Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #24: Beyond All Costs


Zefir could feel the Wing runner's eyes on him as he ducked from beneath another gryphon swipe, and without telling her how, or directing, Kirwen indicated the direction to dive through the Navigator's panel upon his back—and he felt her pure elation in flying with him. [Head whirling. Stomach clenching with the dive. Delight.] He didn't want to admit to himself that he was enjoying this, and he rumbled a chuckle as he turned on a wing, a mere three-points away from the First Leader of the gryph squad practicing with him, and pointed straight downward, his diaphragm-ballonette collapsing partially with the dive.

He could feel the pull of the ground, pushing himself, pulling his wings close. Yearning to get as close as possible before unfurling his wings to arc back upward. He gauged the ground, but he wanted to push it closer. So close. He heard her voice in his chest, no need for a communication device.

Pull up!

He inhaled, wanting to feel his wings brush over the grasses.

Pull up, child! Do as I say!

He spread his wings and his downward plunge was arrested, the air catching his wings until they felt like they would split from his body. And he arced upward in a perfect U, flapping for the next apex until his insides burned like wildfire—damn it, Kirwen, redirect the flow of cooling! The gryph Wing scattered about him as he dove in the center of their line. Well, he'd warned them over and over this afternoon that such a maneuver was a favorite of the Cog Clan's Wing commanders, and if they hadn't learned to either close ranks as they'd practiced, forcing the him to either risk collision or to abort, then it was their own damned fault.

Land! Now! came her thought-voice, strong with fury. And through his three-sixty directional indicator, she pointed to the place to land.

Defiant, he chose the landing ledge they'd launched from instead, and with easy backstrokes, he alighted on the edge, panting because the heat of his systems was overwhelming.

She leaped from his back, and came around to face him. The wolf mask only added to the fury glinting in her eye, and she tore the flight mask from her face, throwing it against the far wall.

Zefir regarded her in silence as he fought for his breath, for the heat to dissipate.

She thrust a trembling finger at him. "You've been disobeying me the entire afternoon. Our pact is finished."

He leaped in front of her, baring his teeth. "No, Kirwen, you've been failing me."

She blinked in surprise. [Fail. Failed my ward. Fail.]

Zefir advanced on her until his large eye, the size of her human head, glared at her from a handspan away. "You keep forgetting that I'm no gryphon. You've been working against me, not with me. My Navigator must..." he swallowed at the idea that Valin might never again fly with him. But his Navigator had escaped. Valin was safe now among their Clan, surely. "You have to anticipate my actions, and act quickly when I change in mid-flight. I've nearly overheated because you haven't been re-directing my cooling systems. You can't seem to trust me enough to know my limits. You won't allow me to maneuver on my own, even when I see a better opening."

"You must obey me," she growled. "For now, I'm your Leader—"

"No," he barked. "For now, you're my Navigator. And you've no idea what that means."

Kirwen stepped back from his looming dragon head, and crossed her arms. Such a defensive posture wasn't her norm, but he thought it a way to hide her tremors. "Then tell me."

He let out a frustrated sigh. "In the air, I must trust and rely on your judgments without hesitation. And equally, you must trust and rely on mine. You're not my Leader, Kirwen, not when flying—flying is different. It's mutual. It's—"

"Connecting," she said with a thoughtful frown. "A give and take. Two beings as one whole."

Now it was his turn to blink in astonishment. How could she understand now? Unless... "Is that what it was like for you and your mirrors?"

Kirwen's bitter smile was beginning to be all too familiar. "Similar. But deeper. I've no doubt Mirena designed you this way on purpose. Probably without realizing it. It was our reality, our deepest self—one in three, three in one. Even now, I miss it like a phantom limb." She barked out a cynical laugh and held up her shaking brass hands.

"Then you understand," Zefir said resolutely. "You must cease trying to control me. You have to trust me, and my instincts. You might think me a mere child, but in the air...that's where I belong. You believe you have your blood purpose, but this is mine."

She shook her head, hands in frustrated fists. "If being your Navigator requires trust, then it will never happen. Not after all I've done to you and yours."

"No, I won't allow you to give up on this." Not if it means losing Ferrei and Jarre. "I can learn to trust you in the air. I need time—"

"Four days is all we have, child." She crossed her arms again, and closed her eyes for a moment to regain control over her shaking hands.

Zefir held his breath, even though his systems were already too hot. He used his snout to nudge her and buried his nose in her chest, listening closely to the sound of her mechanical heart; not like his, which was also his mind, but hers was a machine replacement for the one lost, he was certain of it. She peered at him in confusion, before her shaking hands touched either side of his face. He could feel and hear how fierce the trembles. Not only was her body slowly dying, like a worn out clock winding down, but her mechanical parts were also following into decay, connected as they were to her flesh.

"This won't make you trust me, child." Kirwen met his round eye unwaveringly. "You're more like me than you'd like to admit. I threatened yours. Those Quarethstras are yours."

"Because I love them."

"So, you understand then." She looked away. "The pain. The fear. The need to protect them at all costs. It's the terrible burden of love, Zefir."

She'd called him by his heart-name, and not child.

Zefir exhaled slowly. "I do. That's what you believe you're doing for your Clan. For your children's children. But you're tearing them apart, Kirwen. You're giving them pain and fear. And it won't stop until you end this war."

She turned her back on him for a moment, tremors passing through her frame. "We must continue as is. If you can't trust me, then you must obey me." Kirwen turned to regard him, expression unyielding. "Without question."

"I may not trust you fully, but I can come to understand you." She backed away from him, but his wing unfolded to keep her from stumbling, and she used the pseudo-metallic membrane of his wing to steady her quivering legs. "Tell me everything. Tell me how you were wounded in spirit and in flesh. Tell me of the Trial."

He could feel her fear along the place where her hands touched him, their virul-connection thrumming to vibrant life.

"If you can't speak of it, then show me," Zefir said intently.

He knew—he could feel the certainty in his sternum—that if he touched her mind, he would see everything. Even without her permission. Like her body, her mind was crumbling. Her anger was a hot fire in his belly, hotter than his poorly cooled pseudo-flesh, and he longed to push into the forefront of her thoughts. With a great power of will, he restrained himself, knowing it would be the basest of violations.

Kirwen clenched her teeth, and cold sweat poured down the side of her face. "She knew...she knew I'd need you. Seren didn't give her virul-cogs to you just to cleanse you of your false memories. She did it for me too. Damn you, lissteri. And curse me for mourning you still."

Lissteri...

Zefir heard three voices, all children with identical faces, uttering it to one another.

She gasped, "It will hurt."

And Zefir wasn't certain if she meant for him, or for herself. He curled his wings about her, this desperate human that had weathered centuries. This angry, bitter creature, this Leader that would dare to kill two of his squad to save the lives of many more, to manipulate and threaten him, who belonged to her—and he could feel the pain of that decision.

Kirwen let out a strained breath and released her hold on her memories.

#

Valin was saddle sore. Not something he ever thought he'd be, not as a second-level tech, and not as a Nav. But though his coghorse moved with a strangely smooth gait, the saddle—and the Tenth Rider Regiment had chuckled at his need for one—gods bedamned but it chaffed.

The Inventrix child rode easily on the back of the monstrous silver coghorse as if born to it, and Valin listened as the beast spoke to her, its voice a deep basso not unlike Jarre's rumble, though he couldn't make out the words. But the silver coghorse easily rode ahead of the scouts, much to Rhin's constant irritation and concern. It was clear the Tenth Regiment thought of themselves as the new Inventrix's personal guards, and every time the Inventrix child would disappear ahead for an hour or so, four or five Riders would canter off after her.

