After Terra’s and Isengrim’s return, the banquet proceeded much more smoothly. Once the short induction ceremony finished, the Werelupes turned to merry-making, surrounding Terra with music and storytelling. She and Isengrim talked and laughed with each other, sharing the things they had seen in their travels, commiserating over tripping on sleeping Turtums, and savouring a dessert of rare Meriberries harvested by a few of their packmates earlier that day. Now that Isengrim had put his issues aside, Terra found him to be quite pleasant company, and he seemed to greatly enjoy listening to what she had to say, while she was equally enthralled by his tales of adventure in the woodlands.
Terra didn’t get a chance to talk to Pharazon, as he and Skoll seemed to have slunk off sometime during the festivities. But she was glad that her youngest Neopet had finally found a way to handle the situation besides complain. At any rate, she had made a huge breakthrough with Isengrim and she wanted to focus on that.
After dinner, he took her to see some of the subterranean wonders that the Burrows held, and she marvelled at the things wrought by eons of rock and water processes. This place had a unique beauty of its own, and Terra hoped that she would get to visit the Burrows again often once she returned to her family. She was excited about the prospect of introducing Isengrim to Blynn and Hyren—she hoped they would be as excited as her that one of their old foes was now a friend.
At breakfast the next morning, the Werelupe King took special care to pass non-meat items her way. “After we eat, I will show you around Drackon Ridge, weather permitting. Here,” he grunted, passing his owner a bowl of hot crossed buns with one paw while grabbing a steak with the other.
“Thanks,” Terra said, accepting the bowl with a smile and taking one of the warm buns. She bit into it and glanced around at the circle of Werelupes. “Where’s Pharazon?”
“Still with the conjurer, I’ll wager,” Suhel muttered from Isengrim’s other side. “I was going to take him to see the Great Prism Hall, but… he wanted to stay with that old wizard.”
Terra looked over at her. “Do you not like Skoll?” the human asked.
The Werelupe shook her head. “He’s not like the rest of us,” she said. “Too solitary, too… knowledgeable. Prefers the company of books to his pack. There’s something a touch off about him. I don’t trust him.”
“Now, Suhel,” Isengrim said. “Be that as it may, he has done much for our pack. And if not for us, he would still be living on his own, and he is getting too old to hunt. He needs us, and we need him.”
His second-in-command grimaced and bit off a chunk of a large drumstick. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, not sounding at all convinced.
“Are you sure Pharazon will be okay with Skoll?” Terra asked Isengrim. If Suhel didn’t trust the mage either, Terra was willing to lend more credence to her own unease. “I don’t want him getting into any—“
A hundred pairs of ears perked all at once. A small brown blur passed beneath the ceiling paintings, closing in on the fire where Terra sat. As the Weewoo neared, it dropped a scroll from its talons, and the small roll of parchment landed squarely in Isengrim’s lap. The avian Petpet circled once and then returned out the tunnel from where it had come.
Terra was impressed with its ability to deliver mail into the Burrows. It seemed Weewoos really were the best messengers.
Isengrim flicked the scroll open and scanned it, and his smile dropped, replaced by a scowl. A rumble started in his throat.
“Milord?” Suhel asked.
He looked up, his red eyes glowing like poked embers. “Caxton Bank won’t be paying their tribute this month,” he said.
Suhel’s fur bristled. “What? But we need their grain!” she said.
For a response, Isengrim jumped to his feet, crumpled the parchment, and threw it into the fire. The flames danced dangerously in his eyes, throwing shadows across his dark fur. “They know what the punishment is for disobedience,” he said. “A visit from their king.” Tail high and bushed, he gestured to his owner to follow him. “Terra. Let’s go.”
“Are you really going to punish them?” Terra asked, grabbing another bun for the road as she jumped to her feet.
“We made an agreement,” Isengrim said as he stalked across the commons cavern. “They give us monthly grain shipments. We don’t descend on them and take everything they have.”
