Thursday, June 11, 2009



Flavius jabbed at the moironteau with Memory, skewering one of the glassy black eyes rimming the gaping maw. The foothead flinched back. Then it roared, thick trails of slobber flicking over concentric rows of jagged teeth.

“We’re cut off!” shouted Acaona.

“Tell me something I dinnae already ken, lass,” growled Flavius, scanning the walls of the passage. “Do ya ken we can muscle our way through these walls here? In another minute or two this beastie’s going to figure out it can come down on top of us through the ceiling.”

Captain Pacal struggled to direct his cuayab at the foothead blocking the other end of the hall while carrying the empress’ limp form. The green stream of fire seared the foothead, which thrashed and snapped in response. Dust and rubble rained down from the hole. The walls around the foothead smoldered from the blast.

“It’s not enough,” Pacal said. “I can’t hit it with anything stronger–the blowback’ll burn us all.”

Acaona shrieked, cowering against the wall.

More debris rained down on them. Ominous fissure spiderwebbed across the ceiling.

“Whole damned place going to come down on us at this rate,” Flavius muttered. “Right then. Captain, try blowing yer fire down this other one’s gullet-- And ya cannae understand a word I’m saying.” Flavius grabbed Pacal’s shoulder and spun him around, relaying his intent with emphatic gestures clear in any language.

“Acaona! Acaona, lass, look alive. When I cut into that foothead blocking our way, yer only going to have a few seconds to get by,” Flavius said, pulling her up by the elbow. Acaona looked at him with eyes wild with fear.

“I don’t want to go. Not anymore. They’re too big. Too many.” The words tumbled out of her in a panicked rush.

“Keep yerself together just a wee bit longer, lass,” he said, clasping his hand to the side of her face. “When the beastie pulls back, ya get yerself down that hall as fast as ya can. Can ya do that? That’s a good lass.”

He motioned to Pacal, who loosed a stream of flame at the snapping maw of the pursuing foothead. Flavius lunged at the blocking foothead, stabbing and twisting with Memory. The foothead jerked then slammed Flavius broadside, throwing him to the floor. Memory fell to the floor beside him. The foothead thrashed wildly, crushing sections of the wall and ceiling to rubble.

“Cover yerselves! It’s coming down!” Flavius shouted.

Abruptly, the footheads pulled back from either end of the hall with startling speed.

The sounds of fighting and explosions echoed from distant parts of the palace, but the hall was otherwise silent, save for the crumbling, shifting debris of the hall.

“Is it gone?” Pacal wondered.

Flavius held up a hand of caution. He pulled himself deliberately from the remains of a partially collapsed wall, his right hand picking Memory up. “There’s something up there,” he whispered.

His eyes followed some unseen threat above them, moving this way then that. A blur of motion swept in through the hole in the ceiling. Flavius pivoted to meet it, Memory’s point halting less than a finger’s breadth from Parric’s clicking beak.

“We are leaving now,” Parric said, antennae contorting in extreme agitation as the Crafter hovered in midair. “Must be hurrying. No time to be losing.”

“Damn it, Parric!” Flavius shouted, mock-clutching at his heart. “Don’t do that! This poor man’s heart cannae take the shock!”

A fat, orange-segmented creature the size of a horse slid down a silken thread through the hole in the ceiling behind Parric. Nictating membranes blinked over its dark compound eyes. Its back bristled with hairy spines.

“Is the, ah, kitchen help here with ya?” Flavius asked.

“Yes,” answered Parric. “And Djserka is wanting muchly to be departing.”

“I am hardly ‘kitchen help,’” Djserka rumbled. “I am Djserka em Naga-ed-der former head of the Imperial--”

“And it’s a right bonny pleasure to meet ya, too,” Flavius interrupted before turning away. “Listen up, the lot of ya. Follow Parric. He’s the only one what kens where to go. He moves fast, so if ya don’t keep up, ya get left.” He cast a warning look to Acaona, who answered with a terse nod as she wiped her eyes. He took his pack from her and fished out a long, white shirt.

“Here. Ya put this on. It’ll nae fit worth a damn, but at least ya’ll feel less, uh...”

“Naked. Thank you.” She slipped it on. It hung tent-like over her slight frame. “I– I’m sorry for–“

“Nae time for that now, lass. We’re on the move.” Flavius gave her a quick kiss, then whispered in her ear. “Remember, follow Parric if yer still serious about taking yer chances at Tradefare. If nae, well, yer going to have plenty of chances to slip away in these next few minutes, I’ll wager. Nobody’ll think worse of ya if ya do.”

She managed an uncertain nod.

“I’m not understanding,” Parric said. “Are you sayings goodbye, or are you merely delaying us to all be victimings of the moironteau?”

“Right. Everyone, after Parric!”

Parric darted off down the hall, and the troupe lurched after him. Flavius fell in at the rear, beside Papantzin.

“Ya seem to have recovered from yer earlier mishap,” Flavius said.

Papantzin narrowed her eyes.

“Not enough, though, to use those unexpected fighting skills of yours against the beasties what were trying eat us. Or stomp us. I dinnae quite ken which.”

“It seemed reasonable,”she answered in measured tones, “that the odds of your surviving would be somewhat enhanced with my participation.”

“Oh, is that all? Well, why didn’t ya say so earlier?” Flavius slapped her on the back hard enough make Papantzin stagger. “I’m very glad we’ve had this talk. Remind me to garrote ya in yer sleep next chance I get.”

Parric led them down several flights of stairs and into a maze of corridors. The finely maintained carpets and paneling gave way to bare walls and exposed pipes. Alarms continued to pierce the air and so often they caught a whiff of smoke. The tremors came steadily now, although abrupt lurches had subsided. An oversized pair of doors blocking the passage flew open with a flick of Parric’s antennae.

Blazing white light blinded Flavius as he entered the chamber, and he rubbed his eyes with the heel of his had as they adjusted. Blinking hard, he took in his surroundings. He cocked his head to the side.

“Well,” he finally said. “There’s something I donnae see every day.”

Crystalline cylinders floated in stacked columns extending above and below as far as the eye could see. The columns were arranged in hundreds of rows to the left and right, each one extending back a seemingly infinite distance. Within the cylinders, suspended in buoyant translucent fluid, floated peq curled in fetal positions.


No comments: