Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Short Story #4: Chase, Chase, Flee

Part four of Valin the Navigator and Zefir the Clockwork Dragon

"Now, I need a happy memory, yes, a pleasant one." Seren perched over Zefir's flight control panel situated on his back, hemming and hawing, half talking to herself, half directing her comments at the dragon.

Zefir, lying down in this small little cave in the middle of nowhere—it was cold, not heated from underneath like in Mother's laboratory—puffed out a sigh. "Are you certain? You have been testing for many an hour now."

When focused, this strange mirror-of-Mother became lost in her work, her thoughts. That at least was familiar, but occasionally Seren would lapse into a tense quiet, her gaze lost—she admitted inside her own memories.

"It must be that some of your memories and emotions affect your flying abilities," she said, waving a slender hand. "The way you interact with your Navigator, and he in turn interacts with you."

"That makes no sense," Zefir huffed, weary now. And bored. Unaccountably bored.

"It makes all kinds of sense, dear dragon. It makes you more than remarkable." She scrambled down from his back, lithe and sure-footed. Again, the hurried gestured. "Down to my level, Zefir, if you please. I want to look at your optical sensors."

Zefir puffed out a warm breath into her face, and she barely blinked. He bumped his nose into her chest, but her hands didn't come up to pat at him. "You've already done so. But minutes ago."

The unfocused nature of her gaze changed. Sharpened back to attention. "Of course. Yes, of course. But we must continue, yes, before...before I lapse. It hasn't happened yet today, has it?"

"This morning," Zefir admitted. He didn't like telling her, for the truth distressed her. "Only for a few minutes, Seren."

"Ah, hmmm." Was her only answer, looking so thoroughly dejected that Zefir allowed himself to nudge her a little more forcefully with his snout. A bare smile graced her tense, sharp features, and Zefir could hear the thrum of her heart, knowing that she wasn't truly happy; the smile was for his benefit.

"Let's fly," he suggested.

That would break the spell of her obsession and would relieve his own boredom. He'd left before Mother could install a new diaphragm-ballonet, but Seren had said she could do so with the equipment she'd squirreled away from her last Clan, before they had cast her out. And she had. He could already feel that his breaths came easier, and when they'd flown together, flying as high as he could—Seren letting out a girlish whoop—it had seemed effortless.

She tucked a stray strand of graying hair back behind her ear. "If I don't focus, Zefir, I'll never be able to make you brothers and sisters. Not in time."

She still wouldn't say in time for what. She sounded so grave when she did. But he would like to have siblings, to have others like him.

"Then you can ask me questions when we're in the sky, to see if they affect my flight," Zefir suggested. Reasonably he thought.

"Yes, yes...makes sense." She hugged his snout, pressing her face into his broad cheek—his entire head the size of three of her whole body—and Zefir held his breath in case a flicker of flame came from his mouth. He didn't want to hurt her accidentally, but he enjoyed it when she hugged him. "Clever, Zefir. Flying makes you happy. Me too. Maybe I should've been bred as a Nav." She chuckled at that. "Then again 'Blood is Purpose.'"

"Valin wasn't born a Navigator, and yet he was. Maybe you could've been too." Zefir didn't want to admit that he didn't quite understand the bloodline purpose of the Clans, or why no one ever changed functions from their birth-duty. He shook his head before she could ask any more questions about Valin. "Come! The sky is a bit gloomy today, but I can counter the high winds. Or we can, rather."

Neri lifted her head from her resting spot, her pseudo-metallic ears swiveling in their direction as Seren put on her flying leathers and helmet, saving the warm-wrap mask for last. The brass wolf made a deep woof, wagging her thin mechanical tail, her voice repeating, "Chase, chase, chase?"

"Yes, chase," Zefir said brightly, his own heavy tail flickering. It seemed the only word the creature said. "Chase Zefir!"

Turning on his haunches in the tight fitting space, he bounded out of the cave, leaping with his wings tight to his frame. Upon hitting the soft, mossy earth, he left a furrow in his wake, leaping up again as the wolf followed with happy barks. Forgetting himself, he wrestled with Neri for a time, her teeth nipping playfully at his nose before he realized that Seren wasn't sitting by the old, weathered tree, nor was she watching them from the cave's mouth. The brass wolf sniffed at the air, tense.

Had Seren decided to leave them? No, something was wrong.

Neri barked. An unhappy sound. Whining.

Zefir opened his wings and hopped up to the cave, dashing inside. Seren had fallen to the ground, her eyes wide and lost, so lost, her hands above her in claws as if something had frozen her. Zefir's microcog-bearing heart stuttered, and he held his breath, feeling cold. Not sadness. But fear. He tried nudging her, but she began to scream. A high, thin sound of terror that rang inside of his head. Her hands flailed at the air, her claws trying to rake at him—no, not him.

What could he do? He needed help, but he didn't know where to take her. Exile was a serious thing. Valin worried about exile a lot and had suggested that if exiles were caught, they were...killed. If she was from one of the Lesser Clans allied by blood to the Cog Clan, then he couldn't take her to Mother.

But there was no one else.

Zefir gathered her up into his hands, making sure to keep his sharp claws from her fragile frame. "Seren! Seren, please!" He shook her, just hard enough to make her head roll around on her neck. "Wake up!"

She froze again, her body unmoving. A series of words tumbled from her, that strange language she sometimes spoke without realizing it. Fear clawing at his insides, making his breaths short and raspy, he leapt with her in his grip. Wings outspread he leapt to the gnarled old tree, using it to launch himself skyward. Away from the cave.

His internal temperature wild, he gained all the altitude he could, clutching her close.

Mother would help. She had to.

And if anyone tried to hurt Seren, anyone, then Zefir would strike at them. No matter who it was.

#

"She has him," the Inventrix snarled and Valin could hear it over his voice-directing implant. The microcogs buzzed in his ear with the violence of her next words: "She has him. I know it. Darketna ila jarsareth!"

