A Yurble stole my cinnamon roll! Circulation: 192,877,954 Issue: 666 | 24th day of Collecting, Y16
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Worth Searching For: Part Four


by cosmicfire918

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Hyren drifted in and out of sleep for the rest of the day, being vaguely cognisant of things like Anshu treating his wounds or the Ruki doctor having conversations with Blynn, who seemed to be less injured. At some point, when golden light shone through the room's porthole, Hyren was awoken and given a bowl of rice porridge with peanuts and scallions. He gulped it down, surprised that he could move his arms without too much pain now. Once he was full, he lay back on his pillows and sleep came quickly.

     Mostly, though, Hyren just let himself rest. Doing anything else hurt too much. Unfortunately, this also meant he was stuck with his own thoughts. More specifically, his own worries. There were countless dangers Terra and Pharazon could be in right now. He had saved her before, but that was when he was bigger and stronger. What if he couldn't do it again this time?

     He felt so powerless compared to whatever had taken her away. Especially since his search had gotten off to such a terrible start. Blynn seemed to think it was a good omen that they were still headed for Meridell, but all Hyren could get out of it was that he'd made a stupid mistake and it could very well set the tone for the rest of this rescue attempt. He had to call it an "attempt" now, because he was tired of deluding himself that it was failproof. The storm had shown him otherwise.

     "Rise and shine, chief!" Blynn's annoyingly perky voice cut through Hyren's sleep.

     He opened his eyes and got an eyeful of Disco Zafara face. "Gah!" He jumped, and Blynn leaned back and giggled. "Don't do that," he grumbled, shooing her away. It took him a moment to register that he was in considerably less pain than he remembered.

     Glancing around, he saw blue sky out the porthole, and Anshu puttering about at the table, rolling some bandages. "Anshu, thanks," Hyren said, sitting up and rubbing at his face, avoiding a patch of gauze. "I guess you do know what you're doing."

     "Hmph, of course I do," the doctor snickered. He stacked the bandages and turned to the blue Grundo. "How are you feeling?"

     "Loads better." Hyren eased himself out of the cot and stretched carefully. He was still sore and had a lingering faint headache. But he could move and function again.

     "Here." Anshu handed him a bulging pouch.

     Hyren opened it and made a face at the ripe smell within. "What is this?"

     The Ruki laughed. "It's medicine, boy. It'll help with the pain. You and your sister will take a few days more to fully heal, but that will alleviate the symptoms. Break off a small chunk and take it with your tea."

     "I drink water," Hyren muttered. He cinched the bag tight so the odour would not escape, still looking at it sceptically.

     "Give it to your Ganuthor, too. She'll need it."

     Hyren's antennae drooped. Yeah, thanks for rubbing it in.

     The door flew open and a lanky yellow Aisha leaned in. "Breakfast time!" he announced before scampering away.

     "Someone's enthusiastic," Hyren said.

     Anshu chuckled. "That's because ever since Bonju pushed him off the ship, Hoban's gotten to pick breakfast once a week."

     ***

     The galley was a pleasant place, open and bright and immaculately kept by Bonju. The crew laughed and talked with each other and their impromptu passengers as the orange Blumaroo cook served up Chokato dumplings and fried rice with eggs.

     "We'll be landing in Meridell soon," Tuan said to Hyren and Blynn. "Within two hours, if this wind keeps up. We could use some help taking inventory so we'll know what to stock up on at port. Do you two feel up to the task?"

     "Yeah!" Blynn said with a nod.

     "If that's what you need me to do," Hyren grunted through a mouthful of dumpling.

     Tuan raised his eyebrows. "Something else you'd rather be doing? You can help swab the decks, or assist Kentari in the armoury, or plot courses with Hoban—"

     Hyren's antennae perked. "Did you say 'armoury'?"

     After they ate, Blynn stayed behind with the other crewmates to discuss her duties, while Tuan directed Hyren to the armoury. Kentari hadn't been at breakfast, but Tuan assured Hyren that that was usual. "Must have gotten caught up in his poetry again," the Gnorbu chuckled.

     Hyren knocked at the door to the armoury and pushed it open. "Hello—whoaaaa." His jaw dropped at the impressive array of weapons, both Shenkuuvian and from other Neopian lands. The walls were lovingly stacked with all manner of armaments: swords, spears, axes, crossbows, even things that Hyren wasn't familiar with and wanted to fix that.

     Forgetting about Kentari, Hyren wandered over and began ogling a straight sword in a sheath decorated with Kazeriu and swirling clouds, an elaborate knot hanging from its pommel. "Beautiful," he breathed.

     "Isn't it!" a voice said from behind him.

     Hyren stiffened and whipped around, and blinked in surprise. He found himself eye-to-eye with a diminutive yellow Shoyru.

     "Got that one years ago, during my training at the Green River Temple," the Shoyru said. "Oh, and do you see that one up there?" He pointed to a distinctive blue-green trident with glowing runes. "Maractite. Paid a pretty Neopoint for it, but all that talk about it moving through water like metal through air was true!"

     Hyren's eyes widened. "You're... Kentari?"

     The Shoyru lifted an eyebrow and scratched at his goatee. "Why wouldn't I be?"

     Hyren tilted his head. "You're so..."

     "Ruggedly handsome?"

     "Short."

     Kentari's wings lowered along with his eyelids. "You are not one to talk."

     Frowning, Hyren folded his arms. "Never mind that. Tuan said you have my sister's and my weapons."

     The Shoyru's easy smile returned. "Of course. Right this way." He motioned for Hyren to follow him to the back of the room.

     Hyren was so caught up in the smorgasbord of weapons surrounding him that he barely registered the shortsword and slingshot lying on the table in front of him. All of this put his own armoury at home to shame.

     "Here you are." Kentari offered him both belts.

     The Grundo took the sword, fastening it around his waist and letting out a satisfied sigh like it was an old friend come back to him. He drew the blade, inspecting its flawless surface for any damages or signs of tampering.

     "It's a beautiful sword," Kentari said.

     "Yeah."

     "Faerie make, isn't it? And in such an ancient style—from before the Age of the Circle of the Twelve, perhaps? They don't forge them like that any more."

     "They sure don't." Hyren traced the runes lovingly with one finger. "They don't even craft enchanted weapons like this for mass distribution nowadays. And they're near-impossible to find off of Neopia. Just one of these is worth an entire planetoid in the galaxy at large."

     Kentari placed the slingshot on the table and turned to one of the walls. "Where did you find it?"

     "Some lost ruins." Hyren turned the blade over in his hand, feeling the comfort of its weight again. "It was years ago. The rest of them are gone now."

     "You also have that claymore on your Ganuthor," Kentari said, lifting a long naginata from its perch. "Is there a Grarrl in your family?"

     Hyren's antennae twitched. "No, it's mine."

     Kentari chuckled as he inspected the naginata's leather-wrapped haft. "I am sorry if I offended you earlier. You are not the first to assume such things about me. Although you are certainly the... littlest."

     "I used to be bigger," Hyren grumbled. He held his blade in front of him. In his mind's eye it morphed into the claymore, and he envisioned his Mutant hands gripping it, green and bulky. The last time he had wielded that longsword was in the battle on the bridge of Sloth's flagship, twelve years ago. He smirked at the memory of besting Garoo in pet-to-pet combat, that miserable—

     Metal clinked against metal. Hyren looked up to see Kentari tapping the sword with the blade of his naginata, grinning playfully.

     Hyren grinned back and the two swerved into motion. Kentari spun his naginata and used the momentum to aim a strike at Hyren, who expertly parried it and with the follow-through made a swing of his own. Kentari shoved the haft up to block the blow and pushed the Grundo away.

     Wincing in pain from his prior injuries, Hyren tried to close in again, but Kentari kept him at bay with the naginata, spinning and sweeping with it, creating a shell of whirling metal.

     It was a challenge Hyren relished. Taking a breath, he leaped on the table and sprung into the air, sword tucked close to his torso and pointed downward in preparation for a thrust while keeping on the defensive. Kentari could cover his front adequately, but that meant he was unprotected from above.

     The Shoyru changed direction mid-spin and suddenly slashed upward with the glaive. Hyren had anticipated this and pushed outward with his sword, allowing the two blades to connect and deflect the blow while he used the force to flip himself away from Kentari's range. The Grundo hissed in pain as his body objected to the duel. He had to end this fast, unfortunately.

     Kentari advanced on him, naginata outward. "Do you give?"

     Hyren couldn't hold up for much longer. With another step, he felt his back touch wood. He glanced up at the weapons lining the wall and then back to Kentari, and smiled. "Nope."

     "Fair enough." With a shout, Kentari charged.

     Hyren ducked and rolled under the blade. Just as he had predicted, Kentari ended up stabbing the naginata into the wall, embedding it several centimetres into the wood. The time it took him to pull it out was all the time Hyren needed to turn and aim another swing.

     Before he could get there, the end of the haft suddenly popped out at his face.

     The next thing Hyren knew, he was lying on the floor of the armoury, trying to blink away stars from his vision. It took a moment for the pain to soak in.

