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And Then There Was Silence: Part One: Part Three


by theschizophrenicpunk

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III: From the Wicked One

      I can't believe I just got away with that! I'm, like, the best thief ever!

      Finneus has been flying for a few miles now, constantly checking the ground below to make sure he isn't being pursued by that terrifying assassin. So far, the coast is clear, the assassin is nowhere to be found, and his ego has never been so huge.

      His wings are beginning to ache from tiredness now, so he checks the ground below for any sign of danger — left, right, left — then, when he's sure nobody is below, he begins a steady descent into the trees of the strange, dismal forest. He honestly has no idea what forest it is, but the trees look deader than those in Illusen's Glade and Brightvale. Shadowglen? Bogshot, maybe? He isn't sure, but he doesn't really care. He just wants to touch the ground. Lazily drifting downwards, he bumps his way through the branches of some barren trees, disturbing a few petpets that are trying to roost there and snapping off a few twigs, but otherwise, everything is calm.

      When his feet finally steady on the dying grasses and he folds his tired wings, he finds himself in the middle of a swamp, but it doesn't look like Bogshot. It's not foggy enough, and it doesn't have that foul bogberry and bagguss smell. Whatever, he'll figure out where he is later. Left, right, left, and he is confident he is alone. Everything is silent, except for the howl of a Werelupe in the distance.

      His wings are exhausted, but his legs are strong as ever. He stretches his arms then winds his way through the trees, not bothering to hide in the shadows, just looking for a place to rest. He eventually finds a fallen tree that doesn't look too decrepit and takes a seat, excited to examine his loot.

      He somehow managed to keep a tight hold on the assassin's necklace and keep Illusen's staff tucked tightly beside him throughout the scuffle. He couldn't be more proud of that fact. He checks the staff first for any signs of damage. It is, luckily, completely unscathed, though it looks less… sparkly… than he remembers it being when he first grabbed it. No matter, though. The vines and flowers are still intact — not a petal out of place — and he can still feel its energising magic in his hands as he holds it. Pleased, he tucks it back in his belt with a smug grin. Next, Finneus pulls the assassin's necklace out of his coat pocket to examine it, curious as to what could possibly make the piece so special that the assassin would abandon a contract to try to get it back. Maybe it's infused with some sort of ridiculously intense magic, or hides a powerful poison, or maybe it's something even more incredible! …But, upon examination, he sees it's just a boring, simple gold chain with an old heart-shaped pendant dangling delicately from the end.

      Finneus snorts out a laugh. What a weird thing for a murderous lunatic to have. It's total junk! Why did he get so freaked out when I took it? It can't be worth much more than a few hundred neopoints… Still, despite the necklace being completely not worth the trouble of having a ruthless assassin now pursuing him, Finneus is still pleased with his haul. Feeling like he could conquer the world, he tucks the necklace back in his pocket, stands up, wipes the dust off of his pants, then continues to walk through the strange forest with an arrogant swagger, now focusing on trying to find any landmarks that may identify where in Neopia he is.

      A few minutes pass, and still nothing. Finneus takes in every detail of his surroundings, but there are no distinguishable landmarks — a rocky cliffside, a few stagnating bogs and swamps, a forest of barren trees… Eventually, he sees a firelight in the distance, and a pang of excitement hits him in his chest. Ooh, I wonder what that could be? A home, maybe? Someone asleep? Someone with valuable things?! At this point, he feels confident enough to steal from the Hidden Tower, so he runs excitedly in the direction of the light, eager to see if there's any cool treasure to be found.

      Eventually, he reaches a clearing where the grasses slowly turn to mud and the land slopes down into a large, circular pit filled with swampwater and muck. In the middle of the crater is a small hill where sits a quaint little hut, surrounded by torches that seem everlasting. A winding stone path leads up to the doorway of the home. There are two large windows on either side, which Finneus can easily see through. The place looks empty. Score!

