The moon sunk deep beneath clouds, cold rains came and went, and Hyren and Blynn rushed on through thick woodland and tumultuous terrain. The mutant Grundo was willing to keep his pace for days more. And Blynn continued to run just ahead of him, with endurance that was astonishing for her small size.
Finally, chilled and soaked to the bone, the two burst out of a thicket and stopped. Tattered, rain-torn clouds near the horizon allowed silver moonlight to illuminate the landscape. The forest petered out around them, and to either side the land, too, dropped off, sheer and jagged, into a black nothingness. Only straight ahead did it extend as a peninsula into a sea of mist. On that outcropping of stone sat an enormous castle, built of thick-hewn blocks of dark granite, brooding silently over the deep.
The castle had seen better days – one of its corner towers had collapsed, and the walls were crowded with thorny vines – but firelight flickered in a few of the windows. From the rampart hung a torn crimson banner, sporting the crudely-painted symbol of a white crescent moon above a large pawprint.
Hyren had scarcely enough time to take the scene in when a throaty howl echoed from the castle, joined by several others rising in unison. Blynn caught her breath and then began to dart out into the open, but Hyren grabbed her pack and held her back. “Hold on,” he grunted, watching his HUD’s biosensor. “That place is swarming with life forms.” He tagged her as an allied unit, making her presence register as a green glow in the corner of his visor. The biomass in the castle was still orange-neutral—for now.
“I don’t see anything,” Blynn whispered, trying to wriggle out of his grip. “Let’s go!”
“There are guards on the walls,” Hyren said. Although the night was too dark and the castle too far away for Blynn’s unaided eyes to see, the commander’s visor clearly showed a handful of beings atop the ramparts, some standing still while others mulled about. “They haven’t noticed us yet.”
“I got this,” Blynn said. She shut the lantern window, cloaking them in darkness. Carefully, she took out her slingshot and grabbed a piece of ammo from her pouch. The Zafara placed it in the sling’s pocket and drew it back. Tongue sticking out in concentration, she fired into the sky to the side of the castle.
Hyren wasn’t expecting much, so it made him jump when the night suddenly exploded into bright fireworks, sending whistles and claps of thunder rippling through the air. The guards stood still for a moment and then rushed to the wall of the fortress nearest the explosions.
The commander and the Zafara made their way around the other side. As they drew closer to the colossal structure, Hyren glanced up and saw dark, hulking figures look around in bewilderment, returning to their posts just as the Grundo and his companion slipped against the wall.
“Want me to send up another one?” Blynn asked.
“No, not here,” Hyren said. As they inched along the stone, climbing onto a crumbling terrace built out over the cliff, Hyren began to hear deep, growling voices. He craned his neck to see firelight casting an orange glow on the thick rims of a set of tall, narrow windows.
Near one of the windows, a pile of crates and barrels had been stacked, and Blynn wasted no time in scrambling silently up them. Hyren followed, although his ascent was much more careful as he wasn’t sure just how much weight the pile could hold. Thankfully, nothing broke under him, and he peered over the windowsill alongside Blynn, his antennae lowered to lessen his profile even though the moon had disappeared behind clouds again.
They looked into an immense throne room, a great hall for some forgotten monarch whose kingdom had been swallowed up by the Woods. Unlike the underground palace of the Alxuin, however, this place was cold and utilitarian, holding no decorations except for a set of moon-and-paw banners on the walls, identical to the one outside. A fire blazed brightly in a pit in the middle of the area, and several spits arranged over it held large chunks of meat. The floor was covered in furs, straw, and various scattered supplies, making the room look more like a beasts’ den than the great hall it once was.
But that was all too fitting for the beasts that lived there now, Hyren thought as he saw hordes of furry monsters lounging around the hall. Many of them simply lazed about, while others sharpened weapons, or ripped into food with their oversized fangs. They wore cloaks of furs and clothing made of hide, with armour and jewelry made from bones and teeth. Two of them got into a spat, snarling and barking, exchanging a few blows before settling back down—with one of them having stolen the other’s food.
“They’re even nastier in person,” Blynn said. “I’ve only ever read about ‘em.”
Enemy. One of the Werelupes glowed red in Hyren’s visor as he tagged it. Then another, and another. Enemy, enemy, enemy. His eyes darted around the room at an almost frantic pace as he searched for Terra, hot anger building in his nerves, his body preparing for battle.
He did a double-take when he saw a smaller, pale-skinned, brown-haired figure huddled among a handful of the creatures. “Terra,” Hyren breathed. His antennae twitched. A moment later the human’s shape registered green. Ally.
“Terra?” Blynn asked. “Where?!”
Hyren nudged with his chin to the group of Werelupes amongst which the Zafara’s owner was situated. Terra sat with her knees hugged to her chest, but she seemed unharmed, much to Hyren’s relief.
The creatures around her laughed and talked loudly in harsh, grating tones. One of them reached over and poked a meat-covered bone at her face. She shied away, and the Werelupe guffawed. He brought the meat to his own mouth and tore off a chunk, spittle flying.
Hyren had to dig his fingers into the stone to keep himself focused—and prevent himself from simply leaping through the window. Blynn’s hackles raised, her tail lashing violently. Reaching over, Hyren placed a large hand on her back. “Not yet,” he whispered.
He knew how she felt. He had to use every ounce of willpower he possessed to keep himself from swooping in to save Terra, but he and Blynn couldn’t take down a castle full of Werelupes by themselves. And he also was well aware by now that every time he acted without thinking, something would collapse on him. He had to have restraint.
