Eddie stumbled in the dark after Tim. Kai walked beside him, gripping his arm.
Earlier in the day, Tim and Bryce had sabotaged the supply line to the gas lamps. Now, as the sky faded to night, the streets were nearly pitch black. When Eddie lost sight of Tim, Kai tugged him onward, guiding him in the dark.
"You saved me," the little girl whispered.
"Not yet I didn't," Eddie replied. "The bad man will chase us if we don't do something about him."
"This way," whispered Tim, ducking around a corner.
Kai led Eddie into an even darker alleyway. He shuffled his feet, afraid he might trip.
A hand fell on his shoulder. Eddie flinched, ready to scream.
"It's me," Bryce said.
"I nearly had a heart attack."
"I know. Sorry."
"Is the Sheriff coming after us?"
"Come on guys," Tim said from the end of the alley.
As they followed, Bryce said, "I don't think the Sheriff ever wanted to give this girl to the dragon rider. She might not give us any trouble."
"I overheard the conversation from the jail. She may not be happy, but that other woman's likely to raise a mob to come after us."
A whooshing sound cut the air above.
"Shit," said Bryce. "Are we too late?"
A deep birdlike screech from above chilled Eddie's blood. A shape flapped in the air overhead, circled, then moved on.
"Keep moving," Tim cried. "The dragon will have a hard time landing here with the shifting gravity."
Eddie didn't bother asking what that meant. He raced after Tim. The girl kept at his side, both hands clutched around Eddie's wrist.
It wasn't difficult to find their way once they neared the blacksmith's shop. The fire in the back lot was the only clear light from the street. They all launched into a sprint.
* * *
High above, Kardhoom, second level Ord adept of the Circle of the Rat, searched the curved landscape beneath him. He did not care why this land had bent up into the sky. Its purpose was known only to Gahn Shikvaht . Perhaps it was a test. Kardhoom would pass, find the girl and gain glory for his order.
He felt the presence of the child so strongly, she could have been made of sunlight. She ran with others, one of them being the young man Kardhoom had incapacitated the night before. Kardhoom would take him as well, increasing his glory in the eyes of the holy usurper.
Unfortunately, Chella, his dragon, was finding it difficult to reach the land. Kardhoom understood why. The landscape was perpendicular to the true earth, making it seem as if they were flying sideways above it. As she neared, the pull of gravity shifted to the side. Chella shied away each time she felt the disorienting force.
Kardhoom patted her flank. "Get me close, old friend," he said, his voice soothing. "Get me above them, and I will jump."
His quarry stopped running when they reached a small fire in an empty lot. Chella circled for a closer approach. The two he wanted, the girl and the young man, were close to the flame. He'd get a better look on their next pass. They were together. Perfect.
Something changed. The magnetic pull of his prey dampened. Where once they were as bright as a fire in a cave, now they barely gave off a faint glow. He drew Chella through another pass above them. There they were, standing beside the fire. The young man now wore a navy blue cloak, the girl crouched beside him, huddled underneath the cloak. It masked his sense of their spark. So why did they stand so obviously in the light? Why did they—
Something whooshed past his dragon as they passed. Chella gave a screech of distress, trying to pull away from the sideways pull of gravity. Had the villagers thrown something at him? How dare they—
Another object, blunt and fast, arced upwards into the sky, smashing into Chella's wing. She gave a roar of pain, turned to evade the object, only to be smashed again in the breast from the other side. Kardhoom fell from her back as she twisted and plummeted to the ground.
* * *
Things were going better than expected. Eddie manned the lever on one of the gravity wheels, now painted black, while Tim controlled the second, hastily constructed wheel on the other side of their fire. Between the shifting gravity and the heavy barrels being hurled into the sky, the rider hadn't had a chance of a smooth landing. The dragon fell in a heap at the back of the lot, its rider hitting the ground sideways beside it. The huge beast struggled and soon stood up, its head spinning from side to side, looking for attackers. It appeared to be disoriented. One wing stretched out. The other extended only halfway, apparently injured.
The dragon spotted Bryce and roared. It advanced two steps towards him. Barrels from both wheels spun to either side of Bryce and the girl. The dragon reared back as the threatening barrels nearly clipped one of its wings again. It gave a distressed screech, backed away, then leapt and flapped back into the sky, leaving its rider in a crumpled heap.
"Well, that's one problem solved," Tim called.
"Unless it comes back to fry us," replied Eddie.
The dragon faded in the darkness, its frustrated roars growing more distant.
"I don't think it's coming back," said Tim.
Bryce left the girl and approached the fallen rider. "How'd you like that, dickhead? Not so fun when it's you getting knocked on your ass, is it?"
The rider groaned. He struggled to his hands and knees, his head down.
"Why don't I hog tie you now and get this over with," Bryce said.
The rider sighed with apparent defeat, then reared back suddenly, his right palm raised, and blasted Bryce with a blue bolt of energy.
Bryce fell back a step, stunned. He looked down at himself, searching for damage. He laughed, throwing out his chest. "Huh! You got nothing, punk."
The rider, now standing blasted him again, this time with a bolt infinitely brighter. It pulsed so intensely that the entire lot turned bright blue for half an instant. The force of this blast blew Bryce backwards, past the girl, onto his back.
The rider swayed on his feet. The attack had taken its toll on him. He stumbled forward towards the girl who remained alone by the fire.
"Kai, run," Eddie cried.
The little girl did, disappearing into the darkness beside the blacksmith's shop.
The rider staggered after her, his left arm cradled against his side, apparently injured in the fall.
"Part two," Tim shouted.
Eddie yanked on the gravity wheel's lever, slowing it down. He leaped towards the gas hose that snaked around the lot. As Tim cranked a valve on one end of the hose, Eddie lit his Zippo lighter and touched it on one of the holes in the hose.
A ring of fire erupted around the rider, blinding him. He threw his good hand to his face, shielding himself from the light. With his palm out, Eddie could clearly see the metallic ring that lay in his palm, affixed there by a white cloth band.
Tim saw it too. He rushed in through a gap in the flames, sneaking around behind the rider. He tiptoed behind the man, a knife in his hand, preparing to cut the band that held the ring to the man's palm.
The rider spun around and blasted Tim full on in the face. Tim toppled backwards through the flame. His pant leg caught fire. Before he could react, the rider blasted him again, sending him sailing into the path of the gravity wheel. A speeding barrel smashed him hard in the back of the head with a sickening crunch, knocking him to the ground. He lay broken and still.