Return to Lynwood: Part Eight
The next morning dawned just as cool and foggy as the last. This was quite usual for the Haunted Woods, and Isengrim enjoyed the frequent cloud cover over the region. Werelupes were creatures of the night, and the sun often hurt their sensitive eyes and overheated their thick-furred bodies. Isengrim and his pack used to be largely nocturnal, but over the past few years had eased into being more active during the day, to better facilitate relations between them and their non-Werelupe allies.
Not to mention his owner was a morning person. By the time Isengrim was ready to open his eyes, Terra was already up and about, nibbling on a bit of bread and dried fruit for her own breakfast before she helped a groggier-looking Pharazon get Gwyneth fed and watered. Suhel and her packmates had gone off on another hunt. Connor was still asleep, while Lexora had been woken up by her own coughing a while ago, and never managed to get back to sleep.
During breakfast, Pharazon contacted Celice on his Lupe Moon Charm. Because of the charm’s peculiar properties, only he and Celice could see and hear each other through it, making Pharazon look a touch dotty as he sat there talking to a necklace and waiting for it to talk back. He explained the situation to her and asked for her advice, and Isengrim sat and gnawed on a bone as he watched, hoping the Lupe sorceress could aid them. She was highly educated and knew more about magic than Pharazon, having made it her line of study professionally. Isengrim felt privileged to have her as his combination court conjurer and diplomat.
Finally, Pharazon looked up at the others and let his charm drop back to his chest. “She’s doing well,” he said. “Apparently she’s gone off to Black Keep to finish up her paper—she says it’s because it’s better for studying, but then she went on about the banquet Lord Kass held last night, and the Moltaran merchants she’s helping him entertain, and how they went beachcombing along the chalk cliffs the other day and found some fossils.”
Terra snickered. “Sounds very productive. I’m glad she’s having a good time, though. She spends so much time with her snout in a book, she needs a break every so often.”
“What did she say about the curse?” Isengrim asked.
Pharazon propped his foot on his knee. “That we’re on the right track. She’s not familiar with the Haunted Woods, so she hasn’t heard anything in particular about a Lynwood curse, but she said she would look into it when she gets the time. For now, she does think our best bet is to go to Lynwood and look for answers there.”
He paused and looked over at Connor, who was absently nibbling at his portion of breakfast. “And she gives her regards to you, Connor. She says your chemistry work sounds fascinating, and she would like to hear about it if you ever meet.”
The young Werelupe’s golden eyes flicked up to the Draik. “There’s not much to tell now,” he muttered before going back to his breakfast.
Pharazon grimaced and sat back. “Oh, and that artefact—she says to exercise caution if we do find it. We don’t know what it’s capable of or how its energies might have destabilised over the years. She says to let me handle it, and bring it back to her straight away so the two of us can perform a proper diagnosis.”
Suhel’s ears drooped. “Wouldn’t it be better to just let one of us Werelupes hang on to it? That way nobody will—try to cast a spell and have it backfire, or something.”
The Draik shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I think it’s safest if I carry it. Magic items in the hands of non-magic-users are just as dangerous, because they have the unfortunate habit of getting set off on their own. Anything could trigger them, from a certain emotional state to just moving your paws the wrong way. If it’s in my possession, though, I can at least keep its magic contained.”
The second-in-command ducked her head. “If you’re sure,” she said quietly. “I just—don’t want anything to go wrong with this.”
“It won’t,” Isengrim said, putting a paw on her shoulder. “Pharazon knows what he is doing. That is why we brought him.”
“I know,” Suhel said. Her eyes met her king’s, and betrayed far more emotion than she was currently giving away with her voice. She was afraid, so very afraid. Isengrim stared hard back, trying to comfort her wordlessly. He knew she had bad experiences with magic in the past, but that could not keep them from doing what they needed to do here, and prevent a potential magical disaster like what had happened with Skoll.
After breakfast, they set out, still heading south. They were in the foothills now, the vast jumble of wooded rises and valleys that would eventually turn into the mighty mountain range that separated the Haunted Woods from the Lost Desert. An hour out, it began to rain, but the canopy was so thick that very little water made it straight onto the company’s head—it mostly ran off of leaves and down trunks and made the whole world wet and misty like a smudged painting.
The sweet smell of plants that had opened up to let in the moisture lingered delightfully in Isengrim’s nose, and the water could not penetrate the Werelupes’ thick fur or their clothing made from skins. They did not mind the rain at all—Isengrim quite liked it, in fact.
