Return to Lynwood: Part Nine
For the rest of that day and the first half of the next, they travelled further south, deeper into the ancient Woods. The rain continued off and on, which Isengrim appreciated as it drowned out any scent trail they might be leaving. Nevertheless, he did not see any more V’s slashed into trees. He guessed that Vakhtang probably operated more northward, where there were towns to raid. This increased their chances that the iron-hearted Werelupe hadn’t stumbled upon the staff—but not enough for Isengrim to stop worrying.
If there was any up side to the situation, it was Connor becoming slightly more personable. Although he was still quiet and far from chatty, he no longer seemed so sulky, and by the twitching of his ears seemed to actually be listening to the others’ conversations instead of outright ignoring them.
Isengrim was not sure if the pup had taken to heart his companions’ promise to protect him, but it looked as though Connor at least found them better company than Vakhtang. Although the dark-furred Werelupe could hardly consider that a compliment. He was fairly certain a mutant Kiko with the Sneezles would be better company than Vakhtang.
On the evening of the second day of that leg of the journey, after dinner when everyone was lounging on their cloaks, talking and laughing and singing as usual, Connor finally had a conversation with someone.
Isengrim and Terra were a bit removed from Lexora and the other Werelupes, taking a quiet moment to inspect their weapons and armour, when Isengrim noticed Connor sidling over to Pharazon. The Draik was checking the straps on Gwyneth’s saddlebags, making sure they weren’t chafing her, and had just reached into one of the bags when Connor folded his paws behind his back and cleared his throat.
“Um… Mister Pharazon, sir?” he asked quietly.
Pharazon lifted his snout back out of the bag. “What is it, Connor?” he asked.
Connor kicked at the dirt with one hind paw. “You’re a magic user, right?”
“Well—I’m not quite sure I can consider myself a magic user yet,” Pharazon said. He pulled a bristle brush out of the bag and started to run it across his Ganuthor’s fur. She let out a happy grunt and opened one wing to let him reach her ribs. “I think I’ll be ready to call myself a wizard once I find an implement.”
He paused and looked over at the Werelupe, whose ears drooped in disappointment. “But I do know a lot about magic, not that I’m bragging,” Pharazon said. “I’ve been doing my research. Is this about your curse?”
Connor looked away. “I was just wonderin’… have you heard of anythin’ at all that could break my curse? Is it really impossible?”
Pharazon took a breath. He looked over at Terra and Isengrim, and Isengrim realised his owner had stopped to listen to their conversation too. She gave him a grin and a thumbs-up, as did the Werelupe King.
The Draik’s blue eyes shifted back to Connor. “Well… with magic, ‘impossible’ is a slippery term,” Pharazon said. “Truth be told, there’s a new theory floating around in the world of magic academics… although it’s only a theory, and an obscure one. Several researchers have postulated the existence of rare individuals that they call Cursebreakers.”
Connor’s eyes lit up. “What does that mean?”
“That they break curses,” Pharazon said. “More specifically, Cursebreakers have the inherent ability to destroy curses. Somehow, they just unconsciously know what to do, or sometimes maybe just their presence is enough.” He shook his head. “The research is still spotty, so no one’s exactly sure of anything yet. But Queen Nabile might be a Cursebreaker.”
“Because she saved Qasala?” Terra asked. “But she knew what she had to do to break that curse.”
Pharazon moved to groom Gwyneth’s thick neck, shooting a scrutinising glance over his shoulder at his owner. “Yes, but the fact that she was in the right place, at the right time, and just so happened to be descended from Sakhmetian royalty… some scholars find that a little too uncanny.”
“Doesn’t sound like much to go on,” Connor grunted.
“Like I said, it’s an obscure theory,” Pharazon said. He scratched behind his Ganuthor’s ears and she let out a rumble of content, flexing her claws. “But… there may be something to it. I mean, these theorists have taken a long look at the history of notable curses and curse-breakings, and found some interesting correlations.”
He paused. “And I can’t help but feel there’s a lot it would explain.” He looked out into the darkness of the Woods for a moment, and then smiled and turned to Connor. “Want to pet her?” he asked, gesturing to his Petpet. “She loves having her nose rubbed.”
“She—she won’t bite me, will she?” Connor asked, raising a paw tentatively.
“No,” Pharazon said. “She’s very friendly. She might lick your face, though. I haven’t quite gotten her trained not to do that.”
Connor chuckled. “No worries. That’s a greetin’ Lupes can understand, too.” He moved his paw to Gwyneth’s broad pink nose, thumbing the velvety fur on her muzzle. “She is quite soft,” he said. Gwyneth let out a whuff and pressed her snout further into his hand. The boy started, but grinned and continued to pet her.
Pharazon, Terra, and Isengrim shared a smile before the Draik looked back to Connor. “Anyway,” Pharazon said, “I’m sorry I don’t have much else to tell you about Cursebreakers. It’s a phenomenon that’s so difficult to quantify and collect data for that the theorists don’t have much to share with the public yet.”
“That’s all right,” Connor said, watching as Gwyneth began to lick his hand with her massive floppy tongue. “It may not be much to go on… but it is somethin’. Thank you, Mister Pharazon.” His golden eyes flicked down to the Draik. “If you ever meet a Cursebreaker… could you let me know?”
For a moment Pharazon didn’t respond, catching his breath as he seemed deep in thought about something. Finally, he smiled and nodded. “Of course. You never know, one might pop up sooner than you think.” He cleaned the fur out of Gwyneth’s brush and put it back in her saddlebag. “I guess we should get some sleep now,” he said. “We should reach the ruins of the keep tomorrow.”