Terra grimaced. This was something she was going to have to confront him about, and now. But she couldn’t quite think of the right angle to take. Sure, he trusted her, but she wasn’t sure how he would respond to her offering suggestions on how to run his kingdom. She would definitely not let him hurt his subjects, though.
She was still trying to think of what to say when Isengrim led her to a small cavern where weapons and armour of all sorts lined the walls and were stacked on tables and racks. The Werelupe King went right for a straight sword with a black blade, which he fastened at his waist so it rested crosswise against the small of his back.
“Why do you need a weapon?” Terra asked. Her breakfast had begun to protest in her stomach. “What are you going to do?”
“I hardly need it to deal with those weaklings,” Isengrim said. “But there are many things that lurk these woods besides Werelupes. And on the off chance that Caxton Bank found a hero to fight for them, I will not be caught with the disadvantage.”
“Well… maybe I should have a weapon, too,” Terra said. “Just in case.” She did not want to be caught off guard, either.
“Hm.” Isengrim turned to look at her and his expression softened. “Do you know how to use one?” he asked.
“I know swordplay,” Terra said. “Hyren taught me.”
Isengrim’s ears twitched at the mention of Hyren, but he gave her a thoughtful look for a moment. “I will grant you a weapon,” he said, “but only as—as a last resort.” He frowned. “Not that I will let it come to that. I will protect you, don’t worry.” He turned back to the armaments, examining and appraising them.
As he searched, Terra looked around at the weapons and smiled. This looked a lot like Hyren’s armoury back home. She really wanted to see what would happen if the Werelupe and the Grundo got together to compare their collections.
“Here.” Isengrim spun around and presented her with a long knife in a leather scabbard. “I think this will do nicely for you,” he said.
Terra smiled as she took it and drew the blade, inspecting its workmanship. The belt was Werelupe-sized and Terra had to wrap it around her waist twice to get it to fit properly.
Isengrim chuckled. “You are much too small, Terra,” he said. “That is the only weapon I have that fits you.”
She folded her arms and grinned up at him. “You know, if you were the Jubjub King, you wouldn’t be saying that,” she said.
“Yes, I would be saying that you are too large,” Isengrim replied, returning her smile.
Terra took out the knife and gave it a few test swings. Just like the blade that was now Hyren’s, this dagger was crafted as a small weapon for a larger Neopet, which meant it made a reasonable shortsword for herself.
“Oh, this is a nice one,” she said. “Solidly made, and the hilt fits my grip nicely. From the style, looks like it was made in the DariganCitadel, if I’m not mistaken.” She looked up at him. “You’re a good judge of weapons.”
“That’s right, it is of Darigan make,” Isengrim said, looking impressed. “You know your blades.”
“I’m kind of a sword nerd,” Terra said with a chuckle. “Weaponsmithing is an art, and I appreciate a well-made blade.” That was definitely Hyren’s fault. Not that she was mad.
“I do as well,” Isengrim said. “So long as it’s got no trace of faerie magic on it, anyway. But—I assure you, you will not have to use that blade.”
“Why am I coming with you, anyway?” Terra asked as they headed to the laundry room. “This whole thing sounds kind of… dicey. If you’re worried about me getting hurt, maybe I should stay here.”
“You won’t get hurt while I’m around,” Isengrim said. They reached the laundry room and he helped her secure a cloak of small pelts around her shoulders. “Outside, winter still lurks,” he reminded her. “It’s too bad you don’t grow your own fur. This is actually a waist wrap for a Werelupe, but it also makes a perfect human-sized cloak.”
“Wouldn’t I be safer just not going with you, though?” Terra asked. They departed the laundry room and made their way to the larder.
Isengrim looked over his shoulder at her. “I feel that you’re safest when I’m looking after you,” he said. “I don’t like letting you out of my sight. You need me.” He glanced aside. “And… truth be told, having you around invigourates me. It must be the mark of a good owner.”
Terra smiled. “Must be,” she said. She couldn’t complain, because it sounded like Caxton Bank needed help, and she wanted to do what she could.
