Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 16

Chapter 15 - Chapter 16 - Chapter 17 - Chapter 18 - Chapter 19 - Chapter 20 Chapter 21

All thoughts of a revolution seemed to flee the peasants’ minds as they turned in a mass and ran, abandoning the pile of sacks.

“Cowards!” Isengrim bayed after them. “Spineless weaklings! I hope the Monocerous obliterates your sorry village from the face of Neopia after the way you treated me!”

Terra took his arm. “Isengrim,” she said. “I know you’re angry. But your subjects need you right now. You’re the only one who can protect them.”

The Werelupe looked down at her and his fur smoothed, although his crimson eyes still blazed. “Terra—“ he stammered. “Did you see how they spoke to me—the hatred in their eyes—“

The Monocerous crested another rise, rampaging toward them in a blind hunger for devastation.

“So stop giving them a reason to hate you!” Terra said. “Please, Isengrim! Just let it go and make things right!”

He blinked and his ears turned back. For a moment he seemed to war within himself, and then— “Stay here,” he breathed as he turned and scrambled into the fields, toward the Monocerous. Terra watched him go, keeping her hand on her blade.

Metres away from the closest cottage, the two titans clashed. Isengrim threw himself at the Monocerous and clawed his way up its side, delivering it a powerful bite. The monster screamed and jerked its head, trying to escape the pain. Veering, it ploughed up another hillside. It braced itself on its forelegs and bucked, kicking out with its hind hooves in an attempt to throw off its assailant.

Isengrim dug in and held on, clinging close to the beast’s body. The Monocerous flailed around the fields like a Whinny trying to throw a rider, whipping its head back in a vain attempt to catch its opponent on its horns. Every time it neared the village, Isengrim would bite and make it swerve off course again. It was a contest to see who would tire first.

The clouds broke, unleashing a torrent of freezing rain that pelted Terra’s head and shoulders and spattered against her glasses. Still she stood, watching the battle. She would not abandon him.

“Oh, no,” the Peophin groaned from somewhere behind her. Terra turned to see him poke his blue muzzle out of a doorway, rubbing his face in anguish at the plight of the grain sacks.

“Move, get them inside!” the human shouted. “Put them by a fire and dry them off! You can still save them!”

“What’s the use?!” the Peophin moaned. “We’ll be ruined one way or another, either from the Monocerous or that dratted despot of a king!”

“Don’t give up!” Terra said. “There’s still hope—“ A pained yelp caused Terra to turn around again, and her heart wrenched.

Isengrim, clutching his side, slipped and fell. While the Monocerous ran on, the Werelupe landed with a sickening splat in the mud, an unmoving heap of fur.

Terra drew a sharp breath and took off running into the fields. Her feet sank into the dark mire, and more than once she stumbled and fell to her knees, but she pressed forward. “Isengrim!” she shouted.

The Monocerous let out a bellow and swerved around, and Terra realised its target was now the fallen Werelupe. She changed course, drawing her blade and heading toward the creature. If she could just intercept it before it got to him, she could distract or disable it.

Plunging through mud puddles, she closed in on the beast. With a shout, she charged and struck at its hind leg. The monster roared, and then it twisted around, crimson eyes boring into her—and then she was in the air.

Terra didn’t even have the breath to shout as her stomach flopped and pain spread through her ribs. Roll, ROLL, she ordered herself frantically. She only got as far as tucking her head to her chest when her back slammed into the mud, the impact blacking her vision for a moment.

As her sight cleared, she went to inhale—and nothing happened. Her eyes bugged and she sat up in a panic, clutching her chest, trying to will her diaphragm to work. She’d only gotten the wind knocked out of her once before, and it was not something she ever wanted to happen again.

Desperately, she gulped air into her mouth but her lungs refused to expand. No, not now, she pleaded, clenching a fistful of the goop at her side. She began to grow dizzy.

The Monocerous bore down on her in a fury, its hooves kicking up mud like a boat clipping through water. Terra tried to push herself to her feet, but she could barely stay conscious by this point.

A black blur smashed into the side of the monster, teetering it away from its new target. Before it could recover, Isengrim had made his way onto its back again, and he raised his rain-slicked blade and delivered the finishing blow.

