For an easier life Circulation: 194,489,154 Issue: 769 | 17th day of Awakening, Y19
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Return to Lynwood: Part One

by cosmicfire918


      The Haunted Woods has two seasons. They are autumn and slightly-warmer-autumn.

      It was at the end of slightly-warmer-autumn, when the leaves on the trees put on their grand display of yellows, reds, and oranges before curling into brittle brown, that the Werelupe King ventured back to his old home for the first time in years.

      The massive dark Werelupe, bedecked in bone-and-fang regalia, crunched through dead leaves on the forest floor, one large forepaw paw on the hilt of the sword across his back. His ears were high and his crimson eyes darted about, looking for signs of danger as he smelled the scents carried in the cold, wet wind.

      After a moment surveying the space in front of him, he let out a sigh. “All clear,” he called behind him.

      Out from beyond the thick trunks of ancient trees came his entourage. Eight were Werelupes like himself, fitted with armour and various weapons, but then—

      “Gwyneth, slow down!

      With a cheerful whuffling, an enormous Ganuthor barreled out into the open. Sitting astride her were a faerie Draik and a young human woman, holding on for dear life as the Petpet cavorted about the woods.

      “Gwyneth!” the Draik shouted again, tapping the top of the Ganuthor’s grey head. “Halt, girl! We’re supposed to be careful in the Haunted Woods!” He groaned, running a hand down his snout. “Sorry, Isengrim. Now every ghost and ghoul in the Woods probably knows we’re here.”

      The Werelupe King laughed. “Never fear, brother. We were not trying too hard to be quiet anyway.” His eyes glinted with a fierce light as he patted the pommel of his sword. “We do not exactly give the impression of vulnerability. I should like to see anything in these woods attempt to attack us.”

      Isengrim was in high spirits. Romping around his old stomping grounds with a few of his packmates, his owner, and his adopted brother had put him in quite a good mood, and he was not about to let any Haunted Woods spook ruin it.

      “Aye, don’t forget, we lived here for years and years,” said a Werelupe beside him, a female with a long mane of curly black hair. She had woven fangs into it, and they clattered as she sauntered about the clearing. “Far longer than we’ve been living in Meridell. If anyone knows how to deal with the Haunted Woods, it’s us.” She leaned a paw against the trunk of a pine. “Shall we take lunch here, then, milord?”

      Isengrim nodded. “Aye, this looks like a suitable spot.” Moving to the Ganuthor, he reached out to her human rider, pale-skinned with blue-grey eyes hidden behind spectacles and long chestnut hair tied back in a messy braid. Although a sword was strapped to the woman’s belt, she wore no armour, just a travelling cloak over a shirt and pants, and a pair of sturdy bracers. Around one of the bracers hung a bracelet of fangs, a mark of her membership in Isengrim’s pack. “Terra, shall we break out the food?” he asked her.

      “Yes, let’s,” Terra said, allowing him to pick her up and set her on the ground. He patted her on the head and then they began rummaging through one of Gwyneth’s saddlebags. Of course Terra was a grown owner, but Isengrim could not help but dote on her. She had saved him from himself, showed him the utmost kindness and patience when he was at his worst, and inspired him to have the strength to change, and for that he owed her the world.

      But he had yet to figure out a way to obtain the world for her, so for now he would make do with being the best Neopet he could be for her.

      “Thanks for meeting us near Neovia,” the Draik said, fluttering off of Gwyneth to stand next to Terra and Isengrim, who passed him paper-wrapped packages that the little Neopet handed off to the other Werelupes. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble.”

      He, too, wore fangs, in a necklace that draped over his chest. Beneath it, a glint of gold caught the pale daylight—a Lupe Moon Charm. ArPharazonTheGolden was one of Terra’s other Neopets and also a member of Isengrim’s pack. It was not an honour Isengrim extended lightly, but both owner and Neopet had more than earned it.

      “None at all,” Isengrim said as he unwrapped his roast beef sandwich. The spicy, savoury aroma tingled at his nose and made his mouth water. “I have plenty of contacts available for transportation.” He snapped up a bite of bread and meat in his jaws.

      “Mostly sky pirates, I’m guessing,” Terra said, nibbling at her veggie burger.

