Caution: Quills may be sharp Circulation: 135,120,767 Issue: 264 | 3rd day of Storing, Y8
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Rising Shadow: Part Four


by sarahleeadvent

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To the astonishment of everyone present, there was no gasp, no cry of pain, not even a drop of blood in response to the attack. Just an empty jointed-steel glove clattering to the floor. Miaglo froze, gaping in bewilderment, and Darigan felt a smug satisfaction at seeing his seemingly invulnerable antagonist flabbergasted. The warrior's emotions were hidden behind the visor of its helmet, but it seemed completely unfazed, using the distraction provided by Miaglo's confusion to slam its mutilated stump into the side of its opponent's head. Miaglo staggered sideways with a gasp, and was unable to react in time to prevent a foot from driving under his ribs and a hand from crashing into his face, catching on the hood of his cloak and tearing it off to reveal the black face of a massive Shadow Lupe.

      Then Miaglo began to recover, and with a snarl of fury he raised his sword and brought it down again, slicing the right hand from his enemy's wrist. Once again, there was no reaction, just an empty glove. Darigan struggled to make sense of it. Even if there is an Invisible pet in that armour, it couldn't just ignore having its hands cut off, he thought. But it was ignoring it, disregarding the pain of the amputations as if it didn't exist. It was almost as if the creature was merely an animated suit of empty armour. The arms, legs and head followed the hands, and for a moment it looked like Miaglo had won...

      Until suddenly the torso of the armour flew off the ground and slammed into his face. Over the snarls and curses coming from Miaglo Darigan thought he heard the flap of leathery wings, and suddenly a ring of keys darted away from the Lupe's belt. Miaglo yelled a protest, grabbing at the keys like a child snatching at a butterfly; but the floating bits of metal eluded him, speeding across the room to attack the keyhole in the metal band around Darigan's left wrist. His arm fell free, and for an unbearable moment Darigan found himself hanging by his right wrist before it, too, was released. He tumbled to the floor, but before he could collapse he felt a set of paws take him firmly under the arms, supporting most of his weight. To his surprise, he found that he could stand, now that the circulation of blood to his feet had had time to restore itself. This was fortunate, for his mysterious rescuer had suddenly found itself forced to let go of him and fling itself between him and Miaglo.

      The Lupe raised his claws, and for the first time Darigan noticed that there were bits of metal adorning the gleaming talons. Not rings- they looked almost like miniature machines, embedded in the claws. A blast of green light left Miaglo's paw, and there was a flash and a gasping cry directly in front of Darigan as an unseen figure blocked the blow. The air in front of Darigan suddenly erupted in flame, and Miaglo recoiled with a yelp of surprise. There was a heavy thud and Miaglo flew backward, his head snapping back as he tumbled to the floor.

      The air ignited in another flash of green, this time originating from the paw of the unseen warrior. A gaping hole was blasted in the wall, letting a sudden stream of sunlight pour into the room, and Darigan felt a strong but surprisingly small pair of paws tugging at his arm. "I know you're injured," a soft, breathless, female voice panted, "but you have to fly. This is the best chance I can give you." Darigan needed no second urging. Spreading his wings and ignoring the pain, he leapt off the ground, shooting through the hole in the wall and into the open air.

      The moment he was out of the building he knew that he was in trouble. Remaining airborne was a challenge, and gaining altitude was an exhausting task. His ragged breathing raked at his throat, and Darigan hoped desperately that he wouldn't pass out. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he rose above the tops of the trees that surrounded Miaglo's home, and instantly his heart sank, for it was clear that he was nowhere near his Citadel- not even anywhere in Meridell.

      His head spun, and suddenly a snarl of anger mingled with a cry of alarm assailed his ears. "Don't you dare think you can escape me!" Miaglo roared, and as Darigan banked to the right he felt a burning pain in his torso as if the Lupe had struck at his wing, missed, and hit his side instead. How did he get airborne? Darigan wondered; but he had little time to contemplate it, for his attention was distracted by a thud, a grunt, and a furious growl from Miaglo. "Get out of my way! Do not interfere with me again!"

      "I will interfere as much as you force me to," came the reply, and Darigan recognized the voice of the invisible warrior in the building.

      "You pathetic little coward! Show yourself!" Miaglo yelled, and a moment later his breathless voice added, "You..."

      "Yes, me." The female's voice was cold and hard. "I cannot stop my attack until you stop yours."

      "Then you can fall along with him!" Miaglo's voice rose to a shout, and for a moment the air behind Darigan was filled with thuds, grunts, growls, and the sound of the strange green light tearing at one opponent or the other. Darigan hesitated, suddenly fearful for his rescuer's life; and even as he paused he heard her cry out, and his stomach churned at the sound of Miaglo's victorious laugh.

