Submerged for the second time that day, Karla saw disjointed, shadowy images flash across her vision each time she could stand to open her eyes. The bones coming undone from each other, the water forcing them back into their original dragonlike shape. Kio losing his grip on her. She paddled toward him, but the rush of the reservoir pressed her against the chamber’s ceiling–not hard enough to concuss, just enough that the force pushing her up was stronger than anything she could make fighting to swim. She stretched out her hand to Kio. Maybe she could help him get in a similar position. After all, the reservoir was only so full.
It wasn’t her fevered, oxygen-deprived imagination. The dragon was falling to pieces. Karla saw its gnashing head swept up the staircase, flame eyes dulled to sparks. Whip-like legs sprouted from a central node in all directions to follow it up. Each bit would ping off the tower walls, riding the upper fringe of the torrent, until it launched out into open sky.
It’ll see the surface before we do. As Karla stretched out her fingers to grasp for Kio’s, another thought forced in, like a sliver of glass through her brain.
Maybe that’s where it came from.
She shook it off. The surface was their home. It was no place for a dragon made of bones.
Kio’s fingertips brushed hers, groping for a firmer grip. Part of the dragon’s ribcage rushed up behind him. It still had a talon attached on one side, a tattered wing on the other, glittering in the crystal’s light.
Right as Karla grasped Kio’s hand, the talon grasped him around the middle.
The water swallowed his cry. The fly-wing pulsed against the water, strong as an oar, yanking his hand out of hers. She used the ceiling for purchase, clawing toward the upward shaft, but the chunk of monstrosity that had Kio was quicker. It rode the uprushing wave like a kayak.
Karla’s eyes burned. She clamped them shut, counting two seconds. When she opened them again, Kio’s boots were flying out of sight.
A wall of cold air smacked into her and bowled her in a half-circle. She was in the sky, flying through a rainstorm, spattered by little pellets of water.
Then she hit the stone floor. Picking herself up, she realized the reservoir had run dry. The water had stained the walls of the crystal chamber a darker brown.
A hundred wellsprings of pain fought for her attention, but she didn’t notice them. She only thought of one thing: if the water was gone, why could she still not breathe?
The violet shield crystal shone before her. Light rays shot through runes of two colors–white for half of them, black for their mirror images.
It’s still sucking air out!
Karla gasped. Her lungs clenched. On the one hand, there wasn’t water to suck in anymore. On the other hand, there wasn’t anything to suck in. She might have still been swimming for all she was adapted to this environment.
Don’t think. Crawl.
She’d begged Kio to do something when the bone dragon had surrounded them a few moments ago. He’d done the right thing–sort of–but only after a lot of thought. That was his style. It was why he’d hung for so long before deciding he was the only available counterweight. Her style was to never sit around when there was anything she could do to improve her situation. Or theirs.
She crawled. Her muscled wobbled from the lack of oxygen. Whenever they dropped her to the ground, she forced herself up, blasting thousands of lights in front of her eyes. All the colors of all the rainbows. There was a black edge around her vision, ragged, but seeping toward the center.
It felt like it took an hour to crawl twelve feet, but she made it to the crystal before she passed out. Kio’s rubble chunk lay discarded by the pillar’s base. Karla groped for it. Would her friend’s whole system fall apart if just one of its components were damaged? Or would she have to re-reverse the whole crystal field?
That second thought was like bone dragons on the surface. Not worth thinking about. Not worth thinking at all when it was time to act.
She slammed the sharp edge of the stone against the lowest rune, a half-circle with one helical arc. The cut left a long gouge that was neither black nor white. The circle-helix-whatever faded to match it, becoming the same pale purple as the crystal.
The rest of them stayed black.
Karla went for a breath, hit the same wall of agony. She felt like she was crumpling up. Her daymare was true: she’d have to undo a spell she didn’t have the breath for.
No time to get to another sixth of the castle that might have air. No strength. But she’d be damned if she was going to die lying down after a morning this awful. She stretched up her arm to scratch out the next symbol.
Before she touched it, the black rune turned clear.
Karla was so taken aback her next blow glanced off the crystal. The gravel skittered away into the dark shadows around her vision. In the last pinpricks of light reaching her eyes, more black runes were turning clear, rippling out from where she’d scratched the surface.
Cheek pressed against the stone floor, dazed, thinking about how nice it would be to sleep forever, she felt the wind pick up in her hair.
