The reservoir was hardly deeper than she was tall. Wherever Karla went after she gulped a mouthful of water and her lungs gave out, she was going to feel really dumb trying to explain how she’d drowned in it.
At least, that was what she remembered thinking later. In the moment, everything was a lot more inane: vague shreds and shards of sadness for Kio and grief that she’d never seen the surface and an overriding annoyance that she hadn’t had time to come to terms with any of this stuff. Why hadn’t she gotten a warning she was going to die today? No, it was just the same old stupid dream as always.
Maybe that was the point. Her life on Nashido had always been a hairsbreadth away from ending. None of this should have been surprising.
She drifted between the two shadowy girders and realized they weren’t getting any closer. The bone dragon was drifting in a lazy circle, as if it were following something slower and weaker with its hungry gaze.
Screw this. I’m not going to die hiding underwater.
Pumping arms and legs, she burst easily through the surface. The dragon ignored her. It had a new quarry, one that wasn’t splashing around in a pool of something it couldn’t stand–a lanky boy with a mop of brown hair, a black tattoo twisting down his left cheek, and a vest patched so many times it resembled a leather quit. Kio was banging a pair of books together to make a dusty rhythmic thud, luring the dragon along.
The literature couldn’t have been that helpful, then. Karla paddled hard for the basin rim, in the opposite direction from Kio. No sense offering it a united target.
Kio was saying something, but her ears were underwater too often to hear it. “Say that again!” she grunted out as she hauled herself up on the slippery tile.
“Can it understand our language?” Kio banged his books together again, strafing like a crab, jumping back whenever the dragon’s mouth darted out. It dropped one of its griders with a mighty clang, but misjudged the distance to Kio. No sooner had it missed than it reared back to swing again.
“It might be learning!” Karla wasn’t going to count anything out at this point.
“I have a plan!” Kio was backing against the stone door of the northernmost tower. His eyes flitted briefly up. “It involves the thing.”
“What thing?” Karla motioned vigorously with both arms. Kio shrunk closer to the tower as a girder whanged off the stone, leaving a gouge six inches above his head.
She changed her gesture to a wheel with her hand, and he understood–No, the door! Open the door!
A sideways swing this time, again missing by steps. Karla wondered if those flame eyes had issues with depth perception. She was still wondering this when she barreled into a retreating Kio and redirected him back to the tower door.
Most of the archways on Nashido had nothing covering them, or had cloth the two of them had hung up over the years. A few doors, though, like all three of the upper towers, had sliding stone slabs running on small rollers and manipulated by a groove in one end. Two sets of fingers fit into the shallow slot, scrambling to heave the door aside. When a sliver of black entrance opened, Kio and Karla slipped through one after the other, shoving the barricade closed as a fresh attack slammed into it.
The tower room was pitch-black, save for a thin violet light seeping from above. But they both knew it by heart: nothing but a blank floor with spiral stairs leading up. They huddled close together with their back against the base of the stairs. Kio was still brandishing his two books like blades.
He offered Karla one. “No thanks,” she said. “What things?”
“Not as a weapon. Read it. I’m marking a page with my thumb.”
She grabbed his wrist. He yelped as the book clattered to the floor. “What. Things?”
“Not things. One-sixth of one thing. That might be part of something else.”
“Oh.” Her gaze turned up. She couldn’t make out his eyes, but they must have also been looking at the source of the purple light, two-thirds of the way up the tower.
Steel clubs pounded the door, driving it open a narrow wedge. Karla’s heart seized as she saw one fiery eye peering through it. She raced to slide it closed, bracing the door with her back as renewed clangs reverberated through her entire body.
“What does it say on the page you marked?” she asked Kio. Maybe the answer would make sense of why he was thinking about the crystal.
“There wasn’t a book on dragons made of bones. But there were mentions of sightings from time to time in sky kingdom annals. Mostly the older ones. They didn’t find them remarkable since they were never aggressive–“
“–must be nice–“
“–but there were enough of them to observe that they never appeared during rainstorms.” Kio’s voice rose proudly. “They’re afraid of water.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I was hiding in the reservoir.”
She could practically hear his face fall. But they never lied to each other. On Nashido, it got pretty impractical. “What’s your plan?” she asked, hoping it was something he could be proud of.
He didn’t get a chance to say it.
The tower door jerked open. Two–four–seven misshapen claws stabbed into the gap to prevent it from shutting again. The bone dragon had dropped its weapons and was jimmying their shelter apart inch by inch.
Dawn light filtered in, eerily peaceful amid the chilling thrashing of the bone dragon. Karla caught Kio’s eye now that she could see it. “Up?”
“Up.” Kio led the way up the spiral stairs beyond the dragon’s reach, then sheltered behind Karla as they peered together down at the doorway. The slab ground as the dragon pushed it wider, pressing both claws through.
“Your whole plan. Now,” she told Kio.
“So the crystals work independently of each other to create a shell that holds in the oxygen from the vines, right?” he began.
“I know that! But it’s magic. The crystals are one of the dark systems. We have no clue how they work.”
“But we know some properties! You’ve figured out by–experimenting.”
