Form 2

Sky kingdoms. What was there to say about sky kingdoms?

A great deal, as it turned out, and at the same time basically nothing. It had taken a while for Kio to get her to hear him out–in her defense, Karla had been nine years old, even less interested in her friend’s history lessons than she typically was right now.

He’d won her over, though, when he had explained how you could use an understanding of their history to find your way around. A sky kingdom was a radial system. Many years before Karla and Kio, before the Rokhshan claimed Nashido and perhaps many years before that, the people of the high sky had been nomads, traveling in fleets between naturally occurring islands. All this, nine-year-old Kio breathlessly informed nine-year-old Karla’s back, was written down in their annals. On their most common landing sites, they built temples first, then camps around them that gradually grew. When they began to settle down, they built further rings to trade with one another, while the camps became palaces that were extensions of the temple. The outer rings were about trade with the surface, the kind that would have been handled through Nashido, once upon a time.

They stood there now, on one of those gantries that had been made for launching to the middle kingdom where she and Kio ruled alone.

Although, she thought, I guess we’re king and queen here too.

She adjusted her pack, which was sitting fine, and looked up at a high tower poking up over the tops of the buildings. “The temple.”

“Yeah,” Kio said, his eyes fixed on it too. “We just have to get across this gantry, and we’ll be there.”

“You might wanna look at your feet while we do,” she told him. “So you don’t die.”

“Can’t make me.” Kio’s mouth twisted in a sardonic smile that might have been an imitation of hers, if she had been capable of being sardonic.

“Then hold my hand, at least.” She held it out to her side.

A moment later, she felt Kio’s cold fingers grasp it. They started walking.

A crunch underfoot. Kio’s hand tightened in hers. Or hers clenched his.

She kicked something that clattered. A bilious lump rose in her throat. Kio was feeling with his feet, trying not to break anything, kicking up a monstrous clatter. She pulled him forward. They both stepped on bones–her on something big and round–and suddenly not even halfway across the platform they were both running.

Karla couldn’t have said what the gantry looked like. She kept her eyes fixed on the temple tower poking above stately columned roofs topped with carved eaves. There were more crunches, more clatters, Kio breathing heavily beside her–

–then the edge, with no stairway, a sharp turn to the left, agreed on without speaking–

–she and Kio were lost in a garden of bones.

The sky kingdoms shared a basic design, but their cultures had become different through the unfathomable lengths of their reigns. They weren’t perfect copies. Knowledge from the others could not tell her how to get them off this dock.

If they had shared knowledge, maybe they all could have gotten their people out safely, ahead of the end.

Karla stole glances at the temple. One instant, it flashed with light, a thin zigzagging ray the same color as the atmosphere crystals on Nashido. It could have been a knife through her, except…no, that didn’t make sense. Nobody got stabbed and then woke up with more questions.

Crunch. Clatter. Pound pound pound breath coming shallow. The sounds sloughed off her brain.

She looked down once, gagged, shut her eyes.Luckily, she had sure Harpooneer feet. She found a way for both of them by following the upward curve of the ramp, until it spat them out onto an inner street with archways rising up on either side.

Kio’s hand dropped from hers. The shaggy-haired boy stumbled a few paces a way, braced himself against a doorway, and threw up. Karla tried not to follow suit. When one person was freaking out, the other person got proportionally calm. She hadn’t read that in a book, it was just her life. It wasn’t quite working.

“Some archaeologist,” she said when Kio stumbled back to her. “One of your favorite authors could have barfed on that doorstep.”

“Guess that makes me a philosopher.” Kio wiped his mouth shakily. Karla put a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t usually joke this much.

“I remembered…” He looked down. His uncertainty was at odds with the empty grandeur around them. “I thought about year zero.”

“Did you remember anything?” she asked without thinking.

Kio didn’t seem to mind, but shook his head. His mouth moved.

She leaned closer. “What?”

“Garden of bones,” he murmured. “Garden of bones.”

Karla pulled him close and stroked his back until he stopped muttering.

“Do you know where we are?” she asked, when she thought he was ready.

