Worth Fighting For: Part Six
Hyren managed to twist around enough to see a gigantic, golden brown, many-segmented body, terminating in large blue eyes and the jaws holding him. The commander writhed in their grip, trying to grab his sword as the creature began to gracefully arc downward.
"HYREN!" Terra screamed, drawing her own blade and running toward the beast.
"That's the biggest Lyins I've ever seen!" Blynn exclaimed, nocking a piece of ammo in her slingshot and taking aim for its head.
The sandy floor between her and Terra erupted with a second giant Lyins. It hissed as it drew up in front of the Zafara, its legs undulating menacingly as its jagged mandibles clicked together. Blynn let out a yelp and then a cloud of sand obscured her from Hyren's sight.
"Terra, go back!" Hyren barked, finally able to grasp the hilt of his blade. Due to the awkward angle at which the Lyins had him around the waist, he was having difficulty pulling it out of the sheath.
"No!" she insisted, swinging her sword at the Petpet.
Her weak blows glanced off of its carapace, but it let out a shriek of annoyance and flinched back. Hyren felt its grip on him loosen. In a flash, he pulled out his sword and struck, causing it to screech and drop him. The Grundo rolled to the floor and popped back up in one fluid motion, blinking away dizziness to see the Lyins eye Terra hungrily. The girl edged away from it with her sword thrust in front of her, coughing on aerated sand.
With a yell, Hyren charged the Petpet, bringing his sword down in a sweeping stroke that connected solidly. The Lyins hissed and recoiled, curling past him and diving back into the sand. Hyren grabbed Terra's shoulders, looking her over to make sure she was unharmed. "It'll be back," he grunted. "Go! Move! Blynn!!"
Another ear-piercing screech filled the hall, and the second Lyins rose up in front of them, bucking and writhing as it tried to rid itself of the Zafara clinging to its back. "I—don't—like—this—ride—!!" Blynn yelped.
"Jump!" Terra called, sheathing her sword and stretching out her arms toward her Neopet as the Lyins curved backwards. Pushing off with her hind feet, Blynn launched herself at her owner. Her impact sent the girl staggering back, clutching her Zafara safely.
They turned to the hallway, but one of the Lyins breached the sand between them and the passage. "Get to the window!" Hyren ordered, pushing them toward the far side of the hall. If he'd had more firepower, the Lyins would be no problem, but the three motley travelers were no match for two humongous beasts.
Terra and Blynn stumbled on the unsteady footing as they scrambled toward the windows. Hyren struggled behind them as the two desert Petpets churned up their domain in an attempt to trap their prey. Terra reached the wall first and began to climb, finding easy handholds on the elaborately worked stone. Her adrenaline was doing its job.
One of the Lyins finally re-emerged and rammed the wall with its head, causing Terra to stop and cringe as bits of the stone crumbled and broke off. Hyren held his breath as she seemed about to fall, but she managed to hold on, and she let go with one hand to draw her sword. Giving a hoarse shout, she struck at the Lyins as it grazed past, pushing it back from Blynn who was now starting her ascent.
Hyren had to whack away the other Lyins before he reached the wall himself. Terra swung her leg over the windowsill and stretched a hand down to Blynn, who scrambled nimbly up the rock face. Chips of stone she kicked loose rained onto the visor of Hyren's helmet as he hoisted himself up.
The room shook, sand flew, and the Lyins shrieked behind him, but they were going to make it, he thought. One more foothold up, and his hand could reach the rim. Just as he took hold of it, a violent tremor rocked the entire wall. Hyren was flung backward onto one of the Lyins, right between its eyes. It began to rise in preparation for another dive into the sands.
"Hyren!" Blynn shouted, taking aim with her slingshot. "Heads up!"
Gulping in breaths, the commander tensed himself in preparation to leap for the window. His injured ankle gave a sudden twinge of pain and slipped out from under him, and he fell flat on the Petpet's carapace just as Blynn fired. The potsherd hurtled through the air, but to Hyren's surprise, it somehow exploded in front of the Lyins' face in a bright display of fireworks.
