Epilogue: The City of Winds

And…this is it. After a whole year of writing this story, I can proudly say I’ve completed the most ambitious project of my writing career so far. There were times when I wasn’t certain I wanted to go on, but knowing people were reading spurred me to continue. I could never have let The Clockwork Raven die while it had this much support.

One final special thanks to all my Patreon supporters, who went far beyond anything I could have expected of them. This story belongs to everyone but it owes its existence to you.

Obviously, there will be some changes to the website, largely to direct people over to The Glass Thiefwhich will be back in full swing starting next week. But please, keep telling your friends about The Clockwork Raven, and directing anybody you think would like the story to start reading from the beginning!

What’s next for me? Well, I’m going to edit this 175,000-word monster into something publishable as a YA novel. I have two other books, and many short stories, that I’m excited to plunge into. And of course my other serial. When you’re a writer you have to keep moving forward.

One last thing: I’ve hoped all along that this might inspire someone to start telling their own story. If that’s how the serial made you feel, please let me know, and tell me where I can find your work!

With that…on to the epilogue.

THREE MONTHS LATER

“…now, make sure that you elevate the affected limb before you apply any treatment.”

“I’ve got it.” Calvin placed the old woman’s leg into the hanging brace. She smiled indulgently at him, apparently fine with getting a trainee instead of the Remedium-certified healer she’d expected. But this woman had had some adventures and was a known old hand with breaking bones.

“And apply the disinfectant like we practiced.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Now set it.”

Calvin glanced worriedly back at Rose. “I dunno if I’m…”

“McConnell.” Rose folded her arms. “We practiced.”

“It’s all right, dear,” the woman added helpfully.

Calvin breathed deeply, gritted his teeth, and with a single motion jerked the woman’s leg back into place. She screamed, caught her breath, and applauded.

Rose smiled, not wanting to betray too much joy to her first student. “Good work. Time for the splint.”

As Calvin went to place the wooden brace on the woman’s fracture, his fingers slipped, causing the bandage to unravel. His face burned red. Before Rose could cry out, “No, don’t!”, a sulking badger had replaced Calvin beside the gurney. He scrabbled against the cavern floor, looking morose.

Rose sighed, shifted to the snake, and slithered around to gather the bandage and splint. By the time she turned back, Calvin had too, and was busily applying the bandage again. Rose had indeed chosen her apprentice well.

Three months ago, she could never have imagined having one. But there was no other way, really–not unless she wanted to leave Rust Town without a healer.

In the week after the Heartsphere landed and disgorged a blinking Dr. Edward Griffin and two bedraggled children in tow, the decision had made itself. Nobody was quite sure who had initiated it, but suddenly they were all talking about it as though it was a sure thing. Several nights since she had asked Griff if it was what he actually wanted, and he said yes so quickly she could imagine him wagging his tail even in human form.

Some people had made the switch to the new Rust Town without blinking. Yet others, without the sphere in the sky and with the crystal’s glow permanently shut off, felt purposeless. The fact was that Rose and Griff had known their job in Rust Town was done the moment the Neogah departed.

Rose satisfied herself that Calvin wasn’t going to make anything worse, excused herself outside, and clambered onto a rooftop that offered her a view downhill. The day was clear, so she could see all the way to the beach at the bottom of the island. There the great sphere sat crumbling.

She counted the jigsaw-puzzle-shaped holes where chunks had fallen out of the Heartsphere and crumbled to dust below. More today than yesterday.

She’d been on the island for nearly ten years, yet she’d always felt the newcomer, never quite allowed into conversations among people whose grandparents had been chasing treasure from Rust. Maybe that explained why her cobbled-together family wasn’t among the ones expanding food plots, building fishing vessels and warehouses, talking over beers about plans to drill mine shafts into the mountains all around the bay.

Or maybe, thought Rose, she just wasn’t meant to be rooted no matter where she was. At least not yet.

She laughed aloud. A strange sentiment, maybe, when contemplating all the horrific injuries and diseases one had yet to treat all over the world. But the only one that made any sense, nonetheless.

Back into the cavern to check up on her remaining patients, then back to central planning for the departure at Griff’s workshop. There was much to be done.

***

“So, you can see the town actually sits on an intersection of ocean-going trade routes.” Adam was using every ruler in the workshop to make his point. “We’ve hardly seen a merchant for years because the old emperor was constantly waging war. Piracy was rampant. It just wasn’t cost-effective.”

Dr. Griffin nodded, with a sidelong glance at Jenny, who was so bored she’d been pretending to take fifteen minutes to make tea. Dan and Guy Carpenter, neither of whom he remembered letting into his house, were over in the corner with her. All three practiced exaggerated eye-rolls on each other, the original reason why long forgotten.

“But with the new peace, we’ve got reopened relations with the Kleinites in the northeast,” Adam tapped a particularly frigid-looking peninsula, “plus all the Axial States to the south. They don’t like each other, but they like us.”

“And all that means Rust Town is a perfect midpoint for storage and exchange?” Griffin guessed.

“Exactly!” Adam rolled up the map. “We can’t build warehouses to store all those goods fast enough. There’s even talk of a currency exchange in the crystal plaza.”

“Still gonna race turtles there if a bunch of bankers set up,” Guy cut in.

“Maybe you can make the bankers race!” Dan said.

All three children giggled. Adam ignored them. “You know what they’re calling us on all the continents?”

Griffin wondered how he knew this. “Not Rust Town?”

“The City of Winds.” Adam tasted the name on his tongue. Griffin didn’t think he’d ever seen the man so happy.

Soon enough, he excused himself, summoning the twins to take them back to their mother. “We’ll see you again before you leave then, Griffin?”

“Of course,” Griffin replied. “It’s not for a few days yet.”

Adam’s face turned solemn for a moment. “You know you and the others will always have a place here.”

“Yeah, we love you guys!” cried Dan.

“But Karla and Kio are still cooler,” Guy said.

Jenny stuck her tongue out. “Now I’m double-glad I didn’t offer you little poops any tea.”

And they tumbled off, while Adam’s smile returned with his goodbye, thinking, no doubt, of a visit to his son at the infirmary.

As he watched the teakettle finally boil–Jenny had indeed left it off the stove to have something to do while Adam droned about trade–Griffin’s own mind remained far less settled: were they, in fact, going to take the children from the sky away from the town that had adopted them, or not?

***

Jenny was thinking about the same question, and didn’t need to say anything aloud for her uncle to know that. But it wasn’t all that was on her mind. Maybe she was just tired from all the preparations–she’d spent much of the day shoving her things into a trunk–but it seemed like the steam curling out of the kettle’s spout was trying to tell her something.

It was hard to focus on, though, while distracted by her big fear: what if Karla and Kio decided they didn’t want to come?

Uncle Griff and Aunt Rose had given them all the warnings. Boats were much slower than airplanes. They would make a good living, but they’d have to go where the work was. Engineers and healers could be needed anywhere. They might not like the mainland as much as islands. Et cetera.

