Form 4

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I’m heading off into the Cascade Mountains to spend a week with a friend, and might not have internet to update during that time. If that turns out to be true, I will post all the missed updates as soon as I return. Thanks for understanding, and on with the story!

His vision went white again.

Karla was clinging to her roof like a shipwreck victim, bleeding from somewhere, but alive.

The flying column had sent a ripple through the rubble that knocked him loose. Luckily, he’d only been shaken for a split second. When he lifted his head it was toward the glass prism, where the missile had come from.

On the island, something thunked. Something else twanged. And a second giant object launched over the outer ring of shrines, heading directly for them.

Kio wanted to howl. Not even tea was worth this.

***

It wasn’t fair, really, how Kio assumed she was inventing everything off the cuff all the time. She did have a strategy. It just frequently involved picking the weirdest solution she could think of and assuming it would work by virtue of its weirdness.

This situation, with the first non-Kio person she’d ever remember meeting launching giant chunks of marble at Kio from a fortified island base, was difficult to out-weird. But she could do it. She was Karla Harpooneer.

What was the most counter-intuitive thing to do in a situation wherein you were trying to keep from being swept into a deadly fall by a relentlessly slipping mound of shrapnel?

“Kio!” she called to him, making sure she was steady. “Head down!”

He ducked.

“No!” Her knuckles turned white. “Move down! Toward me!”

It wasn’t as bad an idea as it looked. Down was the only direction he could go with any speed.

Kio listened–rolling, on reflex, just in time for the column to hit near the other one. On his own he leapt back, then surged forward to scramble over what he’d just been dodging.

Right idea, Karla thought. There was no way the phantom catapulter would be able to do that three times in a row.

Planting a foot, she stumbled down her sliding roof. Its eave tipped over the central abyss. There was just enough purchase left for her to cross it in two steps, land in the rubble, and keep scrambling on.

Kio was above her, keeping pace, still being too careful not to kick pebbles down on her. But she was grateful. Her right side stung where a razor-sharp chunk of marble had sliced past it. Something under her furs was growing sticky with blood.

Step, step, run, always upward, never gaining ground. A window frame swept down into the abyss, and stumbling back brought her closer to the edge again. She swore. Every step forward swept her down, every step up knocked her back. How was she supposed to move?

She had another crazy idea.

But a search her mind for visions of her and Kio in the vast empty room came up empty. She ran through another chunk of her list of swear words. Turning into a raven would have been fantastically useful right now.

Her legs burned more the closer the bridge drew. Each spring took a little more energy to stay above the vast collapsing pile. Everything was shifting, the whole world tilting toward doom. If only there was something in this whole mess that wasn’t moving!

Looking right, she saw that Kio might have found it. Her tattooed friend was clinging to a statue whose face had weathered into unrecognizability. It was standing upright, like the twisted bits of metal, and seemed to be rooted to the ground.

Karla slogged to stay in place as she unwound the coil of rope over her right shoulder. Her heart caught as one end was caught in the gritty flow, but she wrenched hard and pulled it free.

She slipped. Got up. Bunched rope in her hand, reared back to throw.

Kio’s eyes widened. “Look out! They’ve got another weapon!”

“They’ve got what?”

Karla looked for the shadow, but couldn’t find it. What could the people on the island be throwing, if not chunks of loose masonry? She thought the chunks were working pretty well.

No time to dwell on it. Her arm was already reared back to throw, an action happening both in slow motion and too quickly to stop. She hurled the coil of rope to Kio.

Kio howled. His fingers danced on the rope like it was hot to the touch. He tried to throw it back.

Before he could, the light changed. In an instant, Karla had the sense that the sun had forked in two. This wasn’t its glow reflecting on the cloud rolling through the gap.

The world had gained a second source of light.

Her feet, near to losing their grounding, almost betrayed her while she searched for it. But Kio made his choice in time. He tied a hitch around the rebar and threw the coil back to Karla, who gripped her life preserver in a vise.

Then she saw the new weapon, and for an instant went blind.

She couldn’t even describe what she’d seen before losing her sight. The best idea she had was some sort of fiery serpent in the sky. Did sky kingdoms have those?

Why didn’t she read more?

She vowed to hit the books if they got back alive. Kio’d told her some people liked to bargain with the gods in situations like this.

“It’s fire jelly!” Kio wailed. “Get back!”

Fire jelly. Now that sounded like something Karla didn’t want between herself and the bridge.

She elected to get forward instead.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kio adding knots to his hitch, using up all the slack.

