Signal 4

Laying her mirror down, Karla took several long breaths to stead herself. It was maddening not knowing if her signal was working or not.

Even worse, she could only communicate at the most basic level. “Hey!” or “Look over there!” If only they had some language invented for long distances…

A memory came back to her–hanging off the side of a tower in driving rain, trying to pilot the castle through a lightning storm so they could fill the reservoir before their engine died. They’d both been covered in glowmoss, in order to see each others’ arms making–

“Signals!” she said aloud. Wonderful old glowmoss. Was there any problem it couldn’t solve?

She tried to remember. Crossing arms had meant give me the bearing, fine. Tapping the right side of the head had meant got it, tapping the left had meant say again.

What had the signal for go to the inner sanctum of the flying city and find a secret lever for the escape elevator been again?

Two parallel lines with the arms had meant turn on. With a bit of imagination, that could mean operate machine. And find was close to seek and there was a sign for that: a continuous circle.

But how to tell him where the device was hidden?

Karla rubbed her eyes. She’d have to count on Kio for that.

***

The backpack pounded against Kio’s back, corners and edges digging and scraping. He was lean, used to running, and didn’t have an ounce of fat on his body, and even he was going rubber-legged under the weight of his pack. He burned his way through half-remembered streets, turning this way and that, following the gate in the inner walls where Karla’s signal lingered.

All the time, Medwick in Sunton was gaining behind him.

“My lord!” the priest gasped out. “Lord Kio, please!”

Kio had neither breath nor words to reply. He fought to pound his feet faster than Medwick. If he didn’t reach the center island soon, he would have to throw out food.

Never. The supplies on his back were all he’d managed to accomplish with the trip. He couldn’t give them up.

The second person he’d met in his life, and within an hour, he was running away.

“Lord Rokhshan, I only want to talk! I will not hurt you!”

He was on one of the ring roads. An alley crossed his path ahead, pointing more toward the center. He pivoted on impulse and shot down it, dancing over jagged bits of rubble.

He’s only chasing you because you’re running, Kio thought. But he was only running because Medwick was trying to convince him that Karla wanted to kill him–had orders to kill him. How could someone with an objective like that want anything other than violence?

The question was: what did the sky kingdom man have to gain by starting the world’s smallest war on Nashido?

A wall flew up in his path. Terror clenched over him. He’d chosen a dead end.

Kio wasted precious seconds letting that fact become real in his mind, as Medwick’s footsteps grew louder. If he spun and ran now he could make it out before…

Medwick’s six-foot-plus shadow filled the gap. Kio turned gingerly, the backpack like an anchor tied to his chest.

“I could not harm you even if I wanted to,” Medwick began, then buckled, as though an invisible bone dragon had struck him in the small of his back.

For an instant Kio believed that was exactly what happened. He braced, crazily, for the shadow to come and strike him next.

Then he came to his senses, stopped questioning the gift, and slipped a second time past Medwick’s outstretched arm.

“I am…I am not strong!” the priest choked as he clambered to his feet. “I have been dead for years, Kio, I can only catch you if you come to me!”

So you say, Kio thought, but you’re a liar, and you’re getting closer.

He had that one asset: that something about the repose Medwick had placed himself into with his rune was still acting on him, slowing him down. If not for that, Kio would have to dump his pack, and if he did that, he might as well throw himself over the side with it.

Circling clockwise, toward the kingdom’s port side, he reached one of the bridges that connected to the temple like spokes.

The moment he stepped onto it, he heard the rat-tat-tat of clicks from one of the guns he and Karla had disarmed. Her signal was dancing around the stone grove at the other end.

By coincidence. Surely. She couldn’t know where he was.

Medwick’s lurchings grew louder behind him, scraping and scuffling, inexorable as an onrushing wall of cloud.

Pacing over the bridge, Kio felt the thin floor swaying beneath him. He slowed down, but at a wordless cry from Medwick, sped up again, heart catching in his throat.

He kept his eyes on the signal and tried to move quickly and slowly at the same time. It didn’t quite work.

Wondering weighed him down. Why was Medwick following, if the priest himself didn’t think he’d be able to catch Kio?

He must have known that Kio would never listen to his warnings about Karla and the Harpooneers. Never enough to get him whatever deceitful objective he wanted, anyway.

But he was still there, upright again, pacing resolutely onto the bridge. That could only mean one thing. Medwick believed he was telling the truth.

Unless…

I like to test things.

He turned to face Medwick, like they had before, less than two hours ago. Kio became uncomfortably aware that he was running deeper into the ruins, away from his home.

The priest stopped, his face full of expectation. For a moment, Kio faltered, seeing Karla in his place. Would he have been able to disappoint her this way?

She would have punched Medwick in Sunton in the face by now. Kio took a deep breath.

“You want Nashido, don’t you?”

Medwick had regained his stature. Kio skirted a couple of steps back on instinct.

“I have further proof,” the man said, as though Kio hadn’t made his accusation. He looked resolved, as though regreatting the weakness he’d shown by reverting to his near-corpse state. “Proof that I am your ally.”

“I don’t want any more proof.” Kio regretted saying that immediately, but one instinct had overwhelmed another. “You’re trying to get our castle. I don’t know why. Just, nothing else makes sense.”

