Monday, August 17, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 10


Thankfully they did not cross any more bridges after that, and a short while later Terra began to smell a mix of things sweet and savoury. In spite of everything, her appetite heightened and she realised it had been more than a day since she’d eaten a proper meal.

They emerged in a large cavern dotted with blazing firepits, the floors covered in mats and furs. The ceiling was low, and decorated with immense murals of the same subject matter as in Isengrim’s grotto—forests, moons, and hunts. Around the fires, Werelupes lounged in small groups, with spreads of food shared between them as they talked and laughed with wagging tails. One of them even broke into a low, atonal chant that her clanmates howled along to softly.

Isengrim’s tail suddenly curved upward and he led Terra over to one of the fires. “Suhel,” he called out.

The female sat with a group of other Werelupes, and her ears perked up at his voice. “Milord!” she barked. “How good of you to join us!” She ripped off a bite of meat from its bone.

Meanwhile, a glimpse of turquoise beside her caught Terra’s eye. “Pharazon!” she said.

“Terra?” the Draik asked, leaning out from behind the Werelupe. He looked shaken, but unharmed. “Oh, thank the faeries you’re all right!” he said.

Isengrim sat Terra and himself down on a fur near Suhel. “Eat,” he told the human before shifting his attention to a wheel of darkberry cheese. Using his claws, he sliced a fat wedge from the purple wheel and bit a chunk clean from it, wax and all.

Terra picked up a clay bowl filled with jumbleberries and popped a handful in her mouth, reveling in their sweet-tartness and the feel of food on her tongue again. “I’m okay,” she replied to Pharazon. “What about you?”

Pharazon nibbled daintily at a raisin twist loaf. “Ugh, it’s been awful,” he moaned. “These primitives—they haven’t hurt me or anything, but they won’t leave me alone! I had to sleep in a cavern with them last night— “

“You arrived shortly before dawn, runt,” Suhel said. “It’s afternoon, now.”

“Of course, you’re mostly nocturnal,” Terra said.

The female turned her gaze toward the owner. “We are more active at night, aye,” she said. She smirked up at Isengrim. “She’s a perceptive one.”

He grunted and took another bite of cheese, staring silently into the fire.

“A-and they keep teasing me!” Pharazon said. “And they made me wear this!” He pointed to the string of blunt bones around his neck.

Isengrim glanced over at the Draik and then to Suhel. “Knucklebones?” he asked with a hint of a smile. “How fitting.”

“Aye,” Suhel said with a toothy grin. “Runt’s not earned his fangs yet.” Suhel and the other Werelupes in the circle laughed, and she dropped a pawful of blackberries down her maw.

Terra fingered the circle of teeth on her wrist. “What do you mean, he hasn’t earned them yet?” she asked.

“Fangs represent strength,” Suhel said. She studied the teeth on her king’s owner’s arm. “Although it is not exactly a distinctive honour within the pack. We all wear fangs here.” She motioned to the ones adorning her hair. “Well, almost all of us,” she added, glancing down at Pharazon. “And only the king may wear skulls.” She pointed at Isengrim’s crown. “They symbolise his right and ability to lead and conquer.”

“Interesting,” Terra said. She was really amazed by how much of a culture the Werelupes had built up. Clearly eschewing civilisation did not mean they lived like wild Petpets.

Isengrim tilted his head to her. “Eat more than that,” he said.

She reached out and took a soft chunk from a bread wreath. All of this food was fresh, she noticed, but they couldn’t grow it underground. She wondered if they simply stole everything they wanted.

Pharazon did a double take at Terra. “What are you wearing?” he asked.

“Um…” She looked down at her new garb. “Werelupe clothes,” she said with a grin. “They’re really comfy, actually.”

He frowned and said, “Wonderful, all you need is fur and you’ll fit right in here.”

“Don’t you want to learn more about their culture?” Terra asked.

“I don’t want anything to do with these nasty Werelupes,” Pharazon said.

“I don’t think they’re nasty,” Terra said. “I think they’re really interesting. They're intelligent and creative--I could spend all day just studying these murals! And look at the level of craftspetship that went into this pottery!" She picked up a dish of roasted turnips and traced the crescent patterns that had been inlaid with a different colour clay.

"That's nothing compared to Brightvalian porcelainware," Pharazon muttered.

"I think this stuff's got a lot more character to it," Terra said, taking a handful of turnips and putting the dish back. "No offense to Brightvale, but sometimes they can get so focused on technical execution that the results lack life."

"That's besides the point," Pharazon said, his scowl deepening.

Terra didn't know what else to say to him, and her shoulders sagged, but she noticed all the Werelupes in the circle staring at her wide-eyed. She wondered if they were surprised to see someone actually defend and appreciate their culture. In return, she smiled at them, knowing they were all outcasts who needed every bit of kindness they could get, regardless of their less-than-noble actions.