The air grew hot. Out of the corner of her other eye, Karla could see the flaming goop launched from the island–hanging together in a long blob, the fiery snake of her fears.

Karla took one step forward, and the ground under her jerked.

Thirty seconds earlier, the shifting pile of loose rubble would have carried her over the edge. Now it just snapped her rope to its limit.

She could use that. There were a few advantages to working in slow motion. And to being a human, for that matter.

Right as her footing fell into the clouds, Karla coiled and sprang. That way, as momentum jerked her away from Kio, she was in the air as well.

The force of the avalanche worked for her. She swung around a wide arc. When she passed under the fire jelly, her very eyes and hair and tongue grew hot with its presence.

A moment later she was clear, and it had done exactly what it needed to–sliced the rope instead.

Once upon a time, Kio had shared with her a theory that Castle Nashido had once been an orbiting satellite of some even larger entity. He’d sketched it all out for her on the floor of the library, using books as props.

“So if the Historia Chalcedonis is us, and the Avian Catalogue is the hypothetical Super-Nashido,” he’d said, nudging a small green book and huge leatherbound tome into place, “we might have been caught in its orbit, circling forever, right?”

“I guess.” Karla had been gazing out the window. Distracted, but listening. Obviously.

Kio lifted up the Avian Catalogue and dropped it with a thud on his chair. “So what happens if Super-Nashido vanishes? Doesn’t matter how. Just that our link to it is cut.”

“We’d keep orbiting,” Karla guessed. “There wouldn’t be anything stopping us.”

Kio had shaken his head, in a way that would have been annoying if he hadn’t been so genuinely excited. It helped that he’d been twelve at the time.

“We’d keep moving in a straight line on whatever trajectory we were holding when Super-Nashido vanished. We’ve lost all forces but the one that was impelling us to move in the first place. And if nothing got in our way…” he paused for dramatic effect, “we’d still be drifting.”

Maybe that was what their home was doing. Karla only knew she liked the keep moving part.

When the fire burned her rope in half, she launched forward toward the bridge, without the rope anchor turning her back for a faceplant in the rubble. Instead, for the second time in not nearly enough minutes, she slammed gut first into a hard and unyielding bit of construction.

Kio had already made it onto the edge of the bridge. She saw with a glance that her hunch had been right–there was no safe way onto this route. Every other direction was too sheer even for her to navigate.

She hung onto the bridge by her arms, panting. Kio helped her up. Hanging onto him poked the soreness in her arms, and tears sprang to her eyes, but she managed to get upright.

Another fiery serpent launched from somewhere near the prism. Karla and Kio both flinched back, but it missed them by several feet. “I think we might be out of their range,” he gasped.

She gave him a hug, brief but tight. “Thanks for tying that rope back there.”

“Yeah. Always up to help you try and get killed.” He squeezed her back.

“Right then,” she said when they separated, “onward?”

His face froze in a strange cast. “Karla, are you–“

“Yes.” She cut him off. “I’m sure I want to meet this person.”

“They’re trying to kill us.” Kio was putting on a be-reasonable face, the opposite of when he’d gotten into orbital mechanics. He was not happy he was having to explain this. “If we stay away from the core, they can’t reach us. Why don’t we just loot the rest of the city and leave them in their hole?”

Fair enough, she thought. I’m not happy I have to explain this either. “They don’t know who we are. Once we get the chance to tell them we mean them no harm…”

“But we don’t have to!” Kio shot back.

“We do! Kio, if there’s the slightest chance somebody else is alive up here, we have to find them. We have it hard enough. Imagine if that person in there is alone. We could save them.”

He was totally unreadable, which made her nervous. “Besides,” she went on, “I know you wanted to ask them what happened up here.”

“That was before they started attacking.”

Karla turned away from him on instinct, and took a few steps down the bridge, thinking about how to retort.

Whatever she was going to say vanished the instant she opened her mouth.

Several things happened at once: a series of loud pops resounded from the other end of the bridge, Kio slammed into her and knocked her down to the stone, and Karla found herself biting her tongue instead of answering.

A steady stream of shots was blasting over their heads, little shadows zipping by like a swarm of bees. They were slow enough to see, enough that they could be some sort of machine instead of magic, but one thing was sure–somebody controlled the bridge, and it wasn’t either of them.

If you enjoyed this chapter, check out the rewards available on my Patreon, including early access to chapters, bonus material, and personal shout-outs. Even $1 helps!

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

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