“C’mon, runt,” Suhel said, leading Pharazon down a winding tunnel. “You have wings, why don’t you use them to keep up with me?”
“Because I’m tired,” the faerie Draik said as he trudged after her.
These past two days had been an utter nightmare for him. Torn away from his siblings and his Petpet, forced to endure his owner’s exasperating optimism about the situation, now he was expected to live amongst a race of furry barbarians who treated him as a laughing stock. Sure they fed him and never lifted a claw to harm him, but it was obvious they disliked him.
“You know, runt,” Suhel said. “All sorts of things prowled these tunnels before we cleared them out.”
Her ears were perked, and her tail wagged lazily. Pharazon was familiar with this kind of body language from Neopet species like Lupes and Gelerts, and Petpet species like Warfs and Doglefoxes. The Werelupe was evidently feeling playful. That did not bode well for him.
“But,” she said, “they might still lurk in dark crevasses somewhere. Drackonacks that spit venom. Mutant Symols twice your size. That sort of ilk.” She stopped and looked over her shoulder at him with an impish grin. “Might drag you away while you’re sleeping.”
Pharazon whimpered. “Stop it!” he said. “It’s bad enough that I’m stuck down here with the likes of you, now you want me to worry about other monsters, too?”
Suhel laughed. “Of course!” she said. “What fun would it be if I didn’t scare you now and again?”
“It’s not fun for me,” Pharazon said.
She groaned and waited for him to catch up. “What a wet blanket you are,” she said. “You never laugh at any of my jokes!”
“That’s because they’re not funny,” Pharazon said. His claws clicked against the cool stone. Sure, Blynn teased him like this, too. But she wasn’t a Werelupe. “But why can’t I stay with Terra?”
“His Lordship doesn’t like you,” Suhel replied. “So he sees no reason to keep you in his presence. Really, I think he was being gracious when he made me look out for you instead of throwing you in the dungeons. Unless you’d prefer that.”
Pharazon folded his arms and hunched his shoulders. This was the most aggravating day of his life, worse than when Blynn had decided to build a fort using every book in their library. It took him a week to get his collection organised again. Now he wished re-shelving books was the largest of his problems.
They reached a bridge, and Suhel ushered him forward. For someone with wings such as Pharazon, heights held no terror. No, it was the darkness that got to him, and he tried not to look down as he was marched over the abyss. How lucky Terra was, he thought. She never seemed to be afraid of anything. She had always been his rock, his voice of calm when he spiraled into paranoia. Usually that was a good thing.
Now, though, the time he needed her most, she kept letting him down. For the first time in his life she did not offer him comfort, but advice that would never work. He couldn’t help but be a little bitter.
As they made their way across, from the inky blackness below echoed a rustle and a clatter. Pharazon jumped, his wings throwing out a shower of sparks. “What was that?!” he yelped.
Suhel folded her hands behind her back and strutted onward. “Oh, probably a Chumablah,” she said. “They’re known to live in cave systems like this. Claws half a metre long, razor-sharp beak. Always hungry.” She grinned widely over her shoulder, showing her own fangs.
Pharazon wrung his tail anxiously as he hurried off the bridge. “D-do they ever c-come up here?” he asked.
“Oh… sometimes,” Suhel said as she waved him ahead, herding him into another narrow passageway.
Pharazon’s heart rate slowed down to normal levels and he had just let go of his tail when a claw poked his back.
The Draik yelled and jumped in the air, the knucklebones around his neck clattering. He flailed wildly for a moment before collapsing to the ground in a shivering lump. “D-don’t eat me!” he wailed.
Suhel laughed, withdrawing her paw. “Aye, you’re a skittish one for sure, runt!” she said.
Pharazon glowered at her and picked himself up, dusting off his scales. He had to be stuck with Neopets who got a kick out of scaring him.
“Oh, come now,” she said with a frown. “I would never let anything get you.” She patted his head with one shaggy paw. “When you’ve got a Werelupe looking out for you, you’re as safe as safe can be, runt.”
“I don’t care,” Pharazon said. “I just want to go home.” Wearily, he moved down the tunnel. His wings had not yet recovered from the shock and they twitched erratically, flinging out sparks of magic.
“Stop doing that,” Suhel muttered from behind him.
“What?” Pharazon asked.
“That… sparkly thing,” Suhel said.
