Island's Own: Part Three
I froze, wracking my mind frantically, wondering if there was any reasonable way to talk our way out of trouble this time. I doubted it.
The Techo Master was still giving us the death stare. “I hope you have a good explanation for being in an expressly forbidden area.”
“I – we – I mean –” I stammered, glancing over at Nella for help. However, she didn’t seem to be paying attention at all, her head inclined slightly, her eyes oddly unfocused.
“Do you hear something?” she asked vaguely.
I was about to shoot her a look to say that was the most transparent distraction I’d ever heard, until I realized that I could hear something too. An odd, rhythmic noise. The sound of many footsteps. Like an army. Marching towards us.
The Techo Master heard it too. “I’ll deal with you two later,” he told us ominously, as he hurried off with his unworldly speed. We followed.
Outside, all was clearly not well with the world. Fires lit up the darkened night, and the terrified cries of villagers, muted from within the school, rang loud in the air. Advancing up the path leading to the school was Lucan, followed by a full blown army, striding three abreast behind him, their burnished armor gleaming in the torchlight. Their faces were grim, weapons held at ready. As a whole, they seemed to be less polished as well, with heavily dented armor, scraggly scars, and a generally baser sense about them.
Like the raiders.
It was pretty obvious, looking back. Apparently, I’d been right after all when I thought that Lucan had too much sense to waste his soldiers as sentries for no reason. Replacing the island’s lookouts with his own soldiers hadn’t been a matter of arrogance – he just wanted them out of the way so they didn’t notice his other soldiers coming. Clearly, the raider problem had been of his making – whether he’d known the Techo Master would ask him for help or he’d merely intended it as a weakening tactic I didn’t know. It was actually kind of a brilliant plan, as much as I hated to admit it. Tire out the islanders with sporadic raids all spring, march right onto the island pretending to be there to help, then turn around and seize the it in one fell swoop. Terrible, but impressive.
The Techo Master watched the army approach, his face impassive, a plain wooden staff held loosely in one of his paws. Despite his age, despite my general resentment of him, he seemed almost like a force of nature then, eyes as hard as stone, standing firmly before the school as if it would take an army to move him alone.
But still, I felt fear squirm within my stomach. After all, there was in fact an army approaching the school right now.
Behind me, I could hear the approach of the other students, awoken by the noise. Most looked confused or interested; some even seemed amused, thinking it was some kind of demonstration, but they quieted as Lucan approached the school, expression grim.
“What is the meaning of this?” the Techo Master demanded, as Lucan paused before the steps.
“What do you think?” the lutari asked calmly. “I’ve come to take control of the island. Surrender peacefully and no one will be harmed.”
The Techo Master shook his head sadly. “You’ve gone badly astray, Lucan. I must admit, I’d hoped for better from you.”
“Spare me your lectures,” he said flatly. “Will you stand aside?”
“You should know better than that.”
In a blink, the Techo Master was gone from the steps, swinging his staff at Lucan in a crippling blow. But Lucan blocked him just as quickly with a staff of his own. Clearly he had expected this fight, and had brought a staff instead of his usual sword out of some sense of fairness or who knows what. It didn’t make the struggle any less deadly, however, as they fought each other with single-minded intensity, teeth clenched, muscles strained, but something a little less than hatred in their eyes. At least on the Techo Master’s part.
That thought jolted me out of my reverie, and I looked around anxiously. Most of the school, and most of Lucan’s army stood surrounding the two combatants, neither side moving, seemingly mesmerized by the fight as well. It was an odd sort of peace that would be shattered the moment the fight ended.
“We have to get out of here,” I said urgently to Nella.
She turned to look at me, her face flushed in excitement, caught up in the intensity of the fight despite herself. “Why?” she demanded.
“Because the Techo Master’s going to lose.”
I couldn’t tell you how I knew this. Maybe it was intuition, or maybe it was just sense. In stories, the master always wins this fight: the challenger, with all his fury and strength can never overcome the master’s wisdom and experience and he loses, departing humbly with a new lease on life. Maybe that happens sometimes in the real world too, I wouldn’t know. But in real life, winning isn’t about right or wrong, wisdom and impetuousness. It’s about being better. If you have more skill – and luck, that’s all you need. The Techo Master was skilled, but Lucan was skilled as well, and he’d spent most of his adult life fighting real warriors instead of pounding basics into kids. Beyond that, I saw the glint in his eyes, the look of sheer, brutal determination. Maybe the Techo Master had some qualms about hurting his old student, but Lucan did not. Quite simply, while the Techo Master was old and skilled, Lucan was skilled too, and he was far younger, far more determined, and quite simply wanted to win far more.
