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"Easy for you to say," he grumbled.

He reached out and hesitantly nudged a slider control. Without a sound, the cube rose lazily; I was poised near the bodies of our unconscious friends, ready to catch them if they started to slide off… but the cube’s motion was so smooth, they didn’t shift a millimeter. Keeping level, never giving the slightest lurch, Tobit took us into the air as slowly as smoke rising.

The scene below wasn’t nearly so placid. Out near the first canal, the Black Army must have heard the crashes and creaks of the palace coming alive, but they couldn’t possibly guess what was making the noise. Their line of sight was blocked by the high palisade walls; perhaps they thought the ripping and rumbling came from some kind of weapon being trundled into place. The attackers continued to work their battering rams, smashing at the gates again and again, hoping to get inside before the defenders could get the weapon ready. They had no idea what was happening to the palace till the gates fell open and the Black Shoulders surged onto the grounds.

With impeccable timing — of course — that was the exact same moment the Balrog finished detaching the entire palace from its foundations. As the Black Army charged through the gates, they were greeted by a huge stone queen, four stories tall and larger than a city block, her shell blazing scarlet with angry moss.

Mandasar warriors are as brave as any creature in the universe, but even they have their limits.

For a moment, much of the Black Army simply froze. They watched as the queen’s four claws, each bigger than a house, swept through the air over their heads and caught the Laughing Larries that were supposed to give covering fire. The claws slammed shut with the sound of thunder, solid stone walls whacking together… and when they opened again, four gold-colored lumps of scrap metal flopped to the ground like crushed walnuts. No more hyena laughing. But the night was far from quiet.

The claws rose again, high enough to clear the heads of the attackers but not by much. Then they clacked their pincers a few times, showering the troops below with whatever dirt had accumulated on the palace walls over the years: stone dust and insect carcasses, bird nests and chips of old paint, dried-out flakes of autumn leaves and clots of mud daubed by playing children. All of it rained on the soldiers beneath, as if the queen was just brushing her hands off before getting set for serious fighting. When the spill of debris was finished, the claws came down onto the palace lawn and began to push forward like huge snowplows, ready to shove the Black Army back over the canal.

The shove wasn’t needed. With a jumble of confused bellows the warriors fell back, some trying to maintain an orderly retreat, others simply running. A few held their ground, till not-very-gentle nudges from the stone walls knocked them back into the canal.

Possibly, some of the generals tried to contact Samantha for new orders. When they got no answer, they made a decision on their own: strategic withdrawal. Within fifteen minutes, the battle for the palace was over.



I won’t bother you with details of the next few hours. What’s the point in describing, say, the trouble we went to, getting Innocence out of the cube? Unless you’re a fan of techniques for using block and tackle, you don’t want me going on at length; so let’s just give you the short form.

Innocence survived, and came through without permanent injury. The people inside the palace turned out safe and sound too; when the building started walking about, they reported being held in place by "an invisible force" till the excitement was over.

Kaisho disappeared in the confusion; she hasn’t been seen since. I guess she’ll show up eventually, expecting me to take her to bed. I’ve kind of decided I will — considering how the Balrog stopped the battle and saved thousands of lives, I owe the moss a favor. (Even if the idea of producing a spore-baby is really really gross.)

Unlike my father, Benjamin Dade wasn’t completely consumed by the moss that enveloped him… just nibbled a lot. We lugged him to the infirmary but Gashwan decided he couldn’t be treated — the Balrog had invaded his bloodstream, his nervous system, every part of his innards. Trying to remove the spores would kill him; but if we left him alone, he’d live out his normal span, the same as Kaisho.

Eventually, Innocence made Dade a centerpiece on Diplomats Row, set on a small pedestal like a moss-covered statue. He still gets regular meals and plenty of light, not to mention all kinds of people to talk with. Sometimes he complains how unfair it is, that he’s become a fuzzy paralytic; other times, he goes all spacey and gives incomprehensible prognostications that he claims come from the Balrog. A lot of folks think he invents the predictions on his own, but they visit him anyway: Mandasars who want to know what crops to plant, human kids asking who they’ll marry, that sort of thing.

If you want the honest truth, Dade loves the attention. It’s not how he envisioned his life, but deep down, he’s tickled by it.

Dawn came up warm but cloudy gray. I sat with Festina and Tobit, dangling our feet on the edge of one of the trenches in the palace lawn, watching envoys scurry between the palace and Black Army headquarters. We got pretty good at guessing which messengers would tell us, "Talks are going well," and which would say, "I’m very, very worried." From what I knew of diplomats, things were pretty much on track. No one wanted to fight anymore; they just had a lot of bluster that needed to blow itself out.

Somewhere back in the palace, our friends would soon be waking up: it’d been almost six hours since they’d got shot by Dad and Dade. We’d left them in a corner of the infirmary, with instructions on how to find us when they came to. Gashwan wouldn’t let us wait anywhere nearby — us and our filthy human germs — so we’d gone outside to cool our heels and watch the sun rise.

Festina and Tobit had taken off their helmets long ago. Ever since they’d cannibalized their tightsuit power supplies, their personal cooling systems had been out of order; as Tobit put it, "We’re sweating our fucking bags off." Opening the helmets helped air circulate inside the suits, but as the day warmed up, their "bags" would sweat even more. The two of them were discussing whether to take off the rest of their suits — and where to find replacement clothes, since Festina only wore a light chemise under the suit while Tobit had nothing at all — when the admiral suddenly cocked her ear and whispered, "Listen!"

We listened. High over head, something was coming toward us, fast and whistling. "Fuck," Tobit groaned, "a bomb." All three of us shoved ourselves forward and dropped into the trench in front of us, ducking low as Tobit continued to grumble. "Here we are, hours away from peace, and some jerk-off decides, ‘Hey, the arsenal isn’t empty yet, let’s aim for the palace.’ "

"If it’s a bomb, it’s taking its sweet time," Festina said. She peeked at the clouds above us. "Where the hell is it?"

"Probably some kind of smart missile," Tobit replied, "flying in circles till it chooses the optimum target."

"Or else…" Festina began to say.

A jet-black shadow lanced out of the clouds: torpedo-shaped, riding an almost-invisible vapor trail. "Bloody hell," Festina said. "It’s one of ours."

"One of our what?" I asked.

Festina didn’t answer; she was already scrambling out of the trench, holding up her arms and waving. Tobit told me, "Navy probe missile. Black means it belongs to the Explorer Corps." Then he too began climbing, hollering at the probe as if it could hear him.

Maybe it could. It swept in low to the ground, ejected something small that dropped at Tobit’s feet, then soared up into the clouds again. The ejected object was a black box covered with horseshoe-shaped gold insets: a Sperm-tail anchor. It hummed softly, already switched on.

"Look alive, Edward," Festina told me. "We’re getting company." "Friendly company?" I asked. "The last Sperm-tail brought my dad and three Larries."