Worth Searching For: Part Three
"Hyren, we have to land!" Blynn screamed over a crash of thunder.
"No! The storm will break soon!" Hyren yelled back, spitting out the water that spattered into his mouth every time he opened it.
"That's what you said an hour ago!"
A fork of lightning rent the sky, alarmingly close to the Ganuthor and her two riders. It illuminated an infinite sea of tortured black clouds, twisted into anguished shapes by the relentless wind. Diffuse spots of lightning bloomed and faded around them.
Hyren wasn't even sure which way was up any more as he pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. Not that that would do anything, since it was just as soaking wet as the rest of him. The storm seemed to drain the colour from even Blynn's bright Disco fur, and rain matted it against her body.
But they had to press on. His family needed him.
"This wind's way too strong!" Blynn's ears flailed wildly behind her. "I wouldn't be surprised if we're going backwards!"
"It's impossible to tell!" Hyren replied. "We'll just push through! This storm can't last forever!"
Their mount tossed her head and gave an exhausted grunt, her wings beating at the thick air. A gust of wind slammed into them and she listed sharply. Clinging to the Ganuthor's back with his knees, Hyren hooked one arm around Blynn's middle.
"Neither can Gwyneth!" Blynn said.
He knew that. In one part of his mind, he knew that. But the other part just wanted so badly to see Terra and Pharazon again that it overpowered everything else. "Please... just a little longer," he breathed.
"Forget it, Hyren!" Blynn tapped Gwyneth's head, and the Ganuthor banked to the side and began to drop. "I'm tired of doing this your way! I'm taking her down—"
A sound like ripping paper sliced through the air as claws of lightning reached for them. All Hyren was aware of was a wall of cold wind ploughing into him, then his sister's screams, tumbling—blackness.
The next thing Hyren noticed was pain. Lots and lots of pain.
"Ugh..." He tried to open his eyes, but a splitting headache forced them shut again. He seemed to be in a reclining position, with a heavy blanket over him. Something smelled like a mixture of the Soup Kitchen and the Meridell Rubbish Dump.
"Hm. I'm surprised you're awake so soon," a gruff voice said from somewhere beside him.
"I'm full of surprises," Hyren grunted. He managed to crack his eyelids enough to see the walls of a ship's cabin. Roots, herbs, mushrooms, and other ingredients he couldn't place sat on racks or hung drying from the ceiling, which explained the pungent aroma. Somewhere far outside, the tempest still howled, but in here was dry and warm.
A brown Ruki, with long white hair and a moustache to match, moved into the blue Grundo's view, grinding something in a mortar and pestle. "Took quite a fall, you did." He lifted up one of Hyren's bandage-covered arms and began undoing the wrappings. "It's nothing some rest and White Squid Root won't cure, though."
Hyren groaned. "Do you have any Healing Potions?"
"Feh! My medicine is far more potent than that instant-gratification magic!" the Ruki replied, his moustache bristling. "A wound requires not only physical healing, but a balance of flow in the body's energies! I've not trained under Shenkuu's finest doctors for nothing!"
Okay, whatever, Hyren thought, not in the mood or the condition to argue. "Where am I?" His antennae jerked in realisation, renewing his headache. "I had a Disco Zafara and a Ganuthor with me—"
"Calm down, we're here too." Blynn sat on the cot next to his, sporting a nice array of bandages herself. A thin board rested on her lap, on top of which she was playing a game of Kou-Jong. "Oh yesss, a match," she said under her breath. She picked up two tiles and dropped them into their box. Something about the clacking of the ceramic pieces was strangely calming to Hyren's nerves.
"Your Petpet is in the hold," the Ruki said, slathering his concoction on Hyren's arm. It felt cool and soothing on his bruised skin. "She sprained her wing pretty badly, I'm sorry to say. I patched her up as best I could, but... it'll be a while before she flies again."
Hyren felt sick to his stomach. He should have listened to Blynn. Instead he'd put them all in danger and had gotten Pharazon's Petpet seriously hurt. It was a miracle they'd even survived. He wanted to kick himself for being so reckless. Now finding Terra and Pharazon would be even slower going.
"Anshu says we flew right into the deck of his ship," Blynn said as she made another match. "Good thing the Cyodrake's Gaze can handle a storm like this. Unlike some of us." She scanned the tiles and grimaced. "Awww, Pawkeet feathers. I'm out of matches." She dumped the tiles back into the box and began rearranging them on the board.
Hyren tried to sit up, but his entire body protested and he acquiesced, settling back down on his pillows as Anshu began to re-wrap his arm. "Blynn... I'm so sorry. I should have listened to you. This is all my fault."
"Yep." The Zafara glanced over at him. In spite of her nonchalant tone, her eyes held a deep disappointment. "You need to stop doing stupid things."
Her brother couldn't bring himself to meet her gaze. "I know."
The door creaked open. "How are they doing?" A tall, broad, bearded blue Gnorbu stepped in, surveying the two worriedly as he rested his knuckles on the doorframe.
Anshu chuckled. "Well, I think they'll survive." He looked back to the two bedridden pets. "This is the Cyodrake's captain, Tuan."
"Hi!" Blynn said with a wave. "I'm Blynn, and this is my grumpy brother Hyren."