Sitting behind him in the Secondary Control seat, the Inventrix adjusted one of the straps securing her to the ornithopter bomber dragon. Its stiff head pointed fixedly in a single direction as Valin adjusted the trim, the upslide as they ascended a half-a-degree, and noted how taut the flapping wingbeats were. Nothing like Zefir's beautiful membranes, or his effortless timing of each downstroke of his wings.

And of course, the thopter wasn't aware. It wasn't alive. It wasn't scared.

Valin had been searching for him with the Inventrix for over a week. They camped in the valley between the Sunset Mountains, the Inventrix barely sleeping but for an hour each day—one of her natural abilities, she assured him. But Valin had barely eaten even their meager rations, and slept even less than the Inventrix. His mind was dull from the constant fear, the gnawing sensation inside.

If he's broken beyond repair, it's my fault. And then the Inventrix's words: If he's destroyed, it's unlikely I can build another. And if she managed to build anew...it wouldn't be Zefir.

Now, the Inventrix was insisting that someone had stolen Zefir. That meant they could find him, and take him back. "Who?"

Her voice was a growl over the sound of his new implant. "An Inventrix of the Wheelteeth."

The enemy. The leader of the Wheelteeth Clan had his friend. "Then we must call in one of the squadrons and coordinate a quick, surprise attack. Then we can extract him..." If he wants to come back.

"Terribly bloodthirsty of you." She sounded amused, and perhaps just a touch disappointed. "You learn that from the Navigators? Or has it been hiding inside you all this time?" When he breathed in to respond, she interrupted, "I know. It's your worry for him. But it's likely she's no longer residing in their stronghold. The signs...yes, they've been in place for quite a while."

"Signs?"

"Lissteri," she whispered. Again, those strange words. Not that Valin knew dialects from the Lesser Clans, or even Wheelteeth speak, but it sounded odd.

"But why would Zefir willingly go with the enemy?" Valin asked.

Though possessed of a child-like mind, Zefir was quick and clever. He wouldn't turn tail and become a traitor...would he?

He glanced at the front leg of the thopter, looking at the Inventrix's reflection in the shiny metallic surface so he could see her reaction.

"Seren is..." She looked down at the ground far below, floating by, a pained grimace on her face. "She...doesn't obfuscate. Has no filter between what she's thinking and what she says. In many ways she's like Zefir himself. Almost childishly naïve. And no doubt Zefir feels she's a kindred spirit, for it's difficult not to be charmed by her lack of guile."

Valin shook his head, wondering how the Inventrix had learned of such intimate knowledge of the Wheelteeth leader. "So she's charming him. To use him."

"No," the Inventrix barked. "She's an innocent soul. Bright as the sun. Still though, she's possessed of the obsession of my breed. The sheer brilliance of her works have surpassed even mine, to the point where even I've been unable to fathom the nature of her inventions, though nearly all of them serve no real purpose. But she doesn't possess the leadership qualities, the cunning, or the deviousness required to rule. A defect in the blood. Along with another defect..."

In the manner of her breed the Inventrix had also manipulated Valin into coming to the next conclusion. He spoke it with distaste to have been so easily led. "So the Wheelteeth Inventrix is not their leader." 

The mere notion of that seemed difficult to grasp. Inventrixes, one per every two generations, were the leaders. How could it be any other way?

"No, merely a tool," said the Inventrix, her voice pitched bitterly. "A tool that should've been ours...if not for me. And my cowardice."

Valin glanced over his shoulder at her. The Inventrix a coward? He frowned in puzzlement, but she stared back at him evenly. It was Valin who broke the connection with her gaze, wondering if that too had been another test.

"Everyone fears," she said quietly. "And all too often we act on that fear. With regret most times."

Like casting away Zefir for his own good?

Peering downward, she snatched up her pair of farviewer goggles, sliding them over her eyes. Adjusting the farseeing dial, she pointed. "There. Something brass. Too small to be Zefir."

Without direction, Valin aimed the thopter downward, perhaps at a greater angle than necessary, but the Inventrix's words had rattled him and he needed that plunging sensation in his stomach to clear his thoughts. When they descended low enough to buzz the treetops with the thopter's six pot-bomb gripping feet, devoid now of their deadly explosive oil, the Inventrix ordered, "Land."

Unlike Zefir who could gracefully hover and land, the thopter needed a little more gliding space. Landing it with its clamp-feet out, he turned to see the Inventrix already leaping from her perch behind him—the height of two men to the ground, but she took the impact with a little grunt and sprinted on.

By the time Valin had set all the controls to auto-standby and crawled down the side of the flyer, he could see the Inventrix kneeling before a wolf-like creature made of brass.

The creature—seemingly made out of the same metal as Zefir's hide—perked its ears, whining, but wagging its tail slowly. Its sky-blue eyes were fixated on the Inventrix's mouth, listening.

"I can't believe you still work," the Inventrix said, patting a rough spot on the wolf-thing's side. "She's kept you all these years..."

Valin took two steps forward and the creature lowered its head, giving him a wary stare.

"He's a friend, Neri," said the Inventrix. "Where is she?"

"Chase," the wolf-mechanical barked, tail wagging slower.

"Yes, but where, Neri? Dezan lis eseth."

The wolf's snout raised and it peered skyward, making little hops as if it could launch itself into the air. "Chase, chase, chase..."
   
Valin looked upward to the west and saw the distinct outline of the dragon. Clutching something in his curled, sharp claws; even though Zefir flew at a low altitude—unable to go higher without Valin, or another Nav—his wingbeats were a flurry of hurried motion.

"Chase, chase, chase!" the wolf said, a whine escaping. "Chase, Zefirrrr!"

#

Zefir kept his grip on Seren as tight as he dared. Thankfully, though his heart was grinding and his wings were aching, Seren's stiff, unmoving body relaxed, and her blank—so blank!—stare ceased. Slowly, his companion looked about her, blinking in confusion. She touched one of his talons gently, fixated once again. "Oh, like sickles they are. What would you need that for? Battle, unfortunately, yes, yes."

"Are you well now?" Zefir asked anxiously. "What happened?"

"The memory locks last longer," she said calmly, half to herself. "No way to prevent them, at least not that I've devised."