The beast let out one last bellow and a spasm wracked its body. It tried to run, but its legs simply tangled. It crashed to the earth with a mighty thud that shook the land, and lay still.

Air burst into Terra’s lungs and she sucked it in greedily, allowing herself to just sit and breathe for a few moments before she picked up herself and her knife. A burning sensation spread through her leg. “I… Isengrim!” she called out.

He leaped clumsily off of the fallen creature and scrambled over to her. “Terra!” he barked, his eyes wide with worry. Terra sheathed her blade in time for him to throw his arms around her. “Thank the fates you’re alive,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.”

“I’m just glad you’re okay,” Terra said. She buried her face and fingers, numb with cold, into his shaggy fur. Matted with rain though it was, his thick coat was still warm underneath.

“You saved my life,” Isengrim said. “Thank you… but I would rather that creature have gotten me than hurt you.”

“I wouldn’t have rather,” Terra said. “I can't lose you again."

Isengrim looked down at her leg. Terra followed his eyes and saw that the Monocerous must have grazed her calf with one of its tusks as it threw her, and she winced at the sight. That explained the burning pain there. “I should have protected you better,” the Werelupe said. He heaved a great sigh, but it was cut off as he cringed and clutched his side.

Terra looked closer at the area. “Oh no—you’re hurt, too,” she said. “I’m sorry…”

“I will recover,” Isengrim said. “It was a wound well-earned.” His eyes lifted to stare toward the village. “I had to defend my subjects.”

“You did great,” Terra said.

The Werelupe bowed his head, his ears turned back. “I’ve been a bad king,” he said quietly.

Terra put a hand on his arm. “I think you could be a great king,” she said. “You just have to let go of all that anger and pride that’s separating you from your non-Werelupe subjects.”

He looked up at her. “Will you help me, please?” he asked.

Terra smiled. “Of course,” she said.

“Thank you, Terra,” Isengrim said. “You are a great owner.” He gave her a squeeze. “No, more than that. You are a great friend.” Drawing another ragged breath, he put an arm around her and moved to stand up. “We need to get you out of this rain and get your wound tended—ugh—“ He slipped back to his knees and his shoulders shuddered in pain.

Terra tried to tug him to his feet, but her own footing was not sure. He got back to his feet regardless, not putting any of his weight on her. “I’m not sure we can make it back to the Burrows like this…” she said, looking to the sky. The rain showed no interest in letting up, and somewhere beyond the black clouds, the sun was setting, as evidenced by sparse glints of deep red light on the horizon. Considering they were both wounded, trying to make their way through the woods at night in this weather was a foolhardy idea, Terra knew.

“I’ll call out to my thanes,” Isengrim said. “They’ll escort us back.” He lifted his muzzle.

“Wait,” Terra said. “We can get help at the village.”

The Werelupe gave her a dubious look. “They’ll mob us for sure,” he said. “You know perfectly well how they feel about me.”

“They don’t have to hate you,” Terra said. “You’re their king. It shouldn’t matter what else you are. You have to give them a reason to abandon those stereotypes about Werelupes. As their ruler, they need a good relationship with you.”

The Werelupe studied his owner for a moment, and then sighed. “What if… they don’t want to help?” he asked.

“Then you can call for your pack,” Terra said. “But this could be your best chance to make amends with the villagers.”

She moved to help Isengrim walk, but instead he picked her up. “Allow me,” he said with a grin as he began to hobble through the muck. “At least I can still walk, and I do not want you to have to support any of my weight. I’ll be all right. Werelupes are hardy creatures.”

“I guess I’ll just be moral support, then,” Terra said with a chuckle.

“I think you are quite good at that,” Isengrim said.

He made his way to the shuttered windows of firelight that kept the gloom at bay. The grain pile was gone. Terra had him set her down at the Peophin’s door, and she banged on it clumsily, her knuckles slipping on the wet wood. Hopefully he’d be able to hear it over the downpour. Already large puddles were forming in the dirt road that wound through the hamlet.

After a moment the farmer opened the door a crack. Too swiftly, the surprise and fear in his eyes turned to anger. “What do you want?” he hissed.

“I present to you your champion, Lord Isengrim the Werelupe King!” Terra announced with as much gusto as she could muster. The bedraggled Werelupe leaning on her shoulder looked anything but kingly at the moment, but no matter. “He has slain the beast that torments your people!”

