Sanity is forbidden Circulation: 192,959,134 Issue: 672 | 5th day of Celebrating, Y16
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Worth Searching For: Part Ten


by cosmicfire918

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Terra screamed and Hyren felt like he'd been punched in the gut. "No!" He started forward, drawing his sword, with Terra close on his heels.

     Skoll thrust out his paw and an invisible force flung them back. Isengrim caught Terra, and Hyren tumbled onto the stone and dragged himself back to his feet. "Pharazon! Hold on—I'm coming!" He rushed toward the Draik, but was thrown back again.

     Pharazon yelped and flapped his wings to right himself, but globs of green shot out of the hole and latched onto him, pulling him down. The humming grew more intense until Hyren's sword felt ready to vibrate out of his hand, like whatever was in that pit was hungry for a long-awaited meal.

     The Draik struggled against the spectral mass but it clung to him like tar. "Skoll—you said you'd never sacrifice anyone here!"

     Skoll grinned wickedly. "I lied."

     Blynn sent a shot flying toward the strings of glowing goop, but Skoll's energy shield deflected it before it even activated. Celice furrowed her brow and held out her own sparking hands, but gasped and stumbled back after a moment, her own magic overpowered.

     Pharazon let out one last cry of dismay, scrabbling wildly at the edge of the pit, and then he was gone.

     Hyren staggered back, dazed. This was not what he had journeyed all the way here for. "You... you monster," he seethed through clenched teeth.

     "No..." Terra leaned against Isengrim and buried her face in her hands. "How could you?!"

     A tremor rocked the room, causing dust to sift from the walls. Hyren stiffened and held his sword in front of him. "What was that?!"

     For an answer, a geyser of ectoplasm erupted from the pit and punched a hole through the ceiling of the chamber, scattering broken stone around them. Within the rushing mass, Hyren was horrified to see stretched, anguished faces and reaching limbs of various Neopet species.

     Skoll turned to face Isengrim with a chuckle that escalated into all-out maniacal laughter. "That pathetic boy! Did he really think he could waltz right into my lair with so much power and keep it from me? He was exactly what I needed to catalyze the Well of Souls! Now its energy is mine!" He seemed to glow from within, crackling with magic. "If Brightvale won't take me back, then I'll just forge my own kingdom to rival it—and rule myself!"

     "He trusted you!" Terra cried. "How could you do that to him?!"

     The Werelupe Sage smirked. "He was just as naïve as you, human. He willingly danced right into his own doom." He glanced at Celice. "I'm guessing you're the one he spoke to through that Lupe Moon Charm I planted for him to find. Your arrival was the perfect distraction for my endeavors, and I thank you for that."

     The white Lupe growled. "You knew about us all along?"

     "Of course!" Skoll laughed, a grating and cruel laugh. "That idiot thought he was so clever! It takes more than that to fool a genius..." He drew a deep breath, standing up straighter as the magic continued to fill him. "And this is one genius who's been waiting a long time to set things right."

     The gushing from the Well did not cease, and it sickened Hyren to wonder just how many souls had been fed to it before his brother's. And the ancient stone continued to tremble, the shaking getting worse.

     Isengrim snarled and gently moved Terra aside. Hyren took her hand and gave it a squeeze, and she squeezed back. The Werelupe's fur stood on end. "I won't forgive you for this!" he barked, raising his blade and breaking into a sprint.

     "It's you who should be begging for forgiveness!" Skoll thrust up his hand.

     Flashes of green magic congealed around the Werelupe King, shoving him back. He let out a grunt as he bounced on the floor and his blade snapped beneath him. Rolling into a kneel, Isengrim regarded the shattered sword for a moment and then tossed the hilt over his shoulder, digging his claws into the stone and rushing toward his traitorous conjurer.

     Skoll let out a yell and amassed a core of vile green energy in the palm of his paw, shooting it at the other Werelupe. Hyren realised his hand was empty. Reaching out, he was unable to grab Terra as she shot away from his side and flung herself into the path of the spell. "No!" he choked.

     The magic sapped into her and bubbled nauseatingly around her as she fell to the ground, motionless. Her colour seemed faded, like she was simply a husk.

     "Terra!" Isengrim swerved in his path and scrambled over to the girl, cradling her in his arms.

     A second tremor rocked the crypt, stones becoming dislodged from the wall and tumbling around them. The entire place was coming down, not helped by the seemingly endless outpouring of souls.

     Skoll aimed another blast for the Werelupe King, but this one was deflected by a veil of shimmering flame. Hyren looked up to see Celice doubled over beside him. "We have to get out of here!" she barked, stray strands of hair dangling over her face. "Now!"

     "Go ahead and run!" the Werelupe Sage chuckled as Isengrim picked up Terra and retreated back to the passageway. "Go tell those idiots at Brightvale that they will regret slighting me! Now we'll see who gets to judge who!" His peals of cruel laughter blended in nightmarish harmony with the crumbling stone.

     The architecture buckled and cracked around the five as they scrambled for the exit, Isengrim clutching Terra close. Outside, Gwyneth shifted her weight anxiously, letting out uneasy growls, and the entire area was bathed in a pale green.

     Once Hyren was on her back, he could see why. The soul-geyser reached into the sky and was pouring a glowing miasma over the heavens, clouding the stars. The moon was nearly swallowed up in eclipse.

     "Pharazon's fortune..." Blynn breathed. "When shadows consume the moon... spectres of the fallen shall rise."

     Hyren felt a weight behind him, and looked over his shoulder to see Isengrim sitting there, still holding a limp Terra. The Werelupe glowered at him. "I can't keep up with your mount on two legs. And I'm not risking getting her hurt." He glanced down at their owner.

     The Grundo narrowed his eyes possessively, but his expression softened as he scanned Terra's face. "Good." He was still staggering to absorb the fact that Pharazon was gone—he couldn't lose his owner now, too.

     "Gwyneth, let's go!" Blynn said.

     The Ganuthor jolted into motion nearly before Blynn directed her, barreling down the hill. The tremors were intensifying and the very ground shifted, headstones falling over and trees leaning away from their roots. Gwyneth struggled to keep her footing, and snapped out her wings, flapping them awkwardly to launch herself over unsteady terrain for a few metres at a time.

     "Gwyn, no!" Blynn patted her head. "You shouldn't fly yet, I don't know if that sprain's healed all the way!"