      Left, right, left, then Finneus quickly flies over the bog and lands outside one of the home's windows, hiding just out of sight behind the wall. He slowly peeks inside — left, right, left — and confirms that it's empty. Giddy with excitement, he jumps through the window, accidentally knocking over a foul-smelling plant that was sitting on the sill, but he doesn't care. He just wants to see what cool valuables are lying around.

      The hut consists of only one room, dimly-lit and somewhat foreboding. He finds himself standing across from a fire pit with a cauldron placed above it, slowly bubbling with an ominous green slime. There's a giant chest to his left that looks full to bursting with who-knows-what, and a messy bed to his right. There's a framed picture on a table beside the bed, under a shabby lamp that's barely emitting any light. Finneus walks to the nightstand, first opening up the drawers for any interesting items — nothing but parchment and quills, unfortunately — then examines the photo. It's an attractive family of five — a father Skeith, a mother Zafara, two young boys — a Lupe and a Gelert — and a young Ixi girl…

      Finneus is about to place the photo back down on the table and continue his searching, but then, a pang of realisation hits him, and he does a double take. He lifts the photo again, looks more closely at the cute green Ixi, then his face brightens as he realises where he is. "Oh my gosh," he says to himself, turning to look at the rest of the room with a new sense of awe, "I am totally in the home of Sophie the Swamp Witch!"

      He looks around again, trying to see if she's left her wand lying around, or maybe some crazy-awesome potion that could sell for millions. He checks under the bed — nothing but forgotten stockings and dust bunnies. He runs to the cauldron, hoping that whatever brew she is cooking is finished and ready to be bottled, but, once he leans over the cauldron to take a look, the smell of the liquid inside makes him gag. He gives up on the idea, turning away and covering his face with his mask. He checks all the drawers of the bedside table again, in case he missed something — still, nothing. Finally, he turns his attention to the chest across the room. It looks unlocked. He rubs his hands together greedily, then slides on his knees across the floor and flings the chest open all in one quick motion.

      The second the chest's lid is thrown back, magical items go scattering about the room — some relieved petpetpets fly through the air and out the window; a jar crashes to the floor, breaks, and several eyeballs go rolling under the bed and into the fire; ghost marshmallows and gummy rats and rotting fruits all fall around his feet… He doesn't know where to start! He frantically digs through all the stuff, trying to find the most valuable item he can, and as fast as possible. He pushes aside motes and berries, tosses away codestones and candy, until, finally, at the bottom of the chest, he sees — could it be? Could it really be? Yes, it is… it's a Fish Negg.

      His hands shaking with excitement, he reaches in and cups the pale blue Negg in his hands, lifting it out of the chest and turning it slowly to examine its every detail. It reeks horribly of seafood, but its glittering scales are so beautiful it makes the stench almost pleasing. Its fins are intact, it has no bruises, its colour is bright… Everything about it is perfect. Practically cackling with excitement, Finneus begins to tuck the Negg gently into his pocket, but then — "What in Darigan's name is going on in here?!"

      Finneus spins around at the sound of the shrill voice just as an angry Meowclops leaps at him, clawing and biting and hissing. He screams and grabs at the flailing petpet, eventually managing to get a good grip on it around the waist and throw it as far away as he can. The Meowclops flies across the room and lands on the bed, bouncing a few times, but eventually landing on its feet. It tries to charge again, but, in its anger, tangles itself in the upturned sheets and gets stuck.

      With the petpet now off of him, Finneus leans against the now practically empty chest and tries to catch his breath, but he doesn't have time to stop and think. He manages to scramble to his feet only seconds before a flash of fiery green magic hits the wall just inches from his face. He shouts again, and looks to the source of the magical burst. Sophie stands in the doorway, holding her wand before her with both hands, charging another attack. Her narrowed eyes read murder. Her entire body is shaking with blind fury. Finneus' terrified heart drops into his stomach as he clambers, screaming, out the window.

      Another charge of magic hits the window frame as he tumbles out of the building, down the hill, and into the bog, disturbing a small group of Slorgs that were gnawing on the dead grasses there. They screech and writhe and begin to swarm him, but he manages to escape without any bites.

