Worth Fighting For: Part Three
The three ate in silence after that. Neither Terra nor Blynn made an attempt to say anything and Hyren didn't try to get them to. He couldn't blame them, really. They were young—they probably didn't understand at first the gravity of their situation. It would take a while for things to sink in.
Once he was done with his sandwiches, he removed his helmet and fiddled with it absently. It was still nonfunctional and he decided to finally let go of the meager hope of it ever working again, but it provided protection for his head and face, at least.
"Well. We're going to camp in here for the night," he decided authoritatively once Terra and Blynn had finished their food. "Despite its age, this room looks pretty stable, with no signs of decay except for that hole we fell through. In the morning, we'll start finding our way out."
Terra nodded morosely, wadding up her paper and stuffing it in her backpack. She glanced over at Blynn, who returned the look and took a sip from her canteen before trudging over to the piles of treasure, systematically inspecting each gold coin and string of pearls.
After a moment, Terra joined her, although the owner's interest was more in the scrolls. Hyren watched as they made their rounds of the room, murmuring softly to each other, looking at everything, and, most surprisingly to him, putting things back when they were done.
"Seems a shame to leave all of this... it'd fetch a pretty Neopoint in the market," the Grundo mentioned.
They stopped and looked back at him. "...We don't do this for the money," Terra replied, a little shortly. "We're explorers. We find things just to find them."
"Yeah. We love going on adventures." Blynn's tone had all the enthusiasm of a deflated balloon.
"I wonder if the Sakhmet Museum of History might be able to decipher this writing..." Terra unrolled another scroll. "I wonder what these people wrote about that was so important that they put it in a treasure room. Maybe it's poems, or stories."
His wounded leg stretched out in front of him, Hyren folded his hands behind his head and reclined on the rock pile. His eyes moved from the two youngsters combing the room, to the murals overhead and the dancing magic shedding its light on them. All was quiet except for the occasional clinking of metal or clatter of wood from the contents of the treasure piles being investigated. Hyren didn't get many quiet times like this. When he wasn't training, he was fighting. To sit back and rest for a while felt alien.
Terra came back to her pack and pulled out a sketchbook and a pencil, and began going around the room again, balancing the sketchbook on her knees as she crouched in front of golden statuettes, engraved plates, and painted vases. Blynn, meanwhile, preoccupied herself with seeing how high she could stack coins before they toppled.
After what felt to Hyren like a long while, the pet and owner finally returned to their unofficial bivouac and laid out their bedrolls. "...Am I ever gonna get a Petpet?" Blynn asked as she pulled a green Blumaroo plushie out of her pack and hugged it tight, rolling back on her sleeping bag.
"Sure, I don't see why not." Terra's comfort item turned out to be a book, Koi Tales. "Do you know what kind you want?"
"A cool one," Blynn emphasised, squinting her eyes as she stared up into the light. "Like, not a Greeble. Or a Doglefox, everybody has a Doglefox."
Terra laughed, taking off her glasses and cracking the thick volume open to where she had placed a bookmark. "Well, when you figure out which one you do want, let me know. We'll go play some Meerca Chase." Hyren noticed that her tone had a certain hidden tension to it. She was suddenly nervous, and he didn't think it had much to do with his presence.
"Oh, could you hit the lights?" Terra asked Blynn just as the Zafara was about to slide into her sleeping bag.
"Yeah, sure thing." Blynn got up and went to the wall, putting all of her weight into shoving the switch back upward. Thick stone obscured the magical lighting once more, and it took a few moments for Hyren's eyes to adjust to the lantern's glow. The Zafara opened a window on the other side of the lantern, allowing the Fire Mote's illumination to spill out over a wider area instead of being concentrated in one direction.
As she settled down to sleep, Hyren pondered over how much like a camping scene this looked like, in spite of the strange choice of campsite. Now that darkness hovered around them again, it made him almost wonder if the treasure surrounding them had been merely an illusion.