But as much as she agreed that the children of the sky should be able to make an informed decision, she hadn’t been able to stop sketching blueprints for a plane that would carry all five of them. Plus some luggage. It was rolled up in the trunk right now, under her clothes.

“What’s to do today?” Aunt Rose asked, before she’d made it inside. Uncle Griff went to her, and with a quick kiss said, “We’re getting all our luggage together. Just to have it out of the way.”

Jenny forgot her worries for just a second to glow with pride. Griff and Rose had definitely shown a propensity to act gross when they thought she wasn’t watching. Still, she was one hundred percent ready to take all the credit for them being together, and so pride was the right word.

Rose soon shattered her good feeling, though. “I only see three.”

“Well…” Like always, Griff rationed his words. “We aren’t sure yet.”

Rose caught Jenny’s eye. Again, the uncertainty passed without speech.

The kettle whistled. Jenny took it off the stove. She was halfway to the lab table when the steam caught her eye again.

“Jenny?” Griff asked. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s just being wasted,” she said.

Griff and Rose exchanged a worried look.

“The steam. It comes out with a lot of force, right, but then just disappears into thin air. We’d need a lot in one place, but…”

She trailed off. The blueprint was already drawing itself in her head. Not even a sudden transformation into a robin slowed her down–she flitted out the door Rose opened for her, the better to have space to think.

Maybe boats didn’t have to be so slow after all.

***

Sunset over the northern ocean painted the surface of the sea in every color, from orange to blue to pink and red to flashes of deep green. Gulls flew away toward the north, far too high up to reach.

Karla had found the best perch to watch it from a few days after her second landing. It sat in a cleft in the rock with a grass carpet, both open and cozy. It also didn’t take too much walking to reach.

Not that she had to do much hiking anyway. But still.

She even found she could appreciate a sunset more if she became the raven and perched on a rock, her beady bird’s eyes trained on the magnificent hues of the vast open evening. Somehow, she’d thought that the sky would grow smaller once she lived on the surface.

Instead, she saw land the way Mara had: beautiful, infinitely nested with secrets, and endless.

Being a bird also helped her figure out when there were any inauthentic orange cats sneaking up on her. Kio slinked up from beneath a ridge, and meowed in greeting–but she was already shifted, clasping him around the middle and lifting him off the ground.

“Hey. Hey!” Kio’s yowls turned into human objections right as he got too heavy to hold. They collapsed in a tangled pile, Karla laughing, Kio grumbling. “Why do you always think I’m going to sneak up on you?” he asked.

“Because I do it to you?”

“You can fly! That would be as fair a fight to pick as those paper boat races.”

Disentangled, they both looked, involuntarily, at the sky.

Karla broke her gaze first. It was silly to keep thinking, after three months, that Raptor was going to show up and snatch them back to Nashido. Or that he would show up in their dreams and tell them there’s been a mistake, that the dreams were reality, and no, they were not free. Never would be.

Staying human, she dropped down onto the grass, and patted the spot beside her. Kio sat. Karla leaned her head onto his shoulder. Together, they watched the sunset slip into its most dazzling phase, spilling light over the water as it touched the ocean.

We won this peace together, Lord Rokhshan, she thought. To speak would have been to break it.

“What are we gonna do?” Kio asked.

“About Griff and Rose and Jenny leaving?” Karla raised her head, and sat back on her elbows. “I think I know what you’re going to say.”

“That we should stay and be shepherds?” Kio exhaled. “I really did think that, a little while ago. But then I thought…”

He trailed off. She waited patiently for him to continue.

“…what if Raptor was able to manipulate my family, and turn us against the landlings, because we never went anywhere? Because we made ourselves the noble Rokhshan and made the whole earth and sky come to us?”

Carefully, Karla nodded, wanting to let him figure this out for himself. That was a privilege Kio’s life had too often stolen from him.

“I would have said we should stay behind last week. Now I’m…” He looked at her, the sunset’s colors reflected in his eyes. “…I’m actually really excited to be a wandering engineer’s mate. Nobody ever has to know we’re children of the sky or whatever, or, y’know. Shapeshifters.”

“It’ll help for sure on the road, though.”

“Yeah, I guess. Scouting.”

“I meant stealing snacks.” She punched his shoulder. “But sure, scouting.”

Kio raised his head to watch the purple clouds drifting through the trees at the top of the mountain. “What do you think?”

“I was ready to go the moment I heard the offer.” She took his hand. “It’s what we’ve wanted forever. We bled for that dream, Kio. For our promise. Now it’s here. And I for one want all the surface!”

She shouted the last bit such that it echoed off the rocks. Kio smirked. “Never expected anything less.”

“Well, there’ll be books too.” She punched his shoulder. “Nerd.”

“Dreamer.”

He lay back, and she did along with him. The sky was deepening into twilight through the last rays of sunset, revealing the first speckling of stars. Behind and below them, in Rust Town–or the City of Winds, Karla thought–lights were coming on in the pub windows. People were laying down their tools after a hard day of work refurbishing the docks, rambling uphill in search of a pint and a bed.

And above? In the vast expanse of sky that would be forever painted with a story she and Kio would share without having to speak? They were beneath those airborne dramas now, the conflicts of clouds, the endeavors of birds. She could picture such things flashing across the evening air: the battle of the Harpooneers and Rokhshan, her ten long years with Kio, the comings and going of Sky Kingdoms, her tests of Raven, her leaving, her coming back, his betrayal, his redemption. Yet the sheer size of the sky would swallow them all.

And when they were gone, what she’d be left with was–as it always was–one brave curious humble tattooed boy at her side.

Watching him watch the sunset almost made her want to sob, she was so happy. But she didn’t cry. Instead, she waited for him to say what she could tell was on his tongue.

“Karla?” he asked.

“Yeah?”

“We wanted this. The surface. But we never knew what the surface really meant. What kind of life did we sign up for?”

Looking up one last time, Karla thought she could make out the grand, gliding form of a dragon against the river of stars.

“A good one,” she said.

THE END

Advertisements

Landing 5

You’ll probably guess this from reading the chapter, but we have reached it: the final regular post on The Clockwork Raven! There will be an epilogue posted next week, which I’ll use to say a proper goodbye, but this will be the last numbered arc chapter. So it seems a good enough time to start thanking you all for sticking with the story for so long. You all made this happen, and I hope the ending is worthy of you!

The remaining Torals departed before the Neogah got back, while every native of Rust was waiting to see whether or not the Emperor would return with him, or change his mind once he saw the desolation of the Sky Kingdoms. Their leader said that they had waited long enough. He turned to Rose and said, stiffly, “Thank you for your hospitality.”

Wildly uncertain about the social protocol here, Rose replied, “Thank you. I’m sorry about your Emperor.”

“Don’t be,” the soldier said quietly, then looked around to ensure nobody heard. At least two of his comrades pretended not to.

They made their way uphill, in solemn procession, and returned bearing the bodies of their comrades who had remained outside to face the Ash Cloud alone. For once, they made no show. Their tattered cloaks hardly covered the scratches in their armor. For the first time, the Imperial soldiers had grace, but no beauty.

