Worth Searching For: Part Six
Terra was beginning to wonder if the sun even existed any more.
Only three days in this underground world and she was already starting to feel like perhaps daylight and green growing things were dreams she told herself as a child. Every time she looked up and saw stone, the weight of the planet seemed to bear down around her, hemming her in.
She didn't know how people who lived in Moltara did it.
But Isengrim assured her that he would take her to the surface soon. The banquet had proceeded much more smoothly after their return, and once the short induction ceremony finished, the Werelupes turned to merry-making, surrounding Terra with music and storytelling.
She 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.
For the rest of the evening and the morning afterward, Isengrim doted on her. After dinner he had taken 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 despite her longing for home she wanted to take in as much of this experience as she could and learn from it. If nothing else, it would be great inspiration for painting.
Now they were at breakfast and 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 accepted the bowl with a smile and took 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 Werelupe shook her head. "He's not like the rest of us. 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."
Isengrim chuckled. "Now, Suhel. 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 Chicken Leg Wing. "Yeah, yeah."
"Are you sure Pharazon will be okay with Skoll?" Terra asked Isengrim. "I don't want him getting into any—"
A hundred pairs of ears perked all at once. Terra looked up and saw a small brown blur pass beneath the ceiling paintings, closing in on the fire where she 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 easygoing 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."
Suhel's fur bristled. "What? But we need their grain!"
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: a visit from their worst nightmare." Tail high and bushed, he gestured to his owner to follow him. "Terra. Let's go... please."
"A-are you really going to punish them?" Terra asked, grabbing another bun for the road as she staggered to her feet. At least he'd remembered to be polite this time.
"We made an agreement," Isengrim said darkly 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 rubbed her arms, feeling a sudden chill. Just when she'd started to get along with Isengrim he had to go and remind her what kind of a ruler he was to those outside his pack.
He led her to another, smaller cavern where weapons and armour of all sorts lined the walls and were stacked on tables and racks. Isengrim 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 to them?"
"I hardly need it to deal with them," Isengrim said with no small contempt for his wayward peasantry. "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."
The idea of other things in the woods did not sound promising. "Well... maybe I should have a weapon, too," Terra said. "Just in case."
"Hm." Isengrim turned to look at her and his expression softened. "Do you know how to use one?"
"I know swordplay. Hyren taught me."
A fierce, rather possessive look came over the Werelupe King and his nose wrinkled. "Do not speak of your champion again," he replied in a low voice. "I will grant you a weapon, but I do not want you fighting, do you understand? I will not have you hurt." He turned back to the armaments, examining and appraising them.
Terra nodded. "Okay." It saddened her that she could not even mention Hyren in Isengrim's presence. Her Grundo was directly connected to all of her memories of learning swordplay, as he had been her teacher through the years. Not to mention his love of the particular weapon type. She couldn't even see a sword without being reminded of him.
"Here." Isengrim spun around and presented her with a long knife in a leather scabbard. "I think this will do nicely for you."
Terra managed a smile as she took it. "Thanks. This will work great." The belt was Werelupe-sized and she had to wrap it around her waist twice to get it to fit properly. She 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.
Isengrim chuckled. "You are much too small, Terra. 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."
"Yes, I would be saying that you are too large."
After that, he brought her to the laundry room where he secured a cloak of pelts around her shoulders. Although the temperature in the Burrows was comfortable, outside still lurked the cold Awakening winter. In reality the garment was a waist wrap for a Werelupe, but once again Terra was so short compared to them that it made a perfect human-sized cloak.
From there they made their way to the larder, as he suggested that she take some food for the trip. While he busied himself cramming dried fruits and bread into her pouch, 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 perishable foods: 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. 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 would pass 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 realised she was going to get to see the sun again, and in spite of the reason why, she couldn't help but smile in anticipation. Hopefully they would take enough time for her to be able to soak in the outside before returning to the underworld.
They came out of a tunnel and reached another bridge. This time, Terra did not wait for Isengrim to pick her up, but boldly started across it on her own. She had gotten used to the swaying motions, her nerves had calmed down considerably, and she felt ready to tackle this challenge. It didn't feel so scary any more now that it wasn't compounded with a dozen other fears.
Halfway across she realised she was the only one on the bridge and turned around. Isengrim still stood on the edge, watching her rather forlornly with his ears low.
