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A crash of lightning followed the shape into the bower. Miranda lay senseless beneath the invading mass of muscle and rage.
Colored spots before Elliot’s eyes throbbed in rhythm with his pounding head. He gritted his teeth against the agony in his side. Thinking only of shielding his daughter, he sank into cold, black emptiness. Cassandra’s voice called to him from far, far away.
“Elliot!” Her cry surged and expanded to a scream of desperate cramping lost in the thunder’s drumming.
The beast’s voice rumbled its own thunder. “Where is General’s Assassin?”
Arturo winced as he moved to stand between the Prince and the invader. Clark followed him.
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“But, Mother,” Andre implored, “what was I supposed to do? Samantha’s team wouldn’t leave her alone with us, and when she took us to the front, I watched her kill two wasps with a single move — like it was nothing.” He stared hard at her as if that would communicate the full horror of what he’d witnessed. “There’s no way I could have forced her to do anything.”
Covering her face, Queen Madalena tried not to begrudge her son the senseless deaths and injury his friends had suffered. She tried not to blame him for the head-strong willfulness of his sister, even as anger, disappointment, and remorse tried to tear her heart apart. Her silence lasted longer than she knew.
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Late afternoon scents of mint and lavender drifting from the cup Miranda held, resisted mixing with earthy undertones of rainy dirt and blood. The Bower’s mushrooms lit the raging storm’s false night, glinting green on tears Vernon wiped from his cheeks. Standing behind Arturo didn’t shield his heart from the sight of Cyrus sponging away the blood still flowing from the gash beneath the jagged breach in the Prince’s shell.
The Princess, unconscious at her husband’s side, stirred and moaned a growing growl. A glimmer touched the emptiness in Cassandra’s mind like a child’s hand warming a frozen rock. It grew into a vice grip forcing a web of cracks from its center, leaking her last waking memories into the once merciful oblivion: the Assassin falling at her foot… his bulging eye… his burbled dying breath… his legs scrabbling in the dirt… Arturo struggling to shove the spasming Stinger off him… throwing herself past them, trying to get to Elliot, falling instead into an abyss of nothingness that now squeezed her toward its surface, extruding her insides out.
The first contraction since her collapse flooded panic through her, straining her eyes open, heaving her lungs, and pushing her to her foot. Elliot! Where am I? The room began to spin.
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Although a mere drizzle fell when Ambassador Arturo arrived at the Alliance camp in the dark hour before dawn, thickening clouds and a brisk wind promised a brief dawn and another storm. He thought of the Wildlands Ants and resisted the atmosphere’s depressing heaviness.
Great commotion at the Medic station drew his attention, but the voice calling, “Arturo! What’re youse doin’ here?” turned him around.
“Barry!” His friend was covered with cuts. “What happened to you?”
“Nuttin’ wort’ worryin’ about. Youse should see da stitches dey’re puttin’ in Trev’s face. What brings youse here?”
“I’ve got some good news for the Alliance.”
“We could use some.” Barry looked back at the Medic tent, and spoke in hushed tones. “Da King’s in dere. De Assassin got ’im an’ dey aren’t sure he’s gonna make it.”
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“We’ve heard enough!” The single voice drowned in the assent that rumbled through the hastily convened Wildlands Congress of Ants.
“War breeds carrion,” another called. “It’s good for us no matter who wins!”
Commandant Marabunta banged her staff against a hollow log. “We are charged with more than disposal. The Alliance wants us to assist their side in combat. Ambassador Arturo can’t guarantee access to their enemy’s dead unless his Alliance wins. So I ask, who would march east to join with this new Alliance in battle against The Arids tyrant?”