Night in the Haunted Woods falls with swiftness upon its victims.
It is not as many stories say—the forest is not rife with yowling spooks and ghoulish spectres at every turn. It is not a scaled-up version of a Neopia Central Neohome's Halloween decorations, which brashly proclaim frightfulness in the most colourful of fashions.
The terror of the Haunted Woods is quieter, more cunning than that. It lies in wait, never fully asleep, a brooding heaviness of barely-heard echoes and strange feelings in the air that taunt the mind until the Woods decides to reveal its darkest secrets. Something is out there – perhaps many somethings – that makes even the bravest and hardiest Neopet return from the Woods forever shaken.
Unless they are a Werelupe—and then at one time it was home.
Isengrim, the Werelupe King, and a number of his pack stalked through the undergrowth on one of their nightly hunts. It would be many years yet until a fateful meeting would rob them of their keep and cause them to emigrate to Meridell.
For now, the Haunted Woods kept them safe from the misunderstanding of the outside world—and provided plenty of resources to keep them fed and comfortable.
Night hunts were Isengrim's favourite. The Haunted Woods was always full of interesting smells, but they always seemed to heighten after sunset. Not to mention his dark fur allowed him to blend in to the shadows far more easily.
Yes, the Woods was definitely awake for those who could sense it. Isengrim's powerful nose picked up the faint but distinct scents of the forests's many inhabitants. Zombies shambled, ghosts roamed restlessly, the beast still lurked behind the Brain Tree. Far to the west lay Hubrid Nox's territory, but Isengrim and his thanes were still firmly in their own kingdom—unfortunately for any interlopers.
"Milord," whispered his second-in-command, Suhel, from nearby, and Isengrim grunted in reply. They had both smelled the same thing. A new scent in the cold night air, earthy and ragged—and decidedly Lupe.
This Lupe, however, they knew, and he was no enemy of theirs. With a flick of his ears Isengrim led his hunting party under a thicket of snakebushes, trailing the scent around towering pines and past tumbles of jagged stone.
When they were close enough, Isengrim rose to his hind paws and called out, "Balthazar!"
The midnight-blue Lupe emerged from behind a massive fallen log. His ears swiveled and his yellow eyes gleamed, but when he saw the Werelupes his scowl of surprise turned into a fierce grin. "Lord Isengrim!" he barked, hoisting himself over the log to greet the king.
The Lupe and Werelupe clasped front paws in a hearty shake, tails raised and wagging slightly. Isengrim did not have many allies in this harsh world, but Balthazar was one of them.
"It is good to see you again, species-brother," Isengrim said, patting Balthzar's shoulder with his other paw.
"Same," Balthazar said, jauntily readjusting the straps of his equipment harness. Although he was a hulking specimen of Lupe by anyone's standards, muscle-bound and standing at nearly two metres, next to the Werelupes he seemed positively diminutive. Isengrim himself was two and a half metres tall and four hundred fifty kilogrammes of muscle, and the rest of his pack was not much smaller.
"You do not come around too often any more," Isengrim said, hanging a furry arm around Balthazar's shoulders. "Although I appreciate that your tributes are always on schedule."
"Yeah, I've been busy," Balthazar said. "The Haunted Woods isn't the best place for faeries. Lots more near Neopia Central, so I do most of my hunting up there these days." Reaching around, he removed a rucksack from his shoulder and shook it, producing the clatter of glass bottles. "Although I managed to snag these little pests buzzing around Edna's Tower. That'll show them to prance around like they own Neopia."
Isengrim and Suhel exchanged an uneasy glance. While they did what they had to in order to protect themselves and keep control in their realm, they and most of their pack disliked such outright malice toward other living creatures. It was one thing they disagreed with Balthazar on, but the Werelupes also had no particular love for faeries, and Isengrim did not want to lose the hunter's allegiance – and friendship - over a difference in ethics.
The green-eyed female cleared her throat and ran a large paw through her crimped black hair, trying to brush off the discomfort. "What brings you back now?" she asked, tilting her head.
Balthazar's grin widened, showing off his fangs. Breaking away from the Werelupe King, he leaned one paw against a tree trunk and said, "I'm after big game this season."
Isengrim's fur flattened and he said, "You don't mean—"
"Ilere. The 'Dark Lady of the Woods'," Balthazar said with a sarcastic sneer. "Imagine how much of a bounty I could get for putting her in her place!"
