It was raining.
It was a crisp Storing evening in Altador, and it was raining, and Dark_breed_Hyren was doing his best not to catch a cold.
The blue Grundo hated rain. But it was a little more tolerable when one was curled up on a plush couch in one's family's library, wrapped in a down comforter, enjoying the blazing heat of the fireplace, and sipping a mug of steaming borovan while reading the Neopian Times.
The rain could patter on the tile roof of their villa and stream down the tall windows as much as it liked, but it could never get to Hyren in here, and that made him feel superior and snug.
"Oh Peadackles, where's my dice?" his sister, Blynn679, asked as she scrambled around a table nearby. Her disco Zafara tail waved in the air as she lifted up papers and binders that lay strewn on the oaken surface, and then ducked beneath it to search the floor. She poked her head above the table and giggled. "Wait, never mind, they're on my chair."
Their owner, Terra, walked in with a bowl of popcorn and set it down on the table. "I just put the garlic toast in the oven," the human woman said, flipping her long brown braid back over her shoulder. "Remind me to check on it in about ten minutes." The sleeves of her plaid flannel shirt were rolled up, a sure sign that she'd been hard at work in the kitchen.
"You should use the hourglass," Hyren said, not looking up from the paper. "Then you won't have to ask us to remind you." The savoury aroma of buttered popcorn filled the air and made his mouth water.
The blue-eyed woman chuckled and pushed her glasses up her nose. "Yeah, but the act of me telling you to remind me helps me to remember," she said. She glanced up at the clock on the wall. "Okay, so if it's 6:02 now, check it at 6:12…"
Blynn plopped the bag of dice on the table and sat herself down. "Thanks for making the snacks for our session, Terra!" she said. Lacking Hyren's self-discipline, she plunged a paw into the popcorn and stuffed a pawful into her mouth. "Thith ith gonna be greah!"
Terra grinned, leaning over the table and scanning the papers. "Yeah, I'm excited!" she said. "What's this campaign going to be about?"
"Spoilers!" the Zafara replied as she reached for the popcorn again. "What else are you making for us?"
Terra's eyes narrowed mischievously. "Spoilers," she said.
Blynn's face fell. "You're not making Shrimp Cupcakes, are you?!" she asked.
The girl laughed, although it came out as more of a maniacal cackle. "You'll just have to wait and see," she said in a sing-song tone.
"Terra!" Blynn cried, throwing a kernel of popcorn at her.
It bounced off of her face and onto the table, and Terra popped it in her mouth with a grin. "Nah, I'm not that cruel," she said. "C'mon, I'm eating this stuff, too." She eyed the table again. "Actually, if you want a teaser, I got us some Gummy Dice Salad. Y'know, 'cause it fits the theme."
"Awesome!" Blynn said. "What a great idea!"
"Clever," Hyren said, taking another sip of borovan.
"Thanks," Terra said over her shoulder as she turned to leave. "Be back."
Blynn had been introduced to Neoquest during a stay in Brightvale earlier that year, and took to it like a Mallard to water. She'd found a Neoquest group here in Altador, and after a few months of playing and learning the ropes, she began to Quest Master her own campaigns.
Hyren was looking forward to tonight. He wasn't a sociable sort, but he had more than enough camaraderie with his sister and owner to make playing Neoquest with them an enjoyable experience, instead of an exercise in patience and stress management.
Terra came back in with a tall pitcher of chokatoade and a stack of glasses. "I hope this is okay for a beverage," she said. "I'd make some borovan or cocoa, but I don't want it to get cold by the time we start. I figure I can make that on demand."
"Sounds good," Blynn said, pouring herself a glass.
Terra frowned and asked, "What are you doing?"
"Taste-testing," Blynn said with a roguish grin. "Somebody's gotta do it."
"Fair enough," Terra said with a snort.
"Yep, this passes the grade," Blynn said.
A bell on the wall jingled merrily, signaling someone at the front door—it and other bells throughout the villa were enchanted to ring whenever the main door bell was struck. "Oh—" Terra began to say, but then her eyes caught the clock. "Ah! I forgot about the garlic toast! Could somebody else get that?" she asked as she rushed back to the kitchen.
"I got it," Hyren said. He put down the paper and his mug, and pushed himself off the couch.
"You sure, chief?" Blynn asked before taking another swig of chokatoade.
"We're starting soon anyway, right?" Hyren asked. "Can't relax on that couch all night, as much as I'd like to." He moved to the hallway, already missing the fire's warmth.
