Sword of the Shapeshifter: Part Four
Art by sarahleeadvent
Miaglo’s voice rose an octave as he pounded on the door. “Let ME IN!” The solid slab of metal didn’t budge an inch, and the infuriated Lupe cursed for probably the dozenth time in the last few minutes. “Nobody had better be on the other side of that door, because if you are you’re DEAD!” And he meant it literally, too. He could have simply used his laser beams to cut an entrance through the metal, but right now he was too angry for that. Backing up to get a running start, the furry black bundle of genetically modified fury lunged toward the door, slamming into it with a force that tore it from its place in the wall and sent it bouncing and clanking down the hall. Breathing hard, Miaglo ignored the pain in his shoulder and went bounding through the hole where the door used to be, the limp form of the unconscious Vex lying forgotten in his wake.
Tenultra felt her stomach contracting violently with a mixture of pity and horror. While most of Miaglo’s prisoners were chained upside-down by their ankles, it was clear why Kass was not: in his present state, he wouldn’t have survived it. Every rib was horrifyingly visible, his eyes were glazed with weakness and despair, and he trembled piteously as the cold air in the cell drifted over his battered body. He hadn’t even seemed to notice when the Kougra had spoken his name. On an impulse Tenultra padded forward, the loneliness she had felt a moment earlier forgotten in her compassion for the wretched prisoner who lay curled up in front of her. Extending a small, delicate foreleg, she laid a gentle paw on his shoulder, and was rewarded by a faint flicker of life in the Eyrie’s eyes. “Kass?” she asked softly, “can you hear me?”
Kass’s hollow gaze drifted slowly up to meet hers, glinting weakly as whatever fading remnant of consciousness his body still held struggled to assert itself. “Yes.” The word barely made it out of his mouth, and even Tenultra’s enhanced hearing could scarcely distinguish it. Kass suddenly frowned. “Wh- who are you?”
The Kougra gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “My name is Tenultra. I’m a Meridellian-Darigani hybrid, and I’m here to help. Lord Darigan and I have penetrated Miaglo’s fortress- we’re here to get you and the other prisoners out.”
Kass coughed weakly, and Tenultra wished she could offer him a drink. “Darigan?” he managed. “Others? But... Miag-” His voice caught, and he coughed again. “Miaglo... and... three...”
Tenultra almost missed that last word. But then it registered, and the small Kougra frowned with sudden uneasiness. Three... THE Three? The Skeith, the Faerie and the Gelert? Of course, it made sense. The Three had once enslaved Kass- it was to be expected that they should now be tied in with his fate. But how had he gotten here? Had The Three decided, as they had with Darigan, to set him free and allow him to wander the land, homeless, hungry and alone? Had he seen this building and approached it in search of aid, or had Miaglo found him staggering about in a field and taken him prisoner? Or... A new suspicion dawned, and Tenultra’s skin crawled. Had Miaglo made some sort of deal with The Three? He was too proud to accept power from them, but he might have been tempted by an offer of information about prisoners- or maybe even prisoners themselves? Had Kass been the currency in some sort of exchange? Perhaps The Three, knowing that no living being could survive for long in their realm, had turned Kass over to Miaglo, thus extending his suffering for their twisted entertainment.
The fur on Tenultra’s nape prickled and she turned around sharply, claws extended in readiness to spread the closest demon across the length and breadth of the fortress. But instead of a Faerie, a Gelert or a Skeith, her blazing eyes were met by the topaz gaze of Lord Darigan. “Tenultra?” A look of concern spread across the Korbat’s face. “Is something wrong?”
The young Kougra deflated slightly, her claws returning to their sheaths, although she was still simmering with anger. “Aside from the fact that I could cheerfully shred someone right now, I don’t think there are any doctors here and Kass is going to need one.”
“Kass?” Darigan echoed, his expression of concern changing into disbelief. Tenultra stepped out of his way, and Darigan all but ran into the room before jerking to a halt at the sight of his old friend.
Kass looked up at him weakly, a glimmer of fear igniting in the depths of his dulled eyes. “Darigan?” he whispered hoarsely. “You... were right... I’m sorry...” Talking was obviously painful for him, and Kass closed his eyes as more weak coughs tore at his parched and aching throat.
It was too much for Tenultra. As Darigan knelt beside his friend, she headed for the door. “I’ll try to find him some water,” she said as she left, and Darigan accepted the decision without question.
