Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 21

Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6 - Chapter 7
Chapter 8 - Chapter 9 - Chapter 10 - Chapter 11 - Chapter 12 - Chapter 13 - Chapter 14
Chapter 15 - Chapter 16 - Chapter 17 - Chapter 18 - Chapter 19 - Chapter 20 - Chapter 21
Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28
Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32

As Isengrim carried Terra through the tunnels to the commons cavern for dinner, a tremendously mouth-watering smell began to fill her nose. It was savoury and hearty, and although she couldn’t quite place it, it made her even hungrier than she already was.

She and Isengrim had returned from Caxton Bank earlier that night, along with a team of Werelupes who had brought back everything from Isengrim’s “hunt” that the villagers could not use. The Werelupes had appropriated the Monocerous skeleton for themselves, as they could eat the marrow and would use the bones for decoration, jewelry, and toolmaking. They also, unsurprisingly, enjoyed merely gnawing on the bones.

Since Isengrim was wounded and could not take a very active part in things himself, and had a wounded owner to tend to, he spent the trip back giving her a tour of the woods. He showed her how the trees were beginning to bud, pointed out a family of Albats sleeping in the hollow of a tremendous old yew, and found some wild peppermint for her to taste.

Now they were back at the Burrows, and it seemed like tonight’s dinner was shaping up to be something different. As Terra began to hear the talking and laughing of Werelupes, Isengrim shifted her to one arm and covered her eyes with his paw.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I have a surprise for you,” he replied, sounding very happy about it. The noise of eating surrounded them now and the aroma was thicker than ever. He sat her down and pulled his paw away from her eyes. “Enjoy.”

The first thing Terra saw was a stack of flat, white, square boxes piled by the fire. She tilted her head in confusion, until she saw that they had on their tops a picture of a moustachioed Blumaroo. Her face lit up. “No way!” she said.

“Do you like it?” Isengrim asked. His tail wagged a mile a minute as he reached over and flipped open the lit of the topmost box, revealing a perfect cheese pizza. “I had it flown in from Neopia Central and kept warm with fire magic—I got you cheese, do you like cheese?” He picked up one of the hot slices and deposited it in her hands.

“I love it! Thank you so much!” Terra said. She bit into the pizza and grinned in contentment as the flavour oozed into her mouth.

“I thought it would be more familiar fare to you than what you have been eating lately.” Isengrim said as he opened up another box and pulled out a slice of cheesesteak pizza. “And I, too, enjoy it.” In one bite, half of it was gone down his gullet.

“Sire!” a Werelupe said, patting his shoulder as she strolled past with a thick slice of pizza. “Thank you for the most excellent supper!”

He smiled up at her and said, “You all did well today. You deserve this reward.” He turned back to Terra and opened his mouth to say something else, but movement caught his eye. “Suhel! There you are, I was beginning to worry!”

His second’s posture was low, her ears tilted back as she slunk over to the fire and deposited herself next to him with a grunt. She stared into the flames, tapping her claws together restlessly. She smelled of night air and moist loam, and her long black mane of hair looked tousled from action.

“What’s got you in ill humours?” Isengrim asked. He took a pizza box from the pile, opened it to check its contents, and presented it to her. “This steak and egg pizza ought to perk you up!”

Her green eyes wandered to the protein-packed dish and lit up with hunger, and her ears perked. Without a word, she lifted the whole steak from its bed of cheese and ripped a bite out of it.

“Are you okay, Suhel?” Terra asked.

The female Werelupe glanced over at her, and then looked back to Isengrim. “Milord,” she said. “I’ve—“ She froze as the familiar figure of a faerie Draik approached. His head was held high, his fists were clenched, and he now wore a necklace of fangs.

“Pharazon!” Terra said. “You look like you’re doing a lot better! Oh—and nice fangs!” She smiled. “I knew you could do it! How did you get these?”

“I was strong,” Pharazon replied cryptically. He shot the Werelupes a look like he wanted them to stop eavesdropping.

