Sword of the Shapeshifter: Part One
Art by sarahleeadvent
Author’s note: This series is the continuation of an earlier series called ‘Rising Shadow’. I have tried to make it understandable for those who have not read the first part, but if you want to fully understand the characters and the events preceding this series I suggest that you read it.
But before I begin telling the story, I would like to thank all my Neofriends for their continuing support, and there are a few people I would especially like to thank: My mom (who flatters my writing with careful attention, and who has edited out a large number of potentially embarrassing typos); my sister (with whom I have enjoyed many a laugh at the expense of King Skarl and The Three); my dad (who heaps compliments on every story I write); Mangohomer and Xxravenwing250xx (both of whom have been unflinchingly supportive of me and my work, and whom I consider two of my closest friends on Neopets, the latter being among my first Neofriends); and Schefflera and Dreagoddess (whose Darigan-related collabs have had a great deal of influence on my own portrayal of everybody’s favorite Korbat, and the former of whom I have been corresponding with for some time). And last, but of course, far from least, I would like to thank the Editor, who infuriates the living heck out of dozens of authors each week by declining to publish their work and who probably takes far more crap for it than she deserves *blushes guiltily*, but who also makes quite a few peoples’ days by selecting their stories, and without whom there would be no Neopian Times to get published in in the first place. You guys all rock!
The clouds that swirled around the Citadel were so thick that it seemed you could cut them with a dagger, but as he paced through the dank, narrow corridors of the dungeon Master Vex decided that if you took that same dagger to the tension inside the Citadel, the blade would probably break. He nervously wrung his hands, which were clasped tightly behind his back, but the action did nothing to decrease his anxiety.
Several months ago, rumours had spread across Neopia of a mysterious villain who had snatched King Jazan right out of his palace, vanishing without a trace. Queen Nabile had been sick with grief and worry, until she, too, disappeared. Throughout the course of the ensuing months, Neopians around the globe had seemed to spontaneously slip out of existence, the targets seeming to consist mostly of kings, queens, warriors and high officials, along with a scattering of famous civilians.
And then, a number of weeks ago- Vex was no longer certain how long it had been- Lord Darigan had also disappeared. The Korbat leader had gone to consult a young Faerie Kougra whose acquaintance he had made during his exile, hoping the elusive creature might have picked up information as to where the victims had gone; but he never came back, so Vex could only assume that Darigan had also been taken.
After Lord Darigan’s disappearance Galgarroth had taken up the duties of a temporary lord of the Citadel, but his constant worry over his friend had driven him to distraction and everybody knew it. And then, when Galgarroth was also abducted, Vex had found himself searching his mind for latent signs of insanity. It was all a little too much- people who should have been perfectly secure were vanishing all over the place, leaving no indication as to where they had gone, and Vex had more reason to worry than anyone: With Darigan and Galgarroth gone, it seemed clear that he would be next.
The agitated Mynci glanced between the bars that covered the square window in the door which separated the dungeons from the rest of the Citadel. As the weeks since Galgarroth’s disappearance wore on, Vex had briefly considered moving into quarters more befitting his temporary rank as substitute substitute lord of the Citadel, but had dismissed the notion instantly. For one thing, it would send the wrong message to the people: it would tell them Lord Darigan was never coming back. For another, Vex had hardly left his quarters and his post in the dungeons for years, and the dungeons were probably the most secure part of the Citadel. There was no point in being an easier target than he absolutely had to be.
Suddenly his large ears caught a sound, and whirling around Vex felt his heart redouble its pace as a low growling sound echoed through the stone corridor. A moment later he put a hand to his head as he recognized Number 5’s snoring. I can’t take much more of this, he inwardly groaned.
Vex turned around to resume his nervous pacing, and he could have sworn that some of his fur turned white at about the same time as his heart froze in mid-beat. There, standing in front of him, was a tall, black-garbed figure whose red eyes shone with a strange, unnatural light. A set of long black claws clamped around Vex’s arm like iron manacles, and the dark stranger’s gleaming white teeth became visible within the shadowy depths of his hood as he growled, “You’re coming with me.”
Clear, crystalline swords of moonlight stabbed down between the dark, shivering shadows of the leaves, dappling the ground with patches of silver and black. Lord Darigan looked up, his topaz eyes piercing the darkness to scan the indigo sky as he tightened his grip on the sword that gleamed in his hand. It was lunacy, what he was about to attempt- but then, losing his mind was nothing new to him. Darigan’s eyes drifted downward, leaving the peaceful mixture of leafy silhouettes and sparkling firmament above him to study the forest ahead, where his current mission lay. Dangerously near to him, the dark shades of the forest ended in the dim gray wall of a building: Miaglo’s fortress. The lair of the enemy who had captured him several weeks ago.
