“So that’s when the space fungus started swarming our ship!” Hyren said. They had to have been walking for at least half an hour, now, but Hyren had scores more stories to tell. The tunnel was now so narrow that Hyren barely fit in it, and if it got any narrower he was going to have to turn to one side. “I turned to the Navibot helmsman and—“ He stopped short, drawing in an uncertain breath.
“What is it?” Terra asked from behind him.
Just ahead, the tunnel ceiling abruptly dipped, reducing its navigable area to a mere crawlspace a few feet high. It looked just large enough for Hyren to squeeze through. He shuffled awkwardly aside so Terra could see.
“Blynn, you go first,” he said. “I’m sure we’re nearly to the end. Maybe.”
Blynn started toward the hole, dropping to all fours and holding the lantern ahead of her with one forepaw. The firelight receded until it was barely visible.
“Okay. Your turn,” Hyren said to Terra.
The owner stared at the entrance for a few awkward moments before looking back over her shoulder at him. She said nothing, but Hyren could tell that she really did not want to do this.
Hyren crouched down and put a hand on her shoulder. “You’re gonna be okay,” he said. “I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”
“But—but what if something goes wrong?” she asked. “What if there’s a cave-in?” Her entire body tensed.
Hyren chewed on the inside of his mouth. “You can’t let your worries control you. Trust me. I see it all too often in my job. You’re—you’re a brave kid, Terra. I know you can conquer those fears.”
For a moment she looked unsure—and then she rubbed her face, took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders. “Okay. I trust you.”
“And trust yourself, too,” Hyren said. He didn’t care how stupidly sappy he sounded right now. He wanted to see her feeling better.
“I’ll try,” Terra said. She turned to face the hole again, knelt down, and quickly crawled in.
“I’m right behind you,” Hyren said, dropping to his knees and elbows and huddling to get all of his bulk inside. His helmet and back armour bumped against the ceiling as he moved. One downside to being big and strong was that sometimes, he had trouble fitting places. “Well, at least this place wasn’t inhabited entirely by a kingdom of Jubjubs,” he said. “Then we’d really have problems.”
Terra laughed weakly in response.
“I’m out the other side!” Blynn said.
Hyren sighed in relief. “How big is it?”
“Bigger than where we came in,” she said. “It looks like a hallway. Not a tunnel. There’s um, tile and stuff.”
“Sounds like we may have come out into a main area of the fortress complex,” Hyren said. Terra quickly covered the rest of the distance to the end. “From here it should—“ A jolt halted the commander’s progress and he found himself unable to continue forward. Grunting, he pushed with his shoulders, trying to find the point of pressure. One of his pauldrons was blocked by an outcrop of rock.
“Are you okay?” Terra asked, bending down with the lantern to peer back into the crawlspace.
“Yeah,” Hyren said. “I’ll be there in a second.” He bared his teeth and shoved hard. The offending rock snapped off—but with a sickening crack, bits of stone began crumbling from the wall and ceiling.
Hyren bit his tongue and mentally kicked himself for his inability to learn that every time he acted without forethought, something would inevitably collapse on him. He tried to quicken his pace, but the cramped quarters made that difficult, and the rocks wouldn’t stop falling around him.
“Hyren!” Terra called. Amidst the dust, a shape dove toward him.
“Go back!” he coughed.
A pair of small hands gripped his own hand and wrist, and pulled. Using the extra leverage, Hyren pushed himself away from the collapsing stone and out into the open. He lay sprawled on the tile floor for a moment, his chest heaving as the entire passage gave way behind him.
Hyren looked over at Terra, who was dusting herself off with a cough. “Well… that’s twice you’ve saved my life now,” the Grundo said, rising to his feet and offering her a hand.
She took it and staggered to her own feet. “You don’t owe me anything.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not that pedantic,” he said. “You risked your life to save me. You could have been caught in that cave-in, too.”
Terra swallowed hard. “I—I know. But I couldn’t leave you there.”
The commander paused. “You’re a lot braver and more selfless than most people I know. Virtupets could have used someone like you.”
“I’m not working for Virtupets,” she said. “And—and neither should you.”
Hyren gave her a weak smile. “Back there, when you got me out of that rock pile—you and Blynn knew perfectly well that I could have gone back on my promise as soon as I was free. You’re not that naïve.”
“Yeah,” Terra said. “But I wanted to give you the chance. I know you’re better than that.”
Hyren’s smile dropped. The fact that she expected better of him made him want to expect better of himself. But he had everything he could ever ask for at Virtupets—a job, a purpose, an objective.
Well, he didn’t have friends. But he hadn’t even considered that before yesterday. All of these emotions were confusing to the point of exhaustion. And he didn’t have time for that. “Yeah, of course I am,” he said, squaring his shoulders. “A promise is a promise. Okay, let’s keep going.”
“Which way do you suggest we go, oh fearless leader?” Blynn asked.
The tunnel had come in a long, straight hallway, with a tile-lined floor and walls carved in swirling decorative motifs. The corridor extended into darkness on either side of them.