“Right,” Connor said with a nod. “Thank you, sir.” He patted Gwyneth’s head and she left him with a parting slobbery lick across his cheek. “I hope Cursebreakers are real. I could really use one right about now.”
“I hope they’re real, too,” Pharazon said.
Connor returned to his spot by the fire, and Pharazon wandered over to his owner and brother, dusting off his hands. He caught Terra’s eyes and smiled at her.
“Do you think Cursebreakers are real?” she asked, sliding her sword back into its scabbard.
“I think I’ve seen some interesting things that would count as evidence for their existence,” Pharazon said. “But it’s too early to tell yet.” He studied her face. “What do you think, Terra?”
She grinned. “It makes sense to me. It sounds like the sort of thing that would happen with magic.”
“I, for one, hope there aren’t any Cursebreakers around here,” Isengrim said, angling his long knife so it caught the firelight. The blade was still sharp and free of nicks and rust, and he nodded in approval. “I’d hate for a few of my thanes to suddenly find themselves normal Lupes again. They rather enjoy being Werelupes.”
“Ooh, I hadn’t thought of that,” Terra said. “That wouldn’t be good.”
“Well, who knows how it works,” Pharazon said. “Or if it works at all,” he quickly added.
Isengrim slid his knife back into its sheath. “I just don’t see the use in getting Connor’s spirits up over something that might not even exist,” he said quietly, so the boy wouldn’t hear. “He’s best off coming to terms with his new reality, not spending all his time chasing after a vague dream.”
“I was just trying to give him a little bit of hope,” Pharazon said. “There’s nothing the matter with that. I’m glad your pack enjoys being Werelupes, but not everybody feels that way.”
Isengrim took a deep breath to try to expel his rising frustration. “I suppose we’ll do what we can to get him through this journey,” he said.
“There’s nothing wrong with both,” Terra said, interlacing her fingers. She looked up at the two. “He needs to accept his situation. It’s not healthy for him to be in denial about it. But he also needs to feel like things can get better. It’s also not healthy for him to give in to something that doesn’t feel right for him.”
Pharazon sighed. “You’re right,” he said. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive.”
“Agreed,” Isengrim said. “My apologies, Terra.” He smiled. “Thank you for being our voice of reason.”
“Just trying to help,” Terra said, returning his smile. “There’s no need to argue about this. You’re both looking at it from different perspectives and you’re both right about a lot. Those two views can harmonise, instead of clashing.”
“I wasn’t meaning to argue with you, Isengrim,” Pharazon said. He stuck out a hand. “I’m sorry.”
“I apologise as well,” Isengrim said, taking his brother’s hand and giving it a firm squeeze. “Let’s work together on this.”
Pharazon nodded. “Yes, let’s.”
The three of them looked over at Connor, who was curled up by the fire, watching Lexora and Suhel spar. Isengrim didn’t know if Cursebreakers were real, or if Connor would ever find one. The Werelupe King was still struggling to comprehend how anyone could not want to be a Werelupe anymore. But he would not force his views on Connor. That was what Vakhtang tried to do, and meeting Vakhtang made Isengrim strive to be as little like the rust-furred Werelupe as possible.
It was a couple of hours after lunch on the third day that they found the ruins. The landscape had become more and more familiar to Isengrim these past few kilometres—this was land that he had not only traversed before, but had once roamed regularly. Even individual trees were familiar now. There was the thick old pine with the knots like a twisted face in its trunk. Here was the oak where he and his packmates had once found gold buried under the roots. The memories came flooding back to him. A look around at the other Werelupes’ faces told him they were experiencing the same thing.
Through the mist, Isengrim could see a number of immense fallen conifers, moss-covered and long stripped of their needles, stretching toward the approaching company like the spears of a hostile guard.
One of the Werelupes drew a sharp breath. “We’re close now,” she whispered. “Those are the trees that toppled when the keep fell on them.” Her packmates nodded.
“Let’s keep going,” Isengrim said. Now back on foot, he led them through the blockade, beneath rotting trunks that sat propped on the remnants of undergrowth where they landed nearly fifteen years before.
Things decayed slowly in the Haunted Woods. There was something in the air that made everything old and liked to keep it that way. Trees were old, ruins were old, ghosts were old, and all seemed to linger far longer than they did elsewhere. Even Isengrim had lost track of how many years he had spent living here. Then again, he supposed he had never started keeping track in the first place.
Before them, chunks of stone littered the ground. Although splotched with moss and lichen, the granite looked angular and cloven, different from the natural shape and colour of the native rock. As the party kept moving toward the base of the fallen trees, the chunks grew larger and more intact, until many of them were large, skillfully-hewn blocks with bits of mortar still sticking to them.
Then the trees ended. Isengrim took a breath. “Well,” he said, “here we are.”
Admittedly, the sight before them could no longer be recognised as a keep. At the base of a rocky cliff sprawled a disheveled mass of stone blocks, tumbled atop each other like a careless child’s toys. A good portion of the cliff had come with it, mingling sharp dark rock with the masonry. Everything was overgrown, and a heavy mist brooded over it all so that objects even a few paces away started to fade into grey.
Isengrim swallowed hard. This was home, once. It had been home for a very long time. And then one night changed everything. He looked over at the human and the Draik on the Ganuthor. On that night, his fate had become intertwined with theirs.
“Wow…” Terra said. “There’s… not much left.” She looked up to where the keep used to sit at the top of the cliff, but it was obscured by mist.
