Monday, August 31, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 13

“Terra,” Isengrim said.

Terra realised she must have dozed off shortly after Pharazon left with Skoll. When she opened her eyes, instead of the mound of papers and scrolls from before, she saw tidy piles and stacks. She must have really needed more sleep, she thought.

“Wake up,” Isengrim said, gently shaking her shoulder. “It is time for the feast in your honour.”

Terra rubbed her eyes and put on her glasses, lifting herself into a sitting position. “Oh, I’d forgotten about that,” she said. Food did sound good by now.

Suhel stood nearby, her tail wagging. “Mm, I can smell it already!” she said as her tongue lolled out over her teeth. “Shall we go, milord?”

“What about Pharazon?” Terra asked, pulling herself to her feet.

“He will be there, with Skoll,” Isengrim said as he led them into the tunnel. “For a ceremonial feast such as this, every member of the pack is required to be present.”

“Meals are the only way you could ever pull that old mystic out of his hole,” Suhel muttered from behind him.

The commons cave was alive with activity, and heavy with the smell of food, even more so than at breakfast and lunch. Humongous cuts of meat roasted on spits over the fires, and Werelupes crowded around them anxiously, drool dripping from their muzzles. Several different howling songs echoed off the stone, and one Werelupe brought out a flute made from bone that she played merrily.

Terra spotted Pharazon and Skoll sitting at a fire near the edge of the cavern, but the Draik didn’t seem to see her and looked preoccupied talking to his new mage friend. Terra couldn’t help but feel like something was a little off about Skoll—besides how different he was from the other Werelupes. Something in the back of her mind didn’t want to trust him, or trust Pharazon with him.

But she worried maybe she was being overprotective of her Draik. After all, he was the youngest and he was a sensitive sort—maybe she and his siblings had inadvertently babied him. Perhaps that was why, when he was faced with danger, he didn’t think he could do anything about it. Terra decided she would have to let him come into his own for once, as much as it pained her.

The Werelupe King led her and Suhel to a central firepit where a huge chunk of meat roasted. Several other dishes were scattered around it, but the meat was obviously supposed to be the main draw, like a Werelupe-style barbeque. Suhel took a seat, and Terra was about to do the same, but Isengrim motioned to the girl to stay standing.

He drew himself taller and held up his arms. “My thanes!” he barked. A hush fell over the room and myriad pairs of eyes turned toward their king, ears perked. “Tonight, we celebrate my triumph in securing my owner, lost to me for twelve years!” He dropped one paw to rest on Terra’s shoulder. “Now that she has returned, by my might I shall never allow her to be taken from me again!”

A chorus of cheers and howls rose up in reply. Terra remained stoic. This was not really something she felt like celebrating, but she would let the Werelupes enjoy their feast.

Isengrim reached over the fire and carved out a chunk of meat. To Terra’s dismay, instead of eating it himself he presented it to her. The seared flesh’s fat and juices dripped down his paw unappetisingly.

Terra stared at it, the back of her neck pricking in frustration. She knew what she had to do. She looked up at the Werelupe King and said, “No thanks.”

His smile faded. “What?” he asked. “It’s part of the ceremony.” He nudged the meat toward her.

“I don’t eat meat,” Terra said. “It’s a moral thing. Please understand.”

Isengrim stared at her for a moment, confused, and then his hackles began to rise. “Are you disobeying me?” he growled.

Terra drew herself up taller. “Yes, I am,” she said.

“I command you to eat this!” he barked.

“No, thank you,” Terra replied firmly.

Isengrim paused, then bared his fangs, his eyes afire. “You will obey your king!” he said.

Terra’s nostrils flared. “I obey my conscience,” she said, her blue eyes glinting like steel.

The Werelupe King drew a breath and stared at her with narrowed eyes. Then his muzzle wrinkled even further. “Eat!” he snarled, grabbing her arm.

She angled her elbow and wrenched free from his grip, and turned and ran. As she sprinted past the other Werelupes, heading for the first tunnel she could see, she expected to be followed, but instead everyone just watched her, stunned.

Terra barreled out of the cavern and down the stony passageway. She hurtled across bridges, too pumped up on adrenaline to be afraid and not caring where she was heading. She just needed to get away.

