Return to Lynwood: Part Three
Suhel hated getting sick. It was all just a big bother, having a scratchy throat and a stuffy nose and being weak and tired. She wanted to be at her best for Lord Isengrim and their pack, not dial back and have to recuperate. Although she kept herself in excellent condition so that she did not fall ill often, it still inevitably happened from time to time. That didn’t mean she had to like it, though.
But this illness felt different. She had never coughed so violently before—it shook her whole body and made her ribs hurt, and there were times when it felt like she couldn’t breathe. And she felt so lethargic, like someone had put a heavy weight on her, making everything except sleep more difficult.
For the past few days, she had tried to ignore it, but it was steadily worsening. Suhel only hoped Isengrim would find what he was looking for soon, and then they could go home and she could curl up on her bed and sleep it off.
Things had been complicated somewhat, however, by Connor’s predicament. Suhel watched the pup as they tromped through the dusky woods on their way to Barrowmere. His tail was low and his ears sagged—he clearly did not want to be here. Suhel was not exactly finding him pleasant company, either.
But her conscience would not let her want to leave him to his own devices. Isengrim was right—they were all brothers and sisters, and they had to look out for each other. Suhel could not forget the fear in Connor’s eyes when they had first found him. They had to discuss his condition with his parents.
Suhel was dreading that, and she knew Isengrim was as well. There was no guarantee this would go nicely. But they had to at least try, for Connor’s sake.
The sun was below the horizon now, and underneath the treetops it got dark fast. The Werelupes could see well enough at night, but Pharazon’s Ganuthor was a daytime creature and needed some extra help. Pharazon reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a lantern. As he opened the shutters, a flickering orange glow bathed their party. “Could someone get me some fuel?” he asked.
“Sure thing,” Suhel said. Leaning close to a bush, she wrenched off a dead branch and passed it to the Draik.
“Thanks,” Pharazon said. Perched on Gwyneth’s back, he and Terra made themselves busy snapping twigs off the branch to feed to the fire mote that rolled around lazily in the lantern. As it consumed its source of energy, the light steadied and brightened.
Terra slipped a few twigs into the lantern and watched the little elemental sprite for a moment, then grinned. “Hey—that’s our first fire mote, isn’t it? I can’t believe you brought that one!”
“How can you tell?” Pharazon asked.
“That one likes to roll in circles when it’s fed,” Terra said. “It was the fire mote Blynn and I bought when we were gearing up to go explore Neopia, right after I created her when I was a kid.”
Pharazon lifted the lantern to inspect the mote. “Really? Then that means it was the one you had when you met Hyren.”
Terra nodded. “And Isengrim.”
The Werelupe King at Suhel’s side offered his owner a thin smile. “I am sorry that first meeting was not a pleasant one for you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Terra said. “Everything’s okay now. I think that happened for a reason—even if it was just so we’d find each other again twelve years later. A lot of good came out of that reunion. I mean, you and Hyren and Blynn and Celice helped save Brightvale from a phantom army.”
“And Pharazon singlehandedly overpowered that traitor Skoll,” another Werelupe said.
Suhel cringed, feeling the panic run up and down her body at the memories of those dark days. Malevolent magic had been everywhere—the only thing keeping her from falling to pieces was her duty to her king. Just thinking about it now made her sick to her stomach. So much force, so bent on decimating them, and her being helpless to stop it, was the stuff of nightmares.
“For the record,” Pharazon said, “I didn’t mean for him to get destroyed like that. When he tried to siphon my power from me, I resisted, and I think when he tried to put more energy into it, the unstable magic he’d built up in the area backfired and collapsed in on him.”
Suhel’s ears huddled against her skull. She didn’t want to hear any more about magic or how dangerous it could be. “I—I’m curious, Terra,” she said. “Do you remember those underground ruins you and Hyren and Blynn passed through, in the mountains between the Lost Desert and the Haunted Woods? Whatever happened to those?”
“Well, I didn’t do anything about them at first,” Terra said. “One part of me wanted to let them lie in peace and just be a memory the three of us shared. But another part of me realised that anyone else who stumbled upon them could get hurt, or damage and loot the incredible history there. So a few years later, after my family finished helping out Sakhmet with all that business about Qasala’s return, we told King Jazan and Queen Nabile about it, since we thought the ruins lay in their kingdom’s territory. The last I heard, their historians were organising expeditions to conserve and research the site.” She smiled. “So I’m excited to hear their results.”
