Return to Lynwood: Part Ten
Suhel hated getting sick. But this was a sickness like nothing she had ever before experienced. It not only lingered, but got steadily worse, until she felt like a mere husk of the mighty Werelupe she once had been. It frustrated and scared her to no end, especially because they still had a journey ahead of them.
The trip to Lynwood would take four days, accounting for the circuitous route Isengrim led his party on to try to avoid Vakhtang’s territory as much as possible. While the rust-furred Werelupe claimed he was king of the entire Haunted Woods, he seemed to – for the time being – concentrate mostly on the northern, more populated regions.
Lynwood was really only a day or so away from Barrowmere, less for a Werelupe travelling at a brisk pace, but Suhel knew Isengrim wanted to find the staff first, and she and Lexora didn’t think their condition would worsen all that quickly. But it seemed as though ever since they started heading toward Lynwood, their health had gone even more downhill. It hurt to breathe now. Every morning Suhel struggled to open her eyes and force herself to get up. She had to conserve her words, because nearly every time she spoke she would end up coughing. By the end of the first day, she had already resorted to having to ride on Gwyneth.
Lexora was worse along. The Kougra was so weak that she did not even have the energy to stay propped up on Gwyneth, and Suhel was glad to ride so she could keep a hold of her friend. Lexora’s breathing was labored and she spent much of the time sleeping—except when her coughing woke her up.
No one said anything anymore about this being a fun adventure. The others tried to keep Suhel’s and Lexora’s spirits up, but for the most part the hours were long and silent as they trudged through the forest, their thoughts concentrated on the curse and how to break it. The lozenges were gone, and the tea was running low. The chilling fear began to sneak into Suhel’s thoughts that they might not make it to Lynwood at this rate.
Perhaps they should have gone to her old school first, she thought one night as she tried to get to sleep, curled up near the campfire. Even its heat did not seem to warm her anymore. It didn’t help that the weather had taken a turn for the colder, and the biting autumn wind cut past her fur and chilled her weakened body to the core.
Grumbling, she pulled Isengrim’s fur cloak tighter over her shoulders to let less of the night air in. He had given it to her earlier to help keep warm. Normally he would be sleeping on it, but he thought nothing of lying on the ground in exchange for making her more comfortable. Lexora was similarly bundled in furs the other Werelupes had loaned her.
Everyone but Suhel looked sound asleep, the campsite filled only with the sounds of wood snapping in the flames. Past it was only oppressive silence, and the eerie almost-whispering that danced at the edges of Suhel’s hearing and seemed to intensify at night. That was perfectly normal in the Haunted Woods, and over the years she had learned to tune it out—just the strange old forest being its strange old self.
Terra and Pharazon were curled up against Gwyneth’s ribs, needing her extra warmth to compensate for their lack of fur. Pharazon clutched the Staff of the Deep Woods to his chest as ectoplasm still swirled within it. Suhel’s packmates had helped the Draik construct a rudimentary sling for the implement so he could carry it on his back, but Isengrim promised that when they returned to the Burrows, he would craft Pharazon a sturdier leather holster.
Earlier, Pharazon had spoken to Celice about the staff, and the sorceress had been ecstatic, demanding to see it as soon as possible. Not much could beat an ancient artefact formed from the magic of the Haunted Woods and once owned by Hubrid Nox himself.
Suhel grimaced. She was torn. Half of her really hoped they wouldn’t find the staff at the old keep—but of course that would mean someone else had found it first, and around here that was most likely bad news. Especially now that Vakhtang was on the loose.
She glanced over at her king, asleep on the other side of the fire. How could he just trust Pharazon with such a dangerous artefact? What if the Draik turned on them again? How could anyone be trusted with so much magical power?
Pharazon’s voice made Suhel’s ears flick in his direction. Slowly, trying to seem asleep, she looked back over to her king’s family.
Pharazon nudged his owner’s shoulder until she stirred. “Hey,” he whispered, “I’m really sorry to wake you up, but I can’t get to sleep at all.”
Terra rubbed her eyes and stretched her neck. “I’m sorry,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
He looked down at the staff. “I can’t stop thinking about… this.”