Isengrim's stare lingered the longest, and when he noticed Terra looking at him, quickly he cleared his throat and his gaze returned to the fire. “You need more protein, Terra," he said quietly. "I do not want you getting malnourished."

"Oh, right," Terra said, and she picked up a crock of baked beans and spooned some into a smaller bowl.

One of Isengrim's ears turned back, and he looked utterly baffled for a moment before he finally sighed and went back to gazing at the fire.

“What’s got you in ill humours, milord?” Suhel asked.

Isengrim flicked an ear in her direction. “It’s not your concern,” he murmured.

After breakfast, Isengrim led Terra in picking up empty bowls and bringing them down a flight of stairs to a combination kitchen and food storage cavern, where they washed the dishes and set them to dry. Although the king had become more taciturn and was no longer interested in explaining anything to Terra, it became evident to her that everyone in the pack did their own chores and participated in communal duties. Despite the presence of a monarch and a social hierarchy based on strength, their culture appeared to be egalitarian.

Isengrim then took Terra up a long stairway that ended up coming out near the laundry room, and she realised they had gone in a large circle, which meant they did not have to backtrack over the bridge. She wondered if he had done that on purpose.

He showed her how to wash her old clothes in the pool and scrub them on the rocks, and then spread them out by the fire. It turned out all of the braziers and firepits in the Burrows contained fire motes, making them an indefinite source of light and heat. They were fed fuel regularly, but did not require maintenance nearly as often as non-magical fire, meaning that the entire Burrows could stay lit and warm even through the depths of winter.

Once Terra’s clothes were laid out to dry, Isengrim recruited a couple of females to tailor some clothes for her. They were masterful seamstresses with bone needles and sinew, and made her a well-fitting tunic and breeches from skins. At Isengrim’s request, they also fashioned her a pair of moccasins and a pouch she could sling over her shoulder.

It seemed that the other Werelupes were actually rather personable. Word had spread since breakfast that their king’s new owner thought they were interesting and wasn’t afraid of them, and as they worked the females asked her questions about the rest of Neopia and what she had seen and done on her travels throughout the world. She was happy to tell them, and she asked them about their own lives as well. It seemed that being Werelupes had not been easy for them, but Isengrim’s pack offered them sanctuary.

When Terra stepped out of the fitting room, Isengrim was sitting cross-legged in the passageway, tracing designs in the stone with one claw. His ears perked, and he lifted his head and looked her over for a moment before glancing up at the females following her. “Well done,” he grunted to them as he stood up and dusted off his breeches.

They bowed their heads, tails wagging. “Thank you, milord,” one of them said.

Terra did feel a lot more put-together now. Well, almost. She grabbed handfuls of her hair, which hung loose around her shoulders as it dried. “Um… I need to comb my hair,” she said to Isengrim. “Please.”

“Oh—“ Isengrim tilted his head as he looked at her. “Of course. This way. I think I know some females who will let you borrow one of their combs.” He motioned for her to follow as he led her further down the tunnel.

Then he stopped suddenly. Terra looked out from behind him and saw the reason why. Another bridge. It wasn’t as long as the first one, but it was still a bridge. She tensed.

Isengrim did not move. Terra looked over at him—he was staring at the bridge, deep in thought. Terra didn’t know what he was thinking, but she didn’t think it wise to cross him, not after what had happened last time. She didn’t like upsetting him and this was clearly a sore spot for him. “Don’t worry, I got this,” she said, striding out in front of him and making herself approach the bridge.

Gripping the ropes for stability again, she forced one foot in front of the other, trying to move with the sway of the bridge. Again that stupid nightmare of falling shoved itself to the front of her mind, and she gritted her teeth as she focused hard on the other side. When her feet touched rock again, she took a deep breath and stood aside to let Isengrim cross. “There,” she said shakily. “That wasn’t so bad as last time.”

He had not followed her—he still stood on the other side, watching her with ears and tail low. Finally he started across, plodding over the bridge ponderously. When he stepped next to his owner, he stood there for another moment, and when their eyes met, Terra thought she saw a look of pity and sorrow.

Finally he cleared his throat. “Ah—slight change of plans,” he said. “This way.” He turned and led her down a side tunnel that sloped downward.

They traversed what seemed to be new areas of the Burrows, moving away from the more open caverns and deeper into the labyrinth. Rooms here were smaller and farther between, and seemed to mostly be storage areas.

“Here we are,” Isengrim suddenly said. They approached an entryway rimmed with bones, a skull sitting at the top of the arch. Unlike anywhere else in the Burrows, a pair of heavy wooden doors had been set into the stone.

Something pricked faintly at Terra’s ears. “Magic?” she asked.

Isengrim chuckled. “Well, you didn’t think I was going to leave my hoard unprotected, did you?” he asked. “It only opens for me.” He reached out and pushed open one of the doors. “Having a court conjurer comes in handy.”