“I can’t help it,” Pharazon said. “It’s a natural reaction to stress.”
“Well, stop being stressed, then,” Suhel said.
Pharazon blew a small wisp of magic in aggravation. Dealing with Werelupes was like trying to nail jelly to a tree. “Fine, I’ll walk behind you if you don’t want to see it,” he said.
“Sounds good to me.” Suhel padded ahead of him. “You walk too slow for me anyway, on those runt legs of yours.”
Pharazon hung his head and followed the sound of her footsteps. This just wasn’t fair. Why was everyone picking on him? Terra said Hyren and Blynn would save them. Where were they? Why had they saved Terra last time, and now that he was in distress, no one came to rescue him? Was he just not that important to them?
And he was so weak and ineffectual. He couldn’t even save himself. What use was he to his owner, to anyone?
With a sigh, he looked up to see why Suhel was being so quiet, and realised that the sound of her footfalls had faded and she was nowhere to be seen. Panic flooded his system. Had she grown tired of him and abandoned him after all? “S-Suhel?” he croaked, dry-mouthed.
As unbearable as being around the Werelupes was, suddenly Pharazon felt like being alone was worse. “Oh no,” he muttered, fear quickening his pace.
A flash of gold on the floor ahead caught the Draik’s attention and he paused. Lying there was a pendant in the form of a crescent moon, fixed to a golden chain. “A Lupe moon charm,” Pharazon breathed. He couldn’t just leave something like this lying around to be trampled on—or re-appropriated by these uncivilised brutes.
As he picked it up, the charm caught the firelight of a nearby brazier and gave off a pale glint. Pharazon blinked as he saw an image in the crescent, like it was a mirror reflecting things that weren’t really there. It showed a familiar young white Lupe woman wearing spectacles, her snowy hair done up in a tidy bun. She wore robes of green and gold. And her yellow eyes were staring right at him in confusion.
“Celice?” Pharazon gasped.
Her muzzle opened to reply, but then the light shifted and the image vanished, leaving a blank golden surface.
“No!” Pharazon shouted. He shook the charm, angled it in the light ten different ways, even blew some of his Faerie dust on it, but nothing he did made the image return. “Celice! Come back, I need you!”
“What’s the matter, boy?” a kindly voice, rusted with age, asked from behind him.
Pharazon turned around. Standing there, smiling warmly at him, was an elderly Werelupe with misted-over eyes. Grey-furred and hunched with the burden of years, he wore a headdress of ribs and leaned on a gnarled staff topped with a skull and feathers.
The Draik clumsily hid the charm behind his back. “N-nothing,” he said.
“Found a trinket, did you?” the Werelupe asked. He laughed, a warm, grandfatherly sort of laugh. It was nothing like the wicked barking of the rest of the pack.
“You’re… you’re not going to taunt me like everyone else, are you?” Pharazon asked, fingering the charm.
The aged beast shook his shaggy head. “No, no. I’m not like the rest of these uncivilised boors, my boy,” he said. “I don’t delight in tormenting those different from me. Or those touched by faerie magic.” He held out one paw in a gesture of greeting. “My name is Skoll. What is yours?”
Pharazon held his breath. Finally, someone was being kind to him. It could be a trick. But it could also be the only respite he would get here. He reached out his claws and shook Skoll’s paw. “Pharazon, sir,” he said.
“Well met, Pharazon,” Skoll said. He rubbed his chin. “Are you the one who arrived with his lordship’s new owner last night?”
“That’s right, sir,” Pharazon said. His gaze dropped. “Except… he took her away from me and now I’m stuck with a Werelupe who pokes fun at me all the time. And she made me wear these.” He showed Skoll the knucklebones at his neck.
Skoll sighed. “Well now, that’s quite unfortunate,” he said. “The only kind of strength these savages recognise is brute physical force, I’m afraid. They have such a woefully underdeveloped culture.”
“I noticed,” Pharazon muttered.
The Werelupe smiled again. “But you, my boy, have a more sophisticated kind of strength within you,” he said. “You possess the power of magic.”
The Draik looked up at him sceptically. “I’m afraid I don’t, sir,” he said. “I may be painted faerie, but I’ve never had much in the way of magical aptitude.”
“Oh?” Skoll said, tilting his head. “Have you ever tried?”