      "Get back here so I can turn you into a nasty little bug!" Sophie calls from the window, and another flash of magic splashes into the water beside Finneus, hitting one of the Slorgs and sending a rain of sludge into the air. The Slorg twitches and hisses and shrinks until it turns into a tiny Grumblebug, flailing aimlessly in the mud. Realising that he could have been the one now drowning in slime, Finneus slips and slides his way out of the swamp as one, two, three more bursts of green flames strike the water surrounding him.

      Somehow, Finneus manages to escape still very much a Scorchio. He runs through the trees, leaving a trail of nasty, sludge-covered footprints. He keeps running and running until the witch's angry shrieking can no longer be heard coming from behind him. Once she is out of earshot, he laughs, revelling in the triumph of his escape. I did it again!

~

      Through the barren trees and thorny brush of the Werelupe Woods, the assassin follows the trail of faerie dust that has fallen from the sky, his sword drawn at the ready, relieved that the Scorchio thief was clueless enough to not realise the staff was leaving a glittering path right to him. The assassin is livid. He's stomping loudly through the shrubs and branches, pushing away rocks and kicking aside vicious petpets that most people wouldn't want to touch with a ten foot pole. He slices through any saplings or bushes that stand in his way, muttering angrily to himself all the while. He's passed two Werelupes so far, but neither have bothered him — in fact, they looked more scared of him than he did of them. All it took was one vicious glare and the Werelupes went scampering off, terrified.

      The trail of faerie dust begins to become sparse, and the assassin starts to cuss under his breath again. He refuses to let the thief get away, but if he loses track of the trail, then there's no hope. He can't hunt a target he knows nothing about. He quickens his pace, scares away a flock of Crokabeks with a loud stomp of his foot, slices through a wall of overgrown mutant sunflowers with one strong swing of his blade, then sees a light in the distance, and hears someone's heated voice.

      He feels his heart flutter with hope and begins to sprint towards the light and sound, holding his sword strong, prepared to attack whoever tries to stand in his way. When he finally reaches the clearing, he's more than crushed when all he sees is Sophie the Swamp Witch's hut, lying in shambles, her screaming and yelling inside. She's tossing broken and useless magical ingredients out the window. A swarm of petpetpets feasts away on the trash excitedly. Half the bog is burnt up, no doubt by her powerful magic.

      The trail of faerie dust disappears into the muck of the swamp, and the assassin's heart sinks. No way. No, no, no, this is not how he gets away…

      Trying to keep as calm as possible, the assassin desperately looks for any sign of where the thief could have gone while the swamp witch shrieks and shouts from in front of him. He doesn't want to be seen by the furious witch, but it's hard to search for clues from the distance he's at. Eventually, thankfully, he sees a trail of tiny footprints across the swamp that lead away from the witch's upturned home, and his hope begins to return. He darts nimbly through the trees, careful to stay out of the witch's eye and earshot, until he, heart racing, finally reaches the footprints. He examines them closely, then mumbles a quiet thank Fyora when he sees a few glittering specks of faerie dust glistening in the muck. Relieved, he stands and twists his blade's hilt in his hands, eager for revenge, then begins to follow the thief's trail again.

~

      "So, like, I seriously had no idea the Werelupe King had a son," Ember muses, picking through the rubble of a fallen marble shrine. Her hands are calloused and covered with dust, but she ignores the pain in her tired, tiny fingers and keeps digging for signs of treasure.

      "Yeah, Father, uh, doesn't talk about me much," Kamen says, his voice still sounding somewhat sleepy. "I think it's because I'm significantly weaker than him. He's very open about his disappointment in my lack of strength." Ironically, Kamen says this as he lifts a giant onyx pillar and tosses it effortlessly into the trees where it crashes to the ground loudly. A roosting colony of Karrens take to the sky, then all land and nest again just a few trees away.

      Ember snorts. "Yeah, look at you, weak as heck," she says.

      Kamen laughs. "I meant strong in the real way."

