Thursday, August 22, 2019

Worth Fighting For, Chapter 1

This story holds a special place in my heart because it was really the turning point in not just my Neopets writing, but my writing career as a whole. Finishing this story helped me realize that I could actually write substantial stories start-to-finish - that long-form fiction wasn't an impossibly daunting task - and it inspired me to keep working on my novels. 

It was also the Neopian Times story that truly served as the catalyst for nearly everything that came after. With it, I tapped into a world and a cast that I became so deeply interested in that I couldn't help but want to explore them further, and the whole thing kept building on itself like some kind of wonderful literary snowball.

Ever since I'd adopted Dark_breed_Hyren as a teenager, I'd wanted him to have some sort of cool mysterious past, probably involving combat training because he was my dedicated Battledome pet. But everything I tried to come up with was kinda lame. After I took a break from Neopets for a while and came back to it in college, I found myself tinkering with the idea again, and settled on something that I actually liked--and that gave Hyren a lot of great character development. (And Blynn and Terra too, I guess. And also the Werelupe King? But that has more to do with "Worth Searching For" so I'll talk about that later.)

Another side note to this story is that I wrote it while going through an extremely rough college semester fraught with health issues and prodigious amounts of unnecessary stress (I don't recommend attempting that, not worth it). Plotting this story out in my head, and writing it down when I had the time, gave me something to cling to when it felt like the rest of the world had gone insane. So I have to credit this story for doing that. (Although nowadays I've learned that it's much pleasanter and more efficient to just take better care of yourself in the first place.)

Please note that this story does not read the same as what got published in the Neopian Times. I edited it quite a bit to bring it more up to speed with my current writing skills, and made it less intense because nobody needs that, seriously.

Enjoy!

Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6 - Chapter 7


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. Kreludor was almost full and high in the sky, casting its silver light across softly undulating hills and towering cypress trees. His family had moved to Altador some years ago, from Mystery Island. His owner had been ecstatic over the rediscovery of a lost civilisation. Hyren was more excited to live in a place where it didn’t rain several times daily.

“What do you think Hyren wants to do tomorrow?” Hyren’s brother Pharazon asked from out in the hall. “Maybe we should throw him a surprise party!” The faerie Draik’s tone was hushed but eager—he obviously thought Hyren was asleep.

“Ooh! Awesome idea!” their sister Blynn said. The disco Zafara, on the other hand, had a distinct lack of volume control.

Hyren smiled. With Blynn and Pharazon in cahoots, a party for him would be quite interesting indeed.



Not that he really made a point to celebrate Grundo Independence Day. The whole idea seemed kind of self-centered, and Hyren was not one to seek the spotlight. At least not these days. But if his family wanted to make a fuss over him, he had learned it was futile to try to stop them, so he would go along with it for their sake.

Blynn’s voice faded as she moved down the hall and belted 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…”

Hyren winced. Blynn was not known for her singing skills. Not that she let that stop her.

“Now would be the perfect opportunity to do some research on traditional Kreludan cuisine!” Pharazon said as he followed her. “Not to mention the cultural origins of royal Grundo attire! I wonder if there’s anything about that in our library—oh, this will be the greatest Grundo Independence Day Hyren’s ever known!”

Hyren chuckled, flopping onto his back and closing his eyes. Memories flooded his mind. Pharazon had no idea of the irony of that statement, because Hyren’s day of independence had come somewhat later.

***

“Fifty seconds to deployment,” a tinny, robotic voice fizzed over the comm.

“Roger,” Commander Hyren said, clamping one large mutant Grundo hand over his helmet. He checked the straps on his armour one last time, shifting his position 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.

Dr. Sloth was returning to Neopia, and this time, he and his army would not fail.

It was an honor for Hyren 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. Commander Gormos was jealous, of course, and Commander 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 scientist’s quest for dominion, knowing Sloth could make more of him than anything on Hyren’s boring homeworld. If anyone deserved the glory of this day, it was Sloth’s most valuable and productive commanding officer.

Back at the beginning of Hyren’s military career, 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 said on that day long ago 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,” Sloth told him. “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.”

