Worth Fighting For: Part Five
They trekked through the vast subterranean palace for hours without stopping, following the flickering flames of the little Fire Mote. At times Hyren entertained his captives with more stories of his interstellar exploits, but for the most part very little conversation passed between them. Hyren supposed this was due not only to their drive to get out, but to the interest his two companions had in the architecture. They passed through vaulted halls covered in murals depicting lavish scenes of celebration, 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.
As their march wore on, Terra appeared less and less interested in their surroundings, sometimes merely glancing at something of interest before pressing onward, and brushing off Blynn's attempts to call items to her attention. The girl's movements became increasingly stilted and jittery, and Hyren caught her frequently looking upward, almost as if she expected to see a sky there but found only oppressive rock.
"Let's make camp here for the night," Hyren announced, setting down his bundle of weapons in a square room with a few scattered tables and benches pushed against the walls. It had probably once been a dining area for palace staff, he inferred by the presence of toppled storage urns, scattered ceramic dishes, and the large, open-air fireplace on one wall. "Oh, how nice," he grunted sarcastically. "They left us enough fuel for a fire." He pointed to the meager stack of chopped wood next to the stone hearth.
Blynn dropped her pack and set the lantern on the edge of the fireplace. "Don't worry, little guy, you'll have some fun soon! Terra, help me out, here!"
"No," Terra spoke up. "Let's keep going. Please." Her voice was shaky and on the verge of breaking.
"We've walked enough for the day," Hyren grumbled, easing himself to the floor and starting to massage his sore feet.
"We can camp as soon as we get outside," she attempted to compromise. "Please, please. I just..." She clasped her hands. "I just need to get out of here."
He looked over at her, wavering somewhere between sympathetic and annoyed. "You need to keep up your strength, and walking all night without sleep won't cut it. I'm not really in a hurry to get you to Sloth, so I can afford to keep you healthy, and I mean to."
"You—you could carry me!" she begged. "I can't spend another night in here, I just can't!"
"I told you I would protect you," Hyren hissed. "Do you distrust me that much?"
Terra's insistence faded and she bowed her head. "N... no... I trust you."
"Good." He nodded. "Now let's get some sleep so we'll be well-rested for when we get back to the surface tomorrow." They were very 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 start to see daylight around the next corner.
She mouthed a silent "okay" and slowly turned to aid her Neopet in lifting firewood. Blynn shot him a nasty glare over her shoulder, and Hyren looked away. He knew manipulating Terra like that would get the girl to comply, but it left a sickening feeling in his stomach now.
The two girls built a stack of wood on the metal grating, and Blynn tilted the open lantern over it once they were done. "Come on out, little fella."
The Fire Mote rolled lazily out onto the stack and immediately blazed up anew, nestling itself into the wood which began smoldering and smoking. Soon, a roaring fire was going, perfect for staving off the eternal cold of the cave-fortress.
"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 mused, sitting 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 wondered, setting up her bedroll nearby.
Hyren cast his gaze at the dark hallway they'd entered the room from. "Pretty far. I wonder which direction we've been traveling in." Too bad his helmet was nonfunctional, as the HUD included a compass. He figured one or both of the girls had a magnetic one, but they'd taken so many twists and turns by now, just knowing where north was wouldn't be much help. "Maybe we'll end up back in the Lost Desert."
"Or on the other side of Neopia," Blynn said dreamily, staring into the fire. "I wonder what's there. Probably some super awesome things, stuff we can't even imagine!" She spread her arms wide as though doing so created a vision of far-off lands that only she could see.
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 her situation, after dinner Hyren began teaching her the very basics of swordplay. "We're going to start with some stances and types of attacks for now," he said, pacing around her with his arms folded.
"Okay," Terra replied, her brow furrowing in determination as she pulled her blade from its sheath and held it in front of her.
"First off, you're holding it wrong."
"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." She nodded. "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 she 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, he took the time to notice Blynn going around the room 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.
A sudden 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 laughed, inspecting the bracer. There was a new nick in it, 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 absently and nodded, not looking fully convinced. Her eyes wandered down to his foot. "Is your ankle okay?"
He glanced at it. He'd forgotten it was even injured. "Yes, it's all better now. I heal fast. Don't worry about it."
"Okay... good." Terra seemed to hesitate a moment before taking a deep breath. "You know... even after everything we've been through, even though I know where we're going after this... I'm glad we met you."
Hyren stared at her incredulously. He no longer had the desire to tell her off even though he knew perfectly well she still harbored a vain hope in her heart that he would let them go. He wasn't sure what to say, but before he could stop it, the truth came to the surface. "I'm glad I met you, too."
His statement was punctuated by a loud snap as 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 his 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 muscular arm, alone with his thoughts for a while.