After reading for a while, Terra set the book on her stomach and looked over at him. "...Are you gonna be cold tonight?"
"Huh?" He blinked, breaking away from his thoughts and glancing over at her. "I'll be fine. My metabolism is hardier than yours. I'm built for endurance." He had to admit, Sloth's genetic alterations had been pretty ingenious. Hyren and others of his kind were physically perfect warriors. He smirked. "I thought you were angry with me."
She grimaced and picked up the book again, obviously just pretending to read. "I'm not. It's pointless to get angry," she insisted, her face conveniently hidden.
Hyren sighed. "Let me guess, you're hoping if you're friendly enough, Mister Big Bad Grundo is going to have a change of heart and let you go. Well, I'm sorry, it only happens that way in stories. This is my job, and what matters most at the end of the day is getting my job done. I don't feel beholden to you or your Neopet for anything. There's no emotional bond to be made here." His eyes hardened. "Besides, I'm not someone you want to be friends with. I'm not a very nice person."
Terra's face scrunched and she rolled over, pulling her sleeping bag over her head.
Hyren's antennae twitched as he heard a small sob. "Point proven," he muttered quietly, reaching over and shutting the lantern windows, engulfing them in darkness.
He wasn't sleeping. He'd spent most of the day asleep and now was the time when he would be wide awake, out scavenging the sands. But it would be dangerous to try to make these two move through unknown, ancient, and most probably hazardous places if they were fatigued.
The rocks at his back were just as hard as his situation, the commander thought as he shifted uncomfortably. He'd never really had to deal with—well, taking care of other sapient beings before. The Mutant Grundo soldiers under his command had all the thinking power of automatons, and it was merely his job to direct them in battle. His fellow high-ranking officers needed no looking after, and he rarely saw them, anyway, dispersed throughout the fleet as they all were.
But these things sleeping in front of him had minds and emotions. They laughed, they cried, they played and learned and asked him questions and he told them stories in response. He watched Blynn's sleeping bag rise and fall, the leaf-shaped tip of her tail lolling lazily out the side and swishing back and forth. Terra had long since become silent, but her breathing betrayed her. Far from the deep steady rhythm of sleep, it was short, erratic, and forced.
"You okay?" Hyren's whisper was hoarse and husky like the shadows were trying to choke him. He had to make sure no harm came to his hostages. Sloth wouldn't be too happy with defective experimental subjects, after all.
The sleeping bag shifted. "...I'm scared." The voice that met him was shaky, on the verge of cracking.
Hyren sighed and rolled his eyes. "Look, we've been over this already—"
"...Oh." The Grundo reached over and unlatched the lantern window, allowing it to hang ajar. The Mote within was dormant and dim, and Hyren tapped the side of its metal casing like he had seen Blynn do earlier. The little fire entity crackled in annoyance before flaring up again. Terra sat up and hugged her knees to her chest, her cheeks streaked with tears.
The commander scrutinised her for a moment. She really was just a child, he realised, feeling lost and scared and alone in a situation beyond her control. Had he ever felt that way? If so, it was too long ago to remember. "You seemed fine earlier," he pointed out.
She rubbed her sleeve over her eyes. "I was trying to be brave for Blynn. But the truth is, we don't go deep underground like this, and never for this long." The girl huddled against herself like the surrounding darkness was her enemy. "I've never slept somewhere I can't see the sky. I'm really scared," she reiterated, her whispering growing more frantic. "What if this whole cave falls in on us? What if we run out of air down here... what if there's no way out?"
The look she gave the commander made him flinch. He'd seen fear before, countless times, on the faces of the inhabitants of worlds he overthrew. But this was different—someone was afraid in his presence, but not afraid of him. She seemed to be almost pleading to him like a child needing comfort from its parent.
He stared at her in silence for a moment. "We'll find a way out," he promised with a firm nod. "I've been in worse situations than this. I won't let either of you meet your end down here."
