Author's Note: Thundercats, the events concerned, and the characters are all copyright of Tobin "Ted" Wolf, Sam Register, Warner Bros. Animation, Studio 4°C, and any other groups/people that deserve the credit. This is a non-profit work of fanfiction.

Chapter Five: The Finer Points of (After)living

The Viridian Forest, the Secluded Clearing:

Panthro folded his cybernetic arms over his brawny chest, his sideburns framing his disapproving frown. "For the record," he remarked with dry resignation, "This is reckless, even for you."

Saying this, the general swept an arm around to indicate the clearing around him, where the interrupted funeral had turned into the site of a ritual. The wood for the pyre had been cleared away, leaving only the damp earth of the forest floor. This blank expanse had become a canvas for Cheetara; using her staff, the Cleric was busily carving out a complex spell circle in the ground. The deceptively-simple-looking weapon pushed through grass and soil alike, digging smooth grooves in the rain-softened earth that formed rings within rings. Within these, Cheetara paused to gouge out more intricate symbols - runes to amplify the intended ritual. On the perimeter, the glow rods had been replaced by torches, their flickering firelight casting a primeval glow over everything. The other Thundercats milled around, helping Cheetara in her efforts; the Thunderkittens and Snarf were clearing away leaves and sticks that got in the way of the circle, while Tygra helped with the symbols by carving the into the soul with the pommel of his whip's handle.

Standing outside the circle, cradling Pumyra's lifeless body in his arms, Lion-O sighed in exasperation as he looked over to Panthro. "Your concerns," he said for what felt like the umpteenth time, "have been noted, general."

Panthro didn't look convinced. "Have they?" he grunted. "Let's sum it up. One–" The burly Thundercat held up a finger. "–You plan on going to the afterlife, via a magic ritual fueled by an equally magic rock that we barely understand. Two–" A second finger came up. "–The ritual in question is jury-rigged, because it wasn't meant to do this. Three–" A third finger. "–You're doing this for a woman who – brainwashed or not – tried to kill you. At least...what, three times?"

Lion-O winced. "I'm aware of how crazy it sounds, general," he admitted. "But I've got my reasons for doing this."

Panthro gave him a knowing look. "I'll bet," he grunted, though his gruff baritone wasn't entirely unkind. "But with all due respect, there are other women out there, my king. Ones who don't have the baggage of being a spy who hated your guts until the last few moments of her life."

"He's not wrong," Tygra cut in from where he was kneeling along one of the inner rings, using the pommel of his whip to join Cheetara in gouging symbols into the dirt.

Lion-O set his jaw, but managed to bite back his initial retort. Aware that the other Thundercats were looking over at him now, he took a deep breath and stepped forward, still cradling Pumyra's corpse. "I've got practical reasons," he insisted tightly. "For one thing, Pumyra was a gifted fighter. She was able to keep me on my toes, after all–"

"That's not saying much," Tygra snarked, only to catch a look of mild admonishment from Cheetara.

"–And we could use all the help we can get," Lion-O continued through clenched teeth, doing his best to ignore Tygra. "Two, Pumyra served as Mumm-Ra's spy and enforcer. If we're lucky, she'll be able to give us vital intel on his plans. And three..." He paused, looking down at the Gauntlet of Omens with a rueful sigh. "You're right. There is a lot about the Stones that we don't know. Even if…" He hesitated. "...Even if this doesn't work out...maybe it's a chance to learn more about their capabilities. The Spirit Stone, at least."

Panthro lifted a brow, his craggy features almost impressed. "Huh," he grunted mildly, giving a shrug of his brawny shoulders. "That'll do."

"Sounds like you actually thought this through, for once," Tygra remarked with a dry smirk. Then the smirk faded, and he gave Lion-O a knowing look. "But practical or not, those aren't the main reasons, are they?"

Lion-O's temper flared again. Still carrying Pumyra's body, he turned to cast a sharp glance at his adopted older brother. Tygra met his gaze evenly, smoothly rising from his crouch as he watched Lion-O pivot on his heel and stride forward to meet him on the outer rings of the ritual circle. The two heirs stood face to face, the flickering torches casting patterns off their faces and reflecting keen light in their eyes. A tense silence hung between the two of them as the others watched.