It wasn’t normal wind. Karla knew wind. Wind was her life most days. It didn’t tend to blow directly downward with an object the size of Castle Nashido in its way.
For the second time that day, she found herself plastered against a hard surface by a great amount of something rushing past her. This was getting ridiculous. How long had she been awake today? Fifteen minutes?
Reversing the crystal’s effect had caused air to rush back into this sector of the castle–both the temperate air of Nashido and the cold, thin air of open sky. Maybe they weren’t making a shield, then. Maybe their powers worked more like magnetism, holding a cloud of air around the heartsphere thick enough for her to breathe.
Karla didn’t much care. Well, she did, but not enough to keep from bolting for the stairs up the first second she had strength to move. Kio was still soaring away in the lone talon of that thing that shouldn’t have been able to fly.
It would have been easy for Kio to blame Karla for the fact that he was currently hurtling over the open ocean toward a cloud bank, captured by a dead dragon with one wing, spinning so fast he’d already thrown up his last three meals. After all, she’d been the one who wanted to confront the monster right away, when he would have been happy to stand back and observe it from a safe hiding place. Hadn’t he found the same weakness she had, with a lot less risk?
No. Not helpful. He’d been as much a part of this as she had, and the thought was taking energy away from more useful things he could be doing, like screaming.
He screamed. He’d already emptied his stomach. The bony claw was clamped as tightly around him as it could have been without drawing blood. Maybe it was drawing blood. That and the way his arms and legs were dangling and whipping around the void and the freezing rush of air and the thinness of the air–it was all too much, too much even to fear. He was going to die…
You’re not going to die. A chorus of voices chanted that in his head. One of them was Karla’s.
Sure. Great. Four times a second, Kio’s brain told him that it would be a great idea to panic. He took three of them. With the sliver he had left, he started to think.
So. In the clutches of a one-armed, one-winged abomination. Which came from open sky and was heading back there–the castle had already gotten way smaller, and the deep-blue morning sky much bigger, than he was comfortable with. And needed him for…what? In some of the books, dragons kidnapped princesses. Why grab me and not Karla, then?
Useless. It was like he was sabotaging himself with the stupidest thoughts imaginable.
He flung all four of his limbs up with a monstrous effort, clutching at any part of the dragon-bit he could reach. His left hand fell short. His right scratched on some bony spur, slicing open his palm with a burning sting he hardly felt. But one of his feet caught the edge of one of the thing’s wing-ridges. Suddenly it was spinning a lot faster, and Nashido, its deep-green vines and gardens and prop shaft gears and jigsaw-puzzle walls, wasn’t receding anymore at all.
Why? They were still airborne–good–and spinning harder than ever–less good–but nothing had changed…
In a flash, Kio saw what he’d been missing. The whole time, it’s been spinning vertically more than it’s been moving forward.
Finally, a useful thought. Pieces began sliding together. The wing-and-talon setup was about as aerodynamic as his fur bedroll, but somehow, without seeming to think consciously, his severed captor was taking advantage of the updrafts that always slid around Nashido from underneath. But it was constantly adjusting to remain stable and aloft.
And he’d just interrupted its adjustments.
Stomach leaping through his throat, Kio kicked to unhook his booted foot from the dragon’s wing. No good. The weird way the two of them were tangled together made it impossible.
He was just mulling the pros and cons of another good panic when the wind shifted.
It was a downdraft, but angled out, like it was aimed directly at the castle’s surface. More pieces coming together. Karla must have knocked out whatever effect he’d placed on the shield crystal. Maybe she’d be able to tell him what he’d done. He hadn’t the foggiest idea.
The moment of heaviest wind hit Kio and the dragon torso like an ephemeral wall, bowling them around. They fell faster, drawing level with the top of the three towers. Headed past the reservoir.
For once Kio’s panic worked in his favor. He squirmed fast, and this time, he moved. The shock of getting hit with a bunch of homeward-soaring oxygen had caused the torso to lose its grip. Kio latched one hand onto the wing, then the other, then his remaining foot.
“I hate pulleys!” he shouted like a war cry.
The wing flipped once more, then leveled out, Kio’s weight dragging it down while the updrafts filled it from below. He hung inside the talon’s reach, where it couldn’t get a firm handle on him. Dragon in tow, he swung back and forth, gliding slowly toward the reservoir.
He looked up, just in time to see Karla fling herself off the top of the crystal tower into empty space.
I did one step, he thought. Hope you’ve got the rest.