Beautiful dunes rising high into the sky: golden and calm under the light of the glorious sun. Such was their description until the arrival of the swarm.
It was blazing hot even under the shade of the palm tree at Shya Oasis, and Ashaze was resting in a mud-brick compound beside the lake. In the Lost Desert, these untimely conditions were not unknown to the residents, and the blue Wocky was quite sure that she had seen even warmer temperatures than now. "Hah! It works!"
She turned around to look at her younger brother, Bel, who was watching an egg that was frying on a flat stone. He was trying to prove that it was possible to cook an egg in this heat, and apparently he was successful. "Would you like a piece?" asked the yellow Wocky, extending a fork that was precariously loaded with egg.
Ashaze shook her head and grinned grimly, eyeing the little pieces of grit that were embedded in the omelet. No, today she would not spend the evening picking stones out of her teeth from her little brother's skillful cooking.
"You know," Bel was saying, "I really don't know what to do. The Oasis doesn't have too many jobs." The yellow Wocky grumbled and after taking a bite of omelet he proceeded to take up a stone and fling it perfectly at a formation on the other side of a garden patch.
His sister watched, and smiled. "You'll find out what to do, you just need time." She always said this, but Bel never really seemed to understand.
In the meanwhile, a new visitor to the oasis, a rather regal looking Kyrii who was angrily pushing aside some bugs that were pestering him. An Elephante was beside him, waving back and forth a Lenny-feather parasol to keep away some of the blistering heat. "I say now, Alfred, this has got to be the WORST place to live in Neopia. Even Terror Mountain was a paradise." He spat the word out as if it were a bug... perhaps it was.
Alfred nodded to his master's wishes and rolled his eyes as the Kyrii turned aside. Lord Alstaff was an emissary from Brightvale who was to be going to Sakhmet the next morning. The Shya Oasis was half way between the ports and the city, so it was a natural pit stop.
However, he was quite an annoying and nosy visitor, constantly butting into other people's business and demanding for Alfred to write down notes almost every five minutes.
The blue Wocky reclined in her chair and sipped some qeela juice, watching as some clouds began to cover the sun and cause a refreshing coolness to fall upon the wind. "Now what in the world is that, Alfred?" demanded Lord Alstaff as usual.
"A cloud, sir."
"You blind half-wit! Not that! THAT!"
The Kyrii pointed a gloved finger towards the sun, where a large, strangely dark cloud was approaching. A muted buzzing filled the air, and with a suddenness rivaling thunder, a horde of insects unlike any other fell down upon the unprotected Oasis.
Screams came from all sides as pets ran for safety. Ashaze watched with horror as a huge one began to spit a glob of fire towards her, and was barely saved by Bel, who pushed her away just in time. A whirlwind of wings and fire appeared out of nowhere. Ashaze scrambled to her feet and dove with her little brother into the mud-brick house, watching from a window and cowering as the insects finally relented their attack and flew off to wherever they came from, leaving a scorched Oasis in their wake.
When the last insect departed, all the shocked residents came out of their homes, staring at the burnt trees, devoured foliage, and darkened sands. Only the lake remained as placid as ever, glistening as if nothing happened.
"How rude!" screamed the arrogant voice of Lord Alstaff.
He was totally unfazed, while others suffered bites, bruises, and burns. Alfred, his ever-loyal companion, had a scorched foot, but was limping with pride. Ashaze marveled at his tenacity.
"I will report this to the princess immediately! Alfred, we leave at once."
For a second, it seemed as if the Elephante was going to refuse, using the parasol stick as a crutch. But then, he nodded his red head and sighed. "Yes, my lord."
The blue Wocky stared once again at the destroyed village. What would their family do now?
A pair of fleet paws leaped up to the doorstep of a new, white-painted house that was attached to the walls of Sakhmet. Bel jumped with glee as he waited for his sister to open the door. Surely she would adore his new job?
A couple weeks ago, he and his sister decided to leave the Shya Oasis to go to Sakhmet. It was a risky decision, but Ashaze quickly got a job as a stall manager and was on her break back home.
Bel watched, a grin ever forming upon his wide face, as his sister opened the door. Just then, he blasted at her, throwing his conscription notice in her face. "Isn't this great? I am the sharpshooter at Protection Zone 6b! The conscription Ruki adored my skills, and enlisted me to join the Sakhmetian Force!"
Multiple expressions formed upon his sister's features: surprise, confusion, and then anger. "You did WHAT?"