      Apsy, who has been slowly chipping her way through a fallen stone slate that she's certain has fallen over a doorway, pipes up from a few feet away from the two. "What's that even supposed to mean?"

      Kamen tosses another huge slab of onyx into the trees. "I guess I'm more… sympathetic than him—"

      "Ha, you did the thing again," Ember cuts in, giggling.

      Kamen and Apsy both roll their eyes, Apsy more irately than the prince, then Kamen continues. "He doesn't appreciate my leniency with people, especially prisoners, but, I guess I don't let it bother me anymore." He kicks over a crumbling stone archway. It sends a rain of rocks landsliding down the hill that the crypts are buried into. "I don't necessarily want to be as, er… insidious as he is — and," — he turns to Ember and lifts his hand in a gesture for silence — "before you say anything, yes, I realise I just did 'the thing' again."

      Ember lets out an amused squeal as Kamen continues. "I guess, at this point, I almost prefer blending in with the background, if not being completely ignored. I'd rather just be another nameless, faceless Werelupe than an 'evil prince.' "

      The conversation lulls for a few minutes while the girls ponder Kamen's words. His voice sounds steadfast and strong, but they aren't entirely sure if his tone mirrors how he truly feels about the subject. He clearly knows how to suppress any sign of emotion and keep it hidden behind his regal confidence, probably through years of dealing with his father's obvious disinterest in anything that lacks aggressive power. "Well," Apsy finally begins, taking a large chunk of onyx and using it to break apart the stone slab that's covering the doorway she's found, "if it makes you feel any better, you're a lot more personable than he is."

      Kamen laughs delicately. "Honestly, I would be a little concerned if you said otherwise."

      Ember finds a small stone casket, places it gently to the side in case it's important, then says, "Yeah, and you actually laugh at my lame jokes, which is pretty bomb."

      "That's more of a negative character trait, Mum," Apsy sighs.

      "Uh, no, you're just a big lame-o, Babygirl."

      "My point is, you're not funny."

      "Yeah, you're right, I'm hilarious."

      "Oh please, nice try."

      "I don't have to try."

      "Mum, you never try at anything."

      "Cus it comes naturally."

      "What does, being annoying?"

      "No, being awesome."

      "Awesome at being annoying?"

      "Annoyingly hilarious."

      "Girls, please," Kamen says, covering his mouth to try to restrain his smiles and giggles, "you're both too much."

~

      Finneus' clothing is heavy and wet from the mud that's drying into the fabric, weighing him down, making his footfalls ten times heavier than usual. Still, he continues on through the trees with his chest puffed proudly to the heavens. He's too excited to stop searching the woods for more victims, even if stopping means a fresh change of clothes. He keeps periodically feeling the scaly Negg in his pocket, just to make sure it's still there, as if he's unsure if it's real. He can't believe he actually managed to get away with such a heist, especially without the swamp witch sending anything after him. He feels invincible.

      After a few more minutes of walking, he pushes his way between the trunks of two large trees, then sees another dim, flickering light in the distance. He hears talking and laughing. It sounds like there's several people. He's never taken on the challenge of stealing from a group before, but he's confident he can — after all, if he can get away with stealing from Sophie the Swamp Witch, he can totally do anything, right?

      Finneus takes a moment to squeeze the water out of his clothes and scrape as much muck off of his shoes as possible, hoping it'll help him move quicker and quieter. Then, excitedly, he sprints towards the light and sound, wondering what glorious treasures await.

~

      The farther away from the witch's hut that the assassin walks, the more difficult it is for him to find the Scorchio's muddy footprints among the dirt. At this point, his only somewhat-reliable way of pursuing the thief has been following the foul smell of fish and the trail of broken branches left by the thief's clumsy attempts at pushing his way through the trees. Still, though the assassin was confident at first that he would be able to track the Scorchio down, the footprints are practically gone, the trees grow too sparse to be indicative of anyone's passage, and the smell seems to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

      Still, the assassin refuses to let the disappearance of the thief's trail deter him. He takes a moment to centre himself, trying to restrain his furious thoughts, then, when his mind stops racing, sheathes his sword, holds his breath, and listens closely for any sounds of the thief's fumbling.

