Return to Lynwood: Part Eleven
The doors, though heavy, slammed open with such force that the walls shook and dust sifted from the ceiling. The entry hall was dark, lit only by weak shafts of daylight from the windows. But that was more than enough for Werelupes to see by.
This place did look vaguely familiar, Suhel thought as dust tickled her nose and made her cough again, her sore ribs protesting. She did sort of remember coming through those doors as a girl, and back then the hall was filled with other students gossiping and teasing each other. Now it was dark and silent.
“Watch your step,” Isengrim said. Suhel saw why—parts of the floor had given way, both here and on the storey above them. Although the exterior of the building had held up well through the years, it seemed some of the wooden floorboards had begun to rot.
Several pairs of eyes suddenly caught the dim light, and a chorus of growls rose around them. “Hold!” a Werelupe barked, lifting her sword as she stalked toward the group. “No one enters without King Vakhtang’s approval!”
Isengrim looked around at their welcoming party. “Last I checked,” he said, “Vakhtang did not own this place, and he’s got no control over you, either. Why don’t we put an end to his silly charade?”
The female seemed to ponder his words, then her muzzle wrinkled and she bared her fangs. “Get them!” she said to the others before turning and running up the large staircase at the far end of the hall. “Intruders!” she bayed. “King Vakhtang! We’re under attack!”
Her companions moved toward the interlopers, and Isengrim’s Werelupes clustered around Gwyneth. “Never mind her!” Isengrim said as Werelupes began to exchange blows. “Listen to me! I’ve come to free you from Vakhtang’s tyranny! He has no power over you!”
Although some of the other Werelupes continued to fight, several caught their breath and then turned on their allies to join Isengrim.
“Remember, mercy!” Isengrim barked above the din of battle. “We want only to incapacitate them!”
Suhel worried that these new Werelupes would get too caught up in the fever of combat, but they seemed to actually heed the king’s commands, focussing more on talking down their opponents or, failing that, knocking them out. Meanwhile, Isengrim stayed close to Gwyneth, not yet doing any actual fighting himself. Suhel knew he wasn’t up to it with that leg still hurt, but he seemed to have used their warriors to make a comfortable berth between himself and their foes.
“Up the stairs!” Isengrim called as the fighting ebbed. “Go! We must find Vakhtang!”
Pharazon moved Gwyneth forward, to the steps. Suhel used her legs to keep a firm grip on the Ganuthor’s wide back, while she kept hold of Lexora with one arm and held her sword in the other paw. It felt unnaturally heavy, but in a situation like this, not having a weapon in her paw just seemed wrong. She would have to let the adrenaline carry her.
Lexora chuckled hoarsely. “I say, Suhel, you’re still left-pawed?”
“Of course I am,” Suhel said. “This stupid school couldn’t drum that out of me no matter how hard it tried. Just another one of their pointless rules.” Being here brought back too many unpleasant memories. She hoped it wouldn’t take long for them to apprehend Vakhtang and break the curse, so they could get out of here.
The heavy thud of many paws on wood made her ears perk. On the second storey, a new, bigger gang of Werelupes came charging down the hall at them. Isengrim scowled and turned to head up the next flight of stairs, but more Werelupes spilled down the steps from above.
“Push through!” he yelled, knocking one of them away with his sword and grabbing the next to throw him aside.
“More coming up from the ground floor, sire!” a Werelupe yelped.
The surge from below caught Isengrim’s allies off guard, and they staggered to fend off their attackers. Suhel bared her fangs, wishing she could dismount and help. Gwyneth was dangerously close to the combat now.
Altogether it was one of the stranger fights Suhel had ever been in. There was just as much talking going on as fighting, as Werelupes tried to convince other Werelupes to abandon Vakhtang. And the numbers kept shifting since most of their foes were very easily convinced, especially as Isengrim’s forces mounted with each desertion. Suhel thought they were probably winning, but the whole mess was just so chaotic that she could really only focus on keeping hostiles off of Gwyneth.
A couple of Werelupes broke through and aimed strikes at the Ganuthor. With a shout, Suhel parried one’s blade and then kicked him away, while Terra used her sword to twist the other’s club out of her paws. Gwyneth lashed out with a wing and swept them down the stairs, but more rose in their place.
“Gwyn!” Pharazon shouted, tapping his Petpet’s head. “Charge up the stairs!”
The Ganuthor roared and lunged for Isengrim and the rest of his Werelupes—and then three Werelupes tackled her together. Gwyneth’s wings flared and she reared on her hind legs, thrashing to try to shake them off.
Of course no one was expecting this. Suhel felt herself falling, and she had enough time to get her sword out of the way and tuck Lexora to herself before she hit the floor in a roll. Her shoulder bore the brunt of the impact, and beneath her armour she would probably have a nice bruise there tomorrow, but she didn’t care so much about that as she swept her blade upward to repel another enemy. “Terra!” she yelled, cradling Lexora in one arm as she stood up. “Pharazon!”
