Sword of the Shapeshifter: Part Seven
Art by sarahleeadvent
Never had a fortress in Neopia been shaken by a conflict equal to what took place in that corridor, as the two opposing blades smashed into each other again and again with a force that would have driven almost any other two combatants from their feet and laid them stunned upon the floor. One blow followed a dozen in a series of strikes that embodied the speed and ferocity of lightning; then another dozen followed that one as the two enemies leapt and darted, peppering each other with a frenzied and unending barrage of blows that brought the air in the corridor to life with the fell music of one blade ringing against another.
Rallying his breath, Miaglo snarled at Tenultra, swinging his sword with both wild recklessness and deadly precision. “Give up, kitten- your days of getting under my feet are over.”
The Kougra’s eyes were harder and sharper than the blade that shimmered in her hand, but she wasted no breath in shooting back, choosing instead to let the sword do the talking: expressing her hostility in its ringing voice, its meaning inarticulate but clear.
Sword upon sword, claw upon claw, fangs meeting flesh and talons striking them away, the two of them fought on, years and years of fury pouring themselves out in every swing and parry. The fight carried them down the corridor, but they knew not where they were going nor did they care. All that mattered to either of them was the other; the sword that sought their flesh and the flesh their own blades yearned for. Each fought with everything in them; for it was not just their own lives, but the fate of hundreds of others that rested on every blow.
The mutant Grundo finally fell beneath the fury of Darigan’s blade, and the Korbat seized it as it slumped to its knees, flinging it down so that it collided with another Grundo that had been about to ambush Jeran from behind. The Lupe quickly tossed Darigan a grateful salute, then returned his attention to the turbulent melee around him as Darigan did the same. Most of the prisoners were out of shape from having spent months in Miaglo’s dungeon, but they were putting up a remarkable fight, not only holding their own but actually gaining ground. Torshac and Danner fought back-to-back; King Jazan and King Skarl teamed up to fell a pair of especially massive mutant Grundos; and Illusen, having passed the responsibility of caring for the incapacitated Kass over to Queen Nabile, astonished everyone by cooperating with Jhudora, whose antipathy toward her Earth sister was temporarily overridden by her hatred toward the servants of the Lupe who had imprisoned her.
Suddenly a bolt of emerald light slammed into the wall beside the door to the dungeon, and people both inside and out of the prison screamed in alarm as a gaping hole opened in the metal. But Darigan wasn’t looking at the hole, or even at the outside world that was visible through it. While Jeran ordered everybody to “Get through that hole while you can!”, the Korbat stared fixedly at the source of the laser beam.
Miaglo threw back his head in a torrent of harsh laughter as the automatic repair system in his implants did its job, and Tenultra narrowly avoided the spear of laser energy that sped from the Shadow Lupe’s claws to tear open the wall. “Give up,” he snapped again, his claws blazing with light as he fired a second shot. “It’s over for you.”
The Kougra’s eyes flashed with stony defiance. “It’s not over until the fat lady sings, and so far she’s only humming.”
Miaglo smirked at her. “It won’t be long before she changes her tune.”
Come on, come on, Tenultra breathed, combining a duck and spin to evade yet another attack. Now would be the perfect time... But not a spark, not a flicker of life revealed itself in her claws. The implants were dead and silent, and without them there was no way she could defeat Miaglo. The Lupe had finally won.
A flying fist struck Tenultra to the ground, and as she struggled to rally her senses she saw Miaglo swooping through the air, diving down toward her in a tempest of fur, fangs, claws, and laser beams...
Then suddenly she felt it, the hum of working machinery as her claws came back to life. A forcefield spilled across her body, deflecting the barrage of laser beams; then before Miaglo could recover from his surprise or even complete the pounce, Tenultra’s own lasers slammed into his chest, stunning him and driving him backward. The Kougra seized the Lupe in the tingling grip of her tractor beams, flinging him toward the wall with all the strength in her body. His head crashed into the edge of the hole, sending him reeling into a wild spin as he tumbled onto the grass outside. His breath coming sharp and ragged with weariness and pain, Miaglo staggered to his feet...
Then slumped to the ground under a blow from a large stick, which was gripped firmly in the paws of a bearded Mynci with one bad eye.
“Vex!” Darigan cried, speeding out into the open to greet his friend.
Vex’s eyes brightened with delight, and rushing to meet Darigan he exclaimed, “It is good to see you alive and well, my lord- I had feared you were dead!”
“Sorry to break this up- but fight first, reunion later!” Tenultra yelled as she followed the last few prisoners out through the hole; and the two friends spun around to see a swarm of mutant Grundos spilling out through the gap in the fortress.
