Reckoning 4

Karla took stock of the hangar. No birds. Not much wind. No bone dragons. Nothing to suggest she’d heard him wrong.

“Great,” she said after a little too much silence. “Good to know cats have a sense of humor. What are we really going to do?”

“Karla, I’m not joking.” Kio rocked a bit but held firm. “You can go down there, down to the surface, right now. Ten years and you can go whenever you want to.”

“I can’t,” she said, patiently, taking on her explaining-engineering voice, “because we made a promise–”

“I know we did!” Kio cut across her. “Don’t remind me what we promised. I’m asking you to agree to break it.”

All right. Time to confront the possibility that Kio truly was not joking.

“Forget it.” She stood up, making for the workshop elevator. “There’s no reason for me to leave now when you just lost seventy-five percent of your effective body mass. We’ll just retrofit Raven so a cat can pilot her. Make her work more by herself.”

“A cat piloting an ornithopter?” Kio caught her leg. When she looked down, she saw with a pang that tears were springing to the corners of his eyes. “Can you hear yourself? Karla, a cat is not useful for anything. You said yourself we can’t even make the craft work for one human–”

“Hold on!” She kicked her way out of his grip. “You could hear me? You were a cat!”

“You understood me as a bird! And you know it’s true, or you wouldn’t have said it.”

“Wait, you were curling up on my lap. You licked me!”

“I couldn’t stop!” Kio turned beet-red. “It’s an instinct thing. My other body is domesticated. I’m a housecat.

He stood, flinging an arm behind him to point down toward the ocean. “I can’t keep you from the surface anymore–”

“You idiot, you never were!”

“–it could be the only way–”

“I’ve been keeping myself from the surface since this damn bird thing started, since before! A promise takes two people!”

“–so you want to go!” Kio charged her.

“Wait.” Something he’d said had caught in her mind. “What do you mean, the only way?”

“Think about it.” He caught a little of his breath. “We’ve never made anything that could hold together long enough to make it down to the surface. But we know people are capable of flying the other direction.”

“No we don’t. What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you remember? The Harpooneers.”

The fact that she’d managed not to remember staggered Karla. Maybe she had begun believing too much in her own Rokhshan lie, despite intentionally bringing it up as little as possible. “It should be harder, though,” she said to cover her confusion, “shouldn’t it? Isn’t lift harder than controlled falling?”

“You once told me all flying is controlled falling.”

“I know I did! Stop quoting me.”

“Look,” Kio said, and Karla got the sudden feeling that he’d been thinking about this a lot while a cat. “I knew you’d say it doesn’t make sense. But it’s what happened. It’s all we’ve got. We know gliders can make it up, and we know birds can make it down.”

“You can’t expect me to just accept that. There is a real aeronautical mystery here–”

“And you can solve it on the surface.”

That stopped Karla in her tracks. Whatever she’d been readying to say next fell out of her mouth and slipped away into the sky.

He was right. Of course he was. The only place to solve the mystery of how to reach the surface was the surface itself, the place where her mother Mara had launched the greatest skybound expedition in history. She could go to the big island, and from there, investigate the origins of the Harpooneers. She could go about as one openly, drop the Rokhshan façade…

Her eyes grew warm, and a dam burst from behind them. Kio, long since having dried his eyes, looked startled.

Karla managed to get her knees under her before sobs wracked her body harder than a coughing fit. Hot tears dug trenches down her face.

Kio dropped down before her, but she pushed him away. “Don’t,” she babbled. “Don’t make this harder.”

“You don’t want to say–”

It’s NOT goodbye!” Her shout rebounded around the space, climbed up Castle Nashido and shot out into the sky. “You’ve tricked me into admitting that briefly leaving is the only way forward. When we’re both on the surface, you owe me an amazing apology for this.”

“Fair enough.” Kio smiled.

He’s already there, in his head. He thinks I’ll see him again.

So what am I so worried about?

“Don’t forget to manure the vine beds every other day. And the food beds every three.” She advanced toward him, holding a finger out like a sword. “The aqueduct pivot points have been squeaking again, they need oil if it’s going to be able to catch rain from all direction. There’s some weird crunchy grass in the mist garden I haven’t gotten out yet, and the new veggies need washing. And put back that spear gun. There’s just enough metal for a new spear in the workshop.”

“I know all of that,” Kio said. His cool voice was evidence of a switch flipping–he definitely still cared, yet he was suddenly pretending not to.

Karla narrowed his eyes. What was his game?

“I can handle it all,” Kio went on. “I never really needed you, anyway. You always just get in the way.”

“I know what you’re doing,” she shot back. “You’re trying to make me upset so I’ll transform. It’s not gonna work.”

“Yeah, I bet it’s not!” Kio raised his voice into a strangled yell. “Because–you know–you’re so bad at everything! I never wanted you around! I’m really glad you’re leaving!”

“I’m not leaving right away! Unless you keep up with this crap–”

“When else are you going to leave?” Kio shouted like a kitten howling. “Huh? What do you have left to do up here?”

She couldn’t listen to any more of this. He shouldn’t have gone off–should have let her figure out how to transform in her own time. But that wasn’t his style.

They were all they had. They helped each other. He wasn’t going to let her go off alone.

The thought of it gave Karla strength. She wiped her face clean with one furred sleeve. Kio’s fists were balled, his face hardened, and his heart, she could tell from afar, beating as hard as it ever had.

Forget falling. Forget bone dragons. This was his greatest dread.

Yet he’d plunged into it, anyway, for her.

Did people on the surface have people that would risk everything for them? Who cared? She had one.

Since learning she could transform into a raven, Karla had associated the feeling with dread, and terror, and loss. She’d never thought she could turn from happiness. But knowing that Kio would pretend shove her away just to help her was enough to make her feel the now-familiar sensation of her body being squeezed tightly while her brain expanded.

The last thing she saw, before the raven mind compelled her to wing her way into the sky, was Kio attacking the calendar floor with the carving stone, scratching a gouge that seemed like it would never come to an end.

***

An hour later, or two, Kio sat in the library, reading some old book of sky kingdom poems. Four lines each, seven words, some utterly mundane topic allegedly rendered profound…he couldn’t tell. Didn’t care. Just needed to be reading something.

His stomach rumbled, and he smiled, knowing that any moment Karla would burst into the library and remind him to eat.

Kio Rokhshan awoke to the silence, like one does when one has realized one is the only one in the visible world making any noise. Nashido bustled and creaked. It all sounded far away.

It was very quiet. And he was very alone.

***

Karla cut her way through a darkening twilight sky.

Thinking as the raven was as hard as it ever had been, but she had no trouble retaining the concepts she needed.

Surface. Down. They had ruled her mind since she had been old enough to think. Not even the magic of the heartsphere could flush them out.

Down. Surface. They had drifted over the archipelago. Sweeping open before her were the scattered field isles, the crescent-shaped mountain range, the great bustling city of the Big Island. Its crystal was glowing brightly, its skycraft buzzing around the rooftops, surging up toward the clouds Karla pierced through on her descent.

A fire erupted in her heart. She was going there! Fear and excitement and uncertainty mingled together into a fuel to keep the blaze going.

