“All right, in you go!” Blynn said. “Come on, now!” She was having trouble getting the fire mote back into the lantern, as it obviously wanted to stay where there was ample fuel.
Hyren watched in amusement, while out of the corner of his eye he made sure to observe where Terra was aiming her strikes during their after-breakfast sparring, so he could respond with the appropriate blocks. Suddenly she stopped and his attention was drawn back to her.
The girl was doubled over, clutching her stomach, and Hyren’s antennae jerked back in alarm. “What’s wrong?” he asked her.
“My stomach hurts,” she said. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.”
“Nightmares?” Hyren asked. He worried that she’d overheard his and Blynn’s conversation.
“No,” Terra said. She grimaced. “I—I get sick if I get too stressed out.”
Hyren glanced over at Blynn, who gave him a knowing look. This was what the Zafara was talking about last night. The commander stowed his sword and put a hand on the human’s shoulder. “You’ll be okay,” he said. “Keep drinking plenty of water, all right?”
Terra nodded and squeezed a gulp of water from her canteen. Thanks to the ancient builders’ ingenuity, the little band of explorers had found a few channels of running water in the vast complex, probably fed from local reservoirs. It really was a marvel of engineering. One more story to add to Hyren’s repertoire. Although he didn’t know if he’d ever again meet anyone willing to listen to his stories.
“Gotcha!” Blynn said, using a piece of wood to scoop the fire mote into the lantern and slamming the window shut. The little elemental buzzed around its metal container for a moment, but finally settled down to sulk and brood over the wood chip Blynn had left for it. “Okay,” the Zafara said, “let’s head out.”
“We’re very close,” Hyren said as he ushered the girls down the next passage. Terra still wasn’t looking too good, and Hyren decided he should carry her.
Before that could happen, however, Blynn turned the corner ahead of him and stopped. “Light!” she shouted, jumping up and down. “I see light!”
Terra perked up, and Hyren followed her to see something he felt like he’d nearly forgotten existed—cold blue daylight dimly reflected on floor tiles.
“Let’s go!” Terra said, running forward.
“Be careful!” Hyren called after her, jogging to catch up. “I don’t know what’s around that corner!” It had occurred to him from seeing the cobwebs yesterday that the closer they got to the surface, the more likely it was that other, larger things could be making these ruins their home.
Thankfully, his long legs quickly carried him to Terra’s and Blynn’s position. They rounded the corner, and then another, and then—
“Whoa…” Terra said, craning her neck at the sight in front of them.
The passageway terminated at a vast hall, comparable in size to the throne room. On the opposite wall sat a series of lofty windows that let down vast shafts of sunlight, blinding after how much time Hyren had spent with firelight alone. He blinked, throwing up his arm to shade his eyes.
“Wow, that’s a lotta sand,” Blynn said, attaching the lantern to her backpack.
When Hyren’s eyes had finished adjusting to the light, he got a closer look at the room and realised the floor was covered entirely in sand, gently rippled by the chill breeze whipping in through the windows that made Terra hug her cloak tighter around her shoulders. The walls were covered in frescoes, but the figures and scenes were strangely cut off halfway when they hit the sand, and the three explorers stood at the top of a staircase that seemed to descend straight into the dune-covered floor. There were no other doorways visible.
“This room’s been half-filled with sand,” Hyren realised.
“Oh, man,” Terra said as she eyed the windows.
Hyren supposed they were built to be high off the floor to begin with, but even with a portion of the room being filled in, the windows were still out of reach. “We can probably climb up to them,” he said, pointing to the elaborate stonework. “It’s a good thing these Neopets seemed to like decoration. Come on!” With a wave of his arm he urged them forward, stepping out onto the cold sand after them.
Terra perked up even more. “We’re… we’re gonna make it,” she said, her pack jangling as her hiking boots pounded into the miniature dunes. “We’re almost there!”
“Yahoooo!” Blynn’s yell echoed off the stone walls as she bounded after her owner.
Hyren grinned as he tromped after them, although it faded after a moment. Seeing them so happy just ground his own conflict deeper. He was fighting to deny that he could never let anything happen to them. He found himself caring less and less about his own standing in Sloth’s eyes. Was that betrayal?