His own words echoed uncomfortably in his mind as the girl watched him. Had he said the wrong thing? He was totally at a loss as to what to do in this situation, and he almost wished Blynn was awake just so he'd have more of a cue.
Finally, Terra smiled a little. "I think you are a nice person."
"I'm not," Hyren was quick to say, folding his arms over his chest as his antennae lowered in agitation. "Why are the two of you so insistent on making friends with me? I'm the reason you're down here, and you know very well where you and your Neopet are going after this."
The girl's smile faded and she glanced aside for a moment before returning her gaze to him. "Because you actually talk to us. Most other people think we're weird. We're... kinda misfits."
One of Hyren's antennae perked up. "Really? You don't seem so weird to me—I mean, I think everyone on this blasted planet is weird," he recovered, "but you and Blynn are no less weird than the rest of them." This wasn't entirely true. They defied everything about his past interactions with people.
She shrugged. "Nah... we don't really fit in. Blynn doesn't battle, we don't try to get rich or have fancy things, we don't enter any contests or stuff like that. We just like exploring and learning."
Hyren could relate. None of his troops had the ability to carry out a conversation. The other commanders were constantly infighting, vying for Sloth's favor. Not even robot Petpets did more than acknowledge him.
Terra shot a look at the sleeping Zafara before smiling at Hyren bittersweetly. "I think we annoy most people."
The commander chuckled. "The day Blynn stops being annoying will be the day Sloth wears a pink tutu."
Terra blushed, an embarrassed grin spreading up her face. "She was like that when I created her. I can't really control her." A sudden look of worry fell over the girl's expression. "What about me? Am I annoying?"
The Grundo had to think about how to answer this one. Yes, she aggravated him with her constant doting and refusing to think of him as an enemy. At this point, though, he just wanted her to get to sleep, otherwise she'd be too tired to move in the morning. "Not so much," he replied diplomatically before swiftly changing the subject. "Thank you... for helping me with my leg. It's feeling much better now." He smiled, trying to show the sincerity he knew she was looking for.
"Oh... yeah, no problem." Her anxiety visibly faded.
Now to get her to fall asleep. Once again, a problem he'd never really had to deal with before. Hyren racked his memory trying to figure out what seemed to relax her, and remembered how enthralled she was with his interpreting the tale the murals told. He shifted his weight. "You said you liked learning, right?"
"Uh-huh," she nodded, looking a little confused.
"Do you like stories?"
She paused, and then nodded again. "Yeah... why? Do you have any?"
Hyren smirked. She'd taken the bait. "I've been around this great big galaxy of ours more times than I can count, missy. I could tell you stories every day for a thousand years and still have more to tell." If there was one thing he enjoyed as much as his conquests, it was talking about them. There was a reason his exploits were legendary, after all.
Terra's eyes brightened, and she yawned. "Can I hear them?"
"Sure, why not. It's not like I'm doing much else at the moment," Hyren said with a sarcastic shrug. He knew he had to be careful to not act too disarmed toward the two. The last thing he wanted was for them to get more attached to him than they already were beginning to be. It would just be all the more devastating when he gave them over to Sloth.
The commander stretched, folding his hands behind his head and staring up into the darkness as though it contained visions of his past. "Let's see... I'll tell you about the time we found a world of Alien Aishas who carved these magnificent sculptures from glass. They didn't really look like much, but when the Aishas set the sculptures out in the wind, the glass would resonate and produce ethereal tones. They'd set up entire symphonies that would carry for miles on the breeze..."
As he continued describing the sights he'd seen on that planet, Terra's eyelids drooped. The girl lay back down and snuggled into her sleeping bag, finally closing her eyes, her breathing slowing gradually.
He'd have to remember to tell her more some other time, Hyren decided as he shut the lantern window again and reclined on his rocky cushion. But he wouldn't say anything about the invasions. The goal was to relax her, after all.
Thoughts stormed around his head ceaselessly. It was a good thing he didn't need to sleep that night, because he never would have been able to.
"All right, let's go." Hyren leaned over Blynn, shaking her shoulder to wake her.
