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 were propelled down a sinuous shaft that finally spit them out into a larger space.

Hyren hit the floor with such an impact that it briefly blacked out his vision and sent his two prisoners flying out of his grasp. Rock rained down on him and something heavy slammed into his leg, forcing a cry of pain from his throat. For a moment, all was dark and silent except for the last remnants of the collapsed floor 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…” There was the sound of tapping on glass, and then the fire mote’s steady glow began to dispel the shadows again in a small space around her.

“Yeah—yeah, I’m fine,” 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. For the first time in a long while, the icy hand of panic gripped him, and he swallowed hard. He was at their mercy.

The girl took a few tentative steps toward him, and then crouched down, 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,” he said.

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

“Yes,” Hyren said. The answer still came quickly, even though Hyren had to remind himself that he had been missing from the overlord’s army for—well, it had to have been months, now. Again he tried to get out, but he was stuck fast. He frowned and added, “You’re not taking me down without a fight.”

By now, the Zafara had joined her owner’s side, and the smaller Neopet tilted her head. “What are you talking about?” she asked.

“We don’t want to fight you,” the human said.

The Grundo’s antennae twitched. “Even though I’m one of Sloth’s top commanding officers?” he asked. “Even though I led the forces that conquered ten thousand worlds and wreaked serious damage on Sakhmet?” He pounded a fist on the floor. “Even though I tried to take you prisoner?!”

The two looked at each other for a moment, and then the girl said, “We don’t want to hurt you. Come on, Blynn, help me move these rocks.” The Zafara set the lantern down and went to help her owner shift the stone away from Hyren.

“You’re morons,” Hyren muttered, letting them work to their own detriment. When they lifted the rock from his leg, he twisted over, intending to rise to his feet, but the pain lingered and did not allow him to stand. Hissing, he drew in his legs, pulling off his shin plate and checking the wound.

“It’s fine, go away,” he said as the owner 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 bottle full of pale purple liquid. “Do you need help?” she asked.

“What’s that?” Hyren asked, looking at the bottle.

“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 glared at her and said, “You really are loony, aren’t you.” Before she could respond, he took the bandages and the bottle. He uncorked the crystalline container and sniffed the liquid inside—it smelled like a combination of mint and fresh cut grass. “Okay. How do I use this?” he asked.

“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?” he asked. Long years of being very disliked by the free galaxy had made him rather suspicious.

“I’ll drink some!” the Zafara said. She held out one hand and Hyren placed the potion in it. She raised it to her muzzle and downed a sip. “Ah, refreshing,” she said, wiping her mouth with her arm.

Hyren sat back and stared, not used to dealing with her kind of personality. “I guess I’ll try it,” he said, taking the gauze the owner offered him and placing a few drops of the healing liquid on it before applying it to his leg. He cringed, expecting it to sting, but the sensation that met him was cool and refreshing, and somehow relaxing.

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

“Yep,” the girl said. “So… what’s your name?” she asked. “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.”

“Can—could you help us get out?” Terra asked. “I bet if we work together, we—“

“Well,” Hyren said, “you’ve just effectively sealed your fates by freeing me. Dr. Sloth is expecting more test subjects from Neopia. And you’re going to help me find the nearest spaceport. Understood?”

The girl and the Zafara looked at each other again, and Terra swallowed hard while Blynn narrowed her eyes.

Hyren pushed himself to his feet, tired of waiting for an answer. As soon as he put weight on his wounded leg, it let out a fresh burst of pain in protest and he grunted, kneeling back down.

“I don’t think you’re in any condition to go anywhere,” Terra said. “Let’s just rest here a while, until the potion starts to take effect.”

“Fine,” Hyren said, knowing she was unfortunately right. “But you’ll be kicking yourselves later for not escaping when you had the chance.”

Terra gave him an odd look—was it pity? “We can’t leave you here,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. You’re hurt. We’ll look after you.”

Again Hyren felt a strange knot of emotion in his gut. Someone cared about him, even if she was a moron for doing so. It caught him off guard and just made him confused all over again, so he just frowned and muttered, “You’ll regret that.”

“Hey!” Blynn said. “That’s no way to treat somebody who saved your life!”

Hyren was still trying to think of a snarky reply, when Terra said, “How do you think we get out of here? And where are we?” She looked up and around.