Karla Harpooneer folded her wings, and dove.

That was when a great dark shadow slammed into her from the side, and something sliced feathers off her right wing, and she lost consciousness in the middle of the air.

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!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Reckoning 3

Half an hour of coaxing and voice-following and occasional carrying took them both to the hangar. Karla went there because she always did when she didn’t know how to feel, and she brought cat-Kio because she didn’t know how he felt, and figured he’d appreciate it.

At some point–she’d be damned if she could remember when–they had raised Raven back up into her darkened workshop. But the calendar was still there carved into the floor, sturdy and reassuring. Some gears reflected the sunlight and scattered it.

This room, with its open walls and its stout pillars, always seemed so full of promise when they were about to set out on a test of the ornithopter. When Karla thudded down near the ledge, she regretted that she had come here mostly because she couldn’t figure out what to do with her legs.

Kio curled up on her lap. That was another thing she regretted, but it was just so easy to get him to do it, and it would be pretty hilarious to tell him when he came back.

“This sucks, Kio,” she said, gazing out at the sky as she scratched him between his ears. “I wanted you to be a bird too.”

She almost giggled when he purred, but giggling wasn’t something she felt like doing either.

“I think I figured it out.” Her eyes absently traced a pair of gulls wheeling over each other. “It’s because we went into the Heartsphere, get it? That’s the reason the Rokhshan had ‘don’t go in there’ as their first law. There’s some kind of energy in there that changes you. Fundamentally. And you can’t have a noble house where the lords and ladies turn into lizards or whatever whenever they get upset.”

Kio looked up sharply and sprang out of her lap, chasing some invisible sound. She let him run.

“Because that’s it. You changed when you thought I had died. It happens when there’s nothing else that can happen. And I think it’s easier every time. My second didn’t take as much effort.”

As for you, she thought but didn’t say, the big difference between us is that you spent five more years on this castle than me. Being near the heartsphere bathed you in whatever it was putting out that came from inside it. You got…immune, somehow, and it took more for you to change. It took a lot for me, I’ve had ten years, but another five isn’t nothing.

“This whole time, I’ve been thinking–the moment you get your bird body too, we can fly down to the surface forever and forget all this ornithopter business. But now…we still need Raven. We still have our promise. We’re right back where we started, with a flyer we can’t make work, even for one person.”

Her nose reddened, and her eyes pricked as he wandered back over to her, gazing out at a cloud. She really hoped she wasn’t allergic to cats.

She hoped he was going to change back. What if that was something else that was restricted to landlings?

The caption under the picture had mentioned that cats liked milk, but they never had any milk–it curdled too quickly. She made a slurry of gull and water and managed to convince him to lap it up.

Then she went to work on Raven. Letting a mewling Kio up into the workshop so she could keep an eye on him, she tinkered and tightened and stretched and replaced and oiled with a frenzy she hadn’t felt in months. She felt the old machine-ness taking her over again, the sense that she was building an island for herself while the one she stood on collapsed beneath her feet, and that her life depended on finishing her work just a little bit earlier than everything came crashing down.

The sun sank behind the clouds and she kept working. The stars followed the moon out into the night and she kept working. Kio yowled at her and she stopped working long enough to shoo him to a warm spot under one of the braziers–she didn’t have any trouble translating his cries into what he would have said as a human.

As it turned out, she wasn’t quite right. But his voice and hers did remind her that working to escape her problems wasn’t the greatest idea.

“Liars, the both of you,” she grunted. She was working to eliminate her problems.

Around midnight, an impromptu wind-tunnel test had her convinced that some three-month-old repair had left Raven’s wings imbalanced–the right was heavier than the left. She took the right down to the hangar so she could watch the skies while trying to make it lighter.

Two hours later, she considered that she’d also be fine with making the left wing heavier, should the right prove to be impossible.

The moon scattered silvery light over islands of cloud, conjuring them as ghostly mirrors of the rocky isles below. They made a path of stepping stones to take her far over the horizon, to circle the whole world and come back to step lightly onto the machine deck at Nashido’s aft. Without once setting foot on the surface.

Kio licked at her fingertips. His tongue was sandpapery.

Once upon a time, they had concocted a plan to chart a tall mountain, run the castle aground on it, and work their way down to the surface. This had lasted for months of them attempting to seek out every sufficiently high mountain on the four sea charts in the library, some of which overlapped. At last, they’d had to scrap the idea–every region with mountains high enough to work also boasted weather stormy enough to throw even Nashido off course. They had turned back for the archipelago without ever seeing a mountain higher than the Big Island.

However, right now, Karla saw one looming ahead, so high there was a village level with Nashido, with shepherds and smoke drifting out of chimneys. Which is how she knew she was dreaming.

She woke up with Raven’s wing covering her like a blanket, and a tattooed face looking down at her.

“Hey,” Kio said, almost apologetically. “We have to talk.”

Karla pulled the wing up before realizing it was an awful comforter. She set it gently aside and sat up. “Yeah. We do.”

Words streamed out. “I know I’m always apologizing to you in this room, and that’s weird because I like the hangar but anyway, I…I was a total idiot.”

Kio dropped to a sitting position and held out his hands. “It’s fine. That gas did stuff to you I still can’t figure out. If we hadn’t had the mushrooms…”

“You can’t just blame the gas! It was me, too. I didn’t want to jump, I just wanted to do something. To push back against the memories.”

“We did do something. We got the warmth started again. But that’s–”

“–I feel so stupid–“

“–that’s not what I wanted to talk about!” Kio shouted.

“Right.” Karla folded her arms around her knees. “We should probably discuss the cat thing.”

“That’s kinda it.” Kio studied the sunrise. “I’ve got an idea. You won’t like it.”

Karla had decided from her research that she liked sunsets better. The colors happened all at once, instead of proceeding in an orderly fashion when the sun told them it was all right.

“You have to go,” Kio told her. “You have to become a raven and fly down to the surface without me.”

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!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Reckoning 2

Thinking like Karla, that had been the key. What did Karla like? Other than aviation, thunderstorms, pineapple–which she’d had three times in her life–sleeping in, and racing paper boats?

Hydraulics.

She loved working with the aqueducts even when she didn’t need to. Figuring out all the things she could make water do. It was like having another set of hands to help, she always said: water just needed directions, and it would gladly do its duty.

That was what Kio would do. Make an extra set of hands.

Working in the rain disinclined a lot of his kindly thoughts toward water, but at least he wasn’t going to run out of material. The trickier part was gathering what he needed without leaving the ledge.

Luckily, this garden was on the same side of the castle as the clay jug they used as a counterweight for the pulley elevator. By hauling on that rope while kicking off lone seagull adventurers with both feet, he was able to drag the jug within reach.

It was harder to find a way to suspend the spear gun in such a way that gravity could work on it, but he managed this too by cannibalizing the rope the jug had been hanging from. Nashido’s obnoxiously perfect construction made it difficult to find a place to attach the line. Finally, he yanked carrots out of the garden, tied them to both ends of the line, and threw them to the ledge above, and kept throwing them until they lodged on something.