"Huwhuh..." the Zafara slurred, rolling over lazily. Her eyes blinked open and focused on the Mutant Grundo hovering over her, and she looked startled for a moment before sitting up suddenly, making Hyren have to jerk back before they collided. "Oh, hey! Is it morning already? Wow, I slept like a Pet Rock!"
She jumped out of her sleeping bag and stretched her arms high above her head, letting out a huge yawn before looking over at her still-sleeping owner mischievously. Tensing her hind legs, Blynn leaped onto Terra's stomach and stuck her nose in the girl's face. "Wake up and smell the Streaky Bacon!"
Terra's eyes flew open and she let out a shout of surprise that dissolved into laughter, hugging her Zafara close with one arm and feeling around for her glasses with the other. "Wow, it's dark—oh yeah..." she said in realisation, glancing around at the gloom that hadn't changed a bit since she'd drifted off. Hyren had opened up the lantern again before waking Blynn, but other than that, the shadows around them persisted, the air as still and silent as ever.
A look of fear passed over Terra's face before she forced a smile onto it. "Okay. Let's find a way out of here."
The commander nodded. "Right. You two stay here and eat breakfast," he instructed as he walked to the wall to flip the lever again, "and I'll start looking for an exit."
"But what about your leg?" Terra asked.
He looked over his shoulder with a disarming smile as the room began to fill with light again, reminding him of its immensity and grandeur. "It's just fine. That potion worked wonders, it was smart of you to bring it."
Terra was rolling her sleeping bag tightly and pulling on the straps with all her might. She blushed at the compliment and ducked her head. "Thanks."
In reality, it still hurt a little when he walked, but he wasn't about to waste time with that. He'd left the bandage on under his armour for extra support, but he didn't want to have to deal with further doting from her.
"Okay, what do we have in the way of breakfast stuff?" Blynn asked as Hyren turned to inspect the room.
His first order of business was to begin searching the perimeter, starting at the doors. They were tightly shut and wouldn't budge in either direction, so he decided to see what would happen if he tried ramming one of them with his thick shoulder. As he made contact with a throaty shout, he felt the door shift slightly—but also heard the clattering crumble of rock behind it, like pebbles had become dislodged and trickled down a pile of larger debris. The other side, he realised, was most likely caved in. That was when a bit of fear began to set in for him, too. What if this room didn't have any other exits?
But he wasn't about to give up that easily. He moved swiftly to one side of the doorway and began crouching along the walls, feeling them for any sort of weak point or possibly even hidden passages, as he knew there were wont to be in palaces. Many times this involved first digging through mounds of treasure that had accumulated, which was slow going. This wealth was too cumbersome to think of taking with him.
"Hey, need help?" A certain red Zafara, slid down a pile of gold coins next to him and began to dig.
"That would be lovely," Hyren grunted. He looked around and noticed Terra had also finished her breakfast and was attempting to excavate the opposite wall. The Grundo turned back to his work, using one immense hand to scoop out a long trough in the mound of currency. "Terra says you annoy people."
"They just don't understand my genius," Blynn claimed, buffing her paw on her chest fur for a moment before getting down on all fours and burrowing frenetically, coins flying past her tail. When she came back up, she had two round, flat emeralds perched on her face like thick green goggles. "The way I see it, there are only two types of people in this world: circles and triangles."
Hyren narrowed his eyes at her. "Which one are you?"
"I'm a parallelogram." She went back to digging.
There was a sudden discordant crash of metal against metal and a shrill squeak from behind them, and the two Neopets whipped around. Terra had shrunk against a pillar and was staring wide-eyed at a toppled-over statue of a stern Elephante. Coins were still shifting where it had fallen.
"...Oops," she whispered, not daring to move.
Hyren smacked his face with his hand. "I can't leave you alone for five minutes. Blynn, keep digging," he instructed as he made his way across the room. "I'll help Terra out. You're not hurt, are you?" he asked as he reached her.