“This is probably a landing district. Focused on the surface. And Nashido.” He separated from her and looked around. “It explains why there were so many…so many people back there. There was a rush to get off, a crowd they were all stuck in when whatever happened. Maybe they were thinking the Rokhshan could save them.”

“What did the Rokhshan do for these kingdoms again?” She knew, but a question like this would settle his mind.

“They, uh…they served as ambassadors.” Kio began to tiptoe up and down the corridor, finally looking at his feet, making a survey of all the plances they had to search. “Most people up here were too high and mighty–literally, heh–to talk to anybody on the surface. So the Benefactor raised up House Rokhshan and their retainers as intermediaries. No surface people were ever allowed up to Nashido, of course, but they could relay messages down.”

This all sounded strange to Karla when she pictured the grandeur of the capital city on the Big Island. It seemed vaster than anything this huge sephulcre could offer up. What did the sky kingdoms have, pretty columns and magic letters that stopped working when they felt like it?

The surface people had planes. Much more magic, in her opinion.

But then she remembered her mother’s letter, and the implication that Kio’s family had taken surface people as slaves. She shuddered. Anything that made Mara’s dictums sound reasonable had that effect. If she’d believed in the Benefactor, she would have prayed to him for a regular mother. Even if she still had to be dead.

“What’s our plan, then?” she asked Kio, who was returning from his street survey.

“Make our way toward the temple,” Kio replied. “Map the place, and then conduct a circle-by-circle survey. Right now, we need more information. Do you remember what we’re looking for?”

Karla dipped her head. “Basic supplies. Runes–“

“–and rune creation devices–“

“–do you want me to answer or not?”

“Sorry.”

“Rune devices, anti-dragon weaponry, and more tea really would be fantastic, we’re running low.”

They set off toward the open other end of the alley. “Why don’t we just grow tea?” Kio asked.

“Why don’t we?” Karla let Kio move ahead. Though her mind was spinning with purple beams and skulls and images of Harpooneers, this did sound like a fantastic idea.

They made their way down the narrow arch-lined street, which stayed narrow, though wide boulevards intersected it every handful of doorways. Karla soon figured out that they were walking a radius that crossed each of the concentric rings that made up the city. Each of these was a string of wide, sunny squares extending out of sight in every direction, like an airy forum had been stretched and wrapped around the temple tower.

That settled what was different about this one. There was a lot more open space than most of the others. Searching it would be easier.

“Could this island have drifted north from someplace warmer?” she wondered aloud. Island suddenly seemed like the right term: every now and then, bits of dirt and green stalks poked through cracking pavement. “And that’s why we haven’t found it before?”

“Eh?” Kio was looking up. “Oh. Could’ve.

Each ring seemed older: the carvings less elaborate, the stones less grand, the illegible writing on the signs rougher. Karla poked her head through a window to see if anything was changing inside the shops and houses. But she pulled back out like a fire had exploded in the window. There was a table inside, laid for a meal. Dishes, forks, ceramic cups. The end hadn’t even given them time to clean up.

Karla forced herself to look a little longer–she might want to swipe one of those cups–but she didn’t want to be in there right now. There was a smell, a death-stench, that time had not been able to wear away. Somewhere in that room, if she looked hard enough, would be another root from the garden of bones.

When she got back, Kio was staring at the tower. She joined him on a little bridge over a dry canal.

It had grown larger. She was close enough to see that the beam of light had shone from a separate structure from the square roof she’d seen from the landing gantry. The temple roof was built of elaborate panels carved into monolithic slabs that fitted together to form the chamber, but it wasn’t half as striking as the other spire. That one was a triangular prism of glass, the tallest structure on the sky kingdom. Clouds drifted behind its razor-sharp edges.

An orb of violet light sprang up in the top corner of the prism. As Karla’s mouth opened, another appeared on an opposite edge, and a straight beam shot between them. No sooner had it landed than another orb formed lower down, and yet another above it that started a whole new beam. Before long, there was a helix of light in the prism, spiraling down below the rooftops out of view.

“Kio,” Karla breathed, suddenly hushed, “what’s doing that?”

“I was gonna ask you.” Kio’s voice, too, was reverential, the way it always got in Nashido’s library. He grabbed three pages out of his coat at random and shuffled through them without reading.

