Thunderhead 6

Beneath the thunderhead, Karla veered left and right, instinct taking over completely and burying her human brain. She dodged around downpours, soared under masses of droplets, giving the bone dragon hope each time that it had a chance to catch her.

Her pursuer wasn’t even a full beast anymore. Just a shard of claw in a flash of lightning, a row of teeth through a curtain of rain. But it was still following.

Karla had something it wanted. Even her raven brain could figure that out. Why else would it be chasing her so viciously?

She had to deal a final blow. Her leaden muscles wouldn’t allow the chase to go on any longer. But she couldn’t see what was happening to the half-blind monster, if the rain was working at all…

They raced together into an open pocket, a sort of clearing in the storm just large enough for Karla to look behind. There. The bone dragon’s jaw no longer looked quite so stout. Bits of its mouth were sliding out of place like tectonic faults.

Covering herself in a lightning flash, she slammed herself into the jawbone as another peal of thunder struck across the scene. It knocked loose, taking an armful of teeth with it. The dragon swiveled toward her, but had nothing to bite with.

She flapped her wings to cruise over its one good eye. Ribcage next. If she could take off its wings…

The wind shifted, washing them both in a watery curtain. A series of eerie clicks echoed out of the dragon’s mouth. Karla exalted in the spray, letting out a squawk. It was working–the rain was taking the dragon apart, and it didn’t even seem to notice, it was so set on her.

What did it want from her? She had nothing. She wasn’t even sure if her clothes had transformed with her.

No sooner had she had that thought than she had another: That’s a very human thing to be worried about.

Oh, no.

Her transformation was returning. Human worries were crawling back in: chiefly, that ravens didn’t worry about falling.

She forgot the dragon, flew over it and down.

For now, she was still feathered, but even as she fought to return to the raven’s mindset, she felt her new form slipping away into her old. Frantically, she reached out for the vision of her and Kio that had triggered the whole thing, but found nothing but a dead memory.

The world around her was the same up down left and right. No Nashido. No Kio. Nothing to hold onto but squall and thunder and lightning and clouds that vanished when you hit them. Karla had stumbled into chaos, the formless void before the world was born.

But she wasn’t alone.

Though her wings strained to be arms again, her talons to become legs, she had one more swoop in her. She beat her wings and rose in a wide loop, circling back to where she’d first seen the dragon’s collapsing ribcage.

The ribs that were now her only hope.

She had one last brief glimpse of Kio’s face in candlelight. When it passed, she was Karla Harpooneer again: clothed, utility-belted, and subject to gravity.

The last one–if indeed there were two different dragons–had grabbed Kio as it was dying. Now she’d turn that tactic against them. The ribcage was already disintegrating when she landed on it with her human limbs splayed and scrambled for a handhold.

It’s the vines. It’s just like the vines on Nashido. But that was a lie. Those were much sturdier.

Mara! Her plan had worked way too well. The dragon couldn’t escape the storm fast enough for there to be any dragon left.

Not that it wanted to. As its legs fell off one by one, it kept twisting and gnashing its half-mouth, trying to capture the girl on its back. Karla put her foot on one rib, which snapped off, forcing her to throw her arms around the spine to keep rooted.

She had another thought: if the dragon needed her for something, it might intervene to keep her from falling. That could buy her a couple of seconds.

To do what? What was her plan?

One hand on each shoulder blade, she planted herself behind the bucking head as vertebrae collapsed behind her. She was gasping, shivering, soaked to the bone, feeling a stranger in her own body. Becoming the raven had been strange. Becoming human again–that was pain. The friendly sky she’d lived in had been wrenched cruelly away from her. It left her mind weak, shaky like the dragon, and in no position to do the thinking she needed to do.

Which might have doomed Kio, but when Karla couldn’t think, she found it a lot easier to move. The back of the dragon’s skull was covered in bumps and ridges, some hardly thicker than her fingers. Not an easy climb. But Karla was a Harpooneer of Nashido, scourge of seagulls and dragons, and honestly, gravity didn’t really affect her all that much.

The dragon’s wings were holding on better than the rest of its body. They flew by instinct, seeming to take no part in the effort to claim Karla.

A second later, they pierced the thunderhead itself, and the whole world turned dark gray.

Karla hardly noticed. Lightning bolts lit her way. Foot, foot, hand, hand, both feet together vaulted her over the dragon’s snout. She slid down and stopped herself just in time, flipping to stare into its one good eye.

“What am I?” she screamed.

It clicked in response.

“What do you want from me?” Tears sprang to her eyes as she crawled closer, grabbing either side of the eyehole with the strange seeing fire. “What happened to me? How did I change?”

The fire in the dragon’s eye changed. Dimmed. And though she had nothing left in her body to fight with–in spite of, or because of, she knew she would fall to her death–she felt certain it was about to give an answer.

They burst together through the top layer of cloud. Karla sucked in air. The sky, washed with silver moonlight, speckled with stars, was so clear and still it had knocked the breath from her lungs.

Something struck her. The moon flipped over. She cried out as her feet lifted off the skull: she’d been about to learn the truth. It was going to tell her why she’d transformed. But now she was flying away.

It was falling, without her. She’d been saved.

Karla swatted the momentary strange feeling away. The bone dragon wouldn’t have told her anything. Like every other question, she was going to have to answer this one herself.

Just her, and…

It occurred to her to look up and see how she was still aloft.

“Kio…” she breathed out.

White as a cloud, Kio of House Rokhshan nodded tightly, holding her with both arms and legs. “Are you all right?” he shouted over the rush of the air past their ears. She found his bellow comforting and unnerving all at once.

“I was…a bird…” she murmured into his ear. His whole body was shaking, but he didn’t seem cold.

“We’re going back,” he yelled. “You’re gonna be fine.”

An exhausted part of her mind fuzzily told her that flying was a fairly important part of her life even when she wasn’t a bird. Again, in his ear: “How…”

“Runes,” Kio swallowed. “They’re running out. I made some mistakes drawing them. But we have time to get back.”

Karla nodded. A thought flapped around her head: what about a raven with lifting runes? What about both together?

She caught the idea gently by its tail and put it to rest. She had done enough. They’d beaten another bone dragon, and she could afford to enjoy a moment above the clouds.

Kio held her so tightly she thought his own arms would fall off before he dropped her. He steered Raven with his weight, unable to beat the wings. It felt good to depend on him for a little while. To count on careful Kio having figured things out.

When they landed on Nashido, she was going to have to learn what had happened to her, to face the question of not being human and to see how it could be implemented. But for now, she could rest and watch a moon the size of one of Nashido’s giant gears rise over the silver-strewn clouds. So many stars blanketed the blue-violet sky overhead that the firmament was more hole than substance. The air felt seconds from turning itself into crystal.

So this was what the world looked like away from the castle. This was her first view without Nashido in it.

It was a good one. Like the sky had its own Karla and Kio scurrying around on it, tweaking things with tools, keeping all the stars up.

While she was thinking this, the runes on Raven’s back faded out.

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