"This is an outrage!" Blynn679 said as she backhanded the front page of the Neopian Times. The disco Zafara's magenta tail lashed behind her in frustration as she paced around the library of her family's Altador villa.
Her Faerie Draik brother edged over her shoulder to look at the headlines. "What's an outrage?" ArPharazonTheGolden asked.
"This!" Blynn pointed to the largest text on the page: PREPARATIONS FOR ANNUAL CHOCOLATE BALL UNDERWAY. Beneath it was an illustration of the Chocolate Factory shopkeeper overseeing the decoration of an enormous dancing hall.
Pharazon's brows pinched together in confusion. "Yes, that's… that's terrible, Blynn," he said. "My condolences. I think."
"Social injustice, that's what it is!" Blynn shrieked.
"Clearly," Dark_breed_Hyren said flatly as he looked up from his mug of borovan. The blue Grundo gestured to the paper from his reclined position on the couch. "Can I have that back now?"
"Only if you complain about the unfairness of it all!" Blynn said.
"Um," said their owner Terra, who was leaning against the table with one hand in her trousers pocket.
"I don't get it," Pharazon said. "I thought you liked chocolate."
"Yes, that's the problem!" Blynn said. "I love chocolate! And this stupid ball is invitation-only! Access is restricted to only the very elite of Neopian society! All of the bigwigs, the celebrities, the political leaders—Fyora herself even makes an appearance!" She smushed her nose against Pharazon's snout. "Fee-oh-rah!"
"And…?" Hyren asked. "It's just a glorified sneak peek of the Chocolate Factory's upcoming products. If you wait a few months, you can buy the stuff anyway, without all of the fuss."
"Um," Terra said again, fingering whatever was in her pocket. With her other hand she reached up and tugged on her brown braid nervously.
"The point is," Blynn fumed, "he's holding out on us—in order to appease the upper crust! They're just a bunch of hobnobbing snobs!"
"Wearing fobs?" Pharazon offered.
Blynn nodded gravely and said, "I bet they're all slobs." She scanned the room with narrow eyes, and then her ears perked. "A-ha! That's it!" She steepled her fingers. "I have an idea… a wonderful idea…"
"That hopefully doesn't involve Donkasaurs again," Hyren muttered, taking a sip of his borovan.
"No, no," Blynn said. "I admit that one wasn't well-thought-out."
Terra shifted her weight and said, "Uh, guys—"
"We'll have a Chocolate Llab!" Blynn said.
"'Llab'?" Pharazon asked.
"It's 'Ball' backwards," Blynn said. "Because we're backwards sorts of people." She turned a cartwheel across the floor to demonstrate. "Except, let's pronounce it 'hlab'."
"Wouldn't just 'lab' make more sense?" Pharazon asked. "It's just two L's."
"But 'hlab' is so much cooler and more unexpected!" Blynn said. She started to pace around the room. "We can hold it in the great hall in the north wing! I've been looking for an excuse to use it!"
Hyren picked up the discarded newspaper and began leafing through it, looking for the page he had left off on. "Why did we even include that in the floor plan, anyway?" he asked. "We're not lavish party-throwers."
"Traditional Altadorian villas include a large hall for entertaining," Pharazon said. "And, after all, it's better to build a room just in case you'll need it, than have the house built and then discover you're in need of another room."
"Point taken," Hyren said.
"This'll be great!" Blynn said. "We'll have music – Sticks N' Stones, of course – and games, and loads and loads of chocolate! And the best part is, it'll be utterly unpretentious!" She turned to their owner. "Oh, can we, Terra, can we?"
The woman gave her Zafara a nervous smile and said, "Of course, that sounds like an awesome idea. But, um…" With an embarrassed sigh, she drew a folded piece of parchment out of her pocket. "I don't think I'll be able to attend."
Blynn's jaw dropped, and her brothers' eyes widened. "Is… that what I think it is?" Blynn asked.
"You got an invitation to the Chocolate Ball?" Hyren asked in confusion. "Granted we're well-off, but last time I checked, you weren't a celebrity. Our family saving Brightvale last year notwithstanding."