“Well, we took near everything that wasn’t stone,” Suhel said. “At least, we thought we did.”
Pharazon leaned forward, his ears spread wide. “Oh yes, it’s definitely here,” he said. “I’m sensing a very powerful magical signature.” He winced. “Oof… its energy’s all over the place, it’s crazy. I know it’s still here, but it’ll be hard to pinpoint.”
One of the knots in Isengrim’s stomach loosened. “Not a problem,” he said. “Start searching!” he barked, gesturing to the ruins. “Leave no block unturned! That staff is here somewhere!”
“Yes, sire!” one of his thanes said. The Werelupes scrambled for the stones.
“Oh, I want to help!” Lexora said, letting herself down from Gwyneth. “Perhaps I’ll find a souvenir for the children!”
Suhel stayed by her side as the two began to sift through rocks. “Doubtful,” the female Werelupe said, “but if we do find anything beside the staff, you’re welcome to keep it.”
“Oh, it’s a staff, is it?” Lexora asked, tossing a pebble away. “Jolly good of you to be more specific about what we’re looking for. I was afraid I might miss it.”
Pharazon fluttered his wings. “Hey—wait up! Remember, if you find the staff, don’t touch it! Let me handle it!”
As he flew off to assist, Terra dismounted from Gwyneth and looked down at Connor. “Do you want to help?” she asked.
The boy shrugged and stayed by the Ganuthor. He still did not seem too fond of associating with Werelupes, even if they were on his side.
Isengrim found that this did not matter so much to him right now. His throat tightened as he moved toward the ruins slowly, like this was all a dream. He used to have dreams that he was back in his keep, and then he would wake up and see only the hard ground beneath him and a long road with an uncertain destination ahead for his pack. Finding the Burrows had been an immense boon—but this fortress had certainly been nothing to sneeze at, either.
Dimly he thought he should help with the excavations, but right now he was lost in his memories. He moved to a pile of blocks and pressed his paw against the rough, cold stone as though he could absorb from it more nights spent singing and laughing in the great hall, more banners snapping defiantly in the night wind, more views of his domain from the parapets. His own memories did not seem like enough.
“I’m sorry,” Terra said from behind him.
He turned to see her standing at a distance, suddenly looking very alone and unsure like a lost child. Much the same as when he had first met her, on the night this place fell. He sighed. “It was not your fault. And I know Blynn was not meaning to bring the whole thing down, even if we were enemies at the time. She did not yet understand the properties of that magic slingshot.”
“I know,” Terra said, pulling her cloak around her shoulders. “But I think this castle meant a lot to you.”
“It did,” Isengrim said, curling his fingers against the stone until his claws scratched into it. “But all that is in the past now. We have a very nice life in the Burrows, with more territory and riches than we accrued here.” Not that that could erase his time here, but he didn’t want his owner feeling bad about it.
But that did not seem to be the only thing bothering her. He could smell her unease. Pushing away from the stone, he turned to her. “Are you all right? What is on your mind?”
She bit her lip. “I’m—I don’t have good memories of here,” she said. Her gaze was downcast and her voice shaky. “I’m glad you and the other Werelupes remember it fondly, but—it was scary for me.” She held out a hand as though the emotion swirled in the mist about them. “There’s still so much fear here… it’s a sad place. Like the town with no name, but worse, because I was scared here, too—“ Her shoulders hunched and she put a hand to her mouth to choke back a sob.
“Terra…” Isengrim knelt down and wrapped her in a hug. “I am so sorry for keeping you here. Believe me, if I could go back I would do things differently. I was not myself then. I am ashamed of who I was.” His own shoulders shook. “I don’t deserve to be your Neopet.”
“No—no, don’t say that,” Terra said, hugging him back. “I’m so glad you’re my Neopet. I forgive you. The important part is that you wanted to change, and you did. Look at how much good came out of that.” She pulled away, took off her glasses to wipe her tears on her sleeve, and gestured to the others, who were still combing through the rocks. “Look at everything you’ve done to help them. Because of you, Werelupes have a home. Lexora and Suhel know about their curse and are trying to break it—and I think they’ve become great friends, besides.”
She turned to the Werelupe pup who was still standing by Gwyneth, watching them awkwardly. “And you saved Connor from that maniac,” Terra said. “What happened here in the past was scary… but you’ve more than made up for it. Who you are now matters more than who you used to be.”
“I will never stop making up for it,” Isengrim said, using his paw pads to wipe away the rest of her tears. He was glad Terra forgave him, but he did not think he could ever forgive himself.
Terra grabbed his arm. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re doing these things because they’re who you really are—noble and kind and selfless. That’s all I ask of you, that you be the best you can be. And you’re doing an amazing job of that, so don’t let it worry you at all.”
Isengrim sniffed the air. “You’re still afraid.”
His owner drooped. “I know…” Scrunching her face, she said, “I wish I could focus on the good like I did back in the abandoned town… but it’s harder when I was actually involved in events here. My own emotions are getting in the way.”
“I’m sorry,” Isengrim said again. “It pains me to see you so upset. Should we leave? Never mind the staff, you’re clearly distressed.”
Terra shook her head. “No, that thing is dangerous and we need to find it. I’ll manage.”
Isengrim closed his eyes, trying to think of some way to help her. “Please don’t dwell on the past,” he said. “Don’t let this become a sad place for you, don’t let it defeat you like that. Let’s… let’s focus on making some new, better memories here. You’re very good at that.” Taking her hand, he moved her closer to one of the intact blocks. “Look, feel this moss,” he said, putting her palm to the vivid green carpet of tiny plants. “It’s so soft and velvety, like a Whinny’s nose.”