“Me, too!” Pharazon said. “I’ll keep you posted if I see anything in the papers!”
“Ah… here’s Black Lake,” Isengrim said. He pointed ahead. Instead of more tree trunks stretching on for eternity, there was only a sudden shadow like a velvet curtain.
“Such a cheerful name,” Terra said, leaning over Pharazon to get a better look.
The lake was immense, easily one of the largest in the Haunted Woods. It stretched nearly to the horizon, and on the other side, Suhel could make out the lights of a town—Barrowmere. The surface of the water was still and dark like obsidian, although small waves lapped gently at the shore.
“I shouldn’t expect anything in the Haunted Woods to have a cheerful name,” Pharazon said. “Go to Roo Island if you want that.”
Isengrim laughed. “It is called Black Lake because of its depth—no one has ever found the bottom, I am told. But there are all manner of stories about what lurks there.”
“Comforting,” Pharazon said.
“Neat,” Terra said.
“Is that sarcasm I detect from you, Pharazon?” Isengrim asked with a smirk. “I will have you know, I have gotten much better at telling the difference.”
“Yes, but Terra was being sincere,” Pharazon said.
“Oh, I know,” Isengrim said, draping an arm around her shoulders. “That is why I like her.”
Suhel rolled her eyes and chuckled. Most Werelupes were usually too blunt to be sarcastic, but Terra and her family had taught Isengrim how to recognise the fine art.
Terra gave him a wide, impish grin. “I was being sarcastic about the name sounding cheerful, though.”
Isengrim bumped her head with his nose. “I figured. Only a Draconian would find ‘Black Lake’ a merry sort of name.”
Connor was at the forefront of the group now, staring at the lights with his ears forward and nose twitching, as though he strained to pick out any sounds from the town. “Home,” he whispered.
“There is no way to cross the lake,” Isengrim said to the others, “and swimming across is… not advisable. We will go around.” He pointed down the shore, into the night. The cloud cover meant that no moonlight or starlight made it to the ground, leaving only shadows.
As they began to move again, Terra sighed. “I feel like I wasn’t any help in everything that happened with Skoll,” she said. “I was kind of out cold under a curse the whole time.”
“Terra.” Isengrim put a paw on her head. “If it were not for you, we never would have prevailed against him. You caused me to rethink my views on the world around me. Your wish for peace and friendship helped Hyren and me to work together to save you and everyone else. And that curse was aimed at me, and by taking it you saved my life. You laid the groundwork for it all. You are an invaluable part of my life. Please, never think you are not any help. You do far more than you realise, even though your methods are not flashy.”
The human smiled. “Thank you. I’m just so glad it all turned to good.”
“Me too,” Isengrim said. “But it still does not excuse my actions. I am forever indebted to you.”
“You can make it up to me by being your best self,” Terra said. “I just want you to be happy.”
Suhel sighed, coughed a bit, popped another lozenge in her mouth, and looked out at the deep darkness of Black Lake. She did not really understand why Isengrim had felt the need for an owner so badly, not when he was surrounded by his loyal pack. He explained to her once that he had been created by a human owner, and there was a certain special bond between owners and their Neopets that he missed keenly. It wasn’t really something Suhel got, but she respected his needs and supported him in his endeavours, and it did seem to all work out in the end.
They circled the lake, picking their way through undergrowth several metres from the shore. The lights of Barrowmere flicked in and out from behind tree trunks. Suhel noticed that Isengrim was purposely leading them along at a distance from the water’s edge. Eventually she realised why. Every so often, her sensitive Werelupe ears picked out noises from the water—a splash here, a ripple of movement there. She guessed it was probably not wise to spend much time close to the lake, for the same reasons it was not wise to swim in it.
Eventually the old trees thinned and then petered out completely, although the travellers were still some distance from the town. Pharazon’s lantern provided more than enough light for Suhel to see that before them stretched a strange landscape made of small hills, little more than bumps in the ground about the height of a bipedal Werelupe. They looked far too regular to be natural.
“What are those?” Pharazon asked, stretching the light over Gwyneth’s head.
“The reason Barrowmere got its name,” Isengrim said. “Those barrows are very, very old. I have discussed history with King Skarl, and he tells me that long ago, before the Meridell-Darigan conflict and that odd time travel mess, Neopets from the Meridell region began to settle in the Haunted Woods. They retained the customs of their homeland, including the manner in which they buried their deceased.”
He waved a paw to motion everyone to follow him. “Come along. We’ll pass right through the barrows—it’s much faster than going around.”