“Well… no—” Pharazon paused. “Wait.” Drawing a breath, he showed Skoll the charm. “I found this on the tunnel floor, and when I picked it up… I saw a friend of mine in it. And I believe she might have seen me. I think… I think it might have been magic, sir.”
Skoll crouched down and studied the charm, twitching his nose at it. “You don’t say,” he said. “Lad, you must have a fair deal more magical potential than you’ve been led to believe.”
“Do you really think so?” Pharazon asked.
The Werelupe grinned at him and said, “They don’t call me the Werelupe Sage for nothing.”
“Would you be able to teach me, sir?” Pharazon blurted. Finally, this was it. His chance to actually be good at something useful. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Skoll clapped his paw on the Draik’s shoulder and said, “Of course I would! I’ve been looking for an apprentice for a long while, but none of these bone-headed churls will take any interest in the magic arts. I’m sure it would help you pass the time here.”
Pharazon nodded slowly, wild plans forming in his head. It would do more than help him pass the time. If he really had as much of a strength in magic as the old sage seemed to believe, perhaps there would come a day that he could rescue his owner and himself, without waiting around for someone else to do it. “I’m in!” he said.
“’Oy, runt!” Suhel’s voice echoed through the tunnel.
Pharazon slumped and said, “Oh, great.”
“Agh, there you are!” the female Werelupe groaned as she padded down the passageway. “Didn’t I warn you? The tunnels split at points, so you have to keep your sights on—“ When she saw Skoll, her eyes widened and her ears turned back. “My apologies, magus,” she said in a lower, less confident and more formal tone, her gaze downturned. “I did not mean to allow this weakling to bother you.”
Skoll chuckled. “It’s no trouble at all,” he said. “I find him quite personable, actually. And I would like to take him on as my apprentice. Surely his lordship would find no issue in that.”
Suhel’s ear flicked and her tail curled inward as she folded her arms in thought. “We were on our way to the war room,” she replied, not seeming pleased with the idea. “You can ask him yourself.”
“Oh, and I’m sure you wouldn’t mind me taking the boy off your hands for most of the day,” Skoll said as she led them back to the tunnel split.
“I guess so,” she grunted.
Behind her, the sage snickered condescendingly to Pharazon. “Do you see what I mean?” Skolls asked. “They fear what they cannot understand, just like all uneducated rubes. By the by, boy, you may want to hide that charm. I doubt they’d take kindly to seeing a Lupe implement on a non-Werelupe.”
“Oh… right,” Pharazon said. He uncurled the fist that had hidden the charm and hung the chain around his neck. It was large enough to fit the much thicker neck of a Werelupe, but he found that if he looped it enough times, he was able to get it to a length where the knucklebones hid the charm.
Suhel brought them to a cavern plastered with maps, where Isengrim sat imperiously on a fur rug, silently reading a letter. Terra was curled up next to him, and Pharazon thought she was asleep until she opened her eyes. For a moment she looked at him, and then her gaze wandered to Skoll. After scrutinising the Werelupe for a moment, Terra looked back to Pharazon and said, “You doing okay?”
Pharazon smiled back. “I am,” he said. “For the first time in a while.”
She brightened at this and propped herself up on one arm. “Really?” she asked. “Good.”
“Milord,” Suhel said in greeting as she walked around the pile of papers in the centre of the room and approached her king.
“Suhel,” he replied. His crimson eyes glanced up at her, and then at the other Werelupe and the faerie Draik standing in the entranceway. “Ah, Magus Skoll. What brings you into my audience?”
Skoll bowed deeply. “Your Lordship, I seek your approval in taking Pharazon as my apprentice,” he said, gesturing to the Draik.
Isengrim’s ears perked. “Oh?” He looked over at Suhel again and asked, “How did this come about?”
“Cursed if I know,” the female replied, shaking her head. “Runt gets himself into all sorts of trouble while I try to keep him under my thumb.”
“Sire,” Skoll said, stepping forward and ushering Pharazon with him, “while I understand Suhel’s misgivings, I pledge to take care of her young ward. And the court will need a conjurer if anything should happen to me. I would like someone to teach my secrets to.”
“Hm.” Isengrim stroked his furry chin for a moment, then said, “Well, I see nothing wrong with it. He might as well be good for something. Go ahead, train him as best you can, Skoll. He might even grow a backbone while you’re at it,” he added under his breath.