A deep rumble beneath the commander made him pause and look down at his own feet. The sand shifted back and forth like it lay on the surface of water. Hyren’s eyes widened and he glanced up at the girls, who had also stopped and were looking around uneasily.
“Go! Now!” Hyren roared. Two immense mandibles breached the sand below him, carrying him into the air and holding him fast.
Hyren managed to twist around enough to see a gigantic, golden brown, many-segmented body, terminating in large blue eyes and the jaws that held him. The commander struggled in their grip, trying to grab his sword as the creature arced downward.
“Hyren!” Terra yelled, drawing her own blade and running toward the beast.
“That’s the biggest Lyins I’ve ever seen!” Blynn said, nocking a piece of ammo in her slingshot and taking aim for the Petpet’s head.
The sandy floor between her and Terra erupted with a second giant Lyins. It hissed as it drew up in front of the Zafara, its legs undulating as its jagged mandibles clicked together. Blynn let out a yelp and then a cloud of sand obscured her from Hyren’s sight.
“Terra, go back!” Hyren barked, finally able to grasp the hilt of his blade. Due to the awkward angle at which the Lyins had him around the waist, he was having difficulty pulling it out of the sheath.
“No!” she said, swinging her sword at the Petpet.
Her weak blows glanced off of its carapace, but it let out a shriek of annoyance and flinched back. Hyren felt its grip on him loosen. He pulled out his sword and struck, and it screeched and dropped him. The Grundo rolled to the floor and popped back up in one fluid motion, blinking away dizziness to see the Lyins eye Terra angrily. The girl edged away from it with her sword thrust in front of her, coughing on aerated sand.
With a yell, Hyren charged the Petpet, bringing his sword down in a sweeping stroke that connected solidly. The Lyins hissed and recoiled, curling past him and diving back into the sand. Hyren grabbed Terra’s shoulders, looking her over to make sure she was unharmed. “It’ll be back,” he said. “Go! Move! Blynn, where are you?!”
Another ear-piercing screech filled the hall, and the second Lyins rose up in front of them, bucking and writhing as it tried to rid itself of the Zafara clinging to its back. “I—don’t—like—this—ride—!” Blynn said.
“Jump!” Terra said, sheathing her sword and stretching out her arms toward her Neopet as the Lyins curved backwards. Blynn pushed off with her hind feet and launched herself at her owner. Her impact sent the girl staggering back, clutching her Zafara safely.
They turned to the hallway, but one of the Lyins breached the sand between them and the passage. “Get to the window!” Hyren said, pushing them toward the far side of the hall. If he’d had more firepower, the Lyins would be no problem, but the three motley travelers were no match for two humongous beasts.
Terra and Blynn stumbled on the unsteady footing as they scrambled toward the windows. Hyren struggled behind them as the two desert Petpets churned up their domain in an attempt to trap their prey. Terra reached the wall first and began to climb, finding easy handholds on the elaborately worked stone. Thankfully, it looked like her adrenaline had overridden her stomachache for now.
One of the Lyins breached and rammed the wall with its head. Terra stopped and cringed as bits of the stone crumbled and broke off. Hyren held his breath as she seemed about to fall, but she managed to hold on, and she let go with one hand to draw her sword. With a hoarse shout, she struck at the Lyins as it grazed past, pushing it back from Blynn who was starting her ascent.
Hyren had to whack away the other Lyins before he reached the wall himself. Terra swung her leg over the windowsill and stretched a hand down to Blynn, who scrambled nimbly up the rock face. Chips of stone that she kicked loose rained onto the visor of Hyren’s helmet as he hoisted himself up.
The room shook, sand flew, and the Lyins shrieked behind him, but Hyren felt that they were going to make it. One more foothold up, and his hand could reach the rim. Just as he took hold of it, a violent tremor rocked the entire wall. Hyren was flung backward onto one of the Lyins, right between its eyes. It rose in preparation for another dive into the sands.
“Hyren!” Blynn shouted, taking aim with her slingshot. “Heads up!”