The beast let out a pained scream, its entire body convulsing and throwing Hyren forward. He took advantage of the momentum to aim himself so he landed gripping the windowsill, his armour absorbing the brunt of the impact. Looking over his shoulder, he saw both Lyins, their mandibles snapping, swaying as they lifted themselves up to his level.
He felt two pairs of hands wrap around his wrists and he glanced up.
"We've got you," Terra assured him, the girls pulling with all their might.
Utilizing their meager strength, Hyren was able to run his feet the rest of the way up the wall. Where he had been dangling a moment previous, a Lyins headbutted, splintering the stone. The world outside was blinding, and Hyren had to will his eyes to stay open as he leaned against the windowsill and tried to get his bearings.
"Down the rocks!" Blynn shouted, leading him and Terra to a pile of rubble that had built up against the outside rim.
Terra paused halfway down. "Phew... looks like... they can't get to us." She nodded to the windows, which the Lyins, unable to fit through, rammed against in vain.
"Good," Hyren grumbled. The Petpets sunk out of sight and their frustrated screeches gradually faded.
The three of them had emerged on a mountainside, Hyren realised as he carefully picked his way around boulders and jagged shards of granite. This was a much different place than where they had come in. Far from the sunbaked Lost Desert, it was cold and desolate grey stone completely unlike the red rock of the sand-bordered cliffs. As he looked up at the stark mountain face, he saw that there were numerous openings hewn directly into the slopes, undoubtedly other passages and rooms in a subterranean palace complex he hadn't quite fathomed the expanse of. To either side reached a massive range of craggy peaks much like the one they were standing on.
"...We must have gone right through the mountains," Terra observed, wiping sweat from her brow and looking up at the distant summit, shrouded in snow. "No wonder it took so long to get out."
"And that explains why we were able to reach an exit by descending through the caves," Hyren panted, his hands on his knees. "Those cliffs in the Lost Desert must be at a higher elevation than where we came out."
Blynn turned around. "I wonder where we are now..."
Hyren and Terra followed suit, and Hyren found himself staring out at numberless hills and valleys carpeted with a thick, dark forest, stretching into a thin mist that obscured the horizon and seemed to cling to the treetops like filmy Spyderwebs. A chill wind blew up from the foothills, carrying with it the heavy scent of pine and old growth as well as smells Hyren couldn't quite place but unnerved him somehow.
"The Haunted Woods," Terra said breathlessly.
"You've been here before?" Hyren tilted his head down toward her.
She clutched her arms. "We don't go here often."
"Because it's haunted?" Blynn replied, looking up at Hyren like he was thick in the head.
He snorted, placing his hands on his hips. "Well, the dossiers said witches and ghosts live there, but it's all just for show, isn't it? I mean, the witch in the tower gives you candy."
"Other stuff lives there too," the Zafara muttered, returning her gaze to the darkling forest. "Stuff you don't wanna run into."
Terra sighed, turning her face to the sky. "At least... at least we're finally out of there," she moaned. "We can see the sun again."
"Yeah," Blynn agreed with a nod, absently adjusting the straps of her pack. An awkward silence followed, interrupted only by the howling mountain winds.
Finally, the Neopet and owner shifted around on the steep slope and looked up at Hyren. "You..." Terra began falteringly. "You aren't really gonna take us to Sloth, are you?"
Hyren swallowed the massive lump in his throat and it seemed to plunge straight to his stomach. This was it. He could either do his job, or save the only two beings he'd ever started to consider friends. His heart felt like it was threatening to pound right out of his chest, and he was trying with all his might to disguise his anxiety, not willing to betray either of them to the turmoil inside. But he also knew he had to answer soon.
Summoning his mental strength, he shoved the doubts and fears into the back of his mind, stared into those two pairs of big, blue, hopeful eyes—and lied. "Of course not," he answered, forcing a smirk onto his face. "The both of you are really more trouble than you're worth, you know that? Considering all you've put me through so far, I don't want to know what kind of headaches you'd cause me out in space."
To his surprise, they hugged him, Terra throwing her arms around his waist while Blynn clung to his leg. "Thank you," Terra gasped. Her face was buried in his stomach armour, but he could tell from the tone of her voice that she was crying.
"I knew you were a good guy," Blynn added, beaming up at him.
