Thunderhead 2

hes-back-cra3ch2

Illustration by Grace Pyles.

The dragon shredded bits of glowmoss as its claws worked relentlessly, scattering points of light into the sky like the tail of a comet. The only sounds were the wind and the horrible scrape of talon on stone. The dragon used its claws as wedges, jamming them into the cracks around a slab from the outer citadel wall, then worked back and forth, the flames in its eyes burning with a ferocious patience.

“Ha!” Karla shouted. “Good luck! It’ll be stuck doing that for hours–“

A heavy clunk cut her off. The bone dragon had worked the stone free. As nimble as a bird, it beat its sail-sized wings and flew backward, clinging with one claw to the castle. The stone block tumbled into the sky, punching through the cloud of drifting moss. Karla saw right through to the dark hole beyond.

She heard herself scream. It was Kio’s name that came out, though she didn’t know what she needed him for. Her friend was transfixed by dragon. His head moved in rhythm with the lurching scrape of its arms.

After ten long years, maybe he’d broken. But that was no excuse to stand still. She grabbed him around the middle and pulled him back to hide behind one of the prop shaft engine blocks.

“It’s different this time,” was the first thing out of his mouth.

“Is not. It’s the same. We beat it before, and we’ll beat it again.”

She clamped her hands over her ears while the dragon worked its talons into the slot around another stone. Mara, that grinding was a horrible sound. She never wanted to hear it again.

Kio had plugged his ears too, had scrunched up his face so his tattoo contracted, but he babbled on the moment the dragon let up. “It was terrified last time. Enraged, lost. It didn’t know why it was here.”

“And you think it knows now?” Karla coiled, ready to run. “Kio, it’s destroying the castle because it’s lost its mind!”

“No!” Kio shouted. “It’s breaking into the citadel because it found its mind!”

“Are you saying this is the same one we destroyed?”

“We don’t know there’s more than one. If there’s not, and it can rebuild its body, why can’t it rebuild its brain?”

Another stone slid out and fell. The gap was widening. This time, the sound of the castle wall being torn open reached Karla from far away. Like she’d finally succeeded in pushing that awful noise away…

…No. She knew this kind of distance. It was exactly how she felt in her waking dreams. Those visions she was sure weren’t dreams.

Stop! she screamed. I can’t drift off now, I have to be here! I have to stop that demon! I have to protect Kio!

Her mouth only ignored her for a few seconds. It felt like far more time. The vision was not a long one. But it was new. Karla saw herself and Kio, huddling in the scant light from a flickering torch. They were young–very young–and the room beyond them was so vast the light spilled out without hitting a single wall…

Enough! With a tremendous effort, Karla wrenched her mind back from whatever had taken control of it. This is no time for Year Zero stuff to be getting in the way.

When she came to, Kio had one arm around her and the other around the engine block for support. “Did you see that?” she demanded of him.

“See what? The third block it’s taken out?”

“No! That–that room…” Could the dragon have some sort of power over minds, too? Did its roars actually reach into her head, instead of just feeling like they did? “Never mind. We need a plan.”

“No, what room?” Kio crouched down across from her behind their cover. “You could have seen something important. Karla, it wants the heartsphere.”

All the warmth she had left drained out of her. “Are you sure?”

“I’m not, but what else makes sense? That’s what it remembered. That’s what it came back for.”

“Then there’s no time for a plan.” She pressed her forehead quickly against his, then bolted out from their hiding place.

“Karla, wait!” Kio exploded out from the other side, bellowing a high-pitched war cry.

The heartsphere was the one thing they could not let the bone dragon have. The fact that neither she nor Kio ever went near it made it no less critical. It was the foundation everything was built out from, the glue that held the castle together. According to some of their books, it was the reason the castle existed. Though even the sky kingdoms couldn’t back that claim up.

The machine deck didn’t have as much ammunition lying around as the workshop or the hangar, but Karla was halfway through three different maintenance tasks on the propellors, and two ideas for improving them. She grabbed a heavy iron o-ring and hurled it at the dragon. It slammed into a rib with a satisfying crack, but the dragon didn’t even turn its head.

Karla didn’t stop. A metal restraining bar was next. Kio grabbed a horseshoe-shaped bracket, and they threw at the same time. Both missiles bounced off the dragon and fell away.

They kept throwing. Loose masonry, broken bits of chair, seed pods, a hollow pumpkin. Nothing even got the dragon’s attention.

“See what I mean?” Kio yelled, at the same time Karla shouted, “Bigger objects!”

“It’s obsessed!” he called, as they headed for the tower door at the end of the deck. “It’s not going to stop until it gets to the heartsphere!”

Karla threw the door open. “And then what?”

“I don’t know.”

Two pairs of feet pounded up the spiral stairs. “Doesn’t matter. We can’t let that happen.”

The staircase’s first landing opened onto the statuary corridor, a once-imposing room whose stained-glass windows had been smashed out by hail long ago. Karla didn’t like it–it wasn’t good for a garden or a smokehouse or anything else. It was only good for sleeping in.

And for containing large, heavy, otherwise useless objects. Karla ran over to the nearest: a bald, bearded man with a stern face, leaning on the hilt of his sword, over a faded etching on a small plinth that read Graymire Rokhshan. “Help me push this!”

Kio raced to do so. The floor was smooth marble. The heavy statue soon began to slide.

“What are you thinking?”

“Look ahead.” At the end of the hall, between the two staircases spiraling down, a broad window opened onto deep gray sky.

Kio gave a hysterical smile. “Is it…really sitting right underneath that?”

“We’ll find out on three. One–hey!” The statue began sliding. “Kio! Quit it! I said three!”

She raced to get her hands on it while he pushed. It was as heavy as anything on board, but neither she nor Kio was exactly weak, either. If this didn’t knock some sense into the dragon, nothing would.

They were halfway to the window when the vision took over again.

Karla buckled to her knees. This time, Kio stopped too, leaning against Graymire Rokhshan as though his marble great-great-something-grandfather could provide answers. That was the last thing she saw before she plunged back into that vast, black room, with that Kio who wasn’t Kio.

The dim light played over their young faces. Her hair was much shorter. His wasn’t there at all. The floor sloped, she could see now, like they were halfway to being washed down some horrible drain to the underworld.

Her mouth formed words. How long has it been?

He answered. I dunno. Quit asking.

We don’t have any food.

And we can’t find the exit, so who cares?

We’ve gotta get out.

We’re never getting out. The little boy stared unblinkingly into the light. I forgot where the doors are.

That was it. Karla wanted to wake up. She convulsed, whether in the vision or the statuary corridor she didn’t know. She couldn’t stay here. This place was dark enough to be a tomb. It felt like it was sucking up all the light she’d ever seen, all the light the little girl she was ever would see.

If she didn’t wake up right now, she never would.

Karla.

Shut up! Who are you, anyway?

Karla! Kar–

“Karla!”

It was the real Kio, shaking her awake. Below the wide window, the dragon was still methodically ripping open the citadel. Soon he’d have a hole big enough to fit through.

She reached up to hug Kio before remembering they had work to do. “Let’s finish this. Then we’ll talk.”

He put hands on the statue. “Um…about what?”

“You know what. Push!”

Three paces left. Then one. Graymire hit the window plinth-first, and Karla and Kio shifted their hands upward. The statue toppled without a fight.

She heard the splintering crunch a second later, the sound of bones shattering. She raced to the ledge. Kio began, “What did you want to–“ but she held up one finger to shush him. She wasn’t ready to go back to that black room. At least until she was absolutely sure they’d taken the dragon out.

The two of them leaned over the window ledge, Karla on her feet, Kio on his knees.

Below them, the bone dragon was still fighting the castle wall with all its strength. The Rokhshan statue had lodged upside-down just above its legs.

“It’s moving a bit slower,” Kio ventured. “With the extra weight…”

But as they watched, the thing reformed its bones. Those close to the statue rippled outward like water disturbed. Soon it had produced a gaping hole in its own back half, big enough for the statue to fall free. It followed their other projectiles down to the rolling ocean, while the bone dragon kept tearing unencumbered.

Karla gaped. Not seconds later, with a last awful scrape, the dragon had removed the final piece of wall it needed. It began to sniff its way, headfirst, into the inner citadel.

“It’s…it’s out of reach.” Kio gained his feet unsteadily, leaning on the window frame. “It’s gone.”

“It is not gone!” Karla exploded, much louder than she meant to, but for a reason. She absolutely needed to keep the year zero vision from coming back. She needed to shout, to throw things, to act on this world in order not to slide back into the other one.

Kio darted away from the window. “You’ve got a plan?”

“We don’t need a plan! It’s let a gaping hole behind it!” Karla pounded her fists on the stone wall. “My plan is to throw stuff through that hole!”

For a moment, Kio was silent. Then his whole face lit up. “I think I know something that could help!”

Karla whipped around. “What is it?”

“I can hit it with water. But I have to get to the kitchen.”

“The kitchen? Why?“

“To build a weapon.”

Kio’s face had a particular cast to it that showed up whenever he’d considered an idea for long enough to be comfortable pulling it off. This one hadn’t taken very long. He must have really trusted it. And when Kio trusted something, she kinda had to as well.

She nodded. “There’s a spear gun that can aim down into that hole. I’ll shoot it as many times I can. That should slow it down enough for you to get back here.”