“Miss Suhel!” A mass of brown fur at her feet made her do a double-take. Connor had somehow come with them, and he clung to Suhel’s foot as he watched the fighting wide-eyed.
Suhel stowed her sword and yanked him up. “Come on,” she said, “let’s get you out of danger.”
“We’re okay!” Pharazon shouted. He scrambled over to his Werelupe friend, Terra following as she disabled an attacker with a well-aimed jab. Suhel rammed a classroom door open and pulled them inside, and began to cough. She leaned against the wall to steady herself, struggling for breath and swallowing hard to try to moisten her throat. This, she decided, was the worst possible time to be cursed.
Finally, her coughing waned, and Suhel edged out of the doorway and looked back toward the stairs. Their tumble had separated them from the rest of Isengrim’s company, who were too occupied taking the third storey, Gwyneth following just as Pharazon had ordered. A mass of fighting in the hall separated them. Suhel scowled.
“We can go around!” Lexora said. “There’s a stairway on the other side of the school!”
“What if we run into more Werelupes?” Pharazon asked.
“Isengrim’s too big of a target,” Suhel said. “They’ll all be after him.” She ushered her companions out the door and further down the hall. “Hurry, while everyone’s distracted!”
Her motley crew scrambled around the corner, and thankfully nothing met them there but more dust and decay. Suhel slowed to a quick walk—running took too much of her strength, and she was worried about going into another coughing fit.
Terra sidestepped suddenly to avoid a sagging bit of floor. “Yikes,” she said. “Everybody be careful.”
“I guess I don’t have anything to worry about,” Pharazon said as he fluttered over a pile of debris from a wall with a gaping hole in it.
“Not all of us can have wings,” Terra said.
Connor stopped to stare at a door, and Suhel nudged his shoulder. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
He pointed a claw. The dust-covered template on the door read “CHEMISTRY LABORATORY”. “I’m just goin’ to poke in really quick,” he said, going for the door. “Might be somethin’ useful in there.”
“We don’t have time for this,” Suhel hissed. Isengrim would soon notice they were missing. She didn’t even want to imagine how he would feel as he realised the people he wanted most to protect were gone. Just the thought made her stomach clench. They had to get back to him.
But she also wanted to try to make things right with Connor, especially if he was going to be her packmate. She sighed. “Okay,” she said, “two bottles, and no more. Once we kick Vakhtang out, you can loot this place to your heart’s content. Just be quick about it.”
Connor grinned and pushed the door open.
For what felt like ages, Suhel stood out in the hall with Lexora, Pharazon, and Terra. Her ears swiveled as she strained to catch any noise. Faintly, she could still hear the clash of metal and bone weapons, and it seemed to be moving upstairs. She wished she could find a way to tell Isengrim they were all right—she would just have to do so in person in a few minutes.
Lexora rested her weary head against one of Suhel’s bone pauldrons, and the Werelupe wished her shoulder was more comfortable for her friend. “Hang in there,” Suhel said to her. “We’ll get rid of this stupid curse, and then you can go home to your family and tell them all about your adventures.”
Weakly, Lexora smiled. “I’m excited to,” she said with half-closed eyes.
Connor came back carrying a vial in each paw. “Okay,” he said, glancing at the labels. “I’m good to go. And—thanks,” he said as they continued down the hall. “This means a lot.”
“I’m glad,” Suhel said.
They rounded another corner—now they were on the back side of the school, and another long hallway with a staircase in the centre stretched before them.
“Hopefully those stairs aren’t decayed,” Pharazon said, wincing as he stepped in a pile of paint that had peeled off the walls. “This is nasty.”
“I think it’s cool,” Terra said. “In a creepy sort of way. Er, not that I’d want to live here or anything. Or be here at night, probably.”
“I doubt it’s haunted,” Lexora said. “No one passed away here, I don’t think.”
“There are plenty of other ways for the Haunted Woods to be terrifying besides ghosts,” Pharazon muttered.
“Like black mould,” Terra said. “Glad we haven’t run into that yet.”
The sound of pawsteps from ahead reached Suhel’s ears, and her fur bristled. Someone around the far corner was headed toward them, and fast. She didn’t want to stick around to see if they were friendly. “Quick—the stairs!” she barked.
Her claws scrabbled on the wood as she forced her aching body to move, her heart slamming in her chest. Her panic only spiked when a Werelupe rounded the corner and barreled down the hall at them. As he drew closer, Suhel could see that his fur was the colour of rust, and his iron jewelry glinted sharply in the light from un-boarded windows.
