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Destroy Castle Nashido.
The very thought was mad. Like the only home Kio had ever known was some enemy base to be bombed into oblivion. He knew nothing about the surface, had no love for it except for what he had conjured out of his own dreams–and here he was conspiring with two of its residents to wipe out every last shred of the Rokhshan legacy. All the mosaics and the lavish rooms, the Great Hall above the machine deck, the statues and the books…all of it, consigned to the sea. His last memories of his family gone forever from his reach.
The legacy was a lie anyway, he thought, and the hardness of that sentence bolstered his will. None of it matters. Nothing but the Ash Cloud.
And the mad risk he had hitched himself to. If Raptor was telling the truth, Kio was selling out the world for an illusion of his own safety.
Raptor had told many lies, but he didn’t speak entirely in falsehoods. Yet could he be tricking Kio into poisoning the world? Could the god’s rage be merely another manipulation?
No, that made no sense. Gods needed subjects to rule.
The three of them emerged into the Outer Citadel’s upper hallway, the airy, windblown space that had once served his family as a sort of pleasure colonnade. Jenny and Griffin covered their faces with their gas masks. Kio wore nothing on his face but the Rokhshan mark.
Kio kept moving only by the certainty that he was going to die either way. He had always pictured himself dying in the midst of some great task–for some reason, had never imagined himself growing old. Now, he had his chance.
“The castle is built like a puzzle box,” he told Jenny and Griffin as they ran through the lavish hall toward the apex of the sphere. “It’s held together mechanically, with anything hanging off the sphere being driven into the overall structure. Karla and I have taken towers off before. We’ve moved rooms because they got in the way of our systems.”
“So the Heartsphere is the only place anything is actually attached?” Jenny asked.
“Yeah.” He searched for a metaphor she’d understand. “It’s like a skycraft. There’s a center of gravity where all the lift and tension is focused.”
The girl perked up. “Then all we have to do is unscrew one of the towers until we expose the sphere?”
“It’s not that simple.” Kio paused right before the stairs up to the reservoir. “First of all, towers aren’t jar lids. You can’t just unscrew them. Second, there’s a powerful force holding them onto the sphere–I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of rune. And third–”
Jenny asked, “Rune?” right as Griffin finished Kio’s sentence. “The Neogah!”
The green light in the window rippled over with the shadows of dragons.
Kio scrambled, Jenny racing ahead, grabbing something from the floor along the way. She and Kio slid in beside her uncle behind an overturned bookshelf, where Griffin looked incredulously at Jenny’s weapon. “You want to fight dragons with a table leg?”
“You want to fight dragons with your bare hands?”
“Oh, no.” Jenny turned to Kio. “That’s his I-used-to-get-in-fights look.”
Kio, however, had seen what else lay in Griffin’s expression. His engineering skills had been at work, and one of Raptor’s own designs was there to practice on.
Except it wasn’t complete.
In a flash, Griffin vaulted the shelf, racing toward the net launcher mounted in the window. The Neogah with the crossbow turned it toward him.
“Run that way!” Jenny cried out.
“But the launcher isn’t–”
“I don’t care! If he dies I’ll kill you!”
Kio and Jenny sprinted from behind their bookshelf in opposite directions. The Neogah saw new targets, overcorrected, and let his bolt fly between Griffin and Jenny. Kio circled quickly toward the machine. By now, Griffin must have noticed it was missing two gears, on the bottom-right side.
It’s like a spear-launcher. I just need to recreate that mechanism…
“Not yet!” he cried as Griffin took hold of the launcher’s handles.
“Count of three! One…”
A Neogah lunged at the window. Jenny swung the table leg with all her might, batting on the nose.
Kio yanked out a strut and the rotating column dropped half an inch. That would have to work.
With an elastic-y twang, Griffin let the net fly, entangling the armed Neogah just as it prepared another ballista shot. The bolt sailed just under the net, and bounced with a thunderous clap off the wall beneath the window.
The net found its mark, snaring around the creature’s weapon. For a second, Griffin and the dragon stared each other down, each uncertain.
“Reel it back reel it back reel it back!” Kio shouted.
Kio elbowed Griffin out of the way, disengaged the handle, and unlocked it, cranking hard. The weapon slipped out of the Neogah’s claws.
“Jenny!” Griffin slid to cover behind the window ledge. “We’ve found you something better!”
Almost…Karla chanted to herself.
The curtains of rain and the windblown clouds dragged her visibility range down so low she could only see by lightning. So, using flash after flash for light, grateful every time that the electricity was discharging much higher in the sky, she scratched a rune into the underside of the broken Raven.
