“Ah, such finesse!” Skoll said. “Good, good, now add in the screlon, let’s see if you can keep up three at once.”
Pharazon didn’t dare blink, afraid that once he closed his eyes, the magic would break and the fruits floating above his head would crash down on him. Sticking out his tongue in concentration, the faerie Draik stretched out his claws to the screlon on the table and willed his magic at it. A stream of faerie dust swirled from his hand and enveloped the yellow fruit, and it began to bob like it was floating in water as it joined the magenorb and jipple pear overhead.
A grin spread up his snout. “I’m doing it,” he whispered. Struck by a sudden surge of confidence, he twirled one claw and the fruits began to revolve around his head like the Space Station around Neopia. “Oh, neat! Look at this, Skoll!”
Skoll laughed and said, “Power and ingenuity. Both marks of a great mage.” The old Werelupe leaned back in his chair. “You’re a rather fast learner, my boy. I must say, I am very impressed.” He reached up and fingered his grey whiskers, his clouded gaze growing distant. “You remind me quite a bit of myself when I was young…”
“Really?” Pharazon asked. The fruits wobbled in their orbits. One of the magneorb’s purple berries brushed past the tip of his ear and he bit his tongue concentrating on keeping it aloft. “Phew…” He floated the fruits back onto the table, rearranging them in their bowl for good measure.
The Draik climbed into the other chair, resting his arms on the table and waiting for the pressure in the back of his mind to fade. Skoll had warned him about the hazards of magical fatigue, and these exercises were supposed to build up Pharazon’s stamina for more advanced casting. “Okay, how was that?” he asked.
The Werelupe Sage shook himself out of his thoughts and clapped his shaggy paws together. “Very good!” he said. “You’ll be a fine court conjurer yet!”
“Thanks,” Pharazon said. Of course he couldn’t reveal the real reason he was so invested in his training. He had to save himself and his owner from this den of beasts. But his own magic aside, he thought he might have found a lead. “So… can you teach—“
“Oy, runt!” Suhel’s voice echoed across the stone.
With a groan, Pharazon turned to see her leaning against the entrance to Skoll’s grotto, holding the door-flap open with one arm. Why couldn’t she just leave him alone and let him enjoy his time with someone who didn’t think teasing him was fun?
Skoll frowned. “Can we help you, Suhel?” he asked.
The female glanced at him and her ears lowered, and she averted her gaze to the Draik. “Well, uh… you’ve been cooped in this little hole for so long, runt, do you want to go see the Great Prism Hall now?” she asked. “I think you’d like it—the clouds have cleared up a little, and the moon’s at the right angle to where its light comes through shafts in the rock and goes through crystal formations, and it covers the walls in rainbows!” She spread her fingers wide for emphasis.
“I’m studying,” Pharazon replied, lifting his snout in the air. Learning the magical arts was much more important than her simple amusements.
Suhel drooped. “You can’t spend all your time with your muzzle in a book,” she said. “I just got a Weewoo from His Lordship—he and Terra are staying the night in Caxton Bank, and… he did ask me to take care of you, so I was hoping the two of us could spend some time together.”
Pharazon’s eyes narrowed. “Why, so you can scare me again?” he asked.
“You’ve done naught but study since you met Skoll,” Suhel said. “Don’t you want to do something else? It’s no fun without you around.”
Skoll’s nose wrinkled and he used his staff to support himself as he drew himself up, his eyes flashing a pale green. “That is enough, Suhel,” he said. “Leave my pupil alone.”
To Pharazon’s surprise, Suhel’s ears pinned back and she let out a whimper, her eyes dropping. “Yes, Magus,” she said. She looked back at Pharazon as she backed out of the grotto. “I’ll… see you at dinner, then.”
“Bye,” Pharazon said rather noncommittally, glad to see her go. Once her footfalls faded, he raised an eyebrow at his teacher. “Is she afraid of you?”
“She fears magic, and who can blame her?” Skoll asked, inspecting his claws. “To the unlearned, the arcane arts are a dangerous thing. They cannot be fought with simple brute force, but with intellect and will. It’s far too sophisticated a thing for Werelupes to accomplish.” He paused, and then chuckled a bit. “Unless they were inteligent mages to begin with, of course.”
