Kai hugged the dragon's neck, watching the forest rush by. As dawn crested, light and shadow mingled in the trees below, casting a dazzling spell. Kai felt cool wind on her arms, the warm leathery scales of Atrax under her belly and a blissful exhilaration in her heart. This was where she belonged, flying high above the cares of the world.
She glanced ahead and spotted a chestnut tree rising high above the others, its top branches stretching thick and strong. Go over there, she told Atrax.
The dragon dropped his wing and banked left. Crows scattered from the top branches as Kai and Atrax shot overhead.
Kai had always had a connection with animals. As long as she could remember, she'd been able to touch their emotions, sensing their joys and fears. She'd feel birds soaring across the sky and knew their constant wonder. She ran with foxes under the trees. She communed with moles and gophers and learned the cool comforts of the deep places in the earth. But never had she encountered a creature so complex, so brilliantly alive as the dragons she discovered in Cavaheim.
How high can you go? she asked.
Atrax grunted and drew his head skyward. His wings heaved down, and eddies of wind played with Kai's hair as gravity drew her back. She tightened her grip on Atrax and laughed. He laughed with her, his breath coming out in short chuffing grunts. She felt his childlike thrill as he forced himself ever upward, claiming the sky.
The dragon had never known this freedom. Born in captivity and trained by the cruel hands of angry-people-in-robes, they'd beaten out his instinct for owning the wind, his birthright as a creature of the sky. For years he'd suffered under their lash.
Then came Kai, this tiny girl with a wild heart and boundless wonder. Kai reminded Atrax of the thing he had lost—the thing he had forgotten he had lost. With Kai, he rediscovered the innocent wonder of the wind.
Together, with many of Atrax's nestmates, they'd rescued people from the bad building where fire rocks hid. Then Kai and Atrax had gone off alone, dancing in the sky under the moon. They'd slept under trees in the woods, the little girl lying curled up in the hollow between the dragon's foreleg and shoulder, lulled by the gentle whisper of the leaves.
And now they soared again. Kai laughed out loud. She tucked her legs under Atrax's wings as he reached an apex, high in the sky. She spread out her arm and crowed like a rooster.
As Atrax began his descent, Kai once again gripped the sides of his neck and peered down at the distant forest below. There were humans, mere specks on the road amidst a sea of green. One woman in black and red looked as if she were running away. Others surrounded her, closing in. The woman was fast, but she had so many pursuers. They formed a closing circle on their prey.
Let's get closer, Kai told the dragon.
Atrax hesitated. So many humans.
They aren't the angry-people-in-robes, she reminded him.
Get close, but not too close.
The dragon plummeted, its wings drawn back, catching the wind just enough to edge towards the conflict. As he neared the scene, he spread his wings and caught the air. Inertia drove Kai into his neck, pressing the breath from her lungs.
Atrax circled to give Kai a view of the scene below. The people pursuing the woman were clumsy. Some dragged their feet as they walked, their shoulders slumped. All of them smiled, some grinning so wide Kai could count their teeth. But Kai sensed no joy in them. She sensed nothing at all. The clumsy smiling people gave Kai a chill.
The woman in black and red looked familiar. She wasn't running anymore. The empty people surrounded her. She held a sword, spinning to face all her attackers.
Kai recognized her. The lady in black and red was the quiet lady from the place with metal bars and angry faces. Kai and the grumpy lady had been imprisoned together there for days.
We should save her, Kai told Atrax.
Sword, Atrax replied. Hurts.
She hurts angry-people-in-robes. I saw her. She is a friend.
I think so.
Atrax continued to circle.
"Hey!" Kai called down to the woman.
The woman had already noticed them. She glanced up, then spun again. The empty people showed no fear of her sword.
"We can save you, but you must put your sword down," Kai called.
The woman spoke in her own gibbering language.
Kai didn't understand. She wished Eddie was here. She pointed at the woman's sword, then shook her head. The woman didn't look up. One of the empty people, a man, reached out to her. She swung her sword and sliced his palm, nearly severing his fingers. He stopped and stared down at his hand, grinning at the blood.
Those people are bad, Kai told Atrax. They're scary.
They want to hurt her.
She won't hurt you.
The people were on the woman now, their hands all over her. She couldn't move.
Atrax swooped in and caught the woman by the shoulders. Kai leaned over to look. The woman hung from his grasp, still gripping her sword. She kicked one of the empty people who reached for her as she passed over. Then she was free.
The empty people filled the road—so many, Kai couldn't count. They grinned up at Kai and Atrax with hollow eyes.
What is wrong with them? Kai wondered.
Atrax didn't reply. He rose higher and higher, distancing them from the scary people who flooded the valley. The people moved under the trees, terrifying the rabbits and coyotes who hid there. Kai sensed the animals, but from the people, she sensed nothing at all.
They flew up to the hills, crossing miles, leaving the empty people behind. Ahead, a bare ridge rose above the valley.
Take her there.
Atrax circled the spot once, confirming there were no empty people nearby. He slowed, his wings hammering the air to hold his position, and dropped the woman. She landed on her feet, looked around, then sheathed her sword. Atrax landed a few feet away.
The woman spoke to Kai.
"You're welcome," Kai replied.
The woman nodded and walked away down the ridge, away from the hollow people and the city. Kai watched her go.
A few moments passed. Atrax stirred.
What is it, Kai asked.
A person—man—in the trees.
Kai spun. She sensed it too, a familiar presence.
A young man walked out into the clearing, his hands up to show he was unarmed—his right hand missing two fingers. He wore a broad leather hat and leather coat.
"Eddie?" Kai asked.
He smiled. "Close," he said. His voice was raspy, like a grunting badger.
Friend? Atrax asked. He dropped his head, inspecting the newcomer.
I think so.
Kai reached out with her mind and searched the young man's emotions. It was Eddie. It had to be. And yet, there was something very different about this person—something sadder, stronger. His eyes were the same, yet when he looked at her, she felt she was looking up at her village Kinsha—old, wise eyes.
"You saved Montrose," he said. "She might have shown gratitude, but she's the most stubborn, single-minded person you'll ever meet, and she's in a hurry. She can't help it if she's rude."
"I'm taking a chance coming to you like this," he said.
"Why? What's wrong Eddie?"
"I wish I could explain everything to you, but I can't. And I'm not Eddie."
"Do you think you and Atrax can help me?"
"You know his name?"
Kai smiled. She glanced back at Atrax and nodded. "Sure. We'll help."
"I need to get somewhere fast. Many people are counting on us."
"Are you going to fight the empty people?"
She pointed back towards the valley. "The smiling people who attacked the lady."
He frowned. "No. Someone else will deal with the Simps. We've got other problems."
"Okay." She studied him. "If you're not Eddie, who are you?"
"Call me Winnie."