He had so many questions.
What was the Ash Cloud? Why was it coming back?
Would it hit land and sky both?
Could they stop it?
By the time the Benefactor turned away from the poisoned horizon, even he was showing signs of fatigue. Kio was too beaten to keep his questions in mind. He began to fantasize: the second he was over safe ground, he’d roll limply out of the Benefactor’s claws and sprawl like an old rag wherever he landed.
He thought of Raven–was nearly able to see the ornithopter sideways out of one eye. All in all, strapping that thing to my back was a much more fun way to fly.
It was possible, given the strain on the bone dragon’s skeletal wings, that Kio could understand how he couldn’t reach the surface. The storm-tossed sea appeared as far below as it ever had, even though they had dived below Nashido.
He knew now. He knew how insurmountable that barrier had always been.
Except somehow Karla charmed her way through it, came an unwelcome thought intruding on his comfortably nihilistic certainty.
Also…what kind of god gets tired?
A sudden upward rush left him unable to think about those questions any longer. His brain flattened against the top of his skull as the Benefactor soared upward, puncturing the veil of clouds once more. Thinking only of his furs getting even more soaked–the pages in the pockets would be lost if he didn’t hang them to dry right away–Kio heard a muffled noise under the wind. Was the dragon-Benefactor speaking?
Nausea thudded in waves against his head, his chest, his gut. He could make out nothing more than a distorted echo of voice. He and Karla had tried making a communicator once with taut strings, but had abandoned it when it proved no more effective than shouting. This sounded similar…
“I’m sorry! I can’t hear!”
“Left castle alone…attract…lost ones!”
“Lost ones? Who’s lost?”
They broke through the fog into sunlight.
Kio winced from the sudden lance of bright sun. He hadn’t realized how tightly the clouds had closed over the ocean. Karla, down on the big island, would be getting rain.
Blinking his pupils back to the right size, limbs dangling uselessly from dragon claws, he took a second to figure out that the Benefactor was hovering again, the way he had when showing Kio the Ash Cloud.
“I was right,” said the god. “Kio, if I need to drop you, crumple. Do not try land on your feet.”
“What do you mean?”
“I will keep you safe. You first and then the world.”
At last the shape swimming before Kio’s eyes resolved. Castle Nashido was there, with a blob of weathered white moving in front of it.
A second bone dragon.
Kio’s first scan revealed a seam of cracks webbing all over its body, most pronounced at the joint of the limb that had carried him into the sky for the first time. This was the same dragon that had attacked them twice, that may have been present a third time the day Karla left.
It had the heartsphere. Now it was going to defend what it had won.
The Benefactor tightened, shifting midair into a fighting stance. Kio could tell he had done this a hundred times before. These Lost Ones must have been vast in number.
The enemy dragon had been clawing at the hole left behind when Karla and Kio had dropped the tower to push the castle upward to the sky kingdom. With a wordless roar, it had dropped itself into open air, then beat its wings to hover directly between Nashido and the Benefactor.
“Benefactor,” he shouted up to the god, “can you fight with me in your claws?”
“It will be difficult,” the Benefactor confessed. “Fortunately, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
The enemy dragon charged with a sore-throated cry. The Benefactor opened his claws.
Kio fell as the god leapt forward to meet his foe.
Tumbling in midair was different than being dragged through the sky in talons. For one thing, he couldn’t think at all. It was a small mercy.
Bone crashed against bone above him. Spinning head over heels, he briefly saw the enemy swipe at the Benefactor’s skull, the god catching it and launching a flurry of kicks with his legs.
He was going to die. The sky enfolded him, gently, ushering him sorrowfully to the sea.
Hey, Kio, said a voice in his head. Sorry it happened this way.
Being so near the end, he didn’t remember he wasn’t supposed to trust Karla anymore. You mean this, he thought, or all of it?
A lot more than this, that’s for sure.
A scrape of bone, a thud, a cry, the beating of wings.
The world started to go black–
–and light returned. His momentum reversed. He was being carried.
He hadn’t fallen as far as he’d thought. He’d been flailing level with the mist garden when the Benefactor caught him. The dragon’s teeth were set in a line, his wings straining, without the energy to explain to Kio what the hell had just happened. Kio didn’t bother to ask.
He was alive. Shouldn’t he have been more excited? Instead, he felt oddly sad, as though rescue had snatched him away from a happier world where Karla was still in his life.
Which world will we reunite in?
