Gita scowled as the Duke shook his head. “No buts. You can take two, no more. I need the rest for other duties. Be glad. This is one step up from flushing out game for the cook-pots, and I’ll have you doing that if you cross me again.” He raised an eyebrow. “Keep out of trouble this time. That’s an order, captain.”
She straightened up, snapping off a salute. “Aye, sir.”
He nodded. “Dismissed.” Not waiting for a response, he turned back to the table loaded down with maps of the region.
Gita waited until she was a few steps away from the tent before scowling again, stalking across the campground. Her shirt clung to her stickily, the lazy wind that pushed the heat around the camp doing little to relieve the sun. All along the narrow thoroughfare, soldiers stood in small groups around tents and fires, some in armour, more than a few nodding as she passed.
The sounds of the camp surrounded her, slowly washing away her irritation; swords and axes clanging against each other in mock battles, mingling with the muted chatter of a hundred soldiers; the occasional miaows of one of the giant cat mounts; and somewhere, the rhythmic tones of a mender’s hammer beating at armour.
She slipped between two tall canvas tents, through a small group of soldiers passing a bottle around, and to the tent she shared. Celeste was in there, sat with a bowl of stew. She raised an eyebrow.
“That bad, was it?”
Gita shrugged. “Some and some. Duke Gyb was pretty pissed off, yeah.”
Celeste nodded to an upturned log next to her. “Take a pew and give me the details.”
“It’s not worth all that. A slap on the wrist. ‘When you’re a general, you can set the mission parameters’,” Gita parroted, voice gruff. “‘Orders are orders.’”
“I hate to say it, but I told you so. And if he catches you mocking him like that, it’ll be worse.”
“That caravan was a prime target! Those Fangs, the big ones, they were weak - some of them already injured. I saw my chance, we took it. No losses, and they’re down a few more fighters. What’s not to like?”
Celeste shrugged. “The Duke disagrees, clearly. The risk to the main camp was too much.”
Gita huffed, but Celeste merely sipped at her stew, watching Gita over the rim of the bowl.
“So what next,” she said, setting the empty bowl aside.
Celeste raised an eyebrow. “That bad? And here was me looking for an early night.”
“Eh. Better to be out and about than grounded,” Gita said, unable to stop a grin creeping onto her face. “Paws down in twenty minutes, south side of the camp. Where’s Luis?”
Celeste pointed off to the centre of camp. Gita grabbed her leather breastplate off her bedroll and set off
The camp’s makeshift chapel was a large tent, much-patched, with a small fenced area at the front. A few injured soldiers were laying there, being tended to by the white-robed Father Cobb. Even as Gita watched, he smeared a paste gritty with yellowdust onto an arm wound and muttered a prayer over it. In the time it took her to move around the fence and into the tent, the flesh of the soldier’s arm had knitted together, leaving only a red scar that might have come about after weeks of natural healing.
Inside the tent itself, the air was thick with incense and the scent of unwashed soldiers. A few benches were set up facing the altar, on which stood the a large wooden catsclaw icon, brought from Feldwick’s cathedral. Only one figure sat, hunched in concentration, close to the front. Gita picked her way forward as quietly as she could and sat next to him until he finished.
A memory arose unbidden, church with her father. The priest at the front, mouthing words that she didn’t understand, but the smell of her father next to her was almost a physical thing, warm and comforting. Gita sighed. How long had it been? Three years since she’d gone home? Perhaps after this-
Gita snapped back to the present, to Luis’s dark eyes glittering in the weak candlelight.
“Got a job,” Gita said, tongue feeling thick in the heavy air. “Sorry to interrupt you.”
He shook his head, his pinched face twisting into a semi-smile. “There’s always time for prayer.”
“Mm. Well, time for something else now. Come on; you need to get Paula saddled, and I need to find Nané.”
“They’re together by the paddock.” Luis rose smoothly to his feet and led her back out into the daylight, both of them blinking as their eyes adjusted.
The two cats were part of a lazy group of giant bodies laid out in the relative cool of a shadow cast by a huge tree. Gita strode over to Nané and scritched her between her massive ears.
“Come on. Duty calls.”
