Island's Own: Part Nine
Lucan looked tired. He was streaked in grime, a stained bandage on his arm. The guards behind him looked tired as well, armor dented, weapons held loosely. Clearly the battle was going hard.
I, however, only had eyes for the pouch on Lucan’s belt. As I leapt past him, I swiped at it with my claws, hoping, hoping it would come off.
It did not. It came apart instead, spilling its contents onto the ground, and I whirled around, hoping to see the missing jewel. Polishing cloths and maps lay in a pile at Lucan’s feet, as did an old-looking pendant, seeming more sentimental than magical. About a foot away was a dark green polished stone, too opaque to be a jewel, but the right size nonetheless. I lunged for it.
But Lucan had recovered from his momentary surprise, and he reached for it as well. But my paw slid under his, and it closed around the stone, and I scrambled to my feet besides Nella.
“Get him,” Lucan snarled at his guards.
“Go,” Nella said, drawing her sword.
I shook my head. Flame had predictably bolted, and outnumbered four to one, Nella didn’t stand a chance. But then the Techo Master came flying through the door, landing a swift kick to the nearest guard, knocking him out cold.
“Go!” he snapped at me, and I ran, paws slipping slightly on the slick wooden floors. At the end of the hall, I chanced a glance behind me, seeing Nella fighting one guard, and the Techo Master fighting the other. Which left Lucan free to chase after me. I cursed and tried to redouble my speed. The problem was the school was a maze to me, unfamiliar corridor after unfamiliar corridor, while Lucan had been here most of his life and knew it by heart. Each time I hesitated at a corner to get my bearings, he gained a little more ground.
But the hallways were getting longer, which I took as a sign to mean I was getting closer to the outside of the school. The rooms were starting to look more familiar, and while I wasn’t quite sure, I was pretty sure the garden wasn’t too far off.
That’s when something hard hit my legs, wrapping around one of my paws, and sending me skidding across the ground, the stone flying out of my grasp.
I lay where I landed, completely winded. A weapon made of two metal sticks connected by a chain was stuck around my back paw, and I shook it off wearily, wincing slightly, wondering why I bothered. After all that work, we had lost, all because I hadn’t managed to run fast enough. I almost laughed at the absurdity.
Lucan walked past me calmly, picking up the green stone before turning to face me.
“It was a good attempt,” he said smoothly, drawing his sword and starting towards me. “Understand this is nothing personal.”
I watched him dully. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t outrun him, not on this leg. I wasn’t armed. I wasn’t even scared. Maybe I’d known from the start somehow that this was how it would turn out.
A roar echoed through the air, seeming to shake the very ground. I looked up in time to see Flame launching himself into the air, fur fully ablaze, teeth bared, claws extended, like a nightmare vision come to life.
Lucan turned as well, his eyes widening in shock as he stared at the flaming Kougra. But his sword was already drawn, and he raised it, seemingly by instinct. It slid smoothly into his chest.
“Flame!” I screamed, struggling to my feet.
Injury or no, Flame’s momentum carried him forward, knocking Lucan off his feet, the stone dropping from his paws and tumbling to the ground.
Flame turned his head to look at me, an odd expression in his eyes. “Go,” he said in a small voice.
I didn’t think, didn’t pause, not about to waste the second chance that Flame had bought for me at such a price. I lunged forward, snagging the stone in my jaws and running ahead on all fours, trying to ignore the shooting pain in my back paw.
The door leading to the garden was at the end of the next hallway, still ajar from our last trip inside. From there I could hear the sounds of battle outside, quieter than before, but still going. It was full dark as well, the stars twinkling peacefully above the battleground. I found the sight a little disconcerting.
I skidded to a stop at the center of the garden, pulling up the trapdoor with a single motion and heading down the steps. The diagram sat untouched, its incomprehensible swirl of lines still deeply carved in the ground, the space for the missing stone seeming to gape more obviously than before. With utmost care, I pushed the polished rock into the diagram, where it clicked into position with almost a sense of satisfaction.
The reaction was instantaneous. The earth began to shake – not violently, as it had at Geraptiku, but a with smooth rumble. From my vantage point from beneath the ground, I could hear soil shifting and roots groaning, followed by shocked and terrified screams from above the ground. Clearly the spell was doing its work.
Wearily, I climbed the steps to the surface. I was halfway out of the opening when I caught a movement in the door, glancing up in time to see Lucan rushing in. He paused in the doorway, and we stared at each other for a tense moment. Then he smiled and leaned against the doorjamb a little too casually.
