Hyren thrust out his sword, but it was batted aside by an enormous dark paw whose claws grazed the metal, throwing up sparks. An immense weight flung him to the ground and pinned him there. As Hyren caught his breath and brought up his blade, it was caught in the teeth of a scimitar.
Past it, glaring down at him, was an all-too-familiar Werelupe wearing a crown of bone. “You will regret your intrusion, treasure seeker,” the Werelupe King growled, his fur bristled and muzzle scrunched in sheer aggression.
“I’m not after treasure,” Hyren replied, trying to ignore the furry knee digging into his stomach.
The massive Werelupe shoved the Grundo harder into the cave floor. “So you just want to exterminate us, then?!” the creature snarled. “We are the forsaken of Neopia and I will not allow you to destroy our only sanctuary!”
Hyren brought the round pommel of his sword up into the bandages wrapping the creature’s stomach. With a yelp of pain, the Werelupe King rose to his feet and clutched his side with one paw. A look of intense agony came over his face, but his grip on his sword remained sure. In the next breath, he charged Hyren.
It was the duel that had waited twelve years to happen. The two locked blades, withdrew, and collided once more, enmeshed in their own little world of strike-and-block-and-strike-again. The Werelupe King’s massive sword cleaved through the air and Hyren rolled beneath it, feeling the swoosh of wind above his antennae. As he came back up, he lashed out at the Werelupe’s ankles. The king threw back his arms and vaulted away from Hyren’s reach.
Hyren moved to close in again. He vaguely heard Gwyneth’s bellows and battle cries from Blynn and Celice, but all of his attention was focussed on the interplay of his own sword with that of the beast opposing him. Going for another strike, Hyren found his blade thrust away by the Werelupe King’s. The Grundo stumbled back, but caught himself in time to duck out of the way of another ferocious slash.
Last time, the Werelupe King had declined a duel with Hyren, electing instead to send out his secret weapon, Gnarfas. Apparently he didn’t have that to fall back on any more, which was some solace for Hyren as that fight had not gone well.
This one was going little better, though. Hyren spun away from an overhead strike and dodged the arc of a diagonal slash, trying to get distance. The Werelupe King’s strength was too oppressive for much straight blocking, and Hyren watched and waited for an opening to strike.
The two were deadlocked, each weakness being compensated for by a strength in the other as the clash of their swords rang out over and over. The Werelupe King was large and powerful, but Hyren was small and quick. Hyren had ages of military experience on his side, but the Werelupe King was no stranger to combat either.
But Hyren was also slowing down. He couldn’t take on a horde of Werelupes and not start to feel it. His muscles cried out for relief as he raised his sword to parry, and he gritted his teeth as the leather grip chafed his sweaty palms.
He had to end this soon. As the Werelupe King’s arms lifted for another strike, Hyren darted forward. He dove between the creature’s legs, tucking into a roll and flattening his antennae against his head.
Coming back up, he pivoted on his knee and slashed out at the Werelupe. At just the same time, the brute spun around and drove his sword down, stopping Hyren’s blade centimetres from his own furry legs.
Hyren’s bones rattled with the force of the impact and he forced himself to move past the pain, sliding his sword away and pushing himself to his feet in time to skip back from a horizontal slash. The timing couldn’t have been better—while the Werelupe King was recovering from the follow-through, Hyren had a breath in him and a moment to strike.
With a shout, he drove his blade toward the beast. If he could just get this hit in, it could be over. In the corner of his vision, movement registered. A jolt of adrenaline seized him when he realised he’d been a hair too slow. His wrist twisted painfully as the Werelupe King’s jagged blade wrenched the shortsword from Hyren’s hands.
The Grundo let out a groan and moved to step back, but a furry paw shot out and slammed him into the cave wall. Hyren gritted his teeth, backpedaling uselessly against the stone.
“Isengrim, stop!” A very familiar human’s voice rang out above the din.
Hyren’s antennae perked. “Terra?!” both he and the Werelupe King shouted at the same time.
Terra sprinted toward the two, her braid flying wildly behind her. “Isengrim—that’s Hyren!” she yelled. One of her legs was bandaged and she limped slightly, and Hyren frowned.
Isengrim’s eyes widened. Immediately his fur flattened and he dropped the Grundo. He backed away, ears folded down slightly. “What—“ he stammered.
Terra rushed to her Grundo and dropped to her knees, flinging her arms around him. “It’s okay,” she said to him. “I’m okay. I promise.”
“Terra—“ Hyren hugged her back and tears began to sting his eyes. “I was so worried about you—“
“Let them alone!” Isengrim bayed to the other Werelupes. “They are my owner’s family!”
Blynn and Celice looked utterly bedraggled as the legion of Werelupes retreated from around them. Gwyneth gave one of them a parting cuff with her paw.
“Terra!” the Zafara called out. She scampered down from the Petpet and bounded on all fours over to her owner.