The yellow Wocky's smile faltered. "I joined the Force. It is up to us to defeat those insects that destroyed our home." Surely she was to be happy at his success?
But she was hardly happy! In an instant, she demanded to know why he signed up without her permission, but Bel calmly (which was quite unlike himself) relayed answers until his sister could simply not ask or even answer his shrewdly driven replies.
"I leave tomorrow," he said at last. "You know, to practice tank-driving before actually going to Shya. Apparently the insects have struck around the area, the sergeant thinks that Shya could be their nest, and it is pretty close to Protection Zone 6b."
Eyes wide but blank, Ashaze nodded and let her younger sibling in. Together, they ate a good meal of grackle-stuffed turkey and qeela juice, which was her favorite, and the next morning, Bel packed and began to go to the conscription tent pitched just outside the golden walls of Sakhmet. He never saw Sakhmet before they moved, but Bel was astounded with the size of the city, marveling at how he hadn't seen it until now.
Sergeant Braxis was a huge fire Tonu with blazing eyes and muscles that could help him lift five Elephantes without difficulty. The instant he arrived at the tent that rested in the shadow of the city walls, a tent that was gold and blue in color, he was apprehended by Braxis.
"You're late, pup!"
"Sorry sir, just trying to get ready for training, sir!"
The Tonu grunted, smoke pouring from his flared nostrils. He was about to berate Bel, but then a Mynci appeared at his side, distracting the sergeant, who began to rant orders at the scribe. Bel sighed with relief and slipped away.
Finding a coveted spot in the shade of the walls, Bel crouched and opened his backpack. Inside was all extra clothing he packed for the sake of his sister, which he proceeded to throw into a nearly abandoned cubicle room before running out towards the training field, where Braxis was marching and roaring instructions to fresh recruits like himself.
"All right, pups!" barked Braxis, pacing before the assembled soldiers who were to go to Zone 6b and defend it against the insectoid horde.
"Today, you train. If you do well, you get to blast those bugs right out of the sky." He grinned. It seemed the wind that whipped through his mane made him even more ferocious-looking.
Nearby, a Blumaroo coughed. He wore the desert garb – a huge black mask that covered his features. But even with the odd getup he proved his skill the day before in directing tanks. Rhamun was his name.
On the other side was a lazy looking green Bruce with drooping eyes. Bel had no idea why he was chosen for the job... he did horribly at the fitness test. Perhaps the conversation Braxis had with the Mynci about 'fodder' had something to do with his presence.
The other fellow, who was last in line but was already Bel's good friend, was a green Eyrie who was named Khemen. He had a laid-back nature, a surprisingly good sense of humor and he was also good at managing wall formations. Bel liked him because he was the only one who laughed at his jokes.
"Bel! Get into that tank!" bellowed Braxis, pointing to a huge, polished granite tank that seemed so new that the Wocky could see his reflection in it.
The gigantic cannon was poised; the wheels were hardly rough... it was state of the art! Bel almost felt too awkward about touching it with his probably dirty paw.
At last, maybe because the sergeant was glaring at him, the Wocky jumped into the cool interior, noticing a few buttons and a steering wheel as well as a crosshair just above them for locking on a target. Suddenly, through the window of the crosshair appeared three targets about thirty feet away from his position, each crudely drawn to resemble an insect.
The yellow Wocky knew very well that these hardly looked like the insects that attacked Shya not that long ago: the artist probably was either terrible or decided to over exaggerate the features.
"Hit 'em!" the Tonu shrieked, and in response, Bel aimed with deadly earnest and fired.
One by one, each target splintered, and each hit filled the Wocky with pride.
"Very good, pup! Now try moving targets."
Moving targets, distant targets, each one Bel managed to hit with relatively good aim. When he was younger, he loved to hit stone formations with a crudely made sling. Over time, he developed a good idea of accuracy, and hits became more and more on the mark each time.
When the test was finished, he only missed two 'bugs.' Pushing up the hatch of the tank, which took quite a bit of strength since it was made of stone, he finally let light filter into the dusky blackness of the cockpit, at the same time blinding him temporarily.
Whoops and cheers met his ears and he twitched them in response at the cheering crowd. Apparently the blasts from the tank had attracted quite a crowd and he noticed, with some bitterness, that his sister was not amongst them.
