They spent the rest of the day descending the mountainside. The three adventurers wound their way through rough-hewn canyons and over rocky ridges, following cold crystal streams that splashed away from their origin in some glacial peak and spilled down sheer cliffs into deep blue pools. The forest rose up to meet the three travelers like a great, dark wave, engulfing them in shadow as they passed the first gnarled old trunks of heavy-boughed trees.
By day, Hyren found, the Haunted Woods was not really all that Terra made it out to be. The Grundo had been expecting ghosts and ghouls to pop out at every turn, but the Woods were far more dignified than to stoop to petty shock tactics. Rather, they were quiet, incredibly quiet, and the air hung dense around him. Nothing chirped overhead or scurried through undergrowth, although if Hyren listened hard enough, he thought he could almost catch indistinct whispers far in the distance. He got the impression that the entire Woods seemed to be holding its breath, waiting dormant for something, but not asleep. Never asleep.
Still, Terra’s steps were lighter and Blynn cavorted at her owner’s side, singing off-key, nonsensical tunes. Hyren wasn’t sure if they were actual Neopian songs, or things she made up off the top of her head, although he wouldn’t put the latter past her.
Even though the guilt of lying still ate at Hyren, at least now he’d cast away any pretense of being antagonistic toward his companions, so he felt he could allow himself to fully enjoy them. “Is she always like this?” he asked Terra with a chuckle.
“Only on days that end in Y,” Terra said, eliciting a snort from him.
“One,” Blynn called out, pointing to a tree. “Seven. Twenty-nine.” She pointed to another, and another. “Two billion, three hundred thousand, and six. Five hundred seventy-two. One-half.”
“Okay, what are you doing now?” Hyren asked her.
“Counting the trees, if you must know,” Blynn said.
“Why are you counting them out of order?” Terra asked with a grin.
“I can’t very well count all of ‘em at the same time!” Blynn said.
“What’s the ‘half’ tree?” Hyren asked.
“I dunno,” Blynn said. “I think it might be a bush in disguise.”
All too soon, the sun sank, turning the light golden before it faded entirely, leaving an ominous red sky overhead. With the departure of the sun, the air around them felt colder and more foreboding. Grundos’ sense of smell left a lot to be desired, but even Hyren could catch unrecogniseable tinges in the air that hadn’t been there by day. And the sounds from earlier seemed to have grown closer. He was glad the girls had heavy cloaks, which they now wrapped around themselves to stave off the chill. He could have used one, himself.
“Well, let’s set up camp here,” he said when they reached a small clearing, swinging the weapons bundle off of his shoulders. “Who wants to gather firewood?”
Terra and Blynn both stopped and looked up at him uneasily. “We can’t go alone,” Terra said. “It’s really not safe.”
“And even if two people go, one person will be left behind and still be alone,” Blynn said.
“All three of us, then,” Hyren said.
This turned out to be a boon, since he was more than happy to carry all the fallen twigs and branches that Terra and Blynn could harvest. Thanks to his strength, they were able to amass a much larger pile than either of them working alone—and since they were doing the gathering, he could hold it all in both arms. They’d be nice and warm that night.
“Can we forage for anything here?” Hyren asked as he relaxed by their roaring blaze. The fire mote danced among the wood and the girls ate more of the fruit they’d collected in the Lost Desert. He and Terra had just finished another sparring session.
He was disappointed that he would not have nearly enough time to teach her even half of what he knew about swordplay before he had to leave them. As much as he prided himself on his swordsmanship, somehow it felt even more fulfilling to teach what he knew to someone else. But it just wouldn’t work out, he kept reminding himself. He couldn’t have a family—he had a military career.
“I wouldn’t try it,” Terra said, taking a bite of an aptly-named pyramid pear. “I don’t trust anything that grows around here.”
“Well, the candy Edna gives out is good,” Blynn said, licking juice from her paws. “But I dunno where she is from here. We’re probably pretty far away from that part of the Woods.”
“How much longer do you think it’ll take us to reach civilization?” Hyren asked. He was starting to worry about their food supplies now.
Terra seemed to get the hint, as she began inspecting the contents of her backpack. “I’m not sure,” she said. “Well, if we find any apple trees, we can probably take from those. I think they should be safe.”
