One deep and dreamless sleep later, Hyren was awakened by Celice shaking his shoulder and holding a platter of eggs and sausage under his face. “Thanks,” the Grundo croaked, taking the plate and spooning egg into his mouth. He felt adequately rested physically, although his mind was still in a fog from everything that had happened.
Blynn sat with her long feet dangling over the side of the bed, poking at her food listlessly. Isengrim, meanwhile, tilted his platter and devoured the entire thing in one bite, making ungainly snarfling and snapping sounds as the food disappeared down his maw. He licked the plate clean and licked egg yolk from his whiskers, then sat back against the wall. He hadn’t moved from his spot at the side of Terra’s bed.
“I don’t suppose you have any more,” the Werelupe said to Celice.
The white Lupe cut a prim slice from her own eggs and said, “If I go back to the kitchens and ask for enough to satiate you, they’ll suspect I’m harbouring the Turmaculus in here.”
“Oh, I’m easy to tell apart from the Turmaculus,” Isengrim said with a chuckle. “I don’t sleep nearly as much.” He looked over at Seradar and his smile faded. “Help me reach Skoll, please.”
“Of course,” Seradar said through a bite of sausage, “although I haven’t—“
There was a knock at the open door. A yellow Shoyru stood there, shifting his weight anxiously from one leg to the other as his eyes moved from Arsinoe to Seradar. “Er… you have visitors,” the Shoyru said.
“Oh?” Seradar asked.
The Shoyru stepped aside to reveal a pair of Brightvale knights in full armor, their hands by their swords as they surveyed the scene. One of them, a burly island-coloured Kau, cleared his throat and said, “Headmaster Seradar, sir. Pardon the intrusion, but His Majesty was informed that there was a mountain Werelupe at the University.”
The other knight, a faerie Kacheek who looked anything but delicate with a scar stretching over one eyebrow and down her cheek, grabbed the hilt of her sword. “We were ordered to bring him to audience with the king,” she said. “By force, if necessary.”
Isengrim’s hackles rose as he got to his feet. Before he could say anything, Celice stepped in front of him. “Can this wait?” she asked. “We’re looking at a potentially global emergency, and he and his family have just suffered a personal tragedy.”
“Milady,” the Kau replied, “be that as it may, orders are orders. And all Werelupes from the Werelupe Woods were officially declared permanently exiled from Brightvale in Year Seven.”
“Exiled?” Isengrim asked, drawing himself up with a frown. “How could we be exiled if we never belonged to your kingdom in the first place?”
The knights drew their blades and stepped forward, but Arsinoe gave them a warning glare and held out her paw, which blazed blue. “I will not have violence in the infirmary!” she said.
“Hold your tongue, you lawless brigand!” the Kacheek said to Isengrim.
“Stop!” Celice barked. “If His Majesty wants to see the Werelupe, that’s fine, but at least afford him a shred of dignity after all he’s been through!”
“If your king wishes to hold audience with me,” Isengrim said, glaring at the knights, “then I will go. But as his guest, not as a prisoner. Stow your weapons.”
“You heard him,” Celice said when neither knight moved.
“But…” the Kau said.
“I’ll come with you,” the white Lupe said. “He trusts me. I’ll be a buffer zone. I’ve picked up a few diplomacy tips from Roberta.” She clutched her robes and started toward the door. “Let’s go, Your Majesty.” Her use of the title earned her confused glances from the soldiers, but she did not elaborate. Isengrim smirked in satisfaction as he followed her.
Hyren gave Terra one last glance, then broke away from the bed and said, “I’m coming, too.”
Celice paused and turned to him. “Oh?” she asked.
“I can’t do anything for Terra here,” Hyren said. “We have to defeat Skoll in order to lift her curse, right? So we have to convince Hagan to give us the resources to do that somehow. Blynn, you coming?” He looked over his shoulder.
