Chapter 19 (part 2 of 2)

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Veriasse shrugged, tried not to show his concern. Until now, he'd had no idea where on Dronon he might be, but the name of the Endless Rocks Hive was known throughout the worlds of mankind. Dinnid was relatively young and powerful, a son of and her Lord Escort. Rumor named him "The Cunning" for his prowess in battle. It was said that he was the finest strategist among the Lord Escorts, and many claimed that he and his queen would become successors to the current Golden. It was said that Dinnid was only biding his time until his nemesis grew older and more feeble.

Dinnid's wings flashed, and he darted high into the air, entered the maw of the hive. Ahead of Veriasse, the dronon vanquishers began clacking and mumbling, readjusting their bodies so that an opening appeared in the wall. Veriasse looked back at Everynne, telling her with his eyes to follow. Gallen, Maggie, and Orick followed, too, and they walked through a tunnel formed by the black bodies of dronon warriors.

When they reached the saucer-shaped belly of the hive, the dronon lowered a ladder much like any that a human might use, except that the rungs were spaced inconveniently far apart. Veriasse climbed, noted the thin gray powder of dried dronon stomach acids on the rungs but decided that his gloves would be ample protection. Only poor Orick among the group did not have gloves, and Veriasse hoped that the padding on the bear's paws would prove adequate insulation.

When they reached the lowest level of the hive city, they came to a security station where strange, gleaming, three-eyed cameras photographed them. Message pods, like tiny balls, whizzed through the air, flying between various levels with a hiss. Small white female dronon workers scurried through the hallways like lice, infecting him with their tremendous energy. They seemed incapable of moving at anything less than breakneck speed.

The group climbed more ladders, and everywhere were tan dronon technicians with green tattoos and long segmented fingers growing from small battle arms. Vanquishers lined the halls. When they reached the mid-level of the hive, Veriasse glanced down one corridor, saw a vast incubation chamber. Thousands of white workers scurried among eggs, adjusting heating devices, catching the grublike newborns as they hatched, regurgitating acidified food into the gullets of grubs.

At last Veriasse climbed to the highest level of the great city, stopped to catch his breath. Dronon vanquishers lined the passage. He stared down the dimly lit hall for a moment, waited for the others to catch up with him. The air here was thick with the acrid scent of dronon, warmed uncomfortably by the heat of hundreds of thousands of bodies. Everynne breathed heavily but tried to stand tall and regal. Orick was panting from the effort of climbing, and Maggie was drenched with sweat when she reached the landing platform. Veriasse let them catch their breaths, then led the way down a long corridor lighted dimly by golden globes.

Some dronon vanquishers raised their battle arms over their heads, crossing them as a sign of respect for Everynne and her retinue, but most of the vanquishers refused that honor.

The air grew hot and fetid as they neared the belly of the city, until at last they came to a wide, circular room two hundred meters across.

Around the room, thousands of dronon lined the walls. Black Lord Vanquishers with their enlarged forelegs and flashing wings seemed to make up the majority of the audience, but as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, Veriasse saw that they were really outnumbered by small whitish workers, plump as lice, who ran about under the feet of the warriors. Dozens of the large tan technicians with their green facial tattoos had also come.

At the far end of the arena, the Lord Escort Dinnid sat beneath the lights beside an enormous young queen. She was a light cream in color, but gold highlights on her upper thighs and battle legs indicated that she would soon develop into a Golden. The queen was perhaps six meters long and three meters tall. Her saucer-shaped egg sac looked as if it were ready to burst, and indeed as he watched, a translucent egg about two decimeters across fell from her sac. A white worker rushed forward and carried it away.

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