Poison 4

It was entirely possible that the sheer scale of the dooms threatening Kio today kept him from transforming. The kind of distress he needed to obtain his cat form, he theorized later, required the knowledge of at least a scant hope for survival–otherwise all he felt was dissonant serenity. He tried to hold that sensation in his mind as he got back to work on the machine deck. The cat would not be useful here.

Not that it was any other time, but still.

All this freezing up was getting boring. If he was going to die, he wanted to spend the last moment thinking he was doing all he could. Maybe even deluding himself into believing he was about to win.

He’d felt this way before–when carving the runes into the back of Raven, and when deciding to tell Karla she had to go to the surface without him. Maybe this was how Karla felt all the time. He’d have to ask, in whatever world they next met in.

Hopefully there’s an island, he thought as he flipped levers to coax the last dregs of power out of the engine batteries. With a mountain, and a view over the ocean, where they could sit and talk like all this stuff that was now between them had never mattered at all.

Gods. That would be lovely.

He had a couple of tricks he could use to jolt power into the engines in the absence of lightning. The machine was so jury-rigged that he could actually spark the battery with a static charge just by flicking the mechanism hard enough–like a sparker starting a fire.

Above, the Benefactor had landed atop one of the port towers to rest. His watchful fire-eyes tracked the incoming flock of bone dragons.

Kio kept at work with the lever, but couldn’t stop watching. The engine rig didn’t require his eyes anyway.

One of the dragons detached from the flock and began to accelerate. Kio’s breath caught as he tried to discover what this one was doing differently. Its motions were controlled, wingbeats calculated to get the most out of each stroke. Much more like the Benefactor than the wild crowd of desperate, slavering beasts following in its wake.

Kio struck the levers harder, one in each hand. Was this some kind of chief of the dragons? Was he going to offer single combat to the Benefactor? That would be great.

The lead dragon was paces from Nashido’s towers when Kio at last felt a spark in the engines. Now he had to pray there was reserve power–enough to run the propellors, but not enough to start them.

A mobile battlestation, even one as lightly armed as Castle Nashido, would be really helpful right now.

The heavy propellors roused, going from sleep to roar in seconds. All his and Karla’s oiling had paid off. Now he just had to figure out where to go…

Pivoting from machines to meteorology, studiously avoiding the twelve murderous dragons in between, he scanned the clouds. Cumulus: useless as a grazing sheep. Cirrus: as mysterious as magic runes, and farther away. A sheet of nimbostratus was spreading out across the horizon–could have meant rain.

He had to hope. Water broke bone dragons apart, a dozen as easily as one.

The bone dragon winged toward the Benefactor, dipped below the tower tops…and vanished.

Kio couldn’t be bothered looking. The others were still closing in with no intention to divert. He had to consider the biggest problem.

And yet.

When he looked up again, the Benefactor was gone as well. He would have seen if the god had swung behind the castle, especially if he was in another fight. There was only one way two dragons could have disappeared that quickly.

Nashido shifted forward. The ropes and gears and vines on the walls groaned in complaint at being forced off their accustomed path, the loose drifting oval above the archipelago. But it was keeping the dragon horde a constant distance away.

Now that he thought, along strange winding paths he couldn’t see the use of–that dragon in the lead had carried himself with the same poise as another person he knew. At least, at first, before that man’s exhaustion had revealed itself. After all, he’d lain dead for years, and that was a rough thing to wake up from.

Footsteps on a staircase, and the Benefactor ran onto the machine deck, faster than his human form had yet moved. Behind him, no longer leaning on his staff, strode Medwick in Sunton.

“You!” Kio blurted out, losing focus on the throttles for a second. He hurriedly snapped his eyes back to the horizon as the castle began to list.

In the corner of his eye, the sky kingdom priest bowed his head. “I am sorry about the way we parted, Lord Rokhshan. I now understand that I was at fault. My concerns, however legitimate, should not have been aired in such a place and manner.”

“That’s, uh…” The nimbostratuses were breaking up in leads, like a melting ice shelf. Kio tried to urge the propellors past maximum capacity. They were supposed to rain!

And now he was expected to deal with Medwick too? He’d never missed being alone so much.

