It was as though they were trying to outrun the entire city as it closed a stone grip over them. The merchants’ streets, straight and narrow with empty apartments over the empty shops, were twisting into strange webs of sloping alleys that reminded him much more of the hallways on Nashido. The walls were ancient. Lichen and weather told the story of their many millenia. Even the roofs reached out toward each other.
Kio ran so hard his pack bounced and jangled against his back. He winced when he heard something break. He was sweating in his furs, but couldn’t stop.
Which was odd, he thought as he and Karla raced up an open staircase over a canal gorge so deep it exposed floating bedrock. Because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to meet somebody new. What if he didn’t know what to say?
The part of him that was deciding to run didn’t care for that. It was the Kio that was starved for the things surface people got every day. The Kio that would have thrown out their food supply for the chance to pass a stranger on the street with a polite but brisk greeting.
Besides, he could always tell himself he was running because Karla was, which wasn’t odd at all.
She was making the decisions, navigating them toward the glass prism. They were deep in the old quarter now, the city’s pitted core, and biting wind was whistling through the holes in the walls. Earth and grass poked more often through wider cracks in the pavement. Kio reminded himself that this place had been bombarded constantly with wind, rain, ice, and hail before all its caretakers had died. Since then the city had been abandoned for who knew how many years.
I could find out. With a thrill, Kio had another reason to keep running: he could pick this survivor’s brain. Could at last fill the blank spaces after the last pages of his history books.
They cut through a pavilion, a place of weathered altars where ceremonies might have happened. All four walls were open to the sky. Here, Karla stopped and began to unbuckle her pack straps.
“What? Why?” Kio halted, loath to give up their parchment and charcoal. And food, I guess.
“We have to move faster.” Karla’s pack hit the floor, a heavy sound that cracked against the whistle of wind. “Take your rope. Need help with yours?”
Kio began loosening his own pack, but paused halfway through. “What if we find something important?”
“Kio, we’ve passed through three potter’s shops, a forge, two produce markets, and a tannery since we saw that signal. Did you notice any of them?”
“No, but…then…” He got the sinking feeling he was arguing just to argue. But the idea of leaving their supplies behind scared him in a way he couldn’t account for. “Shouldn’t we go back?”
“If somebody is alive, we’ve got to find them.” Karla stepped over and lowered his pack the rest of the way off him. “And for that, we need to be able to move. And climb. And react.”
He helped her drag both the backpacks behind one of the altars. They set off again, moving crossways to the prism and temple roof, searching for a way closer. Only when they were running again did Kio realize why he hadn’t wanted to take his pack off.
Never before, in his entire life, had he worried about his possessions being stolen.
Karla cut left at the first turn they saw. Kio, a little behind, heard her cry out, and doubled his pace, imagining walking skeletons dragging her into a dark portal. But she was there when he rounded the corner–facing him, in fact, and crying out. “Stop!”
She shoved him back, knocking him to the street, and stumbled so hard she had to grab a doorway to keep her feet. In the heat of the moment, Kio had thought the whole kingdom was tilting. But Nashido didn’t even do that. Karla was just freaked out.
“Watch it!” she shouted. “You almost knocked me in!”
“In what?” Kio snapped, dusting his trousers off.
Then he saw.
Illustration by Grace Pyles.
When Karla yelled, she had in fact been pinwheeling her arms at the edge of a chasm. The road fell away without warning, in the middle of a block, halfway through a doorway on the right side. A vertical pile from the shrine’s foundation hung in the void, snapped in half.
Kio inched closer and peered over the edge. This went deeper than the canals. It didn’t just plunge to the floating earthen soil the kingdom was founded on. It blasted straight through. Something had cut the floor out of the sky kingdom, leaving a gap a hundred paces wide at the edge of the central forum.
“What did this?” he asked as he crawled backwards to get to his feet.
“Looters,” was Karla’s guess. She helped him up, then took off back for the cross-street without letting go of his hand. “While most people were trying to get to safety, some other people thought they could get rich by barricading themselves in the temple forum with all the valuables they could find.”
“Umm…” Kio said the first thing that popped into his head. “Maybe the people who owned the valuables deserved it?”
“But they’ve blocked us off from the center!” Karla glanced down a side alley, shook her head, and kept running. “I guarantee, we’ll find all the useless solid gold stuff in the middle. Then we’ll know I was right.”
“Hang on.” For a second time, Kio nearly ran into her, as she scanned another turn toward the center. This one had a bit of carved bridge spanning a quarter or so of the gap. “You think the people of the kingdom did this to themselves? Not even a bone dragon could make a hole like that!”
“Who knows what people like this could do to themselves?” Karla perched on the edge of the broken bridge and swiveled her neck around, taking in the whole gash in the land. “These are sky kingdoms. They’re not like the land people. They say that themselves.”
Kio had to admit that they did, in all the books. But he also had to wonder where all this was coming from. “What are Rokhshan capable of?” he asked, without thinking. “Could you or I blow up part of Nashido just to get rich?”
“I’m not–” Karla turned, as though she had caught herself. “Right. No. I don’t think so.”
And with Kio thoroughly confused, she changed the subject. “I think we can get there from the next turn. There are two big towers, like landing stations for gliders. See them?”
Once out on the bridge fragment with her, Kio did: a pair of squat cylinders, each wide enough for two Ravens to alight on top. “But there’s no way across there, either…”
“There is. Keep looking.”
Kio did. A cloud was rolling through the gap, eerily like fog on land, making it hard to make anything out. The sun on the white blinded him. But eventually he was able to perceive the shape of a thin causeway supported by a few wooden struts.
