As the light faded, Captain Meglocto opened his eyes. Directly ahead of him was the prize of his invasion – star seed bushes. All he had to do was close the gap between himself and those bushes.

Someone stepped in his way. A large land dragon glared at him as she placed herself in front of the bushes.

Meglocto pointed a zebra patterned tentacle at the dragon. "Step aside if you value your hide, lizard."

"But you've come all this way, Captain," she replied in an icy tone. "It would be a shame to not have at least one dance before you go."

"Have it your way," the octopus snapped.

He pressed a button on his environmental navigation combat conveyance's console. The machine reared up on its single back leg which split into two legs to support the combat conveyance's weight. Pincher claws replaced the balancing toes of the two front legs as they lifted into the position of arms for this mechanical vessel. Coils of metal rose out of what had been top fins of a fishy form allowing six whips to wriggle on top of the mech. Even with the full transformation, Meglocto's combat conveyance only stood about half the height of his dragon foe.

"Nice baby buggy," she teased.

Few images are as unique or as memorable as an expression of shock on an octopus's face. It was a sight that Kloutrel would gleefully remember for the rest of her life.

A seething rage quickly replaced Meglocto's shock. He sent his fishbot running towards Kloutrel.

"I'll have your tongue as my trophy!"

Kloutrel dropped forward and rolled her large body at the oncoming mech. The Captain hadn't expected this maneuver. His tentacles pulled levers as quickly as they could. The combat conveyance tried to leap over the rolling dragon. Unfortunately, it didn't jump high enough to avoid her. Kloutrel smashed into the dwarfish mech.

The robotic fish flew over the dragon and crashed on the ground a few feet behind her. It rolled a few times before coming to a stop.

Swirling stars clouded the octopus's vision as he absorbed the landing. He shook his head to clear his vision only to still see stars. These stars weren't swirling. They were the star seeds still clinging to their bushes right within his reach.

Kloutrel landed on top of the conveyance.

A growl vibrated through the dragon's long throat as she lowered her head down to snatch the Captain out of his seat. As he dodged her teeth, Kloutrel caught one of his tentacles. Her jaws snapped it right off. With disgust, she spat it on the ground away from the bushes.

In a quick motion, Meglocto whipped one of the metal coils at Kloutrel. It slapped her in the face immediately swinging her head backwards. Her body followed and she landed in a heap behind the conveyance.

Meglocto reached a pincher out towards the star seeds. "At last!"

A strange sound within the bush was followed by a lump of liquid flying straight on to Meglocto's face. He cried out as one of his tentacles reached up to wipe the spit away.

The mech was yanked backwards. Kloutrel's jaws grabbed all six whips in a clump and forced the fishbot to swing away from the bushes. Meglocto twisted levers furiously to keep his mech from toppling over. Somehow all four limbs managed to work together to keep the vessel upright. It turned around to face the indigo dragon again.

Not wasting the advantage, Kloutrel charged forward. She'd have to beat Meglocto in a battle of force over fire. It might have been easier to roast the Captain and be done with it. But loosing her fire around the fragile seed bushes could prove catastrophic if even one spark hit them.

The captain's combat conveyance might have traction but it had already shown that it didn't have a good counter against the weight of a dragon. A pincher lashed out to greet Kloutrel's face. She was agile enough to dodge it. Although her front legs stopped in time to avoid a blow, her back half slid forward bringing her tail around in a full arc. Kloutrel's tail connected with one of the legs of the fishbot completely removing it from the machine's main body. With the leg gone, Meglocto was forced to hop around while the right arm transformed back into a usable leg again. As it did, a whip lashed out delivering a sound smack to the dragon's backside.

"It's about time you had a spanking, you defiant welp!" he cackled.

Kloutrel winced but was not so easily chided. She spun around and deflected the mech's next blow. She reared back and let out an intense roar which shook the very foundation of the spike. Whether it was terror or simply bad craftsmanship, several of the fishbot's bolts shattered leaving much of the combat conveyance unhinged. As the mech began to fall apart, Megocto flared out his tentacles and scurried into the open air. He didn't quite avoid the ramming rod that was Kloutrel's skull smacking into his spineless form. The hapless octopus was sent sailing far into the sky before he could slow his momentum.

He turned to snarl at Kloutrel. She was clearly about to release a flame attack. With a cringing grimace, Meglocto air-swam away from Spike Four. His backside felt a stinging sensation as the Hearth's shield returned in full force. The octopus quickly skittered towards what was left of the invading spacecraft armada which was already in retreat.

"Stinking air swimmers," muttered the dragon.

"I wouldn't let Shellese hear you say that."

Kloutrel spun her head around to face the bushes. Leaves rustled near the bottom of the bush which Meglocto had almost reached. The head of a prune-purple fereglizod emerged from beneath the leaves. Plumwise smiled at the dragon.

"Not too many creatures survive an encounter with Captain Meglocto. Well done!"

"Thank you," Kloutrel said. "Good thing that you were visiting your niece today. Otherwise, he might've gotten his tentacles on one of the star seeds."

A rosy blush showed through the fereglizod's cheekfur. "Sometimes doing one's duty means spitting in the face of evil. Not the most dignified repellent but – A-are you all right?"