      Silence.

      He continues to head in the direction he last saw the footprints going, walks about ten minutes, then pauses, and listens again.

      Silence.

      Another ten minutes pass. Silence. Then another ten. Silence. But he refuses to give up. He slowly trudges on, looking close and listening intensely, trying to steady his terrified heart.

~

      "What even are we looking for?"

      Ember's cheeks are covered with dust and sweat. She's exhausted and wants nothing more in this moment than a nap and a nice cold Achyfi, but she toils on for the sake of her daughter, though grumbling irately to herself all the while.

      "Specifically, we are looking for the entrance to the oubliette that runs below us," Kamen says. "It's significantly important, both for its historical value and the worth of the treasures inside. All I know is it is definitely somewhere under this mess of rock."

      "What does the entrance look like?" Apsy asks, finally managing to break a heavy stone slab in half by slamming it with a boulder of onyx. "All these doorways and stuff look basically the same."

      "It'll be the most drab-looking one, actually" Kamen replies. "It's decorated only with the crest of Meridell, just for the sake of irony. It's the only doorway that has the crest and nothi—"

      Suddenly, Kamen's ears perk up, and he turns to look at the trees beside him with narrowed eyes. He growls slightly, hackles raised, and leans forward, as if searching for something in the darkness. Apsy and Ember see his sudden change in behaviour and stop digging. They both hold their breath and look to where he is now glaring, trying to see what he's snarling at. The trees seem just as empty as before.

      After a painfully long minute of staring silently into the forest, Ember decides to break the stillness with a question. "Uh, what was that all about?"

      Kamen relaxes his shoulders and snorts, shaking his head violently as if clearing away whatever thoughts were there. He then gets back to digging. "I just thought I heard something," he mumbles.

~

      Finneus finally exhales, choking on his heartbeat. He was almost caught. He immediately second guesses his thievery skills at the sight of the two huge Werelupes, but that fang necklace around the male's neck is just so darn enticing… If the Werelupe claw necklaces in the Hidden Tower are worth eight million neopoints, who knows how much a Werelupe fang necklace that belongs to one of the Werelupe King's own could sell for?

      Finneus slowly removes his shoes, hoping that it'll help him move more quietly. He can't risk being heard by the Werelupes' sensitive ears again. Being able to tiptoe through the grass without worrying about the slosh-slosh of muddied shoes should surely help him be more stealthy.

      The two Werelupes and the tiny human are deep in their conversation and work, giving Finneus enough time to plan out what he wants to do. He hears the three talking about treasures hidden under the rubble, but all he cares about is getting that fang necklace — it's gotta be worth a crazy fortune. He figures the easiest thing to do would be to leap on the male Werelupe from behind, since otherwise those teeth and claws will be right in his face. He should be able to snag the necklace and get the heck out of there with one quick motion, if he's careful.

      His plan now set in stone, Finneus waits eagerly for the male Werelupe to move close enough that he's sure he'll be able to make the jump. Once in position, he mentally prepares himself, draws the Black Knight's dagger that's tucked into his belt, takes a deep breath, then leaps…

~

      "Hey, I think I found it!" Apsy shouts after an eternity of searching. Her claws are worn down from the digging and her hair is sticking to her face with sweat, but she breathes a sigh of relief when she sees the corner of the simple trap door she's just uncovered and the crest of Meridell hewn into it.

      Kamen drops onto all fours and nimbly hops his way over the piles of rock and rubble until he reaches Apsy's side. Ember uses this time to sit back and stretch her aching arms and legs. "Is this the crest you were talking about?" Apsy asks as Kamen leans over her shoulder to look.

      Kamen brushes some dust off of the door, then breathes a much-needed sigh of relief when he sees it's the one they've been looking for. "Good job," he says tiredly, giving Apsy a firm pat on the back. She smiles proudly as Ember groans, "Finally ughhh," from a few feet away.

