Island's Own: Part Eight
The sun was sinking low in the sky by the time we got within sight of the school. The light was starting to take the reddish glow of sunset, casting the island in a slightly bloody tinge.
“I hope that’s not a sign,” I muttered.
Nella looked at me. “What?”
The school was still clearly their base of operations, as armored pets lounged around playing dice, cooking, or patrolling the area with clockwork regularity. I swallowed nervously. There were a lot of them.
“How are we going to sneak past all the guards again?” Flame asked. He was thickly coated in mud again, to try and make him less conspicuous, but with no more success than last time.
“We don’t,” I replied. “We make the spirit warriors attack Lucan’s soldiers, and while they’re distracted, we walk right in the front door.”
“This is the worst plan ever,” Nella grumbled.
“I’m still waiting to hear your alternate suggestions,” I snapped back. It had been a long day and my temper was fraying.
Nella rolled her eyes, as if I were the difficult one. “So are we going to go then, or what?”
I glanced at our own soldiers, half hidden in the trees. We’d taken most of the afternoon getting back to the school through the jungle, rather than using the paths, in order to avoid being seen, and I was beginning to wonder if it was worth it. But it was too late to worry about that now.
“Attack!” I yelled, prudently stepping out of the way. Behind me, the warriors roared as one, then charged forward, weapons raised.
Given the little warning they had, Lucan’s troops did surprisingly well. Rather than milling around in confusion like I expected, they jumped to their feet, weapons in paws, and stepped forward to meet the charge.
Curses. Well, it didn’t matter. We needed fifteen minutes at most to fix the diagram, after which we were home free. A force half the size of ours could hold them off that long.
Nella, meanwhile, had jumped down from her vantage point on a tree. She gave me a skeptical look.
“The door is still guarded.”
I hefted a rather large rock. “We break a window then. Come on.”
Engrossed in the battle, no one so much as looked in our direction as we ran, keeping to the cover of the trees. The eastern side of the school was essentially deserted, though we had to pick our way through discarded cards and utensils, dropped by soldiers summoned suddenly to battle. I glanced though one of the windows to make sure no one was inside, then heaved the rock at it with all my might. The glass shattered with satisfying force.
“Watch the shards,” I said, jumping onto the ledge.
It was a large window, no squeeze for any of us, though Flame made it through with minimal grace. Quietly, I walked to the door and opened it, checking to see if the coast was clear. The hall was deserted – with the exception of Lucan himself, who was walking in our direction.
I quickly pulled the door shut, and shook my head at Nella and Flame’s inquiring glances. There was no way of knowing whether he saw me or not, and I half expected the pounding of footsteps, followed by an angry Lucan bursting through the door, sword drawn.
And in fact, there was the sound of pounding footsteps, but they sounded timid and frightened, and headed in the wrong direction.
“Sir,” I heard someone gasp, badly out of breath. “The attackers – they are no mortal force. Their wounds don’t bleed, their eyes are empty of life.” He gave a hysterical laugh. “We’ve angered the spirits by coming here, I told you –”
Lucan cut him off. “Get a hold of yourself,” he said flatly. “If you know their wounds don’t bleed, then you know they can be wounded. They are neither invincible nor immortal, merely a different type of enemy than you usually face. Now get back there and finish the job.”
The hall was silent for a moment, except for the other pet’s ragged breathing. “Yes sir,” he said finally, and I heard him walk off. Lucan remained for a few moments more, then left as well, leaving the hall deserted.
I waited for another few seconds to make sure no one was returning, then opened the door and motioned the others out.
Nella looked around. “The garden is that way,” she whispered, pointing to the left.
“Lead the way,” I whispered back.
The sounds of battle were muffled though still audible from within the school, but we tried to walk quietly, surprise being our only advantage if we came across anyone. We had to duck into empty rooms two more times to avoid running into passing soldiers, but otherwise the school seemed empty. I began to wonder where the other students were. Surely they wouldn’t have just let them go.
Finally, we rounded a corner and found ourselves at the door to the Techo Master’s private gardens. I took a breath and pushed it open. The garden was just as I remembered – small, neat, and inoffensive. There wasn’t even a guard.
Unwilling to question my luck, and ignoring the inner voice that said this was a bit too easy, I headed straight to the trapdoor, Nella at my heels, and together, we lifted it up, to reveal the yawning space below.
There was no need for light this time, not with Flame burning like a living torch beside us. The statue of the Techo was still there, smiling its relentless smile, looking no different than when we last saw it.
“Why are they so into putting statues in front of things?” Nella grumbled, as we started to push it aside. “There was one at the forest shrine too, some Flotsam lady.”
“Probably metaphorical,” I said wisely. “Have their greatest warriors standing guard eternally over the sacred places of their island.”
“Stupid,” Nella grunted, giving another shove. “I would have put a door with a lock over it.”
Finally, the statue shifted aside, revealing a square, shallow depression underneath. On the bottom, there was an odd design, carved deeply into the soil. It looked like a web made of letters in some strange language, dotted with odd stones and metals, even a small feather that should by all rights have rotted away by now. The whole thing was barely larger than the average board game, and I had difficulty imagining such a small diagram being able to protect an entire island. Regardless, I glanced it over. It seemed intact, no broken lines, no random smears.
“What do you think is missing?” I asked Nella.
It was Flame that answered. “That,” he said, pointing to a small space which I had assumed to be part of the diagram. “Looks like there used to be a rock there or something.”
