Worth Searching For: Part Twelve
A Wocky lurched forward with a morning star and swept it toward Hyren. The Grundo moved to block, but his straining muscles just couldn't move his sword in time. Hyren cringed and waited for the blow to land.
Before the chunk of spiky metal reached him, something white and sparking streaked down from the sky and caught the Wocky up in its enormous jaws. It was an oversized Biyako made of fireworks, and the feline Petpet shook the phantom soldier like a toy before tossing it away to dissolve into the green miasma. Seemingly satisfied, the Biyako tore through the ranks, leaving mayhem and mist in its wake.
Hyren looked to the sky. "Blynn?!"
Gwyneth banked overhead, a familiar Disco Zafara on her back, slingshot loaded. "Thought I'd find you here!" Blynn shouted, firing into the horde. Her shot turned into a Qilin, which rampaged regally, tossing spectres to and fro.
"I thought you were with Terra!" Hyren called back.
Gwyneth alighted in front of the two warriors and Blynn took out another potsherd from her ammo pouch. "I thought about what you said, and, well, I don't wanna give up either. Not when Terra's in trouble. Besides, I kinda thought you might need me."
"What made you think that?" Isengrim asked.
She grinned. "Intuition."
"But how did you find us?" Hyren asked, moving toward her. The mist rested deep on the ground by now and it was strangely thick. Walking through it felt like wading through mud.
Blynn jabbed her thumb back at the sky. "Followed those guys."
The clouds broke and a volley of magic poured down upon the spectral army, vanquishing them by the dozens. Through the cloud cover streamed hundreds, no, thousands of dark figures flapping great Draik-like wings. A Darigan Krawk at the forefront gestured downward and shouted something, and the cavalry unleashed another deluge.
"Get on!" Blynn patted Gwyneth's back. "Don't want you guys caught in those spells!"
Hyren and Isengrim clambered onto the Ganuthor, and Hyren's aching body was all too happy for the rest. "Blynn... thanks," he panted.
She tapped Gwyneth's head and the Petpet took a running leap into the air. "This is what family's for."
From their vantage point, Hyren watched as the fresh Darigan forces swooped down on the phantom army. Their appearance gave the Meridell and Brightvale knights a new boost of morale, and the two landbound kingdoms began to push back again.
"My pack, where is my pack," Isengrim muttered from behind Hyren.
The Grundo scanned the ground until he saw the colour of bone. "There!"
Like their leader, the pack had charged in headlong and gotten itself surrounded, and was now ferociously trying to hold the spectres at bay. The Werelupes looked on the verge of exhaustion, with many of their number wounded and being defended by those who could still fight. Hyren recognised Suhel from her combat style—she was standing over a fallen comrade, locking blades with a well-built Eyrie.
Blynn fished another potsherd out of her pouch and nocked it, taking aim. She fired, and it exploded into a Blurgah made of orange sparks. The bovine Petpet thundered down to the mass of phantoms, lowering its head and battering them away with its curved horns. As it tossed the Eyrie aside, Suhel looked up and tilted her ears toward the Ganuthor and her riders.
"Follow us!" Isengrim barked. "Return to the troops!"
"Yes, milord!" Suhel sheathed her sword and slung the fallen Werelupe over her shoulders, and the pack began moving itself back to the banners while Gwyneth soared overhead.
"They're thinning out!" Hyren reported, scanning the field. "I think we've overpowered them!"
"Good, they can stay that way," Blynn muttered, firing another few shots.
The Darigan assault had reduced the phantom army's numbers considerably, and now the air force was coming back for another pass, driving the remaining soldiers toward the swords of the knights. More and more spectres were added to the mist.
By the time Gwyneth landed next to Commander Natalya, Hyren could see an end to the seemingly infinite troops. The Nimmo slumped in her saddle, her blade drooping beside her. "It's... it's almost over," she breathed, barely glancing their way.
"I guess we're really seeing this one out to the end." Feitz trotted up on the other side of Gwyneth. "Although I suppose none of those ghouls is going to wave a white flag, are they?" He chuckled a little.