Kio, always tactful. Her “experiments” tended to nearly kill them both and take weeks of work to undo. But he was right. They did learn.
The dragon probed the gap with its snout. Its flame eyes flickered up to them, and it fumed. Kio babbled on. “Each crystal has its own sixth of the heartsphere’s surface, but at the edges, they knit together to form a whole. So if one of them–“
He broke off, frozen under the dragon’s gaze. Not that the gaze was new. Just everything happening behind it.
The bone dragon arched its back, like it was scratching its belly. Its stretch seemed to elongate it, stretching its leg-masses back into the brightening sky, a shadow on the glowmoss.
No, not seemed. Karla fought back a gag. At the outer edge of the stretch, the bone dragon literally compressed.
Changing its shape. Flowing, to fit into the tower.
“Skip to the end!” Karla yelled at Kio’s back as they raced up the steps. Bits of gravel they kicked away tumbled toward the dragon, none big enough to cause any scars. She cursed herself for what felt like the fifth time this morning. Why had she insisted they clean up in here?
“I think the effect can be reversed!” Kio had fallen to his hands and knees to stay stable while moving so fast. “We can get the crystal to push something out instead of keeping it in!”
Still climbing, Karla opened her mouth to ask how that was going to help, but shut it again as she fought over the implications. If the crystal was oriented right, and if the dragon couldn’t get a good grip with its freaky liquid body and wasn’t just too heavy, and if they didn’t get sucked out right along with it…
The interior light had been growing brighter as they ascended. At last they came out into another bare-walled room of rough dun-colored stone with stairways winding up and down at either end. This one, however, had a feature the one at the bottom was missing. A crystal, half the height of the room and as tall as Karla, stood where the central column of the staircase would have risen to connect to its counterpart above. It was glowing brightly with the violet light that suffused the whole inside of the tower. Each of its perfect facets had a rune carved into it from a language Kio had never been able to translate, an alphabet of curves and cross-hatches that never repeated a letter as far as Karla could tell. Each one was shining with a soft white glow.
The other two towers didn’t have crystals. They were just maintenance shafts for the aqueducts, at least as long as Kio and Karla had lived on Nashido. But there were five crystals of the same color jutting out from the Heartsphere in five other directions, making a shell for the air they breathed.
Karla shoved Kio toward the crystal when they clambered into the room. “What are you going to do?”
He scooped up a bit of loose masonry and crouched by the pillar, illuminated in the light it spilled out. “Experiment,” he said darkly.
The dragon had lost all form. It was flowing up the stairs like some kind of mad foamy tide, a blob of calcium lurching bit by bit to catch them and tear them apart. Only its eyes still burned. They rolled over and over as the spot that had once been its head oozed past the front, and Karla choked every time they rested on her.
It was nearly at the top step. “Any results yet?” she asked, wrestling the panic out of her voice, mostly failing.
Kio was scratching hasty lines on the crystal. “If you rush me, I might tear this whole tower off the castle by accident!”
“Kio!” She couldn’t run as long as he was staying. “It’s coming right now! Just do something!”
“I am doing something!”
The dragon-blob exploded up in a plume, accelerating in the open space. It was spreading, coating the wall with its bones, covering up the exit. Wrapping around Karla and Kio. Constricting them.
She stole back toward him. There was nowhere else to go. At equal points around the crystal, Kio had scrawled runes on the facets, and was busy adding more. She looked closer. They were upside-down versions of the runes already glowing. Kio’s additions were taking on a faint light of their own.
The dragon closed over the upper stairway. “What makes you think that’s going to do anything?”
Kio kept working, face white as a captured cloud. His motions grew jerky, like he was a machine powered solely by loyalty and terror. “Educated guess.”
The circle of bones completed, the dragon’s body began to converge on them. The rumbling skeleton looked more and more like a tide. Sharp, biting, crushing, tearing ocean waves.
“That’s all I can do.” Kio stood up, having carved upside-down runes on about half the faces. “Now, we wait.”
She grabbed him by the shoulders. “For. How. Long!?”
He responded not by shirking away–there was nowhere to go–but by throwing his arms around her, clinging to her like they really were on a sea in storm. “Not long. It’s happening now. It has to happen now.”
“It has to.” She let go of his shoulders. Shifted her arms to his back. “We’re going to the surface.”
“We don’t die here,” he intoned. His voice, always soft, vibrated a little on her neck. “We die on the surface.”
“Shut up. We never die. We live. As long as Nashido lives.”
They were standing on the only scrap of floor not covered by bones. The dragon hadn’t added volume. It was rolling off the walls, getting ready to reform with them at its heart. From the floor around her, Karla could hear rumbling, as though she and Kio were already trapped in the dragon’s cage.
“As long as Nashido lives,” Kio echoed.
The rumbling grew louder. But the dragon stopped, like it had done when facing off with Karla at the reservoir. Looked around. Strained whatever senses it had.
It was afraid.
Karla felt a great upward gust, a hand pressing on her from below. The ends of her hair lifted up. Kio’s mop stood on end, revealing the top of his tattoo, the arc around the two pinpricks. His chin burrowed deeper into her shoulder.
From below, roaring through the cracks in the dragon, the water came.