Within a few minutes, they had piled onto their ships and vanished over the horizon.

A few minutes after that, the mood changed. People began peeling off from the crowd, clumping up with their families, chatting and murmuring. Rose caught Griffin’s eye, then Jenny’s, all sharing the same question: what now?

Kio’s shout snapped them out of malaise. “Look!”

The Neogah had stopped their flying dance to lead the Emperor’s dragon to high altitude. Now, one by one, they were returning, and moving into a perimeter low in the sky around Rust Town. Some beat their wings to hang in front of the mountains, others skimmed low over the sea.

Karla tensed. “Are they flanking us? Is this some kind of mental residue from Raptor?”

The Neogah began to circle.

People in the crowd gasped, and huddled together, but Rose shouted “No!” over them. She raced to Karla’s side and said, “I think it’s more like…an honor guard.”

Kio marveled at the scene in the sky. He spoke softly, as though any louder sound might shatter the beauty of the ring of dragons. “Do you mean they’re thanking us?”

Rose patted his shoulder. “What else could they be doing after all you did for them?”

“All we did for them,” Karla told her.

“People of Rust Town!” The voice of the Neogah that had spoken to Karla and Kio before–probably–rang out as clearly as if he had still been perched right beside them.

Another spoke from another direction, then more. “You have fought.”

“You have suffered.”

“Some of you have not survived. We will mourn them across the skies.”

“To the ends of the world…”

“…and the beginning of the void.”

“But first,” came several voices at once, “there is something we must give to you.”

“Something we must reveal within you.”

“What…” Rose began, then trailed off. Karla and Kio were both staring, open-mouthed, at the heartsphere.

“Everybody,” Kio said hastily, “I assure you, what is about to happen is reversible.”

If that isn’t the most ominous thing I’ve ever heard, Rose started to think, but then her mind changed.

***

Karla was ready. Instead of trying to warn anybody, she prepared herself to turn.

This time was different. The pulse of energy that hit her mind to change her shape was no longer a forcible vision of a black room. Instead, she saw an endless sky: clouds drifting across an immensity of blue and orange and purple, with the sea roaring below and galaxies drifting above.

It was a Neogah gift, to show them all the universe.

When she changed, she beat her wings hard to rise and circle around a scene of the most joyful chaos she’d ever witnessed.

Every single one of the Rusters who had sheltered in the Heartsphere had transformed.

Kio, in his cat body, was darting back and forth trying to keep order, failing at every turn. A robin leapt and chittered, winging up to join her in the sky, obviously Jenny. She sang down to where a big grey dog barked and swatted playfully at a snake that slithered about in the grass, rolling and darting with ease, both at home in their new forms. Rose the serpent and Dr. Griffin the dog danced and ran with a badger she knew was Calvin McConnell, his parents Adam and Grace a bear and hawk running together. Twin dragonflies sat on their shoulders while a lizard ran after them, while two armadillos cavorted in shells they could have forged themselves. Even the stout turtle she could tell was Finn seemed pleased with himself.

As the people of Rust Town shifted back to human, one by own, each reckoned with the experience in their own way. Some dropped to their knees in shock. Some wandered in fugues, unable to accept that the science they lived by wasn’t quite complete. And some, knowing the most about what they had passed through, were happier than ever.

Karla plowed into Jenny and they both warped back into human girls, sprawled together in mud and sand and laughing their heads off. Kio crept up, and Jenny swept him into a hug, though her head only came up to his chest. Griffin and Rose ambled near, holding hands, but Griffin’s face quickly turned solemn.

“Is this the end, then?” he asked Karla and Kio. “Really the end of the story of Castle Nashido, and the Harpooneers, and the Rokhshan?”

Rose nodded. “Seems like too much happened for it to ever really be over.”

Karla let the silence drift on for a little while. She listened to the crash of the surf, the soft breeze, the confusion of animal and human noises making its way uphill toward the pubs. And she listened to Kio, even though he wasn’t saying anything.

“It has to be,” she said at last. “We’re home.”

“I…” She took Kio’s hand, let him speak as his eyes watered.

“A tree,” he finally managed, pointing at a juniper growing out of the hillside. “That’s a tree.”

Karla hugged him tightly. The others clustered around, making sure he was all right.

Thank you, Mara, she thought. Mom. You did you work. You, Kevin Griffin, Rachel, Almon Carpenter…you can all go now.

The warm sunshine at the base of Rust Town’s island, at the base of the Heartsphere, did indeed seem to whisper of satisfied ghosts departing, gliding along with the vanishing tails of the Neogah.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Landing 4

Drawing ever nearer the end, but I would still love any Top Web Fiction votes you can spare!

“You’re a Neogah.” As soon as Karla said it, she realized it must have been true. The gliding motion, the body shape, the eyes–nothing else made sense.

Not that this made any sense, either. But she felt drawn by some force, nonetheless, to step closer. Kio came with her. Everybody else hung far back.

“I am Neogah,” the dragon said. “That is the first thing you must know if you’re ever to make sense of this whole business. There is, and will ever be, but one of us.”

Yet even as he said this, the crowd behind her gasped. Kio touched her hand and pointed to the sky behind the slope on which the great winged creature had landed.

Before the peak above Rust Town, among all the peaks of the crescent mountain range around the bay, a whole flock of the dragons wheeled. Karla tried to count as they wove in and out of the sunlight, and got to thirty before she gave up. Their sheer presence was as immense as the clouds: they filled the whole sky, gamboling, dancing, and calling out to one another.

If Neogah could shrug, the one before them just had. “It will seem confusing to members of any other race, but it is our way. When one suffers, we all suffer with them. When one feels joy, it is everyone’s joy. We have no possessions. We share even our births and our deaths, for when the deadline of the thousand years comes, none may run away from it.”

“Except Raptor,” Karla said.

The Neogah lowered its head. For a moment, all three of them stood still in frozen confusion.

“I think it wants you to pet it,” Kio said out of the corner of his mouth.

What followed was the last interaction Karla could possibly have dreamt up: she reached out, gingerly, and laid a hand on the Neogah’s snout. A low rumbling came from somewhere in the creature, an ancient desire satisfied.

“The one who called himself Raptor was the root of all this pain,” the Neogah said when Karla removed her hand. “None of us are meant to land upon the Heartsphere until the appointed day. But something dark lodged in his heart, and he went close enough to see inside–two thousand years and three days before today.”

“Hold on,” Kio interrupted, yanking several of the pages out of his coat and scanning them. “What exactly is it that happens every thousand years?”

“You do not know, Kio Rokhshan? Think on it: what else requires a large amount of energetic material to make successful contact with a round object?”

Karla couldn’t imagine. Suddenly, though, Kio’s face turned beet-red, and she remembered the last time he’d blushed that hard: when she’d asked him what the difference between boys and girls was.

He burst out, “The Heartsphere is an egg?”

“And the Cloud grants it the energy to give birth to the newest generation of Neogah. It is a cycle that was meant to persist from time immemorial to time unimaginable. Alas, it was interrupted.”