She shook her head. "Nuh-uh. I saw it was falling and moved..."
Gripping the statue firmly, Hyren summoned his mutant strength and hefted it aside, placing it safely on the floor. He turned back to see Terra's eyes practically bulging out of her head. "You're really strong," she observed.
The commander snickered. "This physique isn't just for show, you know."
She laughed and rolled her eyes. "Okay, don't get too full of yourself. C'mon, let's dig."
The girl knelt down next to the wall with Hyren beside her, his attention divided between excavating and making sure nothing else threatened to fall on her. Terra wasn't nearly as fast a digger as Blynn, but Hyren more than made up the difference.
"Hey guys!!" The Zafara's voice cut through the room, making Hyren wince, his antennae twitching in annoyance. "I think I found something!"
Her words echoed unusually, and the Grundo looked up to see that she had, for some reason, abandoned her wall-searching and was standing behind the throne on the other side of the hall. "What are you doing?!" Hyren barked back, standing up and glaring at her. "You're supposed to be excavating the perimeter!"
"I got bored," Blynn complained, scrambling up the tall back of the throne. "It looked more interesting over here. Come and see!"
"Fine, fine." The commander motioned for Terra to follow him down the aisle and onto the dais. "Okay, what did you discover?"
In response, the Zafara hopped back down and tackled the throne from behind with all her might. In spite of her light weight, it flinched slightly, and Hyren's eyes widened.
He positioned himself behind the chair, rubbing his hands together before placing them flat on the backrest. "Stand back." Once the Neopet and owner were out of the way, Hyren threw himself forward, letting out a shout as marble ground against rock. The throne slowly slid away to reveal a square opening in the dais, with steep steps leading downward into darkness.
Hyren's heavy brow furrowed, and he looked back at the little Zafara. "How did you think to check the throne?"
Blynn tilted her head at him and grinned. "Intuition."
The commander regarded her suspiciously. "'Intuition', huh?"
"Look, I can't really explain it," the Zafara replied, scratching the back of her head. "I just get ideas sometimes. And they work. I don't think about it much."
Terra stared down into the darkness as though it might engulf her, and Hyren noticed stray wisps of her hair flutter. "Do you feel that?" he asked her.
She looked over at him. "What?"
"A breeze. That means... this route leads to an exit."
"But it goes down," Terra was quick to point out, backing away from the hole suspiciously.
"Be that as it may, if there's air circulation in a passage, it means it's open to the outside somewhere," Hyren explained. "I don't know about you, but I'd rather not stick around here any longer. Let's get back under the sky again."
She nodded eagerly. "Come on, Blynn, let's grab our gear and get out of here."
"Right! I call lantern duty!"
"Sometimes I think you want lantern duty just so you can pester that Fire Mote."
Hyren, meanwhile, leaned against the throne and watched them, his arms folded. "All right," he announced once they had returned. "I'm going first, to make sure it's safe." He was glad the opening was just barely large enough for his wide shoulders to squeeze through. "Lantern?"
Blynn handed it to him with a bit of reluctance and Hyren began to lower himself down the stairs backward, half-climbing. He paused while his head was still above the floor, to look around one last time at the hidden opulence they had stumbled upon. It would go on existing after they left, unaware that its centuries-silent halls had once again been briefly graced with life.
"Be careful..." Terra requested.
He glanced up at her. "Of course."
The stairway turned out to, thankfully, not descend very far at all before there reaching a landing. A cramped, rough-hewn passageway stretched sinuously off to the side, twisting and winding into oblivion. Hyren was all too anxious to get back out into the sun again, and he shook himself out a bit, stretching his neck. He wasn't claustrophobic, but being down here for too long could start to mess with anyone's mind. The Grundo supposed one could make the argument that being in a spaceship was similarly stifling, but sailing freely through the vastness of the cosmos was much different than being restricted under the ground.
