Sword of the Shapeshifter: Part Eight
Art by sarahleeadvent
“My lord?... My lord?” The deep voice hesitated, then tried a final time, “Lord Darigan?”
“Hm?” Darigan blinked, then drew his mind back to reality. “Yes- what is it, Kass?”
The Eyrie shook his head. “Darigan, you have been staring out that window for the past seven minutes. I do not believe you even heard what Galgarroth said about the improvements our technicians proposed for the engines.”
Darigan shook his head in return and gave his two friends a wan smile. “No, I’m afraid I didn’t. What was it you said?”
The Grarrl studied him for a moment, then replied, “Perhaps that will have to wait. You clearly have other things on your mind.”
Darigan forced himself to look attentive.
Galgarroth’s face mirrored Kass’s frown of concern. “My lord,” he rumbled, “Kass and I have both seen how preoccupied you have become, and there is no point in avoiding the matter when it is clear that the young Kougra’s death is troubling you, and that you cannot stop thinking about it. You have been unable to focus on anything else since the battle.”
Kass nodded. “We have known each other too long for this, my friend. You needn’t try to hide what you cannot conceal.”
Darigan’s gaze came to rest first on Galgarroth, then on Kass, taking every aspect of his two friends in. In the two-and-a-half weeks since the battle, the Grarrl had shed almost all signs of his captivity; while the Eyrie, who had suffered the longest imprisonment of any of the captives, had gained a fair bit of weight and even more strength, and was now able to walk unassisted, even managing to conceal his lingering limp over reasonably short distances. Both stared back at Darigan, their eyes steady and unwavering, waiting for him to speak.
Finally Darigan took a deep breath. “Several days ago you came together to tell me, as carefully and gently as you could, that I needed to get past Tenultra’s death before it drove me mad. And I’ll tell you now as I told you then, you don’t need to fear for my sanity. Nor do I believe it is madness to imagine that the child might still be alive. After all...” He paused to give his friends a wry glance. “Every person in this room has, at one time or another, returned from supposed death. From what I know of Tenultra, it hardly seems beyond her capabilities.”
Kass’s gaze was solemn and compassionate. “Even after Miaglo stabbed her?”
“Jeran of Meridell survived after receiving a similar wound from you.”
Kass flinched at the memory. “True, but... Darigan, you told me yourself how she disliked worrying you. Would she not have contacted you by now?”
“She would have if she could, but it is possible...” Darigan shuddered at the thought, but continued, “...that she might have gone into hiding and then found herself immobile and unable to get help. Or perhaps one of Miaglo’s servants escaped, taking her with him.” Which would mean she is trapped somewhere, alone among enemies... Darigan gritted his teeth, remembering his own similar experiences, but forced himself to appear calm even though it tore at him to think of what might be happening to his small friend. He shook his head slowly, then heaved a sigh. “You are right, Galgarroth, to claim that this is troubling me. She had almost nothing, and yet she was willing to give everything for my sake, and yours. And now here I am, with all the resources of the Citadel at my command, unable even to ascertain whether she is dead or alive.”
Darigan turned to face the window, clasping his hands behind his back, and Kass and Galgarroth exchanged a glance, feeling their friend’s anxiety and frustration.
Finally Darigan turned back toward his companions. “Do as you see best about the engines, Galgarroth. Knowing you, you have probably gotten all the facts before trying to present this to me, and I know you will do well.” He gave the Grarrl a nod, and Galgarroth took his leave and went lumbering out the door.
After a long moment of contemplative silence, Darigan shook his head. “What am I to do, Kass? I can hardly leave the Citadel to perform an exhaustive search of Neopia- especially when I just got back after frightening everyone by vanishing into thin air- and yet...” Even though I was physically capable of walking away from you, somehow I just couldn’t do it- not when I knew that you could not walk away from yourself, and that even if I had sought my own comfort your suffering would have remained. And after all you’d been through, I wanted you to have someone who would keep trying to help you, even when you hit rock bottom... She had said that to him once. That day seemed as if it had happened eons ago, and yet the words rang crystal clear in his mind, soft but potent as if she were sitting there beside him, speaking them for the first time.
