Velokh gingerly lifted the rock, scraping the soft, rancid earth with her bony fingers until a smooth surface was exhumed from within.
She raised the bone as if it were a treasured relic, her breath visible in white plumes that came faster with eagerness as she cleaned the curved exterior of bits of dirt before putting it into her sack. Femur bones like this one always pleased the bonehunter; after all she only wanted the best for her collection.
The Halloween Hissi was one of the many bonehunters that scoured the Haunted Woods, searching endlessly and patiently for more and more bones. Collections weren't mere galleries where the objects of choice were arranged for the amusement and delight of visiting guests; those were mundane and useless, only serving to boost the egos of their owners. Bonehunters were collectors of a different sort, using their bones for the purposes of magic and power, whether it be amplifying existing spells or simply developing them. Bonehunters were sought out by all sorts of important figures, for their knowledge of magic was vast, and their charms were exceptional. Indeed, Velokh was no stranger to the selling of magic to all sorts of customers, whether it be to faeries or to witches like Edna or Sophie.
While a simple Neopian would have passed by (if at all, it was a disturbing graveyard) without care for the bone, Velokh treated it with reverence. The best magical spells could be attained from complete, unblemished bones, and this lovely femur would give her the strongest charm.
Velokh replaced the rock and continued between the aisles of foreboding tombstones, embraced in mist. The scene didn't frighten her; she passed by similar scenes too many times to care any more. The mournful calls of weewoos echoed through the graveyard, and a chill wind hastened from the north, but the Hissi didn't shiver or even jump. All this was commonplace in her line of work.
As she reached a rather tall, well-hewn monument dedicated to a certain Chet Flash (whoever that was), she began to search again for some bones. Her wings, covered in bone gloves, pried the soil apart effortlessly. A few smaller pieces and brittle fragments were all she found, so she kept moving.
Soon the entire graveyard was combed through like well-kept locks of hair. Her bag was pitifully empty, but the femur she found earlier was worth three bagfuls.
"I'll come here in a few weeks. There ought to be something around," Velokh mused.
Suddenly she came up short. Paw prints, and many of them.
Permanent Werelupes were common in the Haunted Woods. Their chilling howls spanned the sky and were met by more, calling the packs together for a run. Turned Lupes only came around every few days of the month to become Werelupes. Velokh was not perturbed by the monstrous creatures, since they were afraid of her. But she did hate them for one other reason, and that now lay before her.
The Hissi's glowing green eyes looked down, spotting chewed bones strewn around the paw prints. Those fools were sabotaging her line of work!
Velokh hissed loudly, muttering curses at the long-gone pack as she covered the gnawed pieces with earth. They offended her. Why couldn't Lupes go chase a Chia or two for once?
As she worked to cover up their mess, the Hissi's delicate senses picked up something moving. Even with her skull helmet, she spotted the figure of a young, soft-furred Halloween Lupe digging in the dirt near some taller tombstones, rolling around and then shaking off the soil from his shiny coat.
The Lupe whirled around to behold the armoured Hissi, her exoskeleton creaking and groaning as she rushed towards him. "Get away from here, you good-for-nothing pup! You're ruining my business!"
"What business would that be?" The green-eyed fellow cocked his head with interest, apparently unruffled by her fearsome appearance.
"Bonehunting!" Velokh seethed. "Now get your furry behind away from that gravestone and go play with your buddies." She jerked a bony finger into the woods.
The Hissi shoved at the Lupe, but he fought against it and didn't budge even an inch. "I've never been here before."
"There's a first for everything," Velokh replied, getting exasperated with this youth, shoving him again and succeeding in jerking him a few steps back.
"I don't want to go to the Werelupes, though... one of them bit me."
Velokh's eyes widened with shock. She noticed some healing bite marks on his forepaw and jumped back as if he was unclean. He was tainted! He would become a Werelupe now! The Hissi glanced into the sky and spotted a nearly full moon shining down upon the graveyard, painting everything calm silver. In a day or so this kid would have mad, golden eyes and ragged fur. He would run with the pack, eyes filled with rage, and an eagerness to destroy that rivaled few other creatures. Still, Lupes could turn even a few days prior to a full moon, and that's what worried her.
The Lupe's eyes were filled with worry and sadness. Apparently he too knew of his fate.
"I heard about you Bonehunters and your magic. Can you help me?"
"Is that why you came here?" Velokh asked sharply.
"No... I came here because I felt a great burning in my chest if I didn't," the Lupe stammered, as if he didn't understand the feeling.