     Kentari ambled over and offered him a hand. "Excellent duel," the Shoyru said, pulling the Grundo to his feet. "You really know your stuff. I do not doubt that you would have beaten me if you had been in peak condition."

     Through the fading haze of pain and disorientation, the even more acute agony of loss sunk in. "I would have beaten you if I were Mutant." Hyren looked at his sword in distaste and sheathed it, and buried his face in his hands. "I'm never going to find her like this."

     "Well, that was fun," Kentari said cheerily. "Now, it is time for your chores. Those sky pirates do not drive themselves away, after all!" He dumped a pile of blades at Hyren's feet and handed him a whetstone and a bowl of water.

     Hyren groaned, sat down, and got to work. At least this was better than trying to take inventory with Blynn.

     "Do you really miss it that much?" Kentari asked after a while.

     The steady shink, shink, shiiiink of stone on metal pounded a rhythm in Hyren's thoughts. "I tried not to," he replied, not looking up from his work. "For a while it was okay. I mean, yeah, it bugs me when people call me short, or assume I'm young. But mostly I was just happy to be alive after what happened. Alive and with my family. But now..." He shook his head. "I've never felt weaker."

     "I do not think this is entirely about your size."

     Hyren set down the scimitar he had been working on and gingerly picked up a chakram. "How do you hold this."

     "Grip it from the inner rim," the Shoyru replied, drying the scimitar with a cloth. "There you go."

     Hyren sighed. "I'm losing my touch. I used to think I was invincible, you know? Even as a blue Grundo, I've always been capable of protecting my family. When I set my mind to anything, it's happened. But this search has gone awry from the start. And... and if I was really competent, they never would have gotten kidnapped in the first place." He scowled.

     "It was out of your control. And I wouldn't say it's gone awry. It would have taken you longer to get to Meridell by Petpet, anyway." Kentari picked up the scimitar and went to put it back in its place on the wall.

     "I tried, and I failed." Hyren's shoulders slumped. "And now I'm—I'm scared that no matter how hard I keep trying, I'll keep failing. I can't tolerate that, especially not when the stakes are so high. What if I never find them?" Hyren rotated the chakram in his grip to sharpen another section of the rim. "Or what if..." He realised he had been thinking aloud and shut his mouth.

     "Hm?"

     The Grundo frowned. "Never mind, it's stupid."

     Kentari sat back down in front of him. "Let me be the judge of that."

     Hyren closed his eyes and swallowed hard before looking back up at the Shoyru. "What if Terra gets another Neopet? One who's bigger and stronger than me? She always says she doesn't mind my height, but I think she misses me the way I was, too. What if she needs someone like that?"

     The weapons master cracked a grin. "Someone to help her get things down from high shelves?"

     Hyren rolled his eyes. "Thanks, wise guy."

     "Do you really think she will forget about you so soon? Are you that distrustful of her?"

     "No, that's not what I meant!"

     "Then what did you mean?"

     "Augh... I don't know." Hyren handed the sharpened chakram to Kentari and plucked a wakizashi from the pile, admiring the wave pattern on the curved shortsword's blade. "I'm just worried, okay? And you're not helping."

     "At least you got it off your chest," Kentari said, spinning the chakram lazily on one finger.

     "That doesn't make it go away. It's just so frustrating, not knowing. I don't know how they're doing, or if I'll ever find them, or what'll happen if I do find them." Hyren gripped the hilt of the wakizashi so hard his hand trembled. "It bites losing confidence in yourself. It bites and I hate it."

     "The Koi who does not persist in leaping up the waterfall shall never become a Draik," Kentari quoted.

     Hyren smirked. "Because there's a Morphing Potion at the top of the waterfall?"

     The Shoyru grinned. "I like your style."

     The hum of magic suddenly downshifted and stopped, and a slight bump shook the ship. Hyren looked up, antennae perking. He could feel the entire vessel gently bobbing. "Did we touch down?"

     "Don't worry, you still have a bit of time to finish your chores."

     "You don't have to look so smug about it."

     Kentari chuckled and rose to his feet. "I feel you are far from failing in your quest. After all, you are in Meridell now, are you not? Learn from your failures, my fellow warrior, but do not dwell on them." He turned to put more sharpened weapons away. "She still needs you."

     "Yeah." Hyren nodded halfheartedly. "Thanks."

     "All ashore who's goin' ashore!" Blynn shouted from the doorway.

     The noise made Hyren jump mid-stroke and break off a chip from the blade's edge. "Ohhh shoot," he muttered under his breath, surreptitiously sliding the sword back into its sheath before Kentari turned back around.

     "Are you still doing your chore?" The Zafara bounded into the armoury. "I already finished mine. Did you know that counting Bluchard Roots works the same way as counting potatoes? Ooh! Can I help—"

     "Absolutely not," Hyren replied, thrusting out a hand to stop her. "You are not allowed to touch anything in here. Go get your slingshot and go check on Gwyneth. I'll be there in a minute." He reached into the medicine pouch and broke off a small chunk of the compacted cake of herbs. "And give her this to eat. Hopefully it won't taste too... what are you doing?"

     Blynn stood next to the table, paws hovering over her slingshot, tongue sticking out in concentration. "You said not to touch anything in here... but you also told me to get my slingshot... conflicting commands... erk! Does not compute!"

     Hyren slumped. "You can touch your slingshot."

     "Thank you!" The Zafara snagged her weapon and strapped it around her waist. "I'll meet you on deck, swabbie!" she chirped as she left.

     "Wha—I am not a swabbie!" Hyren yelled after her.

     Kentari laughed. "Well, she's a charmer."

     "Isn't she," Hyren seethed through clenched teeth.

     While Hyren finished the rest of the weapons, Kentari read aloud his latest poetry: pieces about peach blossoms, the Green River in winter, and the way the sea looks after a storm. Hyren, in turn, regaled the weapons master with tales of meteor showers, giant gas planets and their endless clouds, and rusty desert worlds whose iron-rich sand had oxidised and turned the entire planet a ruddy hue.

     When he finally emerged above deck, Blynn was there waiting for him astride Gwyneth. One of the Ganuthor's wings had been carefully wrapped and secured to her side.

     Hyren's countenance fell. He didn't know how Pharazon would ever forgive him. If they ever saw Pharazon again. "Gwyneth, I am so sorry," he sighed, striding toward her. "I was an idiot, and—"

     She stretched out her pink tongue and gave him a big, slobbery lick on the face.

     Blynn laughed. "Apology accepted!"

     "Eeeeurgh." Hyren scraped the saliva off of his cheek and wiped his hands on Gwyneth's fur. As much as he hated when she did that, it was much better than if he had upset her.

     Captain Tuan approached them. "Is there anything else we can do to help?" he asked. "We know how it feels to lose a crew member and travel Neopia looking for them."

     "It's not fun," Hoban said.

     Hyren regarded the captain for a moment. "Fly us to Brightvale?"

     Tuan stroked his beard. "Ehh... my apologies, but we are headed to Sakhmet after this and our delivery has a tight schedule. You should be able to reach Brightvale in a day or so on your Petpet, though."

     "Yeah..." Hyren mounted Gwyneth behind his sister. "Well, thanks anyway for what you've already done for us. You saved us a lot of trouble."

     Tuan bowed. "May good fortunes accompany you on your journey, and may you find the ones you love."

     The Grundo swallowed the lump in his throat. "I sure hope so."

     "Are we gonna head straight to Brightvale?" Blynn asked as they descended the gangplank and trudged down the dock.

     Hyren looked at the bustling port town ahead of them. He wanted so badly to keep going, to push himself further and further. Every moment spent with Terra's fate unknown ate at him. He needed to be there for her, and it felt like the longer he waited, the farther away she drifted from him.

     But he couldn't keep setting himself up for failure, and now he knew his limits. And he couldn't afford to test Blynn's or Gwyneth's again. Drawing in a breath, he sat up a little straighter and smiled to mask the turmoil within. "No. Let's stock up on supplies first. We could use some good food for the trip."

     "All right!" Blynn nudged Gwyneth's ribs and the Ganuthor plodded into the throng. "Wha—no! Gwyneth, stop! Not the fishmonger! Sorry, ma'am!"

     ***

     "Owner. Get up."

     Terra awoke to something nudging her back. She opened her eyes and saw firelight on stone walls, and memories of the previous day came flooding back to her. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Isengrim standing over her. "You can call me Terra, remember?" she groaned, rolling back over. She really wasn't ready to face reality right now, even if her stomach was rumbling and twisting in hunger.

     "Own—Terra." Isengrim nudged her with his foot again. "Time for breakfast."

     "Breakfast?" Terra pulled her fur blanket closer around her. She looked at the ceiling of the grotto, listening to the dull roar of the waterfall outside, and realised there was no way to keep track of time in here. Something about not knowing where the sun was made her innately uneasy. "I need more sleep," she murmured.

     "You need food," Isengrim insisted, grabbing her under the arms and hoisting her to her feet. "And so do I. So you are coming with me."

     Tired as she was, Terra found the stiffness had worn off and she was at least able to stand. "You're not going to let me argue with that, are you," she yawned, reaching down to grab her glasses and take a drink from her waterskin. As much as she wanted sleep, her stomach was demanding to be filled.

     Isengrim let out a whine and his ears bent back. "You smell terrible."

     Terra gave him a flat look. "Thank you, Mister Tact."

     "I am not taking you to breakfast smelling like rotten fish. Come on." He grabbed her shoulder and steered her toward the stairs. "You are getting a bath and a change of clothes."

     "I never thought Werelupes would be so... clean," Terra said. She was surprised. She'd always played them up in her imagination as horrifically stinky barbarians, but there was really very little malodourous about them. They simply smelled rather earthy.

     "Filth breeds disease," Isengrim replied. "And makes me wish I did not have a nose."

     "Makes sense. If I had a Lupe's nose, I'd be more sensitive to smells, too."

     "A Werelupe's nose," Isengrim corrected.

     Terra didn't really see too much of a difference, but decided it was probably best to humour him.

     He led her down a new tunnel—or perhaps one she'd already been through. The Burrows had a labyrinthine sameness to them that made Terra feel like it would be very easy for one to become hopelessly lost in them. It just added to the feeling that she was in some sort of underworld.

     "How do you find your way around here?" she asked.

     "Scent markers," Isengrim replied like it was the most obvious thing in the world. He lifted his head. "Do you not smell the way to the laundry?"

     "Human noses don't work nearly as well as Lupe—Werelupe noses."

     "Really?" He tilted her chin upward and studied her nose. "Bizarre. I don't know how you find your way around with that tiny thing. How crippling to not be able to smell properly."

     Terra shrugged. "We manage somehow."

     Isengrim gripped her shoulder tighter and led her onward. "That is another reason why you will stay with me at all times. It is too easy for you to get lost in here, especially if you cannot smell your way. I won't have you falling down a hole or getting eaten."

     Terra gulped. "Sounds good to me." Between being stuck with the Werelupe King and meeting an untimely subterranean demise, she knew what she preferred.

     The laundry was a spacious grotto filled with baskets of clothes. At one end of the cave was a large pool rimmed with rocks. A Werelupe crouched there, rinsing a pair of trousers and scrubbing them on one of the stones. He sniffed the air and turned around with a bow. "Greetings, milord!" he barked, watching Terra curiously.

     "Greetings," Isengrim returned. He led Terra to the baskets and began to rifle through them. "Hmmm... no, no... maybe..." He held up various articles of clothing and examined them before looking over his shoulder. "You are too small, Terra." In spite of his deadpan tone, his eyes held a glint of amusement.

     She snickered. "Hey, just be glad I'm not a JubJub."

     Finally he returned to her with a pile of clothes that he deposited in her arms with a, "These will have to do until I get some tailored for you." He steered her out of the room and further down the tunnel, until they reached an opening that was partitioned off with cloth hung over the entrance. "The springs are in there." He pointed. "Go wash and change."

     Terra looked up at him, feeling a twinge of irritation build in the back of her neck. "I find it just a tiny bit ironic that I'm your owner, but you're ordering me around." Would it kill him to ask her to do things instead of phrasing everything as a command?

     He folded his arms and leaned against the wall, raising one eyebrow. "I don't see anything wrong with it."

     She massaged the bridge of her nose. "Hoo boy. This is going to be a long indeterminate period of time."

     The springs were warm and refreshing, and Isengrim had provided Terra with a tunic and trousers made of skins. Despite draping over her like pajamas, they were marvelously soft. When she came back out, Isengrim was in the same position as when she had left him.

     He leaned over and sniffed at her. "That's better."

     She held up her pile of old clothes. "Let me guess, these go to the laundry?"

     "Of course they do," he replied, giving her a look like he was confused that she had to guess such a thing. "Your footwear, too." He gestured to the socks and hiking boots she held in one hand.

     "But what am I going to wear on my feet in the meantime?" Terra asked, wriggling her bare toes. "My soles aren't as thick as your paw pads."

     Isengrim's eyes narrowed. "These cavern floors are not made of gravel. You will be fine."

     "Thanks," Terra muttered. "You're a real nice guy."

     Once again, his brow furrowed in confusion. "I am?"

     "No. Never mind."

     "I am not going to carry you everywhere when you are capable of walking on your own two feet," he grumbled as he nudged her back to the laundry. "And I do not keep owner clothes lying around. Put them in one of the empty baskets. No, in the cluster to the right, those are for dirty laundry. We'll return and wash them later."

     "I have to admit it's nice to meet a king who does his own laundry," Terra said.

     Isengrim gave her a toothy smirk. "I would not demand such servitude of my thanes. We are all a pack here." He reached to his belt and undid a small string of fangs. "You will wear this as a token of your status."

     "Ehh... no thanks, I'm not really a jewelry person," Terra replied.

     The Werelupe pulled up her arm. "This marks you as part of the pack and more specifically as my owner. Do not remove it, and do not run away from me." He tied the bracelet around her wrist. "My thanes do not think kindly of non-Werelupes, to put it lightly. If you were found by one of them without this token, there could be... misunderstandings. And they would not end well for you."

     "You're really good at the whole veiled threat thing, you know that?" Terra said.

     He gave her a rumbling chuckle. "Thank you."

     Terra let her arm drop back to her side as he leaned back to appraise her. She had to fight to keep down her irritation. It won't last forever, she reminded herself. I just have to figure a way out of this.

     "Mm, let's try the other side." He removed the bracelet and tied it to her other arm. "Perfect."

     She glowered up at him. "I love when you don't listen to anything I say."

     One of his ears twitched. "Really?"

     Terra gave him a look of alarm. "Do you really not understand my sarcasm or are you just messing with me?" She wouldn't put either possibility past him, but right now she was exasperated enough to believe the latter.

     "When were you sarcastic?"

     "Uggh. Forget it."

     Thankfully, Isengrim was correct about the floors of the Burrows, for the most part. They were smooth stone, cleared of sharper rocks and dangerous debris by the passing of many paws. But every once in a while Terra would feel an unexpected pebble or bone fragment beneath her feet that drew her step short. She just hoped she would get her shoes back soon.

     Around a bend, Terra stopped. In front of them stretched a yawning abyss, its two sides connected by a single bridge. There were no other paths. She felt her stomach plummet like it had already fallen over the edge.

     Isengrim kept moving for a few steps before his ears twitched and he turned around. "Come on."

     Terra stammered wordlessly before finding her voice. "I—isn't there any other way?"

     "We're going this way." He pointed to the bridge.

     "I'm not good with heights," she confessed.

     His hackles rose. "I didn't ask you if you were." Nose wrinkling, he dug his claws into the stone and drew himself up taller as he glared down at her with a look that could freeze fire. "Cross this bridge."

     Terra cringed. "Ugh..." Forcing herself to move in stilted steps, she approached the bridge. She gripped the rope suspension on both sides, thankful there was at least something guarding her from toppling off the wood, and took a step forward.

     The bridge shifted under her weight and she froze, waiting for it to stop moving before she took another step and the same thing happened. Wait, step, panic, repeat. The bridge's swaying was subtle, but Terra hated the feeling of unsteady footing above a drop that could reach all the way down to Moltara.

     Isengrim growled behind her. "You're taking too long!" A pair of furry arms wrapped around her middle, lifted her, and bore her swiftly to the other side where they set her down again.

     The Werelupe circled around to face her, tail high and lips lifted to reveal his teeth. "I grow impatient with such cowardice," he said in a low, cold voice. "I thought you were strong." With that, he grabbed her arm and dragged her away.

     That spark of hope Terra had felt last night was fading fast. Even if Isengrim saw to her physical needs, he brushed off her anxieties and became angered at her fears and weaknesses, like she was not allowed to have any because it would inconvenience him. Terra felt the sting of tears in her eyes. "Thanks for the pep talk," she muttered under her breath.

     Isengrim's ear twitched, but he said nothing and kept his eyes on the path ahead.

     Thankfully they did not cross any more bridges after that, and a short while later Terra began to smell a mix of things sweet and savoury. Food. In spite of everything, her appetite heightened and she realised it had been more than a day since she'd eaten a proper meal.

     They emerged in a large cavern dotted with blazing firepits, the floors covered in mats and furs. The ceiling was low, and decorated with immense murals of the same subject matter as in Isengrim's grotto: forests, moons, and hunts. Around the fires, Werelupes lounged in small groups, with spreads of food shared between them as they talked and laughed, their tails wagging. One of them even broke into a low, atonal chant that her clanmates howled along to softly.

     Isengrim's tail suddenly curved upward and he led Terra over to one of the fires. "Suhel," he called out.

     Sure enough, the female was sitting there with a group of other Werelupes, and her ears perked up at his voice. "Milord! How good of you to join us!" She ripped off a bite of meat from its bone.

     Meanwhile, Terra was more heartened by the glimpse of turquoise beside Suhel. "Pharazon!"

     "Terra?" The Draik leaned out from behind the Werelupe. He looked shaken, but unharmed. "Oh, thank the Faeries you're all right!"

     Isengrim sat Terra and himself down on a fur near Suhel. Terra moved to get up and hug Pharazon, but Isengrim pulled her back and pointed to the food. "Eat," he grunted frostily before shifting his attention to a wheel of Darkberry Cheese. Using his claws, he sliced a fat wedge from the purple wheel and bit a chunk clean from it, wax and all.

     Terra picked up a clay bowl filled with Jumbleberries and popped a handful in her mouth, reveling in their sweet-tartness and the feel of food on her tongue again. Breakfast wasn't really the same without Hyren and Blynn, though.

     "I'm okay," she replied to Pharazon. "Well... about as okay as I could be in this situation, I guess." She shot an irksome glance at Isengrim, who was staring into the fire silently while he ate. "What about you?"

     Pharazon nibbled daintily at a Raisin Twist Loaf. "Ugh, it's been awful," he moaned. "These primitives—they haven't hurt me or anything, but they won't leave me alone! I had to sleep in a cavern with them last night— "

     "You arrived shortly before dawn, runt," Suhel said. "It's afternoon, now."

     Terra blinked. "Of course, you're mostly nocturnal."

     The female turned her gaze toward the owner. "We are more active at night, yes." She smirked up at Isengrim. "She's a perceptive one."

     He grunted and took another bite of cheese.

     Pharazon sniffled. "A-and they keep teasing me! And they made me wear this!" He pointed to the string of blunt bones around his neck.

     "It's for your own safety," Terra murmured.

     Isengrim glanced over at the Draik and then to Suhel. "Knucklebones?" The king's eyes creased in amusement. "How fitting."

     "Aye," Suhel said with a toothy grin. "Runt's not earned his fangs yet." She gave Pharazon a playful nudge on the arm, and he wailed in protest, his wings sparking. Suhel and the other Werelupes in the circle laughed, and she dropped a pawful of blackberries down her maw.

     Terra fingered the circle of teeth on her wrist. "So... fangs represent strength?"

     "That's right." Suhel nodded. She studied the teeth on her king's owner's arm. "Feel honoured, human. You are the first non-Werelupe to ever wear them. Although it is not exactly a distinctive honour within the pack. We all wear fangs here." She motioned to the ones adorning her hair. "Well, almost all of us." She nudged Pharazon again. "And only the king may wear skulls." She pointed at Isengrim's crown. "They symbolise his right and ability to lead and conquer."

     "Interesting," Terra said. She was really amazed by how much of a culture the Werelupes had built up. Clearly eschewing civilisation did not mean they lived like wild Petpets.

     Suhel shrugged. "The more you learn, the faster you will fit in here."

     Terra's eyes returned to her own bracelet. Isengrim thought she was strong, and she was to be marked as such to the others in his pack. But she couldn't continue to let her sensitivities be ignored.

     Isengrim tilted his head to her. "Eat more than that," he grumbled, "or you'll starve."

     She reached out and took a soft chunk from a Bread Wreath. All of this food was fresh, she noticed, but they couldn't grow it underground. She wondered if they simply stole everything they wanted.

     Pharazon did a double take at Terra. "What are you wearing?"

     "Um..." She looked down at her garments of skins. "Werelupe clothes?"

     He frowned. "Wonderful, all you need is fur and you'll fit right in here."

     She looked at him exasperatedly. "What? They're comfortable and my other clothes smelled like I'd been cooped up in a pirate ship for a day. Which I had."

     "Don't tell me you're actually going along with this."

     Terra shrugged. "We don't really have much of a choice right now. I don't..." The words caught in her throat. "I don't know how long we're going to be here, and maybe all of this happened for a reason. So let's just learn what we can for now and make the best of it." And it could be a lot worse, so just be grateful for once.

     "There is no 'best of it'," Pharazon hissed. "We're trapped in a cave with furry brutes! And Blynn and Hyren probably have no idea where we are!"

     His owner tilted back her head and gave a wide, frustrated grimace, clenching her teeth. "I know, but—"

     Suddenly all of the Werelupes in the circle snarled at her, their ears pointed forward and fur bristling.

     Terra jerked back in alarm. "What did I do?"

     Isengrim glanced down at her, raising an eyebrow. "You showed aggression. Who are you challenging?"

     "What? I'm not challenging anybody!" she insisted, staring wide-eyed at the ring of agitated beasts.

     He gave her a hopeless look. "Then do not maintain eye contact," he said, tilting her head downward, "and do not bare your fangs. Er." He used his thumb and forefinger to open up her lips and inspect her flat human teeth. "Whatever those are."

     "Oh... right, Lupe body language." Terra wiped her mouth. "I've never had a Lupe before, so I—"

     "Werelupe," Isengrim said.

     "You're a subspecies of Lupe, and you have the same body language."

     "We are not a 'subspecies'. We are an improvement."

     Terra puffed out one cheek. "Do you have any more tips for not upsetting Werelupes?" It was definitely on her list of things she did not want to have happen again. Poor Pharazon looked like he was about to have a heart attack with Suhel on edge next to him.

     "Don't wrinkle your nose," Isengrim replied. "Keep your ears at ease and your posture low. And your tail—" He glanced behind her. "Well, never mind that."

     His owner nodded. "Okay. I can do that." This seemed to placate the other Werelupes, who watched her for a few seconds more and then went back to their meal.

     The king's gaze returned to the fire. "Now keep eating. You need more food than that."

     Terra had to restrain herself from rolling her eyes as she broke off a chunk of Soft White Cheese.

     "What's got you in ill humours, milord?" Suhel asked.

     Isengrim flicked an ear in her direction. "It's not your concern," he murmured.

     He said nothing for the rest of their meal. Terra ate her fill, but she found herself missing the glimpses of confident joviality she'd caught from him before. Suhel looked like she missed it, too.

     After breakfast, Isengrim led Terra in picking up empty bowls and bringing them down a flight of stairs to a combination kitchen and food storage cavern, where they washed the dishes and set them to dry. Although the king had taken a turn for the taciturn and was no longer interested in explaining anything to Terra, it became evident to her that everyone in the pack did their own chores and participated in communal duties. Despite the presence of a monarch and a social hierarchy based on strength, their culture appeared to be egalitarian.

     Isengrim then took Terra up a long stairway that ended up coming out near the laundry room, and she realised they had gone in a large circle, which meant they did not have to backtrack over the bridge. She wondered if he had done that on purpose.

     He showed her how to wash her old clothes in the pool and scrub them on the rocks, and then spread them out by the fire. It turned out all of the braziers and firepits in the Burrows contained Fire Motes, making them an indefinite source of light and heat. They were fed fuel regularly, but did not require maintenance nearly as often as non-magical fire, meaning that the entire Burrows could stay lit and warm even through the depths of winter.

     Once Terra's clothes were laid out to dry, Isengrim recruited a couple of females to tailor some clothes for her. They were masterful seamstresses with bone needles and sinew, and made her a well-fitting tunic and breeches from skins. At her request, they also fashioned her a pair of moccasins and a pouch she could sling over her shoulder.

     It seemed that the other Werelupes were actually rather personable, at least to a recognised member of the pack. As much as it irked Terra to have to wear the bracelet of fangs, it apparently granted her privileges she would not have access to otherwise as a non-Werelupe. She felt bad that Pharazon was stuck wearing knucklebones and being called a runt, but at least he was being taken care of. And if she was completely honest with herself, he had kind of earned his status.

     When she stepped out of the fitting room, Isengrim was sitting cross-legged in the passageway, tracing designs in the stone with one claw. His ears perked, and he lifted his head and looked her over for a moment before glancing up at the females following her. "Well done," he grunted to them as he stood up and dusted off his breeches.

     They bowed their heads, tails wagging. "Thank you, milord," one of them said.

     Terra was kind of disappointed when he said nothing to her and acted like she was not there. "Are you still mad at me about the bridge thing?"

     "Yes."

     She scowled. How long was he going to hang on to that? And how could she make him let it go? That was something she would have to think about, as she hated the idea of Isengrim being angry with her for such a stupid reason when they had been getting along better last night.

     Right now, though, she had another problem to address. "Um... I need to comb my hair." She held up her brown braid. Most of the hair was out of the weave and the tie at the end seemed to be hanging on for dear life.

     Isengrim's brow furrowed. "Why? Werelupes don't comb their hair." He gestured to the long-maned females retreating down the tunnel, talking and laughing with each other.

     "I'm not a Werelupe." Terra undid the tie and pulled the strands of the braid apart. "See? My hair isn't coarse like a Werelupe's mane. If I don't brush it regularly, it gets tangled and gross. It's a hygiene thing," she added, knowing that was something he placed priority on.

     He continued to glare at her for a moment, then muttered, "Fine." He motioned for her to follow as he led her further down the tunnel.

     They traversed what seemed to be new areas of the Burrows, moving away from the more open caverns and downward. Rooms here were smaller and farther between, and seemed to mostly be storage areas. This was nothing like Terra's hilltop villa in Altador, where everything was open to the sky and the sunlight.

     "Hm." Isengrim stopped suddenly.

     Terra looked out from behind him and saw the reason why. Another bridge. It wasn't as long as the first one, but it was still a bridge. Over a crevasse. She tensed even further.

     Then she saw his tail bristle, and panic shot through her body. She did not want a repeat of last time. Dealing with a cranky Werelupe was already exasperating—she did not want to see what would happen if she wore his patience entirely thin.