"Do not overestimate yourself," Isengrim said, his crimson eyes full of genuine concern. "Ilere is an extremely powerful faerie."
"Her magicks are not to be taken lightly, Balthazar," Suhel said. "She draws her power from the Woods itself."
"The bigger the challenge, the greater the thrill," Balthazar said, rolling his shoulders. "I've come equipped with the latest wards and spellbinding implements. I think I can take her—I'm no amateur at this, after all." When the Werelupes did not answer, the Lupe threw them another cocky grin and laughed. "I know you're all terrified of magic, but it's really nothing to be afraid of if you have the right tools."
"We generally find it easier to just stay away from it," Isengrim said.
"To each their own," Balthazar said with a shrug. "Your concern is touching, but I'm going after her regardless."
The Werelupe King drooped a little, but he knew better than to argue. Balthazar was just as proud and strong-willed as himself. "Fair enough," the king said. "She lives closer to Neovia, which is north of here."
"I know," Balthazar said. "That's why I'm cutting through your territory."
"Let us join you for a bit," Isengrim said. "We've not had much success in our hunt yet tonight. Perhaps we'll have better luck to the north." He returned to all fours, which granted him increased maneuverability and a lower profile, and his thanes did the same. "Have you any tales for us from outside the Woods?" he asked as he started to move.
Balthazar fell in among the rest of the pack, although he kept on his hind paws, which were shod in tough leather boots. Unlike the Werelupes, he did not walk on his toes. "Not much to tell," he said as they made their way down a leaf-strewn slope. "The faeries are a blight upon the planet as always. Business in Neopia Central is booming." He rubbed his front paws together greedily. "I bought myself a nice flat there, although you didn't hear it from me. There are quite a few people after me these days."
Isengrim chuckled. He knew how that felt. He looked over at the Lupe, outfitted in sturdy clothes probably bought from some Neopia Central shop. It was a stark contrast to the hide clothing Isengrim and his pack wore, and their jewelry crafted from teeth and bone.
He ambled closer to the hunter and said, "Balthazar… you are welcome to join my pack if you wish. Here, we have respite from those who would wish to do us harm. We are the lords and ladies of our domain."
"I'm not a Werelupe, Isengrim," Balthazar said.
"But you could become one," Suhel said from his other side. "You already have the beginnings of the wild flowing through you." She motioned with her snout to his large stature and bipedal stance.
The smile faded from the Lupe's lips and he looked down at his large paws, flexing his fingers. "That bit of wild in me is all I need to do my job," he said. "I won't allow it to overtake me any further. I don't trust it."
Isengrim stopped and the rest of his pack followed suit. The king rose to his hind paws again, his eyes narrowing as he scrutinised their blue companion. "Why not?" he asked. "There is nothing to fear from the wild. After all, it has made my thanes and me what we are." He put his hands to his furry chest. "We embrace the wild, and it gives us strength. Power. Ability beyond a normal Neopet's."
For a moment Balthazar looked up at him, and then shook his head and said, "Strange things happen to Neopets who fully cast off civilisation. You can't predict what it'll do to them. Don't let the wild control you, Isengrim. You may end up losing yourself."
Isengrim frowned and said, "I would never let that happen. I know what I am doing—"
A howl cut through the veil of mist that perpetually hung over the Woods, and everyone stiffened, ears high and alert. Isengrim had never heard this call before, and judging from the looks on the others' faces, neither had they. It was deep and throaty like a Werelupe's howl, but with a different pitch and patterning, starting off high and then dropping until it was nearly a roar.
"What was that," Suhel muttered, her eyes gleaming in the gauzy moonlight.
"I've no idea," Isengrim said.
"Don't look at me," Balthazar said. "But nothing could howl like that except some kind of Lupe."
One of the Werelupes at the edge of the group suddenly lifted her snout. The others followed suit, and then the scent reached Isengrim's nostrils, making his whiskers bristle. It definitely held the note of Werelupe, but it seemed—well, even more Werelupe than the Werelupes themselves, somehow. Stronger. Fiercer. The chemical signature alone was making Isengrim's instincts go haywire, bushing his tail and putting into his brain the suggestion than something was trying to assert dominance over him.
