Hearts of Fire: Part Three
A month after the escape, Carmen, Pinkerton, and Musetta wandered through the jungle on a foraging expedition. Their bags were already becoming heavy with the fruit, nuts, leaves, and bark they had found. Musetta said happily, “I can try drying some more of this – it’ll be good to have a stockpile. And maybe once we have enough we can start talking to the Moltarans!”
Carmen was starting to be a little uneasy about that plan... one night, she’d found the Neopedia articles on “Sloth” and “Mutants” while the others were asleep. A few phrases from the latter particularly haunted her... Mind-controlled minions of Sloth... heartless soldiers... avoid at all costs...
The Moltarans might hate us. And then what would happen? They might kill us, or drive us away...
Pinkerton interrupted her worries with a berry to the head. “Stop scowling, Carmen! Look around for some more food!”
She whacked him with the walking stick she carried, and they threw their bags to the side as they started a sparring match. Good cheer was restored – it was hard even for the Draik to worry as much as she used to under the bright sun in the beautiful jungles of their new home.
They were a few small islands away from Onasis – they had found the places where the water stayed shallow enough to wade through. Carmen looked at the faint reading on her Virtupets timepiece when she and Pinkerton had finished fighting. This thing’s going to be out of battery soon, and Susanna couldn’t find another source of power for it. I’ll have to make a sundial or something... “It’s getting late. We need to start heading back if we want to be there by dinner.”
They turned around, and before long it turned into a race. Since Carmen’s wings were hampered by the close vegetation, Pinkerton was in the lead – far enough ahead that they could only hear him shout, “Catch me if you can!” as they got close to the shore.
Then they stopped abruptly as his joking yells turned into a cry full of terror. “RUN! IT’S SLOTH! GO WITHOUT ME! RU – AHH!”
The Techo cut off with a scream of pain. They could hear crashing at the edge of the woods – the soldiers were coming! Carmen said, “We need to split up! Go through the trees – take a long way back – keep them away from the others – I’ll fly!”
She had to try her best not to cry as she spread her wings and burst through the jungle canopy into the light of day.
She soared up and up, trying to see what was going on. Her breath caught when she saw the five Invader ships sticking out of the water between this island and the one next to it. Each of those can carry hundreds of troops – it’s got to be a full-scale invasion! There were Neopians milling around them – the Garoo Elite giving the orders, as always, and the mutants following them. Mutants aren’t expected to think. We’re just supposed to obey.
But Carmen could think, and she thought through this situation. Why had Sloth come? What was on these islands? Nothing much – except for Moltara.
And the Draik had a gut feeling that Moltara was why the army was there.
She flew in the opposite direction from Onasis – she was going to circle around. She decided, It doesn’t matter what they may think of us at first. We have to warn them! If we come giving them advance notice of Sloth’s attack, they can’t think of us as enemies.
And the escape pod’s out of fuel... we can’t take it anywhere else. Banding together with the Moltarans will be our only way to survive.
When Musetta gets back, the four of us need to evacuate and find Isla Molta.
The... four of us...
Pinkerton had been her first friend on the Space Station... Paired with her in a drill, he had slipped and revealed that he wasn’t as brainwashed as he had pretended to be, and she had been glad to tell him that he wasn’t alone. Musetta had found them and given them new names, and then they had joined forces with Susanna and Niklausse to rebel in any way they could. Through it all, Pinkerton had kept her going with his loud exuberance and cross-grained nature.
But now the little Techo was gone, facing death or worse.
Carmen was crying as she winged her way back to the island.
Back on Onasis, Susanna and Niklausse had returned from their fishing trip by mid-afternoon. Niklausse dragged the boat ashore as Susanna started to throw more fuel on the fire. Niklausse grinned. “This is the biggest haul yet!”
Susanna went to the hut and pulled her precious Neopedia out of its protective covering. “I’m going to see what else this has on preserving fish.”
The big Skeith was a distance away, bringing back fuel for the fire. Susanna looked up from the small print on the page in time to notice her friend’s eyes widen in fear. She swung around, clutching the book close to her. Niklausse drew his blaster. Only one weapon... the other one’s with Carmen... we’re in so much trouble...
There were only three of them – a yellow Lutari man, a slim, pretty blue Wocky, and a little blue Kougra boy. But the Lutari had a long knife and the Wocky had a crossbow. The Lutari asked in a low, dangerous tone, “What are two Sloth minions doing here?”
Susanna tried to think fast, wishing with all her heart that she was Carmen. Finally, she told Niklausse, “Drop the weapon. Now!” They may be more likely to believe that we’re harmless that way. The Skeith looked flummoxed, but obeyed.
Then she turned to the three strangers. She set the Neopedia down and spread her hands so they could see that she was unarmed. Then she said slowly, “I’m Susanna, and this is Niklausse. We may be mutants, but we’re not Sloth minions – I swear! Somehow, we weren’t brainwashed like the others. We deserted and escaped from the Space Station a month ago. Five of us ran away – Carmen, Musetta, and Pinkerton are the other three, and they’re out foraging right now. We honestly just intend to live right here quietly and not make trouble. Please believe me!”
The Lutari didn’t look convinced, but he still replied, “Well, I’m Roxton Colchester III, explorer for hire. This is my associate, researcher Clara Chatham. And this is Jordie.”
That was when they saw the dark shape in the sky and heard Carmen screech, “SUSANNA! NIKLAUSSE! EMERGENCY!”
