It's become something of a tradition of mine to offer up a bit of fiction for the holiday season. This year might be considered something of a cheat, as it is an installment of MEMORY, the ongoing, online serial project of mine. I choose to think otherwise, however, mainly because I've been so wrapped up with other things it's been an unforgivably long time since I chronicled the adventures of Flavius and Parric. I'm still far too busy with different projects not to mention far too slow a writer, but for today, at least, Flavius and Parric live on. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you and yours!
Flavius leapt, the new sphere emitting a deep peal as he landed upon it. Upward they soared, knocking and jostling for position. Through the chaos of the spheres, Flavius glimpsed the service way, far to his left.
Gritting his teeth, he leapt again, and again. Each jump brought him closer. On his next jump, the sphere rolled, dumping him over. He hit the next sphere awkwardly, and tumbled sideways as it rolled as well. Again and again he fell, unable to regain his balance, until finally he landed and stuck, flat on his back.
Approaching quickly from above came the service way.
"Ach, this is gonna sting..." Flavius grabbed at the support struts underneath the walk an instant before the sphere hit. The impact knocked the air out of him, and for a moment Flavius knew he'd be crushed. The sphere rolled to the side then, and Flavius hooked an arm around the strut before he fell. Heaving a few deep lungfulls of air, he shoved Memory onto the walk, then hoisted himself over the railing onto the service way. His legs quivered warningly. Wiping his face with a sleeve, he scanned the service way for Anacaona, the Empress and the rest. There, far down the service way, amid the cascade of spheres, the orange bulk of Djserka lurched along, followed by the smaller figures of the women.
"Right then. Always the running after and catching up." Flavius stooped to pick up Memory, and suddenly the world twisted, stretched, then snapped back into place.
Flavius found himself lying prone on the walk, Memory beneath him. "What," he managed, climbing back to his feet, "in God's good name was that?"
He tested his limbs cautiously, wary they might break off at the joints or turn to limp strands of rope, but all seemed in order, save for the deep burn of over-exertion. Flavius charged after the others.
The service way grew steeper as he approached the others. It was impossible to see far through all the rising spheres, but Flavius was certain the walk hadn't torn loose from its supports. The Palace of Un-pic Ja'ab was listing.
Anacaona caught sight of him, waving and shouting. Then reality buckled once again. The palace turned inside out, boiling away in a thunderous gale.
As quickly as before, reality snapped back to normal. Flavius stared up into the sobbing face of Anacaona, her tears raining down upon him.
"Oh, Flavius, what's happening? What was that?"
"I donnae ken, Lass, but it cannae be good." Flavius shot a look to the others. "Empress?"
Empress Malinche, scowling imperiously, offered only a terse shake of her head. Even Papantzin's guise of cool confidence had cracked, as she scanned randomly about for a host of perceived threats.
The service way shuddered. A series of rolling booms echoed around them as the Ketza'qua strained against its bonds.
"If I may, there is an egress but a short distance ahead," Djserka said. "At this point, it is my belief the Ketza'qua will cast off its bonds long before we are able to make our way back to the Nexial gaps. The palace will not last much longer, I fear. Our best course would be to vacate."
"Then forward, ya beastie! Move!"
With Djserka in the lead and Flavius in the rear, they fought their way toward the door even as the way grew steeper. The tilt was unmistakable now, nearly ten degrees by Flavius' reckoning. The lifting spheres no longer rose directly past, but rather increasingly angled the same direction they moved. And the flow had slowed as well.
"The way forward is blocked," Djserka announced abruptly. "I cannot force a way through."
Flavius leaned over the rail, but couldn't see beyond Djserka's bulk. The way back, even if they wanted to retreat, was already blocked by coagulating spheres. "I could climb past ya, but I nae want to be skewered by yer spines there."
"It is possible for me to retract my defensive spicules temporarily."