Pharazon didn’t. “I was hoping to stay dry,” the scaly Neopet grumbled, pulling the hood of his cloak over his head.
“Sorry,” Terra said. “Want to borrow my cloak?” Her hood was still down, her wet hair curling around her face and her glasses spattered with water drops. She liked rain just as much as Isengrim did.
“Or my parasol?” Lexora asked from underneath said implement.
“Thanks, but you need that more than I do,” Pharazon said. “I’ll be fine. I don’t hate the rain as much as Hyren, at least.”
Terra nodded. “Poor guy. He always gets a cold when he’s been out in the rain,” she explained to Lexora. “Being from another planet means you’re especially susceptible to germs that haven’t come from your home world.”
“That does make sense,” Lexora said.
The air currents shifted, and with them came the smell of Werelupe. Isengrim and his pack stopped cold to analyse the scent signature. Two males and a female—and a good deal of anger and fear. The rain was quick to wash away smells in the air, so they had to be close.
Heavy pawsteps in the undergrowth alerted Isengrim to just how close they were. He ignored the pain in his leg to draw himself up tall in front of Gwyneth, and his pack clustered around him. Connor let out a whimper and cowered behind them.
From between the trees emerged a trio of Werelupes. The male in the forefront was rusty-furred, stocky, and short—well, short for an adult male Werelupe, considering Isengrim was a good two and a half metres tall standing on his hind paws. This male was closer to two metres tall, still taller than most other non-Werelupes but shorter than even the females in their midst. He had a notch in one ear and an old scar across his muzzle, and around his neck and on his arms he wore pieces of iron crudely fashioned into twisted, sharp shapes.
“Greetings, brother,” Isengrim said. “How goes your hunt?”
“Who are you?” the other Werelupe growled, narrowing his amber eyes. “I’ve not smelled your stink in my woods before.”
This was not exactly the greeting Isengrim wanted, but over the years he had learned not to expect every Werelupe to want to be chumly with him at first. Or at all. But he had to at least try, and at any rate they needed to pass through peacefully. “I am Isengrim,” he said, “Lord of the Werelupe Burrows, King of the Werelupe Woods, Sovereign of All the Moon's Light Touches, and Champion of All Werelupekind.” It was, of course, important to emphasise all one’s royal epithets during an introduction, to make his position clear. “But you may call me Lord Isengrim.”
To his surprise, the other Werelupe issued a barking laugh from his muzzle. “’King’?” he asked with a sneer. “You think you’re the Werelupe King?”
“I am the Werelupe King,” Isengrim said, halfway between confused and annoyed. To the best of his recollection, no one had ever actually challenged that.
“No,” the other Werelupe said, “I am the Werelupe King—Vakhtang the Iron-Hearted, King of the Haunted Woods, Commander of all Werelupekind.” He turned to his companions, who wore metal jewelry like his. “Isn’t that right?”
Their ears swiveled back. “Yes, sir!” the male barked, and the female nodded furiously.
This was where the fear was coming from, Isengrim thought. His heart sunk. “I did not realise a new king had risen up in my absence,” he said.
“Foolish of you to leave such rich bounty,” Vakhtang said, “and so much Werelupe strength to control.” He smiled, showing his jagged fangs. “But we all make mistakes. Now is your time to compensate for your poor judgment. Join my pack.”
“No, thank you,” Isengrim said just as soon as the words left Vakhtang’s muzzle. “I have my own pack, and we’re quite happy with that arrangement.”
Vakhtang scowled. “That was an order, not an invitation.” Again, he channeled his anger into a smile that somehow managed to be more disturbing than a scowl. “But I see you’re the type who likes ultimatums. Fine. Join my pack—or the next time we meet, I shall not be half so merciful. There can only be one Werelupe King.”
Isengrim narrowed his eyes. “I agree.” His paw moved to his sword. Injury be bothered—he was getting tired of this tyrant’s attitude, and at any rate Vakhtang and his Werelupes were outnumbered.
Vakhtang, however, seemed to have his attention on something else, as he looked past Isengrim and sniffed the air. “I see you’ve picked up some refuse in your travels,” he said. For a split second, Isengrim thought he was referring to the non-Werelupes, which was enough to make Isengrim want to attack him on the spot for insulting his family, but then Vakhtang said, “Connor. It’s no use hiding, boy, I can smell your reek plain as day.”