Hyren merely glared. "Thanks for saving our lives, but could you tell your crazy doctor to just use Healing Potions like the rest of us?"
"I told you he was grumpy," Blynn muttered out of the side of her mouth.
Tuan placed his hands on his stomach and laughed, a hearty sound that seemed to reverberate throughout the entire ship. "My, you weren't joking!" He folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe. "So, why were the two of you out in that storm past midnight, anyway? Poor time for a joyride on a Petpet, I'd say."
Blynn sat up. "We're looking for our owner and our brother, Captain. They were... they were kidnapped at the Lunar Festival last night. We think by sky pirates."
"Oh my... bad fortunes indeed," Tuan replied. "Do you know where they might have gone?"
"An oracle told us to go to Brightvale," Hyren said. "That's the only lead we've found so far."
Tuan's shaggy eyebrows rose. "Brightvale, eh? Good fortunes for you, we're on our way to Meridell with a silk shipment."
Hyren's antennae perked. "Really? How much can we pay you to take us with you?"
The captain laughed again. "What, do you expect us to throw you overboard now that you are already here? What kind of sky-ships have you travelled on in the past, I wonder? I don't know how they are still in business!" he bellowed raucously.
Hyren grimaced and wished it didn't hurt to move his arms, otherwise he'd squeeze his antennae to try to block out the jovial Gnorbu's noise. "I at least want to compensate for the resources we're using up."
Tuan scratched at his beard and nodded. "Fair enough. How about you and your sister help out with odd chores around the ship when you're feeling better, and we'll call it even. We'll be making port at Meridell tomorrow morning." His expression brightened. "Rest up, little ones! Perhaps I will have you assist in taking inventory!" he said as he ambled back out into the hall.
"Let me know if you need anything," Anshu said to his two patients as he turned to a nearby table and began grating a root.
Hyren turned his head to Blynn. "You know, you'd think I would have gotten used to the whole being little thing by now."
She shrugged. "Must be hard being a big, tough guy in a tiny body."
"You have no idea."
Neither of them spoke for a while. Hyren lay back, closed his eyes, and listened to the occasional click-clack of the Kou-Jong tiles and the distant rain pattering at the ship's hull. Anshu faintly hummed a melancholy Shenkuuvian folk tune as he worked.
"You know what's funny, Hyren?" Blynn asked.
Hyren smirked. "The Chia Clown?"
"No. The Chia Clown is terrifying." Blynn stuck out her tongue at her brother. "Anyway. I was scared before, but... now I kinda feel like everything's gonna be okay. I mean, we crash-landed on a ship going to Meridell, of all places. Maybe... it's a sign that everything will work out."
The Grundo's mirth faded. "...I sure hope so, Blynn. We... I can't lose them. I gave up everything I had, everything I was, for you and Terra."
"Were we worth it?"
The tip of Blynn's tail lolled out from under her blanket and swished from side to side. "You didn't give up everything, drama king. You can still swordfight like nobody's business."
Hyren grinned. "True." Now that there was nothing he could do but wait, fatigue began to leach back into his body.
"We're gonna find 'em, and you're gonna whack those pirates into next week! And then Terra will give us hugs and we can all go home and make cookies."
Hyren yawned. "I would like that." In his mind, things still looked pretty bleak. They only had one vague clue to go on, and he still couldn't figure out how just being in Brightvale could possibly help. If that was even what the oracle meant. And who knew what Terra and Pharazon were going through right now. It pained him to think of never seeing them again.
As he dropped off to sleep, he tried to hope that they were faring better than Blynn, Gwyneth, and himself. But his brain made that difficult.
It turned out Terra was right. It was a long trip. And service was lousy.
She and Pharazon were left alone in the dark for what felt like hours. Sometimes she could ignore the discomfort enough to sleep, and sometimes she would offer Pharazon a few words of consolation, but he rarely replied with more than one syllable and she began to worry.
"I'm fine," he assured her in a low, weary voice. "Just... tired."
She didn't know what to say to make him feel better after that. It didn't help that they were both hungry and thirsty. Terra retreated into her thoughts, finding her happy place on the white-sand beaches of Altador. There wasn't much else she could do to pass the time. Blynn and Hyren kept sneaking into her daydreams, Blynn skipping rocks on the waves while Hyren sat under an umbrella and complained.
At some point, Fumei came back in with a bowl of vinegared rice and a flask of water. The Relic Nimmo fed them by hand, simply stuffing their mouths full of rice until they began to gag, laughing as they coughed grains back onto the floor and struggled to get the food down their throats. She was no gentler with the water.
"Okay, I hope that's the only in-flight meal we get," Terra muttered shakily once Fumei had gone again.
Pharazon simply sighed in response.
"Perk up, buddy," Terra said. "I know my optimism is obnoxious, but you're going to worry yourself sick."
"Terra, what if... what if it's Dr. Sloth?"
"It wouldn't be Sloth. He's out in the far reaches of space, and possibly still trapped in that amulet, remember? Also he thinks Hyren is dead."
"But what if it is?"
"I don't think Sloth's the kind of guy who hires pirates when he has a spacefleet at his disposal." No, this didn't smack of Sloth in the least. And that bothered Terra. At least with Sloth she knew what to expect. She'd escaped from him before, after all. Of course, that time she'd had Hyren and Blynn with her, not Captain Ulcer and his astounding powers of ineptitude.
