Friday, July 24, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 7

  


Terra’s breath caught in her throat and she stumbled back, bumping into the paws of another Werelupe who nudged her back toward their ruler.

The Werelupe King laughed, as did his entourage. “Now, is that any way to greet me?” he asked. He hoisted her up by the shoulders and stood her on her feet, but when he let go, she was so tired and stiff that she collapsed back to the ground. “Had a long trip, did you?”

Terra glanced around. They were surrounded by a legion of Werelupes wearing skins and furs, accessorised with jewellry fashioned from bones and fangs. Firelight reflected in their glowing eyes. Just like last time. Her heart slammed against her chest.

Not giving Terra any time to reply, their king knelt down, sniffing her and poking her face with his wet nose. “Yes, yes, it’s you all right,” he said. He pulled back and inspected her again, tilting his head as his ears perked forward. “You look different. Taller.”

“I grew up,” Terra said.

The Werelupe’s brow furrowed. “Yes, I suppose you were just a child back then,” he said.

“I was fourteen,” Terra said. The knot in her stomach grew.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a quivering bundle of turquoise. Pharazon was surrounded by leering Werelupes, his wings tucked close to his back, looking like he was about to pass out. “B-beware the b-beast that s-smiles,” he stammered, staring in horror at the Werelupe King.

The large Werelupe tilted his head in confusion. “What is that?” he asked as he leaned over to sniff at the Draik. The Werelupe’s nose wrinkled and a low growl started in his throat. “It reeks of faerie.”

“That,” Terra said, “is my Draik.” She tried to catch Pharazon’s eyes, but he looked like he was trying to disappear through the floor as he watched the Werelupe looming over him.

The king turned back to her. “How many Neopets do you have now?” he asked.

“Three,” Terra said.

A smirk began to spread up his lips again. “Well, it seems you won’t have to do any abandoning, then,” he said.

“What do you want from us?” Terra asked.

The beast’s crimson eyes narrowed and he said, “I want my owner back.”

“I never adopted you,” Terra said.

His smile widened. “I don’t think you have any say in that now,” he said.

“That’s not how it works—” Terra started to say.

The Werelupe’s tail bushed. “Do you know how long I searched for you after your idiotic pets destroyed my keep?” he asked.

“Twelve years?” Terra asked.

“No!” he barked. “I had so many damages to repair because of them! A new domain to find, alliances to make, a hoard to replenish! And just when I’d begun to re-establish myself, that meddling knight and his sorceress companion invaded my home, tried to slaughter my entire pack, and made off with the treasure I claimed from Illusen!”

Terra’s jaw dropped. “Wait—it was you—“ she said.

“But I never forgot,” the Werelupe King said. “And after that, I sent out feelers. Made contacts. And waited.” He chuckled to himself. “And now my patience has paid off,” he said as he looked past her, “and I can finally have my reve—“ He paused. “Where are they?”

“Where are who, milord?” The owner of the female voice from earlier stepped forward from behind Pharazon. Suhel was a hulking brown Werelupe, nearly as large as the king himself, with chartreuse eyes and bone armour studded with spikes. The long, dark mane of crimped hair on her head had fangs woven into it, and they dangled and clattered when she moved.

“The others,” the king said. “There are two more. A Zafara and a… big one.” He craned his neck and his ear twitched, and Terra realized he didn’t know what a Grundo was, since they were from space.

“These were the only two delivered, sire,” Suhel said.

The Werelupe King stood up. “What?!” he barked.

Terra grabbed Pharazon’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “It’ll be okay,” she said. “I won’t let them hurt you.”

“Cursed fools!” the king snarled, clenching his fists as his tail raised and his fur bristled. “I didn’t pay them to do half a job!”

“My other two pets weren’t with me,” Terra said. The pirates most likely saw her alone with Pharazon and figured one out of three wasn’t bad. “By the way, Hyren isn’t mutant anymore. The ‘big one’ is little and blue now. Actually, I’m impressed you managed to find me, if all this time you’ve been looking for a teenager with a red Zafara and a mutant Grundo. Times change, you know.”