     Taking a deep breath and shoving all of her misgivings into the back of her mind, Terra jumped out from behind Isengrim and rushed to the bridge. Still gripping the ropes for stability, she allowed adrenaline to take control, letting the fear push her across the wooden planks. And then she was on the other side, standing on stone with her heart pounding in her ears and a raw feeling in her stomach. Unconsciously her fingers moved to her bracelet.

     She felt a large paw on her shoulder and looked up to see Isengrim smiling down at her, showing a bit of fang. "Well done," he rumbled. He gave her shoulder an affectionate squeeze and led her onward.

     Terra wished she could feel good about what just happened, but instead she felt horrible. She didn't want to have to live like this, repressing her anxieties and putting on a performance just to avoid someone's anger. It wasn't any better than the last time. In a way it was worse, because at least last time she had been true to herself. In a situation like this, where was the solution?

     "Ah, here we are," Isengrim said. They approached an entryway rimmed with bones, a skull sitting at the top of the arch. Unlike anywhere else in the Burrows, a pair of heavy wooden doors had been set into the stone.

     Something pricked faintly at Terra's ears. "Magic?" she asked.

     Isengrim chuckled. "Well, you didn't think I was going to leave my hoard unprotected, did you? It only opens for me." He reached out and pushed open one of the doors. "Having a court conjurer comes in handy."

     "I didn't know Werelupes used magic."

     "The rest of us do not." Isengrim gestured for her to enter. "You've not yet met my conjurer. Reclusive fellow, prefers to study his arcana rather than socialise. But he gets the job done."

     Terra stepped through the door and her jaw dropped. Piled high in the cavern before her were treasures of a breadth she could not even fathom. Mounds of gold and jewels were just the beginning of it—ornate chests overflowed with wealth of all sorts, and impossibly valuable relics from all corners of Neopia had been stuffed into the cave like it was the attic of an eccentric heiress.

     Her eyes wandered over paint brushes, morphing potions, beautifully worked furniture, ancient tomes and scrolls, paintings and sculptures, elaborately decorated silks from Shenkuu, rich velvets from Meridell, the rarest of weapons and armour—even a few unobtainable stamps and other collectors' items.

     Isengrim folded his paws behind his back and drew himself up, bouncing slightly on his feet with a proud smirk. "Like I said. When I want something, I get it."

     "Klepto," Terra muttered under her breath.

     "What?"

     "Nothing. Kind of a weird place to keep grooming supplies, isn't it?" Terra breathed, still gazing around the room in shock.

     He snickered. "These things have no practical value for me or my pack. But I believe I may have something here that will be of use to you." He motioned for her to follow as he sauntered toward one of the piles, tail held high. "My hoard was once legendary across Neopia. It has been the target of many ill-fated adventurers and would-be heroes. Unfortunately, it attracted too much attention for my liking, especially after I allied with the Darkest Faerie."

     Terra was amused by the way he mentioned the Darkest Faerie as casually as if the two played Cheat! on Thursdays with Dr. Sloth and Xandra.

     Isengrim flipped open the lid to a chest and began rummaging through it, admiring each item he picked up. "So after those intruders stole Illusen's Charm from me, I began seeding out false reports of my own demise and the Burrows' destruction. That's kept those treasure hunters away since." The Werelupe stood up straight. "Hm, I could have sworn it was in that one. Over here." With a crook of his finger, he led Terra to another pile.

     "And you're not bothered by military forces from Meridell, Brightvale, or Darigan, are you," Terra said. "They think you don't exist any more. And you seem to have shady-underbelly-style ties who keep your presence under wraps."

     "Very good," Isengrim chuckled, opening another chest and sticking his snout into it. "You are a clever one." His tail began to wag. "Ah, here we are." Turning around, he presented Terra with a comb, cradled in both forepaws.

     Terra stared at it in dismay. The comb looked as though it had been taken from the palace of a Sakhmetian princess. While a functional tool, it appeared to have been crafted from solid gold. The bridge of the comb was shaped like a reclining Erisim, its serpentine form inlaid with lapis lazuli, with two glimmering topaz for the eyes. Terra felt embarrassed just thinking about using it. It was far too gaudy for her tastes.

     "It's... uh..." She shifted her weight uneasily. Then she glanced up at Isengrim.

     His ears were drooped and his tail seemed frozen in mid-wag as his great shoulders sagged. "You... don't like it?"

     Terra mentally kicked herself and forced a smile onto her face. There was no reason to be impolite about such a generous gift just because she felt like she didn't deserve it. "No, I love it." She reached out and took the comb. "It's beautiful. Thank you."

     A wide grin spread across Isengrim's own muzzle and his tail moved as fast as a Poogle at the races. "Do you require anything else from my hoard?" he asked excitedly, turning back to the piles.

     "No!" Terra laughed, putting a hand on his arm to stop him. "No, I'm fine, this will do fine, thank you." It was incredible to see him so eager to please, and that bit of innocent endearment she had seen from him last night returned. If only dealing with him the rest of the time wasn't so frustrating.

     Sighing, Isengrim looked back at her. "If you are sure. Know, though, that all I have is yours, owner." He put a paw to his chest and bowed to her.

     Terra gave him a bittersweet smile. "Thanks." He didn't seem to comprehend that material wealth meant nothing to her compared to just being understood and appreciated. And the one thing she needed from him most of all, he refused to give her: freedom.

     She began to run the comb through her hair, working out the snarls. "So what happened to those Faerie weapons you pulled from Hyren's back? Did they survive the destruction of your castle?"

     Isengrim's ears twitched when she mentioned Hyren, but he seemed to smooth over the temporary upset. "Of course. You can't unmake a Faerie weapon that easily. But they are not here." His lips curled. "Nasty things, those Faeries craft. I wouldn't keep them in a thousand ages. When I seized the Burrows, I sold the weapons to replenish my hoard."

     Terra looked up at him, wincing as she teased out a particularly tough tangle. "So Werelupes and Faeries don't get along, huh?"

     "We loathe Faeries," he growled, "and they loathe us."

     "Is Balthazar a Werelupe?"

     "He is something approaching one. He could be, if he so chose, but he has not yet let the wild completely overtake him," Isengrim said. "And he prefers to live and work alone rather than in a pack." He examined his claws. "Still, he is one of my close associates, and he regularly sends me tribute from what he catches."

     "Huh." Terra put the comb in her pouch and began to re-braid her hair. "Makes sense."

     Isengrim let out a sharp breath. "Well. It is time for lunch, let's go." He took a hold of her shoulder again and steered her out of the room, giving one last glance at his hoard before shutting the door.

     The trip back to the commons cavern went well in some regards and miserably in others. Isengrim seemed pleased that Terra no longer faltered at crossing bridges. Terra lost more and more of her appetite with the mounting pressure of being coerced to earn someone's approval. Going over bridges did not become any easier, and in fact became more difficult because she had not only the inherent instinctive fear of falling, but the very real and present danger of losing Isengrim's favour. But she pushed herself onward.

     They had lunch with Suhel and Pharazon again. This time Terra treated herself to vegetable stew, having to drink it from the bowl as there was a distinct lack of cutlery at the Werelupes' distinct lack of tables. All of the flatware was made of clay, decorated with crescent moons and abstract patterns. If Terra looked close enough she could see the indentations of paw pads where Werelupes had shaped the dishes before firing them.

     Pharazon nibbled daintily at his food, shooting Terra occasional helpless glances. She returned them with exasperated looks.

     "I still don't understand how you could say this is happening for a reason," the Draik hissed. "Werelupes don't need a reason to be cruel."

     Suhel frowned. "Who's being cruel, runt? I just showed you the Opal Caverns! You'll not see the likes of those in all the rest of Neopia!"

     "Maybe I don't want to see your stupid caverns," Pharazon muttered. "Maybe I want to go home."

     "Pharazon," Terra said, "could you find at least one thing to be grateful for? Like that you're still alive and in one piece? And they care about your welfare?" His complaints were not helping her mood.

     "No they don't!" the Draik whined. "Suhel keeps pestering me!"

     "But Blynn pesters you all the time," Terra said.

     "Blynn isn't a Werelupe! That's different!"

     Isengrim, meanwhile, picked up a platter of roast pork. He tore off a large chunk of meat and then set the platter down nearby Terra.

     Terra studiously ignored it and went for a bowl of peas. "Isengrim, did you paint the ceiling in here?" she asked, gazing up at the murals. "It looks like the paintings in your grotto."

     "We all did, under my instruction," he replied, scooting a bowl of smoked fish closer to her. "The motifs are of my own design, but it was a group effort. To symbolise our unity as a pack." He pointed to a cluster of pawprints next to a drawing of a running Whinny. "See? Those are Suhel's."

     Terra eyed the fish with distaste and reached for a plump tomato. While she tried not to make a mess with it, at the first bite the juices spilled out over her hand, so she quickly gave up on that plan.

     Suhel, sitting on the opposite side of Isengrim from Terra, chuckled, her eyes dropping in embarrassment. "Milord, please." She looked over at Terra. "Isengrim is the one who brought all of us together and constructed our culture. If not for him, we would still be living as solitary beasts. That is why he is our king." Her green eyes shone with admiration.