Pharazon clenched his fists. Maybe if he got good enough at magic, he could intimidate Suhel himself, and then she would see who the weakling really was. “Can you teach me how to use this Lupe moon charm now?” he asked, un-looping the golden charm from around his neck and letting it glint in the firelight. He hoped to somehow see Celice in it again, but it had remained unresponsive since that first vision when he found it yesterday.
“Hm…” Skoll grunted. “Well, you’ve been such a good pupil today, I don’t see why not. I, too, am very curious as to what you can do with it.”
“What do you mean?” Pharazon asked.
“Well, you know about species-specific items, correct?” the Werelupe asked. He hefted himself from his chair and began to pace in front of the hearth, paws folded behind his back.
“Yes,” Pharazon said. “They only work in combat for the species they’re crafted for.”
“Lupe moon charms have a variety of positive effects for Lupes,” Skolls said, “such as their shielding properties against the magical spheres of earth and darkness. Normally, none of these benefits work on non-Lupes.” He stopped and looked at Pharazon sidewise. “However, considering your vast magical potential, it does not surprise me that you somehow became attuned to it. Have you noticed an increase in strength, perhaps, or more acute hearing?”
“Mm… no,” Pharazon said. “The only thing different was that vision. But it only happened once.”
“Ah, so it’s become a scrying tool,” Skoll said. “Very interesting.” He moved closer to Pharazon, blocking the firelight and looming over him ominously. “And very useful for someone who might want to get rescued.” The Werelupe’s ears perked.
A chill ran up the Draik’s back and he swallowed hard. He did not doubt that Skoll could be dangerous if provoked. Pharazon wanted as much as possible to stay on the Werelupe sorcerer’s good side. “I-I won’t use it to ask for help, I p-promise,” he lied, although he was sure his thudding heart and twitching wings betrayed him. “I j-just want to use it to t-talk to my f-friend.”
Skoll sighed, and the fierceness in his eyes faded, leaving merely an old and tired-looking Werelupe. “I understand, my boy,” he said. “It’s so difficult leaving a life of luxury for the company of bone-carving cretins. But I do hope you are aware of the risks involved in your request. Your contact could ask questions. You might betray us.”
Pharazon decided it would be wise to not let Skoll know that Celice was also a mage. That would earn a definite “no”. “I won’t tell her anything about where I am,” he said, his voice trembling. “I can lie if I have to.”
“It’s nothing personal,” Skoll said, looking genuinely regretful. “I honestly would not like to see you come to any harm. But if Isengrim discovered that you had contact with someone outside the Burrows, things would not end well for you, I am afraid. He is quite the violent brute, and such treason would send him into a terrible rage.” The sage shook his head. “I am sure you understand how that kind of uncivilised sort cannot be reasoned with.”
“Please trust me with the moon charm, Skoll,” Pharazon said. “I’ll only use it in here. I won’t tell anyone else, not even my owner.” Terra didn’t deserve to know at this point, he thought bitterly. Not when she pranced around pretending like everything was going to be okay and naïvely thinking friendship and peace would solve any problem.
The Werelupe placed both his paws on the table and stared into the Draik’s wide blue eyes. Finally, he said, “All right. I suppose I can concede you the ability to use the moon charm to speak to one person. And only one. And you must never mention your location, or ask for help or rescue of any kind. Are we clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Pharazon said. Inside, he was apologising to his trusted mentor for the deception. Surely Skoll would understand, though. The Werelupe Sage himself did not seem happy here.
“Good,” Skoll said, smiling kindly at him and patting his shoulder. “I don’t think we’ll have any problems from you. So!” he barked, sitting back down and reaching out to inspect the moon charm. “You want to scry with it, do you? Contact a specific person? You’ve done so before, inadvertently, so subsequent attempts shouldn’t be all that difficult.”
“Okay,” Pharazon said. “How do I do it?”
Skoll returned the charm to him and said, “Reach out to it with your magic. Concentrate on the one you want to talk to. Considering it’s already attuned to you, and your remarkable performance today, it should be easy.”
The Draik looked down at the smooth, golden crescent. “Will she be able to talk back to me?” he asked.
“Yes. Well…” Skoll raised his muzzle and sniffed at the air. “It’s quite late now. She might be asleep, unless she lives far away.”