Perhaps Sloth wouldn't keep them prisoners forever. Maybe by the time they got out, they would have forgotten about the Grundo who once told them stories and then turned them over to a diabolical sociopath. Somehow that thought didn't comfort him as much as he wished it would.
"Now it's too hot in here," came a whispering complaint.
Well, so much for being alone. Hyren rolled over to see Blynn 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 continued, scratching her belly.
"You're supposed to be asleep," Hyren reminded her.
She rolled her eyes. "Can't sleep. 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."
The Zafara looked over at her owner, then back to the Grundo. "I try to keep her laughing. 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."
She grinned. "Yeah, that's the idea." They were both silent for a while, listening to the fire crackle. "I think I've been jealous of you this whole time, Hyren." Blynn let out a sigh as she shifted onto her side, propping up her head in her hand and letting her tail loll back behind her. "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 felt his face heat up in embarrassment and he nodded. "Yeah."
She brushed away her patterns and looked up at him. "You don't really want to take us to Sloth, do you."
He swallowed hard and looked away. "I don't really have a choice, Blynn," he grunted. "This is my job. 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. "Did Sloth send you specifically to capture us?"
"Well, no... in fact, I don't think he knows if I'll ever return," Hyren let slip. He groaned. He hadn't wanted them to figure out that he was just a cosmic castaway scrambling to get back to his master with whatever prize he could muster.
"So don't go back. He doesn't have to know."
Hyren rolled over so he was facing the wall. "Go to sleep, Blynn," he said with forced harshness.
He heard a sigh and the rustle of a sleeping bag. Then, her voice cut through the silence again. "Just so you know."
Her tone was serious enough to make him twist around, to see her glaring at him, her deep blue eyes suddenly hard as ice and her paws clutching the edge of her bedroll. "Terra's my best friend in the whole world. I swear I'll never let you hurt her, Hyren. I'm watching you."
The commander paused for a moment before nodding, turning back over to escape her piercing gaze. It was evident now that she took her job just as seriously as he did his. And he was struggling to remind himself that their two jobs had to be in conflict.
"All right, in you go! Come on, now!" Blynn was having trouble getting the Fire Mote back into the lantern, as it obviously wanted to stay where there was fuel enough for it to make a large blaze.
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 halfheartedly respond with the appropriate blocks. Without warning, however, she slowed down and his attention was drawn back to her.
The girl was doubled over, clutching her stomach, making Hyren's antennae jerk back in alarm. "What's wrong?" he asked her.
"I dunno... my stomach hurts," she groaned. "I didn't get a lot of sleep last night..."
"Nightmares?" Hyren asked. He began to worry that she'd overheard his and Blynn's conversation.
Thankfully, she shook her head. "No... I just need to get out of here..."
With a sigh, he stowed his sword and patted her shoulder. "Make sure you're drinking enough water." Whether by some power of the Faeries or the ingenuity of builders, the little band of explorers had found a few channels of running water in the vast complex. It really was a marvel of engineering, Hyren mused to himself as Terra squeezed out a gulp from her canteen. One more story to add to his repertoire. Although he didn't know if he'd ever again meet anyone willing to listen to his stories.
"Gotcha!" Blynn announced, using a piece of wood to scoop the Fire Mote into the lantern before slamming the window shut. The little elemental buzzed around its metal container for a while but finally settled down to sulk and brood over the wood chip Blynn had left for it. "Okay," the Zafara chirped, "let's head out."
"We're very close," Hyren reminded them as he ushered the girls down the next passage. Terra's pace was even slower than it had been the day before. If she got any worse, he would have to carry her, he decided.
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 immediately, 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 urged, running forward haggardly.
"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 gasped, 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 wall opposite them was a series of lofty windows letting 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 commented, 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, which 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 noted aloud.
"Oh, man..." Terra's shoulders sagged in defeat and she eyed the windows despairingly.
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 suggested, pointing to the elaborate stonework. "It's a good thing these Neopets seemed to be fond of 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 sighed, her pack jangling merrily as her hiking boots pounded into the miniature dunes. "We're almost there!"
"Yahoooo!" Blynn's whoop echoed off the stone walls as she bounded after her owner.
Hyren grinned as he tramped after them, although it faded after a moment. Seeing them so happy just ground his own conflict deeper. He could let them go, and they could continue in their innocent joy—or he could put them through a nightmare with only the vague hope of a happier future. But he also had his own hide to worry about, he reminded himself. He knew Sloth wouldn't approve if one of his elite commanders returned from a mission without anything to show for it.
A deep rumble beneath the Grundo made him pause and look down at his own feet. The sand around them shifted back and forth like it lay on the surface of water. His eyes widened and he glanced up at the girls, who had also stopped and were looking around uneasily.
"Go! NOW!" he roared as two immense mandibles breached the sand below him, carrying him up into the air and holding him fast.
To be continued...