They often looked shamefaced when they returned at her side, and Valin didn't know if it was because the Inventrix had chastised them for thinking her a child, or because they felt they had failed in their blood duty somehow.

Now they were cresting the top of a small canyon, and Valin groaned when his coghorse picked up the pace to remain a calculated distance from its mechanical brethren. Tired enough from riding, he nudged his coghorse to a halt, and dismounted.

He looked into the depths of the granite canyon, and saw it...

Mirena's last creation.

It was the most massive thing that Valin had ever seen; his mind calculated the length and breadth of the bomber dragon—with fixated wings!—and knew that it would be ten times the size of Zefir. It seemed almost cobbled together, and strangely inelegant, as he could see the huge rivets in its side like a Healer's stitching of a gaping wound. It had a blunt nose and virtually no head to speak of, and no feet, but massive wheels instead—also made of stretchable pseudo-metal. Its belly was open and Riders and their coghorses pulled a huge cart carrying a—

Bomb. A massive firebomb. Like the three-chambered one he'd built, but larger. It bore hundreds of nozzles all along its side—to spray its contents into the air, a veritable massive blanket of chemicals, before ignition.

The sky would burn like hellsfire.

"Holy metal an' Forge," he gasped.

The silver coghorse came to his side, and the child Inventrix looked down at him from its back.  

"It can't...she can't..." His eyes burned and his sight blurred, his teeth clenching so hard he thought his jaw would snap from the pressure. "Dear gods...all of them? They'll burn." He met those dark eyes that were a match for Mirena's. For Kirwen's. "The children...young ones...the Elders and helpless. She can't do this. How could she build this?"

"Desperation," said the child Inventrix.

"Fuck her desperation," snarled Valin. "She's going to murder them! The innocents. I've been there, Inventrix, and the Wheelteeth are just as desperate as we are. But there are still innocents among them..." Little Mayra. Gods, the bomb would...

The Inventrix nodded solemnly, wiping at her eyes with the backs of her sleeve very like the child she appeared. "She won't listen to reason from me. I believe she's already beyond it, her mind fraying enough to where only her end goal matters—protecting the Clan at all costs." The bright silver coghorse turned his head about to touch his nose to her leg. A comforting gesture.

"But this is far beyond all costs," Valin croaked.

The silver coghorse met Valin's eye, and he could see the intelligence behind it. Like Zefir. That basso voice rumbled, "Shiran hopes that you can reach some part of Mirena that she cannot herself."

Valin glared at the Inventrix. "That's your hopeful plan? That a mere second-level techworker can convince an Inventrix of her madness?"

The child nodded to the coghorse, who knelt his front legs enough to where Shiran could dismount with a graceful little hop. She peered up at him, her round face creased in pain. "No, Valin, that isn't fully my plan. But in order for my plan to work, someone must be able to reach her. She thinks of herself as your mentor. It's my hope that you can convince her that there's an alternative to her obsessive conclusions."

He shook his head at the folly of that idea. "I'm no more than an interesting experiment to her. She's watched my bloodline for signs of Inventrix-like capabilities, and when I revealed higher-level tech capabilities, it peaked her interest. She tried to improve me the way she did all of her other inventions. It isn't an emotional bond."

"If you say so, Valin," said the Inventrix sadly. "But if you don't try, we've already lost."

He glared down at the diminutive version of the Three. "You're our Inventix too. The people will listen to you if you counter her orders."

Shiran raised her brow, her frown one of a disappointed teacher. How often Mirena and Kirwen had given him that look when he hadn't come to a conclusion fast enough for their liking. "You know the law. Inventrixes may only de-vat their successor close to the end, and while there are two, only the elder one is the Leader."

"But if you try, some will follow you. Enough to stop this madness. At the very least the Tenth Regiment."  

Her lips curled in disgust. "And begin a new war that will divide our Clan further? Don't you think I've considered that?"     

...divide our Clan further...

Like the Three had done, this little child had led him to his own realization, rather than telling him directly. "There's more to our past with the Wheelteeth than just Mirena forcing them to give her their children during the famine times. Isn't there?" That last was nearly a statement and not a question.

"So I've surmised as well, Seven Valin," said Shiran, staring out into the canyon with haunted eyes. "Though it's been struck from the records of our Clan. Hopefully, in her final decay, Mirena will tell you as she would not tell me. In a way she finds me repulsive, and has set me out here among the Riders to take me as far away as possible. You Valin, are my hope to reach her, to get her to reveal the past, to make her choose a less harmful alternative."

Exhausted, he slumped to the ground, and sat on the ledge, unable to get back up. He trembled, closing his eyes. Betrayal. So much betrayal. Even Mirena is betraying us all by building this monster. But he forced himself to open his eyes once more.

Even sitting his head was on level with Shiran's eyes, and she watched him before she placed a warm hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

She sighed. "I wish this were something I wouldn't have to burden you with, Valin. I would put myself in your place if I were able. It hurts me to think on all you must've been through, and yet you must still do more."

He stared down at the monstrosity in the canyon. "Tell me of your plan, Inventrix."

Shiran nodded, half to herself, eyes distant for a moment before they sharpened. "You must convince her that Kirwen sent you here in order to challenge her to a duel—"

The horrible laughter was out before he could stop himself. "Even with Mirena in decay, no one can beat an Inventrix's reflexes. I'd be dead in the duel before—"

"I wasn't finished, dear boy. The duel challenge isn't from you. It's from Kirwen. Your message from Kirwen is that the two mirrors must duel, one on one. The one who loses, surrenders their Clan. The fight will be until death. Neither one of them would fight for stakes less than that."

"Their duel would stop the oncoming battle," he said.

"Only for a time," she said, using his shoulder as if to keep her upright. "But hopefully, enough time."

She was right. Kirwen would know the Elders of the Wheelteeth wouldn't agree to surrender their entire Clan on a single duel, but a duel would grant the Wheelteeth enough time to evacuate some of the young ones, wounded, and old ones from the mountain. And his Clan—no, I can't be of a Clan that would help Mirena use this firebomb to murder so many innocents. The Cog Clan would follow Mirena's directions as a matter of blood pride. But would they surrender as a whole if she so ordered it? Would it create a war between themselves—those who would follow their blood duty into surrender, or those who would refuse to end their centuries long hatred?

Valin pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes, before he managed to still the tides of gut-clenching fear pressing into him, making the bile rise in his throat until he swallowed it back down, swallowed everything back down: his pride, the fear, the anger and yes, even hatred. He had to bury it, and bury it well if he were to convince Mirena this falsehood was truth.

And then, he would need to abandon the Cog Clan once again to give Kirwen the same offer. To warn her of the firebomb...

As a child, Valin had believed in the Gods of the Forge, and had dutifully prayed to them with a boy's eagerness. It was said that the Leader of the Forge Gods would pound out metal as She pounded out fear within a tech's breast—with a hammer and anvil, twisting the metal-fear until it became something else, something altered, new, and beautiful. But first, the fear had to be thrust into the heart of the fire, into the Forge itself to glow red-hot. Pain. I'd always thought of the Forge itself as pain. The crucible, as it was known.

Here was his.

Shiran didn't prompt him, but sat at his side, short legs dangling over the ledge.

He croaked, "If Mirena dies before the final battle..."

