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Don't Open the Bag
By RD Rivero


“Don’t Open The Bag.”
By RD Rivero
February 11-12, 2000

 The unmistakable roar of the Thunder Tank filled the air of the
otherwise tranquil, the otherwise serene forest.  Inside Panthro and
Tygra sat up front at the controls.  Behind conversed Bengali, Cheetara
and Pumyra.  Pumyra was especially worried and anxious.  Though she
tried to hide it, the others were all  well aware of it.  No one
bothered to question her.  No one bothered to ask what was on her mind.
Typical, she thought to herself, typical and indeed quite fortunate.
 She turned her head back quickly to the front of the vehicle.  The time
read in bright, green digits.  One hour already.  One hour had passed
since they had all left the warrior maidens.  A slight smile came to
her.  She tried to hide that, too, but there was no use.  Pumyra started
to giggle, a strange, an ethereal, girlish giggle that was so cunningly
immature that of course she could not control herself.
 Cheetara rolled her eyes, looked out the side window.  Tall trees and
multi-hued foliage scrolled on by the Thunder Tank.  Bengali was
confused, he had never heard such a thing before from Pumyra but then
something else grabbed his passing, fleeting attention.  He crawled up
to the front behind Tygra.
 “Is there something wrong, you guys?” he asked.
 “I’m not sure, Bengali, but it seems we’re loosing traction,” Panthro
said.
 “No,” Tygra began.  He turned a knob and tapped his fingers over the
glass of a gauge.  “We’re almost out of power.”
 “What?”  Panthro was shocked.  He turned suddenly to Tygra.
 “That’s just what it says.”
 Panthro stopped the vehicle and stepped out.  He mumbled obscenities
under his breath that thankfully his heavy gait did well to muffle.
Pumyra and Tygra followed close behind him.  In the back of the Thunder
Tank Panthro had pulled up an access panel to reveal the power battery
underneath.  Faint steam evolved from the superheated battery.
 “Wow, we sure stopped in time.  If we had gone further the damn thing
would have blown up,” Tygra said.
 “But the batteries were just recharged before we left Cat’s Lair,”
reminded Pumyra.
 Panthro looked up at here, fumes seemed to come off of him too.
“Snarf!  Snarf!”
 “Forgot to recharge the battery again.  Would have been better to give
that duty to the kittens,” Tygra said.  He turned around, walked around
so not to see the looks that painted Panthro’s face.
 Pumyra approached him.  Put her arm on his shoulder.  “I’ll stay.  I’ll
stay behind and you guys, you go back to the lair.”  Panthro let the
access panel drop.  The noise stunned Pumyra but Panthro was too
intensed to even notice.  He spit on the ground.  Pumyra could hear him
talk about Snarf under his breath.
 “My baby!  My baby!” at length he said.
 “I’ll take good care of her.”  She kissed him on the cheek.  She put
her arms around his waist.  “Come on, it’ll be night soon.”
 Tygra returned and gently, forcefully pulled Pumyra away from the
stormy, blue panther.
 “She’s right, Panthro, we’ve got to go.”
 Panthro shouted:  “All right already!  Take as much as you can carry.
All of you out.  Out!  Cheetara, Bengali.  Leave enough for Pumyra.”  He
started to walk to the front of the Thunder Tank.  Meanwhile, Cheetara
and Bengali stumbled out of the vehicle somewhat unaware of what had
happened.
 “Pumyra will stay behind while we hike back to Cat’s Lair,” Tygra said.

 “But why?” Cheetara asked.
 “Snarf!  Snarf!  That damned!  That little!  That!  That!”  Panthro
rang his hands violently over his head, his voice echoed throughout the
forest no doubt.
 “The battery’s dead,” Tygra added while Panthro still ranted.
 Cheetara sprinted toward the panther who was walking off in the lead,
kicking gravel up with his feet.  Tygra and Bengali did all the packing
in short notice, leaving enough for the nurse of the Thundercats to live
off of for a thin three or four days.  Pumyra herself dug up a map from
the dashboard but kept the transmitter to herself, said since she would
be alone she would need the radio.
 “I’ll radio Cat’s Lair to tell them what happened.”  She gave the map
and compass to Tygra.  “If anything happens the four of you can handle
it.”
 “Perhaps someone should stay with you?”
 “No,” said Pumyra defensively unexpectedly.  She turned white and hid
her face in the shadows within the vehicle.  “No, I’ll be all right by
myself.”  I always am, she said to herself.  “There are rudimentary
weapons on the Thunder Tank that’ll work even without power.”
