Worth Fighting For: Part Two
The heat woke him, first. Hyren opened his eyes and realised he'd chosen the wrong side of the dune to fall asleep on. He was already sunbaked and sticky with sweat, his helmet unbearably stuffy. With a groan, he pulled it off, letting the desert wind cool his head for all too brief a period before it turned to hot again. He was sore all over, although he guessed that being trapped under a collapsed building did that to a person.
He'd been in wilderness survival situations before, on other worlds. The only thing different about this was that it was only him this time, no troops to command or other officers to work with. He kept reminding himself to just be grateful he didn't have to deal with incompetents, but he still felt strange being so isolated.
First up was a check of his own condition. He'd certainly been in better shape, but he'd also been in worse. His wounds would heal with time and rest. His blaster still had some energy, his armour was in remarkably good physical condition, and he had a week's supply of ration capsules. Really the only loss was his armour's power. The shock of the collapse had probably damaged the electronics, and the dust and sand weren't helping matters, either. Hyren just needed to find a place to recuperate and wait to be found.
And thus he set off through the sand, slogging into the boundless wastes, until the sun finally got too hot and he napped in the shadow of a dune. He continued this way for several more days, sleeping during the hottest parts of the day and keeping on the move otherwise. He was heading toward a dark mass of rock that shimmered on the horizon, thinking that it would be more hospitable than the open sands.
Some sort of winged creatures occasionally wheeled overhead, a species of the class of nonsapient beings referred to as Petpets on this planet. Intel dossiers further specified that these feathered Petpets were known as Horuses, Hyren remembered. They casually called to each other as they rode the thermal currents, soaring in lazy circles. But there was no one calling to him, Hyren thought.
Finally, at the rocks he found sanctuary: a good-sized cavern, completely unpopulated except for a few Petpets who stayed hidden in the darkness. The cave contained a spring of crystal-cold water gushing perpetually from an underground source. Where it flowed out onto the sand, a small oasis of palms and fruit trees had sprung.
For the next long while, Hyren lived off the land. There was more than enough food and water to sustain him, but he was also left alone with his thoughts. Sloth couldn't have just abandoned him, could he? It was pretty foolish to go searching for loot in the middle of a battle zone, Hyren admitted to himself. He'd been too hasty. Maybe, Hyren conjectured, returning with prisoners to be experimented on would help him regain favor in his master's eyes. He would have to be sure to find some.
But there was no one else out here, just the wind and the Petpets. After a while he got to know their habits well: how herds of black-horned Nuks would crowd around the edge of the water for a sorely-needed drink, the way Keprus chased each other around the sands and tugged at each other's large ears, which rocks most likely had gold-skinned Scamanders curled underneath.
Occasionally the commander made cursory explorations of the tunnels in back of the cavern, but he never got very far, as he couldn't find the necessary materials to make a torch. There didn't seem to be anything of any interest there, just barren stone.
And every morning, before he went to sleep to ride out the hottest part of the day, Hyren would put on his helmet and listen. It remained nonfunctional, but his listening became a daily ritual. It was the only thing still capable of connecting him to his life and livelihood, to the man he swore loyalty to. Every night, he would stare up at the stars for a long while, hoping to see familiar lights moving among them. He could not lose his reason for fighting.
His wounds healed and he'd long stopped keeping track of the days, but eventually Hyren reached a point where he knew he'd be moving on soon. It was funny how already the caves had started to feel like a home to him, he thought as he plucked a blue-and-yellow-striped fruit from its bough at sunset. Hyren hadn't stayed in the same place for this long since he'd joined Sloth. Maybe this planet's atmosphere was doing funny things to his brain. He needed to get back to regiment and warfare—he feared he was going soft. But maybe, it occurred to him, he was purposely putting off returning. After all, he didn't quite know what he would find when he got there. Perhaps they'd wanted him out of the way all along—
The sound of voices approaching made his antennae perk up and he froze.
"Terra, are you sure this is it? We've been walking all day!"
"Well, the map says... yeah. Compasses don't lie, at least."