"But you were scared! And screaming." Zefir slowed his frantic pace, seeing how quickly the distant mountain caves of the Cog Clan were growing closer. "I didn't know what to do."

"Frightening recollections sometimes occur during my memory locks. I quite lose control of my body." She offered him a wan smile of assurance. "I'm sorry I didn't warn you, dear dragon. Not all my memories are pleasant."

Zefir wanted to ask what horrible recollections would have her reacting so, but he worried that raising such a question would only force her back into that state.

She turned her head to try to look upon the ground. "Where are we?"

"I was...taking you to Mother."

Her eyes widened. She squirmed in his grasp, pushing at the joints of his fingers. "No! Zefir, turn back!"

He didn't understand her sudden distress, but he halted in mid-air, hovering though it made his entire body ache, his control panel making warning noises as his breaths puffed hot.

"Please, you can't take me there!"

He began to fly in a circle, indecisive. "I won't let anyone hurt you. Even if you are an exile."

"It's not that...I can't be near her. Quezan arseht be tomadamn!" She touched his fingers, eyes shining. "Please, even though you don't understand, please just turn back. I can't be around your Mother."

Mother wouldn't hurt the mirror of herself...would she?  

"For her sake," Seren said at a whisper he almost couldn't hear. "Not mine."

Zefir didn't understand, but with a graceful backsweep of his wings, he turned and began flying back for their hidden little cave.

"I don't want to hurt her," said Seren, shivering. "Not when my very presence can do so. Do you know what it feels like to stay away from someone because it's better for them?"

He began gliding and with his most serious expression, he nodded.

Valin was better off on a thopter.

"Then no matter what happens to me," she said, tears forming, "don't bring me near her."

Sedately, he flew back the way he had come, holding his breath lest anything mar her calm, her brow furrowed in thought. Then, while Zefir glided to keep the silence, Seren began to cry, tears quietly streaming down her knife-edged cheeks. He'd never seen anyone actually cry before. After the Wheelteeth gryphon attack, after losing so many Navigators, even those remaining Navs hadn't shed tears for the lost. The dead. Jarre had told him, still looking awkward to be speaking with Zefir, that Navs didn't weep because the lost ones were flying into the sun—to a better place filled only with joy. Zefir didn't know how a hot orb of light could be a better place, or how anyone could get there when they were dead. The thought that he could lose Seren to the sundisk made something hitch within.

Valin could be lost too. And Mother. The rest of the squad. He didn't want them to fly into the light forever.

His eyes stung—it hurt. Some sort of liquid began leaking from the corner of his eyes, trickling down his cheeks, and as he looked below, droplets of its clear, oddly viscous liquid dripped off of his snout.

Seren let out a hitched, sad laugh. "Oh, you beautiful creature. I never would have given you such a burden, such a gift as this." She reached up, smiling her sad smile, and touched the liquid, gently wiping it away from his brass cheeks. "You're crying, Zefir. She didn't tell you that either, did she? No of course not. But that she gave this to you means that she's changing. And perhaps that's not a good sign."

Zefir hoped she wouldn't lapse back into speaking to herself, but Seren patted his hand, and he loosened his hold on her. Quick as a sparrow, she sidled through the gap in his fingers, clambering up his shoulder—Zefir feeling a fearful cold sensation in his chest—and hooking a foot into his harness, bounded up and came to rest in the Navigator's seat.

Calmer now that she was secure, Zefir could feel the slight adjustments she made, and his energy level gained. Flying faster now, he saw a thopter bomber running on the ground to get enough momentum to launch skyward.

Shaking of the last of the liquid from his face, he narrowed his sharp gaze on those in the Navigator's seat of the bomber. The familiar forms made him stretch out his wings for greater height and speed.

Zefir knew Valin had wanted a thopter. And now he had one.

Mother pointed skyward, right at Zefir. She flickered her fingers in the Nav sign-language: Descend. Regroup. Return to squad leader.

Turning away from her—from Valin—Zefir flew onward as fast as he could.
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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Spark: A Creative Anthology VII, Read My Short Story!

My short story "For the Price of a Memory," about a young musician who sells her childhood memories, is now available in Spark: A Creative Anthology VII.




You can read it, buy it, share it here.


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Short Story #3: Flying Alone

Part three of Valin the Navigator and Zefir the Clockwork Dragon.


The mess hall was organized as Valin remembered, though why he expected to see something different was beyond him. No, the single thing that had changed was him.

In the far corner at the largest long table, hunched the worn grey-and-brown clad techworkers, their faces caked with either grease or oil if they second levels—sootfoots as the first levels called them—or clad in grey-and-red if they were first-level techies. Many kept to their plates with a dogged focus, eating with little thought to decorum. That was a word and concept that had no meaning to Valin until the first time he dined at the Navigator table.

When he was a techworker, there was little time beyond eating for the lunch meal, before they shuffled back to their forges—the long, ordered assembly lines that made certain the tech needed for the Inventrix, the war, and for day-to-day operations of the Clan remained in place.

Still wearing his flying leathers, he wasn't certain where to sit. The Inventrix hadn't cast him out of being a Nav, but since letting Zefir go, he wasn't technically anything. Not even a second-level techworker. If he were to sit with the techies, he would need to stand in the long line and wait for the servers to plop a bit of protein stew on his plate, while if with the Navigators, food would be served to him by the cooks.

It still made him uneasy to be waited upon.

"Valin!" came a familiar voice. "Breathing in the sky vapors today?"

Sometimes the Nav language, well it seemed like another language oft times with their signing, baffled him. But he'd heard the slang phrase often enough to understand. Your mind is elsewhere.

He saw Kerlan Nyru's scarred face, wind-flushed from her long flight upon her ornithopter bomber—the largest in the squadron. The long scar ran from her scalp line, down over her right cheek, puckering on corner of her mouth so she looked like she had a permanent wry grin. Which fit her well.

She scooted on the mess table to make room between her and the largest thopter Nav in the entire Clan—Quarethstra Jarre, who shifted his massive, muscled frame just barely enough for Valin to sidle in, grunting as Valin did so.

