“All right, hang on a second.” Karla’s voice was growing louder, cutting through the silence. She strode determinedly across the tiles toward the wall Kio had pointed out. He followed, afraid she was going to try and break a hole through the stone with her head.
He wasn’t far off the mark. The first thing Karla did was aim a stiff kick at the stone, then another.
Kio hurried forward. “I’m upset too, but that’s not productive.”
“Shh.” She kicked the wall a third time.
He broke and asked, “What are you doing?”
“Listening.” Another kick. Kio tried to listen too, but couldn’t hear anything except the wind blowing the last bits of cloud out of the flying cataract they’d crossed.
“This is the oldest part of the kingdom, right?” Karla asked. “They were camping here. Then they moved to the outer rings and turned this into temples. They’ve probably built up layers on their layers by now.”
Kio was proud of how much she’d actually listened to, as he tried to follow her theory. “You’re saying there’s an inner inner ring?”
“That’s just what you said, yeah?” She had moved on from kicking, and was now tapping her way along the wall, listening to what sound rebounded. “I propose Karla’s Addendum to Kio’s Theorem. The inner inner ring would be concealed somehow to everyone who wasn’t sanctified to enter.”
She’d come to a segment of interlocking stones without adhesive, in the Nashido style. “There,” she said. “There’s nothing behind these.”
“Wait–” Kio’s hand thrust out too late. Karla had already thrown her shoulder against the wall. The stones bent inward, then, just as quickly, sprang outward again. Karla flew back, hair streaming, and sprawled in a patch of grass.
“Magic,” was the first thing she spat when Kio got her back on her feet. “There’s a rune back there.”
Kio frowned. “I don’t know about that. Have you tried just touching it?”
“I did!” Karla protested.
“I mean–” Kio mimed. “Just touch. Don’t punch.”
Karla looked askance at him, but shrugged. Back at the door, she placed the heel of her hand on the door, and softly pushed.
The door swung wide.
Kio tried not to grin.
The passage within wasn’t pitch-black as he had expected. A faint white glow shone from somewhere deep inside. All of a sudden, not grinning got surprisingly easy.
Karla reached around and felt behind the secret door. “It’s some kind of stretchy fabric. Amazing tensile strength. Do you think this would work on Raven?”
“I…dunno if there’s enough of it to salvage.” Kio couldn’t soothe his stomach, churning like the clouds in the cataract. “There might be some somewhere else in the city, if you want to search…”
“Right now? Are you–” Karla’s excitement melted, and she dropped “nuts” at the last minute, instead asking him, “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he said, then, “No. I don’t know. I just want to be careful.”
“Careful?” Half in and half out of the shadows, Karla put her hands on her hips–shifting just a bit to the side in case anything was planning to hurtle out of the dark corridor. “You’ve been acting weird ever since we dropped our packs.”
“Things have been weird!” Kio protested. “It’s not me, it’s everything!”
“Kio…” There was no anger in Karla’s eyes. He’d managed to genuinely confuse her. “If you can’t tell me what’s up, who can you tell?”
“Not Gunner!” he shouted, and regretted it at once.
Kio didn’t always mind Karla being able to read him so easily. It was helpful, not having to finish his own sentences all the time. But, right now, he felt invaded. He covered his face, willing her to stop.
“I can’t, all right?” He studied the grass poking through the cracks in the tile. “I’m not ready to meet somebody new.”
“But the surface…”
“That’s totally different! We’ll be in a flyer, we’ll be like them. Whoever this is has nothing in common with us.”
“You’re–we’re Rokhshan. We talked to the sky kingdoms all the time.”
“It’s not just that.” Then what is it, Kio? he demanded of himself, staring past Karla into the dark. “We can live with everyone on the surface, but just one person, or a few people, up here, with us…”
“I do get it. I do.” Eyes shut tight, he felt Karla gently laying her hand on his tattoo. “It’s going to be really different. But it’s not like we have to invite them onto Nashido. Nothing has to change. Until everything does.”
The last thing he needed was sympathy. He didn’t know what the first thing he needed was. “I’m not ready,” he repeated.
“You know you can’t stop me from going in there, right?”
Surprised, he looked up. “I’m going to talk to them whether you’re coming or not. But–hey, look at me–I’d rather have you there.”
Kio frantically searched his emotions to figure out why exactly he had a problem with this. Could Karla be right? Was he really that afraid of change? While she’d been yearning after freedom with every fiber of her being, had he been lulling himself, letting Nashido become the open cage the tiger refused to leave?
Benefactor help him, was this going to happen again when Raven was complete, ready to take to the surface?
Karla had given him a perfect opening, to lean on her without leaning. But maybe that was part of the problem. He couldn’t use her this time.
“Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll be behind you.”
She stared at him for a long time, then nodded softly. Reaching into one of her many pockets, she brought out two stones encrusted with glowmoss. “Here, I got you one too. They’ve still got some charge left.”