“What does the color remind you of? Our–”

“–our crystals. Yeah.”

“So that’s rune magic.” Karla began to forget about the weight on her back. “You’re the rune guy. Could that happen on its own?”

“I don’t know.” Kio glanced away from the prism and then gave up on looking anywhere else, even at her. “The crystals are steady, but this is an active display that doesn’t seem to have any…any function…”

The canal under their feet might have been dry since the moment everything ended. It wouldn’t run on its own. Nothing could for long. Not Nashido, not this temple.

“There’s…” Kio began.

“You don’t think…” Karla managed. “Somebody’s…”

Both of them shared one glance, then started running, not pausing to take off their packs.

I’m a self-supported writer. To keep The Clockwork Raven going, I rely on donations from readers like you. If you enjoyed this chapter, please consider visiting my Patreon–even $1 a month helps me out. Thank you!

Visitor 2

Kio gasped out, “One of us has to let go.”

“No way.” She got his meaning. “I’m not leaving you to fight that dragon on your own.”

“Not you, me. You’re too light. I’m heavy enough to carry you up.”

“Wrong.” Karla’s hand slipped an inch, scraping fire over her palm. “This is just like the tornado. You wanted to climb onto the propellor shaft and–“

“And yes, that was dumb! There was no way I could have come back!” Kio’s voice was turning squeaky. “Not this time. I’ll swing close and grab the vines before I fall.”

“You’re supposed to be the cautious one,” Karla snarled. “How do you keep getting these things into your head?”

“I’m cautious when there’s another choice. There isn’t one. We can’t hang here while that thing destroys the whole castle.”

“We have other choices! We can climb!”

She let go with her left hand, trying to work her way up the ropes and prove her point. But her muscles, already aching from holding herself in place, could hardly stand moving. Swearing, she shuffled one hand higher, then the other, then her feet. Then she looked down.

Kio was about six inches further below her, wearing as defiant a mask as his baby-smooth face could manage. “Karla. It’s the only way.”

“It’s not!” They were close to wasting all the time they’d saved by taking the pulleys, and the bone dragon was clawing its way around the northern tower in a downward spiral. But she still couldn’t say yes.

“Why?” Kio called, and Karla wanted to beat her head against the stones of Castle Nashido. He was just going to call her irrational in that smug way he loved to.

“Because we promised!” she shouted back.

Nothing changed on Kio’s face when she looked down to see him hanging with clouds drifting below his feet. But he was quiet. The promise never came up unless one of them was seriously worried but didn’t want to admit it. Usually Karla. Kio never had a problem admitting when he was worried.

Except right now. If he thought he could make it, what business did she have being afraid?

“You’ll swing?”

He nodded vigorously. “You’ll know. When the rope stops.”

Or falls out of the pulley, and comes with you to the surface. A lot faster than we planned. “Dominant hands hold on?”

“Lefties first,” Kio said.

The wind stung her eyes. “On three, ready?”

“One…” His voice alone.

Theirs together. “Two…three!”

She let go with her right hand, Kio with his left. The ropes didn’t move quickly at first: he didn’t weigh that much more than she did. Neither of them ate a great deal. But soon the block pulley began to run faster. Karla planted her feet on the wall and walked up, forcing herself not to look down. The edge of the reservoir wasn’t far. She had to focus on what to do about the bone creature.

Oh, right. I have no idea what to do about the bone creature. Like it had heard her thoughts, the thing pressed its advantage. One more mighty lurch of its diaphanous wings stove in the final aqueduct.

The girders and the chute crashed into the rim of the reservoir basin with such a terrible screech Karla nearly let go of the rope to cover her ears. The crash didn’t stop, either–their last source of clean water took an age to fall, with each new section and the funnel itself clanging off the basin flagstones, splashing into the water, tumbling off into empty space.

The rope to her right swung back and forth, but she didn’t stop moving. Kio, damn it, hurry!

Three more steps, then one. Right when Karla hurled herself over the lip of the reservoir basin, the rope jerked, then stopped running. Kio had found somewhere to hold on with a few paces of line to spare.

