The Fallen: Faint-Hearted - Part Five
This time, Wehn did not stick around, and Lure was under no illusion that he would have. Though the prickling loneliness returned habitually through the rest of the week, Lure did not bother to glance toward the treeline at any point in time, searching for an emerging shadow that would never come. He was fully aware that he’d let Wehn down in more way than one, and the shame he felt wouldn’t let him forget it. It was more than just being a disappointment to himself now.
Though he wanted to be angry that the Gelert had forced him to feel so guilty, and then had removed himself from his presence so that Lure could not apologize or explain, Lure couldn’t help but to worry about Wehn. He couldn’t seem to stop picturing that exhausted, lifeless Gelert that had returned to his campsite before.
What was Countess Mezzanotte doing now? Surely she wouldn’t need to manipulate Wehn now that he was not going to return to the pack. Though he didn’t bother searching the forest for Wehn, Lure did spare occasional, worried glances toward the tops of Mezzanotte’s castle towers that loomed over the treetops in the distance, half-expecting to see some kind of disturbance, but everything remained still.
The lack of action was worse. The more quiet and settled things appeared, the more restless Lure became. A week of Wehn’s absence was more profound than if the Gelert had remained in the woods with him. Wehn’s last words continued to haunt him now that there were no new ones to fill the gaps. His guilt increased, and he began to worry more about the pack than he’d allowed himself to before.
What had he set them up for? And how could he just sit here, hiding like the coward he was, while he knew full well what Mezzanotte intended? His conscience urged him to return to the pack, to warn Javiod, but his own embarrassed and bruised ego kept him rooted in the woods, left only to wonder what was happening with his pack.
He wasn’t sure if it was mercy or punishment when he received his answer thirteen days—he couldn’t quite keep from counting—after Wehn had left the woods.
“Lure? Lure? I know you’re in there, Lure! I can smell you!” a melodious voice seemed to ring like chimes down his cave.
Tucked in the very back of the cave, moping on top of the leaf mound that had before become Wehn’s unofficial bed, Lure gave a start. It had felt like so long since he’d heard another voice that the sudden materialization of one was startling. Especially a feminine one. Before Lure could even register who it was, he was grieved that it wasn’t the same quality as Wehn’s, and therefore wasn’t the Gelert returning to him.
“Lure! Come out!”
Lure winced, the shouted command echoing off the walls and vibrating painfully in his newly sound-sensitive ears. Who had found him? Reluctantly, he pushed to his paws, stirring the leaves beneath him, and padded quietly toward the front of the cave.
The farther he walked, the more he began to make out the sight of the Werelupe just outside. Brown fur like her father’s, and a single white paw rumoring the snow-colored fur of her mother. She stood with a certain rigid posture, her chin inclined several degrees, her green eyes slanted and piercing. Lure easily recognized Jima, Javiod’s only daughter.
He didn’t feel a pleasant surge at the recognition, the kind one usually feels when they’re reunited with an old friend. Instead, Lure only felt the urge to hide his face in the mound of leaves behind him.
He stopped just short of the cave opening. “Why’d you come?”
Jima pursed her lips, as if she’d expected a more pleasant greeting for having just found him. Or maybe it was just that she was used to pleasant treatment, being the king’s daughter and all.
“Javiod told us all not to go looking for you,” she began indignantly, as if he’d somehow insulted her father, “that you’d come back when you were ready, but I knew we couldn’t wait much longer.”
Lure was reluctant to feel gratitude for the king having given him his space, especially since he didn’t feel that he deserved such polite treatment. Ashamed, he couldn’t quite meet her eyes.
“How’d you find me?”
“You’re a spotted Werelupe. Didn’t you think someone would notice you?”
Lure winced at her biting sarcasm. “I wasn’t thinking.”
Jima snorted. “Obviously. You’ve made that rather apparent, my friend.”
Lure scowled at her. She’d always been a bit pompous and demanding, but Jima had never been outright rude to him. There was a kindness to her that could melt anyone, but like any child of royalty, she had a regal streak that could make her seem overbearing. Like she was his mother or something.
“Why’d you come?” he repeated irritably.
There was still a part of him that was annoyed with her simply for not being Hallowehn Nuctroff. It was perhaps a side that was even more agitated than the one that knew that Jima had come for only one thing: to get him to return.
Her chin tilted into an even sharper angle. He wondered if she often got a crick in her neck.
“You have to come back, Lure. I don’t know what you meant by running off like you did, but you have to come back.”
Lure didn’t notice that his own chin went up. “It’s not that easy, Jima.”
“You’re just being a baby,” she snapped, surprising him. “Of course, it’s not easy. It’s not meant to be, or anyone could be king, but you’re the one that was chosen, and you can’t do anything about it.”
Didn’t she think he knew that? If he could have done something about it, he would have passed off the necklace long ago.
“It should have picked someone else. Someone better suited,” he grumbled, though he didn’t mean to add, “Like your brother. He seems to think the same.”
Jima’s brows lifted, and Lure wished he could take it back. “Ifram? Did you run away because of Ifram? You really are ridiculous, you know that?”
He didn’t expect anyone to sugarcoat his defects, but having Jima throw them in his face wasn’t exactly what he wanted either.
“You wouldn’t understand,” he growled, “but you can’t tell me you don’t think that Ifram would be a better king.”
“I don’t,” she answered flatly.
He glanced at her in surprise. There was nothing uncertain about the way she said it, or how fast and easy the answer came to her. She caught his questioning look but only shrugged indifferently.
“He wouldn’t. In fact, I think Ifram might just make the worst king ever, and, just so you know, my dad thinks the same,” she stated, matter-of-factly.
