Sword of the Shapeshifter: Part Five
Art by sarahleeadvent
Darigan took a tighter grip on his sword, even though he knew it would do no good against beings such as these.
Ambition’s smile widened and her eyes glinted dangerously. “Are you really so swift to forget? You have no power against us.”
Darigan gritted his teeth. “I told you once that I shall no longer be dependant on you, and that I am through with you and your schemes. Perhaps it is not I who is forgetful.”
Revenge stepped forward, his enormous sword dangling limp but menacing at his side. “And yet you did forget, once- your past, your identity- even your own name. You failed, and you lost everything.”
Darigan drew himself up to his full height, fixing the Gelert with his inimitable stare. “That was the result of mistakes I shall not make again. You have no business here. Leave.”
The bones that shimmered beneath Greed’s layers of fat became more visible as the Skeith showed his teeth in a grin. “Don’t we, now? And yet we have one here who is unknowingly under our sway. You cannot defeat him alone. And there is another...”
A wry smile was clearly not the result they were aiming for, which was most of the reason why Darigan gave them one. It also helped to keep his face occupied, and prevented it from revealing the questions that rose in his mind. Another? What other? One of Miaglo’s servants? Shaking it off, he returned his full attention to his antagonists. “And I suppose you intend to help me out of the goodness of your hearts.”
“Hardly,” Ambition replied, her eyes narrowing, her smile vanishing and her honeyed voice becoming low and hard. “Far from it- if you continue to defy us by defying our servant, we shall destroy you. Just as we did last time.”
“Do I look destroyed to you?”
The smug smile returned. “You think you have scored a victory. You believe that by wandering like an animal in the fields and accepting a little girl’s table scraps you rose above us. You even imagine that we cannot do as we did before at any moment we choose.”
Revenge’s glowing red eyes burned into Darigan’s. “You were nothing. A living chalice of misery to be drunk from whenever we pleased. A cheap and tattered plaything. As you will be again. You cannot escape us.”
“And here I was under the impression that I already had.” Darigan tried to keep his tone light, but a steely edge of anger had crept into it. Anger mingled with fear. While he was out from under the thumb of these creatures and he knew it, they had not lost their unnatural power to intimidate.
“But are you truly free of us?” Revenge hissed softly, the brooding lake of magma that was his gaze seeming to seep into the Korbat’s soul. “Can you look into my eyes and know that you are?”
Darigan was breathing heavily by now, partly with rage and partly because of the weight of the black tide of memory that was flooding from Revenge’s eyes into his heart. The darkness, the dread, the cold, hunger, despair, and loneliness... the voices and claws, appearing out of the mist; mocking him, hurting him, then drifting away to leave him alone in the dark...
You cannot escape us, Darigan. The soft hiss crept into his mind out of nowhere, and was swiftly joined by others. You are trapped here with us. You will never be free. You will never see the people you left behind again. We will not let you. They would not want you back even if we did. They would finish what they began. Why shouldn’t they? Look what you’ve done, Darigan. All who were on your side have left you, and there are none left to help you. There is no one you can ask, no one who would answer. You will remain here until we are through with you, and then the world you made your enemy may have what’s left of you. And there will be none to try to save you, none who will protest as you die. You are lost...
Darigan wrenched himself free, and the swirling lava of Revenge’s gaze was replaced by the blank wall of the corridor to which he had turned his eyes. But the tendrils of blackness that groped at the edge of his vision remained, and the voices refused to leave.
They will all betray you, Darigan, just like Kass did. Do you think you have your friend back? Do you think it will last long?
Not knowing when it had happened, Darigan found himself meeting Revenge’s horrible stare again, and fought down a wave of terror. His silent protests that these monsters had no hold on him sounded frail in the ears of his mind, and he struggled to cling to what he knew was true.