"Are you trying to tell me something?" Lion-O asked archly.

"Your reasons for doing this aren't too shabby," Tygra replied evenly. "But they're all secondary to the one you left out. Four–" he held up four fingers for emphasis. "–You're plunging into the afterlife, risking your own soul for Pumyra...because you've still got it bad for her, and you're can't let it go."

Lion-O knew he couldn't have denied it, even if he'd wanted to. But he couldn't - wouldn't - yield now. "Would you do any less," he asked firmly, "if it were Cheetara in this situation?"

Tygra was silent for a moment, his eyes darting over to the beautiful Cleric, then back to Lion-O. "You had to go there," he said quietly.

A sharp twinge of guilt twisted in Lion-O's chest. "Right. Maybe that was a low bl–"

"–All the arguments you could've gone with," Tygra interrupted with a rueful-yet-wry half-smirk, "and you had to pick the winning one right off the bat? C'mon, I've got a reputation to uphold!" Shaking his head, he chuckled. "Not that I wasn't going to back your play already, mind you."

Lion-O blinked, confusion flickering across his boyish features. "Wait, what? But…"

"You're right, you know," Tygra admitted with a shrug, sweeping his arm around to indicate the ritual circle. "I would be doing the exact thing if it were Cheetara dead, and there was a chance to save her." He paused, his smirk fading as he met Lion-O's gaze again. "Just remember, the rebellion's put their faith in you. I've heard things, when they don't think we're listening...they don't necessarily trust us Thundercats. Our imperial past keeps coming up. But they're willing to give you a chance." He paused, giving Lion-O a meaningful look. " Whatever happens over there...don't lose sight of what's back here. Okay?"

Lion-O was quiet for a moment, the implications of his brother's words settling on him. "I'll be careful," he said at last. "But if something happens…"

"None of that, now," Tygra cut him off, that wry smirk returning as he clapped him on the shoulder. "Just go get Pumyra back, yeah? I'm looking forward to teasing you about the things you do for love."

Lion-O grinned back, feeling some of the tension bleed off. "Ah, incentive," he shot back dryly. He glanced over to the center of the clearing, clearing his throat. "Cheetara, how're the preparations coming along?" he called.

Cheetara rose from where she'd been kneeling at the very core of the rune circle, her staff in one hand while the other held a sleek device comprised of what most knew as "Lost Technology." Glancing over at the mention of her name, she gave Lion-O a nod. "We're ready, I think," she replied, making a beckoning gesture for emphasis. "Bring Pumyra over here, please."

This was it. Feeling a subtle nervous thrill, Lion-O turned away from Tygra and walked over to the center of the vast ritual circle that now dominated the middle of the clearing, carrying Pumyra's lifeless body in his arms. Everyone else had completed their work and were backing away, leaving their king to join Cheetara at the heart of the endeavor. As he approached, Lion-O tilted his head to get a better look at the device Cheetara was consulting. It might have passed for a book, what with its ornate cover and leather-esque binding, if not for the fact that the cover was opened to reveal not paper, but a sleek glass screen that displayed a familiar-looking spell circle highlighted in blue against a black backdrop.

"You found a diagram for that ritual in the Book of Omens?" Lion-O asked, his interest piqued. "Looks like we're getting a little better at making it work, these days."

Cheetara pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I'm not entirely sure about that," she mused. "I don't know how I brought it up, really. I was trying out your theory that swiping your finger across the screen can reveal more options, and tapped a few of the icons…" Trailing off, the Cleric gave an embarrassed shrug. "Really, it was as much luck as anything else. There's still a whole lot we don't know about the Book of Omens, except that it incorporates a lot of Lost Technology. And our allies on Avista are still being tight-lipped about what they know about that sort of thing."

Lion-O let his toned shoulders rise and fall in a shrug of his own. "We can't blame them, Cheetara," he pointed out ruefully. "The Thundercats have a checkered past as conquerors. Mumm-Ra's appearance might've changed things, but we've got a lot of trust to earn."

Cheetara looked away, her expression pensive. "I know. It's just…" she closed her eyes, letting out a sigh. "I'm sure that Jaga could've figured this out by now."