“He is the beast that torments our people!” the Peophin shot back.

Isengrim scowled and said, “Is that all Werelupes are to you, you wretched—“

“Remember, be nice,” Terra said, and Isengrim gave her an apologetic look, his ears turning back.

The Peophin moved to shut the door again, and Isengrim stuck out his paw, preventing it from closing. For a moment the Werelupe’s ears flicked back and forth like he couldn’t decide what position to take in this exchange, but he apparently decided he was still in charge, because they stayed perked forward. “Good subject,” he said. “We require lodging for the night. Please.”

“Go back to the hole you crawled out of,” the Peophin said.

Isengrim bristled, but said nothing, although he looked like he was just bursting at the seams trying to remain silent.

“Please,” Terra said. “We’re wounded. We can’t make it back to the Burrows in this state.” She was banking on the hope that these pets could find some compassion for the people who had saved them from immediate destruction.

“Oh, for goodness sake, Thomas, let them in!” said the yellow Uni from inside.

The Peophin glowered at them for a moment longer, but finally pulled the door open and shooed them inside with a hoof, Isengrim once again carrying Terra. The cottage held barely enough room for a hearth and some beds, and was sparsely decorated with dried vegetables from last year’s harvest. In one corner sat a young blue Techo playing with a doll made from bunched straw. She looked up at the strange guests and her golden eyes widened as she clutched the doll to herself. Terra smiled at her, trying to dispel her alarm.

Thankfully, the rain had washed off most of the mud, but Terra and Isengrim were still sopping wet and dripping all over the dirt floor of the tiny home. The warmth from the small fire in the hearth felt like a furnace to Terra compared to outside.

In front of the fire sat a pile of grain sacks, and the Uni had her nose in one of them. She pulled it out and gave it an approving nod. “I think this one’s still salvageable,” she said as she picked it up in her forehooves and hefted it onto a secondary pile.

“Forget it, Mary,” Thomas grumbled, leaning against the door and rubbing his temples. “We’re doomed.” His tail fluke slapped on the floor in irritation.

Mary turned to their visitors and her wings ruffled. “Don’t mind him, he’s always such a grouch,” she said. A look of concern came over her face as her motherly instincts seemed to kick in. “Oh, you poor dear,” she said to the shivering Terra. “Come and sit by the fire, and I’ll get you a blanket.” She glanced up at Isengrim. “You too,” she added reluctantly.

She began to tug the remaining sacks out of the way, but Isengrim shoved them aside with little effort. He carefully set Terra down in front of the hearth, on a rug made from woven rags, being mindful of her wound, before easing himself down next to her. He kept an arm around her as he stared intently into the fire, tense and ears forward, but not showing any signs of aggression.

“Is it really gone?” the Techo piped up from the corner.

“Hush now, Nan,” Mary said as she gathered blankets from the beds. “Don’t disturb our guests.”

“It’s okay,” Terra said with a smile. “She’s no trouble at all. And yep, your king here defeated that monster for good.” Kids were always easier to win over.

Nan threw up her arms and shouted, “Hooray!”

“Oh, joy,” Thomas muttered. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire. I think I’d rather the Monocerous stepped on me.”

“This is all we have,” the Uni said as she draped a thin wool blanket over Terra’s shoulders.

“This is great,” Terra said, setting her own pelt cloak out to dry and hugging the blanket closer. Isengrim was usually warm, but when he was cold and wet as well, he could not do much to stave off the chill for a slim owner. Terra tried wiping off her glasses with it, but the coarse, water-resistant fibres of the wool just smeared the droplets around and further obscured her vision. With a sigh she waited for her skin tunic to dry so she could use that. “Thank you so much for your hospitality.”

“Oh my, such manners,” Mary said, her wings lifting at the kind words. “And you said she was a savage Werelupe-owner, Thomas.”

Thomas clopped over to the bed where their daughter sat, and collapsed. “She owns a Werelupe, Mary,” he said, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but here right now.

The Uni hovered the second blanket over Isengrim’s shoulders, looking unsure as to whether or not she should let it fall, but finally steeled herself and dropped it on him.

His ears twitched, and he reached up with one large paw and pulled the blanket more firmly over himself and his owner. “Thank you,” he said. Terra gave him a thumbs-up and he returned it with a smile.

