Sword of the Shapeshifter: Part Two
Art by sarahleeadvent
Two furtive shadows slipped in silence through the dimly lit corridors, the smaller one flitting ahead like a feline wraith and pausing on occasion to glance back and wait for her companion. One of the undeniable advantages of quadrupedal locomotion was superior speed, and despite her diminutive size Tenultra had to restrain herself from getting too far ahead of Lord Darigan. Nevertheless, they moved swiftly, gliding through the dismal metallic halls with no more than the faintest whisper of Darigan’s robe to reveal their passing.
Suddenly Tenultra froze and Darigan followed suit, his large ears perked forward in search of the tiny sound that had already reached the Kougra’s genetically enhanced hearing. Signalling for him to remain motionless, Tenultra slipped forward on silent paws, her ears swiveling, her hackles standing on end and her dark eyes glittering in the dim light. Then suddenly she was gone, her black-striped purple pelt vanishing as the shapeshifter turned invisible. A moment later she returned, her fur shimmering as it resumed its natural hue. “Mutant Grundos,” she whispered. “Five of them, heading this way.”
Darigan pinned his ears back against his head in a gesture of annoyance and uneasiness. He had no doubt that he and Tenultra together could defeat the hulking mutants, but there was always the risk of one of them sounding some sort of alarm, and the energy weapons Miaglo’s Grundos often wielded were not to be taken lightly. Darigan gripped his sword a little more tightly, preparing to engage the enemies if need be. “Run or fight?” he whispered to Tenultra, unashamedly falling back on the younger pet’s superior knowledge of their foes- although he couldn’t deny that the first option went entirely against his grain.
Tenultra paused, considering. “If we ran now they’d probably hear us and sound the alarm. Besides, there aren’t many productive places we could run to.” The Kougra’s voice was barely audible as she added, “Our best bet is to disable them in the first few seconds of the fight. Two of them have swords instead of lasers...”
Darigan nodded, his knuckles turning white beneath his fur as he braced himself for combat. “I’ll start with them,” he said, guessing Tenultra’s meaning. A sword would do little good against laser beams, and in this case it seemed better to fight fire with fire.
Then suddenly the Grundos were in front of them, and before any of the other six Neopets in the corridor could react Tenultra shot forward, green fire flashing from the implants in her claws. One of the laser-bearing Grundos crumpled to the floor, and the other two responded by firing furiously on the agile Kougra, who eluded the shots and dealt another of her own, felling a second opponent.
The two swordsmen ignored the laser battle, lunging toward Darigan with their blades shimmering in their hands. The force of the simultaneous blows nearly drove the Korbat from his feet, but he parried the attack and unleashed one of his own, cleaving a blade from its hilt with a single lightning thrust. The owner of the ruined sword stood stunned for a moment, staring at the hilt in its hand, while the other continued its attack, hammering furiously at Darigan with a rapid and relentless series of thrusts, swings and slices. Darigan’s arms began to ache under the weight of the repeated blows, but he fought on doggedly, reminding himself that this wasn’t the only Grundo in the building and that there would probably be more fights like this, so he’d better just get used to it.
With a sudden dodge and shove, he sent his adversary staggering backward; but before he could congratulate himself a small dark mass sped out of nowhere, racing straight for his head. It was inches away by the time he realized it was there, and even closer when the knowledge darkened his mind that there was no way he could dodge in time.
The first dim vestiges of consciousness began to return to Master Vex’s mind, and for a moment he had no idea where he was or what was happening. A moment later he still didn’t know where he was, but what was happening was only too clear. He was dangling by his feet from the claws of a Darigan Lupe whose dark, unnatural wings beat in a swift and steady rhythm, bearing them both rapidly through the star-sprinkled night. In a moment of panic he tried to kick his abductor, but the Lupe’s black claws held him too firmly for that, and the only reward he got for his effort was a low, gravely chuckle. “Fancy a round of skydiving, do you?”
Vex decided that even a tumble into the forest that was sliding by beneath him would be better than being imprisoned by this thing. Swinging his torso upward, he struck at the claws that held him, trying to pry them loose.
The Lupe’s voice took on an alarming and maddening hint of amusement. “Very well.”
A cry of terror tore itself from the Mynci’s throat as the claws suddenly loosed their grip, and Vex found himself reeling dizzily down toward the dark leafy carpet of leaves and the hard, unforgiving branches they concealed. His stomach churned as he braced himself for the end, but just as the highest leaves brushed against his fur he felt a set of dark talons clamp around his left arm, nearly pulling it out of its socket as he was jerked sharply to a halt. Vex cried out again, and the Lupe’s chuckle grated on his ears.