Fruit in hand, Hyren bolted back toward the mouth of the cave, knowing the shadows would conceal him. Pressed against the cavern wall, his armour cushioning him from the uneven rock, he watched the dune over which the two voices were drawing closer.
"Hey, look! There's the cave! What do you think we'll find in there? Treasure? Cool shiny stuff?"
"Just think, there's a whole lost civilization that we could discover, if this old map has a shred of truth to it! How cool would that be?"
"Pretty much the most cool thing ever!"
The two voices were young, and female, but one was more subdued while the other was energetic. Hyren gulped down the fruit, tossing away the pit, not taking his eyes off of the dune.
Finally, the owners of the voices emerged from over the top of the sands, both wearing dusty cloaks and toting backpacks with bedrolls. One was a red Zafara, her long tail waving behind her as her large feet effortlessly supported her on the sand. The other was an owner, pale-skinned with scattered freckles, her brown hair tied back from her face and ceaselessly tossed by the desert wind. She looked to be in her early teens, long and lanky, with blue-grey eyes partially obscured by glasses.
Hyren narrowed his eyes. Paydirt. And from their conversation, they seemed to be heading right into his lair. With a snicker, he secured his armour and retreated farther into the darkness, watching them like a Horus scanning the sands.
"Oh, wow!" the owner exclaimed, stopping short when she noticed the pond, while the Zafara stumbled down the dune a bit. "An oasis! Funny, that's not on the map..." The girl held up an ancient-looking roll of paper, examining it. "Although, considering its age, it was possibly drawn before the oasis even existed..."
Meanwhile, the Neopet let out a whoop and dropped her pack, flinging away her cloak and running headlong into the pool, scaring away a small herd of Apises. "Look at all this water!!" she yelped in joy, splashing about with wanton abandon.
"And fruit!" the owner added, more practically kneeling down to refill hers and the Zafara's canteens. She rose, moving toward the fruit trees while the Neopet continued to frolic in the pond.
The commander frowned. Let that annoying thing get her own water, he thought. No wonder pets with owners were such weaklings, always depending on someone else to get things done. He felt a good deal of pride at being stronger than that.
Finally the Zafara trudged out of the pool, shaking herself off and wringing out her dripping long ears to join the owner at one of the trees that shaded the oasis. The teen was eagerly plucking large blue fruits and stuffing them in her pack. "Here, Blynn, have a Blusops." She chuckled as she tossed one of the fruits to the Zafara, who snatched it out of the air and bit into it with gusto.
Why were they taking so long, Hyren wondered, his antennae lowering in impatience. This cave was their destination, wasn't it?
Just as the thought came to his mind, the girl shouldered her pack and looked toward the cavern entrance. "Well... are you ready for this?" She sounded a little uneasy.
"You bet!" The Zafara produced a shuttered lantern from her pack. "Come on, I wanna check this place out! Who knows what we'll discover!"
The owner smiled. "Yeah... let's do this!" She punched the air and led her companion forward. Once they had passed the threshold into shadow, the Zafara opened a window on one side of the lantern, allowing the warm, steady glow of a Fire Mote to illuminate their path.
As she did so, the two of them both drew in a gasp, and Hyren had to restrain himself from doing so as well. The room blossomed into vivid colour, and what he thought was an ordinary cave turned out to be covered with gigantic painted murals of Neopets in elaborate robes and headdresses, entwined with intricate floral and geometric patterns. Suddenly Hyren felt a twinge of regret that he'd never been able to bring light into the cavern, instead skulking about in shadow and completely missing what was literally in front of his face.
"Wow... I guess that weird old Poogle was right!" the Zafara exclaimed. Her voiced ricocheted sharply off the walls, causing Hyren to grab his antennae and grimace.
"Amazing..." the owner breathed, moving as if in a trance toward the murals, where she studied the rainbow-hued portrait of a regal-looking Lupe. "The lost empire of Alxuin... so here's where it went."
The Zafara trotted over to her, the Neopet's tail waving slowly as she held up the lantern. "Hey, look." She pressed a finger to the wall. "There's writing here! It looks weird, Terra, what does it say?"
"Nooo idea." The girl shrugged. "I'm not exactly an expert on ancient Neopian languages. And careful with that paint, it must be super old!"
