Worth Searching For: Part Nine
Roberta's directions proved to be far more helpful than she'd predicted. Hyren, Blynn, Celice, and Gwyneth found the turnoff easily, and by nightfall they'd begun to make their way up into the wooded mountains. Between the Ganuthor's fur, their woollen cloaks, and a warming enchantment courtesy of Celice, no one was cold that chilly night. Even so, Hyren couldn't help but be a little envious of Neopets with fur.
The next morning dawned clear and crisp. Most of the rain clouds from the past few days had moved on, leaving high wisps of white in the pale sky that foretold an impending frost. The days were getting colder and it might very likely snow if it clouded over again.
So much for an early spring, Hyren thought with dismay as he ate his breakfast of cheese toast. At least Celice was handy with her fire spells.
He would hate to get caught out here in the snow, though. Hopefully they could find the Burrows before that happened. But then there was the return to worry about. Gwyneth was back to her old self, romping around the campsite and chasing Dragoyles, but she still favored her wounded wing even though they'd removed the bandages. Hyren wouldn't ask her to fly yet.
As they packed up and got back on the trail, he decided he would just have to cross that bridge when he came to it. For now he had to concentrate on finding the Burrows. Which mostly amounted to looking at Roberta's map from around Celice's side, and trying to figure out how well it matched their surroundings. Hyren was no amateur at navigation, but the fact of the matter was that Celice had lived in the area her entire life and knew it much better than him, and Blynn wouldn't let go of the compass. So the Grundo was mostly relegated to scanning the thick forest for anything that looked like a potential threat.
An hour past lunch, Celice drew in a sharp breath. "Look—ahead." She pointed to something in front of them and Hyren had to lean out from behind her to see it.
On the side of the road, nearly obscured by hemming spurs of rock, was a small dell that contained the stone ruins of some ancient structure. Lichens covered every upturned paving stone and leaning pillar, and brown vines draped from the crumbling remnants of a ceiling.
Blynn brought Gwyneth to a halt. "D'you think those are the ruins Roberta mentioned?"
"They must be." Celice studied the map again. "We're in the vicinity." She looked up at the split path ahead. "Take the left fork. That should be the north one."
The Zafara consulted her compass. "Yep, that checks out. Let's go, Gwyneth." She tapped the Ganuthor's head and they began moving again.
As the sun sank, so did the land, and by sunset the group found themselves in a marshy vale nestled between hills. Mortogs croaked from their hiding places in the reeds, and the sun's dying light made the lurking mists glow a pale pink like the lost clouds of Faerieland.
Hyren sighed in relief. "Well, looks like those directions were spot-on. We must be close now. Roberta said something about a hut on a hill, so let's try to find that and go from there." Now that they were this close, he could feel a tugging in his insides, urging him to keep going. It filled him with a second wind and he felt like he could travel through the night without a problem if it meant finding Terra in the morning.
"We should stop here for the night," Blynn said. "There's a mound of dry land over there—"
Celice lifted her nose. "No, bad idea. I smell Werelupes." Her snout wrinkled. "Ugh, terribly uncouth things. Why can't they live like the rest of us."
Hyren's antennae pricked. "Werelupes?"
The Lupe nodded. "Yes. But the scents are a few hours old at the least. We haven't anything to worry about... for now."
"Then we should keep going," the Grundo said. "If we stop here, we risk getting attacked. We're definitely in the Werelupe Woods now, and the farther in we go, the closer we get to their lair. This is their domain and they most likely won't ignore travellers."
"But Hyren...!" Blynn let out a whine and kicked her feet. "You promised you weren't going to hurry any more!" She turned around and peeked over Celice's side to glare at him. "Remember what happened last time?"
"I know, but I really, honestly feel like we need to hurry," Hyren replied. "It's not impulse, it's instinct. Please, Blynn, I need you to trust me." He put a hand on his chest. "I've been an idiot in the past and I'm sorry, but this is different."
His sister looked him up and down. "... We'd better not end up crash-landed on a sky-ship again, is all I'm saying," she finally grumbled, settling back down and urging Gwyneth forward. "Don't let me down this time."