“Thanks.” Kio took a couple of steps back. “I’ll see you soon!”

“Kio!” she called, right as he was about to turn away. “You saw it too. Right? I saw you stumble.”

“Year zero stuff,” he mumbled. For him, that ended the conversation.

Fair enough, she thought. They both had work to do.

Down the stairs, up another flight when they forked at the landing–Karla knew the path so well she hardly touched the ground. Through a short corridor, hung with joints of drying gull, she careened out onto a thin ledge that ran alongside the enclosed path to an old solarium. Though some vines and moss grew along it, it wasn’t wide enough for a garden. But it was just big enough for a spear gun.

This one didn’t have a seat, just a pair of handles for Karla to grab and swivel inward. She’d built each turret on a wheel that spun three-hundred sixty degrees. Swinging it to point back at Nashido took no time at all.

Halfway concealed by the hole it had made, the bone dragon dug onward. Its body shook like some vile spore sac about to burst.

Karla’s mouth turned up. It won’t see this one coming.

She lined up her shot. Just before squeezing the trigger, she wondered for a split second what Kio’s idea was–

–suddenly, all she wanted to think about was the black room.

A wordless yelp of pain escaped her mouth. It was more pervasive than ever before. The memory had its claws in her as surely as the spear was about to be lodged up the dragon’s rear end.

“I…am…busy!” she roared. The last word came out like a squawk.

Acting. Fighting. That was the only thing that would keep her in the here and now. She shot the dragon.

The spear flew true and stuck cleanly between two lower ribs. Karla whooped, grabbed the lever to wheel it backward.

With one motion, the dragon flexed its body and ripped the spear off the wall by the end of its cable. The turret went with it.

In that moment, Karla surrendered herself to the vision.

It wasn’t a conscious decision. She wasn’t capable of making one when she had so little idea what was happening in her head. The black room pulled her in through an opening she left, and she noticed, rather than decided, that she had to see it through to the end.

We’ve gotta get out.

We’re never getting out. I forgot where the doors are.

In the vision, she crawled toward the young boy. It’s Kio, right?

He glared. Lord Kio of House Rokhshan.

Kio Rokhshan, we are getting out.

I forgot–

We will find the doors!

They hunched over the torch. I feel strange, said Dream-Kio.

Hungry?

No. Strange.

You feel alive. She held out her hand. Let’s go.

In the real world, Karla started to fall.

Thunderhead 1

There was more to do. On Nashido there always was. The sky kingdom was blocking sunlight on the starboard side, and the moss was dimming in protest. Kio and Karla spent several hours dragging mirrors around to charge the moss with sunlight so the castle wouldn’t plunge into pitch darkness at nightfall.

The vines were parched too. It hadn’t rained for the three days they had been holed up in the hangar. The largest ones had vast stores of moisture in their tissue, and didn’t mind much, but the smaller, newer ones had paper-dry bark and disconcerting brown spots. So the two humans drank from the mist garden, and the half-rebuilt aqueduct was set aside for the oxygen vines.

“Why do plants have to die anyway?” Karla grumbled, sprinkling precious water on a bed halfway up the northern hemisphere of Nashido, which she’d climbed out the window of an Outer Citadel bedroom to reach. She knew plants had life cycles–the great vines that produced most of the oxygen for the crystal-maintained atmosphere had once been thinner around than her arm. Still, it didn’t seem fair.

“Are you thinking it’s not fair?” Kio called up. He was leaning out the window, ready to catch Karla if she fell off the series of gears she’d climbed up to reach the curved soil bed.

“Well it’s not.” She dripped more water from a can with holes battered in it. “When they’re around whole systems of plants, they die so they can feed the others. But we have one closed system. It would be so much more convenient if they could just live forever.”

“Those are just the rules, Karla.”

“Why do the sky and earth and middle have to follow the same rules?”

“They don’t always,” Kio said, probably thinking about runes.

Karla’s can ran out of water. She gingerly handed it down to Kio, trying to ignore the rough cut of metal on her wrists. Vines themselves were much easier to climb, but they didn’t go everywhere–Nashido’s perfectly fitted stones were partly covered with gears large and small whose purposes they could only sometimes determine. Their best guess for the ones on the bedroom towers was some kind of dumbwaiter.

Vaulting in through the window as Kio dodged aside, she decided it was high time they built drip irrigation for the smaller soil beds. Another thing to look for up in the sky kingdom.

She looked up, on instinct, but only saw a stone ceiling. Kio squinted at her.

The vast floating island had kept pace with them all morning–or Nashido had followed it. When the sun was out, it cast its shadow over the reservoir, the kitchen and storerooms, the hunting platform and observation towers and the aft-jutting machine deck lower down. When clouds closed over them, like they were right now, the kingdom remained barely visible as a speck half-wreathed in the world of gray.

It loomed over their conversation, too. Unless Karla was angry about plants or Kio was uncomfortable with the direction Karla was pointing something sharp, they were talking about how to get to the sky kingdom.

“We keep coming back to the same problems,” Kio lamented, as they worked on opposite sides of a water catchment pod, screwing it down to the one large girder they’d salvaged from the aqueduct. “All twelve kingdoms we’ve explored so far have been on a level with us. We could zipline from our highest point to their flatlands, and then run another line back to our lower half.” His wrench slipped, and he looked over the pod at her with a fretful expression. “Do you think it’s because of rune decay?”

Karla decided they wouldn’t gain anything from pursuing that. They were going to find what they needed, and until then, there was no use worrying.

“I’ve been thinking about runes, actually,” she said instead. “I have a theory.”

“What is it?” Kio attacked another bolt.

“It’s about what the big runes do.” She had her side finished, so she scuttled around to help with is. “You know what gravity is, right?”

“Force exerted by objects with great mass on objects without it,” Kio grunted. “The number one rule the sky kingdoms and Nashido have to break to exist.”

“Yeah. But I’ve been thinking about how they break it.”

Kio paused his work to stare at her. “You solved magic? Without even going into the library?”

“Being in there hasn’t helped you much,” Karla retorted. “Listen for a second. If you know gravity, you know there are some important characteristics of being without it.”

“Zero gravity, yeah. There’s no force biasing motion one way. So anything you do will exert a reaction in whatever direction it wants, unopposed.”

“I mean, I read about friction–“ she paused for a second, but Kio didn’t seem surprised “–but that helps us. In space, we’d just keep going forever.”

“Hang on. Helps us do what?”

“That’s what I’m getting at. I think those big runes aren’t propping Nashido up, necessarily.” She leaned closer and pushed hair out of her face. “I think they’re making the castle behave as though it’s in zero gravity.”

Kio brushed his face tattoo absently. “Sure. Maybe. But you still haven’t said what we’re supposed to do with this information.”

“Think, Kio!” Karla laid into the row of bolts again, tightening the cloud-catcher down to the girder. “The propellors push air behind us to create forward thrust. We need–“

Comprehension exploded like a firework onto Kio’s face. “–to let out a ton of force downward to create upward thrust.”

“Maybe more than a ton.” Karla finished the last bolt and happily inspected her work. “But yup. That’s the idea.”

The triangle of three observation towers had different gears than the living keeps: big ones that Kio theorized had belonged to a telescope which had broken off at some point, with belts of tanned hide running between them. They’d repurposed these to hoist and lower the aqueduct, but it was still a bit of climb to get where they needed to be to lift the girder back into place. While they climbed, and then while they hauled, they shouted ideas at each other about what they could jettison to launch up toward the sky kingdom.

“There’s always cabbage,” Karla called as she mounted a platform with a spear turret, halfway up from the reservoir.

“Enough with the cabbage. I like cabbage,” Kio shouted back. “Besides, if we had a ton of any kind of food we wouldn’t need to shoot birds for months. Or spreading our own dung on things.”

Karla shuddered enough at the thought of months of cabbage that she was sure Kio could see from all the way across the chasm.

The great girder, with its big cloud-catcher pod fixed to its center and ropes tied to either end, lurched up the space between the towers in fits and starts. In the dark gray light, it looked like some kind of knife-edge mountain ridge on one of the surface islands, being pushed upward inch over inch by some exhausted god. As Karla hauled, she looked over its crisscrossing struts, appreciating what she’d done to get this here. Glad that she’d placed it, and would place it again, even though she hadn’t made it.

But there were other things we didn’t place at all…

Her hands froze on the rope. Kio yelped as he took a much greater share of the strain. “Sorry!” she yelled to him across the gap, and then, once they’d leveled out the beam: “I know what to jettison!”

***

“You’re sure about this?” Kio asked, because he wasn’t.

“Absolutely,” Karla replied, pretending she was. Kio chose to be reassured anyway, which in the end wasn’t very reassuring.

They’d worked late into the afternoon, and now rested amid a darkening sky with no sunset to be seen. A band of moss spread across the walls of the outer citadel gave off a warm light.

They were standing on what, if the machine deck was aft and the hangar forward, would have been the starboard side of Nashido. The mist garden clung to the port side, founded on giant single slabs riveted together by the carved ends of support pillars. Balancing it on the other side was a balcony with a staircase up to an outer citadel hallway. A door on the other side of the balcony led into the only residence tower on the castle that pointed straight down. It was a quiet spot, sheltered from the ever-present wind, with one of their vegetable gardens in the corner of the veranda. Kio really hoped it would remain quiet when they twisted the tower in exactly the right way to drop it clear seaward.