Knowing was enough. Karla rolled to her feet, clasping her rope-chafed palms together. She spun, fair hair whipping across her eyes, to face down the pile of bones invading her home.

The reservoir basin was open to the air, with nothing but the three towers surrounding it. The light moss grew on these and around the rim of a broad tiled circular path carved with black shadow puppets of ancient Rokhshan heroes. The pool itself was as broad as one of Nashido’s huge propellors, with a surface blown into scales by the high sky crosswinds. The bone dragon–as she had started thinking of it, at some point–was half-buried under the pile of twisted steel it had knocked over. For a second, Karla dared to hope it had crushed itself to death. Maybe their only labor would be to untangle the bones of their aqueduct from the dragon’s bones.

The pile of scrap shifted. Karla leapt back. A gust of wind seemed to chase her, whipping the reservoir into waves.

A second lurch. The bone dragon’s head punched through the pile. The multicolored flames flickered in its mismatched eyes, staring at her.

“What are you?” she shouted desperately. “Where did you come from?”

The thing roared in answer, a cry that sounded like the last moment before hitting the ground, a rumble and rasp of clattering teeth. It didn’t tell her much.

Except that this thing hated her. Not for anything she’d done. For being.

“Don’t want to tell me? Fine!” she roared back at it. “I’ll just scare you off and see where you run to!”

One final massive wingbeat, and the dragon cast off the metal, flying free. Those insect wings were clearly stronger than they looked. Karla made a note to examine them for Raven, sometime when she wasn’t about to get torn to shreds.

A spar, studded with bolts, shot across the tile toward her. She jumped back again, scuffing the face of some old Rokhshan, then dove away with a yelp as a whole chunk of the aqueduct teetered and slammed down a few inches from where she’d just been.

The dragon was above her, leaping from one tower to the next, tightening a circle around her. A bird of prey going in for the kill. She pushed to her feet fast as it soared past her head by inches.

Its talons anchored on the tile as its tail blades slashed at Karla. Missed by wider this time. She snatched up the metal strut just to have a weapon in her hand. It made her feel stronger, even though it would be as useful as tickling this thing with a feather.

The bone dragon was facing the wrong way. Karla waited, hardly daring to twitch. Any moment it could turn and devour her whole. Harpooneer, she thought, angry at herself, what is your plan?

The dragon stalked away. Its wings pulsed gently to keep it balanced. Karla’s heart dropped. If it lost interest in her, it could destroy more of the castle. And it had absolutely destroyed way too much already. How they were going to live with just the reservoir water…

One problem at a time. She had to keep it focused on her. “Hey!” she shouted, banging her club against the tile. “Worst houseguest ever! We’re not finished!”

The dragon rumbled and ground. And kept going. Working its way around the circle, one many-legged step at a time.

It was still coming for her. But why not turn? It was big, true, so big it couldn’t reorient without jutting into both the sky and the pool. And it wasn’t scared of the sky. It had come from there. Which meant…

As the bone dragon passed the pile of aqueduct shards, headed for her, Karla got a running start from the outer edge of the basin rim. Three steps carried her to the water. A flying leap, arms flailing, hair trailing, flung her small frame like a cannonball into the center of the reservoir.

Part of her was dimly aware she was fouling the only water they had. But like she’d said. One problem at a time. For now, it was comforting enough to know: whatever that is, it’s afraid of water.

The water whipped up around her. Some of it splashed onto the basin rim, and the dragon shied away, the first fear she’d seen it show since its initial disoriented impact into their aqueduct. She clenched a fist, relishing the little victory. Relishing it even more when the bone dragon pulsed its wings and took flight, heading away.

Her victory lasted until she remembered she didn’t know where Kio was. Probably in the library looking for references to bone dragons, trying to find the thing’s weakness, or else running up here to join her. Either way, he’d be somewhere enclosed. Unless he took an outer stairway. And Nashido was mostly outer stairways…

Oh, no. Could it find him?

She thrashed, paddling toward the edge of the basin, damning the way living on a flying castle gave her no chances to learn how to swim.

Screeching from behind her. Had the aqueduct shrapnel begun to shift?

