Worth Fighting For: Part Eight
Hyren flattened himself against the wall, using his arm to sweep Blynn up against the stone. "Don't. Move," he breathed.
The two Neopets silently looked up to see a long, fanged snout poke out above them, sniffing the air. Hyren held his breath, hoping the wind and rain were enough to have already dispersed their scents—and that the Werelupe wouldn't think to glance down.
After a few agonizing seconds the muzzle withdrew. "Ain't nothin'," came the retreating reply. "Cursed wind makin' noise, is all."
Hyren exhaled, placing a hand on his chest. "That way," he urged Blynn, prompting her to sidle off of the crates in the direction of the cliff edge, which was hidden by a labyrinth of terraces and roofs. Craning his neck upward, he could see the sole spot of green in this red-infested hole, high above them to the northeast. A crimson dot was now descending—clearly Rahan did not want to miss the festivities.
The Grundo and the Zafara carefully picked their way around the castle's exterior, scaling broken-down walls and veering around patches of rooftop that appeared particularly unstable. Nearly all of the Werelupes seemed to be gathered in the great hall, but there was one stationary, unflagged neutral-orange biosignal far below Hyren's feet. Most likely a prisoner, Hyren guessed, but he was here for Terra and Terra alone. And all the while, the rain and wind were picking up.
"How did you know your ammo would explode like that?" the commander asked once they were well out of earshot from the Werelupes.
"A hunch," the Zafara replied with a shrug.
"You're more intuitive than you let on."
The northeast tower turned out to be rather angular, and studded with narrow windows that were unfortunately far too small for Hyren to get inside. But he had another plan for them.
"Give me a second," he muttered to Blynn, reaching into his utility belt and pulling out a flat metal cylinder. On the rim was a plug, while a tapering metal shape resembling a flower bud protruded out the other side. "Hop on." Hyren gestured to his shoulder, and Blynn scrambled up, perching on Terra's pack and rearranging it to make sure no rain was getting in.
Once the Zafara was settled, Hyren inserted the plug into a corresponding socket on his bracer. He fisted his hand, pointed his arm up at a window halfway to the top, and fired. From the cylinder shot a thin, black rope, a weave of artificial fibers developed by Sloth's techs to withstand far more in stress than a Mutant Grundo's own weight. The "bud" bloomed into three prongs as it was sent sailing into the air, and when it reached the first window it caught on the rim and stuck.
"Proprietary Virtupets alloy," Hyren explained, fat raindrops spattering on his visor and streaming down into his mouth. "It digs into stone like wood." He gave a couple of firm tugs on the cable to make sure it had caught, and then he let out a grunt, kicked off, and began walking up the wall, the rope collecting back into its container as he went. Thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance.
The window was far too narrow for even Blynn to slip in while wearing her pack. Hyren hoisted himself up onto it, lodging one foot in the sill and gripping the edge with his free hand. "One more time," he told his passenger, leaning out and shooting the grappling hook at the substantially larger window near the very top of the tower. He grinned when the prongs landed and the green dot in his HUD moved. She was okay.
While they climbed, Hyren glanced below and his stomach tightened slightly. The Werelupes appeared to be dispersing from the great hall. He bit his lip and walked faster.
Before the commander could get a hand on the rim of the window, Blynn leaped off of his shoulder, vaulting over the stone and letting out a cry of ineffable glee.
"Blynn!" Terra's voice held the same sentiment.
Hyren peeked his head over the edge to see the owner and Neopet wrapped in a tight embrace. Terra's bonds were gone and she was kneeling on the stone floor of a small, barren room, clutching the Zafara to her chest like Blynn was water in a desert. "The ghosts didn't get you!" the girl gasped breathlessly. Her cheeks were wet with fresh tears.
"Of course not," Hyren replied with a lazy smirk, swinging one massive leg over the side of the window. "Do you really think I'd let that happen? Oh, and I believe these are yours." He had to unfasten her pack in order to squeeze himself through the window, and he handed it to her along with her sword before climbing the rest of the way through and dropping to his knees in front of Terra.
