Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Worth Fighting For, Chapter 5

“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 focused on the mutant Grundo, and she glared at him for a moment before sitting up suddenly, making Hyren have to jerk back before they collided. “Oh, hey!” she chirped. “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 still-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 began to fill with light again, revealing its immensity and grandeur. “It’s just fine,” he said. “That potion worked wonders—it was smart of you to bring it.”

The last bit of his sentence seemed to slip out unbidden, and Hyren wondered why he had complimented the owner. Their conversation from last night came to mind. He knew how it felt to be an oddball, to not have any friends. For reasons he couldn’t quite comprehend, he couldn’t swallow the idea of these two youngsters going through that. As much as he’d wanted to dislike them, they were brave and smart and unafraid to be themselves. Hyren felt like other people were missing out by passing them over.

Terra was rolling her sleeping bag, pulling on the straps with all her might, but at Hyren’s reply she smiled and ducked her head bashfully. “Thanks,” she said.

In reality, it still hurt a little when Hyren walked, but he didn’t want her 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.

“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 smiled to himself. He didn’t know why seeing a human happy made him happy, but it seemed to fill a hole in his soul that he’d never known was there. Maybe, he thought, he could convince Sloth to let them be lab assistants instead of test subjects. That would still earn Hyren some brownie points with the overlord, right?

But that would have to wait until they got out of here. Hyren’s first order of business was to search 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 fear began to set in for him, too. What if this room didn’t have any other exits?

But Hyren wasn’t about to give up that easily. He moved to one side of the doorway and crouched at the wall, going around the room and feeling them for any sort of weak point or possibly even hidden passages, as he knew there were wont to be in palaces. Many times this involved first digging through mounds of treasure that had accumulated.

It was too bad he couldn’t claim all of it for Sloth, but this wealth was too cumbersome for Hyren to think of taking 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.

“That would be lovely,” 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 annoy people,” he said.

“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.

There was a sudden discordant crash of metal against metal and a shrill squeak from behind them, and the two Neopets whipped around. Terra was staring wide-eyed at a toppled-over statue of a stern Elephante. Coins were still shifting where it had fallen.

“Oops,” Terra said.

Hyren smacked his face with his palm and said, “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?” he asked the owner.

“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. “I know,” he said. “Makes my job a lot easier. 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. Hyren found he wasn’t as impatient about this as he thought he would be.

“It must be cool being so strong,” Terra said quietly after a while.

Hyren paused. “Yeah… it is pretty cool,” he said. “But it has its downsides. Most people think I’m a brainless meathead like the other mutant Grundos. That gets annoying fast.” He smiled down at her. “You may not be big and strong, but at least you’re a cute kid. That makes you more likeable.”

Terra sighed. “I dunno,” she said. “People still don’t seem to like me. I’m just too weird.” She looked up at the commander. “I think you’re cool,” she 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 in annoyance. “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!”

“Fine,” Hyren said as he and Terra joined Blynn on the dais. “Okay, what did you discover?”

The Zafara hopped back down and tackled the throne from behind with all her might. In spite of her light weight, it flinched, and Hyren’s eyes widened.

He positioned himself behind the chair, rubbing his hands together before placing them flat on the backrest. “Stand back,” he said. 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 dais, 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,” she said.

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.”

“But it goes down,” Terra said, backing away from the hole.

“Be that as it may,” Hyren said, “if there’s air circulation in a passage, it means it’s open to the outside somewhere.”

Terra nodded eagerly. “Come on, Blynn,” she said, “let’s grab our gear and get out of here.”

“Right! I call lantern duty!” Blynn said.

Hyren, meanwhile, leaned against the throne and watched them pack up. Why did he have to enjoy their company so much? They were vastly different from anyone else he knew, and in a good way. Except he still couldn’t get emotionally attached, he kept telling himself. “All right,” he said once they had returned. “I’m going first, to make sure it’s safe.” Thankfully, 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 while his head was 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 was all too anxious to get back out into the sun again, and he 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. The Grundo supposed one could make the argument that being in a spaceship was similarly stifling, but sailing through the vastness of the cosmos was much different than being restricted under the earth.

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.

“For an adventurer, you certainly are afraid of a lot of things,” Hyren said.

“We don’t usually go on adventures this dangerous,” Terra said.

Hyren felt bad for her, once again being reminded of her age and likely Blynn’s. They were just kids who had gotten in way over their heads. Granted, he was responsible for that, although the thought also occurred to him 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 when we saved you,” she said. “Mostly, I just wanted to help you. I promise.”

Hyren looked at her for a long moment. Although they had only known each other for a day, he had begun to realise how sensitive she was, how much she truly cared about others. It was a sort of idealism that just wasn’t a priority in the Virtupets forces, and thus very few Neopets there ever displayed it. Hyren certainly never thought it was all that important. But now that he had been exposed to it, he found he couldn’t bring himself to shut it down.

He smiled. “Yeah, I figured by now,” he said. “I’m sorry I accused you of having ulterior motives.” He stuck out a hand. “Truce?”

Terra grinned and took his hand, giving it a squeeze. “Thank you,” she said.

Remembering what they were bound for made Hyren have to really work to keep the smile on his face. Then the thought struck him that Sloth never needed to know Hyren had found potential test subjects. But one of the last directives Hyren had received from the man was specifically to obtain Neopian test subjects. What if Hyren showing up emptyhanded would be taken for disobedience?

Hyren swallowed hard and looked out at the darkness beyond them. He knew he really didn’t want to hand these two over to Sloth. But what if he had to?

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, so Hyren simply watched. 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 was fresh. “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 to fit in it.

“Uh-huh,” Terra said rather tensely.

Hyren realised that probably wasn’t the best thing to have said. It was foreign to him to keep someone else’s sensitivities in mind, but he found that it was at least something he wanted to do. 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.

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