 “Come on, Benny,” Tygra said.  Bengali lingered by the Thunder Tank for
a while worried about his friend.  “She’ll be all right.  She said so
herself.”  Tygra pulled him by the forearm toward Panthro and Cheetara
who stood, leaned against a tall, shaded tree.
 Panthro gradually came back to normal after a long while of cursing.
Cheetara hung her arms around him, pressed her body up upon him.
Somehow that seemed to comfort him.  Bengali, as always, followed Tygra
closely but, as always, dared not show affection while the others might
watch though all knew, all knew.
 Above, the afternoon sky grayed in massed, rolled clouds, oddly white.
The green canopy jetted into the air like knives, like thin, arthritic,
pointed fingers of damnation.  The air itself was scented in the most
fluid, in the most vibrant odor of dew and of bloomed flowers.  The
underbrush crackled under their feet.  All around them the strong winds
rubbed treetops, ruffled branches together to form eerie, haunting
sounds that deadened the noise of the wildlife.
 Tygra looked at the map while the others dotted around the knee-high
bushes of a sudden clearing.  He traced a path with his finger through
the contours of hills and valleys.  He tried to orient the map with the
compass but then he never really had a good understanding of that
instrument.  The  needled kept shaking, kept vibrating.
 “There should be a brook or a stream around here somewhere,” Panthro
said.
 “We’ve been hearing a river for the past half-hour,” said Bengali.
 “There is a, a river, nearby, I think,” Tygra said.  His eyes did not
stray from the unfolded sheet of paper.
 Bengali approached and moved the map down just a bit so that he could
see.  He managed to hold Tygra’s hands sort of under the covers of the
unfolded, heavy sheet of paper.  “This map’s too screwed up.  What are
those things?”
 “The countors of the hills, the shape of the land.”
 “It’s all mutant to me.”  Bengali turned back naturally though nothing
had happened.  He returned to Cheetara and Panthro who were seated on or
around a small mound of rock.  Just then Cheetara turned to look behind,
to something that had startled her.  She said nothing about it, though
and brushed off what ever it was she had heard.  The others did not
notice anyway.
 “The river’s not much of anything,” Tygra said, “but a good source of
freshwater.”
 “Assuming the mutants or someone else hasn’t poisoned the streams
around here.”
 “No, there are no Amazon villages around here,” Tygra said.  “There’s
no reason to poison the waters.”  Then he nodded while he put the map
back in his pocket.  “You’re right.  There’s nothing about reason in
that.”
 “It wouldn’t surprise me.  It’s been that kind of day all week.”
Panthro got up and walked by Tygra.  “Where’s the river?”
 Bengali followed Tygra who walked along side of the panther.  Cheetara
lagged, aware of another, odd disturbance that came from the thick
woods.  Strange, yes, she tried to put her finger on what it was.
 “Cheetara.  Are you staying or what?” asked Bengali.
 “I’ll be right there.”  She ran to the men and when she caught up she
again turned her head back to try to get even the slightest hint of what
she knew then was following them.  “None of you have noticed anything
going on around here?”
 “What do you mean?” Tygra asked.  Bengali looked back on the cheetah.
 “I don’t know, I suppose my mind might be playing tricks on me but I
have the feeling someone’s following us.”
 “What exactly gives you that idea?”
 “I keep hearing something.  Some sound.  Treading!  Yes, that’s it!
Someone’s stepping on twigs or sticks.  Treading in the underbrush.
That’s what I’ve been hearing.”
 “Maybe an animal?”
 “If it’s an animal and if it’s been the same animal all this time, we
should be on alert.  It could be stalking us, hunting us,” Panthro said.

 “Impossible!” Tygra butted in.  “There are no such animals on third
earth.  Not anymore.”
 “Well, I’m sure we’ll know what it is soon enough,” said Panthro, “we
always find out what it is.”
 The trees ended in a thin, flat, mushy plain that lined the river
banks.  The stream itself was gentle and cool.  The Thundercats sipped
from the clear waters.  There was no strange after taste, there was no
sudden physical change to any of them, in short, there was nothing wrong
with the waters.  Panthro laughed for the first time, pleasantly
surprised by the turn of good fortune.
 Suddenly all the insects in the forest came to life in a sharp
cacophony of screeching, snickering sounds.  The four cats stood and
turned to see but there was nothing unusual, nothing lurked in the
forests.  Cheetara shook her head.