"Thank you," she breathed, and before Hyren could do anything else, she wrapped him up in the hug as well, her arm barely reaching around his middle. The commander blinked in surprise, but smiled and leaned into the owner.
He let himself linger there for a moment before pulling away. "We need to get moving," he urged, standing the girl up gently and giving her back her glasses. "The Werelupes are done with their feast and we have to escape before—"
A jagged spear of lightning turned the room white for one brief second, thunder crashing deafeningly a moment later. Terra screamed and huddled close to Hyren, and he put an arm around her shoulder protectively.
The commander strode to the door, effortlessly kicking it down. "Let's just avoid the Werelupes and get out of here. You've put me through enough trouble for one day." He drew his sword and held it before him. Terra did the same, and he led them down the stairs.
Thunder raged around them, and rain sprayed into the tower windows, pelting Hyren's skin and armour, but no red dots approached as they spiraled downward. Finally the three reached a doorway that let out into a hall. To the left, the radar showed Werelupes—to the right, nothing. Hyren ushered Terra and Blynn that way, and they emerged in an empty antechamber.
"Keep going," Hyren instructed them. He pointed to the door on the opposite wall, but saw red approaching and pulled them away. "Just kidding, let's go back—" His HUD alerted him to enemy units encroaching behind them and he froze again. He spun around and crouched into a defensive stance. Terra followed suit, while Blynn readied another piece of ammo in her slingshot.
"Aye, the meat was passable," one Werelupe said to another as they sauntered into the room, "but what I'm really cravin' is—"
With a mighty yell, Hyren launched himself at her, knocking her aside with the flat of his blade. Her companion snarled and moved to attack him, but Terra ran in and tripped the Werelupe up with a well-aimed swipe of her own sword.
"Run!!" Hyren bellowed, sprinting at full tilt down the hall. His radar showed more red converging around them.
Werelupes burst from each door and around every corner, trying to cut them off in a flurry of claws, teeth, and blades. The creatures were strong, but clumsy, and Hyren's finesse with the sword was more than a match for them as he hewed them down and flung them aside. Terra's ferocity made up for her lack of strength. Many a Werelupe tried to move in on Hyren from behind, only to find themselves stung by her blade.
Blynn and her slingshot set off terrific bursts of light in the halls, sending disoriented Werelupes reeling and stumbling over each other. The explosions maintained a wide berth between the trio and their pursuers.
"Just how big is this place, anyway," the Zafara panted. Her sprint was now reduced to a jog.
Terra wasn't looking much better, Hyren noticed from over his shoulder. But what really filled him with a sense of unease was the fact that the orange spot below was moving. It was moving fast. And the closer it got, the larger it seemed to become.
They turned a corner and ended up in the great hall, now deserted. The three approached the great closed doors as lightning stabbed through the night and thunder echoed on the mouldering stone. A commotion rose ahead, with shouts of "Stand back!" and "Don't let go of his chains!" On the other side of the doors, Hyren's HUD showed a mass of reds surrounding the orange, which was apparently at least head-and-shoulders taller than any of them.
The doors were thrown open by a crimson-furred Werelupe with four arms, its face twisted into an expression of unthinking hunger. Teams of wary Werelupes clung to long, thick chains that shackled the beast at the wrists, and its tail whipped behind it as it fought the restraints. Its beady red eyes caught Hyren's gaze. The Grundo shuddered, but held his ground, steadying his sword in front of him.
"Oh, Kiko snot," Blynn muttered.
"Funny, I didn't invite you to the party." The Werelupe King stepped out in front of the monster, ignoring its barely-contained thrashing to narrow his eyes at Hyren. At his side, he held a cruel blade infused with fangs and jagged bits of bone. "Tell me, what makes you think you can invade my domain and steal my rightful tribute?"
"I'm sure you've done worse," Hyren replied, moving to take a swing at him. The king brought up his sword and parried the blow. The commander swept the blade around again, and the Werelupe twisted aside.
