Monday, August 26, 2019

Worth Fighting For, Chapter 3

While the owner and the Neopet wasted their time screaming, Hyren reached out and grabbed the Zafara. 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 slid 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 the two children 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. Then all was dark and silent except for the last remnants of the collapsed floor that trickled down and clattered against his armour like hail.

“Terra, are you okay?” the Zafara asked from somewhere in the murky gloom. “Oh, come on, little fella…” With the sound of tapping on glass, the Fire Mote’s steady glow dispelled the shadows in a small space around her.

“Yeah—yeah, I’m fine,” the girl said. “Looks like my pack made it, too. Oh, there’s my glasses... Are you okay?” Their voices echoed emptily, which meant this room was much more voluminous than the entrance.

“Yep,” the Zafara said. “Wait, lemme check—ow… well, a few bumps and bruises, but other than that I’m good.”

The two 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 or reaching his blaster. He was at their mercy, and he scowled, ready to fight until the end.

The girl took a few tentative steps toward him, and then crouched down, putting her hands on her knees and tilting her head. “You’re a mutant Grundo, aren’t you?” she asked.

Hyren narrowed his eyes. “Of course.”

“And… you work for Doctor Sloth?” the girl asked.

“Obviously,” Hyren said. Again he tried to free himself and failed.

“Wow,” the girl said. “I’ve never seen a mutant Grundo in person before. I think Grundos are really cool.” She smiled shyly.

“Yep, he’s real stuck,” the Zafara said as she joined her owner’s side.

“I think we can get him out,” the human said. “Those boulders don’t look too big. He probably just can’t get enough leverage with his leg.”

The Grundo’s antennae twitched as he stared at them in utter befuddlement. “Why aren’t you afraid of me? I’ll have you know that I’m one of Sloth’s top commanding officers. I led the forces that wreaked serious damage on Sakhmet, not to mention ten thousand other worlds.”

The girl thought for a moment, putting her hand to her mouth. “I guess, because… I don’t like being afraid of things. Stuff that other people think is scary usually just needs somebody to care about it.” She paused. “You must be super strong. You don’t have to be one of the villains. You would make a really cool hero.”

Hyren blinked. Nobody had ever said anything like that to him before. And for some reason, the way she said it made him start to actually think about the idea. But his loyalties lay with Sloth. So he scowled and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not interested in your naïve psychology. You and that pink pest are going to help me get to the Space Station if you know what’s good for you.”

The Zafara tilted her head back and laughed, and a smile cracked the human’s face as well. “You’re real funny, guy!” the Zafara said, slapping her knee. “Man, I love Neopets with a good sense of humour.”

“I’m serious!” Hyren said, pounding a fist on the floor and sending up a spray of rock. “I could have Dr. Sloth turn you into test subjects if you don’t comply!”

“But you can’t do that if you’re trapped under a rock,” the human said, trying to hide her amusement. “I have an idea. If we let you free, could you promise not to go back to Sloth? And maybe use your strength to help people instead of destroy things?”

Hyren was about to roll his eyes at such a stupid suggestion, but then he realised that if he couldn’t intimidate these unusual kids, he could certainly deceive them. The idea left a weird pit in his stomach, but he told himself he was just doing what he had to do to get back to his job. So he sighed and tried to look penitent. “You know what? Fine. That’s fine. If you get me out of here, I promise I won’t go back to Sloth, and I’ll do… hero stuff.” The pit in his stomach wouldn’t go leave, and he swallowed hard to try to smother it.

The human smiled. “You won’t regret it. Come on, Blynn, help me move these rocks.”

“Sure,” the Zafara said, setting the lantern down. “But if he tries anything funny,” she added as they began to shift the stones away from Hyren, “he’s gonna catch it from me.”

They lifted the boulder from his leg and he twisted over to stand, but a sharp pain lingered and he dropped back to his knees. Hissing, he sat down, pulled off his shin plate, and checked the wound.

“It’s fine, go away,” he said as the human moved toward him.

“I… um, I have first aid supplies in my pack,” she said, swinging it off of her shoulder and unzipping a pocket. She held out a roll of bandages and a small glass phial full of pale purple liquid.

“What’s that?” Hyren asked.

“A healing potion,” she said. “It’s one of the cheaper ones, 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 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?”

“Either drink it or apply it to the wound,” she said. “I think I have some gauze…” She rifled around in her pack.