 “Could you have been hearing that all along?” asked Bengali but
Cheetara did not answer.
 “Look over there,” Tygra pointed to a spot further up stream.  The
others noticed it, too, a dark gray mass that shot up from the center of
the river.  The four walked to it steadily.  The soft earth beneath them
turned to a bitter, rocky coastline that made their feet ache.  At last
they reached the strange rock formation.  Tygra pulled out the map but
there was nothing in it about that rock.  Bengali, Panthro and Cheetara
crossed the shallow river.  Tygra followed close behind but with the map
before him he strayed somewhat away from the others.
 “What’s the matter, Tygra?” Cheetara asked.
 Tygra turned to see her.  The others were on the rock feeling its
smooth surface.  The tiger walked to them.  “I can’t find this rock on
the map.”
 Cheetara took the map from him.  Everyone’s eyes suddenly turned to
her, even Bengali.  “You’re right.  Let me see the compass.”  He gave
her the instrument that he had kept hung around his neck.  She placed it
on the flat top of the rock formation.  “The needle’s broken, Tygra,
this compass is useless.”
 “What?” Panthro asked.  His sour mood returned at once.  He stepped
briskly to Tygra and to Cheetara and grabbed the compass from their
hands.  He studied it, he shook it, he said:  “I just fixed this, after
Wileykat threw it down the stairs in the Tower of Omens.  Damn!  Damn
it!  Damn!”
 “It seemed to be working just fine back in the Amazon village.”
 “Yeah, well, it doesn’t any more and I can’t fix it here.  It’s
useless.  It’s useless.”  He turned away from them and hid his face in
his hands while he walked to the other side of the river.
 The others were stunned silent for a while but soon realized that
Panthro needed some time alone to himself.  The Thunder Tank was, no
doubt, still fresh on his mind and somehow the broken compass was the
last straw that only made him feel worse.  Bengali approached him and
knelt down on the ground beside him.  Tygra saw them hug, saw Panthro
bury his face in Bengali’s shoulder.  He turned to Cheetara.  “Do you
still hear that something?”
 “No, that’s not it.  It’s the rock, Tygra, it’s the rock.  Something’s
not right about the rock.  There’s pain, there’s horror, horror.  I hear
screams!  Tygra!  The screams!  No!”
 He grabbed her while she shook out of her trance.  He held her in his
arms, he pressed her head up against his breast.  “Then, come on, let’s
get out of here, then.”
 The four regrouped and continued along a new path that Cheetara had
reasoned out from the chaos of the map she now carried.  They were still
astounded by the rock formation they had left behind.  So perfect, so
perfect, the object could not have been made in nature.  No one doubted
that the map was accurate.  But the rock was not on it and that led them
to believe that the object was put there, actually put there.  By
someone?  By something?
 The trees thickened, the land sloped steeply downward, violently
downward.  A dense fog ensued that caused them to gag and cough.  The
four Thundercats stopped in their tracks in a semicircle disoriented.
In the gray mist the trees looked vaguely similar to one another.
 Night approached at a feverish pace.  They were unsure if they should
continue their trek.  Cheetara’s demeanor had changed, not subtly, not
passingly.  She was hysterical and jumped at even the slightest hint of
noise, some sounds the men thought were imagined.  In the haphazard hike
that followed the four once again made their way back to the river, back
to the rock formation that gleamed and glittered in the clear
moonlight.  The fog did not extend beyond the tree line and up above the
sky had totally cleared, devoided of the clouds from earlier that day.
 “No!  No!  This can’t be!  How can this be!”
 “Calm down, Cheetara!”
 “We can’t be here!  We can’t be here!  We can’t be here!”
 “Stop screaming!”  Panthro grabbed her from behind.  He pressed her
hard to keep her from hurting herself.  “That’s fine, that’s fine,” he
said, “breathe with me.  In and out just like that, just like that.”  He
managed to calm her.  The Thundercats remained on the shore, on the
pebbly shore away from the superimposed monolith.
 The more he looked at it the more it seemed to be some sick joke.  “But
perhaps not a joke,” said Bengali.  “You think Mumm-ra or the mutants
could be responsible for that?”  He pointed to the perfect cube that was
the rock formation.
 “I don’t know, but we have to get away from here.”
 Tygra looked at the map again.  “There are some caves by the river a
little further down stream.  We could spend the night in them.  We
certainly shouldn’t be walking around out in the open here at night.”