“You’re sure the math is right?” Karla asked.

“Are you? You double-checked it.”

“Yeah, but I want to hear you say it.”

“Why?” Kio leaned back on the balcony rail, tried to look nonchalant, failed.

“Because you like to be sure of things. I like getting to the doing things part. So I trust your math more.”

Kio was mostly busy making sure their balcony really was attached by its own pillars that wouldn’t fall off, but he found the courage to nod. “I’m sure.”

He shivered in his layers of fur, feeling the crinkle of the dozens of torn-out pages he’d stuffed into his pockets. There were formulas in ancient ink plus his own calculations in smeared charcoal. He’d never found blueprints of Nashido in the library, not for lack of searching, but he had found information about the building style the cut and fitted stones copied. All the posts bearing the weight of the hanging structure had slotted ends carved to fit with similar slots in the stone floor of the inner citadel. On their own, the poles would never budge. With just the right push, however…

Kio’s eyes traveled up to the base of the two-story bedroom tower, which they’d encircled with rope. The far ends of all the ropes were lashed to their source of torque: the two great propellors. And what had they run the ropes through to ensure they’d apply force in the right direction?

He laughed a bit, probably out of fear. Gears. Ridiculous Rokhshan gears. He didn’t even have a theory about these underside models. But that didn’t matter. They were useless no more.

“Ready?” he asked Karla.

“Let’s go,” she said. They scuttled up through the doomed bedroom, into the hallways.

On the machine deck, she revved the engine to ensure it still had power. They’d dismantled the lightning rod extensions to rebuild the aqueduct, and it would be an enormous hassle to refill the battery–but the engine turned over the first time. Karla shot Kio a look, and chuckled a lot like he had on the balcony. “No more excuses.”

“Just do it.” Kio’s stomach turned.

Karla nodded, checked her hair was tied back, and threw the lever forward.

He leapt at her. “Slower! You’ll rip the props off!”

She throttled back, quieting a terrible whine and screech from right below their feet. But the louder, deeper sound, the grind of stone on stone, continued.

It happened all at once. One second, Nashido’s outline looked like it had been for ten years, like it had been for all of Kio’s life. The next moment, for the first time since he’d known where he was, part of the castle was falling away. The ropes bound around the tower twisted it, then shoved it, the grinding growing loud enough to drown out the wind. The low tower slid free of its moorings, released its grasp on the balcony, and tilted.

Once it was free, it fell so quickly Kio thought there must have been magic involved. As though Nashido’s exception to gravity had been suddenly revoked on that tower, yanking it hard out of the castle’s sphere.

The ropes jerked taut, then went slack as they lost their load. The propellors went gratefully quiet. Kio turned away and covered his eyes with his arm, leaning against the instrument panel Karla was working. She laid a hand on his shoulder, kept throttling back with the other. “It’s all right,” she said. “We got everything useful out.”

“It’s not that.” Kio gritted his teeth. “We’ve never lost any of it before, Karla. We’re supposed to be the guardians of Nashido.”

Only after the words were out did he realize how Rokhshan he sounded. “We’re supposed to protect ourselves,” Karla replied. “We’re making a trade. One tower we don’t need for–“

Her grip on his shoulder tightened. “Kio, look!”

Against his will, he did.

In the gray evening sky, it was difficult for any milestone to show how fast they were moving. The only way to tell would be by the sky kingdom itself, the tiny speck of–

Not a speck anymore.

Kio stumbled to his feet. Karla shut the propellors off hard, whooping with joy. The sky kingdom was growing, expanding to fill the arc of sky they could see. In seconds it was the size of the tallest towers of Nashido from where they were. A minute after that, they were close enough to see ruts and furrows of rock on the underside, along with–Karla grabbed Kio’s arm and pointed it–amazingly large lifting runes carved into them. Their light was faint, and some old ones were dead. But channels of glowing energy ran between the others in a net of power as beautiful as a sky full of stars.

Their scheme had worked. They were going to the sky kingdom.

They were also, Kio reflected later, looking entirely the wrong direction for what came next.

It was not until he heard the roar that Kio realized what a bad idea it had been to launch something off the castle, that day, when the clouds were too thick to see anything coming at them. Somehow, the dragon must have been able to pierce the veil. For anybody who could see to the horizon, the tower they dropped into the sea would be a beacon shone out to miles around. Come and get us.

The bone dragon sailed up through the clouds, gaining form as it went, pounding its silvery wings. It might have been the same one, rebuilt, or it might have been bigger. By the time Kio noticed it, he was beyond thinking of such things.

One final wingbeat flipped the dragon in midair, head down, eyes glaring right at them. With a hiss that shook Kio’s own bones, its talons slid into the gaps the tower had left behind.

Karla shouted his name from somewhere far away. The dragon’s fiery eyes turned, its tangle of legs splaying over the citadel’s surface. It wasn’t looking at them anymore.

Kio knew as surely as he knew gravity worked most of the time. The dragon wanted Castle Nashido.

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Wings 6

Kio had his latest apology loaded in the quiver and ready to loose when the sweating, panting heap known as Karla hauled herself over the very edge of the hangar. Immediately, he lost the words. He wasn’t feeling great himself–soaked and red-faced from turning the heavy winch crank in the workshop, a task even mechanical advantage could only make so much easier–but he ran the several steps to Karla and threw his arms around her.

She shook in his embrace. Whether from fear or excitement, he couldn’t tell.

“Karla,” he began, once he’d coaxed her to sit down on the castle side of the hangar, near their calendar, “I’m so sorry, I…”

“You noticed the hairline fracture in the joint right before we set off,” she said, and slumped sideways to rest her head on his shoulder. “And it wasn’t in the solid dowel, it was one of the hollow bones. You figured it would hold one of us, but not two. And there was no time to tell me.”

“Well…yup, that’s about right.” The laugh that came out sounded high-pitched to his ears. In fact, it was not about right. He hadn’t predicted the fracture or the rip in the canvas. He’d just not trusted one block and tackle to lift them back to safety from a dead hang.

Damn you, he scolded himself, grow the hell up and tell her the truth.

“Or, no. Karla, it’s not.” He hung his head. “I was scared. I backed out because I thought I would be more help here, and I didn’t have the guts to tell you, and I’m sorry.”

She paused for a long time, long enough for his shoulder to start itching under her hair. Then she said, “Kio, we are both going to apologize to each other one more time, and then we’ll be done forever, all right? Do you agree we can assume apologies in future situations?”

“I…dunno if this is really a problem that calls for an engineering solution,” he coughed, “but sure. I’m sorry.“

“It’s all right.” She spoke quickly, cutting off what would have been a long explanation of why. “That was your last apology and I accept it. You weren’t scared, you were cautious, and you saved me, so I accept it and maybe don’t even have the right to do that. Now I’m gonna do mine.”

aw-now-its-the-sad-part-cra2ch6-1

Illustration by Grace Pyles.

His eyes strayed to where Raven lay in a crumbled heap on the lip of the hangar. Beyond, the clouds were burning off, the white canyon evaporating into air.

“I’m sorry for freaking out about the hollow bone burning. They aren’t actually that hard to make.”

“I should know.” Kio rubbed his shoulder, where a ghostly ache was pounding softly. “I hollowed a dozen of the damn things. But, Karla, the problem is we don’t have enough wood.”

“And I’m sorry I didn’t take the rune decay thing seriously. I did, really, I just thought the dragons were more important. I don’t know. Kio…”

Through her head on his shoulder, he could feel her swallow. He gulped too. This was going to be bad.

“…one of them’s fully dark. Just scratches on the stone.”

He hunched reflexively. “What?”

“It’s dark, Kio. A whole lifting rune is gone.”

She lifted her head and looked at him. Like something had burned him, he scrambled back across the calendar, still facing her. For some reason, he couldn’t talk about the runes while holding her. It felt safe, too safe for a conversation about how they were both definitely going to die.

“You have to go,” he said, still on his knees. “Take Raven to the surface. No more testing. We’ll fix the fracture and then you can go.”

“What are you on about?” Karla sprang to her feet, running her fingers through her ponytail. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“We can get Raven ready to fly one of us in time. I don’t know about two.”

“Kio.” She held a hand out to him. “What’s our promise?”

Why would she ask that now? He got the strong sense she was bursting to tell him something else, but he was trying to save as many people as he could. It wasn’t like he was volunteering to die.

Right? “It’s not about that,” he stammered, “it’s, I’m not…“

“Please.” She grabbed his hand and hauled him up without waiting for him to volunteer it. “Just say it.”

“Fine. Neither of us goes to the surface without the other one.”

“And?”

“Whatever happens to us on Nashido happens to both of us. Karla–“

“Raven flies with two passengers, or she doesn’t fly at all.”

For a second, Kio lost his words. Karla seized the window to jump into the thing he guessed she’d wanted to say all along. “We can fix the runes and find wood before we fall.”

Flabbergasted again. What did she mean? He thought of making a joke about how she’d never wanted to do anything more than work on Raven, but now didn’t seem the time.

“How?”

“There’s a sky kingdom up there.”