Pushing through the crowd might have been difficult for most Neopets, but for Tenultra it was a simple matter of turning Ghost and loping intangibly through the assortment of Neopets who were milling about in the corridor. A flash of brown and green caught the corner of her eye, and turning aside Tenultra regained her tangibility and tapped Illusen’s elbow. “Excuse me?”
The Earth Faerie glanced around, and Tenultra sighed. The joys of being about the size of a Petpet. “Down here. By your ankles.” Illusen glanced down, and Tenultra cut to the chase. “I found Kass in a cell at the end of the corridor. I know you have no reason to want to help him, aside from your mutual imprisonment, but he is desperately in need of assistance. Please- he can barely even raise his head.”
Illusen frowned for a moment; but even had the kindhearted Faerie been inclined to withhold help from someone who needed it, Tenultra was an adept in the art of doing ‘kitten eyes’, and she employed the talent for all it was worth. With a sigh, Illusen relented. “Very well. Where exactly is he?”
“Keep going that way until you come to the end of the hall,” Tenultra replied, pointing. “The last cell on the left.”
The two of them parted, the Faerie moving toward the deepest part of the dungeons with her light and delicate tread, while the Kougra’s fluid movements flowed toward the exit. As she reached the door Tenultra gave a nod of greeting to Torshac, then hesitated on the threshold, studying the lifeless corridors for any sign or whisper of movement. Nothing warned her of any immediate danger, and the years of her life had hardened her against the fear of risk or even death; so her hesitation ended swiftly, and on paws as soft and silent as clouds she slipped out into the corridor, drifting through the hallways until she was fully separated from the others, alone in the lair of her enemy.
As the patch of green that was Torshac vanished from sight, isolation seemed to fall over Tenultra like a tangible shroud; and her loneliness, which had been forgotten in her worry over Kass, crept over her like a shadowed mist emerging from the dark recess of her mind to which it had been banished. For a brief moment her mind strayed back to the moment when she and Lord Darigan had first entered the building together; and suddenly she wondered if she had ventured into something even more dangerous than her dark canine nemesis. Here I am again, she thought, flying solo as I’ve always done. And that always seemed normal, it was all right, until I thought it might be otherwise. Am I deluding myself? She paused, and shook her head, the eye of her mind wandering suddenly to Sally. If I die here, the villains of Neopia will rejoice, and I will leave behind perhaps in the minds of the imaginative a story told to children of a dark creature who would appear in the night to drive off an enemy and then vanish without a trace. But when that child dies, her friends will mourn, and she will leave behind in the minds of those cared about her memories of a child who could not be known without being loved.
Time was pressing, she knew. But her heart was shaking in her chest, and she could not go on without first taking a moment to ask herself, Am I foolish, or wrong, to want that for myself, to hope that someday I may be able to pass this self-inflicted burden on and live in simple security as other children do? Is my life too far gone to hope for that?
Of course, there was Kass. Had she been greeted and welcomed as the others had, she might not have found him. Had her life not been what it was, many others would have suffered painful fates that she had averted.
For so long now she had told herself that she could go on suffering this loneliness forever, just as long as that pain served some good purpose for someone. But now she began to question herself. Without a stream to replenish it, to counterbalance the river that flows out of it, even the largest lake will eventually run dry.
And when she did run dry, what then? Whether in the midst of combat, or in the emptiness of the wilderness, or alone in the prison of some enemy, what would happen to her when the grim, steady resolve that kept her body going finally and utterly gave out? Would she be left to lie helpless, empty and alone, waiting for some hollow end? Would the years she had spent persevering for the sake of those who needed her conclude meaninglessly in lonely isolation, where neither the people around her nor even she herself had any will to fight for her life or even to grieve her passing?