Years ago, Miaglo had been caught by Dr. Frank Sloth, and the Shadow Lupe had been forced against his will to receive genetic and mechanical ‘enhancements’ which had turned him into a lethal tool of destruction: a shapeshifter, with the power of lasers, forcefields and tractor beams at his ruthless command. Miaglo had eventually escaped, but the influence of evil had remained in him, and time and again he had set his mind to conquest, only to be thwarted by Tenultra.
The young Kougra, a Meridellian-Darigani hybrid to whom Darigan owed his freedom and possibly his life, had plenty of problems of her own, even before she had taken it upon herself to solve everybody else‘s Miaglo-related woes. She, like Miaglo, was a mechanically augmented shapeshifter and an escaped Sloth experiment; but unlike the Lupe she had chosen to use her newfound power for good, inflicting upon herself the duties of Miaglo’s arch-nemesis and living under his constant threat as she struggled to ensure that the larger, older shapeshifter caused as little harm as possible.
Darigan wasn’t certain how long he had remained chained in Miaglo’s dungeon- all he knew was that an attempt on Miaglo’s part to torment him had backfired, when the Lupe had moved him to a less secure room in order to reveal to him the betrayal of what Darigan had at first believed to be some of his own people. Those pets who had turned on him turned to be, as Tenultra put it, “A box of assorted idiots with temporary paint jobs”, and Miaglo’s display of cruelty had blown up in his face when Tenultra arrived on the scene with her heroic shenanigans: knocking out the guards, rescuing Darigan and attacking Miaglo himself. Darigan had been injured during the course of the escape, and had required several weeks for his broken wings to heal; but now he was back, preparing to return to the belly of the beast to do as Tenultra had done: risk life and limb in an attempt to free the prisoners.
Not a whisper, not a footstep, not even the slightest hint of motion betrayed the small shapeshifter’s arrival. Darigan hadn’t the faintest inkling that she had returned from her investigation of the fortress’s perimeter until a quiet voice startled him into awareness: “The guards are disabled, as is the surveillance equipment. And Miaglo does not seem to be here.”
“Taking another captive, perhaps?” Darigan asked with a frown as the tiny Kougra emerged into view, her dragonlike wings folded against her back and a faint, elusive cobalt shimmer flitting across her purple fur as the moonlight caressed it.
“Perhaps.” Tenultra’s voice was tinged with displeasure, and Darigan knew it grated on her that she was aware of the abduction but not present on the scene to fight for the victim’s freedom. But still, the best way to help Miaglo’s targets was to defeat Miaglo himself, and the first step toward doing that was to free the prisoners he had already taken. The Shadow Lupe had at his command an unknown number of mutant Grundos- and possibly other, worse things, although that had yet to be proven- and despite the fighting prowess of the two infiltrators they knew they would need all the help they could get.
Darigan reminded himself to keep his mind on the present, then asked his companion, “Have you found the best way to get in?”
A small smile became visible on the young Kougra’s face. “The most suitable entrances are too small for you, but yes, I found a window that should meet our needs.”
“Then lead the way.”
Tenultra paused for the briefest moment. In the cave where she had hidden the Korbat, she had usually referred to him simply as Lord Darigan; but now, when they were officially on rescue detail, she wasn’t sure whether or not the boundaries might have shifted. Testing them, she answered, “Yes, Your Highness.”
The answer confirmed that nothing had changed. “And drop the honorifics. This is hardly a formal setting.” An echo of Tenultra’s smile tugged at Darigan’s face. He and the Kougra had become such close friends, and understood each other so well by now, that it seemed strange for her to address him as if she were a stranger.
The way Tenultra’s mouth opened before closing in a smirk suggested that she had been about to respond with an even shinier title- or perhaps something a little too casual. Whatever it was, she had thought better of it, and the two of them proceeded in silence toward the window Tenultra had mentioned.
As he slipped inside, Darigan felt a twinge of foreboding in his heart. It was as if the wingbeat that had sent him through the window was a movement he could not take back, an irrevocable step into peril. But he kept on moving forward, striding along silently in Tenultra’s wake as they slipped toward the dungeons, every muscle tense and every sense alert for the opposition that was certain to arise.
“Frankly, I’d rather not,” Vex replied, trying in vain to twist away.
The cloaked figure smirked- or at least, it looked like a smirk, although it was difficult to tell when its face was obscured by a hood. “I do believe I missed the part where you had a choice. Why, don’t you want to see your little friend Galgarroth again?”
Vex stiffened, then lashed out at his antagonist in a swift, fluid movement befitting his agile species. His flying foot caught his adversary full in the face, but was knocked back tingling with the energy of an unseen forcefield. The dark creature laughed, and just before a flash of green energy from its claws drove him into unconsciousness it occurred to Vex to wonder why it hadn’t mentioned Lord Darigan. Is he dead? Are any of the other victims dead? Am I going to die?
To be continued...