The Werelupe scowled, obviously not registering her backhanded compliment. “I was not aware of human growth rates, thank you,” he said. He scanned the crowd of beasts like he still expected to find his other quarries in there somewhere. “And do not doubt the master hunter,” he muttered. “There are a number of ways to track a target… including the arcane. And when I want something, I get it.” He looked up at Suhel and smiled wickedly. “We’ll just have to keep searching for the others, then. My vengeance will be complete.”

Pharazon stiffened. “T-Terra—“ he squeaked, pressing close to her.

Terra stared up at the king in shock. Him wanting her to adopt him was one thing, but he wanted to hurt her Neopets, and that was not okay. All at once, she knew what she had to do. “Wait,” she said, letting go of Pharazon’s paw to push herself to her feet shakily. “Your Majesty—I’ll make you a deal.”

The king turned to regard her, tilting his head down at her. Although Terra had grown a fair bit since their last encounter, he still towered over her—he had to have been at least eight feet tall. “Oh?” he asked. “What could you have to offer me?”

Terra took a deep breath and balled her fists. “If you leave my other Neopets alone… then I’ll adopt you,” she said. “I won’t put up a fuss about it anymore and I won’t even try to escape. Just—don’t hurt them, please. They’re my family. I love them.”

For a long moment the large Werelupe scanned her face. His cocky smirk faded and a new, more thoughtful look came over his expression. His crimson eyes seemed to swirl with some unknown emotion. “You would give up your own freedom in exchange for their safety?” he asked in a quieter tone.

“Yes,” Terra said firmly. She stuck out her hand. “Do we have a deal?”

“Terra!” Pharazon wailed. “What are you doing?!”

Glancing over at him, the human smiled. “Protecting you,” she said. No matter how exasperating and useless he was, she would never let anyone down in their time of need.

The Werelupe King looked over at Pharazon and then back to the owner. Inhaling, he gripped her hand in his large paw. “Yes,” he said. “We have a deal. Welcome to the pack.” He tilted back his head and let out a long, wild howl.

The other Werelupes joined in, a cacophony of howls scattering off stone walls and filling the air. It made Terra’s bones rattle, but she stood her ground. Being stuck with Werelupes would be worth it if she knew her family was safe. Pharazon sidled next to her and grabbed her other hand, clinging to it like a lifeline, and she gave his paws a squeeze.

“And welcome to the family,” Terra said.

The Werelupe King released her hand and said, “You have my word that I will not harm your other Neopets, owner.” His eyes narrowed at Pharazon. “I trust you understand that I cannot let your Draik leave this place. But he will be provided for. He is… technically a pack member now as well.” His lip curled a bit at the idea.

“Thank you,” Terra said. She looked down at Pharazon’s horrified face and her stomach dropped.

“I want to go home,” he whispered.

“I’m sorry,” Terra said. “This is the best I can do right now.” Not that that seemed to comfort him any.

“I task you with looking after the Draik, Suhel,” the king said.

The female wrinkled her snout at the little dragon and moved to pull him away from Terra. He let out a yelp and clung to his owner tighter.

“Why do we have to be separated?” Terra asked. “He’s already scared stiff—he needs his owner right now.”

“I dislike anything faerie,” the Werelupe King said with a bit of a snarl in his throat. “Especially when it’s a coward and a weakling as well. I refuse to have his whines constantly giving me a headache. Be glad we are not housing him in the dungeons.”

Terra took a deep breath. “I am glad,” she said. “Thank you.” She turned to her Draik and put a hand on his head. “Pharazon. Buddy. You have to go with Suhel now.”

“I just want to go home,” Pharazon breathed. “Don’t let them take me away!”

Terra’s lips thinned. She wished he could see how much harder he was making this. “Be strong, okay?” she said, having to consciously keep her voice level as her exasperation mounted. “I know you can do it.”

She was aware of the Werelupe King’s eyes on them as she waited for Pharazon to reply, and she just hoped the king had an ounce of patience in him. She also hoped her Draik had an ounce of courage in him.