The Zafara had curled up beside the girl, her head nestled below Terra’s jaw. Only a few bites had been taken from her breakfast. “I’m staying here,” she said.
Hyren could practically feel her sorrow and fear. Terra had created her. The two had a bond beyond what Hyren could fathom. Terra was all Blynn had ever known, and Hyren knew the Zafara’s devastation reached beyond even his own.
He felt terrible for dragging her into this. He wished he had left her back in Shenkuu. There were a lot of things he wished he’d done differently over the past week. But his family was in too deep now and he had to pull them out of it—what was left of them, anyway. He nodded and gave Blynn what he hoped was a comforting smile. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll get this all sorted out. I promise.”
“You better keep that promise,” Blynn said. She closed her eyes and buried her face in Terra’s neck.
“Don’t worry,” Arsinoe said, “I’ll keep a good eye on her. Seradar, will you be going?”
The Gelert grabbed his staff and said, “Oh, most definitely. Hagan can’t not hear about an insane mage causing a magic rupture on our borders. Perhaps that will make him pay less attention to the Werelupe.”
Hyren quickened his stride to keep up with the taller Neopets as the knights led them back through the halls of the University. He leaned in closer to Celice and muttered, “Why are you helping him?”
“Because I’m a neutral third party,” the sorceress replied. “While your dislike of him is justified, right now we all share a common goal. So I’m going to make sure he doesn’t get the short end of the stick.”
The Grundo frowned. “But they—“ He lowered his voice to a frustrated hiss. “The Werelupes are bandits and exiles! They kidnapped my owner—twice! It’s about time something like this happened to them!”
Celice stared at him for a moment, then said, “I’m sure someone’s thought the same way about you at some point.”
Her words made Hyren’s stomach jolt and his antennae drooped guiltily. Unable to bear her gaze, he looked away, studying the stained-glass windows lining the hall. Their intricate reproductions of native Brightvalian flowers did nothing to take his mind off of the fact that she was right. There had been a time, not really all that long ago, when he was the bad guy to a large portion of the galaxy. And he had tried to be the bad guy to a teenage girl and her Zafara, but they wouldn’t let him, and now here he was.
But he was still having a hard time transferring that line of thought to someone else. Especially where his family was concerned.
The throne room was everything Hyren expected it to be—spacious, light-filled, and draped with banners of white, gold, and forest green. King Hagan sat in his throne, eyeing the group curiously with two more guards at his sides. The knights, an Eyrie and a Blumaroo, stiffened when they saw the Werelupe, and their paws strayed to their swords.
Celice and Seradar stepped forward and knelt before the dais. “Your Majesty,” Seradar said.
Hyren felt he should kneel too, just in case. Thankfully the carpet was nice and plush, most likely for the purpose of comfortable kneeling.
“Magus Seradar,” the king said with a nod. “I’m surprised to see you here. And Lady Anfel, as well? I greatly enjoyed your paper on residual energies from the Heart of the Mountain in the Ice Caves, I’ll have you know.”
“Thank you, sire,” Celice said. “The fieldwork was just as interesting, I assure you.”
The green Skeith’s eyes flicked up at Isengrim, who remained standing. “But why have you brought this criminal into the kingdom from whence he was exiled?” Hagan asked. “And why does he not bow to his king?”
“Because you are not my king,” Isengrim said. With a self-important toothy grin, he placed his paws on his chest. “I am my own king.”
Hagan’s eyes widened. “You are the Werelupe King?” he asked. “That’s impossible—he’s dead!”
“I’m harder to kill than that,” Isengrim replied.
“Sire—sires, please,” Celice said.
Hagan clenched the arms of his throne and leaned forward, staring down the Werelupe. “You are not welcome here,” the Skeith said.
“I did not come here for the fun of it,” Isengrim replied, glowering at the other king.
“Excuse me,” Seradar said, “but the situation is critical—“
Hagan took a step off of his throne and his guards drew close around him, pointing their spears at Isengrim. “You impetuous, hard-headed fiend!” Hagan said. “Are you really arrogant enough to saunter into your own enemy’s nest and skulk about right under his nose?!”
