It was always the same vision, always the same time of day. A flock of birds. A great green cloud that shone with its own light. And then, the fire.
The vision wasn’t a dream. Karla would have known if she was asleep. It was a memory that came early after she woke because it was the bedrock her sense of self was built on. Her mind couldn’t function without it. And she didn’t have the foggiest idea what it meant.
Well, not quite. She understood it wasn’t usually supposed to involve this much shaking.
“Karla!” a boy’s voice shouted. “There’s something on the cloud-catchers!”
Karla kicked her tangled sleeping fur off, so hard it sprawled over the flagstones of the machine deck. Living on a floating castle made her extremely sensitive to tilting floors. Nashido was big enough to weather most storms, but when the ground pitched that fast, she needed to find somewhere enclosed to hold on.
But the ground wasn’t shaking. She was. Or rather being shaken, by the boy who had shouted her name. Kio had dodged out of the way of the flying fur blanket and was sheltering against the nearest prop shaft cover. His face was pale, though she couldn’t read it perfectly–the light was dim. When they didn’t have torches, they saw using the glow from luminescent moss, but that needed sunlight to charge, and it was dawn. Plus they’d been drifting in a cloudbank all day. Nashido was taking much longer to wake up than either of them were.
“How big is it?” Karla asked him.
“How big is what?” Kio might have momentarily forgotten where he was. He did that.
“The thing on the water catchers!”
“I don’t know! I was too busy running to take its measurements!” Now that he’d roused her, Kio was sprinting back toward the stairs that led up to the reservoir, following a dim line of moss on the ceiling. “If you come with me, maybe we can get a closer look.”
She reached out quickly enough to grab him by one flailing wrist. “Stairs are too slow,” she said, pulling him away from the citadel toward a slim tower off the edge of the machine deck. “We’ll take the pulley.”
“Oh, no.” Kio’s face turned green as she dragged him onto the little footbridge toward the base of the tower. “I hate the pulley.”
“You climb the vines every day.”
“I also hate eating. But I do that.”
Hugging the tower wall, Karla began to shuffle around its base. “I make you do that.”
“I let you make me.” Kio planted his feet firmly and followed her.
“Whatever.” One-hundred-eighty degrees around the ledge, then a little further to give Kio space to jump. “Ready?”
He swallowed. “No.”
The stairs Kio had wanted to take were part of the largest structure on Nashido, the two-layer keep they called the citadel. Several staircases and chambers, plus the library, were part of the outer citadel. The reservoir, a great basin with no walls around its rim, formed the citadel’s roof.
Beyond the outer citadel was the inner citadel, where they didn’t go. All the rooms in there had walls. Beyond the inner citadel was the Heartsphere.
Karla could see it all flash past her as she flung herself backwards off the knife-edge ledge: the soaring walls of mottled stone, its human-sized blocks colored steel-gray, leather-brown, sandy yellow, fitting each other so smoothly they needed no glue or concrete to hold together. Vines too big for her and Kio to fit their arms around snaked across each other up the citadel and around the outer towers connected to it.
Her hands shot up, sure fingers closing around the rough woody bark of one of the smaller vines. The turret they were climbing held nothing but the massive trunk and twigs rooted in a soil bed, feeding on their breath and giving them back air to breathe.
Well, nothing but that and one of her tricks. Karla scurried up the offshoot vines, waited just long enough to see Kio flail his way to a safe handhold, then climbed.
Even the twigs grew as thick as rungs. Karla never lacked for footholds. The short climb gave her time to think about what Kio could have seen on top of the castle. Some new bird? What other kind of visitors did they ever get?
Halfway up the tower, she ran out of vines. The rope was waiting for her: a length of line she’d bound several knots into after stringing it over the edge of the battlement. It ran up through several pulleys to a counterweight behind her, a heavy old stone jug sitting on a jutting eave.
High up the wall behind it was one of the outer ledges on which she had mounted a spring-loaded spear turret strung with bird line. The bulky swiveling contraption stood sentinel in the morning sun. If she shot at just the right angle and speared a gull or a frigater so well it wouldn’t slip free, she could use the crank at the base to reel the line back in with food for their stores. Even Kio was a decent shot, though he wasted too much time calculating the angle of descent for the spear.
Could a solid shot from the turret be enough to scare the unwelcome guest off? She shook her head. Of course it would. Otherwise she was thinking too much like Kio.
Speaking of Kio, where was he?
Stuck halfway down the vines, breathing hard. Karla wrapped the rope three times around her waist, then pushed off the tower, letting slack go. With a song of clinks and rasps from the pulley–had to oil that later–she rappelled down to catch her friend. By the time she reached him, the line attached to her makeshift harness was taut against the counterweight.
Kio wrapped his arms around her waist in a practiced motion. “What do we have to throw?” he shouted over the rush of the wind.
“I’ve got seed pods!” Karla reached into one pocket and withdrew a hairy capsule the size of two of her fists–one of the seeding fruits dropped by the huge oxygen vines. Tightening her grip on Kio and the rope with one arm, she hurled it with the other.
The seed-pod whanged off the eave and fell clear down into the open sky. The two watched as it vanished into a cloud.
“How many seed pods?” Kio looked ready to curl up in his fur on solid ground, intruder or no intruder.
“Two!” Karla drew out the next one and threw it.
The pod connected with the jug with a satisfying thunk. The big counterweight teetered once as Karla prayed aloud to the Benefactor–normally Kio’s habit, but these were extreme circumstances.