"You okay?" Terra asked.
"You don't need my help any more?" he whimpered.
"I don't want to inconvenience you," the girl replied. "See? I'm brave."
"I do not doubt your courage, but..." The Werelupe scratched his arm bashfully. "It... made me feel useful to you."
Terra gave him a sympathetic grin and headed back to him. "Well, in that case—"
Before she could finish her sentence, Isengrim picked her up and marched proudly across the bridge. "You, my owner, an inconvenience to me? Never! For I am the Werelupe King, stronger than ten Elephantes! The greatest king who ever lived!" His barks echoed off the stone.
Terra laughed and patted his head. "You're adorable."
"Werelupes are not adorable," he grumbled as he set her down on the other side.
"Hey, if you get to call me small, I get to call you adorable."
He gave her an exasperated smirk. "Fair deal." On they went.
A few twists and turns later, Terra noticed a new light source beginning 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?"
He chuckled. "No. Follow me, please." As he neared the giant skull, a tremor shivered through the earth.
The grinding of stone filled Terra's ears and she stiffened. Before she could think to fear a cave-in, however, 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 murmured 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.
A smile grew over Terra's face as she craned her neck upward and stared at the sky, feeling her soul expand. She took a deep breath of the crisp air and let it sear her lungs.
"Again, that 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. "You don't really get along with non-Werelupes, do you."
"Why should we?" he asked, narrowing his eyes out at the woods as though he expected unwelcome solicitors. "They harbour 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, Terra." 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 looked away. "Yeah... I know how that feels," she said quietly.
Her Werelupe glanced down at her and his brow knotted. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but apparently decided against it and turned back to stare down the yawning tunnel behind them, flexing his claws absently.
The silence between them was awkward as a Beekadoodle chirped somewhere nearby. Finally Isengrim sighed and pushed away from the bone. "Let us focus on the task at hand." He dropped to all fours, claws gripping the dirt. "Can you ride?"
"Um... I think so," Terra said, climbing onto his back as she figured he wanted him 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. Hold on tightly, please." She did, and Isengrim bolted down the path and into the shadowy woods.
Terra pressed herself against him, watching as the ground flew by beneath them, oaks and birches blurring overhead like a ruined watercolour. After a short time, Isengrim scrambled up the embankment and into the thick of the forest. Although there was no trail, he darted through the wintry undergrowth like a Virtupets drone following a laser path, dodging trees and leaping across streams with practised precision.
It was really an incredible sensation, flying through the woodlands with the forest king himself, Terra thought. Separated from her family though she was, there were still plenty of beautiful experiences to be had. And people to be helped. Her fists clenched around Isengrim's fur. He listened to her last night. She had to hope he would do so 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 thundered down upon them with a snarl, 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 cropped mane. "Terra, dismount, please," Isengrim muttered, 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, the largest being a knock-kneed yellow Uni.
"What is the meaning of your defiance?" Isengrim barked to the villagers, baring his fangs and glowering at each of them in turn.
"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's muzzle turned up in a cruel smirk. "Ah, so there is my tribute."
"Lord Isengrim, you can't possibly—!" the 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?!" He and the other villagers began to once more close in around the grain.
The Werelupe's grin widened. "If you will not give it to me, I shall have to take it by force." He placed a paw on the hilt of his sword.
"Stop!" Terra ran out in front of him and spread her arms wide, glaring up at him. "What are you doing?!"
"Exacting my tribute!" Isengrim replied. "What are you doing?!"
"Protecting your subjects," Terra said. "It's not their fault they don't have enough to give you!"
"S-she's right!" the Peophin shouted, stamping his hoof on the ground. "Why should we be punished for something out of our control?"
Isengrim snapped his teeth at him. "Why didn't you repel the Monocerous?!"
"Because we have not the strength!" the Uni cried out, slapping her scraggly butter-coloured tail against her flanks. "It would be like trying to stop a landslide!"
"And why are you complaining about it to me?!" the Werelupe King barked.
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 it!" she cried. "I won't let you 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!"
"I'm his owner!" Terra jabbed her thumb back at the irate 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, arousing the crowd to another cry of anger.
Isengrim slid in front of Terra, his blade drawn. "You touch her, I'll tear you limb from limb!" he roared.
