Illustration by Grace Pyles.
“What the hell?” Karla had time to gasp out before she inhaled a mouthful of something that wasn’t air.
She gagged. Whatever she’d swallowed burned her throat. Then Kio hit her in the face.
Hacking and coughing, Karla sprawled across the pile of stones, which shifted further. One block clattered out of its stack, bounced through the outer citadel dining room, and fell all the way out into the sky.
Kio reared back. He had a small block in his hand, ready to swing at her face. She rolled aside, and the impact shook the pile even harder.
“It’s me!” she shouted. “It’s Karla!”
A cloud came over Kio’s eyes. He paused, with his stone in mid-swing.
That gave her all the time she needed to hurl herself at his midsection and knock them both sprawling. They sailed through the air, clearing the hole, rolling apart as they landed. The grinding, rumbling sound from the stones grew louder.
Wrapping an arm around Kio’s waist, Karla rolled hard to starboard, dragging them both across the scorched rug into a corner. As the bone dragon’s careful pile collapsed, she flashed back to the mound of rubble on the sky kingdom–
–and then flashed back to something else.
“I’m…I’m here. I’m back.” Kio pushed himself up on his elbows, then gulped and vomited.
She might have felt like joining him, but everything he did suddenly seemed far away. Was she transforming?
No, that had felt different. She had been becoming something. This felt like being boxed into a cage.
“Karla.” Tears streaked Kio’s face as he wiped his mouth. “I’m sorry…”
Memory took her away.
“When we land,” Mara whispered in her ear over the rush of the wind, “you crumple, understand? Don’t try to land on your feet.”
Karla didn’t nod. The glider was moving so fast she thought she’d throw up or pass out if she moved her head at all. “You’re landing with me, right, Mom?”
The howling air nearly swallowed her voice, a high-pitched little bird’s voice. But her mother said yes anyway. “Of course, Karla. We’ll land together. Roll and stand up.”
“Roll and stand up,” she repeated, and her mother held her tighter.
Karla was harnessed to the glider at her shoulders and hips, bound against her mother who was hanging from the craft’s canvas wings. She was still so little it felt like she was a baby again, rocked in her mother’s arms.
The great sheet snapped and groaned under the force of high altitude. Rain drove hard against the canvas. Other gliders hung in the void around them, a fleet numerous as a flock of birds: sleek sail-sized gliders bleached white, cobbled hulks of iron and canvas, bedsheets nailed onto their own frames the night before.
Her mother reached for a lever, and flipped a blue flag over their sail. “Harpooneers, descend!”
Nobody heard her shout. The flag sent the message. The fleet turned downward slowly, starting with its nose, like a huge skyborne beast, following them. Following Karla’s mother. Aiming for the sphere in the sky.
The Harpooners on their gliders fled the mass of green air, the very same air that was buoying them along. Karla had managed one look back at the ash cloud, right as they were launching off the cliff, and wished she hadn’t. She could still see it in her mind: that toxic cloud pulsing with glittering lights, descending over the island, over the mountains and Freetown. Her mother said they were running toward the castle because they couldn’t breathe in that air.
“Mara!” Karla had no trouble hearing that shout. A man in a leather helmet and too-large goggles sailed next to them on a brass frame, across five paces of sky. Gears on his craft clicked as he flicked the lever to descend more steeply. “Are the others prepared to meet resistance?”
Karla didn’t know his name, but he was one of her mother’s friends–the men and women who filled the shack most nights to talk in whispers, or train with weapons in the yard. The ones she called her Harpooneers.
“All of us are prepared to die,” Mara told the man. “Better a few of us fall than the ash cloud takes everyone.”
The man glanced behind him, the corners of his long white mustache plastering against his face. He turned green when he saw the ash cloud, and looked quickly ahead again. “Those damn Rokhshan don’t know what’s coming for them.”
“Oh, they know.” Mara stared ahead, and Karla did too, at the sphere floating in clear air. A storm roiled above Castle Nashido, dumping rain over its battlements. The fleet of gliders was on a collision course with the topmost towers. “They know exactly what they did to us. They’d see us all choke to keep their kingdom.”
“Mommy?” Karla asked as the nose dipped deeper. “Will we have to fight any Rokhshan?”
“Stay close to me. Nothing will hurt you.”
“But will we?”
They were close enough to the castle to see people moving on the turrets now: crawling out of hatches, loading things into tubes. Lighting lanterns in the windows. Mara pointed their nose down even further, into a dive so steep it pushed Karla’s stomach against her ribs. “I won’t let them hurt you.”
The other Harpooneer gliders dove as one behind them, the birds turned into arrows pointed at Castle Nashido. The only safe place left.
For someone well-read, Kio wasn’t that good at swearing. He used every word he knew the moment it became clear he’d lost Karla. Just as he’d escaped from his memory, she was trapped in hers.
Oh, well. Maybe it was better in there. He wasn’t sure how to explain to her that the pile of stones had collapsed in just the right way to plug the hole they’d entered through.
Or that the air was beginning to smell like rotting fruit, and he was holding both their faces close to the ground so they could breathe.
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.