Kio decided he was just going to stop talking. Karla grinned, almost certainly enjoying the way she kept knocking the words out of his mouth. “It changes everything. There might be something we can use to fix the runes. And weapons to set up against bone dragons.”

“We talked about that. We’ve never found any weapons before.”

“Yeah, but what if we just didn’t know what to look for? Besides, you said it yourself. Maybe they just didn’t think the weapons were worth writing about. Maybe sky kingdom people could see them plain as day and didn’t leave us the first clue on how to think like they do. And we don’t have all the books.” She started pacing, shook her head. “I’ll help you research rune decay, spend time in the library if that’s what it takes, and I’ll help you build weapons too so neither one of us has to do it alone.”

Kio rubbed his eyes. That did sound nice. And explained why she’d made him remember the promise. “I suppose you’re going to say the first step to both of those problems is that we need to find a way to get to that sky kingdom.”

Karla nodded vigorously, hair slashing the air behind her. “And find more wood, too. Raven might work if the entire skeleton is flexible, or maybe the hollow bones are a red herring. But we have to keep experimenting.”

The soles of Kio’s hide shoes weren’t thick enough to keep him from feeling the calendar gouges in the floor of the hangar. He looked from his friend, to the half-smashed hulk of their ornithopter, to the brightening blue sky beyond the room.

He really didn’t like the sky kingdoms. They’d explored twelve of them in the ten-ish years he could remember, and each time, it had taken him weeks to recover. Maybe longer–he wasn’t good at weeks. Each one had been too much to take in, too much to see. The height of the buildings, the strange machines, the staircases as wide as Nashido. The vast halls whose purposes he could only guess at from his books. Not to mention the hard labor of making hundreds of trips back and forth for supplies, tossing the loads onto the tops of Nashido’s towers, knowing he and Karla would have to go without for ages if they didn’t scrounge everything they could. He preferred books, which were small and didn’t throw themselves at you.

She’s right, though. No matter what, they had to look. It could keep them in the air long enough to reach the ground at their own pace. Or just kill them faster. But what else was he gonna do?

“How high is it?” he asked.

“Eight hundred feet straight up.”

“How are we going to get up there?”

“We’ll figure it out.” Karla was hunting for a spike, planning to mark the mostly-successful test on the calendar. “We’re all we have.”

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Wings 5

For three days, they worked like machines left running at full power. They slept in shifts, ate salt gull and dried roots when they had to, and barely spoke. While Kio hollowed dowels of various lengths, spliced ropes, shaved wooden pegs and hammered them down to hold Raven’s wings in place, Karla hacked off the landing gear. She thought she’d feel more pain, brushing a line of ink along the craft’s four legs and then laying into them with handaxe, chisel, and saw. But it actually felt liberating. Having something to hit did wonders to stabilize her mood, but more than that, Raven seemed to feel freer too–as though it wasn’t a body part but a cancer she was cutting off.

By the time she’d finished scraping the stumps clean, the little craft looked more like a real bird than she had before, despite still lacking a carved beak like she’d really wanted. Her Raven had the grace of the best machines. Like a true engineer, she’d knocked off everything she could. She pounded a launching cart together in a frenzy after that, barely registering the time passing.

Since the weather was clear, they’d worked mostly in the hangar, ignoring the squalls that drifted like far-off armies, once even letting a flock of gulls pass by unmolested. Now it was the fourth sunrise. Kio leaned against a support column, taking in the pink-and-orange cast of the soft aerial light. Nashido drifted through a canyon of cloud whose walls lit up as the sun rose. Wisps of vapor brushed the castle’s sides.

Karla didn’t notice. She stroked her hands over her ornithopter’s wings, checking and rechecking every gear, each rope, the whole line of levers. Raven was perfect.

“Ready?” she called to Kio.

He jerked his head away from the sunrise and began picking his way through the piles of rubbish that had spent the last three days leaking slowly out of the workshop. “Now?”

“Why not now? You have somewhere to be?”

He shook his head, and Karla felt a pain that stabbed through her numbness of the last three days. She’d hurt Kio. She had an awful habit of blaming him for things simply because there was nobody else around to blame. After the test was over, she’d make it up to him.

No matter how it went.

“Who’s going?” Kio asked. “You went up for the water-gathering, it’s probably only fair if I…”

She put a hand over his and laid them both down on Raven’s starboard wing. “Both of us.”

“Are you sure?” His hand tensed under hers. “The landing gear you removed can’t have weighed as much as one of us.”

“It weighs as much as me. I checked. But with the hollow bones she’s gotten lighter.” Their eyes met. “Kio, if Raven doesn’t work for both of us, it doesn’t work at all.”

“How are we going to pull back? We need to be tethered to the castle in case…you know…” He swallowed. “It doesn’t work for either of us.”

She pointed to a pulley block resting on the spine between Raven’s wings. Two screw-on shackles held it in place, and cranks protruted from its sides, port and starboard. Two ropes attached to its two pulley wheels led up through the floor hatch into Karla’s workshop. “Either one is strong enough to bear the weight by itself. In case one of them breaks.”

“What are they attached to?”

“They’re tug-hitched onto the winch at the back of my workshop.”

He colored. “I didn’t know there was a winch at the back of your workshop.”

“There’s a lot in my workshop. But I promise, it’s real, and it’s as sturdy as Nashido itself.”

Kio’s face contorted through a flightpath of emotions: surprise, fear, and then, to Karla’s great relief, resolve. “I’ll take port.”

They checked and double-checked that they had a clear runway out to open sky. A hundred or so paces of flat stone–not that much, now that Karla looked at it–a thick black mark, a few paces more, and then nothing but the canyon of cloud, the rising sun, the blue channel of air. She hoped Kio’s stomach wasn’t churning. Hers wasn’t. The opposite: every part of her was catching fire.

She helped him lock his harness around his chest and arms, then fitted her own. “You remember how to use the levers?”

“Has it changed?” He fiddled with his harness, adjusting the fit.

“Just gotten lighter.” She half-smiled. “Use your left arm to beat the wing, your right to adjust altitude. The rest of it is about learning to feel the updrafts. It’s kind of a pressure differential across your–“

“Karla.” Kio braced himself against the cockpit bar. “Let’s just go.”

His resolve was now starting to worry her a little, but she pushed it away. “On one we start pushing. On…” she did a calculation in her head, “four, we jump. And let the harnesses hold us.”

“One!” Kio shouted, taking her by surprise. They pushed forward together. The cart gathered speed with a symphony of creaks.

“Two!” they shouted together.

Seventy feet. Fifty.

“Three!” Kio’s voice was fainter this time. Karla’s whole body clenched. This was different than swinging around on the pulleys.

If this worked, they could be off Nashido by nightfall.

No castle left. She had to jump forward into control position, lying flat against Raven’s body, with enough time left for the cart to roll to a stop instead of falling after them.

“Four!”

Her shout was the only one.

She was clear of the ground, chest pressed against the bar with her harness tight, before Kio yanked the cart back. Unable to turn, she cleared the edge of the hangar, sailing out between the clouds. Instantly she lurched hard to starboard. Nashido swung around in the corner of her eye. Her head felt like it was being squeezed through a straw.

It’s just pulleys. It’s no different.

You have to stop spinning!

She had to fight her way to port, to create the balance Kio would have, if he hadn’t stayed behind. Why had he stayed behind? What in surface and sky and all hell was he doing anywhere but on this ornithopter with her?

Forget it. Forget him. Raven was cutting a swath down toward a cloud bank. Karla tried to push herself up and left. Didn’t move.

She was caught on something–the straps pressing against her chest. The harness! It was buckled into the vertical starboard strut, to keep her from sliding into her absent co-pilot.

One of the catches would let her free. But which one? Karla fumbled over the straps with her left hand. The damn thing was all catches. And if she hit the wrong one, she’d be done. Unable to point at Nashido, let alone fly there. Nothing to do but dangle until…

The cloud wall rushing up to meet her shocked her back to her senses. If she went in there, she’d lose the castle, lose any ability to tell which way was up.

For crying out loud, she’d made this harness. She knew which catch was right. Fumbling just under her right armpit, she flipped a lever open. The grip holding her in place loosened. She was free to slide.

Raven pitched farther and the cockpit bar went almost vertical. Karla shoved herself to port, but made no headway. The angle was too steep.

A damp chill soaked into her clothes as the world went white. She’d entered the cloud. Immediately, she heard the pulley block squeak.

Kio had been waiting for this. He was reeling her in.

At first, Karla felt relief. Then she realized what rescue meant. Yet another failed test of her failed ornithopter.

No! her mind roared. Not this time!

On her next jump, instead of just pushing, she jumped.

The force of her jerk slid the harness hard, and for a brief instant, she went weightless.

Her left hand closed around the lever that would have been Kio’s. As she settled in the center of the bar, Raven leveled out. She was flying a course through the freezing white fog, with control of both wings.

Now the only thing left to do was fly.

I know this!

She flexed both levers in time. Ropes strained and gears clicked in response to her command. The wings took agonizingly long to pulse, but once they did, Raven shot upward.

“Ha!” Karla screamed. That felt good. More than good–natural. As though she’d been born to wear wings.

Her second wingbeat shot her up out of the cloudbank, back into the relative warmth of the sunrise. The tether on her back had gone slack. So Kio could see her, or feel her, and knew what she was doing.

