Worth Searching For: Part Seven
"Ah, such finesse! Good, good, now add in the Screlon; let's see if you can keep up three at once."
Pharazon didn't dare blink, afraid that once he closed his eyes, the magic would break and the fruits floating above his head would crash down on him. Sticking out his tongue in concentration, the Faerie Draik stretched out his claws to the Screlon on the table and willed his magic at it. A stream of Faerie dust swirled from his hand and enveloped the yellow fruit, and it began to bob like it was floating in water as it joined the Magneorb and Jipple Pear overhead.
A grin spread up his snout. "I'm doing it," he whispered. Struck by a sudden surge of confidence, he twirled one claw and the fruits began to revolve around his head like the Space Station around Neopia. "Oh, neat! Look at this, Skoll!"
Skoll laughed. "Power and ingenuity. Both marks of a great mage." The old Werelupe leaned back in his chair. "You're a rather fast learner, my boy. I must say, I am very impressed." He reached up and fingered his grey whiskers, his clouded gaze growing distant. "You remind me quite a bit of myself when I was young..."
"Really?" Pharazon jumped up and the fruits wobbled in their orbits. One of the Magneorb's purple berries brushed past the tip of his ear and he bit his tongue concentrating on keeping it aloft. "Phew..." He floated the fruits back onto the table, rearranging them in their bowl for good measure.
The Draik climbed into the other chair, resting his arms on the table and waiting for the pressure in the back of his mind to fade. Skoll had warned him about the hazards of magical fatigue, and these exercises were supposed to build up Pharazon's stamina for more advanced casting. "Okay, how was that?" he asked.
The Werelupe Sage shook himself out of his thoughts and clapped his shaggy paws together. "Very good! You'll be a fine court conjurer yet!"
Pharazon grinned. "Thanks." Of course he couldn't reveal the real reason he was so invested in his training. He had to save himself and his owner from this den of beasts. But his own magic aside, he thought he might have found a lead.
"So... can you teach—"
With a groan, Pharazon turned to see Suhel leaning against the entrance to Skoll's grotto, holding the door-flap open with one arm. Why couldn't she just leave him alone and let him enjoy his time with someone who didn't pick on him for a change?
Skoll frowned. "Can we help you, Suhel?"
The female glanced at him and her ears lowered, and she averted her gaze to the Draik and gave him a small grin. "Well, uh... you've been cooped in this little hole for so long, runt, do you want to go see the Great Prism Hall now?" Her tail wagged a little. "I think you'd like it—the clouds have cleared up a little and the moon's at the right angle to where its light comes through shafts in the rock and goes through crystal formations and it covers the walls in rainbows!" She spread her fingers wide for emphasis.
"I'm studying," Pharazon replied, lifting his snout in the air slightly.
Suhel drooped. "You can't spend all your time with your muzzle in a book! I just got a Weewoo from His Lordship, he and Terra are staying the night in Caxton Bank, and... he did ask me to take care of you, so I was hoping the two of us could spend some time together."
Pharazon's eyes narrowed. "Why, so you can scare me again?"
"You've done naught but study since you met Skoll." Her expression turned pleading. "Don't you want to do something else? It's no fun without you around."
Skoll's nose wrinkled and he used his staff to support himself as he drew himself up, his eyes flashing a pale green. "That is enough, Suhel. Leave my pupil alone."
To Pharazon's surprise, Suhel's ears pinned back and she let out a whimper, her eyes dropping. "Yes, magus." She looked back at Pharazon as she backed out of the grotto. "I'll... see you at dinner, then."
"Bye," Pharazon said rather noncommittally, glad to see her go. Once her footfalls faded, he raised an eyebrow at his teacher. "Is she afraid of you?"
"She fears magic, and who can blame her?" Skoll said, inspecting his claws. "To the unlearned, the arcane arts are a dangerous thing. They cannot be fought with simple brute force, but with intellect and will. It's far too sophisticated a thing for Werelupes to accomplish." He paused, and then chuckled a bit. "Unless they were inteligent mages to begin with, of course."
Pharazon clenched his fists. Maybe if he got good enough at magic, he could intimidate Suhel himself, and then she would see who the weakling really was. "Anyway... can you teach me how to use this Lupe Moon Charm now?" He un-looped the golden charm from around his neck, letting it glint in the firelight. He hoped to somehow see Celice in it again, but it had remained unresponsive since that first vision when he found it yesterday.