"She won't," said the child. 

"But if she did," Valin said firmly. "Would you end this war, Shiran?"

"Ending a war is not the same as peace." She continued to stare down at the Riders urging their coghorses to pull the firebomb into the bomber dragon's belly. "If Mirena dies before the offer of a duel, Kirwen still has reason to attack. Even if I call off the damnable firebomb. I'm not certain if Kirwen would trust me enough to even negotiate with me. And her terms will likely be unreasonable."

"So, you have a logical answer to everything without actually answering the question. Just like the Three."

She clasped her small hands together in her lap. "Such bitterness I hear. But not only from you, Valin. From those very Riders—" and she began to point into the canyon, but dropped her hand wearily back into her lap, "—who know what the bomb is capable of. Though not all of them think the firebomb is a travesty. I've heard some of them cheer it like some avatar of justice. And I've heard the same from the Navigators who will fly to protect it."

Valin couldn't look at it any longer. He rose to his feet, turning for his coghorse.

She still stared down into the canyon. "No, Daimo will take you. He's faster and more sure-footed."

Valin met the horse's gaze and the silver creature nodded its head, almost a bow. "She built you, your young Inventrix. Do you call her Mother?"

"No, Valin," said the coghorse. "I call her Rider. As I will call you when you ride."

"What's your purpose, great horse?"

Daimo released a sound somewhere between a snort and a horse-like chuckle. "All of you are so certain everything must have a purpose built into them. My purpose is whatever I deem it to be. Now or centuries from now. It's my choice. And I haven't decided yet."

Valin placed out his good hand and the coghorse bumped it with his soft nose. "You're very wise for a child."

The dark obsidian eyes glinted. "So I've been told. Sometimes I think being new, or being young just means that you know you don't know everything. And so you sound wise."

"That sounds like wisdom to me," Valin said.

Daimo chuffed at that. "Ready to go? I'm good with inexperienced riders. I won't let you fall off. Promise."

"That's a promise I'll hold you to." Valin looked at the canyon wall and the way down. "I'd much rather fly."

"Then I'll make certain to jump as high as I can on the way down," said the horse with a distressing amount of sincerity.

Daimo knelt down to allow him to mount up. Inelegantly, and with a great amount of puffing and squiggling to sling his legs over properly, he finally sat atop the coghorse. Valin grasped desperately on to Daimo's glinting silver mane, clenching his legs around the barrel of the horse's side until Valin's muscles trembled with the effort.

Then the coghorse launched himself over the ledge with a pleased whinny.
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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #23: Bred for War


At least there was food and water beneath the ketch-gryphon's flight seat, and Valin gnawed on a strip of dried waterfowl while he downed more of his water. The wind buffeted his masked face, while he adjusted the trim on this bedamned gryphon for the fourth time in ten minutes. The blood-ridden thing had a habit of yawing three-points to the west for absolutely no reason, and it required constant supervision to maintain any sort of course. That and its overwrought engine was overheating again, the gauges already in the upper red. He'd be forced to land in the middle of an unfamiliar forest, in the dark, with this absolutely terrible wreck of a machine.

Hopefully, he hadn't come this far only to crash.

Flying in the dark had its own disadvantages, and while there were small fire-lamps on the gryphon's belly he could ignite with a switch, it would only alert others to his presence—whether friend or foe.

Which one am I now?

The engine gave off a high-pitched whine, and he began searching through his farviewer goggles for a suitable place to land. The wingbeats were beginning to slow, and he angled the bedamned gryphon downward at too steep a downslide, correcting it hastily with a stream of inventive curses. The treetops came within sight, and gliding steadily down was nigh impossible. One of the beating wings clipped the top of a large tree, its needles slapping his neck.

Awkwardly, he wrestled the machine to land, its feet not running fast enough so its beak-nose made furrows in the ground before it came to a complete stop. Valin leapt from the Nav's seat, and began to kick the machine's side, the fury bubbling up until he could only rage at the machine before him.

He'd left Zefir. His squad. And now he'd have to betray his entire Clan to save them.

He kicked the gryphon until he couldn't feet his booted toes.

Three days, only three days. And he'd only flown—he had no idea how far with the gryphon's wingbeat-counter malfunctioning. He took the pencil from his jacket pocket—Kirwen had thought about that too, clothes stored along with food, and so he wore a regular leather flight jacket—and scribbled on the tiny piece of paper he had. The Wheelteeth mountain to the west...half a day's flight... Likely he was in the same mountain range.

He heard a rustle to his left. Valin stiffened. He had no weapon to defend himself. Again he heard the sound of soft leather on the forest floor, and he moved to hop back in his flyer, hoping the bedamned thing was cool enough.

But he heard the tightening of a bow string. One of the mechanical bows with their miniature firebomb arrowheads?

They materialized from the heavy shadows, Khandra's light weak so late in the night that he couldn't tell how many.

Valin raised his hands in the surrender gesture. Why must I surrender at every turn? he thought bitterly.

"Step away from the gryphon," barked a female from the shadows.

He wondered...were these Wheelteeth ground forces? Or his own Clan's? He listened for the sound of horses—either the snorting of flesh-and-blood creatures or the steady whirr-hum of the coghorse gears created from his Clan's techlines.

With aching slowness, he stepped away from the flyer. "Identify yourself."

"Shut it, Wheelteeth."

He wasn't certain if he felt relief that this woman was from his own Clan. Would any of the Riders even know who he was?

"I'm of the Cog Clan," he announced into the darkness.

The bowstring made a tight creaking sound. "Hells and damnation. Not exactly a clever lie, Wheelteeth demon."

"Bloodline," Valin snapped at the figure. "Designation. I want to know what Rider I'm dealing with."

There was a breathing pause. Valin thought he heard other bowstrings in the distance creaking. Indecision?

"Bloodline. Now," he spat, feeling his anger sitting in his throat. "Or you'll find out too late from Mirena why you shouldn't be bothering me."

A sharp intake of breath that he'd dared to use their Inventrix's heart-name. It'd been a calculated risk. She might deem him a Wheelteeth for that, or she'd wonder what his standing was that he felt so comfortable daring such impertinence.

"No," she said sharply, sounding younger than he'd first thought. Were they taking from the younger generation of bloodlines for this last battle? "I want your bloodline and designation."

"Seven," Valin said. "Navigator. Former techworker."

"Former...? Oh, it's you," said the figure, sounding very surprised. "The Inventrix will want to see you, certainly." He strained to hear the sound of her pseudo-metal bowstring relaxing. "How did you escape?"

Valin's anger still stirred, but he knew he had to take the upper hand. Even if he wasn't a Leader and a mere wing runner. "You didn't answer me, Rider. Bloodline. Designation. And tell your scout regiment to stand down."

She made a small snap of her fingers, and he heard other bowstrings relaxing. He'd once heard a Nav mocking the scout's use of cam-and-pulley bows, until he saw just how far those specialized arrows could travel, and what destruction they could wreak whether or not they were of the firebomb variety or not. Valin wasn't eager to learn what being shot with an arrow was like. Besides, he knew while they disdained aeropistols and other flechette weaponry as a matter of bloodline pride, they still carried them as a backup.

"Qinethi Rhin," answered the young Rider. "First Leader of the Tenth Rider Regiment."

As far as Valin knew, there were only five regiments of Riders; but it seemed as if the Inventrix had indeed pulled from the younger generation of bloodlines to add to her coghorse divisions. He shook his head. The coming battle would take so many young ones, an add so many new hurts like the ones the Wheelteeth had revealed. Brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, mates, lovers—his Clan would lose them too.