Finally, she ran herself ragged. Out of breath, throat raw, legs shaking, Terra sank to the floor in the middle of a corridor and buried her face in her arms. She tried so hard to make the best of this situation, and Isengrim was just acting confusing. She didn’t know why he kept getting so angry at her for stupid reasons. What if she couldn’t help him, after all? What if he refused to let him help her?

And then she remembered their agreement. She had definitely caused trouble for him just now. What if he decided to call off his end of the bargain as well? Had she just put her other Neopets in serious danger? Her stomach twisted. She couldn’t let anything happen to them—she had to go back and try to make things right with Isengrim somehow. But what if he wanted her to eat meat again?

Whatever happened, she decided as she pushed herself to her feet and started back down the corridor, she had to keep her other Neopets safe—and she had to stick to her morals. No one could ever make her disobey her conscience, that was for sure. She would not let them.

The sound of heavy footfalls drew near. In the distance, a pair of red eyes gleamed as they approached. Terra froze, wondering what lurked down here—or who had come to retrieve her.

It was Isengrim. But not the way Terra expected to see him. His posture was cowed, and his ears lay flat against his head while his tail was tucked between his legs. He bore no signs of aggression, merely a bowl that he cradled in both paws.

He knelt down in front of her. With eyes downcast, the Werelupe King bowed low, and letting his chin touch the tunnel floor as he extended the bowl to her. It was full of peas.

“I’m so sorry,” he said in a shaky whimper, so quiet it was nearly a whisper. “I can’t stand to see you so hurt.”

Terra paused. This was definitely not what she was expecting to hear. Slowly, she knelt down and took the bowl from him. Setting it aside, she put a hand on his head. “Thank you,” she said. “I forgive you. I’m sorry you’re hurting, too.”

Isengrim scrunched his eyes shut. “I don’t deserve an owner,” he muttered. “Not the way I’ve been treating you.”

“What happened?” Terra asked. “What’s made you so angry and bitter?”

Opening his eyes again, he looked up at her and pushed himself to a kneeling position, frowning slightly. “Let me ask you this,” he said quietly. “How do I know I can trust you?”

Terra thought for a moment. “I don’t think that’s something I can answer,” she said. “You have to decide for yourself whether or not I’ve earned your trust.”

Looking aside, Isengrim rubbed his jaw. “You… are nothing like the owner who created me,” he said. “You put your Neopets above yourself—you protect them and care for them, even when it disadvantages you. You are kind and patient, even to those who do not deserve it such as myself. And you stick up for what you feel is right. I cannot help but want to trust someone like that.” He closed his eyes. “But I don’t know if I can.”

Terra’s heart sank, but she said, “I won’t try to force you. The decision is your own. But… I am worried that your anger is making you into someone you’re not. I’ve seen another side to you. You’re warm and generous and kind. I think everyone would benefit from seeing more of that from you—including yourself.”

With a great sigh, Isengrim looked back to her and stared into her eyes. For a long, long moment he did not move, like a wild Petpet sizing up someone in its territory, trying to decide whether or not to flee. Terra stared back, not defiantly but patiently. She would give him all the time he needed, and she wanted him to know that.

Finally, he opened his jaw. “All right,” he said. “I trust you, Terra. And I trust that I will not regret that decision.”

Terra’s face broke into a smile and she threw her arms around him. “Thank you. I won’t let you down, Isengrim. I promise.”

He looked surprised for a moment, then hugged her back, his tail wagging slowly. “I believe you,” he said. “I think… this is what I wanted all along.”

“I’m here for you,” Terra said. Despite all the grief he had given her family, it made her so happy to see him accepting her help. She felt like he deserved better than to be thought of merely as a villain to be gotten rid ofafter all, he had feelings and needs too. The thought had occurred to her that he might be insincere, but she wanted to believe better of him. And she was rather good at reading people, and he did not seem to be faking anything.

Isengrim gave her a squeeze. “You are the best owner I have ever had,” he said. “Much better than the owner who created me.”

“What happened?” Terra asked again.

“I was a normal Lupe then,” Isengrim said. “I can barely remember those days… I thought he loved me. He was supposed to have loved me. I don’t know what I did to displease him, but… one day he just left and never came back.”

“It wasn’t anything you did,” Terra said. “Some people are just like that, unfortunately. Don’t blame yourself for it.”

Isengrim bowed his head and said, “I was heartbroken. And angry. I ran away, into the woods, and I became… this.” The Werelupe gestured to himself. “I grew strong. I amassed followers and ascended to kingship. But that longing…” He clutched his chest. “It never went away. I needed an owner just as sure as plants need rain—but I also felt like I could no longer trust an owner after the way mine mistreated me.”