     A nearby mausoleum shuddered and burst apart under the seismic strain, and its heavy blocks of limestone came crashing down the hill toward the Ganuthor and her riders. Gwyneth let out a grunt and sped up in the direction of the rockslide.

     Blynn pulled on the Ganuthor's ears. "What are you doing?! You'll get us all creamed!"

     Gwyneth did nothing to heed the Zafara's command, keeping at full speed with her wings outstretched as the jagged chunks of stone tumbled closer. She raced up the incline of a fallen tree trunk and took a mighty leap, pushing away from the ground and flapping her wings to gain altitude as the rocks passed by below them. Gwyneth cringed as her wing gave a twitch in protest, but she lowered her head and soared away from the cemetery.

     "Aww, Gwyn..." Blynn sighed and rubbed the Petpet's head. "Thanks, girl." She paused. "Pharazon would have appreciated that."

     Hyren watched as the sea of green above the graveyard seemed to trickle down in small rivulets that leached into the treetops and lit the forest with an eerie glow. "What's going on," he panted.

     Celice tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "It's raining spectres..."

     The Grundo swallowed hard and turned around to his owner. Ignoring the Werelupe holding her, he put a hand to her cheek. It wasn't warm, but it wasn't cold, either. Instead it felt heavy and clammy, even though her skin was dry. Like something was weighing her down. "By the Faeries, is she alive?" he muttered, pulling up one of her eyelids to see her eye rolled back.

     "She's breathing," Isengrim replied.

     Celice shifted around to inspect the owner, hovering her paws over the girl's body and biting her bottom lip. "That's a pretty powerful curse on her..." She looked at Hyren and Isengrim. "I don't specialise in healing magic or countering curses, but plenty at the University do and they're dratted good at it. We have to get her to Brightvale."

     Isengrim nodded. "Zafara, take us back to the Burrows first. My pack cannot stay here, not now."

     Hyren frowned. "You're not coming."

     "She's my owner." Isengrim was beginning to sound like a Virtupets audio transmission stuck on repeat. "I won't abandon her." His eyes flicked back to Blynn. "Take us down near the outcropping of firs on the hillside. That's where the front gate is."

     Hyren suddenly realised that this was not the Werelupe King who had so cruelly treated Terra like a piece of property all those years ago. She had changed Hyren and she had changed Isengrim now, too.

     But that still didn't mean Hyren had to like Isengrim, after all he'd put their family through. "Fine," Hyren grumbled as Gwyneth began to descend toward the trees. "Although I'm sure Brightvale will take kindly to a Werelupe showing up at the University."

     "You are being sarcastic. I know they will not welcome me, but I travel there not for myself. I will not leave my owner's side. I promised her as much."

     Hyren turned back around and curled his fists into Gwyneth's fur. He didn't want to waste any time getting Terra the help she needed, not when there was still a chance to save her—like he'd failed to do with Pharazon. And he hated admitting to himself that he was jealous.

     Gwyneth touched back down on the path in front of the skull-gate. It was open and Suhel and several other Werelupes stood around it, watching the sky with their ears flat and tails low. When the Ganuthor alighted, they all snapped to attention and clustered around her. Suhel seemed to search the Petpet for Pharazon, and the Werelupe's face fell when she did not find him.

     Isengrim eased Terra off of his lap and nudged her toward Hyren. "Take care of her for a moment."

     Hyren balanced her on Gwyneth's back as best as he was able while the Werelupe jumped to the ground. The Grundo was impressed that Isengrim would trust him with Terra even while they were still at odds. But the fact that they were surrounded by Werelupes and no one was in any condition to fight prevented them from taking off without the king.

     Hyren smoothed wisps of hair away from Terra's face. "Please be okay," he murmured, watching her in vain for any sign of life. He pulled her into a hug, screwing his eyes shut and feeling like a horrible Neopet. He'd set out to rescue her and Pharazon and he'd let them down miserably. If he lost her, too, he didn't know what he would do.

     "Milord!" Suhel barked as Isengrim approached her. "What in all the worlds happened?!"

     "You were right," he grunted. "And I'm sorry to say the Draik's foolish actions caused his demise."

     Suhel drooped, screwing shut her eyes. "That moron."

     Another Werelupe piped up, "How does that explain the earthquakes?"

     Isengrim's nose wrinkled. "I don't have much time. Suffice to say you all have to evacuate. We're in over our heads." He turned back to Suhel. "I'm going to Brightvale to seek help for my owner. Take the pack, grab as much as you can, and get somewhere safe—the Drackon Ridge caverns, maybe. Send the stewards to their fiefs to keep guard over them and help them evacuate if need be."

     Suhel nodded. "But what about you?"

     He put his paws on her shoulders. "I'll be fine. Stay safe until I come back to you."

     The female's eyes misted over and she pounded a fist on his chest. "You had better come back."

     Isengrim pressed his muzzle to her head. "I always do." A moment later, he pulled away and patted her pauldron. "Now get going! Things aren't looking good here!"

     "Right!" Suhel turned to the other Werelupes. "You heard him! Let's get a move on!" She began ushering them back into the tunnel. At the entrance, she stopped and cast one last glance over her shoulder at Isengrim. Hyren couldn't tell if the look in her eyes was sadness or worry or desperation.

     "This isn't easy for her," Isengrim muttered as he settled back down on Gwyneth and extended his arms to take Terra.

     Hyren gave her back, mostly because his own arms were aching. After everything that had gone on tonight, he wanted to crash into the nearest available bed and sleep for a week. "Why?" he couldn't help but ask as he turned back around.

     "She doesn't like moving." Isengrim's voice carried a tone of bitterness. "None of us do."

     "Well, sorry," Hyren grumbled. "At least it wasn't our fault this time."

     They flew through the rest of the night, following the setting moon, retreating from the phantasmal glow-storm that hovered above the Werelupe Woods. Hyren realised that he must have ended up dozing off against Celice's back, because the next thing he knew, she was shaking him to wake up.

     "Get off of me, we're almost there," she said, using her elbow to nudge him back upright.

     "Good morning to you, too," he mumbled. His antennae were numb from the frigid air, but being seated between two very furry Lupes seemed to have kept him warm enough through the night. The sky ahead was blue-grey, but the clouds behind them glowed pink with impending sunshine. Brightvale Castle and its surrounding city lay still in the twilight, not yet ready to fully wake. Even the castle's banners hung motionless for want of breeze.