"I'm just so tired of waiting," Pharazon groaned. His tail thumped against the floor and his twitching wings, restrained as they were, threw out a few sparks.
Terra tried the ropes around her wrists, ankles, and middle again. Still too tight. And the pirates had been smart enough to make sure Pharazon's claws couldn't reach her bonds. "We could play twenty questions. I'm thinking of a Petpet."
"The object of the game is to guess what I'm thinking of. And it was Plushie Selket."
"I don't want to play this game." The irritation in his tone was evident.
"Sorry." Terra curled her knees closer to her chest. She was going to be so sore after this. "If it's any consolation, I'm pretty sure sky-ships don't take more than a day or so to go halfway around Neopia, at top speed. So wherever we're headed, we should find out relatively soon."
"Lovely." The Draik did not exactly sound enthusiastic.
Terra felt another wave of frustration well up in the back of her head and she took a few deep breaths of the stale air to calm herself. "Okay. Let's try to get more rest." That was her euphemistic way of saying she would shut up now.
The day - or night, it was very hard to tell due to a lack of windows - dragged on in silence. Their meager meal did very little to quell their stomachs' protests. Pharazon did not say another word, and Terra spent her time mentally going over training sessions with Hyren at their villa.
She breathed in time with her memories as, in her mind's eye, she clashed blades with her Grundo, learned parries, and solidified her stances. The fact that he was half her height did not make him any less of a formidable opponent, but he was a gentle teacher. As she shifted her thoughts to the times they'd spent meditating on the garden terraces overlooking the sea, Terra felt the sting of tears welling. He and Blynn had to find them. It couldn't end any other way. She refused to allow for that possibility.
"Awright, you miserable Mootix." Fumei's harsh brogue cut through the silence.
Terra didn't realise she had been asleep until she opened her eyes and saw the Nimmo tromp into the hold, followed by her Desert Elephante crewmate. The distant humming had stopped, leaving an emptiness in Terra's ears. It now felt like they were bobbing slowly up and down. That and her hunger made her stomach turn.
"Time to go," the pirate said, stalking past them. "And we ain't gonna have a repeat of last time, you hear me?" She crouched to grab from the floor the sacks that had been over Terra's and Pharazon's heads.
Terra frowned. Being stuck in this hold for countless hours was bad enough. But she was not getting her face covered again. "Pharazon!" she hissed as Fumei tossed one of the sacks to Jakan.
The Draik, his ears wilted, looked up at her questioningly.
She mouthed "follow my lead" and pointed with her chin to Fumei. As the pirate turned back around, Terra glared at her. "You know how Draiks breathe fire?"
Jakan raised an eyebrow at Pharazon. "That one looks more likely ter breathe flowers."
Terra didn't skip a beat. Her glare turned into a slightly crazed grin. "Actually, Faerie Draiks breathe magic. Yep. Potent stuff, too. Who knows what it might do to you! Could turn you into a Mortog, or make you grow a second head... shouldn't mess with it, really."
Fumei narrowed her eyes. "Oh?"
"Yeah." Terra nodded fervently. "So I'll cut you a deal: how about you don't put those bags on our heads, and I can convince my associate here not to give you an enchantment of eternal itching." With a desperate grimace, she stared hard at Pharazon, hoping he got the hint.
He gave her a confused look for a moment, then glanced up at the pirates. Taking in as deep of a breath as his bonds would let him, he opened his jaw and blew out a warning wisp of Faerie dust.
The two brigands looked at each other and began laughing hysterically.
"Okay, that could have gone better." Terra tried to adjust her face so it wouldn't be chafed by the rough burlap of the large sack she had been stuffed into. Every harsh step Fumei took jolted Terra's insides, heightening her nausea. Over the shoulder was the worst way to travel, she decided. Especially when that shoulder was made of stone. "I think I like the bag over the head thing more."
"Shaddap!" The pirate gave her an especially rough jostle.
"Hold on, almost done. Aren't you worried that Pharazon will rip through his sack with his claws?" They were still bound hand and foot, true, but he had wings, at least.
Jakan snickered from somewhere behind Terra. "Nah, he ain't got the guts ter try. I've seen Miamice braver'n him!"
"He's right," Pharazon sighed from the same vicinity. "I've been nothing but a hindrance to you this entire trip, Terra. I'm... I'm an embarrassment to all Draik-kind."
"No, you're not," Terra groaned. "You're just... look, can we continue this conversation when we don't have an audience?"
"Nah, keep goin'," Fumei chuckled. "This is hilarious."
"We'll talk about this later," Terra grumbled. Pharazon didn't answer, so she took that to be an agreement.
The sack's weave was coarse enough to let snatches of fresh air in, so Terra could at least convince herself that she was not going to suffocate. It helped that they were apparently wanted alive and unharmed. She couldn't find any reason for the pirates to have lied about that, at least. Convincing herself that she wouldn't throw up was harder.
Fumei stepped upward, and the lapping of waves met Terra's ears while the air began to be cold and salty. Deckboards creaked under the Relic Nimmo's weight, and then they headed down on an incline. Other than that, there was only ominous silence.
"Do ye have the goods?" a new, raspy voice asked.