      Before he could even turn around to face his enemy, Darigan both heard and felt the snap as his left wing broke under the onslaught of Miaglo's paws, causing him to let out a single sharp yell of pain. The injured Korbat lurched sideways; then suddenly the fire in his left wing was mirrored in his right as Miaglo continued his attack. The ground seemed to spin upward to meet him as Darigan tumbled helplessly through the air, his broken wings useless to stop his fall or even slow him down.

      The air above him erupted in screams of pain and fury, and violent bursts of green flashed at the edges of his vision. Then suddenly he felt something soft and furry wrap around his upper torso, and his downward momentum slowed. He's got me again... just like last time... And he had no strength left to resist. Once again blackness overtook him, spreading through his mind like a heavy mist rolling in to cover the land.

      ~^~^~^~^~^~^~

      Darigan felt his eyes slowly flicker open, and he inwardly collapsed as the dim grayness of his surroundings met his gaze. Not again... He was just about to sink into despair when the soft, deep rushing of water registered in his mind, drawing him more fully into consciousness. He suddenly realized that he was in a cave, whose entrance was hidden around a bend but marked by the muted stream of sunlight that drifted around the corner. Where am I?

      He began to sit up, but immediately lay back with a grimace. His left side was on fire, and when he glanced at his wings he saw that several of the bones were broken and the skin between them was in tatters.

      "It is good to see you're awake."

      If he'd had the strength to do so, Darigan would have jumped out of his skin. Propping himself up on his elbows, he twisted in an attempt to see the source of the voice, which seemed to be behind him. His long fingers curled into fists, and he wondered if he was about to be attacked.

      The fuzzy purple-and-black blur that teased the edge of his vision studied his actions, taking them in; then obligingly padded into view. Darigan blinked in surprise, staring confusedly at the small creature that now crouched beside him. It was a Darigan Kougra. This in itself was normal enough- the Korbat ruler was well aware that his people had begun to spread to the far reaches of the globe- but he was shocked by how young the Kougra seemed. With its slight, tiny frame and youthful voice, it appeared to be no more than a kitten barely into its teens.

      But it was its eyes that really caught his gaze: huge, liquid eyes that seemed capable of gently penetrating any defense, like cool, dark water flooding into a fortress. They also lacked the blood-red hue that lit the eyes of most Darigani; its eyes, like the water they reminded Darigan of, seemed to reflect every colour around it. Right now they glistened with the stony gray of the walls and the paler gray of Darigan's fur, along with the black and purple of his robe. But it was not their colour that struck Darigan so much as their haunting and unfathomable depths, like dark and endless oceans with worlds of secrets hidden beneath their shadowed waters. The Kougra stared back at him, meeting his gaze with what looked like calm and cool compassion. Anything else it felt was hidden, swimming unseen somewhere in those limpid eyes.

      "You have no need to defend yourself from me. I am here to help you." The Kougra's voice was quiet, cool, soft and female, and also reassuringly familiar. But that familiarity was also impossible.

      Darigan hoped he didn't sound like he was disregarding his host out of rudeness, but the question raced from his mind to his mouth before he could think of a more polite opening. "The warrior who extricated me from Miaglo's fortress- where is she?"

      The Kougra's mouth quirked, and she seemed quite unbothered by the abruptness of Darigan's question. In fact, she looked mildly amused. "I'm sitting right here," she informed him, and Darigan blinked, realizing that the Kougra's voice was indeed the same one he had heard during the escape.

      "But you were invisible," he said dully, once again chastising himself for letting himself get into a position where he had no idea what to do or say. Not that he'd had much of a choice lately.

      The Kougra nodded. "Yes, I was in the form of an Invisible Draik." There was an incongruous and out-of-place note of remorse and apology in her voice as she explained, "What you see now is my natural form, but I am a shapeshifter. You may have seen me before, in other forms, but it is possible that you may not have noticed or remembered. I do not make a habit of showing myself overtly unless I have to- and when I do, I use a variety of shapes in order to avoid recognition."

      Darigan considered asking how one of his people had come to be a shapeshifter without his knowledge, then decided against it. Maybe he made the choice because he had other questions to ask. Or maybe it was the strange and unsettling glint in the tiny Kougra's eyes; Darigan wasn't certain. Either way, the question did not need to be asked just yet.

      Instead he settled for asking, "But how did you get me here? What happened after I lost consciousness?"

      "I managed to stun Miaglo, then morphed into an extra pair of wings and carried you here."

      First people had started vanishing from all over Neopia, then Darigan himself had been abducted by a seemingly invincible Shadow Lupe who could spontaneously sprout wings; and now here he was, sitting in a cave with a shapeshifting Kougra who looked like she was far too young to be doing what she was doing and who could even take the form of temporary replacement body parts. She also looked none the worse for the wear after having her limbs and head cut off.

      "You certainly put on quite an interesting show with that armour," he commented, not bothering to add that it had been a very confusing show as well.