Nané stood, arching her body into a slow stretch, ginger-brown fur showering down as she straightened, and she chuffed out a question.
“Scouting. And we need to get a move on, or we’ll be the last to arrive!”
The cat rolled her head in a dismissive gesture, but obediently trotted over to the squires, themselves lazing out of the sun. Two leapt into action, fastening the saddle around the cat’s abdomen as Paula followed, Luis by her side.
As soon as the squires were finished, Gita slung herself up onto Nané’s back. Paula, Luis perched on her saddle, brought up the rear as Nané began to weave between the tents and out into the open plains beyond.
Celeste was there already, bow and quiver slung over her back, mounted on Olivia. She looked back as Gita approached, and brought her hand up to smother a grin.
“What’s funny? I could do with a laugh,” Gita said sourly.
“Absolutely nothing,” Celeste said. “Definitely not how pissed-off you look at being forced onto scout duty.”
“Ugh. Yes, well, it’s my own fault. At least we’re doing something.” She smirked. “And maybe something better will come along, anyway.” She caught Celeste’s eye and tutted. “Scratch that. Let’s make this look good and professional.”
Celeste shook her head, blonde hair swinging, as Gita urged Nané forward. The three cats moved as one out onto the scrubland, bearing their riders smoothly towards the distant treeline.
The hours passed uneventfully, the sun beating down mercilessly, and the landscape slowly changed from the arid grasslands to the edges of a swamp thick with tall trees and still, foul-smelling pools of watery sludge. Their pace slowed as the cats were forced to watch their footing, every step treacherous, and more than once they plunged leg-deep into hidden sinkholes.
“Nothing out here,” Gita muttered, plucking at her armour to try and funnel some cooler air in. “Nothing worth seeing, anyway.”
“Can’t help but feel like we’re being watched, though,” Celeste murmured. “Something about these swamps… eyes everywhere.”
Gita nodded, frowning. The thickness of the undergrowth meant that sightlines were short, and reflections warped and rippled off the stagnant water whenever they disturbed it.
“Lizardfolk have been pushed back further south than this,” Luis said, his voice low. “The last intelligence had them in their… city, or whatever you’d call it. A large stone structure, about five miles south of here. A pyramid, I think.”
“Our route doesn’t take us that far,” Gita said bitterly. She looked up at the sky, catching sight of the setting run between the thick foliage. “Almost time to turn back, anyway.”
Celeste opened her mouth to respond, then frowned and slapped her neck. “Damned midges. I swear, I get a thousand goddamned bites every time we come out here.”
“Language,” Luis murmured.
“Maybe you just taste good,” Gita said, smirking.
“It’s all I can damned-well hear,” Celeste said, waving her hands in the air. “The buzzing-!”
Gita brought her hand up, grabbing at Nané’s scruff as she did so, earning her a growl from the cat. “Wait. Quiet.”
She held her breath, watching as the cats’ ears swiveled around, trying to identify the noise. “There is something - not the midges. A droning buzz.”
“And it’s coming closer,” Celeste whispered. She looked around, eyes wide, one hand going to the hilt of her sword. “Where-?“
Something crashed through the undergrowth on the right, falling with a splash into a pool, and Gita gasped as a lizardfolk Hand clambered to its feet. Covered in iridescent blue scales, the creature had squat legs, and arms that were filled with some sort of fruit. The beads and feathers it was wearing were matted with dirt and splashed with green blood. The bright orange crest along the curve of its skull quivered as it looked back over its shoulder, and its long snout flapped and yipped in panic.
Gita’s hand flew to her sword. “Lizards! Get-“
The command died on her lips as the buzzing reached a cacophonous crescendo, and from out of the undergrowth rushed three enormous wasps, their yellow-carapaced bodies glistening in the dying light. Taller in body than a human, their huge wings beat a foaming spray up from the swamp and they hovered for a moment, starbust-eyes looking left and right.
One flew straight for the fleeing Hand, stinger extended and easily the length of Gita’s sword. With a scream, the Hand looked back just as the wasp descended, stabbing it through the chest. Its wings humming, the wasp lifted the saurian off the ground and shook it a couple of times. As quick as lightning, it stabbed the stinger in twice more, then flew backwards slightly as the unfortunate Hand collapsed, writhing in agony.
