They flew through the rest of the night, following the setting moon, retreating from the phantasmal glow-storm that hovered above the Werelupe Woods. Hyren realised that he must have ended up dozing off against Celice’s back, because the next thing he knew, she was shaking him to wake up.
“We’re almost there,” she said, using her elbow to nudge him back upright.
“Good morning to you, too,” Hyren said. His antennae were numb from the frigid air, but being seated between two warm-blooded Lupes seemed to have kept him warm enough through the night. The sky ahead was blue-grey, but the clouds behind them glowed pink with impending sunshine. Brightvale Castle and its surrounding city lay still in the twilight, not yet ready to fully wake. Even the castle’s banners hung motionless for want of breeze.
Isengrim sat stone-still behind him, holding Terra with a silent vigil. The Werelupe’s crimson eyes burned and Hyren could only imagine what thoughts were buzzing beneath them. Isengrim had been betrayed, his home invaded, his pack forced to flee their keep yet again, and now his owner was suffering from the effects of taking a curse for him. It hadn’t really been a pleasant night for anyone involved.
“Take us straight to the courtyard,” Celice said to Blynn. “I don’t want to have to mince words.” Blynn nodded and the Ganuthor banked into a curve, swooping down toward the University.
The courtyard was illuminated in the pre-dawn gloom by steady orbs of cool light, the colour of daylight, no doubt the work of the University’s light mages. Hyren caught the glint of armour moving against the stonework and stiffened. People flying in on larger Petpets was not uncommon—after all, that was half the reason for the courtyard in the first place, not to mention the adjoining stables. No, the problem was when those people had Werelupes with them.
As Gwyneth touched down on the flagstones, a group of Neopets surrounded her. Instead of flowing sorcerer’s robes such as Celice wore, these guards sported tunics and trousers and carried blades at their waists, although they also clutched wands that glowed in a panoply of hues.
They stared at the group with confusion, but thankfully not aggression. Hyren supposed this was probably because they recognised Celice. He would have to send Yuezhi a thank-you note. Picking up this conjurer was perhaps the best thing that had happened to them in their search.
The white Lupe alighted from the Ganuthor. “I can explain,” she breathed, re-arranging her robes, her nose almost touching the tip of a red Kyrii’s wand.
“Well, you had better,” the Kyrii snapped, tossing her mane of scarlet hair. “If I weren’t on my fifth can of Achyfi I’d think this was all a bizarre dream. First that flux of earth magic at midnight, and then a Werelupe registering on the sensor enchantments…” She turned to a blue Uni. “Is he spellbound?”
“No, ma’am,” the Uni replied, her wand held high as she scrutinised Isengrim from afar. The Werelupe gave her an irritated glare, making her ears pitch back. “But there’s a heavy curse on the owner, looks like.”
“What in the name of Hagan’s beard is going on, Lady Anfel?” the Kyrii asked.
“It’s a long story,” Celice said. “Now excuse us, we have to talk to Master Seradar.”
The Kyrii blocked her path. “With a Werelupe from the wilds? Are you mad?” the guard asked.
The sorceress grinned. She did look rather crazed with her hair in disarray and her robes disheveled. “Of course,” she said. “Now let me through.”
“Not until we put the proper bindings on him to ensure—“ the Kyrii started to say.
At the word “bindings”, Isengrim leapt from Gwyneth’s back. The ground trembled when he landed beside Celice. The guards winced, but held their wands steady and closed in on him.“You shall not bind me,” he said, his crimson eyes blazing as he stared them down. “I have journeyed here to seek help for my owner, not so you can use your foul magics on me!”
“That’s… your owner?” the Kyrii asked.
“Yes,” Isengrim said.
“Feh, I don’t believe it!” the Uni said. “He’s obviously a remnant of the pack that used to live in the mountains!” Isengrim bristled at this statement.
“She is his owner!” Blynn said from atop Gwyneth. “And he’s my brother! Please, ma’am, you gotta believe us! She’s under a real bad curse and we need help!” She looked down at the guards with wide, watery eyes. “We—we already lost somebody in our family tonight! I can’t lose my owner, too…” Her voice broke and she buried her face in her paws, her shoulders shuddering.
The Kyrii and the Uni looked at each other and then to Celice, trying hard to ignore the fuming Werelupe looming over them. “Fine,” the Kyrii said. “Go see Headmaster Seradar and get this barbarian off the premises as soon as possible. I trust you’ll keep him under control, Lady Anfel.”
