Ash 1

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The ledge outside the Heartsphere had changed. Kio hadn’t been there since he’d raised the mushrooms that had saved Karla’s life.

He hadn’t planned to stop there. His human brain hadn’t thought of any reason Karla would be on the secret ledge, and his brain was in cat form now, much worse at thinking through anything that didn’t involve danger, food, or scratches. But he’d been leaping up ledges and broken stairways, looking for a safe way to the Upper Citadel that didn’t pass the eyes of a roving Neogah, when he saw her.

From the sloping tower roof below the ledge, he could just make out the outline of her body. A cold fear raised his hackles. She was lying on her side, not moving. He sniffed the air, but the wind was so high he couldn’t gain any sense of whether she was alive.

The route was treacherous. From the roof to a crenellation to another, half-crumbled, that collapsed under his paws. He yowled and skidded, planting his claws around the falling stone’s corners. When it hit the roof and slid, he leapt, sinking his claws into an oxygen vine. The vine’s skin yielded, and Kio climbed.

A few feet away from the secret ledge, the vine curved away. Kio scampered up and paused atop it. Karla was lying there, ahead and above, and he still couldn’t see or hear or smell whether she was breathing.

The storm whipped and buffetted him to and fro on the fine. With a brief glance and hiss to aft, he could see the colossal, glittering green wall, drifting closer. The air was already feeling funny, just a little harder to suck in than it should have.

Kio sprang.

His body didn’t clear the ledge. Gripping on with his forepaws, he howled out–

–and his cat-self broke.

He grew. In seconds, when his mind finished expanding, Kio found himself draped over the edge of the platform, face-down in the patch of dirt. He awkwardly shimmied the rest of the way.

Without getting off his knees, he raced to Karla. She was sprawled along a corner of the ledge where the Neogah had hurled her, the wreckage of the Kiobot lying not far off. Seeing her so close to the great fall made Kio suck in his breath. Before even checking her pulse, he made to roll her away from the edge.

I will not throw any more bodies off Nashido. I was done burying people I love ten years ago. I’m not about to start again now.

He fought his rising disgust with himself, fought to keep it from mingling with the Year Zero fear that rushed up in him. Of course he was responsible for her being in this state. He never should have allowed Raptor or his Neogah onto the castle. But if he lay around moping about that, he’d never fix anything.

As he reached out to turn Karla over onto a safe spot, her arm lashed out and caught him around the wrist.

He hardly had time to notice before her eyes were open and she was on him, throwing a punch at his face. It landed between his eyes, blasting sparks across his vision. He reeled back, but her grip stopped him, and she struck him again in the stomach.

The force of the blow on top of the stone already weighing on his gut punched him through despair and out the other side. Something shifted in him.

Karla suddenly found herself holding a hissing, snarling cat in her arms. She yelped, stumbled backwards, and Kio, yowling louder than the storm, saw her step backwards off the ledge by mistake.

No sooner had her foot landed wrong than her form compressed and the raven took her place. Cawing, it rushed at the cat, who slashed with both foreclaws to keep it away. The bird slammed into Kio, bowling him back across the dirt, and he broke his outline again, rolling back into human form.

On the one hand, he deserved this. On the other, they had more important problems.

He grabbed at the bird, heedless of its beak and talons slashing more cuts in his skin–but noticing its body had some cuts of its own. Karla transformed in his hands, and soon her human form was twisting out of his grasp, reaching for his throat.

He planted his feet in the soil to keep her from slamming him against the oxygen vine. “I know what I did!” he shouted. “I’m sorry! Just stop it!”

“Stop what!?” Karla yelled, and swung a fist at his head. He ducked, and they switched places, her against the wall and him the sky. “Can you prove you aren’t endangering my life? When did you start working with the bone dragons?”

“They’re called Neogah!” he shouted, throwing a blow she blocked. “And except for Raptor and Medwick, they can’t even think!”

“So what, they need our help?”

“Quit sneering! You lied to me about the Harpooneers, and you don’t know anything about what’s happened up here!”

“Clearly you don’t either!” Tears welled up in Karla’s eyes as she faced him down. “The Kio I know wouldn’t have let this happen. Did I really know you at all?”

“How can you say that? You’re the one with the secret life!”

“I only ever had one life!” she cried. “Our life! Our promise, together!”

“I broke that promise!”

If Kio was crying himself now, he couldn’t feel it, or didn’t care. He needed her to understand. He’d betrayed himself as much as her–ruined everything in his quest to be a real Rokhshan. What he hadn’t known, until after Raptor had his claws on the castle, until just now even, was that he’d already been real. The Kio he’d been with Karla was the realest he’d ever been. And he’d let them both down.

The fight had left Karla’s limbs, but not her voice. “You don’t get to!”

“I don’t get to what? To be right? Or to ask you for help after I screwed up so badly? I broke it, because I made you leave!”

“You don’t get to give up the promise just because you broke it once!” Karla spoke through clenched teeth. “A promise doesn’t disappear because somebody broke it. That is not how promises work. You never stop being a part of one, no matter how broken it gets.”

Kio’s mouth moved, but no words came out. A peal of thunder roared across the sky. Rain began to soak his skin.

Karla stared at him. He had the sense both of them were struggling to stay human.

Finally, he said, “Help me.”

“With what?”

“To save your friends. The two Harpooneers–”

“They’re not Harpooneers. There aren’t any Harpooneers left. And I’m not ready to forgive you.”

“I don’t need you to be.” Kio’s insides burned with the urge to let his own rage bubble up. He had made mistakes, but did that invalidate his right to be angry about her lie? “But they’re depending on us. They’re stuck in the sky and Raptor is going to shoot them down unless we stop him.”

Her gaze bored into him. For the first time, he noticed she was wearing strange surface-folk clothes under her fur. “How?”

“We know this castle better than anybody. We can knock their defences out if we work together.”

A long moment passed. She could have turned and climbed away, shifted into a raven and flown as far as possible from the Ash Cloud. Instead, she took one look at the advancing wall of glittering green death and nodded tightly.

“Their names are Jenny and Dr. Griffin,” she told him. “Let’s go save their lives.”

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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