The Werelupe pup emerged beside Isengrim, trembling, tail curled tight and head ducked low. “P-p-please, Mister Vakhtang,” he whimpered. “I-I’m not—“
“I told you the same thing I told them,” Vakhtang said coolly. “This is your last chance, Connor. Join us. Now.” He pointed to the ground beside him.
Isengrim frowned. “Why should he?” he asked. “What is the benefit to him of joining your pack?”
Vakhtang shrugged. “Why should I care about any benefit to him? He is weak, and I am strong. Therefore, it is my right to control him. The entire Haunted Woods is mine to control.” He tossed glances at his two thanes. “I have taken every Werelupe I have found, and molded them into a fighting force that does exactly as I say. His fate will be no different.”
The real Werelupe King ground his teeth, but had the wisdom not to make a reply, as did the rest of his company. “We did not mean to intrude on your territory,” he said calmly. “We are only passing through. We won’t trouble you again.”
“Give me the boy,” Vakhtang said. “He is not your subject.”
“Nor is he yours,” Isengrim said, his ears pitched forward as he stared down the shorter Werelupe, breathing into his words all the authority he could muster. “He is under my protection, and if you want him, you will have to take him by force.” On cue, the rest of his pack stepped forward, paws on their weapons. Isengrim put a paw on Connor’s shoulder.
Vakhtang’s Werelupes whimpered and moved back. Their king shot them hateful glares, and then turned his burning amber gaze on Isengrim. “Get out of my territory,” he snarled, “and don’t come back.” He reached out to a nearby tree trunk and gashed his claws into the wood—two strokes that formed a “V”.
The evidence that had been falling into place in Isengrim’s mind solidified. His grip on Connor grew tighter. “We won’t pass back this way,” Isengrim said, leading his pack onward. “Good day, Vakhtang.”
“King Vakhtang,” the other Werelupe said. “Get out of my sight, you pathetic pretender to the crown.”
For what felt like quite a long time, they walked in silence. Isengrim wanted to make sure they were good and far away before saying anything. Vakhtang was the kind of Neopet that Isengrim wanted to give as little information to as possible.
The rain stopped, although the clouds still floated low over the treetops, dark and bloated with water. Isengrim couldn’t stop worrying that Vakhtang had found the staff. But if he had, considering his hunger for power, surely he would be using it. Wouldn’t he? Who knew how that sociopath’s mind worked.
But weighing just as heavily on him was Connor’s predicament. He stopped his party on top of a ridge, well away from where they had met Vakhtang. Isengrim could no longer smell any trace of the other Werelupe’s scent, and this was an excellent vantage point to be able to see anyone climbing the hill.
“Let’s have lunch here,” he said, sounding more tired than he meant to. He cared little about the pain in his leg—it was his heavy heart that wearied him.
Connor lingered near Gwyneth, looking as though he needed to cry but didn’t want to. Isengrim approached him slowly and knelt down in front of him, still taller than the boy but at least still closer to his eye level. “Connor… I’m so sorry,” the Werelupe King said. “You’ve met him before, haven’t you. That was his mark in the town with no name, wasn’t it? That was why you were so afraid of us.”
The young Werelupe nodded. “He—it was just a little before you found me,” he whispered. “I was wanderin’ about the Woods, and he and some o’ his pack came across me. He told me the same thing he told you, to join his pack and that it was a command. I was just too scared to say anythin’, and I didn’t want to be a Werelupe at all much less be part o’ his pack, so—he told me he would come back for me and he wouldn’t take no for an answer the next time.” He reached up to wipe away tears. “I ran—and hid—and that’s when you found me.”
A lump formed in Isengrim’s throat. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “You’ve just had an awful time of things.”
“Aye, but you were right brave to refuse him the first time!” Suhel said, crouching down next to him with an encouraging smile. “You went with your gut, just like any good Werelupe should—ah, sorry,” she said, remembering too late that Connor did not like to think of himself as a Werelupe.
Connor did not seem to notice or mind. “Thanks,” he sniffled.
The others clustered around them, and even Gwyneth extended a wing to wrap it around Connor’s shoulders. “We will keep you safe from him,” Isengrim said. “All of us. I promise. I swear it on my life. He may talk big, but we are no power to be trifled with.”
As bad as Isengrim felt for Connor, he also felt a sense of relief. They had had a breakthrough—this really explained so much about Connor’s attitude toward Werelupes thus far.