Damn! If that falls into the sky, we’ll be even more screwed! She reversed direction by holding her breath swimming down until she could anchor her feet on the bottom of the basin. It took longer than she thought. She pushed her arms hard, breaking the surface–

–to see the bone dragon, its claws screeching along the side of the tower, swinging around an axis like the tooth of a gear. Finding the real source of the sound was cold comfort.

The monster rushed closer to Karla, but stopped short of the water, clattering instead into the pile of aqueduct scrap. She froze in the water, wondering why it had done that on purpose.

A second later, she had her answer. The bone dragon rose up above the basin with a long metal girder clutched in each of its two front claws.

She swore. It was as though this thing was getting smarter by the second.

Where to go? The bone dragon bore down on her with both its weapons. No matter which direction she swam, she’d hit one of them, and she wasn’t a good enough paddler to back away.

The dragon paused with a mighty roar of its wings, gusting the surface of the water backwards. Then it rose, so whatever it dropped would have space to accelerate. Karla saw her own death looming above her.

Nothing for it. She gulped a breath and dove back under the basin, headfirst this time. At least it might slow the girders enough for her to drown instead of being crushed to death.

Kio, she thought, as her lungs tightened, I hope you’ve found an amazing book about bone dragons…

And then one last thought: I’m sorry. I guess I’m breaking the promise first after all.

If you liked this chapter, please consider pledging to my Patreon–you could unlock up to three more installments right now!

Visitor 1

It was always the same vision, always the same time of day. A flock of birds. A great green cloud that shone with its own light. And then, the fire.

The vision wasn’t a dream. Karla would have known if she was asleep. It was a memory that came early after she woke because it was the bedrock her sense of self was built on. Her mind couldn’t function without it. And she didn’t have the foggiest idea what it meant.

Well, not quite. She understood it wasn’t usually supposed to involve this much shaking.

“Karla!” a boy’s voice shouted. “There’s something on the cloud-catchers!”

Karla kicked her tangled sleeping fur off, so hard it sprawled over the flagstones of the machine deck. Living on a floating castle made her extremely sensitive to tilting floors. Nashido was big enough to weather most storms, but when the ground pitched that fast, she needed to find somewhere enclosed to hold on.

But the ground wasn’t shaking. She was. Or rather being shaken, by the boy who had shouted her name. Kio had dodged out of the way of the flying fur blanket and was sheltering against the nearest prop shaft cover. His face was pale, though she couldn’t read it perfectly–the light was dim. When they didn’t have torches, they saw using the glow from luminescent moss, but that needed sunlight to charge, and it was dawn. Plus they’d been drifting in a cloudbank all day. Nashido was taking much longer to wake up than either of them were.

“How big is it?” Karla asked him.

“How big is what?” Kio might have momentarily forgotten where he was. He did that.

“The thing on the water catchers!”

“I don’t know! I was too busy running to take its measurements!” Now that he’d roused her, Kio was sprinting back toward the stairs that led up to the reservoir, following a dim line of moss on the ceiling. “If you come with me, maybe we can get a closer look.”

She reached out quickly enough to grab him by one flailing wrist. “Stairs are too slow,” she said, pulling him away from the citadel toward a slim tower off the edge of the machine deck. “We’ll take the pulley.”

“Oh, no.” Kio’s face turned green as she dragged him onto the little footbridge toward the base of the tower. “I hate the pulley.”

“You climb the vines every day.”

“I also hate eating. But I do that.”

Hugging the tower wall, Karla began to shuffle around its base. “I make you do that.”

“I let you make me.” Kio planted his feet firmly and followed her.

“Whatever.” One-hundred-eighty degrees around the ledge, then a little further to give Kio space to jump. “Ready?”

He swallowed. “No.”

“Jump!”

The stairs Kio had wanted to take were part of the largest structure on Nashido, the two-layer keep they called the citadel. Several staircases and chambers, plus the library, were part of the outer citadel. The reservoir, a great basin with no walls around its rim, formed the citadel’s roof.

Beyond the outer citadel was the inner citadel, where they didn’t go. All the rooms in there had walls. Beyond the inner citadel was the Heartsphere.

