Kio did everything he could to make Karla comfortable at the bottom of the ladder. When she came out of the memory–he could tell because her eyelids fluttered and her breath changed speed–he didn’t ask what she’d seen, though it was something he hadn’t been present for and he badly wanted to know.
When he smelled the scent of rotting fruit, however, he decided it was time to go.
“Karla.” He shook her as gently as he could. “The gas is leaking around the door. We have to stay ahead of it.”
She mumbled in response. Kio ground his teeth. Wishing there was another way, he shouted her name louder.
Karla reared up from her rug and fastened her fingers around his neck.
Panic spasmed across Kio’s body. The same thing that happened to him was happening to her–they’d seen each other as the enemy. It couldn’t be true. He hadn’t seen much of her before the incident, but he’d had a hundred cousins.
Buried them all too. With Karla by his side. Medwick didn’t know what he was talking about–if she was from the surface she’d have told him.
No matter what the visions made him do.
“I trust you…” he tried to say. It came out as a gasp.
They bowled over backwards. Kio banged something against a broken chair, felt a hot streak scrape across his arm. Groped in the darkness for a weapon.
Karla’s hands tightened. Kio’s windpipe felt ready to buckle. He found a loose chair leg and swung it at her midsection.
It hit home. She rolled off him, gasping, and Kio took the chance to suck in air.
He regretted that immediately. She’d gotten a much bigger mouthful of gas, and if it burned anything like this she was in immense pain. Kio already felt like coughing up his lungs through a throat that still wasn’t back to its normal shape.
His friend, though, was. Karla helped him up under the arms, shoved him toward the ladder.
“You climb first,” she said. No time for apologies. Kio understood that, at least.
“Wait. You’ve breathed more of it in.”
“Exactly, so I’ll stay and hold the ladder. It doesn’t matter if I inhale more gas. What more could it do?”
Kio was about to protest that it didn’t work that way, but then he caught a glimpse of her face. There was fear in her eyes. She wanted him to run.
Only at the top of the ladder did it occur to him that the fear could have been for herself.
Like they had at the bottom of the Inner Citadel, he leaned down to help her up the hole. He had the urge to kick down the ladder before Karla slammed the trapdoor shut, as though it were something living that was chasing them, and not a malignant purple cloud.
Instead, he raised his glowstone. This room was burned beyond recognition. He couldn’t find the slightest clue to what it had been.
Except one. A room this destroyed had to be the epicenter of the explosion. This was where Sieno Rokhshan had dropped the match.
This was where his father had died. Maybe his mother as well. Kio must have been in here to bury them.
Karla sat on the floor, hugging her knees, watching the cracks in the trapdoor. Kio swept the stone walls looking for the ladder, feeling hopelessly impotent.
He paused in the middle of one empty, scorched wall. Had the ladder been destroyed?
“Will you tell me how we survived?”
“Why? Are you trying to trigger more flashbacks? We need to keep going.”
“I think it’ll help me,” she said sharply. “C’mon. I’ll help you out.”
I can do that while I look. At least it’s something I can do.
“The Rokhshan had been venting the gas since the attackers from the surface landed. Maybe before. They knew about the Ash Cloud and they suspected people would come seek shelter.”
“And they couldn’t bear to just let them in?” Karla clambered to her feet using a wall for help.
“That was their mistake. They were following an ancient directive from the Benefactor.” Was this why she’d wanted to hear the story? To encourage her, or to enrage her?
Or both? Karla often did her best work with machines when they’d pissed her off.
He checked the second wall. The room was bigger than it had looked. “Look, I didn’t believe the surface people were mistakes, even then. I’m sure you didn’t either.”
Karla was silent for a while, then said, “Right.”
Nothing. Feeling himself sweat, Kio moved on to the third wall. “When they lit the match, we must have been somewhere safe.”
“Nowhere was safe. The gas was leaking through the entire castle. Nashido was enveloped. Otherwise someone else would have survived.”
“Not the heartsphere.” Nothing. Fourth wall. The inner, curving surface.
He suddenly noticed Karla close beside him, pressing on the same stones he was from the other direction. “Yeah,” she said. “Not the heartsphere.”