The two older men were a study in contrasts. Medwick was regal but still prematurely aged, his deep eyes paternal but his receding ringlets of black hair betraying weariness with the world. The Benefactor, Kio could see now by comparison, had always looked hungry. Every one of his muscles carried the coiled yearning to be more, to do more with every instant.

His dark eyes flashed with a bolt of sunlight as he turned to the priest. “What do you recommend?”

“You know what they want,” Medwick answered, “and that giving it up would be flatly impossible.”

“Beyond the negatives, then,” the Benefactor growled. “Kio here has given us access to an orbital bombardment platform using a number of kilowatts normally associated with static shock. Can you show similar initiative?”

Kio’s swell of warm pride mixed unexpectedly with a cold shock–what exactly was meant by orbital bombardment? He’d never encountered the phrase in any book.

Medwick took a long, deep breath, that seemed in tune with the tidelike inexorability of the pursuing dragons. “Perhaps we could give them a new purpose.”

The Benefactor’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“They are slaves,” Medwick explained. “Devoted to a single cause programmed into them from birth. You and I both know the feeling. We have spent enough time in their bodies to feel the urge. We could convince them to move toward something higher.”

“Are you suggesting we speak to them?”

“I am strongly advocating we try.”

The Benefactor sighed, and went to Kio, putting a hand on his shoulder. “How long can you keep us moving at his pace?”

Kio’s brow was sweating. “A few more minutes. Maybe three. and a half.”

“I believe you.” The Benefactor winked. “I built the propellors, after all. That’s all the time I need.”

He strode out to the edge of the machine deck, where Karla had nearly jumped under the influence of the warming gas. Kio glanced back once, and saw him silhouetted against rising clouds, the tails of his grey coat streaming behind him, as he glared at the ever-approaching constellation of skeletal dragons.

“Neogah!” he shouted. “I have a message for you.”

Neogah, Kio thought, as much as the thudding of propellors and wind allowed him to think. So they have names.

“You were once the messengers,” the Benefactor cried out in a voice that boomed over the ever-present howl of wind. “The ambassadors, linking the lowliest shepherd of the surface with the mightiest king of the sky. You believed, with full hearts, in the sacred power of this mission.”

The dragons in the lead surged closer, and Kio missed a few breaths, knowing he’d faltered and killed them all.

But the lead thing, the “neogah,” swooped over the heads of the three quasi-humans on the machine deck. It crested its arc near the looming walls of the citadel, then turned hard. Others followed.

“Yet you faltered. Lust grew in your souls. You conceived, as one–for one being is what you are–a desire for the Heartsphere, and for the power it could grant you.”

They were circling the Benefactor. Rapt by his speech, or hemming them in for the kill?

Medwick hefted his staff, as though it would help. Kio was sure of only one thing: he had several questions about the Heartsphere.

“It was your greed, your fear, which brought us to this present state!” The Benefactor’s voice filled the entire sky. He was no benevolent master now, but one of the old gods, great and terrible. “The poison in that wretched place rotted your hearts away! But I, Raptor, have come to give them back!”

Raptor?

Gods had many aspects. Many names.

“I give you a simple gift,” the deity roared. “Redemption! Join me now! Witness the sins you’ve forgotten written across the sky–let us scrub them clean together! If any part of your demonic carcasses remembers being Neogah…Join! With! Me!

All twelve of the dragons were circling now, holding constant orbits, like a diagram Kio had once seen of the theory of electrons. The Benefactor finished speaking, but they did not attack. The god had held them spellbound.

Wings beat. Kio and Medwick tensed.

The first dragon to settle landed on the basin rim, not far from where their earliest visitor had made his landfall. Two more landed atop the towers while one clung to oxygen vines and held fast. Another fluttered to hang upside-down, batlike, from the mist garden. Kio watched, mouth open, as the dragons revealed one by one that their carcasses had indeed retained something the Benefactor’s speech could speak to.

The final dragon came to rest on a large gear on the port side just as the batteries ran out of residual power. The castle was drifting.

Kio stood side-by-side with Medwick as the Benefactor approached–his weariness all gone, his frame now proud and erect.

“I have told my name to you, Kio,” he said, with some sardonic warmth, as though he regretted it but it was simply the sad way of the world. “Now, I hope you’ll use it. As a boy, before I grew into godhood…I was called Raptor.”

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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