Roberta’s directions proved to be far more helpful than she’d predicted. Hyren, Blynn, Celice, and Gwyneth found the turnoff easily, and by nightfall they’d begun to make their way up into the wooded mountains. Between the Ganuthor’s fur, their woollen cloaks, and a warming enchantment courtesy of Celice, no one was cold that chilly night. Even so, Hyren couldn’t help but be envious of Neopets with fur.
The next morning dawned clear and crisp. Most of the rain clouds from the past few days had moved on, leaving high wisps of white in the pale sky that foretold an impending frost. The days were getting colder and it might very likely snow if it clouded over again.
So much for an early spring, Hyren thought with dismay as he ate his breakfast of cheese toast. At least Celice was handy with her fire spells.
He would hate to get caught out here in the snow, though. Hopefully they could find the Burrows before that happened. But then there was the return to worry about. Gwyneth was back to her old self, romping around the campsite and chasing Dragoyles, but she still favored her wounded wing even though they’d removed the bandages. Hyren wouldn’t ask her to fly yet.
As they packed up and got back on the trail, he decided he would just have to cross that bridge when he came to it. For now he had to concentrate on finding the Burrows. Which mostly amounted to looking at Roberta’s map from around Celice’s side, and trying to figure out how well it matched their surroundings. Hyren was no amateur at navigation, but the fact of the matter was that Celice had lived in the area her entire life and knew it much better than him, and Blynn wouldn’t let go of the compass. So the Grundo was mostly relegated to scanning the thick forest for anything that looked like a potential threat.
An hour past lunch, Celice drew in a sharp breath and said, “Look—ahead.” She pointed to something in front of them and Hyren had to lean out from behind her to see it.
On the side of the road, nearly obscured by hemming spurs of rock, was a small dell that contained the stone ruins of some ancient structure. Lichens covered every upturned paving stone and leaning pillar, and brown vines draped from the crumbling remnants of a ceiling.
Blynn brought Gwyneth to a halt. “D’you think those are the ruins Roberta mentioned?” the Zafara asked.
“They must be,” Celice said as she studied the map again. “We’re in the right vicinity.” She looked up at the split path ahead. “Take the left fork. That should be the north one.”
The Zafara consulted her compass and said, “Yep, that checks out. Let’s go, Gwyneth.” She tapped the Ganuthor’s head and they began moving again.
As the sun sank, so did the land, and by sunset the group found themselves in a marshy vale nestled between hills. Mortogs croaked from their hiding places in the reeds, and the sun’s dying light made the lurking mists glow a pale pink like the lost clouds of Faerieland.
“Well, looks like those directions were spot-on,” Hyren said. “We must be close now. Roberta said something about a hut on a hill, so let’s try to find that and go from there.” Now that they were this close, he could feel a tugging in his insides, urging him to keep going. It filled him with a second wind and he felt like he could travel through the night without a problem if it meant finding Terra in the morning.
“We should stop here for the night,” Blynn said. “There’s a mound of dry land over there—“
Celice lifted her nose and said, “No, bad idea. I smell Werelupes.” Her snout wrinkled. “Ugh, terribly uncouth things. Why can’t they live like the rest of us.”
Hyren’s antennae pricked. “Werelupes?” he asked.
“Yes,” Celice said. “But the scents are a few hours old at the least. We haven’t anything to worry about… for now.”
“Then we should keep going,” the Grundo said. “If we stop here, we risk getting attacked. We’re definitely in the Werelupe Woods now, and the farther in we go, the closer we get to their lair. This is their domain and they most likely won’t ignore travellers.”
“But Hyren…!” Blynn let out a whine and kicked her feet. “You promised you weren’t going to hurry anymore!” She turned around and peeked over Celice’s side to glare at him. “Remember what happened last time?”
“I know, but I honestly feel like we can’t stop,” Hyren replied. “It’s not impulse, it’s instinct. Please, Blynn, I need you to trust me.” He put a hand on his chest. “I’ve been an idiot in the past and I’m sorry, but this is different.” He paused. “What’s your intuition saying?”
The Zafara closed her eyes. After a moment, she sighed and her shoulders slumped. “Yeah. We need to hurry,” she said. “Something isn’t right. Let’s keep going.”
The sky and mists continued to darken as the Ganuthor pressed onward. Soon the pinks and oranges faded, replaced by purples and then the deep blue of twilight. The rising full moon illuminated the ruins of a cottage atop a hill rising from the fens. It was there that they found, obscured by thickets of undergrowth, a trail that started to sink into the ground as it went, steep banks of earth rising on either side.