"Hm..." Skoll rubbed his nose. "Well, you've been such a good pupil today, I don't see why not. I, too, am very curious as to what you can do with it."
The Draik blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you know about species-specific items, correct?" The Werelupe hefted himself from his chair and began to pace in front of the hearth, paws folded behind his back.
"Yes." Pharazon nodded. "They only work in combat for the species they're crafted for."
"Lupe Moon Charms have a variety of positive effects for Lupes, such as their shielding properties against the magical spheres of Earth and Darkness. Normally, none of these benefits work on non-Lupes." Skoll stopped and looked at him sidewise. "However, considering your vast magical potential, it does not surprise me that you somehow became attuned to it. Have you noticed an increase in strength, perhaps, or more acute hearing?"
The Draik shook his head. "Mm... no. The only thing different was that vision. But it only happened once."
"Ah, so it's become a scrying tool. Very interesting." Skoll moved closer to Pharazon, blocking the firelight and looming over him ominously. "And very useful for someone who might want to get rescued from captivity." The Werelupe's ears perked.
A chill ran up the Draik's back and he swallowed hard. He did not doubt that Skoll could be dangerous if provoked. Pharazon wanted as much as possible to stay on the Werelupe sorcerer's good side. "I-I won't use it to ask for help, I p-promise," he lied, although he was sure his thudding heart and twitching wings betrayed him. "I j-just want to use it to t-talk to my f-friend."
Skoll sighed, and the fierceness in his eyes faded, leaving merely an old and tired-looking Werelupe. "I understand, my boy. It's so difficult leaving a life of luxury for the company of bone-carving cretins. But I do hope you are aware of the risks involved in your request. Your contact could ask questions. You might betray us."
Pharazon decided it would be wise to not let Skoll know that Celice was also a mage. That would earn a definite "no". "I won't tell her anything about where I am," he said, his voice trembling. "I can lie if I have to."
"It's nothing personal." Skoll looked genuinely regretful. "I honestly would not like to see you come to any harm. But if Isengrim discovered that you had contact with someone outside the Burrows, things would not end well for you, I am afraid. He is quite the violent brute, and such treason would send him into a terrible rage." The sage shook his head. "I am sure you understand how that kind of uncivilised sort cannot be reasoned with."
"P-please trust me, Skoll. I'll, I'll do anything else you want me to." Why wasn't he blessed with Hyren's gift of deadpan, Pharazon bemoaned. "I'll only use it in here. I won't tell anyone else, not even my owner." Terra didn't exactly deserve to know at this point, he thought bitterly. Not when she pranced around pretending like nothing was wrong.
The Werelupe placed both his paws on the table and regarded him for a long moment, staring into the Draik's wide blue eyes. "...All right. I suppose I can concede you the ability to use the Moon Charm to speak to one person. And only one. And you must never mention your location or ask for help or rescue of any kind. Are we clear?"
Pharazon nodded, trying to at least seem sincere about the matter. "Yes, sir." Inside, he was apologising to his trusted mentor for the deception. Surely Skoll would understand, though. The Werelupe Sage himself did not seem happy here.
"Good." Skoll smiled kindly at him, patting his shoulder. "I don't think we'll have any problems from you. So!" he barked, sitting back down and reaching out to inspect the Moon Charm. "You want to scry with it, do you? Contact a specific person? You've done so before, inadvertently, so subsequent attempts shouldn't be all that difficult."
"Okay." Pharazon nodded again. "How do I do it?"
Skoll returned the charm to him. "Reach out to it with your magic. Concentrate on the one you want to talk to. Considering it's already attuned to you, and your remarkable performance today, it should be easy."
The Draik looked down at the smooth, golden crescent. "Will she be able to talk back to me?"
"Yes. Well..." Skoll raised his muzzle and sniffed at the air. "It's quite late now. She might be asleep, unless she lives far away."
"No, she's close. In Brightvale." Pharazon remembered that Celice's last letter to him before the Lunar Festival was about her wrapping up her research in Maraqua and heading back to her home kingdom for a while.
"Brightvale..." A strange mix of emotions swirled on the Werelupe's face and his eyes grew hard for a moment before he glanced back up at Pharazon and cleared his throat a bit. "Well, in that case, your scrying will most likely manifest to her in the form of a dream. It's a toss-up whether or not she'll have her wits about her enough to respond."