     Isengrim sat stone-still behind him, clutching Terra with a silent vigil. The Werelupe's crimson eyes burned and Hyren could only imagine what thoughts were buzzing beneath them. Isengrim had been betrayed, his home invaded, his pack forced to flee their keep yet again, and now his owner was suffering from the effects of taking a curse for him. It hadn't really been a pleasant night for anyone involved.

     Celice turned back to Blynn. "Take us straight to the courtyard. I don't want to have to mince words."

     "Right." The Ganuthor banked into a curve, swooping down toward the University.

     The courtyard was illuminated in the pre-dawn gloom by steady orbs of cool light, the colour of daylight, no doubt the work of the University's Light mages. Hyren caught the glint of metal moving against the stonework and stiffened. People flying in on larger Petpets was not uncommon—after all, that was half the reason for the courtyard in the first place, not to mention the adjoining stables. No, the problem was when those people had Werelupes with them.

     As Gwyneth touched down on the flagstones, a group of Neopets surrounded her. Instead of flowing sorcerer's robes such as Celice wore, these guards sported shirts and trousers and carried blades at their waists, although they also clutched wands that glowed in a panoply of hues.

     They stared at the group with confusion, but thankfully not aggression. Hyren supposed this was probably because they recognised Celice. He would have to send Yuezhi a thank-you note. Picking up this conjurer was perhaps the best thing that had happened to them in their search.

     The white Lupe alighted from the Ganuthor. "I can explain," she breathed, re-arranging her robes, her nose almost touching the tip of a red Kyrii's wand.

     "Well, you had better," the Kyrii snapped, tossing her mane of scarlet hair. "If I weren't on my fifth can of Achyfi I'd think this was all a bizarre dream. First that flux of Earth magic at midnight, and then a Werelupe registering on the sensor enchantments..." She turned to a blue Uni. "Is he spellbound?"

     "No, ma'am," the Uni replied, her wand held high as she scrutinised Isengrim from afar. The Werelupe gave her an irritated glare, making her ears pitch back. "But there's a heavy curse on the owner, looks like."

     The Kyrii's eyebrow rose and she looked back to Celice. "What in the name of Hagan's beard is going on, Lady Anfel?"

     "It's a long story." Celice waved her paw. "Now excuse us, we have to talk to Master Seradar."

     The Kyrii blocked her path. "With a Werelupe from the wilds? Are you mad?"

     The sorceress grinned. She did look rather crazed with her hair in disarray and her robes disheveled. "Of course. Now let me through—I'm authorised to access every part of this campus and I shan't be detained!"

     "Not until we put the proper bindings on him to ensure—"

     At the word "bindings", Isengrim leapt from Gwyneth's back with a snarl. The ground trembled when he landed beside Celice. The guards winced, but held their wands steady and closed in on him.

     He drew himself up, clutching Terra to his chest. "You shall not bind me!" he growled, his crimson eyes blazing as he stared them down. "I have journeyed here to seek help for my owner and if you use any of your foul magicks on me, I will call my entire pack to raze your city to the ground!"

     The Kyrii gritted her teeth, but her eyes strayed to the girl in his arms. "That's... your owner?"

     "Yes," he grunted.

     The Uni's nostrils flared. "Feh, I don't believe it! He's obviously a remnant of the pack that used to live in the mountains!"

     "A remnant! Do you know who I am—"

     "She is his owner!" Blynn said from atop Gwyneth. "And he's my brother! Please, ma'am, you gotta believe us! She's under a real bad curse and we need help!" She looked down at the guards with wide, watery eyes. "We—we already lost somebody in our family tonight! I can't lose my owner, too..." Her voice broke and she buried her face in her paws, her shoulders shuddering.

     The Kyrii and the Uni looked at each other and then to Celice, trying hard to ignore the fuming Werelupe looming over them. The Kyrii closed her eyes. "Fine. Go see Headmaster Seradar and get this barbarian off the premises as soon as possible. I trust you'll keep him under control, Lady Anfel."

     Celice turned up her snout. "He doesn't need my control. He's not a Petpet." The guards stepped aside and she gestured to Isengrim to follow her.

     Blynn passed Gwyneth off to a summoned stablehand and the Zafara joined Hyren behind the Werelupe as Celice led them into the University's vaulted foyer. It was quiet and their footsteps echoed on the polished marble, and there was nary a soul to be seen except for a single small Dust Mote that rolled into a corner as they approached.

     "Nice use of the Puppyblew eyes back there," Hyren muttered to his sister as they climbed a wide flight of stairs. His aching legs made him wish the University used lifts like sensible people, and they certainly had the magic to power such, but he supposed they enjoyed their traditional image.

     Her eyes, still brimming with tears, were trained on the carpet, and her muzzle twisted into a grimace. "I... he's gone, he's really gone. And we couldn't do anything to stop it. Just when we found them again... they got taken away." The Zafara lifted a paw to her face.

     Hyren hung his head. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry... I let all of you down." He took a deep breath and put a hand on her shoulder. "We'll save Terra. I promise. There's still hope for her, at least."

     "Maybe."

     As the group ascended steps and stalked through hallways, they met with a handful of scholars roaming the halls. The startled Neopets could only manage double-takes before Celice rushed the Werelupe away, giving them a look that told them not to ask questions.

     At the top of a tower, once Hyren's legs were sufficiently aching, Celice approached a richly polished set of oaken doors. She pounded on the intricately carved surface, bouncing up and down on her hind paws. "Master Seradar!" she barked. "I'm sorry if I'm waking you, but it's an emergency—"

     One of the heavy doors swung open. The wizened purple Gelert on the other side, though still in his nightgown, looked wide awake, his trailing ears perked. He was also currently in conversation with an array of small portals floating at his eye level. They were like windows that showed the animated expressions of other Neopians as they engaged in a fervent discussion with both him and each other.

     It worked on the same principle as the personal holographic projectors Hyren was familiar with from his time in Sloth's army, but these were obviously of magical origin. From where he was standing, the Grundo glimpsed Illusen and Jerdana, their faces grave and lips thin.

     "—get Fyora in on the summons," the Earth Faerie was saying.

     "We tried her earlier," a crackly voice that sounded rather like the witch Edna replied from one of the portals that faced away from Hyren. "She's in conference with the Faerie Council, and she always sets up wards against summoning during those things."