The Werelupe King bared his fangs and snarled, making everyone in the room flinch. His knight escorts drew their swords and edged toward him. “I also didn’t come to here to listen to your insults!” he said. “I have more important things to attend to!”
“Like robbing our coffers and stealing our food, no doubt!” Hagan roared, his perfectly coiffed beard bristling. Isengrim’s snout wrinkled further and he opened his mouth to retort.
“Your Majesty!” a new voice called. A Faerie Grundo wearing Brightvale colours flew into the room, carrying a scroll. Her starry wings buzzed with magic as she sailed over everyone’s heads to land in front of the Skeith. “Dire news from Rillshire!”
Hagan’s eyes didn’t leave the Werelupe. “Can it wait?” he muttered.
“The area was overrun by some sort of spectral army!” the Grundo said.
Hyren jerked back in shock, and everyone else had much the same reaction.
“As I said, sire,” Seradar said. “The situation is critical.”
Hagan looked over at him, then to Isengrim, who nodded, and then back to the messenger. “Report,” the Skeith said.
The messenger unrolled the scroll. “Around dawn,” she said, “a massive army, tens of thousands strong, was seen marching steadily down from the mountains. They seemed to be phantoms of some sort, and when the knights and militia tried to fight back, their own weapons passed right through the spectres. But the phantoms’ weapons somehow still managed to do damage, and they swept through the village and fields, destroying everything.”
She looked up. “At time of writing, the army was last seen heading west by southwest. Toward this castle. Estimated arrival at their current speed of march is tomorrow morning.”
“Spectres of the fallen shall rise… and threaten to devour the sun,” Hyren muttered, putting a hand to his head.
“What?” Celice asked.
“That stupid fortune was right, after all,” Hyren said.
The Lupe sighed and said, “They do that sometimes.”
Hagan, who had been staring at the messenger slack-jawed, composed himself and folded his hands behind his back. He stared keenly at the two mages, the blue Grundo, and the Werelupe. “Why do I get the feeling you know something about this?” he asked.
Isengrim ignored him. He started toward the messenger, but was barred by the crossed blades of his escorts. “Fetch parchment and ink!” he barked to her. “I must send Weewoos to my fiefs to inquire after their safety!”
“You can write?” Hyren asked under his breath.
“You have fiefs?” Hagan asked.
“Yes,” Isengrim said. “And I won’t let them be overtaken by that fool Skoll’s hunger for destruction.”
“How did you get fiefs?” Hagan asked, narrowing his eyes.
Isengrim raised an eyebrow at him. “No one else was using them,” the Werelupe said. “So I took them.”
“You cannot just take a fief from another kingdom!” Hagan said. “That’s not how it works!”
“I can if they’re not being seen to properly!” Isengrim snarled. “They don’t even know whose kingdom they used to belong to! One of them was attacked by a Monocerous the other day, and I didn’t see you lift a finger to help them!”
“Well—“ Hagan stammered. “My knights can’t be everywhere at once—that mountain range is too extensive—“
“Exactly,” Isengrim said. “You’re stretched too thin and you don’t know the territory anyway. Which is why they need me. We, the Werelupes, the supposed scourge of yours and Skarl’s kingdoms, keep at bay much more malevolent things. You should regard our presence in the mountains as a blessing, not a curse.” His crimson gaze reverted to Hagan. “Of course, you’re too close-minded to consider that, aren’t you.”
“Close-minded?!” Hagan hissed.
“All right, you two!” Celice said, stepping between them like a scolding mother. “Save the politics for when Brightvale isn’t in mortal peril, please!”
“It seems to me,” Seradar said, “that this Skoll character is channeling his magic into controlling that spectral army. If they are bested in battle, the resulting strain on his psychic stamina should weaken him enough for someone to get in there and accost him.”