“You said you were wounded?” Mary asked, shuffling around in a small wooden chest against the wall. She pulled out a roll of bandages and a phial of healing potion.

“The Monocerous got his side,” Terra said.

“Your leg should be seen to, first,” Isengrim said. “The rain has cleaned the wound, but it must be dressed.”

Mary knelt down by Terra and began gingerly wrapping the human’s wound. “Well, yours doesn’t look so bad,” the Uni said. “I’d say it’ll heal in no time.”

“I’ll have Skoll make us a salve when we return,” Isengrim said to his owner. “That should help speed things along.”

Once she was done helping Terra, Mary approached the Werelupe hesitantly, looking as though she was trying to figure out how to bandage a bush of brambles. Her tail swished behind her as she shifted her weight from hoof to hoof.

“It’s okay,” Terra said. “Just treat him like you would anyone else.”

“Er—not quite like everyone else,” Isengrim said as he raised his head proudly. “Like their king.”

Terra gave him a meaningful look. “I think she’s more nervous because you’re a Werelupe,” she said. “And cut her some slack, okay? I think she’s being very brave helping us like this. Remember what we talked about earlier.”

Isengrim said nothing for a moment, then nodded. “Thank you for your assistance, kind lady,” he said to Mary. “I apologize deeply for my grievous behaviour earlier. It was most uncalled for, and I regret my actions. You and your family are in no danger from me or my pack, I assure you.” He lifted his arm so she could get to his wound.

“Er—thank you, sire,” Mary said, gingerly dabbing the injury with gauze. Isengrim winced, but remained remarkably still as she cleaned his side. “You know, I’m—I’m sorry for the poor attitude we’ve been giving you as well. Despite your rather tyrannical style of rule, we should not have antagonised you just for being a Werelupe. That obviously wasn’t helping your anger any.”

“My tyranny ends here and now,” Isengrim said as Mary began to wrap the wound. “You have my word as your king.”

“Good thing you have a Werelupe for a king, huh?” Terra said to the family with a grin. “You should have seen how he took down that Monocerous! I’d like to see a regular Lupe do better! I bet even Sir Jeran would have had more trouble with it!”

“You give me too much credit,” Isengrim said. “You helped in that fight as well. You are an able warrior. I would not have been able to defeat it without your help.”

“Hooray for Werelupes!” Nan said. “They’re big and strong!”

“They’re monsters,” Thomas said to his daughter.

“There’s nothing wrong with monsters,” Terra said, putting an arm around Isengrim.

Mary finished bandaging Isengrim’s wound and looked up at the king. “Do… you need anything else?” she asked.

“Oh, stop pandering to him!” Thomas said. “He’s done nothing to deserve it!”

Isengrim suddenly glared over at the Peophin, eyes blazing. “How dare you say something like that?!” the Werelupe snarled. “I just defended you and your family from a Monocerous, and that’s the thanks I get from you?!” Mary backed away quickly, dropping her first aid supplies as her tail swished anxiously.

Terra grabbed Isengrim’s arm. “I know you’re angry at the outside world,” she said, “but you can’t keep lashing out like this. I’m just as upset as you are that Werelupes aren’t treated right by a lot of people, but the way to fix it is to stop the cycle of hate and distrust, here and now. Don’t feed into it.”

Isengrim reached up with one paw and rubbed his face. “Right,” he muttered under his breath. Steadfastly ignoring Thomas, he looked over at Mary with a smile. “You have done much for us this evening, milady,” he said. “I thank you. I do not think we shall require anything else for the time being.”

Mary looked pleasantly surprised. “Why, thank you, sire,” she said as she moved to join her family. “And I must say, I appreciate your civility. It isn’t lost on me.” She glowered over at Thomas, whose earfins turned back as he looked away.

Isengrim sat up straighter as Terra gave him an encouraging squeeze. “By my might, what happened today shall not happen again,” he said. “Caxton Bank is my fiefdom, and it and my other fiefs are under my pack’s protection. It is time we started enforcing our duty to our subjects.”

Thomas rolled his eyes. “Well, thank goodness for that,” he said. Mary jabbed him in the shoulder.

Isengrim frowned, then took a deep breath and seemed to let his frustration go as he shot Terra a smile. “I am glad you’re here,” he said to his owner.