“Weapons!” Gita already had her sword out as the other two wasps turned, separating slightly to encircle the riders. Nané growled as she began to turn, trying to keep the wasps in sight.
Celeste nocked and arrow and drew back, the tip of the arrow following one of the giant wasps. “Dismount?”
“No. We’ll be picked off if we do. Stay mounted. Cats, nothing clever.”
The cats began to chitter, talking amongst themselves, but Gita could only stare at the thousand-thousand reflections of herself in the nearest wasp’s eye.
“Why aren’t they attacking?” Luis's shout was barely audible over the sound of buzzing death that filled the air.
“Shut up, Luis,” Gita said. “Don’t give them reason.” The two wasps hovered backwards, the third coming between them, and then all three accelerated away backwards, turning after a few feet to disappear back into the undergrowth.
The three riders stared after them, and Gita willed her heart to slow. She licked her dry lips and slowly slid her sword back into its scabbard.
Celeste was the first to speak. “What the actual-“
“Language,” Luis said.
“…what was that?”
“I’d heard stories,” Gita said, slipping down from Nané’s back. The mud under her feet squelched as she took a few paces towards where the lizardman had fallen. “Never thought I’d see one. This lizard’s dead, by the way.”
“You sure? They heal ridiculously fast.”
“Luis. There’s a hole the size of my fist in his back.” Gita knelt and scooped up an orange shape floating on the surface of the shallow water. “Shame, really. A prisoner would have been useful. Not a soldier… not a Fist. Just a villager, a Hand, unlucky enough to be in the wrong place. He was carrying these… fruits.” She walked back to the others, tapping it thoughtfully. Bulging at both ends, it most resembled an hourglass, a thick stalk protruding from one end. She squeezed it, and a pungent, sweet smell filled her nostrils.
Gita tossed it to Celeste, who turned it over in her hands. “I though you can’t uplift an insect,” she said. “That’s what the Chemick always said, anyway.”
“Not can’t,” Luis said. “Shouldn’t. They break the rules. Our cats, when they’re uplifted, gain their size and sapience, but otherwise continue to function very much as cats. But insects, they’re different. Have you ever seen a hive of bees swarming?”
“They move almost as one thing,” Celeste said.
“Exactly. Individuals in the hive aren’t intelligent, but as a group they are. And they retain the ability to procreate.” Luis looked at Celeste and smiled slightly. “Have babies. Endless bees and wasps, grown ridiculously large, but with none of the individual intelligence. Put that all together, and you end up with something very scary.” He shook his head, black hair lank with sweat. “Very scary indeed.”
“There might be a nest,” Gita said. She half-smiled and stowed the fruit into Nané’s saddlebag. “I guess scouting duty just got interesting.”
“We should report this,” Luis said. “If there’s a hive nearby-”
“Or we could just deal with it. That is our job, after all.”
“What d’you think Nané?”
The cat flicked an ear at her, but started off in the direction the wasps had gone. She paused as Luis dismounted from Paula’s back and went to stand over the body of the lizardfolk Hand. He bowed his head, lips moving, and Gita frowned.
“Should bury it, maybe,” she muttered.
“They give their dead back to the swamp anyway,” Celeste said, as Luis finished his prayer and came back over. “No real need.”
He mounted back up without a word, and they moved off.
They pushed between low-hanging branches of the trees that pressed in on every side, the going slow as the cats picked their way through water that covered their paws. Every step brought a little shivering convulsion as Nané flicked her paws, trying to keep the worst of the water off them.
The undergrowth opened up slightly into a natural clearing, and Gita gasped. On a raised island of drier soil, a swirling ivory mountain of a nest lay before them, bulging with unnatural growths and glowing orange where the sun’s last rays shone. Looping scallops of pulped wood built into a monstrous structure caught the eye almost hypnotically, layers of complexity overlapping into an object that looked more like an egg than a nest. Everywhere, wasps flew or hovered, most gathered around a large grove of bushes to the north.
“Bigger than I thought,” Gita said. They dismounted, hunkering down close to their mounts. “Clearly more than a few. Any ideas?”