When she had leapt out of the hangar, their ornithopter had been hardly better than a glider, and in most ways worse. She could feel herself losing altitude like most people could feel if they were bleeding.
The only thing that saved her was the memory of a face. Quite a vivid one, actually, given the range of emotions she’d seen on it just before jumping into the sky. Given it had been the last one she’d seen.
Kio’s tattoo was as complex and intricate as any magical rune. She had never made any conscious attempt to memorize it. Yet still, there it lay in her head, waiting to be drawn out.
She glided through the wasteland of wind and rain, and carved. And when she got the last line just right, and the glow of power began to shine through the rune, she got to work on a second.
At least, until the next strike of lightning gave her a chance to look behind her.
Raptor had become even more monstrous, somehow, than his typical dragon form. His four wings were spread out to their tips, but this time, red veins of power glistened across them, a spiderweb of hatred. Twelve of her could have fit comfortable into the cavity of his ribcage. His eyes burned the same sickly green as the Ash Cloud. His claws stretched out, reaching for her.
Karla banked around. The wind carried her onward.
“Right,” she shouted as she faced him, “you lying disgrace to the gods! You murderer of the sky kingdoms and the landling slaves! You fountain of everything that sucks! Come get me!”
“People are dying in here!” Rose shouted. “Dying! Does that mean anything to you? Does the life of your precious Emperor mean anything to you?”
Other voices shouted along with her, a whole town bellowing itself hoarse, but some began to slacken as coughing and troubled breathing overtook them. Outside, the guards at the infirmary door remained implacable, listening to what must have sounded like the worst excuse to open a prison door they had ever heard.
As she caught her breath, Rose fought back thoughts of far worse fates. The ceremony for the Emperor’s arrival would begin soon, and these men might be called off to stand in formation, leaving everyone in the town to choke to death with no hope of breaking out of this cave.
No. The keys were here now. They might leave at any time.
They had to act.
Rose searched the crowd and caught sight of the McConnells, sitting stoically together off to the side. Only Calvin had begun to hack and cough so far. Grace dabbed his forehead with a cloth, for want of anything else she could do, while Adam kept springing up and sitting back down again.
“The guards aren’t looking in here,” she told them after wading over to them. “If we’re going to escape, it has to be right now.”
“What’s your plan?” Grace handed the damp cloth to Calvin, who managed to get to his feet.
“Wait here, and move when I tell you.”
The Torals had cleaned out her best medicines. But they hadn’t taken the worthless ones. The ones she kept in dusty bottles at the backs of her drawers, on her bottom shelves, too nondescript to contain anything worthwhile. The ones every Remedium graduate was trained to use in emergencies, the ones they hoped would never come.
This wasn’t quite that sort of emergency. But it was dire enough nonetheless.
These marines were probably trained to hold their breaths for ten minutes or something–they would fall last to the Ash Cloud. But a concentrated vapor could get them a bit faster.
Of course they whirled around when Rose threw the first vial to shatter on the hard dirt at their feet. Of course they had their crossbows locked and loaded by the time she hurled the second. What they couldn’t prepare for was how quickly Rose’s strongest medicine worked.
Their shots went wide. Their muscles went limp. They began to slump.
Grace and Adam surged forward. Each of them marked one of the marines and caught them through the bars as they fell, dragging their unconscious forms closer to the portal. Calvin and Rose squatted down and searched them both.
Rose came up with the ring of keys. “All right, everyone!” she shouted, holding it aloft. Those not busy fighting to breathe turned toward her. “We’re getting out of here!”
Jenny’s first shot with the ballista missed. Her second–executed while Kio and Griffin dragged her backwards to safety–shattered the ribcage of the Neogah who had once held the weapon. The dragon roared, swooped below the level of the window.
Kio said, “I think I have a pressure point for us to attack. There’s just one problem.”
Jenny gritted her teeth. “From now on I’m just gonna assume there’s at least one problem unless you tell me something different.”
“We can’t reach it from here. We have to go outside.”
Griffin shook his head. “That’ll expose us.”
“There’s no plan that doesn’t!”
In the stairway, Kio found what he’d been hoping was still there. “Take this,” he said, handing a heavy steel bar to Griffin. “It’s left over from the last time I repaired our aqueducts.”
“A sword to slay a dragon?” Griffin hefted the rebar dubiously.
“Don’t you want a weapon?” Jenny asked Kio, hand firmly on the stock of her oversized crossbow.
“I was gonna ask you, actually,” he replied. “I think I choose your bomb.”
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