The lost dragon flew in close pursuit. The Benefactor hadn’t much time. Carefully, he threaded the needle, leveling his wingspan to slide between the pillars suspending the mist garden. He dropped Kio–not as much distance this time–and Kio followed his command, crumpling and rolling over in the grass.
He stood, lurching across the dewy grass. Nothing felt broken. The Benefactor wheeled to face his enemy again, gasping out, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right!”
It was. At least in that matter. Kio had figured out the ploy soon after the god had caught him again. They’d never have made it past the enemy dragon at the start of the battle: the Lost One could have countered any maneuver. The only option was the last thing the enemy would expect.
Jettison one option to focus on another. He couldn’t resent the Benefactor for that.
As though he could at all. It wasn’t even an option. Like being mad at Karla, until a few days ago.
On his feet, pedaling his arms to keep from falling again, he watched the battle in motion. The Lost dragon leapt up with a burst of its wings, then plunged back down, snapping its jaws the Benefactor’s throat. The Benefactor surged forward and whipped his tail upward. He hit the other dragon in the face, bowling it head over heels, and the two swept away from each other, circling around for another attack.
It was like a naval fight. Kio’d read about these. Move into position, jockey for the best spot, and if you do it well enough, you end the battle.
The Benefactor could get tired. Could he die?
No decent Rokhshan would wait around to find out. Kio raced to the steps, quickly forgetting how queasy he was. He’d pay for that later. Right now, he needed to fight.
The statuary hall’s window opened onto the bottom of the aerial battle–a tornado of slashing claws and bodies slamming against each other. The Benefactor used his foe as a ladder, scrambling up out of sight, tearing out bones as he went.
Kio ran higher. Up a flight of stairs, he bolted out onto the machine deck.
This left him unshielded from the fight above, seemingly paces away. And it wasn’t going well. The enemy dragon had the Benefactor’s foreclaws in his legs and was battering with tooth and talon at the god’s body.
Each blow felt like it was thudding against Kio’s own. He dashed along the machine deck, as though that would accomplish anything.
The Benefactor whirled around suddenly. The force of his jerk caught the enemy by surprise. The fires in its eyes blazed hot as it slammed into the castle wall with the sickening sound of a dozen human legs breaking at once.
That’s it! Kio thought. He knew what he had to do. The two were evenly matched, but the lost dragon might just take longer to anticipate an unexpected variable thrown into the system.
The control panel was just a few steps away. But was there any power left in the engines?
He would have prayed. But that seemed like a weird thing to do with the recipient of all his prayers flying around above him trying to bite a dragon in half.
Not half as weird, besides, as him being the one coming to the deity’s aid.
As the Benefactor advanced for the kill, the enemy swung around him, reversing the fight again. This time, the Benefactor was trapped against the castle wall, the lost dragon preparing to tear him apart. The scrape and clash of bones tore into Kio’s ears as he struggled with the levers.
One, two, three, please be the correct sequence–
The propellors whirred to life. Kio bellowed, rejoicing without words.
Around Nashido, clouds began to shift.
The lost dragon missed by inches with a swipe that would have taken off the Benefactor’s skull. Where before he’d been trapped against the Outer Citadel, he now had room to dive below his adversary, baiting him away.
Kio pulled back hard on the throttle, and the high towers shifted. What energy there was in the engine batteries was fading fast–he could practically feel them dying. He was going to have to get a bit creative.
The propellors creaked to a stop, reversed, and surged up going backwards. He glanced up. If the Benefactor could just get the enemy dragon a little closer…
The dragon that had lost its way struck the starboard tower–or the starboard tower struck it.
Kio thought, Wait until I tell Karla I used the entire castle as a blunt object! Then his heart fell as he remembered he was probably never going to get to tell her that.
The lost dragon spun in midair. The Benefactor pounced, knocking hard against its center of gravity. His opponent fell–
–and revealed something else. The Benefactor raised his fiery eyes, and swiveled to look at something behind Kio.
Kio followed his gaze.
Once again, he felt that unnerving acceptance of impending death.
Birds were flying in the sky. Several of them, a whole flock, bore down on Nashido. Kio lost count as they kept moving, drawing ever closer. Gulls didn’t explain his sense of doom. Had something in his body realized the truth before his mind?
Just then, his brain caught up.
It was not seagulls flying toward him. It was a dozen bone dragons, their eyes blazing every color of the rainbow, their jaws sharp like sawblades.
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