      Through a mouthful of sandwich, Isengrim gave her a roguish grin. “They prefer the term ‘aerial privateers’.”

      “Suhel, guess what!” Pharazon said as he handed the black-haired female Werelupe a hunk of cheese. “I’ve started studying water spells! They’re coming along a lot easier than the earth element, although not as much as air or fire.”

      Suhel offered him a strained smile and cleared her throat. “Good for you—where are your brother and sister? They were invited, too. That Grundo’s quite handy with a sword, I’ll give him that.” She spoke in a brisk, rolling brogue quite different from Terra’s and Pharazon’s Neopia Central accent, or even that of Isengrim whose manner of speech sounded more like antiquated Meridellian.

      “Well, Blynn wanted to visit Neovia,” Pharazon said. “Believe it or not, she’s pretty friendly with Sophie’s family.”

      Suhel chuckled. “You told me about the time she was mayor of Neovia for three days.” She winced suddenly and coughed a little, putting a paw to her chest. Everyone looked over at her in concern, but she tossed her head at them and went back to eating.

      Pharazon grinned. “I had fun with that paperwork while it lasted. Anyway, Hyren went with her as damage control.”

      “He’s always damage control,” Terra said with a smile.

      “Aye, and he’s good at it, too,” Isengrim said. He and the Grundo had a peculiar history that could be better described as a rivalry. Or a mortal-enemy-hood. But bygones were bygones, and Isengrim considered Hyren a brother and one of the most valuable allies the Werelupe King had.

      Terra glanced around at their peculiar little party. “Where’s Celice, anyhow?” she asked. “An expedition like this is right up her alley.”

      “My diplomat-conjurer couldn’t make it,” Isengrim said. “She wrote to tell me that she’s finishing writing a paper at Brightvale University.” He never could understand how some Neopets could sit among musty tomes, fussing over data and sources for weeks on end, when there was a whole wide world out there to see with one’s own eyes and smell with one’s own nose.

      But Lady Anfel had done immeasurable good for the Werelupe Woods, helping them keep peace with the surrounding kingdoms of the Meridell region, so Isengrim felt the sorceress knew what she was doing. “She assures me that Pharazon will be able to assist with this task just as well as she could, if not better,” he said.

      “She’s also been spending a lot of time in Market Town lately,” Pharazon said, tossing a crust of bread to Gwyneth who devoured it in one bite. “Helping out Lord Kass.”

      “Oh, right, the Black Keep incident,” Isengrim said. It was still hard to believe that earlier that year, Pharazon and Celice, along with a reformed Lord Kass and a grumpy but well-intentioned Jhudora, had averted a potential magical catastrophe at the old fortress of the Darkest Knight.

      “How is he getting along?” the Werelupe King asked. Kass had a redemption story almost as interesting as Isengrim’s own—suffice to say the Darigan Eyrie was no longer under the Three’s influence, thanks to the little Faerie Draik who stood before Isengrim now, biting into an apple.

      “Quite well,” Pharazon said. “After Darigan pardoned him, they and Celice immediately set to work convincing King Hagan to let Kass occupy Black Keep. He’s been cleaning it up and restoring the buildings and grounds all summer, and it looks a lot better now than when I first laid eyes on it.”

      Terra drew an apple from her own lunch sack. “I mean, it still looks like this ominous, Darigan-influenced, darkly-elegant tower of a castle. But in a liveable way now, instead of a decrepit ruin.”

      “Sounds quite stylish indeed,” Isengrim said. “I shall have to pay him a visit one of these days and meet him in the flesh. I have heard good things about him.”

      “He reminds me a lot of you in some respects,” Pharazon said. “I think you’d get along.”

      Isengrim smiled. Pharazon had come so far from the sniveling coward who had first been carried to the Burrows with his owner several years ago. In such a short time, Pharazon had gone through so much: betrayal, mortal danger, a race against time, and some of the wickedest magic Isengrim had ever heard of. Granted, most Werelupes tried to stay away from magic if at all possible, but the things Pharazon had gone up against just reinforced why it was not a power to be trifled with. That was why it both impressed and slightly unnerved the Werelupe King that Pharazon had begun to take up magic himself.

      “Hey, maybe we can go to Market Town after we’re done in the Haunted Woods!” Terra said.