Darigan heaved a sigh and met Kass’s gaze, allowing his turmoil to become visible in his eyes. “Do you remember how I told you about her time of imprisonment by Sloth, and how very few people will accept her when they are not in need of her help, because they think she is a minion or even a monster?” Kass nodded, and Darigan continued, “After all she did for me, I had hoped to prove to her that she had found someone who would not forget or abandon her when my life no longer depended on her assistance. Especially when her greatest losses occurred at my hands.”
Kass stared at him sadly, not knowing what to say. Darigan had certainly changed a great deal since the Eyrie had last spoken to him in this room. Kass himself had changed. And yet no matter how much either of them was altered by the passage of time, it seemed there would always be times when words or even actions were not enough for some of the things life could throw at them.
Darigan gave him a sad smile. “There is no need to strain yourself, my friend. There is nothing you can do. Either I will find her or she will find me, or it will be proven that she is lost. For now, I happen to be aware that you had a game of Cellblock arranged with Master Vex, even if you may have thought it insensitive to bring that up at this moment.”
Kass stiffened briefly. “I’d forgotten all about it.”
“Then you’d best be going. I wish you luck, for I must warn you that Vex has lost none of his skill since you last played.”
Kass gave him a small smile and a nod, then turned to stride out the door, leaving Darigan alone with his thoughts.
As the door closed behind Kass, Darigan’s gaze strayed back to the window. Two and a half weeks. Seventeen days. If she was trapped somewhere, she would be dead by now, unless her genetic alterations allowed her to withstand extreme dehydration. Even if that were the case, she could be dead by tomorrow. Darigan shook his head, then strode out onto his balcony and leaned against the wall, remembering as he did the strange variety of forms Tenultra had assumed in her diverse and often unorthodox attempts to help him. She had sometimes appeared near Sally’s barn in the form of a Shadow Kougra, leaving food for the young Usul to give to Darigan while he was taking refuge under her care. When she first rescued him from Miaglo, she had assumed the shape of an Invisible Draik, crouched within the torso of a suit of armour while Miaglo hacked off the armour’s legs, arms and helmet in a useless and confusing attempt to damage her. A small smile touched Darigan’s countenance as he remembered the look on Miaglo’s face when the seemingly defeated and impotent steel torso had flown up off the floor and crashed into the startled Lupe’s nose, sending him staggering backward; and then the smile softened and faded as other memories came to the fore: the days he had spent recovering in Tenultra’s cave, talking and listening to the strange young Kougra, who seemed to see right through him and yet refused to judge harshly anything she saw.
Those conversations had apparently had as much impact on her as they’d had on him, for when he’d looked for her in her cave after the battle Darigan had discovered a wood carving, hidden in a small stone alcove, depicting one such scene. During his stay with Tenultra, the Kougra had proven herself a talented artist, using her skillful claws to etch into the surfaces of ordinary slabs of wood astoundingly lifelike portraits: people or places, valleys or mountains or a forest under a midnight sky, all in delicate and intricate detail. But even among such skillful works of art that one picture had stood apart, for there was a touching quality of timelessness to it: the lord of the Citadel, looking into the eyes of a tiny orphan Kougra. Tenultra, finding out how it felt to be raised in an elegant castle with a warm, graceful mother and a dignified but somewhat distracted father, feeling unpleasantly separated by rank from every other child but lacking nothing else during the days of childhood; and Darigan, learning what it was to be thrust into adulthood long before the age of ten, forced to do things that most children could never dream of, either struggling for or completely denied the food, shelter, water, warmth, safety, love and affection that other children simply had, longing for it desperately, doing the things that should have earned it, but too afraid to claim it or even hope for it lest that hope and need be turned into weapons against an already wounded and vulnerable heart.
