Return to Lynwood: Part Two
For what felt like a long while, they moved in silence. Above the cloud cover, the sun crept across the sky, and with every gust of wind, fire-coloured leaves swept through the air, catching in the Werelupes’ fur and Terra’s hair. They followed a trail that existed only in Isengrim’s mind, as he and his pack had traced this strange old forest forwards and back during the long years they lived here.
He wove his motley little party through the endless maze of trees, around briar patches and over rough shoulders of bare rock that reached out like giant stone hands trying to grab passers-by. Eventually they stopped going uphill and started going downhill, and then the sweet, clean smell of water filled Isengrim’s nose. Below them, a river snaked through the trees, cold and dark.
Although Werelupes could swim, no one wanted to get wet if they could help it, so Isengrim took them a kilometre downstream, where an ageing wooden bridge arched across the water. The road on either side had long been overgrown, but Isengrim, who had been around for quite some time himself, remembered when there had been a road here, and remembered where it led.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” Connor asked as they neared the mossy structure.
“It was safe last time,” Isengrim said, placing a large paw on the first plank. It held steady under his weight and he trotted onto the bridge. “The Neopets who made this knew what they were doing. Still, no more than two across at a time.”
“I shouldn’t take any chances with our weight,” Pharazon said. “Gwyn, up.” While the other Werelupes began pairing off to cross the bridge, the Ganuthor flapped her wings and pushed off the riverbank. The lift was enough to carry her to the other side, where she touched down with a grace that belied her bulk.
Terra looked back at the bridge and then into the thick woods ahead. “Isengrim, where are we?” she asked. “I’ve never been to this part of the Haunted Woods.” Her eyes shone with the prospect of exploring some new place.
“We’re close to a town that has no name,” Isengrim said, his tail wagging and ears high. He got such a thrill out of sharing things like this with her. “Or, well, I’m sure it used to have a name. But I never learned it, and there’s no one around to tell me now.”
Connor was first across the bridge with Suhel—despite his “weak constitution”, the young Werelupe seemed to be holding up quite well. The rest of the pack wasted no time in crossing, and fanned out behind their leader, sniffing the air for surveillance and orientation. Suhel tried to smother another cough, clearing her throat several times and looking around to see if anyone had noticed. Isengrim was beginning to doubt it was due to choking.
“So it’s abandoned?” Terra asked.
“That’s right,” Isengrim said, leading the march once again. “It was once a town quite a bit smaller than Barrowmere or Neovia, but holding its own nonetheless. Then… well, I am not quite sure what happened to it. None of us had travelled this way for quite a while, but one spring I ventured back here and… everyone was gone. Even their smell was gone.”
Pharazon shuddered. “Oof, that’s a rather bad sign, don’t you think?”
“It happens sometimes, in the Woods,” Isengrim said. “If you are not careful like we are,” he added upon seeing the look of worry on Terra’s, Pharazon’s, and Connor’s faces. “Larger towns, and ones further north where it’s more populated, are usually safe. But for those who venture to live southward… the closer to the mountains you go, the older and wilder the Woods is. None can guarantee a town’s survival there.”
“Will we be okay?” Terra asked.
Isengrim smiled. “I would not take you here if it was not safe. This town had been abandoned for many long years before we even left the Woods. It is harmless now, just a quiet place where buildings slowly return to the earth. I think it is beautiful in its own lonely way.”
“I do like exploring ruins,” his owner said. “I think this’ll be fun.”
It took them another half hour of winding between wooded hills before crumbling chimneys began to poke up among the treetops. The sun was close to the horizon now, giving the clouds an eerie golden glow that cast an unearthly brownish light on the town with no name. The space it had once occupied in the forest had far fewer trees than the old growth that surrounded it, creating a large area open to the sky like a barren scar. The wide streets were now paved with grass, and structures of brick and stone stood as defiant monoliths while their wooden neighbors had been reduced to shambles of lumber. Dark windows made buildings seem like skulls with too many eyes.