Karla could see it all flash past her as she flung herself backwards off the knife-edge ledge: the soaring walls of mottled stone, its human-sized blocks colored steel-gray, leather-brown, sandy yellow, fitting each other so smoothly they needed no glue or concrete to hold together. Vines too big for her and Kio to fit their arms around snaked across each other up the citadel and around the outer towers connected to it.

Her hands shot up, sure fingers closing around the rough woody bark of one of the smaller vines. The turret they were climbing held nothing but the massive trunk and twigs rooted in a soil bed, feeding on their breath and giving them back air to breathe.

Well, nothing but that and one of her tricks. Karla scurried up the offshoot vines, waited just long enough to see Kio flail his way to a safe handhold, then climbed.

Even the twigs grew as thick as rungs. Karla never lacked for footholds. The short climb gave her time to think about what Kio could have seen on top of the castle. Some new bird? What other kind of visitors did they ever get?

Halfway up the tower, she ran out of vines. The rope was waiting for her: a length of line she’d bound several knots into after stringing it over the edge of the battlement. It ran up through several pulleys to a counterweight behind her, a heavy old stone jug sitting on a jutting eave.

High up the wall behind it was one of the outer ledges on which she had mounted a spring-loaded spear turret strung with bird line. The bulky swiveling contraption stood sentinel in the morning sun. If she shot at just the right angle and speared a gull or a frigater so well it wouldn’t slip free, she could use the crank at the base to reel the line back in with food for their stores. Even Kio was a decent shot, though he wasted too much time calculating the angle of descent for the spear.

Could a solid shot from the turret be enough to scare the unwelcome guest off? She shook her head. Of course it would. Otherwise she was thinking too much like Kio.

Speaking of Kio, where was he?

Stuck halfway down the vines, breathing hard. Karla wrapped the rope three times around her waist, then pushed off the tower, letting slack go. With a song of clinks and rasps from the pulley–had to oil that later–she rappelled down to catch her friend. By the time she reached him, the line attached to her makeshift harness was taut against the counterweight.

Kio wrapped his arms around her waist in a practiced motion. “What do we have to throw?” he shouted over the rush of the wind.

“I’ve got seed pods!” Karla reached into one pocket and withdrew a hairy capsule the size of two of her fists–one of the seeding fruits dropped by the huge oxygen vines. Tightening her grip on Kio and the rope with one arm, she hurled it with the other.

The seed-pod whanged off the eave and fell clear down into the open sky. The two watched as it vanished into a cloud.

“How many seed pods?” Kio looked ready to curl up in his fur on solid ground, intruder or no intruder.

“Two!” Karla drew out the next one and threw it.

The pod connected with the jug with a satisfying thunk. The big counterweight teetered once as Karla prayed aloud to the Benefactor–normally Kio’s habit, but these were extreme circumstances.

Just when it seemed to be settling, the jug tipped over empty space, and fell, dragging its end of the rope. Karla and Kio flew up.

yeah-this-is-an-everyday-thingcr-a1ch1

Illustration by Grace Pyles.

The sensation was like being jerked up through the sky on a birding line. Each bounce and swing of the counterweight pulled on the block and tackle hanging from the high tower, winching Karla up the Citadel wall faster than she ever could have run. Dangling from her waist, Kio scampered his legs up the tower wall every time they swung too close, bounding for one or two steps before pushing off again. Hoping he could keep handling himself, Karla dared to look up.

The block pulley was racing closer. Above it was the open space of the reservoir, and then it was just a straight shot to the spear gun. Swinging her head around, she saw the jug falling through empty sky past the machine deck–heading for the dead propellors. She screwed up her concentration. She’d have to let go at exactly the right time to make the reservoir ledge without crushing her fingers, and pivot right away to help Kio up too. That was assuming the thing on the catchment pod didn’t make any trouble right when it smelled them…

Why am I assuming it’s something that can smell?

The thought died with a swoop in her stomach. They weren’t rising anymore. She and Kio spent a split second hanging in midair that stretched out eternally in two directions.

Karla moved like she was caught in a net of vines. Eyes down. Jug shattered on sticky-out propellor blade. Opposite end of the rope flying free.