He smiled back, inwardly praising himself for successfully pulling the wool over her eyes. If things had just gotten so much easier for him, then why did he feel even sicker inside? It was the cold air, he decided.
Terra finally pulled away from him, her face streaked with tears. "Can I adopt you?"
Hyren felt his jaw fall slack, and his antennae twitched for a moment before he shook his head gently. "I appreciate the sentiment," he began smoothly, patting her head, "but I'm an independent pet. I can't be tied down to one world like this. I belong out there, among the stars. But I will take the two of you home. Where do you live?"
"Mystery Island," Blynn replied.
"Okay. If I remember my maps correctly, we should head east to the coast and find a port."
Terra nodded. "Right."
Nothing doing, Hyren thought to himself. He needed to find the nearest transport to the Space Station, and he was hopeful that stumbling across civilization would present him with that opportunity. From there, he would have to find some way to get back to Sloth, wherever the doctor was. "So, it's settled, then," the commander continued nonchalantly, cracking his knuckles. "Are you gals up for more walking? We should at least try to make it down the mountain before nightfall."
"Blynn, what are the rules for exploring the Haunted Woods?" Terra prompted as they began to move again.
"Never stray from the campfire at night, never leave anyone alone," the Zafara recited, counting off the rules on her paws, "and... don't follow the lights!"
"Good!" The owner smiled. "I'm sure we'll be extra safe since we have Hyren with us."
The look she gave him made his heart sink, but he tried to stay focused, mentally planning out what would transpire once they found a way to the Space Station. At least the two would be easy to subdue once his betrayal was made evident. They had weapons, but very little training. Well, Terra, at least. Blynn actually worried him some.
"Blynn, I didn't know you'd stowed explosives in your ammo pouch," the commander mentioned as he carefully tromped down a spill of loose gravel.
"What?" The Zafara glanced over at him.
"Back there, with those... Lyins, you called them? Those were some great pyrotechnics."
Her muzzle wrinkled. "What are you talking about? That was a regular piece of pottery I shot."
"No, it wasn't. It exploded."
"I think I know explosives when I see 'em," she huffed.
"It was the Faerie magic," Terra piped up. She pushed her glasses up her nose. "I bet that's what it was. Hyren said your slingshot probably had special properties."
Blynn pulled out the weapon and turned it over in her paws. "Wicked... let's see more fireworks!" Grabbing a handful of ammo, she shot into the air ahead. Absolutely nothing happened, the terracotta remnants merely falling onto the mountainside unceremoniously. "I don't get it..." the Zafara grumbled. "How'd it explode before?"
"Maybe because you were in combat?" Terra conjectured. "It probably senses a great need and that activates the magic. Or something like that. Right?"
She looked up at Hyren, who nodded even though he knew very little of Faerie magic except that it was potent. "Sounds good to me," he replied.
"Well, I'm running low," Blynn mentioned, stooping over to grab handfuls of gravel. "I hope this stuff explodes too."
They spent the rest of the day descending the mountainside, winding their way through rough-hewn canyons and over rocky ridges, following cold crystal streams that splashed enthusiastically away from their origin in some glacial peak and spilled down sheer cliffs into deep blue pools. The forest rose up to meet the three travelers like a great, dark wave, engulfing them in shadow as they passed the first gnarled old trunks of heavy-boughed trees.
By day, Hyren found, the Haunted Woods was not really all that Terra made it out to be. The Grundo had been expecting to see ghosts and ghouls popping out at every turn, but the Woods were far more dignified than to stoop to petty shock tactics. Rather, they were quiet, incredibly quiet, and the air hung dense around him. Nothing chirped overhead or scurried through undergrowth, although if Hyren listened hard enough, he thought he could almost catch indistinct whispers far in the distance. He got the impression that the entire Woods seemed to be holding its breath, waiting dormant for something, but not asleep. Never asleep.
In spite of Terra's initial trepidation, she and Blynn were almost acting like this was a cheery holiday picnic, a refreshing change of mood from the somber air they'd developed in the fortress. Terra's steps were lighter and Blynn was positively skipping as she cavorted at her owner's side, singing off-key, nonsensical tunes. Hyren wasn't sure if they were actual Neopian songs, or things she was making up off the top of her head, although he wouldn't put such creativity past her.