Terra sat up and ran a hand through her hair. “Pharazon… are you sure you’re going to be okay with this?” she asked. “I don’t want you getting in over your head—“
“I’m not a child,” he hissed, a little harsher than he meant to. His ears drooped. “I’m sorry, Terra. But I’ve finally found something I could be good at. And something that could help us both,” he added, trying to sound cryptic and intriguing.
His owner gave him a dubious look. “If you’re sure,” she said.
“Completely sure,” Pharazon said.
Terra sat back on her hands and smiled halfheartedly. “Okay then,” she said. “Have fun. I’m glad to see you happy about something.”
“Me, too,” he replied.
Skoll put an arm around the Draik’s shoulders and began to lead him out. “That went much better than I had hoped,” the old Werelupe said. “It seems the fates are on our side.”
From behind them, Pharazon could hear Isengrim and Suhel chatting. “Caxton Bank’s grain tribute is on schedule,” Isengrim said, sounding pleased.
“Good, good,” Suhel replied.
“Oh, fetch me that quill and ink,” Isengrim said. “I have some… wage adjustments to make for the Black Blurgah. I am very displeased with how they treated my owner and I know just the thieves’ guild to assist in reparations…”
“Heh, this ought to be entertaining,” Suhel said. Their voices faded with the winding of stone walls.
“Suhel doesn’t like me,” Skoll said as they walked. “Poor girl. Her primitive mind can’t seem to wrap around the idea that my position as Isengrim’s sage doesn’t threaten her position as his second-in-command.”
Pharazon tilted his head. “She doesn’t seem jealous of you,” he said. “More… afraid, if anything.”
Skoll paused. “Well, jealousy can manifest itself in many forms, my boy,” he said. “I’ve seen enough of this world to know that much. You would do well to remember that all these beasts understand are power struggles. The strong are venerated and the weak trampled. They quite frankly lack the cognitive developments necessary for compassion.”
Pharazon decided he liked Skoll, a lot. Finally, here was someone who – despite being a Werelupe himself – shared Pharazon’s opinions of the race. “Ugh, they are nasty creatures,” he said. “I don’t know how you put up with them, sir.”
“Well, that’s why I stay in my study,” Skoll said.
Pharazon followed him through the underground labyrinth, across more bridges, through more tunnels, and then down a winding staircase cut into the rock. Here and there, shards of crystal poked out of the spiral shaft, glowing an ethereal green of their own accord.
The two reached a landing where a thick cloth hung on the wall, and Skoll pulled it aside and ushered the Draik into a cavern. “Welcome,” the sage said, “to my humble abode.”
Skoll’s study was not a particularly large grotto, but its feel was completely different from the rest of the Burrows. A mote-powered fire blazed in a hearth, and the stone floors were covered in real rugs with intricate patterns, not crude furs. A table and a pair of chairs occupied the centre of the room, and on the walls were shelves crammed with bottles and jars of various shapes and sizes.
But what caught Pharazon’s attention most was the bookshelf, full to brimming. “I never thought I’d see another book again!” he said, rushing over to the precious tomes and hovering his claws over their spines. “May I borrow some, sir?”
Skoll laughed. “Of course!” he said. The Werelupe placed his paw on the Draik’s shoulder and gently steered him away. “But first, let’s talk about your magic, shall we?” He pulled out one of the chairs and took a seat in the other, folding his paws on the table. A bowl of fruit sat there and he offered it to Pharazon.
“What can I use this moon charm for?” Pharazon asked, plucking a bright orange-and-yellow-striped tangella from the bowl. “Can I talk to Celice with it? What else can I do?”
The sage leaned back in his chair. “Patience, my boy, patience,” he said. “Altador was not built in a day, and neither are magical abilities. I shall teach you the basics, how to tap into your potential, before we go into specifics.”
At the mention of the venerable city, Pharazon’s ears drooped. “We used to live in Altador,” he murmured, staring at the tangella. Its sunny colouring reminded him of his home nation’s emblematic hues.
“I’m sorry,” Skoll said. He heaved a great sigh. “Homesickness is a terrible weight to bear, isn’t it. It never really goes away.”
Pharazon glanced up at him. “Are you homesick?” he asked.