Darigan took a firmer grip on his sword, and Vex did the same with his makeshift staff. “For the Citadel!” the Mynci cried as the two of them rushed forward together, leaping upon the nearest of their assailants as the fire of battle pulsed through their veins.
Miaglo’s head pounded in time with his heart, and his vision swam and blurred as he slowly opened his eyes. As the world around him gradually came into focus, Miaglo saw his former prisoners mopping up the last of his servants, who struggled furiously but went down all the same.
Life returned to Miaglo’s limbs in a surge of blinding fire. NO! It would not end this way! If he was to fail, then at least he would bring one of them down with him! Miaglo’s body faded into invisibility as he looked around, choosing his prey. There- the Korbat, Lord Darigan. Tenultra seemed especially protective of that one, and Darigan appeared to have been foolish enough to have actually befriended her. A wicked grin spread across the Lupe’s invisible face, and he lunged forward, his claws tearing at the ground as he gathered speed. It would all be over in an instant- Darigan would scarcely know what hit him. A pity, Miaglo thought, that I can’t drag it out a bit and make her watch, but this will have to do.
The fur on Tenultra’s nape and back prickled, and she whirled around quickly, eyes and claws seeking a target. No immediate threat presented itself, but the feeling of impending danger only grew stronger. Seized with sudden suspicion, Tenultra switched her vision to infrared, and instantly caught sight of a large, powerful figure lunging across the grass, massive thrusts of its muscular hind legs speeding it toward Lord Darigan. Oh no...
Time seemed to slow down. Without any conscious decision made, Tenultra leapt into motion, her legs lengthening, her claws digging into the ground, and every part of her consciousness contracting to focus on the Shadow Lupe and the victim on whom he was rapidly closing. Her breath rushed in and out of her lungs, a hissing rhythm to complement the barely-audible whisper of her flying feet and the sound of earth tearing beneath her claws.
Then finally it all came down to that one single moment, when Miaglo exploded into visibility, raising a paw that had morphed into a sword... he brought it swooping down like a falcon toward Darigan’s unprotected shoulder... in a final desperate leap, Tenultra launched herself into the air...
While the attack was witnessed in slow motion by Tenultra, it happened all too quickly for Darigan. One moment he was looking at Miaglo’s fortress, taking a minute to catch his breath and to allow his mind to grasp the fact that victory was finally won; the next, the fortress was blotted out by a deadly vision of horror, like a fragment of darkest midnight torn from its place and given physical form as a nightmare of fangs and talons. Then suddenly Tenultra was there, flying onto the scene from behind and to the left of Darigan, flinging herself between the Korbat and his assailant.
A mighty blast of energy leapt from Miaglo’s sword-paw, causing the weary Kougra’s forcefield to falter for a moment; and in that instant of vulnerability he sent the blade plunging into her unprotected back. Tenultra cried out; then as Miaglo wrenched the sword free she hit the ground and went limp, her legs crumpling beneath her and her face twisting into a grimace.
Fiery wrath exploded in Darigan’s heart, and before Miaglo could continue his attack the enraged Korbat took aim with the hilt of his sword and clubbed the Lupe to the ground. A mutant Grundo leapt into the fray, distracting Darigan’s attention; but Miaglo was unconscious, and did not stir again while Darigan and the others rounded up the last of their opponents, finally securing the victory once and for all.
The sky above the fortress was such a brilliant shade of blue that it looked as though someone had taken a sheet of azure lightning and stretched it across the firmament, and the sun’s clear golden rays bathed the forest in dazzling liquid light. The Grundos and mutated Petpets were all safely locked away, and Jeran, Lisha and Illusen, wandering the corridors of the fortress in search of any prisoners or enemies they might have missed, had been flabbergasted to find a badly emaciated Sloth hanging upside-down in a cell beneath the fortress. They supposed it made sense- why wouldn’t Miaglo have gone for his oldest and most hated enemy?- but that the Lupe had actually managed it astonished them all, and Sloth stubbornly refused to explain how Miaglo had done it. He was, however, eagerly willing to remove the implants from the unconscious Lupe’s body- under the careful and heavily armed supervision of Jeran, of course- and Miaglo, now shorn of his more dangerous abilities, had been taken directly to Queen Fyora, who promised to place the prisoner in a cell that even a shapeshifter could never escape from. The threat of Miaglo seemed to have been nullified forever, Sloth was also imprisoned, and every one of the other prisoners, including Kass, was going to make a complete recovery.
And as the sun shone down on a scene of sparkling joy and triumph, Lord Darigan sat on a fallen tree, his eyes closed and his head in his hands, wondering why something as terrible as this had to happen. The prisoners were all right, but the same could be said of only one of the two rescuers- and that was only in the physical sense, for although the defenders had suffered only one loss, it was a loss that cut to his soul.
Tenultra was nowhere to be found.
To be continued...