The sight of the effect his words were having brought a cruel smile to Revenge’s barely-visible face. “And yet you dare to imagine that you are anything more than a worthless toy on our shelf-“
“Is that what you think?” an angry voice snapped, halting the Gelert in mid-sentence and shattering the spell of his voice and gaze into invisible, impotent shards; and four pairs of eyes turned toward a small but seething Kougra whose eyes blazed with fury and whose tiny body radiated almost tangible waves of wrath. Tenultra, racing through the halls in her haste to return and defend the prisoners, had come up behind The Three just in time to catch enough of the conversation to set her blood boiling.
A faint smile touched Ambition’s face as she met the kitten’s searing gaze. “It’s about time,” she murmured. “I was wondering when you’d arrive. Although I must say...” She tossed a glance in Darigan’s direction. “I doubt he’s worth your time.”
Tenultra’s hackles rose. “I’ve already heard your opinions,” she spat, then gave an angry lash of her tail. “Do you honestly believe I would risk my life for the sake of someone who’s worth nothing?! No! Lord Darigan is my friend, and if you see and hear as much as you think you do, then you really ought to know...” Tenultra’s eyes narrowed and her claws crackled with energy. “Nobody messes with my friends.” Even as Tenultra’s consciousness focused on The Three, a small part of her mind darted off to the side. Lord Darigan. What is he doing here? He’s supposed to be looking after Kass. Surely he didn’t... is he here looking for me?
Revenge stepped forward, crimson eyes aglow. “Friend, is it now?” he said softly. “Rather an abrupt change.”
Pulled rudely out of her thoughts, Tenultra forced a half-amused look onto her face; but beneath her glinting liquid eyes there was a layer of ice, like a lake lit with cold starlight underlaid by frost. “It was abrupt at one time,” she said softly. “But you know it’s nothing new. You were there when I first made this choice. You were there, speaking against it.”
Darigan stiffened. He and Tenultra had spoken of many things, but this was not one of them. He gave the kitten a tense, questioning look, but Tenultra’s attention was fixed on The Three.
“Yes, and you should have listened to me,” Revenge answered. “How long do you think this will last, Tenultra? How long before he abandons you like all the others did?”
It was Tenultra’s turn to stiffen, her luminous eyes transforming into steel walls. “Even if he did-”
“What?” Ambition interrupted softly, her cool honeyed voice matching her condescending smile. “You’ll do what? You’ll wander away and pretend that nothing happened? Of course you will. It’s what you always do. But how long will you put up with it before you realize that you could have something more?”
“I already do,” Tenultra said quietly, her voice barely more than a whisper; but even Darigan wasn’t entirely sure that she was convinced of her own words.
I was ignoring her, back in the dungeons, the Korbat realized. The moment we were around people other than her, she slipped through the cracks. Just like she always used to do. Chagrin struck like a physical blow, and he wondered whether the Kougra would be able to withstand The Three in the wake of such a failure on his part. Nobody ever lasts long, once the voices start... So said the Neopedia he had read about The Three soon after his return to the Citadel. But it seemed that Tenultra had already lasted a while. And the world in general and those on whom she tried to depend in particular had given her so little reason to. Too little reason...
“Of course you do,” Revenge murmured with a smile, interrupting Darigan’s shame-darkened thoughts. Then his eyes and voice grew harsher. “You never really believed it, because what you seek does not exist.”
“Of course it does. I’ve seen it-”
“Yes, you’ve seen it. Hundreds of times, you’ve watched while it was given to others. But it is not to be found in your world. It will never be offered to you.” His gaze flicked up to Darigan, then back to Tenultra, whose eyes were like desolate space frozen into chips of ice and whose jaw was set in an effort to hold herself steady under the weight of memory that Revenge’s words inspired. “You know that if you continue on the path you have chosen, you will spend the rest of your life fighting for people who either hate you or couldn’t care less, and be repaid with one rejection after another. They will all betray you, Tenultra, just like you betrayed your brother when you sided with his murderer.” A tremor ran through Tenultra’s body as if she had been physically struck, and Darigan felt a tide of anger rise as his demonic nemesis added, “As you proved in that moment, you are everything that people say you are. It is time you recognized that.”