“It has other powers too, right?” Karla asked. “Like the transformations?”

“Indeed. After all, its reason for existence is to transform skeletal, dying creatures into newly-birthed specimens like us. It should not be surprising that it affects other transformations on smaller, less-powerful creatures.”

The way the dragon said this could have sounded like an insult, but everything out of its mouth was kindly enough that Karla accepted it right away as the way of the world.

It mused on. “I cannot say for certain what entered Raptor’s mind that day and led him to the sphere. Perhaps, like the gods they say sang discordant songs at the moment of creation, he was simply meant to be in conflict with the world.”

“Perhaps he was the first Neogah not to be all of the Neogah,” Kio ventured.

The dragon exhaled through its nostrils. “Perhaps. Yet whatever began his fate, entering the sphere prematurely sealed it. With the time spent inside, he gained his human form, and with it the seed of all his future evils: shame.”

Karla thought of his last words. Tell me they will be whole again.

The moment he committed his transgression, Raptor must have been overcome with self-loathing. He must have known, the first moment he looked at his human hands, that there was no taking back his mistake. And he’d lived with that feeling for every second afterwards. When she had chased around Better Karla, when she had guilted herself as a method of staying sane, she’d only known a fraction of Raptor’s suffering.

No wonder he’d wanted the cycle to end.

“He destroyed us to cover up his shame,” the Neogah said as though reading her mind. “He brought Great Rokhshan to the sky and bade him build a castle. When the cloud next came, it could not reach the sphere, and thus it continued to exist. It is meant to vanish. Instead, it decayed.”

“But the Ash Cloud still had its old power,” Kio said.

“It did. Along with the poison that grew as it tried fruitlessly to spend its energies.”

“Kio,” Karla said, turning to him, “This is…everything. He let us live for exactly the reason he made the Rokhshan in the first place.”

Kio let his pages fall to the ground. “But when you were gone, he assumed I couldn’t have maintained the castle on my own–”

“–not to mention assumed I’d bring back an army–”

“–and took a gamble. He revealed himself to me.”

“Well, he didn’t roll the dice all that well in the end.” Karla smirked.

The dragon lowered its fiery eyes toward her. “Do not be so sure.”

“What do you mean?” Karla felt a sudden chill. “He’s not dead?”

In response, the Neogah pointed one of its great foreclaws at the peaks of the crescent mountains, where the other members of his race were weaving in and out of the rocky crags. Karla followed the line of his talon to one black spot in particular. It beat its wings, then came to rest on a spire covered in grass, calling out to its fellows.

“Every Neogah,” the dragon said, “is every Neogah.”

Karla swallowed. Kio’s fingers found hers, and she clasped his hand tightly. “That’s Raptor?”

“It is the one reborn of him. The cycle exists to renew us, again and again, that we may serve the function he once desired the Rokhshan to uphold: to be the ambassadors, the connection, between Earth and Sky. That is his task once more.”

“Is he…is he happy?” Karla asked.

The dragon’s wings curled. “What a strange question to ask about one who has brought you so much grief.”

“Hey!” Kio squeezed her hand. “He’s not doing it now. He doesn’t even really exist now.”

“Then I suppose we must imagine him happy.”

“Enough of this nonsense!”

Karla and Kio both turned to see a man forcing his way through the crowd, followed by several others. Their armor plates were tarnished, but the Torals still stood tall, as their emperor strode past Karla and Kio to stare the Neogah down. His marines kept the Rusters back with their spears, causing more eye-rolling among the townsfolk than anything else. Griffin murmured something to Rose about the world’s worst first date, and Rose stifled a laugh.

“Ah.” The Neogah settled on its haunches. “You are the one in charge, then? Have you something to say?”

To the Emperor’s small credit, thought Karla: if the blazing eyes and humongous creature staring him down terrified him, he didn’t show it. “You claim political authority over a portion of the sky. I am the lord of it all. Therefore, you must submit to me.”

Some of the Rusters giggled, though warning jabs from the spears silenced them fast.

“But you are not the lord of all,” said the Neogah.

The Emperor bristled. “What insolence! Of course I am the lord of all this world!”

“We have watched your empire with what intelligence remained during our long years in skeletal form. Even the mindless consciousness of a demon could not fail to notice the greatness of all beneath the Toral banner.”

What is it doing? Karla tried to ask telepathically. Kio shrugged.

“Yet you only claim the title Lord of All Lands.” The dragon harrumphed. “There are kingdoms in the sky that know not your dominion.”

“Then I must make them know!” the Emperor cried. “Is that not why I came to this miserable rock?”

“You wish me to make you Emperor of the Sky Kingdoms!”

“Yes! Yes!” The Emperor hopped from foot to foot. “Make haste!”

The dragon smiled. “I believe, your majesty, I can give you what you ask.

***

A minute later, as the Neogah and the Emperor vanished into a bank of cloud, Rose asked Griffin, “You did say his son was more reasonable, didn’t you?”

Griffin ruffled the hair of the hysterically laughing Jenny. “I did indeed. Let’s all drink to the health of the new Toral Emperor. May his reign be long and reasonable.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Landing 3

Drawing ever nearer the end, but I would still love any Top Web Fiction votes you can spare! This is it–no more delays or excuses. The story is getting the end it deserves.

As many lost Rusters straggled toward the opening in the Heartsphere as Imperial soldiers–people who had been stubbornly waiting out the cloud in their workshops until they or their children grew unable to breathe at altitude. Kio, Rose, Jenny, and Griffin stood near the entrance in a sort of bucket brigade, helping people clamber through the small hatch. The sphere’s magic protected them from the Ash Cloud, even though it swirled only a few feet from their faces.

In the center of the great round chamber, the Emperor sat awkwardly, looking out of place in the great space even surrounded by the few soldiers willing to enter with him. Far more of them remained outside, refusing to trust the Heartsphere, calling it a trap.

At the entrance, Griffin was arguing with one. “You’ll be killed!” he shouted as Rose and Kio helped a family of five through behind him.

“We’ve been ordered to remain outside to guard against insurrection from outside,” replied the marine, who had several dozen armored followers also refusing to enter the sphere. “Since we arrived, you people have proven impossible to manage. We will not have you trap our Emperor in a prison cell.”

Griffin flung an arm behind himself. “Your emperor’s in here! Don’t you want to guard him?”

“He is well-guarded, and he has not ordered us to enter. And we will not. Whatever ambush you’re planning will not succeed.”

“Forget about orders. This is your life.”

Rose gently took Griffin by the arm and led him away. “Griff. Think about what his life really is.”

Kio worked mechanically, escorting people through the portal and guiding them to empty spaces higher up the sphere’s walls, then returning for more. It was the only way he could process the sight of more living people than he’d ever met in one place. Some of them pointed and whispered as he passed, but if anyone started gawking too noticably, there would come a kind word from Rose or an elbow from Jenny to shut them up.