And the young ones, he thought, bile rising in his throat. Young ones I'll betray to the enemy.

He remembered Ferrei disdainfully telling him: Your blood doesn't pump like ours, so how could you understand? I would've gladly sacrificed my life. And she would. Even now Valin knew his squadron would gladly die, or let him die, to keep the Clan safe.

Does that make me a coward because I can't lose them?

Valin's vision blurred when the Rider uncloaked her small lantern, and shined it toward his face. No doubt a calculated effort on her part, making certain that she could see his face clearly—and identify him by whatever description the Inventrix had given to the scouts. He blinked the afterimages from his eye before they readjusted, and he could see some of her features. The familiar long and lean traits of the Riders and their scout divisions, sitting astride her coghorse with ease. Young. Perhaps ten-and-six. How desperate was this last push that Mirena would take them to field so young?

Dear gods, so many, so young.

Rhin nodded, the traditional Rider's braid a sharp contrast to the short Nav length of hair he'd grown used to, and she flipped it over her shoulder. She dismounted from the tall cog-beast—its body in proportion to a true horse, its legs jointed similarly but with an extra length in odd places, its dragon-like tail swishing as its Rider touched its shoulder with a single finger; the coghorse, metallic-hide painted over its entire length and breadth with greens and browns, followed. It kept its optical sensors on its Rider and followed after with the whirr-hum of its body in oddly sinuous and smooth motion.

Valin took in the sight with a wonder of a mere second-level tech, as the coghorses and their building were the sole domain of the highest first-level techworkers. Beautiful. Complex. Remarkable. For a moment he imagined taking apart the beast to see where its microcogs and the macro intersected. Perhaps this fascination was in the blood. Or perhaps it was just his own childhood awe.

Rhin gestured for him to follow, and even in the darkness, he could see her quick and sure movements, how she bounded over the rocks in a small stream with casual, effortless hops while still holding her bow. And her coghorse plowed through the mountain cold waters without thought—not like Zefir.

Her bloodline at its finest, he thought wryly. Brought here before her time, to battle in a war she doesn't understand.

They'd all been bred for war.

Valin came to a small, orderly camp of Riders, their tents a forest green-brown and larger than he expected; if he calculated their numbers correctly there were close to a thousand Riders and a thousand horses.

A monstrously huge and intricate coghorse stood at the head of the largest tent, its hide an odd pseudo-metallic silver Valin longed to study, its body even more graceful and horse-like than the other Rider's beasts, complete with hair-like mane and tail. Its obsidian eyes focused on him, and it snorted as if inhaling his scent—in the way that Zefir often did—and it made a whirr-click noise. It grunted, puffing a steam-warm breath into the cold night air, then nodded in a very human-like manner.

Rhin opened the tent flap and gestured for him to enter.

Valin ducked beneath it, and spied: the charts on the table in the center, a small cot, and a—petite child of no more than seven-years-old with an untamed halo of raven hair he recognized...

And sharp, weighty eyes.

The little girl smiled, but not quite a child's smile. As she walked toward him, wearing a small version of a scout's green uniform, she gestured with an adult-like elegance that belied her small stature.

"Take a seat, Seven Valin," said the child. "No doubt your travels here have been difficult after Kirwen released you."

His heart hammered inside, even though he knew that she could hear it, that she could scent the change in the flush of his skin, could taste the sweat that appeared under his arms. There was no use lying. Not completely.

"Not untrue, Inventrix," he said carefully.

"Which part?" the child chimed. "The difficulty of your travel to find us? Or that you freely admit that Kirwen released you rather than having escaped?"

He remained standing, forcing his hands behind his back, his aching hand throbbing with his heart rate. His body would respond favorably to the truth, the lies, however, would be easily noted with her Inventrix senses. "I didn't know I needed to deny that fact. Both of them, by the by, Inventrix. The Wheelteeth gryphons are poorly made, so I nearly crashed several times. And yes, the Wolf Leader released me from my prison..." he had to think of a reason not far from the truth, "...she wanted me to flee back to my Clan, to threaten Mirena."

Those eyes regarded him with the same unnerving calculation he'd seen from both Kirwen and Mirena. Slowly, she nodded. "From what I've been told of Kirwen from my predecessor, such a threat is unsurprising."

"Your...predecessor?" Had Mirena already met her end?

The child smiled, and this seemed more genuine, though still chillingly adult. "Mirena is alive. Please, sit."

"Thank you, Inventrix...or should I call you child?" Though his instinct was to obey without question the orders of his Inventrix, he balked, lifting his chin. "How long ago were you vat-grown?"

He'd never heard Mirena laugh without it sounding mocking, but the mirror child chuckled as if truly amused. "I see why my predecessor is fond of you, Valin. Such directness is refreshing. If you must know, I was incubated in the vat the day you and the dragon were taken, and was released a week later." Again, she gestured for him to sit in a simple folding chair with a grace no child should posses.

Cautiously, he sat, feeling his sore muscles protest, the weight of his weariness heavier. He fought not to sag, for his eye not to grow lidded in exhaustion. No doubt having him sit was also a calculated move on her part, an effort to place him on an even level with her, so she didn't seem so small or childish.

"No doubt you have many questions, Seven Valin," she said, and sat behind the rather small, cluttered desk, folding her arms casually over one another. "Ask them."

He studied her features, her round face. Would it become carved of a mountain in time? In fifty? A hundred years? How much longer would this war rage? Until this new Inventrix's death?

"Why are the Rider forces so large?" he ventured.

She chuckled. "Ah, that's a question you want to know, but not the question you want to ask. You've your own curiosity to tame, I can see. Ask your heart-question. I will answer."

Her youth was disarming his natural caution around an Inventrix. "Is your blood the same as theirs? Altered?"

She shook her head. "No. Mirena was wise enough to grow me in the same manner as the First Inventrix. And before you ask, you should know that it's in my blood—that undeniable need to tinker with our own line. To improve it as we try desperately to invent and improve the world itself. Varess was not the first to do so, but perhaps the one who did the most damage to those she grew. As a result of this war, Mirena denied her own need and created me as it was always meant to be—a perfect copy of the First of our line."

"I honestly don't know what that means, Inventrix."

Her easy smile reminded him of Seren's innocent, bright smile. "I can tell you know a great deal about us already. But the Three—Seren, Mirena, and Kirwen—are all facets of what was supposed to be a single Inventrix. Mirena is the center, the one closest to what she was meant to be, the fulcrum for the other two, the one who thrives on logic. Seren is the innocent, joy-finding, emotional, obsessive side of our inventor's nature, the most harmless."

"Was," Valin corrected.     

The girl grimaced, and made a combination of the Nav's flight to the sun gesture, and a finger flutter he didn't recognize. Valin took it to mean a sort of condolence, offered in remorse.

"And Kirwen?" he prompted.

"Ah, you admire her, your very distant grandmere. Don't you? Even as you fear her." When he didn't answer, Valin wondered what she read in his features, even though he kept his expression plain. "Kirwen is the leader, the hunter, the defender, and venerate protector. The She-Wolf, if you will. She's adopted the name as a proud epithet. And it fits well."

Valin's voice lowered, and sounded unforgiving, "Why were they allowed to live? Three mirrors...certainly the Clan would've risen up against such an Abomination."