"Don't think you'll get the honor of dueling with me this morning, trespasser. No, I have a better fate for you." His lips spread into a wide, eerie grin as he backed away. "Gnarfas here doesn't get a chance to come out and play very often. I think it's about time he had some fun." Glancing over at the Werelupes holding the beast back, the king gave a nod, and they released the chains.
Gnarfas let out a heart-seizing roar and charged. As the monster's steps shook the floor, Hyren glared up at him and broke into a run himself, aiming a strike at the beast's legs. The blade didn't have time to connect before Gnarfas batted the Grundo away, sending him flying. He smashed through a pile of crates, lying dazed for a moment. The Werelupe rushed him again, and Hyren brought up his feet and lashed out at him, kicking Gnarfas's muzzle aside.
That gave Hyren enough time to tumble out of the way, bringing up his blade and lashing at the creature. Gnarfas howled in pain and staggered back, and in the brief pause Hyren saw the king grab Terra, holding her fast. Another Werelupe pounced on Blynn, tearing the slingshot from the Zafara's paw.
Gnarfas scrambled forward and swiped at Hyren, somehow able to keep all four of his arms working in eerie precision. The Grundo spun and wove through the tangle of claws. Occasionally he would feel them rake against his armor, but he managed to stay barely ahead of them. He had a plan.
"Milord!" the Werelupe holding Blynn barked. "Shall I take them to the dungeons?"
"No," the king growled, gripping Terra like she was his entire kingdom. "I'm not letting her out of my sights again, since you lot are so incompetent."
"Why do I matter so much to you?!" Terra protested, struggling in his arms. "I'm not rich, or important! I'm just a kid!"
"I've wanted an owner for a long time," the Werelupe King replied, suddenly sounding old and tired. He snapped back to form a moment later. "Which is why Gnarfas is going to take care of your precious champion."
Hyren tried not to let their conversation distract him as he led the monster Werelupe toward the firepit. The commander deflected another huge paw with his sword, and used the momentum to drag the tip of his blade through the coals, flinging them up at his assailant.
Gnarfas yelped in pain, pawing at his own snout with one pair of arms while blindly grasping for Hyren with the other pair. It was easy for the Grundo to evade them and dive in for the Werelupe's legs again. His blow sent Gnarfas stumbling back, the beast coming to rest against the wall with two hands clutching a windowsill.
The Werelupe King emitted a low growl, his hackles raised and tail bushed. Still keeping an arm around Terra, he began to reach for his sword.
Hyren's chest heaved and his armour was slippery with sweat as he closed in for the finishing blow. As the commander raised his blade, Gnarfas ripped the stones he was holding onto out from the wall and lobbed them at the Grundo. They came too fast for Hyren to dodge—his armour's shields absorbed the brunt of the concussion, but he was still sent sailing. He landed against the opposite wall and crumpled. His sword dropped from his grasp.
"No!" Terra screamed. "Hyren! Get up!!"
Head spinning, the commander gritted his teeth and felt for his weapon. Gnarfas lunged for Hyren again, snapping his fangs. The Grundo managed to grip the hilt and push himself to his feet. As he threw up his sword to block, Gnarfas's snout rammed into the flat of the blade, shoving Hyren back into the wall with such force that the stone shuddered.
Gnarfas planted all four of his claws into the wall around Hyren, pinning him. The Werelupe stared him down, saliva dripping from his maw. The commander grimaced at the monster's rancid breath and the emptiness within his eyes, and steadied his sword.
Out of the corner of his eye, Hyren saw Terra elbow the Werelupe King in the stomach. The king doubled over, and Terra used the distraction to wrench herself free of his grasp and sprint towards Gnarfas, sword outstretched. At the same time, Blynn bit the paw of the Werelupe holding her. The female barked in surprise and fumbled, giving the Zafara enough time to grab her slingshot and bound away.