"She's smart. I want to at least try." Pharazon hoped to impress his mentor. Assuming he could get it to work. "Here goes." The Draik took a deep breath and willed the magic forth. He felt it spread from his core down his arms, and his clawtips began to tingle and spark.
The Moon Charm glowed, faintly at first, and then strong with a silver light like Kreludor's. Celice, Pharazon thought. He wanted to get in touch with Celice. He focused on her face. Within moments, he found himself staring at the white Lupe not in his mind's eye, but in the charm itself. "It's working!" he cried, scooting back in the chair in surprise.
Skoll chuckled. "Don't forget to say something to her, boy!"
"Celice, it's me, Pharazon!" his apprentice said. "Can you hear me?"
The Lupe's expression turned from bewildered to astonished. "Pharazon!" she replied, her voice clear as though they were speaking through an open window. "What's going on—where are you?!"
Pharazon gritted his teeth. "I'm fine! I'm totally okay. How are you doing? How's Brightvale?"
She furrowed her brow. "Oh, never mind the pleasantries, Pharazon! This is important! Hyren and Blynn are looking for you!"
The Draik's heart caught in his throat. "They... what?" He glanced over at Skoll, who gave him a warning look, and laughed nervously at the Lupe scholar. "Anyway, how's the weather been?"
"Confound the weather! I want to know where in the world you are!" she barked.
"Sounds like I've caught you in a bad mood... uh... I'll talk to you later, okay?" Pharazon forced a grin onto his snout as he mentally broke the connection.
"Don't you dare—" Celice's voice faded with her visage.
The Draik thumbed the charm absently and looked up at Skoll. "...Sorry. That could have gone better."
The Werelupe gave him a sympathetic smile. "You did very well not letting her catch on, though. Eventually she'll give up and you can have more mundane conversations, I'm sure."
"Yeah." Pharazon stared at his new scrying tool. His brother and sister were searching for him. He had to help them. This required a bit of subterfuge, but he thought he could pull it off. Skoll seemed to trust him too much for the Werelupes' good. Pharazon felt rather guilty using him, but it was either this or continue to be treated as a weakling.
"...I have to go to the washroom." He got out of the chair, re-stringing the charm around his neck.
"All right, don't be long." Skoll began to occupy himself with selecting a book from his collection.
"Mm-hm." Pharazon lifted the cloth partition aside and made his way out of Skoll's grotto and into the stairwell. The washroom was close, but Pharazon passed it and made his way further down the shaft until he reached another landing. Surely he would be out of Skoll's earshot here.
With another deep breath, Pharazon crouched down against the wall. He felt quite daring and clever as he held the charm in front of himself again and opened communications.
Celice looked rather irate as she came back into view. "Pharazon, what's—"
"Shh!" Pharazon raised a claw to his lips. "I don't have much time. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you more earlier. There were other ears in the room. I should be safe to talk here, though."
The Lupe nodded and adjusted her spectacles. "So where are you?"
"The Werelupe Burrows. We're being held captive by the Werelupe King."
Celice did a double-take and her ears pointed forward in alarm. "Wait—the Werelupe Burrows?!" she hissed, fighting to keep her voice low. "They were destroyed by Sir Tormund and Lady Roberta!"
"No, they weren't!" Pharazon shook his head. "I know it sounds crazy, but you have to believe me! The Werelupe King—Hyren rescued Terra from him years ago and he's been plotting revenge this whole time! You have to get us out of here!"
Celice's jaw hung slack. "...I believe you—"
The sound of claws clicking on stone from above made Pharazon shush her again. "I have to go—give them my love," he said as he cut the magic.
"Pharazon?" Skoll called from upstairs. "Are you all right?"
"Y-yes, I'm fine, sorry about that," the Draik replied, scrambling to his feet and pulling the charm over his head.
The Werelupe's muzzle poked around the bend. Skoll clutched his staff, using it to ease himself down the uneven stone steps. "Washroom's back that way, boy."
Pharazon nodded. "I know. I just... got curious about what was further down here." Hopefully his anxiety didn't show too badly.
Skoll seemed to buy it, as he gave Pharazon an exasperated sigh and ambled down to meet the Draik on the landing. "Remember what curiosity did to the Kadoatie, lad. Suhel's stories of what might still lurk down here aren't just tall tales."