"Well, uh…" Terra unfolded the parchment and turned it around to show her Neopets a neatly written letter, signed with a large, anthropomorphic paw print. "I didn't get an invitation. Isengrim did."
"Isengrim?!" her other three pets asked.
Terra grinned self-consciously and said, "Well, he is the Werelupe King. He's kind of important." She looked back to the paper. "I guess when you're invited to the Chocolate Ball, you can bring one guest, but Suhel didn't want to go, he says here."
"But she's Isengrim's second-in-command," Pharazon said.
"Yeah, but apparently she doesn't care much for these kinds of social events," Terra said, "and she doesn't have a sweet tooth. And since I'm Isengrim's owner, he thought of me next."
Blynn kicked at the floor and said, "Aww, Gummy Rats. C'mon, Terra, you don't really wanna go to that stuffy old thing, do you?"
"Actually," Terra said, "I think it might be kind of fun. I at least want to say I went when I had the opportunity, I guess. Besides, I don't want Isengrim to have to go by himself."
"That prospect does worry me," Hyren said. "He's not exactly the poster child for social graces."
"Celice has been trying to teach him how to be more diplomatic," Pharazon said. "But to be honest, I think he's got a way to go. He has sort of been antagonistic toward civilised Neopia for most of his life."
"I'd hate to leave him without any help or backup," Terra said. "I know how tough social situations can be when you don't know what you're doing." She smiled. "But I'll bring you guys back all the chocolate I can—how's that?"
"You drive a hard bargain, Terra," Blynn said. She rubbed at her furry chin and then clambered onto the table so she was closer to the human's eye level. Drawing herself up imperiously, she announced, "Okay. I'll allow you to go, but on one condition." She stretched her hind legs and put her paws on Terra's shoulders, sticking her nose close to her owner's. "You gotta have as much fun as you possibly can!"
The two laughed and Terra picked Blynn up under the arms, swinging her around before collapsing on the couch next to Hyren and hugging her tight. "You've got a deal!" their owner said.
The Chocolate Ball was a week later. After making the necessary preparations, Terra took a Shenkuuvian sky-ship to the Werelupe Woods and picked up Isengrim, and then the two sped off to Neopia Central.
They had booked rooms at the Royal Neopian, and spent the day of the ball relaxing on the premises and enjoying each other's company. They explored the extensive hotel, pretended like they were good at tennis – Isengrim ended up inadvertently breaking three rackets – and had lunch at the hotel's restaurant, where Isengrim ripped into steak and ribs and Terra enjoyed her salad and pizza.
As the sun dipped below the horizon and the bustling metropolis of Neopia Central became aglow with innumerable Faerie-magic lights, Terra and her Werelupe retired to their rooms to get ready for their public appearance.
Terra was in the bathroom, trying to figure out her hair, when there was a knock at her door. She opened it and her eyes widened at the sight before her: a massive Werelupe clad in armour fashioned from bones. The skull of some beast with long fangs and twisting horns covered his head, and his crimson eyes gleamed down at her from within the skull's empty eye sockets. A long crest of scarlet hair was attached to the back of the skull, and a thick cape of fur draped down from the Werelupe's shoulders to complete the unconventional ensemble.
"Isengrim…" Terra chuckled and leaned against the doorframe. "You're wearing your battle armour to the Chocolate Ball?"
The Werelupe King nodded, his helmet's crest swaying behind him. "I asked Celice for some pointers before I left the Woods," he said. "She informed me that it is customary for military leaders to wear their war regalia at formal gatherings of this degree." His tail lifted. "Also, I think it looks… 'cool', as you would put it."
Terra laughed. "I think it looks cool, too," she said, "but… I'm worried it might send the wrong message at a social event."
"Mm…" Isengrim glanced aside. "It was either this or my everyday clothing. Werelupes do not really have formal attire."
"I understand," Terra said. "I wouldn't want you looking like you just walked in from the depths of the Haunted Woods." She patted his arm. "No worries. You'll just be your usual unique self, and that's what makes you awesome."
The Werelupe King beamed. "Thank you," he said. "And you look stunning as well."
"Thanks," Terra said as she looked down at her dress. It was a long-sleeved, high-necked piece fashioned after traditional Brightvalian styles, decorated with intricate patterns of swirling silver. "I've never worn anything this fancy before. I felt weird just buying it."
