Citadel 2

The upper side of the hole was shrouded in gloom, but felt airier than the servant’s hall below. Swiftly, by reflex, Karla fished for her glowing stone and held it aloft. She couldn’t see the walls.

On the plus side, there were no slavering demons crawling toward her out of the dark, real or imagined. She gave a shaky laugh, set the stone on the floor, and reached both arms down to help Kio up.

Her friend carefully set himself down, like a sparrow alighting, and drew his own glowstone.

“One pace forward…” he whispered, with the faintest of echoes, “dumbwaiters. Side tables, perhaps broken by hail when this room was still open to the sky.”

Karla glowered. “You’re not turning automaton on me, are you?”

“You handle this your way, and I’ll do it mine.” Kio held the stone up. “Fragments of…of carpet…”

He stepped back, swallowing hard. Her heart speeding up, Karla swung her light starboard, shining it on the walls.

She stumbled back like she’d been burned. She hadn’t, though. It was the walls that had been burned. Black soot marks climbed all the way to the ceiling, some with the outlines of furniture, and–

“Furniture,” she gasped. “That’s only furniture.”

Kio must have seen the burns on the carpet. He knew the same thing she did.

The only question was, what did they both know?

Taking a deep breath, Kio turned to face her, bringing his glowstone around in the process. It swept for a brief second over a human figure outlined in the walls.

His cry of “No!” came out strangled. Karla grabbed him by the arm and pulled him aft.

“Find the leak. Get in. Get out. You can do it, Kio.”

He nodded, said something garbled. Fought to remain steady–she could tell–as he took two paces aft.

Then he exhaled, and Karla saw why. Both their pools of light fell on a sight easier to take in.

The bone dragon had been more methodical than his claws or his weird legs would have suggested. Beside the hole it had torn in the inner citadel, it had left a pile of the interlocking bricks that made up Nashido’s walls, stacked in piles as though the dragon would need them again. They towered up into the gloom.

Karla inched closer. Mara and the Benefactor and whoever help her, had the dragon been sorting the stones?

No time to wonder about that now. Kio was looking whiter by the second. The stacks of stones leaned against each other in a stable pile: easy climbing for a Nashido native.

She pointed this out. “I bet if we climb that, we can find the leak.”

Kio said nothing. Though the air was a bit less frigid in here, his breath still clouded. But as she started up the side of one pile, she watched him follow, and took heart. He looked to be doing better.

***

Kio was not doing better.

He’d kept it under wraps, but ever since seeing that outline on the wall, he’d been seeing somewhere else.

He wondered if this meant he was about to transform into a bird. But Karla had described feeling as though she was living in her vision. Kio was still here, still knew where he was putting his feet, but his experience had hurtled backward.

It only took a few seconds more for him to understand this feeling. He was remembering. And with such clarity it was like the visions he’d repressed all those years had been unearthed without a scrap of dirt on them.

 

In the mist garden, at the bottom of the castle, Kio Rokhshan hid behind a rock and watched the gliders. How’s the ash cloud pushing them? he thought. What’s it doing to the wind?

The mist garden was a good place to hide. The children and the elderly were all sheltering in the great hall, behind the high table where all the violet-and-silver House Rokhshan banners hung. But that was one floor up, and way too obvious. When the invaders fought their way down from the towers, that was the first place they’d go. Here, the soil beds of the garden were the only thing between Kio and open sky, and the mists and rocks concealed him from anyone’s view.

Wind blew sheets of rain over him, chilling him to the bone as he huddled on the lawn. The garden was moongrass from one of the sky kingdoms, which shone a faint glow over the underside of the clouds of fog. High above, flashes lit the clouds. His parents were firing the cannons.

A heavy boom echoed from the highest tower. Others followed, like a giant stamping closer through the mist. Yellow lightning crackled across the crescent of sky Kio could see from his hiding place. They were firing the big cannons–the ones meant for bone dragons only. Were these surface people on gliders worse than bone dragons?

Still prone, Kio craned his neck up, but could only see the underside of the great hall floor. Suddenly he wished he’d gone to hide by the heartsphere instead. The garden was too cold, too windy, too wet. There was only one stairway out, so thin the surface people could have cut through it and dropped Kio and the garden into empty space. He wanted to hide somewhere warm.

Another boom rocked the whole castle when he pushed himself to his feet, and he flung his arms out, wrapping them around the slim rock to keep from plummeting off the edge. Small thuds and cracks drifted down through the storm as he ran over the gleaming grass. The gliders were too close for cannons. His mother and father were fighting on the towers.

Up the stairs, then right, away from the great hall. The hallway opened up onto the machine courtyard, the pumps and pistons he’d never understood. He wished he could run faster, wished he wasn’t so small.

Weaving between the engines, he looked for the next staircase. Another right, another left. Backtrack–was this the same machine? He couldn’t find his way up.

Kio had never gone from the mist garden to the heartsphere alone before. Or in the dark, or with a storm like the great green ash cloud approaching. The air was a little harder to breathe here, his lungs a little slower.

There was no castle over his head anymore. He could see all the way up to the high towers. Surface people’s gliders swarmed the castle like insects, growing thick around the tops of the towers.

Icy fear clamped down over Kio. Something flew over a battlement and struck one of the gliders, and the next thing he knew, a figure was plunging toward him, growing bigger. Big as a star, big as the moon, big as the island–

–the glider swept past the machine courtyard and fell beyond the castle, toward the sea. Kio Rokhshan screamed, and his feet carried him back the way he’d come, to hide inside and clasp himself against the heartsphere.

 

He was back. But not back.

He remembered everything. The surface people and the Ash Cloud had come on the same day. One had brought the other.

The memory made him act without thinking–made him behave as though he was there. The enemy was swarming over Nashido, entering the inner citadel. Kio was alone on a battlefield. Anybody he saw, anybody, was a monster of the surface–

Kio dropped his glowstone. It clattered through the hole, into the outer citadel, twisting everything into shadow.

On top of the tower of blocks was a mostly flat plateau. Kio vaulted up to it. Karla turned just in time to see him swinging a fist at her face.

The tower shifted.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

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

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