“No, she’s close,” Pharazon said. “In Brightvale.” He remembered that Celice’s last letter to him before the Lunar Festival was about her wrapping up her research in Maraqua and heading back to her home kingdom for a while.
“Brightvale…” A strange mix of emotions swirled on the Werelupe’s face and his eyes grew hard for a moment before he glanced back up at Pharazon and cleared his throat a bit. “Well, in that case, your scrying will most likely manifest to her in the form of a dream. It’s a toss-up whether or not she’ll have her wits about her enough to respond.”
“She’s smart,” Pharazon said. “I want to at least try.” And he hoped to impress his mentor. Assuming he could get it to work. “Here goes.” The Draik took a deep breath and willed the magic forth. He felt it spread from his core down his arms, and his clawtips began to tingle and spark.
The moon charm glowed, faintly at first, and then strong with a silver light like Kreludor’s. Celice, Pharazon thought. He wanted to get in touch with Celice. He focused on her face. Within moments, he found himself staring at the white Lupe not in his mind’s eye, but in the charm itself. “It’s working!” he cried, scooting back in the chair in surprise.
Skoll chuckled and said, “Don’t forget to say something to her, boy!”
“Celice, it’s me, Pharazon!” his apprentice said. “Can you hear me?”
The Lupe’s expression turned from bewildered to astonished. “Pharazon!” she replied, her voice clear as though they were speaking through an open window. “What’s going on—where are you?!”
Pharazon gritted his teeth. “I’m fine!” he said. “I’m totally okay. How are you doing? How’s Brightvale?”
“Oh, never mind the pleasantries, Pharazon!” Celice said. “This is important! Hyren and Blynn are looking for you!”
The Draik’s heart caught in his throat. “They—what?” He glanced over at Skoll, who gave him a warning look, and laughed nervously. “Anyway, how’s the weather been?”
“Confound the weather! I want to know where in the world you are!” the sorceress barked.
“Sounds like I’ve caught you in a bad mood… uh… I’ll talk to you later, okay?” Pharazon forced a grin onto his snout as he mentally broke the connection.
“Don’t you dare—“ Celice’s voice faded with her visage.
Pharazon thumbed the charm nervously and looked up at Skoll. “Sorry,” the Draik said. “That could have gone better.”
The Werelupe gave him a sympathetic smile. “You did very well not letting her catch on, though,” he said. “Eventually she’ll give up and you can have more mundane conversations, I’m sure.”
“Yeah.” Pharazon stared at his new scrying tool. His brother and sister were searching for him. He had to help them. This required a bit of subterfuge, but he thought he could pull it off. Skoll seemed to trust him too much for the Werelupes’ good. Pharazon felt rather guilty using him, but it was either this or continue to be treated as a weakling. “I have to get a drink of water,” he said. He got out of the chair, re-stringing the charm around his neck.
“All right, don’t be long,” Skoll said, occupying himself with selecting a book from his collection. “We have so much yet to learn.”
Pharazon lifted the cloth partition aside and made his way out of Skoll’s grotto and into the stairwell. The nearest burbling underground spring was close, but Pharazon passed it and made his way further down the shaft until he reached another landing. Surely he would be out of Skoll’s earshot here.
With another deep breath, Pharazon crouched down against the wall. He felt quite daring and clever as he held the charm in front of himself again and opened communications.
Celice looked rather irate as she came back into view and said, “Pharazon, what’s—“
“Shh!” Pharazon raised a claw to his lips. “I don’t have much time. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you more earlier. There were other ears in the room. I should be safe to talk here, though.”
The Lupe nodded and adjusted her spectacles. “So where are you?” she asked.
“The Werelupe Burrows,” Pharazon said. “We’re being held prisoner by the Werelupe King.”
Celice did a double-take and her ears pointed forward in alarm. “Wait—the Werelupe Burrows?!” she hissed, fighting to keep her voice low. “They were destroyed by Sir Tormund and Princess Roberta!”
“No, they weren’t!” Pharazon said. “I know it sounds crazy, but you have to believe me! The Werelupe King—Hyren rescued Terra from him years ago and he’s been plotting revenge this whole time! You have to get us out of here!”
Celice’s jaw hung slack, but she said, “I believe you—“
The sound of claws clicking on stone from above made Pharazon shush her again. “I have to go—give them my love,” he said as he cut the magic.