Lion-O gave her a reassuring smile. "You can do this. Tygra believes in you...and for whatever it's worth, so do I."

This prompted a faint smile from Cheetara as she looked back at him. Once again, Lion-O was reminded of his complicated history with the last of the Clerics, both good and bad. He still felt that painful twinge of what might have been...but it was getting easier to live with. After all, she was still willing to help him, even if he hadn't handled his heartbreak gracefully at the time.

Clearing his throat, Lion-O glanced down at Pumyra's body, still cradled in his arms. "Well, uh, anyway. What's next?"

Cheetara indicated the ground with a nod. "You should probably lie down, with Pumyra next to you. And make sure she remains in contact with the Spirit Stone."

Lion-O nodded wordlessly, dropping to his knees so he could set Pumyra's corpse down as gently as he could. His gauntlet-clad hand never left her body; its bronze palm gliding from where it had been resting on her shoulder to travel down her sleek, toned arm, until it was resting atop her own hand. Bathed in the soft, pulsing glow from the Spirit Stone, Lion-O slid into a sitting posture, then let himself fall back so that he was lying prone next to Pumyra. The night sky gazed down at him, ringed by treetops. "And now?"

Cheetara knelt by Lion-O, her long legs tucking gracefully into a lotus sitting position as she set her staff aside. "Now," she said with a deep breath, "I need to close your eyes. Let go of all thought, and give yourself to the silence." She placed the Book of Omens on her lap, her other hand drawing figures in the air with a single finger. "Leave the rest to me."

Lion-O did as he was bidden. The forest, the torches, and the other Thundercats vanished behind the darkness of his closed lids. Only the cool caress of the evening air and the chirping of crickets existed, now. Over that nocturnal melody, he could hear Cheetara murmuring something under her breath, the chant of an incantation. A subtle humming filled the air, and a faint tingling sensation swept through Lion-O's body. Even without opening his eyes, he knew there was magic at work; radiating from Cheetara and resonating with the Spirit Stone. In all likelihood, there was a bit of a light show going on, even if he couldn't see it.

Pushing it aside, Lion-O let himself go limp and tried to relax his grip on coherent thought. A mild fog gathered at the edge of his mind, but true submersion seemed just out of reach. In the background, Cheetara's chanting became a little fainter, a subtle tremor in her voice betraying her uncertainty.

Have faith, Cheetara. You can do this...

Without warning, a subtle-yet profound jolt traveled through Lion-O's body as the fog swept over him. The sounds of the forest faded, as if the last traces of the world around him were melting away into perfect nothingness. His limbs felt heavy and non-responsive, as if he was no longer quite connected to them. There was a pulsing hum from the Gauntlet of Omens, the only sound he could hear.

Then Lion-O was weightless. Falling, flying, or floating, he couldn't say for sure. There was no up or down, no in or out, not even light or darkness; there was only a dream-like sense of being adrift in an endless void. Time seemed to stretch out, moments spiraling out into minutes into forever…

Then, gradually, forever became finite, and Lion-O was aware of himself again.

For a minute, he lay there in silence, drinking in the input from his returning senses. He was still on his back, but the grassy earth beneath him had been replaced by what felt like smooth, sculpted rock. The lack of other voices suggested that he was alone now, and the absence of a breeze made him wonder if he was indoors. Opening his eyes, he found himself staring up at a rounded stone ceiling, its aqua hue making him think of the ocean. Every breath filled his nostrils with cool air that seemed to carry the stale dust of ages long past...and, oddly enough, the faintest scent of the forest that he'd left behind. A lingering sense of the torpor that had carried him off lingered in his limbs, leaving him with a mild sense of detachment in his own body.

But torpor or not, Lion-O found that he could move. Levering his elbows against the floor, he pushed himself upright and looked around, taking in his surroundings. He was standing in the middle of a vast circular chamber that had been carved from what looked like ocean-blue marble. The floor, the ceiling, the walls...everything had been hewn from this sleek azure rock, giving the chamber an ethereal, almost nocturnal atmosphere. Polished gold had been inlaid into the floor, forming patterns that emulated the Eye of Thundera. Apart from this, the chief decoration was a vast pillar in the center of the room, its imposing mass stretching between the floor and ceiling. There were no doors or windows that Lion-O could see; only archways that framed the walls in shadow.

