Worth Fighting For: Part Seven
The Grundo dropped the Zafara and the two made a mad dash back through the woods.
"Why did you leave her by herself?!" Hyren demanded to know.
"Me?! You're one to talk!" Blynn spat in retort as she raced beside him on all fours. "I told you I'd be watching you!"
They found the camp in disarray, the fire smothered, and Terra nowhere in sight. "No..." Blynn covered her mouth with her paw as she trudged toward Terra's disheveled pack and bedroll, smoothing down the sleeping bag as though she was hoping her owner was somehow hiding in it. "She... she's gone..."
Hyren's shoulders sagged. He had never meant for this to happen. It was all his fault the girl and her Neopet were on this wild misadventure, and now she could come to harm because of him. And she would, anyway, if he brought her to Sloth. Suddenly Hyren wished he'd never survived Sakhmet.
He began carefully inspecting the campsite, watching his HUD's biosensor at the same time. He was going to take advantage of his tech for as long as it stayed working. Small dots of life were scattered everywhere, bio-traces of Petpets in the trees, but nothing large enough to be Terra, or whatever had carried her off. "I'm not seeing any pertinent life forms on my scanner. They must have moved fast... We'll find her," he assured the Zafara
"What do you mean, 'we'?" Blynn replied bitterly as she grabbed the lantern and marched over to the dying remnants of the fire. The Mote was still there, but rather than try to cajole the spooked fire sprite into the lantern, Blynn just brusquely scooped it in and shut the window. "You go back to your precious Doctor Sloth, Commander. I'm not letting you near my owner again."
"No," Hyren insisted, scanning the leaf-covered ground. He spotted Terra's glasses and picked them up. They were miraculously undamaged, and he put them in an empty compartment of his utility belt. "The both of you are in this mess because of me. I won't abandon you now."
"Yeah, 'cause you want test subjects." Blynn rolled up Terra's bedding and fastened it to the girl's pack. "No thanks."
"I said I was sorry!"
Blynn glared venom up at him. "'Sorry' doesn't mean much."
"Look, every second we spend arguing is another second Terra's in danger!" Hyren pointed out. "You don't have to like me, but just let me help you get her back!" Depressions among dead leaves caught his eye. "Blynn, how good are you with footprints?"
She stopped trying to find a way to carry Terra's and her own backpacks at the same time, glancing over at him. "Not very. Why?"
"These definitely aren't any of ours." Hyren pointed to the tracks. "They look like they could belong to a Lupe, but... do Lupes get this big?"
The Zafara loped over to him. "Werelupes do."
Hyren's antennae twitched. "Were... Lupes?"
She leaned over the tracks, tilting her head. "They're like regular Lupes, but... bigger and stronger. And wilder. They don't have owners."
"Then what would they want with an owner?"
Blynn thought for a moment before shaking her head, her long ears flopping from side to side as she clutched at her arms. "I don't wanna find out."
"Come on." Hyren knelt down next to Terra's pack and lashed it to his cache of Faerie weapons before hefting the entire bundle back over his shoulder. He could easily handle even more weight than this, and he didn't want to leave anything of hers behind. "Let's get moving, before it starts raining and these tracks get erased." He picked up her sword and strapped it to his waist opposite his own blade, the belt barely fitting his girth.
"I told you, you're not coming." Blynn gripped the straps of her pack and began setting out in the direction the pawprints pointed.
Hyren reached down and grabbed her bedroll to hold her back. "I'm not letting you take on Werelupes alone."
"I've gotta weapon!" She patted the slingshot at her side.
"Blynn, do Werelupes live in packs?"
She thought for a moment before sticking out her chin. "Well, yeah, but... I'll be fine! Especially if the explosion thing happens again!"
"You're just one Neopet, and you have no idea how many Werelupes could be at the end of this trail!"
"And you just want her back so you can bring her to Sloth!"
Hyren crouched down so he was nearly eye level with her, and stared closely at her, his hands on his knees. "Sloth," he began, "needs Zafara test subjects. He probably has more than enough owners. Chew on that. If all I cared about was currying his favor, I would just take you and leave. I've done some pretty idiotic things lately, but I care about Terra just as much as you do, in spite of my best efforts to deny it."
Blynn wrinkled her nose. "Are you going to betray her?"
He stood again, holding out his hands, palms up. "I seriously don't want to. I have a job to do, and I owe my loyalty to Sloth. But I'll... I'll figure something out. I promise."
Narrowing her eyes, the Zafara scrutinised him for a moment, and then turned and dropped to all fours. "Try to keep up." With that, she dashed into the night.
"Be sure to pay attention to the trail!" Hyren called after her, drawing his sword and breaking into a jog. Although she was fast, his long, loping strides allowed him to easily keep pace with her. He clutched the rope around his shoulders, pulling his bundle of weapons close to his back so outstretched branches wouldn't pull it away. After all of the insanity he had been through lately, he was looking forward to his rightful compensation. He just had to make sure Terra was safe, first.