"You wear it well," Isengrim said. "Hold your head high, you are beautiful."
"You're sweet," Terra said. She gave him a hug and he returned it, and then she held up her wrist and said, "Look!" On her arm dangled a bracelet of fangs.
The Werelupe's tail wagged as a grin cracked his muzzle. "Ah, you remembered!" he said.
"Yep!" Terra said. "I am a member of your pack, after all. This is a badge of honour, and I'm proud to be your owner."
"The honour is mine, I assure you," Isengrim said, patting her head. "And your hair is lovely as well!"
Terra chuckled and grabbed clumps of her long hair, loose from its usual braid. "Oh, that," she said. "Actually, I was just trying to put it up, but… I have no idea how to do that."
Isengrim tilted his head. "Up?" he asked.
Terra gathered her hair into a clump at the back of her skull. "I was thinking just a simple bun like the one Celice keeps her hair in," she said, "but…" Her tongue stuck out in concentration. "It's hard when you can't see the back of your head!"
The Werelupe King laughed. "Perhaps I can help," he said, poking his snout over her shoulder to see what she was trying to do. "I am familiar with how my ambassador wears her hair, after all."
"Good idea!" Terra said. She grabbed his wrist and led him to the bathroom, in front of the mirror. "And you can see the back of my head a lot better than I can."
Isengrim set his helmet on the counter and carefully gathered Terra's hair into a twist. "All right… I will admit, Celice makes this look easy," he grunted as he turned the human's hair this way and that, as though he was trying to magically make it assume bun form.
"Oh, crumbs," Terra said as she examined her mirror image. "I think you need pins or something. I totally forgot those. I don't think my hair tie will help…"
The Werelupe thought for a moment, and then his ears perked and he said, "I've got it." Reaching down, he plucked a long, thin bone spike from his armour. One end was sharpened into a point, and he deftly curled Terra's hair over itself and up before securing it with the bone. "Problem solved," he said with a grin, stepping back to let her admire his handiwork.
Terra turned her head back and forth, trying to see as much of her new hairdo as possible as a smile crept up her face. "It looks wonderful!" she said. "Thank you so much, Isengrim!"
"Werelupes are great craftspets, after all," he replied. He patted one of his bone pauldrons. "I did not exactly order this armour from a catalogue."
"Perfect," Terra said. She looked herself over one last time and then turned to her Werelupe. "I'm sorry… I didn't make us late, did I?"
Isengrim shook his head and said, "Werelupes always arrive precisely when they want to." He put his helmet back on and offered her his elbow. "Shall we?"
"Indeed!" Terra said. She took his arm, and off they strolled to the Chocolate Ball.
Dusk had overlaid the sky in a velvety purple by the time they left the hotel. Lampposts cast circles of warm Faerie-light in a regular pattern on the sidewalk, and Uni-drawn carriages bustled up and down the busy streets, their wheels making a racket on the cobblestone.
The Royal Neopian was only a few blocks from the Chocolate Factory. As Terra and Isengrim neared, they began to see other attendees making their way toward the factory's enormous gates. The gates served as a rarely-opened portal between the rest of Neopia and the hidden sanctum where the Kiko chocolatier created his masterpieces.
Some guests arrived on foot, while others were dropped off by Uni carriages or Eyrie cabs. A few had ridden or flown in on Petpet mounts, or using the power of their own wings. There were even some Faeries scattered among the Neopets.
One thing they had in common was that they were elegantly dressed and looked every part of high Neopian society. Terra watched them as the elaborately-wrought factory gates loomed high over even Isengrim's head, and found herself clutching his arm tighter.
"Do not be afraid," Isengrim said to her. "Just have fun."
"Sorry," Terra said. "I talk big, but… social events like this still unnerve me a little. I kind of feel like… I don't deserve to be here."
Isengrim shook his head. "All of these Neopets and faeries are people just like you," he said. "I was invited, you are my guest, and thus you have just as much right to be here as they do. And you have just as much right to enjoy yourself."
