Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Esteem - Part Eight
"There it is," Ohu muttered softly. "The cave to Shadowglen Woods."
All five of the Neopians were on high alert, ears flicking and eyes darting to catch any evidence that the bandits were nearby. It wasn't exactly the brightest idea for them to be wandering around in a place were the rogues were known to linger, but they had to find out if the thing in the cave posed an immediate threat.
Ayame was riding double behind Gary, whose mount was the only one of the two strong enough to carry two riders. As they neared the cave, however, both Unis stopped.
"We're too heavy to get any closer without giving ourselves away," Grace said. "We're probably better off waiting for you out here. Call if you need us."
"We might just if that beastie comes callin' again," Gary replied dryly. His head wasn't hurting at that moment, but there was an odd pressure at the back of his neck that made him sure it would be if he exerted himself too much. He wasn't keen to get a second lump when he was still recovering from the first.
"Let's not waste any more time," Ayame said softly. "The sooner we get in and out, the better."
The two squires nodded, hopping out of their saddles. Gary helped Ayame climb down, feeling a twinge of sympathy for the way she stretched her legs as if they hurt. Riding always led to leg cramps for the inexperienced, though the fact that she'd rode sidesaddle had probably alleviated that somewhat.
The trio headed into the cave, Ayame first, followed by Rue, with Gary bringing up the rear. They moved as slowly and quietly as they could so as to avoid drawing attention to themselves. It was pitch dark, and Gary couldn't help but wonder how they were supposed to find anything.
He nearly walked into Rue, who had stopped dead ahead of him. Just ahead of their group, he could hear the faint sound of something breathing. Squinting over the Aisha's shoulder, Gary could just make out a darker shadow against the black all around them. Whatever it was, it was huge.
"Need some light," Rue hissed, his voice barely audible.
However, before Gary or Ayame could respond to this statement, they heard the scuffling of footfalls on stone.
"Up!" snarled the newcomer. "C'mon, Torfen, we gotta get moving."
There was a grunt as the sleeper woke. "My shift over already?"
"Forget the shift, mate. Got much more interesting work to do. We get to hunt royal meat today. They king says managed to get the bandits to move up the attack on the castle."
"Interesting?" the sleeper snarled. "Hah! We're not lapdogs, to be dancing to the tune of a bunch of stupid bandits. We're Werelupes! We should've eaten the lot of them the moment they entered our woods!"
Gary gasped, and immediately regretted it as the next second two throaty snarls sounded from the speakers.
"Who's there? Show yourselves, lunchmeat!"
"Run!" Rue bleated, shoving Gary and Ayame back in the direction of the entrance. The Bori did not need a second telling. They could hear the Werelupes roaring savagely behind them and their massive talons clattering against the stone. Every second was precious, because it could very well be their last.
They emerged back into the grey light of the rain outside, Ohu and Grace crying out in shock at the sight of their pursuers. Ayame unexpectedly turned and made an odd slicing motion with on of her hands. As the two Werelupes barreled towards them, a purple light enveloped them and sent them tumbling into the fast flowing river.
"You can do dark magic?" Rue yelped, his eyes wide with shock.
"I'll explain later," the Kougra said. "For now we have to hurry. It looks like the bandits somehow made an alliance with the Werelupe King. And if that conversation we overheard is any indication, they'll be attacking the castle very soon. We have to warn the prince."
"M'lady, not meanin' any disrespect," Gary put in, "but Sir Graham didn't seem to think there was enough knights to take on all them bandits. How's we supposed to take the bandits and half the population of Werelupe Woods?"
The Kougra looked away, her expression pensive. "I suppose... it couldn't hurt to ask..."
"Ask what?" Ohu demanded.
The Kougra turned to reply, but was cut off by the sound of a howl from downriver. The five of them looked out to see that one of the Werelupes she had knocked down had pulled himself up on a rock, and lifted his head in an eerie song.
"He's calling for help," Ohu hissed, shooting frantic glances at the cave mouth. "If there are more of those things in Shadowglen, they'll be on us in minutes. We have to move."
"One of us has to go to the castle, and warn the prince what's coming," Ayame said quickly. "The other has to take me to Illusen's Glade. Lady Illusen's magic is the only thing that can stand up to the Werelupe King."
"Lady Ayame, that's too far!" Ohu said, but the look on the Kougra's face silenced him.
"I wasn't calling for a vote. I know Illusen, she'll help us. But we have to move quickly, before-"
There was another howl, this time from within the cave. The reinforcements were on the way.
"Rue, you go back to the castle," Gary said quickly, "Grace is small and light, she doesn't have endurance for a long run but she has speed. Ohu is the only one big enough to carry double so I'll go with Ayame."
The Aisha nodded, swinging into Grace's saddle. "Be careful, Gar'," he said softly, before the spotted Uni took off at a dead run.