“Me too,” she replied. She couldn’t wait to tell her other pets that she had helped defeat a Monocerous. She grinned as she thought of how she was tallying up adventure stories of her own to repay Hyren for all the ones he had told her. He would be proud of her.

“Now, I hunger,” the Werelupe King said. “Let us sup!”

Thomas raised his head. “Are you mad?!” he whinnied. “Do you really think we have anything to feed you after what happened?!” His tail flip-flapped against the straw in frustration. “We’re not starving ourselves so you can have supper.”

“Please, Lord Isengrim,” Mary said in a softer tone. “We have not the means to provide for guests. We make only enough to feed ourselves from day to day. And none of us will have supper tonight, now.”

Isengrim looked as though he’d already been planning for this. “Well, then,” he said with a grin, “your king shall have to remedy that, won’t he. Open the windows, please.”

“And how do you expect that to help?” Thomas asked.

The king drew a deep breath, obviously still having to work to not get mad at the obstinate peasant. “It will,” he said calmly. “Please trust me.”

Mary looked at him for a long moment, then moved to one of the windows and opened it, exposing the cottage to the rain and wind. Isengrim tilted back his head and let out a long, throaty howl that echoed into the night.

“What… was that?” Thomas shakily asked.

“Sending the message,” Isengrim replied.

The door suddenly burst open, and the green Ixi from earlier stood there, dripping wet, his chest heaving. “What’s going on?!” he cried. “I heard a howl, and—“ He did a double-take at the sight of the Werelupe sitting at his neighbors’ hearth.

“It’s all right, Geoff,” Mary said, ushering in the Ixi and shutting the door behind him. “He says he’s going to bring us dinner. Somehow.”

Geoff gave the Werelupe a wide berth as he edged over to the other villagers. “Huh. I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

“Just wait,” Isengrim said.

Terra felt her eyes slide shut as she leaned against his shoulder. She must have dozed off by the fire, because the next thing she knew, the door slammed open again and the four peasants jumped to their feet.

“Milord!” a male Werelupe barked, squeezing his way into the tiny domicile. “My apologies for taking so long! We were in the middle of a hunt, and Nusa had just trapped the quarry when we heard your call! We wanted to make sure to bring it to you!” A female stepped in behind him, carrying their catch over her shoulders. Terra recognised them as the pair who had invited Isengrim to hunt yesterday. Outside, it had stopped raining, but the night wind still carried the smell of wetness, as did the two Werelupes.

They deposited their haul next to Terra, who flinched at the sight. Isengrim pushed it away from her and pulled her closer, as if to shield her from it.

Nusa swiveled her ears as she looked around at the cottage. “Sire, what are you doing in here?” she asked. “Have these peasants inconvenienced you in any way?”

“No,” Isengrim replied with a grin. “Caxton Bank had a… pest control problem.” He studied his claws. “I took care of it, though.”

“Ah, that explains the Monocerous in the fields,” Kirven laughed. “It still had traces of your scent on it in spite of the rain. And your methods were unmistakeable.”

“Of course,” Isengrim rumbled proudly. “I should think my hunting finesse leaves… distinctive results.” He took a deep breath, shortened by a shudder of pain. “At any rate. I thank you both very much for coming so quickly. I have been incapacitated, so would you two like the job of dressing my catch?”

“Of course!” Nusa barked, hers and Kirven’s tails wagging. “Shall we call others to help us transport it back to the Burrows—“

“No, it stays here,” Isengrim said, looking over at his subjects. “The village will eat well tonight.”

Thomas, for the first time, was speechless.

“Well, I,” Mary stammered, “I never—thank you, Lord Isengrim. I can’t even begin to thank you enough—“

He held out a paw. “It is only my duty as your king,” he said.

Kirven and Nusa looked equally confused. “Milord,” Kirven said, “are you sure? Since when are you on such good terms with our non-Werelupe subjects?”

“It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re Werelupes,” Isengrim said. “What matters is that they are our subjects, and they shall be treated as such. We owe them much for providing for our pack as they do.”

Nusa tilted her head at him. “Er—if you say so, sire,” she said, looking down at the smaller Neopets in their midst.

“By the way,” Isengrim said, “I will waive all of Caxton Bank’s subsequent tributes for the season. Clearly they are in no position to give anything, since that Monocerous outside destroyed their granary. However, I will make provisions to send them supplies to last until their crops grow again.”