"Right. Sorry." Pharazon allowed Skoll to lead him back to the Werelupe's study, trying hard not to grin in relief and pride. He had done it. They were going to be saved. Assuming Celice and his siblings could save him, that was. The inner smile faded. This was still something he might have to do himself, and he wanted to be prepared for this possibility. Even if the entire military of Brightvale marched on the Burrows, Pharazon's help might still be needed.
Visions began to dance in his head of himself wiping out hordes of noxious Werelupes, rescuing a band of beleaguered knights, leading his brother and sister to victory and protecting his owner instead of the other way around.
Back in the cozy little cavern, Pharazon snacked on a Squibble Berry, perusing a book of enchantments while Skoll studied another thick tome. It was nice, Pharazon thought, to have a kindred spirit to spend time with while in captivity.
He looked from his book to the large, bright blue berry, and something clicked in his mind. Books and fruit. He glanced up at the fruit bowl. They were all species from Brightvale.
"... You're from Brightvale, aren't you," he said to Skoll.
The Werelupe lifted his head like a great burden had been placed on it, and his grey gaze was suddenly overpoweringly sad, with a core of something hard and bitter. "Yes. Brightvale is my home kingdom, although I have not seen it in many years."
"I'm so sorry," Pharazon said. "If you don't mind my asking... what happened?"
"I was once a normal Lupe," Skoll sighed, "and a scholar of magic at Brightvale University. I was an excellent student, nearly top of my class. I was poised to graduate with honours and land a prestigious position. Unfortunately, it was my youthful zeal that doomed me." He looked down at his paws with an anguished frown. "I wandered into the woods one night looking for spell reagents... and found a curse instead."
Pharazon leaned forward in his seat. "Could anybody at the University fix it?"
"The University?!" Skoll slammed his paws down on the table so hard it made Pharazon's teeth rattle. "Those arrogant imbeciles! When I sought their help they attacked me and called me a monster!" His claws dug into the wood and his fangs gleamed in the firelight. "They expelled me and exiled me from Brightvale, banishing me to an unknown fate in the woods as though I had become a witless beast!"
Pharazon shrank in his chair, half thinking he should bolt for the doorway. "I—I'm sorry," he whispered.
Skoll took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, lowering his lips back over his teeth. "...My apologies," he breathed, drawing a paw over his face. "They are painful memories. But the past is the past."
"If it helps... I had some bad experiences in Brightvale, too," Pharazon said. "I wanted to attend the University, but they just mocked me. One of them apologised later, but... I know what you mean, they are awfully stuffy there."
"I'm sorry that happened to you, lad. It seems those with true talent and intellect are always scorned by the pretenders." The Werelupe scowled. "But you know what they say, don't get mad, get even. The best thing to do in a situation like that is to beat them at their own game and prove you're a better mage than they ever deserved to associate with."
Skoll settled himself back into his chair and placed his paw on his book as though drawing strength from it. "At any rate. I lived alone in these forests for many long years, until recently when Isengrim and his pack moved into the area. They discovered me fending for myself as a lone hermit, and he brought me into his fold. Now my standard of living is far more comfortable, and all I must do to maintain it is look busy and perform the odd spell."
Pharazon nodded. "That explains why you're nothing like the rest of them."
"Indeed," Skoll harrumphed. "I have pretended to acclimate to their culture, but I have never truly thought of myself as one of them. I doubt I ever will. They can't even begin to understand me. I miss being civilised—I do wish Isengrim wouldn't lower the rest of the pack to his own cultural standards."
"Me too." Pharazon felt the knucklebones at his neck and grimaced.
Skoll's lips curled in a sneer. "Just think, we could be living in sophisticated luxury right now with the wealth that Werelupe possesses in his hoard, but they all insist on this utterly Tyrannian existence. What a waste. If only they weren't blind to what's best for them. But..." He looked around at his study. "This is all I have, now. It could be better. But it could be worse."
"So you're trapped here too, just like me."
Skoll gave the Draik a searching look, and then smiled faintly. "Now, now, lad. Let's not worry about the things we can't change, and focus on the things we can. For my part, I am ecstatic to have such a talented, hardworking pupil."
"And I'm glad to have such a great teacher," Pharazon replied. "You've been a real friend to me. Especially since my owner doesn't seem to care about me either way." His wings sagged. He couldn't help but be worried about her even if she was being completely unsympathetic. "Do you think she'll be okay?"
