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The Alliance’s call to retreat rang out beneath the approaching shadow. All land and air forces, except the Freelands bees, pulled back to the Hive tree, beating away the closest attackers to defend and hold the royal residence to their deaths if necessary.
Ripping away from its parent darkness and speeding toward them, a smaller shadow became Sam and Clifton leading their company in a desperate race to reach Central Fen ahead of the growing darkness. Sweeping past the swarm still tormenting the enemy vulture, Sam yelled, “Retreat! Run! Get back to the Hive!”
“Captain,” Clifton called, “those are Freelands bees—”
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Scant hours before dawn, as the storm passed, the Freelands bees gathered in the Hiverarchy’s Assembly Chamber. Arturo, the Freelands wasp who served the Alliance, had returned to speak with Queen Madalena. Rumors claimed she would send them to fight with the Alliance, but they had no heart to die for someone else’s hive.
The Queen emerged from the Inner Chamber with Arturo at her side. “Our neighbors — our kin — in Fen request our help in the war they fight against The Arids tyrant. I believe this is not our war, but the Alliance Ambassador argues that our freedom depends on its outcome. I refuse to order anyone to fight for a cause they do not believe in, but I cannot deny the family bond many of us have with Queen Lilian’s people. I invite any who wish to speak for or against this request to speak now.”
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In those few moments, things changed. The sun broke through, and the birds Barry and Trevor sought had moved on. The Knights stopped short when a golden glop fell out of the sky and splopped on Trevor’s foot. They looked up. A shredded strip of honeycomb dangled from a jagged gouge in the Hive.
Birds of prey had moved in.
The leader, a vulture with a sweet tooth and a sour disposition, clung to the Hive as it swayed beneath his bulk, his scythe-like beak carving a chunk that dripped honey and larvae as he carried it to a nearby stump to ravage it unmolested.
“Crap,” Barry whispered into Trevor’s ear. “We’re gonna need a better plan.”
“Listen!” Trevor hissed, cocking his head toward an approaching hum and squinting his eyes into the glaring sun. As the drone grew louder, an undulating cloud of gold and brown, and a devouring shadow flowing ahead of it, spread across the sky to block the sun for an ominous moment before splitting apart to release a shaft of blinding light that seemed to freeze time. Blinking, Trevor snatched Barry in a jubilant hug as one half swarmed to the Hive and the other attacked the offending destroyer.
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“Run!” Trevor yelled. Eyes sparkling, he grabbed Barry by one wrist and dragged him into a tangle of undergrowth, turning to thrust his fang into the twitchy eye of the first bird to ram into the brush behind them. More Flyers crunched into the Knights’ refuge, jamming those in front of them further into the twiggy scratchiness, where they screeched and clawed to extricate themselves. The frogs hacked a path to the other side, escaping in a cloud of laughter, every muscle thrumming with life.
They emerged at the base of the Hive tree, out of sight of their pursuers. Breathing fast and hard, Trevor danced from foot to foot, until his joy couldn’t stand it any longer, and exploded in a whoop of glory.
Grinning, Barry shook his head. “Youse’re gonna bring ’em down on us.”
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Dawn’s tender light bled across a sky of beating wings streaking, diving, charging crimson, brown, and gray toward the Hive, glinting off the snapping, stabbing beaks, battling members of both Aero Squadrons and the Hive Elite, ripping at the Queen’s home, skewering the drones who shielded its narrow entrance and swarmed to fight them off.
Trevor vanished into the melee yelling something Barry couldn’t make out beneath the buzzing-squawking din tumbling overhead that muffled but didn’t mask the tearing, shredding rasps that screamed the inexorable destruction of Fen’s soul.
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At the Hive, Captain Avery’s screeching alarm yanked Vernon from his troubled dreams of nameless shadows creeping in from all sides, and threw him into a harsh reality of impending doom and death. How Lilian had remained asleep he couldn’t fathom, but leaving her to enjoy a few more moments of peace, he flew outside to find out what the hell was happening.
The Captain of the Dark of Night Aero Squadron flapped through the dwindling spatter, stark against the lumpy sky, lit in a final blast of lightning. Spying the Queen’s Liaison, he landed on a branch above the Hive.
“Sir,” his breath burst hot on Vernon’s face, “a patrol of grounded Flyers has discovered five slain Guards right here in Central Fen.”
“The General’s henchmen?”
“It looks that way, Sir. They’re too far apart and too recently dead to believe there was only one killer.”
Vernon closed his eyes. “And Cyrus? The Guard outside the Bower?”
“I’m not certain. If he’s one of the victims, he’s been dragged away and hidden. But we found another body — an enemy’s — close to the Bower.”