Island's Own: Part Two
Ostensibly, Ryshu is the Techo Master's best (former) student, if "best" is defined by how famous you are among the general public. Judging by the reactions of my fellow students, however, Lucan was a grade A celebrity among the battle-inclined, cooler than Ryshu and maybe even the Techo Master, because while the former usually taught pets to fight, Lucan actually fought. He hunted bandits in his childhood, distinguished himself in some mini-war the Altadorians had a while back, crushed all his opponents in the Battledome, and endless other things as well. A couple years ago, he disappeared for a while, apparently for more training in isolation, but reemerged just a few months ago, better than ever. Don't ask me why he's not as famous. I guess if you want to be a famous warrior, you have to have a good PR guy as well.
Lucan and Ryshu had never fought directly, and it was a vicious debate within the school as to who would win if they did. My bet was on Lucan. Watching him, he had the air of someone who knew his way around a battle, a kind of intensity that was unmistakably an air of power. Also, I doubted all the fierce looking pets within his band would follow him if he were anything less than exceptional. On the other hand, there were only fifty of them, and I wondered how he planned to defend a whole island with only that. Nella, on her part, refused to speculate about him, watching him with narrowed eyes as he moved around the school, occasionally talking to students, but mostly looking around, taking in the sights of his childhood. (He'd been an orphan apparently, raised almost exclusively at the training school.)
If nothing else, the arrival of Lucan signaled even more changes in the school routine. That night, after meditation, we were called for a meeting on the defense of the island. They’d had a gathering earlier with the other leaders of the island where the real issues were settled, but trust the Techo Master to turn everything into a teaching moment.
Lucan seemed to be in his element, lecturing animatedly to the entranced students, talking about strikes and flanking movements and a bunch of other things I didn’t understand. Nella seemed fascinated for once, listening intently and even forgetting to keep a scornful expression. I mostly spaced out, trying to envision what I would be doing if I were at home.
I tuned back in to the lecture maybe half an hour in, realizing he was still going on about defenses. About to sink into a bored stupor again, my ears perked up as Lucan said something that caught my interest.
“We’ll be replacing the lookouts in each town with our own, in order to raise the alarm at the raider’s approach. With sufficiently advanced warning, we’ll be able to better prepare for their approach.”
I frowned. That seemed, well, kind of stupid. I raised my paw. Lucan looked surprised at the interruption, but nodded in my direction. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry, why did you say you were replacing their lookouts?”
“Because getting early warning is the most-”
I interrupted. “No, I mean, why are you replacing them at all? I thought the problem was that the islanders couldn’t beat the raiders after they came ashore, not that they weren’t getting time to prepare.’
Lucan looked amused. “Our scouts have years of experience with watching for the enemy and are quite talented at doing so. Besides, you don’t think the sentries deserve some rest as well, after so many hard nights?”
“No, I think it’s a waste of your forces,” I said honestly. “Mystery Island has a lot of coastline, and if you wanted to watch it all with your own forces, you’d take out a big chunk of pets that could be defending it instead. Besides, maybe your troops have more experience with watching for enemies overall, but this is their home, and they’ve been watching for raiders all spring. What makes you think your troops would be better?”
Lucan went very still. “When you have won as many battles as I,” he said softly, “you may question my tactics. Now, may I continue?”
I didn’t answer, but glanced away in irritation and embarrassment. I could feel the other pets shooting me contemptuous looks as Lucan resumed his lecture. I was more surprised than angry at his reaction, (okay, that’s a lie, I was mostly angry, but I was surprised too) largely because I had expected better. He hadn’t seemed like the type to let his ego get in the way of sense, but his lack of a good reason for replacing Mystery Island’s sentries with his own suggested that he couldn’t comprehend the idea that anyone else’s forces might be as good as his. Also, with only fifty pets in his band, he didn’t have very much power to spare anyway, not against a ton of raiders. A small, spiteful part of me that resented being chewed out in front of everyone again half-hoped that he would lose, just to teach him a lesson, but obviously, losing would hurt Mystery Island more than it would hurt him.
The lecture finally ended with a round of applause and much animated chattering, as Lucan and his soldiers left swiftly, undoubtedly to begin guard duty. I sprang to my feet, eager to leave as well, and headed towards the door. Nella dropped in step behind me.
“Quite a good lecture, I thought,” she said, almost cheerfully.
I scowled. “You would.”
“You just don’t like him because he chewed you out.”
“Oh yeah? Since when did you like him?”
“I don’t,” she said calmly. “I think he’s being a fool and when he meets his match someday, he’s going to lose quite badly. But a bunch of raiders? He could beat them with his eyes closed.”
“We’ll see,” I said, trying to match her ominous tone from before, but she laughed and darted off with her usual abruptness. Shaking my head irritably, I trudged off to bed.
I awoke in the middle of the night to pain in my chest.
Oh joy, I thought groggily, I’m having a heart attack. Maybe I can go home now.
The pain increased and spread to my nose I jolted fully awake, opening my eyes to a horrendous face with narrowed eyes and a fierce beak. With a gasp, I sat up, throwing something heavy off of my chest, which gave a muffled squawk and flapped its wings angrily. I stared at it through the darkness, my heart still racing, and then scowled. Nella’s skree petpet sat at the foot of my bed, scowling back at me with equal ferocity. I sat for a moment, listening for whether all the commotion had woken anyone up, then turned back to the skree.