Velokh did, though. The burning was simply the Werelupe blood pumping through his veins. It wasn't just a 'burning' sensation; it was an immense, overpowering need. A want that felt terribly painful if not sated. She spotted a small hint of relief in the deep emerald eyes of the Halloween pet, and nodded to herself. The burning stopped only if one was in one specific place. And this Lupe was in a graveyard... with her.
"Can't help you." Velokh folded her bony arms.
"Why?" the Lupe asked, his voice unnervingly calm... did he reside to his fate?
"I make magic charms, but nothing can help a Werelupe's Bite."
The frail groan sounded almost like the whisper of the moaning wind, but Velokh recognized it as belonging to the Lupe. He was clutching his arm with a paw, but under the broad pads she could see the fur becoming a sickly grayish-orange colour, a mockery of his current fur. A glint of gold flashed in the liquid eyes, but it faded swiftly.
Velokh muttered an oath and grabbed his free arm. "Hurry, come with me. Now!"
The Lupe didn't fight; he just followed while a keening sound escaped his lips. High in the sky the clouds that covered the moon began to part, increasing the intensity of the silver veil that covered the land.
"Hurry, you fat furball!" Velokh snarled, her body side-winding as fast as possible to a looming building not that far away.
A stray beam of increased moonlight struck the Lupe's shoulder, resulting in a vicious snarl. Velokh looked back, cursing softly as she saw half of his body now becoming a hulking mass of muscle and teeth. Why did she get herself into this?
The bonehunter nearly crashed into the stone building. In a blur of motion she opened the door of the crypt and literally threw the Lupe in just as his metamorphosis was finishing. And in a fluid motion carried from the first, she sent a wooden plank crashing into the crooks, effectively trapping the newly made Werelupe inside. She could hear the fevered scratching, the whining and ferocious howling of the beast within, but didn't even dare to open the door.
The not-quite-full-moon kept beating down upon the angry, tired and annoyed Hissi, who slumped down in front of the crypt's door. Exhausted from the hunting and dealing with an innocent-turned-bloodthirsty Werelupe, Velokh's eyes dimmed and presently she slept.
By the time the Lupe was stirring, Velokh was finishing cleaning her space. The place was relatively filthy, covered with lint and dirt from less-than-acceptable bones. If her superiors were here, they would be appalled. Bonehunters needed to keep their workplaces very clean to perform excellent spells.
The Lupe jerked and the Hissi tilted her head with exasperation. Why did she have to get involved? She would have just kept him in the crypt, but no, she just had to take him with her. Some part deep inside told her she could cleanse the WereLupe's burning blood, but her common sense told her she just brought someone who would chew her bones.
"Where am I?" The Lupe's voice trembled. "What happened?"
"I locked you in the crypt the entire night." Velokh snorted with amusement.
"Did I turn?" he pressed.
"Why else would I lock you in there?" snapped the short-tempered bonehunter.
A pause. "Thank you for stopping me, I guess. My name is Hyoideum, yours?"
The Hissi nearly snapped her broom in twain. She utterly regretted bringing the Lupe in here, since for most of her life she worked in peace and quiet. Now here stood a chatterbox with what she admitted were very beautiful emerald eyes, and a curious expression plastered on his face. She hated youthful curiosity: it broke things.
At last she stilled herself, and rested her broom against the wall of the room. "Velokh."
"It is a nice name. Rolls well on the tongue," Hyoideum commented.
"Good for it," grumbled the bonehunter.
"So is this your home?"
Velokh looked around. While most neopets lived in shacks and brick homes, she preferred the moist soil of the underground. The cavern was vast; its only connections to the surface were the main exit with a wide tunnel leading to it, and a secret entrance she built for herself. Roots of trees embraced the walls, making them look firm and strong, while idle tubers reached down and dangled from the ceiling. The floor was dry, covered in stones that gave it a cobbled appearance. Rainwater never came here, because both entrances were on high ground and slopped downwards to the outside, preventing it from coming in.
There were two rooms in the place: one was her workshop which was an annex with a wide board build on its circumference, covered with all sorts of items she needed for spells. At the back there were shelves covered with bones, some very old and some fairly new. All of them were washed and cleaned, put on bright linen as if they were her prized possessions, and indeed they were. Velokh cared for her bones as much as she cared for her pet Werhond, who she heard was now scampering through the main entrance outside the room.
The main hall was the place where she stored completed charms and extra bones. It was also her feeding room and sleeping room. Slithering out, she saw her dear pet run in, its brown coat shimmering in the magical light that she set up around the room, a few large slabs of stuff nestled firmly in his jaws.
