Rift was seeing stars. He could not take another hit like that in his non-battle form. He was going to have to change, but that would give Cobalt a couple of seconds to attack.
"Remember your fight with Windbreaker," Shimmer called out.
Why had she shouted that to him? That was a gentlemen’s misunderstanding by comparison. What had he done there that he should remember? As if on cue, it came to him. The only thing harder than Cobalt’s hide was solid rock. He looked around and all he saw was a cliff wall behind him and a vast open arena with Cobalt standing at the opposite end pawing at the ground like a bull ready to charge. Now he knew what she was trying to tell him, but Rift was not sure if he could do what he needed to do before Cobalt got across the arena.
There was only one way to find out, and so Rift began his transformation prayer. As he howled and felt the surge of energy flood through him, he could see Cobalt charging trying to get in a crushing blow before the renewal could fully take place. Putting his head down as he nearly finished, Rift prepared for a headlong hit.
"I can't watch," Howling Moon cried out from the one side.
Transformation complete, Rift put one paw forward and vanished as Cobalt reached him. Reappearing where Cobalt had been just four steps ahead of where he had been Cobalt smashed head long into the side of the cliff with a resounding snap.
Cobalt's body flopped over to one side and lay perfectly still.
Rift spun around and walked up to Cobalt's still body. He sniffed and looked over his body to see any signs of life. Judging from the force at which he hit the cliff, he likely broke his neck. A slight upraising of Cobalt's chest indicated that there was hope, but at the same time, blood began leaking from the battle wolf's mouth. He was still alive, but just barely. He had suffered a severe concussion and it would seem he was bleeding from his brain.
"Is he dead?" Rusticblade asked unfeelingly.
"No, but if we stop this nonsense now, and free my friends, Taya can possibly save him," Rift barked aggressively.
"I guess it's my turn then," Rusticblade ignored Rift's plea for compassion and stepped into the arena.
"Rusticblade, you can end this," Rift pled once again.
"I know, by slicing you to shreds," Rusticblade growled and then started his transformation howl.
Rift was not going to get a chance to take a free shot on Rusticblade, which was unfortunate as he had already used his flash ability and had already exhausted himself. Rift stepped away from Cobalt's body and the cliff face in order to give himself some more room to maneuver.
Rusticblade completed his transformation and stood there huge and menacing in front of the cage. "Let's do this," his deep throated growl challenged. He reared back on his hind legs and spread his paws out revealing his ferocious claws.
Rift had an idea, but was not sure how he was going to do it, as he would have to let Rusticblade get within striking distance. But first, he needed to lure him away from the cage. Rift charged forward as if he wanted to broadside him and Rusticblade lunged forward. Rift lowered himself and skidded across the rocky ground. Rusticblade soared over top of Rift but as they passed, Rusticblade kicked with his hind legs and dug his rear claws into Rift's back.
Rift felt the nails penetrate. The momentary numbness in his back signaled a clean hit by his opponent. Rift tried to block the pain that was now surging through his back and spun around standing to his feet.
"You almost got by that one," Rusticblade taunted. "Good thing you hit my back claws and not my front, they aren't as sharp."
"Yes, lucky me," Rift looked around and saw the expressions of fear on his family's faces. Looking down, Rift saw the blood starting to drip off of his back. Rift decided to dart around the arena in an attempt to pull Rusticblade away from the cage further. He now stood facing a battle wolf who was walking toward him like a lion stalking an unsuspecting deer.
"That's got to hurt," Rusticblade commented.
"Not the most pleasant experience in my life," Rift tried to joke.
Rift continued to circle around. He could feel the strength slowly start to leave his back legs. He did not have much time to execute his possibly last maneuver, and if he did not get Rusticblade to yield, Cobalt was definitely going to die.
Rusticblade continued to keep Rift in front of him, leery that he might try to use his flash ability. Rift looked and the cage containing his friends was now just to his left. For the first time, he realized that a small part of the cage was actually hanging over the drastic drop-off. As it was, Rift found himself backed up against the edge with nowhere to go but forward. And that direction was currently being blocked by Rusticblade who saw an opportunity to finish his former commander.
"You shouldn't have done that," Rusticblade sneered. "You've got nowhere to go but through me." Rusticblade came forward and was now raising his sword-like paw to swing down directly onto Rift's head.
Using the last bit of strength he had, Rift reared back on his legs and launched himself up toward the side of the cage. Reaching out with his front claws, Rift locked onto the metal bars and used the leverage to propel him over his opponent. Swinging aimlessly with his paw, Rift bounced past him. Landing behind Rusticblade, Rift leaned forward and kicked with his hind legs like a horse.
Rusticblade, already off balance, took the brunt of the kick, stumbled forward, and began to slip over the edge. Rift lunged with what strength he had left and latched onto Rusticblade's leg as he went over the edge. The weight of the battle wolf pulled Rift closer to the edge as he tried desperately to get some leverage from his failing hind legs. Rusticblade dangling from Rift's mouth twisted himself around to see Rift holding on to him.
"Let me go, you've won," Rusticblade conceded. "You don't deserve to die."
Rift could not respond as his mouth was full of leg. Instead, he dug his front paws into the loose soil at the edge.
"I'm coming Rusticblade," Flametail called out from behind him.
Rift could feel his back legs give out and his front paws started to slide through the ground.
"Forgive me," Rusticblade twisted around and swung with his front paw and sliced at Rift's face deliberately missing him. Instead, Rusticblade cut into his own leg causing him to fall away and sending Rift over backwards still clinging to his foot. Smashing into the cage, Rift watch as it slid ever closer to the edge such that it began to tip over.
The companions all leaned forward as the weight of the cage began to slowly pull downward. Rift, cleared his mouth and bit into metal bars as the cage began to go over pulling his exhausted body across the ground.
The sudden sound of howling and then teeth on metal caused Rift to look up to see Flametail standing over him pulling hard against the cage. Seconds later, more howling and snapping sounds occurred and Smokestorm, Lightning Fang, Shimmer and the others all pulled against the cage, easily returning it to its safe spot on the ledge.
Taya came to the edge of the cage nearest to Rift and extended her hand out to touch the blood soaked battle wolf. Rift had not realized it until just then that his flying leap over Rusticblade was not a clear pass after all. Below him, he could see large gashes in his sides where he had gotten grazed by Rusticblade's destructive claws. His blood was beginning to stain the ground beside him. A wave of dizziness washed over him causing his vision to from blurry to white to dark.
"Hold on, Rift," Taya began to cry.
"It's okay, Taya, you can let me go," Rift moaned ready to meet his Creator. "There are others here to take my place."
"But I'm not finished with you yet," Taya replied in an authoritative voice before she began to sing.