The Grundo dropped the Zafara and the two made a mad dash back through the woods.
“Why did you leave her by herself?!” Hyren asked.
“Me?! You’re one to talk!” Blynn said as she raced beside him on all fours. “I told you I’d be watching you!”
They found the camp in disarray, the fire smothered, and Terra nowhere in sight. “No…” Blynn breathed, covering her mouth with her paw like she was going to be ill. She trudged toward Terra’s disheveled pack and bedroll, smoothing down the sleeping bag as though trying to find her owner in it. “She—she’s gone…”
Hyren’s shoulders sagged. He had never meant for this to happen. It was all his fault the girl and her Neopet were on this wild misadventure, and now she could come to harm because of him. How could he have been so stupid?
He began to inspect the campsite, watching his HUD’s biosensor at the same time. He was going to take advantage of his tech for as long as it stayed working. Small dots of life blipped up everywhere, bio-traces of Petpets in the trees, but nothing large enough to be Terra, or whatever had carried her off. “I’m not seeing any pertinent life forms on my scanner,” Hyren said. “They must have moved fast. We’ll find her.”
“What do you mean, ‘we’?” Blynn asked as she grabbed the lantern and marched over to the dying remnants of the fire. The mote was still there, but rather than try to cajole the spooked fire sprite into the lantern, Blynn brusquely scooped it in and shut the window. “You go back to your precious Dr. Sloth, Commander. I’m not letting you near my owner again.”
Hyren scanned the leaf-covered ground and spotted Terra’s glasses. They were miraculously undamaged, and Hyren picked them up and put them in an empty compartment of his utility belt. “Blynn,” he said, turning to the Zafara. “I’m not taking you two to Sloth. I promise.”
“But—you were talking to—“ Blynn sputtered.
“I never explicitly said I was bringing you two,” Hyren said. “I let slip that I was travelling with you and I’m sorry—”
Blynn glared venom up at him. “’Sorry’ doesn’t mean much. You really think I’m gonna trust you again? You’re clearly still working for Sloth. You broke your promise.”
“Look, every second we spend arguing is another second Terra’s in danger!” Hyren said. “You don’t have to trust me, but just let me help you get her back!” Depressions among dead leaves caught his eye. “Blynn, how good are you with footprints?”
She stopped trying to find a way to carry Terra’s and her own backpacks at the same time to say, “Not very. Why?”
“These definitely aren’t any of ours,” Hyren said. “They look like they could belong to a Lupe, but… do Lupes get this big?”
“Werelupes do,” Blynn said.
“Were… Lupes?” Hyren asked.
She leaned over the tracks. “They’re like regular Lupes, but… bigger and stronger. And wilder. They don’t have owners.”
“Then what would they want with an owner?” Hyren asked.
Blynn thought for a moment before shaking her head, her long ears flopping from side to side as she clutched at her arms and said, “Hopefully not dinner.”
“Come on,” Hyren said. He knelt down next to Terra’s pack and lashed it to his cache of faerie weapons before hefting the entire bundle back over his shoulder. He could easily handle even more weight than this, and he didn’t want to leave anything of hers behind. “Let’s get moving, before it starts raining and these tracks get erased.” He picked up the human’s sword and strapped it to his waist opposite his own blade, the belt barely fitting his girth.
“I told you, you’re not coming,” Blynn said. She gripped the straps of her pack and began setting out in the direction the pawprints pointed.
Hyren reached down and grabbed her bedroll to hold her back. “I’m not letting you take on Werelupes alone,” he said.
“I’ve got a weapon!” she said, patting the slingshot at her side.
“Blynn, do Werelupes live in packs?” Hyren asked.
She thought for a moment before sticking out her chin. “Well, yeah, but… I’ll be fine! Especially if the explosion thing happens again!”
“You’re just one Neopet, and you have no idea how many Werelupes could be at the end of this trail!” Hyren said.
“And you just want her back so you can bring her to Sloth!” Blynn said.
Hyren crouched down so he was nearly eye level with her, and stared closely at her, his hands on his knees. “Look,” he said. “I’ve done some pretty idiotic things lately, but I care about Terra just as much as you do, in spite of my best efforts to deny it. I have a job to do, and I owe my loyalty to Sloth. But I promise I’ll keep the two of you safe.”
Narrowing her eyes, the Zafara scrutinised him for a moment, and then turned and dropped to all fours. “Try to keep up,” she said. With that, she dashed into the night.
“Pay attention to the trail!” Hyren called after her as he drew his sword and broke into a jog. Despite her speed, the commander’s long, loping strides allowed him to easily keep pace with her. He clutched the rope around his shoulders, pulling his bundle of priceless weapons close to his back so outstretched branches wouldn’t tug it away. After all of the insanity he had been through lately, he was looking forward to his rightful compensation. He just had to get Terra to safety, first.
The two Neopets passed through paths in the dense undergrowth that were just barely large enough for Hyren to fit through, and he wondered what had made them. He felt like hitting himself for not spending more time researching the Haunted Woods, but it had never figured largely into the invasion plan. Aside from that, Virtupets agents simply hadn’t returned all that much information on the mysterious and dangerous land. In fact, Hyren wouldn’t have been surprised if some agents had never returned at all.
The Woods seemed to press in on them incessantly and the back of the commander’s neck constantly pricked, a sensation that something was following them, although every time he turned around he saw nothing. Hyren could only hope the light from Blynn’s lantern would keep danger at bay.
The Grundo stopped at a small clearing with harder-packed earth than the soft soil they’d encountered so far. He could barely pick out any tracks on this ground. They were hopelessly scattered and jumbled, and with too many of them to have possibly belonged to just one Werelupe. “Oh. Great,” he muttered. “Hold up!” he called to Blynn, who continued to sprint pell-mell toward one of many openings in the trees.
She skidded to a stop and looked back at him. “C’mon, we gotta keep going!” she panted.
“I lost the trail,” Hyren said, making his way around the perimeter, trying to find a set of pawprints that broke away from the chaos. Several led into the clearing, but he could see none leaving it.
“So?” Blynn said. “Hurry! This way!”
“You don’t know for sure it’s that way,” Hyren said. “It could be any—“
“Yeah, I can smell ‘em this way,” Blynn said. “So there.”
“You can smell them?” Hyren asked. “Why didn’t you say so before and save us the trouble of following footprints?!”
“I was never following footprints!” she said.
“Oh,” Hyren said. With a sigh, he stood up straight. At least one of them had a good nose.
“Now c’mon! If it rains I’ll lose the scent!” Blynn said.
“Right,” Hyren said. “Lead on, then.” The Grundo followed her deeper into the Woods. Please be okay, Terra, he thought. Blynn needs you. I… I need you.