      She opened her mouth to add something else, but the wind shifted and Isengrim picked up a new scent that made his mental processes stop in their tracks. Kindly but swiftly, he placed a paw on her shoulder to ask her to hold that thought so he could concentrate. She got the hint and fell silent, watching as he lifted his snout and turned his head to catch more of the scent and the direction in which it was coming.

      Around him, his thanes did the same, and Gwyneth, whose nose was nearly as sensitive, joined in with a soft whuffling. The smell was faint, but unmistakeable, and the notes it carried with it wrenched at Isengrim’s gut.

      “What is it?” Terra whispered.

      “Werelupe,” Suhel said.

      “Can you discern their intentions?” Terra asked. Her hand moved to the sword at her side, and Pharazon shuffled closer to her.

      Isengrim frowned. “Fear. He is afraid.” When one stopped to think about it, it was really amazing just how much information a scent carried. One sniff could tell a Werelupe the identity of a creature, its gender, and even a good deal about any emotions it was experiencing. Auxiliary scents, such as perfume or clothing or things the subject had touched recently, were excellent clues to draw out even more information.

      So this was definitely a male Werelupe, but he was too far away for much else to carry except the overwhelming smell of fear and sadness, and this worried Isengrim. One of his brethren was in trouble.

      He stuffed empty papers back in his lunch sack and deposited it in one of Gwyneth’s saddlebags. “Let’s go,” he barked. “Time is short in the Haunted Woods!”

      “Yes, milord!” Suhel said. She and the other Werelupes mobilised, similarly taking care of the remnants of their lunches and checking the straps on their weapons and armour.

      Terra and Pharazon scrambled onto Gwyneth’s back, and as soon as Isengrim gave the signal, they took off through the Woods, following the scent. He kept them going at a quick pace as they stalked through the undergrowth on all fours, but short of an outright run—startling a Werelupe was never a good idea, and Isengrim did not want this to seem like they were on a hunt.

      “Milord,” Suhel said as she stalked by his side, “what else do you smell?”

      “Nothing,” Isengrim said. A glance over at her told him that she was thinking the same thing. If this Werelupe was in danger, what was endangering him? Besides the usual background scents of the Woods, nothing jumped out at Isengrim as being the source of this new Werelupe’s fear.

      “Might it be a trap?” a packmate asked from behind them.

      Isengrim had them slow their pace as the smell intensified, which meant they were drawing nearer. “I pity whoever tries to trap a Werelupe,” he muttered. Then the thought came to him that this new Werelupe might be caught in a trap, and the surge of worry made him bite his tongue to keep from dashing recklessly to the rescue. Instead, he turned to Gwyneth, who had been loping close behind him. “What does our newest conjurer discern?” he asked her owner. “Have you any sense of malevolence about this place?”

      Pharazon closed his eyes and held out his hands, which glowed with a cyan aura. “Nothing outside the usual for the Haunted Woods,” he said. Suddenly he wrinkled his snout and stuck out his tongue. “I mean… well, something was wrong here earlier. But now it’s not—“

      Isengrim drew a breath and his hackles rose. “He could be hurt. Come, we’ve not a moment to lose!” Drawing his sword just in case, he took point again as they stood on their hind paws and crept forward.

      Soon, the sound of quiet, unsteady breathing made Isengrim’s ears perk. With one paw he motioned to keep moving as his mind raced. The breathing did not sound pained, so that was a good sign. But it was still off, interrupted by small whimpering sounds that Isengrim did not quite—no, that was sobbing, he realised.

      It took a lot to make a Werelupe cry, and now Isengrim was as curious as he was determined to help. He looked back at his pack to see them silently wondering about the same thing. Terra and Pharazon, with their mere human and Draik hearing, were in the aural dark and they gave him questioning looks. He smiled reassuringly before pushing through a break in the bushes.

      On the other side was a spot where a tremendous conifer had once stood, its trunk large enough around to fit Gwyneth with some squeezing, and its roots stretching past other trees like a mess of ropes. When it was still alive, it surely would have towered over the rest of the nearby canopy.

      But sometime long ago, some natural process such as lightning or rot had felled this mighty giant, leaving just the bottom few metres of trunk attached to the root system. Covered in moss and lichen, the splintered wood stretched futilely toward the sky like the jagged crown of a forgotten forest titan.