"Who can tell," Skoll muttered. "Isengrim is not exactly known for his kindness, I'm afraid."
The Draik clenched his fists. "...I think she's trying to befriend him."
His teacher raised a shaggy eyebrow. "A sentimental goal, if a naïve one. I don't see much hope for her success. He is not that kind of Neopet."
"That's what I figured," Pharazon sighed. "I don't know why she keeps trying."
"Well, let her have her vain dreams. Whatever helps her cope here." Skoll turned back to his book.
"Yeah." Pharazon's gaze returned to his own text, but he couldn't bring himself to read the words on the pages. Terra was wrong, he knew she was. She was simply deluded by her own tenderheartedness. It would be up to him to save them for once, to step up to the challenge and use every angle possible to free them from the Werelupes' clutches.
This situation did not call for compassion, it called for force. And he would obtain the power to force their way out.
Hyren had to concede that Brightvale University was a remarkably comfortable place: sunny hallways whose stained-glass windows painted the walls with light; cozy, hidden enclaves stuffed with books and cushioned chairs for a secret literary getaway; even an immense atrium with food vendors offering cuisine from various Neopian lands and wall-spanning windows that presented a view of the castle town and its outlying countryside. Hyren could see why so many Neopets vied for acceptance into this institution.
After he'd questioned the Brightvale knights in vain, and put in a request for them to keep an ear out for information, he returned to the University to try to keep Blynn out of trouble. During lulls in her mania, he found quiet places to read. While he didn't outwardly profess himself to be a scholar like Pharazon did, Hyren couldn't deny his love of learning, and he had to do something to keep his mind off of everything else. At least waiting for a lead, or for Pharazon to contact Celice again, was bearable in a place like this.
Thankfully, Blynn didn't break much or arouse the wrath of too many faculty members, and in fact she ended up joining that Neoquest campaign. Her character was a red Mynci bard whose lute-playing produced various effects in battle—and whose antics produced various reactions from her party members.
Even Hyren had to chuckle when the party faced a wandering mummy and Blynn rolled a critical on her entrancing ballad, giving the bard's song such potency that the mummy danced the can-can. Unfortunately, the song was so powerful that she accidentally entranced her fellow adventurers as well, leading to an impromptu desert dance party. The other players were in stitches by the end of the encounter.
Once the session had adjourned for the night, Hyren and Blynn met Celice back at her dorm. The Lupe mage was armed to the teeth with books, scrolls, and focussing charms. "And enough Tarragon Achyfi to last me the entire night," she said, depositing a crate of the energy-laden soft drink on her desk with a thump. Her white tail hung low in fatigue as she arranged the charms and slumped down in her chair, popping open a can of the noxious-smelling beverage. "When he calls again... I'll be ready."
She was asleep within the hour.
Hyren couldn't rest. He sat in one of the chairs near the fireplace, watching the flames dance and listening to the pouring rain outside, wringing out his mind trying to figure out how this would all end.
He was afraid, he admitted to himself. So afraid, he wanted to run away and curl up into himself and just make the pain and the terror stop. His owner, his best friend was missing, and his brother was in trouble. And the solution was nowhere near as cut-and-dry as Hyren would have liked.
"Not enough pictures."
Hyren looked up to see Blynn sitting in the other chair, a large book perched on her lap. Her tail swished lazily between her hind paws.
The Disco Zafara wetted her finger with her tongue and turned another page. "I was hoping this was one of the books with the really fancy letters, but it's just lists of potions. And not even the interesting ones. An elixir for untangling yarn, hooray." She snorted.
"Mm-hm." Hyren leaned his elbow on the armrest and rested his head in his hand.
"Hey, cheer up, grumpy Grundo."
Hyren shot her an exasperated look. "Blynn. This isn't a situation that'll go away if you smile and joke enough about it."
She frowned. "Well... it's not gonna go away if you mope and moan about it, either. C'mon. Stay positive. That's what Terra would tell you."
Her brother gritted his teeth. "Terra," he hissed, "could be in serious trouble right now, and I have no idea if I'm ever going to see her again, and you want me to stay positive?!"
"Yeah, because you're dragging me down, too!" Blynn replied, slamming the book shut. "You don't think I'm upset about this? Just focus on how great it's gonna be to get 'em back, and save us both the ulcers!"
"But what if we don't get them back?!" Hyren clutched his head, letting his worst fears spew forth. "We have to face the reality that there's a very good chance we'll—we'll fail!"
