Worth Fighting For: Part Four
"So that's when the Space Fungus started swarming our ship!" They had to have been walking for at least an hour, now, but Hyren was nowhere near running out of stories. 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 barely squeeze through. "Well..." He shuffled awkwardly aside.
The look she gave him was one of sheer desperation, and the Grundo did not offer her an immediate response. "Blynn, you go first." He eased the Zafara off of his back. "Carry the lantern with you. I'm sure we're nearly to the end." Well, that was a lie, he wasn't sure of anything. For all he knew, the crawlspace could have caved in so none of them would fit. But he certainly wasn't about to tell them that.
"Right." Blynn took the lantern from him and started eagerly toward the hole, dropping to all fours and holding the lantern ahead of her with one forepaw.
"You could have told me your tail was feeling better. Would have been a load off of my back."
"You didn't ask," came the reply from within the crawlspace, the firelight slowly receding. "Besides, it was a fun ride."
Hyren look down at Blynn's owner. "Okay. Your turn," he said, urging her ahead of himself.
Terra froze, staring at the entrance for a few awkward moments before looking back over her shoulder at him. "I... I can't. I'm really scared, I can't do it..." She seemed on the verge of crying.
He wanted to bluntly point out to her that she couldn't exactly go back, but by now he realised she responded better to a softer tactic. Crouching down, he placed a hand on her thin shoulder and looked into her eyes, trying to remember every snatch of confidence-building bunk he'd ever heard. "I believe you can. You're a strong person, Terra. You can do anything you set your mind on. You don't have to let your fears control you." Hopefully she would buy that.
"But... but what if something goes wrong?" she asked, chin trembling.
He tilted his head, giving her a hopeful smile. "I wouldn't ask you to do this if I didn't know you were going to be safe." Well, relatively safe. "Do you trust me?"
She regarded him silently, then put a hand on his arm and nodded. "Yes."
Hyren gave her shoulder a light squeeze. "Then go show your fears you're not to be messed with."
The girl grinned. "I will." He let her go. Terra turned to face the hole again, taking a few deep breaths before crouching down and shuffling in.
"I'm right behind you," Hyren mentioned, dropping to his knees and elbows and huddling to get all of his bulk inside. His helmet and back armour bumped against the ceiling, and he was beginning to be seriously annoyed at whoever thought this was a suitable secret passage. "Well, at least this place wasn't inhabited entirely by a kingdom of JubJubs," he mentioned dryly.
Terra laughed feebly in response.
"I'm out the other side!" Blynn suddenly announced.
Hyren gave a sigh of relief. "How big is it?" he asked, continuing to inch his way forward.
"Bigger than where we came in," she reported. "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 guessed. Terra quickly covered the rest of the distance to the end. "From here it should—" A sudden jolt halted the commander's progress and he realised he was stuck. Grunting, he pushed with his shoulders, trying to find the point of pressure. One of his pauldrons was being blocked by an outcrop of rock.
"Are you okay?" Terra asked, bending down with the lantern to peer back into the crawlspace.
"Yeah. I'll be there in a second." With an irritated groan, Hyren bared his teeth and shoved hard. The offending rock snapped off, but he heard a sickening crack and bits of stone began crumbling from the wall and ceiling.
Hyren bit his tongue and cursed himself silently 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. In fact, they were getting bigger.
"Hyren!" Amidst the dust, a shape dove toward him.
"Go back!" he coughed.
For a reply, a pair of small hands gripped his own hand and wrist, and pulled. He used the extra leverage to push 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 he heard the entire passage give way behind him.
Hyren turned his head and looked over at Terra, who was sitting up and dusting herself off, coughing sporadically. "Well... that's twice you've saved my life now," the Grundo observed, rising to his feet and offering her a hand.
She took it and staggered to her own feet. "You don't owe me anything," she insisted, looking bashful.
"Don't worry, I'm not that pedantic," he replied. "You risked your life to save me. You could have been caught in that cave-in, too."
She swallowed hard and nodded. "I... I know. But I couldn't leave you there."
The commander blinked. "I don't know whether you're incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. Either way, I can see why exploring is your thing."
"Yeah, too bad we're gonna be stuck with Sloth after this," Blynn interjected, glaring up at the mutant with a frown. "Thanks a lot."
"Never mind that," he replied. "Let's keep going."
"And which way do you suggest we go, o fearless leader?" the Zafara asked.
