In her seat, the young Usul shifted uneasily and twirled her hair. The seat in which she was sitting was covered in gold and very beautiful, but comfort-wise, it fell short. The little yellow Bori next to her clearly agreed, as he hadn’t sat still for more than a few seconds. Perhaps the discomfort would be a little more bearable if anything were going on, but so far, the ceremony was several minutes late.
Hannah had never been inside the Altadorian Archives before. In fact, she had never even been to Altador. It was true that she had been to almost every world in Neopia, but she had never really found the time to take a break from her work as a spelunker with Armin the Bori as her faithful sidekick (and, of course, best friend), but now she had been summoned to the beautiful library for its first Assembly of Greatness. Only the night before, she had arrived in the beautiful city in the middle of the night for the presentation, and she was looking forward to its ending so that she and Armin could go browse through the shops and pick up any old artefacts.
The hall was getting noisier, and Armin gave Hannah a little nudge. “So many people are here,” he whispered. “Look.”
Hannah turned her head, trying not to let anyone see that see that she was looking, and saw what looked like hundreds of Neopians from all different worlds crammed into the Archives to see the much-publicized event take place. Hannah smiled to herself as she saw a rather large group of young pets wearing T-shirts with her face on it. She was pretty sure that she would win Hero of the Year Award. She had, after all, freed the entire Bori population from an icy slumber. She cast a sideways glance at Armin, who was staring ahead at the empty stage. Well, maybe she and Armin would win the award together. But if it were going to just be one of them... well... Armin was a good friend. He would feel happy for her.
Hannah checked out her reflection in the shining gold back of the chair in front of her. She did look rather good, if she did say so herself. Her hair fell in soft, chocolate-brown ringlets around her furry yellow face, and a little Gold Eye Shadow and Tan blush brought out the colour of her fur perfectly (or at least that is what the very enthusiastic Usul shopkeeper of the Grooming Parlour had said). She was also wearing a Green Velvet Dress Coat that was formal but not too dressy, just in case she needed to run, jump, or defeat any charging Snow Beasts.
Suddenly, a hush came over the crowd as a very old blue Lenny walked slowly onto the stage. White feathers grew on his head, and he had a golden monocle over his right eye.
“I would like to welcome you all to Altador’s first Assembly of Greatness,” he began. “This is something we all have greatly anticipated, for while it is of course extremely important to honour our heroes of old,” he said, gesturing out the window toward the Hall of Heroes, “it is also extremely important to honour the heroes of today, who see wrongdoing or injustice and right it.”
He took a long pause, and then proceeded.
“As you all know, the Altadorian Archives has been prepared for this great event. We have set up temporary exhibits honouring all of our modern heroes. You are free to look at them at will, and, of course, speak to all of our honoured guests at any point.”
The light came on over the seats in which Hannah, Armin, and several other heroes were sitting. Everybody gave little waves and smiles to the audience, and then turned back to the old Lenny.
“Of course, we had promised to announce the Hero of the Year, whose portrait will hang forever in the Hall of Heroes. As you all know, this is a big honour, and a great deal of thought has gone into it. And so, without further ado, I would like to present the Hero of the Year award to...”
Hannah held her breath.
“Samuel the Scorchio.”
Hannah’s jaw dropped. Who in the world was he? She cast a puzzled glance at Armin, who, while clapping, murmured: “He was part of the Petpet rescue project. He saved hundreds of Petpets over his career, and is still doing a lot of great work. He’s most famous for ending Gargrall’s enslavement of the Petpets in his dangerous mine.”
Hannah gritted her teeth and stared blankly ahead as Samuel , a reasonably handsome red Scorchio accepted the prize, thanking everyone profusely for all of their kindness. It seemed like an eternity before Samuel wrapped up his speech and the spectators started filing into the room in which all of the exhibits were kept. She felt glued to her chair. This was impossible. It was completely impossible.
“Hey Hannah, are you okay?” Armin asked. “You seem kind of frozen.”