 Bengali took the map for himself but the moonlight was not strong
enough for him to read.  He folded it up again.  Cheetara sat very still
on the ground.  The others agreed with Tygra and steadily followed his
lead.  Cheetara looked every so often toward the other side of the
river.  Bengali followed suit but could not tell what she had noticed if
she had noticed anything at all.
 The cavern was low and dark and damp.  The walls were lined in a thick,
oily ash.  The floor was covered in dead leaves and vegetation.  At
first Panthro was afraid the place was the den or the home of some
dreaded beast, no doubt the very animal Cheetara had heard following
them.  There would be no fire so they huddled close on a patch of ground
they had cleared to the base stone and shale.
 As the night progressed there were no sounds but of their own breathing
and of the rolling, running waters of the stream outside.  As the moon
passed over the river, faint, ghostlike reflections painted the roof of
the temporary shelter.  Everything was calm, serene and then Bengali’s
eyes open wide, his heart beat in his chest so loudly he was sure the
others could hear it in their sleep.  He turned his face, his head
rested atop Tygra’s arm.  Panthro was on his side, his back to them.
The scream came again and he screamed too.  The other men awoke.
 “What is it?  What’s the matter?”
 “I don’t know but I heard a scream.”
 “Where’s Cheetara?”  Panthro asked.  “She was here, she was next to
me.”
 The men scurried to get their heads back on.  There was no light at all
but it was not hard to tell that Cheetara was not in the cave anymore.
Then the stillness of the night was broken once more by the piercing,
sharp scream of a female voice.  The calmness of the forest then
returned, strangely returned, though nothing had happened.  Outside the
first rays of sunlight broke through the muggy haze that had formed
around the river.  All around the leafy greenery of the forest sparkled
in the dew collected from that night.  Even delicate spider webs were
curiously visible.  One large web had a struggling dragonfly caught in
its snare.  A small, red spider crawled patiently to it, its impending
victim.
 At the rock none dared come any closer for lain on top of its flat
surface was Cheetara’s corpse, skinned, hacked to pieces.  Pelts of her
hide littered the base of the rock formation like trashed, crumpled
pieces of paper.  Blood splattered, dripped down the four faces of the
cube, down to the waters.
 Panthro dropped to his knees in revulsion.  He threw up on himself, on
the ground.  Tygra shot his arms up in the air and shouted to the top of
his lungs.  He jumped up and down and ran in circles then toward the
rock.  Bengali held him back, held him away.  He himself could not say
anything.  The sun arose before them to illuminate the gory scene, the
triumphant scene of satanic evil that loomed before them.
 “Liono must know, surely he must know,” Tygra began.  “The Sword of
Omens must have signaled that something was wrong.”
 “If only we had the radio,” said Bengali.
 “No, no, no, no.  We must go on, we can’t just sit here and wait for
someone to show up.  What ever did that to Cheetara is still here.  I
know it.  I just know it.”
 Back in the cave everything was exactly the way they had left it.
Panthro opened one of the sacks he carried.  It was full of food and
water but neither he nor anyone else had enough stomach to eat.  Tygra
sat for a while, alone in the corner.  Bengali tried to approach but
Panthro kept him back in the shadows.
 “Don’t, Bengali, he has to be alone.  He’s known Cheetara for the
longest.”
 “What do you think did that?  What could have done that?”  Bengali
found it very hard to keep his voice steady while he spoke, while he
thought back to the horrors on that rock.
 “She must have heard something last night while the rest of us slept.
Then she walked out of the cave, walked out into the trap.  Captured.
I’m sure she was dead long before we awoke this morning.”
 Bengali looked to him, his eyes wide and bulged out of their sockets.
“Then who screamed?  Then who screamed?”
 “What ever it was, it did that, to lure us out too, to show us what it
had done.  This isn’t the work of the mutants, not even Mumm-ra is so
barbaric.  Cruel.  Sadistic.  This is the work of someone who really
means it, someone who knows right where to hit us.”
 After about an hour or so the three remaining Thundercats managed to
eat and to keep some food down.  No one had more than a few bites.  The
sun was out over the sky, there were no clouds to be seen, there was
nothing in nature to dampen the glory of that warm, summer morning.
Except for the rock.  No one wanted to look at it.  A certain sense of
foreboding terror -- no doubt much like the feeling Cheetara herself had
-- languished still from that dreadful place.  Bengali was afraid he
might see just what ever it was responsible for the horrific scene,
hunched over the monolith, chewing, feasting on the carcass.  Or perhaps
something more surreal, something like a hoard of malformed beasts, like
a vision right out of a nightmare standing hand-to-hand around --
 “Exactly,” at last he said.  “No wonder.  We overlooked the obvious.”
