Isengrim pawed through the undergrowth, a powerful scent lingering in his nostrils. Dropping to all fours, the Werelupe stalked through the shadows, silent as night itself. His shoulderblades rippled beneath his dark fur. He was on the trail.
"What is it, Suhel?" Isengrim did not have to see the other Werelupe to know she was there. He recognized her scent, and his quivering ears picked up every time her bare paws stepped on dead leaves, her bone-crafted armour brushed against branches, or she breathed quickly.
"Aren't we too far away from the keep?" She paused. "I believe this is Hubrid Nox's territory, sire." They spoke in low, low whispers. Even though their quarry was far out of earshot, in the Haunted Woods there was a good chance other things could be listening in. Maybe even the Woods itself.
"I'm hungry," Isengrim growled. "They're carrying food."
Her eyes flashed red in the dark. Suhel was closer than he'd estimated. "You know what that warlock will do if he catches us in his domain," she said. "We lack the magicks to contest his claim to this land. We have food enough at the keep."
"I want this food," the Werelupe King said. They'd been following for hours the aroma of something salty and savoury and mouthwatering. It had peaked his interest as soon as he smelled it. From there, the hunt was on. It was true that he tasked his thanes with collecting tribute, but he was a Werelupe, after all, and the thrill of the chase would never die for him.
He lifted his muzzle, his nostrils flaring to allow in a new smell, smoky and sharp. "Fire," he breathed. "They've lit a fire."
"Which means they've stopped," Suhel said with a relieved sigh.
Isengrim snorted in response, and they kept moving.
In a clearing, a hearty campfire blazed, and Isengrim watched it through the thick of the leaves. Around it sat a red Grarrl, a yellow Skeith, and a blue Eyrie, laughing and eating fresh fruits.
"Man!" the Skeith said. "Great camping trip, huh?" She bit into a negg and slurped up the yolky innards.
"Yeah, the Haunted Woods was an awesome idea!" the Eyrie said with a nod, his long tail lolling.
The Grarrl swallowed his apple whole, stem and all, then turned to look over his shoulder. "Hey, can we dig into the pizza now?" he asked.
"Sure thing!" A tall, lanky creature stepped into view, wearing sturdy travelling clothes. Isengrim's ears tilted in confusion. This was no Neopet. It walked on two legs, and was furless except for a patch of close-cropped, curly black hair on its head. Its skin and eyes were dark, and it had small ears, no tail, and hands with four fingers and a thumb.
"What is that, milord?" Suhel asked. "A wingless Faerie?"
Isengrim closed his eyes. Somewhere deep inside his mind, buried under the ages, lurked a tiny seed of memory. He let out a breath and pulled it up.
"All right, my very own Neopet!"
His first memories were of a face, young and excited.
"Okay, so you're a Lupe. That's cool."
"How do I make Neopoints? Aw man, I gotta feed it? Where do I get food?"
Wasn't he loved?
"Man, these games are boring. I can't figure this out at all."
Who was he? Did he even have a name? And the hunger grew, grew all the while.
"What? Oh, yeah. I thought it was gonna be cool but it's kind of confusing. I dunno."
The hunger gnawed and curled its cold fingers around him and told him he was not loved.
"Yeah. I think I'll go somewhere else. I'm tired of this."
He was not loved. And he ran from his tears into the wilds and the Woods did not consume him, it tempered him like hardened steel.
And he became king.
"It's an owner," Isengrim breathed, trying to shove the memory back into oblivion. "They're weak and cravenly things." Why had his origins come back to haunt him now? Was just the mere sight of an owner enough to trigger such painful recollections?
"So that's what they look like," Suhel said.
The owner reached into his backpack and pulled out a flat, white box. He opened the lid and the familiar scent of something warm and savoury flooded the area. Carefully, the unusual creature lifted out triangular shapes dripping with cheese and meats, and handed them to his Neopets. "Here you go, guys!"
Drool dripped from Isengrim's maw. This was his quarry—the source of the aroma he'd been tracking all night.
The Eyrie took a slice in his paws. "Cheesesteak pizza, my favourite! Thanks!"
"No problem!" The boy hooked an arm around the Eyrie's shoulders, pulling him in for a hug and ruffling his azure feathers. "I told you we'd do something special for your birthday!" The Neopet's siblings reached for more pizza as well.
Isengrim's pain twisted into anger and he let out a snarl. "I want it." It wasn't just a matter of food anymore. He couldn't stand seeing other Neopets enjoy what he had never been given—kindness and care. A family. He felt as though they had camped out here just to torment him and he meant to put an end to it.