Nané’s paws flickered through her battle-language signs. We should retreat. Too many to fight.
Olivia and Paula nodded their assent.
“Aye, too many by far.” Gita shaded her eyes and peered up at the peak of the nest where several squadrons of wasps flew in tight formation. “They look like guards, or lookouts. We haven’t been spotted yet, but it’s only a matter of time. What are they doing over there?”
She pointed to the drones flying around the bushes, and they watched for a few moments as wasps picked orange fruit from the trees, used their mandibles to trim branches, and dug at the ground around them with their legs.
“It’s like they’re… farming,” Gita murmured.
Celeste pulled out the fruit the saurian had been holding. “Tending the fruit bushes. That Hand had stolen it, maybe? But why take the risk?”
“Perhaps it just tastes that good,” Gita said, shaking her head. “Either way, we’re outmatched here. Even I’m not that stupid. Options?”
“Fire, maybe,” Luis said. “My father once had to clear a wasp’s nest - a small one - and it burned pretty well. We could purge the nest that way; they’ve built it on a dry part of the ground, which means that it might burn.”
“We could mark it on the map for the Duke, then avoid it entirely maybe,” Celeste said. “You saw what happened to that lizardman. Our armour’s no better.”
If we get stung by that, we might survive the wound, Olivia signed. Maybe. You wouldn’t, though.
Gita nodded, eyes tracking the looping course of the airborne insects. “Whatever we do, I think we’re going to have to do it quickly. They’ve seen us.”
All eyes turned skywards as three wasps broke away from their group and began a sloping descent towards the ground. Their bodies were bent around, stingers ready, and with a shout Gita broke their trance.
“Mount! Back towards the camp! Go!”
They scrambled back into their saddles, water flicking up and matting the cat’s fur, and then they were away. In huge bounds, Nané led them back into the darkened confines of the swamp and back towards the path.
Gita looked back to see Luis, sword out, pointing at the way they had come. The three huge wasps had cut their dive and were flying straight for them, and Gita yanked Nané around.
“No time! Turn and fight!”
One of the wasps flew straight for her, and she brought her sword up, point towards the charging wasp. Nané reared up, claws out ready to bat it out of the air. At the last moment it darted to the side, stinger flicking out. Gita barely parried it, sword spanging off as though she had hit another metal weapon. With a whine of wings, the insect hovered in front of her, stabbing again and again, locking her into a barrage of parries and aborted thrusts.
Around her, the sounds of combat and splashing footsteps echoed, but the world had shrunk down to this combat, to the next blow and the next. With a lurch, Nané reared up again, and Gita grabbed at the handle on the front of her saddle. The cat’s huge paw came down, claws raking at the wasp’s wings; with a spurt of clear ichor, one gossamer-thin wing came loose. The yellow-and-black body skittered away on one wing before crashing into a tree and falling to the ground, unmoving. Gita leaped from the saddle and plunged her sword deep into the wasp’s abdomen, into the crystalline eyes, again and again. Sticky innards splashed up over her forearms and breastplate, smelling of a sweet mustiness.
A scream from the side brought her head up, just in time to see Celeste knocked from Olivia's back, the tabby cat yowling in pain as another of the wasps, an arrow embedded in its body, stabbed into her exposed flank. The cat went down as Nané leapt forward, swiping furiously at the air. Gita could only watch as the insect darted to the side, then up and away.
Gita was on her feet in a moment, pulling Celeste bodily to her feet, but the young woman pushed past her and moved to Olivia's side.
“Olivia! Get up, Olivia!”
The cat opened one pained eye and let out a chittering mew, and Celeste ran her fingers through Olivia’s fur. Gita looked over to where Luis and Paula were fighting side by side. Even as she watched, Paula’s paw caught it directly on the side of its abdomen, sending it off balance. Luis's sword swung around and took it in the head, crushing it. The wings flapped limply a few more times before the hard carapace of its body dropped to the ground.
“No more coming, captain,” he called, looking back along the trail. “We need to go. Now!”
“Olivia's injured,” Gita called back. “Nané, can she walk?”
The cat nodded, paws moving. It’s bad; says it feels hot, itchy. Poisoned? If it’s just the wound, she’ll live. Slow moving though. Can Luis do anything?