Suhel put a tense paw on his arm, cutting through his thoughts. Her own lips were beginning to curl. Isengrim took a deep breath and flexed his claws, pushing down the anger and aggression rising within him. He was their king, and he had to serve as their leader and exemplar. He would not let them devolve into a mob of witless beasts. "Be calm," he told her and the others. "We will investigate this."
"I'm coming with you," Balthazar said as the Werelupes turned to follow the scent.
Isengrim nodded his approval, and the group took off at a brisk pace, with the king at point and Suhel and Balthazar flanking. They passed by enormous conifers with trunks thick around as houses, ancient sentinels like giants' spears poised to pierce the moon. This forest was old beyond memory. It had been old even before Isengrim first came here, ages ago.
Occasional bits of light and movement teased at the edges of Isengrim's vision, but he knew better than to pay them heed. The Woods did not look out for its own, and he had not carved out a niche here by being naïve.
And all the while the scent grew stronger. Isengrim fought back the parts of his mind telling him to run, to attack, to fight. This was not a situation that called for combat, not yet. Was this the wild's siren song? This time, he disagreed with it. He glanced over at Suhel and could tell she was feeling the same. They were strong. But as that strength had come from the wild, must they heed all its commands?
They found the source of the scent crouched by a stream, lapping up its crystal-dark water. He was enormous, easily twice the size of Isengrim in both height and bulk, and his long shaggy fur was a deep chestnut colour. Two saber-fangs jutted out from his lower jaw and his beady red eyes scanned the Woods warily, although he did not detect the Werelupe pack situated downwind.
He rose from his crouch, picking one – no, two sets of forelimbs up off the damp ground. Isengrim drew in a breath and glanced over at Suhel and Balthazar, who looked just as astonished. This was no ordinary Werelupe, not by a long shot.
Isengrim held up a paw to motion to the others to stay put, and stepped out into the open. "Brother," he said, extending both paws in a peaceful gesture.
The creature drew itself up and snarled, its ears pitched forward and tail high.
"I have not come to fight," Isengrim said, keeping his own ears and tail perked. "I only wish to know what business you have in my kingdom—"
The other Werelupe lunged at him.
Isengrim tried to leap out of the way, but the action had caught him off guard and the Werelupe's teeth grazed the king's leg. With a yelp of pain, Isengrim swatted away the larger Werelupe's snapping muzzle and drew his sword.
And then seven other Werelupes, and one blue Lupe hunter, burst out of the shadows and swarmed the stranger. The behemoth flung some away, but others dug their claws into his thick fur and climbed him like a tree, trying to bring him to his knees.
Suhel rolled to avoid a swipe from one of the beast's paws and ended up next to Isengrim, who was picking himself up. She pulled him to his feet. "Are you all right, milord?" she asked, holding his shoulders.
He nodded and said, "I don't think it's deep. Come on." In the next breath they leaped back into the fray. Suhel circled around their opponent while Isengrim tried to approach him again. "Cease this madness!" the king barked. "I only wish to speak with you!"
For a reply he got a guttural growl and those enormous jaws opened wide at him again.
Isengrim parried with his blade, the sound of metal on teeth sending a shiver up his spine. "Just say something!" he pleaded.
"He can't," Balthazar panted from beside him. The Lupe had a nasty scratch on his arm that he was trying to stanch with his other paw.
The Werelupe King looked down at his ally. "What do you mean," he asked, even though Isengrim had a sinking feeling that he already knew the answer.
"There's too much of the wild in him," Balthazar said. "He's lost his ability to reason."
Isengrim looked back at the creature, into its unfeeling red eyes blazing with untameable fury, and knew Balthazar was right. Was this what fully giving oneself to the wild looked like? Strength was not strength if he was not himself to wield it. Isengrim shuddered at the thought of losing everything he was, all of his thoughts and feelings and friendships, replaced by nothing but a senseless hunger for battle.
Not to say he and his pack were useless in combat the way they were. Despite the creature's power, he simply could not handle a fight against so many skilled opponents. He was weakening.
"You want my opinion? Drive him away," Balthazar said. "Let the Woods deal with him. I've never seen a case this bad and I doubt anything could fix him."
"No," Isengrim said. "There must be some hope for him. And even if not… he is still our brother."
The beast dropped to his knees and Suhel ran up his back, gripped a clump of his fur in one paw, and with the other brought the flat of her blade sharply down on his head. The monster's red eyes rolled back in his skull and he collapsed to the ground, out cold.