Hyren was made perfect for conquest. He flexed his meaty fingers in front of him. He didn’t miss his weak blue body a bit.

“Thirty seconds.”

The constant dull roar of the engines was joined by the thrumming whine of shields that protected the massive craft from the heat of atmospheric entry. The turbulence of hitting air after the cruise through the vacuum of space made the ship rattle, and Hyren reached up and grabbed one of the support straps that hung 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 aim a blaster and follow orders. Perhaps Hyren had known some of them back on planet 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 regulated atmosphere of the ship. Hyren squinted against the light for a moment before his visor automatically darkened to ease his seeing.

The commander stood up and sent the neural signal through his helmet for his troops to do the same. Gripping a handhold on the inside hull, Hyren planted his two-toed feet on the floor and watched as other ships circled and dove toward a walled city of alabaster spires and gleaming golden domes. The battle going on below had been instigated by the ground division a few days previous, leaving Sakhmet already smoking. Undoubtedly, the beleaguered inhabitants would point up at the black fleet and wonder 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 to land. 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 and kicked up clouds of dust.

Shouts of chaos and the unsteady rhythm of blaster fire filled Hyren’s antennae as he sent the order for two of his squadron to flank him and the rest to fall behind. He headed them toward the largest building in the city, and anyone who got in their way was quickly disarmed, stunned, and carried back to the dropships. 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.

“Spread out into the streets!” Hyren barked into his helmet. “Loot every building, take as many prisoners as possible!” The palace was important, but Sloth would be doubly pleased if Hyren made sure to collect a trove of valuable treasures and new test subjects for him.

And sure, Hyren could have just thought the order, but voicing it as well seemed to add more impact. He found he could never quite get used to thinking of other living beings as mere machines under his control, no matter how easy that was for Sloth. The other Grundos’ minds were still in there somewhere, after all.

“Hyren!” Garoo’s voice shouted into the Grundo’s helmet. “Took you long enough! You should get your warp drives checked!”

“The warp drives are fine!” Hyren replied, knowing Garoo was just fishing for an excuse to criticize him. “We got here right on schedule!” The Grundo and his troops pushed past another wave of defenders. The Neopets in this part of the city were better-trained, a mix of royal guards and warriors who likely had come from other areas of Neopia to help. Sakhmet was proving surprisingly resistant. But Hyren loved a good challenge.

“Are you going to the palace?” Garoo asked. “Don’t take the main road! It’s been blockaded and we can’t get past! Go through the side streets to the west!”

“Roger!” Hyren said. He could indeed see more fighting up ahead, so he turned down a narrow alleyway and some of his Grundos followed. On his HUD map he saw the rest of them swarming like insects, turning in a massive wave away from the wide main street to trickle down side lanes.

“I’ve just got word from Sloth!” Garoo said. “He says to capture as many test subjects as possible! He wants to make Neopia pay for what they did to his last plans! Search those apartments—looks like there’s plenty in there!”

Hyren found it a little odd that Sloth would have Garoo relay these orders to him instead of telling him directly – he and Garoo were equal in rank, after all – but in the heat of battle Hyren thought little of it. They all had to work together to make sure Sloth’s plans didn’t fail. The commander kicked down the nearest wooden door and smashed aside a hasty barricade of crates. Behind it stood a green Techo pointing an arrow at his face. Next to the Techo, a purple Scorchio hefted a battle hammer.

“Leave us alone!” the Scorchio said, flapping her wings and swinging the hammer around to swipe at Hyren’s legs. He dove and tackled her to the ground.

The Techo unleashed a hail of arrows, but Hyren threw up his arm and they pinged 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, 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 and said, “Sloth—Sloth came back!”

“That’s right, owner,” Hyren said, narrowing his eyes. Dr. Sloth had a special hate reserved for owners. They had foiled his plans the first time around and freed a large portion of his Grundo army, and had fallen under the auspices of his greatest nemesis, the Space Faerie.

Hyren was suddenly tackled from behind by the two Neopets. He grappled with them for a few seconds before he roared and rolled over, pinning them beneath one large hand and tearing their weapons away. The commander picked them up and handed them to one of his troopers while another grabbed the owner.