“That explains a lot,” Terra said. “I’m so sorry. You never deserved to have that happen to you.”

The Werelupe swallowed hard. “I don’t know what I can do to make up for my atrocious behaviour,” he said. “I was so angry… I didn’t want to believe that you were truly as kind as you seemed. I thought you were just trying to manipulate me. But—I couldn’t shake the guilt of upsetting you and treating you ill. It ate at me until I couldn’t stand it anymore.”

Terra patted his arm. “I just want you to be happy,” she said. “I knew you were hurting.”

“Do not ever change, Terra,” Isengrim said. “I need you just the way you are.” He paused and put a hand to his muzzle. “By the way… when I said I kidnapped you and Pharazon solely for revenge… that was a lie.” He sighed. “Twelve years ago, I felt a connection to you. There seemed to be something special about you. Looking back, I think that I somehow knew, on an unconscious level, that you could help me. But my stubborn anger and pride got in the way of telling you that.”

Terra smiled. “Well, I’m glad it wasn’t just for revenge. I think what you felt was real." She tugged at her braid and looked aside. "To be honest... I could never quite stop thinking about you. When I thought you had died that night, I felt a pang of pity and regret that never went away. Sometimes I'd have dreams about you just looking lonely and sad, and I'd wake up feeling really sad too. I thought it was trauma, but... I think I felt drawn to you, too." 

Looking back at him, she added, "I don't believe in coincidence. I believe things happen for a reason. If we’ve been brought together again, I think it means you do need my help. And I’ll sure do my best to be there for you.”

“You already are doing that,” Isengrim said. "But that also means I was meant to be a good Neopet for you. I shall have to try much harder than I have been." He looked aside. “Forgive me for taking you from your family. That was wrong of me. But—please don’t leave me yet. I still need you.”

“I’ll stay for as long as you need me to,” Terra said. She didn't know how long that would be, but now that she was seeing a different side of the Werelupe, one receptive to her help and treating her with unconflicted kindness and respect, she felt they had finally gotten on the right track, and she couldn't abandon someone who needed her. Blynn and Hyren would understandshe had similarly helped Hyren turn his life around when they first met. She cracked a smile. "And next time you need me, just Neomail me, okay? The whole kidnapping thing is getting a little old."

Isengrim chuckled, his ears turned down. "I agree. I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking straight at all. I was so focused on vengeance, on taking back what I had lost... and I didn't think you would understand. No one would actually want a despicable creature like me as their Neopet."

"That's not true," Terra said. "Your creator was a jerk, and sure, a lot of people misunderstand and fear Werelupes, but you just needed the right owner. I think your culture is really fascinating, and there's nothing wrong with being big and strong and fluffy. I'm sorry your kind has been treated so poorly, but you don't have to worry about that with me. I promise."

"Thank you," Isengrim said, his tail waving. "Just you allowing me to tell you my feelings means more than you know." He looked over his shoulder and smiled faintly. "As their leader, I feel like I can never fully open up to my thanes and burden them with what troubles my mind. And Suhel is an excellent second-in-command, but she is a very practical woman and does not seem comfortable discussing matters of the heart." He put his paws on Terra's shoulders. "You are really the first person I have ever been able to talk to like this. Please, let me know how I can repay you."

"Happy to help," Terra said. "That's what owners do. If you really want to repay me... could you please let me send a Neomail to Blynn and Hyren? I wouldn't tell them where I am, I just need them to know Pharazon and I are safe. They must be worried sick about us.”

Isengrim scratched at the back of his neck. “A message to them could be traced if it fell into untrustworthy hands. Even if you do not disclose your location in the text, I have it on good word from Skoll that there are spells that can discern where a Neomail originated. I cannot not risk the security of the Burrows.” His expression grew more sober. "Actually, that was the other reason I had you kidnapped. I need the outside world to believe we do not exist. I trust you know what would have happened if you had suddenly received a Neomail from the Werelupe King."

"Well, Hyren would have gone ballistic, for starters," Terra said. "But yeah... I see your point." She sighed. “Will you at least think about it? Please? I’m sure we could figure out a way to get a message to myour family without revealing our location.”