The tunnel had come out on the side of a long, straight hallway, the floor of which was lined with tile and the walls carved in swirling decorative motifs. The corridor extended into darkness on either side of them.
"Oh, I know!" Terra spoke up before Hyren could respond. "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 glared back at him, most likely irritated at having to provide them light for so long. Its flames were being pushed toward the left lantern window.
"So we need to go right." Terra pointed into the shadows, then looked up at Hyren. "Right?"
He folded his arms over his chest and nodded. "That was pretty clever, I have to admit."
She grinned. "Thanks."
"I'm hungry," Blynn announced, plopping onto the floor. "Can we stop for lunch?"
Terra's smile faded. "We need to keep going," she pointed out. "I'm really tired of being down here."
"But it's important to keep up your energy," Hyren commented. "Otherwise I'd have to carry you both out. We'll eat quickly, I promise," he added, trying to appease a pouting Terra.
"...Okay," she relented, sitting down next to her Neopet and placing the lantern in front of them.
Lunch was sandwiches and fruit. Hyren let them eat their fill, 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. Besides, making them ration their provisions would most likely scare Terra again. Hyren felt like dealing with someone this skittish was like trying to get out of a room full of malfunctioning Pincerons: a very delicate procedure that he had to work to find the patience for.
He, 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, however, concede to a small sip of water from her canteen.
Terra finished eating before Blynn, and the girl got up and began puttering around the hallway, carefully staying within the circumference of the lantern light and under Hyren's watchful eye. "There's a door here," she mentioned quietly, feeling the wall nearby.
She placed her hand on a tall slab of wood, deeply carved with images of various Neopets in battling poses. The girl pulled its rusted handle and it creaked aside, sending dust sifting out of the doorway where it had lain undisturbed for centuries. Immediately 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 insisted, 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 relatively small room that was not nearly as lavishly decorated as the great hall. What made all three of them gasp, however, was what the room held: armour and weapons of every make and function.
While some pieces were arranged on racks and shelves, others had been scattered around the room in disarray, or tossed carelessly into urns. All of them were covered in cobwebs. Cobwebs were good, Hyren thought. It meant he and his captives were close enough to the surface that they had reached areas where Spyders and other Petpets lived.
"Looks like we found the armoury," Terra observed. "Neat."
"Good fortunes, indeed," Hyren muttered, his tone taking on a bit of a fierce and greedy edge as he pulled the door open more fully and brushed past the owner and Neopet. "Perhaps there's something still useable in here." 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, extra equipment wouldn't hurt.
Besides, this stupid hole owed him something for all the trouble it had put him through. He hadn't seized the opportunity to filch some of the treasure in the throne room, because in their situation, mere riches were just an impediment. Anything he could salvage in here would be much more useful.
His two young companions wasted no time in exploring the room. "Look, look!" Blynn laughed. Hyren glanced over to see her trying on an ill-fitting, but ornate helmet that looked like it was crafted for a Lupe. "This is awesome!"
"Who are you this time?" Terra asked, tentatively inspecting a heavy spear.
"Corporal Blynn of the 679th Division!" The Zafara 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. What was left of the blade at the base was mere jagged rust. "Blehhh." She made a face and tossed the hilt away. "Gross."
"All of these weapons are corroded," Hyren grumbled, sifting through them effortlessly. He pulled cankered scimitars from their sheaths and watched crumbling spear heads fall from their hafts 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 pointed to the far corner.
Hyren lifted his head and followed her finger to a stack of tall urns matted with cobwebs and detritus, looking like they'd been there for even longer than the rest of the cache. One of them was cracked down the side, and through a tiny hole shone the unmistakeable glint of firelight on untarnished metal.
His breath caught in his throat. "Whoa," he gasped, dropping his current armload of scrap metal to stride across the tile floor. Lifting another, empty 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?" he heard Terra ask from behind him.
"You're never going to believe this..." A grin spread up his face as he lifted his discovery from its hiding place and turned to present it to the girls. Cradled in his arms were 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 gawked as Hyren knelt down and spread them carefully 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 breathed. 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."
Terra and Blynn knelt on the other side of the spread, gaping at the sword. "Are you serious?" Terra asked.
Hyren nodded. "No wonder they're impervious to corrosion. And I'm guessing the blades don't dull, either." He gave it a few test swings, relishing the singing of metal through air mingled with a faint hum of magic. "Amazing. I've never seen one of these in the flesh before."