"Are you so certain that the Cog Clan has enough of their own volition to stand up to their Inventrix, no matter the crime?" The girl sighed, looking sadder than any child had a right to be. "My predecessor refuses to tell me. And unlike the Three, Mirena and I have no virul-microcog link between us. As was set down in the rules, we have not transferred memories from one to the other through blood. Blood memories passed from one Inventrix to another are an Abomination for a reason, though most of our abilities stem from natural blood knowledge inscribed into us from the First. And so, I can only surmise."

Valin's desperate need for knowledge prompted him to blurt, "The Trial."

The young Inventrix's eyes studied him. "This is not a punishment from history I recognize. It must have been one of Varess's cruel tests. On some of those, Mirena revealed to me in order to make me understand what I could never become. How Varess—one of my line, one of me—could've been created to be so...heartless, so brutal...disturbs me. Tell me what you know of this Trial."

His hand throbbed, and so he picked at the bandage, feeling dried blood peel away. "I honestly know nothing of it. Only that it seems to be a final test that broke them apart."

She leaped from her seat and came to stand before him. With a curt gesture, he saw the huge silver coghorse enter, and it pressed its nose to her palm. After a moment of silent communication, the horse turned and cantered away. Her tiny hands touched his bandage, and he protested wordlessly, part of him horrified that their eons old Clan Leader would dare to sully herself with something so simple as tending to his wounds. The other half was fascinated, as he'd been by Kirwen. And Mirena. And even Seren's clever madness.

He stifled any further protest as the child gave him a stern frown.

"I'm also a healer," said the Inventrix, peering beneath the bandage. "Seren was gifted with that blood knowledge out of the Three, and Mirena has told me tales of Seren wandering among the dying on the battlefields to save them...before it became too much."

Valin held his breath.

"I can see why Varess grew Kirwen to posses the ability for bearing children," said the child, unwrapping his bandage with her tiny hands. "The possibilities of what could've been passed through blood is fascinating. I also see why Mirena has been watching your line. It makes me wonder if you have some of our tendencies."

"I'm nothing like you," he said sharply.

A small brow arched, and that seemed uncannily like the Three. Her eyes roamed over the points of his face, searching. "Dear gods, boy...what have they done to you?"

He rose to his feet, towering over her small frame. The vile anger rose to the surface, and he growled, "Kirwen still has my squad...has Zefir. And she'll murder them. And Mirena is no better. You all manipulate. You think you know what's best for so many, but you don't see what you're doing to us. Or you don't care. This war is killing us. It's murdered so many, and dear gods, I had to listen to the Wheelteeth's losses...all of them." He gritted his teeth against the need to shake this tiny being that was no child. "If I could, I'd destroy our vats. What good have you brought us? Only death. But you live beyond it like we're mere insects."

She reached out and clasped gently at his good hand. It was so unexpected that he nearly jerked it from her soft grip. "I know, dear boy. I know."

Words were beyond him. He'd just uttered the foulest of treasons and she was patting his hand like a grandmere soothing his hurts. This child. His Inventrix...new Inventrix.

She looked so resolute, her round, baby-fat cheeks forming frown lines. "We've outlived our usefulness. What once was created for stability, has become stagnation and oppression. Absolute rule. That was never why we were created. But this war needs to end before it grows, before it encompasses other Clans." She looked up into his eyes, and Valin had the strange notion that in this moment she was more of a frightened child than an old being. "We must stop Mirena's final creation. We must stop Kirwen. I will help you, Seven Valin."

He studied her face with the same intensity that she had scrutinized him. And he believed her. Is it because I'm desperate? Because I've nothing else? Or because he didn't want to betray his Clan?

Or worse: it'd been bred into him to obey his Inventrix.

The silver coghorse burst into the tent carrying a med-pack in its teeth. Blinking at her, it closed its eyes and pressed its nose into her chest. Like Zefir used to do. Slowly, she stroked the coghorse's nose until she kissed it with all the innocent sweetness of her youth...or like Seren had kissed Zefir with the same kind of genuine affection.

And he wondered in fear, what this Inventrix child meant by Mirena's last creation.

#

The squad had stopped railing against Zefir and his choice hours ago, and for now he watched memories not his own flickering to life inside his heart-mind. Kirwen must be losing control, otherwise he knew he wouldn't see so much, her barriers to the world crumbling. He didn't want to feel sympathy for the woman who'd proven she was his enemy, who threatened the lives of his squad, and yet, huddled alone in his corner he saw—

Seren had calculated the pitch and thrum of Kirwen's bright laughter whenever they managed to sneak away to the Tamer's caves on the lowest level. At first, they'd watched the alpha female wolf give birth to a new, well-bred litter, the pups three times the size of their smaller brethren. Mirena had only nodded, stating how well the First Tamer had done, for she noted that the endurance of the pups was well beyond their smaller cohorts.

The First Tamer balked at seeing them in the Tamer caves. His pulse increased, and Seren always had to exhale the reek of his fear from her delicate nostrils, eyes swimming from the overpowering stench of it.

The three Abominations were in his domain. Merely children, but all knew that Inventrixes weren't normal children.

Now, the huge pups had grown into a large, strong pack. But they were almost wild, refusing to take direction from their First. Except the Tamer didn't know that they'd bonded to one so very like them.

Kirwen was their First. And they greeted her with wagging tails and wet noses, pleasant yips, and Kirwen's laughter grew in pitch until she...giggled. Seren had tried to replicate the sound herself, but her giggles always sounded forced. Not like her mirror's.

Zefir could hear Ferrei's footsteps growing near, possibly to argue and try to convince him again; distantly he heard her voice.

No, it was a voice from the memory.

"You must destroy them," came Varess's too smooth voice.

"No," Kirwen said with finality. "They're my pack...I love them. And I won't hurt them. They look to me, Varess. And isn't that what we're supposed to do as Inventrixes?"

"You're no Inventrix, Kirwen. I made certain of that." Her craggy features loomed, and Seren had to stifle a wince, sending her mind deep down where Varess couldn't find her with the virul-microcogs. "Kill the blood-ridden wolves, or I'll do it for you. I won't make it quick. And you'll watch every minute."

"What is the point of this, predecessor?" Mirena demanded.  

Zefir heard a voice with his ear, and it echoed the words he heard in his memory, "You must learn what it means to lose them. And to become numb to it year after year. And to know that sometimes, you are the cause of their death."

He blinked and the world came back into focus.

Kirwen stood before him in her flying leathers, her wolf flight mask hanging down from her face. His squad was standing together, Innari behind them, resolute as sentinels. Ferrei opened her mouth to protest once more, but Nyru made the quick gestures for decision made, downslide to land, and his Second silently glared at the Wolf.

Kirwen closed her eyes for a moment.

"Did you?" Zefir asked quietly.

"Yes, child," she whispered. "I killed them quickly. To save them from worse."

He rose to his feet and paced slowly at her side as they left the confines of his prison, leaving behind his squadron...his sibling. An ache sat inside of him, and he knew it mirrored Kirwen's own when she'd—no, he didn't want to see her youthful frame driving the dagger into her wolves. It was the first time she wept. And it scared her to cry.

"Did you learn what Varess wanted you to learn?" Zefir dared.

She walked in her usual brisk manner, but slowed as they ascended toward the flight ledges. "Many years later, but yes, some of her lessons were true. The gift of such a long life doesn't always seem like a gift. You see the same children grow into women and men, and then you see them die. From disease. From injury. From old age itself. In each case you have to let go..."