Without any warning, Terra found herself unceremoniously dropped onto a hard surface. A dull thud beside her announced Pharazon's arrival. She moaned and rolled over on her side, the most comfortable position in her trussed-up state. At least now her stomach would start to calm down, but her mouth and throat were still dry.
"We want a bonus," Fumei grunted. "Blasted brats gave us some trouble on the way over."
Terra heard the heavy clink of coin. "You'll get what he's payin' ye," the new voice replied, "and nary a piece more. And dunnae give me tha' look—I'm just the runner. Take it up with him if you want, but leave me out o' it."
"Fine. He must be daft if he's payin' this much for these two, anyway." Although Fumei tried to sound tough, Terra caught a tinge of apprehension sneaking into her tone. That didn't exactly comfort the girl about what she and Pharazon were getting into.
The pirates' footsteps retreated back up the gangplank, and the clop of Uni hooves came around to behind Terra's head. The runner let out a few grunts as he fit himself back into his harness.
Terra recognised his accent. "I think we're in Meridell," she whispered.
"Great," Pharazon replied, utterly unenthusiastic.
"Did you want to talk?" Terra asked.
"I can hear ye," the runner said. With a bump, they began moving, rumbling slowly over uneven cobblestones. "And good cargo dunnae talk, or else I'll tell me client it's been naughty. And he's not one to cross. Got it?"
"Yes sir," Terra muttered. She hated to admit it, but she was kind of glad for the silence. Nothing she said to Pharazon seemed to help. She'd never seen him so depressed before. And it was understandable, but annoying all the same. Her stomach twisted and gurgled, irate at having to move again. With a shudder, she curled her legs closer to her body and tried to be grateful that at least the bag was a little warmer than the open air.
She didn't know how she was going to be able to keep Pharazon safe through all this. He seemed to be absolutely miserable at defending himself or even helping her in the most basic of tasks under fire. He had book smarts, and that was about it. Terra had been hoping he would turn out to have some hidden wellspring of courage that would manifest in times of peril, but it seemed that hope was in vain. Right now he was only a liability. But she would see him home safely no matter what.
The Uni clopped steadily into the abyss of night. At first, when they were on cobblestones, Terra heard the occasional creak of wood, jingle of metal, or quick steps of someone else out late. At one point the sounds of laughter, clinking dishes, and someone singing off-key faded in and then out like a frequency being passed on a Virtupets comm. Terra began to be more and more curious about what sounds would mark the end of their journey. But dread snaked its way in and twined around the curiosity as well.
After a short time, the port's ambiance was replaced by the heavy tamp of hoofbeats on dirt. The air grew less salty and more fresh and sweet with the scent of plants opened up for the night. Petpetpets chirped and clicked around them. Once Terra thought she heard the far-off bleat of a Babaa.
She weighed her options. First off, she was too sick, tired, hungry, and thirsty to feel up to doing any kind of escaping. And even in peak condition, she and Pharazon could not outrun a Uni—or outfly one. Perhaps the pirates had been smarter than she'd estimated, weakening their captives so they would be compliant for the land journey. Soft breathing nearby told her Pharazon was asleep.
She wished she could sleep.
It felt like a long, long while, but finally the smells and sounds changed again. The air grew colder and wetter, this time not with sea air but with a mist that carried the aroma of pine mingled with other woods, and the deep fragrance of an ancient forest teeming with life. Albats and Whoots called high above, and a few times the mournful cry of a Weewoo drifted through the night. Terra tried to make herself sleep, but the discomfort was just too much. So the hours drifted on.
"Halt!" a guttural voice suddenly barked, making Terra cringe.
They stopped. Terra's inner balance kept moving and took a couple of seconds to catch up, disorienting her momentarily. She was no longer seasick, thank goodness, but her stomach still had quite a few bones to pick by this point. She groaned again, wishing she could at least rub her arms to try to get some warmth in. Please let wherever we're going be warm.
"State your business!" the voice said.
"Special deliv'ry. The crew o' the Black Blurgah send their regards."
"Ahhh." The new voice made an approving sound and there was the scrabbling of claws on dirt. The wagon gave a lurch as a new weight was added, and then a massive heat source and loud, rapid sniffing moved around Terra before shifting to Pharazon.
He jolted awake with a gasp. "What was that?"
"Something with a nose, evidently," Terra replied. A familiar savoury-acrid smell lingered in her own nostrils and her body went rigid.
Meat. That thing had meat on its breath.
The claws scrabbled back. "Follow me," the voice said. Something heavy hit the dirt running and retreated into the distance.
The wagon pitched into motion again and Terra's heart began to pound. She hurriedly ran through a mental list of everything that lived in the Meridell region. Yurbles had claws, didn't they? Maybe it was a family of Yurble criminals. Or Ixi Raiders—wait, no, they had hooves. And no reason to kidnap her from the other side of the world.
"Is it bad that I'm scared?" Pharazon asked, trembling so violently Terra could feel it.
"No, I think that's perfectly justifiable in this situation," she managed to reply past chattering teeth. What scared her most was the fact that the runner no longer seemed to mind that they were talking. Like they were in a place where no one cared if they screamed.
"We'll take it from here," another voice, female but just as harsh, growled.
"Here's your pay," the first voice said with the familiar clink of coins.