The two Neopets passed through paths in the dense undergrowth that were just barely large enough for Hyren to fit through, and he wondered what had made them. He felt like hitting himself for not spending more time researching the Haunted Woods, but it had never figured largely into the invasion plan. Aside from that, Virtupets agents simply hadn't returned all that much information on the mysterious and dangerous land. In fact, Hyren wouldn't have been surprised if some agents had never returned at all.
The Woods seemed to press in on them incessantly and the pricking at the back of the commander's neck was constant, just like the nagging sensation that something was following them, although every time he turned around he saw nothing. Hyren could only hope the light from Blynn's lantern would keep danger at bay. He didn't dare use the lights in his own armour—the brightness would have made him far too conspicuous.
"Oh. Great." The Grundo stopped at a small clearing where the earth was harder-packed than the soft soil they'd encountered so far. The tracks were now much more difficult to pick out. They were hopelessly scattered and jumbled, and with too many of them to have possibly belonged to just one Werelupe. "Hold up!" he called to Blynn, who was continuing to sprint pell-mell toward one of many openings in the trees.
She skidded to a stop and looked back at him. "C'mon, we gotta keep going!" she panted.
"I lost the trail," Hyren explained, making his way around the perimeter, trying to find a set of pawprints that broke away from the chaos. There were several leading into the clearing, but none going out.
"So?" Her tail twitched in impatience. "Hurry! This way!"
Hyren snorted. "You don't know for sure it's that way. It could be any—"
"Yeah, I can smell 'em this way." She frowned and pointed to her nose. "So there."
The commander blinked. "You can smell them? Why didn't you say so before and save us the trouble of following footprints?!"
"I was never following footprints!" she seethed.
"...Oh." With a sigh, he stood up straight. He was glad at least one of them had a good nose.
"Now c'mon! If it rains I'll lose the scent!"
"Right. Lead on, then." The Grundo followed her deeper into the Woods. With every step he took, he dreaded what he might find at the end of the trail. Please be okay, Terra. Blynn needs you. I... I need you, he admitted silently to himself.
The moon sank deep beneath clouds, cold rains came and went, and Hyren and Blynn rushed on through thick woodland and tumultuous terrain. The Mutant Grundo was willing to keep his pace for days more. And Blynn continued to run raggedly just ahead of him, with endurance that was astonishing for her small size.
Finally, chilled and soaked to the bone, the two burst out of a thicket and stopped. Tattered, rain-torn clouds near the horizon allowed silver moonlight to illuminate the landscape. The forest petered out around them, and to either side the land, too, dropped off, sheer and jagged, into a black nothingness. Only straight ahead did it extend as a peninsula into a sea of mist. On that outcropping of stone sat an enormous castle, built of thick-hewn blocks of dark granite, brooding silently over the deep.
The castle had seen better days – one of its corner towers had collapsed, and the walls were crowded with thorny vines – but firelight flickered in a few of the windows. From the rampart hung a torn crimson banner, sporting the crudely-painted symbol of a white crescent moon above a large pawprint.
Hyren had scarcely enough time to take the scene in when a throaty howl echoed from the castle, joined by several others rising in unison. Blynn caught her breath and then began to dart out into the open, but Hyren grabbed her pack and held her back. "Hold on," he grunted, watching his HUD's biosensor. "That place is swarming with life forms." He tagged her as an allied unit, making her presence register as a green glow in the corner of his visor. The biomass in the castle was still orange-neutral—for now.
"I don't see anything," Blynn retorted in a whisper, trying to wriggle out of his grip. "Let's go!"
"There are guards on the walls," Hyren murmured. Although the night was too dark and the castle too far away for Blynn's unaided eyes to see, the commander's visor clearly showed a handful of beings atop the ramparts, some standing still while others mulled about. "They haven't noticed us yet."
"I got this."
Hyren looked down to see Blynn shut the lantern window, cloaking them in darkness. She carefully took out her slingshot and grabbed a piece of ammo from her pouch. The Zafara placed it in the sling's pocket and drew it back. Tongue sticking out in concentration, she fired into the sky to the side of the castle. Hyren wasn't expecting much, so it made him jump when the night suddenly exploded into bright fireworks, sending whistles and claps of thunder rippling through the air. The guards stood still for a moment and then rushed to the wall of the fortress nearest the explosions.
The commander and the Zafara made their way around the other side. As they drew closer to the colossal structure, Hyren glanced up and saw dark, hulking figures looking around in bewilderment, returning to their posts just as the Grundo and his companion slipped against the wall.
"Want me to send up another one?" Blynn whispered.
