Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 9

“Owner. Get up.”

Terra awoke to something nudging her back. She opened her eyes and saw torchlight on stone walls, and memories of the previous day came flooding back to her. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Isengrim standing over her. “You can call me Terra, remember?” she said, offering him a tired smile. Despite the circumstances, she didn’t see the point in not trying to be friendly.

“Own—Terra,” Isengrim said. “Time for breakfast.”

“Breakfast?” Terra looked at the ceiling of the grotto, listening to the dull roar of the waterfall outside, and realised there was no way to keep track of time in here. “I think I need more sleep,” she said.

Isengrim looked at her and frowned. “I let you sleep for a long while,” he said. “I began to worry you would not wake up. You are exhausted from your journey, but you need food to regain your strength.”

Terra did not think trying to argue with him would get anywhere, especially since last night she had promised not to cause any trouble with him. She figured it was best to go along with him for now, and she could catch up on sleep later. At any rate, her stomach was demanding to be filled. She threw back her fur blankets and staggered to her feet with a yawn. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she said. At least her stomachache had gone away. Sleep usually helped with that.

Isengrim let out a whine and his ears bent back. “You smell terrible,” he said.

Terra sniffed her arm. “I do kinda smell like rotten fish,” she said. Sitting in the hold of a pirate ship for a day and a half would do that to a person.

Isengrim grabbed her shoulder and steered her toward the stairs. “You are getting a bath and a change of clothes,” he said.

“I never thought Werelupes would be so… clean,” Terra said. It was kind of odd to think that creatures who lived in a cave and wore skins and bones took baths, but she realised that was a bit of a judgmental assumption. Maybe the whole not-bathing thing only applied to those weird Meridell peasants who kissed Mortogs and rummaged through rubbish dumps for fun.

“Filth breeds disease,” Isengrim replied. “And makes me wish I did not have a nose.”

“Makes sense,” Terra said. “If I had a Lupe’s nose, I’d be more sensitive to smells, too.”

“A Werelupe’s nose,” Isengrim said.

“What’s the difference?” Terra asked.

He glanced down at her. “Our senses are heightened beyond even that of normal Lupes,” he said. “And we are larger and stronger—and all-around superior.”

He led her down a new tunnel—or perhaps one she’d already been through. The Burrows had a labyrinthine sameness to them that made Terra feel like it would be very easy for one to become lost in them. No wonder Isengrim had told her to stay put.

“How do you find your way around here?” she asked.

“Scent markers,” Isengrim replied. He lifted his head. “Do you not smell the way to the laundry?”

“Human noses don’t work nearly as well as Lupe—Werelupe noses,” Terra said.

“Really?” Isengrim asked. “Bizarre. I don’t know how you find your way around with that tiny thing. How crippling to not be able to smell properly.”

“I do think we’re missing out on a lot,” Terra said.

Isengrim led her onward. “In that case, I’m not going to leave you by yourself too often,” he said. “It is too easy for you to get lost in here, especially if you cannot smell your way. I won’t have you falling down a hole or getting eaten by what lurks in the unexplored depths of this place.”

“Sounds good to me,” Terra said.

The laundry was a spacious grotto filled with baskets of clothes. At one end of the cave was a large pool rimmed with rocks. A Werelupe crouched there, rinsing a pair of trousers and scrubbing them on one of the stones. He sniffed the air and turned around with a bow. “Greetings, milord!” he barked, watching Terra curiously.

“Greetings,” Isengrim returned. He led Terra to the baskets and began to rifle through them. “Hmmm… no, no… maybe…” He held up various articles of clothing and examined them before looking over his shoulder. “You are too small, Terra.” His eyes held a glint of amusement.

“Hey, just be glad I’m not a Jubjub,” Terra said with a grin. Internally, it puzzled her as to why Isengrim would joke around with her one moment and then coldly order her about the next. It sometimes seemed as though he was fighting with himself about how to treat her. She hoped she could figure out the root cause.

Finally Isengrim returned to her with a pile of clothes that he deposited in her arms. “These will have to do until I get some tailored for you,” he said. Then he steered her out of the room and further down the tunnel, until they reached an opening that was partitioned off with cloth hung over the entrance. “The springs are in there.” He pointed. “Go wash and change.”

The springs were warm and refreshing, and Isengrim had provided Terra with a tunic and trousers made of skins. Despite draping over her like pajamas, they were marvelously soft. As she made her way back toward the entrance, Terra heard someone out in the hall, another male Werelupe, chatting with Isengrim.

While Terra usually did not like to be nosy, when the other male said, “So, how goes it with the owner?” it caught her attention and she stopped before she reached the cloth partition. She wanted to find out what Isengrim thought of her and try to make more sense of what had happened last night.

“Has she tried to paint you pink yet?” the other Werelupe asked. He chuckled, but it quickly faded. “That bad of a joke, eh?”

