Worth Searching For: Part Eleven
The Werelupes arrived at dusk.
Hyren, Blynn, and Isengrim were in the middle of dinner when a Weewoo arrived with a scroll from Suhel announcing that the pack was nearing the gates of the castle town. Clearance had already been given for them to enter. Isengrim wrote back to proceed to the castle and he would meet them there.
He, his knight escorts, and Hyren watched for them atop the castle gatehouse. Hyren had been unable to tear Celice away from helping Seradar and the other mages devise an enchantment to counter the phantom army's incorporeality. And Blynn refused to leave Terra's side. But Hyren and the knights had developed a good rapport, and he and Isengrim had a sort of unspoken agreement to not be at each other's throats when their owner and an entire kingdom were at stake. Hyren had little else to do for the time being. He was not one for moping.
The once-lively town now looked abandoned. Many civilians had evacuated to Neopia Central to the north, or smaller communities further west. Those who stayed barricaded themselves inside their homes. The cobbled streets were empty, windows and doors had been boarded up, and marketplace stalls were barren of food and wares.
So there was no one around to see the Werelupes come in.
Hyren's Grundo eyesight was not the keenest of all Neopet species', so all he could make out was a shifting mass pouring through the town gates in the twilight gloom, made gloomier by another bank of clouds coming in from the southern coast. This horde looked paler in colour than the usual dark fur of Werelupes and it made him second-guess that this was Isengrim's pack.
Those doubts were allayed when the Werelupe King tilted back his head and let out a throaty howl. A few seconds later, a chorus of howls rang through the streets in response.
Isengrim smiled, his tail perked and wagging. "Come, let us meet them in the courtyard! Open the gates!" He turned to scamper down the stairs. "Oh, thank the fates they're safe," he breathed as Hyren and the knights followed him.
Standing on the other side of the opening portcullis, Hyren heard the Werelupes before he saw them. The heavy shuffle of paws on stone and the clank of metal were unmistakeable, but there was another sound he couldn't place, a sort of dry, hollow clatter. It somehow reminded him of a Wock Til You Drop concert.
From out of the deepening darkness, eyes caught the torchlight. Dozens of eyes, green and yellow and red, moving steadily up and down, closer and closer. It sent a chill up Hyren's spine, reminding him of just last night when he'd been trying to fight off those same eyes. It looked for all the world like a scene from a story where the vicious army of monsters would besiege the fair city.
But for now, at least, these monsters were on the city's side.
As the pack reached the fires' glow, Hyren realised the reason for his confusion. These were the same Werelupes he'd fought last night, but now they were dressed to the nines in armour cleverly crafted from bone. Their bone plates and headdresses were bedecked with the claws and fangs of vanquished beasts, and some even wore entire skulls over their heads, lending even more to the illusion that they were ferocious skeletal creatures. And each of them carried several weapons, ranging from swords and knives to axes, boomerangs, clubs, and bows.
Hyren had to admit to himself that they would certainly be an intimidating sight on the battlefield. Although he wasn't sure if spectres got intimidated.
"Milord!" One of the foremost bone-monsters rushed forward, her green eyes glinting in the firelight and her long, curly black mane waving behind her like a banner. She lifted the skull from atop her head and threw her arms around Isengrim.
"Suhel!" He bumped his nose to her head. "You're all right, thank goodness!"
She grinned. "Aye, you can't get rid of us that easily. We started moving as soon as I got the Weewoo! We're all accounted for. Has everything been all right here? Have you heard from the fiefs?"
"Aye, everything's good here. We've just been waiting for you. I received Weewoos from all of our fiefs this afternoon—they're safe. They weren't in the army's path."
Suhel nodded, her long pink tongue lolling between her fangs. "Good, good. Oh!" She reached behind her back and undid the large bundle tied there. "I brought your armour, Milord! I brought it from the Burrows last night, in case you might need it." She handed it to him.
Isengrim undid the ropes and lifted the oilcloth, and smiled. "Perfect. Thank you, Suhel. You're an invaluable second. Now I shall be fully equipped for batt—" His paw strayed to the empty scabbard on his back and his ears fell.
Suhel's own ears perked. "Your sword?"
"It was broken in my fight with Skoll." Isengrim's shaggy shoulders slumped. "I'd forgotten about that."