Terra caught her up and held her two Neopets close. “It’s okay,” she said again. “I’m here. I missed you guys.”
Hyren pulled back and looked her over. “What happened to your leg?” he asked, also noting that she was wearing skins like a Tyrannian’s, but better-tailored.
“We fought a Monocerous!” Terra said, smiling over her shoulder at Isengrim. “It was awesome!” She squeezed Hyren’s shoulder. “You would have been so proud of me! I just got a little collateral damage. Totally my fault. Sneaking up on a Monocerous never ends well. But Isengrim finished it off.”
“Are you serious?” Blynn asked.
“Yep!” Terra said. “We saved a whole village!”
“’We’?” Hyren asked, narrowing his eyes and looking back up at Isengrim. The Werelupe stared back at him, looking more confused than angry. But Hyren could not shake the fact that this creature had caused so much grief for their family.
“Hey… where’s Pharazon?” Blynn asked.
From atop Gwyneth, Celice looked around. Her bun had become disheveled and her spectacles slid down nearly to the tip of her nose before she pushed them back up. “Pharazon!” she called out hoarsely.
Around the cavern, the Werelupes were picking themselves and each other up, tending to wounds as more of their pack came out of the tunnels with medical supplies and healing potions. The green-eyed female sheathed her sword across her back and pawed over to the king, still glaring down at Hyren like he had personally burned her crops and stolen her Whinnies.
Terra sighed. “We’re having some… minor difficulties with Pharazon,” she said, glancing up at Isengrim. “But, on an up note… meet your new brother, guys! This is Isengrim, King of the Werelupes.”
Blynn and Hyren stared at the Werelupe, and then at each other, mouths open in utter shock and confusion. Hyren looked back to Isengrim and said, “You’ll never be a brother of mine. Give me my owner back.”
Isengrim looked hurt, and then he growled, his hackles rising. “Our owner goes where she pleases,” he said.
“Which explains why you kidnapped her,” Blynn said, eyes narrowed.
Terra leaned forward and said, “Wait, guys—“
“I don’t need to stand here and be vilified by intruders!” Isengrim snarled. “I hoped we could be family, but I see I’m just another monster to you!”
“Pharazon looked terrified when Celice talked to him!” Hyren said. “I don’t want you in my family at all, you barbarian!”
“Please listen to me—“ Terra started to say, when a sharp bark from across the cavern startled them all.
Celice sat rigid on Gwyneth’s back, her eyes wide and glazed like she was seeing something far in the distance. “No—Pharazon—!” she yelped. Her body twitched like she was caught in some sort of paralysis and her ears were flattened against her head. “Where are you—agh!” Gritting her teeth, she slumped over on the Ganuthor’s back, trembling, her tail tucked.
“Celice! What’s the matter?!” Blynn cried.
“Something’s—something’s gone very wrong,” the white Lupe gasped, clutching at Gwyneth’s fur. “There’s magic, thick, malevolent magic everywhere—“
Isengrim looked at the female next to him. “Skoll,” he breathed, and she nodded, suddenly looking rather ill. He put a paw on one of her bone pauldrons and spun around to face the Lupe sorceress. “Where are they?!” he barked.
“I don’t know,” Celice whimpered. “It’s dark and there are terrible markings on the walls.”
“One of the graveyard crypts,” the female Werelupe breathed. “The—the northwest one. That’s where they went last time.”
“Stay here, Suhel,” Isengrim said. “Help direct triage. I’ll be back shortly.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?” Suhel asked. “You gave me charge over that little runt and I must atone for my mistake.”
“I dismiss you from those duties,” Isengrim said, “and you have performed them well. I would not make you face such a thing.”
“We’re coming with you,” Terra said, favouring her hurt leg as she stood up. “I failed to stop Pharazon before and I’m not going to fail again.”
Hyren used the opportunity to grab his sword. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
“Follow me and you’ll find out,” Isengrim said. “Terra, I’ll carry you!” he said as he dropped to all fours.
The human grabbed his shoulder fur and swung her leg over his back. “Come on, guys!” she said to Blynn and Hyren. “We have to save Pharazon!” With that, Isengrim launched himself up the main tunnel.
Hyren supposed they had no choice but to follow. He and Blynn scrambled back to Gwyneth and clambered aboard.
“Gwyn, go!” Blynn said. She tapped the Petpet’s head and Gwyneth let out an exhausted grunt. “We’re going to Pharazon, girl!”
At the sound of her owner’s name, the Ganuthor perked up. She shook herself and loped after the Werelupe King, her ribs heaving as she rumbled back through the den of beasts. At least this time, Hyren thought, they didn’t have the extra strain of trying to fight anything off. But what was going on with Pharazon? And why did Terra and Isengrim seem to be friends now?
“You doing okay, Celice?” Blynn asked as they emerged into the forest again.
“Oof…” Celice rubbed her head and said, “That was certainly the most intense vision I’ve ever experienced. Wherever they are, I’m guessing the innate magical qualities of the area were amplified and fed through Pharazon’s awareness. They might even have been enough to trigger an accidental communication, as he didn’t seem to be trying to talk to me.”
