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Pleasant Days: Riverside Song
By Mummraa



   "That's odd...the communication system isn't working, yet there seems
to be nothing wrong with the equipment."
  "That's Mumm-ra's doing.  You can bet on it."  Panthro pounded a fist
against the arm of his chair, his sadness briefly dispelled by anger.
  Tygra rose to his feet.  "We'll have to take the 'tank to the Tower of
Omens."
  "Then we shall," Cheetara agreed quietly.  "Perhaps news like this is
best delivered in person, anyway."
  "Shall we bring Snarf along?"
  "I don't know," said Panthro.  "Frankly, I don't think he's in any
condition to go anywhere right now, but I'll ask him."
  "Very well," Tygra nodded slightly in Panthro's direction.  "Good
luck, Panthro."
  Odd thing to say, mused the panther, but he only nodded back and rose
from his chair.

 ~~~

  When Panthro found Snarf, the little creature was sitting on Lion-o's
bed, mewling and cradling Lion-o's severed head in his arms.  He rocked
slowly back and forth, muttering to himself.  "It shouldn't have been
this way.  It should have been me.  This was my fault.  I should have
watched more closely.  Shoulda been more careful.  Oh Lion-o, Lion-o,
Lion-o..."
  Panthro approached cautiously.  He didn't much care for the looks of
this situation.  It seemed kind of...unhealthy.  "Come on, Snarf," he
said gently.
  Snarf fell into a sullen silence and did not respond.
  "Come on...it'll be alright.  Just put it down."  He reached out and
carefully--almost gingerly--touched Snarf's shoulder.
  He didn't know what he expected then--maybe for Snarf to burst into
tears, or bite his hand, or start shouting--but Snarf only looked up at
him through tear-blurred eyes and sniffled.  Then, with utmost care, he
placed Lion-o's head on the bedsheets and smoothed his blood-streaked
mane with one paw.  "Poor Lion-o," he murmured.  "He was a good boy."
He looked up at Panthro again, his eyes hard, and clenched his paws.
"Mumm-ra will die for this."  There was a coldness in his voice that
Panthro had never heard from a snarf before--it chilled him.  "I'll kill
him myself.  I'll...I'll rip out his black heart with my teeth.  He'll
die for what he did to Lion-o."
  Panthro could think of nothing to say.  He just stood there, staring
at the grim, determined creature who he no longer quite recognized as
Snarf, but something that had emerged from Snarf...something dark and
vengeful.  "Let's go," he said at last.
  Snarf's gaze lost its cold glint and his yellow eyes melted in
sorrow.  "Alright."  He let his paw brush Lion-o's mane one last time,
then he lowered his head and hopped to the floor.
  Panthro glanced at the blood-spattered head lying on the white sheets,
and he wondered what he should do with it--he didn't precisely want to
touch it, but he didn't want to leave it sitting there on the bed
either.  At last, his gaze fell on the box that Mumm-ra had sent to
Cheetara; it waited at the foot of the bed, nestled amid the rumpled
sheets.  Panthro heaved a sigh.  Well, there was nowhere else he could
put it, was there?
  Steeling himself, he picked up Lion-o's head--it was not as difficult
as he'd imagined--and set it in the velvet-lined interior of the box.
Lion-o's eyes stared glassily, twinkling in the lamplight.  Someone
ought to close them, thought Panthro.  He reached out and let his claws
hover just above Lion-o's dead eyes...but for some reason, he could not
make himself pull the eyelids shut.  He hesitated there for a minute,
frozen; his hand would not obey his brain.  At last, he pulled his hand
back and slowly closed the lid of the box.