Suddenly, all of the Werelupes froze. Their ears perked up as they looked toward the large wooden doors that stood closed at the end of the hall. The doors had long since been battered in by some massive siege engine, but had been crudely repaired and painted in white and red with moon and pawprint symbols.
A moment later, they burst open with a reverberating boom that shook the stone Hyren and Blynn were clinging to. Terrible howls like roars echoed through the halls, and Hyren winced and tucked his antennae closer to his head in an attempt to block out the sound. His Zafara companion grabbed her own floppy ears and pulled them down over her cheeks.
“Make way!” Two Werelupes armed with jagged blades scampered into the room. “The King returns from the hunt!” they barked. The beasts already in the hall tilted their heads back and joined in the infernal chorus of howls, raising their horrid anthem of the night to the rafters. Terra put her own hands to her ears.
Through the doorway sauntered a Werelupe the color of shadow. He was larger and bulkier than the rest, and wore a bone necklace with an enormous tooth pendant resting on his chest. Atop his head sat a twisted sort of crown, fashioned from the skull of some fanged creature Hyren couldn’t recognise.
The howls died down, the Werelupes’ eyes seeming to glow with fresh flame as the newcomer passed down the centre aisle and around the firepit. When he reached the dais at the other end of the room, he climbed onto a cruel throne fashioned out of metal, wood, and bone, digging his claws into the armrests.
“Your king now holds court!” he barked, his voice like a winter wind whipping through a thicket of thorns. “What tribute do my thanes pay me?” The king surveyed the room expectantly.
Several Werelupes rose and began carrying objects forward, depositing them at his feet. “Rare neggs from the Snowager’s cave, Lord,” one of them said, presenting the neggs with a deep bow and looking up to see his ruler nod in satisfaction.
Another set down a cloth sack and unfastened the top, letting a rainbow glow bathe her muzzle. “Bottled faeries, my liege,” she said. “Balthazar sends his regards.” The king nodded again.
The Werelupe that had been teasing Terra earlier got up, pulled her to her feet and pushed her to the throne. “An owner, sire,” he said. “Captured near the Shrieking Dale just after moonrise.”
A hush fell over the hall as the king did a double-take at the human. “You—you really found me an owner?” he asked, looking back up at his subject in disbelief.
“Aye, Milord,” the other Werelupe said, puffing out his chest proudly. “You mentioned you wanted an owner, but we’ve been having trouble finding one this deep in the Woods. Her other Neopets left her alone—poor choice on their part.”
“Are you going to eat me?” Terra asked. She tried to back away, but the Werelupe beside her clamped a furry paw on her shoulder.
The king laughed. “Eat you?” he asked. “No, no. You’re going to adopt me.”
Terra’s brows furrowed in confusion. “Why would you want me to adopt you?” she asked.
She seemed to have hit a raw nerve, as the king’s expression suddenly turned dour and a growl rose in his throat. “It doesn’t matter to you!” he barked. “You are my owner now, and this is your new home—forever!”
Terra looked around at the jeering Werelupes and once again moved to escape, but the Werelupe holding her put his other paw on his sword with a glare and she stood still. “But—my Zafara, she’s still out in the Woods!” Terra said to the king. “And our friend—“
“The ghosts have probably gotten to them by now,” the king said. “I am the only family you need from now on!”
Hyren felt the anger rise and roil inside of him, and he clenched the stone wall so hard that he thought it might crumble in his fingers. After a moment, he became aware of Blynn’s eyes on him. He glanced over to see the Zafara regarding him with something akin to amazement. The Grundo felt his face heat up and he blinked, his antennae flattening against his head further in annoyance. With a wordless grumble, he turned back to making sure Terra was safe.
The lower-ranked Werelupe tilted his head. “What do you want an owner for, anyway, sire?” he asked. “We’re probably better at chores than her.”
“I don’t think you could fully understand,” his king said, growing pensive for a moment. “Just—put her in the northeast tower for now. I can’t lose her.” He sat back on his throne. “And now… we feast!” A clamor of wild cries rose up in response, and two other Werelupes sprang up and took the meat off the spits. The king plucked a negg from his treasure pile and dropped it into his fanged maw.
The other Werelupe pushed Terra toward the doors, and then the two disappeared from Hyren’s natural vision. His visor, however, was still tracking their biosignatures, and he watched them change direction and then start to ascend, obviously up a flight of stairs.
The commander suddenly became aware of moisture on his skin, and his shoulders twitched and shuddered. He turned around and sat on top of the pile of crates, resting his back against the wall and staring up at the sky. Dawn apparently had decided to call in sick, as the night was still black. And now the mist had risen around them, a chill breeze was picking up, and a light rain had set in.
Hyren grumbled again and tucked his arms to his chest sullenly. Even though his body was designed to have the environmental constitution of a rock, and the electronics in his armour were well-protected from moisture, he still hated rain. Water had no business falling from a planet’s sky like that. It made things terribly uncomfortable, and he’d never forgotten that one invasion where he’d come down with a bad case of the sneezles.
Blynn, meanwhile, seemed to be oblivious to his discomfort. “They’re taking her up to the tower, that makes things a lot easier for us…” she muttered as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Might not even guard her, but even if they do, a guard or two’s nothing compared to a whole room fulla Werelupes…”
“What was that?” someone growled from inside. “Go check the window, I think somethin’s out there.”
A dot of red on Hyren’s visor broke away from the group and approached where he and Blynn were hiding.