"Stop it!" Blynn cried out, her eyes welling with tears as she pounded her fists on the book. "That's not true!"
Hyren jumped to his feet, pointing an accusing finger at her. "You need to grow up and get a reality check!"
"And you need to shut your face!" Blynn attempted to heave the book at him, but it was far too heavy and it landed halfway between them, its pages crumpled sadly under the weight of its binding. With a sob, the Zafara turned to scramble out the door.
Hyren didn't attempt to stop her. His anger boiled inside him and he was barely able to grasp the fact that if he let it go, he would do something he'd regret. They both needed some time to cool off from each other.
As Blynn's paw touched the doorknob, Celice stirred. "Ph... Pharazon," she murmured. The Lupe's ear flicked and her paws flapped helplessly like she was trying to move in her sleep.
Both siblings froze and Hyren's anger dispersed. Blynn turned away from the door and crept closer to the slumbering sorceress.
"Mmmmh... Hyren and Blynn... looking for you..." Celice mumbled, her speech slurred. "Confound the weather..." She let out a whine and her tail bristled.
"Should we wake her up?" Hyren whispered.
Blynn shook her head. "That might break her out of the vision."
After another moment, Celice's struggling ceased and she seemed to drop back off into dreamlessness. Hyren wasn't sure if it was wise to wake her yet.
He looked over at his sister. "Blynn... I'm sorry," he muttered. "I'm just... scared. Something like this hasn't happened since I met you two. I tried so hard, for years, to protect you guys, and now I've failed in that. Maybe the first time was just a fluke." His antennae drooped.
Blynn wandered over and gave him a fierce hug. "It wasn't a fluke. You're the best big brother I could ever have. You'll get 'em back safely, I know you will."
Hyren found himself choking back tears. "Aww, blast it," he muttered with a sniffle. "I hate sappy stuff like this."
His sister pulled back and thumbed away the tears that got free and rolled down his cheeks. "You're really dumb sometimes, you know that?"
"More often than I'd like to admit." He grinned in embarrassment. "You're right, though—Terra's right. I have to stay positive."
"Atta boy—hold on, I think it's happening again."
Celice had begun to make snuffling noises, forming half-word sounds in her muzzle. This time her one-sided conversation was less distinct. Suddenly, her ears perked and she sat bolt upright. "The Werelupe Burrows?!" she yelped. Her eyes opened for a moment, but they were glazed over with sleep and they quickly drifted shut again as she slumped back onto the desk.
Hyren's smile plummeted. The only memories he had of Werelupes were of seeing them hold Terra captive twelve years ago. And then fighting his way through their horde with her in tow. And finally the vicious rage on the Werelupe King's face as Hyren let go of his cache of Faerie weapons and sent the wicked beast plummeting to his doom.
"That's impossible," he breathed. Of course he knew about the Werelupes who had allied with the Darkest Faerie and caused some trouble in the Meridell region in Year 7, but it had been too easy to assume they were a completely different population.
Now, two words presented startling evidence to the contrary. Of course the Werelupe King would have been vengeful if he survived. The pieces of the puzzle fell together all at once and the weight of their solution dropped onto Hyren, making him ill.
Blynn reached over and squeezed his hand. "We. Will. Get. Them. Back. We did it before. We can totally do it again. You're not in this alone."
Hyren swallowed his nausea and nodded, trying to convince himself of that. Doubts and fears still made a mess of his mind, but he knew if they did not at least try, they would definitely fail.
He looked back to Celice. "Should we wake her up so she can trace the magic signature or whatever?"
Blynn smirked. "Nah, let's let her sleep. We already got a good answer and she's probably gonna be incoherent from the caffeine anyway."
They themselves drifted off shortly afterward. Hyren slept fitfully, shifting in and out of slumber. Panic bombarded him every time he was awake and nightmares of Werelupes taunted him when he wasn't. By morning he was still ill, and at his wits' end, and he finally allowed Celice to brew him a potion to soothe his frazzled nerves and stomach.
At breakfast the three sat by themselves in an alcove on the atrium's fourth-storey mezzanine. It was a grey day, robbing the food court's stained-glass ceiling of its usual brilliance. But Hyren and Blynn weren't there to admire the glasswork.
"What makes you so sure they're the same Werelupes you encountered in the Haunted Woods a decade ago?" Celice asked, cutting daintily into her Faerie Fried Egg.