The Grundo commander narrowed his eyes, swirling the potion around slowly as he inspected it for anything amiss. “How do I know it’s not poisoned?” Long years of being very disliked by the free galaxy had made him rather suspicious.

“I’ll drink some,” the Zafara said, motioning for Hyren to give her the potion. She raised the phial to her muzzle and downed a sip, then wiped her mouth with her arm

“I guess it’s worth a shot,” Hyren said, taking the gauze the human offered him and placing a few drops of the healing liquid on it before applying it to the wound. He cringed, expecting it to sting, but instead a cool, refreshing, and somehow relaxing sensation spread through his leg.

“This is good stuff,” he said. “Faerie magic, right?”

“Yep,” the girl said. “So… what’s your name? I’m Terra, and this is my Zafara, Blynn.”

“Hyren. Commander Hyren,” Hyren said, “of the Planetary Invasion Corps of the Grand Spacefleet of Doctor Frank Sloth.”

“Ooh,” Terra said.

“Wow,” Blynn said. “Fancy. Why’d you try to grab us back there?”

“I’m not supposed to be here,” Hyren said, “but… something happened and I’ve been stuck on Neopia.” He didn’t feel like discussing officer drama with them when it wasn’t their business. “I thought I could get you to take me to the nearest spaceport so I could go back to Dr. Sloth.”

“You could have just asked,” Terra said. “You don’t need to be scary about it.”

Again her words caught Hyren off guard. He was too used to being scary to get what he wanted. “Well—c’mon, you wouldn’t have said yes,” he said. “I thought you didn’t want me to be a bad guy.”

“Oh, right,” Terra said, scratching the back of her neck. “I mean… we could have, um, figured something else out…”

“Not that it matters anymore,” Hyren said quickly. “Because we made a deal, and I’m a good guy now. So, uh, let’s just focus on getting out of here.” He pushed himself to his feet, but when he put weight on his wounded leg, it let out a fresh burst of pain in protest. With a grunt, he knelt back down. “How long do these potions take to work?”

Terra looked aside. “Sorry… like I said, it’s a weaker healing potion, so it’s not going to do much for somebody your size. It was dumb of me not to buy some stronger potions—”

“Hey, it’s better than nothing!” Blynn said, patting Terra’s arm. “You didn’t know we were gonna meet a big ol’ mutant out here. Anyway, just keep taking the potion and it should heal up your leg enough by tomorrow morning.”

“In the meantime—we’ll take care of you,” Terra said.

Hyren felt a strange knot of emotion in his gut at the idea of someone actually caring about him for once, especially when they had no reason to and he hadn’t exactly been friendly to them. It was more courtesy than Sloth had shown him after Sakhmet, and Hyren found himself once again trying to figure out why Sloth hadn’t bothered to retrieve him.

He was broken out of his thoughts by Terra saying, “How do you think we can get out of here? And where are we?” She looked up and around.

The fire mote’s glow didn’t reach any ceiling or walls, leaving the three of them in a tiny island of light amidst darkness so oppressive Hyren could almost taste it. “What did you say this place was?” he asked.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Terra said. “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?” Hyren asked. “Sounds like things didn’t really work out for the Alxuin.” A chill ran up his spine. He’d heard there were plenty of ghosts roaming Neopia, and he didn’t care to find out if that was true.

“Hey, you guys!” Blynn shouted, making Hyren nearly jump out of his skin. “It looks like there’s some kind of lever on the wall!” She stood next to a large metal handle. “I wonder what it does…” She rubbed her chin and then reached for it.

Hyren knew that it was never a good idea to push levers if you didn’t know what they did. “Whatever you do, don’t—!“

She pushed it down. “Don’t what?”

Hyren buried his face in his hand. “Never mind.” Shoulders hunched, he waited to see what kind of trap she had sprung, as he heard grinding gears and faintly felt the tingle of magic in the air.

With a deep rumble, a bright yellow light spilled into the room from above. In the ceiling, stone slabs pulled away, revealing round bays that held countless tiny orbs of slowly dancing illumination. Their light easily drowned out the lantern, like some titanic force had punched holes in the bedrock to let in shafts of daylight. Terra gasped, 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, luxurious fabrics, and jars stuffed with scrolls. Paintings in the same style as the entrance cavern spanned both walls, displaying a vast panorama of ages long past, and beneath the murals stood colossal statues of various species of Neopets as if to guard the wealth. At one end of the hall sat an immense set of tall stone doors – shut tight – and at the other end, a raised dais held a single, empty throne of black marble. On the wall above it hung an emblem of a stylised sun cradled in two crossed swords.