Terra smiled. "Thanks," she said. "Okay. I'll try my hardest to have fun. And I'll try hard to help you out, too."
"I appreciate that," Isengrim said, "but let me look out for you as well."
"It's a deal," Terra said.
The courtyard had been decorated with strings of lights that curved from the factory's roof to the high surrounding wall. Fountains of chocolate - milk, dark, and white - burbled in the wide space leading to the doors.
As Terra and Isengrim crossed the courtyard, murmurs and gasps spread through the other guests. Neopets they passed gave them strange looks, and Isengrim merely grinned in reply, his ears perked and his tail held high.
"I see my armour is making an impression," he said as he led his owner to the stairs.
Terra chuckled. "Sure is," she said.
Suddenly Isengrim stopped cold and his tail drooped between his legs.
"What's wrong?" Terra asked.
He whispered, "Illusen." Subtly, he nodded his snout to where the Earth Faerie was alighting in the courtyard. "No one told me she would be here."
"Don't let that ruin your evening," Terra said, patting his arm. "It's only awkward if you make it awkward."
"My pack tried to overrun her glade and she repulsed us—twice," Isengrim said, ducking his head. "That is not awkward, that is… a nemesis."
"I'm sorry you two have had problems in the past," Terra said. "But you're on peaceful terms with Meridell now, so you shouldn't have anything to worry about."
"Let's just try to stay away from her," Isengrim muttered as they continued on their way.
At the tall doors to the factory, the Kiko chocolatier floated, beckoning his guests with one hand while clutching his cane with the other. His top hat and suit looked especially crisp as he welcomed each attendee by name, shaking their hand and thanking them for coming.
"King Isengrim!" he said as he reached up to grasp the Werelupe's paw, seeming completely unfazed by this particular guest's unconventional appearance. "Welcome, my good sir, welcome to the Chocolate Ball!"
Isengrim shook his hand firmly. "Thank you," he said. "It is an honour to be here. And let's go with Lord Isengrim. It sounds better." He gestured to the human at his arm. "And this is my owner, Terra."
"It's nice to meet you," Terra said with a curtsy. "Thanks so much for putting on this ball. It looks amazing so far!"
"You've not seen the half of it yet!" the Kiko said. "Just wait until you get to the ballroom!" He ushered them forward. "Just follow the brown carpet, and enjoy the factory tour!"
The long carpet under their feet led directly into the heart of the factory. It took Terra and Isengrim on a winding journey of what must have been only a small part of the enormous chocolate works. They passed by mysterious machinery, currently in a powered-down state; displays showing the history of Kiko confectionery and of the Chocolate Factory; and, behind glass cases, samples of the fanciful new products that the chocolatier had been hard at work creating. It was here that most of the guests had stalled, as they analyzed each piece and exchanged critique.
"There will be a tasting later," the Kiko chocolatier said, floating up from behind the human and her Werelupe. "The Neopets you see here are chocolate connoisseurs with impeccable taste. Everything I sell in my shop has been run by them first."
"Do we get to try, too?" Terra asked.
"Of course!" the Kiko said. "But I must charge you with the strictest secrecy. Confectionery is a fiercely competitive business, and all of my recipes are proprietary. I must ask that you divulge no detail of these unreleased products—and do not try to take any of them outside the factory gates."
"I won't, sir," Terra said. "I promise."
Isengrim frowned. "My owner is no traitor," he said to the chocolatier, putting an arm around her.
"I wasn't accusing her of being a traitor," the Kiko said. "I'm just making the rules clear." He beamed up at the two and doffed his hat. "That being said, do enjoy your evening!" He gestured again down the carpet and then bobbed away to speak to some other guests.
Isengrim scowled slightly at the Kiko's retreating back. "If he gives you any more trouble," he said to Terra, "he'll have to answer to me."
Terra gave her Werelupe a squeeze. "Thank you for looking out for me," she said. "I don't think he was singling me out, though. He probably has to tell that to everyone—legal reasons and all that." She smiled. "We'll just have to show him how good we are at keeping promises and being trustworthy."
"That's a good way of looking at it," Isengrim said, patting her shoulder. "I am sorry. Already I have overreacted."