Suhel bit into the steak rather menacingly as she glowered at him. Isengrim also frowned, seeming confused at the Draik’s sudden change of rank without his knowing. “Did Skoll give those to you?” he asked.

“Yes,” Pharazon said. “I’ve been practising magic with him and he says I’m strong enough now to wear fangs.”

“Hm,” the Werelupe King grunted. “All right, then.” That appeared to settle the matter for him as he reached for another slice of cheesesteak pizza. “Congratulations. It is good to see you have cast aside your cowardice.” He chewed the pizza thoughtfully for a moment. “By the way, Pharazon, I have been meaning to apologise for my behaviour toward you these past few days. It was very rude of me. You are more than welcome to make yourself at home in my grotto from now on. It is the proper place for my family, after all.” He shot a smile at Terra, who smiled back.

“No thanks!” Pharazon said, turning up his snout at the Werelupe. “I wouldn’t stay in your nasty smelly grotto if you paid me! I’ve been staying in Skoll’s study and he’s much nicer company than you are!”

Isengrim’s and Terra’s smiles faded. “Ouch, man,” Terra said. “That’s harsh. And Isengrim’s grotto isn’t nasty or smelly at all. He keeps it very tidy.”

“I’m sure that’s what he’d like you to believe,” Pharazon grumbled. “Can we talk?” he asked his owner.

“Sure, what’s up?” Terra asked. Her Draik’s weird attitude was mystifying and she wondered what had happened to him these past few days. Was he really taking all of this that badly?

Pharazon motioned with his snout to the Werelupes and said, “Away from them?” Isengrim was back to enjoying his meal, but Suhel continued to gnaw on her steak and glare at her faerie ward.

“I can’t walk right now,” Terra said. “My leg’s still healing.” She glanced over at Suhel, but the female seemed to have no intention of letting the two alone.

Thankfully, Isengrim caught on quicker. “Suhel,” he said as he rose to his hind paws, “why don’t you come with me to see if there is any more cheesesteak pizza at another fire?”

She glanced suspiciously at Pharazon one last time, but got up as well, and the two Werelupes sauntered away.

Pharazon leaned in close to his owner. “I’ve found a way to free us both,” he whispered, his words nearly lost in the clamor of dining Werelupes around them. “Be ready. I’m going to rescue you.”

Terra narrowed her eyes. “What are you talking about?” she asked.

Pharazon looked around warily, then back to her. “I’m going to get rid of Isengrim.” He grinned. “Isn’t that great?”

Shock jolted through Terra’s body and her jaw fell, followed by the rest of her expression. The pizza seemed to lump in her stomach. “Please don’t,” she said.

“What? Why not?” Pharazon asked. “I’m not a weakling any more, Terra. I know how to use magic! I’m finally good for something!”

She swallowed hard and shook her head. “Not like this,” she said. “Isengrim isn’t the monster you think he is. He’s my friend—he’s your brother. He’s changed, and he fully intends to get us back home once I’m done helping him.”

A look of anger wrenched across Pharazon’s face and he snorted, Faerie dust puffing out of his nostrils. “Oh, and did he ever tell you when that would be?” he asked.

“Well—no,” Terra said. “But I trust him—“

“You need to face reality,” Pharazon hissed. “He’s brainwashed you—he’s never letting us go. I’m tired of sitting around waiting to be rescued. I’m getting rid of the Werelupe King, and unlike my siblings, I’m going to make sure he’s gone for good this time.”

Terra sat back, a wave of anguish washing over her. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing from the mouth of her own Draik. He seemed so… poisoned. “Pharazon,” she said, “whatever you’re planning, don’t do it.” The pieces came together in her mind and she leaned forward again, brows furrowed. “Are you plotting something with Skoll?”

“Of course,” Pharazon said. “Don’t try to stop us. I’m getting you out of here.”

“I don’t need you to,” Terra said more firmly. “I have everything under control.”