The sky and mists continued to darken as the Ganuthor pressed onward. Soon the pinks and oranges faded, replaced by purples and then the deep blue of twilight. The rising full moon illuminated the ruins of a cottage atop a steep hill rising from the fens. It was there that they found, obscured by thickets of undergrowth, a trail that started to sink into the ground as it went, steep banks of earth rising on either side.
They weren't very far along that path when Celice's ears pricked. Before Hyren could ask what she heard, the Lupe turned and shot a fireball into the darkened trees. There was the hiss of the flame striking something, then a thump and clumsy rustling.
"Drat." Celice wiped her paw on her robes in agitation. "I missed."
"How can you tell?" Blynn asked. She kept Gwyneth walking, but drew her slingshot.
"Because it's still moving."
Hyren grimaced. "Show yourself!" he shouted, gripping his blade. Mounted combat was not something he'd ever seriously attempted, and he wasn't confident that his stubby legs could keep up with Gwyneth's if they had to make a break for it.
For a reply, he got a long, throaty howl, and then a silence so heavy he felt like it was pressing down on him. Pursuing him.
Celice's ears pinned back. "Run!" she barked. "Get us out of here!"
"Gwyn, go!" Blynn leaned forward over the Ganuthor's head.
Gwyneth dug her paws into the soft earth and shot off down the path. Her galloping footsteps pounded like drumbeats and she tucked her wings close to her sides, occasionally sticking one out for balance as she veered through curves in the twining trail.
Hyren drew his sword and held the blade aside. "What'd he say?"
"He's alerting the others to intruders," Celice hissed. "So much for stealth."
"See, this is exactly why I take rear guard," Hyren grumbled. He looked over his shoulder and saw a legion of eyes bearing down on them, glowing red, yellow, and green in the night. He swallowed hard. There was no way he could take all of them on.
Suddenly all of this felt like the stupidest idea he'd ever had. But Terra was ahead, he reminded himself. "Faster!" He swung himself around so he was sitting backwards and clung to Gwyneth with his knees.
"This is as fast as I can take her without flying!" Blynn cried back. "And I don't think she's fit to fly yet!"
"Ugh, if only I'd paid more attention to my Air magic studies," Celice groaned. She reached over Hyren's head and shot a few more fireballs. The moving sea of eyes shifted to give the flames wide berth, and there were a few yelps of pain, but the juggernaut charged on.
"There's something ahead!" Blynn said. "It looks like a giant skull—gack!" She gave her slingshot a sharp snap and something large and dark tumbled away from the Ganuthor, scrambling back into the trees.
An arrow whizzed by Celice's ear and she winced, letting out a bark of panic. "Why did we think this was a good idea?!" She squared her shoulders and thrust out her paws, and a massive wave of flames burst to either side of them, throwing back their assailants.
"'Cause Hyren's too dang persuasive!" Blynn replied.
Celice growled. "That's a magical gate ahead! Those are some powerful wards I'm sensing!"
"Well, break them!" Hyren said. He jabbed out with his blade to parry away a sword slash that had come too close for comfort. Thank the Faeries Gwyneth wasn't a Uni or she'd be out one tail. "Can you do it from a distance? We won't have time to stop!" Hopefully, things inside would be a little easier to handle. Hopefully.
"I can try! Cover me!" Celice sat back and braced herself with one paw, placing the other to her head and murmuring things in a language Hyren didn't know.
"You got it!" Blynn aimed a shot at one of the dirt banks. Hyren realised she must have used a Haunted Woods pebble because the side collapsed in a wave of soil and roots, taking a few trees with it and narrowly missing Gwyneth herself.
The eyes disappeared for just a second, and then crested the mound of debris, their owners baying and snapping their fangs in frustration. Hyren steeled himself for another round.
A sound like bone grinding against bone reverberated through his skull. "It's working!" Blynn gasped.
"Good, keep going!" Hyren replied. A Werelupe moved in to strike and the Grundo grunted as he slid the beast's broad blade away.
"Duck!" Celice shouted. She flattened herself against Gwyneth.
