Thanks for your patience, everybody–as promised, here are the two chapters I missed!
“Crawl!” Kio yelled, and Karla was happy to, dragging herself over the rough stone with one arm while keeping Kio’s head down with the other. The shots above their head continued in short staccato bursts, each swarm of black arrows whistling close enough to conjure a breeze in Karla’s hair. One rebounded off the ground by Kio’s left ear. Another landed with a quivering thud in the crook of Karla’s right arm.
She didn’t slow down to examine it. They kept on, making for a long, chest-high altar just their side of the two-story ruined wall blocking outside access to the bridge.
Karla shoved Kio behind it, then swung into cover herself, sitting with back against the shrine. Kio stayed on the ground, head covered. “What’s happening?”
“It’s like our spear guns!”
The shots abruptly fell silent. Karla listened for a moment, then craned her neck around their cover to catch a glimpse of the few projectiles that had stuck in the ground. One was lodged halfway into a beam of wooden facing on the altar they were hiding behind.
She’d been correct. The gunner was firing arrows. Less than half as long as their retrievable spears, and coal-black, but familiar enough that Karla knew there had to be some kind of mechanical delivery system.
It was one she’d love to copy, if it didn’t kill her.
“Where are they?” Kio scooted to sit back against the altar. “I can see some kind of nest, but there’s nobody inside.”
He was right. The Gunner–she’d decided to start calling them that–was invisible, if he was manning the nest at all.
Karla had an idea. She grabbed a chunk of loose stone just big enough for her fist, and, with a deep breath, reared up.
In the split second before Kio yanked her back down, she threw the rock. It bounced onto the bridge, teetered on its edge, and lay still.
The gun started up again–arrow after arrow, whistling down the bridge to perforate them.
“What are you doing?” Kio hissed. “Plans go better when we talk about them!”
“Experimenting,” Karla told him as they both leaned back against the wall. “The gun didn’t fire when I showed myself. But it did when I simulated someone stepping onto the bridge.”
“What’s your point?”
“This isn’t a manned gun. It’s a booby trap.”
The bridge had no rails, posts, or features of any kind, other than the vine carvings that wound their way along its entire length. All its support structure extended below, making it look from certain angles like nothing was holding it up at all. It was wide enough for two people, if both of them wanted to get shot.
Kio wasn’t happy about their plan, but after fifteen minutes of testing, even he had to admit the Gunner had an arbitrarily large amount of ammunition on his side. They weren’t going to win this one by attrition.
But they had one asset on their side: both of them did an awful lot of climbing.
Karla had waited a moment after they agreed to execute the plan, squeezing her eyes tightly shut. Kio was pretty sure she was trying to turn into a bird, and was on board with the idea, even if it wasn’t going to happen.
On the bridge, they gingerly approached the rock she’d thrown earlier. Two paces out, she flung up an arm to stop him.
“Are you good?” she asked.
He nodded, slowly. “I’m good.”
She found his hand and squeezed it briefly. “Ready?”
“Go,” he said more softly than he’d meant to.
They vaulted over opposite sides of the bridge.
The triggers were wider than the causeway itself. As Kio clambered past the rock, the barrage of arrows started again. Before clambering onward, he glanced up at the underside of the walkway…and saw exactly what he’d expected to.
A design had been cut into the bridge. It looked simple, but Kio was certain he couldn’t replicate it. He’d thought his tattoos had been simple as well, and he hadn’t copied them half as well as he should have. He was sure, though, that these faintly glowing runes were the magical triggers.
As sure as he was that they couldn’t climb this way forever. The struts ended in the center of the bridge. They would have to walk.
“Crawl?” Karla asked him, when they rolled onto the surface, keeping their extremeties as close to the ocean as possible.
Crawling in the center of the bridge, unsupported, over the cauldron of cloud. They tripped another rune, then another, and the arrows blazed over their heads. Catching hairs. Tearing clothing. Any moment, Kio knew, they would crawl into the lower reach of Gunner’s aim, and he’d slash them in half before ever getting a chance to–
“Dive!” Karla screamed.