“I don’t supposed they’re haunted, are they?” Pharazon asked, leaning close to Terra. Hesitantly, he urged Gwyneth on, although the Ganuthor’s nose flared and her wings sagged.
“Oh, of course they are,” Isengrim said. “This is the Haunted Woods, after all. But these ghosts are harmless. We should have no problem with them.”
“Very comforting,” Pharazon said. “It’s okay, Gwyn. Be calm.” He rubbed his Petpet’s head, and she whimpered, but kept steadfastly plodding on beside Isengrim.
They had only passed the first two mounds before Suhel’s fur began to bristle. Patches of air around them shimmered and moved, half-resolving into the shape of Neopets that wandered silently among their resting place. They wore clothes reminiscent of Meridellian garb, long tunics and dresses, some with swords at their sides or quivers on their backs.
Suhel kept her steps steady and her jaw tight. Ghosts were as commonplace as Slorgs in the Haunted Woods—they were something Suhel had long learned to live with, and they would not send her or the other Werelupes into a panic. Still, something about them seemed to tug at the fear instincts of every Neopet, no matter how well-disciplined.
“Faeries preserve us,” Connor breathed as a Buzz in a fur-lined cape glided past him. “Us kids were always told not to go near the barrows, and there were all sorts of rumours floatin’ around…”
“I am sorry about your Ganuthor,” Isengrim said to Pharazon. “Will this spook her?”
The Draik shook his head. “No, she should be fine as long as I keep her calm. She’s seen Ghost-coloured Neopets before. At any rate, I’d rather get to town sooner than later. It’s probably not the best idea to be out in these woods the later at night it gets.”
“This is true,” Isengrim said. “You will be all right. I would not have taken this path if it was not safe.”
Pharazon looked over his shoulder at his owner. “Terra, how are you holding up—oh, come on.”
The human’s fists were clenched in excitement as she watched the ghosts, an enormous grin on her face. “This is so awesome!” she said. “What a fascinating place! I wonder who these Neopets were, what their stories are… Look, that Elephante has a sword, so she must have been a knight! Back in Meridell in those days, by law only knights and nobles could own swords.”
Pharazon sighed and shook his head. “Isengrim, you have the perfect owner.”
“I know,” Isengrim said with a smile.
Terra waved at a Peophin nobleman whose long mane was done up in an elaborate braid. “Hello!” she said. “Thanks for letting us pass through! Don’t worry, we won’t disturb you!” The ghost blinked in surprise, and then waved a hoof back at her.
“I must admit, milord, everything you’ve shown us today is impressive,” Suhel said. “I didn’t know there were such places here in the Woods.”
Pharazon turned to look at her. “Suhel, I thought you and the other Werelupes had been all over the Woods.”
She shook her head. “Truth be told, I’m more of a homebody. When we lived here, I stayed further south and closer to our keep. Isengrim’s far more adventuresome.”
“Not to mention,” another Werelupe said, “we generally try to stay away from civilisation. We… do not get the best reception in towns, to put it lightly.”
Connor grimaced and looked down at his paws. “You should just drop me off at the edge of town,” he said. “I could… sneak back to me parents’ house from there.”
“No,” Isengrim said. “That would not be safe for you. We may be stigmatised, but I am willing to bear that to get you back to your family.”
The younger Werelupe was silent for a moment. “Why are you doin’ this?” he asked quietly. “You’ve got no reason to help me. What do you want in return? Money?”
The Werelupe King gave him a penetrating stare, stopped, and then put a large paw on Connor’s shoulder. “I want you to understand something. A few years ago, if you had asked me this, I would have told you it is because the world is not kind to Werelupes, so I must step in to fill the void. I have seen far too many of my brothers and sisters persecuted, cast away and treated as monsters, with no one to offer them kindness or sanctuary. Long ago, I decided I wanted to be that sanctuary for them.”
Connor turned away. “I’m not a Werelupe,” he whimpered.
Isengrim sighed and looked over at Terra. She gave him an encouraging smile, and he returned it. “But,” he said, “these days I would also say it is because I cannot leave anyone in need, Werelupe or no. We all need each other, and if I do not help, who will?”
Connor avoided his gaze and shrugged his paw away. “I guess. Let’s just get home. I want to see me mam and dad and check on the workshop.” He walked through a few of the ghosts who had gathered around the small party, wearing hazy looks of worry on their ethereal faces.
