“Funny, I didn’t invite you to the party,” the Werelupe King said as he stepped out in front of the monster, ignoring its thrashing to narrow his eyes at Hyren. At his side, he held a blade infused with fangs and jagged bits of bone. “Tell me, what makes you think you can invade my domain and steal my rightful tribute?” he asked.
“I’m sure you’ve done worse,” Hyren said, moving to take a swing at him. The king brought up his sword and parried the blow. The commander swept the blade around again, and the Werelupe twisted aside.
“Don’t think you’ll get the honor of dueling with me this morning, trespasser,” the king said. “No, I have a better fate for you.” He grinned as he backed away. “Gnarfas here doesn’t get a chance to come out and play very often. I think it’s about time he had some fun.” Glancing over at the Werelupes holding the beast back, the king gave a nod, and they released the chains.
Gnarfas let out a heart-seizing roar and charged. As the monster’s steps shook the floor, Hyren glared up at him and broke into a run himself, aiming a strike at the beast’s legs. The blade didn’t have time to connect before Gnarfas batted the Grundo away, sending him flying. He smashed through a pile of crates, lying dazed for a moment. The Werelupe rushed him again, and Hyren brought up his feet and lashed out at him, kicking Gnarfas’s muzzle aside.
That gave Hyren enough time to tumble out of the way, bringing up his blade toward the creature. Gnarfas howled in pain at the blow and staggered back, and in the brief pause Hyren saw the king grab Terra’s arm. Another Werelupe pounced on Blynn, tearing the slingshot from the Zafara’s paw.
Gnarfas scrambled forward and swiped at Hyren, somehow able to keep all four of his arms working in precision. The Grundo spun and wove through the tangle of claws. Occasionally they raked against his armor, but he managed to stay barely ahead of them. He had a plan.
“Milord!” the Werelupe holding Blynn said. “Shall I take them to the dungeons?”
“No,” the king growled. “I’m not letting her out of my sights again, since you lot are so incompetent.”
“Why do I matter so much to you?” Terra asked.
“I’ve wanted an owner for a long time,” the Werelupe King replied, suddenly sounding old and tired. “Which is why Gnarfas is going to take care of our pest problem—so you can be my owner forever.”
“Wait, if we could just talk about this—” Terra started to say.
“I have no hope that you could ever understand me,” the Werelupe growled. “Negotiations are over.”
Hyren tried not to let their conversation distract him as he led the monster Werelupe toward the firepit. The commander deflected another huge paw with his sword, and used the momentum to drag the tip of his blade through the coals, flinging them up at his assailant.
Gnarfas yelped in pain, pawing at his own snout with one pair of arms while blindly grasping for Hyren with the other pair. The Grundo easily evaded them and dove in for the Werelupe’s legs again. His blow sent Gnarfas stumbling back, the beast coming to rest against the wall with two hands clutching a windowsill.
The Werelupe King emitted a low growl, his hackles raised and tail bushed. Still keeping his hold on Terra, he began to reach for his sword.
Hyren’s chest heaved as he closed in for the finishing blow. As the commander raised his blade, Gnarfas ripped the stones he was holding onto out from the wall and lobbed them at the Grundo. Hyren moved to dodge, but his leg trembled in pain, he wobbled, and the stones connected. His armour’s shields absorbed the brunt of the concussion, but the hit sent him sailing. He landed against the opposite wall and crumpled. His sword dropped from his grasp.
“No!” Terra yelled. “Hyren! Get up!”
Head spinning, the commander gritted his teeth and felt for his weapon. Gnarfas lunged for Hyren again, snapping his fangs. The Grundo managed to grip the hilt and push himself to his feet. As he threw up his sword to block, Gnarfas’s snout rammed into the flat of the blade, shoving Hyren back into the wall with such force that the stone shuddered.
Gnarfas planted all four of his claws into the wall around Hyren, pinning him. The Werelupe stared him down, saliva dripping from his maw. The commander grimaced at the monster’s rancid breath and the emptiness within his eyes, and steadied his sword.
Terra elbowed the Werelupe King in the stomach. The king doubled over, and Terra used the distraction to wrench herself free of his grip and sprint towards Gnarfas, sword outstretched. At the same time, Blynn bit the paw of the Werelupe holding her. The female barked in surprise and fumbled, giving the Zafara enough time to grab her slingshot and bound away.