Hyren noticed his opportunity. Taking in a quiet breath, he stepped toward their turned backs, his large bare feet making no noise on the hard stone. A small rock crumbled beneath one of his footfalls. His jaw clenched, but it was a miniscule noise, surely not noticeable.
The Zafara's ears twitched and she whipped around, catching Hyren in mid-step. Her motion caused the girl to turn as well, and the two stared straight up at him as though they didn't quite know what to make of the situation, more confused than scared. He froze, and for an awkward moment the three just looked at each other in silence.
Then he lunged at them.
Both Neopet and owner shrieked. The Zafara used her powerful hind legs to spring out of the way, but the girl was slower to react and Hyren caught her wrist, yanking her into the air. "Let—go—!" she insisted, thrashing and kicking as she tried to pry away his thick fingers.
Hyren spun around, expecting to see a Zafara foot headed for his face. Instead, the creature was on the far end of the cavern, positioned near the entrance to a tunnel and dancing foolishly. "Can't catch me!" she taunted, hopping from one foot to another as she dangled the lantern in front of her.
The commander roared in frustration and slung the girl over his shoulder, sprinting after the Zafara. "Come back here!!" he yelled into the darkness, agitated that the thing wasn't idiotic enough to try to face him head-on, and was making his job a lot harder than he wanted it to be. He supposed he could just take the girl and leave her Neopet to be lost in the subterranean labyrinth, but he didn't know if Sloth had successfully mutated any Zafaras yet and Hyren wanted to get on the doctor's good side as much as possible.
Through the dim halls, a mocking giggle echoed. "Over here, dung-for-brains!"
"I'll have Sloth save his most painful experiments for you, you little furball!" Hyren retorted. Even with the glow of the Zafara's lantern, the cavern complex was dim and fuzzy and the Grundo sometimes had to slow down to make sure he wasn't going to run into a wall.
"You leave her alone!" the owner demanded. She twisted around in Hyren's grip, bringing her knee up and ramming it into the visor of his helmet with unexpected fierceness.
"Gah!" The Mutant Grundo was caught off guard by the blow and staggered backward. He tried to catch himself on a wall that he had misjudged to be there, and instead felt himself falling back even further, losing balance completely. Instinctively he curled his back to tuck into a roll, but the hall suddenly lit with orange and he stumbled over something.
"Hah!" the Zafara yelled. "I've got—"
Before she could even finish her sentence, Hyren heard a familiar low grinding and a knot instantly formed in his stomach. "Oh, no," he muttered as the floor suddenly gave way beneath him, sending all three of them sliding into darkness.
While the owner and the Neopet wasted their time screaming, Hyren swiftly reached out and grabbed the Zafara by her long ears, throwing her against his chest. She'd had the good sense to at least hold on to the lantern, and it lit their way through a cloud of dust and fractured rock as they were propelled down a sinuous shaft that finally spit them out into a larger space.
Hyren hit the floor with such an impact that it briefly blacked out his vision and sent his two captives flying out of his grasp. Rock rained down on him and something heavy slammed into his leg, forcing a cry of pain from his throat. For a moment, all was dark and silent except for the last remnants of the collapsed floor trickling down, clattering tauntingly against his armour like hail.
"Terra, are you okay?" the Zafara asked from somewhere beyond his reach, lost in the murky gloom. "Oh, come on, little fella..." There was the sound of tapping on metal, and then the Fire Mote's steady glow began to dispel the shadows again in a small space around her.
"Yeah... yeah, I'm fine. Looks like my pack made it, too. Oh, there's my glasses... Are you okay?" Their voices echoed emptily, giving Hyren the idea that this room was much more voluminous than the entrance.
"Yep... wait, lemme check... ow... well, a few bumps and bruises, but other than that I'm good."
The two slowly picked themselves up from what looked to be an elaborate tile floor with the same kinds of decorative motifs as the murals above. Then, they turned to Hyren.
Gritting his teeth, he tried to pull himself out from under the rocks. They wouldn't budge, and he was trapped on his stomach so he had no way of extracting himself. And he couldn't get to his blaster. For the first time in a long while, the icy hand of panic gripped him, and he swallowed hard. He was at their mercy.