Kio twisted across her. His free left hand darted out to grab the other rope, and his leg wrapped it as well, pulling it close before he screamed.

“Rope burn!”

Karla let one hand go and hauled the counterrope close. The frayed strand rasped her palm and thigh as she gripped it. They had nothing to replace it with up here, so they’d repaired the same ropes dozens of times. In dozens of places.

All of which it felt like she was holding onto right now. The burning seemed to spread, from her palms out to her shoulders and hips. She and Kio were suspended on their own system, unable to move up or down, their limbs slowly separating from their sockets.

“Karla…” Kio wheezed.

“What?” she snapped. “I know we should have taken the stairs! You don’t need to tell me!”

“No…” Karla risked a look down. Kio was craning his head up, trying to point with his eyes. “That’s it…”

“That’s what?” She followed his gaze.

He was looking above the open reservoir plaza. Above the citadel, the three towers rose to peak at different heights, bristling with birding lines and vine gardens.

The spires were linked with a series of metal struts, half ancient Rokhshan work, half Karla’s own. On each side of the triangle, and on several links between those sides, sat large oval shapes that looked like eggs cut in half. Alternating with the pods, their cloud captors and distillers, were wide-mouthed funnels. Both objects connected to long chutes of the same metal, some of which pointed at the vine gardens, some into the reservoir.

The catchment system got Karla and Kio every drop of the water they drank. The funnels caught rain, while the pods caught clouds, though only if one of them noticed the vapor drifting into the trap. If they could pull the lever the pod lid was wired to in time, it would shut on the cloud, leaving it to condense into water they could drink. Kio liked to keep watch on this for hours, reading a book on a high parapet and glancing up once a minute.

Right now, there was something else in the pod. Or rather, half in and half out, sort of like them and the castle.

It wasn’t a bird. There was enough charged moss creeping up the high towers, glowing silver with the moonlight it had drunk all night, for her to see more than just its shadow.

The thing scrabbling against the pod was made of bones.

Not a skeleton: Karla had seen skeletons before. Of the birds they plucked and picked clean. In the anatomy textbooks Kio fished out of the library. This wasn’t a frame for something to grow over. It was a monster made of plates and spines, with limbs sticking out at painful angles. Two misshapen claws in front scrambled for purchase against the smooth surface of the cloud pod. Two more long spindly arms were welded tight against wings the size of rose windows, gossamer like a dragonfly’s, but shining with a light they weren’t reflecting. At the back of the thing’s gray cage of a body, a tangle of legs kicked and scratched at the struts of the aqueducts, bending one sharply out of place.

“No!” Karla wondered if the thing knew what it was doing. It couldn’t know it was destroying their water source.

It’s lost, she thought. Trapped itself. Or looking for something. It can’t possibly be here on purpose. Its wingbeats were too fast, the motions of its limbs too desperate for it to be experiencing anything other than panic.

Or so she thought, until it looked straight at her–locking eyes with her where she hung uselessly, unable to let go of either rope lest she and Kio plummet to their dooms. Two flames sputtered in two eye sockets, whirlwinds of blue, green, violet, orange. The sunken face they were set in bristled with sharpened spines of bone. Running back from its missile-shaped head were two twisting ribcages that wrapped around each other in a helix, back to where the mass of legs writhed under tail feathers.

Feathers? They were bone plates. Shaped like feathers, but sharper than scythes.

The tail plates slashed left and right into the struts holding up the catchment pods. One cloud-catcher bent sideways. Another sliced clean off. It crashed into every aqueduct on the way down, making sounds like the bits of orbital debris that sometimes knocked against Nashido’s walls. Karla felt every hit like it had struck her. Each time she wanted to let go, to climb up to save what was left of their water, Kio yelped–or she did–and they kept hanging together in their agonizing pulley trap.

The skeletal creature swiveled and freed its head. It launched itself down at the metal supports, tearing one whole aqueduct apart from its top half. The shake rattled the castle down through the Citadel, probably though the heartsphere.

One channel left, with one funnel, and no cloud-catchers. And Karla and Kio were dangling, helpless, like a bird on the end of one of her spears.

If you liked this chapter, please consider pledging to my Patreon–you could unlock up to three more installments right now!