“Oh, I know!” Terra said. “The air was blowing in from here, wasn’t it? So…” She held up the lantern and opened a second window, then positioned the lamp so the openings aligned with the direction the hallway ran. “All we have to do is watch the flames.”
Hyren peered over her shoulder. The fire mote’s flames wafted toward the left lantern window.
“So we need to go right.” Terra said, pointing into the shadows, then looked up at Hyren.
He folded his arms over his chest and nodded. “Good thinking.”
She grinned. “Thanks.”
“I’m hungry,” Blynn said, plopping onto the floor. “Can we stop for lunch?”
Terra’s smile faded. “We should keep going. I—I really want to get out of here.”
“I hate to say it,” Hyren said, “but Blynn’s right. We need to keep up our energy and pace ourselves. Trust me,” he said again to a rather anxious-looking Terra. “I’m an old pro at this. I know what will work here.”
“Okay,” she said quietly, sitting down next to her Neopet. Hyren felt like he had to make it up to her somehow, but he didn’t quite know how.
Hyren let them eat their fill of sandwiches and fruit, reasoning that they had to be close to an exit by this point, and food was always in abundance in Neopia, especially for the resourceful. And he didn’t want to scare Terra by having them ration their supplies.
Hyren himself took no food. “I can go without eating far longer than you can,” he explained to Terra when she tried to offer him a sandwich. “I’ll be fine.” He did concede to a small sip of water from her canteen, which she looked pleased about.
Terra finished eating before Blynn, and the human girl puttered around the hallway, staying within the circumference of the lantern light. “There’s a door here,” she said, feeling the wall nearby.
She placed her hand on a tall slab of wood carved with images of Neopets in battling poses. The girl pulled its rusted handle and it creaked aside, sending dust sifting out of the doorway where it had lay undisturbed for centuries. Hyren grabbed the lantern and jumped up, not wanting her to meet with any nasty surprises on the other side.
“Hey, wait for me!” Blynn said, stuffing the rest of her sandwich in her mouth.
Hovering over Terra as she peeked in, Hyren held up the lantern and let it cast its orange glow into the area beyond while Blynn stuck her head between them. Dust motes skittered into the dark corners of a small, nondescript room. What made all three of them gasp, however, was not how the room was decorated, but what it held—armour and weapons of every make and function.
While some cobwebbed pieces were arranged on racks and shelves, others had been scattered around the room in disarray, or tossed carelessly into urns. Hyren knew that meant the three were close enough to the surface that they had reached areas where Spyders and other Petpets lived.
“Looks like we found the armoury,” Terra said. “Neat.”
Hyren grinned. Finally, the potential of some treasure worth taking along. “Maybe there’s something still useable in here,” he said as he moved past the two into the room. His blaster only had so much power left, and while he was well-trained in unarmed combat and could usually win fights just by throwing his own bulk around, Hyren still mourned his lost sword. Besides, this place owed him something for all the trouble it had put him through.
His two young companions quickly followed him. “Look, look!” Blynn said with a laugh. Hyren glanced over to see her try on an ornate helmet crafted for a Lupe. “This is awesome!” she said as the ill-fitting headgear fell over her eyes.
“Who are you this time?” Terra asked, inspecting a heavy spear.
“Corporal Blynn of the 679th Division!” the Zafara said. She picked up a long sword from the floor, attempting to draw it out of its scabbard. “Onward… nngh… troops!” she ordered while struggling with the hilt. “Today, we march for—“ With a loud snap, the hilt came loose in her hand, leaving mere jagged rust at the base of the blade’s remnants. “Blehhh.” She made a face and tossed the hilt away. “Gross.”
“All of these weapons are corroded,” Hyren grumbled as he sifted through them. He pulled cankered scimitars from their sheaths and watched crumbling spear heads fall from their shafts as soon as he touched them. “Although I guess I’d rather have air and rust down here than no air at all, but still…”
“What’s that?” Terra asked, pointing to the far corner.
Hyren’s eyes followed her finger to a stack of tall urns matted with Spyderwebs and detritus, looking like they’d been there for even longer than the rest of the cache. Through a crack in the side of one of the urns shone the unmistakeable glint of untarnished metal.
His breath caught in his throat. “Whoa,” he said, dropping his armload of scrap metal to stride across the tile floor. Lifting another urn out of the way where it had fallen on top of his target, he removed the lid, and his eyes widened.
“What is it, what did you find?” Terra asked from behind him.
“You’re never going to believe this,” he said. A grin spread up his face as he lifted his discovery from its hiding place and turned to present it to the girls. He held a load of weapons that looked as unspoiled as the day they were forged. The blades were not so much as dulled or nicked, like they had never even seen battle.
“They… they aren’t rusted,” Blynn said as Hyren knelt down and spread them on the floor along with their sheaths.
He picked up a long, straight sword and turned it over, inspecting it closely. It was the perfect size and weight for a larger, heftier species of pet such as a Grarrl or a Skeith—or himself. “And the workmanship is incredible,” he said. Detail on the blade caught his eye, and he angled it to catch the lantern light better. His jaw dropped. “Faerie runes. These were forged by the faeries.”