As the memory came to him, longing for his tiny friend tugged at his heart, and Darigan briefly considered going back inside and opening the drawer where he kept the carving; but a moment later his mind had drifted again, this time to the first and possibly the strangest of Tenultra’s attempts to offer him aid. Soon after he had left the grip of The Three, emerging as the Bat-thing, she had come to him as a Gruslen, appearing out of the darkness of an icy winter night. She had found him shivering in a ditch, and taking pity on him she had pressed up against his back in an effort to warm his trembling body, offering no resistance when he twisted around and seized her to use her as a hot-water bottle. Time and time again she’d allowed him to do this, even though in his rough and witless state he had been far from gentle, nearly crushing her small body in his careless grip. Yet she’d tolerated him. All because her sad, solemn gaze had been able to look past the wildness in his eyes, to search even beyond the near-forgotten mind that had been the architect of so much pain, and to dig beneath it to the heart, where, putting aside her grudges, she had seen something that could be redeemed.
And, as time went by, her gentle, reluctant liking had been reciprocated. Darigan vividly remembered the day when he had first come to consider the Gruslen a friend rather than a heat source. Normally Tenultra had left at dawn’s first light, but for some reason this morning had been different. Maybe there had been a lull in her constant war with Miaglo. Or maybe she had been feeling lonelier than usual, and had been reluctant to leave the poor excuse for a companion that he had made at the time. Or maybe it was the fact that he had felt the same way about her, and had taken hold of her tail to keep her from walking away. ( “That’s one thing I definitely liked about you at that time,” the Kougra had later commented. “While it was sometimes difficult to tell what you were thinking, I never had to guess how you felt.” ) Rather than fight or pull away from his grip, Tenultra had simply frozen, staring questioningly over her shoulder and into his eyes. Then she had turned back to him, sat down at his side, and simply kept him company, allowing him to bury his cold fingers in her soft fur and stroke her like the Petpet she appeared to be.
When the shock of his initial discovery of Tenultra’s connection to her tusked alter ego had worn off, it had occurred to Darigan to wonder if this treatment of her had come across as insulting. He had questioned her on this, and Tenultra had seemed startled that he would worry about it. She had quickly assured him that she hadn’t found it offensive, and that even if she had, he had not been himself at the time and could hardly be faulted... and then, unexpected as a butterfly in mid-winter, soft and solemn as a gentle grey rain, tears had risen in her eyes as she told him in a voice barely more than a whisper, “Even in the middle of the night when you were holding me too tightly, it wasn’t all bad... rough though it was, it was the first physical contact I’d had since my brother died that wasn’t intended to hurt me.” Ironically enough, it had also been Darigan’s first well-meant contact since that day; but before he could say so, Tenultra had gone on, her voice soft and meek as a beaten child’s confiding whisper, “And you were also the only person I knew who actually wanted me around. I’d never thought that would happen again. I had thought that the only people who were capable of desiring my presence were dead, and all that was left were the ones who couldn’t stand to be around a Sloth experiment.” Her gentle voice had broken under the weight of the memory, and the tears in her large, reflective eyes had forced an escape; and Darigan, unable to simply sit back and watch the tattered orphan cry, had acted as he’d done years ago as the Bat-thing, pulling the tiny kitten into his arms- gently, this time- and inspiring a fresh torrent of tears which had torn at his heart. That a child so young should know nothing but cruelty and rejection, and be shaken to tears when she was offered anything else, was appalling; and now, as he stood on his balcony, wondering if that child was even still alive, or if she had died in the loneliness in which she had lived, the small, contemplative smile that had come in response to his memories of the Gruslen fell from his face, to be replaced by pain.
She gave me so much, for no better reason than because I needed help; and yet she never received even a fraction of the help she needs. He inwardly shook his head. The one thing she can't use her powers to obtain, and yet it's the one thing she desires most. All she wants is a friend, just one person who doesn’t hate her. Why does the world seem to be so intent upon denying her that?