"Well'home," rumbled Jarre amiably, his meaty slab of a face grinning. "What has you chewing the clouds, Seven?"

The Navigators used bloodline names as a term of respect only, as several members from one bloodline were often in the same squadron. In the skies, they communicated with one another by given names or battle nicknames. In the mess hall, it was no different. But since joining the Navs, Valin's techwork bloodline—Seven, one of the older second-level lines—had become both a battle nickname, and among others, a sneering reminder of what he'd truly been bred for.

No one had altered from their bloodline purpose. Until him.

"What else?" said Nyru, lifting her hand in a battle signal for gain altitude. "That flyer of his. Where's the pretty brass one today?"

Valin swallowed, playing with the u-shaped eating utensil. That too, had been a new experience. Techs ate with their hands, using the hearty flatbread made by bloodline grandmeres to scoop up the mess hall stew.

"Out flying," he answered dully.

"I still say, it's not right," said another voice across from him.

Quarethstra Ferrei, the opposite of her bloodline cousin in girth, but not in height, peered at Valin with her nose upturned. "Makes one shudder. Giving our flyers minds isn't right. Next she'll animate the disposal unit and then where will we—?" She said a word Valin was certain meant shit. "Navs are for thinking. Reacting. We're in control of the flyers, not the other way around."

"And you control them just long enough to get torn apart," Nyru said, her cheek jumping. Valin could never tell if it was a half-grin of feline amusement, or a cold frown. Or both. "How many thopters you lose, Ferrei? Last skirmish I had haul you back to the ground after the gryphs tore it apart."

"Everyone's lost thopters," Ferrei said, her elegant fingers making the Nav signing language too rapidly—and vulgarly—for Valin to follow but for: —because of him.

Valin stiffened. Must he argue Zefir's worth again? Or more likely, this was truly aimed at him. And didn't her vulgar thrust have some truth to it? "And would your bomber have withstood so many ketch gryphons?"

Their metallic vice-claws made to clamp on to a flyer, crushing them, clasping on to Zefir's hind legs…dragging them down—down—downward.

"No, it wouldn't," Ferrei said, lifting her chin. Dark eyes gleaming. "But then again, your blood doesn't pump like ours, so how could you understand? I would've gladly sacrificed my flyer, my life, to keep the Wheelteeth from our flanks. Even if it were it in vain. And yet you fled with your precious Zefir." She snarled the name.

He'd learned that naming your flyer was not only frowned upon, but a deeply held superstition among even the oldest Navs. Even Nyru as Squad Leader was loathe to speak to the dragon using his name.

"We didn't flee," he said tightly. "We retreated." He made the sign for fall back-down altitude.

Ferrei's lips curled in disgust. No, a darker more intense emotion flickered behind her gaze. "You fled like the techie coward you are. Blaming your flyer because it can talk. And now, thirty of our number have flown to the sun-embrace. I lost three bloodline kin, seven sworn sisters, two oath brothers...and my beloved Denaru. And you talk of retreat."

Valin's hands curled into fists before he relaxed them. "I talk of living to fight another day." The Navigator credo was out before he could catch himself. And yet, he wouldn't be fighting any longer.

"You don't even know what that means," Ferrei spat. She touched each of her wrists with her flickering fingers. Another gesture he didn't recognize.

Jarre banged his massive fist on the tabletop, expression disapproving. But it was Nyru who spoke, her voice like the ice caverns high upon the mountain. "No, you don't know what it means. I ordered the withdraw. So, if you must blame anyone for failure, then blame me."

Ferrei shot to her feet, making a gesture of deference smooth and beautiful. "I'll not blame my sworn leader."

"I lost Denaru too," said Nyru, her raspy voice softer. "Or had you forgotten he was my blood-son?" Grimacing, she made a curt motion. "But we Navigators know that life is fleeting, and soon we embrace the burning of the sun. We fly into it with open arms."

 "Open arms," intoned Jarre solemnly. He made the same elegant and beautiful gesture, touching his muscled wrists.

Valin wasn't certain if he should follow the gesture, and when he peered down at his wrists, Ferrei spat, "You dare to give thanks to our lost ones, and I'll split you open, Seven. And all the techwork sootfoots you call a bloodline."

A hush spread over the mess hall, from the wasters corner, to the protein-vat regulators, to the techworkers. Even the cooks. The other Navigator tables didn't cease their conversations, not immediately, but their eyes were riveted to the pair of footsteps coming down the aisle.

So the hush wasn't for Ferrei threatening his life.

"Valin," the Inventrix said sternly. Ignoring all those around her. "Come. We fly now."

He wondered if it had been decades since the Inventrix last was seen in the mess hall. Cheeks burning hot, half in fury, half in embarrassment, he followed behind her as she spun on her heel, riding boots clicking in the silence.

#


Zefir felt cold inside.

His inner workings had grown too warm after he'd done all that roaring—and flame had flickered from between his teeth, startling him. Even so, he'd tried to fly higher without any stupid Navigator. And had failed. Parts inside him had rumbled. The control panel upon his back had blared warnings about his internal temperature and buoyancy. His wings had felt like they were on fire, painfully so. And so, he had been forced to land.

Now, resting in this rocky outcropping, nearly on the ground, he felt cold. Something told him it wasn't just his internal temp reducing to normal. It was something else. He shivered as Valin's voice rang in his thoughts: I can't…be your Navigator. Even though Valin had said they would always be together, flying as one, and curse the wind that would stop them. They would ride above it.

It hurt inside. And he didn't know why. Maybe something out of alignment. Something Mother should see to. Even that thought made him shiver, made the pain inside worse. She had lied to him, said that his Navigator would pass her tests and would find him.

He didn't want anyone to find him now.

Zefir raised his head from his cold feet, hearing several rocks go sliding down the outcropping. Narrowing his senses—tightening them, he detected something metallic, the scent like him, only not him. From the top of the outcropping, a brass creature appeared.

Zefir got to his feet, a low rumble of warning coming from his throat.