Granted, it never got very cold in Altador compared to places like Terror Mountain or even Neopia Central—snow was a rare occurrence here. But winters did have the propensity to be chilly and rainy, and something about wet cold just froze Hyren to the bone and made him miserable.
Pawsteps sounded on the marble behind him. "Wait up!" Blynn said, scampering to his side. "That might be the last person for our campaign."
Hyren's antennae perked. "What? Someone else is playing?" he asked. "It's not that super annoying Kacheek with the laugh like a Snorkle's, is it?"
Blynn laughed. "No way!" she said. "She was driving me mad too, and she always argued with me when she got bad dice rolls. From now on, it's just family and friends in these campaigns."
They crossed the long hallway and descended the stairs into the main entry hall. The floor was decorated with a mosaic depicting Minitheuses and Garfirs cavorting in a pastoral landscape, and the ceiling was supported with pillars. Doors at one end of the hall led to a courtyard that overlooked the sea. The wild Altalaphuses that often visited the villa gardens were probably splashing about right now in the reflecting pool as it swelled with rainwater.
It wasn't that Hyren's family tried to be affluent. They'd simply accrued enough through their adventures over the years to be able to live comfortably in a pleasant and classy setting. Hyren did vastly prefer to this to the somewhat shabby bamboo Neohome where they'd lived on Mystery Island when Terra was a teenager. As an adult, she'd finally decided to make her dream home a reality, and now here they were in Altador.
The bell rang again. "Coming, hold on!" Blynn shouted.
"Okay, you've stumped me," Hyren said as they approached the large double front doors. "I have no idea who this could be. It's not like we have a whole lot of friends—"
Blynn pulled the door open. Hyren's heart skipped a beat as he found himself looking up – way up – at a familiar pair of crimson eyes, and gleaming fangs that caught the glow of the home's Faerie-dust-powered lighting.
"Surprise," said the sopping-wet Werelupe King.
Hyren staggered back in shock. "What—"
"Apologies for my tardiness," Isengrim said as he sauntered inside. "It is sometimes difficult to find punctual transportation from the Werelupe Woods."
"Did you get a ride from pirates?" Blynn asked as she shut the door behind him.
"Aye—gave the poor cabin boy quite a scare," the hulking Werelupe said with a chuckle. He dropped to all fours and shook himself.
Water flew everywhere, including all over Hyren, and the Grundo's antennae flattened against his head. Isengrim noticed and winced. "Ah—sorry," the Werelupe King said, trying to wipe off Hyren's head with one large furry paw.
"Thanks," Hyren said. He and the Werelupe King had a bit of a history. It was long and complicated, but suffice to say they weren't trying to kill each other anymore. Also now they were brothers.
"Isengrim!" Terra said. She stood at the door to the kitchen, an oven mitt still on one hand and a huge grin on her face. "I'm so glad you made it okay!" She ran to the three.
Isengrim caught her up in a tight hug. "Ah, I missed you so much!" he said. "It is good to see you well!" He looked at the other two. "The same goes for you both."
"Likewise," Blynn said.
"Yeah," Hyren said. Isengrim had changed a lot since Hyren first met him under quite unfavorable circumstances. Hyren couldn't stay angry with him after everything Isengrim had done to save the Meridell region and their family. And Hyren found he believed a great deal in forgiveness, especially since he had been on the receiving end of it himself many years ago. At any rate, Isengrim was also the best sparring partner Hyren had found yet.
The Werelupe kept an arm around Terra as he looked around the hall. "You did not tell me you lived in such a palace!" he said. "It rivals even the Burrows!"
"It's not nearly so big," Terra chuckled. "Will the pack be okay while you're away?"
"Suhel is taking care of them," Isengrim said. "She does an excellent job in my absence."
"How long are you staying?" Hyren asked.
"A fortnight," Isengrim said.
"Oh, yay!" Blynn said, clapping her paws together. "We're gonna have so much fun! I think we can get in some good campaigning in that time!"
Isengrim glanced around the entry hall. "Where is Pharazon?" he asked.
"He's in town with Celice," Blynn said. The white Lupe sorceress was their Faerie Draik brother's best friend. They didn't get to see each other often because Celice lived in Brightvale, conducting diplomatic negotiations between the Werelupe Woods and the rest of Neopia.
"She just got here this morning," Terra said as she led them to the kitchen. "Apparently there's a new exhibit in the Altadorian Archives on the history of perfectly flat rocks, and they just couldn't pass up the opportunity to check it out."
The kitchen was spacious and homey, with dried herbs hanging from the rafters and cruses of olive oil on the counters. A large, open brick oven sat in one wall, flames still dancing inside as Fire Motes rolled around the confines.