Darigan’s eyes began to drift open, then widened abruptly as he jumped into vivid awareness. There in front of him, perched on the rim of stone that bordered the balcony, was a small, furry Gruslen, staring up at him with liquid dark-brown eyes and a smile on its fuzzy face. Darigan gaped at it in absolute shock, then finally found his voice and gasped, “Tenultra?!”
The tiny feline’s smile widened to a grin, then faded as she said quietly, “Long time no see.”
“Too long,” Darigan answered with absolute earnestness, springing toward his little friend. Tenultra looked surprised for a moment when he gathered her into his arms; but then she sank into the embrace and closed her eyes as if his enthusiastic welcome came as a great relief. And perhaps it did, Darigan realized, remembering his earlier words to Kass and his conversation with Tenultra after the conflict with The Three. Well, he thought, if she did have any lingering fears of being forgotten, it’s good to be able to put them to rest.
For a long moment neither of them spoke; then, shifting the Gruslen so that he could look her in the eye, Darigan asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you were all right? I’ve been worrying about you ever since you disappeared.”
Tenultra looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry. I wanted to. But one of the mutant Grundos tried to carry me off, and even after I escaped I needed to wait for my wings to heal before I could fly up here.” Darigan’s mood suddenly matched her face. “Is something wrong?” Tenultra asked, suddenly concerned.
Darigan shook his head. “You shouldn’t have had to go through that alone.”
Tenultra resumed her natural form, then reached up and placed a forepaw on her unlikely friend’s shoulder. “I’ve survived worse,” she told him solemnly.
The Korbat emitted a soft, vaguely exasperated sigh. “’I’ve survived worse’,” he echoed, then shook his head. “Why does there seem to be such a popular misconception that knowing a friend has been through even worse than what you’re seeing is supposed to make you feel better?”
“I take it it didn’t?” She gave him a small smile. “I’m all right. You don’t need to worry about me.”
Darigan offered a wry version of the Kougra’s smile. “Now you’re telling me not to worry about a friend?”
Tenultra laughed. “All right, I’ll admit it- the pot calling the kettle black. And I know I’d have been frantic if I were in your place.”
Darigan nodded, not sure what words could be sufficient for a reunion such as this. “I missed you greatly,” he finally said, and Tenultra sobered and replied softly,
“I missed you, too.”
Darigan smiled, then raised an eyebrow. “Do I have reason to hope, then, that you are here for an extended visit?”
Tenultra smiled shyly. “I was actually thinking of selling more of my wood carvings and eventually buying a Neohome here.”
Darigan shook his head. “I did not have to pay for lodgings in your home- why should you have to pay to live here?”
Tenultra looked hesitant, as if not fully daring to hope. “Are you sure?”
Darigan smiled warmly. “You were willing to walk through my tunnel with me- the least I can do is to be the light at the end of yours. I have several guest rooms...” He paused, and his smile took on a teasing twist. “They were built for normal-sized Neopets, but I’m sure something suitable can be arranged.”
Tenultra laughed again. “It seems I shall never hear the end of my lack of size until it is indeed gone. But I suppose that hardly matters.”
“I must admit I am somewhat surprised, though- after your actions in Miaglo’s fortress I should think you would be welcome in any kingdom in Neopia. This seems a strange choice for someone who is used to having an open forest just beyond her doorstep- I’d have expected you would prefer a place like Meridell. Though it’s a strange choice of which I’m very glad,” he added quickly, seeing the uneasy question in Tenultra’s eyes.
The expression of confusion quickly gave way to dislike. “Meridell is a pleasant place, and I was, after all, raised there; but somehow I think it would have been a bad choice,” she replied, and Darigan suppressed a smile when he remembered the encounter between Tenultra and King Skarl in Miaglo’s dungeon. Tenultra, seeing that he’d made the connection, gave him a soft smile. “I’d rather have a home where my friends are.”
“And so you shall,” Darigan promised her. As he gently set the tiny Kougra on the floor, something she’d once said to him drifted through his mind. Even for someone who’s used to danger, it’s good to feel safe once in a while.
And so you shall, my friend.