“Unless they scream when you pick ‘em,” Blynn said around a mouthful of tchea fruit.
“Well, yeah,” Terra said, gulping.
“Or green smoke comes out of ‘em when you bite ‘em,” Blynn said.
“Okay, or that,” Terra said.
“Or if they try to bite you,” Blynn said.
“Okay, okay!” Terra said.
Blynn giggled a little maniacally and said, “Yeah, apples should be fine.”
Hyren rolled his eyes. He decided he’d just have to trust his own best judgement when it came to the food here—after all, he’d been successful in getting them out of scrapes so far. Reclining on the smooth, cold dirt, he folded his hands behind his head and said, “So what other kinds of adventures have you been on? You’ve told me a lot about where you live on Mystery Island, but what escapades did you get into before we met?”
“Oh, we’re nowhere near as cool as you,” Terra said. “Our adventures are pretty wimpy compared to yours. Well, except for this one, I guess.”
“Hey, don’t sell yourselves short,” Hyren said. “You’re great adventurers. I’d love to hear what you gals have been up to.”
Terra pushed her glasses up her nose self-consciously. “Well… we were at Terror Mountain before we went to the Lost Desert,” she said. “We’d just finished exploring the Ice Caves.”
“Terror Mountain has ice caves?” Hyren asked. “Huh, the reports didn’t say anything about that.”
“Your sources must be pretty dense,” Blynn said.
“We were searching for the mythical Vale of Spring,” Terra said.
“What’s that?” Hyren asked.
“It was mentioned in a few old texts I found in a secondhand bookshop in Faerieland,” Terra said. “A valley of eternal spring hidden somewhere on Terror Mountain, only accessible through a passageway in the Ice Caves.”
“What about your claustrophobia?” Hyren asked.
“The Ice Caves aren’t like those tunnels,” Terra said, jerking her thumb back in the direction of the peak they had hiked down from. “They’re vast halls covered in ice, with patches of ceiling open to the sky so the sun shines through, reflects off the ice crystals, and makes everything glitter like jewels.” She grinned. “If you ever get the chance, I recommend going there. It’s an experience you won’t forget.”
“I’ll be sure to give it a visit sometime,” Hyren said. Actually, he thought it best if he never returned to Neopia. Unless Sloth needed him to invade it again. Hyren found he did not like that idea. “So did you find it?” he asked.
“No,” Terra said. “We searched for two weeks, tried every passage that… wasn’t too small.” Hyren wondered if she was remembering the crawlspace she’d saved him from. “But we couldn’t find anything. Maybe it was just a myth, after all.”
“Are you disappointed?” Hyren asked.
“Nah,” Terra said. “We had a lot of fun just exploring.”
“Yeah, like how we tried probably fifty different slushie flavors!” Blynn said. “We gotta go back there again soon, Terra! I’m totally craving their mystery berry flavor!”
“Blynn,” Terra said with a laugh, “I’m pretty sure ‘mystery berry’ is what they label all of their slushies that don’t turn out right.”
“That’s what makes ‘em taste so good!” Blynn said. “You never know what you’re gonna get!”
“So what made you decide to go to the Lost Desert?” Hyren asked.
“Well, the Ice Caves are pretty and all,” Terra said, “but as you can imagine, after two weeks, we were getting awfully cold.”
“You were cold,” Blynn said. “I have fur.”
Terra snorted and said, “So I figured we’d go somewhere nice and warm next. I’ve always thought the Lost Desert was neat. You can find some really interesting stuff in the marketplace at Sakhmet.”
“Too bad they’re probably still rebuilding,” Hyren said.
“What?” Terra asked.
“You know… from the attack?” Hyren said. At a blank look from Terra, the commander added, “Doctor Sloth’s forces?” Hyren’s pride was beginning to feel bruised, if no one remembered how he had helped nearly destroy the city.
“Oh!” Terra said. “Wow, yeah, the city’s all fixed up from that now. That was like… last year.”
Hyren sat up and said, “Last year?” He knew he’d been at the oasis for a while, but the way time seemed to blend and slip out there, he’d apparently become unaware of just how long he’d been missing. “I lost track of time,” he muttered. “I was out in the desert for longer than I thought…”
“How’d you get out there, anyway?” Blynn asked him. “Seems kinda weird for Sloth to send one of his commanders out to a cave in the middle of nowhere to kidnap people.”