On instinct, like a puppet was moving his tongue, he heard himself repeating the old Rokhshan line. “Nobody is allowed to go into the heartsphere.”
“And no surface people are allowed on Nashido at all, but we saw how that turned out. Kio, it’s time to stop listening to your Benefactor.”
Trust the Benefactor, Medwick said in his head. “What are you thinking?”
“We don’t know nearly enough about how the gas works. What we do know is that the last time someone let it out of its shell, it took a fire sweeping over the whole castle to set it to rights again.”
They met in the middle. He met her eyes, saw them terrifyingly determined. “That’ll never work. Gas doesn’t move that way.”
“Somehow it rebuilds itself from a source point between the Inner Citadel and the heartsphere.” Karla grabbed onto something just below Kio’s pool of light. “It’s magic, as much as it is chemistry. We just have to do the same thing we did ten years ago. Including the survival bit.”
He looked down. She had hold of the valve hatch that would lead into the great central sphere.
Kio’s hand shook. It was as though the metal circle was white hot, so hard was it for him to move his hand across two feet of space. This wasn’t even about the Benefactor anymore.
He was afraid of the darkness at the center of Nashido. Afraid of what more time in there would do to him.
But he could survive, the way he always did. Karla had drawn strength from him, asking him to tell the story. Well, he could ask for it back.
“Are you absolutely sure this is the only way?” he asked her.
“Yes,” Karla said, and in no way was it a lie. After all, this exact trick had worked before.
But Kio wasn’t going to think about it that way. She had to reach out to him somehow, and all without revealing how hard she was suddenly finding it to breathe.
Worse than that. There was a great weariness pressing down on her from all sides, and whether it was coming from the gas or the memories, she wouldn’t survive a second dose of either one.
Which made it a million times more important that they finish their job right now.
“We’ll stay together in there. Go right for the aft exit and escape out onto the garden ledge. From there down to the machine deck. Just like before.”
“Just like before,” Kio echoed, softly, gripping the valve with both hands.
“Nobody lets go.”
“We’re all we have.”
Will it be enough?
Karla bent down and scraped a finger along the ash residue. There wasn’t any shortage of it. “Do you still have that chair leg you hit me with?”
“Yeah,” Kio said, then went red. “I mean, not because–”
“If I try to kill you again, please keep hitting me.” She stuck out an arm to grab the wooden stick he offered. “I’m gonna hit you if you do.”
“What do you need it for?”
“I’ll show you.” The burning was creeping around the edges of her lungs. She needed to get this done faster. “Right after you open that valve.”
Kio shook his head. “No way. We’re supposed to do scary things together.”
Her fingers dug into the chair leg, but she resisted the urge to slug him. Neither of them was having a great time. Why, though, did Kio always seem immune to the weird stuff? It was like he had a cushion against all the bizarre of the sky.
She stood up, out of the range of his glowstone so he wouldn’t see her tottering, then ran to the valve and used it to stop her fall. “One…”
“Two…” Kio jumped in.
“Three!” they said together, though even the twining of their voices sounded like a faint squawk.
The valve shifted. Kio let go as Karla pulled it back, revealing a square opening big enough for one of them to climb through at a time.
Beyond that square was the most intense darkness Karla had ever seen. There was no moon, no stars, no glowmoss to light the heartsphere. It was the most sacred place in the world to House Rokhshan.
It was also memorably flame-retardant.
She offered Kio her hand.
“Uh-uh.” He edged in front of her. “Let me go in first. It’s my law we’re breaking.”
“Fine–” she swallowed hard to suppress a cough, “–fine. Just go.”
He gave her a penetrating look, just long enough to tell her he saw through everything.
If you really can see, you’ll know I need to get out of here fast. Though she didn’t know what kind of help she sought, she wasn’t going to find it in here.
Kio swung his legs into the hatch. The gloom swallowed them. Karla held the chair leg in one shaking arm against a black streak on the floor.
“What’s your plan?” asked the floating head and shoulders that was now Kio.
She motioned for him to climb down a ways. He did, and she clambered in behind, clasping his hand.