Khemen was grinning from ear to ear, and Rhamun, who generally didn't respond to anything that involved clapping or cheering, actually joined into the applause. General Braxis tried to keep a straight, stern face, but it broke and was replaced with a prideful smile.
"Great work, Bel. I bet that you warfs aren't even half as good as Bel here, so you can forget being the sharpshooters!"
The assembled soldiers were unfazed and continued applauding. The yellow Wocky stood up straighter and grinned at the adoring crowd. Yes, he would like this job.
He hated this job.
The conditions were cramped, and with multiple soldiers in the cockpit trying to move the tank using some technology that Braxis managed to get a hold of from the Virtupet grundos, the originally spacious dome was now so crowded that someone with claustrophobia would have fainted.
The entire squadron was moved to the 6b zone, where the hot desert sands were making the cockpit a literal oven. At last, more than half of the pets couldn't take it and left, leaving three, including Bel, to manage the tank. Actually, that was a good thing: only Rhamun and a Grundo named Org had enough skill to work with the technology and pilot the stone edifice.
They had finally arrived at the Oasis, which still had not regenerated from the last attack by the insectoids. Bel spat angrily when he saw the scorched trees in the distance. Thank goodness the walled fortifications were just a few distances away from the ruined village – he didn't like to think about the past.
The walls finally appeared, and he spotted Khemen working on fixing a particular wall that seemed to have a structural malformation.
The grin on his face quickly fled when he heard screams and all the soldiers fled. In the distance was a cloud: a cloud of insects! Bel spared no time and quickly readied himself, feeling a hint of dread. This was the moment he was waiting for, yes, he would have his revenge!
Revenge for his sister, who still sorely missed the oasis, revenge for his friends, who were also forced to leave and he never saw them again (They left for Qasala), and even revenge for Lord Alstaff, who prodded Princess Amira to take action. Really, it was revenge for the entire Oasis.
Bel twitched his tail and watched the cloud come ever closer. The tank jerked into movement, appearing between two fortifications. In an instant, Bel unleashed a torrent of missiles at the swarm.
A volley quickly decimated the first wave, sending strange bulbs at the tank. The yellow Wocky screamed with surprise as one hit the tank and shrunk it dramatically, cramping the threesome into the stone cockpit. A fireball quickly surged beside the place that the tank was earlier, before its miniaturization, and Bel realized that the bulb that hit the tank was probably more useful than he last suspected.
Another bulb resized the tank, and Bel continued to fire at the raging storm of flame and creature, destroying wave after wave. It was almost exhilarating, but then, just as the tank was to move behind a fortification, it crumbled and a fireball almost hit the tank!
Bel clutched his chest with fear and shock as a torrent of fire appeared before him, sent forth by a huge green insectoid that chattered loudly. One missile broke through the firestorm and hit the creature, sending a glowing bauble straight towards the tank.
Uncertain of this thing's properties, Bel swerved and ordered Org to dodge it, but they were too late, and the bulb slammed into them. Seconds later, the earth shook mightily and yawned before the stunned soldiers. Bel watched as huge fortifications rose to replace the destroyed ones, shaking and screaming and groaning, until at last the earth closed to reveal freshly built walls.
Bel smiled grimly and watched as Rhamun piloted the stone tank behind one of the stones just as the firestorm hit, sending rocks around the tank but leaving it relatively unharmed.
Within seconds, the tank reappeared and started volleying missiles towards the oncoming horde, sending the next wave a bit farther back by the sudden attack.
Again did another bauble appear, glimmering enticingly with an electric blue streak. Org directed the tank to grab it, and as it landed upon the cannon, the stone tube began to change dramatically until it was rectangular and even bigger. Org looked up to see the change and grinned. "Oi, 's a laser cannon!"
The yellow Wocky slammed his eye to the crosshair until he caught sight of a cluster of monsters, and then proceeded to press a stone button on the console. In a flash of blinding light, a singing streak of blue rushed upon the insectoids, scattering and leaving nothing in its wake.
Almost instantly after the use, the cannon reformed back to its original shape, leaving Bel slightly disappointed as he charged on after the next wave.
After a few more hits, the biggest wave so far appeared, and Bel realized that this was the last one. He began to shoot swiftly, doing better than before, and watching with satisfaction as the swarm began to dissipate. Again the fortifications disappeared under the barrage of flame, but they served their purpose. Bel kept shooting even though Rhamun grumbled at him to stop – the battle was finished. They had won!