"Well, we've got them where we want them now," Isengrim said. "Not much left to do but clean up."
"Frankly, I'm more worried about this mist." Natalya's mount lifted her front hooves to inspect them. "It's rather unnatural."
Her rider snickered. "Nothing about our enemies is natural."
"Um, guys." The worry in Blynn's voice made Hyren turn from the conversation. She was looking out at the spectres. "Are they supposed to be doing that?"
The phantoms had stopped. Weapons lowered, they offered no resistance to the knights. But this was no surrender. They looked somehow stretched, and suddenly they began to stagger backwards, their fur fluttering like they were trying to walk against a gale-force wind. No—something seemed to be tugging at them, pulling them back.
The mist swirled around Gwyneth's paws and she let out a grunt of alarm, hopping from one paw to another. Like a river, the fog flowed past her and into the spectres, and as it did so it reformed into warriors.
"No...!" Natalya gasped. "We worked so hard to defeat them!"
"Wait—they're not fighting," Hyren said. The phantoms now looked faint, drained almost, and they were being pulled away with their brethren, looks of horror and despair on their faces.
Isengrim sat up. "They're going back to the Werelupe Woods. Skoll must be calling them back."
Natalya glanced over at a nearby Jetsam battlemage. "What do you make of this?"
The yellow Jetsam held up her rapier, which glowed with a purple light. "It seems the phantoms' magic power has been depleted. They are exhausted of their ability to fight."
"So... we won?" Blynn asked.
"For now," the mage replied.
"Fall back!" Natalya called. "We are victorious! Brightvale is defended!" The knights let out a cheer, and the Draconian forces began to settle to the ground to join them. The Brightvale commander turned back to the battlemage. "What do you mean, 'for now'?"
"Once their controller recovers from the stamina backlash, he could send them forth again." The Jetsam sheathed her blade.
Isengrim snarled. "He's pulling them back to the Well of Souls, no doubt. This isn't over. I've got to strike at him before he recharges."
"Milord!" Suhel stalked past the troops, leading the other Werelupes. She placed her packmate carefully down on the ground and a mage rushed forward to heal him. "I thought we lost you back there—we couldn't find you anywhere—"
Isengrim eased himself off of Gwyneth and gave Suhel the best hug their armour would allow. "I told you, I always come back," he said smugly.
"You like giving me heart attacks, don't you," Suhel replied, patting his shoulder. "What would you have us do now?"
"Return to Brightvale and tend to our wounded. Then pack up camp and meet me at the Burrows. I'll have it back in our possession by the time you get there." Isengrim broke away and mounted Gwyneth again.
"You're going after Skoll?" Suhel asked. "After what happened the first time?"
He nodded. "I must break my owner's curse. I am returning to Brightvale to collect her. She comes home with me."
Hyren frowned. "I don't remember agreeing to that."
Isengrim's ears flicked back. "And we could use the help of that Lupe mage friend of yours, and she is still back at Brightvale Castle."
"Celice?" Blynn asked. "Why not Seradar? He's the most powerful mage in Brightvale."
Isengrim snorted. "Because I trust Celice."
After all they had been through, Hyren did not want to squabble over where Terra belonged at the moment, and he let the Werelupe skirt around the subject. "Fine, let's go get Terra and Celice." He would frankly feel better having his owner with him as well.
"Oh, are you leaving?" Natalya asked. She placed a gauntleted hand to her chest. "On behalf of Brightvale, I thank you for your service today, Commander Hyren." Her eyes moved to the Werelupe. "... And you, King Isengrim."
"Lord Isengrim," he said. "But thank you."
Natalya tilted her head. "'Lord'?"
"It sounds better."
"I must admit," the Meridell commander said as he stroked his goatee, "having you lot on our side for once was a great boon. I wouldn't mind it happening again."
Isengrim smirked. "Wish to the Faeries that you never fall upon such desperate times."
