You’ll probably guess this from reading the chapter, but we have reached it: the final regular post on The Clockwork Raven! There will be an epilogue posted next week, which I’ll use to say a proper goodbye, but this will be the last numbered arc chapter. So it seems a good enough time to start thanking you all for sticking with the story for so long. You all made this happen, and I hope the ending is worthy of you!
The remaining Torals departed before the Neogah got back, while every native of Rust was waiting to see whether or not the Emperor would return with him, or change his mind once he saw the desolation of the Sky Kingdoms. Their leader said that they had waited long enough. He turned to Rose and said, stiffly, “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Wildly uncertain about the social protocol here, Rose replied, “Thank you. I’m sorry about your Emperor.”
“Don’t be,” the soldier said quietly, then looked around to ensure nobody heard. At least two of his comrades pretended not to.
They made their way uphill, in solemn procession, and returned bearing the bodies of their comrades who had remained outside to face the Ash Cloud alone. For once, they made no show. Their tattered cloaks hardly covered the scratches in their armor. For the first time, the Imperial soldiers had grace, but no beauty.
Within a few minutes, they had piled onto their ships and vanished over the horizon.
A few minutes after that, the mood changed. People began peeling off from the crowd, clumping up with their families, chatting and murmuring. Rose caught Griffin’s eye, then Jenny’s, all sharing the same question: what now?
Kio’s shout snapped them out of malaise. “Look!”
The Neogah had stopped their flying dance to lead the Emperor’s dragon to high altitude. Now, one by one, they were returning, and moving into a perimeter low in the sky around Rust Town. Some beat their wings to hang in front of the mountains, others skimmed low over the sea.
Karla tensed. “Are they flanking us? Is this some kind of mental residue from Raptor?”
The Neogah began to circle.
People in the crowd gasped, and huddled together, but Rose shouted “No!” over them. She raced to Karla’s side and said, “I think it’s more like…an honor guard.”
Kio marveled at the scene in the sky. He spoke softly, as though any louder sound might shatter the beauty of the ring of dragons. “Do you mean they’re thanking us?”
Rose patted his shoulder. “What else could they be doing after all you did for them?”
“All we did for them,” Karla told her.
“People of Rust Town!” The voice of the Neogah that had spoken to Karla and Kio before–probably–rang out as clearly as if he had still been perched right beside them.
Another spoke from another direction, then more. “You have fought.”
“You have suffered.”
“Some of you have not survived. We will mourn them across the skies.”
“To the ends of the world…”
“…and the beginning of the void.”
“But first,” came several voices at once, “there is something we must give to you.”
“Something we must reveal within you.”
“What…” Rose began, then trailed off. Karla and Kio were both staring, open-mouthed, at the heartsphere.
“Everybody,” Kio said hastily, “I assure you, what is about to happen is reversible.”
If that isn’t the most ominous thing I’ve ever heard, Rose started to think, but then her mind changed.
Karla was ready. Instead of trying to warn anybody, she prepared herself to turn.
This time was different. The pulse of energy that hit her mind to change her shape was no longer a forcible vision of a black room. Instead, she saw an endless sky: clouds drifting across an immensity of blue and orange and purple, with the sea roaring below and galaxies drifting above.
It was a Neogah gift, to show them all the universe.
When she changed, she beat her wings hard to rise and circle around a scene of the most joyful chaos she’d ever witnessed.
Every single one of the Rusters who had sheltered in the Heartsphere had transformed.
Kio, in his cat body, was darting back and forth trying to keep order, failing at every turn. A robin leapt and chittered, winging up to join her in the sky, obviously Jenny. She sang down to where a big grey dog barked and swatted playfully at a snake that slithered about in the grass, rolling and darting with ease, both at home in their new forms. Rose the serpent and Dr. Griffin the dog danced and ran with a badger she knew was Calvin McConnell, his parents Adam and Grace a bear and hawk running together. Twin dragonflies sat on their shoulders while a lizard ran after them, while two armadillos cavorted in shells they could have forged themselves. Even the stout turtle she could tell was Finn seemed pleased with himself.
As the people of Rust Town shifted back to human, one by own, each reckoned with the experience in their own way. Some dropped to their knees in shock. Some wandered in fugues, unable to accept that the science they lived by wasn’t quite complete. And some, knowing the most about what they had passed through, were happier than ever.
Karla plowed into Jenny and they both warped back into human girls, sprawled together in mud and sand and laughing their heads off. Kio crept up, and Jenny swept him into a hug, though her head only came up to his chest. Griffin and Rose ambled near, holding hands, but Griffin’s face quickly turned solemn.
“Is this the end, then?” he asked Karla and Kio. “Really the end of the story of Castle Nashido, and the Harpooneers, and the Rokhshan?”
Rose nodded. “Seems like too much happened for it to ever really be over.”
Karla let the silence drift on for a little while. She listened to the crash of the surf, the soft breeze, the confusion of animal and human noises making its way uphill toward the pubs. And she listened to Kio, even though he wasn’t saying anything.
“It has to be,” she said at last. “We’re home.”
“I…” She took Kio’s hand, let him speak as his eyes watered.
“A tree,” he finally managed, pointing at a juniper growing out of the hillside. “That’s a tree.”
Karla hugged him tightly. The others clustered around, making sure he was all right.
Thank you, Mara, she thought. Mom. You did you work. You, Kevin Griffin, Rachel, Almon Carpenter…you can all go now.
The warm sunshine at the base of Rust Town’s island, at the base of the Heartsphere, did indeed seem to whisper of satisfied ghosts departing, gliding along with the vanishing tails of the Neogah.
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