"Thank you. These look delicious." She patted his head while the petpet whined blissfully at the praise.
Hyoideum appeared from her workshop, looking with interest at the slabs. "What is it?"
"Meat." Velokh chomped on it, savoring the taste. "Want some?"
"What type of meat?" The Lupe looked suspicious.
For a moment his face turned green in sickness, but it vanished quickly and he retreated into the workshop. "Don't touch anything!" Velokh seethed between bites, "if you even gnaw on ONE bone, your rump will be my lamp stand!"
Velokh finished her meal while her petpet, apparently sating itself elsewhere, lay down upon a mat of fur and began to sleep. She returned into the workshop and was inwardly surprised to see the Lupe waiting patiently beside her desk, his tail wagging limply as he looked at the ingredients strewn upon it.
"So you really are a bonehunter?"
"Why else would I be gathering bones at midnight?" Velokh snapped.
Hyoideum didn't cringe, he just kept looking at the vials and the other things filled with foaming liquids of various colours. "Can you help me find a cure for my Bite?"
"Probably not," the sour Hissi replied instantly.
"Then why did you bring me here, if you weren't interested in trying?" the Lupe queried.
Velokh started with surprise and stared at him for a moment through the wide eyesockets of her skull mask. No matter how she thought of him, she had to admit that he was a cunning fellow. She didn't respond though, but began to take the bones she got that morning out of her sack, taking especial care of the femur.
Then she saw his hungry expression.
"Hey, hey, no touching!"
No, it was not all right. She glared at him until Hyoideum lay down, whining, in acceptance. With a snort she continued to sort the bones appropriately, placing some on the shelves behind her and some at the far end of her desk. The only thing left was the femur, its oblong head shining in the magical cove light she set up that covered the room in a warm glow.
"So will you try?" Hyoideum piped up.
"YES. Now be still while I work," Velokh roared, turning quickly and preparing the bone.
She washed it when she arrived and now it shone quite nicely. It was big and round, perfect for a good charm. Examining the exterior for scratches, she was impressed to find only three, and those were superficial. Nodding to herself, Velokh put the bone parallel to herself and tapped her fingers across its width, searching for interior imperfections in the form of hollow echoes. Hyoideum sat behind her, watching with a fascinated gaze, but she ignored him as she continued her work. Again finding the bone acceptable, she realized that something of this purity could probably deal with his Werelupe blood.
She sprinkled a dried herb and then a fresh one upon it, then poured some oil and began to clean the bone further. She took a vial of a partially glowing substance and poured a single drop upon the glossy surface, watching with pleasure as the drop spread across the oil and the whole bone began to shine dimly, radiating great magic.
She brought out a bowl filled with water and placed the bone within, watching as the light leached into the water along with the oil and herbs. She waited for a few minutes and then took the bone and threw it on the ground. Almost instantly her Werhond appeared, his claws pitter-pattering on the surface of the cobbled stones, nabbed the bone and ran back to his sleeping place. She had no need for a powerless bone anymore; it was empty of all the magic it contained.
The water in the bowl glowed an eerie blue, just like the bone once did. Velokh grasped a few more vials and a single skin bag distended with liquid, and poured some more substances and herbs into the concoction. A thin mist rolled off the mixture before dissipating as more and more fluids were added.
It wasn't long until the substance was complete, or so it seemed. Hyoideum leaned over her shoulder to sniff it, but was quickly thrown back by the Hissi. "Don't touch it, unless you want to get a burned nose! It isn't aged yet, and it won't work. We need to prepare you for the charm, so when you drink it you won't turn into a Werelupe forever."
Hyoideum shuddered, his fur bristling at the thought.
Suddenly a bony hand reached out and plucked a whisker. Hyoideum yelped with surprise. "What was that for?"
Velokh didn't respond, instead she simply filled an empty vial with some of the liquid she made, dilated it with water, added a few herbs and then put in the whisker. She swirled the vial until everything mingled together, and then thrust it into his paws.
Hyoideum complied with the request, though whether he did it through trust or simply not thinking Velokh didn't know or care.
The Lupe's fur rose, and his eyes flashed. "Help!" His deepened voice yelped out.
Velokh nonchalantly took a bag filled with powder and threw it in his face. Just before Hyoideum could transform into a Werelupe he crashed on the ground and fell asleep. Oh how the bonehunter loved her sleeping powder!
The vial that he drank from still had liquid in it. Velokh leaned down and took it in her hand, examining the contents. There was just enough for a second helping, but it was too strong. She poured some more water in and then put it back where she got it from. It needed to ferment a bit, that was all.