     A male's deep tone groaned from another portal. "That's the problem with Faeries, too much bureaucracy. Qasala never has to worry about that."

     "Qasala was also under a curse of undeath for two centuries, Jazan," a female voice from the same portal said. "So worry about your own track record, first."

     "That one wasn't my fault, Nabile!"

     Seradar harrumphed as he finished nudging the door open. "You're all straying from the issue at hand! If that Earth magic rupture was so severe that it was felt all the way in Altador—" His eyes finally fell on the group standing outside his chambers, and as he saw Isengrim, he froze. Everyone else stopped talking, as well.

     Although not for the reason Hyren was expecting, as he realised they were looking at Terra, not the Werelupe. Seradar's long moustache bristled and his ears swiveled back. "Good heavens, that curse is thick as treacle!"

     Celice stepped forward. "We know—we need your help!"

     The faces in the portals all began talking again, their tones becoming more and more pitched. "Ugh, you all are getting nowhere." Seradar swished his paw through the portals, extinguishing them, and gave a sigh of relief. "Now I can work in peace and quiet. What is going on here? Wait—tell me on the way to the infirmary." He brushed past them and to the stairs.

     Hyren had to force his legs to keep moving. Thankfully his training had taught him how to ignore fatigue. He could rest when he had a moment to stand still. As they descended the tower, he raised an eyebrow. "So... you're okay with the whole Werelupe-in-your-midst thing?"

     "Between that magic flare six hours ago, and one of the worst curses I've ever seen, he's really the least of our problems, now isn't he?" With a flick of his wrist Seradar had another window open in the air in front of him. "Arsinoe, meet me in the infirmary. It's an emergency."

     By the time they reached the medical wing of the University, Celice had filled her old teacher in on every detail, from Isengrim's kidnapping Terra and Pharazon to Skoll's betrayal and his use of Pharazon to catalyze the Well of Souls. Isengrim, for his part, was uncharacteristically quiet, stalking along behind Celice rather than using the opportunity to gloat.

     They were met at the door by a green Aisha sorceress who escorted them to a small room with a single cot. Isengrim knelt down and gently placed Terra on it. Hyren tried not to think of how much it looked like a funeral as he and Blynn leaned over the side of the bed. There seemed to be an even heavier pall around the girl than before and Hyren swallowed hard, trying to keep the dread from overwhelming him. Blynn took Terra's limp hand and gave it a squeeze.

     "Excuse me, please." The Aisha scooted the two away to hover her paws over the owner's body. "Seradar, assist." The Gelert nodded and joined her side.

     Hyren frowned at the dismissal, but it was obvious it was either he move or Isengrim, and Hyren couldn't blame anyone for not wanting to ask a Werelupe to move. He kept his eyes on Terra as though the mere action of watching her enough would revive her.

     The Aisha's and Seradar's paws began to glow blue. It looked as though they were trying to pick their way around a tangle of string and feel out knots in it. Occasionally one of the two mages would mutter things Hyren didn't understand, about nexuses and foci and mana flow, and the other would nod in agreement.

     "What do you think, Master Arsinoe?" Celice asked, cleaning her glasses on the hem of her wide sleeve.

     The other sorceress kept her eyes on the owner. "The spell was definitely cast with lethal intent," she murmured, "but malfunctioned in the way it hit the target."

     "She wasn't the target," Isengrim spoke for the first time in a while. "I was."

     Arsinoe glanced up at him. "She dove in the way to save you?"

     The Werelupe blinked. "Yes. How did you know?"

     "It was an educated guess. Since she sacrificed herself for your sake, it caused the magic's effects to lessen and imbue her with a curse instead of destroying her outright."

     Hyren's antennae perked. "But how is that possible?"

     Arsinoe smiled. "Magic does strange things sometimes. It's not tidy or strictly logical. It plays by its own rules. And acts of selflessness have disrupted spells before."

     "So... she's gonna be okay?" Blynn asked.

     Seradar stood back and sighed. "Well... yes and no. The curse is slowly overwhelming her."

     "But I can keep her stable for a while," the Aisha said.

     Hyren frowned. "So what's the good news?"

     The old Gelert stroked his moustache. "From the looks of it, this is a curse that can only be broken with the demise of the caster. If you feel like taking that as good news."

     "I'll be happy to see to that," Isengrim growled, his eyes glittering. He reached for his owner. "I'm going back to the Burrows to put an end to him."

     "Wait." Seradar held up a paw. "You can't go back there now. The entire area is a highly volatile magical tempest, and he's in control of it. You'd be decimated the moment you set foot in that domain."

     Celice grimaced. "I've never felt such powerful Earth magic before."

     Seradar leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "And we have no idea just what he wants with it besides vague threats of vengeance. Which makes planning counter tactics difficult."

     Unable to help himself, Hyren simply sat down on the rug and leaned his head against the stone. Not moving never felt so good. "Let me guess, you can't just take a bunch of mages out there and blast him into oblivion."

     "Heavens, no. Haven't you ever heard that saying? 'Fools rush in where mages fear to tread.' This situation must be handled delicately."

     Hyren supposed that made him some kind of wonderful fool. He decided to interpret that as a compliment.

     Seradar glanced out the window. "If Celice's report is accurate, and I have no reason to doubt that it is, none of us can make another move until Skoll does something with all of that energy and shifts his focus away from himself."

     Celice yawned and slumped over the windowsill. "Good gracious, I haven't had this little sleep since my last thesis paper."

     "Sleep sounds really good," Hyren murmured, his eyes already half-closed. He hated to admit it, but he couldn't do anything to help Terra if he was dead tired. Part of him wished that if he went to sleep, he would wake up to her smiling face. But the feeling in the pit of his stomach told him it wasn't going to be that easy.

     Arsinoe leaned back over Terra and shook her head. "Oh, you poor dears. Have you eaten anything?"

     "No," Isengrim said, a hungry gleam in his eyes.

     Blynn climbed up on the bed. "I'm not hungry." The Zafara curled up by her owner's side, resting the spade of her tail over her muzzle.

     Seradar rubbed at his face. "Lady Anfel, would you like me to escort you to your chambers?"

     "I would if I thought I could walk that far, Headmaster," Celice groaned, opting instead to curl up on the floor.