"But you can't." And he understood. Though he was in his machine-like childhood, he would only grow older in experience, living for generations, seeing the same decay that Kirwen saw. Even if he saved his squad, his Navigator, eventually he would lose them to the worst Wolf of all: time. "What of her lesson was untrue?"

"You don't become numb to it," she said, shaking her head. "Once you think you can, you retreat from them all...the new ones, the babes and children who will grow yet again. But loneliness drives you back to them. It always does. And once again you feel their loss. I still miss my wolves, their yips and wet noses. And I still see their blood on my hands."

They reached the highest ledge, and in the sky he could already see dozens and dozens of ketch-gryphon Wings practicing their feet-clamping maneuvers; those same maneuvers that had given him his first scar, those talons leaving a furrow in his tail. He quivered from the desire to launch himself after them, to leave a trail of them falling from the sky, flaming, searing them...

The Wolf watched her Navs in the sky. "If you think such things again, child, our pact will end. I can't have you reacting to them during battle as if they are the enemy. For now, whether you like it or not, they are your allies, and as such they are your responsibility. These Navigators...are your squadron now."

His wings ached to feel the wind, but he turned his back on the sight of a cool, bright morning and the taste of the air. He arched his neck to her level. "Before we begin I must know."

She knew what he meant. "Your Navigator left his bonds behind, and has fled. Back to your Clan. He's alive."

Relief flooded into him so hard that he had to stifle a joyful cackle. Valin escaped! "You're not lying to me?"

Zefir knew his question had been uttered with all the guileless nature of a hopeful child, but he knew the answer before she said, "I may be a monster, Zefir, but I'm a truthful one. I've never lied to you. I leave the dominion of lies to—to..." Kirwen gritted her teeth as a wave of fury burst through her, her brass hands ticking as if she wanted to strangle anyone in her path.

To Mother.

And he saw a flicker of memory from her—Valin running from the Post. "You...you released him. Why?"

Her eyes were flinty. "We struck a bargain. Very like the one we struck. With the same two at risk."

And now it became clear, and Zefir felt the ache of the same decision as his Navigator had made. Betrayal. Or perhaps Valin wouldn't...

Zefir knew he must try to convince Kirwen of her folly.

"There's another bargain you should consider. We can end this, Kirwen," he said with a different kind of hope. Not a blind childish hope, for he knew anything he said was unlikely to convince her, but his hope lay in trying. "End this war, and all it has caused. Give up on your vengeance. Your endless anger. Ending the war will do more to bring our Clans back together than overpowering one in defeat. We can never be as we once were, but we can try to heal."

She shook her head, the breeze ruffling at her wolf mask, making it swing on her neck. "It's more than just my anger. My vengeance. I'll lose them all if I surrender."

[No, surrender, never surrender. Anger. Fear.]

Zefir wasn't certain which one of them had that thought-emotion.

"It's not surrender if both of you stand down," he said.

She frowned, the lines of her face severe. "I'm close to death. I know and accept that. But what I can't accept is that all our lost children will never find their way home. And the war will wage on without me here, but they'll have forgotten why we fight. As they always do."

He puffed a warm breath at her. "For one so old, you can't think beyond the immediate, Kirwen. If we make peace, the children of the Cog Clan and the children of the Wheelteeth will one day in the future find one another. There will be no more enmity because they'll have forgotten—like you said—why we fought. Their only reality will be peace. And as such, become whole. Give it time. Peace needs time, Kirwen. Even if you can't live to see it grow, to shepherd it, peace will thrive. But it has to begin with you."

She lifted her gloved hand as if she longed to touch him, but she curled her fingers tighter and dropped her arm to her side. "It won't happen that way, child, it never does. I have no choice. My cruelties are because I've been driven to them, to save my Clan and to make it whole again, but I choose such cruelties willingly. I only wish that I could've been something else."

"You can become something else," Zefir insisted. "A peacemaker. An ally. You're not a cruel person, not truly. You derive no joy from threatening, from killing, or from battle."

"You have no idea what I'm capable of, child. Your belief in me is...wonderfully naïve. But don't think I'll spare your Quarethstras out of sentimentality because you're my ward. I can sense how much it...hurts you. And I'm sorry, but you're more important to my Clan as a battle dragon than as my ward."

"Please, Kirwen," he said, stepping toward her. His breath ruffled the hair about her face. "Be what you were truly meant to be. A Leader. Lead your Clan toward safety. Toward peace. You can save them all without any more violence."

She bowed her head, and placed her wolf flight mask over her nose and mouth. "I was bred to fight for those in my keeping. It's my one and only true purpose. And I'll do so until my dying breath. This is the only way."

He should be furious, should spit out hateful words. But even after all the anger and fear she'd caused him, was still causing, he hated to see any being in so much pain.

And for so long, he thought.

But Zefir merely said, "You're holding the dagger, Kirwen. Don't use it like you did all those years ago."

The Wolf stared back at him, her eyes brimming as she placed her goggles over her face. "Time is short. We fly maneuvers today, but in four days, we move out. This ends. One way or another."

As Zefir turned to look to the sky, he knew how it would end.

If there was to be no peace, then it would all end in death.  
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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #22: Bargains, Offers, Threats


Nyru had finished her prayer, and still paced when Jarre made the hurried signal for enemy approaches. Zefir nudged his sibling from her muttering and calculations, but she snapped her teeth at him, growling, "Ach, Zefir-sibling, I told you not to interrupt—"

He put his hand around her wrist and pulled her down, for she'd been on her hind legs, braced against the hangar door and staring at the lock mechanism. Then he pushed her with his nose, fluttering his wings at her until she moved to the far corner. He hissed, "Stay there, and don't say anything."

She gave him a hurt expression, her tail flickering uncertainly. "I won't tell them. I promised already. Don't you trust me?"

"Of course I do," he said. "Now hush. Stay put, no matter what. Understand? No matter what."

His insides trembled as he sensed the nearing—[confusion, anger, determination, guilt, overwhelming sense of having fouled her life and so many others]

He focused on whatever virul microcogs were swirling and remaking parts of his system, focused hard enough to send with his inner thought-voice: Unless you've come to tell me you're releasing my Navigator, turn and walk away, Kirwen.

No response. But he heard the door locks clicking, turning their gears; the bolt slid back from its housing and opened, not the small door, but both of the doors wide enough for Zefir to step through. Kirwen entered, wearing all white. Mourning white. And Zefir's heart-mind thrummed in panic. Gods, gods...he's gone. He can't be.

"He is still with us, child," said Kirwen. "Come with me."

Jarre stepped between them and Kirwen growled, eyes flashing. "I've no time for this, Quarethstra."

Jarre grinned, looking fierce rather than amused. There was a world of promise for violence in that smile. "Pardon me if I've little trust in his safety when you've already taken one of ours to die."

"Step. Aside. Now." Her glare was molten, her hands shaking in fists.

Zefir could feel the tension along his spine, sense the rage that was threatening to take hold. It flashed before his eyes, tingeing his own sight in hues of red. Before he could move, startled by his body's own response to her fury, Jarre took a single step toward her. With the speed of an Inventrix, she moved. No more than a blur, and she'd struck his Third with a brass fist to Jarre's side; Zefir saw Jarre crumble.

Zefir bounded forward, and though he saw the guards lift their rifles, he slammed his snout into her side and lifted; her body flew through the air, and though her reflexes were beautiful and feline-like, she crashed into the stone floor with a audible thunk of flesh. He felt the sting of an aerorifle sizzle along his shoulder, but Kirwen held up her hand to halt any further shots.