Hyren gave the other Grundos the order to take their prisoners back to the ship, and exused himself to continue searching the house. In reality, he found he didn’t want to see the looks on the Sakhmetians’ faces. Hyren was just glad he didn’t really have to deal with those they conquered outside of battle. It was easier not to think about it and just go on with his job.

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 rocked, 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 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.

“Wait—what?!” Hyren replied.

“They have reinforcements coming in from the north!” Garoo said. “We’re vastly outnumbered!”

“Garoo!” Hyren groaned. “I thought you said you had everything under control when I was on my way here!” He 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 said, 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. “What are you doing?!” the Grundo yelled.

“Seizing my opportunity,” Garoo said. “Thankfully for me, you don’t question orders. You’re still just as dumb as any other Grundo. Once you’re gone, who do you think Sloth will give your troops to?”

Hyren scowled. “You slimehead!” he said as he stumbled down the stairs, clinging to the wall of the swaying building. “Sloth’s going to be furious if you lose one of his other commanders!”

Garoo snickered. “For all Sloth knows,” he said, “I did everything I could to save you. Nice knowing you.”

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?” someone said.

“Initial reports are saying a hundred… possibly a hundred fifty,” said someone else. “And they left many more wounded.”

Hyren realised that he was trapped under something heavy and angular—the ruins of the ceiling. Thank the fates his armour had held. He opened his eyes. 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?” asked the first voice.

“Not that the authorities know of, according to Coltzan,” said the other. “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. She’s helped in the past, anyway.”

“Well, the legends do say she appears to valiant Neopets in their time of greatest need. Let’s just hope those legends are true.”

The voices came 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?” one of the voices asked.

“Yeah, over there!”

Chunks of the debris on top of Hyren 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!” said a green Quiggle holding a torch as she used her free webbed hand to try to clear more of the collapsed ceiling. “There’s someone under here! Hurry!”

A burly red Kau appeared in Hyren’s field of view, helping the Quiggle clear away pieces of brick. “Are they—“ he began to say. The two stopped cold, their eyes growing wide as they stared down at their unusual discovery.

Hyren seized that opportunity. Ignoring his wounds and his aching head, he burst out of the remaining rubble. His two “rescuers” stumbled back with shouts of surprise. And then Hyren ran. 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 said. 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, and his tough bare feet scraped away stucco as he pulled 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 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 and used it as a shield to deflect the foremost Eyrie’s attack and push her off course. She screeched in annoyance as she tumbled 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 to 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 for the sword that usually sat at his back—and felt nothing. It must have been left behind in the debris of the building. He groaned, but he couldn’t go back for it now. Instead he pulled his blaster from its holster – at least that was still there – and checked the power levels. It still worked.

Hyren twisted around and aimed a few shots at the Eyries, clumsy but hopefully enough to get them to back off. Hyren had never been the best marksman - 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 reached the wall. Promising his aching body it could rest soon, the commander spotted a damaged portion of the thick rampart and leaped. For one breathless moment he felt frozen in the air, glancing down at a dumbfounded mob of pets in the tiny alley below.

Then Hyren 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 again. It hadn’t exactly been graceful, but it had gotten him out of Sakhmet.

“Quick, let’s go after him!” one of the Eyries said to her superior as Hyren escaped into the night.

“No need,” their leader said. “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 as the pain returned in full force. On his own. He was alone. Alone on a hostile planet he was supposed to have helped conquer.

Hyren craned his neck to look at the vast night sky, full of other worlds he had subjugated for Sloth. Somewhere, out there, was a spacefleet that had left behind one of its most elite officers. Did they even bother looking for him before they retreated? Garoo would have dissuaded them, Hyren thought bitterly, clenching a handful of sand in his fist and squeezing the grains to distract himself from his rage. Garoo would be all too quick to announce his fellow commander’s demise—and then take Hyren’s troops and his share of Sloth’s favour.

With an angry shout, Hyren threw the sand down and sat back on the dune, rubbing his thick arms to try to keep himself warm. After all Hyren had done for Sloth, the man didn’t even feel it necessary to attempt to save him. Hyren had built up a reputation of power only to be discarded like a broken toy. With these 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.

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