I stared at the space with a sinking feeling in my stomach. The chieftain had mentioned breaking lines of the diagram as something that could potentially stop it from working, but I never even considered the possibility that something could have been taken off, obvious as that should have been. Vainly, I glanced around the area, hoping Lucan might have just tossed it aside, but there was no such luck. No wonder there weren’t any guards. There was nothing worth guarding.
Nella was looking equally dismayed. “Lucky the last one was only lines,” she muttered. “He could have chucked whatever this is to the bottom of the ocean.”
“Well, we’ll just have to assume he didn’t,” I said, trying to summon up a tone of optimism. I looked back at the empty space where the rock should have been. It was flat and angular, inclined upwards at the sides. “It’s probably a jewel or something,” I added. “We can find Lucan’s quarters and search them, see if there’s anything there.”
“Sounds like a long shot,” Nella said skeptically, but I ignored her and headed up the stairs. This whole thing had been a long shot. Another wouldn’t hurt.
The problem as, we had no idea where Lucan’s quarters were. Many of the rooms we checked showed signs of habitation, but none were what I would have expected for the commander. Our former rooms looked occupied as well, though not by students. I supposed the large windows would have made them too easy to escape from.
And speaking of students... One of the inner rooms of the school was bolted from the outside, something I didn’t remember seeing before. From behind it, I could hear the buzz of voices, too young sounding to be that of soldiers. With a quick motion, I threw back the bolt and yanked the door open, revealing an auditorium-sized room, with maybe half the pets from the school inside. The room went silent as everyone turned to stare at me.
“You!” someone said in surprise. “How did you get out?”
“Why did I come back is the better question,” I muttered. “Where’s everyone else?”
A Gnorbu shrugged. “In another room, probably. What’s going on out there? Sounds like they’re fighting again.”
“They are,” I said shortly, unwilling to waste time explaining. “That’s not the point, though. Have any of you seen anything like a jewel around here, about the size of a coin?”
I didn’t hold out much hope for an answer, and most of them shook their heads, looking baffled. But one Xweetok raised a paw tentatively.
“Was it green and kind of darkish? Because I saw Lucan holding something like that yesterday.”
Hope surged in my chest and I whirled to face her. “Did you see where he put it?”
She shrugged. “In his belt pouch, probably.”
I groaned. Of course it was. It might have been better if he really had thrown it into the ocean after all. If he had it with him, the chances of getting it were slim to nil.
“Any idea where he is?” I asked levelly.
“Probably in battle,” said Nella, who had been silent up until now. “He seems the type.”
Not only did he have it with him, he was in middle of a battle. Getting it would be pretty much impossible. We may as well cut our losses.
I turned to the other pets. “Go find everyone else, then get as far away from the school as you can. I don’t think this fight’s going to last much longer and you need to get away.”
“What if we want to fight?” someone demanded.
I rolled my eyes. Typical. “If you want to fight, go fight. Just know that those are legendary undead warriors out there, who are outnumbered about three to one and are probably going to lose soon. A couple of extra fighters aren’t going to make much of a difference.”
A couple of the students muttered among themselves, but most of them headed out the door, either to get out or to find the others. I knew we should go as well, get out of the school before Lucan’s army finished fighting and decided to come back in.
But somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. We’d come so far, and I couldn’t quite make myself believe it had all been for nothing. We could at least continue with the original plan.
“Wait,” I said to Nella. “Why don’t we go and check Lucan’s room anyway? There’s always a chance he left it behind or something today.”
Nella looked as if she doubted it, but was equally reluctant to just give up, so she nodded. I turned to Flame, who was trying and failing to make himself unobtrusive against the wall.
“Coming?” I asked.
He nodded as well, seeming relieved to be away from the stares of the other students.
We quickly drew out of earshot of the others as we went deeper into the school. It twisted and turned like a labyrinth, looking wholly unfamiliar to me, as I had only ever been in the outer area. Clearly this school had been more than a school at some point; a base, almost, which was clearly what Lucan was using it as now. We checked in a few more rooms, some of which held sleeping pads and gear, but most of which were empty. I was starting to wonder if we’d somehow missed his room. Who would want to live so far within a place that it would take ten minutes to get outside?
Finally, we came across a door with a newer looking bolt, just like the room where we’d met the other students. This one, however, was unfastened, the door ajar. I could hear voices coming from behind it. Slowly, quietly, I crept forward to listen.
“-may as well tell us the trick to beating these things and make it easier on the both of us. An army that small doesn’t stand a chance against mine, so why don’t you save us some time and bloodshed and tell me how to make them leave?” Nella and I exchanged glances. It was Lucan.
The Techo Master spoke, sounding amused. “What makes you so sure there is a trick to defeating these, ah, spirit warriors?”
“There’s always a trick,” Lucan snapped. “Everything in this place has a trick, a weak spot, that makes it come tumbling down if you give it the right prod. I just have to find it.”
“And I’m telling you I know nothing of them,” the Techo Master said patiently. “In your short life, you seemed to have learned many more of the island’s secrets than I. Given I that I had insufficient knowledge to keep you from bringing down the island’s defenses in the first place, what makes you think I know anything about these mysterious warriors of yours?”
Lucan snarled in frustration, and I heard him turn on his heel and head towards the door.
There was no time to think, no time to plan. The door opened and Lucan walked out, followed by three guards. He saw me and blinked in surprise for half a second, clearly wondering who I was and what I was doing there.
I sprang at him with a roar.
To be continued...