The others stopped and turn to face him.  “The rock formation.  It’s an
alter.”
 Tygra’s eyes opened.  Panthro gasped.  Bengali stepped back for a
moment afraid he might have said something inappropriate.
 “That would seem to make sense.  It is logical, no, that perhaps
Cheetara was sacrificed.”
 “A ritual for devil worshipers.  Maybe Mumm-ra is involved in this
somehow after all.”
 “Where’s the map?” Tygra asked suddenly.  The men scoured their pockets
in vain for he continued:  “That’s right.  Cheetara had it on her.”
 “Should we --”
 “We shouldn’t leave her out in the open like that.  It’s improper.”
 The three Thundercats hiked back up the riverside to the rock.  The
monolith stood its ground unfettered but there was no Cheetara.  Her
body had been removed.  Nothing, not a trace of hair, not even blood
remained behind.  Except for the stench of death still stagnant in the
air.
 “I’m getting a bad feeling about this,” said Bengali.
 “What should we do?  What should we do?” Panthro asked.  He was edgy,
antsy, he spun around and around thinking that someone or something
lurked nearby in the trees, ready to pounce on them at any moment.
 “Let’s just follow the river,” Tygra said.  “Let’s just run down the
river to where ever it leads.”
 Bengali was the first to dash off, the other two followed behind him
after an unbearable lag.  He was careful not to tire himself too easily
so he paced down his gait and moved from the stony shoreline into the
current.  The water did much to slow him but it also kept him refreshed
for the morning to noon sunlight and heat were the worst.  Panthro and
Tygra caught up to him.
 After what did not seem like much time Bengali stopped and treaded back
onto dry land.  The others, who were then in the lead, took notice and
ran back to him.  He doubled over in pain and exhaustion.
 “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m sorry.  I just can’t do it anymore.”
 “Rest.  Rest here,” Tygra said.  He sat down next to his friend and
held him close wrapped in his arms.  Panthro also took a breather.  He
looked around the scene.
 “We’ve made some progress, I think.  The shape of the land seems more
familiar to me.  These must be the cliffs, the tall hills that surround
the Berbil village by Cat’s Lair.”
 “That’s still another day’s trek.”
 Bengali finished the sandwich he had begun earlier in the cave.  Around
the riverside the trees where sparse enough to see maybe ten or twenty
feet inland.  Beyond that, vision faded into an unintelligible mass of
dark greenery.  Murky shadows, vaporous shadows shrouded what stood on
the other side of the waters.  Though the river was not very wide, it
had deepened much, it had turned from a pleasant cool to a downright
bitter cold.  There did not seem to be fish or much of anything else
living in it.
 On the other side of the river trees and shrubs swayed violently, too
violently.  It seemed there was a hand, a hand darkened in shadow, that
pushed the leafy vegetation out of the way, out of sight.  Without
bothering to tell for sure exactly what it was the three men mustered
enough strength to stand and to run, strength no doubt released by the
adrenaline, by the fear of what lay hidden, of what was about to be
exposed if they stayed there for much longer.  In the rush to get away
Bengali had forgotten his sack and the sandwich he dropped on the
ground.
 “What the hell is that?  What the hell is that?” Panthro asked, yelled
and screamed like a school girl.  No one else bothered to look back to
see.  Even Bengali, who had been beaten out tired, managed to stay in
the lead again.  From behind the last he heard was the sound of
splashing, splashing in the waters.  He did not have the power to speak
but in his mind feared openly that what ever Panthro saw might have
crossed the river, might in fact be following them on the cost, running
steadily after them.
 For some reason he felt naturally calm and just then he had the courage
to look behind.  There, no, there, he managed to laugh.  A group of deer
were behind them, well and safe behind them, fording the rapid
currents.  Tygra happened to look back too but did not react in quite
the same way.  No one stopped although on several times the men did slow
down to the pace of a brisk walk or a jog.  Then after a while even
Panthro tired.  He did not ask what it was that he had seen out of the
fear of the ridiculousness of the answer.  He did tell himself not to
panic like that again.  Then a more pleasant thought came to him.
 “When I get back home, I swear as Jagga is my witness, I will wring
that Snarf’s neck myself!  No one, no, not even Liono will stop me.”
 “Panthro!”
 “I know it’s wrong, Tygra, I know I'm not supposed to have such
thoughts, but I damned well don’t care any more!”  He would have turned
violent but was so tired he promptly fell.  He fell and laughed to
himself.  Tygra and Bengali sat around him.  The three rested for about
another hour or two before the trek resumed.
 Without the map and the compass they had to rely on what natural
landmarks they could recognize.  Up ahead, all the way at the horizon,
was a tall mound.  Panthro believed it was the back of Cat’s Lair.  The
river they followed, then, must have been the stream that crossed the
front of their home.  For a little while the Thundercats where happy.
 The river widened suddenly in a great and swift current, with foamy,
broken water, white water.  The river forked in three separate
branches.  Small islands of rock dotted the rippled, violent surface.
 “What do we do now?” asked Bengali.
 “We’ll have to cross to that side,” Tygra pointed straight ahead.
 “But that’s where we were already,” said Bengali.
 “It’s by the only stream that comes near Cat’s Lair.”
 “Cat’s Lair?  Are you sure?  How can you be so sure?”
 “There’s nothing else we can do, Benny, we’re almost out of food.”
 “We’re lost don’t you know that, we’re lost.  Lost.  Dead!”  Bengali
collapsed on the ground.  He shook and he sobbed.
 “What’s wrong, Benny,” Tygra knelt down to comfort his friend.  Even
Panthro was taken aback.
 “You don’t understand.  It’s my fault.  It’s all my fault.  Cheetara
didn’t have the map.  I did.  I threw it into the river last night when
no one was looking.”
 “You did what?” Tygra got up very quickly.  Panthro was already by his
side.  “You did what?”
 “Don’t listen to him,” Panthro said.  “Don’t.  After all we’ve been
through.  He’s not in his right mind.”
 “It’s true!  It’s true!  I kicked the damn thing into the river.
Yes!”  He started to laugh violently, uncontrollably.
 “I see what you mean, Panthro.  Come up, come on up.  There’s nothing
wrong, Bengali.”  He helped Bengali stand.  Tygra held him in his arms
until the tiger had calmed.
 “We have to cross the river before we run out of daylight,” Panthro
said.  Tygra turned himself invisible and led Bengali by the hand into
the strong currents of the water.  Panthro followed directly behind.
The three Thundercats treaded through the river very slowly.  The water
was cold, biting cold, the bottom was muddy, thick muddy and there
seemed to be many trees and tree branches within, entangled under the
beaten surface.
 Across on the other side a tall, rocky cliff took the place of the
trees that otherwise lined the river.  The face was gray and pitted with
loose stones and pebbles that shook noticeably in the wind.  Up on top,
almost up to the edge, was the familiar green forestry.  Then as they
walked Tygra spotted a problem.  He kept it to himself.  He did not want
the others to notice or to panic but it was quite obvious to him that
the river they now followed was leading them away from the hill that
Panthro had pointed to and had said was the way to go to get to Cat’s
Lair.  They were going the wrong way but he dared not say anything or
else.  Or else what?  Bengali alone no doubt would have broken down
completely and as for Panthro.  He had already threatened Snarf’s life.
What could he do to them?  Luckily, he thought, the current events kept
them from thinking about what had happened to Cheetara and from what
might still be following them.  Hunting them.
 “No!  By Jagga!  No!  It can’t be!  It can’t be!  Tygra look at it!”
Bengali pointed ahead to the horizon to the river in between the one
side of the rocky cliff and the other side of the clear, forested
coast.  There, down stream, was only the faint outline, the faint form
of something that the Thundercats had seen already.
 “No, Bengali, you’re wrong.  You’re wrong.  No.”  Panthro rushed up
ahead.  “No!  No!  No!”  He fell to his knees a good distance from the
other two men.  Bengali and Tygra ran to him, Tygra stopped at his side,
Bengali continued on.  “It is.  It’s the rock.  It’s the rock
formation.  We came right back to the rock.”
 From atop the cliff there echoed a strange and unsettling cackle.  A
laughter that made Bengali’s hair stand on end, a laughter that sent
shivers, cold shivers throughout his body.  He stopped and looked back.
The others had heard it, too, they looked up the side of the cliff.
Small rocks and stones fell from its height down to them but they
quickly got out of the way.  More pebbles slid down the steppe face but
there was no laughter any more, at least no audible laughter.
 “There’s some one up there,” Panthro said.  His senses had returned.
