Chapter 18 (part 2 of 3)

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Overhead, the nuclear winds roared toward them all, a black tumult. Veriasse turned to face ahead. Maggie, Orick, and Gallen plunged through the gate while Everynne slowed to match Veriasse's speed. As he hurtled toward the gate, Veriasse spared one last glance back. The last hapless vanquisher had stalled his aircar. He frantically struggled to restart it as the black storm swept over him.

Then came the white and the void, and Veriasse felt the kiss of the cold breeze that blew in this crack between time and space. He could feel the fabric of his robes whipped by the gale, but there was no sound, no seeing here. Instead, there was only a rushing sensation. The hand of a god lifted him to a distant place.

When his vision cleared, a drab plain sprawled before them, filled with pockmarks and covered with rocks. Thin clouds made the sky a dim reddish gray. The air was hot and sticky. He could see no buildings, no roads or any other signs of habitation-only desolation.

A soft wind sighed over the ground, and Veriasse began to recognize that there was some plant life around, a deep gray-brown fungus that grew in tight knots like rosebuds. Things that he'd first taken to be pale rocks also proved to be fat, fanlike plants of palest blue, and the pockmarks in the ground were so numerous that they could not have been formed by any natural means that he knew of. They could only have been formed by the walking hive fortresses of the dronon.

"Where do we go now?" Maggie said.

Veriasse turned to Gallen. "Which way is magnetic north?"

Gallen consulted the sensors in his mantle, nodded to his right. The sun lay to their southeast. Obviously, winter was coming to this section of the world. The walking hives would be migrating.

"North," Veriasse said. "Look for fresh pockmarks in the ground. Maybe we can track a hive."

They hit the thrusters, let the airbikes carry them over the gloomy terrain. They saw only a few animals-often things that looked like a conglomeration of sticks could be seen sunning themselves or dragging pieces of vegetable matter to their burrows.

Once they came to a cloud of round, slightly opaque gray leaves that fluttered slowly over the landscape; it wasn't until the leaves splattered against the windscreen of his bike that Veriasse saw that they were some kind of winged insect, with tiny red heads attached to a single wing. He could not imagine how the creature sustained flight.

After two hours, Dronon's sun set, rolling quickly, a dull shield dropping before the onslaught of darkness. In the distance ahead, they spotted a huge black saucer. Massive legs rose in the air around the saucer like hinged towers.

They drove to it, found a deserted hive city with gaping rust holes in it. The armor was pitted from incendiary fire. The city provided the best shelter they had seen all day, so they stopped to camp. They laid out a few blankets beneath the crook of one towering leg, built a cooking fire, and began heating some food bags.

Then they sat, listening to the night sounds of an alien world: something on the horizon kept making a noise like a popping bag. Elsewhere, a creature called out, "wheeeee," in a high, buzzing voice.

Veriasse felt disappointed at not having found a hive, and after he checked the back of Everynne's neck to see how the wound was healing, Everynne lay down on her blanket just staring up, as if deep in thought. Orick grumbled about the inconvenience of always finding dronon where you didn't want them, but not being able to find them on their own home world, then lay down protectively beside Everynne. The poor bear had been listless all day, and his stab wound, although slight, had cost him much. He fell asleep within minutes.

"Don't worry," Veriasse said to the others. "The chances are good that our fire will attract some attention in the night. Perhaps by morning we will meet the dronon, and then we'll find out how they feel about our intrusion on their world." He lay back and thought. Everynne's scar was mending well, but he somewhat hoped that they could wait a few more days.

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