Rising Shadow: Part Eight
Lisha looked over her shoulder uneasily, her ears and earstalks
flicking in every direction. She was nervous- she had been ever since her brother
had mysteriously disappeared. Pausing her walk through the courtyard and looking
up to the sky, she murmured under her breath, "Oh, Jeran, where are you? What
are they doing to you?" A tear pricked her eye, but she forced it back and resisted
the urge to sniff, taking a firmer grip on her mysteriously functional toy wand.
Would it be more effective than Jeran's sword? Somehow she didn't think so.
A few muffled sounds reached her ears, but before
she could turn around one of her escorts appeared at her side. "I think you
should take a look behind you," the Draik murmured in her ear, and whirling
around Lisha felt a thunderbolt of panic hit her body at the sight of several
limp figures sprawled out on the ground: her guards. All five of them, unconscious.
But if all of my guards are there...
Her head snapped around to face the 'guard'
who had warned her, but instead of a red Draik she saw a tall, dark figure,
its features obscured by the hood of its black cloak. Its eyes glowed an unnatural
crimson, and as it reached for her she saw that its fingers ended in hideously
oversized claws. Lisha's wand snapped up in defense, but to her astonishment
and horror a flash of green light sprang from her adversary's claws, tearing
the wand from her grasp and flinging it across the courtyard. The gleaming red
eyes narrowed. "Did you really think you stood a chance against me? Did you
believe your toy wand and your guards would keep me at bay? Pathetic." The strange
creature made as if to spit, but restrained itself.
Lisha clenched her fists. "Where did you take
my brother?" she demanded, and to her alarm and fury the cloaked figure threw
back its head and laughed.
"The same place I'm going to take you!" her
antagonist replied, seizing her by the arm.
"LET ME GO!" Lisha yelled, readying herself
for a battle; but a jolt of energy from her enemy's claws caused her whole body
to jerk and go limp. Through the haze of impending unconsciousness Lisha heard
the shouts of the guards and the quieter flap of Draik wings, and above it all
came the low, stony chuckle of her captor and the steady beat of his wings as
he carried her away.
Blackness surrounded him, and a cold, dark
mist seemed to make the air crawl sickeningly over his skin. Where was he? The
last thing he could remember was a ring of enemies, and the dreadful sensation
He wasn't certain what was happening to him-
it was veiled by the mist that dwelt both in the air and in his mind. There
were voices, and eyes, and sharp things that might have been claws... there
was hunger and thirst, pain and cold, darkness, dread, loneliness, horror, grief,
and guilt, and a myriad of other things beyond his ability to name... and looming
over it all, a sickening sense of overwhelming despair...
They were all around him, beings whose voices
he recognized and yet somehow could not place, for his mind was slowly fading,
memories drifting away to vanish into the mist that surrounded him; and still
his misery grew, for his heart remembered what his mind had lost, until finally
even that began to slip away...
He was lying in a ditch, shivering in the
winter wind, his tattered wings and ragged garment offering no protection from
the biting cold. No one came his way, and even if they had come he knew that
they would not offer aid. Loneliness flowed over and through him, accompanied
by a fresh gust of wind that sliced through his shaking body.
Then suddenly a small, warm something materialized
out of the icy darkness, its soft fur cushioning his skin as it pressed itself
against his back. Fearful lest it decide to leave, he twisted around like a
Wocky, snatching up the little Petpet and pressing it against his chest. Soft
and enchantingly small, it was the first gentle being he had encountered in
he knew not how long, and his grip tightened desperately on its tiny body as
he clutched the friendly creature. Strangely enough, it made no move to resist
him, even though it turned out to be a Gruslen, a species well known in Neopia
for their feistiness. It did not occur to him to realize that a Tyrannian Petpet
was rather out-of-place in Meridell- all he knew was that it was soft and warm,
and that it did not claw or bite him or even mew in protest at being used as
a fuzzy hot-water bottle. Even when he squeezed it so hard that the breath was
forced from its tiny body, it did not resist until, driven to desperation by
the lack of air, it pushed at his arms just enough to allow itself to breath
before going limp again in docile acceptance of its new role as a teddy bear.
Witless and wild as he was at the time, he
spent little energy pondering the strange creature that often found him at night,
stretching out at his back or allowing him to press it to his chest to combat
the winter cold. Even when he had been restored to his senses he still wasn't
certain what had been going on in the small Gruslen's mind. Perhaps it had been
using him as a heat source, just as he had been using it- although that seemed
unlikely, considering the number of times when it had spread itself to full
length, warming as much of his body as possible instead of curling up to minimize
its own exposure to the cold. There had been many occasions when it had suffered
visibly because of this, limping away at the first hint of dawn, its tiny body
shaking so violently with the cold that it staggered and sometimes fell. Surely
there had to be a warmer place where it could have spent its nights- why, then,
had it continued to return to him, enduring without complaint his unintentional
abuse as he crushed it against himself time and time again? And where was it
now, when he hadn't seen it in months?
