Thunderhead 3

The glass bottles were sitting out in the open when Kio burst into the kitchen with a stitch in his side and his breath getting painful. They used them for preserves, or for drinking tea when they had tea, but the most important thing was that there were a lot of them. Kio could stand to break some.

Last summer–at least, it had looked like summer on the islands–he and Karla had built a pipe that led here from the reservoir. It was still working, isolated from the sorry state of the main aqueduct. He grabbed three wide-mouthed jars and filled them from the trickle of rainwater.

The kitchen had a window that opened starboard. Kio glanced out as he was leaving, and froze in the doorway. The canvas that normally covered the opening was flapping loose, giving him a view onto a solid earthen embankment.

We forgot about the sky kingdom!

He stayed frozen in the doorway, wasting precious seconds. It had been their scheme to reach the floating isle that had attracted the dragon in the first place. If they let it drift away, the whole fight would be for nothing.

But damn it, they hadn’t meant to attract a dragon. And he’d said he would come back to Karla.

Down a flight of stairs, around the balcony, past the library anteroom, to the landing before the statuary hall that also adjoined the steps down to the hangar. Kio ran like he was dreaming. He didn’t feel his soles touch the path. He cradled the three bottles to his chest, heart lurching every time they clinked, stumbling into the airy corridor between the stone Rokhshan, now minus Graymire.

He could see the spear gun through the big window they’d pushed the statue through. He’d left Karla here only moments ago–she should have been operating the turret. Yet the pivoting gun was empty. The spear was dangling down into open sky on the long cable. Karla should have reeled it in.

Oh, Benefactor. Where is she?

Where-is-she-where-is-she-where-is-she–

He forced himself to set the bottles down gently before his shaking hands shattered them. Right when they touched the stone, the dragon rose up through the window.

“Karla!” he bellowed. The dragon was out of its hole. It was leaving the heartsphere alone. Why? Had she done something?

He scanned the scene. He hardly noticed the dragon. It was in the way of wherever Karla was, distracting him, no more important than the dark thunderclouds on the horizon. Why wouldn’t it get out of the way?

Where!

Was!

She!

Then Kio saw the raven.

He’d never seen one of the coal-black birds before. The sky kingdoms kept them as pets, but they never flew wild, like this one. A black ball of feathers darted back and forth through the dragon’s ribs. It pelted past its wings, slamming the diaphanous tissue, whipping its body back to dart in again.

It was fighting. And it had come out of nowhere. Ravens were from the surface. How could one have gotten up this high?

He’d stood frozen long enough. If Karla was somewhere he couldn’t see, hanging just out of sight, he was letting her down. But he couldn’t reach the dragon with his water bombs where it was hovering to fight the raven. The machine deck could get him closer.

The raven darted in and out of range of the bone dragon’s claws. Kio darted around the two large prop shaft columns. He still couldn’t see Karla, but he had the raven on his side–it was holding the dragon in place, had somehow managed to distract it from its single-minded focus on the heartsphere…

She’s gone, a gloating version of his own voice whispered into his head. She fell and she’s never coming back. You’re alone.

“Shut up!” Kio shouted at himself, and threw the first bottle.

It sailed several feet under the dragon. Kio gritted his teeth. Had to stop thinking about Karla falling. Had to just act.

The raven disengaged and swooped down below the dragon, luring it lower. It knew what he was doing. The book had said they were smart.

“Where’s Karla?” he shouted, whether at the bird or the dragon he didn’t know.

He stepped up to throw the second bottle, but caught a glimpse of open sky. He wasn’t scared of it anymore. Or wasn’t meant to be. But now that Karla could be–

She’s hiding! The spear didn’t work and she took shelter!

He’d already thrown the bottle somewhere in there. It didn’t miss as badly as the first: the bottle didn’t break, but the water splashed out across the dragon’s rear legs, splintering bits off all four or six or eight of them. It roared, taking its fiery eyes off the raven–but instead of taking its shot at a weak spot, the raven looked at Kio.

Even through the terror consuming his mind, Kio could tell the bird wanted something from him.

It was pointing with its beak, urgently, at the bone dragon’s eye.

Kio’s whole body trembled. He did the math in his head. The shot wasn’t impossible at all. He stepped back, stepped again, then raced forward and hurled the final glass jar.

It shattered just like he’d hoped they all would. Shards exploded across the sky. Water drenched the dragon’s skeletal head. It screamed, a keening rasp that clawed at the corners of Kio’s soul, as one of its eye-fires flickered, then went out.

The raven cawed in thanks. Kio hardly heard. He was on his knees, folding into himself–would have laughed, if he’d noticed the bone dragon was doing exactly the same thing. It was trying, and failing, to change its form and rebuild its right eye. All the time, the raven hovered close by.

