Worth Fighting For: Part One
Many thanks goes to breakingchains for her very helpful critique and feedback. Without her, this story wouldn't be what it is.
Dark_breed_Hyren woke up to voices outside his door.
"Hey, Blynn, isn't tomorrow Grundo Independence Day?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah! It is! How about that!"
The diminutive blue Grundo rolled over in his bed to stare out the window of his room in his strange little family's Altadorian villa by the sea. Kreludor was almost full and high in the sky, casting its silver light across softly undulating hills and towering cypress trees. They'd moved here some years ago, from Mystery Island, Hyren remembered. His owner had been ecstatic over the discovery of Altador. Hyren had been more excited to live in a place where it didn't rain several times daily.
"What do you think Hyren wants to do tomorrow?" ArPharazonTheGolden inquired from out in the hall. "Perhaps we ought to throw him a surprise party!" The Faerie Draik's tone was hushed but eager—he obviously thought Hyren was asleep.
"Ooh! Awesome idea!" Blynn679 replied. The Disco Zafara, on the other hand, had a distinct lack of volume control.
No parties, Hyren thought in annoyance, grimacing and squeezing his pillow over his antennae. He wanted tomorrow to just be another routine day of catching the ship back to Mystery Island for training with the Techo Master. After all, someone had to fight in wars and it might as well be him. It was just a shame he'd outgrown the Swashbuckling Academy. That had been the only shred of significance his own species day ever held for him.
Blynn's voice gradually faded as she moved down the hall and began belting out a rather off-key rendition of The Ballad of Rosie the Grarrl. "Ohhh, when the Kau Slips are in blooooom, and the Peadackles crooooon..."
"Now would be the perfect opportunity to do some research on traditional Kreludan cuisine!" Pharazon decided, blithely ignoring her. "Not to mention the cultural origins of Royal Grundo attire... I wonder if the library is still open this late... Oh, this will be the greatest Grundo Independence Day Hyren's ever known!"
Hyren let out a dry chuckle, flopping onto his back and closing his eyes, the memories flooding his mind. Pharazon had no idea of the irony of that statement, because Hyren's day of independence had come much later.
"Fifty seconds to deployment," a tinny, robotic voice fizzed over the comm.
"Roger," Commander Hyren growled, clamping one large Mutant Grundo hand over his helmet. He checked the straps on his armour one last time, shifting heavily on one of the carrier ship's cold metal benches. The diagnostic heads-up display on his helmet's visor confirmed that everything checked out.
Sloth was returning to Neopia, and this time, he and his army would not fail.
It was an honor for the commander to have been chosen to lead the space contingent of his overlord's elite invasion troops into battle at Sakhmet, especially considering Hyren's species. Gormos was jealous, of course, and Garoo was not much happier even though he had the prestige of being the first to the planet with Sloth's ground forces.
But Hyren had taken over a thousand worlds under Sloth's banner since that fateful day on Doran when the Grundo had willingly pledged himself to the doctor's quest for dominion. Could Hyren really be faulted for happening to have a good deal more vision and ambition than his meteorite-licking, troglodyte brothers and sisters?
Sloth had mutated him anyway, but allowed him to keep his mind. "You are going to be very useful to me," the green-skinned supergenius had said as Hyren inspected his new form, so much larger and stronger than what he was used to. "I will give you all the power you could ever desire, Hyren," the doctor continued. "In return, all I ask is that you never renounce your loyalty to me.The day you do will be the day you draw your last breath."
He was made perfect for conquest, Hyren thought as he flexed his meaty fingers in front of him in the belly of the carrier. He didn't miss his weak blue body a bit.
"Thirty seconds." The constant dull roar of the engines that pervaded the entire ship was joined by the thrumming whine of shields protecting the massive craft from the heat of atmospheric entry. The turbulence of hitting air after cruising through the vacuum of space made the craft rattle, and Hyren reached up and grabbed one of the support straps hanging from the ceiling. A few more moments and it would be over. He'd gone through this routine countless times before.
"Twenty seconds." The shaking lessened and the ship veered, sending Hyren leaning against the shoulder of the trooper next to him. The other mutant did not react in the slightest.
Hyren glanced up at the row of expressionless Grundo faces in front of him. It was a little strange to realise that none of them remembered their home world like he did, and had only enough cognitive ability remaining to know how to aim a blaster and follow orders. Perhaps he'd known some of them back on Doran. But they'd never understood him, anyway. And now they never would.
"Ten seconds. Prepare for deployment." At the end of the bay, next to where Hyren sat, a large door swung open. Bright daylight and hot, dry, sandy air peeled into the pristinely regulated atmosphere of the ship. Hyren squinted against the light, glad that his visor at least provided protection from the sand.
He stood up, motioning for his troops to do the same. Gripping a handhold on the inside hull, the commander planted his two-toed feet on the floor and watched as the ships circled and dove toward a walled city of alabaster turrets and gleaming golden domes. The battle going on below had been instigated by the ground division a few days previous, leaving the city already smoking. Undoubtedly, the beleaguered inhabitants would point up at the black fleet, wondering what it was, not comprehending that it would be their doom.
