That night, the Werelupes practically threw a party in the castle courtyard. The pack had set up furs and fires and spent the night preparing for war. They bayed and laughed and sung rhythmic chants about combat and victory as they sharpened their weapons, checked their armour, and feasted on the food they had brought from the Burrows.
Hyren stayed in the infirmary with Terra and Blynn, and the sound of the Werelupes’ activity outside faintly filtered past the stone walls and stained glass. But that wasn’t why Hyren was having trouble getting to sleep.
Blynn had barely eaten anything that day and she remained largely unresponsive. Terra was beginning to look… dirty, for lack of a better word. She literally appeared as though she’d been exhumed from the ground, covered in a strange loamy patina. To Hyren it seemed like the earth was slowly trying to reclaim her where she lay.
The blankets and pillows that Arsinoe provided Hyren were comfy enough, but they couldn’t ease the knots in his gut. Tomorrow he had to prove himself on the field of battle again. Sure, there were the skirmishes at the Tyrannian Obelisk the previous year, and many wars before that, but this time the life of his owner hung in the balance. And he had to trust in the allegiance of a faction that had been his enemies up until yesterday. He’d like to see anyone sleep well in a situation like this.
Isengrim and his escort returned sometime after midnight. The massive Werelupe sat by his owner’s bed once again and nodded off watching over her.
Hyren supposed he must have done the same shortly after, because the next thing he knew, Celice was shaking him awake and the grey light of a cloudy morning was glowing through the window. “Eat up,” she said, handing him a plate of eggs and bacon and a bowl of porridge.
The Werelupe King was gone. Blynn and Terra still lay motionless on the bed.
“Hurry, we haven’t much time,” Celice said, leaning a paw on the doorway. “The army’s already assembling.”
Hyren gulped down spoonfuls of porridge and ripped into his toast. He would need all the energy he could get for today, and pacing himself was proving to be hard. “Do you have a status report?” he asked.
“The spectral army is about two hours away,” Celice said. “If you march soon, you should intercept them at the Sweetwater Fields within an hour. Meridellian forces have arrived, all that Skarl could muster at such short notice.”
Hyren crunched on a strip of bacon. “How many?”
“Thirteen thousand, it looks like,” Celice said. “Added to twenty-two thousand of our own.”
“Hm. Not too shabby,” Hyren said. But would it be enough to succeed against legions?
The Lupe pushed her spectacles up her snout and said, “Darigan said he would send his airborne, but they have yet to make an appearance. But he also said not to worry about enchanting them, so it seems the Citadel’s mages have something else up their collective sleeve.”
“They always were independent ones,” Hyren said, reminding himself to slow down long enough to enjoy his food. Otherwise he would regret it later. Losing one’s breakfast on the battlefield was never a pleasant experience.
Celice drew a pocketwatch out of her robes and glanced at it. “I’m giving you five more minutes,” she said, “and then you’ll have to finish the rest of your bacon on Whinnyback.”
“Fair enough,” Hyren said.
There had never been a quicker five minutes in Hyren’s life. He finished off the bacon and eggs first and was left with one last square of toast. With a sigh, he wiped his hands on a handkerchief and willed his food to digest as he looked over his owner and sister one last time.
No, it wouldn’t be the last time. He’d come back and he’d find Terra awake. He had to believe that. “Blynn, don’t you dare give up,” he said.
“Mm-hm,” the Zafara murmured listlessly.
His gaze traveled to his owner’s face and he said, “Hang in there, Terra. Your champion’s going to come through for you.”
Hyren nibbled at his toast while he and Celice ventured to the armoury. Other knights were still there getting equipped, and Celice helped Hyren into his armour since he had no squire or page. She turned out to be decent at it, with his coaching.
“Yes, this reminds me why I chose not to go into the knightly order,” Celice said as Hyren pulled on his helmet. “It takes you people so long to get ready.”
“It doesn’t take as long when you’re trained in it,” Hyren muttered, checking his armour over one last time and adjusting a few straps. “At least I don’t swish around in robes all day.”
Celice frowned and clutched at her forest-green cloak. “They’re quite comfortable, thank you,” she said. “Much better than that heavy old plating.”
“Yeah, and a lot less effective against a blade,” Hyren said.
They left with a group of knights and mages headed toward the eastern gate. The air was cold but the clouds weren’t yet dark enough for snow. In defiance of Celice’s prediction, instead of a Whinny they got to ride a Uni named Sir Feitz, a rather nice older fellow, Tyrannian in colour. Word of the Grundo swordmaster had spread through the ranks, and Feitz was excited to meet Hyren, but thankfully not nosy. The town’s streets were still deserted, but from a window or doorway here and there, a Neopet would peek out and wish them luck and faerie blessings.