Kio buried his head in his arms. “KARLA!” he screamed into the castle’s muffling stone.

***

Karla was screaming too, but it came out sounding like the squawk of a bird.

She’d been falling. Why wasn’t she dead? In open sky you fell and fell forever until you hit the sea, which would be as hard as stone.

Also, how did she know her scream was that of a bird? She only knew gulls and frigate birds and the others that flew as high as Nashido.

Ah, yes. Because when she moved her arms, they had become feathery black wings. She looked for her legs and found talons.

I’m being remarkably rational about this, she thought, just before her thoughts changed too.

Her mind contracted to the size of a raven’s and the whole sky poured through it, cloud and star and wind current funneling in and out of everything she was. Pressing her into a new form, squeeze yank stretch all at once and she had to beat beat beat her wings or fall–wearing that ornithopter was nothing like this, how did I so completely miss what it actually is to fly, thought a cloud she saw drifiting off the horizon–she could see it all. Every cirrus wisp and every direction of wind that shaped it. Every towering cumulonimbus thunderhead every flash of lightning every wave on the sea mapping out the lightning and she didn’t know which was a mirror of which. Once Kio and I set two plates facing each other, thought the part of the sky that was Karla, and they went on and on into infinity. That’s what the sea and sky are. Every bird knows that. I never did.

The very small thinking part of her was suddenly sorry she’d shot and plucked so many gulls.

Then it had bigger things to worry about. The flood of knowledge pouring into her head had advantages–she could fly without trying, just existed in the sky and the sky told her muscles how to work–but it made it hard to focus. Everywhere she looked there was something to know, and she knew it all without knowing. She saw a small island far below where she could have rested, salt spray on rocks in the overcast night. Her body found thermals the same way she’d felt awkward twinges in her gut.

Back when she was a human.

All right. Yes. Priority one. How was she suddenly a raven?

Priority two: why was the bone dragon leaving its hole to chase her, when it hadn’t looked twice at her until now?

Priority three: was Kio safe? Shouldn’t that be priority one? No, two. The dragon could be free.

I have transformed into a raven!

There was nothing in any of Kio’s books that said that wasn’t possible. And when the dragon lunged, she began to figure out other advantages.

Dodging it was easy. Fighting it came next. She laughed–squawked, rather–to think of her and Kio screwing around on the pulleys the first time they’d been attacked. Could she have done this the whole time?

Could she change back?

No time. I already have three priorities.

She flapped, dodged, charged in, learning as she went. It wasn’t far off from piloting her other Raven: balancing, backing, reading the air itself to now when to beat her wings and when to glide. She let the battle occupy her whole self, darting and distracting, making the abomination angry–and stayed so occupied she didn’t notice the first flying bottle.

The second made it clear. Her tiny head snapped around. A human boy was standing on the great palace, throwing bottles.

Everything else was fuzzy, feathery, but this name came through like a lightning bolt. Kio. That’s Kio. And he built us a weapon after all.

She found a shot for him, and he threw true, spilling water across its eye. She squawked, wishing it could have fully blinded the beast–but Kio had done wonderfully. Now it was her turn.

Wait, priority three. Or two. Memory was not a strong suit of this new brain. But she could retrieve that he wasn’t going to know who the raven was, or what had happened to Karla.

The blinded bone dragon sliced at her with its wings, once then twice, remarkably dextrous. She pelted downward, folding her wings to land in a skid on the machine deck. Kio whirled around. The sky was nearly full dark, but the moon was aft of Nashido, shining silver light around the clouds onto his long winding Rokhshan tattoo. He was staring at her with his mouth open.

She hopped closer. He knelt down to look into her eyes. “What are you?” he asked, as the dragon thrashed behind him.

She spread her wings. Had to tell him everything, everything she knew–there was no time. But her voice came out as a squawk.

“You can’t talk. All right,” said Kio, though it was not all right at all. Karla wanted to talk to him so badly it hurt. The cold thought returned: what if she couldn’t change back?

The dragon fixed its one remaining eye on them both. She couldn’t stay. But what could she do except squawk more and flap harder?

Kio cocked his head, plunging half his tattoo into shadow. “Karla?”

She nodded. And in that moment she loved him more than ever.

“I…I don’t understand.”

His eyes grew wide. Mara, how she wished she could stay and explain, but the dragon was rushing on with its mouth open wide. Karla was airborne again in an instant, a tornado of talons and feathers. The bone monster followed. It was compelled to stay with her, the sky seemed to be saying–an even stronger compulsion than what made it batter its way to the heartsphere in the first place.

She was its quarry now. And Karla would be drowned if she wasn’t going to lead him on a chase.

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