They weren’t very far along that path when Celice’s ears pricked. Before Hyren could ask what she heard, the Lupe turned and shot a fireball into the darkened trees. There was the hiss of the flame striking something, then a thump and clumsy rustling as something ran away.
“Drat,” Celice said, wiping her paw on her robes in agitation. “I missed.”
“How can you tell?” Blynn asked. She kept Gwyneth walking, but drew her slingshot.
“Because it’s still moving,” Celice said.
“Show yourself!” Hyren shouted, gripping his blade. Mounted combat was not something he’d ever seriously attempted, and he wasn’t confident that his stubby legs could keep up with Gwyneth’s if they had to make a break for it.
For a reply, he got a long, throaty howl, and then a silence so heavy he felt like it was pressing down on him. Pursuing him.
Celice’s ears pinned back. “Run!” she barked. “Get us out of here!”
“Gwyn, go!” Blynn said as she leaned forward over the Ganuthor’s head.
Gwyneth dug her paws into the soft earth and shot off down the path. Her galloping footsteps pounded like drumbeats and she tucked her wings close to her sides, occasionally sticking one out for balance as she veered through curves in the twining trail.
Hyren drew his sword and held the blade aside. “What’d he say?” he asked Celice, figuring Lupe howls were universal.
“He’s alerting the others to intruders,” Celice hissed. “So much for stealth.”
“See, this is exactly why I take rear guard,” Hyren grumbled. He looked over his shoulder and saw a legion of eyes bearing down on them, glowing red, yellow, and green in the night. He swallowed hard. There was no way he could take all of them on.
Suddenly all of this felt like the stupidest idea he’d ever had. But Terra and Pharazon were ahead, he reminded himself. “Faster!” he yelled. He swung himself around so he was sitting backwards and clung to Gwyneth with his knees.
“This is as fast as I can take her without flying!” Blynn cried back. “And I don’t think she’s fit to fly yet!”
“Ugh, if only I’d paid more attention to my air magic studies,” Celice said. She reached over Hyren’s head and shot a few more fireballs. The moving sea of eyes shifted to give the flames wide berth, and there were a few yelps of pain, but the collective juggernaut charged on.
“There’s something ahead!” Blynn said. “It looks like a giant skull—gack!” She gave her slingshot a sharp snap and something large and dark tumbled away from the Ganuthor, scrambling back into the trees.
An arrow whizzed by Celice’s ear and she winced, letting out a bark of panic. “Why did we think this was a good idea?!” she asked. She squared her shoulders and thrust out her paws, and a massive wave of flames burst to either side of them, throwing back their assailants.
“’Cause Hyren’s too dang persuasive!” Blynn replied.
Celice growled. “That’s a magical gate ahead!” she said. “Those are some powerful wards I’m sensing!”
“Well, break them!” Hyren said. He jabbed out with his blade to parry away a sword slash that had come too close for comfort. Thankfully Gwyneth wasn’t a Uni or she’d have gotten a newly trimmed tail. “Can you do it from a distance? We won’t have time to stop!” Hopefully, things inside would be a little easier to handle.
“I can try! Cover me!” Celice sat back and braced herself with one paw, placing the other to her head and murmuring things in a language Hyren didn’t know.
“You got it!” Blynn said as she aimed a shot at one of the dirt banks. Hyren realised she must have used a Haunted Woods pebble, because the side collapsed in a wave of soil and roots, taking a few trees with it and narrowly missing Gwyneth herself.
The eyes disappeared for just a second, and then crested the mound of debris, their owners baying and snapping their fangs in frustration. Hyren steeled himself for another round.
A sound like bone grinding against bone reverberated through his skull. “It’s working!” Blynn said.
“Good, keep going!” Hyren replied. A Werelupe moved in to strike and the Grundo grunted as he slid the beast’s broad blade away.
“Duck!” Celice shouted. She flattened herself against Gwyneth.
Hyren did the same, just in time to see the tips of immense fangs whizz by the top of his head. The skull shuddered and jerked, sparking green with magic, but it stayed open and allowed the horde of Werelupes to pour through after them.
Hyren turned around to see that they were barreling through a firelit tunnel that sloped steeply down, howls echoing around them. “Blynn, don’t use your Haunted Woods rocks!” he managed to get out. “They’ll bring the whole place down!”
“Good thing this place isn’t made of wood,” Celice muttered as she threw out a wall of fire. Several Werelupes who had tried to jump them from an upper passageway tumbled away, their fur singed.
“Problem!” Blynn yelped. Gwyneth bellowed in distress, her head swinging to and fro.
“What?” Hyren asked as he held his blade in front of him, centimetres from the noses of their pursuers. He searched their vicious eyes, silently daring them to lunge.