A smile cracked her face. “Yeah… it is. How nice.”
“What is all this, anyway?” Connor asked. He had moved closer to them and was absently scratching at the moss on another stone.
Isengrim put an arm around Terra’s shoulders. “This,” he said, “is the ruins of Werelupe Keep. It was my home base in the Haunted Woods for many years, until it was destroyed by… an unfortunate incident.”
“And what would that be?” Connor asked.
“Magic slingshot,” Terra said. She looked up at Isengrim. “I’m really surprised you survived that, actually.”
“Yes, well, Werelupes are every bit as hardy as we look,” he said. He puffed out his chest and tried to seem proud, but his heart just wasn’t in it right now.
“What did you do with those faerie weapons you pulled from Hyren?” Terra asked.
Isengrim folded his paws behind his back. “Those survived the fall too, as I’m sure you can imagine. But I did not want anything fae to stink up my hoard, so I sold them once we had settled down in the Burrows. Of course, each one was worth a fortune, so I amassed several fortunes’ worth of treasure out of those.” He paused and rubbed his chin. “You know, I could have sworn we have had this conversation before.”
“We have?” Terra asked.
The Werelupe thought a moment. “Yes, I think it was when I first showed you my hoard.”
“Okay, I thought things sounded a little familiar,” Terra said. “But to be fair, back then I was under some… emotional duress. So you’ll have to forgive me for forgetting.”
“Perfectly understandable,” Isengrim said, patting her head. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” Terra said. “I’m just glad everything worked out. What about… that big, four-armed guy who fought Hyren? Did he come to the Burrows with you?”
Isengrim nodded, but then paused and frowned, caught in another unpleasant memory. “Gnarfas… we called him Gnarfas because he could not tell us what he called himself. He was what happens when a Werelupe lets in too much of the wild. Which only happens if you want it to, I assure you,” he said to Connor whose ears had turned down.
“Anyhow,” Isengrim said, “yes, Gnarfas survived as well. He journeyed with us to Meridell, and for a while it seemed as though we were actually making progress with him. I got him to the point where he could at least understand my orders and didn’t attack on sight.” He sighed. “When I looked into his eyes… I think I could see a great intelligence there, fighting to get back out.”
“You keep using the past tense,” Connor said. “What happened to him?”
“He was slain,” Isengrim said, “by a knight from Meridell, when we allied with the Darkest Faerie.” His crimson eyes bored into the mist as though the scene was being played out there.
“I’m so sorry,” Terra said.
Isengrim gave her shoulders a squeeze. “What is done, is done. I suppose it is the price I paid for my alliance. We mourned his loss and honoured him as a true Werelupe warrior, and I am comforted by knowing that for a while, we gave him sanctuary rather than leaving him to the mercies of the world. His last years were as comfortable as we could make them.”
He looked away to find Connor staring at him, the young Werelupe’s golden eyes large and round. “Why did you ally with the Darkest Faerie?” the pup asked.
Isengrim frowned. That was a decision he did not really like to remember. “Because it seemed like the best option at the time,” he replied honestly. “She was poised to take over the Meridell region, and neither of the kingdoms there liked Werelupes to begin with. We had already made a mortal enemy out of Illusen by attempting to take her glade. As much as I hate faeries, I rather liked the idea of one of them wiping out our foes. Not to mention if I had refused, she would have turned her forces on my pack, and we could not have withstood an attack of that magnitude.” He paused and rubbed his chin. “Although I admit that dislike of Meridell and Brightvale was my main motivation.”
Connor searched his face and scowled. “So you are just a bunch o’ uncivilised brutes who try to take what you please! And I suppose your precious Burrows are just caves full o’ bones and furs where you sit around roastin’ meat and talkin’ about your hunts!”
“Well… essentially, yes, they are,” Isengrim said. “But we don’t—“
“And you expect me to live there!” Connor growled.
“You make it sound like a bad thing!” Isengrim said. He was trying hard to remain patient with the boy, but Connor really did have a way of pushing the worst buttons. The Werelupe King’s hackles rose and he fought to keep calm.
Connor bared his fangs. “I’m not goin’ to live like a Tyrannian! You—you say you want to help me, but you’re just as bad as Vakhtang, forcin’ me into a life I don’t want!”
Isengrim rankled. His entire culture had just been insulted and now Connor was comparing him to a disagreeable sociopath. He felt the rumblings of a growl in his throat.
He clenched his eyes shut. He never wanted to give in to anger again. His owner had taught him a better way. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes again. “Connor,” he said as calmly as he could muster but still sounding quite terse, “go help with excavations. Please. I need some time alone.”
“Fine,” Connor snarled. He whipped away from the Werelupe King and scampered through the field of blocks, stopping to rake his claws across stone with a frustrated shout that made the others stop and turn their heads. Shoulders heaving, the boy clambered atop a pile of blocks and perched on the top, wrapping his arms around his knees and ducking his head.
Isengrim massaged his sinuses. “I’m sorry, Terra. I don’t know how I could have handled that better.”
“You did fine,” Terra said. “You can’t act like nothing’s the matter—he needs to know these tantrums aren’t okay.” She stared up at the young Werelupe for a moment. “I could go talk to him. He hasn’t seemed to find anything wrong with me yet.”
