Signal 5

Today marks the finale of arc 5! As we head toward the 1/3-completion mark of my planned story, I’d like to take this chance to remind everyone that I do rely on donations to keep this going. If you like The Clockwork Raven, please follow this link or the sidebar to my Patreon, and consider making a pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shoutout at the end of a chapter!

“Fine,” Kio blurted out. His head was spinning. He just wanted to lie down wrapped in his bedroll on Nashido.

“Fine, what?” All Medwick’s fingers gripped the staff in a vise. Kio counted, and saw he was missing one. He couldn’t tell on which hand.

“I’ll listen.” He gritted his teeth. Getting words out took energy.

“To a proof that I am on your side?”

“To anything.”

“Good.” Medwick relaxed slightly. Perhaps his life force was growing stronger again. He seemed more in control, less liable to crumble at any time. “It is a proof I cannot give you here.”

Let me guess.

“I will have to return with you to Castle Nashido. To show you firsthand the danger you are in.”

“I won’t let you–”

“I will not harm Karla.” His face seemed truthful, but what did Kio know about scanning for liars? “I will not even speak to her if you do not wish it. But I must come.”

“I was right,” Kio breathed. “You want the castle. You want to be a king.”

“I am a king here, Lord Rokhshan.”

“But not with people.”

A corner of Medwick’s mouth twitched. “At the moment, it seems that whichever of us is sovereign has a subject at last.”

Kio’s eyes strayed upward, to the golden-blue of a half-clouded late afternoon sky. It was peaceful, far too peaceful. How had his life gone this wrong? How was he going to explain this to Karla, and how could he let her go to sleep with Medwick in Sunton prowling the castle?

The signal was still flickering around the top of the prism. Karla must have thought he was taking too long, was in trouble. If only she knew how much.

If only he knew how much.

Medwick waited patiently. He could be confident Kio had no option but to say yes, to shove the court priest into his life like the staff into the gears.

Suddenly he noticed that the signal was moving in a pattern. It vanished above the prism, then dipped down again, four times across the side.

There wasn’t anything meaningful he could do up there. The important thing wasn’t the location. It was the number.

Four. What around here came in fours?

Misfortune, apparently.

But also the sides of prisms.

Karla had drawn his attention to the mysterious mechanism, and now she was telling him to look on all four sides.

The truth wasn’t hard to see. There was hope after all.

No time to spin a lie. If he spoke he would give himself away. He stayed on his knees and shuffled backwards, hoping to be in place before Medwick noticed what he was doing.

“Master Kio?” the priest asked.

Kio ignored him. The Rokhshan-style mosaic was easier to find now that he’d seen the first one.

Medwick laughed. “Master Kio, I know how this system works. You cannot override it.”

Kio’s fingers paused in the crack, but he looked up again. Perched on the edge of the prism, dangling her legs, was an image of Karla just strong enough for him to ask it, what would you do?

Here’s what you say, it responded.

And Kio had his answer.

“If that was true,” he told Medwick, “you wouldn’t be trying to stop me.”

He flung the lever, and the clockwork in the altar roared to life.

Medwick grunted, his grip tightening further–somehow–as he tried to resist a strong force. The gears were fighting him.

If only Karla were really here. This contraption is amazingly built. And I’m about to find out what it does.

With Medwick stuck trying to rescue his staff, Kio threw the levers under the third and fourth mosaics. The fourth resisted harder than any, but pushing his whole weight against it at last forced it to shift.

The prism shifted with it.

Later, he couldn’t recall it moving–he had thrown the lever and it was somewhere else, something else. Medwick shouted, screamed as half his stick began to dissolve under the relentless crunch of the gears.

The black glass had a seam, thin enough to be invisible, but dividing it cleanly from the prism embedded in the steps. Heavy joints pushed up from four sides to lift it clear.

Beneath it was a square shaft leading down to open sky.

Medwick raised his head and locked eyes with him. The staff must have been important in some way Kio didn’t have time to figure out. Glancing through the gap, seeing what he needed to see, he rolled his backpack under the prism.

It landed on the lift with a heavy thud, and the crack narrowed again, leaving less than a pace of clearance.

Of course. An escape hatch that closes itself behind you.

He rolled in. Half into the shaft, half out, he once again looked into Medwick in Sunton’s harsh face. The end of the staff was free, but pulverized into sawdust.

“You win,” the priest said, his voice shaking. “I won’t follow you. I will stay. I will fail my only mission, if that’s what you want.”

“I want you to leave me alone.” Kio rolled into the shaft.

His feet hit a platform made of strong lumber. His weight turned gears, lowering the prism along with the elevator.

This time, Medwick didn’t bother with the gears. Unable to fit himself through the gap between prism and ground, he shoved his staff directly into it instead.

Wind rushed up through the open space at the bottom of the shaft. Medwick’s mouth moved. Kio couldn’t make out a word he was saying.