“Thank you.” Kio closed his fingers over his light. “I mean it. I really will be behind you.”
“I know.” Karla gave him one more too-large lopsided smile, and turned to take her glow down the passage, heading toward the light at the end.
That light must have been shining on a wall, because Karla turned a corner. Her light bobbed briefly, waiting for him, but Kio’s feet felt rooted to the spot.
To distract himself from his immobilized terror, he thought about the passage. This was a sacred space, so maybe it was some sort of symbolic labyrinth? Had he read anything about the purpose of the maze in sky kingdom thought, and could it apply to this–
Not a shout. Just a word, magnified, full of something deep and terrifying and infinite.
It had come from around the passage corner. The bonds on Kio’s feet dissolved, and he ran into the darkness.
At some point he dropped his glowing stone. He couldn’t have said when, exactly. It felt like the light was all around him, like he never had needed to trouble himself about seeing, right up until the moment he burst into the chamber directly beneath the glass prism, to see Karla standing over a dead man.
Not a skeleton. Kio thanked the Benefactor for that–this room wasn’t another corner of the garden of bones. The body had a rune on its chest, one he’d never seen before.
“It…” He fumbled lamely for words. “It must have been some kind of spell to ward him against decay. So he’ll always…”
“He’ll smell nice,” Karla said. “I’m glad he gets to smell nice–”
She stopped. Choked. Kio looked around at the chamber, at the corpse lying against the crystal pillar, at himself in the black surface, his brown mop of hair and soft, noble features. A weakling’s features.
He grabbed the pages out of his pockets at random. Something had to be useful. He and Karla could solve the mystery of this room to stay sane.
“It was all automated,” he said, keeping well away from the corpse. It was looking at him, he knew, through closed eyes. “The fire launchers, the arrow gun. He didn’t mean any of it.”
Karla burst into a sob. When Kio cried, he hid. When Karla cried, she exploded.
She never wept while there was anything left to do. Here, there was nothing. Even magic had done everything it could for Gunner.
He put his arms around her, his own eyes leaking, and cast around for something comforting to say. There was nothing.
“I thought I knew,” he said into her shoulder. “I thought I knew what I wanted.”
She managed a nod.
“I didn’t want this.” He’d been an idiot, worrying about what it would change. She was right: wasn’t this what they’d hoped for? Now he would never get to ask Gunner what had happened to the sky kingdoms, what cataclysm had planted the garden of bones. “I didn’t. I promise.”
“I know,” Karla said. But she couldn’t know. Her scream, the body, his knife of uncertainty wielded like a weapon against them both…Kio felt like he’d murdered Gunner all over again.
“Why?” she demanded of him. “Why did this happen? Who sent the signal, if he was already dead?”
That was something he could offer.
Pulling back, he surveyed the rest of the chamber. Carvings on the walls–large figures that might have been bone dragons, but he could look closer at those later. The only other thing was a persistent trickle of water, leaking through the ceiling to drip onto the floor.
Think, Kio. You’re all she has.
Karla wiped her eyes on her fur sleeve. It didn’t help, but at least it told him she was thinking, trying not to cry even though she was failing.
He couldn’t shake the feeling he was missing something enormous. The body, the carvings, the water…
“Come back into the hallway,” he told Karla.
“Probably a good idea,” she sniffed, following him out.
“In more ways than one.” His eyes were clear, his shaking subsiding. “Look.”
They hadn’t been able to see what they were standing on. Backing into the corridor revealed there was a second rune in the chamber under the temple, as large as the room itself. Its gnarled edge brushed directly up against the glass pillar that protruded from the surface through the foundations of the temple.
As Kio and Karla watched, a drop fell from the ceiling and landed in the deeply gouged carvings that made up the floor rune. Light flashed across the entire design, then shot upward into the prism.
Another drip came a few seconds later. Another flash. Another. Another.
“The magic of the rune activates when you carve it,” Kio breathed. “Every time the water falls…”
“It’s carving it anew. Casting the spell again. The spell sends the signal.”
That was the secret at the heart of the sky kingdom. A leaky roof and a dead man.
Karla’s face showed everything. She’d always been a horrendous liar. Maybe, one day, I’ll meet a good liar. I’d like to see how they work.
He was already thinking in terms of it being over. After all their running, all their fighting, the sky kingdom was a dead place after all.
“Kio,” Karla began, with one final tremendous sniff, “could you…wait outside? For a little while? I want to say goodbye.”
“But you never…” Kio caught himself. “All right.”
As he tiptoed out of the corridor, he heard singing coming from the heart of the temple. It was soft, but not so soft he couldn’t recognize it: an old lullaby that Karla sang every now and then, to him or to herself when they slept in some abandoned bedroom. Or in the mist garden, among the stars. She said it came from her mother. From the time before year zero.
“May a frigate bird take your soul,” she sang, “and bear it far away. May you rest above the sun, behind the rain, on gentle waves…”
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