“Maybe,” Luis said, coming up to inspect the wound. He grimaced. “Got a yellowdust poultice I can put on it, might take the worst of the pain away, but you’ll need it properly looked at when we get back.” He unslung his healer’s satchel from Paula's saddle and began to wrap the wound in a bandage.
“It’ll have to do,” Gita said, when he’d finished. “We need to get her back to the camp. They can care for her there.” She squeezed Celeste's shoulder. “We’ll go slowly. Come on.”
Olivia staggered to her feet and they began the slow walk back to camp, Celeste's tiny form supporting the cat’s massive frame.
Night was already drawing in when they finally caught sight of the tent village, and as soon as she could Gita broke away from the others. She looked down at herself, caked in mud and some sort of ichor from inside the wasps, and pulled a face. It would have to do.
Duke Gyb was in his tent, poring over the maps, and she waited until he looked up to snap off a weary salute.
“Captain?” He slowly put the small stick of charcoal he was holding down on the pile of maps. “This had better be good.” He frowned, the wry note falling from his voice as he took in her ragged appearance. “What happened?”
“We were attacked, your grace. We’ve traced the problem to a nest of giant wasps, a very large one, and close enough to be a threat.” Gita slowly let her shoulders relax as his expression darkened. “No casualties in the scouting party, but one injured. She’ll be fine.”
“Cat or human?”
“Cat. Olivia. Celeste's fine, and Olivia will be as soon as she gets to a healer. May I?” She reached forward and picked up the charcoal, tracing their route with a thin dotted line and then marking a cone shape in the approximate location of the nest. The duke leaned closer, holding a candle next to the map.
“Closer to us than I’d like… closer still to the lizardfolk at Sol Absin. That’s one of their less well-defended towns, as far as we’ve seen. Difficult to deal with… far easier to ignore…” the Duke mused, stroking his bearded chin. A small smile flickered over his face. “Captain… you have an incredible propensity for finding trouble. I don’t know how you do it.”
“Naturally gifted, your grace,” Gita said, matching his smile. Despite her aching body, despite the odd smell that wafted around her, she felt strangely invigorated. “I think I might have a solution, your grace. Had a lot of time to think about it on the way back.”
Instead of answering, she brought out the strange orange fruit she had recovered from Olivia’s saddlebag, and placed it on the table. “A way to make the wasps fight for us, perhaps.”
He leaned closer. “I’m listening.”
By the time the moon was high in the sky, Gita was laying in wait behind a large outcropping of swampgrass, mounted on Nané. On one side lay Luis, and to the other Celeste crouched low on Olivia's back. The furless patch of skin on the cat’s leg was stark, the only sign she had ever been injured. Behind them stood the rest of the soldiers, seven men and women each mounted on an armoured cat.
“In and out,” Gita said, voice low, “Exactly as we planned.” She took one last look at the hive, quieter now than during the day, and brought her hand up, fist clenched. “Go!”
The ten of them burst out from the foliage as one, paws pounding down the distance to the bushes. As they passed between the neat rows of the small orchard, Gita grabbed at the fruit, gathering an armful that she clutched to herself as Nané pushed on. Even before they’d made it through the bushes, she felt more than heard the angry buzz of the wasps, and looked up at the hive.
Boiling out of the top came the wasps, darker shadows against the night sky. A dozen, two dozen, more than she could count, a flurry of shining abdomen and silken wings. Down they swooped in neat ranks of five, stingers out, and with a shout Gita turned, pointing towards the south.
“Come on! Into the swamp!”
The cats charged into the undergrowth, splashing along the path, darting between trees. Gita bent low over Nané, trusting that the cat’s nightsight would see them safely through, while behind her the droning grew closer.
Trees whipped past at breakneck speeds, hanging branches and vines whipping at their faces. Behind them, the droning grew encompass everything in the darkness, closer with every heartbeat. It drowned out the splashing as the cats charged on through the water. Gita raised her head long enough to look back; a branch whipped by her face, close enough to sting her cheek, but the sight that greeted her to their rear drove the pain from her mind.