“Huh…” The Zafara looked up at the sky beyond the tangled trees. “Ooh. Lunar eclipse tonight,” she said. Kreludor’s silver light was beginning to redden, its edge darkening as it moved into Neopia’s shadow.
Isengrim led them down another sunken forest path, this one studded with stone ruins from some bygone age, into an ancient graveyard ringed with mausoleums and wreathed in mist. It was quiet here—too quiet, and something about it made Hyren’s skin crawl. And graveyards didn’t normally faze him.
Celice shuddered in front of him, her tail bushing. “This place reeks of earth magic,” she said.
“I thought earth magic was nice,” Blynn said.
“Magic of any sphere can go foul if it’s used wrongly,” Celice replied as they followed Isengrim up a hillside to one of the marble tombs. “The most powerful earth magic deals with life and death… and has the ability to twist them.”
At the yawning entrance to the crypt, Isengrim stopped and allowed Terra to dismount, standing up and drawing his sword. “Let’s go,” he said. “It’s a good thing you brought your conjurer. We may have need of her yet.” He eyed Celice dubiously, as though he was trying to figure out whether or not he trusted her.
Blynn patted Gwyneth’s nose and said, “Stay out here, girl. We’ll be back with Pharazon in just a minute.”
“Ugh…” Celice held her stomach as they crept past the sarcophagus in the entry chamber. With a flick of her wrist she ignited a small orange flame on her clawtip, which she held out to light their way as they advanced into a dark, downward-sloping shaft. “The magic here, it’s… over-saturated,” she said. “Cloying.”
“Are you gonna be okay?” Blynn asked from beside her.
“It’s similar to how you feel after you eat a slice of cake that’s far too sweet,” Celice said.
Blynn licked her lips and said, “Can’t say I’ve ever had that problem. And I’ve eaten a lot of cake in my day.”
As they progressed, a sickly green glow began to light the walls. Celice glanced over at the inscriptions on the stone and drew a sharp breath, her ears flattening. “I don’t like this place,” she said. “Fell magic was used here.”
Even Hyren could feel it, a stifling thickness that seemed to be trying to envelop him. He could only imagine how severe the sensation was for magic users.
Suddenly, ahead of him, Isengrim stopped abruptly. The group stood at the opening to a large chamber bathed in green light. A subtle, low-pitched humming filled Hyren’s antennae and jarred his bones.
“Well,” said a gravelly old voice. “This is a surprise. I wasn’t expecting you here, my liege.”
Standing near the middle of the chamber, in front of a gaping pit in the stone floor, was a wizened, grey Werelupe stooped with age, leaning heavily on his skull-topped staff. Beside him stood a familiar faerie Draik, his jaw set with determination, a necklace of fangs hanging at his chest.
Isengrim stepped forward. “Skoll, what is the meaning of this?!” he barked, brandishing his sword. “You’ve done so much for the pack—why this betrayal?”
Pharazon’s eyes widened when his family and Celice stepped out from behind the Werelupe King. “You—you guys came!” he stammered. “Terra?!”
“Pharazon, don’t do this,” Terra begged. “This isn’t the way to fix things.”
“Don’t worry, Terra,” Pharazon said. “You’ll see that I’m right. Hyren, I’m going to rescue us! I’m strong now—like you!”
Hyren narrowed his eyes. “That’s great… I think…” he said. By this point, he didn’t know what to think anymore. It occurred to him that Terra’s kindness might have transformed the Werelupe King, just as it did for Hyren himself so many years ago. But could he believe in the healing power of compassion when it came to someone he regarded as a mortal enemy?
Skoll pounded the end of his staff on the stone, causing the empty eye sockets of the skull to flare green. “For years I’ve suffered the company of you mangy barbarians,” he said. “And now it all ends!”
Isengrim winced like he’d been stung. “Is that really how you feel about us?” he asked.
“Did you ever really think anyone could respect you?” Skoll asked. “You’re all just a bunch of self-important oafs running around in the woods, robbing and plundering as you please! No, there will never be a place in Neopia for you!”
Terra put a hand on Isengrim’s arm as the king flinched. “You know that’s not true,” she said to the Werelupe King. “Pharazon, don’t do this!”
Isengrim stepped forward, his tail rising as he gripped his blade. “And how do you plan to oust me, traitor?” he asked. “You can’t scare me off with eerie lights and ominous threats!”
“I needed an accomplice,” Skoll said, gesturing to Pharazon. “Someone with powerful magic who could work alongside me. Of course, with your pack’s childish aversion to magic, such a thing was hard to come by, until you so foolishly deposited him directly into my paws.”
Pharazon clenched his fists and said, “That’s right! We’re going to stop you together!” He looked up at the sage. “What do you need me to do?”
Skoll swung out his staff and knocked him into the pit.