“I didn’t know Werelupes used magic,” Terra said. “I haven’t seen any magical implements around here.”

“The rest of us do not,” Isengrim said, gesturing for her to enter. “You’ve not yet met my conjurer. Reclusive fellow, prefers to study his arcana rather than socialise. But he gets the job done.”

Terra stepped through the door and her jaw dropped. Piled high in the cavern before her were treasures of a breadth she could not even fathom. Mounds of gold and jewels were just the beginning of it—ornate chests overflowed with wealth of all sorts, and valuable relics from all corners of Neopia had been stuffed into the cave like it was the attic of an eccentric heiress.

Her eyes wandered over paint brushes, morphing potions, beautifully worked furniture, ancient tomes and scrolls, paintings and sculptures. There were elaborately decorated silks from Shenkuu, rich velvets from Meridell, the rarest of weapons and armour, and even a few unobtainable stamps and other collectors’ items.

Isengrim folded his paws behind his back and drew himself up, bouncing slightly on his feet with a proud smirk. “Like I said. When I want something, I get it.”

“No kidding,” Terra said.

He motioned for her to follow as he sauntered toward one of the piles, tail held high. “My hoard was once legendary across Neopia,” he said. “It has been the target of many ill-fated adventurers and would-be heroes. Unfortunately, it attracted too much attention for my liking, especially after I allied with the Darkest Faerie.”

Terra was amused by the way he mentioned the Darkest Faerie as casually as if the two played Cheat! on Thursdays with Dr. Sloth and Xandra.

Isengrim flipped open the lid to a chest and began rummaging through it, admiring each item he picked up. “So after those intruders stole Illusen’s Charm from me,” he said, “I began seeding out false reports of my own demise and the Burrows’ destruction. That’s kept those treasure hunters away since.” The Werelupe stood up straight. “Hm, I could have sworn it was in that one. Over here.” He led Terra to another pile.

“And you’re not bothered by military forces from Meridell, Brightvale, or Darigan, are you,” Terra said. “They think you don’t exist anymore. And you seem to have shady-underbelly-style ties who keep your presence under wraps.”

“Very good,” Isengrim said, opening another chest and sticking his snout into it. “You are a clever one.” His tail began to wag. “There it is.” Turning around, he presented Terra with a comb, cradled in both forepaws.

Terra stared at it. The comb looked as though it had been taken from the palace of a Sakhmetian princess. While a functional tool, it appeared to have been crafted from solid gold. The bridge of the comb was shaped like a reclining Erisim, its serpentine form inlaid with lapis lazuli, with two glimmering topaz for the eyes.

“Wow,” she said. “This is beautiful.”

“It’s for you,” Isengrim said. “To keep.”

Terra reached out and took the comb. “Thank you…” she said, more confused than anything else. This seemed like a bit of a non sequitur—unless it was his roundabout way of being apologetic. “Why are you giving me this one?” she asked. “I thought you said I was going to borrow a comb from a packmate.”

Isengrim looked aside. “Ah—“ His face hardened into a frown. “Never mind that,” he said. “It’s impolite to refuse a gift.”

“I’m not refusing it,” Terra said. “I’m sorry—I’m just trying to understand where you’re coming from.”

“I’m trying to be nice,” Isengrim spat. “So you won’t completely hate me.”

Terra reached out and put a hand on his arm. “I appreciate that,” she said. “Thank you. This is a very kind gift. I imagine it’s difficult to part with items from your hoard.”

Isengrim looked over at her and nodded slowly. “I just—want to make up for—“ He put a paw to his muzzle and scowled.

Terra knew the warning signs by now, and she thought it best to change the subject. “So what happened to those faerie weapons you pulled from Hyren’s back?” she asked as she began to run the comb through her hair, working out the snarls. “Did they survive the destruction of your castle?”

Isengrim’s ears twitched when she mentioned Hyren, but he seemed to smooth over the temporary upset. “Of course,” he said. “You can’t unmake a faerie weapon that easily. But they are not here.” His lips curled. “Nasty things, those faeries craft. I wouldn’t keep them in a thousand ages. When I moved into the Burrows, I sold the weapons to replenish my hoard.”

Terra looked up at him, wincing as she teased out a particularly tough tangle. “So Werelupes and faeries don’t get along, huh?” she asked.

“We loathe faeries,” he growled, “and they loathe us.”

“Is Balthazar a Werelupe?” Terra asked.

“He is something approaching one,” Isengrim said. “He could be, if he so chose, but he has not yet let the wild completely overtake him. And he prefers to live and work alone rather than in a pack.” He examined his claws. “Still, he is one of my close associates, and he regularly sends me tribute from what he catches.” He let out a sharp breath. “Well. It is time for lunch, let’s go.” He ushered her out of the room, taking one last glance at his hoard before shutting the door.

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