“The Kougra with all the questions,” he said, almost admiringly. “I should have known you would be a threat. It took me ten years to find out about the island’s defenses. I’m impressed you managed to learn so much about them on such short notice.”
“No idea why they’re not working against you, though,” I replied, nerves humming with adrenaline. I wasn’t sure what he was up to and that made me anxious.
“Two reasons, actually,” he said calmly. “Firstly, the training school is sacrosanct. Even their own magic doesn’t work here, which is why I chose it as headquarters. Secondly, I was born and raised here. The island never hurts its own, regardless of their intentions.”
Another piece of the puzzle clicked into place. “That’s why you only brought fifty pets with you to start with. Until you broke the defenses, you could only bring pets who were either born or descended from the island or it would have been obvious what you were up to when the earth started attacking you.”
He nodded. “Very good. You seem to have overcome that particular barrier with those undead soldiers of yours however. Feel like telling me how?”
I remained silent. He could explain all he wanted, but I would not.
After a moment, he continued. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. That was actually a fairly brilliant plan, you know luring my army out with yours, then activating the defenses while they were away from the protection of the school. I couldn’t have come up with a better one myself. You seemed to have overlooked one flaw, however.”
“And what’s that?”
Lucan gave me a flat smile. “What’s to stop me from going down there and simply breaking the spell again?”
I went cold all over. While he’d been talking, he’d advanced across roughly half way the room, and I hadn’t even noticed.
Trying to seem unconcerned, I shrugged. “Take another step and I go back through the trapdoor and bolt it shut from the inside.”
He laughed. “Nice try, boy, but that bolt’s a hundred years old. Even if you managed to get it shut fast enough, I could probably snap it in half with a couple shoves. I hope you have another plan.”
I stared hard at him, suddenly reminded of my earlier conversation with the Lupe. But I didn’t need to think up a lie this time. The truth was enough.
“Maybe you break through the bolt, maybe you don’t. If you do, I’ll be down there waiting, and we’ll fight. You’re bigger than me, stronger than me, and better at fighting, so I’ll lose. After that, you’ll break another line in the diagram, or take another stone, and the spell will be broken again.” I paused for effect. “But you won’t do any of that.”
Lucan raised an eyebrow. “And why not?”
“Because you’ve lost already,” I said honestly. “Even if everything goes exactly your way from now on, you’ve already lost. Do you hear all that noise out there? That’s the island itself fighting your soldiers. Every moment you’ve spent talking, every second you waste fighting me, more of your army is being decimated. Maybe if you break the spell, you can hold onto the island for another month or so, until the rest of Neopia finds out what’s happened, but when they do, you don’t stand half a chance. Not now. You’re getting your army killed for no reason right now, the ones who’ve followed you loyally and won’t retreat until you give the order. I don’t like what you’ve done, but you’re clearly a good leader. Don’t you owe them more than this?”
The Lutari stared at me for a moment, then smiled bitterly. “You’re right, of course.” He turned, paused, then looked at me seriously. “Tell the Techo Master... tell him Mystery Island is rotting from within. I may have failed in conquering it, but the next one will not. Not unless he prepares.”
And with that, he was gone.
I stayed where I was for a few more minutes, half-convinced that it was a trick. But then I heard Lucan’s voice, cutting through the chaos of the battle. “Retreat!” he roared. “Retreat!” The sounds of clashing swords was replaced by the clanking of armor as Lucan’s army fled to the docks.
Finally, the night fell silent.
I dragged myself to solid ground, my burst of adrenaline from before leaving as quickly as it had come. What I really wanted to do was lie down somewhere and sleep, but it was out of the question right now. I still had to find Flame.
I limped slowly to the place where I had last seen him, afraid of what I might find. The hall was empty. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant.
“Flame?” I whispered. “Are you there?”
A door creaked open slowly – and suddenly I was bowled over by maybe a hundred fifty pounds of Kougra, trying to hug me and talk all at once.
“You did it!” Flame said enthusiastically. “You actually did it!”
“Hey, get off me,” I said, laughing despite myself, while another part of me almost cried with relief. I pushed him off and looked him over. “You’re... not even injured.”