“Gnarfas! Finish him!” the Werelupe King wheezed, holding his ribs.
Hyren stiffened. He pulled out his blaster and fired a few shots point-blank, but they did nothing—it seemed the stun effects didn’t work on a creature this big. Gnarfas drew back his head and spread his jaws wide.
The commander heard a familiar snap, and then a “Whoops” from Blynn, and the floor beneath Gnarfas’s feet collapsed. The monster’s claws scrabbled helplessly on the rock for a moment—and then he was gone. A fissure started to spread through the rest of the stone.
“What did you do?!” Terra asked.
“I don’t know!” Blynn said, looking at her weapon in shock.
Hyren stowed his weapons and leaped across the swiftly growing chasm. He grabbed the girls under his arms and stumbled over jostled, uneven rocks, toward the doors. The crack extended to the walls, and the entire fortress rumbled with the sound of stone being shaken from its foundations.
“How dare you?!” the Werelupe King snarled, his eyes blazing. Raising his blade, he rushed at Hyren, but the floor gave out from under the monarch mid-stride. He gave one last sickening howl as he disappeared into the trench.
“Okay, I didn’t do it this time!” the commander said as he carried his friends into the entrance hall. The castle crumpled in on itself as if it was a surreal dream. Doorways slumped in, and stairs twisted and heaved and finally broke apart like a child’s building blocks being demolished. Werelupes got swept away into the abyss around Hyren with a horrific symphony of howls, but thankfully the Grundo’s own footing held sure.
The front gate started to give way. Although his lungs burned, Hyren summoned every ounce of strength he could, and launched himself out the open arch, and he and his companions tumbled into the mud. Hyren sat up and looked back to see the cliff just behind them collapse entirely, taking the whole castle with it and leaving the three of them alone on the ledge.
He trembled as he let the girls go and sat back on his heels at the new edge of the cliff, letting the grey morning rain pelt his helmet and stream down his armour in rivulets. Rain was really the last thing on his mind at this point. “I… I think I’ve fulfilled my quota of things caving in on me,” he said, his tongue feeling like cotton. Blynn and Terra picked themselves up and the three simply sat there for a moment, dazed.
Their silence was cut short when something yanked Hyren back. Wheeling his arms to try to regain his balance, he looked over his shoulder. The Werelupe King glared at him, illuminated by a timely flash of lightning, fangs bared in fury and crimson eyes aflame. The king had hold of Hyren’s bundle of faerie weapons.
“Hyren!” Terra cried out. She stumbled forward and grabbed his hand. Blynn clutched Hyren’s arm and dug her heels into the mud, but their strength combined could not match the weight. The commander began to tip backward.
Hyren knew what he had to do. With his free hand, he undid the knot tying the weapons cache around his shoulders and the rope whipped into thin air. Hyren twisted around to see the look of shock on the Werelupe King’s face as, still clutching the bundle, he plummeted into the mists. A peal of thunder sounded a farewell knell.
Then Hyren hit the mud, the unexpected force sending Terra and Blynn sprawling. The Grundo staggered to his knees again, sputtering mud out of his mouth and wiping it off of his visor.
Terra wrapped her arms around his own arm. She shivered as the wind slapped her dripping wet cloak about her.
Hyren gathered the two into a hug, trying to imbue some of his warmth to their small frames. “I love you guys,” he said.
“You’re the best friend we’ve ever had,” Terra said through chattering teeth.
“Yeah, you’re not so bad for a big, grumpy Grundo,” Blynn said.
Hyren wished he could have stayed in that moment forever, but the cold and rain were clearly taking their toll on his companions. “Let’s find some shelter,” he said, standing up and guiding them back into the relative protection of the trees. True, he had no idea what might be lurking there, but right now it seemed a better option than continuing to endure the elements, and Blynn and Terra had gone most of the night without sleep. Even Hyren’s strength had started to ebb.
They found sanctuary in the immense hollow of an ancient tree, big enough to comfortably house even Hyren’s bulk. There, they huddled together to keep warm while they listened to the storm move on to dispense its wrath elsewhere. The thunder faded, the wind died, and gradually they were left with only the splash of countless drops of water filtering through foliage. And all the while the world slowly lightened until the morning reached a filmy twilight, mist still brooding over the forest floor.