     "And I am the greatest king who ever lived," Isengrim said, gnawing on a bone to get at the marrow. He grabbed a Whole Roast Chicken and deposited it in front of Terra and himself, looking at her intently.

     Her lips thinned, and she stared back as she reached for a loaf of bread.

     He took a deep breath and nudged the meat closer.

     Terra slowly and deliberately took a bite of bread, her eyes not leaving his. She was not backing down from this.

     His fur began to bristle.

     "Sire!" a male Werelupe in the circle barked. "Nusa and I were going to hunt up on Drackonack Ridge today. Would His Lordship be interested in joining us?" The female beside him nodded with a smile.

     Isengrim broke his staring contest with Terra to look over at them. He grinned and his fur flattened. "Certainly!"

     Terra let out the breath she had been holding and gulped down her bite of bread. Maybe he got the hint.

     "It would be an honour to have you, lord," Nusa said, her tail wagging. "We'll set out after lunch—"

     Suhel elbowed Isengrim's arm. "Milord. You have administrative work that needs taking care of."

     Isengrim's ears flattened and he let out a whine. "But—I have been invited to a hunt—"

     She drew herself up and seemed to tower over him, despite being shorter than him by several centimetres. "It is your duty as king to see to these matters."

     He sighed. "I am sorry, Kirven, Nusa. I will have to join you some other time."

     Terra raised an eyebrow at him and snickered. "Are you letting her order you around?"

     The king's nose wrinkled. "No! Suhel is my second, it is her job to remind me of these things!"

     His owner smiled knowingly. "Right."

     Suhel leaned over and winked at her.

     "Well," Isengrim sighed, collecting empty dishes and getting to his feet. "Terra and I will be in the war room. Suhel, you will join us?"

     "Aye, milord," the female replied. "I'll be there shortly. Runt here needs a little extra coaxing to do his dishes." She glowered at Pharazon.

     The Draik hunched over. "I refuse to be reduced to a scullery boy for beasts!"

     "Pharazon, you have no problem with doing dishes at home," Terra said.

     "That's because it's at home," Pharazon hissed.

     Terra sighed and stood up, bringing a few bowls and plates with her. "Let's go, Isengrim."

     All through washing dishes and following the Werelupe through the maze of tunnels, Terra worried about Pharazon. It seemed he was an armchair adventurer through and through, and refused to open his eyes to all of the experiences their little mishap had to offer him. Even though getting there had been rough, and the situation was not optimal, Terra had to admit to herself that it was far better than last time. She wanted to find the good here and cling to it instead of succumbing to despair and becoming as close-minded as her Draik.

     As they walked, Terra felt her lack of adequate sleep catch up with her, and surmised that it must be close to her usual bedtime. It didn't help that the Burrows were so immense that it took a lot of walking – and climbing stairs – to get places. Living someplace huge sounded cool in theory, but in reality it was not for the faint of legs.

     Although she was one to talk, Terra thought, considering she owned an expansive villa. She remembered how she and Blynn would hold wagon races down the marble halls, and although Hyren would grouse that they were making too much noise, eventually he'd join in, too, and they'd all end up in a jumbled pile laughing so hard their stomachs hurt. Pharazon always decried such activities as too dangerous for his fragile person.

     Terra's stomach jerked. The Burrows would never be home to her. Blynn and Hyren had to have been worried sick about her. She had to at least find a way to contact them somehow.

     "Every proper king must have a war room," Isengrim said as he showed Terra into a cavern whose walls were covered in charts. Terra recognised them as mostly maps of the Meridell-Brightvale region and a few surrounding areas, plus astronomical calendars and other assorted sundries. A ring of furs lined the perimeter of the cave, and the floor was covered in various papers, scrolls, parchments, and bags.

     "Have you ever been in a war?" Terra asked.

     "Not yet," Isengrim replied, "but kings have war rooms." That seemed to settle the matter for him as he sat down cross-legged on a fur rug.

     "This looks more like a mailroom." Terra sat down beside him with a yawn.

     The Werelupe reached over and grabbed a pile of papers, leafing through them while making small grunting noises to himself. "Good, good, that's on schedule," he murmured. "Oh, and a surplus there, very nice..."

     Terra was surprised at the sudden demeanor he had taken, and thought to herself that all he needed now was a pair of thin glasses and a mug of hot borovan. Someone who lived in a cave and wore bones and skins did not exactly strike her as the literary type. "Don't take this the wrong way, but... you can read?" she asked.

     "Yes," he replied, not looking away from a scroll and not giving any indication of being offended. If anything, he seemed rather proud.

     He did not seem to recognise the implications to his intellect, but Terra remembered that they were in the Meridell region where – excepting Brightvale – illiteracy did not hold the same social stigma as in some other areas of Neopia. "Well... neat," she replied. "That's cool."

     "Skoll taught me." Isengrim rolled up the scroll and placed it aside. He had begun to sort the papers into piles. "My conjurer," he clarified. "It has made business with my contacts and fiefs much easier than it would otherwise be. Not many messengers brave enough to venture into a den of beasts," he chuckled darkly.

     Terra curled up on the comfy fur. It wasn't like she had anything else to do here but nap and learn what she could. "You have fiefs?"

     Papers rustled. "Of course. Every legitimate lord has vassals."

     "I'm guessing you didn't ask nicely if you could rule over them."

     "They are nearby villages that we raided so often, I figured I might as well just take ownership of them," Isengrim replied matter-of-factly. "They are small, with no central leadership, so they are easy to manipulate. They fear us too greatly to revolt, and are too far away from the other kingdoms to attempt to secure assistance, so I can control their resources as I please."

     Terra took off her glasses. "That's nice of you."

     "Really?"

     "No."

     Isengrim gave an exasperated grunt. "I exact tribute from them, to supplement what we win from hunts and raids."

     "I think you mean you tax them," Terra said. "If they're under your jurisdiction, it's a tax."

     "It's tribute," Isengrim insisted. "It ensures a steady inflow of goods, which is especially important in winter when hunting is poor. It also means we do not overextend ourselves in our raids and risk exposure to the other kingdoms or Illusen." A growl came into his voice at the Faerie's name.

     Terra sighed. It would be useless to try to give him an ethical diatribe. She did feel bad for the simple farmers who had to live under the reign of a greedy tyrant and his ravenous thanes, but she didn't see anything she could do about it right now. She would just have to wait for the right opportunity to present itself.

     Perhaps that was why she had ended up here, she thought as she felt herself drifting off to sleep. Everything she had been through would be worth it if it enabled her to help those in need.

     ***

     "C'mon, runt," Suhel barked, leading Pharazon down a winding tunnel. "You have wings, why don't you use them to keep up with me?"

     "Because I'm tired," the Faerie Draik said as he trudged after her.

     These past two days had been an utter nightmare for him. Torn away from his siblings and his Petpet, forced to endure his owner's exasperating optimism about a situation neither of them could control or predict, now he was expected to live amongst a race of furry barbarians who treated him as a laughing stock. Sure they fed him and never lifted a claw to harm him, but it was obvious they disliked him.

     "You know, runt," Suhel said. "All sorts of things prowled these tunnels before we cleared them out."

     Her ears were perked and her tail raised and wagging lazily. Pharazon was familiar with this kind of body language from Neopet species like Lupes and Gelerts, and Petpet species like Warfs and Doglefoxes. The Werelupe was evidently feeling playful, yet dominant. That did not bode well for him.

     "But," she continued, "they might still lurk in dark crevasses somewhere. Drackonacks that spit venom. Mutant Symols twice your size. That sort of ilk." She stopped and looked over her shoulder at him with an impish grin. "Might drag you away while you're sleeping."

     Pharazon whimpered. "Stop it! It's bad enough that I'm stuck down here with the likes of you, now you want me to worry about other monsters, too?"

     Suhel laughed. "Of course! What fun would it be if I didn't scare you now and again?"

     "It's not fun for me."

     She groaned and waited for him to catch up. "What a wet blanket you are. You never laugh at any of my jokes!"

     "That's because they're not funny." Pharazon's claws clicked against the cool stone. "But why can't I stay with Terra?"

     "His Lordship doesn't like you," Suhel replied. "So he sees no reason to keep you in his presence. Really, I think he was being gracious when he made me look out for you instead of throwing you in the dungeons." Her eyes glittered. "Unless you'd prefer that."

     Pharazon folded his arms and hunched his shoulders. "Hmph." This was the most aggravating day of his life, worse than when Blynn had decided to build a fort using every book in their library. It took him a week to get them all organised again. Now he wished re-shelving books was the largest of his problems.

     They reached a bridge, and Suhel ushered him forward. For someone with wings such as Pharazon, heights held no terror. No, it was the darkness that got to him, and he tried not to look down as he was marched over the abyss. How lucky Terra was, he thought. She never seemed to be afraid of anything. She had always been his rock, his voice of calm when he spiraled into paranoia. Usually that was a good thing.

     Now, though, the time he needed her most, she kept letting him down. For the first time in his life she did not offer him comfort, but advice that would never work. He couldn't help but be a little bitter.

