“All right, let’s go,” Hyren said as he leaned over Blynn, shaking her shoulder to wake her.
“Huwhuh…” the Zafara said as she rolled over. Her eyes blinked open and focussed on the mutant Grundo, and she glared at him for a moment before sitting up suddenly, and Hyren had 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 sleeping owner with a mischievous grin. Blynn leaped onto Terra’s stomach and stuck her nose in the girl’s face. “Wake up and smell the streaky bacon!” the Zafara said.
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. “It’s still dark out—” she started to say. “Oh—right.” She looked 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 and said, “Okay. Let’s find a way out of here.”
“Right,” Hyren said. “You two stay here and eat breakfast.” 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 as the room filled with light, once more revealing its immensity and grandeur. “It’s just fine now,” he said. “Thanks to that potion of yours.” In reality, it still hurt a little when Hyren walked, but he didn’t want the owner to trouble herself with him when he was capable of taking care of himself. He’d left the bandage on under his armour for extra support, anyhow.
“Happy to help,” Terra said as she rolled her sleeping bag, pulling on the straps with all her might. “But I just bought it, I’m not the one who brewed it. You should thank the faeries, not me.”
“Well, I don’t see any faeries around here,” Hyren said, “so I’m giving you the credit for healing me.” She smiled and ducked her head bashfully.
“Okay, what do we have in the way of breakfast stuff?” Blynn asked.
As the two of them pulled out more food, Hyren turned to inspect the room and grinned to himself. He didn’t know why seeing them happy made him happy, but it seemed to fill a hole in his soul that he’d never known was there. He knew he would have to leave them soon, but perhaps until then, they could share an adventure together.
Hyren started by 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 rammed one of them with his shoulder. As his pauldron made contact, Hyren 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, probably on purpose by the Alxuin who didn’t want anyone getting their treasure. That was when a bit of worry began to set in for him, too. What if this room didn’t have any other exits?
But Hyren wouldn’t give up that easily. He moved to one side of the doorway and crouched at the wall, going around the room and feeling for any sort of weak point or possibly even hidden passages, as he knew most palaces had. The walls were buried in piles of accumulated treasure that he had to move out of the way first.
It was too bad he couldn’t claim all of it for Sloth, but Hyren obviously couldn’t take the entire treasury with him. Maybe, though, he would find something useful as well as valuable, and that would be worth lugging along.
“Hey, need help?” Blynn asked as she slid down a pile of coins next to him and began to dig.
“Sure,” Hyren said. 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 two don’t have any other friends.”
“They just don’t understand my genius,” Blynn said, buffing her paw on her chest fur. She got down on all fours and burrowed frenetically, coins flying past her tail. When she came back up, she had a pair of 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.”
“Which one are you?” Hyren asked.
“I’m a parallelogram,” Blynn said. She went back to digging.
Behind them, metal crashed against metal and Terra let out a sharp cry, and the two Neopets whipped around. Terra stared wide-eyed at a toppled-over statue of a stern Elephante, coins still shifting where it had fallen. “Oops,” Terra said.
Hyren sighed. “I can’t leave you alone for five minutes. Blynn, keep digging.” He made his way across the room. “You’re not hurt, are you?”
“Nuh-uh,” she said. “I saw it was falling and moved.”
Gripping the statue, Hyren summoned his mutant strength and hefted it aside, placing it safely on the floor. He turned back to see Terra’s eyes bulge.
“You’re really strong,” she said.
Hyren laughed. “Comes in handy sometimes. C’mon, let’s dig here. I’ll help you.”
They knelt down next to the wall, but Hyren’s attention was divided between excavating and making sure nothing else threatened to fall on the human, so they didn’t make much progress.
“It must be cool being so strong,” Terra said quietly after a while.
Hyren paused. “Yeah… it is pretty cool. But it has its downsides. Most people think I’m a brainless meathead like the other mutant Grundos. That gets annoying fast.”
“I think you’re very smart,” Terra said. “People who judge you because of your strength—they’re the dumb ones.”
For a long moment, Hyren stared at her. This one teenage kid made more sense than anybody in Sloth’s entire spacefleet. “Th-thanks,” he said, clearing his throat to get out the hitch in it. “You’re right.” He scooped away another pile of coins. “Same goes for you—for the people who judge you because you’re different.”
“Thanks,” Terra said with a grin.
“Hey guys!” Blynn yelled, making Hyren wince, his antennae twitching. “I think I found something!”
