Hearts of Fire: Part Five
As the sounds of battle crashed around them, Carmen, Niklausse, and Musetta crouched behind a barricade that had been erected along the main road of Moltara City.
Carmen’s plan for a force in the city and down in the caves had been a better idea than workable plan. There simply weren’t enough warriors. So they had decided to try to beat the Virtupets army at the beginning, and keep them from getting into the magma caves at all. Those who couldn’t fight hid there, hoping that the battle wouldn’t reach them.
Right now, those hopes were looking dimmer every second. Susanna had left with Clara Chatham to help repair a rock stabilizer that could mean the difference between survival and the destruction of the city. But they said it wouldn’t be too hard of a job... they should have been back by now! Next to her, Roxton and Jordie were clearly thinking the same thing.
Niklausse said grimly as he tried to plug the ever-widening holes in their protective wall with chunks of obsidian, “At this rate, Pinkerton might outlive any of us!”
Musetta was sheltered on a ledge above them, armed with a crossbow like many of the Moltaran fighters. She scolded, “Don’t talk like that, Niklausse!”
The Skeith muttered as he took aim with his blaster yet again, “Hard to keep from thinking of it, though.”
Roxton looked over the barricade warily. “I think there’s a bit of a lull...”
He ducked down quickly as his hat was shot off his head. “Never mind. Keep down!”
There was a small crash above them, and Jordie used his own hat to catch the remains of a winged robot that had been shot down. There was a message attached to it. The boy read, “Coming toward you as soon as we can – rock stabilizer is fixed. Clara and Susanna.”
Carmen looked around. This is a disaster! “We’ll be lucky if they can get back here... I don’t think we can hold the city much longer!”
Roxton nodded grimly. “They’re going to try and keep it for as long as they can... but the city’s worse than a Snowbunny warren. There are too many ways to get through it – too many for us to stop them all up.”
That was when they heard a yell. “Carmen! Carmen! Carmen! Coming down!”
Carmen looked up at the sky. I don’t believe it... “Pinkerton!”
He dropped down to land on their side of the barricade, followed by a mutant Ixi and a magma Krawk. “Carmen!”
She jumped on her friend and hugged him tightly, heedless of the mechanical wings he was wearing. “Pinkerton – we were all so scared!”
Niklausse joined their hug. “Big guy!”
Pinkerton’s voice was muffled as he replied, “Hey, little guy.” Musetta had joined the group hug. “Where’s Susanna?”
Roxton looked over the barricade. “I’m glad you all have your friend back – but could you help me out before they destroy this wall?”
Carmen drew her blaster and went back to shooting the robots that were attempting to destroy everything blocking the way of the soldiers. The Ixi jumped up beside her – she was glad to see that he had a blaster as well. He shouted over the crashes and roars, “I’m Calaf! Pinkerton and I escaped from the ship together!”
Pinkerton added as he joined them, “You remember Calaf – he was formerly known as IXI 3870.”
The Draik almost dropped her blaster as she stared at her companion in astonishment. Pinkerton screeched at her, “CARMEN! FIGHT NOW, ACT LIKE A GIRL LATER!”
She smacked him in response to the “girl” comment, but resumed fighting. The odds were looking worse and worse every moment – alarm horns were blaring all over Moltara. Everyone’s having trouble... there are too many, and they’re too well-trained, and their weapons are better...
The Krawk screamed from her perch next to Musetta, “Three robots, coming up the street!”
Niklausse added, jumping back, “The barricade isn’t going to last much longer – we need to get clear!”
Pinkerton yelled at the Krawk, “Endellion, help us get onto the roof! We can get away through that route!”
Carmen picked up Jordie and soared up to the nearest roof. Calaf and Pinkerton used their mechanical wings to fly beside her and shield them from the unavoidable lasers streaking through the air. This whole city smells like burning... even the magma isn’t this nasty. Pinkerton’s metal feathers were scorched with blaster bolts – his flight was looking a little wobbly as they landed on the roof and ran behind a metal pipe for shelter.
