They found a back route out of the inner island. Karla stalked ahead to scout it out, and Kio agreed to follow once she discovered it was safe, all without either of them saying anything. She and Kio were artists with silence. They had as many different kinds as there were pigments of paint.
This one, Karla thought, was the silence of having nothing to say, which was distinct from having many things to say and some reason, good or otherwise, for not saying them. They couldn’t help each other, and they’d both silently agreed not to try.
The bridge to the north was covered by no less than three rotating-barrel turrets, but Karla yanked their ammo belts out, and they crossed without incident, the guns clicking uselessly behind them as they triggered each rune.
She took out her glowstone to place her steps right. The starlight helped as well. Kio plodded behind her, in his own world.
She tried to remind herself of how she’d felt before they’d seen what should have been the signal from the living Gunner. The sky kingdom was critical to surviving long enough to launch Raven. They needed weapons, food, rope, lumber, leather, containers, fuel, topsoil, knowledge about large-scale runes, a hundred other things.
Yet she could only think about what they’d lost.
Little things drew her eyes as they passed between the darkened buildings. A wooden doll lying in a drain. The small bones of a dog in an alley. Another table set for dinner, with a jug of curdled wine spilling across the surface, dripping like the leak in the temple sanctum over Gunner’s corpse. The starlight shone into the corners, illuminating all of it, whispering, Look, Harpooneer. Look at your world.
She thought back, picturing the surface. That’s my world. Not this. But she couldn’t see the surface from here.
The dark, windswept alleys she and Kio traipsed through didn’t scare her. She knew there was nothing in the dark. That was the problem. Scary, she could have dealt with. This was just empty.
They detoured to collect their backpacks, then retraced their steps. When they were near the landing platform, Kio said, “I want to look down.”
Karla started. She’d been looking for Nashido. The sight of the bands of glowmoss and familiar vines would have comforted her–she needed life after all this death. But her view to the castle was blocked.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“At the bones on the landing gantry. I want to see it all. Don’t let me look down.” His voice, floating from behind her, was softer than a gull calling far over the sea. “Please?”
She nodded, then, unprompted, fell back and grabbed his hand. “Sure.”
The field of bones, its white bleaching silver in the starlight, came into view soon enough. The place, one of a dozen, where the people of this city had fled in a vain hope of safety. Most of them probably hadn’t known where they would go, other than away.
Lucky me, she thought. I know exactly where I’m going.
She was still holding Kio’s hand when she raised her eyes to where the castle should have been. He cried out as her grip clamped down. “Ow! Karla–”
But she was off and running. Kio had no choice but to follow her, to be even braver than he’d asked to be as she kicked aside the bones, racing for the edge of the gantry. He followed in her wake, stumbling to the limit right when she skidded to a halt.
She looked over the platform. There, five hundred feet below, was Castle Nashido, its moss alight, two long ropes dangling from its propellors. Karla could barely make them out against the dark sea below.
Kio looked ready to start crying again. “I…I thought I checked them…they should have held…”
Karla felt like a block of ice was pressing insistently on her chest. “What are we gonna do?” she asked, before he could ask her the same question.
“We can either look around for a flying machine somewhere on this island–“
“–something we haven’t found on the last twelve, and not for lack of looking–“
“–or you can get back right now.”
She opened her mouth to tell him she couldn’t, but didn’t believe the words she hadn’t said yet. All the stuff he was about to say was right: Nashido needed a keeper. Somebody had to make sure their home didn’t fall apart, like this place had, under the relentless pressure of the sky.
“You can find a way to help me,” Kio said. “You have your workshop, and the library. And Raven.”
“Fine.” She shrugged him off. If she didn’t do this now, she wasn’t ever going to. “I’ll go. I’ll come back with Raven, and take you to the surface without going back.”
“We have to stop at Nashido first.” Kio’s smile was unconvincing, but she was grateful to him for trying. “I want to take some books.”
Maybe in the heat of the moment on the collapsing pile of rubble she couldn’t figure out how to become a bird. Here, she had all the time she needed.
The problem wasn’t the method. The problem was leaving Kio behind. Everything came back, as it always did, to their promise.
“It all comes down to knowing what triggers it,” she said. “If we can control the conditions under which I transform, we can change you, too.”
Kio shook his head. “Too many assumptions. That it can be controlled. That I’ll become the same thing you did.” The wind picked up, forcing him to shout. “All we know is that you know how it feels. Nothing scientific or replicable. You need to find that feeling again.”
Karla chewed on the edge of her fist. What had she felt? In the moment her last attack on the bone dragon had failed, what had been going through her head, weighing on her heart?
The vision was the key. But something had summoned the vision.
“It’s got to be based on emotion.” She raised her voice. “Higher than normal. Higher than high. You feel sadness and anger, then you feel despair, then beyond despair is–is that dark room.”
“Then get there. Get back to that room.”
“Come with me. You have to try too.”
“I am trying!”
The stars, the only source of light, scattered into every corner of the sweeping sky. The long faded arm of a galaxy arced across the endless night. Karla chose it as her totem, focused in on it. She had to do the opposite of meditate: cultivate as much attachment, as much anger and rage, as possible.
Gunner was dead. The thought came to her complete, without her needing to put it together. We were finally going to meet somebody else, and the whole time, he was dead.
There it was. A gulch through the center of her soul.
It wasn’t fair. Children on the surface were living normal lives with their parents, among sheep and rivers and trees. All that had been stolen from her. Her first taste of it, yanked away.
“It’s not fair!” she shouted aloud, and there was the vast black room.
The lantern flickered to life. It’s time, she said to the Kio she saw there.
I can’t, he said. There’s something in the way.
Fight it. Break it.
It won’t break!
It was as though her first transformation had dug a channel, a weakness she could exploit, making the change easier and easier each time. Kio didn’t have that, in addition to whatever was already preventing him from transforming.
It didn’t matter, she told herself, even as she was already back in the real world. He’s just going to take a little longer. He’ll be right there.
These were her last thoughts before the raven’s massive awareness replaced her human mind, banishing Karla Harpooneer back to her corner.
She flapped her wings, keeping steady, and perched on Kio’s arm. “Go,” he told her. “I’m coming.”
She tilted her head.
“I can’t do this with you hanging around watching,” he said. If she’d been a human, she might have noticed how he seemed to say that harder than he meant it.
As it was, she just took it as her cue to fly.
She tucked her wings behind her and dove. All she worried about on her plunge down to Nashido was that her raven form would attract another bone dragon from somewhere. But she encountered nothing, not even clouds.
She landed on one of the three highest towers, above the aqueduct, level with the cloud-catchers. Perching on a battlement, she flicked her eyes up, and began to wait for Kio.
Nine minutes later–ravens were good at counting–when she turned back into a human, she was still waiting.
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Thanks to Lynne, Thomas, Paul, and David for their continued support.