Knew that this test was working.

Now that she’d pulled out of her first dive, maneuvering was getting easier. Raven’s canvas wings ballooned up, wide and light enough to keep her in a steady glide–but still losing altitude if she sat idle. She soon got the hang of beating her wings in time to gain height, then flexing the wings to drift slowly back down again. Staying above the clouds, within sight of Nashido, kept her level.

But Nashido was in the corner of her eye, and getting smaller. The tether on her back was paying out. Next step: figure out how to turn.

She pulled the wings taut, leaving only a small amount of slack, then shifted her weight to port.

Immediately, she started to plunge once again. Tingling exhileration swooped back into terror. She managed to level out before dunking herself in the clouds again, fighting to keep her thoughts straight amid the rush of joy from flight. She’d weighted too far. Had to figure out how to bank just a little.

Starboard this time. She moved an inch, then another, and at last got the wings to warp without falling. Sweeping right in a wide arc, she found herself on a collision course with one wall of the cloud canyon, and leveled out quickly, flapping her wings hard to rise above the edge of the white.

And suddenly Karla was sailing free through a crystal-blue sky, so bright and so cold she might have been flying through the timeless space that existed before the universe coalesced into being. Peaks and waves of white rolled out beneath her like an ocean flash-frozen at the peak of a storm. Raven was behaving like part of her body, responding to her slightest touch, cradling her as she soared and forgot everything but the soaring. Had she ever not had wings? How long had she dreamed she was tethered to the surface of a flying castle?

quoth-the-raven-yeeeeee-haw-cra2ch4

Illustration by Grace Pyles.

The castle! She banked farther to starboard, to keep the rope from snapping tight, and caught the first direct glimpse of Nashido she’d seen since taking off. She’d seen the castle from afar before, when she and Kio visited the sky kingdoms, but it had never looked as beautiful as it had today. A fortress alone against the endless sky, one side brightened by the sun, one side pooled with shadow. Towers, vines, pulleys, propellors, even the broken aqueduct, all shone with golden light. It had taken this flight for Karla to see where she truly lived: a castle so beautiful that everything she and Kio did there was a silent prayer to sleeping gods in heaven.

Kio. For the first time, a castlebound thought creeped back into her head. Why isn’t he here? We could be halfway to the surface right now.

He must have known something, had a reason. She didn’t feel betrayed. Just afraid.

Yet what she saw next chased even that from her mind.

The light and shade weren’t falling quite right on Nashido. The sun side was smaller than it should have been if there was only one sun and one isle floating in this aether. Something was casting a shadow on the castle.

Oh, yes. What was the only direction she hadn’t looked yet?

Up.

The sky kingdom appeared to be about the size of a plate, through the thin strip of up that Karla could see. Yet it still cast a vast shadow. It must have been many times the size of Nashido–most of them were. Karla banked as hard to starboard as she dared, wheeling Raven around for a long pass across the castle’s face. She didn’t need to ask herself how she and Kio had missed this drifting closer. They’d been so focused on Raven, and on some fight about something she couldn’t even remember, that they hadn’t looked at the sky for days.

The fight. She relaxed the wings and flapped them to stay level with the castle. She’d been worried about bone dragons, Kio had been worried about runes. Maybe the scrap of rock and soil floating however far above could solve both their problems. They never knew what they were going to find when they explored a kingdom–there were so many, and rarely did they encounter the same one twice. Some had useful materials, tools, hides, metal, rope. Other had seeds. Still others had books, to teach them what to do with the things they found. The only ones that weren’t useful were the ones that only had money. But even that she could melt down.

They had to get there. Which meant she had to go–

A wet ripping noise went off close to her right ear. A rush of wind, the wrong direction, slammed into her face, and she felt a hard tug on her back. No, Raven’s back. She’d gotten them mixed up again.

The canvas which had been full an instant ago was flapping now. One wing flailed uselessly. As Karla gawked, not fully back to herself, a place where two wooden bones joined creaked, strained, and snapped apart.

She threw one arm up, trusting the harness to hold her weight, and reached behind the spine for the pulley that could save her. It was a motion she’d practiced, and she found the crank easily.

It didn’t turn. One try, two, not a single one gaining an inch. One person’s strength couldn’t bear this weight after all.

She didn’t feel doomed. She knew she should have. But all she felt was the normal, perpetual fear of someone who lived with a bottomless pit of sky as one of her roommates.

Karla spun hard. She was in freefall. Mutely, with dreamlike slowness, she folded her remaining wing into her body, so she could fall straight instead of spinning.

What had happened? Everything was going perfectly. Now she couldn’t even glide. What had happened to her body? What had amputated her wings?

The soft tugs on her back continued, rhythmically, like someone was pulling hard, then resting, then taking up the task again. Gratitude burst through her. This time, she had no problem with Kio reeling her in.

He could slow down a bit, though. Gravity was taking hold of her. If she didn’t get some slack, she would slam like a pendulum into the side of the castle…

Nope, he thought of that too. Good old cautious Kio.

That was how Karla, wings clipped, head full of fears about her ornithopter and visions of the sky kingdom, came to be hanging below Nashido without much to do but wait to brace herself against the castle walls. She was there, not far from where she’d done the same for Kio a few days ago, when she finally got a glimpse of Kio’s runes.

They should have been decaying at the edges. But not all of them were. One was dimmer.

Had he said that one entire rune had gone fully dark? Karla couldn’t remember. When she got back to the hangar, she would have to ask.

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Wings 4

Kio found Karla watching the planes.

Since they’d stopped running the propellors, Nashido had drifted back to its favored orbit, following the archipelago a mile below. The islands passed by like distant planets through a telescope, many shades of green mottled through with white chalk. At night, the people on them lit torches, and the line of lights vanished off both sides of the world. From any outer part of the castle he could see them roll away.

One month, Kio had resolved to chart every one of the islands. He’d convinced Karla not to use the engine until he was finished–a void in her life she’d filled by tinkering with the power distribution system–and had let Nashido drift however it would. While he waited for the first island to appear, he wondered what kept Nashido to its orbit. Was it just the caprices of the high sky? The winds whipped around as much the ocean churned. Nobody was in a better position than he and Karla to know they could never be sure what the air was doing.

Or was it something else? Was the wind excuse just a cover to avoid poking something too vast for him to understand, vast enough to poke back if he tried?

Castle Nashido has a heart. Does it have a brain?

A few stairs mostly screened him from the ledge where Karla was sitting. If she turned around, she might see him, might not. He could still go back down and leave her alone, instead of tormenting himself with questions he’d pondered a thousand times to no benefit.

Or he could square his shoulders and go apologize. Instead, though, he retreated down a step, watching Karla watch the planes, thinking about the archipelago.

It was his chart that allowed him to be certain of what she was seeing. He’d used the corridor of the lower citadel as his workspace, just up the stairs from their calendar of years. Another order of business before the castle found the islands for him had been to figure out how fast Nashido moved without propulsion, something he’d never had to think about before. From his books, he knew what a “knot” was, but he also knew that surface sailors tended to measure them by putting a device into the water, a decidedly unhelpful tip. Eventually, he’d found his answer by asking Karla to run the propellors just enough to run against the wind and keep them from moving at all. He set up flags and observed how much wind they indicated when blowing along the castle’s preferred orbit, then had Karla shut the engines off and let Nashido move with the wind. It wasn’t perfect at all–he had to rely heavily on charts that assigned windspeeds to qualitative observations–but in the end he’d settled for assuming the wind blew three knots less strongly when Nashido moved with it.

So, if it took an hour for two islands to cross the same axis on the castle, they were three nautical miles apart. Most of them took longer. None were wider than the channels between them. Kio dutifully marked each one of them on his charcoal chart in the lower citadel hallway. He named each one based on whatever distinguishing feature he could find. If this was the best land the surface had to offer, land must have been a sparse thing in the whole world. The books should have been able to help him, but they didn’t–they were all written by skybound authors, who to a man regarded the surface as a setting for outlandish adventures or lurid tales of horror, not a serious object of scientific study. He’d learned long ago those sources couldn’t be trusted.

But he did know one thing: if the archipelago was the only land on the surface, the big island was the capital of the world. And it was where he wanted to be most of all.

The big island was one-hundred and seven knots away from the south end of the archipelago. They had spotted the tiny island thirty-six hours and thirty-nine minutes ago. So, Karla was watching the planes.

She gave no sign she saw him as he tiptoed up the steps and across the balcony toward her. Maybe it was the desire to see the Big Island that finally moved him. Maybe it was the desire for her not to have to see it alone.

The balcony had a vegetable garden on one side, with fat peppers and broad carrot leaves poking up through a pungent layer of nightsoil. On the other, a trunklike oxygen vine snaked up the wall. Pulley gears clinked and ropes creaked in the wind.

Kio sat down next to Karla on the ledge. His legs dangling over open sky always put his heart in his throat. He willed the shaking to stop.

A dark stratus cloud had moved over the big island–a frigate bird winged into it, then flew out the other side. Kio looked sidelong at a silent girl he barely recognized, without her hair tied back or her wrenches belted on.

He had to say something. He came up with, “Remember when we first saw them?”

He fancied he could hear the planes far under the cloud–beating canvas wings, clicking gears, pilots shouting signals–but knew he was just making up the noise. Karla didn’t respond.

