Thunderhead 4

As soon as Karla-the-raven flew off, Kio came to his senses. Friend turned into a bird or no, he had wasted way too much time. The more he thought about it, the more obviously it seemed like classic Karla: betting everything on a totally unforeseen, untested happenstance. Sure, he did that too, like with the crystal the last time the dragon attacked.

But, but, he’d researched first. He could count on one hand the number of books Karla had finished without throwing them down because she disagreed with them or running off to build her own version of something she’d read about.

And none of them were about the best way to be a raven. Or anything that explained this. He’d have known if that book even existed.

Benefactor damn the sky kingdoms, he thought. So stingy with their knowledge. They deserve everything that happened to them.

No. Karla needed his help. She’d just flown off into the storm without any navigation and with a hungry bone dragon following her. What if the spell she was under had a time limit? What if she had ten miutes as a raven and she’d already spent six of them?

Why did Karla always leave him behind to worry about this stuff?

He froze in his tracks on the lower forward balcony, below an open stairway.

He was alone on Nashido. He’d never been alone. Not even in his vague, misty, green-clouded memories of year zero and the years before. In the days when other shadowy Rokhshan, who all looked like statues and mosaics, moved around the stairways and bridges–even then he imagined Karla there by his side.

He’d never known the castle without her. Never known life without her.

Kio launched himself down the stairway into the hangar while he drew his furs tighter. All that changed nothing. He had to save her because she was in trouble, not because he couldn’t live without her.

Could I live without her?

That was a question for much, much later. Right now he was here for one thing.

The wind had picked up as the night got darker. It whistled through the open walls of the cavernous room. A storm was roaring in from aft, whipping the air around the castle, snapping Raven’s canvas against its frame. The ornithopter didn’t look good as Kio stopped short of it, its joints still not set, its cockpit bar at a jaunty angle, the hairline fracture that had put an end to its last test run crudely patched with adhesive homemade from bird guts.

Kio stumbled on nothing to see it in such a condition. This wasn’t ever going to work. He’d thought they had more time, thought they’d done more to get the craft ready. He couldn’t trust this hulk to leap from one tower to the next.

The wind chilled the tattooed side of his face. The moonlight shone from the right, but ahead, the black earthen hulk of the sky kingdom blocked it off. Tears sprang to his eyes. It was there, and they were falling, and Karla was gone.

“There’s just one of me!” he shouted, as though something would listen.

Raven was lying on top of the cart they had launched her from days before. Kio skidded around to the front and put his back under the cockpit bar to lift it off. On his own, he couldn’t get the cart moving fast enough–it was heavy and would just get in the way. He would launch with a leap.

And no tether. Suddenly he had a whole new reason to be terrified. Forget going farther than he’d ever been from the castle. Kio thought he could go anywhere he needed to so long as he could be assured he’d come back.

He pushed up with his whole body. And instantly forgot even those fears when the cockpit bar snapped off.

I should have known, he thought, as numbness spread outward from his heart. Raven wasn’t alive no matter how much Karla wished she was. Raven was a pile of clockwork and sailcloth, as close to falling apart as everything else they owned.

It was so easy to despair. Sometimes it seemed like it was his natural state. The day he first realized he was trapped on Nashido, cut off from both the sky and the earth, he learned to take that cloud of numbness and shelter under it like it was a blanket. He could practically feel his soul reaching out for the cold comfort of helplessness.

Then he thought of Karla-the-raven winging toward the storm, and his soul grasped the edges of despair and wadded it up and threw it into a corner while Kio went looking for supplies.

He combed the makeshift workshop they’d made of the hanger. Gears and bolts and scraps littered every pace, making a minefield of it even in the moonlight. But Kio didn’t have to go far before he found what he was looking for: a pile of thick leather straps. He grabbed two of about equal length.

Back at Raven, he tilted the ornithopter up off its launching gear. It was light enough to move with one hand. Kio ignored the ominous creaking of the hollow bones as he tied both ends of both straps to the frame with his good constrictor hitch. He tested them on his shoulders, untied and retied them until they sat comfortably on his back. When he was done the lower tips of the wings rested just above the floor. If he bent forward, he could run.

Then he pulled his arms out of Raven again and laid the craft down on their calendar marks, which Karla had mostly tried to keep clear of garbage. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. When he’d strapped Raven onto his back, made the ornithopter part of him, he’d felt airborne for a moment. But looking at it like this, it was clear he’d been a fool.

How could he make this thing fly? What could he do in the next ten seconds to make himself airworthy, short of flinging himself off the castle and being done with it?

The moonlight shifted. Kio caught sight of it glinting off a small black stone–the little black rock they used to scratch the dates into the floor. It had been on Nashido forever, hadn’t been scrounged from a sky kingdom. Kio’s gemstone guide said it was called obsidian.

He bent down to look at it. Its one smooth surface reflected his face back at him. The curve of the black mirror made Kio’s winding Rokhshan tattoo stand out, in focus like he’d never seen it.

It looked different, somehow. New. And yet familiar.

Kio thought about runes.


By the time they were out of sight of Nashido, Karla realized that Kio’s third bottle of water had saved her life.

The dragon was faster than she was. But it couldn’t always see where it was going. She would shoot forward and its talon would slash across where she’d been an instant ago. She folded her wings and shot downward and it clutched just a second behind. It could follow her motions, but not predict them with its depth perception impaired. A predator needed two eyes.

Am I prey?

She streaked through a cloud. The bone dragon tore through a second behind. She beat her wings to rise again, heaving with the effort. Though her tiny body was pulsing with adrenaline, she had to face facts: even ravens got tired.

The night was fully dark now, but bolts of lightning guided her way. Each one flashed for a second, a whole fiery river system in the sky whose valleys she raced toward. Miles below, the sea was raging. Above her the ancient stars themselves shook in their moorings.

The clouds chilled her. The wind whipped against her and ruffled her feathers. The dragon ignored the headwind, but Karla had to fight it, dodging the gusts like arrows.

Piloting the ornithopter had been simple compared to this. Shift left to get left, right to get right, and always that trustworthy tether with Kio at the other end. This body could do so much more, in so many more ways–she became the air currents, instead of just forming temporary alliances with them. And she had to do it all while feeling the motion of raindrops and lightning in the whole sphere of sky she could see.

A thermal caught her under her breast and she shot up. The dragon rose slower, but kept moving, head searching. Its one-eyed vision had lost her.

Karla saw her chance. Whipping around to her left, she rode another thermal up, spinning through a corkscrew over the dragon’s tail. Once she’d leapt clear, she folded her wings and hurtled to port, beginning a wide arc aft.

The dragon kept going. Karla was halfway through her arc before she noticed the dark pillar of cloud where Nashido should have been. The moonlight shone over one face of it, a towering knife-edged cresent of light.

She couldn’t see the castle.

Can’t use port and starboard anymore, was her first thought.

Her second was elation–human elation, not the bird’s all-encompassing love of existence: she could get to the surface! All she had to do was turn Kio as well, and figure out how to change back of course, and then they could go to the Big Island together!

Her third thought snapped her back to the dragon. Soon it would catch sight of her again and start erasing her lead. She kept flying, kept weaving, to stay ahead.

Lightning flashed again, showing Karla the way. The wind carried droplets from the thunderstorm and sprayed them over her. The dragon’s one fiery eye turned, its light piercing a cloud, followed by the rest of it as it screeched after Karla.

Her tight muscles grew weary, like a clock steadily unwinding. Her dwindling human brain fought to remember the weather chart she had once made with a boy named Kio, but it was easier just to follow the lightning and rain, leading the chase onward, ever onward…

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