Kio’s time-honed reflexes carried him on. By the time he was conscious of himself again, he was already sheltering in the starboard-side tower, halfway to rolling the stone door shut.
Voices fought within him, paralzying him before he could finish the job. In the crescent of blustery grey air he left, the Benefactor flexed and tested his wings.
Not the Benefactor! bellowed one voice. The thing squatting in his place! The demon that swallowed him!
Another spoke more coolly. You know how transformation works, Kio. You’ve seen it happen before. By what right do you call this an abomination?
The bone dragon swept its head toward Kio. The blazing eyes pierced his own, holding him in place like a spell. He could fight his muscles as much as he liked–they would not move.
This is a god, the calm voice intoned. You’re not here to ask him questions. What he does is right.
Images ran behind Kio’s eyes: carvings, mosaics, statues. The kindly figure in grey teaching the Rokhshan to plant oxygen vines, to cultivate mist gardens, to speak the languages of the sky kingdoms.
This had been left out. Omitted from the records, as the bone dragons so often were.
For the first time, Kio wondered if that had not happened at the request of the creatures themselves. Looking into the Benefactor-dragon’s fiery eyes, he could begin to imagine warmth behind them.
Maybe not warmth. He shivered. But intelligence. Intent, rationality. That alone was better than what he and Karla had seen in the ones that had attacked already.
He rolled the door just open enough to pass through.
The dragon turned its head away as he stepped out–one tentative pace at first, then two. Each resounded bullet-like across the surface of the basin.
Not knowing why, he stretched out his hand. Was the god, in the form of a demon, actually showing him deference?
In a rush of wind, the Benefactor beat his wings, leaping so quickly into the air that Kio missed half of it in a blink. One second he had been all stillness and silence, the next soaring up the aqueduct, his twisted limbs everywhere at once. One thing was for sure: whatever a normal bone dragon was, this new form of the Benefactor’s wasn’t it.
Kio stared up into the sky again, blinking when he had to, transfixed by the god on the machine.
The problem clearly hadn’t been as bad as it had looked from all those stories below. The Benefactor lifted one beam with his legs and held it while carefully realigning two of the cloud-catchers. One of those, in turn, had been pressing on one of the pipes, which fell quickly into place when the obstruction was removed. The Benefactor swooped over to it, confirmed it was in order, then sprang up to circle the entire mechanism, inspecting every inch.
Should I do something? thought Kio. He truly was off the edge of the social-protocols map here.
He ended up frozen, watching, a silhouette against the Rokhshan mosaic tales. He remained that way when the dragon passed behind the port-side towards, beat its wings twice over the basin rim, and landed in front of him.
“I am sorry I was not honest,” the Benefactor-dragon said, in a voice rolled over with the grinding and shifting of bones.
A funny thing happened when Kio heard the dragon speak. It was as though he’d reached some kind of surprise threshold, where things that would usually shock him didn’t manage, simply because he had no energy left to react.
“I…I understand,” he replied. “I wouldn’t have, at first. You made the right decision.”
The Benefactor nodded–a bit sadly, Kio thought–and began to trace the black outlines of the mosaic figures with one claw. “I guided Great Rokhshan in this form,” he murmured, talking as much to himself as to Kio. “It’s funny, but none of the storytellers after his time thought to question how I stayed aloft. As the sky kingdoms grew in power, they all simply assumed I wore one of their gliding suits. Or that deities can all hover.”
Kio inched closer. “When…did you…”
“Enter the Heartsphere?” The dragon’s eye-fires flared. “Many years ago. Many years before your house. In doing so, I took on a burden I would ask of nobody else. I am glad it was given to me.”
“What burden?” Kio asked.
The dragon’s outline wavered. Its wings retracted, its legs curled up beneath it. In a few moments, without so much as a change in expression, the middle-aged man in the grey wool suit stood before him again.
“Come. I ought to show you something.”
While Kio followed the Benefactor down through the Outer Citadel, turning over what this thing could be, the god remained enthralled by the etchings, paintings, and statues they passed. “I have returned a few times in my other form, over the centuries,” he explained as they crossed an outer-tower footbridge, “though this is the first time in a thousand years I have landed in that body. Usually, when I wear that form, I am far away in the skies, defending the castle from the demons.”
Kio nearly misplaced a foot and tumbled to the roof of the workshop. The Benefactor neatly caught his arm. “The other bone dragons? Are they like you?”
The god thought for a moment. “No,” he said at last, “mostly. They have but the one body, and no mind worth the term. They are animals, fixated on a single objective.”
“Just a moment more, Lord Rokhshan. I promised I would explain.”