One side effect of his ruse was that now he could allow himself to build up rapport with his prisoners. They were expecting him to, after all, because they didn't realise they were still prisoners. He leaned down to Terra. "Is she always like this?" he muttered in a teasing tone to the girl out of the side of his mouth, nudging her playfully.
Terra chuckled. "Only on days that end in Y."
"Hah," Hyren snorted.
"One," Blynn suddenly called out, pointing to a tree. "Seven. Twenty-nine." She pointed to another, and another. "Two billion, three hundred thousand, and six. Five hundred seventy-two. One-half."
"Okay, what are you doing now?" Hyren asked her.
"Counting the trees, if you must know," Blynn sniffed.
"Why are you counting them out of order?" Terra chimed in with an entertained grin.
Blynn smiled roguishly back. "I can't very well count all of 'em at the same time!"
"What's the 'half' tree?" Hyren inquired.
The Zafara scratched her head. "I dunno. I think it might be a bush in disguise."
All too soon, the sun sank, turning the light golden before it faded entirely, leaving an ominous red sky overhead. With the departure of the sun, the air around them felt colder and more foreboding. Grundos' sense of smell left a lot to be desired, but even Hyren could catch unrecogniseable tinges in the air that hadn't been there by day. And the sounds from earlier seemed to have grown closer. He was glad the girls had heavy cloaks, which they were now wrapping around themselves to stave off the chill. He could have used one, himself.
"Well, let's set up camp here," he suggested, swinging the weapons bundle off of his shoulders and setting it down in a small clearing. "Who wants to gather firewood?"
Terra and Blynn had been in the process of taking off their own backpacks, but now they both stopped and looked up at him uneasily. "We can't go alone," Terra reminded him. "It's really not safe."
"And even if two people go, one person will be left behind and still be alone," Blynn pointed out.
He looked at them for a moment and nodded. "All three of us, then."
This turned out to be a boon, since he was more than happy to carry all the fallen twigs and branches that Terra and Blynn could harvest. Thanks to his strength, they were able to amass a much larger pile than either of them working alone—and since they were doing the gathering, he could hold it all in both arms. They'd be nice and warm that night.
"Can we forage for anything here?" Hyren asked as he relaxed by their roaring blaze. The Fire Mote danced among the wood and the girls ate more of the fruit they'd collected in the Lost Desert. He and Terra had just finished another sparring session.
He was beginning to be disappointed that he would not have nearly enough time to teach her even half of what he knew about swordplay before they would be separated, and she would not have the chance to practice where she was headed. Perhaps he was just composing a mental list of things he hoped she and her Neopet would accomplish if—no, when they managed to escape from Sloth.
"I wouldn't try it," Terra replied darkly, taking a bite of an aptly-named Pyramid Pear. "I don't trust anything that grows around here."
"Well, the candy Edna gives out is good," Blynn added, licking Tchea juice from her paws. "But I dunno where she is from here. We're probably pretty far away from that part of the Woods."
"How much longer do you think it'll take us to reach civilization?" Hyren was starting to worry about their food supplies now.
Terra seemed to get the hint, as she began inspecting the contents of her backpack. "I'm not sure..." She glanced up at him. "Well, if we find any apple trees, we can probably take from those. I think they should be safe," she conceded.
"Unless they scream when you pick 'em," Blynn said around a mouthful of Tchea Fruit.
"...Well, yeah," Terra recanted, gulping.
"Or green smoke comes out of 'em when you bite 'em."
"Okay, or that."
"Or if they try to bite you."
Blynn giggled a little maniacally. "Yeah, apples should be fine."
Hyren rolled his eyes. He decided he'd just have to trust his own best judgement when it came to the food here—after all, he'd been successful in getting them out of scrapes so far. Reclining on the smooth, cold dirt, he folded his hands behind his head. "You know, I've told you a lot of stories about my experiences, but what about yours? Explorers like you should have plenty of tales of your own."
The Neopet and owner looked at each other and then back to him. "...I guess so," Terra said. "But we're nowhere near as cool as you. Our adventures are pretty wimpy compared to yours. Well, except for this one, I guess."
"Hey, don't sell yourselves short," he replied. "You're great adventurers. I'd love to hear what you gals have been up to."
