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Banking hard to stay on top of the wind, Griffin kept himself and Jenny swinging their wide arc around Nashido. The nearer they got to the green wall, the more intense the wind became.
A dark projectile hurtled along a vector far ahead of them, and Jenny reacted first, yanking up on the pilot bar and sending them into a hard brake. Griffin’s stomach dropped, fearing they would stall–but with the air changed to its roots by the onrushing Ash Cloud, it didn’t seem like they even could lose altitude.
But the bank forced them left, closer to the castle. Close now to the battlements, Griffin could see levers springing up. Scattered rocks arced toward them.
“Starboard!” he yelled.
“Toward the Cloud?” Jenny mouthed back.
“No time to vote! Just go!”
Two of the rocks dropped to port. The third slammed into Raven’s spine. It was a small chunk of masonry, but it bounced and skittered and shook Griffin’s teeth in his gums.
Raven felt creaky from the hit. She hadn’t been designed to take impacts.
“Away!” he told Jenny, trying to turn farther starboard.
She resisted. “We can’t! Everyone needs us!”
“We’re not going to help them if we get shot down!”
He leaned right. She leaned left.
Another pair of spears whistled past, one over their nose, one under their tail lifter.
Dr. Edward Griffin’s entire life pressed between them. He saw all the things he’d given up, all the choices he’d never made. All the times he’d waited and sat back because prudence dictated he should find out more. Get a better handle on the situation. See what changed.
He thought of Rose, with her cropped copper-colored hair and smile that could distract a bear long enough for her to set its broken arm. And he thought of how he might be about to lose her.
And he remembered he had fought a bandit with a knife last week.
“Fine, damn you,” he cried. “Masks on.”
The spears zipped on toward the ocean. His niece yanked the mask from her belt and strapped it tightly to her face, glowing beneath it with pride and resolve. He strapped his on a second later.
Whoever was launching the spears lit the next ones ablaze. A swarm of fireballs pelted Raven. One scraped the right wing, igniting briefly–but in the damp air the fire couldn’t catch.
Griffin and Jenny aimed together toward the narrowing space between Nashido and the Ash Cloud. Every battlement of the castle armed against them. They kicked away rocks, swerved to avoid fire spears, dove as had as they could to dodge a chain sweeping lengthwise across the sky. A net tangled itself in their wings, locking them for a terrifying second, but Jenny yanked the knife from Griffin’s belt and cut them free.
Lightning flashed. For a second, high above him, Dr. Griffin thought he saw the shapes of massive kingdoms converging on Nashido, like great flying beasts swooping in for the kill.
“Ash Cloud starboard!” Jenny screamed.
The air in Griffin’s mask turned sour. They were shooting down a slim corridor now, the castle looming on one side, the wall of green advancing on the other. The Ash Cloud did not hurry.
It has all the time it wants, Dr. Griffin thought deliriously. All the time in the world.
The turrets on the castle towers spun and locked onto them again. Griffin shared a look with Jenny, its meaning clear. Whether or not they were flying the greatest skycraft ever built–and they were–they couldn’t survive much longer in the air. They’d have to assault Nashido and force a landing, or plummet to the freezing sea below.
Mere steps along the roof, Karla backpedaled as bone dragons lurched upward to surround her. First one, right in her path, then two more to cut her off from the rear and the skyward side.
The one in front of her roared in her face. She roared back, rubbing her throat raw.
“I know this castle,” she bellowed, “better than you do!”
She faked toward the ledge–could leap if she needed, probably transform by the time she hit the ocean–then whipped toward the wall of gears and vines, unbound hair flowing behind her in the rumbling wind. The bone dragon in the center dove, and its beak slammed into the stone brick, two inches left of where Karla had leapt to grasp onto an oxygen vine with one hand and a pulley-rope with the other.
The first dragon feinted sideways. Skimming around the tower, it folded its wings and dove. Karla clambered faster, hand over hand, foot to foot–but the dragon was strafing along the wall. Its claws gouged deep ruts in the side of the Outer Citadel.
Karla stopped climbing and waited. One hand and one foot at a time, she inched backward, carrying the rope with her. She had no knife to cut it loose, no seed-pods to hurl at its counterweight.
But she had her own weight.
The claws rapped against the stone, rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat. The other bone dragons had pulled off and were circling, watching for their turn to pick the meat off her bones.
Karla watched them back.
The dragon’s foretalon shattered the solarium window. Karla sprang off the wall.
Gravity took her instantly. She swung like a pendulum toward the dragon’s skull. The fires in its eyes blazed from orange to green, flaring beyond the sockets.
She decided it was a sign of fear.
She hit the dragon’s skull feet-first, shaking her own bones. The dragon hardly felt it. But that meant it didn’t stop–kept plowing around the tower as Karla flung the rope aside and hurled herself toward the window.
Inside on the solar floor, she landed and rolled. Winced as the broken glass sliced open more of her skin, spattering drops of bright blood across the faded carpet. None of them stuck, and that was enough.
Besides, she couldn’t stop. The claws of one dragon and the tangled leg mass of another had shoved through the window. Legs and claws and wings and teeth burst in through window after window, exploding the glass panes in scatterings of lightning-struck stars.
Karla ran. This was still her home. There was a ladder at the far wall, opening up into the kitchen–or if she had to, the Inner-Citadel antechamber to the Heartsphere. All she had to do was cross the ledge and there would be options.
At the top of the ladder, she shifted the trapdoor back in place, the storm winds buffeting her again. Steps here would lead up to the kitchen, and then…
Stone-like arms, human arms, wrapped around her neck, smashing her back against the stairwell. Karla gagged. Lights exploded in her eyes.
A bone dragon? No, it had come out of the Inner Citadel, out of where a dragon could never fit–out of which a new human had just come. In his other hand he held the kitchen’s heaviest cleaver.
Karla bucked and writhed. Every direction of her range of motion was pinned.
“Your friends in the sky are done for, Harpooneer,” Medwick hissed in her ear. “But they’ll see you dead first.”
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