"Then how do you know about 'em?" Blynn asked. "Aren't you from space? Why do you know so much about Neopia?"
The commander paused after a stroke to look down at her. "Just because I've never been here, doesn't mean I'm ignorant about this world. Sloth has had scouts and spies combing this planet since far before his first takeover attempt. And I make a point of never landing somewhere unless I've done my research first."
He put the sword back in its sheath, the blade making a satisfying sound against the hardened leather. He'd found his compensation. "That being said," he continued, starting to stand up and buckle the scabbard around his waist, "there are still a lot of things about Neopia that I don't know. Like what that blue-and-yellow fruit is that grows at the oasis, the one we just had for lunch."
"That's a Tchea," Blynn replied absently, still scanning the weapons.
"Ah, okay," Hyren nodded. He began to motion to them with one hand to head back out, the other authoritatively gripping the hilt of his newfound prize.
"I want one," Terra murmured, staring down at the blades.
The Grundo blinked. "What? You're not a fighter."
She looked up at him with a determined frown. "You could teach me. Please? I've always wanted to learn to use a sword."
"I want one too!" Blynn insisted, jumping up.
A panicked grimace flew over Hyren's face, and he turned to hover over the weapons protectively. "You're not a battling pet!"
"How come you get one and we don't?!" She fisted her paws and jutted out her lower jaw, stretching herself up to stare in his face with narrowed eyes. "That's not fair!"
"Because I know how to use one and you don't!" he countered.
"So?! What does that have to do with it?!" she seethed. "I'm taking one," she decided, plunging a paw toward one of the swords.
"No!" he insisted, grabbing her wrist. The glare she shot up at him was venomous.
"Stop!" Terra suddenly thrust herself between them, putting a hand on each of their shoulders. She gave Blynn a stern look and the Zafara wilted, her gaze dropping.
The owner then looked up at Hyren. His antennae drooped slightly. "Why can't we have weapons?" she asked him quietly. "What if Blynn and I need to defend ourselves? We'll be really good with them, we promise. We just need you to teach us how to use them correctly."
"I'll defend you," Hyren asserted, jabbing a thumb onto his chestplate. "Do you really think me that incompetent?"
"No, no, that's not it," Terra was quick to say, shaking her head. "I know you can protect us. But... it would be nice to have something just in case... I mean... what if you needed protecting?"
Hyren wrinkled his noseless face. "Me? Need protecting? Preposterous. I'm a better fighter than anything on this planet, I'd wager."
Terra lowered her eyelids, looking up at him dubiously. "Better than cave-ins?"
He felt heat rise to his cheeks and he reached up and scratched the back of his neck before glancing back at her. "Cave-ins can't be fought with swords."
The girl sighed. "We wouldn't keep them forever," she bargained. "I mean... I know where you're taking us." Her head drooped and she rubbed her arm. "We'd just use them until we got somewhere safe. I've never gotten to wield a sword before. It would be nice to, just for a little while."
The commander grimaced. He supposed he did owe them a small something considering their destination. He might as well let them have a little bit of fun now before a long period of solitude and misery. "Okay," he relented, his great shoulders sagging. "Okay. One weapon each. And I get to pick them," he added as Blynn moved for the sword again. "At least let the expert judge which one is right for your size and personality."
Kneeling on the floor again, Hyren placed his hands on his knees and surveyed each of the weapons thoughtfully, rubbing his chin and tugging on one antenna from time to time. This was another new and interesting experience for him. His mind-controlled troops were all issued identical standard armament—he'd never had to select custom weaponry for anyone before. Thankfully, there was a wide range to choose from.
Finally, he gingerly picked up a shortsword and presented it to Terra like the royal treasure he was sure it was. "I think this one should do nicely for you, if you're so keen on learning swordplay." It was a beautiful weapon, probably crafted for a mid-size pet like a Lupe or a Blumaroo, with intricate spiral patterns on the crossguard and a sturdy leather grip. It would have made a fine complement to his own claymore.
Which made Hyren more than a little hurt when she regarded the blade with ill-disguised disappointment. She tried to force a smile up her face as she took it from him, and held the scabbard in both hands with a resigned sigh. "Thanks..." she said quietly.
He frowned. "What?"
"Well..." The girl glanced up at his own sword before looking back down at hers. "...Yours is bigger."