No, that was the wrong question. Why was
it HERE, its warm, gentle pressure spread across his back even as he pondered
it, laying in a cave many miles away from Meridell?...
Darigan awoke with a start, his mind drawn abruptly
from sleep as dream and memory blended into that strange, nagging question.
Even now that he was awake his back was still warmed by a small bundle of fur,
and twisting around he found himself staring at a mixture of past and present:
the cave wall acting as a background for the adorable fuzzy face that stared
up at him meaningfully with big, liquid dark-brown eyes. For a moment the Gruslen
lay there, studying him; then it got up and stretched before turning to face
him again and calmly sitting down. "How in Neopia?" Darigan began, then, seized
with sudden suspicion, he looked around, scanning the cave swiftly and finding
his guess confirmed: Tenultra was nowhere to be seen.
Turning back to face the Gruslen, he saw it
smiling up at him, its eyes sparkling with a hint of tender mischief. The tusks
vanished, the brown eyes began to change colour, and the downy fur rippled softly,
shifting into a shimmer of dark violet and black. Tenultra's smile turned into
a grin. "Surprise."
"I should say it was!" Darigan's expression
softened as the memories intensified. "You didn't have to do that."
A glimmer of the familiar sadness and regret
surfaced in Tenultra's eyes. "It bothered me no end, how when you were at your
worst everybody turned on you. It also grated on me how I had stood by and done
nothing, when goodness knows I could have helped. It's just..."
"You were afraid of what would have happened
if I'd won."
Tenultra nodded sadly. "Yes. Once I had gotten
past my own personal grievances, I was chagrined to realize just how similar
our situations had been... fighting alone, under the influence of an outside
evil... and I had done the same thing to you that so many others had done to
me. I turned my back and did nothing. It was a great relief later, to find an
opportunity to make up for it- at least to some degree- without fearing that
my actions might endanger anyone."
"Aside from yourself- I'm afraid I came close
to strangling you a couple times. And you owe me nothing, Tenultra. Certainly
you did not have to 'make up for' anything. You would have been fully justified
had you been seeking my death that day even more eagerly than the rest of them.
Frankly, I'm amazed that you put up with me all those nights."
Darigan's comments engendered a wry, rueful
smile on Tenultra's face. "I must admit, for having just left the grip of The
Three you were unexpectedly strong. I still could have broken free, though,
if worst came to worst. Anyway, it wasn't so bad- after all, there are some
people who have known of me for years and are still intent on strangling
Darigan shook his head, the all-too-familiar
guilt rising up within him. "I've never met anyone as persistent as you. Especially
when that determination comes in the form of helping someone who had caused
you nothing but pain."
The wry smile softened. "I confess there were
times when it would have been easier to simply mind my own business, but...
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. Even if that someone was
at first too shy to reveal her true form, since people sometimes... take exception
to me when they know who I am."
Darigan frowned in sudden puzzlement. "That
still does not explain why you chose to show me this now instead of revealing
it along with your friendship with Sally."
Tenultra shrugged and replied matter-of-factly,
"Because until now I hadn't caught you shivering. I must admit, it was
fairly cold last night... although I get the feeling there was something else
involved." Judging by the change in her voice and expression, Darigan suspected
that she knew or guessed fairly well what the 'something else' was. The smile
was still there, but there was more than a hint of sadness in it.
The Korbat sighed, his expression distant and
haunted. "I was dreaming of my captivity in the realm of The Three. At least,
I was- until a certain furry someone pressing against my back turned my thoughts
in the direction of my 'friend of many colours'." Darigan shook his head. "Next
I suppose I'll find out you've been moonlighting as Galgarroth!"
The smile vanished and the Kougra's eyes became
solemn and sad. "No, Galgarroth is still a Grarrl, and I'm afraid..." Tenultra
trailed off, as if trying to find a way to word the announcement gently.
A cold, leaden weight settled in Darigan's heart.
"He's been captured, hasn't he?"
Tenultra nodded, her eyes on the ground. "Yes,
and so have Lisha and Illusen. Master Vex is taking care of things on the Citadel
while you're gone, but he's extremely nervous and uncertain, as are all your
people- and people all over Neopia."
For a moment, instinct took over. "I need to
tell my people I'm all right and explain to them what is happening."
