Chapter One: Lion Prince

"Are you in position, Liam?" a feminine voice rang in the ear of a young man dressed in an expensive tuxedo. His hair, however, did not match his clean attire; he had messy, blond hair, a slight beard, and sideburns that nearly connected the hair on his chin to the hair on top of his head. "The target will be heavily protected. Are you sure you are going to be okay on your own?"

"You forget who I am," Liam answered into his Covert Com, a communicator small enough to fit inside the ear without being seen by suspecting eyes.

"That's not possible," a masculine voice chimed in. "You can hardly go a day without boasting your name for the whole world to hear."

"I'm not that loud; your hearing is just too good," Liam said with a shrug. "Oh, it's almost time! Keep an eye and ear out for me."

"And now, dear guests, may we present to you what you've all been waiting for," a portly man announced, drawing the crowd's attention. In his hand was a stone as beautiful as the man was ugly. "From the top names in the Supreme Kingdom Research and Development, I present to you the first ever set of Mood Gems."

"Is that it?" Liam asked, placing his hand over his right ear to better hear his comrades.

"One of them, yes," the woman answered. "According to our intel, those gems are far more than just pretty jewels. Make sure you get them all."

"First up is this, the Emerald of Ecstasy," the announcer began. "This stone is able to drive off any negative emotions by continued eye contact." Liam watched as several of the guests began to stare at the stone with blank, happy faces.

"Wha- They're like zombies!" Liam gasped. "Leave it to the Supreme Kingdom to make things like these."

"Be careful not to fall for any of those stones until after you got them all," the male voice warned. "Hypnosis would make things...problematic."

"No kidding, these things pack quite a punch," Liam agreed, poking a guest in the forehead without any sort of resistance. "I could haul off and sock this guy in the jaw and he'd still be grinning like an idiot."

Up next we have this little gem," the fat man joked as he picked up a blue stone. "With this, even the most hardened criminal will be moved to tears. Perfect for avoiding that speeding ticket, hah hah." Everyone began to cry in response. "Oh, come on! My jokes aren't that bad. Oh, yeah, the jewel." The man chuckled as everyone else wept.

"Ugh, this guy gives me the creeps," the woman grunted. "How are you holding up in there?"

"Just fine, Sting," Liam answered, stifling a sniffle. "Though I should probably stop looking at that sapphire."

"Can I have a pretty lady volunteer for this next one?" A woman slowly stepped out of the crowd, unsure of herself. "Well, well! I know I asked for a pretty lady, but you are a knockout!"

"Th-Thanks," the woman said, somewhat put off. As she got closer to the man, her face wrinkled in disgust at the odd odor coming from him.

"Aren't you glad you're not here right now?" Liam said into his communicator.

"Elated. Just keep focused," Sting replied.

"Can you look closely at this?" the man asked as he held a pink gem in front of the woman. With one hand he held the gem, and with the other he motioned to one of his guards. The woman stared at the gem, then at the man with an odd look on her face. She leaped for the fat man, only to be stopped by the guard. "This, ladies and gentlemen, is known as Cupid's Ruby. Whoever holds it will become irresistible to members of the opposite sex, though I doubt a man as handsome as myself needs it."

"I think I just threw up a bit," Sting said in a deadpan tone.

"I'll see you later, babe," the fat man said with a wink as the guard led the clueless woman away. "Now then, after a demonstration like that, who wants to start the bid at, say, thirty million?" Several voices made claims for the set of mind-altering gemstones, while Liam reached into his pocket.

"I've got an offer that will blow you away, pal!" Liam announced loudly.

"What is he doing?" the young man asked.

"Being stupid," Sting replied.

"What's this?" the large man glanced at Liam and smiled. "An offer that will blow me away? Take your best shot, kid."

"I'll take the entire set, for um..." Liam produced a small card from his tuxedo pocket, "...a gift card to the Golden Shrimp."