      And the crying came from inside.

      Isengrim led the pack as they edged around the trunk. Soon an opening came into view, revealing that time and the elements had hollowed the wreck of wood.

      “Are you all right?” he called. “What’s wrong? What happened to you?”

      No reply. He moved closer to the shadowed opening.

      “Careful,” Suhel muttered from over his shoulder. “There are plenty of ghouls who emulate a Neopet in distress to lure in their victims.”

      Isengrim nodded. “And this fae blade can dispel them,” he said, turning the claymore in his hand so the ancient runes etched in the steel caught the grey daylight. The Faerie-forged sword had been a most gracious gift from Hyren, easily the best weapon in Isengrim’s collection. It certainly came in handy in times like these.

      “L-leave me alone!” said a voice so surprisingly young that it made the two Werelupes jump. “Just go away! I told you I’m not one of you!” It spoke in a gentle lilt that sounded rather odd juxtaposed with the characteristic deep throatiness of a Werelupe voice.

      Isengrim’s brow furrowed. “We won’t harm you,” he said. “We’re here to help. You have no reason to fear us—we are Werelupes, like yourself.”

      “I’m not a Werelupe!” the voice growled. “I mean—no, I’m not!” It hiccoughed another sob.

      Isengrim and Suhel glanced at each other. Something was definitely odd here. Well, more odd than usual for the Haunted Woods.

      Terra approached the trunk and stood beside them. “But you smell like a Werelupe,” she said, “or so I’ve been told. Why don’t you come on out so we can help you? If you don’t want to talk to a Werelupe, will you talk to an owner? I’m not half as scary, I promise.”

      “You’re scary when you try to bake cookies,” Pharazon said, hopping off of Gwyneth.

      “Hey now,” Terra said, “that’s debatable. They turn out kinda edible.”

      “I was referring more to the maniacal laughter as you mix the dough,” Pharazon said.

      A brown snout poked out of the shadows, followed by the gleam of two yellow eyes. “Oh… you’re not him.”

      “What’s your name?” Terra asked, the Werelupe King hovering close over her in case of danger. “I’m Terra, and these are my Neopets Pharazon and Isengrim, and Isengrim’s pack.”

      The owner of the snout and eyes stepped into the light. “Connor… Connor O’Keefe.” He was indeed a Werelupe, albeit a small one—while nearly as powerfully built as any of Isengrim’s pack, Connor stood only a little taller than Terra, who was average height for a female owner. Brown-furred and golden-eyed, Connor’s features were young, and he wore a torn shirt, trousers, and suspenders, all of which bulged, too small for his hulking frame. Now that Isengrim was closer he could smell the faint tinge of chemicals surrounding the boy, as well as beans and eggs on his breath, probably from breakfast.

      Connor’s ears and tail hung low and his head ducked as he looked up at the Werelupes who surrounded him, and then to Terra and Pharazon. “They won’t—you won’t let ‘em hurt me, will you?” he asked.

      “I think the question is, do they want to hurt you,” Terra said, casually folding her arms. “And the answer is no.” Meanwhile, Pharazon simply stared at Connor like the Werelupe had a Spyder on his face.

      “Please—just let me go back to school,” Connor said. “I’m not lookin’ for any trouble.”

      “How old are you, pup?” Isengrim asked.

      Connor paused and looked back to the owner and Draik. “I’m—I’m a first-year at Hathaway Academy. Me twelfth birthday’s in two months.”

      Isengrim’s eyes widened, and he and Suhel stared at each other for a moment. Finally the king asked gently, “How long have you been a Werelupe?”

      Connor swallowed hard and his chin trembled. “Since—since this mornin’, sir.”

      A murmur rose up from the other Werelupes, and Isengrim clenched his jaw. “You’re so young,” he breathed. “No one should turn this young… it’s just too much to handle.”

      “I turned when I was eleven, milord,” Suhel said, folding her paws behind her back and looking quite pleased with the feat. “First-year at Lynwood School for Girls. For all of about a week, that is.” She grinned, showing her fangs. However, her moment of pride was cut off by another coughing spell. Her eyes watered as she struggled to catch her breath. “I’m fine,” she breathed to her concerned packmates.