Tenultra hesitated. "Even if your wings weren't
damaged- or if I were capable of carrying you that far- it would still be extremely
dangerous. For all we know Miaglo could have decided to send some of his minions
among your people to watch for your return."
Unpleasant memories flooded Darigan's mind.
"And of course we're assuming my people even want my return."
Tenultra frowned. "Why wouldn't they?"
"Don't you remember, in Miaglo's lair-"
Tenultra tilted her head back and put a paw
to her forehead, the action halting Darigan in mid-sentence. "Why didn't you
tell me that was bothering you? Those weren't your subjects- they were a box
of assorted idiots with temporary paint jobs!"
Darigan felt the dark knot in his stomach dissipate.
"I probably should have guessed, but considering some of my past actions..."
Tenultra padded over to his side, then reached
up to place a delicate paw on his shoulder. "They do still trust you,
and they are anxious to have you back." Darigan gave her a questioning look,
and Tenultra responded with a wry smile. "Miaglo isn't the only one who is capable
of getting information by blending in with the locals, and not all of my outings
have been solely for supplies."
Darigan returned the small Kougra's smile, and
Tenultra sat back down. "Can you think of any way to get the message to them
without endangering them or us?" he asked, and Tenultra nodded firmly.
"Yes- by defeating Miaglo. Short of that, nothing
comes to mind."
The setting sun slanted through the iridescent
curtain of the waterfall, its rosy light shattered into a thousand drops and
fragments which danced across Darigan's wings as he spread them in preparation
for flight. The bones had finally healed, and the skin in between them no longer
hung in shreds. The muscles were a bit weak from weeks of disuse, but not enough
so that they would be likely to slow him down. As he braced himself to shoot
through the flashing waterfall and into the open air, Darigan pondered the weeks
that had passed since Miaglo had captured him, particularly the more recent
It had become more and more visible over the
past few weeks; and although Tenultra did not seem to be aware of it, Darigan
saw clearly the hint of soft innocence that had been growing in the young Kougra's
eyes and bearing. It had nothing to do with childlike naïveté- the
years had been too hard on her for that- but it was as if a lingering remnant
of the blameless child she had once been had lay hidden beneath the surface,
cowering within the deepest part of her being, and was now finally daring to
emerge. It gratified him to think he had been a part of that; and he still sometimes
found himself shaking his head when he realized that part of the reason why
Tenultra trusted him was the fact that he had not always been trustworthy. People
who believed they had done no wrong were inclined to judge Tenultra, shunning
her or even driving her away if they realized what she had once been. But his
own actions and experiences had taught Darigan better, and his decision to learn
from that had reaped riches, not the least of these being the trust and friendship
of a battered little orphan.
She was sitting beside him right now, staring
in contemplation at the shimmering liquid mixture of water and light that danced
and flickered in front of her. "I would never have pictured this a few months
ago," she finally said, shaking herself free from her reflections. "And yet
here we are, about to leap out of the frying pan and into the fire."
Darigan gave her a wry smile. "I thought that
was second nature for you."
"It is- but usually I'm flying solo. It's having
the lord of the Citadel as my partner in crime that seems strange."
"Speaking of which, it's almost time to leave.
Are you ready for this?"
"I always live in readiness for situations such
as this. It is, as you said, second nature. After all these years, it could
hardly be anything else."
Sadness tugged at his heart in response to the
young Kougra's words, but Darigan pushed the feeling aside. Perhaps after all
this was over he could offer her a safe home in return for all her trouble.
But for now, it was time to go. As the sun slipped beneath the horizon, Darigan
stretched his wings to full length and leapt forward, blasting through the curtain
of water with Tenultra at his side, sending dancing liquid fragments flickering
through the air as the two crusaders sped toward Miaglo's lair, the forest flashing
beneath them in a mottled blur of green.
Tenultra fingered the short sword she had bought
with the money from her carvings. The weapon was a smaller cousin of the blade
Lord Darigan carried, and she hoped the swords would serve them well. As the
dark gray building that was Miaglo's fortress came into view, Tenultra slipped
downward until she was darting among the trees, the small sword shimmering in
her paw and a single thought forming in her mind as she studied the lair of
her enemy: This will be our last conflict. Whether Miaglo falls or I do,
our battle ends tonight.
The End... for now...
Author's note: TNT willing, the story of Tenultra and Lord Darigan should
continue soon in a series called 'Sword of the Shapeshifter'. It's already finished,
so if the Editor likes it it should be in within two or three weeks of you reading
this. Otherwise, you shall remain in suspense for always and eternity. Muahahaha.