Terra felt a pair of massive hands lift her up and throw her over another shoulder. This one was much more cushioned, had a deep musky smell, and was incredibly warm, especially compared to the cold night air. Either a Magma pet or something large and mammalian. But it couldn't have been a Magma pet, Terra realised, because something prickly and coarse poked through the sack, tickling her cheek and making her shift to try to escape it.
She bit her tongue.
"Ach, this all?" the runner groused. "Why was he so much more generous with the pirates?"
"It is not your place to question our lord's payment," the first voice replied. "Begone, unless you have other business here."
The Uni muttered under his breath and began to refit himself to his harness, but by that time Terra was in motion again. This ride was much smoother. Whatever carried her moved like water, its two feet padding across the ground with a grace that belied its apparent bulk. In spite of the new heat source, Terra could not stop her shivering.
Suddenly, the air became warmer and the smells different, more lived-in than left to nature. Orange firelight began to poke through the sack's weave. Far behind them, Terra heard a deep, hollow sound like the grinding of giant bones, and realised they were going steadily down.
Voices echoed from all around, snarling tones that laughed hoarsely, hummed snatches of low-pitched songs, or spoke in gravelly mutters. "Suhel!" someone called out. "You didn't tell me you'd be hunting tonight! What loot have you got there, eh?"
"These are no spoils!" the female voice replied. "These are a special delivery, straight to his lordship!"
A wave of murmurs rose up, and Terra became aware of a horde of new footfalls following them. She screwed her eyes shut. Great. An audience, just what she needed. A dread terror seized her soul that she tried to beat down with the cudgel of logic. They were gone, gone. She could handle anything but them.
She was lifted from the shoulder and placed on a hard surface in a kneeling position. She could barely sit up, and her head drooped. Please let this almost be over. Shudders ran through her sore body.
"Milord," the female named Suhel said with a new tone of respect. "Your guests have arrived." The word "guests" dripped with sarcasm.
"Ah, excellent." Another voice spoke, deep and fierce as the night wind. "What was lost is now found."
Terra's heart froze.
Oh no. No.
She knew that voice.
Something undid the tie on the sack. Dark, furry paws pulled the burlap down from around her, and she flinched and sat up straight as she found herself staring into a pair of fierce red eyes. They belonged to an enormous shaggy Lupe with dusky fur and a twisted crown fashioned from some creature's skull. Their noses nearly touching, Terra could see the gleaming rows of fangs in his wide grin.
"Surprise," said the Werelupe King.
Terra screamed. This, too, was justifiable given the situation.
The Werelupe King's large ears pitched back before he laughed throatily, as did his entourage. "Strange way to say hello! Stand up and let me have a look at you!" He hoisted her up by the shoulders and stood her on her feet, but when he let go, she was so tired and stiff that she collapsed back to the ground. "Had a long trip, did you?"
Terra glanced around. They were surrounded by a legion of Werelupes wearing skins and furs, accessorised with jewelry fashioned from bones and fangs. Firelight reflected in their glowing eyes. Just like last time. Her heart slammed against her chest.
Not giving Terra any time to reply, their king crouched down and set her back in a kneeling position, sniffing her intently and poking her face with his wet nose. "Yes, yes, it's you all right," he murmured, sounding quite pleased with himself. Still gripping her shoulders, he pulled back and inspected her again, tilting his head as his ears perked forward. "You look different. Taller."
"I grew up," she breathed.
The Werelupe's brow furrowed. "Owners do that?" Again not giving her time to answer, he reached out with one paw and plucked her glasses from her face. "What are these? You didn't have these last time." He sniffed at them.
"I, I need those, to see," Terra panted, struggling to force herself to keep breathing. Last time the Werelupes abducted her, her glasses were left at the camp. It was a miracle they hadn't been stepped on, and Hyren was conscientious enough to find them and bring them with him on his rescue all those years ago. Maybe any moment now, he and Blynn would come charging in again. "They're, kind of important, so, give them back, please."
"Hm. Well, I can't have you staying in my domain not able to see any of it!" He chuckled and awkwardly pushed the glasses back onto her nose, letting them hang lopsided off of one ear. "Might as well undo the rest of the packaging, eh?" Reaching behind her, he sliced through her bonds with his claws like scissors cutting string.
Terra let out a gasp of relief at finally having her limbs free, and her arms hung limp from her aching shoulders for a moment before she adjusted her glasses and weakly began to rub her wrists. "Please don't lock me in a tower again!" she blurted. The edges of her vision were growing dark, her panicked lungs taking in more oxygen than they could handle.
The Werelupe King snickered. "No, I won't make that mistake twice." Narrowing his eyes, he patted her cheek. "From now on, I am never letting you out of my sight."
A surge of lightheadedness washed over Terra and she felt her entire body start to go limp. Her head lolled to the side and she caught sight of a quivering bundle of turquoise. Pharazon.
The Draik was surrounded by leering Werelupes, his wings tucked close to his back, looking like he himself was about to pass out. "B-beware the b-beast that s-smiles," he stammered, staring in horror at the Werelupe King.
Terra perked up and a fresh wave of indignation boiled in her. The darkness retreated from her vision. She glared back at her captor and tried to sit up straighter. "Why are you doing this?" she asked in a stronger tone.