The trip back to Brightvale Castle was much quicker by air. Behind them, Hyren could see the phantom army still slowly retreating back into the hills like an ebbing tide. He was glad that Brightvale had been defended, but Terra was no doubt still cursed. He couldn't focus on much else.
Celice met them at the infirmary, her tail and ears drooping with fatigue. Her spectacles sat low on her snout and her yellow eyes regarded Hyren, Blynn, and Isengrim plaintively. "...You're back," was all she could say.
Hyren's brow furrowed. "What are you doing here? Did something happen to Terra?"
"She's... not looking so well."
In spite of his own exhaustion, Hyren pushed past her to Terra's room. Arsinoe sat at the owner's side, earstalks limp as her hands moved in glowing circles above the young woman's prone form.
The green Aisha blinked up at Hyren as he burst through the doorway, followed by the others. "I'll be frank," she said, "I'm not sure how much longer she's got."
Terra looked even more still than before, as though she had been lying in the bed for a thousand years. She was scarcely breathing, and her skin and hair looked clammy and stiff, like something found in a peat bog.
Hyren gulped. "Don't tell me we're too late..." He placed a hand on her forehead. "Oh, please..." Not now, not after he had fought so hard to keep her.
"Terra..." Isengrim lifted her from the bed, carefully cradling her head against his bone chestplate.
Arsinoe looked up at him. "What are you doing?"
"Taking her home and breaking her curse."
"You're taking her home now? Won't she be a burden?"
Isengrim frowned. "She's not a burden. She's my owner."
Hyren turned to the Lupe mage. "Celice, we could use your help defeating Skoll, if you're up for it."
"We received Weewoo of your victory at the Sweetwater Fields," Celice replied. She glanced over at Terra. "So I'm guessing it's time to after the source. Well, for Pharazon's sake, I'm not letting that wretch of a wizard go unpunished!" She pushed up the sleeves of her robes like she was readying for a fistfight.
"Lady Anfel!" Arsinoe called. She rooted around in a drawer and tossed a potion the Lupe's way. "This'll perk you up!"
"Thanks!" Celice caught it, popped off the stopper, and chugged down the bubbling orange liquid. Her ears and tail lifted, and a bit of spark came back to her eyes. She pushed her spectacles back up her snout and grinned toothily at her companions. "Let's finish this."
An Air mage who had a little energy left over from the casting that morning was kind enough to bestow a spell of swiftness on Gwyneth, and the group soon found themselves speeding through the sky, the mountains fast approaching. The clouds were black and heavy with snow waiting to fall.
Looking down, Hyren watched the Werelupes returning to Brightvale, followed by the kingdom's army. Meridell's forces branched off to the south, most likely taking a farther pass back to their homeland, and the Darigan airborne escorted them overhead. It was strange, he thought, how little difference there really could be between enemy and ally—and how easy it could be to switch statuses.
No one said much on the trip, focused as they were on what lay ahead. Isengrim clung fiercely to Terra as though just the very act of holding on to her would somehow keep the curse from worsening. Hyren's stomach seemed to want to see how many different knots it could tie itself into.
Below them, the phantoms continued to retreat into the hills like water getting sucked down a drain. Hyren could see their glow beneath the treetops as they flowed up ridges and down through ravines. Even with the spell, Gwyneth could not quite catch up with them, and trailed them all the way back to the Werelupe Graveyard.
The cemetery was a ruin of its former self. The trees, tombstones, and mausoleums had all been blasted away, leaving a stark crater in the middle of a debris-tangled forest. Thick clouds bunched overhead, crackling with green lightning. The air was so thick with a twisted, malevolent kind of magic that it made Hyren's skin prickle and his companions' fur stand on end.
Blynn brought Gwyneth down on the forest path, where the Ganuthor shied and pushed away from the ground, her wings flaring. "Stay here, girl," the Zafara said, jumping down from her back. "We'll be back soon."
Hyren leaped to the ground and drew his sword, taking off in a sprint. The surge of spectres ebbed viscously up ahead and he and his companions raced to catch up with it. As they entered the graveyard, Hyren sputtered and coughed, the taste of dirt and loam filling his empty mouth.
