Thunderhead 2

hes-back-cra3ch2

Illustration by Grace Pyles.

The dragon shredded bits of glowmoss as its claws worked relentlessly, scattering points of light into the sky like the tail of a comet. The only sounds were the wind and the horrible scrape of talon on stone. The dragon used its claws as wedges, jamming them into the cracks around a slab from the outer citadel wall, then worked back and forth, the flames in its eyes burning with a ferocious patience.

“Ha!” Karla shouted. “Good luck! It’ll be stuck doing that for hours–“

A heavy clunk cut her off. The bone dragon had worked the stone free. As nimble as a bird, it beat its sail-sized wings and flew backward, clinging with one claw to the castle. The stone block tumbled into the sky, punching through the cloud of drifting moss. Karla saw right through to the dark hole beyond.

She heard herself scream. It was Kio’s name that came out, though she didn’t know what she needed him for. Her friend was transfixed by dragon. His head moved in rhythm with the lurching scrape of its arms.

After ten long years, maybe he’d broken. But that was no excuse to stand still. She grabbed him around the middle and pulled him back to hide behind one of the prop shaft engine blocks.

“It’s different this time,” was the first thing out of his mouth.

“Is not. It’s the same. We beat it before, and we’ll beat it again.”

She clamped her hands over her ears while the dragon worked its talons into the slot around another stone. Mara, that grinding was a horrible sound. She never wanted to hear it again.

Kio had plugged his ears too, had scrunched up his face so his tattoo contracted, but he babbled on the moment the dragon let up. “It was terrified last time. Enraged, lost. It didn’t know why it was here.”

“And you think it knows now?” Karla coiled, ready to run. “Kio, it’s destroying the castle because it’s lost its mind!”

“No!” Kio shouted. “It’s breaking into the citadel because it found its mind!”

“Are you saying this is the same one we destroyed?”

“We don’t know there’s more than one. If there’s not, and it can rebuild its body, why can’t it rebuild its brain?”

Another stone slid out and fell. The gap was widening. This time, the sound of the castle wall being torn open reached Karla from far away. Like she’d finally succeeded in pushing that awful noise away…

…No. She knew this kind of distance. It was exactly how she felt in her waking dreams. Those visions she was sure weren’t dreams.

Stop! she screamed. I can’t drift off now, I have to be here! I have to stop that demon! I have to protect Kio!

Her mouth only ignored her for a few seconds. It felt like far more time. The vision was not a long one. But it was new. Karla saw herself and Kio, huddling in the scant light from a flickering torch. They were young–very young–and the room beyond them was so vast the light spilled out without hitting a single wall…

Enough! With a tremendous effort, Karla wrenched her mind back from whatever had taken control of it. This is no time for Year Zero stuff to be getting in the way.

When she came to, Kio had one arm around her and the other around the engine block for support. “Did you see that?” she demanded of him.

“See what? The third block it’s taken out?”

“No! That–that room…” Could the dragon have some sort of power over minds, too? Did its roars actually reach into her head, instead of just feeling like they did? “Never mind. We need a plan.”

“No, what room?” Kio crouched down across from her behind their cover. “You could have seen something important. Karla, it wants the heartsphere.”

All the warmth she had left drained out of her. “Are you sure?”

“I’m not, but what else makes sense? That’s what it remembered. That’s what it came back for.”

“Then there’s no time for a plan.” She pressed her forehead quickly against his, then bolted out from their hiding place.

“Karla, wait!” Kio exploded out from the other side, bellowing a high-pitched war cry.

The heartsphere was the one thing they could not let the bone dragon have. The fact that neither she nor Kio ever went near it made it no less critical. It was the foundation everything was built out from, the glue that held the castle together. According to some of their books, it was the reason the castle existed. Though even the sky kingdoms couldn’t back that claim up.