“She is keeping up her end of our agreement,” Isengrim said quietly, sounding in no mood to joke. “How is the Draik faring?”

“Oh, he’s fine, just driving us all mad,” the other Werelupe said. “He won’t stop sniveling and whimpering. Cried himself to sleep last night, the miserable bloke, despite all the comfortable furs Suhel gave him for his bedding. And we can’t stand his faerie scent. Are you sure we can’t put him in the dungeons?”

“I will uphold my end of the agreement as well,” Isengrim said. “You know I honor my promises. My owner was brave to secure his safety as she did.”

Terra let out a breath. It was a relief to know that Pharazon was safe – scared, but safe – and that Isengrim was a Neopet of his word. She wished there was some way she could talk to her Draik and try to comfort him. Considering their experiences on the Black Blurgah, she didn’t know if he would listen to her. Still, she had to at least try.

“Right…” the other Werelupe said. "Well, I hope at least you've been able to find a moment's peace. I imagine your owner must be giving you plenty of grief--you know how weak and whiny non-Werelupes are--"

"She is nothing like her Draik," Isengrim said rather sternly. "She has never complained once and has expressed appreciation to me for her accommodations. As I said, she is upholding her end of our bargain and doing so quite honourably."

"Oh--my apologies, sire," the other Werelupe said quietly. "I didn't mean to assume. I'm--I'm glad she's got a bit of spine and sense." He paused. “What was with that look on your face?”

“What look?” Isengrim asked.

“Last night,” the other Werelupe said, “before you told us to stop poking fun at your owner.” He paused. “It… reminded me of how you looked at me when the pack found me, lost and alone in the woods, all those years ago when I’d just become a Werelupe. I thought you hated non-Werelupes.”

There was a long pause. “Something in me couldn’t stand to see her like that,” Isengrim finally said in a tone laden with complex emotion. “Especially—especially not after what she did for her other Neopets. That was… the most selfless thing I have ever seen an owner do. I… I can’t bring myself to hate her.” He cleared his throat suddenly. “Anyway. I don’t feel like talking about it. But you and the others make sure to treat her with respect, am I understood?”

“Yes, sire,” the other Werelupe said. “I must admit, I’m rather impressed with her bravery last night as well. I… feel a bit bad for teasing her like that.”

“We all make mistakes,” Isengrim said. “We’ve treated everyone else as an enemy for so long… I suppose it’ll take some getting used to, having some non-Werelupes in the pack."

"I'll say it will," the other Werelupe said with an exasperated sigh. "Suhel has been trying to figure out a job for the Draik, but he's proving rather inept. She had him clean the Fire Mote soot out of the torches and he nearly caused a fire."

Isengrim let out a deep sigh as well. "She'll have to keep at it," he said. "I'm still not relegating him to the dungeons. I owe it to Terra."

"Who? Oh, right, your owner," the other Werelupe said. "I'm rather curious, sire--what exactly does an owner do? I believe you're the only one of our pack who's a created Neopet. What purpose would an owner serve you? If you're looking for work for her, I'd love to not be the only one sweeping the lower tunnels--"

"No," Isengrim said, his tone stern again. "That work is far too dangerous for her. You know what lurks down there." He paused for a long moment. "It... it's been so long since... since my first owner, I've forgotten the details of what he did for me. The one thing I do remember... is that when he was around, I felt stronger. I felt happier."

"Is your new owner having the same effect?" the other Werelupe asked.

"I don't know," Isengrim muttered. "I thought merely having her by my side would fix things, but... now I just feel confused. At any rate, it's not your problem to worry about. Run along to breakfast. We’ll be there shortly.”

“All right,” the other Werelupe said. Heavy paws thudded on stone as he scampered away, and then all was silent in the hall.

Terra waited for a few more moments, both to process her own emotions and to try to make it seem like she hadn’t been waiting just behind the partition. She swallowed the lump in her throat. Isengrim clearly had a conscience. He was not an irredeemably terrible person. Terra did not think anyone was, really. She wanted to help him. Something was hurting him, and if she was here, was his family now, she felt a need to aid him in fixing it.

She took a deep breath and pushed the partition aside. Isengrim was still lost in thought, and when he saw her, he looked caught off guard for a moment, and then quickly hardened his expression. He leaned over and sniffed at her. “That’s better,” he said.

She held up her pile of old clothes. “These go to the laundry, right?” she asked.

Isengrim nodded. “You catch on quickly,” he said. “Your footwear, too.” He gestured to the socks and boots she held in one hand.

“I’m not sure my feet are cut out for these cave floors,” Terra said. “My soles aren’t as thick as your paw pads.”

The Werelupe looked down at her feet. “Oh,” he said. “I had not thought of that.” He sighed. “Well… I will have someone make you new footwear soon. But these cavern floors have been smoothed down considerably by now. You should be all right walking until then.”

Terra smiled up at him in relief. “Thanks,” she said. “You know… you’re really a lot nicer than I thought you were. You’re a little… brusque, but I think you have a good heart.”