They had to make the stairs. Suhel willed herself to go faster, gulped in a breath—and coughed. She fell to her knees, arching her back and trying desperately to clear her throat so she could breathe, her lungs burning. Not now, she thought as her eyes brimmed with tears and she dug her claws into the floor. Please, get up, move! she begged herself.
“Suhel!” Pharazon shouted. He and Terra moved in front of her, and Terra held out her sword, staring down the charging Werelupe in front of them.
As Vakhtang neared, a cruel smile lit up his face, and he raised his blade, a wickedly curved weapon with a nasty-looking hook at the end. “Seems I’ve chased down the wrong quarry,” he said, slowing down. “No matter—I’ll dispose of you and then go after that worthless pretender king of yours.”
Terra lowered herself into a defensive stance. “You don’t have to do this,” she said.
“Who said anything about having to?” Vakhtang asked as he padded toward them. “I do what I want. That’s the only thing I care about. That’s why I became a Werelupe.” He shrugged. “Society and its stupid rules about what you can and can’t do… they’re all just limitations. I am strong, and that’s all that should matter.” He lifted his weapon for a strike. “Nothing personal. I’ve just got to stay on top of the pile.”
A feline roar split the air and metal flashed in the daylight. Vakhtang let out a yelp and staggered back as his sword went flying down the hall behind him, and the Werelupe clutched his paw with a snarl.
Past him, another blade spun across the floor—Suhel’s knife. Lexora still had her arm outstretched, breathing hard as she glared at Vakhtang, her yellow eyes aflame. “You’re a monster,” she said, “and we’re here to make sure you never harm anyone again.”
He bared his teeth at her, still holding his paw. Then his eyes shifted to Connor, and his panicked demeanour softened a bit. “Connor,” he panted. “Join me. Now. This is your last chance.”
“Never,” Connor said, hovering close to Suhel. “You’re not the kind of king I’ll ever serve.”
Vakhtang hesitated, and then his eyes narrowed. “I know the cure,” he said.
Connor started. “What?”
“The cure for a Werelupe curse,” Vakhtang said. “I know what it is. I’ll tell you, if you join me. You can be your old self again, Connor. You can go back to your parents—stop wandering around with these ineffective barbarians.”
The boy swallowed hard. For a long moment, he stared at Vakhtang. His paws shook as they clutched the chemical vials.
Suhel looked up at him pleadingly. “Connor—“
With a shout, Connor threw one of the vials at Vakhtang’s hind paws. The other Werelupe jumped back. But nothing happened, save for the bottle leaking red liquid in a puddle on the wood at his feet.
Vakhtang looked at Connor with a sneer. “A bold move—and a stupid one,” he said. “I’m tired of you.” He turned to retrieve his sword—and the floor collapsed under him.
The wooden beams gave way in a hiss of smoke, and fear flashed in Vakhtang’s amber eyes as he flailed, grabbing hold of more wood that broke off in his grip. And then he fell. A thud, a snap, and another crash told Suhel that he had dropped through the ground floor as well, into the basement.
She waited for her heart to stop pounding before wrapping her free arm around Connor in a hug. “Thank you,” she said.
He hugged her back. “Slothic acid,” he said. “Highly corrosive to plant material. Thanks for lettin’ me fetch it.”
She smiled at him. “You’re a fine Werelupe, laddie.”
“So are you,” he said. “Come on, let’s get back to Mister Isengrim!” Propping a shoulder under her arm, he helped her to her feet.
Lexora slowly began to make her way toward Suhel’s knife, but Terra strode over and retrieved it for her, handing it to the Kougra with a smile. “Thank you,” Lexora said, sliding the blade back into its sheath.
“Thank you,” Terra said as Suhel picked her friend back up.
“He didn’t really know the cure,” Pharazon said as they carefully stepped around the gaping hole in the hall and reached the stairs. “Did he?”
Connor shook his head. “I don’t think he did. But even if he had… it wasn’t worth it, not at all.”
Terra put a hand on the banister, but took it back off immediately and stared at her dust-covered palm. “And yeah right he’d let you go back to your parents,” she muttered, wiping her hand on her cloak. “Last I heard, he practically wanted to level Barrowmere to the ground.”
“Exactly,” Connor said. “Does he think I’m stupid?”
“Seems he thinks everyone who’s not him is stupid,” Suhel said. “Which is itself a stupid mistake to make.”
They reached the third storey, and Suhel picked up sounds of combat from the other side of the building, echoing down the halls. She led them down their empty stretch of hallway, as quickly as she could go without sending herself into another coughing fit.
“Isengrim probably still thinks Vakhtang’s in his quarters,” Terra said.
“Suhel?” Connor looked up at the female Werelupe. “About what Vakhtang said back there… how he went feral because he didn’t like rules… is that the same reason you turned?”
Suhel glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, and smiled a bit. “I was talking about pointless rules that exist just to give Neopets power over other Neopets. Like here at Lynwood—did you know you couldn’t be left-pawed here? You’d be punished if you tried to write with your left paw, just because they wanted every student to be the same.”