"I have never felt such magicks," Isengrim growled.
"This entire place is over-saturated with Earth magic," Celice muttered. She flexed her paws like something was stuck on them. "And it's highly unstable. Too much power, not enough control. The entire place is like a magical powder keg."
"What'll set it off?" Blynn asked.
"An improper casting, usually. If the spell is performed incorrectly, or tampered with."
The phantoms were being funneled into the middle of the crater, where stood the crumbling remnants of sagging stone with ancient carvings. The writhing spectral mass swirled as it poured into a pit in the centre of the ruins—the Well of Souls, Hyren realised. Skoll's magic must have obliterated the entire mausoleum complex.
Hunched over the Well was a figure whose furry shoulders heaved as its body crackled with energy. "You..." it breathed huskily. "You think that will stop me...?" It kept its back turned to the group as they approached.
The last of the spectres slopped into the Well, and the clouds overhead rumbled. A tremor rippled through the earth, but Hyren stood his ground, gripping his sword. "Maybe cold steel will do the trick."
Skoll turned around, standing up straight and seeming to cast off his burden of age to reveal a Werelupe bulging with unnatural power. His eyes blazed with green fire, as did the eye sockets of his skull-staff. Sharp peals of magic arced from his body, striking the ground and sending up clouds of dust. "No blade nor element can fell me now!" he thundered, his voice seeming to fill the entire crater. "With this power I can challenge Fyora herself for her throne!"
"We'll see about that," Hyren hissed, charging forward. A solid wall of magic slammed him in the face and he tumbled back. With a grunt, he jumped to his feet and swung his blade. The runes still glowed, and the metal threw out green and blue sparks as it impacted Skoll's barrier, but it did not give.
"Go ahead," Skoll cackled, "fight all you like! I enjoyed watching those self-righteous Brightvalians throw themselves uselessly against my troops! Serves them right after all they did to me!" The ground shook again, and the Well churned, soul-soup sloshing at the edges like a bubbling stew. "I'll make them sorry they ever thought lowly of me!"
Isengrim carefully set Terra down and drew his sword. The Werelupe's fangs were bared as he closed in on his wayward sage. "I'll never forgive you for hurting my owner," he snarled, "and I shall gladly cut you down so she might live!"
Skoll grinned wickedly. "Go ahead and try, you worthless travesty of a king!"
"Enough!" Celice barked. "This is for Pharazon!" She thrust out her paw and orange sparks began to collect in her palm. The air sang as she summoned forth an enormous blast of fire. It collided with Skoll's shield in a storm of energy and the wizard grit his teeth as he poured more power into maintaining it.
"All together!" Hyren shouted. "Let's bring him down!"
Celice let loose another river of fire that slammed into the barrier, making it dance with ripples of energy.
Blynn unleashed a spray of potsherds that exploded into phantasmal Petpets. They charged through the air and pounced on the barrier, biting and clawing viciously.
With a wild war-cry, Hyren brought his shining sword cleaving into the wall of magic, and beside him Isengrim did the same, both putting all of their strength into it.
The shield swirled with light, strained, and then broke with an ear-wrenching screech. Skoll let out a choked cry as he was flung backwards, tumbling on the ground where he lay for a moment, breathing heavily.
"We did it," Celice gasped, holding her head. "Now—finish him off!"
Isengrim's fur bristled. "Gladly."
As they approached the fallen sage, a low growl started in Skoll's throat. "It... it won't be that easy..." he rasped. "Not when I have... more power..." Clinging to his staff, he pushed himself to his hind paws and raised one arm to the sky. "More power than anyone else in the world!"
A quake jolted through the earth with such force that it threw Hyren and his companions to the ground. Skoll's entire body began to glow green as he rose into the air, surrounded by floating debris and forks of green lightning. Throwing his staff aside, he reached down towards the Well of Souls and began to pull.
Thick strings of spectral mass snaked up around him and he glowed as bright as the sun. He let out a twisted howl as he wove the spectres around him.