Hyren did the same, just in time to see the tips of immense fangs whizz by the top of his head. The skull shuddered and jerked, sparking green with magic, but it stayed open and allowed the horde of Werelupes to pour through after them.
Hyren turned around to see that they were barreling through a firelit tunnel that sloped steeply down, howls echoing around them. "Blynn, don't use your Haunted Woods rocks!" he managed to get out. "They'll bring the whole place down!"
"Good thing this place isn't made of wood," Celice muttered as she threw out a wall of fire. Several Werelupes who had tried to jump them from an upper passageway tumbled away, their fur singed.
Blynn let out a yelp. "Problem!" Gwyneth bellowed in distress, her head swinging to and fro.
"What?" Hyren held his blade in front of him, centimetres from the noses of their pursuers. He searched their vicious eyes, silently daring them to lunge.
"We ran out of places to run!"
Hyren glanced over his shoulder to see that they were heading straight for a sheer drop into a black abyss. What scared him more as he turned back to the Werelupes and batted away a blade was that the creatures looked perfectly aware of this.
"This might get a little warm." Celice took a deep breath and slammed her paws together.
The cool dampness of the caves was replaced by a blast of hot, dry air. The next thing Hyren saw was a sphere of flame retreating outward from around them, pushing Werelupes away with it. Gwyneth slowed to a stop near the edge of the pit, her head slung low.
Celice slumped against Hyren. "I... can't do that again," she panted. "Find... a way out..."
The Grundo frowned, his antennae flattening against his head. "I'm not leaving unless it's with Terra and Pharazon." Rising to his feet, he leaped off of Gwyneth and brandished his sword. "Bring it on!" he cried, flashing a crazed grin. The monsters swarmed him as their weapons and eyes and teeth glinted in the torchlight.
Hyren dug his feet into the cavern floor and his grin widened. After twelve years, he knew how to fight small. "Stay with me!" he yelled to the others. "We're going to push through!"
As the Werelupes descended on him, Hyren jolted into action. He rolled between the legs of the first and slashed at another's paws, and as two pounced toward him at once he dropped to the ground and let them smash into each other.
Their style reminded him much of his own when he was Mutant: relying on power and throwing their weight around, with little room for finesse. That was still his preferred mode of fighting, but his own reduced size and strength now precluded that.
But that also put him at an advantage here, he thought with relish as he locked blades with a warrior and pivoted underneath her sword, using her own momentum to push her off balance. With a tug of her arm, he sent her crashing into two of her comrades.
Gwyneth was close behind. She let out a deep bellow and ploughed through the Werelupes who rose to stop her, shoving some away with her head and swiping others aside with her thick paws. Celice had an arm draped over Blynn's shoulders while the Lupe sorceress shot fireballs, and the Zafara aimed her slingshot at anyone she thought might pose a threat.
A smack of pain exploded in Hyren's side and he found himself being flung across the cavern, thankfully still with a grip on his sword. Letting out a breath to expel the air in his lungs, he tucked in his head and rolled into the landing, springing back up with blade across his body as the Werelupes advanced on him. He winced at the soreness in his ribs, a stinging reminder of how much lighter he was than these creatures.
His heart pounded as he saw Gwyneth attempt to get to him, but the number of Werelupes just kept growing and they were beginning to bog her down. She gave a panicked roar as she kicked one away from her flank.
Hyren took a moment to collect his breath and swallow the dryness in his throat before the Werelupes leaped at him again. He ran underneath his first assailant and turned to swing at another when he was slammed aside and sent tumbling on the stone.
He rose to his knees and brought up his blade in time to block a broadsword held by a Werelupe with fangs woven into her crimped black hair. She snarled, narrowing her green eyes, and pushed the blade down harder. "What are you doing here," she breathed venomously. "Outsider, intruder. You don't belong here. This is our kingdom."
Hyren scowled. "I've come to take back what's mine."
The Werelupe grinned, exposing her long fangs. "Sorry, we have a no-return policy." She lifted her head. "Take down the Ganuthor!" she barked to the Werelupes crowding around them. "I'll handle the Grundo myself!"