A solid wall of wasps was right behind them. Like a tidal wave, they surged forward, boiling and seething. Wings and shining bodies bounced off trees and crashed through branches, heedless.
“Stay the course! Stay-”
The rearmost cat stumbled as the leading edge of stingers reached her, pitching her rider into the air. Without even time to cry out, both disappeared into the roiling mass of insects, gone. Gita swore, bending low over Nané’s neck again. “Faster! They’re gaining!”
“We’re not going to make it,” Celeste shouted above the wind of their pursuit.
Ahead, Gita could see a break in the canopy, and with it the first glimmer of hope. There were flames flickering in the clearing, contained in large metal dishes and on tall-stemmed torches. They illuminated the stone houses of a lizardfolk settlement.
“We’re coming up on Sol Absin,” Gita shouted back at the others. “Make some noise!”
The clatter of swords against shields and armour echoed out into the night, and Gita looked back one last time. The wasps were close enough almost to touch, seeming impossibly still in the air as they ran the riders down, but their line was no longer so neat, and as the crashing, banging noise continued it seemed to have a physical effect on them, driving them back.
“Guards ahead!” someone yelled, and Gita brought her sword out and around. On the path ahead, silhouetted by torchlight, stood three burly lizardfolk Fists, scrambling for spears as the cats bore down on them. Before they could react, Nané brought her alongside, crushing one beneath a huge paw. Gita swung her sword, green blood spattering up on to her face and armour. Cats rushed past her, bearing their riders into the middle of the lizardfolk encampment.
Her stomach lurched as Nané leapt, soaring into the open space beyond, and Gita looked forward in the timeless moment before they struck the ground. Part village, part staging-point, the settlement was spread-out, several dozen stone buildings with torches burning outside them surrounding a much larger structure, a four-sided pyramid. The roofs of the houses were all flat, occasional figures stood on top of them - guards, perhaps. The streets between the houses were empty, but doors were beginning to open all around them.
Nané’s huge paws slammed into the ground, the force of the impact jolting Gita in the saddle, and she grabbed on to the handle at the front of the saddle for support.
A dull trumpet sound echoed into the night; one of the guards up on the rooftops was pointing down at them, shouting, and within seconds the village was in chaos. As the cats charged on through the town, lizardfolk, some of them large-bodied Fists, most slender Hands, stumbled out of their homes clutching weapons.
Gita reared around, one of the orange fruits in hand, and drew back her arm. “Throw!”
As the lizardfolk scrambled around at this sudden intrusion, the soldiers began to rain down fruit on to them. Most of it splattered harmlessly to the floor, but Gita saw at least one frilled head go down under the barrage, several lizardfolk knocked backwards as they warded off the missiles. Behind her, she heard the drone of the wasps peak as they approached the swamp, and she twisted in her saddle to watch.
The wasps dove on to the city, to where the confused lizardfolk were clutching at fruit in the wake of the cats, and with a buzz of wings the slaughter began. Stingers stabbed in again and again, tearing massive holes in lizardfolk scales, and as the defenders began to swing their obsidian blades, the battle was joined.
“Pull back,” Gita shouted, and Nané turned their group towards the pyramid. They made it three paces before the huge stone doors of the structure slammed open to reveal a dozen more Fists, armed and armoured.
As one, Gita’s unit drew their weapons and prepared to meet the charge.
The nearest Fist, bulkier by far than the strongest of Gita’s warrior, swung its weapon at her. Gita ducked, the obsidian-edged blade whining over her head. She brought her own sword around in a glancing blow against the creature’s arm that rattled off a thick bracelet it wore; she rolled to the left, out of the saddle. Nané slapped a paw out, throwing the Fist backwards as Gita ducked under Nané’s belly, sword outstretched, and thrust it into the Fist’s stomach.
It snarled, grabbing at the weapon and holding it in place with one hand as it pulled its own sword back, readying another strike. Gita ducked as it swung again, tugging at the hilt of her sword. She kicked out, striking the lizard in the stomach, and it finally let go of the sword.
The blade came out with a spurt of green blood, sending Gita staggering backwards. Even as she watched it became a trickle as the wound healed, yellowdust-fast. The Fist bared its teeth and stepped forward.