He didn't answer her. His eyes were now trained on Pharazon. "What is that?" Still holding on to her shoulder like if he let go something would rescue her again, he leaned over and sniffed at the Draik. The Werelupe's nose wrinkled and a low growl started in his throat. "It reeks of Faerie."
"That," Terra huffed, "is my Draik, and you will leave him alone." She tried to catch Pharazon's eyes, but he looked like he was trying to disappear through the floor as he watched the great shaggy terror looming over him.
The king turned back to her. "How many Neopets do you have now?"
His agitation lessened and a smirk began to spread up his lips again. "Well, it seems you won't have to do any abandoning, then."
Terra searched his face in bewilderment. "What do you want from us?"
The beast's crimson eyes narrowed. "I want my owner back."
"I was never your owner."
His smile widened. "I don't think you have any say in that now."
"That's not how it works!"
The Werelupe's tail bushed. "Do you know how long I searched for you after your idiotic pets destroyed my keep?"
"No! I had so many damages to repair because of them! A new domain to find, alliances to make, a hoard to replenish!" He gripped her shoulders tighter. "And just when I'd begun to re-establish myself, that meddling knight and his sorceress companion invaded my home, tried to slaughter my entire pack, and made off with the treasure I claimed from Illusen!"
Terra's jaw dropped. "Wait—it was you—"
The Werelupe King took a long breath. "But I never forgot. And after that, I sent out feelers. Made contacts. And waited." He chuckled to himself. "And now my patience has paid off. You are mine once more," he said as he looked past her, "and I can finally have my reve—" He paused. "Where are they?"
"Where are who, milord?" The owner of the female voice from earlier stepped forward from behind Pharazon. Suhel was a hulking brown Werelupe, nearly as large as the king himself, with chartreuse eyes and bone armour studded with spikes. The long, dark mane of crimped hair on her head had fangs woven into it, and they dangled and clattered when she moved.
"The others. There are two more. A Zafara and a... big one." The king craned his neck and his ear twitched.
"These were the only two delivered, sire."
"What?!" The Werelupe King let go of Terra and stood up.
Unable to hold herself up any longer, Terra fell toward Pharazon. She reached out to grab his hand and gave it a weak squeeze. "It'll be okay," she whispered. "I won't let them hurt you."
"Cursed fools!" the king barked, clenching his fists as his tail raised and his fur bristled. "I didn't pay them to do half a job!"
"My other two pets weren't with me," Terra said. The pirates most likely saw her alone with Pharazon and figured one out of three wasn't bad. "By the way, Hyren isn't Mutant any more. The 'big one' is little and blue now." She cracked a small smirk. "Actually, I'm impressed you managed to find me, if all this time you've been looking for a teenager with a red Zafara and a Mutant Grundo. Times change, you know."
The Werelupe scowled, obviously not registering her backhanded compliment. He scanned the crowd of beasts like he still expected to find his other quarries in there somewhere. "You doubt the master hunter, owner?" he muttered. "There are a number of ways to track a target... including the arcane. And when I want something..." He lowered himself onto his haunches and leered over her. "I get it." He looked up at Suhel. "Never mind the others. They'll not be able to find her here. And if they do, well..." He smiled wickedly. "We're prepared this time."
Terra felt Pharazon stiffen and she frowned. She let go of the Draik's hand and pushed herself to a sitting position, pointing an accusing finger up at the king. "I am not your owner," she insisted, "and I never will be. You do not take someone from their family and torment them like this if you want them to be your owner. I refuse to cooperate."
The creature stared at her for a moment and then smiled, snatching her hand in his paw and holding it tight. "I'm afraid you don't have much of a choice. You are in my domain now, and I do not think you could find your way out of a den full of Werelupes. I would not try, at any rate." He smirked. "Besides, even we have never fully explored these caves. I do not doubt that there are things far darker than us lurking in its depths. I would not want you to have the misfortune of meeting them."
His eyes traveled to Pharazon, who cringed, his tail curling against his body. The Werelupe King gave him a smug look and glanced back to Terra. "And he looks as though he would be no help at all in an escape attempt."
Suhel smirked and nudged Pharazon with her foot, causing him to cry out in panic. "T-Terra!"
Terra's lips thinned. If only the Draik was something other than a hindrance. She knew he had the intelligence to be useful—he just refused to use it and expected her to do everything for him. She closed her eyes, exhausted. She couldn't keep fighting this now. She would have to let herself rest and mentally regroup. "...Fine," she hissed.
The king grinned so widely, it showed every gleaming tooth in his jaws. "Well, then. Welcome to the pack." He tilted back his head and let out a long, wild howl of victory.
The other Werelupes joined in, a cacophony of howls scattering off stone walls and filling the air until Terra could barely stand it. With her free hand, she reached out and stroked Pharazon's head.
"They're not coming, are they," Pharazon whispered as Suhel sliced through his bonds and he slumped against Terra's shoulder.
Hot tears welled in her eyes. "Just keep hoping."
"All right, as you were," the king commanded with a sweeping gesture. "Dawn approaches. We will feast for this tomorrow eve! I expect a good bounty for it, so rest up for your hunts!"