“Do you really want to take that chance?” Isengrim asked with a bit of a smirk. It faded and he lifted his paw to examine his claws. “Perhaps he’s right… perhaps I am like Vakhtang.”
Terra grabbed his paw in both her hands and looked up at him fiercely. “You’re not,” she said. “I promise you’re not. Don’t ever think that. You’re Isengrim, the true Werelupe King. You do what you do out of concern for others and a desire to create a safe haven for all who need it. It’s Connor who’s looking at all of this the wrong way.”
Slowly, Isengrim smiled. If there was anyone he could trust right now, it was his owner. “Thank you, Terra,” he said, giving her hands a squeeze. “I won’t betray your high opinion of me. I swear it.”
“I know you won’t,” Terra said. “That’s part of why I like you so much.” She looked over her shoulder. “I’m going to try talking to him. It can’t possibly get any worse.”
Isengrim let her hands slip away as he watched her go. “Good luck,” he said. Somewhat numbly, he moved to the nearest block and began to lift it. He hefted the heavy stone enough to see that there was nothing beneath it but Petpetpets scurrying into the soil, and then set it back down with a dull thud as it hit the damp earth. But he found he could not really concentrate on looking for his missing artefact, so instead he propped an elbow against the block and watched his owner, silently wishing her well in her mission.
Terra’s human legs could not carry her up the pile as fast as Connor’s, but eventually she clambered to the top of the block pile and sat down beside him. “Hey,” she said, kicking her heels against the stone. “I’m sorry you’re upset. Do you want to talk about it?”
He took the bait and lifted his head. Isengrim guessed it was still easier for Connor to talk to non-Werelupes. “Me life’s awful right now,” the pup said. “I just don’t understand why this had to happen to me. I never did anythin’ wrong. But now I’m a Werelupe and I can’t ever turn back.”
“I’m really sorry,” Terra said. “Life can be excruciating when things don’t go our way.”
He frowned and huddled into himself again. “But this is somethin’ really bad. Like, life-changin’ bad. I’ll bet you’ve never been through anythin’ like this.”
Terra was silent for a moment. She looked over at Isengrim. His ears perked and he offered her an encouraging smile, which she returned before looking back to Connor. “Did you know Isengrim kidnapped me twice?” she asked.
The boy looked over at the Werelupe King, who waved casually. Connor’s golden eyes returned to the human sitting next to him, scanning her in confusion. “How did you escape?” he asked.
“Well, the first time…” Terra motioned to the mess of stone below them. “This is what happened the first time. But the second time, I didn’t escape.”
Connor’s eyes narrowed. “You’re still his prisoner?”
“Nope,” Terra said.
“I’m not followin’,” Connor said.
Terra looked out at the deep forest around them. “When it happened the second time, I was scared, and upset. My Neopets were far away—except for one who was not very helpful.” She glanced over to where Pharazon was watching the others carefully dismantle a hill of rubble. “It was an emotionally trying experience.”
“But how did you get out of it?” Connor asked.
“Well, that’s what I’m saying,” Terra said. “I didn’t. I found something better to do.” At nothing but a confused stare from Connor, she said, “When something upsetting happens, I’ve found it doesn’t really do much good to just sit there and focus on how bad everything is and how much you hate it. Rather, I like to focus on who I can help and what I have the power to change. I try to see things from other angles. And I’ve found that situations that look horrible on the outside are actually full of learning experiences, and ways we can use our strengths to help others.” She glanced over at Isengrim again.
The Werelupe King nodded, and began making his way over to them, a bit tired of merely eavesdropping. The story she was telling was as much his as it was hers.
“So what did you do?” Connor asked.
As Isengrim started to climb the rock pile, being sure not to work his wounded leg too hard, Terra said, “I befriended the Werelupe King. I helped him see why some of his approaches to life weren’t working, and taught him better ones. He quickly came to see his mistakes and made up for them.” She smiled down at him. “And now I have a wonderful fourth Neopet who is a great boon to our family, and a benevolent king of his people.”
Connor tilted his head to look down her muzzle at her, a bit condescendingly. “Let me guess, you’re sayin’ I should just go up to Vakhtang and ask to be friends with him? That I should endure his bullyin’ because someday he might change?”
Terra shook her head. “No, I’m not saying that at all. If I was in your position, I’d get away from Vakhtang and stay away, too. The difference in my situation was that Isengrim actually wanted to change. He listened to me when I called him out on stuff, and he actually made an effort to get things right. I could tell he was being sincere. Vakhtang, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to want to hear from anyone but himself—you saw how he acted back there.”
She rested her chin in her hand. “Of course I’m not saying to keep yourself in harm’s way… but explore your options. Sometimes, a situation isn’t as bad as it first looks. And it’s never the right solution to work yourself up about it until you view everything with anger and hatred.”
Her eyes wandered over to where her Draik was still overseeing the others’ excavation efforts. The Werelupes and Lexora had cleared away nearly all of the blocks from their pile, and were now on the last few layers of stone. “Just ask Pharazon what happens when you do that,” the owner said. “It isn’t pretty.”
“And to be fair,” Isengrim said, hoisting himself onto the block they sat on, “I was not nearly so bad as Vakhtang. He is ill-tempered and cruel and treats even his own packmates with disrespect.” The Werelupe King folded his legs and sat back. “I should like to think I conducted myself better than that.”
“Yes… a lot of what you did was out of ignorance,” Terra said. “Don’t be too hard on yourself for it.”
Isengrim passed an arm over his face in exasperation. “Aye, like when I didn’t think you needed food or water because I didn’t know how owners worked—thought they were wingless faeries. That was pretty stupid on my part. I’m sorry, Terra.”