Nané reared up and slammed both paws down onto the Fist, throwing it to the ground. With a lurch, she stepped over Gita and pinned the Fist in place, tearing at its head with her mouth. Gita only had time to watch as Nané tore the head from the Fist’s shoulders, letting it drop to the ground next to the still-twitching body.
Gita looked around. The village was a chaos of shouting, weapons clashing, and beneath it all the constant drone as the wasps callously moved through the combatants. Several of the massive insects were down, overwhelmed, but for every yellow-and-black body that littered the ground, two or more lizards lay next to it.
A few feet away, Olivia crouched next to Celeste, fending off attacks as the young woman nocked arrow after arrow. She loosed a shaft into the nearest Fist, striking it in the eye, and before it had hit the ground she was drawing a bead on a wasp coming in from the right.
Carnage surrounded them. A group of lizardfolk had mounted a defense at some stone steps leading up the side of the pyramid, but several of the wasps were surrounding them, performing swooping attacks that took them out of range of spear and sword. Dozens of blue-and-orange bodies lay broken around, damage more thoroughly than even their advanced healing could manage. More than fifty broken wasp bodies, their hard carapaces oozing some sort of innards, lay around the city, legs curled in death.
Even as she watched, a wasp stabbed at a lizard, tearing into its shoulder. The squat humanoid scuttled backwards up the steps, only to run back a few moments later, arm healed, to throw a spear at the retreating wasp.
A new sound intruded, a deep rumble that sounded, repeated, echoed and grew. The ground began to shake.
“Fang! Fang! From the north!”
Luis’s call rang out over the battle, and Gita looked in the direction he indicated, heart sinking.
The Fang was huge, longer in body than any of her cats. It charged forward, all four legs pounding at the ground, blunt snout lined with two rows of teeth agape. It screeched, and for a brief moment the sound of the rest of the combat died back, as though allowing room for this behemoth.
Gita snatched a look at her unit. Two more humans were down, one of them definitely dead. As she watched, a cat lay down on its side, instinct taking over as it tried to bring all four sets of claws to bear. A Fist thrust a spear into the cat’s chest, drawing a yowling scream.
“Pull back,” Gita shouted. “Mount up and pull back!”
She grabbed at Nané’s saddle, all-but throwing herself into the seat, and they moved to stand between the oncoming Fang and the retreating cats.
“This is madness,” Gita spat. “There wasn’t supposed to be anything like this level of resistance here!”
Nané wheeled around as the last cat-rider mounted up, the Fang half-a-dozen loping paces away. It lurched forward, jaw snapping, as Nané sprang forward, out of reach.
“Back into the forest,” Gita shouted, although Nané needed no urging. She drew level with Celeste on Olivia. “Lead the others back to the camp! I’ll draw it off!”
“You can’t kill it on your own,” Celeste screamed back, clutching her bow in one hand and the saddle handle in the other. “We need to retreat!”
“Not yet! Make sure the others are safe! Go!”
Gita ignored the mix of anger and panic that flitted over Celeste’s face, bending low to Nané’s head. “Lead it around to the right, let the other cats head left. Don’t let it lose us!”
Nané trilled angrily but followed the instruction, peeling off to the right. They were among trees again now, the midnight swamp path waterlogged underfoot. Behind them, the Fang crashed into the line of trees, knocking several over, struggling towards them.
Gita lost sight of the other cats, and the dark chase took on a surreal air. The constant droning of the wasps grew less as they moved away from Sol Absin, and it was odd for its absence after having been a constant part of her consciousness for the past few minutes. Only the pounding of the Fang’s huge, taloned feet, and the occasional crash of a tree splintering, broke the silence.
“Keep going,” Gita said, as Nané began to pant in exertion. “Almost there.”
The trees began to thin out again, and they were back in the huge clearing that held the wasp orchard. The nest, white walls seeming to glow in the moonlight, soared overhead.
“Right on target,” Gita whispered, adrenaline thrilling through her. She grinned savagely. “Towards the nest!”
Nané yowled in understanding, putting on a burst of speed as she hurtled towards the nest’s outer wall. Behind, the Fang stumbled into the clearing, crushing fruit trees left and right, heedless. It galloped headlong towards them, and towards the hive.