“It is pretty awesome,” Terra said.
Pharazon shook his head. “It’s not something to be taken lightly. I appreciate what you said back at the ruins, that it might have chosen me because it knows I won’t be corrupted by it… but what if that’s not true? I’ve heard about way too many other magic users that have gone bad because they got too powerful. Why should I be exempt?” His voice dropped until even Suhel could barely hear it. “I’m scared… I’m scared I’ll turn into another Skoll.”
“I don’t think you will,” Terra said. “You’re nothing like him at all.”
“Maybe not now,” Pharazon said, “but what if this is just the first step toward my fall? How do I know I can trust myself?”
Terra looked at him for a moment. “How do you know you can’t trust yourself? What if this is the first step toward being the awesome, good wizard that you were always meant to be?”
Pharazon drummed his claws on the staff. “I don’t know if I want to take that risk.”
“What if it’s not a risk?” Terra asked. “Maybe you’re just looking at it all the wrong way. Something happens and you immediately leap to postulating all of the negative outcomes.” She rubbed her face. “Trust me, I have a hard time with that too. It’s called engineer’s instinct.” Her eyes wandered over to Connor, the boy-Werelupe huddled by the fire. “It’s great when you’re working on a project and have to make good and sure that you’ve accounted for absolutely every contingency… but if you try to apply it to yourself, it’s just gonna drive you crazy.”
“I don’t know how else to think about it,” Pharazon said. “I can’t just go through life oblivious to negative possibilities.”
“Possibilities don’t always equal realities,” Terra said. “Remember what you learned from the whole Black Keep incident? You have to trust your instincts above all else. If your gut is telling you to make friends with a deposed warlord, you go ahead and make friends with him despite every logical way it could go wrong.” She pointed to the staff. “If your gut is telling you that this is your super-powerful magical implement, then it’s yours and you’re going to use it for great good. If you really listen to what your heart is telling you, it won’t lead you astray.”
A smile crept up the Draik’s snout, and he nodded. “That did work at Black Keep. And it’ll have to work now.” He sighed and pulled the staff closer to himself. “Because as anxious as I am about keeping this thing, something feels even worse about the idea of not having it. I need to listen to that.”
Suddenly his blue eyes turned to Suhel, and the Werelupe shut her own eyes quickly, hoping he hadn’t seen her awake.
“I just hate that Suhel’s so afraid of me now,” he said, not seeming to notice her eavesdropping. “Having one of my own friends so uncomfortable around me… there are times when it makes me just want to drop magic altogether.”
“I’m really sorry,” Terra said. “That is hard. But your magic is a part of who you are, a good part, and I think Neopia would lose a wonderful wizard if you stopped learning magic. Don’t take Suhel’s fear on yourself. This is her battle to fight—but she’s a good friend, and I have faith that she will take the right way out.”
“But who knows how long that could take,” Pharazon said. “A friend’s not a friend if they’re afraid to be around you all the time.”
Terra paused. “I know. But she needs to work through this at her own pace. The best thing we can do for her now is continue to show her friendship, and she will come around when she’s processed everything. You’re doing a great job, Pharazon. I promise. Your heart’s telling you what to do, so just focus on all of the good that’s going to come out of that. Because it will come.”
“Thanks, Terra,” Pharazon said with a yawn. “I’ll try.”
“Let me know if you need any help,” Terra said. “I’m good at being obnoxiously positive when I’m not being a nervous wreck.”
Pharazon chuckled. “We’re real basket cases, aren’t we?”
“There are worse things to be,” Terra said. “Night, buddy. Get plenty of sleep.”
“Night,” Pharazon said.
After a few moments of silence, Suhel opened her eyes. The owner and her Neopet were asleep once again. Suhel couldn’t help but smile. Pharazon was so earnest and concerned with his friends’ welfare. He had really come a long way from the self-absorbed coward she had been tasked with taking care of in the Burrows. He had more than earned his fang necklace.
She wanted to trust him. Maybe all of this wouldn’t be so bad. They’d go to Lynwood and break the curse, and then he and Celice would go off somewhere to do their fancy magic work with the staff, and Suhel wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. To the rest of Neopia, he would be Magus Pharazon, but to her, he would just be her friend.