Terra had just put her hand to the pommel of her knife when the shaking started 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!" All thoughts of a revolution seemed to flee the peasants' minds as they turned in a mass and ran, abandoning the pile of sacks.
"Terra!" Isengrim sheathed his sword and dropped to all fours. "We'll return for the grain later!"
Terra's grip tightened on her knife. "Isengrim, no! We can't leave these people to be destroyed! They're your subjects!"
His snout wrinkled. "These weaklings deserve their fate!"
The beast crested another rise, rampaging in a blind lust for devastation.
Terra stood her ground. "Please, Isengrim! I need you to listen to me! You have to protect them! Protect them like you protect me! That's what kings do!"
The Werelupe blinked and his ears turned back. He seemed to war within himself for a moment, and then— "Stay here." He turned and scrambled into the fields, toward the Monocerous.
Terra kept 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!" she 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 you dare give up! Hope's not lost until—" 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.
"No!" Terra screamed, and she 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!"
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.
It all happened too fast. One moment the monster roared, and then Terra just remembered it twisting around impossibly quickly, those crimson eyes boring into her—and then she was in the air.
She didn't even have the breath to scream 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, terrified that she would pass out before her breathing resumed.
But that was the least of her problems. The Monocerous was now bearing 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. Again 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 slid off of the fallen creature and into the mud, where he simply knelt, his head bowed, staring at his paws. As Terra limped toward him she could see that his ears were flat and his tail curled between his legs.
She looked him up and down. "Are you okay?" she panted.
"...I'm a bad king," he murmured.
Terra sheathed her blade and put her arms around his neck. "You're a great king. You just have a lot to learn."
He laid an arm on her back. "Will you teach me, please?"
"Of course." 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.
"Thank you, Terra. And you are a great owner." Isengrim pressed his muzzle to the side of her head. "No, more than that. You are a great friend." He paused. "Are you hurt?"
"I'll be okay."
"But are you hurt?"
Terra cracked an exasperated grin. "I think the Monocerous grazed my leg with one of its tusks when it threw me."
"We need to get out of this rain and get your wound tended." Isengrim rose, but slipped back to his knees and gripped his side. "Ugh..."
Terra put his arm over her shoulders and slowly helped him to his feet. "Well, we're a fine mess, aren't we," she chuckled, punctuating her remark with a sneeze.
"We can't return to the Burrows in this condition," he muttered, 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.
Isengrim snorted. "I'll call out to my thanes. They'll escort us back." He lifted his muzzle.
"Wait," Terra said. "We can get help at the village. We can't just leave them."
He gave her a dubious look. "They'll mob us for sure. They hate me."
"They don't have to hate you. You're their king. You just have to start acting like it."
The Werelupe studied his owner for a moment, and then sighed. "I want to be a better lord to them."
Terra smiled. "Then talk to them. We can get this worked out, I'm sure of it."
The two of them hobbled through the muck, supporting each other as they made their way to the shuttered windows of firelight that kept the gloom at bay. The grain pile was gone.
Terra banged on the Peophin's door, 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?"
"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 managed a snarl. "Insolent peon! How dare you—"
Terra shot him a weary look. "Work with me, here."
He huffed. 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 his pride won out and they stayed perked forward. "We require lodging for the night." It was somewhere closer to a command than a supplication.
The other Neopet narrowed his eyes. "Go back to the hole you crawled out of."
Isengrim bristled, but wisely held his tongue.
"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 at least find some compassion for the people who had saved them from immediate destruction.
The voice of the yellow Uni came from inside. "Oh, for Faeries' sake, Thomas, let them in!"
The Peophin glowered at them for a moment longer, but finally pulled the door open and shooed them inside with a hoof. 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.
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." A look of concern came over her face as her motherly instincts seemed to kick in. "Oh, you poor dear," she clucked 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, and Terra helped him ease into a sitting position in front of the hearth, on a rug made from woven rags. 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, oblivious to the lingering threat of famine that hung over her entire village. "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 draped a thin wool blanket over Terra's shoulders.
"This is great," Terra assured the poor woman, setting her own pelt cloak out to dry and hugging the blanket around her shoulders. She 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 tittered, 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 looked 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, but he reached up with one large paw and pulled the blanket more firmly over himself. "...Thank you."
