Their march took them off the main Brightvale-Meridell road and into the rolling countryside that stretched in front of the mountains. Feitz explained that the Sweetwater Fields, a wide swath of moorland where shepherds brought their Babaas and Zebies to graze, were so named because the Sweetwater River bisected the plains on its way to the sea.
Said river was not particularly wide or deep at the point where the army forded it. There was a bridge some miles downriver, but the Pteri scouts reported that the phantoms were closing in fast. The army wouldn’t have the time for such a circuitous route.
Hyren clutched the saddlehorn as deep green water swirled around Feitz’s thick fetlocks and rose to the Uni’s knees. The water looked frigid and wholly unpleasant and Hyren wasn’t going to touch it if he could help himself. He was already sore from riding—he didn’t need to be wet and cold on top of that while fighting.
At least the clouds weren’t thick enough for snow. No, they were content to just cover the sun to make sure the day looked as ominous as it was supposed to. It simply wouldn’t do, Hyren thought, to fight a mad wizard’s spectral army on a beautiful sunny morning. Completely incongruous.
They spied no Petpets in the fields today, which was just as well. Hyren watched the top of every rise, scanning for movement. The two armies had to be close now. His hand sat securely on the grip of his sword.
A Cloud Pteri with green-and-gold anklebands alighted on Natalya’s Uni’s head. “They’re just over the next ridge!” the scout squawked breathlessly.
“Prepare to engage!” the Nimmo said. She unsheathed her sword and lowered the visor of her helmet.
A legion of spears pointed forward and all around rose a commotion as knights readied themselves and battlemages began preemptive casting, layering themselves and their allies in boosting spells. The Werelupes pulled out their weapons and stared at the horizon almost hungrily.
Hyren drew his sword. The runes were still glowing. What that would do for its potency, he wasn’t quite sure. But based on what he knew of Neopian history, glowing runes were either a very good thing or a very bad thing. And he doubted the sword’s forgers had engineered it to do bad things to its wielder.
The air seemed to grow colder. Gasps and cries of dismay rang out, and Feitz suddenly tossed his head and stamped at the ground. An ethereal green glow lit the edge of the sky, like some demented dawn.
And then they came. Pouring like a tide, cresting the ridge and spilling over, marched thousands upon thousands of ghastly apparitions. They were a motley assortment of Neopets of every species, wearing armour and carrying weapons from countless civilisations, most of which Hyren didn’t recognise. It chilled him to think how long many of them must have drifted about in the Well of Souls.
The spectres lurched and staggered forward with blank gazes, seeming to look straight through the opposing army, although their weapons were drawn as though they expected to fight, or at least destroy. Murmurs of unease and a few cries of panic rose up from the knights. Down the line, the Werelupes stood resolute, sniffing the air and growling.
“Stand your ground!” Natalya cried. “We shall defend Brightvale!”
“Brightvale!” a chorus of voices cried behind her.
She pointed her sword at the approaching legions and opened her mouth, but before she could give the command, Isengrim rushed out into the open field and his pack followed him, snapping and baying. They tore through the grass, bearing down on the phantoms.
“Stupid barbarians,” the Meridell commander scoffed, shifting his weight on his Whinny. “Don’t know how to wait for orders.”
“And they ruined the moment,” Natalya’s Uni whined, pawing the ground.
“Oh, never mind that,” Natalya said. “Charge!”
Feitz dug his hooves into the green and lurched into motion. Hyren felt himself losing his balance, and he quickly leaned forward and dug his knees into the Uni’s sides. “Sorry, I’m not the best rider,” he said.
“I’ll keep you on,” Feitz panted, his mane flying up into Hyren’s face. His Korbat-like wings hung half-open at his sides, prepared to assist in making tight maneuvers.
Suddenly, like an army of puppets with invisible strings, the phantasms jerked in their march. They seemed to see the knights for the first time, and in a mass they sped up and ran down the ridge, raising their weapons.
Arrows and spells flew over Hyren’s head from behind and met their marks in a flash of green and blue. Many of the hit spectres collapsed and dissolved into a green miasma that lingered around the feet of the rest, who pressed forward still. Several of the knights let out a whoop. It seemed as though the scholars’ spell had worked. Hyren didn’t want to think about the alternative.