Gradually–though not for lack of hurrying on Kio’s part–the colossal space began to fill up. Those with lanterns lit them. Those with families raced around to ensure everyone they knew was safe. Kio saw parents embracing their children, friends helping each other stand, engineers gossiping in circles about the sphere’s construction.

At one point, Jenny found him huddling in a corner, and reached out a hand. “It’s bothering you, too, huh?”

“No, it’s…what is?”

“I’ve been in half a dozen of those now,” she gestured to the circles forming around the warm glows of lanterns, “and all anyone can talk about is the treasure. How they can’t believe there was never anything up here.”

“There was supposed to be treasure?” Kio thought of the many statues, the mosaic inlays, the books of Nashido. Things that might have had value, that certainly did to him, that had fallen into the sea when he had blasted apart their equilibrium to let in the Ash Cloud.

He’d never read those books again. The oxygen vines would drown. All their devices, lost beneath the waves.

He stood. “They spent their lives working toward this,” he said to Jenny. “And it’s empty. Let them grieve.”

Too much. Too much was gone and too much had replaced it. Kio felt hollowed out and stuffed full and the only solution was to shut down.

Yet even that didn’t work. He tripped on a slope he hadn’t expected and sprawled on his face. One of the glowing lines burned in front of his eyes, reminding him of two things.

First, that the sphere and cloud were supposed to have done something by now.

Second, that Karla was still gone.

Jenny’s hand touched his back as his body wracked with silent, dry sobs.

***

“See?” shouted the stringent voice from another boat whose speaker Karla couldn’t identify. “Toral prison. Just like I said.”

Jada shut him down, though her voice was quaking. “The soldiers aren’t stopping anybody from going inside.”

Karla was so excited about the Heartsphere, and so unable to convince anybody it was good news, that she’d decided to just keep her mouth shut. She focused on keeping her boat, and the fleet following it, a respectable distance from the choking cloud, just inside the crescent of mountains.

It was Calvin who put the talk to rest. “Whatever it is, we can’t risk getting any closer until that cloud disperses. Karla, how long did it take last time, when you got hit with the densest bit instead of us?”

Karla gulped. “Three days.”

The refugees on the boats settled in for a long night.

***

Inside the sphere, the night only grew stranger.

The Emperor claimed control immediately. The small company of soldiers he had entered with began to fan out among the lantern-lit circles, enforcing martial law.

Rusters looked at one another and began to laugh. What, exactly, was this small annoying man claiming to control in here?

Other guards closed ranks around His Majesty, and the townsfolk just accepted that part of their refuge was occupied by an angry metallic porcupine. Against the glares and grumbles of the Rusters, the Torals held firm, but didn’t dare blink throughout the night.

When it was clear nobody else planned to enter, Dr. Griffin sorrowfully closed the hatch. Tendrils of green cloud were beginning to drift through the gap, and he could not risk endangering everyone–nor compromising whatever mysterious process was beginning to work.

And then, suddenly, there was nothing more to do. Kio huddled atop the glowing line where he’d fallen. Jenny, Griffin, and Rose took turns keeping an eye on him. From time to time, they’d whisper that Karla was all right, and Kio would agree, of course, she had to be.

Because that was true. It wasn’t exactly a proposition with alternatives.

The Torals could not prevent the people of Rust Town from celebrating, but nobody was in a mood to act up. Everyone was too busy helping the young and old learn to breathe again, or lamenting the loss of their treasure.

So the long night passed.

Kio didn’t dream through that long darkness, but he must have dozed, because he found himself being shaken awake.

Jenny was whispering in his ear. “Hey, Kio? You should be awake for this.”

“For what?” he mumbled.

“Somebody’s knocking on the door.”

***

Karla was the only person in the flotilla who could tell where the door was located from the outside. After so long clambering across the Heartsphere, fearing and wondering at it, she knew its surface like a childhood bedroom.

Everyone behind her had slept in fitful shifts. They blinked and grumbled as they dragged the boats ashore, but nobody was all that unhappy.

She only had to look up at the sky to know why.

It spread over the island, vast and blue, lit by rays of clouded sun.

The sea was calm. The Ash Cloud was gone.

Karla took a second more to revel in it, but quickly looked away when she heard a heavy clunk. The people around her shouted and pointed.

The Heartsphere hatch had opened. And she was staring through it at Kio.

Jenny, Griffin, Rose, and the other Rusters clustered up behind him. His mouth moved. “Karla…I’m–”

Whatever that apology would have been left his mouth with a woomph as she ran to the great sphere and threw her arms around him. There would be no shifting this time, no rage.

Ten years. And now it was over.

“Enough with that already,” she murmured into his neck. “Welcome to the surface, idiot.”

“You’re not mad?”

“I have about the same reason to be as you do. So let’s cancel it all out and shut up.”

His arms wrapped around her and squeezed tight. Standing out of the way of the door, Griffin slipped an arm around Rose’s waist. She leaned her head on his shoulder.

“Raptor?” Kio asked.

“Gone. Under the ocean.”

Kio snorted. “With the castle he built.”

“We made all the fun parts.”

“Excuse me!”

The voice that made the command was preternaturally dull, but the jangling of armor that came with it lent it some power. The Toral Emperor, he who sacrificed his name to rule the world’s greatest lands, strode out of the darkness of the Heartsphere, bidding his soldiers to shove townspeople out of the way as he emerged into sunlight.

Karla released Kio and stared the Emperor down. “We just beat a god, didn’t we?”

“That did in fact happen,” Kio answered. “And like twelve dragons working for him.”

Rose, Griffin, and Jenny sidled up, and the line of people standing between the Empire and Rust Town grew to five. “That’s what all those explosions in the sky were about, eh?” Rose said.

“Those were about my niece being extremely irresponsible with high explosives and other people’s property,” Griffin said. “It won’t happen again.”

More people were joining the line. Calvin and all his oarsmen packed in next to Karla. The Carpenter twins ignored the Emperor and introduced themselves to Kio. Adam tossed his wife an oar, and she gave him a swift kiss on his stubbly cheek before turning to menace the Emperor with it.

The soldiers planted their spears and formed a wall. The Emperor yammered on from behind it. “We are the rightful owners of this land. While the treasure in this fallen orb is not obviously forthcoming, you will all remain placid and compliant while my men search for it.”

Karla stepped forward. Kio dashed up by her side. She held up a hand to stop everyone else from following, and grabbed his hand as spearpoints grazed their faces.

“More than half of your men are dead because you ordered them to stay outside and stand guard,” she said.

“With my remaining force I can easily make this wretched little thorpe pay for its insolence!”

“You can overrun it, sure,” Kio said, “but you can’t hold it. All I know about these people is what Karla told me, but that was enough for me to be pretty sure this is not a rebellion you can quell.”

Karla squeezed his hand. “And you’re two weeks away from contacting backup. It’s time to rethink your position.”

They could barely see the emperor’s mouth opening and closing, fishlike, behind the line of marines. He spat out, “Men, take them–”

Every single Ruster raised whatever weapon they had, be it lantern, oar, or fists–

Kio cried, “Stop–”

The sun vanished.