“I—I can’t!” he cried, squeezing her arm. “I’m not strong, I’m not a warrior like you or Hyren or Blynn! Get us out of here—“

Suhel reached down and picked him up by the scruff of his neck, easily pulling him away from Terra. “Sire… what do I do with him?” she asked as she held him like a mangy Kadoatie.

“Take him with you,” her king replied. “Do no harm to him, make sure he gets everything he needs. Tolerate him,” he added, seeming to note her lack of enthusiasm.

She sighed. “As you wish, milord,” she said. Turning, she began to stalk away. Pharazon looked too terrified and exhausted to even speak, and just stared at Terra pleadingly over his shoulder.

“Hang in there,” Terra called after him. Now that she no longer had his needs to focus on, however, her own physical limitations began to make themselves manifest once more. She felt tired, hungry, thirsty, and nauseous all over again.

And the realization of what was going on hit her like a wave, making her feel even sicker. She was trapped here. She might never see Blynn or Hyren again. And Pharazon couldn’t go home. Despite her attempts to keep it together, a sob choked itself out and Terra’s eyes welled with tears. Her knees buckled and she sank back to the cavern floor, pushing her glasses onto her forehead to bury her face in her hands.

Around her, Werelupes started to snicker and make fun of her. “Aye, just like last time!” one of them said. “She’s as spineless as her Draik!”

“Too scary for you, little human?” said another mockingly. “You’d best learn to toughen up if you want to survive down here!”

“That’s enough!” the king said, and everyone fell silent. “Leave my owner alone! She has committed a noble sacrifice this night and she is undeserving of your scorn!”

Terra looked up at him, surprised that he was actually defending her. She seemed to have made a good impression on him. And perhaps he wasn’t entirely the heartless monster he’d first appeared to be.

“I’m sure you all have better things to do,” the king said to the other Werelupes with a sweeping gesture. “Dawn approaches. We will feast for this tomorrow eve! I expect a good bounty for it, so rest up for your hunts!”

A wave of affirmations swept through the crowd and the Werelupes dispersed. They scampered away into various tunnels that lined the walls of the enormous cavern Terra realised she was in. The natural cave had been built up with wooden walkways and bridges, and decorated with creatures’ skulls and enormous curved ribs from something the size of the Turmaculus.

It just served to further remind Terra how far she and Pharazon were from home—and that this would be their home now. Her stomach turned again and she clutched it, doubling over.

“What’s the matter?” the Werelupe King asked. “Are you ill?” He crouched down in front of her so his face was level with her own, reaching out and touching the tip of her nose with the pawpad at the end of his thumb. “Your nose is dry… that’s not good.” He paused. “I apologise for their careless remarks,” he added. “I will not let them speak to you that way again.”

Terra looked up at him, quite frankly surprised at his concern, after all he had put her family through. “Thanks,” she said, wiping her tears on her sleeve. “I got seasick on the way over. And they didn’t feed us very much… I’m hungry and thirsty.” She quickly added, “But I don’t think my stomach could handle any food right now anyway, so I guess I’m just thirsty.”

The Werelupe frowned, and his lip curled upward to show a bit of fang. “I thought I told those pirates to treat my owner well,” he growled. “I will make them suffer double whatever they inflicted upon you.”

“Please don’t,” Terra said. “Enough’s—you’ve already done enough.”

“Do you not wish for vengeance?” the Werelupe King asked.

“No,” Terra said. “I don’t believe that makes anything better.”

The king’s expression grew thoughtful, and then he blinked and looked aside. “I’ll deal with the matter later,” he muttered. “For now, let’s get you some water.”

“Thank you,” Terra said, still surprised at how concerned he was for her welfare.

He turned and looked down one of the tunnels, and then back to her. “Hm. I should not make you walk in your condition,” he said, picking her up and resting her against his shoulder.

“Thanks,” Terra said. Although she still had bad memories of Werelupes, her new Neopet’s warm fur helped warm her chilled body after spending all night in the open air of Meridell in the month of Awakening. And it comforted her to know that he could be humane. She only had memories of him as an antagonistic figure, but she realised she hadn’t actually seen that much of him last time. Maybe there was more to him than just being growly and threatening.