The city wall provided an ineffectual defence against an attack from the sky, and the carriers swooped low over the ancient stone. The commander counted the remaining seconds in his head, then— "All troops... move out!" Hyren roared, leaping from the bay. His weight impacted the parched ground, kicking up clouds of dust.
Screams of chaos and the unsteady rhythm of blaster fire filled his antennae as he signaled for two of his squadron to flank him. He headed them toward the largest building in the city, intent on taking out anyone stupid enough to get in their way. If they could seize the palace, the rest of this backwards land would follow, and the planet soon after. And Hyren didn't want the honor of this conquest to go to Garoo.
An Usul with a red neck ruff jumped in front of him with a yell, brandishing a sword. "You won't take Sakhmet!" she squeaked fiercely.
Hyren quirked a heavy brow in amusement. "Just try and stop us." She screeched and pounced at his face, and he easily knocked her aside with one muscular arm. "Spread out into the streets!" he barked into his helmet. "Raid every building, capture them all!" Taking the palace was important, but Sloth would be doubly pleased if Hyren made sure to collect a deluge of new test subjects for him.
Turning into a narrow alleyway, the commander kicked down a flimsy wooden door, smashing aside a hasty barricade of crates. Behind it stood a green Techo, bow drawn. Next to the Techo was a Scorchio, purple with orange spots, hefting a battle hammer.
"Leave us alone!" the Scorchio cried, flapping her wings and swinging the hammer around to swipe at Hyren's legs. He dove forward, tackling her to the ground.
The Techo unleashed a hail of arrows, but Hyren threw up his arm and they pinged helplessly off of his gauntlet. He picked up the Scorchio and shoved her toward the other Neopet. The Techo tried to catch her, but they both were sent tumbling.
Hyren felt an obnoxious clang on the back of his helmet and it took him a moment to register he'd just been struck. Spinning around, he lunged for his attacker, pinning her to the wall and wrenching the wooden pole out of her hand.
This being was not a Neopet. She was taller than most pet species, mammalian with smooth bronze skin and long black hair. She looked at him in terror. "Sloth... Sloth came back...!"
The commander tilted his head and narrowed his large red eyes. Sloth had a special hate reserved for owners. They had foiled his plans the first time around and freed nearly all of his Grundo army, and had fallen under the auspices of his greatest nemesis, the Space Faerie.
"Let her go!" the Scorchio yelled, and Hyren was suddenly tackled from behind by the two Neopets. They dragged him to the ground, allowing the girl to break free.
He grappled with them for a few seconds before letting out a roar and rolling over, pinning them beneath his hands and tearing their weapons away. Curling his fingers around the pets, he picked them up so they could see the girl being slung over a Grundo soldier's back, kicking and screaming and reaching for her pets.
Hyren handed them over to the other trooper. "Take them back to the ship with the others. I'll check upstairs for anything that thinks it can hide from me." If there were any more pets or owners hiding out in here, Hyren would get quite a bounty from Sloth in return. Experiments performed with a vendetta on the subject always had vastly more interesting results.
The sounds of battle outside intensified as the commander climbed to the second floor alone. The air shook with regular explosions and occasionally the entire building would rock, sand and debris blowing in through the open windows.
Ripping a curtain off of its rings, Hyren stalked through the entryway at the top of the stairs and into a simple living area. Antennae low, he scanned the room with his bio-sensors. No signs of life, but perhaps that pathetic little family had been hiding treasure. He knelt down on the floor and moved to check under the bed.
"We're pulling out, Hyren," Garoo's voice snapped through the comm.
Hyren paused. "Wait—what?!"
"They have reinforcements coming in from the north, we're vastly outnumbered!"
"Garoo! Ugh..." Hyren scooted out from under the bed and bumped his helmet on the underside, hissing in annoyance. "Fine, I'll redirect the troops—"
A deafening boom sounded. The entire building shuddered and rippled, swaying like it was made of jelly. Dust sifted from the ceiling as Hyren staggered to stand, and he looked up and saw a swarm of black ships retreating into the sky.
"You misunderstand me, Hyren," Garoo cut in again, his voice suddenly taking on a sinister edge. "We're leaving right now."
Hyren glanced at the corner of his HUD and saw that Garoo was using a private channel.
The Blumaroo snickered. "Nice knowing you, commander."
The roof cracked and buckled, and the last thing Hyren remembered was pain.
As he came back into consciousness, Hyren's head rang as though he was trapped in a world of cacophony. He lay there for a moment, astonished that he was alive and in too much pain and disorientation to do much else.
After a few moments, the clamor began to resolve into voices.
"How many did they take, Lutre?"
"Initial reports are saying a hundred... possibly a hundred fifty. And they left many more wounded."
Hyren realised that he was trapped under something heavy and angular—the ruins of the ceiling, obviously. Thank the fates his armour had held. Opening his eyes tentatively, all was dark and cold, and the air smelled of dust, sweat, and fire. His HUD was blank and not even the hiss of static came from the comm channel. The electronics were likely scrambled.