The girl took a few tentative steps toward him, and then crouched down slowly, putting her hands on her knees and tilting her head. "...You're a Mutant Grundo, aren't you?" she asked quietly.
Hyren narrowed his eyes. "Of course," he snarled. Some interrogation this was starting out to be.
"And... you work for Doctor Sloth?"
"Yes." The answer still came quickly, even though Hyren had to remind himself that he had been missing from the overlord's army for... well, it had to have been months, now, he realised. "Go ahead. Leave me here," the commander urged gruffly. "I'm sure it's a fitting form of justice for what I've done on your planet."
By now, the Zafara had joined her owner's side, and the Neopet gave Hyren a sceptical look. "...Why would we do that?"
The Grundo's antennae twitched. "Because I'm one of Sloth's top commanding officers? Because I led the forces that conquered ten thousand worlds?" His voice rose in exasperation and he pounded one meaty fist on the floor. "Because I'm trying to kidnap you, blast it?!" What kind of imbeciles was he dealing with?
"We're not leaving you here," the girl replied solemnly, pushing her glasses up her nose. "Come on, Blynn, help me move these rocks." The Zafara dutifully set the lantern down and went to help her shift the stone away from Hyren.
The Grundo folded his arms under his broad chin a little petulantly. "You know, I think there's a psychological term for this," he groused under his breath. "Some kind of syndrome." When they lifted the rock from his leg, he swiftly twisted over, intending to rise to his feet, but the pain lingered and did not allow him to stand. Hissing, he drew his legs inward defensively, pulling off his shin plate and checking the wound.
"It's fine, go away," he insisted as the owner moved toward him. He tried to brush her back with the wave of a hand.
"I... um, I have first aid supplies in my pack..." she offered quietly, swinging it off of her shoulder and unzipping a pocket. She held out a roll of bandages and a small glass bottle full of pale purple liquid. "...Do you need help?"
He pointed to the bottle. "What's that?"
"A Healing Potion. It's one of the cheaper ones," she explained, "because Blynn's not a battling pet, so she doesn't need a stronger variety. But... it might help a little." She offered it to him.
Hyren glared at her for a moment. "You really are loony, aren't you." Before she could respond, he took the bandages and the bottle. He uncorked the crystalline container and sniffed the liquid inside—it smelled like a combination of mint and fresh cut grass. "Okay. How do I use this?" he asked, glancing over at her.
"Either drink it or apply it to the wound," she explained. "I think I have some gauze..." the girl continued, rifling around in her pack.
The Grundo commander narrowed his eyes, swirling the potion around slowly as he inspected it for anything amiss. "You could be lying. Trying to poison me."
"Nope, it's good!" the Zafara exclaimed, bounding in front of him. "You don't believe me? Here, I'll drink some!" She held out one hand and he placed the potion in it warily. She raised it to her muzzle and downed a sip. "Ah, refreshing," she sighed, wiping her mouth with her arm.
Hyren sat back and stared, not really sure what to make of her. "...I'll just use a bit of it," he decided, taking the gauze the owner was offering him and placing a few drops of the healing liquid on it before applying it to his leg. He cringed, expecting some form of stinging, but the sensation that met him was cool and refreshing, and somehow relaxing.
"Hm... this is good stuff," he noted, handing the bottle back. "Faerie magic, right?"
"Yep," the girl nodded. "So... what's your name?" she asked, resting her head in her hands. "I'm Terra, and this is my Zafara, Blynn679."
"Or 'Blynn' for short," the Zafara explained. "Or 'Six-Seven-Nine', I guess. Ooh, or 'Three Hundred Seventy-Eight'!"
"What?" Hyren lifted a brow, looking up momentarily from wrapping his ankle.
"That's six times seven times nine!" she announced with a grin, placing her hands on her hips.
The Grundo looked over to Terra. "Is she always like this?" he asked wearily.
"Yes," the owner replied with a mirthful grin. "Okay, your turn."