Pharazon stomped his foot, letting out another puff of magic. “No, you don’t!” he shouted. “You think you’re so smart, but you’re not! Your methods just don’t work, okay?! Get off your high Whinny and get that into your head—”

Suddenly a thick brown arm reached down and picked Pharazon up by his tail. “That’s enough, runt,” Suhel said, Isengrim stepping up beside her. There was no more levity in her tone as she glared at him, hackles raised. “Stop insulting your owner, you ungrateful—“

“Leave me alone!” Pharazon said. Nostrils flaring, he cupped his claws and shot a spark of magic at her.

It hit her muzzle and she yelped in pain, turning her head aside as though she’d been physically struck and dropping the Draik. Although the magic had not left any injury, she clutched her snout with wide eyes and backed away from him, tail curled between her legs. Isengrim put his paws on her shoulders and growled down at Pharazon.

The Draik stared at Suhel and then at his own paws, looking scared and guilty. “I—“ he stammered, but he couldn’t get himself to finish his sentence as he turned and ran. Isengrim reached to catch him, but the smaller Neopet was too fast, and he scampered out of the commons hall.

Terra stood up to inspect Suhel’s muzzle. “Oh no… are you okay?” the human asked.

For a moment, Suhel did not respond, as Isengrim gently pried her paws away from her snout to check for damage. Other Werelupes crowded around them, muttering to each other worriedly.

The Werelupe King patted his second’s shoulder. “It looks all right,” he said kindly. “Are you in any pain?”

“It’s fading,” Suhel said. She took a deep breath. “He—he attacked me—“

Terra looked to where Pharazon had run off to, and a deep sadness washed over her. Something was happening to her Draik that she did not like. And she knew Skoll was behind it. Clenching her fists, she turned back to her newest Neopet. “Isengrim,” she said, “Skoll and Pharazon are planning to betray you and overthrow you.”

Isengrim looked up from comforting Suhel, eyes wide like someone had dumped ice water on him. “What?” he choked.

“Pharazon told me, just now,” Terra said. “That’s why he was yelling at me. Please believe me. I didn’t have a good feeling about Skoll and now I know why.”

Isengrim’s jaw hung slack as he stared at her. Terra knew this would be hard for him to swallow. “But… Skoll has done so much for us…” he said. “I don’t understand…”

“It’s true,” Suhel said. “Skoll took Pharazon to the graveyard tonight. I was worried about the runt, so I followed them. They went down a shaft in a tomb, but—“ She held her arms and shivered, ears flattened against her skull. “The magic there was too much. I don’t know what they did down there, but I don’t think it’s good at all, milord.”

Isengrim suddenly looked very old and weary, as though a great burden had been placed upon him, but he nodded slowly. “I cannot ignore that,” he said. Taking a deep breath, he drew himself up straighter and looked around at the other Werelupes. “Find Skoll and Pharazon!” he barked. “Bring them to me—by force if necessary!” He glanced down at Terra. “But do not let the Draik come to any harm, understand?”

His pack nodded and swiftly dispersed into various tunnels, although a few Werelupes grabbed extra slices of pizza as they left. Suhel reluctantly turned to go as well, but Isengrim caught her shoulder and held her back.

“You’ve been through enough tonight,” he said. “Stay here and eat. Take care of yourself.” She looked at him for a moment, then hugged him with a whimper. Isengrim put a paw on her head. “You’ll be all right,” he said. “I’ll protect you. I promise.”

Terra watched, impressed that Suhel seemed to trust the human enough to show such a vulnerable side around her. Perhaps it spoke of how much the Werelupes had accepted their king’s owner—it probably helped that Terra had shown such interest in them instead of turning vindictive like Pharazon.

“Isengrim—I’m so sorry,” the owner said. “I’m worried this is my fault. I—I should have raised Pharazon better—“

Isengrim gave Suhel a squeeze and then turned to crouch in front of Terra. “Do not take this upon yourself,” he said, hugging her. “This was Pharazon’s decision. You are the kindest, most selfless owner I have ever seen. I highly doubt you raised him to be a traitor.”