There was still no sign of the Werelupes. Hyren sort of wondered if they had up and left Brightvale in the night. But no, Isengrim wouldn’t abandon Terra, and the Werelupe King knew full well that he needed help from other kingdoms to gain the upper hand against Skoll’s forces.
From outside the city walls, Hyren could hear a low commotion, the sound of thousands of armed Neopets mulling about in the calm before the storm. Sure enough, once his group passed the gate he could see them, a vast throng of soldiers of every species and paint job. The horde of knights and battlemages kicked up clouds of dust that billowed in the still morning, obscuring the glint of daylight on their armour. But Hyren could still see their banner colours—green, white, and gold in one mass, and red, blue, and gold in another.
Pets chatted across the two groups, most likely friends and relations. In spite of the traditional rivalry between the kingdoms, Hyren was impressed by their unity on the advent of battle. Then again, he mused, the rivalry was far from serious, especially in the face of a much greater threat.
Many of the knights rode war-Whinnies, a larger size of the Petpet bred for battle. The floppy-eared creatures tossed their heads and snorted, pawing at the ground and shifting in their armour. Still other knights rode Uni companions who’d been trained to work in tandem with a rider in combat. Many Uni-and-rider pairs were as thick as kin, and Hyren didn’t doubt that some actually were kin. And a few knights rode less conventional Petpet mounts such as a Quetzal and a Sauropod. These, Hyren surmised, were personal Petpets who’d been co-opted as battle steeds.
Still no sign of the Werelupes, though.
On the other side of the gate stood another mass. This one was all scholarly mages, with Seradar at their head. The Neopets’ jaws were clenched in concentration, and Hyren wondered how much sleep they’d been able to get the night before. Some were still flipping through books or scanning scrolls, and a couple yawned or swigged at the beverage of their choice.
“Here’s where I get off,” Celice said. She alighted from Feitz and jogged over to Seradar. “Sorry I’m late, Headmaster. I had to rouse a certain lazy swordsman.”
“Well, thank the faeries you made it,” Seradar said. “We’re going to need all the power we can get for this one. Are these the last of them?”
“Some of the last, yes,” Celice said. “Shouldn’t be much more coming, now.”
The master mage checked his pocketwatch. “I suppose we can go ahead and prepare to cast.” He smoothed back his trailing ears. “All right, you lot, stand still!” he barked to the knights. “We’re going to cast on all of you at once—that’s a very tricky thing and we don’t want any nasty mistakes!”
Someone blew a horn and the commanders relayed the order, and slowly the knights shuffled into rank. Feitz plodded down the line to join them, and at the far end Hyren finally saw the Werelupes.
Although there had to have been a good hundred of them, they weren’t organised in any particular manner, just clumped awkwardly together, insular from the soldiers who were giving them suspicious looks. Standing tall and proud, they muttered among themselves as ears flicked and noses lifted to sniff the air.
Suhel and Isengrim stood at the head of them in full regalia. Isengrim’s armour made him look even larger and more imposing than usual. His skull-helm was that of a beast with huge twisting horns, and attached to the back was a long crest of crimson hair that trailed behind him. Hyren’s claymore hung at the Werelupe King’s side, and Hyren couldn’t help but notice that it fit the king well. That was difficult for him to admit to himself.
Isengrim seemed to look Hyren’s way for a moment, but it was hard to tell, as the Werelupe’s eyes were hidden in the shadows of the skull’s eye-sockets. Otherwise the pack largely ignored the knights beside them and eyed the wizards warily.
Feitz deposited himself between two bannerpets on war-Whinnies, and Hyren leaned down to the Uni’s ear to ask, “Why are we on the front line?”
“You’re a commander and a swordsmaster, are you not?” Feitz asked.
“Former commander,” Hyren said.
“But not a former swordsmaster,” Feitz said.
Hyren couldn’t deny that, and his mount seemed pleased to have the last word, holding his head a little higher and swishing his shaggy cream-coloured tail. The Grundo didn’t exactly object to being on the front lines—he was not ill-equipped for it in skill or arms. Mostly he was surprised that Hagan’s army took him so seriously. Maybe they were just that desperate.
“That’s the last of them!” someone called as another batch of soldiers trotted through the gates and took their place in the ranks.
“It had better be,” Seradar said, “because we’re not casting this spell a second time!” Taking a deep breath, he drew himself up and held his staff above his head. “All mages, at the ready!”
The sorcerers behind him stiffened and put away their reading materials. Many of them raised staves or wands of their own and the buzz of magic filled the air, ringing noiselessly in Hyren’s antennae.
Seradar narrowed his eyes and began murmuring syllables. His moustache bristled and his wand glowed in a rainbow of hues. Like a wave of Lightmites, the other mages’ focusing tools did the same. Many of the scholars closed their eyes and hunched their shoulders in concentration, and some shook from the exertion. Celice’s spectacles slipped down her snout and her tongue rolled out of her muzzle as her bare paws shone.