 ~~~

  The Thundertank plowed through the tall grass of the fields
surrounding the Tower of Omens, moving with smooth, flawless grace;
Panthro, however, could not enjoy the trip.  Even the roar of the
'tank's engine, usually so full of thunder and fire, seemed flat and
powerless.  Behind him, Tygra, Cheetara and Snarf watched silently as
the Tower loomed closer, rising up from beyond a swell in the ground.
They all dreaded the telling of this news, but it was something that had
to be done, and putting it off would not help.
  Overhead, the sky was a fine, clear shade of blue.  In the air, spring
was as thick and sweet as syrup.  The perfume of fresh air and grass and
sweet, warm earth filled their noses.  To Panthro, the splendid weather
seemed a cruel mockery of the darkness in his own soul.
  The Thundertank rolled to a stop, and they all stepped out, gazing up
at the Tower of Omens.  They waited for the door to open, but no one
came.  "Odd," remarked Cheetara, "you'd think their scanners would have
picked us up by now."
  Tygra shrugged.  "Guess we'll just have to let ourselves in."  He
lifted the small panel beside the door, tapped in the code, and waited
while the metal door slid smoothly to one side, exposing a dark
corridor.  The four of them stood there for a minute, staring into the
waiting darkness.
  "Well?" Snarf asked.  "What are we waitin' for?  Let's go, snyarf
snyarf."  Ears and tail standing up fierce and alert, he bounded into
the shadowy hallway, claws clicking against the hard floor.
  "Snarf, wait!" called Tygra, and ran after him, followed closely by
Cheetara and Panthro.

  The Tower seemed empty.  They checked the control room and all the
bedrooms, and called out the names of Bengali, Lynx-o, Pumyra and
Snarfer over and over, but only the echoes greeted their shouts.
  Then Tygra came to the kitchen.
  At first, it appeared that this room was as deserted as the
others...then something caught Tygra's eye.  It was a pie, sitting on
the table and looking as innocent as a pie could be...yet when he
glanced at it, a shiver traced its way up his spine.  Strawberry pie, he
thought, though why he was so sure it was strawberry, he did not know.
That red fruit could be any number of things--cherries, or rasberries,
or candyfruit.  But they were strawberries...of that he was certain.
  There were three plates sitting on the table.  Two were nearly empty,
but one held a full helping of pie.  This sight brought a powerful,
inexplicable mixture of dread and relief that left Tygra bewildered--why
did a god-blasted pie have such a powerful effect on him?
  Irritable and confused, he turned to leave the kitchen...and tripped
over something on the floor.  Climbing to his feet, he glanced over his
shoulder and his heart froze within him.  Lying there, still as death,
beard speckled with blood, was Lynx-o.  "Oh no," Tygra breathed.  "Not
Lynx-o.  Not him too."  Desperately, Tygra checked for signs of life.
Nothing.  "Oh no," moaned Tygra, burying his face in his hands.  After a
moment, he raised his head again, slowly and painfully...and he saw the
motionless body of Bengali slumped against the kitchen counter, streams
of dried blood running from each corner of his mouth.

 ~~~

  Tygra rounded another bend in the hallway and nearly ran into
Cheetara, who'd been headed in the opposite direction.  "Tygra, there
you are.  Did you find anything?" she asked anxiously.  Then, when she
saw the look on his face, her eager expression faded.  "Something's
wrong,," she whispered.  "What?"
  He swallowed hard.  It would be easier to say it quickly, so he forced
the words out of his throat in a single breath; "Bengali and Lynx-o are
dead."
  Her eyes widened.  "How..."
  "I'm not sure.  I found them on the kitchen floor.  I think it may
have been poison."
  A small sound escaped her throat.  She slowly lowered her face into
her hands and remained that way for a moment, shoulders slumped in
despair.  Then she looked up at him.  Her eyes were dry, but filled with
weariness that seemed to belong to someone well beyond her years.  It
hurt Tygra's heart to see that look in her eyes.  He'd seen it often
enough, looking into a mirror.  He'd hoped that Cheetara would never
have to endure this sort of pain...pain that aged the soul to such a
terrible degree.
  "What of Pumyra and Snarfer?" Cheetara asked.  Her voice--dry, dusty
and cracked as a drought-stricken savanna--seemed to have aged as well.
  "We haven't found them yet, but we've checked every inch of the
Tower.  If they're still alive--and I believe they are--they may be
outside.  Perhaps they decided to take the Thunderstrike to Cat's Lair
to get help..."
  "No, the Thunderstrike is still in the hanger.  Panthro and I
checked."
  "Then...I'm not sure where they went.  We'll have to search for clues
outside..." he took a deep breath, "after we find a temporary resting
place for Bengali and Lynx-o.  We can't bury them yet...I want to try to
analyze the poison in their bodies.  I want to find an antidote, in case
Mumm-ra tries to use the same poison against us."
  "First Lion-o, now Bengali and Lynx-o," Cheetara said quietly.  "Let's
pray this is the end of it, Tygra."
  "This is the end of it," he promised...but he didn't feel sure of
that.
  Not sure at all.

