Friday, January 31, 2020

That Great Hunger


I engineered this story specifically to make readers feel sorry for Isengrim, and if you don't then you have no soul. :)

This short story is important because it was really the seed for almost everything that came after Worth Fighting For--and I think the way in which it came about was a really wonderful illustration of how the creative process can work. I had a beta reader for my first draft of Worth Fighting For who commented that the Werelupe King in that story had no clear motives for wanting Terra to adopt him, so I remedied that by coming up with a backstory that he had actually once been created by an owner, and turned into a Werelupe after being abandoned by his creator. That unfortunate beginning gave Isengrim an (un)healthy dose of the Neopet equivalent of developmental trauma, which led to several neuroses.

And then I realized with a backstory like that, he needed a family again--for good this time. And thus I started brainstorming for the next long fic, Worth Searching For (which I will put up here eventually, but it's a whopper, over 30 chapters, so that will be a rather big project).

Anyway, that's why I appreciate this story so much. I feel like after this one I just kept writing about this cast and never looked back. It was a wonderful exercise in how a group of characters that you enjoy writing can just keep building and expanding, and their world along with them. Maybe someday I'll have an original fiction cast where that happens, but for now I'm really proud of what I accomplished with my Neopets characters.

This story was published in issue 639 of the Neopian Times, but I edited it a bit before putting it up here, mostly to make Isengrim's personality fit what I established for him later. It's kind of tough when you have an initial personality concept for a character that turns out not to work, but you only discover that after you've written several stories about them. But I think I did a good job editing those previous stories and helping everything flow more smoothly character-development-wise.

And yes, I know Isengrim's character design doesn't look too much like the canon character design for the Werelupe King. They are one and the same individual, but as I continued to write Isengrim he just kept looking more and more like this illustration in my mind's eye. I'm kind of not sorry about this because I rather like this design better, and I'm a little bit of a rebel when it comes to changing stuff I don't like. :)

Anyway, it's time for sad backstory!


Isengrim pawed through the forest undergrowth, a powerful scent lingering in his nostrils. Dropping to all fours, the Werelupe stalked through the shadows, silent as night itself. His shoulderblades rippled beneath his dark fur. He was on the trail.

“Milord,” said a female voice beside him.

“What is it, Suhel?” Isengrim asked. He did not have to see the other Werelupe to know she was there. He recognized her scent, and his quivering ears picked up every time her bare paws stepped on dead leaves, her bone-crafted armour brushed against branches, or she breathed quickly.

“Aren’t we too far away from the keep?” she asked. “I believe this is Hubrid Nox’s territory, sire.” They spoke in low whispers. Even though their quarry was far out of earshot, in the Haunted Woods, other things could be listening in. Maybe even the Woods itself.




“They’re carrying food,” Isengrim said. “Good food. Perhaps there’s enough to bring back to the keep.”

A pair of eyes flashed green in the dark. Suhel was closer than he’d thought. “You know what that warlock will do if he catches us in his domain,” she said. “We lack the magicks to contest his claim to this land.”

“Then we’ll just have to not get caught,” the Werelupe King said. “Our larders are running low. This could be just the thing to replenish them.” They’d been following for hours the aroma of something salty and savoury and mouthwatering. It had peaked Isengrim’s interest as soon as he smelled it. From there, the hunt was on. If he could bag this meal, there would be a feast back at their fortress tonight.

He lifted his muzzle, his nostrils flaring to allow in a new smell, smoky and sharp. “Fire,” he breathed. “They’ve lit a fire.”

“Which means they’ve stopped,” Suhel said with a relieved sigh. Isengrim nodded in response, and they kept moving.

In a clearing, a hearty campfire blazed, and Isengrim watched it through the thick of the leaves. Around it sat a red Grarrl, a yellow Skeith, and a blue Eyrie, laughing and eating fresh fruits.

“Wow!” the Skeith said. “Great camping trip, huh?” She bit into a negg and slurped up the yolky innards.

“Yeah, the Haunted Woods was an awesome idea!” the Eyrie said, his long tail lolling.

The Grarrl swallowed his apple whole, stem and all, then turned to look over his shoulder. “Hey, can we dig into the pizza now?” he asked.

“Sure thing!” said a smallish, lanky creature wearing sturdy travelling clothes. Isengrim’s ears tilted in confusion. This was no Neopet. It walked on two legs, and was furless except for a patch of close-cropped, curly black hair on its head. Its skin and eyes were dark, and it had small ears, no tail, and hands with four fingers and a thumb.

“What is that, milord?” Suhel asked. “A wingless Faerie?”

Isengrim closed his eyes. Somewhere deep inside his mind, buried under the ages, lurked a tiny seed of memory. He let out a breath and pulled it up.

***

“All right, my very own Neopet!”

His first memories were of a face, young and excited.

“Okay, so you’re a Lupe. That’s cool.”

Love.

“How do I make Neopoints? Aw man, I gotta feed it? Where do I get food?”

Wasn’t he loved?

“Man, these games are boring. I can’t figure this out at all.”

Who was he? Did he even have a name? And the hunger grew, grew all the while.

“What? Oh, yeah. I thought it was gonna be cool but it’s kind of confusing. I dunno.”

The hunger gnawed and curled its cold fingers around him and told him he was not loved.

“Yeah. I think I’ll go somewhere else. I’m tired of this.”

He was not loved. And he ran from his tears into the wilds and the Woods did not consume him, it tempered him like hardened steel.

And he became king.

***

“It’s an owner,” Isengrim said, trying to shove the memory back into oblivion. “They’re weak and cravenly things. They only care about themselves and abandon their Neopets at the first sign of difficulty.” Why had his origins come back to haunt him now? Was just the mere sight of an owner enough to trigger such painful recollections?