"No, not here." As they inched along the stone, climbing onto a crumbling terrace built out over the cliff, Hyren began to hear deep, growling voices. He craned his neck to see firelight casting an orange glow on the thick rims of a set of tall, narrow windows.
Near one of the windows, a pile of crates and barrels had been casually stacked, and Blynn wasted no time in scrambling silently up them. Hyren followed, although his ascent was much more careful as he wasn't sure just how much weight the pile could hold. Thankfully, nothing broke under him, and he peered over the windowsill alongside Blynn, his antennae lowered to lessen his profile even though the moon had disappeared behind clouds again.
They were looking into an immense throne room, a great hall for some forgotten monarch whose kingdom had been swallowed up by the Woods. Unlike the underground palace of the Alxuin, however, this place was cold and utilitarian, holding no decorations except for a set of moon-and-paw banners on the walls, identical to the one outside. A fire blazed brightly in a pit in the middle of the area, and several spits were arranged over it, holding large chunks of meat. The floor was covered in furs, straw, and various scattered supplies, making the room look more like a beasts' den than the great hall it once was.
But that was all too fitting for the beasts that lived there now, Hyren thought as he espied hordes of shaggy, red-eyed monsters lounging around the hall. Many of them simply lazed about, while others sharpened weapons, or ripped into food with their oversized fangs. They wore cloaks of furs, primitive leather armour, and jewelry made from bones and teeth. Hyren didn't want to know where the Werelupes had gotten those. Occasionally a few of them would get into a spat, snarling and barking, exchanging a few blows before settling back down—usually with one of them having stolen the other's food.
"They're even nastier in person," Blynn muttered under her breath. "I've only ever read about 'em."
Enemy. One of the Werelupes glowed red in Hyren's visor as he tagged it. Then another, and another. Enemy, enemy, enemy. His eyes darted around the room at an almost frantic pace as he searched for Terra, feeling hot anger build in his nerves, his body preparing for battle.
He did a double-take when he saw a smaller figure huddled among a handful of the beasts. It was pale and brown-haired, and its hands were bound behind its back with thick rope. "Terra..." the commander breathed, his antennae twitching. A moment later her shape registered green. Ally.
"Terra?" Blynn hissed. "Where?!"
Hyren nudged with his chin to the group of Werelupes amongst which the Zafara's owner was situated. Terra sat motionless with her knees curled against her chest and head bowed, but she seemed unharmed, much to Hyren's relief.
The creatures around her were laughing and talking loudly in harsh, grating tones. One of them, with a rust-orange coat of fur and a large scar over one red eye, reached over and poked a meat-covered bone at her face. She shied away, and the Werelupe guffawed in reply. He brought the meat to his own mouth and tore off a chunk, spittle flying.
Hyren had to dig his fingers into the stone to keep himself focused and prevent himself from simply leaping through the window. Beside him, he noticed Blynn's hackles raised, her tail lashing violently. Reaching over, he placed a large hand on her back. "Not yet," he whispered. He knew how she felt. He had to use every ounce of willpower he possessed to keep himself from swooping in to save Terra, but he and Blynn couldn't take down a castle full of Werelupes by themselves. And he also was well aware by now that every time he acted without thinking, something would collapse on him. He had to have restraint.
Suddenly, all of the Werelupes froze, their ears perking up as they looked toward the large wooden doors that stood closed at the end of the hall. The doors had long since been battered in by some massive siege engine, but had been crudely repaired and painted in white and red with moon and pawprint symbols.
A moment later, they burst open with a reverberating boom that shook the stone Hyren and Blynn were clinging to. Terrible howls like screams echoed through the halls, making the Grundo wince and tuck his antennae closer to his head in an attempt to block out the sound, and the Zafara grabbed her own floppy ears and pulled them down over her cheeks.
"Make way!" Two Werelupes armed with jagged blades scampered into the room. "The King returns from the hunt!" Immediately the beasts already in the hall tilted their heads back and joined in the infernal chorus of howls, raising their horrid anthem of the night to the rafters. Terra ducked her head between her knees, unable to use her hands to hold her ears.
Through the doorway sauntered a Werelupe the color of shadow. He was slightly larger and bulkier than the rest, and wore a bone necklace with an enormous tooth pendant resting on his chest. Atop his head sat a twisted sort of crown fashioned from the skull of some fanged creature Hyren couldn't recognise.
The howls died down, the Werelupes' eyes seeming to glow with fresh flame as the newcomer passed down the centre aisle and around the firepit. When he reached the dais at the other end of the room, he climbed onto a cruel throne fashioned out of metal, wood, and bone, digging his claws into the armrests.
"Your king now holds court!" he barked, his voice like a winter wind whipping through a thicket of thorns. "What tribute do my thanes pay me?" The king surveyed the room expectantly.