“Let me go!” He jumped, landed hard. The glass obelisk lurched down, splintering the rest of the staff.

“Beware of the cold,” Medwick implored. “Beware of the cold.”

“What?” Kio shouted, against his better judgement. His feet were planted on the lift. “What cold?”

“The beasts will destroy your source of warmth. They did it to us several times before the calamity. Now it has happened again, with nobody to repair it. They will do it to you.”

“How do you know? You just woke up!”

“I have felt it. Shivering, chilling. It is what has interfered with my–my life force–“

He grunted as a loud ka-chunk dropped the lift and prism still further. Kio was left looking Medwick in the eyes through the little remaining sliver of sky.

“You have been insulated until now by all the paper in your pockets,” Medwick said hurriedly, “but the cold will grow.”

“You’re lying.”

“It once became cold enough to freeze our king in his throne. The merchants froze to their stalls. Families died, icy statues in each other’s arms. Lord Rokhshan, you’ve never experienced the true chill of the sky–”

“This is your lie,” Kio cried at the same time, “you were gonna use it to hold Nashido hostage, to hurt Karla–”

Please–“

It’ll never be true!”

Kio leapt up into the air, and came down hard.

Another bit of Medwick’s staff shattered as the gap closed. He picked it up in his hand, repeating his words more softly.

“It’ll never be true.” He ran his fingers along the break in the wood. “Never be true.”

***

The first thing Karla saw was part of the ground giving way.

Still atop her tower, she abandoned focusing with the mirror and rushed to the opposite battlements to watch. From there, frantically scanning the whole flying continent, she discovered that her target–the glass prism–was sinking into the earth.

“So the escape route was hidden under the holiest spot in the kingdom.” She half-smiled. “Not bad for places nobody would ever look.”

Seconds later, the lift appeared. Emerging slowly from the bottom of the pile of floating dirt that made up the kingdom’s lower half, it lowered farther and farther out as the prism above it vanished. By the time the great lying signal was fully hidden, a platform with a post at each corner dangled over open sky, with Kio huddled around a backpack in the middle.

“Wooooo!” Even as Karla shouted, tears sprang to her eyes. Her image of Kio vanished, and she threw Better Karla aside as well. She hadn’t solved this one, Karla had, and now Kio–the real, real Kio–was almost back.

Almost, she thought. How was he gonna do this?

She examined the lift as much as she could from so far away. Each of those poles must have been connected to gears with some resistance, and they’d all reached their limits. But there wasn’t any flying device she could see…

Karla then realized two things in quick succession.

The first was that, while she could see Kio on the lift, she was just far enough below him that a guided application of gravity could still get him to Nashido.

The second was that she should probably move out of the way.

She ducked into the stairwell, but kept the door open to watch. From that angle, she couldn’t see Kio anymore–except when his hands reached around the lift platform to find something hidden underneath.

A pretty large thing, come to think of it. A pretty familiar thing.

A harpoon gun, with a coiled-up cable attached to the butt.

Kio took forever to line up his shot. She was always chiding him about that when they were shooting at birds, but Nashido was a slightly bigger target. When the spear slammed home, she was there to tie it off with their best knot.

Should name that. The Nashido Hitch. The Karla Hitch?

Kio wrapped two ends of a strip of leather from the pack around his wrists. He tested, tested one more time–I guess he’s not getting chased, Karla thought–and leapt.

She sucked in her breath. Was any part of this half-assed mechanism going to hold together?

Kio needed to hurry and get back so she could let him ask dumb questions like that.

As it turned out, he did. With impressive speed.

He landed with a disquieting thud. She vaulted out of the stairway, racing across the roof–

–he pulled his arms out of the straps of his pack and wrapped his arms around a battlement and got to his knees–

–she hauled him up to his feet and then they were clasping each other so hard it was as though they were the only things keeping each other anchored amid the clouds.

“You’re back,” she murmured into his shoulder.

He said nothing. She felt her fur growing warm, realized he was crying. Let him cry.

How long they stood that way she had no idea. She didn’t care to know. When she at last let him out, she said, “I want to know the story. The whole thing. What’s in the pack? What did you find up there?”

“I…” His shoulders stiffened under her grip. “Not now. Later. Please.”

Suddenly she was uncertain. “All right, sure. We don’t have to talk now. Let’s get this to the kitchen and you to some bedroom or other…”

She shivered.

A wave of cold had rushed through her body, like they did sometimes, but it wasn’t going away. The chill she’d felt all day on Nashido was growing more pervasive.

Kio turned as white as the clouds above him.

“You all right?” Karla reached for him again.

He shrank away. “You’re cold.”

“Yeah, sure, but we still have furs–“

“It wasn’t a lie.”

“What?”

“It wasn’t a lie!”

As she reached for him again, he bolted into the open stairwell, feet pounding down the stairs until the sound receded.

Thanks to Lynne, Thomas, Paul, and David for their continued support, and to all of you for reading.

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