Karla looked up. A shadow had fallen over the whole scene, freezing the battle in place.

Armor clanked. Rose swore. Jenny squealed.

“Kio, what does that look like to you?” Karla asked hastily.

Wings big enough to glide for days on end. Six legs, not tangled but ordered in rows to grip and run. Eyes that shone with soft light, like the moon over a warm sea, set in a rim of green scales surrounded by…

“Feathers,” Karla said. “Huh. Didn’t see that coming.”

The exposed scales around the dragon’s eyes crinkled as it beat its wings to land. Though it sat far uphill of the Rusters and soldiers, Karla could hear it clearly, could see the warmth and wisdom in its expression.

“I apologize,” it said, “for surprising you so. We Neogah are not accustomed to kindly speech. Not for the last thousand years, anyway.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, and Thomas for their continued support.

Landing 2

Drawing ever nearer the end, but I would still love any Top Web Fiction votes you can spare! No update on Friday, I’ll be out of wifi in Big Sur, California.

As she’d been doing a lot of since they met, Jenny spoiled Kio’s good mood. She’d poked her head out of the north-facing hatch, the only one of the six not overwhelmed by Ash Cloud gas, and returned looking grim. “Based on our current trajectory, we’re going to splash down half a mile offshore.”

Kio could only bark out a frustrated breath. Dr. Griffin rolled his shoulders. “All right, no problem. This sphere is just another aircraft. We can figure it out.”

Suddenly they were both looking at Kio, who realized a little late that he was the magic expert of the group.

He thought back to the beginning, to the very first Neogah attack. He and Karla had destroyed the dragon by using Nashido’s atmosphere shell to aim water a specific direction, and had done so again to foil Raptor’s forces. Clearly, the runes had directional properties. Magic had to interact with space.

“Griffin, you go stand over by that one. Jenny, come over here.” The two obeyed. “Do you still have the rocks you drew with?”

Uncle and niece held up the chunks of rock they’d salvaged from outside. “Scratch yours out,” Kio told Griffin, “in a way you’ll be able to fix later.”

Griffin knelt over his rune and scratched away. Seconds later, the heartsphere lurched, knocking all three off their feet. “We’re rolling over!” Jenny announced unnecessarily, and dashed to the hatch that was becoming the new safe opening.

She pulled back coughing and gagging–not so safe anymore, then–and shouted to Griffin. “Too far! Put it back!”

While Griffin hastily undid his work, Kio scratched a line out on Jenny’s rune. The heartsphere jerked and rolled back.

Jenny shouted new orders. Step by step, wave by wave, erasing and redrawing, they worked their way toward the sandy continental shelf that sloped upward onto the Big Island.

***

“Rose,” Dan stated flatly, “you’re crazy.”

“Yeah, nuts,” Gary said in a hoarse whisper.

“I have to do it,” Rose replied, touching the eight-pointed star stitched into her jacket. “I’m consecrated to the Remedium. I have a vow. I can’t knowingly let anybody come to harm, even if they are Toral jerks. I’m obligated to try.”

“They’ll lock you up again!” Dan cried. “You’ll never get to the sphere!”

“I’m good at running.” Though she wished for the millionth time that she had a weapon.

The twins were coughing too hard to argue further. Stymied, they took one last look at Rose, and raced down the hill.

Rose caught sight of movement in the alleys–other members of the group of volunteers, abandoning their posts to find shelter. She was glad of it. This final task was something she had to do alone.

“With this new expansion of our influence,” came the Emperor’s droning voice as she crept closer, “we stand at the threshold of an Imperial Millenium!”

The soldiers banged their shields and roared. Just as quickly as it started, though, the roar died down. On the other side of the line of soaked laundry hiding Rose from the square, the marines began to murmur and point.

The emperor’s head poked above the washing, banded with a threaded crown of silver and gold. And even it turned to face the sphere.

“Formation!” somebody screamed. “Protect the Emperor!”

She was running out of time. If she didn’t intervene now, they’d march out of here on a war footing, and none of them would get any chance to survive.

Rose slid under the hanging sheets. Three bounds took her up a stack of barrels onto a rooftop–the same one Jenny had pulled Finn off of, the night Karla had fallen to earth.

“It’s one of the locals!” a soldier shouted.

Spears clattered. Soldiers broke off and ran toward Rose’s shack.

“I have no weapons!” she cried hoarsely. Turned out her apron pocket and threw her arms wide.

“You’re under arrest for interference in a ceremony!” one of the Torals replied.

“I hope you will forgive me. I come here only in service of the glory of the Planetary Emperor, the Sun of Toral, he that rules the Three Districts.”

John Kalend had known that title. She’d memorized it while in jail, hoping it would come in useful. Memorizing things rarely proved to be a bad idea.

“Let her be,” droned a voice from behind the crowd.

The marines stood down at once, slamming the butts of their spears into the ground. Rose looked over their heads to the elevated, covered stage from which the emperor of two continents had just addressed her.

He was a smaller man than she had expected, but bedecked from head to toe in the finest clothes she had ever seen: purple velvet robes with gold inlay over a shirt of silk. Even getting caught in the drizzle had not dampened the Emperor’s finery.

“What would you give us as a gift, citizen?” the man demanded.

“Your Majesty,” Rose said, kneeling, “you came to our humble island to personally oversee the construction of the world’s greatest skycraft–a craft that would claim the treasure in the clouds. But I say to you there is no need. Behold!”

Rose pointed behind her at the great sphere growing ever-larger in the rain-washed sky. “The gods of the sky themselves bear witness to your eminence! They grant the treasure to you as a boon of honor!”

Was “boon of honor” a thing people actually said? Some of the Torals were nodding, so she was pretty sure she’d gotten the purple prose right.

Yet some of the other soldiers–including the commander who’d given the order when she had first climbed the roof–were grumbling. “Your Majesty, this is obviously a trick,” the commander said aloud. “That sphere is merely some optical illusion to lure you into their power.”

“How can I fall into a trap when I have my loyal army to protect me?” The Emperor signaled his attendants to pick up the platform and the awning. A dozen hastened to obey. “Lead on, lass. Be sure that this treasure is worthy of me.”

Oh, it is, Rose thought. In fact, you may not be worthy of it.

***

The green cloud slowed.

One minute the sky-high wall was racing on as fast as it ever had. The next, the wind was blowing faster than it was. Then the waves crashed across it. By their motion, Karla could judge that the Ash Cloud was drifting to a halt.

She opened her mouth to cheer, but Calvin, beside her, had seen it too. Setting down his lantern, he shouted to the sky with joy.

It was a miracle. The people on the boats praised it as one. Never mind that the waves still pitched and rolled, or that the rain kept lashing them. The Cloud had stopped. And Karla knew who they had to thank.

The rejoicing kept on until the cheers and whoops faded into uncertain whispering. Nobody could see whether Rust Town had been yet engulfed. The storm still obscured it all.

Karla and Calvin exchanged a worried glance. Shouts began to issue from up and down the line of dinghies.

“The island’s in the cloud! They didn’t get away!”