Hyren knew she had a point—he shouldn’t waste his time or energy arguing when there was an important task at hand. The room was so large that the fire mote’s glow didn’t reach the ceiling or walls, leaving the three of them in a tiny island of light amidst darkness so oppressive Hyren could almost taste it. Involuntarily, a shudder ran up his spine. He didn’t like feeling so small, so insignificant—so powerless. “What did you say this place was?” he asked. “It feels like some kind of tomb.”

“I’m not entirely sure,” Terra said. She unrolled the map. “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,” he said, “don’t—!“

She pushed it down. “Don’t what?” she asked.

Hyren buried his face in his hand and said, “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.

The ceiling rumbled and a bright yellow light spilled into the room from above. Hyren looked up to see stone slabs pull away, revealing round bays set into the ceiling that held countless tiny orbs of slowly dancing illumination. The light was so strong that it easily drowned out the lantern, looking like some titanic force had punched holes in the bedrock to let 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, silks, 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, grim armoured guardians of wealth. At the end of the hall nearest to the three were an immense set of tall stone doors – shut tight – and at the far end, a raised dais held a single, empty throne of black marble. On the wall above it was 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, an utterly unfamiliar writing system from what he’d seen of this planet’s culture.

“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.”

“There was a war,” Hyren said.

“What?” Terra asked. “How do you know that?”

He pointed at the murals above them. The first set depicted lavish scenes of banquets and festivals. “These Neopets left their entire history in visual form,” Hyren said. “It’s pretty easy to figure out what happened. See, they must have once been a mighty empire that held sway over a large region, amassing wealth rapidly. And I’m willing to bet they weren’t very nice about it.”

The commander’s finger moved to the next set, which showed scenes of battle and destruction, and of finely dressed pets fleeing into the sands. “So one or more of their vassal states rose up against them,” he said, “and started to gain the upper hand.” He glanced down at Terra to see if she was following. 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.

No one had ever looked at Hyren like that before, so trusting like a child to a parent, and it made him stop in his thoughts for a moment. Why didn’t she hate him? Why did she care about him even though they had only met and he was clearly antagonistic toward her and her Neopet? It made Hyren feel bad for wanting to turn them in to Sloth, but he tried to shove away that emotion. He had to do his job, no matter what. Even though he found that didn’t sit in his gut as well 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 the room they were now in. A powerful-looking Kacheek sat upon the throne, surrounded by a merry court dancing and playing music. Hyren was sure the real scene was not nearly so carefree, but they were likely trying to cheer themselves up in the face of imminent defeat.

“They lost, didn’t they,” Terra said.

Hyren nodded and said, “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 at least 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. For reasons he couldn’t quite explain, he wanted to tell her all of his stories. That starry look in her eyes made him happy, somehow. He didn’t know what was happening to him.

“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!” the human said.

Hyren rolled his eyes, and couldn’t help but chuckle a little. He found himself feeling bad for thinking Blynn was annoying earlier. Her humour was a nice change of pace from Virtupets officers’ stern demeanours—or their brand of humour that usually involved snide remarks behind each others’ backs.

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?” she asked.

“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?”

Hyren sighed at being reminded of who he was. “You’re not taking this seriously at all, are you,” he 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. He couldn’t believe they would offer him food.

“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. He had to keep his head in the game and not let himself get distracted, no matter how endearing they were. “Let me make myself clear,” he said. “You’re my prisoners. I’m going to take you back to Dr. Sloth as test subjects. I don’t want to be friends with you.”

“I don’t know if you noticed,” Blynn said, “but we were kind of winning that fight earlier.”

“Wha—you were not!” Hyren said, even though if he was honest with himself, she was right. He just hated being weak, and hated the idea of being bested by two children.

“We know you don’t like us,” Terra said. “But we also know we might need your help to get out of here. I’ll worry about what’s going to happen to us when the time comes, but for now… the three of us have to work together.”

The Grundo narrowed his eyes and let out a hoarse chuckle. “So it’s not just that you couldn’t stand to leave me here out of the goodness of your little hearts,” he said.

Terra looked aside, fidgeting with one of the straps on her pack. “Well… th-that’s still part of it,” she said.

Hyren forced himself not to feel bad for upsetting her. He wasn’t surprised at her ulterior motive. Everyone he’d ever met had worked for their own best interests. He would not delude himself into thinking that these two were any different. “I’ll have the asparagus and leek,” he said, extending his hand and trying to ignore the cold feeling in his gut.

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