And he would. The Techo Master would fall, and then Lucan’s troops would sweep over the gathered crowd, bringing down the school that had been erected precisely to stop pets like him.
It was sad. But I intended to be gone when it happened.
“Listen,” I hissed at Nella. “There is no way this is going to end well. Now unless you want to spend the next few months here as a guest of Lucan and company, I suggest we get out of here while everyone’s too distracted to stop us.”
She opened her mouth as if to retort, but something in my expression must have given her pause, and for once, she nodded and followed without comment.
We drew some irritated looks from the crowd of students as we pushed through the crowd, but most paid us little heed, still focused on the fight.
When we reached the back of the school, Nella stopped, pulling me short.
“We can watch the fight from the roof,” she informed me. “We’ll still have enough time to get away if things go south. “
“Are you crazy? We should be putting as much distance between them and us as we can.”
“And what if the Techo Master wins?” Nella demanded. “What makes you so sure he’s going to lose? He might be really full of himself and can’t teach his way out of a paper bag, but no one’s ever denied that he’s really good at fighting. We’re missing the fight of the century right now.”
Trust Nella to worry about that at a time like this. “So what if he does win? Lucan goes down, and there’s still a whole army of large angry warriors against a bunch of adolescent warriors in training whose main combat experience was probably at the regional Battledome junior league last year. What, do you think Lucan told his generals ‘oh, if I lose, just leave politely, okay?’ Lucan’s won already. The only reason he agreed to this fight is to satisfy his ego, prove to himself that he really is as good as his old master, and if he’s not, who cares? He still has the island. All we can do is try to get away before we’re caught in the crossfire.”
Nella ignored me, which is what she usually did when I made a good point. With a small leap and a flap of her wings, she landed lightly on the roof and headed towards the fight again. I weighed my chances alone in the woods, then followed her reluctantly, clawing my way up a support beam and hauling myself up.
Back at the fight, the two pets seemed to be tiring. Their blows, while no less vicious, seemed to be slowing somewhat, and the crowd, as if sensing blood, had drawn closer, anticipating the final blow. The two were evenly matched, almost absurdly so, to the point whoever made the first mistake would decide the match.
It was Lucan.
He feinted at the Techo Master, perhaps just a little bit too far. The Techo Master, sensing an opening, struck back, hitting Lucan square in the ribs.
After that, it was largely a retreat. Lucan, clearly on the defensive now, blocked blows, but struck few of his own. Step by step, he gave ground, backing up little by little until he was almost against the wall of the school.
“Do you surrender?” the Techo Master demanded.
There was a pause. Then Lucan smiled. “Never,” he said calmly.
It happened too fast for me to see. Lucan’s staff flew through the air, and suddenly the Techo Master’s staff clattered to the ground. There was another pause, as the two stared at each other, the Techo Master calm but unarmed, Lucan looking baffled, and maybe even a little afraid, as if he’d never really expected things to reach this point. Then Lucan’s staff moved again, and the Techo Master flew backwards, to crumple on the ground, unmoving. It was over. Lucan had won.
All was silent for a moment. Then chaos broke loose. The students broke into screams or battle cries, depending on their natures, as Lucan’s warriors moved forward efficiently, to cut off those trying to run away.
I looked at Nella. “Now can we leave?” I tried to keep my voice calm. For all I’d predicted this outcome, it was still a shock to see it happen. The Techo Master had always given off an air of invulnerability, of invincibility, and whatever I may have said, I never believed in my heart that he would really lose.
Nella was without a derogatory comment for once, and I could see shock in her dark eyes as she glanced at me and gave a curt nod.
We’d waited just a bit too long, however.
“Hey, you!” someone yelled from the ground, and I was off like a shot, as Nella launched herself into the air beside me. I leapt off the roof at the back of the school, feeling the gravel crunch beneath my paws as I landed on all fours, then stumbled ahead with desperate speed. At times, I could have sworn I felt phantom sword blades swish past my tail, but when I chanced a glance back, there was no one behind me, the soldiers more concerned with the bulk of the students still at school than two runaways with a head start.
We fled into the darkness as Mystery Island fell beneath the sword.
To be continued...