 ~~~

  "She went this way."
  "Into the forest?  Why would she go there?"
  "I don't know, but that's the way her trail leads."  Panthro brushed
aside a branch that tried to claw at his face as the four
Thundercats--three walking on two legs, one ambling along on four--made
their way into the dense woodlands.  The sunlight was muted by the
canopy of leaves overhead--only a few hazy shafts of yellow managed to
penetrate the gloom.  "Be on your guard," cautioned Panthro.  His voice
sounded heavy and thick; his mind was a muddy swamp of shock.  First
Lion-o, now Lynx-o and Bengali...and Mumm-ra undoubtably had something
to do with all three deaths.  The devil-priest was trying something new,
something deceptively simple; he was eliminating the Thundercats one by
one, instead of trying to take them all on at once.  Who would be next
on his list?
  Their footfalls were muffled by the thick carpet of moss.  The only
sound was the blatant, territorial cry of a crow as it winged by
overhead.  Awful lot of crows in this neck of the forest.  Bad omens.
Messengers of death.  You're a little late, messenger, Panthro thought
grimly.
  Snarf paused, raising his nose to the wind, and sniffed.  "Pumyra's
nearby, snyarf snyarf!  I can smell her."  He looked up at Tygra.  "She
smells terrified...and exhausted.  We've got to find her."
  "Can you track her down by scent, Snarf?"
  "Well...snyaarf...I'm no bloodhound, but I can try."  Experimentally,
Snarf lowered his nose to the ground and inhaled deeply.  His ears and
tail stood up.  He trotted down the path, nose to the ground, muttering
quietly--"Snyarf snyarf snyarf..."--all the while.  Snarf vanished
around a bend in the trail, and they jogged after him, following the
retreating tail of the tracker.  Before long, they could hear sounds
coming from up ahead; low-pitched, animal whimpers.
  They found Pumyra huddled in a small clearing, knees drawn up to her
chest, arms wrapped around her knees as she slowly rocked her own body
back and forth, comforting herself.  She was crying.  Snarf approached
cautiously, and her head jerked up.  Tears drowned her eyes, spilled
down her cheeks.  "Sn-snarf?"
  "It's me, Pumyra.  Me and the other Thundercats."
  "Snarf...B-Bengali, Lynx-o...they..."
  He sat up, braced his paws on her shoulders, and nuzzled her face with
a short, whiskery snout.  "Shh.  We know, Pumyra," he soothed.  "We
know."
  "I--th-they..." she turned her head.  A low wail slithered from her
throat.
  Panthro knelt beside her and rested an awkward hand on her back,
patting gently.  "Come on," he said.  "Let's get you back to Cat's
Lair."  She turned to him, blindly, as a newborn cub will turn blindly
to the warmth of its mother, and she buried her face against his broad
chest.  Sobs wracked her small body.  Panthro, unused to offering
comfort, held her with clumsy but caring arms and let her cry.  She had,
after all, just lost the two people more dear to her than anything else
in the world.  Who could blame her for crying?
  For a long time, none of them moved.  They simply stood or knelt
there, smothered in the ashes of shadow, the crisp forest silence broken
only by Pumyra's muffled, bleating sobs.

 ~~~

  Snarfer skipped along the riverbank, singing at the top of his lungs;
"Ohhh, I went to get some candyfruit, all juicy fresh 'n' sweet!  And
now I'm bringing it back home to make a pie to eeeat!"  The young
snarf's abrasive voice squawked out shrilly, startling several fat crows
from their perch in a tall furrabur tree.  They lumbered into the air,
cawing angrily.  Snarfer paused to shake one fist up at their retreating
tails.  "Well same to you!  Hmmph!  Everyone's a critic!"  Huffily, he
picked up his basket of fruit and swaggered along on his journey back to
the Tower of Omens.
  As he walked, an uneasy feeling crawled up his back, making the fur
stand up like a peculiar yellow mohawk.  He shivered and wrapped his
arms around himself, hugging the basket to his chest.  "P-r-r-r!" he
exclaimed, wondering at the source of his disquiet.  "Snarfer
snarfer...that's strange, the air suddenly got very chilly."  Why did he
suddenly feel as if a pair of malicious, hungry eyes were watching him?
  Shivering, he began to walk a little faster.