"Good job." Terra smiled up at him and he returned it with a weak smile of his own.
"You said you were wounded?" Mary asked, shuffling around in a small wooden chest against the wall.
"My leg needs bandaging," Terra replied, inspecting her calf in the fire. Thankfully the rain had cleaned the wound. Her ribs were sore and probably would be bruised for a while, but not much could be done about that. "Isengrim?"
The Werelupe took a deep, ragged breath. "... My side," he muttered, still staring into the fire. "It got my side."
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 give it a few days to heal."
"I'll have Skoll make us a salve when we return," Isengrim murmured to his owner. "That should help speed things along."
Once again Mary approached him 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."
"Not like anyone else." Isengrim raised his head proudly. "Like their king."
"—But that doesn't mean you have to fear him," Terra said, giving him a meaningful glance. "Just give him the respect and deference he requires as your ruler." It was as much instruction to him as to the peasants.
Thomas lifted his head from between his hooves. "Oh, do you want us to grant him the rest of our wheat, while we're at this whole business of giving him things he doesn't deserve?"
A single glare from Isengrim was enough to silence the Peophin. The Werelupe's lips parted slowly, with barely-restrained irritation. "It is not my fault you did nothing to protect your harvest."
Mary looked up from wrapping his middle and let out a hopeless sigh, her wings drooping.
"Isengrim." The sound of Terra's voice diverted the king's scarlet gaze to his owner. "These people aren't warriors like your pack. They're farmers. There's just a lot they can't defend themselves against. And before you call them weak, that's where you come in. How much do you know about the lord-vassal relationship?"
"Enough," he insisted with a toss of his head.
That told Terra it wasn't enough. "The vassals provide, and in return the lord protects. It's symbiotic. You both have a role to play." She looked around at the starving peasants. "And when those roles are out of balance, both sides suffer."
Mary finished bandaging the king's wound and retreated back to the cot with her family, putting an arm around her daughter. "...Let us know if you need anything else," she said. She tried to sound calm, but her tilted ears betrayed her apprehension.
Terra nodded and turned back to Isengrim. "You do a great job taking care of me and I really appreciate it. You have to extend that care to your fiefs. Otherwise, things like this are going to keep happening."
He stared into the flames for a while more, seeming to be deep in thought. Finally, he reached up with one paw and rubbed his face. "Yes... yes, I understand. I apologise, Terra. I... thought I knew what I was doing. Clearly I do have much to learn about this."
She leaned in and gave him a squeeze, careful to avoid his bandaging. "Good. Now say sorry to them."
Isengrim's ear flicked and he let out a snort before turning his head to the little family like the action pained him. "... I apologise for my inadequacy," he began, still holding himself high. "By my might, what happened today shall not happen again. Caxton Bank is my fiefdom, and I declare it and my other fiefs under my protection."
Thomas rolled his eyes. "Well, thank goodness for that." Mary jabbed him in the shoulder.
Isengrim, as usual, did not notice the sarcasm, or else deliberately chose to ignore it. He shot Terra a "how did I do" look, and she returned it with a smile and a thumbs up. He grinned. "I am glad you're here, Terra."
"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 declared. "Let us sup!"
Thomas raised his head and gave an angry whinny. "Are you mad?! Do you really think we have anything to feed you after what happened?!" His tail flip-flapped. "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 pondered this for a moment, and then a mischievous smirk worked its way up his muzzle. "Well, then. Your king shall have to remedy that, won't he. Open the windows."
The Uni tilted her head. "What?"
"You heard me, open the shutters!"
No sooner had Thomas and Mary exposed the cottage to the rain and wind, than Isengrim tilted back his head and let out a long, throaty howl. Terra clamped her hands over her ears, and Nan dropped her doll to do the same.
"What... was that?" Thomas shakily asked.
"Sending the message," Isengrim replied, still looking rather smug. "You may close the windows now. You're letting in quite the draft."
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," Mary sighed, ushering in the Ixi and shutting the door behind him. "He says he's going to bring us dinner. Somehow."
"By driving us to deafness?" Thomas muttered, tapping an ear-fin.
The Ixi gave the Werelupe a wide berth as he went to join the other villagers on the cot. "Huh. I'll believe it when I see it."