“Your ancestral home of Nashido is a fine fortress,” Medwick replied. “But what you say is not true. I am sorry you feel that way.”

Kio looked around. The light from the castle kept up its crazy dance over the tops of the outer walls.

“Lord Rokhshan–”

“–I am not really a lord–

“–Kio, why is it so difficult for you to believe that I have your interests at heart?”

“You want me to hurt Karla. And you’ve never met her.”

“You are certain.” Medwick spread his hands wide. “That is an admirable quality. Reading the histories, I wish some of your predecessors had possessed your power of trusting in another. I only ask that you give me the same chance to earn it that she has had.”

Kio didn’t want to hear Medwick’s new evidence. The thought of it turned his stomach. Who cared what Karla was or wasn’t? Who cared whether she had the right tattoos? She was trying to save him right now.

He had to get away. Had to focus on getting to the surface, redouble their efforts. Nobody who wanted to take Karla from him could be his ally. Benefactor, he was going to have to feed scraps of this food to a gull before he trusted any of it.

Running again, thinking this, he saw the sunlight signal flick above the highest wall, then blink out.

He was within the walls before he could skid to a stop. Medwick was striding toward him again.

What had happened to Karla?

***

“Damn that whole island!” Karla swore. “And the sun while I’m at it!”

She’d managed to hold steady on the ledge, but the angle of her ray had been dangerously low for a while, and now it was totally blocked by the crumbling stone walls around the kingdom’s edge. Rage grew in her as she stared down the half-finished graffiti festooning the barrier, spat at the bone-white arm hanging over one.

“Fix the system before you whine, Karla,” she muttered. “Changes. What’s going on?”

She was, for one thing, too fixated on this bottom mirror. With a bit of twine from one of her pockets, she lashed it upright to a gourd, then kicked over the other pumpkin she was using as a counterweight.

Freewheeling upward, an afternoon breeze whipping through her hair, she felt herself flung upward at an angle, and sprawled atop the tower where she’d affixed the highest mirror in her system. The five and a half feet of clearance she could provide might make the difference.

The point of light wavered, then shifted, then came to rest on the very top of the prism itself. Her fix had worked!

Power welled up within her and broke out across her face in a smile. But a glance at her Kio image swiftly dampened the feeling. She couldn’t make the whole signal with such a small range of light.

“Just a few extra feet…”

Karla snapped her fingers so suddenly she nearly dropped the mirror.

***

The prism! Just as he’d feared Karla lost, her light came back, guiding him closer to his goal. Somehow, the black tower itself was going to save him.

“Master Kio, think about what you’re trying to do!” Medwick shouted from the edge of the plaza. “You cannot escape!”

I can if she thinks I can.

Kio reached the stairs. He scrambled up so quickly he threw out his hands with each step to keep from faceplanting.

“Am I to chase you forever?” Medwick called. “Or will you listen to reason?”

The afternoon light revealed his reflection in the prism, the small brown-mopped weak-faced figure charged with determination. Violet beams still shot to and fro within the dark glass. Medwick hadn’t turned off his signal trap.

Kio threw out his hand and struck the prism palm-first. Nothing happened.

The spot of sunlight lingered at the top of the tower.

“I’m here!” he said aloud, for all the good it would do. “I’m at the center! What am I supposed to do now?”

***

She was going to have to apologize to Kio for this when he got back. Not that he’d make her, but he deserved it.

Still, Karla had to admit she was enjoying throwing those pompous royal engineers’ manuals into the ocean. The aeronautics writers could stay, of course, for Raven’s sake. But what use did they have for books about how to build giant monuments to legacies that were almost certainly stupid?

The books she threw didn’t weigh much at all, but they worked like jettisoning the tower had done, back when that seemed like a good idea. The runes were holding Nashido in zero gravity. Throwing something one way nudged her just a little bit the other way.

More of the black prism came into view. There we go, she thought. The place for my last signal.

***

Find, turn on, and then one continuous line…

Kio figured it out just as Medwick fought off another coughing fit to ascend the stairs. The long line meant look at the ground. There was something hidden in the tiles.

On the other side of the prism, he dropped to his knees and probed the mosaic floor like a blind man searching for his dropped coins.

Silent but for his footsteps, Medwick in Sunton paced his way up the altar.

Kio poked and prodded and dug and found nothing. He panicked, gasped, scraped until his fingers turned raw.

A machine hidden under mosaics. Could the tiles itself be the clue? Only this close to them did he notice that they actually bore pictures.

All the usual things. Gods. Heroes. Monsters.

Monsters of bones.

Before the complete thought had formed in his head, both Kio’s hands had flocked to the image of the bone dragon. It was done in the Nashido style–a little more primal, rougher around the edges.

His fingers found the catch, and slid it back to reveal a gear system and lever.

No sooner had he opened the door than the end of a staff slammed into the clockwork, sticking it fast. Kio looked up into the face of a walking statue.

“I can remove this,” Medwick said. “I alone.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep this story going. If you liked this chapter and the rest of The Clockwork Raven, please consider pledging to my Patreon and getting cool rewards and prizes. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shoutout!

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

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