     As they made their way across, from the inky blackness below echoed a rustle and a clatter. Pharazon jumped, his wings throwing out a shower of sparks. "What was that?!"

     Suhel folded her hands behind her back and strutted onward. "Oh, probably a Chumablah. They're known to live in cave systems like this. Claws half a metre long, razor-sharp beak. Always hungry." She grinned widely over her shoulder, showing her own fangs.

     Pharazon grew faint, and he wrung his tail anxiously as he hurried off the bridge. "D-do they ever c-come up here?"

     "Oh... sometimes." Suhel waved him ahead, herding him into another narrow passageway.

     Pharazon's heart rate slowed down to normal levels and he had just let go of his tail when a claw poked his back.

     The Draik screamed at the top of his lungs and jumped in the air, the knucklebones around his neck clattering. He flailed wildly for a moment before collapsing to the ground in a shivering lump. "D-don't eat me!"

     Suhel laughed, withdrawing her paw. "Aye, you're a skittish one for sure, runt!"

     Pharazon glowered at her and picked himself up, dusting off his scales. He had to be stuck with Neopets who got a kick out of scaring him.

     "Oh, come now." She frowned. "I would never let anything get you." She patted his head with one shaggy paw. "When you've got a Werelupe looking out for you, you're as safe as safe can be, runt."

     "I don't care. I just want to go home." Wearily, Pharazon started moving down the tunnel again. His wings had not yet recovered from the shock and they twitched erratically, flinging out sparks of magic.

     "Stop doing that," Suhel muttered from behind him.

     "What?"

     "That... sparkly thing."

     "I can't help it. It's a natural reaction to stress."

     "Well, stop being stressed, then."

     Pharazon blew a small wisp of magic in aggravation. Dealing with Werelupes was like trying to nail jelly to a tree. "Fine, I'll walk behind you if you don't want to see it."

     "Sounds good to me." Suhel padded ahead of him. "You walk too slow for me anyway, on those runt legs of yours."

     Pharazon hung his head and allowed himself to follow the sound of her footsteps while he wallowed in self-pity. This just wasn't fair. Why was everyone picking on him? Terra said Hyren and Blynn would save them. Where were they? Why had they had saved Terra last time, and now that he was in distress, no one came to rescue him? Was he just not that important to them?

     And he was so weak and ineffectual. If not for him, he thought, Terra probably would have escaped by now. He couldn't even save himself. What use was he to her, to anyone?

     With a sigh, he looked up to see why Suhel was being so quiet, and realised that the sound of her footfalls had faded and she was nowhere to be seen. Naturally, panic flooded his system. Had she grown tired of him and abandoned him after all? "S-Suhel?" he croaked, dry-mouthed.

     As unbearable as being around the Werelupes was, suddenly Pharazon felt like being alone was worse. "Oh no," he muttered, fear quickening his pace.

     A flash of gold on the floor ahead caught the Draik's attention, and his terror was replaced by curiosity. Lying there was a pendant in the form of a crescent moon, fixed to a golden chain. "A Lupe Moon Charm," Pharazon breathed. He couldn't just leave something like this lying around to be trampled on—or re-appropriated by these uncivilised brutes.

     As he picked it up, the charm caught the firelight of a nearby brazier and gave off a pale glint. Pharazon blinked as he saw an image in the crescent, like it was a mirror reflecting things that weren't really there. It showed a young white Lupe wearing spectacles, her snowy hair done up in a tidy bun. She wore robes of green and gold. And her yellow eyes were staring right at him in confusion.

     "...Celice?" Pharazon asked.

     Her muzzle opened to reply, but then the light shifted and the image vanished, leaving a blank golden surface.

     "No!" Pharazon shook the charm, angled it in the light ten different ways, even blew some of his Faerie dust on it, but nothing he did made the image return. "Celice! Come back, I need you!"

     "What's the matter, boy?" a kindly voice, rusted with age, asked from behind him.

     Pharazon gasped and turned around. Standing there, smiling warmly at him, was an elderly Werelupe with misted-over eyes. Grey-furred and hunched with the burden of years, he wore a headdress of ribs and leaned on a gnarled staff topped with a skull and feathers.

     The Draik clumsily hid the charm behind his back. "N-nothing."

     "Found a trinket, did you?" The Werelupe laughed, a warm, grandfatherly sort of laugh. It was nothing like the wicked barking of the rest of the pack.

     "You're... you're not going to taunt me like everyone else, are you?" Pharazon asked, fingering the charm.

     The aged beast shook his shaggy head. "No, no. I'm not like the rest of these uncivilised boors, my boy. I don't delight in tormenting those different from me. Or those touched by Faerie magic." He held out one paw in a gesture of greeting. "My name is Skoll. What is yours?"

     Pharazon held his breath and examined the Werelupe's face and mannerisms, detecting no hint of deception or dominance. Finally, someone was being kind to him. It could be a trick. But it could also be the only respite he would get here. He reached out his claws and shook Skoll's paw. "...ArPharazonTheGolden," he replied, "but you can call me Pharazon, sir."

     "Well met, Pharazon." Skoll rubbed his chin. "You have the registered name of a created pet, don't you? Are you the one who arrived with His Lordship's new owner last night?"

     "That's right, sir." Pharazon nodded. His gaze dropped. "Except... he took her away from me and now I'm stuck with a Werelupe who pokes fun at me all the time. And she made me wear these." He showed Skoll the knucklebones at his neck.

     Skoll sighed. "Well now, that's quite unfortunate. The only kind of strength these savages recognise is brute physical force, I'm afraid. They have such a woefully underdeveloped culture."

     "I noticed," Pharazon muttered.

     The Werelupe smiled again. "But you, my boy, have a more sophisticated kind of strength within you. You possess the power of magic."

     The Draik looked up at him sceptically. "I'm afraid I don't, sir. I may be painted Faerie, but I've never had much in the way of magical aptitude."

     "Oh?" Skoll tilted his head. "Have you ever tried?"

     "Well... no." Pharazon blinked. "Wait." Drawing a breath, he removed his arm from behind his back and showed Skoll the charm. "I found this on the tunnel floor, and when I picked it up... I saw a friend of mine in it. And I believe she might have seen me. I think... I think it might have been magic, sir."

     Skoll crouched down and studied the charm, twitching his nose at it. "You don't say. Lad, you must have a fair deal more magical potential than you've been led to believe."

     Pharazon watched him wide-eyed. "...Do you really think so?"

     The Werelupe grinned at him. "They don't call me the Werelupe Sage for nothing."

     "Would you be able to teach me, sir?" Pharazon blurted. Finally, this was it. His chance to actually be good at something useful. It couldn't have come at a better time.

     Skoll clapped his paw on the Draik's shoulder. "Of course I would! I've been looking for an apprentice for a long while, but none of these bone-headed churls will take any interest in the magic arts. I'm sure it would help you pass the time here."

     Pharazon nodded slowly, wild plans forming in his head. It would do more than help him pass the time. If he really had as much of a strength in magic as the old sage seemed to believe, perhaps there would come a day that he could rescue his owner and himself, without waiting around for someone else to do it. "I'm in!"

     "'Oy, runt!" Suhel's voice echoed through the tunnel.

     Pharazon slumped. "Oh, great."

     "Agh, there you are!" the female Werelupe groaned as she padded down the passageway. "Didn't I warn you? The tunnels split at points, so you have to keep your sights on—" When she saw Skoll, her eyes widened and her ears turned back. "My apologies, magus," she said in a lower, less confident and more formal tone, her gaze downturned. "I did not mean to allow this weakling to bother you."

     Skoll chuckled. "It's no trouble at all. I find him quite personable, actually. And I would like to take him on as my apprentice. Surely His Lordship would find no issue in that."

     Suhel's ear flicked and her tail curled inward as she folded her arms in thought. "...We were on our way to the war room," she replied, not seeming pleased with the idea. "You can ask him yourself."

     "Oh, and I'm sure you wouldn't mind me taking the boy off your hands for most of the day," Skoll said as she led them back to the tunnel split.

     "I guess so," she grunted.

     Behind her, the sage snickered condescendingly to Pharazon. "Do you see what I mean? They fear what they cannot understand, just like all uneducated rubes. By the by, boy, you may want to hide that charm," he whispered. "I doubt they'd take kindly to seeing a Lupe artefact on a non-Werelupe."

     "Oh... right." Pharazon uncurled the fist that had hidden the charm and hung the chain around his neck. It was large enough to fit the much thicker neck of a Werelupe, but he found that if he looped it enough times, he was able to get it to a length where the knucklebones hid the charm.

     Suhel brought them to a cavern plastered with maps, where Isengrim sat imperiously on a fur rug reading a letter to himself. Terra was curled up on the fur next to him, and Pharazon thought she was asleep until she opened her eyes. "Hey dude," she said. "You doing okay?"

     Pharazon smiled back. "I am. For the first time in a while."

     She brightened at this and propped herself up on one arm. "Really? Good."

     "Milord." Suhel walked around the pile of papers in the centre of the room and approached her king.