"Milord!" Suhel said. "Wouldn't it be better to wait 'til they're asleep?"
"They'll eat it all before then!" the Werelupe King whined. Already the Skeith was on her second slice. All of this happiness and contentment was making Isengrim sick to his stomach, so he needed food to dull the pain.
The Eyrie's ear tufts twitched. "What was that?" He looked in the Werelupes' direction.
Isengrim bared his fangs and leaped out into the open, making the four cry out in surprise. He dug his claws into the bare dirt, his fur bristling and his ears high. "Give it to me!" he barked. "Your food! Give me all of it!"
The Grarrl stood up. "Make us," he said, showing his rows of sharp teeth.
Acceptance of the challenge. Isengrim grinned. "Gladly," he said. Behind him, a dozen more Werelupes rose out of the Woods, eyes afire.
The owner and his Neopets shrank back, the Grarrl shielding his smaller caretaker. "Whoa, hey guys—" the Skeith stammered. "You can't just—"
Isengrim leaped, spearheading a wave of baying beasts that crashed into the clearing in a flurry of claws and teeth.
"Run!" the owner yelled. He swung himself onto the Eyrie's back and the little group took off into the trees.
A couple of Werelupes gave chase to make sure they wouldn't come back, while Isengrim, Suhel, and the rest set to work collecting their spoils. They stuffed most of the food into sacks, but made sure to do a little taste-testing first.
The Werelupe King appropriated the rest of the pizza for himself, lounging near the fire and enjoying every delectable bite as the cheese dribbled down his chin and tomato sauce splotched red on his fur.
And yet he could not get out of his head the sound of that family's laughter, the happy looks on their faces. Isengrim's stomach was full, but there was a part of him that would never be full no matter how much he consumed. A hunger lurked in his soul that food could not sate, and he could feed his body to bloating, but his heart would continue to shrivel and perish for want of sustenance.
He was owned, once. He tried to forget, oh how he tried. But he could not.
On their way back to the keep, Isengrim announced, "I need an owner."
"Milord?" Suhel tramped next to him. They made less of an attempt to be stealthy now, and Petpets skittered out of their way. "What purpose would an owner serve you? You already have vassals to do your bidding. Your network of contacts stretches across Neopia."
He glared at her. "An owner means family," he said.
She gave him a skeptical look in return. "Milord," she said, "your pack is your family. And trust us, plenty of us don't miss our own parents a bit." Murmurs of agreement rose up behind them.
"It's different when you were created by an owner," Isengrim said. "Once—once they leave you, nothing else can fill that emptiness." She had not been created, and could never understand the rasping hunger. "Keep an eye out for an owner on your hunts, all of you."
"Owners rarely venture this far into the Woods, sire," another Werelupe said. "And we dare not venture too far outside of your domain."
"Aye, we've pushed it far enough as it is," Suhel muttered, glancing over her shoulder. Her hackles rose and her tail bushed. As strong as they were, this was still the Haunted Woods, after all.
"Another one will come," Isengrim said. He knew how to be patient.
Mist swirled around them as dawn approached. The taste of the pizza had already faded from his tongue. He wanted more. He would have to figure out later whether it was worth the trouble to try to reach his contacts in Neopia Central. Running things into the Woods was a business that demanded hefty pay, and Isengrim was loath to let go of what he had accumulated. It legitimized his rule, and more importantly it made him feel powerful. In control of his life. Unlike when the one person who was supposed to have loved him most tore all of his happiness away and he was helpless to stop them.
They reached their castle on the cliff and he sent runners ahead to announce their return. His kingdom was small, but it was [i]his[/i]. The guards on the ramparts gave him a hearty welcome, and as he passed through the thick doors into the great hall, he let out a howl of fierce greeting.
His hunting party dispersed to cluster with the other Werelupes in the hall, bragging and brawling over food. Isengrim sauntered to his throne, leaned back on the fur-covered bone, and looked out on his thriving realm. He and his pack had found this old fortress ages ago, abandoned and broken-down, but used as they were to sleeping on bare ground, it was a vast improvement. Any proper king had to have a castle, and his thanes needed a place to call home.
Settling his jaw into his paw, Isengrim looked out at his little kingdom of outcasts. Even seeing them all safe at home did not bring him the peace and contentment he longed for. He needed an owner. That yearning for family had been reawakened in him and it would not be put to rest.
But he would have to wait, for just the right opportunity.
And when he found a new owner, he would never let them leave him again.