Eerie as it was, however, Lion-O knew this place. He'd been here once before, back when he'd drowned in battle. Here, in the antechamber of the afterlife, he'd been tasked with proving himself worthy of a second chance.

"Looks like Cheetara's spell worked," Lion-O mused aloud, glancing around the ocean-blue chamber. "The question is...what now?"

"A heavy question, with difficult answers."

Regal and comforting as that voice was - as familiar as it was - its presence was so abrupt that Lion-O nearly jumped in alarm. Wrestling his heart rate back to normal, he glanced around sharply until his gaze settled on the space near the column, where a ghostly figure was emerging into view, not passing around the pillar as much as through it. A male Thundercat like him, the phantasm was dressed in the manner of a warrior sage - beneath a navy-blue cape secured by armored white pauldrons with gold trim, he wore a simple bronze breastplate and a leather battle-kilt. A rounded helm decorated with a single spike and a jewel adorned his head, framing a stately visage whose eyes gleamed keenly above a flowing beard and mustache, both of which had gone silver-white with age. Outlined in a spectral blue glow, the spirit floated forward, carrying a wooden staff whose top was decorated by an abstract carving that curved upon itself twice like a serpent rearing to strike.

Lion-O bowed his head in a respectful nod, crossing his fist over his chest in the traditional salute of the Thundercats. "Jaga," he greeted, the warmth of familiarity filling his chest. "It's good to see you again."

The former master of Thundera's Clerics returned the salute, his mustache twitching in a way that suggested a subtle, fatherly smile. "I should say the same, my king," he replied with pleasant calm. "Though seeing you again so soon is something of a surprise."

Lion-O winced, remembering the last time he'd found himself here. "I'm not dead this time," he admitted. "I'm here because..."

"I am aware," Jaga interrupted, his smile giving way to the rueful frown of someone delivering bad news. "And I'm afraid that Pumyra's situation is different than yours."

Lion-O blinked, his gut twisting with alarm. "What? But...the Spirit Stone...Pumyra…Cheetara said..."

Jaga held up a finger, prompting his king to trail off. "Recalling the dead is no small thing, my liege," he explained heavily. "And you must remember that you were wearing the Spirit Stone at the time of your passing. Pumyra wasn't brought into contact with it properly until hours after the fact. Under normal circumstances, resurrecting her would have been impossible."

A wave of dismay rose in Lion-O's chest, and he opened his mouth to protest...then stopped, as the last part sank in. "You said normal circumstances," he pointed out, trying to keep the hope out of his voice. "But they aren't normal, aren't they?"

Jaga nodded as if in approval of his king's insight. "There are other factors to consider," he remarked thoughtfully. "Such as the sorcery that resurrected Pumyra to begin. Dark magic though it may have been, its potency cannot be discounted. Traces of it linger still, forming a frayed link between her broken body and wayward spirit." He paused. "On their own, these fragments of nercomancy wouldn't be enough to restore Pumyra - at least, not in any way that she would want - but the Spirit Stone may harness their power and change it into something more benign."

Lion-O felt his pulse quicken. "So...it is possible?" he asked, his voice now quivering with excitement. "I can bring Pumyra back?

Jaga regarded him for a moment, a somber look on his sagely features. "Were it so simple," he corrected gently. "You must remember, my king, that the Spirit Stone does not - cannot - restore life freely. Just as it once tested your worth, it would surely test Pumyra's. Whether she'd prove herself is no guarantee." He paused, his expression turning rueful. "More importantly, much of this depends on whether Pumyra herself is willing to go along with it."

Lion-O frowned, his gut twisting with uncertainty. "What do you mean?"

Jaga sighed. "Pumyra's lot in life was a bitter one," he pointed out solemnly. "She died under tragic circumstances, and was then resurrected as a corrupted puppet. From that moment on, she was enslaved by Mumm-Ra's foul influence, unaware that her actions weren't her own until it was too late. Even when her chains were broken, it was only to die again. There was no resolution, no peace. Only further heartbreak." The ghostly Cleric paused, shaking his head. "After such trauma...Pumyra may not wish to come back."

