They trekked through the vast subterranean city without stopping, following the flickering light of the little fire mote. Hyren entertained his companions with more stories of his interstellar exploits, while Blynn and Terra amused him with their anecdotes about life on Neopia. They passed through vaulted halls covered in murals depicting scenes of celebration and warfare, rooms where decaying furniture sat under a thick draping of cobwebs, and corridors whose walls were inlaid with precious metals in the shape of maps of the night sky.
Terra kept looking around anxiously as though she expected to see windows somewhere. None ever appeared, and it seemed they still had a way to go before reaching the surface. Even Hyren started to grow tired of the gloom.
Finally they came across a room with a few scattered tables and benches pushed against the walls. It had probably once been a dining area, judging by the presence of toppled storage urns, scattered ceramic dishes, and the large hearth on one wall. “Let’s make camp here for the night,” the Grundo said, setting down his bundle of weapons. “Oh, how nice. They left us enough fuel for a fire.” He pointed to the meager stack of chopped wood next to the hearth.
Blynn dropped her pack and set the lantern on the edge of the fireplace. “Don’t worry, little guy,” she said to the fire mote, “you’ll have some fun soon! Terra, help me out, here!”
“Oh—can’t we keep going?” Terra asked. “We must be almost out—right?”
Hyren looked over at her, remembering their conversation the day they had met. He didn’t like seeing her like this, but they were all exhausted. “You need to keep up your strength,” he said, “and walking all night without sleep won’t cut it.” He sat down on the hearth, massaging his sore feet. “I said I would protect you, remember? I bet you can make it one more night.” He smiled at her. “You’re brave like that.”
Terra looked disappointed, but nodded. “O-okay,” she said as she eased her pack from her shoulders.
“I think we’ll reach the surface tomorrow,” Hyren said. They had to be close, he knew it. The faint whisper of air he had first detected under the throne room had steadily grown into a perceptible draft, cold and dry. He wouldn’t be surprised if they’d see daylight tomorrow.
Terra nodded and turned to aid her Neopet in lifting firewood. Blynn shot Hyren a look over her shoulder that he couldn’t quite decipher. It was questioning and suspicious and just made him feel worse about his inability to come to a decision.
The two girls built a stack of wood on the metal grating, and Blynn tilted the open lantern over it. “Come on out, little fella,” she said.
The fire mote rolled out onto the stack and blazed up anew, nestling itself into the wood which began to smolder. Soon they had a roaring fire, perfect for staving off the eternal cold of the subterranean city.
“Where d’you suppose it goes?” Blynn asked, watching the smoke twist up the stone flue.
“Out on the side of the rocks somewhere,” Hyren said as he sat on a sturdy chair with one knee raised and his elbow propped on it. “No sense in a fireplace without a proper ventilation system.”
“How far do you think we’ve come?” Terra asked, setting up her bedroll nearby.
Hyren cast his gaze at the dark hallway they’d come from and said, “Pretty far. I wonder which direction we’ve been traveling in.” Too bad his helmet didn’t work, as the HUD included a compass. He figured the girls had a magnetic compass, but they’d taken so many twists and turns by now that just finding north wouldn’t be much help. “Maybe we’ll end up back in the Lost Desert.”
“Or on the other side of Neopia,” Blynn said, staring into the fire. “I wonder what’s there. Maybe that mystical land made of jelly!” She spread her arms wide.
Terra laughed. “Jelly World isn’t real, remember?”
“Well, it should be,” Blynn said. “I won’t give up until I find it!”
Dinner was brief, partly because they’d had a large lunch and partly because Terra barely ate anything, even at Hyren’s and Blynn’s coaxing. To try to keep her mind off of the situation, after dinner Hyren began teaching her the very basics of swordplay. “We’re going to start with some stances and types of actions for now,” he said, pacing around her with his arms folded.
“Okay,” Terra replied as she pulled her blade from its sheath and held it in front of her.
“First off, you’re holding it wrong,” Hyren said.
“Oops,” Terra said.
“You’re right-handed, aren’t you? You want your right hand on top,” the commander explained as she switched the position of her grip on the hilt. “Good, good. Remember that the dominant hand guides the strike while the other provides leverage. It’s basic physics. Oh, and bend your knees, there you go. Keep your weight on the balls of your feet, be ready to move at any moment.”
Once Terra had gotten the hang of the ready stance and some rudimentary blocks, parries, and strikes, Hyren began using his own sword to spar with her, very gently and very slowly, just so she’d get used to the rhythm of swordfighting and begin to understand the strategy involved. As this ponderous kind of practice was a no-brainer for him, his mind wandered and he noticed Blynn picking up small potsherds and storing them in her belt pouch, and then shooting them at a spot on the wall she’d carved a small X into. She was a disconcertingly good shot.
An impact on his forearm bracer brought him back to the task at hand, and he looked back at Terra to see her clutching her sword close. “Oh no! I’m so sorry, did I hurt you?” she asked, chewing her lower lip. “I think I got carried away…”
“What? No,” Hyren said with a laugh, inspecting the bracer. It sported a new nick, but she didn’t have enough strength to actually injure him. “I’m fine. I should have been paying attention—you saw the opportunity while my guard was down.”