Isengrim quite enjoyed these sorts of places. Then again, most other Neopets considered him a touch off.
Not Terra, though. “Ooh…” she whispered, as though she did not want to break the silence of the place. “This is awesome.” She slid down from Gwyneth to walk next to Isengrim as he led his pack down the main street, like a strange mockery of a parade for a dead town. “None of the windows are boarded,” she said as they passed by a derelict shop. She veered off to peek in the display window. “And everything’s still sitting in place. Well, it looks like maybe a few things were looted, but… these Neopets left in a hurry.”
“Or were taken in a hurry,” Pharazon said, pulling his cloak tighter around himself. “This gives me the creeps. Isengrim, why was this your idea of a good spot for dinner?”
The Werelupe King laughed. “Because I am a strange person, brother.”
“Aye, I’ll give you that,” Suhel said. She nudged Connor’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, he means well. We’re all rather strange, after all.”
The young Werelupe glanced over at her and gave a noncommittal grunt before looking back to the ruins of the town, his golden eyes scanning the buildings curiously.
Pharazon sighed. “This place doesn’t feel right. Bad things happened here.”
“I know,” Terra said with a nod, venturing closer to Gwyneth. “I can feel it, too. But I can’t get myself to dislike it. It seems more sad and lonely than anything else—like it just needs a little love. After all, I’m sure plenty of good things happened here, too, lots of laughter and peace and kindness.” She smiled. “I think we can enjoy what’s beautiful about it and not emphasise the bad. Maybe that’ll help the bad go away. It doesn’t need to be here. It was never meant to be.”
“Sounds like what you did at Black Keep,” Suhel said to Pharazon.
The Draik shrugged. “Eh… no, I still thought Black Keep was creepy and depressing. I only untangled a ghost from it and released its negative energy. Didn’t mean I liked the place.” He glanced over at his owner. “Terra’s just determined to see good in everything and love it into getting better. I don’t have that kind of patience—or lateral thinking.”
“She saw the good in me,” Isengrim said quietly, more to himself than anyone else.
Terra reached over and put a hand on his head, past his skull-crown that marked him as king. “Of course I did,” she said. “There was quite a lot of it there, after all. Never mind the other stuff, it’s all worked out now.”
“Oy, give yourself more credit, runt,” Suhel said with a smirk, rising to her hind paws so she was closer to Pharazon’s eye level as he rode Gwyneth. “Surviving the Dark Faerie Sisters is nothing to sneeze at—“ As if that was her cue, she began to cough again. This time, it was severe enough that she stopped and doubled over.
The others stopped as well, although Connor was so preoccupied with the town that he continued on for several paces before realising that no one else was with him. He paused and turned to watch from a distance he seemed to think comfortable.
Isengrim frowned and stood up to put an arm over the convulsing shoulders of his second-in-command. “Suhel, are you ill?” he asked.
After a few more moments, the horrible rattling cough finally subsided. Breathing hard, Suhel stood up straight, although she leaned on Isengrim for support. “I don’t know,” she said. “Truth be told, I’ve not been feeling quite like myself for a few days now. I thought it was just a cold and it would go away… but it seems to be getting worse.” Her gaze fell and her ears dropped. “I didn’t want to tell you—I knew you wanted me to come with you to the old keep, and I’d hate to be left behind on this sort of thing just because I felt under the weather.”
Isengrim studied her face and gave her a squeeze. “I’m sorry. You do so much for me and the pack, Suhel, but you deserve some rest. Pace yourself and take it easy, all right? I would be happy to have you along, but not if it’s going to be too much for you.”
She shook her head and pushed away from him, patting his shoulder congenially. “I’ll be fine, milord,” she said with a grin. “After all, I’ve yet to see an illness take down a Werelupe—we’ve got the constitution of an Elephante.”
“Still—don’t push it,” Isengrim said. “Please. For my sake.” He hated to see her ill, and she was such a hard worker, a fantastic warrior, and a good friend that he did not want to imagine her too weak to move.