     The Gelert chuckled and eased himself into sitting against the wall. "Drat, I was hoping you could help me back up to my own chambers. It's been a long night for us all." He folded his paws in his lap, his bushy eyebrows drooping.

     "Be a dear and fetch some pillows and blankets, would you?" Arsinoe called to someone outside the room.

     The last thing Hyren saw was Isengrim kneeling in a silent vigil over their owner while Arsinoe murmured magic over the girl's prone form.

     One deep and dreamless sleep later, he was awakened by Celice shaking his shoulder and holding a platter of eggs and sausage under his face. "Thanks," Hyren croaked, taking the plate and spooning egg into his mouth. He felt adequately rested, although his mind was still in a fog from everything that had happened. The pain of losing Pharazon would take quite a while to fade. But at least now he could make it through the rest of the day and do what he needed to do in order to hear his owner's voice again.

     Blynn sat with her long feet dangling over the side of the bed, poking at her food listlessly. Isengrim, meanwhile, tilted his platter and devoured the entire thing in one bite, making ungainly snarfling and snapping sounds as the food disappeared down his maw. He licked the plate clean and licked egg yolk from his whiskers, then sat back against the wall. He hadn't moved from his spot at the side of Terra's bed.

     "I don't suppose you have any more," the Werelupe said to Celice.

     The white Lupe cut a prim slice from her own eggs. "If I go back to the kitchens and ask for enough to satiate you, they'll suspect I'm harbouring the Turmaculus in here."

     Isengrim chuckled. "I don't sleep nearly as much." He looked over at Seradar, his smirk fading. "You will help me defeat Skoll."

     The headmaster nodded. "Of course, although I haven't—"

     There was a knock at the open door. A red Shoyru stood there, shifting his weight anxiously from one leg to the other as his eyes moved from Arsinoe to Seradar. "Er... you have visitors."

     "Oh?" The Gelert's ears rose.

     The Shoyru stepped aside to reveal a pair of Brightvale knights in full armor, their hands by their swords as they surveyed the scene. One of them, a burly Island Kau, cleared his throat. "Headmaster Seradar, sir. Pardon the intrusion, but His Majesty was informed that there was a mountain Werelupe at the University." He tried to avoid Isengrim's piercing gaze.

     The other knight, a Faerie Kacheek who looked anything but delicate with a scar stretching over one eyebrow and down her cheek, grabbed the hilt of her sword. "We were ordered to bring him to audience with the king. By force, if necessary."

     Isengrim's hackles rose as he got to his feet. Before he could say anything, Celice stepped in front of him. "Can this wait?" she asked. "We're looking at a potentially global emergency, and he and his family have just suffered a personal tragedy."

     "Milady," the Kau replied, "be that as it may, orders are orders. And all Werelupes from the Werelupe Woods were officially declared permanently exiled from Brightvale in Year Seven."

     "Exiled?!" Isengrim snarled, drawing himself up. His paw instinctively strayed to the empty scabbard at his back. "How could we be exiled if we never belonged to your vermin-infested kingdom in the first place?!"

     The knights drew their blades and stepped forward, but Arsinoe gave them a warning glare and held out her paw, which blazed blue. "I will not have violence in the infirmary! It's too ironic!"

     "You call us the vermin?" the Kacheek hissed at the Werelupe. "I should expect such hypocrisy from a lawless brigand!"

     "Stop!" Celice barked, drawing back her lips to bare her fangs. "Just, stop! Name-slinging won't get us anywhere! If His Majesty wants to see the Werelupe, that's fine, but at least afford him a shred of dignity after all he's been through!"

     Isengrim's brow furrowed. "If your king wishes to hold audience with me, then I will go. But as his guest, not as a prisoner. Stow your weapons."

     Celice tossed her chin. "You heard him."

     The Kau grimaced. "But..."

     "I'll come with you," the white Lupe said. "He trusts me. I'll be a buffer zone. I've picked up a few diplomacy tips from Roberta." She clutched her robes and started toward the door. "Let's go, Your Majesty." Her use of the title earned her confused glances from the soldiers, but she did not elaborate.

     Isengrim smirked and followed her. He grinned toothily down at the knights. "So, you are to be my escort? What tasty morsels you would make. I am still quite hungry..."

     The two gave each other anxious looks, while Celice merely rolled her eyes. Hyren wondered why it was so easy for some people to fall under the Werelupe King's good graces, and then wondered why he cared. He gave Terra one last glance, then broke away from the bed. "I'm coming, too."

     Celice paused and turned to him. "Oh?"

     "I can't do anything for Terra here," Hyren replied. "We have to defeat Skoll in order to lift her curse, right? So we have to convince Hagan to give us the resources to do that somehow. Blynn, you coming?" He looked over his shoulder.

     The Zafara had curled up beside the girl, her head nestled below Terra's jaw. Only a few bites had been taken from her breakfast. "I'm staying here."

     Hyren could practically feel her sorrow and fear. Terra had created her. The two had a bond beyond what Hyren could fathom. Terra was all Blynn had ever known, and Hyren knew the Zafara's devastation reached beyond even his own.

     He felt terrible for dragging her into this. He wished he had left her back in Shenkuu. There were a lot of things he wished he'd done differently over the past week. But his family was in too deep now and he had to pull them out of it—what was left of them, anyway. He nodded and gave Blynn what he hoped was a comforting smile. "Don't worry. We'll get this all sorted out. I promise."

     "You better keep that promise." Blynn closed her eyes and buried her face in Terra's neck.

     "Don't worry," Arsinoe said, "I'll keep a good eye on her. Seradar, will you be going?"

     The Gelert grabbed his staff from the wall it leaned against. "Oh, most definitely. Hagan can't not hear about an insane mage causing a magic rupture on our borders. Perhaps that will make him pay less attention to the Werelupe."

     "He'll give me the attention I deserve," Isengrim growled.

     Hyren quickened his stride to keep up with the taller Neopets as the knights led them back through the halls of the University. He leaned in closer to Celice. "Why are you helping him?" Hyren muttered.

     "Because I'm a neutral third party," the sorceress replied. "While your dislike of him is justified, right now we all share a common goal. So I'm going to make sure he doesn't get the short end of the stick."

     The Grundo frowned. "But they—" He lowered his voice to a frustrated hiss. "The Werelupes are bandits and exiles! It's about time something like this happened to them!"

     She gave him a strange, condescending look. "I'm sure someone's thought the same way about you at some point."

