The heat woke him. 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 good physical condition, and he had a week’s supply of ration capsules. Really the only loss besides his sword was his armour’s power. The shock of the collapse had probably damaged the electronics, and the dust and sand didn’t help matters, either. Hyren just needed to find a place to recuperate and wait to be found.
Assuming, that was, Sloth wanted to go through the effort to find him. Why wouldn’t he? Surely Sloth wouldn’t just take Garoo’s word for it—right? Not after everything Hyren had accomplished for the overlord. Was Hyren really just a glorified experiment, after all?
No, Hyren thought. Of course not. They would come back for him. They had to. Someone had to. Was it too much to ask for them to care about him, even if just as a valuable military asset? The thought left a pit in his stomach and a strange choke in his throat. He needed to feel needed.
It was an uncomfortable idea for someone who prided himself on his independence, but the fact of the matter was that Hyren had devoted his life to building Sloth’s empire. He didn’t have anything else. And all he asked was to be appreciated for it. Was that too much?
He looked up at the sweltering sky and realised he should be doing less thinking and more moving, unless he wanted to bake out here—or the guards decided to go looking for him. So Hyren 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 on this planet as Petpets. Intel dossiers further specified that these feathered Petpets were known as Horuses. They casually called to each other as they rode the thermal currents, soaring in lazy circles.
But no one called to him, Hyren thought. At any rate, his helmet was still broken. How would they ever find him? Sloth had ways, Hyren was sure. But would he go to the bother? Another uncomfortable idea crossed the commander’s mind—what if Sloth was angry at him for supposedly not surviving Sakhmet? After all, the overlord did not tolerate failure. Hyren had never failed him until now. What if Garoo blamed Hyren for their retreat? If Hyren found his way back to Sloth, would he be met with that terrifying disapproving scowl that Hyren had seen Sloth use on so many other unfortunate beings?
But, Hyren decided, anything was better than being stuck on Neopia forever. He would accept whatever punishment Sloth decided to give him, and then go back to doing his job impeccably like usual. If only Hyren could find a way to make it up to Sloth somehow.
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 that gushed perpetually from an underground source. Where it flowed out onto the sand, a small oasis of palms and fruit trees had grown. It was the perfect place to recuperate before he had to keep moving.
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? Surely the overlord would do some investigation into the demise of one of Virtupets’s most elite warriors, despite what Garoo might say. Right?
But if that was the case, why hadn’t they come back for Hyren by now? Was Sloth expecting Hyren to return on his own? That did sound like the overlord. But Hyren knew he would be detained on sight if he wandered anywhere near civilization. Even if he wasn’t wearing his armour, everybody knew mutant Grundos were Sloth’s making.
Still, Hyren was resourceful, and he knew he could figure out a way back to Sloth if he tried. But that left the problem of Sloth likely being displeased by Hyren’s disappearance. How could Hyren placate him?
His previous thought about mutant Grundos came back to him. Sloth always wanted more test subjects. Hyren would just have to get him some. It was really the best the commander could do at this point, but it was better than showing up emptyhanded.
But there was no one else out here, just the wind and the Petpets. After a while Hyren got to know their habits well—how herds of 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, and which rocks most likely had Scamanders curled underneath.
The commander was curious about what seemed to be tunnels in back of the cavern, but he didn’t bother to explore them as his Virtupets lightrod had run out of battery from all of his walking through the night. There didn’t seem to be anything of any interest in there anyway, just barren stone. Not worth the effort of venturing away to look for materials to make a torch.
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 and owed everything to. Every night, Hyren stared 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 one evening, after his daily nap, Hyren woke up and knew he’d have to move 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, going from one adventure to the next in his line of work. Maybe this planet’s atmosphere was doing funny things to his brain. Hyren needed to get back to regiment and warfare—he feared he was going soft.
He hoped he wasn’t purposely putting off returning. Why wouldn’t he want to go back? Nothing could ever tear him away from Virtupets—
The sound of voices approaching made Hyren’s antennae perk up and he froze.
“Terra, are you sure this is it? We’ve been walking all day!” said something squeaky.
“Well, the map says… yeah,” said another young voice, albeit more subdued. “Compasses don’t lie, at least.”
Fruit in hand, Hyren bolted back toward the mouth of the cave, knowing the shadows would conceal him. He watched the dunes as the two voices drew closer.
“Hey, look! There’s the cave!” said the squeaky voice. “What do you think we’ll find in there? Treasure? Cool shiny stuff?”