His second ducked her head, looking ashamed. "My apologies, sire. I should have seen that you needed another weapon. In the rush, I didn't think to check or ask."
The Werelupe King patted her bone pauldron. "No, don't worry about it. It wasn't your fault. I can fight just as well without one."
"Against a legion of enemies with their own blades, Milord?" She reached for the sword on her back. "You can have mine."
"No, Suhel, you will need it. I can manage."
"And I cannot?" A toothy smirk worked its way up her lips. "Is that a veiled insult, sire?"
Isengrim chuckled. "No, Suhel, you know that is not what I meant. But I cannot ask you to give up your weapon for me."
Hyren cleared his throat. "I have something you can use. If you give it back afterward."
The two Werelupes turned toward him. "Oh?" Isengrim tilted his head, eying the shortsword at the Grundo's waist. "Your blade is too small for me."
"I'm not talking about this blade." Hyren turned and waved for the two to follow him.
Isengrim took a few steps and looked back to his pack. "You'll be camping here in the courtyard tonight. Make yourselves at home, ask for whatever you need." He grinned. "We may be exiles, but tonight we are guests of honour." He looked to the two knights. "I hope your larder has plenty of meat."
"Don't get too cozy," the Kacheek muttered.
Hyren took them to the stables, where Gwyneth was lounging on a bed of hay, gnawing on a steakbone. She glanced up at the approaching group, and when she saw the Werelupes her fur bristled. She stood up, a low growl in her throat, and flared her wings menacingly.
"Gwyn, down," Hyren said, patting her snout. "It's okay. They're on our side for now." She hovered over him protectively as he moved to her saddlebags, which had been piled nearby, and unbuckled the strap of the claymore from one of them.
Isengrim's eyes widened as Hyren dragged the Faerie steel over to him with a, "Here." Lifting it by the hilt, Hyren tried to hand it up to the Werelupe.
"You... are letting me use this?" Isengrim reached out a tentative paw.
"I'm making sure Terra's curse gets broken and Brightvale gets defended. Now are you going to take it or not?"
The Werelupe King reached down and picked up the sword, looking it over and sniffing it. "This is... a Faerie weapon." His nose wrinkled. "You kept it, all these years." He looked the Grundo in the eyes, more confused than angry. "And you expect me to use this?"
Just be grateful you're the right size to use it, Hyren thought bitterly. "Yes."
Isengrim smiled. He wrapped the strap around his waist, resting one paw on the pommel of the weapon. "Thank you. It is a worthy gift and I will wield it well."
Suhel blinked. "But, Milord, it—it's Faerie!"
"Aye," Isengrim replied with a nod, "and it is a gift from my owner's champion."
"It's a temporary gift," Hyren muttered.
Isengrim patted Suhel's back. "Come, let's have a sparring session! I need to get in some practice with this blade before I wield her in battle tomorrow morn!"
"Hah, I shall be amused indeed to watch a Werelupe cut down spectres with Fae steel!" Suhel laughed as the two sauntered out of the stables.
Hyren hugged Gwyneth's massive head. She'd been out of sorts since last night as well. He felt that she somehow knew Pharazon wasn't coming back. "I know I can't make everything right again," he murmured as the knights took their leave after the Werelupes, "but I can at least save what we have left."
Those in the castle who were hoping to get a good night's sleep had those hopes dashed by the Werelupe party being thrown in the courtyard. The pack had set up furs and fires and spent the night preparing for war. They bayed and laughed and sung rhythmic chants about combat and victory as they sharpened their weapons, checked their armour, and feasted on everything they could get the cooks to give up from the castle larder.
Hyren preserved his sanity by staying in the infirmary with Terra and Blynn, where a spell had been cast to dampen outside noise. He could only imagine how bewildered Isengrim's poor escorts had to feel.
Not that sleep came any easier for the Grundo. Blynn had barely eaten anything that day and she remained largely unresponsive. Terra was beginning to look... dirty, for lack of a better word. She literally appeared as though she'd been exhumed from the ground, covered in a strange loamy patina. To Hyren it seemed like the earth was slowly trying to reclaim her where she lay.
The blankets and pillows that Arsinoe provided him were comfy enough, but they couldn't ease the knots in his gut. Tomorrow he had to prove himself on the field of battle again. Sure, there were the skirmishes at the Tyrannian Obelisk the previous year, and many wars before that, but this time the life of his owner hung in the balance. And he had to trust in the allegiance of a faction that had been his enemies up until yesterday. He'd like to see anyone sleep well in a situation like this.