"Hyren. Commander Hyren," he emphasised, "of the Planetary Invasion Corps of the Grand Spacefleet of Doctor Frank Sloth."
"Heh, that's a mouthful..." the girl commented.
"All right, enough chit-chat. We need to keep moving if we want to make it out of here," Hyren grumbled, pushing himself to his feet. As soon as he put weight on his wounded leg, it let out a fresh burst of pain in protest and he grunted, kneeling back down.
"I don't think you're in any condition to go anywhere," Terra pointed out quietly. "Let's just rest here a while, until the potion starts to take effect."
Hyren pouted like a child not getting the slushie flavor they wanted. "...Fine. But don't forget you're still my prisoners. As soon as we get out of here, it's off to Sloth's flagship. And don't even think about trying to escape from me, I have a hundred ways of tracking you down." Never mind the fact that they could both run faster than him at the moment, and Blynn was annoyingly tricky. He just needed to intimidate them into sticking with him until he found a way to get off this miserable planet.
"I wonder how we get out of here..." Terra commented. "And where here is, exactly..." She looked up and around.
Hyren did so as well. The room was so large that the Fire Mote's glow didn't reach the ceiling or walls, leaving the three of them in a tiny island of light amidst darkness so oppressive he could almost taste it. Involuntarily, a shudder ran up his spine. He didn't like feeling so small, so insignificant... so powerless. "What did you say this place was? It feels like some kind of tomb."
"I'm not entirely sure..." Terra unrolled the map, which had survived their encounter miraculously unscathed. "I got this old map from the marketplace in Sakhmet. The lady who sold it to me told me that it would lead me to the 'last bastion of the Alxuin Dynasty'. Which is... here, I guess."
"'Last bastion', huh? Sounds pretty foreboding..." Obviously, Hyren thought, things hadn't quite worked out well for the Alxuin. It made his skin prickle to wonder what kind of restless spirits might be wandering these catacombs.
"Hey, you guys!" Blynn suddenly shouted, making Hyren nearly jump out of his skin. "It looks like there's some kind of lever on the wall!" Hyren turned to see her standing next to a large metal handle. "I wonder what it does..." She rubbed her chin and then began reaching for it.
All of Hyren's common sense screamed at him to react. "Whatever you do, don't—!!"
She pushed it down. "Don't what?"
He buried his face in his hand. "Never mind." Shoulders hunched, he awaited his doom as he heard grinding gears and felt the tingle of magic fill the air.
Instead of the springing of some heinous trap, however, he heard a rumbling from the ceiling and noticed a bright yellow light spilling into the room from above. He looked up to see stone slabs pulling away, revealing round bays set into the ceiling that held countless orbs of slowly dancing illumination. The light was so strong that it easily drowned out the lantern, looking like some titanic force had punched holes in the bedrock to let shafts of daylight through. Terra gasped beside him, and then gasped again as her sight fell to take in the room around them.
Hyren followed suit, and his jaw dropped. They had landed in the midst of an enormous hall, with a soaring ceiling held up by thick pillars, and a floor covered in huge piles of gold, gems, silks, and jars stuffed with scrolls. Paintings spanned both walls in the same style as the entrance cavern, displaying a vast panorama of ages long past, and beneath the murals stood colossal statues of various species of Neopets, grim armoured guardians of wealth. At the end of the hall nearest to the three were an immense set of tall stone doors – shut – and the far end terminated in a raised dais holding a single, empty throne of black marble. On the wall above it was an emblem of a stylised sun cradled in two crossed swords.
"By the Faeries..." Blynn breathed, turning around slowly to take it all in.
"A throne room..." Terra guessed. "But... why is there treasure here?"
"These scrolls are boring," Blynn complained, having pulled one out from its jar and started to unroll it. "There's no pictures."
"Here, let me see," Terra replied. The Zafara handed her owner the scroll and she scrutinised it.
Hyren leaned over to catch a look—it was covered in strange characters, an utterly unfamiliar writing system from what he'd seen of this planet's culture.
"This doesn't look like modern Neopian at all... it doesn't even look like the traditional Sakhmetian characters on Coltzan's Shrine," the girl observed. "Amazing..." She scanned the scroll for a while longer, and then gingerly rolled it back up and set it aside. "I wonder what happened here..."