“That’s not between the landing pads, though,” he said, stomach churning with terror that Karla might have had an idea.
“Yeah, but look around. There’s no other way to get to the bridge.” She took off again, saying over her shoulder, “And don’t take that tone with me, Mr. levitated himself into the middle of a thunderstorm to rescue me.”
“You levitate one time…” Kio followed her, wondering what she was talking about, and thinking how it wasn’t fair to judge somebody by actions taken when they were literally scared beyond fear.
Hurtling between the two columns, he finally understood Karla’s strange words. He followed her right, across a short gap, and then to another ledge only as wide as his feet. To a dweller on Nashido who knew its vines, it might as well have been a living room, but Kio shook nonetheless. The gap suddenly seemed a lot wider, the roiling cloud in its depths a lot more sinister.
“We’ll go over that,” Karla said, like she was suggesting the best way to straighten a pipe.
“That” was a pile of rubble built of stones of many sizes, from one of Kio’s fists to bigger than him. Some twisted bits of metal, probably steel like from Nashido’s gears, stuck up from the avalanche like demented fossilized trees. It could have once been the home of a wealthy merchant, or some noble who transitioned into the priesthood. Whatever it was, its unfortunate foundation had been sitting halfway astride the fissure, and the whole thing had buckled.
But the bridge was intact. If they could get to it across the scree.
Karla was already seeking out footholds. Her first two attempts shifted with a heavy sound that ground directly against Kio’s soul. He put a hand on her ankle as a signal that they were going to talk about this–she couldn’t keep running away from him and expecting him to chase her into dragon’s mouths.
“Are you sure you don’t just want to go around?” he asked, once she was back on the ledge and looking not unkindly into his eyes. “We haven’t seen this entire ring yet. There might be a safer way.”
“This is a city, Kio.” Karla flung one arm wide, holding on tight with the other. “It could take more than a day to find that safer way. And meanwhile, what if that signal is a distress call? What if the person over there needs us right now? We can’t afford to wait.”
Her gesture encompassed the other side of the bridge, where a sheer wall blocked access. It was here, or nowhere.
“Look,” Karla went on, more quietly, “I wasn’t running because I’m excited to meet someone. I…I’m scared of it too. But not as scared as that person might be.”
Her eyes were fierce, and she needed him. She hopped up on a stone block and reached down a hand. “Let’s be brave for them,” she said. “Together.”
He pictured himself putting one foot wrong, setting off a cascade of rubble that deposited him directly into the abyss. Then he looked up into her face, waiting urgently, though not demanding that he follow. Just asking.
It was almost a habit by now, drawing strength from her. From the start, from year zero, she had given him free rein of her courage without even thinking. And if there was another person in Karla’s life, when there could be, she’d do it for them too.
In return, Kio thought as he grasped her arm and clambered up, she only asked that he center her.
“We’re going slowly,” he told her, looking out over the long pile of rubble. “This is unstable. There’s no sense endangering ourselves while trying to save somebody.”
“But–” Gears turned in Karla’s head as she decided this was reasonable. “All right. You set the pace, then.”
Kio gulped. That hadn’t been his intention. But he could do it if she was behind him.
In rescuing range, specifically.
He stretched one foot out toward a slab that looked like a likely candidate. Pushed as hard as he could and didn’t budge it. “That one’s good,” he announced.
“We’re not going this slowly,” Karla grumbled, and stepped out beside him. Kio cried out and siezed her arm in a death grip–but her stone held steady as well.
They picked out two different paths, Karla inching ahead as she chose her stones on instinct. Kio avoided piles of loose rubble. When one big stone shifted under his hands, he shouted at Karla to get out of the way, but the stone didn’t shift any further.
She opened her mouth, probably to tell him she told him so, but didn’t get to finish. A raft of stones slipped beneath her and plummeted toward the gap in the land.
Karla growled in surprise. But she knew how to not fall to her death. Kio told himself that even as he dove downward toward where she’d been, stretching out his hand. The edges of the rocks cut into him.
Wheeling her arms, Karla grabbed a bit of rebar, wincing as it cut into her skin. She hauled herself up, bracing her arms against the metal and the slab it was rooted in. “Kio!”
“I’m here!” He crawled. His foothold vanished under him. Had to get her out…
“I’m fine!” Karla contorted herself to dodge a bouncing piece of rubble. “Keep moving toward the bridge, you’re losing ground!”
A good idea in theory. But running on the scree was like dragging his feet through water while birds pecked at his ankles. Kio heaved himself up, trying to run fast enough to stay on top of the avalanche–and suddenly heard a much louder, monstrous sound, the whole pile sliding at the roots.
Karla coiled, then sprang from the rebar toward the largest safe spot she could find, a massive, ornately carved corner of the late temple’s roof. Intricate cloud carvings wound around its edges.
She hit the roof torso first, clinging on with both arms. Kio looked away from his feet, holding his breath for her to make it.
She did. Raised her hand to show him she was all right. Gestured vigorously for him to keep moving.
More rocks were clattering, from above him, before and behind him. Something had hit Karla, shaken her grip loose. For the second time in a minute, Kio dove to save her.
The world wobbled. He’d stood too fast. One of his ankles was sinking, the other being yanked from under him.
The collapse was kicking up dust. He couldn’t see Karla. And all around him was a shadow, growing larger–
Kio threw himself down to the rubble. As he did, half of a fractured temple column fell out of the sky and smashed into the cascade of broken brick. A shockwave jumped out, and his vision went black.
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