Isengrim and his escort returned sometime after midnight. The massive Werelupe sat by his owner's bed once again and nodded off watching over her.
Hyren supposed he must have done the same shortly after, because the next thing he knew, Celice was shaking him awake and the grey light of a cloudy morning was glowing through the window. "Eat up." She handed him a plate of eggs and bacon and a bowl of porridge.
The Werelupe King was gone. Blynn and Terra still lay motionless on the bed.
"Hurry, we haven't much time," Celice said, leaning a paw on the doorway. "The army's already assembling and we're hardly going to postpone the enchantment for one Neopet."
"Right." Hyren gulped down spoonfuls of porridge and ripped into his toast. He would need all the energy he could get for today, and pacing himself was proving to be hard. "Do you have a status report?"
"The spectral army is about two hours away. If you march soon, you should intercept them at the Sweetwater Fields within an hour. Meridellian forces have arrived, all that Skarl could muster at such short notice."
Hyren crunched on a strip of bacon. "How many?"
"Thirteen thousand, it looks like. Added to twenty-two thousand of our own."
"Hm. Not too shabby." But would it be enough to succeed against legions?
The Lupe pushed her spectacles up her snout. "Darigan said he would send his airborne, but they have yet to make an appearance. But he also said not to worry about enchanting them, so it seems the Citadel's mages have something else up their collective sleeve."
"They always were independent ones." Hyren reminded himself to slow down long enough to enjoy his food. Otherwise he would regret it later. Losing one's breakfast on the battlefield was never a pleasant experience.
Celice drew a pocketwatch out of her robes and glanced at it. "I'm giving you five more minutes, and then you'll have to finish the rest of your bacon on Whinnyback."
There had never been a quicker five minutes in Hyren's life. He actually finished off the bacon and eggs first and was left with one last square of toast. With a sigh, he wiped his hands on a handkerchief and willed his food to digest as he looked over his owner and sister one last time.
No, it wouldn't be the last time. He'd come back and he'd find Terra awake. He had to believe that. "Blynn, don't you dare give up," he said.
"Mm-hm," the Zafara murmured listlessly.
His eyes traveled to his owner's face. "Hang in there, Terra. Your champion's going to come through for you."
Hyren nibbled at his toast while he and Celice ventured to the armoury. Other knights were still there getting equipped, and Celice helped Hyren into his armour since he had no squire or page. She turned out to be decent at it, with his coaching.
"Yes, this reminds me why I chose not to go into the knightly order," Celice said as Hyren pulled on his helmet. "It takes you people so long to get ready."
"It doesn't take as long when you're trained in it," Hyren muttered, checking his armour over one last time and adjusting a few straps. "At least I don't swish around in robes all day."
Celice frowned and clutched at her forest-green cloak. "They're quite comfortable, thank you. Much better than that heavy old plating."
"Yeah, and a lot less effective against a blade."
They left with a group of knights and mages headed toward the eastern gate. The air was cold but the clouds weren't yet dark enough for snow. In defiance of Celice's prediction, they actually got to ride a Uni named Sir Feitz, a rather nice older fellow, Tyrannian in colour. He intimated that word of the Grundo swordmaster had spread through the ranks, but the knight himself mercifully let Hyren alone. The town's streets were still deserted, but from a window or doorway here and there, a Neopet would peek out and wish them luck and Faerie blessings.
There was still no sign of the Werelupes. Hyren sort of wondered if they had up and left Brightvale in the night. But no, Isengrim wouldn't abandon Terra, and the Werelupe King knew full well that he needed help from other kingdoms to gain the upper hand against Skoll's forces.
From outside the city walls, Hyren could hear a low commotion, the sound of thousands of armed Neopets mulling about in the calm before the storm. Sure enough, once his group passed the gate he could see them, a vast throng of soldiers of every species and paint job. The horde of knights and battlemages kicked up clouds of dust that billowed in the still morning, obscuring the glint of daylight on their armour. But Hyren could still see their banner colours: green, white, and gold in one mass, and red, blue, and gold in another.
