Karla traced a dizzy path down through the Outer Citadel. Not enclosed like its Inner counterpart, the Outer wove through towers, open stairwells, sun decks and garden ledges. Kio was lucky it was him chasing her, since nobody else could have figured the path out.
Even so, he was falling behind.
His lungs threatened to push through his ribs and escape, but he couldn’t slow down. He knew where she was going. She had taken this road before.
Not during Year Zero. Three years later, when they’d had no Raven, no aqueduct. Just food and rain and hope, and when the hope ran out, that was when Karla had taken this path to leave him behind, because she knew he’d try to stop her.
Kio nearly lost his footing on a stairway over empty sky. The vast blue void whistled with wind, called him in a way he usually managed to block out. With practice.
But the air was icy blue without a single cloud. He could hardly make out the sun, there was so little to screen him from looking directly at it. The sea rolled darkly below.
How could he not want to get closer? It was so clear. So beautiful. There were no obstacles in his way. He’d been wasting time worrying about whether it would be safe.
Look away. You’ve got to stop Karla.
Maybe the gas would take over and she’d collapse again, and this adrenaline rush from the heartsphere-induced flashback wouldn’t be able to take her all the way to the end of the road. Yet that hope was dashed when he saw she’d thrown down the counterweight to the aft pulley that would take her all the way there.
Down to the machine deck.
The engine platform spread out over the sunlit ocean before him. Karla shot into view, racing across it, weaving between machines.
No time to think about it. He wasn’t that far up.
Without even a run-up, Kio jumped.
He tried to loosen his limbs and roll as he fell, which just ended up banging both arms and a leg. He winced as he stood up, running through the pain to follow Karla’s path.
She stood on the edge of the machine deck, facing the endless blue.
“Don’t jump!” Kio cried.
He’d nursed a hope the experience might turn her into the raven. But that option seemed too far away to return.
At the very least, she didn’t jump. Instead, she turned to face him.
The sight of her eyes nearly broke him. They had the same spark they always did, but it was like a pendulum had swung to the far distant end of its arc: all of it was directed downward into the endless blue.
What was working on her? The memories, or the gas? Was it more than just toxic? Could the arcane mixture itself somehow have been the trigger?
Enough of that. It doesn’t matter why she’s out there. You have to talk her down.
Stand firm, Lord Rokhshan. Or she dies.
A light breeze ruffled both of their hair, raised the hems of their coats.
“You’ve been here before.” Kio’s voice cracked. “We’ve been like this before. Don’t you remember?”
“I remember everything,” Karla said.
“Then tell me the story.” He inched closer, holding out a hand like a ward.
Coughs wracked Karla’s body, and Kio raced forward to catch her–but her back foot shifted closer to the edge. “Don’t come closer!” she shouted, her voice wavering like his.
“If you remember everything,” Kio implored, “you know I told you not to jump. You know I said I know what you’re feeling.”
Karla blinked hard. “That all this is endless.”
“Of course it’s endless, it’s the sky! That doesn’t mean this can’t ever end!” He threw both arms wide to encompass the whole castle. “We won’t be trapped here forever. We have Raven.”
“Raven won’t fly.”
“How can you say that? You built her!”
“Then I ought to know!” Karla yelled. She inched closer, and Kio rejoiced briefly. Yet he kept looking for some sign. Gas, blank eyes, Medwick in Sunton whispering in her ear…anything that would prove this wasn’t really Karla.
Nothing turned up.
“She’ll fly with one of us,” he said.
Karla shook her head. “The tests fail even with one. Kio, it’s hopeless. It’s all hopeless and endless and I want to get off.”
Even standing, she looked like she was crumpling into herself. “I’m so tired, Kio. I’m tired of farming in my own dung and fighting dragons and scavenging. Of being denied the life even the poorest farmer has down there on the surface.”
“If you jump you won’t even have that!” Kio felt like he was fishing around, trying to shoot the right words with birding line.
“How do you know what happens when you die?” Karla’s voice grew nearly too soft to hear over the breeze. “I know what happens if I live. It’s worse.”
“You don’t.” Kio talked fast, still stretching out his hand, reaching for her in a totally unhelpful way but unable to think of what else to do. “There’s something else you haven’t thought of.”
“It’s been obvious forever. But neither of us have wanted to say it.”
“Kio, what haven’t I thought of?”
He seized on the hope in her voice.
“Turn into a raven and fly to the surface.”
Karla’s mouth tightened. She rubbed her eyes. “I can’t go without you. We promised.”
“Then don’t jump, at least!” he blurted out. “I need you here. I can’t do any of this without you. If you can’t fly to the surface, please, stay with me.”
She didn’t answer.
“Please,” he repeated. “Please stay. Don’t leave me.”
“I can’t,” she said softly.
And Kio realized.
There was one reason alone that she hadn’t yet jumped. The same reason as when they were nine years old, the day never marked on the calendar. The day she’d tried to kill herself without any gas in her lungs at all.
She would not jump if Kio didn’t.
“I’m not going,” was all he could say.
“I can’t stay,” was her reply, matter-of-fact.
“Not everything’s been horrible. Year Zero was but it’s over. Ever since then we’ve had hope.”
“Was it ever real hope?”
“It better have been, because you gave it to me!” He hadn’t meant to shout, but suddenly he couldn’t do anything else. “Either everything you said was a lie, or this is the gas talking.”
“Don’t blame the–”
“Oh, it sounds like you, but it isn’t. Don’t you get it?” He stepped closer, and she flinched away, as though he were the one scaring her. “It’s not just a warming chemical. The mixture is a hallucinogen. The place triggered the memories, the gas made them vivid. The perfect storm.”
“Leave me alone!”
“I promised not to!”
“Then we’re stuck.”
Kio found his fire dying. He hadn’t even bothered finding the right words. He’d lashed out.
He didn’t deserve to save her.
“I don’t know anything,” he murmured. “Just stupid worthless books. And you. I don’t want you to stay alive for me, I want you to stay alive for you, but if the only way to help you is to sit here and refuse to jump, that’s what I’m going to do.”
He sat down, cross-legged, against one of the propellor steering columns.
Karla stood at the ledge, and watched.
Time ticked past.
Every second, Kio imagined her leaping. He thought of the quick moment, a blink really, in which she’d vanish and he’d be alone. And once he was alone, with nothing but statues and birds and bone dragons, how long would it be before…
Her eyes changed. She staggered forward, away from the edge, toward him.
Kio stood up. He barely had time to feel a rush of joy, to know it had been the gas acting on her head after all, before Karla fell limp into his arms, and lay there like she was dead. Not even crying.
Purple wisps escaped the corners of her mouth, and Kio handled the crying for both of them.
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.