Now he had an empty spear gun hanging from the ceiling, with a jug hanging from its trigger. And a Karla he’d dragged as far out of the rain as he could, still shivering–he couldn’t decide whether to add furs or remove them, since both seemed to make her shake worse.

“Soon,” he told her. “I promise.”

The hard part was over. The garden was irrigated directly from the reservoir, with a pipe on a spigot above his head. They’d shut it before the sky kingdom, a million years ago, having expected rain.

They’d had no choice but to drill the spigot too high into the wall to reach. Kio turned it by hurling a cabbage.

The reservoir was already spilling its rim from the rain. The released water burst out of the valve like it was breathing a sigh of relief. Kio held his breath, hoping he’d positioned it correctly…

…the falling water splashed into the rim of the jug. Kio let out a whoop.

As it turned out, the only thing he’d miscalculated was the load-bearing knots attaching the jug to the gun. The water wasn’t spilling right.

Having shifted them, he stood back in satisfaction. A crowd of gulls gathered, curious about this stoic newcomer.

When the jug filled past a certain mark, its weight jerked the trigger, and the birds scattered, terrified of the missile that wasn’t coming. As they flew off, the water splashed out, leaving the trigger to reset and the jug to fill again.

I’ll call it the Kiobot, he thought, as he picked up Karla under her back and knees and raced for the hatch.

Behind him, the Kiobot snapped. A flock of gulls squawked their way off to the horizon. And the tension in Kio’s gut eased just a little.

He hardly remembered the trip through the heartsphere. It was fitting, in a way, since he hadn’t remembered his first until a few days ago. He knew now, though. He’d broken the first commandment of the Benefactor. And it wasn’t hard to imagine that he’d spent his life cursed because of it.

He took the side exit out of the Inner Citadel, from the room above the burned room. Shuffling quickly through it, keeping Karla from bumping into anything, he thought he saw sunlight glinting off the remains of a chandelier.

The closest room was the one near the top of the sphere, next to the empty hallway complex he never bothered to enter. It held the same four-poster where they’d conferred about their plan to enter the Inner Citadel, which had gone pretty well if you discounted everything that had happened to Karla and most of the things that had happened to him. At least it was warming up again.

He laid her out in the bed, removed most of her furs except the bottom layer so she wouldn’t be too hot, then propped her head on pillows and tucked her into the quilt. Then he rearranged the pillows and shifted the quilt about because it felt like making progress.

Outside, the rain pattered on, making puddles all over the castle erupt with little mountain peaks. Clouds drifted into wisps beyond the towers outside the high bedroom windows. Somewhere below, the Kiobot snapped its trigger again, keeping the mushrooms safe.

It was time for him to get back to the garden. He couldn’t leave the mushrooms to get eaten in the middle of one of its intervals.

Yet something stopped him in the door. He felt suddenly like his eyes were connected to Karla like a ray of energy, and if he broke it, he’d lose her forever. He’d been near her since she collapsed. He wondered if that, all along, had been keeping her alive.

Cautiously, he stepped to her bedside.

“We’re all we have,” he told her. “You promised. Don’t go without me. Not even there. Not that place. Don’t leave me.”

He broke the connection like ripping a bandage off. Had to get back through the heartsphere, had to keep protecting the fungi. Only three left.

They would cure her, not sitting by her side and whispering magic words.

As the rainy evening turned into a starless night, and then a smoky morning, Kio rode up and down the rope lift to the platform–easier to use now that he wasn’t carrying anybody comatose. The sun burst into view all at once as he pressed cool cloth to Karla’s forehead and tried to get her to drink water, spilling most of it. By the time he was back to the garden to untangle a snarl in the Kiobot’s ropes, the clouds were burning away.

Kio’s breath caught to see the ocean glittering below. The thought crossed his mind that one of the worst things about being trapped on a floating castle was that he would have loved life on Nashido had he been able to leave once in a while.

He dozed at some point, not even remembering where he was, bedroom or garden. He dreamed of Karla slipping away, blown on a soft breeze while he fought to change into a bird and follow. He grabbed himself, forcing his own outline into the correct form, but all he created was a human growing smaller and smaller until he vanished altogether.

When he woke up, the mushrooms were ready.

He could tell from the brown spots speckling the caps of the three surviving fungi. They had been a solid white when he went to sleep, but overnight, the sign of maturity the book told him to look for was there. So too was the firmness–the caps gave under his fingers, but only just.

If they were ever going to work as an antidote, they were going to work now.

He pulled all three out carefully by the stalks, and put them in a pocket he had triple-checked would fasten. Then he rode the pulley up the Outer Citadel wall to Karla’s room.

She was on her side when he burst in, clutching sweat-soaked sheets like a lifeline. Her breath came in rattles.

“It’s all right!” He raced to her side and held up the mushrooms. “I’ve brought medicine. You’re gonna be fine.”

The book said to grind up the caps and stalks and strain a cup of hot water through the shreds. Kio almost laughed as he set up the cup and strainer he’d stashed in the room the day he built Kiobot. Karla was finally going to get her cup of tea.

He checked the measurements one more time. Three mushrooms was going to be just enough.

Karla murmured feverish words as Kio smashed the precious fungi with a mortar and pestle. He forced himself to steep the tea for as long as the medical text recommended, flattening the page out on the dresser top and staring at it like a verse of scripture that would keep him sane.

Steam rose from the cup. He tried to prop her up so as not to spill a drop of the precious brew. Even so, some spilled onto the blanket as he helped her drink.

Smoke poured faster from her mouth and nose. “One more sip,” he coaxed her. “Not too fast, it’s hot. Just sips.”

Sip by sip, she drained the entire mug.

He kept holding her, hoping she would smile, open her eyes, tell him she didn’t need the help anymore.

She coughed. And somehow grew heavier. A cold emptiness spreading out from his gut, he laid her back down on the pillows.

Kio staggered back, not even able to look at her. But when he turned to the window, the sight of the ocean, so beautiful earlier, made him nauseous. There was nowhere he could look. Nowhere he could go.

Was this how Karla had felt, standing on that precipice?

She coughed, writhed, and lay still, her breathing just as labored as before. Something was supposed to have changed by now.

He had failed.

He was going to lose her.

The emptiness kept spreading. It didn’t really feel like he’d imagined it would, watching Karla die. Over ten years he had imagined it a lot.

There was no sadness. In fact, there was nothing. Everything that was Kio was being flushed down the drain along with her.

No, there wasn’t sadness. Just a certain sense that he had reached the end of the road, and there was nobody standing there with him.

He thought back along the events that had led them here: the Inner Citadel, the sky kingdom, the bone dragon attacks, all the way back to the conflagration of Year Zero. And he had another vision–not an Inner Citadel flashback nightmare this time, just a very strong memory, of a sort he’d heard described once upon a time.

He was with Karla in the heartsphere, and they were both young, sheltering from the invasion of surface people and the explosion detonated by Kio’s father. “Are you a Rokhshan?” she had asked him.

Kio leapt at her out of the shadows. “Landling! Mistake! Broken! It’s your fault they’re dead!”