Hyren swallowed his mouthful of pancakes and bacon. "Because a pack of random Werelupes in Meridell would have absolutely no reason to kidnap Terra from all the way in Shenkuu. A pack of Werelupes with a grudge against us would have all the reason in the world. It just makes too much sense."
"Well, hey, we know where they are, so that's awesome," Blynn said. She sipped contentedly at her Lemon Grape Smoothie. "So now we can just go to the Werelupe Burrows, right?"
Celice gazed out the window at the rolling hills and distant mountains, carpeted in barren trees waiting for spring. "In theory, it's that easy. The problem is, not many people actually know where the Burrows were—are located. Somewhere in the greater Meridell region, but that's a lot of land to cover, still."
"You said not many people know." Hyren dug his fork into the syrup-moistened pancakes. "That's different from nobody knowing. So we find someone who knows."
The Lupe smirked. "You're in luck, my friends. I happen to be old schoolmates with just the person we need. We'll go talk to her after breakfast. And after I do a little preliminary research. It never hurts to be prepared for these things."
Hyren nodded. "Do what you need to." He'd fed the last of Anshu's medicine to Gwyneth that morning. He'd more than learned his lesson about being hasty.
"Swell," Blynn said with an extra-loud slurp from her straw. "Because I have to let the Quest Master know that my bard has been unexpectedly called back to Mystery Island and can no longer continue the quest for the Adamant Pyramid."
Celice raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Yep. Important stuff. She was level seven and had a petpet Lizark that gave her 1d4 extra performing focus, too! That's okay, the QM told me she'd keep the character sheets in case I ever came back."
Hyren laughed. "Well, it's nice to know you'll have something to do while Pharazon's getting lost in the libraries." He turned to Celice. "So, who do you know that's going to be so helpful?"
"Roberta!" Celice called as she swung open the door to the Scrollery.
"Can I help you?" a youthful female voice answered from inside.
In the middle of racks of scrolls sat a single desk, itself piled high with rolled parchment. A pair of head-tendrils and a cascade of curly black hair ducked behind the stack of documents, and a blue Acara came out the other side with an armful of scrolls. "Please, come in, we're open," she said, carefully fitting a scroll onto the pile and then cringing as the whole mound shifted, but seemed to settle without incident.
"Roberta, it's me, Celice Anfel. You know, from your alchemy class." Celice strode confidently up to the desk and adjusted her spectacles.
"Oh?" Roberta looked up from her work and blinked for a moment, then gave her former classmate a friendly grin. "Oh! Hi, Celice! I just got a new shipment in from Qasala, would you care to take a look?" She plucked a wax-sealed scroll from her arm and began analysing the pile to see where it would fit best.
"I'm not here for shopping today, Roberta." Celice ushered her companions forward. "These are my friends, Hyren and Blynn. They're looking for their brother and owner."
Roberta glanced over at them before lifting herself up on her toes to reach the top of the pile, sticking out one leg for balance. "Oookay. And you thought you'd bring them by for some borovan?" Slowly, she lowered the scroll onto the very top of the precarious stack.
"They're being held in the Werelupe Burrows."
Roberta dropped the scroll, which sent the entire pile crashing down in a clatter of wooden spools. The sorceress yelped as she lost her balance and reams of parchment flew everywhere, burying her in a pile of paper. A moment later, she sat up, one scroll draped across her head. "What?!"
The Lupe remained calm, folding her hands in the draping green sleeves of her robe. "Their brother contacted me by vision last night. I tried to do a few tracing spells to confirm his location, but they were all warded off. But I have no reason to believe he was lying. Their family has a... history with Werelupes, so we find it highly likely."
"But the Burrows were destroyed!" Roberta sputtered, picking herself up and leaning over her desk. "Someone made a report of that area two weeks after Tor and I recovered Illusen's Charm—the report said the Burrows had been completely demolished, with no trace of any recent Werelupe activity!"
Celice leaned in so their noses were nearly touching. "Oh, Roberta, Roberta," she clucked. "What's the one thing they always drilled into us at the University?"
The Acara wrinkled her muzzle. "Never use Dung Motes indoors?"
"Always check your sources." The Lupe reached into her sleeve and pulled out a sheaf of papers that she slapped on the desk. "The informant, according to these ferry logs, was actually in Kiko Lake during the time he reported the Burrows' purported destruction." She flipped through the papers and drew one out. "He's also a registered member of the Thieves' Guild. Not exactly reliable."