"Just wait," Isengrim muttered.
Terra felt her eyes slide shut as she leaned against his shoulder, and realised 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! We wanted to make sure to bring it to you!" A female stepped in behind him, and both carried their catch over their shoulders. Terra recognised them as the pair who had invited Isengrim to hunt yesterday.
The two high-spirited Werelupes deposited their haul next to Terra, who flinched at the sight. Isengrim silently pushed it away from her and put his arm around her shoulder 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? Have these peasants inconvenienced you in any way?"
"No," Isengrim replied, the grin still on his muzzle. Terra wondered if half of the reason for his smile was because of the shocked looks on the villagers' faces. "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."
Mary looked about ready to pass out.
The Werelupe King 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 looked 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. "Then don't. It is my duty as your king."
"Hold tight," the Ixi said as the other two Werelupes began to retreat out the door. He pulled himself to his hooves and trotted after them. "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..." His voice faded into the rain.
That night, Caxton Bank experienced a feast like it had never known. Isengrim even sent Kirven and Nusa out to the woods to find some berries and roots for Terra, to supplement the meager bread available, with an apology to her for the lack of alternative protein sources and a promise that he would make it up to her when they returned to the Burrows. Soon, everyone was full and much happier than they had been that afternoon.
But Isengrim didn't stop there. He pledged his pack's assistance in rebuilding the village, and arranged for shipments of food to be sent to replace what the Monocerous had destroyed. Additionally, upon learning that the forests around Caxton Bank were Kirven's and Nusa's regular hunting grounds, he assigned the two to be stewards of the fief, and instructed the villagers to send the pair a Weewoo if they ever ran into any more trouble.
The villagers, once they had gotten over the trepidation of Werelupes in their midst, were actually rather happy for the protection, since due to their remote location they never received assistance from the other kingdoms. In fact, they weren't even really sure what kingdom they'd belonged to before Isengrim appropriated them, since they were somewhere in the muddled, wild regions between Meridell and Brightvale.
"Do you want to know how I got this?" Isengrim tapped his claw against the large tooth that hung from his neck.
He and Terra sat by the fire, 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 rebuilding the hamlet's smokehouse in order to store the rest of the meat. The rain had finally died down, leaving everything quiet and still except for the snap and crackle of the fire.
"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 cunning and initiative, they proclaimed me their king."
"So that's how you became the Werelupe King," Terra said.
Isengrim nodded, fingering the fang. "Suhel was there," he chuckled. "She has more than earned her position as my second. It has been a good reign. I am proud of it."
Terra put an arm around him. "And I'm proud of you. You took a disaster and turned it into a triumph for everyone involved. You're an excellent king."
He grinned and bumped her head with his nose. "Thanks to you." He went back to watching the fire, and his ear flicked. Wincing, he lifted a paw to scratch it, but a moment later it twitched again and he scratched it again. It flicked a third time and he let out a grunt of exasperation.
"Here, let me get that for you." Terra reached up and itched behind his ear.
Instantly his entire demeanor melted. "Oh, that feels good," he sighed, closing his eyes as his tongue lolled out between his teeth and he leaned into her fingers.
Terra laughed. "I knew that worked on Lupes, but I wasn't sure if it would work on Werelupes, too!" An impish grin spread over her face. "Okay, let's see how you like... this!" She dove for his stomach, being careful to avoid his wound, and began rubbing his belly.
Isengrim roared with laughter as he collapsed onto his side, startling Thomas and Mary and making Nan stir. The Werelupe's tail wagged in a frenzy, and one of his legs began kicking. "So this is what owners are for!"
Terra joined in with laughter of her own despite the pain in her ribs as she continued to mercilessly give him a tummy rub. "And you thought we were just good for mowing the lawn and taking out the rubbish!"
Mary looked up from her sewing and cleared her throat. "I'm glad you're having fun, but do take care not to wake Nan, please."
"Sorry," Terra replied, shooting the Uni an apologetic grin and ceasing the attack.
Isengrim curled up on his side and let out a sigh of contentment, his tail still wagging. "Thank you, Terra," he murmured drowsily.
Terra let out a yawn and sat against his furry belly, folding her hands behind her head and watching the fire. "Happiness is a warm Werelupe."
To be continued...