Hyren found himself feeling less and less proud of what he had accomplished under Sloth. They didn’t even feel like accomplishments at all. Hyren knew he’d just been hurting people and spreading the rule of a tyrant. That wasn’t what he wanted anymore. He just wanted to look out for his two best friends.
But Sloth had ways of finding him, Hyren remembered with a chill up his spine. The overlord’s words from long ago echoed in the commander’s head. Hyren knew Sloth well enough that he did not doubt Sloth had ways to get revenge if Hyren ever betrayed him.
Hyren felt uncomfortably trapped in a job he now hated. But he could at least keep his friends safe from Sloth. So he decided to focus on that first and then start worrying about his own hide.
His thoughts turned back over to what they had just gone through. “So… what exactly happened back there?” he asked Blynn.
“What?” she asked.
“When you shot at that monster Werelupe with your slingshot,” Terra said as she tried to dry off her glasses on her wet shirt. “And it made the whole castle fall down.”
“I didn’t know it was gonna do that,” Blynn said. “I was trying to make fireworks again.”
“Maybe it’s random,” her owner said. “I mean, it is faerie magic. That stuff tends to do its own thing.”
“Maybe…” Hyren grunted. He thought for a moment. “What did you shoot?”
“I was aiming for his feet,” the Zafara said.
“No, I mean, what kind of ammo did you use?” Hyren asked.
“Um… I dunno, I just reached into the pouch without looking,” Blynn said. “I think it was one of the pebbles I picked up from the mountain. Would that matter?”
“Oh, I get it,” Terra said. “You think where the ammo comes from has something to do with its magical effects.”
“Exactly,” Hyren said.
“And the slingshot draws out the inherent magic in whatever gets used with it,” Terra said.
“Sweetness!” Blynn said. “I’m glad I got the slingshot, then! You guys can keep your crummy swords. I have to find more stuff to shoot and see what it does…”
“I could have handled the situation myself,” Hyren insisted with a pout. “But… thanks for helping me out.”
“Can’t let you take all the credit,” Blynn said.
Terra sneezed. “It’s too bad we don’t have a fire.”
Hyren felt sorry for her, but there wasn’t really much else he could do at this point. “No getting sick on my watch,” he said with a chuckle, making her laugh a little. “Once it dries up out there, we’ll see if there’s anything to burn. At least we still have the fire mote.”
Blynn had set the lantern on top of their pile of gear and opened one of the windows, giving the three a view of a little fire sprite who was not fond of this weather at all. The mote hissed and sputtered, sulking near the bottom of the lantern rather than bobbing merrily like usual.
“You know,” Terra said, “I feel bad for the Werelupe King. I—I wish we could have helped him.”
“But he was such a jerk,” Blynn said. “No way do I want somebody like that as my brother.”
“He seemed awfully sad,” Terra said, looking rather sad herself.
Hyren felt bad for her. He’d been so focused on saving himself and the people he cared about that he didn’t consider that his enemy might need saving, too. But once again Terra had shown compassion toward someone who definitely didn’t deserve it. “Well—he had his chance,” the commander said. “That’s what happens to Neopets like him.”
Terra sighed and said nothing, and Hyren knew she didn’t like that answer. But he didn’t know what else to tell her. “Now get some sleep, the both of you,” he said. His own eyelids were growing heavy, and he let out a yawn.
“I’ll try,” Terra murmured, her eyes already closing.
“Let’s hear another story,” Blynn said.
“All right,” Hyren said. “I’ll tell you about the time I found a moon covered in ice geysers. I was piloting a fighter, and I weaved my craft between the glittering sprays of ice as I skimmed close to the mirrorlike surface…”
As the three of them drifted off, in the back of his mind Hyren thought he heard a familiar beeping coming from the equipment pile, but he was so exhausted he paid it no heed and let himself slip into sleep.
He snorted awake some time later, startled by a mounting, rumbling whine overhead. He blinked, trying to remember why it sounded so familiar.
“Wow, what is that?” Terra asked, pulling on her glasses and rising to her feet to peer out into the Woods. The sound crescendoed and then began to fade.
“I hope it goes away soon,” Blynn said with a yawn, scratching her belly. “I wanna get back to sleep.”
Hyren’s heart skipped a beat. “Starship engine.”