“What do you want?” I growled.
Instead of answering, it flew towards the door and looked back pointedly.
I groaned. “What now?” I muttered, getting my day clothes and dragging myself out of bed. From its place by my bed, my palmplat gave a warble and followed me out.
Nella was waiting by the door, looking impatient.
“What took you so long?” she demanded.
I ignored that. “What do you want? Do you have any idea what time it is?”
She smirked. “I found something you might want to see.”
“Couldn’t this have waited until tomorrow?” I asked pointedly.
Shaking her head, she turned, already walking away. “If you’re too chicken to come, you can always go back to bed.”
I sighed, curiosity wrestling with reluctance, then followed her, the two petpets following in our wake, making us look depressingly like a family of mallards.
Walking around the school at night was very different than walking through in the day. Empty of the usual boisterous shouts of various students, it was an oddly menacing place. Shadows seemed to loom larger in the gloom, and I could hear each click of my claws on the stone floor, like the chirp of some sort of odd insect.
We walked silently for a while, until we reached a small wooden door covered by carvings that I couldn’t quite make out. I knew where we were, however.
“This leads to the Techo Master’s private garden,” I hissed at Nella. “We aren’t allowed to go here.”
“If you’re scared, no one’s making you stay,” she said indifferently.
I started to turn away, growling at myself for listening to Nella again, when a sudden wave of recklessness swept over me. So I was breaking the rules. So what? The worst thing they could do to me was kick me out, and that hardly seemed like much of a punishment, given I didn’t want to be here already.
“Fine,” I sighed. “Let’s go.”
Nella clapped me on the back. “We’ll make a buccaneer out of you yet,” she said cheerfully.
I grunted and pushed the door open.
The garden inside (well, technically outside) was small and neat, surrounded by four walls but no roof. Unpaved ground and small ferns surrounded a small square rock garden, which sat placidly in the middle of the space.
I was not impressed.
Nella, however, walked to the little rock garden and began pulling at its wooden frame. “Help me get this out,” she grunted, straining with effort.
“What?” I said, totally baffled.
However, the edge of the garden had already lifted off the ground, revealing a solid bottom connected to a hinge on the other end, and a large hollow space underneath, gaping in the dim light.
I stared at it. “How did you know that was here?”
“I saw Lucan pushing down the weird rock garden thing yesterday and I wanted to see what was under it. Are you coming down?”
It was then I noticed the flight of stone stairs leading down into the darkness.
“We don’t have a light,” I pointed out.
Nella blew a small gout of fire into the air, which then coalesced into a ball and floated in front of her.
“Coming?” she asked. Without waiting for a response, she headed down the little ball of fire dancing in front of her like an eager firefly.
I shrugged and followed.
The steps led to a small room, barely bigger than the garden itself. It was bordered by crude-looking stone walls, sagging with age and covered with mold. In the middle of the room was the statue of a warrior. It was a Techo, though clearly not the current Techo Master for all he was quite nearly as old. He was dressed in some type of tribal garb, smiling in a relentless kind of way. He was lithely muscled, carrying a simple staff, posture composed and watchful.
“Who is it, do you think?” I asked Nella.
“The original founder of the school,” she replied, in an oddly respectful tone of voice.
I didn’t get it. “Uh, so shouldn’t you be spitting at his feet or something? I thought you hated this place.”
“Hate how it is now, yes, not how it was. The training school is famous for a reason, you know. Like I was trying to tell you before, Mystery Island wasn’t always peaceful. This school was founded during a more savage time, where the only way to survive really was to fight for yourself and your way of life. Mystery Island held its own against the most fearsome conquerors of the time, with vastly larger armies than they could ever dream of mustering up, and it was largely thanks to the training from this school. But it’s grown stagnant through the years, too caught up in pretty words and posturing to be of any use anymore, fit only to train the spoiled brats of rich owners to look impressive when they show off in the Battledome. But still. A hundred years ago, if you’d be one of the best in the world.”
I stared at her. “How do you even know this?”
She saw my astonishment. “Being good at fighting isn’t just about ‘hitting people with sticks,’ as you keep saying. You have to understand both your enemies and your allies, know what worked and what didn’t, and that means you have to know your history.”
I shrugged. While the statue was nice, I wasn’t nearly as impressed as she was. From a purely artistic standpoint, it was decent, but hardly brilliant, though I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would put a statue in a hole where no one would ever see it. Also, we were still illegally out of bed, and my sense of adventure was waning enough that I decided I didn’t want an extra punishment on top of the already massive workload.
“This has been fun,” I said dryly. “But I think I’m going to go back now. Are you coming or do you want to sit and drool over the statue some more?”
That got me a scowl and a cuff to the shoulder as Nella passed, but at least she was leaving. We pulled the false rock garden shut behind us and walked together towards the exit.
“I think-” I began to say, but stopped as I caught sight of the open door. The Techo Master stood beyond it, wearing an expression that was very grim indeed.
“Enjoying your stroll around my private gardens?” he asked ominously.
Oh yes. We were in deep, deep trouble now.
To be continued...