The dragon was trembling as she slowly turned her body to face the bushes. Her legs shook badly despite her efforts to calm herself. "I'm fine. I just… I never actually expected to fight Meglocto himself. I wonder if there's a reason that he chose Spike Four."

Plumwise rubbed his chin with his trunk. "Hmm, when Meglocto wants something as badly as he wants the star seeds, he'll even put himself in danger to get what he wants."

"Meaning," Kloutrel mused, "That this was merely a distraction for some larger plan. If I weren't already, I'd shudder to wonder what kind of plan could be bigger than using an entire armada attack as a "distraction"."

"I don't know," Plumwise admitted. "But we'd better check the star seed bushes to be sure that Meglocto didn't get any."

"Already done, Uncle!"

Another fereglizod popped her head out of the top of the bush. Her fur was a tropical turquoise. Plumwise looked up at his niece. "Are you sure, Turquoise?"

"Yes, Uncle," she replied. "I've checked the bushes and didn't see any empty spots. So everything's ok."

Turquoise disappeared into the bush again and exited out the underside as Plumwise had done. She smiled at Kloutrel. "That was amazing! I knew you were tough. But taking on the evil Megaocturd himself! I would have been scared stiff. How'd you keep from just running away?"

Now it was Kloutrel's turn to blush. "I was scared. But y'know, I had the bushes to protect. So I just focused on that."

"Even so, you still got off very easy," Plumwise said. He looked towards the bushes once more. "We'd better check them again just to be certain that everything's ok."

Plumwise's gaze settled on Turquoise again. "I'll be back to help once I've reviewed the reports from the other spikes. Come on, Kloutrel. You'll need to file your report too."

He pushed his long tube of a body forward and crawled towards building ring 4-3. As Kloutrel started to follow him, Turquoise sprang off the ground and landed on the dragon's back.

"I need to go to the palace too," she said.

Plumwise stopped and glared up at her. "How many times must I remind you that you're a bush tender. Your responsibility is to the bushes first."

"But that is why I need to go to the palace," Turquoise protested. "We need more star nectar."

"What? There were two jugs left just a few hours ago," Plumwise said.

Turquoise cast her gaze downwards as she explained, "We-ell… I sort of threw them at some other invaders."

"You WHAT? Couldn't you have thrown something else?"

"I'm sorry, Uncle. They had Sunmist pinned down and I just reacted without thinking."

Noticing that Kloutrel was scanning the area, Turquoise said, "Don't worry, Kloutrel. That kitchen lion got the invader after that. So I dashed into the bushes and wound up here."

Kloutrel relaxed a little bit. "Who? Oh, you mean Archie?"

Turquoise nodded.

"Ugh, all right," Plumwise sighed. "You may come to the palace as well."

Turquoise beamed as she made her coils comfortable on Kloutrel's shoulders. She could feel shivers running along the dragon's body.

"Um, are you ok, Kloutrel?" she asked.

"Just the tenseness working its way out," the dragon replied. "By the way, is there some reason that you can't slither along under your own power?"

"And miss the chance to ride on a dragon's back? When do I ever get to do that?"

Turquoise looked up at Kloutrel with a pleading innocence that children tend to use to get their way.

"You patrolled with me yesterday," Kloutrel teased.

Her uncle's disapproving glare made Turquoise quickly add, "Only after I was finished with the bushes."

Plumwise shook his head and sighed. "All of this right after that star seed incident over on Spike Nine. Why is there always someone who thinks that they should decide whether inspiration is good or bad? Our job is to grow the seeds of inspiration not to judge them"

"Being Head Bush Tender isn't all the glamour that the title sounds, eh?" Kloutrel said.

Plumwise managed a wry smile. "Never a dull moment around here. Still I'm hopeful that the title will stay in our family."

He cast a wistful glance in Turquoise's direction. She was too busy looking around at the aftermath of Meglocto's attack. Suddenly, she hid her head beneath her coils and tightened into a small pile.

A spider bearing the pattern of a lion's face walked up to the trio.

"Hi, Archie," Kloutrel addressed him. "Can you handle the patrol for a bit? I need to file a report."

"Sure thing," he replied. "I just dropped off one of Meglocto's minions anyways. What'd you get?"

"A short fight with Meglocto," Kloutrel said. The spider stopped short.

"YOU actually fought with Captain Meglocto?"

The dragon blushed a bit as she nodded.

"She gave him a few good lumps too," Plumwise said. "Bit off one of his tentacles. If you happen to see it lying somewhere, bring it to the sages. Ok?"

"You bit off a tentacle?" Archie stammered. "You could have saved the universe a lot of trouble if you'd have just eaten him. Why didn't you?"

"Do you remember what happened the last time I tried eating an invader?" Kloutrel griped.

The spider's eyes widened and even Plumwise looked a bit nauseous. The cleaning bill from that stomach upset had been bad enough. The stench in the North Palace was more than enough reason to never want to repeat such an event even if it meant the end of someone as evil as Meglocto.

"I – er – withdraw the question," Archie said and hurried on to resume his patrol.

You may read more of this tale (as well as other stories) at:

2015/11/21/hearth-of-inspiration-part-3/