A wave of affirmations swept through the crowd and the Werelupes dispersed. They scampered away into various tunnels that lined the walls of the enormous cavern Terra realised she was in. While a natural cave, it had been built up with wooden walkways and bridges, and decorated with creatures' skulls and enormous curved ribs from something the size of the Turmaculus.
Suhel reached down and picked up Pharazon by the scruff of his neck. "Sire... what do I do with him?" She pointed at the Draik quizzically, holding him like a mangy Kadoatie.
"Take him with you," her king replied. "Do no harm to him, make sure he gets everything he needs.... Tolerate him," he added, seeming to note her lack of enthusiasm.
She sighed. "As you wish, Milord." Turning, she began to stalk away. Pharazon looked too terrified and exhausted to even speak, and just stared at Terra pleadingly over his shoulder.
"Pharazon!" Terra called out, reaching out her hand for him. "No—bring him back, please!"
The Werelupe King drew himself up and gave her a rather self-assured grin. "Suhel is simply getting him acquainted with his new home. You will see him soon."
Terra struggled in vain to pull her arm away from his grip. "But I have to—to look after him!"
"He is being looked after," the king said. "Suhel will get him food and water and find him a place to sleep." He snorted. "We are Werelupes, not monsters." He pulled Terra to her feet again.
She managed to stay standing for a second, but then her knees wobbled and she fell back to the floor. Her stomach gave an angry twist. "Please... I need water, too," she croaked.
The Werelupe tilted his head. "No you don't."
Terra gave him a baffled look that turned into a scowl. "I don't think you're in a position to tell me what I do and don't need," she shot back. "I'm tired, hungry, thirsty, worried about my pets, and I just effectively agreed to my own imprisonment. And you're telling me I can do without a substance that's vital to my survival." She glared sternly up at him. She was not in the mood for this nonsense. "If you don't get me water, you're not going to have an owner for much longer, and it won't be because I've escaped. If you get the hint."
He continued to scrutinise her for a moment, and then his eyes widened in realisation. "Wait, you... need water?" He crouched down again, looking at her like she had suddenly transformed into a different creature. "Do... owners need food, too?"
The girl blinked. "Of course we need food! We're living things, we have basic physical needs! I'm not an inanimate addition to your hoard!" How could he not know that? Had he been living in a cave—oh, wait.
The Werelupe kept staring at her. "I... thought owners worked like Faeries." He leaned over her shoulder and poked at her back. "Like Faeries without wings. Faeries do not require sustenance to survive."
"Well... we aren't like Faeries at all, despite the resemblance," she grumbled. "We're more like you Neopets." Just my luck, she thought, I had to get stuck with a Werelupe who doesn't know how humans work.
"Hm." He leaned back, still surveying her. "So much for the bottle, then." He clapped his paws on his thighs, his tail curving upward. "All right. Let's get you some water."
"Thank you." She planted her hands on the cavern floor and tried to push herself up, but her legs refused to cooperate. "Ugh..."
The Werelupe King leaned in closer to her, a look of concern falling over his face. "Ah... you really are tired, aren't you?" He reached out and touched the tip of her nose with the pawpad at the end of his thumb. "Your nose is dry. Are you ill?" His lips curled to show a bit of fang. "If those pirates made you unwell... I will make them suffer double whatever they inflicted upon you."
Despite her exasperation, Terra felt her mouth twitch upward in the hint of a smile. For all his machismo and display, he wasn't cruel, just naïve. It was almost endearing, really. She found it difficult to stay frustrated with him. Even though there had been no gallant rescue this time, she thought she could feel at least some form of hope poking through the gloom in her mind. If her captor was at least going to be humane, she could be grateful for that.
She sighed. "Well... my stomach's been aching for the past while. I don't think I'm ill, I just got seasick on the boat earlier and it's compounded with hunger and stress."
The Werelupe King's nose wrinkled. "My apologies. I did not realise those I had hired would mistreat you so."
"Well, they are pirates. I wasn't really expecting them to be nice."
He frowned. "I will not tolerate such unkindness toward my owner."
Terra thought this was terribly ironic when he was the one who had her kidnapped in the first place, but she would take what she could get. Right now, she was just grateful to be in a place where her needs were an actual concern.
"Well, I will send word to one of my other contacts to repay them fittingly. For now, let us get you taken care of." The Werelupe King grabbed her wrists and carefully hefted her over his shoulders. "A long journey, indeed," he mused as he carried her into one of the tunnels. "Made even longer by hunger and thirst, I'll wager. Impressive that you stood up to me even after all that. You are not the sniveling weakling I remember."
"And you're not quite the monster I remember." Terra never thought Werelupes would be kinder than pirates, but she was glad to be proven wrong. After a moment, she frowned. "Why did you give us such a scare earlier? What was wrong with greeting us politely? You made Pharazon think you were going to eat him or something."
The Werelupe chuckled. "Well, first impressions are everything. I did want to ensure that we have an understanding about who is in charge around here. It seems to have worked." He turned down a steeply sloping corridor. "And we have a certain image to maintain. If your weakling Draik thought we were going to eat him, then the rumours have worked. Many of the worst things you have likely heard about us were deliberately falsified to keep people away."
"I guess that makes sense, in a twisted sort of way," Terra muttered. She glanced around at the long passageway, noting the utter lack of windows. "Is... all of this underground?"