"This is foolish," Ohu muttered. "We'll never make it back in time." Nonetheless, he knelt down to allow Ayame to climb up on his back. Gary started to mount up in front of her, when a roar of fury sounded behind him; the Werelupes had arrived.
Ohu lurched up, Gary still only half-mounted. The Uni tore off at full gallop, not checking his pace to give his partner an easier time climbing into the saddle. Gary almost fell off, until Ayame grabbed the back of his mail shirt and pulled him the rest of the way up.
When he looked around, his stomach lurched. The Werelupes were following them, and in this weather there was no way for Ohu to lose them by flying. Every feather in his wings would be saturated with too much water for him to use them properly.
"Keep running, Ohu," Gary yelled. "They're still tailing us!"
"No? I hadn't noticed!" the Uni shot back waspishly. Behind him, Gary felt Ayame turn towards the monsters and fling her magic at them. Unfortunately, it didn't stop them for long.
"Don't you have any stronger spells?" Gary asked her. She shook her head.
"When I said I was doing quests for Illusen? Learning to use my magic was what I asked of her in return. Dark magic runs in my family, but my mother was never trained in how to use hers. I managed to learn some basic things from Illusen, but she's an earth faerie, not a dark one. So what I can do is limited."
Gary bit his lip. They were still a ways off from the border of the fief, and from there it was still at least a mile to Illusen's Glade. He could hear Ohu panting with the exertion of carrying two riders on a cross-country sprint. At this rate the Uni would founder before the reached Illusen.
Suddenly, a thought struck him.
"Lady Ayame, you got wings," he said slowly. "Can you fly?"
"Not well," the Kougra admitted. "I'm a pretty clumsy flier. But yes, I can. Why?"
"Ohu," the Bori said, "get m'lady as far as the border, then she'll have t' climb off you and fly the rest of the way to Illusen; you'll be done in by then."
"I'll be... 'done in' before that..." he gasped. "Your armor and weapons aren't feather light, you know!"
"Yeah, I do know," the squire replied. "That's why I'm gonna stay here and hold 'em off."
"What?" Ohu squawked. But it was too late; the Bori pulled his feet from the stirrups and kicked out of the saddle, slamming the ground hard enough to send his half-healed head pounding. He heard Ayame call his name, but her voice was already growing distant as Ohu ran on. Gary rolled upright, yanking his sword out of the sheath; his real sword. No flailing with a blunt wooden stick today.
The Werelupes- three of them- surrounded him, cackling.
"What's this? The little morsel deciding to make things easy on us?" one asked, licking her chops.
"Nah, but look at his sword," another hissed. "The sprout thinks to fight us!"
"I'll do more'n think," Gary said, with confidence he in no way felt. The only response from the Werelupes was an explosion of laughter. These creatures were huge. Thick muscles bulged under their dense pelts, and when they opened their mouths he saw inch-long razor sharp teeth. His insides felt like water, and more than anything he wanted to run and hide.
The squire realized at that moment how stupid this idea had been. Fully grown, experienced knights balked at the prospect of fighting a Werelupe. He was only one, young squire who didn't even have the benefit of a true knight-master's mentorship to guide him. He would be almost certainly be killed.
Yet an odd calm settled over him. Fine then. The life of one squire for the lives of all the citizens of Abyssal Acres and the knights who had come to protect them. It was a tradeoff. A sacrifice.
One of the three Werelupes turned towards the quickly shrinking dot that was Gary's companions. "Shouldn't one of us keep chasing them? What if they warn that princeling?"
"They're going away from the castle, you nit," the first speaker said. "Besides, it won't take long to put this brat in his place."
She lunged for Gary, who reacted instinctively. The Werelupe shrieked as his sword sliced into her, recoiling in pain. The other two snarled, leaping towards him. He jumped out of the way so that they fell forwards into a tangled heap, snarling and snapping as they tried to disentangle themselves.
Gary flung himself towards the two, trying to finish them off. Unfortunately, the female who seemed to be the leader swatted him with a massive paw, sending him flying like a rag doll. His skull exploded with agony as he bounced across the muddy earth, making his eyes blur and his ears roar. Squinting against the pain, he forced himself to stand up and assume a defensive position again.
"So the bratling has a few tricks," one of the male Werelupes snarled. "But they won't save you, boy."
Gary shook his head to clear it, and instantly regretted the action as it just made things worse. Before he could react, one of the Werelupes shoved him to the ground. He brought his shield arm up, catching the monster in the jaw with his shield. It cried out, but did not let go. It looked down at him with hate-filled emerald eyes, jaws parted so that it's hot, foul breath washed over the young squire.
Then, as the other two howled with triumph, its wicked teeth descended...
To be continued...