In the larder, while Isengrim busied himself putting dried fruits, bread, and cheese in Terra’s pouch so she would have provisions for the journey, Terra took the opportunity to look around at the Werelupes’ extensive pantry, stocked with a remarkably wide variety of foods. Most were from the Meridell region, but she saw some from other areas of the world as well. It seemed reasonable to infer that Isengrim imported these foreign delicacies from his “associates”.
Wandering past an unassuming wooden door, Terra tugged on its handle and was met by a blast of frigid air. On the other side was a cavern lined with ice motes and filled with fruits, vegetables, meats hanging on hooks. “Wow,” she said. “Nice to know this cave has all of the modern conveniences.”
Isengrim laughed. “You may thank Skoll for that, once again,” he said. “Before his arrival, we never used motes.” He sighed, looking pensive for a moment before giving her pouch back and waving her out of the cave. “All right. Let’s get going.”
By now Terra found herself actually able to recognise certain pathways through the Burrows. It was the way the walls looked, the peculiar bends and shapes in the path, and the little landmarks they passed like rock formations or clusters of luminescent fungi. It was nowhere near as masterful as the Werelupes’ use of scent to navigate, but she still felt proud of herself for that small achievement.
It was because of this that she noticed that they were taking new paths now, sloping gently upwards. She still hadn’t figured out how to breach the subject of what Isengrim was doing to his peasants. Every time she thought she had half of an idea, she couldn’t get herself to voice it. She finally reached the conclusion that it might not be the right time—after all, she might not know just what to say until she had seen their side of the story. It would be difficult to help both parties without hearing from one.
Finally a new light source began to compete on the walls with the flickering firelight. This light was cold and steady. It became as bright as the flames, and then brighter, and Terra had to squint, waiting for her sight to adjust as she watched Isengrim’s paws to keep on the right track. Now she knew how Symols felt, she thought.
Once the light became tolerable, Terra widened her eyes. The tunnel ahead abruptly ended inside the skull of some enormous beast. Past its fenestrae and the gaps between its sharp teeth, a chill winter wind whistled, swirling with the warmth from the nearby braziers’ flames. Beyond, daylight filtered through tangled leafless treetops.
“Nice front door,” Terra said.
“Thank you,” Isengrim replied.
“Do you climb out the nose?” Terra asked.
He chuckled and said, “No. Follow me.” As he neared the giant skull, a tremor shivered through the earth.
The grinding of stone filled Terra’s ears and the skull began to move. The weathered old bone tilted upward like the beast was opening its jaws, and when its maw was open enough to allow a Werelupe’s height, it stopped.
“Impressive,” Terra said as she stepped outside behind Isengrim.
Beyond the Burrows lay a wide trail through the thick Meridellian forest, carpeted by dead, brown leaves. Steep embankments rose on either side and thick, old tree roots crisscrossed overhead, forming a near tunnel in some places. Above, black branches shattered a sky of patchwork grey and blue. The cold air smelled of rain and loam. Terra realised, by the angle of the sun and the look of the sky, that it had to have been either morning or afternoon. Considering how late Werelupes stayed up, afternoon was more likely. She would have to talk to Isengrim at some point about readjusting her sleep schedule to her normal routine, because she was not a night Whoot.
“Again, our front gate is Skoll’s doing,” Isengrim said, stretching his neck and shoulders and sounding quite proud that he had obtained such a handy conjurer. “Very useful for keeping out the vermin.” The way he said it made Terra think he didn’t just mean Tigermice.
She pulled her cloak closer. “Do you get a lot of intruders in the Burrows?” she asked, remembering how Isengrim had mentioned that his hoard once attracted a lot of treasure seekers.
“Enough to take adequate precautions,” Isengrim said. His muzzle twisted into a scowl, and he narrowed his eyes out at the woods as though he expected unwelcome solicitors. “The outside world harbours no love for us. To them we are disgusting barbarians. To ‘civilised’ Lupes we are a travesty.” He snorted out of his nose and his ear flicked. “They see us as monsters and have hunted us down, forcing my pack from our rightfully-earned territory time after time, place after place.” A growl rose in his throat. “And those dirty thieves, always interested in stealing from my hoard, taking what I have claimed as my own…”
“I’m sorry,” Terra said.