      Kamen stands, stretching his legs and back, trying to prepare his tired body for the excavation the three now need to begin. Of course, the door had to be buried under the biggest, heaviest-looking pile of rock… it just couldn't be easy… "Well, let's get to w—"

      Bam! Something hits Kamen hard from behind. He breathes in sharp with the impact, but manages to steady his footing and remain standing. Apsy begins shouting in surprise and stumbles back.

      Though he's managed to not be completely knocked to the ground, Kamen is miles beyond startled by the impact. He tries to grab at whoever is now on his back, but it's too late. The attacker has leapt onto him, grabbed his Werelupe fang necklace with one hand, cut it free from his throat with the other, and leapt right off, running frantically into the sheltering darkness of the woods.

      Ember watches open-mouthed, completely dumbstruck, but eventually stutters out a loud, "What in Darigan's name…?!" and begins to stand up. Apsy, panicked, and not fully realising what she's doing, shouts as loud as she can — "Stop! Thief!" — maybe hoping some other Werelupe nearby will hear the shout and help out.

      The three all scramble to get to their feet as they try to comprehend what in the world just happened. Kamen lets out a feral roar and charges after the thief. The girls, still wildly confused, and now a little terrified, follow close behind.

~

      Finally, after an eternity of hopeless wandering, somewhere far off in the distance, the assassin's sensitive Gelert ears pick up the sound of a young girl shouting. He has no idea what's caused the commotion, but investigating it is worth a shot. It's the only hope he's got, after all. He draws his sword and sprints as fast as he can, following the sound, hoping the panicked voices don't hush before he gets there.

      The shouting continues, getting louder and louder the closer he gets. After a few millennium-long seconds of desperate sprinting, he starts to be able to make out words that the people are yelling, and he no longer has any doubts he is headed the right way when he hears one distinct cry: "Stop! Thief!"

      The voices seem to be moving now. He takes a risk and decides to try to flank whoever is yelling — darts to the left to run a big circle around where the sound is moving to, praying he will be able to catch whoever it is from the front. He's only got one shot… this has to work…

~

      Finneus can hear the Werelupe's ferocious snarling getting closer and closer to him, approaching with Meerca speed from behind. He hears the beast's claws tearing up the dirt — hears his strong shoulders knocking through anything and everything that stands in his way. The branches above are too thick for Finneus to be able to fly through. An intense panic begins to brew in the pit of his stomach, intensifying with the volume of the Werelupe's howls. He focuses on running, but his mud-laden clothing makes the escape all the more difficult. The Werelupe is getting close. He isn't sure if he will make it away this time…

      Just when all hope seems to be lost, Finneus sees a clearing in the trees up ahead where the welcoming light of Kreludor shines bright on the wilting grasses. His heart pounds faster, its beat climbing into his eardrums as he sees that the trees above the clearing are sparse to none. He can fly through there, no problem. He sprints faster and faster, using up every ounce of energy he has, trying to make it before the Werelupe grabs him and turns him into a midnight snack. When he is no more than two steps away from entering the glade, he lifts his wings and beats them down hard once, twice, three times, preparing to take flight, but a familiar figure enters the clearing from the opposite side before he can take off into the sanctuary of the moonlight. Finneus screams as he realises it's the assassin, now charging towards him from the front.

      The assassin doesn't break pace as he enters the clearing. Finneus' messy flapping has already begun to lift him into the safety of the sky, so the assassin works as fast as he can. He grips his blade tight with both hands, his mind empty except for one thought: revenge.

      Finneus continues his panicked shouting as he hears the Werelupe crash through the trees behind him and leap with a roar, and sees the assassin's blade about to descend upon him from the front. He needs a miracle. He gives his wings one last powerful flap and hopes for the best.

      Miraculously, his pursuers both have their attacks cut short as they collide painfully below him in a cacophony of cusses, growls and shouts. Finneus laughs as he looks to the ground and sees the Werelupe and the assassin furiously shouting at each other, then disappears, relieved, into the starlit sky.