“We were trying to knock birds out of the sky with that spear-throwing thing you came up with. I think you actually hit one. It just didn’t land on the castle.” Kio let out a weak giggle. Karla looked at him once, then turned back out to stare at the island beyond the cloud.

“And we followed it down,” he went on. “That’s how we could see how many skycraft were buzzing around the big island. Do you know, every time we pass by, they’re different. No two are alike, and sometimes old ones get replaced by new ones and they’re still completely unique.” He shook his head, something he never did. “The city on that island must be the biggest one in the world. On the surface, I mean.”

I’m not a very good Rokhshan.

One hair blew over Karla’s face. She brushed it out of the way.

“I hate that I can’t be mad at you,” she said.

Her outer fur was unbuttoned, exposing leather underneath, but she wasn’t shivering or noticing the cold at all. Kio wished the cloud would move. He didn’t know how to answer her.

“You can be mad at me,” he said lamely. “If you want to.”

“No, I can’t.” She turned to look at him, brown eyes fixed onto his. “I could for a while, sure. Like that time you accidentally stitched all our sleeves shut. Or like you did when I jettisoned all our cabbage. But then there’d be a squall, or a cyclone, or we’d have to shoot a gull because we’re always running out, or there’d be a…” She waved her arms, forcefully, yet not pointing at anything. “…bone dragon, or whatever the hell. And we’d have to forget about whatever we were fighting over because if we didn’t, we might lose vines, we might lose gardens, we’ll suffocate, we’ll die. We don’t get to have fights.”

“Doesn’t that help keep us alive?” asked Kio, who rather liked not having the fights. Though he had been really upset about the cabbage incident–so upset he’d spoken to her in two-word chunks for hours while they’d oiled the propellors and cleaned out the reservoir. He’d wished to the Benefactor those hadn’t been two-person jobs at all, that he could have just been alone for a moment…

He was starting to see what she meant.

“We can’t be friends like normal people can.” Karla stared out at the sky again. The frigate bird wheeled around once more, shooting under Nashido. “If we were down there, on Big Island or Green Island or Sheep Reach or wherever, we could stalk off without worrying that we were putting off building weapons and researching rune decay like we should both be doing right now. We could come back after a while, and know…know…”

More gesturing. Kio supplied the words. “Know we were friends because we wanted to be. Not because we had to be.”

“Yeah.”

Kio shifted his weight, shivered, wished he’d worn more layers. The warming reaction in the citadel was a bit far below.

“We didn’t have to make our promise,” he said. “We could have just said it was a truce until one of us found a way off.”

Karla shook her head hard. “We had to, Kio, and you know it. We weren’t gonna leave each other to die. I wasn’t gonna build Raven for only one passenger. The promise is just another way to survive.”

She flung herself backward to lie on her arms with her legs still dangling. “Which is all we ever do.”

That’s not fair, Kio thought. After all, if one of them had a way off, there was nothing to stop them from using it. The fact that leaving alone would be like severing part of themselves–didn’t that mean they were normal, like surface friends? Didn’t it mean something that if he left Nashido with Karla still on it, his thoughts would remain rooted to the floating castle no matter what wonders the Big Island held?

He rubbed his eyes. What did he know about surface people? Surface people didn’t need promises. Their whole lives were promises.

The stratus cloud had broken, giving him a clear view down to the isle. He glanced at Karla, hoping she’d get up to see, but she lay silently, staring up at the top of the tower.

The Big Island had two sides. The far end from where Kio watched, twenty-thousand feet up and a little to the north, was a sheer wall of craggy limestone–layer on layer of dark grey mud rising up so high he could make out the ripples cast by the wind over the mountain grass. Viewing from that side, he could clamber up the cliffs from ledge to ledge, nimbly finding footholds on the jagged face. In his mind he roamed up to roll in the mountain heather, then down to the pounding surf, unafraid of the wind. Maybe a little afraid of the water. He still wasn’t sure what that much water in one place could do.

The north side was a gentler slope that tumbled down in three distinct tiers. At the top of the cliff was a broad crescent of land that had mostly been left to heath. Purple alpine flowers and standing stones dotted the lagoon of pale grass. Starting at the south of the island, the crescent rose up to a lofty, sun-warmed pinnacle that always reminded Kio of the high seat of some sky king. Maybe a surface king, or whatever they had instead, would hunt for gulls up there.

Several treacherous-looking switchback paths up a steep hill were the only ways to reach the heath. The cuts snaked down a plunge to the second tier, then vanished–only to emerge again on a tumble-down tree-lined slope toward rocky beaches at sea level. Long docks branched out from these in all directions save for right under the cliff. They were forever covered in bobbing boats of all sizes, under mast or oar, but nobody ever seemed to be out fishing.

Not that Kio ever spent very long looking. It was the second tier that mattered: the broad, flat landing of the island’s stairway. The great city.

Roofs of metal crowded together around yards and lanes that twisted across each other, merged, broke again. Every corner blazed with light that seemed to come from under the ground itself. The paths wound back and forth but all, in the end, reached the great central square, the widest open space in the whole city. Set against the steep mountain rise, the square was anchored by a great pillar that glowed blue. It was bright enough to see in the daylight. By night or day, Kio was sure it was the brightest light in the whole city.

The streets were barely wider than Nashido’s hallways–none of it was as fine or as plush as what the castle had been once–but somehow the smoke pouring from chimneys, the million lights shining from every surface, the corrugated walls and the great square, were more beautiful to Kio than all the Rokhshan legacy. As for the sky kingdoms, they had never managed anything like this in his lifetime.

Every roof was flat, and they and the streets were strewn with bits that could have come out of Karla’s workshop, if she’d had infinite resources and nothing but time: wings and frames and gears. They must have been beautiful, but Kio could only begin to make them out if he strained his eyes in good sunlight. So much of the city was faint–he could hear no noises, couldn’t see what any of the buildings were for, could only make out people like pebbles against the rock beaches–but the planes themselves brought the islanders’ work near enough to see.

Kio was painfully aware of the silence between him and Karla stretching out toward the blue horizon. But at least she hadn’t moved. He kept breathing through the sharp feeling in his guts.

Every time they saw the big island, the air above it was thick with skycraft. Once, in a book of illustrated sky kingdom fables, Kio had read about wasps–angry small animals that swarmed to defend their nests. The picture showed them whizzing to and fro in a great cloud. It had reminded him of the Big Island, with the skycraft setting off for all corners of the archipelago, or returning home from those far places.

Most were tiny flyers, even smaller than Raven, meant to hold one pilot. Some of these beat luminescent wings whose metallic struts shone like threads of sunlight. They flexed and soared around the bigger fixed-wing craft, great lumbering workhorses that glided sedately with props to provide thrust. Some were pedal-powered, some covered with feathers, some had four or six or eight wings that buzzed like a dragonfly’s.

For all the hundreds in the air, there were as many on the ground. Their owners raced along the streets on wheeled landing struts. Several congregated in the square by the glowing crystal, swarmed by pilots the size of sand grains. As Kio watched, a craft hurtled across the square, briefly washed in the blue crystal’s light.

Someone yanked back its wheels, and Kio gasped. It was a cart, not a landing frame. Freed from earthly restraints, the plane beat its wings and rose above the rooftops.

“Karla,” he said before thinking. “Look!”

Something in his tone reached her. She shot up before remembering she was supposed to be mad at him. “What is it?”

Since the Big Island planes had given her the idea for Raven, Karla had been vigilant about watching them. Usually. Kio pointed at the craft that had just launched from the cart, now winging its way toward open ocean. Its wings were made of flexible steel plates fit together like scales.

“I’ve thought about that,” Karla murmured, “but we never have enough metal, and I don’t have a proper forge…”

“Not that,” Kio said, eyes flitting between his friend and the view an agonizing plummet below. “There was a cart–you can’t see it now, they pushed it under something–but they were using detachable wheels to accelerate the craft. You could remove the landing gear from Raven and make it light enough.”

“Her,” Karla corrected. “Kio, I’ve thought of that before. It makes sense for takeoff, but how would we land?”

“Eject.” She should be the one saying this. But sometimes, to live, they had to take up one another’s parts. “Build Raven to crash. It’s going to be a one-way flight anyway.”

She was staring at him again now. Her eyes made it clear this was so obvious she’d never thought of it.

“I know what you need to feel better,” he blathered on. “You feel locked in a cage. Sure. So do I, every day, it’s why I read so many books. But we’re gonna pick that lock for you, right now.”

He sprang to his feet. Karla pushed herself up. “We need to test Raven again, and not give up until she flies. We’re the only things standing in our way. We’re the only things we have.”

Kio realized he was panting a bit. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to prod Karla out of a funk–her highs always came with lows. It was the first time in a while it had been his fault, though. He was definitely gambling here, and not just because Raven was about the riskiest way to solve their bone dragon problem.

He waited. Twenty thousand feet below, the skycraft traced their winding airborne paths.

Karla nodded once, tightly. “Let’s do it.” Without a word more, she stalked back into the tower.

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Wings 3

Idiot! Karla could only form a few coherent words, all circling back to the same theme. Moron! Fool! Who cares about three days of work? Who cares if one bone on Raven isn’t like the others?