“Look.  There’s a shadow.  A shadow that glides between the trees.”
 “Come on, Panthro, you can’t be serious.”  Tygra looked down at him,
his eyes glared.  “You don’t see anything!  You can’t see anything!
There’s nothing there!”
 “I see it, Tygra, look, look, it waves to me!”  Panthro began to laugh
and  pointed up to the thin trees that lined the top of the cliff.
“It’s that damned Snarf!  He mocks me, Tygra, he mocks me!  Let me go!”
 Tygra had grabbed Panthro from behind but he was still able to wail his
arms, still able to drag himself closer to the cliff.  Bengali
approached calmly.   “Take my whip, Benny, I can’t reach it.”  Together
the two Thundercats were able to subdue Panthro.  They tied Panthro’s
arms and legs together and set him down softly on his back on the dry
land by the waters.  He continued to rant about Snarf and what he was
going to do to him.
 “The rocks have stopped falling.  Benny, are you all right?”
 “I think so, yes, yes, Tygra.”
 The tigers hugged warmly under the side of the cliff.  Tygra ran his
hands across Bengali face, around his hears where he gently played with
his mane.  “I need you to be all right,” he said at length.  “We have to
stay here until Panthro’s come back to, to...to normal.”
 “OK.”
 “I don’t want you to worry about any monster’s either.  I’ll be here to
protect you.”
 “OK.”
 “Now you didn’t throw the map into the river.”
 “I did.  I did,” said Bengali through sobs.
 Tygra shook his head and stepped to the side.  He rubbed Bengali gently
under his chin.  “Why don’t you go over there and keep Panthro company.
It’ll be dark soon and we’ve already wasted a whole day.”  He wanted to
say more but was afraid he would only upset Bengali needlessly.
 The three Thundercats remained in that small niche the whole rest of
the day.  By sunset Tygra judged that Panthro was well and able enough
to be untied.  Bengali had gathered and collected a large number of dead
branches and brown leaves into a mound that Tygra had encircled with
rocks and stones.  There was a warm fire that lit the dark, starry
night.  They ate quickly and in silence and after dinner they huddled
close together again and went to sleep.
 “Tygra.  Tygra,” said Bengali.  He prodded the sleeping tiger with his
fingers.
 “What?  What is it?”
 “I can’t find Panthro.”
 “What are you talking about?  He’s right here.  Next to me.”  Tygra
pulled his arm out and with his hand he felt the ground next to him.
His eyes widened when he found no one.  He looked to see and indeed
Panthro was gone.  He sat up on the ground.  To his right was Bengali,
several feet away was the site of the campfire.  Dead.  So dead there
was not either smoke or heat.  The air was cold and the sky was dark
gray.  The clouds from two days past had returned with a vengeance.  He
shivered while he got up.  “When did you notice that he was gone?”
 “Not too long ago.  I just woke up too.”
 Tygra examined the rocks and noticed that around where Panthro had last
lay at rest there was a strange, thick slime, green slime.  It was hot
to the touch.
 “A poison?” asked Bengali.
 “I’m not sure.”
 The tigers walked down to the river side to wash up.  In passing they
looked at the rock formation that stood or loomed rather several hundred
feet away in the distance.  They did not see anything strange or bloody
on the monolith.  The alter was undecorated if such was the word.
 “Maybe he wasn’t as well as we thought he was.  Maybe he --”
 “Let’s just see if we can spot his tracks.  Keep your eyes open for
that green slime.”
 It became quite clear to them that Panthro had followed the course of
the river back to the rock formation.  Little bits and droplets of that
green slime marked the trail.  When they finally reached what Bengali
had called an alter they were afraid once again of what they might see
but there was nothing.  Nothing but clear footsteps through the mud that
led up into the forests, up onto the cliff.
 Somehow that made sense to Tygra.  While they hiked and trekked through
the trees, through the upshot roots and fallen logs Bengali looked to
the side.  He stopped Tygra and together the tigers saw the clearing
they had all been at when they had begun the adventure.  They were
looking at the small mound Panthro and Cheetara had sat upon.
 “But that means the Thunder Tank is nearby.”
 “Pumyra!  By Jagga!  No!  Pumyra!”
 Tygra managed to stop and to tackle Bengali who had then sprinted
toward the somber clearing.  “She can take care of herself, remember and
she has the radio.  If anything happened she would have called Cat’s
Lair and Liono would have come.  Liono would have made it here somehow.”