As he and the other knights rushed on, Hyren kept his sight trained on the front ranks. They were footpets, which gave them a disadvantage against cavalry. But the problem was that there were so many of them. Even with the forces of Brightvale, Meridell, and the Werelupes combined, the spectres still outnumbered them.
No matter. Hyren knew what he was fighting for. His sword’s runes glowed fiercely as Feitz sped them toward the front line, and Hyren narrowed his eyes, preparing to strike.
From the corner of his vision he caught a blur of fur and bone that ploughed snarling into the spectres. And then there was no time for anything else, because the enemy was upon him.
Feitz threw them into the sea of phantoms, trampling some under hoof and flinging others aside with his horn. Hyren let out a fierce shout as he swung his blade at a ghostly Kiko that lunged for him with a pike. The sword sung in the air as it deflected the weapon, and in the follow-through dispelled the spectre, banishing it to the mist.
Hyren jabbed at a Chia and bashed aside a Kacheek and felt his blood boil. The sound of metal clashing against metal, chaotic shouts and frantic orders, the weight of steel in his hand and the relish of watching his enemies fall before him—how could he ever think himself rusty for this? This was his forte.
“Ungh!” Feitz choked as he stumbled.
Hyren rocked in the saddle and had to grab the Uni’s mane to keep from falling off. It threw off his balance enough that a sword got dangerously close to his face before he could get the leverage to push it back and slash at its owner. “You okay?” he shouted.
“Fine,” Feitz grunted. He turned to kick at a phantom and winced.
Hyren elbowed away an Aisha ghost and said, “No you’re not!”
“I don’t want to take you out of this,” Feitz said.
“I’ll go on foot,” Hyren said. “I’m better with that anyway.” Hyren was getting tired of having to lean out so far to strike. It wasn’t like he had much of a reach to begin with.
“All right,” Feitz said. “Wait for an opening.” He began to fall back, favoring one leg as Hyren kept the pressing throng off of him.
Beside them, a splash of magic enveloped a handful of phantoms, twisting them into mist and leaving a temporary gap in the spectral forces. “I’m off,” Hyren said, swinging himself out of the saddle. It was farther to the ground than he anticipated, and he crouched to lessen the impact of landing.
“Healer!” Feitz called as he limped back under the protection of the green-and-white banners.
Freed from the encumbrance of someone else moving him, Hyren rushed into the fray, hacking at the spectres with renewed vigour. Many of them seemed to have been skilled with their weapons in life and retained that skill even as Skoll’s thralls, but they were not anything Hyren couldn’t handle.
It was only their sheer numbers that would prove to be a problem. The knights around him were slowing down and Hyren was, too. They had limited stamina—the phantoms didn’t. The knights were losing ground.
And all the while Hyren feared that he would see his own brother’s face among the ghouls. But all he had to do was think of Terra languishing under the curse and his strength returned.
An Usul jabbed at him with a spear and Hyren knocked the ghostly weapon away with his blade. As he moved in to strike, though, he thought he saw the wings of a faerie Draik and it broke his concentration just long enough.
With a sickening smack, the Grundo hit the ground, pain radiating from his side. That Usul was stronger than it looked. Trying to shake off his daze, Hyren pushed himself up from the ground, and his chestplate met the haft of the spear with an ear-piercing clang. While his armour held, the force of the blow knocked him back down.
Not that he would let that stop him. He tensed in preparation to roll away—and a Peophin battlemage collapsed on top of his sword arm, out cold.
Hyren gritted his teeth and tried to be thankful that it wasn’t an armoured knight. This way, at least his arm probably wasn’t broken. Not that that would matter if he didn’t survive this. His eyes widened as the Usul raised its spear, the ghostly weapon looking all too real for Hyren’s comfort. No matter how much the Grundo struggled, he couldn’t free himself from beneath the Peophin.
Suddenly, an enormous horned beast that wore its bones on the outside burst through the horde of spectres and, with a snarl, batted the Usul aside. It went flying through the air like a rag doll, swirling into mist.
The bone-creature raised its rune-covered claymore and swept it through an encroaching swath of ethereal warriors, dispelling them all. Then, it knelt down and pulled the unconscious battlemage off of Hyren by her tail.
Crimson eyes glinted at the Grundo from beneath the skull’s empty eye sockets and it offered Hyren a paw.