"Then stay here," spat Kirwen, lifting herself to her feet. "And listen to what I have to say in front of your squadron."

Ferrei was hunched in front of Innari, gritting her teeth, his Second's glare promising vengeance. But his sibling was prancing from foot to foot in indecision. Nyru took several marching steps forward, before Ferrei stopped her.

"You've made it clear that we are to find no common ground," said Kirwen, and her thought-voice echoed with: You are mine. One of mine. "Your squadron poisons your decisions, just as Mirena poisoned my people against the truth. The final battle is almost here. And in order to save my people, I must utilize what I have, for better or for ill. It gives me no pleasure to do this, child."

"That's what you said when you sentenced Valin to the Exile Post," Zefir barked.

But he knew it was true. She took no pleasure in her words.

"You called me a monster," she continued. "And so I was created to be. I still will take the difficult outcome every time if it grants me safety for mine. If they come back to me, all of them."

Zefir's insides were heating, and he kept his wings stiff against his back, lest the guards decide any movement was a threat. "What in the hells do you want from me?"

Kirwen's face blanked, cold as a mountainside. "Allow me to lead my people from your back. Fight in the air as you were made to do, but fight for me."

"What makes you think," Zefir growled, "I would ever betray my Clan? My own Mother?"

"Fuck your bedamned Mother, that demon-spawned bitch!" Kirwen trembled so fiercely that he could hear the microcogs in her mechanical hands grinding out of alignment, before self-correcting as they were meant to. "She started this war, all of it! And if I get to kill her with my bare hands before the end, I'll have died a good death!"

Zefir's own fury heated his breath. Flame her and be done with this all. Kill all of them. He wasn't certain if this last was his own thought-voice, or hers, and that terrified him. The rage made his breaths grow shorter, and smoke curled from his nostrils. Flame her to ashes.

"Fuck you, Kirwen," he spat, and a flicker of flame escaped from between his teeth. "Take your offer to the ten hells, and you with it."

She arched a brow. "Oh, the offer comes with a catch, child. Or did you think me too sentimental to dare use threats?"

Zefir swallowed, some of his anger cooling into fear again.

"You have until sundown to decide," the Wolf said. "Fly with me as my battle dragon, or I send both the Quarethstras to the firing squad."

His breath stopped. He blinked in disbelief. "But-but their parole—"

"Was broken. By them." The Wolf regarded him without expression, and even her emotions, her thoughts were beyond him. "Decide."

Nyru strode forward in a crisp martial step, unmindful of the rifles swiveling in her direction. "No."

The Wolf frowned at her, eyes glinting like a predator scenting prey.

"Take me, not the Quarethstras," Nyru said, her grimace-smile in full force, her scars both vicious and horrific. "I'm their First. I ordered them to break their parole. If anyone is at fault then it's me, and I will take responsibility. The dragon won't fly with you."

"Brave of you, First Leader Kerlan," said the Wolf, "but I'm afraid my threat stands as it is. You're of Xenthi's blood, one of her children, and you're mine. Returned to me, to us, to my Clan, and I won't sacrifice you. But the Quarethstras are not. If Zefir chooses to refuse me, then they die by morning."

Words stuck in Zefir's throat. Words of threat, words of hate, words of begging and pleading. But he knew there was only one true decision.

Kirwen whirled around and marched toward the door.

"Wait, Wolf Leader," he growled.

She stood, crossing her arms—those tremors starting slightly—and waited with a lifted brow.

"I'll do as you say. I'll be your battle dragon." He leaned his large face toward her, the heat of his breath scorching, though she didn't flinch. "But know if any harm comes to them, I'll be your death."

She smirked, and he could feel her bitter amusement along his insides. "I'll come for you this evening. And then we begin."

With that she spun about on heel and strode out the doors, her guards following quickly. When the doors closed fully, and the lock-bolt slid home with a final sounding cha-thunk, he hid his burning cheeks from his squadron, proof of his shame.

Innari bounded around him and went to Jarre, fussing about the potential for a bruised ribs, until his Third patted her with a wince. "It's fine..." He breathed in a painful breath, his voice hoarse. "Eh, I've had worse injuries fighting in the practice ring back home. Don't you worry, little moon dragon. Quarethstras are made of sterner stuff."

"I really don't think you are," Innari said seriously.

Nyru nodded to her Third, and Zefir was only conscious of her steps. And then her face was in his sight. "Listen, Zefir. I forbid you from this. Do you understand? We as Navigators know there are some things worth dying for. You would betray their memories by—"

"You're speaking like they're already dead." He wasn't angry. Not now that he'd made a decision. "And I can't let her kill—"

"Yes, you can. And you will." Nyru made the signs for what is to be—is.

Kirwen was going to steal Jarre's life. And Ferrei's.

"Respectfully, First Leader," he said, feeling more resolute than ever, "I won't stand by while she just takes Ferrei and Jarre."

Ferrei grabbed his nostril to pull his large face—so large compared to these tiny, weak, short-lived humans—toward her. "Listen, and listen well, dragon. When the Wolf comes to give you this offer again, you tell her to roast in the ten hells."

"No, Second Leader. I won't do that." He looked away from her ferocity, the iron-hard scent of her desperate anger.

"But think of how many of our people you'll harm as her battle dragon." Her grip on his sensitive nostrils pinched. "Damn you, Zefir. Listen to me as your Second."

Jarre said from the side of the room, still holding his ribs, "We've made it our life to become—" he made an awkward show of the we are the shield gesture, "protectors of our people. And when you joined us, that became your oath too." He winced as he moved. "Although, you could always give this up and become a professional card player."

Zefir's laugh hurt in the deepest part of his heart-mind. He couldn't let them die, no matter what. "I am shielding. I'm protecting you. If I do this, you'll have more time. Innari will have more time."

His sibling came toward him, one long wing extended hesitantly toward him as if to embrace him. "I-I'll try, Zefir-sibling. I'll try very hard, so Jarre-friend and Ferrei-kin can be safe. Then we can rescue Valin-friend too."

"You're the cleverest person I've ever met, Innari," he said, looking away from the judging stares of his squadron, from Ferrei's furious glare, Jarre's way of averting his eye in disappointment, and Nyru's unflinching cold regard. "I've no doubt you can open it with time."
 
#

Valin's throat was dry again, and sweat trickled down over his eyelashes, so he closed his eyes. The second day. Only the second day. The afternoon sun was a red, piercing halo through his eyelids, and for a moment he understood a Navigator's prayer to the disk. If it were possible, he'd pray for just a little less sun. Maybe some clouds to give a brief respite from the heat. His legs were shaking trying to hold him up, and he'd fallen asleep once only to be jerked awake when it felt like his shoulders would split in twain. He was certain he'd seen a newly minted brass gryphon fly over head toward the copse of trees nearly a mile from him, and he followed the desperate fancy that he could escape, imagining himself overpowering the Nav, stealing his poorly made mechanical beast, and being airborne again.

The line of people and their grievances were mercifully gone now. Even Elder Lyth had gone back to her mountain home, leaving him with just his guard, Renzu.

He opened his eyes as he began to drift off toward sleep, jerking awake.

Someone in all white carrying a shrouded figure came toward him. As the figure drew closer, Kirwen ignored him as she went toward the pits for the dead, and he watched as she gently placed Seren in the pit and built the pyre. Soot and dirt marred her pristine white clothes, but she seemed unaware of it.