“We’re sorry, Connor,” one of the other Werelupes said. “We won’t tease you anymore, promise. You’re safe with us.”
“Aye,” said another. “We may be impatient sometimes, but we’re nothing like that savage.” She and her packmates looked truly repentant, especially as they gathered around Connor with concern.
Lexora cleared her throat. “I say, Connor, my dear boy, you don’t suppose these are the Werelupes that have been raiding Barrowmere, do you?”
Connor looked at her for a moment, and nodded. “Aye, I know they are, ma’am. Mister Vakhtang told me the first time we met. He—he was sayin’ somethin’ about how the entire Haunted Woods belongs to him, includin’ all the towns and their resources. He doesn’t see anythin’ wrong with sendin’ in his pack to places to just take what they like.”
“What a piece of work,” Terra muttered.
“I am guessing you are not the only one he has tried to coerce,” Isengrim said, “judging by his thanes’ fearfulness.” He frowned. “A true king never governs by force or fear. He is the pretender to the crown, not I.”
Terra patted his arm. “I know. We all know.”
“Even though the whole ‘Werelupe King’ thing was totally arbitrary to begin with,” Pharazon said under his breath.
Suhel nudged him. “Now, now. It is perfectly natural for Neopets to desire a leader, and for some Neopets to desire to lead them.”
“True,” Pharazon said. “I guess if you look at the histories, most kingships tend to be arbitrary.”
Terra shrugged. “Well, actually, a lot of dynasties got their start with a blessing from a faerie, and those families’ continued rule was and is under fae auspices, so it’s not as arbitrary as it looks at first glance… anyway, we’re getting off topic.”
“I have the approval of my people,” Isengrim said, “and that is enough for me.” He turned back to Connor. “Anyhow. Again, I apologise for the cruelty of my fellow Werelupe. I will do everything in my power to make it up to you.” As he looked into the boy’s golden eyes, Isengrim thought that Connor had gotten the short end of every stick. Cursed into a Werelupe, running into Vakhtang, having everyone in his life reject him except for the very creatures he was now terrified of… it made Isengrim feel like his own past had been a walk in the park.
For a moment the two looked at each other, and then Connor broke away. “Let’s—let’s just find that artefact of yours,” the pup said, “and then maybe I can go home.”
Isengrim stood back up. “I did say we would meet with your parents again,” he said. Now that he knew Vakhtang was on the loose, though, he was much more reluctant to attempt to return to Barrowmere. Just getting to Lynwood might prove to be a problem, but that was of utmost necessity. “Connor—how would you feel about coming to stay with us at the Burrows for a bit? You will be well taken care of there, and you will be safe until all of this business with Vakhtang blows over.”
“What’s the Burrows?” Connor asked as Pharazon began passing out bits of cheese and nuts for lunch.
“Oh, you’d love it!” Suhel said. “It’s a vast network of caverns deep in the mountains between Brightvale and Meridell. There are all sorts of wonderful things to explore! The caves alone are beautiful, but then there’s the woodlands outside—“
Connor frowned. “I’d have to live in a nasty, smelly cave?”
“Well, it’s a cave,” Isengrim said, “but I certainly would not call it nasty or smelly. The amenities are quite nice.”
“I’m not livin’ in a cave,” Connor said, folding his arms and turning away.
Suhel scowled and looked as if she wanted to say something, but instead she puffed out her cheek and looked up at her king.
He patted her shoulder comfortingly. “At least he does not completely hate us,” he said.
“Aye, he just hates everything about our way of life,” she grumbled.
Lexora swooped in and hooked her arm around her old classmate’s. “I say! The Burrows sound positively smashing!” the Kougra said. “When we finish up all of this, I would love to visit them sometime!”
Suhel smiled. “That can certainly be arranged. I think you’d enjoy the place. There’s so much to explore—not even we’ve found the ends of all the tunnels.”
“Wonderful!” Lexora said. “Sounds like the makings of another expedition!”
The two Werelupes grinned at each other. They were glad at least someone was having fun. People who unconditionally liked Werelupes were few and far between, so it was always a breath of fresh air when Isengrim found one. He used to think only his pack and his family would afford him any measure of understanding, but now he was beginning to see that there existed other open-minded individuals as well.
The Werelupes tried their hardest to be extra nice to Connor during lunch, sharing their food with him and asking if there was anything they could do for him. One of them played a jaunty tune on his bone flute, and another gave him a jade charm in the shape of a Biyako that she had obtained from some Shenkuuvian traders. The pup accepted all of these offerings quietly, but his mood did not seem to lift.