She stowed her blade and nodded, not looking fully convinced. Her eyes wandered down to his foot. “Is your leg okay?” she asked.
Hyren glanced at it. All this walking made it sore, but he didn’t care about a little pain. He would have plenty of time to rest once they got to civilisation. “I heal fast. Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay… good,” Terra said. She hesitated a moment before taking a deep breath. “You know… I’m really enjoying hanging out with you.”
Hyren stared at her incredulously. Before he could stop it, the truth came to the surface. “I’m enjoying hanging out with you, too.”
With a loud snap, Blynn’s latest shot hit unusually far from its target and closer to the commander’s head.
Hyren quietly piled more wood around the fire mote, who seemed quite content at being out of the cramped lantern for a while and in the midst of a real blaze. Terra and Blynn had fallen asleep to the commander’s stories again, and now the Grundo could feel himself starting to wear down as well. Letting out a yawn, he eased himself to the floor, taking off his helmet and laying his head on his thick arm, alone with his thoughts for a while.
The two would never have to know if he broke his promise. He had to return to Sloth. Garoo probably spun things to make the defeat at Sakhmet sound like Hyren’s fault, and Hyren couldn’t stand the idea of his reputation being slandered. But where would that leave Terra and Blynn? What if nobody else ever helped them like he had? He didn’t like the idea of the two of them having more dangerous adventures by themselves. He wished he could find somewhere safe for them before he left for Virtupets.
“Now it’s too hot in here,” Blynn whispered.
Hyren rolled over to see the Zafara staring at him from on top of her sleeping bag, sprawled out on her back with her paws folded behind her head.
“Seriously, I feel like my fur is singeing,” the Zafara said, scratching her belly.
“You’re supposed to be asleep,” Hyren said.
“Can’t sleep,” Blynn said. “I’ll have to wait until the fire dies down again. You’re spoiling that mote, you know. It won’t wanna go back in the lantern.”
The commander watched her for a moment. “I think I like you better when you’re not intolerably zany,” he said.
The Zafara looked over at her owner. “I try to keep her laughing,” the magenta Neopet said. “She worries too much and it makes her sick sometimes. I don’t wanna see the worry in her eyes.”
“You’re a lot smarter than you let on,” Hyren said.
She grinned. “Yeah, that’s the idea.” Terra shifted in her sleep and the two paused to see if she would wake up. They both stayed silent for a while, listening to the fire crackle. Then Blynn shifted onto her side, propping up her head in her hand and letting her tail loll back behind her. “I think I’ve been jealous of you this whole time, Hyren,” she said. “I’ve always been an only pet. It’s weird seeing Terra give someone else attention.” She traced abstract designs in the dusty floor. “She’s really fond of you, you know.”
Hyren ducked his head self-consciously. “Yeah.”
“And she knows you could easily break your promise to her. There’s nothing stopping you.”
“I know,” Hyren grunted. “She’s a smart kid. What I don’t understand is why she’s letting me off so easy.”
“Because she’s hoping you’ll grow a conscience,” Blynn said, pausing in her doodling to ponder her next design. She laid down a few dots with one of her paw pads. “She sees the good in you, and she wants you to see it in yourself and make better choices.”
“I think you want that, too,” Hyren said. “You just won’t admit it.”
“I’m not as nice as her, what can I say.” Blynn brushed away her patterns. “You don’t really want to go back to Virtupets, do you.”
Hyren swallowed hard and looked away. “When it comes down to it, my job is what matters most. I can’t betray everything I am for people I just met yesterday.”
The Zafara grabbed her long toes, rocking back and forth. “Is Sloth expecting you back?”
“Well, no,” Hyren said. “I don’t think he knows if I’ll ever return. Thanks to one of my backstabbing fellow commanders, Sloth probably thinks I’m dead.”
“So don’t go back,” Blynn said. “He doesn’t have to know.”
Hyren rolled over so he was facing the wall. “Go to sleep, Blynn,” he said. He heard a sigh and the rustle of a sleeping bag. The idea of staying behind on Neopia himself had snuck into his mind several times lately, but he was not about to let either of them know that. He could not simply throw away everything he had accomplished out in the stars, nor his loyalty to the man who had granted him so much power.
And Dr. Sloth’s words from the day he had mutated Hyren still echoed in the Grundo’s memories. It would not surprise Hyren if Sloth did have some way of retaliating against Hyren if the commander were ever to renounce his loyalty, even remotely. Hyren definitely didn’t want to test Sloth’s wrath, and he was also worried about getting these two kids involved.
Blynn’s voice cut through the silence again. “Just so you know.”
Her tone was serious enough to make him twist around. She glared at him, her deep blue eyes hard as ice and her paws clutching the edge of her bedroll. “Terra’s my best friend in the whole world,” Blynn said. “You better not break your promise to her. I’m watching you.”
The commander paused for a moment, then nodded and turned back over to escape her piercing gaze. She took her job just as seriously as he did his. He just hated that their two jobs had to be in conflict.