Roxton looked sadly at Jordie. “I shouldn’t have listened to you, kid. I should have sent you to the caves with the other children.”
The little boy crossed his arms as Carmen watched out of the corner of her eye – the rest was looking out beyond their pathetic refuge to see where the next danger would come from. Jordie replied, “I wouldn’t have gone – and it wouldn’t have helped anyway, ‘cause we can all tell they’re going to win their way through to the caves.”
Carmen’s heart hurt for the little boy who might never get to grow bigger... he hadn’t wanted to leave his friend Roxton to fight alone, and now he might pay the price for his loyalty. Poor kid. I’ll do everything I can to protect him... I have to.
Musetta sighed. “Well, Mayor Flickern did say that he thought the caves would be the best battleground for us.”
Niklausse’s eyes narrowed. “If we can make it there alive, and if there are enough fighters left to keep up a defense. This has to be... what, close to half his entire army? Mutants and robots? Sloth really wants Moltara.”
Susanna and Clara jumped over the gap between the rooftop they were on and the rest of the group. Susanna held up a piece of sheet metal as a shield, which was already heavily scored with blaster bolts and laserfire. Clara asked as she threw herself behind the wide pipe, and Susanna placed her piece of metal in front of it give them more protection, “What’s happened? Why aren’t you manning the barricade?”
Roxton said grimly, “The barricade is history. Look down.”
The blue Wocky looked over the edge, quickly pulling her head back as the building began to shake under them. Musetta cried, “What’s happening?”
Clara shouted, panicked, “Get off – the robots are destroying this building! It’ll collapse under us if we don’t!”
They hadn’t had any time to move when the wailing sirens across Moltara stopped. Carmen’s heart sank as all the horns united in three short, loud blasts.
Calaf asked, “What’s going on? What’s that mean?”
Roxton said, face white, “The city is lost – retreat to the caves.”
Carmen looked around. She told Niklausse, “Switch weapons with Roxton, and lead the others to the caves! Then the four of us with blasters will try to cover your escape as long as possible!”
The big Skeith quickly exchanged his blaster for Roxton’s pistol and sword, then picked up Jordie and soared into flight as the building rattled below them yet again.
Carmen followed the Lutari adventurer to a roof a short distance away – he had a set of mechanical wings like Pinkerton and Calaf did. Well, there’s a stroke of luck... this could have been bad otherwise. They kept firing and firing at the robots and the soldiers, trying to give the others as much time to set up a defense in the caves as they could get.
But they were slowly and steadily pushed back.
Pinkerton cried, “There’s just too many of them!”
Carmen nodded. “I know!”
Roxton said, “I’m oldest here – and I’m ordering all of you to fall back to the caves, now! I’m right behind you!”
Carmen knew it made sense. She took the lead, dragging Pinkerton along behind her as they all jumped into flight.
She took all of the flying craft she knew and put it into practice, leading the others on a crazy course of dives, sudden upswings, corkscrews, and turns. She could see what they were aiming for – the tunnel leading ever deeper into the earth, with the last, strongest barricade still standing. They were shot at twice before Mayor Flickern shouted, “No! Those four are allies!”
They were some of the last to pass the barricade – the Mayor was still holding it with a small band. He called after them, “We’ll hold this as long as we can! If I don’t make it out, tell my daughters I love them!”
No lava was flowing along the tunnels down into the Moltara Caves, which Carmen was thankful for – only the magma Neopets could stand the molten rock for any length of time.
The four warriors flew into a great open space – the central hub of the caves. More walls had been set up along pools of lava, and fighters lined the ridges and cave mouths. It looked impressive and frightening in the red glow of the magma. But the Virtupets forces will look more frightening as well.
She noticed Niklausse waving, and landed next to him and the others. They were all right behind Cave-Master Igneot.
Only a few minutes passed before Mayor Flickern ran out of the tunnel with the remainder of his fighters behind him. He called, “They’re coming – the commanders are in the lead, and they’re carrying a white flag!”