“I’m fine,” she said, barely audibly.
“I’m FINE,” she snapped, getting up from her chair. “I’m just fantastic. I’m going to go check out the exhibits now. How about you?”
“Um, yeah, I guess I am,” Armin said, an air of confusion in his voice. “Are you sure that you’re okay?”
“Yes. C’mon. We’re supposed to go answer questions, aren’t we? So let’s go answer questions.”
She took his thick claws in her paw and dragged the extremely confused little Bori into the room that had been filled with exhibits on various heroes. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Lisha, a bespectacled yellow Aisha who was wearing a pretty gown. She was known for being the saviour of Meridell, and a lot of Meridell farmers were crowded around her, asking for autographs and asking a slew of questions. Finally Hannah saw the exhibit laid out in her and Armin’s honour. It was really quite impressive: there was a diorama of the Ice Caves, biographies of both Hannah and Armin next to professional photographs, and other artefacts that she and Armin had uncovered in later missions. She and Armin stood there for a while as young fans came running up to them, asking questions about their travels. She answered each question, smiling broadly. Eventually a green Uni wearing a “Team Hannah & Armin” T-shirt came up to her and asked: “How do you feel about Samuel’s win?”
“Well,” Hannah said, a huge and artificial smile plastered across her face, “Samuel has done a lot of good work with the Petpet Rescue project, and that is such a good cause. If he’s happy, I’m happy.”
“Aw, isn’t she noble?” the Uni said to a Wocky standing next to her. “This is why she’s so awesome.”
Hours passed, and the crowd started the thin out. Armin was over in a corner, polishing off the remains of the aubergine and olive skewers. Looking at the sun starting to go down in the sky, Hannah thought that it would be a good time to start looking for something to eat, when she heard a soft voice behind her.
“Um, hi, Hannah?”
She turned around to see Samuel the Scorchio, wearing a white shirt and a gold badge that said “Samuel, Agent #1124, Petpet Rescue.”
“I just wanted to say that I am a really big fan. I’ve read your book about the Pirate Caves and I think that you are an amazing spelunker.”
As he started to walk away from her, Hannah felt a wave of guilt come over her. Maybe she had been kind of a brat. Without taking time to second-guess herself, she called, “Hey, wait,” and ran after Samuel.
“I want to congratulate you on your award. Could you tell me more about the Petpet Rescue project?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said, beaming. “I’m glad that you’re interested. The movement started a while ago when Petpet abuse was really common. Because they can’t speak for themselves, some factory owners, miners, and warlords decided to use them as workers. Since they couldn’t beg for better working conditions, they were exploited mercilessly. It wasn’t right, and so Petpet rescue was formed.”
“What sort of stuff did you do?” Hannah asked, growing more interested. The Scorchio was speaking very passionately about the topic. She had noticed that not too many people had asked him about his work, and just half-heartedly congratulated him on his win. She was guessing that he had been looking forward to giving this speech the entire day.
“Well, I was the one who saved a lot of the Petpets in Gargrall’s mine. He had this really big underground jewel mine, but he used lots of tiny Petpets to do the work, because they were so small. It was dangerous work and a lot of Petpets got injured or even killed. There were frequent earthquakes and falling stalactites. So I had to go in a save a bunch. Including Bobo here.”
He motioned to a little green Pawkeet that was scuttling around on the floor. “Bobo was the first Petpet I rescued,” Samuel continued. “We’re best buds now.”
“Cool,” Hannah said. “I love Pawkeets. They’re everywhere in Krawk Island, where I grew up. Hey, is Gargrall’s mine closed down now?”
“Yes, he’s in jail now. But the mine is still there. It just isn’t in operation.”
“Do you think there still are jewels in there?”
“Almost definitely. We closed down the mine while it was still very productive, so... hey, why are you smiling like that?”
“I cannot believe that you talked me into this. Honestly, I can’t,” yelled Armin as he walked across the teetering bridge the two explorers had made from abandoned stone boats. “Why can’t you go and do something less dangerous? Like go digging for gold in a pyramid?”