Flame looked rather surprised. “I guess I really am invincible. The shamans in our tribes must have been better than I thought. After... well, you know, I thought I was dead, so I just lay there for a while, until Lucan left. Then I got up, and I didn’t even hurt anymore. I was going to come after you, but then the earth started shaking so I figured you’d already finished.”
Actually, I doubted he was really invincible. Just insanely hard to kill. But whatever it was, I was glad. I tousled his fur roughly.
“You saved my life,” I told him seriously. “And your tribe might have banished you, but you saved the island too, and I think that’s all they could have asked of you.”
He looked rather pleased.
Nella came flying in, no doubt attracted by all the noise. “Judging by the fact that all the yelling is in here instead of out there, I’m guessing we won?”
“Yeah,” I said, almost unable to believe it. “We won.”
Half an hour later, after I finally managed to limp outside and survey the damage, I decided that “won” was probably an overstatement. Most of the nearby villages had been utterly destroyed, and the area around the school where the final, desperate battle had occurred was trampled and ravaged almost beyond recognition. It was a disheartening sight.
The Techo Master seemed to be in middle of a speech to the gathered students and islanders. Training would be suspended, he said. Now was a time for rebuilding, not battle, and everyone would be expected to do their part.
The Techo Master himself had managed come away from his fight with Lucan with only a broken arm, and according to Nella, he’d still managed to take down about five guards on his own tonight despite that. I had to admit, that was pretty impressive. I was less impressed when he asked me to tell the village elders what we’d done to drive off Lucan, especially because I ended up doing most of the talking. I also duly informed him about Lucan’s warning, watching his face carefully as I did so. I’d hoped to get some hint as to what it meant, but he remained as impassive as ever.
“Good,” he said, when I finished. “You did your ancestors proud tonight, all of you.” He began to walk away, then paused and glanced at me. “You know what you should learn from this?” he said.
He winked. “Trust yourself.”
Yeah, right. And if Lucan had ended up being the golden boy everyone thought he was, the moral would have been “listen to your elders.” I was on to him now. But I smiled politely and watched him leave, the elders trailing in his wake.
One pet stayed behind, however; a Gelert that looked a little too young to be an elder, dressed in an elaborate feather headdress and bone necklace. On his shoulder sat a slightly bug-eyed palmplat.
“Gannin!” I said happily, as he flew to me and promptly tried to burrow into my fur.
The Gelert laughed. “I should have known such an unusual bird would have been yours.”
“Yeah.” I coughed uncomfortably. “Thanks, I think. Where did you find him?”
“One of my warriors found him attacking a palm tree this morning. He brought him to me before he could hurt himself.”
I winced. “Yeah, he’ll do that.” Then I paused. “One of your warriors? I thought the villages didn’t have warriors anymore.”
“They do not. However, I am Kishek, chief of the Dershin tribe, one of the last remaining on the island. The Lutari did not know of our existence or he almost certainly would have sought combat with us as well.” He paused and looked at me seriously. “We saw you leaving the cursed city with the phantom army at your back. Only one of true character could have summoned them.”
“Or they were bored and lowered their standards,” I muttered, embarrassed.
He laughed again, then turned to Flame.
“Shekenshi,” he said solemnly.
“What?” Nella looked baffled.
“It means ‘outcast,’” Flame said gloomily.
The Gelert’s eyes crinkled into a smile. “Hardly deserving of being outcast now, yes? Tomorrow we will hold the ceremony to revoke your exile. We invite you to join our tribe as an honored member; or if not, I’m certain any of the villages will be happy to have you. We can also ask our shaman to find a way to remove your enchantment as well, if you wish, though you’ve clearly discovered its usefulness by now.”
Flame looked enthusiastic at the last but ambiguous about the rest, so I stepped in.
“Or you could come live with us,” I offered, trying to sound diffident. “My owner’s always wanted another pet, and while you’re probably not what she was expecting, I’m sure she’d love to have you.”
Flame’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“If you want.”
He nodded somewhat shyly, then turned to the Gelert. “I would like the enchantment removed, though,” he said firmly. “I’ll be happy if I never see fire again.”
The Gelert smiled. “Of course.” He bowed politely, then left, melting silently into the jungle.
We stared after him for a moment, until Nella broke the silence.
“Well, I’m glad our loose ends have been wrapped up and everything, but are we going to stand here all night? The Techo Master’s probably going to drag us up at sunrise and make us do who knows what, so we better sleep while we can.”
I rolled my eyes and laughed, as together, we headed towards the school, to the start of what was already looking like a much better summer.