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“The man will die first.” Raptor punctuated the sentence with a diving swipe that Karla beat her wings backwards to avoid. “Poor pathetic Griffin. So desperate to be a hero to his town. So perpetually a hero to nobody.”
Lightning cracked. A bolt struck Raptor, suffusing his body, but sloughed off as harmlessly as water might.
“They think him mad, in Rust Town. After tonight, they would know if for sure…if any of them were destined to survive.”
The black Heartsphere vision threatened to take over. Karla felt already there in that room, already helpless against the explosion and the death of everyone she loved.
“The little girl next, I think. Her lungs are weaker than she believes. So full of bravery, destined to leave a mark. Jenny will be forgotten, like Hannah before her.”
She had to fight back. She reached out for everything she’d seen, in this last awful wonderful month, in the last ten years. The Rusters opening their homes to her. Jenny and Calvin, charging into battle by her side. The City Council balcony burning and Aiden falling to his death. Rose kissing Griffin goodbye. The blue-glowing crystal. The fleet of planes taking off.
Think of life. Of normal. Of the future.
“And then there is Kio,” Raptor intoned. They circled each other in the sky-arena bounded by dark winds. Each beat their wings in a rhythm. “The last of the Rokhshan. What a stupid line they turned out to be. Out of hundreds of muckgrubbers, how could I be so unfortunate as to uplift these?”
Falling toward the ocean in the middle of the crescent of mountains. Kio waiting by her side as she came out of her poisoned trance. Kio attacking her in the grip of gas-induced hypnosis and holding her as she relived her own awful memories of Year Zero. Kio climbing across the sky toward her, chased by the zealous Medwick. Kio, Kio, always Kio, the other half of her soul, the other side of her sky.
“He will die,” Raptor said slowly, savoring the words, “doing something he believes is going to save your life.”
Karla beat her wings harder. Left and right, left and right, left to evade Raptor’s feint, right to parry the real attack with a kick.
“It will be rather deliciously ironic.”
Ever upward. Had to climb. Had to get closer to the sky.
“Jenny,” Kio said as they backed toward the center of the basin, “I need the bomb.”
He tried to hide the wheezing from his voice. The roaring patter of the rain should have done it. But she somehow must have heard how hard it was becoming for him to breathe the green air.
She fired a bolt over his shoulder and locked in the next one. Her gas mask twitched. “Uncle Griff!” he yelled. “Kio’s got a plan!”
Griffin briefly turned from swinging his club as Kio thought, that’s an exaggeration. But he knew where he had to go, and that was a start.
“I haven’t got a mask,” he told Jenny, “so there’s only one way I can survive this. And it starts with you giving me that bomb right now.”
Jenny tossed him the canister and tried to smile. “Go nuts.”
“Keep them busy,” Kio shouted to them both.
“Let it touch the Heartsphere!” Griffin called back. “Let it end!”
“Kio!” Jenny said as he clambered up the edge of the basin. “I wish I could have known you better.”
“I’m glad Karla got to know you.”
She broke into a real smile then, and reloaded. Kio ran.
“Come and get me!” he bellowed to the bone dragons circling over head. “It’s me, the last Rokhshan! Kill me and you get whatever the hell it is you’re looking for on my castle!”
Neogah broke off from the vortex swirling around the three towers. Two, three, four. Good. Let them all come.
“Kill me…and at least I’ll end up somewhere else!”
He hurtled between the port-side towers, holding the explosive canister aloft. The Neogah wove after him, or moved to cut him off, but he was too fast: leaping for the counterweight at the end of one of his and Karla’s fast-travel pulleys, he kicked the jug off the ledge and rode it down.
Halfway down the wall, with the Neogah beating their wings to keep up, he cast the rope aside, landing with both arms on an oxygen vine. Glowmoss illuminated his face as he scrambled further down. He felt like he had when he’d carved his face tattoo into Raven and leapt around the castle with no limits. His soul was the lifting rune now.
A dragon plunged downwards and he flattened himself against the vine. The second it was clear, he let go, grabbed another handhold, fell again, and again.
He rolled across a ledge and was running once more, over an outer citadel roof, then down a bridge, into a stairwall. A Neogah had gotten ahead of him, and loomed through the windows as Kio raced through the statuary hall. A hit, and one of the Rokhshan statues toppled in his path.
He was in the air, leaping over it, before he realized it was Sieno Rokhshan. His father.
Dad, he thought as he swung around a corner into the final stairwell, I’ll get them back. I’ll get back all the people who’ve betrayed our family. They betrayed the Harpooneers too.
His heart burned to think of what the Benefactor had done. If the Ash Cloud had a purpose–if its destiny was to touch the Heartsphere–perhaps Year Zero could have been avoided. Perhaps the burned bodies, the piles in the Great Hall, the gardens of bones in the sky kingdoms, all existed to feed Raptor’s selfish greed.
The Neogah pounded the wall again. Shards of stone rained down on Kio’s face. Soaked as he was, he hardly noticed. He cradled the bomb against his chest.
Then he was standing in the Mist Garden, free of dragons for now, with a perfect view of the sea-to-sky wall of green light. He turned away, looking instead into the hole left in the citadel from when he and Karla had dropped the tower so they could ride up to the Sky Kingdom. Sickly green light shone all the way through the hole to the pile of rubble that had blocked the gap when Karla and Kio had entered the Inner Citadel.
A beat of eight leathery wings announced the arrival of the Neogah. They had him this time: above, below, port and starboard, fore and aft. Surrounded. The only way out was in.
Kio smiled. If only I had some way to clear away those rocks.
Jenny’s bomb exploded on contact. He’d thrown it true–heard the clink of the canister on the rubble plug before it went off. Dust and grit rained down on the mist garden. The flash of light seemed to rebuke the Neogah, driving them into a frenzied retreat.
It didn’t last long. Soon their fiery gazes turned back to him.
Kio Rokhshan took a long run-up and made his final leap.
It had never been possible to stop the emotions flooding in. Raptor had her figured out.
He could make her turn, make her lose control of her craft. But he couldn’t decide which way that craft was facing when it happened.
By the time he realized she’d flown clear and sent Raven on a collision course, the impact had already happened. Raptor screamed aloud as the clockwork raven turned missile slammed into his spine where it met the wings.
Battering them so hard each successive beat tore them further away from Raptor’s back.
Karla flew clear, dodging ever-feebler strikes, watching the sky to see when and how the god of the Rokhshan would fall. And fall he did, soon enough, plunging through the bottom wall of cloud toward the ocean.
Karla folded her wings and dove after him. There was no way on land or in the sky that she wasn’t going to make eight hundred percent sure he was dead.
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