Soon he was too bright to look at, and the energy he emitted bore oppressively down on the others, keeping them prone against the earth. Isengrim kept one arm around Celice while he drew his owner close with the other. "Terra... I failed you," he murmured.
The dreadful feeling dawned on Hyren that he might be seeing the end of the world. He crawled over to Blynn and clutched her paw. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. He tried his best and it just wasn't good enough. Memories of his happy times with his family came flashing back to him and he gritted his teeth, trying to hold back the tears.
The Zafara had her eyes screwed shut. "Don't give up, don't give up, don't give up," she chanted, trembling.
And then something snapped. The energy convulsed, it warped, and all of its power seemed to reverse. "No—no!" Skoll barked from inside his cocoon of spectres. "What's going on?!" He thrashed about in an attempt to free himself, throwing bolts of magic against the translucent walls of his shell.
They fizzled uselessly into the phantasmal glop, which constricted tighter around him. "How are you doing this?!" he shouted hoarsely. "You're supposed to be dead!" Hyren had no idea who he was talking to—the voices in his head, maybe.
The blinding light faded from around them, and the spectral mass sank down into the Well. "No! You've ruined everything! I can't—keep it under control—" Skoll's voice sounded increasingly strained and desperate. "I deserve... better than this..." The mage, confined within his mass of phantoms, disappeared below the edge.
One last tremor passed through the ground, and all was still.
A second later, the Well of Souls spewed forth a geyser of ethereal green. It looked like the previous time Skoll had summoned his army, but this time the flood pierced straight through the clouds overhead, sending golden sunlight down on the ravaged land. The spectres did not amass, but dissipated, soaring into the sky and out of sight.
The magic in the air began to thin. "They're free," Celice breathed, staggering to her feet. Skoll's discarded staff lay forlornly nearby, and the glow in its eye sockets faded. The sorceress looked at it with distaste and kicked it into the Well.
"...Isengrim?" A heartachingly familiar voice made Hyren's antennae perk. He looked over to see Terra's eyes flutter open. Her body was back to its normal healthy glow and she was staring up at the armoured Werelupe in confusion.
He pulled off his helmet and held her close, nuzzling her head. "Terra! I was so worried I had lost you! Thank the fates you're all right! No..." He looked over at the others. "Thank our allies."
"Terra, you're okay!" Blynn scrambled over to her owner and launched herself into Terra's lap, hugging her fiercely. "I'm—I'm so glad! Terra, I—I don't know what I would've done if—" With a sob, she buried her head in the girl's tunic.
Terra ran her fingers through the Zafara's fur and put her cheek to her Neopet's head. "It's okay, I'm here. Where's Hyren?"
"I suppose this means that maniac is gone," Celice sighed, dusting off her robes and looking to the grey sky. The light from the Well was fading fast and dark clouds had begun to constrict the hole punched in them by the magic. "Good riddance."
Hyren staggered over to his owner, achingly relieved to see her awake and un-cursed. "Terra..." He felt so inadequate in protecting her. What would she think of him after all they had been through?
"C'mere, you." She reached out and pulled him into the hug, her smile stretching from ear to ear as tears rolled down her cheeks. "You can't get rid of me that easily, you know."
Hyren laughed hoarsely and hugged her back, much of the stress of the past week lifting from his shoulders and joining the freed souls in the sky. "Well, I wasn't trying to," he remarked with a wry smirk, "but now I know which methods don't work."
"Ha ha." She lightly rapped his head with her knuckles. "You know I'm stuck on you."
He hugged her tighter, tears welling in his own eyes. "And I don't ever want that to change."
Something light and cold brushed one of Hyren's antennae and it twitched. He craned his neck to see snow beginning to fall, dusting the crater's ravaged landscape with a veneer of white.
"We should get back to the Burrows," Isengrim said, moving to stand up. "It will be much warmer there. These winds portend a storm."
Hyren nodded. "Terra... I'm so sorry about Pharazon."