She still could not get herself to like that staff, though. It had put her through far too much. Why, of all the magic items in Neopia, did Pharazon have to resonate with that particular object? It just brought back bad memories every time she looked at it.
Suhel felt eyes on her and her fur bristled. She looked around and saw Isengrim’s crimson eyes boring into her from across the campfire. Again, they held a wordless conversation, just the smallest changes of expression in their faces conveying all the information they needed. He had heard the whole thing as well. She was scared and unsure—too much was going on, all of it out of her control, and she hated it.
Isengrim smiled, a warm sort of smile that conveyed strength and comfort and hope. He was there for her—he was her king and it was his job to protect her. They would get through this together. But for now, she should get some sleep and save her strength.
Weakly, she smiled back and nodded, and then the two closed their eyes and tucked their noses into their fur. Suhel supposed that she didn’t have to be in control of everything for it to turn out all right. She just hoped that all of them working together could fix things at Lynwood.
It was on the last day’s march to the school that the trouble started. After breakfast, the company wound through a steep ravine with sides of jagged black stone, and when they emerged out the other side, Suhel’s eyes widened. V’s were carved into every tree trunk in sight. Even some of the rocks scattered about the area bore Vakhtang’s mark.
Isengrim let out a short breath. “I thought I was taking us around his territory,” he muttered. “All right,” he said, gesturing with a paw. “Let’s head east for a bit. We’re not far from Lynwood now, so it should be easy to circle around.”
It wasn’t. They travelled east for the better part of an hour, and still V’s stared out at them from the forest like a forbidding wall.
“Oh, bother Vakhtang,” one of the other Werelupes said. “If we’re that close, we should just cut through.”
Isengrim studied a fresh-looking mark on one of the trees, then looked up at her and nodded. “Aye, I’m not willing to waste any more time with this. We’ve avoided his territory as much as we could, but we have got to get to Lynwood, and soon.” He drew his sword, and the others unsheathed their weapons.
“Milord,” Suhel whispered. It was difficult to speak out loud now without starting to cough. Thankfully, whispers were easily audible to Werelupe ears. “You’re in no condition to fight.”
He looked over his shoulder at her. “Neither are you, and that is what I aim to fix.”
“No worries, Suhel,” one of her packmates. “We’ll keep Lord Isengrim safe. He’ll never even have to raise his sword.” The Werelupe grinned as he brandished his bone club.
Isengrim laughed. “Oh, so you are hoarding all of the fun for yourself?” He looked back ahead to the depths of the forest, and his smile faded. “Let’s go. Lynwood awaits.”
A brisk, cold breeze buffeted them as they went, sending the towering pines above them into a flurry of whispers like the roar of the sea. The wind carried the scents of other Werelupes, some old and some far off, all smelling scared and unhappy. Isengrim did his best to keep his party downwind, but of course Suhel wondered if someone was downwind of them. They met no one as the day wore on, but all around them, V’s were still roughly gashed into trees and rocks.
No one dared to speak now, and the sounds of the forest droned in Suhel’s ears for hours and hours until she felt ready to fall asleep. Her body begged for rest as it was, but she knew if she fell asleep now she would fall off of Gwyneth and take Lexora with her. The Kougra’s eyes were closed and she leaned against Suhel, shaking in the cold. The two friends’ paws were clasped tightly, trying desperately to lend each other strength that neither of them could quite afford to give away.
“Suhel,” Isengrim suddenly said from ahead, “does any of this look familiar to you?”
His second-in-command perked up a bit, her ears swiveling toward him. “What?” she asked. The trees had thinned, and the Werelupes now stood at the edge of what seemed like a wide, flat, dry bed of a stream. Plants grew in the dark dirt that twisted around a bend and out of sight.
She looked around and frowned. “No… I don’t think so. Is it supposed to?”
“It’s the road to Lynwood,” Lexora whispered. “Isn’t it?”
“Oh,” Suhel said. “Well, I’ve only been down it once, so you can’t fault me for forgetting it.” Indeed, it hardly looked like a road now, after years of disuse.