All five of them forgot the current tensions and stared at the sky anxiously as they waited for the Draik to land.
From the sky, Carmen looked down from the sky at the Onasis beach. Who are the other people? But she didn’t think on it for long. Her whole mind was preoccupied with Sloth is coming, must warn them, must warn Moltara, fly, fly, FLY!
She didn’t realize how fast she had been going until she landed hard on the beach, showering herself with an explosion of sand. When she tried to get up, she discovered just how tired she felt... she crouched on the soft ground, breathing heavily, unwilling to move farther at the moment.
Susanna asked, “What is it, Carmen? What is it?”
Carmen panted, “Sloth... here!... Invader ships... five of them... army... must warn Moltara... they have P-Pinkerton!”
Niklausse gasped. Susanna cried, “No!”
The Draik continued, knowing she had to be the strong one for them. “Musetta’s coming back as quickly as she can... we have to get to Moltara and warn them! There’s nothing else that Sloth could have come here for – it’s the biggest thing in these islands!”
Niklausse interrupted, “But what about Pinkerton? Can’t we rescue him?”
Carmen caught Susanna looking into her eyes sadly... she understood. Carmen said softly, “There are hundreds – maybe thousands – of Sloth troops there, and the five Invaders. There’s no way... we’d only get ourselves killed. The only way to save him is to help Moltara fight the invaders off.”
Then they heard splashing – Carmen drew her blaster. But it was Musetta running through the shallows, soaked and panting. Musetta asked, “Who are... they? Did... you tell... them?”
Carmen nodded. “They know everything. These are...”
The blue Wocky said, “I’m Clara Chatham, a researcher. This is the explorer Roxton Colchester III, and this is our assistant Jordie.”
Roxton added, “We’re friends of Moltara. We’ll go with you to Isla Molta and Moltara City... I have a feeling that what you say is true, and the two leaders – Mayor Flickern and Cave-Master Igneot – will listen to me.”
The boy looked up at him. “Are you sure, Sir?”
“Quite sure. No one goes around screaming that Sloth’s coming unless Sloth is really coming – not in this day and age.”
Clara said, “Well, let’s go then! We aren’t to Moltara yet!”
Musetta said, “Grab anything you need – we won’t be able to come back here!”
Carmen added, “Go quickly. If they... if they managed to get our location out of Pinkerton, we might not have much time.”
She tried not to think about what would have to happen for Pinkerton to say anything about his friends. He’ll be okay. He’s Pinkerton. He won’t die... he’s too stubborn to die.
She looked around as Niklausse scooped up anything that could easily be used as a weapon, Susanna picked up her beloved Neopedia and several of her favorite gadgets, and Musetta gathered some food she had successfully preserved.
Carmen finally decided. She grabbed the old black case where she still kept her belongings, and took Pinkerton’s bag as well. He might want this stuff, and I’m sure that the Virtupets army will destroy anything they find.
Roxton, Clara, and Jordie had come on a small winged ship – Roxton was at the helm as it flew around the point, and Clara dropped the ladder. Carmen followed Musetta and Susanna up the swinging ropes as Niklausse flew... her wings didn’t feel moveable right now.
The airship landed next to the great gates of Moltara. The mutants followed the three explorers into a series of caves and finally to a lift that carried them down to a huge cavern.
Carmen had known it was a city, but she hadn’t been expecting anything as big as this!
Niklausse whispered, “Wow.” Susanna’s eyes gleamed as she looked around at all the machinery that made life under the earth possible.
But Musetta said, “I miss the sun.”
The Draik hated to pull her friends away from the sight, but the three explorers had been here many times before, and were rapidly walking ahead. “We need to keep going, you guys! Almost there!”
And they kept walking into this bright place that lay amid the darkness of the caves.
Later, they all sat in the town hall. Carmen had had to explain the whole story first to Mayor Flickern, who was a grizzled old Chomby, then his group of advisors, and then – after a messenger was dispatched – a group of strange magma Neopets from the deep caves led by an old Gnorbu called Cave-Master Igneot. She leaned back against her chair, exhausted physically and emotionally, as Igneot and Flickern discussed plans.
Igneot said, “It will be best to attempt to hold them off at the entrance to Moltara City – I am afraid that Sloth’s soldiers will despoil your lands if they are allowed to roam through them.”
Flickern frowned. “But the magma caves would be a huge advantage to us... we all know how to move through them – how to fight there. They don’t.”
Carmen thought as they continued discussing the pros and cons of each place. She recalled all the battle tactics that she had been forced to memorize. Finally, she explained slowly, “I have an idea, sirs. I think it would be best to mount a twofold defense – a squad here at the city’s entrance, and another one in these caves. That way, if Sloth wins through to the caves, there will be more soldiers waiting for him, and in case the battle can be won at the front, the cave forces can surge forward and catch Sloth off-guard.”
Susanna sighed. “If only we knew who was in charge here – I’m certain the Doctor himself isn’t. Probably Garoo, Gormos, or even both. Such a shame. If only we knew for sure, we could guess a little more about the plans.”
Igneot turned to the mutants, a smile on his wise old face. “Flickern, I do fear that we have been neglecting some of our most valuable assets! I believe that our friends here could be quite useful to us. We should include them more in the discussions to follow, for there is much to do and their knowledge is invaluable.
“Now, Roxton my boy, take them to get gear for the battle. If they are to fight at our side, they need weapons to do it with!
“And then we can – we will – defend Moltara against the foe!”
To be continued...