     Her words made Hyren's stomach jolt and his antennae drooped guiltily. Unable to bear her gaze, he looked away, studying the stained-glass windows lining the hall. Their intricate reproductions of native Brightvalian flowers did nothing to take his mind off of the fact that she was right. There had been a time, not really all that long ago, when he was the bad guy to a large portion of the galaxy.

     And he had tried to be the bad guy to a teenage girl and her Zafara, but they wouldn't let him, and now here he was.

     The throne room was everything Hyren expected it to be: spacious, light-filled, draped with banners of white, gold, and forest green. King Hagan sat in his throne, eyeing the group curiously with two more guards at his sides. The knights, a pink Eyrie and a purple Blumaroo, stiffened when they saw the Werelupe, and their paws strayed to their swords.

     Celice and Seradar stepped forward and knelt before the dais. "Your Majesty," Seradar said.

     Hyren felt he should kneel too, just in case. Thankfully the carpet was nice and plush, most likely for the purpose of comfortable kneeling.

     "Magus Seradar," the king said with a nod. "I'm surprised to see you here. And Lady Anfel, as well? I greatly enjoyed your paper on residual energies from the Heart of the Mountain in the Ice Caves, I'll have you know."

     She smiled. "Thank you, sire. The fieldwork was just as interesting, I assure you."

     The green Skeith's eyes flicked up at Isengrim, who remained standing. "But why have you brought this criminal into the kingdom from whence he was exiled?" His brow furrowed. "And why does he not bow to his king?"

     Isengrim growled. "Because you are not my king." With a self-important toothy grin, he placed his paws on his chest. "I am my own king."

     Hagan's eyes widened. "You are the Werelupe King? That's impossible—he's dead!"

     "I'm harder to kill than that," Isengrim replied.

     "Sire—sires, please." Celice rose to her feet.

     Hagan clenched the arms of his throne and leaned forward, staring down the Werelupe. "You are not welcome here."

     Isengrim laughed roughly. "Please! Do you think I came because I harbour any love for your despicable kingdom? Your scholars' heads are as musty and rotten as your fruit!"

     Seradar cleared his throat. "Excuse me, but the situation is critical—"

     Hagan took a step off of his throne and his guards drew close around him, pointing their spears at Isengrim. The Skeith king shook a thick gloved finger at his furry counterpart. "You impetuous, hard-headed fiend! Are you really arrogant enough to saunter into your own enemy's nest and skulk about right under his nose, and then insult his kingdom to his face?!"

     The Werelupe King bared his fangs and snarled, making everyone in the room flinch. His knight escorts drew their swords and edged toward him. "I didn't come to here to listen to your empty words! I have more important things to attend to!"

     "Like robbing our coffers and stealing our food, no doubt!" Hagan roared, his perfectly coiffed beard bristling.

     Isengrim flexed his claws. "Maybe I should just tear down this miserable castle where it stands!"

     "Your Majesty!" A Faerie Grundo wearing Brightvale colours flew into the room, carrying a scroll. Her starry wings buzzed with magic as she sailed over everyone's heads to land in front of the Skeith. "Dire news from Rillshire!"

     Hagan's eyes didn't leave the Werelupe. "Can it wait?" he muttered.

     "The area was overrun by some sort of spectral army!"

     Hyren jerked back in shock, and everyone else had much the same reaction.

     Seradar narrowed his eyes and tapped his fingers on his staff impatiently. "As I said, sire. The situation is critical."

     Hagan looked over at him, then to Isengrim, who nodded, and then back to the messenger. "Report."

     She unrolled the scroll. "Around dawn, a massive army, tens of thousands strong, was seen marching steadily down from the mountains. They seemed to be phantoms of some sort, and when the knights and militia tried to fight back, their own weapons passed right through the spectres. But the phantoms' weapons somehow still managed to do damage, and they swept through the village and fields, destroying everything."

     She looked up. "At time of writing, the army was last seen heading west by southwest. Toward this castle. Estimated arrival at their current speed of march is tomorrow morning."

     "Spectres of the fallen shall rise... and threaten to devour the sun," Hyren murmured, putting a hand to his head.

     Celice looked down at him. "What?"

     "By the Faeries," he breathed. "That stupid fortune was right, after all."

     The Lupe sighed. "They do that sometimes."

     Hagan, who had been staring at the messenger slack-jawed, composed himself and folded his hands behind his back. He stared keenly at the two mages, the blue Grundo, and the Werelupe. "Why do I get the feeling you know something about this."

     Isengrim ignored him. He started toward the messenger, but was barred by the crossed blades of his escorts. "Fetch parchment and ink!" he barked to her. "I must send Weewoos to my fiefs to inquire after their safety!"

     "You can write?" Hyren said under his breath, but no one heard him.

     The Skeith king raised a shaggy eyebrow. "You have fiefs?"

     Isengrim glared back at him. "Yes. And I won't let them be overtaken by that fool Skoll's lust for destruction."

     "How did you get fiefs?"

     The lazy smirk reappeared on the Werelupe's muzzle. "No one else was using them. So I took them."

     Hagan gritted his teeth. "You cannot just take a fief from another kingdom! That's not how it works!"

     "I can if they're not being seen to properly!" Isengrim snarled. "They don't even know whose kingdom they used to belong to! One of them was attacked by a Monocerous the other day, and I didn't see you lift a finger to help them!"

     "Well—" Hagan's hand moved to his moustache and he twirled it nervously. "My knights can't be everywhere at once—that mountain range is too extensive—"

     "Exactly. You're stretched too thin and you don't know the territory anyway." Isengrim turned to stare out one of the tall windows. "Which is why they need me. We, the Werelupes, the supposed scourge of yours and Skarl's kingdoms, keep at bay much more malevolent things. You should regard our presence in the mountains as a blessing, not a curse." His crimson gaze reverted to Hagan. "Of course, you're too close-minded to consider that, aren't you."

     "Close-minded?!" Hagan clenched his fists.

     "All right, you two!" Celice stepped between them like a scolding mother. "Save the politics for when Brightvale isn't in mortal peril, please!"

     "It seems to me," Seradar said, "that this Skoll character is channeling his magic into controlling that spectral army. If they are bested in battle, the resulting strain on his psychic stamina should weaken him enough for someone to get in there and accost him."