“I—I—“ Thomas stammered. “I don’t know what to say—“

Isengrim grinned at him. “Usually,” the king said, “it is polite to say ‘thank you’.”

Mary nodded firmly, and her Peophin husband said, “Why—thank you, then—sir. Er, Your Majesty.”

“You are quite welcome,” Isengrim said. “I only hope I can do a better job of ruling your village from now on. Do you know which kingdom you used to belong to before I took control of your area?”

Geoff scratched his tufted chin with his hoof. “Erm—Brightvale, I think,” he said. “Or maybe Meridell? But we’re so far away from both castles, up in the mountains like this. We hadn’t actually paid taxes to anyone in ages, not since I was a boy, and I can’t remember who we even paid them to. I think we must have slipped through some bureaucratic crack at some point.”

“It’s a dratted shame,” Thomas said with a nod. “We really could have used the government’s assistance at times. Remember that one famine some years back? Or the Mortog infestation—that wasn’t fun.”

“We did send Weewoos to Hagan and Skarl,” Geoff said, “but nothing ever came of it. I’m not surprised, though—their courts are probably so busy with all their other holdings that they don’t have time to help us small, out-of-the-way villages.”

Isengrim watched him with a new emotion in his eyes that looked a lot like pity. “That won’t happen anymore,” the king said, sitting up straight. “You are under my rule now. And I don’t let things fall through the cracks. Least of all people.” The villagers looked at him in shock. “I’m going to change the way things are run around here,” Isengrim said. “Each of my fiefs needs a steward or two. Kirven, Nusa, this area is your regular hunting grounds, is it not?”

“Aye, milord,” Kirven said. “We’re quite familiar with the region.”

“Then you two are the new stewards of Caxton Bank,” Isengrim said. “You are responsible for fielding any issues the villagers may encounter. Is this acceptable?”

The two other Werelupes looked at each other and then back to their king. “Well—sure, sire,” Nusa said. “I don’t think it would be a problem. As long as they don’t, you know, run us out of the village or anything.”

“We won’t,” Mary said. “Because you’re our protectors. Right?” She gave Thomas and Geoff a rather stern look, and they nodded.

“And in return,” Isengrim said to his thanes, “please treat them like the valued vassals that they are to us. We will show Neopia that Werelupes can get along with other creatures—indeed, can thrive and prosper working alongside them.”

“Do… you really think that’s possible, sire?” Kirven asked, eying the peasants skeptically.

Isengrim squeezed Terra’s shoulder. “It’s already been proven,” he said. “Now it’s up to us to help it spread.”

“I suppose we could give it a try,” Nusa said, scratching behind her ear absently. “C’mon, Kirven, let’s go get that Monocerous taken care of.”

As the two Werelupes began to retreat out the door, Geoff trotted after them. “Wait for me!” he said. “I’m the village butcher—I can help you out! There’s more than enough there to feed all of us, and I can cure the rest!”

Kirven and Nusa paused to look back at him. They glanced at each other and then smiled at the Ixi. “Sure, we’d love the help,” Nusa said. “I’ve never heard of an Ixi butcher. Don’t your kind usually eat clover?”

“It’s an old family profession,” Geoff said as they walked into the wet night. “Great-Grandpappy was a Grarrl, and he could measure out a pound of ground round without even looking at a scale!”

“That’s impressive!” Kirven said.

Terra and Isengrim looked at each other and smiled. It was working.

That night, Caxton Bank experienced a feast like it had never known. Isengrim was wise in having Terra bring her own food, and she had plenty to eat for supper while everyone else enjoyed the results of the Werelupes’ hunt. Soon, everyone was full and much happier than they had been that afternoon. And once they learned about Isengrim’s plans to manage the village, despite their initial trepidation, they were happy they would actually be getting help from then on.

In addition, Isengrim discussed with the villagers the prospect of giving them equipment that would help them farm more efficiently, so they weren’t constantly on the brink of starvation and could actually have leisure time. They took quite well to this idea, and Isengrim made plans to distribute farming equipment to his other fiefs, and assign them Werelupe stewards.