Faintly, almost imperceptibly, Tenultra’s breath began to shake, and the sound lit a fire in Darigan’s heart. How often, he wondered, had she been subjected to this kind of onslaught? How often had she been forced to endure it alone?
Far too often. That much was only too obvious. And every fibre of Darigan’s being was appalled by the idea that a child should have to stand defenseless under a bombardment of such low and cruel shots.
He couldn’t let it go unchallenged.
“People say,” he began quietly, “that Tenultra is a monster, a heartless killing machine.” Tenultra’s head snapped up and around, and she stared at him, visibly stunned. Whether this was because she had forgotten he was there, or because she thought he was agreeing with the classification he had just uttered, it was difficult to say.
It didn’t matter. If it was the latter, that would change soon enough. Darigan would have liked to come alongside Tenultra and stand beside her while he said this, but he was rooted to the floor by the flickering gazes of his oldest enemies, and he had no desire to give them the satisfaction of seeing him turn his eyes away again. Meeting their hostile stares squarely, he brazenly forged ahead: “But no monster would willingly decide to suffer for the sake of an enemy. Especially when there seemed to be no chance that the enemy in question, or anyone else, would change and become a friend.” And then, dispensing with the staring match, counter to every screaming instinct of watchfulness, he tore his gaze from his enemies and locked it directly on Tenultra. “And nobody in his right mind goes wandering through Miaglo’s fortress in search of a killing machine.”
Tenultra was once again stunned; but this time it was different. The lights in her eyes had come back on. “Nobody stays out in the cold for a person who’s nothing more than a murderer, either,” she answered softly, perhaps half to herself.
Then her flashing gaze returned to The Three, cold and clear like Spring on the mountains. “And nobody takes heed to your foolishness when they know your true colours.” Life and fire ignited in the Kougra’s eyes, which suddenly blazed with power and confidence. Darigan marveled in the change that had come over her as the tiny kitten, who had only moments ago been struggling to hold herself steady, met the eyes of the demons levelly and said, her voice firm and forceful, “I may not be popularity contest material, but I pack a decent punch. Get out of my sight.”
Revenge gave her an amused look. “Before you begin giving orders, perhaps you should wait until you weigh more than fifteen pounds.”
“You may be almost ten times bigger than I am, but the thing you have to ask yourself is: Do they carry body casts in your size?”
Ambition smirked, abandoning any attempt to draw Tenultra to her side. There would be other moments of weakness for her to exploit. For now, this arrogant little pompom had to be put in her place. “And I suppose you think your feeble threats matter to us? If we kept a lame Spardel for a pet, he would be a match for you.”
Darigan expected Tenultra to respond with an outburst of fury, but instead of losing control the little Kougra raised an eyebrow and replied with cool, matter-of-fact innocence, “I take it that means I’m fighting Revenge?”
The smirk left the Faerie’s face and reappeared on Darigan’s as Revenge’s mouth slackened in shock at the diminutive furball’s unexpected impertinence. “Do you realize who you’re dealing with?” the Gelert sputtered in a voice that was halfway between a snarl and a choke. “To me you are merely-”
“A pair of fuzzy slippers waiting to happen? I still say that trumps a lame Spardel,” Tenultra responded, a smile appearing on her face as she began to pick up steam.
Revenge’s paws quivered with fury, and Tenultra’s fierce eyes glittered with amusement and confidence. Gone was the stricken kitten trembling under an onslaught, and in her place was a warrior: wounded by the harshness of the world, but also hardened by it. For a moment Revenge looked like he was going to retort; then, turning his back on Tenultra, he deliberately ignored the Kougra as he growled to Darigan, “You think you can stand against us, and yet you require the protection of a kitten? You’re even more pathetic than I-aaaaAAAAAIIIIIEEEEE!!!”
Revenge’s voice deteriorated into a scream as he learned with jarring abruptness one of the harsher little lessons in life: the intangibility of an antagonist’s tail provides little hindrance to the fangs of a furious shapeshifter. A moment later, Tenultra learned an equally shocking lesson: Revenge was not used to having to deal with pain, and when desperate to remove a sharp object from his tail, a frantic Gelert can go from zero rpm to sixty in five seconds. As she held on for dear life to her victim’s tailtip, the Kougra grated through clenched teeth, “Which is worse?- being protected by a kitten or made a fool of by one?”