"Yikes. Any way to track them?"
"Not that the authorities know of, according to Coltzan. The strike force vanished into deep space, past the Space Station's tracking abilities."
"Those poor pets and owners... Do you think the Space Faerie will do something about it?"
"I sure hope so, Ashiep. She's helped in the past, anyway."
The voices were coming closer, and Hyren heard the grinding sound of shifting brick and the clatter of wood and pottery. In spite of the pain, he struggled to move, but the rubble had him hemmed in on all sides.
"What's—did you hear something?"
"Yeah, over there..."
Chunks of the debris on top of him were suddenly slid aside, allowing flickering firelight to reach his vision. A low growl emitted from his throat, ashamed at being found like a child who was a poor sport at hide-and-seek.
"Good gracious!" A green Quiggle holding a torch stood over him, using one webbed hand to try to clear more of the collapsed ceiling. "There's someone under here, Ashiep! Hurry!"
A burly red Kau appeared in Hyren's field of view, helping the Quiggle clear away pieces of brick. "Are they—" The two stopped cold suddenly, their eyes growing wide as they stared down at their unusual discovery.
Hyren seized that opportunity. Ignoring his wounds and his aching head for the time being, he burst out of the remaining rubble. His two "rescuers" stumbled back with shouts of surprise. And then he was off running. His scientifically-enhanced stamina would carry him through the burst of adrenaline until he could find a more opportune time to be out of commission.
"It's one of Sloth's troops! Get him!" the Kau bellowed. Out of the corners of his vision, Hyren saw other Neopets begin to converge on him. Some of them had weapons, some of them had shovels and other tools they were wielding as weapons, and none of them looked happy to see him.
The commander was proud, but he also wasn't stupid, and he knew when he was outmatched. Dodging the swing of an Aisha's scimitar, he used the momentum to vault himself onto a Skeith's broad back and spring from there onto a low veranda. The footing was poor, his bare feet scraping away stucco as he scrambled to pull himself onto a balcony.
"Blasted city," he muttered, swinging his leg over the ledge and dropping onto the terrace. The wall wasn't much farther away now.
Neither was a trio of yellow Eyries carrying spears. Letting out cries that pierced through the air, they swooped down on him. Hyren lifted a large urn by the doorway beside him, using it as a shield to deflect the foremost Eyrie's attack and push her off course. She screeched in annoyance as she was sent tumbling through the air. Her two wingpets arched around for another pass.
That was all the time Hyren needed to push off the edge of the balcony and lunge for the building next door, pulling himself onto the roof. He took off at a sprint, bounding from rooftop to rooftop towards the city wall. In the moonlight, he could adequately see the path ahead and judge how much energy he could expend, when to jump and where. His body screamed for rest, but to shift to a lower gear now would mean the end.
The Eyries shrieked again as they closed in. Hyren reached down to pull his blaster from its holster – it was still there – and check the power levels—it still worked. There wasn't much in this galaxy he trusted besides his own good equipment, and it sure knew how to come through for him.
Twisting around, he aimed a few shots at the Eyries, clumsy but hopefully enough to get them to back off. Hyren had never been the best sharpshooter - he preferred close combat where he could take advantage of his brute strength - but one of the blaster bolts connected and an Eyrie crumpled to the previous rooftop, stunned.
And suddenly Hyren was at the wall. Promising his aching body it could rest soon, the commander set his sights on a damaged portion of the thick rampart and leaped. For one breathless moment he felt frozen in the air, glancing down at the dumbfounded mob of pets in the tiny alley below.
Then he landed, slipping on the crumbling stone and plummeting toward the sand. He tucked himself into a roll, clenching his teeth as his bruised shoulder absorbed the shock of the fall, then sprang up and took off running. It hadn't exactly been graceful, but it had gotten him where he needed to be: outside Sakhmet.
"Quick, let's go after him!" he could hear one of the Eyries say to her superior as Hyren escaped into the night.
"No need," the other female replied. "He won't last long out there. And Sloth is light-years away. This guy is on his own."
Her last words bit into Hyren's mind as he crested a sand dune and slid down the other side, falling to his knees at the base, his chest heaving. On his own. He was alone. Alone on a hostile planet he was supposed to have helped conquer.
That thought reached its natural conclusion as he craned his neck to look at the vast night sky, full of other worlds he had subjugated. Somewhere, out there, was a spacefleet that had somehow forgotten one of its most elite officers. Did they even bother looking for him before they retreated? Garoo wouldn't have, Hyren thought bitterly, clenching a handful of sand in his fist and squeezing the gritty grains to distract himself from his rage.
With an angry shout, he threw the sand down and sat back on the dune, rubbing his thick arms to try to keep himself warm. After all he had done for Sloth, the man didn't even feel it necessary to retrieve him. Hyren had built up a reputation of power and glory only to be discarded like a broken toy. With these and other confused thoughts circling in his mind, the commander's fatigue finally took over and he closed his eyes, lulled to sleep by the singing of the night wind across the desert.
To be continued...