The machine deck didn’t have as much ammunition lying around as the workshop or the hangar, but Karla was halfway through three different maintenance tasks on the propellors, and two ideas for improving them. She grabbed a heavy iron o-ring and hurled it at the dragon. It slammed into a rib with a satisfying crack, but the dragon didn’t even turn its head.

Karla didn’t stop. A metal restraining bar was next. Kio grabbed a horseshoe-shaped bracket, and they threw at the same time. Both missiles bounced off the dragon and fell away.

They kept throwing. Loose masonry, broken bits of chair, seed pods, a hollow pumpkin. Nothing even got the dragon’s attention.

“See what I mean?” Kio yelled, at the same time Karla shouted, “Bigger objects!”

“It’s obsessed!” he called, as they headed for the tower door at the end of the deck. “It’s not going to stop until it gets to the heartsphere!”

Karla threw the door open. “And then what?”

“I don’t know.”

Two pairs of feet pounded up the spiral stairs. “Doesn’t matter. We can’t let that happen.”

The staircase’s first landing opened onto the statuary corridor, a once-imposing room whose stained-glass windows had been smashed out by hail long ago. Karla didn’t like it–it wasn’t good for a garden or a smokehouse or anything else. It was only good for sleeping in.

And for containing large, heavy, otherwise useless objects. Karla ran over to the nearest: a bald, bearded man with a stern face, leaning on the hilt of his sword, over a faded etching on a small plinth that read Graymire Rokhshan. “Help me push this!”

Kio raced to do so. The floor was smooth marble. The heavy statue soon began to slide.

“What are you thinking?”

“Look ahead.” At the end of the hall, between the two staircases spiraling down, a broad window opened onto deep gray sky.

Kio gave a hysterical smile. “Is it…really sitting right underneath that?”

“We’ll find out on three. One–hey!” The statue began sliding. “Kio! Quit it! I said three!”

She raced to get her hands on it while he pushed. It was as heavy as anything on board, but neither she nor Kio was exactly weak, either. If this didn’t knock some sense into the dragon, nothing would.

They were halfway to the window when the vision took over again.

Karla buckled to her knees. This time, Kio stopped too, leaning against Graymire Rokhshan as though his marble great-great-something-grandfather could provide answers. That was the last thing she saw before she plunged back into that vast, black room, with that Kio who wasn’t Kio.

The dim light played over their young faces. Her hair was much shorter. His wasn’t there at all. The floor sloped, she could see now, like they were halfway to being washed down some horrible drain to the underworld.

Her mouth formed words. How long has it been?

He answered. I dunno. Quit asking.

We don’t have any food.

And we can’t find the exit, so who cares?

We’ve gotta get out.

We’re never getting out. The little boy stared unblinkingly into the light. I forgot where the doors are.

That was it. Karla wanted to wake up. She convulsed, whether in the vision or the statuary corridor she didn’t know. She couldn’t stay here. This place was dark enough to be a tomb. It felt like it was sucking up all the light she’d ever seen, all the light the little girl she was ever would see.

If she didn’t wake up right now, she never would.

Karla.

Shut up! Who are you, anyway?

Karla! Kar–

“Karla!”

It was the real Kio, shaking her awake. Below the wide window, the dragon was still methodically ripping open the citadel. Soon he’d have a hole big enough to fit through.

She reached up to hug Kio before remembering they had work to do. “Let’s finish this. Then we’ll talk.”

He put hands on the statue. “Um…about what?”

“You know what. Push!”

Three paces left. Then one. Graymire hit the window plinth-first, and Karla and Kio shifted their hands upward. The statue toppled without a fight.

She heard the splintering crunch a second later, the sound of bones shattering. She raced to the ledge. Kio began, “What did you want to–“ but she held up one finger to shush him. She wasn’t ready to go back to that black room. At least until she was absolutely sure they’d taken the dragon out.

The two of them leaned over the window ledge, Karla on her feet, Kio on his knees.

Below them, the bone dragon was still fighting the castle wall with all its strength. The Rokhshan statue had lodged upside-down just above its legs.