Suddenly realizing that she had remained motionless for over a minute, and allowed her deepest fear to surface from the most guarded prison cell in her heart, Tenultra shook her head violently, thrusting the dread and longing that drifted through her like cold mists haunting a dark and desolate forest back into the sealed chambers where they belonged. I learned to live without hope and friendship; but now that I’ve tasted them, the longing I’ve spent so long suppressing is interfering with my judgement. As she began to walk again, she felt a faint, sad smile touch her face as she reflected, You only hear about two kinds of heroes. The kind you find in storybooks, who do wonderful things for the sake of adventure, and the kind in real life, who do what they do because they have to. But I wonder how many people consider the other kind, the ones like me who do these kind of things, and live this kind of life, because they don’t know how to do otherwise? She drew a deep, shuddering breath. The thing was, she did know how to do otherwise. This lonely world of cloaks and daggers was not the only thing she knew; and, having seen the other side, she now found that she missed it more than she would have believed. No matter how hard she tried to deny it, the fact remained that as her friendship with Lord Darigan had grown, she had begun to depend on him, to allow herself to drop her rigid self-control and to open up the shell in which she had trapped herself. It was as if she had been holding up a massive boulder, and someone had come along to help her bear that weight; and now, the helping hand seemed to have withdrawn, leaving her partially relaxed soul to crumple under the sudden weight.
I can handle it, she reminded herself. Even if he- along with the rest of them- forgets me entirely, and I am left to resume my life as it was before, it will be nothing I haven’t endured in the past. I will deal with it, just as I’ve always dealt with everything that came my way.
It’s not like I have a choice, no matter how much I wish it were otherwise.
“You were foolish, Miaglo.” The Faerie’s quiet voice echoed in the confines of the control room and brought the Shadow Lupe whirling around, claws raised and fangs bared in preparation for a fight. When he saw who was talking to him he dropped the defensive posture, but neither his mind nor his body relaxed.
The Gelert, Revenge, stepped forward, his grip tightening on his sword. “Because of your recklessness we now risk losing our mutual prey. You remember what happened to others who failed us...”
“And it will not happen to me!” Miaglo snapped, resuming the fighting stance and raising a set of claws threateningly so that the implants embedded in them caught the light and glinted in silent menace. “We had an exchange, nothing more. I am merely babysitting your pathetic little prisoners for you. You have no control over me.”
“Don’t we, now?” Ambition purred, her beautiful Faerie features sweet but menacing. “And yet you do as we bid-”
“Of my own free will! I would have done as I do whether you ordered me to or not! Do not pretend you have power over me! That is something no one in Neopia can claim.” Miaglo was seething, his massive chest heaving with his heavy breathing and his eyes ablaze with fiery wrath. “And as for losing our prey, that has yet to happen.”
“Even if it’s happened once already?” Greed asked with a smirk, biting where it hurt the most.
Miaglo rounded on him, snarling. “What matters is that those two fools returned after they escaped. They will not elude me a second time.”
Ambition’s face mirrored Greed’s smirk. “In the Kougra’s case, it is already too late for it to be the second time.”
Miaglo turned his back on them, slamming his clenched fist down on the button that would signal the Intruder Alert. Instantly the room was filled with the flash of red lights and the howl of sirens, and the Lupe tossed The Three a sarcastic salute as he headed for the door. “If my ineffectual self-titled ‘masters’ will excuse me, I have prey to capture.” With that he lunged through the door, bounding away down the halls like a miniature thunderstorm.
“As do we,” Ambition murmured, a smile like poisoned honey spreading across her face as she and her companions faded and disappeared.
Darigan and Illusen jumped, and Kass’s eyes widened as the wail of sirens and the flash of red lights reached them from further down the corridor. “What’s happening?” the Eyrie rasped, and Darigan frowned.
“They must have realized we’re here.” Suddenly his eyes widened. “Tenultra! She went to find some water for you- she’s wandering the corridors alone!”
Illusen frowned. “It seems rather reckless that you brought a kitten into this fortress at all.”
Darigan gave the Faerie something just short of a scowl. “Actually, she brought me, and she would have come here with or without me- but all the same I have to go and find her.”
Illusen nodded. “I will tell Sir Jeran what’s happening- he should be able to handle the other prisoners. Then I’ll return and stay with Kass,” she added, much to the frightened Eyrie’s relief.
Darigan gave her a quick nod, then began wading through the other prisoners. It seemed to take forever, but finally he was out of the dungeon, sprinting through the serpentine halls... and then skittering to a halt as he came to a fork in the corridor. Biting back a harsh exclamation of anxiety and frustration, he glanced from one hall to the other. Which way...
“Greetings, Lord Darigan.”
At the sound of the all-too-familiar voice the Korbat whirled around, the sword Tenultra had given him flying into his hand as he turned. And sure enough- there, standing before him, were The Three. Ambition spoke again, her delicate features twisted into her patented smug, confident, sugared-venom smile. “We knew you would return to us. It was only a matter of time.”
To be continued...