 “You have endured a long journey, indeed,” the king said as he carried her into one of the tunnels. “Made even longer by hunger and thirst, I’ll wager. Impressive that you stood up to me even after all that.”

“You’re not going to shut me in a tower again, are you?” Terra asked.

The Werelupe King glanced over at her. “No, that was a mistake,” he said. “I… had not thought the situation through entirely. I was not expecting some of my thanes to bring back an owner in their nightly hunt. We did not usually see owners so deep into the Haunted Woods. Caught in the moment, the best thing I could think to do was put you somewhere secure for the time being.” He looked back down the corridor and his gaze grew distant. “I had wanted an owner for so long… the last thing I needed was for her to leave me.” He frowned. “Well, I should like to see your other pets try to find you down here.”

Terra studied the Werelupe’s face and the way expressions played over it. He was not like Dr. Sloth, who ruthlessly used people to further his own ends. Again she remembered the Werelupe King telling her, twelve years ago, how he had wanted an owner for a long time. He seemed so pained whenever he brought up the subject. There was a hurt there, and it made Terra want to help him. If that meant being his owner, she believed some good would come of it.

“Welcome to the Werelupe Burrows, by the way,” the king said. “After your other pets destroyed my keep, I led my pack in search of a new home. Our travels took us out of the Haunted Woods and into Meridell. We attempted to take over Illusen’s Glade, but…” His hackles rose. “That went badly. So we retreated further into the forests of Meridell, and found this place, this haven. It’s much larger than that old castle, actually.” He chuckled. “I suppose I should thank you for that.”

“You’re welcome,” Terra said. She had been wondering how they got from the Haunted Woods to Meridell.

They entered a small grotto. Firelight illuminated a rock wall slick with wetness from a spring that burbled from it. The water ran in a stream along the floor and into a series of channels that disappeared into drains. All around it sat an assortment of waterskins.

The Werelupe sat Terra down on a flat rock and said, “Stay here.” He grabbed a waterskin and crouched over the spring.

Terra watched him, just trying to stay awake by this point. She had no intention of trying to escape. She would keep her end of the bargain and trust that he would keep his word as well.

He came back with the skin heavy and full, handing it to her. Terra drank greedily, feeling the water slip down her throat and cool her body. It tasted sweet like only unsullied water could. When she finally had her fill, she sat back and let out a long sigh. “Thank you,” she said.

“When do owners eat?” the Werelupe King asked.

“The same times Neopets do, essentially,” Terra said. “I don’t think I could stomach anything tonight. I’ll wait for breakfast.”

He nodded, fastened the waterskin to his belt, picked her up again, and ambled back out into the tunnel. “Then you should get some sleep,” he said.

“Sorry you have to carry me like this,” Terra said. She was honestly feeling too tired and sick to try to walk herself, especially considering the distances they were covering.

“What?” the Werelupe asked with a chuckle. “You are light as air, owner! I would have to carry twenty times your weight before feeling a strain!” He puffed out his chest.

Terra never thought the beast from her nightmares would try to joke around with her. She cracked a small smile. “Are you going to keep calling me ‘owner’?” she asked. “My name’s Terra.”

“And I am Isengrim,” the Werelupe said, “Lord of the Werelupe Burrows, King of Werelupe Woods, Sovereign of All the Moon’s Light Touches, and Champion of All Werelupekind. But you may call me Isengrim.”

He brought her down winding passageways, through vaulted caverns, and across wood-and-rope bridges that spanned black chasms where distant water roared beneath them. Heights were not Terra’s favourite thing, and she cringed closer to Isengrim’s shoulder as he traversed the swaying bridges. In several areas, Werelupes lazed and chatted by open flames on beds of furs. Terra hoped to see a faerie Draik among them, but to no avail.

“I thought you didn’t like weaklings,” she said as Isengrim climbed a set of stairs hewn into the rock that twined behind a large waterfall. “Why are you taking care of me?”

“You are not weak,” Isengrim said. “You are currently incapacitated, but you are not weak. I am impressed that you did not cower in fear like your Draik back there, and that you had the courage to strike a bargain with me.” He paused. “And that you sacrificed your freedom for the sake of your other pets. That was a brave deed. I like bravery.”

