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Beneath the churning web, agony’s wail rode the final unbreaking wave as it crossed the field to leave behind the silent, still shallows of death. The enemy Flyers who dared to attack its surface learned too late that the struggle to destroy it only drew the attacker further under. Those who witnessed it from above soon retreated toward The Arids.
Vernon and Ambassador Arturo waited at the web’s edge where an escaping whisper of breath hinted at the Wildlands ants’ approach. Commandant Marabunta was the first to emerge.
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The gluey silken lattices fell like a curling wave, spreading across the battlefield as the Alliance Flyers approached the Hive. Enemy land troops ran, but the smothering webs overtook them and trapped them where they stood. Arids Flyers, circling low after the retreat sounded, tangled in the ropey strands and fell, unable to escape. Webs continued to rain across the clearing, blunting the impotent struggles of the doomed, advancing toward the Hive.
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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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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.”
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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.