There was no time to tumble, no chance to leap free. The catwalk plummeted. Screams echoed from the sleek walls and shattered gestation tanks, mixing with the roars of the moironteau.
Flavius jerked violently, ripped away from the catwalk. It vanished into the darkness amid a continuing shower of debris. An instant later a pure, bell-like tone washed over him from below.
Flavius shook his head to clear away the fog, then took his bearings. In the feeble light spilling out of the hole above, he saw Acaona dangling beside him. As did the Empress Malinche and Papantzin. Djserka em Naga-ed-der gripped each of them with a long, spindly arm, his own flabby bulk suspended precariously by a single silken thread.
“Er... ’preciate the catch,” Flavius managed.
“You’re welcome. You’re also most unbearably heavy,” Djserka hissed through clenched mandibles. “And, might I point out, that at any moment a sliver of glass may sever my line?”
“Right, right. Parric! Parric!” Flavius called, but the Crafter of Ominik was nowhere to be seen. “Damnit, Parric, nae around when I need you. Acaona! Can ya give us some light with that wee torch of yers?”
She held out her cuyab and a cool green brilliance blazed forth.
“What is this place?” wondered the Empress Malinche.
“The underneath,” answered Acaona. “We’ve gone all the way down.”
Not more than thirty feet below, straining against taut, crystalline netting, gleamed iridescent spheres the size of cottages. The twisted remains of the catwalk impaled one broken, motionless moironteau. Two others lay a short distance away, their splattered blood virtually luminous in the cuayab light. A fourth moironteau twitched feebly, it’s body nearly severed through in several places by the netting. As chunks of shattered glass, peq and other debris rained down, soft, ethereal tones rang out from the spheres as if giants were running fingers across enormous wine goblets.
“Over there,” Flavius said, pointing to a narrow service way with a single hand rail crossing the steep mass of spheres. Along the way, it intersected other service ways cris-crossing the space above the netting. “They mound up toward the center. There’ll be access back inside there, most likely. Djserka, will yer thread hold enough for us to swing over?”
“I’ll have to spin another length or two for us to reach, but yes, my thread will hold our weight.”
“Do ya want us to--”
“Please, no. Just be still and let me do this on my own,” Djserka said, spinning out a length of thread to drop them lower. “If you start thrashing about, you’re more likely to dislocate and arm or three than anything useful.”
Djserka shifted its bulk subtly, and they swung back several feet. A moment later they’d moved twice as far forward.
“You’re good at this,” said Acaona.
“Dear girl, I’ve had plenty of practice,” Djserka answered. “It’s what we do.”
A large block of floor tumbled past, barely missing them. Flavius looked up to see two moironteau climbing through the hole. The beasts hadn’t yet noticed the thread amid the poor light and chaos.
“Let out more thread!” ordered Flavius on the backswing. “Enough to drop me down there without breaking my neck!”
“I do that and we’ll overshoot the service way,” Djserka protested.
“Donnae argue with me! Just do it!”
Djserka let out another ten feet of silk, the lurching extension imparting a wobbly spin to the party. As they swept through the lowest part of the arc, Djserka swung Flavius out and released him. With an involuntary shout, Flavius soared for a moment before planting his feet squarely atop the two dead moironteau.
Djserka fed out more thread as their arcing path carried them along, passing underneath the service way. The thead pressed taut against the bottom support rail, and Djserka’s momentum carried the em Naga-ed-der and passengers up and over the opposite side. Djserka quickly grabbed the safety rail with its hindmost suction pads, balancing precariously before setting Acaona, the Empress and Papantzin down roughly. Djserka hung precariously on the narrow service way, wrapped nearly all the way around it and dwarfing the three women.
“That was...” gasped Malinche, “entirely unacceptable.”
“Donnae just stand there yammering!” shouted Flavius as he clambered down the dead moironteau. “Them beasties are still coming! Get a godamned move on!”
The moironteau had spotted them, letting out squeals of recognition. One pushed off from its jagged perch and dove at Flavius, teeth bared in all eight footheads.
Flavius slashed Memory across the strands of netting. They separated with a whipping snap, and three iridescent spheres burst through like shot from a canon.
The first sphere hit two footheads a glancing blow with a beautiful, ringing tone, enough to send the moironteau spinning. The second struck it more solidly before shattering with the sound of a thousand jingling bells. The moironteau flailed as it fell, crashing through the service way scant feet ahead of Acaona before slamming into the netting below.
The impact caused a lurching shift among the spheres, and two more escaped from the rent in the net.
“Back this way,” Flavius shouted. “We’ll follow the perimeter until we find another connecting service way.
One escaped sphere rolled uneasily upon the ceiling above, its movement hampered by various utility pipes and vents protruding from the palace’s underside. The second moironteau clung to the ceiling, footheads keeping wary watch on both the spheres and Flavius. The third and fourth escaped sphered had found the gaping hole and escaped through into the ruined peq cloning chamber. One took a startled moironteau along for the ride after it chose an inopportune moment to pass through the hole. Through the opening shadows mingled as more moironteau joined the hunt.
The women passed over Flavius, followed by Djserka, almost comical as it clambered along the too-small service way. It dropped a loop of thread down to Flavius as it went.
“Thanks again,” Flavius said as Djserka hauled him up.
“There certainly is a prodigious number of those vile creatures,” Djserka said as they moved. The damaged service way wobbled with every step.
“That there is. And to ken it only took one to kill me before.” Flavius cast a worried glance back. No fewer than six moironteau had gotten through and were following along the roof. “Acaona, lass, can ya give us some cover fire?” he shouted past Djserka.
In answer, Acaona sent a spray of emerald bursts back at the moironteau. A few even struck home, slowing their pursuit noticeably.
“We’re nearly to the perimeter, Flavius,” Empress Malinche announced. “It looks wide enough to land a wej on.”
“I ken Djserka will appreciate--”
The rumble came upon them like rolling thunder, but at a much deeper pitch. Far more menacing. Flavius grabbed at the railing a hair’s breadth too late. The shockwave struck, throwing him from the service way. His innards slammed against his ribcage as he fell. Massive fissures snaked through the underside of the palace. Steam burst from ruptured pipes. Moironteau fell like rag dolls. The cut Flavius had made in the netting zippered open under the strain, and hundreds of buoyancy spheres launched themselves up, some shattering along the way, but all of them singing their ghostly music.
Flavius hit a sphere, snagged his foot on a strand of netting and tumbled. He slipped and slid through the gaps in the spheres, losing his grip on Memory along the way. The thought of skidding all the way through the spheres to fall to his death on the other side flashed through his mind, but he abruptly came up hard against a rough, unyielding surface.
“Ow. Ach,” he muttered, twisting his body a less mangled position. He felt his throbbing forehead and found it wet, hot and sticky. Flavius quickly realized he was thoroughly soaked, and more than a little disconcerted that in the darkness he couldn’t tell if the blood was his, peq or moironteau. As he stared at his hands, a soft green glow illuminated them, black with blood.
“Acaona?” he said, looking up. She was nowhere to be seen. The illumination grew stronger. “Acaona!”
“Flavius!” Her answering call was distant, high above him. “Where are you? What happened?’
Flavius flexed his fingers, intensely aware of Memory’s absence. He swallowed, then deliberately turned to look behind him.
The blazing green eye of the Ketza’qua stared back.
Apologies for the long delay in this installment. It wasn't intentional, I swear. I've posted some personal thoughts about chapter 40, as well as the whole "Memory" experiment thus far, over at my personal blog for anyone who's interested.