Roberta's eyes widened and her ears drooped. "No... I always thought it was odd that everyone assumed Tor and I brought down the place, but I never really stopped to question it. That was a part of our adventure I was glad to forget."
Hyren stepped forward. "We need you to tell us how to get there. And we can use any help you might be able to offer. Can your uncle provide us any knights?"
"Doubtful." The sorceress shook her head. "I hate to say it, but I don't think anyone else would take you seriously. You just want your family back—that's not a problem Uncle Hagan would be willing to allocate troops and resources to, especially if you're going to a place that most people think doesn't exist any more and hasn't given us trouble in years."
"I understand." The Grundo nodded. "Thanks anyway." He didn't want to waste any time running around trying to recruit adventurers for pay, either. His family was well-off, but Hyren knew a mission of this nature would cost them more than they could afford to give, especially if he was to hire anyone who would be more help than hindrance.
"Well—will you come with us?" Blynn asked.
Roberta flinched. "I... I'll be honest, I don't ever want to see that place again," she replied quietly. "They held me prisoner for a short time. It's not something I want to go back to." She held her arms, her gaze dropping to the floor.
Celice put a paw on her shoulder. "It's all right. We'll get them taken care of for you."
"We can take them on." Hyren clenched his fists, feeling the indignation swell within him. "We've fought them before. We fought them and won. And we'll do it again." He just hoped he could do so in his smaller form. True, he still had his combat skills, but what if that wasn't enough? The Grundo placed a fist to his chest, trying to cram the doubts into the back of his mind.
Roberta nodded. "Well... best of luck to you. I sure hope you succeed. Somebody needs to put those Werelupes in their place."
"And it might as well be us," Celice said with a grin.
Hyren looked up at her. "'Us'? Are you coming, too?"
"Of course I am!" The Lupe put her paws on her hips as Roberta drew them a map. "Pharazon is my friend—writing papers can wait! Besides, from the historical accounts of Werelupes, they're not magic-users, so having me with you should give you a huge advantage."
"I thought you said there were wards," Blynn murmured.
"Well—well, there were," Celice replied, "but really, anyone could cast a ward. It's a far cry from combat magic and more sophisticated spells." Her ear flicked nervously.
Hyren barely paid attention to her unease. Magic or no, he was going in there and he wasn't leaving until he got Terra back—or fell trying. The realisation that they were marching toward the endgame weighed on his thoughts and echoed in his breathing.
Roberta set her quill aside and picked up the map. "Here." She spread the parchment wide, showing a thick red line she'd traced on a chart of the greater Meridell region. "While I'm a little fuzzy on the details, it's not impossible to find if you know which landmarks to look out for. It's in the mountains between Meridell and Brightvale, to the northeast. Don't take the main passes—they don't run anywhere near it."
She pointed at the spot on the map where her guideline diverged from the highway connecting the two kingdoms. "A half day past Market Town there's a turnout onto a network of paths used by woodspets, that'll take you into the deep forest and up into the foothills. It's easy to miss, so keep an eye out for the break in the rocks near the waterfall."
Her paw moved further along the crimson line. "You'll know you're on the right track when you pass some stone ruins—you'll want to turn due north from those. It won't be far from there. Go through the marsh and take the path east from the hut on the hill."
Blynn studied the map. "I thought you said you were fuzzy on the details."
"Tor and I scoured that area for two weeks before we found the Burrows. There's a reason nobody bothered to confirm that report." Roberta rolled up the map and handed it to Celice. "I'm sure that's not absolutely everything you'd need to know to get straight there, but it'll shave a lot of time off of your search." With a sigh, she patted her classmate's paw. "Good luck out there. Stay safe. Do you need any supplies? I can offer you a discount on scrolls..."
The Lupe shook her head. "That's very kind of you, but no. I have all of the equipment I'll need."
Blynn patted the slingshot at her side. "Yep, don't worry about us! We're professional adventurers!"
Roberta laughed. "Well, it's a pretty classic quest you're undertaking, a heroic rescue from a den of monsters. Sounds like the kind of thing somebody would write a story about." She leaned a paw on her desk. "I sure hope your story has a happy ending."
As they turned to leave, Hyren looked over his shoulder at her. "I hope so, too."
To be continued...