She closed her eyes. "Me too. I should have done things differently with him. I wish—"
From behind them came a sputtering cough, and Hyren looked over his shoulder to see turquoise claws gripping the edge of the Well. A bedraggled Faerie Draik pulled himself up over the rim, chest heaving, still dripping with wisps of ectoplasm that evaporated as they slicked off of his scales.
"Pharazon!" Celice reached down and dragged him onto the ground. "By the Faeries, you're alive!" She patted his cheek and inspected his wings. "And corporeal!"
Pharazon blinked blearily. "I... did I make it out?" he whispered. "How long was I in there?"
"A couple of days," the Lupe replied. "How in the world did you survive?"
"I... I'm not sure." He licked his lips and stared up at the sky. "It felt like an eternity in there... voices everywhere, something like wind and water and fire all at once tossing me around, trying to make me let go, make me forget..." He shuddered. "I saw things... unspeakable things... but I held on."
"How?" Blynn asked.
He smiled up at her weakly. "I remembered my family. All of the good times we've shared and the bad times we've helped each other through. I remembered all the stories Hyren tells us about his adventures in space and how strong and brave he is, and how you're so clever and intuitive." He looked over at Terra, whom Isengrim was helping over to where the Draik lay. "And how Terra never gives up on anybody. I want to be strong like all of you."
"Were you in the battle?" Hyren asked.
Pharazon shook his head. "No, but I saw it through the phantoms' eyes, somehow. It was incredible the way all of you were fighting to stop Skoll. How you continued to fight even when things looked bleak." He held up one hand, and magic fizzled from his clawtips. "So I decided to do that, too. When Skoll cast that last spell... I managed to turn his magic around on him, I think."
"It set off a chain reaction that unbalanced the energy in the area," Celice said, putting a paw on his head affectionately. "It was exactly what we needed right then. I can't thank you enough, you brave little scamp."
Terra knelt down and scooped Pharazon up in her arms. "Pharazon, I'm so sorry... I should have been a better owner to you."
The Draik gripped the back of her tunic. "No, Terra, I'm the one who needs to apologise. I should have listened to you."
"I am sorry we made you feel so poorly about us," Isengrim said. "Please accept my apologies. Suhel is quite fond of you, you know. She would not tease anyone so much otherwise."
Pharazon smiled. "I see that now. I was just too wrapped up in my own self-pity to notice—Gwyneth!"
The enormous Ganuthor had come bounding out of the trees, her tongue lolling out the side of her muzzle as she bore down on her owner. Terra let go of him just in time for Gwyneth to bowl him over, and she licked his face ceaselessly, covering it in slobber.
"I missed you too, girl!" Pharazon laughed, holding her massive head as she rubbed her nose against his. He looked over at his siblings in between sloppy Ganuthor kisses. "Thanks for taking care of her for me."
Hyren nodded. "I tried."
Blynn squeezed his shoulder. "You did great, chief."
From the Well, one last clot of souls burbled up, untwining as they reached for the sky. One of them, a large Elephante spectre wearing Shenkuuvian armour, looked down at them and mouthed a silent 'thank you' before he soared away.
Then the Well's light dimmed. Celice pushed her spectacles up her snout and rose to her feet. "We must destroy it."
Pharazon looked up at her. "What?"
"The Well. We can't let something like this happen again." The sorceress peered down into its hungry depths.
Pharazon pulled away from Terra and joined his friend's side. "I'll help you."
Celice's ears perked. "After what you went through?"
"I'll be okay if we do it together, right?"
She watched him for a moment and then nodded. "Yes. Let's give it our best shot." She reached for his hand and he took it, and the two of them closed their eyes.
Their magic flared around them in a fiery aura, Celice's a bright orange and Pharazon's a cool aquamarine. He squeezed her hand as the two trembled in exertion.
Another tremor rocked the ground and the Well's stonework cracked asunder, revealing glowing veins of green. Still holding on to Pharazon, Celice reached out her paw and clenched her fist like she was crushing something.
The light died, and the stone crumbled in on itself, throwing up dust as it filled the pit. As the last chips of stone clattered to their resting places, Hyren took in a sharp breath like a noxious odour in the air had just been swept away. The Well was gone.