Before Balthazar could say anything more, Isengrim sheathed his sword and limped over to the massive Werelupe, checking him for signs of life. Finally his own crimson eyes flicked up at his thanes and he said, "Bind his wounds. Take him back to the keep."
"Milord," Suhel said, "he'll attack us on sight as soon as he wakes up!"
"I know," Isengrim said, not bothering to disguise the tinge of sadness in his voice. "House him in the dungeons, in our maximum-security cell. Keep him fed and watered."
"He will be our prisoner," another Werelupe said, looking down at the fallen creature doubtfully.
Isengrim sighed and said, "No. He is our brother, part of our pack. He just… does not remember himself. We cannot let the Woods devour him—or let him fall prey to those who hate us for what we are. We will keep him safe until he comes to himself."
"And if he never does?" Suhel asked.
Isengrim looked at her for a long moment. "Then we will keep him safe. Besides," he said, flashing a bit of fang in a mischievous grin, "he will make an excellent surprise for any who might dare to infiltrate our fortress, will he not?"
His second-in-command snorted and said, "If that is the best excuse you can come up with." That, Isengrim knew, was her roundabout way of agreeing with him.
"I wonder what his name was," Balthazar said, sitting on the ground as he pulled a roll of bandages from a hip pouch.
"I do not suppose he can tell us," Isengrim said as he sat and wrapped his own wound. "Not yet, anyway."
"Let's call him Gnarfas," Suhel said, sitting beside Balthazar and helping him with the dressing. She had gotten off lucky with just a few bumps and bruises. "Long ago… before I was a Werelupe, I decided if I ever got a Petpet I would name it Gnarfas. Shame to let that name go to waste."
Isengrim smiled and said, "I like it. Gnarfas it is."
"Well, this has been fun," Balthazar said as Suhel tied off his bandage, pushing himself to his feet and grabbing his bag of bottled Faeries. "I'm glad you all came out of that mess alive. Are you headed back to the keep, then?"
"Aye," Isengrim said. Already the other Werelupes were finishing tending to Gnarfas and preparing to move him. It looked like it might take their combined strength just to lift him, and right now they were figuring out the logistics. "I suppose this is where we part ways."
"Yeah," Balthazar said. "I'm off to pay Ilere a visit." He scanned the woods as if expecting to see the earth faerie gliding among the trees like a phantom. "Good hunting with you, Lord Isengrim."
"You as well," Isengrim said. With one more nod of his head, Balthazar splashed across the stream, further into the woods. Isengrim was sure the hunter would not succeed in his mission, and just hoped he would walk away relatively unscathed.
There were many times Isengrim wished Balthazar would allow Isengrim to protect him, but the king knew he had to let the hunter be free as the Werelupes were. It was Balthazar's choice, as much as it pained Isengrim to see him making harmful choices.
When Balthazar faded from sight into the shadows, Isengrim stood up with some difficulty and offered Suhel a hand. She took it, but pulled herself up by her own strength. "Don't you dare help this time, milord," she said, waving a nagging finger. "Let's get you back home so you can rest that leg."
"If you insist," Isengrim said with a chuckle, and Suhel slipped his arm around her broad shoulders to support him.
The night air still hung heavy over the Woods as they made their way homeward. At first, all was silent except for the soft crunch of paw pads on dead leaves, but gradually some packmates began to have bits of conversation. Isengrim remained mute, his jaw set and his eyes staring at the way ahead, trying to ignore his pain and not make Suhel do too much work. She could easily carry him if she had to, but that was more than a little embarrassing. He would preserve his pride.
"Something wrong, milord?" she asked after a while.
His eyes wandered to the unconscious Gnarfas. The monster's tail and six limbs were limp as the other Werelupes carried him like Mootix bringing a scrap of food back to their nest. "Balthazar was right," the king murmured. He glanced over at his second-in-command. "We cannot let the wild control us, Suhel."
"I think so, too," Suhel said.
With a frown, Isengrim gazed into the abyss of forest ahead and said, "We will control it instead. And we shall derive our greatest strength from that control."
"I am still proud to be a Werelupe," Suhel said.
"Me too," Isengrim said with a faint smile. "We have found a happy medium. And we will do our best to insure that what has happened to Gnarfas will not happen again."
"Definitely not," Suhel said.
And so they went home, leaving behind the wild for another night, curling up next to their fire within their roof and walls and knowing that there is a moderation in all things.