Hyren's overworked lungs drew a sharp breath and he twisted aside, lashing out with his foot. It caught the female off balance just long enough for the pressure of her blade to lessen and he pushed up and out, using the momentum of the heavy metal to swing himself back to his feet. He wasn't a Mutant any more, true. But he hadn't spent the last twelve years training for nothing.
A quick glance at his opponent's paws confirmed his suspicions: she was fighting left-handed. Not unheard of, but certainly uncommon. But nowhere near enough to throw off a swordsmaster. He thrust away an overhead strike and used the extra moment to go in for her left arm.
She hadn't been expecting that, and Hyren's sword hit her bone bracer with enough force to splinter it. With a yelp the Werelupe stepped back, her grip on her sword weakening enough that in Hyren's next breath he flipped it out of her grasp. It clanged on the stone nearby as he backed her against the cavern wall at swordpoint.
"My business here is with your king!" he breathed hoarsely, his shoulders heaving.
As she held her arm, her green eyes glowered down at him, but caught a glimpse of something over his shoulder. The snarl in her throat died, replaced by a cruel smirk. "Then I shall grant you audience with him."
Hyren turned around to see a pair of red eyes and a set of teeth heading straight for his face. He thrust out his sword, but it was batted aside by an enormous dark paw whose claws grazed the metal, throwing up sparks.
An immense weight flung him to the ground and pinned him there. As Hyren caught his breath and brought up his blade, it was caught in the teeth of a familiar scimitar.
Past it, glaring down at him, was an all-too-familiar Werelupe wearing a crown of bone. "How did you find us," the Werelupe King growled, his fur bristled and muzzle scrunched in sheer aggression.
"Fate's on our side," Hyren replied, trying to ignore the furry knee digging into his stomach. If he could keep this beast talking, he could find a weak point. Goading people on usually worked.
The massive Werelupe shoved the Grundo harder into the cave floor, causing Hyren to wince in pain. "You think fate will save you now? Mine is the domain of those who defy fate—the forsaken of Neopia! And I will not allow you to destroy our life twice, you wretch! You think I have forgotten who it was who felled my fortress in the Haunted Woods?!"
Hyren's antennae twitched in realisation. "How—how do you know who we are?" he grunted. His arms were beginning to shake from the strain of holding off the Werelupe's blade. "I was Mutant last time!"
The monster smiled, revealing his yellowed fangs. "Our owner told me about your colour change."
A wave of fresh, hot anger surged through Hyren and he pushed the king's sword back with such sudden force that the Werelupe was sent reeling. "My owner!" Hyren yelled, bringing the round pommel of his sword up into the bandages wrapping the creature's stomach. "She's my owner, and not yours!"
The Werelupe King rose to his feet and clutched his side with one paw. A look of intense agony came over his face, but his grip on his sword remained sure. "You'll not take her away from me again!" he roared, charging Hyren.
It was the duel that had waited twelve years to happen. The two locked blades, withdrew, and collided once more, enmeshed in their own little world of strike-and-block-and-strike-again. The Werelupe King's massive sword cleaved through the air and Hyren rolled beneath it, feeling the swoosh of wind above his antennae. As he came back up, he lashed out at the Werelupe's ankles. The king threw back his arms and vaulted away from Hyren's reach.
Hyren moved to close in again. He vaguely heard Gwyneth's bellows and battle cries from Blynn and Celice, but all of his attention was focussed on the interplay of his own sword with that of the beast opposing him. Going for another strike, Hyren found his blade thrust away by the Werelupe King's. The Grundo stumbled back, but caught himself in time to duck out of the way of another ferocious slash.
Last time, the Werelupe King had declined a duel with Hyren, electing instead to send out his secret weapon, Gnarfas. Apparently he didn't have that to fall back on any more, which was some solace for Hyren as that fight had not gone well.
This one was going little better, though. Hyren spun away from an overhead strike and dodged the arc of a diagonal slash, trying to get distance. The Werelupe King's strength was too oppressive for much straight blocking, and Hyren watched and waited for an opening to strike.