“No, there they are! Look! Everyone’s on the beach!”

“There are soldiers there!”

“What’s that big thing they’re heading towards? Some kind of Toral prison?”

Then another shout, from Karla herself, who didn’t care whether or not anybody understood it: “The Heartsphere! That’s the Heartsphere! They’re saved!”

***

When the sphere came to a soft rest on some kind of gravelly surface, Kio sank right along with it.

This was it. The land. His ten-year dream.

He was home. He would never be home again.

Jenny appeared by his side, smiling. “Ready?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “What for?”

She had a response on her lips when one of the six hatches opened from the outside.

Kio clambered to his feet. Right outside the opening, more people than he’d ever seen in one place shoved, queued, wrestled, and stood their ground. He stared past them, and saw his heart’s wish confirmed.

Solid rock. Grass. A tree.

Hot tears rolled down his face.

Jenny shook him back to reality. Glittering green poison hung in the air. The people in the crowd were fighting to breathe.

Griffin was staring open-mouthed at the two people at the front of the line.

One of them was wearing ludicrously fancy robes and a crown of silver and gold. The other was a sheepishly smiling woman with cropped red-brown hair, wearing a leather apron over a white shirt stitched with an eight-pointed star.

“Hey, Griff,” she said. “Hi, Jenny. I’ve had a pretty weird day.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, and Thomas for their continued support.

Landing 1

This is it: the first chapter of the final arc of The Clockwork Raven! If you’ve stuck with the story so far, thank you until the end of time for your support. Unfortunately, delays are still a problem even at the resolution of all things, so I will have to say that there will be no chapter this Friday as I am going to be at OryCon.

On the other hand, if you’re going to be at Orycon, come say hi! I’ll be in the steampunk airship captain costume with the nametag “Rafael de Windermere.” On with the story!

Rose and Grace led the volunteer brotherhood of Rusters through the streets. Rain whipped wind across the rooftops from every direction, filling the sickly green air with droplets. Over it all came the clank of armor and the ritual cheers of the Torals as their Emperor traveled to meet them.

He must have been close. There was no other reason the bastards would be yelling that loudly. The only consolation for Rose was that if they were on parade, they wouldn’t be pursuing the escaping fleet of boats.

Those who had taken to the water might have been the only townsfolk destined to survive the night.

At the edge of the crystal square, Grace held up a hand to halt the company. Rose could see a sliver of plaza through a gap around the corner of the alleyway: great canopies had been set up to keep the rain off His Majesty, stretched between poles driven deeply into the ground. So many Torals lined the edges that Rose had no idea how they’d all managed to fit on twelve ships. Some carried horns, some ceremonial hangings or shields, and all of them wore armor with hardly a plate that didn’t shimmer.

Lightning surged down from the sky and struck a tree high on the mountain, setting it ablaze. Grace pulled Rose down behind a stack of barrels. “How’s your breath?”

“It’s…acceptable,” Rose said. Convincingly, she was sure. “What about the rest of you?”

A chorus of hems and haws from the group. Guy said, “Fine!” Dan did not.

The trumpets blared. “That’s him!” Dan squealed, then coughed. “He’s…hack…he’s here!”

Rose snuck one more look over the barrels. The marines at the end of the row were parting and bowing, as a moving awning carried by eight more soldiers crept toward the crystal. Somewhere underneath there, the Toral Emperor was here for his personal visit, to announce the construction of an aircraft that could reach Castle Nashido.

Rose snickered at the thought that he’d already been beaten.

Then coughed. Grace looked sharply at her, eyes full of concern. “What do we do?” Rose asked.

“Well, I’d like to kill some of them,” Grace replied as the twins nodded eagerly, “but you’re the leader of this outfit.”

Rose racked her brains for only a moment, then said, “We set watches. Create a network of us all around the square. If any of them try to make a move for the boats to chase down the others, we’ll know.”

“And then what’ll we do?” Guy piped up.

Rose sighed. “Let’s figure that out then.”

***

Kio opened his eyes. Closed them. Opened them again.

He was alive, in total darkness: inside the Heartsphere, a place that had served him well for being alive before now. This vast empty room was what survival looked like to him.

Only, it hadn’t been empty the last time. Or the time before that. And right now, he had no idea whether or not Karla was safe. Raptor could be killing her while Kio sat here in the dark.

He wished she were here. She should have been here.

Light shone in through a hatch suddenly opened in one side of the sphere, and then someone was here.

“Hello?” Jenny’s call echoed through the castle-sized space. “Kio? Anybody?”

“Kio!” Griffin’s voice cut across his niece’s, and Kio’s heart leapt. Both the landlings had survived!

“I’m here!” he shouted. He hurried across the floor to meet them. “Close that door and we’ll be safe.”

“Kio, thank Hannah!” Jenny ran to him. “We thought you’d been crushed to death.”

“Huh? By what?”

“Don’t you have any idea what you set off outside?” she panted. “The castle is falling apart!”

“Then I guess…we did it.”

It was real. Nashido was collapsing around him. While he was safe, he could do nothing but sit and listen while his entire world flushed away into the ocean. And he’d wanted this.

Griffin broke the silence that followed. “Is something meant to be happening?”

“Uncle Griff, those Neogah froze in place right when they were about to kill us,” Jenny said. “Something is happening.”

“But this room seems entirely impervious to it.” Griffin moved back and forth, and yelped a couple of times to test where the echoes were. “Isn’t it the core of the place? The reason for all this drama?”

“How can I see you right now?”

They both looked at Kio–something he could also see. None of them had entered with any light source. He would have noticed.

Long threads of light had begun to shine all over the walls of the Heartsphere. The color was the same violet as the atmosphere crystals, and crisscrossed everywhere, winding around the feet of the three people sheltering inside. Though it left several large gaps, its light was enough to make Kio believe he had stepped inside a luminous spiderweb. As he watched, more threads emerged and connected with the others, until the web of energy fit around the entire sphere.

Jenny gave a low whistle. This, Kio thought, is a holy place.

“What could this mean?” Griffin murmured.

“I think…I hope…” Kio said, “…maybe that we made the right choice.”

“Wait!” Jenny ran back and forth past the two men, poking the blank spots, getting down on her knees to examine the lines. “This is it? It just lights up?”

“It’s…probably not the whole thing?” Kio guessed.

Jenny rounded on him. “We came up here to save our town! The Ash Cloud is still coming on, and it’s gonna kill them all. We’re not any closer to saving them.”

“Calm down,” Griffin said.

“Don’t tell me to–”

“Calm down,” the engineer told them both, “and think. We are three extremely intelligent people and we’re going to think until we figure out how to save Rust Town.”

Jenny opened her mouth. Closed it again.

Kio was already thinking. An idea had occurred to him–one that had been taking shape since he had first learned about rune magic. One that had gained definition when he had learned that runes could be inverted to reverse their effects, and had gained even more when he discovered the secret of his face tattoo. One he had never voiced aloud, not even to Karla, because it afforded him one chance not to screw up–if it went wrong, he was toast.