He smiled faintly. “I will look into it tomorrow. Perhaps Skoll has some suggestions." He paused. “And, I will tell my thanes to stop pestering your Draik. His distress must be distressing to you as well.”

“Yeah… thanks,” Terra said. “I appreciate you thinking of his feelings, even if he isn’t your favourite person.”

The Werelupe smiled a little guiltily. “I have little patience for cowards,” he said.

“You know, they exasperate me, too,” Terra said. “But getting angry with them doesn’t help anything. The best way to deal with it is to be a good example to them, I think.”

“Hm…” Isengrim grunted. “You have interesting thoughts, Terra.”

“Thank you,” Terra said with a grin. “And thanks for listening to what I needed. Is there anything you need from me?”

The Werelupe looked at her for a long moment. “Just… be patient with me… please,” he said. “You have already been so patient, but… I hope I do not wear out that patience.”

“I don’t think you will,” Terra said, patting his shoulder. “I can tell you’re trying. And I think you’re awfully brave for realising your mistakes and trying to do better. I wish more Neopets were like you.”

He brightened and his tail wagged. “Thank you,” he said. “Do… you need anything else? I would gladly give you my entire hoard if you asked it.”

Terra looked up at him. He really had opened up to her fully, and she would never betray that trust. “Actually—there is one other thing,” she said. “I know you’re angry with the crew of the Black Blurgah, but I really don’t think revenge is going to fix anything. That will just make you as rotten as they are. If you really want to make things right with them, bring them to justice. Have someone report them to the Shenkuuvian authorities. Then they won’t hurt anyone anymore.”

Isengrim scratched his chin. “It’s too bad,” he said. “They were one of my main contacts in Shenkuu. But… I think you are right. I have let vengeance fester within me for so long… perhaps it is time to try something else.”

“I don’t think you’ll regret it,” Terra said, her spirits lifting.

“Are you sure there is nothing else you require?” Isengrim asked.

“I’ll let you know if I need anything,” his owner said with a smile. “I just appreciate you listening.”

“It is my duty as your Neopet,” Isengrim said. “As your family.”

“And I have that same duty to you,” Terra said. “Don’t forget that.”

“I will not,” Isengrim said, “but neither will I misuse it. I want to focus on taking care of you during your stay here.” His ears lifted. “Starting tomorrow, I will show you all of the wonders my home holds. Caverns made of crystal, lakes so still they look like glass and you can see right to the bottom, giant halls where the limestone has created forests made of rock!”

“I can’t wait to see,” Terra said with a smile. “It sounds amazing.” Her eyes wandered to the bowl of peas beside them. “I hope I didn’t ruin your feast,” she said, picking up the bowl. “I think everybody was looking forward to it.”

Isengrim shook his head. “I needed that wake-up call,” he said. “Thank you for standing up for yourself. I am sorry I didn’t listen to you. I must apologize to my pack as well, for losing my temper. And don’t worry about the ceremony. I made it up, so I can change it at my whim. We will have you eat peas instead.”

“Sounds like a deal,” Terra said as they made their way back down the tunnel.

It wasn’t long before they came to a bridge, and Terra slowed as she stared down the swaying wood and rope. “Okay, I got this,” she muttered.

Isengrim stepped in front of her. “Terra, wait,” he said, catching her gaze. “I am sorry I made you cross the bridge this morning. I saw how it scared you, and…” He choked and his ears flattened. “I never should have done that. I am so sorry.”

“Oh… I forgive you,” Terra said. “Thank you for apologising.” She squeezed his paw.

He offered both paws to her. “Let me carry you across from now on,” he said. “I can tell it still scares you. Let me make up for my insensitivity.”

Terra looked up at him, pleasantly surprised at his sincerity. It seemed he was incredibly considerate when he let himself be. It saddened her that his creator never realised what a wonderful Neopet he’d made. “I… would really appreciate that,” Terra said as she reached for Isengrim and he picked her up, holding her in the crook of his arm like a child being carried by a parent.

As he stepped onto the bridge, Terra felt her stomach plummet and put her arms around his neck. Going across these bridges was still terrifying—but she trusted he would keep her safe.

“Not to worry,” Isengrim said. “Werelupes have excellent balance. I’ll take care of you.”

“Thanks,” Terra said. “You know, I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.”

“I think so, too,” Isengrim said.

Chapter 8 - Chapter 9 - Chapter 10 - Chapter 11 - Chapter 12 - Chapter 13 - Chapter 14

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