Pets chatted across the two groups, most likely friends and relations. In spite of the traditional rivalry between the kingdoms, Hyren was impressed by their unity on the advent of battle. Then again, he mused, the rivalry was far from serious, especially in the face of a much greater threat.
Many of the knights rode war-Whinnies, a larger size of the Petpet bred for battle. The floppy-eared creatures tossed their heads and snorted, pawing at the ground and shifting in their armour. Still other knights rode Uni companions who'd been trained to work in tandem with a rider in combat. Many Uni-and-rider pairs were as thick as kin, and Hyren didn't doubt that some actually were kin. And a few knights rode less conventional Petpet mounts such as a Quetzal and a Sauropod. These, Hyren surmised, were personal Petpets who'd been co-opted as battle steeds.
Still no sign of the Werelupes, though.
On the other side of the gate stood another mass. This one was all scholarly mages, with Seradar at their head. The Neopets' jaws were clenched in concentration, and Hyren wondered how much sleep they'd been able to get the night before. Some were still flipping through books or scanning scrolls, and a couple yawned or swigged at the energy-granting beverage of their choice.
"Here's where I get off." Celice alighted from Feitz and jogged over to Seradar. "Sorry I'm late, Headmaster. I had to rouse a certain lazy swordsman."
Seradar chuckled. "Well, thank the Faeries you made it. We're going to need all the power we can get for this one. Are these the last of them?"
"Some of the last, yes. Shouldn't be much more coming, now."
The master mage checked his pocketwatch. "I suppose we can go ahead and prepare to cast." He smoothed back his trailing ears. "All right, you lot, stand still!" he barked to the knights. "We're going to cast on all of you at once—that's a very tricky thing and we don't want any nasty mistakes!"
Someone blew a horn and the commanders relayed the order, and slowly the knights shuffled into rank. Feitz plodded down the line to join them, and at the far end Hyren finally saw the Werelupes.
Although there had to have been a good hundred of them, they weren't organised in any particular manner, just clumped awkwardly together, insular from the soldiers who were giving them suspicious looks. Standing tall and proud, they muttered among themselves as ears flicked and noses lifted to sniff the air.
Suhel and Isengrim posed at the head of them in full regalia. Isengrim's armour made him look even larger and more imposing than usual. His skull-helm was that of a beast with huge twisting horns, and attached to the back was a long crest of crimson hair that trailed behind him. Hyren's claymore hung at the Werelupe King's side. At least Hyren knew it was in no danger of breaking or dulling.
Isengrim seemed to look Hyren's way for a moment, but it was difficult to tell, as the Werelupe's eyes were hidden in the shadows of the skull's eye-sockets. Otherwise the pack largely ignored the knights beside them and eyed the wizards warily.
Feitz deposited himself between two bannerpets on war-Whinnies and Hyren leaned down to the Uni's ear. "Why are we on the front line," the Grundo muttered.
The old knight snorted. "You're a commander and a swordsmaster, are you not?"
"But not a former swordsmaster."
Hyren didn't have an answer for that and his mount seemed quite pleased to have the last word, holding his head a little higher and swishing his shaggy cream-coloured tail. The Grundo didn't exactly object to being on the front lines—he was not ill-equipped for it in skill or arms. Mostly he was surprised that Hagan's army took him so seriously. Maybe they were just that desperate.
"That's the last of them!" someone called as another batch of soldiers trotted through the gates and took their place in the ranks.
"It had better be," Seradar said, "because we're not casting this spell a second time!" Taking a deep breath, he drew himself up and held his staff above his head. "All mages, at the ready!"
The sorcerers behind him stiffened and put away their reading materials. Many of them raised staves or wands of their own and the buzz of magic filled the air, ringing noiselessly in Hyren's antennae.
Seradar narrowed his eyes and began murmuring syllables. His moustache bristled and his wand glowed in a rainbow of hues. Like a wave of Lightmites, the other mages' focusing tools did the same. Many of the scholars closed their eyes and hunched their shoulders in concentration, and some shook from the exertion. Celice's spectacles slipped down her snout and her tongue rolled out of her muzzle as her bare paws shone.
A fog of magic coalesced upon the knights and Werelupes in swirls of green and pale blue. The Brightvalian forces stood still, most likely used to this sort of thing and their Petpets had been conditioned accordingly. The Meridellians, Neopets and Petpets alike, were visibly unnerved, but managed to keep themselves together under the glare of their commander, a somewhat portly older Royalboy Kyrii on a war-Whinny.