Just when it seemed to be settling, the jug tipped over empty space, and fell, dragging its end of the rope. Karla and Kio flew up.
Illustration by Grace Pyles.
The sensation was like being jerked up through the sky on a birding line. Each bounce and swing of the counterweight pulled on the block and tackle hanging from the high tower, winching Karla up the Citadel wall faster than she ever could have run. Dangling from her waist, Kio scampered his legs up the tower wall every time they swung too close, bounding for one or two steps before pushing off again. Hoping he could keep handling himself, Karla dared to look up.
The block pulley was racing closer. Above it was the open space of the reservoir, and then it was just a straight shot to the spear gun. Swinging her head around, she saw the jug falling through empty sky past the machine deck–heading for the dead propellors. She screwed up her concentration. She’d have to let go at exactly the right time to make the reservoir ledge without crushing her fingers, and pivot right away to help Kio up too. That was assuming the thing on the catchment pod didn’t make any trouble right when it smelled them…
Why am I assuming it’s something that can smell?
The thought died with a swoop in her stomach. They weren’t rising anymore. She and Kio spent a split second hanging in midair that stretched out eternally in two directions.
Karla moved like she was caught in a net of vines. Eyes down. Jug shattered on sticky-out propellor blade. Opposite end of the rope flying free.
Kio twisted across her. His free left hand darted out to grab the other rope, and his leg wrapped it as well, pulling it close before he screamed.
Karla let one hand go and hauled the counterrope close. The frayed strand rasped her palm and thigh as she gripped it. They had nothing to replace it with up here, so they’d repaired the same ropes dozens of times. In dozens of places.
All of which it felt like she was holding onto right now. The burning seemed to spread, from her palms out to her shoulders and hips. She and Kio were suspended on their own system, unable to move up or down, their limbs slowly separating from their sockets.
“Karla…” Kio wheezed.
“What?” she snapped. “I know we should have taken the stairs! You don’t need to tell me!”
“No…” Karla risked a look down. Kio was craning his head up, trying to point with his eyes. “That’s it…”
“That’s what?” She followed his gaze.
He was looking above the open reservoir plaza. Above the citadel, the three towers rose to peak at different heights, bristling with birding lines and vine gardens.
The spires were linked with a series of metal struts, half ancient Rokhshan work, half Karla’s own. On each side of the triangle, and on several links between those sides, sat large oval shapes that looked like eggs cut in half. Alternating with the pods, their cloud captors and distillers, were wide-mouthed funnels. Both objects connected to long chutes of the same metal, some of which pointed at the vine gardens, some into the reservoir.
The catchment system got Karla and Kio every drop of the water they drank. The funnels caught rain, while the pods caught clouds, though only if one of them noticed the vapor drifting into the trap. If they could pull the lever the pod lid was wired to in time, it would shut on the cloud, leaving it to condense into water they could drink. Kio liked to keep watch on this for hours, reading a book on a high parapet and glancing up once a minute.
Right now, there was something else in the pod. Or rather, half in and half out, sort of like them and the castle.
It wasn’t a bird. There was enough charged moss creeping up the high towers, glowing silver with the moonlight it had drunk all night, for her to see more than just its shadow.
The thing scrabbling against the pod was made of bones.
Not a skeleton: Karla had seen skeletons before. Of the birds they plucked and picked clean. In the anatomy textbooks Kio fished out of the library. This wasn’t a frame for something to grow over. It was a monster made of plates and spines, with limbs sticking out at painful angles. Two misshapen claws in front scrambled for purchase against the smooth surface of the cloud pod. Two more long spindly arms were welded tight against wings the size of rose windows, gossamer like a dragonfly’s, but shining with a light they weren’t reflecting. At the back of the thing’s gray cage of a body, a tangle of legs kicked and scratched at the struts of the aqueducts, bending one sharply out of place.
“No!” Karla wondered if the thing knew what it was doing. It couldn’t know it was destroying their water source.
It’s lost, she thought. Trapped itself. Or looking for something. It can’t possibly be here on purpose. Its wingbeats were too fast, the motions of its limbs too desperate for it to be experiencing anything other than panic.
Or so she thought, until it looked straight at her–locking eyes with her where she hung uselessly, unable to let go of either rope lest she and Kio plummet to their dooms. Two flames sputtered in two eye sockets, whirlwinds of blue, green, violet, orange. The sunken face they were set in bristled with sharpened spines of bone. Running back from its missile-shaped head were two twisting ribcages that wrapped around each other in a helix, back to where the mass of legs writhed under tail feathers.
Feathers? They were bone plates. Shaped like feathers, but sharper than scythes.
The tail plates slashed left and right into the struts holding up the catchment pods. One cloud-catcher bent sideways. Another sliced clean off. It crashed into every aqueduct on the way down, making sounds like the bits of orbital debris that sometimes knocked against Nashido’s walls. Karla felt every hit like it had struck her. Each time she wanted to let go, to climb up to save what was left of their water, Kio yelped–or she did–and they kept hanging together in their agonizing pulley trap.
The skeletal creature swiveled and freed its head. It launched itself down at the metal supports, tearing one whole aqueduct apart from its top half. The shake rattled the castle down through the Citadel, probably though the heartsphere.
One channel left, with one funnel, and no cloud-catchers. And Karla and Kio were dangling, helpless, like a bird on the end of one of her spears.
If you liked this chapter, please consider pledging to my Patreon–you could unlock up to three more installments right now!