A fog of magic coalesced upon the knights and Werelupes in swirls of green and pale blue. The Brightvalian forces stood still, most likely used to this sort of thing, and their Petpets had been conditioned accordingly. The Meridellians, Neopets and Petpets alike, were visibly unnerved, but managed to keep themselves together under the glare of their commander, a somewhat portly older Royalboy Kyrii on a war-Whinny.
The Werelupes, however, cowed, and a few of them put their paws on their weapons. Isengrim wordlessly lifted a paw to them to stand down, even though his own ears were low. Suhel’s tail curled under her legs and she let out a whimper.
Hyren’s eyes widened as he realised how much they feared and distrusted magic, so much so that they felt threatened by even non-combat spells. It was always valuable to know an enemy’s weakness—no. He shook his head. He couldn’t be thinking like that when he needed to fight alongside them for now. They had a common enemy today.
Instead he lowered his eyelids and breathed in. The magic-mist left an aftertaste in his mouth like the sound of wet grass and the smell of staring into a cloudless sky. Hyren still wasn’t quite used to the sense-mixing synesthesia that magic could produce. Someone had told him once that it was a common sensation among Neopets, and Hyren wondered how magic-users ever got used to it. No wonder they all seemed a touch eccentric.
The mist faded, and Hyren didn’t feel any different. His sword, however, was ringing in its sheath. Even with his limited knowledge of the subject, it was easy for Hyren to guess that magic weapons would be affected by magic.
He pulled the sword partway out of the scabbard. The ancient runes glowed in green and blue and the ringing, no longer muffled, rattled his teeth. Hyren glanced up to see Isengrim doing the same thing with the claymore.
Feitz’s ears flicked. “Oy, what’s that commotion?” he asked. “Sounds like a mad Beekadoodle in your pocket!”
“Sorry,” Hyren said. “Weird weapon.”
Seradar slumped over and leaned on his staff. Celice moved to support him, but she looked like she was having trouble keeping on her feet, herself. All of the mages seemed thoroughly exhausted, and a few even passed out, while others downed potions to keep themselves from doing the same.
The elderly Gelert ran a paw over his muzzle. “There…” he panted. “There. It’s done. Now off with you, I won’t have a spell of this magnitude be for naught.”
“Hurrah for the mages!” the Brightvale commander, a spry green Nimmo on a white Uni, shouted, raising her blade to the sky.
“Hurrah!” her knights replied, and the Meridell forces chimed in. The Werelupes said nothing and still looked uneasy, but their ears and tails had lifted again.
“That’s quite kind of you, Dame Natalya,” Seradar said. “If only fanfare could ease these tired old bones. I’m due for a nap. Don’t wake me ‘til the spectres are gone.” He hobbled toward the gate with Celice assisting, and the mages followed with a few rousing cries of “go get ‘em” for the knights.
The commanders turned to face their ranks, and Hyren knew what was about to happen. The nice thing about when he led Sloth’s mutant Grundo drones, he mused, was that he never had to worry about morale. Which was good, because he stunk at giving speeches. And listening to them.
The two captains began spouting rhetoric about valour and battle-for-the-ages and king-and-country and it was all too easy for Hyren to tune out. Instead he found his curiosity drawn to the Werelupes. He knew they were anything but conventional.
Isengrim drew himself up and surveyed his pack, who watched him expectantly. A cold wind had begun to come up from the sea, making his draping crest flutter. “My thanes!” he barked. “My brethren and sisters under the moon! For too long we have been the scourge and bane of Neopia! Hated and hunted like mere beasts, never given the respect we so rightly deserve! Chased from one den to the next, now we again find ourselves pushed from our domain by a traitor who has cursed my owner besides!”
He clenched his furry fists. “Now is our chance to take back the Burrows and in so doing seize glory, fighting alongside those who have scorned and wronged us! No longer shall we be seen as monsters, or our home and lands simply as prizes to plunder!” With a fist thrust in the air, he shouted, “The kingdom of the Werelupe Woods shall be recognised by the rest of Neopia! We will save my owner, we will not let our home be taken from us again, and we will have our place!”
Tilting his head back, he let out a long, fierce howl that the rest of the pack joined in. The bone-chilling sound stopped the other two commanders cold and caused a jolt of panic to run through the troops. A few Whinnies neighed in alarm, and the captains and knights glared disapprovingly at their wild allies.
Isengrim turned back around. “Well, what are we standing around here for?” he said. “Let’s move out!”
The commanders echoed the order, and the ranks jostled into motion, banners held high and snapping in the brisk breeze. Hyren was glad for his woolen undergarments. In weather like this he’d much rather be sitting inside with the paper and a cup of borovan. Nothing sounded better than fixing this whole mess, getting back to Altador, and doing just that. His throat tightened at the thought of home. It wouldn’t be the same without Pharazon.