“I sure didn’t,” Terra said with a frown. She looked up at Isengrim. “I… do you still trust me? I know how difficult betrayal is for you…”

The Werelupe hunched his shoulders and, with a serious and thoughtful expression, peered into her eyes. She stared back, hoping he would like what he saw there. After everything they had been through in the past few days, she would hate for all of their progress to be erased by the unfortunate actions of other people. And she believed Isengrim could permanently rise above the hurts of his past. She had seen so much good in him already.

For several slow breaths he held her gaze, as though he was examining her soul. She stood unflinching, confident that he would not find anything amiss. But he could not really know such things, as she had told him the other day—he would have to take that leap of faith to trust her.

Finally, he smiled and put a paw on her head, mussing her hair a bit. “Of course I still trust you, Terra,” he said. “You do not act as though you have anything to hide. I like that about you. I see sincerity and valour in your eyes. You are an honourable person.”

Terra reached up and hugged his arm. “I won’t let you down,” she said. “I promise.”

“I know you won’t,” Isengrim said, bumping his nose to her head. “Don’t worry. My thanes will find Skoll and Pharazon, and we’ll set everything right. Let’s just enjoy the rest of our dinner.”

Terra looked down at the pizza boxes around the fire and smiled halfheartedly. “Thanks again for ordering pizza,” she said. “Um… to be honest… I kind of don’t have an appetite after what happened."

“That’s understandable,” Isengrim said. “I’m worried that you didn’t get enough to eat, though.”

“I’ll be okay,” Terra said, putting a hand to her stomach. “I did have one slice of pizza, so I’m not hungry anymore. And my stomach is kind of sensitive, so I have to be careful with it.”

“I’m not feeling hungry anymore, either,” Suhel sighed. “But thanks for the feast, milord. I’m going to bed.”

Isengrim nodded. “Suhel… let me know if you need anything, all right?” he asked.

Suhel’s paw traveled back to her snout, gingerly touching where Pharazon had attacked. She gave the king a weak smile. “I’ll try,” she said. “Keep me updated.”

“I will,” Isengrim said as she left. He turned back to Terra and grinned. “Well, then. If you are done eating, I know of something else that will help keep your mind off of what is going on.”

“What is it?” Terra asked.

“You’ll see,” Isengrim said. “Just let me process this pizza first.” He began to gather boxes and open lids to check the contents, consolidating slices as best as he could, and throwing any empty boxes into the fire. Terra helped him as best she could from where she sat, and when they were done, Isengrim picked her up in one arm and a large stack of pizza in the other and they went to the kitchen.

After he put the pizza in the cold storage, Isengrim set Terra down on a countertop and ducked into the larder. For a few moments, all Terra heard was bowls clattering.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“You’ll see,” Isengrim said again. He came back out with two bowls stacked in one paw, and he scooped her back up. In the top bowl was what looked like a gloppy black soup that smelled of charcoal. Terra wondered if it was a weird Werelupe beverage. Maybe it tasted better than it looked.

Above the staircase to Isengrim’s grotto, an immense Monocerous skull with a pair of curved horns had been hung on the rocks. It loomed menacingly, challenging anyone to dare walk under it and face the wrath of its hunter.

“Nice décor,” Terra said with a grin.

“It is a welcome addition to my collection,” Isengrim rumbled proudly.

At the top of the stairs, he took her to a corner of the cave where a small space on the wall was blank. Gently setting his owner down, Isengrim put the bowls beside her and Terra realised that their contents were pigments.

The Werelupe King sat down beside her. “I’ve been saving this space for you,” he said, his tail wagging. “I looked forward to the day when I could have an owner to mark their place in my home.” He gestured to the bowl of black. “Go ahead.”

Terra lowered her splayed hand onto the surface of the pigment, allowing it to coat the entire underside of her palm and fingers. Then she pressed it to the rock and pulled it away, leaving a human handprint.