She did, was the obvious answer. If Kio hadn’t before, he did now. So that made everybody.

Tears cut channels through the permanent layer of grime on her face. She cried in cycles, huddled in the corner of the little room under the loose floorboard, as dust drifted about in a shaft of sunlight shining on featureless walls. When she could be angry, she dried her eyes, and reread the letter because it had nothing to do with Kio. When she couldn’t, other thoughts chased each other’s tails: how she could not face him right now out of shame, how uncertain she was that Raven would work with one solid bone, how Kio never had taken Raven seriously now that she thought about it, how they sometimes raced paper boats on the reservoir, and he almost never won.

That last thought made her eyes so leaky she had to put the letter down so as not to stain it with her tears. But it didn’t matter. Karla had it memorized.

Dear Karla,

I am so sorry. If you’re reading this, we have failed to wrest the castle out of the hands of the Rokhshan. We’ve either been imprisoned, executed, or sent back to the surface to die. You are the last surviving Harpooneer.

That was where she got the last name she gave herself: Karla Harpooneer. Everyone in the library’s books had a surname. Kio went by Rokhshan without even thinking, and assumed she did too. But any fool looking at them could have seen they weren’t really cousins. If there had been any fool around to do so. 

You are the only one left who can carry out our mission. We may have failed, but more people will come seeking shelter, and if House Rokhshan still holds this castle, they’ll fall like we did.

It was coming: the part she always skipped. The reason she could never let Kio see this room.

The Rokhshan betrayed us from the beginning. They never had any interest in letting us aboard. Land-folk are nothing but slaves to them, livestock to be harvested and thrown away. If we’re ever going to be free, our war cannot fail. As long as you’re alive, it hasn’t.

Six years ago, Karla and Kio had theorized that warmth radiating out from the citadel helped make Nashido habitable. Kio hadn’t wanted to get that near the heartsphere, so Karla had gone exploring on her own to seek out the source of the effect. She’d conceded to Kio, though, that she should make a thorough and methodical plan to canvas the outer citadel. She had begun her search in the complex of rooms under the reservoir: a twisting labyrinth of small storage chambers, some of which they kept food in, some of which held mysterious pipes, and one of which was empty, with the loose board.

There were no clues other than the floor not sitting right–years of dust had eliminated any tracks. But something about the room struck Karla anyway. She’d taken three turns to get there: not a place anyone was likely to stumble into by accident. Kio never would.

It was odd to find unused space anywhere on Nashido, especially this close to the heartsphere. The hangar and the upper towers were one thing. But this was in the oldest suite of rooms the Rokhshan had ever built. Why was it empty?

A suppressed thought fired in her brain. Someone had been here. Recently.

Gingerly, she had reached down for the floorboard. That was where she’d first found the hidden letter. After that, she’d forgotten her plan altogether.

In the years since, she’d read the first half four times, the second half more than a hundred.

I wish it hadn’t turned out this way, Karla. I wish I could say I did everything I could have done to protect you. But I didn’t. I didn’t fight hard enough, didn’t lead well enough. Now all I can leave you is this letter.

How long will it take you to find this, I wonder? Will you remember what it’s like on the surface? If I had more than one candle, more than one piece of paper, I could tell you such stories, my beloved little one. About fireflies, and jellyfish, and all the things they don’t have in the sky. About trees! There are so many kinds of trees, Karla. Please tell me you remember at least one.

Karla leaned her head back into a corner and breathed. She knew vines, and vegetables, and moss. But the surface she saw was a quilt, and the trees might as well have been so much green thread. She’d asked Kio about them once, and he’d showed her a picture in a book. Of course.

No matter how long it’s been since I saw you, know that I love you more than everything in the world put together. And I’d never ask you to do anything that might hurt you, if I had any choice at all. But people will seek the shelter of Nashido again. When they do, I’m begging you to ensure they have a way to get aboard.

You have to do what it takes, Karla. You have to destroy House Rokhshan.

I love you, forever.

Your mother,

Mara

As always, Karla shoved the note back under the floorboard as soon as she had finished reading. She hated this piece of paper as much as she needed it. Not just because it was her only link to her mother, and thus came to stand for all the emptiness surrounding her absence. Not because she could never tell Kio about it–shouldn’t even have been using her mother’s name as an oath, since he still swore on the Rokhshan’s Benefactor–and so he would never know they had been born in two different worlds.

Karla hated Mara’s letter because if she’d found it in the first few days she and Kio had spent alone on Nashido, she couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t have killed him. And he had never once deserved to die.

Of course, she couldn’t be sure of anything about those days. Trying to call up her earliest memories only led her back to her dream: the birds, the green cloud, the fire.

And Mara couldn’t have known the only one of the noble lords of Nashido remaining would be a child the same age as her daughter. Or that Karla couldn’t imagine him wanting to enslave anybody.

But whether she’d been manipulating her or not, Karla felt manipulated. What did it say about Mara that she wanted her daughter to continue her fight after her death?

What did it say about Karla that she loved her mother anyway?

Lurching to her feet, she shut the door of the empty chamber, and stumbled around the three turns. She didn’t know why she’d come here. She needed to go somewhere else, somewhere she could be free of being the girl who had blown up over losing part of her skycraft, the girl whose mother wanted her to kill her only friend.

But there wasn’t anywhere.

Karla clambered out of the outer citadel storage, raced through the statuary hall, past the upper vine gardens. The wind slammed into her, the incessant breeze she always ignored until she couldn’t. Her head spun when she stepped onto the reservoir rim and looked out, away from the murky waters, to the sea of clouds.

There was nowhere to go. Nowhere. It was all the same damn castle.

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Wings 2

Karla’s workshop clung to the forward end of Nashido, between the library and the hangar. Two or three years ago, when she’d begun her serious career building flying machines, she had rigged an elevator to connect the hanger to the missing wall of the workshop that overhung it. It was powered by hauling, and could pull her up just as easily as it could lower down a durable and skyworthy yet elegant flying machine. Lately it had been doing lots of the former, and discouragingly little of the latter.

The platform was still down from last time, but instead of hauling herself up right away, she paced the hangar, trying to pin down what was happening in Kio’s brain. The truth she didn’t want to say aloud was that she felt as uneasy about arming Nashido as he seemed to. If she did say it, he’d never believe she was nervous for the same reason he was–not with the show she’d been making lately about letting go of their past. He took her wishes at face value, believed her when she told him what she wanted. He’d see the contradiction. That would lead to questions, and eventually, to the room near the crest of the inner citadel, with the loose floorboard.

You could just tell him, she thought. Trade secret for secret. Find out why he really gathered all those history books.

And then what? Tell him that while he was adorably new at hiding things, she’d been practicing it for years? That she knew more about year zero than he did, though her mind was still full of maddening holes? Without uprooting his entire world, how could she tell Kio anything that was hidden under that floor?

She sat down, hugging her knees, and gazed around as she turned theories over in her mind. The hangar wasn’t a hangar, as far as they knew. It was just an open platform, consisting of a ceiling, a floor, and columns. Unlike the tower walls, it took more than masonry and gravity to hold this system together: rivets the size of tree trunks bolted the columns to the citadel and the ceiling to Karla-sized braces whose own rivets, so she’d calculated, ran all the way to the heartsphere.

The ceiling and floor were broad and flat and surrounded on three sides by miles on miles of endless sky. Nowhere else on Nashido was so much space so empty, except in the sphere itself. The hangar was also–if everything went quite a bit better than it was going right now–where Karla and Kio would launch Raven, and bid the castle farewell for good.

Tracing her hand idly over the single stone slab of the floor, she found she’d flopped down by chance near their calendar of days carved into the floor. The series of marks would have looked like birdscratch if anyone else ever saw it. She and Kio had given up counting days and weeks early on. They had no basis in any real calendar to start with. Instead, they added notches whenever anything important happened: the ripening of their first crop of vegetables, each sky kingdom they met, their first sighting of the Big Island.

She memorized each line as they gouged it, so that each row told a story, even years later. Some of the smaller and shakier lines sent shivers up her arm as her fingers brushed over them. The greenblight that had forced them to hack a third of their oxygen vines off the castle. The week Kio caught the swan flu. She’d gotten it from him before he got better. For days they lay on their backs in the statuary corridor, crawling to drink the rain, clinging to each other and willing one or the other to recover–for who was going to give them care they couldn’t give themselves?

Longer lines loosely divided the years, as best she could observe the seasons. She counted ten since arriving. Her best guess put her and Kio at fifteen.

Her fingers brushed several excited marks close together, where she’d drawn her first blueprint for Raven. For many sunlit days, each new discovery had seemed the breakthrough of her life, more than worthy of inclusion on the calendar.

The memory jolted to her senses. Far too long ago, she’d last felt that way. Too much sky-gazing. She’d come here to work.

Or not. Right as she stood up on the calendar, Kio thundered down a set of steps from the low tower. “I need to talk to you!” he cried out when they were level on the great hangar floor, his blue eyes darting around like a bone dragon was going to leap out of a cloud to stop him.

“I need to work on Raven,” she said without moving. Right away, in her ears, it sounded harsher than she’d intended, but it was true. The calender mocked her. Two year-lines sat between Raven’s conception and the new line she’d cut for the bone dragon attack. Two years failing to build them a way to the surface. How had she managed to waste so much time?