"I..." The man was left nearly speechless at the ridiculous offer. "That's a very unique deal. I believe I can only give you this for it, unfortunately." The fat auctioneer threw the Emerald of Ecstasy in Liam's face, hoping to catch him by surprise. The young man struggled to look away, then stared blithely into the open air. "I didn't know we had such a comedian in our midst." The young man just stood in place, grinning all the while. "Okay, take this wise guy and show him your slapstick routine," the man ordered to his guard. "And don't worry; the kid's so sedated that he won't mind a few broken bones."

"Yes sir." The guard grabbed Liam by his tuxedo and hoisted him in the air. "Hey kid, what do you call a punk who thinks he's a big shot? Dead meat."

"..." Liam said nothing in response for several seconds.

"Liam! Liam, say something!" the man over the communicator shouted.

"Blue, blue..." Liam droned in response.

"...He's fine. But he's still stupid," Sting grunted.

"What's wrong?" the guard sneered, drawing a knife. "You were a joker for a while. Laugh!"

"You ruined the joke," Liam answered calmly, despite his situation. "That punchline was terrible. A real punchline goes like this!" Liam swung his fist at the guard, sending the large man rolling down the length of the room. With his other hand, he drew a handle he had kept hidden away. "You should have just taken the offer." A long cord extended from the handle, forming a fully functional whip. The tip of the cord split into three small, finger-like extensions. With a flick of his wrist, he directed the whip towards the emerald in the fat man's hands, and with the press of a button, the fingers grabbed the gem and retracted back to Liam. "Because now I'm just gonna have to take them."

"How- How did you not fall into a trance? Those are deigned to instantly affect the human brain!" The man stepped back in shock. "Wait..."

"I think he knows, Liam. Hurry!" Sting warned.

"On it," Liam replied. He jumped and swung his whip again, grabbing the case of gems, and jumped onto the nearest chandelier, out of reach from the guards until he could retrieve the box from his weapon. "Now what?"

"Head for the roof. Bart will take it from there," Sting instructed. "And hurry. That man is about to bring in a squad of Beast Killers."

"Oh, not those guys," Liam groaned as he spotted a nearby elevator. There were exactly three guards in his way, but time was not on his side. The first man slipped on a pair of knuckle dusters and charged at Liam. "Please." Liam dodged the punch, grabbed the man by the arm, and threw him down almost effortlessly. The second man drew a large knife and grinned. "Getting warmer." Liam retracted his whip and spun the handle around as a short sword grew out of it from the end opposite of the whip. He parried the knife and managed to knock it out of the man's hand. The now disarmed guard glanced at the knife on the ground, then at Liam's sword. "Is it worth it?" The man lowered his hands and stepped back. "Smart move for both of us." The third and final obstacle in Liam's path drew a pistol and aimed it at him. "Sting, you never mentioned the gun."

"I didn't think there would have been one! You know how rare guns are!" Sting shouted back. "Maybe you can use something against him."

"Like what?" Liam glanced down at the blue gem the man showed off earlier. He snatched it and held it up high. "You have to let me go, man. If I don't get out of here, I know some kids who are going to be very hungry tonight. You won't let children starve, will you?"

The gunman stared at the gem, his lip quivering involuntarily. "Y-You can't fool me..." as he spoke, tears began swelling up in his eyes, blurring his vision. Overwhelmed by the sapphire, he brought his arm up to dry his tears, but when he cleared his eyes, he noticed the thief was gone. "What?"

"Almost there," Liam announced into his hidden mic. The elevator ride was slowly bringing Liam to the top floor of the massive building. Once the machine slowed to a stop, Liam ran out the door and zoomed through the halls, looking for a way onto the roof. In the distance, he heard the sound of several footsteps coming closer. "They're here..."

"Stop right there." The fat man shouted as a band of armored men followed him. "I honestly was expecting one of you filthy animals. You 'Naturally Perfect Chimerae' are nothing more than freaks, and the Beast Killers here will make short work of you."