“It’s moving a bit slower,” Kio ventured. “With the extra weight…”

But as they watched, the thing reformed its bones. Those close to the statue rippled outward like water disturbed. Soon it had produced a gaping hole in its own back half, big enough for the statue to fall free. It followed their other projectiles down to the rolling ocean, while the bone dragon kept tearing unencumbered.

Karla gaped. Not seconds later, with a last awful scrape, the dragon had removed the final piece of wall it needed. It began to sniff its way, headfirst, into the inner citadel.

“It’s…it’s out of reach.” Kio gained his feet unsteadily, leaning on the window frame. “It’s gone.”

“It is not gone!” Karla exploded, much louder than she meant to, but for a reason. She absolutely needed to keep the year zero vision from coming back. She needed to shout, to throw things, to act on this world in order not to slide back into the other one.

Kio darted away from the window. “You’ve got a plan?”

“We don’t need a plan! It’s let a gaping hole behind it!” Karla pounded her fists on the stone wall. “My plan is to throw stuff through that hole!”

For a moment, Kio was silent. Then his whole face lit up. “I think I know something that could help!”

Karla whipped around. “What is it?”

“I can hit it with water. But I have to get to the kitchen.”

“The kitchen? Why?“

“To build a weapon.”

Kio’s face had a particular cast to it that showed up whenever he’d considered an idea for long enough to be comfortable pulling it off. This one hadn’t taken very long. He must have really trusted it. And when Kio trusted something, she kinda had to as well.

She nodded. “There’s a spear gun that can aim down into that hole. I’ll shoot it as many times I can. That should slow it down enough for you to get back here.”

“Thanks.” Kio took a couple of steps back. “I’ll see you soon!”

“Kio!” she called, right as he was about to turn away. “You saw it too. Right? I saw you stumble.”

“Year zero stuff,” he mumbled. For him, that ended the conversation.

Fair enough, she thought. They both had work to do.

Down the stairs, up another flight when they forked at the landing–Karla knew the path so well she hardly touched the ground. Through a short corridor, hung with joints of drying gull, she careened out onto a thin ledge that ran alongside the enclosed path to an old solarium. Though some vines and moss grew along it, it wasn’t wide enough for a garden. But it was just big enough for a spear gun.

This one didn’t have a seat, just a pair of handles for Karla to grab and swivel inward. She’d built each turret on a wheel that spun three-hundred sixty degrees. Swinging it to point back at Nashido took no time at all.

Halfway concealed by the hole it had made, the bone dragon dug onward. Its body shook like some vile spore sac about to burst.

Karla’s mouth turned up. It won’t see this one coming.

She lined up her shot. Just before squeezing the trigger, she wondered for a split second what Kio’s idea was–

–suddenly, all she wanted to think about was the black room.

A wordless yelp of pain escaped her mouth. It was more pervasive than ever before. The memory had its claws in her as surely as the spear was about to be lodged up the dragon’s rear end.

“I…am…busy!” she roared. The last word came out like a squawk.

Acting. Fighting. That was the only thing that would keep her in the here and now. She shot the dragon.

The spear flew true and stuck cleanly between two lower ribs. Karla whooped, grabbed the lever to wheel it backward.

With one motion, the dragon flexed its body and ripped the spear off the wall by the end of its cable. The turret went with it.

In that moment, Karla surrendered herself to the vision.

It wasn’t a conscious decision. She wasn’t capable of making one when she had so little idea what was happening in her head. The black room pulled her in through an opening she left, and she noticed, rather than decided, that she had to see it through to the end.

We’ve gotta get out.

We’re never getting out. I forgot where the doors are.

In the vision, she crawled toward the young boy. It’s Kio, right?

He glared. Lord Kio of House Rokhshan.

Kio Rokhshan, we are getting out.

I forgot–

We will find the doors!

They hunched over the torch. I feel strange, said Dream-Kio.

Hungry?

No. Strange.

You feel alive. She held out her hand. Let’s go.

In the real world, Karla started to fall.

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