“I forgive you,” Terra said with a chuckle. “I’m just glad we got that particular matter cleared up quickly.” She looked back to Connor. “At any rate, I don’t think this is entirely about Vakhtang, is it?”
The boy Werelupe sized her up for a moment and then shook his head. “No… it’s not. Don’t get me wrong, he still scares me silly, but…” He buried his face in his oversized paw. “I wanted to be a great scientist. I wanted to spend me life experimentin’ with chemistry. Now… I can’t.”
“Why can’t you?” Terra asked.
“Because Werelupes are barbarians!” Connor snarled. He gestured to Isengrim. “Look at them—they live in caves and wear skins and bones!”
Isengrim regarded him calmly. He knew what Terra was doing. “And how,” he asked, “would that preclude you from being a chemist?”
“Because—“ Connor grimaced. This was where his line of logic had ended. “Because… you don’t do anythin’ scientific?”
Isengrim had to bite his tongue to suppress a smile. “For a scientist,” he said quietly, “you make quite a lot of assumptions for which you have no evidence. My pack and I have little interest in scholarly endeavours, it is true. But that does not mean we would not welcome a scholar in our midst, or accommodate him in his interests and skills. We have a sorceress friend who stays at the Burrows often—she has her own grotto for use as a magical study. We could surely find the space for a chemist’s laboratory in those vast cavern networks.”
Connor’s expression softened. “You—you’d do that for me?”
Remembering the look of horror on the boy’s face when his father said he’d dismantled Connor’s workshop, Isengrim nodded. “Of course. Your dreams are noble ones, and I would like to see what you can make of them.”
The Werelupe pup was silent for a moment. Then, he asked, “But what about this body?” He held up his paws, splaying his thick fingers. “It’s not a scholar’s body. I’ve become a brute.”
“A body is what you make of it,” Isengrim said. He pointed to Connor’s head. “You are still the same person, in your mind and in your heart. Having a different body will not change that.” He paused. “If anything, I would say your new body could come in handy. You said you used to have a weak constitution. Look at how long and far you have walked, on your own, easily keeping pace with the rest of us. You are stronger, and faster. Those physical abilities will certainly not hinder you in your research.”
Connor examined one of his paws, curling his fingers to look at his claws. “I… suppose I never thought of it that way.”
“You can be smart and strong,” Terra said. “Isengrim’s very smart. He knows how to read, and in Meridell, that’s saying a lot.”
Connor snorted. “But he looks like a Tyrannian.”
“Perhaps I like dressing this way,” Isengrim said with a smirk. “Look here, Connor. I have been observing you since I met you. You are an intelligent boy with a good amount of book learning, but you tend to jump to conclusions, and you often say and do things without considering how they might affect others. I think if you want to be a truly great scientist, it would do you well to learn to control those impulses now, while you are young.”
The younger Werelupe turned his gaze to the ground far below them. “I can understand the leapin’ to conclusions thing… but what does considerin’ others have to do with bein’ a scientist?”
“Because not even scientists can avoid being alive,” Isengrim said. “And to live is to live with others. You may want to spend all of your time in the laboratory, but you are still someone’s son, someone’s neighbor, someone’s packmate.”
To this Connor had no reply. Instead, he sat and looked out at the woods, but Isengrim could practically see the gears turning behind the boy’s eyes. The Werelupe King looked over at Terra, who flashed him a thumbs-up. He returned it.
Finally, Connor looked at him and said, “I suppose so. I… thanks for rescuin’ me, Mister Isengrim. I did judge you and your Werelupes too quickly… and I’m sorry.” He looked at Isengrim’s leg and cringed. “And I’m so sorry you got hurt defendin’ me. If I hadn’t been so stupid—“ He shook his head. “And I just spent all this time bein’ angry with you, not even botherin’ to see if you were okay…”
“All is forgiven,” Isengrim said. “I’m just glad you’re doing better.” He tapped two of his claws together. “So… will you consider journeying with us back to the Burrows after this? Not permanently, if you don’t want, but I want to make sure you are safe and comfortable until your parents come around and Vakhtang’s threat is neutralised.”
Connor frowned slightly, but nodded. “I’ll… I’ll think about it. Maybe only temporarily.” He squared his shoulders. “But I still don’t quite like bein’ a Werelupe. It’s just not settin’ right. There’s got to be a way to turn back.”
Isengrim did not know what to say, and from the looks of it neither did Terra. If there was a cure, Isengrim thought it should have long been discovered by now. Then again, it wasn’t like he or most of his pack ever tried very hard to find one. They hadn’t really tried at all. So he didn’t know how to help a Werelupe who didn’t want to be a Werelupe and didn’t want to accept his new reality.
“We found it!” someone shouted, making Isengrim’s and Connor’s ears perk.
They and Terra whipped around to look over at the excavation crew. Five Werelupes propped up an enormous stone block, while the others looked on. Even through the mist, Isengrim could see something long and dark lying in the dirt.
He and Connor immediately started down the rock pile. Connor bounded across the blocks with ease, and Isengrim was about to as well, but he remembered his wound just in time and took it slower. Still, even favouring one leg, he could clamber down the stone quite quickly.
“Augh—wait up!” Terra said, having to take the descent one block at a time.
The two Werelupes stopped. “Sorry!” Connor said, clinging to the edge of one block to wait for her.
Isengrim smiled. He had a feeling that the boy just needed to sit down, get out his feelings, and get some honest advice, and then they would start to see results. He just felt bad it had taken so long to figure out the right approach. But once again, his owner had come through for them.