"Sting, tell Bart the plan changed. Tell him to meet me halfway down the southeastern side, really really soon." Liam turned to the man and grinned. "Sorry, but you guys are just wasting your time. You'll have to be stronger than a rhino if you want to beat me."

"Rhinoceros, eh? We got you now, stupid kid!" The lead Beast Killer drew a dull sword from a sheath built into his suit. After pressing a button on his suit, the sword began to glow with a bright purple light. "This mode can pierce solid stone. Even the thickest skin can't stop the blade."

"Uh oh," Liam gasped as he backed into the window, completely surrounded. "This looks bad."

"Gotcha," the fat man sneered. "Chop him in half and give me the box." The Beast Killer charged forward at the cowering Liam, raising his sword over his head. Once the man got close, however, Liam quickly dodged the attack, causing the man to strike only the fortified glass, which split open from the enhanced blade. Shocked, the man slashed again and again, only to miss his mark, leaving a large, diamond-shaped cut in the glass. "What? How are you missing him?"

"I'll perform a scan," a spectacled Beast Killer announced as he pressed a button on his glasses.

"Do you know anything about animals?" Liam taunted. "Besides, I only said rhino so this could happen." Liam kicked at the diamond, knocking it out of the window. "It's been fun, but I gotta jet."

"Scan complete. This Naturally Perfect Chimera has traces of feline DNA." The Beast Killer analyst frowned slightly. "Let's see...the recommended course of action- Ugh! It's still searching!"

"Too bad," Liam laughed. "It looks like tonight belongs to Liam Alduino, Lion Prince of the Manticore Squadron! Ciao!" With the box in hand, Liam dove out the window.

"H-He's insane!" The fat man shouted. "At this height, he'd-" As the man glanced out the window, a figure flew straight up past him, startling him into falling backwards. Once the shock wore away, the fat man noticed an object on the floor in front of him. "What's this?" Lying in front of the man was the case that held his precious stones. "Mine!" When the box was opened, however, all the man could find inside was the gift card Liam taunted him with before. "Grrr... I'll get you, you freak!"

"Oh, man. That was awesome," Liam laughed as he sat on the back of a giant bat flying in the night sky, gems in hand. "Bart, can you still hear him back there?"

"All too well," the bat answered in a gruff voice. "Do you want to know what he's saying? At least half of it is swearing, and the other half isn't an actual language." The city buildings started to shrink as the duo flew into a nature park, one of several areas called Green Zones, artificially structured gardens for the enjoyment of the citizens of the Supreme Kingdom.

"Oh, I hope there's a recording of it somewhere," Liam said with a grin. "We're close to the tunnel. Let's land."

"Good idea," Bart replied as he dove for the ground until he was low enough for Liam to safely jump off. Once the self proclaimed Lion Prince got off his back, Bart flew into a nearby tree, completely obscured by the foliage. After a few minutes, a young man climbed down the tree carefully. He had pale white skin and white hair that fell over his lifeless eyes. "I'm ready. Where's Sting?" His outfit was much more practical than Liam's, consisting of a white, untucked, button-down shirt and black pants, both messy and hastily put on.

"Over here," Sting answered. Her skin was well tanned and noticeably darker than both of the men, and her long, blonde hair was tied up in a tight braid. She wore a cloak that concealed most of her body, save for a large stinger tail that curved up over her head. "The tunnel is under this hill. We should hurry, in case those Beast Killers are still on our tails." With the press of a button, Sting opened a hole in the hill to reveal a grand tunnel.

"Good plan," Liam added. "I bet those puffed up royals are in a panic after losing their hypno rocks."

"They'll probably make more, but they will help our cause immensely under Dr. Ivanov's care." Bart said as he jumped into the hole.

"Oh, yeah! Maybe this will help us finally move out of the caves and give us a real home topside," Liam mused.

"That's a distant goal," Sting said bluntly. "But a nice thought. Get in." The two jumped into the hole and closed it from the inside, leaving no trace of their entry.