The creature was small, with large ears that flopped over on the top. A bit like the mountain wolves the Clan tamers used to hunt fresh meat when the protein vats grew low. Its eyes glowed quicksilver, and it opened its teeth-lined mouth and...barked. Its thin lazy tail began to wag rapidly back and forth.

Another scent came to Zefir, and he stiffened. Sweat. Human smells. Skin oils. Sounds...panting, out of breath. A rapid heartbeat. Both from exertion and from...excitement? It wasn't a scent-sound profile he remembered, not...exactly. He'd marked each of the squadron in his mind, along with Valin and Mother. It closely resembled—

"You've found it?" panted the human. "Oh, marvelous!"

The creature's tail wagged harder. Barked again, almost a yip.

The woman who crested the outcropping, wearing her odd-colored flying leathers, looked exactly like Mother. Only she wasn't frowning. And her hair had a little more gray in it. Her scent was a little less machine-oil, less laboratory-acrid, but her features were exactly the same, like Valin said "made out of the mountainside." Her eyes danced, whereas Mother's...scrutinized.

"Magnificent!" the woman cried, grinning. "Oh, she's done it. I knew she would. Oh, you beautiful creature. You speak, don't you?"

Zefir narrowed his gaze and puffed a jet of breath at her. He wouldn't speak to this odd mirror of Mother.

"Come, come now. It's the next logical step. Ah, but where are my manners?" He could see the riding jacket she wore was for high-altitude flying, lined with bear-fur. The fur ruffled as she bowed to him; she still smiled so brightly. "Good day to you, dear dragon."

"It is polite," Zefir said, raising his snout imperiously, "to offer ones name upon meeting for the first time."

Her grin didn't change. It made him a trifle wary, as Mother never grinned. She took three steps toward him, and Zefir lowered his head, rumbling in warning.

"Yes, it's the polite thing to do. I forget how stiff and proper you all can be here. No doubt she taught that to you, eh?" Then in exasperation, "Vardrisil ahn comi, she's the same. Hasn't changed a bit. Good sign, though. Good sign." The mirror woman's prattling made Zefir's wings twitch, and her bight grin turned into a tight-lipped smile. "Apologies, dear dragon. I forget myself. I am Seren. There, I've given my name."

The wolf-creature barked once, its tail ceasing to wag when Zefir took a step forward. He made as graceful a bow as he could muster, dipping his front legs, wings tight against back. "Zefir."

Her brow raised in a manner that was too like Mother. "The western winds? Clever name she gave you."

"Mother didn't name me." Zefir was intrigued despite his wariness. "Valin did."

Valin who was gone. Valin who didn't want to be his Navigator.

"Interesting." The mirror woman—this Seren—looked pensive. That scrunched up look Mother had when focused on nothing but fixing something broken. "Who is this Valin?"

"No one," Zefir rumbled, feeling cold again.

Seren came forward, tearing off one glove, fixated upon his snout, and without fear she reached out to touch him. Her hand was startlingly warm, almost like fire compared to how cold he felt. "Poor dear. She's made you to feel sorrow. Loss. That's the cold sensation, you know. Ah, you didn't? Very cruel of her not to tell you."

How could this woman know?

"I don't know why you're so sad, Zefir, but I can help you."

The wolf-thing yipped and came to her side, and with a laugh, she scratched behind its smooth, metallic ears until the brass wolf lidded its eyes in simple pleasure, pink-silver tongue lolling out of its jaw in a very stupid, crass way.

"How?" he asked, taking another step closer. She smelled different, yet similar. He chuffed at the air to memory-name her scent-sound profile—he could even hear how her pleasant smile changed the cadence of her heart. The smiling wasn't false. Her heartbeat told the truth. She was happy.

"Has your Mother not flown you yet?"

Answering a question with a question. That too was like Mother. "No, she's not my Navigator. Another was to be, and he was for a while...but he changed his mind."

"This...Valin person." Seren said it like a statement. Likely, if she was as clever as Mother, she'd already surmised long before this. "Then he is very idiotic to have chosen something, or someone, over you."

That was a thought that hadn't occurred to him. Maybe Valin was even now flying a thopter bomber like he'd always wanted. Happy without Zefir. The cold inside warred with a sudden flare of heat.

Seren snatched back her hand as a tongue of flame burst from Zefir's nostrils. "Oh, and there's the anger. Hmm, I wouldn't have connected such an emotion to fire-breathing, no, I would've created it to be controlled by will. Although—"

"Created?" Zefir asked.

She smiled wryly. "You're clever. Likely you have a guess."

"You think you're an inventor."

For the first time, Zefir saw her own anger flare. Her eyes narrowed, her smile gone. "I am an Inventrix. How dare you—" And she stopped herself, shaking her head. "That pride of mine. I'm sorry. Old habits and all. Bred in, it is. Only they thought Mirena had more of it and kept her."

Bitterness. That Zefir heard, and strangely, understood. He took another step closer and pushed his nose against her hand. She absently touched him, her eyes lost in remembrance, until he gently bumped her elbow—Valin had always warned that the dragon was too big and strong, so Zefir had to be gentle.  

"Thank you. The past, I fear, has a hold of me. Sit with me while I ruminate?" Her gaze was already distant as she sat on the edge of the rock, shaking. "I'm afraid I can't control it anymore. I'll quite forget where I am."  

She sat for a long time, gaze turned inward, her mouth occasionally moving to argue with things and people who weren't present. Zefir stood next to her for so long that Seren began to shiver with the cold winds that poured over the outcropping, despite her warm flying gear. As she shuddered, closing her eyes, the wolf creature sat at her feet—no, on her feet to warm her—Zefir sat closer to her to block the wind, arcing a wing about her to enclose her and lend some warmth.

Maybe feeling cold meant she was sad just like him.

The sun-disk moved from overhead to nearly touching the top of the mountain range when she blinked, muttering a last, "Spiraling...no, not spiraling. It's inevitable, but blood isn't everything. Still here. For now."

In dawning realization, Seren blinked up at Zefir and a strained smile appeared to lighten her heavy brow. "You're very kind, Zefir." She reached out to trace a finger along his cooling-wire veins seen through the thin membranes of his wings, mouth open slightly in wonder. "You learned that, didn't you? Kindness."