Kio rolled into space.
His hands lashed out, adrenaline surging through his body, like it always did when he climbed the pulleys and vines. One hand and one foot found struts. They’d made it back to the supports.
“I’m all right! Let’s go!”
They scampered onward, hands and feet finding their marks as surely as a vine found the strongest place to grow. Kio called out warnings just before they hit each rune. The Gunner could strike an unlucky shot on the edge of the bridge, bounce an arrow off, and hit one of them. Several times he flattened himself against the bridge as it nearly happened.
But they didn’t land. Kio began to feel like the white clouds engulfing his lower half were protecting him. It made it feel less weird that he couldn’t see his legs.
“We’re nearly there.” He jolted to hear Karla’s words. He’d almost lost sight of her, barely three arm’s-lengths away from him on the other side. She didn’t sound as happy as she should have.
“You’re thinking of something,” Kio answered her, uncertainty growing in him. “What’s the matter?”
“There’s going to be one more trigger right in front of the gun. We can’t climb past that. How are we gonna get in there?”
Kio tore his eyes away from his missing lower half, and examined the gateway. On the center island, just like in the outer ring they had crossed, tall buildings crowded tightly enough together that they formed an impassible wall. Eaves projected out from each floor, making climbing out of the question. The one gap he could see was the three-story opening directly ahead, as slim as the bridge.
The tall portal between temples framed the towering prism of black glass. Violet light still flitted from edge to edge in lines. The incomprehensible symbol of the person or people who might have wanted him and Karla dead.
Opposite him, Karla was more interested in the gun. From this close they could clearly see it was unmanned. It had a long, thin barrel, jet-black, that reminded Kio of a small surface-world tree he had seen in a book of biology.
“It’s a rotating system with multiple barrels,” Karla said in her dreamy half-to-herself voice. “Spring-loaded, like ours, but it’s able to feed itself the arrows somehow…”
“Focus!” Kio told her.
“I am focusing!” she shot back. “I’m trying to figure out the different ways it can kill us.”
“It’s all magic. We can’t experiment on magic from here…”
Benefactor, he could feel the force with which Karla shook her head. “Only the triggers are magic. The system is mechanical. Which means we can trick it.”
“All right.” Kio’s fingers were beginning to seize on the bridge supports. He wrapped his right arm around them and decided to stop looking down. “How?”
“I’m not seeing any sort of ball-and socket. All the shots have come directly over the bridge, which means it’s well-aligned, but it can’t pivot.”
“But that gap is so thin it doesn’t matter! It can cover the whole thing!”
“Patience, my friend!”
Something about her affect, maybe the certainty she was smiling, began to warm Kio from his heart to the tips of his fog-shrouded extremities. If Karla thought they could make it, they could probably make it.
“On three, Kio,” she went on, “we climb up, then cross that line as close to the walls as possible. The arrows will shoot between us, and we’ll be in the clear.”
“And hopefully through the last of Gunner’s traps,” Kio muttered as he prepared himself to swing up one more time. “I’m already regretting saving them.”
“Let’s deal with that when we get there,” Karla said, sounding–to Kio’s ears–even more certain this was all just a misunderstanding.
One hop took them both up to the walkway surface. Karla caught his eye as they faced each other, strong brown irises in deeply tanned skin under her mass of dirty blonde hair. A person like a force of nature.
The strength of her presence made him suddenly self-conscious. Was he ready for this? Meeting the first new person of his life?
Karla set her sights on the thin sliver of safe ground right up against the muzzle of the gun. Kio swallowed. He’d have to be.
The circle of eight thin barrels protruded past the gate. They wouldn’t be able to flatten themselves against any walls.
Kio took a deep breath. And held. Turned his feet to the side.
The path between the arrows on one side and the gulf on the other narrowed before him. He was balancing on a knife’s edge.
Karla was already moving. Kio shuffled forward.
When she triggered the gun, he jumped.
Barely a second in the air felt like a lifetime. Cloud whirling under him, arrows whizzing past him, Kio raged, wept, and then gave himself up for lost.