Of course, he hadn’t been able to find her. Every time they made brief contact, she scuffled him off again. “Stop it. You can’t even see me.”

“Nashido was supposed to strike you down if you tried to step inside the sphere. How are you still alive?”

“I’m a Rokhshan too, you idiot,” she shot back.

He swung a fist inches from her face and she lurched back. He’d gotten way closer than he’d thought. As his eyes adjusted to the dim green light filtering in, he reared back for another punch.

“My name’s Karla. What’s yours?”

He was already losing energy. She caught his punch in both hands and turned it away.

He folded, falling past her to land face-first on the slope. Karla watched him until he worked his way onto his back.

“I’m Kio,” he told her.

Neither of them said anything for a while. But after a few minutes, or an hour, Kio turned toward her, even though they still couldn’t make out each other’s faces. “Karla?”

“Yeah?”

“We’re alone here, aren’t we?”

“Yeah.”

Back in the bedroom, ten years later, no time at all later, Kio let the heartsphere bear him away.

***

When Karla awoke on drenched sheets, she couldn’t quite tell what time it was. The rays of orange light filtering through the window could have been sunset or sunrise, and having no idea which side of the castle she was on didn’t help.

She felt better than she had any right too. She recalled slipping in and out of fever dreams too disjointed to call memories, accompanied by a certainty that she wasn’t coming back. Suddenly, it was as though she’d just woken up from a nap.

Looking around with her newfound strength, she recognized the room. It was the starboard bedchamber where they’d made plans to assault the Inner Citadel. An empty mug and some cooking utensils laid next to a stack of pages on a dresser by her bed.

It was all Kio’s stuff. But where was Kio? Why wasn’t he at her bedside, waiting for her to wake up?

“He must be mulching. Or cleaning the gutters,” she said to herself, proud that he’d taken to heart her conviction that chores needed to be done even in the face of catastrophe.

Well, she felt good enough to walk. She’d go find him. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed.

And stopped. Something about this room didn’t seem right.

Something was moving, and it wasn’t Kio.

Karla snapped back up to stand on the bed–but her fighting stance relaxed when she saw how small the creature was. It was searching around the floor, sniffing as though looking for buried treasure.

She stared. Its body was a little shorter than her arm, black fur flecked with white spots. She’d seen a picture like this before. A surface animal.

Karla was pretty sure that when she’d gone to sleep, Castle Nashido hadn’t had a cat.

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!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Reckoning 1

“Child,” the Benefactor said, smiling, “how did you come to be here?”

Kio struggled to sit up. This was the man who had elevated House Rokhshan to the middle sky, who had drawn the blueprints and breathed life into Castle Nashido. A Rokhshan, even a pathetic starving one, should face the Benefactor on his feet. But Kio’s limbs were too weak and rubbery even to climb to his knees.

“The ash cloud has passed, Kio, don’t you know?” The Benefactor reached down and took Kio’s hand. “It is time for you and the Harpooneer to see the sun again.”

Kio’s dry throat let no words out. Here he was, speechless before the Benefactor, embarrassing his family one last time before he died.

The Benefactor’s face was lined but strong, aged but not decayed. He didn’t waste a single movement as he pulled Kio to his feet, the young boy neither helping nor resisting. A wave of nausea hit Kio and he stumbled, but the Benefactor caught him, holding him in his arms until the lightheaded rush passed.

“You can stand, Kio,” the Benefactor said. “There is still food on this castle. The Rokhshan line is not yet finished.”

“Wait!” Kio croaked. With his unworldly grace, the Benefactor was heading for a door neither he nor Karla ever took. He couldn’t say where it came out.

He almost tripped again, put all his scant energy into keeping his feet. By the time he looked up again, the Benefactor was gone.

***

Memories didn’t have to come from weird hypnotic furnace gases. Sometimes you could just pull one up to keep you warm, or at least distracted.

Until three days ago, Kio had forgotten he’d ever entered the heartsphere. Which meant he’d forgotten hallucinating the Benefactor, as well.

He’d also failed to recall the way the hallucination led him to a hatch he’d missed, which had led him out to this very ledge where he and Karla now had their largest garden. A ledge which, before they added their pulley system, could only be reached by entering the sphere.

Something the Rokhshan had expressly forbidden. Living proof that it wasn’t just the Harpooneers who had secrets to answer for.

Kio wiped sweat off his brow. Despite the chill of the early morning, he was drenched in it. He might have been wearing too many furs, but the cold bit him every time he took one off–even with the warming gas restored, this was one of the coldest spots on Nashido. He wished Karla didn’t have to lie here, but with the number of times he’d nearly lost her in the last day alone, he wasn’t going to leave her alone.

And he couldn’t leave the garden. Shifting his grip on his heavy launcher, he cast an appreciative glance down at the field of mushrooms. Their blank brown caps stared back, mocking him.

He’d always been a better cook than Karla because he’d been more willing to experiment. He’d known for a while that the mushrooms he kept finding in this patch were good to eat. It had only been three days, however, that he’d known they were excellent cures for all sorts of poisons.

He had no way of knowing whether that applied to this poison. But he had to try. In another day or so, they’d be big enough, and then he’d know for sure.

Kio didn’t know whether he actually wanted that day to come.

A chorus of cries echoed out of a gray cloud on the horizon, and he snapped to attention, hefting the heavy launcher.

He was quite proud of the weapon. It was an adaptation of Karla’s design for the spear cannons, which was a fancy way of saying he’d ripped off the mounted part and gotten rid of the line too to save space and weight.

But it was still heavy and it fired too damn slowly. He had to make every shot count. To make every shot scary.

The clouds were dark and pregnant with rain today, and the surface was probably getting soaked. But they were also wispy and insubstantial enough that he could see the seagulls flying toward the castle with a minute or so to go before they arrived.

Kio edged forward to protect Karla. Karla stirred, and groaned, but made no more sound than she had for days.

Another chorus from the gulls. He’d found their song restful, once.

An echo sounded above him–an echo that wasn’t an echo–and he jerked the launcher up, firing without a second thought. The spear hurtled into the sky.

“Benefactor!” Kio shouted aloud. The gulls that had snuck in from above to perch on the battlements flew clear at the sound of the spring releasing. Kio hurled himself to sprawl over Karla’s body. He’d made a terrible mistake.

The spear thudded into the garden, point-first, beside the row of mushrooms. The gulls from behind the cloud shot in, racing for the kill.

Kio didn’t know what about the mushrooms attracted them in such large numbers, but they could smell the damn things from miles off.

With no time to load the spear back into the gun, he grabbed it and charged the gulls attempting to land on the other end of the platform. “Get out!” he bellowed. “Get away from my friend!”

They squawked and hopped toward the mushrooms in the patch. Kio jabbed at one, which flapped its wings so hard he fell backward.

He spat out dirt. Karla had only been out a few days and he was already being intimidated by a bird.

The seagulls hopped closer to the row of mushrooms. One pecked, pulled a cap out of the soil and eating it raw.

“NO!” Kio shouted. The bird with mushroom in its beak looked at him, squealed, and swallowed.