The Werelupes cowed, and a few of them put their paws on their weapons. Isengrim wordlessly lifted a paw to them to stand down, even though his own ears were low. Suhel's tail curled under her legs and she let out a whimper.
Hyren's eyes widened as he realised how much they feared and distrusted magic, so much so that they felt threatened by even non-combat spells. It was always valuable to know an enemy's weakness—no. He shook his head. He couldn't be thinking like that when he needed to fight alongside them for now. They had a common enemy today.
Instead he lowered his eyelids and breathed in. The magic-mist left an aftertaste in his mouth like wet grass and the feel of staring into a cloudless sky. Hyren still wasn't quite used to the sense-mixing synesthesia that magic could produce. Someone had told him once that it was a common sensation among Neopets, and Hyren wondered how magic-users ever got used to it. No wonder they all seemed a touch eccentric.
The mist faded, and Hyren didn't feel any different. His sword, however, was ringing in its sheath. Even with his limited knowledge of the subject, it was easy for Hyren to guess that magic weapons would be affected by magic.
He pulled the sword partway out of the scabbard. The ancient runes glowed in green and blue and the ringing, no longer muffled, rattled his teeth. Hyren glanced up to see Isengrim doing the same thing with the claymore and the Grundo hastily pushed his blade back in, perturbed that they had had the same idea.
Feitz's ears flicked. "Oy, what's that commotion? Sounds like a mad Beekadoodle in your pocket!"
"Sorry," Hyren muttered. "Weird weapon."
The Uni snorted but said nothing more. Hyren was glad he'd gotten a mount who knew better than to be nosy.
Seradar slumped over and leaned on his staff. Celice moved to support him, but she looked like she was having trouble keeping on her feet, herself. All of the mages seemed thoroughly exhausted, and a few even passed out, while others downed potions to keep themselves from doing the same.
The elderly Gelert ran a paw over his muzzle. "There..." he panted. "There. It's done. Now off with you, I won't have a spell of this magnitude be for naught."
"Hurrah for the mages!" the Brightvale commander, a spry green Nimmo on a white Uni, shouted, raising her blade to the sky.
"Hurrah!" her knights replied, and the Meridell forces chimed in. The Werelupes said nothing and still looked uneasy, but their ears and tails had lifted again.
Seradar snickered. "That's quite kind of you, Lady Natalya. If only fanfare could ease these tired old bones. I'm due for a nap. Don't wake me 'til the spectres are gone." He hobbled toward the gate with Celice assisting, and the mages followed with a few rousing cries of "go get 'em" for the knights.
The commanders turned to face their ranks, and Hyren knew what was about to happen. The nice thing about when he led Sloth's Mutant Grundo drones, he mused, was that he never had to worry about morale. Which was good, because he stunk at giving speeches. And listening to them.
The two captains began spouting rhetoric about valour and battle-for-the-ages and king-and-country and it was all too easy for Hyren to tune out. Instead he found his curiosity drawn to the Werelupes. He knew they were anything but conventional.
Isengrim drew himself up and surveyed his pack, who watched him expectantly. A cold wind had begun to come up from the sea, making his draping crest flutter. "My thanes!" he barked. "My brethren and sisters under the moon! For too long we have been the scourge and bane of Neopia! Hated and hunted like mere beasts, never given the respect we so rightly deserve! Chased from one den to the next, now we again find ourselves again pushed from our domain by a traitor who has cursed my owner besides!"
He clenched his furry fists. "Now is our chance to take back the Burrows and in so doing seize glory, fighting alongside those who have scorned and wronged us! No longer shall we be seen as monsters, or our home and lands simply as prizes to plunder!" With a fist thrust in the air, he shouted, "The kingdom of the Werelupe Woods shall be recognised by the rest of Neopia! We will save my owner, we will not let our home be taken from us again, and we will have our place!"
Tilting his head back, he let out a long, fierce howl that the rest of the pack joined in. The bone-chilling sound stopped the other two commanders cold and caused a jolt of panic to run through the troops. A few Whinnies neighed in alarm, and the captains and knights glared disapprovingly at their wild allies.
Isengrim turned back around. "Well, what are we standing around here for?" he growled. "Let's move out!"