Several Werelupes rose and began carrying objects forward, depositing them at his feet. "Rare Neggs from the Snowager's cave, Lord," one of them said, presenting the Neggs with a deep bow and looking up to see his ruler nod in satisfaction.
Another set down a cloth sack and unfastened the top, letting a rainbow glow bathe her muzzle. "Bottled Faeries, my liege. Balthazar sends his regards." The king nodded again.
To Hyren's horror, the Werelupe that had been teasing Terra earlier got up, yanking her to her feet and pushing her to the throne, where he forced her to kneel. "An owner, sire," he hissed. "Captured near the Shrieking Dale just after moonrise."
A hush fell over the hall as the king tilted his head, his ears perking and a toothy, cruel smile spreading over his muzzle. "An owner, hm? You knew I had an eye out for one, eh, Rahan?" The massive black Werelupe rose from his throne and crouched in front of the offering.
"Aye, Lord," Rahan replied, puffing out his chest proudly.
Terra was trembling, her head bowed, and the king snatched her jaw with his thumb and forefinger, forcing her to look up at him as he turned her face from side to side like he was inspecting a Petpet at the Trading Post. Finally, he let her go and looked up at her captor with an approving nod. "She'll do nicely."
"...Are you going to eat me?" Terra's voice was so faint that Hyren barely registered it, and he strained to catch her every word, happy just to hear her speak again.
The Werelupe King quirked one shaggy brow. "Eat you?" Tilting back his head, he let out a sharp, barking laugh, clasping his paws to his stomach. The other Werelupes joined him, and Hyren could feel his heart thud as the girl held a deep breath, her already pale face now entirely drained of color.
"No." The beastly king crouched back down, bringing his nose nearly to hers. She cringed and looked away. The Werelupe King cracked a fanged grin. "No... you are going to be my owner."
"What?!" Terra recoiled, but was held fast by Rahan. "But I don't want to be your owner! What about my Zafara, she's still out in the Woods—"
"The ghosts have probably gotten to her by now," the king snarled, rising up and clenching one furry fist. "I will be your only Neopet from now on. All of your loyalty, your labor, your resources—I control them now." He folded his paws behind his back and paced in front of her. "You will do my bidding and see to my every whim, and if you behave, I may let you eat." He stopped and looked down at her, his red eyes gleaming with malice. "Are we understood, owner?"
Hyren felt the anger rise and roil inside of him, and he clenched the stone wall so hard that he thought it might crumble in his fingers. After a moment, he became aware of Blynn's eyes on him. He glanced over to see the Zafara regarding him with something akin to amazement. The Grundo felt his face heat up and he blinked, his antennae flattening against his head further in annoyance. With a wordless grumble, he turned back to making sure Terra was safe.
Rahan tilted his head. "What do you want an owner for, anyway, lord?" He poked her arm with one claw. "Not like you can do much with 'em."
"Don't question what your king requires!" the Werelupe King barked. "She will be a valuable addition to my hoard. Take her up to the northeast tower." He sat back on his throne. "And now... we feast!" he roared. A clamor of wild cries rose up in response, and two other Werelupes used that as their cue to spring up and start bringing meat to their ruler. He plucked a Negg from his treasure pile and dropped it into his fanged maw.
"Heh, you should have eaten when you got the chance," Rahan sneered as he pushed Terra toward the doors. "Who knows when we'll remember to feed you."
"B-but why does he want an owner?" Terra asked.
"Cursed if I know." Rahan shook his head. "He just decided he wanted one. And what the Werelupe King wants, he gets."
The two disappeared from Hyren's natural vision. His visor, however, was still tracking their biosignatures and he watched them change direction and then start to ascend, obviously up a flight of stairs.
The commander suddenly became aware of moisture on his skin, and his great shoulders twitched and then shuddered. He turned around and sat on top of the pile of crates, resting his back against the wall and staring up at the sky. Dawn apparently had decided to call in sick, as the night was still black. And now the mist had risen around them, a chill breeze was picking up, and a light rain had set in.
Hyren grumbled again and tucked his arms to his chest sullenly. Even though his body was designed to have the environmental constitution of a rock, and the electronics in his armour were well-protected from moisture, he still hated rain. Water had no business falling from a planet's sky like that. It made things terribly uncomfortable, and he'd never forgotten that one invasion where he'd come down with a bad case of the Sneezles.
Blynn, meanwhile, seemed to be oblivious to his discomfort. "They're taking her up to the tower, that makes things a lot easier for us..." she muttered, stroking her chin with her finger as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Might not even guard her, but even if they do, a guard or two's nothing compared to a whole room fulla Werelupes..."
"What was that?" someone growled from inside. "Go check the window, I think somethin's out there."
A dot of red on Hyren's visor broke away from the group and approached where he and Blynn were hiding.
To be continued...