“Holy Kau,” Blynn said, turning around slowly to take it all in.

“A throne room,” Terra said. “But… why is there treasure here?”

“These scrolls are boring,” Blynn said, having pulled one out from its jar and starting to unroll it. “There’s no pictures.”

“Here, let me see,” Terra said. The Zafara handed her owner the scroll and she scrutinised it.

Hyren leaned over to catch a look. It was covered in strange characters that he certainly couldn’t read.

“This doesn’t look like modern Neopian at all,” Terra said. “It doesn’t even look like the traditional Sakhmetian characters on Coltzan’s Shrine. 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.”

“I’ll bet there was a war,” Hyren said.

“How do you know that?” Terra asked.

He pointed at the murals above them. The first set depicted lavish scenes of banquets and festivals. “These paintings tell a story,” Hyren said. “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, or if he was just boring her to death. She looked up at the murals, utterly engrossed like he was telling her a bedtime story, and when he paused she turned to him with eyes full of wonder.

It made him stop in his thoughts for a moment. Here was someone who didn’t simply hate him on principle, and who cared about his well-being. She really listened to the things he had to say and tried to get along with him. It made Hyren start to feel bad for lying to her, but he tried to shove away that emotion. He had to do whatever it took for his job. Even though he found that didn’t sit as well with him as it used to.

Hyren moved on, clearing his throat to try 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 what looked like the throne room itself. A grim Kacheek sat upon the throne, surrounded by soldiers.

“They lost, didn’t they,” Terra said.

Hyren nodded. “I mean, they’re clearly not here anymore. I’ve seen similar things happen on other planets. The Alxuin probably sealed off these caves when they were besieged to protect their treasure.”

“You must see a lot in your job,” the girl said, scanning the murals again.

“More than you can dream of,” Hyren said, and in spite of himself he grinned. He wanted to tell her all of his stories, because she actually wanted to listen. He caught himself and forced a frown back onto his face, not willing to lose his professional composure in front of anyone else.

“Hey guys!” Blynn said. “Check me out!” She sat 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 bowed low. “All hail Her Gloriousness!”

Hyren rolled his eyes, and couldn’t help but chuckle a little. Blynn’s humour was a nice change of pace from Virtupets officers’ brand of humour that usually involved snide remarks behind each others’ backs. It was no wonder he didn’t have any friends.

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,” Blynn said, “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 said. She threw away the sceptre and headdress and bounded down from the throne, running back to them. “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 behind her as she rustled around. “Makes a Zafara pretty hungry, y’know?”

“You treat running into one of Sloth’s commanders like it’s a regular occurrence,” Hyren said.

Blynn 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?” she asked him.

“What?” Hyren asked.

“For your dinner,” Blynn said. “I’d offer you cheese and pickle but I already ate all of those.”

“And good riddance,” Terra said, making a face.

Hyren frowned. “Wait a second. Now you’re acting like we’re friends? Nuh-uh, I don’t do that. I told you I wouldn’t go back to Sloth, but that doesn’t make me your buddy. I’m not into that kind of thing. Leave me out of your little picnic.”

Terra’s face fell. “We—we understand,” she said. “But you need to eat to keep up your strength so we can work together to get out of here.”

The Grundo narrowed his eyes. “Oh, so that’s what this is about? You’re just playing nice to get my help? Not simply out of the goodness of your little hearts?”

Terra looked aside, fidgeting with one of the straps on her pack. “W-wait, no, I didn’t mean it like that—”

“Hey, leave her alone!” Blynn said. “We’re just offering you a sandwich, it’s not the end of the world! And don’t talk to her like that—she just saved your life!” She shoved an asparagus and leek sandwich into his hand. “Take your stupid dinner, you big moron.”

Hyren stared at the sandwich, trying to ignore the cold feeling in his chest. He couldn’t be their friend. Life just didn’t work that way for him, and soon he would be back with Virtupets anyway. And although something inside of him wanted to believe that Terra could really be that altruistic, another part of him felt he could not accept the idea. Keeping them at arm’s length was for the best.

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