"Then get retracting." Flavius swung himself over the railing, muscling for space against the spheres. "The rest of ya, follow along." Anacaona clutched his arm.
"Flavius... uh, please be careful."
Flavius patted her cheek. "Ah, lass, had ya only offered me that sage advice a week ago."
Flavius gingerly worked his way along the railing, wary of the warty black puckers of retracted spines. This close to the Naga-ed-der, he could smell the creature's astringent odor. Flavius blinked as his eyes watered. Anacaona followed close behind, with the Empress and Papantzin after. As Flavius reached the front, Djserka plucked him over the rail with a long, spindly arm, then helped Flavius pull the rest over.
"Stay close. When I start cutting," he said, "I donnae ken how long the path will stay open--"
"So keep pace or be left behind," finished Empress Malinche impatiently. "Yes. You've said that already."
"Right. But it, ah, bears repeating." Flavius swung Memory in a wide arc, shattering two spheres. Feather-light crystal shards rained down on him. He pushed forward, before the crush of spheres could fill the gap, and slashed again, breaking another. The women followed close behind, but the spheres pressed in quickly, making a tight fit for Djserka.
"I see it!" Flavius shouted, steadily smashing his way forward. "It's only about 20 more feet."
The doorway loomed ahead, a dark slash against the wall.
"Is it opening wider?" asked Anacaona.
"Opening?" Flavius peered forward. The opening was growing wider. And extending up and down the wall as well. "Sweet mer--"
A cascade of debris fell through the opening, smashing through the straining, buckled struts anchoring the end of the service way. "That's nae doorway, that's a break in the palace wall!"
The struts snapped. The service way twisted and bucked against the spheres, dropping from a ten degree rise to a twenty degree drop in rough, jerking fashion. Then it rumbled forward, smashing spheres left and right, through the growing fissure in the wall.
Through the cloud of dust and rubble they rode, through the breached wall, into the shrill night air. The length of service way snagged back inside somewhere, jerking to a stop. The railing collapsed, dumping Flavius, Anacaona, Empress Malinche and Papantzin into open air.
Flavius landed on something hard and metallic. Anacaona landed atop him, as did the Empress and Papantzin. "Get... off!"
Flavius pushed them off, and rose to a kneeling position. "Djserka?" he called.
"Here," Djserka said, lowering himself via thread. "You only fell seven mlara. Any farther and you may have sustained significant injuries."
A burning wej spun out of control in the distance, trailing smoke. Streaks of cuyab flame streaked here and there. Larger plasma beams lanced out from palace gun placements, burning moironteau into shriveled char. Moironteau... moironteau swarmed everywhere. Thousands of them, on the ground, in the air, illuminated by furious eruptions of crimson and emerald throughout the battlefield.
The steel-hard surface beneath them undulated then, and a fierce, rapid clattering in the distance rushed over them and past. It was a familiar clatter, one Flavius had heard before. "Oh, damn me sideways to hell. We're atop the wee beastie."
"Speak sense, Flavius," snapped Empress Malinche.
"I believe, Your Imperial Highness, that he means we currently stand upon a scale of the bound Ketza'qua," Djserka said.
"The Ketza'qua?" the Empress repeated with distaste. "For a servitor creature to debase the Imperial Personage with physical contact..." She shuddered. "No, no this is unacceptable. It will have to be disposed of."
"Oh, Yer Imperial Majesty's got much bigger problems than that just now," Flavius said, standing ready with Memory gripped tightly in both hands.
"The Ketza'qua is breaking free!" cried Anacaona. "It will kill us all!"
"Nae, Lass," Flavius answered, gesturing Memory toward the raging battle. "Yer wee beastie willnae get the chance."
Through the carnage of battle streaked a crimson blur, a serpentine body of scarlet propelled by wings blurred with motion. It raced toward them, its three pair of eyes locked on Flavius, antennae twitching in fury, casting off sparks of pure hatred.
Rapteer had come.