Only the sound of the weapon they’d been trained to fear would keep them away.

Kio shoved himself to his feet and wheeled around the flock. Just as another fungus vanished down a bird’s beak, he jammed the spear haphazardly into his torn-off gun and squeezed both handles.

The gulls scattered, calling up a storm, as the spear sailed off into the misty spaces between the clouds. As he watched them all go, Kio wondered if he could have gotten the same sound by firing an empty weapon.

Oh, he thought, grinding his foot into the garden’s stone rim as a substitute for kicking himself. Yeah. Probably could have.

He sat down gently between Karla and the mushrooms, hoping he could defend them both at once with his big noise machine. Karla’s eyes were shut and her breathing labored. Kio’s heart clenched. She was rotting from the inside out, and all he could do was sit here and watch fungi grow.

Reaching out softly, like one jolt would shatter her, he brushed a strand of hair out of her face. A thin ray of sun shone on her closed eye.

She was tossing and turning like a loose gear, unable to find any comfort. She must have been swimming through a darkness bigger than the sky.

All of a sudden, Kio felt slashed by a knife of guilt for having stranded her out here.

Karla shivered, her teeth chattering, still without opening her eyes. The medicine books had all said exposure would kill her twice as fast, yet he’d been selfish, knowing that more than anything he’d regret missing it if she…

What would she do, if it were me?

Not sit around, that’s for sure.

What could he do? Make another spear. Or take her to a real bed where she could get more than fitful, tossing rest. But both of those required him to leave the mushrooms unguarded, and if he did that, the gulls would snap them all up. Of the seven he’d started with, only three were left.

If it were Karla, tending to him, she wouldn’t write off the problem as insoluble. She’d figure out the parameters. Kio needed something else to defend the crop while he took Karla somewhere safer.

Far off in the distance, perhaps over miles of sky, a peal of thunder cracked. Minutes later, it reached the ears of Kio, who was still thinking.

The rain began to fall just after. At first he threw himself over Karla to cover her like he had with the birds–but overheating her, crowding her, was just as bad as letting the rain chill her.

He tore off one of his furs, the outer one filled with pages, and laid it over her as insulation. Let the rain take him. Let it chill him. Maybe it would knock his mind into functionality.

“Come on!” he yelled. “Keep it coming! If this is what it takes, I’m game!”

The rain obliged. No more thunder followed, nor any lightning. Just streaks and rivulets of cold water that sparked and fizzed off Kio’s skin and reminded him how much energy it took to live.

Looking from Karla to the mushrooms to the weapon he’d built, he had an idea.

But it would have to happen quickly. He was borrowing against his best friend’s lifespan.

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!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Citadel 8

Karla traced a dizzy path down through the Outer Citadel. Not enclosed like its Inner counterpart, the Outer wove through towers, open stairwells, sun decks and garden ledges. Kio was lucky it was him chasing her, since nobody else could have figured the path out.

Even so, he was falling behind.

His lungs threatened to push through his ribs and escape, but he couldn’t slow down. He knew where she was going. She had taken this road before.

Not during Year Zero. Three years later, when they’d had no Raven, no aqueduct. Just food and rain and hope, and when the hope ran out, that was when Karla had taken this path to leave him behind, because she knew he’d try to stop her.

Kio nearly lost his footing on a stairway over empty sky. The vast blue void whistled with wind, called him in a way he usually managed to block out. With practice.

But the air was icy blue without a single cloud. He could hardly make out the sun, there was so little to screen him from looking directly at it. The sea rolled darkly below.

How could he not want to get closer? It was so clear. So beautiful. There were no obstacles in his way. He’d been wasting time worrying about whether it would be safe.

Look away. You’ve got to stop Karla.

Maybe the gas would take over and she’d collapse again, and this adrenaline rush from the heartsphere-induced flashback wouldn’t be able to take her all the way to the end of the road. Yet that hope was dashed when he saw she’d thrown down the counterweight to the aft pulley that would take her all the way there.

Down to the machine deck.

The engine platform spread out over the sunlit ocean before him. Karla shot into view, racing across it, weaving between machines.

No time to think about it. He wasn’t that far up.

Without even a run-up, Kio jumped.

He tried to loosen his limbs and roll as he fell, which just ended up banging both arms and a leg. He winced as he stood up, running through the pain to follow Karla’s path.

She stood on the edge of the machine deck, facing the endless blue.

“Don’t jump!” Kio cried.

He’d nursed a hope the experience might turn her into the raven. But that option seemed too far away to return.

At the very least, she didn’t jump. Instead, she turned to face him.

The sight of her eyes nearly broke him. They had the same spark they always did, but it was like a pendulum had swung to the far distant end of its arc: all of it was directed downward into the endless blue.

What was working on her? The memories, or the gas? Was it more than just toxic? Could the arcane mixture itself somehow have been the trigger?

Enough of that. It doesn’t matter why she’s out there. You have to talk her down.

Stand firm, Lord Rokhshan. Or she dies.

A light breeze ruffled both of their hair, raised the hems of their coats.

“You’ve been here before.” Kio’s voice cracked. “We’ve been like this before. Don’t you remember?”

“I remember everything,” Karla said.

“Then tell me the story.” He inched closer, holding out a hand like a ward.

Coughs wracked Karla’s body, and Kio raced forward to catch her–but her back foot shifted closer to the edge. “Don’t come closer!” she shouted, her voice wavering like his.

“If you remember everything,” Kio implored, “you know I told you not to jump. You know I said I know what you’re feeling.”

Karla blinked hard. “That all this is endless.”

“Of course it’s endless, it’s the sky! That doesn’t mean this can’t ever end!” He threw both arms wide to encompass the whole castle. “We won’t be trapped here forever. We have Raven.”

“Raven won’t fly.”

“How can you say that? You built her!”

“Then I ought to know!” Karla yelled. She inched closer, and Kio rejoiced briefly. Yet he kept looking for some sign. Gas, blank eyes, Medwick in Sunton whispering in her ear…anything that would prove this wasn’t really Karla.

Nothing turned up.

“She’ll fly with one of us,” he said.

Karla shook her head. “The tests fail even with one. Kio, it’s hopeless. It’s all hopeless and endless and I want to get off.

Even standing, she looked like she was crumpling into herself. “I’m so tired, Kio. I’m tired of farming in my own dung and fighting dragons and scavenging. Of being denied the life even the poorest farmer has down there on the surface.”

“If you jump you won’t even have that!” Kio felt like he was fishing around, trying to shoot the right words with birding line.

“How do you know what happens when you die?” Karla’s voice grew nearly too soft to hear over the breeze. “I know what happens if I live. It’s worse.”

“You don’t.” Kio talked fast, still stretching out his hand, reaching for her in a totally unhelpful way but unable to think of what else to do. “There’s something else you haven’t thought of.”

“What?”

“It’s been obvious forever. But neither of us have wanted to say it.”

“Kio, what haven’t I thought of?”

He seized on the hope in her voice.

“Turn into a raven and fly to the surface.”

Karla’s mouth tightened. She rubbed her eyes. “I can’t go without you. We promised.”

