No update on Tuesday, I’m sorry: I will be out of wi-fi on the Olympic Peninsula. Check back next Friday for the beginning of Arc 16!
Rain was beginning to lash the roof of the hangar as the Ash Cloud drove the squall line on. Kio stood beside the shattered form of their original clockwork raven, watching the downpour with one eye and Raptor with other.
The Benefactor had destroyed Raven. Calmly, methodically, without a hint of rage, Raptor had taken their hope of escape apart in the most brutal way possible. He would examine a support fixture for several moments, cock his head, then stamp it with his foot in just the right place to tear half a wing off at the seams. It had taken him a minute or two to reduce the skycraft to scrap.
Now the god was kneeling over Kio and Karla’s calendar of days. He massaged one of the deepest gouges with one finger. Kio shivered, though his furs were warm.
“Do you believe my rage has been sated,” he looked up, “Lord Rokhshan?”
“I’m so sorry,” Kio said hurriedly, though he’d lost count of his apologies by now. He just said it, over and over, hoping to salve the wound he’d inflicted on his own life. “I’m sorry, Benefactor, I–”
“Raptor.” The god stood, rising, Kio could swear, to seven feet in height.
“I didn’t mean to jump in front of you. To imply I ever mistrusted you.” I did, he thought, I did and I’d do it again, but I’m afraid you’re going to kill me.
He was fluid, unmoored. His frame had been shattered like Raven’s. As a Rokhshan, what exactly was he without the Benefactor?
As Kio, he knew. But Kio could never survive what was coming.
“Because of what you did, that Harpooneer escaped.” Raptor paced closer, agonizingly slowly. “She is a rogue agent in our castle. If Medwick does not find her in time, she will have access to the Heartsphere. Is this what you wanted, Kio, when you stepped in front of my sword?”
The sword in question was glinting at Raptor’s belt right now. Kio couldn’t take his eyes from it. “I couldn’t control my reaction. I know she’s a traitor, Benefactor, but she was my closest friend–”
“My name is Raptor!” the deity screamed, two feet from Kio’s face.
In that moment–with the wind and the shrapnel and the sword and the rain and the words circling his head like angry gulls–things began to become clear to Kio. He felt he had all the time he needed to read through the clues, like he was back in the library poring over one of his books.
First, Karla had arrived alone. At most, one or two others had come with her. Hardly the invasion force from Year Zero, or the one Raptor warned of.
Second, Karla had survived and returned, and the delirious happiness of his one glimpse of her shook everything to its foundations.
Third, Raptor wanted something, and he wasn’t telling Kio what it was. Karla’s great lie was of the past, but Raptor’s was of the future.
Which meant Kio had been betrayed. The question of who had betrayed him was no longer so clear.
In the telescoping moment beneath Raptor’s enraged glare, he saw a universe full of potential Kio Rokhshans. There were Kios that did what he was doing now: standing, listening, obeying, taking abuse because it was the way to survive. They did so forever. And they died without love, without the promises that made life real.
The others–and there were not many, but he could see them all clearly–the others resisted.
“Raptor,” he said, voice quaking, “I want you to tell me the truth.”
Karla elbowed Medwick in the gut. With a whoomph, the dragon priest’s arms went limp. Snarling like an animal freed from a trap, Karla surged forward, rolling across the kitchen floor.
Medwick swung the cleaver in a downward arc, forcing Karla to scramble. “If I deem you apologetic enough, Harpooneer,” he said as he yanked it back, “I might only cripple you.”
Karla’s back struck a hard surface that jolted her skeleton. Knowing what it must be, groping above her head, she felt her hand close around a wooden handle. She clambered to her feet, brandishing it, and saw Medwick’s eyes widen as his next cleaver-blow paused.
“I saw you,” she said, pointing the long breadknife at his chest. “On the sky kingdom. Kio told me about you. He said you lied to him.”
“He had not yet seen the truth!” Medwick sliced at her. She only just managed to dodge out of the way.
“I sharpened this thing myself a couple days before I left. I did it right. I could cut your digits off if I wanted to, so you should be way more careful than you’re being.”
“I do not fear you!”
Medwick swiped with the cleaver again and again, driving Karla back into the corner of the kitchen. Unable to dodge–hardly able to breathe–she brought the knife up to block his blows. With her left hand, she grabbed a heavy wooden spoon and threw it at his head.
He grunted and covered his face. Karla dove through the split-second opening and whirled around, trapping him this time, her back to the door.
She hadn’t been bluffing. The bread knife was honed to a razor’s edge.
“I want to know what’s happening,” she demanded. “You’re with these dragons. What do they want?”