      “I don’t want to be a Werelupe,” Connor said, running a massive forearm over his eyes to wipe away tears. “I’ve been tryin’ to find me way back to school, but… I got lost.”

      Terra stepped toward him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you know how you turned? How long have you been in the Woods?”

      “Living in the wild for a time does things to a normal Lupe,” Isengrim explained. “As you let the wild in, it gives you strength and changes your form.” He tilted his head. “But your clothes look barely worn and you smell too much like civilisation still. Were you cursed?”

      “He was,” Pharazon said. “I can see it on him. Magically, I mean. Who cursed you, Connor?”

      Connor thought a moment. “Well, I can’t think of anybody who hates me enough to curse me—“ He placed a too-large paw over his mouth. “The dityrannium phosphate!” he gasped. His movements were awkward and clumsy, as though he was not used to his new proportions.

      “The what?” Suhel asked.

      “This mornin’—I was in the school’s chemical storeroom, lookin’ for compounds for an experiment I’ve been workin’ on,” Connor said. “I uncorked a bottle of dityrannium phosphate, and it smelled funny – well, funnier than usual – and then there was a weird, well, the best way to describe it is sort of a twitch in everythin’… and then I started changin’ into this.”

      “Sounds like a curse to me,” Pharazon said. “Your school might want to take a closer look at who it buys chemicals from.”

      Connor frowned. “Drat—I was so close to finishin’ that solution, too.”

      “Being cursed into a Werelupe is rare,” Isengrim said, “but it still happens from time to time. I am sorry it happened to one so young.”

      Suhel stuck her snout in the air. “Aye, it should’ve gone to one of those seventh-years who think they own the school.” She winced and coughed again. “Sorry—must’ve choked on something at lunch,” she grumbled.

      “Wait—so why are you out here?” Terra asked.

      Connor drooped. “I—when I saw what I’d become, I tried to get help, but they all screamed and ran away, even the teachers. Then they started throwin’ things at me… I couldn’t do anything but run. I thought maybe I’d be safe in the Woods—“

      Suhel let out a barking laugh. “That’s the last place you’re ever safe, laddie.”

      “I found that out right quick, thank you!” Connor growled. The sound of his own growl seemed to startle him as he put a paw to his throat.

      “Maybe taking you back to your school isn’t such a good idea for now,” Terra said. “Where do you live? I think your parents should know about this.”

      “Barrowmere,” Connor said. When he saw the blank look on her face, he added, “Nearly a day’s carriage ride southeast of Hathaway. Which isn’t too far from here.” He turned aside. “I could visit the pharmacy there too—I’m sure they’d have a cure—“

      Suhel and Isengrim looked at each other again. They had known each other for long enough that they could have an entire conversation without saying anything, through their eyes alone. Suhel’s bright green eyes asked if she should break the bad news to him now. Isengrim’s crimson stare gave her a look like they had better let him down easy and discuss the matter with his parents as well. They would tell his family when they got to Barrowmere.

      Neither of them had been in this situation before. All of the Werelupes they’d ever met were adults, and had been Werelupes for a while. Trying to help a child who’d become a monster against his will just that morning was unfamiliar territory, but Isengrim was determined to see it through as best he could. After all, Connor was a brother now, and Isengrim certainly would not leave him here, alone and afraid.

      Before the boy could say anything more about a cure, Suhel folded her arms and turned back to him with a chuckle. “I should have guessed you were from around Barrowmere—you’ve got a northeastern Woods accent.”

      Connor kicked at the ground with one hind paw, avoiding eye contact. “Aye, and you’re from up in the western highlands, right?”

      “Kincaird,” Suhel specified with a nod. “Although I’ve not been back there in years. Been too busy romping around the Haunted Woods and Meridell with these knuckleheads.” She mussed the fur on Isengrim’s head.

      The king snickered, good-naturedly batting her paw away. “Well, I think we can take a quick detour before we run our main errand. We should get moving if we’re going to make Barrowmere tonight. Terra, Pharazon, are you all right traveling after sunset a bit?”

      “That should be fine,” Pharazon said, “as long as we stop for dinner. Gwyneth has nearly as much stamina as you—we just have to keep her fed.”

      “It’s a good thing we rode into the Woods on her,” Terra said. “We wouldn’t be able to keep up with the Werelupes otherwise.”