"Gnarfas! Finish him!" the Werelupe King wheezed, holding his ribs as he chased after the girls.
Hyren stiffened. He pulled out his blaster and fired a few shots point-blank, but they did nothing—it seemed the stun effects didn't work on a creature this big. Gnarfas drew back his head and spread his jaws wide.
The commander heard a familiar snap, and then a "Whoops" from Blynn, and the floor beneath Gnarfas's feet collapsed. The monster's claws scrabbled helplessly on the rock for a moment, and then he was gone. A fissure started to spread through the rest of the stone.
"What did you do?!" Terra cried out.
"I don't know!" Blynn replied, looking at her weapon in shock.
Hyren stowed his weapons and leaped across the swiftly growing chasm. He grabbed the girls under his arms and stumbled over jostled, uneven rocks, toward the doors. The crack extended to the walls, and the entire fortress rumbled with the sound of stone being shaken from its foundations.
"How dare you?!" the Werelupe King snarled, his eyes blazing. Raising his blade, he rushed at Hyren, but the floor gave out from under the monarch mid-stride. He gave one last sickening howl as he disappeared into the trench.
"Okay, I didn't do it this time!" the commander shouted as he carried the girls into the entrance hall. The castle appeared to be almost crumpling in on itself. It was surreal to watch as doorways slumped in and stairs twisted and heaved and finally broke apart like a child's tumbling building blocks. Werelupes were swept away into the abyss around Hyren with a horrific symphony of howls, but by some grace of the Faeries the Grundo's own footing was sure.
The front gate started to give way. Although his lungs burned, Hyren summoned every ounce of strength he could, and launched himself out the open arch. He and his companions tumbled into the mud ungracefully. Hyren sat up and looked back to see the cliff just behind them collapse entirely, taking the whole castle with it and leaving the three of them alone on the ledge.
He was shaking as he let the girls go and sat back on his heels at the new edge of the cliff, letting the grey morning rain pelt his helmet and stream down his armour in rivulets. Rain was really the last thing on his mind at this point. "I... I think I've fulfilled my quota of things caving in on me," he quipped, his tongue feeling like cotton. Blynn and Terra picked themselves up wordlessly, and the three simply sat there for a moment, dazed and relieved.
Their silence was cut short when Hyren was abruptly yanked back. Wheeling his arms to try to regain his balance, he looked over his shoulder. The Werelupe King glared back at him, illuminated by a timely flash of lightning, fangs bared in fury and crimson eyes aflame. The king had hold of Hyren's bundle of Faerie weapons.
"If I'm going down... I'm taking you with me!" the Werelupe snarled.
"Hyren!" Terra stumbled forward and grabbed his hand. Blynn clutched Hyren's arm and dug her heels into the mud, but their strength combined was nowhere near a match for the weight.
The commander began to tip backward. With his free hand, he undid the knot tying the weapons cache around his shoulders and the rope whipped into thin air. Hyren twisted around to see the look of shock on the Werelupe King's face as, still clutching the bundle, he plummeted into the mists. A peal of thunder sounded a farewell knell.
Then Hyren hit the mud, the unexpected force sending Terra and Blynn sprawling. The Grundo staggered to his knees, sputtering mud out of his mouth and wiping it off of his visor. Terra said nothing, but wrapped her arms around his own thick arm. He could feel her shivering as the wind slapped her dripping wet cloak about her body.
Hyren gathered Terra and Blynn into a tight hug, trying to imbue some of his warmth to their small bodies. "I love you guys." He was done arguing with himself. He knew he could never turn them over to Sloth.
Terra flung her arms around his neck. "You're the best friend we've ever had," she whispered through chattering teeth.
"Yeah, you're not so bad for a big, grumpy Grundo," Blynn agreed, clinging to his chestplate.
Hyren wished he could have stayed in that moment forever, but the cold and rain were clearly taking their toll on his companions. "Let's find some shelter," he urged, standing up and guiding them back into the relative protection of the trees. True, he had no idea what might be lurking there, but right now it seemed a better option than continuing to endure the elements, and Blynn and Terra had gone most of the night without sleep. Even he was starting to feel the pull on his strength from how many days he had spent awake.
