Chapter 21 (part 2 of 2)

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Gallen stood up. His shoulder was dislocated, and the bones made a sickly rasping noise as they grated together. His leg was spurting blood.

Xim raised back up on his hind legs, prepared to meet Gallen's attack. Gallen staggered forward and stopped just out of Xim's striking range. He stood for a long moment, looking into the dronon's eyes. Xim waved his single remaining feeler in the air. His head leaked a gray-white fluid; an eye cluster was gone; one of his rear legs was ripped. Gallen had seen a hundred men back down from a fight, and though he didn't know what might be going on in the monster's mind, he decided to give it one last chance.

"Beg for mercy," Gallen said, "and I'll spare your life."

"Fight me!" the dronon clicked.

"If you insist." Gallen leapt in, feinting a strike. Xim swung his battle arms, and Gallen danced back. The creature's reaction time was slow, terribly slow.

Xim raised his battle arms again. They were wobbling, and Gallen fell back, panting.

Xim stood on his hind legs for a moment, and his battle arms waved feebly. He tired and dropped his arms. The white ooze was running thickly from his skull, and Gallen knew then that the creature was dying.

All around him, dronon vanquishers began thrumming, and the translator in Gallen's ear whispered, "Kill him. Finish it."

Gallen shouted at them, "You're a morbid mob." And he turned, advanced on the Golden. The small white royal larvae skittered away from beneath her legs.

She raised her battle arms, crossed them in surrender, and put her head to the ground. Behind him, Gallen heard clattering, glanced back. Xim toppled to the grass.

Gallen went to the Golden Queen. She kept her battle arms crossed in token of surrender.

"Under the rules for conquest, you may choose only to maim me," the Golden said. "If you so choose, I will not fight you."

Gallen stopped in front of her. She raised her head to look up at him. "Why should I spare you?" Gallen asked. "So you can continue to breed? So your children can challenge me?"

Her mouthfingers clicked over her voice drum. "I have already given birth to many Lord Escorts. My children will hunt you down. You cannot escape your fate."

Gallen stared at her distantly. He stepped forward and removed Semarritte's mantle from her head. She really did have a nice golden color.

He slammed a fist into her face.

He discovered that his wrists must have been stronger than Veriasse's, for instead of merely gouging her, his blow cracked her head open.

All around him, the dronon raised their battle arms and clattered them together, crying, "Behold the Golden! Behold the Lords of the Swarm!"

Gallen raised his hands for silence, looked out over the assembly. The room fell quiet. "You tell them, Maggie. You're the queen now."

Maggie glared at the dronon and shouted, "All of you: get off our worlds!"

Gallen turned away from the carnage, wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his left hand. Around the arena, the dronons' carapaces scraped and rattled as they evacuated the dome.

Maggie hunched over Orick. The bear was badly cut, and he breathed shallowly. Blood soaked much of his fur from groin to chin. Yet her mantle whispered to her that the nanodocs in her pack might still save him, so she forced the seven pills down his throat and waited.

Everynne was lying in a pool of blood, too, but she already had nanodocs working on her. The tiny machines were closing her wounds, had slowed the bleeding. There was nothing more that Maggie could do.

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