Isengrim looked back to the utterly bewildered messenger. “Send a Weewoo to a Werelupe by the name of Suhel,” he said. “Tell her to prepare for war and take the pack to Brightvale Castle with all haste.”
“Excuse me?!” Hagan asked. “I never agreed to that!”
“You’ll need us in the coming battle!” Isengrim replied. “Each of my warriors is as good as ten of yours!”
“But what interest do you have in helping us?” Hagan asked.
Isengrim’s posture drooped. “My owner lies here under a grievous curse,” he said, “and the only way to break it is to stop the one who summoned those spectres. That is why I defied my supposed exile. To save my owner’s life.” Isengrim lifted his paws in a gesture of supplication to the other king. “Surely you would do the same for your family.”
The anger seemed to wash away from Hagan’s expression, although his body language remained guarded as he studied Isengrim for a moment. “So be it, then,” the Skeith said. “You will fight alongside us and together we will erase this scourge from our lands. And we’ll discuss politics afterward.” He looked down to the Grundo courier. “Go ahead and send those messages. Send requests for military aid to Skarl and Darigan, as well.”
She nodded and took off with a flutter of sparkles that reminded Hyren heart-wrenchingly of how Pharazon used to fly. Hyren would not let the Draik’s betrayer go unchecked, especially when his owner’s life was on the line. “If those things are really incorporeal, how will we fight them?” he asked.
“Leave that to the experts,” Celice said.
“Brightvale University is the largest think tank in Neopia,” Seradar said. “And the largest source of trained magical power concentrated in one area, save Faerieland. Enchanting weapons to work against phantoms won’t be the main problem here, I think.”
“Then what will be the main problem?” Hyren asked.
“Well, fighting them, of course,” Seradar said. “They could still overrun us in sheer numbers, even if Meridell and Darigan send all of their forces, if that report is accurate.”
Hagan stroked his beard and said, “They’ll be upon us tomorrow morning… that’s not nearly enough time for anyone farther away to get here. We’ll have to make do with what we’ve got.”
“We’ll more than make do,” Isengrim huffed. “We will prevail. I will not fail Terra.”
“And neither will I!” Hyren said. The two glanced at each other before Hyren turned to Hagan and said, “I’ll be on the battlefield with your troops come tomorrow.”
“Do you have any experience?” Hagan asked.
Hyren smirked. “Experience?” he echoed. He drew his sword and performed a series of intricate manoeuvres with it, the metal glinting in the daylight as the blade spun and danced around him as it only could in the hands of a seasoned expert. In a flash it was back in his scabbard. “Your Majesty, I am a master swordsman with copious experience in large-scale ground battles,” he said. “And I’m much older than I look.”
Hagan and the guards looked at Hyren wide-eyed. “I meant no offense,” the Skeith king said. “We would be honoured to have you fight alongside our knights.”
“Thanks,” the former commander said. “I’m not going to stand idly by while my owner’s in trouble.”
“Well, that’s that, I suppose,” Hagan sighed. “Seradar, get to work on those enchantments and tell your battlemages to prepare for war. I’ll inform my generals and send word to the outlying population to evacuate the army’s path.” He looked over at the Werelupe and the blue Grundo. “Do you require anything for preparations?”
“My pack has already evacuated the Burrows in full gear,” Isengrim said, “and I trust Suhel took my own armour and weapons with her. I will be more than adequately equipped for battle come tomorrow.”
“I’ve never seen Werelupes fight before,” said the faerie Kacheek who flanked him. “This should be interesting.”
“Indeed it should,” Isengrim said.
“I’ll need armour, if it’s not too much trouble,” Hyren said. “I usually make do without it, but I also don’t frequently find myself on the battlefield nowadays. Not that my skills are rusty,” he hastily added.
The Island Kau on Isengrim’s other side clapped his hoof on Hyren’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, I think we can find a spare set of Grundo armour for you.”