Isengrim leaned over his owner's shoulder and sniffed the air, and his pink tongue lolled out between his fangs. "What is that delicious smell?" he asked.
"Garlic toast," Terra said with a proud smile. Sure enough, on a cooling rack sat thick slices of garlic toast topped with bubbling cheese.
"Ah, you spoil me!" Isengrim said, his tail wagging.
"I try," Terra said. "Do you guys think you could help me bring up the rest of the snacks?"
"We're on it!" Blynn said.
"What a feast you have prepared!" Isengrim said as Terra handed him a bowl of almonds and a platter of chocolate-frosted Faerie cakes.
The owner picked up a plate of cinnamon and sugar scones. "Gotta have game food," she said.
Isengrim's smile fell a bit as he looked around the kitchen. "Ah... my apologies, but you would not happen to have any meat, would you?" he asked.
Terra grimaced. "Oops, I'm sorry," she said. "I forgot. I should have picked some up for you at the marketplace earlier."
He held out a paw and said, "No, do not worry about it. I can go for a hunt later to supplement."
An awkward silence followed, and Hyren knew none of them liked the idea of Isengrim prowling around the Altadorian hills.
Isengrim grinned self-consciously. "Or not," he said. "I will be fine, really."
"I'll pick up some meat for you at market tomorrow," Terra said as she led them to the spiral staircase in the corner. "I know you need a lot of protein."
"Thank you," Isengrim said. "Only if it is not too much of an inconvenience."
She smiled at him and said, "You're never an inconvenience."
Hyren liked that about their owner.
The stairs led to the second-storey hallway, which made it much more convenient to reach the kitchen from upstairs. That was especially important for Terra, who liked to read while she ate, so the library often served as her meal room.
As they ascended, Isengrim's ears pricked and his attention snapped to the corner of the stairwell. "What is that?" he asked.
Hyren watched a little dust ball roll across the wall and slip into a crack in the plaster. "That was a Dust Mote," the Grundo said. "We have a population living here."
"They just move around and eat dust all day," Blynn said as she stepped into the second-storey hallway. "Really makes cleaning house a lot easier."
"We certainly do not have that in the Burrows," Isengrim said. "Staying in a building should be an interesting experience."
"I hope you enjoy it," Terra said, setting her plates down in the library. "I'd really love for you to come visit more often."
"I am enjoying it very much already, thank you," Isengrim said. "You and your family will have to stay in the Burrows again sometime. Suhel misses you all as well."
"Maybe for Giving Day!" Terra said. "That would be fun! I really like Giving Day in Meridell, there's something rather nostalgic about it."
Isengrim smiled and said, "Giving Day it is, then."
They took their seats at the table and Isengrim grabbed a piece of garlic toast. "I am most curious about how this Neoquest thing works," he said. "Terra and Blynn tell me it is like storytelling."
Terra handed him a set of dice. "Right," she said. "But there's also an element of chance involved, which is where the dice rolls come in. It helps add randomness and makes the story more interesting."
"I see, I see," the Werelupe King said. "Fascinating." Taking a bite of the toast, he closed his eyes and smiled, and his tail wagged so much it looked like someone was shaking a feather duster. "Terra, this is amazing! Will you make garlic toast every day, please?"
She laughed and said, "Of course!"
Blynn straightened the papers in front of her and opened up the thick, hardbound books lying beside them. "Okay, character creation time," she said. "This campaign is going to take place during the War of the Circle of Twelve. You're going to be adventurers from the Kal Panning area, so keep that in mind."
"Gotcha," Terra said, studying her blank character sheet.
Isengrim poked his sheet with a claw. "What does all of this mean?" he asked.
His owner leaned over to him and said, "Here, I'll help you."
While she explained the items on the sheet, Hyren glanced down at his own. "Blynn, you gave me a blank one," he said. "Where's Alucor Darksbane?"
"Three hundred years in the future," Blynn said. "You can't use him this time round."
"But he's level thirteen!" Hyren said. "Can't we say he was transported back to the War by a temporal mage or a dimensional rift?"
"Nope," Blynn said. "Everybody's starting with new characters this time. Makes things more fun!"
"Fine," Hyren said with a sigh. Starting from scratch was one of his least favorite parts of new campaigns. How could he keep his party members safe if he was just as weak as they were? But what the QM said, went.
"Okay, I'm going to be a Jubjub," Terra said.
"Oh?" Blynn asked.
"I get bonus skill points for lack of arms, right?" Terra asked. "I want to make her a mage, so she won't need much in the physical department anyway. I could use the extra skill points to give her a power boost."