Isengrim nodded. “We’re very close now.” He took a deep breath. “And then we can get to figuring out your cur—“ His fur bristled and a growl rose in his throat. “To the other side of the road,” he said, “and quick.”
Suhel smelled it, too. Werelupe—lots and lots of Werelupe. Thank goodness their party was downwind.
The Werelupe King loped across the abandoned thoroughfare and the others followed, and he held his sword in front of him as they carefully edged closer to the school. Finally, the trees petered out again and Suhel found herself staring across a wide lawn that she did vaguely remember this time. The rest of the sight, though, made her stomach drop.
Lynwood itself was very much like how Suhel remembered it, a drab block of an educational institution with no thought given to aesthetics or individuality. Just like how its teachers tried to mold their pupils into lifeless copies of each other to join the great dull mass of society, she thought. The building had stood the test of time quite well, as it was intact, albeit with the windows boarded, missing shingles, and vines crawling up the stone walls. Again, though, things decayed slower in the Haunted Woods.
But now the place was crawling with Werelupes. Several pairs patrolled the lawn, which was dotted with firepits and stacks of probably stolen goods. The boards on many of the windows had been broken, and there was no lock on the large front doors—but each of them sported a large V etched with claws.
“Bites and curses,” Isengrim hissed. “Of course Vakhtang would need a home base. And of course it would have to be Lynwood.”
“This does complicate things a bit,” Pharazon said. He shot a worried look back at his owner, who put a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sending a Weewoo to Sophie right now,” Terra said, reaching for Gwyneth’s saddlebag. “This is worse than we thought.”
“Yes, let’s get out of here,” Pharazon said.
Lexora sat up. “But—the curse,” she choked, holding her arm to her muzzle to suppress a cough.
Everyone looked at each other for a long moment, all realising the same thing. “But we can’t fight,” Suhel said. “We’re far outnumbered, and Lord Isengrim and I are useless in battle right now.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m useless,” Isengrim sniffed.
“What about our young magus’s new toy?” one of the other Werelupes asked. “Surely he could try some fancy tricks with that.”
Pharazon shook his head. “I really shouldn’t. I have no idea how to use this thing, and this would be a really bad time to mess up.”
Suddenly, Isengrim put a finger to his lips and shooed them a little further into the trees. A few moments later, two Werelupes on patrol came into view, strolling down the perimeter of the lawn. They wore iron jewelry like Vakhtang’s, fashioned with no care for skill or design—rather it was just more of the crude twisted shapes that spoke solely of power and control, the only things Vakhtang appeared to care about.
“That cursed king of ours works us to the marrow, he does,” one of them was saying.
The other swung his mace lazily. “Don’t let him catch you saying that,” he said. “You know what the punishment for that kind of talk is.”
“I’m just tired, is all,” the female said. “He’s got us going on raids nearly every day now. And another one tonight? Ach, I’ve barely rested up from the last one and now I’ve got to leave again in a couple of hours! Getting loot is all well and good, but where’s the time to enjoy it, eh?”
“I don’t think King Vakhtang cares so much about that,” her companion said. He glanced over at the stacks of plundered goods on the lawn. “And even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t let us enjoy it. But did you hear what happened to the last bloke who tried running away? I hear he’s still in the basement.”
The two stopped, and for a moment Suhel’s breath caught in her throat as she worried that they had heard their eavesdroppers. The other Werelupes scanned the forest and lifted their noses, but they were upwind of Isengrim’s company, who were currently crouched in the undergrowth. Finally Vakhtang’s Werelupes relaxed and turned to regard their base of operations.
“And Barrowmere again?” the female grumbled, folding her arms. “A team was there just last fortnight!”
“Haven’t you heard?” the male asked. “Vakhtang’s stepping up the raids. We’re to start stealing from residences as well as businesses now, and to go deeper into towns. He wants everything. Every shop, every home—we’re to take all their valuables and resources. Anyone who resists… well, it won’t be pretty for them.”
Lexora stiffened. Her ears swiveled back and she bared her fangs, her whiskers bristling. “Those beasts aren’t touching my family,” she snarled, putting a hand on the knife Suhel had given her.
“We won’t have time to send a Weewoo,” Pharazon whispered. “By the time Sophie gets it and manages to tell all the towns… it’ll be too late.”
