his way back across the beach, pulling himself across
the sand with slow, snakelike movements and thinking about how good it
was just to be clean again.  He'd eaten that morning.  It had been a
tiny meal, hardly enough to satisfy a snarf, but his stomach had shrunk
so much during those past three weeks that it now felt full and
stretched to the bursting point.  His hunger was gone, and so, he
discovered, was his fever.  Pumyra's chalk-flavored medicine was
miraculous stuff.
  At long last, Tygra was halfway back to feeling normal again.

  Night had fallen when they finally arrived at the Feliner.  It was
waiting for them, perched at the edge of the beach, starlight shining
faintly on its silver back.
  "At last," Panthro sighed.  "We're going home."
  When Tygra heard those three words, his face broke into a smile of
happiness and relief, and he discovered that there were tears brimming
in his eyes.  "Home," he whispered.  What a fine word it was.

Chapter 12
  Reunion

  "Lynx-o!" called the gruff voice of Bengali.  "An unidentified
starship has entered Third Earth's atmosphere."
  "Oh?"  Lynx-o approached the Tower of Omen's control station.  Bengali
moved aside, allowing the older Thundercat to check the signals from the
braille board.  Gradually, his face brightened.  "It's the Feliner!
Thank the Ancients, they have returned!"

  When Bengali and Lynx-o came rushing outside, the Feliner was waiting
for them.  The door opened, and the retractable stairway lowered into
position, allowing Cheetara and Pumyra to climb to the ground.  Bengali
jogged up to meet them; he embraced Pumyra briefly, then turned to
Cheetara, smiling.  "Where's Panthro and Tygra?"
  "Inside the ship," Pumyra replied.
  Lynx-o approached, his hypersensitive ears inclined toward her
slightly.  "What's wrong, Pumyra?  You sound as though you have some bad
news to tell us."
  "Well...it's Tygra."
  Bengali's smile faded.  "What about him, Pumyra?"  When she averted
her eyes, he reached out and took both her hands in his.  Then, hardly
daring to ask, he spoke in a near-whisper.  "Is he dead?"
  "No."
  "Then what?"
  "You'll see," she said quietly.  "Just be prepared, alright?"
  Bengali cast a nervous glance toward Lynx-o; the old man stood firm.
"Bengali, will you describe what you see once you see it?  Though
judging from Pumyra's tone, it is not something I will enjoy hearing."
  "I will," Bengali told him.  His mouth had gone dry.  Then Panthro
emerged from the ship, and Bengali, utterly bewildered, had time to
think Why is he carrying Tygra? before reality crashed down on him.
Bengali stared, stunned, trying to take in what he was seeing.  "Tygra!"
he exclaimed, and his voice sounded oddly choked.  "Your legs..."
  "Yes," Tygra replied calmly, and with a hint of coldness.  "I am sorry
if my appearance gave you a shock.  Yes, my legs are gone, but I am
home...and I am happy to be here."  He raised his eyes and looked toward
the blue dome of the sky, where a scattering of birds wheeled and
swooped, infinately free...and he inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with
the sweet purity of the morning air.  The sun on his face made him dizzy
with joy, and the scents of earth and life and richness were all around
him...
  Yes.  He was home.

  The days rolled by.
  Cheetara watched as Tygra's wounds healed...or closed up, anyway.  She
had an idea that below the skin, the wounds would always be there.  But
he was healing.  He could laugh again, and play games with the
Thunderkittens, and he had gained all his weight back--a tribute to
Snarf's cooking.
  Now, it looked as though he would also walk again, impossible as it
may have seemed.  The teamwork of Bengali and Panthro and accomplished
some remarkable things in the past, but this undertaking--the forging
and fashioning of artificial legs that would work just like real
ones--was a sort of technology neither had ever explored.  It would take
time, but they were making progress.  And if all went according to plan,
by the end of the spring, Tygra would walk again.
  But the memories...
  They memories would always live on in the hearts of the four
Thundercats who had ventured into Kamork's privately-owned piece of
hell.  The day after Tygra's return, a mission had been carried out by
Bengali, Pumyra and Lion-o; they had successfully freed the remaining
captives in Kamork's dungeons.  It had not been difficult.  Most of the
reptilians had fled; but there had been one mutant, a snarf-sized
creature, whom they'd found huddled in the corner of an empty cell,
muttering feverishly to himself.  Upon seeing them, he had shrieked
once, wildly...and had dashed off, feet pattering on the packed earth of
the floor.
  Cheetara had not been part of the mission.  She could not bear the
thought of going back to Kamork's castle, even if the danger was gone,
and she knew that Tygra felt the same way.  He was haunted by what had
happened there; she saw it in his eyes, even when he was laughing or
joking, she saw the shadows lying just beneath his mirth.
  And then there were the nightmares.
  Sometimes, late at night, as they nuzzled close to each other in
sleep, curled up in each others' arms amid a comforting nest of covers,
Tygra would awaken her with his screams.  Cheetara would sit up,
startling, gasping, clutching at the blanket and staring at the square
of moonlight pooled on the rumpled bedsheets as Tygra's terrified
screams rang in her ears.  She would turn to him and see that his eyes
were open, but he was not awake--he would shiver and convulse violently,
sometimes wailing the name of Kamork, begging for the pain to stop,
begging for water, food, or a chance to sleep...sometimes he would cry
out the name of Cheetara, asking her in a low, trembling tone if Kamork
had ever used the shiller on her, and moaning over and over that he
loved her, that she must not die, that they must escape from the
fortress...
  Then Cheetara, worried and saddened and aching with compassion, would
take him into her arms and hold him as he sobbed, speaking gently into
his ear, telling him that it was just a dream, that he was safe, they
were both safe, and gradually he would lapse back into normal sleep,
emitting no more than the occasional whimper.
  Sometimes these dreams came not at all...sometimes three, four times a
night.  In a way, she supposed Kamork was not dead at all.  He lived on
as the pain and anger within Tygra; an ugly wound that would never
really heal, wet, festering and sore.
  Where was Kamork now?  Had someone--Skrin, perhaps--buried him?  Or
was he still lying in the ruined decay of the ballroom, covered in his
own gore and fluids?  Perhaps he was still there, slowly being invaded
and eaten by hordes of the white, squirming insects, his flesh and
organs devoured until within the metal shell of his armor, there was
nothing left but bones.
  Rotting, insect-ridden skin and bones.







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