He smelled the sweet-sick stench of death and burning before the brick lined pits incinerated the body quickly; the smell of sweetberry branches went up with the oily black smoke. Valin only hoped the wind direction wouldn't change, or he'd be enveloped by the dead's smoke.

Kirwen climbed toward his hill, and he gasped as one knee gave out beneath her and she fell. Renzu quivered, clearly thinking of assisting her, but also of remaining to show his Leader he adhered to his duty. Shaking, she got to her feet, and walked toward them again, head held high.

She stood in front of Valin, arms crossed; she nodded to the guard, waving him away, and so dismissed, Renzu made his way back toward the mountain.

Her fingers tapped a hurried cadence against the hilt of a knife she had sheathed at her side. "I've a bargain to strike with you."

He swallowed slowly, trying to gather enough saliva to speak; all that came out was a dusty cough.

She glanced at the bucket, and cupping one hand, she brought one handful of water up to his lips. Greedy, he lapped at her gloved hand, and would've licked her fingers without remorse if she hadn't pulled away.

"Time is short, Valin."

"For me, or for you?" That stumble of hers...perhaps proof that her failing Inventrix-like body was closer to the end than she liked.

Kirwen snorted. "Mirena tested you, didn't she? Code breaking, most likely. Be glad you didn't stay in her clutches. She has a way about her like Varess, and who knows what she would've pushed you to."

Valin took simple pleasure in the water sliding down to his stomach. "How could it have been any more than what you're pushing me to, grandmere?"

Kirwen shook her head, looking weary, yet oddly resolute in her mourning white. "My bargain, kin. The Cog Clan is drawing near, but none of my scouts have returned to tell me how far she's encroached on our territory, or where exactly in the mountain range she's hiding her forces."

Valin arched a sweaty brow. "I don't have that information, Leader. And if I did—"

"This is no game, boy. And if it were, this would be the final blow." She met his eye, and the Wolf said, "You care for your squadron. I would go so far as to say more than your own blood. And the dragon, well, you love Zefir far more than I could put into words. And yes, I understand it all too well."

His heart lurched into a rapid gallop, and more sweat poured down his cheeks. "You know, Leader, I'm growing weary of your threats. I'm tied to the Post, and while I may survive—"

"Good gods, boy, did you think I'd let you die like this?" She shook her head. "You're my kin. My blood. I was born when the Cog Clan was the strongest of all, and our bloodlines meant just as much to us then as it does to you now. You belong to me and mine, damn you. You're mine. Do you hear me, Seven Lyth Valin?"

He blinked at the vehemence in her voice. "And yet, you'll still try to manipulate me, and threaten my squadron. I remember your threats like a small cut, Leader. The Navs say 'each cut is a little death,' and that's what you're doing."

Her bitter grin made him squirm, and she laughed that barking laugh he'd heard from her before, the one that sounded unhinged. "Oh, dear boy, do you have any idea who first said that? I was young, and convinced our way of life was wrong. As it happens, I still do."

He narrowed his gaze at her. Hadn't he questioned the same thing? "That's not why you're still fighting this war. Even if you think that we shouldn't have an Inventrix binding us through each generation, like the Wheelteeth and their large, messy families, that's not why you're here now. You were made like yet unlike an Inventrix. And you feel a strong tie to protect your Clan as a whole. But it's stronger. Deeper. More violent for you. Isn't it?"

"And for Mirena." She crossed her arms, smearing more ash over her mourning white. "Seren was the lucky one."

"It's one of many reasons that multiple mirrors were outlawed by the First Inventrix. You're like two alpha wolves fighting for control of the entire pack."

"It makes my flight mask more apt, don't you think?" Again, that half-amused wry smile. "Well, at least you seemed to have learned something truthful from the histories Mirena let you hear." But her smile faded. "I'm taking back what should be ours. I'm returning our families, as you've returned. And you will help me, Valin."

It was his turn to bark a laugh. "Respectfully, Leader...go to the ten hells and see if it's hot there."

Her eyes flashed, and that wry smile turned dark. "Oh, I've been there, young one. All ten. But listen to my offer before you reject it out of hand."

"You mean threat."

"Just so." She seemed to realize that her white leather coat was smeared with the soot of the funeral pyre and she wiped at it once, before dismissing it. "I've sent a scout of ours to land a gryphon in the copse distant. No doubt you saw it, my clever, observant techworker."

"And?" he prompted.

"I will release you, and you take that gryphon and find the Cog Clan's forces. I'm certain you have a signal to give them so they don't shoot you from the sky—" when he reluctantly nodded, she continued, "—then land among them. Take stock of their numbers, the terrain, where they are. No doubt Mirena will be eager for you to give her the same about the Wheelteeth's forces. Miscalculate what you've seen with your own eye. Then find a way to return to me with this information."

The silence this time increased the sharp stab of fear that made sweat pour over his lashes. "The threat? Or must I ask?"

Her expression became cold. Unforgiving. "If you refuse me, I shoot the Quarethstras in front of you. They both die unless you agree to my terms."

"Dear gods," he gasped.

"The Gods of the Forge are busy listening to other pleas," the Wolf said, her white gloved hands flexing and unflexing. "If you refuse me now, I'll start with one of the Quarethstras. Then if you change your mind, perhaps you'll spare the other."

He believed her, dear gods, he believed her threat.

His heart was threatening to burst from his chest. His throat was dry, and he felt as if he would vomit. Valin began to shudder. Betray my Clan, or betray my squadron. He always thought his captivity would force him to strike the ultimate bargain—to turn against his own. Valin had set all of his hopes on escaping, so he wouldn't have to sacrifice his honor, wouldn't be forced to become the ultimate blood-shame: the traitor.

How many of his Clan would he unknowingly sacrifice by giving the Wolf what she wanted?

Her mouth firmed in a cold line, and she turned from him.

There was no time.

"Wait!" he yelled hoarsely. Ferrei and Jarre are Navigators, and would gladly die to save our people. I can't dishonor them.

But neither could he let them die. His refusal would cast their blood on his hands...and he couldn't live with that. He couldn't watch them...shot before his eyes, not if he could stop it.

"I..." he swallowed around the bile rising in his throat, searing his tongue with acid. "I'll take your bargain, Wolf Leader."

She nodded curtly, and withdrew an old, well-loved hunting knife from its sheath at her side. When she cut through the ropes binding him, he fell to his knees, his entire body wracking as if his bones would fly apart. Though he swore he wouldn't, he retched what little water was in his stomach—it had been too long without food as well—on to the ground. His body rebelled, heaving, trying to wrench the horrible, disgusting sensation of betrayal as if by force, as if it were a black bile that could be expelled so simply.

Valin squinted up into that face carved from a mountainside, and she looked just as remorseless.

"You have three days, Seven Lyth Valin." Her eyes looked so dead. Lifeless. "Three days to return to me, or I kill your Quarethstras. Or rather, I'll kill one, and if you're a day late you may be able to spare the other."

He wiped his mouth of the disgusting taste with the back of a sleeve. Slowly, she knelt next to him, her eyes glowing with the fire of terrible certainty. "And if you choose to stay with Mirena after all, know that I won't let her have you again. I'll come for you as I will all the others, and you'll be where you belong once more."

He scrambled away from the terrifying creature before him, and stumbled weakly to his feet. Valin began to run—or rather tried—stumbling toward his decision.   
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