Terra absorbed this information silently. She felt that Isengrim could not be all that terrible if he was impressed by acts of valour. Clearly he had some sense of honour, and she liked to see that in people.

Isengrim stepped into a spacious grotto where a single brazier burned. Its firelight glinted off of various weapons mounted on the walls, and threw eerie shadows on the skulls of great horned beasts that had similarly been turned into décor. Even the couches and tables were made of bone and skins. One wall was open to the back side of the waterfall, a shimmering curtain from this perspective. Simple murals in red and black pigment adorned the other walls, depicting trees, crescent moons, and stylised packs of Werelupes hunting large Petpets, accompanied by a scattering of massive pawprints.

“Nice paintings,” Terra said. They really were fascinating, despite her situation. Clearly the Werelupes had a culture that she had been unaware of, and it made her curious to learn more. She supposed she would probably have plenty of time to do so.

The Werelupe King grinned. “I made them myself,” he said. “This is my grotto. But my family can stay here, too.” Apparently, however, this did not apply to “weakling” brothers. Still carrying his owner with one arm, he bent down and began shuffling through a pile of furs, setting some aside. With a grunt of satisfaction, he moved to the new pile and began shaping it into a nest.

Once it was finished to his liking, he set Terra in it and gave her another fur and her waterskin. “Let’s do something about that stomachache,” he said. He opened a wooden chest that sat against the wall and rummaged through it, pulling out a phial that he examined and nodded. “Take a few drops of this,” he said, handing her the phial.

The substance inside smelled pleasantly of mint and Terra put a few drops under her tongue, feeling a familiar cooling burn. She kept her own home stocked with such things. “Thanks,” she said. Thinking of home caused a flood of memories. Whenever she had stomachaches, Hyren would hold her hand until she felt better, and tell her some of his old war stories, while Blynn would find ways to make her laugh and Pharazon would brew her peppermint tea.

But she wasn’t home. That feeling settled on her heavily.

“I just don’t understand,” she said. “Why did you go through all the trouble of finding me again if you just wanted an owner? There are literally hundreds of millions of other owners in Neopia who could have adopted you. You probably could have kidnapped the next person to go camping in the Haunted Woods.”

Isengrim looked aside, staring at the waterfall. For a moment he looked as though he wanted to say something, and then his expression hardened. “Vengeance, plain and simple,” he said, moving to rearrange the larger pile of furs. “I hate having things stolen from me. I will not forgive such deeds. But now I consider your family’s debt repaid. Just be grateful I am honoring our bargain.”

He moved to the entryway, leaned a hand on the stone, and looked back at her. “You have had a long day,” he said. “You ought to sleep. I have business to attend to. I would advise against trying to go anywhere alone. These burrows are a giant maze and you don’t know them at all. Do not leave until I come and get you.”

“Okay,” Terra said, trying to push down her frustration. She hated being told what to do and where to go, but she had to uphold her end of the bargain as well.

Isengrim moved to leave. He paused and looked like he was going to say something again, but he frowned and just descended the stairs without another word.

Terra pulled her blanket up over her shoulders and took off her glasses, setting them on the floor. She took another drink from the waterskin and then curled up. The furs were soft and warm, and her stomach had calmed down considerably. She bunched up the furs behind her head to act as a pillow and lay still, listening to her own shallow breathing.

No, she definitely wasn’t home anymore. But at least her Neopets’ safety was assured.

Terra wondered what had happened to Isengrim that made him need an owner so badly, and it made her think back to her conversation with Pharazon in the hold of the Black Blurgah. Blynn told Terra once that created Neopets had a certain soul-deep bond with their owners. Maybe something had happened between Isengrim and his creator, and that made Terra feel sorry for the Werelupe. Although the situation was less than ideal, she wanted to be the owner he needed while she had the chance. Maybe there was a way she could help him.

She closed her eyes. Blynn and Hyren still didn’t know what had happened to the other half of their family. The thought caused another lump in Terra’s stomach. But she would not give up hope. Somehow, she would make things right for everyone—including the Werelupe King. Taking comfort in that thought, she slipped into sleep.

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