“Then don’t jump, at least!” he blurted out. “I need you here. I can’t do any of this without you. If you can’t fly to the surface, please, stay with me.”

She didn’t answer.

“Please,” he repeated. “Please stay. Don’t leave me.”

“I can’t,” she said softly.

And Kio realized.

There was one reason alone that she hadn’t yet jumped. The same reason as when they were nine years old, the day never marked on the calendar. The day she’d tried to kill herself without any gas in her lungs at all.

She would not jump if Kio didn’t.

“I’m not going,” was all he could say.

“I can’t stay,” was her reply, matter-of-fact.

“Not everything’s been horrible. Year Zero was but it’s over. Ever since then we’ve had hope.”

“Was it ever real hope?”

“It better have been, because you gave it to me!” He hadn’t meant to shout, but suddenly he couldn’t do anything else. “Either everything you said was a lie, or this is the gas talking.”

“Don’t blame the–”

“Oh, it sounds like you, but it isn’t. Don’t you get it?” He stepped closer, and she flinched away, as though he were the one scaring her. “It’s not just a warming chemical. The mixture is a hallucinogen. The place triggered the memories, the gas made them vivid. The perfect storm.”

“Leave me alone!”

“I promised not to!”

“Then we’re stuck.”

Kio found his fire dying. He hadn’t even bothered finding the right words. He’d lashed out.

He didn’t deserve to save her.

“I don’t know anything,” he murmured. “Just stupid worthless books. And you. I don’t want you to stay alive for me, I want you to stay alive for you, but if the only way to help you is to sit here and refuse to jump, that’s what I’m going to do.”

He sat down, cross-legged, against one of the propellor steering columns.

Karla stood at the ledge, and watched.

Time ticked past.

Every second, Kio imagined her leaping. He thought of the quick moment, a blink really, in which she’d vanish and he’d be alone. And once he was alone, with nothing but statues and birds and bone dragons, how long would it be before…

Karla coughed.

Her eyes changed. She staggered forward, away from the edge, toward him.

Kio stood up. He barely had time to feel a rush of joy, to know it had been the gas acting on her head after all, before Karla fell limp into his arms, and lay there like she was dead. Not even crying.

Purple wisps escaped the corners of her mouth, and Kio handled the crying for both of them.

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!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Citadel 7

Kio did everything he could to make Karla comfortable at the bottom of the ladder. When she came out of the memory–he could tell because her eyelids fluttered and her breath changed speed–he didn’t ask what she’d seen, though it was something he hadn’t been present for and he badly wanted to know.

When he smelled the scent of rotting fruit, however, he decided it was time to go.

“Karla.” He shook her as gently as he could. “The gas is leaking around the door. We have to stay ahead of it.”

She mumbled in response. Kio ground his teeth. Wishing there was another way, he shouted her name louder.

Karla reared up from her rug and fastened her fingers around his neck.

Panic spasmed across Kio’s body. The same thing that happened to him was happening to her–they’d seen each other as the enemy. It couldn’t be true. He hadn’t seen much of her before the incident, but he’d had a hundred cousins.

Buried them all too. With Karla by his side. Medwick didn’t know what he was talking about–if she was from the surface she’d have told him.

No matter what the visions made him do.

“I trust you…” he tried to say. It came out as a gasp.

They bowled over backwards. Kio banged something against a broken chair, felt a hot streak scrape across his arm. Groped in the darkness for a weapon.

Karla’s hands tightened. Kio’s windpipe felt ready to buckle. He found a loose chair leg and swung it at her midsection.

It hit home. She rolled off him, gasping, and Kio took the chance to suck in air.

He regretted that immediately. She’d gotten a much bigger mouthful of gas, and if it burned anything like this she was in immense pain. Kio already felt like coughing up his lungs through a throat that still wasn’t back to its normal shape.

His friend, though, was. Karla helped him up under the arms, shoved him toward the ladder.

“You climb first,” she said. No time for apologies. Kio understood that, at least.

“Wait. You’ve breathed more of it in.”

“Exactly, so I’ll stay and hold the ladder. It doesn’t matter if I inhale more gas. What more could it do?”

Kio was about to protest that it didn’t work that way, but then he caught a glimpse of her face. There was fear in her eyes. She wanted him to run.

Only at the top of the ladder did it occur to him that the fear could have been for herself.

Like they had at the bottom of the Inner Citadel, he leaned down to help her up the hole. He had the urge to kick down the ladder before Karla slammed the trapdoor shut, as though it were something living that was chasing them, and not a malignant purple cloud.

Instead, he raised his glowstone. This room was burned beyond recognition. He couldn’t find the slightest clue to what it had been.

Except one. A room this destroyed had to be the epicenter of the explosion. This was where Sieno Rokhshan had dropped the match.

This was where his father had died. Maybe his mother as well. Kio must have been in here to bury them.

Karla sat on the floor, hugging her knees, watching the cracks in the trapdoor. Kio swept the stone walls looking for the ladder, feeling hopelessly impotent.

“Hey, Kio?”

He paused in the middle of one empty, scorched wall. Had the ladder been destroyed?

“Will you tell me how we survived?”

“Why? Are you trying to trigger more flashbacks? We need to keep going.”

“I think it’ll help me,” she said sharply. “C’mon. I’ll help you out.”

I can do that while I look. At least it’s something I can do.

“The Rokhshan had been venting the gas since the attackers from the surface landed. Maybe before. They knew about the Ash Cloud and they suspected people would come seek shelter.”

“And they couldn’t bear to just let them in?” Karla clambered to her feet using a wall for help.

“That was their mistake. They were following an ancient directive from the Benefactor.” Was this why she’d wanted to hear the story? To encourage her, or to enrage her?

Or both? Karla often did her best work with machines when they’d pissed her off.

He checked the second wall. The room was bigger than it had looked. “Look, I didn’t believe the surface people were mistakes, even then. I’m sure you didn’t either.”

Karla was silent for a while, then said, “Right.”

Nothing. Feeling himself sweat, Kio moved on to the third wall. “When they lit the match, we must have been somewhere safe.”

“Nowhere was safe. The gas was leaking through the entire castle. Nashido was enveloped. Otherwise someone else would have survived.”

“Not the heartsphere.” Nothing. Fourth wall. The inner, curving surface.

He suddenly noticed Karla close beside him, pressing on the same stones he was from the other direction. “Yeah,” she said. “Not the heartsphere.”

On instinct, like a puppet was moving his tongue, he heard himself repeating the old Rokhshan line. “Nobody is allowed to go into the heartsphere.”

“And no surface people are allowed on Nashido at all, but we saw how that turned out. Kio, it’s time to stop listening to your Benefactor.”

Trust the Benefactor, Medwick said in his head. “What are you thinking?”

“We don’t know nearly enough about how the gas works. What we do know is that the last time someone let it out of its shell, it took a fire sweeping over the whole castle to set it to rights again.”

They met in the middle. He met her eyes, saw them terrifyingly determined. “That’ll never work. Gas doesn’t move that way.”