“He’ll be all right,” Terra said to the spectres. “Thanks for your concern. He’s just trying to figure out some things.”
Isengrim nodded. “Aye, thank you for letting us pass through. We’ll be on our way, now. Take care.” His face fell, and he glanced up at his owner, who offered him a sympathetic look.
The ghosts slowly dispersed back to their barrows, some bowing politely before they left, others simply fading away. Terra waved at them as they departed.
Pharazon grimaced. “You know normal people are supposed to be more freaked out by this.”
“Mmmmmyeah I don’t care,” Terra said.
As Isengrim moved his pack to catch up with Connor, one of the Werelupes said, “Don’t you wonder what sort of treasure they were buried with?”
“Oh, yes,” Isengrim said. “Wonderful things, I’m sure.” He looked up at the human and the Draik riding a Ganuthor beside him. “But I find I’m not so interested in treasure recently. I think I’ve accrued enough of it for now.” He paused. “And my true treasures lie not in gold or jewels.”
“Don’t get too sentimental on us, milord,” Suhel said. “You know we don’t go for that sort of stuff.” She turned aside to let out a few coughs.
Isengrim laughed. “Well, it’s true no matter how sentimental it is. You can tough it out.”
When they reached the end of the barrows and the forest rose back up around them, Suhel began to smell the town. The heavy odour of burning coal and oil mingled unpleasantly with scents of old paper and stale food and quite a few species of Neopet and Petpet. She snorted to try to dispel the scents for just a while longer. Civilisation was crowded and grimy and, for her, full of memories of loneliness and frustration. Glancing around, the other Werelupes’ body language showed that they would also much rather be deeper in the woods than this.
But Isengrim was their king, and they were determined to follow him on any quest, even one as harrowing as going to town.
When they emerged from the trees onto the main road into Barrowmere, Connor started and jerked forward. Before he could take off in a run, Isengrim grabbed his shoulder and held him back. “Stay with us,” the Werelupe King said. “Remember… you do not look like yourself anymore. There will be misunderstandings. We will keep you safe.”
Connor looked crestfallen, but he seemed to have an ounce of sense as he moved behind Isengrim with a sullen pout.
“The good news is,” Isengrim said as he led the way onto lantern-lit cobblestones, “we have arrived late enough that there should not be many Neopets on the street. They should not give us too much trouble. Connor, would you direct us to your house?”
“Right—go down the main street for a bit,” the boy said, “and I’ll tell you where to turn.”
Rain had recently passed through the area, leaving puddles that the pack occasionally splashed through. The Werelupes clustered closer together now, craning their necks to look at lit windows, smoke rising from chimneys, and carriages parked on the side of the street. Barrowmere seemed as alien a place as Kreludor. It was certainly not the comfortable caves of the Werelupe Burrows.
It wasn’t long before they ran into their first Neopet, a Chia in a coat and hat who was walking down the lane with a newspaper tucked under his arm. He glanced up at the strange posse, did a double-take, and let his paper drop to the pavement.
“Hello,” Terra said with a wave. “Don’t worry, we’re just—“
The Chia let out a shout and ran the other way. Stubby arms flailing, he scrambled around a corner. “They’re here!” he cried. “Help! Werelupes!”
Isengrim’s brow furrowed. “I didn’t know they were expecting us.”
“Our—our town’s been havin’ trouble with Werelupes lately,” Connor admitted. “Usually they stay in the deep Woods, like you said, but just this summer, before I went off to school, they started comin’ to town, stealin’ anythin’ not locked up… right before I left, they began breakin’ into shops.”
Isengrim ran a paw down his face. “That will make things more interesting. Come, let’s get you home quickly.”
Suhel stared at Connor, watching the fear and the uncertainty in his eyes. That probably explained his reaction to the other Werelupe’s mark in the town with no name. It was information she wished they would have known sooner. Children could be so irritatingly flighty. She pinched the bridge of her snout, coughing a little.
Connor guided them past countless shops, factories, and eateries, into a more residential area. They met with several more Neopets on the way, all who had much the same reaction as the Chia. Terra tried to greet all of them cordially, but usually she couldn’t even get so much as a word out before they panicked.
“Get used to it,” one of Isengrim’s thanes grumbled under her breath, earning her a glare from her king that. “Sorry,” she added.
“There’s got to be someone here with some composure,” Terra said. “We won’t know until we try.”
They came to a neighborhood full of rows of homes built side-by-side into longer overall buildings. They looked so cramped and claustrophobic, Suhel wondered how any single Neopet could ever live in one, much less an entire family.
“Reminds me of my old neighborhood as a kid,” another Werelupe said. “Never liked the rotten place, far too small.”
“Aye, the Burrows is more my style,” Suhel said. “No house in Neopia can compare to having an entire mountain to yourself.”
Her companion chuckled in agreement. “Did you ever live in one of these, Suhel?”
“Er—not exactly,” Suhel said.
“What do you mean?” Pharazon asked.
The female Werelupe scratched the back of her head self-consciously. “It was, eh… bigger than these, I guess.”
“What sort of family did you come from, then?” a packmate asked.
Suhel frowned. “My father was a businessman. I suppose we were pretty well off. But come on now, that’s not a part of me anymore. I ran away from all that.”
The other Werelupe’s eyes widened. “I didn’t know you were from a rich family, Suhel!”
Someone else laughed. “I can’t even imagine our Suhel flouncing around in a big house! I don’t suppose you had a maid and a cook, did you? Sat nicely at a table as you ate your watercress sandwiches off fine china?”
“And you shouldn’t try to imagine it,” Suhel said, “if you don’t want your snout rearranged. Look, it’s got no bearing on who I am today.” She felt the tickle of another cough coming on, but she managed to choke out, “My past is over and done,” before starting to hack. She forced herself to keep moving, putting a paw on Gwyneth for support.
“I’m sorry they’re teasing you,” Pharazon said to her. “For the record, I don’t care. I like you the way you are now, and I know you’re happy with yourself, too.”
Suhel had to clear her throat several times in order to catch enough breath to reply, but she smiled weakly up at the Draik. “That’s all right—I know they’re just ribbing at me. I honestly can barely remember life before being a Werelupe. It all seems like a bad dream. And it can stay that way.”
“What’s your family like, Connor?” Terra asked. “Do you have any siblings?”
“No, I’m an only child,” the boy replied. “Me dad’s a bookkeeper at the bank, and Mam’s always tryin’ to make a name for herself in society.” He flexed his paws and poked his snout forward, as though he was straining not to break off running for home. They reached a corner and he pointed for them to turn.
Suhel noticed that they had stopped seeing other Neopets on the street, and as she glanced at one house, someone inside closed the shutters. Curtains were drawn, and lights turned off, and Suhel doubted it was because everyone had gone to sleep. Not quite a warm welcome, but an understandable one if Werelupes had been active aggressors of the town lately.
“Goin’ to parties and buyin’ the latest fashions… drives me poor dad mad, she does,” Connor said. “But then he’s always off with his friends from work and Mam chides him when he gets home late…” His ears drooped and he sighed. “I suppose with all their bickerin’, they at least pay less notice to what I do in the workshop.”
Pharazon raised a brow. “What do you do in the workshop?”
“Experiments,” Connor said with a grin. “See, there’s an old shed in our garden, and me parents weren’t usin’ it, so when I was younger I started puttin’ books and supplies in there. It’s me own laboratory.”
“Impressive,” Terra said. “I’d like to see it when we get there.”
Connor’s steps slowed. “Well… you won’t have to wait long. Here we are—38 Helmington Street.”
They stood in front of a nondescript brick house sandwiched between its neighbors. A light was still on in the narrow downstairs window, but Helmington Street was eerily silent.
Connor looked up at Isengrim, who nodded. “I’ll come with you,” the king said, shadowing the pup as they mounted the doorstep.
The young Werelupe tried the door. It was locked. Isengrim reached past him and knocked, loudly but with a polite restraint. Suhel knew he could easily punch right through the wood if he wanted to, but that wasn’t why they were here.
For a long minute, no one answered, although Suhel picked up hushed voices inside, slowly coming closer to the door.
It creaked open, and for a moment the faces of a blue Cybunny and a yellow Lupe were visible in the gap. Then the Lupe woman shrieked and the Cybunny man moved to shut the door.
Isengrim thrust out his arm and leaned his paw on the door, preventing it from closing. “Mr. and Mrs. O’Keefe, I presume?” he asked casually to the cowering Neopets. With his other paw, he ushered Connor forward. “I believe this belongs to you.”
“Mam, Dad,” Connor said. “It’s me—Connor.” He looked quite bewildered at suddenly being taller than his mother.
The Cybunny’s ears twitched. “Our C-Connor’s not a Werelupe!” he stammered.