      To his surprise, his strange rescuer laughed. "I take it you're referring to Miaglo's futile and laughable attempts to amputate my arms, legs and head?"

      Darigan nodded, and the Kougra suddenly looked almost sad. "Miaglo and I... have something in common." She held out her claws, and Darigan's eyes widened at the sight of bits of metal embedded in the gleaming surfaces. "Aside from both being shapeshifters, we are both augmented with genetic enhancements and mechanical implants, courtesy of a mutual former captor. With these," she continued, extending her claws to full length, "I'm able to emit laser beams, tractor beams, and forcefields. I used the tractor beams to manipulate the suit of armour, while crouching inside the torso. It made maintaining my balance difficult, but even if I had put my legs into the legs of the armour it would only have served to put all of my weight on... entirely the wrong place, since I am, as many have pointed out... " She paused and smiled ruefully before finishing the sentence: "rather pathetically small."

      It was true, but Darigan didn't say so. If he and the Kougra were both to stand upright, her head wouldn't even come up to his waist. In fact, she was not much bigger than Sally was. The memory of the little Usul brought a tug of homesickness to Darigan's heart, but he pushed it aside. "Whatever your size, I am grateful for your help. I-"

      His voice caught, and he lowered his head and coughed. He needed a drink badly. But even as he looked up and prepared to voice his request he saw that his rescuer was no longer sitting beside him, but had gotten up and walked around him as silently as a shadow, heading toward the wall on his left. As he watched her he noticed for the first time an assortment of leather sacks and pouches propped against the wall, some flat and empty and others bulging. The Kougra selected one of the smaller ones, and as she brought it back to him Darigan distinctly heard the soft slosh of water. She stopped beside him, and for a maddening instant Darigan wondered whether she was going to back out of arms' reach and drink, as Miaglo had done several times during the course of Darigan's imprisonment. But she handed the leather bottle to him without hesitation, and Darigan thanked her quickly before tipping it back and draining it within seconds.

      By the time he had finished she was already back with two more bottles; and when he hesitated she sensed his unspoken question and said, "You don't need to worry about running out. As you've probably noticed, this cave is situated behind a waterfall, so there is no shortage of water."

      Darigan breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you."

      The Kougra gave him a small smile. "You're welcome. I'm glad I'm able to help." To Darigan's surprise, there was a flicker of wistfulness and regret in her eyes and voice as she said this, but it passed as quickly as it had come.

      Darigan smiled back, realizing as he did that this was the first time he had smiled in several days, maybe even weeks. "Considering you've saved my life, I can't help but think it would feel strange to spend the rest of this visit referring to you as 'Hey, you!' What is your name?"

      The smaller pet's smile took on a rueful look, and her voice was tinged with wry humour as she replied, "I have several. My given name is Tenultra, but some say 'Varmint', others make it 'Brat', and a few opt for 'Get Your Tail Out Of Here'. There are also a few variations which those such as Miaglo used, although I do not think I'll repeat them. Those who are not chasing me off or being chased by me usually don't know about me."

      Darigan blinked. "I don't suppose any of the latter names were given to you by Meridellian farmers?"

      The rueful expression vanished for a moment and Tenultra laughed again. "Actually, yes- a few. I suppose you know how that feels." The light-switch changes from amusement to rueful regret were beginning to get bewildering, the latter having returned as Tenultra uttered the second sentence. It was almost as though there was an undercurrent of pain running beneath her surface with other emotions drifting on top. But before Darigan could question the issue, Tenultra said, "I will go for more supplies tonight, but for now- well, I hope you like cooked chicken and raw potatoes, because that's all I've got at the moment."

      "Right now, that sounds like a feast," Darigan answered honestly, and Tenultra smiled while her strange eyes flickered faintly with sadness. She quickly retrieved the food and set in on Darigan's lap.

      "I'm afraid I have no plates or utensils- whenever I consider getting some, more important matters end up taking precedence."

      Darigan shrugged. "It's still better than raiding a cornfield." Not everybody knew about the specifics of his time of exile, and even fewer people talked about what they knew; but since Tenultra's comment about him knowing how it felt to be cursed at by a farmer seemed to indicate some knowledge on her part, he saw no need to tiptoe around the subject- at least, not until he saw the sad expression on Tenultra's face.

      "I'm sorry I wasn't more help back then." Darigan cocked his head, and the small Kougra explained, "I dislike the thought of anyone going through something like that."

      "And thus the mission to Miaglo's lair," Darigan said with a small, forced grin, trying to change the subject.

      Tenultra's expression turned to one of grave resignation. "Yes- and I'll have to go back before long."

To be continued...

 
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Other Episodes


» Rising Shadow: Part One
» Rising Shadow: Part Two
» Rising Shadow: Part Three
» Rising Shadow: Part Five
» Rising Shadow: Part Six
» Rising Shadow: Part Seven
» Rising Shadow: Part Eight



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