“There’s more than one way to make a Werelupe,” Skoll muttered, his cloudy gaze growing distant.
“What do you mean?” Pharazon asked.
“Most Werelupes are Lupes who simply went wild,” Skoll said, steepling his fingers as his gaze grew distant. “They eschewed civilisation and let instinct take over. It changes them into the lawless beasts you now must live with. But some…” He shook his head. “Some are cursed with their form.”
“Like you,” Pharazon guessed. “I’m so sorry.”
Skoll returned from his thoughts and smiled warmly at him. “It is not your fault, young one,” he said.
“Can’t you just use a paint brush or a morphing potion?” Pharazon asked.
The Werelupe shook his head. “Were it that easy, I would not be here today,” he said. “Curses as deep as these cannot be counteracted by mere aesthetic magic. Believe me, I tried.” He sighed. “But, the tides of fate ebb and flow as they will on us all. I was fortunate enough to be taken in by Isengrim when he and his pack came to the area, and given this high position in his court. My needs are met and they leave me to my studies in peace, only asking for the occasional enchantment or scrying.” The old mage smiled. “And, well, if I were not here, you would not have anyone to befriend you and train you, so it seems it turned out for the best, hmm?”
The Draik thumbed the edge of the table. “Do you really believe in that whole fate thing?” he asked. “My brother says it’s mostly superstition.”
“Let the unsophisticated believe what they will,” Skoll said. “I’ve seen enough in my time to know that there is a fabric to things. Very little happens without a reason in Neopia.”
“I got a fortune about this,” Pharazon admitted. “A couple of days ago. I was with my family in Shenkuu, and we got fortune cookies, and mine said stuff about… ‘when shadows cover’—no, ‘consume the moon, spectres of the fallen shall rise… and threaten to devour the sun’. And then it said ‘Beware the beast that smiles’.” He swallowed hard. “They told me to ignore it, but it came true. At least, that last part. The first thing I saw when we got here was that… monster leering at my owner.”
“Oh, my, my, that is rather unhappy,” Skoll replied. “Undoubtedly the fates were trying to warn you of Isengrim’s machinations. What he lacks in learning he more than makes up for in cunning, I am afraid. And he’s ruthlessly merciless and without sympathy. I feel bad for anyone unfortunate enough to adopt him.”
“They should have listened to me,” Pharazon grumbled, “instead of brushing me off. I’ll bet there was a way we could have avoided this.”
Skoll shrugged and said, “At least you‘ve learned your lesson about always going along with what your family says, eh?”
“Yeah,” Pharazon said. Finally, though, he was making something of himself, and he wouldn’t be hurt by his family’s poor judgement anymore. “Thank you for training me, sir,” he said. “I really appreciate it.”
The Werelupe chuckled. “Don’t thank me until you can transmute sludge into gold, boy!” he said. “But yes, your training, let’s get to that straightaway.” He rubbed his paws together. “The first thing we’ll work on is knowing how to recognise magical energy within yourself, so you can tap into it and use it at will. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and find that little core of warmth within you.”
Pharazon bowed his head and concentrated, feeling his belly expand and contract with each breath. Somewhere deep within him, he felt a knot of warmness. “I think I found it,” he whispered. “What do I do now?”
“Will it out,” Skoll said. “Summon it, channel it through yourself."
Pharazon wrinkled his snout and imagined the warmth spreading. To his astonishment, he found he could feel it coursing through him, slowly but steadily. He grinned and said, “Okay. Now what?”
“Open your eyes,” Skoll said.
The first thing the Draik saw were his own claws, aglow. Sparks of aquamarine magic danced across the tips, burbling like a colony of Lightmites. “I did it!” he said. He stood up from the chair, nearly knocking it over. “Look, Skoll, look at this!” With a shout of joy, he flung his hand in the air and sent an arc of sparkles shimmering over the table. “I’ve never been able to do this before! I never knew I could do this!” He spun in a circle with his arms outstretched, watching the magic spiral around him, until finally he collapsed on the rug, laughing.
Skoll chuckled. “If only every teacher had a pupil as enthusiastic as you,” he said.
Holding his claws in front of his snout, Pharazon watched the magic fade, feeling a rush of fatigue and giddiness all at once. “This is incredible!” he said, staring up at the ceiling. He was strong. Things were finally going his way.
He’d never felt happier in his life.