“He doesn’t need my control,” Celice said. “He’s not a Petpet.” The guards stepped aside and she gestured to Isengrim to follow her.
Blynn passed Gwyneth off to a summoned stablehand and the Zafara joined Hyren behind the Werelupe as Celice led them into the University’s vaulted foyer. It was quiet and their footsteps echoed on the polished marble, and there was nary a soul to be seen except for a single small dust mote that rolled into a corner as they approached.
“Nice use of the Puppyblew eyes back there,” Hyren muttered to his sister as they climbed a wide flight of stairs. His aching legs made him wish the University used lifts like sensible people, and they certainly had the magic to power such, but he supposed they enjoyed their traditional image.
The Zafara’s eyes, still brimming with tears, were trained on the carpet, and her muzzle twisted into a grimace. “I… he’s gone, he’s really gone,” she whispered. “And we couldn’t do anything to stop it. Just when we found them… they got taken away again.” She lifted a paw to her face.
Hyren hung his head. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he said. “I let all of you down.” He took a deep breath and put a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll save Terra. I promise. There’s still hope for her, at least.”
“Maybe,” Blynn said. All traces of joy had left her magenta eyes, and they seemed dull and lifeless.
As the group ascended steps and stalked through hallways, they met with a handful of scholars roaming the halls. The startled Neopets could only manage double-takes before Celice rushed the Werelupe away, giving them a look that told them not to ask questions.
At the top of a tower, once Hyren’s legs were sufficiently aching, Celice approached a polished set of oaken doors. She pounded on the intricately carved surface, bouncing up and down on her hind paws. “Master Seradar!” she barked. “I’m sorry if I’m waking you, but it’s an emergency—“
One of the heavy doors swung open. The wizened purple Gelert on the other side, though still in his nightgown, looked wide awake, his trailing ears perked. He was also currently in conversation with an array of small portals floating at his eye level. They were like windows that showed the animated expressions of other Neopians as they engaged in a fervent discussion with both him and each other.
It worked on the same principle as the personal holographic projectors Hyren was familiar with from his time in Sloth’s army, but these were obviously of magical origin. From where he was standing, the Grundo glimpsed Illusen and Jerdana, their faces grave and lips thin.
“—Get Fyora in on the summons,” the earth faerie was saying.
“We tried her earlier,” a crackly voice that sounded rather like the witch Edna replied from one of the portals that faced away from Hyren. “She’s in conference with the Faerie Council, and she always sets up wards against summoning during those things.”
A male’s deep tone groaned from another portal. “That’s the problem with Faeries,” he said, “too much bureaucracy. Qasala never has to worry about that.”
“Qasala was also under a curse of undeath for two centuries, Jazan,” a female voice from the same portal said. “So worry about your own track record, first.”
“That one wasn’t my fault, Nabile!” Jazan said.
Seradar harrumphed as he finished nudging the door open. “You’re all straying from the issue at hand!” he said. “If that earth magic rupture was so severe that it was felt all the way in Altador—“ His eyes finally fell on the group standing outside his chambers, and as he saw Isengrim, he froze. Everyone else stopped talking, as well.
Seradar’s long moustache bristled and his ears swiveled back. “Good heavens,” he said, “that curse is thick as treacle!”
“We know,” Celice said. “We need your help!”
The faces in the portals all began talking again, their tones becoming more and more pitched. “Ugh, you all are getting nowhere,” Seradar said. He swished his paw through the portals, extinguishing them, and gave a sigh of relief. “Now I can work in peace and quiet. What is going on here? Wait—tell me on the way to the infirmary.” He brushed past them and to the stairs.
Hyren had to force his legs to keep moving. Thankfully his training had taught him how to ignore fatigue. He could rest when he had a moment to stand still. As they descended the tower, he asked Seradar, “So… you’re okay with the whole Werelupe-in-your-midst thing?”
“Between that magic flare six hours ago,” Seradar said, “and one of the worst curses I’ve ever seen, he’s really the least of our problems, now isn’t he?” With a flick of his wrist Seradar had another window open in the air in front of him. “Arsinoe, meet me in the infirmary. It’s an emergency.”
By the time they reached the medical wing of the University, Celice had filled her old teacher in on every detail. They were met at the door by a green Aisha sorceress who escorted them to a small room with a single cot. Isengrim knelt down and gently placed Terra on it. There seemed to be an even heavier pall around the human than before and Hyren swallowed hard, trying to keep the dread from overwhelming him. Blynn took Terra’s limp hand and gave it a squeeze.