His feet touched solid ground. He wobbled. Tilted toward the space directly in front of the whirling, red-hot gun barrel.
One hand on his shoulder–Karla’s. She’d lashed out and formed a teetering arch out of the two of them, straddling the line of fire.
Her eyes held a silent question this time. Walk?
Walk, he said back.
Illustration by Grace Pyles.
Holding each other up, they tiptoed onward. Kio and Karla left the line of fire behind, paced into the heart of the city, and only let go when the cannon fell silent.
Kio looked around. The island at the center of the sky kingdom was more open than the rings around it. The ground was covered in white ceramic tiles, very few of which were still intact. Most of them had shattered under the pounding this place had taken from the sky, revealing the cut stone beneath. In some places, the stones themselves had cracked, and blades of grass poked through.
It reminded Kio that this place had once been a camp for a fleet of gliders: an airborne tribe that had gone wherever the sky willed it.
Several open-air shrines had been constructed around the glass prism in the center, and the tall, square, ornately carved tower beside it. No two of them were quite the same–the only feature they shared was the arches that let light through the center of each in at least two directions.
Despite all the open space, each one still had hidden corners. From far away, Kio saw the white flash of another heap of bones. He looked quickly away, scrubbing his mind of the image of the desiccated ribcage.
Where there was one skeleton, the corners could hide others. People who had run inward, hoping their gods would protect them.
Kio had seen the altars. The gods had weathered away.
The grass, and the lights, were the only things moving. Gunner was nowhere to be seen.
Well, the grass, the lights, and Karla, who was examining the gun from her safe spot behind it. “We were right!” she exclaimed. “Look how long that string of arrows goes. We were never going to run it out. And there,” she pointed up at two malevolent black trebuchet-like structures, squatting like vultures on top of the outer wall, “those are the fire-hurlers. I have to get up there before we leave.”
Kio backed hard toward her. “Karla, can you hush up? Gunner could be listening right now.”
“Right,” Karla whispered, snapping her head away from the cannon. “Where is he? The big temple?”
“I don’t know any better than you. Maybe.” Not only that, he thought, but we’re losing light to search by. The sky had grown dark while they’d fumbled their way through the wreckage and over the bridge. Already, the first pinpricks of the wash of stars were starting to appear. The dome of the sky was clear, turning a dark navy.
Kio stepped across the tile, the size of the place overwhelming him. The ring of temples seemed to spin. Karla tiptoed a few steps ahead, stealthy, but concerned. “I’m checking in there, then. Seems like the best place to start.”
The temple by the prism didn’t rise directly up from the ground. Almost two stories of stairs led up to its base: cracked, weathered, but still lofty. The light from the prism flashed over the steps, turning them purple every few seconds.
Karla was halfway up the stairway by the time Kio reached the base. When he had begun to catch up, she was turning around, her face fallen. “There’s nobody in there.”
“What?” Kio climbed another couple of steps. “And quiet. I said stay quiet.”
“It’s empty. I can see from there. No sign of anybody. No food, nothing discarded…”
“Wait.” Kio remembered something else from the histories. “These open shrines…” he whispered just loud enough for Karla to hear. “They’re aligned.”
“The sunrise and sunset on various dates. Solstices, equinoxes…what was the most recent?”
“Um, uh…” Karla turned around, biting her lip as she thought. “It was just the spring equinox. A few days ago. I marked it on the calendar.”
Kio spun, his fear momentarily forgotten, and found the two archways the last rays of sunset were shining through. “There would be a nexus. The big temple is for something else–maybe for dealing with the prism–but for worship, for the rituals they’d do here, the center should be…”
One more turn on his heels. Then he pointed at a blank wall, his face falling. “Right there.”
More stars began to appear in the darkening sky. Kio didn’t know how to feel. On the one hand, he hadn’t been sure he wanted to meet the potentially homicidal Gunner. On the other, he couldn’t forget what Karla had said to him while they were watching the planes. One more person might have finally given them the chance to be mad at each other.
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.