Chapter 22: "This is crazy. But it's all we've got!"

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Princess Tayre pulled back the stick on her speeder and watched the nose rise as she gained altitude. Her trajectory put her on a course that would see her pass just over Old Moss's bulging shape as the balloon-like creature drifted upward.

She was thirty seconds away when she saw Ella fire into the back of a diving skarn. The creature was knocked into a tumble by the blue beam of the non-lethal herder cannon, rolling head-over-stinger as it plummeted in a fatal fall. But then Ella was amongst the rest of the skarn, flying in at speed, her herder cannon blasting aside those who tried to intercept her. A second skarn pitched sideways and tumbled, then a third and a fourth, whilst a fifth only avoided the blast by turning and diving in an uncontrolled flight, its four wings beating hard to stop it from crashing into the sea.

To Tayre, it was impossible that Ella could shoot down so many so quickly without the aid of her targeting system. She shook her head and watched.

Ella turned sharply and headed in a wide circle around the skarn. The creatures were wary of her now. And angry too. They were intelligent enough to have feelings of kinship. And that meant they understood revenge.

It made Tayre nervous. Ella was so reckless that she wouldn't perceive the danger!

The princess was no more than ten seconds away from entering the fray now. She checked the status of her own herder cannon and thumbed the safety off. Then she aligned her flight path with Ella's route, turning into a curve before the swarm of skarn, now at least a hundred strong.

She headed toward Old Moss, cutting along under his starboard flank, moving up behind his huge wing that seemed to idly flap. Ahead of her was Ella, slowing down.

And from above her, from the back of Old Moss, three skarn leapt out into the air and dived to a point that would intercept Ella's route.

The princess gasped. Ella hadn't perceived them!

Her finger tightened on the tigger of her herder cannon. She hesitated.

Then she fired.

The blue streak missed the skarn, passing several feet above them.

One of the creatures turned toward her and seemed to jeer.

But her shot had been perceived by Old Moss himself.

His great wing below her shot upward with an alarming pace, cushioning the air and forcing the skarn into tumbles as they fought against the rising gasses.

Tayre felt the upcoming atmosphere freshen her skin as her speeder buckled on the invisible tide. It veered to the left and she had to push hard on the control to right her course. In front of her, Ella swerved aside in a violent tumble that took her out of range of the twisting skarn, and somehow righted herself with her leg outstretched to restore her balance.

She slowed and let Tayre catch her up.

"We should get out of here and tell the wardens!" the princess yelled.

Ella grinned and shook her head. "No time. We'll have to beat the skarn off ourselves. We only need to give the bloats a few more minutes to gain altitude - then they'll be too high for the skarn." She winked. "I've got a plan. Old Moss is preparing to expel. Draw them along the back of him!"

Not waiting for an answer, Ella turned her bike away and into a wide circle, heading back to the swarm.

Tayre swore and looked at Old Moss. The immense hydrobloat's face was darker than before, now a deep purple. His whole body seemed to tense, with shudders rippling under the surface of his long hide.

"This is crazy. But it's all we've got!" Tayre said. She turned her speeder and headed after Ella as fast as she could.

Before her, Ella opened up with her herder cannon. Three blasts shot out and a skarn fell at the foremost of the swarm. The others turned their attention to the two human interlopers and Tayre felt their anger turn on them.

Ella turned then, meaning to cut across Old Moss's rear. Tayre followed, opening up with her own cannon, firing into the swarm, angered that all her shots seemed to fall wide of the mark.

But the skarn followed.

Ella slowed and Tayre closed on her position. Old Moss's tail fin swished overhead.

Behind, two dozen skarn swooped after them.

"Come on Moss!" Ella shouted. "Do your thing!"

A huge groan emanated from deep inside Old Moss. A jet of putrid hot air rushed over Tayre's head as she forced her speeder into a dive, following Ella's lead. A thousand tiny lights dazzled her eyes, reflecting off a population of limpet molluscs that had made Old Moss's hide their home, their shells bashing together as his body rumbled from his effort. Tayre saw one such collision result in a dramatic spark.

She held her breath and ducked.

And then the world above her exploded into a cloud of fire.

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Strange creatures have always been a part of the Star Wars universe. Every episode seems to have included something: A New Hope had the monster in the trash compactor, Empire had Wampas and space slugs, Return had Rancors and Sarlacc pits. Even the new films include them: from that strange animal in Rogue One, Bor Gullet, to the Rathtars and most recently the Siren friend of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. Many of these monsters are blended with comedic elements, and I'm quietly proud of my Hydrobloats. Adding such exotic creatures can't be done at the expense of tone however, or the readers might find it jarring - they have to introduced naturally and not shoe horned into the plot.

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