"Yes. You are in the Werelupe Burrows. After your other pets destroyed my keep, I led my pack in search of a new home. Our travels took us out of the Haunted Woods and into Meridell. We attempted to take over Illusen's Glade, but..." His hackles rose. "That went badly. So we retreated further into the forests of Meridell, and found this place, this haven. It's several times as large as that old castle, actually." He chuckled. "I suppose I should thank you for that."
"You're welcome," Terra sighed. Don't focus on how closed-in it is. Or the utter lack of open air. Or the fact that a cave-in could trap you. She shuddered. So much for thinking positive. She was never the spelunking type.
They entered a small grotto. Firelight illuminated a rock wall slick with wetness from a spring that burbled from it. The water ran in a stream along the floor and into a series of channels that disappeared into drains. All around it sat an assortment of waterskins.
The Werelupe gave Terra a dubious glance and sat her down on a flat rock. "Stay here." She didn't have much of a choice, considering she could barely keep herself upright. He grabbed a waterskin, crouched over the spring, and came back with the skin heavy and full. "Drink," he commanded, handing it to her.
She drank greedily, feeling the water slip down her throat and cool her body. It tasted sweet like only unsullied water could. When she finally had her fill, she sat back and let out a long sigh. "Thank you." Water alone made her feel so much better.
"When do owners eat?" the Werelupe King asked.
"The same times Neopets do, essentially. I don't think I could stomach anything tonight. I'll wait for breakfast."
He nodded. "Can you walk?"
She looked down at her legs. "... No, I don't think so," she admitted, pride-bruising though it was. She'd been bound for too long, and had gotten nowhere near adequate sleep.
"Hm." He fastened the waterskin to his belt, picked her up again, and ambled back out into the tunnel.
"Sorry you have to carry me like this," Terra murmured.
"What?" The Werelupe chuckled. "You are light as air, owner! I would have to carry twenty times your weight before feeling a strain!" He puffed out his chest.
Terra never thought she'd be hearing the beast from her nightmares make lighthearted jokes. "Are you going to keep calling me 'owner'? My name's Terra."
"And I am Isengrim, Lord of the Werelupe Burrows, King of Werelupe Woods, Sovereign of All the Moon's Light Touches, and Champion of All Werelupekind. But you may call me Isengrim."
He brought her down winding passageways, through vaulted caverns, and across wood-and-rope bridges that spanned black chasms where distant water roared beneath them. While Terra did not like enclosed spaces, heights were also not her favourite thing, and she cringed closer to Isengrim's shoulders as he traversed the swaying bridges. In several areas, Werelupes lazed and chatted by open flames on beds of furs. Terra hoped to see a Faerie Draik among them, but to no avail.
"I thought you didn't like weaklings," she said as Isengrim climbed a set of stairs hewn into the rock, twining behind a large waterfall. "Why are you taking care of me?"
"You are not weak, you are incapacitated. And, you are my owner." He let out a challenging snarl. "Nothing shall take you away from me again! Not hunger or thirst or sickness! The Faerie Queen herself could not wrest you from me!"
Terra let out a half-hearted chuckle, wishing his claim wasn't comforting and terrifying all at once.
Isengrim stepped into a spacious grotto where a single brazier burned. Its firelight glinted off of various weapons mounted on the walls, and threw eerie shadows on the skulls of great horned beasts that had similarly been turned into décor. One wall was open to the back side of the waterfall, a shimmering curtain from this perspective. Simple murals in red and black pigment adorned the other walls, depicting trees, crescent moons, and stylised packs of Werelupes hunting large Petpets, accompanied by a scattering of massive pawprints.
"Nice paintings," Terra said.
The Werelupe King grinned. "I made them myself." With her still on his shoulders, he bent down and began shuffling through a pile of furs, setting some aside. Making a grunt of satisfaction, he moved to the new pile and began shaping it into a nest.
Once it was finished to his liking, he set Terra in it and threw her another fur and her waterskin. "Let's do something about that stomachache." He opened a wooden chest that sat against the wall and rummaged through it, pulling out a phial that he examined and nodded. "Take a few drops of this," he said, tossing her the phial.
The substance inside smelled pleasantly of mint and Terra put a few drops under her tongue, feeling a familiar cooling burn. She kept her own home stocked with such things. "Thanks." Oh, how she wished she was at home, in her own bed. Whenever she had stomachaches, Hyren would hold her hand until she felt better, and tell her some of his old war stories, while Blynn would find ways to make her laugh and Pharazon would brew her peppermint tea.
But she wasn't home.
"You have had a long day. Now sleep," the Werelupe King ordered, stalking over to his own bed and settling down. His tail wagged contentedly as he removed his crown and bone jewelry and nestled into the furs. He let out a few relaxed whines and curled up on his side.
Terra pulled her blanket up over her shoulders and took off her glasses, setting them on the floor. She took another drink from the waterskin and then let herself lie limp. The furs were soft and warm, and her stomach had calmed down considerably. She bunched up the furs behind her head to act as a pillow and lay still, listening to her own shallow breathing and Isengrim's deep, rumbling breaths.
The weight of everything she had been through, and everything she would yet go through, came crashing down on her and her chin trembled. She ducked her head into the furs and cried herself to sleep.
To be continued...