“I can try to boost your immune system with a spell,” Pharazon said. He held up his claws, which sparkled with cyan-coloured magic. “Spellcasting is still rough, but I think I might be able to manage—“
“No!” Suhel barked, her ears going flat. Straightening her armour, she curled her paws into fists, although her low-tucked tail gave away her fear. “I’ll be fine, Pharazon, thanks,” she said in a shaky voice that was nearly a whimper. “Come on, let’s find a suitable place to sup, shall we? Connor, see anything interesting?” She brushed past Gwyneth to join the boy down the street.
He stared at her for a moment, then shrugged. “I’ll bet I could find a lot of good components around here,” he said. “As long as nothin’ else has a curse on it, anyway.”
Pharazon’s ears drooped and he put his claws in his lap. “I was just trying to help…” he said.
“I am sure you are quite proficient with your magicks by now, young magus,” Isengrim said.
“It’s not that,” Pharazon sighed. “She’s afraid of magic. She’s afraid of my magic.” He stared at his claws. “Is this how Werelupes feel when other Neopets are afraid of them?”
Isengrim thought for a moment. “It depends on whether or not we want them to be afraid,” he replied with a bit of a grin. It quickly faded. “But yes… misunderstanding can hurt, Pharazon. Give her time. She still values you as a friend. She will come around.”
“I hope so,” Pharazon said.
Terra reached up and gave her Draik’s hand a squeeze. “Don’t give up, kiddo,” she said. “Friendship always comes through.” She turned to Isengrim. “So where do you want to eat? Know any good abandoned restaurants?”
Isengrim snickered as he and the pack began to move again. “I’m afraid the local cuisine is less than satisfactory. But I do know of a nice place for a picnic.”
As they wandered down the street, Isengrim acted as their tour guide, showing them interesting landmarks like the towering town hall, the bank with its marble walls and domed lobby, and a lichen-covered sculpture of a distinguished-looking Quiggle in a top hat—time had erased the inscription at the base of the statue, meaning everyone could only wonder who the Quiggle was and how he’d gotten his own statue.
And Terra provided colour commentary, pointing out little things that might escape most people’s notice, such as a family of Grembles that had nested on the front step of a home – “Oh, I love Grembles,” Suhel said – and a wall where long fingers of ivy crept up the side like some sort of abstract mural, and a hole in the roof of a house that was angled just right so that they could see it by looking up through a third-storey window. Somehow, the exquisite composition of a spot of golden-grey sky among stark shadows made Isengrim stop and stare and feel a stirring in his soul.
Glancing around, he could see many of his pack felt the same, and even Connor was trying hard not to look too interested. Isengrim had liked this place before, but Terra seemed to have a knack for loving it and helping everyone else to love it, too. He felt like he had the best owner in all Neopia, and he couldn’t help but pick her up and give her a big hug, which she returned.
He took them all to the outskirts of town, where the homes were manors with extensive grounds. The plants had grown completely wild, turning once neat lawns and gardens into chaotic masses of vegetation. Isengrim slipped past the open, rusted gate of one of these estates, and his packmates followed him through a doorway in a thick stone wall where the wooden door had long decayed away, to another part of the garden that sprawled around the side of the manor.
Here, roses had taken over. No longer confined by gardeners to neat shapes, the bushes’ stems had grown into thick and woody vines that spilled over flowerbeds and climbed up walls, flooding every space they could reach. Their thorns were as long as Werelupe claws, but their flowers were enormous and fragrant, and every colour that Isengrim had ever seen on a rosebush.
Terra stopped to smell them, tenderly cupping their petals. “This is gorgeous,” she said. “It’s amazing how life goes on, even when everything seems over. Endings are just new beginnings…”
“Is she always like this?” Connor asked.
“Oh, yes,” Pharazon said. “Why do you think she and Isengrim get along so famously?”
