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.

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