Pushing off from the stone, Isengrim scrambled back up to her and picked her up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes I forget you are not a Werelupe.”
Terra laughed and rubbed a hand on her pale cheek. “I didn’t know I was that furry.”
“Well, not like that,” Isengrim said with a chuckle. “Connor! Let’s go!” With his owner safely in his arms, he and Connor reached the ground, their paws sinking into the soft earth as they hurried to the others and their find.
As Isengrim set Terra down, Pharazon spread out his arms to ward the others away, before stepping toward the staff. “Everybody stay back,” he said. “I don’t know what this thing’s capable of.”
Suhel’s ears were flat against her skull. “Pharazon, are you sure you know what you’re doing?” she asked. She hovered near the edge of the group, but a squeeze of her paw from Lexora seemed to keep the Werelupe from bolting.
“Either I take it,” Pharazon said, “or someone else does. I know what risk I like better.” He crouched down, stretched out a hand to the staff, took in a deep breath, and grabbed it.
A buzzing filled the air and Pharazon closed his eyes, deep concentration furrowing his brow. The mist seemed to suddenly grow thick and alive around everyone, setting the Werelupes’ fur on edge. This was magic, Isengrim knew, a magic so strong even he could feel it. Beside him, Connor looked amazed and terrified, while Terra held tight to Isengrim’s paw.
Pharazon pulled the staff from where it had lain for fifteen years and opened his eyes, which glowed cyan for a moment before the light faded. Within the crook, the mist congealed, turning an ethereal blue, and there it hung suspended, slowly swirling like little dancing phantoms. The Draik’s breathing was heavy and focussed as he stood up. As though it took the greatest effort, he made his way back to Terra, step by deliberate step. The mist within the staff continued to swirl, but the heavy magic in the air faded back to levels beneath Isengrim’s notice.
“Terra,” Pharazon said, looking up at her. “I think I’ve found my implement.”
The human’s eyes widened. Isengrim felt a jolt of shock pass through him. The others looked equally surprised. The Werelupes holding up the block nearly let go of it before they remembered what they were doing and lowered it down carefully.
“Are… are you sure?” Terra asked.
Pharazon looked down at the staff. It was longer than he was tall, made of some sort of twisted wood so old that it had turned blue-grey. “It called to me…” he said. “I’ve never felt anything else feel so… right. Like it was waiting here just for me…” He blinked and looked over to his Werelupe brother. “Isengrim, where did you get this?”
“That,” Isengrim said, mesmerised by the ghostly swirls, “is the Staff of the Deep Forest. It was once one of Hubrid Nox’s prized possessions, although it pre-dates even his rise to power, and may be one of the oldest things in the Haunted Woods.” He looked up at Suhel, who seemed like she was going to be sick. “Although we do not study the magickal arts, we believe it may have even formed spontaNeously from the magicks of the Woods itself. It likes to do such things from time to time. The staff seems to be imbued with some of the Woods’ own power.”
Pharazon nodded, but followed Isengrim’s gaze to the second-in-command. The Draik’s ears fell. “What’s wrong, Suhel? It’s… it’s not a bad artefact, is it?”
Suhel gave Lexora’s paw a squeeze like the Kougra was her lifeline. “Well—you see—it’s the reason I’m afraid of magic,” Suhel admitted.
Pharazon studied the staff again, shaking his head slowly before looking back to his friend. “Why?” he asked. “What happened?”
She took a deep breath that nearly turned into a sob halfway through. “Me and a few other packmates—we found it years ago on a nightly hunt,” she explained. “We found a cache of magical artefacts, just the thing to add to Lord Isengrim’s hoard—but we didn’t realise we were on Hubrid Nox’s estate.” Her tail curled under. “He found us… and started slinging spells. I was hit with a hex something bad. They had to carry me back to the keep… nothing in my life had ever hurt as much as that evil magic.” Shuddering, she ducked her head. “I barely survived.”
“I’m so sorry,” Pharazon said.
“As am I,” Isengrim said. “This staff nearly cost me one of my best warriors. It was not worth it.” He looked aside. “I always felt guilty about keeping it… but after everything you had gone through to procure it for me, I could not bring myself to part with it.”
Pharazon drummed his fingers on the wood. “Maybe that’s why it didn’t let itself get scavenged when the keep fell. It sensed you didn’t want it.”
“Oh, bother your stupid sentimentality,” Suhel said to Isengrim. “We’ve found the cursed thing—let’s destroy it so it can never hurt anyone again.”
“But it’s Pharazon’s implement,” Isengrim said. “Who knows if he may find another one that fits him.” He reached down to pat the little Draik’s head. “And I think he is more than qualified to wield it responsibly.”
“Thanks,” Pharazon said, “but if it makes Suhel uncomfortable then I don’t want it.” Still, he stared at the staff longingly. Isengrim could tell it was not something Pharazon wished to part with, that he knew in his heart it wasn’t right, but he cared more about appeasing his friend.
Isengrim didn’t. He understood Suhel’s fear, but that did not mean that fear should limit another. “No,” he said. “You keep it. If you feel it is yours to wield, then it is yours. You are a thoughtful mage, Pharazon, and you have gained much wisdom from your experiences. You are the Neopet I trust the most with that staff.”
“I’m not sure if it’s wise to trust anything the Haunted Woods made, though,” Pharazon said, looking quite resigned. “It’s not exactly a nice place.”