“I shall take that as a compliment, thank you,” Isengrim said. He could more than smell the roses from where he stood, and although he did not want to be known as a Werelupe who enjoyed floral scents, he could not deny that he loved the aroma of green things growing how they liked out of the good earth. Perhaps that was half the reason why he preferred to live in the middle of the woods.
“Terra, I have something to show you,” he said as she turned back to him. “I think you will like it. Pharazon, you too. And perhaps you will appreciate it as well, Connor.”
The young Werelupe folded his arms. “What is it?”
For a response, Isengrim escorted them around the corner of the rose-infested garden, past a dusty dry fountain where a few Batterflies roosted, although the Petpets flew away as the larger creatures approached.
When Terra saw the treasure Isengrim had found, her eyes lit up. “Ooh—” She looked as though she wanted to say something else, but no words were coming out. Instead, she reached out, grabbed Isengrim’s paw, and gave it a squeeze.
Before them sprawled a round courtyard, the centre of which was raised half a metre above the surrounding stonework as if to support a flowerbed. Instead of vegetation in the middle, however, there sat an enormous sphere made of thin bands of copper—even in the fading orange daylight, Isengrim could see the green patina that covered the unkempt metal. These bands surrounded a small copper ball in the centre of the sphere, as well as even smaller balls that slowly circled in a tilted plane around it. Tall trees stood as sentinels in the courtyard, their bright yellow leaves drifting down onto the flagstones like a golden snow. The setting sun had managed to peek through a brief crack in the clouds, bathing the scene with the last bits of light it could muster.
Terra dragged Isengrim closer to the installment. “Look—I think it’s an orrery!” she said, pointing to the markings etched on the bands. “See, these must show the positions of the Twelve Protectors,” she said, referring to the Altadorian constellations that had found their way into other Neopian cultures before the kingdom’s thousand-year sleep. She gestured to the copper spheres. “And these have got to represent the sun, and Neopia and the other planets in our system. Their relative sizes and distances match up perfectly.”
“What a marvelous piece of handiwork!” Pharazon said beside her. “I’m glad it’s survived so long!”
Isengrim folded his arms and grinned, feeling quite proud of himself for discovering something that his family thought so highly of.
“How are they movin’?” Connor asked. He had his snout poked over the edge to inspect the orrery as well. The spheres closest to the sun fairly whipped around their little circles, but larger orbits grew progressively slower, and the outermost planets inched along at nearly a crawl.
“It’s magic,” Pharazon said. “It was enchanted to move perpetually, I think. Not a bad idea, considering these things usually run on clockwork. This will continue to show the orbits of the planets until the day it’s destroyed.”
Terra squealed. “This is so cool! Isengrim, thanks so much for taking us here! I’m having so much fun!”
The Werelupe King tried to look humble, but he couldn’t suppress the enormous grin on his muzzle. “Aye, well, it was on the way to Barrowmere, so… And I thought maybe Connor could use some cheering up.” He looked over at the new Werelupe.
Connor was still busy watching the orrery, but after a moment he looked up at Isengrim in surprise. “Oh—aye, thanks. This is really somethin’.”
Isengrim nodded. Connor still seemed so unsure of everything, but that would be a given considering his situation. Isengrim would allow him time to process things, and hopefully the reunion with his parents would go well.
The large dark Werelupe sighed and raised his snout to catch the wind. It was raining somewhere far off, but considering the direction of the breeze, it didn’t smell like weather they would run into on their expedition. “So, what say we use this device as a centrepiece for our supper?” he asked.
“Yes, please!” Terra said.
The whole group sat on the stone ledge around the orrery to eat. Once again, Pharazon passed out packages of food, and he also gave a cloth pouch to Suhel. “That’s got throat lozenges in it,” he said. “I hope it helps.”
She smiled at him. “Thanks, runt. I hope so too. You’ve got everything in those saddlebags of yours, don’t you?”