But now, there didn’t seem to be anything to lose.

“I know what to do,” he said. Griffin and Jenny looked up from the circles they were pacing over the luminous lines.

“We can’t get them up here quickly enough, right? Something’s keeping them from using their planes?” Their expressions told him this was true.

“Easy, then.” He imagined Karla by his side, spoke as though through her. “If they can’t come to Nashido, we’ll bring Nashido to them.”

***

Only the twins remained with Rose as she picked her way through the alleys south of the square. At every turn, she held her breath and waited for any patrols to pass by. Every time she did, it became harder to catch her breath again.

The Emperor was making some sort of speech. He’d dragged the cover off a lumpy monstrosity that was probably supposed to be an aircraft, and was talking about wealth, prosperity, the future. She could hardly hear him over the rain.

The twins wheezed more with every step, until finally, Rose took pity. None of them could walk any farther. They’d stay here, and keep watch.

“Just hold on,” she told Dan and Guy. “And don’t forget. You said you’d run.”

“Yeah,” Dan nodded weakly. He slumped against a tin wall, looking like he’d never run again.

Rose allowed herself a single instant of lost composure. Was this what she’d come for? To see the town she’d adopted burned to the ground to feed an army, and to die alone with nobody but two innocent children she couldn’t save?

She dropped to her knees. What had Hannah seen in the sky to take her to this hell? What had she, Rose, ever seen?

Hold on.

What was she seeing in the sky right now?

In another instant she could make it out clearly. Yes, yes, there was something there. The twins saw her looking, and crawled out to watch the skies too.

Yes, there was. There was a sphere-shaped object in the sky, like there was every time the crystal glowed.

It was glowing now, brighter than Rose had ever seen. The blue lit up the whole face of the mountain. And the sphere was getting closer.

***

Kio’s idea wasn’t that complicated, if anything to do with magical runes could be considered simple. Inverted runes did the opposite of the spell the original cast. There was one rune he knew better than any: the lifting rune.

Jenny and Griffin grabbed shards of rubble from outside the hatches and scratched the images into the Heartsphere’s surface, looking back at Kio’s face every few lines to make sure they were getting it right. When their designs glowed white, they leapt back, and retreated to join Kio at the center of the room.

He waited for a fraught instant.

Then the floor began shifting.

Just like that, the core of Kio’s prison was carrying him down to the surface.

It was strange to contemplate. He should have been enraged that he’d waited in the sky for so long when he could have done this whenever he’d wanted. But Raptor and the Neogah still would have come after him and Karla. The score would still need to be settled.

In the end, he had been destined for this fight. To lose his way and find it again.

Even so, as the Heartsphere descended toward the surface, Kio, the last Rokhshan, wept to finally be free.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, and Thomas for their continued support.

Breaking 5

This is your increasingly regular reminder to vote for The Clockwork Raven on Top Web Fiction. Click here, and then enjoy the chapter!

All at once, their monstrous enemies transformed. The dragons shifted their bones onto the tower, becoming flat to wrap around the walls, through the bottleneck. “What the hell?” Jenny shouted.

“Shoot them!” Griffin ran to the basin wall, ready to swing his steel club.

Jenny let a bolt loose. It pinged off the tower wall and fell harmlessly to the mosaic tile.

Inside the bottleneck, the bone dragons reformed. Jenny and Griffin faced a forest of ribs and legs in every direction, searching in vain for a way out. Another shot from Jenny’s ballista crunched through a breastplate, but the hole closed up as the circle contracted. No escape.

“When they get close,” Uncle Griff told her, “we’ll kill them all.”

“Uncle Griff, I…” Jenny’s eyes watered. She touched the bottom of her weapon, found the bolt clip empty. “This isn’t your fault. I wanna make sure you know.”

“I know,” Griff said, staying strong for her. It was so obvious when he was doing that.

“And you should marry Aunt Rose. I’m sick of her saying she’s not my real aunt.”

“Still know.” Exhausted, Griff raised his club high over his head.

“Ready?” The tears exploded from her eyes.

“Ready!” He dropped the club, threw his arms around her. For a second, Jenny was a baby again, back on the boat.

When she thought of safety, it was always Griff’s face she saw. Her real parents were nothing but other people’s words. It was so clear: he’d always been her father, really.

She felt safe now, too.

Then she heard the explosion.

It tore through the bottom half of Nashido. Jenny could tell, even from where she stood her ground, that the weight of the castle was shifting. Four of the Neogah keened from below her.

The other four froze.

Griff released her and pointed up. The dragons had stopped moving and were just…drifting. Like fish.

Through their strange slow dance, Jenny saw the towers starting to shift. Prying apart like a clenched fist opening.

”Kio,” she said. “Kio, you did it!”

Only one thing could have made the dragons start behaving this weird: whatever happened when the Ash Cloud touched the Heartsphere was happening.

Griff yanked her up by the arm. “It isn’t safe here,” he shouted.

Jenny had to agree. The towers had been rooted firmly to the castle. Now they were sliding toward horizontal. A monstrous grinding drowned out the storm as other bits clattered, crumbled, fell from the sphere in an ever increasing wave.

“Down!” she shouted, and bolted toward the stairwell.

***

Karla streaked down through the sky like a falling star.

Her whole life, she had feared plummeting to earth. Every jump, every swing, had left her heart in her throat and her pulse pounding for an hour afterwards, no matter how hard she’d tried to hide it from Kio.

Now, she was doing it on purpose.

Good thing Raptor had fallen first.

She could almost feel sorry for the dragon with the clipped wings as he hurtled toward the ocean. The clouds opened up, revealing the rolling sea, just as Raptor transformed again into a man.

She angled even more sharply down, hoping to catch up.

His lips were moving. “I never wanted this.”

Raptor’s voice still carried over the storm. She stuck her claws out and landed, perched on his chest, staring into his dark eyes.

“I just wanted to be whole.”

So did I. But you sent the Rokhshan to enslave my ancestors from the surface. You broke me with the earth. You made me broken.

“Tell me they will be whole again.”

Karla had no idea who he was talking about, or whether they would be anything ever again. But she had killed him. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Only a few yards above the ocean, she shifted back into a human, and clasped Raptor in her arms.

“They will be whole again,” she told him.

Leaping away turned her to the raven once more. She beat her wings and watched him hit the water.

The man’s body did not float. All Karla saw floating across the surface of the ocean was a kaleidoscope of bones.

She lost the shape. Now that the god was dead, she realized how much the fight in the sky had exhausted her. Every one of her own bones was drained of energy, like it was full of lead.

She landed in the freezing water. With the sheets of rain falling, it was like swimming, like being submerged.

Nothing she wasn’t used to. But Karla could do no more than float, drifting among Raptor’s bones.

At last, she saw one other thing bobbing across the ocean’s surface: boats.

In the prow of the lead vessel, Calvin McConnell lifted a lantern, shouted something to his oarsmen. And Karla dared to think she was safe.

Except that the Ash Cloud had engulfed Nashido, and it was still coming on.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, and Thomas for their continued support.