As Blynn began to thumb through one of the books, Hyren looked over at their owner and asked, "You're min-maxing?"
"Hey, it's a legitimate character generation strategy!" Terra said. "Besides, nobody ever plays as a Jubjub. I wanted to give it a spin."
Blynn gave Terra the open book and said, "Here's all the Jubjub stats." As Terra began to write down the relevant information, the Zafara asked, "What kind of mage are you going to be?"
"Life," Terra said with a smile.
"Well, at least that hasn't changed," Hyren said with a chuckle. "You're always either a life mage or a paladin."
"That's not true!" Terra said. "Last campaign I was a cleric."
"Yes, which has essentially the same skill set as a life mage," Hyren said.
"But clerics use staves and can Mesmerize," Terra said.
Isengrim looked up from his paper and said, "I want to be a Werelupe."
Hyren gave him a dubious look. "No offense," the Grundo said, "but you're already a Werelupe. Part of the point of Neoquest is to get the chance to be something you're not."
"Not necessarily," Terra said, glancing up from her character sheet. "The point is to do what's fun for you. Everybody's got their own way to play Neoquest, and some people enjoy creating characters similar to themselves." She grinned. "I may like to experiment with playing as different Neopet species, but I'm super bad at pretending to be something I'm not."
"Which is why you're always a life mage or a paladin," Blynn said. She turned to Hyren. "And I wouldn't speak so soon—you're always creating combat-oriented characters who specialise in strength and fortitude. Who does that sound like, hmmm?"
Hyren's cheeks turned a deep shade of purple, which is what it looked like when blue Grundos blushed. "Okay, I get your point," he said. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Terra said, patting his shoulder. "We'll just let everybody enjoy the game their own way. Then we'll all have a good time. That's the most important thing, that we're all having fun."
"Although," Blynn said, "Isengrim might just have to settle for being a regular Lupe. I don't have the Haunted Woods Quest Guide—that's the one that includes stats for Werelupes as playable characters."
Isengrim ducked his head. "Oh—I understand," he said, obviously disappointed.
Terra looked over at Blynn. "Let's just improvise Werelupe stats for him!" the owner said. "I mean, there's nothing that says we can't."
Blynn grinned. "Hey, good point!" she said. "Gimme the Quest Guide?" Terra handed her the book back, and the Zafara flipped through a few pages. "Okay… use most of the stats for normal Lupes here," she said to Isengrim, "but go ahead and give yourself a… let's say, plus three to Strength and Stamina."
Isengrim nodded, and Terra helped him pencil in his stats while showing him the different job classes available.
Hyren reached for a handful of almonds. Outside, the rain still fell steadily, making the room feel all the more cozy. He wondered if the cypresses and olive trees outside were enjoying the extra water. It certainly made up for how hot and sunny that summer had been.
"I'm going to be a warrior," Isengrim decided.
Hyren frowned in the middle of biting into his Faerie cake. "But I was going to be a warrior," he said.
"What's wrong with the both of you being warriors?" Terra asked.
"It would mess up the party dynamic!" Hyren said. "We'll be unbalanced!"
"Annnd?" Terra asked. "The most important thing is to have fun, remember?"
"I like well-organized, efficient fun," Hyren grumbled. "It won't be 'fun' if we fail in our quest because we weren't adequately prepared."
"I'm not that mean," Blynn said.
"Are there any other job classes either of you would like to specialise in?" Terra asked.
"I suppose I could choose something else," Isengrim said, rather heavy-heartedly.
Hyren felt bad. This was Isengrim's first experience with Neoquest, and it should have been a positive one, but here Hyren was making a fuss. He swallowed his pride and said, "No, don't worry about it. I'll choose a different class." If Isengrim's idea of fun was to play a warrior, and Hyren's idea of fun was to make sure their party machine ran smoothly, he would figure out a way to reconcile those two.
Isengrim smiled. "Thank you," he said. "I promise I won't let our party down."
"I know you won't," Hyren said. He tapped his pencil on his character sheet. This would require a slight change of plans. "I'm going to use some of my skill points to make my character Tyrannian."
"Ooh, interesting choice," Terra said. She gave him the Quest Guide and he flipped to the chapter on painted pets.
"Thought I'd mix it up a little," Hyren said.
"Which species?" Terra asked.
"Hissi," Hyren said. "They have good Acuity and Mobility, right? I'm going to need that to be a ranger."
Blynn looked up from her notes. "A ranger?" she asked. "That's new territory for you."