     "Suhel." His crimson eyes glanced up at her, and then at the other Werelupe and the Faerie Draik standing in the entranceway. "Ah, Magus Skoll. What brings you to my audience?"

     Skoll bowed deeply. "Your Lordship, I seek your approval in taking Pharazon as my apprentice." He gestured to the Draik.

     Isengrim's ears perked. "Oh?" He looked over at Suhel again. "How did this come about?"

     "Cursed if I know," the female replied, shaking her head. "Runt gets himself into all sorts of trouble while I try to keep him under my thumb."

     "Sire," Skoll said, stepping forward and ushering Pharazon with him, "while I understand Suhel's misgivings, I pledge to take care of her young ward. And the court will need a conjurer if anything should happen to me. I would like someone to teach my secrets to."

     "Hm." Isengrim stroked his furry chin. "Well, I see nothing wrong with it. He might as well be good for something. Go ahead, train him as best you can, Skoll. He might even grow a backbone while you're at it."

     Terra sat up and put on her glasses. "Hey, whoa, wait." She waved her hands at Isengrim. "You can't just make decisions for my Neopet like that."

     He looked down at her. "You may be his owner, but I am his king. My word is authority here."

     She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "Pharazon... are you sure you're going to be okay with this? I don't want you getting in over your head—"

     "I'm not a child," he hissed, a little harsher than he meant to. His ears drooped. "I'm sorry, Terra. But I've finally found something I could be good at. And something that could help us both," he added, trying to sound cryptic and intriguing.

     His owner gave him a dubious look. "If you're sure."

     Pharazon nodded. "Completely sure."

     Terra sat back on her hands and smiled halfheartedly. "Okay then. Have fun. I'm glad to see you happy about something."

     "Me, too," he replied.

     Skoll put an arm around the Draik's shoulders and began to lead him out. "That went much better than I had hoped," the old Werelupe said. "It seems the fates are on our side."

     From behind them, Pharazon could hear Isengrim and Suhel chatting. "Caxton Bank's grain tribute is on schedule," Isengrim said, sounding pleased.

     "Good, good," Suhel replied.

     "Oh, fetch me that quill and ink—I have some... wage adjustments to make for the Black Blurgah. I am very displeased with how they treated my owner and I know just the thieves' guild to assist in reparations..."

     "Heh, this ought to be entertaining." Their voices faded with the winding of stone walls.

     "Suhel doesn't like me," Skoll chuckled as they walked. "Poor girl. Her primitive mind can't seem to wrap around the idea that my position as Isengrim's sage doesn't threaten her position as his second-in-command."

     Pharazon tilted his head. "She doesn't seem jealous of you. More... afraid, if anything."

     "Jealousy can manifest itself in many forms, my boy. I've seen enough of this world to know that much. You would to well to remember that all these beasts know are power struggles. The strong are venerated and the weak trampled. They quite frankly lack the cognitive developments necessary for compassion."

     Pharazon decided he liked Skoll, a lot. Finally, here was someone who – despite being a Werelupe himself – shared Pharazon's opinions of the race. "Ugh, they are nasty creatures," he said. "I don't know how you put up with them, sir."

     "Well, there's a reason why I stay in my study," Skoll rumbled goodnaturedly.

     Pharazon followed him through the underground labyrinth, across more bridges, through more tunnels, and then down a winding staircase cut into the rock. Here and there, shards of crystal poked out of the spiral shaft, glowing an ethereal green of their own accord.

     The two reached a landing where a thick cloth hung on the wall, and Skoll pulled it aside and ushered the Draik into a cavern. "Welcome," the sage said, "to my humble abode."

     Skoll's study was not a particularly large grotto, but its feel was completely different from the rest of the Burrows. A Mote-powered fire blazed in a hearth, and the stone floors were covered in real rugs with intricate patterns, not crude furs. A table and a pair of chairs occupied the centre of the room, and on the walls were shelves crammed with bottles and jars of various shapes and sizes.

     But what caught Pharazon's attention most was the bookshelf, full to brimming. "I never thought I'd see another book again!" he said, rushing over to the precious tomes and hovering his claws over their spines. "May I borrow some, sir?"

     Skoll laughed. "Of course!" The Werelupe placed his paw on the Draik's shoulder and gently steered him away. "But first, let's talk about your magic, shall we?" He pulled out one of the chairs and took a seat in the other, folding his paws on the table. A bowl of fruit sat there and he offered it to Pharazon.

     "What can I use this Moon Charm for?" Pharazon asked, plucking a bright orange-and-yellow-striped Tangella from the bowl. "Can I talk to Celice with it? What else can I do?"

     The sage leaned back in his chair. "Patience, my boy, patience. Altador was not built in a day, and neither are magical abilities. I shall teach you the basics, how to tap into your potential, before we go into specifics."

     At the mention of the venerable city, Pharazon's ears drooped. "...We used to live in Altador," he murmured, staring at the Tangella. Its sunny colouring reminded him of his home nation's emblematic hues.

     "I'm sorry," Skoll replied. He heaved a great sigh. "Homesickness is a terrible weight to bear, isn't it. It never really goes away."

     Pharazon glanced up at him. "...Are you homesick?"

     "There's more than one way to make a Werelupe," Skoll muttered, his cloudy gaze growing distant.

     The Draik tilted his head. "What do you mean?"

     "Most Werelupes are Lupes who simply went wild." Skoll steepled his fingers. "They eschewed civilisation and let instinct take over. It changes them into the lawless beasts you now must live with. But some..." He shook his head. "Some are cursed with their form."

     "Like you. I'm so sorry."

     Skoll returned from his reverie and smiled warmly at him. "It is not your fault, young one."

     "Can't you just use a Paint Brush or a Morphing Potion?"

     The Werelupe shook his head. "Were it that easy, I would not be here today. Curses as deep as these cannot be counteracted by mere aesthetic magic. Believe me, I tried." He sighed. "But, the tides of fate ebb and flow as they will on us all. I was fortunate enough to be taken in by Isengrim when he and his pack came to the area, and given this high position in his court. My needs are met and they leave me to my studies in peace, only asking for the occasional enchantment or scrying." The old mage smiled. "And, well, if I were not here, you would not have anyone to befriend you and train you, so it seems it turned out for the best, hmm?"

     The Draik thumbed the edge of the table. "Do you really believe in that whole fate thing? My brother says it's mostly superstition."

     The sage smirked. "Let the unsophisticated believe what they will. I've seen enough in my time to know that there is a fabric to things. Very little happens without a reason in Neopia."

     "I got a fortune about this," Pharazon admitted. "A couple of days ago. I was with my family in Shenkuu, and we got fortune cookies, and mine said stuff about... 'when shadows cover'—no, 'consume the moon, spectres of the fallen shall rise... and threaten to devour the sun'. And then it said 'Beware the beast that smiles'." He swallowed hard. "They told me to ignore it, but it came true. At least, that last part. The first thing I saw when we got here was that... monster leering at my owner."

     "Oh, my, my, that is rather unhappy," Skoll replied. "Undoubtedly the fates were trying to warn you of Isengrim's machinations. What he lacks in learning he more than makes up for in cunning, I am afraid. And he's ruthlessly tenacious and merciless. I feel bad for anyone stuck with him."

     "They should have listened to me," Pharazon grumbled, "instead of brushing me off. I'll bet there was a way we could have avoided this."

     Skoll shrugged. "At least you've learned your lesson about always going along with what your family says, eh?"

     "Yeah..." Finally, Pharazon thought, he was making something of himself, and he wouldn't be hurt by his family's poor judgement any more. "Thank you for training me, sir. I really appreciate it."

     The Werelupe chuckled. "Don't thank me until you can transmute sludge into gold, boy! But yes, your training, let's get to that straightaway." He rubbed his paws together. "The first thing we'll work on is knowing how to recognise magical energy within yourself, so you can tap into it and use it at will. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and find that little core of warmth within you."

     "Okay." Pharazon bowed his head and concentrated, feeling his belly expand and contract with each breath. Somewhere deep within him, he felt a knot of warmness. "I think I found it," he whispered. "What do I do now?"

     "Will it out. Summon it, channel it through yourself."

     Pharazon wrinkled his snout and imagined the warmth spreading. To his astonishment, he found he could feel it coursing through him, slowly but steadily. He grinned. "Okay. Now what?"

     "Open your eyes."

     The first thing the Draik saw were his own claws, aglow. Sparks of aquamarine magic danced across the tips, burbling like a colony of Lightmites. "I did it!" He stood up from the chair, nearly knocking it over. "Look, Skoll, look at this!" With a shout of joy, he flung his hand in the air and sent an arc of sparkles shimmering over the table. "I've never been able to do this before! I never knew I could do this!" He spun in a circle with his arms outstretched, watching the magic spiral around him, until finally he collapsed on the rug, laughing.

     Skoll chuckled. "If only every teacher had a pupil as enthusiastic as you."

     Holding his claws in front of his snout, Pharazon watched the magic fade, feeling a rush of fatigue and giddiness all at once. "This is incredible!" he sighed, staring up at the ceiling. He was strong. Things were finally going his way.

     He'd never felt happier in his life.

To be continued...

 
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