“Pharazon?” Skoll called from upstairs. “Are you all right?”
“Y-yes, I’m fine, sorry about that,” the Draik replied, scrambling to his feet and pulling the charm over his head.
The Werelupe’s muzzle poked around the bend. Skoll clutched his staff, using it to ease himself down the uneven stone steps. “Water’s back that way, boy,” he said.
“I know,” Pharazon said. “I just… got curious about what was further down here.” Hopefully his anxiety didn’t show too badly.
Skoll seemed to buy it, as he gave Pharazon an exasperated sigh and ambled down to meet the Draik on the landing. “Remember what curiosity did to the Kadoatie, lad,” he said. “Suhel’s stories of what might still lurk down here aren’t just tall tales.”
“Right. Sorry,” Pharazon said as he allowed Skoll to lead him back to the Werelupe’s study, trying hard not to grin in relief and pride. He had done it. They were going to be saved. Assuming Celice and his siblings could save him, that was. This was still something he might have to do himself, and he wanted to be prepared for this possibility. Even if the entire military of Brightvale marched on the Burrows, Pharazon’s help might still be needed.
Visions began to dance in his head of himself wiping out hordes of noxious Werelupes, rescuing a band of beleaguered knights, leading his brother and sister to victory and protecting his owner instead of the other way around, for a change. They would be so proud of him.
Back in the cozy little cavern, Pharazon snacked on a squibble berry, perusing a book of enchantments while Skoll studied another thick tome. It was nice, Pharazon thought, to have a kindred spirit to spend time with. He looked from his book to the large, bright blue berry, and something clicked in his mind. Books and fruit. He glanced up at the fruit bowl. They were all species from Brightvale.
“You’re from Brightvale, aren’t you,” he said to Skoll.
The Werelupe lifted his head like a great burden had been placed on it, and his grey gaze was suddenly overpoweringly sad, with a core of something hard and bitter. “Yes,” he said. “Brightvale is my home kingdom, although I have not seen it in many years.”
“I’m so sorry,” Pharazon said. “If you don’t mind my asking… what happened?”
“I was once a normal Lupe,” Skoll sighed, “and a scholar of magic at Brightvale University. I was an excellent student, nearly top of my class. I was poised to graduate with honours and land a prestigious position. Unfortunately, it was my youthful zeal that doomed me.” He looked down at his paws with an anguished frown. “I wandered into the woods one night looking for spell reagents… and found a curse instead.”
Pharazon leaned forward in his seat. “Could anybody at the University fix it?” he asked.
“The University?!” Skoll slammed his paws down on the table so hard it made Pharazon’s teeth rattle. “Those arrogant imbeciles! When I sought their help, they told me it was my fault for researching off-limits spells, and they didn’t know of any cure anyhow!” His claws dug into the wood and his fangs gleamed in the firelight. “They expelled me and exiled me from Brightvale, banishing me to an unknown fate in the woods as though I had become a witless beast!”
Pharazon shrank in his chair, half thinking he should bolt for the doorway. “I—I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Skoll took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, lowering his lips back over his teeth. “… My apologies,” he breathed, drawing a paw over his face. “They are painful memories. But the past is the past.”
“If it helps… I had some bad experiences in Brightvale, too,” Pharazon said. “I wanted to attend the University, but they just mocked me. One of them apologised later, but… I know what you mean, they are awfully stuffy there.”
“I’m sorry that happened to you, lad,” Skoll said. “It seems those with true talent and intellect are always scorned by the pretenders.”
“Were you really studying off-limits spells?” Pharazon asked. He remembered Celice telling him that there were certain branches of magic that only authorised post-graduates were allowed to study—the magic had been deemed far too dangerous.
Skoll blinked. “Well—yes,” he said. “But really, what else was I supposed to do? My classes were so rudimentary, I was bored stiff.” He flapped his paw. “You know the faculty just imposes those restrictions to make sure their students don’t become as powerful as them. They like being in control.”
Pharazon rubbed his chin. “You don’t suppose that was the reason they expelled you and exiled you, do you?” he asked.