As the three commanders of the battered tank exited the thing, they were met with happy cheers and a happy Sergeant Braxis, who was grinning broadly and proceeded to crush the threesome with a bone-breaking hug. "Well done, champs! You make spitting cobralls look like they have no aim!"
With a hearty laugh, the team set up camp not that far away from the Zone, cheering and being merry well into the night. All three friends were offered choice foods and they even received a toast for their efforts. Indeed, while most of the squadron was fighting around the same time, the trio soon learned that the majority of insects swarmed around their station, and as such they received the highest praise and admiration for their stalwart defense.
It was nearing midnight when Khemen was able to come near Bel, who immediately beamed and embraced his friend. "Khemen! Did you see the walls? They were fantastic! I can't believe you made them stand for half the battle, those insects looked like they could break them instantly leaving us for horus food!"
The Eyrie grinned in response. "Naw, it was nothing. But anyway, great job back there, you were amazing!"
The merriment continued through the night. It wasn't long before Bel, overcome with the fatigue fell asleep right on the soft, dark sand.
The sun beamed down upon Bel's face, once again blinding him momentarily. The gray edges of his vision faded and with a few blinks, all he could see was blue sky and hardly any clouds. It was warm, and the ground beneath him was so bumpy that he jerked every now and then.
Suddenly, he turned his head, and noticed a Ruki and Khemen carrying him, and as a result he flipped over with a scream of surprise, landing face first into the scorching sand.
Everyone laughed, and with a groan, Bel noticed that the entire squadron was traveling back to Sakhmet to celebrate a glorious victory. It was noon and he felt like he slept in a meandering caravan all night. "We tried to wake you up," announced the Eyrie, rubbing a sore paw with a grin, "but you slept so soundly we decided to carry you all the way to Sakhmet, see how long it took for you to freak out. Org, you owe me some neopoints!"
Bel snorted with sardonic laughter as the last vestiges of weariness fled his body and he stood up with some help by Khemen's strong paw. "I can walk by myself, you know!" A few faltering steps later and he was stumbling beside his friend.
By late afternoon, the squadron arrived at Sakhmet to a cheering populace. Bel waved with a weak grin at the happy crowd, overwhelmed. Just then, Khemen leaned over and whispered in his twitching ear.
"Don't worry, I won't tell anyone about how you got here," he said in a mischievous voice.
Both pets burst into peals of laughter that was drowned out by the roar of the jubilant crowd. "Hey, isn't that your sister?" asked the green Eyrie with a flick of his wings, and Bel felt his head jerk as he turned to see his sister partly hidden in the crowd, watching him.
In an instant, he stepped away from the returning soldiers and rushed up to his sister. "We defeated them! All of them!" He laughed before her as Ashaze grinned along with him.
"I always knew that you would find out what you wanted to do," she said, hugging him. "You just needed time."
He returned the gesture and started moving back to the procession. "I'll see you back home, okay?"
Ashaze shook her head. "Why? I want to see your promotion!" Bel laughed happily and rushed towards a podium that was set up in the middle of Sakhmet, golden and beautiful, just like the sands that surrounded it.
On top of the podium stood five pets: Sergeant Braxis, Org, Rhamun, Princess Amira bedecked in her jewels, and her shoyru assistant who bore in his claws a small velvet pillow that was filled with three medals, each shining brightly before them.
After saying a quick speech, Amira stepped forward and with her slender hands proceeded to pin a medal upon a sash that was given to the threesome just for this moment. Bel admired his, noting its linen texture and soft blue color that contrasted his own quite nicely.
As soon as he was given his – a beautiful gleaming circle of gold like the sun – they all turned around and grinned as the citizens of Sakhmet (and some even from Qasala) voicing their appreciation for their success. Sergeant Braxis was awarded a medal too, but Bel ignored that and simply continued waving... until, of course, someone spoke up in a loud voice that quickly got everyone's attention.
A tall blue Ixi was holding a piece of parchment in one hand and a pen in the other, and she was the owner of the voice. "Sirs, Protection Zone 6c has called out for immediate back-up, a swarm of insectoids appeared there!"
Amira and Braxis exchanged surprised glances, as did Bel and the rest of his crew. "We were hoping to enlist the assistance of this seasoned squadron of yours, Braxis. Can you help?"
The Tonu rose to his full, imposing height and nodded. "Of course, right, boys?"
"Right!" said Org.
"Right!" said Rhamun.
Bel didn't say anything. He fainted.