Meanwhile, when Suhel and Lexora finished eating, Suhel began to teach the Kougra combat, at Lexora’s request. Suhel equipped her with a long knife and showed her the basics of fighting with a blade, as well as general battle know-how. The two had great fun as Suhel explained and demonstrated thrusts and parries, and their attempts at sparring ended in laughter—at least until coughing fits cut them short.
“Won’t Daddy be proud!” Lexora said as the company packed up to continue their journey. Now sporting Suhel’s knife around her slim waist, the Kougra clambered onto Gwyneth and spread out her skirts. “I say, Lord Isengrim, why don’t we just go after that Vakhtang chap now and knock his block off!” She swung her fists in the air with a fanged grin.
Isengrim laughed as he lingered near the Ganuthor. His leg was beginning to ache, and he knew he should give it a rest, but his pride prevented him from saying anything, not to mention not wanting to overburden Gwyneth.
Thankfully, Terra caught the look in his eyes. “Want to ride with us for a bit?” she asked. “I told you to take a break before your leg starts to bother you, remember?” She gave him a hopeful half-smile. “Would you, please? For my sake?”
That was all he needed to hear. “Of course,” he said, lifting himself onto the Petpet behind Lexora. “I certainly do not want you to worry.” Having the pressure off of his leg was a great relief, although he tried not to show it. “Are you sure this is not too much for Gwyneth?” he asked.
“She’ll be fine,” Pharazon said. “She’s carried this much weight before—you rode her with Terra, Celice, Blynn, and Hyren once, and she was even able to fly carrying all of you. Besides, we’ve lost a lot of weight already what with food consumption.”
“Good point,” Isengrim grunted. He hoped their stores would be enough to last until they got to Lynwood. The Werelupes would have to step up their hunting and start to include some foraging. In a worst-case scenario, Pharazon could fly Gwyneth to the nearest town to restock. Isengrim smiled a bit. Despite everything else going on, at least food was not a big concern.
“To answer your question,” he said to Lexora as they started to amble down the hill, “I do not feel adequately prepared to tackle the problem of Vakhtang yet. I do not know the whole scope of his operation—I am guessing he has far more ‘packmates’ than the two we encountered. I would need to bring in my entire pack from Meridell to stand a fighting chance.”
He looked down at Suhel, who nodded to him dutifully. “Not to mention,” Isengrim added, “one of my finest warriors has been debilitated. I certainly want to fix what’s wrong with her and you before trying to conquer another challenge.”
Terra looked over her shoulder at them. “Hey—why don’t I send a Weewoo to Sophie?” she asked. “These towns need to rally to defend themselves against Vakhtang’s Werelupes. They should know who’s behind all the raids, and why. Based on what we saw in Barrowmere, I don’t think the towns’ leaders will have any trouble forming a militia.”
Isengrim smiled at her. “Thank you for the suggestion, Terra. But you saw how quick those Neopets are to fall into a hate-fueled frenzy, and I would not like the entire Haunted Woods to turn into a Werelupe-hunt while we are still in it. We could very well be mistaken for the enemy.”
His smile faded. “Besides… I am willing to bet that most of Vakhtang’s thanes are not doing his bidding because they want to. I would hate for them to get hurt because of their leader’s misrule. We shall have to approach this issue with tact.”
He hated shooting down his owner’s ideas, so he tried to couch his words as gently as possible, and thankfully she did not seem upset by it. “Oh—right,” she said with a nod. “Let’s just focus on getting that artefact and on the Lynwood curse for now, then.”
“But that does not mean we can’t have fun along the way,” Isengrim said. “You have all been excellent travelling companions.” His tail wagged.
“So have you!” Terra said. “I hope we can go on adventures like this more often.”
“Me, too!” Isengrim said. “Lexora’s stories have whetted my appetite for journeying! I want to see those exotic lands for myself!”
Suhel chuckled. “That’s fine by me, milord. Just don’t expect me to come with you. Someone’s got to oversee the pack while you’re gone.”
“And you are the finest Werelupe for the job, Suhel,” Isengrim said. “I know I can always count on you.”
She smiled. “Always.” The moment was cut short when she began to cough again.
Isengrim watched her struggle for breath, his mood drooping. He hoped whatever they could find at Lynwood would help her. He couldn’t lose his second-in-command, and one of his best friends.
To be continued…