      Isengrim gestured for them to follow him. “Then let’s get moving.”

      “Do you know where you’re goin’?” Connor asked as they set off at a brisk pace, the other Werelupes dropping to all fours.

      The king nodded. “The Haunted Woods can be a confusing place, but we lived here long enough that we are familiar with the lay of the land. I will need no directions to Barrowmere.”

      Connor loped along on his hind paws for a bit before putting his front paws on the ground too. After a few paces of that, he reared back to bipedalism, looking like he wasn’t sure which method of locomotion was best. “Can I ride the Ganuthor?” he asked. “It’d be easier.”

      Isengrim detected the hint of a whine in the boy’s tone and sighed. He knew he should be patient, but he tended to get exasperated with Neopets who tried to take the easy way out. “Your strength and stamina have been enhanced,” he said in as calm a voice as he could muster. “You will be fine moving at this pace until supper.”

      “Your new body will probably take some getting used to,” Suhel added, “since the change was so sudden. Just don’t fight it and do what feels natural to you.”

      Connor frowned a bit at this, and then turned to Terra and Pharazon. “I can’t wait to be a normal Lupe again,” he said. “I was red before this, you know, a handsome shade of scarlet. And I was shorter and trimmer, too—normal size for me age. Right now I look like a—a carnival sideshow specimen.”

      Isengrim scowled, although he tried not to let Connor see it. Misunderstanding about Werelupes ran rampant in Neopia, and he was sure Connor was not meaning to offend the nine “sideshow specimens” that he moved in the midst of. Still, a few irritated growls rose up from the rest of Isengrim’s pack.

      Thankfully, Terra picked up on the social cues. “So what were you doing with chemicals at your school, Connor?” she asked. Isengrim could always count on her to try to defuse a tense situation.

      “Science!” he said.

      “What kind of science?” Terra asked.

      He waved a dismissive paw at her. “Chemistry stuff. It would probably bore you non-scholarly types.”

      “I’m pretty nerdy,” Terra said. “Try me.”

      “I’m scholarly,” Pharazon muttered under his breath.

      Connor hesitated a moment. “Well, I’m tryin’ to see if I can create a compound that replicates the properties of rubber, but is entirely synthetic. Y’see, the Haunted Woods towns have to import all of their rubber from Mystery Island, and it’s right expensive. But if we could make a rubber-like substance in the laboratory, that’d be a lot cheaper!”

      “That’s awesome,” Terra said with a grin. “I wish you luck with that.”

      The newly-turned Werelupe paused to switch back to all fours again. He clambered over a fallen log, and then looked up at the other, quadrupedal Werelupes around him, frowned, and rose back to his hind legs. “Aye… science is amazin’, full of possibilities to make people’s lives better,” he said, again to Terra and Pharazon. “Soon as I’m back to me old self, I’m goin’ right back to work on this project. I think I’m getting’ really close to figurin’ it out!”

      Isengrim let out a short, quiet sigh, barely audible even to a Werelupe. It was all too clear that the pup was avoiding socialising with the Werelupes. This was something Isengrim really felt he should be used to by now, but it still hurt—especially when a fellow Werelupe was the one doing the shunning.

      He glanced up at Terra, and she caught the look in his eyes and returned it with a penetrating stare, her own blue-grey eyes full of sadness for him and a determination to try to make things right. Although they had known each other for only a few short years, he and Terra had formed a bond of understanding that surpassed mere measurements of time. Isengrim nodded to her in thanks and continued on.

      If he was going to help Connor with the transition, the Werelupe King would have to exercise every ounce of patience he possessed. He would just have to keep trying until something clicked. “Good thing we found you when we did,” he said, moving closer to the boy with a friendly grin. “We were moving in the opposite direction from Barrowmere, and you would not want to be out in these woods at night.”

      Connor merely gave him a dubious look and leaned toward Gwyneth.

      “You can talk to him,” Terra said to the young Werelupe. “He’s quite friendly once you get to know him. The other Werelupes aren’t scary, either. Well, they are, but only when they mean to be. And they’ve got no reason to scare you.”

      “I’m not sure if that’s supposed to make me feel better or not,” Connor said.