Lion-O's heart lurched. "But she'd have a chance to set things right!" he protested. "She wouldn't be a slave under someone else's control! She could redeem herself! She…!"

"I know how it sounds," Jaga interrupted, not unkindly. "But try to understand, Lion-O...for some people, death is a release. Guilt, or exhaustion, or misery...sometimes, these burdens are too great for them to bear." He paused. "Make no mistake, you may be able to find Pumyra's wayward spirit; you may even help her come to terms with herself...but after all her hardships, she may prefer her eternal rest." The ghostly Cleric paused, giving Lion-O a meaningful look. "Are you still willing to brave purgatory itself, knowing this?"

For a moment, Lion-O didn't answer, his gaze flicking downward to the smooth expanse of the blue stone floor as his thoughts churned wildly. Was Jaga right? Could it be that Pumyra might not want to come back? Was finding closure with her all he could hope for?

Then he took a deep breath, his hands closing into fists as he looked back up at Jaga resolutely. "If that's all I can do, that's all I can do," he said, his voice firmer than he'd dared hope. "If this helps her somehow, then that's enough reason to go through with it."

Jaga nodded, that fatherly approval subtly returning to his stoic features. "Then your next task is to find Pumyra. Show me your left arm, my king."

Lion-O did as he was bidden. Holding his staff aloft in one hand, Jaga reached out to touch the Gauntlet of Omens with the other, lips moving beneath his beard in a wordless chant as his fingers brushed the golden alloy. There was a resonant hum as the Spirit Stone glowed in response, its rose-pink light becoming an ethereal mist that flowed from the gem and swirled around Lion-O's forearm. Still chanting, Jaga pointed his staff toward one of the walls, and the rosy mist leaped from the Gauntlet of Omens in a twisting ribbon of energy. Just before touching the wall, the misty essence spread itself outward, twisting and stretching to form a rectangular shape. The ethereal hum intensified as the mist rippled, gaining mass and substance as it grew brighter and brighter.

Then the pink light flared and faded, leaving a door hanging in thin air. It was a thing of sleek, burnished metal, its double panels made of the same golden-bronze alloy as the Gauntlet of Omens. Angular grooves ran along its surface, forming a series of patterns that made Lion-O think of the circuit boards that he'd seen Panthro and the Berbils tinkering around with once. The lines converged on a single point, where a deep magenta jewel was set into the golden metal, pulsing with an inner light of its own.

"This door was forged from the link that the Spirit Stone established between you and Pumyra," Jaga explained, gesturing with his staff for emphasis. "It will take you to the purgatory where Pumyra's spirit presently resides. From there, you must rely on the Stone itself to track her down."

Lion-O nodded as he stepped forward, examining the door's similarities to the Gauntlet of Omens. "Got it. Anything else I should know?"

"As it happens, yes," Jaga replied. "There is one who roams the depths of purgatory, tasked with ferrying lost souls to where they belong. This being is known as the Warden of Souls, for any other name - if it ever existed - was lost long ago. Were I you, I would be mindful of crossing that one's path."

Lion-O glanced back to Jaga, a quiver of unease creeping up his spine. "You're saying this Warden's going to try and stop me?"

Jaga's shoulders rose and fell beneath the pauldrons of his cloak, offering a shrug. "It's difficult to say," he admitted. "The Warden's ways are a mystery by mortal standards. The fact that you died and returned to life, only to come back, might attract the Warden's attention. You might just as easily be ignored, as you aren't actually dead thus time. The Warden may take exception to what you're attempting with Pumyra, or perhaps not." The ghostly Cleric paused, spreading his palms wide. "So long as you don't interfere with the Warden's tasks, you should be safe."

Lion-O frowned. "And what if trying to save Pumyra does anger the Warden?" he asked warily.

Jaga's expression became grim. "The Warden of Souls is more akin to a force of nature than a person," he said gravely. "Swords are useless against a storm. Should your actions offend the Warden, your only hope is to flee."

Lion-O grimaced. "Wonderful," he sighed, then squared his shoulders resolutely. "But I just can't give up now."

"You could," Jaga corrected him, his gaze knowing. "But you won't. And that choice often makes all the difference." He drew back, holding his staff as he regarded his king. "Go now, and let the Spirit Stone be your guide. Good luck."