“It happened just this mornin’,” Connor said. “Please, you’ve got to believe me! Ask me somethin’ only I would know—like how Cousin Becky and me ate all the crumpets at Aunt Lovina’s garden party last summer and gave ourselves a stomachache!”
Suhel perked up suddenly. In the distance, she heard the heavy sound of a large group of something moving all at once. It was still too far away to discern more details, but her paw moved to her sword regardless. A look around at her packmates showed they were aware of it, too.
Mrs. O’Keefe shook her head, aghast. “Connor… what happened to you?!”
“I was cursed,” he said. “See, I was at school and I had an idea for an experiment, so I was sortin’ through chemicals and—“
His father’s expression suddenly twisted from fear to anger. “You—idiot boy!” he hissed. “Look what your toyin’ around has done now!”
“I’m not toyin’!” Connor snarled, stamping a hind paw. “It’s science, Dad! I’m on the verge of some great discoveries!”
Now it was his mother’s turn to frown. “You nearly blew up the house—twice! And you’ve filched from me potions cupboard before, I know you have!”
The noise was coming closer. Suhel’s grip on her sword tightened and she turned to face the street. Now she could make out footsteps. They did not have the heavy gait of Werelupes, but rather the hodgepodge sound of various Neopet species.
The wind shifted, bringing with it the smell of fire and anger. Suhel’s hackles rose. She and her packmates shared a quick moment of eye contact, and then looked to their king for direction. One ear turned back toward them, showing that he heard it too and acknowledged the situation, but his attention remained on the domestic dispute before them.
Connor whimpered. “But it was for experiments—I didn’t need very much, and they’re all in the garden shed if you want ‘em!”
“Oh, we know,” Mrs. O’Keefe said. “I got them back when your father took the place down.”
The Werelupe pup’s fur bristled. “You did what?!” he barked, making his parents cringe. “All o’ me books and equipment were in there!”
“Well, they’re g-gone now,” Mr. O’Keefe said, half hiding behind the door. “We s-sent you to school so you could find a nice, stable profession instead of chasin’ this d-dangerous nonsense.”
Connor threw up his massive arms. “I can’t believe you—“
“Milord,” Suhel said, “we appear to have company.”
Isengrim and Connor turned around. Behind the Werelupes and Gwyneth had gathered a crowd of Neopets carrying lanterns and torches. More than a few of them also held pitchforks, and they all glared dourly at the town’s visitors.
Terra grimaced, drew a deep breath, and wrapped one arm around Pharazon, while the other hovered near her sword.
“Please don’t tell me you think angry mobs are ‘fascinating’,” Pharazon whispered.
“No, not in the slightest,” Terra muttered. Her eyes narrowed as she stared out at the crowd.
A moustachioed green Korbat stepped forward. “You’ve stolen from us one too many times, Werelupes!” he said. “Go back to the Woods where you vermin belong!”
Isengrim, jaw set, stepped away from the door. His thanes parted to let him through until he stood between them and the mob. Although he glanced down at his sword, he raised his paws in a peaceful gesture. “Gladly,” he said, “if you’ll just allow me to safely return this boy to his parents.”
“Get out, now!” someone else yelled. “Or we’ll make you!” A roar of agreement arose, and torches and pitchforks were hoisted in the air.
Suhel growled, her lips turned up to show her fangs. She didn’t have the patience for this. She knew from experience that Neopets at this point were past listening to reason. They were angry, and they just wanted something to take out their anger on. At the word from her king, she would attack.
Connor looked back at his parents. “Mam, Dad, tell them to stop!” he pled.
“Connor—just go!” his mother wailed. “Me own son, a Werelupe—you’ve ruined my reputation! Mrs. Smurthwaite will never invite me to parties again! Oh, what a scandal!”
The boy’s tail curled in. “Mam—“
Mr. O’Keefe’s paws shook as they moved back to the door handle. He looked as though he wanted to say something, but finally he just slammed the door and locked it.
“Get them!” the Korbat screeched.
Suhel and her packmates drew their swords. It looked as though they would have to fight their way out of town. Suhel was all right with that—hopefully this cursed cough wouldn’t be too much of an impediment. She was determined not to let it be.
Connor pushed past the other Werelupes, emerging in front of Neopets he likely grew up aaround. “It’s me, Connor!” he whimpered. “You don’t have to do this!”
“Oh, you’re one o’ them now?!” someone shouted. “Well, get out with the rest of ‘em! We don’t want your kind here!”