“Armin, just think of the jewels! Tons and tons of jewels that Gargrall never got his hands on,” Hannah called back.
“So is this all that you took from your talk with Samuel? You just let the project’s work go right over your head and focused on the fact that there was treasure in the mine?”
“Yeah, pretty much. BE CAREFUL, ARMIN,” she yelled as she grabbed his arm and pulled him onto firm ground.
“I don’t get why you like danger so much anyway,” Armin said. “Really, are you after the treasure, or is it the near-death experiences that you like so much?”
“Well, treasure is wonderful, but if I were just given a heap of dubloons, it wouldn’t really mean anything, you know? I like doing stuff that is both challenging, and extremely rewarding. What I don’t like is doing stuff that Snorkle could do at a very low wage.”
“Like waitressing at the Golden Dubloon?”
“Like waitressing at the Golden Dubloon.”
The two continued silently for a while, squeezing through very narrow tunnels and jumping across rivers of lava using only rickety old stone boats as platforms. Finally, after hours of searching, Armin yelled, “Found it!”
He pointed to a patch of wall that was studded with purple, blue, and green jewels. Hannah whipped out her bag excitedly and Armin dug into the wall with his sharp claws, scraping the large gems into the soft folds of fabric. They made a satisfying sound as they went into the bag: clink, clink, clink BOOM.
“What was that?” asked Armin.
“I don’t know,” answered Hannah. “Let’s get out of here.”
Suddenly, the whole mine started shaking. Hannah vaguely remembered Samuel mentioning something about frequent earthquakes in the mine. She felt her heart sink. Why had she been so stupid?
Rocks started rolling in from all directions. Flinging the bag of jewels into her pocket, she and Armin started dodging boulders and sprinting for the exit as quickly as they possibly could. She could see the daylight in front of her, a tiny little tunnel that the two of them had entered from. They were getting closer and closer to the doorway to freedom, and then another tremor shot through the cave. In an instant, the tunnel closed up, blocking their escape.
“No,” Hannah murmured. “No , no, NO!” She smashed her fist against the cave wall, where the exit once had been. “We can’t be stuck in here. I refuse to rot in an old lava cave.”
“I’ve been in worse situations than this. I can get us out.”
“I could use dynamite. There’s plenty of fire around... um... we don’t have dynamite. I should have thought of this.”
“Do you hear that?”
There was a scratching right about them, sounding like something from the outside world. It could just be a little Stego scuttling around on top of the rocks, but the scratching sounded to forceful to be a Petpet. It sounded like something was scratching with purpose, trying to get through.
Armin instinctively started smashing on the rocks frantically, yelling whatever came to mind. The scratching overtop became louder. The large rock blocking the exit started to move.
“Quickly, Armin,” Hannah said, and she and the Bori leaned against the big rock and started to push with all of their strength. The rock started to move. Grit started getting loose, and then it fell away completely, revealing both sunlight and a familiar Scorchio face.
“I thought you guys would be in here. After I left the assembly I knew I had given you the wrong idea about the mine. You shouldn’t have come here; it’s way too dangerous for anyone. That’s why we were trying to rescue the Petpets from the mine! Nobody should be in there! Even if there is treasure,” Samuel fumed. Even though his words were angry, he seemed genuinely grateful that Armin and Hannah were alright.
“You’re right,” Hannah said sheepishly. “We were in a sticky spot, and we probably wouldn’t have gotten out if it weren’t for you.”
Hannah turned to Armin and mouthed the words “should I?” Armin nodded slightly.
“You deserved the Hero of the Year Award more than I did. And Armin and I think you deserve these more than we do.” Hannah took the bag of jewels from her pocket and handed them to Samuel. A look of amazement appeared on Samuel’s face as he saw the contents of the bag.
“Hannah, I really can’t accept this,” he said.
“Please do,” she urged. “Put it towards the Petpet Rescue project. And by the way, are there any other treasure-filled mines that you know of in the area?”