“Smaller Kacheek armour should also work in a pinch, I think,” Hyren replied. “Similar proportions and all.” The idea of battle was beginning to lift his spirits already. Not just because he enjoyed it, but because here was something he could really do to help Terra.
“Right, right,” the Kau said. “Let’s get you geared up, then.” He looked excited at the prospect of someone to talk shop with. He turned to Hagan. “May we, sire?”
“Go on ahead,” Hagan said. “Just remember, you’re still escorting the Werelupe King.”
“Oh joy,” Hyren grumbled as they made their way out of the throne room.
“So, Headmaster,” Celice said. “Since it’s earth magic, we’ll most likely need air enchantment.”
“Correct,” Seradar said. “And it wouldn’t help to weave in some earth magic as a warding…”
Hyren left the two animatedly discussing the technical intricacies of their task, glad he didn’t have to. He would let them have their job, and he would take care of smashing things, which was his specialty.
Isengrim folded his arms behind his back as he followed the Grundo and the duo of knights through the stony halls. “This should be fun,” he said. “I have never been in another king’s castle before. I ought to defy my ‘exile’ more often.”
“Live it up while you can,” Hyren muttered. Thankfully the Kau diverted the Grundo’s attention after that with questions about Hyren’s swordsmanship, how he had trained, what kind of blades he favoured, and the like. Hyren had to keep his responses vague enough to not tip off that he had fought under Sloth, but he could still discuss some details and even told a few good war stories that didn’t require much context.
The armourers seemed to have already gotten the message about the pending invasion, as they welcomed the four urgently and set to work finding suitable gear for Hyren. For his part, he silently appraised the various workings in metal and leather. Most of it seemed to be ordinary-quality regulation gear, but there were a few pieces of nicely worked plate or distinctively shaped weapons that his eye lingered on. It wasn’t the high-tech, Virtupets-engineered stuff that he valued so much during his campaigning for Sloth, but it was admirable craft nonetheless.
Isengrim sat and watched with his unnerving stare as the island Kau and the head armourer, an unexpectedly Darigan Bruce who had moved to Brightvale to fill the position a few years ago, sorted through and fitted various pieces of armour on Hyren. The Grundo stood patiently, moving limbs as required, letting them know when a piece was too loose or too heavy or didn’t sit right.
But those red Werelupe eyes bored into him.
“What are you staring at?” Hyren finally asked.
“You,” Isengrim replied.
Hyren wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that.
“How’s this cuirass feel?” the Bruce asked, buckling a few straps.
Hyren twisted his torso, bending over and back and putting it through the range of movement he could expect during battle, pinpointing any problem areas. “It’s too tight around the ribs and under the arms,” he said. “And the shape of the stomach is too angular—it needs to be more round.”
“Ah, of course,” the Bruce said. He hastily separated the back and chest plates and removed them, handing them off to the Kau and leaving Hyren clad in the woolen undershirt they had provided him that would protect his bare skin from the harsh angles of the armour.
“I… must apologise for my irritation back there in the throne room,” Isengrim said to Hyren. “Terra would have been disappointed with me for that. I should have been trying to make amends with Hagan.” He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his muzzle. “I just hate being insulted and talked down to like that. I’ll have time enough to be diplomatic with Brightvale once we get Skoll taken care of.”
Hyren stared at him in confusion, not sure what to think about this information. The Grundo couldn’t think of anything to say, and was still at a loss for words when the Bruce came back with another cuirass.
“Did Terra create you?” Isengrim asked.
Hyren blinked, not expecting that question, least of all from the Werelupe King. “Er—no,” he said as the Bruce pressed cold metal to his back. “She adopted me. I’m one of the original Grundo population from Doran, and I’ve seen more battle than most pampered pets on Neopia ever will.”
Isengrim stared silently again. “What about Blynn?” he asked.
“She created Blynn,” Hyren said before turning to the armourer. “Yeah, I like this one. Let’s go with this one.”