“Just think,” said the other voice, “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!”
Hyren gulped down the fruit, tossing away the pit, not taking his eyes off of the desert beyond. The owners of the voices emerged from over the top of the sands, both wearing dusty cloaks and wide-brimmed hats, and toting backpacks with bedrolls. One was a red Zafara, her long tail waving behind her as her large feet supported her on the sand. The other was a teenage owner, pale-skinned with scattered freckles, a willowy build, and blue-grey eyes partially obscured by glasses. Her rust-brown hair, tied back from her face, was ceaselessly tossed by the desert wind.
Hyren narrowed his eyes. He had found Sloth’s test subjects. These two didn’t look like they could put up a fight. Thoughts flooded the commander’s mind of being welcomed back to the spacefleet, perhaps even being rewarded for his heroic return—
“Oh, wow!” the owner said 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 examined an ancient-looking roll of paper. “Although, considering its age, it was possibly drawn before the oasis even existed.”
Meanwhile, the Zafara let out a whoop and dropped her pack. She flung away her cloak and ran into the pool, scaring away a small herd of Apises. “Look at all this water!” she said, splashing about.
“And fruit!” the owner said, kneeling down to refill their canteens. She rose again and moved toward the fruit trees while the Neopet continued to frolic in the pond.
Hyren frowned. No wonder Neopets 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 long ears to join the owner at one of the trees that shaded the oasis. The teen was plucking large blue fruits and stuffing them in her pack. “Here, Blynn, have a blusops,” she said. She tossed one of the blusops to the Zafara, who snatched it out of the air and bit into it with gusto, making her owner chuckle.
Hyren wished they would hurry and reach the cave already. He was formulating a plan in his mind, how he would make them get him to the Space Station, where he knew there were Sloth sympathizers who could help him find the spacefleet. Now that Hyren’s opportunity had finally arrived, any more waiting was unbearable. He was not very good at being patient.
The girl shouldered her pack and looked toward the cavern entrance. “Well… are you ready for this?” she asked.
“You bet!” the Zafara said as she 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,” she said. “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.
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 the commander had thought was an ordinary cave turned out to be covered with gigantic murals of Neopets in elaborate robes and headdresses, entwined with intricate floral and geometric patterns. Suddenly Hyren felt a twinge of regret that he hadn’t tried harder to bring light into the cavern, instead choosing to skulk about in shadow and completely missing what was in front of his face all along.
“Wow—I guess that weird old Poogle was right!” the Zafara said. Her voiced ricocheted sharply off the walls, and Hyren grabbed his antennae and grimaced.
“Amazing,” the owner said as 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 and held up the lantern. “Hey, look,” the Neopet said as she pressed a finger to the wall. “There’s writing here! It looks weird, Terra, what does it say?”
“Nooo idea,” the girl said. “I’m not exactly an expert on ancient Neopian languages. And careful with that paint, it must be super old!”
Taking in a quiet breath, Hyren 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. Her motion caused the girl to turn as well, and the two stared straight up at the mutant Grundo in confusion. He froze in mid-step, and for an awkward moment the three just looked at each other.
Then he lunged at them.
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 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, dancing near the entrance to a tunnel. “Can’t catch me!” she said, hopping from one foot to another as she dangled the lantern in front of her.
The commander slung the girl over his shoulder and sprinted after the Zafara. “Come back here!” he yelled into the darkness, frustrated that the thing wasn’t idiotic enough to try to face him head-on. He knew he could have just taken the girl and left the Zafara, but after the Sakhmet debacle, Hyren found himself a little paranoid about any further perceived failures. It would be utterly embarrassing if he let a civilian slip away from him.
Through the dim halls, a mocking giggle echoed. “Over here, slimebreath!” the Zafara called.
“You’d better get back here if you know what’s good for you, you little furball!” Hyren yelled. It was a lame threat, but he was banking on the fact that civilians were helplessly weak and stupid—
“You leave her alone!” the owner said. She twisted around in Hyren’s grip, bringing her knee up and ramming it into the visor of his helmet with unexpected fierceness.
The mutant Grundo staggered backward, dazed by the pain. He tried to catch himself on what he thought was a wall, and instead fell back even further into darkness, 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 low grinding and a knot instantly formed in his stomach. “Oh, no,” he said as the floor suddenly gave way beneath him, and all three of them slid into darkness.