Isengrim did the same with his own paw, stamping his print beside hers. “There,” he said contentedly. “Feel free to draw whatever you like here.”

“Thanks!” Terra said with a smile. “Although I’m not sure it’ll turn out as good as your artwork…” Her smile faded as she looked back at the two new prints, and a heaviness seemed to settle in her heart.

“What’s wrong?” Isengrim asked.

Terra sighed. “I miss Blynn and Hyren,” she said. “They… they’re our family, too. We should have their paws up here.” She paused. “And Pharazon’s.” Thinking about Pharazon hurt worse. At least she was only physically distant from her Zafara and her Grundo, but Pharazon was a traitor who kept making bad decisions. Terra tried hard not to think about what might happen when the Werelupes found him and Skoll. She just hoped it would end well.

Isengrim stared at the wall in silence. Finally, he drew a breath and said, “I am sorry to have kept you here for so long. I am a selfish Werelupe.”

Terra put her non-painted hand on his arm. “You needed me,” she said. “I wouldn’t leave you hanging. I think we were brought together again for a reason. Look at how far you’ve come.” She smiled up at him. “You should be proud of yourself. I think Blynn and Hyren will understand once they know what’s been going on.”

“You give me too much credit,” Isengrim said, returning her smile. “You are the one who helped me heal. All of this is your doing.” He patted her hand. “By the way… once your leg is healed and you are in a condition to travel, I will begin making arrangements to get you and Pharazon back to Altador.”

Terra’s heart leaped. “Oh—thank you!” she said. Immediately she was flooded with memories of her home. The Burrows were fascinating, but she had built up so much in Altador. She missed her alabaster villa by the sea, the way the cypresses swayed in the wind, the smell of olive trees in the dusk, and the familiar comfort of her own home. “You’re the best!”

“I just hope… you will not think ill of me when you remember me,” Isengrim said, ducking his head. “I am sorry for my actions in the past. I wish I could have done more to make up for them.”

Terra gave his paw a squeeze. “Remember what I told you?” she asked. “I just want you to be okay. Everything else is just icing on the cake. Although I do really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. You’re a wonderful friend.” She chuckled. “And why are you talking like we’ll never see each other again after this? You’re still my Neopet, you know. I won’t ever abandon you. You’re welcome to visit my home any time. And I’d love to visit the Burrows again when I can.”

The Werelupe perked up, and his tail began to wag. “Do… do you mean it?” he asked.

“Of course!” Terra said. “I can bring Hyren and Blynn this time around—we’ll have so much fun together!” She smiled warmly. “That’s what family’s for.”

Isengrim took her hands in his paws with a grin that bordered on giddy. “That will be wonderful!” he said. “I would love to see your home, Terra! You will have to show me around!”

“Altador’s an amazing place to explore!” Terra said, unable to stop smiling herself. She was so excited to be able to have more adventures with him. “We can go on hikes around the hills and—“

“Milord!” Suhel barked from the entrance, sounding panicked.

Immediately Isengrim and Terra turned to her. The female’s eyes were wide, her ears turned back, and she gripped the stone like she was about to fall over as her tongue lolled from her jaw. She had run here, from the way she was panting. “They’re gone!” she said.

Terra’s stomach plummeted. Isengrim put a protective arm around her and said, “What do you mean?”

Suhel swallowed hard, trying to catch her breath. “I… I didn’t go after them, but…” On wobbly legs, she took a few more steps inside. “The search teams just came back. They found Skoll and Pharazon—and the two attacked them with magic. Your thanes’ wounds are minor and they’re being tended to as we speak, but Skoll and Pharazon got away. The others tried to follow their scent, but the scent trail cut off suddenly.”

“I’ll bet one of them cast a spell to mask their scents,” Terra said. She leaned against Isengrim wearily.