Gulping in breaths, the commander tensed himself in preparation to leap for the window. His injured leg gave a sudden twinge of pain and slipped out from under him, and he fell flat on the Petpet’s carapace just as Blynn fired. The potsherd hurtled through the air, but to Hyren’s surprise, it somehow exploded in front of the Lyins’ face in a bright display of fireworks.
The beast let out a scream, its entire body convulsing and throwing Hyren forward. He took advantage of the momentum to aim himself so he landed gripping the windowsill. His ribs hurt like crazy, but his armour absorbed the brunt of the impact. Looking over his shoulder, he saw both Lyins sway as they lifted themselves up to his level, their mandibles snapping.
Two pairs of hands wrapped around his wrists and he glanced up.
“We’ve got you,” Terra said as she and Blynn pulled with all their might.
Utilising their meager strength, Hyren ran his feet the rest of the way up the wall. Where he had been dangling a moment previous, a Lyins headbutted, splintering the stone. The world outside was blinding, and Hyren had to will his eyes to stay open as he leaned against the windowsill and tried to get his bearings.
“Down the rocks!” Blynn said, leading him and Terra to a pile of rubble that had built up against the outside rim.
Terra paused halfway down. “Phew… looks like… they can’t get to us,” she panted. The Lyins, unable to fit through the windows, rammed against the walls in vain.
“Good,” Hyren said. The Petpets sunk out of sight and their frustrated screeches gradually faded.
The three of them had emerged on a mountainside, Hyren realised as he carefully picked his way around boulders and jagged shards of granite. This was a much different place than where they had come in. Far from the sunbaked Lost Desert, it was cold and desolate grey stone completely unlike the red rock of the sand-bordered cliffs. As he looked up at the stark mountain face, he saw numerous openings hewn directly into the slopes, undoubtedly other passages and rooms in a subterranean city complex he hadn’t quite fathomed the expanse of. To either side reached a massive range of craggy peaks much like the one they were stood on.
“We must have gone right through the mountains,” Terra said as she wiped sweat from her brow and looked up at the distant summit, shrouded in snow. “No wonder it took so long to get out.”
“And that explains why we were able to reach an exit by descending through the caves,” Hyren said, his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. “Those cliffs in the Lost Desert must be at a higher elevation than where we came out. Are you feeling better?”
Terra put a hand to her stomach and smiled faintly. “A little,” she said. “Thanks.”
Hyren paused. “You could easily have left me behind,” he said. “That’s three times now you’ve saved my life.”
“We don’t believe in leaving people behind,” Blynn said.
“And,” Terra said, “you’re our friend.”
Hyren swallowed hard, unable to believe how much compassion they had for him. It was making his thought processes really difficult lately, that was for sure.
Blynn turned around and said, “I wonder where we are now.”
Hyren and Terra followed suit, and Hyren found himself staring out at numberless hills and valleys carpeted with a thick, dark forest, stretching into a thin mist that obscured the horizon and seemed to cling to the treetops like filmy Spyderwebs. A chill wind blew up from the foothills, carrying with it the heavy scent of pine and old growth, as well as smells Hyren couldn’t quite place but unnerved him somehow.
“The Haunted Woods,” Terra said.
“You’ve been here before?” Hyren asked.
“We don’t go here often,” Terra said.
“Why not?” Hyren asked.
“Because it’s haunted?” Blynn said, looking up at Hyren like he was thick in the head.
“Well, the dossiers said witches and ghosts live there,” Hyren said with a bit of a scoff, “but it’s all just for show, isn’t it? I mean, the witch in the tower gives you candy, for crying out loud.”
“Other stuff lives there too,” the Zafara said, returning her gaze to the dark forest. “Stuff you don’t wanna run into.”
Terra sighed, turning her face to the sky. “At least… at least we’re finally out of there,” she said.
“Yeah,” Blynn said, absently adjusting the straps of her pack. An awkward silence followed, interrupted only by the howling mountain winds.
Finally, the Neopet and owner shifted around on the steep slope and looked up at Hyren. “You—” Terra said haltingly. “You aren’t really gonna take us to Sloth, are you?”