~

      Ember and Apsy approach the clearing, panting and sweating, about a minute after Kamen has, only to see him and a furious grey Gelert circling each other, swords drawn. Ember immediately recognises the Gelert as the Nameless Assassin of the realm and gasps audibly, afraid for Kamen's safety. She skids to a halt under the cover of the forest, grabs Apsy's arm, and yanks her back into the shadows, shushing her loudly.

      "You idiot!" the assassin barks, taking an aggressive battle stance. "You let him escape!"

      "I let him escape? You were the one who leapt out at me!"

      "I almost had him!"

      "He was right in my claws!"

      Apsy and Ember watch from the trees terrified as the assassin yells in frustration and thrusts his blade down on top of the prince. Kamen leaps to the side, narrowly dodging the assassin's attack, gripping his own swords tight, but refusing to retaliate. "If we are both after him," Kamen says, trying to calm the Gelert down, though still snarling himself, "we can work together to track him down."

      "I work alone!" the assassin shouts, then lunges at Kamen again. The Werelupe manages to deflect the assassin's blade with one of his own swords, then runs behind him to get out of attack range. The intensity of the assassin's rage is made clear when the razor-sharp tip of his sword strikes the ground with enough force to pierce the soft dirt a few inches. The force of his swings harbours much more motivation than just a small vendetta.

      Recognising that the assassin clearly has nothing left to lose, and not wanting to take the risk battling a swordsman with ridiculously more experience than him, Kamen lowers his weapons, stands straight and proud, and stares down the Gelert with his piercing cobalt gaze, hoping that appearing less threatening and more authoritative will stop the assassin from attacking. "I don't want to fight you," Kamen says, slowly and confidently.

      The assassin takes a few seconds to catch his breath as the Werelupe's regal gaze smothers him. His fury has crushed his lungs. His hatred has muddied his vision. He straightens his spine to match the prince's proud posture, then sheathes his sword, quickly and angrily. "I don't have time for these children's games," he hisses. "Stay out of my way." Then, with a snap of his fingers and a twirl of his cloak, he disappears in a cloud of black smoke.

      Kamen watches unflinching as the smoke disperses around his feet, then relaxes his shoulders when all is clear. He sheathes his swords with a deep breath and looks up to the sky where the Scorchio has disappeared.

      Apsy and Ember finally approach him from out of the trees' protection, completely breathless from the chase and their fear. "What are we going to do?" Apsy says, her voice nearly a whisper.

      Kamen exhales loudly. "I don't know," he says. "But Father is going to kill me…"

~

      The Werelupe King roars in anger and slams his fist against the arm of his throne. The sound echoes through the entire room, making the council members all jump. Apsy and Ember cringe and hold their breaths, unsure of what will happen. Kamen, though the target of the king's fury, stays ever confident, still standing silent and strong. "How did you manage to have your necklace stolen?!" the king bellows, his words almost unrecognisable from underneath his deep, loud growling. "Do you have any idea how important that artefact was?!"

      "Yes, Father, I understand," Kamen says, his voice unfaltering. His brave exterior is befitting of a prince, but Apsy and Ember are still concerned.

      The Werelupe King leaps out of his throne and into the ring, slowly and menacingly approaching his son. Apsy and Ember try to hide their very obvious fear from the furious king, but both of their hearts are racing, and it shows in their terrified eyes. "You are a huge disappointment," the king hisses in Kamen's face. "I can't believe you wo—"

      Loudly and suddenly, one of the Werelupes down the hall behind them yelps, and a flash of green light illuminates the walls. Apsy and Ember spin around with little gasps of shock. The king pauses and looks up, his angry growl intensifying. He can't stand being interrupted. Kamen doesn't even flinch at the sound and refuses to turn to look, his eyes never lowering from his father's snarling face.