After the feast, Isengrim and Terra once more sat by the fire in Thomas’s and Mary’s hut, satiated in both stomach and spirit. Mary had just put Nan to bed, and Thomas had actually run out of things to complain about, so the Peophin reclined in the corner for some whittling while Mary mended clothes. Kirven and Nusa were busy helping Geoff rebuild the hamlet’s smokehouse in order to store the rest of the meat. The evening was quiet and still except for the snap and crackle of the fire.

“Do you want to know how I got this?” Isengrim asked, tapping his claw against the large tooth that hung from his neck.

“Yeah, tell me,” Terra replied with a grin. The tone in the Werelupe’s voice told her she was in for quite a story.

“It was the night of the full moon,” he began, “long, long ago. Back when I wandered and hunted alone. That night, I saw something I had never before seen—another of my kind. Another Werelupe.” His eyes glowed in the energy of the recollection. “I did not appreciate the idea of someone infringing on my territory, and neither did she. Then from the undergrowth came two more, and then another. We had all unwittingly stumbled upon each other in our hunts.

“We raised our hackles, bared our teeth and prepared to fight to the end to claim our supremacy. Before any of us could move, though, another interloper crashed through the trees.” Isengrim spread his arms wide to demonstrate the size of the newcomer. “A row of spikes down its back, claws as long as your arm, a hide black as the depths of the sea. It was a Monoceraptor, and it was just as hungry as we were.

“I knew none of us stood a chance against it alone. There was only one way to come out of this alive. So I rallied the other Werelupes and barked commands, orchestrating them in taking it down. And that was when we realised—we were much more effective as a team. Together, we could accomplish things that no lone Werelupe could. And in respect of my initiative and strategy, they proclaimed me their king.”

"It sounds like you've been on some very fine adventures, sire," Mary said, glancing up from her mending. "No wonder you were able to vanquish the Monocerous single-pawdedly." From next to her, Thomas grunted and whittled a little faster, trying hard to ignore the conversation although his eyes gleamed with interest.

"Things would have ended differently if not for my owner's help," Isengrim said. "She certainly did not stand and watch. She is a capable warrior and she saved my life in that battle. Although I am terribly sorry you had to get hurt," he added to Terra. "If I had known this would happen, I would have left you at the Burrows--"

"And then you would have kept antagonising the villagers," Terra said with a knowing grin. "You have nothing to be sorry for. You didn't know about the Monocerous. I jumped into that battle of my own volition. I wear this wound with pride because I got it protecting someone--and someone I care deeply about."

Isengrim stared at her for a moment. "If only more non-Werelupes had half the inner strength you do. Well, by my life I shall not let you get hurt again."

"Then you should stay out of trouble," Terra said teasingly. "You can't stop me from coming to your rescue. I'm your owner. You're stuck with me."

"Oh, what have I gotten myself into," Isengrim said, pinching the bridge of his muzzle in mock exasperation, and they both laughed.

“Pardon the interruption," Mary said, "but how long ago did you become the Werelupe King, sire?" Even Thomas paused from his woodwork with a slight slap of his tailfins on the dirt floor.

Isengrim fingered the fang at his chest. “Ages and ages ago. I've never bothered to count the years, but Werelupes don't care much about those sorts of details anyhow. That female was Suhel, by the way,” he added to Terra. “She has more than earned her position as my second. It has been a good reign, despite a few... mishaps. I am proud of it.”

Terra put an arm around him. “And I’m proud of you,” she said. “You took a disaster and turned it into a triumph for everyone involved. You’re an excellent king.”

Isengrim hugged her back. “Thanks to you,” he said. “With your help… I can envision a day when Werelupes will no longer be considered uncivilised beasts. When we can walk freely amongst other creatures without being antagonised.”

“I want to see that happen, too,” Terra said. She paused, watching the flames roil up the logs in the hearth and trying to figure out how best to put into words what she had been feeling lately. "Hey, Isengrim... I think you're really awesome. You're kind, you're brave, and you're willing to admit your mistakes and change. That takes a lot of inner strength, too. And you're a super cool big furry warrior who can take down a Monocerous nearly by himself. Despite the... unusual circumstances surrounding your adoption, there's nobody I'd rather have as a final Neopet."