“You see? Trying to escape will do you no good. I told you you’re coming with me, and that is what I meant.”
“What do you want?” Vex growled, struggling to refuse his captor the satisfaction of seeing that his arm was throbbing mercilessly.
The smirk that coloured the creature’s voice sent icewater running down Vex’s spine. “Not much. Just a useless little addition to my collection. You’re hardly worth my time, but this is still more satisfying than leaving you safe in your floating Snowbunny’s warren.”
Vex gritted his teeth and said nothing, choosing instead to watch in silence as the forest blurred beneath him and a dim gray building slid slowly into view.
Darigan opened his eyes, not quite certain when he had closed them, and found himself staring at the shorn-off hilt of the sword he had ruined. Its owner had flung it at him in an attempt to knock him out that had come dangerously close to succeeding; the fur on his face was already brushing against the hilt. Strangely enough, the potentially deadly projectile seemed to have halted in midair.
Suddenly it came to life, speeding away from his face to slam into the head of the Grundo who had thrown it. The towering mutant staggered backward, and the hilt glanced off before coming back around, darting and flicking through the air as it dealt a swift series of swats to the Grundo’s face and torso. Looking around, Darigan saw that the rest of the Grundos were unconscious, and that Tenultra was sitting calmly on the floor, her eyes and right forepaw dancing about in tandem with the swordhilt as she manipulated it with her tractor beams, looking almost like a conductor as she toyed with her foe. Finally, either growing bored or remembering that their mission required speed, she gave one last sharp flick of her paw, laying the Grundo in an unconscious heap on the floor before turning to address Darigan.
“Are you all right?”
Darigan nodded. “Yes- are you?”
Tenultra returned the nod, then got up and stretched. “I’m fine- although a few more close calls like that and I’ll have as many gray hairs as you do. Anyway- are you ready to continue?”
“By all means.” As he strode along in Tenultra’s wake, Darigan’s mind went back to the Kougra’s comment about how much the incident had worried her. It was typical of her- while her sense of responsibility against Miaglo made her protective of all Neopians, she had for years seemed to carry a special burden when it came to Darigan- which, in itself, was an incredible paradox. Even though she had lost most of her family to his soldiers in the first war, and her one remaining brother had died at Darigan’s own hand, she had put her own grievances aside to help him. Rather than dwelling on her losses, great as they were, she had seen instead Darigan’s suffering as a victim of The Three, his despair when everyone he knew had turned on him, and his need when he wandered mindless as the Bat-thing. She had appeared to him in a number of different forms, each time doing what she could to aid him despite her own poverty and the pain he had inflicted on her, and driving herself crazy whenever she was unable to do enough. Darigan suspected that had she not been a shapeshifter and thus in command of the colour of her fur, he would indeed have given her more than a few gray hairs by now.
Tenultra’s knowledge of Miaglo’s fortress was somewhat shaky, but eventually they came to the reinforced iron door that barred the entrance to the dungeons. There were no guards; but Darigan, remembering the way his feet had been chained above his head during his imprisonment, suspected that there was probably no need for them.
Tenultra padded up to the door, then sat down in front of it and studied it for a moment before setting her sheathed short sword aside. “I’m going to turn Ghost and make sure that we’re not about to trigger any alarms.” Pointing to a paw-shaped pad on the wall, she added, “I believe it’s programmed to respond to Miaglo’s DNA. I don’t know whether or not the wrong DNA would sound an alarm, but I’d rather not risk it.” With that, she continued toward the wall, her black-and-purple fur taking on a pale translucence and her eyes beginning to glow red as she stuck her face directly into the door. For a few minutes she poked around in the wall, studying and tampering with wires that were hidden to Darigan; but eventually she emerged triumphant, her fur and eyes returning to their normal hues as she spoke. “There was a silent alarm wired to go off if anybody but Miaglo tried to use the door, but I’ve disabled it. I’ve also keyed all the touchpads in the prison to my own genetic signature.”
Having said this she replaced her scabbard at her hip, then reached up and placed her small, delicate paw on the pad, which glowed green for a moment before dimming as the door slid open. The Kougra and the Korbat exchanged a glance, then together they walked toward the door, preparing to begin the second phase of their mission.
Almost before they had passed through the door, a roar of fury assaulted their ears.
To be continued...