“This residue might still be flammable,” she told him. “If the gas reverts, its marks might as well. If I apply enough friction, it should work just like…”
One jerk dragged the broken leg hard across the black scar. Sparks flared up. “…a match.”
The fireball flared up like the sun bursting from behind a cloud, transforming the room in an instant. Wisps of the purple gas that had been leaking through the edges of the trapdoor sparked green, blue, then were swallowed by the advancing flames. Kio scampered down the rungs cut into the side of the heartsphere, his glowstone lighting the way.
The heat seared Karla’s face. Scorched air threatened to overwhelm her–in the two seconds it took her to slam the valve hatch shut, she thought a stray spark might set her lungs on fire.
But she made it in the blink of an eye. One second the door was open, the next she and Kio were alone in the massive space–so unusual–in small, cool, safe pools of light.
“What now?” he asked from near the bottom of the smooth gray sphere.
“We climb out the top.” She picked her way down to meet him. “Since the bottom way is clogged. The upper hatch can get us back to the Outer Citadel.”
Kio shivered, and she recalled the look he’d given her. “Last time we were in here for three days.”
“What’s your point?” With her light, she scanned for a ladder up.
“Do you think if we’d tried to leave right away, we could have made it safely?”
The light of their glowstones met at the same time as their eyes.
A split instant later, both were sprinting toward another set of rungs cut into the wall, Karla panting her way along with the last bits of usable lung she had, feeling the path with her last scrap of sensible mind that wasn’t being dragged backwards into the dark hole of time.
Karla was several rungs below him on the carved ladder when she threw her glowstone.
It arced up through the black, rose level with Kio, then fell back down into the heartsphere, clattering several times as it went.
He knew at once what it meant. It was her last chance to save herself. Like a ship cutting its sails free, she’d jettisoned what she couldn’t get back.
Immediately he backtracked down the ladder. When he thought he was halfway, he drew his own stone to make sure he didn’t kick her in the face.
The heartsphere burned under his touch. Everything, everything was happening again.
Shoving himself backwards, he swept his legs past Karla’s shoulders, then climbed down further. Hardly responsive, she put her arms around his neck and hung on.
The limpness of that grip terrified him. He had to get her out.
Climbing with her weight on his neck was excruciating. The first rung was the hardest step he’d had to make in a lifetime of scampering over ropes and vines.
Everything seemed easier after that, the pain a bit less. When you’d done the hardest thing you could, there were a lot of things you could suddenly do. Kio might have been able to take some comfort from that later.
But Karla was dying right now.
At the top, he grabbed the rung with one hand, pulled himself and Karla close to the wall. His hand, sweat-drenched, slipped on the valve, and his teeth ground. Papers slipped out of his pockets.
He knew Nashido well enough that he could feel the heat spreading. The reaction, the firestorm that would take days to burn out, was closing its jaws across the inner citadel above them.
“Stop!” he wailed in frustration as his fingers slipped again. “Stop moving!”
The heartsphere grew into an endless prison of black.
Rust scattered over Kio’s closed eyes. And the valve began to turn.
He forced Karla up first.
Then followed her through into a long room with a curving floor, a sumptuous reception room where light streamed in from above. Books on shelves. Chandeliers.
Each end of the room was a searing white portal into a world of flame. The fire was getting closer.
“Starboard wall…” Karla whispered in his ear. He jumped. He’d almost forgotten he was carrying her, she was so insubstantial.
He wasn’t going to ignore directions, though. She remembered this room from the vision. Somehow, her path that day must have taken her through here.
What he absolutely couldn’t ignore was when she tore out of his arms and ran for a door he hadn’t noticed, a bare outline in the wall.
“Karla!” he shouted as she swept through, his call wasting precious time. What had put the strength back into her limbs? Could he trust it?
Given what memories had done to them, he thought not. Flashbacks were fighting gas within Karla, and the former had won out.
He followed her. Into a dusty stairwell that creaked as he ascended.
No time to rejoice at his freedom from the Inner Citadel. The last vision had made Karla hurt him. This one had made her flee.
As for the hurt, it would all be for herself.
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.