“We ran out of places to run!” Blynn said.
Hyren glanced over his shoulder to see that they were heading straight for a sheer drop into a black abyss. What scared him more as he turned back to the Werelupes and batted away a blade was that the creatures looked perfectly aware of this.
“This might get a little warm,” Celice said. She took a deep breath and slammed her paws together.
The cool dampness of the caves was replaced by a blast of hot, dry air. The next thing Hyren saw was a sphere of flame retreating outward from around them, pushing Werelupes away with it. Gwyneth slowed to a stop near the edge of the pit, her head slung low.
Celice slumped against Hyren. “I… can’t do that again,” she panted. “Find… a way out…”
The Grundo frowned, his antennae flattening against his head. “I’m not leaving unless it’s with Terra and Pharazon,” he said. Rising to his feet, he leaped off of Gwyneth and brandished his sword. “Bring it on!” he cried, flashing a crazed grin. The monsters swarmed him as their weapons and eyes and teeth glinted in the torchlight.
Hyren dug his feet into the cavern floor and his grin widened. After twelve years, he knew how to fight small. “Stay with me!” he yelled to the others. “We’re going to push through!”
As the Werelupes descended on him, Hyren jolted into action. He rolled between the legs of the first and slashed at another’s paws, and as two pounced toward him at once he dropped to the ground and let them smash into each other.
Their style reminded him much of his own when he was a mutant, relying on power and throwing their weight around, with little room for finesse. That was still his preferred mode of fighting, but his own reduced size and strength now precluded that.
But that also put him at an advantage here, he thought with relish as he locked blades with a warrior and pivoted underneath her sword, using her own momentum to push her off balance. With a tug of her arm, he sent her crashing into two of her comrades.
Gwyneth was close behind. She let out a deep bellow and ploughed through the Werelupes who rose to stop her, shoving some away with her head and swiping others aside with her thick paws. Celice had an arm draped over Blynn’s shoulders while the Lupe sorceress shot fireballs, and the Zafara aimed her slingshot at anyone she thought might pose a threat.
A smack of pain exploded in Hyren’s side and he found himself being flung across the cavern, thankfully still with a grip on his sword. Letting out a breath to expel the air in his lungs, he tucked in his head and rolled into the landing, springing back up with blade across his body as the Werelupes advanced on him. He winced at the soreness in his ribs, a stinging reminder of how much lighter he was than these creatures.
His heart pounded as he saw Gwyneth attempt to get to him, but the number of Werelupes just kept growing and they were beginning to bog her down. She gave a panicked roar as she kicked one away from her flank.
Hyren took a moment to collect his breath and swallow the dryness in his throat before the Werelupes leaped at him again. He ran underneath his first assailant and turned to swing at another when he was slammed aside and sent tumbling on the stone.
He rose to his knees and brought up his blade in time to block a broadsword held by a Werelupe with fangs woven into her crimped black hair. She snarled, narrowing her green eyes, and pushed the blade down harder. “What are you doing here,” she breathed venomously. “Outsider, intruder. You don’t belong here. This is our kingdom.”
“I’ve come to take back what’s mine,” Hyren said.
The Werelupe grinned, exposing her long fangs, and said, “Sorry, we have a no-return policy.” She lifted her head. “Take down the Ganuthor!” she barked to the Werelupes crowding around them. “I’ll handle the Grundo myself!”
Hyren’s overworked lungs drew a sharp breath and he twisted aside, lashing out with his foot. It caught the female off balance just long enough for the pressure of her blade to lessen and he pushed up and out, using the momentum of the heavy metal to swing himself back to his feet. He wasn’t a mutant any more, true. But he hadn’t spent the last twelve years training for nothing.
A quick glance at his opponent’s paws confirmed his suspicions—she was fighting left-handed. Not unheard of, but certainly uncommon. But nowhere near enough to throw off a swordsmaster. He thrust away an overhead strike and used the extra moment to go in for her left arm.
She hadn’t been expecting that, and Hyren’s sword hit her bone bracer with enough force to splinter it. With a yelp the Werelupe stepped back, her grip on her sword weakening enough that in Hyren’s next breath he flipped it out of her grasp. It clanged on the stone nearby as he backed her against the cavern wall at swordpoint.
“My business here is with your king!” he breathed hoarsely, his shoulders heaving.
As she held her arm, her green eyes glowered down at him, but caught a glimpse of something over his shoulder. The snarl in her throat died, replaced by a cruel smirk. “Then I shall grant you audience with him,” she said.
Hyren turned around to see a pair of red eyes and a set of teeth heading straight for his face.