If nothing else, the Benefactor’s intimate knowledge of Castle Nashido’s paths and ways would prove true his story about having shepherded its construction for the last thousand years. He even knew his way around the improvements Karla and Kio had added themselves. Knowing the god had been watching over them from a distance, fighting back bone dragons until their depraved attacks became so frequent even his power couldn’t handle them all, gave Kio a feeling he had to work to understand: a swirling, churning kind of happiness.
They arrived at the hangar. The Benefactor stepped gingerly, reverentially, over the great calendar in the floor.
He paused to examine the husk of Raven. “This is your flying machine?”
Kio nodded. He didn’t want to think about Raven just now. It was too saturated with Karla.
“Curious,” the Benefactor said. “It almost looks like one of them.”
In that broken-down form, it did resemble a bone dragon. Kio was more than ready to move on.
The Benefactor turned at the edge of the hangar. A grey-white cloudscape framed him, a sky deeper than the sea. “Kio, I will need to take you with me.”
There was little question what that meant.
Scuffing the calendar with the toes of his boots, Kio felt the acute sense of a crossroads. To fly with the Benefactor would mean leaving Raven behind–giving up the future he had agreed to in his promise with Karla. He’d be casting off their life together like an old set of furs.
On the flying machine’s spine, he caught sight of the runes he had carved on it to rescue her from the middle of the thunderstorm. His fists clenched. He had saved her that day not knowing about her lie. How many years into their friendship would she still have let him drop if she’d been in his place, would her mother’s order have taken precedence in her mind? One, two? Five?
No. She couldn’t give him any future anymore. She was down on the surface, with her people–let her stay. He’d find his own way.
Kio said to the Benefactor, “I’ll go with you.”
The god shifted. His limbs became bones again, growing in a way Kio was already getting used to. Before the god’s face turned, he asked, “Are you taking me to the surface?”
The Benefactor stared, and kept staring, as his face became skeletal and his eyes became fire. At last, when a full dragon was clinging to the side of Nashido’s hangar, he answered, “No.”
“Wait!” Kio shouted. “What?”
A draconic claw grabbed him, and dragged him over the edge, as creature and human whipped up into the sky.
The clouds rushed around him. The sky was vast, and ever-deepening–he had never wrapped his head around its true enormity. Nobody knew what was above, and it dwarfed what was below. Air currents the size of cities flew up and down moisture columns as tall as mountains. It swallowed the sky kingdoms, swallowed continents. A massive trench in the clouds opened up, closed over them as they flew, drenching Kio’s furs but giving him a blessed moment of relief from the sky. Then it opened again and he was rising through endless rays of sun, over an eternity of clouds, a tiny insectoid mind reckoning with the infinite.
Gripping the Benefactor’s claw with all his might, listening to the beat of the skeletal wings, he turned up all the contents of his stomach at once. How did you cope with unending depth? How ignorant of all this had he been for ten years? Had the Rokhshan gifted him with enough arrogance that he thought he could ever matter in the face of the all-consuming mind-destroying size of the sky?
They had passed swiftly under the castle before continuing to rise. Realizing it was gone from sight shot him into another bout of nausea, his head spinning hard under forces pressing him from all sides. The canyons of cloud became islands, then vanished as the Benefactor’s wings kept beating, leaving them with nothing but a white floor and endless blue and sun.
Kio looked up–anywhere but down, anywhere–and swore he could see day stars.
Suddenly, the forces pressing on him reversed. The bone dragon was diving. He began to think again, disjointed words at first, then a complete thought: this was slightly better than his last dragon kidnapping. At least the Benefactor would take him back to Nashido.
Why not the surface? he tried to scream. Why can’t you take me to the surface?
His throat felt hollow and blocked at the same time. Like he’d never been able to speak, and just dreamed that he could. The Benefactor had his wings folded to plunge back into the layer of cloud. Soon they struck one again, and the cold wet air whistled past Kio’s ears, just fast enough to make him forget to wonder if the bone dragon was capable of stopping.
They broke through the clouds. The Benefactor threw his wings open and dragged himself to a stop. As he beat his wings to stay in place, Kio slowly came back to himself. Patiently, the god waited for him to look around.
The Benefactor spoke for the first time, in his gravelly dragon-voice. “This is what you must see.”
“I–” Kio gagged on his words. “What is?”
“Look,” commanded his god.
They were hovering over a wine-dark ocean, with steel-grey clouds all around. The waves crashed in whitecaps as wind beat against Kio’s face. He searched the horizon, but could find no trace of land, nor of any ships.
Then he looked south. And jumped, so hard the Benefactor had to lash out with another claw to stabilize him.
The entire southern horizon was covered in a rolling purple cloud. Points of light sparkled within it, glinting at him like sinister stars.
“Ash Cloud,” he whispered, and though the wind roared, the Benefactor heard him and nodded.
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