“Connor!” Isengrim barked. He moved to grab the boy. “Never mind them, we’ve got to—“
Metal flashed in the firelight as someone jabbed a pitchfork at the pup. Connor yelped and turned away—and then Isengrim collapsed in front of him with a grunt.
“Isengrim!” Terra screamed, drawing her sword.
The Werelupe King lay on the ground, holding his leg, not moving, which apparently was the cue for the rest of the mob to attack. As they rushed forward, in one leap Gwyneth slammed her front paws down in front of Isengrim and flared her wings with a bellow.
“Don’t you dare touch him!” Terra roared, eyes ablaze as she held her sword high.
Suhel liked Terra. The girl played the part of an unassuming, gentle owner quite well, but she was certainly no pushover, and definitely not nonchalant when it came to those she cared about. Suhel felt Terra had more than earned her fang bracelet.
The display pushed the mob back, making them stumble over themselves in surprise, and giving Suhel time to duck under Gwyneth and drag out Isengrim. “Milord,” she breathed as she hoisted him onto her back, “speak to me.”
“Protect—the others,” Isengrim gasped, eyes clamped shut. His ears were still held high defiantly, but his whole body trembled. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I can do both,” Suhel said. She steadied herself under their combined weight and sheathed her sword—it would take all of her strength just to carry Isengrim’s bulk, but she could manage it. “To the woods!” she barked. “Let’s go!”
“Gwyn,” Pharazon said, “move!” With a tap of her head, he urged her forward. The Ganuthor knew what to do. Rearing up, she swiped at the mob with her massive front paws, batting them away. The Werelupes rushed to fill the space, and the sudden push broke the throng, letting Isengrim’s party shove through.
Suhel let out a violent cough as she led the charge, but she refused to stop now. She would have time enough to be sick when they were safe.
“Don’t let them take it too far,” Isengrim murmured over her shoulder. “Fight to defend yourselves—don’t return their anger.”
“Yes, milord,” Suhel said. “Follow me to the edge of town!” she barked to their thanes. “Don’t get distracted! Protect Lord Isengrim’s family!” She was about to add “and Connor”, but with a look back, she saw that one of her packmates had already scooped up the boy. Isengrim’s Werelupes were not heartless, although Connor had not exactly endeared himself to them.
The second-in-command led the charge as the Werelupes and the Ganuthor thundered down the streets, the mob not far behind. Suhel knew the townspets would not follow too deeply into the Woods, especially at this time of night—the problem was getting out of town. In principle, one could just pick a street and keep running until they ran out of street, but large towns like this had a way of turning back around on themselves. Suhel remembered this from her own childhood in Kincaird, when she would sneak out of the house and try to find an end to all the buildings.
But the main street would definitely lead them out. Now she just had to remember the path Connor had taken them through. It was a bit harder to think about these sorts of things when one was in grave danger.
Coughing again, Suhel swerved down a wide avenue that looked promising. In the middle of her swift gait, she adjusted Isengrim on her back, affording herself a quick glance over at his face. His crimson eyes were barely open now, and he looked ahead wearily.
Suhel tried to ignore the knot in her stomach. They had been in plenty of situations like this before, and battle wounds were just another part of Werelupe life, but Isengrim had rarely been hurt like this—there was a reason he had lived so long and led them into so many battles. If it weren’t for that idiot Connor needing shielding—
Suhel scowled and shook her head. There would be time enough to think about that later. “You hang in there, milord,” she said. “We’ll get you patched up.”
“Thank you,” he breathed.
The rows of houses gave way to a street lined with shops and businesses, all closed for the night. Crates and barrels were stacked outside doors and around market stalls, crowding what would otherwise have been a clear passage. Suhel’s frown deepened as she wove her way around these obstacles.
“Suhel!” a Werelupe called from behind her. She turned to look at him, but then he barked, “No! Ahead!”
She looked back and sucked in a breath. Charging down the street at them was another mob. The Werelupes were going to be trapped in the middle of two converging fronts.
Out of the corner of her eye, Suhel spotted a narrow alleyway and slowed to a stop. They could all slip in there, but what if it led to a dead end? They didn’t really have any other options, though. The other Werelupes clustered around her, weapons out.
Pharazon and Terra would have none of it. As their Ganuthor loped toward their companions, Pharazon shouted, “Gwyn!” and tapped between her ears. “Do what you do best, girl!”