“I wasn’t reading about bone dragons in the history books,” Kio garbled out in a single breath. “I was reading about sky kingdom runes because I think Nashido is losing altitude.”

What?

“Right now?” she demanded.

“No. Well, yeah, but not fast. It may have been happening for years.”

She strode across the calendar, each footstep echoing. A cloud drifted over the long side of the hangar to shade Kio’s nervous face as she pulled short within inches of it. “Is it going to get faster in the next eight hours?”

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m reading! I’d like to say probably not. But I have no idea.”

Karla took a step back and studied his face. He’d clearly fought a battle with himself just to come here and tell her this. Plus, however fast this altitude decay was happening, it was a bigger issue than whatever had led Kio not to tell her the truth right away.

And we still need weapons to kill bone dragons. Damn it, I really don’t want to have to hit the books with him.

“Then we can talk about it in the workshop,” she relented. “Come say good morning to Raven.”

***

The lift led to an antechamber separated from the workshop by a pair of swinging doors. Inside, Karla donned her smithing apron while Kio shed his furs. Her friend had the power to be cold anywhere, and in anything, but the workshop was the only place on the castle either of them were allowed to leave open flames. Which would also have been odd to an outsider, since it housed the only thing aboard made of wood. The fires burned in braziers Karla had hung around the room, both for use in forging when she needed them and to illuminate Raven from every possible angle. Vents in the ceiling let light in and coal smoke out.

The winged skeleton of lumber, paper, and cogs they called Raven ruled the center of the room, a space two and a half armspans wide. Its “cockpit”–the long bar and harnesses where the two of them would lie to pilot it–rested on the floor, while cables stretched out its wings. Two mismatched wheels were riveted to the ends of the cockpit bar. In the wavering light from four braziers, the canvas cartilage on the port wing seemed as gossamer as the bone dragon’s wings, though in truth it was brittle.

raven-plans

Illustration by Grace Pyles.

The craft of his and Karla’s salvation had always put Kio a bit in mind of a dead and decaying bird rewound through time to rest in the workshop with half its living flesh restored. The starboard wing had been stripped down to half its twin’s size, framework and all. Gearwork shimmered in between them, scavenged cog by cog and fit painstakingly together over the raven’s whole midships body. Tail lift to head, only one or two gears were missing, probably slated for oiling on Karla’s workbench. This system connected to a row of levers under where the bird’s eyes would be, which would allow the pilots to warp and flex the wings however they needed to glide.

Still no feathers, Kio thought. Karla always said she’d do that last. She had picked the name Raven, looking over Kio’s shoulder at a book with a picture of a deep-black land bird. You shouldn’t ignore some things, she’d told him later, when they’re trying to talk to you. And that sketched raven had positively squawked at her.

“I’ve been thinking about the dragon’s wings,” Karla said over her shoulder as she laid her tool belt out on her workbench. “Obviously that insect-ish material that filled them out was flexible, but the bones themselves can’t have been rigid. Or else it would never be able to fly anywhere but up, right?”

“I…I guess.” Kio edged closer. Bits of paper and canvas lay scattered across the stone surface, each of them a detail or an attempt to capture the whole dragon in charcoal. “The bones on the one that grabbed me were a bit bigger than this. You’ve got them down like lines here.”

“Thanks!” Karla gave his shoulder a quick squeeze as she dashed over to the workbench, snatched up a piece of charcoal, and made adjustments. “See, what I’m thinking is they must be hollow, like a bird’s bones. That allows for wing-warping, but also makes them flexible enough to bend under acceleration instead of breaking. Remember that one test where gravity snapped one of the wings off?”

“Yeah. I had to pull you back by the tether. It took hours.” Karla reclaiming the table had forced Kio to find somewhere else to stand. It wasn’t easy. They’d kicked a path through the morass of loose bolts, wood shavings, oily rags, canvas scraps, misshapen planks, and crumpled-up designs on the floor, but everywhere else was covered.

“Karla, can we talk about–“ he began, but she was shoving something into his hands. Off-kilter, he turned the wooden dowel over until she looked suitably certain he was impressed. He had to admit it was far lighter than it looked.

“It’s a prototype. If it works out I want to replace the whole frame with these.” She moved lightly over the clutter piles to the empty chunk of the craft where she planned to start. “I hollowed that dowel out with a hammer and chisel. Took me three days. Mara, I wish I had a real drill!”

“That’s great, but–“

“And we don’t exactly have enough of those wooden rods to experiment again, they’re from three sky kingdoms ago.”

“Karla–“

“Of course I can’t go ahead until I stress-test it. I was going to do it last night, but the storms came early–“

“Karla!” Kio’s shout hit hard. If this didn’t focus her, nothing would be able to all day. “We have to talk about the rune decay! Do you want us to fall out of the sky or what?”

Her response was slow, like swimming out of sleep. His eyes met hers over the disassembled starboard wing. Then she blinked. “Sure. Sorry. I’m just excited.” She hopped up and sat heavily on her workbench, trapping the end of her apron. “Tell me everything you know.”

With a deep breath of all the soot-free air he could inhale, Kio told her about falling below the heartsphere, and about the fading symbols on the underside of the citadel.

Karla perched on Raven’s pilot harness and listened all the way through to the end. Every now and then she stopped him with a question about what he’d done, or whether he knew for sure something he was claiming. He could answer most of the questions. The actual meaning of those dark shadows on the edges of the runes, though, remained out of reach.

“You want to know how the rune magic works,” she paraphrased, when Kio thought he was finished. “And the two real-life examples we have aren’t helpful. The crystals are maybe shields, maybe magnets, maybe time bombs and maybe fancy lamps. And the runes that make the castle float can’t be inspected without nearly dying. So, books.”

“Right,” Kio replied, relieved he’d been able to communicate. “Maybe on the inside of the heartsphere–“

She cut him off. “Don’t.”

“I know, I’m just saying–“

Karla stood up quickly enough to spill a sack of wosher rings over the floor. “Kio, even if we could get inside, I don’t think you’d see what you’re thinking you would. Runes may be keeping the sphere floating, but the inside is a different magic. Something older. With teeth.”

Karla–oil-stained, overalled, ponytailed Karla in her workshop full of scavenged parts–wasn’t in the habit of saying things she didn’t believe, nor was she in the habit of believing in magic. She had a reason for saying something so unscientific, and Kio knew what it was.

Year zero. Something she remembered differently from him.

Never a good idea to push on year zero thoughts. They didn’t plump the vegetables or keep the air thick. Didn’t do anything at all, so why bother with them?

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, sitting down on a crate covered with rags that didn’t look too irreplaceable. “I’d just rather look for runes than weapons in the library. That’s all.”

“What do you mean, that’s all?” Karla was on her feet again. Her ability to pace in the overstuffed space of the workshop was sort of amazing. “I mean, thanks for telling the truth, Kio. Really. But now we’ve got two potential crises on our hands, where there was only one this morning. How are we supposed to prioritize when the runes could fail or more dragons could attack anytime between tonight and a hundred years from now?”

“What makes you so sure there are more dragons?” Kio wished they weren’t having this conversation in the workshop after all. It was too hot, too crowded, and he was still holding the hollow dowel since there was nowhere to put it. Nowhere else on Nashido was this stuffy. Why did Karla like it like this?

“What makes you so comfy pretending there aren’t?” she shot back. “There’s no difference between how likely the two things are to kill us. It’s nonsense to fight rune decay and pretend the dragon is such a small problem that you being afraid of weapons trumps it. And don’t wave that hollow dowel around.”

He was on his feet again, biting back a rebuke: you hide behind your year zero stuff, I’ll hide behind mine. Instead, he pointed at her with the dowel. “What are you going to do while I research? Hang out in here and tinker?”

“Build the weapons once you learn about them.” Karla’s face was a stone mask. “And this tinkering is going to get us to the surface one day. I said don’t do that with the dowel, I told you we don’t have any extras!”

“If you’d spend more than five minutes in the library and help me–“

The mask broke. “Don’t wave it around!”

By the time the dowel slipped from his sweaty hand, Kio was beyond noticing. He was angry at Karla for resurrecting this fight, angry at himself for not having any rational reason not to want to arm Nashido, angry at Raven for the way Karla jumped at shadows and snapped at gulls whenever she was in deep with the skycraft. His heart was pounding against prison bars.

The dowel landed in the aftmost brazier.

Karla howled and shoved past him. Workshop debris clattered down across her path. She’d upended the whole ecosystem.

Coming back to himself, Kio realized what he’d done. Horror mounted when he pieced together, a millisecond later, what Karla might do.

A lucky lunge brought his arms around her midsection. She hadn’t thought to put on her fireproof gloves. She’d stick her hands into the hot coals to get her labor back, and then there wouldn’t be anyone to work on Raven at all.

She went quiet. Wrestled against his arms. Her first jerk pulled him off his center of gravity, nearly tumbling them both into another brazier. Nearly knocking it onto Raven.

That near miss was a splash of cold water to them both. Karla went limp in Kio’s arms. But when he released her–when he begged her, with words he didn’t remember, to talk to him so they could both see reason–she burst through the swinging door without once looking back. Seconds later, Kio heard the elevator crash to the ground, and footsteps sprint across the stone calendar and away.

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