Breaking 3

Sorry for forgetting to post this yesterday! NaNoWriMo has me all discombobulated. But we remain on schedule, I promise.

Thunder boomed out as Raptor made the first move, feinting toward Karla’s left wing with a claw. She pitched right, but couldn’t dodge in time. The talon raked across Raven’s already-tattered frame, tearing out a strut, widening cracks.

Raven spun in the air. Karla turned to face Raptor as the commander of the Neogah wheeled for another pass. If I can’t counter him, I’m dead!

Going up against the City Council, she thought she’d learned a bit of fighting, but this was so far out of that league she could have laughed.

She had no training for duels in the sky. She barely had training with flight–she and Kio had deluded themselves, clearly, to think that building skycraft equated to flying them. The only part of this situation she was the slightest bit prepared for was the thunderstorm.

But one thing she could do was learn fast.

The green fortress of the Ash Cloud was so close now that it filled one whole section of the sky: a wall as tall as the world. Karla used it to stay oriented, and used the sea to remain upright. Raptor roared and charged again.

When he got near, Karla thrust out her legs–catching him on the nose and starting her into a run. Her lifting rune helped her out. It brought memories of–

No! She refused to even think about the night she’d first transformed. It was too dangerous. Becoming the raven now would torpedo any chance of her winning this fight. She had beaten a Neogah in that form once, long ago–but Raptor was different. Far stronger. The rain that should have dissolved him was instead slicking off him harmlessly. And he would not be that animalistically stupid.

She leapt clear of Raptor’s spine, narrowly dodging a clamp of his jaws. Sheets of rain slicked her hair to her forehead. She could use the rune, if she knew when to leave things slack–if she could figure out how to work with the strange buoyancy in the air that wasn’t coming entirely from her magic.

Raptor attacked with a calculated series of blows, each strike forcing her into the next. The first two buffeted her. The third, she dodged just in time. The fourth and fifth she anticipated, and suddenly she was moving through the air almost as well as she did in her bird’s body. Suddenly it was a real fight.

***

They crested the rim of basin into a swirling vortex of bone dragons.

Jenny had counted the bizarre things. She knew there couldn’t be more than eight Neogah chasing them right now. But the monsters were everywhere she looked–circling, diving and climbing, turning their fiery eyes on her, Uncle Griff, and Kio. The storm whirled around them, the driving rain masking their numbers, making them look like an army.

They should be disintegrating, Kio thought. But that had taken the inside of a thunderhead, or their whole water supply, every other time. This rainstorm wouldn’t be enough.

Kio led the way into the reservoir bowl that had once been full of water. It would be the best place to see the Neogah coming, and would bottleneck them using the towers so they couldn’t all charge at once. A puddle of rain pattered and rolled at the bottom, soaking Jenny’s shoes.

Jenny had gone beyond fear. She was just reacting now, moving from one step to the next. She had fought before. Even a girl of twelve could keep fighting until the fighting was done.

“They’re coming!” she shouted. Behind her, she felt Griff and Kio move into position back-to-back-to-back.

Three of the Neogah–as many as could fit through the gaps in the towers–swooped toward them.

The first one miscalculated, flying too high. Kio leapt at it with his own steel rebar club, missed.

A second dove toward Griffin. Her uncle tensed, preparing to swing.

Jenny’s shot knocked part of its skull clean off, tossing it back toward the tower with the recoil. She screamed in triumph, reaching for another of the bolts clipped to the underside of her heavy crossbow–right as the third dragon found its space to dive.

Griffin swung the bar.

It caught the dragon in one arm with a resounding crunch, but the talon caught Griff at the same time, sending him sprawling backwards across the basin. Flecks of blood dripped from his nose, staining his mask and beard.

Kio leapt in, striking at the Neogah that had left its guard down. He hammered away at its bones. Leapt back when it riposted–and Jenny took her next shot.

This one she retrieved, after the dragon had wheeled out of sight to lick its wound. Still, she had only four bolts left. And there were more Neogah, ever circling, preparing to charge even before Kio could help her uncle to his feet.

***

Rose stayed by the door to make sure everybody got out of the infirmary safely. When someone was coughing too badly to move, she sprang to their side, coaxing, cajoling, prodding and comforting to help them along.

“Rose,” said Mrs. Kalend, who came last, propped up by her husband. “I can’t breathe.”

Rose wanted to hit something. She wanted her wrench in her hand. Tears sprang to her eyes. This woman, this mighty blacksmith–Rose had idolized her since arriving in Rust, more than Grace or even Mara, for her steady certainty at the forge.

What was it all for?

“Stay low to the ground,” was all she could say. “It’s an aerial phenomenon. The lower you are, the more oxygen you’ll be able to find. Follow Calvin down to the docks, and get to safety.”

“Wait. What?” The callow youth appeared around the doorway.

“I need you for this,” Rose said. “Please. I need you to take the people who can’t fight to the docks. Load them up on whatever boats are available. Find your dad and Jada and tell them to come with you in case anybody objects to their boat being taken.”

“But I just–I don’t–” Calvin spluttered. “Why can’t you? Why can’t I go with you?”

“Because we’re the diversion.” Rose began to realize the nature of her plan as she said the words. “The people who go with me are going to distract the Torals long enough for everybody else to escape. They’ll never let us out otherwise.”

“And then you’ll retreat and follow us, right?”

“Ideally,” Rose said jauntily, “that would be the plan.”

Calvin looked unconvinced. But he helped her split the escapees into two groups. People who had heard the conversation spoke up, volunteered to show the Torals where they could stick their Imperial decrees that they owned the sky. Grace stood by Rose’s side.

Soon she had her group. Calvin had his. “Go,” she told him. “Find life. Find the greatest island there is in this world. I hope the treasure’s already on the ground and nobody can find the isle who doesn’t already know where it is.”

“Except you,” Calvin said determinedly, and turned away.

It was only after she’d started moving her dozen militiamen through the streets that Rose noticed the Carpenter twins had snuck along. She sighed, knowing it would take more energy than she had to send them back to their mother. “At the first sign of danger,” she told Dan and Guy, “you run.”

They both nodded. “No need to tell me!” Dan said happily. “We can breathe fine, we’ll just run.”

Keep breathing, Rose thought, taking short breaths, as she crept through the streets toward the Torals. Keep breathing.

***

Karla danced through the air like a cloud. Her shredded wing fought her every step of the way, but she moved with its resistance, pivoting to parry Raptor’s attacks with her feet or Raven’s spine.

And all the while she rejoiced that Raven had been true. She is, she is, she is going to save us!

Yet all the dancing and sky-fencing in the world wouldn’t help the fact that she had no plan. They fought without weapons, with the thunderheads and clouds as their battleground, weaving in and out of columns of rain and bolts of wind. Without weapons, Raptor was still a thirty-pace dragon, and Karla was one lone, bedraggled Harpooneer.

She’d be drowned if she wouldn’t make him chase her.

A voice echoed through the clouds that she at first took to be a rumble of thunder. Suddenly, though, she careened through a curtain of cirrus crystals and entered an eye: an open, cavernous room in the center of the storm, surrounded by dark mist.

Raptor faced her from the other end of the Nashido-sized chamber. And he was speaking.

“Look to the Ash Cloud,” ground his terrible voice, “when the sky opens up. It has engulfed the castle and never touched the Heartsphere. But it has killed your friends.”

As the thought of the deaths of Kio and Jenny and Griffin tugged at Karla’s very shape, one single horrifying truth asserted itself: he’s trying to make me turn.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

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