"It seems like the next best thing after a warrior," Hyren said. "I guess I could expand my horizons a little and see what else I like. Might be useful to cross-class one of these days." He scanned the page, which described the various bonuses and disadvantages for the different types of non-basic-painted pets. "Whoa, a Defence bonus for Tyrannians? Sweet."
"Yeah, 'cause you got that cool armoured skin," Blynn said, pouring herself more chokatoade.
"But I get a minus to Intellect… meh, not necessary," Hyren said. He figured Terra's life mage would have more than enough Intellect to go around.
Once they had gotten their characters figured out and organised, and Terra had made them all hot cocoa, Blynn drew herself up with the air of a storyteller. Her natural propensity for theatrics always made her enjoyable to watch.
"These are dark days for Neopia," she said. "The Circle of Twelve has gone mad, and nations have begun to fall under their conquest. The great city of Kal Panning seems poised to be the last bastion of the light, but storm clouds gather on the horizon…"
Thunder rumbled nearby, and everyone jumped a little.
Terra laughed and said, "Nice timing."
Hyren looked over his shoulder out the window. The rain was coming down harder. "Sure glad we're inside with a fireplace," he said.
Isengrim tapped the floor with his hind paw. "It is good that you live in a house of sturdy stone," he said. "I would worry about you, otherwise."
Blynn scanned over the notes she had written for the campaign. "The three of you are not unaware of the trouble brewing to the west," she said. "Already, strange monsters and dark forces have begun to pop up in the woods, and you have a sinking feeling it is only a matter of time before something even more sinister comes out of the Two Rings Valley."
She reached for her dice rather ominously. "We begin in an innocent-seeming meadow outside of Kal Panning, on a beautiful sunny day. Your characters have stumbled upon each other by chance. Terra is looking for materials to craft her first wand. Hyren has been scouting these woods to learn all he can about the growing darkness. Isengrim is out on a hunt."
Terra nibbled on a scone as she leaned over the table, drawn into the story. When Blynn said nothing more, the human turned to Isengrim and said, "Okay, here's the part where we act out our characters a little." She raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. "Oh! A Werelupe! I, uh, wasn't expecting to see one of those here…" She was a terrible actor and was obviously embarrassed to be doing it, but trying to be a good sport.
Isengrim smiled and said, "And I was not expecting to see a little fuzzball." He reached over and patted her head, and she chuckled.
"I slither out of the trees," Hyren said, "and say, 'Be on your guard! A shadow walks these woods today!'"
"But you gotta say it like a Hissi," Blynn said. Hyren narrowed his eyes at her. "Pleeeeeease?" she asked.
"I'm not going to say all of my in-character dialogue like a real Hissi," Hyren said. "That would get super annoying."
"Just this once?" Blynn asked.
"Okay, okay," Hyren said. He took a deep breath. "'Be on your guard, a ssshadow walksss thessse woodsss today.' Happy?"
Blynn clapped her paws. "Yes," she said. She looked back to her notes and her eyes lit up. Hyren knew that look. He didn't like that look. "Buuuut you were too loud! Suddenly, three Plains Lupes burst out of the trees, and they look hungry!"
"What's a Plains Lupe?" Isengrim asked.
"They're like Lupes, but, uh…" Blynn tapped her chin. "Bigger… and… strong… er…" She trailed off as she looked up at the bigger, stronger Lupe sitting at the table.
"Like Werelupes?" Isengrim asked. "And they are enemies?" His ears turned back. "Typical," he muttered under his breath.
Terra patted his arm and grabbed the Quest Guide, showing him the illustration. "They're not Werelupes," she said. "These things walk on four legs and don't talk. And aren't nearly as cool as you."
"Oh," Isengrim said, studying the illustration. "I see. My apologies… I dislike when my kind are villainised."
"Me too," Terra said. "But Blynn would never make Werelupes the villains in a campaign. We know better than that."
"That's right," Blynn said with a nod. "So, encounter time! Roll for initiative!"
Three dice clacked on the wood. "I got a 20," Isengrim said. "Is that good?"
"Added to your speed rating…" Terra said, looking over his character sheet. "Nice one! Looks like you're going first, unless any of those Plains Lupes got higher."
Blynn finished rolling for their enemies. "Nope, he's going first!" she said.
Isengrim's tail wagged. "Excellent," he said. "I am enjoying this immensely!"
Hyren was going second, and he grinned and said, "Me too."
Thunder boomed near the house again, and Hyren glared out the window smugly. The storm could rage all it wanted, but it would never reach him in here. He was going to spend his evening ignoring the rain and enjoying the company of his eclectic little family.