“Somehow it rebuilds itself from a source point between the Inner Citadel and the heartsphere.” Karla grabbed onto something just below Kio’s pool of light. “It’s magic, as much as it is chemistry. We just have to do the same thing we did ten years ago. Including the survival bit.”

He looked down. She had hold of the valve hatch that would lead into the great central sphere.

Kio’s hand shook. It was as though the metal circle was white hot, so hard was it for him to move his hand across two feet of space. This wasn’t even about the Benefactor anymore.

He was afraid of the darkness at the center of Nashido. Afraid of what more time in there would do to him.

But he could survive, the way he always did. Karla had drawn strength from him, asking him to tell the story. Well, he could ask for it back.

“Are you absolutely sure this is the only way?” he asked her.

***

“Yes,” Karla said, and in no way was it a lie. After all, this exact trick had worked before.

But Kio wasn’t going to think about it that way. She had to reach out to him somehow, and all without revealing how hard she was suddenly finding it to breathe.

Worse than that. There was a great weariness pressing down on her from all sides, and whether it was coming from the gas or the memories, she wouldn’t survive a second dose of either one.

Which made it a million times more important that they finish their job right now.

“We’ll stay together in there. Go right for the aft exit and escape out onto the garden ledge. From there down to the machine deck. Just like before.”

“Just like before,” Kio echoed, softly, gripping the valve with both hands.

“Nobody lets go.”

“We’re all we have.”

Will it be enough?

Karla bent down and scraped a finger along the ash residue. There wasn’t any shortage of it. “Do you still have that chair leg you hit me with?”

“Yeah,” Kio said, then went red. “I mean, not because–”

“If I try to kill you again, please keep hitting me.” She stuck out an arm to grab the wooden stick he offered. “I’m gonna hit you if you do.”

“What do you need it for?”

“I’ll show you.” The burning was creeping around the edges of her lungs. She needed to get this done faster. “Right after you open that valve.”

Kio shook his head. “No way. We’re supposed to do scary things together.”

Her fingers dug into the chair leg, but she resisted the urge to slug him. Neither of them was having a great time. Why, though, did Kio always seem immune to the weird stuff? It was like he had a cushion against all the bizarre of the sky.

She stood up, out of the range of his glowstone so he wouldn’t see her tottering, then ran to the valve and used it to stop her fall. “One…”

“Two…” Kio jumped in.

“Three!” they said together, though even the twining of their voices sounded like a faint squawk.

The valve shifted. Kio let go as Karla pulled it back, revealing a square opening big enough for one of them to climb through at a time.

Beyond that square was the most intense darkness Karla had ever seen. There was no moon, no stars, no glowmoss to light the heartsphere. It was the most sacred place in the world to House Rokhshan.

It was also memorably flame-retardant.

She offered Kio her hand.

“Uh-uh.” He edged in front of her. “Let me go in first. It’s my law we’re breaking.”

“Fine–” she swallowed hard to suppress a cough, “–fine. Just go.”

He gave her a penetrating look, just long enough to tell her he saw through everything.

If you really can see, you’ll know I need to get out of here fast. Though she didn’t know what kind of help she sought, she wasn’t going to find it in here.

Kio swung his legs into the hatch. The gloom swallowed them. Karla held the chair leg in one shaking arm against a black streak on the floor.

“What’s your plan?” asked the floating head and shoulders that was now Kio.

She motioned for him to climb down a ways. He did, and she clambered in behind, clasping his hand.

“This residue might still be flammable,” she told him. “If the gas reverts, its marks might as well. If I apply enough friction, it should work just like…”

One jerk dragged the broken leg hard across the black scar. Sparks flared up. “…a match.”

The fireball flared up like the sun bursting from behind a cloud, transforming the room in an instant. Wisps of the purple gas that had been leaking through the edges of the trapdoor sparked green, blue, then were swallowed by the advancing flames. Kio scampered down the rungs cut into the side of the heartsphere, his glowstone lighting the way.

The heat seared Karla’s face. Scorched air threatened to overwhelm her–in the two seconds it took her to slam the valve hatch shut, she thought a stray spark might set her lungs on fire.

But she made it in the blink of an eye. One second the door was open, the next she and Kio were alone in the massive space–so unusual–in small, cool, safe pools of light.

“What now?” he asked from near the bottom of the smooth gray sphere.

“We climb out the top.” She picked her way down to meet him. “Since the bottom way is clogged. The upper hatch can get us back to the Outer Citadel.”

Kio shivered, and she recalled the look he’d given her. “Last time we were in here for three days.”

“What’s your point?” With her light, she scanned for a ladder up.

“Do you think if we’d tried to leave right away, we could have made it safely?”

The light of their glowstones met at the same time as their eyes.

A split instant later, both were sprinting toward another set of rungs cut into the wall, Karla panting her way along with the last bits of usable lung she had, feeling the path with her last scrap of sensible mind that wasn’t being dragged backwards into the dark hole of time.

***

Karla was several rungs below him on the carved ladder when she threw her glowstone.

It arced up through the black, rose level with Kio, then fell back down into the heartsphere, clattering several times as it went.

He knew at once what it meant. It was her last chance to save herself. Like a ship cutting its sails free, she’d jettisoned what she couldn’t get back.

Immediately he backtracked down the ladder. When he thought he was halfway, he drew his own stone to make sure he didn’t kick her in the face.

The heartsphere burned under his touch. Everything, everything was happening again.

Shoving himself backwards, he swept his legs past Karla’s shoulders, then climbed down further. Hardly responsive, she put her arms around his neck and hung on.

The limpness of that grip terrified him. He had to get her out.

Climbing with her weight on his neck was excruciating. The first rung was the hardest step he’d had to make in a lifetime of scampering over ropes and vines.

Everything seemed easier after that, the pain a bit less. When you’d done the hardest thing you could, there were a lot of things you could suddenly do. Kio might have been able to take some comfort from that later.

But Karla was dying right now.

At the top, he grabbed the rung with one hand, pulled himself and Karla close to the wall. His hand, sweat-drenched, slipped on the valve, and his teeth ground. Papers slipped out of his pockets.

He knew Nashido well enough that he could feel the heat spreading. The reaction, the firestorm that would take days to burn out, was closing its jaws across the inner citadel above them.

“Stop!” he wailed in frustration as his fingers slipped again. “Stop moving!”

The heartsphere grew into an endless prison of black.

Rust scattered over Kio’s closed eyes. And the valve began to turn.

He forced Karla up first.

Then followed her through into a long room with a curving floor, a sumptuous reception room where light streamed in from above. Books on shelves. Chandeliers.

Each end of the room was a searing white portal into a world of flame. The fire was getting closer.

“Starboard wall…” Karla whispered in his ear. He jumped. He’d almost forgotten he was carrying her, she was so insubstantial.

He wasn’t going to ignore directions, though. She remembered this room from the vision. Somehow, her path that day must have taken her through here.

What he absolutely couldn’t ignore was when she tore out of his arms and ran for a door he hadn’t noticed, a bare outline in the wall.

“Karla!” he shouted as she swept through, his call wasting precious time. What had put the strength back into her limbs? Could he trust it?

Given what memories had done to them, he thought not. Flashbacks were fighting gas within Karla, and the former had won out.