Celice fell to her knees and grinned at Pharazon. "We did it!" She threw her arms around him. "I knew you had it in you!"
"I'm so glad..." The Draik patted her back, his eyes drooping shut with exhaustion.
"Well, Suhel is going to be happy to have you back," Isengrim rumbled as he and the others approached the two mages. "You must be hungry. Let's return to the Burrows. We all deserve a good feasting after this."
"Food sounds amazing right now," Blynn groaned.
Hyren glanced over at her. "I told you to eat your breakfast before swooping in to save the day."
She stuck out her tongue. "You only told me the first part."
Pharazon pulled away from Celice and examined the fangs that still hung around his neck. "I don't deserve these." He moved to tug them off.
Isengrim reached out and grabbed his hand. The Werelupe smiled down at the Draik. "No. You have earned them... my brother."
Pharazon looked up at him and smiled back.
True to Isengrim's word, they feasted on the array of foods in his larder, and once the rest of the pack arrived it became a veritable festival. Werelupes sang newly-composed lays celebrating their clan's valour in battle and the heroics of their king, his adoptive family, and Celice in saving the Werelupes' home. Pharazon was given especial credit for defeating the treacherous Skoll, and the pack lauded his courage and strength.
Blynn, Hyren, and the Lupe sorceress were guests of honour, given the best accommodations the Werelupes had to offer. For his part, Hyren never would have thought that sleeping on furs in a cave would be so comfy.
The snow did indeed turn into a blizzard, and they ended up staying for a fortnight, taking the time to rest and recuperate after all that had happened. Isengrim was a gracious host, and an enthusiastic sparring partner besides. Hardly a day went by that he and Hyren did not end up clashing blades—good-naturedly, this time around.
After the snowstorm abated, the Werelupe King took Terra and Blynn on tours of the woods and they came back with stories of the first signs of spring and the wild Petpets they'd chanced upon. They visited his fiefs and got to know the villagers, and took home bushels of produce—and mended relations.
Pharazon and Celice spent their time going through Skoll's study, and Suhel insisted on helping them. They sorted through the sage's belongings and destroyed any dark artefacts, although those that were nice-looking enough they de-spelled and gave to Isengrim to add to his horde.
In the end they couldn't quite decide what to do with everything else and the grotto itself, although Celice kept making noises like they should keep the entire arrangement. She wouldn't say for what, although Hyren caught her several times in some sort of conference with Isengrim, Suhel, and a magic communication window like the ones Seradar had used.
Suhel continued to call Pharazon a runt, but always did so with a smile on her muzzle. And he went with her to see the Great Prism Hall and enjoyed it immensely.
But all the while, there was a question everyone was pointedly avoiding, Isengrim most of all. Would he willingly let Terra and Pharazon go back to their family? He would change the subject any time anyone brought it up, and looked more and more guilty about it as the days passed. Terra seemed to want to focus on the fact that everyone was currently getting along, and after everything that had happened, Hyren couldn't blame her.
Still, there came a day when the morning dawned cool and misty, dew dripped from budding branches, and Hyren knew their time here was up. Isengrim told them they could stay as long as they wanted, but everyone knew he was just trying to put off the obvious. The longer they stayed, the worse parting would be.
Gwyneth shifted her weight on the muddy path outside the Burrows, her saddlebags loaded with supplies for the trip back to Altador. She was eager to go home. They all were. Although Hyren's stomach knotted at what "home" might mean to his owner and his brother from now on.
The girl and the Draik stood with Isengrim, Suhel, and Celice beneath the yawning mouth of the Burrows' skull-gate as if to see off Hyren, Blynn, and Gwyneth. Everyone knew this conversation had to happen sooner or later, and undercurrents of tension filled the air.
Isengrim began by stepping forward and unwrapping the belt holding the claymore from his waist. "As I said." He presented it to Hyren. "I was only borrowing it."
Hyren looked up at him and shook his head. "No. It's a gift. Honestly, none of us can use it. It's in much better hands with you."