Connor put a paw to his mouth. “But… me parents… faeries preserve us, this is awful…”
Isengrim’s eyes darted from his companions to Lynwood, his brow furrowed in deep thought. Suhel and her packmates watched him intently. What could they do? As much as Suhel hated to admit it, a knot of despair was forming in her stomach, making her feel even sicker.
Finally, the king smiled fiercely. Suhel knew that look. He had a plan.
He caught the eyes of their other packmates, and pointed with two fingers to the patrolling Werelupes. The others sheathed their weapons and sneaked through the trees with expert silence.
Vakhtang’s patrollers were so busy complaining that they did not notice when several pairs of paws reached out and dragged them into the forest. Paws clamped over the Werelupes’ muzzles kept them from crying out as Isengrim’s Werelupes brought the pair to him.
Isengrim drew himself up tall and folded his paws behind his back. “Save your breath,” he said. “We won’t harm you. I just want to talk.”
Their struggling lessened, and they now began to look more confused and curious than hostile. They glanced around at the strange party, and Terra waved at them. Connor clung close to Gwyneth, obviously not interested in having anything to do with anyone associated with Vahktang.
Isengrim turned to the side, looking at the two other Werelupes out of the corner of his eye. “I hear you don’t like Vakhtang,” he said.
The pair looked at each other, and the male shot the female a “why-did-you-open-your-fat-mouth” sort of glare.
“I am not fond of his style of leadership, myself,” Isengrim said. “But he is not the only one to claim the title of Werelupe King, and there are others who rule with more fairness, benevolence, and honour.” He paused and smirked. “Well, there’s just me. But you get the idea.”
His “guests” looked around at the other Werelupes, who nodded. Terra and Pharazon wore encouraging smiles, and Connor—well, he at least didn’t protest, although the boy still looked overwhelmed by everything going on.
“Release them,” Isengrim said to his thanes. “I would like to hear what they have to say. I believe my proposition interests them.”
Cautiously, the two were let go, although the other Werelupes kept their paws on their weapons just in case. Still, the patrollers did not attempt to attack or flee, but looked up at Isengrim, studying him. “Why are you here?” the female asked.
“To free you from Vakhtang’s rule,” Isengrim said. “This madness has gone on for long enough. He has upset the balance of the Haunted Woods and enslaved his Werelupe brothers and sisters, and I cannot tolerate that. I am here to grant you freedom—and a better life, if you should so desire it.”
“We’re listening,” the male said.
“How many of you follow him willingly?” Isengrim asked.
“Not many,” the male said. “Mostly just the blokes at the top—they think they’ll get a cut of Vakhtang’s glory, but he’s probably just using them the way he does us.”
Isengrim nodded. “Probably. Will you help us get to him? From what I’ve seen, you have no reason to fear him. He is powerless against all of us working together.”
The pair’s eyes lit up. “Why—you’re right,” the female said. “I don’t know why we never realised that before.”
“You are probably not used to working together,” Isengrim said. “Vakhtang has united you and made you more effective than you would be on your own, but for selfish reasons. You can turn his strength against him.”
He looked at Gwyneth and her riders. “You and Connor stay here,” Isengrim said. “This situation is far too dangerous, and you’re in no condition to fight.”
Terra raised her sword. “I can still fight,” she said. “And I’d feel a lot safer coming with you than waiting around in the Haunted Woods.”
“Me too,” Pharazon said.
“Same,” Suhel said. She coughed a bit, then added, “And please, milord, you should know by now not to underestimate me. I can be quite dangerous even when I’m ill.”
Isengrim smiled. “This is true. All right, but stay close to me.”
“Not a problem,” Pharazon said. “Besides, I may not be a fighter myself, but Gwyneth is pretty much her own war machine.”
The Werelupe King nodded, then turned to their youngest party member. “Connor, I am not forcing you to come with us,” he said. “If you would be more comfortable waiting here—“
The boy-Werelupe stiffened and scampered closer to the king. “There’s no way I’m stayin’ in these woods by meself!” he yelped. Frowning, he squared his shoulders and the fear on his face was replaced with determination. “I mean—I’d honestly feel safer comin’ with you, sir. Even if it means followin’ you into Vakhtang’s headquarters…” He looked up at Isengrim and smiled a bit. “I know you’ll look out for me.”