Isengrim’s fur settled and he looked over his shoulder at her with a more pensive expression. “ We just want a home, that’s all,” he said in a quieter voice. With a sigh, he laid one paw on the aged bone of the open skull-gate and fingered the large tooth at his neck. “I want my pack to thrive. I want everyone else to leave us be.” His eyes turned to her. “I will not let this home slip away from us,” he whispered. “Not now. We have built up so much here.”
Terra felt a lump in her throat. “I’m so sorry the world treats you so rotten,” she said. “I hate that that happens to creatures like you. I just hope you can live here in peace from now on.”
“Thank you,” Isengrim said. “Me too.” He paused. “I hope I have been taking good care of you here.”
“You have,” Terra said. “I appreciate it. You’re a great Neopet, Isengrim.”
The Werelupe looked aside with a pained expression, ears lowered, as if he was having a hard time believing that. “I could do better,” he said quietly. “You deserve better.”
Terra put a hand on his arm. “You’re doing great,” she said. “Don’t beat yourself up about yesterday. What matters is that we’re fixing things now.”
Isengrim looked down at her in surprise. “I am amazed you are so forgiving,” he said. He smiled faintly. “Then again, it should not come as such a shock. You are a remarkable little human. I have much to learn from you.”
Terra decided to try her luck, since it seemed Isengrim was in the mood for learning from her. “Isengrim,” she said, “why—why are you so angry at your villagers? Do they regularly not send you their grain?”
The Werelupe’s smile faded as his brow furrowed. “This is the first time they have withheld a shipment,” he said. “I know they hate me, but if they are planning a revolt, I aim to show them why that is a bad idea. I need their monthly tribute to sustain my connections around Neopia.”
Before Terra could think of how to reply to that, Isengrim dropped to all fours, claws gripping the dirt. “Can you ride?” he asked.
“Um… I think so,” Terra said, climbing onto his back as she figured he wanted her to do. “My family uses Pharazon’s Ganuthor for transportation, so…” She leaned low and curled her fingers into his thick fur.
“We’ll get there faster this way,” Isengrim said. “Hold on tightly.” She did, and the Werelupe bolted down the path and into the shadowy forest.
Isengrim scrambled up the embankment and into the thick of the undergrowth. Although there was no trail, he darted through the vegetation like a Virtupets drone following a laser path, dodging trees and leaping across streams with practised precision. Terra watched as the ground flew by beneath them, oaks and birches blurring overhead like a ruined watercolour.
It was really an incredible sensation, flying through the woodlands with the forest king himself. But Terra had not forgotten about their destination. Her fists clenched around Isengrim’s fur. Last night, he said he trusted her. She had to hope he would trust her again today, because she wasn’t going to stand by and allow him to keep pushing his vassals around.
The sun’s light had turned golden in the late afternoon when Isengrim burst out onto a wide, brown swath of untilled loam. Rolling terrain hid all but the tops of the trees that arced around to either side, a continuation of the vast forest the two had travelled through. Evidently someone had cleared this area of timber long ago, and kept it clear.
As the Werelupe sped over a muddy embankment without slowing, Terra saw the reason why. Nestled in a flat vale among the bare fields was a tiny cluster of cottages, a quintessential Meridellian farm community. Or, well, what had once been one. Half of the buildings were in ruins, their stone walls crumbled and thatched roofs scattered to the wind. Thin strings of smoke rose from the chimneys of the intact houses, floating up to join the gathering dark clouds overhead. Most of the villagers appeared to be outside, gathered in a small crowd and talking with one another.
Isengrim’s pace faltered. “What has happened here…” he muttered to himself.
“I guess that explains why you’re not getting any grain this month,” Terra said.
He grunted and took a few more hesitant steps. “I won’t take that for an excuse,” he said to himself before quickening his pace once more. He thundered down upon them, and at his arrival the Neopets quailed. To Terra’s surprise, they did not run, but instead pressed closer in upon each other. Like they were guarding something.