Terra pushed her glasses up her nose in an ineffective attempt to hide her blushing. "Well... we were at Terror Mountain before we went to the Lost Desert," she began. "We'd just finished exploring the Ice Caves."
"Terror Mountain has ice caves?" Hyren sat up. "Huh, the reports didn't say anything about that..."
"Really?" Blynn tilted her head. "Your sources must be pretty dense."
"We were searching for the mythical Vale of Spring," Terra explained.
Hyren turned his antennae toward her. "Oh?"
She nodded, settling back on her sleeping bag and drawing herself up like a venerated storyteller. "It was mentioned in a few old texts I found in the Faerieland bookshop: a valley of eternal spring hidden somewhere on Terror Mountain, only accessible through a passageway in the Ice Caves."
"What about your claustrophobia?"
"The Ice Caves aren't like those tunnels." Terra jerked her thumb back in the direction of the peak they had hiked down from. "They're... they're beautiful, Hyren. Vast halls covered in ice, with patches of ceiling open to the sky so the sun shines through, reflects off the ice crystals, and makes everything glitter like jewels." She sighed. "If you ever get the chance, I recommend going there. It's an experience you won't forget."
The commander raised an eyebrow. "I'll be sure to give it a visit sometime." Inside, he was wishing with all his heart that he could immerse himself fully in simply sitting and swapping tales with them. But there was always that looming mental reminder of his purpose for his companions, keeping him tied to reality. He made sure to let none of that show. "...So did you find it?"
"What? Oh..." Terra shook her head. "No. We searched for two weeks, tried every passage that... wasn't too small." Hyren wondered if she was remembering the crawlspace she'd saved him from. "But we couldn't find anything. Maybe it was just a myth, after all."
The Grundo leaned back on his hands. "Are you disappointed?"
"No." Terra grinned. "We had a lot of fun just exploring."
"Yeah, like how we tried probably fifty different slushie flavors!" Blynn licked her lips. "We gotta go back there again soon, Terra! I'm totally craving their Mystery Berry flavor!"
"Blynn," Terra chortled, "I'm pretty sure 'Mystery Berry' is what they label all of their slushies that don't turn out right."
"That's what makes 'em taste so good! You never know what you're gonna get!"
Hyren snickered and looked back at Terra. "So what made you decide to go to the Lost Desert?"
"Well, the Ice Caves are pretty and all," she replied, "but as you can imagine, after two weeks, we were getting awfully cold."
"You were cold," Blynn corrected. "I have fur."
Terra snorted, but otherwise ignored her. "So I figured we'd go somewhere nice and warm next. I've always thought the Lost Desert was neat. You can find some really interesting stuff in the marketplace at Sakhmet."
"Too bad they're probably still rebuilding," Hyren pointed out.
"What?" Terra gave him an odd look.
"You know... from the attack?"
"Doctor Sloth's forces?" the commander prompted. His pride was beginning to feel bruised, if no one apparently remembered how he had helped nearly destroy the city.
Her eyes lit up with realisation. "Oh! Wow, yeah, the city's all fixed up from that now. That was like... last year."
Hyren stared hard at her. "Last year?" He knew he'd been at the oasis for a while, but the way time seemed to blend and slip out there, he'd apparently become completely unaware of just how long he'd been missing.
Understandably, Terra's expression turned to one of confusion. "...Yeah... Why do you ask?"
"I just lost track of time, that's all," he replied quickly. "I was out in the desert for longer than I thought..."
"How'd you get out there, anyway?" Blynn asked him, reclining on her sleeping bag. "Seems kinda weird for Sloth to send one of his commanders out to a cave in the middle of nowhere to kidnap people."
Hyren sighed. "I was separated from my forces," he explained. "Then I was attacked by Sakhmetians. The desert was my only escape."
"Your forces, huh?" Blynn lowered her eyelids and Hyren knew he'd said too much. "So you invaded Sakhmet."
"...Yes. I was just doing my job," he asserted.
"It's okay," Terra assured him. "You're a good guy now." She looked over at her Neopet. "Right?"
Blynn huffed, then grinned. "Yeah. Just don't do it again, okay?"