“Some parts of it can be nice,” Lexora said, folding her arms. “I mean, I live here, after all.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Pharazon said.
“The Haunted Woods is a dangerous land, this is true,” Isengrim said, “that attracts all manner of evil, but I do not think it would be right to call the Woods itself evil. Rather it is ancient, and powerful, and certainly not to be trifled with. Like much else in Neopia, it simply is, and how we use it is up to us.”
Terra ruffled the wavy spines on her Draik’s head. “This is just a hunch,” she said, “but maybe it chose you because it trusted you wouldn’t be corrupted by its power.” She smiled. “Think positive. Life’s a lot better than people make it out to be sometimes.”
Pharazon smiled weakly. “Thanks. I sure hope you’re right.” He sighed and turned away to start walking toward where they had left Gwyneth. “Don’t worry, Suhel. I wouldn’t dream of doing any spellcasting with this thing yet, not until Celice and I get a good long look at it. I’ve got to make sure it’s stable and I know what I’m doing with it, so my magic doesn’t come out more powerfully than I mean it to. And you can be far away when that happens.”
“Thanks—runt,” Suhel said. She clenched her eyes shut and began to cough. This time it was so bad that it drove her to her knees, and Lexora held her friend’s shoulders while the Werelupe fought to breathe.
“I suppose that means you can’t heal my leg,” Isengrim said. “Or teleport us all to Lynwood.”
Pharazon tore his eyes away from Suhel to look up at the king. “I’m sorry, but I can’t take that risk. I might do more harm than good.” His grip on the staff twisted. “And the last thing I want to do is accidentally hurt someone with my magic. Those sorts of spells are way out of my league, anyway.”
“Would you use it in an emergency?” Terra asked. “Like, if our lives depended on it?”
The Draik nodded firmly. “Yes. But only then. And I just hope that doesn’t happen.”
“Well, I don’t see why it should,” Isengrim said. “We’re going to Lynwood next, and there’s naught there but cobwebs and curses. Although I will have to take us on a bit of a longer route to circumvent Vakhtang’s territory.”
“Fine by me,” Connor said. “I never want to see him again.”
“Ugh… sorry about that, milord,” Suhel said, pounding her chest as she stood up again. “Aye, let’s get to Lynwood and get this nasty curse taken care of. Then Lexora and I can have our lives back.”
As they returned to Gwyneth, Suhel walked on the other side of the group from Pharazon. His ears drooped and he shook his head.
“She’ll come around,” Isengrim said. “That staff was meant for you, I am sure of it.”
“Thanks,” Pharazon said, not looking up from the ground. “I guess I should find some way to carry this thing. I think I can construct a shoulder sling out of some twine.”
“My thanes and I can help you craft something,” Isengrim said.
The Draik nodded. “Okay.” Breaking away from the rest of the party, he moved toward Gwyneth to rub the Ganuthor’s head and receive several sloppy licks from her big pink tongue.
Isengrim felt a tugging on his hand and looked down to see that Terra had halted and was staring back at the rock pile. He turned and surveyed it as well. He didn’t know when he would be back here again. The memories still ran strong—good and bad.
He knelt down next to her and put his paws on her shoulders. “Terra,” he said, “I am so sorry for all that you experienced here. I was acting selfishly, but I never meant you any harm. Still, I am responsible for your fear and sadness here, and it brings me deep sorrow.”
Terra looked at him for a moment, then leaned in to hug him. “I forgive you,” she said. “I understand why you did it, and I’m not mad at you.” Looking up at him, she smiled. “You know… even though a lot of scary things happened here… I’m grateful that it brought us together. So much good came out of that in the end. Look at all that’s happened since then.” Her smile widened. “And one of my favourite parts of it all is that we got to be friends.”
“Thank you,” Isengrim said, bumping his nose to her head. “I am so glad we are friends. I am so grateful you are my owner.”
“You’re awesome,” Terra said.
“So are you,” Isengrim said.
“What just happened?” Pharazon suddenly asked.
Isengrim looked over to see the Draik perched atop Gwyneth, scanning the mist around him, still holding the staff tightly. “What do you mean?” the Werelupe King asked.
“Well,” Terra said, “we just had a really nice heart-to-heart and got some good closure.”
“No, not that,” Pharazon said. “The negative energy is gone.” He looked down at his staff. “Was it something I did…” he muttered. “No, I’m just trying to contain its magic…”
Terra looked around. “Oh, you’re right…” she said. “It… it doesn’t feel sad here anymore.” She clapped her hands. “I’m so glad! This place is okay now, Isengrim! It won’t be a scary place anymore!”
“That is good,” Isengrim said. “Are you sure it was not something you did, Master Magus?” he asked Pharazon as the Werelupe King and his owner joined the group.
“I don’t… think so…” Pharazon said. As Terra clambered onto Gwyneth, Pharazon looked over his shoulder at her and his eyes narrowed. “I don’t think it was something I did,” he said under his breath as he commanded Gwyneth to move.
Isengrim caught the words and looked over at Terra, who hadn’t seemed to have heard. He did not really understand what was going on, but he was glad that things here were better for them both. Not just that, but things between them were better. As the company pushed back into the depths of the forest, leaving the old ruins to slumber once more, Isengrim had a bit of a spring in his march.
While it was true that he and Terra had gotten along swimmingly ever since he learned to be a good Neopet to her, now he felt as though everything between them had truly been set right. The bond they had was stronger than ever. He felt as though with her by his side, he could do anything, even break a noxious curse. And that was just what he aimed to do now.
To be continued…