      “It is,” Terra said. “We’re here to help you, and there’s no one else I’d feel safer with in the Haunted Woods than Isengrim. Okay, except maybe Fyora or something…” She paused and gave the Werelupe King a smile. “But I wouldn’t enjoy her company half as much.”

      “Nor would I,” Isengrim said, “if Fyora was sitting on that Ganuthor instead of you. And I am not just saying that because of my dislike of faeries,” he added with a snicker.

      Terra laughed. “I like to think we’d get along smashingly even if I was a faerie.” She glanced back down at Connor. “See? Nothing to fear here. Why don’t you try talking to him? Werelupes are really cool once you get to know them.”

      “I wasn’t too fond of Werelupes either,” Pharazon said, “but they’re not as terrible as all the stories say.”

      “Oh, yes we are,” Suhel said, giving her head a good shake so the fangs in her hair clattered. “If you get on our bad side. So don’t.”

      Isengrim chuckled, showing a bit of fang as he loped alongside Connor. “Don’t let her spook you, pup. My pack is… they’re a bit rough around the edges, but they mean well enough.”

      He scanned the younger Werelupe’s face for any change in emotion. After a long pause, Connor’s expression softened ever so slightly, and his tail perked a bit from where it had been curled between his legs. “Thanks… for helpin’ me out.”

      The Werelupe King smiled warmly. “Of course. We cannot leave a brother in need.”

      Connor bristled, and for a moment he looked like he was going to be sick. His yellow eyes broke contact with Isengrim to stare up at the thick forest canopy. “I’m not—“ he choked before snapping his jaw shut and clenching it tight. “When can we take a break?” he asked. “We’ve been walkin’ long enough, don’t you think?”

      “We will stop for supper when we reach the ruined town in the vale,” Isengrim said. “It is only a few hours’ march from here. Did you eat lunch?”

      “No,” Connor said. “Haven’t had anythin’ since breakfast.”

      Pharazon dug around in one of Gwyneth’s saddlebags. “Here—have some sandwiches,” he said, tossing Connor a paper bag. “That’ll keep up your strength.”

      “But why can’t we stop?” Connor asked as he opened up the bag. “I’m no athlete—the doctor says I’ve got a delicate constitution, you know, and to avoid strenuous exercise.”

      Isengrim had to turn away so Connor wouldn’t see the Werelupe King roll his eyes. His grimace caught the attention of a few other members of his pack, and he could see by the looks on their faces that they commiserated. One of them silently mimicked Connor, which set the others to suppressing laughs.

      “That was before you turned into a Werelupe,” Suhel said. “Do you feel tired at all? Out of breath?”

      “Well… no,” Connor whined. “But still, I’m liable to—“

      “Enough,” Isengrim said, trying to keep his voice calm, but with a certain level of sternness that made it clear he could tell the difference between an honest concern and complaining. He was willing to listen to and work with the former; he could not stand the latter. He stared hard at Connor, and the younger Werelupe’s ears drooped.

      Feeling he had gotten his point across, Isengrim said in a kinder tone, “As I said before, your physical abilities have been greatly enhanced, even if you were not previously a… prime specimen. If you begin to show signs of fatigue, we will stop, but otherwise, we must keep moving. I have urgent business to attend to elsewhere in the Woods after this.” He was not trying to guilt-trip the boy, but wanted to give him a reason for their swift pace.

      “If you ask me,” another Werelupe said, “it’s mighty kind of Lord Isengrim to take a detour to help you out, pup. Especially considering why we’re here in the first place.”

      “Unless you thought we were out looking for you because you think you’re so super special,” someone else muttered, sending up a round of chuckles.

      Isengrim cut it short by looking over his shoulder at the other Werelupes. “Enough,” he barked again. “Connor is among friends here. He does not need your belittling.”

      His packmates’ ears and tails drooped and they gave him guilty stares. “Yes, sire,” one of them said, and then they turned to talking with each other about the details of a recent hunt.

      Isengrim sighed and shook his head. “I am sorry about that, Connor. They are not evil creatures… but Neopia has not been kind to them, so they have developed many defences. I try not to let it get out of line.”

      The younger Werelupe nodded, although his ears were low and his eyes glittered with an uncomfortable mix of anger and fear.

      Isengrim was not sure which emotion made him more unsettled.

      To be continued…

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