“I was separated from my forces,” Hyren said. “Then I was attacked by Sakhmetians. The desert was my only escape.”
“Your forces, huh?” Blynn asked, narrowing her eyes. “So you invaded Sakhmet.”
“I was just doing my job,” Hyren said.
“It’s okay,” Terra said. “You’re a good guy now.”
“Yep, that’s right,” Hyren said, trying to grin as sincerely as possible. He hated to disappoint them, but maybe they would never find out that he’d gone back to his job.
The Zafara still looked a little skeptical, but said, “Tell us more stories, Hyren.”
Hyren felt a strange swelling in his chest. Maybe it was pride in the experiences he shared. Or maybe, somehow, it was the satisfaction of giving her and Terra something they’d desperately longed for—a friend. “What do you know about comets?” he asked.
“They’re lumps of ice and dirt that orbit the sun,” Terra said, lying down, “and when they get close enough, the ice starts evaporating and forms a tail.”
“Wrong,” Hyren said. He let the quizzical look on her face hang for a moment. “They’re sentient creatures, made of living segments of ice that reflect light prismatically in a myriad of colours. Their great dark heads are just one gaping maw.”
The girls’ eyes widened. “What do they eat?” Blynn asked, clutching her sleeping bag.
“Research suggests they devour worlds,” Hyren said. Terra swallowed hard and shrank closer to the fire, and the commander realised this probably wasn’t the best choice of stories to have told them. “Don’t worry, they don’t live anywhere near the Neopian system,” he added. “And I’m sure the Space Faerie would deal with them if any got close. She’s good at looking out for you guys.”
Terra nodded, although she still looked unsure.
“He’s right, you know,” Blynn said. “The Space Faerie’s super neat. Remember we read about her in the Gallery of Heroes?”
Her owner cracked a smile and said, “Yeah. And I’ve heard people say that she grants the wishes of Neopets who have done brave and selfless things. So we just have to keep being good people, and we’ll be okay.”
“Sorry,” Hyren said. “I should have picked a less scary topic.” He sat back on his hands. “Okay—how about the time my fleet found a cloud of migrating space fungus spores in a nebula? Now that was an amazing sight, millions of softly twinkling lights drifting in a vast magenta mist. As we passed through, the spores glided right past the ship’s bridge, and it looked like we were ploughing through some surreal snowstorm.”
“That must have been amazing,” Terra said with a grin.
“It was,” Hyren said. “Now rest up, we’ve got plenty of hiking to do tomorrow.” Blynn seemed to have already dozed off.
“G’night, Hyren,” Terra said.
“Good night, Terra,” Hyren said as he pulled off his helmet, setting it down beside him. How many more times would he get to say that? And why did he have to care so much? Maybe Sloth really should have wiped his brain, Hyren thought. It would have saved the commander so much anguish. He shifted onto his side, staring into the darkness beyond to watch for anything that might encroach upon their circle of light.
After a few minutes, he heard rustling behind him. He rolled over to see Terra in the act of reaching into her pack, and she looked at him like she’d just been caught stealing from a cookie jar.
“What are you doing?” Hyren asked.
She withdrew her hand and said, “Nothing…”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed,” Hyre said. “I’m just curious.”
Terra was silent for a moment, and then she reached back into her pack and pulled out her sketchbook, clutching it to her chest as though he might try to take it away. “I, uh… I wanted to draw you,” the owner said. “So I’ll have something to remember you by after you leave.”
Hyren stared at her, trying to formulate a response. Never before had he met anyone who’d attached themselves to him like this, and here she was, thinking highly of him, in spite of all he had done and all the trouble he’d put her through. “I’m flattered,” he managed to get out. “Do you need me to sit up?”
“No, it’s okay,” Terra said. “I think I can draw you fine like this.” She unzipped a thin bag and pulled out a pencil, holding it close to its point as she hunched over the sketchbook, deep in concentration.
Hyren propped himself up on one elbow and watched her. “I’ve never had someone draw me before,” he said. “I’ve had holograms taken for ID purposes, but that’s about it.”
“Do they have paper up there?” Terra asked him, moving the pencil around the page with much deliberation.