"It...felt right."          

She nodded solemnly. "You've been cast out as well. I can tell. Do you know what Clans do to mirror-kind like me?"

Zefir didn't know, though he feared he wouldn't like the answer.

Seren shook her head, like flicking away bad thoughts. She smiled again, and Zefir tried to respond in kind. "It matters not. Would you like to fly high today? I feel both of us are in need of some good flying, don't you?"

"I won't chose you as my Navigator." He'd never chose anyone again, even if that meant being grounded forever.

"Of course not, dear dragon. Of course not." She rose to her feet, placing on her missing glove, and the brass wolf wagged its tail once in hesitation. "Only a bit of assisted flying. Perhaps we can learn to help one another. That is...unless you have somewhere else to go?"

He'd told Mother that he would stay to fight for the Clan. For her. For...Valin. But did any of them need him? He'd failed the squadron. They'd lost so many because of him. Mother was always busy with other things. And Valin...

"No...I don't." How the words felt like they cut him as they came out.

"Come." She gestured to his flying harness, still attached, as Valin hadn't bothered to remove it. "We'll fly for fun. Just for a bit. Neri here will chase your shadow on the ground. She'll follow. She likes you. I can tell." Then added under her breath, "I'd like to see Mirena make something like Neri. She'd only say 'it's useless.' As if companionship is useless. Ha! Forsna il boraan. Clearly, you need a companion, Zefir."

"Companion," Zefir said, rolling out the word, elongating it. Tasting the rightness of it.

When she climbed up his side, using his leg to hoist herself into the Navigator's seat, she let out a series of murmurs to herself about "how remarkable" and "no, you chose to route it through that?" and "damn you Mirena to the ten hells."

Zefir launched himself into the air, wings beating for altitude, and Seren let out a girlish laugh of glee.

Below, the brass wolf chased after the dragon's shadow.

To be Continued
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Sunday, April 24, 2016

WINNER of Eldritch Embraces Giveaway!

And the Crawling Chaos has lifted its hand, spun the wheel of Fate, and Chosen a VICTIM (I mean WINNER!)

The winner is: Deb Salisbury! 

To collect your prize, please email: bcmatthewsauthor@gmail.com 

Thank you everyone for entering the giveaway!


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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Short Story #2: Valin's Choice

Since I received some feedback on a quick one-off flash fiction I'd posted before, I decided to write a bit more on Valin the Navigator and his flying companion, a clockwork dragon imbued with full, childlike sentience.

Valin could hear the bellows-rumble of Zefir's mechanical breath, straining as the bomber dragon flew higher. Clutching on to his Navigator's seat, while he pressed the multitude of buttons to vent excess heat from Zefir's brass pseudo-metallic skin, he heard the dragon's deep baritone through the microcog voice-hearing implant the Inventrix had designed but a day ago. That way they could hear one another over the rush of wind.

"Another thousand meters," Zefir insisted, his canvas-metal wings beating in syncopation with his thunderous clockwork heartbeat. His voice rang in Valin's head.

"Any higher and your diaphragm-ballonets will deflate too much."

Valin rechecked the gauges on his modified Navigator controls. By now, it felt like an extension of his own being to read the signs of the dragon's physical stressors, not just through the sensors and controls, but by the way Zefir timed his wing beats, the manner in which he arced his wings and the cooling-wire veins pulsated.

Below them, as no more than patchwork quilts, were the farmlands so near the Cog Clan's caves. Higher than they had ever flown.

"Five hundred meters," the dragon rumbled.

"No," Valin said sharply, knowing his tone would carry through the implant. "I know you want to test this maneuver—"

"Because we failed. We lost thirty ornithoper-dragons." Zefir didn't mention the Navigators they had lost. It was easier for the brass fellow to mention the ornithopters, as unlike himself, none of the thopter-bombers were created to be sentient. "Because there were too many ketch-gryphons from the Wheelteeth Clan for me to handle. They almost reached the caves."

Their home.

The high altitude winds made Valin's breath hitch, and what little skin was exposed from behind his flying mask and farviewing goggles stung like ten hells. "Level off."

"Only another," the dragon wheezed, "hundred meters."

Valin's readout indicated why Zefir could barely breathe. While he had never ordered the dragon to do anything, fear clawed into his throat and made him spit, "No! Level off now."

Zefir didn't respond. But his sides hitched, his wingbeats seized. Valin's controls blared out warnings—the shrill siren carved its noise into his skull. He felt them reach the apex of their arc before they began to spiral from the sky, falling—falling—falling—his insides in his mouth. He shouted to Zefir, but the dragon's glowing quicksilver eyes were lidded, that serpentine neck limp.

He tried to regain control, to re-inflate the diaphragm through his controls, but still the dragon was insensate.

The ground loomed close. So close. All Valin could think of was—not his own death—but whether or not the Inventrix could repair Zefir, his Zefir, when the dragon shattered upon the ground. Gods of techwork—metal and forge—he prayed it would be so.

The dragon's side finally heaved, like a man starving for breath. The limp wings unfurled, catching air and violently arresting their downward spiral. One of the pseudo-metal membranes of his wings tore; Zefir screamed, sucking in another desperate breath; his wings beat furiously at the air, his legs extended to counter their crash.

The dragon managed to level out, but the ground loomed. Upon impact, they slid, leaving great furrows in the soil, tumbling until Valin's head crashed into something. And everything went black.

#

The Inventrix eyed Valin's cracked flying helmet, studying it this way and that before tossing it over her shoulder, muttering about making a new one. Her graying hair was tied back tight against her skull, her granite features sharp with censure as she took in Valin's healed appearance. His leg had been splinted with something she'd cobbled together, but the shattered bone beneath his flesh was no longer strictly bone—now made of the same metal as Zefir's wing-bones.

"You crashed my greatest creation," she said sharply.

The headache that had been plaguing him for months—ever since the crash—wormed its way behind his eye. Courtesy of breaking the microcog communication device in his ear. "Must we have this conversation again, Inventrix?"