The nest ahead of them was approaching as fast as the Fang behind them, and Gita tensed. “Get ready to jump,” she shouted, gripping the handle with both hands.
As she reached the nest’s outer wall, Nané gathered her strength and sprang sideways, all four paws leaving the ground. The Fang barely had time to try and stop before its momentum carried it forward and into the nest’s outer wall. With an incredible tearing noise, it slammed through the pulpy wall and into the hive’s interior.
Instantly, hundreds of wasps thronged the air, pouring out of every orifice on the nest’s exterior. They dived down, burying the Fang’s huge, scaly body under a cloud of stingers and striped abdomen. Gita looked back as Nané carried her away.
The huge tail of the Fang thrashed, the only thing visible outside of the nest, and then a single roar of pain and anger echoed out into the night, lost under the thrum of the vengeful hive. The tail thudded to the ground and lay still.
Nané bore her away into the swamp, back towards the camp.
Celeste was still armoured and mounted when they got back to the camp. She slid out of the saddle and ran across to help Gita down, Duke Gyb striding up behind her.
“Gita! You’re ok?”
“Barely,” Gita said, unbuckling her helmet and drawing her aching body up to some semblance of attention. “Your grace,” she said, saluting.
“We lost some, your grace. At least one cat, two humans. The village was much more well-defended than we thought.” She shook her head. “They had a Fang, sir.”
The Duke frowned. “Had?”
“It’s dead. And the wasp nest has a pretty big hole in the side of it. They’ll be less of a problem until they fix the damage.” She shook her head. “We had to leave Sol Absin before seeing whether all the lizards were dead, but… they were in pretty bad shape. Now is the time to strike.”
Duke Gyb nodded. “Sound the muster,” he said, and a nearby guard hurried off. “And someone bring Regina. I would lead this myself.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know how you do it, Gita. Matteo would be proud.”
Her father’s name stole what little energy Gita was nursing, and she nodded wearily. “Thank you, your grace.”
“Get some rest,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll take it from here.” He moved away, to where a large saber-toothed tiger was stalking towards them. Trumpets began to sound, soldiers gathering weapons and armour.
Gita turned a tired smile to Nané. “Good job, girl. Like the man said, get some rest.”
I wish I could sign while you’re riding me, Nané signed. Because then I would have been able to tell you what a bloody stupid idea that was!
“Eh. It worked,” Gita said, patting the cat’s flank as she passed. “And get some of that lizardblood off you! It stains!”
The cat didn’t respond beyond flicking her tail up high in disgust.
Celeste came over to stand by Gita and put an arm around her shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get this armour off.”
They started to weave through the camp, against the flow of soldiers, and Gita pushed down the pang of sorrow that she was missing the fight. She looked at Celeste instead, at her long blonde hair matted by sweat and worse. “You going to tell me that was a stupid idea as well?”
“I’m not sure I need to,” Celeste said, shaking her head. She bent to undo the flap on their tent and ducked inside, and Gita followed, sitting heavily on her bedroll.
As Celeste doffed her own armour, Gita worked on her boots. The sounds of the camp diminished as the bulk of the army moved away, the night growing quieter again.
“That might have been a turning point,” Gita murmured. “The Duke’s been looking for a way to take Sol Absin securely enough to hold it.”
“We might get to go home,” Celeste said. “At least for a while.”
“Home…” Gita fumbled at the buckles of her armour, fingers numb. Celeste, wearing only her thin shirt and trousers, shook her head.
Gita let her work on the armour. “I don’t know if I want to go home,” she said. “Father… I’m not sure if things will be the same.”
“Things will be different,” Celeste said, leaning around to undo the buckles on Gita’s other side. Her head came close to Gita’s, bringing with it a wholesome scent. “But you’ll manage. You always do.”
The leather breastplate fell to the bedroll, but Celeste didn’t lean away. Instead, she gently slipped her arms around Gita. “And besides,” she said quietly. “I’ll be right there with you.”
Gita returned the embrace, arms tight around Celeste’s shoulders, and in the solitude of the empty camp she finally allowed herself to relax.