“That I will,” Isengrim said, putting a paw on the boy’s head. “Of course, I do not expect you to do any fighting… but please remember you are not defenceless.” He pointed to the young Werelupe’s paws and mouth.
Connor inspected his claws. “Right…” He sighed and looked to Lynwood. “Okay, let’s go.”
“You heard him,” Isengrim said to the others with a grin. “Move out!” The group began to trudge through the undergrowth.
“I’ll help, too,” Lexora wheezed, limp against Suhel’s chest. The Kougra drew her knife, her tail lashing weakly. “I’ve got to—protect my family.”
Suhel shook her head. “You just rest,” she said. “We’ll have that curse off of you soon.”
“Bother the curse,” Lexora growled. “I’m aiming to give Vakhtang a piece of my mind.”
Isengrim looked over at the two Werelupe patrollers, who were simply watching dumbfounded. “Well?” he asked. “Aren’t you coming? We could use your help.”
“Oh—yes, sir,” the male said with a bit of a whimper. “I’m sorry, sir.” He and the female fell in beside the others.
Isengrim put an arm around the male’s shoulders. “Don’t follow my commands because you fear me,” the king said. “Do it for the good of your packmates. We’re all friends here.”
“I… suppose I never thought of it that way,” the female muttered as they broke out of the trees and started across the lawn. “I never thought of us as a pack, at least. It’s always been every Werelupe for themselves here in these Woods. The only thing keeping us together has been fear of Vakhtang’s punishments.”
“You should give friendship a try,” Terra said. “Like Isengrim said, you’re much stronger together than you are apart. I mean, you guys have raided towns in groups, and you’d never attempt that by yourselves, would you? But it’s even better when you’re truly united, because you actually care about each other.”
The two Werelupes looked at her for a moment. “You keep company with an owner?” the male asked Isengrim.
The king smiled. “It is a long story. But she is my owner, and she and the Draik are a valued part of my pack. And the Kougra is an old friend of my second’s.”
By now the other Werelupes on the lawn had noticed the newcomers, and approached the group warily, paws on their weapons.
“Hail!” Isengrim said, raising a paw in greeting. “I am here to stage a revolution! I am sure you won’t mind.”
Suhel rolled her eyes with a smirk. He certainly had his own way of doing things, but that was part of why she admired him so much.
The other patrollers stared at him in confusion, but the pair Isengrim’s Werelupes had snagged moved to the front of the group. “He’s here to get rid of King Vakhtang!” the female said.
Isengrim raised his sword. “Join me!” he barked. “Fight by my side, fight for your freedom! Together, we cannot fail!”
His packmates replied by hoisting their own weapons in the air with a shout, and even Suhel, one arm still wrapped around Lexora, managed to lift her blade and join the rallying cry.
The other Werelupes’ eyes lit up. Suhel wondered if they felt the same swelling in their hearts that she did every time Isengrim summoned his pack forth to battle. Then their tails raised and they clustered close to the group, pointing their weapons toward the doors of Lynwood.
“I’m tired of listening to that overgrown Gremble!” one of them snarled.
“I bet we can take him!” another barked.
“Where is he?” Isengrim asked as they moved toward the entrance to the school.
The male from before pointed his mace upward. “He lives in the nice rooms on the third floor.”
“The headmistress’s quarters,” Lexora said, narrowing her eyes. “Up the big flight of stairs, in the southwest corner.”
At the base of the steps, Isengrim turned and halted their march. “Remember,” he said, his crimson eyes boring into the other Werelupes’, “these are your brothers and sisters in there, and they are probably every bit as tired of Vakhtang’s rule as you are, but some of them may still feel the need to fight for him. Be merciful, and do your best to convince them to join us. We are only to subdue any hostile forces, and I want Vakhtang alive. Are we understood?”
Barks of agreement rose up from the other warriors, and Isengrim smiled. Doing his best to hide his limp, he mounted the steps, put his paws on the doors, and shoved them open.
To be continued…