Lion-O glanced over his shoulder, giving his ghostly mentor a nod. Then he turned back to the door and reached out, almost instinctively placing his hand on the pink jewel on its center. There was a resonant hum as the gemstone flared brightly, its rose-hued radiance spreading through the geometric carvings on the door's gilded surface. Then the jewel vanished, and there was a metallic click as the double doors swung open to reveal a misty expanse beyond. Thick white fog spilled into the chamber, almost blocking out everything as it rolled over Lion-O. What lay beyond was almost impossible to make out, there was only a vague sense of wide open space and the rippling whisper of running water. What little light there was came through muted and eerie, as if what lay on the other side was lit only by moonlight.

Now or never.

Feeling a subtle chill creep up his body that was only partly from the mist, Lion-O took a deep breath and stepped forward. While the fog continued to blot out everything beyond a few feet in front of him, the rest of his senses kicked into overdrive.. The smooth marble gave way to uneven ground as he crossed through the gate, pebbles and soil parting beneath his feet. The air itself turned sharp and chilly, yet oddly stale, as well. Despite the rustling whisper that suggested a breeze, he couldn't feel its kiss against his fur. And yet that strange whisper persisted, accompanying the liquid gurgle of a rushing stream. Perhaps even a river? The lack of echo suggested that he was outside...

Mindful of the poor visibility, Lion-O advanced cautiously, taking one step at a time. On an impulse, he lifted his left arm and held it out, the armored fingers of his gauntlet-clad palm spread open to feel his way around. Maybe he could wave the fog away…?

At that moment, the Spirit Stone began to glow. Encased in its setting in the Gauntlet of Omens, the ovoid jewel gave off a subtle hum as it cast an ethereal pink light, pushing back against the opaque white mist that surrounded Lion-O. As he watched, the fog began to yield, gradually shrinking away from the mystical radiance. Inch by inch, more and more details became apparent - flat gray soil, colorless pebbles, the odd chunk of driftwood. All the while, the liquid churning of running water grew louder, yet seemed oddly muffled by the fog somehow.

Before long, things had cleared up just enough for Lion-O to have a better sense of his surroundings - at least, what he could make out by the light of the Spirit Stone and the nondescript moonlight that filtered through the mist. He was standing on the shoreline of a river, stretching as far as he could see in either direction before it was swallowed up by the fog. The landscape was mostly flat and barren, lifeless gray dirt mingling with pebbles that had been worn to featureless ovoids. Dead trees jutted up from the ground at random, their leafless branches jutting out like skeletal arms. If there was anything else beyond the fog, there was no sign of it - no sounds of insects or birds, no signs of habitation, no life of any kind. There was only this bleak, forlorn wasteland.

The thing that caught Lion-O's eye the most, however, was the river itself. It flowed swiftly off to the left, its rippling current just shy of taking the form of rapids. The water was a murky black that obscured its depths; whether the darkness came from the dim lighting or some internal pollution was hard to tell. Rocks of various sizes jutted up through the rushing waters, emerging at random intervals as they spread off into the fog. That same fog completely obscured any hint of the river's far side...or, indeed, if it even had one. For all intents and purposes, it could have been the ocean.

Feeling a chill of unease ripple up his spine, Lion-O cupped both hands to his mouth. "Pumyra?" he called out, his voice standing out in the eerie silence of the misty gloom.

No answer. Only that strange, not-quite-there whisper of a breeze that couldn't be felt.

Frowning, Lion-O turned to the right and started to cup his hands again, ready to call out a second time...and then stopped, blinking as the light from the Spirit Stone began to flicker a little, dimming before his eyes. With a surge of concern, the Lord of the Thundercats tapped the Gauntlet of Omens sharply with one finger, instinctively treating it like a faulty glow-rod. The gesture shifted his gauntlet-clad forearm back to the left, and the glow from the Spirit Stone picked back up a notch or two. Lion-O stared blankly for a second or two, then snapped his fingers as understanding kicked in.

Wait a minute. Didn't Jaga say something about letting the Spirit Stone guide me…?

Holding his left arm out in front of him, Lion-O swept the Gauntlet of Omens left and right like a dowsing rod, eyeing the way the Spirit Stone brightened and dimmed in response. Warmer. Colder. Warmer, now…there!