"Grundo's honor," Hyren said, straightening up. Of course there was no such thing as 'Grundo's honor', and of course he was going to go right back to war and conquest after this. But the longer he could keep them deceived, the better.
The Zafara yawned. "Tell us more stories, Hyren."
"What do you know about comets?" Hyren felt a strange swelling in his chest. Maybe it was pride in the experiences he was sharing—or maybe, somehow, it was the satisfaction of giving her and Terra something they'd desperately longed for: a friend.
"They're lumps of ice and dirt that orbit the sun," Terra replied, lying down, "and when they get close enough, the ice starts evaporating and forms a tail."
"Wrong." He let the quizzical look on her face hang for a moment before continuing. "They're sentient creatures, made of living segments of ice that reflect light prismatically in a myriad of colours. Their great dark heads are just one gaping maw."
The girls' eyes widened. "What do they eat?" Blynn whispered breathlessly, clutching her sleeping bag.
"Research suggests they devour worlds," Hyren revealed. Terra swallowed hard and shrank closer to the fire, and the commander realised this probably wasn't the best choice of stories to have told them. "Don't worry, they don't live anywhere near the Neopian system," he assured them hastily with a wave of his hand. "And I'm sure the Space Faerie would deal with them if any got close. She's good at looking out for you guys."
Terra nodded, although she still looked unsure.
Hyren sighed. "Sorry. I should have picked a less scary topic. Umm, let's see..." He sat back on his hands. "How about the time my fleet found a cloud of migrating Space Fungus spores in a nebula? Now that was an amazing sight, millions of softly twinkling lights drifting in a vast magenta mist. As we passed through, the spores would glide right past the ship's bridge, making it look like we were ploughing through some surreal snowstorm."
"Mmmm." Terra closed her eyes, a smile spreading over her face. "That must have been amazing," the girl murmured.
"It was. Now rest up, we've got plenty of hiking to do tomorrow," the Grundo instructed Blynn seemed to have already dozed off.
"Good night, Terra." Hyren heaved a sigh and pulled off his helmet, setting it down beside him. How many more times would he get to say that? And why did he have to care so much? Maybe Sloth really should have wiped his brain, Hyren thought. It would have saved the commander so much anguish. He shifted onto his side, staring into the darkness beyond and watching for anything to encroach upon their circle of light.
After a few minutes, he heard rustling behind him. Antennae perking, he rolled over to see Terra in the act of reaching into her pack, looking at him guiltily like she'd just been caught stealing from a cookie jar.
"What are you doing?" Hyren asked gently.
She withdrew her hand. "Nothing..."
He smirked and tilted his head. "You don't have to be ashamed. I'm just curious."
Terra was silent for a moment, and then she reached back into her pack and pulled out her sketchbook, clutching it to her chest as though he might try to take it away. "I, uh... I wanted to draw you." The owner looked up at him timidly. "So I'll have something to remember you by after you leave."
The smirk faded from Hyren's face as he stared at her, trying to formulate a response. Never before had he met anyone who'd attached themselves so closely to him, and here she was, genuinely thinking highly of him, in spite of all he had done and all the trouble he'd put her through. "I... I'm flattered," he managed to get out. "Do you... need me to sit up?" He placed one massive hand on the ground, anticipating movement.
She shook her head. "No, it's okay. I think I can draw you fine like this." She unzipped a thin bag and pulled out a pencil, holding it close to its point as she hunched over the sketchbook, deep in concentration.
Hyren propped himself up on one elbow and watched her, glad his training had taught him how to keep still. "I've never had someone draw me before," he admitted. "I've had holograms taken for ID purposes, but that's about it."
"Do they have paper up there?" Terra asked him, moving the pencil around the page with much deliberation.
"Not much of it. In space, most things are electronic. It's a far cry from native Neopian tech, that's for sure. I'm surprised this backwater planet even knows how to work what it gets from Virtupets."
She smiled. "We Neopians are a resourceful bunch."
As she drew, Hyren thought, and wished there was some way he could manually turn his brain off just so he wouldn't be driven crazy by thinking too much. His emotions had never been so tangled as this, and no matter how much he tried to convince himself things would be okay, he still had that gnawing pit in his stomach, which seemed to grow worse every time he reminded himself of the decision he had made.