Isengrim’s eyes widened and he stared at her for an awkward moment. Again, emotion swirled in his crimson eyes and Terra wondered what was going through his head. He opened his muzzle to say something, but suddenly he frowned and he drew himself up taller, pitching his ears forward. “Do not think you can manipulate me with your silver tongue,” he growled, taking her shoulder and nudging her back to the laundry. “I did not earn my title by being a fool.”

Terra’s heart sank as they returned to the laundry room. Clearly she had touched a raw nerve, and it was difficult to figure out why. But she couldn’t shake the look on his face before he got angry, and she also felt like she’d almost had a breakthrough. It seemed that he didn’t trust her, though, and she couldn’t blame him. She would have to find some way to earn his trust—and she hoped he would let himself trust her.

“Put them in one of the empty baskets,” Isengrim said when they returned to the laundry room. “No—in the cluster to the right, those are for dirty laundry. We’ll return and wash them later.”

“It’s nice to meet a king who does his own laundry,” Terra said.

“I would not demand that my thanes do something for me that I can and should do myself,” he said. “We are all a pack here.” He reached to his belt and undid a small string of fangs. “Speaking of, you will wear this as a token of your status.”

“What is it?” Terra asked.

The Werelupe took her arm and tied the bracelet around her wrist. “This marks you as part of the pack and more specifically as my owner,” he said. “It is a great honour for a non-Werelupe to wear bones, you know. You are the first to be worthy of such a thing. And probably the last.” He looked aside with narrowed eyes. “We do not think highly of non-Werelupes, to put it lightly.”

“Why don’t you like non-Werelupes?” Terra asked, inspecting the fangs and wondering what creature they came from. Bone jewellry was not exactly her first choice of an accessory, but it was a fascinating part of Werelupe culture.

“They have given us no reason to like them,” Isengrim said with a snarl. “They think of us as monsters. They hate us, drive us away, attempt to exterminate us like pests.” He turned and stalked away. “And do not lie and tell me you do not hate us,” he said. “Now, you will eat breakfast.”

Terra followed close behind him, deep in thought. He was bitter and xenophobic and a control freak. Something had to have happened in his past—possibly concerning a former owner? If only he wouldn’t clam up and get angry every time she tried to talk to him about it. Perhaps it was too soon for that.

Thankfully, Isengrim was correct about the floors of the Burrows. They were smooth stone, cleared of sharper rocks and dangerous debris by the passing of many paws. Around a bend, Terra stopped. In front of them stretched a yawning abyss, its two sides connected by a single bridge. There were no other paths. She felt her stomach plummet like it had already fallen over the edge.

Isengrim kept moving for a few steps before his ears twitched and he turned around. “Come on,” he said.

“I—isn’t there any other way?” she asked.

“We’re going this way,” he said, pointing to the bridge.

Terra took a deep breath. “I don’t do well with heights,” she admitted. “If we do have to cross this way—could you at least please carry me again? I really don’t trust my own footing on something like this. Please.” Despite all of Hyren’s combat lessons, she was innately a little on the clumsy side, and she and heights had especially never gotten along.

Isengrim turned to look at her more fully, scrutinising her. He peered at her with narrowed eyes as though he was trying to read her mind. Finally, he scowled and his tail bushed. “No,” he said. “I do not bend to the whims of an owner. You will cross, now. Do not forget the bargain we made.”

“I won’t,” Terra said, swallowing hard and moving forward. As she approached the bridge, a pit formed in her stomach, and it wasn’t just because of the height. Isengrim distrusted her and refused to listen to her. This wasn’t the way a relationship between an owner and her Neopet should work at all. She just wished he could see that.

Gripping the rope suspended on both sides of the bridge, she forced herself to step forward. The bridge’s swaying was subtle, but Terra hated the feeling of unsteady footing above a drop that could reach all the way down to Moltara.

After a few steps, Isengrim stepped on behind her, causing even more violent swaying. “Faster,” he said. “I’m hungry.”

“I’m sorry,” Terra choked. She grimaced and tried to ignore the movement of the bridge as she quickened her pace. Her mind seemed to think that imagining falling over the edge was the correct thing to do in this situation, and she fought to shoo away the awful fear, trying to concentrate on just getting to the other side.

Finally she stepped onto solid ground and she stumbled a few steps, regaining her footing. Edging further away from the drop, she waited for her breathing to slow as Isengrim stepped off after her. He did not keep moving, but stood next to her silently.

After a moment, Terra looked up at him. He was staring at her again, but his usual demeanor seemed to have deflated somewhat. His ears and tail were lower, and the expression on his face seemed a lot like regret and guilt.

It lasted only a moment before he composed himself again. “Well—“ he said haltingly, ushering her forward. “Let’s—let’s go get breakfast, then.”

Terra considered saying something, but she wasn’t sure what would help. Perhaps it was best to let him alone with his thoughts for a bit.

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