His tone was more than impertinent. He should be bowing to the leader of the Clan, for she could very easily send him back to being a level-one techworker, or worse, a protein-vat cleaner, or waste disposal.

Zefir, having curled into a sleepy repose in the massive cavern, raised his head at the tone. Quicksilver eyes regarded them both as he canted his spiked head to the side, like a hound catching wind of something.

"You failed," she stated.

"I told him to level off but he insisted—"

"You are his Navigator." The Inventrix lifted another pot of the pseudo-metallic gel as she made her way to Zefir's side.

Valin held his stance, spine stiff at attention. "You Inventrix gave him a will. If you desired a tractable machine, you could've made another ornithopter. I'll not order him about as if he has no choice in the matter."

"He's a child, Valin." She smeared a test strip of the new pseudo metallic goo over Zefir's brass hide. "Impulsive. And yet you let him run wild."

"Mother," the dragon said, bumping his soft, smooth nose into the Inventrix's chest. "I'll listen to Valin, I promise. Honest. Only...don't take him away from me. I...couldn't bear it."

"Look at what he did to you, you silly child." The Inventrix gestured.

All along the dragon's flank ran a long tear in the smooth brass flesh, and as Valin crossed his arms, the Inventrix smeared more of the gel over the healing—he had no other word for it—flesh. Even as he watched the edges of the tear started to stitch back together; a new concoction then, for the others had yet to work completely. Valin flinched every time he saw the damage—it was his fault.

Zefir would normally lower his head at such words from his creator, but he formed his brass neck into a stiff S-curve, trying his best to look imperious. "No, Mother. Look at what I did to him. He's my Navigator, and I almost..." The dragon's throat bobbed—the second-level techwork in Valin was still fascinated by that—and Zefir's neck curled downward, head hung. "I almost...lost him."

Valin could no longer remain so far away, and he walked over to pat Zefir on his neck. "Still here, Zef."

The dragon chuffed, his wings unfurling slightly; either a sign of impatience, or of worry. Very likely both. Valin could see the repair to the torn membranes had completely 'healed.'

"There now," Valin said gently. "I named you after the wind. And the wind always does what?"

Zefir's animal-like mouth curled into a strange smile. "Catches your feet. And we'll always catch each other."

The Inventrix's eyes narrowed in interest at them both, studying the interplay between them. She continued to smear more of the goo on the dragon's brass hide, and Zefir hissed, his warm steam-like breath puffing. "Ow, Mother."

"That means it's working, child. So hush." She eyed the healing flesh with an inventor's unnerving intensity. "You'll be able to fly soon, but I'm keeping you from our next strafe. Your first and only instance of battle made it clear you're not ready to fly as protection for the thopter-bombers."

That pricked Valin's pride. "The Wheelteeth had three times our number. We couldn't hold them off."

The Inventrix looked down her nose at him, eyes gleaming. "I created him to be able to fly circles around the Wheelteeth's ketch-gryphons. They're one-third the size of him. And built with their poor forges. Brittle as glass those ones."

Valin crossed his arms, furious now, a posture one didn't dare hold in her presence. "The Wheelteeth Inventrix hasn't invented anything new in years, it's true, but her techworkers churn out gryphons faster than anything. There were too many. And will be again."

Her eyes flashed. "You, dear boy, don't know how to handle the brilliant creature I gave you. He can tear through them all. Unleash him properly and you can—"

"Only a moment ago you called me a fool for not reigning in his wild ways," Valin spat.

Her voice raised, "I said properly." She inhaled slowly through her nose, once again cold and in control. "His wildness is for battle, his sentience for reacting faster than any normal mechanical—"

Zefir's rumbling baritone lifted enough to shake a few of the glass beakers on his mother's lab table. "No one asked me what I believe I'm for, or how I think I'm to act. Don't I have a say?"

Valin noticed the dragon's brass flesh grew warmer. Angry then. The massive wings fluttered, held stiffly upon his back as if the dragon would launch himself up and away at any moment.

"Isn't that what you told me?" Zefir demanded. "That I can adapt and make decisions on my own? Whether or not I wanted to fight, because if I loved the people enough, I would make a decision to protect them and our home...or choose to go elsewhere? But the choice was mine, you said."

Valin tried hard to keep his face neutral, but a proud smile curled his lips. Not such a child as you think, Inventrix.

A long sigh from the Inventrix. For the first time Valin saw how weary she looked, how the endless fighting between the Clans had slowed her. She looked sick, but not in body. "Aye, Zefir. You speak rightly. And your choice, my little one?"

"To fight." The word echoed in the cavern. "For Valin. For you. For the Clan."

"For yourself?" the Inventrix asked quietly.

"For home." Zefir rose, his long, blade-like claws clicking on the stone floor. His wings swept out and gathered both of them closer with astonishing gentleness, until Valin was pressed against the dragon's neck, and the Inventrix was squeezed against Zefir's broad chest. The Inventrix closed her eyes, as if drinking in the moment with her inventor's heightened senses, before she opened them again.

The Inventrix spoke, her voice softer than Valin had ever heard, "I'll install a new diaphragm-ballonet so you can fly higher. Practice your maneuvers with care, listen to your Navigator, and I'll put you back on flight duty, little one."

"Ha!" the dragon crowed, bumping his massive face against his creator. "I'm the little one?"

Her eyes were earnest as she said, "You'll always be the little one to me."

Silence passed as Zefir's wings squeezed her closer. Thumping the dragon's chest with a broad palm, she blustered, "Gah! Enough. I've things to do."

She extricated herself from the dragon's wings, moved with precision to the exit, once again stiff backed and chin raised, ever the cold leader of the Cog Clan.

#

Inventrix-types were bred for their genius, Valin mused, and many of them, while capable leaders—bred for that along with their heightened sensory perception—didn't interact with others on a personal level, both out of choice and necessity.

But the Inventrix's interactions with Zefir were different. And he believed that disturbed the leader of the Cog Clan. For their kind, emotions other than an all-consuming passion for their techwork were muted so that logic and cunning reigned.

But Zefir was one of her creations. And her creation, quite of his own volition, had called her "Mother" upon awakening for the first time.