Hyren swallowed the massive lump in his throat and it seemed to plunge straight to his stomach. This was it. He could either put himself first, or save the only two beings he’d ever started to consider friends. His heart felt like it was threatening to pound right out of his chest, and he was trying with all his might to disguise his anxiety, not willing to betray either of them to the turmoil inside. But he also knew he had to answer soon.
“No,” he finally said, and he felt as though something had released in his soul and he could breathe again. “I could never do that to you two.”
To his surprise, they hugged him, Terra throwing her arms around his waist while Blynn clung to his leg. “Thank you,” Terra said.
“I knew you were a good guy,” Blynn said, although she had a look in her eye like she was challenging him to live up to that.
Sloth would definitely be pleased with the faerie weapons Hyren had found, the commander knew. That was more than enough compensation. The overlord already had more than enough test subjects.
Terra finally pulled away from him, and asked “Can I adopt you?”
Hyren felt his jaw fall slack, and his antennae twitched for a moment before he shook his head. “I appreciate the sentiment,” he said, patting her head, “but I’m an independent pet. I can’t be tied down to one planet like this. I belong out there, among the stars.”
“Are you going back to Sloth?” Blynn asked with a frown. “Gonna go invade more worlds?”
Hyren paused and suddenly found it difficult to breathe again. If he was perfectly honest with himself, he liked the idea of Terra adopting him. Someone had to keep her and Blynn safe on their adventures, after all. The thought gave him a warm feeling inside.
But he definitely had to get back to Sloth, the commander reminded himself. There was no way Hyren would desert the man he had pledged loyalty to.
“Of course not,” he lied with a smile, hoping nothing in his expression would give him away. “But I would like to get to the Space Station so I can take the next starship out of here. Can you help me get up there?”
Terra’s shoulders slumped, but she nodded. “Yeah—okay,” she said. “It—it was a fun adventure.”
“Yes, it was,” Hyren said warmly. “I’ll always remember it.” Inwardly, he praised himself for successfully pulling the wool over their eyes. But why did he feel even sicker inside now? It was the cold air, he decided.
“The spaceport’s in Neopia Central,” Blynn said. “Fastest way to get there is to head south, to the more populated part of the Woods, and rent an Eyrie cab.” She shot the commander another suspicious look.
Hyren tried to ignore it along with his sudden sense of unease. “Are you kids up for more walking?” he asked. “We should at least try to make it down the mountain before nightfall. It probably gets even colder up here at night.”
“Blynn, what are the rules for exploring the Haunted Woods?” Terra asked as they began to move again.
“Never stray from the campfire at night, never leave anyone alone,” the Zafara said, counting off the rules on her paws, “and… don’t follow the lights!”
“Good!” Terra said. “I’m sure we’ll be extra safe since we have Hyren with us.”
The look she gave him made his heart sink, but he tried to stay focused on putting together a good speech for when he got back to Sloth. Why had it been so hard to lie to them? After all, they were out of danger. Was it just that he hated deceiving them that much? Or was it also that he might not want to go back to Sloth?
All of these thoughts were running rampant in Hyren’s mind and he needed a distraction, so as he carefully tromped down a spill of loose gravel he said, “Blynn, where’d you get those explosives?”
“What?” the Zafara asked.
“Back there, with those… Lyins, you called them?” Hyren said. “Those were some great pyrotechnics.”
“What are you talking about?” Blynn asked. “That was a regular piece of pottery I shot.”
“No it wasn’t,” Hyren said. “I saw it explode.”
“I think I know explosives when I see ‘em,” Blynn said.
“It was the faerie magic,” Terra said. “I bet that’s what it was. Hyren said your slingshot probably had special properties.”
Blynn pulled out the weapon and turned it over in her paws. “Wicked,” she said. “Let’s see more fireworks!” Grabbing a handful of ammo, she shot into the air ahead. The terracotta remnants clattered onto the mountainside unceremoniously. “I don’t get it…” the Zafara said. “How’d it explode before?”
“Maybe because you were in combat?” Terra said. “It probably senses a great need and that activates the magic. Or something like that. Right?”
She looked up at Hyren, who nodded even though he knew very little of faerie magic except that it was potent. “Sounds good to me,” he said.
“Well, I’m running low,” Blynn said, stooping over to grab handfuls of gravel. “I hope this stuff explodes too.”