“Well, not yet,” Pharazon said with a laugh. “When I get better at magic, one of the first things I’m going to do is enchant them to hold more…” His smile faded and he trailed off awkwardly.
Suhel looked uncomfortable as well. “What flavour are these lozenges?” she asked, shaking the pouch. “I don’t like cherry.”
“That’s okay, they’re blackcurrant,” Pharazon said. Although he tried to seem chipper, the look on his face as he trudged back to Isengrim and Terra was anything but spirited.
Terra put a hand on his head, mussing the bit of wavy spines that grew there. “Don’t worry about it,” she said quietly, patting an open space beside her for him to sit down.
On his other side sat Connor, who was eating voraciously, tearing into his sandwich as though he hadn’t eaten in days. After a moment, he froze mid-bite and cringed, shutting his eyes. When he opened them again, he raised the sandwich to his muzzle and forced himself to take a small bite which he chewed politely.
“What’s wrong?” Pharazon asked.
“This new body is doin’ things to me,” Connor growled. “I’m eatin’ like a beast.”
Pharazon swung his legs, hitting his heels against the stone as he unwrapped a hunk of cheese. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he said. “You’ve been through a lot today, we just got through with a long hike, and you’re still a growing boy. Maybe you’re just hungry.”
“Maybe,” Connor said, looking up at the darkening sky as he ate. “I want to go home,” he whispered so quietly that even Isengrim’s Werelupe ears barely caught the sound.
For the next few minutes, he ate in silence. The others chatted among themselves, although the conversation was punctuated by occasional coughs from Suhel. The lozenges seemed to help at least a little, though.
Finally, as Isengrim snacked on some Jumbleberries for dessert, Connor looked over at him. “So… what’s this errand you’re runnin’, anyway? Why are you in such a hurry?”
The Werelupe King smiled. “I was wondering when you would ask. The whole story is rather long, but I will begin by saying that some years ago, we lived here in the Haunted Woods. We occupied an abandoned castle far to the south, in the deep Woods, adjacent to Hubrid Nox’s territory.”
“Good riddance to him,” another Werelupe said, eliciting a round of agreements.
“Through… unusual circumstances,” Isengrim said, glancing over at Terra who grinned self-consciously, “that keep was destroyed and we were forced to try to find another home. Before we left, we salvaged everything we could find from the rubble—I had built up a considerable hoard of treasures and rare artefacts, and I was loath to leave any of it behind.”
He popped a last handful of Jumbleberries into his maw and then leaned back on the ledge, watching the others finish up their supper. “However… last week, I did an inventory of my hoard and realised I was missing something important.”
“What?” Connor asked.
“An ancient and powerful magical artefact,” Isengrim said, “that Suhel and some of my other thanes stole from Hubrid Nox many years ago.”
Suhel’s jaw clenched and her ears lowered, but she nodded. “One of the greatest prizes in Lord Isengrim’s collection.”
“It was not something that should have been missed during our salvaging or subsequent inventories,” Isengrim said, rubbing his chin, “but my court conjurer tells me that magical artefacts often have a way of slipping through a person’s fingers if they so choose. Many of these items almost have a mind of their own, especially if they are as old and magically imbued as this one is.”
“Could someone have stolen it from you?” Connor asked.
Isengrim steepled his fingers, his ears pitching forward. “Trying to steal anything from me,” he said in a low voice, “is a very bad idea. My hoard is currently located deep underground and past several wards, and you would have to get past the whole of my pack to get there, so I would not advise anyone to try. And if they do…” His crimson eyes glittered. “They will have to answer to me.”
“And Celice did an energy reading,” Pharazon said, packing his empty meal wrappers into Gwyneth’s saddlebag. The others began to stow their refuse as well. “She said that the artefact’s energy had never been present in Isengrim’s hoard in the Burrows, so it never made it to Meridell in the first place. Which means it’s got to still be at the old keep.”