“Not much of it,” Hyren said. “In space, most things are electronic. It’s a far cry from native Neopian tech, that’s for sure. I’m surprised this backwater planet even knows how to work what it gets from Virtupets.”
As she drew, Hyren thought, and wished there was some way he could manually turn his brain off just so he wouldn’t be driven crazy by thinking too much. His emotions had never been so tangled as this, and no matter how much he tried to convince himself things would be okay, he still had that gnawing pit in his stomach, which seemed to grow worse every time he reminded himself of the decision he had made.
Terra lifted the pencil from the paper and sat back, scrutinizing the page sceptically. “Okay, I’m done,” she said, packing her pencil away and hovering the sketchbook over her backpack as well.
Hyren shook himself out of his navel-gazing and sat up. “What, don’t I get to see it?” he asked.
She looked up at him and grimaced. “Uh, it’s… it’s not very good,” she said.
“I’m sure it’s better than you think,” the commander said. “Please?” He extended his hand.
Reluctantly, Terra handed off the sketchbook to Hyren. He drew it close and inspected what she had drawn. The young teen wasn’t exactly a professional artist, but he wasn’t expecting her to be at her age. The cartoonish hulking Grundo sketched on the page was a little lopsided and stiff, and his proportions were off, but there was a certain energy put into the drawing that was hard to miss. A chuckle escaped Hyren’s lips, his large red eyes creasing in a smile.
Immediately Terra’s face fell. “Is it really that bad?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “I like it. It looks just like me.” Instead of giving her the sketchbook back, however, he leafed through to previous pages, careful not to tear the paper with his strong fingers. There were more amateurish drawings of some of the artefacts they’d encountered in the throne room, and further back, sketches of various other items, landscapes, Neopets, and creatures. “They’re nice,” he said as he returned the book to her.
“Thanks,” she said, flipping through it herself as if to reappraise its contents.
“Do you want to be an artist?” Hyren asked.
Terra smiled and slipped the sketchbook into her pack. “Maybe,” she said. “I haven’t really figured it out yet. Blynn and I do well enough just exploring.”
“I think you could be a good artist, with more practice and training,” the Grundo said.
She grinned bashfully, wrapping her arms around her knees, and said, “Thanks.”
“But for now, you really should get some sleep,” he said. “I want to get moving bright and early tomorrow so we can do as much walking during the day as possible.”
“Right,” Terra said as she lay back down with a yawn. “Good night, Hyren.”
“Night,” he replied over his shoulder before shifting back to face the Woods again. His helmet lay nearby, flickers of firelight glinting off of the lifeless visor.
Reaching up, Hyren rubbed at his face in annoyance. His mind wouldn’t have let him sleep even if he’d wanted to. So there wouldn’t be much to do until dawn except listen to the snaps and pops of the fire, and the occasional strange noises in the trees. The Grundo was fairly confident that with his blaster and sword, he could take care of anything foolish enough to breach the boundaries of their campsite. Satisfied in that thought, he started to wonder how his troops were faring without him in the stars above, if they had been placed under Garoo’s command, if Sloth even cared he was gone.
Hyren wasn’t sure whether minutes or hours had passed, but he was jerked out of his thoughts by a faint, very familiar beeping. He glanced over at his helmet and saw the visor light up with a red glow, and his eyes widened. Of all the strange luck in the galaxy.
He didn’t have to think twice before grabbing the helmet and jamming it on his head as he jumped to his feet. Don’t follow the lights. Blynn’s words from earlier that day echoed in his mind, and Hyren bit his tongue to keep his focus. He looked at the Neopet and owner to make sure they were fast asleep before he dashed out into the trees, trying to get out of earshot before his helmet gave out again. Never stray from the campfire at night.
He opened up the control panel on one bracer and input the first frequency that came to mind, tapping one foot while he waited for the system to configure his request. A beep and a click on the other end let him know the transmission had gone through. “This is Commander Hyren,” he said. “Do you copy?”
A pause. Then, “Commander?!” The voice on the other end was organic, which surprised Hyren slightly. He’d been expecting an automated system, as robotics made up the bulk of Sloth’s administrative departments. “Is that really you?! I thought they’d lost you at Sakhmet!”
