Monster 4

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Sorry about any confusion–I post this on some other sites where I started later and am thus behind schedule. This explains why this chapter was briefly replaced with one from Arc 6. But it’s all fixed and all new now!

Karla climbed the trail between Jenny and the gray-haired man in the sodden white jacket she’d called Uncle Griff. Aunt Rose, a small woman who walked with her head going first, led the way uphill toward the lights of the town.

One foot in front of the other, Karla picked her way up the trail, running when Griff said to run, slowing when they could afford to take a break. She hardly noticed the grass under her shoes or the thousand organisms, totally new to her, that skittered out from under every pebble she kicked. She’d seen grass before anyway, on sky kingdoms, in the mist garden.

There was a shaking in her lungs, a trembling she was breathing in and forcing back out only with effort. It was the quaking of the battle between two towns: the one in her mind and the Rust Town she was nearing.

Since falling from the sky, she’d narrowly avoided being drowned, enslaved, and blown up. Now she was running from people who would hunt her down and put her in chains simply because they could–if they did it where nobody was watching. She and the others could hide, if they made it up the hill fast enough.

If the Big Island was the center of the world, what was all this business about an Emperor? Why hadn’t Master Ranson taken them into town to meet him? It had sounded like he’d wanted to put Karla and Jenny on a boat.

And why would the capital of the world have a name as off-putting, as skin-crawling, as Rust Town?

For that matter, if all the planes they’d ever seen had actually been trying to reach Nashido, how did they get built? Could an entire town really be populated with treasure hunters? And what was the crystal about, the one that looked so similar–in everything but color–to the ones that maintained the air pressure on Nashido?

Karla had questions, and she hoped Jenny, Griff, and Rose would be in an answering mood.

She decided to venture the first. “Where are we going?”

“Back to my workshop?” Griff suggested. “It’ll be cozy, but there’s room for all four of us.”

Rose shook her head and spoke without turning around. “Ranson’s boys won’t follow us there, but the city council might be out for revenge. We don’t know what happened to the other bombs.”

Karla glanced forward at Jenny, wondering if she planned to tell anyone else she was concealing one of those bombs under her shirt. But Jenny plodded on resolutely, only checking back every now and then to make sure the scarred and bloodied oarsmen were losing ground.

They did indeed look like they hadn’t shaken off the explosion well. The woman was helping the man sit, while the man was tearing his shirt into strips, both of them looking like they weren’t getting paid enough.

“Well, that’s heartening,” Griff said. “Almost enough to make you forget we might be about to find half the town blown up.”

“My infirmary’s compromised too, for the same reason.” Rose rubbed her eyes. “We need somewhere none of us have anything to do with.”

Won’t be a problem for me, Karla thought, through a feeling like a fish flopping in her gut.

“I know a place,” Jenny told them all. “Would help if we had some cover getting there, though.”

They were near the top of the hill now. A broad, rippling, moonlit sea stretched out in all but one direction, broken on the right by the crescent of snaggletooth mountains. The shadows were immense, the light thin. Karla shivered.

The trail ended in a flight of wooden steps that led up a sheer grass slope to a second flight. A row of torches atop the hill scattered warm light over the whole scene. Karla would never have used them on Nashido–half of them were worn through, and they looked like they’d been driven into the hillside by six different people, none of whom had spoken to each other–but Rose sprinted confidently up.

On the final landing with Karla, as though her words about cover had summoned them, Jenny gasped.

Karla did too. She couldn’t help it. She’d never seen the planes returning from underneath before.

This was not the orderly fleet that had departed, however. Most of them had turned back while others kept going, with the result that the whole sky above the island was a chaotic mess of aircraft coming and going, darting high and low, dodging each other midair landing on the mountains and on rooftops and in the square. Karla flinched as a wing-pounding ornithopter screamed in for a landing on the pebbly beach they’d just left. Yet the whole thing was a dance, a practiced pantomime: so few of the planes hit each other in midair that Karla was certain the pilots were all experienced. On the ground, and on roofs, people were meeting their friends and partners and families as they landed, slicing the injured out of their rigs with long knives, taking their planes apart. Karla heard three shouted arguments, and at least one fistfight.

Her hunch was right, then. Castle Nashido was their job.

Not to mention they definitely had cover.

She blinked the torchlight out of her eyes. Rose was kneeling in front of her. “It’s Karla, right?”