"There was a war," Hyren replied.
"What? How do you know that?"
He smirked and pointed at the murals above them. The first set depicted lavish scenes of banquets and festivals. "These Neopets were nice enough to leave their entire history in visual form. It's pretty easy to figure out what happened. See, they must have once been a mighty empire that held sway over a large region, amassing wealth rapidly. And I'm willing to bet they weren't very nice about it."
The commander's finger moved to the next set, which showed scenes of battle and destruction, and of finely dressed pets fleeing into the sands. "So one or more of their vassal states rose up against them, and started to gain the upper hand." He glanced down at Terra to see if she was following. To his surprise, she was looking up at him, utterly engrossed like he was telling her a bedtime story.
Slightly embarrassed, he moved on, trying to regain his composure. "They took everything of value and escaped out to these caves, probably an old fortress of theirs." He pointed to the last painting, which showed the room they were now in. A powerful-looking Kacheek sat upon the throne, surrounded by a merry court dancing and making music. A sweet-faced lie to try to deny their own desperation, Hyren knew.
"...They didn't make it, did they," Terra guessed.
Hyren shook his head. "Most likely not. I've seen similar things happen. It's the same old story, every time."
"You must see a lot in your job," the girl commented, scanning the murals again.
He grinned. "More than you can dream of."
"Hey guys!" Blynn's shrill voice cut through the reverent quietude. "Check me out!" She was sitting sideways on the throne, a large, gold-petaled crown perched lopsided on her head as she shook her fist. "Bow before me, peons! I am Empress Blynn the 679th, eminent sovereign of all the land!"
Terra laughed, and jestingly bowed low. "All hail Her Gloriousness!"
Hyren rolled his eyes, and couldn't help but chuckle a little. Sure, he had seen empires rise and fall – many of them fall by his hand – but he'd never quite seen anything like this, a little Neopet using as her playground the abandoned treasure halls of long-gone monarchs.
The Zafara picked up an amethyst-encrusted staff from beside the throne and twirled it around before pointing it at Terra. "As my first decree of the day, I hereby bestow upon you the title of Imperial Dinner-Haver!"
Terra caught her breath and then laughed again. "'Dinner-Haver', huh?"
"Yeah, I'm starved!" Blynn threw away the sceptre and headdress and bounded down from the throne, running back along the wide aisle. "Between walking all day and running into one of Sloth's commanders and finding the ruins of a lost civilization..." She shoved her head and arms into her pack, her tail waving excitedly behind her as she rustled around. "Makes a Zafara pretty hungry, y'know?"
Hyren sighed. "You're not taking this seriously at all, are you."
She emerged holding two paper packages tied with string, setting them on the floor and then leaning on her pack while she chewed a bite of sandwich. "Okay, you want Blueberry Jam or Asparagus and Leek?"
"What?" The Grundo stared at the packages in confusion.
"For your dinner?" Blynn nudged the packages with her foot. "I'd offer you Cheese and Pickle but I already ate all of those."
"And good riddance," Terra commented, making a face.
Hyren frowned. "Don't you get it?!" he snapped. "You're my hostages! I'm going to take you back to Doctor Sloth and he's going to perform horrible experiments on you! You're supposed to be afraid of me!"
The pet and owner fell into somber silence, and they both looked at each other and then back at him. Blynn moved as if she was going to speak, but Terra preempted her. "...We are afraid," the girl said quietly, deliberately. "But we also know we stand the best chance of getting out of here in one piece if you help us. I'll worry about what's going to happen to us when the time comes, but for now... the three of us have to work together."
The Grundo allowed a smug smile to slide up his face as he relaxed slightly. "Heh. So it's not just that you couldn't stand to leave me here out of the goodness of your little hearts."
Terra blushed and looked aside, flustered, fidgeting with one of the straps on her pack. "Well... th-that's still part of it..."
Hyren wasn't surprised at her ulterior motive. Everyone he'd ever met had worked for their own best interests. "Right, then. I'll have the Asparagus and Leek."
To be continued...