“I’m tougher to get rid of than that,” he replied hoarsely. “Who is this?”
“Dothan Reebitz, Head of Communications on His Superiority Sloth’s flagship, the Triumph, sir.”
“Reebitz?” Hyren said. “No wonder you sounded familiar.” Dothan was—well, he wasn’t someone Hyren could consider a friend, really. But he and the unmutated yellow Grundo had crossed paths a while back, and Dothan seemed to have become Hyren’s one-Grundo fan club.
“Why didn’t you contact us sooner?” the communications officer asked. “I didn’t want to believe you were really gone, sir—I mean, you’ve survived less likely situations before! Like when you led your forces against an army twice your size, and singlehandedly defeated their commander! The historians were talking about that one for ages!”
“My helmet was busted,” the commander said, not in the mood to discuss war stories for once. “I’m surprised my transmission got through. Dumb thing hasn’t worked for months.” He’d switched back over into a different mode now—terse, professional, cynical. The way he used to be constantly before getting to know his companions. These last few days had changed him more than he wanted to admit.
“How in the galaxy did you survive?” Dothan asked. “Garoo said a building collapsed on you!”
Hyren ground his teeth. Sloth would hear the truth soon enough. For now, the commander didn’t want to stir up any drama among his fellow CO’s until he could report straight to the man in charge. Hyren couldn’t give Garoo a chance to come up with an alibi. “I managed to get out of Sakhmet,” he said. “And I’ve been travelling through the mountains with a Zafara and an owner—“ He drew in a sharp breath and slapped his hand over his mouth. Being around them felt so natural now that it had just slipped out.
“You have?” Dothan asked. “Oh, I’m sure Master Sloth will be pleased that you’re bringing him more test subjects! He doesn’t have any Zafaras yet! Excellent work, as always, Commander!”
Hyren could feel his entire body tense at the idea of those two meeting Sloth. But he felt like it would be a bad idea to openly refuse Sloth something the overlord apparently wanted. “I’m going to the Space Station in orbit here, the one the Neopians commandeered,” he said, completely sidestepping the issue of test subjects. “From there I’ll find transport to the Triumph.”
“Oh, no need, sir!” Dothan said. “We have an agent in the Neopian system right now—I’ll contact her and tell her to swing on by and pick you up!”
Hyren felt his heart thud against his ribcage. He couldn’t let anybody from Virtupets find out about Terra and Blynn. Suddenly he found it difficult to talk.
“Commander?” Dothan asked. “Oh dear, I hope the transmission hasn’t dropped…”
“I’m still here,” Hyren croaked. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll just head to the Space Station—“
“No need!” Dothan said. “I’ve already sent her your coordinates, so she’ll be coming to pick you up soon!”
“Great,” Hyren grunted, feeling more panicked by the second. How could he get these two kids somewhere safe before it was too late? “Commander Hyren, over and out.”
“It was a pleasure talking to—“ Before Dothan could finish, Hyren cut the communication.
Limply, he removed the helmet and held it in both hands, staring down at the visor. It still glowed a soft red from the inside, reflecting silver moonlight that was rapidly being swallowed up by thick clouds. His mouth was dry as sawdust and his stomach felt like it was going to turn over on itself.
He turned to go back to camp, and was met by a fierce scream and a bundle of fur hurtling toward him. “How could you?!” Blynn screeched as she latched onto his face and sent him staggering backward. “How could you, Hyren?!”
The Grundo pulled the Zafara off of his head and held her at arm’s length as she continued to kick and writhe, her tail lashing. “I’m sorry!” he said. “I’m sorry, okay?! I have to get back to my job!”
“We are not test subjects!” Blynn said. “I trusted you! Terra trusted you! How could you do this to her?!” Blynn bared her fangs and grabbed his bracer with both paws. Arching her back, she brought up her hind legs and began kicking ineffectively at Hyren’s arm.
“I’m not taking you with me, I swear!” Hyren said. “I’m just trying to—“
He was cut off by another female scream rising into the night, this one bone-chillingly startled and frightened—and then muffled.
And it had come from the direction of the campsite.
Both Neopets whipped around in tandem. Blynn’s eyes grew wide and she looked over at Hyren, and he knew they were both thinking the same thing.
Never leave anyone alone.