The Hissi glanced down at the Lupe and grinned. She never intended to make him fall asleep, but the concept was good. After all, he didn't need to see what types of customers purchased her charms. Velokh used the neopoints she got to trade for items she needed, like the precious oils or herbs, and those that provided her with what she wanted didn't need to be seen as well.
She heard a knock at the door and slithered out of the room to complete an earlier transaction.
By the time Hyoideum was awake, it was nighttime. The full moon had odd properties that transformed Lupes into Werelupes even though they were in a space absent of moonlight. Velokh knew this, and she knew she had to work fast. All day she spent working and selling her charms to those who wanted to purchase them, and wanted to get this over with.
Bonehunters were unique workers in Neopia. They were not allowed to take sides on a confrontation. One time, long ago, Velokh sold charms to both Meridell and Darigan Citadel when they were at war. She didn't take up the banner of either faction for two reasons: she didn't care much about silly things like wars, and it was against the bonehunter creed to do so. She had to admit though, the whole situation brought along plenty of business for her.
As the last stages of sleep wore off, Velokh came over and brought the same vial he sampled earlier that day. "We need to hurry, it's almost midnight." Velokh spoke darkly and again thrust the vial into his trembling paws.
"It will turn me into a Werelupe again!" Hyoideum complained.
"No, it won't. This liquid isn't so potent now. My spell only works if you had Werelupe blood coursing through your body, and this thing should make it do so without turning you into one of those mangy furbearers."
The Halloween Lupe nodded in acceptance and downed the vial of dilated fluid. The two stared at each other for what seemed like a long time, but when nothing happened Velokh's consternated face became one of great triumph.
"My arm hurts..." Hyoideum complained.
"Shut it and get ready. It's almost time..."
"How do you know?"
Outside the room, her Werhond began baying loudly as the moon reached its true zenith. Chastened, the Lupe watched, trembling, as Velokh rushed to grab the concoction she made earlier. It was now glowing violet, which pleased her greatly.
Although Velokh didn't dare reveal her emotions (they were well hidden behind her mask) she was tremendously worried. If she spell didn't work, she would have a super-Werelupe in her home that no charm could stop, and no sleeping powder could down.
Her petpet's baying became louder, and somewhere outside she could hear the faint howls of Werelupes. Hyoideum was bowled over, his eyes getting the manic gleam once more. "Velokh..." He grunted deeply.
"Almost..." She trembled as well.
The Halloween Lupe snarled furiously, his teeth growing rapidly in size and his muscle mass developing at a mad rate. Velokh shrunk back for the first time in ages, watching as the massive Werelupe grew and struggled to keep his sanity. She needed to be on the dot in administering the liquid, she couldn't do it to early, and if she was late she didn't want to think about it.
She tore open his massive jaws and tipped the bowl in, watching the charm spiral into his cavernous gullet.
It all happened at once. The Werelupe began to cough and hack, trying to gag out the charm. Velokh edged towards her bone collection, splaying her wings protectively. If this didn't work, she would have to fight Hyoideum.
The Werelupe spun around, his sharp, jagged fur bristling with fury as clutched his head. For a few moments it looked as if the spell failed to work, but then the Lupe doubled over as if punched in the stomach and fell heavily, howling furiously as the fur began to fall off in thick tuffs, and the powerful muscle began to thin out and return to the way it was. In a span of a few heartbeats, Hyoideum turned into a Werelupe and back again.
Velokh collapsed, her heart racing from the excitement. She closed her eyes, panting, and nearly lashed out when she felt a cool nose on her shoulder.
"Thank you, Velokh!" Hyoideum's cheerful voice was heard.
The bonehunter looked up, and saw that he looked as if nothing had happened.
"Don't mention it. Please," the Hissi hissed.
The Lupe grinned like a kid. "Oh, look! My bite marks are gone!"
Indeed, the wounds left by the Werelupe that bit him vanished, leaving clean, auburn fur.
"Fantastic. Now get your pretty face out of here. I want to sleep."
"But the Werelupes..."
A round stone was flung at him. The Halloween Lupe winced but then saw that it was magically charged. "That ought to keep them away." Velokh grunted.
Hyoideum wagged his tail with delight. "Maybe I'll come visit sometime? I'll just come into a graveyard at night and I bet I will find you there."
"I'll be sure to avoid graveyards for a few months," Velokh said acidly, but couldn't help but chuckle in spite of herself.
As the Lupe departed through the tunnel, Velokh's grin turned into a full out smile. The first one she wore in many, many years.