     Isengrim looked back to the utterly bewildered messenger. "Send a Weewoo to a Werelupe by the name of Suhel. Tell her to prepare for war and take the pack to Brightvale Castle with all haste."

     "Excuse me?!" Hagan leaned over Celice's shoulder. "I never agreed to that!"

     "You'll need us in the coming battle!" Isengrim replied. "Each of my warriors is as good as ten of yours!"

     Hagan folded his arms. "But what interest do you have in helping us? Why not let that army sweep through, and claim for yourself what remains?"

     "Because." For the first time Isengrim's posture drooped. "My owner lies here under a grievous curse, and the only way to break it is to defeat the one who summoned those spectres. That is why I defied my supposed exile. To save my owner's life." Isengrim lifted his paws in a gesture of supplication to the other king. "Surely you would do the same."

     The anger seemed to wash away from Hagan's expression, although his body language remained guarded. He gave a terse nod. "So be it, then. You will fight alongside us and together we will erase this scourge from our lands. And we'll discuss politics afterward." He looked down to the Grundo courier. "Go ahead and send those messages. Send requests for military aid to Skarl and Darigan, as well."

     She nodded and took off with a flutter of sparkles that reminded Hyren heart-wrenchingly of how Pharazon used to fly. Hyren would not let the Draik's betrayer go unpunished or unchecked, especially when his owner's life was on the line. "If those things are really incorporeal, how will we fight them?" he asked.

     Celice pushed her spectacles up her snout. "Leave that to the experts."

     "Brightvale University is the largest think tank in Neopia," Seradar said, wriggling his moustache. "And the largest source of trained magical power concentrated in one area, save Faerieland. Enchanting weapons to work against phantoms won't be the main problem here, I think."

     Hyren narrowed his eyes. "Then what will be the main problem?"

     "Well, fighting them, of course. They could still overrun us in sheer numbers, even if Meridell and Darigan send all of their forces, if that report is accurate."

     Hagan stroked his beard. "They'll be upon us tomorrow morning... that's not nearly enough time for anyone farther away to get here. We'll have to make do with what we've got."

     "We'll more than make do," Isengrim huffed. "We will prevail. I will not fail Terra."

     Hyren stepped forward. "And neither will I!" The two glanced at each other with a challenging glint in their eyes before Hyren turned to Hagan. "I'll be on the battlefield with your troops come tomorrow."

     The Skeith king glanced down at the little Grundo. "Do you have any experience?"

     Hyren smirked. "Experience?" He drew his sword and performed a series of intricate manoeuvres with it, the metal glinting in the daylight as the blade spun and danced around him as it only could in the hands of a seasoned expert. In a flash it was back in his scabbard. "Your Majesty, I am a master swordsman with copious experience in large-scale ground battles." He folded his arms. "And I'm much older than I look."

     "Hmph." Isengrim snorted. "You think that'll impress me, showoff," he muttered under his breath, turning away.

     Hagan and the guards looked at Hyren wide-eyed. "I meant no offense," the Skeith king said. "We would be honoured to have you fight alongside our knights."

     The former commander nodded. "Thanks. I'm not going to stand idly by while my owner's in trouble."

     "Well, that's that, I suppose," Hagan sighed. "Seradar, get to work on those enchantments and tell your battlemages to prepare for war. I'll inform my generals and send word to the outlying population to evacuate the army's path." He looked over at the Werelupe and the blue Grundo. "Do you require anything for preparations?"

     Isengrim shook his head. "My pack has already evacuated the Burrows in full gear and I trust Suhel took my own armour and spare weapons with her. I will be more than adequately equipped for battle come tomorrow."

     The Faerie Kacheek who flanked him raised an eyebrow, her scar stretching. "I've never seen Werelupes fight before... this should be interesting."

     The Werelupe King chuckled. "Indeed it should."

     "I'll need armour, if it's not too much trouble," Hyren said. "I usually make do without it, but I also don't frequently find myself on the battlefield nowadays. Not that my skills are rusty," he hastily added.

     The Island Kau on Isengrim's other side clapped his hoof on Hyren's shoulder. "Don't worry, I think we can find a spare set of Grundo armour for you."

     "Smaller Kacheek armour should also work in a pinch, I think," Hyren replied. "Similar proportions and all." The idea of battle was beginning to lift his spirits already. Not just because he enjoyed it, but because here was something he could really do to help Terra.

     "Right, right. Let's get you geared up, then." The Kau looked excited at the prospect of someone to talk shop with. He turned to Hagan. "May we, sire?"

     "Go on ahead." Hagan waved a hand. "Just remember, you're still escorting the Werelupe King."

     "Oh joy," Hyren grumbled as they made their way out of the throne room. Just what he needed, to be stuck with the one Neopet whose face he didn't want to ever see again.

     "So, Headmaster," Celice said, her ears perked. "Since it's Earth magic, we'll most likely need Air enchantment."

     "Correct." Seradar nodded. "And it wouldn't help to weave in some Earth magic as a warding..."

     Hyren left the two animatedly discussing the technical intricacies of their task, glad he didn't have to. He would let them have their job and he would take care of smashing things and keeping Werelupes in check.

     Isengrim folded his arms behind his back as he followed the Grundo and the duo of knights through the stony halls. "This should be fun," he said smugly. "I have never been in another king's castle before. I ought to defy my exile more often."

     "Live it up while you can," Hyren muttered. Thankfully the Kau diverted the Grundo's attention after that with questions about Hyren's swordsmanship, how he had trained, what kind of blades he favoured, and the like. Hyren had to keep his responses vague enough to not tip off that he had fought under Sloth, but he could still discuss some details and even told a few good war stories that didn't require much context.

     The armourers seemed to have already gotten the message about the pending invasion, as they welcomed the four urgently and set to work finding suitable gear for Hyren. For his part, he silently appraised the various workings in metal and leather. Most of it seemed to be ordinary-quality regulation gear, but there were a few pieces of nicely worked plate or distinctively shaped weapons that his eye lingered on. It wasn't the high-tech, Virtupets-engineered stuff that he valued so much during his campaigning for Sloth, but it was admirable craft nonetheless.

     Isengrim sat and watched with his unnerving stare as the Island Kau and the head armourer, an unexpectedly Darigan Bruce who had moved to Brightvale to fill the position a few years ago, sorted through and fitted various pieces of armour on Hyren. The Grundo stood patiently, moving limbs as required, letting them know when a piece was too loose or too heavy or didn't sit right.