“So that’s what they look like,” Suhel said.

The owner reached into his rucksack and pulled out a flat, white box. He opened the lid and the familiar scent of something warm and savoury flooded the area. Carefully, the unusual creature lifted out triangular shapes dripping with cheese and meats, and handed them to his Neopets. “Here you go, guys!” he said.

Drool dripped from Isengrim’s maw. This was his quarry—the source of the aroma he’d been tracking all night. The one box was not enough to feed his entire pack, but there could be more food in that rucksack that he could bring to the rest of his thanes.

The Eyrie took a slice in his paws and said, “Cheesesteak pizza, my favourite! Thanks!”

“No problem!” the boy said. He hooked an arm around the Eyrie’s shoulders, pulling him in for a hug and ruffling his azure feathers. “I told you we’d do something special for your birthday!”

Isengrim’s pain twisted into anger and he let out a snarl. “I want it,” he said. It wasn’t just a matter of food anymore. He couldn’t stand seeing other Neopets enjoy what he had never been given—kindness and care. A family. He felt as though they had camped out here just to torment him.

“Milord!” Suhel said. “Wouldn’t it be better to wait ‘til they’re asleep?”

“I can’t—take it anymore!” Isengrim snarled. All of this happiness and contentment, mocking him with what he never had, was too much. He had to put an end to it now so he could go home.

The Eyrie’s ear tufts twitched. “What was that?” he asked as he looked in the Werelupes’ direction.

Isengrim bared his fangs and leaped out into the open, making the four cry out in surprise. He dug his claws into the bare dirt, his fur bristling and his ears high. “Give it to me!” he barked. “Your food! Give me all of it!”

The Grarrl stood up. “Make us,” he said, showing his rows of sharp teeth.

Isengrim grinned. “Gladly,” he said. Behind him, a dozen more Werelupes rose out of the Woods, eyes afire.

The owner and his Neopets shrank back, the Grarrl shielding his smaller caretaker. “Whoa, hey guys—“ the Skeith stammered. “You can’t just—“

Isengrim leaped, spearheading a wave of baying beasts that crashed into the clearing in a flurry of claws and teeth.

“Run!” the owner yelled. He swung himself onto the Eyrie’s back and the little group took off into the trees.

A couple of Werelupes gave chase to make sure they wouldn’t come back, while Isengrim, Suhel, and the rest set to work collecting their spoils. They stuffed most of the food into sacks, but made sure to do a little taste-testing first.

The Werelupe King appropriated several slices of the pizza for himself, lounging near the fire and enjoying every delectable bite as the cheese dribbled down his chin and tomato sauce splotched red on his fur.

And yet he could not get out of his head the sound of that family’s laughter, the happy looks on their faces. Isengrim’s stomach was full, but there was a part of him that would never be full no matter how much he consumed. A hunger lurked in his soul that food could not sate, and he could feed his body to bloating, but his heart would continue to shrivel and perish for want of sustenance.

He was owned, once. He tried to forget, oh how he tried. But he could not.

***

On their way back to the keep, Isengrim came to a decision. “I need an owner,” he said.

“Milord?” Suhel said. They made less of an attempt to be stealthy now, and Petpets skittered out of their way. “What purpose would an owner serve you? You already have vassals to do your bidding. Your network of contacts stretches across Neopia.”

“An owner means family,” Isengrim said.

She gave him a skeptical look in return. “Milord,” she said, “your pack is your family. And trust us, plenty of us don’t miss our own parents a bit.” Murmurs of agreement rose up behind them.

“It’s different when you were created by an owner,” Isengrim said. “Once—once they leave you, nothing else can fill that emptiness.” She had not been created, and could never understand the rasping hunger. “Keep an eye out for an owner on your hunts, all of you.”

“Would you like us to go back and retrieve that owner from the campsite, sire?” another Werelupe asked. “He only had three Neopets—there’s still room for you in that family.”

Isengrim thought for a moment. “No, don’t risk it,” he said. “They ran toward the nearest town and are probably there by now. We’ll have to wait until another one wanders out into the wilds.”

“Owners rarely venture this far into the Woods, sire,” another Werelupe said.

“Another one will come,” Isengrim said. They had to. He knew how to be patient. But oh, how he longed for that bond of friendship and trust between a Neopet and their owner. His pack could never really replace a family for him.

Mist swirled around them as dawn approached. The taste of the pizza had already faded from Isengrim’s tongue. It was the first time he’d ever tasted pizza and he wanted more. He would have to figure out later whether it was worth the trouble to try to reach his contacts in Neopia Central. Running things into the Woods was a business that demanded hefty pay, and Isengrim was loath to let go of what he had accumulated. He felt like it legitimized his rule, and more importantly it made him feel powerful. In control of his life. Unlike when the one person who was supposed to have loved him most tore all of his happiness away and he was helpless to stop it.

They reached their castle on the cliff and Isengrim sent runners ahead to announce their return. His kingdom was small, but it was his. The guards on the ramparts gave him a hearty welcome, and as he passed through the thick doors into the great hall, he let out a howl of fierce greeting.

His hunting party dispersed to cluster with the other Werelupes in the hall, bragging and singing. Isengrim sauntered to his throne, leaned back on the fur-covered bone, and looked out on his thriving realm. He and his pack had found this old fortress ages ago, abandoned and broken-down, but used as they were to sleeping on bare ground, it was a vast improvement. Any proper king had to have a castle, and his thanes needed a place to call home.

Settling his jaw into his paw, Isengrim looked out at his little kingdom of outcasts. Even seeing them all safe at home did not bring him the peace and contentment he longed for. He needed an owner. That yearning for family had been reawakened in him and it would not be put to rest.

But he would have to wait, for just the right opportunity.

And when he found a new owner, he would never let them leave him again.

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