Lure gave her a disbelieving look. “Why?”
Jima gave a little sigh as if this should be obvious. “Ifram isn’t like my dad. He’s not kind or respectful. He’s rash and arrogant. He doesn’t have your heart, Lure. I remember, a few years ago, I overheard my dad talking to my mom, and he told her that Ifram was a lot like his brother.”
“Yes,” Jima answered, her brows drawing slightly together. “I’ve never met my uncle, but, from what I’ve heard dad say, Ifram does sound a lot like him.”
Alston was, perhaps, the worst king in the history of Neopia, and that had always seemed so bizarre to Lure, since his brother was Javiod, who was already a legend among the Werelupes. From the stories he had heard, Alston’s reign as king had been short lived and nearly catastrophic. The fact that Javiod compared Ifram to his brother was slightly comforting to Lure, slightly gratifying even, but still not enough.
“Still... there’s someone better.”
Jima growled at him. “Look, it picked you, and though you are certainly giving me plenty of reason to doubt its judgement, you’re it. You’re the one, as they say. That means you have to come back, and you have to take my dad’s place.”
Jima spoke over him, raising her voice, “Stop being a coward!”
Lure flinched, as if she’d slapped him, and thought he heard the echoing, resonating voice of Wehn speaking with Jima. Lure stared at his paws.
Coward. He was a coward. He’d failed his pack, himself, and Wehn. He was a disappointment to everyone, even to Jima, who had seemed like one of his only friends in his pack, the only one that had ever truly been kind to him.
Lure looked up, startled, when he heard a sniffling sound, and was confused to see tears in Jima’s eyes.
“He’s sick, Lure!” she gushed. “My father’s sick. No one knows what’s wrong with him. He became very ill a few nights ago, and they can’t figure it out. He’s too weak to uphold his duties as king. He... He can’t even get out of bed.”
Those glistening tears pooled and leaked over, spilling down into Jima’s thick fur, and Lure felt at a complete loss as to what to do. He didn’t know how to handle tears. Stuttering nonsense, he fumbled to her side and patted her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Jima. I didn’t know. I...”
He what? What could he say? Nothing, but he had a feeling it was more as to what he could do, anyway. It wasn’t words she was looking for, but action. That’s what she was like: a Lupe of action. Even know, spilling tears, she had a stubborn set to her chin.
“I saw someone in the Woods that night, Lure. No one believes me, but I did. Someone snuck in and tampered with my father’s food. We had a feast that night, and no one would have seen,” she told him, and she spoke very calmly, very self-assured, even through her tears.
“Who would have done that?” A knot curled into his stomach.
“Who else, Lure? Mezzanotte. One of her zombie henchmen. I could smell them, the rot and decay. She’s trying to get my dad out of the way, and if he’s sick, he can’t stay king, because we need an active leader.” Jima’s face darkened. “It’s part of her agreement. No one trusts the Werelupes unless they have someone to lead them and keep them in order.”
Of course. Lure closed his eyes for a moment and took several deep, steadying breaths. Wehn had warned him. After all this time, his aunt was at the point of action. With him out of the way, it was only Javiod left as an obstacle, and he was old, easy to dispatch.
Lure’s paw shook slightly, so he clenched it into a fist. “What are they going to do?”
Jima’s eyes looked very dry now, as if she’d not shed a tear. “Word has already spread that our king has fallen ill. Mezzanotte will surely be to our caves soon to see if there’s someone else to rule in his stead. When she finds that there’s not, she’ll become our leader again by default. The Haunted Woods will become all hers again.”
Lure gritted his teeth. He’d expected to have time, time to decide, time to hide from the things he was afraid of facing. He’d thought that Javiod would surely remain king for some time longer, as he had never truly seemed that old. But Mezzanotte, of course, wouldn’t be keen to wait that long.
Again, he knew that Wehn had warned him, betrayed his own family so that Lure could do the right thing, and he’d refused. Lure couldn’t blame him for calling him a coward. Only a coward would betray their friend who’d risked so much to help them. Only a coward would leave his friends and family behind, and allow all the things that Javiod had worked for—peace and equality for the Werelupes who had always been outcasts in society—to be destroyed, because, like Wehn had known, Mezzanotte would surely find good use of Werelupe minions who were so imposing in every manner. They’d be reverted back to what they’d been before.
And that was worse than being a coward, because they’d become unaccepted again. They’d be feared and hated. They’d be outcasts and monsters.
“No, she won’t.” Lure was surprised that his own voice was so strong and clear. “She won’t, because there will be a king when she gets there. I’ll be there.”
Jima looked as stunned as he felt. He could hardly believe that he’d such an assertion himself. Was he really going to do this? To accept it? Lure felt the weight of the moon charm around his throat. Had he ever had another choice?
Lure nodded. “Yes.”
He glanced over her head, seeing, again, the towers of Mezzanotte’s castle. Though they were still serenely devoid of movement, looking harmless in the distance, Lure felt that he had been misinterpreting this serenity all along.
“We should go and hurry. Mezza will probably want to get Javiod out of the way as quickly as possible,” Lure decided.
He turned to leave. No pausing now. He couldn’t afford to chance that he’d change his mind.
He chanced a glance over his shoulder, but continued to walk on. Jima was still standing motionlessly behind, looking a little dazed.
“You...” She made a face as if she didn’t quite know how to put what she wanted to say into words. “You didn’t even faint when I told you all that.”
Lure shrugged, though it hadn’t gone unnoticed by him either. “I had some help from a friend over the last couple of weeks. Now, stop standing around, Jima. We’ve got to hurry!”
To be continued...