Gwyneth let out a whuff and lowered her head. Veering away from the Werelupes, she tackled a stack of crates, sending their contents flying out into the street. The enormous Petpet cavorted among the shops and stands, seeming to enjoy wreaking havoc on everything in sight. Soon, the cobblestones were covered in debris, and Suhel could see the irritation and dismay in the mobs’ body language. They were slowing down, unsure how to best make their way through the mess.
Terra motioned with her sword to the alley. “Go!” she shouted. “We’ll be right behind you!”
“Don’t leave them alone,” Isengrim whispered. Suhel nodded, but two Werelupes had already moved to flank the Ganuthor as everyone retreated into the shadowed lane.
Suhel’s mind raced as her paws squelched through wet rubbish. The alley was open on the other side, and Gwyneth had bought them some time, but not enough. The mob was still too close, and what if another group had gathered on the next street?
Then a door on the side of a building caught her eye. Suhel stopped and stared at it for what felt like the longest moment of her life. It was a long shot, but in a situation like this she had to weigh all of her options.
On the other side of the alley, in the distance, she picked up the sound of more running Neopets and angry voices. This long shot had turned into their only shot, she wagered.
Drawing a deep breath that pricked at her throat and threatened to make her cough again, Suhel lunged for the door. Of course it was locked, but a quick wrench of her large, strong paw fixed that, and she swung the door open into a warm, dark space.
The warmth felt good, but there was no time to bask in it now. “Get in!” she barked to her packmates. “Hurry!”
As the other Werelupes pushed through the door, Suhel looked up, saw the Ganuthor thundering down the alley, and realised her mistake. “Pharazon!” she called. “Fly away, go back to Neovia!”
“We’re not leaving you!” Terra said. Suhel could still see the worry in the girl’s eyes.
Pharazon leaned over and reached into a saddlebag. “Don’t worry—I’ve got something just for times like these.” He pulled out a dark blue cloth with a hem that seemed to fade away into thin air. Gwyneth skidded to a stop in front of the door and Pharazon had her lay down against the wall while he fastened the cloth around her thick neck.
Suddenly, the Petpet disappeared, and Pharazon and Terra hopped down from what looked like midair. “Gwyn, stay,” Pharazon said as he and his owner hurried to the door.
“Cloak of Night,” the Draik panted to Suhel, looking up at Isengrim on the way in. “Giving Day present from Celice—got it at a discount because that one seems to only work on Petpets.” The Werelupe King managed only an unfocussed stare back, and Terra stopped inside the door to hover close to him and Suhel.
The female Werelupe slammed the door shut behind them, and one of her packmates moved in front of it, just in case. “All in?” she asked.
“Aye, milady,” someone else said.
Suhel closed her eyes to try to focus on the sounds outside, her tongue lolling out of her maw in exhaustion. The first mob was just now coming around the corner of the alley. She could hear the heavy breathing of her companions as they tried to stay quiet, also listening. Even Connor hadn’t so much as peeped—so he had finally done something helpful for once.
The noise of the mob grew closer, and louder, and then began to fade. Suhel let out a slow breath. Perhaps they had a chance, after all.
Suddenly she heard the piercing shatter of glass and a woman’s stifled scream. Suhel’s eyes flew open. Standing in the pool of lamplight from an open doorway across the room was a red Kougra, wearing a prim blouse and a long trailing skirt, her dark brown hair done up in a bun. Her ears were low, her yellow eyes wide, and her striped tail bushed as she pressed a paw to her muzzle at the sight before her. Her other arm was still outstretched, and below it were the smouldering remains of an oil lamp. “W-W-Werelupes—“ she gasped.
Suhel wondered if the mob had heard the scream, and snarled at the Kougra. She was in no mood to be diplomatic. “Aye, that’s right,” the Werelupe growled, “and you’d better keep your trap shut if you know what’s good for—“
“Lexora?” an older man’s voice called from somewhere above them. “Lexora, dearest, whatever’s the matter?”
Memories slammed into the forefront of Suhel’s mind like a landed hit from a trebuchet, memories of a lonely childhood and a hateful secondary school and a certain red Kougra classmate who thought she was better than everyone else. The fear in this woman’s eyes reminded Suhel of the fear in the Kougra girl’s eyes when Suhel announced she was running away into the Woods—and that was the last day they ever saw each other.
Until now. Suhel took a step back in disbelief. “Lexora?” she repeated. “Lexora Fitchet?”
The Kougra’s paw dropped. “H-how—w-well, it’s Lexora Browning now, b-but—“
“It’s me,” Suhel said. “Suhel Caradoc. From Lynwood.”
To be continued…