     But those red Werelupe eyes bored into him.

     "What are you staring at?" Hyren finally asked.

     "You," Isengrim replied in all honesty.

     Hyren wasn't quite sure how to respond to that.

     "How's this cuirass feel?" the Bruce asked, buckling a few straps.

     Hyren twisted his torso, bending over and back and putting it through the range of movement he could expect during battle, pinpointing any problem areas. "It's too tight around the ribs and under the arms—and the shape of the stomach is too angular, it needs to be more round."

     "Ah, of course." The Bruce hastily separated the back and chest plates and removed them, handing them off to the Kau and leaving Hyren clad in the woolen undershirt they had provided him.

     Isengrim wrinkled his snout like he had an itchy nose. "You're all alike."

     Hyren looked over at him. "What?"

     "You owned pets. Coddled and pampered by your owners, spoiled your entire lives. You've never gotten the chance to know true sorrow or fear, what it's like to have to face the world on your own."

     Hyren felt the heat of anger rise up in his spine and shoulders. "Don't make assumptions about my past," he seethed as the Bruce pressed cold metal to his back. "Terra didn't create me. She adopted me. I'm one of the original Grundo population from Doran, and I've seen more battle than most pampered pets on Neopia ever will. My life was anything but sunshine and roses before I met her."

     Isengrim bristled and looked for a moment like he was going to snap at Hyren, but he leaned back. "Do you think my past was easy? At times I envy Neopets not created by owners. They do not seem to possess that innate sense of longing. That hunger for ownership. But I..." He looked at his paws. "I always will. That is my curse, as long as I live."

     Hyren didn't consciously mean to be so rude and dismissive as he once again turned this way and that, but ultimately he was here to get armour, not listen to a Werelupe's sob story. "Yeah, I like this one. Let's go with this one."

     "Good, good," the Bruce said. "Now for pauldrons..."

     The Grundo turned his attention back to Isengrim. "Is that why you kidnapped Terra twice? You just had to have an owner, no matter what?"

     "Yes. Well... at first it was just because she was conveniently in my territory, but I am truly fond of her now. She is nothing like the owner who created me and abandoned me." The Werelupe King studied the well-worn stone floor. "As her champion, you cannot tell me you do not feel the same."

     "Of course—of course I do," Hyren said, his voice catching in his throat. That was why he was charging into battle to save her. But blast it, why was he empathising with this guy of all things? Hyren had to get a grip on the situation fast. "You don't have to let yourself be ruled by that hunger," he said as the Bruce tested various pieces of shoulder armour on him. "There's always a way to break a curse, isn't there?"

     Isengrim closed his eyes. "Perhaps. But..." He clenched his eyes shut, looking pained. "But I still need her."

     Hyren rotated his arms. The Bruce had put a different model of pauldron on each shoulder. "Do you, or is that something you keep telling yourself to justify what you did?" He turned to the armourer. "I like the feel of the left one. The one on the right is too heavy and has a lip that bites into my deltoid when I straighten my arm."

     "Hah, this boy knows his stuff," the Bruce said as he took off the right pauldron and replaced it with the left's complement.

     The Island Kau gave Hyren an approving and even somewhat admiring look. "That's because he's no boy."

     The Bruce's tufted red eyebrows rose. "Ah, my apologies, sir."

     Hyren grinned. "Apology accepted." Stars above, it was nice to be respected again. He'd forgotten just how alive battle, and preparing for it, made him feel.

     Isengrim, meanwhile, stared at his paws and said nothing.

     Once the armourer had pieced together a suitable ensemble for Hyren, and the Grundo had regaled everyone with a few more war stories, the knights brought them back to the University's infirmary for lunch. It simply wouldn't do to have the Werelupe King wandering the palace grounds and causing panic, despite the entire pack that was surely approaching Brightvale. And both Isengrim and Hyren wanted to return to Terra's side until it was necessary for them to leave again.

     Blynn was still curled up at her owner's shoulder, and she barely opened one eye when they stepped in. Terra lay motionless and looked even more weighed down than when Hyren had last seen her. He grimaced. The battle couldn't come soon enough.

     Arsinoe looked up at them apologetically. "The curse is worsening, despite my attempts to stave it off."

     "She'll make it," Isengrim said, sitting back down by the side of the bed and taking his owner's limp hand in his paws. "She's strong. She's fighting it, I know she is."

     But how long could she hold on, Hyren wondered. Would it be long enough for them to defeat Skoll? His heart pounded. He failed Pharazon. Would he fail his owner now, too? Hyren shook his head to dispel the worries that mocked him and trudged over to his owner's side.

     Blynn wasn't looking so great, either. Hyren had never seen the usually perky Disco Zafara so lethargic. "You okay?" he asked her.

     She shook her head and nuzzled her nose back into Terra's neck, looking like a hideous neon paisley scarf.

     Hyren glanced over at her tray of food, sitting on the bedside table. "You barely touched your breakfast. You need to eat something."

     "I'm not hungry."

     Hyren folded his arms. "I didn't ask if you were."

     Her floppy ears twitched. "I'm... I'm so scared, Hyren," she whispered. "If I lose Terra... I feel like somebody's taking my soul and pulling part of it away... I feel so lost..."

     Terra had created Blynn. It was no wonder the little Zafara was so affected. Was this the curse of created pets Isengrim had mentioned? Would Pharazon have felt the same way if— Hyren stopped that line of thought. Thinking about Pharazon was still too painful.

     "I know... I know how you feel," Hyren replied quietly. He leaned over and put a hand on Blynn's head. "Don't give up. We have to have hope. We haven't lost her yet and we're going to fight to keep her, just like we did before. Just like we always do. Because we're family."

     When there was no response, he mussed the tuft of fur between her ears. "Weren't you giving me this same pep talk just a few days ago? And look, we found Terra just like you said!" Even if he wasn't feeling particularly confident, he could at least fake it for his sister's sake.

     "We also found Pharazon," Blynn sniffed, "and look what happened there."

     Hyren's shoulders slumped. He still couldn't get the terrified look on the Draik's face out of his mind. "I won't make that same mistake twice. But we can't let our despair eat us alive. Terra wouldn't want that."

     Blynn reached up and gave his hand a squeeze. "I'll try."

To be continued...

 
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Revenge of the Fir
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