The king did not stop until he was nearly nose-to-nose with the closest peasant, a quivering blue Peophin with a close-cropped mane. “Terra, dismount, please,” Isengrim said, and Terra hopped off, allowing him to draw himself up to his full height and stare down the other Neopets. He was easily head-and-shoulders taller than any of them.
Terra wondered if now was the right time to say anything, but she thought it might be best to observe the situation first. Besides, maybe Isengrim would decide to be nice to them, after all. It looked like they were not having an easy time of things.
Instead, he bared his fangs and glowered at the villagers. “What is the meaning of your defiance?” he barked.
“P-please, Lord Isengrim!” the Peophin stammered, his nostrils flaring in panic. “We can explain! Th-there was a Monocerous! It rampaged through the village this morning and destroyed our granary!” He pointed with a hoof to one of the destroyed structures. “Then came the rains, and we could only salvage so much!” He and the other farmers moved aside, and Terra could see what they had been protecting—a mound of grain sacks.
Isengrim regarded the grain and frowned. For a moment he thought, and then he said, “Good, there is still enough for my tribute.”
“Lord Isengrim, you can’t possibly—!” a yellow Uni gasped, her ears flat against her neck. “This isn’t even enough to feed our families until next harvest!”
A green Ixi said, “You would leave us to starve sooner rather than later?! No wonder Werelupes make terrible rulers—they drive their subjects to ruin!” He and the other villagers began to once more close in around the grain.
Isengrim’s fur bristled. “I will have my tribute!” he snarled. “We made a deal, peasants! Werelupes are not terrible rulers—I just have incompetent vassals!”
“Stop!” Terra cried as she ran out in front of him and spread her arms wide. “You’re not helping!” Isengrim’s aggressiveness dropped immediately when he saw her, replaced by a look of confusion. “Do you really think they appreciate being insulted like that?” she asked. “How will that help them be better subjects to you?”
“Well, they shouldn’t have insulted me!” Isengrim said, growling at the villagers. “Attitudes like yours are exactly why my pack has to hide in the woods!”
“No, it’s because you’re monsters and brutes!” the Peophin said, stamping his hoof on the ground. “As you’re so aptly proving right now!”
“And it’s Neopets like you who make me prefer sequestering myself in the Burrows!” Isengrim barked. “If you miserable lot think you’re going to get any leniency from my pack, you’re wrong! Give me my tribute!”
The Ixi lowered his head into a charging position. “I’m tired of being pushed around by the likes of you! Down with the king!” he bleated. “He’s naught but a tyrant and a marauder!”
“Down with the king!” the chant rose from the other villagers.
Terra spun around. Even though Isengrim was undoubtedly the superior fighter, she was pretty sure a lone Werelupe wouldn’t be able to stand against the tide of an angry mob. “Stop!” she shouted again. “Don’t hurt him!”
“Whose side are you on?!” the Peophin whinnied. “Will you turn against us now, too?!”
“You’re an owner!” the Uni said. “It’s an owner’s duty to protect Neopets from scourges like him!”
“I’m his owner!” Terra said, jabbing her thumb back at the Werelupe. “And I say you all calm down so we can talk this out.”
“Why should we listen to you, Werelupe-owner?!” the Peophin spat. “You’re likely just as savage as he is!”
The Ixi shook his head, brandishing his stubby horns. “Get them both!” he bellowed, rousing the crowd to another cry of anger.
Isengrim slid in front of Terra, his blade drawn. “You’ll have to go through me first!” he roared.
Terra had just put her hand to the pommel of her knife when the ground began to shake, and everyone froze. It began as a series of distant rhythmic thuds, like someone beating a far-off drum. Then it grew faster. And louder.
From out of the trees exploded an enormous creature whose bulging muscles rippled under its coat of tan fur. A pair of wickedly curved horns sprouted from the top of its head, complementing the tusks that protruded from its lower lip. Its red eyes blazed like a wildfire as its hooves ripped up the dirt. With a terrible roar, it raced toward the village.
The Peophin neighed, “It’s back!”