Thunderhead 5

Kio had to admit–he liked this feeling. The runes glowed on his back, carved into the body of the wings strapped across his shoulders. When he leapt, they caught him in midair and pushed him onward, giving him just enough height not to be terrified.

The opposite, actually. He was having fun.

It had been difficult to control at the beginning. He’d done test jumps in the hanger. The first try, he banged his head on the ceiling. On the second, he nearly flung himself over the edge. By the fifth or sixth, he’d begun figuring out how to control his momentum before he jumped. It was all in the leap, since it was impossible to change in midair without smacking into something hard.

As soon as he felt safe–around the tenth jump–he headed for the pulleys.

He still hated them, and the vines as well. But there was something about wearing safety gear, even dubious gear he’d enchanted with magic he didn’t understand one iota, that soothed his sensibilities.

The first jump took him right off the staircase up from the hangar landing, into a wall of vines. He grabbed two different green strands and starting climbing hand over hand. Even this was easier with Raven on his back: the runes totally offset the weight of the glider, along with most of his own, letting him clamber with ease. He felt as nimble as a cat atop a wall, like in the old sky kingdom nursery rhyme he’d read more times than he’d ever admit to Karla.

Why would the Rokhshan do this? he wondered as he crawled and hopped up the side of the castle. Family secrets are powerful, I get that. But tattooed onto every male heir’s face?

He hunted for a vine he could reach–there was one above his right hand. But when he pushed off to reach it, he instead shot backwards.

For a brief moment heat shot through him as he sailed into space. Then his arm sped out to catch hold of the vine, seemingly without any input from him.

He hung for a split second, panting, the glow of the runes shining out behind his wings like the light from a firefly.

“Fine, I get it,” he muttered to himself and the Benefactor. “The runes are important.”

More than important. The same runes that were buoying Raven could be used to restore Nashido’s flight. If he could get to them, and if he could inscribe them, he could save them.

One more jump and he was hanging on to one of their rapid transport pulleys. He’d reached the level of the base of the sky kingdom, and the dirt wall rose high above him, all the way to the top of Nashido’s towers. Roots large and small, some as big as the largest oxygen vines, hung out of the soil. Etched between them were the lines of immeasurably vast runes.

Somehow, Kio had to figure out how to bind Nashido and the sky kingdom together, so it would still be there when he got back. And he had to do it alone. In a few minutes. Karla could not wait any longer.

She was out there in the sky, away from Nashido, maybe falling already. The image forced him onward–to swing around the rope, kick out the statue head counterweight, and hurtle up.

He shot up to where the forward pulley was fixed above the reservoir, then let go. He drifted down to the rim of the basin and landed on all fours. The wind was blowing scales across the reservoir’s surface, pointing out the direction of the thunderhead.

Kio had held onto the rope. If the lifting runes kept Nashido in a zero gravity state, then all he needed were restraints that would stay in place by themselves. There was, of course, the way that the castle liked to wander, but with the speed he’d calculated to map the archipelago, he could be off and back with Karla inside an hour. Hardly enough time for Nashido to tug at the ropes.

Over the years, he and Karla had built and demolished many pulley systems for changing floors in emergencies. They’d wound up with three: one from the hangar, one from the library that passed the kitchen, and one from the machine deck. Each one’s rope was more than twice the length it covered, so its counterweight had a lead to run out. Enough, in other words, for each one to run far out from the castle and still make it back.

Not far enough to use as a tether when he set off for the thunderhead after Karla and the dragon. But more than enough to reach the sky kingdom.

Kio already had one pulley-rope in hand. Sprinting around the reservoir took him to another, the library/kitchen rope, which he grasped in the same hand. Then he stood at the outer edge of the basin and looked out at his destination.

The sky kingdoms were all ringed with gantrys for craft of all shapes and sizes to land–as many kinds of skycraft as they saw buzzing around the big island, plus some that must have been far larger and even more fantastic. Such an expansive dock could have hosted a Raven big enough for ten Karlas to ride in comfort, nibbling snacks instead of powering their own flight. Winged Kio looked out over a two-leveled forest of mooring towers, gangplanks, and lightposts, connected by causeways to a skyfront promenade.

Kio swallowed. The sights changed, but he always felt the same. He could only look at those broken lamps, those pockmarked, empty streets, for so long. Instead he did what Karla would have done, and jumped right away.

She would have landed cleanly on the platform. He misjudged the distance, or the height, or something else, and drifted belly-first into the dock at just a slightly slower clip than if he’d actually been falling. Slow enough for him to slam the ends of the ropes onto the scoured lumber and haul himself upright.

Then drop right back to his knees and retch over the side, holding his stomach to keep its contents inside. He’d been over empty space, without even a severed dragon wing to cling to.

He should have been more careful, should have tolerated his wide vantage over the ruined gantries for just a second longer. But if he’d kept looking, he might have seen bones.

He really hoped this one had been abandoned early. Before the end of all ends.

Swiftly, staggering a bit as Raven overbalanced him, Kio picked out two mooring poles set a few dozen paces apart. He looped one pulley end around each one, crossing them over each other a few times in a boatman’s hitch. Then he ran and leapt, sailing ten or twelve paces to a lower stairway of Nashido and grabbing the vines on its side.

He scaled them in a hurry, and didn’t look back at the sky kingdom, whose every vault and distant doorway seemed to hide a sephulcre of leering skulls.

Castle Nashido was a ruin too, of course. But its ruins were fading under the moss he and Karla grew, and the pipes they built, and the gears they repurposed. They had made it a new place. The sky kingdoms were nothing but the shells left by the ghosts that now inhabited his books.

At the machine deck, Kio exhaled aloud when he discovered he could lower the ropes into the propellors without descending onto the rickety maintenance frame. But his relief was short-lived. Once the ends of the lines were in, one in each prop, there was the battery to think about, and then…

…the really particularly dumb thing he was about to do.

There was juice in the battery. He didn’t waste time on relief, but rammed the throttle forward. The propellors roared to life just long enough to tangle the ends of the pulley-ropes into their gears. The long strands he’d run off the other side of Nashido, then back on and through, pulled taut.

His floating home was as anchored in place as it was ever going to get.

Kio turned on the spot, the canvas on his wings snapping as the wind kept picking up. Fat drops of rain spattered his face, trickling down the path of the Rokhshan tattoo, smearing the ink on the scribble-covered pages he had crumpled in the pockets of his furs. The thunderhead was closing in, but not fast enough. Not close enough.

He backed up to the stairs. Karla-the-raven was out there depending on him.

Setting off was like one of those lovely dreams where he jumped farther and farther, gliding longer every time, until at last, springing off the machine deck with his spine glowing and his eyes shut tight, Kio Rokhshan simply failed to hit the ground again.

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