Karla opened her mouth, but no words came out. She nodded dumbly instead.

“Where do you live, Karla?”

Before she could blunder into another mistake, Jenny saved her. “It’s kinda complicated,” she told Rose, clasping her hands in front of her face. “I can explain everything after we get to the inn. We gotta take advantage of the glow while we can.”

Griff came up behind them. “Is she homeless?”

Am I homeless? Her home was as far away as anyone’s. If this whole town couldn’t get there, she surely couldn’t either.

Oh, Mara, she thought, tears filling her eyes. Kio. How am I going to get Kio…?

“Hey,” Griff said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s all right if you don’t want to talk about it. We don’t have much, but we’ll help you however we can.”

“Yeah, I’m…” Karla sniffed. “I’m homeless.”

***

Jenny shifted into the lead as they wound their way through Low Dusk, heading for the McConnells’ tavern. She took their group through shortcuts–alleys barely large enough for Griff and Rose to fit, kicking discarded metal scraps aside, scraping against rough salvaged lumber, wafting aside clouds of sweetly pungent incense smoke. One footbridge passed over a ditch in which someone had built a whole living room, complete with teakettle and liquor rack, with a tarp flapping nearby for rain. Another passed through a longhouse filled entirely with wrenches.

She wondered if Karla the sky girl thought any of this was weird, then realized she had no idea what passed for weird in the sky.

Dusk Street was roiling with pilots and engineers. A healer wearing the eight-pointed star of the Remedium ministered to a man with burns covering half his body, while another man and a woman watched and clung to each other. Rose broke away to help, but the Starman waved her off. Nearby, two aged women compared pieces of a rig that had fallen off a roof: most of the plane was sticking sharply out of the shack where it had landed, twisted beyond recognition.

It reminded Jenny with a tightening in her gut that she’d lost Dr. Griffin’s plane, and that he surely knew, and wasn’t asking about it to be nice. She blinked furiously.

Uncle Griff and Aunt Rose were still trying to squeeze through the gap between houses she’d led them through to reach Dusk Street. Before they could catch up, Jenny siezed her chance to pull Karla aside.

They dodged into the alley behind the pub, where Jenny had briefly stashed her wing earlier that night. “How’s your story?” she asked, once she was face to face with Karla in the cramped space.

“My what?” Karla gulped. “Does that mean, like, how am I doing, or…”

Jenny shut her eyes. “It means is your story straight? Are you gonna tell anybody in there that you’re from the sky?”

Karla’s sun-beaten face paled. “Look, I don’t want what happened on the raft to ever happen again. I won’t say anything. But what about Griff and Rose?”

Good gods, that was tempting. Just tell Uncle Griff and Aunt Rose the whole truth. Let the adults sort it out–they might even finally kiss along the way, like Jenny had known for years they obviously should. She’d been letting those two sort things out her whole life, since long before she knew other children had things called moms and dads, instead of uncles. Or aunts that weren’t really their aunts.

But even as Karla voiced the thought, Jenny’s brain shot it down. Spreading out a secret weakened everyone who knew it. Had to keep it contained.

“Not even them.” She put a finger on her lips. “You’re homeless. You came here alone. You made your own craft that fell in the sea. Ranson rounded us both up one after the other.”

“Jenny, I don’t know how to talk,” Karla pleaded. “What do people say to each other down here? About planes or…or, I don’t know! Sheep!”

“Sheep?”

“I said I don’t know!” Karla covered her face.

“All right. Take it easy.” Jenny glanced to where Griff was helping Rose out of her shortcut. “You don’t have to talk this time. And afterwards, I’ll tell you what’s going on, sound good?”

Karla rubbed her eyes. “You will?”

“Yeah.” A warmth coursed through Jenny as she put a hand on Karla’s shoulder. “I’ll teach you everything. I’ll make you a surface person.”

Karla swallowed once more, and nodded. Jenny followed her to meet the others and enter the brightly lit below-ground pit of the tavern, feeling content that progress was being made.

Which made it all the more of a gut-punch when Calvin McConnell dropped a tray of tankards to the floor the moment Karla reached the bottom step.

Somebody had been singing in the tavern put, someone else plucking a harp. Now, everything was quiet. Jenny pushed her way to the front in time to see her normally-drunk friend point a very sober finger and shout.

“Mara!” he cried. “Mara Harpooneer!”

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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