Valin understood the confusion only too well.

He came to her security door, his mind expanding to take in the codes that would unlock it. Hmm, interesting. She sought to stretch his techworking abilities this time, and he had to replace several of the cogs with ones from the upper locks to decode it. Silently, it slid open and he found her hunched over her lab table, writing notes.

Without raising her eye, she barked, "Yes, Navigator?"

Zefir was out stretching his repaired hide, flying lazy, low-altitude laps over the farmland. And so Valin could speak with the Inventrix. Alone.

"I think," he began, steadying himself, "you should find another Navigator for Zefir."

Her eye didn't raise. She continued to write.

Valin didn't need to ask if she'd heard. Likely she could hear the rapid, uneasy thump of his heart, the sick-feeling gurgling in the pit of his stomach. But this was for Zefir's own good. The dragon would be better off with a more experienced Nav...with someone else. Even if Valin would be a second-level techworker again, huddled in the forge caves with no hope of advancement.

Zef deserved better.

Still, the Inventrix ignored him.

"Perhaps, pick Kerlan," he said, his voice dropping low with the eerie silence. "She's a brilliant thopter Nav. Or maybe, Quarethstra. He's—"

"Not you." The scratch of her pen nib on the paper seemed overly loud.

"That's the point, Inventrix," he said, some heat in his tone.

She waved him away. "I've no time for your self-doubt, Valin. God o' the Forge, I hate it when you're predictable. I'd even timed just when you'd approach me almost down to the minute, the variance being that it took you thirty second less time to crack the code than I anticipated. Your predictability makes you—simple. Boring."
                                                   
He stood taller, clenching his gloved fists, feeling the creak of leather. "If I'm so simple why did you give him to me to fly?"

She switched to a pencil and began sketching her design. Whatever madness was upon the page riveted her gaze to it. "I didn't."

"Ten hells," he cursed. Even that wouldn't take her eye from her work. "You chose me because I passed your test."

"I allowed you the chance, because you were unpredictable and undisciplined enough to pass my test, yes. Though bred for low-level work, you're remarkably wild. And if you're not as intelligent as I believe, and I must spell it out for you, boy," at this she raised her cold eyes, "then perhaps Zefir chose the wrong person."

Zefir chose. Not the Inventrix. The squirming feeling inside intensified. "That's why you wouldn't fly him yourself. He didn't chose you."

"Welcome my dear imbecile to the conversation." She shrugged. "There were many other reasons I would make a poor Nav for him. And why you fit well. Though, if you're too much of a coward to continue, then perhaps you're right. You don't deserve to be a Navigator. Much less Zefir's."

The Inventrix ignored him once again and he slammed his hand down over her ink, which spilled and went scattering over the page. "I'm no coward."

Valin could hear the sound of wing-beats and was almost sick, the sensation inside so much like...betrayal? Maybe it was cowardice.

"Tell him, Inventrix, that someone else is better as his Nav. Someone who'll keep him safe."

From the open mouth of the cavern, the massive cog-doors open to the mountain breeze, Zefir alighted on the edge, looking refreshed. Happy.

"There is no safe, not even if you keep him out of battle," the Inventrix said quietly. "Though if he's destroyed, it's unlikely I can build another. And even if I do, it won't be the same creature."

Zefir trotted on his four legs, still graceful, though it appeared he should be ungainly on the ground. "Valin! My side feels better and we need to practice. Hop on!"

Valin's mouth dried, and his tongue scraped over the ridges on the roof of his mouth. "I-I can't. Another is to be your Navigator."

The stricken look on the dragon's mobile face was enough to make Valin turn around. Yes, like a perfect coward.

"Wait!" thundered the dragon desperately. "No, Mother. You won't take him from me! He's my Navigator. I swear that I'll not let another near my controls, I swear it!" And the dragon's voice grew thinner, "Valin...don't go. We can fly together. Like the wind."

Valin couldn't turn around. His chest felt constricted. "I must go."

The dragon bounded behind him, and Valin felt himself plucked up into large, strong brass fingers, the sword-claws enclosing him like a cage. Waddling on his hind legs, Zefir took Valin toward the dragon's favored resting place, a small divot in the worn stone. Setting him down gently, Zefir whirled around toward his mother, who was still otherwise engaged, tail flicking.

"You said I could choose, Mother. And I did." Quicksilver eyes gleamed like heated mercury. "I won't choose again."

She lifted her gaze to Valin. Weighing. Judging. "It's Valin's choice, child. Not mine. Or yours."

Though the words stuck in his throat, Valin croaked, "I've chosen...not to be your Navigator, Zefir."

The shock on that brass, animated face-snout was almost comical in its childlike innocence. The hurt in those mercurial eyes too pure, too genuine, as if it were the first time that emotion had ever been felt. A low mournful sound rumbled from Zefir's chest, and the Inventrix cocked her head, as if listening to the microcogs within grinding out of alignment.

"No," the dragon whispered. "You're lying." Then as he bared his knife-like teeth, he roared, "You lie!"

Valin shook his head. How to make Zefir understand? It was for his own good.

Before Valin could begin to explain, those brass spiked brows lowered, turning quicksilver eyes into hateful slits. Valin opened his mouth, but Zefir drew in a breath and bellowed out an ear-shattering roar—half anger, half pain. Even the Inventrix paused in her new obsession to hold her ink splattered hands over her ears. And though only the warm steam of Zefir's breath had ever poured forth from his nostrils, Valin saw true flame flicker from Zefir's open mouth.

Zefir let loose a warbling roar, bounded around him, and without spreading his wings launched himself from the laboratory cave. Valin counted his rapid heartbeats, knowing how long a drop it was until the dragon would need to lift himself back to the sky, or to shatter on the crags below. Zefir couldn't fly at higher altitudes without a Navigator, but he could coast.

"Hmm," the Inventrix said, and Valin barely heard it through his ringing ears. "It appears as if at least one of you is the child."

Valin turned to stalk out of the laboratory, telling himself that he didn't need to hear the earth-shaking cries that pounded against the mountainside.

To Be Continued

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