      Two more yelps, two more flashes of blinding green light, then Sophie the Swamp Witch enters the throne room with three Moffits scuttling behind her. Yikes… Ember thinks, those were probably the guards…

      Sophie lifts her wand above her head, brandishing it threateningly as she enters the centre of the ring. The council members all lean away worriedly. "Someone ransacked my house and stole my Negg!" Sophie shrieks, marching livid and unafraid up to the king.

      The king shoves Kamen to the side and begins to approach Sophie. Kamen hardly stumbles — steps aside casually and turns around, maintaining his posture and watching with his head held high. "And what do you want me to do about it?" the king hisses at the witch.

      "I want it back!" she shouts. "You stupid, smelly Werelupes are always getting the way of my potion making, but this has gone too far!"

      "It wasn't any of us," the king says, leaning over to match her height, snarling in her face. "In fact, my idiot son just had something important stolen as well."

      Apsy and Ember look to Kamen at the sound of the insult, but he still stands proud.

      "W— well… well…" Sophie stutters. She didn't get a good look at the thief before she started blindly attacking, so it was only an assumption that it was one of the Werelupes. After a few seconds of angry blabbering, she stomps her hoof on the ground and snorts in the king's face. "Well, you should get it back for me! You're the king, after all!"

      He snorts back at her. "We were in the middle of figuring out what to do before you barged in here shouting," he says, then stands up straight and walks back towards Kamen. Sophie crosses her arms and pouts, anxiously tapping one hoof on the ground, her wand still charged with a bright, fiery magic. "You need to get the necklace back," the king spits in Kamen's face. "And, while you're at it, help Sophie out as well, before she turns any more of our guards into bugs…"

      Kamen, courageous as ever, gives one slow nod — respectful, but not submissive. "Yes, Father," he says calmly.

      "Wait!" Apsy suddenly shouts from behind. All attention turns to her. The Moffits stop scuttling. Sophie turns and glares. The king growls louder. Ember gulps fearfully. "If we help him," Apsy begins, trying to ignore the dozens of eyes that are now staring her down, "will that help prove our worth to you?"

      "Hey… hey, yeah!" Ember joins in, realising the opportunity hiding within this disaster. "This guy is clearly a menace, if he managed to steal from Kamen and Sophie."

      "Plus," Apsy adds, "I'm pretty sure I saw he had Illusen's staff."

      "And that psycho Gelert Assassin was after him as well! The thief must have stolen from him, too!"

      The council members all begin to whisper to each other at the list of names the girls just gave. Sophie uncrosses her arms and places her hands on her hips.

      After a minute of deliberation, the king lifts his hand, motioning for silence, his snarl finally beginning to subside. The council members all stop whispering with the gesture. He slowly walks over to Apsy and Ember, his claws clacking ominously on the stone floor below. This is the first time the girls have seen him up close. He is much more intimidating from only a few feet away. "If what you say is true," he says, "and this thief really does have the skill to steal from such targets, then… possibly. If you succeed in bringing him in, I will… consider your initiation."

      Thank goodness. Here's my chance. "We won't let you down, Your Majesty" Apsy says, standing proud.

      Sophie grunts and clacks the tip of her wand against the ground, beginning to walk back towards the hall. A shockwave of lime-green magical energy travels quickly across the ground, filling the room for a brief second. The Moffits that have been running in panicked circles on the floor suddenly shapeshift back into three very-confused, very-surprised Werelupe guards. "Just bring me my Negg back," Sophie says, pressing an angry finger into Apsy's shoulder, then storms out into the hall.

      The king watches her for a few seconds, shaking his head disapprovingly, then walks back towards his throne — leaps onto the ledge effortlessly and takes his seat. "Go," is all he says.

      Without a second of hesitation, Apsy, Ember, and Kamen all give the king deep bows, then exit the room, eager to begin the hunt for the thief.

      Once out of earshot of the king and his council, Ember snorts out an annoying laugh. "He did the thing," she giggles.

      Apsy hits her hard in the shoulder. "Shut up, Mum."

      To be continued…

 
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» And Then There Was Silence: Part One
» And Then There Was Silence: Part Two



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