“Excuse me, please,” the Aisha, who was evidently Master Mage Arsinoe, said. She scooted the two Neopets away to hover her paws over the owner’s body. “Seradar, assist.” The Gelert nodded and joined her side.
Arsinoe’s and Seradar’s paws began to glow blue. It looked as though they were trying to pick their way around a tangle of string and feel out knots in it. Occasionally one of the two mages would mutter things Hyren didn’t understand, about energy foci and mana flow, and the other would nod in agreement.
“What do you think, Master Arsinoe?” Celice asked, cleaning her glasses on the hem of her wide sleeve.
“The spell was definitely cast with lethal intent,” Arsinoe said, “but malfunctioned in the way it hit the target.”
“She wasn’t the target,” Isengrim said. “I was.”
Arsinoe glanced up at him and asked, “She dove in the way to save you?”
“Yes,” Isengrim said. “How did you know?”
“It was an educated guess,” Arsinoe said. “Since she sacrificed herself for your sake, it caused the magic’s effects to lessen and imbue her with a curse instead of destroying her outright.”
“But how is that possible?” Hyren asked.
Arsinoe smiled. “Acts of selflessness have disrupted spells before,” she said. “Especially if the victim has a strong spirit.”
“So… she’s gonna be okay?” Blynn asked.
“Well… yes and no,” Seradar said with a sigh. “The curse is slowly overwhelming her, although she’s fighting it as best as she can.”
“But I can keep her stable for a while,” Arsinoe said.
Hyren frowned. “So what’s the good news?” he asked.
“From the looks of it,” Seradar said, “this is a curse that can only be broken by the caster. Or, barring that, by the demise of the caster.”
“I wish I had known that in the first place,” Isengrim said as he reached for his owner. “I’m going back to the Burrows, then. Skoll must stop this madness.”
“Wait!” Seradar said. “You can’t go back there now! The entire area is a highly volatile magical tempest, and he’s in control of it. You’d be decimated the moment you set foot in that domain.”
“I’ve never felt such powerful earth magic before,” Celice said.
Seradar leaned against the wall and folded his arms. “And we have no idea just what he wants to do with it besides vague threats of vengeance,” he said. “Which makes planning counter tactics difficult.”
Hyren sat down on the rug and leaned his head against the stone. Not moving never felt so good. “Let me guess, you can’t just take a bunch of mages out there and blast him into oblivion,” he said.
“Heavens, no,” Seradar said. “Haven’t you ever heard that saying? ‘Fools rush in where mages fear to tread.’ This situation must be handled delicately.”
Hyren supposed that made him some kind of wonderful fool. He decided to interpret that as a compliment.
“If Celice’s report is accurate,” Seradar said, “and I have no reason to doubt that it is, none of us can make another move until Skoll does something with all of that energy and shifts his focus away from himself.”
Celice yawned and slumped over the windowsill. “Good gracious, I haven’t had this little sleep since my thesis paper,” she said.
“Sleep sounds really good,” Hyren said, his eyes already half-closed. He hated to admit it, but he couldn’t do anything to help Terra if he was dead tired. Part of him wished that if he went to sleep, he would wake up to see her awake as well. But the feeling in the pit of his stomach told him it wasn’t going to be that easy.
“Oh, you poor dears,” Arsinoe said. “Have you eaten anything?”
“No,” Isengrim said, a hungry gleam in his eyes.
Blynn climbed up on the bed and said, “I’m not hungry.” The Zafara curled up by her owner’s side, resting the spade of her tail over her muzzle.
“Lady Anfel, would you like me to escort you to your chambers?” Seradar asked.
“I would if I thought I could walk that far, Headmaster,” Celice groaned, opting instead to curl up on the floor.
The Gelert chuckled and eased himself into sitting against the wall. “It’s been a long night for us all,” he said as he folded his paws in his lap, his bushy eyebrows drooping. “I think our best course of action would be to get some shut-eye. Trying to do anything under sleep deprivation is never wise.”
“Be a dear and fetch some pillows and blankets, would you?” Arsinoe called to someone outside the room.
The last thing Hyren saw before he drifted off was Isengrim kneeling over their owner, holding her hand in his paws, while Arsinoe murmured magic over the human’s prone form.