Revenge swung at Tenultra with his sword and missed, the effort throwing him off-balance and sending him staggering. “You- and your little Korbat friend- will both pay for this-”
“Cash or charge?”
Revenge grimaced, then tried again. “You may be cocky now, but when I am done with you you will both be begging for death!”
“What are you going to do- make us your toys? I thought puppies weren’t supposed to play with sharp objects.”
Needless to say, Darigan was thoroughly enjoying this. Never before had he seen or heard of anyone making such a complete and total mockery of three beings who had brought entire nations down. And yet Tenultra had managed it with remarkable poise and deftness- not that a fuzzy blur on the end of Revenge’s tail looked particularly poised or deft. But for once, the traumatized Kougra did look like she was having an awful lot of fun.
“ACK! Revenge! Stop waving that thing around!” Ambition yelped, twisting out of the way just in time to avoid the flying Kougra. Greed was not so lucky, and just for good measure Tenultra morphed into a Yurble before she collided with him. Greed cried out and Ambition hissed a curse, then both of them decided to leave before they were humiliated further. Revenge continued to spin a few seconds longer before realizing he was alone, and as he faded out of existence Tenultra suddenly found herself reeling down the hall.
Resuming her natural appearance as she flew, Tenultra flapped her wings wildly until she had regained her balance, then turned swiftly and glided back to land at Darigan’s feet. “Are you all right?” she asked, her eyes and voice filled with concern as she stood swaying dizzily.
Darigan nodded, offering the young Kougra a warm smile of reassurance. “Yes, I’m fine.” He glanced toward the place where The Three had stood, then his gaze returned to meet Tenultra’s. “Thank you.”
Tenultra’s smile faded into absolute solemnity. “No,” she said quietly, “thank you. I can handle them, but it’s good to have help.” Her eyes and voice lowered slightly. “And I’m afraid that’s something that tends to be in short supply for me.”
Darigan shook his head, his smile following Tenultra’s into nonexistence. “I’d have given it to you if you’d asked. But you never told me you’d had trouble with The Three.”
“Did you really need it hanging over your head that you were living in close proximity to a cybernetic shapeshifter who was waging a constant mental war with three of your worst enemies?” Tenultra asked him soberly, and Darigan gave her a strange look.
“Did you really need it hanging over your head that you were dealing with this alone?”
Tenultra opened her mouth, held it that way for a moment as she pondered, then closed it. “I’m not used to asking for help,” she said simply and quietly.
“Well, get used to it. If you’re going to be having regular battles with a trio of demons, you’ll need backup,” the Korbat retorted, his smile beginning to return, only to vanish again as Tenultra began to sway sideways. “I’m the one who should be asking you if you’re all right.”
Tenultra pushed off the wall and staggered into the opposite side of the corridor. “I’m OK... just... dizzy. Even a shapeshifter can only take so much spinning, but still...” Her face lit up in a sudden grin as she picked herself up off the floor. “Once I got the upper paw... I haven’t had that much fun since I put itching powder on the Snowager’s treasure pile!”
Surely she didn’t- then again, why would I put it past her? Darigan chuckled; then a question from Tenultra sobered him.
“What about Kass and the others? Are they safe?”
“They were when I left.”
Despite his reassurance, worry sparked to life in Tenultra’s eyes. “We need to get back to them and make sure they’re all right.”
“I’m all for that, now that I know that you’re all right.”
Tenultra was about to reply when a third voice suddenly cut into the conversation, dripping with sarcasm and disgust. “This is all very touching, such a sweet little reunion; but I’m going to have to ask you to stop before you make me sick.”
Startled by the abrupt interruption, Tenultra whirled around, flashes of green energy enveloping her claws and alarm mingled with the fire of battle igniting in her eyes. “Miaglo!”
To be continued...