Suhel tilted her ears at her king, who put a paw on his chest and bowed to the diminutive Grundo. "You have my alliance forevermore, Hyren. You have proven true on the field of battle and honourable in your deeds. If ever you need me or my pack, call and we shall descend on your enemies like the floodwaters."
The Grundo managed a smile. "Thanks."
Isengrim turned to Terra and rested a paw on her head, regarding her for a long while before he spoke. "I have heard it said, 'If you love something, let it go'." He cracked a grin, showing a bit of fang. "To that I add, 'If it does not return, hunt it down'."
Terra smiled and buried her face in her hand.
"Did I use sarcasm right?" he asked eagerly.
"No, that was more dark humour. Which you seem to really enjoy."
The Werelupe knelt down and put his paws on her shoulders. "I am sorry for the distress I caused you, Terra." He closed his eyes. "My curse is broken. You have given me everything I needed and more. Now go, and be free."
She stared at him in shock for a moment before a grin spread up her face. "Isengrim... thank you." She looked over at Hyren and Blynn. Her chin trembled, and she extended a hand to the Werelupe. "Come with us. You're still my Neopet. You could have a home with us."
He took her hand and held it to his chest. "I thank you for your offer, but I must decline. My pack needs me. My kingdom needs me. And thanks to you, I know how to rule it."
Terra nodded. "Then... do you want this back?" She dug around in her shoulder pouch and pulled out the golden comb.
Isengrim smiled and shook his head. "No. That is yours, I gave it to you. Would that I could give you all your heart desires, but that will have to do for now."
She threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in his fur. "You gave me your friendship and my freedom, and that's all I could ever ask of you."
He pressed his nose to her head and they stayed there for a long moment, until she finally pulled away and wiped her eyes. Isengrim watched with a bittersweet smile as she and Pharazon made their way over to Gwyneth, and Suhel patted his shoulder comfortingly.
"What about you?" Blynn asked Celice, who still stood with the Werelupes. "Going back to Brightvale?"
"Actually..." Celice straightened her robes and stood a little taller. "I've been engaged in talks with Isengrim and King Hagan, and Their Majesties have appointed me the official diplomatic envoy for the Werelupe Woods! We're going to work toward getting them recognised as a legitimate kingdom by Neopia at large, although there's quite a fair bit of red tape, as you can imagine."
"So that's why you wanted Skoll's study!" Pharazon piped up from Gwyneth's back.
Suhel folded her arms and harrumphed. "I can't believe we're trusting another mage... and a non-Werelupe, no less." She glanced over at Celice with a smile, which the white Lupe returned. "But... I suppose I'll get used to it."
Terra climbed on top of the Ganuthor. "We'll come back and visit, I promise. We go to Brightvale a lot, it won't be much trouble to stop by here."
"Good!" Isengrim's tail wagged. "The Burrows are always open to you."
As Pharazon tapped Gwyneth's head and the Petpet started to lope down the path, Terra gave the Werelupe King a wave. "Send me a Weewoo once in a while, why don't you!"
Isengrim laughed. "I shall send you the treasures of kings if you so desire it!"
"Nah, I think a Weewoo will be fine!"
"I will take that as sarcasm!" the Werelupe King shouted as Gwyneth took off into the air.
Terra looked over her shoulder at him with an appalled grin. "Please don't, I already have the Pack Rat avatar!"
His response was lost to the wind as they soared through the sky, away from the mountain range separating Brightvale and Meridell, toward the higher mountains far to the west. And on the other side of those: home.
Hyren sat pensive, fingering the pommel of his blade, trying to digest everything that had happened. One of his most maleficent enemies had become one of his greatest allies. They had neutralised a threat to the entire region. And he'd lost half his family and then gotten them back despite impossible odds. There was something to be said about that.
"Hyren?" Terra asked from in back of Blynn.
The Grundo sighed. "Yeah. Just thinking." He took a deep breath like he was going to say something important. "I've decided... I'm never letting you out of my sight again."