 A wail, a low, dull moan was followed by pronounced yelps.  The tigers
looked back behind them.  “That doesn’t sound like Panthro.  That
doesn’t sound like what we heard yesterday morning.”
 “No,” Tygra said.  Then the screams and yells sharpened, heightened.
“Someone’s in trouble.”
 They ran off in some direction they did not take notice of.  The ground
gradually flattened and smoothed under their feet.  The trees seemed to
disperse too.  Then suddenly the Thundercats came upon three tall
poles.  Two of them were draped with the Cheetara’s and Panthro’s
hides.  The other was unadorned.
 “We’re being hunted down one at a time!” said Bengali.  There was a
slight pause interrupted by the sound of the scream of pain and of
agony.  “Look there!”  Bengali pointed to something that bounced up and
down, side to side off in the distance, in the underbrush.  It was a
blue canvas bag.  The screams came from within.  Bengali got on top of
it to stop it for it quivered violently.  The tiger felt something.
“No, Tygra step back.  Don’t come any closer.”
 “What is it, Bengali?”
 “There’s someone in this bag.”
 “I can tell that.  Get out of the way.  Let me free him.”
 “No!  No!”
 “What is wrong with you?”
 “Don’t open the bag, Tygra, don’t open the bag.”  But it was too late.
Tygra ripped a long gash down the side of the canvas bag.  Almost
instantly Bengali shot off, shot back and turned away.  A strange
concoction of blood and salt poured out of the rent Tygra had made with
his claws.  Then, as the bag tumbled about, as the screams within came
out unmuffled, Panthro slid onto the dirt.  His whole body had been
peeled down even to the bone in some parts.  He had no ears, no nose, no
lips or eyelids.  His cheeks were shredded either by the hand that had
skinned him alive or by his loud screams.  Several ribs were exposed
down on his chest.  His arms flailed in the air, his knurled hands
fingerless.  The lower half of his body was inundated with blood and
guts that hung down off a large slit cut across his abdomen where his
disembowelment had begun but was not finished.  His right leg was
missing below the knee, his left leg was totally hacked to the bone
where there were only slight chunks of flesh left.
 Tygra and Bengali ran off away as quickly as they saw that horrid,
unimaginable sight.  They themselves screamed and yelled too, to try to
deafen the agony of their fallen companion.  They tried to delude
themselves, they tired to forget what they had seen.  Suddenly they were
quite well aware of a pervasive laughter that engulfed the forest.  The
same laughter they had heard last night.  Something about it awoke a dim
memory in Bengali but that train of thought was put to an end when the
two Thundercats came back upon the Thunder Tank.
 The scene was strangely silent once more.
 “Now what?” asked Bengali.
 “Where’s Pumyra?”
 Bengali opened the inner door of the Thunder Tank.  Within the interior
there was not even as much as a scrap of paper on the floor.  “She’s not
in here, Tygra, but the place’s been well kept.”
 “There’s not even a scratch from out here.”
 “No, not tracks either?  No one’s been here, by Jagga.”
 “I’m sure she’s around.  Somewhere.”  Tygra approached a tree trunk and
examined it closely with his fingers.  His hands got stuck to the bark
and he struggled to free them.
 “What is it, Tygra?”
 “More of that green slime.  Wait.  I see something,” he looked up into
the dark branches of the tree.  Green slime poured down onto his face
into his eyes.  Bengali screamed like a little girl and ran forward to
the other tiger but stopped when he saw that Tygra fell face-down on the
dirt.  His body turned around abruptly to reveal an arrow stuck through
his insignia, through his heart.  Bengali knelt down over him.  Tygra
was dead.  The skin of his face and of his hands peeled off easily by
the action of the green slime that all but covered the exposed parts of
his body.
 A small sack, the very sack Bengali had taken with him from the Thunder
Tank two days before, the same sack he had left of the side of the river
yesterday was thrown through the air and landed smack on top of Tygra’s
chest.  He was taken aback in utter surprise and horror.
 “No more lover boy, eh?”  Evil unbridled spoke venom though those
forced, angry words.
 Bengali turned to his right.  He thought he had seen everything, he
thought he could not possibly be more afraid.  An arrow launcher fell
onto the ground while a shadow moved out from the cover of the trees.
He could not get up when he saw it.  He crawled back toward the Thunder
Tank.
 “The blood!  The blood!  By Jagga!  The blood,” he screamed at the top
of his lungs, his panic echoed loudly through the wilderness beyond.
“Pumyra!  What have you done!”






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