Hyren gave her an incredulous stare and then chuckled, having to restrain himself from outright laughter. She really did have no experience with weaponry. He settled back on his heels, wearing his characteristic smirk once more. "Fine, then. Try out this one," he began, handing her one of the larger swords, "and let's see you do a few practice swings with it."
Terra placed the shortsword aside and eagerly accepted the second offering, her eyes bulging as she realised its full weight and struggled just to lift it into her unlearned approximation of a ready position. "Uhm..."
The commander watched in silence as she somewhat hesitantly began a clumsy swing, her scrawny arms working hard just to raise the blade. Letting it fall was easier, but she botched the follow-through horribly and the tip clanged on the floor, causing her to cringe. Puffing out her cheeks, she attempted to lift the sword again, but her labors only lasted for a few seconds before she slumped with a groan and handed the hilt back to the Grundo.
He took it and laid the sword back in its place like a doting gardener planting a prized flower. "Now you see why I gave you a shortsword. The weapon has to fit the warrior; there's no sense in decking yourself out with the biggest, flashiest weapons if you can't even use them," he explained, a condescending tone sneaking into his voice. He looked up at her, trying to catch her eyes to impress upon her the importance of what he was trying to tell her. If she really wanted to learn to fight, she was going to have to learn to listen as well. "The only way a weapon is ever really effective is when it's wielded by the right person."
Drawing a long sigh, Terra nodded, and picked up the shorter blade again, pulling it out of its sheath. She turned it over in her hand, twisting and bouncing her arm to gauge its weight. A look of satisfaction grew in her eyes, and she buckled the belt over her shirt and showed it off proudly to Blynn. Hyren was quite pleased, himself, that his judgement seemed to be sound.
"My turn, what about me?!" Blynn's voice cut into Hyren's thoughts.
"For you... I'm thinking this." The commander reached into the assortment of weapons and pulled out an elegantly crafted slingshot, complete with its own holster.
"That's not a sword," the Zafara pointed out.
"You never specifically asked for a sword," Hyren reminded her, wagging his finger. "I've seen how you fight. You're quick and tricky, and prefer to keep your distance from your opponents. I think you'd do better with a ranged weapon like this."
"Yeah, I think he's right!" Terra piped up, glancing over at Hyren with a shy smile that spoke of her yearning for approval. "That seems perfect for you!"
The Grundo nodded at her. "Besides, it makes you a good counterpart to Terra's and my melee fighting."
Blynn looked the slingshot over, gently tugging on the leather pocket to test out the elasticity of the attached rubber strips. "I don't get what's so special about it. You and Terra get cool magic swords. I could make something like this myself."
"Look closer, it's got Faerie runes on it as well," Hyren pointed out. "I think the fact that it's survived in here for centuries with no deterioration whatsoever is testament to its being enchanted. It probably possesses other properties that we have yet to discover."
"Huh... pretty cool," she conceded, putting the weapon in its holster and fastening it around her waist. "What's this pouch on the other side of the belt for?"
"Storing projectiles," Hyren explained. "Basically anything small and round, like pebbles or acorns."
"Or codestones..." Blynn scratched her furry chin in thought.
"Codestones aren't small!" Terra pointed out, looking slightly alarmed.
"I bet I could still use 'em with this thing, though!" the Zafara protested.
Hyren let them debate the acceptability of various random objects as projectiles, while he searched the room further and found a large piece of cloth and a length of rope. He rolled the remaining weapons into the cloth and tucked the ends tightly, and then used the rope to tie the bundle across his back. These magical artefacts would fetch an incredible price on the intergalactic market, and it was an opportunity he simply couldn't pass up. He wagered they were possibly worth more than everything in that throne room combined.
He turned back to the two youngsters, placing his hands on his hips. "Well, unless you have any other business here, I think we should pack up and move on."
"Okay, what about slushies, can I shoot slushies?" Blynn was saying.
"Why in the world would you want to shoot slushies?!" Terra asked incredulously. She looked up at Hyren with an exasperated smile. "Yeah. Let's go."
Moral dilemmas didn't happen for Hyren often. It wasn't something he thought about much. He just followed orders, went with his gut feeling, and resolved to discard any and all regrets. Right now, though, he was currently facing a dilemma that was eating him up inside. There was a pure sincerity about his companions that, he was afraid to admit to himself, he wanted to enjoy. Never had orders conflicted with gut feeling like this, and never did he worry so much about regrets.
To be continued...