For a moment the sage said nothing. He glanced aside, then cleared his throat and looked back to the Draik. “Well—regardless, I don’t think I deserved exile for that!” he said, pounding his fist on the table. “They should have been proud that one of their students had the audacity to push the boundaries of academics, for once!” He scowled deeply. “And I am still sure that my being a Werelupe had much to do with it, anyhow. Those pompous oafs have an image to uphold, and a Werelupe student does not fit that image.”
His frown turned into a bitter smile as he stared into the fire. “But you know what they say,” he said, “don’t get mad, get even. The best thing to do in a situation like that is to beat them at their own game and prove you’re a better mage than they ever deserved to associate with.”
Skoll settled himself back into his chair and placed his paw on his book as though drawing strength from it. “At any rate,” he said, “I lived alone in these forests for many long years, until recently when Isengrim and his pack moved into the area. They discovered me fending for myself as a lone hermit, and he brought me into his fold. Now my standard of living is far more comfortable, and all I must do to maintain it is look busy and perform the odd spell.”
“That explains why you’re nothing like the rest of them,” Pharazon said.
“Indeed,” Skoll harrumphed. “I have pretended to acclimate to their culture, but I have never truly thought of myself as one of them. I doubt I ever will. They can’t even begin to understand me. I miss being civilised—I do wish Isengrim wouldn’t lower the rest of the pack to his own cultural standards.”
“Me too,” Pharazon said. He felt the knucklebones at his neck and grimaced.
“Just think,” Skoll said, “we could be living in sophisticated luxury right now with the wealth that Werelupe possesses in his hoard, but they all insist on this utterly Tyrannian existence. What a waste. If only they weren’t blind to what’s best for them. But…” He looked around at his study. “This is all I have, now. It could be better. But it could be worse.”
“So you’re trapped here too, just like me,” Pharazon said.
Skoll gave the Draik a searching look, and then smiled faintly. “Now, now, lad,” he said. “Let’s not worry about the things we can’t change, and focus on the things we can. For my part, I am ecstatic to have such a talented, hardworking pupil.”
“And I’m glad to have such a great teacher,” Pharazon replied. “You’ve been a real friend to me. Especially since my owner has the wrong idea about this whole thing.” His wings sagged. He couldn’t help but be worried about her even if she was being completely unsympathetic. “Do you think she’ll be okay?”
“Who can tell,” Skoll muttered. “Isengrim is not exactly known for his kindness, I’m afraid.”
“I think she’s trying to befriend him,” Pharazon said.
“A sentimental goal, if a naïve one,” Skoll said. “I don’t see much hope for her success. He is not that kind of Neopet.”
“That’s what I figured,” Pharazon sighed. “I don’t know why she keeps trying.”
“Well, let her have her vain dreams,” Skoll said. “Whatever helps her cope here.” He turned back to his book.
Pharazon nodded, but then paused. “But… when Isengrim got mad at Terra the other night,” he said, “when she ran out of the commons cavern, he looked like he felt really bad about it. He even apologised to everyone for his outburst. And when he and Terra came back, they seemed like they were getting along really well.”
“Then you have seen how manipulative Isengrim can be,” Skoll said. “It’s such a shame how he uses his charisma to mislead those who lack the wisdom to see past his charades.”
Again Pharazon took a moment to respond. He didn’t want to believe his owner was that stupid. But he also didn’t trust Isengrim. “It’s just… Terra’s really smart,” he said. “And a really good judge of people.”
“It sounds like she may not be all you’ve thought she was,” Skoll said, “if she is weak enough to fall for Isengrim’s machinations. I’m terribly sorry, Pharazon, but sometimes even those we love the most will disappoint us.”
“Yeah… I guess so,” Pharazon said, fingering the charm again as he looked at its blank surface. He frowned. Terra had indeed disappointed him throughout this entire ordeal. She should have taken better care of him. She should have tried harder on the Black Blurgah instead of trying to make him do things he just wasn’t cut out to do. And she should be trying harder to get them out of here instead of pursuing a friendship that would never work.
Pharazon’s gaze returned to his own text, but he couldn’t bring himself to read the words on the pages. Terra was wrong, he knew she was. She was simply deluded by her own tenderheartedness. It would be up to him to save them for once, to step up to the challenge and use every angle possible to free them from the Werelupes.
This situation did not call for compassion—it called for force. And he would obtain the power to force their way out.