He squeezed her shoulders and stared up at Suhel. “Post guards all around the Burrows,” he said. “Stay on high alert. Make sure there is a complement of guards at my grotto tonight. And send a team, armed, to search the graveyard.”

“Do—do you need me to go with them, milord?” Suhel asked, using one hind paw to scratch the back of her leg nervously.

“No,” Isengrim said. “Stay in the Burrows and rest.”

She gave him a small, grateful smile. “A-all right,” she said. “I’ll have those guards up here shortly.” Isengrim nodded, and Suhel staggered back down the stairs, howling out the orders in a staccato rhythm.

“Curses,” Isengrim hissed under his breath. “Terra, I am sorry. I wish you were not caught up in this. I hate to say it, but we will have to detain your Draik when we find him.”

“I understand,” Terra said. “I’m just—I can’t believe what he’s doing. And I’m so sorry he and Skoll are doing this. I don’t like that you’re in danger.”

Isengrim smiled. “I am the Werelupe King, remember?” he asked. “I have been in many a dangerous situation before, and have lived to tell about it. I am harder than that to get rid of. Not even a collapsing castle could finish me.”

Terra did a double-take when she realised he was referring to the events of twelve years ago, and she laughed. “Hm, that’s true,” she said. “I still can’t help but worry about you, though.”

“It’s because you care,” Isengrim said. “I know how that is. It’s the same reason I’m worried about you.” He nudged the bowls forward. “Well… let’s try to keep up our spirits. Would you like to do any painting?”

“Mm…” Terra hovered her hand over the bowls. “I… don’t think I’m up for it, to be honest,” she said. “I can’t be creative when my emotions are all frazzled like this.”

“I understand,” Isengrim said, moving the bowls aside and giving her a rag to wipe her hands with. “There must be something we can do to keep the worry away, though. I do not want you to worry yourself sick.”

“Me either,” Terra said. She just wished she could think of something besides Pharazon’s betrayal, and the possible danger they were in. As she passed the rag back to Isengrim, she yawned. Today had taken too much out of her.

“I have an idea,” Isengrim said with a smile as he wiped his paws on the rag. “Keep telling me about Altador, Terra.” He picked her up and brought her to her bed, pulling the furs up to her shoulders. “Tell me about all of the beautiful things you have seen in your travels.”

Terra took off her glasses and undid her braid. “I think that’s a great idea,” she said. She knew she had to fight to keep herself in a good state of mind, regardless of what was going on. She had confidence that they could fix this, and she did not think that she had been led here, and done so much good already, just to fail in the end. They just had to keep fighting.

As she settled down in her bed, Isengrim moved to a chest at the wall, opened it, and pulled out a sword. He checked the blade and then fastened the weapon around his waist. For a moment his crimson eyes stared at the entrance to the grotto and his fur bristled, as if he was silently daring Skoll or Pharazon to try to attack them. Then he relaxed and sat down at Terra’s side cross-legged, placing his paws on his knees and smiling at her.

“We were in Shenkuu for the Lunar Festival,” she said, closing her eyes and trying to remember everything she’d experienced before she blacked out and woke up on a pirate ship. “In the Imperial City, they hang strings of paper lanterns across the streets, and all of the decorations are red and gold because those are auspicious colours in Shenkuu—they represent happiness and prosperity.”

“Fascinating,” Isengrim said.

“And the food is incredible,” Terra said. “They have these big, hearty bowls of noodle soup, and sweet rice dough wrapped around ice cream, which sounds weird but tastes amazing…” As she rambled on to Isengrim about the wonders of Shenkuu and slowly drifted to sleep, she thought how faerie-blessed she was to have such a caring Neopet. If only Pharazon could see that, too.

Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6 - Chapter 7
Chapter 8 - Chapter 9 - Chapter 10 - Chapter 11 - Chapter 12 - Chapter 13 - Chapter 14
Chapter 15 - Chapter 16 - Chapter 17 - Chapter 18 - Chapter 19 - Chapter 20 - Chapter 21
Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28
Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32

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