They ended up finding sanctuary in the immense hollow of an ancient tree, big enough to comfortably house even Hyren's bulk. There, they huddled together, the Zafara and her owner using the Grundo as a heat source while they listened to the storm move on to dispense its wrath elsewhere. The thunder faded, the wind died, and gradually they were left with only the splash of countless drops of water filtering through foliage. And all the while the world slowly lightened until the morning reached a filmy twilight, mist still brooding over the forest floor.
"So... what exactly happened back there?" Hyren asked Blynn quietly. The Zafara's tail was curled around his arm and the tuft of hair on her head would have tickled his chin if her fur weren't soaked and matted.
She looked up at him wearily. "What?"
"When you shot at that monster Werelupe with your slingshot," Terra clarified, shifting under Hyren's other arm as she tried to dry off her glasses on her wet shirt. "And it made the whole castle fall down."
"I didn't know it was gonna do that," Blynn explained. "I was trying to make fireworks again."
"Maybe it's random," her owner guessed. "I mean, it is Faerie magic. That stuff tends to do its own thing."
"Maybe..." Hyren grunted. He thought for a moment. "What did you shoot?"
"I was aiming for his feet," the Zafara replied.
"No, I mean, what kind of ammo did you use?"
"Um... I dunno, I just reached into the pouch without looking." Blynn held up one paw and rolled her thumb and finger together as if she was trying to remember the feel of a projectile in her hand. "I think it was one of the pebbles I picked up from the mountain. Would that matter?"
"Oh, I get it," Terra chimed in. "You think where the ammo comes from has something to do with its magical effects."
Hyren nodded. "Exactly."
Terra placed a finger to her chin. "And the slingshot draws out the inherent magic in whatever gets used with it."
"Sweetness!" Blynn squealed. "I'm glad I got the slingshot, then! You guys can keep your crummy swords. I have to find more stuff to shoot and see what it does..."
"I could have handled the situation myself," Hyren insisted with a pout. His antennae twitched. "But... thanks for helping me out, there."
The Zafara shot him a cheeky smile. "Can't let you take all the credit."
Terra sneezed. "It's too bad we don't have a fire," she muttered, sounding rather miserable.
Hyren felt sorry for her, but there wasn't really much else he could do at this point. "No getting sick on my watch," he teased, prodding her arm playfully and making her laugh a little. "Once it dries up out there, we'll see if there's anything to burn. At least we still have the Fire Mote."
Blynn had set the lantern on top of their pile of gear and opened one of the windows, giving the three a view of a most abject little fire sprite who was not fond of this weather at all. The Mote hissed and sputtered the entire time, sulking near the bottom of the lantern rather than bobbing merrily like usual.
"Now get some sleep, the both of you," the commander urged. His own eyelids were growing heavy, and he let out a mighty yawn that made his chest expand like a balloon.
"I'll try," Terra murmured, her eyes already closing.
"Let's hear another story," Blynn insisted.
Hyren snickered. "All right. I'll tell you about the time I found a moon covered in ice geysers. I was piloting a fighter, and I weaved my craft between the glittering sprays of ice as I skimmed close to the mirrorlike surface..."
As the three of them drifted off, in the back of his mind Hyren thought he heard a familiar beeping noise coming from the equipment pile, but he was so exhausted he paid it no heed and let himself slip into sleep.
He snorted awake some time later, startled by a mounting, rumbling whine overhead. He blinked, trying to remember why it sounded so familiar.
"Wow, what is that?" Terra wondered, pulling on her glasses and rising slowly to her feet to peer out into the Woods. The sound crescendoed and then began to fade.
"I hope it goes away soon," Blynn yawned, scratching her belly. "I wanna get back to sleep."
Hyren's heart skipped a beat. "Starship engine."
To be continued...