Ash 2

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Every time Jenny or Griffin tried to angle closer to the castle, a net or a spear or a rock hurled itself at Raven and forced them to retreat. The nearer to the walls they flew, the thicker came the waves of the assault, until their little craft was racing away from whole thickets of swarming weapons.

“We need to start thinking about options!” Griffin yelled at Jenny through his gas-mask.

His equally masked niece glared back at him. “No way in hell are we turning back.”

“I didn’t mean that! I meant that–” a rumble of thunder cut him off for seconds “–we may be the only people we can save.”

Jenny took a second to answer, steering her wing to slash through another flying net. Finally, she nodded. “But we’re waiting until the last possible moment. Until that cloud is on us. Not before.”

“Not before,” Griffin echoed, though his heart filled with fear.

***

There was still a seed pod lying beside the counterweight jug that dangled two of Karla’s heights over the ledge. She hurled it, shattering the stone that her last blow had cracked during their first fight against a Neogah.

The heavier end of the rope ran freely until the knot at the other end stopped it. Karla tugged on her end and nodded tightly without looking at Kio. They would have to climb longhand.

“Tell me what happened here,” she grunted as she hauled herself hand-over-hand up the rope, Kio’s feet pounding against the wall below her.

“What I let happen?” Kio muttered.

Only what I need to know.” It was hard enough not to look at him. Once upon a time she had thought of him as the other part of herself, someone so close she would know his mind without thinking.

How wrong she’d been. Could you ever really know anyone?

Yet however confused and betrayed Karla might feel, she couldn’t bear to listen to the pain in his voice.

“Their leader is that man you saw,” Kio said. “The Rokhshan call him the Benefactor, but his true name is Raptor. He came to me the day after you left. The day I found…found…”

“You found my mom’s letter.” Karla’s throat was dry. Her arms wobbled on the rope. She climbed faster, not yet ready to rise above her anger, to admit, as she had to, that she had screwed up.

Do you ever really know somebody?

“He told me the Harpooneers wanted to attack and shelter from the Ash Cloud, and that they would let the cloud touch the Heartsphere in their rush to get inside. He said he’d come to help me fight them, and that’s why he summoned the others.”

“Wait.” The reservoir ledge was just above, but Karla paused, lost in thought. “Why would it matter if the cloud touched the sphere?”

“According to Raptor,” Kio said venomously, “it will disperse the poison across the entire planet. Killing everybody. And most of the things.”

Karla’s arms burned white-hot. She’d hung still too long. Shaking, she hauled herself over the reservoir ledge, and reflexively flung out an arm to help Kio.

Briefly, his face looked open to the forgiveness she seemed to be offering, but then it hardened again. He knew she wasn’t giving. He clambered up on his own.

“Did he give you any evidence at all? Any proof this would happen?”

“None.” Kio shook out his limbs. “All I know is that he really didn’t want it to happen.”

“Enough to build a castle in the sky to stop it?”

The reservoir square wasn’t the one she remembered. The sickly light from the ash cloud, and the spits of drizzle from the storm, scattered an ethereal green glow over piles of stone and rubble. They must have been left over from the Neogah’s weapon construction blitz. A scrap of gravel toppled into the basin, sending out ripples to join the scales already blown there by the wind.

“He didn’t need to build anything!” Kio shouted.

“Right!” Karla answered. “He got some gullible sap named Rokhshan from the surface to make a whole family who’d do it for him!”

Kio stepped closer. “You can’t hurt me. Not like that. You don’t have to tell me I’m the most gullible sap on this castle.”

His face was that of a boy determined not to cry. Karla thought of the fight ahead of them, of the past they’d left behind, and of the danger they faced. And some fight leaked out of her.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “Why not just build a wall? Why a whole castle?”

“The family he chose wouldn’t live there otherwise. This way, he has his interests guarded through the generations.”

“And why not tell the Rokhshan the truth?”

Kio ground his heel onto one of the dark mosaic pictures of his family’s great heroes. “Most likely, if they’d known, they never would have gone along with it.”

Karla imagined what the truth could be.

Then held out a hand to Kio, this time on purpose. “We’ve wasted enough time. If we’re going to save my friends, we have to work together. Truce?”

“Truce.” Kio shook her hand briefly, then stalked past her without looking in her eyes.