Isengrim's ears perked and his tail thumped rapidly against the rug. "Do you really mean that? Oh, what I am saying, you are always honest." His tail slowed and drooped, and he looked aside. "Perhaps you should withhold judgment on me, however. You have only known me for a few days. I... worry I may not live up to your high image of me."

"I've seen enough," Terra said, "to tell me volumes about you. How you defended me from your packmates' teasing and took care of me, the way you apologised and opened up to me after the incident at the induction ceremony"

Isengrim winced. "I was such an idiot," he muttered. "I'll never be able to forgive myself for that. You were sticking to your ethics and I decided to make a scene over it, despite my soul barking for me to stop." He buried his face in his paws in shame.

Terra gently pried one of his paws away and squeezed it. "I forgive you," she said. "I hope you can find it in you to forgive yourself. You deserve better than that. Look at what an incredible thing you did for Caxton Bank. You're their hero now. Do you realise how few Neopets would or could stand up to a Monocerous like that? You've changed, and I like what I'm seeing. The way you were beforejust let it go. It's in the past now. You're a different Neopetno, I think you've returned to the way you really were before your abandonment soured you. Your true self is someone I admire and enjoy being around and sharing adventures with."

Isengrim looked down at her and put his paw on her head. "Thank you," he said hoarsely. "That means the world to me. I hope I will not ever let you down."

"At any rate," Terra said with a yawn as Mary and Thomas finished up their work, "I know how you feel about people rejecting you once they get to know you better, because I feel the same way... like all the time." She grinned self-consciously. "Sometimes I even catch myself feeling insecure about my other Neopets liking me, and they've known me for years."

Isengrim chuckled. "I'm sorry you feel that way. It is entirely unwarranted." He gave her another hug. "I have found much in you that I admireyour courage, your composure, your kindness, and your selflessness, to name just a few. Your incredible patience in dealing with a wretch like me. How you actually took interest in Werelupe culture and wanted to learn more about it rather than--just deciding to hate us because we are different."

"Thank you," Terra said. She sighed and her smile faded. "I'd never do that... you know, I'm pretty different myself. I have the same problem. Ever since I can remember, other people have thought I'm weird. Maybe it's because I'm quiet and shy and prefer books and learning to social events. I... don't actually have any friends outside of my Neopets. I don't seem to fit in." 

She curled her knee to her chin and stared at the fire, remembering the long lonely days before she created Blynn, and all the failed friendships of her teenage years where she cried on her Neopets' shoulders before finally giving up on having a social life outside of her family.

"What?!" Isengrim asked with such shock that Mary had to shush him, pointing to a sleeping Nan. "Sorry," he said, and then he turned back to Terra. "I don't understand why someone like you wouldn't have plenty of friends," he said in a quieter tone, but then he stopped himself and his expression grew more pensive. "No, I understand it perfectly. Most people are so petty and small-minded. They reject anything that doesn't fit their one-dimensional mould." 

He clenched his fists. "Andyou know what else? I think they're resentful because you're better than they are. Your valour shines like a beacon, and it only serves to heighten the shadows of their cowardice and selfishness. Of course they would hate you. Your strength must make the weak uncomfortable in your presence."

Terra's eyes widened. "I never thought of it that way," she said. "Thank you." 

"And I will give my all to protect you from those with shadow lurking in their hearts," Isengrim added.

"I appreciate your help," Terra said. "I just hope I can live up to how highly you think of me."

"You always do," Isengrim said. "Because that is the kind of person you are." 

Terra smiled and leaned against him, and he put his arm around her shoulders, providing her with another source of warmth to guard against the cold night wind that blew down from the mountains. "I thought you warned me against passing judgment on someone after you've only known them for a few days," she said with another yawn.

It made Isengrim yawn too, and once his jaws snapped shut he snickered and said, "I didn't mean to be hypocritical. But... as you said, I have seen enough. And..." He put a paw to his chest. "I feel it in here, and I cannot deny when my heart is telling me something. You are exactly who I needed in my life. You are becoming one of my favourite people."

"And you're becoming one of mine," Terra said. Despite their rocky start, her own heart was telling her they were meant to come into each other's lives. And while she felt good knowing she was giving Isengrim the owner he had always needed, it also made her unspeakably happy that she had finally made another friend.

Chapter 15 - Chapter 16 - Chapter 17 - Chapter 18 - Chapter 19 - Chapter 20 Chapter 21

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