 ~~~

  Mumm-ra stood at the edge of his cauldron, watching the hideous little
creature make its way along the riverbank.  When Snarfer began to sing,
the screechy, cheerful tune bleating out into the clear morning air, the
corners of Mumm-ra's mouth pulled back in a pained grimace.  Ma-mutt's
ears flattened against his skull and he whimpered, shaking his head
vigorously back and forth, as if he had a particularly annoying flea
nipping at his scalp.  Quickly, Mumm-ra waved his linen-wrapped hand at
the cauldron, and Snarfer's singing faded into blissful silence.
"Gahh!  That little wretch has just earned himself a very nasty death."
  Ma-mutt uttered a single, gruff bark.
  "What's that, my sinister Cerberus?  My fetid Fido?  You wish to
dispose of the shrieking hairball yourself?"
  Ma-mutt rolled onto his back, wriggling eagerly, front paws batting at
the air.
  The demon-priest's thin grey lips split apart in a smile, revealing
the jagged contents of his mouth.  "Why, Ma-mutt, I've been neglecting
your wishes!  I've spent my day slaughtering Thundercats and enjoying
myself while you sit back here at the pyramid all by yourself.  Well,
never let it be said that the everliving source of evil cannot grant his
favorite pooch a single snarf to snatch for a snack."  Mumm-ra pointed
to the bubbling surface of the cauldron.  "Go, Ma-mutt!  Sic 'em, boy!"
  Ma-mutt leapt off the ground, paws treading air as he soared toward
the tiny opening at the top of the pyramid.  His canine shape got
smaller and smaller as it flew ever-upward, became a tiny black speck,
and finally vanished as sunlight devoured it.

  Snarfer could not shake the feeling that he was being pursued.  He now
carried the basket with his tail so he could move along on all fours,
bounding over rocks and roots, paws leaving deep tracks in the wet,
sandy earth of the riverbank.  His ears were flattened against his head,
and his breath came in short little gasps.  He paused to catch his
breath, ears and tail drooping, head bowed.  Beads of sweat stood out on
his nosetip, and he wiped them away.  He lifted his head, and a dark,
looming shape lept into his peripheral vision.  Snarfer screamed and
lurched backwards, arms windmilling frantically.  The basket flew off to
one side, landing with a splash in the river.  Candyfruits bobbed
serenely in the muddy water of the shallows, like tiny boats.  Teeth
bared in fright, Snarfer turned to face the newcomer...
  ...and saw his shadow sprawled across the bright grass.
  Snarfer blew a sigh of relief and sat back on his haunches.  "Relax,
Snarfer," he told himself firmly.  "You've got yourself jumping at your
own shadow!"  Feeling a little foolish and more than a little relieved,
Snarfer began to gather up the spilled candyfruit.  As he bent down to
fish another one out of the water, he felt powerful jaws suddenly clamp
themselves down on his rear end, sinking sharp fangs deep into tender
flesh.  Snarfer's eyes popped open in stunned anguish, and he let out a
yowl that rang and echoed, filling the morning with its shrill
vibrations.  About two hundred feet away, a cluster of crows burst from
the cover of the forest with a flurry of wings, voicing their indignant,
self-righteous squawks.
  The teeth sunk themselves in deeper.  Snarfer looked over his
shoulder, face contorted, eyes squinched to slits, and saw the grinning
muzzle of Ma-mutt with its long, gruesome teeth embedded in Snarfer's
behind.  Hissing, Snarfer seized a candyfruit from the ground and lobbed
it straight at Ma-mutt's face; it struck true, and Ma-mutt let out a
muffled yipe.  He wrenched his teeth away, taking a sizable chunk of
snarf-flesh off Snarfer's bones.  With two huge chomps, Ma-mutt devoured
the bloody strings of meat and lunged for his prey.  Snarfer wriggled
backwards, leaving a trail of blood on the sand.  Little whining cries
escaped his throat.  Ma-mutt's paws cannoned into his chest, knocking
him backwards.  Sharp claws sliced his belly open, spilling his
intestines; they slithered from the bloody slit in long, slimy loops and
coils.  Snarfer lay partially submerged in the river, staring dumbly as
his guts slowly unravelled themselves before his eyes.  Then the eager,
bloody-muzzled face of Ma-mutt filled his vision, a pair of strong jaws
seized his throat and ripped it open, and Snarfer was plunged quickly
from flaring agony into empty blackness.
  His last, confused thought was: Oh dear...who will deliver the
candyfruit?




                              To Be Continued...





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