As the gem's brightness reached its zenith, Lion-O looked up and realized that it seemed to be focused on a point across the river, far off into the misty gloom. The other side remained hidden from view, lost to the depths of the fog, but the implications were clear enough - if he was going to find Pumyra, he needed to cross the river. With a thoughtful frown, Lion-O glanced up and down the bank. Apart from the odd dead tree, there didn't seem to be anything he could use as a bridge, much less a raft…

Then he paused, taking another look at the river itself. Come to think of it, there were a lot of sizeable rocks scattered about, pushing up through the murky depths...and, more often than not, not too far away from each other. Peering at them more closely, it occurred to Lion-O that a lot of these stones seemed large and sturdy enough to support his weight. It would probably mean changing course a few times - some of the rocks were further apart - but maybe he could use them as stepping stones?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Here goes…

Taking a deep breath, Lion-O took a few steps back, then started forward at a brisk sprint. The moment he reached the shoreline, the muscles of his legs coiled into springs that launched him forward, jumping to the nearest of the rocks. The impact of the landing jolted up his legs as he sank into a crouch, half-expecting the stone to crumble beneath him and dump him into the dark waters of the river…

Except that didn't happen. The stone remained firm beneath his feet, and he didn't slip, and none of that changed as he rose back to his feet and looked around. His gaze settling on the nearest rock, Lion-O cautiously stretched out one of his legs until his foot made contact with its rough surface, still damp from the surrounding waters. He gave this new stone a few pushes with his foot, and when it didn't budge or crumble under the pressure, he stepped forward, crossing over to the second stone. Once again, the rock remained solid beneath his feet. Breathing out a sigh of relief as he stood atop his new perch, Lion-O looked back towards the riverbank, where the golden door he'd entered this strange limbo was already being obscured by the pervading mist. Once he started forward, he'd have to hope that the Spirit Stone would guide him true...both to wherever Pumyra was, and then back here.

"Well, I've already come this far," he muttered to himself, squaring his tawny-furred shoulders. "One way or another, I'll just have to make do."

And with that thought, the Lord of the Thundercats made his way forward, following the light of the Spirit Stone as he cautiously crossed from one water-jutting rock to the next. With each step he took out across the river, the mists of purgatory rose around him, enveloping everything until the shore was lost to him, and the rose-pink light from the gem on his Gauntlet was his only guide.

He could only hope it led him to Pumyra.

TO BE CONTINUED…

AUTHOR'S NOTE: What, you didn't think Lion-O would find Pumyra waiting for him right off the bat, did you? The question becomes...will she WANT to be found?

This chapter was originally meant to be longer, but I figured you'd all waited long enough for an update; and the note I ended on seemed like a good cutoff point. It took a couple variations on my writing till I was happy with the end result as it was - originally, Cheetara didn't voice her doubts about her own capability; then I realized that it might be interesting to explore the idea of her comparing herself to her predecessors, and whether they could have done better.

Speaking of whom, enter Jaga! Him being there to help guide Lion-O was always part of the plan, as the show didn't always provide an opportunity for Lion-O to get much-needed advice from a supportive mentor...or, at least, one who didn't have the baggage of being part of a former love triangle.

(Yeah, the old Lion-O X Cheetara shipper in me might still be smarting over the way that whole mess was handled.)

On a related note, I continue to search for the perfect mix of jackass and bro to inject into Tygra's behavior. I hope I'm pulling it off while keeping him in-character!

Another fun fact: I actually went through several names for the being that Jaga warns Lion-O about. Originally, they were called the Ferryman, but because said entity is more of a natural force with no one gender, I opted to try and come up with something more gender-neurtral. "Shepherd," "Guardian," and "Guide" all came up before I settled on "Warden." And no, I wasn't going to go with "Reaper," because this entity isn't in charge of claiming the dead from the world of the living; they're tasked with ferrying lost souls off to whichever afterlife they've earned.

As for what KIND of being the Warden is, well...minor spoiler: the next chapter will provide some insight. Suffice to say that Pumyra isn't the only encounter that Lion-O's going to have in the realm of the dead.

As always, comments and critique are my lifeblood! I look forward to your input, dear readers!