The two were deadlocked, each weakness being compensated for by a strength in the other as the clash of their swords rang out over and over. The Werelupe King was large and powerful, but Hyren was small and quick. Hyren had ages of military experience on his side, but the Werelupe King, while no spring bloom himself, seemed possessed of a quick-witted cunning that transcended time.
But Hyren was also slowing down. He couldn't take on a horde of Werelupes and not start to feel it. His muscles cried out for relief as he raised his sword to parry, and he gritted his teeth as the leather grip chafed his sweaty palms.
He had to end this soon. As the Werelupe King's arms lifted for another strike, Hyren darted forward. He dove between the creature's legs, tucking into a roll and flattening his antennae against his head.
Coming back up, he pivoted on his knee and slashed out at the Werelupe. At just the same time, the brute spun around and drove his sword down, stopping Hyren's blade centimetres from his own furry legs.
Hyren's bones rattled with the force of the impact and he forced himself to move past the pain, sliding his sword away and pushing himself to his feet in time to skip back from a horizontal slash. The timing couldn't have been better—while the Werelupe King was recovering from the follow-through, Hyren had a breath in him and a moment to strike.
With a shout, he drove his blade toward the beast. If he could just get this hit in, it could be over. In the corner of his vision, movement registered. A jolt of adrenaline seized him when he realised he'd been a hair too slow. His wrist twisted painfully as the Werelupe King's jagged blade wrenched the shortsword from Hyren's hands.
The Grundo let out a groan and moved to step back, but a furry paw shot out and grabbed him by the neck, slamming him into the cave wall. Hyren's head swam from the impact and he tried desperately to blink away his double vision in time to see the Werelupe raise his sword again. Hyren gritted his teeth, backpedaling uselessly against the stone. Terra... I failed you.
"Isengrim, stop!" A very familiar human's voice rang out above the din.
Hyren's antennae perked. "Terra?!" both he and the Werelupe King shouted at the same time, and then glared at each other.
"Leave him alone!" Terra sprinted toward the two, her braid flying wildly behind her. Hyren was relieved to see that she looked unharmed, save for bandaging around her leg. But why was she wearing skins like the rest of these barbarians?
The Werelupe kept his grip on the Grundo but turned toward her, ears folded back slightly. "Terra—"
She bared her teeth at him, furrowing her brow and drawing herself up importantly, a comical sight considering he was nearly a metre taller than her. "Drop him, Isengrim! I mean it!"
To Hyren's astonishment, the Werelupe's ears flattened and his tail curled under his legs. Slowly, he released Hyren, letting the Grundo fall to the floor, and stood back, his posture bowed.
Before Hyren could pick himself up, Terra ran to him and dropped to her knees, throwing her arms around him. "I missed you," she wept. "Oh, Hyren, I'm so glad you came for me." She lifted her head. "Isengrim, call off your pack."
"You heard her!" the Werelupe King barked, sheathing his blade. "Let them alone!"
Blynn and Celice looked utterly bedraggled as the legion of Werelupes retreated from around them. Gwyneth gave one of them a parting cuff with her paw.
"Terra!" The Zafara scampered down from the Petpet and bounded on all fours over to her owner.
Terra caught her up and held her two Neopets close. "I love you guys," she whispered.
Hyren clung to her. "I—I was so scared you didn't need me any more."
"I'll always need you, I promise."
The Grundo pulled back and looked her over. "Are you all right? Did he hurt you—what happened to your leg—"
Terra grinned. "We fought a Monocerous, it was awesome!" She squeezed his shoulders. "You would have been so proud of me! I just got a little collateral damage. Totally my fault. Sneaking up on a Monocerous never ends well."
Blynn's eyes widened. "You fought a Monocerous? I'm guessing you won."
Their owner beamed and ran her fingers through the tuft of fur on the Zafara's head. "Yep! We saved a whole village!"
Hyren's smile was a little more forced. "Why are you dressed like a Werelupe?" He couldn't help but feel a little betrayed. Was she trying to fit in here? Did she like her life here more than her life with her Neopets?