“Good, good,” the Bruce said. “Now for pauldrons…”
Isengrim closed his eyes. “I was created,” he said in a quiet voice.
Hyren couldn’t quite get himself to be as dismissive as he wanted to be. “I see,” he said as the Bruce tested various pieces of armour on him.
“I hope you can forgive me someday,” Isengrim said, opening his eyes and looking back at the Grundo. “I have been selfish. But she has made me into more than I ever dreamed I could be. She is my family.”
Hyren wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. While he scrambled to come up with something, he rotated his arms. The Bruce had put a different model of pauldron on each shoulder. “Well… she’s my family, too,” Hyren said. He turned to the armourer. “I like the feel of the left one. The one on the right is too heavy and has a lip that bites into my deltoid when I straighten my arm.”
“Hah, this boy knows his stuff,” the Bruce said as he took off the right pauldron and replaced it with the left’s complement.
“That’s because he’s no boy,” the Kau knight said.
“Ah, my apologies, sir,” the Bruce said.
“No worries,” Hyren said. “I get that a lot.” Stars above, it was nice to be respected again. He’d forgotten just how alive battle, and preparing for it, made him feel.
Isengrim, meanwhile, stared at his paws and said nothing.
Once the armourer had pieced together a suitable ensemble for Hyren, and the Grundo had regaled everyone with a few more war stories, the knights brought them back to the University’s infirmary for lunch. It simply wouldn’t do to have the Werelupe King wandering the palace grounds and causing panic, despite the entire pack that was surely approaching Brightvale. And both Isengrim and Hyren wanted to return to Terra’s side until it was necessary for them to leave again.
Blynn was still curled up at her owner’s shoulder, and she barely opened one eye when they stepped in. Terra lay motionless and looked even more weighed down than when Hyren had last seen her. He grimaced. The battle couldn’t come soon enough.
“The curse is worsening,” Arsinoe said, “despite my attempts to stave it off.”
“She’ll make it,” Isengrim said, sitting back down by the side of the bed and taking his owner’s limp hand in his paws. “She’s strong. She’s fighting it, I know she is.”
But how long could she hold on, Hyren wondered. Would it be long enough for them to defeat Skoll? His heart pounded. He failed Pharazon. Would he fail his owner now, too? Hyren shook his head to dispel the worries that mocked him and trudged over to his owner’s side.
Blynn wasn’t looking so great, either. Hyren had never seen the usually perky disco Zafara so lethargic. “You okay?” he asked her.
She shook her head and nuzzled her nose back into Terra’s neck, looking like a hideous neon paisley scarf.
“You barely touched your breakfast,” Hyren said. “You need to eat something.”
“I’m not hungry,” Blynn said.
“I didn’t ask if you were,” Hyren said.
Her floppy ears twitched. “I’m… I’m so scared, Hyren,” she whispered. “If I lose Terra… I feel like somebody’s taking my soul and pulling part of it away… I feel so lost.”
Terra had created Blynn. It was no wonder the little Zafara was so affected. Would Pharazon have felt the same way if— Hyren stopped that line of thought. Thinking about Pharazon was still too painful.
“I know… I know how you feel,” Hyren replied quietly. He leaned over and put a hand on Blynn’s head. “Don’t give up. We have to have hope. We haven’t lost her yet and we’re going to fight to keep her, just like we did before. Just like we always do. Because we’re family.”
When there was no response, he mussed the tuft of fur between her ears and said, “Weren’t you giving me this same pep talk just a few days ago? And look, we found Terra just like you said!” Even if he wasn’t feeling particularly confident, he could at least fake it for his sister’s sake.
“We also found Pharazon,” Blynn sniffed, “and look what happened there.”
Hyren’s shoulders slumped. “I won’t make that same mistake twice,” he said. “But we can’t let our despair eat us alive. Terra wouldn’t want that.”
Blynn reached up and gave his hand a squeeze. “I’ll try,” she said.