Terra lifted the pencil from the paper and sat back, scrutinizing the page sceptically. "Okay, I'm done," she announced in a rather neutral tone, packing her pencil away and hovering the sketchbook over her backpack as well.
Hyren shook himself out of his meditative trance and sat up. "What, don't I get to see it?"
She looked up at him and grimaced. "Uh, it's... it's not very good," she insisted.
"I'm sure it's better than you think," the commander assured her. "Please?" He extended his hand.
Reluctantly, her head turned aside in embarrassment, Terra handed off the sketchbook to him. He drew it close and inspected what she had drawn. She wasn't exactly a professional artist, but he wasn't expecting her to be—she was still young, after all. The cartoonish hulking Grundo sketched on the page was a little lopsided and stiff, and his proportions were off, but there was a certain energy put into the drawing that was hard to miss. A chuckle escaped Hyren's lips, his large red eyes creasing in a smile.
Immediately Terra's face fell. "Is it really that bad?"
"No," he was quick to say. "I like it. It looks just like me." Instead of giving her the sketchbook back, however, he began leafing through to previous pages, careful not to tear the paper with his strong fingers. There were more amateurish drawings of some of the artefacts they'd encountered in the throne room, and further back, sketches of various other items, landscapes, Neopets, and creatures. "They're nice," he finally said, returning the book to her.
"...Thanks," she replied, flipping through it herself as if to reappraise its contents.
"Do you want to be an artist?" Hyren asked.
Terra smiled, slipping the sketchbook into her pack. "Maybe. I haven't really figured it out yet. Blynn and I do well enough just exploring."
"I think you could be a good artist, with more practice and training," the Grundo asserted. Although she would have a hard time practising her craft while in confinement, he had to remind himself.
She looked over at him and blushed, wrapping her arms around her knees. "Thanks."
"But for now, you really should get some sleep," he urged. "I want to get moving bright and early tomorrow so we can do as much walking during the day as possible."
"Right." Terra nodded, and lay back down with a yawn. "Good night, Hyren."
"Night," he replied over his shoulder before shifting back to face the Woods again. His helmet lay nearby, flickers of firelight glinting off of the lifeless visor.
Reaching up, Hyren rubbed at his face in annoyance. His mind wouldn't have let him sleep even if he'd wanted to. So there wouldn't be much to do until dawn except listen to the snaps and pops of the fire, and the occasional strange noises in the trees. The Grundo was fairly confident that with his blaster and sword, he could take care of anything foolish enough to breach the boundaries of their campsite. Satisfied in that thought, he fell into meditation again, wondering how his troops were faring without him in the stars above, if they had been placed under another's command, if Sloth even cared he was gone.
Hyren wasn't sure whether minutes or hours had passed, but he was jerked out of his thoughts by a faint, very familiar beeping. He glanced over at his helmet and saw the visor light up with a red glow, and his eyes widened. Of all the strange luck in the galaxy.
He didn't have to think twice before grabbing the helmet and jamming it on his head as he jumped to his feet. Don't follow the lights. Blynn's words from earlier that day echoed in his mind, and he bit his tongue to keep his focus. He looked at the Neopet and owner to make sure they were fast asleep before dashing out into the trees, trying to get out of earshot before his helmet gave out again. Never stray from the campfire at night.
He opened up the control panel on one bracer and input the first frequency that came to mind, tapping one foot while he waited for the system to configure his request. A beep and a click on the other end let him know the transmission had gone through. "This is Commander Hyren," he breathed. "Do you copy?"
A pause. Then, "Commander?!" The voice on the other end was organic, which surprised Hyren slightly. He'd been expecting an automated system, as robotics made up the bulk of Sloth's administrative departments. "Is that really you?! I thought they'd lost you at Sakhmet!"
"I'm tougher to get rid of than that," he replied hoarsely. "Who is this?"
"Dothan Reebitz, Head of Communications on His Superiority Sloth's flagship, the Triumph... sir."
"Dothan? No wonder you sounded familiar..." Reebitz was—well, he wasn't someone Hyren could consider a friend, really. But he and the unmutated yellow Grundo had crossed paths enough that Hyren thought of Dothan as an acquaintance. Or, more accurately, a fan club.