Terra fingered the bracelet of fangs around her wrist. "It's not what it looks like... okay, it is. But guys, I can explain!"
Blynn poked her head over her owner's shoulder. "Hey... where's Pharazon?"
From atop Gwyneth, Celice looked around. Her bun had become disheveled and her spectacles slid down nearly to the tip of her nose before she pushed them back up. "Pharazon!" she called out hoarsely.
The Werelupe King cleared his throat and glared down at the happy reunion. "Get away from my owner."
Around him, the Werelupes were picking themselves and each other up, tending to wounds as more of their pack came out of the tunnels with medical supplies and healing potions. The green-eyed female sheathed her sword across her back and pawed over to the king, still glaring down at Hyren like he had personally burned her crops and stolen her Whinnies.
Hyren scowled up at the beasts' leader. "She's not your owner."
The Werelupe King smirked. "Oh, isn't she."
The Grundo's antennae dropped and he turned to Terra. "You're not his owner... are you?"
Terra held in her breath for a moment and then scratched the back of her head. "... This is awkward." She turned her pets around and looked up at the hulking creature standing over them. "Guys, meet your new... brother. This is Isengrim, King of the Werelupes. Isengrim, this is Blynn and Hyren." She kept her hands firmly on their shoulders.
Hyren narrowed his eyes. "You'll never be a brother of mine. Give me my owner back."
Isengrim growled, his hackles rising. "She's my owner! I need her more than you do, you close-minded thief!"
"I'm the thief?!" Hyren broke away from Terra to stare the Werelupe down. "You stole her from me in the first place, you hypocrite!"
Terra leaned forward. "Guys, stop."
The Werelupe King flexed his claws, his ears perking as his red eyes bored into Hyren's. "You call me selfish?! You, who destroyed my life once and now you're trying again to rip away everything dear to me?! All I wanted was to be left alone by the likes of you!"
"Then we'll leave you alone!" Hyren said. A quick glance told him his sword was still out of reach. But Blynn still had her slingshot. "Just let us take our owner and leave and we'll never bother you again!"
Isengrim made a sound halfway between an irritated grunt and an amused laugh. "She stays with me."
Terra put her arms around Hyren. "Isengrim, I'm sorry, but... I have to go. It's time for me to go home."
The Werelupe looked pained. "I still need you..." He drew his sword. "And I will not let these burglars go unpunished!"
Hyren twisted himself free from Terra's hold and clenched his fists. "I came for Terra and I'm not leaving without her! I'll fight you until my last breath!"
Isengrim snarled. "That can be arranged!"
A sharp bark from across the cavern startled them all. Celice sat rigid on Gwyneth's back, her eyes wide and glazed like she was seeing something far in the distance. "No—Pharazon—!" Her body twitched like she was caught in some sort of paralysis and her ears were flattened against her head. "Where are you—agh!" Gritting her teeth, she slumped over on the Ganuthor's back, trembling, her tail tucked.
Blynn drew a sharp breath. "Celice! What's the matter?!"
"Something's—something's gone very wrong," the white Lupe gasped, clutching at Gwyneth's fur. "There's magic, thick, malevolent magic everywhere—"
Isengrim huffed and turned back to Hyren. "Then that's his problem, not mine—" He was interrupted by the green-eyed female's suddenly swatting him across the muzzle.
"Milord," she growled. "With all due respect, stop being an idiot."
His shoulders sagged. "Suhel—"
She drew herself up. "Who's the one person we know capable of such powerful magicks? The one person the runt spends all his time with?"
Isengrim stiffened. "I still don't see how that's my problem."
"Magus Skoll is plotting treason."
The Werelupe King let out a shocked whine. "He wouldn't—how do you know this?"
"I spied on them yesterday."
Terra stood up. "Pharazon's helping him! Please, we have to stop them! They want to get rid of you! Pharazon told me last night!"
Isengrim's eyes widened. "Why didn't either of you tell me?"
"Would you have taken it as a serious threat?" Terra asked.
His gaze lowered for a moment and then he looked to his second. "Suhel?"