The commanders echoed the order, and the ranks jostled into motion, banners held high and snapping in the brisk breeze. Hyren was glad for his woolen undergarments. In weather like this he'd much rather be sitting inside with the paper and a cup of borovan. Nothing sounded better than fixing this whole mess, getting back to Altador, and doing just that. His throat tightened at the thought of home. It wouldn't be the same without Pharazon.
Their march took them off the main Brightvale-Meridell road and into the rolling countryside that stretched in front of the mountains. Feitz explained that the Sweetwater Fields, a wide swath of moorland where shepherds brought their Babaas and Zebies to graze, were so named because the Sweetwater River bisected the plains on its way to the sea.
Said river was not particularly wide or deep at the point where the army forded it. There was a bridge some miles downriver but the Pteri scouts reported that the phantoms were closing in fast. The army wouldn't have the time for such a circuitous route.
Hyren clutched the saddlehorn as deep green water swirled around Feitz's thick fetlocks and rose to the Uni's knees. The water looked frigid and wholly unpleasant and Hyren wasn't going to touch it if he could help himself. He was already sore from riding—he didn't need to be wet and cold on top of that while fighting.
At least the clouds weren't thick enough for snow. No, they were content to just cover the sun to make sure the day looked as ominous as it was supposed to. It simply wouldn't do, Hyren thought, to fight a mad wizard's spectral army on a beautiful sunny morning. Completely incongruous.
They spied no Petpets in the fields today, which was just as well. Hyren watched the top of every rise, scanning for movement. The two armies had to be close now. His hand sat securely on the grip of his sword.
A Cloud Pteri with green-and-gold anklebands alighted on Natalya's Uni's head. "They're just over the next ridge!" the scout squawked breathlessly.
The Nimmo nodded. "Prepare to engage!" She unsheathed her sword and lowered the visor of her helmet.
A legion of spears pointed forward and all around rose a commotion as knights readied themselves and battlemages began preemptive casting, layering themselves and their allies in all sorts of boosting spells. The Werelupes pulled out their weapons and stared at the horizon almost hungrily.
Hyren drew his sword. The runes were still glowing. What that would do for its potency, he wasn't quite sure. But based on what he knew of Neopian history, glowing runes were either a very good thing or a very bad thing. And he doubted the sword's forgers had engineered it to do bad things to its wielder.
The air seemed to grow colder. Gasps and cries of dismay rang out, and Feitz suddenly tossed his head and stamped at the ground. An ethereal green glow lit the edge of the sky, like some demented dawn.
And then they came. Pouring like a tide, cresting the ridge and spilling over, marched thousands upon thousands of ghastly apparitions. They were a motley assortment of Neopets of every species, wearing armour and carrying weapons from countless civilisations, most of which Hyren didn't recognise. It chilled him to think how long many of them must have drifted about in the Well of Souls.
The spectres lurched and staggered forward with blank gazes, seeming to look straight through the opposing army, although their weapons were drawn as though they expected to fight, or at least destroy. Murmurs of unease and a few cries of panic rose up from the knights. Down the line, the Werelupes stood resolute, sniffing the air and growling.
"Stand your ground!" Natalya cried. "We shall defend Brightvale!"
"Brightvale!" a chorus of voices cried behind her.
She pointed her sword at the approaching legions. "Cha—"
Isengrim rushed out into the open field and his pack followed him, snapping and baying. They tore through the grass, bearing down on the phantoms.
Natalya recoiled. "Er—"
"Stupid barbarians," the Meridell commander scoffed, shifting his weight on his Whinny. "Don't know how to follow orders."
"And they ruined the moment," Natalya's Uni whined, pawing the ground.
Natalya shook her head. "Oh, never mind that. Charge!"
Feitz dug his hooves into the green and lurched into motion. Hyren felt himself losing his balance, and he quickly leaned forward and dug his knees into the Uni's sides. "Sorry, I'm not the best rider," he breathed into his mount's ear.
"I'll keep you on," Feitz panted, his mane flying up into Hyren's face. His Korbat-like wings hung half-open at his sides, prepared to assist in making tight maneuvers.
Suddenly, like an army of puppets with invisible strings, the phantasms jerked in their march. They seemed to see the knights for the first time, and in a terrible mass they sped up and began to run down the ridge, raising their weapons.
