They came down a steep ramp (which was either set on a cloud-wrapped or floating on a thundercloud) as the fighters came at the train. They were winged jets and heavily armed. The crows, though, still screeching FREE! And SPEAK! Flew into their intake ports; hurled themselves to spatter on the windshields; and tore the rockets and bombs loose from under their wings and rode them to the alien earth.

The capybara pushed the train far beyond safe speeds and, when the cars began to jump the rails from the acceleration, fired the bolts that kept them attached, sending them flying into the battling chaos.

Nonetheless, They were hit numerous times, and Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone had to shelter Jeanette with his armor. Fortunately one of the blasts hit the canisters in the third car, and a blazing explosion of blazing sludge joined everything else in the air.

The capybara shouted over the chaos, “We’re going to ditch about two minutes before hitting the railhead! Make sure Jeanette is well sheltered!”“With my life!” The tiger answered.

As it was, the three of them dove right into a cluster of beetle-armored soldiers an instant before the engine exploded in a blinding fireball. Jeanette was bounced around, but she was held in a mighty grip that both steadied and cushioned her.

They got up before the soldiers, and thanks to the swings of the tiger’s longsword, most of the soldiers never even got to their knees. Senhor Capoeia’s two-handled energy projector took care of the rest.

The way was now clear to the front of the enormous black stone fortress. The heavy gates were shut, and squads of soldiers were coming in from the left and the right. “I’ve got an idea. Cover me!” Jeanette shouted. (Despite it all, she loved the idea of shouting “Cover me!”)

With the two of them on either side, she reached beyond the sixth wall, and in the best tradition of funny animals, pulled out a big black spherical bomb, complete with hissing sparking rope-like fuse, She rolled it like she still rolled a bowling ball: holding it in both hands beneath her bended knees, she threw both arms up and let it go with all her might. She ducked as the erth shook with a titanic BOOM!

There was a gaping hole in the fortress wall. The soldiers had only been stopped momentarily, but Lord Elphinstone was already charging, brandishing his enormous sword and roaring. AS Capoeira and Jeanette followed, the sky grew dark with crows.

Once they were inside, the beetles lost much of their advantages over them, as the low thick-walled passages made massed fire impossible. Moreover, a lot of the soldiers were not fully armored, since there had been no serious entertainment of then going that far. Thus they were off balance and brought their weapons up clumsily, and any unarmored flesh was slashed by the beaks and claws of crows.

Having deduced that cleverness was not the beetles’ strong suit, the three of them continued to fight downward and towards the center. They finally outdistanced and outslaughtered the enemy, and stood before a very low and very thick door. It took more than a minute for the capybara’s projected to melt a hole through it, and they stepped through the heat and the fumes.

The first thing Jeanette saw was the face of her father. “DADA!” She cried out in joy, and ran two paces to him--then she stopped and screamed.

He was chained to the wall and stripped to the waist, but what made Jeanette scream was the brutal scar that descended in bleeding raw zigzags from just below his eye nearly to his hip. Terence’s face lit up in a joy he had long given up, but it was a bloody sunken face mottled with a beard burned in places.

Standing five feel away in a shadow unlit by the greasy torches was a man-sized mantis, adorned with heavy jewelry. Behind it were racks of metal implements.

She ran to him anyway and embraced him on the side without the scar, and just murmured “dada, dada, dada” and brushing his waist with her chin and hair. There were two clangs she felt rather than heard as Silvertyger’s sword broke his chains. He embraced his daughter, but he was so weak, his hands so feeble that she could only feel his hands like feather-brushes on his shoulders.

That was when she broke down.

In two great strides Lord Elphinstone had grabbed the mantis and slammed it against the wall with one hand and brought his sword up. “One word from you, daughter, and this creature has its head fly from his shoulders,” he said in a voice like a saw.

“N-no,” Jeanette said after a few moments, unable to lift her head all the way. The savagery of his breath was enough to make her scared to see his face.

“I-I think…” Dr. Ransom said very slowly, “…that you should also tend to my companion over there…”

Senhor Capoeira Capybara rushed to a corner where another  figure was chained to the wall. This turned out to be an orangutan with large eyes and extra-long hair all over. It had white gloves, which made both Jeanette and Capoeira realize that Dr. Ransom’s golves hadn’t been removed either.

The capybara extracted a knife from somewhere in his fur and sprang the latches on all four chains. The orangutan collapsed to the floor, but quickly pushed itself up again. “Thank you, all three of you. Two of you are of our kind, n’est-ce pas? The same with me. My name is Grandmère Hutan, and in the long ago, I was a charming introducer of folktales to many little children, before the Exile.” She shut her eyes, and then opened them. “And I can tell you, yes that it is the gloves these creatures have looked for, and why I was taken and tortured, and the same for your father, pretty little Yahoo.”

The mantis spoke, and it spoke through its jewelry. “Yes. I will die at your hands, and that will not be an evil. But better will it be that before I die, I tell you why we have done what we have done.”


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