Igneot turned. “Roxton, Carmen, will you come parley with us?”
Carmen nodded, mind already working furiously. This is my chance... under parley, they can’t stop me. She started planning what she wanted to say to the mutants if she could speak.
The army began marching into the cavern. Commanders Garoo and Gormos stood side by side at the front of the horde – since the two hated each other, Carmen wondered what Sloth had had to threaten with in order to get them to work together. Gormos was the one holding a piece of paper.
She tried not to let anyone else see that she was trembling a little as she stepped forth from the ranks. She remembered her days masquerading as a brainwashed trainee under their cruel jurisdiction, where these two held the power of life and death over their underlings. She squared her shoulders, trying to channel Pinkerton’s sarcastic carelessness as she kept close behind Roxton.
Igneot began, “Why do you wish to speak to us now?”
Garoo said with an arrogant sneer, “It is clear that the paltry forces of Moltara cannot stand up to the armies of Doctor Frank Sloth. But with the graciousness of our overlord, we offer you one last chance. Surrender your arms and your lands to Commander Gormos and I, and all who cease fighting will be spared.”
Flickern’s jaw clenched, but his voice was mild. “Is that all, then?”
Gormos said, “There is one more term that must be fulfilled – not one that would be an inconvenience to you, Mister Mayor. Six deserters and traitors to Sloth are being harbored in your ranks. We demand that you turn over the persons and possessions of,” he looked down at his paper, “DRAIK 231, TECHO 4067, SKEITH 4815, ZAFARA 2989, GELERT 3526, and IXI 3870. They are no allies to you – their ilk is disloyal and disobedient to the bone. It would be better for you to turn them over to Sloth’s justice now, before they betray you.”
Carmen found herself heartened by Roxton’s furious scowl and Igneot’s and Flickern’s looks of disgust. They wouldn’t even consider it – so here I go! She stepped forward, only feet away from the commanders. “You can have those numbered Neopians... if you can find them. The numbers are gone! Gone! And Carmen, Pinkerton, Niklausse, Musetta, Susanna, and Calaf would rather die than spend one more minute in captivity!”
As several people cheered behind her, she was pretty sure that only the flag of truce kept the commanders from killing her on the spot. But she wasn’t done – she looked past them to the mutant army still spilling out of the tunnel.
“Listen to me!” she shouted. “I know there have to be more of you out there besides the six of us – Neopians with their own minds and hearts! Neopians who wonder whether Sloth is in his right mind at all, and whether these commanders know as much as they claim to! These... these scum tell you that there’s something wrong with you because of that. But that’s not true – there’s something right with you!
“There is an island on the surface that we runaways have taken as our home. There’s room for however many of you wish to come and join us. Just turn from Sloth, and aid us instead of him! There’s a place for you... a place for all of us. And it’s not the Space Station or Sloth’s dream of a Neopian Empire! It’s Neopia as it is today!”
Pinkerton ran up behind her as Carmen stepped back. He looked up at the two powerful allies of Sloth with the same derision one normally saved for Neopians with less intelligence than the average Petpetpet. He said, “So, come and get us if you want us – slimeballs.”
The commanders on each side retreated back into their ranks. Roxton whispered to Carmen, “Great job!”
Then Commander Garoo called, “So, do you accept our terms?”
Mayor Flickern called, “We don’t just not accept – we’ll throw ‘em in the magma! Moltara will fight you until every last warrior has been defeated!”
Around Carmen, the Moltaran army cheered. They knew how dismal the outcome was likely to be, but over the generations the people of this city had had stubbornness bred into them just as surely as resistance to the heat and the darkness of the depths of the earth.
And as the robots strode forward and the battle cries began, Carmen took to the air. I’m marked for sure... after what I said, Gormos and Garoo won’t want me to survive.
But she refused to regret a single word as the final desperate conflict engulfed them.
To be continued...