The female's ears turned back. "Forgive me, milord. I feared the consequences if Magus Skoll turned his wrath on me. I am weak."
Isengrim took a second to regard her and then placed a paw on one of her pauldrons. "No, I do not blame you for fearing his magicks. I would not want to see any harm come to you." He spun around to face the Lupe sorceress. "Where are they?!"
"I don't know," Celice whimpered.
"The Werelupe Graveyard." Suhel folded her arms. "In the northwest crypt, I'll wager."
Isengrim's ears swiveled toward her. "What's in there?"
"Not sure. But whatever it is, Magus Skoll likes it a lot."
The king put a paw on her shoulder. "Stay here, help direct triage. I'll be back shortly."
Suhel wrinkled her nose. "Milord, I ought to go with you. You gave me charge over that little runt and I must atone for my mistake."
"I dismiss you from those duties, and you have performed them well. We all make mistakes. Besides," he said with a toothy grin, "you're my second. If something should happen to me, the pack will need a Werelupe Queen."
"Don't say that—nothing will happen to you." Suhel shook her head. "You'll come back. You always do."
"We're coming with you," Terra said. "I failed to stop Pharazon before and I'm not going to fail again."
Hyren used the opportunity to grab his sword. "We're getting him back, and then we're out of here."
"Don't count yourself so Faerie-blessed," Isengrim growled. He sheathed his blade and dropped to all fours. "Terra, to me!"
The girl grabbed his shoulder fur and swung her leg over his back. "Come on, guys, just get along long enough to find Pharazon!"
Isengrim snorted. As Hyren and Blynn mounted Gwyneth, he glowered at them. "Try to keep up." With that, he launched himself up the main tunnel.
"Gwyn, go!" Blynn tapped the Petpet's head and she let out an exhausted grunt. "We're going to Pharazon, girl! We're not leaving without him!"
At the sound of her owner's name, the Ganuthor perked up. She shook herself and loped after the Werelupe King, her ribs heaving as she rumbled back through the den of beasts. At least this time, Hyren thought, they didn't have the extra strain of trying to fight anything off. But seeing his owner so chumly with the creature who had antagonised them twelve years ago was painful.
Secretly, Hyren hoped they would be able to ally with Skoll to take Isengrim down for good, and he didn't understand why Terra was so against something like that. Oh, wait, he did. She was too nice for her own good. She might have befriended a monster, but that didn't make him any less of a monster in Hyren's eyes.
"You doing okay, Celice?" Blynn asked as they emerged into the forest again.
"Oof..." Celice rubbed her head. "That was certainly the most intense vision I've ever experienced. Wherever they are, I'm guessing the innate magical qualities of the area were amplified and fed through Pharazon's awareness. They might even have been enough to trigger an accidental communication, as he didn't seem to be trying to talk to me."
"Huh..." The Zafara looked up at the sky beyond the tangled trees. "Ooh. Lunar eclipse tonight." Kreludor's silver light was beginning to redden, its edge darkening as it moved into Neopia's shadow.
Isengrim led them down another sunken forest path, this one studded with stone ruins from some bygone age, into an ancient graveyard ringed with mausoleums and wreathed in mist. It was quiet here—too quiet, and something about it made Hyren's skin crawl. And graveyards didn't normally faze him.
Celice shuddered in front of him, her tail bushing. "This place reeks of Earth magic."
Blynn sniffed the air. "I thought Earth magic was nice."
"Magic of any sphere can go foul if it's used wrongly," Celice replied as they followed Isengrim up a hillside to one of the marble tombs. "The most powerful Earth magic deals with life and death... and has the ability to twist them."
At the yawning entrance to the crypt, Isengrim stopped and allowed Terra to dismount, standing up and drawing his sword. "Let's go. It's a good thing you brought your conjurer, after all. We may have need of her yet." He eyed Celice dubiously, as though he was trying to figure out whether or not having a magic user on his side was an advantage.
Blynn patted Gwyneth's nose. "Stay out here, girl. We'll be back with Pharazon in just a minute."