"Why didn't you contact us sooner? I didn't want to believe you were really gone, sir—I mean, you've survived less likely situations before! Like the invasion of Malmuk III,when you led your forces against an army twice your size, and singlehandedly faced off against and defeated their commander during the decisive Battle of Odo Hill! The historians were talking about that one for ages!" Dothan reminisced.
"My helmet was busted," the commander explained, not in the mood to discuss war stories for once. "I'm surprised my transmission got through. Dumb thing hasn't worked for months." He'd switched back over into a different mode now: terse, professional, cynical. The way he used to be constantly before getting to know his captives. These last few days had changed him more than he wanted to admit. "I have prisoners," he continued, "test subjects for Sloth. A—a Zafara and her owner." He forced the words out, and the vague hope entered his mind that perhaps Sloth didn't need test subjects any more.
That made Dothan's reply all the more heart-rasping. "A Zafara, really? Master Sloth hasn't had any of those to work with yet, I'm sure he'll be most pleased! Excellent work, as always, Commander!"
Hyren's lips thinned. He couldn't bring himself to thank the transmissions operator for the flattery. "I'm taking them to the Virtupets Space Station. From there I'll try to find transport to the Triumph."
"Oh, no need, sir!" Dothan chirped, his obliviously fawning tone beginning to irk the commander. "We have an agent in the Neopian system right now—I'll contact her and tell her to swing on by and pick you up!"
Hyren felt his heart thud against his ribcage. With every word out of his mouth his entire body was screaming at him to reconsider, and it was becoming more and more difficult to do his duty. If ever there was a test of an officer's resolve, this was it.
"Commander?" Dothan's irritating tone sounded again. "Oh dear, I hope the transmission hasn't dropped..."
"I'm still here," he croaked. "That sounds perfect. My coordinates are..." He glanced at the corner of his HUD. "Seventy-eight-point-six degrees south, thirty-two-point-one degrees west."
Terra hadn't wanted to forget him, he thought. Oh, please forget me, Terra, he pleaded mentally. You'll never forgive me for this.
"Wonderful!" Dothan replied. Hyren could hear typing on the other end. "I'll tell her to be there ASAP. Sloth will undoubtedly be pleased by your return, sir."
"Yeah," Hyren grunted. He was done talking to this sycophant. "Commander Hyren, over and out."
"It was a pleasure talking to—" The Mutant Grundo cut the communication before Dothan could finish.
Limply, he removed the helmet and held it in both hands, staring down at the visor. It still glowed a soft red from the inside, reflecting silver moonlight that was rapidly being swallowed up by thick clouds. His mouth was dry as sawdust and his stomach felt like it was going to turn over on itself. Never before had the right choice felt so wrong.
He turned to go back to camp, and was met by a fierce scream and a bundle of fur hurtling toward him. "HOW COULD YOU?!" Blynn screeched as she latched onto his face, sending him staggering backward. "HOW COULD YOU, HYREN?! I HATE YOU!!"
Grabbing her by the scruff of her neck, the Grundo pulled the Zafara off of his head. He dangled her from his outstretched arm as she continued to kick and writhe, her tail lashing violently.
"I'm sorry!!" he roared. "I'm sorry, okay?! I'm just—I'm just doing my job, Blynn!"
"I thought we were friends!" Thick tears welled up in her eyes. "I trusted you!! Terra trusted you! How could you do this to her?!"
He gave the Zafara a rough shake. "I can't be your friend, Blynn!" Now that his gig was up, he knew he had to break her attachment from him as swiftly as possible, before doing so would become even more brutal.
Blynn hissed, baring her fangs and grabbing his bracer with both paws. "We're a team!" Arching her back, she brought up her hind legs and began kicking ineffectively at Hyren's arm.
"Don't delude yourself!" the commander snarled. "We were never a team! I can't—"
He was cut off by another female scream rising into the night, this one bone-chillingly startled and frightened—and then muffled.
And it had come from the direction of the campsite.
Both Neopets whipped around in tandem, respective ears and antennae pricking and quivering. Blynn's eyes grew wide and she looked over at Hyren, and he knew they were both thinking the same thing.
Never leave anyone alone.
To be continued...