He set the lantern on the ground, opening up both its windows. "All right," he called up to the two youngsters looking down at him with bated breath. "Come on down. Terra first, then Blynn." He reached up his arms. "I'll catch you if you fall."
Terra took in a deep breath and then slowly, deliberately began to make her way down the steps, periodically looking over her shoulder at Hyren.
"Not much of a climber, are you?" he observed.
"I don't like heights."
Hyren smirked in exasperation. "For an adventurer, you certainly are afraid of a lot of things."
"Oh, gimme a break, I'm not an expert."
She was still only halfway down, and he was growing impatient, so he slid his hands under her arms and lifted her away from the staircase, depositing her on the ground.
He almost expected her to get flustered with him, but instead she simply looked up at him with relief. "Thanks."
"Yeah," he nodded before reaching up his arms again. "Blynn, your turn."
"I don't need any help from you," the Zafara insisted, swinging herself over the edge and beginning to scuttle down. She did look to be a far more apt climber than her ungraceful companion, so Hyren lowered his arms and simply watched.
Suddenly, the edge of one of the steps she was standing on cracked and gave way, and she let out a shriek. Hyren moved to catch her, but he was a hair too late and she landed on her tail with a yelp.
"Blynn!" Terra rushed over to her pet, picking her up and cradling her. "Are you okay?! Hold on, I'll get you that Healing Potion..."
"I'm fine," the Zafara insisted, squirming out of her owner's arms and onto the ground. "Now let's get—ow... ow... ow..." She shifted uncomfortably with every halting step she tried to take.
"No, you're not fine," Terra rebuffed, un-shouldering her pack and digging through it. "What happened? Is it your leg?"
"No... I think I landed on my tail wrong," Blynn confessed, looking back at it with regret as it trailed stiffly behind her.
"And that makes walking difficult, because you use it to balance," Hyren concluded.
She looked up at him apologetically. "Right."
"Here." Terra handed her the potion. "Drink some of this."
Blynn took a swig from the bottle and gave it back, wiping the back of her paw across her muzzle before taking a tentative step forward. "Oof." She cringed, sinking to her forepaws and knees. "Might take a while to kick in... but we can keep going!" she insisted, gripping the straps of her pack tightly.
"Well, we're certainly not slowing down for you," Hyren snorted. He reached down and picked her up around her middle, taking her wrists and wrapping her arms around his thick neck.
"But I can walk! Really!" Blynn protested.
Terra looked up at her wearily. "Just do as he says, please." There was a shortness in her tone not present before, Hyren noticed.
The Zafara looked down at her owner pensively for a moment and then nodded, clasping her forepaws around the collar of Hyren's chestplate. "...Okay."
The Mutant Grundo picked up the lantern and closed one window, holding it out to the darkness beyond. The tunnel was dry and cold and smelled like stale earth, but the air was fresh, there was no mistaking it. "Thankfully there's only one path," he observed, beginning to lead Terra forward. "Otherwise there's no telling how long it might take to find a way out." The ceiling of the tunnel was so low, he had to duck to fit in it.
"...Uh-huh," came the weak reply from behind him.
Hyren realised that probably wasn't the best thing to have said. He needed make sure she didn't have a panic attack. "Did I ever tell you," he began, shifting into story-telling mode, "about the planet of giant Blobaguses I stumbled upon during one of my missions?"
"What's a Blobagus?" Blynn piped up.
Worked like a charm. "Creatures foreign to Neopia, although I wouldn't be surprised if someday the Space Station imports them to sell as Petpets. They're like green, glowing trails of goo, and they usually don't grow that large, but these had to be at least two hundred feet long! They roam the surface of their stormy planet, feeding on the gases that vent from cracks in the crust..."
He continued to regale them as they made their way through the tunnel, successfully distracting them from the fact that the ground was steadily sloping downward and the path was becoming slowly narrower. This had to be an escape route, he reassured himself. It was far too deliberate, and couldn't dead-end, based on the presence of air currents. He would just have to trust that the builders of this labyrinth knew what they were doing.
To be continued...