Hyren grabbed the paw and was yanked to his feet. “You saved my life,” he gasped, clutching his own arm.
“You’re my family,” the Werelupe King said. He rose to his full height. “Let’s send these fiends back to the pit from whence they spawned.”
“The numbers are against us,” Hyren grunted. He felt the invigourating coolness of a healing spell hit him, and the soreness in his arm faded to a tolerable degree. He flexed it to make sure he could still use it. “Thanks!” he shouted to whoever had cast at him, although his voice seemed to drift away in the chaos.
Isengrim kicked away an Acara and said, “We are still moving.”
“We’re moving backwards,” Hyren said as he sidled closer to Isengrim, sword turned outward. As much as Hyren hated to admit it, being next to an ally Werelupe was probably one of the safest places on the battlefield.
“But as long as we live and breathe, we—“ Isengrim paused to swing his sword up to block an enormous blade with a curve at the tip. The force of the impact slid him back several centimetres and he pushed off of it only with great effort.
The offending weapon was wielded by an enormous spectral Elephante, taller than Isengrim himself and with probably twice as much bulk. The phantom was dressed from head to foot in the heavy armour of an ancient Shenkuuvian warrior, and it raised its trunk and bellowed mournfully as it drew back the sword for another strike.
Isengrim bared his fangs and moved to close in with his own blade, but the Elephante dug its feet into the ground and swung. The Werelupe diverted his claymore from its original path and managed to stop the longsword just before impact, although his arms trembled from the effort.
The phantom soldier trumpeted to the sky and stomped one foot, sending a tremor through the ground. It withdrew its sword and arced it up for an overhead strike. Isengrim let out a bark of frustration and brought up his blade, holding the flat of it with one paw for extra support.
The phantom’s sword struck with such force that Hyren feared the supposedly-impervious faerie steel would actually break this time. The runes flared and the metal let out a dissonant wail, but it miraculously held.
Isengrim wasn’t doing as well. Arms shaking, his hind paws gave out and he collapsed to one knee. Still holding back the blade, his ears flicked back as the Elephante kept pressing, overpowering him.
Hyren glanced around. The battle was still going on around them. The knights were even farther back than when he’d last checked. Where was Darigan?
The Werelupe King gave a pained grunt as his other knee hit the ground. Now the Elephante was using the full brunt of its considerable weight. The Werelupe’s tail curled under him.
Hyren only had a split second to make his decision. Biting the inside of his cheek, he hoped it was the right one. With a power shout, he leaped for the Elephante.
The larger Neopet didn’t seem to see Hyren as a threat, concentrating on the heavy hitter in front of it, but that was a mistake. Hyren grabbed onto the Elephante’s lamellar cuirass, digging his fingers into the texture created by the laced-together metal plates. He half-climbed, half-vaulted up the gargantuan Neopet’s back, steadied himself on its shoulders, and brought the pommel of his sword down on its helmet.
The Elephante trumpeted in dismay and staggered back, allowing Isengrim to heave its sword away. With fire in his eyes, the Werelupe thrust his own blade at the enormous warrior and the spectre vanished into mist.
Hyren dropped and rolled to the ground, and Isengrim clutched at his side as he tried to regain his footing. “Thank you,” he panted to the Grundo.
“Yeah—you’re welcome,” Hyren said. He didn’t have much time for thinking right now, but not helping Isengrim just felt wrong, even if Hyren wasn’t prepared to call him family quite yet.
“There are too many, we can’t hold them off!” someone shouted from far away.
Hyren looked up and realised he and Isengrim had become separated from the main body of knights, and were surrounded by phantoms. Spells and arrows whizzed overhead, and more spectral soldiers advanced on the two swordsmen from all sides. Hyren stepped closer to Isengrim, sweat chafing at his palms as he gripped his sword. He was spent. Nothing but adrenaline was keeping him going now, and even that was wearing off.
“It seems I have misplaced my pack,” Isengrim grumbled as he staggered to his feet. The two held their blades at the ready. “Tell me, Hyren, what do you do when hope flees?”
“I chase after it,” Hyren said.
Isengrim’s ears perked forward and he solidified his stance, glaring defiantly at the enclosing legions. “I do enjoy the thrill of the hunt,” he said.