Sword of the Shapeshifter: Part Three
Art by sarahleeadvent
“Is that you again? Why don’t you take these chains off and fight me like a knight?”
Both Tenultra and Darigan jumped as the hoarse, angry voice rang through the hall, bouncing and echoing off the metal walls. The Kougra was the first to alter her course, loping over to a cell on the left of the corridor and reaching up to place her paw over the touchpad. The pad glowed, the door slid open, and Tenultra slipped inside to be greeted by a look of astonishment from the prisoner. “I would appreciate it, Sir Jeran, if you did not do that again. I am not Miaglo, but there is no need to alert him to our presence before we really have to.”
Had he not been hanging upside-down by manacles around his ankles, Jeran’s jaw would probably have dropped. As it was, he simply stared confusedly at the small Darigan Kougra who stood before him, her deep, solemn eyes reflecting all the colours around her as she studied him placidly. “We?” he echoed; then his eyes widened as Darigan stepped through the door. “Lord Darigan?”
The Korbat leader gave the upside-down Meridellian Champion a courteous nod, then stepped forward to catch him as Tenultra used her claws to pick the locks in the metal bands that held Jeran’s ankles. “Thank you,” Jeran said as Darigan helped him to his feet and supported him while the blood drained out of his head.
Tenultra padded around Jeran to position herself in front of the Lupe. “We are here to free all of Miaglo’s prisoners, and we need to move quickly.”
“Give me a key and a moment to regain my balance, and I’m at your service,” Jeran replied, substituting a bob of his head for the customary bow that would have cost him his footing. Glancing toward Darigan, he added, “Although I must admit this is rather surprising...”
“Being rescued by the lord of the Citadel and a hybrid of both our kingdoms?” Darigan asked with a hint of a smile, visibly startling Jeran with his reference to Tenultra‘s mixed heritage. Deciding that a discussion of his partner in crime’s unusual ancestry could wait, he added, “Tenultra was apparently not content to liberate only me while other prisoners remained, so I’ve come to help her finish the job.”
“My thanks to both of you, then,” Jeran responded, straightening up to indicate to Darigan that he felt able to stand on his own two feet. The Korbat let him go, and Jeran swayed for a moment before fully finding his balance. Darigan was impressed- the Lupe had managed to remain in surprisingly good condition, considering how long he had been imprisoned.
Tenultra was already heading toward the door. “The doors will only open for me, and I don’t know where the keys for the manacles are, so unless you can morph your claws into keys as I can the most you can do is to assist the prisoners once I’ve freed them and explain the situation to them.”
“Very well.” Jeran shrugged and glanced toward Darigan. “Does she always take the reins like that?”
“Only when the rest of the invasion squad is busy standing in a cell chatting,” Tenultra cut in, overhearing the Lupe’s remark.
Darigan exchanged a glance and a half-amused smile with Jeran as the Kougra’s reproach echoed through the hall, then the two of them followed Tenultra out the door, stepping into the corridor just as the door to the next cell slid open. As the prisoner beyond the door became visible Jeran sped up, rushing past Darigan to skid to a halt at King Skarl’s side. “Your Majesty? Are you all right?”
Skarl had certainly lost a lot of weight- which is probably fortunate, as it prevented his belly from sagging over his face and smothering him, Tenultra couldn’t help but mentally add as she inserted her claw into the keyhole in the band around Skarl’s left foot. Whatever the advantages of the Skeith’s smaller abdomen, it was obviously of great concern to Jeran, who hastened to support his leader as the still-bulky Skarl slumped to the floor.
As Jeran lowered Skarl into a sitting position, Tenultra told the Skeith, “Once you have recovered your sense of balance I will need your assistance in aiding the other prisoners.”
Skarl’s eyes flashed, and his temper, weeks in the making, rose to the surface. “First I am taken prisoner by a ruffian, and now a scruffy peasant presumes to give me orders?” He narrowed his eyes menacingly at Tenultra. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Tenultra studied him for a moment, her cool, calm, dispassionate gaze taking in every detail of the king of Meridell: the flashing eyes, the imperious scowl, the destined-for-cardiac-failure physique... and, having assessed him, she dismissively labelled him a minor annoyance to whom a flyswatter could be applied when it was most convenient for her. Deliberately ignoring the irritable king, she turned to Jeran and made a simple and innocent request: “Sir Jeran, would you please tell the Skeith that he is being obnoxious and that I don’t have time to humour him?”