Her smile faded. “Vakhtang, on the other hand, hates anything that keeps him from getting what he wants. The sorts of rules he wants to do away with are things like ‘don’t hurt other Neopets’ and ‘respect others’ property’. To him, the world is his and we’re all just getting in his way.”
“This sounds rather ironic,” Pharazon said, “coming from someone who used to do quite a bit of plundering herself.”
Suhel sniffed. “Yes, well, even back then we at least cared about our packmates. Vakhtang’s only in it for himself, and that’s what makes him so terrible.”
Suddenly a door beside them slammed open, and out jumped several Werelupes into their midst. Suhel staggered back, drawing her sword and slashing at a Werelupe in one fluid motion. She had just enough time to set Lexora down before he came in for another strike and Suhel blocked it.
The Werelupes had spilled out and separated her and Lexora from the other three, and past her opponent Suhel could see Terra and Connor fending off their foes. Connor was doing his best to slash and bite at the other Werelupes, while Pharazon stayed behind them.
He couldn’t do anything, Suhel realised as she kneed her opponent in the gut and he collapsed with a grunt. He couldn’t cast any magic without risking triggering the staff on his back, and he certainly couldn’t attempt to use the staff as a weapon.
“Hold on—“ she said, throwing aside the next Werelupe to attack her. This left a gap between her and the other Werelupes, who seemed to be concentrating more on their smaller enemies, and she moved to close it.
One of them lashed out a long arm past Terra and grabbed Pharazon’s staff. It seemed the Werelupe meant to pull the Draik up by it, but instead the staff slid out of its holster and she ended up swinging it above her head.
“No!” Pharazon yelled. He fluttered his wings and took off into the air, making a grab for it.
At the same time, Connor tackled the Werelupe. She toppled to the floor, and the sudden force sent the staff flying.
It sailed over the Werelupes, clattered on the floorboards, and came to a stop at Suhel’s feet. Without really thinking, she picked it up. Her foes turned to her and began to advance.
“Suhel,” Pharazon said, still hovering over them. “Give me the staff. Please.”
Suhel’s heartbeat throbbed in her ears and she stared down at the implement as mist swirled in its crook. This was the artefact that had nearly done her in all those years ago. It was full of so much dangerous power that could be used for such evil. It was the whole reason for her terror of magic.
Her grip on the old wood tightened. What if she destroyed it? It would be so easy—she could snap the wood like a twig, and the world would be out one super-powerful magical item, all thanks to her. The likes of Hubrid Nox could never use it again.
“Suhel.” Pharazon’s eyes were wide and pleading. “Please. Trust me.”
The other Werelupes began to raise their weapons. Suhel closed her eyes. She knew what would feel worse than all the bad magic in the world—betraying a friend. Opening her eyes again, she shouted, “Pharazon! Catch!” She flung the staff at him.
He reached out and caught it—and exploded with blue light. The shockwave of magic ballooned through the air, throwing the other Werelupes to the ground. Suhel let out a yelp and moved to protect Lexora—but the magic force passed right through her without her feeling a thing. Breathing hard, she looked around and saw that Lexora, Terra, and Connor were also unaffected.
Pharazon floated down to the floor and the glow faded. He let out a breath of sparkly faerie dust, looked at the staff, and slid it back into its holster. “Well,” he said, “I’m glad that worked.”
“Of course it did,” Suhel said, dropping to her knees to wrap him in a hug. “You were brilliant. Thank you.”
He put his arms around her. “No,” he said, “thank you.”
“I’m—I’m not afraid anymore,” Suhel said. “I’m proud of you, runt. You’re a fine wizard—best I ever met.”
Pharazon pulled away and smiled. “I’ll do everything I can to live up to that.”
Terra mussed the wavy spikes on his head. “Nice work,” she said. “Come on—we can’t leave Isengrim waiting.” She pointed down the hall.
“Right,” Suhel said, picking Lexora up again. She turned to their opponents, who were slowly shaking themselves out of their daze. “We’re here to help you, by the way,” she said to them. “You don’t have to listen to Vakhtang anymore. His reign is over.”
“What did you do to him?” one of them asked incredulously.
She smirked. “Showed him what true warriors are made of. Come along with us—there’s someone who’d like to meet you. He has a much better offer to extend.”
The other Werelupes picked themselves up and began to follow Suhel, muttering quietly to themselves, wondering what she was talking about and how she had dealt with Vakhtang.
The sounds of battle had faded ahead, and that was either a good thing or a bad thing. Suhel tried to stay hopeful, and admittedly it wasn’t hard considering what had just happened. She looked down at the little Draik and the young Werelupe at her side. They had both grown immeasurably lately. Perhaps she had as well, she thought.
To be continued…