The Grundo looked up to see her behind the throne on the other side of the hall. “What are you doing?” Hyren asked. “You’re supposed to be excavating the perimeter.”
“I got bored,” Blynn said, scrambling up the tall back of the throne. “It looked more interesting over here. Come and see!”
Hyren and Terra joined Blynn on the dais. “Okay, what did you discover?” Hyren asked.
The Zafara hopped back down and tackled the throne from behind with all her might. In spite of her light weight, it flinched. “Looks like there’s a hole underneath. But I can’t move it all the way.”
Hyren 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 slid away to reveal a square opening in the stone, with steep steps leading downward into darkness.
“How did you think to check the throne?” Hyren asked Blynn.
Blynn tilted her head at him and grinned. “Intuition.”
The commander raised an eyebrow. “’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.
“What?” she asked.
“A breeze,” he said. “That means this route leads to an exit.”
“That’s right,” Terra said with a nod. “I read that if there’s air circulation, that means a passage is open to the outside somewhere. Let’s grab our gear and get out of here.”
“Right! I call lantern duty!” Blynn said.
Hyren leaned against the throne and watched them pack up. He hoped they wouldn’t get too attached to him. That would make their parting more difficult. But considering what he knew about the two, he didn’t want to be just one more person who rejected them. Hopefully he could at least leave them with some good memories.
“All right,” he said once they had returned. “I’m going first, to make sure it’s safe.” The opening was just large enough for his wide shoulders to squeeze through. “Lantern?”
Blynn handed it to him and Hyren lowered himself down the stairs backward, half-climbing. He paused with his head 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 said.
He smiled up at her and said, “Of course.”
The stairway did not descend very far before hitting bottom. A cramped, rough-hewn passageway stretched into the darkness beyond, twisting and winding into oblivion. Hyren 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.
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. “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 made her way down the steps, looking over her shoulder at Hyren every few moments.
“Not much of a climber, are you?” he asked.
“I don’t like heights,” Terra said. “Also, I’m kind of klutzy.”
Hyren chuckled. “And you decided to become an adventurer?”
“I didn’t expect this adventure to be so dangerous,” Terra said.
Hyren felt a twinge of guilt. It was really his fault that they had ended up down here. But then he realised that if he had not been here, they might have fallen into the ruins by themselves. He found he did not want to think too far along those lines, so he distracted himself by reaching up and putting his hands under Terra’s arms, lifting her from the stairs and putting her on the floor. “Thought you could use some help,” he said.
“Thanks,” Terra said. She rubbed her arm. “I—yesterday, I really wasn’t thinking mainly about how you could help me and Blynn get out of here if we saved you,” she said. “Mostly, I just wanted to help you. I wanted you to be okay because I care about you.”
Hyren looked at her for a long moment. Her sort of idealism just wasn’t a priority in the Virtupets forces. Hyren had certainly never found it all that important. But deep down, something inside of him told him she had the right idea, and he didn’t feel like trying to mess with her pure heart. He felt that if more people in the galaxy thought like her, it would be a better place.
He smiled. “Yeah, I figured by now. I’m sorry I was such a grouch yesterday.” He stuck out a hand. “Truce?”
Terra grinned and took his hand, giving it a squeeze. “Thank you,” she said.
He squeezed her hand back. While he told himself that it was just because he missed having troops to command, he wanted to be there for her and Blynn as much as he could before he had to leave. After all, they never had to know that his promise to Terra wasn’t sincere. They’d never see him again after this. That inevitability still made him rather sad, so he tried not to think about it too much.
Meanwhile, Blynn had swung herself over the edge and begun to scuttle down. With her lithe body, she was a better climber than her gawky human companion. Blynn skipped the last few steps to drop to the floor, then picked up the lantern and held it out to the darkness beyond.
The dry, cold tunnel smelled like stale earth, but the air kept flowing. “Thankfully there’s only one path,” Hyren said as they followed Blynn. “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.
“Uh-huh,” Terra said rather tensely.
Hyren realised that probably wasn’t the best thing to have said. He decided to try distracting her with another story. “Did I ever tell you,” he said, “about the planet of giant Blobaguses I stumbled upon during one of my missions?”
“What’s a Blobagus?” Blynn asked.
“Creatures foreign to Neopia,” Hyren said, “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 very 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 tell them about that world as they made their way through the tunnel, trying to distract them from the fact that the ground sloped downward and the path became slowly narrower. This had to be an escape route, though. It was far too deliberate, and couldn’t dead-end, based on the presence of air currents. Hyren would just have to trust that the builders of this labyrinth knew what they were doing.