***

Raptor and Medwick’s defences ringed the entire castle. Kio had taken note of them as he’d labored around under the Benefactor’s deceptions, calculating and hoping about whether they would be enough to stop the imagined Harpooneer assault. Now, he had to turn that knowledge on its head, figuring out how to get two surface people through a crossfire he now realized was far more than they’d ever needed.

“There’s no way we can get rid of them all,” he told Karla as she fell into step beside him around the reservoir rim. “The Neogah or their defences. They have this place surrounded and bristling with weapons.”

“The City Council thought they were secure too,” Karla said.

“Who?”

“Never mind. Is there a weak spot?”

Kio shook his head. “Not that I’ve seen. But we might be able to create one.”

“Give them a thin spot to punch through?”

“Fore and aft are the strongest-defended. Machine deck and hangar, the best landing strips.”

They reached the edge of the basin. Karla followed him to hide against the forward tower. Behind her eyes, she was rotating a three-dimensional model of the castle, imagining every crenellation.

This was always how it had been: whichever one of them had the most reason to be upset, they never really could be, since they’d always have to come back together to deal with the next crisis. Now, though, she had her surface friends. Kio thought ruefully that she finally had her wish, to find out what they really were together.

The answer wasn’t looking impressive so far.

They each craned their neck around one side of the tower. Down the turreted wall, along bridges and vines to the workshop and hangar below, two Neogah hung, with two more patrolling in the sky. The two on the wall were manning weapons, one a spear-launcher, one a net-thrower. A catapult atop the tower backed them up.

Kio met Karla again at the tower door. “I have an idea. Do you remember our signals?”

“I wouldn’t forget.”

“All right,” he said, hoping it would chip away at the wall of resentment he’d spent seven long days building. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”

***

Kio had come to her once with a book in his hand and a rapturous description on his lips about what it was like to conduct a symphony. “You play a whole crowd of people as an instrument,” he’d said. “Imagine if we could do that. Make music from all the people we can see from up here. Or with the entire sky, with the birds and the clouds and the sun…”

Karla had loved the idea. Years later, she had to admit that the way they conducted the reservoir’s water made her feel something similar.

It was still largely the same water they’d gathered out of rainstorms. Karla felt proprietary toward it. She couldn’t deny the swell of pride as she followed its progress through the cracks in the tower she was conducting from within.

Kio’s plan was simple and elegant. Each of the towers had an atmosphere crystal halfway up, maintaining the air pressure that made it possible to breathe on Nashido. In their fight against the first Neogah, they’d figured out the combination of runes that would reverse the effect and hurl air and water out to open sky.

“But what if that happens to two at once?” he’d asked. “Out of order, and temporarily. Where would the water go?”

Kio activated his first, carving sigils into the crystal like they had on that day. Karla watched the water surging into the air. Seconds later, through the hole left by a stone he’d shoved out of the wall, Kio gave her the signal.

She raced to the glowing crystal and completed the reverse rune. At the same time, in his tower, Kio would be breaking the spell he’d just cast.

It worked perfectly. The reservoir water drenched Karla’s tower, helped out by the rush of wind. Damp trickles formed at the edges of her eyeslit. She leapt back as water sprayed through it.

Far more of it flew past than fell in. The Neogah, intent on the ornithopter wheeling at the edge of the storm, didn’t think to look up or behind.

The cascade of water over them may at first have felt like just a bit more harmless rain. They knew the squall couldn’t hurt them, that it was only being truly submerged that could threaten their bodies.

They were still thinking that when the reservoir poured over them, striking the two on the wall first, then the two flying just beyond.

“Haaaaa!” Karla screamed at them through the eyeslit. “This is my castle, you bastards!”

She didn’t stick around to watch them disintegrate, satisfying as that would have been. Instead she dashed down the spiral steps to the bottom floor and rolled the stone disc aside.

Kio met her on the basin rim. “Did we get them?” he asked.

“Four of them!” She grinned. “That was so awesome! Now my friends can land safely.”

“They’re still armed,” Kio said, “and…”

He stopped speaking as a shadow fell over his face.

Something was hovering there. Something vaster and angrier than the Neogah she was used to. This was one, she knew immediately, that had been warped. Twisted by hatred and shame into a beast that could even challenge Raptor.

“Yes?” Medwick’s grind-clack dragon voice growled out. “Do finish the sentence, Lord Rokhshan.”

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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