“If someone else hasn’t found it first,” Isengrim said, “and that is what worries me, and the cause for our haste. Hubrid Nox may be gone, but he was far from the only malevolent force in the Haunted Woods. I would hate for this object to fall into the wrong hands.”
Another Werelupe looked up from gnawing on a piece of jerky. “Unless it already has.”
“Right,” Isengrim said. “Which is why young Magus Pharazon has offered us his services. He has quite a keen sense for magicks, and with his help, locating the artefact should prove to be quite easy, whether or not it is still at the keep.” He sighed and pushed on his knees to stand up. “Well, let’s be on our way to Barrowmere.”
“I’m sorry,” Connor said. “You don’t have to walk me home. It sounds like you’ve got urgent business.”
Isengrim shook his head. “This is also urgent business, Connor. I cannot leave you in the Woods alone. If someone has taken my treasure, I can take it back, but if something were to happen to you due to my negligence… I would never forgive myself.”
The younger Werelupe blinked. “Oh… thank you—sir.”
“Of course,” Isengrim said with a smile. He had to bite his tongue to add anything about being brothers.
Terra and Pharazon got back on to Gwyneth, who had spent the time eating, chasing a few Batterflies, and then napping. As the Draik settled himself onto the Ganuthor’s neck, he looked around at the silent garden. “You know… it feels better here now,” he said. “It sounds weird, but it’s like all the sadness and fear is gone. Now it’s just… peaceful. Still a little creepy, but peaceful.”
Terra smiled. “You’re right. I like it a lot better like this. I guess we cheered this old place up.”
Pharazon stared at her for a moment. “Yeah… maybe we did.”
Isengrim led everyone out of the garden, around the back of the manor and past some decaying wooden outbuildings that stood near the edge of untouched woodland. As they walked past a precariously leaning shed, Connor suddenly stopped and stiffened. His fur flattened and he backed away so violently that he stumbled into Isengrim, who held on to the boy’s shoulders to keep from falling over himself.
“What’s wrong?” the king asked.
Connor raised a shaking finger. Scratched harshly into the rotting wood were clawmarks in the shape of a crude letter “V”. A whimper escaped the pup’s muzzle.
Isengrim leaned over him. The area smelled of Werelupe, unfamiliar Werelupe, although the scent was very old, a day at least. “That wasn’t one of ours,” he said to the boy. “At any rate, we leave our mark a bit more artistically. We hunt under the sign of the paw and crescent.”
“He’s not with you?” Connor asked, inching away from the shed.
Isengrim urged him onward. There was no reason to stay and examine another Werelupe’s mark, especially when they were pressed for time. “No,” he said. “The rest of my pack is currently in the Meridell region, where we now live. The Werelupes you see here are all I brought with me on this quest. But there are a number of Werelupes who roam the Haunted Woods who are not associated with my pack.”
“Aye, it’s been nearly fifteen years since we last lived here,” Suhel said. “I’m sure plenty of new Werelupes have popped up in the meantime.”
“That’s right,” Isengrim said. “And even when we did live here… not every Werelupe wanted to unite under my banner. There were a number who disliked me for whatever reason—I suppose they thought of me more as competition than anything else.” He frowned. “There were also some who thought I was too soft. I hope you never run into any of those, Connor. They do not treat even their own brethren with mercy.”
Connor swallowed hard. Ears still flat against his head, he hunched his shoulders and huddled close to Gwyneth.
“I will protect you if we come across any of those,” Isengrim said. “You have nothing to fear so long as you are with me and my pack, and soon you will be home. Werelupes here never venture into towns.”
“Good,” Connor said, although his gaze did not leave the ground.
Isengrim paused at the edge of the forest and took one last look at the town with no name. Although he was not nearly as sensitive to magic as his owner and brother, even he felt like the ruins had breathed a sigh of relief and something dark had been lifted from them. Perhaps Pharazon had been right somehow, about loving things into being better. It was a place he would like to return to someday.
But for now, there was Barrowmere and then his old home.
To be continued…