"Ugh..." Celice held her stomach as they crept past the sarcophagus in the entry chamber. With a flick of her wrist she ignited a small orange flame on her clawtip, which she held out to light their way as they advanced into a dark, downward-sloping shaft. "The magic here, it's... over-saturated. Cloying."
"Are you gonna be okay?" Blynn asked from beside her.
Celice nodded. "It's similar to how you feel after you eat a slice of cake that's far too sweet."
Blynn licked her lips. "Can't say I've ever had that problem."
As they progressed, a sickly green glow began to light the walls. Celice glanced over at the inscriptions on the stone and drew a sharp breath, her ears flattening. "I don't like this place. Fell magic was used here."
Even Hyren could feel it, a stifling thickness that seemed to be trying to envelop him. He could only imagine how severe the sensation was for magic users. But Pharazon had the right idea, he thought. It was nice to see the Draik taking a stand for once, being there for their owner when Hyren couldn't be. Although Terra seemed to have her priorities set strangely.
"Isengrim, I'm so sorry," she said as she walked between him and Hyren down the narrow passage. "I really should have told you earlier."
"No, you were right. I would not have listened. Magus Skoll has been loyal to me for so long, I was blinded to the idea that he could ever betray me." A low growl came from the back of the Werelupe's throat. "But he will pay for his treason."
"Don't punish Pharazon, please," his owner pleaded. "He doesn't know what he's doing. He thinks he's doing the right thing."
"Perhaps the dungeons were a more fitting place for that little—" Isengrim stopped abruptly.
The group stood at the opening to a large chamber bathed in green light. A subtle, low-pitched humming filled Hyren's antennae and jarred his bones.
"Well," said a gravelly old voice. "This is a surprise. I wasn't expecting you here, my liege."
Standing near the middle of the chamber, in front of a large pit in the stone floor, was a wizened, grey Werelupe stooped with age, leaning heavily on his skull-topped staff. Beside him stood a Faerie Draik, his jaw set with determination, a necklace of fangs hanging at his chest.
Isengrim stepped forward. "Skoll, what is the meaning of this?!" he barked, brandishing his sword. "You've done so much for the pack—why this betrayal?"
Pharazon's eyes widened when his family and Celice stepped out from behind the Werelupe King. "You—you guys came!" he stammered. "Terra?!"
"Pharazon, don't do this," Terra begged. "I know you want to help, but this isn't helping anyone. It's just making things worse."
The Draik shook his head. "Sorry, Terra. I'm tired of waiting to be rescued all the time. I've got to come into my own." He glanced over at his Grundo brother. "Right, Hyren?"
Hyren swallowed hard. "Er..." He hated the idea of being forced to choose between siding with his owner or his brother. He could respect Pharazon's sudden burst of independence, but part of him also wanted to trust Terra now. After all, it was that same kindness of hers that had transformed him so many years ago.
Skoll growled, his lips curling to reveal his fangs. "You think I was ever part of your pack, you simple-minded brute? I joined you because it was convenient for me!"
He pounded the end of his staff on the stone, causing the empty eye sockets of the skull to flare green. "For years I've suffered the company of you mangy barbarians, waiting for the opportunity to claw my way to the top and mold you into the civilised society I deserve!"
Isengrim winced like he'd been stung. "Is that really how you feel about us?"
The older Werelupe's snarl turned into a sneer. "Did you ever really think anyone could respect you? You're all just a bunch of self-important oafs running around in the woods, robbing and plundering as you please! No, there will never be a place in Neopia for you!"
Terra put a hand on Isengrim's arm. "Don't listen to him. Pharazon, come back, please!"
The Werelupe King stepped forward, his tail rising as he gripped his blade. "And how do you plan to oust me, traitor? You can't scare me off with eerie lights and ominous threats!"
"I needed an accomplice." Skoll gestured to Pharazon. "Someone with powerful magic who could work alongside me. Of course, with your pack's childish aversion to magic, such a thing was hard to come by, until you so foolishly deposited him directly into my paws."
Pharazon clenched his fists. "That's right! We're going to stop you together!" He looked up at the sage. "What do you need me to do?"
Skoll swung out his staff and knocked him into the pit.
To be continued...