“They? Nothing.” Medwick tried a smirk. It didn’t quite work on his statue-stone face. “They are lost creatures who can’t fathom what they want. The deformed, blind, idiot children of the sky.”
“And you’re training them as attack dogs?” He slashed. She leapt back, jabbed at him, dodged as they feinted at each other.
“You should rather ask,” Medwick blustered, “what it is the Benefactor wants.”
“My whole family knew you,” Kio challenged Raptor, his finger outstretched like a magic sword to drive back the god. “They told tales of you, worshipped you. Obeyed your commandments to the letter. I was taught them so well I was actually afraid to enter the Heartsphere, even when the alternative was choking to death.”
Raptor had retreated to the calendar stones. His face betrayed nothing. “I gave the Rokhshan their fortune because I believed they would be receptive to my teachings,” he said. “I haven’t been wrong yet. Even you can be salvaged, with time, and re-education.”
“No!” Kio shouted. A thunderclap from above punctuated the exclamation. “No more education. I’ve spent enough time in the library these past few days to educate myself. If only I hadn’t ignored so many signs…”
“Lord Rokhshan,” Raptor’s voice was soft and merciful, “do not say something you cannot take back.”
That moment, Kio later understood, was when he could have turned back. This instance, this thunderclap in time, was where his luck forked into two paths.
There was safety along one of the paths. But if there was a core to the nature of Kio Rokhshan, it was the desire to understand.
“I got distracted by the Neogah. But I researched what I wanted to know. Bene–Raptor, in every book written by a Rokhshan on Nashido, your warning about the Ash Cloud comes up. It’s poison, and the Heartsphere will disperse it across the entire world.”
“I’m proud of you. I never wished you to take my words at face value.”
“But,” Kio pressed on, “none of the other sources corroborate it. The books written on sky kingdoms theorize about the nature of the Heartsphere, but they admit to there being no proof of that story.”
Raptor’s brow deepened. Kio blurted out, “That’s all it is. A story. You needed the Rokhshan to believe it.”
The tip of Raptor’s sword screeched slowly across the stone, making an eerie harmony with the howling wind. “There is nothing, my lord, that I have ever needed the Rokhshan to do that I have not been able to do myself. I founded your house, my lord, because it was convenient.”
“Convenient?” Kio echoed stupidly. He had suddenly remembered that Raptor was blocking the only exit. And that he was far more powerful than Kio could ever hope to be. What cat had ever slayed a dragon?
“Go on.” The god smiled, but the disarming warmth was gone from his grin. “Finish. What do you suspect? What have you read, in those books of yours?”
“I…” Summon your courage, damn it. “You ordered us never to enter the Heartsphere. You insisted it would amplify the Ash Cloud.”
Would this next be the last sentence he ever spoke? “I think you want to hoard the shapeshifting power for yourself. I think you want to be the only one who can change.”
For a second, he thought he’d struck the heart of the matter. Then Raptor’s face contorted. An expression that was almost, but not quite, entirely inhuman.
In that twist of features, Kio saw a depth of rage he’d only begun to fathom. And he knew he was still scratching at the surface of the Benefactor’s anger.
He knew one thing, though. He wasn’t going to let it point at Karla anymore.
“It hurts me to have to do this, Kio.” Raptor strode forward, raising the sword. “I had such high hopes for you.”
The blade struck down through the air where Kio’s head had been moments ago. That head was now much lower to the ground, covered in downy black fur, speeding toward the stairs.
The feline body of Kio Rokhshan ran like lightning on the edge of a wave. The last thing he heard, as his senses ran high, was Raptor bellowing to the entire sky: “Find him!”
Medwick was muttering to himself now, even as he slashed at Karla. “Raptor wants what everyone wants,” he murmured, his priestly tone muffled at the edges. “Raptor wants what everyone has. Raptor wants the world. Raptor wants a world.”
Karla tried to land a blow to his jaw, but his head snapped back too quickly. He was on her again, cutting, hacking, nicking her skin. She threw up a forearm as she tumbled down, and suddenly he was pressing his blade toward her face, ready to cut, to disfigure.
She’d landed on the floor. Unsure how. All her being was now in her forearm, fighting to keep the cleaver up.
“Help me,” she begged of Medwick. “Help me save Rust Town with the Heartsphere. Help the Benefactor become what he’s always wanted to be. Help him be a god to more than just one boy.”
“A beautiful story,” the priest replied. “But you have said things you must never say.”
Karla rolled sideways, destabilizing Medwick just enough that the cleaver landed blade-first in the floor and hung there quivering. But as she crawled toward the door, the heavy weight of a frying pan crashed onto the back of her skull–the sun exploded–and her world fell into black silence.
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