Arrows and spells flew over Hyren's head from behind and met their marks in a flash of green and blue. Many of the hit spectres collapsed and dissolved into a green miasma that lingered around the feet of the rest, who pressed forward still. Several of the knights let out a whoop. It seemed as though the scholars' spell had worked. Hyren didn't want to think about the alternative.
As he and the other knights rushed on, Hyren kept his sight trained on the front ranks. They were footpets, which gave them a disadvantage against cavalry. But the problem was that there were so many of them. Even with the forces of Brightvale, Meridell, and the Werelupes combined, the spectres still outnumbered them.
No matter. Hyren knew what he was fighting for. His sword's runes glowed fiercely as Feitz sped them toward the front line, and Hyren narrowed his eyes, preparing to strike.
From the corner of his vision he caught a blur of fur and bone that ploughed snarling into the spectres. And then there was no time for anything else, because the enemy was upon him.
Feitz threw them into the sea of phantoms, trampling some under hoof and flinging others aside with his horn. Hyren let out a fierce shout as he swung his blade at a ghostly Kiko that lunged for him with a pike. The sword sung in the air as it deflected the weapon, and in the follow-through dispelled the spectre, banishing it to the mist.
Hyren jabbed at a Chia and bashed aside a Kacheek and felt his blood boil. The sound of metal clashing against metal, chaotic shouts and frantic orders, the weight of steel in his hand and the relish of watching his enemies fall before him—how could he ever think himself rusty for this? This was his forte.
"Ungh!" Feitz stumbled beneath him.
Hyren rocked in the saddle and had to grab the Uni's mane to keep from falling off. It threw off his balance enough that a sword got dangerously close to his face before he could get the leverage to push it back and slash at its owner. "You okay?" he shouted to his mount to be heard above the din of battle.
"Fine," Feitz grunted. He turned to kick at a phantom and winced.
Hyren elbowed an Aisha ghost in the face. "No you're not."
"I don't want to take you out of this."
"I'll go on foot. I'm better with that anyway." Hyren was getting tired of having to lean out so far to strike. It wasn't like he had much of a reach to begin with.
"All right. Wait for an opening." Feitz began to fall back, favoring one leg as Hyren kept the pressing throng off of him.
Beside them, a splash of magic enveloped a handful of phantoms, twisting them into mist and leaving a temporary gap in the spectral forces. "I'm off," Hyren announced, swinging himself out of the saddle. It was farther to the ground than he anticipated, and he crouched to lessen the impact of landing.
"Healer!" Feitz called as he limped back under the protection of the green-and-white banners.
Freed from the encumbrance of someone else moving him, Hyren rushed into the fray, hacking at the spectres with renewed vigour. Many of them seemed to have been skilled with their weapons in life and retained that skill even as Skoll's thralls, but they were not anything Hyren couldn't handle.
It was only their sheer numbers that would prove to be a problem. The knights around him were slowing down and Hyren was, too. They had limited stamina—the phantoms didn't. The knights were losing ground.
And all the while Hyren feared that he would see his own brother's face among the ghouls. But all he had to do was think of Terra languishing under the curse and his strength returned.
An Usul jabbed at him with a spear and Hyren knocked the ghostly weapon away with his blade. As he moved in to strike, though, he thought he saw the wings of a Faerie Draik and it broke his concentration just long enough.
With a sickening smack, the Grundo hit the ground, pain radiating from his side. That Usul was stronger than it looked. Trying to shake off his daze, Hyren pushed himself up from the ground—and his chestplate met the butt of the spear with an ear-piercing clang. While his armour held, the force of the blow knocked him back down.
Not that he would let that stop him. He tensed in preparation to roll away—and a Peophin battlemage collapsed on top of his sword arm, out cold.
Hyren gritted his teeth and tried to be thankful that it at least wasn't an armoured knight. This way, at least his arm probably wasn't broken. Not that that would matter if he didn't survive this. His eyes widened as the Usul raised its spear, the ghostly weapon looking all too real for Hyren's comfort. No matter how much the Grundo struggled, he couldn't free himself from beneath the Peophin.
Suddenly, an enormous horned beast that wore its bones on the outside burst through the horde of spectres and, with a snarl, batted the Usul aside. It went flying through the air like a rag doll, swirling into mist as it went.