Every adult jaw present slackened, while Tenultra continued to stare at Jeran with a look of innocent oblivion on her face. Finally tiring of the game, she turned to address Darigan and gestured toward the door. “Shall we?”
Darigan, who happened to be aware of the shapeshifter’s infrequently-employed but still noteworthy ability to spit acid, welcomed the opportunity to separate her from Skarl before the grumpy old king could tempt her any further. Besides, after the display of ingratitude Skarl had just given, he couldn't quite bring himself to make Tenultra apologize. “After you.”
As Skarl watched the unlikely duo leave, his eyes bugging out and his flabby jowls slack, Jeran flashed him an apologetic grin. “Might as well get used to it, Sire, because unless I’m mistaken things will only get stranger from here.”
A frown slowly spread across Miaglo’s face as he swooped like a silent falcon toward the front entrance of his fortress. It wasn’t like his slaves to lie down on the job- they were much too afraid of him for that- and yet the guards were nowhere to be seen.
Sudden foreboding quickened the rhythm of his wings, and Miaglo sped toward the large, heavy iron door that barred the entrance to his lair. A glint of moonlight on metal in the corner of his eye brought him to a halt, drawing a gasp from Master Vex as the sudden stop tugged sharply at the Mynci’s aching arm. Miaglo paid his prisoner little heed, acknowledging his existence only long enough to nullify any chance of escape; and as an absent-minded jolt of energy sent Vex jerking into unconsciousness, the Lupe dropped his victim and prowled cautiously closer to the source of the reflected moonlight. His genetically enhanced eyesight immediately fell on the limp form of an unconscious mutant Grundo, and as he took a step closer he noted the danger and erected a forcefield around himself just in time to deflect the emerald beam that flashed from a laser rifle, which seemed to have been fitted with a motion sensor and placed in just the right position to take him out when he went to check on his servants.
With a snarl of fury, Miaglo swung his claws at the laser, batting it off of the stump on which it rested and sending it spinning away into the night. As his sensitive ears caught the crack of the weapon breaking against a stone, Miaglo whirled to face the fortress, hatred and understanding dawning in his glowing crimson eyes. “She’s back!”
The dark and dismal dungeons beneath Miaglo’s fortress were alive with new hope and joyful reunions. Lisha had accidentally knocked Jeran to the floor in her delight at seeing her brother again; but the Lupe was not the Champion of Meridell for nothing, and despite having been a prisoner for several months he had proven himself surprisingly fit, responding to his little sister’s enthusiasm by squeezing her until the breath was forced from her body. In another cell, a newly freed Galgarroth found himself enveloped in a combination of support and embrace from Darigan, who had not fully realized just how much he had missed his friend until he caught sight of the upside-down Grarrl. A few doors down, Torshac the Shoyru Scout persistently dodged questions from Danner, who was making it uncomfortably difficult for the Shoyru to protect his identity.
Through it all, Tenultra sat off to the side, forgotten in the cheerful mayhem now that her job of removing the captives from their cells was complete. Her deep, soulful eyes were filled with a mixture of joy and sadness as she watched friends and family find each other, none of them noticing the small, silent form that crouched in the shadows of the dimly lit corridor.
She would not draw attention to herself. These people had been through enough- there was no need to dampen the joy of their reunions and newfound freedom by reminding them that there was a child huddled in a corner, with no reunion to look forward to except for the lonely company of the stones she had used to create a memorial to a family whose bodies she had not even been able to retrieve for burial.
She would set her feelings aside, banish the aching need that clawed at the deepest part of her being until the task at hand was over and she could deal with it in solitude.
Pushing herself to her feet, she mercifully rescued Torshac, posting him as a guard at the door while she occupied herself with making a double-check of the dungeons. The investigation was made not so much to check for prisoners she had missed as to take her mind off the fact that she was not really part of the joy that flowed freely through the gathering; and so it came as a great surprise when the door to a cell in the deepest part of the dungeon slipped open to reveal a gaunt figure huddled in the darkness, his dark purple fur and feathers matted and dull and his red eyes nearly lifeless.
For a moment Tenultra could do nothing but stand and stare; but finally she found her voice and sent it echoing through the cell in a single astonishing word: “Kass?!”
To be continued...