Terra shook her head. "You were just being your usual protective self," she said, "and that's great. I know there's a lot about this kind of thing that you don't understand. That's why I'm here to help you out."
Isengrim thought about this for a moment, and then he smiled. "Thank you, Terra," he said. "But you are also here to have fun! Shall we explore the rest of the factory?"
"Yes, let's!" Terra said, and they set off again, through more cavernous halls filled with slumbering equipment. Through the almost oppressive gloom of the titanic, silent factory, the sweet strains of a waltz had begun to drift.
"I can't decide whether this place is cool or creepy," Terra said as they made their way down a long corridor that led to another tall set of doors. "Probably both. And that's probably just the way the owner likes it."
Isengrim chuckled and said, "He does seem a touch… eccentric. Then again, I am one to speak."
Walking through the doors was like stepping into a different world. On the other side lay an immense ballroom, easily larger than King Skarl's throne room. The floor held a band of classical musicians in tuxedoes and gowns, a buffet consisting of a light dinner and a vast array of chocolate confections, and several more chocolate fountains besides. And there was still plenty of room for the dancing guests who elegantly glided across the marble flooring.
"Wow," Terra said, craning her neck to try to take it all in, from the massive crystal chandeliers to the tall windows that looked out on a lush garden. "This is incredible."
Isengrim removed his helmet and tucked it under his arm. "Yes," he said, "it certainly—" His ears perked and he snapped to the attention of a chocolate-coloured Chia who waddled obliviously past them. Isengrim's crimson eyes were riveted on the Chia as the Werelupe sniffed the air.
"You okay?" Terra asked.
"No one told me there were chocolate Chias," Isengrim said, unable to look away as the Chia joined other, fruit-coloured Chias cavorting in a chocolate fountain. He blinked hard and shook his head. "Ah—my apologies," he said. "There is something about Chias that does that to Lupes."
"Thanks for not eating them," Terra said with a smile. "C'mon, let's go occupy ourselves with better things. Like dinner!"
They shuffled into place at the buffet line, where Isengrim gave disappointed looks at the dainty sandwiches and delicate hors d'oeuvres. "I wish there was more meat," he muttered under his breath. "And more… in general."
"I sympathize with your plight too well, milord!" a deep voice guffawed from across the table. King Skarl stood there, indiscriminately shoveling food onto his plate, much to the chagrin of the guests next to him. "I understand that the chocolate is supposed to be the main attraction," he said, "but what I wouldn't give for some good gammon instead of this Snowbunny feed!"
Isengrim and Terra looked at him for a moment and then laughed. "Well," Isengrim said with a grin, "we shall have to make up for it with one of your legendary banquets when we return home!"
"Indeed we shall!" the Skeith said. "Then, we shall truly sup like the kings we are—" His ears lifted as he looked past the Werelupe and owner. "Ah, Illusen!" he said. "So good of you to come, milady!"
Isengrim's fur flattened and he set down his plate to jam his helmet back on his head. "Maybe she won't recognize me," he whimpered.
Terra gave him a sceptical look. "Isengrim, sweetie," she said, "you're the only Werelupe here. Also you're a head taller than everyone but Lord Darigan." She gestured to the Citadel's ruler, who was chatting with Sir Jeran, Lady Lisha, and an orange-haired Usul girl.
Skarl, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to his fellow king's distress. "Illusen, come try some of this food, why don't you!" he said. "Of a truth, it's more your style than mine!"
Isengrim grabbed his owner's hand and turned to run. "Terra," he said, "let's—" His ears flattened at the sight of Illusen heading straight for them. Letting out a whine, he ducked behind his owner as though she could block his massive frame. "Hide me."
This left Terra to smile nervously as Illusen made her way to the table and picked up a plate. "Oh, this does look quite good," the freckled Faerie told Skarl with a smile. "Although, the nice thing about being a Faerie is that you can eat all the chocolate you like and it does nothing to your figure."
Skarl patted his considerable paunch and said, "Aye, and I eat all the chocolate I like and don't care about my figure!"
The two shared a laugh, and then Illusen casually turned toward Terra and her cowering Werelupe. The Faerie's deep green eyes narrowed and her smile froze. "Hello, Isengrim," she said.