He followed her. Into a dusty stairwell that creaked as he ascended.

No time to rejoice at his freedom from the Inner Citadel. The last vision had made Karla hurt him. This one had made her flee.

As for the hurt, it would all be for herself.

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!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Citadel 6

“We’ve gotta stop this,” Karla told Kio as they picked their way around the burned furniture.

“What, so we can freeze to death?” He grimaced. She hoped that wasn’t his attempt at a joke.

“Not moving. Falling into these memories. They’re costing time we could be using to get ourselves out of this.”

If he was happy to see her forming sentences–even if purple wisps kept escaping the corners of her mouth–it died quickly on his face. “That last one helped me, Karla, I swear. It helped you too.”

“It did not.”

“You’re moving, aren’t you?”

“Just stop!” she shouted. The effort kicked off a coughing fit. Kio caught her before she collapsed into the ruins of a table.

“Stop pretending anybody who was here that day did us a favor. Every single one of them betrayed us. Your father, my mother, all of them.”

In some way, saying that had been supposed to make her feel better. In every way, it failed.

Kio stared at her for a moment, his mouth hanging open. He reached out and, with a few stiff movements, brushed some dust off her fur. Then he turned, looking like he was struggling between marching off without her and not wanting to leave her alone.

She couldn’t share the power he’d gained. He’d seen his father, great. Kio’s last memory of his father was probably of a hug or a lordly pat on the head or something. Definitely not of being shoved into a cupboard.

And he’d never been asked to murder her. That she knew of.

That same feeling was back–of resenting Mara for being her only mother and resenting that she loved Mara, loved and hated her at once in much the same way she felt about Castle Nashido.

“You still don’t know what caused the fire,” Kio said tersely, when they’d reached the ladder out of the solarium. His winding rune tattoo seemed to stand out at her, growing sharp as a knife.

“Does it matter?” Karla snapped, and strode ahead of him to grab hold of the ladder first. “My people lit it. Or yours. Who cares? They’re all dead.”

She left a trail of purple gas behind as she mounted the rungs. Only halfway up did she remember she wasn’t supposed to mention that they did not have the same people.

But if Kio picked up on that, it wasn’t what he pursued. “It does matter,” he told her. “It happened in the Inner Citadel, and we need to know more about this place. If we’re ever gonna get our heat back. Remember that?”

“Of course I remember!”

Though he was right to ask. She had been having trouble. Her mind was stuck, revolving around Mara and Kevin and the Harpooneers.

“Fine.” Kio’s tone softened a bit as he refocused on the task. Karla felt a pang–she was supposed to be the one who was good at that. “I…I wanna get out of here. But while we’re finding the open exit, we need to find out how to restart the gas cycle.”

“First of all,” Karla prodded the trapdoor, “it’s not a gas, it’s two gases reacting with each other. Second, we can’t restart it. It’s supposed to be constant.”

“Excuse me if I haven’t–”

He broke off as she shoved the trapdoor open. Ice crystals rained off it, scattering down the ladder.

The second she saw the room, her eyes clouded over again.

She lost her grip, crashing into Kio, but didn’t notice. Not even when he yelped, or when they both hit the ground, or when he rolled her onto a rug, laying her out as comfortably as he could, checking her vital signs. She was gone, back into memory.

 

When she and Mara were above the flat stone roof of the tower, Karla unhooked her harness straps. She didn’t think her mother wanted her to, but she thought they’d do better without being tied together. She also couldn’t remember when they’d taught her to undo the catches. But it was pretty obvious.

The Harpooneers threw stones and shot fire arrows to clear the gunners from the battlements. By the time Karla crumpled and rolled, landing like they’d practiced, the Rokhshan defenders had retreated back to the stairs.

Bodies hit the tower all around her. Some got up. Some didn’t, and the others stepped over them. Karla felt a stab of sorrow as the wind whipped their glider away, a flash of lightning from the ash cloud illuminating the shiny faces of its gears one last time.

She pushed herself to her feet. The roof was slick with rain. The damp came away on her hands.

“Forward!” Mara shouted.

Legs rushed around Karla, swords sliding out of sheathes past her head, brushing through locks of her wild brown hair. A hand touched her shoulder–her mother’s. She groped for her fingers and clasped them tightly.

Mara had a longsword in her other hand, but people had rushed ahead of her, fighting with the Rokhshan at the top of the stairs. Voices shouted from below, maybe as many as there were Harpooneers. Were they really all one family?

At the front of the pack, the man with the moustache, who hadn’t removed his goggles, kicked a Rokhshan swordsman in the chest. The fighter’s gilded coat wrapped around his legs as he tripped backwards down the spiral staircase, laying his comrades out like dominos.

Karla didn’t remember a lot of what happened next. They fought their way down a cramped stairway, through a solarium, then out a window, dropping a few feet to a long bridge that connected two of Castle Nashido’s spires. There, the man with the moustache returned to Mara, carrying a dagger he hadn’t had before.

“Any resistance in the next tower, Kevin?” Karla’s mother asked in clipped tones.

Kevin shook his head. “Something worse, commander. Almon smelled gas. You know his nose has always been sensitive.”

Karla’s face screwed up in sympathy. Mara just frowned. “What sort of gas?”

“We think it’s being ventilated through hatches in the inner citadel. Maybe connected all the way to the heartsphere.”

“The heartsphere is full of gas?” Mara held up her sword hand to stop the fighters behind her. “And the walls, too?”

“Full of it, or surrounded by a later of it.” Kevin nodded. “Was going to ask Griff what he thought before we launched, but he wouldn’t tell me anything. You know he’s never liked us.”

“Then he can die on the ground.” Mara motioned the Harpooneers forward, pulling Karla gently by the hand. “Kevin, you and Almon keep scouting ahead. Report to me every minute. Everyone else, split in half. We need to clear both these towers if we ever want to reach the sphere.”

She rapped her blade on the ground. The scrape rang through the storm. “For the survival of Freetown!”

For Freetown!” the others echoed.

Karla’s stomach siezed every time the wind blew. The bridge had no rails. How many Rokhshan had fallen over the sides? There was nothing to land on but more hard castle roof, and sky.

A deafening bang–not from above, from ahead. The doors to the opposite tower flew open, and three Rokhshan wheeled a cannon through.

Mara broke into a run, a yell escaping her lips, so Karla ran and yelled too.

 

The room above the door was the place where the final piece of her memory began, though she had never seen it. The room was where the Rokhshan had lit the gas on fire.

But hadn’t burned it all off. Something in the castle had kept it going, had actually been rejuvenated by the explosion.

It was something they could do again.

Or might have been, if Karla hadn’t been a prisoner in her own head, gazing out at nothing, chilled to the bone, shaking and sobbing with the force of what she had seen.

It hadn’t been the scariest of the memories, at all, not like the burnt bodies. Nobody had even died. But she had seen the origin of her entire life, the method by which she and Kio had been stranded alone, and somehow that was even more horrible than the fire.

Especially since it was going to have to be lit once more, either at her hands or at those of the other person Year Zero had destroyed.

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