The bone-creature raised its rune-covered claymore and swept it through an encroaching swath of ethereal warriors, dispelling them all. Then, it knelt down and pulled the unconscious battlemage off of Hyren by her tail.
Crimson eyes glinted at the Grundo from beneath the skull's empty eye sockets. "Get up," Isengrim growled, offering Hyren a paw.
Not taking the time to think about it, Hyren grabbed the paw and was yanked to his feet. "You saved my life," he gasped, clutching his own arm.
"Terra needs her champion." The Werelupe King rose to his full height. "Let's send these fiends back to the pit from whence they spawned."
"The numbers are against us," Hyren grunted. He felt the invigourating coolness of a healing spell hit him, and the soreness in his arm faded to a tolerable degree. He flexed it to make sure he could still use it. "Thanks!" he shouted to whoever had cast at him, although his voice seemed to drift away in the chaos.
Isengrim kicked away an Acara. "We are still moving."
"We're moving backwards." Hyren sidled closer to him, sword turned outward. As much as the Grundo hated to admit it, being next to an ally Werelupe was probably one of the safest places on the battlefield.
"But as long as we live and breathe, we—" Isengrim swung his sword up to block an enormous blade with a curve at the tip. The force of the impact slid him back several centimetres and he pushed off of it only with great effort.
The offending weapon was wielded by an enormous spectral Elephante taller than Isengrim himself and with probably twice as much bulk. The phantom was dressed from head to foot in the heavy armour of an ancient Shenkuuvian warrior, and it raised its trunk and bellowed mournfully as it drew back the sword for another strike.
Isengrim bared his fangs and moved to close in with his own blade, but the Elephante dug its feet into the ground and swung. The Werelupe diverted his claymore from its original path and managed to stop the longsword just before impact, although his arms trembled from the effort.
The phantom soldier trumpeted to the sky and stomped one foot, sending a tremor through the ground. It withdrew its sword and arced it up for an overhead strike. Isengrim let out a bark of frustration and brought up his blade, holding the flat of it with one paw for extra support.
The phantom's sword struck with such force that Hyren feared the supposedly-impervious Faerie steel would actually break this time. The runes flared and the metal let out a dissonant wail, but it miraculously held.
Isengrim wasn't doing as well. Arms shaking, his hind paws gave out and he collapsed to one knee. Still holding back the blade, his ears flicked back as the Elephante kept pressing, overpowering him.
Hyren glanced around. The battle was still going on around them. The knights were even farther back than when he'd last checked. Where was Darigan?
The Werelupe King gave a pained grunt as his other knee hit the ground. Now the Elephante was using the full brunt of its considerable weight. The Werelupe's tail curled under him.
Hyren only had a split second to make his decision. Biting the inside of his cheek, he hoped it was the right one. With a power shout, he leaped for the Elephante.
The larger Neopet didn't seem to see Hyren as a threat, concentrating on the heavy hitter in front of it, but that was a mistake. Hyren grabbed onto the Elephante's lamellar cuirass, digging his fingers into the texture created by the laced-together metal plates. He half-climbed, half-vaulted up the gargantuan Neopet's back, steadied himself on its shoulders, and brought the pommel of his sword down on its helmet.
The Elephante trumpeted in dismay and staggered back, allowing Isengrim to heave its sword away. With fire in his eyes the Werelupe thrust his own blade at the enormous warrior and the spectre vanished into mist.
Hyren dropped and rolled to the ground, and Isengrim clutched at his side as he tried to regain his footing. "What are you doing," he panted to the Grundo.
The former commander glanced over at him with a smirk. "Making sure you come back."
"There are too many, we can't hold them off!" someone shouted from far away.
Hyren looked up and realised he and Isengrim had become separated from the main body of knights, and were surrounded by phantoms. Spells and arrows whizzed overhead, and more spectral soldiers advanced on the two swordsmen from all sides. Hyren stepped closer to Isengrim, sweat chafing at his palms as he gripped his sword. He was spent. Nothing but adrenaline was keeping him going now, and even that was wearing off.
"It seems I have misplaced my pack," Isengrim grumbled as he staggered to his feet. The two held their blades at the ready. "Tell me, champion, what do you do when hope flees?"
Hyren narrowed his eyes. "I chase after it."
Isengrim's ears perked forward and he solidified his stance, glaring defiantly at the enclosing legions. "I do enjoy the thrill of the hunt."
To be continued...